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How You See The World

by Caitlin McColl 8 months ago in Short Story · updated 7 months ago
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a young man realizes that fantasy really is reality

How You See The World
Photo by Raph Howald on Unsplash

Chapter 1 - The Unseen

He had walked past the place a million times and had never noticed it before. He pulled his thick wool coat tighter around himself, turning the collar up over his ears as another strong autumn wind blew past. His coat was black, and the low grey clouds made his white-blond hair seem even whiter than normal.

He guessed he had just never walked as close to the wall of the ruined Abbey before as he did today, pressing himself almost up against the wall to escape the cold air. Mounds of sodden old leaves had piled themselves up against the wall from the harsh winds at this time of year. He bent his head low and kicked the piles of leaves absentmindedly, as a distraction from his thoughts. Ever since his father had sat him down the night before and told him, over large, seemingly never-ending cups of coffee that he was a direct descendant of a powerful mage – a magician and warrior – his mind had been reeling.

‘That’s just fantasy!’ Jared nearly shouted at his father, spilling some of his drink. ‘Have you had too much to drink again?’ he said pushing his chair away from the table and moving to stand in front of the fireplace, letting the warmth take the chill out of him from sitting next to the large kitchen windows that seemed to let in a draft no matter what the time of year. The pale yellow flames of the gas fireplace flickered lazily above the fake logs. ‘There’s no such thing as magic and wizards! You’ve been watching too much Harry Potter or something. I’m not a kid anymore, Dad. I’m almost twenty. Maybe when I was little I liked to read about wizards and big heroes with swords, but not now.’

His father looked at him, his large blue eyes were hard and cold and filled with some emotion that Jared couldn’t read. ‘The dreams,’ he said simply.

‘What? What are you talking about?’

‘Have you been having the dreams?’ his father repeated rising from his chair.

‘What-‘

‘You know what I’m talking about. The girl. The woman in black. Sometimes she’s wearing a cloak. A bright red hooded cloak.’

‘What, now you’re talking about Little Red Riding Hood?’ yelled Jared moving back around the table putting more distance between the two of them. ‘What have you put in your coffee?’

‘Calm down. You’re being irrational. Think,’ said the older man. ‘You’ve dreamt about her. I know you have. I did, when I was about your age. That’s when my father first told me about our gift. That’s when we first start coming into it. Realizing who we are. Remembering who we are, who our ancestors were.’

Jared shook his head, his white-blond hair falling across his eyes. ‘No,’ he said quietly, disbelieving. But as he said it the woman with long blond hair and long black dress fluttering in the breeze rose in his mind. He closed his eyes as if doing so would erase her from his mind, but instead, she became more real, more solid and he could remember her from his dreams. He could see her, standing on the bare jagged rock jutting from the ocean, holding a sword, etched with strange symbols as it glinted in the setting sun. The woman looked straight at him. As if he were standing on the shore and she was cut off by the choppy waters on her cold stone island.

‘Who is she?’ Jared asked, slowly lowering himself back into one of the chairs at the dining room table.

‘She’s a wisp,’ his father said, taking his seat again and pouring some fresh coffee into his mug.

Jared didn’t know what to say, and could only think of one thing to say, even though it sounded ridiculous, he said it anyway. ‘What’s a wisp?’

His father sighed long and loud. ‘A will ‘o the wisp.’

‘But aren’t those those light things? Those things that people are supposed to see in swamps and stuff?’

‘Yes. That’s what she is. That’s her natural form. But she can take human form when she needs to tell us something. To warn us. She’s a protector, of sorts. You remember the tales about the wisps? The stories I used to tell you as a child?’ his father asked, looking across the table at this son, and clutching his mug tightly.

‘Yes,’ said Jared simply.

‘So, you remember that will ‘o wisps lead people away, get them lost and confused,’ his father continued taking a long slow sip of his drink.

‘Yes. The people who are foolish enough to follow a will ‘o the wisp end up disappearing and never being found again.’

