Perennial Ritual, Offering Maiden
rating: +36+x

Agent Alexander Carracos walked into the barracks of Site-87, removing his headband and scratching under his facemask. His run around Sloth's Pit had taken him down Main Street, and past a crowd that had him seriously confused.

"You good?" Seren Pryce walked past her fellow agent, removing the goggles over her eyes. "You look like Dr. Harrison just tried to explain his whole 'edible memetics' concept."

"No, this is the expression I make for that." Agent Carracos grimaced, a look of pure disgust on his face, before reverting back to his old one. "This is an expression that says 'I just saw a bunch of teenagers protesting outside of city hall'."

"The hell were they protesting?" Pryce made her way to her locker, getting out her water bottle. "It has to be worth breaking the 'no assembly' ordinance we put in… god, a year ago already?"

"That's exactly what they're protesting, and for the dumbest reason." Carracos's locker was right next to Pryce's, and he crossed over to her, taking an energy bar outside of an economy-sized box of them. "They want to hold their fucking Valentine's prom, despite the restrictions."

Pryce looked at him, mirroring Carracos's expression. "God's sake, really? I actually had faith in the younger generation until now."

"I know, right?" Carracos laughed. "It's a stupid dance— hell, it's not even a proper prom! It's not like the town's going to be destroyed if they don't hold it."


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February 12th

"You're telling me the adults can't see the little text at all?" Matt King frowned, skeptical. "Sounds like bunk to me."

"Part of the curse." Tamara White, President of the Yearbook Committee, sighed as she put up yet another poster on the noticeboard at the Public Library. "Sometimes they can see through it; one time Principal Kennedy came in with a hangover and was able to see the Thing in the Fume Hood for, like, five minutes."

"Child of Cain? Like, the Biblical one?" Matt's frowned deepened. "Like, I'm new here, so you want to haze me, I get it. But you could try to come up with a better lie."

Tamara rubbed her face, instinctively missing her mask. "We have three people in school who have Plastics People as parents. If we could get them involved, believe me, we would." She sighed. "As it is, we have to arrange for a First Kiss to happen so we can beat off the Child."

"Okay, but… what's its actual name?"

"We don't speak it for fear of attracting it." She applied a tack to the poster, hoping this one wouldn't get torn down. "Suffice to say, it never got invited to a party and is salty about losing its left arm over it."

"…huh." Matt looked at the stack of posters. "And this is supposed to convince the adults to let the P.R.O.M. happen… how?"

"It's not. It's showing them that it's going to happen, no matter what." Tamara grinned. "There's more than one Civic Center in the city."

"What."

"Oh, yeah, you only moved here last year. You weren't here when the Recreational Morgue popped up. We're using that."

"The what?!" A librarian hushed Matt. His face went red. "Look, October was weird enough that, if it wasn't for my dad getting a massive stimulus out of nowhere, we'd have moved back to Chicago."

"Welcome to Wisconsin." She looked at the stack of flyers Matt was still holding. "How many do you have there?"

"Uh…" Matt looked through the stack of eye-bleeding pink. "Fifty-three. Look, why do you need me for this?"

"Because you're the only person on the Committee who managed to get his diver's license last year, and the temperature matches the age of the average freshman." She bundled up in her coat, looking outside. "To the courthouse!" She made a noise that was meant to convey a transition from a 1960's Batman TV show; Matt failed to get the reference.


"So, do people know who the first kiss is going to be ahead of time?" Matt frowned as he waited at a stoplight. "And… how will that even work? With a deadly disease going around, I don't think people are going to want to de-mask."

"People will. It's part of the ritual." Tamara shook her head, checking a point off on her clipboard. "Why'd your dad move here, anyway?"

"Fuck if I know— something about wanting to be closer to my grandfather. I don't even know who he is, is the thing. I think he works at the Plastics Place?"

"Don't think I've ever heard of a King working there." Tamara shrugged. "This whole town is weird. We've learned to live with it, and you should too."

"I'm from Chicago. And we don't have fucking goatpeople living in the woods, or a pervasive hum that can drive you insane, or a fucking haunted Time Crisis cabinet in a pizza parlor that—"

"Wait, you've played the cabinet?" Tamara looked up at him from her clipboard. "And you survived?"

"…do people normally not?!"

"I mean, yes? But people outside of town usually end up not even being able to see it, let alone play it." She chuckled. "You're more of a Pit-Dweller than you'd like to admit."

