It was mid-evening, and the Covington estate was buzzing with activity. Droves of people had come for the annual midwinter ball, traveling from the world over. Little cliques exchanged polite conversation over drinks; gentlemen took ladies’ hands to dance; vi( )antly colored ball gowns twirled across the floor like leaves on the wind.
And then there was Skylar, floating on the periphery of the whole scene like a black cloud. Searching for a good hiding place.
Behind the curtain, she said in her head - though not to herself. Her lips moved discreetly behind her black veil.
Could you just slip into a corner? responded one of the shadowy entities floating around her, the words beamed directly into her mind. All of the corners are empty. To Skylar, the demon appeared as a literal black cloud, its center marked by one glowing amber eye; but she knew that the others around her couldn’t see it at all.
The corners are wide-open, Skylar explained, I need to get behind something. I’m starting to feel overcrowded. No further explanation was needed. Skylar’s adoptive family of demons were just as familiar with her “personality quirks” as she was (if not moreso) - and a major one was her dreadful aversion to crowds.
It wasn’t just that they made her feel trapped, like she was losing herself in a maze of human bodies (although that was certainly a factor). No, what bothered her most was all of the eyes. She simply couldn’t deal with so many eyes in one place - so many that might cross her path. Her demons were always trying to convince her that nobody was looking at her, and that it wouldn’t matter if they were; but at the moment, that wasn’t stopping her from squirming under dozens of perceived gazes.
She looked around. The curtain wouldn’t work, as a hiding place - it was too close to the wall; everyone would notice. The building seemed designed to be as open and sweeping as possible; most of the floor space was taken up by the vast ballroom, with the centrally located grand staircase obscuring any hallways that might lead to an exit. Maybe it was supposed to add to the grand, opulent look of the place; but between that and the crowd blocking her view, Skylar couldn’t see anywhere to go.
It’s all right, Skylar, just ( )eathe, the amber-eyed demon said, sensing her anxiety. Another demon, bearing a red eye, floated up beside her like a faithful dog. Their presence steadied her a bit, but still, she looked around the room frantically. There had to be somewhere...
Over there! she and the amber demon exclaimed at the same time. There was a row of load-bearing pillars towards the left side of the ballroom, creating an empty, corridor-like space between them and the wall. Skylar half-ran towards them and hid behind one, leaning all her weight against the hard stone. She let out a sigh.
As soon as she was out of view, it felt like something had changed in her - like she had shed her polished persona and became herself again. She still wore the same gauzy, voluminous black dress; her blue-purple hair still hung down in attemptedly-tamed waves beneath her dark veil. But she felt certain that, if someone were to peek behind the pillar and look at her, they would be able to tell on sight that she didn’t belong there.
Or at least, more certain of that than before.
She could feel the concerned emotions of the amber-eyed demon- Renegade, as Skylar had always known it - over their psychic link. The red-eyed demon was never quite as...sentient as the others - but it could recognize when its human was in distress. (That one hadn’t been capable of choosing a name for itself, so Skylar, at age 6, had decided to call it Strawberry. 13 years later, it still responded to that name.)
I’m sorry, Skylar said to them, burying her face in her hands, I know I’m being ridiculous, and I should be thankful just to be here, but I just -
Skylar, Renegade interrupted her gently, you have nothing to apologize for. Even though Skylar could literally sense its sincerity, she found its words hard to accept.
Suddenly, a third demon with an ice-blue eye materialized alongside the others; it immediately started to telepathize. I think I might have seen something - But evidently, whatever it was wasn’t that important; the creature dropped its train of thought as soon as it noticed Skylar’s distressed, hidden state. What’s going on? It said with concern. Are you all right? Did something happen?
No, nothing happened, Oddity, Skylar replied, putting more exasperation into it than she would have liked. Skylar’s third demon, Oddity, was almost as incessantly worrisome as Skylar (as you might be able to tell from its chosen name), but about different sorts of things. Oddity always seemed to be watching over the shoulder of its fragile mortal charge in fear for her safety, fearing - almost expecting - some nebulous, shadowy danger to wait around every corner. On the rare occasions when Skylar’s unearthly family fought amongst themselves, it was usually Oddity and Renegade, who believed that the former’s negativity was a bad influence on Skylar.
This time, Oddity wasn’t the only one harboring suspicions about the ball (though Skylar and the other demons certainly weren’t). There had been rumors flying about, (which Skylar’s line of work put them all in a special position to hear), that the event might be infiltrated by unsavory characters; who, (depending on the person telling the story), wanted to steal from Mr. Covington’s mansion, interrupt the ball with some sort of big public disturbance, or possibly even ( )ing the whole building down. Some even claimed that pirates would be the ones to do all this; of all the things. There was a single grain of truth to these ideas - the fact that there had been a few sightings of suspicious ships on the water near the location of the ball - but they were largely unfounded, blown out of proportion for the sake of intrigue. Yet Oddity was concerned by them all the same.
You really would expect someone who’s been a disembodied observer of the world for hundreds of years would have better critical thinking skills. But, that was just part of Oddity’s “essence”, Skylar supposed.
I’m not in any danger, Skylar continued, there are no suspicious characters hanging around here except me. I’m just hiding in the shadows because all this excitement is too much for my dysfunctional little mind to handle.
