Artificers' Menagerie: Book of Crows

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
After being too sick to attend the first month of school Liam Young, comes to find he is part of a very small class, with only 12 other students. The students are cold to him at first but eventually warm up to him as he spends more time with them, all except one. The other students tell him to avoid a girl in the class called Lilly Preston. After asking why the students tell him that bad things happen to people around her, both of her parents and brother died and any friends she had she has driven away with her weird habits. After speaking with her Liam is drawn into a world of magic and mystery as they track down Lilly's former master and attempt to free Liam from a curse.

Submitted: June 08, 2017

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Submitted: June 08, 2017

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- 1 -

It was one of those days where I wasn’t sure which was bleaker, the cloudy cityscape outside my window, or the white walled hospital room. Points where definitely going to the room, because of its eerie medical equipment that stared blankly down at me from the walls, which beeped menacingly. I had been locked up in here for almost a week because, after a surprise heart attack had me take a tumble down some stairs, I started coughing up blood and the doctors wanted to make sure that my heart hadn’t exploded.  I thought they should have been able to tell after a day or two but here I was still in the same modesty-be-damned robe hooked up to a machine that looks like it was built in the 60s.

Because of my near constant illness my family had homeschooled me until recently when they decided that I should go to a proper high school to prepare for college. I had gone the first two years to a public high school in the city, then at age 15 I had my first heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. I missed the last month of school recovering and never saw most of my friends from there again. This continued for the next two years until my parents decided that we would move out of the city to the countryside to see if that would help me get better, so far not much has changed. I’ve even missed the first week of school because of other various close calls.

My parents had visited me occasionally; this was somewhat mundane to the both of us at this point so we understood that they didn’t need to be around me 24/7 like when I was young. Though, it was nice for there to be some form of company, being alone for so long in this room alone makes you feel less human. To pass the time and try to stave off loneliness I played word puzzles or Sudoku, a hobby I had picked up from hospital waiting rooms.

It was like this for four or five days before the Doctor finally came in with my parents.

“Congrats, Liam!” he said “After some quick checks we’ve decided that you’re stable enough to head back to school.”

While I couldn’t say I was exactly ecstatic about the idea of going right to school after sitting in a hospital bed for almost a week I preferred this to an even longer stay. I nodded smiling politely.

“You’re going to love our new house Liam,” my mother said giddily, “Its high up, you can see all the way to the edge of town from your room!”

I left the Hospital the next day with my parents and a nurse pushing me out in a wheelchair despite my protesting. Unfortunately the sky had remained the dark grey concrete color it had for the past week when we left, breaking my hope that my escape would be followed with a cliché sunshine filled day.

The small town was a culture shock for me, having grown up and lived in a city most of my life, the concept of any major center of civilization comprising of less than 100,000 people was something hard for me to grasp at times. Although the small town did have its perks, one of which was that nobody knew me. Right now I wasn’t ‘the sick kid’ to these people, or at least I assumed.  My life up to this point had been a series of me being pushed in and out of various hospitals in between the minor points of life where I was allowed to, well, live. I hoped that this trip would be the last, and hopefully in a less grim way then I imagined.

My parents took their time driving me home, taking detours in order to show me all the quaint little coffee houses and adorable bookstores that they had found in their first week of living in the town. I feigned polite interest my only thoughts of being able to sleep in my own room again, until I remembered that even that would be denied me. We arrived at our new home, this was only the second time I had seen it, and they helped me as I took the few things I had taken to the hospital with me. I sat down in my new room; it was big, about twice the size of the closet masquerading as a bedroom that I had slept in before we moved, although it was still stacked with boxes full of clothes, knick-knacks and other miscellaneous items.  I sat down on the bed, which my mother it seemed had already made for me and looked out the window. The view out of my window would have been nice had the weather been better, the house was one of a few that was on the side of a large hill that bordered the town and as promised, I was able to see out across the entirety of the town from the large church steeple on the north end to the school directly east of me.

I laid back and tried to relax, but my body remained tense, still used to the cocktail of chemicals that had been pumped into it daily at the hospital to keep it active. I sat back up and stared out the window, in the distance a bird was circling around the spire of the church. Large and black I couldn’t make out quite what it was but it looked too big to be a raven or crow. I stood up and walked over to the window, the bird finally perched on the tip of the steeple; even from here I could see that its black feathers were speckled with blots of grey. Suddenly the bird stiffened it stood up strait and spread its wings wide, opening its beak it let out a horrifying shriek. I leaped back in panic, my heart raced; I felt my chest tighten painfully. I grabbed at my ribcage fearing that this would bring on another heard attack. My palms went clammy and my legs shook beneath me. After a few minutes I calmed down, thankfully no heart attack insured from the brief episode. I stood back up ad looked out the window, the bird was gone. I laid back down on the bed trying to relax with the echo of the shriek still reverberating in my ears, my legs and arms still shaking. Eventually though, exhaustion finally took hold and I slept peacefully through the night.

The next morning I woke up slowly, stumbling as I got out of bed, my muscles still tired and atrophied from the extended hospital stay, doubled by the event last night. I walked down the steps to the small dining/kitchen area where my mother was sitting reading the local newspaper.

“Good morning,” she said without looking up. I grunted in response and sat down.

“Birds were noisy,” I said.

“Did they wake you up?”

“No, the one last night,” I replied, looking up at her.

“Was their one at your window?”

“No, the one that shrieked,” she must have heard it.

“Can’t say I heard it.”

“You must have, it was probably heard for miles.”

“Nope, sorry.”

I stared confusedly at her, she had no expression of lying or playing a joke so I assumed she must be telling the truth, but how on earth could have no one else heard that bird screech? I put it out of my mind and I tried to shovel in some food before I had to head to school. 

