Slayers, A Stray Child, Part 1
Filia sat in the rocking seat of the carriage and silently wished she could will away the rain that had started pattering against the roof. If the weather had held out, she could’ve at least promised Val a bright sunny picnic later—a distantly hanging incentive that would’ve made this journey less a tedious business trip that he’d been dragged along for and more the family time that she desperately wanted it to be.
She hugged her small suitcase of luggage close to her as she tried to block out Jillas’s snores from the bench next to her and instead turned to Val, peering out the window. Well, of course he was. He’d made such a fuss about getting the window seat and yet now he seemed disappointed with the scenery he was getting.
It made sense that he was restive and that his mood was starting to match the weather. That she understood. What child Val’s age would want to be dragged along for a trip to check on a tardy clay distributor? It was tiresome business that meant nothing to him. But yet, there was more to his glum disposition than that—and it was no mystery to Filia what it was. That was why she’d brought him along in the first place—she didn’t want him to be alone with his thoughts; didn’t want his doubts to turn into certainties; didn’t want him to forget what family meant; didn’t want to be absent.
Potter’s Field wasn’t exactly the best place in the world to win the wavering good graces of a son back. She’d only been there once before, when making her original deal with Misters Peaceton and Avery (the gentlemen who owned the local quarry), and she remembered it as being a dull little mining town. There was little there to catch Val’s eye. But this trip couldn’t wait. It was more than a month past due and still her supply of clay hadn’t come in. She was running out of material to fashion into pottery for her shop and, besides that, she’d already plunked down the money for the best quality clay in the Outer World. Without so much as a word of explanation from her supplier, and with her letters going unanswered, Filia had no choice but to leave Gravos in charge of the shop and set out to the town herself to find out what was going on.
But Filia wished, as they drove alongside a lake whose surface trembled in the worsening rain, that this errand had come at some other time.
The carriage slowed to a halt, and Val put his face up closer to the drizzle-spattered window. She could only see his reflection in the glass.
“Is this it?”
It was amazing how soaked-to-the-bone they’d all ended up after covering the relatively short distance between the carriage and the unfortunately awning-free hotel. Filia was kicking herself for not packing rain gear or at least extra clothes, but the weather had been so nice in Achaea and they only intended to stay a night, so she hadn’t bothered.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” the woman behind the front desk in the lobby said, closing the book she’d been occupying her time with, “I’m not sure if I should even give you a room.”
“Not sure if you should give us a room?” Jillas repeated in disbelief. “‘ave you seen what it’s like out there?” he asked, trying to shake out his wet fur as discreetly as possible.
“Right, and that’s why,” the woman explained. “We’ve been getting rain like crazy here for the last several weeks. You don’t even know what it’s been like,” she added, making a face. “The ‘all clear’ sign only went out a few days ago and barely any of us are back and now it’s starting up again.” She shook her head. “Ground’s still full of water. No way we can take another hit. If it’s just gonna flood again and we’re all gonna evacuate, then I don’t see why I should even bother renting you a room.”
“Because we’re cold and wet and need a place to dry off and we have important business here,” Filia supplied stiffly, droplets of cold water dripping down from her hair.
The clerk cocked her head to the side, apparently weighing Filia’s rationale. “What important business?” she asked.
Filia sighed and let go of Val’s hand to reach into her pocket and take out a card. It was slightly gummy from the moisture, but still perfectly readable. She passed it to the clerk.
“…Vases and Maces?” the woman asked, upon reading it.
“This town is where I get the clay to sculpt the pottery I sell,” Filia explained. “I haven’t received the shipment I paid for and I haven’t been able to get in contact with Mister Peaceton or Mister Avery.”
The woman sucked in a breath through her teeth. “You wouldn’t happen to get your clay from Hangman’s Quarry, would you?”
“Yes, I think so,” Filia said, having seen that name on past receipts.
“…Did you see the lake when you came in?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t see…” Filia began, before her heart sank. “…Oh.”
“Yep. One and the same,” the woman said, crumpling up the moistened business card. “Nobody’s mining out of there any time soon. Probably why you haven’t gotten anything.”
