‘Archive of the Inexplicable and Dangerous’, Alexandra Grunberg

Illustrations © 2021 Miguel Santos

 [ Dripping tap © 2021, Miguel Santos ] The man should have been handsome. But his high cheekbones threw severe shadows on his hollowed cheeks. His pale blue eyes appeared sharply manic in their watery glassiness. Gentle blond curls were pushed back from a high forehead, not styled, but the result of anxious hands running through the loosened waves. The slight tan of naturally pale skin had taken on a sallow tone. But his smile was untouched by whatever affliction marred the rest of his beauty, teeth unnaturally straight and white. The perfection could have been as off-putting as the flaws, and yet that smile glowed with natural charisma. Even without the smile, he still would have been the most appealing man in that bar. It was not surprising that his lonely evening seemed to be ending with him on his way to a woman’s flat.

Despite the hollowness, the anxiety, and the sallow skin, the woman reminded herself that she was lucky.

In front of her door, keys held loosely in her hands, she frowned. She had often ended a night feeling successful, pleasantly surprised, excited, but she had never stood in front of her modest third-floor walk-up telling herself that she was lucky. And though it was late, and though it was rude, and though he truly was the most appealing man that had been at the bar that night or any night in the past week, the woman remembered old advice from her mother to always trust her gut. Her gut was saying that there was nothing lucky about this at all. And though her whole face turned pink in an embarrassed blush, she told the man that she had changed her mind, and left him in the hallway outside her door, locking two locks behind her and securing the chain. She did not see his face as she made her swift escape. She would not have thought he was so handsome if she had.

The walls were thin enough for the woman to hear the man’s soft footsteps as he headed down the stairs, and she sighed, relieved that he had not made a scene. She left a trail of her coat, purse, and shoes across scratched wooden floors as she made her way to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water with shaking hands. Once, distracted by a good friend’s illness, while walking across the road in a stupor of pre-emptive grief, she had nearly been hit by a speeding car. The fluttering in her heart now was the same panic of a disaster barely averted.

The drip, drip, drip of the tap that refused to shut off completely steadied her pulse to an equally even beat. She gave the tap a few twists, but the drip refused to stop. It was a wonderfully mundane problem to have, and she decided to leave it for the morning.

As she finished undressing in her bedroom, she did not see the drops turn red. They were far too thick to be water, almost crystalizing as they met and merged at the base of the sink. Even when the drip finally stopped, the red mass continued to grow, eventually taking the shape of a human; a woman, long hair slicked against her back, limbs overflowing from the sink in which she sat, naked skin slick with a liquid red sheen, as gory as a new-born, as delicate, too. This woman from the tap would go to the bedroom like a speeding car, like the worst luck in the world. But before she did, she looked at you with eyes covered in a pale pink film.

Cassandra was not awakened by the familiar chirp of her alarm, but by the loud bang of her flung-open door hitting the wall. She tore off her eye mask and, after blinking away spots from the already-afternoon brightness of her small studio flat, saw that her private space had been invaded by her tutor, Dr Ellis Farbringer, who brandished a piece of paper in front of him like a sword.

“Pop quiz!” he announced, and then, as if just noticing that she was still wrapped in a duvet, continued, “You should be out of bed already.”

“I’m not working today,” Cassandra said, failing to convincingly frown at the energetic man bounding around her flat in a ragged tweed jacket and partially undone bowtie.

“Of course you are! But, clearly, of course you aren’t,” he said, gesturing at her without meeting her eyes.

He was never one for eye contact, and she was used to his wandering attentions, his gaze dropping to the floor then flitting to his hand then up to the ceiling. It was hardly the oddest thing about him, and she had learned not to expect him to pretend to be like everyone else. It was refreshing, if not endearing. If not a little more than endearing.

“I gave Bailey my morning reservations for the private study room.”

“Well, you should have submitted that in writing.”

“I did.”

Cassandra took a moment to be glad that she had worn pyjama bottoms despite the uncharacteristic heat that drifted through the open window. Apparently just noticing the source of the warm breeze, Ellis slammed the window shut as she dragged herself out of bed.

“You of all people know the dangers lurking at night in London,” he scolded.

“My biggest danger right now is heatstroke and exhaustion,” Cassandra countered. “Tea?”

Ellis nodded as Cassandra went to fill up the kettle at the sink, retying her long brown braid that had become frayed in her restless sleep as she walked across her Archive-provided flat. The tap was dripping. She paused, trying to hold on to the memory of her nightmare. She could see that not quite handsome face very clearly, the creature in the sink, impossibly pink eyes with an unnerving softness that made Cassandra want to stick her fingers in and dig…

“You should put in a maintenance order on that tap,” Ellis said over her shoulder.

