On the sort of foggy autumn day in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania where one could not even see the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, removing any redeeming joy from the torturous drive, Grandma Kate drove her grandson to school. Having already endured a long drive to the airport in Tucson, a longer flight to Chicago O’Hare, a still longer flight to Munich, not to mention the exhaustion of their flight to Cluj and negotiating a rental car in a language she didn’t speak… finding her way in the fog in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania daunted Grandma Kate not at all.
No matter how many times her grandson asked her if she could see.
“Can you see anything, Grandma Kate?” he asked.
“Yes. The road,” said Grandma Kate.
“What if something jumps out into the road?” he asked.
“I’ll stop,” said Grandma Kate.
“Do you think I’ll be late for school?” he asked.
“The job starts when we get there,” Grandma Kate grunted.
“But when do my classes start?” the boy pressed.
“In my experience? Always in the nick of time. At least for the survivors,” murmured Grandma Kate.
“Isn’t this place supposed to be spooky?” he asked.
“Every place is if you go at the right time,” Grandma Kate grunted.
They camped for an evening on the side of the road. Grandma Kate made a fire and they roasted hot dogs over it on sticks. Somewhere deep in the unseen mountains, a bat screeched and they heard something that sounded like the cackling of a witch. Tendrils of fog reached out toward the fire and made as if to grab at them.
“Are you scared, Grandma Kate?” the boy asked in a whisper.
“Eat your hot dog,” Grandma Kate snapped.
The old woman stood, walked a short distance into the darkness and wrote an ancient word in the dirt where the boy could not see. The fog retreated, if there had been a witch it no longer found anything funny, and the bat found other people to bother. The old woman sat back down in the light of the fire and took out supplies to make s’mores.
“What did you do, Grandma Kate?” the boy asked.
“Reminded the world that magic isn’t real,” murmured grandma Kate.
“Did you do voodoo?” the boy asked.
“Eat your s’mores,” Grandma Kate grunted.
“My dad said you had magic powers,” the boy insisted.
“Well, then he listened about as well as you,” said Grandma Kate.
The next morning they drove several more hours and finally found roads that weren’t on any maps. Grandma Kate gave a rare smile at this discovery. It is very easy to find roads that are on maps, especially roads that one is intending to be on. It is very difficult to be certain, when finding a road that one has not expected to find, that one isn’t simply lost. Having finally arrived nowhere, Grandma Kate felt immense relief that her journey had not been in vain. She’d worried they’d gotten too good at hiding from her, but the boy had flushed them out.
Prey always drew out a predator.
They continued driving in amicable silence.
It was nearing night when the fog parted enough that the two could spot a solitary mountain slope in the distance. Taller and steeper than should have been geologically possible, which was another hopeful sign. Grandma Kate dared think their journey almost over, but after a few more hours of driving through the offensively twisty geography of the dirt roads she reluctantly abandoned this notion. Nowhere turned out to be just as remote as somewhere had been.
The two set camp again, this time near a dark cave. Grandma Kate took out some tinfoil and they roasted some ham and vegetables in a makeshift bowl. The boy announced it was hobo casserole and that he’d made it at scout camp. Grandma Kate allowed that he could call it whatever he wanted as long as he ate it quietly. They washed it down with water from a nearby stream but not before Grandma Kate had boiled it.
“Aren’t we going to run out of gas, grandma Kate?” the boy asked.
“There’s extra in the trunk,” Grandma Kate grunted.
“Boy that cave sure is scary, isn’t it Grandma Kate?” the boy asked looking in the maw of the cave, disappointed he had failed to frighten the old woman.
“Oh? I suppose so. I’ll take care of that before we tuck in,” said Grandma Kate.
Indeed, something in the cave started to move and a shadow approached the light of the fire. The shadow revealed giant horns and terrible long claws. Grandma Kate walked toward it with the slow, stiff-legged stride of someone who was nearing eighty -biologically, anyway- and had been driving all day for the last two days, and made a motion with her hands. The shadow departed back into the cave, the light of the fire seemed to swell and expand, and the low grumble that had accompanied the shadow quieted.
“Was that magic?” the boy asked.
“No,” grandma Kate grunted, “I just reminded the world of what it is. How many times do I have to tell you that? The only magic is knowing how the world works.”
The next day, it took them four hours of driving, a battle with a startlingly aggressive and bewilderingly intelligent thorn-bush, and a long and meaningful inspection of a broken road sign to finally find their way to the school. When they parked in the school’s parking lot, a dirt patch sectioned off by three broken lengths of rope, Grandma Kate quietly hoped that the journey was over and closed her eyes to steal the last moment of rest she might ever have.
“I didn’t know there was a staircase that long in the whole world!” the boy exclaimed.
Grandma Kate opened her eyes, every muscle suddenly knotted and tight.
The flight of stairs leading up to the school was some seven-thousand stairs long.
“There’s not,” Grandma Kate grunted, “not in our world at least.”
“Come on Grandma Kate,” said the boy, for he was eager to learn, “last one to the top is a rotten egg!”
“Pace yourself,” Grandma Kate murmured.
