This cover was illustrated by the author.
There is always a child. They see the creature first as a shadow, or they’re vulnerable enough to be taken, or they catch onto some strange occurrence and inadvertently show their parents that their new-old house is, as they joked in their first walk-through, probably haunted.
Leviant City wasn’t a city. It was an oil town, in a place where hills weren’t seen for miles and blue skies burned bright over golden scorched grass. From a distance, in the dark of night, Leviant had the faint orange gleam of primitive electricity. Their automobiles were recently invented, too, not a decade prior, I’d guess. But lots of people in town had them, driving from brick building to brick building, where only the label distinguished which structure had which designation.
I’d ridden from a farther town on a train. Every place I passed wasn’t half as electrically reliant, and their populations had a fraction of the vehicles. But oil brings cash. And in a place like Leviant, cash flows into every crevice.
The reason I went was simple; I had read an article in a true city’s newspaper. Bauldeleure Boy Snatched by a Demon in Leviant!
A quarter hour later, I was on the train.
I walked the streets for a few hours, getting odd looks from the locals. It wasn’t a world of a single race. I’d seen badger folk and many fox folk, ratfolk, and the like. But I was quite short, and dressed far differently. This was a world of forest creatures made sapient.
Even amongst my “own kind,” I stood out. I spotted the edge of town, where the oil fields rose into the churning orange sun, and took the crumpled news clipping from my pocket.
The weathered sepia picture indicated I was near my objective. I followed the road to where the lampposts ended and the sidewalk benches stopped. There, alone, stood a manicured yard of trimmed hedges and immaculately preened flowers. Six enormous white pillars held the ten meter tall roof. This was, as I held up the news clipping and read it’s description, “A house of houses.” This was the manor of the Bauldeleure family.
I tucked the clipping away and went to the front door. The rug beneath my paws outside the door must have been as expensive as a vehicle. The windows were framed in detailed castings rather than plain squared framings. I moved to use the knocker—shaped like a badger’s head engulfed in flames—but the door opened. A thick badger dressed in a full waistcoat answered, “May I help you?”
“Quite the contrary,” I held up the news clipping, “May I help you?”
“Dead-Hour,” said Mr. Bauldeleure. The badger stroked back his fur and stared into the hearth. He nodded, “Dead-Hour.”
“Would that be in the midst of the night?” An easy thing to guess.
Mrs. Bauldeleure set her paw on her husband’s knee. They sat on the same sofa—which could easily sit five—on the opposing end of the room. The hearth lit the drawing room’s deep wooden interior, but the fire smoke couldn’t banish the scent of linen and cigars.
“Yes,” Mrs. Bauldeleure said, “Dead-Hour is when the moon turns golden.”
“What time is that?”
“Three past midnight,” said Mr. B. He tapped his timepiece.
“Was there a struggle?” I said. “Any sign of a fight? I’d like to see the boy’s room.”
“An investigator checked the room. A priest of the Eight Lights. Otherwise, it’s intact,” said Mrs. B.
Little Billiam Bauldeleure’s room was, indeed, intact. Both as the scene of a kidnapping and a child’s bedroom. Nothing was out of place except for the yellow circle burned into the headboard of his mahogany bedframe.
A sniff of the marking gave me a hint of charcoal or coals. How could burnings turn gold, though? My Aura flickered inside.
The article in the newspaper had reported that a demon snatched little Billiam Bauldeleure straight from his bed and carried him off into the night. My assessment of the situation gave no indications of that unfortunate sensationalism being false.
“You have any witches, mages, wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, or magic folk around?” I said. “Priests?”
Mr. B. Nodded, “The investigator who came up was an oracle of the Eight Lights. Worshipper of the moon. Checked everything out. Said it wasn’t a demon no matter what the public think. Did an assessment of the whole space and said a kidnapper must have done it.”
“Your priest lied.”
The Bauldeleure faces sunk, “How do you mean?”
“This is intensely powerful residue. Must have opened a portal or transported your son away using his dreams. Otherwise why burn a golden circle above his head and leave no forensics?” I looked through the window, “Where is this oracle of the Eight Lights?”
“Nice town,” I said to the carriage driver. He was an old gopher-person. He could barely fit on the carriage to guide the donkeys.
“Mhm,” he said, “real nice. Times are scary, though! The geographers are saying that the oil’s running dry soon.”
“Geologists? That so?”
