Nick spent the rest of the day in daze. He passed from class to class mind full of what he'd found in his sister's room. A father who had died, a secret as big as Bedford itself, and someone named Ezell. How had Adelle gotten tangled up in all of this? His mind simmered and turned over and over again what he had read. He jumped in surprise when a girl tapped him on the shoulder she must have been a sophomore and was an abnormally small one at that. She squeaked in terror when she saw his face, annoyed frown and all.
"Um, school's over." She said as she backed away as if he were a feral animal. Sheesh, did she think he was going to go for her throat?
Nick nodded his thanks and left the classroom and found that the school was a ghost town. Nick checked his watch. He had been pretty out of it; 10 minutes had passed since school's end. Nick left the building and was surprised by a ray of sun. It had actually warmed up outside just a little so he shucked off his scarf when he reached the car. Last night he had gotten directions to Bedford's library off the internet. It was almost outside Bedford city limits. The squat stone building sat in a meadow surrounded on all sides by forest. There was a small parking lot, but not much else. Inside the library, the stink of old things mildewing was strong. A woman who looked more like a very wrinkly statue than a librarian sat at the front desk. When he walked in, she wheezed loudly and suddenly came to life. Her hair was in a very severe bun that smoothed a few of her wrinkles. The librarian's mouth was small and thin-lipped, but her cheeks were lined from laughter and smiles. She waved at nick and smiled as he stepped closer to her desk.
"Hello deary, here to work on a project?"
"Kind of, we just moved here so I thought I might learn a bit more about Bedford's history."
"Oh," the woman's smile cracked and she looked pained. "There's not much, I'm afraid. There was a huge fire in Bedford in the 1820s that destroyed a lot of the archives. Would you like to see what we do have? It really isn't much."
Nick shook his head at the weirdness of it all. Adelle had learned about Bedford's history somehow but it obviously hadn't been here.
"Yes please. I'll take anything I can get."
The librarian led him through the tall shelves of books until she came to a back room. She pulled a key from the chain that hung from her neck and deftly opened it. She turned and craned her neck to look up into Nick's eyes. Even for an old woman, she was exceptionally short.
"Ok young man, in this room is all of the books about Bedford's history that we were able to scavenge. There's also a microfilm viewer if you'd like to look through the old newspapers."
"Thanks ma'am, I'll be careful."
The room in question only contained a few small shelves full of old books and an ancient microfilm viewer in its' own corner. Nick took a table facing the window and grabbed a large stack of books. He didn't bother checking the titles he just grabbed whatever came to hand. Taking his stack back to his table he began to read.
Bedford's population on the year of 1820 was 1,500 humans. The o-
Nick the rest of the page had been brutally ripped from the binding. Shrugging, he turned to the next page.
Many of the forests occult locations have been mapped over the years, some of the most n-
Another page mangled. What the heck? Nick all but threw the book onto the table and reached for another. He flipped through the pages as quickly as its' ancient binding would allow; More pages had been taken out of this one. The next book was little more than the covers, and the one after that was singed so badly that he was afraid to touch it. With a sigh of frustration, he pushed the books away and looked out the window. A pair of yellow goat eyes stared right back at him. Nick blinked, and took in what he was seeing. The goat eyes were in the head of a goat, but the head was attached to the body of a very tall man. To look into the window, the creature actually had to crouch slightly. The goat man made a motion towards the forest and then began to walk away slowly. What other choice did Nick have? He got up and hurried off into the woods after the Phooka.
I jerked awake and nearly met the floor. As I came back to reality, I realized I had made a mess of my bed while I had slept. aThe sheets were pulled off the mattress and tangled around my legs, and one pillow was ripped nearly in two. I cringed, why did my head hurt? Even though the light was all but gone, the few rays shining into my bedroom still made me wince. Pulling my knees to my chest, I closed my eyes and sat there for a moment, hoping the throbbing would go away but it only seemed to get worse. Damn, Caraway didn't bother to add that dreaming could cause brain splitting headaches.
As I sat there, half-blinded by pain, I realized that the house was entirely silent. No heavy metal screeched, no video game sound effects. It had to be at least 6, so where was nick? He couldn't have possibly found anything at the library.
Nick stumbled over an unseen tree root and fell to his knees. He gasped in pain as he knee connected with something sharp. The offending object ripped through the fabric of his jeans and cut through his skin. He would have stopped to assess the damage but the phooka was getting further and further away, he quickly got to his feet and limped after this strange creature. As they walked the forest seem to get thicker and more primeval. Nick began to wonder if he had unwittingly walked into the realm of Faerie. When he was a child, his moms had told them stories about how people would enter faerie circles or follow a beautiful young maid and then disappear for 50 years and return to their village the same as when they had left. While Adelle had found the idea enchanting, Nick had been terrified. The thought of living with strange people for 50 years and then coming back to find everything you loved either dead or wrinkling to be terrifying. It'd been years since she'd told them such stories, yet the old unease was returning the further he followed the phooka. With a yelp of pain, Nick tripped again on a tree root and fell onto his injured knee. The phooka finally stopped and turned to look at him. He wasn't sure, but a certain cast to the thing's face gave him the feeling he was annoyed.