The red light still hadn't changed, despite the intersection being empty. "…have you played it?"

"Once. The Lost World one they have is more my speed. Someone going by MUK took the high sc—" She paused. "What's your middle name?"

"Ulysses." He smirked. "And yeah. I took it."

Tamara laughed. "Oh you son of a bitch. Once we save the town, it's on."

Their conversation concluded, the light changed. Matt swore that the green light had the shape of a heart in it, somehow; his imagination.


February 12th

"We're in charge of getting the food and drink too?" Matt frowned as the two of them made their way through the largely-vacant aisles of Starlow Grocery. "Seriously?"

"Yeah, and we can't have anything caffeinated there, some bizarre town ordinance about caffeine-eating demons."

"…I would ask if you're fucking with me, but I think we're past that point." He looked over the various varieties of soda on the shelves, his eyes widening as it ran across a single item. "No way."

"What?"

Matt made his way to a two-liter plastic bottle filled with green liquid, with yellow text on the front proclaiming that it contained 'Original GREEN RIVER'. "I haven't been able to find this anywhere outside of Chicago. And it's on a store shelf in Rinky-Dink Wisconsin?"

"Rinky-Dink is our sister city, down by Milwaukee." She paused. "That actually was me fucking with you. You wanna get it?"

"Yeah, but there's only one bott—" He pulled the bottle off the shelf, finding a hand protruding from it, pushing a new one forward. This wouldn't have been disconcerting, if the shelves were not up against a solid wall. "What the hell?!"

"Hmm?" A woman's face appeared through the hole, and she placed a ruler on the shelf as she peeked out. "Ah, sorry to startle you. I'm the Stocker. There's a sudden demand for this drink, and we can't get it on the shelf fast enough."

"…you're in the wall. How?"

"Perks of the job!" The Stocker beamed. "Can I help you find anything?"

"Uh, yeah." Tamara stepped forward, looking at her shopping list. "We're looking for Solo cups, pink if you have them, and… did you move the bakery? We have a bulk order of cupcakes to pick up."

The Stocker nodded. "It's towards the back of the store now. You ordered the three-hundred cupcakes, half chocolate, half vanilla, with buttercream frosting?"

"That's it. Thanks." Tamara put more bottles of the Green River in the cart. "Not exactly Valentines-y, but… what the hell? There's a big deal on the Hawaiian Punch and Faygo, too."

"Uh. Thanks." Matt looked back towards the shelf where the Stocker was; her face had vanished. "So, what the hell was that?"

"The Union. Tee ell dee arr, magic workers who do a bunch of odd jobs around town. Got one at school, even."

"Really."

"Yeah. Mr. Lehrer, social studies teacher on the first floor— the name literally means The Teacher. He thinks he's subtle."

"…huh." Matt frowned. "I think I have his class next year."

"Everyone ends up in Mr. L's class eventually." They made their way out of the soda aisle. "Perk of his job."

Between there and the bakery was the fresh produce. Matt stopped and bought himself a bushel of apples; his father claimed to be allergic to them, like his grandfather. He seemed to not have inherited the allergy. They were his favorite food.


February 13th

"I'll let you handle the party supplies. I already pressured you into getting that soda."

"Appreciated. Don't worry, Committee has a fund for all this." Tamara stepped out of Matt's car; they were outside of the Witch's Hut Party Center, as it had rebranded itself. Four disastrous Halloweens in a row, plus COVID, had dried up the demand for costumes. Laura Ashbrooke, the owner, still made and stocked them, but also had seasonal party supplies; she was far less enthusiastic about those.

A bell chimed as they entered the store. Raven-haired and pale Laura Ashbrooke looked up from some cloth she was sewing behind the counter; apparently she didn't get enough business to justify working in the back room anymore. "…I can't believe you're actually going ahead with the dance," Laura laughed. "You kids are crazy."

"I mean, didn't you meet your boyfriend at the dance?" She looked up to a photo behind the counter, which featured a much younger Laura Ashbrooke alongside her boyfriend, Edward Valentine, with the words 'Class of 2010'."

Laura shrugged. "Yeah. Our first kiss, actually. And he's my fiance now."

"…cool, I guess?" Tamara rolled her eyes. "I don't know why adults feel the need to fill us in about that type of thing. It's freaking weird."