While the school was on the far side of town from our house it was still close enough for me to walk there. So despite my mother’s insistence that I rest and let her drive me I set off towards the school on foot. I wanted a chance to actually get to know the layout of the town and to get some movement in me before I sat down for the rest of the day. The town was old, that was the best way to describe it. It had apparently been a mining town until several freak accidents in the local mine had caused it to shut down. It had been essentially a ghost town for the longest time until it started advertising itself as a tourist attraction for people to tour the “haunted mines.” The whole town in fact was supposedly filled with supernatural sites, haunted houses, sites of witch gatherings out in the woods, there was even a supposed site of a crashed alien space ship nearby. As interesting as a lot of this sounded most of it was made up by locals to make money.

The school itself was a simple two story grey stone complex, with just enough windows to keep it from looking like a prison compound. I trekked up the steps to the second floor, checking several times on the slip of paper that I carried with me telling me the location of my classroom. Finally I found it, room 131. I pushed open the door to my surprise the room was almost empty, with only about 11 other people in the room. They looked at me when I came in but quickly went back to their conversations. Eventually the teacher paraded in and the students slowly sat down and stopped their conversations.

“Where’s Ms. Preston?” the professor asked.

“Probably out doing her Witch shit.” A male student replied.

“That wasn’t necessary Mr. Summers,” he replied but the students all seemed to find this funny, and laughed to themselves as quietly as they could. The teacher sighed and opened a binder. “One of you will have to catch her up to speed,” was all he said, and then jumped into the lesson.

After class a few students came up to me and introduced themselves.

“Where are you from originally?”

“Chicago, but my dad works from home so we were able to move here.”

“Why’d you have to move then?”

“Um, personal reasons,” I replied, not quite feeling comfortable explaining that I had the constitution of a housefly. They all nodded, at least being respectful enough not to pry.

“Who’s this Preston girl?” I asked attempting to break the awkward silence. The students all shook their heads.

“Lilly Preston, keep clear of her man,” the boy from the start of class said. “That chick is cursed!”

“Cursed?”

“They say her grandmother was a witch who made a pact with the devil to learn magic,” A female student added.

“That seems a bit… out there” I replied.

“I thought so to, but her mother, father and brother all died on the same night, everyone says she killed them to make the same pact her grandmother did.”

“Heh, pretty cheap trade if you ask me,” I replied laughing. But no laughter came from the students. I shifted nervously in my chair. My may close encounters with death had somewhat diminished it’s significance to me and given me a grim sense of humor that was not usually appreciated by me piers.

“Just, be careful if you meet her, alright?”

I was about to interject, but the expression on her face was sincere. She looked and sounded like someone who didn’t want me to get in trouble, not someone who was trying to pull one over on the new kid. I changed the subject quickly and we continued our conversation until the bell rang for next period, all the while a thought brewed at the back of my mind

“I’d like to meet this girl.”

* * *

The next few days continued normally, wake up, walk to school, spend the day there and walk back, all without sight or sound of the elusive witch girl. Along with my morbid sense of humor, my trips to the hospital had given me sympathy for outsiders. I had had many roommates, all with various backstories of how they got their and horror stories about their disease. It’s surprising how quickly you can become friends with someone when they’re the bulk of human interaction you have in a day.

Then on my third day of school, there she was, sitting alone in the back corner of class the early morning sun providing reading light to the book she was holding. She had long black hair that, if she was standing, would go down past her waist, her eyes were small and dark, so much so that the whites were almost completely invisible, she had a thin spindly frame and her fingers flicked the pages of the book quickly and efficiently. I approached her, standing awkwardly next to her desk for a few seconds, waiting for her to notice me. I’m sure she did but she continued to flick the pages of her book, taking no action to acknowledge my presence. I coughed, trying to get her attention… nothing.

“Morning,” I finally said. Finally she gave an action of acknowledgement. Her eyes flicked up meeting mine, her gaze never straying from direct contact with mine.

“I suppose,” she replied before flicking her eyes back down to her book. What did that even mean? I tried to get a look at the book she was reading, but as I did, she closed it and stood up and began walking out of the room. Just as I was about to get up and follow her, the teacher stepped in and I begrudgingly sat down. While she may have been trying to shove away my interest all she did was make it grow. The whole class period, my mind was filled with thoughts of how I could catch her out of class or between classes, and get a chance to talk with her. I finally got my chance later that day. During the break for lunch I saw her make her way through the crowd of students into the small school library. I pushed my way through finally finding my way to the entrance and pushing the door to let myself in.

I was surprised, I had expected the library for a school this small to be little more than a closet full of book shelves but the flanking rows of them leading deeper into the room proved otherwise. I wandered aimlessly amongst the empty stacks before finally spotting my target. There at a lonely desk was Lilly, she sat, stiffly her back perfectly parallel to the back of the chair her head tilted at a perfect 45? angle down at the book she had rested on the desk. I slowly approached her. This time she instantly noticed me, her head snapping towards me as soon as I moved. She stood up from her chair and began walking towards me. For a minute I remembered the stories that the other students had told me, about how she was a witch, about how she murdered her own family. But I shook that all from my mind when I realized that this supposedly terrifying witch was a full head shorter than me. It is physically impossible to be intimidated by someone when they’re looking up at you.

“What do you want,” she snapped glaring up at me, her arms crossed haughtily across her chest.

“Just to talk,” I replied. I wasn’t lying; I really did just want to talk with her. After my first meeting with her, she didn’t seem to be the terrifying deviant occultist that the other students made her out to be, a little temperamental and solitary, but not evil.

“Don’t you know bad things happen to people who do that with me?” she said, breaking her stiff stance, letting her weight fall on one leg. I extended my hand out to her.

