For the fifth night that week, little Edmund woke up with a heart-wrenching shriek, scrambling away from his bed like it was Charybdis about to swallow him whole. After a few brief seconds of near-complete silence, he collapsed into a whimpering, trembling heap on the dirt floor.
Meredith blearily came to his aid, staggering from her bed and wrapping the kitten in her body and her quilted blanket. “Hey, Eddie, it’s okay. You know it’s okay.”
“Meri?” Edmund whispered, turning his tiny head towards his big sister.
“Yeah, it’s me. You had a bad dream again, but it’s over now,” Meredith said.
He sniffled. “Are… are you sure?”
Meredith nodded. “I’m positive.”
Eddie wiped the tears from his big, green eyes, eyes that reflected the moonlight like little stars of his own. “It was the shadow man again,” he said, his voice barely a squeak.
“You know he can’t hurt you,” Meredith said, running her hand by the muscles in her little brother’s ears and down his shoulder. But she felt a strange wetness that made her heart sink. She gasped, breathing in the acrid, coppery stench of blood, a smell so rank and evil that it felt as if it was the first time she’d ever smelt it. “Oh… oh gods. Eddie, who--”
“The shadow man!” Eddie shouted, finding a new well of tears to draw from.
Meredith knew she had to say something, but she didn’t know what. Rage and fear and sadness churned in her mind and ate away at her soul. She tried to steady her breathing as she kept the fearful child close to her body. No doubt, whoever this shadow man was, it would pay dearly. She would ensure it. She had to.
But right now, her little brother was still scared and bleeding.
“Come on, Eddie, let’s get you a glass of milk and a bandage,” Meredith said, faking a smile and an unfazed tone. She rubbed her thumb against her paw pads, creating a dim magical light in the palm of her hand. Her other arm stayed on Edmund’s shoulder, gently tugging him out the door of their bedroom and into the common area of their little cottage. The dirt beneath their paws was cold. Meredith bade Edmund sit on a log by the home’s central wood stove. A small fire was already smoldering. Meredith tossed another log into the cinders before hurrying to the washroom for water, towels, and a bandage. When she returned, the fire had come back stronger. In the flickering light, she could better see her brother’s injury. Soaking up the blood with a towel revealed a superficial wound-- something that wouldn’t have been alarming were it not for the circumstances. Meredith was relieved and upset anew. Edmund wasn’t direly injured-- but this shadow man was undoubtedly messing with him, and by extension, the Twopaws family.
But why? The three of them were private folks. Eddie, in particular, hadn’t hurt a fly. Part of her was itching to run into the night and find the beast, but that would leave Edmund scared and unattended until their mother woke up, far past daybreak. So, she took a place on the dirt floor and tried to keep watch until her brother went back to sleep. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t.
Meredith woke up to the sun high in the sky, shining red behind her eyelids, which were still stuck together with sleep. She rubbed her eyes and glanced around the room. Edmund stared at her with a sad, tired look in his eyes. He had not gone back to sleep.
Meredith immediately felt guilty. Her eyes dropped from his face to the floor. And yet, she knew she had to make things worse to make things better. She wouldn’t let another night fall with her brother in this state. Nightmares were unpleasant but an essential part of being a child. Nightmares, though, did not draw blood.
She smiled brightly. “I’ll be back soon, Eddie!” With her cloak, her boots, and her walking stick, she sprinted for the door. “Love you!”
As she began her quest, she heard her brother echo her declaration: “Love you too, Meri….” He sounded despondent.
It was an hour's hike to the nearest human settlement (assuming one was human-sized, so decisively excluding Meredith), but Meredith was swift on her paws, ever swifter with a mission in mind. The brush she couldn’t simply duck underneath or leap over, she beat aside with her stick or cut it with her claws. Eventually, she crested a final hill, where the last few tangled trees stood tall against the beating sun. At her back remained the dappled yellow sunlight, the birds, the cicadas, and their amorous songs. In her eyes shone a magnificent city with towering, white marble buildings and grey cobble streets and people milling about like mammoth ants.
She recalled from her last visit-- about two years ago, when her mother was grievously ill-- exactly where she needed to go. At the heart of the city, a library, a bastion of all human knowledge, the glory of the otherwise pale and soft human race. She also recalled from her last visit that the humans did not take kindly to her. Luckily, the library wasn’t too deep in the city, and the library’s keeper was surprisingly polite.
She took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. It was close to noon. Half the daylight hours were already gone, but there was no time to be sorry. Letting that breath go, she approached the border road. A carriage approached from the left, far in the distance. Nothing approached from the right. She ran.
