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The Other Vessel

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            Before things ended, Claire Novak was many things, and there was a certain reliability for what she was. She was things, and she wasn’t things. There had never been any gray areas. Claire was quiet. Claire was thoughtful. She was nice, friendly, a good listener, wise beyond her years, charismatic, empathetic (almost unnervingly so), smart, gentle.

She was extraordinarily beautiful, though her features were simple and not exotic or entrancing. It was the kind of radiant attractiveness that comes from being comfortable in one’s own skin, taking care of herself but not trying to impress anyone. Her blonde hair was straight and silky, kept long with her bangs often pinned or braided back. Her skin was free of blemishes and she wore no makeup, save for a bit of mascara, maybe some powdered foundation if it was hot out and her face was shiny. She had a sort of perpetual rosiness to her cheeks, and her eyes were a clear, untainted crystalline blue. As a child she was adorable, as an adolescent she was pretty, as a teen she was gorgeous, as a young adult she was nothing short of beautiful. 

She was courageous and mostly fearless- in her biology class in school, she was unmoved by dissections, the blood and viscera not alarming her. She could catch a spider and release it outside while everyone else scrambled to get away from it. When she and a friend were in a car accident, she calmly checked on her friend, didn’t move her, checked on the other driver, and called 911. But all of her bravery was a kind of soft-spoken one. It wasn’t loud or brash, it would surface as needed.

She was dedicated. She devoted a very responsible amount of time to her schoolwork, always did homework first, fun later. She was smart enough that she didn’t really need to study, but did nonetheless. She wasn’t very athletic- competitive sports weren’t her forte, with her gentle, giving, doe-like mannerism. However, she did participate in cross country in the fall, and enjoyed running to keep her body healthy- after all, her body was a temple and it was her responsibility to take care of it.

Most of all, Claire was godly. She seemed to almost emit grace and love. She was never anyone’s best friend- she was too sweet and grounded to be one to gossip to, but she was everyone’s friend. There were a few who tried to resent her perfection, but she was unerringly kind, and they found it impossible to truly dislike her. She was trustworthy and careful- she would give people compliments and advice and criticism, but it was always so earnestly helpfully presented that people took them to heart and couldn’t be offended.

And then things ended.

Claire woke up shaking and choking around a lump in her throat, as she always did nowadays. She never cried- just trembled uncontrollably and paced a short beat across the floor, sweating and only half conscious. Sometimes she almost wished she did cry- the lump in her throat was annoying and painful, but she never could do anything about it.

Waking up was the worst part of her day. Ever since things ended, she’d been wrought with ghastly nightterrors. Not nightmares- she’d had those occasionally before things ended, she knew how to calm down after those. Night terrors were a different animal completely- she’d done her research. She could never remember the dream, and sometimes didn’t even remember waking up- just would eventually come to herself, finding that she was standing in the middle of the room or cave or clearing or wherever she was sleeping at the time, shaking and bathed in a cold sweat, mumbling and fearful of things that didn’t make sense. Sometimes she came to before they really ended and would pace, her depth perception a mess and the world shaking beneath her feet and hallucinatory numbers and stars and colors shivering violently around her, and everything was fearscape until it finally faded.

Her pacing slowed, and the trembling fear-adrenaline energy began to receed, until she could drop down to sit on the floor, rubbing her face. Breathe in. Breathe out. Six times, deep breath in, deep breath out. One more big breath, hold it- and let it go, along with everything else. Let it go.

She only ever allowed six breaths and one more of panic and self-pity and hatred, because if she didn’t put a firm lid on it, she would die.

Not be sad. Not struggle with life, or be unhappy. She would die.

Because black-and-white Claire was gone. No more friends and peaceful jogging and studying the anatomy of a frog or the practical applications of trigonometry. Now everything was painted in hues of gray.

Six breaths. One big breath. Time to start her day.

She’d camped out in an old to-be-demolished-if-anyone-gets-around-to-it house. It wasn’t one of those old ones that are condemned and beautiful and antique and covered in graceful cobwebs and old gold and crystal. It was a shithole. Not literally, of course- she’d found houses before that smelled like death and mouse poop and other worrying decay scents, and knew enough to pass those ones up. Her standards weren’t high, but sterility was one of the few things she wanted. Not just wanted, but needed. She knew that staying in a house full of mouse poop could make her sick (and if she couldn’t take care of herself, she was dead,) and a house that smelled like death could make her sick, and if there was any other animal poop then whatever already lived there would probably try to protect its territory. Not that she was scared of animals, after the things she’d seen- the real scary things- but the less to worry about, the better.

So the house was flaky and full of spiders and beetles and smashed windows and gross spiderwebs and debris. The floor was broken in many places- the most intact place was just big enough for her sleeping bag. Good thing she was small.

