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Changeling *Working Title*: Draft in progress (20893 words) (1 Viewer)

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Part One

“—Upon the last skin shed, the sufficiently plump caterpillar finds a suitable location to pupate. From here, the insect spins itself into a cocoon.
One would be mistaken in thinking that the worm and the elegant creature that emerged in its place may be some form of natural chicanery, a sleight of hand perpetuated by Mother Nature herself. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the material of the caterpillar inside the pupa during that stages hides clusters of genetic material necessary for forming the butterfly.
Curiouser still about the nature of Lepidoptera is the leftover pieces of the caterpillar within the adult butterfly. Some moths, close relatives of the butterfly, can even remember what they learned as caterpillars.”
-Fairchild, Nicolas F. “On Butterflies.” Unseen Histories And other Curiosities. Print

The summer air was thick with the smell of rain. She was sweating a river as her lungs barely kept up with her feet.
She didn’t care.
A branch struck her nose. She tasted blood and salt as she licked at the wound. Sweat from her forehead stung her eyes, sliding down her face with the tears from her eyes.
Dad’s distant voice chased her. “Lydia!”
Every call urged closer. But it just made her run faster.
“Lydia! Come back!”
Five hours. Five hours from Virginia to North Carolina, and she just couldn’t take it anymore. Five hours of silence and no where to go but far away from anyone and anything Lydia had ever known.
And she never even got to say goodbye before they left.
Pollen and the wet garbage smell of dogwood surrounded her. Through the impenetrable leaves, the afternoon sun beat down with an angry orange, blinding her whenever she dared look up. So she kept her eyes on the brush ahead, slapping away whatever leaves whipped and battered her as she sped away.
Where am I going? I just got here. I don’t even know this place, she briefly thought as she ran, her father’s voice fading into the mumbling of the insects. But what good was anything rational right now? Nothing made sense. Nothing mattered anymore. If everything was going to change in an instant for her, then she might as well give up on ever hoping for something resembling reality in the future.
Her legs nearly gave out when she stumbled into the clearing, heaving, nauseous from the run.
She realized she was standing in its shadow.
Anyone else would’ve taken it as an omen.
Its twisting branches. Its black, flaking bark.
All Lydia cared about was its hollow. A massive, cavernous thing, bigger than her. In the fading light of day, it stretched on into nothing. It seemed endless, abyssal.
And that’s all she wanted.

Lydia howled as she threw herself from the madness of sleep.
Fingers in her hair, she clutched the matted, knotted mess tight, sweat greasing her brow, eyes wide and pregnant with tears. Every muscle was trembling, quaking with memory of the horror she barely escaped from.
She lay up in bed, hot breath reflecting into her face through her hands, taking solace in listening to nothing…
Slowly, her fingers unglued. Her breathing steadied, tremors subsiding as she remembered where she was.
Reality. My room, she thought. My house. You’re home. You’re not there anymore. You’re here. This is real.
She glanced at her nightstand. Her clock glared 4:25.
Barely into today and I’m still exhausted, she thought, slowly maneuvering herself out of bed. She rolled her neck, wincing at the tugging pain when she looked down.

Under blinding lamplight, Lydia laid out her arsenal on a fresh page of sketchbook. The virgin white of the paper shone like a cloud on a sunny day, oblivious and unprepared.
She attacked the paper with savage abandon, angrily growing a forest of black marks on white. Debris scattered across the page in little crumbs as she marked, erased, and marked again. Every fiber of her wanted to erase it, destroy the half-finished thing she was trying to record. No, she told herself as the rough outline of those familiar eyes formed. Trap it. Keep it here. And then when the book is full, destroy it.
The eyes came first. Then the wings. Soon, everything fell into place as she hastily added the background. In any other situation, she would’ve found the colors she chose too dark.
She felt it an appropriate distraction from the creature snarling at her behind the paper, the thing with wings like black kites and stalagmite teeth. Two eyes stared into her, while the other four orbited on the recesses of its chiropteran face. She could still taste his rotting breath on her.
Her spent pencil rolled off the desk, falling soundlessly onto the carpet. The picture was a photograph to her, a memory too fresh in her mind.
The claws digging into her ankles. The dirt in her mouth as she slid the forest floor, fruitlessly grabbing at air as he dragged her away.
He drew it out, as he always did. And she could do nothing.
A horrid resignation filled Lydia’s heart. This is my fate now? She thought as she flicked off the lamp. I’m food to something in my head? She’d given up questioning it eons ago.
Half an hour gone. Her arms itched. Outside her window, the treetops wafted against the retreating twilight, like frayed paintbrushes against a canvas.
Their sway beckoned her.
She knew what she had to do.

In the two generations since the house was built, Grandma had barely managed to fix it before she passed. Before they moved in, Lydia only tolerated this place when they came from Virginia to visit. Not that she hated her grandmother.
Still, the house wore its age for all to see. And Lydia could see every shard of dried wallpaper dangling like dead leaves, even in the dark. The floor screamed under her feet, which was why she carried her shoes. Gone was the flowery aroma of elderly air-freshener, only to be replaced by rotted wood from every angle. Summers were horrid, as the rain washed the ancient wood while sibling heat baked it. Maybe that’s why there was such a vine problem on the walls. Lydia had reminded Dad a year ago to get them removed from the attic.
As far she knew, they were still there.

Morning crept through the trees. A bracing wind blew through the branches, shaking off whatever leaves were left off their stems to spiral to the forest floor in a cascade of earthy fire. In the blue light of sunrise, the naked trees’ trunks were great pillars disappearing into each other the deeper one gazed into the forest. The discarded leaves swam through the air, some falling into Lydia’s hair in a leafy crown.
A gust billowed her coat. She hugged it closer, the wind licking the sleeves and the sensitive skin underneath.
She fought the urge to scratch as she soldiered on.
Nothing human was awake at this hour. Everything was either preparing for bed or about to wake up. And here I am, she thought. I wonder what that makes me.
Sometimes it was hard to judge how long the walk was. Lydia had done this so many times that it was second nature. An instinct, independent of judgement or any rule she was meant to follow, outside of better reason or consciousness that governed normal people’s normal lives. Normal. What did it mean anymore? Normalcy was a flickering candle underwater, was a silent tap-dancer.
Twigs snapped like matchsticks. Their death knells carried through the silence, joining the whispering of the leaves. Wet wood wafted into her nose, un-cloistered by the confines of a house. Out here, it could breathe. It was certainly less drafty, especially in summer. I could live out here, she thought as she lightly brushed a tree trunk. Out away from everything.
As she wiped the wet bark off her hand, she envisioned a little house surrounded by the forest, far away from any road or town. Like Grandma’s, but somewhere in Alaska or Wyoming. Far away, where the only town would be an hour’s drive.
But the Spot would do for now.
The fast-approaching morning etched its shadow over her, its branches twisting and grabbing at its healthier cousins. Its trunk bent down, bowing to the earth as its black bark blew away like ash, as it had for seven years since Lydia found it.
Her eyes immediately fell to its hollow. A semi-circle, buried in earth with fat roots snaking into the ground.
And on the inside, another night blacker than any she’d seen. A darkness that no eye could ever hope to carve shapes out of.
She remembered the first time she came here. That five hour drive from Virginia. The silence between them. The running. The crying.
Lydia had known Mom was sick. Grandma had prepared her for that. But at least Grandma had a funeral. Grandma died at an old age.
She tried crawling inside the hollow. A lip of wood scratched the soreness in her neck. Her leg was stuck on the outside as her whole body lodged inside. She grunted in frustration as she tugged herself free, soreness scraped again.
An itch nagged the nape of her neck. Her fingers curled in response, the impulse begging.
Don’t scratch. The temptation was great. Don’t scratch.
The forest answered her as she stood with herself and the great tree.

She made it back before six. She tended to be the first up anyway, so she figured he wouldn’t suspect anything when she was up well before him.
Hopefully. Dad had his problems. But he wasn’t stupid.
Her mirror fogged as the shower spat water from the faucet. Before long the bathroom would become a sauna and it’d be impossible to breath, the unfortunate caveat to taking hot showers. And when Dad finally got up, she’d have to worry about losing the heat to him. Today was not a cold shower day.
She downed her pills, one at a time. They didn’t help as much as she wanted. But when was there medicine for bad dreams? She thought as the second washed down her throat. She wished there was.
The cotton of her pajamas chafed against as she disrobed. Fabric caught in skin all the time. It was nothing new, considering her nail biting habits. She was used to the rawness. But all over was a different story.
Her arms were quilts of pink rings, each one a deepening red. She’d resisted the urge, containing it only to those parts of her body. The feeling raged everywhere and when she scratched she couldn’t stop, Like a miner searching pointlessly for gold.
She hit something hard, once. It didn’t bleed or sting in open air. So she covered it up, like the others. She resolved to keep it all covered, even in summer. Heat was no problem, so long that no one saw her degeneration into Brundlefly.
No one would see it but her.

Dad finally made his way into the kitchen as Lydia was deep into a bowl of cereal.
The table, polished wood from an antique shop, sat on stone flooring, the kind that froze Lydia’s toes in the colder months. Mock marble counters blinded anyone at the right angle. In the seven years since they’d moved in, Dad wanted the table closer for convenience’s sake. Lydia saw nothing wrong with that.
He wasn’t much to look at in the morning, and that was saying something. Of course, she didn’t think either of the Kellys present were, but Dad was a special case. The man was as hairy as a gorilla, with thin black hair receding into his scalp every day.
“Hey.” His strange morning stink hit her as he headed to the fridge.
She smiled to him as he passed her. The silver door of the refrigerator blocked his sight. It felt perfunctory, but hopefully he saw.
He produced a carton of milk on the counter, still silent. The percolator gurgled like a newborn as he grabbed a stray banana from the fruit bowl. It’s speckled leopard spots belied a healthy, if browning fruit beneath. More silence.
“You sleep well?” Lydia cut the quiet in two.
Questions were gambling, Lydia had found. She never thought she was any good at poker, even when half the game was luck. Where exactly her dice would roll to scared her to death. And her luck was always skewed when talking to him.
He finished the banana, wiping the pulp from his lips. A cup slid into his hands out of the cabinet, coffee washing into it.
Lydia took another bite of cereal. What did I do?, Chewing on the thought. Is he…mad? Did I do anything? Was I too harsh? Silence was a friend of hers. She’d found new ways to hear it. Dad was the hardest to listen to. Sometimes his silences were fatigue. Sometimes work had gotten to him, and he refused to speak to anyone except the angry cursing she’d hear passing his office at certain points during the night.
There were the silences when he went back to drinking that he never wanted to tell her. But she knew. She’d picked up on it, living with one person for so long.
This is one of those, her mind leaped to as he downed his coffee. He did it again. Three months and he’s off the wagon again. I knew it. And somehow I’ve made him angry because I’ve exposed him and he’ll get angry at me for—
“—Did you hear me, hon? I slept okay.” His voice yanked her from the internal vortex. “Just got to bed late.”
Lydia blinked twice. She set down her spoon.
“What about you?”
The challenge, as usual. What to not tell him this time?
“I woke up in the middle of the night. It took me a while to get back to sleep.” The lie was perfect.
Dad nodded slowly. He continued sipping his coffee.
The silences were common between them.

A little after seven, they were out the door.
Lydia was an early riser. So was he. She wanted to get to school sooner rather than later, and none of the buses came out this far because of Falk Road. And ever since they’d moved here, he had been her only means to get to school.
For seven years this is how things had been. Why would it stop now? Lydia thought.
The forest flanked Falk Road as it unspooled like messy yarn across an orange tapestry. Its bare branches craned over the asphalt, their shadows clutching at the car as it weaved in and down to its destination.
So finely had it been hewed and adjusted by the forest while the town responded in kind, bending and shaping it to prevent the trunks and roots from swallowing it whole. Accidents were sadly a frequent occurrence on Falk, and not just for the geography.
Shapes pricked up in the morning light, watching the car. Some had branches of their own on their heads spiraling into the air, with shadows reaching away from the sun. Their shining eyes followed the silver luster through the trees.
One, a large buck, cocked his head. So many went up and down this road since he’d been born. None survived a confrontation with them, and those that did expired soon after. The sound startled him when he was young, but not anymore.
The buck returned to grazing as the rest of the herd followed suit.
The car disappeared down the road as the sun continued its trip into the sky.