Filia’s mouth hung open. Her hopes of leaving with the assurance that her supply was on its way were dashed. “Yes, but what about my money?” she asked. “If I’m not getting what I paid for then I demand a refund!”
The clerk shrugged. “I’m not the right person to demand, and I don’t know if your suppliers even came back here. Like I said, not many people have yet and probably won’t since the rain is starting up again.”
“Boss, what’re we gonna do?” Jillas asked, setting down his suitcase and looking lost for a next step.
Filia ground her teeth together. All this, traveling out of their way to this gloomy, rainy place and now the people they were looking for mightn’t even be around and what she was looking for was under several feet of rainwater.
She heard Val sigh next to her as he squeezed the water out of his shirt and onto the floor. He probably wasn’t following the particulars, but he could certainly tell that the business of the big people—the reason he’d been dragged along in the first place—wasn’t going well.
“We’ll stay,” Filia decided, determined not to make this trip a waste. “Someone from the company must’ve stuck around that we can talk to, and even if they didn’t, I’m sure we’ll find someone who knows where they went or at least some clue how to find them.”
“Right, Boss!” Jillas cheered, picking up his suitcase again with renewed vigor. “Positive thinking will out!”
Admittedly, Filia was not finding herself thinking too positively. Instead she was thinking about her wet clothes and the one outfit she’d packed with her. Sure, she could change into that and let the other dry, but to what purpose? The minute she stepped outside she’d be flirting with discomfort and pneumonia all over again.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where we could get our hands on any rain coats, would you?” she asked the woman at the front desk.
“Sure,” the woman said easily. “I could scare some up. Though,” she added, leaning in to look over the counter and to Val, “not sure I can find anything in a child’s size.”
That left Filia in a bind. She couldn’t leave Val by himself, which would mean keeping Jillas back at the hotel with him, which would make the job of finding the mine workers even more lengthy and difficult. Plus it negated the whole reason for bringing Val along in the first place.
“Relax,” the woman said, winking as she took in Val’s dismayed expression. “I’m not too shabby at sewing; I’m sure I can put something together for you if you come down after you’ve changed out of those wet things. It won’t be pretty, but it’ll work.”
This wormed a half-smile out of Val—a light which, even dimmed, Filia hadn’t seen in the last few days. “Thanks,” he said. He’d been raised to be polite—at least, most of the time.
The woman smiled and him, then braced herself against the desk surface to sit up straight again. “You sure you all want a room, now?” she asked, addressing Filia once more.
“Yes, please,” Filia said.
“Alright then,” the clerk relented, fishing around in her desk until she came up with a set of keys.
Filia took them. They somehow seemed very old—rusted—and bore the number 404.
“Fourth floor,” the woman went on. “Flood damage is too bad any lower than that.”
Filia took a deep breath, as though to will the universe to behave better. She clutched the keys in her fist.
“Thank you,” she said.
Filia might’ve complained about the somewhat mildewy smell in their third floor suite, if it weren’t for the fact that the diminished aroma was a relief to her nostrils after the sewage and damp stench of the lower floors. The water must’ve risen very high indeed for even the second floor to bear water marks and a coating of slime she’d chosen not to examine. The stairs were so slippery that she’d been forced to latch onto the railing, despite the liquid rust that came off onto her hand as she did so.
But now that she’d changed into a fresh set of clothes and dried off, she was feeling much more hopeful about their endeavor.
“Oi just hope they didn’t do a runner,” Jillas said, his fur slightly puffy from extensive towel-drying as he sat on the couch that would be his bed that night. “Cut their losses and ‘id from their customers, oi mean.”
It was weighing on Filia’s mind too. Their product was now rather uselessly under a vast lake. How expensive would it be to drain it? Probably more than it was worth to continue mining. And after taking that financial hit, they probably wouldn’t be in the mood for the word “refund.”
“Nobody just vanishes without a trace,” Filia said, despite this. “There’ll be some sign of where they went or at least somebody who knows them.”
Filia turned as the door to the small bathroom opened and Val stepped out in his changed clothes. A towel hung over his shoulders, separating them from his still wet hair. Filia stepped over to help him dry off his hair but he shrugged her off, doing it himself.
