Many times, the flashier and more amazing things in life could only work if there were some far less formidable beings and things working behind the scenes. A good film had several minutes’ worth of names hardly anyone cared about in its credits. A powerful, beautiful storm only worked if the more invisible air pressures were at the right – or possibly wrong – places. The world was filled with thankless, unglamorous jobs that had nevertheless made themselves essential. There were janitors and cleaners. There were molecules and small, unnoticeable shifts in realities. And there was Mr. Perkins.
To be fair, Mr. Perkins wasn’t exactly essential. It wasn’t like anthropomorphic personifications and gods needed an official archivist – or even archives – to begin with. Especially in a physical, or even metaphysical form. But throughout the centuries, Mr. Perkins had proved to be useful. To use more technical terms, Mr. Perkins was like an external hard drive for beings who already had too many memories to sort through. Not to mention it made things feel more professional, especially if someone messed up and the gods and personifications had to actually come together to dispense some justice among each other. So yes, Mr. Perkins felt quite important despite the monotony of his job. Some would have found it maddeningly dull, but Mr. Perkins was old and jaded enough to embrace it.
He had once been a god. Not that it mattered that much now. What of, and what kind, even he didn’t remember. It was possible that the universe and Death remembered his glory days, but the universe didn’t talk in a way he could understand, and he had never bothered to ask Death. The guy gave Mr. Perkins the creeps, even if he was the most likely to defend Mr. Perkins when someone questioned him or his archives. And to be honest, Mr. Perkins didn’t even care about who he used to be. Because nowadays he was just Mr. Perkins, an old man in the endless archives. One of the more practical people among the abstract beings. The guy who was perfectly happy to sit among his books and files with just a cup of coffee for constant company for centuries on end. And sometimes he’d secretly work on a book based on all the dirt he heard whenever someone came to actually report their misdeeds into the archives like they had agreed to do. His book was titled Psychopomps and Psychopaths – the Secret Confessions from the Abstract Plane. He was quite proud of it, even though he knew he could never even dream of publishing it. He doubted anyone would come to his defence if he did, and he would just be faced with a bunch of angry beings who could crush him by just thinking about it.
The echo of footsteps interrupted Mr. Perkins’s idle thoughts, and he looked up. In his archives, all footsteps echoed. These footsteps had no sound, so hearing just the echo was rather disorienting if one wasn’t used to it. But Mr. Perkins was, and it was a neat way to recognise his visitor even though said visitor wasn’t wearing the shape he usually wore and was dressed like a bag of sweets. Mr. Perkins raised his brow in greeting.
“Well, didn’t expect to see you here, sir,” he said.
Death stopped when he was at Mr. Perkins’s desk and bowed his head slightly as his own greeting.
“Hello, Mr. Perkins,” he said, and his voice sounded almost human. Mr. Perkins’s ears protested. He had already braced himself for the echoing whispers from the beyond, “I am here to report a mistake.”
“By you?” Mr. Perkins asked, and Death nodded, looking a bit sheepish, “Seriously? Well, that hasn’t happened in a while.”
He quickly dove into his archives and brought out Death’s file. It was surprisingly thin considering it belonged to one of the oldest beings in the universes. Death had always been a stickler for the rules. Death quickly brushed his hand over the empty page Mr. Perkins opened for him, and the page was instantly filled with text and memories. Mr. Perkins took the file and listened to it for a while. He raised a brow again.
“Really?” he said before he could stop himself, “That’s it? You didn’t even really mess up! Sure, you scared some old guy and knocked his soul around for a bit, but haven’t you guys agreed that any zombie-thing gives you a free pass?”
“I know,” Death said, “But I just wanted to make sure everyone knew… I hear they are not very happy with me because of this to begin with.”
“Because of your excursion among mortals? Like the others haven’t done it way more! And so far I haven’t caught wind of anything that would break the rules. I mean, even you’ve done worse, sir! Like those times you’ve actually torn off some people’s souls because they were being such bastards.”
