Stiltskin

It was there each day, that monster, each day and every night, an old thing that had felt the pitted hole in me and settled there, like rot in the hollow of a old tree. At once it had fed off my veins, drinking the fat and the liquor until I couldn’t stand upright without reeling, until even the gentlest surface wore my skin to blisters. 

Soon it had been there for so long that I feared a life without it, as if I might fall in on myself, as still and as vacuous as a handpuppet when the compelling arm is slipped away. Strange to think how I’d ever existed without it; creation came on the on the diaphonous wings of that cold little beast.

One night it caught my eye in a mirror, as it often did, standing behind me- its damp breath on my neck -and ran the chill tip of its finger into the shallows of my clavicle. I flinched away, and yet part of me wanted to press that thin hand against me; by now I was so used to its polar burn that it felt almost good, Stockholm Syndrome in the tight of my sinew and the chap of my lips and the blue of my skin at my fingertips where no blood seemed to reach, anymore.

“There’s not much of you left, now,” it said, gently. “Give the last of it over to me.”

“No.”

“But why? It’s too late to usurp me, you know.”

The voice was a wheedling thing, the voice of the hot-breathed cousin in a darkened room, of a disappointed friend, of myself, had my vocal chords been gutted like a church in some medieval flame. It dizzied me to think that one being could encompass so many things at once, and yet none of them at all.

“What heights we could reach, you and I,” it said. “I have so much to give. You could have it all, and more, if you let me. You could watch me make a great spectacle of your life and rest within me. I ask for so little, after all.”

I shook my head, but the fluttering of truth in its words set the hairs on the back of my neck upright. When I’d first seen the creature it had frightened me, a gangling thing of splintered shadow and human bone, skull cap and fibula and chattering jaw stolen for a crown. The flesh upon its chest had been racked so thin that I’d seen its heart beating redly within like guttering lamplight, and its height, two feet above mine, had been hunched and stooped low with the sinking weight of time.

But it had spoken in the whisper of all the aching things that I wanted, whether or not they were meant to be mine, and thus greed displaced revulsion, and I tried to make a friend of it.

Night after night the thing had come with new offerings, and each time I was sorely tempted to take them, each time resisting. The Fae are all malice and cunning, you see, as quick to slip you a needle into the soft beneath your fingernail than make real any human desire.

But I didn’t know that, then; it was only some last lucid sharpness that pricked me against acquiescence, making my mouth refuse what my insides called for.

“Why do you rebuke me, woman?” it asked, its lips raising gooseflesh on my nape. “You are ugly, and you are poor, and run to waste. Let me change the grim stock of your life. I have told you of the princesses I’ve served, have I not?”

“There aren’t any princesses anymore,” I said. “They’re all old, or dead, and gone.”

“Are they? I remember there being so many, once. You know the stories, of course?”

I nodded reluctantly. I’d guessed which of the Fae had visited some months before; it had teased me with hint and suggestion until I’d half-said its name, halting me even before the first syllable. Of course I’d laughed, laughed hard and incredulous to think of such fantasy making my mind its hostel, and then I’d believed it, for it had no reason to lie.

“Those old days were very easy,” it murmured. “Crowning paupers from the filth of the sty. Those girls lived in wealth, forever- at least, wealth of a kind.”

The finger that had been caressing my collarbone inched between my breasts, but was gone before I had the chance to beat it away. The creature laughed, a long, rattling chuckle as if something was caught in its lungs. It was old, this thing, so old that the room took on the smell of dust for hours each time it emerged from within me. Patience came to it like breathing, one night a mere flicker in the fathomless eve of forever.

“Did they live happily ever after?” I asked. “These girls you said you helped?”

The Fae tilted its skull- no larger than a child’s, it was, and with no features at all besides two back, liquid eyes -and seemed to ponder, a finger tracing its mouth.
 
“Most did not ask for happiness, in so simple a term, and thus it was not mine to give in a trade. Satisfaction and joy do not alway make fine mirrors of one another. Sudden wealth can cobble ruin. Te incidental death of an oppressor-king can make room for another to rise. A child conceived may not seed from the loins of a chosen father, and a marriage to even the most lavish suitor might be the pallid mimic of poorer folk better matched. I can only say that I give what I am asked for, and nothing more. I keep my word.”

The creature’s eyes, a wet, untouchable, deep, were somehow gleeful in the making of its case.

I shook my head.

“There’s too much risk.”

“What great choice comes without it?”

I gripped either size of the full length mirror, causing my reflection to shake.

“You expect something in return, do you?” I asked, my jaw gritted fast, as if tetanus had set into the nerve.