‘Foolish is right. That’s another name for them, the foolish fire. That’s how they help us. They can distract our enemies. Lead them away, get them turned around so they can’t find their way back.’

‘I can’t believe I’m having this conversation,’ said Jared draining his cup and standing up. ‘This is ridiculous. I’m going to bed,’ he said pushing himself away from the table and turning to go upstairs to his room.

His father shrugged. ‘Suit yourself. But when you see her tonight, say hi to her for me. I haven’t seen her in years. They disappear when you no longer need them. When the next generation are ready to take over and protect others, continue the fight. And that’s you,’ his father said.

But Jared was already halfway up the stairs, trying to block out the nonsense his father was spouting. He closed the door to his room, threw his clothes in a jumbled heap on the chair next to his computer desk, and crawled into bed, pulling the duvet up around him like a cocoon.

Chapter 2 – Swords & Sorcery

The cold watery light of an early October morning filtered through the thin curtains of his bedroom. In the reality of a new, fresh morning the conversation he had with his father seemed far away, indistinct and unreal. ‘Ridiculous,’ he said slipping out of the warmth of his covers and stepping onto the cool hardwood floor.

He managed not to think of their conversation again, and the dreams of the night before until he found himself walking alongside the crumbling wall of the Abbey, the one corner of which remained standing-the rest was just hunks of granite covered in weeds and moss.

And that was when he saw it. At first, he thought it was a piece of broken glass that was catching the sun, but when his foot kicked up the leaves his foot struck something hard. And big.

He knew he would be late for work if he stopped, but something under the red-brown mass made him stop. It was silver, with grooves and notches. He crouched down and brushed the leaves away, revealing a long slim sword, etched deeply with strange swirling symbols. He ran his fingers tentatively down the blade until his hand hit the hilt – which was dark, heavy iron.

The coffee shop could wait. He glanced down the street and over his shoulder. The sidewalks were empty, most people choosing the warmth of their cars and driving to work. He picked up the sword as quickly as he dared, unbuttoning his coat, thankful that it was long and reached his ankles. He carefully put it underneath his coat and held it tightly against his side with his arm, ignoring the chill that ran through him when the cold metal pressed against his thin work clothes before turning on his heel and heading back in the direction he had just come.

‘What the hell is this!’ he said, almost flinging the sword onto the island in the middle of the large kitchen.

‘Ah, so you believe me,’ said his father, shuffling slowly into the room still wearing his housecoat and slippers.

‘What do you mean I believe you?’ asked Jared incredulously.

His father didn’t answer but instead moved towards the fireplace and felt along the wall next to the left side of the stone hearth. ‘It’s here somewhere,’ his father mumbled, his knotted, arthritic fingers prying at the seams between the wooden panels of the wall. ‘Ah! Here it is,’ he said triumphantly, and one of the pieces of wood slid aside and his father reached into the dark recess in the wall. His father withdrew a long slim sword, almost identical to the one that was currently lying on the kitchen counter.

‘It comes to you when you believe,’ his father raised the sword in the air. It wavered slightly in his hand. ‘I’m afraid I’m not as strong as I used to be,’ he said embarrassed, lowering it. ‘You might not think you believe what I’ve told you, but deep down you do. You believe in magic. You believe in your ancestry.’

‘I believe in floating balls of light that protect me?’ said Jared sarcastically.

‘Yes,’ his father said with a chuckle. ‘You might not think so, but it’s why the sword has revealed itself to you now. Because you are a mage, and a warrior.’

‘If I’m a mage, a wizard, as you say, then why do I need a stupid sword?’

‘Wizards in children’s fairytales have staffs, giant walking sticks. In reality, we have swords. They’re a lot more practical. Useful,’ his father said placing his sword carefully back within its slot in the wall.

‘Well, why don’t you use yours? And what do we need to use them against?’