That’s good, Oddity said with relief; Skylar could tell that it didn’t really hear those words until several seconds after they were spoken. No, wait. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry.
I know what you meant, Skylar said sincerely.
Is there anything we can do for you? Oddity continued. Would it make you feel better to talk about it?
No, not really. But thank you for worrying about me. She turned her head, trying to meet the eyes of all three demons. Thank you all for worrying about me, she said, but I just really need to be alone for a moment. All right?
They wordlessly approved, like an incorporeal nod. Skylar turned away from them and laid her head limply back on the pillar, staring pitifully at the vertex between the wall and the ceiling. She put up a wall around her thoughts and curled up inside her own mind. Against her will, a mental list of worries played back in her head.
This was the first ball Skylar had attended in her lifetime, and she guessed that it would be the last. In her regular life, she was merely a courier, with nothing to her name but ragged clothes and a comprehensive knowledge of how to thwart a mugging. (Well, that and her severed demon’s eye.)
But it just so happened that the man holding this ball was a bit of an eccentric, himself, and their lives had crossed paths before: Skylar was the one who delivered the message informing Mr. Covington that his wife was giving birth. When he invited her to the ball - well, when she first got her invitation, she just stared at it and said, “I don’t understand. Am I supposed to deliver this?” But in the 6 weeks between then and the night of the ball, she veered wildly between excitement and fear.
I’m gonna be at this big, fancy ball, where I’ll be completely out of my depth! I’ve never gotten to go to one before - I wonder if people will be able to tell on sight? I’m going to remember this night forever, even if I don’t end up publicly humiliating myself.
The three demons, ever her supporters, tried to assuage her worries. Skylar didn’t think they entirely understood the significance a ball held for humans, but they were just generally in favor of Skylar doing things that scared her.
New experiences like these are very important, Renegade had said regarding the ball, and countless times before, especially at this stage in your life. They can shape the person who you become, in ways you wouldn’t imagine.
How’s this for a new experience, huh? Skylar thought, as she stared at the wall, but did not share telepathically. I don’t even want to think about how this is going to shape me as a person.
After a while, she felt a stirring at the outer edge of her mind. One of her demons was trying to get her attention.
She tentatively opened her mind back up. What is it? She asked.
Look over there, Oddity said; there being a spot to her right, on the other side of the pillar.
Just tell me what it is. Skylar didn’t feel like looking back into the ballroom.
No, really, Renegade cut in, you need to look. Even Strawberry seemed to be in on it, floating into her field of vision and urging her mind towards the right.
Giving in, Skylar poked her head around the pillar and glanced around. Over there, Renegade said, pointing her towards one specific person amidst the crowd. Now, this might be just another one of those human practices that we can never fully understand, but...
...Does that woman have insects on her head?
Skylar paused, blinked a few times, and burst into an ungraceful fit of giggles. It was true - the partygoer in question was wearing an elaborate hat, with large butterflies stuck all over its plume.
It’s called fashion, you guys, Skylar replied through tears, this is how the upper-class dress themselves!
So, you can tell somebody is sophisticated and tasteful if they’re covered in dead bugs. Interesting. We will try to keep that in mind.
Skylar crammed a hand over her mouth to keep from being heard. Those can’t be real, she said, squinting, I can’t see very well from over here, but there’s just no way. They’ve got to be fa( )ic or something.
Sorry, Renegade corrected itself, if they intentionally fake being covered in dead bugs.
If you’re still worried about impressing these people, Oddity added, I think I saw a squirrel on the road over here that would go nicely with your coloring...
Skylar quickly ducked behind the pillar. Stop it, she said without even a pretense of sincerity. Do you realize that if anybody comes over here, they’re going to see a girl just completely losing it laughing at nothing? She paused a moment. And then, I might as well not even bother with the squirrel.
Skylar flopped back against the pillar, and this time it was more of a relaxed, carefree gesture. She actually found herself peeking back into the ballroom, scanning for anything else interesting to share with her demons. She didn’t quite feel like going back out yet, but she felt like she could.
Really, it wasn’t the joke itself that lifted her spirits so; she and her demons could have had a conversation like that on any normal day, and she would’ve just smiled a bit and moved on. It was the circumstances surrounding it that made it special: being in such a troubled state of mind, and having somebody else care enough to try and cheer her up. If it weren’t for the three demons, that was something Skylar may never have gotten to experience.
Skylar had never gotten to know her biological parents; they were taken by a plague before she was old enough to have any memories of them. But for some inexplicable, blessed reason that she wasn’t sure she would ever understand, these beings chose to take her under their wing.
They had been there her whole life - helping to teach her how to speak and read and write, consoling her when she shed tears, keeping her company on every long, lonely trail she walked. It didn’t matter that they were a different species than her, or that she had to wear a magical object to see and hear them, or that no one else could ever know that they existed. They were her family, and she would forever be grateful to have them.
After a few more minutes of pleasant conversation, Skylar’s nerves had calmed, about as much as they were conceivably going to. All right, I think I’m ready, she said. She downed the last sip of her fruity drink, adjusted her veil, and took a step. Let’s go seize this new experience!
Just then, somebody else ducked behind the pillar.
