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The Terror-Eater
Word Count: 1500
Summary: Alpert and Perfection encounter a carnivorous shape-shifter who embodies its audience's worst fears, which leads to a very uncomfortable conversation.
Notes: Leftover from Fearathon, this story was prompted by Megan, who came up with the idea of the monster therein. It was sponsored by the Patreon peeps! More notes at the end.


The Gestaltist acolyte lecture hall was big, open, with stained glass windows. It was also completely deserted—evacuated, actually. Perfection had tracked the reek of supernatural terror to the biggest classroom, where she crouched with Dorothy Ives and Reverend Alpert, who were irritated.

“Whose fault is this?” Alpert whispered.

That's my job,” Dorothy Ives hissed back. “Do yours, help me with the terror-eater, and you can get out of here for another year.”

“Take point,” Alpert said. “Unless yours has changed…?”

“No. Yours?” When Alpert shook his head, she glanced at Perfection and asked, “What about her?”

“What’s the big deal?” Perfection whispered, annoyed at being ignored. “Just find someone with a crippling fear of fuzzy bunnies and bam! Easy!”

Dorothy Ives rolled her eyes. “Great. A novice.”

Alpert turned to her. “Perfection, what are you afraid of?”

Perfection hesitated.

“Terror-eaters have to be attacked with groups, preferably containing people with complimentary fears. Around me, terror-eaters take on the form of my younger, more powerful self. You could handle that. Dorothy's will be a paper woman, which we can handle. What would it appear as around you?”

“I… I don’t know.” And when he frowned, “I haven’t met anything that really scared me! Maybe it won’t appear as anything.”

“I pray not,” Dorothy Ives snapped.

“She'll take point and go first. Then I will take over. Your job is to watch, learn, and help if it becomes too much for me. Do you understand?”

“Sure, sure,” Perfection said, but she wasn't truly listening. She was excited to be in the fray.

The conversation was cut off when an acolyte appeared at the side door. He was sweating, rocking, and mumbling to himself—it sounded like a mantra of “not afraid.” Perfection could smell his fear, and the huge amount of willpower he was focusing on his mantra, and the thing on the leash in his hand. Whatever it was, it made Perfection's skin crawl, her heart pound. She felt a gnawing sense of inadequacy, a novel sensation for her.

“Failure,” Dorothy Ives said, and jumped from behind the wall, pulling her deck from her pocket. “I can take that.”

At the sound of the word, the acolyte's frantic mantra stopped. He began to giggle, and the thing on the leash swelled.

Dorothy Ives tossed a card down: eight of swords. There was a flash, the whip-crack of a binding, but it shattered. It was too late anyway; the thing on the leash had already swallowed the acolyte and was changing into a tall woman made of paper, with brown skin and soft eyes…

Dorothy Ives shut her eyes and threw down the ten of pentacles, which burst into life at her feet as a ward. Perfection, however, found the sensation of fear invigorating, and dashed forward.

“Perfection, no!” Alpert called. “Get back--”

The terror-eater saw her. Its shape dissolved, reformed…

Perfection was looking at herself.

Not, not herself. This version had a fawning, empty adoration in her eyes, and she smelled of blissful mindless lust and Alpert. At the sight of her, Perfection froze. Everything seemed to expand, darken. She felt small, cold, and she knew that she was nothing, nobody, just an ambulatory fantasy of an old man, and he knew, they all knew...

She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, only stand petrified as her doppelganger moved towards her.

A little bag of chalk dust bounced off the side of its head.

The terror-eater rippled as Alpert’s power went through it, and the spell was momentarily broken. Perfection’s terror gave way to demonic rage. It had hurt her, made her feel small--

But the fake Perfection was already running—jiggling—after Alpert, who was sensibly running, scrawling wards on the back of his gloves. “I love you!” she cried in a voice breathless with lust. “I want you--”

“Shut up!” Perfection roared. “Shut up!

But her doppelganger was just as fast and strong as she was, and it had a head start. Alpert couldn’t stay ahead; as it caught up, its shape rippled again. Alpert, with no gray in his hair and no lines on his face, a smile of utter smugness on his face and a shining sword in his hand, which slashed out at the true Alpert's arm.

Alpert cried out, lashed out with his chalk, drawing blood, but it ducked and prepared to strike again.

Perfection tackled it from behind. As it started to change again, she tore its arm off and began beating it with it, only for it to dissolve into dust, leaving her with nothing but seething adrenaline and bile. She pounded her fists against the stone floor and howled.

Dorothy Ives gathered her cards. “Disappointing,” she said, walking away. “Alpert, I’ll have your paperwork sorted by tonight.”

