Me and Whitepaw stood in a little alleyway. Somewhere out of sight, where we wouldn’t be noticed by any passing busybody. Like my sister!
I thought she was busking with Apple today! She almost never comes up the river! Man, I am gonna get an earful when I get home tonight… But hey, she thought I ran off to school. Which means she thinks I wasn’t too late. Which means there’s still hope for me, and my new friend!
“Whitepaw,” I commanded, “Check and see if my sister’s gone.”
“Right!” the puppy yapped. He was off in a shot, and almost out of the alleyway before he skidded to a halt. “Wait… that means she’ll see ME!”
“She barely knows who you are, dummy,” I said, “I don’t even think she knows you go to my school.”
With a little more caution, Whitepaw vanished around the corner, bushy flicking tail the last of him to go. I rapidly shook my head, trying to beat the water out of my hair. My shoes clattered as they bounced off my leg, tied by the laces to my belt. I tried not to stand in any muck or lean against the walls in the squat little alleyway. This close to the river, most people wouldn’t be lazy and just chuck waste into the gutters. But sometimes people can be really lazy.
It wasn’t long until Whitepaw came racing back around, grinning and bouncing as he charged towards me.
“I don’t see her, Violet!” he barked, “She’s gone, completely gone!”
“Nice,” I said, “Alright. We don’t know when she’ll be back. So…”
“Yep! I’ve still gotta show you the ghost!” Whitepaw interrupted, “C’mon, Violet! I know you’ll love it!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I laughed, jogging after him.
Clothes squishing around me as I walked, I followed the excitable guy. He was an older puppy, about two years, and taller than my knees. But he still had a silly sort of puppy-like energy to him. He kept outpacing me, glancing back, then yapping and running back behind me. He had shaken out his black-and-white spotted fur a couple times already, but with how long his hair was, he still looked, and smelled, soaking wet.
With how excitable and cheerful he was, I almost felt bad for telling him this ‘ghost’ he found was bunk. I mean, it hadn’t been disproved to me yet. But I’d been all up and down this river. I lived next to the thing. There was nothing to find.
So even as he yapped and skipped back to the river banks, I mentally prepped how I was going to let him down gently. Again. Poor guy. He just didn’t understand. It’s been a very productive thirteen years for a senior explorer like me. I’d been up and down every street and alley in this whole dang city. I’ve listened to every Summer Moon story told by two-bit bards at least a hundred times. I’ve chased ghosts and poked my nose into every little hidey-hole.
Mostly, I found rats and mice. But I also found lots a weird, spooky stuff. So much, that I am completely immune. And actually, really, bored with this black stone city. If there was anything left to find here, say, a new ghost or a clinging curse, it would definitely not be found late winter. Maybe around the cursed days at the end, but really, that weird magic stuff mostly only popped up in the summer. There was no way, no how, Whitepaw had found anything cool or interesting that I hadn’t seen a dozen times already.
But still. I’m a nice person. And it was just good manners to at least pretend to be impressed.
I poked my nose around the building, looking up and down the long river banks, paying special attention to any flash of pink or dark red. Okay. Looks like my sister was a good girl and moved on without me. I dashed across the street and skipped down the steps of the riverbank, shoes clapping loudly as they bounced off my leg. I made sure to unbuckle my belt and the heavy pouch attached to it, and neatly folded them up on a steps. I kept my bag in sight as I edged the rest of the way down the riverbank. I didn’t think anybody would steal my stuff out in the open… but there were some pretty desperate people in this city sometimes.
Whitepaw waited for me exactly at the river’s edge, bouncing around in the shallow water. His ears cocked as he turned to look at me, grinning.
“So!” he proclaimed, voice low, “So, so, so… Here! The banks, of the Purestream river!”
“Yep. That’s where we are.”
“The steps…” he said, crouching low, “Have holes in them.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, “When the water gets high, it drains into the cistern.”
With eager waves of his head and shoulders, Whitepaw urged me to come look at a specific hole, right in front of him. I did so, kneeling down up to my waist in tugging river water. We were getting pretty close to the end of the year, so the water was only slightly more bearable than ice cold.
The ‘holes’ were actually little slits cut into the underside of the steps. The popped up in even patterns along the whole length of the banks. There were several under the water, creating little swirling eddies that sucked away bubbles and small clumps of trash. But there were lots still above the water. This slit we sat in front of looked no different from the others. Ten centimeters long and two thick. Big and frequent enough to let water drain in case the river started flooding. Small enough so nobody could get sucked in.
“So…” I asked, staring into the hole. “What am I looking for here?”
“We’re not looking for anything,” Whitepaw said in a mysterious voice. “Sometimes. On gloomy days like these. If you listen closely… you can hear people talking.”
“What, so…” I pointed at the nearest people-kinds to us. Several women chatting and gossiping in high giggles. A small flock of geese stopping to eat lunch higher on the bank. An old bull magically floating buckets into the river, white aura swirling around his horns. Normal people doing normal things.
“No, no, no, not like echoes from the people around you!” Whitepaw yapped, “Echoes like children… like men, or dogs, laughing, and playing… even when there’s no one around.”
“Hm…” I cocked my head, staring down at the hole.
