It’s been a while, hasn’t it? There’s really no excuse for why I’ve been so quiet. I haven’t been somehow incapacitated, and it’s not like nothing notable has happened. In fact, something pretty notable has happened recently. But still, I’ve been fairly content, and I didn’t want to mess that up. Blogging always tends to bring up depressing thoughts and memories. I came here to get out of the cold—and not just metaphorically. Some fellowship each day keeps the Cold Boy at bay or something along those lines.
I’ve left Rogue Shadow’s place, which will of course need some explanation. I’ve mentioned that there’s something that seems a bit…off about him. That’s probably because there is.
A few weeks ago, we were all outside in Shadow’s yard. I’ve been spending most of my time training. I haven’t been improving much, but I don’t have a lot of time to practice while traveling and just brushing up on my technique helps a lot. That’s what I was doing at the time. Keikan was talking to Merciful, and Shadow was on a laptop. Then, without warning, Shadow stood up.
“I’m afraid I have to go,” he announced. “It would appear that a runner needs my help.”
And that’s when weird things started happening. He held up a hand and a sort of…portal opened up. At first I thought it was the Path of Black Leaves. I’ve never actually seen the Path, which is why I thought that’s what he was using at first. However, after just a few seconds of looking at it, I could tell that it was pretty clearly not the Path. The accounts I’ve seen and heard differ, but from my understanding the Path of Black Leaves is a somewhat spooky place and contains, at the very least, Black Leaves. Beyond the portal Shadow created was a meadow. A bright, perfectly healthy-looking meadow with a few perfectly normal trees. Not the Path.
Then he stepped through it, it closed behind him, and he was gone. Just like that.
I’ll admit, the three of us freaked out a little bit. We were still on edge in the weeks he didn’t return, but we managed to keep calm enough to carry on. We continued with what we had been doing. Nothing really changed in our schedules, except for the fact that Shadow was just gone.
That lasted for about two weeks. After that, I couldn’t stay anymore. I can’t take advantage of someone else’s hospitality when he’s not actually there. I just don’t feel right squatting.
I let Keikan and Merciful know what I was planning on doing. They decided to stay for a bit longer yet. But before I could leave, a man showed up to greet us. Tall, suited—but he definitely had a face. A kind one, too. Older man with grey hair and wrinkles starting to form around his grey eyes.
He introduced himself as Marcus, the estate’s butler. That’s when I noticed something that hadn’t really occurred to me before: the grounds had been empty apart from us and Rogue Shadow. This shouldn’t really have been that notable, but it’s a pretty big estate, and Shadow certainly has some amount of affluence. Even now I’m wondering why exactly they aren’t around. I could think of several widely different reasons, but none of them had particularly good implications, and it only made me want to get out sooner.
“You are Mr. Mortel, yes?” he said.
“I’m here with an explanation from the young master. He’s a bit preoccupied right now. He’s over in, ah, in England.” He smiled at my reaction. “It’s a long story.”
“Would you mind sharing?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have many details, but I might be able to fill in a few gaps about the master himself.”
“Oh dear, where do I begin…? Well, his father passed away shortly after his birth. His mother is rarely home. So the young master spent most of his childhood alone in the state, playing with what I had assumed was an imaginary friend.” He nodded when he saw my eyebrows raise at the phrase. “Indeed. Well. Last year, he was attending a private school. On his way home, a girl ran into him—quite literally, actually. She was hurt, but refused to go to a hospital. So he brought her here to be treated. By the time they arrived, however, the injury to her shoulder had healed.
“The young master, naturally, demanded an explanation. After some hesitation, she explained that she was a runner, and that her name was Clair. As for the shoulder, well, she admitted to being what she called a magic user. He was skeptical—who wouldn’t be?—but agreed to let her stay at the estate. Things were fine for a few weeks until she saw his ‘imaginary friend’ and bolted. When the young master caught up to her, she told him it was something called the Cold Boy.”
I froze (er, bad choice of words. Seized up?) at the name. Marcus noticed. “Ah. You’re familiar with it, then?”
“Unfortunately. Go on.”
“Yes, of course. Anyway, she explained these ‘Fears’ to him. The young master asked if there was any way they could be stopped and, as I’m sure you know, she said they couldn’t. He asked if there was any way to stand a chance, and she offered to teach him what magic she knew. Over the next few months, she began to teach him magic, and a bit of a relationship started forming. I’m not one to pry, so I don’t know how close they were, but…”
He paused. I could tell the story wasn’t going to be happy much longer. “They had been sitting on the back lawn, facing the woods. She had been, I believe, teaching him about charming an item? I don’t quite remember. But then, the Fear…the Fear that had been chasing miss Clair appeared in the doorway.”
He paused again. I took a guess. “The Slender Man?”
