The Gloaming, Part 1
by M E Garber
I forgot Rule Number 1.
I imagined the evil hordes, and they became real.
I did it. I believed in them, gave them their power and forms. They merely fed my fear and my inattention, directed my fertile imagination into the darkness of isolation. I followed, as blind as I could be.
Aunt Rosemarie sniffed the air as she opened the door, and peered around as I stepped outside to walk home.
“Something’s funny. It feels wrong out here,” she said, shaking her head. She’d been unsettled for two nights. Tonight she looked worse still. Her pale blue eyes flickered over my face, looking for – something. I ducked my head, trying to hide my own nervousness, hide the questions I wanted to ask, but didn’t know how. At seventeen, there were lots of things I couldn’t easily say anymore, but this was a big one.
I shuffled my foot, nodded and smiled. “It’s supposed to storm later. Maybe it’s the weather you’re feeling.”
She grunted. I was more sensitive than she was anymore. She always said so, at any rate, explaining “At puberty, all those senses are ratcheted so sky-high, you could sense a misplaced pin a haystack if you wanted to.”
She searched my face again.
“Should I call your father? He’d pick you up. We’d say it was fear of the storm, if you want …” She glanced over my shoulder, out at the darkness beyond the porch light, where even now the breeze was stiffening, the trees beginning to sough. The air felt heavy and prickled with expectation.
My aunt pulled her troubled gaze back up to my face, back into the light of the dim porch-light trying to illuminate all the night. A few moths spun around it, making me dizzy with their arching and spinning. That made me smile, and I relaxed.
“Aunt Rosemarie, it’s okay. Really.” I smiled as I leaned down to pat Flora the cat, who now circled my ankles. “I’ll be home long before the storm breaks, and let’s face it – you’ve taught me well how NOT to be afraid of the dark.”
Aunt Rosemarie chuckled at that, and I felt her relax. Not entirely, but enough; she’d let me go.
I scooped Flora in my arms and snuggled her close a moment, then handed the cat back to Aunt Rosemarie. As I did, she said, “Well, I suppose I have, at that. I’m not sure I like it, but you go on, then. And call me when you get home. Maybe it’s just an old woman’s worries, but I just can’t shake the sense that this storm just … isn’t right, somehow.” She shook her head while stroking the ancient cat in her arms.
I smiled for her over my shoulder as I stepped off the porch, the stairs squeaking under me.
“I’ll do that. Goodnight.”
Her “Goodnight” rang through the air like a benediction, a blessing that wrapped around me and kept me safe and warm. I snuggled into that feeling as I left the long driveway and walked along the country road that would bring me home, in town under the glare of incandescent street lights that I normally hated. Now I longed to reach them.
In the gloaming, understand, anything is possible. You see, I’m a fey-girl, and Aunt Rosemarie is my teacher. She knew what I was from the beginning. She didn’t belittle my stories or roll her eyes at my sightings like everyone else, and her voice didn’t take on babyish, high-pitched tones when discussing these things with me.
Daddy would not-so-patiently shine the flashlight’s revealing beam on the scary shape and it was the stump of a dead tree, covered in ivy – when a moment before it had been a witch or a goblin sneaking after me, wearing a flowing cloak.
“See,” he’d whine. “Nothing to be afraid of, Sylvie.”
And after the flashlight’s beam showed the unflattering, mundane “reality,” it had to stay that way. Those are the Rules.
Aunt Rosemarie told me about the Rules, and how to use them to my advantage. Thanks to her, I learned that what I saw was partly mine to choose, and that what became real was influenced by how much I believed in what I saw. So I taught myself to see ward-wolves, the protectors of forests and fey, instead of shadow jaguars, the lurking evil cats that pounced on unwary innocents. And instead of goblins I saw fairies. If I did see a “goblin,” I shone a light onto the spot to see what it really was, so that my “imagined” evil couldn’t become real.