“I’m Liam,” I said. She took my hand and shook it then spun on her heal and returned to her seat. I walked up behind her and stared over her shoulder at the book laid out on the desk. The page looked like it had been hand written, on the facing page was more text surrounding a pencil sketch of a crow.

“What’s this,” I asked. I glanced at what I assumed was the title of the book scrawled across the top of the page; Magical Curses.

“Witchcraft,” she responded, flicking the page to reveal the next set of sketches also of crows in various anatomical poses. My heart stopped for a second, again remembering the rumors before I shook that out of my head.

“So… are you a witch?” with a sudden change of demeanor she spun up from her chair and slapped me across the face. My head snapped to the side and I griped my cheek in pain, a slight sting still lingering there after the impact. She picked up the book and marched past me her face twisted in offended rage. I raised my hand to apologize but she had already turned around the corner of the hallway of bookshelves. I let out a groan and sat down in the now unoccupied desk, rubbing my sore jaw. I had taken a risk with that question but I hadn’t expected such a violent answer from such a dismissive girl.

On my way home from school I decided to stop at one of the many bookstores that dotted the town. Inside it was lightly lit, a middle-aged lady sat behind the counter quietly reading a paperback mystery novel, she looked up and nodded at me smiling then turned back to her book. The shop wasn’t very big only four or five bookshelves each stretching about 15 feet and only coming up to my chin. Thankfully it was also only I and the shop keep in the store at the moment so it wasn’t crowded. I scanned the stacks for books on witchcraft and eventually found a whole section devoted to it. I should have guessed a town full of people who survive off their town’s spooky reputation would have books like this. I grabbed and bought three at random and power walked home eager to sink my teeth into them. I figured if I could get a grasp of something that Preston- that Lilly was so interested in, I could get a better grasp of her character.

I stayed up most of the night flipping through the pages of the books, witchcraft was a lot less interesting then movies and games made it seem. The books said that it was a nature based religion stretching back all the way to the Celts. By the end of the night I think I had a firm enough grasp of it to know that if Lilly was a witch that she probably didn’t want to kill me. Probably.

The next morning I tied up one of the books in old wrapping paper. I figured a gift wouldn’t hurt my apology either. I made my way to school only to find that Lilly was absent again today. I slumped down in my seat and looked out the window. In the distance a crow circled the spire of the church letting out occasional low caws. After class I went up the the teacher.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where Lilly Preston lives would you?” I asked. He looked at me somewhat suspiciously. I broke eye contact trying to act as non-crazy stalkery as I could. 

“She actually lives in the coven at the church across from here,” he finally replied. “She lived in her own house for a while but it burned down tragically, I’m sure the students have already told you about her situation.”

“Kind of,” I said remembering their warnings about Lilly.

“Please then, don’t let your imagination run away with you, Preston is a good kid, she may not come to class but she gets all of her work done, and makes up lost time,” he looked up at me his face sincere. “What she needs is for someone to give her a chance, everyone who tried to get close to her ended up leaving her because of the rumors.” 

After school I made my way over to the church. I had only seen the building out of windows before, so I never really grasped its actual size. The massive gothic spire at the front towered over me and the stone carving of Jesus that rested above the door looked down at me solemnly. I realized just how appropriate this building was for her to live in. I pushed open the door and made my way into the cathedral. It was a massive room the roof stretching up almost as high as the spire. The only source of light right now was the evening sun shining through the stained glass windows on either side, giving the whole room an otherworldly feel.

“Can I help you child?” I jumped at the voice despite it being quiet and tender. Turning I saw the figure of a nun standing in the glow of one of the stained glass windows. She had an old wrinkled face and her hands trembled softly holding a small rosary.

“I-I’m her to talk to Lilly,” I said. She nodded sagely.

“Ah, good good, she doesn’t get many visitors,” she replied “follow me.” She lead me out of the main cathedral down  a long corridor to a more modern looking building, almost like a collage dorm house. Some nuns sat in small common area talking with each other greeting us as we went by. The elder nun finally lead me to one of many numbered doors and knocked.

“Lilly! You have a guest,” she said. No response. A few seconds later the door opened slightly revealing the face of Lilly, her hair now tied tightly behind her head in a bun and wearing a jacket and sweat pants. Again I wondered at how people found her intimidating. The nun nodded to me and then walked off leaving me at the doorway with the messily dressed Lilly starring me down.

“Well?” she asked. I shook my read and regained my focus.

“I, uh, wanted to make amends,” I said. I pulled off my backpack and took out the wrapped book. “Here, for you.” She took the package gingerly her thin fingers grasping it tightly. For the first time in the time that I had known this girl, she smiled. But her smile was quickly consumed again by her usual dark venire.

“Um, thank you,” she said holding the package against her chest. She looked up at me and there was a good 10 or 11 seconds of awkward silence before I finally said:

“So, ah… see you in class?” Again she smiled for a second before replying.

“Sure, see you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

- 2 -

Over the next week Lilly wasn’t absent from one day of classes. I had to admit I felt kind of proud of myself for getting this eccentric little girl to finally open up. Well, open was a relative term. Like I said she came to classes and even participated sometimes but I still felt she still kept her guard up whenever I was around. Honestly I couldn’t blame her, I still felt bad about that day in the library. I would talk to her occasionally, between classes or after school in the library, but our conversations where usually shallow and short, about classes or what the other did over the weekend.

March slowly turned to April and the town was continually under assault by torrential rain. I took to taking the longer rout home from school as it was through the nearby forest and offered some protection from the near constant downpour.  One day coming home from school I made my way up the crudely made stone staircase that led to the hiking trail through forest that I used to get home. Halfway up I stopped, up in a nearby tree was a familiar bird. A massive crow, its light black coat of feathers speckled with streaks of grey. We stood there together for a moment keeping eye contact with each other before the crow took off and flew up the path into the woods. Somewhat caught up in the moment I followed the bird up the path. It lead me for quite a while further up into the hilly countryside of the mountain.

