"Now Jonathan," she would slowly elaborate to a former student-turned parent, "You mustn't become frustrated at Samuel" (not 'Sammy' or 'Little Sam' as the other adults called him), "The problems he is having with controlling his temper now are the same as you had when you were his age."
The seemingly obvious observation would magically transport Jonathan back to childhood. He suddenly felt the hot helpless anger that had troubled him at that age welling up in his chest. It was an all-but forgotten experience. And there was Mrs. Smith, with her respectful, patient manner informing him that he was being silly, and that he could do better things with that energy than to get angry. And somehow she made it all go away.
So far as everyone knew, Mrs. Smith had never had children of her own. She must have been married, for she carried the title of a Mrs. Smith. But if Mr. Smith existed, he never showed himself. All that Mrs. Smith was seemed to be visible in her schoolteacher form.
Mrs. Smith's plan for the day was light. Do some gardening, shop for groceries, and perhaps later, if she was feeling up to it, she would visit an old friend. Since the school board had forced her to retire ("Too old!" had been their cry), she had settled into this comfortable schedule. Her cat would occasionally catch her sighing and staring off into space, though. Had the cat possessed a human intelligence, it might note the irony of her wistfulness in one that had turned aside so many pupils from the dangers of daydreaming.
Mrs. Smith watched with a gentle smile as the cat gulped down great mouthfuls of the food in the bowl.
"I see right through your show of dignity, young miss," Mrs. Smith scolded the cat "Why you're a selfish glutton."
If a cat could look ashamed of itself, this one did. A friend had once asked her why she never named her cat. Mrs. Smith tilted her head forward and peered over her glasses in a very serious way and replied, "Why dear, if you name a cat, they begin to get a big head and demand all sorts of other attentions. I find it is best if you keep them humble."
She decided to leave her cat in peace for a while, and prepare herself for working in the garden. As she turned to go, the cat let out a hiss, and scampered like mad across the hall and under some furniture. Mrs. Smith turned to see what could possibly have caused such a reaction. The living room seemed quiet enough now. The only sound was the grandfather clock ticking as its pendulum glided back and forth. The house creaked as if settling. But the creaking did not stop, and in fact began to grow and fill the room. Mrs. Smith turned and watched as the very air within the living room seemed to twist in on itself moving into a pin-point of darkness that grew rapidly into a dimensionless void about the size of a refrigerator.
Mrs. Smith squinted behind her glasses. The creaking had risen to a high pitched whine which now increased in volume and suddenly cracked in an ear-splitting sound. Light flashed from the hole, and she saw the figure of a man silhouetted in the brief illumination.
Mrs. Smith fell back onto the couch behind her and the darkness stretched in on her until everything was hidden beneath its veil. Within the darkness was a wordless noise. Mrs. Smith found it very distracting when the world was so topsy-turvy. Silence would have been appropriate under these conditions. The couch beneath her was still tangible enough and she held onto it, waiting through the darkness and noise.
When the light came again, it was dim, and the objects surrounding her seemed to accept it only grudgingly. The sky looked as if it was about to pour violence upon the earth. It was obvious enough that she was no longer in her own home. The gently ticking clock, the wall of books, the overstuffed chair, the antique carpet, and the dustless trinkets that lined the bookshelf were all gone. The only element of her home that seemed to stubbornly remain was the couch she sat upon. Her new surroundings appeared to be some sort of woodland. The trees were scattered, uneven, and spread to far abroad to really call it a forest. So long as the couch remained, Mrs. Smith decided to take advantage of its comfort while she surveyed her new surroundings. Curling her feet up on the couch she looked at the leaf-strewn ground that the sofa rested upon. She was immediately grateful for her decision. The ground immediately beneath her was squirming with slime-coated worms the size of snakes. Mrs. Smith cleared her throat and adjusted her position on the couch. Peering over her reading glasses, she noted a statue standing perhaps ten yards away in a clearing. It seemed to have sunk in the ground to one side, standing at a seventy-five degree angle to the ground. Next to it, a gnarled tree pushed its way skyward. Its branches were devoid of leaves, and the tree itself looked very dead. In fact, all the trees around her seemed to be tangled branches sporting nothing but dry twigs.
A ring of large, jumbled stones ran around the tree and statue, almost as if the formation was intended to be a garden. The sticky mud within the ring of stones bore no plant life, though.
The statue itself looked as if it had once been an angel its wings stretched toward the sky, its eyelids closed and hands folded gently in prayer. Gentle folds of stone-hewn cloth once formed a long robe that showed only a hint of the delicately curved body beneath. Mrs. Smith conjured this image of what the statue had once been like from a familiar memory of the churchyard across the street from her old school. The statue in front of the church had looked exactly like that, and its pedestal had born the label: "Cast not your eyes on earthly things, but looking above, abandon your burdens to prayer."