Skylar fumbled her step, and almost choked on the fruity drink. “Oh - hi. I - I’m…very sorry”, she stammered out as she turned around to meet the eyes of the other person. Actually, there were two people standing before her: a pink-headed woman in a simple ( )own dress, and a pale, freckled person of indeterminate gender wearing a blue suit.
“Oh, no, it’s all right,” the blue-suited person said. Their voice sounded measured and elegant, like they were reciting from a note. “Were you using this...alcove, here? My friend,” they gestured to the woman, “and I wished to talk privately with each other, but…”
“Oh - no, no! No. I was just...” Skylar had trouble keeping her attention on the person speaking. The pink-headed woman, (who had not said a word in the whole encounter), was throwing a weird sort of look at her companion; like Skylar’s sudden appearance had given her even more things to discuss in private, and she was trying to communicate them all with her eyes. If the other person noticed, they didn’t say anything about it.
Tearing her gaze away from the woman, (instead looking shiftily around the room), Skylar continued speaking. “...leaving. I was just leaving. I’m not - you - just go ahead! I’m gone! Bye!” She said those last few words over her shoulder, already walking away, giving a stiff wave to further cement the awkwardness.
Once she was back out in the open, she realized that she had her hand over the purple jewel dangling from her necklace. (Or, what everybody thought was a jewel.) She must have put it there, unconsciously, during her strange encounter. She’d never liked to cover it, as doing so blocked her connection to the demons, but it had become a reflex after all her years spent protecting it from would-be thieves.
Wow, that was awkward, she said telepathically as she removed her hand. She was halfway between rattled and amused. I guess that hallway is a pretty obvious hiding spot, after all. I wonder if...
Her train of thought trailed off as she realized something: no one was listening. The words just echoed inside her head, even as she tried to reach them out to her demons. She glanced about; the air around her was empty, their cloudy black bodies nowhere to be seen.
This was strange. Skylar’s demons never just disappeared like that, (even though, not being bound by physical bodies, they could). If they were all going to leave her side at once (which was rare in itself), they would have at least let her know first.
Maybe, Skylar thought, they’re still behind me, in the corridor? Yes, that had to be it. Hesitantly, she crept back over there and peeked behind a pillar. She picked a different pillar, one significantly farther down than the one she had just been evicted from. After her last conversation with those strange people, the last thing she wanted to do was try to explain herself to them. Sorry, I know I said I’d leave - I just need to look purposefully at the empty air for a second, and then I’ll be out of your hair.
Once she got a clear view of the hallway, she saw that the strangers were still there - but her demons weren’t. She fought down a wave of panic.
From where Skylar was standing, she realized, she could hear the strangers pretty clearly.
“...was something not quite right about that girl”, the pink-headed woman said. Was she talking about Skylar?
“She just seemed awkward and nervous, to me,” the blue-suited person replied in a contradictory voice, “Like she hasn’t been to one of these gatherings before. Based on what I heard, she was probably some kind of domestic employee who Mr. Covington invited on a personal favor.”
...All right, they were definitely talking about Skylar. She didn’t want to hear anymore - but at the same time, she couldn’t tear herself away.
“Still”, the woman continued, “ain’t it suspicious, that someone like that’d show up now of all times? And right where we were standing, too?”
Skylar was so stung at being referred to as “someone like that”, she almost didn’t notice the other part of the sentence. Now, of all times? Did she mean...during the ball? And, wait - did she say that Skylar’s presence was suspicious?
“Well”, the other person replied, their voice somehow becoming even more measured, “I think it’s a coincidence. But...we just have to wait and see if Bridge knows anything.” They paused. “You know, you were the one who decided to work with him on this.”
The name, admittedly, threw Skylar a bit. Bridge? Is that...a person? It wasn’t the strangest name one could have, she supposed - certainly no stranger than Renegade or Oddity or least of all Strawberry - but she was unused to seeing other humans with names that were words.
The woman said nothing Whoever Bridge was, and whatever they were working with him on, it was clearly a sensitive issue for her. Skylar was starting to feel uncomfortable eavesdropping on these people’s private conversation - even if they had been talking badly about her. She was just about to slink away to go hide in a corner somewhere - and, she had almost forgotten, look for her demons - when she heard the strange woman speak again.
“Did you see the jewel on her neck?”
Skylar froze in place.
“No, not very well. Her hand was covering it.”
“Well, yeah. I meant before she covered it. It was purple, round, I think...couldn’t tell what kind it was...” Her sentence trailed off.
All Skylar’s thoughts of leaving had vanished when the stranger mentioned her “jewel”. There was no way she could have even suspected what it really was - not a jewel at all, but a severed demon’s eye that enabled her to see things outside this plane of reality - Skylar knew. But it made her nervous just to hear them talking about it like that. She had enough experience defending her prized possession from thievery to know that it was not good to hear somebody show so much interest in it.
She dared to peek around the pillar, just the slightest bit. The strangers were really close to each other - not in an intimate way, but conspiratorially, like children whispering secrets to each other. They weren’t saying anything at the moment. The little rational voice inside Skylar, telling her to step back and leave these poor people alone, cried out louder, only to be matched by the heedless, suspicious voice wondering, what if they really do have nefarious intentions? You have to see…
Suddenly, the blue-suited person turned and gave a little gasp, like they had just seen someone whose presence they hadn’t noticed before. But they weren’t looking in Skylar’s direction, and neither was the other stranger - both of their gazes flicked to the right, where the ballroom was.
