Shadow and Ice
Escaping the Fae had been the only thing driving Caleb as he fled through the Barrowlands, failing to avoid the wild beasts that tore at the sanity of the changelings who dared to run from their keepers. So, it came as a shock when he tripped through the shadow of a griffon and fell back into the mortal realm out of a shadow pooled under a flight of stairs.
His face hit hard on the ground, knocking the air out of him. Cool cement cradled his aching cheek as he sought precious air for his empty lungs. When it relented, his breath came in heaving gasps.
Caleb scrambled to his feet, searching for the monster who had been tearing at his chest moments ago. No matter the direction he looked, he couldn’t find the creature, and, curiously, his shirt and chest were not in bloody ribbons from its taloned strikes. Reality settled over him; a reality he had not experienced since before the Fae had abducted and taken him to their home in the Otherworld.
Breath settling, Caleb stared at the underneath of the stairs of the dimly lit interior stairwell. Yellow light filtered into all but the area he stood in at the bottom of the structure. With a deep breath, he stepped into it and toward the metal door with the EXIT light glowing above it. His fingers shook as he reached toward the metal handle, hesitating only a moment to consider the tattered clothing he wore before tearing the door open.
Blind. For a split moment, he could see nothing but all-consuming white light. As his eyes adjusted to a sun he hadn’t seen in God-knows-how-long, his body froze. He had lived in darkness in the Otherworld, servant to the Fae of liquid dark, and it seemed to have compromised his ability to walk in daylight.
“Young man, are you all right?”
Caleb stiffened at the sound of the voice before answering with a tremor, “I can’t... I don’t know.” The light that had obscured his vision settled for blurring it, and a headache crept behind his eyes. He blinked hard and rubbed his eyes.
Turning to the voice, he found an older gentleman in a suit, staring at him with concern. The man reached into his pocket, and Caleb twitched, recalling how a Fae had used the same innocent move before hitting him with sleeping powder. But the man produced no nefarious powder, but a pair of sunglasses, and nice ones at that. Caleb shook his head, protesting the darkened spectacles, but the man’s insistence won out.
“The sun can be a powerful enemy if you’re not careful. You be safe now, understand?” The man shook Caleb’s hand with a kind smile and continued on his way.
With the glasses on, Caleb had an easier time dealing with the light. Now, it was obvious he was in a downtown neighborhood. The apartment complex he had dropped into was what he once would have referred to as “swanky,” with what looked like a debit card reader on the door.
“Must be some well-off people to pay to get into the stairwell.”
He sighed and turned his attention to the sidewalk he was standing on, less than a few feet from the pockmarked road.
Paying to get into the stairs, yet the road looks like hell. Seems about right.
Caleb walked along the sidewalk, aware that his clothes would draw attention considering they were Fae garb. They looked almost human, but they moved even in stillness, shone without sunlight, and were anything but normal. Fitting for a man made to work the Everdark, but not so much to walk the mortal streets.
At the first intersection he came to, a smattering of other people passed without even a second glance. Odd, because he was sure he looked entirely out of place, and that was before considering how the Otherworld had changed his body to reflect its own wild strangeness.
His hands were spindly and thin; when he flexed his fingers, the muscle and tendon stood out as it moved beneath his skin, which had faded from a normal tone, and unnaturally so. As he passed a shop, removing his sunglasses, Caleb stared at his reflection. Sunken eyes stared out from his gaunt face, and his thick hair looked brittle, as if gobs of hair gel held it in place. His body was thinner than he remembered, but when he lifted his shirt, every muscle stood out to reassure it hadn’t withered away to nothing. It was still him beneath the guise, but the person staring back at him in the mirrored surface held an ethereal air about him; as if he were no longer fully human.
He cleared his throat and slid the sunglasses back on. If the passers-by didn’t notice it, perhaps it was him seeing things unclearly. With every window he passed, his reflection drew his gaze. That is until he came upon a familiar box that was more important.
His eyes lit up with trepidation and his hands shook as he approached the newspaper dispensary. There was still one in the front, showing the headline of “So Far, A Crime Mystery.” He dropped to his knee and held his breath at seeing the name of his hometown above the ominous title. His eyes darted over its surface until he found the date. June 10, 2015.
Caleb’s heart pounded hard enough he could hear it in his head. Ten years. The Fae had stolen a whole decade from him. He slumped to the ground, shifting to sit against the wall beside the box.
How is this even possible?
Caleb recalled his reflection, noting it was still the face of his twenty-two-year-old self and not the thirty-two-year-old man it should reflect. He raked his hands over his face, prepared to feel sorry for himself. Even in the Otherworld, he had known time passed differently, but a decade… and then, one very important thing crossed his mind: his family was still alive somewhere. Whatever had happened to him, he was finally home, and his family was waiting somewhere.
