Keelin is shopping for groceries when Diego screams.
She whirls around, magic at the ready, but there are no monsters in the square. Just the regular market-goers, people she’s known for years. A murmur of confusion goes through the crowd and rises in volume when Keelin elbows her way over to Diego. He’s at the fishmonger’s with Robin, trembling from head to toe, his dark skin taking on a decidedly pallid tint.
“What happened?” she asks over the noise of the crowd. Diego focuses on her like she’s a lifeline.
“There’s a monster,” he whispers. He’s not screaming anymore but his pupils are blown wide. Keelin looks at Robin, who shrugs.
“Didn’t see anything. Mate, c’mon, are you sure you didn’t just stay up too late last night?”
“I know what I saw! It was just here!” Diego’s eyes dart across the square, flitting from person to person. The fishmonger hurries out from behind his stand and shoos away the onlookers crowding them in. Keelin nods her thanks.
“What did it look like?” she asks in as loud a voice as she dares. Diego seeing a monster that she can’t see? Implausible though it is, she’s learned not to discount any possibility. It could be something invading his mind, just waiting for a chance to attack the rest of the village.
“It was massive. It had claws and wings and— those eyes!” He grabs Robin’s arm. “It saw me. It knows I saw it! Please—“
“Dude, calm down! There’s nothing here!” Robin says. Keelin will be withholding judgment on that. She helps Robin maneuver Diego to a bench off to the side of the square and sits down with them. Now that Diego isn’t screaming anymore, people are moving on, the normal sounds of the market picking up again. Keelin tries to detect anything out of the ordinary in the noise, but she doesn’t have Wilko’s hearing. She closes her eyes and raises a hand.
Keelin opens her eyes, feeling inexplicably thwarted. A Japanese man, one of the village’s new visitors, has joined them and is looking at Diego with open concern. Diego shrinks back.
“It was with him!” he hisses. The man hears; he grimaces. It’s that lack of surprise that convinces Keelin that Diego was right. This man knows exactly what Diego’s talking about.
“Can I help?” the man continues. His Dutch is newscaster-perfect, the kind that gives him away as a non-native speaker. He doesn’t cut a particularly threatening figure, but they’ve met far worse in far more innocent packaging.
“We’ll be fine,” she says. The man looks her over, brown eyes bordering on gold in the afternoon sun. Keelin resists the urge to squirm. There’s something dark about him. She learned how to distinguish white magic from black magic as a toddler, and while nothing about the man feels evil as such, he does emanate an aura of deep, all-encompassing darkness that belies his harmless appearance. More than ever she’s convinced that Diego was right. He did see something. The fact that she can’t see it is added cause for concern.
“If you’re sure.” The man’s smile is a little too knowing, but he leaves without pressing the issue. Keelin watches him until he’s disappeared into the crowd. Diego has calmed down fractionally. At least he’s no longer shivering.
“Why don’t you go home?” she suggests gently. “I’m sure the monster’s gone now.”
Or will be soon, if she’s got any say in it. Which she does.
“Yeah, I’m fine now,” Diego says. Robin helps him up and hoists an arm around his shoulder. “I dunno, Robin’s probably right, just imagined it. Thanks, Keelin.”
“You’re welcome.” She forces a smile when they leave. Then she closes her eyes and thinks very hard: Guys? Night Watch problem.
They can’t always communicate telepathically, but they’ve gotten a lot better at it in the past year. When Keelin initiates the conversation, she’s successful at reaching Vlad and Wilko most of the time. Vlad is improving with leaps and bounds. Wilko has always had the most trouble and it clearly galls him, but he’s getting markedly better. This time he’s the first to respond.
What is it?
Not sure. Secret room in five.
She feels some of their concern lift; if she can ask them to meet her in their secret room, she’s clearly not in any imminent danger.
All right, Vlad tells them and Keelin drops the connection. She meets them, groceries and all, in their secret room exactly six minutes later. Wilko is pacing. Vlad is stood next to Vega and stops talking when she comes in.
“What happened?” he asks. She tells them in as much detail as she can.
“And Diego didn’t just imagine it?”