Finally we stopped near an old gnarled tree the bird zipped around and landed on the opposite side, I stepped up to the tree and peeked behind it and was surprised at what I found. There was a hole in the tree and the crow had made a nest in there, and covered it in dozens of various shiny objects, from coins and stones to pieces of jewelry. None of that was particularly novel but what was bazar was at the base of the tree underneath the hole in a little nook made by the gnarled roots of the tree was a book. It’s cover looked to be leather it’s color worn and weathered by time and the rain. On the cover was the image of a dark black feather against a grey backdrop, no title now indication of what its contents held. I reached down and picked up the book, as soon as I did, I collapsed to the ground screaming. My heart stared racing again and a boom of thunder sounded in the distance. My spine felt as if it was collapsing, my arms were being crushed by invisible pythons; every square inch of my skin was being ripped to shreds by thousands and thousands of needles. All the time the crow cawed loudly and the rain worsened into a full on thunderstorm. I writhed on the ground hoping at first for someone to come and help me and eventually just wanting the pain to finally kill me so that it would all be over.

Eventually the pain finally did stop I looked up from where I was on the ground, the tree had now grown massive in size and instead of a crow, there was a man in a long grey trench coat. He was incredibly tall, almost seven feet and he wore a top hat made from a patchwork of materials, some looking unsettlingly like skin. His face was thin and pointed ringed by dark messy hair; he had a cruel grin stretching from ear to ear and his skin was an unearthly shade of grey.

“I thank you, my boy,” he said in a deep rumbling voice. “That book had me under it’s curse for quite a while.” He walked over to where I was on the ground and tried to stand up but realized I couldn’t feel my hands. I looked down to find that the reason I could no longer feel them was because they were no longer there! I turned my head to look at my body. My arms were now wings covered in shiny black feathers I stood forward with my hear pointing forward, and a small feathered tail stuck out behind me. I had been transformed into a crow! I looked up at the man and opened my beak in an attempt to say something but only a soft hiss came out.

“don’t worry boy, you won’t be stuck in that form for long,” he said kneeling down next to me, his silhouette made all the more intimidating by the flashes of lightning. “I’ll have to kill you, I’ve seen you talking to my dear Lilly and I can’t have you going to warn her about me.” Who on earth was this guy? How did he know Lilly?

My thinking was cut short as a massive leather hand shot out and grabbed me. I squawked in fear as the man held me to the ground.  “Hush now, this will be easier for both of us if you stand still!” out of his trench coat he pulled a wicked looking knife that he heled in his other hand. He raised it up and looked down at me smiling. “Say bye bye, birdie!”

At that moment a crack of thunder shook the hill and a lightning bolt arched a struck the knife held aloft in the man’s hand.  He cried out in agony and collapsed backwards; taking the opportunity I jumped from his hands and stumbled away as quickly as I could on little crow feet. I dashed toward the path where we had come up and dove into a bush. My heart was pounding violently inside my chest and my breathing was ragged and heavy, I wasn’t used to this new body but at least it didn’t seem to have the same frailties as my human one. I sat in the bush for a few minutes before finally deciding it was safe to come out. I cautiously stepped out of the bush and looked around. No sign of the strange man. What on earth was that? Who was that man? These and so many more questions where being tossed about in my head and I couldn’t foucus on any of them. But I knew one thing, I didn’t want to be a bird forever, I had to find some way to get back to my normal body.

I extended my right wing and examined it. I was a bird; I should be able to fly. Looking down the path, what had once been a slight hike for my human form now seemed to be a massive cliff. I took as deep a breath as my small lungs would allow and extending my wings I leaped into the air, flapping violently, only to come crashing down a moment later. I propped myself back up shaking my head, looking up I saw that the storm was beginning to pass, from the sliver of sun I could see I could tell it was close to dusk. I looked back at the bush I had been hiding in. if I could jump from a higher starting point, I might be able to at least glide my way down to town.

I scrambled my way up the bush as best I could, once I reached what I thought would be a good height I took a breath and leapt off, I tensed expecting another painful crash landing. But when I opened my eyes I saw that I was soaring through the sky above the town. I let out a caw of delight and dropped a few inches in my excitement but flapped back up to a stable height. I swooped around town for a while, enjoying this newfound skill before I remembered all the problems it brought with it. I thought for bit, how on earth could I even get started looking for a way to fix this? I knew next to nothing about anything like this! Then I realized, maybe I know nothing but I knew someone who might! With that I made a u-turn midair and made a b-line for the church. Lilly would know what to do, and maybe I could ask her about the man that attacked me.

I swooped down to the graveyard next to the church thinking it an appropriate place for a crow to reside, and began looking for movement behind the windows of the dormitory. Finally I saw a curtain bee drawn aside as a light flicked on. Through the window I saw the illuminated profile of Lilly, dressed ready for bed. I flew carefully over to the window and perched on the sill looking up at her. She looked down at me and waved. I tapped on the glass attempting to get her to open it. She looked back down at me confused, I tapped again harder this time and in quicker secessions. She reached down and unhinged the window frame and just as she did, a gust of wind blew and pushed me into the room as I did the last few beams of sunlight disappeared and my body was wracked with pain again. Instead of feeling crushed I now felt like my whole body was on a medieval torture rack being stretched past its limits, eventually the pain subsided and I lay on the floor panting. I lifted my arms to my face, two human hands. My clothing had not disappeared thankfully so I was still wearing my school clothing from that morning. I sat up and looked over at Lilly who had a much less shocked expression then I had expected her to have.

“Evening, Liam,” she said, casually closing the window pain.