It didn’t take long for him to find a library, though he was slightly off-put at a store clerk who looked at him as if he had two heads when asking for directions. Caleb had assumed it was because the man could see him for what he truly was, but put the thought to rest when the clerk exclaimed, “Dude, you don’t have a smartphone?”
Now, as he stepped through the doorway and into the building that smelled of books and fantastical dreams from his childhood, he felt so out of place. He remembered all the books, but what looked so odd were the line of desks with at least ten small flat-screen TVs spaced out along them. A woman sat down at one and the screen came to life. Caleb nearly cursed out loud. The TVs were computers. His mind reeled at the advancement. They had been useful tools back in 2005, and he only hoped it would serve his purpose now.
He sat at the desk and wiggled the mouse, smiling when the screen lit up with a message that read “This will begin your 60 minute session.” With a click of the OK button, he stared at the empty screen. Caleb had no idea how to use this thing. No matter where he searched, he could not find the AOL icon.
“What the hell? I just need to find Maggie’s address.” His hands slapped into his lap in frustration.
“New to the computers?” A young woman came up behind him, her dark hair falling like sheets of rain around her heart-shaped face. She smiled kindly at him, but something in her look made him uncomfortable.
Caleb nodded slowly as his eyes trailed away from hers. “I was just trying to find my sister’s new address, but I can’t seem to get on the line.”
“Online. And you can’t search anything if you don’t open the browser.”
Caleb stared at the screen, unsure of how to respond, but the woman must have sensed his shame and embarrassment as he twisted his fingers.
“Here.” She reached over and grabbed the mouse, clicking a small E icon, and smiled up at him through her glasses. A new screen opened, and she typed something into the white bar at the top, and when she hit enter, the screen shifted to a new display.
“Now, we just punch in her name and it should find her. Or, at least, where she’s been. This site can be a little off.”
“Damn.” Caleb sat with wide eyes as he stared at the new screen. “I have a lot to catch up on. Thank you, uh…” His smile faltered as he met her gaze, aware that he had not asked her name.
She smiled and offered, “Jessie. And anytime. If you ever need a hand with this kind of thing, just hit me up. I’m usually here a few times a week working on projects.”
Caleb nodded; he might take her up on the offer. After writing her number on a scrap of paper—much to her amusement after Caleb assured her he had no phone—Jessie left him alone with the computer.
He ran the search for Maggie’s address and three popped up, but the most recent one was all too familiar. With a sigh, he wrote out the two addresses he didn’t recognize. He would visit the familiar address first, but he worried what the implications were for her living in their childhood home after years living on her own. Maggie was not one to go back to her roots, so to speak, so, his biggest concern was if it meant something had happened to their parents.
An hour later, Caleb stood outside the home he had grown up in. It was an old house with a brick facade, and he heard the memory of his mother’s voice telling him how it felt more like a home because it resembled a hearth. Now, it didn’t look so homey. At least, not like his home anymore.
The lights were on inside, and shadows danced against the sheer curtains. Dinner seemed to be the event at hand, and Caleb made out two small forms rushing about the old dining room window. A half-smile tugged at his lips as the thought of Maggie having children filled his heart both with joy and loss. He had missed a decade of his family’s lives; there was no telling how they would receive him, especially looking as if he hadn’t aged a day. He only hoped his parents were still in that house somewhere.
Caleb waited outside, propped against the large bushes that lined the walkway until dinner was over. By that point, it was dark, and a drizzle trickled around him. His breathing was steady, but his hands shook. With nothing else holding him back, he walked up to the door and knocked.
The door swung in, and laughter sounded from within, reaching out to wrap Caleb in its warmth. It was almost as if he hadn’t left as he let the glow of family wash over him after years in the Otherworld’s darkest reaches. He stared into the face of his younger sister—well, she was older than him now—and beamed at her. The smile slid from her face the moment she laid eyes on him, though.
His own drooped, unsure of what she would say and how he would explain his absence. He resolved to tell her everything. Before he could say anything, though, Maggie’s eyes filled with rage, and a snarl twisted her lips.
“What kind of sick joke is this? Who the hell are you?”
“Maggie, it’s me. I know I look different, but it’s still me, promise.” He reached a shaking hand toward her, but she jerked away from his touch.
“How dare you come here?”
