Bastian stared at the dark wall alongside his closet, where the shape of a goblin loomed.
His earliest memories, from just beyond babyhood, were of struggling to lie still in night’s dark, aching for sleep to take hold and dampen his fright.
But now, at almost thirteen—Bastian was far too old to fear the dark.
Unless there was a legitimate reason. Unless, in the dark, something really was waiting.
It had to be a plain shadow, just there. A shadow cast by the moving boxes, stacked nearly to the ceiling. Because goblins don’t lurk beside closets.
Of course they don’t. Goblins aren’t real.
And yet—there stood a dark something, more solid than shadow. A dark something breathing, it seemed.
Lucas, Bastian’s closest older brother, lay across the room, fast asleep. Lucas, born deaf, rarely woke to Bastian’s disturbances. He said the shapes Bastian saw in the darkness either were eerie moon shadows cast through the window—some illusion…
…or they were signs of Bastian’s descent into madness.
Well, Bastian wasn’t going mad. Of course not.
But it really seemed something monstrous was standing right there.
The something—thick-looking and massive—bore two defined shoulders. The shape was darker than the deepest night, like a black hole devouring starlight. A suffocating void. A fanged blankness. A something claw-fingered, it seemed. Something biding its time until came the moment to strike.
Bastian had to do something.
He could wake Lucas. Should he?
Bastian slipped out of bed.
Watching the thing, he edged closer to Lucas’ bed.
In the middle of the room, though, he stopped.
He shouldn’t wake Lucas. When Lucas, together with their oldest brother, Rhys, caught Bastian seeing or hearing odd things, they tore into him. It was all in good fun, but inside the jabs lay the not-too-subtle message that it was time for their youngest brother to let go of his imaginative games.
Bastian watched the dark wall.
A shadow arm separated from the rest of the form and unsheathed a jagged, obsidian blade.
Bastian rushed to Lucas. Shook him.
Lucas turned over.
Bastian pointed at the goblin standing alongside the closet, its blade glinting darkly in the sheen of the full, gentle moon.
Lucas looked where Bastian was pointing, then signed, “There’s nothing. Go back to bed.”
Bastian could hardly breathe as the creature came away from the wall; as it moved into a blue shaft of moonlight.
It was a goblin, unmistakably. Its tusked face was greasy and rippled in terrible folds. A thick ring pierced its nose. Of all the shadow shapes Bastian had glimpsed, nothing ever had seemed this threatening, or this real.
It opened its eyes, showing irises flickering like fireplace embers.
“I’m not kidding,” signed Bastian. “It’s standing right there.”
Lucas sat up some and squinted where Bastian was looking.
The goblin lifted its blade and stepped toward them.
“It’s coming.” Bastian backed away, signing, “Run.”
Lucas turned on a lamp.
The goblin’s shadowy form, its black blade, its fiery eyes—they all vanished.
Bastian sank into a crouch.
Lucas tapped him on the shoulder. “Are you even awake?” he signed.
Bastian looked at the emptiness where a goblin had undoubtably stood, only seconds ago.
“See, there’s nothing,” signed Lucas.
And there was nothing. There was a legitimate, undeniable nothing.
That mortifying nothingness seemed suddenly worse than a goblin.
Lucas smirked. “If you want to be sure, I can wake Rhys to come check.”
Rhys had lost patience with Bastian’s “night terrors” years ago, when Bastian would wake up in the middle of shouting and running, usually into Rhys’ room.
But these visions weren’t night terrors. They were Sylphic.
When Bastian was small and had last lived in England, he’d many times heard the legends of the Sylphic Kingdom—tales of its brave Moor Folk and wicked goblins, its shining faeries, its dragons. He’d heard the stories so often, so vividly, they seemed as real as his toys, as concrete as his brothers.
Even after Bastian and his family had moved away from England and to San Francisco—where few seemed to know the Sylphic legends, he still ran across them. It felt as though Sylphic myths were a part of him; that he’d carried them to San Francisco like luggage. Or maybe they’d followed him there.
Now that Da’s professorship had moved them to England once again, Sylphic legends were all Bastian could think about. The legends still refused to leave him, it seemed, because the chalet he and his family were soon to move into, nestled inside the forests of Dartmoor, was last owned by Malachi Daoine Kingfisher—the storyteller who’d first recorded the legends of the Sylphic Kingdom.