“And, and,” he continued, “The strange thing is, there is no way down to the cisterns—“
“Yeah, yeah, I knew that part,” I said, “So when’s this supposed to happen? Late afternoon? Right before nightfall?”
Whitepaw grinned, tail wagging wildly. He perked up his ears. “I can hear them talking right now!”
I eagerly pressed closer to the hole. It was pitch black down there. Stank like mold. I heard a whispering sound, but that might’ve just been the rush of the river… or the splash of the water draining into the cistern. Was that all Whitepaw heard?
I turned my head, pressing my ear to the gap in the stones. “This better not be a trick where you just dunk me underwater…” I grumbled. Whitepaw shook his head, lowering himself down to my level with a crazy grin.
I closed my eyes, and covered my other ear. Whitepaw giggled about how bad my hearing was, but I ignored him. I had more important hearing to do! The roar of the river was the loudest thing, and I heard it echoing loudly off the walls of the cistern below.
Then I heard a loud squeal. Like the shout of a scared little kid.
I frowned, and pressed my head against the cold stones. That could’ve been anything…
But I heard it. Laughing. It sounded kind’ve like man kind’s voice… but maybe with a more doglike, yapping edge to it? The laughing turned into a collection of little voices. They sounded like they were speaking Angeocian, but with the rush of the river so loud it as so hard to pick out the words.
It was certainly not the chatting ladies. Nor the geese. And if it was an echo from further up or down the river, then wouldn’t I hear the other people talking layered over it? Mixing together? These voices seemed distinct… and distinctly inside the cistern.
I shivered, and a grin spread across my face.
“Now that,” I said, “Is really creepy.”
“There’s not even a way down there! Only mice could get sucked in, and those don’t sound like rodents to me!”
“I know!!!” Whitepaw squealed.
“It’s not even summer!” I cried, “If it was ghosts or spirits trapped down there, then it’s too cold for them to appear…Oh man!”
I pressed my head closer, excitedly trying to hear more. It sounded like a group of kids. I thought I heard a word, maybe two, but it all just sounded like random babble.
I frantically whispered, “What do you think they’re saying? I can hear ‘Fish… Hot...’ Maybe ‘dinner’ too? Last night’s dinner?”
Whitepaw grinned, “They’re talking about murder.”
“Oh, shut up!” I laughed, elbowing him in the side.
“I’m serious!” he whined, grin growing wider, “They’re bragging about hooow many people they’ve killlled.”
“The river washes out their voices, no way you can hear that!”
“My hearing is really good,” Whitepaw puffed proudly, “I can pick out each voice. There’s four boys, and and one of the boys is mad, cuz, once, the other boy killed something really biiiig…”
“C’mon!” I said. “Shut up, I actually want to hear this!”
“Oh man there was soooo muuuch bloooood!”
“You think you can scare me, ‘paw?!” I laughed. “I’ve heard hundreds more ghost stories than you, no way you’re gonna creep me out by just making words longer!”
“And nobody made it out of the cistern aliiiiiiive!”
I pushed him over with my shoulder. He skidded a little, claws clicking loudly on the cobblestone. But before he could topple, he darted away, diving into the water with a heavy splash. I scrambled to my feet as he darted back up the banks a couple meters away, dripping and rapidly wagging his tail.
I walked towards him, and he darted away several times before he realized I wasn’t going to push him in again.
“Whitepaw,” I said fake solemnly, slapping a hand atop his wet head. “That’s awesome. We gotta hang out again some time!”
I didn’t think the puppy’s tail could wag any faster, but apparently, it had a whole ‘nother level of crazy speed.
“Seriously, I didn’t think we’d find anything new here. Good job!” I nodded fake solemnly. “So, after school today, we gotta come back here. Look for an entrance to the cistern, or just figure out what those voices are. You up for that… ‘Paw?”
“Why go to school at all?!” Paw yapped, “Let’s look right now!”
I tutted, shaking my head, “There is a delicate balance to skipping school, Paw. You gotta skip enough to make it through most of the day, but you gotta go enough so you don’t get kicked out. Plus, I kindve like music lessons, so no way am I missing that.”
“Okaaaayyy… you’re the boss here, Violet.” Then, he cocked his head. “So, so, you’re gonna call me Paw?”
“It’s your official friendship nickname!” I asserted.
He nodded. “Got it! And, and I can call you Vi?”
“Better than calling me ‘let’ or ‘vio’, right?!”
He barked excitedly, “Right!”
We started to climb the banks. I didn’t even bother getting out of the way as Paw shook the water off his body. Kind’ve made me wish I could do that, really. I leaned over and stuck my fingers in my wet curls to shake ‘em around, but I wasn’t even close to getting them all dry. They could be wet for days sometimes, they were so thick!
“So! I’ll race you to school!” Paw yapped, bounding up the rest of the banks, “C’mon! Let’s race!”
“You’ll kick my butt and you know it, you little sneak!” I scoffed, still grinning, “I gotta pass anyway. I need to go home and change clothes.”
“Whaaaaat,” Paw whined, “Why were you even wearing clothes if you gotta change ‘em anyway?”
“Heck if I know! But you gotta pick your battles when you got a sister like mine!”