He nodded. “The Slender Man,” he said. “They ran to the woods, or he chased them there—I didn’t see. When I didn’t see them outside, I thought they had maybe come in before I heard the screams from the woods. I went looking for the master but…by the time I found them…”
Silence. “That’s always how it is,” I said quietly. “No one ever arrives soon enough.”
He nodded. “The young master had large gashes all across his back. But miss Clair, well…he was crying over her body. It had made him watch, he said. We buried her on a hill, not too far from the estate. The young master spent time recovering, but once he had, he isolated himself. Continuously studied as many blogs as he could, searching for anything he could use. Tried astral projection, hoping he could find something there. After he finished, he seemed…different, somehow. Like he had found something important. His magic became more skilled in ways Clair never could have taught him.
“He told me he would be opening up the estate to Runners who needed help, and then told the few of us working at the estate to take a reprieve. Wait until he called for us to come back. The young master…he seemed so lost. So much more alone than ever before.”
Suddenly, he gave a small smile. Not a wry smile, a genuine one. Something that seemed out of place for the story he just told. “But then he called me a few days ago. He explained that he was in England and needed me to take over the estate. He sounded…better.”
“So why is he in England? He told us that a runner needed his help. Do you know anything else?”
His smiled widened. “A runner? Interesting. To me, his exact words were ‘I have found my reason to fight again.’”
I thanked him for his explanation and explained that I’d be taking off. It was pretty much necessary at that point. The story had reopened a few wounds, and I didn’t think I could stay without the Cold Boy showing up. Before I left, I asked him to point me to where Claire was buried.
I stopped by the hill. There was already someone there by the grave. A man in a long brown coat. “I thought you’d come here,” he said. He was, for the first time I’d ever seen him, solemn.
“Last of the Last, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Just call me Last. And relax. I know you don’t have much reason to at this point, but I need you to trust me. I’m a friend.”
“Who are you?”
He shook his head. “I’m not ready to tell you yet. I will. Eventually. But not today.”
We both stood looking at the grave for a moment. “How did you know I’d be here?”
“Part instinct. I hoped you wouldn’t take off before Marcus showed up, and I figured he’d mention Clair.”
“How do you know Marcus?”
She shrugged. “I make it my business to know everyone. I have a lot of contacts. You of all people should know how important both friends and intelligence are. Both keep you alive.”
“And you just guessed I’d show up at Clair’s grave, too? Awfully big assumption.”
Last shook his head. “That part I knew. There’s no way you wouldn’t. After all…we all have at least one Lily.”
We let that hang in the air for a while, staring at Clair’s grave. “How did you know when I’d show up?” I asked him.
“I didn’t. I’ve been here for over a week now. Keeping tabs on the estate to make sure you didn’t leave without me noticing, of course. But I didn’t know when.”
“Awfully long time to wait by a grave.”
“You visited here to pay your respects to more than just Clair, didn’t you?” He nodded at Lily in my hand. “I wasn’t waiting here just for you. I…have a lot of people to pay respects to.”
We were silent for a long time. “I’m sorry,” I said. He didn’t respond.
“So why are you here?” I finally asked.
“To pay my respects. And to finally meet you under better circumstances.”
He gave me a sly smile. “Am I that obvious? All right, you caught me. I do have a few ulterior motives.” He handed me an envelope. “Bus fare and a destination. Don’t worry, it’s somewhere that’s still nice and warm. And more arid, if this southern humidity is driving you crazy.”
“Why do you get to choose where I go?”
“Because you chose last time with Rogue Shadow. It’s my turn.”
“Kenny, trust me. I have a plan. That’s about all I have anymore. I have a plan, and I’m good at staying alive.”
“What’s the plan?”
He grinned. “Keep you alive.”
“Last time you sent me somewhere, I watched the Choir melt a girl’s eyes out and ran into Scarlet-marked and Greyskin hybrids.”
“No, I hooked you up with Wayward. Lyron was your idea, and the hostel was her idea. I can’t be held responsible for that, and keep in mind that I was the one who saved you.”
“Edwin Canis was the one that saved me.”
“Hey, I saved you first.”
“By the way,” I asked him, “Are you going to be sending Shadow money like you have been with the other people I’ve visited?”
“The other runners. Moth only gets a free pass because he saved your life.” He thought for a moment. “I’m not sure about Shadow. I should, but he doesn’t really need it…I don’t know. We’ll talk. If he can come up with a good use for it, maybe.”
I thought about all the places I had been. Not just the good, safe places, but the uncomfortable, crappy ones as well. And idea started forming. “I might have a suggestion for him.”
He smiled. “Good. Now go on, you’ve got a bus to catch.”
I looked at him. “You not coming?”
She shook his head. “No. I want to stay here just a little longer. I still need to pay respects to, um…to her. My Lily. My Clair.” Neither of us turned to look at each other as I left, but he did speak up at one point.
“I’ll see you later, Kenny. Good luck.”