Bastian stood, steadying himself on the bookcase separating Lucas’ bed from his own. “Don’t tell Rhys,” he signed. “Okay?”
“It’s fine—I won’t,” Lucas signed, wrapping himself in his covers. “Just try and go to sleep.”
Bastian moved to his bed and sat on its edge. “I promise you,” he signed, “I’m not crazy.”
“I didn’t say you were,” Lucas signed back. “I’m not surprised, actually, that you’re having night terrors. This is a weird flat in a creepy borough. And you trained with Master Sayre today. I’m betting he went on and on about the legends.”
Master Sayre, Bastian’s new Ryudo martial arts teacher, did speak of Sylphic legends often. The way he talked of them, so seriously—it did make them seem all the more believable. But he certainly didn’t mean any harm.
“It seems a bit cruel,” signed Lucas, “the way Master Sayre insists on speaking to you about Sylphic frights, given your wild imagination.”
“Nothing about Master Sayre could ever be cruel,” signed Bastian.
Master Sayre was a rare and true friend. In San Francisco, Bastian had enjoyed hanging around with the kids on his baseball team, and at school. And of course he’d had Rhys and Lucas. But his friendship with Master Sayre felt different. Though he’d only known his new Master for a few meager weeks, their connection felt somehow deeper.
With Master Sayre beside him, Bastian felt stronger. Older. More himself.
Lucas signed, “Still, you should tell him to give the Sylphic legends a rest.”
Bastian glanced at the wall by the closet—empty, but heavy with the memory of that tusked, goblin face. “I don’t think the problem is Master Sayre’s storytelling.”
Though older than Da, Master Sayre seemed like a young man—but for a white padlock of a short beard standing starkly against his suntanned skin. His dark eyes seemed to see to the soul, and he spoke to Bastian as though he were an equal—not just some new kid he had to train.
It wasn’t that they were never cross with each other. Everyone gets cross from time to time. And on the Ryudo pitch, Master Sayre was a merciless coach. But in his steady way, he seemed to care for Bastian the way Granddadda had. He said he perceived greatness in Bastian and was determined to see him reach his potential. It seemed Master Sayre held a readiness to do anything for Bastian. To spend every spare minute training with him. To live or to die for him. And the feeling was mutual.
“When we’re finally settled in our middle-of-nowhere chalet,” signed Lucas, “where nothing interesting or important could possibly happen, my guess is your nightmares will stop.”
The charmed chalet awaiting them indeed stood in the middle of nowhere. The Dartmoor forests surrounding it were incredible, with their great stretches of moors and wide, starry skies; their ancient knots of woods and spacious vales. But for all their beauty, compared to the scene in San Francisco, there’d be next to nothing to do.
Bastian lay back and signed, “Do you really think it will be that bad—living in Dartmoor?”
“We’ll likely be bored to tears,” signed Lucas. “Although, I do have some good memories of England. Moving back here feels more like returning to a home than leaving one.”
Mum and Da swore to their three boys that they’d love living so close to nature—that unmatched fun awaited in the chance to ramble over Devon like banshees, building forts inside thickets, stalking frogs, sailing rafts of bark and reeds along the winding Windrush.
When Mum and Da talked like that, though, it seemed they hadn’t noticed that Bastian and Lucas were both in secondary school now—and that Rhys had just graduated.
Bastian and his brothers had been truly sorry to leave San Francisco—although tedium wasn’t Bastian’s primary concern. Dartmoor’s forests were so thick with shadows, and its wilds were so dark at night—even spangled with stars as they were.
“I’ll miss San Francisco,” signed Bastian. “My baseball team. Our friends. The city lights.”
“Mum says Kingfisher Chalet is the home she and Da will grow old in,” signed Lucas. “So I guess we’d better get used to it.”
Bastian’s family would never have discovered Kingfisher Chalet, a lofty stone mansion tucked deeply inside Dartmoor’s Wystan Woods, except that some obscure realtor firm had sent a package—rumpled and spilling open, stuffed with pictures of the place.
Mum and Da were so taken by the chalet’s beauty and quaintness that they looked into it immediately. They’d all been thrilled to discover that it was being sold at a deep discount for having suffered some wear, the owner having abandoned it. And not only that—it was well within driving distance of Da’s new job.
