One hand held the cool drink he’d gone out for, the other swung loosely at his side as he walked. If he closed his eyes he could almost imagine another hand wrapped around his. Almost. Arlan took a sip of his drink to chase away the ghostly feeling, focusing on the sidewalk ahead of him. The tiny dark patches grew as the rain swept in to cover the blue sky, sending most pedestrians back into their homes or places of work. He was caught between where he had been and where he was going, the chance of shelter more than a few minutes away in either direction.
The voice that murmured to him didn’t need to reach his ears, he felt the pull in his fingertips. Clenching them into a fist did nothing to help, the sensation refused to leave. The sky rumbled with warning, rain falling harder now,challenging those still left outside. He knew better than to follow strange voices and feelings and yet his feet seemed to ignore all rational thought as they started to move, path deviating from his original plan.
It didn’t take him long to find the smooth, flat rock. He’d come here time and time again many years ago. It looked exactly the same, unassuming stone in the middle of a small clearing. It was so ordinary yet people knew better than to come here or rest upon it. There was no graffiti scrawled illegibly on any of its sides, no trash littered around it. Something in the collective gut of the town could tell that not everything was right with this place.
He sat upon the stone, its surface dry except for one ring that formed when he set his drink down next to him. The storm couldn’t reach him here, though there were no trees or canopies to act as cover. The rain just refused to fall upon this place as if it too understood that not all was as it seemed here. As eerie as the air was here, at least he was staying fry for the moment and when nothing happened after a few deep breathes, the air lifted a bit. The clearing was full of old memories that threatened to awaken against his wishes, pulling at his heart. Setting both hands upon the cool stone grounded him a little, kept him from floating down memory lane.
Another hand set itself upon one of his but he refused to look for the source. He didn’t want to know. He already knew, the sensation was a familiar one.
“It would be so easy you know. You could leave this all behind, no worries or fears to trap you.”
“You ruined everything. Nothing is easy in the wake left behind.”
His own voice didn’t sound quite right as he shook off the sense of peace he’d found. He should have known better than to come here, so close to the edge between worlds. He got to his feet, not bothering with his drink, leaving it as an offering in hopes that this time, maybe the voice might left him go. It had already claimed a life, wasn’t that enough? It was never enough, it always wanted more, so much more than he could give.
The sound of driving rain drowned out whatever might have been said in his departure. This time when he flexed his fingers they felt as if they were his and his alone. It only took a few brisk steps for the storm to soak him to the bone but he didn’t care. Wet clothes and hair were such a small price to pay for escape from a past that never should have been and the future that it craved. By the time he got home he wasn’t certain he would ever be dry again and he was starting to miss the coffee he’d left behind. The day had been such a promising one until those whispers had wormed their way into his ear.
A hot shower and a cup of warm tea made him feel a little more like himself, if he ignored the way the air around him buzzed. It had been more than a year since he’d last felt it so strongly and now he couldn’t put it behind him as easily as he might have before. His best friend was gone and no matter what temptations were offered to him, he wouldn’t let himself be spirited away in the same manner. Sometimes he still caught his friend’s mother staring down the road as if she thought her son might come walking down it at any moment. He knew better.
With his history clinging so tightly to him this day it was hard to keep his eyes from drifting to the thing that started it all. Another unassuming stone, this one small enough to fit in his palm, no sharp edges found anywhere. Sometimes it would catch the light and sparkle a little but aside from that it looked just like any other stone a child might pick up for a moment or two before being told to put it back where it was found. If only he could put it back where he’d found it. It lived upon his bedside table, a constant reminder that gifts from the fae came with a price.
The longer Arlan stared at it the more he felt another warmth against his back that snuck around his waist in a lover’s embrace. It urged him to reach out and touch the stone, even just one finger would let him hear the sweet nothings he was certain were being murmured into his ear at this very moment, the sensation of hot breath curling against his neck. It could be so easy, to let those sweet words pull him from his life here, to guide him somewhere full of magic and wonder but then his family would be left to pick up the pieces and he'd already seen how hard that was. His mouth went dry, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth as he swallowed. This was a mistake, the whole day was full of them but he could not stop himself as he reached out to curl his fingers around the stone, its surface oddly warm.
“I miss you my love. Come home to me.”
The words made him shiver, starting at the fingers splayed on his stomach, their length a little too long, a little too peculiar. The faerie Prince’s voice was a little less human and a little more like the wind working its way through barren tree branches.
“I need you.”
It was too good to be true, all the things this beautiful creature offered, all the dreams it promised to make true. No gift from the fae came without a price and he was sure this was one he couldn't afford to pay.
“I can’t. I won’t.”
His voice shook a little, lacking the conviction he needed to get the point across. He was weak, so weak, stone still in his hand, goosebumps along his neck from the hot whispers. He would crumble one day, he would fall apart and be swept away into the prince’s waiting hands. He would be putty, shaped into whatever the faerie decided he wanted for that moment. He would lose himself entirely if he didn’t stop this now.
“You’re so cruel to me. I love you, don’t you love me too? Come to me.”
He didn’t love this manipulative being that had wrapped himself around his human toy, haunting him with every waking moment, winding his way into his dreams. But he did love the soft curve of his cheek, the subtle glow to his rosy hair, the way he made him feel as if he was the only person in the world that mattered. Fae were such fickle creatures, spiriting away the mortals that found themselves caught within their traps. He couldn’t be one of them.
“Go away. Leave me alone.”
The arms around him only tightened, fingers clutching at the fabric of his shirt. He dropped the stone as if it was a hot coal, letting it roll under his bed, hidden in shadows for the moment. The grip upon his waist became little more than a phantom sensation and he forced himself to step forward, out of the floral scent that still hung in the air. He couldn’t stay here, not now, already the stone beckoned him, begging to be wrapped up in his fingers once more. It wasn’t safe here, nowhere in this town was safe anymore.
