The bright sunlight shining on her face woke her up. Still, Helen refused to open her eyes. She rolled over and pulled a pillow over her head, hoping to drift off into a deep sleep again. There was a thought deep in the back of her mind that was struggling to be remembered and she tried her best to ignore it. But this thought would not be forgotten and slowly fought its way to her consciousness.
With a gasp, she remembered the events of the night before and sat bolt upright, throwing her pillow across the room. It was her room, same as always. The light was pouring in from the window and the shelves were still stocked with books, even her calculus textbook was lying at the foot of her bed. Everything seemed so normal that, for a brief second, it occurred to Helen that the whole thing had just been a dream. And then she jumped out of bed. She was wearing the same tank top and shorts she had worn last night but they were stained with mud on one side, the side she had fallen on in the alley. Her auburn hair was still tied back and when she pulled the hair tie out she felt a painful lump on the back of her head.
But . . . there was no way, it had to have been a dream. So many impossible things had happened. A door had appeared out of nowhere, there had been vampires and some monster had crashed into the side of her house. How could any of that be real? And yet . . .
Suddenly, she heard a sizzling noise from the direction of the kitchen. In another household, this may not have been unusual but Helen normally had the house to herself on Saturday mornings because her parents were grocery shopping. Either something caused them to change their plans or someone else was in the house and neither option would lead to a happy conclusion. Silently, Helen opened her door and crept down the hall on tiptoe. As she approached the kitchen, the sizzling grew louder and more constant and was accompanied by the low murmur of the local news anchor on the television. At the very threshold, she paused and carefully peered around the corner. The room was empty.
Helen stepped into the kitchen, looking more closely but there was no one to be seen. The small television that sat on the counter was on, dutifully reporting to the empty space although the volume was turned down to the point where it could barely be heard. A frying pan was on the stove, sizzling softly and beside it was a plate of pancakes, still steaming hot. She picked up the plate and looked at the pancakes carefully. They seemed perfectly fine. Did her parents leave this for her? She had just turned to go to the table when she noticed something that had been under the plate. It was a small yellow post-it note with unfamiliar crooked handwriting that said:
Enjoy your breakfast - Eliot
"I know you're still here," she called to the seemingly empty house, "No one can leave that fast."
Helen heard a muffled chuckle that definitely didn't come from the television. She spun around and found herself facing the very source of all her problems. Eliot was lounging in the doorway to the hall, causally leaning against the doorframe. He wore a pair of jeans, a black t-shirt and a very bemused grin as he watched the expression on her face change from shock to confusion to anger. On his right arm there was a tattoo of a black dragon that coiled down from his elbow to his wrist. A sleek black head that looked so real its red eyes might begin to roll around in the socket, breathed a steady jet of flames onto the back of his hand. She wondered how she hadn't noticed it last night but, with all that had happened, she guessed she really shouldn't be that surprised. Distracted by this train of thought, she was startled when he spoke.
"What?" he asked causally, as though he appeared in people's houses all the time, "Don't like pancakes? I can make you something else."
"No! What has that got to do with anything? How did you even get in here? Did you break into my house? How did I get back into my house? And where's my car? What happened to-"
"Whoa. Take a deep breath. I did not break into your house. You sister let me in. Now, the real reason I came here was to-"
"Wait. My sister let you in?"
"I don't have a sister."
Before either of them could react, a bloodcurdling screech filled the house. Helen turned around to face the part of the kitchen that opened up into the living room, and saw the most hideous creature on the face of the planet. From the waist down it had no fewer than eight slimy, black tentacles that left a trail of goo in their wake. It had the torso of a human but its arms were like that of a praying mantis; large, doubled up, black, warty pinchers. The head was also humanoid with stringy black hair hanging from the top, saucer-like pure white eyes and a mouth full of fangs.