“Yes, yes, and yes again. I trade in wishes, and in each trade something is given in exchange. You couldn’t begrudge me that, when I’m so hungry, so tired, so needful. Could you, my dearest little friend who has already given so much?”

The Fae ran a hand as light as a lily filament through my hair, and I noticed the sheer strength poised behind its beguiling weakness. It guided my head close to the mirror, forcing me to meet my own gaze in the glass. My eyes had dimmed so that they were almost as dark as the creature’s own, although not nearly so sharp.

“I have appetites that you could never understand,” said the Fae. “Not even in the deepest marrows of your human hunger.”

“In the old stories you stole- children,” I said, haltingly. “Exchanged gold for first-borns, something like that.”

“Did I? Whatever would I want them for?”

For all its denial I saw the flicker of slavering remembrance in its stare.

“I don’t know,” I whispered. “To eat, I used to think, when I was little.”

The Fae’s cruel rictus of a face lazily inlined, and I sensed the danger in even that languid motion.

“Well, why else would you take them?” I demanded, my voice trembling.

“Ah, so you want to know?”

Again that frostbitten hand caressed the ruin of my flesh, and as much as I screamed to peel myself away I did not dare.

“I picked their veins like thread,” it told me, in a filthy sing-song. “Burned their fat beneath a candlewick, ground their teeth for powders and spun their downy hair into golden flax. They were picked clean in our Court, those given children. There was no waste, don’t worry your fair human head about that.”

For the first time in so very long I felt enough of something to be afraid.

“I don’t want to have children,” I said. “So I can’t promise you any of mine.”

“What you have is better,” the Fae replied. “It will fill me. Give me your ambition, your friendships, the smile from your lips, and you will be everything you ever wanted to be always, now and always, eternal. You will be envied and desired, until the end, I promise it.”

I imagined myself lonely and beautiful, and in that moment I felt my blood beat with yearning.

“That’s a lot to ask to pay for one thing,” I said.

The creature laughed again, as if I was but a stupid child.

Forever does not come cheaply. And at least I am telling you what you will lose. So many people give themselves up without knowing that. Now, let me take it away, the burden of an insignificant life.”

It moved around me, shivering with desire. I watched it, my breath catching on the closeness of my need. If I refused it I knew that it would only come again, and again, mocking me as I aged and fattened and lost my talent and, thus, the power to bargain. Yet if I agreed I would suffer, and suffer deep. From the delicious teasing of its voice I sensed that, tones rippling with an undercurrent of revelling cruelty.

People all over the world, throughout time, have been willing to hurt for their desires, to plunge themselves into misery for the flavour of infamous life. I could only imagine the centuries this creature had whiled harvesting the potential of millions- addicts, victims, the downtrodden, forgotten artists that should have been known -theiving true opportunity to better itself.

Still, I wanted it. I wanted what it had so badly that I could smell my own starvation, sweat-musk and the bile tang of empty-bellied need, every tendon straining for the gift only a trickster could provide.

Closing my eyes, I shook my head.

“No. No. I won’t give you anything.”

I felt the creature flow towards me like dank mist, its sudden rage palpable in the air.

“What? What did you say to me?”

“You heard me. No. You’d sell me a-a sickness. I don’t want it. Go away.”

Suddenly its hands were fast around my throat and I felt how easily it could kill me, if it wished to, like a gardener dead-heading a rose.

“I’ll come again,” it rasped. “You can’t get rid of me; so many stupid girls have tried. Knowing what I am will not help you.”

“So I’ll say the only two words you’ll really hear,” I said, softly. “You were fool enough to let me know them.”

Half-expecting the creature to crack my neck like the stalk of a sugar snap I braced myself, itching with the ghost of its previous caress. But nothing came, nothing of the kind. I felt the Fae’s breath held in its paper-lantern lungs, its nails poised at my throat like little blades of glass.

“You will not say them,” it said. “You’ll have nothing. Be nothing. You wouldn’t dare.”

I leaned close to the mirror and exhaled, hot, white fog on reflective glass.

“The first,” I said, “is no.”

The creature recoiled, its hands jolting from my strained neck as if I held a lightning bolt in my throat.

“You won’t say the other,” it said, its voice no more than a static crackle, standing up the merest hairs on my earlobe. “You do not have it in you.”

I sucked in a breath

It was there each day, that monster, each day and every night, an old thing that had felt the pitted hole in me and settled there, like rot in the hollow of a old tree. At once it fed off my veins, drinking the fat and the liquor until I couldn’t stand upright without reeling, until even the gentlest surface wore my skin to blisters. 

