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The Scorpion’s Sting

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Diary 30th May:

 

 

I know I don’t have much time to write and I don’t want this narrative to be discovered by prying eyes. All I can do is hope that one day when all of this is over, perhaps someone- anyone will know what’s happened to me. 

Rezmorta has retired for the night after passing along the “Master’s” wishes that I sleep well. That son of a bitch. As if I’m his guest and not his prisoner.

And I am a prisoner here.

And I can’t say I can always tell the difference between night and day anymore. It’s always dark outside. Always storming. I’m in a gilded cage, but a cage nonetheless. I don’t know how much of it is real or how much is illusion...

All I know is that I don’t know how to escape. And that I’m at the mercy of a man who is some kind of monster, some kind of magician...

My entire fledgling career as a hunter has led me to this point. The point where I have to overcome forces beyond my control. I’ve been groomed my entire life to be the one to defeat the ringmaster of the Carnival of Doom.

The man who calls himself Mr. Tophat.

I know I’m getting ahead of myself and I apologize. Let me help you to understand-

I don’t have any blood family to speak of. I was raised by a lovely woman named Ellen Harvelle and her daughter Jo. Growing up, I was aware that we weren’t biologically family but I didn’t learn the truth about my parents until I was ten. My parents were hunters, part of a fringe society of people who fought to protect others from the things that go bump in the night. They had been killed by a skin walker when I was four and Ellen had taken me in as her own.

I have no idea what a normal childhood consists of, but I doubt it entails witnessing your first demon exorcism at twelve years old. Or staking your first vamp at fifteen. I had received a thorough education about what really lurks behind the curtain of human awareness, and I had been well trained by some of the best hunters in the business. In my “off time” as I guess you could call it, I was a singer and songwriter. It was actually a very convenient hobby. I could travel inconspicuously from town to town whenever there was some ghoulish thing to be exterminated.

But when I turned 21, that’s when the gauntlet fell.  I learned that I was the subject of an obscure demonic prophecy. A prophecy that had been concealed from me my entire life, though all the while I had been training for it unawares.

Ellen sat me down one night and finally spilled the secret. I know she wasn’t happy to do it. But apparently there had been signs, omens that something was about to come to pass. I had heard whispers over the years about a haunted carnival that no one could remember clearly, children inexplicably disappearing, the legend of a legacy of evil.

I didn’t know that it had anything to do with me.

Ellen told me that a long-since exorcised demon had taunted the existence of something called the Carnival of Doom. That it’s ringmaster, a mystical character called Mr. Tophat, had been commissioned by Lucifer to enslave countless children over the years. All had vanished without a trace. And the most insidious part of Mr. Tophat’s power was his ability to completely erase the memories of anyone and everyone who had ever set foot in the Carnival. The Carvival would disappear during the night, move on to the next town to victimize, and no one would ever recall its presence.

A group of hunters had investigated the demon’s claim and discovered in some long forgotten archive the prophecy of Mr. Tophat’s downfall. A girl who was once an orphaned child with the ability to resist his control. A descendant of the Carpenter family, allegedly Mr. Tophat’s very first victims.

Y/N Carpenter. Me.

And I wouldn’t have believed it was true...except for the dreams. All my life I had been having dreams about a shadowy circus-like place, leering dead-eyed clowns...and a mysterious man in a top hat laughing. A man whose face I could never see.

I don’t know if they were just dreams or real subconscious memories. Maybe I never will. 

An albatross had suddenly been tied around my neck. I had a mission to defeat a monster from a demon’s fairytale. Ellen explained to me that we had a lead, that I would have a team of hunters to back me up. We needed to infiltrate the carnival when it arrived, find the source of Mr. Tophat’s power wherever it might be, and then destroy it.

But of course things never seem to go to plan in this fucked up profession...

And I suppose we should have known something was wrong. It was as if we had been expected. 

We had surveilled the Carnival from a distance before the gates opened that night. We saw the shadowy figure we believed was Mr. Tophat and where his trailer was located on the grounds.

Dammit I should have known something was wrong...

I remember sitting in the stands in that tent, occasionally marking the whereabouts of the other hunters in my peripheral vision. I remember the lights going out. I remember the heavy, ominous footfalls on the stage as Mr. Tophat emerged into the spotlight from a cloud of fog...

He held down the edge of his hat over his brow as he prowled onto the stage. I saw a tousle of dark wavy curls under the jaunty angle of that brim. I remember Mr. Tophat slowly lifting his chin and revealing an unexpectedly handsome face to my vision. Dark enigmatic eyes locked magnetically with mine as if I was the only other person in the tent. Alarm bells should have been blaring in my mind like air raid sirens, but I was utterly ensnared in that captivating gaze. I felt the shudder of some otherworldly awareness skitter icily up my spine. I remember the tingle of the hair rising on the back of my neck as I sat in stunned silence beholding the man who smiled so roguishly at me. 

The man who would soon become my captor.

His eyes never left mine. “Welcome,” he purred with a maniacal lilt, “to the Carnival of Doom!”