When they toured it, they’d found the chalet sound and very charming—just in need of a little care. Its grounds, though, had truly gone badly untended and were swamped with weeds.
Mum and Da, stricken by both love and pity, had made an offer the very same day they visited.
The Dartmoor locals had spoken sadly of Malachi Daoine Kingfisher’s strange disappearance, more than a decade ago. It’d seemed a general relief to the village to see that a structure so important to English lore would be cared for once again.
Bastian glanced at the closet, at the heaps of packing boxes around it. “Settling down anyplace will be better than always worrying about whether we’ll move again,” he signed. “And Kingfisher Chalet will be a thousand times better than this flat.”
Their Exeter flat, cramped with its piles of clothes and towers of boxes, was tiny and stunk of rotten water. Da’s new university had offered it as free temporary housing, so Bastian’s parents hadn’t shopped around.
They should have. Closing on Kingfisher Chalet had taken longer than they’d planned, and this neighborhood was scary. This was the same borough they’d lived in right after Bastian was born, but it was nothing like anyone in his family remembered.
Most of the businesses nearby had shut down, making the streets feel abandoned. And all the other houses on the block stood vacant.
Down the street, there lived a boy who harassed them daily, shouting at Bastian, “Hey Bastard,” making raunchy signs at Lucas, and casting threats and stupid insults. Bastian saw red when the boy got after Lucas like that, but he never managed to muster enough nerve to stand up to the boy. Bastian would just sort of freeze where he stood, unable to say or do anything.
Lucas caught Bastian’s attention and signed, “What did your night terror look like this time?”
“It was a Sylphic goblin,” signed Bastian.
Just picturing the creature’s face quickened his heart.
“Was the goblin bucktoothed?” Lucas bit his lip and crossed his eyes.
“Did it have ugly stubble,” Lucas signed, “like what Rhys won’t shave off and swears is a beard?”
Bastian laughed out loud.
Lucas—grinning—signed, “Sweet dreams.” He flashed his brows, then clicked off the lamp.
Bastian, smiling, closed his eyes. Lucas always knew how to lighten things. He always knew exactly what to say to help Bastian ease away from his fears. And he understood what not to say. He knew how to keep a brother’s humiliating secret.
By smiling in the darkness, Bastian felt he was smoothing off its edges, like maybe it wasn’t so threatening. He breathed deeply and grew warm, his muscles finally relaxing.
A growl pierced the stillness.
Bastian sucked a hard breath that he couldn’t let out.
For there, straight above him, gripping a jagged black blade, stood a swear-to-god goblin.
Bastian tried to cry out, but his voice hitched. He tried to move, but his body felt stony. Staring at the thing’s fiery eyes jolted him to try to jump up and run—but he only managed to kick his covers into a knot.
“Lucas,” he signed to the darkness.
The goblin lifted its blade.
Bastian grasped the bookshelf and tried to bring it down on the goblin, but it wouldn’t budge.
The goblin let a blood-chilling roar, then plunged the blade straight into Bastian’s chest.
Bastian twisted beneath the agony of a sharp coldness rushing into him; an electric, icy current flooding his body.
A flash brightened the window, shattering it. A sound like dissonant chimes blared.
In through the busted window, a streak of fire streamed.
Flames shrouded the goblin. Even the blade ignited, shards of fire twisting down its sheath and metal, smoldering across Bastian’s chest.
Bastian shrieked. Thrashed. Down came the bookshelf. It struck the goblin’s shoulder but slid right off and crashed to the floor.
The goblin, its skin smoking, pulled out the knife.
The lamp snapped on, and suddenly Lucas was standing over Bastian.
Bastian couldn’t draw breath. An aching cold was searing his heart, like a metallic pool of poison was spreading.
Lucas signed, “Hold tight,” then raced off.
Seconds later, Mum and Da were by Bastian, sitting him up, rubbing his chest, his back, coaching him to take slow breaths.
A thick mist, cold and fresh like what follows a spring rain, seeped in through the broken window.
As it bathed his face, Bastian found he could draw air, though scantly. Looking down, he discovered his skin unburned, his chest uncut.
