Throughout history, supernatural Vaesen have lived side by side with the people of Scandinavia. But these creatures are not perceptible to human senses – unless they choose to be. Invisible, they have helped out on farms, assisted in calving, made sure that stray ewes find their way home, and kept people safe during harsh winters or wildfires, in exchange for some of the farms’ milk and grain. Vaesen have filled the fields with flowers, shown the way to ponds where people can see their future reflected on the surface, and whispered dreams into the ears of the sleeping.
In the nineteenth century Scandinavia is changed by industrialization, war, and revolutions, with new ways of thinking and understanding the world spreading through its universities. Old truths are being questioned. The rural poor are pouring into the cities or across the Atlantic to escape starvation, hoping to build a life where they can be free. It is no longer the nobles and priests who decide how people should think and act. Instead, those who are able to use the inventions of this new age can make a fortune and exert influence through their wealth. Factories are emerging around the cities, giving rise to vast suburbs where impoverished workers are crammed together in harsh conditions. The elderly are left behind in the villages, along with those too weak or scared to leave. Meadows become overgrown, forests are cut down, and the construction of railways between cities lays waste to paths and communities that have existed for centuries.
Glassworks spew out chemicals while the mines eat their way into the mountains like wolves feasting on a wounded animal. The Vaesen of Scandinavia are changing as well. The villagers used to know how to appease the creatures when angry and gain their help with farm work – for instance, they refrained from peeing on the ground where the vaettir have their burrows and provided the nisse with porridge and a new hat every year. But the old rules and traditions no longer seem to apply. The Vaesen have turned aggressive and bloodthirsty, snatching children from the villages, wrecking houses, and setting barns on fire. In certain parts of Scandinavia, the supernatural seems to have grown stronger and started acting erratically – like a storm sweeping over the farmlands.
There are rumors of kittens being born with two heads, streams where the water is mixed with blood, forests lulling young ones into eternal sleep, and fairies dancing through villages, luring youngsters into the woods to slave for those underground. In other places, the creatures seem to have disappeared from the countryside, as if they never existed, and magic along with them. It is also said that some Vaesen have followed people to the cities and found new homes in sewers and abandoned factories.
Some people in Scandinavia - and the rest of the world - are able to see the Vaesen even when they are trying to stay invisible. It is called 'having the Sight.' There are few of them. At some point they experienced something that scared or hurt them; maybe they almost died in a fire or a werewolf chose to reveal itself to them for their own enigmatic reasons. After that nothing was ever the same. Suddenly they could see nature spirits stealing food from the tables and trolls showing up uninvited to weddings and christenings.
Two kilometers away from the city of Upsala a motley group loudly made their way towards civilizations. They were an odd gathering on the best of days and today they stuck out from their surroundings even more blatantly than before. Three of the four strangers were covered from head-to-toe in black soot and were loudly expressing their discontent with the lone unblemished member of the party.
"There was no reason for you to change the plan, young miss Rosenberg. Mister Alex and I had the situation well in hand and if you had just kept to the plan none of this had to happen," the dark-skinned woman protested with a tone that would have ensured anyone overhearing their argument that she had already stated her opinion several times already.
The woman was a rarity in the city. Kendra Young had been born to children of slaves in Jamaica who saw their own parents joining and dying in the Baptist War, a slave uprising that was quickly crushed. Kendra's parents outwardly stayed out of politics but secretly had joined an underground resistance towards the British slave owners. When Kendra was twenty her parents were arrested and executed for their rebellion.
Kendra would've joined them at the gallows if she hadn't been able to flee to a local abolitionist, writer, and diplomat who offered her asylum. His name was Rupert Giles and together with his wife and fourteen-year-old son Alexander they provided solace and a family for the distraught young woman.
Soon the family moved to London and the Giles family employed Kendra as their chief of security at their small estate. The extended Giles family wasn't numerous but they were known to have influence in many different circles - both the politically powerful but also the obscure - within and outside the reaches of the British Empire. Kendra employed her expertise as a guerilla fighter within the resistance and skillfully protected the family for five years despite numerous attempts to assassinate both Rupert and his wife.