 

*to be continued...*

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Diary 30th May continued:

 

 

So that is how the story started. And how I came to rue the day that I first learned the true tale of the Carnival of Doom.

Seeing Mr. Tophat for the first time stands out so starkly in my memory of that night. An alluring, ethereal vision wreathed in a heady air of evil. He had the charisma of a seasoned performer, so charming up there on that stage that I had no doubt the other patrons had no idea what he truly was. That handsome face and Cheshire smile concealed his true identity...

The Carnival’s “Master of Ceremonies” was a monster.

He certainly looked human enough. Mr. Tophat was a broad-shouldered man, but with a trim athletic build. He was tall, his height further exaggerated by pointy, black-heeled boots. Aside from that infamous black tophat, he wore a sharply tailored red jacket, tie and waistcoat, black striped pants that flashed with tiny golden sequins. But his most compelling accoutrement was his cane. It was long and wooden, highly polished, and ending in a sharp metal point. And at its peak was a orange glass orb clasped in gold that glowed and flickered like a sickly firefly.

“Welcome to all,” he boomed to the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, ghouls and goblins, saints and sinners, allies and enemies, those who are lost, and those who never wish to be found....welcome to the show.”

He twirled his cane in an arcing parabola then rapped it sharply on the floor. “I cannot promise you a relaxing evening,” he confided dramatically to the crowd, “but I can promise you a spectacular night of thrills and chills. You will find within these grounds the stuff of dreams and nightmares, my dearest friends. You will no doubt see and experience things that will both titillate and terrify you. But just remember...no matter how unbelievable these things might be...” he held out an outstretched palm and counted off the words on his fingers. “It’s all-part-of-the-show...”

Mr. Tophat’s audience was completely enthralled. And I was included among those ranks. He moved with an animal’s grace upon the stage, like some slinking predatory cat. He was like a caricature come to life: a living tempest of bombastic gestures and wielding that strange cane like the maestro of an orchestra. 

I wasn’t even fully aware of what he was saying as he continued to speak. I was too fixated on the man himself. All too soon, I was jostled from my preoccupation by thunderous applause around me. Mr. Tophat had raised his gloved hands regarding his attentive audience, “Thank you all for your kind indulgence...” He turned sharply to my direction and his dark eyes met mine once more. His smiled, a saccharine and deadly leer, like candy-coated arsenic. “And I sincerely hope you will all enjoy your stay with us tonight...”

I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I felt exposed and off-kilter, as if his knowing magnetic gaze was a spotlight upon me. There was a rumbling hum, a inferno of blinding flames, and then tent was plunged into darkness. When the lights flickered back on again, Mr. Tophat had vanished from the stage. 

The audience tittered excitedly and began to make for the exits. As the crowd slowly dispersed, I shook off that bizarre off-kilter feeling. Dismissed it as the shock of realization that I was actually here and that the figure in a top hat who had haunted my childhood dreams was actually real

The plan was already set to begin. Two of the hunters in our crew were charged with creating the distraction we needed. Their job was to make entry to the trailer housing the main electrical controls for the grounds. Shut off the power and create confusion and panic. Three other hunters including myself would neutralize any security sentries at Mr. Tophat’s trailer and get inside to search for some clues to his power.

We were separated in the whirl of the exiting crowd, but we all knew where to go. And what a spectacle it was to navigate through... 

It was a dark and dreamy atmosphere walking through the smoke-addled pathways amongst the milling customers. There were spindly stilt-walkers creeping along like overgrown spiders, fire-eaters spewing flames into the air. There were towering amusement park rides with flashing lights, grinning masked carnies hawking their games and treats, discordant strains of calliope music.

And everywhere I looked I saw the shades who I knew were Mr. Tophat’s victims: teenagers pale and hollow-eyed, their faces slathered in slapdash clown make-up. They looked like the physical embodiment of soullessness behind the leering red smiles plastered over their mouths. They shuffled along like over-medicated patients in an asylum ward, and god and it was so disturbing to watch.

But I couldn’t afford to be distracted. I had a job to do.

As I skulked through the darkness amongst the scattered travel trailers, my two comrades were nowhere to be seen. I crouched behind a stack of barrels and waited.

But they never arrived.

The lights began powering down with a whine, blackness blanketing the Carnival. A hush fell over the crowds in the distance followed closely by a rising din of anxious and frightened voices. I couldn’t wait any longer. I was time to go, even if I had to do it alone. But as I crept up to Mr. Tophat’s trailer, there was no one in sight. Not the hunters. Not any kind of lurking henchmen. No one.

And the door was unlocked. 

I should have paid more attention to that niggling feeling of wrongness. Perhaps if I had, I wouldn’t be here now. Sitting at this desk writing by candlelight like a character in some goddamn 19th century novel...wondering if I’ll ever see my friends and family again. But I digress-

There was nothing really remarkable inside Mr. Tophat’s trailer. A chintz sofa, a bulbed mirror dressing table, silk covered lamps...

