1 – My Classmate is an Eldritch Horror
The most merciful thing in the world, Alex thought, was the fact none of the class commented on his mismatching socks when he introduced himself.
Alex didn’t normally worry about socks. He didn’t worry about most things, except today was his first day at a new school in a new town in a new country, and for some damned reason his brain had realised he had odd socks on and panicked. He’d already caught the bus, too, so it wasn’t like he could go back and change.
What if his classmates saw the odd socks and decided he was weird? What if there was if there was an unwritten social rule that anyone wearing odd socks would be excommunicated from the student body, shunned to a corner of asymmetrical shame?
None of these things happened. Alex stammered through his self-introduction then sat in the only empty seat, and no one batted an eye. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Were you really that nervous?”
It was the girl next to him who spoke, her words so soft they almost rustled. Raven hair framed a slender face, and her eyes glittered emerald.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of.” The girl smiled for just a little too long. “We’re all humans, here, just like you.”
Alex wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
“I guess?” He placed his folder and pens on the table. His skin prickled and he rubbed the back of his neck, certain he felt someone’s eyes on him. Was it the odd socks?
A quick glance around the classroom told him no one was paying attention. A guy played on his phone under the table and a couple played with each other’s fingers in blatant disregard of those sitting next to them. Alex rolled his eyes. Straight people.
“I’m Kari.” The girl next to him extended her hand.
Alex shook it. “Nice to meet you.” Her skin was cool, like warm ice. Wait, how could ice be warm?
Eyes stabbed into him and he glanced around once more, but no one was looking his way. The only person that stood out was one guy to the front of the class, his back profile unusually attractive. Alex very much doubted he’d been the one looking.
The lesson started and Alex’s attention drifted to the whiteboard. What was it again? He hadn’t checked his timetable.
The lunch bell rang and Alex fought through the mad rush to follow Kari down the stairs, the only person he’d talked to so far. She flowed effortlessly through the crowd, or perhaps the crowd parted for her. Alex couldn’t quite tell.
“Is it normally this busy?” Alex said. He winced as an elbow poked him in the ribs.
“The cafeteria only makes so many pizzas a day,” Kari said. “It’s a race if you don’t bring your own food.”
Kari led him to a seat by the back of the cafeteria, next to a massive row of windows. The cafeteria overlooked the shore, the sea churning grey and clouds choking the sky. Seagulls wheeled through the air.
“I always like sitting here,” Kari said. “The view isn’t so claustrophobic.”
Food was served at the other end of the cafeteria, and that was where most of the student body conglomerated.
“It’s nice to have a bit more quiet,” Alex agreed.
Kari unwrapped her sandwiches with uncanny elegance.
“What do you think of Rilhey?” she asked.
“It’s good being by the sea,” Alex said. “Peaceful.” Goodness knew he needed some peace after the bustling mess of Boston.
“It doesn’t stay peaceful for long,” Kari said. Her green eyes bore into his soul and he scratched his neck uncomfortably.
Something was off about Kari. Alex didn’t know what, but it nagged at the back of his mind, a creeping unease with no apparent source. Was it her porcelain skin, too perfect to be real? Was it the grace in her step, each movement like the quiver of a delicate tendril? Was it the way the other students stole shuttered glances at her, whispering behind her back?
No one else came to sit with them, and Alex was beginning to suspect Kari had no friends. But then, neither did Alex.
“So, tell me about yourself,” Alex said. His parents always said to never judge someone until you knew all sides of them.
Kari frowned. “Why?”
“I’m just trying to make conversation.”
“I’m a regular human, just like you,” Kari said. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
She sure talked about being human an awful lot. Perhaps she was an amateur philosopher.
“How would you start a conversation?” Alex said. Was it some thinking exercise? A fun fact about ancient history?
Kari steepled her fingers and leaned forwards. “What’s your favourite flavour of bubble tea?”
“Bubble tea?” Alex faltered. He hadn’t been expecting this. “What’s bubble tea?”
Kari gaped. “You’ve never had bubble tea?”
The words hung in the air like a curse and, for some reason, Alex felt as if his very life depended on his answer.
Sweat trickled down Alex’s back. “No.”