Shaking my pants free of water, I scooped up my belt and pouch, buckling it back around my overlarge tunic. It was leather, so it could stand being next to a bit of wet clothes.
I quickly checked the contents. Playing cards. Hankie. House key. Some ribbons for my hair. Scissors, because why not. A couple glass marbles that looked like fancy candy. And exactly four silver petal coins, scattered and wedged between the other random junk in my pouch. Yep. Nothing stolen. I retied the leather strings as tightly as possible, jiggling and shaking the bag to make sure nothing would slip out.
I slipped on my soggy shoes, tapped em on the ground once or twice to make sure they fitted right. The soles squished and water seeped from the ankles, but that was fine in my books. I waved to Paw, “See ya after school!” I just barely had enough time to hear him yap a goodbye of his own before I was off and running.
I raced through the back streets of the Kindness District. Charging down an empty street, bouncing off walls, jumping over trash, weaving around people, slapping a wall to skid around a corner faster… Sometimes, running just felt good! I didn’t really want to hurry, and I really, really didn’t want to run off to school.
But sometimes I planted my shoe just right, braced against the ground, and boom! I could blast off in another direction, just flying past everything!
In all too short a time, I raced down my street, way further east than I should have been. Not like I was trying to get home fast. I just wanted to run. I blazed past the long row of two-story houses, which looked puny next to the tall towers and walls that cut through most through the city. They blurred past me, door decorations and small potted gardens flashing by as small spots of color in the dark city
My home was at the far west end of this house-wall, with ours the last in the row, right next to the river. I could have gotten there quicker by following the bank, but where was the fun in that? Among the rows of simple decorations and bronze nameplates, our home was bare and plain and simple and that was fine by me. It made it seem like it was secret-empty, like we were living in a place that was abandoned, or haunted, or something else different and interesting.
I ran full force towards the front door. If I timed the jump just right…
With a shout, I slapped my hands against the bannister-wall of the stoop, and vaulted up onto the top step! My feet slapped into the ground with a clop.
But then my knees buckled. I spun in place, trying not to fall. I couldn’t stop myself quick enough. I bonked into the door, the latch jamming sharply into my side.
I hissed a breath, and curled briefly around the new bruise. Yep. Okay. I expected something like that to happen. But sweet sky gods above, so worth it.
I stumbled to my feet, still clutching my side with one hand. The other fumbled with the satchel on my belt, trying to dislodge a silver key from its battle with a hankie. Even though the… thumb-lever-y part of the latch (whatever it’s called) looked a little bent, I unlocked the door without any problem. Cautiously, I opened the entrance to our Incredibly Boring and Possibly Haunted home.
The door opened with a soft creak, the light from outside barely illuminating a thin strip into the foyer. I shivered, cold clothes getting even colder. I, um, never really liked going into my home when it was empty and dark. All the windows had heavy blackout curtains secured over them, and I couldn’t light any of the magic lamps myself.
So it was pitch as night inside… and anything could be hiding in there. Ghosts, obviously. But also several kinds of monsters, dastardly thieves, ax-wielding murderers…
The door barely open, I dropped to my knees, and reached through the crack for the flame lamp, one of the only ones in the house. I tugged the simple thing out into the daylight. It was pretty much just a glass bulb with a squat tallow candle at the bottom, sitting in a dull metal base. The flint rattled in a cup against the handle.
Crouching on the stoop, I hesitantly pulled my unfree hand off my bruise. I definitely needed two hands for this, and it’s not like my side was going to stop hurting less. I pulled out the flint and steel, tugged the glass bulb out of its holder, and tried to get a spark.
It took quite a few tries. I don’t know if I just suck at banging a rock against a bit of metal, or if this was a terrible way to start a fire. But finally, one of the weak sparks hit the wick, and slowly started to catch it on fire. I nodded. Good. That probably killed the extra time I gained by running home.
I put all the removed parts back where they were supposed to be, stood straight up, and heaved my front door open with my good side. The bad side still twinged anyway, but it wasn’t like I was using it! Stupid picky body…
I strode into the middle of my foyer, and held the lamp high over my head. The single candle lit up the entire foyer, and went all the way up the stairs to the left, to the second landing. It streamed through the open kitchen doorway in front of me and the open sitting room doorway to my right
Of course it was still dark, but, as far as I could tell, all the ghosts and other ghoulies had run away to the upstairs. Good thing I didn’t need to go up there anyway. I immediately cut to my right, and passed through the open doorframe into the sitting/dining room.
Pretty much everything worth anything in our house was in the sitting/dining/tearoom, so if any thieves were going to be here, then obviously they’d be hiding under the table or something. I raised up the lamp, jaw set, and eyes roving over everything. We had a little squat table of cheaply woven wood, short enough so dogs or whatever could sit at it without needing a boost. A little armoire, also cheaply woven, containing a clunky-sort of clay dish set. Some chairs we only used when guests were over. Same condition.
And we also a ton of blankets and pillows, shoved to the left side of the room and carefully crafted into a complex slumber nest. The quilts and thin sheets took up pretty much the entire left alcove, with both me and my sister’s straw pallets shoved somewhere under the disaster zone. Seemed normal enough. I set down the lamp carefully and, with a shout, dove into the slumber pile, tearing up the blanket nest to make sure.