The roads were always the worst part. Soft dirt gave way to large, uneven stones that hurt her feet and sandy gaps that threatened to catch her boots and trip her. But, she made it across the road into a small patch of grass in front of a large human home. She stood in the shade of a young tree.
A single teneral cicada shared in the shade, hanging precariously from its dried old skin. Meredith was hungry, having skipped breakfast. She plucked the soft, green creature from the tree and ate it in two bites. It tasted sweet and slightly of shellfish, briefly assuaging her complaining stomach and acting as a small comfort. From here, the city was a maze.
Meredith sprinted down the busy walkway, dodging feet and wheeled briefcases. She went mostly unnoticed, the humans busy with their purpose just as she was with hers. It was a boon in some ways, freeing her from prying eyes, but a nuisance in others: inattentive, heavy footsteps and drifting carts threatened to snap her bones. She held her tail in one hand with her walking stick and her hat in the other as she twisted and turned to avoid a gruesome fate.
Eventually, the library was in sight. It was drab compared to the gleaming marble and glass structures around it, built of mildewing concrete panels, but still magnificent in its size and glory. Meredith was too light to open the door, but a cursory search revealed a half-opened window-- more than big enough for her. She leapt upon the sill and dropped her hat and stick through the opening. She quickly followed and picked them up. She sauntered up to the front desk, a bulky mahogany fortress. Behind it, tall wooden shelves reached for the heavens as their centers sagged with the weight of many multicolored books.
An elderly human peered over the massive desk at the patchwork-clothed grey cat. It was the same one that Meredith remembered, though ever-so-slightly older. “Hello, little kitty. How can I help you?” It smiled down at her.
“Hello! Do you have any books on…” Meredith thought for a second. “Monsters? Like dream monsters?”
The librarian rose from its seat and came to the front of the desk. “Right this way, dear.”
The two crept through the dimly lit library, the man glancing at mysterious gilt numbers that decorated the sides of the shelves. Eventually, they stopped at a row of towering shelves that were indistinguishable from any other. “This is the magi-zoology section. Feel free to look around. Would you like a stepladder?”
“No need!” replied Meredith. “Thanks very much!”
“Alrighty, dear. Have fun.” The librarian chuckled as it left, delighting in the irony of a monster who wished to learn about monsters.
Meredith searched the shelves in a precarious balance. Most of the books came to her shoulders or at least her chest. One shelf had nothing, so she climbed up to the next one, embedding her claws in the tattered wood. Tens or perhaps hundreds of books appeared promising but revealed no shadow man. Eventually, though, on one of the highest shelves of the library, she found a musty-smelling, barely bound leather tome. The gold leaf had rubbed out of the engraved title, but with effort, she could see that it read Oneiric Beasts: Habitat, Meaning, and Removal. It was a surprisingly small book, about six inches high. It was still a bit big for her, but not half her height like the majority of the surrounding tomes.
She flipped to the index but didn’t recognize any of the creatures’ long scientific names. Even if she did, she didn’t know the name of what she was looking for. So, she turned back to the front and began to skim through the pages. Many gorgeous but faded color lithographs graced the pages alongside dense hand-set text. A chimera with crocodilian legs and a proboscis-like mouth. A bloodshot eye emerging from the darkness. An amorphous, wailing ghost. Finally, on page three-hundred-seventy-four, a towering creature made a mockery of the human form. Instead of flesh, it was born of smoke. Its hands warped into long, shapeless talons like the legs of harvestmen. She took the book up to the front desk, where the librarian was waiting. The human wrote something down in a tiny ledger and gave her a paper bag-- just in case the book would crumble in her hands.
It was almost nightfall when Meredith returned home. Her stomach crawled and lurched and protested its empty state, and the book laid heavy across her shoulders. She checked the book one more time and had Eddie confirm what he saw. The ingredients were simple, almost offensively so. She picked some garlic from the garden, took some water from the stream, and some ash from the fireplace. She plucked four flowers off a morning glory vine and caught two crickets in a glass jar, each buzzing in complaint. Meredith did not have a piece of chalk, but a handwritten annotation claimed that charcoal or a pencil would work just as well. It was only needed to create a protective sigil that wouldn’t mess up the floor permanently. She picked a lump of charcoal out of the fireplace, the one coolest to the touch.
Step One: Draw the protective sigil upon the floor of the affected persons’ sleeping quarters. Draw two concentric circles, making certain that it is large enough to sit comfortably in with your legs outstretched. Make certain that the lines are unbroken. Write a prayer to your god between those circles. Never trust your own strength.
Step Two: In a glass or clay bowl, mix the water and the ash. Place the bowl towards the front of the circle and have the affected sit cross-legged behind it. Make certain that you do not smudge the lines. Kneel facing the bowl from the outside of the circle.