Past the Benson farm, Edmund’s township came into focus. Lydia half watched it come and go, trying to catch a bit more sleep and staving off the nausea that always followed her on this ride.
She felt that place was something of a relic with its novelty shops and ma-and-pa diners that probably had been here long before she and Dad moved. Not that she faulted said diners. She enjoyed Ajit’s Place with Kay, and that Italian spot wasn’t too bad.
Shame it was such a pain to drive out here sometimes.
Dad sped past the gas station. Lydia watched it freeze as she blinked, its rusted sign and pumps frozen in her mind like a photograph. It disappeared into the rear-view just as quickly.
How late was Kay allowed to work again? She thought, scratching her eye. At least we’re both exhausted most days. We have that much in common.
Her wavering attention fell to her father. Noticing, he switched his concentration long enough to shoot her a tiny smile before turning back to the road.
It took a lot to make him smile, it seemed. Even when she was a kid, she rarely got more than that tiny curl of his lip out of him. The quickness of how he changed his face bothered her more, too. In the seven years she’d been alone with him, she noticed far more than she cared to admit. Even that way his wet eyes bulged and fuzzy brow pushed forward when he needed to concentrated unnerved her. Did he always look like that, or did time and life make him that way?
Maybe he always looked like that and you’re too curious, she thought as turned back to the window, the scenery blending like watercolor. Quit being so judgmental.
Then again, if anyone saw the back of her neck, they’d have sworn something was changing. And she’d been throwing up in school more.
You’re sick. She told herself when the thought surfaced. Just sick like Mom…
Sick with what?
She didn’t have an answer for that.

Dad pulled up to the entrance of Dorling High at eight 0’clock sharp. The parking lot was nearly empty, the few cars’ hoods glinting light from the climbing sun in white halos. Trace junk fluttered in the nippy air as the gear lurched the car into park.
That queasiness in Lydia’s stomach subsided, for now. Her faint reflection in the car window suggested otherwise. She turned to Dad, who unlocked the doors.
“Four o’clock?”
“Four o’clock.” He responded, nodding in acknowledgement. “You can take the car to Chalmers’ after dinner.”
Not those other three times, something sour snapped inside her. She flinched, ashamed at the thought. Those were only three times, she fired back. It’s fine. It’ll be fine. She leaned into his boxy frame, getting one of his patented Dad half-hugs.
Exiting the car, she waved it away. Dad waved back through the aqua-tinged glass, speeding off down the road.
The school loomed over her, its antiquated brickwork betraying the reasonably modern interior. Its colors were displayed on a mock tapestry lightly wafting with the breeze, that purple and green sparrow winking at passerby.
A dead tree sat within a grassy enclosure in front of the entrance. The countless layers of flaking paint and lanky branches were downright sad, considering the plaque below it: DORLING SPIRIT TREE.
She related to that poor sapling, wasting away like that.
No. She kicked herself. No feeling sorry for yourself. This is your last year. You’re good. You can do this.

There was a point at the middle of her junior year when Lydia had made other friends outside of Kay.
They were three seniors; all accepted into college, all headed places far away from here. Joe, Rebecca, and Niles were their names, she recalled. One day Lydia was sitting alone, drawing away when one of them invited her over. They got to know her, she got to know them. They talked up their futures while she kept quiet on the subject. She’d mentioned once or twice considering art college, an option Niles was considering. It was around May that Lydia realized how much she had in common with them.
But they were gone now, off to bigger and better things. Now Lydia was a senior.
And she was still lost.

Precalc dragged on, predictably. For years, Lydia thought herself too stupid for it. It was like black magic, how anyone could manage a grade higher than a B. After countless tutoring sessions, she discovered the horrible truth: she found it tedious. Fascinating, but boring.
Lydia squinted hard, quickly making notes through the blur of the projector while half the class talked over the teacher. Try as he might, the poor man talked with whatever his lungs would allow, his voice seemingly rising in challenge to the others’ horde of conversation.
Just because she hated math didn’t stop her from doing the work. It felt like she was the only one, at least on this side of the room.
Her neck caught on itself. Every muscle seized up, froze in place.
Cruel fingers seized the nape of her neck. With the strength of a bear and mirth of a devil, It jerked her head once, twice, a third time.
The fourth yanked it to the side. She heard something crack as she willed mightily to move her head back.
It would not yield. For ten seconds It kept maintained that cold grip on her neck. Long enough for someone to tap Lydia’s shoulder.
She regained control, snapping it back. Someone behind her recoiled, bewildered from the display or Lydia’s frenzied expression as she searched for who touched her.
The recoiled person, a girl about Lydia’s age, spoke up. “Uh…are…are you okay?” Her voice betrayed the fear Lydia could plainly see.
“Yeah.” Lydia replied, eyes still frantic. “I’m fine.”
The girl smiled nervously. Lydia slowly turned back to the front.
Nice going, she thought. She sighed, face falling into her hands. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. It wouldn’t be the last. And Lydia had probably added a new name to the list of people who thought she was crazy.

”Don’t you take something?” Kay ventured, the third bottle of soda emptying with a wash of brown foam. Her thin fingers gingerly placed it next to the past two. “I thought you were taking meds or whatever.”
“It wasn’t working.” Lydia rubbed her eyes. It was midday, and she was already falling asleep. The air was pleasant, with a slight chill. Not enough to keep her up, sadly.
“I mean, c’mon, no one cares. It’s bullshit, y’know? I bet she’s forgotten about it.”
“Kay, I think embarrassing myself is more important than whether I hit anyone.” Lydia pushed her hair back. “Christ.”
“You’re a drama queen.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“Look, there are worse things out there.” Her glasses slid down her nose as she turned to face Lydia, over the bags under her own eyes.
“You want to get Ajit’s on Saturday?”
Kay shrugged. “Sure. I don’t work ‘till five.”
“Can I bum some carrots?”
Lydia reached into her lunchbox, producing a plastic bag of the goods. The thick crunches of their snacking filled the air. Nary a soul at the main table on the senior patio noticed.

On and on the day repeated, just like the day before.
And the week. And the month. And the year after that and before that, even back in middle school. Lydia felt detached, like she was drifting in and out of existence as everyone stayed solid. She thought of time-lapses of animals rotting or metal rusting, the invisible passage of time made physical over a short period of time.
“Cheedo.” Someone warbled in her ear as she moved with the crowd of students down the hall.
She wondered who it was that said it. Couldn’t have been Devon. It must’ve been one of her posse.
Lydia rolled her eyes. That hadn’t changed. They were right, in a sense. Orange hair and freckles was a qualifier. All she needed now was a halo of orange dust.

As the day waned, Lydia craned her neck around the halls and classrooms, searching for Kay. She was nowhere to be found.
So Lydia began searching for him. They still went to the same school. But she had no classes with him this year.
But he was here, somewhere.

The day ended with the tolling of the final bell. Lydia walked out into the warm afternoon air with everyone else. Kay must’ve gotten a head start, considering her last class was close to the front.
Lydia found her spot on the bench at the cul-de-sac, facing the spirit tree. She checked her phone.
It was 3:49.
Now came the fun part. You could try getting some rest. He’ll show up.
She closed her already heavy eyes, slightly slumped in her spot on the bench, listening to everyone leave. She thought herself a statue, waiting for the world to pass by before she woke up.
You don’t dream when you power nap, She thought, trying to get comfortable on the cold metal.

Everything faded together. The noise of the parking lot felt like tv static, grey and listless. No beginning, no end. Just four walls of sound around her and nothing filtering it.
She didn’t mind. It helped to tune out the world, if only for a moment.
She knew she would return to it at some point. Lydia didn’t want to.

The world hardened into focus. Lingering shadows were longer. And the sonic walls of the parking lot were nearly gone.
Lydia checked her phone.
Her fingers danced along the screen. Not again, she thought as the phone rang in her ear. Not for the third damn time.
The other line rang once. Twice. Three times. Then a canned message from Dad. Nothing.
Not. Again. Against her regular instinct, she dialed again.
One. Two. Three. Answering machine.
She dropped the call right as the recording starting again.
I cannot. Believe this. Lydia was close to exploding. He promised. He promised me he’d stop and this is what he does. He lied to me this morning, I know he did. The bastard.
She hated how these things made her feel. Maybe it was the stress, maybe her fatigue, or something else, but regardless of the source everything hit her like a freight train. It seemed out of control, the intensity of the dread and stress.
Her mind began racing, one scenario after another playing and replaying again and again in her head, each time the distortions and extrapolations she found herself imagining growing more grotesquely absurd.
Did he crash? He probably crashed. That’s obvious. He crashed because he was drinking. That’s it. He crashed cause he was drinking, that’s why he isn’t going to show up. I’m going to be stuck here all night. I’ll have to walk home.
No. He’s probably run off finally. He finally decided to leave. I must’ve pissed him off. Now he’s gone.
That endless gulf of ignorance Lydia felt when things went askew was crushing. She imagined being underwater in the deepest part of the ocean.
Hundreds of pounds of pressure squeezing her, crushing her head like a grape until the brittle bone of her skull caved in along with the rest of her body.
But you’re breathing. You can breathe. You’re not underwater. You’re breathing.
So breathe.
Chalmers’ meetings were paying off, it seemed.
The hurricane inside began to quiet. Lydia’s shaking hands, however slightly they were doing so, slowly stopped quivering.
Okay, she thought. Okay. The dread was still there. But it was farther away. Close enough to breath down her neck, but manageable.
What now? What do you do now? She thought. No one’s going to come get you.
No one’s coming to get you, you know that.
Not unless I call someone, she countered. Dad’s a no-show. Who do you call?
Kay was working or getting ready for work. And why would she call her therapist? That’d be awkward, she grimaced.
You could always call him. It’s not that hard. Soccer practice should be over soon.
Or you could wait for Dad. And you can see how well that’s going.
She swiped to her contacts page again, scrolling down the list.
His name was right there.
Go ahead.

“What’s up?”
“Hi. I—uh—I’m in a bit of a jam.”
“Okay…” She sighed into the phone. “Dad isn’t answering his phone and he promised he’d be here by four. And…”
“And I need you…to take me home. I just—I’m sorry. You have practice, and here I am and I just—” Lydia grunted loudly. “And I’ve got an appointment at like six and…” She rubbed her eyes. Forget the dreams; this tired her out far more.
Silence on his end.
Why do you always do this? She thought. Why do you always think the worst of him?
“I’ll swing by the minute practice is over.”
Lydia sighed, a weight flying off her into the sun. “Thank you.”
“No problem. You’re fine.”
“So…see you in—how long—fifteen?”
“Thirteen, technically.”
“Fine. See you soon.”
“See you then.”
She hung up. A part of her wandered back to whether she was inconveniencing him. Then she remembered she wouldn’t be able to get home without someone’s help.
At least this one’s reliable, she thought. And he’s too nice to get mad about something like that.

Five before five. The distant sky washed ten colors of red and blue, all backlit by a brilliant ball of orange slowly sinking into the horizon.
Lydia watched Tristan’s car pull up to the cul-de-sac, parking much like her father’s this morning.
Of course, Dad had more money to spend on his and bought it less than three years ago.
The paint was coming off in certain points, and the head and taillights dimmed when engaged. When it came to a stop, it creaked like an old steamer washing ashore and belched black smog like a volcano from the exhaust. The parking lot stank of it in an instant.
Lydia smiled. She grabbed her pack and headed over.
The car smelled like fast food.
Her seatbelt snapped into place as she turned to the driver’s seat.
His hair was drying, still glistening from the angle of the sun. He wore his orange sweater over whatever he’d thrown on for practice today. And he stank to high heaven.
“’Sup.” He smiled, kicking the car into gear.
“You stink.” She replied, smiling back.
“I know.”
“Thanks again. Really.”
“No problem.”
The car turned out of the school parking lot. Outside the window, the world became a painting again, the colors blurring together into a river of color.
She trusted that he knew the way. He’d done this a few times already, although the first time they drove to her house she nearly threw up again from his driving on Falk. But he’d gotten better.
His stink was sucked out of the car as he opened his window. She opened hers too, to keep the air from blowing out her ears. The crisp air cut through the car, carrying with it the earthen dampness of the leaves and dewy musk of trees ready to shed their old yield for the next.
Traffic was light through town. Tristan drove with one arm to his side, a benefit to being a southpaw.
Lydia’s own left found its way to his free hand.
The car maintained its course as they held onto each other.
Good thing you made it this far, she thought, smiling at him. A far cry from where you found him.
A far cry.