If this statue had ever looked as she imagined it had, someone had worked hard to pervert it beyond recognition. It looked as if a distressed, lunatic sculptor had taken a chisel and spray-paint can to its surface to forcefully expel the angel from its heavenly position. The revisionist had done his or her best to chisel away the robes in a vulgar display of the carnal body beneath them. The lips had been chiseled back revealing the front teeth in a sneer, and spray-painted red. The counter-artist had apparently attempted to paint a tongue protruding from between the teeth, but it hadn't translated onto the stone. The wings had been de-feathered, and now resembled bat-wings. Some of the hair covering the angels head had been chiseled into the form of small horns, completing the author's intent to pervert the angel into something demonic. The text beneath this statue had been modified to read "Cast your eyes down to the earth, look not above, and abandon your hopes and prayers."
Mrs. Smith shook her head and sighed. The rage and hatred that such an obviously talented artist displayed in his ravaging of the spiritual symbol touched her. She knew the statue was designed to offend and provoke, but her first thoughts were those of pity.
She turned her sights behind her to see what else this artist had left for her to see. The woods behind where her couch sat became darker and thicker. A single pathway formed a half-circular ditch running through the heart of the woodland. Bordering the trench on either side, gnarled trees bent over completing the circle and forming an unnatural natural tunnel.
The sky rumbled flashing jagged lightning in the distance. The lightning brought to mind the lesson she would faithfully recite to her young pupils whenever a thunderstorm frightened them. She was a great believer in turning fear into a learning experience. If you understand something, then you need not fear it. The lightning lesson was a simple one. You waited for a flash of lightning and then counted how many times the quick little hand on the wall-clock ticks 'round it's face before you hear the boom of thunder. The number of seconds between the flash and the boom are the number of miles between the storm and you.
But just now, when she had seen the lightning on the horizon, it had been a good distance away. Yet she had heard the thunder instantly. Mrs. Smith smiled. The artist had missed a detail.
The lightning flashed blindingly, the boom of thunder shaking her bones this time. Someone was becoming impatient.
It was her fault. She knew it, but she had been away from the children so long that her instincts were slow. If a child offers an adult a path, the adult will often ignore the invitation because they feel the need to exert or prove their authority over the child. But there is no point in belittling a child to prove your authority. In time, your wisdom will prove itself.
The fact was that, despite their size, they were worms, not snakes, which tilled the ground beneath her. And worms fertilized soil. There was something else as well. The succubus statue that decorated the clearing across from her had one detail she had overlooked at first. It was small, but it was important. The upper lip of the statue had been painted with what looked like a moustache. Thecontrived facial hair surreptitiously dashed onto the face of the artwork with boyish juvenility immediately brought to mind images of paper airplanes and spitballs. This was the work of a child... a child that was struggling with the disease of adulthood. And this child was frustrated that she had chosen to wait rather than to explore the world the child had created.
In stately fashion, Mrs. Smith stepped from her cushioned perch and walked toward the path, never minding the benign worms.
Upon entering the path, the world seemed to shift... change. Not in obvious ways, of course, but the changes could be seen. Before, the path had seemed dark and ominous. Now upon entering it, it seemed to have a more comfortable dimness, like a pine forest on a clear morning. Some ambient light filtered down through the branches, and though it was dark, it was clear. The path seemed to extend beyond sight. The sound of thunder in the distance had vanished, replaced by an occasional call of crows and the sound of crickets. The tunnel in the forest was a vast and intricate weave of branches above, while the hardened soil beneath her feet formed regular lumps as if an enormous earthworm had hollowed the place out. It was clearly a formation of imagination rather than nature.
In the distant gloom, Mrs. Smith could make out specks of light that seemed to have a life of their own. Viewed one way, they were dancing fireflies. But she could not escape the idea that they were intended to be ominous sets of glowing eyes. It was as if the creator of this illusion was challenging her to be afraid. It was a familiar challenge. There is very little that is more intimidating to an adult than a child that refuses to be controlled. Mrs. Smith had, at many points in her life, come up against children that realized and exploited this fact. Working with such a child was a little like defusing a bomb. It was delicate work, and failure would inevitably mean explosion.
She remembered herself as a much younger teacher. She had been having such a good year. The children were all very bright and helpful, and she was excited that she could carry out creative projects with them without worrying that they would become over-excited and get out of control. Then little Sara came to her class.
