WARNING: This chapter contains a mention of implied child abuse. Nothing is shown but I figured I’d warn you anyway.
Twinbrook’s swamp was slowly starting to become stiff with cold and ice, but no amount of winter chill could mask the watery stench of the somewhat polluted swamp. The ground had become toughened with frost, but the waterlogged areas of the swamp were still ready to suck in unsuspecting passers-by – if there were any – and clandestinely dumped corpses.
Home sweet home, Lydia Deacon thought sarcastically.
Not that Twinbrook had ever really been a home for her or Gaius. They’d spent their childhood in Moonlight Falls, in the old manor that had belonged to the Deacon family for over six hundred years. After their mother had died, father had converted the manor at least temporarily into an old magical museum and a small centre for paranormal biology research. It was the closest he could get to opening a necromancer den now that necromancy was banned and the Deacon family had been disgraced. It had been a boost to their image and a way for father to research bringing dead things back to life – among other things – without raising too much suspicion. But of course he’d also needed a place to hide mum. Preserved human bodies were definitely not something one put on display in respected old family houses. And that was where the small cabin in Twinbrook came in. A place with plenty of dead people and no one living around for miles.
Lydia still hated it, but she had to admit that it was quite handy now that she and Gaius needed a place to cook up the ingredients necessary for trapping Death. Twinbrook wasn’t Lydia’s first choice of places to visit regularly – she would have much rather stayed in their current hiding place near Strangetown – but she had to admit that the swampy, magic-infused terrain had proved excellent for planting the life fruit that she had painstakingly acquired.
Gaius had been taking care of the life fruit whenever he visited father, and by November the fruits were glowing on their branches, small halos around them a sign that they were ripe. And the ground underneath the bushes was frozen, just like the spell for trapping Death required.
Gaius had been ecstatic when he had rushed to tell Lydia. And then he’d also told her that father wanted to see them. Lydia wasn’t sure why, but she had a feeling that it had something to do with their bet. Nowadays it almost always had. So now she was dressed in swamp-worthy gear and knocking on father’s door again. And when he didn’t respond, Gaius nodded towards the adjacent little cottage.
“He’s probably in there.”
Lydia sighed. She didn’t like that place one bit. But she clopped her way to the door and knocked.
“Father? It’s us.”
“Come on in!”
Lydia braced herself and opened the door.
She was fairly sure that she would never get fully used to seeing mother’s corpse laid out on an altar-like stone slab like some kind of human sacrifice way past its expiration date. She seemed very well-preserved thanks to father’s magic and who knows what else, but Lydia could still see the signs of slowly eroding tissue and lost chances.
She was fairly sure that no matter what father or Gaius tried, mother would never rise again unless father stuck some random souls in her – and in that case it wouldn’t be mother at all. Just a shambling shell that would probably try to eat their faces off. Lydia had said that to father once, and father had slapped her for her trouble and then locked her in her room for two days. No one implied that getting mother back was hopeless.
Lydia quickly averted her eyes and looked at father, who was working on something at his spellcrafting and alchemy station. Gaius stared at mother for a moment longer before he waved at father.
“Hey, dad!” he said, “I brought Lydia just like you asked.”
Father quickly slammed his heavy spellbook shut and spun around.
“Good,” he said gruffly, “Let’s go into the cabin. I’ve been thinking about things and I figured you both should too.”
As if they hadn’t already done plenty of thinking lately.
Or maybe, a small, reasonable voice in Lydia’s head said, we haven’t done enough thinking. Like about whether this is even a good idea at all.
Lydia silenced the voice with a shake of her head. They had gone too far already to stop now.
Father had a file open on his small kitchen table. Gaius sat down and Lydia studied the file over her brother’s shoulder. Father leaned to the table and turned a couple of pages in the file.
“So, we’ve got our ingredients for trapping Death soon,” he said, “Congratulations. Now, what are you going to do with them?”
“What they were intended for,” Lydia said wearily, “We’ll trap Death and I win the bet. I’ll have done what you never could.”