There was nothing underneath. I nodded firmly. Home? Secure. On to ‘business’
I had laid out my dress on the table in the sitting/dining/tearoom/blanket fort. Where else would I put it? My room? Of course not. I turned back around and picked up the dress by the sleeves. It was… nice, I guess. Kind’ve a creamy color. Poofy shoulders. Some lace at the neck. Skirt starts halfway up the chest. Yeah. It’s a dress alright. A sucky, tight, really-hard-to-run-and-play-in dress. The best kind of dress to only wear to school, and nowhere else.
I peeled off my sopping Actual Clothes and hung them over the back of a chair. I should probably hang em in the kitchen over the tub. But. Eh. Later. Luckily, the sucky dress was pretty simple. No bodice strings to mess with or other fancy stuff. But of course, I thought the same thing I always do when I put these silly dresses on: I have to wear a set of long underpants and stockings under this thing anyway, so what’s the point of a skirt?
I should’ve probably tried to brush my hair, but I didn’t know where the brush was, and also, mostly, I didn’t care. I’ve tried to brush out my hair like my sister tells me to. But just… See, you pick out a wet curl. Then brush gently. Then you pick out another curl. Repeat. Forever. Or really, like half an hour? Or an entire hour??? Nobody has the patience for that, except really picky rich folk and really magical wizards.
So I just gave my hair another rough shake, collected it into two bunches and tied it tightly back with ribbons. There. Done.
I slipped my shoes back on, put the belt back over my dress (my sister hated it when I did that but where else was I gonna put it?!) picked up the lamp, and carried it out of the sitting/dining/tearoom/blanket fort/linen closet. I watched the upper floor intently as I backed up against the door. I could feel them. Ghosts. Watching me from up there. Waiting until all the light was extinguished and gone. Well, they couldn’t get me out in broad daylight. It’s against Ghost Rules. That was something I learned. In school, of all places.
I opened the door with one hand, and quickly backed out. I left the door open just a crack, just big enough to fit my arm, the one still holding the lamp. I crouched, set it on the floor, and blew it out from a distance. The light vanished, and I quickly scooted it out of the way, slamming the door shut behind me.
I nodded firmly, and locked the door with confidence.
That confidence maybe lasted a block down the street. That’s about that point that I just zoned out. Boring stuff was about to happen, and I wasted way too much energy being angry about it in the past. Better to just coast from here to school being out.
So I let my thoughts drift wherever they’d take me. I avoided the cracks between cobblestones. I made the game harder by only stepping to a certain beat. I stepped to the pattern of Little Light, Little Shadow. Bap-bap bapbapbap. Bap bap babapbapbap. Bap. Bap. Ba-bap-bap-bap. I could get lost to that beat, I think.
Sadly, I didn’t get lost today. It led me directly to the least fancy and mostly useless Greensea School for Elementary Mercantile Education. Obviously in the Wisdom District, because of course it would be. I’m pretty sure there’s a word for this. You know. When you pick a location because you can make up some deeper meaning, but it’s mostly you blowing hot air out your nose.
The building was boring, the teachers were bored or lazy, and the school stunk of hot rocks, sweat, and apple cider. Because Lady Terrace thinks vaporizing the stuff would make it smell better. But it doesn’t, it just makes the top floors unbearable levels of Dizzy Fumes.
There were some cool people there, like ‘Paw. And Corn, a pig who was about to graduate soon. But mostly there were terrible people here. Like Glimmer of Crystal, the snottiest, most annoying little brat in the whole world. She’s in my grade and she’s evil. No joke. Even the fun and interesting stuff blurs into a blended mess of awful. I missed Angeocian history. I was late for Finance. I attended Art Elective next, which was Music, and that was damn near the only reason I still came to school.
See, I could play the vielle! And I was pretty good at it! It was pretty fun too, for the five minutes we warmed up. After that, it was a solid hour of everybody attempting to play the same song together, over, and over, and over.
Sometimes, I just let my mind drift away. My arm moved on its own. The strings vibrated through my body. I could hear all sound drifting through my head, but all the lights were off in my body. I just let my hands do what they wanted. At the end, it was funny when Lady Lasko told me I was doing a great job, because I sure as heck wasn’t paying attention.
Why couldn’t all classes be that easy?
After that was Remedial Speech, where I sat in a room with practically-toddlers and learned how to talk nice and proper and such. This was the worst class of all. More pointless than History, more boring than Calligraphy, and I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care GET ME OUT OF HERE I WANNA GO HOME, PLEASE!!! I’m dying in here! Someone, anyone, just let me go home!
It’s torture! That’s what school is. Torture. I have to sit in a class, suffocate in cider-stink, get lost, get bored, and learn nothing. And worst, in Speech, I could hear the shouts and bangs upstairs as my classmates had their magic lessons. Last week, Bindle of Grain had set the curtains on fire, and nobody knew if it was on purpose or not. And you could still see the holes in the chalkboard when Sky of Jade exploded a glass lamp. You could also see the holes in Jade’s arms, if she ever took her bandages off.
