Charles de Lint, contemporary fantasy, Kate Bernheimer, Laura Cowan, Laura K. Cowan, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, new fairy tales, Rumplestiltskin, speculative supernatural, supernatural fiction, The Thin Places
Here’s another short story from my new work-in-progress, The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen, a story collection about portals between the physical and spiritual realms, the mundane and the fantastic, and waking reality and dreams. “Legion” is a story told more in the fairy tale style, but Christian readers may notice that I have taken the name of an actual demon mentioned in the Bible, and it has important implications for the story, though overall this is a bit of a Rumplestiltskin kind of tale. I hope you enjoy! Also, please feel free to leave me comments and tell me how you like this. I’m particularly curious what you think about the end.
In a town in the hills, between the deserts, lived a people who were terrified of night. Since the time of the earliest settlers, a demon had roamed the hills, and they could never overcome it, nor even understand it.
And so it had no name.
“Don’t leave a window unshuttered,” they would say, “or the nameless one will snatch your children out of the room.”
And this is what he did. Unlike other towns where demons and night monsters were simply stories told to frighten the children to bed, in the town of Begbottom, even a crack of light from a house in the hills would summon the demon to steal the people away, children and adults. What happened to them next was unknown, but surely frightful, for the people heard the wild music and the drums and the screams in the night, and they prayed aloud in their dark houses with the shutters nailed tight, afraid to even venture out to see who had been taken until morning.
Billy Wane was a small boy, so his father was extra careful with him. He was not allowed out of doors even in the sunset, and so he had never seen the night at all. He had never seen the stars. The moon was just a pale disc in the daytime sky, nothing like the powerful beauty he had read of in his bedtime stories.
In fact, everything Billy knew about the night came from books. And one day, a book came home with his father that would change everything.
Billy’s father had brought him a stack of books he had found in an old shop, including some fairy stories and tales of the old days. Maybe he wanted him to know more about life than they lived in their shuttered house in the hills in Begbottom, or maybe it was fate. But Billy found a book in the bottom of the stack that was locked. While his father was away at work one day, and he home sick recovering from a fever, Billy brought the book into his bed in the back of the cottage and set to work picking the old lock with one of his mother’s hairpins his father hadn’t thought to get rid of when she disappeared.
The lock creaked with age, and was very heavy though small. But finally, Billy found his way in, and the lock fell off the book onto his lap.
Billy carefully smoothed the dust off the book’s leather cover, unfolded the metal clasp over the pages, and opened the cover.
Inside, the book had no pages. They had been hollowed out. But in the center of the book lay another, smaller book.
This book had a cover made of wood. Billy had to very gingerly open it to keep from tearing the thin pages. Inside, a handwritten script scrawled across the pages with no title, no apparent story in mind. It appeared to be a journal.
“In the beginning,” the book began, “there were no demons here.”
Billy felt goosebumps prickle down his arms. Who had known this place before the demon?
“In the beginning,” the faded ink continued, “there was a man and his family. My great-grandfather’s family.”
The story went on to tell the joys and sorrows of a group of settlers come west to find a new life in the grassy hills. Billy read and read until the sunlight began to fade. During some parts, he could not stop crying, though he couldn’t say quite why. The story was happy at first, telling of new children born, and the livestock they brought with them from the east.
But then, the people had begun to disappear, and Billy recognized the history of his town in the journal. A child snatched at sunset from a hillside picnic, his parents brutally mauled by an unseen force. A young woman carried off while her fiancé watched helplessly in the yard, unable to see what was carrying her swiftly into the darkening night.
Billy stopped to breathe deeply. It came out in a shuddering gasp. This was it, he knew. This was how his mother had disappeared.
“But,” his eye caught out of the corner of his vision, “there was a way to be rid of the demon. Only we forgot.”
Billy sucked in his breath.
“The demon had a name,” the book said, “and once my great-grandfather discovered it somehow, and used it to send the beast away. But over time, the people’s fear took hold of them again, and they forgot the demon’s name. And then they could do nothing to stop it. It lives here, in the shadows of the hills, even today, with free reign over our souls.”
Billy was shaking. He gripped his shoulders to make it stop, but still he shivered. His mother had been killed by that thing, and was it for nothing? Was it just because these people had forgotten how to banish this beast? He thought of all the times he had sat with his father, eating soup alone as the sun set invisibly behind the shutters.
She had been taken at sunset, too. Billy tried to imagine his mother fighting back, escaping. But it ended as it always did, in a bloody scene he couldn’t see for all the red in it. He closed his eyes.
“Mama,” he said to the rafters. “I will find its name. I will make it leave us.”
“What’s that?” Billy’s father was standing in the doorway of the little house, leaning on the post. “Were you talking to someone, Billy?”
Billy shook his head. His father came in with a load of firewood and set it in a stack on the hearth to get them through the night. Then he set about closing all the windows, and, when the room was darkened into gloom, he came back in, locked the door, and lit the lamp.
Billy ate dinner with his father at the old wood table in the center of the room, silently as always. But inside his mind, a plan was hatching.
