VIII: Knights & Dancers
Before I can figure out what’s happening, my body is whipping around of its own accord. A loud, metallic din echoes through the dark gymnasium, and I feel my entire body tense. It’s a moment before I realize that I’m holding something in front of me. It appears to be a knight’s shield. I try to turn it over to get a better look at it, but my body doesn’t respond to my commands.
“What the hell is happening?” I ask aloud to anybody who feels like answering.
I’m sorry, Jimmy, Bump answers from that same place somewhere inside my head. I didn’t want to do this without explaining it to you first, but right now it’s the only way for me to keep you safe. I need you to trust me, okay?
Without warning, my body propels itself forward. My footfalls ring heavily through the gym, accompanied by a rhythmic metallic clatter. Something slams hard into the inexplicable shield on my arm once again, but this time my body pushes whatever it is aside before chasing after it. My arm brings itself down in a swinging arc, and slams something into what appears to be an invisible target behind the second pair of glowing white eyes.
I notice that my arm is wrapped in archaic, black-tinged metal armor, and that I’m holding a sword which I’ve just driven the pommel of straight into the head of the creature which is now materializing right in front of me. It’s nothing like the spider monster that Tasha is dance-fighting off in some other corner of the room. This thing is its own beast, entirely.
Rather than arachnid, this thing looks canine. It’s coated in thick, black fur and the lips of its long muzzle are bared back, revealing a row of surreally sharp teeth. It gets back up onto two feet and begins to circle around my position with its eyes set dead on me. It’s looking for an opening, and it looks like it could strike at any moment.
“Bump, what the hell is going on?” I demand once more.
These are Boogeymen, the voice in my head says, telling me what I already suspected to be true in the first place. They’ve been seeking out the children who they were supposed to be bonded to, and possessing them the second that they turn eighteen. Up until recently, they were mostly harmless to humans. With a host, though, they can affect things on the physical plane. That’s why Mr. G is after Ty. The generals are tired of fighting in the shadows. They want to take their rebellion public. For them, that means hurting whoever it takes.
“These are people?” I ask. “Why do they look like this?”
The dog-thing seems to notice that I’m distracted, and makes its move. Luckily, my body gets the shield up in time to block this latest attack. It pushes the monster back and pins it against the nearest wall.
When a Boogeyman possesses their partner, the host body takes on the attributes of the thing that the person feared most when they were a child—looks like this one wasn’t too fond of dogs. Friends do the opposite. When we possess our partners, we take on the form of whatever made them feel the safest.
“So, what? A kid just showed up one day possessed by a Boogeyman? They just somehow knew that they could do that?”
I guess? I don’t know. Kind of busy keeping you not-dead at the moment.
“Wait a minute, are you possessing me?” I ask.
Well, uh…kind of? Bump replies. Look, I’m sorry. It was either that, or death by werewolf. Is this really worse?
The monster-who-is-actually-a-person-who-is-actually-a-victim takes a swipe at me—at us—with one of its clawed hands, and I silently concede to Bump’s point.
“You could have at least warned me,” I contest.
I also could have let you become a human shish kebab, Bump says. I didn’t. Consider it phase one in my ongoing apology for leaving you on your own all those years ago.
In the blink of an eye, Bump pulls the sword as far back as my body can, and then thrusts it deep into the gut of the pinned-down Boogeyman.
“What are you doing?” I shout. “Didn’t you say that there’s a person in there?”
Without another word, Bump tears the sword aside, ripping through the beast’s torso. I’m flooded with horror as I look on helplessly at my own actions. No—not my actions. My childhood imaginary friend has just hijacked my body, and used it to kill somebody. Only—
Only there’s no blood. Instead of bleeding out, the creature erupts into a muted, blinding flash of white. When the flash dissipates, instead of looking at one monster I’m looking at two young men who are about my age. One of them is unconscious, and has long dark hair. The other has slicked back blond hair, and the same glowing white eyes as the wolf monster. As far as I can tell, his skin is covered from head-to-toe in tattoo-like markings. He’s down on his knees, and Bump has the tip of the sword pressed against the fleshy part of his neck.
Imaginary weapons don’t work the same way as regular ones do, Bump tells me. They only hurt the things that we want them to hurt. I had no intention of hurting that poor kid. He’s been through enough.
I exhale heavily. “You need to start telling me these things before you give me a heart attack!” I yell.
Yeah, that last one was on me, Bump admits. Sorry about that.
“Not bad, for your first rodeo,” somebody says from behind us. Shepherd walks up next to us, and looks down at the defeated Boogeyman.
“What are you going to do with him?” I ask.
“I’m going to do the same thing that my Aspects do every time they capture a rebel,” Shepherd replies without looking up at me. Then, he addresses the Boogeyman. “Any words before you face the rusty gates, my friend?” he asks.
