Bak saw everyone off at the school gate, merrily waving goodbye as each one left in turn until she was all that was left. It was only then that she let her smile dip. Standing there alone, the chill breeze ruffling her skirt and biting into her where metal met flesh, she couldn't help but be reminded of her life before. Before Mephisto, before the city, before...friends.
She brought up her hand, the one Rurik had held in his for just a short time, and stared at it anxiously. She remembered, back in the Old Country, how someone else had once held her hand in the same way. It was back when she was young, back before the news of Bak Tsarevna coming to town was enough reason to close all business for the day and huddle with you family in a darkened cottage. Her parents never enjoyed bringing her to the village they lived just outside of, but they were practical people if nothing else. Their daughter, despite her deformities, was very strong. If a particularly heavy load had to be toted from the general store to their small sheep farm her mother, Bak Anya, would lead her into town by the hand, taking great pain to make sure her daughter stayed very close. Bak knew there must have been the typical looks, the muttered words, the signs of the gods people made at her approach, but back then she'd been to enthralled to notice. The village was so big to her then, as big then as the wonderful city that stretched out before her now was, and her mother held her hand the whole way. If she was a good girl and didn't end up firing at anything on their outing her mother would even take a little money she had set aside and buy her a sweet as a reward. Those were the good days, the finest days of her life. At least until one night.
It had been one of the good days, Bak being guided into the village to carry up a new stove for the kitchen. She should have been asleep, but she'd had the bright idea to divide up the sweet her mother had bought that day and ration them out over the course of the day. The sweet lemony taste in her mouth still hadn't faded, and as she lay wrapped in a blanket on the pile of cushions that made up her bed she was still giddy with pride over what a good idea she's had. That was when she'd heard a soft sound coming from another room. She'd wondered what it was, and slowly so as not to wake her mother and father crawled on her belly toward the the crack in her door. She didn't need to worry about that though. They were already awake.
Bak's mother was sitting at the kitchen table, lit only by the light of the new stove, face in her hands. Standing behind her was the shadow of what could only be her father, Bak Tsar, his hands resting gently on her shoulders. He was murmuring quietly to her, clam words of what could only be love from the tone. Her mothers shoulders quaked slightly under those hands and the soft sound coming from her came out in rhythm with the shaking. It was a strange sight, Bak had always known her parents to be stoic and solid as the mountains, and for a moment Bak felt incredible fear creep into. She was about to call out to them, ask what was wrong, when her mother lifted her face and the sight of the light reflecting off her tears silenced Bak before she could speak. She turned to her husband and said in a forceful, sorrowful whisper that he didn't understand what it was like. He never had to touch her. Bak's father, the stern but loving husband, leaned in and implored her to help him understand. Unconsciously Bak had learned in too. On some level, she known what was going to coming next. That she should have plugged her ears and pretended she'd never heard anything. That the pain of what was coming would only be surpassed by the sheer agony of burning alive. She listened anyway, though. She listened as her mother described exactly how it felt to hold Bak's hand.
It was cold, she said, and dry. So dry, ever since the flamethrower incident. Like a piece of dried meat that someone had driven nails through. But there was something deeper than that. The meat was rotten, somehow. It didn't ooze and it wasn't soft but there was rot
. Something wrong
lurked under that, festering and growing just out of sight. It was like holding hands with her own daughter corpse, and always being afraid that the thing
puppeting it around was going to spring to attention and drag you, giggling, under the Earth. Just as it had done in her nightmares.
There was no way anything that felt like that could be a human, could it?
Bak's father never got to give his answer, at least in a way for her to overhear. At the moment Bak's head had fallen forward onto the door frame, letting out just enough of a thump to spook them. They stared the door to her room for a long time, just like the sheep did when they weren't certain whether a predator was lurking in the treeline. Bak had never understood why her father had taken the time and money to extend the house once she had started getting older, but now she could guess. Slowly, once he was sure it was safe, the man put his arm around his wife and led her from the room. Bak continued to lay there alone in the dark for who knows how long, too hurt even to cry, before crawling her way back over to her bed and wrapping herself up again against the nights chill.
The next morning no one said anything about what had happened, but that wasn't unusual in their household. Then next time it as time to go to town Bak insisted she was big enough that no one had to hod her hand. Instead of a sweet, Bak asked if her mother could save her money to buy a pair of thick gloves for her. She told them they were to make handling the sheep easier. If either ever connected this odd request with that bump in the night they never gave any indication that they did. That wasn't unusual in their household either. At least, in the parts that Bak was allowed to see.