Just two years ago she had failed when a mysterious assassin managed to infiltrate the estates and murder the lady of the house in front of the eyes of both Rupert and Alexander. Rupert was at first arrested by the law as the main suspect but was quickly released due to lack of evidence(and a not inconsiderable amount of money spent on bribes). Both of the remaining Gileses claim to have no clear recollection of the appearance and identity of the murderer and rumors soon spread amongst the local gentry of conspiracies and skullduggery within the Giles family.
Just a month ago the two men moved to Upsala with their exotic employee and travel companion after Giles received an important missive from a long-lost friend. They were suddenly on a mission to rebuild Castle Gyllencreutz - a neglected old castle located on a hill by the Fyris river that divided the city of Upsala - and to resurrect what Giles called the 'East Aros Society.' They hired local constructors and soon after that Giles had recruited a young local engineer and savant that now formed the last member of the party.
Kendra was dressed in practical but elaborate armor that covered her torso, thighs and upper arms. While somewhat cumbersome the grey-brown protection had already proven it's worth throughout the years as she employed her considerable strength while she fought both man and monster with her trusty saber that she had sheathed in her belt. Otherwise she employed as unremarkable clothing as she could find in order to avoid sticking out in a crowd - despite her exotic skin and long black hair being a constant foil in the mostly Caucasian kingdom - and mostly wore drab colors that wouldn't make her stand out in most local terrains. Her only indulgence was the masterwork violin that never left her side. Her mother had taught her the art and it was a constant source of stability in the chaos that often formed her day-to-day life.
It was something she deeply regretted at this moment as the instrument had suffered the same fate as the rest of their equipment - a thorough packing in layers of black soot - and she just knew that she would have to spend considerable time to remove all traces of the intrusive contaminant.
"The plan didn't work, Kendra. The plan was for me to stay in the back and ring that small bell to make the giant think it was a church but as I warned you before; I'm not Christian like the rest of you. The giant only care if Christians ring church bells - if only my father was so lenient - and I'm very much not of the local faith," the only unsooted member of the group protested. Willow Rosenberg was a member of the local Jewish community and had grown up in the Jewish quarter of the university city. The only daughter of Sheila and Ira Rosenberg - the city's jeweler and watchmaker - she was the youngest of six siblings and had made national news last fall when she became the first woman in Swedish history to enroll at the renowned university.
It had taken a lot of effort and resources to earn that opportunity. Willow was know to be a strange and lonely girl who spent most of her time with books and in her father's workshop. Since an early age she had shown a remarkable talent in engineering and machinery which she had employed - despite frequent and loud protests from her mother - in order to become a part of the family business. Willow and Ira got along throughout her adolescence and she became more and more an integral part of his business ventures and when she approached him for support in applying for formal education he gave it without objection despite his lack of faith that she would be approved.
Society in Sweden at this time wasn't even attempting to be at the forefront of social movements. The royal family and parliament were both of the reactionary kind - even if some concessions to liberal movements were given to minimize dissent - and a woman weren't considered to be legally adult until she had been either widowed or granted a divorce(which were exceptionally rare at the time). Up until her marriage she'd be in the care of her father(and if he were no longer in the picture, the oldest brother or other close male relative) and once married she just transferred that role to her husband. Some invited foreigners were given special rights - the most noted local is the current chief at the asylum - but otherwise only special circumstances would afford those rights to any woman. Upsala was somewhat of an outlier, however, and both the local police as well as a couple of local governmental offices had recently begun to employ talented women of good families.
Ira and Willow were both smart and resourceful. Ira was able to summon support from not only the local Jewish community but also from those that lived in the capital and Willow's application quickly became a cause célèbre for the Jews living in the kingdom. By pushing the cultural and religious aspects - instead of her gender - on the application they gave the royal family an out where they wouldn't have to lose face. As such they granted Willow a slot in the student rolls in Upsala due to her faith without having to offer any similar opportunities to the country's native women as a consequence.