The Boogeyman glares up at him defiantly, and then spits directly in his face. “Any hell that you have cooked up for me is going to look like a paradise compared to what Grimm has in store for you,” he says.
Shepherd wipes the spit from his face with Mr. Tanner’s sleeve. “All of you Boogeymen are so melodramatic,” he says. “It’s almost like you all studied theater at the Academy of B-Movies. Honestly, I’d open up my own gateway if one of you ever showed the capacity to say something original.” His voice lowers an octave. “Unfortunately for you, yours is the one I’ll be opening today.”
He reaches down the front of Mr. Tanner’s shirt, and pulls out a strange black medallion which is hanging from a chain. At first, nothing happens. After a moment, though, the medallion begins to emit a soft, black light. The air around us becomes electric; I can almost feel it crackling against my still-armored body. Then, I can actually see it.
The air above the Boogeyman’s head flares to life, becoming consumed by a pulsating ring of what I can only describe as coils of black lightning. The ring begins to spin, faster and faster until the space inside of it becomes a swirling void. Without warning, it slams down into the gym floor. I expect a loud sound, a bright flash—anything to indicate that the fabric of reality has just been torn asunder. Instead, it’s gone more quickly than it appeared. The Boogeyman has vanished along with it.
“Well, that’s settled.” Shepherd sighs, tucking the medallion back into Mr. Tanner’s shirt.
“What is that thing?” I ask, still wide-eyed.
“Oh this?” he points to the spot on Mr. Tanner’s chest where the strange black trinket is hanging. “That’s just Geoffrey’s Scythe Key. All of my Aspects have one. It’s how they guide spirits to the afterlife.”
“So, a Boogeyman could just steal one of those, and this whole thing would be over with?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” Daff says, returning from wherever she’s been this whole time. Tasha is standing behind her with her arms folded across her chest. “The Keys only work for people who Shepherd has chosen as an Aspect. Otherwise, they’re just shiny and useless.”
“All of this is way too complicated,” I say.
There’s a green flash, and Bump is standing next to me again. I’ve finally regained control of my body.
“I know that it’s a lot,” Bump says. “You’ll get the hang of it all.”
“What if I don’t want to get the hang of any of this?” I ask. “All of this is insane. I was just attacked by a damned werewolf! I don’t even know what to call that other thing!”
I’ve returned to the frantic state I was in when I first arrived at the gym. Bump places a hand on my shoulder to try to calm me down, but I shrug him off.
“Yet, more proof that this guy is a total waste of all our time,” Tasha speaks up.
“Maybe I am!” I shout. I’m too tired to refute her. “You know what, though? A few days ago, my life was normal! I had plans! I may not have known exactly where I was going, but I knew how I was going to get there. Now? Now, I don’t even know what’s real anymore!” my shoulders slump, and I struggle to slow my breathing back down to a manageable rate.
Tasha walks up to me, and stops less than a foot from my face. I expect her to start yelling at me, but she doesn’t. Instead, she sounds almost sympathetic. The look in her eyes has softened, and there are hints of a frown drawn across her bright red lips.
“Normal is just a lie that adults swallow to help them cope with reality,” she says. “This, James? Everything that you saw tonight? This is real. The reality is that everything is in danger, and we have the ability to do something about it. If that isn’t enough for you, then we can help you keep your cousin safe.
“You know, Bump has watched over you all these years. Even though you couldn’t see him, he was there. He told me and Lady Daffodil all about you. He told us how it broke his heart to see you give up on your fantasies; to see you shackle yourself to the adult world years before you had to. He also told us that, despite all that, you would do anything for your family. That was the one thing about you that I thought was respectable. Is that not true anymore?”
For a long time, silence lingers between us. Somehow, Tasha’s words have managed to calm me down. She’s right—Ty’s safety is on the line, and that’s worth fighting for. That’s worth swallowing this massive, absurd pill for, and trudging forward. Still, a part of me isn’t quite ready yet to admit that Tasha Emerson could possibly be right about anything. Instead, I ask a question.
“Lady Daffodil?” I smirk.
“Shut up,” she says, doing something that almost resembles blushing. She turns around and marches back over to where Daff is standing.
I take a long, hard look around the room at this collection of strange individuals spread out before me, before giving them my answer. I can protest all I want; I can kick, and scream, and stomp my feet about how none of this lines up with common sense. The truth, though, is that sometimes life doesn’t. Sometimes, rhyme and reason may as well just be figment and fantasy. Sometimes, you’re just a five-year-old kid waiting for a car that never comes, and there isn’t a damned thing that you can do about it. This isn’t one of those times. This time, I’m far from helpless.
“I’ll help you,” I say to the room at large, but almost more as an affirmation for myself. “For Ty.”
I sincerely hope that I don’t regret this decision.