“Lilly, I need to talk to you!” I said standing strait up, a few feathers dropping from my scalp as I did. I explained to her everything that had happened how the bird had lead me up the hill, the tree and the book, and the grey suited man.

“A man in a grey suit?” she asked.

“Yeah, he said he was looking for you, the dude is crazy, but I still don’t know why I turned into a bird, I thought if anyone you would be the person to ask about this.” Lilly moved across the room and sat on her bed, I saw now that she was trembling. Her hands shaking as she set them on the mattress.

“I had hoped to have finally been rid of him for good,” she said, she reached up and clutched a locket that she wore around her neck, she had worn it ever since I first met her but I had never thought to ask about it.

“Do you know him?” I asked, leaning in, my curiosity piqued even more now. She let out a sigh.

“He calls himself, The Duke of the Faded Realm,” she replied standing up. She walked over to a bookcase across the room from her bed and pulled out a small notebook.  She walked next to me and opened it to a page near the front. On it there was a skillfully draw sketch of the Man, suit hat and all, standing menacingly facing us. Scattered around him were dozens and dozens of notes and figures on him. “He’s not from this world he’s an Artificer,”

“An artificer?”

“It’s like a wizard only they create magical devises instead of spells; he is a cruel man who drove his own world to destruction with his maniacal inventions.”

“Was that book one of them?” I asked looking over at Lilly who was now standing very close to me. She nodded.

“From what it sounds like what you touched was ‘The Book Of Crows’ which transforms whoever touches it into a crow during the day, from what you told me that’s what I imagine it was.” I stepped away and looked at her, the storm had picked back up outside and the wind was howling heavily. Artificers, magic books, evil wizards from other worlds this was almost too much to take in at once.

“You know a lot about this Duke,” I said. “How do you know him?” Lilly turned and looked at me closing the book just as a lightning bolt streaked across the sky.

“Because I’m his apprentice,” She replied.

I stood there dumbfounded staring at Lilly; no doubt some expression of shock and horror written across my face. There was a good amount of silence between us as the rain hammered against the glass of the window. What on earth is going on? I thought. Then another thought hit me. The first thing the duke had done when her returned to his normal form was try to kill me, would his apprentice try and do the same? I started looking around the room, thinking of anything that could be used as a weapon. But Lilly made no move to attack me, nor made any indication that she felt anything but slightly tired.

 

“Or I was,” she said. She then walked back over to the bookshelf and returned the journal to its place on the top shelf. “He came to me, because I found one of his artifacts, this locket in fact.” She took the locket off her neck and held it in her hand, she pressed a small latch and the locked clicked open. A haunting melody filled the room, like a small music box was being turned, it didn’t seem to emanate from anywhere but rather fill the whole space we were in. I looked over her shoulder at the locket, inside was a photo, an older man and woman, a young boy.

“This locket is cursed,” Lilly said, the music making her words all the more ominous sounding.  “So that if a photo of anyone is put in here, that person will…”  She trailed off, her voice beginning to sound like she was about to cry. I stood awkwardly behind her unsure exactly of what to do. I remembered now that the kids at school had told me that her family had all died in a house fire a few years back.

 

“Of course I didn’t know this, when that fire burned away everything I felt so scared and alone, then the Duke found me. He told me of the locket’s curse and that he would be able to bring a back my family if I helped him in his research,” She snapped the locket closed and the music stopped. “So I did, for years I searched for artifacts from this world, I stole, lied and hurt people for a chance to see my family again. But then I found out his true intentions. He wanted these artifacts so that he could use them in conjunction with each other to destroy the world.”

 

Lilly paused and looked at me. “I understand if you are unnerved by this story, or even if you don’t believe a word of it, but I’m telling you now that I left him behind me long ago, I destroyed all of his artifacts and used the Book of Crows to seal him in that body, but now that he’s free we need to find a way to get rid of him permanently, or else the whole world is in danger.”  She then stood up and took my hand in hers, “I know this is a lot to take in right now, but you’re the only person I can trust right now, will you help me?”

 

I didn’t say anything at first, still reeling from the shock of the whole story. Then I looked at Lilly, there was nothing but earnest determination in her eyes. I sighed.

 

“Yes,” I finally said. “I’ll help you.”  

 

“I suggest you stay here tonight then,” she replied and I almost toppled over.

 

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“You should stay here tonight, the curse will turn you back into a crow in the morning and that will cause problems if you go home.”


“More problems than me just disappearing on my parents?” Lilly turned and look at me and with absolutely no expression on her face she said.

 

  •  

 

 

 

 

- 3 -

Lilly’s prediction turned out to be true, next morning I was transformed into a crow. Though this time thankfully without the agonizing feeling of being crushed and stabbed simultaneously. I hopped up onto the windowsill; now that I knew that I wouldn’t be in this body permanently I was starting to learn to enjoy it. Lilly was still asleep so I had a few moments to myself to watch the sunrise. I was a beautiful sight to say the least, the sun peaking over a hill in the distance sending rays of red sunlight down into the town. It made me feel at peace, until I looked down and saw the coat of black feathers covering my body. It was disquieting to say the least.

Suddenly I saw a flash of movement out past the grey gloomy gravestones. Hoping as close to the window as I could I peered out and then immediately duck and a brick soared through the window. Glass shattered loudly and was sent flying across the room. Lilly woke with a start a immediately covered herself with the blanket to try and protect against the rain of glass. In through the window stepped a boy. As he turned I recognized him, he was the same boy that called Lilly a witch on my first day of school, but now he had a dark expression on his face that looked like he wanted more than just to cause some property damage. He clutched a kitchen knife in one hand and lunged at me with it, I squawked furiously flapping away as the knife sunk much further then it should have deep into the wood of the window sill. Lilly leapt from her bed and tried to grab the boy’s arm and hold him back but her threw her off rather easily. Then turning from me he began lunging at her with the knife, cutting a nasty gash in her arm. Lilly shrieked and rolled over trying to get out of the way of his assault. Why had none of the nuns come?