February. The month of slush, as Lydia called it.
The weather had not improved beyond miserable. The classroom, a great hall segmented by wide tables, was gloomier due to the overcast sky. What light the overheads had not claimed cast the room blue.
Her pencil etched the shadow of an idea as she busied herself with something other than the class assignment. Ms. Laurel was very much a hands-off teacher, letting the others brainstorm and work without heavy direction. Still, the teacher circled the tables like a shark, keeping a watchful eye for anyone sloppy enough to reveal a touchscreen.
Lydia smiled to herself as she scrolled through references she’d collected over time. No internet meant no wait. I’m a genius, she thought as she tucked her glowing photo of a tiger under her sleeve. I can use the camera on my phone.
Drawing animals soothed her. Maybe it was that mammalian familiarity in the eyes. Cows had soulful eyes. So did big cats. At least it wasn’t another dream. These were real, tangible. She wouldn’t want to pet a tiger, though.
She started on the fur when her neck seized.
Resist. She didn’t want to. Resist it. You’ll make a scene. Resist it. But she couldn’t.
The tiger was wrapped in black wire, scribbled out by mistake.
Her hand flushed white as she squeezed, shaking like a rattlesnake’s tail. It reddened as quickly as she exhaled, posture deflating.
Her end of the table was empty. A gang of guys and girls sat bunched in a table near the window. Three other girls were chatting quietly, carelessly showing their phones.
Something moved near the flower pot across the room. Her head bobbed up, attracted to the movement. At his feet, a downed forest of pencils. His hands were in his hair, his head buried into the table.
She left her spot.
The table faced a pot of purple hyacinths drooping to the ground. A stem of one pointed just under the table.
Lydia didn’t recognize him. Either he was a master of camouflage and she had failed to notice him before. Or he was new. He was probably new. He was still hidden shielded by his arms and squashed into the wood. Short black hair wove between his fingers as they dug deeper into his scalp.
Laying before him was a sketchbook and the remains of a pencil holder without its contents. The page held the suggestion of the flowers, some half-formed jungle of scribblings trying and failing to find purchase in the form of a hyacinth.
There was something there. He almost had it. So now you’re white-knighting him? She thought.
The right words failed her. But she had to try something.
“Y—that’s not bad.” Her lips sealed up immediately. She tried not to cringe. If he went ballistic at this, there was no telling what he would do next.
He kept himself hidden, his head barely shifting to look at her before turning back. There wasn’t a hint of anger in his eyes, to her surprise.
“No it’s not.” His voice was muffled, quiet.
She scooted closer to him. He’s probably nuts. You’re making a mistake, that dismissive part of her kept saying.
Clearly you don’t remember when I first started, she riposted. “Give me your pencil.” She held out her hand.
Finally, he sat up. She had suspected obstinance, any kind of resistance to help.
But he stared into the paper, barely looking at her. His hand slid to her side, opening to reveal a pencil.
“Animals are more my thing. But that’s better than I can do. Look.” His head turned to the paper. “You were almost there. Look for shapes. See?” She glided along the paper, capturing the flower. “Find that perspective. Don’t close in immediately, otherwise you’ll get lost.”
Their impromptu lesson continued as Lydia explained to the best of her knowledge. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed he was looking at her more. Like he was stealing glances in between the paper and flowers, his ocean blue eyes watching her work intently.
“Um…” His voice shocked her out of her concentration.
“Thanks. For helping me, I mean. Thanks for…you know what mean.” He sheepishly nodded his head.
A slight smile crossed his face. He stopped looking away.
As much as they tried to look away, they couldn’t keep their eyes off one another.

Beyond the headlights’ reach, there was little to see besides the shadows of the trees and the golden sliver of the moon hanging in the sky. Lydia had let go of Tristan’s hand, considering the treachery of Falk Road. Doubly so considering the season.
The forests surrounding Edmund were thick with white-tailed deer, which incidentally were one of the things that helped the town flourish in its earliest days. Around this point in fall, the herds were large enough to be hunted. The town didn’t necessarily need to sell furs and meat to get by now, but the tradition remained regardless.
Like something out of a glitzy car commercial, Tristan deftly navigated the turns, missing the guardrails by seeming inches.
Never once did he flinch, though. His gaze was hard like crystal, and focused. Lydia could probably scream in his ear and nothing could break his concentration. Maybe you shouldn’t try that, she thought as they turned another corner. A great pillar was illuminated by the car’s lights, its cracked bark barely visible before disappearing into the night that surrounded it and the car.
Lydia wished her Grandma’s house was closer to town. He’d said Mom was planning to will the house to him, considering her illness.
Of course, none of them were expecting what had happened. Lydia wondered whether she was going to inherit it when it was Dad’s turn.

Turning into the neighborhood, Tristan’s grip relaxed on the wheel, his hand falling back to his side. The car lit up orange as it rolled beneath the lamps lining the road.
The neighborhood was an island apart from Edmund. While the rest of the town had changed as time passed, the houses up here never changed. Considering their age and size, one would think this part would be gated. But Lydia rarely saw anyone out of the houses, much less in them.
Even on holidays, only the murmur of the woods could be heard.
Lydia barely made out the spotlight-like reflections of street lamps against the windows hidden in the trees. Like bright eyes, she watched them ooze along the glass, disappearing as the car rolled on.
She checked her phone. They’d made great time.
Gravel crackled against the tires as Tristan made it to the end of Talbot Street. What remained of the gate Grandma never got fixed flashed it’s rotting metal and stone. Its silhouette remained the jagged, broken fingers overgrown with creepers and leaves it had been for nearly sixty years now.
The car halted by the front door.
“Thanks.” She turned to him. He sat relaxed in the driver’s seat, gray shirt adhering to his chest. His hair stuck out, frayed by practice and grown longer in the intervening months. He was leaner, and broader if his shirt told her anything. Soccer was doing wonders for him.
He nodded in acknowledgement. “No problem.”
“I didn’t want to be a pest or anything—”
“I was glad to do it.” He smiled.
She leaned to him, head tucking into the curve of his neck as their arms encircled each other.
A nose-full of his sweat wasn’t much of a price.

The door shutting was a thunderclap in the silence. All around, the house yawned in its gloom, what low light there was enlarging every corner and hallway. Down the entry hall, the gold glow of Dad’s study cut through the dark.
There was little time. Grab the keys and go, she thought, taking a step. Just go. Just leave him.
Every step closer to the kitchen reminded her of earlier.
His problem. His demon he’d buried when Mom came into his life. The one he let free when she died.
When she noticed it at first, the response was “It’s not a problem.”
It continued like that for a few years. When Lydia noticed him drinking more with dinner and when they were out.
“I’m fine.”
When he started at noon every weekend.
“I’m fine.”
She mentioned he never drank this much when Mom was around.
“Watch your goddamn mouth, young lady!”
She spent the rest of the night in her room, crying. The next day at breakfast, she didn’t talk to him. Finally he spoke up, that stoicism breaking for once. He’d been noticing it too, he’d said. It was getting worse. He was going to get help for it, he’d said. He was going to get back to how things were when they first got here, he’d said.
And it was good, for a year and half after that.
But she needed a ride from someone for the third time now: first with Kay and twice now with Tristan. Found a workaround, have you? She thought as she approached his office. Still can’t kick the freaking habit? Still going to feed me that line of shit?
What else have you lied about?
Keys clacking and the dull buzz of computer disks wandered through her ears. His face was buried in the blue screen, shoulders up as if in defense.
She stopped, peering through the crack in the door.
He turned away from the computer, swinging his chair with a groan. She barely registered a glance as he was too busy looking down.
His mouth opened, closed just as quickly. He turned back to his computer, the clacking starting up again.
Lydia sighed as she reached the kitchen. The keys were on the kitchen table, for a change. A note said, in his barely legible cursive: GO AHEAD. DINNER WILL BE READY WHEN YOU GET BACK.

“What’s the point of talking about it anymore?” Lydia sniffed as the stench of stale apricot and tobacco hung with cobwebs. Shelves of board games and fat volumes sat adjacent a half-assembled model robot, a remnant of the last patient Chalmers saw not two hours earlier. Lydia never knew the kid. She didn’t want to, considering the screaming and crying she’d heard a few times before sessions started.
Chalmers leaned back in his chair, brow sinking. His plaid button-down billowed outward, a hint of grey chest-hair exposed. His craggy face wore its years all over its crevices, with a forest of greying hair slowly receding into his scalp. “Is your medication helping?”
Lydia shook her head.
“How about journaling?”
Another shake.
“I thought you said it was helping.” A sting of concern in his voice.
“I—ah…” Lydia struggled to find the words. “I don’t know what to do. What’s drawing supposed to do? I mean, I go to sleep, and he’s right there. I draw it, and then I go back there again! What’s the point?” She threw up her hands in frustration, letting them slap onto the couch. “He’s waiting for me and I can’t do shit!”
“Seeing it awake could help clarify it.”
“Clarify what?! What’s left to clarify anymore?” Lydia sank into her hands. “Clarify I’m cr—”
She caught herself. “—That I’m abnormal?”
He leaned forward. “That’s not true.”
“Then why is this only happening to me?” She sank lower. “Why’d it have to be me?”
“You’re not as alone as you think.”
“I know…it’s just—did I do something wrong?” She emerged from her hands. “What did I do?”
Chalmers frowned, eyes heavy with sympathy. “Nothing. Things happen. It’s as simple as that. You did nothing. But here’s a thought for that monster of yours.” He leaned forward. “What can you do?”
Lydia hadn’t an answer.

In the years since they’d started, Lydia had asked herself what the dreams meant. They were always the same; a forest. It was dark, save for a bright silver moon. She would wake up under a tree not unlike the one behind her house.
She didn’t think much of the six-eyed birds watching her from the branches. In the gloom, she thought like leaves. Their lapis-blue eyes a trick of the moonlight.
She thought she’d go left. Left was the trail back home, the trail she’d found that day she’d come to Edmund.
Her tree’s leaves, when the light hit them just so, glinted silver. Indeed, all the trees were bigger and stranger in their own way. The mushrooms frowned, the flowers stared back. No chirps or buzzing, but voices.
Voices everywhere.
She did not know how long she’d been walking when something exploded from the brush. Its jaws broke her neck in an instant.
Not a second later she woke back in her room, cries pulling Dad to her side. She spent the rest of the night huddled in his arms.
That night she swore she would never sleep again. But that was impossible. Every night she woke under that tree, with its branches splintering the sky. The birds watched her every move. And something new would find her and send her back to her bedroom. Wolves with purple fangs and antennae; a fish-person who dragged her into the river south of the tree; a screeching thing with a ghoulish face leapt from above to sink its claws into her back.
It was reliving knowing the outcome each night. Her nightly excursions grew longer with time, and new things would send her back. But every night became a new opportunity.
She told no one about them. Who would believe her? She couldn’t just present a six-eyed bird or glowing flower from this world, as much as she wished it. Mom’s death had uncoupled her from everything at that time. Telling everyone about her dreams would only make things worse.
No one would know about her little world. Not him, not anyone. She would blend in. She was normal. Normal people didn’t dream of forests and eat fruit that left seeds in their mouths upon waking. Normal people kept that to themselves.