"First kiss?" Matt looked back at the photo. "Hang on, did she—"

"Her kiss vanquished the Child of Cain so hard he didn't come back until 2012— at least, that's what the records say." She sighed. "Kinda sucks that nobody remembers once they graduate. There are some good times that happen when trying to defend the school; my older sister's a legend for capturing the tatzelwurm that was trying to eat the football team."

"The hell is a tatzelwurm?"

"Later." The two of them came down the Valentine's aisle, and were drawn to a novelty toy— a plastic shell with an LCD screen, connected to a pair of metal balls. The packaging advertised it as a 'Love Tester'.

"Tempting," Matt admitted. "But considering COVID… let's not?"

"Good idea." They turned away from the love machine, and began looking at samples of streamers. "What does your dad do, anyway?"

He snorted. "Works at a cannery, if you can believe that. S & P Canneries."

"Oh, that place. Weird that they'd set up shop here." She shook her head. "It's up by Grey Lake. People occasionally protest it because they're afraid of it hurting the lake monster." She picked up a streamer that had a series of heart emojis on it. "Dammit. Just realized we don't have a punch bowl. Could you see if—"

"On it." Matt made his way out of the aisle.

Tamara frowned. He was a greenhorn. Out-of-towner, city-slicker, whatever you wanted to call him. He was the only one on the Committee with a car, that was the whole reason she'd made him secretary. But… he hadn't even questioned her about the lake monster, which was weird. Maybe he was starting to get used to the town, to her?

"It's one day." She shook her head. "You don't fall for someone in one day outside of a really bad romance novel. Just doesn't happen."

Matt peeked into the aisle, bearing a punch bowl. "So, I saw it on your list, but… do you have, like, tables and chairs and stuff? Because my mom got a job at a rental place in Superior, and we can probably get a good deal."


February 14th
Sloth's Pit Recreational Morgue Gymnasium

Matt and Tamara had spent the last three hours setting up the gymnasium for the dance. The staff of the Recreational Morgue offered help, and the two of them let them hang decorations; Tamara was insistent on not letting them near the food and drink table, for reasons that became increasingly evident to Matt.

Tamara looked up at him as he nearly dropped a tray of cupcakes from the amount of nervous sweat on his hands. She tilted her head and asked, "Are you good?"

"Yeah, just…" He looked over his shoulder towards a tall, indistinct figure that was hanging up the last of the streamers. "I thought the chaperones would be… you know, human."

"They're Morgue staff. I'm not happy about it either." An alarm beeped on Tamara's phone. "Okay, people are going to start coming in in about fifteen. This is as ready as we're getting. You're going to be taking the admission fee."

"…I thought this was a free dance."

"It's less of a 'fee' and more of a 'tribute'. Remember what the second letter in P.R.O.M. means."

He swallowed. "A-and the maiden?"

"They don't actually get offered; we stop the Child of Cain before that." She grinned. "You'll see."


The crowd of dance attendees was made up of archetypes that Jackson was familiar with; nervous-looking freshmen, anxious sophomores, juniors who rolled their eyes at the whole concept while holding hands with their significant others. As they reached the admissions table, the dates removed the corsages from their dresses and tuxedoes, adjusting their facemasks as they went. The flowers that made up the corsages were strange; instead of roses and carnations, there were daisies and valerian and thyme. Others he didn't recognize at all, beyond brief glimpses on nature documentaries on the tundra— plants with small or spiky flowers. After being placed in a basket and giving a knowing look to Matt, the couples began to dance.

Nobody looked at the Chaperones, even as they were addressed by it in… Matt couldn't even properly call it a voice. But they got the gist of it, somehow, with "leave room for Jesus" replaced with "leave room for the things that would fuse you together and forever harm your corporeal being."

The dance went as typically as it could for the first hour. Music played, with a Chaperone acting as a DJ with surprising dexterity. People were as intimate as the Chaperones were allowing, some laughing, some breaking into fights, some too angry to deny that they were about to break out into a fight. The Chaperones were guarding any door that didn't lead to an exit.

Matt's stomach rumbled, but as long as people were coming in and placing flowers, he couldn't get up and get something to eat. Luckily, he had brought his own food; from his pocket, he withdrew an apple. There always seemed to be enough room in his pockets for at least one. Quirk of the family, he supposed.

