The Tale of Benjamin Newcastle
“Have you seen that new dragon movie?” Rob asked.
Ben snorted. “Do you really think I have time to go see a stupid movie about fake creatures? I’ve got two papers, a group project, and a history exam tomorrow.”
“Alright, alright,” Rob replied, throwing his hands up in surrender. “You win; your schedule is busier than mine! But you should see it if you get the chance. It’s really good, great CGI. I swear the dragons looked real!”
“Dragons aren’t real,” Ben snapped, hitching his backpack further up on his shoulder and picking up his pace. It was actually a very nice, sunny spring day and lots of students were taking advantage of it. They stumbled out of their classrooms and dormitories, blinking up at the sun with confusion, like sunlight was a new, mind-boggling concept. Then they dashed back inside and reemerged with a blanket and their laptops to “study”.
Ben didn’t have time to sit outside socializing, though. He hastened down the black paved pathways between academic buildings, headed for the college library. He’d work on the Psychology paper first and get that out of the way. Then he could tackle the Chemistry paper before meeting with his teammates for the group English project, and rounding up the night with a few hours of studying for that History exam. They only had to know up through the American Civil War, right?
“Hey, Ben!” Ben’s gray eyes snapped back to Rob. He’d forgotten all about his friend walking along with him.
“Take it easy with the studying, huh? You know, you’re supposed to enjoy college.”
“You’re also supposed to get good grades so you can get a job when you graduate,” Ben retorted. He paused at the edge of Bridge Street and checked that the crosswalk was clear. He was just about to take a step out into the empty road when something flew right into his face.
“Whoa!” Ben stumbled back, his hand swiping what must’ve been a kamikaze cicada from his forehead.
“You alright?” Rob asked.
“Yeah.” Ben searched the ground for whatever bug had hit him, but his eyes came to rest on a tiny green body with dragonfly wings, lying spread-eagle on the pavement. “No!” he screeched, throwing himself backwards and into Rob. The two collapsed into a jumble of body parts, textbooks, and backpacks.
“Ben! What’s wrong, man? What are you doing?” Rob’s brown eyes looked uncertain, his wide, round face appearing concerned.
Ben’s head sprung up, looking all around him to see if anyone else was watching. Then he knelt down and scooped up the little green body, shoving it in his sweatshirt pocket.
“Nothing,” he told Rob. “I was just, startled. Dropped my pencil.”
“Yeah. I’m going back to my dorm. I forgot a textbook. I’ll meet you for dinner later.”
Rob didn’t look convinced, but Ben didn’t care. The bulge in his sweatshirt pocket felt so obvious, like he had something the size of a Boston terrier stuffed into his sweatshirt instead of something that was barely larger than a smart phone. He turned his back to Rob and took the longer way back to Wilson Hall, just so Rob wouldn’t be able to see his pocket. Ben didn’t want to think about what was in there, but it was all that his mind could focus on. He just kept thinking over and over again ‘Not again. Not here. Please not again.’ It felt like everyone was watching him as he hurried across campus towards his freshman dormitory. That guy sitting over in the blue lawn chair was definitely staring at him. And those girls out in their swimsuits were whispering and pointing at his pocket. Ben pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his black hair and picked up his pace. He hunched over like his backpack was stuffed full of heavy textbooks, but really he was just trying to cover up his pocket. Why did he have to live in the freshman dorm that was farthest from the academic cluster?
Finally Ben made it to his door. He fumbled with his key for a moment before he was able to at last shove it into the lock and duck into the safety of his room. He didn’t have a roommate. The one he had been assigned had never gone to class all during the fall semester before dropping out at the start of spring. The college just never gave him a new roommate. Only half of the room was decorated, Ben’s half. The other half was just white cinder block walls with a bare mattress and an empty desk. Ben never felt comfortable using that half of the room, in case one day the people in charge of housing just assigned someone else to his room.
Now, Ben threw his bag and books on his own bed before unzipping his sweatshirt and setting the whole thing on the opposite, empty bed. His eyes never left the small bulge in the left pocket of the sweatshirt. It was still there. He’d hoped that maybe it would go away on the walk back, but Ben’s luck was not so great.