It was all wonderful, even if a little scary. Everywhere I looked in the thickening darkness of evening — the gloaming — the woods near Aunt Rosemarie’s house came alive with silent shapes, furtive whispers, rustlings in the undergrowth marking the passage of things unseen. Aunt Rosemarie walked me home in the evenings, on the dirt road running along the edge of the woods, and helped me practice. As time went on, those things became less scary, more enchanting.
But they were about to become scary again.
The wind whipped across the fields. The corn, head-high, was rustling and rattling, making such a ruckus as to drown out almost any other sound. The forest lay beyond the fields, further down the road. There the wind would be quieted by the density of the trees. I’d feel safer there, less exposed. My name, Sylvie, comes from sylvan, or “from the woods.” It meant my magic was strongest in the forest. I picked up my pace.
The wind fussed with my hair, so I tucked the loose strands behind my ear. Thick clouds scudded across the horizon and blocked out the stars. The moon made a sporadic showing, and her waning, half-full figure cast little light on the terrain. A thousand things could be hidden in that darkness and I’d never see it, or hear it, thanks to the corn. I shivered, then gave myself a mental shake.
“Get a grip!” I muttered.
Despite the strong winds, a reek rose around me. I gagged and put a hand over my mouth and nose, warding off the rotting stench of an animal carcass. It came from the deep ditch to my right, there in the drain-pipe culvert under the tractor bridge. It hadn’t been there before – I would’ve remembered it!
A wailing howl, cut short, rang out from the forest’s edge. I jerked my head up. A ward-wolf!
A snarl, nearly masked by the now-shrieking cornfield and blown away by the howling wind, sounded nearby. At the same time, I saw a motion, a glowing, opalescent form moving in the nearest corn rows.
It was Azim al-Liajli, my chosen unicorn! He broke through the corn at the small clearing before the tractor bridge just behind me. Around him, his six unicorn companions emerged from the cornfield. I didn’t have time to marvel that, for the first time, I was seeing Azim al-Liajli and his brethren in the flesh instead of in the dream-world.
He stamped a hoof and snorted, and the ground in the carrion-stinking ditch between us began to boil. Like black vomit and bile of the earth, goblins rose up – misshapen and twisted, with dark, cunning eyes and vicious teeth gleaming in their malevolent smiles. They were short, maybe three feet tall, with long, oddly-jointed limbs. Their reek gagged me.
I shrank back, hoping they hadn’t seen me. But they knew I was there — they’d come for me. Five turned toward me, malice in their smiles, while the remainder advanced toward the unicorns, who lowered their heads and horns, bracing their feet against the tide.
I backed up, away from the goblins and the unicorns they now clashed with. Panic washed over me and I turned my back on all that feyness to flee, but a bony, long-fingered hand snatched my elbow. Others grabbed my arms and even my leg. I twisted and flung myself about, trying to wrench free, but the fingers, the hands groping all over my body, were too tight, too many, too strong. And the stench of them was so overwhelming, my breath came in ragged gasps. One glued himself to my back, his arms and legs wrapped intimately around me. Two others held my arms, and one sat on my left foot and gripped the ankle and calf.
I couldn’t move.
I spent long days tending the garden with Aunt Rosemarie, while my older brother and sister were in after-school activities and my parents worked. Grandma Seal – her name was Cecilia, but I’d always thought of the animal – lived there with Aunt Rosemarie in her cottage in the country. Grandma Seal was full of stories. She told me the oldest stories she remembered. A light would come on in Grandma’s pale blue eyes, like a beacon, as she launched into a new yarn.
Folktales, she called them. Old wives’ tales, my mother snorted. Fairy tales, my siblings–far older and too superior for such children’s things–scorned. My father never said much of anything except “Oh,” or “Uh-huh,” and went back to his magazine.
I didn’t care because Aunt Rosemarie confided that this is the way it always is. That most people can’t see and some won’t see, while only a few really do see the magic, the mysterious things. And of those few, only a very few human-fey mixed-bloods – like me – can influence them.
She told me not to be too proud because then I’d draw the pure fey to me like moths are drawn to a porch-light. Then the goblins and the evil witches would outnumber the good elves and fairies. They’d become stronger and bolder, and they’d play havoc with our mundane, human world.