“Mhm. Those geometrics have been saying it for a bit, now. Don’t know what’ll happen. A few provinces north of here, a town just like Leviant popped up. Big money. Big family just like Mr. and Mrs. B. Then poof! Geomancers are scuttling around, saying ‘It’s gone, it’s gone!’ And what do you know? It’s all gone.”
I’d been to countless places ravaged by resource plundering. Tradition lasts a few generations, and then complacency and entitlement set in, and suddenly the lumber, or the fish, or the oil are all gone, and everyone blames the world rather than looking at history’s records: things don’t last.
“Bless the Eight Lights!” My driver said, “So long as they shine, the wealth comes with the prosperity. Least I’ll get my pension by the time Mr and Mrs B run out of oil enough to pay the house staff. Aho, well, here you are, Mr. Opaline. I can wait out here for you.”
“I’d appreciate that, thank you.”
“No need for thanks. I’m paid.”
I opened the door to the carriage and stood in the light of a large, temple-style parish. I was not expecting to see a building held by pillars and surrounded by pantheon statues in a town as sterile as Leviant, but there it was. My Aura told me that this was no false church to an incorporeal god. This faith was tangible. These people of Leviant had magic.
“I’m afraid that I do believe in my investigation, for the Light of the Eight flows through me, and the child was not touched by the unholy as you claim,” said the priest, though his voice projected from a contraption wrapped around his mandibles.
The priest was a two meter creature somewhere between a tarantula and a frog. Not a frog in anything but bulk, and muscle, and form. I’d never seen such a thick, compact spider. The priest rattled his voice machine. His eye sockets—each eye replaced with a white lightbulb—blinked in electric fury. Behind him, a monument of electricity buzzed around copper coils. Runes were scattered around the base of the structure, each marking blazed in silver upon on a meter tall podium which collectively encircled the coils.
The electric monument was not connected to power. Divine magic fueled it’s buzz. “You’re lying,” I told the oracle.
“I cannot lie. For the vows of the Eight Lights forbid it.”
“And are these bindings divine in nature? Magical—real—I mean? Or are they empty words you say ceremonially to propose your faith?”
The spider said nothing.
The inside of the church was shaped as the outside—circular. And the statues outside could be seen through the arching windows which aligned between the pillars outside. Where did this preacher preach from? There was no architectural point where a person could be visible to all patrons except in the center—where the coil buzzed.
“You look for something?” said the priest. “Find faith in our Gods. May the Moon and her Eight Lights guide you!”
“I’m looking for clues.” I shrugged, “You remind me of a very unkind group of animals who used to tie my people up in glass webs and suck out our guts as tribute to their ‘Grand Mistress.’ I don’t like spiders. Especially giant ones. So, eight-eyes, are you going to tell me why you lied about Billiam being snatched by a demon or am I going to beat the answer out of you?” I walked forward, curling my tail into a knot and cracking my knuckles, “Right now, I suspect you probably did this. You don’t want to be my suspect.”
“I—I can’t tell you.” I didn’t expect him to admit involvement so swiftly.
“Let me guess, a vow?”
“More of a magical—as you said, real—binding.”
Honesty earned my respect, “What do you know that I don’t?”
“I can tell you where to go. Maybe, I can even take you there. But you must understand that my legs are tied, here. I had no choice. The many, or the few? That is true. . .”
His voice trailed off, his lightbulb eyes dimmed. I said, “Take me there.”
“Very well. It shall take a few hours. We must dial at Dead-Hour.” He tapped a clock on a pillar, bringing my awareness to the fact that every single pillar was graced with a large, light-bulb bordered clock.
“Is this your fault? If so, I’ll kill you right here, eight-eyes.”
That name, “Eight-Eyes,” was the sorcerer term for sapient spiders on Dahn. I had trouble holding back the term, even all these decades after being torn from home.
“It is a demon you are after, not me. As I said, my legs are tied. I will send you to the place where demons walk, and at the time when their realm may cross with ours. You will face the monster, stranger, who snatched Billiam Bauldeleure, but make no mistake—the truth is not so easy to swallow.”
“It never is.”
The domed roof of the church cranked open as the priest chanted his electrical tune. He spun webs to help pull down the domed cover. I found the engineering—somewhere between clockwork and magic—impressive. When the dome was down, a grey moon enveloped the sky above the electrical coil.
“Soon the window will open,” the eight-eyes’s voicebox chattered. He checked a timepiece on the wall.
The clocks on every pillar struck three past midnight. The bulbs attached on their borders, reminding me of a sun’s corona, lit up with golden light. The blue electrical current running through the coil blazed gold like the clocks.
