lb_lee: A happy little brain with a bandage on it, surrounded by a circle and the words LB Lee. (ward)
[personal profile] lb_lee
The Corpse Child
Universe: Reverend Alpert's
Word Count: 2400
Summary: Perfection takes on her first case involving a child who has died but refuses to acknowledge it.
Notes: This story was prompted by Megan, won the December Patreon poll, and it was sponsored by the Patreon crew: [personal profile] inurashii , [personal profile] hanasaseru , Maddie, Seamus, Sara, contrapangloss, cloudiah, [personal profile] wispfox , Natalie, Jay, [personal profile] metahacker , Anna, Jessica, [personal profile] silvercat17 , kaylin881, and KC Clearwater! It's also the first time in ages I've really gotten to stretch my wings with the new wordcount, woo! More notes at the bottom.

The cities had been the first to fall, during the Plagues, and they were still such a part of life that everyone automatically accommodated the risk. The people here lived up high, in modular homes accessible only by ropes, ladders, and easily collapsed bridges. Their gardens and crops were grown on rooftops and balconies, and those fields that needed to be at the ground level were surrounded with moats and ditches so that plague zombies wouldn't trample through them. Here, the people scratched humble lives from the bones of their old civilization.

Here, the work was very predictable. Plague zombies, always. But Perfection didn't mind the tedium. Unlike Alpert, she could climb and leap through the cities easily, and he let her loose to explore the ruins as she wished. There was a lot to see and explore, and it turned out the city children (who until they reached puberty rarely set foot on the ground) loved chasing her, trying to keep up. And while Perfection had superhuman endurance and agility, it turned out that a mob of children was tireless in their pursuit.

But one day, as she went to a different section of the city, they pulled back.

“No, don't go there, exorcist lady!” one shouted. “That's the sick part of town!”

Perfection paused, clinging to the wall by her claws. Now that she was paying attention, she saw the white paper charms—old, but still a little buzzy. There was also a hint of unpleasantness in the air, like rot. She didn't want the game to stop, so she returned to the safer area of town to continue the chase.

“Poor Hebert,” one of the children remarked. “His mother's keeping him in again, all sick and all.”

“He's always sick,” another complained. “He's no fun at all.”

“Don't say that! It's not his fault he's sick!”

“I don't get sick,” Perfection remarked.

“Lucky,” said one girl. “I'll bet it's because you're an exorcist lady. You can just banish sickness with your long nails and your pink skin!”

A boy shoved her. “Nuh uh, she's blue with white stripes!”

“No, she's gold, what are you, blind...”

“You can't catch me!” Perfection shouted and ran off, which ended the discussion.

Perfection remarked on it as she lay flopped panting on Alpert's bed. “You'd think a demon would scare them more. But they just seem to think I'm a weirdly colored exorcist.”

Alpert dabbed his mouth with a napkin and passed her a plate of chicken. “Have you never noticed how easily you pass through towns? I suspect nobody sees you quite the same way twice.”

She tore a wing off with her teeth. “Do a lot of monsters do that?”

“It's hard to say. You'd be amazed, what people can get used to.”

Perfection mulled it over, then shrugged it off. “What's being sick like, Reverend?”

“Unpleasant. I don't recommend it. Why?”

But before she could answer, there was a knock at the door. Perfection set her chicken down and answered it, to find one of the girls from the chase game.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello,” Alpert said. “What can I do for you?”

The little girl looked at him nervously. “I want to talk to the lady.”

If Alpert was surprised, he didn't show it. “Of course.” He got up and left the room to Perfection and the girl.

“You're not really an exorcist lady, are you?” The little girl asked. “He is, but you're not.”

“No,” Perfection said. “I'm not.”

“I didn't think so,” the girl said. “You don't smell right; I can always tell. Do you remember Hebert?”

“The sick kid?”

“Yeah. I don't think he's sick. Not like normal. I think he needs exorcist help, but I don't want him to get hurt. He's a nice kid, you know? Can you make sure he's okay?”

“I can try,” Perfection said, and thus did she get her first case.


Hebert's house, like many city-dwellers, was actually a section of one of the reclaimed concrete towers, the walls patched with stone and mortar, standing a good story off the ground. Alpert reached it by a series of flimsy bridges; Perfection climbed and leaped her way over. The little girl didn't come; she said she couldn't handle the smell.

