Jennifer Clary worked at Regan National Airport as a security guard. One of the many airports in the D.C. and Baltimore area. It was a year after the 9/11 attacks, and like all other airports, it was on tight security.
Jennifer found a huge wooden box in the waiting area while on her daily patrol. A large suitcase in an airport is usually no cause for alarm, but this was a hulking, ornate trunk with odd symbols carved into the wood.
Jennifer asked the TSA agents if they saw anyone who checked in with the chest and if any of them cleared it through security. None of them remembered the trunk or anyone checking in with it.
The box beamed with a scarlet light, making the carved sigils glow, black tendrils snaked out the lid, and a low voice whispered from the box:
They summoned me a year ago, with fear and blood. I will feed upon ruin and use man’s hatred to turn this nation to ash.
“Clary, I’m going to need to call the bomb squad over to take the box.”
She nearly jumped out of her skin and grabbed her taser. She turned, and Officer Mullins stood behind her. A serious old man with a tight buzz-cut.
“Yes, Sir,” nodded Jennifer.
She glanced behind her. The inky shadows and crimson light had disappeared.
“You need to cordon off the area. I’ll clear the rest of the building,” said Mullins.
Jennifer went to work clearing the few people in the waiting area. She put yellow security tape and waited for the bomb squad to come and take the box out.
Once again, the box glowed scarlet and dark vines came back and snaked over the box. Something in the trunk pounded to get out as black flies buzzed around the trunk. A scream caught in her throat as one of the black tendrils curled around her ankle.
Security cleared out the rest of the airport when the bomb squad came. Sweat had soaked through Jennifer’s uniform, and her heart pounded.
As a technician examined the trunk as the inky tendrils wrapped around him, pulling him to the ground. Coughing violently, he fell to the floor, writhing in pain. The rest of the squad backed off, and an EMT ushered Jennifer out of the building.
They went outside into the crisp October air. Police and emergency vehicles surrounded the airport. Media vans with news anchors were outside reading statements about a bioweapon left at Regan National Airport.
A hazmat crew from Fort Detrick rushed towards the box and quickly ran it out of the building. The creature inside laughed maniacally.
A young EMT hurried Jennifer to an ambulance, where they checked her for poisoning and signs of illness. The doctor was cold and exacting. He told her to stay home in quarantine for the next week. He told her to call immediately on the onset of symptoms.
Jennifer went to her small Nissan and waited in the traffic, ready to leave the airport. She dialed the knob through static and found a news station. The lead technician of the bomb squad had died of some mysterious poisoning or bioweapon. There were reports of another biological attack with Anthrax, though Anthrax didn’t kill that quickly. A hazmat crew came to clean out the entire airport and closed Regan National to the public for the rest of the month. News anchors reported the incident as a terrorist attack. The National Gaurd would take over airport security until everything calmed down.
Jennifer clicked off the radio, her car clearing through the gridlock. Relieved she was finally going home. She still felt the tendrils around her ankle, writhing around and reaching into her veins. She would call the Doctor tomorrow. All she wanted to do was to leave the chaos and rest.
I live in the hatred of humanity. I am the beast that feeds on darkness and hatred. You can not rid me so easily once I have touched you.
Jennifer’s skin chilled to gooseflesh as the words echoed in her head. She pulled into a local Shell Station to collect herself. After a few deep breaths, she went to the register to buy gas and some hot cinnamon coffee to chase away the chill.
Chimes on the door played pleasantly as she left the station. As she walked to her car, tremendous pressure knocked her off her feet. Her blue blouse became deep crimson with blood, and her breath turned into labored, whistling gasps for air.
The bullet had hit her out of nowhere. The scarlet light returned, and vines enveloped her body, pulling her underneath the ground. Everything faded away to a dull, throbbing red and then to black.
Briana was a beautiful lass with nut-brown hair and wide blue eyes. She sang a tune to herself as she strolled through the emerald green hills of the country. Following the road, she neared the Sweeney’s farmhouse.
A loud crash sounded in the distance, followed by a chuckle and a high-pitched squeal. Briana ran into the barn to investigate. Angus Sweeney’s arms wrapped around a creature the size of a chicken. It was a wee fellow in a green suit with a red buckled hat and boots.
“You’re going to drop all your gold if you want to be set free,” grumbled Angus.
“Oi!” yelled Briana.
Angus dropped the leprechaun in surprise, and the creature flashed behind a hay bale.
“Bria, you just cost me a fortune. I hope yer happy,” Angus’ crossed his massive arms and pouted in silence.
“What did the little man do to deserve to be jostled so?”
“He has all the gold, mountains of wealth. You only need to catch them.”
Briana folded her arms. “So you capture them against their will until they drop coins? Sounds like robbery to me.”