"we havnae got aw day, laddie."
"Y-yeah, wel-" The Phooka snorted so loudly that the last words he was going to say all but crowded into the back of his throat out of fear. Nick was beginning to worry about what this thing ate, but their slow procession started up again. They walked and walked, and the Phooka would stop only when the pain in Nick's knee was past all bearing. Eventually, they reached where they were meant to be, wherever it was. It was a small meadow covered with small flowers that seemed to sing in the cold air. There were all sorts of colors in that field and even a few Nick had never seen before. But the oddest thing was a large tree, bigger than the primeval giants they'd passed on the way there. The bark of the thing was scarred and beaten, but it was healthy and still standing tall. The Phooka felt the bark of the oak, and its' ears twitched, its' eyes rolled as if in ecstasy.
"aye, auld quine. Ah ken." What does ken even mean? Nick wondered. And why was he talking to a tree of all things?
"So what is it you want to tell me, Mr.."
"I'm a phooka, laddie. dae they nae teach these things anymair?"
"Uh, no. Sorry."
" Och, well I didnae Brin' ye haur tae gab abit humans. " The Phooka's accent was thick, but if he listened closely, he could make out bits and pieces and then guess at the rest.
"What did ye-uh, you, bring me here for then?"
The phooka shook his head as If Nick was asking an obvious question and then sat down there among the strange flowers. Nick sat down as well, who would have ever guessed that he'd be sitting in a field of possibly undiscovered flowers with a goat man? He sure didn't. To top off the surreal scene, the Phooka pulled a long pipe from somewhere on its' person and took a long drag on whatever laid inside. As the phooka sat there and the silenced stretched on for what seemed an eternity, Nick began to nervously pick at the bloody hole in the knee of his jeans. The Phooka watched him pick small twigs and bits of dirt out of the wound with something similar to distaste. Blowing the last in a series of smoke rings, he tucked the pipe away and began.
"Laddie, dae ye ken anythin' abit 'at toon?" Nick mulled over the almost unintelligible words for a moment. Toon? Oh, town!
"Beyond that there's more going on here than there should be? No," Nick thought about his sister's journal and the peculiar ring he had found. He had to know. Adelle could be messing with things far beyond her control and end up in serious trouble. "No I don't."
"Aye, ye're right Yer sister's got mixed up in some big things. Big enow tae change everythin." Had the thing read his mind? He would definitely have to watch his thoughts from now on.
"What do you mean, change everything?"
"Th' ether, laddie. She's got true power 'at a body; jist 'er bein' haur has turned th' tides. Th' power comin back"
Nick was miffed. What power could his sister possibly have? She'd wet the bed until she was 8, climbed trees better than any boy, and gotten in fights all the way through middle school. She was his stubborn older sister, not some mage or...
"Th' term's caster, laddie. Micht queer th' ye aren't either. Och, bide a second" The thing was suddenly too close as it stared him in the eye. Terrified but unable to look away, Nick silently struggled as he felt something like little hands dig deep down inside him. Just as suddenly as it began, the invasion receded and the powerful thing sat back and sucked on the end of his pipe. Nick shuddered. The Phooka now knew him a bit too well and he felt violated. The feeling of those little fingers digging through his innermost self would haunt him for a while yet. "Ah, Ah see it noo. Ye nae a Caster at all, ye're a Discerner."
"A what?" Nick was about to reach his limit. Unlike his sister, he could only take so much change in one day before his brain shut down entirely.
" A Discerner. Ye see, laddie, an' ye ken."
"Look, I understand that you're some high and powerful being and can get away with a lot, but my name is not ‘laddie' I don't ever want to hear that again, actually. It's Nickolas Hunt, alright?"
It was ironic that out all the things Nick had been told that day that being called Laddie bothered him most. If the boy had any sense, or read his fairy tales better as a child, he would have known that the giving of your name to such a creature was a very precious thing. To him, it may have seemed like he was setting the record straight, but to a Phooka, a person's name was a gift, and one that had to be returned two fold.
"Weel, Nickolas Hunt, I will grant ye a boon." And those were the last words he heard the creature say; the Phooka rose high above him as he felt himself sink lower and lower; had his vision suddenly skewed or was he actually falling? A fire burned through his veins and he screamed with the pain of it. He screamed and screamed until his throat was hoarse but the Phooka looked on with alien eyes. What kind of boon was this? Nick thought as his mind finally teetered off the brink and fell into unconsciousness. The Other grabbed the boy's limp form and threw it carelessly over his shoulder. He left the meadow, and as he walked, he sang to himself. He hummed songs long lost to the minds of man, and songs in languages long fallen from the human tongue. The Phooka had done his part and now it was up to this odd pair Halflings to stop what was coming on the rising tide of ether.
Rough days were ahead.