“Can I go down an’ get my coat now?” Val asked, running the towel over his aqua hair. “The lady said she could make me one after I dried off.”
Filia hesitated for a moment. It was reasonable to imagine that the clerk would need Val in order to figure out the sizing of his ad hoc raincoat, but it also seemed like he wanted an out. “Sure, Val,” she said in a deceptively light voice. “Why don’t you take your Uncle Jillas with you?”
Val flopped down the towel and began trotting for the door. “I’m okay by myself,” he protested, reaching up for the door handle. “Jillas doesn’t need to come.”
Jillas straightened up slowly in his seat as the door opened and closed, signaling the child’s exit. Filia numbly reached down to pick up the towel he’d discarded, folding it over her arm. They both heard what hadn’t been said.
“…A couple days ago,” Filia tried to explain, leaning against the arm of the couch, “Val had a play date with that Roland Dabner boy. I was going up to his room to bring them some lemonade when I heard them talking. They were saying something about a girl in their class who was… adopted.”
“Ah,” Jillas said, some of the mild sense of hurt from that lapsed descriptor of familiarity fading.
“And then Roland Dabner started asking Val if he was adopted,” Filia went on wretchedly. “…I don’t honestly think he’d ever thought about it before. And now…”
Jillas adopted a knowing posture. “Oi think all kids start wonderin’ at some point. Oi remember when oi was just a little kit and oi started thinking on the same thing. Pretty silly since everybody always said oi ‘ad me dear old mum’s eyes.” He brushed against the strap of his eye patch as though having some second thoughts. “Or, eye now, oi guess.”
“…Why would you think that?” Filia asked glumly, staring down at the towel. “Weren’t you happy with your family?”
“‘Course oi was!” Jillas answered without hesitation. “Oi think oi was just starting to figure out that oi was different from them, and that’s ‘ow oi thought of it. I reckon Lord Val’s just trying to figure out ‘o ‘e is.”
Who he is, Filia thought in a desolate kind of way. Could she really even explain that to him?
“I just…” Filia began, her words escaping as a sigh, “…don’t want him to think he’s adopted.”
Jillas gave her a skeptical look with his good eye. “…But ‘e is,” he pointed out, as if to remind her.
“I know that,” she said thickly.
Jillas tilted his head as he surveyed her. “Were yeh never gonna tell ‘im?”
“Of course I’m going to tell him,” Filia replied defensively. “I just don’t want it to be now. I don’t think he’s ready.”
Jillas was quiet for a moment. “For Lord Val,” he finally began, “figuring out ‘o ‘e really is must be ‘arder than it is for most. There’s so much about ‘imself that ‘e doesn’t know.”
Filia shook her head. “He was so… hurt and angry back then—that’s what led to all this. And I promised myself that he wouldn’t feel that this time around. This is his second-chance at childhood. I can’t ruin it by telling him everything he did… and everything that was done to him,” she added in a whisper.
Jillas was thoughtful again. “We, none of us that is, did everything the right way the first time around. But oi still think Lord Valgaav was a great man—and one that Lord Val can be proud to know ‘e was.”
Filia set the towel down on the floor. It had been a long time since she’d heard Jillas speak of what happened back then. She’d spoken of it with Xellos, but not Jillas. Of course his perspective was different. He’d wanted what Valgaav wanted—not because of what it was, but because Valgaav had wanted it.
A sour smile came onto Filia’s face. “I almost wish Xellos was here,” she said. “Whatever else you could say about him, he’s good at being a distraction.”
“Yeh can’t distract Lord Val forever,” Jillas pointed out.
“I know,” Filia answered. But she could try.
“‘ey,” Jillas said, putting a gloved paw on her shoulder, “why don’t oi check out the miners’ offices meself and you take Lord Val along with you to see if anyone knows anything about Mister Peaceton and Avery? That way you two can talk—and oi’m sure Lord Val will see that you’re a good mum, even if you’re not related to ‘im by blood.”
