Eight

There are a few things I know now, as I lie in a hospital bed, that I did not understand this morning. For example, I now know what, and where, my left scapula is and what it feels like to fracture mine and also what a badly broken wrist looks like. I also know that vampires are not only real, but that they can impersonate kids even though they are hundreds of years old. In conclusion: this is the worst birthday I hope I will ever have.

Mum and Dad sit at the end of my bed, holding hands, with Mum having dozed off on Dad's shoulder about fifteen minutes ago. My father holds a battered copy of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' in his other hand and the soft rise and fall of his voice reading to me about the first Christmas after a hundred years of winter, is making my eyelids heavy. I can't remember the amount of times I've heard this story but it never loses it's magic; especially for a girl who knows that wardrobes do indeed contain a different universe. I soon drift off to sleep and my dreams are full of roaring lions eating un-dead children.

***

When I wake up, I feel unsettled and panicky, afraid that Grace has somehow come back to life and will finish me off. My parents are both sound asleep now, resting on one another. Their peace is a comfort to me and my racing thoughts calm themselves. Out of the corner of my eye, I swear I see a lion standing, as though on guard, just outside the children's ward. When I turn my head properly to look, however, there is nothing there.

There are nine other kids in the ward with me and as I glance around I see their Athorians; crouching, standing and sitting, close to their Little Souls. Most of them look tired and worried and every thirty seconds or so, one of them flicks a sleetch away from the sleeping children and then returns to rubbing their hands together or tapping their feet.

'Kiddo?' Eli's nervous voice startles me a little, but the mild shock is almost instantly replaced by an almost painful bolt of hope, hitting me in the heart.

'Eli?' My own voice is equally hesitant.

'How are you doing?'

I consider this question for a moment: how am I doing? I haven't seen Eli since this afternoon and, honestly, I wasn't sure if I would see him again. After he killed Grace, he had led me gently by the hand, back out to the playground, where the lunchtime assistant saw me, gave a little scream, and called over the school nurse. On that walk back from the old Wendy house, Eli explained to me that Grace was actually a four-hundred-year-old vampire and, that, had she been able to drink my blood, no-one, not even my family, would have remembered that I existed. As it was, nobody seemed able to remember Grace and people seemed under the impression that I'd just had some kind of bad fall whilst playing in a 'forbidden' area.

'I don't know.' I say truthfully, 'If I say yes, will you start ignoring me again?'

My former friend gingerly sits on the edge of the bed, still as far away from me as the bed will allow, but, voluntarily closer than he's been to me in a year.

'Oh, Alice,' Eli sighs, 'I'm so sorry. I've been very silly, haven't I? I was so certain that I was doing the right thing and that by trying to stay…professional…I would be able to keep you safe. And all it did was make us both sad and put you in even more danger. Do you think you can forgive me and be my friend again?'

'Maybe,' I want to get this right, 'but you have to promise you'll never leave me like that again. What's the point in me being able to see you and all the cool and scary stuff from Sielo if I have to pretend I can't?'

'I promise, my Little Soul.' A tear falls, unchecked, from Eli's cheek and splashes onto his knee, 'I can't believe I nearly lost you and I'm never, ever letting it happen again.'

His apology is so sincere that I have to accept it; I take all the pain of being rejected for twelve months, and breathe it out. Instead, I breathe in the new friendship which I hope will be stronger and more equal than before.

'Good, then you are definitely forgiven.'

He reaches over and pats my uninjured hand and then almost instantly withdraws his hand and wipes it on his jeans. I smile slightly as I watch his trying to adjust, once again, to normal, human, actions. Now that we're talking again I have so many questions about Grace that I need to ask him.

'Eli? If Grace was so old, then how could she look like a child?'

'Vampires need blood to stay alive, but not in the same way that humans need food to survive. If you stopped eating, within a few weeks you'd be dead from starvation but, if a vampire stops drinking blood, then they just get old. Blood stops the aging process for them and keeps them young for centuries. Of course, getting older means eventual, proper, death and most vampires don't want to give up on life. Plus, drinking blood becomes addictive and, if a vampire drinks too much, then the aging process actually reverses and they appear child-like. Those are the most dangerous because they've lost all control of their thirst, and, unfortunately, that's the kind that Grace was.'

I'm not sure whether I feel horrified or fascinated, but this information gives way to another query:

'Why did she look so scary to me then?'