Rhys hurried in, carrying an asthma inhaler.
Lucas, standing alongside, was holding Mum’s phone. He was signing to his telephone interpreter, “Call an ambulance.”
Bastian jogged across a Ryudo field deep in the woods behind his family’s chalet in Dartmoor, his eye on a bundle of aspen trunks bound by a rope that Master Sayre was hacking at with his axe.
The field was littered with racquetballs—Ryudo mortars that Bastian had cast at targets or dodged, painted electric orange for easier retrieval in the woods.
Master Sayre was standing high on a rise, his gaze fixed on Bastian. He was holding back the last axe strike, waiting for the optimal moment to release the trunks, setting them to tear down the rise toward Bastian in an accelerating rush.
Anytime Bastian asked Master Sayre how he managed to set the logs spinning so fast—faster than seemed natural, and aimed perfectly at him, he’d just reply that some things can’t be explained through pedantic processes; that, at times, we must accept what verges on the non-natural.
The rushing aspens were among the last obstacles Bastian would have to deal with in trying to close in on his Ryudo target—the broad trunk of an old English oak standing recessed in the woodland at the top of the rise.
He tightened his grip on his racquetball.
Master Sayre’s final axe blow to the rope set the logs loose.
Bastian leapt into a sprint, racing right at them. A head-on confrontation, he’d learned, was the sole way to deal with them. Turning aside or stopping would end in a pulverizing.
Bastian tripped over the first few, then managed to leap among the spaces between them until he finally broke past. He sprinted, straining to reach within striking distance of the oak but had to cut back as something like tree roots—maybe actual tree roots—lifted out of the hillside.
Though most of the obstacles on Master Sayre’s course were rigged in ways Bastian could figure out, this one stymied him. Something more than ropes and mechanics had to be at play—something “non-natural.” Though, Bastian couldn’t imagine what that might possibly be.
He raced among the roots, barely avoiding tripping. Upon reaching their far side, he angled off, running until he had a clear sightline to the oak’s thick trunk, standing among a tangling of branches.
The instant he found his shot, he pitched his mortar.
The mortar sailed over the top of the rise and struck the oak square, hard enough to leave an imprint of orange.
Master Sayre, from the hilltop hollered and punched the air. He jogged down to Bastian.
When Bastian first had entered into training with Master Sayre, the idea of casting the Ryudo mortars the great distances, of keying in on targets that were impossibly small, or far, or mired with obstacles, seemed beyond his reach. He’d pitched in baseball leagues all his life, and he’d made a good start with Ryudo in San Francisco. But Master Sayre was renowned, internationally, for his teaching, and Ryudo with him demanded every bit of Bastian’s skill—and then some.
Bastian, staring at the glorious streak of orange marring the distant tree, dropped to kneeling. He gripped his chest, quelling a sharp ache.
This pain—burning, even stabbing at times—had eased since the dreadful night, a year ago, when he’d suffered the night terror of the goblin. But at times like this, after running a challenging Ryudo course, or after any excitement, really, it still ached terribly.
Master Sayre tried to help him sit straight.
Bastian, cradling his chest, pushed Master Sayre away. “I can deal.”
It was mortifying, the way Master Sayre was watching him, obviously knowing that Bastian couldn’t deal.
“This asthma isn’t your fault,” said Master Sayre. “You can let go of that shame.”
This ache, termed “asthma” by his doctor, loomed as a constant, sometimes dangerous, threat. It seemed tied to all darkness—a portent of something deadly approaching; something seething in shadows. Something Bastian couldn’t see, much less deal with.
“It’s no wonder you’re struggling,” said Master Sayre, steadying him. “The weeds are coming up quite early. It’s no surprise that working so hard might induce a reaction. But chin up. Pain, often, is a pathway to healing. I’m watching you grow more skilled by the day.”
This pain seemed far more complex than any asthmatic reaction, than any trouble with nightmares or weeds. Though, he himself had to admit that he’d advanced significantly in Ryudo, despite the pain. And the night terrors had markedly lightened over the last year.
By no means, though, were they gone. Bastian could assuredly say he’d never again seen anything like that goblin in Exeter, but he had sensed other odd things.