It was as he ate and looked at the couples dancing that he realized something— Sloth's Pit was a weird-ass town, and until this week, he had felt like the loneliest person in it. He looked over at Tamara as she negotiated the refreshments table, pouring a cup of Green River soda from one of the untouched two-liter bottles. She took a sip of it, and then poured another, bringing both cups over to Matt.

"This stuff is honestly pretty good." She handed the untouched cup to Matt. Neither of them were dressed to the nines; it was a Valentine's dance, the fancy stuff was saved for actual prom. Matt was wearing a somewhat modest suit that was a hand-me-down from his father, and Tamara was wearing a purple, somewhat formal dress, with a daisy as a corsage. "This is served nowhere outside of Chicago, really?"

"Chicago and Weirdsville, USA." He sipped at the soda and sighed. "So, now what?"

"We should have enough flowers for the ritual. Trouble is…" Tamara frowned. "We… kind of haven't found a maiden yet."

Matt raised an eyebrow, taking another drink, and a bite of his apple. "I've been meaning to ask, what do you define as a 'maiden'?"

"It's a PG definition, the curse isn't that unforgiving. It's someone who hasn't been kissed by someone who isn't a blood relative, and yes, we have to specify that." She muttered something about the 'goddamn mothpeople' under her breath. "The Child of Cain is attracted by the ritual song, and then repelled by a spell that's sealed with the first kiss. The maiden doesn't have to be a girl, the kiss doesn't have to be romantic, and it can between any two people, as long as one of them is a maiden."

Matt looked at Tamara and rested his elbow on the table, head in his hand. His face heated up, and his leg began tapping against the floor as he tousled his hair. "Well. I wish you luck." He took another sip of the drink.

Tamara looked him up and down, frowning. "You do know your body language screams 'I'm flustered about this subject because I've never been kissed', right?"

Matt choked on the soda, thankfully avoiding a spittake. "Okay, yeah, fine. But you have to have better candidates than me for—"


"—our Perennial Valentine's Maiden!" Tamara presented Matt with a flourish as the crowd cheered.

Matt felt more ridiculous than he looked. He had been ushered into the Recreational Morgue's autopsy room/restroom in order to change into a pink tuxedo, which a Chaperone had helped him into. Now, another Chaperone (perhaps they were all the same being?) operated the camera that took the photograph of his still stunned face.

"Now, if our Maiden could please step into the circle…" Tamara waved to a cleared off area at the center of the gym. The flowers that had been collected as admission had been brought in to form most of a circle, with just enough space that Matt could get in.

He entered it, and felt a pop of energy as the last flowers were dropped behind him. The gymnasium went dark, but for two spotlights; one of them focused on him, the other on Tamara. She stood at a podium, and from it produced well-worn volume, opening it up to a specific page on the first try. Then, she nodded at the DJing Chaperone. It flicked a switch on its console, and a song began playing; The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News. But the way it was played, the cadence, the notes… it gave Matt butterflies in his stomach. He locked eyes with Tamara, briefly, before she turned away and looked at the book before her.

"Grendel, Kin of Cain. Bane of Heorot, the Uninvited, Rival of Beowulf. Grendel, Kin of Cain, the misshapen, the one-armed, the terror of the Danes and the Geats. Grendel, who has haunted the student body since time immemorial, come forth!"

There was a hellish creaking of metal as the roof of the Recreational Morgue was peeled off by the monstrous right arm of… something. Beady, hateful eyes looked upon the dance floor as the winter stars were exposed, framing the massive body of a thing that had a neck that was far too long and a face far too broad. It had too many teeth to be anything terrestrial or mortal.

"Again, you summon me on the night of your Saint of Love." It growled, turning towards Matt, sniffing the air. "Why must you continue to rebuke me? A bargain was made, and it shall be paid eventually."

"Not tonight and not ever." Tamara looked at Matt, her face falling. Their maiden was sat on the ground, staring up at Grendel with his jaw dropped between his legs. She composed herself, addressing the thing that was looming over them. "The bargain was made three generations ago by a desperate fool. He is buried now."

"Then why honor the contract at all?" Grendel's horrid, misshapen face came closer to the circle, and it sniffed at the air. On the other side of the circle, beyond Matt, several students had begun chanting in Old English. "And… this contract…" It leaned forward, its face falling towards Matt's eye level, its hand impacting on the dance floor as it leaned in. The student body scattered with a few screams, one poor freshman tripping over its fingernail. "It stipulates that a maiden of this town is to be given to me. He smells of wind and metal and apple seeds, not of the stories and mud of Sloth's Pit." It turned to face Matt with its multitude of eyes.