Dad made pasta. If there was one thing he’d done right today, it was that.
Not that she was that hungry. Her stomach was still turning over itself, from what she didn’t know. Was it the drive to and back from Chalmers’? Was it from the drive here? Nothing physically was wrong, the nurse and a doctor had said. Psychosomatic, they told you. But the medicine was supposed to help. And still the dreams come.
Just don’t think about it. You can’t see them. You can’t see them, so it doesn’t exist, she told herself as spaghetti dripped off her fork. Dad ate silently on the other side of the table, the quietest she’d ever seen him do so.
Dinner was still hot. Now he was on his second helping and she’d barely touched her first.
Only a ceiling lamp between them provided any comfort as the house creaked with the wind and the blue gloom crawled in from the windows.
“I know you’re mad.”
That got her attention. She looked up from her bowl. He was no longer slouching.
“I just…I just want to say—” He sighed. “You’ve got every right to be mad. I promised you. I promised I’d be there and I wasn’t.”
“What about last time?” A hint of anger bobbed.
“I know things have been difficult. For both of us.” Dad’s eyes were distant for a moment. “I just want to let you know I’m trying.”
Lydia stared back at him, searching his face for any trace of falsehood. “What happened today?” She silently dreaded the answer.
“Work.” He rubbed his face. The bags under his eyes seemed larger. “Got a lot on my mind.”
The anger sank into her mind. As much as he had disappointed her in the past, it was times like these that kept that resentment at bay.
It was surreal, the contrast between the man he was before and the man sitting in across from her.
One Dad married, happy, only drinking at parties and on special occasions, who always was there. The second morose, stoic, alone, drinking more, who screwed up something as simple as a pick-up and drop-off.
Both men sat across her tonight, as they had for seven years.
Aunt Sarah was in New England. Mom was dead. Kay was working and Tristan was probably having dinner too.
Wood grunted against wood as Lydia sat up and circled the table to Dad’s side.
She wrapped her arms around him, gently clutching his shoulders as he did the same. A few years ago, he’d have never let her hug him, not even with both arms. Maybe it was a “guy” thing, or so he had claimed.
She just wanted to hug her father, and he was letting her. That’s all that mattered now.
Lydia retired early to bed. Waking up before dawn took a lot out of her, and she was running on fumes now.
There was homework to do, of course: Notes for AP Lit; Brainstorming for a painting project in Art; A salvo of book work for Pre-Calc; readings for History. But all that could wait, for now. Too many times she’d blinked and lost three hours and only got through a quarter of a reading assignment. If she did anything, she preferred to be as close to wide awake as she could manage, and even then she wasn’t always sure she was.
Her familiar ceiling slowly spun above her in the gathering shadow as she reclined further into her mattress. The pillow caressed her head, and her sheets were cool beneath her. She had her favorite pajamas on: purple and cotton, perfect for a cool evening.
I don’t feel like brushing my teeth tonight, she thought as she leaned over to her nightstand. She clicked the clock alarm on as she drew the covers over herself. I’ll need whatever sleep I can get now.
Now came the hard part.
When Lydia was young, she’d heard of the witching hour. Superstition about dark things awake in the dead of night. She’d thought being awake at that time meant whatever was out there could see you, smell you. For years she covered herself in a cocoon of her bedsheets as to keep them away, whatever they were. Sure she couldn’t breathe after a while and she sweat a river, but it gave her some solace.
Now she really knew what the witching hour was. It wasn’t any specific time.
It was that endless gap between when you close your eyes and when you fall asleep. That single, abyssal stretch of time that went on and on while you lay alone in your bed, wrapped in comfort and surrounded by silence.
Like the frozen moment between the missed step and the fall.
And it was always a hard impact when she finally drifted off to sleep.

They called it Nyx.
Dying and waking taught her this much: She was in the middle of a grove, where her tree sat in a clearing. The place was just north of a river, as going straight had revealed. Living in the river was the kelpie, Green Jenny, who Lydia had found to be grouchy even when she wasn’t hungry. Left was the most innocuous: a patch of oculus flowers and a tree stump eaten by time and worms. That led out into the larger forest, which she learned when a pack of gytrash surprised her. Subsequent expeditions led her farther away from the grove, and into more dangers that threw her back to reality.
To her right were the banshee nests. Like the birds who lived on Lydia’s tree, but bigger, gaunter. Their six eyes were a paler blue, and their feathers were longer and their beaks whiter. A banshee’s neck always jutted out, almost to emphasize the hooked beak curling out of a tiny head. They held a perpetual scowl, always rubbing their paws together when perched with wings over themselves like a coat. Even with good light, they were impossible to make out from the rest of the foliage until their claws were deep into Lydia’s back.
Shrieking, angry creatures.
And so depressed, if Lydia’s conversations revealed anything.
It was with them that Lydia realized she could talk.
In fact, everything talked.
The worms in the stump; little ladybug looking things that glowed blue and had large antennae; the banshees; the birds on her tree. All of them could talk.
But they talked to each other exclusively. Lydia would listen to them, hear their passing anxieties or sweet nothings, and never would they acknowledge her eavesdropping. She might as well be one of the mime caps jutting up out of the dirt.
Then she decided to talk back. Some ate her, like Jenny. Others were baffled, like the bugs. But the puca welcomed her. The birds Lydia saw every time she fell asleep greeted her like old friends, utterly fascinated at the idea of a human sharing their world with the Unseelie.
There was one that took a shine to her. A Sayer, and later her two siblings.
They were the few that stayed since Mulct had come.

Her back was pressed to the wood, arms outstretched. The trunk scratched her shoulders. The moonlight, still and solid as always, was a spotlight against the gloom surrounding the clearing.
The voices had quieted, in the last three years. There was only the wind and the whispering of the leaves.
“I think I saw him.” Chess whispered. Lydia could barely make out the bird-like shape clutching a sheet of bark. A piece of trunk curled soundlessly outward as flakes of bark molded back into feathers. A stray branch became a tiny scaled paw that pointed into the dark. “Did you see that?”
Lydia squinted. Something moved, a pale and luminescent thing with six wings. A broken web wafted in the wind.
“That’s just a wisp, Chess.” Lydia whispered back.
The puca sighed in relief. She climbed closer to Lydia, her bird-like form having reasserted itself. “I thought I was the one with better vision.” She chuckled nervously as she picked a leaf from Lydia’s hair. “Your feathers are unkempt.”
“I thought that was Catan’s job.” Lydia replied. She held out a finger for Chess to perch.
“He and Clue are out on forage duty. I thought it would do them good to get away from this.” Chess nibbled the leaf. “At least…you know…”
Lydia nodded, free hand petting the bird’s head. Lapis-blue eyes slid closed in contentment as the other four continued staring. A pleasant blue hue crept from under Chess’ feathers. Soon both were washed in a halo of light.
Chess jumped onto Lydia’s shoulder with a single flap. Her little head lay against her human’s, tucking herself into the fold of Lydia’s neck.
They continued their vigil. The wind clutched the web and carried it away.

Time passed in Nyx, but it was never easy to tell.
For the first three nights, Lydia thought only hours passed. There was no day, no twilight. Just that moon hanging in the same spot, like someone had nailed it to the sky. It was a permanent fixture in a firmament of brilliant stars, the centerpiece of a starry tapestry. Unyielding, and eerie in its stillness.
Unseelie had their way of telling time, Chess had told her. More for convenience’s sake, but still important. Every cycle Lydia awoke under the tree, and when she returned the next night another cycle would begin.
Three hundred and sixty nine cycles passed in Nyx as Lydia grew one year older in the waking world. According to Chess, one stage had passed.
Four stages of peace. Four stages of discovery, of understanding this place.
And three stages of Mulct.
This place was her second home. She went wherever she pleased within it.
Now she could barely leave the tree.
He was out there. Watching her.

“Got any new stories?” Lydia asked as Chess climbed onto her head.
The puca tapped her beak. Her four extra eyes were like gems studded into her skull. “Hm. I can’t think of one at the moment.”
Lydia’s head snapped to a branch swaying. “Take your time.”
Chess paced about Lydia’s hair. She nearly tripped on a knot or three. “Humm…” She made a sound all puca made when they were lost in thought. It was a deep fluting, followed by a whistle of breath. “I got one!” Chess exclaimed, snapping her little fingers.
Lydia cupped her hands as Chess scampered down to them, nestling into her friend’s palms.
“So this is an old one. Older than I or you, mind you. You see that thing in the sky, child?” Chess’ paw pointed to the silver disk hanging overhead.
Lydia followed it, then looked back at Chess. “The moon? Yeah?”
“Cerridwen.” Chess corrected.
“Right. Cerridwen.”
“Well, she didn’t always sit in the sky like that. She walked the soil. She left it to us when she was ready. She had many children over her travels, in this world and others.”
“Like Clidna and Danu?” The first banshee and puca sprang to Lydia’s mind. There were countless others, one for each race of Unseelie.
“Indeed.” Chess’ head turned upward, her crossed arms and wings making her appear as a king. “But this one isn’t about them. It concerns Man.” A tiny claw poked Lydia’s nose. “The third race. The least talented in creation.”
Chess tittered before continuing. “But not yet. For there were two children of Cerridwen this tale concerns. Morfan, and his sister Creirwy. She was beautiful, like her mother. Her brother was uglier than sin. Nothing like the radiant goddess, to be sure. So Cerridwen sought to change this.”
“How?” Lydia leaned in.
“She took a seed from her teeth and planted it. It would grow in time into a tree. This tree would have silver leaves, and with them she would make her son as beautiful as herself. For you see, the leaves could change the shape of whoever consumed them.”
Lydia glanced upward. The branches were bare save for a single glinting leaf.
“She had the ingredient, but she needed to make it…palatable. She sought Man to complete her task. She sought a drood, a mixer. He would create this brew for her son.”
Chess turned away from Lydia. She barely noticed three figures watching her from the branches.
“But it was not to be!” Chess whipped around. “The drood was old, and let his foolish son take over making the mixture. The little whelp burned his finger—“ Her paws pinched Lydia’s finger—” and suckled it to stop the pain!” She lifted off, fluttering inches from Lydia’s face. “He’d gained the leaf’s power meant only for the goddess’ son!”
“And what happened after that?!” Lydia was too invested to watch the glowing eyes creeping down the trunk, catching a whiff of her scent.
“Cerridwen found out and in her fury murdered the drood! The boy used his newfound power to hide as things other than himself while the goddess found him out at every turn! He ran throughout the forest with death at his heels until finally, he made himself a seed. The goddess plucked the seed from the grass, and swallowed it.”
Lydia turned at a branch snapping. She looked up the tree. Nothing but knobs and spiraling wood.
“But something grew within Cerridwen. A new life, of no mate. In time, she would give birth to a son. She knew who he was. She hated him for taking her first son’s gift. She wanted to destroy this thing that was not hers.”
A breeze answered a gap of silence.
“But she couldn’t. She wept at the thought. For then she realized her anger on a simple accident. This child intended no wrongdoing. Had she acted differently, he would have a father and another mixture would be made. The pain of the past would be too much to bear, so she set him adrift in a river. In time, he was discovered by Men who raised him as their own. He was not Fae. And he was not Man. He was something else.”
“What was he?”
Chess shrugged. “There’s no name for what he became.” She landed on Lydia’s knee. “He would become a teller of stories like myself, but he was neither here nor there. A living schism, as one would say.”
Lydia nodded, turning the tale over in her head. Her friend’s tale ended as they always did, in that gulley between confusion and mystery. Sometimes they made perfect sense; others were like the fable of the Two Twins. That one still made no sense. Maybe it was a Fae thing, like Chess had said.
“Do you have a story?” Chess posited, watching the forest again. Some feathers were up.
“Not at the moment.” Lydia answered. She felt her friend’s tiny body tensing. “Did you see him?”
“No. But it was something else. Something…foreign?” Chess sniffed the air. “Definitely foreign.” Her feathers ruffled and were still for a moment. “…Hm. It’s gone.”
Lydia saw and smelt nothing but moonlit canopy and swaying trees.
“You know, the rest of the grove has been quiet. Where do you think they’ve gone?”
Away from here. As far and as fast as possible, Lydia thought. She wished she could do the same.
Tiny wingbeats grabbed her attention to the east. They were too slight to be banshees. She listened through the wind and whispering foliage.
“Did you hear that, Chess?” Lydia leaned into the sound. She got no reply from her friend. “Chess?” She asked again.
Her knees were bare and pockmarked with tiny clawmarks. The puca was nowhere to be found.
Lydia was alone. With him. With them.
Slowly, she turned her gaze up.
Four unmoving shapes, crouching in the branches. Their eyes a putrescent jade. Their little gasps were daggers in her ears.
Lydia’s foot reached out. Her muscles locked. Every movement had to be precise, controlled. She wormed her way away from the tree as they slithered down its trunk. Their membranous wings stretched like ragged tapestry.
Neither made a sound. Their group circled her, eyes still locked into hers.
Each had something of their father. One had his tiny eyes; another his ridged, hooked nose. The middle one had his cruel brow, while the rightmost one had his patterns. They were quiet, just like he’d been all the other times. He’d taught them well in leading by example.
His hot breath washed her shoulder. Every gust was delaying the inevitable.
She didn’t want to turn around. Her hands quaked.
Her neck barely twisted. Those great cruel eyes. That diving bottom lip hanging like loose carrion. Haggard teeth broken and healed and rebroken again on bone and flesh.
“Dig in.” He whispered.
She did not know who tackled her from behind. But she felt all four of them fighting over her as their father watched. They were careful to keep her alive, and breathing as they continued attacking each other over the biggest piece.
That was for him.
Through the tears in her eyes, the forest disappeared into cavernous jaws with broken teeth.

Tumbling out of bed, she rushed to the bathroom. Her finger stung with static as she flung the switch up. Her momentary blindness from the lights gave way to her frenzied reflection in the mirror.
Her chest heaved, face twisted in panic. She couldn’t stop trembling. She was awake, she was back in reality and she couldn’t stop shaking.
A sunken eyed, freckled girl stared out of the mirror. She held her face, to be sure it was still there and not bitten off.
She wept for the next hour.

