Chapter 1: Bedtime Stories

     The lowering moon reflected a glow across a deadened tree, and stretched the various forked shadows onto a window that sheltered eleven orphaned children, boarded at a home for witches.  The turbulent weather wrenched the bare branches of the tree and its corresponding shadow in different directions, which projected deep into the somber room, sporadically reaching into and about the depts of every wakeful child’s fearful expanse.  A screech and a scratch steadily resonated against the outer walls, and then silence, until…

 

“Late at night is when she creeps;

Stealing children in their sleep.

 

Tall and thin with hands like switches;

Sneaking past the best of witches.

 

In your room without a sound;

Taking children never found.

 

Craving children for her chores;

Hording children by the scores.

 

So, if you wake when she arrives;

Hold your breath and close your eyes.

 

Still your heart and think good deeds;           

For awful kids are what she needs.

 

But there’s still hope for the bad;

The eleventh one she’s never had.

 

Through the window Night comes in;

and only takes them by the ten.”

 

     “Stop it!” shouted the tiniest of the girls as she covered her ears and set her head into the crevice of her huddled knees.

     Suddenly, more girls began a simultaneous, low-voiced chant, “Late at night is when she creeps; stealing children in their sleep.  Tall and thin with hands like switches; sneaking past the best of witches.  In your room without a sound; taking children never found.  Craving children for her chores; hording children by the scores.  So, if you wake when she arrives; hold your breath and close your eyes.  Still your heart and think good deeds; for awful kids are what she needs.  But there’s still hope for the bad; the eleventh one she’s never had.  Through the window Night comes in; and only takes them by the ten.”

     “And you’re by the window!” shouted a girl.

     “No!  Stop it! The Night Witch doesn’t exist,” cried the petite child as she yanked and crumpled her bedding over her face.

     “Oh, yeah.  Then, where do all the children go?” said an elder girl.

     “Yeah,” said another.  “I knew a girl who said ten girls at her order were gone, and no one knew until the morning.”

     “I talked to someone,” began a girl from the other direction, “who said the first ten beds by the window were empty, just like that.”

     The little girl, who bedded closest to the window, uncovered her eyes and slowly rotated her head to look out at the half moon-lit night when a branch suddenly rasped across the pane.

     “Aahhhhhhhhh,” cried the girl, jumping out of her bed and into the next occupied one.

     Then, the lone viable egress to the room – the exceedingly wide door – creaked to a teensy open with an oncoming beam of dim light casting along the floor, and all the girls froze as a shadowy figure broke the ray.  The squeaking door gradually extended further, enough for the eerie silhouette to slowly inched inward; and with that, footsteps, whipping sheets, and cluttered bodies could be heard scurrying around the oversized room.

     “What’s going on in here?” begged Emma, the teenage, Junior Den Mother, dressed in her pajamas.

     The room lit with the flip of a switch to reveal eleven girls huddled in one bowing bed.

     The little girl pointed at the others and said, “They’re saying the Night Witch is coming for me.”

     “There’s no Night Witch,” said Emma.  “I mean, not until after midnight.”

     All the girls screamed and scrambled, forcing a few unfortunate bodies to tumble to the ground.

     Emma yawned.  “It’s all just fun, but now it’s over.  Let’s get some sleep.  We have school tomorrow.”

     “I can’t sleep by the window,” said the little girl.  “Not tonight; not in the wind.”

     Emma sighed.  “Will someone change beds with her?”  But no one answered her question.  “Fine. Come with me.  You can sleep in my room.”

     The little girl leaped into the air and directly to Emma’s side.

     As the little girl departed the room, adhering very close to her Den Mother, Emma turned and said, “Now there’s exactly ten of you,” before she switched off the light and shut the door.

     The little girl giggled once the girls in the closed room began to squeal and shriek.

     Shortly afterward, in Emma’s room, the young leader of the students prepared a make-shift bed for the little girl on a nearby sofa.

     “Emma, uh, Den Mother, can you tell me a story?”

 

       Emma, half rested into her comforter, decided to reposition herself into a seated position with a slight moan.  “I’m really tired.  How about if you close your eyes and count really slow to a hundred?”

       “But I can’t stop thinking about the Night Witch. I’m really, really scared.”

        Emma shifted herself over to one side of the bed and adjusted her pillow accordingly.  “Bring your blanket and pillow,” she said with a pat on top of her bedding.

        The little girl’s teeth brightened the room as she bounced one and then two steps to plop onto the open side of Emma’s bed.  “Can you make it a love story?” she asked.

        “Let’s see.  Have you heard of the Altar of Aroas?”

        “No,” replied the little girl with her eyes sprung open and hands on her cheeks, and quite wide awake.