“Alright…” Filia said, and tried to put on an agreeable smile. Talking with Val was the reason she’d brought him along, after all. But she dreaded that talking would inevitably mean questions that she could not answer—and answers that no child could understand or deal with.
Val bobbed up and down like a yoyo, sending the growing puddles on the pavement splashing upward. Under normal circumstances Filia might’ve asked him to stop—after all, aside from the wet clothes they’d left to dry in their hotel room, they didn’t have any spares—but she didn’t want to show herself as a scold. Suddenly every move she could make as a parent she was forced to second guess. Would this make him see her as less of his mother? Would that?
The clerk had done a decent job with Val’s makeshift raincoat. An old picnic blanket was waterproof and provided enough material to make him an acceptable covering—if a rather shapeless and unstylish one. At least you couldn’t say that he didn’t stand out. The red and white checkered pattern could probably be seen clearly from a distance even in the heavy rain and the steam that billowed from the ground.
Filia held Val’s hand and tried to keep him close to her side, under the umbrella that she was laboring to hold steady against the wind. She prayed that the town wouldn’t flood again. Enough was wrong in the world without having to deal with an evacuation procedure in a strange place. A little rain, she was fine with. But any more than that…
A look at the gutters, though, as she walked by, made her wonder if this town could even take a little rain. The drains were clogged with clumps of earth and trash and other unidentifiable things. They bubbled up with muddy goo. The ground had to be completely saturated with water already.
But, as she gripped Val’s hand in hers, she found all concerns about the weather had faded into the background. He hadn’t said a word to her since they set out for the library—the only place the woman at the front desk had a suspicion that they might find someone still around.
“You know, Val,” Filia tried as gently as she could, “I’m sure Jillas is wondering why you don’t want to call him ‘uncle’ anymore. It probably hurts his feelings.” She bit her tongue on that last line. It was cheap and emotionally manipulative, she knew. What’s more, Jillas was dealing with all of this far more easily than she was.
Val shrugged, apparently not undone by this. “But he’s not my uncle. Rolly said he can’t be my uncle since he’s a fox man and I’m not,” he said simply.
Filia found herself thinking more uncharitable things about Roland Dabner than a seven-year-old probably deserved. “Alright, so he and Gravos aren’t related to you. But who cares?” she pressed on. “They both love you so much—as though you were their nephew. It doesn’t matter if they don’t look like you: they’re still your uncles at heart.”
“I guess,” was Val’s answer, but he didn’t sound too convinced.
For a moment, the only sound was the rain lashing against the puddles and the walkways and the distant lake that had once been a quarry. Filia could see nothing of the depths of mineral richness it held, only the rippling sheet of water that covered it.
“You know, Mommy…” Val began, with worrying hesitance, “…you don’t look like me either.”
Filia’s step nearly faltered. She clenched his hand tighter in hers.
“Are you…” Val went on with difficulty. “Are you my real—?”
“Oh, look! It’s the library!” Filia cut him off desperately as the multistory building with the sign “Potter’s Field Public Library” came into view beyond the curtain of rain. “Let’s… hurry and get out of the rain,” she added, quickening her pace and pulling him along. His face was drawn and his steps were slow, but she spirited him up the short concrete stoop and in past the double doors.
She let go of his hand as she closed her soggy yellow umbrella. She’d expected Val to try again—to not be distracted—to bury her under a barrage of questions as soon as they were in the (comparatively) dry building. She’d dreaded that, knowing that she could only put him off for so long and not having a clue what to say to him when he got those questions out. But he wasn’t asking… he was just staring at the floor. That was no better; it was as though her deflection had confirmed for him the very worst.
But even in the face of this crushing sense of failure before her son, there was something she saw as she looked up from standing her umbrella against the wall that nearly stole all of her attention away. As a focal point amongst the shelves of books that lined the perimeter of the first floor there was a pedestal, and on that pedestal, rising so high that it could be seen from the balconies of the upper floors and even beyond that into the glass-domed roof, was a skeleton: a skeleton with a very reptilian countenance.