When they reached the place, Perfection understood why. Up close, it stunk of unnatural rot.

“It's your case,” Alpert said. “Go ahead.”

Perfection didn't expect that, but didn't want to let on, so she knocked at the door.

The woman who answered the door was neatly dressed, but she held herself oddly, and her eyes had a clouded, glazed look about them. Her smile seemed frail and artificial, and she and her home positively reeked of decomposition and supernatural forces.

Behind her, the house buzzed with flies.

When Alpert handed Perfection a handkerchief, she took it. It was wrapped around chalk dust, and while it didn't quite block out the stench, at least it helped override it with the soothing smell of Alpert and his work.

“I'm sorry,” the woman said, her voice oddly vacant. “I haven't had time to clean in a while. My son's sick, you see.”

Perfection was too busy trying not to gag to answer for a moment. “Your son's Hebert, right? I was playing with the kids earlier. They missed him. I just wanted to say hi to him for them.”

“How nice,” the woman said. “I'm sure he'd appreciate that. Won't you come in?”

On the back of Alpert's glove, a ward began to glow. He saw Perfection looking at it and tugged his sleeve over it, but otherwise showed no reaction.

“Of course,” Perfection said. “We'd love to.”

The home was a seething mass of flies. Alpert's wards kept him clear; they didn't bite Perfection, but buzzed across her face and crawled over her skin. The woman didn't seem to notice them at all.

When they reached what appeared to be the dining room (it was hard to tell, with the dark cloud of insects), the woman said, “Honey! We have guests!”

Propped up at the table was the corpse of a thin, frail boy, neatly dressed. Flies crawled from his greenish ears, nose, and mouth, and he looked a little alarmed at the sight of Perfection and Alpert, but he smiled for his mother and said, “how exciting.”

The woman carried a pan of chicken and rice to the table, resting it on a colorful crocheted pot-holder. “Eat up, sweetheart, you need your strength.”

“Thank you, mother.” The boy's mouth gaped open, and a cloud of flies enveloped his bowl. He didn't seem able to move much, but his eyes darted nervously from Perfection to Alpert while his mother cheerfully carried on a pantomime of normal family life, serving food and fetching napkins.

Finally, when she paused in discussing the weather, the boy said, “Mother, I'd like to speak to our guests privately, please.”

The woman paused, and for a moment she seemed almost clear-headed. Then it passed and her smile settled on again. “Oh. Of course.”

She wandered off and once the room was clear, the cloud of flies began to buzz and swarm ominously.

“I know why you're here,” the boy said. “and you can't lay me to rest. It'd make my mother very unhappy. You're stronger than me, I can tell, but you still need to breathe. I could suffocate you both with flies.”

“Hey, hey, none of that!” Perfection said. “One of your kid friends sent us. She's worried about you, specifically asked I not hurt you. Long black hair, lazy eye?”

The boy hesitated.

“Come on, you're a monster, I'm a monster. Why should we fight?”

The boy paused. “I don't really want to suffocate you,” he admitted.

“Good, because I don't really want to banish you. I've been banished, and it sucked.” A fly buzzed dangerously close to the inside of her ear. “Hey, do you mind?”

“Oh! Pardon.” The cloud backed off and Perfection happily scratched all her itches. The smell was still awful, but she doubted Hebert had much control over that. “Well, if you're not here to fight… what now?”

“Look, you can't keep this up. You're already starting to rot; your friend figured out you weren't normally sick, and it's probably because of the smell,” Perfection said. “And this can't be good for your mom, keeping her so she doesn't notice. Someone's going to mistake you for a plague zombie at this rate, and then you will get banished.”

Hebert sighed. “Bother. I don't want to upset anyone; I just… don't want to leave just yet. Why couldn't I have died in winter? I thought I'd have more time to decide what to do, but I can hardly move as it is.”

“Do you think we could talk the people into just… letting you hang around? I mean, you don't seem to be hurting anybody...”

“No,” the boy said sadly. “I love my mother and my friends, and I want to stay with them, but plenty of people didn't care for me when I was living and sick; I doubt me dying would've helped things.”

Perfection felt herself stall. Death and illness were relatively new concepts to her, along with the human norms surrounding them. So far, Alpert had been staying silent. She wanted him to think highly of her, to see she could manage cases, but this wasn't something she knew much about. She turned to him. “Do you have any ideas?”