So now here she was, staring down at her hand. She wasn't worried about Thobias. He had had hands all over him when she'ed touched him, and it was only for a few seconds on one of the least sensitive parts of his body. But Rurik, he'd held on. And she's stupidly held back without even considering how it must feel. Had he felt the same thing her mother did back then? Would it be better if he hadn't? What if he brought it up? What if he didn't
bring it up?
These were the worries that ate away at her as she trudged back to the school building, down into the basement where monsters were suppose to live. Monsters were lucky things. They didn't feel things like pain and fear, and they never cared about being alone. Baba Yaga would kill or aid anyone that came to her at her own whim, and never thought of them again after they were gone. She didn't have any wants or desires like a human. Bak wished she were really a monster like that. She wished she didn't have to pretend.
Epilogue - Gilliam DeWitt
Gilliam had a fantastically efficient metabolism. His ability to digest and transform things into energy was, in his person experience, second to none. That why where most of his cohorts presumably walked laboriously to their homes Gilliam was able to do so with a proud stride. Even in Rhea a man walking home in the dead of night wearing a finely tailored suit might be considered odd, but Gilliam wouldn't dream of transforming it into something more casual. Be elegant. That is what his handlers had taught him. Be elegant in all things when you can. Confine the ravenous monster within with a straight jacket made of proper etiquette and class. Walk gallantly, even if you aren't feeling all that gallant at the moment. That was his way.
He was not, in fact, feeling particularly gallant at the moment. His first official mission as a member of Mephisto's School for the Wickedly Inclined had not gone well at all. He had gotten lost, gotten distracted by Alto, been prevented from preventing the reinforcements from headed upstairs, and had been unfathomably late to attend the battle at the top of the building. On top of all that he had been humiliated by a bird. All in all, as far as debuts go, it could have gone better. Being the man in the light was much harder, it seemed, than being the monster in the shadows. He envied Yuuto for that position. What he wouldn't give to be carrying out Mistress Clara's orders right now, slitting throats and disposing of evidence. That's what he was good at! But his masters had said no, Gilliam time was now. He supposed it was inevitable. What was the point of training him into a semi-functional human being if he wasn't going to be thrust into the spotlight eventually?
As Gilliam rounded the corner his eyes fell upon the welcome sight of Flo's Funeral Parlor and Mortuary Services. Under the large picket sign declaring its name was the motto "When you have to go, go with The Flo." They were mistaken for a plumbing service roughly twelve times a month. Which wouldn't be a problem if the old woman didn't insist of strapping on a toolbelt and heading out every time, insisting that she could do the work and that money was money.
As he made his way up the cobblestone pathway to the main building he noticed that the lights were off. That was good. He didn't want the old woman to be worried about how late he had come home tonight. He reached out and carefully took the doorknob, turning it and opening the door slowly so as not to wake the sharp eared Flo.BANG!!!!!
Gilliam laid splayed out on the pathway on his back, fuzzy on what had happened to put him their, until he heard a voice like a screeching bird.
"GOT'CHU THERE YA' GAT DAMN NEC-RE-MANCER, CAN'T GET ONE OVER ON OL' FLO TWICE INNA NIGHT!"
Gilliam lifted his head just enough to see a grinning, wild eyed old woman standing in the doorway cradling a shotgun. The lights had been flipped on, and the chair sitting directly behind her told him that she had been waiting in front of the door in the dark just waiting to blow away anyone unfortunate enough to walk in. His unique ability to taste with his entire body detected the distinctive taste of rock salt sprayed out in a pattern on his chest.
"Grandmother?" He asked, confused but otherwise unhurt.
"Gil?" She relied, opening one eye much wider than the other to get a better look at him. She was surprised, then she resumed being mad. "What'in sam hell ya' doin' out so late, boy?" She said, dropping the spent shotgun to clatter on the ground and making her way down the steps to help him up.
He raised his hand at her offered one and pulled himself to his feet, the salt already absorbing into his body through his stitching shut suit. "Miss Clara requir-"
"Uh-uh, uh-uh, say no more." She replied, turning away and walking back toward the door like she expected him to keep up. "I see, I see, leavin' your poor grandma alone at the mercy a' these necremancers ta' go canoodlin' with ya girlfreind. Can't spare a thought for you're dear old Flo."
