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Room Without A View

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The clock ticked by in the kitchen. The insistent tapping of its hands drowned out the midnight silence like rapping fingers. You laid in your bed, curled tight in your blankets, counting the seconds as the night dragged on. Your toes curled in frustration. You weren’t sure why you were still awake. After all, you were desperately tired, but the darkness wasn’t much help in lulling you to sleep. You stared blankly at your ceiling, shadows flitting at the edge of your vision. No moon shone through your window. You tried not to focus on the paranoia it brought you.
Ridiculous, you thought with a grimace. You swung your feet over the side of your bed and stood, a joint or two popping at the sudden movement. It made you feel a little better. Maybe some Nyquil will help.

 

You made your way to the bathroom, stepping softly as not to disturb your family. The floors often groaned under your weight, and you didn’t want to be held accountable for waking your mother. She was a light sleeper, unlike your brother. You could hear his loud snoring as you picked your way past his bedroom. You idly wondered if he still played his video games before bed like when you were kids. You always threatened to snitch on him to get something you wanted. He never believed you, only laughed in your general direction and told you to get out.

 

The darkness made you uncomfortable. You hurried your pace some.

 

The bathroom had a small night light beside the sink, and you relaxed as the shadows subsided. Everything seemed a lot safer when you could see. Gazing at your reflection in the mirror, you cringed at the bags under your eyes, intensified by the low light. Your hair, knotted and unkempt, kinked upward; not to mention the stray drool on your lower lip. You looked like shit. Maybe you should turn the light off after all.

 

Your father stored the Nyquil somewhere in here. He always ranted at you not to drink it too often. He had an irrational fear you would get addicted to the blue liquid as if that’s something people do. You couldn’t help but roll your eyes just thinking about it. Deliberately, you opened the cabinet and squinted at the shelves: prescriptions, bandages, an old toothbrush, unopened chap-sticks… Ah! You grabbed the Nyquil. Scrapping the measuring cup, you downed a couple of gulps of the medicine and set it back in the cabinet. If you weren’t sleeping before, you would now.

 

With a dramatic yawn, you withdrew into your bedroom. This time, the sheets welcomed you, and you settled nicely in their warmth. Rolling onto your side, you closed your eyes.

 

Crrrrk…

 

You jolted, your eyes scanning your room feverishly. What was that? Was someone in your house? Your parents made sure to lock the door and windows every night – there was no way! Still, the sound was getting louder, closer. You felt sweat trickle down your spine as your gaze shifted to the closet. The door was open. Didn’t you close it before you went to bed? You don’t remember opening it.

 

A scuttling noise. Your ears perked. You whipped your head to look at your bedpost and gasped sharply. A silhouette hovered at the edge of your bed, its white skin shining through the dark. Paralyzed with fear, you watched as the creature lifted a large, clawed hand and slunk onto the bed. Its body was skeletal and riddled with angry cysts, and you couldn’t fathom what you were seeing. With its predatory stare trained on you, it advanced with a snarl. The blackness came too quickly for you to scream.

 

 

You woke with a start, lurching forward. Your wrists strained against you, and your back slammed against the ground. You blinked in shock and looked down, gasping when you saw your hands chained and locked to the concrete floor. Instinctively, you struggled against your binds, trying to pry yourself loose. The cuffs dug deeper into your skin, and you hissed at the pain. You could barely move.


There was no use in thrashing. You tried to steady your breathing through the panic. What the fuck was going on? Your mind was swimming, barely able to keep afloat in your fear. What had happened before this? You recalled drinking some Nyquil – was this a dream, a side effect? The bottle never said this would happen. The distress was too vivid to be anything but real.

 

Swallowing, you scoured your surroundings: you were in a cramped cellar. Swarms of mildew festered on damp concrete walls. A single light bulb dangled precariously from the ceiling, offering little light. Overhead, a large window on the opposite wall spilled starlight. It stank of gasoline. You looked desperately at the door, only a few feet away from you. A bright light flickered from behind it - was someone else here?

 

You flinched as a pain shot through your hand, and looked down. Rusty nails littered the ground beside you, orange and distorted. I could use this to unlatch the chain! You curled your fingers around one of the less contorted nails. Droplets of blood budded from the puncture wound on your palm.

 

Suddenly, the din of heavy footfalls reached your ears. You craned your neck to look at the door, your heart plummeting into your stomach. Someone was coming. Their shadow spasmed under the door, and a feminine voice sounded on the other side. You hid the nail in a clenched fist and held your breath.


The metal door swung open and light pooled into the cellar. You blinked your eyes against the blinding glare, grimacing. How long had you been in the darkness? With the way your pupils burned, you assumed a long time. When your eyes finally adjusted to the light, you chanced a look at the stranger. Your jaw went slack.

 

A woman loomed over you, her form silhouetted by the light. Her lips contorted into a raptorial grin, lengthened by the stitches in the creases of her mouth. A long swath of brown hair fell along her shoulders as disheveled as the blood-stained clothes on her body. And a clock, lodged in her right eye, ticked away the seconds. Your gaze followed the minute hand in horror as you assimilated the person before you, but your mind felt braindead. Prey cornered by predator. Her smile widened.

 

In an instant, she had a fistful of your hair. You yelped as she dragged you to eye level, struggling in her ungodly grasp. Your arms screamed in pain as the muscles stretched beyond their limits, but she ignored the agony on your face. She looked almost pleased with your reaction. Procuring a knife from her back pocket, she traced the blade along your jawline. You flinched away from the serrated edge, your heart racing.

 

“Pl-please. stop,” you cried out, “you’re hurting me!”

 

The woman let out a peel of strident laughter, and you squeezed your eyes shut against her hot breath, “Oh, sweetie, I could do so much worse than this.” Still, she let your body fall to the ground. The oxygen was knocked out from your lungs upon impact, and you found yourself gasping violently. Your scalp burned. Her eyes sparkled at you, shamelessly delighting in your pain. “Lucky for you, your time isn’t quite up.”

 

What the fuck was that supposed to mean? Did she intend to kill you? You tried to put some distance between yourself and her, but your actions were feeble. You were still so breathless.

 

“Clockwork.”

 

Clockwork snapped her attention from you to the doorway. You followed her gaze. Another woman stood in the threshold of the cellar with her arms crossed over her chest. She looked much like a doll: porcelain skin and long black hair with eyes to match. Her body was bound in a tiny black dress. You shuddered at the apathy in her voice, “You’re not supposed to be down here.”

 

“Ah, Jane, I was only going to have some fun. I wasn’t gonna kill her or nothing.” You shot her a look. It didn’t take you long to decide you hated her idea of fun. You needed to get out of here. There was no telling what these people were planning for you. Gripping the nail tighter, you worked it into the lock. You prayed they would be too distracted to notice.

 

“We had strict orders to leave her be. You’re going to get us both in trouble.”

 

“Lighten up, will you! She’s barely got a scratch on her - well, not from me anyway. Besides, it’s not like she’s going to be around for much longer. Who cares what happens to her?”

 

“The Mistress does, dumbass! Are you really so dense?” Jane grumbled, turning on her heel, “Let’s just get back before you have any more stupid ideas.”

 

At that moment, the lock clicked. Your chains fell from your wrists and clattered to the floor, the sound reverberating bitterly in your ears. Your lungs constricted. The two women turned on you, their bodies poised to attack. You couldn’t stay here any longer. Thinking fast, you stole a handful of nails from the ground and flung them at your assailants. The action gave you enough time to duck away as Clockwork lunged at you.

 

The light bulb burst. The three of you cried out in alarm as glass shot from the ceiling and sliced through the air. You covered your face with your arms, shards eating your skin. The pain stunned you, but it was better than letting your eyes take the blow. Though, you weren’t sure if your eyes would do you much good now. You swam in darkness once more, save for Clockwork’s one green eye. It shone through the blackness like a beacon, but you decided it best not to follow.

 

“What the fuck?” The brunette’s gaze darted around the cellar.

 

“It wasn’t me.” Jane retorted. Backing up, you touched the concrete wall and silently made your way around the room. You traced your gaze to the window.

 

“I don’t care who did it! We need to find that bitch and tie her up again. We can deal with the lights after.”

 

“We might be compromised, Clockwork! We have to be careful!”

 

“Shut up and help me find her!” You could hear the nails clatter against the wall as the woman fumbled through the dark. She sounded a little too close. You sidestepped away, the blood pounding in your ears. In front of you, Jane let out a hiss.

 

“Watch where you’re going!”

 

“Stop bitching! It’s not like I can see either!”

 

You lost the wall in your haste to evade Clockwork. You reached your hand out hesitantly, searching for the calloused stone. Instead, your fingers curled around …fabric? Fuck. You froze, your limbs going numb. You tried to think of some way to escape, but the pulsating in your ears was near deafening. Your mind was a whirlwind of fear. Yet, when you tried to listen, you realized the women’s voices were coming from behind you. This person couldn’t be them.

 

You gasped as a cold, gloved hand seized your wrist. Immediately, the cellar fell silent, and you could feel Clockwork’s eye trained on you. Desperation set in as you tried to rip yourself away from your captor, but their grip only tightened. They swung you behind them as the two women charged at both of you. Pushing you to the side, the both of you dodged the attack and, before you could protest, your captor ushered you forward.

 

You caught sight of the window just a few paces in front of you, and you felt your heart sink. Only now did you realize it was too high up for you to reach. You heard the two women clamoring toward you, their voices filled with rage. You glanced around, trying to think up another plan. Could I climb that high? A shattering sound quickly derailed the thought. More glass showered the ground as your captor hoisted you into the air.

 

“Climb through, hurry.” A male voice instructed. You didn’t give the broken window a second thought as you squeezed through the opening. Still, you couldn’t help but look back. Throwing your head over your shoulder, you glimpsed the silhouette of a masked man turning to face Jane and Clockwork.

 

“Thank you…” You murmured.

 

Slipping from the cellar, you made a break into an overgrown field. Even in the cloak of night, you recognized this place. It was the old prison you passed on your way to school, abandoned long before you were born. You had never been there yourself, but you knew many of your delinquent classmates liked to throw parties in the yard. You also knew kids had been reported missing in this area in recent years. Had they been kidnapped like you? Did those women…? You pushed the thought aside.

 

If you were going to survive the night, you needed to focus on yourself. Formulate a plan and get the hell out of here. You inhaled sharply and ran faster. The security fence soon came into view as you sprinted across the prison yard. You remembered overhearing a classmate complain about the barbed wire crowning the barrier. Scaling the mesh would be useless if you couldn’t find a way over. Your heart hammered against your chest as an enraged screech rang out from the prison basement.

 

If you couldn’t go over, you’d have to go under.

 

Anxiety pricked your body when you reached the fence. Your plan was a longshot, but it was the only one you could think of without facing the barbs. On the other side, the tall grass sprawled into a forest. The thick foliage could shield you until you found your way home. You skirted along the barrier for a long time before you found it. Relief washed over you; there was a hole in the mesh.

 

The hole was small, probably the result of weather and a very determined teenager, but you were sure you could fit. It was better than climbing over the fence at least. Falling to your hands and knees, you crawled through the gap with renewed vigor. Your shoulders slipped by with relative ease, your clothes catching on the broken chains only once. The opening seemed more than willing to accommodate your size as the mesh expanded outward. You couldn’t wait to see your family again.

 

As you pushed further, however, you found the squeeze growing tighter. Sending a nervous glance over your shoulder, you realized the chain was closing around your torso. An eerie feeling settled in your chest. Exhaling, you propelled your body forward some. The chains groaned at the strain but seemed to give. One more time should do it. You lunged forward again, only to feel the mesh close in on your ribcage. The sharp edges pressed deep into your skin, and your heart lurched.

 

Panic set in as you squirmed in the chain maw; the fence rattled angrily. You were stuck. Either way you moved, you risked cutting your torso on the mesh. Maybe if you were careful enough, you could get through. Warily, you crawled onward, but the chain refused to yield. You could feel it tearing at your skin already, and you bit back a whimper. This wasn’t going to work. Taking a moment, you listened for the sounds of fighting. Your ears met distant night sounds.

 

You had to keep moving. Now.

 

Swallowing your resolve, you ripped yourself from the chain link fence in one solid pull.

 

Pain seared through your side as you collapsed on the other side of the mesh. You writhed on the ground, holding your hand over your mouth to stifle the scream tearing at your throat. Your torso blazed with heat and sheer agony. Holding back tears, you glanced at your side. A red gash burned angrily just beneath your ribcage, blood pouring onto the skin around it.

 

“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck…” You forced yourself to your knees, your sides wailing in protest. A stream of red began staining the grass. Shelter, get to shelter and bandage the wound.

 

You scrabbled to the nearest bush and tucked yourself under its trailing tendrils. Your breath came in rapid gasps as you pressed your hand against the laceration, trying to staunch the bleeding. Dark red surged amid your fingers. The sudden thought of bleeding to death flooded your mind, and you felt lightheaded. You couldn’t die here. Clenching your teeth, you grabbed the hem of your shirt and slovenly tore off a shred of the fabric. It wasn’t much, but it would make do. When the tourniquet was secured around your waist, you leaned against the bush, spasming.

 

A snarl sounded from the undergrowth ahead of you. Instantly, your head snapped toward the source of the noise. You gotta be fucking kidding me… Your gaze met two beady eyes. A massive paw emerged from a swath of ferns followed by a dog-like silhouette. Screwing your eyes against the dark, you realized it was a husky. His lips were curled into a grin as he let out another low growl. Your breath hitched in your throat upon seeing his humanesque jaws. The dog licked his chops hungrily and bunched his muscles.

 

Breaking free of your paralysis, you flung yourself to the side as the dog barreled into the bush. Your fingers brushed against a branch, and you pulled it free from the underbrush, stumbling to your feet. The world whirled around you, and you fought back nausea. Through your daze, you could see the dog turning on you again. His figure doubled in your vision. You raised your branch, prepared to swing blindly in his direction.

 

The husky halted. It seemed his aggression had dissipated. For a heartbeat, the two of you eyed each other in silence. You refused to relent your stance despite his sudden calmness. Then, he rolled back onto his haunches, lolling his tongue. His tail thumped against the grass. If you hadn’t known better, you would have thought it an ordinary dog. You waited a few moments, your shoulders tensed to attack. The dog panted up at you.

 

The world suddenly stretched upward, and your knees buckled. Your back slammed against the ground. The trees reeled around you, their limbs swooping inches from your face. Blackness lined your vision.

 

Your fingers gripped the icy grass. When did it get so cold?

 

The dog barked somewhere far away.

 

“What is it, Smile? What did you find?” You strained your eyes against the oncoming darkness. A man leaned over you. His arms wrapped around your back. Get away from me. You opened your mouth, but you were too tired to speak.

 

You slipped into unconsciousness.

 

 

The sharp stench of antiseptic reached your nose first. Then, the pulsating pain in your side. You let out a groan, the skin around your wound twitching in response. It wasn’t as intense as you remembered, but it was enough to leave you shifting uncomfortably on the mattress. You peeled your eyes open. White swarmed your vision and you winced against the onslaught of light.

 

“Good morning, sunshine!” a voice called to you. Shielding your eyes, you turned your head. Next to you, a man worked at your side. He stitched the wound with swift, gloved hands.

 

“Stop moving.” He reprimanded and tightened the thread. You watched as the skin converged.

 

The man wore a dirty tan sweatshirt, the hood pulled over his head. Oddly enough, you couldn’t see his face. It was veiled in a thin black fabric, sewn to the hood, and embellished with a red frown. You wondered if he was able to see through it. What kind of person hides their face like that? Certainly not a normal one. In a way, he reminded you of the two prison women.

 

But, he was helping you. You decided it best not to question it.


Looking away, you took in your surroundings. In truth, there was nothing much to look at. The room was small and simple. Pallid paint pared off the walls and where a curtain once hung, now a tattered blanket. Behind it, a water-stained window with a splintered face. Pale dawn light filtered onto the floor. It would be day soon. You shifted your gaze to the corner of the room.

 

A gasp escaped your lips.

 

Another man leaned against the wall a few feet from you. You vaguely recognized him by his white skin; he must have been the same one from the forest, though you weren't quite sure. Seeing him now, you were frightened. Shaggy black hair, white skin, and lidless eyes all paled in comparison to his contorted smile. A bloodied laceration on either side of his cheeks. You swallowed the bile in your throat.

 

He stared at you expectantly. A sudden thought occurred to you.

 

Could these people be with those at the prison? Uneasiness crept up your spine. You knew it was wrong to judge on looks, but these men looked uncomfortably like the women that tried to kill you. Could you trust them? Sure, the one was helping you, but… You weren’t sure of anything at this point. Your mouth was dry as you spoke: “Are you going to kill me?”

 

The hooded man stopped, but said nothing. There was a glint in the smiling man’s eyes. Your breath hitched in your throat at their silence.

 

“Who are you? Where am I? What’s going on? Why are you doing this? Oh my god…” You couldn’t help the words spilling from your mouth, or the hot tears falling from your eyes.

 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow your roll, kid!” The smiling one waved his hands in front of him. “Take a fucking chill pill!”

 

The hooded one turned sharply to face the other man. His shoulders were rigid and his voice short, “Shut up, Jeff.”

 

Jeff bristled, “What, do you sympathize with this shit, Hoodie? Is that it? You fucking would.”

 

“Just get out.” Hoodie dismissed him with a flick of his wrist and turned back to your wound.

 

“Whatever. This is stupid, anyway.” He rolled his eyes and stormed off.

 

Silence droned in your ears for what felt like an eternity. By now, your tears had dried, and were replaced with a barrage of questions. Your mind was alone and overwhelmed. So much had transpired in the last few hours, most of which you still couldn’t process. It was too much. Through the turmoil, however, one lingering realization remained: you had almost died tonight. What would your family have thought when they found you missing? Did they know you were gone now? Were they looking for you?

 

Taking a breath, you decided to focus on Hoodie’s handiwork. His hands were nimble, as though he had done this a million times over. You croaked, “Thank you.” His head tilted and you assumed he was looking at you now.

 

“Don’t thank me quite yet.” He replied simply.

 

You parted your lips to respond, but you were interrupted by a new voice. A familiar man bursted into the room. Despite the neutral appearance of his mask, his voice sounded nervous, “Brian, what happened to her? Is she okay? You know what will happen to us if she dies!”

 

Your realization gave you whiplash. Before Hoodie (Brian? Whoever) could answer, you interjected, “It’s you! You’re the one that saved me at the prison!”

 

“I’m so glad you’re alright.” Relief made him relax and he settled in a chair across from you. It felt weird to have a stranger fuss over you. Who are these people?

 

“Masky, I’ve told you not to call me that in front of people,” Hoodie retorted, throwing the masked man a look. You imagined him glaring under his hood. “She may just be a human, but we don’t know what He has planned.” He sighed and redirected his attention to you. Pulling the string taut, he grabbed a pair of scissors and snipped off the excess thread. You winced at the sensation.