“They’re not human. They’re Sidhe.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” sighed Briana, shaking her head.
“I didn’t come here to be nagged by a woman. I have important work to do,” he said as he plodded away from the barn.
Briana found a tiny shoe by the hay bale where the leprechaun was hiding. It was the most exquisite little thing she laid eyes on. The leather was as soft as butter, and the buckles shone of pure gold in the broken sunlight.
“Tank you very much, my lady,” he whispered.
The little fellow came out of hiding and kissed her hand and bowed.
“For rescuing me, I owe ye one wish. “
Briana thought for a moment and handed him back the shoe he was working on.
“I want to learn how to make shoes like that,” she said.
The leprechaun raised an eyebrow. “To teach a human such a task would take ages. I can offer you gold, a handsome husband, land, or a mansion.”
“If I learn how to make shoes as thus, I will earn my old gold. I can buy the land and mansion myself and won’t need a husband, no matter how handsome he is.”
The leprechaun sighed and shook his head.
“Very well, woman. We meet at daybreak past the green hill with the stone circle. Your days will be long, and your toil will be great. I wish you had asked for something else.”
“You are Sidhe. You must keep your bargain.”
“As I shall,” said the little man before vanishing.
Briana woke by the cocks crow the next dawn. She packed herself a small lunch and headed past town toward the fairy mound. Underneath the hill, she found a tiny workshop.
“Hello?” she called.
The little man came out of the shop and snapped his fingers, and Briana shrank to his size.
“You kept your promise and came at dawn,” he said, putting a corn-cob pipe in his mouth.
“I work on a farm. Waking up early is nothing to me.”
He nodded and led her into his workshop. There was a bench full of little shoes and a hearth with a little pot cooking over the flame. They had a meal of porridge and tea in complete silence.
“Tank you for the food, but I want to start the lessons now,” said Briana.
“Well, you can start by soaking the hides.” He pointed his hand toward a mountain of rabbit pelts.”
“The leather is from rabbits?” asked Briana.
“How else would it get so soft? The hides need to be soaked and cleaned. Now ye best get to it.”
Briana lifted the pelts and soaked them in a small peat bog. She dredged the heavy skins from the drink and squeezed them dry. She took a little round knife and skinned off the fur and flesh.
The leprechaun came by and picked through all the hides. He tossed them into the bog after finding one solitary hair on the leather.
Briana took a deep breath and soaked the skins again. She wrung and scraped the hides for a week, only stopping for meals of rabbit stew, brown bread, and tea. She slept short nights in a thatched bed. Eventually, after the cool spring breezes turned into the beating summer sun, the hides felt like silk under her hands.
The leprechaun came back and checked the leather and nodded in approval.
“I didn’t tink yea had it in you. Now we make the sole.”
The following day, he took her to a patch of forest with an enormous oak log. Briana spent the next week sawing the log into planks. She carved the wood into soles and sanded them smooth.
The leprechaun would inspect the soles and throw the ones that were too splintery into the fire. Her hands were rough and full of splinters. But as her hands grew rougher, the soles grew smoother.
The leprechaun came to the working mill with the soles and inspected them once more. He whistled as he saw the number of soles lying before him.
“Aye lass, these look fine. Yer next task is the fitting and sewing.”
As the summer sun turned to the crisp wind of autumn, Briana learned how to fit the leather to the sole and hammer the shoes together. She painstakingly fit each piece over the sole and hammered it to the wood. Once again, the leprechaun would inspect the shoes and threw the ill-fitted ones into the fire. As the warm colors of fall turned to the frost of winter, the leather fit the soles exquisitely.
“Last, I shall teach you how to make the buckles.”
He led her toward a large pot of gold coins. He showed her how to melt the coins using tiny bellows, the coals’ heat fending off the chill of winter.
After they melted the coins, she would cast the slurry into molds. When it cooled, Briana would polish the gold until her arms ached, and it still didn’t shine enough for the leprechaun. It wasn’t until the frozen ground thawed back to spring did she had the buckles polished to perfection.
In that year, Briana had helped the little man makes dozens of shoes. She now knew the craft of cobbling and could go back to the world of man.
The leprechaun looked at Briana with a forlorn expression as she left the workshop. His debt paid for. He let her take all the shoes that she had made.
All the times he had thrown the shoes into the fire or griped at her, she did not get angry or lash out. At worst, she would sigh and begin the same task again. He wished her well and drank a glass of ale the same size he was.
Briana grew to normal size as she returned to town. She sold the shoes for a handsome price and opened her own shop. She worked day and night tirelessly to keep her shelves stocked.
