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Urban Fantasy Historical Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

(CW: Mentions of social inequality, abuse and violence)


It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark.


It was a good thing, the child who wasn’t a child thought as she wandered hatless and shoeless down the street, that the cold couldn’t do her any major harm. She felt its chill, but not the level of pain or numbness a human would experience. Deliberately, she shivered and hunched, the illusion she put up turning her feet purplish-red. Her fingers, the same colour, clenched around bundles of matches pilfered from a shop.


The picture of misery. That was the impression she aimed for.

Which was why nobody had acknowledged her all day. Anyone in need was a stain on the otherwise pristine image of the holidays. They didn’t fit with the whimsy of Christmas’ remnants – holly wreaths on doors, candy canes in shop windows, the towering tree in the square – or of the approaching new year that swept people right back up into the festive spirit. The average person didn’t want to come down from such a high long enough to notice those who hadn’t had everything handed to them like wrapped gifts.


Adara suppressed a smirk. Watching the so-called season of goodwill bring out the worst in humans brought her no end of amusement.


Finally, someone paid her a split second of heed, although it was exactly the kind of heed she’d expected. A middle-aged, extravagantly-dressed couple turned the corner. Their chatter paused, the woman curling her lip in distaste and stepping aside as if Adara were a rat carrying all manner of diseases.


“Please!” Putting on her best pathetic voice, looking at them like a starving stray kitten, Adara held out a cluster of matches. “Sir, Madam, will you buy a match? Please, just one, nobody’s bought any today. My father, he’ll be angry, and when he’s angry, he…” She shuddered, gesturing to a fake bruise on her jaw.


The couple pretended not to hear her, speeding up their pace as they resumed their casual banter and laughter. Watching them in the glow of the gas lamps, Adara knew she’d found her first marks of the night.


She trudged around the square a while longer, since her plan would have its optimal effect if she bode her time. Once dusk had tainted the sky deep blue, she huddled against a wall and struck one of the matches against the bricks. With a hiss, it burst into flame. Adara, of course, didn’t need matches to make fire, but the occasional passer-by still strolled in the streets, so she had to maintain the guise of an innocent child. To onlookers, this would seem like a desperate attempt to keep warm.


What they wouldn’t see were the images on the wall, in the flame’s light, that appeared to Adara. A winding street. A grand house framed with frost-coated trees. A dining room, with what looked like an extended family gathered around a mahogany table. The couple sat among them, heaping all manner of delicacies onto plates. Potatoes, sausages, slices of roast goose with cranberry sauce. With the spruce behind them, bright with tapers and baubles, they looked the very incarnations of excess.


The match sputtered out, as did the vision. Biting back a snicker, Adara cast the blackened stick aside and stood. How easy it would be to make it look like an accident, she thought as she followed the path she’d seen. It would surely be explained as a fallen candle, or a stray flicker from a taper on the tree, or a piece of coal tumbled from the hearth. Oh, how she’d enjoy bringing about such a brutal ending to their carefree New Year’s Eve, watching their bodies burn along with their precious worldly possessions. And how pleased the lord of greed, Mammon, would be to receive souls as corrupt as theirs. As well as the souls of anyone else in the neighbourhood who got caught up in the conflagration.


She’d almost reached her destination when she sensed something. An aura of obnoxious purity. An aura of power. And it was approaching fast. One of those high-and-mighty meddlers had caught on to her energy signature.


So much for that plan. Muttering some decidedly non-childlike choice words, she turned and hurried down an alleyway, only to reach a dead end. Towards her strode an old woman who wasn’t an old woman. To anyone else, she’d appear frail and unassuming, but Adara knew better.


“Care to explain what you’re doing out so late, little girl?” The old woman tilted her head, the lines between her eyebrows deepening. “Shouldn’t you be somewhere… warmer?”


Adara raised her head, her expression a mask of confidence despite the souring in her belly. “Since you’re so convinced it’s your business, maybe your kind aren’t the only ones who care about justice. Maybe I want to bring it about a little differently.”


“Enough.” The woman raised a hand, and Adara felt herself unravelling. Her current form wavered, then stabilised, as she channelled all her strength into resisting the exorcism.


She smirked. “Nice try. Do that again, and I’ll turn the whole city into a bonfire.” Embers flickered all around her – and winked out. She groaned, head swimming, knees buckling. Fighting back just now had spent most of her power, which was diminished anyway in the stranger’s energy field.


“Let me tell you,” she continued, talking tough, “the people here deserve no less. Any so-called acts of kindness you’re doing are wasted on them. I went to the trouble of testing their morals.” She glanced down at her fraying apron and bare feet. “When you present yourself like this, they either don’t look at you at all, or look at you like dirt.”


The old woman, lips tight, gestured towards a distant street. “Even them?”


Peering ahead, Adara could only just make out the scene. A small group stood by a man sitting slumped in the snow against a wall, a threadbare blanket over his lap. One of them reached into a basket, took out a steaming pastry and handed it to him. Adara scoffed. Members of some charitable organisation, by the look of it, who for all their sanctimony, never made any real difference.


“You think they’re really doing it out of the goodness of their hearts?” If she wouldn’t get to collect any souls, she reasoned, at least she could bring this killjoy closer to falling. “They’re doing it to feel better about themselves. To assert power over him, and rub his misfortune in his face. After all, if they helped in any real, lasting way, they’d have no further purpose.” She sneered up at the woman. “Come to think of it, can’t the same be said for you?”


The woman sighed and shook her head, as if dealing with an actual troublesome child. “How can you say that for sure about those you don’t know? How can you judge them when you only see one side of their nature? Make no mistake, I’ve seen the worst of humans, which is why we can only do so much. I’ve also seen the best of them.” She gave Adara a pointed glare. “And in many, the better side can be brought out. You know that, deep down, don’t you? That’s why you want to damn them before they can improve themselves.”


Adara gave a ragged laugh. “Improve themselves? You’re just telling yourself that will ever happen, so you can go around acting in the only way you know how.”


“As if you’re not just telling yourself it won’t.” Backing into the shadows, the old woman lifted her hand again. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to work.” This time, no amount of resisting was enough. Adara staggered and tried to cry out, but the sound caught in her throat. The streets blurred, sights and sounds growing distant as she faded from one world into another. The last glimpse she saw of the city, before her home realm’s familiar flames rose up around her, was the crone shuffling towards the faraway street where the man with the blanket ate his supper.


Do-gooders really knew how to ruin the holidays.

March 16, 2023 00:45

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2 comments

Rosie Loosemore
15:24 Apr 16, 2023

I can't believe this hasn't received more attention! I really enjoyed this story! :) You have a really great, unfussy writing style.

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Philippa Hibberd
20:18 Apr 16, 2023

Thanks, I didn't enter it in the contest, so it didn't show up. Plus I was very new at the time, so didn't know if people would read, but it means a lot that you did!

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