Going home always bugged me. It was always a cab across town, buying a ticket for the train, travelling half a day on rails and then catching a handful of buses to get to the bizarrely situated little town of Arcadia. Taking a bus back every year to visit my family was enough to agitate every nerve in my head let alone everything else. It was enough irritation knowing I’d be hassled by my parent’s, and the strangers around me that needed to voice their opinions. Today was different though, the bus wasn’t as packed for one, I was able to sit alone instead of pressed up against some grumpy old bear who smelt of B.O. and beer, or a woman and her 6-year-old “baby” she demanded to swaddle. The weather was unusual too, Arcadia had clear skies during the Spring but it was raining, melancholy rain too, slow and heavy without thunder or lightning. Rain never bothers me much but something about it seemed particularly off putting.
I’m Elliott by the way, 22-year-old Otter returning home because of a particularly difficult fall out with my boss and a handful of other complicated factors that would take too long to explain right now. My body was fine to me, a little scrawny and my parents always reminded me to eat because they say I look spindly when I visit, maybe that’s why I always feel like all my clothes are too big. My diminished height may figure in there too. Normally I would prefer to avoid small towns like my home, cities are just better for me, I prefer pushy crowds and angry people over small-town communities where everyone knows you. Arcadia was nice enough though, quiet and clean, good place to find some answers about myself.
The bus was getting cramped now, not full but just the feeling of spending so much time in a small place was starting to get to me. “Hey, Driver, any idea when we’re gonna be stopping off?” I asked from a couple rows back, I saw the jackalope behind the wheel look up at me in the rear-view mirror, his eyes were red around the edges, tired. He wore a dingy uniform dark pants with a dirty blue shirt with a falcon on the breast. Not that I was much better, I was wearing same outfit since yesterday, distressed jeans and an old white t-shirt with a black spiral across the front and a dark red stain on the side.
“Couple more hours, just past the last stop before town, if you need to go you’re gonna have to hold, kid.” He said focusing on the road more than me, I could have pushed but I had a feeling he had no problem letting me walk the rest of the way in the rain. I sat back a bit grabbing my backpack from under the seat and fished out my jacket, simple red hoodie, throwing it on and pulling the hood up over my eyes. Grabbing my phone, I plugged in some headphones, shuffled my music and it wasn’t long before I was asleep on the bench seat.
* * *
Floating in water was always rhythmic to me, flowing all around me. I was just there, drifting in pitch black liquid, looking up at the sky as the lukewarm liquid threatened to engulf me, not worried about how I found myself in a new place or where the bus had gone, just drifting away. It was dark all around me I could look at the star speckled sky as I lie there, calmly detached but the light around me was too dark to believe the stars were anywhere near here. In my mesmerized stupor I suddenly felt weight, a heaviness dragging me into the depths below and panic flooded my system. Thrashing and pushing up against the water was all I could do, using every bit of my energy to get vertical.
I finally sprung up, the water cascading down my back and arms as I heaved for air. Looking around I saw trees around me, white and smooth like porcelain reaching up into the sky boney fingers clutching for a moon that was non-existent. Taking a minute, I tried to stand, the pressure of the black water fighting my every effort, until I was on my feet, the water coming up just below my knees. Walking was just as, if not more, difficult in this water and I was already feeling my body tire from the strain. I aimed to get closer to a tree, I was drawn to feel the smooth surface just to see if it was real. No progress was being made though, the more I moved the further it seemed the tree was. After a bit of trying to push through without development I gave up on the idea, the porcelain plants seeming to grow closer to each other as I tried.
Standing in the water, dread washed over me. The sudden realization that I had no idea where I was, what was going on, how I got here, why I couldn’t move, my head spun and with it I was losing my grasp on reality. The water seemed to heat up the more I panicked, I felt it nearly boiling around me. My spiraling would have continued but I was immediately brought back down when I felt something grab my right arm. Looking down I saw a figure in the water, or a form made of the water, a humanoid hand digging into my shoulder. A faceless head looked up at me and I tried to shake it off but it wasn’t moving, tightening the grip on my limb, cracked nails digging into my flesh. Suddenly another hand wrapped around my left wrist, a new shape including an arm, torso, and faceless head emerging from the darkness.