Sheila had opposed the venture from the start. She was a staunch conservative who saw her only daughter as a political marker to marry of to an influential family. In an ironic twist her principles on women's role in society led to her staying silent on the issue by command of her husband which resulted in her daughter becoming a noted figure for her political opponents. That the approval of Willow's application also led to the youngest Rosenberg becoming a legal adult was not something Willow or her father had opted to inform Sheila about and ever since then the two women hadn't communicated at all.
Willow didn't mind. She hated her role as nothing but a vessel for her mother's ambitions and despite her parents' insistence she didn't entertain any suitors and kept pushing back the date where she'd start looking at forming a family of her own. At first it was once she turned seventeen, then it was when she had her application approved or rejected and the most recent answer given had been when she would finish her studies. That she already had planned her next moving of the goalpost was something Ira suspected but hoped to dissuade. He had always loved and respected his daughter and tried to support her numerous eccentric ideas despite his own wishes that she'd one day settle down and help continue the family line. As a compromise - and to remain on good terms with her beloved father - Willow had conceded that she'd try to appear in at least one social gathering per month. Just in case she'd be proven wrong and she'd find someone that she could eventually settle down with.
As expected, Willow had other plans. She loved her father, despised her mother and tolerated most of her brothers. She hated being the youngest of a large family(but by far the smartest) and knowing that she would never be able to have the same ambitions and dreams as her brothers. So her 'coup' in convincing her father to support her further studies was the first time she really felt proud to be herself. She had never been one who had close friends - or friends at all really - and once she approached her mid-teens she soon realized that her peers only paid attention to due to her family's wealth and name and not for her intellect or personality.
Her first year of university studies had been rough. She had no naïve idea that she'd be accepted as an equal by the other students or the faculty but the notoriety that preceded the start of her schooling led to her being a frequent subject in derisive and satirical ballads in the student unions. When she was approached by the only professor who'd given her any kind of support just a week ago and offered a membership in the East Aros Society she didn't hesitate to join. She left her small student lodging and accepted the free lodging in Castle Gyllencreutz where she was put in charge of the library and equipment.
It was a role that she was looking forward to excel in. She had never been good with people and her lack of verbal discipline never failed to put her in dispute with both her peers and many authority figures. As a result of years of social faux pas's and the ostracizing at the university she looked forward to a job where she could spend time tinkering with her equipment and reading the books that had been her constant companions.
The small woman was only nineteen years old and in contrast to Kendra she stuck out from the crowd due to her small size and boyish clothes. She wore pants and a comfortable jacket under the green coat that provided much warmth this cold spring afternoon. The clothes were of her own design and were lined with protective leather and hidden pockets while still giving her the mobility her new occupation required. Willow's shoulder-length red hair was a visual marker of her family that gave her some leeway from harassment on the street from the law and religious leaders but also marked her as an outsider from regular society.
Even if her clothing hadn't been unique her equipment would make her stand out as she was walking back with her new compatriots. Her backpack was a gift from her father upon enrollment and held not only a small, portable laboratory but binoculars, a compass, a small tinderbox, a box of silver bullets, a couple of relevant books and even some paper and writing utensils. Mounted on the side of the backpack - in a holster she added just before the day's adventure - was a unique rifle of her own design.
It was a carbine with three rotating barrels that she had spent the last two years building in secret. She never thought she'd ever use it but after seeing the obsolete equipment the local garrison employed she wanted to see if she could design something that would provide reliability, accuracy and a steady rate of fire. Building the weapon - one she had affectionally dubbed a 'Rheinlander Carbine' after her family's German origins - had been an exercise in secrecy and fine workmanship. In general civilians were not allowed to carry weapons - especially not women and not in urban settlements - so she had to keep it in a small size which limited the potential range.
She also wanted to employ the revolver magazine design that became increasingly prominent in handguns and as a result she had three rotating barrels(to prevent overheating in extended engagement) with a nine-shot revolving magazine that gave her a reliable but complicated weapon that had no equals - as far as she knew. Of their group only Alexander knew about the weapon. The two young adults had quickly become friends and he had sworn to keep the existence of the carbine a secret until she was ready and willing to deploy it. She had brought the weapon with her - disguised as an umbrella attached to her backpack - but the brief but violent battle with the giant forced her to employ her considerable chemical skills instead and the hidden weapon remained just that; hidden.