That’s interesting! Magic! Please, gods above, you’ve blessed me with the gift of music class, and thank you so, so much for that. But please, bless me with magic! I wanna go there!
I spent most of the Speech class poking the lump on my ‘gem.’ Or what I hoped was my gem. I had a round skin lump right in the middle of my forehead. It was hard underneath, and seemed to connect to the bone. But my skin just squished and rolled over it when it was poked. I was scared sometimes about it. If it got hit in the face, or if I pushed it hard enough, would the hard bit would just pop off my skull? It just felt that small and frail.
And more than that, it felt like that lump has been there for ages, but it’s never broken the skin. And until it does, it’d be a really, really bad idea to cast magic…
But man! When I can cast, I wanted to see how fast I can make a card fly! I want to float stuff around with my mind! I want to see if I can see the future, or actually weave some better clothes. It’s frustrating sometimes, to see my sister have all this awesome magic at her disposal, and she can’t do crap with it except charge lamps and float things. If I had magic, I would do everything. Even the stuff boring old school says isn’t possible. Like shrinking magic. Or magic-ing yourself smarter.
Lunch was provided after that mess, which I’m pretty sure is the only reason my big sis sends me to school. It’s nothing to be impressed by. It’s just oat gruel and barely peeled veggies, usually carrots or cucumbers. They don’t provide any meat, of course. The men and the other carnivores usually just bring their own.
And then, finally, finally, finally FINALLY, after a rotating class of variable pointlessness!!! … Starts the glorious final class of the day: Domestics. Not that it was a fun class or anything. In fact, it was just as useless and boring as Speech. It’s a class for learning to be a Good Husband/Wife, which basically means WHO CARES, IM NEVER GETTING MARRIED.
But the teacher, Sir Chimes, also does not care. Not in the least. He knows even the most attentive students are bored to tears, and mostly lets us self-teach random life skills. Teaching myself to quietly knit may be boring, but it’s a breath of fresh air after the hell of the Nothing Beyond grinds my body and mind into dust!!!
And then finally. FINALLY. After an agonizing, long, and always-terrible day, Lady Greensea, the Headmistress, walks the halls, ringing the final bell for the day. I hastily stuffed the yarn and knitting needles into the cabinet, ‘deposited’ my ‘project’ from the last month, and hurried out of the school as fast as I could.
Luckily, Whitepaw was waiting for me outside! He charged up to me as soon as I exited, bouncing and hopping off my leg as he barked my name.
“Hey Vi! Vi vi vi vi!” he yapped, tail wagging. “I’ve got great news!”
“Good!” I shouted, quickly shuffling past him. “Tell me on the way!”
“On the way to…?” he dropped to the ground and quietly stared up at me. “Vi? You alright?”
I grinned and jerked my head towards the alley. He followed after me as I shuffled into the entrance.
“Anybody coming?” I hissed.
“Ummm.” He glanced back. “No?”
I leaned down, and unfurled a hidden ball of knitting from my stocking. It was an insane creation, the pinnacle of Sylph achievement. Strings of a thousand colors were woven into an insane rainbow mis-mash that only I understood.
“Check it out!” I said, “I smuggled out a scarf.”
His ears instantly flattened. “Viiiiiii… You didn’t steal it, did you?”
“What? No, of course not!” I replied, “I made it, and they ordered it destroyed. It was too good for this world. Of course, I had to save its life, so it could fulfill its intended purpose.”
I tucked the scarf around my neck. Despite only being maybe a meter and a half long, it fit perfectly around my neck, and smelled comfortably of me.
“Well. Okay,” Whitepaw said, relaxing “It looks really nice! I like the colors.”
I nodded firmly. “So what’s this about good news?”
“I heard! From Cleft, in class! Blaine is back!” Whitepaw yapped, “He’s playing by the statue of Temperance!”
“He’s playing again?!” I yelped, “Oh man…”
“If we run, we can make it before nightfall!”
I frowned. “Yeah, but there’s no way in heck I’d make it back to my house on time.”
“You could stay at my house!” he offered. “Slumber party! It’ll be fun!”
“I need to ask permission from my sister,” I huffed, “Aw man. You think he’ll be playing tomorrow too?”
“Sure! I mean. If he doesn’t get in trouble again…”
“If he gets in trouble again, those cows are going to sell him to the butcher,” I said, “And I don’t think Blaine is that dumb.”
“Noooo…” Whitepaw spun away from me, hunching over and letting out a small whine. “No, Vi! They wouldn’t do anything that mean. Nobody does anything that mean!”
I giggled, “You sure about that, Paw? Because you know, I heard from my sister once…”
Whitepaw barked, “Blaine’s going to be fine. If he doesn’t do anything dumb, he should be playing tomorrow too.”
I nodded, “I’ll talk to my sister then. We’ve got to go talk to Blaine, no matter the cost. Got it?”
“Got it.” He nodded just as firmly, “So! So tonight, we wanna find the entrance to the cistern!”
“Paw, you just read my mind! Don’t tell me you unlocked secret dog magic.”
He grinned. “Maybe!!”
“How dare you get secret magic before me!” I yowled, excited. “Bet I beat you to the river!”
“No way! I’ll kick your butt!”