“Right, right. But what are you going to do with Death once you’ve trapped it?” father asked.
Lydia frowned. She had to be careful now. If father knew that she realised how powerful she could become if she managed to pull this off, he might not be so helpful.
“I will become its master,” she finally said, “Just like the Deacon family has tried to become for generations.”
“Yeah, that part feels a bit hazy to me too,” Gaius said, “Besides, should we really even do any of that? We’ve made Death mad enough.”
“He killed our zombies!” father snapped, “But Gaius is right; trying to deal with a peeved Death is going to end in a disaster.”
Lydia smirked. She loved it when she had a chance to be one step ahead of her dear dad.
“Well, that’s not going to be a problem if we do things right. When we talked with Fate, she revealed – among other things – an interesting fact about her kind. The fact that they can be more easily subdued if they become too much like a mortal. And from what we know, Death is well on its way to that on its own. We just need a proper prison, and I have a few ideas about that. I studied dream theories, and-“
“Sure, right,” father interrupted, and Lydia pursed her lips in annoyance, “I know what you’re getting at. Gaius has been talking about this already.”
Lydia’s face fell, and she glared at her brother. Of course he’d steal her moment. Again. Father tapped his file.
“In fact, I have to admit that your plan is a good one. It’s the perfect way of keeping Death detained for a good while. And if we choose the prison right, we can keep it powerless as well.”
He turned a page and pointed at a blurry picture on it.
“In fact, I’ve taken the liberty of using the info you’ve told me and actually finding the perfect one.”
Lydia and Gaius looked at the picture. It took Lydia a while to realise what she was looking at, and then she gasped.
“Father, that’s too low, even for you!”
“What? My intel said this is the best we’ve got. Easy to acquire and more than likely to make Death vulnerable.”
Lydia stared at her father. Sure, she too had been thinking about taking advantage of all the information their contacts and Fate had provided them with about Death’s current hobby of blending in with mortals and forming connections, but to do what father was suggesting…
“No!” she said firmly, “We’re not doing that. We’ll figure out another way.”
“Lydia’s right, dad,” Gaius chimed in. His eyes had widened and he was looking nervously at anywhere but father, “Death may be bad, but if we do this… then we’d be awful.”
“Like you haven’t already been involved with criminal activity!” father snapped, but then he slammed his hand against the table, “Oh, alright! Your loss. I give you free advice and help, and you just reject it all? So ungrateful!”
Lydia glanced at the still open file and shuddered. Sure, she was fine with stealing and scheming and even a little bit of blackmail. Even some murder was fine as long as the person was deserving of it or if it was done clearly in self-defence. But this… no. What father was suggesting was going too far.
She and Gaius left the cabin with tense footsteps. They made their way further into the swamp, where Gaius’s teleportation spell wouldn’t disturb anything valuable – like the life fruit plants on father’s yard.
“Do you ever feel like we’re going too far, sis?” Gaius asked when they were far away enough, “Like we should just stop and admit that we’re in over our heads?”
Lydia looked into the swamp lake in front of them. She imagined the dead things in there, and wondered how many had actually deserved to be dumped into the waters. She and Gaius had always been taught that everyone in this world had to earn their place and to deserve their fates. She didn’t know what they had already earned or deserved. Maybe not enough.
“Yeah, I do,” she said, “All the time. But we’ve got this far already. And thinking about doing something so amazing… to beat death… it’s what almost everyone dreams about, right? And think about how much power it would give us. We wouldn’t need to worry about father or the family business unless we wanted to.”
“It does sound amazing,” Gaius admitted, “Well, I mean, then dad is going to finally see how great you are for sure. And it has to be the right thing to do… beating Death, right? It’s not like we’re dealing with a living being with real thoughts or feelings.”
“Of course not.”
“Well, except it did get mad when it saw dad’s zombie army. And then there was Fate…”
“It goes against the duty, I’d wager. And sure, Fate may have looked like a human, but it’s all an act. These things are just… ideas.”