“I have always put them back right away,” Death said defensively.
“Right. How about that time when War, Pestilence, and Famine wanted to drag you into that drunken ‘apocalypse reunion’-thing? That was one reality screw-up right there. Good thing you were the boring adult and stopped it.”
Death frowned with distaste.
“Ah, yes. They still have not recovered, have they?”
“No. And how about the Death Flower Incident?”
Death’s eye twitched. Mr. Perkins instantly regretted bringing up the Death Flowers.
“Right, sorry about reminding you, sir. Well, my point is that what you just reported was practically nothing, even if you are under scrutiny. Though who’d really want to stalk you?”
“Many of us,” said a voice that made Mr. Perkins jump, “But especially me.”
Death barely turned when Fate stepped into view from among the infinite number of pillars and bookshelves in Mr. Perkins’s archives.
“So now you are already losing control of your emotions?” Fate said, looking at Death and completely ignoring Mr. Perkins.
“No,” Death said coldly, “I am here to show you I do know what I am doing. Because I wish you would stop harassing me about this before you even properly begin.”
Fate rolled her eyes.
“Right. And I suppose I should just ignore all the warning signs this farce has written all over it. You could have found that stone ages ago, but now you go around saving and almost killing things.”
“I did not almost-kill anyone,” Death said, looking very much like the child he was trying to look like right now.
“And I beg your pardon, ma’am,” Mr. Perkins had to cut in, “But if I remember correctly, I have an entire subsection just for the things you’ve done that are against the rules.”
Fate sputtered, almost losing her cool. She kept her posture elegant as ever, though.
“This is none of your concern!”
“Fate, please do not yell at Mr. Perkins. He is just doing his job. As should you.”
Fate’s eyes narrowed. Her fists clenched, and Mr. Perkins’s coffee cup fell on his lap seemingly for no reason, spilling its boiling contests all over him. It was a good thing pain wasn’t quite as strong a concept here as it was in the mortal world. Still, it hurt. Mr. Perkins hissed.
Death’s not quite human eyes narrowed. He glared at Fate, who sighed.
“Oh, that was an accident!” she said mockingly, “Sometimes it is just difficult, you know? Controlling emotions, I mean.”
“Get out,” Death said in a dangerously quiet voice.
Fate huffed and then, in the blink of an eye, she was gone.
Mr. Perkins scrambled to his feet and lifted his coffee mug back on his desk. Death looked at him with what had to be meant as a worried look, but it came across more like creepy. Mr. Perkins wasn’t sure why Death was always so nice, but a big part of him believed that it was mostly the same kind of hollow niceness that farmers had shown to their animals back in the old days. The kind of niceness that was simply preparing for the inevitable moment when it was Time. Because in the end, godhood was just a fancy title for anyone who’d got enough power, followers and worship. And even though Mr. Perkins was more resilient than his worshippers, he wasn’t eternal, so eventually he too would meet Death in the same context as the mortals did. Mr. Perkins sat back down and shivered.
“Are you all right?” Death asked.
“Sure, sure,” Mr. Perkins said and asked his archives to change so that the coffee stains wouldn’t be there anymore. The burning pain stopped, “I’ll manage.”
“Good. Do you… do you need anything?”
“No. I’m fine, sir.”
Death lingered there for a moment longer, clearly indecisive about what he should do. Then his eyes unfocused and focused again.
“Oh, I am being called back,” he said, “Take care, Mr. Perkins.”
Then he was gone too. Mr. Perkins let out a sigh of relief. He looked at the files on his desk. Interesting times were ahead, he was sure.