She set the full kettle on the hob to boil and snatched the quiz out of his hand.

“Why do I get special treatment this morning?” she asked as she scanned the page.

“I offered the quiz to everyone,” Ellis protested. “You’re just the first one to actually give it a look. ‘Sort the cursed artifacts into their respective countries of origin.’ I thought it could be helpful.”

“Any object from any country can be cursed,” Cassandra shrugged, handing the paper back to him. “I could probably think of ten examples of various origin for each of those objects.”

The kettle signalled its readiness with an insistent whine. Ellis helped himself to the mugs, fitting each with a teabag of English Breakfast. In his mid-thirties, he was one of the youngest tutors in the Archives, though the greying of his hair, his near-sighted squint, and his insistence on dressing the part almost made him seem as old as his colleagues. Cassandra herself was one of the oldest of the students at twenty-eight, and she often had to remind herself that this man was meant to be a figure of authority. She supposed he would have been more comfortable tutoring the younger Bailey, Simon, and Rayaan who were now finishing occult-related undergraduate degrees, or even teenage wonder Minji, though the girl seemed to have no interest in finishing a formal higher degree or publishing her findings. Though he was the researchers’ closest day-to-day contact, overseeing their general education in the Archive of the Inexplicable and Dangerous, the students were assigned personal tutors based on the focus of their theses. Ellis and Cassandra’s speciality in curses and monstrosity lined up in an odd kind of luck.

The worst luck in the world.

“Are you alright?” Ellis asked.

He sat at her modest table, occupying the only chair, but that was not why Cassandra had frozen while standing by the sink. She shook her head, though she could feel her heart beating fast in her chest.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Just having nightmares. I’m sure it’s the heat.”

She glared at her bed, an unkempt mess overlooked by a large banner with Archive of the Inexplicable and Dangerous inscribed in fancy calligraphy, the closest thing to school spirit she could find in her new place of education. The banner hung in each hero’s room as a free gift, but as a student archivist Cassandra had to purchase her own. She was happy to buy it. It was an odd kind of encouragement, a promise of the future she was forging for herself.

“Very uncharacteristic weather this far into the autumn,” Ellis agreed, sipping his tea and grimacing, a habit that Cassandra had learned not to take as a comment on her tea-making ability. “Well then, you said you could think of ten examples for each object. Prove it. Starting with the candlesticks.”

Cassandra listed her answers in rhythm to the dripping of the tap, telling herself that it had just been a nightmare and that there was nothing to worry about.

In a different kitchen, a different tap dripped another creature into existence. It was not an exact replica, but a recognizable variation. Its jaw followed a familiar line and its much shorter hair was still reminiscent of the last nightmare. For a moment, it sat, confused, flexing and unflexing its fingers, thick clumps of gore running down its forehead, lodging in the corner of those inhuman eyes. Then, the mass that looked like a woman pulled itself out of the sink and stumbled into a living room, where a human young woman was sleeping on a sofa, the television in front of her displaying the text “are you still watching?” The girl was wearing clothes from a night out dancing; an impractical and uncomfortable dress that would have shimmered in any light brighter than the dim glow of the television. It fluttered in a tinkling of plastic sequins as the fan in the corner made its rotations. She had gone out looking for company but had changed her mind about the company she had found. That hollow face had not given up on her yet, though. He was already far away, down the street, but he stopped when the creature fell upon the sleeping woman.

She beat out with fists much more solid than the creature, kicked with strong legs despite the surprise of the attack. But then the blows become softer as her body began to melt under the creature’s touch, and an attempt to scream turned into a faded garbled mess. The woman from the tap sunk her hands into her struggling victim’s stomach, and the fabric of her dress, as well as her skin and bones split easily under the pressure, adopting the fragility of the creature’s gelatinous form. The woman on the sofa began to shrink as her body lost its shape, seeming to disappear into the creature that now straddled her, but the creature was shrinking just as quickly. Before the television decided that the woman was no longer watching and turned itself off, all that remained of the victim and her attacker was a slick stain of red across the cushions and floor, dotted with chunks of unrecognizable viscera that jiggled in the breeze of a fan.

Out on the street, along the Thames, a handsome man decided to walk a little longer, not quite feeling satisfied, but at least feeling fed.

A gentle hand shook Cassandra awake.

“Have you been here all night?” asked Rayaan as he slid into the seat next to her.