Cawing furiously I swooped at the boy attempting to distract him so Lilly could get away. He swatted at me furiously with his free hand, his knife seemingly unimpeded by my assault. Finally he snatched me out of the air and slammed me to the ground. I squawked as I felt one of my brittle bird bones break. The boy raised his knife ready to take me out when his eyes suddenly crossed and he slumped to the ground with a thud. Standing over him panting furiously was Lilly, holding the brick that had been thrown with both hands. She let it drop to the ground with a thunk and then just sat there shaking. I eventually wriggled my way out of the boy’s grip. My left shoulder had been broken and my wing hung limp. I hopped offer to Lilly and let out a soft caw, trying to show some sign of sympathy trying to see if she was ok. Suddenly there was a knock at the door.

“Lilly it’s time for morning prayers, then I need your help with a few chores before you head to class,” Lilly gave no response. I heard the nuns footsteps outside the door as she began to walk away. Lilly stayed in her semi-paralyzed state for the next few minutes, making no movements except the constant involuntary shaking. Finally she calmed down and stood up walking over to the brick.

“There’s a rune of silence on this,” she mumbled. “And that boy’s shirt has a control rune stitched into it; he was sent her by The Duke.” I hoped up on the desk and looked down to where she was pointing. There was indeed a small glowing rune scratched onto the brick and another stitched in red on the inside of his shirt collar. She proceeded to pull a pair of scissors out from the desk and cut the shirt collar in half through the middle of the rune. The moment she did, his expression relaxed. I looked over at Lilly who was making vain attempts to scratch out the rune on the brick with her scissors.

“You’re going to have to find someone else to help you,” she said, expressionless. I shouted out a fowl and very crass response but of course all that came out of my beak was furious cawing. “I’m sorry,” she replied, turning to me having given up on the brick. “But I don’t think I can face The Duke, even just this almost killed me.” I stared in shock at Lilly, her eyes were downcast and her expression was grim. “I can point you in the right direction, but I don’t want to get more involved then I already have.”

She knocked the last few shards of glass out of the window pain. “The Duke is holding up somewhere in the hills to the east, most likely in the mines.” She turned to me and pointed out of the window. “Please leave,” was all she said.

I couldn’t believe it. I had known that Lilly was a little strange and certainly preferred to be alone, but I had no idea she would do something like this! I opened my beak again to make a retort, but then remembered I had a beak. I hoped onto the windowsill making sure not to impale my feet on any stray glass shards. I looked up at Lilly, hoping for some sign of sympathy, but she wasn’t even looking at me. I hopped up flapping my wings and flew off into the early morning sun what should have been a pretty sight, now only server to be an annoyance, blinding me as I flew upwards.

I flew for quite a while thinking to myself the entire time. Why had Lilly abandoned me? She had seemed eager, even excited to help me, to get back at the man who had made her life miserable for so many years. Did that boy really scare her that much? I decided against going to the hills that Lilly had suggested, figuring one bird wasn’t going to be able to do much against an evil Artificer. I perched instead on a branch of a tree outside the window of my classroom. I peered in looking to see if Lilly was amongst the students there. But frustratingly, she was not. The attack must really have shaken her.

I rested in the tree until nightfall when I shifted back into my human form. I hopped out of the tree, blending into the muddle of students leaving the building. For no particular reason I made my way back to the church. I knocked on the front door and was greeted by the same nun that had first shown me around.

“Ah, hello child,” she said a little confused. 

“Is Lilly in?” I asked.

“She is,” she replied looking hesitantly over her shoulder back into the building. “But I don’t think she’s in the mood for visitors right now.”

“I need to give her the assignment from today’s class,” I said, hoping the bluff would work.

“Very well, I don’t think she’ll be much for conversation though.”

I made my way down the same hall as before, and stood in front of Lilly’s door. Siting dejectedly in front of it now was a thick black garbage bag, full of, I assumed, the shards of glass from this morning. I raised my hand up hesitantly and knocked on the door.

“Lilly,” I said, my voice wavering slightly. “Can I come in?” No response. “I’m not mad,” I continued. “I just want to see how you’re doing.” After a few moments the door creaked open slowly. There stood Lilly, still in her Pajamas from this morning, now clutching a massive stuffed narwhal. I held back a laugh at the shear absurdity of the thought that Lilly even owned stuffed animals, let alone a narwhal. She stepped away from the door and I came in. the room had since been cleaned of all the glass and her window was now covered in some thick blue plastic which flexed inward whenever there was a breeze. Lilly sat on the bed still clutching her plush friend.

“I’m sorry,” she said looking down at the floor. I hesitated for a moment then sat next to her on the bed, she made no acknowledgement of it. “He used to talk about his home world a lot,” she said, monotone and unmoving. “he would go on for hours about how the people of that world couldn’t see that there ways were going to destroy their world anyway, that his inventions would lead them to a new age. He believed that any innovation was good and that his research should be free of the weakness of ‘morals’.” Lilly seemed much more comfortable with me now than before. I assumed that tended to happen to people who help you fend off mind controlled students trying to kill your friend trapped as a bird. “He believed- still believes that people are a resource, like paper or metal, he has no regard for life,” she stood up placing the plushy on the bed. “I thought a lot about it after you left. When that by attacked us I was scared. I had never faced anything that had threatened my life before. But I understand now that if The Duke stays free then stuff like that will keep happening, trying to ignore it isn’t going to fix it.” I jumped up from the bed.

“So you’ll help me!” I said. She turned to me.

“You were the first person who didn’t hate me because of what other people told you, it would be a poor repayment to abandon you.”