Now, this seemed a bit too much for me to believe, even after everything else she’d told me. All the rest seemed logical and reasonable to my creative young mind, but not this.
“How could something you don’t believe in hurt you?” I’d asked as we weeded the garden.
The teasing light left her pale gray-blue eyes.
“If only we could prevent evil by not believing in it – if only it were that simple, Sylvie. But evil is always there, waiting for its chance to twist meanings. To ruin us.”
And she’d shaken her head and hobbled back into the house.
The goblin on my back rubbed himself on me, slowly. I lowered my head and saw the goblin holding my foot smile. I shuddered, and he gripped tighter with one hand and stroked my ankle with the other. His yellowed, sharp teeth gleamed.
“Good,” the one on my back hissed into my ear, “good girl. No more fighting now, eh? Heh-heh-hee.”
I would have collapsed except for fear of what might happen if I was on the ground. I trembled.
Fingers grabbed my chin and forced my head down. A goblin, obviously their leader, held my face. He stood taller than the rest, coming up to my shoulder. His inhumanly-long arms reached my chin while the other wound itself into my hair. He was so strong. My breath rasped in my throat as I fought the terror and nausea warring for possession of my stomach.
All the chaos of the battle–pounding hooves, squeals and cries of pain, neighs of triumph, hoarse yells and cheers–dimmed as I gazed into that face. Dark eyes that gleamed like fresh blood; smooth skin not brown, black or gray, but somehow all those combined, like the slurping mud that pulls the shoes off your feet. A few wiry hairs ran along his jawline, and several longer ones formed a tuft at his pointed chin. His mouth twisted into a grin, showing pointed teeth growing in all directions and two long fangs protruding from his lower jaw like tusks.
He was compelling. I couldn’t draw my gaze away despite his repulsive smell, the horror of his looks, the sounds that called to me. His eyes drew me in, calmed me. My body quivered, my heart pounded and my breath raced fast and shallow. Part of my mind was screaming, “Run! Fight! Flee!,” but I had no volition. I was ensorcelled.
I was amazed at how well-done the trap–the ensnarement–had been. I marveled at his control, and acknowledged a mastery greater than my own.
“No! NO!” screamed a wiser fraction of my brain. But it was too late.
What I believe becomes reality. I was now defenseless.
The Goblin King stroked my cheek, then released my face and turned to watch the battle. Now that I’d been mastered, it seemed I was to watch the slaughter with my captors.
My Change occurred around age fourteen. Afterwards, when I dreamed in the light of the full moon, I played with unicorns, dancing with them, stroking their warm and gleaming sides. Their soft, whiskery noses nuzzling my hair, tickling my neck. One unicorn in particular was my favorite, and he regarded me similarly. He came often, and stayed longer that the rest, sometimes even lying his head in my lap for me to smooth his forelock from his eyes, to stroke his brow. He’d sigh, I’d sigh, and we’d both be lulled to sleep by warm freesia-scented breezes. When I’d wake next, I’d be back in my own room, in my bed, and the scent of freesias would surround me, seeming to come in the open window on moonbeams.
Romance: that was the Change, Aunt Rosemarie explained.
I decided that my unicorn needed a name, a special name. Now, we’d already covered the importance of naming, using her own name as an example. Well, rosemary is an herb, and not just any herb. It’s the herb of remembering, of memory. And here she was, remembering all the lore, passing it on to me. “Just as one day,” she’d said, “you’ll pass it on to the next generation. That’s the way it works, you know. We creative ones don’t have children of our own.”
But her face had turned to stone. She sat there for long, unmoving moments as I watched the memories flashing behind her eyes. They weren’t good. Into the hush that had silenced even the breeze, Grandma Seal called, “Lunch’s ready! You better get inside.” The spell broke, the vision of memories stopped.