        “There once was a powerful ruler in the heavens above the underworld named Aroas, who could not love.  Oh, he had friends, and women, and family, but he never knew, nor cared for what others claimed to be love.  And, thus, unbeknownst to him, he was truly lonely.  What Aroas did have was gold; lots and lots of gold.  In the heavens, he would flaunt this gold with celebrations, and oftentimes he would invite kings from beneath, in the underworld, who had showered him with even more gold.  At times, it seemed that Aroas had even collected all the gold, for if some was found, you could be certain he would appear to the lucky mortal with gifts to trade for his fabulous yellow desire.  He had eventually acquired so much gold, his palace in the heavens bore nothing but the shiny metallic mineral.”

     “The other gods paid no mind to Aroas and his greed; power be their envy, not a substance born on the planet below.  And so, his palace had been nicknamed, Greed-of-Gold – a title Aroas despised, so he reformed the name into Grita, and his home came to be known as The Palace of Grita.  Aroas’ pride rested in the glittering Palace of Grita, and so when he horded all the earth’s gold into his palace, he held a festival for everyone to see his accomplishment.  Even nobles from the planet below received invitations so they could boast to people in every land of the beauty Aroas had created.”

     “At this party, Aroas showed any god or mortal around his golden palace, and never tired.  Weeks had passed, people came and went, but Aroas never ceased and he never grew weary of displaying his vanity.  Then – as the ballroom continued to fill with music, people, and laughter – Aroas saw her: the succubus.”

     “Was it our Headmistress, Natalie?” asked the little girl. “She’s a succubus.”

     “No, it wasn’t.  Being a succubus means you have a certain power—”

      “Oh, you can steal or copy other people’s powers,” interrupted the little girl.

      “Yes, but not all succubae are good people.”

       “Was she bad?”

        Emma calmly shushed the little girl with the help of a finger, and continued.

        “The succubus unveiled great fascination in Aroas’ gold, and initially, that drew his unbridled attention.  But something more than their common interest began to develop. The succubus intrigued Aroas, and he couldn’t understand why.  She had countless beauty, but he had seen prettier; she had vast knowledge, but he had known smarter; and she was quite captivating, even though he had known more charming women. He just couldn’t understand why, but he desired to spend all of his time with her, and they did spend all of their time together.

      Before long, Aroas paid little attention to the gold, or even his palace. In fact, they rarely stayed in the palace.  They traveled and traveled, even to the underworld, but Aroas found little interest in anything but the woman he came to love.  It no longer mattered where they were, whom they accompanied, or even what they did – all that mattered to Aroas was the succubus.  And so is love.”

      “Deeply in love, Aroas decided to do what he never thought he would: marry, and to a mortal, nonetheless.  His fellow gods condemned and ostracized him for this silly notion, but his love remained paramount.  So, he fought the gods, and their rules, and their prejudices, until he could convince them of his love.  And he would not propose to the succubus until he convinced every last god – and he did. With his conviction and his passion, Aroas convinced every god to agree as a whole on one thing – something that had never been done before nor since.  And did Aroas throw a party to propose?  Did he do it in the palace where they first met?  Did he whisk his love away to entrance her?  No.  He ran to her.  Aroas immediately ran to his love, a changed man with no pride, no greed, and no doubt, in order to confess his love to a mortal.”

       “Aroas bent to one knee and promised his loyalty, his life, and even his status and fortune if it mattered.  The succubus placed her hand on Aroas’ cheek and gently replied, ‘no.’ Simply a ‘no,’ with no explanation. Aroas, heartbroken, accepted her answer without question.  And so is love.”

       “Was something wrong with her?” asked the little girl, now sitting up in Emma’s bed.

        Emma patted her hand downward in the air, coaxing the little girl lower.  Then, she continued after the child nestled back down into her pillow.

        “Indecisive and confounded, Aroas retreated to his first love, The Palace of Grita, but she no longer satisfied, or even placated him. His heart ached and he fell lonely once more, but this time he knew exactly the extent of true loneliness.  Aroas ultimately isolated himself and soon became very, very sad.  After time, his sorrow became anger, and he put walls around his palace to hide his beauty from the world.  Eventually, his anger turned to hate, and he demanded an answer from the woman who broke his heart and chose to stay on the surface below the gods instead of live with him.  Aroas searched the earth for his love, the succubus, and he found her, playfully teasing men in a tavern.  ‘Is this what you choose over a mighty god who can give you anything?’ he asked.  ‘I choose to live day by day as I wish,’ she replied.  Angered, Aroas stomped the ground and flung his hand, sending the roof away and crumbling the walls.  ‘What do these mortals possess that I do not?  What satisfaction do they provide that I cannot?’”

      “Known to everyone, the succubus had power of her own, and so she feared very little, and even death did not concern her.  She answered Aroas, however, not from demand, but because she had a decent nature.  ‘Aroas, explain to me how you felt before you met me.  Tell me what your life was like before you knew my love.’”