“Don’t think of it as a repayment,” I replied. “This Duke is going to cause problems for the whole town if we don’t stop him. You’ll be helping way more people than me!” She thrust out her hand smiling.

“Let’s get to it then!” she said. I reached out and shook her hand. “Where to first, boss?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-  4 -

Lilly spent the rest of the night up with me, planning what we would do. Lilly could sense that The Duke was somewhere in the mines to the west, we would have to go there, preferably at night so I would be of some use, and find where The Duke was hiding out.

“He’s very weak right now,” Lilly commented. “Plus he doesn’t have any of his artifacts so we should be able to take him fairly easily.”

“One thing I’m wondering,” I said looking at the map of the mines we had taken from one of the tourist shops. “Why is he hiding in the mines?” Lilly shrugged.

“There’s a lot of old magic in this town,” she replied. “And for Artificers, the closer we are to the core of a planet the stronger our magic is.”

“Why’s that?”

“You know how we make magical devices instead of magic like in the movies?”

  •  

“Well that’s because everything that’s natural has a soul, including the earth. We use the power of that soul in our artifacts. So the closer we are to the heart of the earth, the stronger our magic is.”  I nodded, the whole Artificer thing was still kind of a nonsense concept to me but I decided it was better to just go with it.

We eventually came up with a half decent plan. Lilly would plant a trap rune in the ground and we would lead him to it, at the same time that he touched it another set of runes would cause the tunnel to collapse, trapping him there permanently.

“Will we be able to get out of the tunnel in time?” I asked. Lilly shrugged.

“I honestly don’t know how much of this plan is going to work.” She looked over at me, her face long and drawn from going most of the day without rest. “I’m sorry that you got dragged into my world,” she said. After that we packed up and headed out to the mines. A thick fog, had swept down into the valley from up in the hills and the air was cold and humid. The further we got from the town the more strange and unusual the shapes hidden by darkness were. Eventually after much trekking we reached the entrance to the mine where the image of a cartoonish miner on a stand advertised the ‘haunted tunnels.’ In the dark, even it had a sinister appearance to it. Lilly shifted anxiously and pulled a flashlight out of her bag she had slung over her shoulder. “Let’s go,” she said flicking the flashlight on and sending a few unknown nocturnal animals skittering into the underbrush. WE ventured down into the dark tunnels of the mine; the bright lights used for tours were shut off so the only source of light came from out flashlight. The tunnels were small and cramped, and with the humidity making water drip from the ceiling it was like we were crawling through the intestines of a giant monster. The deeper we got into the tunnels the more winding and less structured they became. They started to look less and less like man made tunnels and more like they had been here long before the town ever had. I sped up my pace to keep closer to Lilly, trying to hide the fact that I was unsettled. As we pushed deeper into the cave not only did the cave itself become more sinister, the darkness seemed… darker? It was hard to explain but the darkness in the cave seemed more oppressive, it felt like even in the glow of the flashlight it flowed through me, causing my body to shake with cold. I looked over at Lily, her face was pale and the hair on the back of her neck was standing strait upright. At least it wasn’t just me who was scared of these tunnels. After what must have only 30 minutes but felt like hours Lilly help up a hand to stop me.

“Do you hear that?” she whispered. I paused and listened, I did here something, what sounded like a man’s voice and the sound of wind. But there couldn’t be a breeze this deep down could there? We had to be close to 1,000 feet underground. We turned a corner; ahead the path dropped off into a massive cavern, the cavern was lit by some unseen source, and standing at the far end was The Duke. He had his back turned to us and he seemed to be in some sort of trance. What amazed me more then what he was doing was what was in front of him. There in front of the duke stood some form of a makeshift altar. Behind the altar was a massive stone figure carved into the face of the rock. The… thing it depicted was some horrible cross between human, octopus and goat. It had a human body with a head replaced by a writing mass of tentacles, and thick harry goat legs.

“Has he noticed us?” I whispered.

“I don’t know,” Lilly replied peeking around the corner again. “Time to put our plan into action though.”  I gulped, time to play my part. As Lilly squatted down and started sketching something into the stone floor I stepped on to the stone walkway that led into the cavern. As I began to approach The Duke, something in me woke. Some base primal instinct told me that I needed to get as far away from that statue as possible that I needed to run far far away and try and not let the mere sight of the beast drive me insane. And just as I was about to follow that instinct another voice pinned me in place.

“Hello Liam,” The Duke said, not making any movement. “I’m surprised you found me.” My knees started shaking, my mind was spinning. ‘Run,’ it said. ‘Run as far and as fast as you can.’ But I stood; I looked up at The Duke.

“You’re not so different you and I,” He said standing up from his position in front of the altar. He turned to look at me; he still had the same clothes on as when he had first attacked me. “We are both solitary creatures, we do not depend on other people.” I stepped forward about to speak, but he interrupted me. “But the lonely life can get to you; I understand that, I understand what it is like to feel alone, Liam.” I stopped, curious now to listen to The Duke, who it had seemed changed so much since I last encountered him.

“I was born an enigma on my world, my grey skin was said to be the harbinger of a disaster,” he pulled off a glove revealing a withered grey hand, like an old man’s. “I had not companions in my youth, even my parents had abandoned me, at night I would shake in fear that my whole life would go without love. But, I finally found it. It seems I had spent so many nights screaming into the void, that the void finally replied,” he stopped and looked up at the statue of the creature with an unsettling reverence. “The voice told me that it would be my companion, but that it was trapped in the planet, that I needed to find some way to free it. And so I began studying the forbidden art of Artificery, to make my inventions that would set my friend free,” he turned and looked at me. “Do you know what it feels like? To have someone after having lived your life in total isolation?” my mind immediately went to Lilly but I shook the thought from my head. I couldn’t have myself become sympathetic to this psychopath.