Gilliam obediently followed after his "grandmother". She wasn't actually his grandmother. Gilliam wasn't sure he'd ever had a grandmother. Flo had been good to him though. He was initially pointed to her by Clara, who'd told him the old woman had a habit of taking in strays without asking questions so long as they were agreeably to some work. Indeed, when he'd first arrived there had been other children living here. Others had come and gone since. No one managed to last as long as Gilliam had. Flo was demanding, and had her eccentricities, and most had other places they could go now that they though about it.
She was a mean cook, though. And she made big portions.
Gilliam looked around the parlor that made up the first floor of their home, done up in red velvet and filled with fine caskets on display. "Far be it from me to suggest that there are no Necromancers grandmother," he said, actually filching when Flo turned on him with a gaze that could chisel through icebergs. He continued, resolutely, "But how would you know one had been in here? Did they steal something?"
"Hah!" She coughed, then dropped down to the floor on all fours in the doorway. She waved him down to her level and pointed to something laying on the floor. It was a single strand of her old, gray hair. "I put it in this here door, so's I could know if someone snuck in in the night. Got up fer a midnight snack and felt something off in my water. Came down here, spotted the thing, set myself up to wait an' see what happened."
She stood up and looked around the room. "Lucky sum'bitch too. Managed to avoid all the booby traps." She kicked one of the coffins on display and it jumped forward on a spring mechanism, flying open to reveal the interior completely full of bear traps which it threw all over the room in the opposite direction from them.
Gilliam waited for the mechanical clatter to cease, before asking, "And how do you know it was a necromancer?
"Don't be dumb, boy! Who else is gonna try and rob from me? Think!" She reached up and poked the side of his head for emphasis before crossing her arms and giving him a dirty look. "If ya'd been here when you shoul'da..."
"I wasn't." Gilliam said, bowing in supplication. "And I apologize. Just one more in a long string of failures tonight, I'm afraid. It will not happen again."
"Well see that it don't." The old woman said, then her eyes softened. "I suppose ya already ate?"
"I'm always hungry." Gilliam replied.
The old woman grinned again. "I'll go heat up supper then. Made casserole and beans. Sakes alive boy, yer gonna kill me with all these late nights." With that the woman climbed back upstairs to their living quarters, peace of mind apparently restored now that Gilliam was home.
Gilliam smiled as he watched her go, then turned seriously back to the room. The old lady was eccentric and paranoid but that didn't mean that someone wasn't really after you, and he couldn't imagine the fear the old woman must have experienced waiting in the dark unsure of who was and was not in the house. If there was someone who had caused that fear then he wanted to know. His face shifted, regrowing the trunk that he had displayed in the apartment, and he dropped the all fours. He crept along the ground like a spider, slowly picking his way through the bear traps and running his truck over the open ground. Finally, he hit upon a smell. A familiar smell. And unbelievably familiar smell. Like dank carpet, ectoplasm, and brimstone.
It was unbelievable. It was impossible. He extended his nose far from his own body to make sure it wasn't him but it still registered the same. He knew this exact smell.Someone from the apartment tonight had been in his house.
Naseraph trudged like a wet crow to his room in the churches steeple and plopped down onto his mattress. He was exhausted. Not physically. He wished he was physically exhausted, that would have been a salvation. Physical exhaustion would mean he'd have at least gotten some of this frustration out. No, he was simply exhausted by nothing going right today. Gods, he had almost lost his temper! He had almost let the mask slip. That would have been unacceptable. Not before the proper time. Not before he struck and claimed the number one spot, and with it all the pleasures of the city, as his own.
The phone on his nightstand began to ring. He glanced over, having forgotten to carry it earlier that day. That was exactly the sort of thing he was talking about when he thought of pleasures. The ability to talk like this, over long distances, was a miracle that had been forbidden him on the mountain! But as he reached out and took it in his hand to see who was calling his face fell. With every miracle, he supposed, there should come and equivalent curse. He considered just letting it ring, but, no, he couldn't take that risk. The person on the other end was fickle and could bring him down with just a few words. It was better to answer her, as much as he despised the thought.
He answered the phone and didn't even get a word out before a slightly bored voice said "I know you were at the midnight tournament tonight, so tell me what happened. If someone actually died I win a bet."