‘When the next in line comes of age, that’s you,’ the older man said, gesturing limply with a shaking hand, ‘we lose the ability to use it effectively. I’ve known that you were ready to learn who you are for a while now. Since I haven’t been able to barely lift the sword, let alone use it to any effect.’

Jared walked back to where the sword lay on the fake granite countertop and lifted it, balancing it deftly in his hand. ‘It feels as light as a feather,’ he whispered. He swung his arm and was amazed that the sword sliced effortlessly through the air as if some master swordsman was wielding it, not himself.

His father followed him slowly into the kitchen, running his hand lovingly along the hilt and blade of Jared’s sword. ‘And you want to know who we use them against?’

Jared nodded, holding his breath, wondering what his father would say next.

‘We use them against the evil of the world,’ his father said. ‘With the help of magic, which we all have inside of ourselves, and with the help of our wisps, we rid the world of evil – the parasites on this world who drain the goodness from the planet and from everyone living on it. The world is full of it. You just have to learn how to see the world, how to see what’s really there.’

Jared opened his mouth to speak but his father raised a hand to interrupt. ‘And it's not just us who has magic within, not just mages, but everyone. Everyone has magic, energy, within them. It’s just that regular people don’t know how to use it, or access it. Or even know that it’s there.’

‘Okay, so we’re taking like serial killers and things like that? Are we like vigilante policemen?’

His father laughed loudly. ‘Serial killers and criminals are the evil, but their criminality is just a cover for who they really are.’

‘Who they really are?’ Jared said, confusion creeping into his voice.

‘They are beings of the otherworld.’

‘Otherworld?’ Jared said, lowering his voice to a whisper, not liking where the conversation was going.

‘They usually stay underground, but every so often, they come into public light as the evil in our society. Vampires, fairies, mermaids.’

‘Wait a second,’ said Jared, this time raising a hand to stop his father. ‘I get that vampires are evil and that they could be responsible for murder and evil, but fairies? Mermaids? Aren’t they friendly? Like unicorns? All rainbows and glitter that little girls grow up pretending to be?’

His father shook his head vehemently, his thinning silver hair waving wildly ‘Oh no. Fairies are vicious little creatures, with horrible sharp teeth. They really like to bite. And some are venomous.’

Jared shook his head in disbelief. ‘And mermaids?’

‘Think of all the ships you’ve heard or read about that sink. Or the ghost ships of legend. What caused them?’

‘I guess you’re not going to just say storms.’

His father shook his head and laughed again. ‘You’re right. It’s mermaids. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s mermaids who sink ships. They like playing cruel tricks on them. They like to cause suffering and disaster, and for no real reason other than they can. It helps them pass the time. Mermaids live extremely long lives.’

‘And it’s our job to find these creatures and-’ Jared began.

His father finished his thought, ‘and rid the world of them. To help the rest of mankind.’

‘How many of us are there?’

‘I’m not sure exactly. But not many. There’s not many of us left anymore. We’re not immortal, and we’ve had to be around for millennia.’

‘And what about Mom?’ asked Jared, suddenly, picturing the woman he only knew in photographs- a young woman with dark hair and dark eyes, opposite from Jared’s pale hair and bright blue eyes. ‘Did she know about any of this?’

He saw his father's eyes darken at the question, as he collapsed heavily into a chair and mumbled something.

‘What?’ asked Jared, leaning in closer to hear.

‘Yes,’ his father said, slowly, as if the words were painful to speak. ‘Yes, she was one of them.’ His father looked up at him so quickly that Jared took a step back, away from the fury that blazed in his father’s eyes. ‘Which makes you half of them. Half evil,’ his father spat.

And before Jared knew what was happening his father stood before him, the sword he had uncovered by the abbey held tightly in his father’s hand, the tip pointed towards his chest, almost piercing his skin through his thin t-shirt. His father’s handheld it sure and solid, not weak and shaking as it was before.

‘What?’ Jared stuttered, taken aback. He took a step backward and stumbled over one of the chairs, banging heavily into the wooden post of the staircase. ‘What are you doing?’