“Dad does think that it can be counted on to have some kind of feelings, though. I mean, I think he figured Death liked the-“
“We’re not getting that prison! It needs to be something else!”
“Right. Of course we’re not.”
They spent some time in uncomfortable silence, and then Lydia sighed.
“Come on, let’s go find the rest of the ingredients. As for the prison… we can leave that be for a while. See how things develop.”
She looked at the lake once more. So many things had died there. Some hadn’t deserved it. If her plan worked, then she’d not only show her father, but she also had the chance to do so many things. To earn her place, make a difference in the world. She even had the chance to make sure no one died needlessly.
Many things had died in Twinbrook’s swamp indeed, but many things had also been born there. That just made sense; things died, but were also born all the time after all, everywhere. Even in the dark November. One of the things who had been born in November was Emily Sato, though she hadn’t been born in a swamp, but rather in a small house in Riverview.
Emily was used to celebrating birthdays with just mommy and no one else. But now her new family had asked if she wanted to invite some friends over. She had immediately said that she wanted Uncle Tad to be there. And Amelia, the woman who lived with Uncle Tad, could come too. After some thinking she had also agreed to invite Malika and Bridger and Alexander from the kindergarten, because they were the nicest kids there. Yvette had wanted to bake her a cake, and Emily had been allowed to help decorate it. The Grisbys had given her birthday gifts and made pancakes for breakfast.
Back when she’d lived with mommy, they had just baked a pie and spent the day together. Mommy had bought her toys or just picked some flowers for her. And they’d always go outside, all the way to their mailbox. That had been so exciting and scary. Emily had loved the fresh air on her face, and mommy had helped her walk when she hadn’t been so good at it yet.
But now here she was, getting ready for a birthday with plenty of guests and without mommy. In a world that stretched much farther than the mailbox.
“Okay, there we go,” said Harper and put away the hairbrush she had been using to get Emily’s hair smooth and shiny, “You look adorable!”
Emily spun around in her new dress. It had diamond shapes and skulls on it. Harper had apparently picked it for her. Emily liked the dress; it made her feel like Harper. Like a badass who did what she wanted. She hoped that it would work better than the tiger costume about a week ago had. The memory of the ghost still made Emily shudder, and the ghost had even appeared in her dreams. But her dreams were usually even scarier so there the ghost had been almost welcome.
She forced those thoughts out of her head. Or at least tried to. Today was a day of parties and being celebrated. Emily was scared, but also excited. This all was for her! All these people cared about her enough to throw a party just because she turned five years old!
The doorbell rang, and Harper urged Emily to go open the door.
“Go on, we’ll be right behind you!”
Emily hesitated for a moment, but then let herself begin this new kind of birthday party.
The people behind the door were Amelia and Uncle Tad, who gave Emily birthday hugs and a new picture book about yetis. Emily felt all her worries fading again. Yvette smiled at the guests.
“You got here just in time,” she said, “Emily, you can show Uncle Tad your room and your other presents while we wait for the other guests.”
Emily nodded and took Uncle Tad’s hand. Now this at least was an easy part of the party! She loved spending time with her new uncle!
“Yvette and Walter gave me a new desk,” she said once they got to her room, “It’s a big girl desk, and I can draw and practise my letters on it.”
“It looks lovely,” said Tad, “And I see you still have plenty of room for playing too.”
“Yeah,” Emily said, “Yvette and Walter said I should keep playing for as long as I want.”
“But I’m a big girl now, right?”
“Yes. Congratulations. Five years… That is more than many get.”
“Never mind,” Tad smiled quickly, “I see you are talking more and more bravely all the time.”
Emily studied her shoes.
“It’s hard most of the time. But with my new family and you it’s easier.”
“That is a good start. There is no rush to talk to people if it makes you too scared.”
Emily nodded. The nightmares tried to get into her mind again. Why wouldn’t they leave her alone? She tried to smile them away, but it didn’t work so she sunk onto her bed and couldn’t help tears suddenly pushing against her eyelids.