“Are you ready, Stranger, or have you changed your mind in dealing with the demons?” The priest climbed up to the coil.
“If I come back, and find out you are to blame for snatching this kid, I will cut every one of your legs off until you’re nothing but a writhing arachnid stump,” I patted the priest’s abdomen, his voice box, and ultimately his head, “then I’ll cut here, and here, and here. Got it?”
“You will be forced to come back within the hour. Dead-Hour is called such for a reason. And you will find the truth.” The priest hissed something, then began to pull levers at the base of the coil. He chanted a hymn as he did so,
Moon, moon, call so soon,
I wish to punch a hole in you,
Doors, doors, windows and floors,
One Dead-Hour to explore.
Currents of blue turn gold,
Currents of gold turn blue.
Warm goes dead, rots to cold.
Worlds born in pockets of two,
Reconcile, turn and smile,
Let our worlds hold hands awhile.
Above in the sky, the coil reached currents of golden electricity towards the grey moon. Eight enormous craters shined in the same light, and the moon entire seemed to brighten itself until eventually the grey hide subsided, and the Eight Lights and their craters brightened so much that the gold was swallowed by a wave of blue, and the moon which hung in the sky was now a blue sheet of arcane power.
“Go!” said the priest. “That is your door!”
I stepped to the side. Yes, the perspective had warped. The “moon” became a 2 dimensional doorway in the sky. Fascinating.
With sorcery, I propelled myself up in a ten-meter jump and soared towards the blue portal. Next thing I knew, I was in a long hallway full of doors, and windows, and creaky old floorboards, and all sorts of people were stumbling, or running, or limping around. So much limping.
It seemed that this enormous, bustling hallway was only open at Dead-Hour. And now I had to find my way.
People of all shapes and sizes—mostly forest creatures turned sapient and human sized—moved through the rooms. I walked between them for a bit, trying to figure out exactly where to go, cursing the priest for being so stupid, and cursing myself for not asking the proper questions.
I grabbed a rabbit dressed in business attire. She was not half as terrified or confused as the other people. She strode towards a goal, with a briefcase at her side.
“Hello,” I said.
She glared at me.
“I am looking for a demon? Someone who stole a little boy named Billiam. Any idea where I could find child-snatching monsters?”
She stared directly into my eyes, equally apathetic and irritated, and her ears pointed towards the door at the opposite end of the hall where I came in. She merely asked, “First time?”
“The big doors go to the Gold and Blue realms. They switch at this time. Next time,” she checked her timepiece, “don’t stop someone on their way to a meeting.” Then she hopped away, parting the bewildered crowd with her intention alone.
The gate I came from was blue, and the one headed towards was gold. Meaning I originally came from the Gold Realm, and was on my way to the Blue Realm if they switched?
I thought I was right. I assumed so.
I scurried through the crowd. Without a moment to waste, I leapt through the portal.
Like your typical Shadow Realm, Dark Side, Other, and so on, this place was fairly dark, perfectly grim, and absolutely miserable. The trees were barren and crumpled like broken finger bones left in their skins, the grasses swept high and over like styled hair, and the swamps on either side of me chirped with excited animals whose eyes pierced the dark.
I stood in front of a towering archway. There was no sign.
A winding road led through the shadowed marsh. The sky seemed to swallow light, though the moon had eight craters lit in brilliant blue. Lamposts flanked the dirt path. Moths migrated from light to light. The electricity in the bulbs burned blue. Streaks of gold pulsed through them.
I found that strange. It seemed in the Gold Realm, most currents lit blue until Dead-Hour, but in the Blue Realm, most currents likely did the inverse. At the opening of the gates it seemed only then did the names and colors align.
Storm clouds swirled overhead, and rain pattered through the night. The glow of civilization came into view in the form of second and third story windows. A mansion rose from the swamp.
Iron gates overgrown with crawling ivy rusted in place around the perimeter. Gardens cast long, dancing shadows in the windy dark. Rain poured down, then. My fur soaked. I rose my scarf to try and protect my eyes just a bit.
Wind howled and owls screeched. The windows of the building ahead shut off one by one until only a light on the first floor leaked into the yard. From a distance, I saw figures assembled behind the blue light of the window pane. A large, horned, bulky figure with four arms spoke to a crowd.
I sprinted forward.
Lightning struck in the background. Wicked crimson lightning. The light burnt the trees’ silhouettes into the deep purple siding of the house. Flashes of the four-armed figure in the window showed rising arms.
