For a minute I stared at Hans and tried to wrap my head around what he was telling me about Mr. Salvatore – and I sort of got it. It was like Mr. Salvatore was one of those World War I veterans who got addicted to morphine after earning a purple heart. Which made me really conflicted, because I’m from the post-Vietnam era and I’d had it drilled into me that you’re supposed to support your troops especially when they’ve gone through hell and you have no personal clue what that’s like. But Salvatore still freaked me out, a lot. And besides….
“We’ve only fought two world wars,” I pointed out. It was almost a non-sequitur, but at this point I just wanted to find a hole in Hans’ story; to make everything that happened tonight unreal. Especially since ‘vampires aren’t real’ wasn’t an option since neither are werewolves – but there was one sitting on my bed anyway.
Hans held up two fingers on his right hand. “Two world wars among mortals,” he said. He put his hand down. “There have been three more that we’ve managed to confine to the supernatural community. I don’t have all the details – it was before my time – but I do know Salvatore was ‘born’ after the first supernatural world war, when our side was rebuilding its numbers.”
The chill in my spine turned into a shiver. Three world wars that I’d never even known about, and apparently neither had my middle school history teacher. Which was actually rather vindicating, since I’d never paid a lot of attention in that class anyway. And not really that surprising, since he’d been a glorified basketball coach and gym teacher and seemed to think that classes were a necessary evil to support a sports program. But Hans was too desperately in earnest for me to entertain any more doubts about what he told me – I knew I was being contrary out of shock more than anything else. Plus, it was really starting to sink in that he was a freaking werewolf and Mr. Salvatore was a vampire, and I’d had no idea that those really existed. Which meant that anything could be true.
“Our side?” I asked in morbid curiosity. “You’re saying there have been three secret world wars and the sides haven’t changed?” I had paid enough attention in history to know that hadn’t been the case for the two ‘real’ world wars we talked about in school.
“Well… Yes,” Hans said. “I mean, all the heavy hitters involved are immortal or functionally equivalent, so it’s not like anyone’s going to forget what the other guys did – and it’s not like the bad guys on the other side are going to just die off of old age and make room for a younger, more moderate generation. So if someone does switch teams or gets called out as a traitor… everyone is going to know it, forever. Loyalties don’t shift easily in a system like that. And besides…” He shrugged and started ticking things off on his fingers. “…on our side you’ve got wizards, vampires, witches, werewolves, the more coherent ghosts; even the occasional changeling, if we find them first. And a few other odd ducks, like demi-gods, mummies, and so on. The point is, we all started out human, or mostly human, and usually came into our power late or through supernatural means. But them…?”
Hans closed his fists and started ticking off fingers again. “They have the faeries, demons, elves, boogeymen, goblins, elder gods… The names don’t matter. They’re pretty much all the really old bastards that were never human to begin with.” He folded his arms. “Our side kicked them off of earth back in the middle ages, but apparently their home – it has a lot of names, but I’ve always called it Avalon – is a universe in nearly perpetual stasis. So the younger ones, the ambitious ones, the bored ones on their side keep trying to worm their way back over here. But there’s a reason all those things go bump in the night – they feed off Life the same way vampires do, but they’re usually capable of taking it without the necessity of a physical transfer – by feeding off of the emotions people put off. A lot of them consider fear and superstitious belief to be reliable staples; easily brought up in humans. So if they got a solid foothold over here they’d kick off a second round of dark ages. And like I said, most of our side started out as human. A lot of us have families or descendants or both. We like civilization. We want the people we care about, and the people they care about, and so on, to be able to lead safe, happy lives. So… yes, the sides are pretty stratified: Us against them.”
I stared at him, aghast. “I had no idea about any of this,” I said as earnestly as I could. “I just make crazy shit up when I get nervous, honest. I don’t even believe it.”
Hans snorted. “That’s okay. Actually, it’s good. It would be a lot more worrisome if you weren’t supernatural yourself but had figured us out on your own.”
I swallowed. “I’m not in trouble over that, am I? I mean, I know your big secret. Is someone going to have to kill me now or wipe my memories or something?”
Hans blinked, then vigorously shook his head. “No. I told you that many beings on their side feed on fear and superstition, especially the sorts we’d call goblins or boogeymen. So when the alchemists and wizards got together to kick off the ‘Age of Reason,’ that was pretty much a concerted campaign to torch their crops and salt the fields. Nowadays whenever some kid hears a noise under the bed or sees something in their closet, and their parents come in and explain it was just the furnace kicking on or a bunch of shadows… well, some asshole on their side just got the door slammed in his face. But that only works if all the well-meaning parents know the monsters aren’t real.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, the point is: there’s nothing wrong with knowing the truth, per se, and if we tried to cover it up that aggressively there’d never be any more wizards joining us!”
“Oh,” I said. But it was a quiet sound, because I was suddenly terribly conflicted. On the one hand, magic was real. On the other hand, magic was terrifying and apparently monsters-under-the-bed were real, too, and they fed off of fear. “Okay. I’m going to stop asking questions now, before I never sleep again.”
But Hans hastily shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m sorry, Abigail. There’s nothing wrong about knowing the truth, and you won’t be punished for knowing it… but if I’d known you were mundane, I wouldn’t have shifted in front of you. Now that you know about this side of the world, you’ve lost the protection of disbelief. So now, the more you know about the truth, the more prepared – and safer – you’ll be.”
I swallowed. I know he was trying to take care of me, but it wasn’t really very reassuring. Given my general state of anxiety if ‘the other side’ really did feed off of emotions like fear then I was probably a freaking faerie buffet. But I had a feeling that the more I knew, the more I’d know I had to be afraid of, and the more attractive I’d be to some unnatural creature looking for a snack. I’d been afraid of the unknown since I was old enough to conceptualize not knowing things, so knowing those fears were legitimate didn’t really change them. Asking questions would just give me more things to be afraid of in specific, instead of just the ‘everything out there’ I was already dealing with.
“Okay,” I said instead of throwing Hans out and going into denial like a sane person. “So… talk. I don’t even know what to ask about, apparently, so… yeah. Wait, no, I have one: Chupacabracorns. Fact or fiction?” I shivered and leaned forward. That question was just the first of hundreds that were suddenly swarming my thoughts. All the things I’d ever been afraid of despite trying to dismiss that fear as irrational but still being afraid regardless…and now I didn’t know if it would turn out I had been right to be afraid of those things all along. In fact, the only thing I was sure of anymore was that I was never going to sleep again.