“Okay, Ben, you can do this,” he murmured. “Just, open the pocket and let it fall out. Maybe it really is just a cicada.” ‘But it’s too early in the season for cicadas. It’s just March.’
Ben took a deep breath and reached out for the sweatshirt. He found the left pocket and tipped it on its side. The little green body fell out onto the bed.
‘Tree sprite,’ Ben’s mind told him. The little green figure was the color of an oak leaf, though a bit faded, like it was washed out. It lay in a little heap, legs no longer than a matchstick, its head about the size of a dime, maybe smaller. Its eyes were closed, but Ben knew they would be black. That’s what all the other ones had. Black eyes, no matter what color their skin was. Golden yellow, dark red, earthy brown, it didn’t matter.
“Oh, this can’t be happening,” Ben groaned, sitting back on his bed, hanging his head in his hands. He thought he had a handle on this problem. That’s what the therapist had been for. Dr. Becker, the fat old shrink with a baldhead and thick glasses, who always sweated a lot during their sessions and asked stupid questions.
“Do you think you really see these unicorns?”
“Yes! I don’t just ‘think I see’ them, I actually do see them. And I can feel them too!” Their white coats were always so soft and warm; Ben loved to rub his cheek into their necks. They didn’t smell like horses. They didn’t stand in stalls all day and walk around in their own feces. They smelled like grass and distant rain. Their horns, ivory like an elephant’s tusks, were sharp, but they were always very careful with them. Ben had never been cut even once, though he’d been meeting the unicorns in the park behind his house since he was five.
It looked like it was dead. The tiny chest wasn’t rising or falling. Its mouth hung open revealing a row of little, razor sharp teeth. ‘Sprite bites hurt,’ Ben mused. “No! Stop! You’re not doing this again!”
Ben scooped up the dead tree sprite and moved across the room to the one window. He threw it open and tossed the body of the sprite outside. It smashed into the branches of a nearby tree and Ben’s eyes followed every rustle as it hit more branches and leaves on the fall down. He decided he didn’t really hear the small thump the body made as it hit the tree roots, that it was just a nut or something, falling off the tree itself.
Ben woke suddenly during the night when he thought he heard something clattering against his window. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, trying to figure out if he’d imagined it or if there really had been something. Outside the wind blew heavily. Sometimes the nearby tree’s branches would blow against the building and hit the windowpane, if the wind blew strongly enough and in the proper direction. But that wasn’t what he heard. The branches made a soft clattering sound. This was a very loud, very sharp thwack, like someone was throwing rocks at his window. Maybe Rob was down below. What time was it anyways? Ben strained his neck up to look at his digital alarm clock on the dresser. 4:16 AM. Ben was going to kill Rob.
He threw off his comforter and trudged over to the window, throwing it open without considering the strong wind. A cold blast smacked him across the face and blew his history notes across the room.
“Fuck!” Ben moaned, turning to gather up all the scattered papers. “Go away, Rob!”
“My name is not Rob.”
Ben froze as he heard the deep, gravelly voice. It reminded him of loose stone driveways, crumbling under tires. Ben almost didn’t want to turn around, but he did, very slowly. Squatting in the window, staring at him through the night with glowing yellow eyes, was a gargoyle. It sat back on its haunches, wings folded, two front claws scratching the fake wood of Ben’s desk. Long, stone fangs protruded from its wolf-like snout. Two, short curved horns created a demonic silhouette in the light from the parking lot down below.
“I’m sorry?” Ben hesitated. He really didn’t fancy getting bitten by those fangs or speared with those horns for upsetting the gargoyle.
The gargoyle shifted forward onto its front legs and stepped over Ben’s computer before leaping down to the linoleum floor. “Fine. My name is Grigore.” His claws clacked against the bare floor as he paced back and forth in front of Ben.
“Grigore,” Ben repeated. “N-Nice to meet you.”
The gargoyle paused to nod. “Well met, Starry-eyed.”
“Starry-eyed. Surely others have called you such.”