There was, in fact, another person there: a tall, strangely-dressed man whose face was halfway-covered by what seemed to be a hooded cloak. Skylar was actually just as surprised at his presence as the other people - it was like he had snuck over without making a sound. She was beginning to feel a bit unnerved.
“Ah. Hello, Bridge”, the blue-suited person said, solving that mystery, at least.
The hooded man - Bridge - looked around frantically. Skylar ducked back behind the pillar. “Shhh,” she heard him say, “don’t go saying my name like that. We’re trying to be clandestine, here.”
“It’s all right,” was the response, “this is a completely out-of-the-way location we selected. Nobody else is here. Unless any of them followed you?...”
“No, no. They haven’t even noticed I’m gone yet - but they will soon, so we need to be quick.”
“Tell us what you’ve found out,” the woman said in a stony voice.
Bridge seemed to understand that. “The plan is going along as we predicted,” he said. “They’re...They’re gathering in 5 minutes.”
“5 minutes?” the blue-suited stranger asked. “Really?”
“Yes, really. Do you think I’m just messing with you?”
Skylar looked down the corridor again, and saw that the pink-headed woman was turning to speak to the suited person. “Why don’t you just let me talk to him, Landry” - or at least, that’s what it sounded like she said; her voice had dropped so low that Skylar had to strain to hear. “Landry” could be a person’s name, right?
“Right now. Come on, I’ll show you where.”
Bridge started walking down the hall (the opposite direction from where Skylar was watching), not even pausing to see if the others were following. The strange woman grabbed the sleeve of his flowing robe to stop him.
“What is it?” He asked impatiently. “We need to go now, before they start to miss me…”
She nodded, but kept holding on. “I’m gonna ask you one last time: do the Children have any idea we’re here?”
“You sure? Sure they wouldn’t’ve taken any...extra measures, against sabotage? Wouldn’t have sent anybody else in?”
“Of course I am,” Bridge said. “What do you mean, ‘sent anybody in’?”
“We had a ( )ief encounter with someone,” the blue-suited person who might be called Landry explained, “they were acting strange, and Kaira was concerned - but if you say nothing’s going on, then…”
Landry’s sentence trailed off, but Bridge no longer seemed to be paying attention. (Or objecting to the use of their names, evidently.) He looked at Kaira and spoke. “If I thought anything might jeopardize our efforts here, I would tell you.”
He and Kaira’s eye contact was so deep, it was like they were trying to look into each other’s souls.
“I really hope I can trust you,” Kaira finally said.
And with that, the three strangers disappeared down the hallway, leaving Skylar to try and keep herself together.
She had no idea what she had just heard. What was going to happen in minutes? What were those people planning to do - and why couldn’t “the Children” know about it? She had said that name in such a strange way - a way that made Skylar think she wasn’t literally talking about somebody’s offspring. Who, then? And - had she really heard them say words like “sabotage” and “jeopardize our efforts”?
All the questions swirled around in her mind. There was only one thing she knew for certain: she was not supposed heard that. It wasn’t just a private conversation, it wasn't even a secret discussion. It was more than that. It was a conspiracy.
All the rumors she had heard about the ball, and the sinister forces that might infiltrate it, rushed back to her. She had dismissed them out of hand before, but now they sent chills down her spine and seemed so very possible. She would have to apologize to Oddity once she found her demons again - which she suddenly remembered, again, that she still had to do.
It was all too much. Her mind raced. She looked frantically about. And then, she took off after the strangers.
By the time she caught up to them, they had already reached the end of the hallway. Skylar slowed down her steps, and crept up behind something to watch them. They were all gathered around something at the very end of the hall...a door. There was a door on the back wall.
Landry slowly opened the door; it seemed to lead to some sort of empty closet. “This’s the place?”, Kaira said. Bridge only nodded. Landry had their head in the closet, looking around.
“All right, you need to stand right here,” Landry said with a sweeping hand gesture towards the area in front of the doorway. “And make sure the door is unlocked.”
Kaira looked at Bridge. “Seriously. If we can’t get you outta there, then -”
“All right, all right, shhh,” Bridge interrupted. His voice lowered for his next words. “So, let’s do the spell now. We have 3½ minutes.”
Kaira nodded and reached down for something. Her forearm disappeared into her dress; evidently there was a deep pocket there. She pulled something out - what? What was it? Skylar desperately craned her head to see, but she couldn’t get a good glimpse of it without exposing herself.
Kaira handed the unknown object to Bridge. It was small enough to transfer neatly between their palms. Bridge crouched down and moved a potted plant from the corner. Carefully, he set the object down on the ground.
He didn’t stand up after he set it down, like you would expect. He stayed down, and kept his arm extended, his hand covering the object. He closed his eyes - or, his visible eye - and started...muttering something. It was too quiet for Skylar to understand, but she got the impression it was in another language entirely, or possibly just gibberish. Kaira and Landry stood apart from him, not daring to make a sound.
This continued for about a minute, and something...strange started to happen. His face seemed to light up with a golden glow, like he was standing directly over a flame. Skylar looked closer - it was on the walls, too, and reflecting off of the potted plant.