"How does that work anyway," the tall young man queried. "did he just know it wasn't a real church bell or did he hear you curse in that weird language I sometime hear from the library at night?"
The dark-haired young man chuckled to himself and wiped off some soot from his large sledgehammer that he frequently employed as his primary weapon. Alexander Giles had always been a large boy and somewhat of a charmer towards the women he encountered over the years. In London he employed his muscled physique and jovial personality to court a number of attractive women but he rarely spent a large amount of time with any of them. Rupert was a strict man in regard to his son and although they both respected and loved each other the son's lack of interest - and talent - in academia was a scab in their relationship that never fully healed.
Alexander was not without his own abilities though. He made friends with ease and picked up the local language faster than anyone had ever expected. He was also a fiend when it came to reliable and quick construction and those talents were invaluable in the repairs of the castle that had become their new home. He was put in charge of the construction crew as soon as the family had arrived in Sweden and with the help of Willow's intellect they had already refined the already existing blueprints to ensure the castle would not suffer the same fate once again.
He got along well with Kendra as well. He had seen her as an older sibling for years and deferred to her leadership in both battle and planning. She appreciated his friendship as well and the two had developed a well-honed routine when it came to dealing with the prejudices of society. Despite Kendra's stronger talents in finding out what makes people tick it was often Alexander that strangers listened to as he was not only a man but handsome, charming and Caucasian. As such they often put up the front of Kendra being a hired help and offering discreet advice in situations where Alexander would be in over his head.
"I really don't know why Alex but I doubt it's the Yiddish that singled me out. I don't think there's some stealthy giant sneaking around and checking the church registrars and then sending out news bulletins to inform his friend and family just who they should be afraid of when employing the Christian religious symbols and who are nothing but heathens and heretics that should be ignored. What we can surmise from today's events however is that a lack of belief in Jesus seems to prevent me from being all chasey with the jingling of the bells. Wonder if someone of the Islamic faith would be able to-"
"Can you PLEASE shut up," Kendra growled through clenched teeth.
"Ken, please, Willow just answered my question. There's no reason to lash out like that," Alexander offered in an attempt to calm the growing frustration between the two women who hadn't managed to hit it off since becoming acquainted.
"If all three of you were to take a deep breath - or ten - then maybe the lingering frustrations after a day's hard work and exhausting conflict. Kendra was right - we had a plan. Miss Rosenberg wasn't entirely wrong either though; the plan had a fault that resulted in all of us being put in considerable risk and even though her quick application of the loud smoke bomb chased the giant away we would indeed be better off if she had warned us and the problem of the delinquent giant still remain as he fled the field and left us in the very literal dust."
The older man of the group smiled inwardly as the three younger members muttered different levels of acceptance to his judgement. Rupert Giles may be the black sheep of the Giles house but he was still a man that was able to command respect and influence in certain circles. The others didn't know of it but he had been a recruit of the old East Aros Society when it had collapsed decades ago. He hadn't been inducted to most of the secrets of the group and wasn't informed of the fates of most of the other members but he had been sent back home to England - and eventually to a diplomatic post in Jamaica - as a result of the collapse of the society.
Like the rest of his group he was one with the Sight. Ever since the mythical musician called the Neck had tried to drown him as a child during a vacation in southern Sweden he had seen the Vaesen that hide in plain sight. As a consequence his father sent him to Upsala as a young teen to become a part of the previous incarnation of the East Aros Society. Back then the group had over four dozen members and despite their headquarters being in a state of constant disrepair they worked relentlessly to keep society safe from the pestilence that Vaesen was for the common man.