      “Aroas thought, then, determined to satisfy his love, described his every flaw.  ‘I was selfish, greedy, self-centered, and ignorant of anything outside myself.  I wasn’t a bad person; I just knew nothing of love or how to love.  But you taught me love.  And I couldn’t do that without you.  You were the only thing in the heavens that could change me.  No money, no education, and no experience in this or any world can teach a man what I gathered from you.’”

     “’Thank you,’ replied the succubus.  ‘That man who you were, could he be reached by just any woman?’”

     “‘No, only you.’”

     “‘And many women failed?’”

     “‘Yes.  What you did for me is nearly impossible to find.  I was a pitied man who could not love before I found you.’”

     “’And did this former self not balk, disregard, and even laugh at love? Often claiming you were unable to love?’”

     “’Yes, but now I can.’”

     “‘And so,’ replied the succubus, ‘you have found that… yet I have not.  You see, I too am unable to love.  I too am the person you once were.  I too have no love to give or share.  I saw that change in you, and I wholeheartedly envy you, but I cannot return your love.  I too am a pitied soul who is simply unable to love.’”

     “Aroas sank, inside and out.  Any man would have rejected the same explanation, but he knew all too well from his own experience she spoke the truth, and no god, no power, and no gold could change how she felt; only the spark of love, which she had not found, could reach her.  And so Aroas wished her well and left with no further explanation and nothing left to give a woman who could not accept.  And so is love.”

     “Years ensued as Aroas, in solitude, pondered the ways to forget love; but as he learned, true love is forever, and two people who truly love each other is nearly impossible to find.  But one can find love, as he did, and he decided to always be present and ready if ever the succubus needed, regardless if she had the capacity to reciprocate his feelings.  In this revelation, Aroas quickly commissioned an artist of the greatest skill to fashion an altar for the succubus so she may reach him the moment she found love.  This altar, showered with gold, had been placed in the center of the greatest city on the earth, hence every mortal would know and tell the succubus of his undying love.  The altar was grand and beautiful, and christened the Altar of Aroas: the greatest altar of all time.  No one, however, ever noted the succubus visit the altar, or even the city, and thus a search commenced, but the succubus remained unfound.  Subsequently, Aroas decided to have altars built all over the underworld so the succubus could return to him if, for any reason, she desired. Mortals were paid twenty pounds of gold for a worthy altar for Aroas in which he could place his power of connection within.  Altars become so prevalent the term of payment quickly became a scoregold, and every artist claimed his fortune; building altars all across the mountains, plains, forests, deserts, and even tundras of the earth, but the succubus never came.  Over time, Aroas redistributed his gold back onto the earth, and soon his Palace of Grita became no more, but he never ceased his search.  Aroas continued until he had very little and lived amongst the mortals themselves – forever to live a life alone, deprived of status and power. And so is love.”

 

     “One day, a mortal came to Aroas with news.  ‘A woman claims she to be your love,’ he said.”

     “’I have nothing left to give for this information,’ replied Aroas.”

     “’I do this for the decency,’ he replied.”

     “’Then I know it to be true.  Take me, and now!’”

     “And the man spoke the truth.  Aroas, after decades of searching found his love, on her deathbed.”

     “’I have no power, and nothing left to give,’ said Aroas.”

     “’I ask for nothing, but wish to apologize for what I have done to you.’”

     “’Do not apologize, you have given me so much more than I ever had.’”

     “’I didn’t want to be found.  I came so close; at times I could almost feel it.  I came so close, but it never happened.  Too many times I grew disappointed; so disappointed I gave up, and I couldn’t try anymore.  I just couldn’t do it.  I feel I am truly unable to love.  I was ashamed as your love has shown me more than I ever deserved.’”

     “’No, you have given me more than I ever deserved. You opened my eyes and my only wish is that I could have done that for you.’”

     “’Thank you,’ said the succubus before she died in Aroas’ arms.”

     “Hurt beyond belief, Aroas took his love to his greatest altar.  Determined to defeat love’s bind on him, he laid the succubus down and said, ‘Someday you will live again in another form, but you will always be a succubus.  I give my life to these altars so that I may be present when you return.  With this sacrifice, we shall find each other once more.  And if, in reincarnation, you forget who you are, I grant any and all succubae this power, and more, in any altar that bears my worth.’  In that moment, both bodies of the two someday-lovers faded into the altar of Aroas only to be reunited when the succubus found love.  And so is love.”

     In the absence of even the slightest of movements, Emma pivoted her eyes toward the little girl, hopeful she would be fast asleep, but instead, the small-scaled child lay stiff awake with her eyes astutely open and her forehead crumpled in confusion.

     “That’s a bad love story,” said the little girl as she scoffed and rose from the bed.  “You can’t have a love story where one person can’t love.  I’ll take my chances with the Night Witch,” she continued, and she stomped out of the room.