“That’s what I thought at first, but the way that guy reacted… He knew what Diego was talking about.”
“And you didn’t see any monster.” Vega rises from his writing desk, located in the image of an old monastery today. “That doesn’t give us much to work with. Maybe there’s a real monster, maybe Diego got trapped in a spell…” He snaps his fingers. “That man. You said he felt dark. Is he a dark sorcerer? An evil warlock? They might feed on fear.”
“Dunno…” Keelin can sense black magic from miles away. “I’m not sure he’s magic. Just dark. And strong.”
“That could be anything.”
Yeah, she knows that. Keelin runs an absent hand over the bookshelf closest to her. Usually they have much more to work with.
“Let’s find this guy,” says Wilko. “Get some answers out of him.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Vlad asks. Keelin nods. Charging in blindly has never done them any good.
Wilko hunches his shoulders defensively. “We’re not gonna find out anything more by sitting here, are we?”
“I hate to admit it, but Wilko’s right,” says Vega. Wilko rolls his eyes. “You need to find out more. Be careful. Stay in touch.”
Their plan to split up and search the village lasts exactly as long as it takes them to go down the stairs and cross the kitchen. Because the man is there, lounging on the counter and talking to Sacha while she writes in their guest book. She finishes penning in the last of his information with a flourish and straightens up when Keelin, Vlad and Wilko enter.
“Hey guys, this is Mr. Yuki,” she introduces. “He’ll be staying here till Sunday. He’s traveling the world, how cool is that?”
He certainly looks like a traveler. He’s wearing simple jeans and a black T-shirt along with a jacket that is well taken care of but has clearly seen better days. His gaze travels over them and lingers on Vlad for longer than Keelin is comfortable with. That’s him, she broadcasts. Vlad and Wilko pull back their shoulders in perfect unison. Mr. Yuki is unbothered by the sudden hostility aimed his way. He gives Keelin a smile that borders on too bright.
“Judai Yuki, pleasure to meet you properly. How’s your friend doing?”
“He’s fine, thank you,” Keelin replies frostily. No way is he coming anywhere near Diego again. She focuses on figuring out what he is. What she gets, again, is darkness. Deep and wide as the universe, ancient and boundless. She could drown in this darkness, lulled to sleep by the gentle waves, swallowed up by the endless depths of it. It’s comforting. It’s the scariest thing she’s ever encountered.
Vlad’s hand lands heavily on her shoulder. Keelin sways. She almost got lost in it.
You okay? Vlad manages. Sacha is staring at her. Wilko glares daggers at Mr. Yuki.
“Is everything alright?” the latter asks.
“Yes,” she says. Next he’ll decide he needs to help her too. “I hope you’ll enjoy your stay here, Mr. Yuki.”
For however long it lasts.
“I’m sure I’ll find something to do here. This is a pretty interesting place.” Mr. Yuki swings his backpack onto his right shoulder. He’s already by the stairs when he turns around and looks straight at Wilko. “Full moon’s in two days, isn’t it? Gotta be careful on those nights.”
“How the hell does he know?” Wilko rages the instant the mirror slams closed behind them. “How can he know? What is he?”
“Calm down,” Vlad says, but he’s not looking particularly calm himself. Keelin feels unsettled, off-balance. Whenever someone recognizes them for what they are, it always spells a terrible fight.
“You’re back already?” Vega comes into view, attracted by the ruckus. “What’s wrong?”
“He knows I’m a werewolf.” Wilko swings himself over the back of the couch and comes face-to-face with Vega’s book. “I didn’t even say a single word to him.”
Vega’s frown threatens to overtake his entire face. “Did you find out more? What did he look like?”
“Japanese, late twenties?” Vlad shrugs. He and Keelin join Wilko in front of the book. “Brown hair, brown eyes, bit shorter than Wilko… Sacha says he’s traveling the world.”
“He feels old,” Keelin cuts through. “Incredibly dark and really really old.” She shudders even thinking about it. That darkness would have swallowed her up in an instant and she would have let it.
“A vampire? A sorcerer?” Vega paces the length of his book. “Vlad, did you get anything familiar from—“
“Not old like Vlad.” Keelin closes her eyes. More and more, the vague shapes are coalescing into a single picture. One that is massive, one she can barely comprehend the scope of. “Old like the universe. Ancient, like nothing I’ve ever felt.”