With another shriek, it lunged into the room, pinchers snapping eagerly. At the same time, Eliot also jumped into the kitchen, armed with a knife that he seemed to have gotten from nowhere. He swung at the monster but it was apparently more intelligent than it looked because it leapt back and wrenched the knife out of Eliot's hand with its pincher. In the next motion, it shoved Eliot to the ground and crouched low, ready to pounce. The room echoed with the sound of breaking glass as Helen brought down the pancake plate on the monster's head. It wavered for a moment and then collapsed at her feet and began to curl up into a ball, getting smaller and smaller until all that was left was a puddle of grayish goo from it's tentacles.
"Nice!" Eliot shouted jovially as he got to his feet.
"This isn't a vampire," Helen stated numbly, too surprised to make much sense.
"No. This is a shape shifter. Sure fooled me, they don't usually shape shift into human forms that well. That was a good shot, by the way."
"Why is it in my house?" Now that the initial shock of being attacked by two mythical creatures in a very short amount of time had worn off, she was more angry than she was scared, "This can't be a regular thing. I have a life and that thing could have really hurt someone."
"Um . . . yeah. Here's the thing. You might want to sit." He indicated to the table and they both sat, carefully stepping over the puddle as they went, "You don't have a whole lot of options right now. What happened last night-"
"What, exactly, did happen last night?"
"As far as I can tell, a pair of hungry vampires were looking to bag a quick and easy meal by pretending to work in a hospital."
"Meaning that we were almost the meal. And the rubbing alcohol was to confuse the scent?"
"You're a smart one. They were very . . . upset that we escaped, so they chased us. Then another group showed up and they had to fight because vampires are very territorial."
"That doesn't explain what crashed into the side of the house last night."
"What?" He seemed genuinely surprised and Helen decided he was probably telling the truth, despite how absurd the truth was. This was, by far, the oddest conversation she had ever had.
"Yes, why else would I be outside at three in the morning. It was big and orange and it had black eyes. That's all I know, I couldn't see it in the dark."
"Must have been my griffin. I was trying to train it but it got the better of me, obviously," he said, gesturing to his shoulder, which seemed to have healed magically over night.
"You injured yourself trying to tame half bird, half lion creature?"
"Yes. But the real problem is what happened later. You smashed the potion on the vampire's face when he had you pinned up against the wall. Now, I managed to kill the nurse but the doctor was long gone before I could get him."
"What does that mean?" Helen asked with a feeling of dread.
"Vampires are very proud and very vengeful. He'll be back for you, once he recovers and makes a plan."
The knot in her stomach did a somersault as Eliot confirmed the worst of her fears. She took a shaky breath and tried to stay calm, panic would solve nothing, "That doesn't sound promising. What are my options?"
He grimaced at this but finally said, "You don't have very many. Your only options are to join me or to wait for him to come back. I can't see any other solution to this problem."
"Who or what are you exactly? You've never really identified yourself."
"I thought you already knew, having gone through my wallet," he replied with a smirk, "I'm Eliot Sykes, a humble magician from the Order of the Black Dragon. My job is to prevent the world from finding out about magical creatures, potions, objects, et cetera. What I'm asking of you is, do you want to be my apprentice?"
"And I'll do stuff like that," she indicated to the slime pool that was former a shape shifter, "all the time."
"In a word, yes."
"Could be dangerous. But my only other option is to wait for that vampire to come back and kill me, right? Then it sounds like I might live longer as an apprentice."
"I have to warn you, though. Once you commit to this, there's no backing out. You're in it for life. Being my apprentice will be your job from now until you die, which could be relatively early in our line of work."
"But if I don't become your apprentice, I'll die in the near future anyway. And there isn't another option?"
"Believe me, I thought about this all night. I live nearby and, for a while I thought I could just leave you alone and catch the vamp when he came back but he's the least of your worries. Now that you know about this world, you can see the creatures in it and they can see you. They'll come after you now, just like the shape shifter. I can't protect you all the time but I can train you to protect yourself. That seems to be your best course of action."
"Great. So where do we start?" she asked with a smile.