Bailey and Simon sat across from her and did not hide their smirks as she wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. Cassandra was alarmed to see that she had drooled on an original Assyrian text recounting hybrid monsters of the eleventh century. The only other person who would check out this book was Ellis, and if her drool discoloured the illustration, he was bound to notice.

“She only read for an hour before she passed out,” Minji chirped, hidden somewhere in the shelves, probably stuck to the single plug powering her laptop that she had found in this old wing of the library. “Looked like she had been possessed. Or like, drunk.”

“Neither,” Cassandra sighed, rubbing her eyes. “I just haven’t been sleeping. Nightmares.”

“Could be anxiety,” said Bailey. “Don’t you submit your dissertation in a month?”

Cassandra groaned. While the others were working on undergraduate theses that would max out at around ten thousand words, her own PhD dissertation was looking like it would hover at ninety-thousand words. The first half had gone by so quickly, helped by her passion for the subject as well as the realization that her thesis on the label of monstrosity as a curse employed for cultural scapegoating was much less theoretical than she had once believed.

She used to wonder why Bailey would get lost in her research on abnormal parasitic infestations without writing anything for months and marvelled at how Simon excused his forays into the practical exploration of occult urban architecture over actually working on his thesis. Rayaan had finished his own first draft on what he termed visceral hauntings months ago and seemed to have forgotten about the mountain of line edits he had received from his tutor, and Minji made no effort to formally write up her research into viral urban legends. Cassandra had quietly congratulated herself on her discipline and productivity as she wrote page after page, scheduled meeting after meeting, and continued to build on her work, utilizing both the publications housed in the Archive as well as heroes’ stories from the field. But lately, every time she tried to write, her eyes went heavy, and she found herself dreaming of someone else’s flat, back in that nightmare with its twin spectres of the handsome-not-handsome man and the women who dripped into existence.

“There’s no shame in asking for an extension,” shrugged Rayaan. “Your university already thinks you transferred to distance learning for your mental health. I’m sure they’ll understand if you need more time.”

It was a believable excuse, after what she had gone through, and no one in administration at the University of Glasgow questioned it when she relocated to London. Any issues she had switching to Ellis as a partner-university supervisor were handled by the Archive. It was going smoothly, a path set out from the shaky start of postgraduate academia to the formerly impossible dream of a set career as a member of the Archive of the Inexplicable and Dangerous, the official aid to the heroes—

“I doubt Ellis would be as forgiving as your university if you don’t step it up,” said Avery.

Cassandra had not heard the girl come into the wing. The heroes rarely visited the archives, leaving the research aspect of their work to the aids: students contributing to the knowledge of the inexplicable and their tutors, former students who decided immersion in a violent world of supernatural monsters was worth the life-long steady paycheck. Cassandra was still unclear who exactly paid them, that invisible organization that kept their lights on and their taps dripping. She had once hopped on her bike and followed a man wearing a black suit in a black car who had met secretly with Ellis. She trailed him all the way to Buckingham Palace. After that, she had decided it might be safer not to investigate who was invested in the work of the Archive’s heroes. Heroes like Avery.

“Any updates in the murder spree?” asked Bailey.

“Not until you guys provide me with any leads,” Avery snapped. “Did you think I came by for a friendly chat? I need information before I can do anything.”

“There’s no connection between the women, so far,” Minji’s voice called from her mysterious location.

“Except that they had all gone out on the night that they disappeared,” Simon added.

“But they all disappeared in their homes,” Rayaan cut in, “as far apart as Blackfriar’s, Richmond—”

“We knew all this yesterday,” Avery interrupted.

Cassandra noticed that the girl’s clothes were covered in grime, like she had dragged herself across some filthy street. She guessed the benefit of being able to compress your body and flatten yourself down with the same efficacy as several rodent species had the downside of the Archive expecting Avery to use that power in even the most unsavoury situations. When the girl had told Cassandra that she had been wading through sewage for the Archive since she was fifteen, she had not realized that the hero was being literal. She had not realized that the girl with dark, distant eyes and arms covered with as many scars as tattoos was only seventeen. She looked as old as Cassandra, was as short with her same stocky muscularity, and even wore her hair in a long dark braid. Looking at Avery was like seeing a version of herself from another timeline. It was a timeline she had no interest in visiting.

“We’re looking into it,” Bailey said, the pep in her voice clearly forced.

“If you want to compare notes, I’m breaking for lunch at noon,” said Simon, leaning back to balance on the edge of his chair in a childish daredevil ploy. “What do you say Avery. Is it a date?”