The café was only half full, if even that. It was so late that most of the people of Twinbrook were either at home or in pubs, and the other café-goers didn’t really want to sit close to the strange trio who smelled like swamp and something worse. Amelia didn’t mind. Well, she did mind the smell, and she couldn’t wait to take a warm shower – maybe even a bath. But a peaceful corner table was exactly what they needed right now. Especially the kind of corner where what they said wouldn’t be easily heard by anyone who wasn’t supposed to hear. Amelia idly poked the plain white mug in front of her. It was filled with too sweet hot chocolate. Opposite her, Novak was browsing the internet on his phone. Tad was resting his head on his knees, staring into space, and Amelia decided to get worried if he wouldn’t move or make any other indication of being present in the next ten minutes.
“Okay, it seems it’ll take some more searching to find anything useful on the Deacon kids,” Novak said and tapped the screen of his phone, “They’re apparently in the family business, which in the Deacon family means they do some magical research, and Lydia also has some kind of shipping company. They’re a part of the Sorcerer’s Coven – that means they’re pretty important in the community – and they donate to tons of charities. So yeah, rich philanthropists. Which means they no doubt have all sorts of dirty secrets buried somewhere.”
“Some philanthropists are genuinely trying to do good, you know,” she said.
Novak rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, and some of them dress up in animal costumes and beat people up for kicks. And some go for the saner route and just have shady dealings with criminals.”
He tapped his phone more furiously.
“But you know, this is a bit weird… there really isn’t much about Lydia or Gaius here. No addresses or anything. I need my computer and more time to locate them.”
“So we’re just going to go back home?” Amelia asked.
“Yeah, if Grimmy snaps out of… whatever that is.”
Amelia reached out and laid her hand on Tad’s shoulder.
“Hey? Tad?” she said, “Can you hear me?”
For a while, nothing happened. Then Tad blinked slowly, and his eyes focused.
“Sorry,” he said, “I needed to… well, I wanted to report my… outburst to the others.”
“Others like… well, a bit like me,” Tad straightened and unfolded himself into a more proper sitting position, “You do not need to worry about it. And I was listening to you as well, Mr. Sanguine. Yes, we can return to Riverview. I doubt the Deacons would stay this close to their father, especially if they used his name for their secret gemstone-moving.”
“That’s what I figure too,” Novak said, “But I doubt they’re really hiding that well from us mortals. The way I see it, getting the keys to achieving immortality would pretty much be useless if they had to use their life for hiding. They’ll turn up eventually.”
He paused for a moment, quickly drinking the coffee he’d left mostly untouched during their short stop at the café.
“Let’s just hope they won’t decide to turn up with some sort of megalomaniacal plan for world-domination.”
“Oh, I do not think that is very likely,” Tad said, “I think the people who have set all this up have enough sense to realise that is a terrible idea. World domination is too much work with very little payoff, after all.”
“Hey, you never know. The world is full of crazies who don’t think things through. Now, are we going to go? I really want to get the zombie blood out of my shoes.”
The house was where they had left it.
Amelia opened the door to their guest room. It was clean and in order and looked like no one had been there in a long while. Because no one had.
“Well,” she said to Novak, “Here’s our guest room. Feel free to make yourself at home. Just… well, leave the thievery outside the house, okay?”
Novak raised his hands as if in surrender.
“Well, darn, I was just thinking about how awesome your TV would look on the wall of my house… which I don’t have.”
His grin faded when Amelia frowned.
“Hey, relax,” he said, “I’m not a petty thief. And it would be pretty stupid of me to start acting up with Mr. Death-in-human-form right downstairs. Especially now when I’m sort of in a contract with him.”
Amelia crossed her arms.
“Good. I’m going to be honest: that’s exactly why I’m letting you stay.”
She kept up the tough act for about three seconds before she had to add:
“And, well, I don’t want to just chase people out into the dark. That wouldn’t be nice.”
“And I’m glad to hear that,” Novak said, “Don’t worry, I won’t stay for too long. Just until I can get some things in order, and until I’ve located these Deacon siblings for Grimmy.”
Amelia nodded slowly.
“There’s another bathroom there behind the library. But I’ll be there, taking a bath. You can use the shower downstairs again if you want.”