Skylar kept watching, enraptured. With each passing second, the glow intensified, until she could actually see the golden rays passing between Bridge’s fingers.
And then, just as quickly as it began, it was over. Bridge opened his eye. He blinked for a moment and took an audible, shaky ( )eath, like the action - the spell - had taken some of his energy, but quickly recovered. He moved his hand, stood up and joined Kaira and Landry. They moved the potted plant back, until the object and its inexplicable glow were completely concealed, and disappeared in separate directions down the hallway.
But not before Skylar could, finally, see the mysterious object clearly. See what it was.
A demon’s eye.
Skylar took a few quivering steps towards the potted plant. She parted the plant’s leaves and looked behind it, half-hoping to see that she had made a mistake, that it was anything else. But she only saw the same thing; a little round jewel that wasn’t a jewel, a mirror of hers in gold instead of purple. A demon’s eye. A demon’s eye. How…?
She turned around, startled. Amidst everything that had just happened, she’d almost forgotten about her demons’ disappearance. And now they were back again, hovering behind her.
Had they seen it too?
We are so sorry we left you, Oddity said weakly. It seemed like, if it had a real body, it would have been in tears.
I understand, Skylar replied, and to her surprise, she did. It hit her again - those people had a demon’s eye. They could see demons, just like her. If Kaira had thought to take it out of her pocket - and maybe she did, when Skylar wasn’t looking - she would have found out Skylar’s longest-held secret, just like that. And then, who knows what could have happened?
It was certainly lucky that you left when you did, Skylar mused aloud in her head; but they both knew it wasn’t. It was planned. Her demons had known what was going on even before she did.
She leaned over the plant and looked at the glowing demon’s eye again; this time, all three demons were looking too. Time seemed to stop as they stared at it.
Renegade spoke first. You must understand; we never meant for you to see any of this tonight. We had...no idea this was going to happen, until it was too late, and we had to leave you…
Skylar said nothing. She wanted, so badly, to just accept their words, to let them comfort her like they always did. But she couldn’t help reading between the lines, picking up on what they weren’t saying as much as what they were. They never meant for her to see this tonight? They didn’t know what was happening until it was too late?
Without even thinking, Skylar leaned over and reached for the demon’s eye.
DON’T TOUCH IT!
Skylar pulled her hand back, shivering as Oddity’s telepathic voice ran through her. It was the same kind of voice her demons had used with her when she was a child, innocently trying to touch fire or climb up onto the roof.
Why not? Whatever barrier that had held back Skylar’s questions ( )oke. Why can’t I touch it? What is it doing there? What did they do to make it glow like this? How do they have a demon’s eye in the first place?
With each question, the demons’ panic grew and grew. It filled the air like hot, sticky precipitation, it seeped into Skylar’s head, it mixed with her own. She actually felt physically dizzy. But she steadied herself, and, with all her strength, addressed the demons who were her family pointedly.
Tell me everything.
Her comment set the air ablaze with white-hot, crushing emotion. She had never seen her demons this way before - they had always been so collected, so rational, so - above all of the ephemeral human problems that tormented her. Pillars of strength in her life. And now...
We can’t, Renegade said desperately, not addressing Skylar specifically.
Really? Oddity responded incredulously. You’re going to be like this now? Now that things are starting to fall apart, you’re just going to lose it and - and start acting like me? Aren’t you the one who always wanted her to know? Who thought we should be preparing her for the day when -
But we didn’t Both of them seemed to have forgotten that Skylar could hear them, or just didn’t care anymore. If there’s anything that could ever be done to prepare a human for this, we didn’t do it. Letting her see us wasn’t enough. You know her. She’s just a normal human girl. It could destroy her just to know about this, let alone try to do anything about it...
Those words could have been construed as insults, but it was obvious that they weren’t meant that way. Just the opposite; Renegade made it sound like a normal, human girl was a precious thing that it couldn’t stand the thought of disillusioning. Like it was just a fact that Skylar couldn’t handle this nebulous life-changing truth, and it wasn’t fair that they might have to ask her to. Skylar was inclined to agree, but…
How could you not tell me now? After everything I’ve just heard…do you expect me to just forget? For everything to just go back to normal, now that I know this? It’s not going to happen. It stung her heart to say this to them - to admit it to herself - but she could sense that they saw her point.
Oddity floated towards her. You have to get out of here.
Out of the building. Back home. Now!
But - I just found out, for the first time in my life, that there are other people like me. I want to talk to them -
No you DON’T! Skylar flinched, and Oddity softened its tone. Look, those people aren’t like you. They...You don’t realize what you would be getting into if you talked to them.
Well, how could I? You haven’t told me anything.
There was a moment’s pause, and then Renegade entered the conversation. You need to go, and once you’re safely home - it hesitated - then we can talk.
No. Skylar pushed herself straight up. I’m not leaving until I understand this!
Even she was surprised by her conviction. Up until a few moments ago, she would have done what they asked, implicitly accepted their assessment of the situation. She’d trusted them, more than anybody else.
But...had she really? She may have trusted them emotionally - to be there for her, to always have her best interests at heart. To love her. But she’d known, for as long as she could remember, that they were keeping things from her. How could she not?