I struggled, in vain, against these shapes as I was slowly dragged lower into the water. The temperature of the liquid had sharply declined and now felt icy cold. I was almost waste deep now as another pair of arms reached up from behind me and began pushing against my head, the water drooling down my face. In mere minutes I was fully submerged, coughing as water filled my lungs. My heart raced as my head spun, I couldn’t even remember where the surface of the water was! Through the darkness I could still see something, a massive shape in the water, serpent-like and swirling, four legs sunk close to its thick body. It was only just visible because of a luminescent glow coming from its body, a low purple hue with deep golden eyes that were easy to make out even at this distance.
I continued to struggle against the hot water and just as I surrendered to the intense liquid a voice, serene and quiet cut through water, “Elliott. It's now time for you to awaken my love. You've been gone long enough." And suddenly my vision darkened again as I drifted out of consciousness.
* * *
Back on the bus I jumped back to life with a gasp, the hood of my jacket falling away from my head with the sudden motion. I heard a slight gasp from a little Dalmatian boy in the back, startled by my revival. Taking a quick peak around I blushed noticing many patrons staring at me, my music still belting out into my ears. I hastily turned to look away, out the window and into the world still just as dreary as before, the rain still continuing to fall. My heart was still racing from the experience, even as the nightmare faded from my mind I could still feel them, the clutching hands.
I shook off the remnants from my mind as the bus pulled into town, passing the mass apartment complex just within the town line. An old flickering neon sign read The Oasis Springs: Your Home Away from Home just outside. The tall building always looked out of place in town, it had to be one of the oldest buildings in Arcadia just as decrepit as it had been when I was a kid. My parents always told me that The Oasis Springs was opened far before even their time but the inside was surprisingly upkept and the staff always friendly. There was even a joke about the old place being haunted and I swore I’d never set foot in the place back then.
The Oasis Springs was the cap end of the South side of Downtown and we continued passing familiar shops and businesses. “Oh crap!” I blurted out under my breath. Outside the bus window I saw the skeletons of construction, a massive sign on the chain link fence around the perimeter reading “Blue Mercury Shopping Complex”. Arcadia’s never had a mall before, we were always considered a small community, too small for a plethora of small businesses. It does make some sense though, every time I come back to town they had a new shop open so a collection of business would be predictable. Looking out I did feel bad for the little store that opened next door, a petite new place just called “The Reaper”.
I didn’t get long to survey the whole of Downtown before I felt the bus lurch, pulling into the stop and I rushed to the other side of the bus to check outside and sure enough I saw a familiar face waiting for me. As always Brandon was waiting for me, friends since we were still learning to speak he was my oldest acquaintance. The monkey sat outside, looking up at the bus as he played with the neatly trimmed black mohawk that crowned his head and added three inches to his already exacerbated height. The hawk always stood out to me because it was wavy and smooth, not spiked like every one I’d seen before it. He wore his usual, a black zip up jacket, over a red t-shirt and wrung his hands as the bus crawled to a halt. The rain may not have bothered me but Brandon couldn’t stand the way damp fur felt.
Leaping off the bus, he lunged at me trying to sweep me into a hug, very touchy guy with no idea about personal space, I blocked him before saying, “Hey Brandon, good to see ya bud but you may want to keep a distance. Haven’t showered in a few days.” His eyes swept from a bight orange to a dim blue as he calmed down a bit and stepped back slightly. Little fun fact, Brandon’s eyes had this weird tendency to change to suit his mood, it was always fun to see.
“Glad your home man, can’t believe it’s already been a year.” Brandon said as I pulled my duffel bag from below the bus and slung it over my shoulder. “How long you in town this time?” He asked beginning to walk me over to his car popping the trunk and grabbed the passenger door for me. I tossed my duffel in the back and took a seat in the open seat up front.
“I don’t know, this isn’t just a visit this year, I’m home for the foreseeable future.” I said watching his eyes for the switch from blue back to orange, a little smile creeping across his face. He closed the door before hopping up over the car and swinging into the open driver side windshield. He didn’t need to say, and wouldn’t, I could see just how happy he was about the news just from the glint in his eyes. “Yeah, Cascade was nice but it’s just… Well… It just didn’t work out.” I clutched at my side a little thinking about the city. I wanted to say something to Brandon but the whole thing was still a bit too raw to condense plus he was so happy I didn’t want to kill the mood.