 

“You’re finished. Please be careful not to overexert yourself.” Hoodie said. His voice was so cold, so different from Masky’s cordial tone. Was he angry over Masky’s slip-up? You couldn’t tell. You blinked after him as he retreated to the door. The two men shared a nod of acknowledgment before he disappeared into the corridor. You made a mental note referring to Hoodie by Brian would be a mistake.

 

Masky lifted his chair and scooted over to you. You leaned into a sitting position and faced him, watching him carefully as he closed the gap between the both of you. You didn’t know what you would do if he tried something, but you were ready. The man’s gaze examined Hoodie’s handiwork. You winced at the black threads lacing your bloodstained skin.

 

“He did a damn good job.” Masky mused, rolling your shirt down. You could see his eyes under the holes in his mask. “What happened, anyway?”

 

“I, uh, got stuck in a fence and… Cut myself on the barbs.” You squirmed under his unfaltering stare. Something about admitting your injuries aloud made you feel vulnerable. You decided to change the subject. "Can you please tell me what's going on? Who are you people? Why was I taken from my home?"

 

You were surprised by his response, “I’m sorry, but orders are orders. I can’t tell you much.” Masky lifted his mask some, revealing a strong jawline and a five o’clock shadow. He procured a cigarette and lighter from his back pocket and lit the habit, inhaling deeply. A puff of smoke curled toward the ceiling as you struggled for words. Again, you recalled the events of the prison.

 

“Am I… Am I in a dangerous situation?” You breathed, your anxiety intensifying with each syllable. The man looked at you intently. For a heartbeat, you wondered if he would even humor your question. You could see the conflicting flash of his eyes, an internal parley of sorts. As the silence dragged, you found yourself withdrawing onto the bed. It was silly, really, to think anyone would tell you what was happening at this point. After all, did they really owe you an explanation? They had helped so much already. Finally, the man coughed and extinguished the cigarette in a pan of old blood. Your face contorted in disgust, but Masky ignored your glare.

 

“Alright, let me preface with the things I’m allowed to say. Understand that these are things you need to keep to yourself. If you tell anyone about this, you could get yourself, and me for that matter, in a lot of trouble. Do you understand me?” He folded his hands, gaze trained on you. You nodded vigorously and eyed him down to get your point across. He continued,

 

“My real name is Tim. I know you heard what Brian said about the names, and he's right. We are both in a tight situation I can’t discuss. You may not call us by our real names; it's dangerous for both of us. I only told you my name so Hoodie wouldn’t be on the spot.


“You are not safe with these people, if you can even call them that. Not now, not ever. Every single one of us is infected in some way. Okay one minute, and delirious the next. Including me.

 

"I know what you're thinking. You want to go home. Honestly, I don't think that's going to be possible anymore. You've stumbled into something that you can't walk away from. Maybe it wasn't your choice. It sure as hell wasn't mine or Hoodie's." He laughed painfully. You flinched at the anguish in his voice. "Unfortunately, we are all in this. Like it or not, something beyond both of us has its sights set on you. You will either die, or live trying."

 

Hot tears rolled down your cheeks at his utterance. Masky had confirmed all your worst fears: you weren’t going to live to see your family again. A mix of anger and anguish clawed at your chest. You didn’t want to do this. You were just about to graduate, get a job, and settle down; you had your entire life mapped out before you. And now everything was ruined. This wasn’t fair! What in the world did you do to deserve this? Your sobs were as erratic as your heartbeat as Masky stared down at you.

 

"That's all I can tell you. You have to decide what to do next. You can either stay in that bed and wait, or leave. But know this," His grave tone caught your attention, "wherever you go... He is always watching."

 

With that, he left, leaving you to wallow in your own misfortune.

Chapter Text

You laid on the mattress for what felt like hours. Grief-stricken, all you could think about was your family. You missed them. You missed when you were a child, scared in the night by a bad dream. Your mother embracing you as you crawled into her bed. Your father reassuring you nothing could hurt you as long as he was around. Your brother snoring in the other room. You wished you would wake up in your parent’s bed, realize this was all a bad dream, and fall asleep in their arms like you used to. 

You wiped your cheeks. Basking in pity felt good, but it didn’t help your situation; you needed to do something productive. Looking to the window, you realized the sun still hadn’t risen. Your family wouldn’t wake for a good hour more. A sudden rush of adrenaline surged through you. If you hurried, you might be able to make it home before they roused.

The mattress whined as you stood and your wound twitched. You ignored the discomfort. Carefully, you moved toward the doorway and peered into the hall. Nothing stirred in the long, white corridors. It’s like no one was ever here. You thought, curling your fingers tighter on the threshold. You lingered a few heartbeats more, craning for the sound of footfalls, breathing - anything indicating of life. Silence met your ears. No one was coming. You slipped into the corridor.

You wandered the hallways blindly, accompanied only by the sounds of your footsteps and the pulse in your ears. The silence was unnerving. Whoever had been here had long since departed and there was no evidence of use in any of the rooms your visited. The corridors, too, held little diversity: mildew walls, artificial lighting, and winding tile paths. Each ingress you passed led you in circles. This building was massive. It was frustrating to say the least, and terrifying at most. 

When you finally reached the entrance, you nearly tripped over the steps leading to the outside. Steadying yourself, you glanced around. A band of forest stretched into the darkness, overgrown and entwined. You had never been this far in the woods before. Nothing struck you as familiar. That is, until you heard the rustling of grass. Your gaze snapped to the ground, and a dog-like figure emerged from under the stairs. He was a lot bigger than you last remembered. If your fear wasn’t warranted then, it was now.

By the light of the building, you could see his human-esque grin all too clearly. His dotted pupils mesmerized you as he spoke, “Get on my back. I’ll take you home.” 

You let out an embarrassing squeak, taken aback by its ability to speak. You blinked dumbly at him for a moment before shaking off your surprise. Talking dogs should be the least of your worries now. 

“How can I trust you?” You demanded. You fixed him with a less than convincing glare.

The dog let out an impatient growl. Trotting up the stairs, he nudged you onto the grass before scooping you onto his back. You opened your mouth to protest, but the black-and-white dog had already taken off. His speed was ungodly. Twigs and leaves and wind caught in your hair as he pelted through the woods. You buried your face in his scruff to avoid the worst of the underbrush.

Your heart couldn’t stop pounding. Each outcome of this choice ran through your mind. What if the dog hurt you? What if he took you someplace different? What if no one ever found you again? Masky had said they wouldn’t kill you, but he had said not to trust them either. You weren’t safe with them. But you were here anyway, riding on the back of a stray dog and trying not to get bugs in your teeth.

"Are you going to get off?" the dog spoke again. "We've been here for a while now."

You looked up. You were outside your front door. Embarrassment made your cheeks hot, and you rolled off his back. You ignored the twinge in your side as you bent over to get the house key. Your fingers twitched with anticipation when you lifted the welcome matt. Finally, you were home.

“Wait.” You froze and turned to the dog, cringing still at his strange smile.

You retorted, “What is it?”

“I was told to tell you one more thing.” He sat back on his haunches and raised his head to the dawn sky, working his jaw as he tried to remember. You stifled a sigh. “‘You may be home, but stay on your guard. We aren't finished with you.’” The dog stood, turned on his heel and padded up your driveway. You watched as he left, unsure whether or not to say goodbye. For a moment, he hesitated and faced you again, his white gaze unfaltering, “That was the message.”

With that, he dove into the forest. You made quick work of entering your house. You hadn’t realized the tension in your limbs until you breathed a sigh of relief, relaxing against the door.

You were fucking exhausted. Pulling away from the door, you rubbed your eyes with your palms, deciding what to do next. Your body ached for sleep, but you couldn’t sleep without seeing your family first. You had to make sure they were safe. You crept down the hall like you had done hours before and peered into the bedrooms. 

Your parents were fast asleep, ignorant of your night of turmoil. Their rhythmic breaths made you feel cathartic. You considered getting into the bed with them, but thought better of it. What if they saw your stitches and you had to explain everything that had happened? You weren’t ready for that, not yet. You needed more time. You moved from the room and to your brother’s. Surprisingly, he was awake.

Lowering his phone, he glanced at you, “Does Mom and Dad know you were gone all night?”

Alarm made your voice hitch, “How did you know?”

“I heard you opening your window and leaving, dumbass. You weren’t exactly quiet about it. Was that the first time you snuck out or something? I could teach you a thing or two if you want.”

“Please don’t tell them.” You sounded more desperate than you intended. Your brother laughed under his breath.

“Don’t worry, I’m not a tattle-tale like you.”

“Promise? You promise you won’t say anything?”

Your brother threw his phone onto the bed, rolling onto his side and pulling his covers to his chin. Closing his eyes, he replied, “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

You lingered by the door, flexing your fingers with uncertainty. Could you really trust him not to say anything? What would he gain from snitching anyway? You’d have to take his word for it either way.

“Hey, bro.” You murmured. Your brother hummed in response, but didn’t turn to you. “I love you. You know that, right?”

He didn’t respond for a moment, and you assumed he had already fallen asleep. You started to walk away when you heard him, “You’re fucking weird. Go back to bed.”

You couldn’t help but smile.

 ⊗

You knew you were dreaming the moment you opened your eyes. 

You looked down. Your hands were larger, and your arms hairier than usual. Your nails were calloused from years of hard labor. You were a man, an older man at that. Anxiously, you scribbled in a leather-bound journal, the yellow pages curled with age. The words were foreign to you. Still, they vibrated angrily, blurring and transforming as though just hovering above the paper. When you were finished, you placed your head in your hands and read what you had just wrote.

A German tongue met your ears, but somehow you understood:

“My child, my Lars... He is gone. Taken, from his bed. The only remnants a scrap of black cotton. Lars came into my bedroom yesterday, screaming at the top of his lungs, "The Angel is outside!” I asked him what he was on about. He told me a fairy story of a Der Großmann. He said he went into the groves by our village and found one of my cows dead, strung in the limbs of a tree. I supposed it had gotten stuck reaching for figs. But now, Lars is gone. We must find him, and my family must leave before the Angel returns. I am sorry my son... I should have listened. May God forgive me.”

You jolted awake. You didn’t need to pinch yourself to know you weren’t sleeping anymore. You wiped the tear stains from your cheeks, choking on the grief in your throat. The dream was already beginning to fade from your memory. Why were you crying?

Outside, the sky was overcast. Rain trickled down your window pane and a wind made the house groan. You could hear the clinking of dishes in the kitchen and the soft undertone of the television. You wondered what time it was. Your side was sore too. Sitting up, you wiped the sweat from your brow, and made your way to the kitchen.

The events of the night hit you like a train. You reeled to a stop just outside your door, gripping your dresser for some leverage. You were kidnapped. You had nearly died. You were in danger. Fear seeped into your stomach as you shuffled your feet. Could you be sure that wasn’t one of those people from last night? What if they were back like the dog had said?

Tentatively, you called out, “Mom, is that you?”

“Sweetie, are you up?” Your mom’s voice replied. Inching out of your room, you peered into the kitchen. She was looking at you from her place at the sink.

"Uh, yeah. What time is it?" you exhaled slowly, your muscles relaxing.

“It’s 5:00. I tried to wake you up, but you had a fever, so I let you sleep in. Your friend is going to bring you your homework so you don’t miss anything.”

“Really? That’s not like her. Normally she tells me to screw off and figure it out myself.” You laughed, entering the kitchen. You hugged her tightly, resting your face on her shoulder. Your mom fixed you with an odd look, but hugged you back anyway. You frowned at how awkward it felt. She pulled away first.

"I think you were having a nightmare. You were crying when I came to check on you. How are you feeling?" She placed the back of her hand on your forehead. 

“Oh,” Your mouth went dry as your grasped for words. You couldn’t tell her what happened yet. “I’m okay. Thanks for taking care of me.”

"Looks like your fever is gone. Why don't you take it easy today," your mother turned back around to finish up the dishes. "Go sit on the couch and I'll make you some soup."

"Where's everyone else?" you asked, fully intending to take her offer. You noticed her shoulders tense at your question.

"Your brother should be picking up some milk. Your father is mowing the lawn." Her laughter sounded strained. "Something about the yard being worse than a jungle or something."

That’s weird. Normally your brother was responsible for mowing the lawn. Not to mention, he didn’t have a car. How had he gotten to the store? Maybe his friend had given him a ride? Despite your reservations, you didn’t question it. After all, you had been asleep all day. You shrugged and retreated into the living room.

The news offered little entertainment, but there was nothing much on. You watched a segment of a few local stories. Something about animal adoptions and damage repairs. Rather than listening, you found yourself ruminating. You had to decide what to do now that you were home. You knew you had to go to the police, but what would you say? ‘I was kidnapped by a bunch of circus freaks until a talking dog brought me home, but told me I’m being stalked or something.’ Would they believe such a crazy story?

“... an update about that late night robbery we’ve been telling you about all morning. Police say it happened around 2:30 last night at the 7-Eleven in Hartford. An employee was… “

You stopped listening as coldness settled in your chest. That was the only nearby store in town. If a robbery had occurred, surely it would be closed? So where had your brother gone to get milk? In fact… You checked the time on the television. It was already 6 o’clock. He should have been home by now.

You turned off the television and listened. It was silent. There were no sounds of lawnmowers or soups being made. You couldn’t even hear the rain outside anymore. Slowly, you stood and crept toward the back door. You pulled the curtain just enough to peek out.

Nothing. No one was outside. You ran to the kitchen. 

No one.

Something was very wrong.

You decided to check the house, but another hour of searching yielded nothing. It was like everyone had disappeared. It wasn’t like your family to leave without saying goodbye to you. Your Dad always made a point of kissing you whenever he went, even if it was just down the road. For some reason, it reminded you of the hospital where you met those men, but you pushed the thought aside. You had to find your family now. Then, you would tell them everything and it would be alright again. You would do anything to not be alone.

You were in the attic when you heard a crashing sound from downstairs, like glass shattering. Had someone dropped a dish on the floor? Maybe your brother had come home? You sprinted into the kitchen.

Nothing.

A scream of frustration tore your throat and you pulled your hair until the follicles screamed back. What was happening? Where was your family? Were your parents even there to begin with? Your brother? They were there last night. You couldn’t have imagined that, could you? Your head was pounding. Your blood was boiling. God you felt sick. You couldn't keep it down. You vomited in the sink.

You were wiping at the tears in your eyes when you heard it. A soft knock on the back door. You snapped your head to the sound, darting to the door. It had to be them this time. Please let it be them. 

You froze when you saw her.

It was Clockwork. She was pointing at something, mouthing words through the window. At first, you thought she was gesturing to you. Then, you realized her gaze was focused on something behind you. When she met your round eyes, her grin widen, the stitches on her cheeks wrinkling.

A chill ran down your spine as you regarded her. You didn't want to comply with her direction. You didn't want what little normalcy you had gained to vanish. You felt your eyes watering again as you knew you had to face what was coming. Something inside of you knew once you turned around, nothing could be the same. If anything, you knew what you had to do now.

You faced what was behind you.

Chapter Text

        Jane lunged at you. You jumped out of the way, fumbling over shoes and hanging coats. You picked up one of your mom’s heels and flung it in her direction, praying it would slow her down. Throwing your head over your shoulder, you saw her dodge the article before turning her sights on you.

        A scream.

        The two of you turned to the window. Clockwork was grappling with a black figure in the yard, snarling and snapping. Blood splattered onto the ground, and you felt your breath catch in your throat. Jane scoffed, her brows turning at the fight outside. She locked eyes with you.

        You scrambled to the kitchen, but the pale woman was faster. You gasped when she knocked you to the ground. You fell hard on your stomach, but before you could roll over, her heel was crushing your spine. Your stitches ached in protest. A loud crash rattled the house outside.

        "I should kill you for that stunt, but I have my sights on something bigger." She rasped, pressing harder on your back. You tried not to whimper at the pain it caused. "If you come with us quietly, we will explain everything."

        A million thoughts ran through your head at her words. Everything? Would she tell you everything? You weren’t sure if you could trust her even if she did. You opened your mouth, but your reply was interrupted by the back door slamming open.

        Tilting your head back, you caught sight of the black figure in the threshold, the doorknob dangling from its fist. Its clothes and blue mask dripped with blood and black ooze. Its round, black eyes stared directly at you. You didn’t dare call it human.

        It took the creature only a matter of seconds to rip Jane off you and push you out of the way. You scrambled as far away as you could, incredulity making your mind race. When you were out of arm's reach, the creature squared off with the woman. Smirking, she brandished a large kitchen knife.

        You glanced toward the door. If you run, could you escape fast enough? You soon realized it didn’t matter. Clockwork was blocking the exit.

        Your heart pounded, your brain demanded you to run. The blood coursing in your ears was deafening. Deep down, you felt the primal flicker of something telling you to fight back. It was a strange sensation, but still, your feet were frozen.

        "Don't move," a deep, commanding voice sounded. You looked up at the creature. He was unsheathing two large, modified scalpels from the holster on his thighs. "This will only take a moment."

        You couldn’t move even if you wanted to.

        Out of the corner of your eye, you saw Clockwork begin to sprint toward the creature. He ignored the woman as he rushed at Jane. She poised her knife, and for a moment, you thought she would strike the beast first. But he crouched low, avoiding her aim, and sliced open her stomach. You screamed when blood and guts pooled to the floor.

        Jane inhaled sharply, using her free arm to cradle the wound. You were sure she wouldn’t survive a hit like that. No one could. She glared up at the creature, hatred burning in her black eyes. In a heartbeat, she gripped her knife tighter and swung at him again, howling in rage.

        The creature scraped the scalpels and used her momentum against her. In a fluid motion, he seized her wrist and throat, throwing her at Clockwork. The woman barely had time to realize the body hurtling toward her. They both went tumbling into the living room, a heap of limbs and blood.

        You gasped when you felt yourself lifted into the air. The creature hoisted you over his shoulder and bolted to the door. Fear flared in your stomach.

        “Let me go!” You shrieked, pounding his back with your fists. It only served to tighten his grip on you. Whether the creature ignored your assault or didn’t care, you weren’t sure. He dove into the undergrowth.

        You noticed a glint in the corner of your eye. Turning your gaze, you caught sight of the scalpel bouncing precariously in the creature’s holster. You hadn’t seen him retrieve them from the house, but it didn’t matter to you. If you could reach it from here, then you could use it. Stretching, you grabbed blindly at the blade.

        When it sliced your palm, you clenched your fist around it. Ignoring the stream of blood dribbling from between your fingers, you pulled it from the holster. You flipped it over in your hands until the edge pointed downward. Then, you raised your arm and thrust the scalpel into his lower back.

        The creature yelped and threw you to the ground; you fell in a pile of leaf litter and mud. You cried in pain, and when you looked down, you saw red spilling onto your shirt. You pushed yourself up with your arms and looked back at the creature. He had ripped the scalpel from his back, the edge dripping with black blood. Your heart dropped when he looked back at you.

        In a heartbeat, he crouched, a low growl emitting from his throat. He reached for his mask and wrenched his from his face. Where you had expected eyes, two gaping holes secreted the same black tar-substance onto his gray skin. The creature bared his teeth, his maw rows of serrated canines stained brown. You watched as he began circling you, and only now did you notice how sharp his claws were. You tried to scramble away, but your hands slipped on the muddy ground.