Soon it had been there for so long that I feared a life without it, as if I might fall in on myself, as still and as vacuous as a handpuppet when the compelling arm is slipped away. Strange to think how I’d ever existed without it; creation came on the on the diaphonous wings of that cold little beast.

One night it caught my eye in a mirror, as it often did, standing behind me, damp breath on my neck, and ran the chill tip of its finger into the shallows of my clavicle. I flinched away, and yet part of me wanted to press that thin hand against me. By now I was so used to its polar burn that it felt almost good, Stockholm Syndrom in the tight of my sinew and the chap of my lips and the blue of my skin at my fingertips where no blood seemed to reach, anymore.

“There’s not much of you left, now” it said, gently. “Give the last of it over to me.”

“No.”

“But why? It’s too late to usurp me, you know.”

The voice was a wheedling thing, the voice of the hot-breathed cousin in a darkened room, of a disappointed friend, of myself, had my vocal chords been gutted like a church in some medieval flame. It dizzied me to think that one being could encompass so many things at once, and yet none of them at all.

“What heights we could reach, you and I,” it said. “I have so much to give. You could have it all, and more, if you let me. You could watch me make a great spectacle of your life and rest within me. I ask for so little, after all.”

I shook my head, but the fluttering of truth in its words set the hairs on the back of my neck upright. When I had first seen the creature it had frightened me, a gangling thing of splintered shadow and human bone, skull cap and fibula and chattering jaw stolen for a crown. The flesh upon its chest had been racked so thin that I could see its heart beating redly within like guttering lamplight, and its height, two feet above mine, was hunched and stooped low with the sinking weight of time.

But it spoke in the whisper of all the aching things that I wanted, whether or not they were meant to be mine, and thus greed displaced revulsion, and I tried to make a friend of it.

Night after night the thing had come with new offerings, and each time I was sorely tempted to take them, each time resisting. The Fae are all malice and cunning, you see, as quick to slip you a needle into the soft beneath your fingernail than make real any human desire.

But I didn’t know that, then; it was only some last lucid sharpness that pricked me against acquiescence, making my mouth refuse what my insides called for.

“Why do you rebuke me, woman?” it asked, its lips raising gooseflesh on my nape. “You are ugly, and you are poor, and run to waste. Let me change the grim stock of your life. I have told you of the princesses I’ve served, have I not?”

“There aren’t any princesses anymore. They’re all old, or dead, and gone.”

“Are they? I remember there being so many, once. You know the stories, of course?”

I nodded reluctantly. I’d guessed which of the Fae had visited some months before; it had teased me with hint and suggestion until I’d half-said its name, halting me before the first syllable. Of course I’d laughed, laughed hard and incredulous to think of such fantasy making my mind its hostel, and then I’d believed it, for it had no reason to lie.

“Those old days were very easy,” it murmured. “Crowning paupers from the filth of the sty. Those girls lived in wealth, forever- at least, wealth of a kind.”

The finger that had been caressing my collarbone inched between my breasts, but was gone before I had the chance to beat it away. The creature laughed, a long, rattling chuckle as if something was caught in its lungs. It was old, this thing, so old that the room took on the smell of dust for hours each time it emerged from within me. Patience came to it like breathing, one night a mere flicker in the fathomless eve of forever.

“Did they live happily ever after?” I asked. “These girls you said you helped?”

The Fae tilted its skull- no larger than a child’s, it was, and with no features at all besides two back, liquid eyes -and seemed to ponder, a finger tracing its mouth.
 
“Most did not ask for happiness, in so simple a term, and thus it was not mine to give in a trade. Satisfaction and joy do not alway make fine mirrors of one another. Sudden wealth can cobble ruin, the incidental death of an oppressor-king making room for another to rise. A child conceived may not seed from the loins of a chosen father, and a marriage to even the most lavish suitor may seem the pallid mimic of a love between poorer folk better matched. I can only say that I give what I am asked for, and nothing more. I keep my word.”

The creature’s eyes, a wet, untouchable, deep, were somehow gleeful in the making of its case.

I shook my head.

“There’s too much risk.”

“What great choice comes without it?”

I gripped either size of the full length mirror, causing my reflection to shake.

“You expect something in return, do you?” I asked, my jaw gritted fast, as if as tetanus had set into the nerve.

“Yes, yes, and yes again. I trade in wishes, and in each trade something is given in exchange. You couldn’t begrudge me that, when I’m so hungry, so tired, so needful. Could you, my dearest little friend who has already given so much?”

The Fae ran a hand thin as a lily filament through my hair, and I noticed the strength poised behind its beguiling weakness. It guided my head close to the mirror, forcing me to meet my own gaze in the glass. My eyes had dimmed so that they were almost as dark as the creature’s own, although not nearly so sharp.