Amelia hesitated for a moment before she left Novak alone. The thought of him being so close to her own room was a bit frightening, but so far Novak hadn’t really displayed much criminal behaviour, aside from theft and hacking. Besides, having Tad around would surely deter Novak from trying anything. The man seemed to be a bit scared of Tad, like most people were.
And Amelia could understand that. She too had just very recently got over the worst of her fears. And what had happened today had still been rather harrowing.
Amelia was glad to dump her grimy clothing into the wash and take a warm bath. She remembered the water-logged groans of the zombies and could still smell the embalming fluid and rot, and she shuddered again. She was doubly glad to drown the smell and memories into the lavender-scented bathwater.
Once she had her bathrobe and her beloved bunny slippers on again, she felt much better. The smell of swamp and corpses was gone, and only some fear remained. It was almost two a.m., but Amelia still walked downstairs to check on Tad, who had excused himself into his room right after he had transported them back home. He had told them not to worry, but Amelia still worried. It was a bit strange how her mother hen instincts worked even towards a being who was so unimaginably old and powerful. Amelia knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Tad’s voice said almost at once.
Tad was sitting on his bed, looking thoughtful and maybe even worried. He looked up when Amelia got in.
“It is good that you are here,” he said, “I wanted to talk to you. It is not too late, is it? Do you wish to go get some sleep first?”
“It’s fine,” Amelia said, “I’ll just drink some extra caffeinated tea tomorrow morning.”
“That does not sound very healthy.”
“It’s not. But it’s okay every once in a while.”
“Right… I have heard that one before. Anyway, I… wanted to make sure you were not too frightened.”
Amelia sat on the bed as well. Maybe just to prove how little afraid she was.
“By what? You mean the zombies? Or you?”
“Well, it was a bit scary,” Amelia admitted, “I… I felt pretty useless there, really. All I could do was stay back and scream.”
“I think you did great,” Tad smiled sadly, “And you even approached me when I was… angry. Hardly anyone would dare to do that.”
“I knew you wouldn’t hurt me,” Amelia said.
“I mean, you wouldn’t have, right?”
Tad was silent for a bit too long. Amelia’s smile faded.
“Right?” she repeated.
“Not very likely, no,” Tad said, “And never intentionally. But… I have been very angry sometimes in the past. And I have not always been able to control it.”
He shifted nervously.
“Let’s just say what you saw was nothing compared to that.”
He hugged himself suddenly, as if he were cold, but Amelia knew he didn’t get cold. Not physically at least.
“This human form… it amplifies some things,” Tad said, “Emotions are more spontaneous to me now. Not uncontrollable, but… well, my actions have caught the attention of the others.”
“Others like you?”
“Yes. When someone does something that could disrupt the flow of the universe, the others will intervene. And punish the guilty one if needed.”
“But… you haven’t done anything bad, right? You’re just looking for your gemstone. Or is taking a physical form against the rules?”
Tad almost laughed.
“Oh, goodness, no. Everyone does it every once in a while. But it is a delicate matter. Something that needs to be done with care. And what happened with Mr. Deacon was… careless.”
“I just wanted you to know that I will make sure it will not happen again.”
“I trust you,” Amelia smiled, “And don’t worry, I wasn’t that scared of you.”
Then the other thing Tad had said sunk in, and worry flooded her chest again.
“Wait, did you say someone would punish you for this? How? I mean, what can anyone even do to someone like you?”
“Oh, there are many things that can be done,” Tad said with a shrug, “Appropriately advanced magic can hurt even me, and possibly imprison me. Magic is usually able to make artificial twists into reality, to the natural order I am a part of. Though of course, it is never anything permanent. Nothing is. And most of the time, no one really even tries. People are usually aware that anything happening to Death would lead to disastrous consequences.”
He seemed to be thinking intently on something before he hugged himself again.