But I was already off and running I knew he could be me. But running! I could run and run and run all day long and never get bored! Freedom! Freedom!
Spirit 20th, Year 90. Early Evening.
We didn’t find anything. Not like I expected to. The hunt was just an excuse to play in the river. And the longer we played, the longer the shadows got. And playing became an excuse to hunt for a different breed of ghost.
See, there’s one last mystery in this city. One I, or nobody else, have never been able to figure out.
Whitepaw and me kicked through the water of the riverbed, walking back towards the southernmost bridge. I watched the sky as it grew darker and darker. The gray clouds slowly vanished into deeper and deeper shadows. The water around my ankles was slowly turning black, glistening with the gold of occasional lamps. All around us, the sound of slamming shutters echoed across the black waters. Shouting voices blurred together, mixing with the sound of running feet and pounding hooves.
I heard normal things, like:
“I told you we should have left sooner—!”
“—Kindness protect me!”
“Oh no, no, oh no…”
“—The final bell—“
“Let me get home before dark falls, oh gods above—!”
I look down at my new pal. His ears were flat against his head, and he no longer looked excited.
“Vi, I think we should stop now,” he whispered, “I don’t like being out this late.”
“We still got a half hour. Maybe an hour, tops,” I said.
“I still don’t like this,” he yowled, “Can I go home now?!”
“You can do whatever you want, Paw,” I declared, kicking up another stream of water. “I’m not your mom.”
“Don’t be like thaaaaaaat,” he whined, “If we stay out at night, we die! I don’t wanna die!”
“Yeah, yeah…” I huffed. “Well, we had fun while it lasted. You can go now.”
Paw gave a grateful yap, and charged down the riverbank. I didn’t pick up my pace one bit, still splashing and kicking at the little waves of gold in the black, dark water. Mixed in with pounding hoofbeats of running horses, I heard Paw’s feet scrape on the metal bridge, then stop altogether.
“I don’t want you to die either!” he barked. “Go home!”
“I know, I know!” I yelled back. “But, c’mon Paw…”
“C’mon whaaaat?” he yowled.
His next words were lost as a cart barreled by him, tires loudly rolling over the cobblestones. I saw a couple scraps of wood and cloth blow out the back with the speed the bull was going, but he didn’t stop.
I rolled my eyes and ran to the bridge, closer to Paw.
“This is the last mystery, you know!” I said, looking up at him over the railing. “What comes out at night, after dark? Why do people vanish?”
“A monster attacks them and they die!” Paw yapped, “That’s not a mystery! Everybody knows that!”
“Sure, that’s what happens,” I retorted, “But what kind of monster? What is a ‘nightmare’? And why are they attacking? Don’t you wanna know?”
“No I don’t!” Whitepaw barked, “A lot of kinds who were stronger and older than us have tried to kill the nightmares, and they’re all DEAD! We’re just kids!”
“Yeah! We’re kids” I exclaimed, “So we can hide in in a barrel or something and keep an eye out…”
“No! Can you see in the dark?! Can you?! It doesn’t work after last bell, Vi!”
“But think about the—“
Whitepaw interrupted, barking, “You’re older, and smarter, and a whole lot braver than me, okay?! But there are people who are even older, and even smarter, and they haven’t been able to stop the nightmares! So go hoooome!”
He dropped off the railing and charged across the bridge, quickly vanishing out of sight. More lamps flicked off as he went, the remaining lights only occasional specks in a world turned to muddy gray.
I huffed, and started marching up the riverbank. Well… fine. Not like any of my other friends ever wanted to know what came out at night. Why should I expect any better from a little puppy? There was no fun in staying out with nobody else was there to be impressed with you anyway. Guess I’ll shelve the final mystery for tonight. Again…
I stomped and pouted my way up the road, though I quickly found myself running and jogging along with the other kinds racing through the streets. I wasn’t as scared as them, but it just felt right. I could only barely make out the stoop of our home, and I had to grope through the shadows to find the door latch.
Of course, the night bells hadn’t rung yet, and probably wouldn’t for another half hour. Or maybe fifteen minutes. I was at the very edge of cutting it close, but I obviously wasn’t in any danger any more.
So I held my skirt in my hands, and tried squeezing off the water and other grime. I knew my sister wouldn’t appreciate me mussing up even more of my clothes. I had tried to play it smart. Whenever I had to sit or kneel to search for the entrance, I had kneeled on my new scarf. But somehow, I had still gotten my skirt dirty. Who knows how that could have happened.
As a last ditch resort, I pressed two halves of the skirt together, rubbing them fiercely. But it was hopeless. Stupid cream-colored dress. It hides no secrets. If I had magic, I could pull the muck right out of the fibers with an order spell! But no! No magic for silly little Violet…
Well, if I couldn’t get the stains out, then there was no point standing out here. I squeezed the bent latch, and shoved open the door. No need to fear ghosts now… My big sister was home!
“Hey Melody!” I called out, “I’m home!”
Whenever my big sister was home, it’s like the house became a whole lot less haunted. Even though she was usually tired from work, she lit like four or five lamps around the house. The entrance hall actually looked warm, you could see everything in the sitting room, and the kitchen in back was never cold. Today was no different, with everything except the second floor brightly lit in a calm orange glow.