“So, we’re having a little meet-up tonight, drink, food, fun, you in?” Brandon asked as we drove away from downtown breaking up the awkward air.
“Where would we be heading?”
“The Smoke Stack, Liz said she wouldn’t come if there wasn’t beer.”
“Who all is coming?”
“The usual bunch, Artie, Liz, Theo, even Thomas and Corey are coming out!” Brandon chattered away excitedly, he’d put a lot of effort into tonight if he’d gone out of his way to get ahold of everyone. Thomas and Corey were particularly difficult to get ahold of. I couldn’t turn him down now.
“Alright Brandon, I’ll come out.” I said knowing it’d probably be better than a night in with my parents. I love them both but, if given the time to stagnate, they tend to pick at every little thing. Last time I was in town they rode me about my normal messy hair style, mostly because I hadn’t changed it since I was twelve.
Brandon cheered a little excitedly in triumph and I chuckled watching as he smacked his hand on the roof of the car. We spent the rest of the ride reminiscing, it was nice and Brandon made good company.
* * *
By the time we reached my home the sun was already setting and Brandon announced he’d wait outside for me. I stepped out of the sedan into the old driveway feeling the same pings of nostalgia I got every time I returned home. The sunset was nice setting right behind my family home accenting the fading blue paint like something out of a dream. Out in front of the house was a small garden with a plethora of colorful flowers, my mom’s green thumb showing promise as usual. Walking up I could hear the chatter of the T.V. through the screen door.
“Hey, hey, hello, I’m home!” I called out as I came in the door, peeking to my left at the living room. Inside my mom, was sitting on the couch fiddling with a potter set of flowers, blooming as she opened her hand at them. Admittedly, my mom’s green thumb was founded in her magical botany, with the flick of the wrist she could nurture her whole garden although it often exhausted her.
“Hey, Elli, I’m right in here!” She said as I strolled in and deposited my bags in the recliner. I took a seat next to her on the couch as she pruned the small set of flowers. “Sunflowers, Dahlias and a handful of mums for texture, what do you think?” She turned the centerpiece toward me, yellow sunflowers, red dahlias and a few orange mums that almost blended the colorful assortment together.
“Mama, you know I prefer Eli over Elli, it’s a girl’s name and the flowers are perfect as always but wouldn’t they fit better in summer?”
“Oh, I was just using these colors for a sample palette.” Mom waved her hand and the summery colors blurred into cooler blues, and purples. She pushed the pot back to the center of the table before enveloping in a warm hug. The embrace smelled of the flowers and a blackberry shampoo my mom had been using since I was a kid.
“Oh, he’s been working the night shift since last month, already left for the night and won’t be home until 1.” Mom said before standing and heading into the kitchen pursuing the inane beeping of a timer. I followed diligently behind her. “I’m making a lasagna right now, it will be ready in 10 minutes if you’re hungry.” She opened the oven peeking into the small pan in the oven before returning the lid and closing the oven. The little whiff from the pasta smelt delectable but I needed to hurry.
“Oh, thank you but actually Brandon’s waiting outside, we’re going for dinner with some friends.”
“Alright sweetheart, have a good time, I’ll save you a slice for when you get back, although I won’t guarantee your father will wait for you.” She laughed a little bit as I grabbed my bag and headed for the bathroom. “Just remember to be safe Elli!” I stepped into the small bathroom and started to get ready for the evening.
* * *
“And that’s how I single handedly explained away the nudity, the paint, and the fire!” Brandon laughed loudly as he finished his story. The restaurant was perfect this evening, a few people were dining in but the dim dining area of the Smoke Stack was pretty much vacated. It was just the six of us, Brandon, Artie, Artie’s girlfriend Valerie, Elizabeth, Theodore and myself sat around a table, making nice conversation.