Step Three: Have the affected grasp two of the flowers loosely, one in each hand. If the flowers are closed, gently open them. The number of flowers may be adjusted to equal one flower per hand. The flowers should be completely hidden from the view of the creature. Keep the other two on your person, also hidden.
Step four: Reconsider. The living shadow does not like to be reasoned with.
Meredith had read that instruction once before. It felt more real, though, with the commencement of the summoning. What would the two of them even do when the beast faced them? Eddie wore his bravest face as he sat in the circle, but she had seen the fear in his eyes when he had woken her up early that morning. All he had to do was sit in the circle, but he was young, and children are irrational. A charcoal circle may be protection, but it does not seem like protection. She thought for a moment, watching Eddie shivering in the dark. She stood up, unbuttoned her cloak, and wrapped it around his shoulders. He was so much smaller than she was, to the point where his arms couldn’t fit in the sleeves at all. He smiled. If anything could protect the young cat, it was the symbol of his big sister, the sister who would do anything to keep him safe-- who was doing anything. With Edmund resettled, she walked around the circle once more. Still unbroken. She had made the ring large enough for herself. Eddie, if he wished, could lie down in it.
“Eddie, do you think you’ll be okay?” Meredith asked.
Edmund nodded. “You’ll protect me, Meri.” He took a deep but shaky breath and drew Meredith’s cloak tightly around himself, careful not to crush the flowers in his hands. “And then it will be over?”
“Yeah, then it will be over.” Meredith prayed she was telling the truth. With that, she dropped the bulb of garlic into the jar with the crickets. They leapt in separate directions, out of the way of the falling vegetable. This was an offering. In truth, the book called for one or the other, but Meredith wasn’t taking any chances if she didn’t have to. Did dream monsters have preferences? What if instead of crickets or garlic, this one preferred cicadas, or lizards, or ice cream?
She pushed the thought out of her mind and began reciting the chant written in the book. In all honesty, it seemed less like a summons and more like a threat, with lines such as “Make haste, away from this sacred place, or show thy horrid face!”
Meredith could only manage a quivering whisper, but Edmund joined in after the first few recitations, quietly enjoying the rhymes as though he had no clue of their purpose. His confidence gave Meredith the confidence to speak louder and stand straighter and narrow her eyes at the empty darkness as though she was staring the beast in the face. Soon, both were shouting at the top of their lungs, Edmund laughing joyfully as he did so.
A silence filled the room like floodwater or smoke from a fire, stifling the sounds of all but one’s thoughts. Both children feel their throats stop, filled with that sticky silence. Meredith saw Eddie staring wide-eyed at something behind her, his mouth twisted into a noiseless scream. She slowly turned her head behind her, apprehensive of looking, but equally so of not looking.
A humanoid figure, darker than darkness and smokier than smoke, with spidery hands and an empty face.
Meredith bit her lip and steadied her face. She held the jar of crickets up, ready to make the first sound. “Well, do you want them?” she asked, breaking the silence like glass.
The creature bent down, drawing its blank, mask-like face close to hers. If it had eyes, they would have been staring into her soul. Meredith’s green eyes narrowed, and her face approached a snarl. The creature gave off a noxious smell of burning hair and garlic. It felt as though it was breathing on her, though it had no mouth and made no sound.
“Can’t we just talk about this?” Eddie said, on the verge of tears.
The shadow man let out a blood-curdling shriek, something unlike anything organic or pure. It was like two knives scraping against each other, like claws drawn down a chalkboard at a snail’s pace, like a million cicadas screeching in unison. It was like fear, like agony, like the abyss staring back. It was a single voice-- perhaps no voices at all-- acting as a cacophony. The noxious smoke poured out of its head and enveloped the room, aside from the protective circle around Edmund. Meredith felt dizzy and weak, the buzzing screech in her ears and the thick smoke in her lungs and eyes. Her skull felt as though it would split in half. Her senses were so overloaded that she couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began. She continued to stare into the faceless face, barely keeping upright.
Meredith felt the creature’s snaky fingers wrap around her neck but couldn’t do anything about it. She was paralyzed by the sound, by the fear that Edmund must have felt every night that week. Its grip tightened around her neck, feeling like a snare trap. She wondered if it would squeeze hard enough to cut her head clean off. She tried to breathe but could only manage a shallow gasp as the beast lifted her off the floor. Her arms went limp as the offering slipped from her hand and shattered on the floor.