She had heard whispers of Mulct among the creatures of Murmurwood. His deeds had a way of getting around. The Unseelie were not the most tight-lipped of creatures, and news infected their tongues and minds without effort. The worms heard one thing, so they told the bugs, who told the merrow, who told the puca.
The tale would twist depending on the tongue of the teller. Their stories of each other and the odd creatures that wandered their world every cycle grew as wild and uncontrollable as the vines splintering across the forest floor, and twice as thick. Sometimes the humans were mystical, a holy food given by Cerridwen for her children. Others said they were just another kind of tree. A distant land far from the forest held enemies destined to destroy some’s homes, while others claimed they were just more Fae.
Mulct was a hundred feet high, with eyes of rotting fruit and mighty wings that swallowed the night. His four children were products of a union with a drood and himself, abominations under the Goddess of Nyx. His name was rancor. Even his race, bugbear, was a poison. Speaking it aloud rained blood and bile upon any nest, burrow, or den of those who spoke it.
Maybe that was why the grove had gone silent for three years. Someone mentioned his name. She mentioned it. But she didn’t remember saying it too much. It was a scary story the Unseelie told each other. A legend, nothing more.
But legends didn’t rip her apart every night, knowing she couldn’t defend herself. They didn’t eat her alive at the faintest level of consciousness.
Mulct was no legend. He was something worse.

“Happy birthday.” Dad mumbled as they drove to school. Lydia turned to him. He gave a little smile.
She smiled back. “I’m legal.”
“Sleep okay?”
“Yeah.” That’s a lie. “What about you?”
“Oh, fine. Just, ah, just fine.”
“So, fine or ‘just fine’?”
“I didn’t know you were concerned with details, hon.”
“You hesitated.”
“I slept fine.”
“Ah. Cool.” She sniffed, scratching her nose.
“Where you wanna go for dinner? Usual place?”
“Sure.” Lydia stared back out the window.
Dad frowned. “You sure you’re okay? You look kind of pale.”
“I’m fine, Dad.”
They were silent the rest of the ride to school.

“Birthday going okay?” Kay downed the last drop of her soda, pitching it into the recycling bin.
“What do you think? I’m still crazy.”
“You are not crazy! Quit telling yourself that!”
“I don’t believe you.” Lydia sighed.
“You should. Trust me, you’re not that weird.” Kay’s brow wrinkled. “Well, you did made me watch Scanners.”
Lydia finally cracked a smile. “That’s not the worst thing I’ve made you watch. C’”
“Jesus.” The turned down the hall, into the stairwell. “You still good for Ajit’s tomorrow?”
“What? Yeah. Totally.”
“If you don’t want to go, it’s totally fine. I’m easy either way.”
“No, let’s go. I’m up.”
The two shared a smile as they entered homeroom.
The day Lydia met Kay would always stick out as one of the strangest she’d ever had in high school.
Freshman year. Lydia sat in the far corner of Civics, keeping to herself as she had all throughout middle school. Her affliction had earned her a reputation made of whispers and frightened looks. The only friend she kept throughout those three years was Devon, and even that changed just a few weeks into her first year at Dorling High.
Then this short girl with glasses and horrible hat hair, the kind that stuck out like she always had one finger on a plasma globe, just sits down beside her as class starts. The girl smiles, waves at Lydia.
The girl, who then introduced herself as Kay Prendergast, short for Katherine but Kay is less of a mouthful with her last name beside it (her exact words, if Lydia remembered correctly).
What followed was one of the most one-sided, rambling conversations Lydia had had with a fellow student. It was also the most anyone had spoken to her unprompted since she’d gotten to high school. This mysterious Kay didn’t seem to have an off switch or a filter. Every new thought Lydia introduced led to a new direction for the exchange to spiral farther and farther away from a simple salutation.
Coincidentally, Lydia learned the difference between “real robot” and mecha, mating habits of eagles, and what the crest of a cockatoo was really for.
All Lydia got into the talk was that she liked to draw and read.
Then Kay stopped, and asked if she was talking too much.
Civics continued like this, with Lydia finding her own way to talk endlessly on subjects Kay had no idea of. And Kay listened, just as fascinated as Lydia was.
The next year it was Art class and Algebra 2. Junior year, World History. Now it was just homeroom and lunch every other day.
They sat together, quietly swapping their obsessions as the teacher threatened them with a glance as the room waited for the morning announcements.
Kay rarely lost that odd, sunny energy she brought into Civics four years ago. It had matured and changed with everyone else, sure, but never faltered. Was it genuine ignorance, or willful disregard for anyone else’s perception? Whatever it was, Lydia wanted a piece of it, if only for a day or two just to see what it was like.
Their conversations would move to other places eventually. Kay, like Lydia, moved to Edmund from another state. Lydia told her the reason why.
Kay lived with her aunt. She did not tell why until much later.

The bell separated them among the students. Now Lydia was alone. Vulnerable. She was a far cry from crying in class every other day, but she wished she had just a few more people to talk to. She managed small talk with a few people, but beyond that she just got the looks they gave when her neck acted up. It didn’t help that everyone in her class were the same she’d known for nearly seven years.
Lydia remembered the two men her father had become. But to everyone else, she was the same person. The same weird-ass person who twitched like a fly.
I’m no insect politician. But I’m screwed up. I know that much.

Someone called her Cheedo for the umpteenth time. In the past she would’ve cared. She came close to punching someone over Tweaker. She wound up in the dean’s office for it, but that name stopped after that.
They changed their tactics in the span of the year. So Lydia responded in kind.
And still they kept at it. As obnoxious as it was, she knew better.
Lydia licked the last remnants of marinara off her fingers as she headed down to her locker. Her back was killing her. She slid her pack off. It slapped the ground with a thick thud.
The effort nearly cost her all her breath. She pushed her hair out her eyes and turned to the combo lock.
A little note hung on the green steel, barely pasted on with tape.
In neat, jagged handwriting: Happy Birthday.
She gingerly peeled it off the door, unfolding the paper.
A rose bloomed for her. It was impossibly large, reaching into the boundaries of the page. The colors were deeper, almost luminescent in their brilliance. Everything down to the last detail was impeccably rendered, seeming to grow out of the paper into reality.
Lydia bit back a smile.

Nearly March. The art room had a few more projects hanging overhead.
They were sitting together more.
“My name’s Tristan.”
“Tristan. Interesting.” She nodded slowly. She watched his hands gliding over the paper, his movements as elegant as his lines. Indeed, she was so fascinated she barely concentrated on her own drawing.
“Not really.” He shrugged, blue almond-shaped eyes breaking from the paper. “It’s too fancy, you know? Your name fits you better.” He continued working.
She blushed. “Thanks.” She giggled.
“Would you believe I was almost named Ethel?” She laughed.
He offered a crooked smile. “Seriously?”
Mom didn’t like it either.”
His bottom lip snuck under his teeth. “Now I’m imagining you like a grandma.” He snorted.
Lydia laughed at the thought too. Her last memory of Mom made her stop before long. “I mean, Tristan’s not terrible. It’s still a name.” She craned her neck. “What’re you drawing?”
“This? Just something I’ve had on my mind.” He turned the paper over. “Some dream I keep having. It’s nothing.”
“Can I see it?”
He turned the paper to her.
An apish face with massive, glistening eyes stared back at her. Its jaws stretched out in quiet menace, shattered teeth studding black gums. Thin quills crowned its head, jutting out like lightning bolts. Lydia squinted, checking for a scar on its cheek.
“What you think?”
“It’s…it’s terrifying.” Lydia lied. “What is it?”
“It always kills me. That’s all I know.” His eyes fell. “I don’t really want to talk about it.” Their blue shadowed in secrecy.
They continued drawing. Lydia didn’t blame him. Bodachs were frightening.

“Boo.” His voice spun her around on her way from her last class. “Happy birthday.”
She smiled, her face getting warm. “Thanks. How are you?”
“I bombed another calc quiz.”
“Oh, you probably didn’t do that bad.” She elbowed him. “Tutoring not doing it for you?”
He held the door for her and two others. “I mean, I’m passing.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it.” Her hand jumped to his. “Thanks for the flower.”
A little smile dug into his cheek.

Lydia had heard that old chestnut of love as a flutter in your stomach; the other kind of butterfly effect, as she liked to think of it. Something else wafted through her whenever he smiled. Warmth. Security. Validation.
She remembered how Mom made Dad smile, made her smile. They weren’t the Brady Bunch by any stretch, considering Dad’s condition. But there was always a way, always an out from the thunderclouds. Even when Mom no longer came home, never once did she let whatever killed her show for her family. To the best of Lydia’s memory, Lavinia Kelly was the happiest person she ever knew.
Considering her situation, she found it hard to smile even at the best of times, almost like she didn’t deserve it. Something she had done, some god she’d spited deemed her unworthy of that luxury. Chalmers insisted that wasn’t true. Look at your friends, your father, he had said. Look at what you do for them. She had such difficulty believing it. Even her dreams denied her that, if they were dreams. The only thing she felt destined for was loneliness from people she doubted even loved her.
Making anyone smile, even him, made things that much sweeter.

They stood at the curb. Dad would be here any minute. Hopefully.
“I was wondering…” Tristan started, shifting his foot. “What’re you doing tonight?”
A spark popped in Lydia’s head. “What?”
“I was wondering…if you—” Lydia craned her neck, trying to tease the words out of him. “—would…like to go to the festival tonight.”
Oh God. It’s happening again, she thought. That bubbling in her stomach like a cauldron. It used to strike when Kay invited her out. Now every time he asks me to things…No. Control yourself. Answer. “Go on.”
“I thought we could go to that thing at the farm, y’know, have a nice night out, and then I take you home.” His nervous energy was fading.
Unlike hers. She was rooted in place, trying to process his request. He wasn’t asking anything especially difficult. It was just a date. You’ve had some of those over the summer. This isn’t a problem. Don’t make it a problem. But Lydia couldn’t resist the urge to.
A hundred thoughts passed between her ears like sparks off a blowtorch: About what her dad would say or whether he’d be upset at the prospect of her going out on her birthday with someone other than him; Getting home too late; Catching a wrong turn on Falk and plummeting into a tree.
The twitch.
“Lydia?” Tristan’s voice was a slap to her face.
“What? I’m fine.”
Tristan’s hand raised to her shoulder. “You sure?”
“Tristan, I’m fine.” Her tone was guarded, almost hostile. Watch it. “Really. I just—I’m sorry.” That familiar pang of regret when she snapped.
“Look, if you’re not up to it—”
“No, it was just nerves.”
“But do you want to go?”
All this time and it’s a one word answer. Make up your mind, Lydia. It was like someone whispering advice in her ear, but in that two-faced tone some girls copped back in freshman year. Like her own mind didn’t want her around.
She laughed to herself. “That sounds like a great idea.”
Tristan lit up.
They both jumped as Dad’s horn sounded twice. He waved through the window, semi-impatient but amicably motioning to Lydia.
“Get you at six?” Tristan barely got the words out as she turned to the car.
“Perfect!” She squeezed his hand one more time before breaking away.
He waved them off as Dad joined the chain of cars leaving the parking lot. Lydia waved back, watching him shrink in the rearview as someone’s Hummer pulled in behind them.
“You’re chipper today.” Dad glanced aside as the car crawled up the line.
“Tristan asked me out.” Lydia replied. She bit her upper lip, fighting to contain a grin.
“Have you now? Where to?”
“The festival.”
“So no birthday dinner tonight.”
“We can do it tomorrow. Part two of eighteen?”
Dad’s face splintered into a half smile. “We’ll see.”

Birthdays in the Kelly house tended to go as such: As night fell, primarily around six, Lydia and her father would go out to a restaurant of her choice. After they returned, they opened presents on the dining room table.
Then came Lydia’s favorite part: the ice cream cake. Half vanilla, half peppermint, topped with fudge chips and iced with frosting frozen just enough to bite into but soft enough not to crunch. That was one of the most important parts of a great ice cream cake, Lydia thought.
On these days, Dad promised not to drink. Until she was thirteen, she would badger him about it whenever they were out.
Three years later, she started doing it again. She hoped she wouldn’t have to tomorrow.

They abbreviated the ritual for tonight. Presents were on point: An ink brush Lydia had been dying for, and a cute shirt she’d found online.
She passed the mirror on her way out of the bathroom. Last night had done her no favors. Being woken up from things you couldn’t escape at 3 am tended to leave her in poor circumstances. Her neck hurt. Her brain hurt. Everything hurts, she mused to the crestfallen twin in the mirror. She downed three glasses of water. You’re a mess with a capital M.
Her reflection did her no favors. Her collar clung to her neck, as she intended it to. She contemplated removing it. Then she remembered the welts she’d worked so hard to keep hidden.
Smoky rings circled her eyes. She might as well have worn a Lone Ranger mask or whatever those were called around her eyes and no one would’ve noticed. A green-eyed raccoon. That’s a new one. Surprised no one’s come up with that.
Same with the twitch. It’d first appeared when Lydia was in grade school. She remembered the first time it flared up. It continued to bother her for nearly three days until she was taken out of school to get it looked at. The diagnosis was benign, thankfully, if irksome. Her neck was often sore and the display it created embarrassed her.