At least the rain had stopped by the time he stepped outside again, feet taking him in a path of their own choosing. This time he paid a little more attention, refusing to end up in that clearing once more. He didn’t want to be anywhere around nature, something that proved to be easier said than done in this town. The food court in the little indoor mall was about as far away as he could manage without hopping in a car to drive away and at least there were tables here. He bought a drink and a snack but he barely touched them. When they were done he would have to leave and he wasn’t ready to go home.
He should just throw the stupid stone away, toss it into the stream or even the lake on the edge of town only then there was the risk of who would be the next to find it. Faerie gifts always came with a price but that wasn’t common knowledge anymore. What would the slighted prince do to a new owner of his token? Would he lure them into his kingdom, offer them riches and dreams that only magic could bring to life or would he place his rage upon them, striking them from the earth, spirited away to his hidden dungeons. Neither fate was one he wanted to see anyone suffer from. His childhood mistakes would be his and his alone.
The tray of goodies didn’t last him as long as he might have liked, time seemed to be crawling by as he wracked his brain, looking for a way out that didn’t exist. He made himself walk the little indoor strip of stores, pace agonizingly slow as his eyes tried to really see the places around him. Many of the stores were closed, too many people now went to the nearby city to shop and the rent in here was too high to make it worth it for little places to keep their doors open. The ones that weren’t closed were always went by different names though they sold the same things, shoes, rugs, women’s clothing, discount items. One store however seemed out of place, his eyes finally focusing on this world when they landed upon a strange display.
The crystals and charms winked in the florescent lights, the faint scent of something earthy wafting out from open doors. It was the sort of place he would never imagine himself within and yet he crossed the threshold before he could remind himself of such. The music in here was so gentle, welcoming him even if he wasn’t the usual fair here. The aisles were small and packed so full of things it was almost overwhelming but at the same time it was perfect. He could spend hours in here and still never see all of the products on display.
The clerk behind the counter nodded as he entered, their expression a little bored as the rested their chin on their hand. They watched him weave in and out of the aisles, lips pursing once or twice as if in thought. Without a word they were judging him and the air about him, trying to put a finger on what seemed so off about the young man. It wasn’t until he rounded the corner, examining the wooden holders for incense that the shop clerk clapped their hands in exclamation. It was a jarring sound, one that almost had him toppling into a different display of rune stones that could have ended in disaster.
“You need to burn some sage, around your home. After that a little boxwood in the corners might not hurt.” There was no one else in the store for the clerk to be speaking to but he wasn’t sure he understood where their advice for him was coming from. When he stepped a little closer to ask he could see their eyes more clearly, one paler than the other, just enough to be a little unsettling. It felt a bit as if they could see right through him with it, to the core of himself. “To chase away whatever might be unwanted in your air.”
“I don’t really understand? I don’t normally come into places like this.”
“That’s alright hon, there’s a first time for everyone. Just burn some sage, take it from room to room, it will help clear up whatever’s mucking about in your air.” The clerk smiled, not at all put off by his skeptical response. “I can ring you up, with a discount, this being your first time and all.”
He couldn’t believe he was doing this, his wallet in hand before he had time to really stop himself. This was ridiculous but it was so hard to breathe some nights, the memories and voices of a world just out of reach clinging to him and every corner. What harm could a little sage do other than ease his mind a bit. Magic was real but no human could possess it, locked away behind the veil, a tool for the fae alone.
“A quartz too I think. For protection.” The clerk reached across the counter, plucking a small, clear stone from a bowl he’d not noticed until that moment. “Not that standard quartz is often used for that but for you I think it fits.”
“Ah, it’s okay, the sage is good for now.” He didn’t want another stone in his life, not with the one beneath his bed still haunting him, even now. It would be funny, if anyone else knew that he was scared of something so ordinary as a little rock.
“Free of charge. You just look like you could use a little shielding right now.” The clerk insisted, pushing the small pendant into his hand. He was wary of any stone that was presented as a gift but the clerk was only human, there was no magic that would bind him to this particular stone. He could dispose of it later, somewhere out of sight as to not hurt the clerk’s feelings.
“Okay. Thanks.” With his purchase paid for and settled up, he felt a little better about the need to return home. It was still earlier than he planned to return but at least now there wasn’t a feeling of dread clawing at his stomach as he started to make his way back. Perhaps the prince would have had enough of being ignored for the night and would leave him be. Sometimes he was lucky and it was just the ghosts of his memories that haunted his home instead of the unseen royalty. One day he would be able to forget, to put this all behind him he just needed his once imaginary friend to let go.
The moon above wasn’t quite full, one of its edge’s faded and fuzzy as it reached for the round shape. Clear nights like this one always rang with reminders of his history and the things he should have never done. The clearing and it’s unusual stone had been off limits since he was old enough to remember. It had been off limits for generations before him, his parents had been forbidden to play there and their parents before them. It belonged to the hidden folk and it was to be treated with the respectful fear that they commanded. Even the bravest children in town avoided it, peering at it from a safe distance when they wanted to prove just how courageous they were.
He’d never been brave, he’d only been stupid.
It wasn’t a dare or some other event filled with childhood fanfare that had lead him to the stone, it had been a lost hat. He’d chased the garment that had been stolen away by the wind right into the clearing, despite his best friend behind him, warning him to come back. There was nothing but the hat on his mind as he finally bent down to grab it, resting one hand upon the smooth surface of the stone to help right himself once more. Sometimes he wondered if the wind had really stolen the hat or if it had been the faerie prince luring him away from safety on purpose.