Thanks to the protective circle around him, Edmund could not hear or smell the horrible beast, though he saw the terror in his sister’s eyes and the vice-like grip on her neck quite clearly. Edmund pushed Meredith’s cloak off his back and rose tremblingly to his feet. He let the pink flowers fall from his hands. They hadn’t protected Meredith, so what could they have done?
Meredith strained her eyes to look at him and shook her head as best as she could. Don’t. Usually, Edmund would listen to his big sister. This was not a “usually” sort of day, however. Edmund inhaled as he picked up his foot and exhaled as he placed it outside the protective circle. Immediately, he felt all that he had been sheltered from. The horrid odor and the grating noise filled his mind with the pressure of a migraine. His body recoiled, but he forced his other foot out. Meredith mouthed something, but he wasn’t looking. He breathed in the nasty smoke, as much as his little lungs could fit.
“Let her go!” he cried. Immediately, the room went as silent as death. The creature turned its body as if to look at little Edmund, keeping Meredith choking in its claws. Slowly, it raised its other arm. Then, it swung at Edmund, knocking him into the wall of the cabin and leaving four bloodied rips in the flesh on his chest. It ambled towards Edmund as he regained his composure, one hand pressed to his chest, and the other braced against the dirt. Edmund looked frantically from side to side for something-- he didn’t know what. A straw broom leaned against the corner, a couple of body-lengths away from him. As soon as he got to his feet, he ran for the broom and grabbed it by the handle, forever staining it with his own bloodied pawprint.
The shadow man drug Meredith behind it as it raced towards Edmund. Meredith dug her heels into the floor and scratched at its death grip.
Edmund saw his chance and swung at the disproportionate arm that held his sister hostage. The arm dissipated completely, dropping Meredith to the ground. The shadow man stopped in its tracks and glared at Edmund. Its arm was beginning to reform itself. Edmund swung the broom again, this time right through its chest. He felt the broom hit something hard in the mass of smoke. It hit the ground with a solid thunk. It was round and could fit in his hand, but the darkness and whirling smoke obscured it too much to make out.
The shadow man keeled over and let out an awful shriek. The creature grasped desperately at wisps of smoke, trying to pull them back into its form, but it simply melted into a dark fog across the ground. Its screams were agonized, its motion desperate. It lashed out at Edmund with its remaining arm, but it couldn’t cut him. Instead, that arm was dashed to wisps against him as well.
The creature lurched towards Meredith, but it lost all form before it could reach her. Only a vile fog remained as evidence of the beast. Meredith stood up, feeling slightly unsteady. Edmund dropped the broom and ran into her arms, almost knocking her back over.
“We did it!” he cried, “We defeated the shadow man!” He wore a proud grin on his face as he hugged his sister tightly. He barely seemed to notice his bleeding wounds or the scent of what remained of the beast.
Meredith smiled. “We did! I’m so proud of you.” She was tired and still catching her breath, but she could not help but squeeze her little brother as tightly as she could. She kissed Edmund’s forehead and pushed him away. His wounds stuck slightly to her dress. Meredith forced open a window and used the broom to fan the last bit of smoke out of their bedroom. The night air was crisp and clean.
She snapped her fingers, summoning a dimly glowing light just as the clock struck midnight.
Edmund giggled. “Wow, we’re up late!”
Meredith chuckled. “Very true.” She started to walk towards the door. “Now, let’s get you fixed up.”
“No, we have to find the thing,” Edmund protested.
“The thing that fell out of the shadow man.” Edmund created his own light, barely brighter than a tea candle, and held it close to the ground. It lit almost nothing.
Meredith sighed and held her light towards the ground.
Edmund scampered over to a reflection of the light in the darkness and picked it up. “Look!” He went back to his sister and held the object up to her face.
Meredith had to step back, lest she went cross-eyed. She took the object and examined it. It was heavy and cool to the touch, like glass or stone, and completely black in color. “Interesting. Are you going to keep it?”
“I guess so.” Edmund took it back and held it up to his eye, then dropped it into a wicker basket on the floor next to his bed. The object instantly disappeared into the abyss of toys and knick-knacks with a soft tink. Edmund walked out the door, finally ready to let Meredith check his injuries.
As Meredith cleaned the scratches on his chest and wrapped them in fresh bandages, both the siblings struggled to fight off sleep for just a few more minutes. The dying fire provided a comforting warmth that seemed to beckon them to dreams. Edmund leaned against Meredith’s stomach and soon began to snore. Meredith didn’t wish to wake him, so she leaned back against the hearth bench as slowly as she could, hugging Edmund like he would hug his favorite stuffed animal. She, too, soon fell asleep, weary from the day’s events. There the two remained, sleeping peacefully until late that next morning, dreaming only of wonderful things.