Lucian’s Mother often liked to warn him that the most significant threats to his safety were familiarity and confidence. Lucian thought she was talking about patterns, like going to the store at the same time each week or going to bed at the same time each night. She didn’t.
She meant being so familiar with a place you keep it hidden or being so confident you keep secrets that can turn on you. She meant following friends into possible danger without thinking or allowing a giant man to grab your neck after your friend tried to warn you something was wrong.
All things considered, Lucian was more stunned than scared. Dell had always seemed like a nice man. Lucian mused that he probably wasn’t the best judge of character however since Dell’s grip on his neck was hardly what one would call friendly.
“I suppose you have questions,” Dell’s tone was jovial, albeit soft. He lifted one leg and rested his toolbox on his thigh. He held that pose as he brought a single finger to his lips. “They will need to wait,” Dell said, and then made a small shushing sound like you might with a crying baby.
The world went silent, and fear ran through Lucian’s veins like a startled rabbit. Never had quiet been so unnatural. It was almost painful. The air itself had lost its sound. Lucian kicked the toolbox off Dell’s leg and watched it tumble soundlessly to the ground.
Dell’s shoulders shook with a mute chuckle as he leaned down to collect his toolbox, but instead of picking it up, he flicked the latch open. He kicked the box into the trees with a self-satisfied smirk and turned back to Lucian.
Without warning and heralded only by a flicker in the corner of Lucian’s eye, the sound of the world came rushing back. The sound was accompanied by exhaustion and vibration similar to being to close to a firework exploding. Dell’s hand was no longer on Lucian’s neck as the young boy dropped to the ground. Lucian coughed as the air filled his lungs.
“Can you stand?” It was Jack. He was staring into the trees as a song of shattering flora played in the background.
Lucian’s body wasn’t responding to his demands. It was like all the energy had been stripped out of him. “I can’t. What happened?” Lucian struggled to say.
“I hit him,” Jack said simply. “Since he was touching you, you got some of it. I know it’s hard, but you need-” Jack’s words were cut short as a beam of brilliant, scintillating light hit him in the face.
“I’m gonna be straight with you, Jack,” Dell bellowed as he emerged from the trees. “I didn’t expect to kill you that easily, but I also didn’t think you would shrug focused sunlight off like that. I was positive I had you pegged.”
“The light was close, Dell,” Jack snarled. “If I were one of my siblings, I’d be more than just pissed off right now.”
Dell’s eye grew large as a realization seemed to settle on him. “Wait, you aren’t-“
Jack cut him off. His body flowing over the ground with unearthly speed, Jack drove his fist into the large man’s belly, lifting him off the ground. Jack then spun his body downward, one leg planted as a pivot point, his other leg slamming into Dell’s airborne body. The giant man smashed into the ground, flinging rocks and leaves in all directions.
“I’m the seventh, you child-killing sack of shit,” Jack said coolly. “It’s been some time since I beat someone to death with the wet end of their own arm, but you seem sturdy enough for a little indulgence.”
Lucian had managed to get to his feet but was overwhelmed by Jack’s movements. That was his uncle? Lucian had seen plenty of fights on TV and in movies, but no one moved like that. He’d struck Dell so hard that it was exhausting just being too close to the point of impact. How was Jack hitting someone like that? Moreso, how had Dell weathered the blows? What was that light from before? The questions were making his head spin.
Another flicker in his periphery cut Lucian’s thought’s short. “Jack! Look out!” The boy shouted.
A form lept from the trees. It looked like a tall, muscular man with no head. Its arms and legs were long and curved unnaturally, almost as though the lacked bones. Its broad chest was dominated by a crack, much like you would see in dried paint, with that same scintillating light pouring out of it.
Jack ducked under its attempt to grab him and caught it in the side with a well-aimed back fist. The creature flew and hit a tree hard enough to rattle it to its highest branches.
Dell flipped onto his back, his lips moving at inhuman speed. He made a small circle with his hands, and another beam of light erupted forth, bathing Jack from below. Jack snarled with frustration and attempted to shield his eyes.
Another of the creatures burst from the trees and wrapped its boneless limbs around Jack like four nightmarish snakes, pinning one of his arms to his side. The light from its chest grew to a blinding intensity.
“Lucian, Run!” Jack roared as he fought to get free.
The other creature rejoined the fight, wrapping inhuman limbs around its partner and Jack both. The light grew, fighting back the dusk.
Lucian, finally free from the stunning effects of Jack’s first strike, spun on his heels and sprinted down the path, back toward his house. Toward his Mother.