“You know I’m a sucker for a pretty face,” Avery said, her grin more threatening than playful. “But I doubt the Archive would let a hero date a research student.”

“Well, maybe we could break some rules?”

A curious expression crossed Avery’s face, but dropped when the chair slid out from underneath Simon, depositing the boy in a heap on the floor. Avery rolled her eyes and left, and though Cassandra did not hear a collective sigh, the relief in the room was palpable. Despite Simon’s flirtations, none of them really liked interacting with the heroes.

The Archive found those remarkable individuals in similar situations to how they had found Cassandra—the inexplicable and dangerous kinds. The heroes just faced whatever supernatural entity they had encountered with better defence mechanisms than any of the research students possessed, in the form of unusual abilities. The heroes were the ones who worked in the field, hunting and destroying the monsters that secretly plagued London.

Heroes did not reside in run-down street-level studios, but floor-spanning flats on the top levels of Archive accommodation. They enjoyed a salary that allowed for any comfort they could wish for. They did not answer to any tutor or Archive employee, but to the organization itself, which provided them with their tasks. And then they died, always sooner than Cassandra expected. Avery had already been working when Cassandra joined the team last year. Since then, three more heroes, each with their own unique abilities, had come and gone.

They were called heroes, but Cassandra had a feeling that the organization viewed them in much the same way as they viewed the monsters that the heroes hunted. Cassandra’s research into the curse of monstrosity had recently become less about the creatures being hunted and more about the heroes being used up by the organization, many of them too young to realize they had much less power here than they were told. They were naïve enough to be manipulated by forces well practiced in the art. Ellis had never told her to edit out this scathing critique of the Archive. She wondered if he could not even comprehend it as a critique, failing to see the title of hero as a curse, or if the ever-changing team of heroes made him as uncomfortable as it did the students. They did their best not to get to know Avery, to make it easier when she would inevitably fall to some horror lurking in the night. There was nothing any of them could do for her, though all members of staff, from security to sanitation to archivists, felt bad for them, as pointless as the feeling was. Heroes did the saving, and no amount of research had ever helped a student save a hero.

“I didn’t know there was a current task,” said Cassandra after she was sure the girl was gone. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“Ellis said not to distract you from your work,” said Rayaan.

He cried out as Bailey kicked him under the table. So much for the tutor being understanding about an extension. It sounded more like he would be less willing to provide it than Cassandra was willing to ask for it.

“Well, let me know if you learn anything more about these blood-stained disappearances,” said Cassandra.

“How did you know that they were blood-stained disappearances?” asked Simon.

“You just said that they were, when Avery was here,” Cassandra said quickly, and she could see all the younger students frown as they tried to remember if that was true. “Besides, we work with the inexplicable and dangerous. When is the field ever not bloody?”

The others nodded in agreement. Cassandra knew that she had been too tired to pay attention to the facts they had spouted at Avery. When she had asked for updates, she was really thinking about blood filling a sink, the creature with pink eyes, her nightmare taking shape in reality. She hoped that the others would find a lead through their research. She hoped they would not ask her any questions about the task that she was sure she would be able to answer.

The handsome man was staring into a mirror, hands caressing healthy skin, fingers playing with shining curls. He was beautiful, even before he smiled.

He stood alone behind a running tap, not a drip but a stream into a modern trough-like sink. This was the restroom in a high fashion club, or fusion-dining restaurant. He was on another hunt. He did not need to hunt. He was well fed. And he was not going to find a victim in the men’s restroom. But he did not seem to be in a rush to leave, and he smiled like he had already won as he admired himself in the mirror.

No, not himself.

He was looking past his reflection, at something over his shoulder, someone who did not belong here, someone who was only dreaming, and yet, the man still saw you. He saw you, laying in your bed, under a banner that read Archive of the Inexplicable and Dangerous. His new target. His next meal.

“When Rayaan is writing about visceral hauntings, does he ever mention anything about literal viscera?” Cassandra asked Ellis. “Like, gore discarded by the immaterial body left at the scene?”

“This meeting is about your work,” said Ellis, raising an eyebrow over horn-rimmed glasses. “Not Rayaan’s. And no. When he says visceral, he means tangible.”

She had meant to ask about an extension. She had already contacted her course convener at the University of Glasgow and received a very encouraging email. This meeting was the perfect time to bring it up, but when she tried to get back on track, a different request tumbled from lips.