She waits for Vega to point them in the right direction. Any moment now, he’ll tell them about some old tome buried in the back of a closet that will prove key to unraveling this mystery. But the advice she expects never comes. Keelin opens her eyes. Vega has stopped pacing. He’s gripping the back of his chair, expression grave.
“Vega? What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Vega says, and isn’t that the scariest thing she’s heard all day? “Keelin, if you’re right… There are forces in this universe that are so far beyond any of us, I’ve only heard rumors. Beings that have been around since the very conception of the universe. Beings that will remain until the universe ceases to exist. Someone like me or Vlad… We are mere infants compared to them.” He shakes his head. “I don’t know what he is. There is too much in this universe that was never recorded.”
Keelin recognizes the set of Wilko’s jaw before he even opens his mouth. “So we just let him do whatever?”
Vega sighs. “If it’s any consolation, these beings are not usually malevolent. At least not on a level we should concern ourselves with.”
“What’s that even mean?”
“Their battles are fought over the course of millennia. We don’t even register on their radar.” Vega looks straight at them. “And we want to keep it that way. Don’t be rash, okay? If I’m right about this, you can’t win. You shouldn’t even try.”
That last bit is aimed at Wilko. Wilko draws up his shoulders but Vega casts him a pleading look. “If not for yourself…”
Wilko glances at her and Vlad and deflates. “Fine, as long as he doesn’t do anything.”
The uncertainty is the worst of it all. Mr. Yuki has disappeared when they go back downstairs. Helena and Sacha are in a good mood. No one is screaming and no monsters are appearing out of thin air. It’s all very peaceful in a way that Schemermeer rarely is. It puts every fiber of Keelin’s being on edge and makes Vlad and Wilko snipe at each other incessantly as they make their way out of the front door.
“Enough,” she snaps after the fifth dog-bat volley. Vlad and Wilko look at her sheepishly and mumble something that approximates ‘sorry’ to each other. It’s not in their nature to sit still when they know something’s afoot. By now Keelin usually has a book she can pour over to look for a solution. The weekly market’s over and done with and the village square is all but deserted. All that remains are a few stragglers still packing up. It leaves Keelin feeling bereft. Belatedly, she remembers the stuff she’d wanted to pick up for Wilko’s birthday and never got around to. It’s a silly concern in the face of something she has no idea how to deal with.
“Let’s go on patrol,” Vlad says. They don’t normally patrol in the middle of the day and only very rarely do it together, but Keelin points out none of those things. She gratefully follows Vlad. Wilko doesn’t.
“He’s still in the village,” he mutters.
He’s right; now that she knows what it feels like, Keelin can sense the darkness Mr. Yuki gives off. They’re on a precipice. Between Wilko’s senses and Keelin’s own magic, they could find him easily. But do they dare risk it? Wilko glances at them and shakes his head, following after Vlad and away from what is presumably Mr. Yuki’s location. Keelin hates not knowing what they’re up against. She hates that she didn’t even know such forces existed. She resolves to drag every little bit of information out of Vega as soon as she has the chance.
They don’t look for Mr. Yuki. They really don’t. But Schemermeer is a small village and soon they’re circling back to where they started. Keelin has been steadfastly ignoring the trickle of darkness making her hair stand on end all afternoon, but it’s slowly permeating the village and settling as a low-level headache right between her eyes. Why can’t he just leave?
When they pass the butcher’s the trickle of darkness explodes into a wave. Keelin makes an involuntary sound and turns towards the source, bringing her at the mouth of an alley leading to the main street. Mr. Yuki is there, sat against the front of Fran’s house. And next to him—
Wilko growls. Diego is sitting next to Mr. Yuki, no longer panicked but nodding along earnestly as Mr. Yuki shows him a card and makes a wide gesture with his other hand.
Keelin hisses out a breath through her teeth. What’s he doing? flashes through her head and crashes headlong into What should we do? and before she can make up her mind Wilko is already moving forward. Vlad tries to stop him and Mr. Yuki looks up —
“Hey!” he shouts, waving them over with a smile. Diego gets up, posture relaxed.