Ben shook his head. “No, I haven’t seen any of you in…years.”
The gargoyle sniffed. “Well, I only require a small favor from you tonight, Starry-eyed.”
“It seems I have accumulated some moss under my wings during the cold period. It is perplexing, and acutely uncomfortable.”
“Oh, you want me to remove it?”
“O-okay, um, let me see.”
The gargoyle paused and extended his bat-like wings. The claw at the end of the left wing pierced the side of the bare mattress, but Grigore didn’t seem to notice. Ben bent down to look under the wing and found a small collection of moss just under the wing joint. He reached in and started to pick the moss loose, letting it fall in little dark green clumps on the floor. Once the right wing was done, he did the same for the left.
“Ah, thank you, Starry-eyed. That is much better.” Grigore pumped his wings experimentally a few times, scattering Ben’s papers again.
“No problem,” Ben replied.
“Good night, Starry-eyed. Sleep safely. I am guarding you.”
Ben hardly slept again that night. He kept his eyes clenched shut, trying not to think about the gargoyle that sat on the roof just over his third floor window. Every so often he’d hear scraping as the gargoyle presumably shifted position. When morning came, Ben threw open the window again and stuck his head out, straining to see onto the roof. But he couldn’t see anything. The gargoyle could still be there, but Ben wouldn’t be able to see it.
By the time Ben stepped out of Wilson Hall on his way to class, he’d convinced himself that he really had imagined the gargoyle. There were no scratches on the desk where the gargoyle had dug his claws in upon first entering Ben’s room, and the moss that he’d picked off Grigore’s wings was no longer scattered on his floor. But then he walked under one of the oak trees that lined the pathway from Wilson Hall to the student union building and an acorn knocked him on the head.
“Oh, excuse me, Starry-eyed, I did not see you there.” Ben looked over at the tree and blinked a few times at the long, wooden face of a man, sticking out of the bark.
“My apologies, I did not mean to drop an acorn on your head,” the green man rasped, like wind shuddering through leaves.
“That’s…okay,” Ben replied. “I’ll just…watch where I’m going from now on.”
“Of course. Have a good day, Starry-eyed.”
“Sure. You too.” The face of the green man faded back into his tree and Ben exhaled a huge sigh.
“Oh, what’s going on?” He turned back to the path and began walking towards the cafeteria and breakfast. ‘Maybe I just have low blood sugar. That was one of the possible explanations, right?’
Ben stared down at the macadam as he walked, not daring to look up. He might see something else. As a result, he almost crashed into a woman in a wheelchair as she pushed herself down the sidewalk.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you.”
“That’s perfectly alright, Starry-eyed. Could you direct me to the nearest body of salt water?” the woman asked, smiling up at him with rows of slightly pointed teeth, pushing back her long, wet blonde hair. Ben looked down at her lap and saw, not two sets of legs, but one green and blue tail that ended in a fin, resting where two feet should have been.
“Gah, sorry! I have to go!” Ben sprinted out into the street and jumped as a car horn sounded and something hit him from the side. He was thrown, landing heavily in the street, skinning his hands and elbow. The man driving the car leapt out of the driver side, rushing around to Ben.
“Starry-eyed, are you alright?” he lisped through two white fangs. Ben looked up into bright red eyes on a pale face and screamed.
“Yes! Go, just go!”
The vampire looked down at him confused. “Are you sure you are okay, Starry-eyed? I smell blood on you.”
Ben pulled his arms behind his back, out of the vampire’s sight, not that it would do any good. “Yes, I’m fine. Just a scra—uh, I mean, it’s nothing. No blood. I’m fine.” He turned and ran the rest of the way across the street and into the student union building. Once inside, his hands and elbows finally started burning. Ben shouldered open the men’s room door and stepped up to one of the grimy sinks to tend to his injuries. His hands weren’t too bad, with just a little bit of blood welling up in a few cuts. Mostly they were dirty, so he washed them and dabbed at the raw areas. His elbow, though, was beginning to drip blood. Ben wet a towel and tried to get the few pieces of road grit out of the wound before clamping another paper towel over it. Maybe the help desk up front would have a first aid kit.