“Could you ask Simon to do an underground exploration of sewage tunnels linking the victims in the task? See if there are any masses, viscera or gelatinous kinds of masses, in the connecting pipes?”

“I told the others not to distract you with this task,” Ellis said, but he seemed more confused than upset. “And what do you mean by gelatinous masses?”

“I don’t know,” Cassandra said, staring down at her lap. “It’s just…”

“A funny feeling?”

Cassandra’s cheeks burned and she refused to look up at her tutor.

He had been on the scene when the Archive had found Cassandra, caught up an event that belonged in the horror stories she studied, not the University of Glasgow’s Research Annexe. She had visited many times before, examining the marginalia in medieval and Renaissance texts, paying close attention to hybrid creatures and hybrid people and whether they were presented as divine or monstrous. She had seen everything she needed to see, had read every page contained in the library, but sometimes she came back just for the comfort of being close to something that she understood. Glasgow was so much bigger than the highland town she grew up in, overwhelming even as a more manageably sized city, filled with new experiences that she did not care to experience. The books in the library were familiar, its monsters almost friendly now that she knew them so well. She returned to them in the same way she returned to her favourite bench in Kelvingrove Park or her usual coffee shop on Byers Road. But on the night when she had first learned about the Archive of the Inexplicable and Dangerous, she had not gone to the library searching for the comfort of familiar illustrated faces.

For the past week she had been suffering from nightmares about a creature that she was sure she had never seen in any of the library’s archives, though it belonged in the manuscripts as much as any dragon, frightful snail, or murderous rabbit. It had slithered through her mind, consuming the ink of the texts and any late-night staff member who happened to hear its munching. It ate through her research material as she slept, and it slept as she looked for pages that she knew had already disappeared. And though the library closed at 2 a.m., around midnight she had woken up knowing, sure, that she would catch the creature in the act. She was just not the only one to catch it.

When Avery had slithered under the door, Cassandra initially thought that the hero was the monster responsible for her nightmares. The girl had expertly thrown a knife over Cassandra’s shoulder, catching the ink-and-flesh consuming serpent in a watery black eye, saving the student from being the creature’s next meal. Cassandra still thought that if Ellis had not been there, uncharacteristically supervising this trip as an excuse to visit a distant archive, Avery would have left her behind, bewildered, with no explanation to offer the university for the ink-black splotches that now covered the floor, the walls, and the priceless texts. But, even as an avid researcher himself, Ellis had found it odd that Cassandra had happened to be at the exact location of a supernatural phenomenon in the middle of the night.

She had told him about the disappearing pages, explained that she figured whatever culprit had been responsible was likely to be prowling at night, how she had just had a funny feeling and had never expected to find a supernatural creature. When she mentioned her research into curses and monsters, Ellis had become excited, comparing it to his own work. He had told her that, unlike other Archive students who were recruited through early career publications relevant to unsolved tasks, he had been thrust into the world of evil and darkness by his involvement in an inexplicable event concerning surgical students and an unfortunate batch of cursed Buckfast. When he brought up the opportunity to research for the Archive, and the potential of an assured career, Cassandra had jumped at the chance. The university had accepted that she had witnessed vandals desecrating the works she loved so much and needed distance from Glasgow in order to complete her degree. The university had also received a large donation from the Archive.

Cassandra had considered mentioning the nightmares to Ellis, labouring over whether or not she was just being dramatic. The other heroes had such obvious powers. They seemed so strong and confident, and she much preferred her work in the Archives to potentially tackling tasks in the field. She did not want to confront monsters. She just wanted to know about them, everything about them, understand them and share that understanding with others through peer-reviewed essays in respected academic journals. After she had seen three heroes be recruited for their abilities and die in the span of less than a year, she had decided it was best not to mention her dreams, both for her desired career and her own safety.

But now, women were dying, and Cassandra had information that might save them. And it was hard to be concerned about the danger of telling her tutor about her possible ability when she was already in danger from a monstrous hunter.

Ellis cleaned his glasses with a tweed sleeve, though Cassandra could not see a single smudge on the lens. She was surprised that the man’s hands were shaking with something resembling fear, whether of her or for her, she was not sure.

“Cassandra, is there something you need to tell me?” he asked.

Cassandra hesitated, her face still flushed as she nodded.

“I need maintenance to fix the dripping tap in my room,” she said. “It’s incredibly important.”

“Why?” Ellis asked.

His voice was hard, but the hand that he reached out to hold hers was surprisingly soft. Like an apology. Cassandra took a deep breath.

“Because that’s how he hunts. I’ve seen it. In my nightmares. I know the creature from the task. And he knows where to find me.”

