He told them. He warned the whole village: don’t go around building fires, you’ll set the entire forest ablaze. And yet here he is, moving towards the source of whatever smoke is permeating the forest. It’s stupidly warm and has been for weeks, temperatures hitting mid-thirties in the village and the forest only barely offering any relief. The entire place has been reduced to kindle wood. Cooper misses the summers of his youth, when any warm day would be reliably followed by a week of rain.
And some idiot thought it was a good idea to build a campfire. If he gets his hands on whoever did this… He passed Sacha and her gaggle of friends on his way out of the village, so at least they’re not responsible. His usual suspects are missing again, but he can’t imagine that even Wilko would be stupid enough to go around burning things in this weather.
The smoke thins abruptly. Cooper has a moment of disorientation: Why is he in the forest again? Then the acrid smell of smoke hits his nose and he moves forward with renewed purpose. He can’t have this kind of nonsense under his jurisdiction. There are voices floating his way now. Cooper smiles grimly and comes to a stop behind a willow that gives him a good view on the path while keeping him out of sight. Time to find out who he’s been dealing with.
Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me, he thinks when familiar voices float over. He clearly gave Wilko far too much credit.
“Pity we had to send it back,” Keelin is saying. “It wasn’t doing any harm.”
“It almost burned the entire place down!” Wilko replies.
“But it didn’t mean to, it’s just a bird.”
“It’s not like we killed it,” Vlad says, placating. “It’ll be fine.”
They round the bend of the road. Cooper moves forward, face already set to a scowl, when he catches sight of the trio and halts in his tracks.
They don’t look like themselves, is the thing. Or rather, they do. It’s definitely Vlad, Wilko and Keelin coming his way, only they look like they decided to celebrate carnival in the middle of summer. What the hell? Vlad looks like he hasn’t seen the sun in a year, which Cooper knows isn’t true. Wilko desperately needs to shave. Keelin looks the most normal out of all of them, but something about her eyes and her ears… Is this a bad joke? Why did they decide to dress up here, in the middle of the forest?
“Well, it’s gone now,” Wilko says and between one moment and the next, they’re back to normal. Cooper blinks rapidly. What in the Good Lord’s name is going on here?
The three of them walk past his hiding spot. Wilko pauses, eyes narrowing. He sniffs — and starts coughing.
“You okay?” Vlad asks, patting him on the back.
“Damn smoke. What’s even the point of an Ad Inferos if it can’t deal with smoke?”
“It undoes all damage the monster caused and removes all memory of it,” Keelin says. She sounds like she’s reciting something. Cooper’s mind is too busy getting stuck on ‘monster’ to care about what. There are monsters? Are they monsters? Is that what the whole transformation was about?
Keelin, Vlad and Wilko move on and disappear from sight. Cooper stands frozen. Judging from their conversation, at least they aren’t the arsonists he’s been looking for.
No, what they are is a lot more dangerous than that.
Cooper’s first instinct is to round up the lot of them and throw them in jail, far away from any people they could harm. He doesn’t. He has no idea who or what they are and what they’re capable of. Instead he brews himself a coffee and sits himself down at his desk.
Wilko arrived in Schemermeer mid-autumn almost five years ago, a shifty teenager still growing into his skin. Cooper disliked him on sight; the boy always walked around like he had something to hide. He claimed to be friends with Vlad and Keelin, but in those early days they never seemed all that close. At the time, Vlad and Keelin had already been living in Schemermeer for… Yeah, how long have they been living in Schemermeer exactly?
Cooper was born and raised in Schemermeer. One of the old biddies in the village can probably lecture him on his family history seven generations back. Were Vlad and Keelin born here? Did they move here? His memories are frustratingly vague on the subject.
He drains his coffee and makes a trip to the library, coming away with the census records of the last century. He checks the nineties — checks the eighties too when the former amounts to nothing. No kids named Keelin or Vladimir were born in that time. No families with young kids moved in. In his frustration, he goes further and further back. 1941 sees a man of twenty-one named Vladimir Romanescu arrive in the village. That’s the only Vladimir or Vlad in the entire book, and unless Vlad stopped aging 80 years ago—
Cooper rubs his temples, sudden headache overpowering his thought process. Someone must have gotten shoddy in their record-keeping. Just goes to show, if you want something done right, you’ve gotta do it yourself. He takes out his notebook, opens it to a random page in the middle and jots down what he remembers from the conversation he overheard. Underneath he puts ‘Wilko — 10/2014’ and after a moment’s hesitation, ‘Vladimir Romanescu — 1941?’ Then he returns the book and heads to the inn. He needs more coffee. Or a drink. Definitely a drink.
Maybe the inn wasn’t the best idea. For once in their lives, his three suspects are exactly where they’re supposed to be and actually doing their jobs, which means Cooper is forced to watch Vlad banter with Helena and wonder just how much of a threat they are. He sits down at the counter and orders a whiskey. Keelin puts it in front of him, eyebrows quirked.
He levels her with a glare. Keelin huffs and walks off. Cooper resists the urge to down his whiskey in one go. Helena’s already been shooting him concerned looks. He doesn’t want her involved in all of this.