She stepped toward it as though entranced. For a moment a sense of creeping disgust gripped her—the fear that she was looking at one of her own, glued together with its dead frame supported by iron, standing before her as a decoration. But, though dragon it most certainly was, she realized very quickly that it was no golden dragon. It was too big, for one, and the snout was differently shaped, and from its elbows jutted out a spike that her kind simply did not have.
A droplet of cold water from the back of her neck dripped down her spine, but it was not the source of her chill. She moved forward to get a look at the plaque in front of the calcified giant, but it didn’t tell her what she really wanted to know. “Dragon” it said, as though that wasn’t already immediately obvious; “Donated by the Avery Family” it went on, followed by last year’s date. No more information was available.
Filia gulped. Perhaps it was just because it was a dragon skeleton… Well, it was reasonable that it should remind her of that time. She’d only seen dragon bones back then—that once. It didn’t have to be one of them… She lacked the expertise to say for sure. But… if it was… what was it doing in this town?
“Val… what do you…?” Filia began, trying to break from the sickening hold the sight of the bones had on her. But as she turned back the child was nowhere to be seen.
She whipped around abruptly. She hadn’t even so much as heard him move, but with a sinking sense of dread she realized that her attention had probably been too captured by the dragon skeleton to notice. Panic stole over her in a pins-and-needles chill across her skin.
“Val?” she called out. “Val… come out, sweetie…”
He’d run off. He’d run off at the exact moment that he’d come face to face with the idea that the woman who’d raised him wasn’t really his mother. Filia’s brain reeled as she tried to figure which direction to go—how to remedy this as quickly as possible and tamper down the panic. Had he gone past her and farther into the building while she’d been distracted by the skeleton? Or had he slipped out the same door they’d only recently come in and the sound had been drowned out by the ceaseless patter of rain.
“…Can I help you, miss?”
Filia really was in no state of mind for an out-of-nowhere approach and barely stopped herself from jumping. She turned around with a hand against her heart to see a bespectacled older man in a sweater vest. The librarian, she could only assume.
“Oh, yes,” Filia answered, catching her breath. Up until a moment ago, she would’ve wanted help in finding the quarry owners or learning the origins of the dragon skeleton. Now only one question really mattered. “Have you seen a little boy? Around seven years old. Short, blueish-green hair. My son.”
The man looked at her critically. “I’m afraid not,” he said after a moment. “Aside from my assistant, you’re the only other person I’ve seen today. Is he lost?”
“I…” Filia bit her lip. “I think he may have run off. I have to find him.”
The librarian shifted his weight, giving the matter some thought. “Well, I think I would’ve seen a little boy running around in my library, so it seems to me likely that he went outside—probably wanted to play in the rain. You know kids.”
“Y-yes,” Filia said, nodding gratefully. Ordinarily Val might’ve been one of those kids who just wanted to play in the rain, but today… “I’ll go and check then,” she said, turning back toward the door.
“Miss?” the librarian added hurriedly, trying to catch her before she left.
“Hm?” Filia tried, looking over her shoulder at him in distracted apprehension to get going.
“Word of advice,” the librarian said, “once you find your son, you both should try to get out of here as fast as you can. This rain’s only going to get worse. Just as soon as my assistant and I get the important books to the upper levels, we’re evacuating. You should too. It’s not safe.”
“Oh… of course,” Filia responded, lamenting sticking to her guns and staying in the town despite the rain. Now an impending flood was on the way and Val was gone… “I will,” she vowed and opened the doorway onto the downpour.
Her umbrella forgotten, she tried in vain to shield her eyes from the rain. “Val!” she shouted, no longer in the timid tone of hope that he’d be right behind her having only wandered off momentarily. That desperate illusion had worn off. “Val! Come out! Please, we can talk about this!”
Her only answer was a distant rumble of thunder. She strained her vision through the rain and the mist but there was no sign of Val in the growing darkness.
Though… yes… As the rain hastened into a likely-momentary lull, she could swear that she saw a distant, dark shape through the drizzle.
She leapt into the puddles of the street, which were even then starting to unify into a river. “Val, is that you?” she called out into the wind. As she tried to navigate through the drenched street, she noticed something—a tendril of red flowing down from the hunched over figure.
She quickened her pace.