“The most severe punishment that could be issued to an anthropomorphic personification is to force them to… erase themselves. It will not destroy us, but rather simply wipe us clean. It is not even presented as a punishment, but rather a… means of healing. A way to help us start over without the memories, thoughts, and personality traits that led to the serious rule-breaking.”
Amelia felt something turn hollow in her stomach. She thought of Tad being erased. The odd but also endearing quirks being washed away, the memories and the experiences he so clearly craved just vanishing from him. It sounded like a magical, self-inflicted lobotomy.
It felt too wrong for her to even properly imagine.
“Would they do that just for something like you getting angry?” she dared to ask.
“Oh, no, of course not,” Tad said, “I did not mean to worry you. What I am doing now is so harmless that hardly anyone bothers to even raise their voice about it. Fate does, but then again, she is usually rather frustrated with the world anyway.”
“But has… has that ever happened to you? The erasing?”
Now Tad actually shivered. It was barely noticeable, and it lasted for only a second. But it was undeniably there.
“No,” he said, “And I do not wish for that to happen either. It is never a pleasant thing, no matter how much it is portrayed as such. Usually the ones that are erased go mad from it for at least some time, and they never fully recover. Do not worry; it is very rarely done. I would have to seriously stray from my Purpose for anyone to even consider it.”
He probably wasn’t telling Amelia everything. But Amelia had a feeling that prying would get her nowhere with this.
“Well, that’s good,” she just said, “But just so you know, I won’t let that ever happen to you.”
Tad’s eyes widened. Then he laughed. Maybe because of the absurdity of a mortal, decidedly unremarkable woman promising to protect Death. Amelia was painfully aware of that too.
“That is…” Tad managed to say between the laughter that sounded a bit like a waterfall in some long-lost glade, “I just… thank you. Really. No one has ever told me that.”
It was again one of those nights when Amelia went to sleep with too many thoughts in her head.
Amelia woke up in the morning a bit too early. It wasn’t even six, and her alarm clock hadn’t rung yet. Amelia blinked rapidly, her eyes trying to close again for not getting enough sleep. It took Amelia a moment before she realised that she had woken up because someone was knocking on her door. Amelia quickly threw her bathrobe on and stumbled across her room. She blinked again when she saw Novak, who was clad in only a pair of pyjama bottoms.
“What’s going on?” Amelia asked sleepily.
“Hey, sorry to bother you,” Novak said, “But you got any bandages here? My arm’s bleeding. Again.”
Amelia rubbed the remaining sleep from her eyes. There was indeed something red on Novak’s bandaged arm.
“Yeah…” she yawned, “I’ll show you.”
She led Novak downstairs and rummaged through the medicine cabinet in the bathroom for a while before she found a roll of bandage. After a moment of thinking she grabbed a bottle of antibiotic cream and some clean cotton pads too.
Novak was sitting in the kitchen, and he nodded his thanks when Amelia put her haul on the table. He started immediately cleaning and redressing the wound in his arm.
“So how did that happen?” Amelia asked.
“A vampire attack. They’re not that uncommon in Bridgeport.”
“Oh, really?” Amelia said, “That sounds scary.”
“Ehh, the zombies were worse. There were much more of them.”
He looked at his now cleanly wrapped wound with a frown.
“It’s a nuisance, though. Vampire nails have a bit of venom in them. Not like their fangs, but enough to slow down healing.”
Amelia sat down and leaned forward.
“This all seems to be pretty normal to you,” she remarked.
“Sure,” Novak said, “Been in that world for almost all my life. Not the easiest path for a normal human, especially if one decides to take a walk in the darker side.”
Amelia nodded slowly. She could imagine.
“But I manage. I know all sorts of tricks,” Novak went on with a slightly smug smile on his face, “Usually that works anywhere.”