Rabbit pelts were a bit too small for humans, so she did her best with the skin of a stag. She couldn’t reasonably afford gold buckles but could buy the best brass and polish it to a blinding shine. Instead of giant oaks, she settled on good cork.
Her hands became rough and her slight frame filled out with muscle. Her face was still comely, and her chestnut hair was still silken, and her blue eyes were bright. Briana relished in her work and sang the most beautiful songs.
Angus Sweeney was now town mayor, and Briana’s craft and beauty caught his eye. He swaggered into her shop and plucked one shoe off the wall.
“I had thought you were a goner when you left town a year ago. It was as if you vanished. All of us thought the Sidhe had taken you.”
“I went to them of my free will. One of the little folk owed me a bargain,” Briana looked around her shop. “It looks like l succeeded.”
“I think you’d be happier as me, wife, ” said Angus, his broad shoulders blocking her door.
“I tink not, I earned everything here, not to have it ripped away by some bully.”
“You’ll have all the riches and never have to work again in your life.”
“I earned this right to work. I have honed my craft for a year straight. I belong to no man,” she spat.
“You did not learn this talent by natural means. You’ve consorted with fairies, and the devil touches you.”
Angus grabbed Briana and dragged her into the street to the courthouse.
“As mayor, I accuse this woman of witchcraft!”
Angus threw Briana into a small cell and locked the door. She curled up into a ball and cried through the night on the cold stone floor.
They called the priest to town the next morning. The people who had been in awe of her shoes the week before now reveled in the burning of her shop.
The mayor dragged her to a river, and the priest tied her hands together.
“If she sinks, then the Lord and will forgive her in heaven,” said the priest as he threw Briana into the rushing stream.
Before she could sink, a giant green salmon swam up to her and led her to the shallows. It used its colossal tail to knock to safety on the rocky bank.
“The woman consorts with the fairies. She is not of God’s creation,” said Angus, pointing at her.
Briana refused to let tears fall as they brought her to the pyre. They tied her to a stake. Before the townsfolk could light the stack of firewood, a bright green light dazzled everyone. When the townsfolk rubbed the sting from their eyes, Briana had vanished.
She was underground by the most beautiful palace she had ever seen. Walls carved out of crystal met shining silver doors and windows. Intricate knotwork framed every wall. There was no daylight, but carved prisms doused the cave in a rainbow glow.
By the gate stood the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He had copper hair and eyes of emerald green. His ears came to a point. He wore a beautiful green cloak fastened by a gleaming gold buckle.
“I owe you my life,” said Briana.
“I thought this would happen if I taught you. The crafts of the Sidhe weren’t meant for man. They are so often lost to jealousy and greed.”
“Do I know you, sir?” asked Briana, her head tilting toward the side.
“I know you. I saw you every day in my shop for a year. I know your rough hands and your calm temper. You could be a swan or a salmon, and I’d know who you are, Briana.”
“You’re the leprechaun,” said Briana, her mouth falling open.
“I cannot thank you enough, Mr. Leprechaun.”
“Call me Lugh.”
“I still owe you me life, Lugh” said, Briana.
“Then you’ll agree to marry me and be my queen. It’s been lonely since ya left.” Lugh knelt before Briana.
“But you taught me how to make all those shoes,” she said.
“You worked your fingers to the bone day and night to make those shoes. I trust you more than any woman I’ve ever known to help me run my kingdom. I love you, and it’s been so quiet since you left. I miss yer laughter and your song.”
Briana kissed him and took his hand as Lugh led her to his crystal castle.
The locals to this day can hear the sounds of little hammers and singing when they walk near the low hill with the stone circle.
Our platoon marched in file through the thick brush. The air was thick, hot, and so humid I could barely breathe. Mosquitoes had chewed every inch of my body, and my feet rubbed raw in my boots. We were looking for rest, three of our men were stricken by malaria, and we were marching toward a clearing where the airlift would be tomorrow morning.
The village appeared in the distance, a few huts surrounded by rice fields. The Red River curled lazily by the hovels.
We went into the grass huts and found a few cooking fires still burning. Bowls of rotten food lay on the table, filling the air with the smell of dead fish.
After searching through the houses and not finding any Viet Cong, Sergeant Banks ordered us to burn the houses down. I held lit torches to the buildings, and watched as the fires engulfed them, dirty black smoke curling into the sky.
Banks lead the platoon to a clearing near the river. The airlift would be there in the morning to take the sick. I would still have to march on, burning village after village to the ground, interrogating the few farmers we found on finding the VC. Short amounts of fretful sleep broken by the sounds of gunfire.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to see Bobbi again, her hair the color of sunshine and her skirt short enough to see heaven at the right angles. Now I marched through hell instead.