Ben disposed of the bloody towels and turned towards the door, about to leave, when it opened and in walked a young man with pale green skin and auburn hair. Two tapered ears stuck out from under his hair. ‘Wood elf.’
“Starry-eyed, I saw what occurred on the street. I understand why you did not want the vampire to tend to your wounds, but I must insist you let me help you.” The wood elf produced a roll of gauze and medical tape.
Ben sat on the edge of one of the sinks while the wood elf, who introduced himself as Florian, wrapped the gauze around his elbow and tapped it carefully. He offered to do the same for Ben’s hands, but Ben assured him they were fine.
“Thanks, but I have to go,” he told Florian.
Ben left the men’s room and caught a glimpse of the clock over the help desk. He was almost late for his history exam! He dashed for the exit, hissing as he slammed his injured hands into the bar and shoved the door open. A girl who had just been reaching for the door on the other side leapt back.
“Hey! Watch it!”
“Sorry,” Ben shouted over his shoulder, leaping down the small set of stairs, onto the sidewalk. He checked for cars this time before running out into the street, heading for Nighy Hall, the Humanities building. As he rounded Beringer Hall, the science complex, Ben had to duck out of the way of a very large eagle that almost took his head off. A heavy paw cuffed him in the back of his head. Ben looked back to catch a glimpse of a lion’s tail and back end, attached to the front of an over-sized eagle. ‘A gryphon.’ The gryphon’s eagle head looked back over its shoulders, screeching down at him before it disappeared around the observatory.
“Oh, this is not good,” Ben groaned, feeling a bit sick. Maybe it was the blood loss. Yes, that was it. He’d lost too much blood when he got hit by that car. Or maybe he’d hit his head.
“What!” Ben shouted, leaping away from the hand that tapped him on the shoulder. Rob’s smile fell as he took in Ben’s haggard appearance. “Are you alright?”
“Fine! I’m fine,” Ben assured him, though his eyes never stopped darting around the academic cluster. There was a nymph, made entirely of cherry blossom petals caught in the wind, giggling and playfully chasing what looked like a satyr underneath a tree in the middle of the cluster. A little distance away, near the language building MacKenna, a young woman dressed in a grey dress sat combing her long blonde hair and talking to a short little man dressed in green with a thick tuft of orange hair. ‘Banshee, leprechaun.’
“How much sleep did you get last night?”
Ben turned back to Rob, shaking his head. “Not much.”
“You didn’t seriously study for your exam all night, did you? I told you that that doesn’t actually work. It just makes you more tired so you can’t concentrate.”
“I’m fine, Rob,” Ben insisted. His eyes tracked a gray wolf that trotted up the stairs of Beringer, only to turn into a boy from Ben’s Chemistry class as it got to the doors. ‘Loup-garou.’
“You’re acting really weird, Ben. Did you drink coffee again?”
“No, I’m just tired.” He looked up as a shadow fell over them. A red and orange bird soared overhead, trailing a train of rippling flames. ‘Phoenix.’
“You should go and sleep. You’ll flunk the exam this way. Professor Nolan will understand.”
“I’m alright, really. I can’t miss this exam; Nolan will give me a zero. Nobody can miss it without a doctor’s note.”
Rob opened his mouth to insist, but Ben didn’t stick around long enough to hear it. He pushed past him, once more heading for Nighy Hall. Rob jogged to catch up with him.
“Alright, but you’ll go right to bed afterwards, right?”
Ben flinched, directing his gaze away from a large black dog, as tall as a horse, who sat panting by the entrance of Nighy. Its blood-red eyes followed him as he climbed the steps up to the door. Rob pulled the door open for him and Ben stepped inside Nighy Hall, leaving all the creatures behind. He breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sight of a long hallway of wooden doors and his fellow students, milling around outside the classrooms, talking and doing some last minute studying. Ben came to room 106 and set one foot in the open door when Rob grabbed his arm. He jumped as his heart flew up into his throat.