'Well, she didn't look old to you, did she? She had youth but she was still a monster and that always shows up, somehow. Grace had enough blood in her to project the strongest image possible of a human girl so that no-one would notice anything odd about her. Except you. Sielo filters don't work with you: we know that already!' He grins at me.

'One last question: how did you get to me in time to save me, I mean, how did you know where I was or that I was even in danger?'

But, as he opens his mouth to reply, there is an almighty sound of thunder and the glass door, leading from the children's ward out into the hospital garden, shatters into thousands of pieces.

A split second later, Eli is on his feet, standing in between me and the currently unknown threat. Around the room, other Athorians are leaping to attention, all facing the broken door. Some have long, curved, swords in their hands, a couple have small guns and one even holds a giant bow that is half the size of her. My guardian has no visible weapon but he looks as though he would take on the whole of the night sky for me, if he had to.

Outside, rain has begun to fall and the friendly lamps in the garden are extinguished, one by one. The wind whistles eerily through the jagged glass and brushes my cheek, coolly. My heart pounds in my chest as I feel danger sneaking towards me once more.

The creature that emerges from the gloom into the dim lighting of the ward is almost beyond the words I have stored up to describe things. It's sort of human… but definitely has at least one extra set of arms and no visible mouth. It's skin is a mottled blue (like the human skin when someone is very, very cold) and sags, droops and generally loosely envelops the 'Thing': an over-sized coat that obscures it's actual structure.

It moves and it's skin follows a faction of a second later, giving the impression that a terrifying jelly is making its way towards me. I turn and glance at my parents, utterly surprised to find that they are still sleeping. I twist my body back, to face Eli and the monster and ready myself to run as fast as I can if I need to.

'That's the Banderdram, Alice,' Eli whispers to me, 'It feeds on the sickness of children, particularly those close to death. It also increases the kid's illness by weakening their immune system. It's not uncommon for it to be the cause of death in the end.'

'So it isn't coming for me, then?' I ask, hopefully.

'Probably not.' Eli shrugs but doesn't relax his defensive position.

Well that's hardly reassuring is it? I think and inch back further, towards the edge of the bed.

The Banderdram turns abruptly, about half-way down the ward and swivels its tiny eyes towards a young boy who's sleeping face is turned towards me. The boy suddenly rouses and sits up, staring blankly ahead of him. From his small, pale hands, a tangle of tubes snake their way up to various drip feeds.

'Hello.'

It takes me a second to realise that the other child is addressing me and another few moments to remember that he can't see anything of what is happening around him. The Athorians and even the Banderdram all freeze in place while the normal world continues and I wonder if it is because a child is awake… but then I've been awake the whole time and no-one seems to have stopped anything on my account.

'Hi,' I manage to say after a couple of minutes, 'You ok?'

'Yeah, I just always find it difficult to sleep in hospital.' The boy yawns and then doubles over coughing.

'Are you in hospital a lot?' I ask curiously, trying to ignore Eli who is frowning at me and wildly gesturing at the threatening creature.

'Mmm,' He mumbles groggily, 'every few months or so… I've got,' He pauses to yawn again, 'a recurring chest infection. But anyway, I don't want to talk about being sick. I'm Alfie; what's your name?'

'Alice,' I say and then, because I feel that's not enough information, I follow it up with: 'I'm eight years old- it was my birthday yesterday.'

'Happy Birthday,' Alfie grins at me, 'would you like a jelly baby?'

He holds out a yellow packet to me and, nervously, I slide out of bed and creep past the Banderdram to take a pink sweet from him. I sit on the chair next to Alfie's bed and chew the jelly baby, thoughtfully. If I can get my new friend to go back to sleep then his guardian (who is leaning on the wall behind me) can stab the monster with his sword and then the boy will be safe.

'Do you want me to read to you? That always helps me to doze off.'

***

It takes thirty minutes of reading my old Narnia book before Alfie starts snoring gently, his face pushed deeply into his pillow.

I stay, seated next to him, steeling myself for the fight that I know is coming. Alfie's Athorian walks briskly past me and stands, facing the Banderdram, sword at the ready.

'What do you want from my Little Soul?' The Athorian is shorter and stockier than Eli, with a beard and piercing, blue, pupil-less eyes.

The creature makes a noise that sounds like radio static and reaches down towards the boy in the bed.

'You can't have him. Do you think I've spent the last eleven years of my life defending him just so that you can take everything from him now?'

