i dreamt of the faces of the people i loved

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This was going to be added to Potluck Oneshots but, due to a request from a friend, I decided to post it separately. This was one of the 2017 Secret Santas I did, with the request being "whatever this video inspires" for The Cat With Hands. (It's worth checking out, but it's pretty freaky!) I ended up drawing ideas from Avatar: The Last Airbender's Koh the Face Stealer so, fair warning, it's a little grim.

Short ficlet set in a human AU.

ooOoo

"Last night as I slumbered I had a strange dream

One that seemed to bring distant friends near.

I dreamt of the faces of people I loved

And I awoke with a heart full of fear."

- The Miner's Dream

[edited]

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The first face she saw it wearing was Humbert's.

Her step faltered at the cavern's opening then, a sound in her throat threatening to dissolve into a sob. Only faint sunlight found its way into these depths, weaving past the tree roots above, but there was no mistaking that face.

That face that she had fallen in love with; that smile, those eyes, that laugh…

All stolen now.

"It's not safe for someone like you to wander these woods alone."

That voice - Humbert's voice - resonated through the cavern, so familiar that it took all of her willpower to remember Louise's fatal warning before she had embarked on this mission.

"Show no fear. Show no emotion at all or it will steal your face also."

She tightened her grip around the old battered cane and continued her steady descent. "Someone like me?" she echoed.

"Human."

As she reached the bottom of the cavern, the monster passed by a beam of light and she caught a glance of a tailored suit and silk top hat. Light grey, almost white gloves that spoke of human hands, but furred wrists that betrayed a more feline origin.

Haru watched her breath escape from her lips in misty spirals, anything to detract from the monster that had stolen Baron's face, but even as it approached her, her mind noted how even its movements were reminiscent of Humbert.

Its heels clicked with the same precision he had always taken, each step that slow, smart pace. The steps of someone who had always been so sure of his path.

"Do you know who I am?" Humbert's voice asked.

"Do you think I would have come all this way if I didn't?"

"Then you are a fool." The monster paced, a smile playing on familiar lips as it waited for her to err. "Let me guess: you come to avenge a loved one. Who did I take? A sister? A father? A lover?"

Faces flashed across its visage, shifting from victim to victim with heartless carelessness. She saw the faces of other missing people from her village; the baker, the teacher's daughter, the blacksmith's apprentice. Faces she knew. Faces she had mourned.

She swallowed, the only betrayal of emotion past indifference that she allowed herself. Slow breaths.

"My fiancé."

"Ah. The young baron."

Humbert's face returned in full force and, as braced as Haru had been for the inevitable, she felt her breath hitch.

"Yes."

Humbert's face split into a smile, his smile, and Haru felt sick.

"A foolish fellow, if ever there was one. To think he could talk sense into something like me."

"I told him it was useless." Her voice thickened, fingers clutched, knuckle-white around the cane. "I told him that he couldn't reason with something like you, but he wouldn't listen. He wanted to believe there was good in everyone. Even you."

"And you?"

"What about me?" she asked.

"Do you believe there's good in everyone?"

"I believe it's a person's actions that define them, and yours paint a very dark picture indeed."

The monster laughed, eyes crinkling in that same manner Humbert's always had. "So you don't come to try to reason with me."

"If such a thing were possible, Humbert would have succeeded long before I tried."

"That'll be a no." The monster continued to circle Haru, hands tucked at the small of his back. "You come to kill me, then?"

"I come to stop you."

"Is there a difference?"

"Difference enough," Haru said.

"And how do you intend to stop me? With the flimsy blade hidden in that cane?" There came a chuckle when Haru's grip shifted around the cane's hook. "Oh, did you think I wouldn't know about that when I have all of your fiancé's memories? It would take more than a pitiful toothpick to leave any lasting damage, I'm afraid."

Haru released the breath she had been holding and forced her grip to loosen. She feigned a calm she did not feel. "I know. In fact, I know all about you." She stared straight ahead, concentrating on not meeting the monster's gaze. "You're the spirit that steals the faces of its victims—"

"Any mother's child knows of such stories," it said. "You are no different."