No… Despite in the adrenaline-fueled haze of terror the sight had brought her, she could see that it wasn’t blood. Even born down by the water it was too thick to be blood. But, whatever the biological compound, the fact that it wasn’t blood did not give her any relief.
As she approached the figure, she stopped. She took a step back.
“What… what are…?”
Too small. It’d been obvious even from a distance that the thing had been too small to be Val if he was standing, but she thought perhaps he might’ve fallen. But this… whatever it was, whatever creature, it was standing up to its full height, its broad limbs stretched forward like an overgrown bat or bird.
It was coated in that heavy, red ooze that dripped from its underdeveloped wings like liquefied muscle tissue. Its neck lolled about as it turned its elongated snout up toward her. It had a boneless, jelly-like quality to its movements, as though it was unfinished—raw. Something in interminable misery. Something that wasn’t ready to exist yet.
The pathetic, yet horrible thing let out the shriek of a reaper and lunged at her leg, tearing into her skin with its milk teeth. She let out a cry and flinched away from it. Her hand reached automatically for her hip where her mace was holstered, but she hesitated before she could grab it. Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to strike against the wretched creature.
It lifted its head. She could see no eyes and, even if it had them she didn’t suppose it could see, covered in its bag of melting meat as it was. Yet somehow she got the sense that it was…
She turned her head, trying to keep one eye on the creature as she looked behind her. Through the fog there were more—each trailing its spilling flesh on the rain-soaked pavement. Each with an inhuman croak rolling without end from the depths of its throat.
They stopped in a tight circle around her. Each thing opened its mouth, displaying teeth that seemed to be the only truly finished thing about them. Strings of rot dripped from the blackened roofs of their mouths. Filia felt the sting of her ankle bleeding as she bit the bullet and reached under her skirt for the reassuring handle of her mace.
A column of distortion shuddered in front of her. For one heart-fluttering moment she thought it was Xellos—that he was fazing in to handle whatever this threat was. But when the distortion didn’t quickly solidify into his form, she knew something was wrong.
A white limb shot out of the shadowy void, grabbing the arm that had been reaching for her mace with clammy, bloodless fingers. She let out a cry that was quickly silenced as another hand reached vertically out from the region that should’ve been the entity’s head and covered her mouth.
She kicked and fought as still more hands reached out, grabbing her legs and pulling her down to the sodden ground. The creatures trod hungrily closer. She bit against the spectral hand in an attempt to sting the thing into releasing her and tasted copper. The white powder that covered its disembodied arms and hands seemed to flake away, leaving a green-tinged, metallic skin—like a gold coin that had been left at the bottom of the sea for a hundred years, to tarnish and accumulate algae.
The hands held off all her efforts with a strength that couldn’t be of this world as the things pressed their slime-covered bodies ever closer. All her cries muffled, she closed her eyes.
What is happening?! What is going on with this town…?
What can I…?
Part 2: skiyomi.deviantart.com/art/Sla…
Happy Halloween everyone! I think this is... what, the fourth year I've done a Slayers Halloween story? These things usually start with at least some inspiration from something in the horror genre and this one was developed with the influence of the classic Silent Hill games. It's meant to be a bit more serious than some of my past Halloween stories, but I hope you'll enjoy it anyway.
Despite the fact that I started working on this story much earlier than I usually get going on my Halloween stories, this one was a real struggle to get through. My interest was there, but the plan got bigger than I first imagined and October was full to the brim with distractions. That's why I had to make the decision to make this a two-parter. I'm sorry I couldn't get it all out in time for Halloween like in past years, but I think this will be for the best with this story.
I can't say with 100% certainty when I'll be able to finish and post up the second half. I'd intended to participate in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year and that'll take up a lot of my time this November. Maybe they'll be a nightmare before Christmas? I'm not sure. But I will work to get it out and finished as soon as I can.
With all that said, I hope you enjoy this. And thank you so much for reading!
Note for folks on DeviantArt: I've posted this as a two-parter on Fanfiction.net. But here the file size is apparently too large, so I'm forced to split "Part 1" into 2 parts. So I guess this'll be a 3 (or 4, depending on how long the second half is) parter here.