‘The same thing I had to do to your mother. When I found out what she was,’ his father replied, his voice as cold as steel, as he started to advance.

Chapter 3 – Of Faeries and Foes

Jared yelped and jumped back, bumping into the stove with a clang. ‘What…?’ Jared stuttered again, perplexed by his father’s suddenly uncharacteristic actions.

His father swung the sword down, slicing the air with a whooshing sound as if the air itself was being parted. There was a smell like burning metal, with a tangy bitterness in the air.

Jared freed himself from the cooker and shifted sideways heading back into the openness of the dining room and putting the large dark wood table between him and his father.

‘What do you mean I’m one of them?’ Jared said, his breath coming in short bursts with shock and exertion.

‘You’re part of your mother, so you’re half-faerie,’ his father snarled, lip curling as he spat the words.

‘Half-’ Jared said, stunned. He twisted himself, craning to look behind him, half-expecting to see gossamer wings jutting from his shoulder blades. There was nothing.

He heard his father laugh, a sharp, grating sound. ‘You don’t have any wings,’ he said. ‘You’re a half-breed. Your mother had them though, but she didn’t always show them. Obviously,’ he sneered, shaking his head. ‘She hid the fact she was a faerie. And she used her faerie magic to make me fall in love with her,’ he said, his voice turning dark and heavy. His father took another step closer, holding the sword close to his body, his arm raised so that he had a strong grip on the weapon.

Jared looked around the room, frantically. Half-faerie against...he tried to think of the word for his father. Killer, his mind settled on once it had found the word hiding in the back of his mind. Faerie-killer. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He closed it again. He tried to wrap his head around what his father had said, but he was struggling. Had he said his father had killed his mother? Just for being a faerie?

He stared down the length of cold steel pointed in his direction and swiftly came to the right conclusion. That a man wielding a sword at his son, who had said they had killed their wife, and your mother, most likely was telling the truth. And, Jared realized with a sudden horror that caused a shiver to run through his entire body, he was next. Just for being who he was, and not doing anything to anyone! He was just Jared Allbright. No more, no less. Well, unless you counted being half-faerie, then apparently he was more than just Jared Allbright. But he didn’t know that until five seconds ago, so really, it didn’t count.

He couldn’t find anything to protect himself. This was just his house, a regular house that he had grown up in. With the man in front of him, who was at this moment wanting to kill him. There was nothing but the plate that was still on the table from when he had hurriedly eaten breakfast and not bothered to put his dish in the sink. He grabbed it anyway and held it in front of him, a weak excuse for a shield.

His father laughed again, hard and cold, with a little lilt that turned up at the end, as if the laugh was saying, ‘I got you now, a plate is no match for a sword!’

Jared felt heat rush into his cheeks with embarrassment How ridiculous is this, he thought, as he took a step backward, towards the alcove that led to the front door. Holding a plate against a sword.

But then he felt something vibrate. It was the plate. No, it was Jared’s hands that were making the plate hum and shake, first almost unnoticeable, and then the sound rose to an ear-piercing squeal.

His father, still in his bathrobe and slippers, lowered his sword ever so slightly. ‘What?’ he began, confusion flicker across his face.

Jared could feel his hands getting hotter, and felt the plate thrum under his fingers. He held it away from his body as far as his arms could put it, and at the last second, he had the presence of mind to let go of it.

He threw it in the air and then turned away, hunkering down into a crouch. He heard the plate explode with a boom of shattering porcelain, and felt the shards raining down. He ran awkwardly, still in his crouch, toward the door.

His father screamed as pieces of sharp jagged plate fell and tore his skin, jabbing like needles and teeth. Jared turned only after he was in the relative safety of the small foyer at the front door, where people came and put their shoes and hung up their jackets when they came to visit, and watched the scene with a strangely cool detachment, as if all of this were happening to someone else and somewhere else, not to Jared Allbright, in his own house, and to the man that Jared had called father his entire life.