"—but only of those who show emotion," Haru finished. She looked to it now, noting the almost imperceptible pause in its step. "Why is that? What's so potent about emotion? That seems such a petty limitation, don't you think?"

"Is that why you came? To satisfy a curiosity? I have taken people for less."

"I think it's because you don't have any emotions of your own," she continued, "so you have to steal those of others'. But they don't last, do they? So it's onto the next victim, the next meal, the next face. Just to feel the merest echo of what it is to be human." Her breathing was accelerating, her voice veering dangerously towards ire. "But it's not enough, is it? You can dress up all you like, but the truth is you're still nothing but a beast. That's all you'll ever be."

It smiled, but the smile didn't reach its narrowed eyes. Human irises flickered and then were swallowed up by feline eyes. "Do you think that knowing that protects you?" Humbert's voice dissolved into an inhuman growl. "Do you think that knowing to hide your emotions are enough? You are human; you are made of emotion and sooner or later you will slip. And when that happens, nothing will save you."

"Maybe. But until then, you will listen to me." Haru watched as the animal eyes narrowed, ire at being denied its victim playing clearly across its stolen face. Her heart was hammering as if attempting to break free from her rib cage, but she fought back the vicious, bittersweet smile. "I came here to see if Humbert had been right - to see if there was even a scrap of morality in your miserable being. I see now that, the one time that it mattered, he was mistaken. I don't see anything in you that deserves mercy."

Humbert's face smiled thinly back, revelling in the emotions it would not allow others. "You speak as if you have me at your mercy, human. Warriors have tried to kill me; I took their faces. Scholars have tried to study me; I took their faces. Foolish do-gooders have tried to reason with me; I took their faces. What could you possibly do that has not been tried before?"

"This," Haru said, and she unsheathed the cane's blade and stabbed it into its side. She backed off, her face impassive but her chest heaving.

The monster looked to her, and then down to the sword impaling it's jacket. "Well, I am disappointed," it said. With a gloved hand, it pulled the cane out and dropped it to the cavern floor. "I told you that a toothpick like that would never—"

As it took a step forward, its leg gave way. Its hands jumped to the ruined jacket. There was no blood, but it's hands shook. "What… what have you done to me?!"

Haru fell a step back, a smile flickering at the edge of her lips, hardly daring to believe it'd worked. "You should think twice before taking someone's face," she said. "They might have family who know how to undo you."

"What have—"

"Humbert's father is a sorcerer," Haru continued, taking grim delight in talking over the face stealer. "He doesn't have a lot of magic, but he has a whole library on the theory. His mother is a herbalist. May not sound like much, but she knows the magical properties of anything green that grows. And they found a way to stop you, monster."

A laugh trickled at the edge of her voice, relief spreading through into her eyes and forming tears. "You'll never take another person. I promise you that."

"No," it growled. "I'll have one more face yet. You forget your emotions, human!"

The monster lunged, hands gripping her jaw and claws breaking through the gloves. Haru felt her skin break. Blood dripped down her chin.

Its face - Humbert's face - looked over hers, its mouth splitting impossibly wide with far too many teeth. A guttural, animal roar tore from its throat.

And then it released her.

It stumbled back, its hands moving to cradle its head, that roar dwindling to a whine. Tears flooded those feline eyes.

"What have I done?" Haru echoed back. She straightened, wiping away the blood at her chin. "I've given you what you wanted. I've given you emotion."

"This…"

"Is everything your victims felt. All the fear and sorrow and anger. It's not so much fun when it's real, is it? Real emotions have power. Real emotions hurt. And now they're all yours."

She picked up the discarded sword and slotted it back into the cane sheath, the blade glittering with the potion coating it. She started up the stone steps to the cavern's opening.

"You're… you're just going to leave?" the monster hissed. "You're not even going to finish me off?"

"And deprive you of your realised dream?" Haru called back. "I think not. But don't worry; when word spreads of your state, people will come to finish the job soon enough. Until then, though, I think you have several lifetimes of emotions to catch up on. Enjoy."

Gripping the cane ever tighter, she left the cavern and its wailing occupant behind, and stepped out into the evening sunlight. For the first time in a long time, she smiled.