The first day Sara wandered the classroom playing with whatever she liked, regardless of what Mrs. Smith said to her. The child deliberately ignored Mrs. Smith's directions and threats to spank her or send her to the principal's office. The children, as well, could not believe this child's audacity and wondered at Mrs. Smith's inability to control her. Eventually Mrs. Smith took the child by the ear and escorted her to Principal Winston's office. Whatever it was that Mr. Winston said to Sara, it did little to deter her ignorant behavior. Over the next several weeks Sara found bugs, ate them, and showed her disgusted peers the mashed contents of her mouth, resulting in a tumultuous chaos within Mrs. Smith's formerly quiet classroom. Sara would spit in other people's lunchboxes, get up out of her seat and draw on the chalkboard right in front of Mrs. Smith, and steal any small item she could get her hands on from other student's desk and from Mrs. Smith herself.
What was worse was when the other students began to see Mrs. Smith lose control of Sara, they began to act out as well, and little by little Mrs. Smith began to lose control of the classroom as a whole.
At the time the schools supplied teachers with a large wooden paddle secured in the bottom drawer of every desk. Mrs. Smith had never used the paddle before, but now, at the end of her rope, she decided to make an example of little Sara. In front of all the other students, Mrs. Smith took Sara to the front of the classroom and paddled her mercilessly. She vented all her anger and frustration into the paddling, and little Sara's screams could be heard throughout the school building.
To this day, Mrs. Smith shuddered at the thought of her actions that day. It was her greatest failure. Little Sara was expelled from the school shortly thereafter, and it was only later that Mrs. Smith learned that Sara's parents had locked little Sara in the cellar much of her life, and fed her nothing but moldy bread and stale water. There had been no social services or government programs in that day to protect children like Sara, and Mrs. Smith knew she should have seen Sara's desperate cries for help for what they were.
It was the last time Mrs. Smith ever used the paddle. Years later when the to-paddle-or-not-to-paddle debate began in the school system, Mrs. Smith had little to say on the subject. For those foolish enough to ask her what her opinion was, she would give a stern glance over her glasses and say, "I can control my children without the use of a paddle. Can you?"
It was not a boast. Mrs. Smith simply found that she had little patience for adults that had little patience for children.
The scene suddenly shifted abruptly, waking Mrs. Smith from her thoughts. The forest flowed in waves into waves. As the waves subsided from her now moistened feet, she found herself standing on a sandy shore. The clouds over the ocean rushed past at twice their normal speed and behind her the crow calls and cricket chirps were just barely audible above the waves crashing on the mushroom shaped rocks ten yards out from the shore. At her feet lay the ancient rotting remains of an overturned wooden boat. Its form was marred by the salt-eaten wood except for one spot where its name had been delicately placed into the surface in glorious gold writing. It read SS FAITH.
Mrs. Smith felt a tickle at her feet as little crabs scurried in and out beneath the overturned vessel. As she watched, a pail hand sprung from beneath the boat and clutched the nearest crab, crushing its outer shell. Then, as the sky darkened and pillars of waves sprung up from the suddenly tumultuous ocean, the entire rotted boat raised from its resting spot spilling sandy water from its dripping, sagging edges. It split into dozens of rotted pieces as the spectral form beneath it stood towering over Mrs. Smith.
It was a young man with pale features and dark stringy hair. A black tattoo flowed from his eye, weaving an intricate pattern down under his ear and around to the back of his neck. His overly thin frame was wrapped in tight, black leather revealing every aspect of his physical body. His left ear was entirely gone from his head, as was his left, small finger. Though inhumanly thin, his body was wired with firm muscles and towered over Mrs. Smith. He stared at her with his black, empty eyes, his face devoid of expression. She stared back into his eyes over the rims of her spectacles. For an eternity their gazes met as the clouds in the sky above jerked back and forth in their flow, and the waves rushed in and out of the shore. Swarms of the small crabs rushed in and out with the tide tumbling and jumbling over her feet like the serf itself.
At last it was Mrs. Smith who broke the silence.
"So," he replied in a voice like the rushing tide itself. He let the word hang in the air for a long time before finishing with, "You remember me."
"I never forget a student, Isaac."
"I no longer go by that name."
"My parents named me Isaac. I hate my parents, Mrs. Smith. I heard that name screamed at me every night just before they beat me and locked me in the closet. For fourteen years I endured these punishments for no crime greater than my existence.
"You may find this odd, but every day as the pain started you were on my mind. You were the one who taught me that love was unconditional and that following the rules would always lead me right. At first I thought of your teaching with hope, the hope that someday all you said would come true. But over time that hope turned into harsh irony. How wrong you were, Mrs. Smith. I wish I could show you how profoundly wrong you were.
"There was no unconditional love in my life, or anything resembling love at all. I ran away from home when I was fifteen. I don't know why I waited so long. No, wait, I know why. It was out of hope that somehow something would change.
"For a fifteen year old out in the world on his own, you might think my only goal was survival. This was not the case. The fact is, I had a goal and I stuck to it with a sort of discipline most teenagers might only dream of. Again, I am forced to think that you had something to do with my tenacity to follow through on my dream. My dream was to flush all weakness from my system once and for all. And once that was accomplished, I would return and exact my own manner of vengeance on those who would turn a child into the monster I fully intended to become."