Jack had ordered her to stay put.
Lucian had left the house without permission, and perhaps she’s overreacted to that. She could feel it in her heart that something was wrong. A mother knows. When they walked around the house, Jack had sensed the presence of something spectral. It had been outside Lucian’s window, just beyond the wards. Jack had felt the same entity in various places around the camp in the last few days, but it had never come near the house. He’d left in a dead run because now he knew the focus of the strange happenings. Something wanted Lucian.
Jack had ordered her to stay put.
Lucille waited by the house, her nerves like mistuned guitar strings. Her heart, her very soul, begging to see Jack appear on the path dragging Lucian by one arm. Lucian would have that harassed look on his face that he would don whenever she would insist he stay in the house. She would yell because she was scared. Jack would tell her to calm down. It would be all right.
Lucille’s heart sang as Lucian suddenly came into view, but the feeling quickly faded. He was running, and his face looked pained. Jack was nowhere to be seen. She was right. A mother knows.
“Mom!” Lucian called out.
Her son flew into her arms. He was almost as big as she was, but that wasn’t too big for her to catch. She held his face and kissed him. On instinct, she began to cast, stripping his fear away, but he pulled free, breaking her concentration.
“Mom,” Lucian said again, shaking his head as if shoving out the effects of the unfinished spell. “I saw Rowan’s ghost and was trying to help him leave the camp when Dell showed up and did something to him! Then he grabbed me talking about hunts and meals when Uncle Jack showed up and hit him.”
“It’s okay, Baby,” Lucille said as she reached for him.
“No, Mom! No, it isn’t!” Lucian shouted. “Monsters got Uncle Jack! Dell is after me!”
Lucille felt the air leave her, and her legs give way, but it was almost as if she weren’t experiencing it. Had monsters done something to her Jack? What monsters? What had Dell done? He’d come for Lucian and done something to Jack. A flood of anger quickly consumed the feeling of disbelief.
“Lucian, help Momma up,” Lucille said, as she raised her arm.
Lucian dutifully helped his mother to her feet, but Lucille kept her eyes on the ground. She needed to gather her thoughts.
“Mom, what is going on? What is Uncle Jack? What is Dell?” Lucian’s tone was pleading.
“Lucille, I am surprised at you!” A jovial voice called out as Dell sauntered into view. “Your boy is how old now and he knows nothing? I might not be great with children, but I at least put them to bed without a bunch of unanswered questions. That’s how you get angry spirits, you know.”
“What is he talking about?” Lucian asked.
“I was going to talk to you about it all today, but now isn’t the time,” Lucille said, placing a hand on Lucian’s chest and gently pushing him backward. “You are gonna see me do some scary stuff, but I need you to stay back. I’ll explain everything later. I promise.”
Lucian nodded and moved back toward the house. Lucille fixed her gaze on Dell. The giant man was walking towards her, brave as a forest fire. He didn’t yet realize she was the break.
“What are you?” Lucille shouted. “What have you done to my Jack?”
“I’m a mage. A warlock if we’re pedantic,” Dell answered. “As for Jack, I’ve given him something to do. I’ll be honest though. I’m not too keen to be here when he breaks free of my Gaolers, so how about you lay down and let me take the boy? I don’t think throwing his mother on the corpse pile is going to make his soul any easier to consume.”
“You think you are going to touch my baby?” Lucille said. Infernal mages mostly used verbal commands for spells, but Lucille didn’t. She could internalize her desires and make them happen. She called the hellfrost to cloak her, and a thin coating of icy blue flame wreathed her body. “I’ll tear out your soul and feed you to the pit myself!”
Lucille lifted her arm, and a gout of blue flame erupted from the ground at Dell’s feet. The Warlock dodged nimbly to the side and rushed forward, his lips racing.
The wind howled as it raced through the trees, responding to Dell’s spell. Leaves, branches, and even small rocks were ripped from their resting spots and formed into a flying serpent of debris. It struck forward, consuming Lucille in a blizzard of material. Lucille’s hellfrost armor kept the contents of the wind from hitting her, but not from obscuring her vision, so she was unprepared for Dell’s foot as it slammed into her hip, throwing her backward.
Lucille stumbled and tried to catch herself as pain took up the task of Dell’s snake of wind. She dropped to one knee while making several sweeping motions with her arm. Blades of hellfrost materialized in the air and flew forward, consuming the wind snake and its accumulated debris and rending them into so much sparkling dust. Dell held up his hand, his mouth again rapidly spitting words. A shimmering wall of light formed to block Lucille’s blades, but one made it though, slicing the fingers from his hand, but missing the rest of him as he leaned out of the way.