Grandma Kate set a slow but steady pace and shook her head as her grandson raced right by her at a sprint. Fifteen minutes later, she passed him where he lay in a puddle of his own sweat on a landing approximately a thousand steps up. She did not pause and offer sympathy. Lessons were not learned that way. Instead, she continued up the merciless stairwell undeterred. Slow and steady. Three quarters of the way to the top she stopped to wait for her grandson and they both had a small dinner of some egg salad sandwiches on sourdough bread, and a bottle of water saved from the previous night.
“How about we both reserve our strength instead of racing?” Grandma Kate finally suggested.
“Yes ma’am,” grunted the boy.
The school was an old castle that had been built in a forbidding Gothic style that was a bit too forbidding and a bit too Gothic to have ever actually been from a real historical period. It also looked more like a prison or a dungeon than a place of learning. When they at last reached the top, they were both sweating and even grandma Kate was breathing hard. A door knocker presented itself to them, a large iron dragon head the size of a hubcap.
The boy ran to it eagerly.
“Grandma,” said the boy, “you are my best friend. Thank you so much for this opportunity to learn! One day I hope to be as wise and Valiant as you. But I was wondering if maybe we could do this one together, seeing as how you’re so powerful and wise and I’ve never-”
Lightning struck everywhere, illuminating the fierce gargoyles and indifferent angels that constituted the castle’s statuary.
“Bass Marshall Reeves, do not try to butter me up! What have I told you about courage?” hollered Grandma Kate, whose thunderous anger was not lessened at all by the fact that she was using her handkerchiefs to dry off as best she could.
Always be presentable and respectable was another thing that Grandma Kate said.
“You told me that courage only counts when I’m afraid,” Bass sighed.
“Then stop smiling, pay attention and have courage. Now, make use of the knocker. I believe three times is traditional.”
Bass had to use both of his hands to pull the knocker back from the door. His feet also became necessary, as he had to plant them on either side of the door for leverage. After a moment of straining his back, he let go of the knocker. Bass only had to drop it once, as the knocker bounced twice against the plate. Grandma Kate gave him a mint as reward and he took it happily.
“Thank you, Grandma Kate!” said Bass.
“On guard now. I’ve warned you about what comes next. Keep to your gods. Keep the ways of our world and above all be Valiant,” whispered Grandma Kate.
A shuffling, scraping sound came from behind the great doors and both Bass and Grandma Kate took an involuntary step back when the doors finally opened. A spindly man stood there, with eyes so dark and pitted that were it not for the nose and cheeks his face would have looked like a skull. His long and wispy white beard fluttered outward as a foul wind rose out of the castle as though the entire building had belched. When the wind rushed by him, Bass put his hands over his mouth to stop from vomiting but Grandma Kate managed a very tight, very thin smile.
The spindly man wore a long brown robe and had the whitest skin Bass had ever seen. His eyes were even paler, as if blind with cataracts, though they seemed to see everything. The man’s arms, little more than bones, held the thick oak doors without wavering. Both Bass and Grandma Kate were too polite to notice the Skeleton Man had no shadow and was standing about a quarter inch off the ground.
“May I help you?” crooned the Skeleton Man
“Yessuh, I came about the position for cook. I spoke with a Miss Ella on the phone. She tol’ me that the position was open to me if I should make myself presentable,” Grandma Kate said in a voice Bass only heard her use rarely and only with people whom she held in deep, almost unfathomable contempt.
Grandma Kate smartly delivered a copy of her resume to the Skeleton Man. Grandma Kate always kept her resume in a protective plastic cover so it wasn’t even a bit wet. The paper was tinged blue, smelled very faintly of lavender and had a distinctive watermark in the corner in the shape of a wolf.
“I am afraid Miss Ella is no longer here. She had other business to attend to. But we have some hungry children who will be very happy to have you,” the Skeleton Man laughed. The laugh that seemed to echo throughout the entire school and the storm clouds above. It made Bass shiver and Grandma Kate smiled with the corner of her mouth when she noticed, though she also couldn’t help but roll her eyes.
“Thass wonderful news!” said Grandma Kate without missing a beat, again in a strange submissive inarticulate accent Bass hated to hear come from her mouth, “will you be so kind as to show me to my, uh, accommodations? Also, I’ll need to enroll my grandchil’ with the other chillrun. He’ll want to be in the dormitories with the other chillrun, of course.”
“Oh, the children will be starving to see him as well. Please, do come in,” said the Skeleton Man.
Grandma Kate grabbed Bass’ upper arm and forcibly walked him into the school. She squeezed his arm, and nodded to him. He did not have to hear her warning to take it to heart. He held his backpack tightly and knew he must not let it go. Not when it held his only chance at survival.
There were pictures on the walls of the school, but not the kind you’d usually see in an Elementary School. These were pictures of dark, crude runes and ritual sacrifice in colored pencil. Coal executioners cutting off heads done in red crayon. Watercolor goats died on pastel pentagrams. Bass looked at these pictures and steadied himself. He clutched the amulet about his neck and followed the Skeleton Man and Grandma Kate down the dark corridors.
He knew he couldn’t fail here.
Worse than the thought of death, Grandma Kate might not ever let him hunt demons ever again.