        The creature bunched his muscles and pounced. You let out a strangled cry, flailing your arms to guard yourself, but he knocked your hands away quickly. His claws tore open your shirt, exposing your heaving stomach, and he pinned your wrists down. You kneed his back as hard as you could, but he was stronger than you imagined. The creature bent down to your midsection, a triumphant smile crossing his face. The tar dribbled onto your skin.

        His fascination with your stomach made him relent his grip some. Your gaze darted around, searching for something to defend yourself. Something silver shone in the mud. The other scalpel! It must have fallen in the struggle. If you could reach it in time…

        Taking a breath, you tore your wrist from his hands. You seized the scalpel and, steeling yourself, you sliced wildly at his face. The blade grazed his nose. The creature let out a sound of surprise, leaping off you and into the underbrush.

        You jumped to your feet. You held the scalpel in front of you, your body trembling and your breath coming in rapid gulps. Mud, sweat, and blood seeped your clothes, leaves tangled in your hair. You strained to hear the forest around you, to find the creature that had attacked you. Bird song met your ears, but nothing more.

        Suddenly, you heard a voice say your name. You whipped around. The creature stood a few feet behind you, his mask returned to his face and his arms in the air. He looked as though he were surrendering.

        You watched him warily as he spoke, "I didn’t mean to do that. I’m sorry.”

        “Just what the hell are you?!” Fear made you angry. Your legs were no longer shaking.

        “My name is - “

        A flash of orange and the creature was on the ground. Your eyes widened when you saw the boy on top of him: younger, with brown hair and a striped gray sweatshirt, a pair of orange goggles perched on his head. You frowned at his vacant expression.

        "Toby, restrain him!" A familiar voice called. You turned to see Masky at your side. Hoodie came up beside you, leaning over to look at your bloodstained shirt. He lifted the hem and shook his head at the open wound.

        You pushed the man away and pocketed the scalpel. You indicated to the boy and creature, “Who are they?”

        “Let me go.” The creature spat, scowling. “I’m in control.”

        “How can we be sure?” Hoodie retorted. Masky flashed him a confused glance. Even the boy appeared puzzled for a moment before shaking the look.

        "If I weren't, I would have torn your new Brother Proxy to shreds by now." He grumbled. "We also wouldn't be having this conversation." If he had eyes, he would have been rolling them, you were sure.

        “Let him go.” You snapped. You weren’t sure where your sudden brazenness had come from, but you weren’t about to back down now. The others too were taken-aback. Masky and Hoodie exchanged a brief look, shifting as though uncertain.

        "Go ahead, Toby." Masky finally ordered. Toby relented his grip but didn't move from his position; his stance was stiff, robotic.

        The creature got to his feet, rolling his shoulders, "Thank you.” He extended his arm, and for a moment, he appeared almost human, “Eyeless Jack.”

        "I didn't say it out of the goodness of my heart." You glared back, crossing your arms. After what he did, you weren’t ready to let your guard down yet, even if it was just a handshake. Instead, you demanded, “Now would anyone care to tell me what the fuck is going on?”

        Before you could hear a reply, a deafening squealing noise split the air. Your eardrums pulsated painfully, and it was all you could do from clawing your ears off. Blackness lined your vision, blinding you from the world around you. It was then you realized how violently ill you felt. You fell over, squeezing your head in the grime.

        "Save your questions." A voice murmured, drowned out by the chaos. The void overtook you.

        The blackness melted away.

        You were the man again. You stood in front of a woman, her light eyes bloodshot and teary. Sprawled in a chair, her brown dress draping, she wept in German. When the man lumbered away, you lingered, watching the two from afar. The man held the woman, murmuring in her ear. She must have been the man's wife.

        Slowly, you began to make sense of what the woman was saying, "...Lars tell us? Why didn't he tell us? Why didn't my baby tell me?" she cried.

        "Ida, don't cry. We'll find a way. I'll get our boy back." The man brushed her hair aside, trying to catch her gaze.

        "Leudagar," Ida averted his eyes, heavy droplets hanging from her lashes, “why didn't our baby tell us he went into Scharzwald?" She covered her face with her hands, guilt making her arms limp. "If he had told us he went into the Black Forest, he wouldn't have been taken!"

        Leudagar pulled her close, tight, "I'll get him back." The man kissed his wife's forehead and left to his study. His journal waited on a small wooden desk.

        He wrote furiously:

        "There have been rumors around the village. I have heard of a creature that deals in miracles, known as 'Huldra.' I am told I must not dance with the beast in woman's form. I will know it is Huldra by the cow's tail the woman hides. Tomorrow I shall venture into Schwarzwald and find a Witch Ring near the brook. Once the deal has been struck, I will have my son back. My dear Ida will shed no more tears."

        “Wake up!” A voice shouted in your ear. Your eyes shot open, your heart pounding. Hovering a few inches from your face was Jeff. His smile widened as he chuckled, “G’morning, Sleeping Beauty.”

        Furrowing your brow, you pushed him away from you and sat up. When you look around, you found yourself in a bedroom, but not your own. It was cramped and musty. A faint copper stench hung in the air and you crinkled your nose at the smell. Gray paint peeled from the walls, the boarded window spilling bars of dust and light onto a stained carpet, and on one of the walls, you noticed a child-like scribble of a smiley face. The talking dog laid at the foot of the bed.

        "We always seem to meet like this." Jeff stole your attention again, twirling his knife in his hands. "You’re usually falling asleep, or just waking up."

        You ignored his mutterings. Your throat felt parched, "Where am I?" The dog awoke to the sounds of your rasping.

        "Jeff, she's going to need some water." He spoke. "She'll croak if she gets dehydrated." The dog walked over to the bedside and sat down to sniff you.

        "I wonder what that would look like?" Jeff leaned over you again. You pulled away, blinking in shock.

        "You know the boss wouldn't like that." The dog turned his sights to Jeff.

        Jeff grumbled and walked out of the room, throwing his knife to the floor in irritation, "You always have a stick up your ass..."

        The dog looked to you again, "My name is Smile Dog. You can call me Smile."

        You cleared your throat, somehow growing accustomed to these weird interactions. "Where am I, Smile? What happened to those other people?"

        "You are in our apartment. It's one of the many hideouts here in your realm. We have been tasked to keep you here for a couple of days," he answered.

        "Why?" You felt a prickle of annoyance at his calm demeanor.

        "To throw Clockwork and Jane off your trail." He sighed, jumping on the bed to face you more directly. "We had believed your house was perfectly safe but kept Jack stationed outside just in case anything happened. As you know, your house was infiltrated, and your family has gone missing. It is no longer safe to leave you on your own."

        He said this so casually as if there was nothing unusual about being kidnapped and stalked. It was unnerving. You jolted when a particular thought occurred to you: "Then why was my mom there?" You inhaled a little too sharply for your liking.

        "Jane has an ability which allows her to take the form of anyone she's seen, whether it's in a picture or real life. Your mother was never there. Simply observing your mother's natural habits and mannerisms would be enough to imitate her." Smile laid back down and said nothing more. You mulled over this for some time. Part of you understood it completely; how strange your interaction had been with her, how unnatural it had felt. It made sense. However, another part of you could feel your heartbreak. You swallowed the lump in your throat.

        "How do I know that you two aren't her?" You eyed the dog.

        He lifted his snout, "She cannot take on animal form," he paused, "and those with a heightened sense of smell, like Jack and myself, can tell the difference."

        You opened your mouth to continue, but before you could ask another question, Jeff entered the room with a glass of water. You took it from him eagerly and gulped the liquid down.

        "I didn't wash the glass." He put his hands on his hips, looking proud of himself, but quickly turned around toward the closet as if his mind switched gears. "As much as I want to play with you, I should tell the boss you're up." He opened the sliding closet door to reveal a peculiar looking symbol: a circle with a saltire in its center. It was drawn out of white chalk, almost large enough to cover the entire back wall.

        "On second thought, you do it, Smile. It would probably be best if I watch the pipsqueak." He grinned at you.

        "I was going to say something but decided to let you come to the smarter conclusion on your own. You never disappoint, Jeff." Smile Dog jumped off the bed and trotted directly up to the symbol, walking through the wall as if it were an illusion.

        "What's wrong? Never seen a portal before?" Jeff laughed. You realized your mouth had been hanging open. You cringed, realizing that everything you had known was breaking apart like the splintered glass in your hand.

Chapter Text

        You placed the glass on the carpet. Breathing a sigh, you eyed up Jeff. You weren’t sure how long you would be alone with him, but you knew you couldn’t wait for Smile to come back. The man stared back at you, unblinking and bloodshot. In some ways, he reminded you of those rabid animals you’d see in online videos. His unpredictability made you uneasy. You felt your heart beat faster and you shifted on the bed.

        “Where, uh… does the, uh, portal, lead?” You started. You tried to keep your voice even; if he knew you were nervous, well, you didn’t want to think about it.

        He snickered again, slowly taking a step closer to you, “Oh here and there, you know: portal places!” He was in your face now, giggling. You scooted back, alarm stiffening your shoulders.

        “Can you not be in my face?” You muttered back. He reeled back, annoyance turning his brow.

        “Humans are so touchy!” Jeff exclaimed. He started pacing, and you watched warily. “I just wanted to watch you. That is my job after all! If I can’t kill you, what else am I supposed to do? It’s so boring babysitting! And look at you! You sit there like some kind of floppy water balloon! I just want to throw you against the wall!”

        He suddenly rushed up to you, in your face again with his knife to your throat. You stiffened up, barely daring to make a sound. His eyes gleamed as he traced the blade along your skin, “I want to pop you.”

        You felt the knife cut you slightly, a stinging sensation burning your nerves. You didn’t move as you watched Jeff’s eyes look to the blood on your neck, droplets running toward your chest. He licked his scarred lips. Suddenly, rage boiled in your stomach. You weren’t a balloon to pop or play with, and you were sick of being treated like one. You gave the man a hard look. Steadily, you pushed the knife away with the tips of your fingers, “Seriously?”

        He staggered a moment, and you wondered if anyone had dismissed him so easily before. Still, you refused to back down. Softness wasn’t an option anymore if you wanted to keep your blood where it belonged. Jeff moved away, resolving, at last, to sit on the bed. He placed his head in his hands, his knife dangerously close to his face. You could only guess he was struggling to pull himself together again.

        You worked your jaw, deciding what to do next to distract him. Also, to some length, yourself.

        “You know,” you said, reaching for the blade. Jeff’s stare snapped to you, and you eased your hand. When you finally grabbed the handle, he let you take it, and you placed it on the ground beside your glass. One last thing you had to worry over. “We could always do something else.”

        His eyes spark with a devious shine, “Like what?”

        It took you a moment to realize what he was suggesting.

        “No, not that.” You roll your eyes. “I mean, we could… I don’t know, play cards or something. You did say I’d be here for a while.”

        He nodded and stood up, heading out of the room. A heartbeat later, he returned with a pack of cards. You were surprised.

        “We should build a card castle!” You exclaimed. You remembered back when you and your brother would stack the cards in that familiar triangular pattern. It pulled at your heart for only a moment.

        Both of you settled on the floor and sprawled the cards around you. Carefully, each of you picked a card and secured a paper foundation. You had only finished the first layer, however, when the closet portal rippled. Smile emerged from the other side, another boy trailing behind him. You recognized Toby’s orange goggles from the forest; he held a brown paper bag.

        “Hey, you got him to sit still,” Smile mused, “and you’re not dead. That’s good.”

        You only shrugged, knocking over the pathetic castle with a prod. You gathered the cards together as Jeff spoke, “Why is the newbie here?” You were taken aback by the tenseness in his voice. You glanced at him and noticed his posture grow rigid.

        The boy suddenly jolted, nearly dropping the bag, and you gasped at the popping sound his neck made. You looked to Smile and Jeff for an explanation, but their focus remained on Toby.

        “I was sssss-se-se-… I was ordered to ha-elp her.” He replied, offering you the bag. You took them without a word. Peeking into it, you noticed one of your old tops and a pair of pants.

        Smile added, “EJ sent was back with medical gear too.” He picked a spot beside the closet doors and laid down, “You should probably take a shower before we start though. Your wounds smell infected.”

        You didn’t expect to be able to shower. Jeff rammed his finger in the direction of the bathroom and you left, bag in tow. You wondered what about Toby made him so angry. Did he not trust him?

        You locked the door when you got to the bathroom. A moment to breath away from all of them was a lot more relieving than you realized. Now that you were alone, you almost felt relaxed. You had gotten used to so much of this shit; it was surreal. Discarding your clothes, you looked at yourself in the mirror.

        You were surprised to see your side stitched up again with new white thread. Hoodie must have replaced them while you were unconscious. You remembered how painful it had been when the wound reopened and shivered. Bruises riddled your body, and bright red cuts glared back at you. You peeled the dried blood from your throat and let it fall to the floor.

        The quiet made you think about your family. You paused, looking down at the scab, ice shooting up your spine. Where were they now? Were they safe? Were they missing you as much as you missed them? You couldn’t bear to think about what could be happening to them now. A part of you hated these people for doing this to your family. Another part was beginning to understand. You sent a silent prayer to whoever was listening and stepped into the shower.

        Your shower went undisturbed. The water irritated your side, and your cuts were still quite tender. Your hair had been the most difficult, tangled with grim and blood. You had to wash it a few times over before it felt acceptable. When you looked at yourself in the mirror again, a smile inched your face. You dressed in your new clothes.

        As you pulled your socks on, the doorknob began to shake. You cried in alarm when the door suddenly burst open. Toby glanced around frightfully before locking eyes with you. You jumped to your feet.

        “What the hell were you thinking? What if I was naked?” You yelped. For a moment you wondered if he’d even care.

        “Sorry!” He retreated from the bathroom, and you followed after him, you face contorted in anger. He stopped short in the bedroom. “You www-ere in the-there a while. I got-I-I gah - I was worried.”

        “Worried about what, Toby-boy?” Jeff walked over, slinging an arm over his shoulders with a sly smirk. “Worried she got hurt? Do you love her now, Proxy?”

        Toby snapped his head to Jeff, eyes glinting, “I was worried she was trying to escape.” A shiver went down your spine at his tone.

        “Silly boy!” Jeff laughed a little too loudly, “We’re on the fifth floor!”

        “Oh…” The boy muttered.

        Jeff removed his arm from Toby’s shoulder and turned his attention to you. Taking a single stride toward you, he leaned a few inches from your face. You didn’t think you could ever get used to being so close to him. He lifted his arm, and you stood very still, keeping your eyes trained on his. He gently placed his hand atop your head, threading his fingers through your hair and sliding his hand to the nape of your neck.

        “Let’s look to those wounds, pumpkin.” He murmured. You saw Toby clutch the handles of his hatchets.

        “Watch yourself, Jeff.” Smile hummed in amusement, glancing at the boy.

        Jeff rolled his eyes at the young Proxy. Releasing your neck, he took your hand and led you to the bed, “Take it easy, Tick-Tock. I was looking at the cut on her neck.”

        You mean the one you caused? You frowned.

        “Forget it,” You said, “Let’s just get this over with.”

        You settled on the bed. Jeff retrieved a bowl from a weathered dresser and emptied its contents on the sheets: medical supplies. He picked a rag and a glass bottle and poured some of the clear liquid into the cloth; the pungent smell told you it was hydrogen peroxide. Jeff instructed you to look up, and you complied. He dabbed the cut on your neck with the rag.

        “So, Toby,” You started, looking at the boy. He perked up at the sound of his name, “when did you start doing… all of this?”

        His gaze flickered between you and Jeff, “Wh-what do you- do you mean?”

        Jeff had moved to your side when he replied. He pressed the rag hard against your stitches, and you let out a hiss, “A Proxy, Toby. She’s asking when you became a Proxy.”

        “A couple of days ago!” He declared. He sounded proud. “He told me t-t-to be your ally.”

        Ally? The word made you feel comforted, though you weren’t sure why. You gave the boy a small smile. He blinked back at you. Your attention quickly redirected when Jeff pushed you to lean over more. Your stitches strained uncomfortably, and you winced. When he finished, he wrapped the wound with gauze and a bandage. He stood up suddenly.

        “I’m going out.” He seized his knife and headed for the door, turning back only to order, “Smile, watch them.”

        He slammed the door behind him, and dust fell from the ceiling. Your brows furrowed in confusion. Toby took his place on the bed beside you but said nothing.

        “Don’t mind him,” Smile yawned, “He doesn’t like competition.”

        You opened your mouth to question him, but Toby pushed a glass into your face, water droplets splashing onto your shirt, “I got this for you while you were in the shower. You must be thirsty.”

        No, you weren't. Not really. But you supposed drinking something couldn’t hurt. You took the glass and gulped a good portion of it down. In the corner of your eye, you noticed the satisfied look he gave you. You brushed it off. He was your ally after all. His helping you must make him happy or something.

        The drink did taste weird though.

        Why are you so tired all of a sudden? You tried to blink the sleep from your eyes, but you could already feel yourself drifting off. Your mind was so heavy.

        “You should rest,” Toby said after a few moments, forcing you to lay down. You didn’t want to sleep though!

        “Why am I… so tired?” You struggled to say. “Did you do… something… to me?”

        A pang of betrayal shot through you before you succumbed to sleep.

        Whatever Toby had done to you put you under instantly.

        A forest surrounded you. Black, spindly trees towered over you. The grass was gray with death. The sky overhead rolled with heavy clouds, and little light shone through the wood. An eerie feeling settled in your chest. Schwarzwald, you thought. The Black Forest.

        You saw Leudagar in between the limbs of the trees. You hurried to join him.

        He had been here a long time, though you didn’t understand how you knew. Hunger stabbed at his stomach and exhaustion fogged his head. He often feared he was lost. Still, he pressed on. Love had driven him this far, and he had decided long ago he couldn’t stop. He would find his son even if it killed him. It was the only way.

        He would find Huldra, and he would make Ida happy again.

        The man halted beside a boulder, taking a breath. He closed his eyes, and you envisioned his wife laying curled on their bed, mourning their dear Lars. No amount of comfort could get through to her, and he often resolved to stay in his study. She needed time. You felt a deep sadness for the woman.

        Leudagar opened his eyes, and both of you gasped in awe at what you saw. The forest had suddenly changed. The monochromatic palette you had grown accustomed to melted away, replaced with wild, beautiful color. The trees, heavy with leaves, rustled in a warm breeze. A stream mooned along a path laden with flowers and honey bees. Sweetness hung in the air. The skies were blue. In the distance, you could hear a maiden’s song.

        The man got to his feet. This is what he had been seeking!

        He followed the flower path to the song. It wasn’t long until he found himself in a clearing. You caught sight of the maiden beside the stream at the same time. You blushed. She was beautiful - the most beautiful woman Leudagar had ever seen. Honey-colored hair fell along her ivory skin, alive and shimmering. When she turned to beckon him, her eyes were pools of ocean blue.