“Oh my goodness.” Kari placed a hand to her chest, her face pale. “Excuse me, I… I need some air.”
Kari fled outside and Alex watched her go with a frown. What just happened?
Someone cleared their throat behind him. A girl stood with her arms folded, her hair tied in a ponytail that fell across her dark skin. She carried herself with the clear self-importance of someone on the student council, and the badge pinned to her lapel confirmed Alex’s suspicions.
“You should be careful around her,” the girl said.
Alex blinked. “What?”
“Kari,” the girl said. “She’s not what she seems.”
“Right.” Alex took this with a pinch of salt. “And you are?”
“Melody First.” She flicked her hair. “I sit behind you in class.”
Ah. That explained the eyes he’d felt on him. If Melody had a problem with Kari, Alex didn’t want to get involved. Then again, he didn’t like the idea of Melody bullying Kari, either. Kari was friendly enough, if unhealthily attached to bubble tea.
Melody’s eyes narrowed. “There are some things in this world the human mind isn’t supposed to know.”
“Like differential equations?” Alex raised his eyebrow.
Melody ignored him. “You’ll know soon enough,” she said. “I can only pray it’s not too late.” She made a circular gesture with her hand.
Oh, that explained things. Melody was religious.
“I’ll be sure to… take your advice,” Alex said. He wasn’t exactly sure what Melody was advising him on, but it seemed like the right thing to say to make her go away.
Melody nodded. “Good.” She tensed suddenly, clenching her fists. “She’s back.”
Alex followed her glare to where Kari was walking back to the table, her posture determined. He turned to Melody, but she was gone.
Kari sat down. “I’ve decided.”
Had Kari seen Melody talking to him?
“You’re coming with me to get bubble tea after school,” Kari said. She locked her jaw. “I will rectify this mistake in your upbringing, if it’s the last thing I do.”
‘Rainbow Tea’ lay in the centre of Rilhey, nestled between a Chinese takeaway and a fish-and-chips shop. The wallpaper was bright and the upholstery was exclusively pastel, and Alex could smell the sugar, even from outside the shop. It looked delicious, and was very much closed on Mondays.
Kari had been silent for five minutes.
Alex swallowed. “Uh…”
She snapped back to reality.
“I will not let mere opening hours stop me.” Kari turned on her heels. Her short hair flicked like a knife. “Come.”
Alex hastened after her. “Where are we going?”
“My house.” Kari’s eyes narrowed. “I have tapioca pearls at home.”
Kari lived at the edge of Rilhey, her house smothered by trees. Alex’s spine crawled as he followed Kari down the rickety path, the foliage overhead so dense it cast everything in a permanent murk. Birds cawed overhead and creatures rustled through the undergrowth, making clicks and snaps and noises that shouldn’t have been able to exist.
Alex clenched his fist, his nails digging into his palm. Stop it. He was imagining things, that was all.
Kari’s house squatted on a bluff that poked out from the forest, waves crashing against jagged rocks far below. There were no other buildings in sight. The house itself was of whitewashed bricks and stout timbers, the geometry off in a way that made blood rush in Alex’s ears. Planes and edges curved into angles that were both acute and obtuse, and the word ‘non-Euclidean’ came to mind. Alex had no idea why; he didn’t even know what ‘non-Euclidean’ meant.
Kari pushed open the door. “Well?” she said. “Come on in.”
Melody’s words pounded in Alex’s head. ‘She’s not what she seems.’ His throat went dry and his limbs sagged. Kari cocked her head and her eyes still glittered despite the twilight. Mesmerising.
Alex stepped past the threshold.
A delicious smell wafted through the air. It filled Alex’s nose and shuddered through his body, and he had to fight not to drool. The inside of the house was comfortably decorated, with warm yellow wallpaper and exposed timber wrapping around the corridor. A serrated knife hung by the front door, its blade what appeared to be bone. Three tiny holes were pressed into the blade’s edge, and rusted lines dripped from them. Perhaps Kari’s parents were into archaeology?
“Take your shoes off,” Kari said.
Her voice startled him, cutting through the silence. Alex slipped out of his shoes.
Kari’s mouth curled. “You’re wearing odd socks.”