When the sun had fully set and their dinner was done, Billy helped his father wash the dishes, and he let himself be tucked into bed. His father sat before the fire with his pipe in one hand and a book in the other, until Billy began to snore. Then he too nodded off. His book fell into his lap, and his pipe slowly, slowly sank down until it dusted the floor in his limp hand.
Billy waited longer. He waited until not a single ember could be seen from the fire, and the lamp had died away. The little house was finally pitch black. And that was when Billy Wane left the house after dark for the first time in his life.
He crept up to the door, lifted the bar, and very, ever so quietly opened the door and peeked outside. The light was astonishing. Outside the door, the trees around the town were thrown into sharp relief by a bright full moon that danced above Billy in a pitch black sky. A wash of stars was thrown over the cottage, which stood at the end of the row, just at the edge of the haunted hills.
Billy closed the door behind him and hurried to the shade of the trees. Staying hidden would not be as easy as he had hoped, with all this light playing about the village. He could almost feel eyes on him as he tiptoed to the treeline. He hoped, with his breath in his throat, that the demon was not waiting for him in the forest, right where he was heading.
But he made it to the trees, and he headed deeper into the forest and the grassy lands that lay beyond the village to the south.
The ground was strange beneath his feet, bumpier than he remembered it from the daytime. And he had expected owls, bats, but there were no animals making any noise at all in the hills.
Billy stopped to listen. That really was strange, the lack of animal sounds. He thought he had heard something, but now all was quiet. The breeze whistled through the trees, and the grass rippled around his knees.
Then, he heard it again. A moaning sound set to music. No, a laughing. A groaning, laughing sound just over the hills to his right. Billy crept slowly toward the hilltop where the trees gave way to grasslands, and he peeped over the top.
A red light glowed below him, a fire from a huge pit in the ground that Billy had never seen before. Terrible cries came up to him from below, from a ring of people dancing and lurching around the fire. They were half naked and brandished sticks and branches in their hands.
Billy had a terrible moment in which he wondered if his mother was down there, with the other captives, being forced into merriment for the beast’s amusement. Would he find her alive? Half so? He couldn’t bear to think how long she had been forced to carry on like this, and the horrors she had been suffering ever since they had given her up for dead.
“Silence!” a voice boomed over the music, and it faded away into whimpering whistles and died. “We celebrate tonight because we are the princes of the air,” the terrible voice said. Billy couldn’t see where it was coming from. “We celebrate, for we rule this place and have for three hundred years, and we will for three thousand more,” the voice bellowed, “because we are legion.”
Billy gasped and clapped his hands to his mouth to keep from crying out. They weren’t captives below him. They weren’t the dead and half-dead he had grieved. They were demons. Hundreds of them. The scope of the chaos that would descend on his town if they ever fought back like Billy was trying to do descended on his mind. The children. The women. The reason the demon had held such sway here wasn’t that it was the most terrible beast in creation.
It was that it was an army of hell.
Billy scrambled down the grassy back of the hill and ran into the forest, no longer caring if he was heard. Tears poured down his face.
“How could they let this happen to you, Mama?” he cried. “How could they forget—.”
But then Billy Wane stopped and turned.
He listened to the crowd below the hill, and he listened to the silence of the night. He remembered what he had come there for.
And he knew what had been forgotten.
Billy Wane climbed to the top of the hill and stood in full view of the red flames below. Before he had even spoken a word, the music that had started up again died off, and several hundred demons stared up at him from the grassy plain below.
They began to leer and snicker, until the voice silenced them.
“What are you doing out at night, boy?” the voice demanded.
“I have come,” Billy Wane said loudly, “to tell you to leave this place and never return.”
The demons howled with laughter. The ones closest to the hill began to climb it on all fours, licking their lips and snapping at him with sharp teeth.
“How is a little boy like you going to make all of us leave this place we so adore?” the voice mocked him. “You don’t even know what name by which to call me. How could you learn all of our names… before we kill and eat you?”
Billy’s knees were shaking, so he pressed them together and shouted while he still had time, “I know your names. You,” he said, lowering his gaze into the center of the fire, “are Legion, for you are many, and you will leave this place now and never return.”
Billy thought the raging screams would knock him over for sheer force. A wind whipped up the hill, sweeping the demons with it over his head. The fire blazed in the fast-moving air, and then completely died to ashes and smoke.
The red light that had flickered against the hills was extinguished in a moment, and the screams of protest were carried over the hills and into the eastern desert.
Billy surveyed the valley below him, wondering if he had just been dreaming.
But there, around a pile of ashes, were sticks and branches laid helter skelter around the pit. It had happened.
But it would never happen again.
Billy Wane returned through the forest slowly, soaking up the sound of the night breeze, and the hoots of an owl who had come to perch on a tree branch near Billy’s path back to the village.
He stepped out of the treeline and breathed in the wash of stars over his father’s cottage. He wouldn’t frighten his father by sleeping outside, but he opened the door and lit the fire, and he burned the book within a book to create more light to read by.