Wilko, stymied, mumbles something about taking a walk. They near cautiously.
“Everything okay?” Vlad asks Diego. He nods.
“Yeah, Judai was just showing me something.”
Judai? Keelin searches for any sign of insincerity, anything indicating that Diego’s being mind-controlled, but he looks completely fine. He looks down at Mr. Yuki, still sitting on the pavement with his legs stretched out.
“I’ve got to go, but thank you for explaining. It makes a lot more sense now.”
“No problem. You got any more questions, just call me. You’ll be okay.”
They share a smile that Keelin is intimately familiar with: she’s shared it with Vlad and Wilko a hundred times over. It’s a smile that speaks of secrets, the kind that outsiders aren’t supposed to know about. Keelin has never been the outsider before.
Diego leaves and Mr. Yuki remains seated, idly shuffling through a book of cards. He looks entirely unbothered by their heavy gazes.
“Mr. Yuki, could you tell us what that was about?” Vlad asks with forced calm. Mr. Yuki pockets his book of cards and gets up with an easy grace. He shouldn’t look intimidating. He looks exactly like the traveler he says he is. He’s also looking at Vlad with laser-sharp focus and Keelin is this close to grabbing both of her boys and sending him back to the Underworld.
“Oh, we just talked a bit about what happened this morning. It’s all cleared up now.” He nods at Keelin but his eyes never stray from Vlad. The feeling of darkness pounding at her head has not increased since they’ve arrived, but it’s not going away either.
“This morning Diego claimed he’d seen a monster. Do you mean that it was just a hallucination?”
“Come on, you know the monsters are very real. I just introduced him to them.”
He says it all with the air of someone discussing the weather. Keelin is struck speechless — to talk about monsters this openly? And then she catches the corners of his mouth quirking up. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s toying with them.
“What do you mean by that?” Wilko asks, fists clenched. Mr. Yuki smiles, once more unfazed in the face of their open hostility.
That feels like a trap. It feels so much like a trap that Keelin is already summoning her magic when Mr. Yuki’s eyes flash orange-green and a little… something appears.
Huh, it’s cute, is her first, inane thought. It’s a tiny brown creature no bigger than a football. It flaps white wings and bumps against Mr. Yuki’s head, wide eyes annoyed. Mr. Yuki laughs — a genuine laugh this time — and takes the little monster into his arms.
“This is Hane Kuriboh. He’s a monster spirit.”
Who is this man? The monster is tiny and looks harmless, but which other monsters can he call up out of thin air? Diego spoke of a massive creature.
“So those are my monsters. What about you?”
Transform, Vlad’s voice echoes in her head. She glances at him and he nods. The alley is still abandoned and Keelin is starting to wonder how much of a coincidence that is. She takes a shuddering breath and calls forth her transformation in time with Vlad and Wilko. Mr. Yuki witnesses it all with mild interest.
“Been a long time since I saw a vampire.” He nods at Vlad. “You ever thrall anyone?”
“For your sake, I hope you speak the truth.”
Wilko charges forward, teeth bared. Keelin makes a grab for him but misses. Vlad is faster: he blocks Wilko’s path before he can reach Mr. Yuki.
“Don’t!” he whispers harshly. Wilko shakes him off, every line of his body tense.
“He threatened you!”
Mr. Yuki's smile widens. “I take it you know who I am.”
Keelin steps forward, past the boys, hands raised in a placating gesture that just so happens to put her hair in reach. “We have some idea,” she says. “You have dark magic?”
“Not quite.” Mr. Yuki turns his back to them and steps away, down the middle of the cobblestone street. There he stops again, His demeanor has changed: no longer the affable man who met them in the inn but something different, something much grander. Keelin shivers and moves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Wilko and Vlad. The contact gives her some much-needed comfort. Vega’s warnings are ringing in her ears but it’s too late now. They have his attention.
“Tell you what. I’ll tell you who I am if you tell me why an elf and a werewolf and a vampire are hanging out together in a village right on top of a dimensional weak spot.”