“Geez, calm down,” Rob told him. “You’re really skittish. I just wanted to tell you that you better not be in Psych this afternoon. Go back and collapse. And no doing any work.”
“Alright,” Ben rasped.
“Alright,” Rob nodded. “Good luck. You’ll be fine.”
Ben gave him a weary smile. “Thanks.” He turned and stepped into the room, wiping his shaking hands on his pants and then wincing when his nerves reminded him of the damage to his palms. He collapsed into the desk he normally sat at in the second row and just stared at the blank chalkboard.
“Alright, Benjamin, get a grip,” he whispered to himself. “You’ve got a test to take, then you can go and sleep and everything will be fine.” ‘But just in case, maybe put some cinnamon down over the window and door. That should keep out the pixies.’ Benjamin groaned at the mutinous thought.
“Are you feeling alright, Benjamin?” Professor Nolan asked as she walked in the door, carrying a tall stack of tests in her arms.
“Yeah,” Ben groaned, rubbing his eyes. “I’m just tired.”
Ben forced himself to sit upright and take out his pen as Professor Nolan brought the class to attention. She started explaining her expectations for the exam, but Ben couldn’t focus. He kept hearing a heavy, rhythmic beat, like a heartbeat but much too slow. It pressed in on his ears, thumping against the inside of his skull. Ben clamped his hands over his ears, but it didn’t make it any better. The beating was getting louder, closer.
“Benjamin?” Professor Nolan was barely audible over the pounding.
“I’m fine,” Ben whimpered, sinking down into his chair like it could offer some protection from the long, steady pulsing. How had the windows not shattered with the pressure? How did nobody else notice it? Surely they heard something!
The beating abruptly cut off as a loud keening split Ben’s head in two, accompanied by a crash that rattled his body, like the classroom was being bombed. But Professor Nolan and the rest of the class simply stared at him with perplexed expressions, uncomprehending.
Ben’s head whipped around to the wall of windows as a loud roar echoed through the classroom. A huge, orange eye peered into the windows, ringed by a scaly, royal blue hide.
“Starry-eyed.” The deep voice of the dragon vibrated in Ben’s chest, punching his lungs and making his heart race. “Come! Help me defeat my enemy. He seeks my territory!”
“No!” Ben screeched, falling out of his desk.
“Benjamin! What’s wrong?” Professor Nolan asked, looking distressed.
“I can’t go with you. I have a history exam.”
“Nonsense! This is much more important. I must defeat this usurper. I require your aid, Starry-eyed.”
“If you do not agree to come with me, I shall have to force you.”
Ben shook his head violently. “Please, just leave me alone!”
“Benjamin, who are you talking to?”
The dragon outside growled angrily. He rose up to his full height and, with a powerful swing of his spiked tail, crushed the windows and sent shards of glass raining down on Ben and the rest of the class. Ben curled up into a ball, but he felt the glass shards pierce his exposed arms and cut through his t-shirt.
“No, please! I can’t!”
“Emily, go call Public Safety.”
“You will come with me, Starry-eyed!” the dragon thundered.
“I can’t go with you!” Benjamin cried, cradling his knees in his bloodied arms, his back shoved against the wall.
“Very well. Then I shall smite you, Starry-eyed. You are unworthy.” The dragon reared back its head and opened its gaping maw. Ben smelled brimstone, just before the dragon blew a fiery stream through the broken windows at him. Ben shrieked as the flames engulfed him, turning his clothes to ash and melting the skin from his body. He tried to writhe away from the hellfire but no place was safe. All he could do was curl in on himself, beyond cries.
“Benjamin. Benjamin Newcastle!”
Ben looked up at the concerned Public Safety officer who now stood crouched over him. His skin felt feverish, but he still wore his t-shirt and jeans and Ben looked over to find the windows still intact, the sun shining through the slats in the blinds.
“Let me help you,” the officer told him. He took Ben’s upper arm and pulled him off the floor. Ben looked down, confused. He wasn’t even slightly singed. The little hairs on his arms stood at attention, all there.
“I—I don’t understand,” Ben stammered.
“I think, for your own safety and the safety of your classmates and professor, you should come with me.”
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