There was so much they’d never told her. Why they were so different from the mindless, bloodthirsty demons that humans have feared for centuries. What they did in the years before Skylar was born, before they let her see them. Why they chose her to let in on their existence in the first place, of all the people in the world. What happened to the late demon whose severed eye she now wore. And she had never pushed her demons for the answers.
She didn’t need to know. She was happy with the life they had together, even if she didn’t understand it all. And deep down inside, she feared that if she looked too hard at the strange, inexplicable mystery of her life, it would all just...fall apart.
And now, that was happening anyway.
Skylar’s defiance sparked a wave of emotion in the demons - not anger, but more like...fear. Terror. Renegade drew so close to her that their bodies almost overlapped.
Skylar. There’s a chance, that something very bad is going to happen, here, in…
Oddity continued the thought. ...Minutes. Or less! You have to out of here, Skylar, you’re in so much more danger than anyone else here - please, GO!
With each word, Skylar backed further away from her demons, (something she had never done before). When she hit the closet door behind her, she turned around and opened it.
Wait, don’t -
She darted into the enclosed space, like she could run away from everything she had just heard. Her feet crossed the barrier of the doorway - the barrier marked by the glowing demon’s eye.
And then, there was silence in her head.
The voices of her demons - their entire presence - had fallen away, just like when they had vanished before. But when Skylar looked through the doorway, they were still there, hovering about as close as they could without actually coming in.
Strawberry - who had been watching the whole thing unfold, becoming more and more upset but not being able to do anything about it - flew desperately towards her. But once it reached the doorway, it a( )uptly stopped - like it had run into some invisible wall…
Skylar stood and watched numbly, paralyzed by a fear and confusion beyond anything she’d ever experienced before. All her energy was spent on the realization that she knew why this was happening. What those mysterious strangers had done to the demon’s eye...the spell...this had to be the purpose of it.
They’d put up some sort of invisible barrier that kept demons out of the room. Why would they do that?...
Skylar heard footsteps. Down the hall. Coming towards her.
She looked at her demons pleadingly, as though they could give her guidance without being able to speak. As though they could give her guidance at all, with the state they were in. It seemed like their featureless, glowing eyes gazed into Skylar’s for a second, before they disappeared. Again.
The footsteps came closer.
Skylar’s paralysis vanished into the air, like the demons had the second before. She whirled around and around, looking desperately in every direction, her whole body shaking. Where would she go? She was trapped. The closet was a dead end. There was no way out, besides through the hallway - which would lead her right to the source of the footsteps.
They were right outside the door now.
Skylar ducked behind a stack of boxes.
The closet door opened, flooding the room with light.
For the second time that night, Skylar found herself hiding from mysterious, shady strangers. She listened carefully, desperately for any sign of life - more footsteps, audible ( )eathing, voices. But she heard nothing except her own heartbeat. For a moment, it seemed possible that the door had been opened by some sort of phantom; but then, someone spoke.
“Is anyone in here?”
It was a female voice, but definitely not Kaira’s or even Landry’s. It had a soft, ringing quality to it that would have been pleasant if it weren’t for the circumstances. Skylar froze in the silence following the question, locking her muscles, quieting her ( )eathing as her chance to stand up and leave the room faded away.
A set of footsteps made its way towards the door, and then Skylar heard another, more familiar voice: Bridge’s.
“It’s clear”, he called out the door in an authoritative stage whisper. More sets of footsteps approached.
Many more sets of footsteps. Skylar tried to count them, but couldn’t. She peeked through a crack in the boxes, and almost gasped aloud at what she saw.
There must have been 15, maybe even 20 people there, bumping shoulders with each other to fit in the walk-in closet. Skylar recognized some of them, guests she had spotted in the ballroom or stood next to at the refreshments table. She looked around for Kaira and Landry, but didn’t see them.
Everyone was compiling themselves into an orderly, square-shaped rows, save for two: Bridge, and a pale-headed young woman who was presumably the owner of the ringing voice. They stood before the small crowd, right in front of the door - in front of the door. The words Kaira and Landry had told Bridge came rushing back to Skylar - should she be thankful, or frightened that their plan seemed to be working?
The woman grabbed a big, sturdy box, and stood up on it; like she was going to give a speech to the crowd in front of her, right there in the storage closet. Bridge shut the door, cutting off the light and reducing the people to silhouettes.
Skylar listened carefully as he turned the lock with a soft click...then turned it again.
The woman spoke up in her distinctive voice. “Dear Children…”
Skylar’s blood ran cold.
“...You all have worked so hard; have poured so much of your ailing souls into our cause, and now...Here we are. Tonight, we take our first step into the light. We show this world that we are still here - we are alive. No matter what physical form we bear; or how wounded our minds have become during this awful frame of our lives - our spirits live on, with all of the strength they possessed so many years ago. It is my utmost hope for all of you that you don’t ever forget that.”
Her words went so deep inside Skylar’s head, the woman might as well have been using telepathy. They were such beautiful words, so soft and comforting. It was like the woman really was a mother to all 20 people standing before her, though that seemed unlikely. They actually ( )ought up a twinge of emotion in Skylar herself, amidst everything that was going on - until the meaning hit her. Tonight, we take our first step into the light. We show the world that we are still here.