No shower, no running water. Well, there was, but whether the rusty brown sludge that had crawled from the pipes could be called ‘water’ was still undecided. She made due with a jug of water, pouring some in her hands and rubbing her face. She’d showered last night when she’d gotten into town, faking her way into the busy gym (“I just left my car keys in there, can I go grab them? Hold on, I know my ID is here somewhere… Oh, alright, thanks, I’ll be just a minute.”) to use the showers in the locker room. She wasn’t too concerned- she wasn’t dressing up in a monkey suit and holding any interviews, so she didn’t have to look professional or anything. It was a library day, and maybe a little B&E.

The case was a weird one, but the tracks seemed pretty obvious. She wasn’t sure what she was up against, but it hadn’t been subtle- finding it would be easy, but figuring out how to kill it or how powerful it would be was going to be the tricky part. Hence, library day.

She dressed warmly, (southern Maine was much colder than Illinois) braided her hair back impatiently and packed up, going to her jeep parked in an alley beside the house. Once, going to the library would’ve been something to enjoy. Now the silence and soft sounds and smell of old things made her jittery.

Hours of research. Hooking her laptop up to the wifi, she went over and over what she knew, typing the information in different order, wording it differently, excluding and including details. No luck, so she hit the stacks- old mythology books, native American texts, historical references… not a lot of luck there, either.

She knew whatever it was had a fondness for women. There had been women going missing every Friday night for a whole month, one every Friday night, and after scanning old newspapers at the station yesterday (for more hours and hours) she’d found it happened about every year around springtime. The profile wasn’t uncommon- young, beautiful women, blue eyes, blonde hair. The pattern was peculiar, but that wasn’t what told Claire it was supernatural. It was the frogs. And the witness, of course.

There was a reptile and amphibian zoo in town. Weird. And every year, just before the disappearances, a bunch of toads disappeared. Were they stolen? Did the monster take them, then want women? Were the frogs somehow actually the same thing as the monster? Or were they fleeing before the monster, like spiders before a basilisk?

And the witness- a terrified woman who stumbled screaming into the hospital, saying she’d fallen in love and he’d raped her, alternating between swearing her love to him and saying he was an evil man. She said he was Satan- no, literally, he was Satan. She said he had horns and a beard and hooves. Before police could find out where she was held, her heart had massive tachycardia and then stopped, and then she’d stopped.

So something with horns and hooves, something to do with frogs, liked women, and made them psychotic.

On a whim, Claire grabbed a German text (before things ended, she’d been in a highly accelerated program in school, and was fairly fluent in Latin, Hebrew, German, and French) to add to her pile. The woman had been a migrant from Germany. Maybe that had something to do with it.

Jackpot. Whim pays. She caught the word unke and turned back to it, and read about something called a Ziegevolk, a German seductive goat-man. Also known as Bluebeards, they secreted pheromones that made women crazy for them. And they ate toads to make it more potent. Perhaps the woman’s German upraising had given her some clues, enough to be able to get away. There was nothing in particular about how to kill them, so she would start with silver bullets, but bring her machete just in case.

She found the den without difficulty, after discovering the sewer route it had taken to steal the toads- it was in a boarded up house, everything completely sealed except a hole in the living room that she crawled up through, that connected to the sewers.

There were sounds upstairs. She pulled her gun from the waist of her pants and clicked the safety off, bending her knees slightly, getting ready. She went carefully up the stairs, staying against the wall to keep her steps from creaking, watching, ready, careful.

Noise behind her. She spun.

The Bluebeard (he did really look goat-like) was at the bottom of the stairs and it snarled up at her, before taking two quick steps and jumping down the hole. Claire swore, and took the steps in two bounds, hurtling down the hole after it, almost breaking her ankle.

Bluebeard was fast. She wasn’t much of a sprinter (though she could out-distance anything, given enough time) and the tunnel wasn’t that long before they’d come to a manhole. When he climbed the ladder, that would be her opportunity.

It was all too quick- he was already up the ladder and pushing the manhole away, moving up- he must’ve jumped all the way up the ladder, no way could he climb that fast- and he was going to get away, she launched herself at the ladder, trying to catch him, fumbling with holding the gun and the rungs-

And suddenly, he wasn’t getting away from her, he was coming at her. She had no time to even react before he crashed into her, knocking her down, sending her gun skittering across the damp, smelly floor.

They wrestled for a moment, and she tried to draw her machete, but he kicked her in the side and sent that away too. But now she was on her feet, between him and the exit.

He severely underestimated her, which he couldn’t really be blamed for. She was a tired-looking blonde woman, barely 21, short and dirty and human. And he was fast and strong and confident. He rushed her, snarling again.