Please read Cassie’s First Kill first. This will make way more sense if you do.
“Well,” Gran said, stepping over the pile of neon-green blood that was oozing out of the monster’s body. “Not bad.”
Cassie was breathing heavily, struggling to calm herself. “What was that?” she demanded. “What did I just kill?”
They met in the middle of the street, the body of the dead monster between them. Gran had picked up the dagger that had fallen into the street, and was wiping the blood and skin on the side of her nightgown.
“That is a monster,” Gran replied, “from ancient times, hell-bent on chaos and destruction. Nobody knows, or maybe nobody remembers where they came from.” She paused now to scratch her head thoughtfully.
This was a simplistic non-answer as far as Cassie was concerned. She blinked dumbly at her grandmother and tried again. “Why is everyone else in the city asleep? Other than because it’s three in the morning.”
Before Gran could answer, a crowd of small creatures appeared from across the street, emerging from the relative darkness of the night. They looked mostly human, with each wearing an identical orange jumpsuit and carrying a small bucket, but they were only about three feet high at the most, and they had purple skin. One of them was wearing a cap, sort of like a squashed baseball cap, and he broke off from the group and came over to salute.
“I’d like the daggers back, if you don’t mind,” Gran said, bypassing any other form of greeting or explanation.
The little man nodded, and turned his eyes, which were the same color orange has his jumpsuit, toward Cassie. He said nothing, but his expression was curious, and his stare made her feel oddly.
“My granddaughter,” Gran explained, to which the man nodded again. He straightened up and saluted, this time directing the gesture toward Cassie, and then, before she could respond, he turned away to rejoin his companions.
“Okay,” Cassie said when he was out of what she presumed was hearing range, although perhaps the creatures had better hearing than humans. “Now I’m really confused.”
She was about to say more, but at that moment her body chose to remind her that it was probably closer to four than three in the morning, and she interrupted herself with a yawn.
“Also really tired,” Gran said with a nod. “Let’s get home, and I’ll explain things after we’ve both had some sleep.”
It was nearly ten thirty when Cassie awoke, glad that it was Saturday and that she had neither work nor classes to attend. For a few minutes, she thought everything must be normal. Buttons was curled up at the foot of her bed, and lifted his eyes only briefly to see her.
She rubbed her eyes to clear away the sleep, and her hands smelled like the most disgusting thing she had ever smelled in her life. How had she…?
And then she remembered.
There had been a giant green monster.
The smell had been everywhere.
She’d killed it. She looked at her hands and remembered what it had felt like to hold the leather-wrapped handle of a small dagger, to throw the missile toward a target, and destroy it with that action.
What was it?
She needed a shower. Even though she hadn’t touched the monster, the smell seemed to stick with her. Grabbing shorts and a t-shirt, she slipped across the hall to the bathroom and turned the hot water on, full blast. She scrubbed herself with three different kinds of flowery, girly soap and washed her hair twice. Finally, the scent seemed to be a memory rather than a reality.
Ma was in the kitchen, folding laundry. She’d been up and to the Laundromat already, because she was an early bird and Cassie had slept so late. Gran was nowhere to be found.
“Well,” Ma said. “Slept late today, huh?”
Cassie shrugged as she rummaged through the fridge, hoping something amazingly delicious would emerge and demand to be eaten. No such luck.
“I had trouble sleeping,” she said vaguely. Ma hadn’t been awake last night. Did that mean she didn’t know about the monsters? Gran hadn’t explained that, either.
Figuring she was stuck with cereal, she took out a carton of milk and stared at the cereal cabinet for a few minutes before deciding on a brand. “Where’s Gran?”
“She said she had an errand to run,” Ma answered. She placed the latest folded towel neatly atop the pile of towels. “Wouldn’t tell me where.”
Cassie poured the cereal and the milk, the sound of which brought the cat, as expected. Buttons sat at her feet, occasionally meowing in hopes of a treat. She was silent for a while as she ate, only half-listening to Ma talk about her plans for the day. When she was finished, she poured the last of the milk into the sink and rinsed out the bowl.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Ma said as Cassie turned to head back to her bedroom. “Gran left a note for you. She said it was ‘top secret’ and wouldn’t let me open it.” She frowned. “I’m hope the two of you aren’t getting into trouble.”