“...Tonight, all of your suffering will be given meaning. The wretched race that dominates this world will regret having ever tried to erase us...”
Skylar. It’s possible that something very bad is going to happen, here...
“...You have all done very well in getting us to this point. The hard part, for you, is over. Just relax, release your grip...Let it take you...Your true nature...Anchor yourselves to me, and I will guide you through this. I am your Guardian.”
She fell silent for a moment, as if to let the words sink in.
“...Now. Let us transform.”
With those words, each of the silhouettes reached a hand up to their face. Skylar saw veils being adjusted, bangs being pushed back, eyepatches being lifted - belatedly, she realized that everyone she had seen in the group had one eye covered. After everything that had happened, Skylar was half-prepared to see empty, bloodied eye sockets underneath.
The reality was much more shocking.
On each of the Children’s faces, where an eye should be, there was a round, ( )ightly-colored glittering object. Anyone else might have mistaken it for a precious gemstone, perhaps a particularly opulent form of prosthetic eye. But Skylar knew better.
The leader-woman stepped down from the box, her speech ended. She went to join her underlings, and then, they all just...laid down on the floor. It was a very deliberate action, not at all like they had passed out (or died). Bridge was the only one who remained standing.
At first, all that could be heard was the Children’s ( )eathing; then, another sound started...Bridge, muttering incomprehensibly under his ( )eath. Just like he had done when he lit up the demon’s eye. Could he be - doing another spell? There seemed to be no reason to create a barrier this time, and besides, it couldn’t be the same one. Skylar still couldn’t understand his words, but it was clear to her, somehow, that they were very different from the previous ones. Was he...
Skylar lost her train of thought. Her head felt foggy. She tried to grab onto a thought - about the peril she was in, all the questions she had, her beloved, absent demons, anything, but she couldn’t. They all slipped away like sand through her fingers. There was nothing, nobody else but her and Bridge and his inexplicable power. It went under her skin like a persistent, psychic hum.
Bridge’s demon eye glowed an eerie green. He continued on with his - trance - for timeless seconds until...it spread. The demon eyes of the collapsed Children glowed, 20 little lights blinking on in the darkness.
A purple light crept up from the bottom of Skylar’s vision.
She was losing herself in the lights, the hum, the black fog which was now coalescing above the bodies. It was a fog she would have immediately recognized, had she been in her right mind. It swirled and billowed, as though becoming alive.
The lights floated up from the Children’s faces until they were right in the middle of the black fog.
A picture came together.
The room was now filled with demons.
They were shockingly easy to read, like their minds were wide open - or, what little there was of their minds. They weren’t calm and affable and sentient like Skylar’s demons; they were like wild animals. Like the demons that had ravaged the world hundreds of years ago. All except one.
A demon with a silver eye hovered above the rest, and it just exuded awareness. Skylar knew, without having to think, that it had come from the speech-giving woman. She also knew it had all the other demons under its control - there were no visible tethers running between them, but there may as well have been. Instinctively they submitted control to it, and only it could restrain them from whatever chaos they wanted to cause.
Skylar knew that it wouldn’t bother to.
The horde of demons rushed towards the door - expecting to pass right through it. Their bodies pooled there, a vertically aligned puddle of smoke and rage. The leader-demon seemed to know exactly what was going on, its infuriated realization filling the room.
Its control over the lesser demons slipped away, leaving them to roam around the enclosed space. They wreaked havoc, lifting boxes and flinging them against the walls, and that was when they found Skylar.
She jerked upwards, hard, too out of it to tell whether she was standing or being pulled by the demons. She wasn’t afraid, not in the slightest. She was beyond fear. Even when the leader-demon turned its burning, inhuman gaze on her glowing demon’s eye...and very clearly recognized it.
The levels of its rage almost matched those of its subordinate demons- but in a way that was less wild, animalistic, uncontrolled, and more human. Like it knew full well what it was doing. Like it wanted to destroy every little piece of Skylar like only an intelligent being could.
Who are you? the demon asked with a paper-thin mask of composure. Are you who I think you are? Have you really come back to haunt us again?
The normal Skylar would have ( )oken down from fear; collapsed to the ground, cried desperately that she didn’t know who it was talking about, pleaded to be let go.
But the girl standing there, in that moment, didn’t even flinch, just looked up and sent over a single telepathic word.
The closet door swung open.
A pair of hands shot through the doorway, grabbing Bridge by his shoulders and pulling him out.
A voice from behind gasped. “There’s - there’s a girl in there!”
The owner of the hands jumped back, (still holding onto Bridge). Her eyes widened in horror, even though she couldn’t see the demons. The other person was trembling and clasping a hand over their mouth. If Skylar hadn’t been in such an altered state, she would have recognized the people as Kaira and Landry.
She certainly would have recognized the figures floating behind them: three demons with red, amber and ice-blue eyes.
The trapped demons lunged towards the doorway to attack them, but hit the same barrier they had before. They slammed into it repeatedly, not understanding that it was a permanent object.
The leader-demon’s telepathic voice rang out through the room, so much more raw and grating than the voice of the human it had come from, SOMEBODY RESTRAIN THE HUMAN!