But then it fell and he moved back to London where he became an aspiring writer for one of the local newspapers. He eventually engaged and married the love of his wife who gave him a son and soon they were sent to Jamaica to help reorganize the diplomatic station in the colony. He was fierce opponent of the institution of slavery - however - and spent a considerable amount of his wealth to buy and liberate slaves that he then employed as servants in his home. When the colonial government struck against the underground abolitionist movements he suddenly found himself in the position of someone who had offered implicit support of a lost cause and by transference, support against the crown's interests. Due to his family name he would never be imprisoned for his actions but he had attracted enemies amongst the local elite who did not put a kind eye on his abolitionist activities.
It was the offer of asylum and housing of the orphaned Kendra Young that formed the final incentive for the family to return home to London. They sold their estate at a loss and returned before the local governor could arrest the teenager for her part in the struggle against the institution of slavery.
When his wife was murdered half a decade later he felt like half his soul died with her. None other than Rupert and his wife would ever know how much they loved each other - not even Alexander and Kendra were privy to spectate their close affection - but just because they were private with their feelings it didn't mean it was just a marriage of convenience as was the standard at the time.
It was only because of Kendra and Alexander that he managed to survive in the two years that followed. He had managed to return to writing and kept to himself and his family while rumors surrounded their lives and history. When he eventually received the secret missive from his childhood friend Linnea Elfeklint he realized that it was time for him to make amends for the failures of his youth and rebuild the East Aros Society and protect the people of a country that had suffered in the decades since he had left.
And so he returned to Upsala and claimed the deed to Castle Gyllencreutz. He - with reluctant support from the local government - reactivated the old charter that gave the society the legal rights to pursue their sacred calling and keep the Vaesen at bay. Thus civilization could finally be able to claim the wilderness and provide safety and stability for the people in the Kingdom of Sweden.
Only this time - instead of a group of veterans and eager recruits - he had a brutish son, an escaped slave and a young but eccentric genius without any ability to control her verbal outbursts as the foundation for the society.
It was at times like this Giles was glad he enjoyed a challenge.
While he had his issues with the young miss Rosenberg's missing social tact and lack of mannerism he appreciated her complete dedication to her new role as a member of the society as well as the innate talents the woman held. He hadn't met her parents but due to her emancipated legal status and her request to not inform them of her new situation he saw no reason to break the trust she had given her. Her skill in discerning relevant facts and information in the wide range of tomes and texts the old castle library were starting to gather as well as her talents in the mechanical field made her an essential part of their new organization despite her other - oft notorious - shortcomings.
"Dad's kind of right, Will. There's no reason for us to continue arguing about this though, what's done is done and at least nobody was hurt," Alex offered as an olive branch. "Besides, the three of us have that shindig later tonight to clear our heads."
Willow groaned dramatically as she stared into the open sky in frustration. "Ughhh, thanks for reminding me. I forgot about the monthly concession to my dad, what is today's big event that I'd shame my mother if I bailed out on?"
"It's some pre-wedding celebration for one of the rich farmer families. Can't remember which one, I think it's one of the Irish families this time."
Kendra sighed audibly. "If any one of you were up-to-date on your social events you'd know it's the Maclays and the Doyles who are wedding their children in a week. And before you ask, none of us are invited to the actual marriage. I'm not invited because I'm of 'mud blood' - they didn't even sugarcoat it for me - while miss Rosenberg is too Jewish and you are too Anglican for their very Catholic tastes. They kind of had to invite all of us to today's event though; they'd loose too much face in the city if they didn't. Especially with your people, miss Rosenberg."
"Yeah, my dad's best friend does a lot of business with the farmers in that region so they won't dare insulting us by completely keeping me away. Why can't they insult us so I could just stay home?"
Alexander grinned at her. "Look at it this way, Will. If you didn't go today there's that Maydell ball in two weeks and do you really want to spend an entire day in formal clothing and classical music with that crowd?"
Willow demonstratively kicked a small rock that deflected at a boulder and hit her arm on the rebound. "Ouch," she whined while rubbing the area there self-inflicted projectile hit. "I guess you're right. I mean, it's just one evening and then I'm free for the entire month. At least I got you guys to keep me company, right? What's the worst that could happen?"
Willow never saw Kendra blanching behind her back at the prospect of spending an entire evening chaperoning the blabbermouthed redhead.