“What trouble would Gran get into?” Carrie asked innocently. She took the envelope Ma held out. It was sealed.
Ma didn’t answer, but was frowning disapprovingly. Doing her best to act nonchalantly, Cassie opened the envelope.
Inside were several folded up copies of city bus schedules. A few stops were highlighted in yellow and circled in red, and on the back of the last one, Gran had written ‘Meet me!’ with the same red marker. It was a spot several miles and two bus routes away from the apartment.
Cassie looked up from the papers to see Ma’s curious expression. “She wants me to meet her somewhere,” she said, holding up the bus schedules. “I guess I should head out soon.”
“Weren’t you going to study today?”
“There’s always tomorrow,” she answered with a shrug. “And, maybe this thing with Gran won’t take all day.”
“What do you have to meet her somewhere else for?” Ma wondered. “You live in the same apartment.”
Cassie had no idea.
A good hour and a half later, she got off the bus near the edge of the city. It wasn’t quite the end of the line, but it felt like it. The neighborhood was mostly warehouses and a few offices, and since it was Saturday, pretty deserted. Cassie got off the bus by herself, and saw no other humans nearby.
For a few minutes, she stood on the corner, wondering if Gran would appear from nowhere, somehow aware of her arrival. Gran hadn’t said what time to meet, which made sense as she hadn’t known when Cassie would wake and prepare to leave, but she probably had a copy of the bus schedule, and the bus ran somewhat infrequently on the weekends.
A few cars drove past, obviously on their way to further destinations outside or inside the city limits. Cassie began to feel a bit exposed when the third car slowed as it passed her, and decided she might walk around a bit. Maybe Gran had found a bench or something to sit on.
The bus stop was in front of some sort of industrial building, long and white, only one story high. It took up the entirety of the block. For lack of any direction, Cassie began to walk down the sidewalk directly in front of it.
She wore comfortable sneakers for walking, a baseball cap to keep the hot sun out of her eyes, loose-fitting shorts, and a t-shirt. Because it felt more secure and mobile than a purse, she carried a small backpack over one shoulder. The temperature was warm, but an occasional breeze helped to make it bearable. The industrial park was basically devoid of trees or tall buildings, and the lack of shade meant that she was soon warmer than she might have been in the downtown.
In a few minutes, she reached the end of the block, and still saw no sign of Gran. She sighed heavily, and a sudden gust of wind chose that moment to cool the air. It brought along a scent, however.
It was not the same as the monster she’d felt the night before, but it was still unpleasant. Cassie felt a chill run down her spine despite the warm weather. Was it a monster? Did they come out in daylight? What was she supposed to do? Gran had taken back the daggers. What if Gran was in some sort of trouble?
She was paralyzed with fear for a few minutes, wondering if she should head home or head toward the scent, and wondering at the same time if she’d imagined it. What if it wasn’t a real smell, but a memory?
The bus heading home probably wouldn’t come by for at least another hour. Unless she wanted to walk or call a taxi, there wasn’t much chance of Cassie getting home quickly. Running away wasn’t really a viable option. And if Gran was in danger and Cassie did nothing? Ma would never forgive her. She’d never forgive herself.
Cassie blew out a breath, straightened her shoulders, and started following the scent. It seemed to be coming from behind the white building she was in front of.
She turned to face it. A driveway, leading to a rear parking lot, was to the right of the building, a few steps ahead. Cassie began to walk down the drive. The entrance to the lot was blocked by a guardhouse and a pair of gates that opened and shut for employees or visitors. On the weekend, however, the guardhouse was empty, and Cassie easily walked around them.
The smell grew stronger as she rounded the side of the building. Before her stretched a vast expanse of pavement, sectioned into parking spaces with yellow paint. Every so often, a tall streetlight promised illumination at night. There was still no sign of Gran.