Her dreams were a different story. She remembered what Lovecraft wrote on the subject, the “eldritch” and “unnamable” things he’d mentioned in his work. He wrote of his gods influencing men through them and of people becoming king of their own worlds while their real bodies died. Kuranes and Randolph Carter had the right idea, to escape and to be free in one world where they belonged. He wrote of winged things, the “night-gaunts” as he’d called them…
But there’s no way, she thought. Don’t even consider it. That’s ridiculous.
She brought up Mulct and the night-gaunts with Chalmers. He told her Lovecraft suffered from night terrors. She took comfort in that possibility, for a time. But somehow her dreams were stranger than anything anyone could write about, living or dead.
The less said about the welts, the better. An itch nagged the nape of her neck.
I should just cancel this date. She grabbed her hair, sinking to her knees with elbows on the counter. Cancel the date. Stay in. Don’t risk scaring him off like you did earlier today.
But you could’ve refused him right there, she countered herself. You don’t have to go.
But you forced yourself to!
No I didn’t! I made a decision!
No you didn’t!
Yes you did!
“STOP!!” She bashed the counter, knocking her toothbrush into the sink. Dear. GOD. Stop it! She wanted to yell. She bit back the urge. Take a third option.
There’s always another option.

“You’re flaking?” Kay’s voice warbled out of Lydia’s cell as she sat on her bed, legs crossed. She turned to her clock: nearly six.
“No! No, I’m not! I was just—I needed to talk to someone about this.”
“You totally were.”
“Kay…” Lydia rubbed the bridge of her nose, an exasperated huff blowing into the receiver. “I…I keep thinking about it. I’m going to embarrass myself.”
“I think he gets it. I get it!”
“But I mean…c’mon! Who the hell else in the freaking school—the world does this? I’m Brundlefly, remember?!” The poor scientist’s pet-name for his degeneration stuck with Lydia even now.
Over the phone, a hundred clicks. Someone screamed.
A moment of silence.
“There. Paused. You’ll be fine. Have you seen the way he looks at you? You could puke on his shoes and he’d probably lick it off.”
“Eww.” Lydia’s brow wrinkled at the thought.
“That came out wrong.” A tiny chuckle hopped over the line. “Either way, you’ll be fine, Lydia. Really. There’s no problem.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because when I wake up in the morning, I think of everything I’ve done wrong, everything I did that could hurt others and humiliate myself before I’ve even hopped in the shower. It sucks. It effing sucks. And there’s a lot I wish I could just forget about. But I can’t.” Kay’s voice had lost any of that mirth she carried. “But I have a life to live. I have at least three people who care about me. And the suck is just a part of my day I have to deal with.”
Lydia was silent. This side of Kay was rare.
“You still there?”
“Okay.” Kay sighed. “Thought I lost you. Anyway, I know just saying ‘don’t worry about it’ isn’t enough, but…you’ll be fine.”
Lydia nodded slowly. She was still shaken from Kay’s sudden turn a moment ago. “Okay.”
“Sorry about that, by the way.”
“It’s okay.” She was still nervous, but she meant that.
“When’s he coming again?”
“Right. Twenty minutes to treat yourself. Just chill. You got this.”
“Okay. Thanks.”
“No problem.”
Lydia hung up, pocketing the phone. She laid into her pillow. As much as she wanted to nap, there was no time. Besides, considering her strange sleeping schedule she’d wake up at midnight.
Get ready, she thought. You have the advantage.

October nipped at Lydia’s nose with short teeth. She wondered whether her jacket was the best dress for tonight.
Under the porchlight, insects were like plastic, their odd insides lit up against the glass covering the bulb. The stone steps shone with dagger-like shadows cracking into monoliths trailing into the gravel below. Crickets chorused among the low hiss of wind in the trees, taking leaves to the ground. Lydia could barely make out the remains of the gate that marked the start of the driveway. No one touched the thing in years, but still creeped her out nonetheless.
Beyond that, nothing. That strange silence around this part of town kept. Like Lydia needed to be reminded any more of death.
Crumbling rocks under tires and the unmistakable flash of headlights roused her. She stood in attention, her dark orange jacket glowing as Tristan’s Camry parked.
The passenger window rolled down.
“You rang?” He said, eyebrow raised.
“You’re a dork.” She replied with a laugh.
A loud thump as he hit the lock. Lydia jumped in.
You’re here, she told herself. You’re okay. No twitch. No sickness. Everything’s going to be great.

Lydia was no stranger to dates. In all the years she’d known Kay, their little excursions into town counted as such. There wasn’t too much to see in Edmund: A few curio shops, a decent selection of restaurants of the ma-and-pa variety along with local franchises, the Benson farm on Falk before the road hit the forest. It wasn’t rundown by any stretch, just small. A little too small for Lydia’s tastes at times, but comfortable in its mundanity.
She’d been here before, years ago. At least, that’s what Mom and Dad told her. She only knew Grandma in photographs and whatever home movies Dad kept around. Speaking of him, Lydia had never seen any of them. Judging from what she overheard after moving here, he hadn’t spoken to them in years.
She wondered what Ciaran and Mary were up to. It was hard to recall, considering the last time she’d seen her cousins was a year and half after Mom died. Aunt Sarah called every once and a while.
I should call her tomorrow, she thought as the car winded down through the trees. She’d be happy to hear from her niece.
She still found it strange how few people were on her mother’s side. And that number was dwindling, it seemed.
This whole arrangement with Tristan had only recently started. She still remembered how much he stammered when he “officially” asked her out at the end of July. That was their first date-date, as Kay referred to them. All the others were just dates. Kay wasn’t exactly matchmaker, but she trusted her a little more than Dad in situations like this.
That was certainly an adventure: He invited her out to dinner that night, to a spot a little farther down the road on the other side of town. Italian Kitchen, if she remembered correctly. They were so busy talking that Tristan didn’t realize how fast he was going. He wasn’t the dangerous type, to Lydia’s relief, and he pulled over.
That was the same night she met the bigger Burrows.
Ben. Tristan got his father’s nose and hair, but none of that severity of the brow or the tendency to bark even when he wasn’t doing his job. The man was in good health for someone his age, with only a hint of a gut showing. He’d lost whatever leanness Tristan had with age.
Thankfully, Officer Burrows was in a good mood that night and let Tristan off with a warning. Still didn’t stop Tristan from apologizing for a good hour when they got to the restaurant.
She was tempted to tease him about it. Don’t make this awkward. You spent half an hour worried about things going wrong. Don’t blow it, she chided herself. Remember when you finally told him about your dreams?

The fields reeked of wet mud. The air was thick with the threat of rain. Forecasts were favorable, at least for tonight. Lydia hoped so.
The Camry rolled over flattened reeds, its lights searching for an open spot while Lydia played lookout.
“Holler when you see one.” Tristan ordered.
“Aye, cap’n…Wait, there’s—” A car came out of nowhere, consuming the space she had spotted. “Shit.”
He drove around a blockade of pickups. “There’s nowhere to park, I can’t believe this!”
“We’ll have to walk.”
He sighed. “If you insist.”
“Don’t be a drama queen.” Lydia lightly tapped his arm.
Tristan rolled his eyes, laughing.
A spot closer to the entrance revealed itself through the dark. Tristan opened her door for her.
Lydia’s sneakers hit the ground, the pressure squeezing bubbles and watery mud to the surface of the grass. That odd smell of dirty water hit her in full force.
Beyond the makeshift parking lot, the festival lit up the farm, a luminous sphere of yellow in a sea of blue and black. The twang of guitars and rumble of laughter that always comforted Lydia despite her anxieties carried through the field into the air.
Tristan’s hand encircled her own. In the faded light, his smile was revealed against the night. And that reverent look she loved so much shone like a star.

Overhead, a sign proclaiming Edmund’s gratitude to the white-tailed deer hung loosely with paper-thin streamers and string lights of many colors. The craftsmanship of the drawing on the banner was serviceable, if a bit sloppy. Lydia felt it added a homespun charm to the whole endeavor, a reminder that perfection meant different things to different people.
A live band blared somewhere, golden oldies filtered through ad-hoc speakers that rattled eardrums and teeth when one wandered too close. The stench of beer and funnel cake was everywhere, as was the staccato chatter of generators trailing thick cords through the weeds. A kid tripped over the thick black plates covering them, splatting into the dirt. An annoyed dunk-tank clown took shots at a gang of hunters sloppily trying to hit the target with baseballs.
So many sensations. So much happening around them. It was like being in an echo chamber with five other people constantly talking; Impossible to focus on anything or anyone, forcing Lydia to try to make sense of the formless mass roiling around her like a wad of animate gum. She’d been to things like this before, felt this much before.
But her arms wrapped around his, the sleek fabric of his jacket rubbing against her hands. And that was enough to keep the scene straight, to prevent her mind sinking into that porridge of feeling like a wingless fly.

“Onions?” The guy in the booth motioned to the wrapped dog.
“Mm, nah, I’ll take it plain.” She replied. “Wait! Actually, I’d like some ketchup please.”
The guy obeyed, deftly squeezing the ketchup onto the hot dog. Lydia wondered how he was able to do that with such little space in the booth. She thanked him, but the noise drowned out her voice as she cradled the warm foil.
“What about you?” The guy motioned to Tristan.
“Onions and chili.”
The attendant set to work as Tristan reached into his coat pocket.
“You don’t have to pay.” Lydia was a quarter into her hot dog. The words were barely intelligible.
“My treat.” Tristan smiled to her as he slid a faded bill out of his wallet. The attendant plopped change wrapped in a bill on the steel counter as he handed Tristan his food.
Baseballs smacked against wood paneling, balloons popped as pellets pierced plastic and bottles clanked. Children and families laughed while lanterns buzzed with insects playing their precarious game of chance with the electricity.
“I bet I could win you something.” Tristan nudged her as they walked along the bazaar of game parlors. “See anything you like?”
Lydia searched the booths for a prize. She wanted him to work for it. A wonderfully tacky deer hung over a shooting range.
“That deer. Over the shooting range.” She pointed to it, his eyes following her arm’s trajectory.
Tristan gave her a sideways glance. He was barely a second from scoffing at the challenge.
She responded, in turn, with her best puppy-dog impression. He’d always loved the shade of green in her eyes. She might as well use it, if only for tonight.
“Fine.” He sighed in defeat as they headed over to the booth. The attendant was an older woman, a wad of gum bunched in her cheek and a cap speckled with stains. Beside her on the counter, a sign read “$1 for 1/$2 for 2”. The woman’s hands rested beside it, twiddling her thumbs on the crudely painted wood.
“One er two?” The woman asked through her gum.
Tristan dropped four quarters. The woman took it without question, handing him a mock hunting rifle and clearing away.
He readied the rifle, his gaze hardening like it did whenever he needed to concentrate. Out the corner of his eye, he winked at Lydia as a bell shrieked.
Lydia held her ear at its peal. It was shrill, unusually so from her position. Maybe it’s just me, she thought as she watched Tristan blast the targets down. Scratch that, it’s always me.

She tried not to think about it, but that nagging impulse dug at the back of her mind. You should be thankful someone your age is bothering with you, it said. But don’t do anything crazy. You don’t want to embarrass him.
The thought was all too common. She recalled its whisper deep in her past. Before Mulct, before Nyx. She imagined her mind like a great keep where denizens came and went, her thoughts temporary passengers going to or coming from places in the world. But there was one the guards forgot.
It waited somewhere, its murmur quietly echoing down an imagined corridor to no one in particular. Something brought it there, and like any prisoner failed by a system was forgotten about.
Or maybe it chose to stay. Maybe it was always there. Lydia couldn’t remember. She’d gotten used to its condescension.
Chalmers asked her whose voice it was. She tried her hardest to listen when it spoke, but its echo was long gone down another hall as quickly as it came. And it would jeer quietly when she failed to find the source. It played its games like that.
It made the walls speak to throw off its trail. It could be anywhere it wanted. It knew its prison well.
It had so many for everyone.
Kay. Tristan. Dad.
She wanted to find it, chase it out into the open and strangle it until the eyes squeezed out of its faceless head. She would turn its head to crumbs, its brain to stew if she could just find the thing. She would destroy it and splatter its rancorous remains across the walls like a demented fresca.
But, she asked herself, how can you catch something you can’t see?