“I have appetites that you could never understand,” said the Fae. “Not even in the deepest marrows of your human hunger.”

“In the old stories you stole- children,” I said, haltingly. “Exchanged gold for first-borns, something like that.”

“Did I? Whatever would I want them for?”

For all its denial I saw the flicker of slavering remembrance in its stare.

“I don’t know,” I whispered. “To eat, I used to think, when I was little.”

The Fae’s cruel rictus of a face lazily inlined, and I sensed the danger in even that languid motion.

“Well, why else would you take them?” I demanded, my voice trembling.

“Ah, so you want to know?”

Again that frostbitten hand caressed the ruin of my flesh, and as much as I screamed to peel myself away I did not dare.

“I picked their veins like thread,” it told me, in a filthy sing-song. “Burned their fat beneath a candlewick, ground their teeth for powders and spun their downy hair into golden flax. They were picked clean in our Court, those given children. There was no waste, don’t worry your fair human head about that.”

For the first time in so very long I felt enough of something to be afraid.

“I don’t want to have children,” I said. “So I can’t promise you any of mine.”

“What you have is better,” the Fae replied. “It will fill me. Give me your ambition, your friendships, the smile from your lips, and you will be everything you ever wanted to be always, now and always, eternal. You will be envied and desired, until the end, I promise it.”

I imagined myself lonely and beautiful, and in that moment I felt my blood beat with yearning.

“That’s a lot to ask to pay for one thing.”

The creature laughed again, as if I were a stupid child.

“Forever does not come cheaply. At least I am telling you what you will lose. So many people give themselves up without knowing that. Now let me take it away. The burden of an insignificant life.”

It moved around me, shivering with desire. I watched it, my breath catching on the closeness of my need. If I refused it I knew that it would only come again, and again, mocking me as I aged and fattened and lost my talent and the power to bargain. Yet if I agreed I would suffer, and suffer deep. From the delicious teasing of its voice I sensed it, tones rippling with an undercurrent of revelling cruelty.

People all over the world, throughout time, have been willing to hurt for their desires, to plunge themselves in misery for the flavour of infamous life. I could only imagine the centuries this creature had spent harvesting the potential of millions- addicts, victims, the downtrodden, forgotten artists we should have known -theiving true opportunity to better themselves, slipping lies under their skin.

Still, I wanted it. I wanted it so badly that I could smell my own starvation, sweat-musk and the bile tang of empty-bellied need, every tendon straining for the gift a trickster could provide.

Closing my eyes, I shook my head.

“No. No. I won’t give you anything.”

I felt the creature flow towards me like dank mist, its sudden rage palpable in the air.

“What? What did you say to me?”

“You heard me. No. You’d sell me a sickness. I don’t want it. Go away.”

Suddenly its hands were fast around my throat and I felt how easily it could kill me, if it wished to, like a gardener dead-heading a rose.

“I’ll come back,” it rasped. “You can’t get rid of me with names; so many stupid girls have tried. Knowing who I am will not help you.”

“So I’ll say the only two words you’ll hear,” I said, softly. “You were fool enough to let me know them.”

Half-expecting the creature to crack my neck like the stalk of a sugar snap I braced myself, itching with the ghosts of its previous caress. But nothing came, nothing of the kind. I felt the Fae’s breath held in its paper-lantern lungs, its nails poised at my throat like little blades of glass.

“You will not say them,” it said. “You’ll have nothing. Be nothing. You wouldn’t dare.”

I leaned close to the mirror and exhaled, hot, white fog on reflective glass.

“The first,” I said, “is no.”

The creature recoiled, its hands jolting from my strained neck as if I held a lightning bolt in my throat.

“You won’t say the other,” it said, its voice no more than a static crackle, standing up the merest hairs on my earlobe. “You do not have it in you.”

I sucked in a breath- in-out, short-fast as the bellows.

“Not yet. But one day. I know your name. You- you should be careful.”

I was all brovado and bluster but it couldn’t know, didn’t know, fearing the overhanging threat of what a mere human might do. When I turned around I saw that the Fae had gone out like a light, taking its the oppressive weight of it its hunger with it.

I sat- or collapsed, rather -on the floor, my forehead connecting with the mirror’s unforgiving glass.

Exhaustion came in a listless tide, but I knew better than to let myself drift afloat in it. It would find me again, the thing in stolen bones, and I would have to find the energy to drive it back again, each day and every night, as I had since it had first found me. I’d have to grit my teeth and close my eyes, and throw away the glittering promises that it had offered to me in upturned palms.

But not now. This night was mine.

Published by Ruthless

I'm a 26 year old horror writer!

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