        “Come, Leudagar.” She coaxed, standing on lithe, delicate legs. The man swallowed at her naked form, and obeyed, infatuation mesmerizing him. You reached out to hold him back, but your hand ghosted his shoulder.

        “Leudagar, stop! It’s a trick!” You cried, rushing after him. You tried to stand between him and the woman, but to no avail. You weren’t there after all. You couldn’t stop this.

        When he approached her, her hands wandered his chest, gentle and soft. She fluttered her lashes, murmuring, “Dance with me.”

        You thought fast, looking for something, anything to save the man. If he danced with her, he would fail. He would never find his son or return to Ida. Something in you refused to let that happen.

        Suddenly, you caught sight of it. A cow’s tail flicked to and fro behind the woman’s body. Gathering as much strength as you could, you screamed,

        “Huldra!”

Chapter Text

        Your scream ripped through the shroud.

        The world trembled. Leudagar seemed to have finally heard you, and he cast a glare in your direction, but your attention focused on the woman. She locked eyes with you, her face contorted in a strange smile. Something about the way she looked at you made your blood run cold as she saw right through you. Like she was privileged with the secrets you had yet to gain. Around you, the dream was beginning to shatter and melt like plummeting icicles. The forest was collapsing, folding in on itself and falling away in an earthquake of chaos and tree roots.

        You held your hands over your eyes, crying out, “It’s just a dream! You’re only dreaming! Wake up!”

        You felt a weight on your shoulder and looked up, your eyes red with tears. Huldra’s long fingers grazed yours, taking hold of your hands and guiding them to your side. You whimpered despite yourself, unable to resist her touch in your fear. It scared you how easily she moved, how steady her gaze rested on yours, as though she had done this a million times over. You watched as her eyes moved from your hands to your neck.

        Huldra seized your throat in an instant. Breathless, you clawed at her hands, trying to rip them free. Her grip tightened, pressing hard, harder, into your skin. She threw her head back and cackled, the sound echoing harsh through the breaking dream, and you heaved for air. Your lungs burned, and you found yourself wondering if you were going to die. When she looked back at you, her eyes had melted into a thick blackness.

        Suddenly, the world froze. Trees hung in the air, midfall, and the trembling ceased. Huldra’s fingers remained on your larynx, but for a moment, you could breathe again. Silence befell your ears, save for your loud panting. After a few heartbeats, the woman opened her mouth once more:

        “Stop! Let go of him! Snap out of it!”

        That wasn’t her voice.

        Something is wrong.

        You opened your eyes. Immediately, you were thrown back, four arms wrapping around your shoulders with painful strength. You cried out in alarm, trying to break free. Sleep fogged your mind. At first, you feared Jane and Clockwork had found you. Had they overpowered Toby and Smile? Were they going to take you? You couldn’t let them kidnap you again! You struggled against their grip.

        “Let go of me!” Your throat was raw. You heard a dog barking.

        A familiar voice yelled back at you, “Calm the fuck down, kid!”

        Jeff?

        You paused and looked back. Toby and Jeff held onto you and you were surprised by the unease in their eyes. Their gaze flickered from you to something in front of you. Slowly, your flailing faded, only to be replaced by confusion. You had never seen them so nervous around you before. What had warranted them to restrain you? You swiveled your head forward.

        Masky leaned over Hoodie. Smile nudged his arm with his snout, shuffling his paws much like a nervous house dog. The hooded man coughed on the ground, as though gasping for air. You noticed how lose the fabric around his face looked; something had been stretching it. You could almost make out his eyes through the thin black veil. Masky held out a hand for him, but the man swatted him away. You watched as he staggered to his feet, pointedly avoiding your stare.

        “I’m fine.” The man muttered.

        It suddenly dawned on you.

        “Did… Did I do that?”

        You had been choking him, just like Huldra had done to you. Except, it had taken two men to drag you off Hoodie and only once you had opened your eyes. Had you been that strong? Would you have killed Hoodie if you hadn’t woken up? The thought made bile rise to your throat.

        Hearing your voice, you felt Jeff and Toby’s arms fall away. Toby cursed violently, twitching as he did. Jeff glanced at you from the corner of his eye, saying “Dude, I thought you were going to be the pipsqueak’s first.” He laughed, but it sounded hollow.

        “What were you dreaming of?” Masky demanded. You began to reply, but Hoodie stepped forward. He whispered something in his partner’s ear. Masky’s eyes widened under the holes in his mask at his words. In the corner of your eye, you saw Toby jolt and Jeff shake his head. Smile growled. Had they heard what Hoodie said? You couldn’t imagine how. A graveness fell upon the room you didn’t understand. Confusion ebbed at your mind, soon turning to frustration.

        Unfortunately, you had little time to dwell on your dream, or why everyone seemed unnerved by it.

        “We need t-t-to go.” Toby nudged you. The cheerfulness in his voice was near distressing. “We can’t st-st-sta-stah- we can’t stay.”

        You remembered how he had drugged you and frowned at his touch. You weren’t sure if he noticed your anger.

        “Masky and I were sent to escort you someplace safe.” Hoodie said. “Jeff, Toby, and Smile will remain here.”

        “Clockwork is on her way here. After we step through the portal, you know what to do.” Masky added, nodding toward Toby.

        “Understood.” Toby nodded back.

        “Wait!” You shouted. You could barely make sense of any of the thoughts in your head, much less the proxies’ rapid-fire orders. You needed a moment, just one, to get an answer. You grappled with your questions before settling on one, “Why does my dream matter?”

        Hoodie sighed, “We don’t have time for this.”

        He began dragging you to the portal closet. You dug your heels into the carpet. Defiance had never been in your nature, but you were sick of their ambiguity. You weren’t surprised they dismissed your question. Still, you’d be damned if you didn’t retaliate somehow.

        Masky pushed against your back to get you moving. When he realized your unwillingness to leave, he hissed in your ear, “If you cooperate now, you will get your answers soon. Now get moving.”

        Begrudgingly, you picked up your feet.

        “Goodbye, princess! We’ll play again soon!” Jeff shouted, waving his arm. Toby joined in, “You’ll s-see us, again!”

        You could have sworn you saw a sadness in their eyes.

        When you fell into the portal, you instantly felt queasy. Your head spun, and you were blinded by the sudden twists of what you could only imagine as time and space itself — coldness bit at your skin like the wind from a winter storm. You tried to hold your breath, but the wind forced the air out of your lungs. It was almost painful. You clung to Hoodie and Masky for dear life.

        Seconds felt like hours. You collapsed on your hands and knees on the other side. The sickness you had felt hit you tenfold and you dry-heaved until bile burned your throat, your side screaming in pain. You realized then nothing would come up; you hadn’t eaten in a few days. The world continued to blur around you, only intensifying your dizzy nausea. You tried to stand, but stumbled back when your vision shifted. You never wanted to go through another portal as long as you lived.

        A hand patted your back awkwardly. Masky’s voice reached your ears, “You’ll get used to it.”

        Like hell you would. If it were within your power, you’d slap the shit out of him.

        When you managed to stand, you looked around. A band of forest surrounded you and night had descended in a thick murk. You glanced behind you and caught sight of the portal symbol. As you stared, you realized it was being whipped away. There was no going back now.

        “Do you think the others will be okay?” You murmured, turning your gaze to Masky. He shrugged his shoulders. A twinge of despondency shot through you.

        “It’s just up ahead.” Hoodie paced ahead followed by Masky. You fully intended on joining the two proxies, but when you took a step forward, the world stepped backward. You groaned and tried to catch yourself before you fell on your ass.

        An arm caught you midfall, and you stiffened. It didn’t feel right being held by yet another stranger. You blinked rapidly, trying to refocus your vision to look at the person behind you.

        “You’re in bad shape, I can hear your stomach growling,” a familiar voice whispered, throwing one of your arms around his neck. He easily lifted you to your feet when he stood. You squinted at him and recognized Jack’s blue mask just inches from your nose. Remembering your last encounter, you cringed away.

        “Put me down.” Your voice gave away your discomfort.

        Masky and Hoodie jolted around upon hearing you. The masked man strode forward, his tone firm and displeased, “What are you doing here, Jack?”

        "I’ve been keeping tabs on Jane. She’s in the area. Thought you could use back up.” His voice was short, clipped like he couldn’t afford to miss a beat. He paused. “When’s the last time she ate?”

        “Three days ago, I think.” You interrupted. You spoke through clenched teeth, trying to keep your frustration at bay. “Please stop talking to each other like I’m not here. Now put me down.”

        Jack put you down. He paused before starting, “It would be faster for one of us to carry you. We have a ways to go to the next shelter, and you are in no condition to run.”

        You weren’t too keen on this idea, but Masky added, almost shyly, “One of… us can carry you…”

        The man’s awkwardness, along with Hoodie’s chortle, only intensified your self-consciousness. For a moment, you felt like a normal girl again. You pushed the thought aside and considered the men in front of you. All of them seemed more than capable of lifting you, so it was only a matter of who you trusted the most. Who did you trust the most? If you were honest, you weren't sure of any of them.

        You glanced at Masky. He had acted immaturely at the prospect of carrying you, but in the end, it made him feel that much more human. Plus, he had been the most sympathetic toward you from the beginning. His kindness put you at ease. You sighed and approached him without a word. He averted his gaze as you climbed onto his back. You tried not to feel anything at him gripping your thighs.

        The men ran faster than you expected, faster than you could have sprinted even if you were well. The wind whipped in your eyes and you squinted, torn between trying to look where you were going and trying to swallow your vomit. The situation was reminiscent of the first time you rode on Smile’s back. Instead of fur, you clung to the smooth fabric of Masky’s jacket.

        A few heartbeats later, you reached your destination: nestled deep in a pine grove was an overgrown shack. Lichen curtains from its windows and mildew grew along the siding. The wood looked rotten and worn, barely gripping its foundation. A single white doll swung from the roof by a string. Masky set you down, allowing you to hold his arm until you gathered yourself again. You appreciated the gesture.

        Suddenly, the man grabbed your shoulder and turned you around to face him. He put his finger to the black lips of his mask, urging you to be silent. When you nodded, he motioned you to crawl under one of the pine limbs. You obeyed, flaring your nostrils at the pungent scent. Once you were hidden, the men fanned out. You watched from beneath the needle screen as they investigated the perimeter. You could only assume they were looking for signs of Jane.

        Moments later, you heard a rasping cry. Your head snapped to the shack, and you tried your best to see what was going on. A sickening cracking sound soon followed and something being dragged through the autumn leaves. A chill ran up your spine. You knew something terrible had just happened, and uncertainty made your imagination run wild. You craned your neck through the draping branches for a better view.

        Your stomach dropped at the sight of Jack dragging a lifeless body through the mud. Hoodie trailed after him, holding what looked to be a firebrick. Moonlight shone on the wetness dripping from the block. Soon, the two disappeared into the forest, and you felt a whirlwind of emotions deep inside you. Taking a breath, you tried to settle on one: Anger.

        Yes, you were angry, infuriated even, by the happenstances that had brought you to this moment. It wasn’t fair what happened to you. You didn’t know why it had happened in the first place. Why had you taken from your home, forced to leave your life behind, and flee from monsters in the night? Why were these same people helping you, yet, at the same time, not at all? As far as you were concerned, you should have been dead by now. At least then you wouldn’t have to fear for your family and what they could be suffering now - because of you.

        Masky grabbed your hand and pulled you from the tree. His voice was strangely monotone as he brushed the needles from your hair, “We didn’t want you to see that, but I’m sure you’ve put two and two together by now. I’m sorry.”

        You followed closely when he retreated to the shack. For some reason, you felt you needed to say something to reassure him. You knew you should hate them for the situation you were in, but you couldn’t bring yourself to anymore. In fact, despite your qualms, you felt a sense of loyalty to them. They were criminals, sure, but they had also saved you. They had rescued you from the prison. They had protected you and healed you from the beginning. They cared for you for whatever reason.

        Again, you were torn between emotions you thought you should feel, and ones all too real. You walked into the shelter before Masky.

        You grimaced at the inside of the shack. The place was small, endowed with only two, weather-beaten rooms and missing doors. The roof curved inward, plywood swung from the walls, and the floors wrecked with holes. You inched into the side room and saw a yellowed mattress huddled in the corner, mold creeping from its underside. Water bottles and refuse littered the ground beside the bed. From the looks of it, the shack seemed more of another hideout than a home. Masky came up beside you.

        "There's not much,” He removed his jacket and laid it on the mattress. He indicated for you to sit on it, “but the water is fresh. It’s Hoodie’s secret stash. He must have put it out while he was checking the place. He has a lot of hiding places in case we get squatters.”

        You frowned at that last part but said nothing. When you sat, he settled beside you and handed you a bottle before taking one for himself. You watched as he moved his mask aside and drank some. Then, tossed your head back and took three mighty gulps. You reveled in the cold liquid.

        A silence followed, and when you finally decided to speak, you sounded more unsure than you intended:

        “What’s your story? How’d you end up living like,” you waved your hand around, “this?”

        Masky sighed, took off his mask, “A pretty deep question, but I should expect that from you by now.” He reached into his jean pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He lit one before continuing,

        “Let’s just say that my story is a long one. I’ve wronged many people, lost a lot, and have become something I’m not proud of.” The man inhaled deeply before blowing out a wisp of smoke. He offered you a half-smile. “I feel like I’ve told you this before.”

        You looked at him expectantly.

        “Well, Hoodie and I have a lot of history.” He gazed far away as if remembering something. “Honestly I thought he was dead for the longest time. In fact,” He exhaled another gray cloud, “I know he was dead.”

        Dead? Your eyes widened, and Masky said nothing more. He looked at the floor in front of him, lost in thought. You wondered what he was thinking. A life before all of this? How he had dealt with Hoodie’s death? The grief and anger he had felt? You understood. You reached your hand to touch his shoulder but then thought better of it. Instead, the two of you lingered in solemn silence.

        A loud creak came from the shack’s entrance. The both of you looked up when Hoodie stepped into the room, Jack not far behind. Their sleeves dripped with blood and dead leaves. It took all your effort not to stare.

        “Talking about me?” Hoodie leaned against the door frame. You imagined a light expression under his mask.

        “You already know the answer to that,” Masky smirked, never removing his eyes from the ground.

        Hoodie chuckled then turned away. He waved at you, “Come on.”

        You hurried after him and blurted out despite yourself, “Were you really dead?”

        “Why? Are you scared?”

        You shook your head. You weren’t scared. Just… completely and utterly thunderstruck. These people had a way of doing that. The man laughed at the look you gave him and patted your back.

        Hoodie took you to the front room. You watched as he scaled the broken wall with ease, removing three objects from the wooden ceiling grid when he reached the top. He shoved them into his front pocket. Then, with more precision then you could ever manage, he jumped down and landed quietly in front of you. You tried to quell the amazement that surged through you. He pulled out the three metal cans and held them out to you.

        “Pick one.” The tins were naked and ambiguous. You pointed at the one in the middle. “That was probably a good choice.”

        You laughed a little and grabbed the can. You peeled off the lid and discarded it with the rest of the trash on the ground. Hoodie handed you a spoon you hadn’t noticed before. As you sat down to eat, he returned the two other cans to their rightful places. You couldn’t help but watch him. He had a strange kind of dexterity you’d never seen before. The man left as swiftly as he had come. You chewed over the cold minestrone, your stomach too grateful to care.

        As you shoveled the last of the soup in your mouth, you heard low mutterings coming from the other room. You pondered whether or not to eavesdrop. Your mother had taught you it was wrong, but that was when life was simple and didn’t involve monsters and serial killers. Surely the same morals you followed as a child didn’t apply here. You decided it was the right thing to do. After all, they had been the ones to stalk you in the first place.

        You carefully placed your empty can on the floor and leaned closer to the door, trying to overhear their conversation.

        “You shouldn’t talk to her like that,” Hoodie muttered.

        “She deserves to be treated like a person, Hoodie. At least then she might have a chance.” Masky bit back.

        “I don’t know if you should get so attached to the human,” Jack said. “We still don’t know what the tall guy wants with her.”

        “He didn’t tell us we couldn’t talk about ourselves. He just said we couldn’t give her too much information. We can’t even say their names while she’s around.”

        Whose names?

        “But what if you tell her all these things and she ends up dying? Won’t it feel like a waste?”

        Masky went silent. A sinking feeling clenched your gut. That same impending dread of death overcame you again. You didn’t plan on dying any time soon. At least, you didn’t want to die. In a way, you felt like you couldn’t allow yourself to, not after coming so far. Numb fear enveloped your body like a heavy mist.

        “Not a waste,” Hoodie spoke up. “Perhaps it’d be nice to have someone listen—”

        “—Instead of pointing a camera in your face.” Masky finished his sentence. You leaned your head closer to the threshold, peering into the second room.

        “I still think it’s a waste of time” Jack resolved, shaking his head.

        “Well, that’s because you—.”

        Masky stopped midsentence. In unison, both him and Hoodie stood up straight, facing the open doorway toward the woods. Their voices melded into one as they declared,

        “He’s here.”

Chapter Text

        “She’s here as well.” Your body tensed as you watched Jack stand, peer out the door, and scent the air. His hand clenched the doorway until you could see the wood give beneath, and you flinched when you heard it splinter.

        “Who’s here? Is it Clockwork and Jane again?” You tried, your skin rippling with alarm. You forced yourself to stand and meet the men by the door. Shouldering past Jack, you looked out into the forest. You saw nothing but night and green things. What did they see that you couldn’t? What if it saw you too? Anxiety surged through you at the thought. Hoodie pulled you back into the shack, keeping a firm grip on your arms.

        “Masky and I have to go.” Despite the mask, you could feel his stare burning yours, his voice urgent and sharp. “Will you be all right if we leave you with Jack? He’ll be able to protect you.”

        You didn’t move. Glancing at Jack, you tried to pinpoint how exactly you felt. You knew he was capable enough. He was able to hold his own in a fight, outnumbered or not, and he could get you out if things got messy. But you also knew he was unpredictable - even more so than Jeff - and it scared you to think he could turn on you at any moment. If you were alone with him, could you trust him not to lose control again?

        Distrust. That’s how you felt.

        But you didn’t have a choice.

        You gave a curt nod. Masky turned to Jack, “Are you up to the task this time?”

        You could see the man prickle at Masky’s pointed question, but he merely grunted in reply. This was it. Hoodie released his grip on you, his gaze lingering for only a moment before the two proxies retreated. They stole like shadows into the underbrush.

        You looked after them, “Are you ever going to tell me what’s going on?”

        Jack sighed and walked back into the bedroom. You couldn’t bother being frustrated anymore. There was a sort of exhaustion that came with ignorance, and it left you dragging your feet as you pulled back into the room with him. The coils of anxiety in your belly weren’t any better.

        You stopped short when you noticed what the man was doing. He had moved the yellow mattress to the other side of the room and ripped up a few of the floorboards. He gutted the broken foundation with ease, and you tried to reason what in the fuck he was doing. Maybe it was another one of Hoodie’s secret stashes? Finally, he retrieved a medium-sized box from the dark hole. He quickly broke off the lock and opened it, the rusted hinges groaning in protest. Jack stood and made his way to you.