Real voices came from outside the door. “We can’t just leave her!” “Do you wanna go in there?” “But - they could kill her!” “They could kill us!” “What are we…”
The outside demons flung themselves against the barrier again and again and again.
The Children’s demons descended on Skylar.
Their intangible power pressed down on her body, ( )uising her skin, pinning her arms, making it almost impossible to ( )eathe. She felt less scared and more just trapped, an innocent girl trapped in a room full of malevolentdemons, the being that the leader-demon was searching for trapped in the fragile shell of her body.
And then, she wasn’t. She reached out with her mind, and it actually seemed to land. The demons flew back, like they had been shoved away by invisible limbs, and recoiled in a phantasmic approximation of pain. Skylar’s body collapsed limply to the floor, but remained conscious. The demons avoided it, creating a dome of clear air.
Skylar’s eyes stared unblinkingly through the doorway. They saw Kaira and Landry standing there awestruck, unsure whether to be afraid for or of her, saw the familiar demons desperately flying all around…
...Saw the demon’s eye on the floor move under an invisible force, rolling out of the doorway…
...Breaking the barrier that kept the demons inside…
It was like everyone knew the exact moment it happened, and the room cleared almost instantly. The demons poured out into the hall; Skylar pushed herself up and ran. Even she didn’t know why. The leader tried to command its demons to stop, for one of them to get Skylar, but they yielded to self preservation.
They were right to. Skylar didn’t understand what it was she had done, but she knew it wasn’t a one-time thing. It was part of her now. She could do it again. She would.
She shoved past Kaira and Landry, almost knocking them over. Horror was written on Kaira’s face as she struggled to keep a hold on the entranced Bridge. The demons were trying to pull him out of her hands. Skylar didn’t see if they did.
She kept running and running until she couldn’t. Her legs folded beneath her. She rolled herself out of the hallway; now she was back in the ballroom. A few people noticed the immobile body collapsed in a heap on the pristine marble dancefloor - but their attention was quickly diverted.
First, the building started to vi( )ate. It wasn’t quite like an earthquake, shaking the walls and knocking people off their feet; it was more like what happens after a metal utensil strikes something hard, a quivering, echoing pulse. It produced an audible hum, which blended in with the mixed gasps and voices of the partygoers. The crowd moved as one living, ( )eathing thing, seeking to understand. A few people crouched down and touched the floor.
Then, the light came. A strange sort of light, made of so many different colors blended together that none could be made out, seeping through each hairline crack in the floor. The Children’s demons flew directly into it, like animals sunning themselves; many of them were actually passing through the floor. The humans couldn’t see this. But they saw the light. Their curious chatter turned to shouts.
Skylar couldn’t see the leader-demon amongst the commotion, but she could sense when it came into the room. Miraculously, it didn’t seem to see or sense her at all - yet. It reached its will out to its subordinate demons like a hand piercing water, wordlessly ordering some of them to stay underground cultivating the strange light; some of them to assist it in searching for Skylar; and some of them to...to go after the guests.
They did. About 6 of the shadowy creatures dove towards the throng of humans and picked out one each to attack in the same way they had Skylar. The people they chose were mostly those at the forefront of the crowd, nearest the exits that everyone was seeking. While Skylar’s body had merely lifted a few inches, these people were being raised above the heads of the mob, and worse yet, their bodies were being twisted in odd, unnatural ways in their deadly em( )ace. It was obvious: this whole attack had been coordinated to gain as much attention - and as much fear - as possible.
It worked. Chaos erupted in the enclosed space. People were running in all directions, shoving past each other, not even really trying to find an exit anymore. It was a riot. The people’s terrified screams mixed with the sounds of bodies thudding into the walls, ( )oken glass and that infernal hum. Those few who had crouched down earlier to touch the floor had to get up quickly to avoid being trampled. A feat which Skylar was incapable of.
As so many feet came down around, and on top of, Skylar’s body, she wavered on the borderline of consciousness. She saw it all unfolding through vacantly open eyes, her own mental voice gone silent in her head.
Three others crept in to take its place.
Skylar, one of them said. No recognition was stirred by the name.
It’s us, Skylar. We’re here. You’re going to be all right…
She felt tugging on her wrists, pushing on her back. And then she felt dizzy, spinning - because her body was in motion. She was rising to her feet, completely outside her own volition. Invisible black fog wrapped around her.
It’s not safe in here. You need to get up. There’s a way out of here. It’s not safe. Please hurry.
The 3 familiar demons were using every bit of the power they had to affect the outside world to move her. But that had never been very much, and there was no way they could make it to the exit that way.
Skylar, they desperately drilled into her head, you are under the effects of a spell. If you don’t wake up from this, now - you don’t have a chance of escaping. You need to remember who you are, Skylar. Remember everything...Remember us.
With that, something like a memory came back to her.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a memory from Skylar’s lifetime.
Calling up the same power she had used in the storage closet, she shoved her protectors away with invisible hands, into the writhing cloud of hostile demons, into clear sight of their leader whom they’d all been trying to avoid.
She collapsed backwards.
She barely felt herself fall.
She barely felt when she stopped.
Her head tilted back, and the last thing she saw as her vision went black was Kaira’s face gazing into her own. She drifted away to the sound of a voice,
“Help me lift her! We’re taking her on the ship.”