Alpert rubbed his chin. “Far more flies than I expected, for someone recently dead.”

Perfection frowned. That didn't seem helpful, but he was right; it was a lot of flies, and they were obviously under the boy's control, more so than his own body. In fact, when the mother had brought him food, it was the flies who'd eaten it…

She got it. “Your soul is tied to two things, your body and the flies. No wonder you're having trouble getting around; that's a lot to keep track of.”

“Well, yes,” the boy said, surprised. “But I can't only stay with one; the flies aren't smart enough, and my body… well, it wasn't in good shape even before I died.”

Now Perfection had it. “Look, kid, your body has to go. It's not working for you. What if we tied you to the flies and something else instead, something that isn't rotting? Do you think your mom would be willing to accept that?”

The boy seemed to think about it for a bit. “Let me talk to her,” he said. “Leave me.”

Alpert looked to Perfection, and when she nodded, they went and waited outside the front door. The air seemed fresh and clean, and Perfection took deep gulping breaths of it, trying to clear the smell of rot and power.

“Could you do that?” She asked Alpert anxiously. “Move his spirit from his body to something else?”

“I don't see why not. It's not altogether different from letting a spirit move freely from their place of death.” And with a wry arch of his eyebrow, “though in the future, you might want to check a little sooner.”

“I didn't want to do it in front of the kid, especially if he wasn't sure his mom would go for it. He seems nervous enough as it is, and I don't think I'd like choking on insects.” She paused, took a deep breath. She wanted to ask if she was doing well, what he thought. But the case wasn't over yet, and she didn't want to show weakness in front of him, so they just waited.

After a time, the mother returned to the door. Her face was haggard, her eyes red and swollen, but her gaze was clear and her voice steady.

“I've talked things over with Hebert,” she said. “We don't know how long he'll be with us. We never did; he was always sick. But if it's possible, I would be glad for this extra time with my child.”

“Then let's do it,” Perfection said.

They cleared the furniture from Hebert's room. Alpert looked to Perfection.

“Right, um, okay.” She of course couldn't make diagrams herself—her demonic nature wouldn't allow it—but she'd watched Alpert enough to say with reasonable confidence, “Circle, star, spiral.”

“What kind?”

“Evocation. And, um… five points? No, let's be safe, go with seven.”

Alpert nodded, pulled chalk from his belt, and got to work. As he did, Hebert's mother moved her son's body and gently fanned his flies into the diagram, along with his new vessel—a diaphanous little handkerchief doll, which not only served to be a humanoid facsimile for Hebert, but was also light enough to be moved and carried by the horde of flies, like a scrap of paper on the wind.

While Alpert did his work, a thought struck Perfection. She leaned over to Hebert's mother, who watched the events with a fierce, resolute expression.

“Will the city people be okay with this?” she asked. “Your son being a fly-doll, I mean.”

“I can handle the people,” she replied.

The transition itself went smoothly. After all, Hebert and Alpert wanted the same thing. Hebert's body went limp, and the flies swarmed the doll, filling its skirts and raising it up with a buzz. Hebert's mother rushed to him.

“Hebert? Are you all right?” She asked.

The doll cautiously bobbed back and forth, as though testing its new form. “I… I don't hurt.” Hebert's voice was faint and a little buzzing, but still plainly audible. He wobbled back and forth, then plopped abruptly on the floor again. “This will take some getting used to.”

His mother scooped up the doll and a handful of flies. She was smiling through her tears. “Of course you will. I'm sure you will.” She kissed the doll's woolly head.

As Perfection and Alpert left Hebert and his mother's home for the last time, Perfection became aware of the tension in her shoulders. Her first case. A real one, not like the genie, which she did in private. It was one thing to do something when no one was watching, another when Alpert was overseeing her, and she couldn't read his expression. He had let her do everything. He had offered nothing, and she didn't know if that was good or bad.

“Did… did I do okay?” she asked.

He looked at her and smiled. “Wonderfully.”

He scratched her horns, and she purred.

Notes: The doll Hebert inhabits is actually more like a hankie ghost sometimes used as Halloween decorations. It's a common toy in Alpert's world, since it's easy to make and can be easily transformed back into a bandanna or rag.
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