He’d seen trees sparkling in the forest, even when no sunlight could reach them. He’d heard the woodlands faintly peal with strange music—something like pipes and flutes and drums, sometimes windchimes. From almost anyplace, he could catch the sound of distant ocean waves crashing. And wherever he went, the smell of rain and freshly cut grass seemed to hang as a heady mist, even on clear sunny days. When he concentrated closely on the sensations, he felt he was sensing the bustle of a country far off.
And, though very rare, when his imagination was particularly active, he’d sometimes sight a shadow at the edge of the forest shaped like a goblin. Or he might think—for a second—on a walk in the darker tracks of Dartmoor’s woods, that he might’ve glimpsed a pair of fiery eyes.
Master Sayre knelt before him. “Try to steady your breathing.”
“It’s just—what I saw—or thought I saw—last year.” Bastian cradled his chest. “When this pain strikes, the memory of it—everything comes rushing back.”
Master Sayre settled his hand on Bastian’s shoulder. “Through reliving our fears, may we overcome them.”
“What happened to me, though—it wasn’t just fear.” Bastian pushed to kneeling, mirroring Master Sayre. “It was more like a hallucination. Why couldn’t I just wake up?”
“Freezing in confrontation happens to even the bravest of us,” said Master Sayre. “And Ryudo—the Way of the Dragon—has markedly strengthened your nerve.”
Bastian studied Master Sayre. “You just said, ‘confrontation.’”
Whenever the nightmare came up, Master Sayre typically digressed into folklore. But at rare times, like this, it seemed he was on the brink of acknowledging that he thought something more sinister than asthma and night terrors, more threatening than a bully’s rock cast through a window, had befallen Bastian that horrific night.
“What I meant to say,” said Master Sayre, adjusting his legs beneath him, “is that we, all of us, might lose our daring when fear strikes.”
Bastian didn’t remove his gaze from Master Sayre’s. “But you said—‘confrontation.’”
Master Sayre seemed to be watching Bastian carefully, as though wisely selecting his words. As though guarding something. “Our fears may surprise us with what forms they take. Standing bravely in the face of anything that might present itself—this is key.”
And this was the whole point of Ryudo. To learn to stand one’s ground despite opposition—presenting in many forms. It was a challenging athletic art form to say the least, geared to help an athlete develop strength and agility and aim. But it also helped one build tolerance for fear and find the determination to carry out an objective, despite overwhelming odds.
Bastian tightened his hand against his chest at the ache sharpening.
Master Sayre eased Bastian’s hand down and pressed his own palm against Bastian’s chest.
Beneath the strong pressure, the ache eased. It seemed to Bastian, even, that his lungs opened a touch, delivering him an almost-full breath.
“See now,” said Master Sayre. “As terribly as that pain troubles you, you are healing.”
Bastian stared into the forest, along a track dark and thick enough that its shadows seemed primed to shift goblin-esque.
“Part of me wishes that goblins truly were real,” said Bastian.
At this point, after learning Master Sayre’s geometric aiming methods; his techniques for accessing power and strength and control from within his own musculature and frame; for studying and using the wind, the humidity, the light, even, to drive home his mortar—he hardly ever missed a target.
“If I saw a goblin now,” said Bastian, “after training for a whole year with you—I know I wouldn’t freeze.”
“While I appreciate your confidence,” said Master Sayre, “and though I certainly am watching you attain near-champion level, I must caution you—don’t go looking for trouble.”
Bastian eyed him. “What kind of trouble could I look for?”
“Nothing in particular.” Master Sayre sat back some. “But no matter what strength you may have, I assure you—you’d rather that goblins weren’t real.”
“Goblins might not be real,” said Bastian, “but plenty of dreadful things are.” He found his gaze drawn to the old oak with its splash of orange, darkening beneath mounding clouds. “That night, when I faced—whatever that was, I was less afraid for myself than I was at the thought of something bad happening to Lucas. That rock that flew through the window—it landed an inch from his head. I was terrified that something more, something worse, might be coming..”
Master Sayre, listening closely, settled back to sitting on his heels.
“I never again want to feel so helpless.” Bastian sent Master Sayre a prompting look. “And I want to understand everything about what happened that night.”
“When challenges rise, do you not think that I, too, want you ready to meet them?”
At face value, that sounded supportive. But Master Sayre was hedging. It was obvious he was keeping something back.