        “You have a right to know the truth.” He regarded the box as he said as if it held the truth he spoke. “But you’re not going to get the answers you want. At least, not from us.” He reached in and pulled out what looked like a metal tool of some kind. You swallowed hard. He handed the object to you, continuing,

“You see, we are merely pawns being played for something much older than you or I. As pawns, we don’t belong in human society anymore. Whereas the status quo drives you, we are driven by instinct. There is no creed among monsters.”

        You flipped over the tool, running your finger along its smooth red surface. You were surprised when you thumbed a button in the center. You brushed it gently, deciding whether or not to press it. You glanced up at Jack, questioning him with your gaze.

        “You need to figure out what drives you.” At that, he slipped past you and disappeared outside. You returned your attention to the tool in your hand. You clicked the button.

        A blade shot from the sheath. A switchblade.

        Of course, it was a switchblade. It made sense after all. It didn’t answer your questions, but at least you’d be able to defend yourself now. Still, you couldn’t shake the offshoot of despondency you felt when you pocketed the weapon. A heavy sigh escaped your lips as you sat on the mattress, staring hard at Jack’s mess and trying to find meaning in the broken floorboards. Your ground was breaking too. You laid down on the bed, palming your forehead, and closing your eyes.

        Did you even know how to use a knife? Yeah, you knew how to cut fruit and meat, but you had never cut flesh before. You had never fought for your life before, much less against experienced killers. They would have already taken your life before you got the chance to swipe at them. If they attacked you again, you’d surely die without help. You gripped the blade tighter. If you couldn’t even protect yourself, how could you expect to protect your family?

        Your family.

        Somehow, it always came back to them. And yes, you felt guilty. This would never have happened if you weren’t taken. They would never have been involved with, well, whatever this was if it weren't for and you hoped they were okay. But a part of you had grown almost... distant. A hollowness had taken over your heart when you thought about them, like the bond you once shared was slowly slipping away. There wasn’t room for them now, or anything else you once loved. You knew it was selfish, but you needed to focus on surviving now. Nothing else mattered. You grimaced.

        Maybe you should have offered to go with Masky and Hoodie. At least then you’d have something to do if they agreed or something to be mad about if they didn’t. Well, you did have something to be mad about. Certainly being kidnapped and herded around like a lost sheep warranted many feelings of resentment, exacerbated by your lack of answers. You recalled Jane’s offer. Had you gone with her, would she have told you the truth? You had enough sense to know she probably wouldn’t, but the nagging wonder remained.

        Your thoughts were cut short. A strangled growl sounded from outside, followed by dainty laughter. You bolted upright, knife extended to shield yourself from danger.

        Your mouth fell agape.

        Jack lay slumped over in the threshold. His mask shattered in pieces beside him and dark blood gushing from a wound on his head. His scalpels teetered in his limp grasp as he stared wide-eyed after something in the forest. You darted to his side, reached for him, but hesitated.

        “Jack, are you okay?” He didn’t respond. You touched his shoulder, uncertain. “What happened, Jack?”

        He remained silent, his eyes focused on something far away. Was he even alive? Your voice cracked, “Jack, answer me!”

        Breathless, you stumbled to his height and pressed your fingers against the base of his neck, trying to ignore the blood that seeped into your skin. No pulse. There’s no way. Were you doing it wrong? You had to be. You had never done this, so you had to be doing it wrong. All living things had a pulse. You tried again, shifting your fingers across his chest to find some vein or artery. You weren’t sure. Try again. Dread pent up in your stomach as the moments dragged by; he had no pulse.

        “Oh fuck, he’s dead. He’s fucking dead.” You muttered, falling back on your haunches. Cold fear surged through you, turning your limbs numb. What were you going to do now? “I’m all alone.”

        Laughter rippled from the underbrush. Your head snapped to the woods. A tiny, feminine voice was drawing closer, the same you had heard only moments before. You leaped into the shack again, slamming your back against the wall, and white-knuckling your blade. You tried to steady your rapid breaths as she came near.

        “Oh, poppet, won’t you come out and play with me?”

        There was no way in hell you were going out there. Still, you itched to know who this new voice was. Steeling yourself, you stole a glance outside. A young girl stood at the edge of the treeline. She couldn’t be much older than a kindergartener, and for a brief moment, you wondered why a child would be out here by herself. You dismissed the thought when you saw the blood. Brown stained her white, tattered nightgown, as well as the sores on her exposed legs and feet. Fresh blood dripped from a gash on her head, matted in her brown hair and rolling down her cheeks.

        This was no child.

        Her green eyes flashed to you, and it was all you could do but scream.

        “You’re not very good at hide and seek, poppet!”

        You charged from your spot and hurtled out the back window, brittle glass slicing through the air. Mud and dirt splattered your face when you collapsed onto the ground, but you got to your feet and ran. Brown sludge blurred your vision, and you struggled to see into the oncoming treeline. Could you hide in the woods?

        You floundered into the undergrowth, snapping twigs and leaves as you scrambled under a yew berry bush. You poised your blade above your head and waited.

        “Ready or not, here I come!” You heard the young girl call. Humor laced her voice.

        Moments later, you glimpsed her pale, bloodied legs through the bramble intertwine. She lingered for some time near you, her nightgown swaying as she turned back and forth. She was looking for you. You never thought a young child could horrify you this much. Every so often, she let out a giggle, and you had wondered if she found you, your neck hairs bristling, but she stayed still. You didn’t make a sound, didn’t even breath. The only thing you felt was the handle of the blade and the suffocating fear in your chest. Finally, after a long time, the girl let out a sort of frustrated snort, and you saw her slip deeper into the woods. Her form flickered away in the dark and ferns.

        You didn’t move at first. You had to convince yourself to breathe again, then will the feeling back into your body. You struggled to gasp silently, fearing your gulping for air would alert the girl to where you were. When she didn’t appear, you dared a look into the night. A cricket sang far away, and a leaf fluttered to the ground beside you. She was gone. You had fled away right under her nose. You tried to feel happy about that at least.

        You crawled out from under the bush. Your legs were sticky with berry juice, and leaves clung to the substance, but you didn’t care. You had to get back to the shack. Yes, Jack was, well, dead, but the others weren’t. God, you hoped they weren’t. You could only hide for so long before you had to fight, and you knew you couldn’t survive this encounter alone. Carefully, you back-tread, keeping your gaze fixed on where the girl had gone. At least if you saw her first, you’d get a head-start.

        You just had to get out of the forest. Then, you’d be okay.

        “Found you!"

        You screeched, whipping around to face her. The girl stood a few feet away giving you a toothy grin. Red trickled from her gums, and she cocked her head to the side, “Silly, poppet! Why do you keep hiding?”

        Being near her was enough to make you crumble. Still, with the adrenaline pumping through your system and the instinctual drive to live, you stood your ground. You knew there was no escaping this girl without a fight. When she lunged at you, you pulled your blade once more, the edge glittering eagerly in the moonlight.

        You had come too far to back down now.

        You rolled out of the way when she was nearly on top of you. The girl crashed into the brush but quickly recovered, giggling wildly. She bobbed up and down with excitement, her dress splaying about her like a white flood, and a mischievousness glinted in her eyes. It was as if she thought you were playing, and not fighting to the death. This was just a game to her!

        Thinking fast, you noted the wound on her head. It was festering and exposed, and you knew it would slow her down long enough for you to retreat. Letting out a yell, you rushed the young girl. She didn’t move, merely grinned at your approaching figure, but you refused to falter. Raising your blade, you plunged it deep into the gash, a horrible squelching noise meeting your ears upon impact.

        You released the handle, backed up. The girl’s smile slowly faded, replaced with a look of pure horror. You could see your own terror reflected in her eyes, glassy with tears. Heavy droplets began rolling down her cheeks, streaking the fresh blood pouring from her head. She let out a cry, and you felt your heart break at the sound of her childish sobs. Of course, she was a child! How could you have harmed a child?

        When she fell to her knees, you followed her down, stuttering frantically, “Oh my God, sweetheart, I’m so sorry, I-I thought you were going to hurt me! You’re just a kid, what was I thinking? Oh God, let me help you!”

        You reached for the blade but stopped short when you noticed her. Her tears had disappeared, now streams of dark red spilling from her eyes. You froze. A crooked smile was creeping onto her face. She began to giggle once more, and you realized with disgusting dread she was faking it. She wasn’t hurt at all. The girl gripped the handle and tore it from her scalp with a torrent of blood.

        “You should see the look on your face!” She cackled, her eyes never leaving yours. You tried to say something, but you were paralyzed, your jaw hanging slack and useless. Soon enough, the girl’s laughter died away, and a seriousness settled on her features. A chill shot up your back. Leadenly: “I’m getting tired of playing, poppet.

        I think it’s time you met my mother.”

        In a flash, she had you in her grasp. You were still immobilized, and with a jolt, you discovered it wasn’t just because of fear. She was doing this to you.

        The girl covered your eyes. You found your eyelids fluttering shut against the darkness of her palm. Moments later, a sharp ache surged through your body, a million tiny needles piercing your skin straight to your core. You clenched your teeth, trying to will your body to move, but to no avail.

        Leudagar snapped from his trance. He snatched the beautiful woman’s bovine tail, much to her dismay. Through narrowed eyes, he declared, “I politely decline this dance, Huldra.”

        Huldra was taken-aback for only a moment. Then, she smirked and stepped away. Leudgar let out a fearful gasp. Around them, the shadows overtook the world in a cloudburst of tar black and dissipated. The trees and flowers that once surrounded them returned to their dismal wilt, and the brook was no more. Now, the clouds overhead were even more oppressive than before, blotting out any light that the day may have offered. The beautiful world the man had grown transfixed by had changed.

        The woman, too, had changed. Instead of a delicate maiden to dance with, Huldra had taken the form of what the man could only assume to be her birthright: her naked skin dark as night, long hair and eyes as white as a hot sun. A crown of dark horns protruded from atop her head, spotted and precise. She lashed her tail to and fro as she regarded Leudgar’s shock with a coy smile.

        “You have bested me, dear Leudagar, and for that, I will allow you to make a deal with me.” She circled the human man, her fingers frivolously grazing his figure.

        “I wish for my son to return to me. I wish to take him home unharmed.”

        “And so it shall be done.” She stopped behind him, leaning forward and breathing in his scent, “However, I require something in return. My services come with a small price, should you accept.”

        Leudagar closed his eyes, “What are your conditions?”

        “An infant child.” She traced her tongue along the curve of his neck, breezy and delicate, “You must renounce to me your firstborn daughter upon her birth, and no longer. You will leave her within the roots of your groves in the night, where I will collect her like the Angel collected your son.”

        “And if I refuse?”

        “Then your son will remain the Angel’s charge until the end of time.” She strode forward to face him, capturing her burning gaze with his: “Do you accept these terms, Leudagar?”

        Silence rang in your ears for what felt like an eternity. Neither stirred, mortal and monster locked in a wordless battle of wits. Both were deciding, weighing the balances of this newborn deal. What could he gain without losing? An idea struck him. Leudagar spoke, “I accept your terms, Huldra.”

        Fear shot through you as you watched Huldra seize the man by the back of his neck. She pulled him into an embrace and kissed him. Her grip was powerful, unrelenting, and he struggled helplessly in her grasp. You winced when you felt a pain on your tongue, and you wondered with a start what she had done. When they parted, you glimpsed the drop of Leudagar’s blood on Huldra’s lips.

        Suddenly, the man fell to his knees. A heat scorched your collarbone, and you let out a soundless cry. In horror, you watched as a mark began to inscribe itself across the man’s chest where the heat radiated. It was a rune of some sort, unfamiliar to you, but burned to his skin for the rest of his life.

        The girl’s hands were ripped from your eyes. You let out an agonized scream as the needles released you: noise and blackness. Your breath came in spurts, and you could not stand. You collapsed to your hands and knees, waves of pain raking your body.

        Somewhere in front of you, you heard a voice, but its words were muddled and distant. Orange flashed in your fleeting vision. Two hands seized your shoulders, shook you.

        “Hey! A-a-are you oka-ay?”

        Toby. You screwed your eyes against the melting dark, your hand reaching toward him to pull yourself up, but he was hauled off you a moment later. You fell back again on unsteady arms.

        “Get off her!” Jeff snarled.

        “Where’s Jack?” Masky growled close to your ear. He threw your arm over his shoulder, and Hoodie did the same on your other side.

        Jack. Oh, no.

        You ripped yourself from their grasp. You had been sure Jack was dead before, but after your encounter with that girl, what she was capable of… Could he still be alive? You had to know.

        You ignored Jeff’s angry call as you raced toward the shack. He was already following you anyway, along with the other men. You burst out of the forest and spotted your destination a few paces ahead, its window splintered from where you had broken it. Rounding the building, you barreled through the vacant doorway.

        The shack had gotten more crowded since your last time here: the young girl, Jane, and Clockwork lay unconscious on the floor. Above them stood Jack. He leaned against the wall, rubbing his head as if he had a minor headache. Somehow his mask was intact again. When he spotted you, he hurried over, “Are you all right? This is my fault. I wasn’t fast enough to stop Sally, and I couldn’t protect you. I’m sorry.”

        Your heart leaped. You surprised even yourself when you threw your arms around him, pulling him into a tight embrace. He prickled but made no move to push you away.

        “I thought you died.” You murmured.

        He patted your back awkwardly, “Well, I didn’t.”

        “Yeah.”

        You released him when the others arrived. Jeff pushed past you to face Jack and, with the way his shoulders squared and his fists clenched, you were bracing for the man’s eruption. Before he could utter a word, however, a coolness settled in the building.

        Each of you shivered in turn. You could feel a strange presence looming behind you, casting a tall, slender shadow through the threshold. Great, another one. Your neck hair bristling, you craned to your head to look behind you.

        A creature towered over you, as tall as a pine tree. He wore a black business suit, framed by long arms that reached to the ground and even longer legs. His figure paled in comparison to his features, or rather, his lack thereof. Staring at his naked face, moon white and void of expression, you felt him staring back at you. The idea made your blood run cold.

        You blinked, and he was gone.

        A foreign thought penetrated your mind, echoing with a static undertone: Do not be afraid, child. Now, turn around.

        You were compelled to listen, despite your better judgment. The creature now stood in the house, leaning over the huddled bodies in the small room. He wasn’t nearly as tall as before, but his head still brushed against the ceiling. You were glad he wasn’t looking at you anymore, but how had he become so much smaller? Should you even care at this point? You grappled with the fear and curiosity you felt toward this new creature.

        Hoodie placed a hand on your shoulder, “This is our boss.”

        You watched with furrowed brows as Hoodie moved past you, along with Masky, toward the women. Both brandished zip-ties and went to work.

        Their boss looked at you once more.

        It is a pleasure to finally meet you.

Chapter Text

        You slid down the wall, trying to digest this new stranger. This Boss was nothing like you imagined. Everyone you had encountered thus far was so benign compared to, well, whatever this thing was. It wasn’t human, and his poor resemblance of a man only emphasized his grotesqueness. He was a monster. There was no other way of putting it.

        Just being near him made your stomach gnarl in angry, anxious knots. You tried to gauge the others.

        Hoodie and Masky were hard at work restraining the girls, Toby having joined them shortly after. Their Boss loomed over him, his featureless face seeming to bore into nothing, but you knew he was invested in watching his Proxies’ progress. Occasionally, one of the men would look over to the creature and nod. Were they communicating? You guessed his telepathy wasn’t exclusive to you.

        A few paces away, Jeff leaned over Jane’s limp body, laughing hysterically for God knows why. You weren’t sure what could be so funny about an unconscious woman, but you didn’t bother trying to figure it out. If you tried to understand these people in all their little quirks, you'd end up driving yourself crazy too. Jack stood beside you, shaking his head at the dark-haired man.

        Your glance flickered over to Sally, and you remembered what she had shown you. Whether it was intentional or not, you couldn’t be sure, but you knew it was important. This Leudagar was more than a dream; he was the key to finding out just what the hell was going on. You just had to figure out why he was connected to you, and what he had done to set all of this in motion. But first, you needed to focus on the task at hand. You set your thoughts aside for now.

        “Should I be doing anything?” You asked aloud. The creature’s nonexistent gaze turned to you, and the room fell silent. The creature straightened himself.

        You are all excused, please keep the perimeter secured. His voice echoed in your mind. When the others retreated from the room, the creature addressed you: If you would be so kind as to remain here, we may begin.

        “What do you mean ‘begin’?” You crossed your arms defensively.

        The tall creature took a step toward you in one fluid stride. Don’t move.

        You tensed, closed your eyes. He placed one great, skeletal hand on your head. Tingles flowed through you at once, and your heartbeat slowed. As if you were lulling to sleep, your body went lax and found yourself relaxing into his palm.

        You slipped into a deep sleep.

        “Now give me my son!” Leudagar shouted. By the way he hunched over, glaring at Huldra with burning rage, you could tell he was in agony. Huldra let out an amused hum at this and turned from him.

        The woman erupted into a chant, foreign and ancient as the pines overhead. Through half-lidded eyes, the man watched as stones arose from the dead grass underfoot, and began jittering into a ringed genesis. A rock saltire emerged in its center. You recognized the symbol immediately.

        “Der GroBmann, I summon you.” There was a sharpness in her voice that made you wince.

        Leudagar stumbled away from the ritual space as shadows shot like vipers from the circle, and enveloped the forest in thick blackness. The murk was neverending, smothering the trees and needles in tar. The temperature dropped; a static tension charged the air. You choked on your fear as the void plummeted back into the cross, a familiar silhouette standing in its place.

        The faceless monster from the shack! You leaned forward.

        Leudagar grimaced in pain as a voice permeated your mind: What is it you require, Sister?

        “I think you have something that belongs to this man.” Huldra flicked her wrist in the direction of Leudagar. The monster stiffened.

        What was this human willing to barter to retrieve his spawn?

        “That is my business, Brother. Under Erlkonig’s Law, you will respect the contract I have made with this human. You will return the child.” A seething fire burned in her eyes.

        You always were one to disrupt our way of life, dear Sister. The great creature spat, his words intense and angry. Huldra smirked. You imagined he was disgusted by how pleased she looked. He continued: I will obey Father’s decree, but know this; this is the last time I will overlook your lawless ways.

        The creature raised one long arm. Shadows gathered in his palm, and he let it pour to the ground like molasses — a boyish figure formed in its dark depths.

        “Lars!” Leudagar screamed. Shaking his stupor, the man floundered toward his son, arms outstretched. Lars stepped out of the circle, his face blank and cold, and into the loving embrace of his father. The creature turned to his sister.

        You are a fool to cross me, Huldra.

        With that, he disappeared in an eddy of shadows. You turned your attention to Leudagar, smiling at the way he held his son. Relieved tears coursed down his cheeks. Still, something felt odd. Lars hung limply in the man’s arms, never moving to so much as look his father in the eye. You tried to brush it off. Let him have his happy ending, you thought.