They walked down the muddy paths, Tristan’s arm around her. He’d won the deer, as expected. He tended to talk down his skill, considering he didn’t shoot very often.
“How’s your head situation?” He lightly squeezed her shoulder.
Lydia didn’t respond.
“Still bad?”
“Yeah.” She stared at the stuffed animal.
He nodded slowly. “I guess I’m not doing much to cheer you up, then.”
“What?” She looked at him. “No! No, no. You’re doing fine. I just…I don’t know…” She scratched the back of her head. “I’ve just been thinking a lot.”
“Stuff like today. About myself and everyone and what’s happening next.” She thought about the welts. But he couldn’t know how much worse they’d gotten. “I don’t know. I mean I wish weird dreams were all I had.”
“I get it.” He pulled her closer. She tucked her head into the fold of his neck.
“I mean, no one else has it. I’m the only one. I don’t get it. And I’ve been thinking about what everyone else sees. I’m all twitchy, and if everyone knew about them,”—she couldn’t think of a better word for her nightly excursions—“what would they think then? Maybe they already know.”
“I mean, I didn’t know until you told me.”
“And what about Dad? He knows, and he started drinking again.”
“Heeeey,” Tristan spun her around, taking her by the shoulders. “Don’t start with that.” He caressed her cheek. “Your old man’s problems are not yours. He’s kinda nuts anyway.”
“He’s not crazy.” She corrected.
“Right, sorry. Point is, he’s got his thing. It’s not you. I know your shrink probably tells you that all the time, but—”
“I know.” She nodded.
“Anything else?” His eyes held so much concern. He had reason to, considering where he’d come from.
She chuckled. “Here I am whining on a date I didn’t plan.” A mirthless smile crossed her face. “It’s kinda pathetic.”
“I don’t think you’re whining.”
“I’m definitely not charming you.” She said with a raise of her eyebrows. “This isn’t my idea of romantic dialogue.”
“Pff. Right.” They continued walking. “I don’t think love poetry is my idea of…expression.”
A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. It was slight, but it was real.

The cup rooted itself to the coaster. The acidic stew once filling it now collected at the rim at the bottom, bubbling and swimming with the rhythm of the desk. It hissed going down his stomach. He no longer felt the familiar wallop of caffeine, or maybe he was too used to it.
Whatever keeps me away, he thought. Whatever it takes.
He remembered his promise. Not a drop today. The phrase bounced around the chamber of his mind. Not a drop. The words controlled his arm as it appeared in large swaths, slathered in ink on the pages of his journal.
This would be the last one.
There was only the promise. His promise to Levy. His promise to Lydia.
You coward. You waited too long. What if you’re too late? What happens after that?
He didn’t know. Neither did she.
And he was going to keep it that way.
A slap on the window of his study startled him.
He returned to his writing. The tapping quickened, as a rumbling followed.

Of all the days, Lydia thought. The rain drove the mud up in massive ropes again and again, the water grabbing at people scrambling to avoid its assault. It was futile, in all honesty, considering they were already soaked just for trying to leave.
She and Tristan had just ducked into a ring-toss booth when the rain picked up. She’d felt one or two drops, but the forecast hadn’t mentioned a downpour. The guy manning the game had left some time ago, leaving the two with rows of dusty bottles and half stacks of rings. No stuffed animals were getting wet tonight.
“Well, this is fun.” Tristan finally shouted over the endless patter.
Lydia clutched her stuffed deer. “Do you wanna carry it?”
“What, is it too heavy?”
“No, I mean in your coat.” She handed it over. “I think it’ll fit better.” His finger brushed hers. It was clammy.
Its glassy eyes stared into Tristan’s. He sighed, unzipping his coat and stuffing it inside. The stuffed animal’s arms kept exploding out as he fumbled with it, trying to keep it packed in. Every attempt to bring the zipper up nearly dropped Lydia’s prize into the mud.
She grabbed the zipper. He held the animal still as she drew the teeth together. The deer was snugly bulging from his chest. Its little head was barely visible from his collar.
He chuckled at his little passenger. She did too. They drew their hoods up and ventured out into the rain.
The flattened fields were nearly empty save for brown rivers and cars hurrying away into the wet night. The night was nearly impenetrable through the sheets plummeting from the sky. The fading lights of the festival were being swallowed by the watery jaws of the downpour.
The couple leaned into the hill where Tristan had parked. Lydia’s footing betrayed her. Her hands immediately shot out to meet the gooey earth. Tristan helped her up as she wiped herself off. The rain would hopefully wash the rest off.
This wasn’t so bad, she mused as her jacket soaked into her shirt. Her arms were jittering and her jaw locked from the shivers. This wasn’t bad at all.
Tristan’s arm was jittering too. She could feel it over her shoulder.

All but two cars remained on the hill.
Something watched them through the sheets. They couldn’t be missed, with her orange jacket and the taller figure beside her.
It held the shape of a man. It wore his clothes. It had driven his car.
It had the same mission as him. But it was not him.

“Mr. Kelly?”
Lydia made out the contours of her father standing in the rain. He stepped closer to them, with what little light there was left filling out his form.
Each step told her something.
His hands were claws stretching muscle to breaking. The wind kicked his coat into the night, like great wings. His silhouette grew tenfold and became one with the trees, and then the sky.
But Richard King Kelly, father to Lydia Talbot Kelly and widower to Lavinia Kelly, was nowhere to be found. This thing had twisted his face into a look of anger that bordered on murderous. His brow drew heavy over bulging black eyes, the ragged bags cushioning them from plopping into the mud. What little hair remained plastered against his forehead which shone like polished bone. He was doing his best Frank Cotton impression, with his skin stretched tight even to burst and reveal what was puppeteering her father’s body.
“Get in the car.” His words dripped with poison as his eyes locked onto her.
Lydia’s heart dropped into her throat. He was gargantuan now. And his eyes looked raw, watery.
“Why’re you here?” Tristan came forward. No, Lydia wanted to tell him. This isn’t him. He’s not here. You don’t know what he’ll do. “What’s going on?”
“Go home, Tristan.”
“Mr. K, just tell me what’s going on.” He presented his hands. “Are you okay? Just tell me what’s going on and we can sort this out.”
The man moved closer to Tristan. Dad dwarfed most people, and her boyfriend was no exception. “Move. Out. Of the way.” Every syllable as cold as the rain seeping into her bones.
“Richard, I didn’t do anything to her, I swear to God…” Tristan’s tone wavered. “Just tell me what’s going on and we can—”
Tristan grunted as the man’s fist planted into his gut. A second later another threw him to the mud as a jet of blood shot into one of the many rivulets running through the field. The man hoisted her lover by his collar. He raised a fist raw with another’s blood.
“Stop—” She choked her plea out as the tears finally rolled down her cheeks. A million sobs caught in her throat. Her heart would not stop pounding. A twitch begged under her neck.
The man’s head turned in her direction, mechanically. His mania faded slightly as Tristan fell to the grass.
She watched him wiped his fountaining nose from the car. The locks slammed down as the engine roared to life.
Tristan was on his feet right as her father’s car sped away into the night.

A low roar like the ocean. Rain punching glass and steel.
“—Dad…?” Her words would not leave her. The rivers down the windows matched those down her cheeks.
He said nothing. His eyes were locked onto the road.
“Dad. Where are we going?” She found enough strength to raise her voice.
“Be quiet, Lydia.”
You hurt him. You hurt him because of me. “Why?”
“Just be quiet.”
Why are you—,” You bastard. You drunk, stupid, lying bastard. “What are you doing?”
“You don’t have to know.” His expression was blank. The rawness of his eyes was clearer than ever from the light of the dashboard.
Her throat caught again. She desperately wanted to yell at him. She wanted to punish him for what he’d done, what he was about to do. What was he about to do?
Out of the headlights, something glowed orange. She barely made out a back arrow spiraling upward into the tip of the diamond. The night sky, already black from the rain, was swallowed up by trees.
He wasn’t slowing down.
Dear God. Her heart picked up, matching the speed of the car and going even faster. Oh God, no.
“Dad—” She weakly pleaded. “Stop the car.” Her chest grew tight.
“I’m sorry, Lydia.” He responded. Nothing, not even certain death could crack that stoic façade.
Oh God. Oh God, Oh God, Oh God. But He wasn’t listening. No one was listening to her.
“She wanted to tell you everything.” He turned away from the road to face her. “I want to protect you, Lydia. I want you to know how much I love you.”
“What are you—”
“I love you, Lyd. I love you so much. And I won’t let you suffer.”
She stared into his eyes, their dark nothingness rimmed with red. Outside, rain smashed the windshield and windows as the engine’s growl reverberated throughout the car.
A sign flashed orange with the headlights, warning passerby to slow down for deer for a curve in the road.
A curve the road bent sharply to navigate. The same one the car was fast approaching.
One chance. You have one chance.

The buck’s nostrils flared. His breath spiraled in transparent pillows into the air before the rain cut it to pieces. The rest of the herd was up ahead, leaping through the brush to another part of the forest.
His hooves carried him into the air with each stride as he rushed to meet the others. That familiar sour scent of urine drew him to the road.
One more stride.
He leaped off a rock, sailing through the night with simple-minded grace.
Hooves clattered against asphalt. The buck swung its head this way and that, horns heavy on its forehead as he sniffed out the oddness of this part of the woods. The scent of the herd was still there, if a bit overpowered by every other smell that coated the road.
A great light split his eyes open.
A metal plate split his ribs and spine seconds later.
The breath left him as he rolled along the pavement. He heard the shriek of metal on metal as the car pierced the guardrail beside him.
Like a newborn, his legs feebly fluttered up, trying to pick him up. Every breath was teeth in his gut.
He managed to gain distance between the impact site and where the car had disappeared into the woods.
The rain tasted sweet on his tongue.
The scent of the herd kept him awake for just a few minutes more.

The car came to rest in a puddle of mud and oil. The engine hissed as the rain continued to fall.
A nest of snapped branches and metal strips surrounded the wreck, a path to the wreck having been hewed by its considerable weight downward. Like an unplanned deforestation project, the wreckage was at once manmade and natural.
Rain pattered the rent metal like a tin drum.
The herd of deer had heard the situation, ears perked up in fascination at the interloper. Their interest waned in time as they moved on to a less noisy neck of the woods.
Inside the folded metal, something stirred.

Lydia smelt oil. She licked the roof of her mouth and tasted blood.
I’m not alive, she thought. I’m dead. I should’ve be alive.
Her heart pounded against her ribs. The rain was barely audible through the fog in her ears. The cry of the car was louder.
As was Dad’s fist cracking across Tristan’s face. Louder still were the last words she would ever heard him say.
Every movement stung like fingers in raw wounds. The man she called her father hung upside down, a red constellation slithering out of his head. His eyes were glazed and grey, like the rest of his skin.
Lydia’s lungs filled with ice. Breath would not leave her. But she had to get out. Get out of here. Get out of this place. She heaved herself up, a gallon of blood she was probably losing forcing itself down in the process. Black spots invaded her vision. Raw hands fumbled in the dark for the seatbelt. Wetness greased the buckle as her mind threatened to give way.
A snap freed her from the seat. Her back crunched what was left of the roof. She had no strength to scream. She had to conserve it. She had to get out.
The rain quickened as a broken body clawed itself out of the wreckage. The forest stared down at the crumpled heap, invisible eyes regarding Lydia with indifference as she clutched at mud. Her legs refused to stand. They too stung, but with coldness lodging into the pain was she dragged them against the ground.
A shape dodged between the trunks. It stopped, its stillness outlining it in the night. Lydia would’ve guessed it had dark eyes, if she could see anything. It left as quickly as it came.
Lydia rolled over, her strength finally leaving her. Her back slammed a pool of leaves, sending a miniature tidal wave along the ground. Water buffeted her face and rolled down her cheeks.
She guessed she was crying. Or maybe she was in Nyx. Maybe this was all a bad dream. Mulct would come for her, and she’d wake up safe in her room. Dad would be downstairs, and they’d talk a little before heading to school.
Dad. His quiet insanity would not leave her. He knew something. He knew something all this time and never told her. He must’ve known about me. About Nyx, she barely puzzled. She felt her air leaving her. He knew about me this whole time.
And he tried to kill me. He hurt him. All because of me. Her eyes flooded to bursting as bottled sobs shook her body.
You did this, it told her. She squeezed her eyes shut.