Matt realized that he could feel it speak more than he could hear it, as if it was talking through the floor around him. He stood still, feeling like he was going to cry. His dad had moved here to take a job at a bizarre canning plant, and now he was going to be eaten by something he had seen in a really, really creepy-looking Robert Zemeckis film. He didn't even really know who Robert Zemeckis was!

"State thy name," Grendel growled, "So that it may die on my—"

Matt bolted, the circle breaking as he ran out of it. The crowd scattered around him, screaming, as Grendel lunged at him. He tried dashing into the janitor's closet, but the Chaperone stood firm. He felt the gigantic, many-fingered hand clench around him, leaving only his right hand free.

"Matt!" Tamara screamed as Grendel lifted her friend to its mouth. "No! If he— if he—" She wanted to say, 'if he eats you then the town's going to be razed', but all that could come out of her mouth was disbelieving gasps. For the first time since 1962, the ritual had failed.

Matt struggled, trying to hit Grendel in such a way that it would let him go; he knew the skin between the thumb and forefinger was most sensitive, but it had so many thumbs and forefingers he couldn't find a weak place. This thing was completely outside of his context; all he could do was maybe throw the apple he had in his hand—

Wait, where did this apple come from?

Matt stared at his right hand; a golden apple, its skin reflecting him under starlight, had appeared in his hand. He smelled fresh earth and wood all around him, something that overwhelmed both his senses and Grendel's; the giant staggered, pulling Matt away from its mouth. "What in the name of—"

As it spoke, Matt chucked the apple into its mouth. Startled, it swallowed the fruit, coughing and gagging. "What was—" It coughed. "What on earth— what did you—" More coughing. Apples of all varieties poured from its mouth like blood. Its hand bowed downwards, like a great branch with too much weight on it, and Matt rolled onto the floor of the gymnasium, staring up at the figure.

"What did you do, you miserable Son of Chapman—"

That was all Grendel said before it exploded in a shower of strange, golden gore. Before it would have hit the student body, it evaporated, turning into a shower of apple blossoms. What had been Grendel's hand sprung back upwards, forming the boughs of an impossibly large apple tree that towered over the building, at least two-hundred feet tall.

"Matt!" Tamara yelled, tackling him to the ground. "Jesus fucking Christ how did you do that?!"

"I- I don't know!" Matt laughed. "But… I think I killed it? Maybe? By turning it into an apple tree? How does that even work?"

"Who the hell cares?" Tamara laughed. "You just exploded one of the biggest threats to the student body!" She sighed. "Sucks that we won't remember it in a few years."

"None of it?"

Tamara smiled at him as apple blossoms fell around them. "I think we can sneak one memory out."

With that, their lips met awkwardly; it was Matt's first kiss, after all. But it was one he would remember for the rest of his life, one he would tell his children about when they asked how he met their mother.

That's when several individuals in tactical gear came into the gymnasium, all looking disappointed.


Agent Seren Pryce looked between her tablet and the group of high schoolers they were in the process of arresting. "How many violations of the mask ordinance is that?"

"I lost count, and I'm pretty sure a few of them ran out into the woods." Agent Carracos scratched his head. "Hell, they're kids. Maybe we should let them have a little fun?"

"It's Sloth's Pit. People having 'a little fun' is how you get the Fourth of July to be a massive clusterfuck each year." She sighed. "But… y'know, I get it. Kind of. World sucks, maybe we should let them have a little normalcy before they get thrown into the big wide world."

"…normalcy?"

"What passes for it in Wisconsin." Seren shrugged, looking at the massive apple tree and the torn-off roof. "What the hell happened there, though?"

"Morgue Staff have said they'll take care of it." He frowned, looking at an apple that had fallen near their car. "Didn't you say there was a kid with the surname King on there, Sera?"

"…can't be a coincidence. Can it?"

Carracos and Pryce looked up at the young man and the young woman who was apparently his girlfriend; even in handcuffs, they looked giddy to be around each other.

"We'll check in with the Director tomorrow," Carracos frowned. "No reason to ruin their night any further. They're kids. Not like this dance was gonna destroy the town or anything."

"Yeah, yeah." Pryce shook her head.

As they prepared to lecture the youth of the town, Matt King handed Tamara White a Valentine's day card that he'd managed to extricate from his pockets despite the handcuffs.


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