        Huldra’s head snapped toward the father and son, and she advanced on them suddenly. Leudagar reeled back with his son, newfound fear brilliant in his eyes. Huldra smiled maliciously, “There is one more condition regarding our contract, Leudagar. A fine print, but one you should know: once the child is surrendered, I intend to give her my blood. Do you know what this means?”

        The man shook his head uneasily. Neither of you could look away.

        “The blood of De Underjordiske will infect her. She will betray your bloodline. Whether the firstborn is your daughter or your son’s daughter - no matter where or when - when she becomes mine, she will drive her ancestors to extinction. Your precious family will be no more.”

        Leudagar’s face contorted into a look of horror, “N-No, that’s not right! That’s not what we agreed to, Huldra!”

        But it was too late. His protests melted into the noise as The Black Forest swallowed the woman in a gyre of needles and wind. Gasping, Leudagar gathered his son in his arms and careered deeper into the trees. The woman’s horrid laughter screamed in your ears before you woke.

        You opened your eyes with a groan. The faceless creature loomed over you. Using your arm as leverage, you leaned forward. Your mind was racing, trying to understand what it was you witnessed. There was only one reason this creature had shown you the past.

        “I’m the firstborn daughter,” your gaze met Der GroBmann’s, “aren’t I?”

        Yes. You are the only female descendant of Leudagar to have survived birth. He was a foolish man, with a foolish son. I would like to explain this to you. I know you have been very curious. Let me begin with -

        “What the fuck?” Clockwork yelled. You glanced at her from your corner of the room, and she snarled at you, “If you don’t untie me right now, I’ll rip your throat out!”

        At that moment, Hoodie walked in, a length of rope in his hands. You tried to catch his gaze, but he ignored you, focusing instead on the struggling woman. Der GroBmann extended his hand to you.

        Let’s take this conversation outside.

        Hesitantly, you took his hand.

        The other proxies stood outside the shack. Masky cast you a glance, and Toby offered a jerky thumbs up, but neither spoke a word as you slipped by them. You could hear the enraged shouting of Jane and Clockwork as you entered the forest. You wondered why the two women were still alive and not dead in the woods like that squatter.

        Jane has valuable information that she has promised to tell you. I cannot allow her to take you in the process.

        You shouldn’t be surprised he could read your mind, but you still met his reply with a jolt. You knew immediately you didn’t like his invasion of your privacy. Blinking, you tried to change the subject, “So… Leudagar was my great great great great grandfather or something. What’s up with that?”

        Der GroBmann angled his head in your direction and began:

        In the era before industrialization, we, the De Underjordiske ruled over the forests. My sister, Huldra, and I resided in what is known in your language as ‘The Black Forest.’ Huldra and I are very different creatures. I am entrusted with maintaining balance between humans and De Underjordiske. Huldra does not care for such orders.

        As for Lars, there was a rule regarding our domain: any child who entered the forest at night would have one chance to tell their parents, or I would take that child away. It was an edict to persuade humans from entering the Forest, you see. Lars was one of those children who did not heed our guidance.

        “What is a ‘De Underjordiske?’” You asked.

        Translated, it means ‘the ones living underground.’ It is the oldest name given to us creatures who are no longer, or have never been, human. Nowadays, humans have come up with different names: demons, ghosts, monsters, aliens. Most recently, creepypasta. The stories differ, but we remain the same.

        You nodded, mulling over this new information. So, you must be connected in some way to these ‘De Underjordiske’ seeing as they were protecting you now, but you still didn’t understand why.

        "When she becomes mine, she will drive her ancestors to extinction…"

        You exclaimed as you recalled Huldra’s words, “What about my family? I don’t want to kill them. I love them!”

        Der GroBmann halted, and you lingered close to him, staring into his moonesque face desperately. He kneeled to your height, took your cheek in his hand.

        The reason I showed you that memory was to explain just what kind of situation you are involved in. Every De Underjordiske can recruit others: some require contracts, some the exchange of blood, and others will be assimilated through contagion.

        Child, you must be aware that, now, you are in control. Your blood carries something very old and very powerful. Once you understand what it is, you will be able to use it. Every choice you make has consequences.

        You walked back to the shack in silence. It was a lot to digest in one sitting, and you were confident you didn’t understand everything. A part of you wondered if you had been told the whole truth too. Der GroBmann seemed more than willing to answer your questions, but there was an element of crypticness to them you didn’t like as if he didn’t want to give out more than he had to.

        Again, you questioned whether you could trust these people, if you could call them that.

        Der GroBmann mentioned some of these ‘creepypasta’ had been ordinary people at one point. You tried to imagine what that would be like.

        Der GroBmann acting as the manager of a retail store, sleek-haired and full of face. Maybe Hoodie and Masky worked there too, stocking shelves and serving customers without masks to hide their identities. And Eyeless Jack, a handsome college student, walking past the store to the local butcher shop, where Jeff carved that morning’s slaughter with a normal, dimpled smile. Toby, clad in T-shirt and jeans, looking out the school windows as his teacher droned about geometry.

        It was a funny thought, really, and you smiled at this breakaway from reality. Maybe one day, life could return to such a mundane milieu. For now, you were exhausted.

        As soon as the shack came into view, Jack and Jeff approached you.

        “Hoodie has injected the girls. They are immobile.” Jack said. Jeff stood beside you, nudging you in the side every so often. You fixed him with a puzzled glare, but he avoided your gaze, a childish smirk flickering on his lips.

        You rolled your eyes, and the four of you continued to the shack.

        “I’ll fucking kill all of you motherfuckers!” Jane screeched the moment you walked in the door.

        Jeff shot toward her, on hands and knees, and leaning dangerously close to her face, “Like this? All limp and soggy like a drowned rat? I’d like to see you try, you stupid bitch.”

        Jane let out a caterwaul of frustration, but could not move. Clockwork, too, looked properly pissed off. She barked at Toby, who was crouched close beside her, “Get the fuck away from me, you little shit!”

        Sally was silent, staring at something far off. Hoodie leaned against the wall close by, needle in hand.

        “She’s sedated at the moment.” Masky stated. “Those zip-ties will be useless if she wakes up.”

        “Are you really going to choose these psychopaths over us?” Clockwork suddenly yelled at you. You felt a twinge of annoyance at her outburst.

        “Why the fuck should I choose you?” You retorted.

        The woman didn’t reply. Jane interjected, her words laced and sugary, “These monsters aren’t as pure as they’ve led you to believe. Huldra has your family, and I promise you, they are safe and unharmed. If you come with us, you’ll get to see them again. Isn’t that what you want, sweetheart? Don’t you want to see your family again?”

        You staggered at her words. Glancing at Der GroBmann, you tried to formulate a response. You were free to speak now, so why were you so nervous to say what you wanted? With his presence beside you, you felt you needed some kind of permission. You didn’t want to give the others the wrong idea with your questions.

        Toby pressed his hand against your back, urging you, “G-go ahead, d-d-d-... Don’t be ah-fraid.”

        You stepped forward and knelt to Jane’s height.

        “Do you think what you’re doing is right?”

        “It is your birthright to become one of us. You have seen the truth with your own eyes.” She looked over to Jeff, hatred seething in her eyes. “These men are murderers. They don’t care about you; not like we do. They only care about feeding their own bloodlust. It is that very bloodlust that drove Jeff to slaughter my family for his selfish pleasure. The others are no different.”

        You sent a fleeting glance toward Jeff, sickness churning your stomach. He was looking at Jane.

        She continued, “Huldra gave all three of us the power to fight for what we loved. In turn, we gave her our allegiance. If you choose to join her, you, too, will know that power.”

Chapter Text

        “What we are doing is right in a cosmic sense.” Clockwork said after some time. “Your blood has set off a chain reaction: if Leudagar hadn’t postponed your birth, the creation of De Underjordiske wouldn’t have been so fast.”

        You clenched your eyes shut to avoid her gaze. What did Clockwork mean when she said Leudagar had ‘postponed your birth?’ How had your birth sparked these ‘chain reactions’? What was your blood carrying that affected these creatures so much? Your head pounded with thought.

        In fact, your mind was throbbing. The floor shifted beneath you and you could feel your eyes rolling. A phantom whispered: On Walpurgis night, you must perform the hexentanz atop Brocken Mountain. 

        Your sight flickered to a vision of the past, and you let out a gasp as a familiar crackling resounded through the shack. The floor seemed to break away beneath you, replaced by scraggly grass and pine needles. In the distance, between the trees, a storm was brewing.

        A hand grabbed your arm.

        “Time to go!” Jeff pushed you to your feet, and you stumbled toward the exit. Hellish sounds, the scrap of metal and screams, deafened your ears, and you fought desperately against oblivion to stay awake.

        “What’s going on?” You yelled over the noise. 

        “We have to go,” Jack said into your ear. Toby steadied you as the blue-masked man ushered you outside. “Huldra has come.” 

        Huldra?

        Forest spotted the ebbing blackness in your eyes as the wind ripped back your hair. You were running, but you didn’t know where to, only followed the hands guiding you. The world blurred and dipped around you in kaleidoscope gray. 

        Blackness. Lightning flashed in your eyes; ancient rain slathered your back. Leudagar’s silhouette reeled before you.

        The mountain! Spiraling toward the sky like a dagger splitting the stars.

        “And where do you think you’re going?” Clockwork’s howl sounded behind you, snapping you from your visions.

        Toby’s grasp left your arm, “I-I’ll hold her off.”

        You reached for him, a sort of guttural protest escaping your lips, but his figure had already retreated into the darkness. Jack’s arms took ahold of you, hoisted you into the air.

        “I’m picking you up now. We have to move faster.”

        For a moment, your sight cleared, and you caught the violent shadows of Toby and Clockwork between the trees.  A screech. A spray of blood. You felt a pang in your chest when they disappeared from view.

        You struggled, “We have to go back! We can’t leave him!”

        Jack didn’t reply. He darted through the forest, slight as the tarry shadows of the trees, and dipped into a clearing when he had covered some distance. Throwing a glance over his shoulder, he let you slip from his grasp. You turned on him.

        “What the hell? You just left him there! We could have helped!”

        “Toby is more than capable of taking care of himself. You, on the other hand, aren’t anywhere near ready.”

        You opened your mouth to protest, but he shoved something into your hands, “Here. You dropped this.”

        You flipped the switchblade over, noticing its stained blade, and remembered when it had found refuge inside Sally’s head. You grimaced, pocketed it, “Thanks.”

        “Don’t make a habit of it. If you lose it again, that’s it.” 

        “Yeah, yeah, okay. So what do we do now, if we’re not helping the others?” 

        “Keep low, stay out of their way, don’t go looking for trouble. Just until we can get you out of here.”

        He suddenly crouched lower, craning his neck to scent the air. You fell down beside him, but found yourself lost in the dark. The night was black, too black for your eyes to see and too thick for you to sniff out. Only the smell of wet dirt touched your nose. Even the moon had hidden away as if the endless shade were too much to bear.

        “Keep your guard up. We aren’t alone.” He whispered. 

        You nodded. Screwing your eyes against the shadows, you stared deep into the trees. Faint silhouettes presented themselves and you caught yourself breathing harder when you thought one moved. Each time, you gauged Jack’s reaction, only to find him still and unmoving. A guardian statue in the night. 

        It was then you saw it: golden specks penetrating the dark. A glint of a smile, a pair of shining, kind eyes, boring into yours. 

        Your body lightened, a drunken euphoria slowing your mind. Why were you hiding here? You should be with those eyes, soaking in their light, and forgetting the darkness. This darkness, so suffocating and useless. Wipe the muck from your hands and come closer. You could be happy with those eyes if only you came closer.

        You rose to your feet. Immediately, Jack grabbed your arm, growled, “Stay behind me.”

        “Why?” The word felt stupid on your tongue.

        He gripped your arm tighter, pulled you back down. Why didn’t he understand? Couldn’t he see you just wanted to be happy? You looked back to the trees, but the eyes had vanished, your happiness. Fury burned your heart.

        Without thinking, you lashed at him, splitting the skin under his chin with your dirt-crusted nails. He hissed, releasing you, and you took the opportunity to put some distance. 

        “I need to go, Jack. I have to find them.” 

        “Get back here. Now. They won’t make you happy.”

        A sweetness touched your nose. You swallowed the smell, letting it warm your throat and fill your stomach with delicious calm. It was the smell of your house, your family, your life. He was wrong.

        “Come. Here.

        “No.”

        Jack moved to reach you, but stopped short. A childish voice cooed, “You heard her, Jack. She’s already decided where she wants to be.”

        Sally slipped from the trees. Her face was already bloodied from a fight. 

        You didn’t spare another glance. You bolted from the clearing, ignoring Jack’s call, ignoring the shriek of pain.

        You had to find those eyes.

        Barreling through the trees, you followed the scent. It imbued the air, made you dizzy with joy, and you thought about seeing your family. You couldn’t wait to hug them and tell them how much you love them. How much you went through to get back to them again.

        You would finally leave this nightmare to the night. All these monsters would just be a bad dream, and you’d wake up to the break of day.

        You stumbled a bit as you ran faster, catching on gnarls of tree roots and trailing spindly branches. It didn’t matter. You were close. You could taste the sweetness all around you now. Your heart pounded with excitement, tears muddled your vision. This bliss was overwhelming, edging on the brink of panic, and you wondered desperately what to do next.

        Where were those eyes? You needed them. They were the only thing you needed. They were your happiness. You turned on your heel.

        There they were. 

        The eyes, sun beacons across the sea of night, looked back at you. A relieved laugh escaped your lips.

        “I thought I’d lost you.”

        The eyes blinked, “Come closer.” His words held the rich depth of your father’s voice.

        “Will you take me to them?”

        “You have to come closer.”

        You didn’t think, just took a step forward, then two, then three, then you were running. You had to reach him before he disappeared again.

        Foolish, stupid, wretched boy!

        No, not now. You couldn’t succumb to the darkness now. You pushed the vision away and it throbbed behind your eyes, screaming to be released.

        It was only a couple of feet. You just had to keep moving. As if you were swimming through molasses, your legs dragged with weight. A heaviness burdened your body much like you had felt before, when you could no longer will yourself awake. Just a few more steps and you’d be home!

        I can do… I can…

        You crumbled before the eyes, finally closing yours. Warmth and silk enveloped your body as you drifted away.

        I’ll wake up soon… 

        Ancient scrolls and parchment sprawled the floor around you. You worried they would burn in the fireplace, warm with glowing embers.

        “On Walpurgis night, you must perform the hexentanz atop Brocken Mountain.” An older woman sat across from you, her glare focused on Leudagar. You figured from the grimace on his face, this was his mother-in-law, Ursula. 

        “There is said to be a powerful Witch, daughter of Merga Bien. She has the power to reverse this curse you have bestowed on our family.” Ursula rolled up the scroll and battered his head with it, “Foolish, stupid, wretched man! A boy, no less! Repeat my instruction, boy!”

        “On the season’s cusp, I must perform the Witch’s Dance atop Brocken Mountain to summon the Witch Merga Bien’s daughter. Yet, Mutter, why do I not simply seek Merga Bien herself?”

        “Stupid boy! Merga has been dead a century! When she murdered her second husband and his spawn, the Witch Hunter, Balthasar, set her aflame.” Her tone was belligerent as if his ignorance insulted her.

        “If she killed her children, how is her daughter still alive?” 

        Ursula raised the scroll again, intent to strike him, but only sighed, “Did your mother teach you nothing? Merga Bien was accused of lying with the King of the Dark Fairies, Erlkonig. Once she was discovered to be with child, she was sentenced to burn for witchcraft. She admitted to being Erlkonig’s lover and, as she burned, vowed her daughter would grow to be much more powerful than her. 

        “Upon her death, the townsfolk found her cindered womb opened and barren. It is rumored Erlkonig revealed himself to her before she took her final breath and stole the child away, raising it atop Brocken Mountain, where the lovers had met.”

        Leudagar sat silently, turning the story over in his head. You tried your best to understand the significance of this witch and her daughter to your story, now. You glanced at Ursula, wishing you could ask the sage old woman.

        But she was distracted, gazing, despondent, into the adjacent room. 

        Ida sat at the table, breakfast warm at her fingertips, but she made no move to eat. She stared out the window, still as stone. Her dress hung limply from her skeletal figure, ill with hunger and gray in the morning light. She no longer washed, no longer spoke, and you wondered if she was alive at all.

        Ursula turned to the man, desperation edging her voice, “You must succeed, Leudagar. You are no good for my daughter, but you are the only one who can right this wrong. Do not allow Ida to grieve for your foolishness.”

        You awoke to a familiar sight.

        Your wrists and ankles pulled in either direction, bound by what appeared to be a gold thread. It looked thin enough to snap, but when you twisted your hand, it held fast. You had learned by now there was no use struggling against them.

        You took a breath, coldness, mold, and hot wax permeating your nose. It was an odd concoction that made your nostrils flare and you wondered what kind of place might make an odor like that.

        A candlestick burned before you, casting light against the shadows. From it you could see the room was made from stone. Whittled with weather, moss and vines shot from its wall crevices. You watched as a dribble of water dripped from the ceiling and onto the wet floor.

        In the far corner, a pair of golden eyes bore into yours.

        Anger rose in your throat. You had been taken again, but this time, of your own accord. You had let your guard down, allowed yourself to be enticed by false promises, and now you had lost the only people keeping you safe. How stupid of you to fall for one of Huldra’s tricks! 

        Jack was right — you weren’t ready for this at all.

        The eyes smiled and spoke no longer with your father’s voice, but one of his own, “You are alone. We are all alone now.”

        “What the hell does that even mean!”

        The man stepped from the shroud. Dressed in black, his skin glowed white, his teeth gold, “It means that we are all lonely creatures, looking to escape from our self-made prisons.”

        “I didn’t ask for some melancholy riddle. I just want to know what you want.”

        “I want to help you escape from loneliness. I think you will be a very dear friend when the time comes.” He paused. “You may call me Puppeteer, friend.”

        With that, he left. 

        The candle burned, wax melting, as time slipped away from you and you realized you were thankful Jack had returned your switchblade.

Chapter Text

 

        Getting your switchblade out of your pocket proved harder than you had expected.

        It was buried in your back pocket of all places and, with your hands bound, you had no practical way of reaching it. Perhaps that was why you were scooting your rump across the floor now. You hoped the handle might catch on the calloused, rigid stone and, with enough force, it would pop right out. 

        Normally, you would have felt embarrassed dragging your ass like a dog, but now wasn’t the time for modesty. 

        With what little slack the thread gave, you sat up. The stone was like sandpaper against your jeans, tearing at the already fraying denim, and you grimaced at the sound. It took a while for the blade to shift despite your efforts; your skin was starting to sting. Still, the handle caught and you were able to push it out of your pocket with a shove against the stone.

        It clattered a few inches away from your hand and you took ahold of it. Thank God Jack had given it to you when he did, or else you would have been stuck here for a long, long time. You flipped it open and got to work on the thread. 

        You had to lay on your back not to strain the thread against your wrists. You sawed awkwardly, hands over your head, and exerted as much force as you could, but you made little progress. You realized the string wouldn’t break as easily as you had thought.

        But when has this ever been easy?