Aren’t you so lucky, to see that smile? For the first time in so long, you feel lucky. You want to keep feeling lucky.

 [ Are you still watching? © 2021, Miguel Santos ] Cassandra woke up with a gasp. Her eyes immediately darted to the tap, but it had been fixed that afternoon and there was no red drip.

“Did you see anything?” Ellis asked.

“Why did you let me fall asleep?”

Cassandra hopped out of her chair and paced in front of her tutor who tugged uncomfortably at his sleeves.

“If you are having the funny kind of funny feelings, I thought it might strengthen the connection,” said Ellis. “Get him here faster.”

He coughed, perhaps embarrassed, and Cassandra realized that they were alone.

“Where’s Avery?” she asked.

“She left,” said Ellis. “She said that she was tired of waiting. And considering I did not give her a very good idea of why she should expect the creature to appear in your room, it was hard to convince her to stay.”

Cassandra groaned as she sat back down on the chair.

“Maybe it is just intuition, or something I came across in my research popping up through my subconscious,” she said. “Or maybe I’m just having paranoid fantasies about a handsome monster with high cheekbones and a great smile.”

“Well, um, I think it’s better to be safe,” Ellis stammered. “I checked all the taps in the building for leaks, and there is no way the creature can drip its way in.”

Cassandra frowned. She thought about the women, inside their apartments. They all thought that they were safe. They had all made the right decision. They were grown women who knew what it felt like to be manipulated, no matter how practiced the manipulator was, how charismatic his smile. They knew better than to let him into their rooms, and so he had to get in by whatever means he could.

“The creatures in the tap,” said Cassandra slowly. “That’s not how he wants to eat.”

“But you said—”

“That’s how he’s been forced to hunt, to improvise. He follows the women home, and when he’s denied the feast, the surrogate creature feasts on his behalf. He gets fed, but it’s a backwards kind of feeding. A memory of a woman consumed, sent to consume. But I think he would rather feast for himself. He’s not in it just to feed. He wants them to want him. To feel lucky. He wants the satisfaction of a successful hunt.”

“Wait, wait,” said Ellis. “You’re saying that his victims become these creatures that you saw forming from the drip?”

Cassandra had not been paying enough attention to the creatures in her nightmares. She had noticed its form shift into something different and yet so familiar. She had just thought it had looked familiar because it was so much like the first monster. She did not realize it was familiar because it was actually so much like the first victim. It was the first victim, or else, it was built on her memory, her consumption, her blood and viscera.

“Ellis, when did Avery leave?” she asked.

“An hour or so ago?” he guessed. “Why?”

“Did she say where she was going?”

“Just that she was overdue some fun,” said Ellis. “But I know she came back, I checked with security. Cassandra, where are you going?”

Cassandra was already out the door, running to the front desk, where a bored security guard was quietly playing a true crime podcast.

“Did you check Avery back in?” she asked, and the man jumped at the shouted question.

“Um, yes?”

“Was she alone?” Cassandra asked, and the man hesitated. “Or was she with a man? Blond? Great smile?”

“Just let the girl have some fun,” the man said, glaring at Cassandra. “You know what it’s like for heroes.”

Ellis had jogged out of the room to meet her, but he had to continue jogging to follow Cassandra to the lift.

“Where are we going?” he asked, breathless as the doors closed on them.

“We’re too late,” whispered Cassandra, though she hoped it was not true.

When the lift opened, Cassandra sprinted to the end of the hall, though she knew there was no point in running. The door to Avery’s flat was open. She could hear Ellis’s steps behind her, and she wanted to yell at him to stop, to keep his distance, but her throat had closed in a mix of guilt and fear.

She knew what she was going to find before she walked through that open door, and yet it still shocked her to see the man standing over a half-dissolved Avery, his hands plunged into her stomach. He had undergone a transformation similar to the creatures that he made from drops of blood, his body as soft as the victim beneath him, fresh as the gore that coated his arms and slicked back his hair. His eyes were covered in a pale pink film, but they were wide with surprise as they looked at her, then at Avery, then at the wall behind sofa where he had trapped the girl. Not at the wall, but at the banner hanging on it: Archive of the Inexplicable and Dangerous. It decorated the flats of all the heroes, a poor present given in exchange for everything they could offer, and Cassandra had the same one over her own bed. Though there was little left of Avery, Cassandra could still see the remains of a long, dark braid, exactly like her own.

The man had thought that Avery was Cassandra.

This was her fault. He had wanted to hunt Cassandra. And now another hero was dead.