She followed the smell. It grew stronger, but also seemed to change. It led her to the very far side of the parking lot, where a small grassy area gave way to the thick cover of trees. The scent grew sweeter and more pleasant. Cassie hesitated a moment, and then entered the tree-filled area. It was cooler and darker in the shade, and the sweetness of the odd smell mingled now with the smell of grass and woods.
A few steps further, and Cassie saw a small stone building amidst the trees. Not much larger than the guardhouse in the parking lot, it seemed to have no definitive purpose. There were no wires for electricity leading to the building, and it didn’t seem to have a door. Since it was unusual, and unusual things seemed to be the norm lately, Cassie walked toward it.
There was a door, on the opposite side, an old wooden thing painted white, as was the rest of the building. The roof was flat, and with odd protrusions that made Cassie think of a castle roof. There were no windows, so she could not see inside, and so, for lack of anything else to do, she knocked on the door.
The door creaked open, moving inward, and after a moment, Gran’s wrinkled face and bright blue eyes peered out. “Oh, there you are!” she exclaimed upon seeing Cassie. “I thought you were going to sleep all day.”
“I thought you were going to meet me at the bus stop,” Cassie replied. “What is this place? What’s going on? Are you going to explain things to me now?”
“Of course,” Gran replied, “that’s why I brought you here. Come inside already!”
Inside was small, as expected, and dimly lit. Along each of the four walls were bookshelves filled with ancient-looking tomes. In the center was an old desk that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a monastery of Bible-writing monks, with a wooden stool beside it. The only light was what appeared to be a battery powered desk lamp, aimed toward the desk for reading. Also as might be expected, it was dusty.
Cassie stared at the space, momentarily pausing in her questions. Books usually meant answers. Usually.
“You should probably read some of this stuff yourself,” Gran said once she’d shut the door again. She waved her hand to include all the books around her. “Normally, that’s how it would work. Normally. Well, in the old days, anyway. I guess things haven’t been normal for a while.” She shrugged, and waved a dismissive hand. “It’s faster if I explain the basics to you first, and you can read later.”
“Read,” Cassie echoed, mentally adding the books here to the amount of reading her classes required. “How…how long would it take to read all these? How many…?”
“I forget the number, and it’s not important,” Gran said, again waving a hand. “We’re getting off track. Let me start at the beginning.” She cleared her throat for dramatic effect. “Ever heard of the Watchers?”
“That’s a kid’s story,” Cassie remembered. “Dad used to read it to me.” Gran nodded, gesturing for her to continue, so she went on. “Something about a secret society of people who defended a city from monsters.” She paused. “You’re not telling me that’s real?”
Gran cleared her throat again. “A few hundred years ago when the city was founded, there weren’t many people here, as you can imagine. The land was filled with wild animals, and some other wild things. The animals were no big deal, they got hunted into extinction or driven away from the city, but the other wild things… well, those were harder to defeat.”
“Other wild things, like the monster last night?”
“Similar,” Gran agreed, and continued her story. “At first, the settlers were decimated. The wild things were immune to any weapons they had. Guns, in case you were wondering, don’t affect these monsters. Every night, they’d come out and kill a few dozen humans before the sun came up. They built a wall, a stone wall, around the city, and that seemed to slow the monsters, at least a little.
“It got so bad, they were thinking of giving up the settlement and moving back to a normal sort of land, and some people did, but before the rest could leave, a huge blizzard came through and made it pretty impossible to travel. The rest of the town was stuck until spring. While they were suffering through the winter, and the monster attacks, one of the settlers whose name was never written down ran into a funny little creature with purple skin who looked almost human.”
“Like the ones from last night.”
“Yep. These things don’t talk, so we don’t know what they call themselves. Some people call them goblins, or elves, or dwarves, or hobbits, but we’ve never settled on an established name. Anyway, the purple guy gave that settler a sword, and even though the settler didn’t know the first thing about fencing or anything like that, he was able to ram the blade into the monster’s face and kill it the next time one showed up.”
“They had never tried that before?” Cassie wondered.
“They had!” Gran replied, holding up a finger. “Some of the settlers were soldiers, and you know how soldiers had swords even after they invented guns, so he had a gun, and after his gun didn’t work he tried the sword. The blade just kind of bounced off the monster’s skin. This settler knew that, but the special goblin sword or whatever you want to call it, it went in.”