        You growled under your breath. Letting the blade slip from your fingers, you scanned the room. You had decided the moment you woke up in this dinky basement, you weren’t going to be helpless and you most certainly weren’t going to wait around to be rescued. You’d get out of here, one way or another — by yourself.

        The candle flickered before you, casting strange shadows along the wall. You wondered if it would be hot enough to burn the golden thread. Using your feet, you dragged it closer.

        You held one thread-bound wrist over the candle. If a blade couldn’t break your bonds, certainly fire could. You held firm, the yellow flame licking at your skin. As time passed, however, and the heat scorched, you pulled your hand away. The thread was hot, but resilient.

        Nice try, dumb bitch, it seethed into your skin. You hoped the burn wouldn’t leave a scar.

        You looked closer at the thread. Even in the low light of the candle, it glowed with a light of its own, one you hadn’t noticed before. It glimmered iridescent as you rolled your wrist. When you brought it to your face, you could smell the same sweetness from the forest. It’s almost as if the thread is made of magic, you thought.

        It wouldn’t be surprising. You could only assume Puppeteer worked for Huldra and, if he did, this was probably her magic. All she wanted to do was keep you locked up it seemed. Still, you didn’t know enough about either of them to say for sure.

        It was odd, too, acknowledging the existence of magic. Despite all you had gone through, each moment offered a new truth you were forced to accept. It was still as hard to do as it had been when you first started, as much as you wanted to understand. Part of you wondered if you would ever get used to it. 

        Part of you thought you mad for wanting to.

        Setting aside the thought, you tried to think up another plan. You couldn’t depend on the others to save you every time you got yourself into a fucking mess — a mess you had created. It was then you recalled Der GroBmann’s words:

        Your blood carries something very old and very powerful. Once you understand what it is, you will be able to use it.

        And a crazy idea came to mind. Sure, you understood you were powerful in some way, but it had never been specified how, much less why. But what if it had? What if his words had been literal and not figurative as you had assumed?

        What if your blood was the power?

        You decided you were insane. You decided it could never work. And yet, you brought your switchblade to the top of your wrist. You winced seeing the serrated edge biting your skin, but you let it slice your hand anyway. It stung for only a moment and when you pulled away, the cut dribbled with blood. The same blood glimmered on the blade. 

        Taking a breath, you brought the red blade to the thread again. It snapped the moment you touched it, its gold sheen fading to gray and falling away like gossamer. You blinked slowly, watched the thread curl into itself on the floor.

        This is going to come in handy!

        You freed your ankles. The blade made quick work of cutting the threads and, while you were still fascinated by its power, you focused on escaping. 

        You glanced around the room for an exit. Solid rock spanned the entire room with neither windows or doors. When you looked to where Puppeteer had left, there was no entrance — at least, not one you could see. Perhaps it was more of that strange magic? You considered smearing your blood along the walls, but then realized how stupid that sounded.

        Suddenly, you could hear footsteps approaching outside your room. Panic settled in your chest and you swooped down to blow out the candle. Darkness claimed the stone walls, shrouding the room in a blackness only God Himself could discern, and you used it to hide in the corner closest to Puppeteer’s entrance. You white-knuckled your switchblade, held your breath. 

        The footsteps were arrhythmic. One normal, but the other tapping along the stone floor, echoing on the other side like a pebble skipping water. Two footsteps with two male voices murmuring through the walls.

        The walls began to shake. You steadied yourself.

        Part of the stone that had melded into the wall rumbled forward. With a jerk, you watched as it slid to the side, blocking you from sight, but giving you a clear view of the light pooling into the room. Two shadows spilled long and tall across the floor, one belonging to Puppeteer and the other you didn’t recognize. 

        He was much taller than Puppeteer, having to bow under the threshold to stand beside him. Feathers bounced from broad shoulders as he giggled, a sound that shot ice through your veins. His arms dragged along the ground in frilled sleeves that were just too big. When he stepped forward, you caught a glimpse of black and white before you edged further into the darkness.

        “Where did our little mouse go?” He tittered, long arms swinging around him as he searched the room.

        “She’s still here.”

        “Oh, what fun!” The man threw an arm over Puppeteer’s shoulder. The shorter man shrugged him off. “Let’s play a game. First one to rip her vocal cords out wins. You’ll have to do it before she screams though!”

        You placed a hand over your mouth as he peeled with laughter. You shook like an animal about to be slaughtered and while you tried to control it, the thought of dying overwhelmed you. Sweat beaded along your brow. As they walked further into the room, you realized this was it. One wrong move and it would be over.

        Their backs were turned to you. You checked the light, careful not to cast your shadow along the floor as you padded closer. There was no avoiding the light once you stepped through the door, but perhaps if you crouched, you wouldn’t be noticed.

        You kept an eye on them as they moved. They were in the back of the room now, leaning over the droplets of blood on the floor and the gray thread you had cut. Puppeteer lifted it, twirling it around in his fingers.

        “She’s a clever one, isn’t she? Using her blood like that.” The man, which you now realized as a monochromatic clown, chuckled.

        You placed one, unsteady foot into the light.

        “I can think of a couple different ways to use that blood.” The two snapped their gaze to you. You stopped dead in the clown’s blood-red gaze, watched as he flicked a tongue along his grinning teeth.

        You bolted.

        “A game of tag?” The clown roared. “You better run fast, little mouse!”

        Out the door and down the hall, you ran. Either side of you, similar stone doors lined the wall, silhouetted in golden thread, and you wondered with horror if more people were trapped in this dungeon. The reek of blood and rot was enough to convince you.

        You glanced behind you. The clown was near feet from you, his long arms closing the gap to grab you. He smiled when his fingers caught wisps of your hair.

        You leaned forward, pumped your legs faster. Up ahead, a staircase bridged toward a door. You imagined your family on the other side of that door, waiting, arms outstretched. You clutched your blade, determined to do whatever you had to to get to that door.

        Almost there. Your lungs burned for air, your side straining, and your legs screaming with exhaustion. You didn’t look back as you jumped up the stairs, two, three at a time. The steps dipped under your weight, threatening to break. Behind you, the clown shrieked with laughter.

        The steps burdened your weight. At the top, you reached for the door handle, twisted it.

        A large hand landed on your shoulder. You froze for only a moment, but a moment long enough for the clown to pull you back. His chuckle was low and dark in your ear.

        Time slowed. You raised your switchblade.

        And plunged it into his hand.

        The blade sliced through his hand and bit into your shoulder. The two of you yelped with pain, dark red and black blood staining your shirt. The clown pulled back, dislodging the blade from your shoulder, and you caught its handle before it hit the ground. 

        Ignoring the intense pang, you ripped open the door. You dove through, slammed it closed behind you, and locked it in one motion. You held your switchblade to your chest, ready to strike. The clown pounded against the door, cursing your name, but did not pursue you. You wondered why he didn’t break down the door. After all, he looked strong enough to plow a bus, much less be held up by a slab of wood. You were thankful either way.

        His profanities became a faraway sound as you pressed your back to the door, your muscles unwilling to relax. You touched your shoulder. It stung when you put pressure on it, but for the most part, it was only a flesh wound. You tore a piece of your shirt and wrapped it tight around your shoulder. 

        You were becoming uncomfortably good at fixing yourself.

        When you were finished, you stood. You were in what remained of a kitchen. Like the basement, the walls were overgrown with vines and plant life. What appliances survived had become more of a makeshift greenhouse than a cooking apparatus. Outside the broken windows, thick forest stretched into the distance.

        You held your blade close as you edged further into the kitchen. Moonlight seeped onto the tile floor, reflecting on the glass shards like tiny stars. You could see another door in the dim light. You hurried toward it, ignoring the crunch of glass beneath your feet.

        The door was rotten in places, splintered holes glutted with leaves and brambles. You moved to turn the handle. It didn’t budge. You tried to kick it open, figuring the wood would be soft in its decayed state, but only managed to hurt your foot. The forest seemed to be blocking the door, neither letting trespassers in or abducted girls out.

        Searching the other doors yielded little results. They were either boarded up or sealed with undergrowth. The windows, too, proved useless with their glass maws. You were cornered.

        “But this doesn’t make sense.” You murmured to yourself. “How did Puppeteer and the clown get in here, then?”

        You looked harder. You upturned the table, threw open the refrigerator and oven, fiddled with the faucet — anything that could act as a hidden compartment. Eventually, you rummaged through the cabinets. They were full of cobwebs and dust, save for one. The cabinet door hung crooked on its hinges too symmetrically, as if someone had placed it there instead of happening with time. 

        You reached your hand to open it, but winced at the ache in your shoulder. You tried your other hand and managed to push it out of the way. It fell from its hinges, bashed onto the counter. Behind the false cabinet was a symbol. You recognized it from your dreams of Huldra and Leudagar and you wondered if this could be the key to your escape.

        With fingers still stained with your blood, you touched the symbol.

        The mark illuminated the room immediately. You threw your hands over your eyes, seeing stars at the sudden light. You squinted at the symbol as it melted down the cabinet and onto the floor, morphed outward to accommodate your size. As it rippled and shone, you realized it was another portal.

        You grimaced at the idea of going through it.

        But you no longer had a choice. You could hear the clown throwing his weight at the door again. You stared at the one thing keeping you safe and gasped in horror when the hinges began to fall away. Thread weaved between the cracks in the door, stringing themselves toward the lock, shining gold against the rusted handle.

        You clenched your switchblade, glanced at the portal, and looked to the door again. 

        Another slam against the door. You clamored onto the counter.

        The lock unlatched. The door fell to the floor.

        And you took control. You jumped through the portal.

        When you fell onto the other side, your stomach seethed. You pressed your hand against the wall to steady yourself as you dry-heaved. Your body jolted with each retch, but nothing came up. You were thankful for that at least, though, there was no denying you felt damn near ready to. You took a deep breath, looked at your new surroundings. 

        You found yourself in a wine cellar. Paintings of ships and the sea decorated the carmine-finished paneling. Bottles and barrels of aged wine stacked high to the ceiling. Three decorated safes lined the wall, beside a blackboard logged with white-chalk inventory.

        Behind you, a sound whorled. You suddenly remembered Puppeteer and the clown. You ducked behind one of the barrels and held your breath. The two emerged from the portal.

        They shuffled around a moment, before Puppeteer spoke, “We shouldn’t be here, Laughing Jack. The Mistress will be displeased if she discovers us down here.”

        Laughing Jack let out a childish groan, shuffled around more, then stopped.

        “You win this round, little mouse, but believe me when I say, we’ll play again soon.”

        You heard them backstep into the portal and it blipped away with a shot of light.

        There was silence — pure silence, ringing in your ears, for the first time in a long time. You almost couldn’t believe it as you leaned against the barrel, inhaling the pungent alcoholic scent. You considered getting a drink for yourself, but thought better of it. Still, what I wouldn’t give for a drink… 

        As the silence dragged on, you felt yourself becoming weaker. You let your head loll to the side, but gasped when you saw your shoulder. The tourniquet was drenched in blood and you realized it had become loose in your efforts to escape. You glanced around the room, your head becoming heavy with sleep.

        A decorative rope hung from the wall over top you. You pulled it down. 

        You discarded the old strip of fabric for a new one. You wrapped your shirt-bandage around the wound and then the rope around that. You used your hand and teeth to tie a knot around your shoulder, much tighter than before. Your stomach turned at the ache it caused.

        With a sigh, you pulled your shirt back down. Exhaustion made your eyes droop as you laid your head against the barrel. You decided the cellar was as safe a place as any to sleep and you let yourself relax against the cool cement floor. You’d sleep and, when you woke up, you’d be ready to face whatever came next. 

        Still, the floor left a cold feeling in your chest. 

        For the first time in days, you were without the others — without anyone really. Loneliness ebbed at your heart. 

        Was Puppeteer right? Were you really alone? It was hard surviving on your own. How could you save your family alone if you could barely save yourself?

        And what about the others? Were they coming to help you, even though you had turned on them? Even though you had caught yourself into this new mess?

        What were they to you?

        What were you?

        You turned over on the floor, your lips quivering, “I am strong.”

Chapter Text

        You hovered close to Leudagar, lethargic. You were used to the routine by now, but you wouldn’t deny how exhausting these dreams were. The waking world was already exhausting enough without this restless sleep. You missed the days of dead dreams — a warm blackness you woke from with the peace you so desired. Unfortunately, you stayed beside Leudagar as he ascended the mountain face.

        He scaled the mountain for hours, toiling under the sun and soon, mounting stars. Leudagar was no stranger to hard labor, but never had he faced such a feat of rock and stone. When he finally reached the top, he leaned over, wiping sweat from his brow. The world had grown dark with the setting sun.

        When Leudagar finally stood, he caught sight of his search: a stone amass gathered in a circle of pebbles and sea-stained rosemary. Sunset shone between the stone, dazzling your eyes with golden light. The shrine was beautiful, leaving Leudagar’s uneasiness off-putting in comparison. He caught a breath. He wasn’t sure when to begin his dance, but he supposed moon-high would be fitting. 

        Isn’t that when witches came out? You didn’t know and neither did he.

        Leudagar sat beside the circle. He didn’t dare step over the pebble bound for fear of a curse or, worse, death. If something were to happen to him now, his family would suffer for all eternity with the pain he had inflicted on their blood. He couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t fail. He had researched all he needed to know and tonight would yield the fruits of his labor.

        Eventually, the moon shone full and round overhead and Leudagar knew it was time. The man strode into the moonlight; it illuminated him like a spotlight on a stone stage. He began to undress, standing chilled and naked in the cool night air. You averted your gaze.

        He took a few breaths, murmured a quiet prayer.

        And he began to dance. 

        The man twirled and dipped with wild abandon. Like a feather in the wind, he circled the stone three times, his feet skirting the pebbles and sending up gravel. On the third turn, he stopped. He closed his eyes, feeling the night around him, and bellowed to the moon, “Berga, I summon you, in the name of Erlkonig!”

        His heart blazed like lightning. Leudagar clutched his chest, felt himself fall to his knees, but not of his own free will. Above him, a woman materialized. She hovered above the stone structure, her silhouette burning with stars, her being an amalgamation of the night sky. She glared down upon the naked man. 

        “I am the Witch, Mariele Berga. State your business, mortal.” Her tongue, a dagger. Leudagar could not see her: the way her dark hair drifted about her form, or the way her eyes pierced like a snake bite; the billowing red gown encapsulating her swan-esque body. Her presence was one that was potent. Your ancestor and you alike cowered before her.

        Leudagar began, grappling with his words. He pleaded with Mariele to lift the curse from his family, to undo the mistake befalling his blood. The Witch listened with cold, unfeeling eyes.

        When he was finished, she spoke:

        “Your foolishness has blinded you time and time again, dear Leudagar, and that is why knee before me now. You have mistaken the will of my power. I cannot break the contract you speak of.”

        “Please, I beg of you!” His voice cracked. You could hear his pitiful whimpers from where you stood, broken and teary. Seeing your ancestor, the man who shared your blood and soul, implore the only person who could save his family tore your heart. He begged over and over. His grief overwhelmed you, the intensity something you had never experienced before.

        “Enough!” The world froze, unmoving. Mariele held her arms away from her, her fingers sparking with a strange light — a light you realized was magic. 

        The witch descended, her toes touching the stone with a spray of magic. She approached the man, took his face in her hands much like a mother would her child. 

        “Leudagar, I cannot break the contract, but I can prolong its outcome.”

        He furrowed his brow, “I don’t understand.”

        “Are you willing to make a great sacrifice?”

        “I will pay any price to keep my family safe.”

        Mariele pulled away, her eyes full of sorrow, “From the moment I perform the ritual, to the day of my death, every female child conceived shall die before she may live. I will consume the soul of the unborn infant to maintain so. Never will she take one breath, her soul shall never move to the afterlife, and never shall she be resurrected.”

        “And this will ensure my family survives?” Leudagar replied, breathless.

        “Each soul I consume will extend my own life. I shall never die from old age, nor from illness. As long as I am alive, your family will survive.” She looked off into the distance. “I will go into hiding once the ritual is complete. If I am killed, your family’s curse will return.”

        The man was silent for a long time, contemplation rippling his brow. Somewhere nearby, you could hear a leaf flutter on the stone. 

        “I will take this secret to my grave.” He bowed his head between his hands.

        The witch frowned, but said nothing as she placed a hand on Leudagar’s collarbone, branded with Huldra’s mark. The symbol burned with magic and the man screamed. Beneath Mariele’s fingers, the symbol had changed.

        You awoke with a gasp. Sitting in bed, an intense ache overcame your body and you groaned. It didn’t help your mouth was dry and sour, and your stomach growled with hunger. You smacked your lips, trying to work some saliva in your mouth. Then, it struck you.

        The dreams were over. 

        The story had finally been told, after all these years. You finally knew the full truth of why you were here. Leudagar’s legacy had certainly outlived him, seeing as you had been born, hundreds of years later. But your existence could only mean one thing — Mariele was dead, and you were a ticking time bomb.

        You brought a hand to your face to wipe away the sweat, but winced. Something burned on your collarbone, fiery and intense. You lifted your shirt hesitantly. A mark seared the tender skin, the same mark Leudagar bore on his so many years ago. Taking a shaky breath, you let your shirt fall back down. 

        Your shirt — you looked down at it again. Instead of the stained, ragged shirt you had been given by Toby, you wore a silk pajama top of deep plum with trousers to match. Not only that, your makeshift tourniquet had been replaced with a proper bandage, and you hair no longer donned a greasy quality.

        It was then you realized this was not the place you had fallen asleep.

        Around you, the room was draped in purple and silver. Extravagant decor embellished the walls. A leather loveseat or ottoman nestled beneath each original painting, and a large vintage vanity sat beside a bay window. Your bed held a similar regality, furnished with plush pillows and silk sheets and a finely tailored duvet. The room was anything but poor; whoever lived here had money — more than they knew what to do with.

        There was a knock on the door.

        “May I come in?”

        You froze, snapped your gaze to the mahogany door. That was a woman’s voice. For a moment, you feared Clockwork or Jane may have found you, but quickly dispelled the thought. Neither of them were nice enough to ask your permission for anything. Besides, this woman sounded older, wiser. 

        That didn’t mean you trusted her.

        “Uh, just a minute!” You called back.

        You threw the sheets and jumped out of bed. Quickly, you patted yourself down for your switchblade, but found yourself unarmed. You cursed under your breath and searched the room. There wasn’t much in terms of practical weapons, but you could make do. You opted to use a grotesquely deformed elephant statue as a melee. 

        “I’m coming in.” The doorknob shook, the sound of a key clicking in its innards. Slowly, the door crept open.

        Huldra was beautiful, just as you had seen her in your dreams. Her blue eyes pierced your skin as she padded toward you. A white silk gown trailed from her ankles. Her hair dripped over her shoulder like locks of honey and, had you not known any better, you would have mistaken her sweet face for a friend.

        She sat on the bed, “Put that down, schatz. You’re not going to hurt me. You’re too smart for that.”

        You thought about her words and realized she was right. An elephant was no means of defending yourself, especially in the presence of an immortal all-powerful being. You let the statue drop to the wood floor. 