They fell into an awkward silence after that. Amelia yawned and wished it would still be early enough for her to just go back into bed. But her work would start in just a couple of hours. She then hoped that Novak would decide to go back to sleep, but the man didn’t seem to feel like getting up from the chair either. He idly picked at the edge of the bandage around his arm. At the very least he could have put on a shirt. Amelia realised she had started staring at the man’s tattooed and rather well-muscled torso, and she blushed.
“That’s a lot of tattoos,” she said just to say something.
“Yup. That it is. Wouldn’t mind having a few more, though.”
“I see there’s even the Crystal of Life there,” Amelia remarked, “So… does that mean you’re religious?”
She realised that asking someone she barely knew about religion was way too intrusive, but she was too tired to think about proper conversation topics. Thankfully Novak didn’t seem to mind.
“Me? Not really,” he chuckled, and then pointed to the black diamond shape tattooed in the centre of his chest, “This crystal’s actually a symbol that goes way further back than the Peterans. In the Old Magic – you know, the pagan stuff that’s now trying to become popular again – it’s used for mind control spells. But put in a symbolic cage and infuse it with some magic, and it becomes a pretty effective protective charm against all possible mind control attempts.”
Novak smiled in a not very trustworthy way.
“Sure. Why would I lie to you? In fact, I’ve taken vows against lying. It was during my time in a monastery.”
His smile still wasn’t convincing. Amelia frowned.
“Is any of that really true?”
Novak laughed. Then he abruptly well silent.
“What was that?” he asked in a hushed voice.
Amelia listened and heard a small rattle. It was coming from the front door. Novak frowned.
“So, do any of your friends have spare keys to this place or…?”
Amelia stood up.
“No,” she whispered, apprehension rising into her throat.
The rattling continued. Novak stood up and started sneaking towards the front door.
“Wait!” Amelia said in a hushed voice, “What if it’s a burglar? We should call the police!”
Novak kept going. Amelia sighed and followed.
When they got into the hall, something was turning in the lock. Amelia looked around for a hiding place and/or some kind of improvised weapon. She wished she hadn’t left her cell phone upstairs.
“What are you sneaking around for?”
Amelia turned and saw Tad standing in the doorway that led towards his room. He was still dressed in his day clothes, and didn’t seem to have any marks of their swamp excursion on him.
“Someone’s trying to break in,” Amelia whispered.
Tad tilted his head, a slightly confused look on his face.
“I highly doubt they are breaking in,” he said, “Considering who they are, that would be rather illogical.”
“Who are they, then?” Novak asked.
Before Tad could answer the question, the door was opened, and a voice speaking in a mix of French and Simlish entered the house. The voice was followed by a woman and a man.
“Sacre bleu with these keys… always getting stuck… oh, Ameliaaaaaah! You’re already awake! Bon matin, ma chérie!”
Amelia stared at the woman at the door. Whoever she had been expecting, it hadn’t been this.
“Mum?!” she managed to gasp as Julia Sprigg smiled a too-wide smile in the slowly rising sun.
Author’s Note: How’s that for a soap opera-esque cliffhanger? I sense awkwardness and gratuitous French ahead!
So apparently Angry Tad from the last chapter was actually only Relatively Peeved Tad. Or at least not him in full-on enraged mode. His clothing being described as a bag of sweets was because of the colours and because the diamond shape is actually called the “salmiakki” (salty liquorice) -shape in Finnish, because many salty liquorices and other sweets are in that shape, so Tad’s shirt always reminds me of candy. Also yay for a chapter about anthropomorphic personification bureaucracy, sort of? This is what happens when random names pop into my head and I make them into a character. I’m looking at you, Mr. Perkins.
Speaking of which… Mr. Perkins’s name resembles the name of the old Baltic thunder god Perkūnas, at least a little bit (and that’s why I used it), though I highly doubt that is who Mr. Perkins was during his god days. He’s more likely some sort of god of order. And I don’t know, it felt amusing to me to write this random super-archivist guy who had a rather everyday-sounding name. I doubt this Mr. Perkins has any relation to Lucky Perkins from Riverview.