“So it must have been a special metal,” Cassie concluded. “Some sort of ore that the…purple men knew how to work with that the human settlers didn’t?”
Gran shrugged. “Nobody knows. They’re not giving up their secrets, and nobody knows why they decided to help us. Over the years, the cooperation between the humans and the dwarf things grew. They gave more weapons, and taught some people how to use them. Swords, daggers, scythes, all sorts of blades. Bows and arrows, you name it. Only things given to us by them were able to defeat the monsters. And for some unknown reason they’ve never explained, the goblin guys always clear away the dead monsters.”
“Do they…eat them?”
Gran shrugged again. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Cassie took a moment to take in this information and think. “Okay. This would all sound like a crazy…children’s story, to be honest, if I hadn’t actually seen the monster yesterday.”
“Hmm,” Gran agreed. “Seeing is believing.”
“But why did I see it?” Cassie asked. “Why did most of the city sleep through that, and why didn’t I?”
“Goblin magic,” Gran said, and at Cassie’s skeptical stare, she shrugged again. “The story goes that after things had settled down in the city, people started complaining about the monster attacks. Even though they were almost always defeated, a monster would show up probably a few times a week, and it made life pretty difficult. The noise and the smell and all that would end up waking up most of the city, and having a city full of people with their sleep disrupted made things a little difficult.”
“So the purple people did magic on the humans who wanted to sleep,” Cassie concluded. “Seriously? Magic?”
“Magic, science, I don’t know how they did it, I don’t know what they did. Like I said, they’ve never explained themselves.”
“Okay, so why did I wake up last night? Did they take the…spell, or whatever off of me? Or is it some sort of inherited….” She trailed off.
“Something like that,” Gran said quietly, and pretended to be interested in some of the books on the walls.
“Dad. This is how my father died. This is why Ma doesn’t want to talk about him. This is why I never got a clear story. Dad was one of these monster fighters…wasn’t he?”
Gran sighed, climbing into the wooden stools. “The resistance to the goblin magic or whatever you want to call it seems to be inherited. The settlers who first volunteered to fight the monsters grew old and died off, but their weapons were handed down to their children, and their children’s children. All children are covered under the goblin’s magic; it’s only once they come of age that they’ll stay awake nights.”
“So Ma doesn’t know about the goblins.”
“She knows,” Gran said, “but she doesn’t want to. She’s been told the stories, of course, because sometimes your Dad wouldn’t come home after a battle right away, and there was always a risk that he wouldn’t come home at all.” She paused, silent a moment.
“She’s never seen a monster, but she knows the stories, and she knows your Dad and I were telling the truth.” After another moment of silent thought, Gran added, “Things have been quiet for many years. For a long time after you were born, there weren’t any monsters. Your parents almost forgot what it was to live that way, the same way most people forgot about the monsters. Lately, though, it seems there’s been an uptick.”
Sighing again, Gran lifted herself off the stool. “It’s not an easy burden, Cassie, and I’ll understand if you’re not interested in that sort of life. We can ask the goblins to let you sleep the way the rest of the city sleeps.”
“Who else is there?” Cassie asked. Gran looked confused, so she elaborated. “You and I can’t be the only ones in the city who don’t sleep through monster attacks. Who else is there? How many of us are there?”
Gran looked thoughtful. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “The city’s grown since its founding, not only in population but in size. We had to spread out, so to speak, and we were never that closely involved with one another anyway. I honestly don’t know if we’re alone.”
“So if I was to ask for ignorance,” she concluded, “it would be, maybe, just you?”
“In this section, probably,” Gran agreed. “The scent of a monster doesn’t travel that far, so a Watcher in the next district probably wouldn’t be aware of one in this district anyway.”
Cassie was quiet for a moment, letting a million thoughts wash over her. “Well, it won’t be easy, if I have to read all these books along with all the reading I have to do for school.” She waved an arm around. “Plus working. The monsters don’t attack every night, do they?”
Gran shrugged. “Not usually,” she answered, “but it’s picking up lately.”
“All the more reason I should help out, then.”
(to be continued)