“You mean the Gate?” Wilko blurts out. Mr. Yuki nods, smile never fading. Only now it doesn’t reach his eyes and the air around them is crackling with an ancient darkness, darkness that is encircling them and —
“Guys!” Keelin shouts, magic spilling out. Too late — the circle slams shut around them. Mr. Yuki’s eyes glow gold and the sky and the houses around them disappear from view, covered by inky blackness. All that’s left is the three of them and Mr. Yuki. They move as one, standing back to back. Keelin rakes a hand through her hair.
Striking a match would have had more of an effect. The spell hits the barrier and fizzles out with nary a spark. She tries again:
The spell heats up the dome and Mr. Yuki takes a step backwards when it reaches him. But it never impacts. He just sweeps a hand and the spell dissipates, taking the heat and light with it. Keelin tries to think. Her regular light spells don’t work. But he looks human. There has to be something that affects him.
Vlad and Wilko exchange a glance. Wilko charges straight at Mr. Yuki.
Vlad disappears from her side and Keelin realizes their plan as Wilko reaches Mr. Yuki. Mr. Yuki sends him flying with a single move of his hand, but isn’t prepared for Vlad appearing behind him. Vlad grabs him and Wilko scrambles back up.
The spell hits. With Vlad still holding him immobilized, Mr. Yuki has no way to dodge. The shadows brighten and thin, the outside world becoming visible once more through the dome locking them in and Keelin pours more power into the spell, praying with all her might that it will be enough, that Mr. Yuki isn’t as powerful as Vega’s made him out to be. If they can just keep him distracted long enough to send him to the Underworld —
Something else takes shape behind him and Vlad, wings spreading to blanket them. Keelin cries out in alarm. The monster grabs Vlad by his collar and tears him off Mr. Yuki, flinging him away like he weighs nothing. Wilko jumps to catch him but only succeeds in breaking his fall before they both go down. The monster spreads its right hand, fire appearing inside. Vlad and Wilko are still down, defenseless as the monster charges at them.
“Protege!” She shouts. The spell is just enough to shield Vlad and Wilko from the worst of it. She runs to their side, skidding to a halt and throwing up another shield when the monster swings its arm back. But Mr. Yuki, recovered from her previous spell, puts a hand on its arm and shakes his head. Around them, the streets of Schemermeer disappear from view again. The darkness is back.
Vlad and Wilko scramble upright. Keelin doesn’t dare drop her shield even though the monster is no longer attacking. It is nothing like the tiny fluffball still in Mr. Yuki’s arms. Its wings are massive and leathery, its body almost human but entirely mismatched, fingers on each hand tipped with nasty-looking claws. Its eyes are the same orange-green as Mr. Yuki’s eyes were earlier.
“That’s the monster Diego saw,” Keelin whispers.
“This is Yubel,” Mr. Yuki says, threading one hand with the monster’s. “So now that you got that out of your system, I believe I asked you a question. Who are you and why the hell are you here?”
“We are the Night Watch,” Vlad says in a low voice. Mr. Yuki looks less than impressed.
“Meaning we’re here to protect the world from monsters like you!” Wilko says. His eyes are darting from side to side, looking for an exit that doesn’t exist.
“Monsters like us?” The monster — Yubel — chuckles. “Pray tell, little wolf. What do you know about us?”
Wilko bristles. Keelin grabs his hand and squeezes. If they are willing to talk, she has to keep them talking as long as she can. “You emanate dark magic,” she replies in his place. “And you are old. Ancient.”
Yubel snickers. Mr. Yuki, in stark contrast with his earlier demeanor, looks extremely put off.
“You turn thirty and suddenly everyone thinks you’re old?” he asks Yubel. He turns to Keelin. “Really?”
“Please, Mr. Yuki, leave before we have to make you leave,” Vlad says, sounding extremely reasonable despite the situation. Keelin knows better. She can feel how tense he is. She grasps her necklace. Can they just send him back to the Underworld?
“I think we’ve already proven you’re in no position to make statements like that,” Yubel says and the dome of darkness encompassing them grows smaller. Keelin wracks her brains. She’s already used the most powerful anti-darkness spell she has.