The inn is packed, especially for a weeknight. Perhaps that’s why they think they can talk without being overheard. Cooper is halfway through his whiskey and staring off in the distance when Wilko and Vlad join Keelin behind the counter and he catches snippets of their conversation.
“—ll moon next week. You guys coming?”
Keelin nods. “Good timing. I’m running low on mugwort.”
Cooper leans closer under the guise of taking out his wallet as Vlad says: “Still think you can catch up with me, Fifi?”
“Sure, vampire speed.” Wilko rolls his eyes. “You coming or —”
Keelin shushes him when she spots Cooper watching. Cooper straightens up nonchalantly and eyes their guilty faces.
“Game you’re playing?”
They look pathetically grateful for the excuse. Keelin nods vigorously.
“Yes! It’s a… board game. Vlad’s playing a vampire.”
“And Wilko a werewolf,” Vlad adds. Cooper loves it when people make his job easy. He nods at Keelin.
“So what’re you?”
“An elf. Yeah, I do… magic and such. Herbs.”
How such awful liars ever managed to hide such a massive secret is beyond him. He drains his whiskey and puts the glass down with a decisive thunk. “Be careful, that stuff’ll rot your brains,” he tells them, conveniently failing to mention the weekly D&D sessions he’s been holding with Brik and Theo for the last three years. What they don’t know won’t hurt them. What he doesn’t know could be very dangerous indeed.
A werewolf and a vampire in Schemermeer. An actual werewolf and an actual vampire in a village full of innocent people. Have they been preying on the villagers? Vlad claims to be vegetarian, but how can that be true when vampires need blood to survive? Has Keelin been covering up for them with whatever magic she has?
They’re dangerous. He should get his shotgun and put them down this instant. But…
Keelin has turned away and is laughing about one of the boys in town with Sacha. Wilko has moved on to help Helena clear off the tables. Vlad is doing dishes. They’re still the same people they always were: unreliable and flighty but ultimately good-hearted. He can’t do it. He needs to know more.
If they’re suspicious about him following them around, they don’t show it. Wilko has rolled his eyes at him a couple of times but hasn’t made any snarky remarks yet. Even with a full moon coming up he’s not behaving any different from usual.
Cooper could almost believe he’s made the whole thing up, but on the night of the full moon he sees them sneaking out of the village. He doesn’t follow; he’s not that stupid. But he stays up all night, looking out over the village square with his shotgun in hand until the moon sets and the three of them return, looking exhausted but satisfied and thankfully bloodless. Cooper lets out a breath of relief he didn’t know he was holding. He won’t need to do any shooting.
But why are they in Schemermeer? What can this village possibly offer to an elf and a vampire and a werewolf?
He gets his answer when people start fainting in the streets two weeks later. He’s about to head to the hospital to interview the victims when he’s accosted by Keelin.
“Cooper! There are more victims at the inn, Helena just said! Maybe they know more!”
It’s a pretty blatant ploy to get him out of the way. If Helena needed him, she would have called him. He almost says so but changes his mind.
“This had better be useful.”
Keelin looks surprised her ploy actually worked. Seriously, how did they manage to hide this long? He makes to walk back in the direction of the inn and watches from a distance how Keelin reunites with Vlad and Wilko and the three set off towards the south gate.
It’s not actually all that hard to follow them. They walk with single-minded purpose, Keelin in front, and the village is so full of shouting that Cooper has to make no effort to move quietly. They enter the village’s main barn. Cooper follows a minute later, climbing the outside stairs up to the first floor so he can see what’s going on without being noticed.
He looks down. His mind fails to compute.
Vlad, Wilko and Keelin are back in their monster forms. That’s normal. What isn’t normal is the many-legged monstrosity they’re fighting. It’s massive and scaly and probably going to show up in his nightmares very soon. He’s desperate to shoot it but he can’t give himself away. He has to trust that they have this under control.
Wilko throws the monster against a support beam hard enough that the entire building shakes with it. The monster rears up, hissing. Keelin does something with her hair and the monster is flung backwards again. It limps upright.
“The Night Watch,” the creature says, its voice sibilant and echoing through the barn. “You will make an excellent source of energy.”
Strong words for something with at least six broken legs. Does it steal energy? Is that why everyone’s fainted? And what the hell is a night watch?
“You’re not harming anyone else ever again,” Wilko says and Vlad adds: “You’re going back to the Underworld.”
The monster moves far faster than he imagined possible. Cooper brings up his shotgun in reflex but Keelin shouts: “Ad Inferos!”
A flash of light, an ungodly screech and then… nothing. The panicked screams outside disappear. Cooper wonders very briefly why he’s here. Then he sees the three of them in their monster forms and remembers: They defeated the monster. They saved Schemermeer.
He waits until they’ve left before going down to inspect the site, but all that remains of the monster is a scorch mark on the floor. The monster has disappeared. He doesn’t think it’ll be back.
There are three monsters in Schemermeer. They’re still part of the people he’s sworn to protect, just a little more competent than your average twenty-something (and in Vlad’s case, probably a little older too). So the next time he spots them sneaking away, he lets them go. He looks the other way when they disappear from the group he told to evacuate. When they ask him to leave, he does.
… Sometimes, at least. He can’t have them getting too cocky.