Brandon was still softly chuckling at his story, the little glint of yellow in his eye showed his hidden delight. Artie was a grinning blue deer, chatting away with Valerie, a delightful sheep with beautiful curled horns. The two were sharing a sandwich and fry platter happily. Elizabeth, a tall, orange hummingbird was downing her third pint of beer, after she finished each one she would exclaim “more” banging the pint glass on the table. Finally, next to Elizabeth was Theodore, a husky grey bull, munching quietly on what remained of his steak.
“So, Elliott, how was city life, do anything interesting since last year?” Artie asked, pointing a fry in my direction before shoving it in his muzzle.
“Nothing all that interesting, the last couple months I mostly spent binging on Pseudo, the show with the cat detective caught up in interdimensional drama.” I said.
“Oh yeah, I’ve seen that! I love the season where the dog finds out his dad stole him from another universe to replace his dead son!” Brandon grinned and started fishing in his small messenger bag before pulling out his keys and showing off a small boxed shape keychain. “I even have the keychain from the season finale!”
“Never actually heard of it,” Artie said glancing to Valerie, “anyway Elliott, are you thinking of enrolling at Capford?” He was referring to Arcadia’s university, a prestigious school where most of the community attended for higher learning. The college was the only of it’s kind in regards to magic providing full ride to its entire magical class.
“I don’t know, it’s pretty expensive, and you know I’m not exactly ‘gifted’.” That was an understatement, unlike many of my peers and my parents I had no magical power what-so-ever.
“You could always take out a loan or something.” Valerie pitched in.
“Yeah but I don’t want any debt just to eventually—” I said before being cut-off by Elizabeth.
“Alright!” Elizabeth pitched up, slapping her empty glass on the table. “I am sufficiently buzzed enough, and bored enough, who wants to fight?” She said as a grin spread across her face and started walking toward the exit.
“Theodore, think you can handle this?” Artie asked, the bulky gray bull slightly slumped over.
“No, thank you, she kicked my ass last time I tried that.” Theodore said cleaning the rest of his plate in one last bite. “How about you Art?”
“We train together too much, she knows my style too well.” He replied playing with the charms strung on his wrist. “Not to mention she kind of scares me.”
“Here, I got this.” Brandon said hopping from his seat and pulling out a stick of chalk.
As he walked out into the parking lot the rest of us gathered nearby as a crowd began to form. Elizabeth was stretching on one side of the lot while Brandon was drawing large circular shapes on to the ground on the other side. They both said something inaudible and glowed iridescently. Elizabeth’s arms were surrounded in green light like fire swallowing the nimble limbs.
On the other side Brandon was enveloped in purple light, wild and surging before a hulking form broke out a massive insectile humanoid, it’s body filled with darkness and stars. The spirit stood a few feet taller than Brandon and looked like a man wearing chitinous armor with an assortment of thin, bug legs sprouting from its backs.
The first to act was Elizabeth, dashing forward and closing the distance between herself and the spirit. An immediate punch followed, all of her weight with it, smashing into the spirit who blocked it with their forearm. A loud “smack” echoed out with the impact and the crowd cheered in reaction. Immediately the spirit responded swinging its opposite leg at Elizabeth. She ducked going for another swift jab, this time at Brandon. His spirit swung around taking the hit right square in the chest. Reeling Brandon and the spirit slid back from Elizabeth.
Summoning a bit of energy, purple electricity sparking from the insectile before it released a sharp bolt of energy at the hummingbird. She swiftly curved her torso, narrowly dodging it, before closing the distance for another hit. As the punch approached the starry humanoid gathered more energy and let out a burst, the energy escaping in a wave of violet energy. Elizabeth vanished in the blink of an eye, a teleportation magic, reappearing just behind Brandon. Before the monkey could pull the spirit around a powerful fist smacked him in the back tossing him across the ground, through the spirit.
Another bolt flew in response, flying at Elizabeth who teleported again this time startling me as she appeared directly in front of the crowd. I didn’t even have the time to react before she was gone again, replaced by the violet glow of an energy bolt. It slammed into me, a surge of energy rushing through me as my vision grew dark. My last moment of consciousness was the sound of Brandon scrambling above me saying, “Crap, crap, crap!” before I faded into darkness.