Mr. Yuki hums. “I suppose,” he tells Keelin, straightening up to his full height, “that you’re not entirely wrong. Let’s try this again. My name is Yuki Judai. I am the incarnation of the darkness that created this very universe and everything in it. The power of the Gentle Darkness flows through me.” He drops his shoulders. “So yeah, I guess I’m pretty old.”
Darkness creating the universe? She’s never heard such a thing. She files the information away to discuss with Vega at a later date. If there is a later date. It’s looking increasingly likely that there won’t be.
“Fine, so why are you here in Schemermeer?” Wilko asks. He steps up next to Keelin, clutching his left shoulder but eyes defiant.
“We travel,” says Mr. Yuki. “We find beings who need help and help them. We fix problems.”
The way Yubel looks at them makes it clear they think they’re one of the problems that need fixing. Keelin calls up more of her magic. It might not amount to anything, but she’s not going to let themselves be slaughtered and leave Schemermeer defenseless.
“The Night Watch exists to protect Schemermeer,” says Vlad, still in that same reasonable voice. “If you bear no ill will towards this village, there is no reason for us to fight.”
“And yet you had no qualms about attacking us earlier,” says Yubel.
Keelin clenches her fists. Next to her, Wilko sputters.
“Of course we don’t! Why would we? You trapped us in this thing,” he gestures widely, “you claim we’re a threat to our village and you expect us to just roll over and die?”
His words devolve in a low growl. Keelin and Vlad meet each other’s eyes. Oh Wilko, what will it take for you to not antagonize anything more powerful than you?
And then, improbably, Yubel laughs.
“He’s got a point there, Judai.”
“I suppose he has.” Mr. Yuki waves a lazy hand and the barrier of darkness disappears as fast as it came. Sunlight rushes in with the sounds of the village around them. Keelin’s never been so grateful to hear Cooper shout in the distance. They’re still in their monster forms and anyone could walk in on them, but she’s loath to lose easy access to her magic. The two monsters Mr. Yuki made appear are still there as well.
Mr. Yuki’s eyes turn back to brown. “Let’s try this one last time. I’m Judai, this is Yubel. We travel all worlds in search of people that need our help.”
He holds out a hand. Wilko, after a moment’s hesitation, is the first to shake it.
“We’re the Night Watch,” he says. “We guard the gate to the Underworld and stop all monsters trying to attack the human world.”
“Huh, Underworld?” Mr. Yuki muses. Keelin nears cautiously. She’s not sure why Wilko of all people is so willing to trust this man. Even if his intentions are good, he’s still so much more powerful than they are.
Why do you trust him? she asks. Wilko glances at her, dropping Mr. Yuki’s hand.
He’s like us, he tells her, brows furrowed to get the thought across. It explains less than Keelin’d like. She’ll ask him about it later. Now that it appears that there might actually be a later.
“My apologies for the confusion. I’ve had some… unfortunate experiences with vampires in the past,” Mr. Yuki says with a nod at Vlad.
“Thank you. I appreciate your concern,” Vlad replies, and it probably says something about his upbringing that he can say those words without even the slightest trace of irony when he’s leaning heavily on his right leg after the monster threw him around. Keelin’s own upbringing is still screaming warnings in her head, telling her not to trust anyone so completely steeped in darkness. But if Vlad and Wilko can trust him, that has to be enough. Besides, she’s curious.
“Why was Diego so afraid of you?” she asks. It’s the most pressing mystery still haunting her. Mr. Yuki laughs.
“He saw Yubel. Not everyone can see monster spirits without me or Yubel making them visible,” his eyes flash briefly and Yubel and the tiny brown monster disappear. A flash later and they’re back, “but some people see them all the time. Diego’s one of them. It can be a scary experience, especially if Yubel’s the first monster you ever see.”
Yubel bumps his shoulder and ruffles his hair. He leans into the monster’s touch.
“Mr. Yuki,” Keelin says slowly. She needs to know more. He mentioned other worlds.
“You are… The incarnation of darkness? Could you tell me about that?”
Mr. Yuki nods seriously, an action belied by the fluffy monster he’s still holding. “Of course. I’ve got plenty of time.”