Heat flushed his face. “I wasn’t paying attention this morning.”
“Kari?” a voice called from the other room. “Is that you?”
A middle-aged woman poked her head into the corridor, her hair tied back and a green apron tied around her waist. Her eyes darted to Alex and ice burned through his blood, but the sensation was gone as quickly as it came. The woman was barely as tall as Kari, and her head only came up to Alex’s chest.
“You brought a guest home.” The woman smiled with bloodless lips. “A boy.”
Kari seemed unperturbed. “This is Alex,” she said. “He hasn’t tried bubble tea before.”
“How dreadful,” the woman said dryly. “I’m Hana, Kari’s mum.”
Something bleated. A shadow flitted down the corridor and Alex jumped, then it came into view: a goat kid, pitch-black and bouncing with energy. Kari bent down and petted its chin fondly.
“This is Shub,” Kari said. She picked up the kid and stood next to her mum. “As you can see, we’re a completely normal, human family.”
Alex laughed nervously. “You can only joke about being human so much before it becomes suspicious.”
“Noted,” Hana said. Neither her nor Kari’s expressions changed.
Silence dragged past and Alex’s gut twisted, his palms damp with sweat. What was he doing here? And why did the darkness broil at the edge of his vision, a hellish fog just beyond perception?
Kari set Shub down. “I’ll boil the pearls.”
Alex had almost forgotten about the bubble tea. He went to follow Kari into the kitchen but Hana blocked his path, a wide grin carved into her face. He was a good head taller than her but she seemed to tower over him, her shape swallowing the corridor.
“Alex, could you help me move something in the study?” Hana said. Her voice was sickly sweet. “It’s on the top shelf, and my little arms can’t reach.”
Alex glanced at Kari for help, but she was busy pouring tapioca pearls into a pot. Her eyes were fixed intently on her task.
“Sure.” He didn’t have much choice. The dread in his heart was just nerves, anxiety at meeting new people. His brain was playing tricks on him and making him see things that weren’t there.
Alex’s heart pounded with each step he took, and Hana closed the door to the study behind him. The room had no windows, lit only by flickering candles, and leather-bound tomes lined the walls. There was a single desk in the room, on which sat a bleached, human skull.
Alex’s stomach dropped. “What—”
“Alex.” Hana smiled, and had she always had three eyes? “Alex, Alex, ALEX
The light twisted and the room seemed to warp, the walls bowing and ceiling buckling. Hana loomed taller and taller and taller, green eyes bursting all over her writhing flesh.
An unholy terror choked Alex and he scrambled backwards, but there was no door. His fingers scraped against nothing but cold plaster. Oh god.
“Kari!” he screamed, pounding on the wall so hard that pain shot down his bones.
WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH MY DAUGHTER? the thing that was Hana said.
Alex fell to the floor and the breath fled his lungs. Eyes and mouths and undulating tendrils strangled his vision, a horror so unimaginable his eyes burned at the mere sight of it. Nausea stabbed through his body and something trickled from his nose: blood.
YOU CAN’T ESCAPE, Hana rasped. YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE COME HERE.
Tendrils whipped through the air and Alex clutched his head, squeezing his eyes shut. It was a nightmare. Nothing this horrific could be real.
YOU WERE DOOMED THE MOMENT YOU SET YOUR LECHEROUS GAZE UPON MY DAUGHTER.
A thought sparked in his brain, a desperate hope there’d been some dread misunderstanding. Alex blinked his eyes open. A gargantuan mouth leered before him, torn straight through the fabric of reality, and his entire body shook.
YOU WILL BE DEVOURED, JUST AS YOU PLANNED TO DEVOUR HER.
The image was seared into his brain, the abomination. Even then, words clawed their way from his throat, one last plea for life:
The world snapped back to normal and Hana clapped her hands together, as human as she’d ever been.
“Oh sweetie, why didn’t you say so?” Hana beamed. “We love the gays, here. This might be a household of outer gods, but we’re very progressive.”
Alex could only cower, cosmic terrors still howling in his mind. His sanity hung by a thread.
Kari opened the door. “The bubble tea is ready.”
The thread snapped.