As he straightened, Dell’s lips were again moving as he formed a circle with his hands. Within the circle, a bright, scintillating light formed and burst out as a beam. To Lucille’s horror, it wasn’t directed towards her but Lucian. Without thinking, she made an upward sweep with her arm, summoning a wall of bright blue hellfrost in front of Lucian. The great beam of light vanished into it, leaving Lucian wide-eyed and Lucille relieved.
Her lapse in focus was costly. She was so worried about Lucian she hadn’t seen Dell close the short gap between them. She didn’t see his hand with its severed fingers pierce her hellfrost armor and then her chest. She only felt her ribs shatter and her heart stop. Dell stood over her, like her partner in a fatal tango, with that same neighborly look he always had. The hellfrost had chewed his arm to the bone, but it didn’t seem to phase him.
Lucille griped the Warlock’s arm weakly as she felt the blood rushing into her punctured lung. She has lost, but it wasn’t over. She wouldn’t let this man, no, this thing hurt her child.
“Simon. To me,” Lucille said raggedly.
Time stopped as that simple request left her lips. The air stilled and all sound ceased. This was desperation. She hadn’t directly called her patron in years. She hadn’t needed too, and he could be unpleasant at times.
“Lucille!” A great voice bellowed, shaking the world beneath her feet. “This is quite unbecoming. To call me while you are being penetrated thus!”
“You are disgusting, Simon,” Lucille spat. Calling her patron had taken her to the time between. What it was exactly between was difficult to say as she never bothered to ask. “And must you shout every time I call you?”
“Apologies,” Simon said, his tone much more reasonable. He placed a hand over her eyes and pulled her soul from her body. “Stand up straight. It would be strange to speak with you in this manner.”
Freed from her injured body, Lucille felt lighter, and in different circumstances, she might have felt joyful. The heat and pain were gone, but she knew she wouldn’t be returning to that vessel and that brought a different strain to bear.
“Thank you for coming, Simon,” Lucille said sadly.
“I have little choice in the matter,” Simon said simply. He was wearing a clean gray suit and wore a gem-encrusted crown, which hung roguishly to one side. Lucille could never wrap her head around the fact that such an earthshaking voice could come from such a pretty man. She caught herself. He wasn’t a man. He was a demon. No matter how human he looked, he was neither now, nor ever, human. “How can I help you? If it’s about that hole in your chest, I would suggest a doctor, though I suspect you won’t make it in time.”
“Oh? You don’t think so? I thought you knew everything. You say that like you think it’s possible for me to live through this.”
“Is that snark? Did you call me to sass me before you die? Or to rub it in that we will never see each other again?”
“Neither,” Lucille said with a sigh. “I need you to finish this fight for me. I have to protect Lucian, and as you can see, it went poorly.”
Simon walked around the scene a couple of times before shaking his head and sucking his teeth. “You are dead, girl. You have perhaps one breath left in this temple of gossamer. I would need to enter your temple as its master to do as you ask and, well, we both know that’s quite impossible.”
“Because of the deal?”
“Exactly. I can only enter your temple as its master if I own your soul. Your soul, however, is sacrosanct.”
“I can give it to you in exchange.”
Simon’s effeminate features twisted in frustration. “No, you can’t. If I save your offspring and he eventually asks me to release it, I will have no choice but to do so. No deal.”
“Servitude then?” Lucille offered.
“You would indenture yourself to me?” Simon said incredulously.
“Would that allow you to do as I ask?”
Simon rubbed his hands together greedily. He stopped as a thought struck him. “Wait. How long? There is no time in hell, and if that boy asks for your release, again, I would have to grant it simply because he asked.”
“The length of Lucian’s natural life.”
Simon narrowed his eyes. “The length of Lucian’s life, period. Also, you must agree that if Lucian asks for your release, you will refuse him yourself.”
“I will swear to this.”
Simon looked around, scanning the area. “I can assume since I’ve not arrived to stop myself you are going to honor your side of things.”
“I would ask for one more thing.”
“And that is?”
“I don’t want him to suffer in life. Without me to protect him, I fear the pain he will experience.”
Simon’s eyes grew wide, and he bellowed with laughter.
“You think this is a joke?” Lucille said hotly.
“It must be,” Simon said, wiping a tear from his eye. “You are suggesting I remove his ability to feel emotions. Even joy can cause suffering, you silly creature. You would have me turn your son into a machine?”