The creature held something in it’s grasp.
“Here! The newest to our collection!” claimed the weezy old voice.
The shadow of a boy struggled in his arms.
I burst through the window.
My head hit off the glass violently. I came out of a daze to look upon a room full of small children wearing pajamas, all screaming silent due to the ringing in my ears, and one particular little fox-girl screeching so loudly at my sword being drawn that she fainted.
The giant, four armed fiend set down the boy. The creature scowled and cast itself in front of it’s victims. Golden runes appeared across the floor around me. I stepped forward but could not move. I was trapped in a pentacle burnt into the floor by the demon’s magic.
“You foul little rat,” scowled the demon. Her voice was deep and weathered. Her face was a cross between some kind of goat, rabbit, and feline. Long tufts of vibrant red-purple hair blushed from every corner of her body. Her four eyes were entirely black, except for tiny, vile white pupils. She said, “Children, upstairs! I must flay the rat.”
“But Mama Badgaroom,” said a chubby beaver-boy who held a glass of milk. He rubbed his eyes, “He probably doesn’t mean any bad. Looks. He has the nice eyes.”
The demon, Badgaroom, glared at me, “Who—what—are you, stranger? Why have you come to my manor?”
“You’ve kidnapped Billiam Bauldeleure, and all the rest of these kids, and I am here to take them home.” My tail was slowly, methodically, scratching away the runes on the floorboards behind me with my blade. Often times broken seal meant a broken spell for such incantations. I squatted lower to appear both more aggressive and hide my tail’s actions. I charged a sorcery and let my eyes light up white to help distract the demon’s view. “Let me free of this spell.”
“Oh my, a contract investigator?” Badgaroom must have been two and half meters tall. Her large, rabbit-like legs marched and floorboards cried out for mercy. She was muscled, and cloaked in colorful fur. In the blue light she looked as if her body were aflame. “Little Billiam is perfectly fine. He is upstairs, getting bathed by the housekeeper.”
Badgaroom folded her four arms, “He’s been through quite a lot, and needs his rest.”
“No thanks to you snatching him from his bed.”
“I don’t kidnap.” Badgaroom grinned, “I take firstborns in exchange for divine favors. Billiam’s mommy and daddy called upon me for my work. Billiam is not only a firstborn, but an only child. A special case of parental disregard.”
My teeth ground. “You’re going to eat these kids? Or kill them? Or stuff them up?” I pointed to the boy she had just set down, “I saw you presenting this one as a new member of the collection. What, are they your slaves?”
Badgaroom laughed, “Wesley here is a new member of our collection! His dad sold him for a new, fine looking wife. Now, how do we feel about this, Wesley?”
“Not good,” muttered the mole-boy. I spotted a handful of human children amongst Badgaroom’s “collection.”
“Exactly,” Badgaroom ran her fingers through his fur. She sent words into my head telepathically, “Poor things don’t even realize their parents are monsters. Please stop with this talk of eating and killing and stuffing—whatever that means. You’ll only scare Wesley. He’s been here a day, that’s all.”
“I am so very confused,” I thought back.
“I am a demon. I exchange first born children for divine favors.” Badgaroom’s mind laughed, “Only the parents don’t realize the divine favor means burning in hell for all eternity. I send ghosts to torture them until they finally die and are sent into the dark abyss. . .” She scuffled Wesley’s hair, “Welcome to Badgaroom’s Home for the Sacrificed by Candelight.”
Her voice left my mind.
My eyes wandered around the room, which was covered in drawings made in pastels, crafty looking totems of paper and clay, and building block toys. A small stage was covered in props and a set built of cardboard and painted by hand (literally).
“This is an orphanage,” I said.
Badgaroom released her runes. I sheathed my blade and dusted myself of glass. The demon snapped with all four hands, and the glass rose off every surface, including my fur, and reformed the window in the wall.
The children scurried upstairs. The house was enormous, and from what I could see, it seemed almost a hundred children—foxfolk, ratfolk, badgers, moles, gophers, human, and such—lived in Badgaroom’s Home for the Sacrificed by Candlelight.
“What are these?” I asked, passing a wall of tweed hats embroidered with wine colored circles. The hats were the kind for a day’s hunt, or a day’s detective work. A deerstalker hat.