She was angry, and it made sense. “Mags, I—”
“Don’t you even dare. My brother has been in the ground for a month and you people have been trying to scam us ever since. Who the hell do you think you are?” Maggie’s voice rose in pitch, filled with the fire of her fury. She stepped toward Caleb, and he backed away, frightened she might lash out at him. “Get the hell out of my doorway,” she stepped toward him again, herding him off of her stoop, “and if I ever see you here again, I swear to God, I will kick your ass. And don’t even think for a second that I can’t, because if there’s one thing my brother taught me before he died, it’s how to kick the living shit out of dirtbags like you.”
All feeling drained out through his feet and into the sidewalk. Maggie stared at him for the breath of a second and stormed back into the house, slamming the door behind her.
He couldn’t breathe; couldn’t think. His heart raced in his chest, frantically trying to escape the miasma of shock threatening to consume it like a wolf. A numb ache settled in the pit of his stomach. The rain picked up and all Caleb could do was stare at the door barring him from his family. His hands shook harder with his trembling lips as tears filled his eyes.
Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled across a sky that mirrored the tumultuous storm ripping through his soul. He was dead. He was dead, and his family gone. Caleb took one last look at his childhood home, stifling a sob when two small faces peered out at him before ducking behind the curtain when he made eye contact. All he wanted to do was find a hole to crawl into.
He had escaped the Fae only to end up alone in a world that had moved on without him. At least, without the him that he was now.
Caleb’s brows crinkled as a scowl twisted his features. The screen before him flashed with pictures of his life. Well, of the Fake-Caleb who had carried on his life in his place. Whoever it was, he had lived a full life; traveling, advancing in a career Caleb hadn’t even considered, holding Maggie’s newborn babies with a proud smile on his face.
Over the last three days, Caleb had discovered the wide world of social media. It had been all-consuming as he spent those days from open to close at the library, digging into the life he had missed. His parents were, thankfully, still alive. Their posts were cheery until about a month and a half ago when their posts suddenly stopped in frequency and turned into sad inspirational sayings.
Maggie’s social media was more informative. From it, he learned he was an uncle to a sweet little cherub of a girl named Grace, and a handsome boy named after him. No, not him, Fake-Caleb.
It cut like a knife that Maggie had named his nephew after an imposter. Much as he wanted to argue that it was still his, Maggie had named her son after a man who had taken his place a decade ago. Fake-Caleb had stolen everything he had fought to return to. And what’s worse, Fake-Caleb had died before Caleb could take his life back. Now, he was only a ghost of the imposter who had died with his name, having burned up in a house fire.
A sigh fell from his lips as he stared at the smiling faces of his family, posing for last year’s Christmas photo. “Ski-sons Greetings!” stretched over the top in icicle letters as the entire family stood on the side of a snowy hill, smiling. Caleb chewed the inside of his lip as his stomach filled with the sourness of his mood.
“The first few days back are always the hardest.”
Caleb startled at the soft tones that sent a chill down his spine. He turned to it, eyes wide, and met the icy stare of the woman who had spoken. Bright red hair the color of a rose cascaded to her waist, matching the color of the full lips that smiled down at him. The skin he could see of her was pale and tinged blue, but even that could not hold his gaze long from the piercing stare of her eyes. They were the color of an iceberg; not quite blue or white, but cold and deep.
“I’m sorry?” Caleb’s heart sped up as he tried to feign confusion.
The woman only gave him a sympathetic smile. “There’s not much time to waste on pretending we don’t know what each of us is. I don’t know how you managed to come to this place for the past few days and not end up back in the Otherworld, the Fair Folk have a way of finding us when we use certain technologies without a ward.”
Her eyes darted around the library as she shoved her hands in her pockets. Caleb wasn’t sure how to respond, but his teeth chattered as the chill dug deeper into his spine like a burrowing mole. Her body stiffened as her eyes locked on something. “Delete the history and close the browser.”
The woman’s eyes darted back to him, piercing through his stupor and increasing the cold feeling of dread in his stomach. He turned back to the screen and followed her mumbled instructions.
“So, yeah,” she crooned, tone changing quicker than a chameleon, “I’d totally be down for a lunch date.” She bit her lip and reached out a hand.
Caleb didn’t hesitate to take it, ignoring the ice he felt in her touch. She pulled him close, entwining her arm around his as she led him out the door with a broad smile. Rather than dropping whatever facade she was playing at, the woman tugged him down the sidewalk until they came to the next traffic light.
A red hand flashed at them from a signal across the street. Caleb made to glance behind them, but the woman tugged his arm and shook her head.
“Don’t look back. Their servant girl is following us.”