“Just the emotions that result from negative events. Pain, sadness, anger.”
“You mad thing. You now suggest making him into history’s greatest monster?”
“I suggest no such thing!”
“You do not realize it, but that is exactly what you have asked for. Lucian will be as powerful as your grandmother with little work. The woman was kind, loving, and forgiving almost to a fault, and she was a killer of unique skill. Would you create that without any of the good? Without his negative emotions, he will fail to develop empathy properly. With me at his side, his power would be immeasurable. I am not opposed, but I’m confident it is not what you want.”
Lucille’s head dropped. What she wanted was wrong, no matter how she approached it. No matter what she thought. She glanced towards Lucian, still wide-eyed at the wall of hellfrost she had thrown up to protect him. This was the last she’d see of him. Her perfect boy. Her beautiful little shadow.
“Take his grief for me, then,” Lucille said finally. “I’ve hurt him so much, and he shouldn’t cry for me.”
Simon studied her for a moment, sighed and nodded. He waved his arm and a portal ringed in blue hellfrost opened beside him. “It’ll be on the house. A gift for my new young master. Once you step through, the deal will be considered accepted, and your temple will be mine.”
Lucille stood before the portal and took one last look at her son. A wave of biting cold and withering heat rolled out of the entrance like the horrid breath of some unspeakable beast. She steeled herself and stepped through. The deal was done. Her son was safe in Simon’s hands.
His mother was making blue fire come from nowhere. She had neither match nor tool to make it. The sun had almost fully set, and there wasn’t enough light for trickery of that nature. This wasn’t a swamp, and Lucian smelled no methane. This was real. She was waving her arm, and blue fire answered her unspoken commands. Lucian knew what he was looking at. He had to be right.
His mother and uncle were superheroes. Was he a superhero too? Did he have the same power as his mom? He’d never made blue fire or even felt like he could. She promised to explain though. She said she’d tell him. Was this why she hid him? Why she hid with Uncle Jack everywhere they went? If his mom was a hero, then did that make Dell a villain? Why did Dell want to catch him? It was all too much, too fast.
Lucian was so engrossed he only saw Dell’s beam at the last possible moment. It was a bright dot in the middle of his vision that seemed to be growing larger when a wall of incandescent blue flame erupted from the ground, forming a wall in front of him. The wall, despite obviously being fire, gave off a chill air that threatened to pull the wind right out of Lucian’s lungs. It was the coolest thing Lucian had ever seen, and it was his mom who made it.
As quickly as it sprang forth, the fire flickered and died. Dell was no longer where he was, situated at the no longer obscured mouth to Lucian’s not-so-hidden path. Lucian turned to look at his mother, his mind on fire, eager to see what else she could do. The fire in his mind vanished with the same finality as the wall of cold flame that had just saved him.
Dell was standing over his mother. His hand was buried wrist deep in her chest. She clutched at his arm weakly for a moment, her expression one of surprise, fear, and anger. She coughed, shuddered, and went limp, her arms falling heavily at her sides. Though all this, Dell was smiling, just as he always did. It was a warm, neighborly smile that made the whole scene unbearably surreal.
“Mom?” Lucian felt himself speaking, but the words felt like someone else’s. He found himself walking forward, his legs heavy as if some part of him, more profound and primitive, bid them move with only a passing familiarity with the action.
“Now that was invigorating,” Dell said. He spoke as though he’d just taken a swim in winter, surrounded by friends. “I suppose if it didn’t end this way, I’d have thought less of the girl.”
Lucian stumbled and fell against the house. He could feel a tightness around his eyes that was so unfamiliar as to be almost alien. His chest was tight like it was with Rowan, but this was so much worse.
“Tough break, Kiddo,” Dell said, his voice dripping with false sincerity. “I’d say she’s in a better place, but I’d be lying, and there isn’t really a need for that sort of thing, is there?”
“What?” Lucian said.
“She was an infernal mage who made a deal with a demon for power. That usually only ends one way.” Dell sniffed disdainfully. “Oh well. What’s done is done, and I don’t have much time left. As I told your mother before, I’m not interested in being here when Jack gets loose.”
“Worry not, Warlock,” A hollow parody of Lucille’s voice intoned. “You won’t be here when ‘Jack’ arrives.”
“Wh-” Dell’s words are cut off by the sickening sounds of tearing meat and breaking bone as Lucille’s arm pierces the giant man’s side.