Jared’s hand’s tingled and burned. He looked down at them. They seemed to crackle, fizz, and pop with a blue-ish luminescence from inside him. He’d never felt or seen anything like it before.

A loud noise made him look up sharply, forgetting his hands for a moment. His father was staggering towards him like a drunkard, lumbering and throwing himself forward with sheer will.

He was bleeding from scratches and cuts on his face, and large pieces of plate stuck out of the material of his dressing gown. He roared at Jared, a primal, animal sound of pure anger, all humanity gone.

Jared was surprised to see his father still held the sword, and he swung it at him as if wanting to chop the space between them up into small tiny pieces.

Jared’s hand’s burned uncomfortably, and instinctively he raised them in front of his face as if he were about to enter an old-fashioned duel in a Victorian gambling house.

There was a loud crack, a brilliant flash of pure white light that seared Jared’s eyes, and though he had squeezed them tightly shut, the light flashed so brightly that he could see the insides of his eyelids bright red. He stood, his heart pounding loudly in his chest and his pulse thudding in his ears, waiting for the inevitable, for his father to reach him, and close the gap between them.

He shivered suddenly, something that struck him as odd, and felt a cold autumn breeze blow against him. It was only then that he opened his eyes.

Chapter 4 – How You See The World

He was no longer standing in his house, as there was no house to stand in. There was nothing. Not even ruins of a house. The house was gone. His father was gone. He was standing where his house had been, but instead only grass and weeds and uneven rocky ground filled the space. To his left, his neighbours, the Omstead’s, house sat as it always had, looking pristine with its modern old-fashioned visage. To his right was Ms. Sally Herald’s place, looking strangely smaller than it did before without having the Allbright house to keep company beside it.

He turned around. The rest of his street was there, just as it always had. It was just his house, somehow, that had disappeared.

Had it ever been there in the first place? The strange thought came out of nowhere.

He was glad he was still wearing his warm wool coat against the chill and once again pulled the collar up to cover his neck. He heard someone shout his name and looked in the direction of it. He spied a woman walking briskly towards him. ‘Jared!’ she said again, getting closer. She waved a gloved hand, that was the same colour as her coat – a vivid red. She stood out like a bloodstain against the dreariness of the autumn all around that leeched the colour out of everything.

By the time she reached him, Jared realized it wasn’t a coat she was wearing, but a cloak. His dad had said something about someone wearing a red cloak…and he had joked that it was Little Red Riding Hood. What was it he had said? Jared tried to think quickly, but the woman reached him before the answer had come.

Her pale skin was flushed pink at the cheeks with the cold of the day, and her breath came out in little puffs of condensation. She smiled at him with friendly eyes that were such a pale blue they were almost clear from underneath the hood of her blood-red cloak that covered hair that seemed to be white.

‘Jared!’ she said again, with an anxiousness that Jared found slightly unsettling. ‘You’re safe!’

Jared didn’t know what else to do except nod, which he did. He stared at the woman who stared back at him for a long moment, neither saying anything until Jared found some words.

‘So.’ He said this awkwardly, uncomfortable, as if not sure how to bring up what he was going to say next. ‘You’re a wisp?’ he said uncertainly, as if he were accusing her of the most ridiculous thing.

She smiled up at him. ‘So. You’re a half-faerie?’ she replied with a grin.

Jared smiled back shyly and shrugged. ‘I guess I am.’ He looked towards the square of land where his house used to be, but where now it seemed like there had never been any house there, ever.

‘What happened to my house? To my dad?’ he asked, slowly, as if taking longer to say what he was saying would delay the answer he didn’t really want to hear.

‘You destroyed it, and him.’ She saw his face crumble and continued hurriedly. ‘You sent him and everything to the Otherworld. You banished them to the world of faerie, to the world that the rest of us call home.’