Mrs. Smith didn't change her expression as Isaac began to talk. It was clear this had all been set up with great pains, and just as clear that he had been thinking a long time about this speech he was giving her. He needed no encouragement to go on. He just went on.
"First I joined a gang. They aren't as easy to find as you might think. I heard talk about gangs in newspapers and comic books all the time, but when it comes right down to it, there is no listing for the local gang in the yellow pages. But I found one. I joined it. Then I beat up the leader and made it MY gang. I was younger than the other members, but I was also meaner.
"The gang wasn't really my style, though. They didn't have any drive or purpose, and I wasn't going to coach them. So I crushedup a bottle of sleeping pills and mixed it in with their pizza toppings. I left them all lying in a back alley somewhere. Dunno, maybe some of them died. I did carry away an important piece of information from the gang, though. One of them used to run with some local Wiccans, and that was my next stop.
"Wicca is a religion for the social fringe. There were lots of rejects and misfits just trying to find something to make them special in the group. How I hated them. They spout ideas of peace-making and 'white magic'. Their spells were weak but at least I was learning something useful. I left them to join their evil twins, or sworn enemies, however you like to see it, the Satanists. Satanism, though, lacked discipline, I thought. Its practitioners were basically degraded hedonists who believed that it was their right to give in to any desire they had. Any ritualism they had was contrived and half-hearted. I decided my answer lay overseas.
"Falling in with the Satanists did have one profit,
though. They were most of them wealthy
and influential. This meant I had ready
access not only to people with money, but also people who did not want their
dirty little secrets spread about. A
little blackmail later and I was in the
"I chose Brittan because it was the home-place of the religious group that Wicca borrowed so heavily from: the druids. This was a group whose roots went back further than recorded history. I knew that if I could crack THAT nut, I would have access to some real power.
"The druids were easier to locate than I thought they would be. They actually DID have a listing in the local phone book. Of course the local order of druids were not the REAL druids. Not the ones with ancient powers. Those it took me longer to track down. But their bloodline was ancient, their rituals potent, so they were actively recruiting from the watered down pagans that pretended to follow their ways so as to continue their line.
"I learned much from the druids,
but my biggest break came oddly enough by way of an assassin. The leader of the druids apparently had an
ancient feud with a man he had never met, called Lui
Kang. Lui was
a man in
"How these two came to know of each other, much less loath one another I do not know, however from my understanding the feud had gone on for ages. So Kang sent an assassin to destroy the druid. This was not the first assassin, I gathered, however he DID succeed where the others had not, in part due to some dark magiks he used to cloud the druid's sight.
"I had become savvy enough in dark ways myself to trail this assassin as he fled back to his master. Once there, I offered myself to Lui Kang if he could give me the power I desired. The first thing he did was to draw a sword and re-sheath it. I looked down to see my ear lying on the floor.
"'The ear is for me,' he said, 'If power is what you seek, you will have to sacrifice a portion of your body yourself. The dark powers do not grant their energies for nothing.'
"For years I trained under Lui Kang. I eventually learned more than even he knew, and when I no longer had need of him, I slew him and offered his dark blood up to the darker ones."
Isaac paused, his dark eyes darting over Mrs. Smith's face, searching for some sign of shock, revulsion, terror. He found there only the patient look of the teacher, absorbing his story, seeing through it to the truth of the matter. To what he was REALLY driving at. As if she knew the end of this story before he could even tell it. His brow furrowed angrily.
"Why do you think I did all this, Mrs. Smith?"
Here he was, dark lord of his own destiny, and still calling her Mrs. Smith. He could not shake the respect from his voice.
"Why don't you tell me why you did it, Isaac."
"YOU," he snarled, his voice
growing impossibly deep, his eyes receding from sight in his pale skull, "WILL
CALL ME BY MY
She continued her patient look, replying nothing.
"I sought you out," he said,
"You were the first one I came after. Even under the training of Lui Kang, I could
not forget your face! You taught me lies! Lies of faith! Lies of hope! If not for you I would have seen the world for what it truly was! It was YOU all along, Mrs. Smith, who I
really wanted to get revenge on! So much
power, so many years spent, just so I could face you again and make you see how
the world REALLY IS! DO YOU
"Mezthro, Lord of the Sixth Realm," Mrs. Smith said, her face the picture of seriousness. The young man looked at her with the wide eyes of a child.
"It sounds so... silly, when you say it."
"Very silly indeed, Isaac."
Isaac's face fell, and he began to sob. Mrs. Smith took him in her arms and patted his back, rocking him back and forth like a baby while he wept tears and snot onto the shoulder of her shawl. And in that simple, wordless gesture, the Mistress of the True Magic began her final lesson to the wayward boy.