        “Good girl.” Huldra patted the bed. “Come sit. I only want to talk.”

        “Where is my family?” You retorted.

        She laughed a little, the sound like bells to your ears. She stood and approached you, cupping your cheek in her hand, “Oh, schatz, you’re precious. Your family is safe. In fact, they’re in this very house.”

        “Take me to them, now!” You swatted her hand away, your lips spitting acid.

        She tsked, “Where are your manners? You mustn’t forget you are a guest in my home.”

        Huldra moved away from you. You glared at her as she glided to the window and parted the drapes, her lithe figure showing through the delicate nightgown in the morning sun.

        “It has taken me centuries to incorporate myself among the humans. Germany was a beautiful gift, but I suppose I wanted more than what my Father could give me.” She turned to you again, her hands folded. “I have been searching for you for such a long time. I wouldn’t want you to ruin this moment by being so uncouth.”

        She smiled at you, pearly and white, and a shiver shot up your back.

        “Please don’t do this. I don’t want to kill my family.” Tears stung your eyes at last. You couldn’t fight Huldra, but you couldn’t get to your family without her in the way. You’d have to figure out how to evade her. Whatever happened you were going to save your family. 

        "Oh, schatz, do not cry. Come, I would like to tell you a story,” She sat on the loveseat by the window, inviting you once again to sit beside her. “I know that Der GroBmann has poisoned your mind with false compassion. I would like to set the record straight.”

        You didn’t move. She seemed neither offended or pleased by your reaction, or lack thereof. She began after a moment,

        “Back when the world was still new and bountiful, before the follies of man tainted the Earth, all creatures lived in harmony. The Gods toiled to maintain this balance among all life.

        Aelfwaru was the Goddess of Life. Erlkonig was the God of Death. The two were lovers, and bore many children. Yet, the Goddess was afraid for her children.

        She knew that if the Gods saw a single flaw on her offspring, they would be taken from her. Dutifully, Aelfwaru bathed these children every day at the same time.

        The other Gods knew this, and decided to play a trick on the Goddess they had been so jealous of.” Huldra bared her teeth, her voice waving for a heartbeat. “One day, as she bathed her children, the Gods visited before she had finished. In fear, the woman hid the rest of her dirty children away.

        The gods asked, ‘Are there not more children?’ She denied it and the Gods laughed.

        ‘Then let all that is hidden, remain hidden!’ They replied, casting a curse.

        Those hidden children became the De Underjordiske. They are the lost souls trapped beneath the surface of the Earth, pleading for their Mother for the rest of eternity.

        In their grief, Aelfwaru and Erlkonig separated. Erlkonig vowed to watch over the De Underjordiske for the rest of time and Aelfwaru was never heard from again.

        My brother, Der GroBmann, and I are merely two of those lost children.”

        Huldra sat, haunched and haunted, once she finished her tale of woe. You didn’t know how to feel. You hated this woman for what she had done to you, your family, but you could not deny the sadness burrowing in your heart. You shuffled your feet, unsure of what to say.

        Finally, the woman sighed, crossing her arms, “You see, schatz, I cannot deny my nature and neither can my brother. He is a creature of structure and discipline.

        After my contract with your distant father, our way of life was changed forever. Industrialization swiftly took hold of the Earth. 

        Old gods were replaced with new. People no longer feared or respected us. They labeled us as Myths, pushed us into the darkness — alone and struggling to make sense of our forgotten lives.

        I feel that our existence has been corrupted, schatz.” Huldra said this as fact, looking faraway out the window. “When Mariele Berga prolonged your bloodline, she merely put a pin in the thread of fate. But as such, nature’s course was altered.

        The death of those infants has been supplying a great deal of power to Mariele. That kind of power has been calling to the blood of De Underjordiske offspring. Jeffrey, Eyeless Jack, the Proxies, and every creature you’ve encountered have awakened because of this curse. 

        Your blood calls to them like a sweet flower calls to a honey bee." Her gaze snapped to you viciously. “And when I killed Mariele, that power was not transferred to me.” 

        Huldra stood suddenly. You bristled, uncertainty lending to indecision as she narrowed her eyes at you. Was she going to hurt you? If you ran, could you outpace her? 

        If you fought, would she kill you? 

        “It was given to you on the day of your birth.” Her beautiful face contorted into one of rage. She advanced on you, her feet light and swift. Instinctively, you backed up until your back hit the wall. You closed your eyes.

        “P-Please…don’t —”

        You felt a touch on your cheek. When you opened your eyes, you found her hand caressing your face, rubbing the corner of your lip in gentle circles. She pressed her forehead against yours. You shivered at her warm breath.

        “It would be a wise decision to rid yourself of this mortal coil, schatz.” Huldra murmured, her eyelashes fluttering against your skin. “Only when the contract is fulfilled, will balance be restored once more.”

        With that, she released your cheek and moved away to the door. 

        Your mind raced with thought. You needed to get out of here, stall her until you could find an escape route. You couldn’t let her kill you or, worse, allow her to satisfy her contract. You considered drawing another deal, but Huldra did not seem the type to change her mind so easily. There was only one other choice.

        You had to play into her fantasy.

        “Wait!” You called after her. The woman stopped short, turning to you like a sunflower to the sun.

        Her gaze on you made your thoughts scatter. You stuttered, “Can I… Can I at least say goodbye? To my family, I mean.”

        She smiled again, but this time, she could not hide the dark glint in her eyes.

        “Your clothes are in the top dresser. You may change and meet me outside when you’re ready.”

        Huldra glided out of the room, closing the door behind her. You had not realized you were holding your breath until she was gone. You panted, starved for air. Once your erratic breaths calmed, you took to looking around the room. You knew arming yourself was for naught, but being without your switchblade left you feeling naked. 

        You found a letter opener on the vanity. The blade was dulled with age and shone bronze in the sunlight, meant for decoration rather than use. It would do for now.

        You dressed in unfamiliar clothing, looking oddly proper in the mirror. You supposed it was better than blood-stained as you had been. Pocketing the letter opener in your waistband, you exited the room. Huldra waited for you in the hallway. 

        “Follow.” She said and began down the corridor. It was as elegant as the room you had just slept in. You trailed behind her, taking note of anything that could be a means of escape. Many of the other rooms had open windows, some looked to have secret doorways, and others seemed to lead nowhere. You tried to remember them all in the twists of this mansion. 

        “Don’t move anything. My husband will grow suspicious.” Huldra glanced at you. You gave her a bewildered look. “I will assure you that he is human, and knows nothing of our kind. When you’ve lived as long as I, it is good to keep up appearances. It makes things easier to navigate the human world.” She looked ahead again. “I will dispose of him when the time comes.”

        Your mouth hung agape for only a moment before you composed yourself, continued walking. Her apathy shook you and you found the sympathy you had for her dissipating. A monster like her deserved no room in your heart. Huldra stopped at a mahogany door similar to yours. 

        She looked to you for a moment, her eyebrow cocked. You suddenly realized what was about to happen and you felt nervous jitters making your body tremble. After all this time, you were going to see your family again. It had felt like an eternity since you last saw them. Would they recognize you? You had changed so much, certainly it would be hard for them. Anxiety rattled your core.

        You nodded. You had to see them no matter what. Immediately, she turned the handle and allowed you to walk inside first. You stepped inside. 

        The room was dark and warm. At first, you couldn’t see and you wondered if Huldra had tricked you. But as your eyes adjusted, you caught sight of three figures on a large bed. You padded over to the bed with hesitation, stepping as cautiously as if you were approaching a wild animal, and leaned over them. They lay still and sleeping: your mother, father, and brother. 

        You couldn’t hold it in anymore. Sobs racked your throat as you threw yourself on the edge of the bed. You grabbed your mother’s hand and put it to your cheek, calling out to her. She did not respond. You tried again, burying your head in her hair, but she merely murmured something under her breath. Magic had put them to sleep.

        “I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes.” Huldra backed out of the room. She locked the door behind her.

        You cried for what seemed like forever. Through your tears, you told them about everything that had happened. You told them about Leaudagar and Huldra and the story of the De Underjordiske. You told them about the women who had stolen you and the strange men who had saved your life. You told them how much you loved them and how sorry you were for wrapping them up in this. You told them you would fix this, no matter what.

        Something tapped against the window. You jolted your head up, wiping away your tears. For a moment, you thought you had imagined the noise. Then, you saw another small stone hit the glass. You darted over to the window and peered outside, seeing you were on the second floor. 

        Below, you saw a man in a white hoodie walking a large husky. He had the hood over his head, but it did not hide the long dark hair spilling around his neck. When he looked up at you, you saw bloodshot eyes and a smile hidden by Toby’s mouthguard. A euphoric grin graced your features. 

        You threw open the window, finding it barred on the outside.

        Jeff called up to you, “You really are a princess — locked up in a tower and everything!” You cringed at his loud voice. It could carry across the world if he wanted it to.

        “Be quiet! She might hear you!”

        “Oh, shut up, it’s fine. Just came to relay a message.” The man rolled his eyes and cleared his throat. He lowered his voice, mimicking Der GroBmann with a poor accent, “‘Wait until sun down, then draw my symbol in the basement.’”

        You opened your mouth to thank him, but he continued in a squeaky mock, “‘I suck and can’t save you, but Jeff will because he’s beautiful and awesome,’ says Toby.”

        You rolled your eyes, but smiled nonetheless. You hadn’t realized how much you missed Jeff’s stupid taunts. 

        “You better promise!” You yelled in a low voice.

        “I promise.”

        You watched as he took another white rock from his pocket. Aiming it, he threw it up to you and you stuck your arm out between the bars and caught it. In your hand, you saw it was not a white rock, but a rock wrapped in paper. You unfolded it.

        Inside was a crude drawing of a winky face with a wide grin. You smiled at it, a playful glint catching in your eye.

        “Be safe, Smile!” You called down. The dog barked back, his tail wagging furiously.

        You heard a whiny, drawn-out ‘hey’ from Jeff as you closed the window.

Chapter Text

        Huldra granted you free reign of the second—story of the house. If by free reign, she meant pacing the floor with nothing to do while she watched. She had forbade you from touching anything that wasn’t a book or a couch, and even then she made a fuss of tidying up after you. She made it clear you did not exist as far as her husband was concerned.

        When you weren’t pretending to read on the loveseat, you were exploring the hallways. They were ornate and luxurious, brimmed with useless things only old money could appreciate. There was a cascading staircase leading to the first floor. The rooms you could see into held a posh air, muddled only by the bars on the windows. You wondered how Huldra had convinced her husband to install them.

        “Because he’s never home.” She had said. You left it at that. 

        If there was one thing you hated more than the pacing and the boredom, it was Huldra. She watched you. Each room you went in, she followed behind soon enough. She would preoccupy herself with preening or dusting until you looked away. Then, she’d stare at you, her eyes resting on your skin, your bones, your soul.

        A dribble of cold sweat shot down your spine.

        “Stop doing that. It’s fucking creepy.”

        Huldra smiled and looked away. She didn’t respond, merely gave you a fleeting reprieve before she continued staring at you. You rolled your eyes and looked back at your book. Leafing through the pages, you knew she was up to something. In the same instance, you wondered if she knew you were too.

        Both of you were buying time, believing to play the other for a fool. And yet, neither of you said a word. You moved your pawn; she moved her queen. You weren’t sure who was winning.

        You turned your back to her on the loveseat. 

        As the sun pirouetted in the sky, you found your mind wandering to your family. You knew Huldra wouldn’t release them, but would the others help you save them? Would they, if you asked? With your shoulder and their unconscious state, you couldn’t get them out alone. It would be a death sentence for the lot of you.

        You turned your book over in your hands and read the title for the first time: Of Mice and Men. You remembered reading Steinbeck in high school not too long ago. Your classmates had hated it, but you had developed a particular affinity for the book, and you decided now was as good a time as any to reread it. You tried to remember the ending — didn’t the guy die at the end? It didn’t matter. They always died in the end.

        You flipped to the first page.

        Night descended slow and thick. You cast an anxious glance out the library window, watching as the sun dipped lower and lower in the horizon. Your book laid forgotten beside you. You weren’t ready for what came next.

        Huldra was looking at you again, a glint in her eye that unnerved you to your core. You tried to ignore her; tried to think straight despite the blood pumping in your ears. You knew what to do, but what if it didn’t work? The last remnants of the day soaked into the earth. No. You had to do this right.

        The others were counting on you.

        You would die fighting if you had to.

        You looked to Huldra again and stifled a gasp when you saw her eyes: dark as a new—moon night. Her disguise melted away as the shadows stretched into the library. Your fingers found refuge in the binding of your book as you recognized the woman’s true form. Outside of your dream, her dark skin and white hair, her crown of horns and long bovine tail, seemed all the more sinister.

        She smiled at you, and your blood ran cold. Around you, the world had stopped: the ticking of the clock stilled, the breeze outside the window fell. All life on earth seemed to stop, never daring to breathe, waiting in silence for something to happen. You had to be ready, no matter what.

        “It’s time, schatz.” 

        The room went dark.

        You grasped your book and threw it at Huldra. Dipping beneath her outstretched claws, you barreled toward the door. 

        You brandished the letter opener and prayed to God it could save you.

        Huldra let out a lull of laughter. The book had done nothing in deterring her, and, as you reached the door, she gripped you by your waist. She pulled you toward her, and you could feel her teeth grazing your neck. Her skin was cold against yours.

        “No!” You drove the blade into her arm. She hissed, released you, and you ripped the letter opener from her skin.

        You dove out of the library. The hallway was black with night; you could barely see beyond your nose. Only when you caught sight of one green light down the corridor did you get a sense of yourself.

        “It’s time.” Clockwork’s voice echoed like gongs in your ears. The light was getting closer. You darted in the opposite direction, toward your family. You weren’t sure if you were going the right way, but as you threw your body against their door, you knew you had to be. But the room was empty, the bed they had been sleeping in barren and cold. Where were they?

        Moonlight pooled through the window. You could see Jane’s figure melting out of the shadows, “It’s time.”

        She threw her knife, and it stuck in the wall by your head. You yelped and fled the room, slamming the door shut. You had to save your family. Find the staircase. 

        You ran blindly, your hands finding leverage on the wall and railing. When the banister dropped away from your palm, you turned down it. The stairs were steep and slippery, but it didn’t stop you from taking them two at a time. Nothing was going to prevent you from escaping.

        A familiar laugh sounded from below you. Screwing your eyes against the dark, you looked to the bottom of the staircase to see the towering silhouette of a feathered clown. Laughing Jack stretched out his arms, much like a man seeing an old friend, “It’s time, little mouse.”

        Fear growled in your throat. He was in your way.

        Thinking fast, you sidestepped him. He swooped to grab you with his long arms, but you ducked in the opposite direction, leaving him tumbling from his momentum. You didn’t let your triumph distract you. You sprinted away, realizing now you were in unfamiliar territory. You had to pace yourself.

        You slowed, glancing around in the dark. Everything in you screamed to keep running, but you couldn’t afford to make a mistake. You took a deep breath and willed your fear away, just for now. You weren’t sure where you were. When you reached out your hands, two walls on either side scrapped your palms. Perhaps you were in a hallway? You followed the wood, taking deliberate steps. 

        Eventually, your fingertips glided along something smooth and hard. You gripped it, realized it was a doorknob. You turned into the room. In the dim light, it looked to be a child’s bedroom with stuffed toys and fairy lights. A pink canopy hung over a pink princess bed and, beside it, two white dressers. There was a closet to the right of you.

        You moved to leave, only to hear it: heavy footfalls echoed fast down the corridor, a voice, cackling, “Hide and seek, hide and seek!”

        You had to hide before he found you. Your eyes darted around the room, trying to find refuge anywhere they could. Your gaze landed on the bed. Could you fit under there? It was too late to second guess. You dove under the bed.

        It was a tight squeeze, but you managed. The wooden frame scrapped against your back, reopening old wounds you had forgotten about, but you grit your teeth. You didn’t dare make a sound with the clown so close. His presence was potent, his footsteps a ceremonial drum, announcing his arrival as he approached. 

        Stay quiet. You can’t let Huldra get her hands on you again. 

        Eventually, he stopped outside the door. You listened hard, your view obscured by the sheets hanging over the bed. The floor creaked with his weight as he shifted into the room. You could hear his low cackling, and you stifled a whimper. You prayed he couldn’t hear your heaving chest, your heart pulsating in your ears.

        You could see his feet clearly through the sheets now, and you knew he was close. He murmured something, though, you weren’t sure what, and he chuckled to himself. You wished you could share his same humor at the situation. But this wasn’t a simple game of hide and seek, and you could see his clawed hand reaching beneath the bed.

        A crash.

        His hand, inches from your face, jolted back. His feet moved away from the bed. You heard him clamoring out of the room, and you could only assume he had gone to find the sound. You let yourself breath.

        “It’s time.” 

        You gasped, snapping your head to your right. Sally laid beside you, clutching her doll, and sweeping a strand of bloody hair from her face. She smiled.

        You scrambled from beneath the bed and fled for the hallway. You didn’t look to where you were going. You had to get out of there. The hall fell away into an open space, and, with your eyes adjusted to the dark, you could see you were in a kitchen. A figure stood in the corner, its golden threads sprawling around it like a scorpion’s tail. You kept running.

        You ran until you came across another door. When you threw it open, you found stairs leading back into the basement. Triumph surged through you, and you descended the steps two at a time, trying to keep your relief at bay. You had found the cellar as the others had told you, but you weren’t out yet. You could celebrate when you were home.

        They were waiting for you.

        You reached the bottom of the stairs. Huldra’s henchmen hadn’t seemed to follow you, and you found yourself alone, yet again, in the dark wine cellar. Beside you, a candle flickered on a barrel. You picked it up, moved it around the room. The light settled on three silhouettes above your head. You threw your hand over your mouth. 

        Your family hung from the ceiling like slaughter. 

        You rushed toward them, jumping to reach the restraints on their rope—burned wrists. You tried you pull them down, but stopped when your brother groaned in pain. It was no use. They were too high up. Maybe you could get on a barrel and—?

        You heard footsteps overhead. Dust fell from the ceiling. Your face contorted, and you looked between your family and the cellar door.

        There was no time.

        Swallowing the lump in your throat, you looked for something to write with. You caught sight of the blackboard, a hunk of white chalk on its ledge, and grabbed it. You got to your hands and knees. Hurriedly, you drew Der GroBmann’s symbol, the chalk bumping and jolting on the calloused floor. When you had finished, you brandished your letter opener.

        You brought the blade to your flesh, “Please let this work.”

        Red dripped from the wound, heavy and thick, and you knew you had cut too deep. Overhead, you heard the cellar door swing open. You’d have to fix it later. Letting the blood pool into your hand, you slammed your open palm into the ground. The portal whirled to life, a flurry of light and ancient magic. 

        The footsteps were closing in on you.

        A pair of hands reached through the portal and grabbed your arms. 

        “Don’t let them have her again!” Huldra yowled.

        You let yourself be pulled through, watching your family disappear on the other side.