“Souvenirs,” Badgaroom said. “That pattern is made with my fur. Nice and soft, isn’t it? Loffaseed oil is the trick. Tough to get here, though. Wearing a hat like that will help see whose made the kind of deals I make. I sell them to demon hunters,” she winked her left two eyes and wiggled her long, tufted ear, “then they can go get the real demons.”
After the children went to bed, Badgaroom boiled a pot of tea in the kitchen. At the beautiful wooden table, under the light of the above candelabrum, Badgaroom said, “You see, these mortals are so vicious, and greedy, and foolish, that they can’t even realize that simply because we look scary doesn’t mean we eat babies. Now, I do feed on terror. But I’ve found that the greatest terror is guilt. None are more guilty than mothers and fathers who have forsaken such a duty. And none are guiltiest but those who sell children for desires. The realization that they will never receive their payment and, ultimately, will face hell on their deathbed is the most delicious meal. Pure fucking justice.” Her cursing sounded so properly timed, like a grandmother you’d never expect to do so falling into a foul mouthed exclamation.
“Why do you humor them, though?” I asked, taking a sip of the incredibly strong brew. “Why even allow them to make the deal if you’re going to save their kid and ultimately banish their souls to hell?”
Badgaroom sipped her tea. Her words curled off the tongue, “Any parent willing to give their child to me, never deserved a chance at conceiving.”
I returned to the Bauldeleure manor with two things in mind. The first would be demanding to know why depleting oil made Mr. Bauldeleure ever think that selling his boy to a demon would make sense. The second would be trying not to kill him where he stood so that he could eventually suffer Badgaroom’s favorite fate—when people like him were killed by the people who wore her hats.
The eight-eyes priest could not tell me because he believed that informing me of the situation would lead to the oil never returning, and the demon coming to wreck havoc, and then the Bauldeleures potentially killing him. They’d paid him off. I can, possibly, forgive him. He believed the oil was important for the town.
As with most small communities, remaining entitled to resources which were always finite and the inability to accept progress will drive people to insanity.
Poor priest was no different. I did not cut off his legs.
I did go to Bauldeleure manor. I did not knock. I walked into the oppressively oversized “house,” bent on beating Mr. Bauldeleure senseless, and maybe throwing his wife out of a window. She knew. She even encouraged it.
They were not in this to protect the town and its economy.
They liked their big house, and their electricity, and their automobiles. They had too much pride to be another ghost town looming on the horizon. They wouldn’t let this place die. So they sacrificed their son.
As I stomped through the manor, my mind raced with their justifications.
Nobody stopped me. No butler. No servants. No housekeeper.
Everything was so. . . silent.
After a quarter hour of looking, I made my way into the main hall of the home, and found the hearth burning bright. The Bauldeleure badgers were hung up in the center of the room. The hearth burned their flesh. They were flayed, and quite dead.
A familiar face levitating in the midst of the room. Her black robes draped across her crossed knees like the dress of a god. Her keychains chimed with the memories of a thousand haunting horrors.
She, without even turning to me, said, “Did you find the boy? The walls whispered you’d run off.”
I nodded, “I did. He is safe.”
Threshold cocked her head, keyhole tattoos warping with the movement of her pale white skin. Her blank red eyes seared into me. Her red lips crooked into a smile, “How so? I sensed something so odd.”
I informed her of Badgaroom’s Home for the Sacrificed by Candlelight, and of Billiam’s new life, and about how odd my last day had been. Threshold enjoyed the story so much that genuine joy floated through her. “I like this Badgaroom. Her sensibilities are seasoned, flavorful.”
And so the next day, the eight-eyes priest dialed at Dead-Hour, and we returned to the Blue Realm. Threshold met Badgaroom, and met the children, and they struck a very fun deal. Threshold would partake in a fair many parent conferences. And Badgaroom would get to watch the memories.
As a part of this deal, Threshold also received a Badgaroom’s Home for the Sacrificed by Candlelight hat. When we returned to the Gold Realm, Threshold and I drained the Bauldeleure’s wine cellar, then drained our bodies of the poison with sorcery, and Threshold departed to finish her end of the deal.
Threshold smiled more when she was drunk. The vicious kind of smile.
Threshold upheld her end of Badgaroom’s bargain within two weeks. I couldn’t tag along. Threshold was just and fair to my principles, but I did not have the stomach for her methods. When she returned from slicing through parents who sacrificed their kids, we all dialed at Dead-Hour one last time, and drank Badgaroom’s demonic, psychedelic tea long into the night.
I took a sizable bag of the tea, along with my new favorite hat.