“I would be hard-pressed to say you’ll be anywhere at all soon.” The voice came again. Lucille stood straight with her arm still lodged firmly in Dell’s torso. She regarded Dell curiously for a moment before frowning in disgust. “Oh, stripes and strings. Are you a servant? What kind of impossible pervert is your master to make something like you? And in his own image? I hate to say this, as there is nothing I do not know, but I do not know how a human came to make one such as you. A shame I do not have more freedom to extract such knowledge from your master.”
Dell’s body began to shiver violently. Blue light burst forth from his eyes and mouth. Lucille’s arm twitched ever so slightly, and Dell detonated, filling the air with fine glittering dust.
“That was simple enough, I suppose,” Lucille said, her voice filled with echoes and distortions. She turned to Lucian with her hands folded demurely over the hole in her chest. “Now for the difficult part. Come to me, Child.”
“Mom?” Lucian asked. He moved towards her instinctively, even while some voice in the back of his mind screamed that something was wrong. That whatever he was looking at wasn’t his mother.
“You are unharmed, yes?” Lucille said, adjusting Lucian’s face with one hand.
“What is happening? Mom, I saw you-“
“Die?” Lucille said, staring directly into Lucian’s eyes. Her pupils were fully dilated, and the whites were like fresh milk.
Lucian nodded mechanically.
“You saw true, I’m afraid. Your mother has died. I am her servant. One day, I will be your servant. You may call me Simon.”
“Mom’s dead?” Lucian asked. He felt a terrible weight in his chest, crushing him to the ground. He didn’t want it to be true, but this thing in front of him couldn’t be lying. He had watched her die.
“I made your mother a promise, so forgive me for this,” Simon said as it gently placed its hand over Lucian’s eyes.
All at once, Lucian felt a familiar calm run over him. The weight was gone, and a profound sense of love and warmth remained in its wake.
“This is no gift, my future master. I only hope you understand one day.” Simon said, sadly.
In the woods, down the path, a pair of muffled explosions rang out. The night sky darkened noticeably.
“Finally,” Simon muttered.
A moment later, Jack appeared from the woods, a look of concern etched into his face. Seeing Lucille and Lucian, his tension eased, and he half jogged over to the pair. “Oh, thank goodness. You’re both okay.”
“Hello, Jack,” Simon said with a curt nod.
Jack froze. “Simon? How are you here? Why are you inside Lucille?” Jack was growing angrier with every word.
Simon revealed the hole in Lucille’s chest. “The girl made a deal after she lost.”
“You aren’t allowed to-“
“Enough, Child. I will not be chastised by you, nor instructed on the application of law you only understand in passing.” Simon snapped, the distortions surrounding Lucille’s voice becoming more pronounced. “I was reluctant, but she found a loophole. The details are private, as they always are with these matters.”
Jack bit back his words, his face anguished. He turned to Lucian who was watching the exchange with curiosity. It didn’t surprise Lucian that Jack knew Simon, but he’d never heard anyone speak down to Jack before.
“Lucian, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to protect your mom.” Jack said, wrapping his arms around the boy.
“It’s okay, Jack. I’m okay,” Lucian said simply. “That’s what my mom wanted, right, Simon?”
“That’s correct,” Simon said, its tone softening dramatically.
Jack leaned away from Lucian, a look of horror creeping across his face. Jack looked back at Simon who nodded sadly.
“I managed to talk her down from her more drastic request,” Simon said. “She asked me to take his grief as far as she was concerned. The damage is limited, and what’s already there should fade in time.”
“Should?” Jack questioned.
“It’s hard to tell with shadows. I can’t exactly see his future, you understand.”
Jack rubbed his face. “The mage is dead, right? I can’t see him escaping you.”
“I fear not. That thing wasn’t a man. It was an expertly crafted homunculus of incredible power. Its master remains. Unfortunately, as her request was for me to save Lucian by winning this fight, and I have done so, I am restrained in helping any further. ”
“Damn. Without Lucille, the wards are gone as well.”
“Do you have a plan? This boy is too young to command me, and as I said before, I am at the limit of my summoning.”
Jack stared at the sky for a moment and swore softly to himself. His head dropped in defeat, and he nodded.
“Then enact it. I will see to my previous master’s vessel,” Simon turned to Lucian. “One day, when you are older, call me. We will have much to discuss at that time.”
“C’mon Lucian,” Jack said, resignation in his voice. “I won’t waste your mother’s sacrifice. We’re heading into town.”
“Now? Why?” Lucian asked.
“I have some people you need to meet.”