“Thank goodness, Violet!” my sister called back from somewhere in the kitchen. “Cutting it a little close tonight, aren’t you?”
“I was playing close by, just at the river,” I shouted back.
“That’s no excuse to not be careful!” she cried, “Can you lock and block the door for me, Violet?”
I kicked off my wet shoes, watching them bounce off the wall by the little flame lamp. I shoved the door a little, to make sure it was firmly shut before turning the heavy bolt. Then I tugged the heavy blackout curtain across the door, its cloth bunching at the bottom, against the floor. For good measure, because I knew for a fact Melody would check it later, I stuffed rags and bits of the curtain under the doorframe, plugging the biggest leak of light in the door.
There. Good. No monster would be able to see the light from our house now. We were very effectively nightmare-proofed.
Job done, I plodded off towards the kitchen. I was surprised how warm it was already. Guess she’d been home cooking for a while now. My sister stood by the fireplace on the left wall, stirring something in our black soup kettle.
“Smells good!” I said, leaning back against the wall closest to her. “Doesn’t smell like porridge, at least. You got lots of work today, huh?”
She nodded. “Just one job, actually! It just paid rather well.”
Her nods were always so smooth. Or really, every move she made was this careful, refined thing. Like she really was an elegant social butterfly. She tapped the spoon on the kettle, replaced the lid, and set the spoon aside.
“So!” she said, smiling and folding her hands, “How much have you been skipping classes lately?”
I take it back. My big sis is a social murderfly to the core.
“Oh, you know,” I said, “Today was different.”
“Well a teacher was gone.” For a different class. But if I played this cool and smart…
“Really?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow, “Who?”
“Isn’t that your Calligraphy teachers?” she asked lightly, “I thought Calligraphy was one of the last classes of your day.”
Dammit! She knew everything!
“Yeah, but…” I started, “He got in a fight with the rodent teacher, so we’ve been doing some self-study stuff and… Oh!” I held out my scarf, arms outstretched. “I’ve been making this in Domestics, actually! Since, you know, I’m kind’ve short of warm-weather clothes right now…”
Melody stepped forward and took the cloth from my hands. She regarded the scarf like it was an offering to her altar.
“It’s dirty,” she noted, turning the cloth over in her hands.
“I didn’t have anywhere to put it when I was off playing with Whitepaw so…”
“I understand,” she said, “But what about the class you missed? Which one was it?”
“Oh, you know…”
“No,” she said lightly, “I don’t.”
“History. And Finance…” I mumbled, shrugging, “It’s all dates and numbers. It’s all boring.”
“You can’t skip it just because it’s boring, Violet,” she said. Her voice rose as she continued, “How often have you been skipping this class? Has it just been while this teacher is on leave?”
I let my eyes drift to the ground. I’d seen her when she was bad, and this was not so bad. She was, at most, pretty annoyed. Lecture mode. Not anger. Not the worst of her. But if I said the next thing wrong, it could go south fast…
Warningly, she said, “Violet…”
“Stop yelling at me,” I mumbled.
I folded my hands behind my back and stared down at the ground. School was stupid, and she should know it. Melody was supposed to be on my side through all this. With every other single thing, it’s all smiles and encouragement. And then we talk about school, and she’s just like the teachers. The absolute worst.
Melody quietly looked down at my scarf, and her expression shifted. The change was subtle, but it definitely happened. She took the scarf and walked past me, setting the cloth next to the tub. I watched as she took a seat afterwards, kind’ve. She leaned back against the counters, bracing herself with her hands. I stared at them. They didn’t seem to be gripping the countertop too hard. Good sign. She was willing to listen.
Her voice noticeably softer, she said, “What’s boring about it, Violet?”
I shrugged, “All of it. Why do I gotta go there, big sis?”
She looked at me, perfectly deflated. “The opportunities and knowledge offered at school are far more valuable than anything I could—“
“But I suck at this!” I insisted, “All the smart stuff I’m supposed to be learning and using just rolls off of me! I don’t get any of it!”
“You want to do something with music when you’re older, don’t you?”
“I want to be a bard.”
That was a set-in-stone solid fact about myself, something I knew so well, I didn’t have to think much about it. I mean, I liked music, and I was pretty good at it. And since running around and playing wasn’t a job, being a bard was kind’ve the same thing, right? So bard I would be! Seemed like a good idea to me.
“I know, I know…” my sister continued, “That school offers lessons in fine arts at a price much more affordable than a master would charge. And, the instructions you receive in proper speaking will be invaluable when you want to sing to tell stories, right?”
I huffed, “I’m really bad at talking nice too… And I’m not picking up anything about it in those classes! If I didn’t have to go to school, we could afford a lot more stuff, and you know it!”
I watched her hands as they tightened instinctively, then relaxed. Yeah. It bugged her too.
Yet, with a smile, she still said, “We can afford basic necessities, and that is all we need.”
“Big sis, you can at least say the truth to me! It’s okay!” I insisted, “I know you walk into the Wisdo, Market and you swoon from all the fanciness around you.” I slapped a hand against my forehead and pretended to faint, “‘Ah! The beauty! My poor heart! I will now begin weeping openly in public.’”