The words (and Alpert's responding glare) hardly registered. Perfection felt her body contort, clenching into a fetal ball. Her arms locked over her head, her hands clutching her horns. A horrible mewling howl came from the back of her throat. She was a demon; she couldn’t weep. She wasn’t made to feel sad. She was made for—made for--

Then Alpert was there, hugging her, bleeding on her, murmuring comforting nonsense. She couldn’t feel gratitude or anger; all she could feel was agony. All she could do was shake, retch, and wail.



“You knew better,” Alpert said, putting a steaming cup of tea in front of her.

Perfection sat there numbly. Somehow, Alpert had gotten her back to the inn, given her a hot bath, wrapped her in a blanket. She hadn’t resisted; she felt drained, leaden, and wanted nothing more than to crawl into a small hole and hide there forever. At some point, he’d bound and bandaged his arm, but damned if she could remember when or how.

He pushed a platter of thick toast, smothered in butter, honey, and jam, towards her. “Here. Eat. It’ll help. There should be some chicken coming up soon; I got it raw for you…”

Reaching out and taking the toast seemed to take inordinate effort, as did chewing. It should’ve smelled and tasted good, but it felt flat and heavy in her mouth. She swallowed, and it hit her stomach like lead.

“I feel awful,” she said.

“You're lucky that's all you feel; that could have gone much worse.” Alpert said. “First times with terror-eaters are always harsh, and you seem to be especially sensitive. And this is why you should listen to what I tell you.”

“Ugh,” Perfection said. “Consider me learned.”

“Are you really? Can I expect obedience? You're clever, and you're strong, but I am the authority here, not you. If you want to be my partner, I expect you to listen to me; otherwise we could both end up dead. There are far worse things out there than terror-eaters, and I need you to be reliable. This isn't a game, Perfection.”

Perfection had felt small when fighting the terror-eater. Now she felt small in a different way.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “It won't happen again.”

Alpert gave her a hard look, then sighed. His face softened. “I'm not going to punish you, because I expect your self-incurred misery is enough. But if you do this again, I will banish you. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

“Good. I'm glad you're all right.”

Something occurred to her. “That thing was being used on students, right? To test them. Does this mean I’m as good as them?”

“Carefully controlled exposure to terror-eaters in a classroom setting with a dozen people is one thing; it’s another to have to fight one on the spot. I'm not pleased at your recklessness, but your performance itself? You did well. Next time, you'll be better prepared.”

There was a knock at the door; the chicken had arrived. It was obviously freshly killed and plucked, still warm to the touch. Alpert sat next to her and began taking it apart for her.

“Zach?” Perfection asked.

Alpert nodded. “It’s his way of saying, get well soon. You’re probably going to want to stay in bed for a while. Mind-shattering terror tends to take it out of a person.”

Person. He’d called her a person. When he held out a bite of fresh meat on it, Perfection took it with her teeth, and it actually tasted like food. She started chewing.

“I expected it to be scary,” she said. “But I didn’t expect it to be so… humiliating.”

“Yes,” Alpert said, “it is humiliating.”

“For you too?”

“For me too.”

“How do you deal with it?”

His expression became wry and he sat next to her on the bed. “I’ve had a lot of practice. My humiliation is a matter of public record. If it helps at all, I haven’t just seen your deepest shame; you’ve seen mine. What I saw does not portray you, but mine does. So…”

She rested her head on his uninjured shoulder, trying not to gouge it with her horns. “What if it does?”

“Pardon?”

“What if it does reflect me, what I want to be, sometimes? Only I want to make you earn it and respect it and--” she hid her face in his shoulder, “—and this is so humiliating.”

Alpert was silent for a moment, then hesitantly scratched around her horns. “Then I’m honored.”

Perfection ate the chicken, drank the tea, and then slept the day through. When she woke up, Dorothy Ives had cleared Alpert's paperwork, and they were free to leave. Alpert gave her his arm, and they left the central church.

Notes: Dorothy Ives is an administrator for the Gestaltist Church, not a professional exorcist like Alpert. Being sent to deal with the terror-eater is not only dangerous, but beneath her, and she knows it. That she has to do it anyway (not to mention having to chase Alpert around in the Shadow Wife) shows just how little the Church thinks of her. They keep her employed, but they'll never let her forget where she stands. It's no wonder that a terror-eater embodying failure has little effect on her.

 

Also, in case you were wondering, a terror-eater that takes on the appearance of nothing is the absolute last thing you want.  It is much harder to contain, bind, and banish nothing.
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