“Emily?” Uncle Tad immediately sounded worried, “What is the matter?”
Emily tried to take deep breaths and shook her head.
“It’s just… I’m a big girl now! I s-shouldn’t b-be so scared o-of everything!”
The bed shifted slightly when Uncle Tad sat next to her.
“Um… look,” he said uncertainly, “Everyone is scared of something. I think you are very brave, handling yourself so well in a new, often scary world.”
“But I’m not brave! I have nightmares all the time! Laurel’s music helps a little, but the monsters are still there.”
She heard Tad sigh.
“Dreams do not tell anything about strength. You have had to deal with a lot of scary things. It is no surprise you have nightmares.”
Emily tried to wipe her tears and calm her breathing. She was so stupid, crying in her own birthday party!
“Do you have nightmares?” she managed to ask.
Tad smiled sadly at her. His smiles were always so odd. They weren’t fake like when some people fake-smiled to be nice even though they weren’t thinking nice things – Emily had seen many adults doing that around her and she knew the smiles were fake because the adults would then say rude things about mommy or her previous home. But Tad wasn’t like that; his smiles were odd because they were so unsure and because sometimes Emily thought she could see something beyond them. Like another world.
“I do not dream at all,” Tad said, “Sometimes I wish I could.”
“I thought everyone dreams.”
“Not everyone. And some just do not remember it,” Tad said.
“I wish I didn’t dream.”
“Do not be so quick to say that. Dreams can be pleasant too,” Tad smiled again, “And remember that it is your mind, no matter how much it seems to sometimes be out of control. You can learn to steer your dreams if you practise.”
Emily stared at Tad, wide-eyed.
“You just have to know that you are dreaming. It is not easy, but there are some tricks to it, I believe. You can try to teach yourself to check whether or not you are in a dream by seeing a certain thing. Something you see often in your dreams. Or you can try to see your hands. That is usually not possible in a dream.”
He paused and smiled again.
“And if you know you are dreaming, then you can do anything you want in your dream.”
“Wow,” Emily sighed, but then she frowned, “But what if monsters are really real even in dreams?”
“I doubt that is likely,” Tad said, “But if they were real, even they would have to obey your rules in your dream.”
Emily nodded slowly. Uncle Tad wouldn’t lie to her, she was sure. And he always seemed to make her feel better with his words. She slowly got up from the bed.
“Thanks,” she said, “You… you’re the best.”
Uncle Tad didn’t say anything, but he seemed to be very happy to hear her words. He got up too and after a while he said:
“Maybe we should get back downstairs. More guests will probably arrive soon.”
Emily nodded, but when Uncle Tad walked past her, she stepped forward and caught him into a hug. Uncle Tad froze for a second, but then he hugged her back. And she was safe again.
When the other guests arrived, Emily wasn’t feeling scared like she had in the morning. Everyone was so nice and brought presents and were happy that she had grown and was now five years old. She played with Malika, Bridger, Alexander and Miha and then everyone gathered around the birthday cake and congratulated Emily again.
She felt so happy and safe.
But in the evening she still checked under her bed for monsters and made sure her nightlight was on. She listened to the sounds of the sleepy house, to the hum of darkness that sneaked into her room and her ears, made her feel like someone would snatch her away from her bed at any moment.
When she finally fell asleep, she was back in the inky darkness and heard the watery sounds of bleeding monsters around her.
Author’s Note: Maybe some day I make chapters that don’t feel so fragmented… well, except this one kind of wasn’t but whatever.
Oh, well, stuff! Tad’s lessons about teaching oneself to perceive when one is dreaming are based on an article I read in a science magazine, and I’ve actually tried those methods and at one point I was pretty good at getting into a lucid dream state. It’s awesome. But lately I haven’t been practising it much. I really should.
Not much else to say about this. Uh… I hope you enjoy and tell me what you think, maybe? Have a lovely day people! 🙂