Mulct slept dreamlessly in his hovel of cool dirt. It lay just outside of the grove, deep in the eastern patch.
The banshees had taken some time to clear out, but they learned their lesson by the fifth nest he and his sons had destroyed. The stupid birds thought they were a match for the bugbear.
But I showed them, he told himself when the last one’s neck snapped like a branch. This is not their land. This is mine. The girl was always mine.
Her scent shot him from his slumber. He pulled himself up from the dirt, careful to not wake the pups quietly snoring inside his pouch. He whipped about, frantically checking every side, every possible angle for attack. His nose caught nothing else.
His ears swiveled, snapping here and there for a trace of anything that would distract him from his prize. The bent one popped as he moved it. Ignore it, he said. Ignore the pain. You’re not weak. Weaklings acknowledge pain. He prowled into the grove. The night was still. Cerridwen shone on those brilliant silver leaves.
His eyes widened.
The trunk had split open, the wood revealed to be a masquerade hiding pronged mandibles with white edges. Furry cilia wafted against the walls of the tree’s jaws. Little glowing things like stars floated into the open air.
Every step closer brought her lovely scent closer to him, and far stronger too. The sway of the feelers was enticing.
Soon he found himself staring into the gullet of the tree. But the legends didn’t say anything about a pool. Was it really a door to the other side, to the place where Man came from to Nyx? Or was it just another deadly plant, no different from mandragora or a sickly rose.
Mulct dipped a toe into the silvery liquid. It wiggled, with little stars radiating outward into the air. Solid, to be sure, like pond scum.
He took a quick survey of the pups. All four, all accounted for. Perfect, he thought as he readied himself to pounce. Hold your breath, and keep pushing forward until you’re out.
Her scent was overpowering now. I’ll find her later, he thought as he leaped into the silver pool.
She’ll make a great snack with the others.

Lydia’s eyes flew open.
This is interesting.
She didn’t think that.
Where is this? It’s so hard to move…
Who was thinking that? It wasn’t her. Who was trying to—
Lydia’s chest struck towards the sky. Every muscle seized mercilessly as she choked on her own breath. Every movement was a losing battle as the thing under her skin refused to let her go. What is this?! What’s happening to—
Her hands contorted uncontrollably, the veins surging and receding into the skin as all pigment drained from them. The greying color spread in patches from the welts made visible in the crash. She surged with angry power, a marionette forced to dance as someone pulled her strings apart.
Her hands tensed, tensed, tensed with all her alien strength seemed to muster—
A lightning bolt shape split her left hand between her middle and ring finger. The graying skin hung, then tore like paper.
That’s better.
Lydia could only watch in horror as the clawed hand tore through her sleeve. No. She tried to think. No. No, no, no, no,-
Something ripped out of her shoe. Behind her neck, a sound like wet construction paper tearing arched her back one more time as a seam split down her spine.
Her vision shrank ever deeper into darkness. More of her body ripped apart as she felt it all.
That’s right. Don’t resist. You know you can’t.
Yes, she thought her back tore open.
You’re just a human.
Yes. Her jacket exploded into ribbons as wings struck out into the night air.
And humans are nothing.
She believed its every word. She didn’t deserve this. She didn’t deserve anyone. Not Kay, not Tristan, not Mom or Dad. She was nothing.
She recognized Mulct’s voice right before the dark swallowed her.

The fawn’s ears perked up as her eyes searched the wet gloom of the forest. Everything seemed normal, if wet from the rain.
Out there in the dark, something panted with greedy breaths, one after another after another after another after another after another that grew louder and louder in the faint patter of the rain as the fawn stared at the unfamiliar shape advancing upon her.
Clouds of steam curled up from the thing’s mouth and shoulders, its fur smoldering with the fire of whatever impossible realm that birthed it. It reared up, towering over the fawn as its ears twitched around, and all six of its eyes studied the terrified deer’s movements with ill intent. The skin of its belly bubbled and billowed as tiny things squeaked, their shrill voices barely audible through their carrier’s loud breath.
She couldn’t smell the herd anymore. She wanted to join them. But her legs refused to move. This was not a man with a gun. This was not a wolf or a car. It was new. Impossible.
And much faster, as the fawn soon discovered.

Part Two

“—According to the Cartesian dualist theory, the mind and body are separate entities, the latter serving as a vessel for the former. The body, on its own, cannot think and thus requires the mind, or the consciousness in more medical terms, to operate.
Much like the organisms dwelling in Nyx, the human mind is itself composed of humours, which incidentally are some of the most important building blocks of the Unseelie ecosystem.
Upon wandering there, the mind creates a construct based on the experiential and physical details attained in the waking world, a form spontaneously generated from the environment itself. The experiences therein in Nyx are only briefly remembered upon returning to the physical plane due to the trauma sustained to the dream-self.
Some Unseelie predators display a strange form of mimicry, most likely through manipulation of humouric pheromones, to fool prey’s perception, able to perfectly invoke and imitate a memory or experience to lure victims to their deaths. No two reactions are ever the same, it seems, but a commonality appears to be points of great stress or trauma that the predator stimulates—”
-Fairchild, Nicolas F. “Consciousness and Unseelie Hunting Methods.” Unseen Histories And other Curiosities. Print

Tristan couldn’t decide which was more bent: the deer or the guardrail.
Blue morning crept through the canopy, the chilled silence slowly waning with the efforts of emergency staff gathering around the sight of the accident. The tenderized deer would’ve been enough of a hint, but rent metal bearing its jagged teeth into destroyed foliage made their job that much easier. Their vehicles’ local lightshow had quieted somewhat when the search parties dispersed. Not that Tristan was calmed.
He nearly screamed at 911 when he called them last night. And yet he was too late, per usual. Dad said they had to wait until morning before anything could be done en mass, considering the terrain to be dealt with.
Then again, Dad also told him to not get his hopes up. So what did he know? Tristan thought as he descended the hill. He slipped, catching his hand in a miniature mudslide. He wiped if off on his pants.
According to the EMTs, the car had rolled down the hill, considering the angle at which the trees were attacked. Whether the deer was directly responsible or not was a different story. Tristan already gave his piece when he arrived. We’ll take it into account, they had told him.
But something wasn’t right. Was he drunk? Why would he just snap like that?
Could I have stopped him?
A heavy hand on his shoulder. Tristan turned to meet his father’s wrinkled brow. His thinning hair was slightly ragged, frayed like a paintbrush. Like Tristan, he rolled out of bed to get here.
“Hey sport.” Dad rubbed his son’s shoulder. To Tristan, it always felt like an attempt at affection.
“Hi.” Tristan replied.
The hand slipped away. They shared a knowing glance. Dad’s lips curled into a slight smile. His downcast eyes said otherwise as the two ventured deeper to meet the crowd gathered around the wreckage.
It was unusual, the feeling of seeing a car pulverized. There was always this image the word crafted. This perfect, impossibly conceived sculpture of metal and glass that carried sexy people to sexy places in luxury. Even removed from that, there was still the mystique of the automobile that had fascinated Tristan before he could drive.
To see one crumpled like a wet meatball in the middle of the woods surrounded by crumbs of plastic and steel was disconcerting, almost sad. And what about the driver?
No. He banished the thought. Don’t go there. He turned to Dad. “Which one?” He asked, motioning the parties searching around the crash site.
“Go wherever.” His father handed Tristan a flashlight. “Take this just in case. Standard cop issue.”
Tristan nodded. Dad headed off to another officer surveying the crash.
He had a bad habit of eavesdropping whenever things felt wrong. It was a skill he’d picked up at an early age, having been kept up at night by his father and mother bellowing at each other for what felt like hours at a time. Maybe it was experience or something else, but this ability had only gotten more keen with age.
So he did the sane thing: he joined a search party. Dad had offhandedly mentioned they were looking in new spot of the forest.
A cop corralled the group of four together as Tristan settled in, her finger bouncing in the air above them. “Four. Alright, listen up! The areas to your right and behind the crash have been searched up to 50 yards. We’re taking the left, but we’ll split up to cover more ground.” She produced four radios. “You see anything, radio it. Channel 3.”

His toes were wet and numb. Every step had him kicking leaves off his soles.
Through the foliage, there was the barest hint of the other party members. Good and truly lost, he thought as he endeavored.
Every tree, every branch sticking up from the leaves clutched at the air as he walked by. He thought he saw a hoof in the dirt at one point. There are no wolves. There are no wolves in North Carolina. If there was a body, we’d have found it by now.
He still didn’t want to believe it.
This wouldn’t be the first time, either.
Stop. It won’t be like that. It won’t be like that. She’s out here.
The morning sky washed in purple. The chill let up, if only for a moment.
Tristan nearly fell into the mud again when his foot caught on something. He hopped once, twice, three times before catching himself. He bent down, inspecting the leaves that gathered around the debris.
It was damp cloth, buried in flattened dirt like something had stepped on it in a hurry. The mud and water from the storm last night had darkened it to a deep blue, nearly black. He found other pieces close by: a sleeve, teeth of a zipper. All torn to ribbons.
He’d found the hood and what was left of Lydia’s jacket.
His heart picked up pace. This isn’t possible.
Something else caught his eye, farther down in the bushes. A whiteness out of place in the drab, cool colors of the morning. He knew it wasn’t possible. So naturally he went to it.
A hand lay motionless on a pile of leaves.
This isn’t possible. The phrase rang in his head as he took tentative steps forward.
He wasn’t imagining it. That was a coat, her coat in the dirt. That was a hand laying there.
He wasn’t sure about the person it belonged to.
Her skin was impossibly bright, almost luminescent. Like marble, cut exactly from the block and polished to a sheen. Unkempt crimson hair made maroon in the low light trailed over her shoulders and down her back, leaves and dirt filling the curls. But strangest of all, the markings. These odd spirals and spots all over her, darker than the white yet too deep in the skin to be tattoos. And the seam down her spine, with that pitted point on the back of the neck.
Tristan bent down, gently taking her head in his hands. His heart was pounding despite his efforts.
She’s breathing. Okay. There’s a pulse. He felt his hands jittering with an unnamable panic he couldn’t describe.
He laid her back down, covering her with his coat. He’d been in worse in less. It was worth the sacrifice.
“H—Hello? I found—” The words shook as he tried to finish the thought. “I found her.”
Someone yelled from the forest. Tristan waved down the shape advancing through the brush.
You did your job. Just go. But he stayed as the party gathered around him, shocked and bewildered at the sight of Tristan’s discovery.
Even when the EMTs came to their aid, he couldn’t shake the feeling.
That face.
Her face.
He didn’t want to consider any more possibilities.

Nyx sighed as another cycle ended.
A gust tugged at branches hanging low to the earth. The trees whined in sleepy protest as their weakening leaves finally snapped free into the rushing cold. They were not the only things taken on the greedy wind: petals of oculus flowers, a loose mime-cap, even a glinting droplet from the gullet of the silver-leafed tree traveled into the night air away from Murmurwood, to parts unknown.
In this spot, much earlier, the hunts of the Unseelie would have been taking place. The brush would be continually disturbed by the endless slapping of paws and feet as the predators came out to feed. For a great, undisturbed period, there was no rest in any pond, meadow, burrow or tree. Sometimes there were screams. A loud sob or two. But nothing so cruel. The Laws stated as such.
Still, she enjoyed the silence. It was like home, where there was no trace of Man. Her people had no need for them.
She hid in the trees just outside the grove, the silver leaves lashing her eyes with hypnotic grace. The cailleach was no liar. Trees with Cerridwen’s light. And the scent of the bugbear was everywhere. This was the place.
A swift movement at the base of the tree caught her eye. A tiny thing peeled itself from a spot above, bark transforming into feathers and bright blue eyes. A puca, like the witch had said. It glided down to the base and gingerly landed to the shape laying under the foliage.
Hundreds of shapes skittered and scuttled through the trees. Through her eyes, the forest was many colors except the one of the Goddess’ light. There were too many, she felt. Too many things living here. Too much life, unlike home.
You have your mission, she remembered.
So Maeve concentrated. The outlying objects in the forest as her target wedged into focus. The shape at the bottom of the tree was a globule of scarlet, like an egg close to hatching. Its protoplasm shifted as a tinier one, possibly the puca, hopped closer.
You must wait to reveal yourself. She retracted her fang into her hand. Wait for the best moment. Man always jump at the smallest scent of danger.

“Lydia?” Sharp pecks against her leg. She didn’t flinch. Chess faded into view between slow blinks. “Lydia, are you okay?” The puca’s beak leaned to the sky, scratching her head. “Has cycle started already?”
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