So I called my special unicorn ‘Azim al-Liajli,’ which as I reasoned it out, meant Protector the Pure. I meant it to signify his pure whiteness, and his role as my defender against the forces of evil magic outside our beautiful walled garden. That’s where I found myself now, in my dreams with him and the other unicorns: in a beautiful, sunny walled garden–like in the tapestries–with a forest, dark and lovely, all around. I whispered his name into his ear one night. His dark eye regarded me, then began to gleam, and he nuzzled my hair, my neck. I could tell he was pleased with my choice.
So passed two more years. Quiet, idyllic years.
Aunt Rosemarie had gotten older, more frail. She needed my help more than I needed hers now. She had her hands full trying to care for Grandma Seal, the house and the garden, and she welcomed my visits; needed them, even.
My little magics helped the day along, although once in awhile Aunt Rosemarie scowled a bit, her jowls shaking as she growled, “Be cautious with how you play with that, girl! Magic’s not to be abused, and it’s not to be over-used, either! Don’t draw attention to yourself, Sylvie – it’s never any good! The true fey don’t care for us, and they want us gone. Remember your Rules.”
I’d always look solemn and promise that I’d be careful not to draw attention, not to let anyone know what I was doing. And since I meant it, she was mollified. But I wasn’t about to NOT use these gifts, to do everything the hard way, when I didn’t have to. Not when the fey magic ran in my blood.
So I’d “see” all the weeding done, the garden looking proper and neat in the ninety-degree sun, and it would be. Then I’d go do some work in the shade for a few hours before I went back to tell Aunt Rosemarie the weeding was done. Or I’d imagine the watering bucket full at the well, so I wouldn’t have to haul the water all the way up from the depths by the hand crank. I’d still fill the watering cans and carry them to the garden, but at least I wouldn’t have rope-burned hands along with the sore arms and shoulders and a sunburned neck.
They were small concessions, and they kept me sane and my skills sharp. When an emergency came, I’d keep my wits and see my desired ending, I told myself. And I believed it. But there was a pull, too, toward using magic just because. Because it was easier. Because, despite the warnings, I was growing proud.
“What was the good of having a talent if you never got to use it. Why have a cook and then do all your own cooking anyway?” I asked Aunt Rosemarie one afternoon after her warning.
“What’s gotten into you, girl? This fey power is no plaything. I’ve told you that from the get-go. And still you don’t understand this?” She snorted, a warbly sound deep in her throat that commanded no respect seeing as how it resembled canary sneezing. “You flaunt your powers, you’ll draw unwanted attention from the true fey, you can be sure of it. And trust me, Sylvie, you really don’t want that. They barely tolerate humans-fey mongrels like us. They want you to fail.”
Her eyes rolled, and foam flecked her lips. She was really worked up over this I realized, and I lost my anger. Something had happened to her. I could almost see it again, but she wouldn’t talk about it. Or maybe I wasn’t asking the right question.
The unicorns began falling before the crush of goblins. One screamed as it was pulled under by nightmarish black and gray figures. With another scream, a second disappeared beneath a rising hill of goblins. When the hill flattened, the unicorn was gone. A third took a blow to the neckline and crumpled without a sound, while a fourth unicorn struggled to stay upright on three legs. Its right rear leg hung at a sick angle, with a bone protruding below the hock. A grinning pair of goblins taunted him by swiping at his front legs with their long wooden spears. A third goblin leapt onto his back, whipped a rope around his neck and yanked back. The unicorn reared onto his hind legs in eye-rolling panic, then toppled back and sideways. Another guttural cheer went up from the surrounding goblin horde.
The last three unicorns stood in a circle, hindquarters almost touching. They staved off assault after assault. Facing me was Azim al-Liajli. A flurry of motion came between us as another rush of goblins tried to break the trio. Snorts, stamped hooves and screams rent the air while the dark forms of broken goblins went flying. At the next pause, Azim al-Liajli had a trickle of blood seeping down his fetlock, and one of his partners was wheezing. They couldn’t last much longer.
About the Author
M E Garber, who grew up reading about hobbits, elves and dragons, so it’s no wonder that she enjoys writing strange things. She lives in Ohio (in the US) with her husband where, in addition to writing, she enjoys hiking, cooking, travel and chocolate. You can find her blog here.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from StoryTime Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.