It would have made sense to feel hopeless, but Cassandra felt angry. She knew Avery, as much as she tried to keep her distance. She knew Avery because she knew herself, as well as she knew each monster drawn in the margins of carefully tended manuscripts, each creature cursed to carry the consequences of their own monstrosity, powerful enough to be feared and used but not powerful enough to see the trap that had been drawn around them. Cassandra had avoided the label long enough to observe the inky nets that contained monsters in myths and reality. They ensnared the naive and young who wanted to help as well as the old and sinister who wanted to hunt.

But it did not matter if they had the same banner or the same hair. Cassandra had outgrown her resemblance to Avery when she stopped feeling lucky to have someone think that she was special, and she started feeling owed satisfaction for her efforts, be it the award of a PhD or the reward of a successful hunt.

The man was as soft as his creatures, the mass of his body as fragile as the one he had broken beneath him, and when Cassandra rushed forward and dug her fingers into his pink eyes they gave as easily as gelatine, as flan, as cheesecake. She gouged in as deep as she could, and since she was not the kind of monster who fed on gore, the creature did not disappear, consumed, but collapsed in thick, jiggling chunks on the floor as she tore him to pieces. She did not know if he tried to fight back. She did not know if he could. She only knew that he had the worst luck in the world, to hunt the only monster who had been studying him night after night and figured out that he was just a pretty face, so easy to discard, and even easier to destroy.

The three men who sat on the other side of the desk were nearly identical, from their slicked back black hair to their black suits to the earpieces that they would tap every so often, as if it would help them hear their instructions a little better. Ellis sat in the corner of the room, fidgeting with the patch on the elbow of his jacket. Cassandra was trying her best to stare straight in front of her as she sat on a chair that seemed purposefully uncomfortable, but each sporadic twitch of his fingers kept drawing her attention back to her tutor. He was not looking at her but kept glancing over his shoulder at the door, like he suspected someone might be eavesdropping on the other side.

Though the email she had received summoning her did not say what this meeting would be about, Cassandra had entered the room with a terrible certainty that the Archive was about to recruit its newest hero. She had never heard of a hero refusing the position before. She had always thought that it was because they had been honoured. Now she wondered if it was because a hero who did not work for the Archive was nothing more than a monster, and if it could not be an asset, it could easily be a task for some other hero to complete.

The email also said it would be a closed meeting, but Ellis had walked in beside her like he had every right to be there, and though Cassandra thought that the men were waiting for him to leave, her tutor seemed to be very settled in his chair. Eventually, one of the men tapped his earpiece, turned to another man and shrugged, and then began to speak.

“Can you explain to us exactly how you knew that the monster, which we will be recording as Humanoid Cloning Parasite, or HCP, would be in Hero Number 27’s room?” he asked.

“I just had a funny feeling and wanted to check in on Avery,” Cassandra snapped.

“Do you have any idea how you came to have this… funny feeling?” a different man asked.

“She’s a researcher,” Ellis said suddenly, and all three men looked as surprised as their stoic faces would allow them to. “She knows monsters. She spends all her time writing about monsters. She has written nearly fifty-thousand words on monsters. She had all the information we did, and she figured it out because she’s a PhD student and it’s her job as a PhD student to make these kinds of connections between the theory and the practice of monstrosity.”

“Yes, she knows monsters,” said one of the men, composing himself much quicker than Cassandra was able to. Her mouth was agape as her anxiety-ridden tutor glared at each man with an intensity she had never witnessed before. “But how did she know about the connection between the dripping taps and his means of hunting? How did she know that those manifestations from the taps were how he fed, and that if welcomed into a victim’s home, he would feed on his own? How did she know about the fragility of HCP’s form? How did she know that he was handsome, and had blond hair, and a great smile? How did she know that he would target Hero Num… Avery?”

The door behind them burst open and Simon, Bailey, Rayaan, and Minji rushed into the room, each carrying an impossibly large burden.

“Cassandra, did you not see on the email we sent that this is supposed to be a closed meeting?” one of the men asked.

“I didn’t invite them,” Cassandra insisted.

The students walked past her, up to the table where the men balked, and deposited several large academic journals, scraps of notes, prints of blurry photographs, and a collection of other materials in front of them.

“We’re here to protest this meeting for Cassandra’s acclamation,” Simon announced.

The men behind the desk glanced at each other.

“I think you’re mistaken,” said one of them. “This isn’t—”

“I think you’re mistaken,” Minji exclaimed.