Jared nodded absently, a faraway look in his eyes as he tried to imagine what the Otherworld was like, and failing. ‘But isn’t that dangerous? Can he come back?’ Jared asked, and then added, ‘won’t he kill everything there? That’s his job, that’s what he said we were, what I am.’

The wisp smiled and shook her head reassuringly. ‘He won’t be a danger to you anymore. Nor to the creatures of the Otherworld. He will get what is due to him.’ She saw the look of shock on Jared’s face and added, ‘fairly. Us otherworlders are fair if nothing else. Well…’ she trailed off, ‘fair to an extent anyway.’

Before Jared could answer she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him along. ‘Come,’ she said, moving at a brisk pace once more.

‘Where are you taking me?’ Jared asked, suddenly confused once more. She was pulling him up the street in the direction she had come from.

‘I’m going to teach you how to see the world,’ she replied simply.

As they rushed along the street, which had been quiet in the early morning, life had begun to flow into it as the sun rose higher in the sky, melting away the frost on rooftops. Jared passed by people who were out doing their daily errands, getting coffee, waiting for the bus to get to work, commuting on bikes, walking dogs. Most of them seemed normal, dressed like Jared himself, wrapped up tightly in thick coats and scarves, but some were …strange. It was the only way Jared could think of it. They had a glow about them. Some were different colours, blues, or purples, some brighter with pinks and oranges. The wisp pulled him past one woman who, at her back, the air shimmered and moved and blurred.

‘What-?’ Jared started, beginning to point. The woman in the cloak pushed his hand down and whispered in his ear. ‘She’s a faerie,’ she said. ‘You’re seeing a movement of the air, aren’t you? Like heat moving in the air?’ She asked. Jared nodded, and the wisp nodded again in understanding. ‘What you’re seeing, kind of, is her wings. They’re invisible to everyone, but not to people like us, to other Otherworlders. We can pick each other out of crowds like dogs with a scent.

Jared felt his eyes grow wider as they moved through the streets, and all the people he could see were surrounded by auras of colour – some bright, some muted. There were so many. It was almost overwhelming.

‘How come I couldn’t see any of this before?’ he asked, as the wisp pulled him up a small side street.

‘Because your eyes hadn’t been opened yet, and now that they are, you can see the world how it really is. With all of us.’ She stopped at a small, nondescript narrow door in an impossibly narrow building, took a key out of her cloak, and opened it, pushing Jared in first and following behind. ‘Up the stairs,’ she ordered. He did as he was told. He climbed a spiral staircase upwards, twisting round and round, getting narrower and narrower so that he had to move sideways awkwardly, like a crab, as he got to the top.

It felt like forever, but he eventually got to the top. He stood on a small, round platform, barely big enough for just him, let alone the woman in the billowing red cloak, but somehow she managed to fit in beside him as if she barely took up any space.

He looked down at her, for he was a few heads taller, and asked. ‘What are we doing here?’

She said nothing but simply reached forward and opened a pair of tall arched shutters that were in front of them, and pushed them outwards, allowing the cold, cool sunlight to flood in.

Jared gasped. He was far above the city, looking down on it from higher than he could have ever imagined. He didn’t remember ever seeing any sort of tall tower in the city before. They were almost at the same level as the clouds themselves, Jared noticed glancing upwards out the window, with the clouds hovering dangerously close, and causing a damp chilly wind to reach its way into where they were.

He looked down again, and his breath caught in his throat. The city was like a patchwork quilt of different colours. Hundreds, thousands of people, all like him, or, similar he reminded himself, since he was half-human too, moving around far below them. It was like Christmas lights in a mist, a living patchwork quilt, moving and pulsing, brilliant and barely visible, and everything in between.

‘So this is how you see the world?’ Jared asked turning to face her, his voice hushed, filled with awe.

The wisp’s hood had fallen from her head around her shoulders, exposing hair so pale blond it was almost bone-white. ‘This is how we see the world,’ she said with a smile, taking his hand in hers. ‘And I will show you how it works.’

~~~~

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Short Story

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Caitlin McColl

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