"Unfortunately," Naseraph replied through teeth. "I was delayed and unable to grace the tournament with my presence."
There was a pause on the other end, before, "What was more important?"
"If you must know," he continued, "I was helping to clear a haunted building tonight."
"Oh, King's thing." The voice said, registering mild interest. "Yeah, he told me about that this afternoon. Decided not to go. Ghosts annoy me. Report that then. I don't want to have called you for nothing."
Naseraph gritted his teeth but recounted the entire experience as he had lived it, from the confrontation with the mechanical monstrosity in the hallway all the way to what he saw of the battle on the roof. He heard the girl on the other end click her teeth in annoyance.
"That's about what I'd expect from this
school. They have to be the big shining star on the Christmas tree, doesn't matter how many people get hurt in the process. I'm gonna have t see if I can get these kids to talk before the inevitable gag orders. Just one of them opening their big mouth would really embarrass some powerful people."
"What about the ghost I told you about? Why does he hate Alto?" Nasearph asked.
"That guy? Just one more thing swept under the rug."
"He could be a powerful ally to me."
The voice on the other end didn't reply for a long time. Then, she sighed. "I'm going to stop you right there, birdbrain. Even if he would work with you you wouldn't be able to get him too. You'd have to take off the mask, which you would never do. You're just like St. Laural's: committed to the role."
"I am-" Naseraph started, standing up, but the voice cut him off.
"Did I say I was finished? No. So sit back down and open your ears. Do you know that the more we use certain pathways in our brains the stronger those pathways become? So when we think it's more likely for our thoughts to take those stronger pathways?"
"What does this have to do with anything?"
"You had a chance to fight any of them tonight." The voice accused. "Any one of your choosing. You had it and you didn't. Think about it, what better way is there to learn how someone fights than, oh, I don't know, how about fucking fighting them? You could have, but because you've been using your bitch paths so long they're starting to become the real you. You're killing yourself and you don't even know it, how sad is that?"
"It was not the proper time!"
"Oh I'm sorry, is that bitch Nasearph speaking? Could you put the real one on the line please?"
He just about popped a vein, but then a sudden tranquility washed over his face. His breathing steadied. He went from screaming manic to placid lake in two seconds flat, seemingly breathing the anger out. Seemingly breathing everything out, leaving only...nothing. Then, in this placid state, he whispered into the phone. "I have killed before. For less than this grief."
There was another pause. Then, a satisfied "There he is. Well, I sincerely hope you take a run at me. It'll be the first genuine thing you've done since you tried to wring my neck. Thanks for the info Birdbrain. I'll see you tomorrow."
The line went dead and Naseraph calmly placed the phone back on the nightstand. It sat there, alone, one of the only items he owned. There were no trinkets in the nightstand, no adornment on the walls. The trunk the foot of his rickety bed contained only a few changes of clothes. If someone were to look at this room they would be able to tell that someone stayed here, but there was no indication that someone lived here.
Naseraph sat back down on the bed, as calm as the eye of a hurricane and equally foreboding.
Ria Köhler laid back in her own bed, idly looking at her phone and scratching the head of one of the cats she'd searched out today in lieu of dealing with Kings ghosts and goblins. There was a strict no pets allowed rule for the St. Laural's dorm rooms, but she didn't really care. This school could bite her. This whole fake city could bite her.
The problem with Nasearph was really a problem with Rhea as a whole. Maybe the whole world. There were too many people trying to play a role, pretending to be something that they weren't and strangling themselves with other peoples opinions. She probably wouldn't mind, she'd probably be one of them, if the gods hadn't seen fit to bless her with the ability to see through anyone. The subtle gestures, the facial tics, the slight muscle contractions that told her all she needed to know; that the person standing in front of her was a fake, and they were unhappy with it.
She hated people like that. Unfortunately, most people were like that. Everyone would be so much happier if they just stripped off the masks and acted as they wished. Like cats.
She sat up and lifted a pair of cats out of the five she hadn't found homes for that day. Placing them on either said and cradling them in her arms, they struggled and clawed and eventually tore themselves out of her grip and sprinted across the room to hide under her dresser. She looked down at one of the freshly bleeding wounds on her arm, then back to the eyes watching her menacingly from under the dresser, and smiled.
Good for them.