“What?” Caleb twisted to look behind them but stopped when cold lips pressed against his own. His eyes widened at the touch, but the rest of his body seemed to sigh; as if the chill coming from her were a balm to the angry fire burning through his life since he had returned. Peppermint filled his nostrils as her fingers traced across his neck, sending a shiver through him, and his eyes closed. It was like being kissed by Christmas; chilled from the cold but kept warm by being together with the ones he loved most.
When she pulled away from him, dizziness spiraled through his head. “Wha-”
Frost spread around her eyes as she pressed a cool finger to his lips and whispered, “I said, ‘don’t look back.’”
Caleb swallowed and gave a shallow nod.
She tugged on his arm when the crosswalk signal changed, her footsteps quickening as they went. As they approached the next intersection, a familiar voice called out to him.
His body stiffened at the sound of Jessie’s voice. Something sinister and dark settled into the pit of his stomach as he fought against an odd sense telling him to turn around and face her.
The woman clinging to him took charge and tore around the corner, yanking him along behind her.
Brick walls blurred in his vision as they sped past, hands still clasped as they ran.
Jessie’s voice rang out, angrier now and in two different tones.
It felt like spiders were crawling over Caleb’s skin as he raced forward, his hand still holding onto the stranger he was putting all of his trust into.
Up ahead, the wall parted, and a door opened where none had been, and a bearded man hurriedly waved them in.
Caleb followed the pull of his companion and rushed through the door. It closed behind them on its own, and with a softer sound than it should have. His chest heaved as he struggled to fill his lungs. Caleb leaned back against the wall, vaguely aware of the cold hand still in his own.
“Odin’s beard, Bianca, could you have cut it any closer?” The bearded man’s accent laced the words beneath his deep tone, and the boisterous laugh that followed was warm and hearty as baked bread.
The woman who had led him to this place squeezed his hand, but her eyes remained on her friend. “I probably could have,” she gave a breathless laugh and pulled Caleb forward. “Caleb, this is Bjørn. He runs the safe houses in the Labyrinth around town.
“The Labyrinth. It’s a network we’ve created to shelter new changelings from the Fair Folk and their underlings in the city. It’s not safe to wander about without wards, but we can be without them in here so long as they don’t know how to enter. That chick following you? Jessie? Yeah, she’s one of their underlings. Humans who submit to them willingly even outside of the Otherworld.” Bianca let go of his hand and stood between him and Bjørn.
Caleb’s stomach clenched; a human aiding the Fae by choice was enough to stop his breath after what he had experienced with them. “H-how did she know to find me?”
Bianca frowned. “She didn’t. You walked into their trap-house. See, technology has been advancing fast in the last few years—when were you taken?”
“Ah, you’ll understand this better, at least. Technology is forging ahead, making life easier for humans, but it’s making it easier for the Fair Folk, too. All that information in one place and humans just put it out there freely.” Bianca shook her head.
Bjørn nodded, and the light danced across his bear-like features. “The Fae use technology to ensnare errant changelings. Many of them return and use the new technologies to try to make sense of what happened to them or to connect to others. The only thing waiting for them is a Fae or their underlings, and the best outcome at that point is that they wind up dead.” The big man shook his head, pursing his lips as his eyes ticked to the floor.
Bianca pressed a hand to Bjørn’s shoulder, her eyes full of sadness, before turning her gaze back to Caleb. “But our job here is to find those changelings before they get into that mess. There’s a large network of us, working under the courts—”
“The courts?” Caleb crossed his arms.
“It’s like the courts of the Fair Folk—spring, summer, autumn, and winter—but it’s ours, changelings’.” Bianca’s voice shrank like a dimmed light. “We’ve all… changed… in the Otherworld. We’re still human but consuming the food of the Fair Folk and living in their homes has made us more like them, and having our own courts helps us to connect with those who know what we’ve experienced. For instance, my master was the embodiment of hoarfrost. He kept me as an ice sculpture, only thawed out and allowed to move when he wished. What would I know of the dealings of changelings who were hunted like beasts,” she nodded at Bjørn, “or kept in darkness?”
Bianca stared pointedly at Caleb. He uncrossed his arms, the glimmer of suspicion tracing across his features. “How do you even know that?”
“There are more of us around than you may realize. The part of us that is of the Otherworld protects our true form from showing by hiding it beneath a guise, but we can recognize each other. We still give off an aura of our ethereal nature—like how my skin appears to you—even though the guise allows us to pass as normal.”
“Halloween is fun, though.” Bjørn chuckled. “Those of us who know how to drop the guise don’t need any costumes at all.”
Caleb’s wide gaze darted between the two, lost for words.
Bianca cleared her throat. “Point being, those sunglasses you’ve been wearing? The man who gave them to you was a Darkling, too. A changeling like you, kept by one of the manifestations of darkness. He’s not a Watcher, but he reported you to us.”