“I want you to change me back!” I said, trying to hide the tremble in my voice. The Duke chuckled at my request.

“My boy, even if I could change you back that would grant me no benefit,” he replied grinning at me. He stoped and turned to the statue, as if he was listening. “Yes, my lord,” he said “at once.” Turning back to me he took a short bow. “I deeply apologize but my master has requested sustenance, and you are the nearest source.”

“Liam now!” Lilly’s voice knocked me out of the strange stupor that I had been in talking to the Duke. Immediately I raced towards the exit to the cavern.  Suddenly a plume of black and purple smoke consumed me. I coughed, the smoke made my eyes burn and stunk of dead fish and the sea. The Duke rose out of the smoke earily and grabed me by my collar hoisting me up.

“So you brought my dropout as well did you?” he turned and shouted out into the room that was now filled with the smoke. “Lilly! Where are you, you ungrateful brat?” I struggled clawing at The Duke’s hand but his grip was like a gorilla’s. He threw me to the ground and slammed some bizarre looking shackles on my legs. They immediately stuck to the floor of the cavern like magnets and I was unable to move. Then out of the shadows leapt Lilly! Wielding the flashlight like a club she brought it down with a crack on The Duke’s head. The Duke roared in pain and tumbled backward into the smoke. Lilly ran over to where I was laying on the ground and handed me a package wrapped in rune inscribed letters.

“This is plan B,” was all she said before dashing out of the way just in time to avoid a swing from The Duke’s cane where her head had been just moments before. He let out a hiss of frustration and followed her into the seemingly endless purple smoke. Baffled I opened the package unfolding the leather. It was the Book of Crows. What? How was this supposed to help me? How did she even get this? I struggled to stand but the cuffs around my ankles kept me firmly in place on the floor. Suddenly The Duke emerged from the mist huffing angily.

“Might as well kill you first,” he hissed, pulling out the same dagger that he had used on me when we first met. He lunged at me and instinctually I swung with the only weapon I had, the book. I hit him square in the face, the metal accents on the books cover making several deep gashes in his face. He roared again as his face was flung back by the book and his knife sent spinning into the fog. Lilly emerged from the fog clutching her arm where it seems The Duke had managed to land a blow.

“You insolent brats!” he yelled, griping his face in pain. “You’ll both feed my masters!”

“Not anytime soon,” Lilly retorted, holding up a pocket watch. 5:00am. Sunrise. Suddenly The Duke’s body began convulsing her yelled out in pain as feathers sprouted from his arms and face. In no time he was transformed into a little grey speckled crow. It hoped around cawing indignantly at us. Lilly grabbed my hand.

“Let’s get out of here! The explosion runes were on a timer they’re going to blow any second!” she pulled a small rune covered knife out from a sheath around her waist and stabbed into the chain connecting the cuffs. Immediately I stood up and ran with Lilly out of the cave, which had begun to shake violently. As we ran I could have sworn I heard a voice speaking to me, not in any language I knew, but one none the less I understood.  It was telling me to stay, to join it in eternal dreamless sleep, it had many wonders it could show me, and wonderful gifts it would grant me. I shook my head clearing it of any thoughts of staying and ran behind Lilly until we finally reached the exit of the cavern. I looked up at the sunrise that was cresting over the hills, glad to finally be able to enjoy it whilst not in a bird’s body.

“We did it,” I said.

“We did,” was all Lilly replied.

***

The next few days were unsettlingly normal. Some people talked about how there had been a cave in at the old mine, but no one really considered it anything spectacular. I spoke with Lilly almost every day afterwards, up until graduation at the end of the year. The graduation ceremony was small, as was expected from a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere, but it was still excited to finally be free of the restraints of homework and classes. I never saw Lilly there, I knew she was in the same grade as me and there was no way she wasn’t smart enough to graduate. After the ceremony I escaped from the somewhat overly affectionate clutches of my parents and made my way to the church. It was decorated, celebrating the graduation of all the students. I pushed open the doors to the dormitories now almost as comfortable here as my own home. I made my way down the halls to finally find my way to Lilly’s room. The door was wide open and Lilly was standing over the desk with dozens of maps and charts spread across it. Without even looking up she motioned for me to come in. 

“I knew you would come,” she said as I entered, closing the door behind me.

“where were you today?” I asked, “I even invited you to come to my house after the ceremony I wanted to introduce you to my family.”

“I’m sorry but I just realized something.”

“That you’re weird and crazy? I’ve known that for a while.”

“No, the creature that The Duke called his master, I’ve heared about it before.” I perked up at this.

“Wait, so whatever was in that cave with us, you knew about it?”

“I’ve only just remembered, it’s some sort of ancient god.” I raised an eyebrow.

“This is getting a little more science fiction then fantasy and I don’t think I’m ok with that.”

“Well like it or not, this is a problem much bigger than just the duke.” I paused and looked at the maps and charts strewn across the table. There were arcane notes and symbols scattered across.

“Well what do we do about it?” she reached down and pointed at the map.

“When I scatted The Duke’s artifacts, I was able to track their relative location, if I’m able to gather them all together, I should be able to at least send it off this world.” I paused, looking at the map.

“But they’re everywhere; it might take years to gather them all.”

“That’s why I need your help,” she replied turning to me. “Do you want to come with me, and help gather the Artifacts?” I paused; just the existence of Artificers, Old Gods, and magical artifacts was a lot to take in. I hadn’t really planned anything after high school, I hadn’t thought I’d live that long. I took another look at the map.

“Where to first?” I asked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A.N: Thank you for reading my first published short story! I'm currently in the editing process with this story and would apriciate any constrictive critiqes.

-J.P.J


© Copyright 2017 J.P. Jackson. All rights reserved.

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