Gerry, currently the only hobgoblin in the palace of Underhill, walked alone from the dining room to his quarters on the third floor over the library. The subterranean tunnels twisted through the mountain’s heart with copper and bone lanterns to light the way. Around the second turn he realized that the blasted tunnels had shifted again and he was lost. Underhill’s tendency to move and shift at the mountain’s fancy was one of the more annoying characteristics of the Fae queendom’s palace.
He shifted his weight and adjusted his glasses, the thin frames tiny in his large hobgoblin hands. Some said having hobgoblins around to serve the tall High Fae was dangerous, no matter his needed expertise. They whispered that he couldn’t be trusted not to use his secondary form against any fairy, regardless of short pixie, winged sprite, or tall High Fae. Despite this mistrust, Gerry had grown Underhill’s library into an impressive collection during his last three centuries as Librarian. It was true his boggart form was nightmarish if provoked, but Gerry was very good at what he did and very good at controlling his personal monster.
Gerry stifled down curses and hunted for a familiar vase or sculpture. It was late and even multiple lanterns and torches couldn’t dispel all of the interior shadows. They lurked in crevasses and around corners, lying in wait for the unwary. Gerry ignored them; they couldn’t hurt him, at least not on this night. He rounded a curve and stopped in front of the statue of the first Queen of Underhill.
Her perfect, granite face guarded the entrance to the catacombs, where down the secret stairs and through the tunnels below, the Fae queens of Underhill lined up for their immortal sleep in stone and bone caskets. The statue’s five-pointed crown touched the top of her alcove but the trap door at her feet gaped open like the maw of some beast. Typically it lay flush against the marble floor. Only magic could open it. Now it was hinged open, teetering perpendicular from the ground, revealing a square of ebony darkness and somewhere in there, stairs.
It was always closed. Should always be closed.
Gerry leaned over it, peering into its depths. His glasses slid and he fumbled for the frames. They slipped through his fingertips and shattered with a crunch. He leaned over, the world blurry and rotating. Gerry had two independently functioning eyes, one green eye (fairly normal) and a golden one that helped with magic (though it was still blurry without glasses). It’d taken him months to find suitable frames. Cursing now, he bumped the open trapdoor with one shoulder and it creaked dully on old hinges, the sound warping eerily.
Something whispered along the hairs of his ears like the breath of a lover. He shifted, but the empty hallway was blurry but empty. A whisper of air came from the trapdoor or maybe the statue, wrapping around his neck like the memory of a noose. He froze. It caressed his throat, pulled on his collar, and strained the buttons.
Another whisper hit his nose and he jerked up at the smell of cardamom and sandalwood, expensive mourning elements. He backed away; none of his Librarian’s training had included this. The trap door teetered over the catacomb entrance and he reached out to close it.
“Leave it,” a voice whispered from its depths. It was musical but hollow, as if an echo had a voice.
“Who’s there?” he called.
Something stirred in the dark hole, a muted slip of cloth against stone and the faintest bit of fog. A chill spread, crawling down his spine and along his arms, tingling as it went. The world was blurry without the glasses, but the smell grew stronger and more complex, the smells of wealthy mourning. The fog in the hole condensed, gathering and thickening into a dull dirty white until tendrils of fog eased out of the trap door, tasting the air, crawling across the ground toward his toes.
His hand hovered over the upright trapdoor; to shut out the fog, keep it from the hall.
“Leave the entrance,” the voice whispered from below.
His green eye whirled uselessly. He focused on his gold eye, asking it to pierce through the fog and darkness for what lurked below. An image formed, blurry but recognizable as the form of a High Fae, with long flaxen hair flowing over her face and shoulders, like a veil. Chills raced down his back.
“Who are you?”
The hair parted and a skeletal face grinned through the fog and darkness with skin pulled impossibly tight across high cheekbones and down into hollow craters. She was a beautiful skeleton with magical power swirling like dust motes in the sunken, empty eye sockets.
Gerry panicked. The change hit swiftly, the boggart rippling outward. His muscles tore and reformed painfully, his voice caught between a scream and a sob. The boggart changed into whatever form most terrified its victim and the viciousness to use that form rushed through Gerry like harsh whiskey. It seeped into every pore, down every hair, into every mole, ripping apart his form for fear’s purposes.
After a long moment the panic receded and the boggart cackled in delight. His face felt strange, his mouth malformed with too many sharp teeth crowding his mouth. His tongue was longer and skinnier, darting out of his mouth to taste the biting air. Gerry watched helplessly, a prisoner in his own mind, as the boggart charged into the catacomb entrance. It bared fangs and half-foot long claws in sharp welcome.
Whatever form the boggart took in the damp darkness, Gerry couldn’t see, but the ancient fairy queen fled before it.
It seems even the immortal have fears.
Jean Cole is a speculative fiction writer based in Chicago, IL. She's found sitting in coffee shops staring at the rain and stringing words together.