“And… you’re Watchers? I-is that what you did all this time you knew I was floundering here?” Caleb’s voice shook as he regarded the two before him. “You-you watched me? Watched me go into a trap and just let it be? Were you watching when I tried to find my family, too? When my sister threatened to beat my ass for impersonating her dead brother?”
He threw his hands up, exasperated and brought them to rest on his head as he turned in place. His face warmed as bile rose in the back of his throat.
“The was what made us realize you were not one of their underlings, Caleb. Not all changelings who come back escaped the Barrowlands by chance, some are here on missions from their Fae. And you walking into one of their trap-houses looked like you were supposed to be there.”
“Are you kidding me?” He almost laughed at the absurdity of the notion. “I am from here.” Anger contorted his features.
Bianca responded in kind. “And how are we supposed to know that? We are Watchers, but that doesn’t make us mind readers. I think you need to cool down and realize we are here to help you now.”
A scoff ripped through Caleb’s lips, “Yeah, the keyword being ‘now,’ because before now I was a threat.”
Bianca’s next words were slow and full of danger, like frost creeping over the ground at dusk. “I said cool down.”
The room chilled as her words hung on the air with his visible breath. His jaw tightened when he turned back to face her, but what met his gaze was not the playful woman who had led him here.
Frost covered her skin and the blood-red hair that cascaded around her. The glacial gaze she turned on him held him in place. Fear would have been the appropriate reaction, but instead, he felt relief.
Nothing had been normal, not for the last decade. And now? The woman before him was turning the room arctic, and it was the most normal thing that had happened in a long time. This, he understood.
A heavy sigh escaped him as he leaned back on the wall, fading into his darkness. “I’m sorry.” It came out as the shadow of a whisper. “It’s been a bit of a nightmare, and I am grateful that you probably just saved me from being sent back. I… I’m sorry.”
The room grew warmer, and the hoarfrost covering Bianca’s skin receded. A frown curved her red lips as she spoke to him. “It’s like that for everyone. Especially if they have family who still remember them. You’re lucky your Fetch is dead, though. The Fae left it behind to replace you when they abducted you. Looks and acts like you, but it’s just a bunch of leftover junk the Fair Folk magicked to look like you. The Fetches rarely know what they are, but they’re still connected to the Fae. When they die, the Fae know what caused it, so it’s a good thing you didn’t get involved with it at all. But I understand what that means as far as connecting with your family.”
Bianca crossed the space to lean against the wall next to Caleb, her peppermint scent filling his nose again.
“They think I’m dead.”
Bianca nodded, keeping her gaze focused on the floor. “If you try to get close to them, it could be dangerous. If they ever knew what happened to you, they’re at risk of being abducted themselves. People will try to make sense of it, and that’s when they make stupid moves.”
His eyes ticked from side to side, considering the two little faces who had stared out at him from the window of his childhood home. Caleb conjured the dark highlights of his last decade and cringed at the image of Grace or little Caleb being snatched away to be a Fae’s plaything. He swallowed back a scream, instead, letting it out as a growl. He wanted them to be safe; all of them.
“There is… one thing you can do to ensure their safety, though.” Bianca cleared her throat, looking to Bjørn before continuing. “The Watchers don’t just watch for changelings returning to the mortal realm, we…” Her body froze as the words died on her lips.
Bjørn picked up where she left off, drawing Caleb’s gaze as he spoke. “We watch after the family we have left. Make sure they’re safe and happy, even if we cannot be with them. Some of us are watching our descendants, many generations down, and others watch over the family the Fae stole them from. We picked this as our means to protect them from the Fae, and it’s given many of us a new family to be ourselves with while we do so.” The large man’s eyes trailed to Bianca and filled with pride.
“If your family will not have you, we will. And we will protect yours as our own because they don’t understand—and shouldn’t understand—what has happened to us.” Tears turned to frost at the edges of Bianca’s eyes as they lifted to meet his.
Caleb swallowed the lump in his throat. With a nod, he earned a smile from them both. “Where do I sign up?”
Bjørn chuckled, a twinkle lighting his eye, and Bianca moved to stand in front of Caleb.
“You start by giving yourself a name. Some of us keep our old names, while others change it to reflect who they’re becoming. So, Darkling, who are you now?”
For all the ice she embodied, her smile set his insides on fire.
It only took a moment for him to settle. “Caleb” belonged to his nephew now, he would tether his humanity to another name and tie it to the darkness that consumed him in the Otherworld. A smile spread over his lips.
Bianca smirked and stretched her arm out to him. “James Nightshade. Welcome to the Watchers; welcome home.”