* * *
Water, again, dark and thick. I was lying on my back again, staring up at the stars and surrounded by the porcelain trees. Sitting up was just as hard as it was before but I managed to get vertical with a little effort and stood with a bit more. The darkness continued to bewilder as I could still see the stars and the trees but it felt like the shadows were creeping toward me. As I explored my surroundings I noticed that, unlike before, the pale plant life was closer to me and seemingly not moving.
It took me a little time but I approached the smooth surfaced trees and reached out. Running my hand over them I was mostly right; the branches and body of the tree were smooth like a decorative plate. Studying the tree, I could see what was really different between these fallacies and their real-life counterparts. The “bark” was tough, far harder than any porcelain even close to metal or bone. What surprised me was a slight hum coming from within the tree, not unlike that you might expect from an old television. My concentration was broken, again, by hands clutching and my thigh.
Looking I was met with the same faceless head from before, dark and liquid crawling up toward me. I shoved at the figure, the water heating up almost directly from my touch already boiling in heat. Surprisingly I made some progress, knocking the figure back and doing my best to put distance between us. I made serious progress before I felt something wrap around my left shoulder and upper arm. It looked like a liquid tendril and its grip was stronger than the humanoids from earlier. Tugging against it made no difference and before long I felt the boiling heat searing flesh. The tendril’s grip seemed to dig deep into my arm, reaching down into the bones. As the pain started become overwhelming and I was reaching my limit I heard a familiar voice. “Elliott. It's now time for you to awaken my love. You've been gone long enough." And immediately I was washed back into a sleepy darkness.
* * *
I woke up on my back on the sidewalk, I was looking into the eyes of a black jackal. The stranger seemed to study me, cocking his head intermittently. His eyes were intense, the whites replaced with a dark coal black accenting a deep red glowing iris. “Cool.” He said before hopping off of me and disappearing into the crowd. In minutes I was approached by my friends, Brandon leading the charge, as they surrounded me.
“Holy shit!” Brandon shouted as he approached, “Are you okay?” He helped me up as I wobbled a bit trying to find my balance again. “I’m so sorry, Gyri is strong but still tough to control I should have been watching more carefully.” He pulled me into a quick hug breaking the hold when I winced and patting me on the back.
“Hey, don’t worry about it, I’m fine Brandon.” I lied feeling my head throb, my arm burning and struggling slightly to breathe.
“Are you sure about that? You’re bleeding.” Valerie said from behind Brandon. I instinctively grabbed at my side but was clean then I grasped my throbbing arm. Pulling back the crimson flow proved her true the blue polo I was wearing slowly staining.
“Wait, how? I had Gyri using stun magic, just some knock-out bolts.” Brandon said exasperated and getting a bit emotional. His eyes were a deep blue and welling up as he began to spiral.
“Brandon it’s fine, accidents happen, I probably just scraped my arm when I fell.” I said before reaching for my bag. “Would somebody, please.” Artie was closest so he slid it over to me and I fished out a travel first aid kit. I always carried it because my Dad was an emergency survival freak. Pulling up my sleeve, I sprayed some disinfectant and wrapped a bandage over my shoulder before replacing the sleeve and standing up.
“Alright well let’s get you home you guys alright to drag Elizabeth back to the dorms?” Brandon asked helping me back to the car. I could see Artie and Theodore carrying Elizabeth, I assumed they walked so they were going to have a long trip home. We waved goodbye and they all shared a laugh before starting off on their way.
Brandon continued to apologize as we got in the car but I cut him off quickly. “So, when did you acquire magic, I thought we were the magicless buds?”
“Oh, it’s not really me, the academy taught me some simple rituals to summon spirits, the only thing I really do is sit down and chat with the spirits, forge a little contract.” Brandon chattered nervously as he pulled out a small leather-bound book. I opened it and saw many sketches of circular runes and lines, intricate figures with notes and annotations. I’d never seen him work this hard on something before, it was nice. “Right now, I only have two, the one you saw earlier, Gyri, a lightning spirit and Argyris a fire monster that I’m still new with.” He continued explaining the mechanics of his magic but I lost track when my shoulder started to burn again. When we pulled up to the house I unlocked the front door and he helped me in. I wished him a good night and immediately crashed out on the living room couch as soon as he was gone.