The guardian raises his sword above his head and brings it sweeping down, aiming at the monster's shoulder blade. The Banderdram's face seems to split in two revealing a bottomless mouth and the white noise increases vastly in volume until it hurts my ears. The sound seems to have an even worse effect on the green men and women in the room. Eli is crouched low to the floor, his hands clamped over his ears and his teeth clenched together in agony. Alfie's protector cries out and drops his weapon to the linoleum and collapses, his eyes rolled back up into his head.

Evil, shapeless hands, reach back towards Alfie. The Athorian's are all incapacitated and the kid is unprotected and defenceless. This is my fault. Maybe if I had stayed awake with him all night the Banderdram would have simply given up. What if Eli is hurt? What if sleetches come into the ward while the children don't have anyone to save them? I stand up silently and creep around so that I am behind the blue creature.

The mottled arm pulls Alfie up by the shoulders, lifting him a few inches away from the mattress. The screaming static from the Banderdram's 'mouth' seems to fill all the available space in my mind, my body, even the tips of my hairs seem to be flooded with it. Alfie wakes up abruptly, his eyes open wide with confusion and alarm. I struggle desperately to fight through the buzzing discomfort in my head and stay focused on the situation. I drop to my hands and knees and take hold of the fallen sword's hilt with my uninjured arm. Unsteadily, I get to my feet again and with a cry that seems to emerge from my toes and lunge wildly at the monster's tick neck. The blade slices through as easily as a knife through an overcooked carrot piece.

The Banderdram's great head slides free of it's great, fat body and hits the hospital's crisp, white sheets. Alfie slithers back onto the bed, eyes closed, fast asleep again. Slick, purple, blood covers the floor and my hands, my clothes, the blade and handle of the sword. Absolutely everything is soaked in it. My fingers un-clench from the weapon.

***

The sun is just starting to rise and I'm still shaking, Eli has wrapped a blanket around me and all around me the ward is completely still. Shortly after I killed… I killed…I killed… that 'thing', Eli recovered enough to come over to me and take the curved sword from my trembling hands.

Now he tells me that Alfie's guardian is dead and he cries silently as he closes his colleague's eyes and tells me that he did not even know his name. My friend had pulls out a tiny, dark, blue globe and he speaks into in a language I don't understand. Moments later, a tall, beautiful, Authorian woman with almost white hair and soft, minty skin appeares from behind another child's hospital bed.

She shakes her head sadly and murmurs, 'Oh, poor Jeremiah, scarcely six-hundred years old.'

'I know, Justice,' Eli sighs, exhausted, 'The Little Soul fought of the Banderdram single-handed. With a sword!'

'Alice?' The woman addresses me directly, with a little smile, 'I'm Justice; I work with Eli. Thank you, little one, for your bravery. Are you ok now? I can give you something to help you forget a bit of it, if you'd like?'

'No, thank you.' I twist a small piece of the blanket between my fingers and look at their, kind, caring faces, 'If I forget then maybe I won't be brave next time I need to be and if I met that…thing… again I wouldn't remember to cover Eli's ears so that it couldn't hurt him.'

I don't understand the expression on Justice's face as she awkwardly pats my shoulder, 'As you wish, Alice. But, if you ever have problems with nightmares, ask Eli to catch a Piffle for you.'

'Before you ask, Kiddo: a Piffle is a little creature about the size of a hamster that brings happy dreams and can even catch nightmares in a pouch. They come and go through houses as they please but I can catch one with popcorn if you ever need one; they really love popcorn!'

Eli always knows how to cheer me up and calm me down and listening to him describe the little dream providers, reminds me how many good things there are about Sielo, as well as the scary.

'I have to go soon,' Justice glances at something that, just about, looks like a watch, 'A few more minutes and the sun will by fully above us. I will take Jeremiah to the King and bring Alfie's new Athorian through the gateway.'

She gives me a formal nod, 'Nice to have met you, Alice Lucy Tipton,' She turns back to Eli, 'You might want to take your Little Soul into the garden for a few minutes while I deal with all of this.'

***

'You saved Alfie's life, you know.'

I don't respond to Eli.

The early morning air in the garden is fresh and crisp and helps revive me and shake some of the more horrible memories from my mind. We sit on a pink, wooden, bench, surrounded by big, fake, flowers with plastic petals, my toes just about reaching the multi-coloured wood chippings.

'I didn't know that Athorian's protected children from anything other than sleetches.' I say, slowly.

