The campus has always had places of in-between; between our world and theirs, between magic and mundane, Fae and human, and there are those of the Fae that treasure these places of in-between greatly. Their little… projects.
I9 was one such project, all the students were sure. The building had been on campus for as long as anyone could remember, it refused to show up on any map, and had withstood every try at getting it removed. It didn’t really ‘fit’ with the rest of the campus, although somehow, sometimes, it seemed to fit far too well. Sitting just beyond the dense tree line of the forest, I9 was a small, old, cottage with thatched roof, and a happily running stream the only thing between it and the trees.
No one had lived there since… well, no one could quite agree on the last person who had lived there, some remembered it being a girl from an arts major. Others argued it had been a boy from chemistry. Some others put in that maybe it hadn’t been a student at all. Whoever they were, they hadn’t lasted long, hardly a month before being taken.
The Fae were all unusual, unpredictable, unsettling, but the one that took an interest in this place had something most others did not, patience and persistence.
The girl had applied late, to only do one unit a term, and to live on campus. Her high school marks were nothing special, hardly enough to graduate let alone to be considered for somewhere as prestigious as Elsewhere University. The admin staff placed her immediately in the rejected pile, but every morning they would find the application back on their desk. After a week, one member of staff decided to just shred the damn thing, but sure enough, the next day there it was again. After that, they all agreed that the choice had been made for them. When the paperwork came through though, and I9 came out no matter what room anyone typed or even wrote on the forms, that’s when they started to worry. Someone had been chosen again.
Maybe some members of staff (those who knew the history of I9) tried to warn the girl, tried to change fate, but in the end the acceptance letter still went out, and the room number was still unchanged.
Ash was all anxiety, and depression, and layer upon layer of shaky coping mechanisms that she’d built up over the years. She didn’t know anyone at Elsewhere, and didn’t have any friends from anywhere else either. Her parents had moved away to start new lives, and after two painful years of self-doubt and second-guessing, she had finally decided to try for uni. It wasn’t that she wasn’t intelligent, just that she was… different. She never kept friends, always talked to herself or to animals rather than other people, she never seemed to fit in with anyone, and often got on teachers nerves for being too reserved, and so her schooling had suffered. She knew she could do well she just needed time.
Things were strange when Ash got to campus. She wasn’t in one of the communal dorms like she had expected, instead she found her room number carved on the door of an old cottage by the forest edge. She watched the other students for a while, all of them avoiding the path down to the little cottage, all of them taking care not to walk on the little flowers that grew out the front. It took her a good twenty minutes to convince herself to go knock on the door, after all it wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried to mess with the new kid.
She could hear other students whispering as they passed, their eyes boring into her back as she walked to the door. It made her skin crawl and her hairs stand on end, like something was about to attack. She fumbled for her keys and found they were no longer the generic store cut keys she had collected, but one heavy, black, old iron key, it fit the lock though and she took respite within the tiny cottage.
Inside it was small, dark, and smelled of old books and dust. Beyond the entrance was a small sitting room, its walls lined with bookshelves stuffed to the brim with books. A little kitchen with old-fashioned fittings was to the left, a brightly lit study nook to the right, its windows large and filled with overgrown potted herbs and plants. Just past the sitting room was a cosy bedroom with a little bathroom hidden behind one of the wardrobe doors, Ash wondered what else was hidden in here.
The trees outside rustled and birds began to caw as she set down her things and took in her new home. It was strange, and eerie, and her cheeks still burned with the students whispers, but it felt oddly safe within these walls, as if she truly had come home.
Students in class were nicer than she had experienced in high school, though some of them refused to meet her eyes. Others insisted on giving her handfuls of little diner salt packets, which was odd at first. It took some time for her to believe this wasn’t some kind of cruel joke at her expense, but after a while she recognised it as something good. One guy even came up to her and shoved a little hand full of nuts and bolts strung together on a thin chain into her hand and muttered a brief ‘hang in there’ before strolling off.
Well she had heard rumours about people at Elsewhere being superstitious, she just hadn’t quite expected it to be this full on. Some students even had their own small rituals they performed before entering certain classes. Even with all the odd around her though, she still felt that she wasn’t exactly part of it all, she was still an outsider, as she had always been, never quite fitting in anywhere.
The first week passed uneventfully. Though the students in class weren’t cruel, they didn’t sit with her if at all possible, politely making their excuses before moving away if she sat at their table. By the end of the week she felt as alone as she had ever been, something she had grown quite used to.
The weekend came quickly and soon enough second week began. Ash sat at the back of the lecture theatre expecting to again be surrounded by empty seats, but this time a boy sat beside her. He had the most amazing eyes all glitter and angles. He didn’t say a word to her but watched like a hawk when she scratched out a few lines of a small poem before the lecture began. He was… odd, but the company was comfortable.
After that lecture the whispering became worse. She would catch snippets of ‘did you see their eyes?’, ‘definitely one of them’, ‘she didn’t even notice’ as she walked passed. Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, she quickly headed back towards I9. Just outside I9 though she was stopped by the yowling of an animal in terrible pain. In the bushes was a small white cat tangled in some wires, everyone else was hurrying passed without even a glance its way. The thing was making such an awful noise she had half expected the bite of razorwire as she freed the creature, but it was just plain old wire. She could have sworn though, as the cat scampered off across the stream and into the forest, that as it turned away it suddenly had too many eyes, all glitter and angles, but she couldn’t be sure.
After that, things were… stranger. The shadows around the cottage felt deeper than was possible, wind chimes that had been taken down long before Ash had gotten there chimed happily in the dead still air, and there was a lingering smell of honey and wet fur.
She knew something was wrong when she woke the next morning. The feeling stole over her in cold waves of panic, something was different, something was wrong, something had happened. When she looked in the mirror she saw that the eyes staring back at her were wrong, they seemed to stare much much farther than a reflection should be able, and glinted with the colours of the aurora borealis. She heard the purring of a cat as tears welled in her beautiful, wrong, eyes.
It was late afternoon when she finally left I9 again, and slowly she realised her eyes weren’t the only things that had changed. She could see… things… playing in the trees just passed the stream. Things covered in fur and claws, and feathers, and bone. There was a lady at the other end of the path watching her closely, a small cat curled around her legs. Her eyes drifted past Ash, and Ash turned to see what had caught her gaze. It was a basket filled with… things. There was a bunch of rotten bananas, some plants that looked rather a lot like weeds still with their roots attached covered in dirt, a couple of lengths of string, a frayed bit of cloth, and a handful of stones and little bones. In a voice like dripping blood, and splintering bones the lady spoke to Ash ‘A small gift for my Girl Between. A basket of favours yet made, promises yet to come, use my gift well little one, I’ll know if you waste it’. When Ash blinked the lady was gone, and she was left alone with the basket of things, and a cat that definitely had too many eyes.