“You’re giving her credit for our work,” Rayaan said.

“It was a group effort,” Bailey insisted.

“Slow down, slow down,” said one of the men, but the students had no interest in slowing down.

“I didn’t crawl through sewage to make the connection between the pipelines that linked each of the victim’s flats with shared issues regarding water pressure, in a daring feat of urban exploration, for you to ignore my contribution to the project,” Simon said all on one breath, pointing to the photographs that Cassandra guessed could have been pipelines.

“He was a parasite, and he bred like any standard supernatural parasite,” Bailey announced. “The second we learned about the blood stains left at the scene I knew it was the result of feeding, a messy feeding that must have been done by a juvenile, and it was clear to me that he must have been manifesting a new juvenile parasite for each remote feeding. It’s really obvious, in fact, if you have any knowledge of supernatural parasitic hunting tactics, which of course, I do.”

“You think Cassandra knows the visceral nature of inhuman manifestations?” Rayaan scoffed. “I know how fragile they are. I’m the one who figured out how he could be taken down. Torn down. Both. If you don’t believe me, I already have a complete first draft of my thesis that you could read that explains everything.”

“And you just… figured this all out, on your own, with only a few blood stains to go off of?” one of the men asked.

“No, but it’s all over the internet,” said Minji. “There’s like, a viral TikTok sound about these exact attacks, whole Twitter threads about avoiding this Tom Hiddleston-type who’s been following girls home from clubs. Someone posted an actual instance of one of the parasites attacking a victim on their Facebook Live, but the cowards took it down. That’s a lot more proof than your average viral urban legend. No need for a funny feeling when you can just watch a video and be like, yeah, that’s definitely a monster. Especially when you’re Cassandra, and you know all about monsters.”

The men’s stoic expressions were fading into disbelief. The man in the centre was tapping his earpiece almost nonstop.

“Do you, um, have any documented proof of those claims?” he asked Minji.

“Of course not,” she said. “I don’t write anything down. If you want publishable material, you’ll have to research it yourself. I’m here for practical results, not your stupid academic theory. And the monster’s dead. What more could you want from me?”

With a few more taps on their earpieces, the men thanked the students for a job well done, either promised or warned that they would be in touch, and then left, closing the door behind them. The group waited until they could hear the revving of an engine and the crunch of gravel as the car drove away before they began gathering up their research materials, joking and smiling as Cassandra sat, speechless.

“Guess we’re your heroes, huh?” Simon laughed.

“Next time you’re having nightmares, maybe let us know, okay?” Bailey said with an exaggerated groan. “I do not want to cram like this again. It was shoddy research. But I actually think it’s helped me have a breakthrough on supernatural parasitic breeding habits…”

“Whatever, they bought it,” said Minji. “I have to go doctor some YouTube videos to make it look like I didn’t lie. Feel free to thank me anytime.”

“We couldn’t let them take you from your research,” Rayaan said, more subdued than the others, though a smile played at the corner of his mouth. “You’re submitting your dissertation in a month! You’ve worked too hard for them to… well… transfer you.”

Cassandra smiled back at him but closed her eyes with a sigh as her peers left the room, Minji still complaining, Bailey still theorizing. Though she could not wait to join them, to continue her work with them, she found it hard to stand up. The researchers had finally managed to save a hero. She did not realize how tightly she was holding her shoulders, shock and stress and anxiety building inside her as she reckoned with how close she had come to being deemed a hero by the Archive, until she felt Ellis’s hand on her back and her muscles relaxed.

“I told the students about your nightmares, and I gave them your tips,” he whispered. “I know you told me in confidence, but I thought… I couldn’t let them transfer you. I couldn’t let you end up like Avery.”

“Thank you,” Cassandra whispered.

“You know, it’s fine to submit for an extension,” said Ellis. “Especially if you think it will improve your dissertation. Your research is incredibly important. The way people view heroes, the way they’re cursed and how they’re used, well, we need to have it. We need it to be accepted by your peers. We need it to be published, and cited, and used to prove over and over again that the way we treat heroes is truly monstrous.”

Cassandra looked up at him, and was surprised that his gaze was on her, not escaping to examine the floor or the cuffs of his jacket but staying resolutely on her face.

“I don’t need an extension,” Cassandra asserted. She accepted his hand when he offered it, helping her to stand. “Not anymore.”


“No. I just need a good night’s sleep.”

A rotating fan cooled her room, accompanied by a warm breeze from her open window, and for the first time in a long time, Cassandra did not have any nightmares.

© 2021 Alexandra Grunberg

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