“Violet!” she cried, perfectly embarrassed to an exacting mesure. “I do no such thing! And none of those things up in Wisdom Market are what we need right now.”
“But if I started busking on the streets, and you kept lamp lighting, we could live comfortably, right?” I said, nodding eagerly toward her, “We could buy whatever. Imported fruits! Better furniture! I could get a vielle for myself… And you could get… whatever the heck you want! Like dresses and stuff!”
“You overestimate what we could both accomplish,” she said, batting my comments away with a flick of her wrist. “As I’ve explained many times, Violet. We Sylph are very long-lived. We are afforded the privilege of preparation of an extended future. If you fail to use your time wisely now, your future will only grow more difficult and complicated as you age. Isn’t it easier to struggle a few years now, so that the following decades will be much simpler?”
I frowned, trying to focus on what she was really saying. My sister throws fancy words around like they’re confetti, and sometimes it’s hard to catch it all the first time around. But this is a lecture I’ve heard a lot lately, and each time, I understand a bit more of it.
So I was able to say:
“Well you quit school at age ten.”
Even though her expression didn’t change one bit, her fingers started digging into the countertop. One of the few signs I’d really gotten under her skin.
“And because of that, I am a lamplighter,” she replied coldly. “This is all I will be, for the entirety of my life. Did you think your statement was clever?”
“A little bit.”
“Well, it hurt my feelings,” she shot, “A great deal.”
I looked away, my own face hot and glaring down at the dark floor. I could feel her eyes following me, even picture her stony face. It was probably hot red by now, not gentle pink.
I hated when things got to this.
“Bleeeech!” I finally groaned, pushing myself off the wall. “Why are we fighting so much lately? It’s like…”
I stopped myself. I don’t even know what this was like. Too many thoughts were in my head, and I hated it. I think Melody got the point, even if I didn’t even know what I meant. She peeled herself off the counter and returned to the pot, stirring it again, her back to me.
“Well we are that age, aren’t we?” Melody said, “The teen years are very tumultuous for the children of man and sylph, are they not?”
“Heck if I know,” I huffed. “But c’mon, big sis. Can we at least agree that History is boring and totally useless?”
“Yes, it is dull,” she finally admitted, “But it is essential for understanding the world around us. Why the city functions as it does, and what the cost of living in it will be…”
I wrinkled my nose, “That’s what it’s about? I must not have gotten to that part. It’s just a bunch of dates and names. It doesn’t tell me why I’m here in this city.”
“Well it—” she said automatically. Her stirring paused. “Or. Well… It would describe how the city functions, I would think…”
“Not from what I’ve learned,” I huffed, “Did I just not get to those lessons yet? In History, all I learn about is the country, and the church, and that’s it. They never tell me anything about why I’m here, right now.”
“I suppose…” She said slowly. “If they reported on current events the facts of the matter could get muddled, or mis-told…” She must have seen the look on my face, because she immediately switched tactics. “Honestly, it’s a very good question to raise to your teachers, Violet.”
“So, you can’t tell me those answers?” I said.
“The answers to what, specifically?”
“I dunno… like, why can’t we go outside right now?” I demanded, “How come there are Nightmares? Why don’t we all get together and kick their butts?”
A confused frown crossed her face. “Have you really been wondering stuff like that? Why now?”
“I dunno… I wanted to go see Blaine in the Temperance District, but I wouldn’t have made it back before the Obviously Doom-Filled Hours…”
“I see,” she said, nodding, “Well, I’m certain nobody knows the why of this. Why there are nightmares, why they only come out in the dark…” She looked distant for a second. “I suppose the rumors say it’s Virtue Kindness’ eternal struggle, expending all his energy to keep the streets safe by daylight, battling nightmares by night…”
“Yep, that’s nice and lofty. So why we don’t go out and kill ‘em?”
“It has been tried,” she said flatly, “The attempts were met in failure.”
“So you actually know of some guys who went out to beat them up.”
“Well. No. But I’ve heard stories.”
“Uh-huh.” I folded my arms. “Like rumors?”
She laughed gently, “Yes, just rumors.”
Quietly, I said, “Do you actually know anybody who’s died?”
“Yes,” she shot, “And you do too.”
I turned away. This was one thing I really didn’t want to talk about. So I just mumbled, “Okay, not lately…”
“Well people have obviously gotten more and more cautious as time has gone on,” she insisted, “Many kinds lives are too short to waste on testing luck. Trust me, grown adults would not stay indoors on a whim and rumor!”
I barely registered what she was saying. I was already on my feet, and walking towards the back door. We almost never used it. In fact, parts of the frame had been permanently stuffed with cloth to stop light from leaking out.
“What if the Nightmares aren’t around at all?”
“Or what if they were around once, but Kindness beat ‘em all? Wouldn’t it be cool if we figured out night was safe?”
I undid the lock with a heavy click, and wrapped my hands around the latch. I heard the spoon clang against the kettle and Melody’s heavy footsteps marching towards me.
“Violet, the threat is very real, don’t you dare do what I think you’re doing—!”
But I did. Irritated, curious, and with a small, mean part of me wanting to… I squeezed hard on the latch and yanked the door wide, wide open.