The sun sank below the tree line, leaving us in inky blackness. They assigned Private Nelson and me watch duty that night. The last few nights had been hot and miserable but quiet. We made camp, and I set up my rifle and prepared for a long few hours of guard duty.
Nelson and I took shifts. I went first, watching the river. The heat and the exhaustion lulled me to sleep—the sound of distant gunfire cut through the buzz of summer insects.
My eyelids snapped open, and my heart beat faster. I quickly glanced around to find Nelson snoring nearby. I checked my watch, 0300. It was well over Nelson’s turn for the night watch. As I nudged him awake, I heard a rustle in the nearby vegetation.
Nelson shot awake as well, aiming his rifle in the darkness. The Red River was ink-black in the evening, and we saw what looked like a raft floating on it.
“Sh,” said Nelson, putting his fingers to his lips.
I nodded as we saw the raft head toward the other side of the river—the shadow disappearing into the darkness.
“VC?” I asked.
“I’m going to scout it out,” he said.
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
“Nothin’ here is safe. I’ll take my chances.”
He got up to leave. I kept my post until I heard a blood-curdling scream cut through the night. It was Nelson. Running toward’s them, his howls growing louder and louder.
“Watch out for the hole, Cox!”
I looked down and saw that Nelson was at the bottom of a pit. Sharp punji sticks carved out of bamboo skewered through him. The smell of blood cut through the acrid smell of the jungle.
“Nelson!” I screamed.
“Tell mama I love her. I want my mom. Mom,” he whimpered through tears.
“I will,” I said. Aiming my rifle carefully, I put Nelson out of his misery.
Screaming, I ran toward the river and saw the mysterious raft on the water. Just as it was about to slink off into the night, I fired my rifle into the darkness. A tall shadow on the raft slumped over before splashing into the water.
“Cox!” screamed Sergeant Banks as he tackled me to the ground.
“Man down, we have a man down,” Banks screamed into his radio. “Friendly Fire.”
The raft belonged to a neighboring platoon across the river. Another soldier was scouting the area for VC. I would return home with the sick on the Jolly Green Giant tomorrow and await my court-martial.
Another man of circumstance, just like me. Another mother would get the news that I killed her son. Another girl left, cold and alone. Another father without a son to carry his legacy, another brother went. I had made a terrible mistake not burning my draft ticket.
Crawling through the damp, cold earth. Inching its way over decayed leaves and dead branches until it dug deep into the black soil. It crawled through the loose, rich earth for some time until finding the mother load.
Rancid, rotting flesh enticed the creature to crawl to it. A mouth ringed with thousands of tiny, jagged teeth hooked into the eyes of the corps. The worm sank into the jelly of the eye, slurping up every decaying morsel. Nature requested this being to return to the earth. As the worm ate the precious jelly, a flash of memory passed through its simple mind. It remembered hatching, crawling into the soil, consuming and defecating, returning debris to the rich soil. Before that, there was only darkness. The darkness grew deeper and warmer. Then cold, hard light.
Before he was born to crawl, he walked. He had arms and legs and stood upright. He was in a distant land. They sold children on the street here; they were his to consume. Part of his collection. He was the monster that returned them to the earth; no one cared to look for them. Consuming youth and returning it to the earth, the children were his to slaughter.
Holding a child’s cold dead hand, admiring his work, his collection. Startled by shouting in a foreign tongue, and the door swinging open. The light hurt his eyes. Gunfire roared through the darkness—blood, and bits of flesh scattering against the earth and the soil. Coldness and ringing faded away to silence and black.
The next memory was breaking through a thin shell into the warm earth. No limbs, no sight, only smell towards the delicious rot of its former host.
Embers glowed against the snow white of the field. Anya stood hand in hand with her tribe. Singing songs and reveling into the longest night of the year.
The men hunted in winter and had caught a great boar for the feast. They served breads and sweetmeats. Mead and ale flowed from kegs on long tables. The night was full of revelry and song, of feasting and lovemaking into the frosty night.
The last harvest gathered. Tomorrow they would return to their longhouses and wait until the muddy thaws of spring came. Locked away for months, living on dried meat and dried vegetables, and whatever grain they had stored away for the long months ahead.
Not all the tribe would make it through. The snows and ice were harsh, and sometimes there was not enough food to last. Sometimes huntsmen would not return home from the icy depths of air and darkness.
Between songs they heard shrieks and howls in the long night. The air outside the village grew more frigged, calling deep winter to come. This fire, built from wood they all gathered, would hold the beast at bay.
Tonight they feasted and sang, holding onto the light when the black of night threatened to take them. The bonfire burned high into the night sky, providing warmth and light.
Past the village into the night, eyes glowed in the inky darkness, waiting for the wind to hide their howls. Knowing that they too had to feed through winter.