'We protect you from anything that can harm you; we don't always win, but we do our best. Before Souless started using them as his weapons, sleetches were just the same as any other monster that turned up from time to time in the darkness. But then their numbers grew and grew and they became the biggest threat to Little Souls. You see, all other monsters can't touch your soul; that stays safe until the King can take it, so none of them are as evil… even if they look a bit scarier.'

My shoulder aches terribly and my wrist seems to scream with pain as the medication the doctors gave me wears off. As the first rays of sunlight creep over me, the magenta blood that has stained me for hours suddenly washes away, leaving my skin and clothes perfectly clean.

'The Midnight Effect,' Eli says, as he sees me staring at my unblemished hands, 'Other than death and memories, nothing evil from Sielo sticks around in the daylight.'

'What about Grace? She was in my school in broad daylight?'

'Well, technically, Grace wasn't from Sielo. The original vampires did come out of my land; thousands of years ago, but all the ones around today are just un-dead humans.'

'Oh.' I whisper: it's all I can really say.

I look back into the ward and see all the Athorians sliding back under their children's beds, one or two of them glance curiously at me as they go. The bodies of the Blanderdram and Jeremiah have gone and my parents are still sleeping soundly. The broken glass is nowhere to be seen and the door is whole once again. I pull my knees up to my chest and rest my forehead on my kneecaps.

'Before you were such a hero last night, Alice, you asked me a question. I can't remember: what was that question?'

'I know what you're trying to do, Green man,' I yawn, 'You're trying to distract me and make me feel better. But I still want to know the answer so I'm going to let you take my mind off things. I wanted to ask how you knew I wasn't safe before, how did you know I was in the Wendy house?'

'I never stopped caring about you, Kiddo, not once in the last year. So I kept an eye on you all the time, I stayed hidden and just pretended to only visit you at night. I knew that you should have been mostly safe from monsters in the day time. But I was still worried that something else might hurt you: a person, an animal, a random accident and so I never let you out of my sight…
'Except yesterday. I felt so guilty about upsetting you on your birthday that I wanted to get you a present. I think the plan was to leave the gift at the bottom of your bed and still ignore you like the idiot I was being. What I made for you is so perfect and I thought you wouldn't be in any danger at school. When I got back and found you weren't with Daisy, I panicked. I heard her talking about you and Grace and the playhouse and then I just legged it to you. I'm sorry I left it so late.'

I take some time to take this all in and then Eli adds quietly, 'Thanks for the chocolate milk, by the way. I missed that drink almost as much as I missed you.'

Giggling, I reach over and take his hand. He gives my hand a gentle squeeze and then reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out a tiny, silver, bag.

'Is that my present?' I ask dubiously, 'It's not very big.'

'It doesn't need to be!' Eli says defensively, 'It's from Sielo and it's perfectly safe, I promise.'

He hands me the bag and I use my 'good' fingers to waggle the container open. My finger-tips brush the teeny-tiny object inside. When I draw it out I stare in wonder at the beautiful, furry, turquoise butterfly. It's about the same size as my eight-year-old thumb and flutters slightly in the palm of my hand. Then I notice that the very centre of the butterfly isn't an insect but is a little, fat, baby; dressed in a snug, black, jumpsuit.

'He's a fiary… or at least he's a replica… couldn't give you a real one... it's clockwork. I thought you'd like one… I made it myself.' Eli says, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment.

'He's gorgeous! But don't you mean fairy not fiary?'

'Stupid fairies taking all the glory… there's no such thing as fairies.'

I leap to my feet in horror and nearly drop the butterfly-baby, 'You can't say that, Eli! Haven't you ever seen Peter Pan? Every time you say you don't believe in them, a fairy dies!'

'No,' Eli says patiently, 'A fiary would die; if anyone ever thought they existed enough to say that they didn't believe in them. There was a misunderstanding a few years back and humans started thinking they were called fairies and not fiaries and that the real word was just a mis-spelling.'

'Oh.' I say again, 'What do fiaries do then?'

'I'll show you some time but for now, I think you need to go inside again: you're parents are waking up.'

'Ok,' I yawn once more and tuck the start wandering back towards the children's ward, 'Thank you for my present, Green man, its perfect!'

He joins me and matches his stride easily to mine, all the stress and sadness of the night seems to have faded over the course of our conversation and the daylight has brought new hope to me.

'No problem, Kiddo, I'm just happy we're friends again.'

'Me too.'