But the was an enormous armoire in the corner with two cabinet doors that stretched from floor to ceiling. They were secured with a single lock that was unlike anything I had ever seen. A single keyhole, large and round.

As I crept closer, I heard the ting of metal falling and looked down to see a golden coin spinning on the floor. I guess I supposed that I had knocked it off the dressing table. I didn’t know that it had been dropped at my feet with intent...

I picked it up. It was cold and heavy in my hand, emblazoned on one side with a grinning skull and on the other was the figure of a scorpion. And despite the oddity of the coin’s appearance, I knew intuitively that it was exactly what I needed. I placed it carefully into the round keyhole of the lock. The armoire shuddered, the lock fell open. I reached for one of the knobs and pulled it, some kind of tingling electrical current running through my fingertips and up my arm.

The door opened into blackness, as if whatever lay beyond was sucking the light out of the room behind me and consuming it. I stepped carefully inside, the air heavy and thick with what I can only describe as magic

I stretched out my arm ahead of me. There was some kind of door in front of me that I couldn’t make out in the dark. I ran my hand over the smooth wooden surface until I felt a handle. I cranked it down with an ominous creak and it swung into another room.

And holy shit. It was grandest bedroom I had ever set foot in, large and high ceilinged with richly tapestried walls. It was dimly lit, only illuminated by a few gas lamps on the walls that glowed with a ghostly blue hue. The furnishings were opulent and in a style not of this century. There was an enormous four poster bed with black silk curtains. A vanity table with a cushioned stool, an upholstered fainting couch, a writing desk with intricate carvings and filigrees. There was a columned archway to the left that led into another room where I could see a dancing flicker on the walls, light reflected from a crackling fireplace.

I stepped cautiously into the room. This was most definitely some kind of magic. It had to be. There was no way the trailer could house a room with these enormous dimensions. It was so otherworldly, out of place with its outdated furnishings and dim, eerie lighting. It was like the setting of some kind of gothic Mary Shelley novel. I had only taken a few steps inside when I heard the closet door slam behind me. I whirled around, yanked the handle open...

And inside was an ordinary closet full of extraordinary clothing. Fur stoles, fanciful embroidered gowns, a lace chemise, petticoats for god’s sake...

Fuck. My way back out of here was gone. 

I instinctively shoved a hand into the pocket of my jacket for my phone but found it empty. What in the actual fuck?

“Is there anything that madame requires?” came a watery voice from behind me.

I turned slowly, every nerve on edge towards the sound. And what I saw made me gasp with alarm and stumble back.

It was a woman. At least I thought that’s what it was. Her long grey hair fell in haphazard wisps around her head. And god her face. It was completely white, cracked and dry like broken pottery and her eyes- they weren’t really eyes at all. Two opaque orbs stared back at me from sunken sockets, completely black. But they weren’t blacked out like a demon’s eyes. They reminded me a doll’s eyes, lifeless and glassy, reflecting the gloomy light of the room like mirrors.

“Who-who are you?” I stammered. “Wha-what are you?”

The lipless mouth stretched into some semblance of a smile, deepening the cracks in that disquieting face. “Rezmorta, madame. Your ladies maid, madame.” She curtsied low and I could swear I heard something like the squeak of wooden joints. Little puffs of dust scattered from under her skirts and sleeves as she righted herself. “What can I do for you?”

I backed further away. “You can tell me how to get out of here.”

“Oh I’m afraid that’s impossible, madame,” she rattled sweetly. “You are the Master’s guest.”

“The Master?” I asked disbelievingly. But I already knew. It was Mr. Tophat. I had walked right into a goddamn trap.

My eyes darted around the room. There had to be another way out. I saw two ornately carved doors set with large pieces of glass. I could see the night sky behind the raindrops spattering against them. Outside.

I ran to the doors and Rezmorta made no move to stop me. As I flung them open, I realized they led to an outdoor half-moon shaped balcony. I was on some kind of second floor but I could see nothing before me but a vast stretch of dark woods. Jesus where the hell was I? 

But escaping out there had to be better than being trapped indoors. I blinked the rain out of my eyes and ran to the balustrade, preparing to climb over it. 

And then I saw them.

Motionless shadowy figures stood sentinel among the trees. But as soon as I swung one leg over the balustrade, they seemed to come to life. Shambling awkwardly towards the balcony and filling the air with unearthly groans. And Jesus I didn’t bother to count them, they were everywhere. As they neared the light spilling out onto the balcony, I could finally make out their features...

Jesus they were dead things. Dead but moving with horrific animation. Some had leathery desiccated flesh beneath tattered clothing, others looked like masses of putrid decomposing tissue molded into human form. Some were missing large swathes of skin that exposed fragments of their skeletal frames. Zombies. These were motherfucking zombies!

They were encircling the ground beneath the balcony, moaning horribly, retching and rasping. And though they had no hope of reaching me, they still stretched their boney and decaying arms up towards me, gnashed their clattering teeth hungrily.

This couldn’t be real. My entire education in hunting and I had never heard of zombies being a real monster. Wraiths, reapers, skin walkers, vampires, werewolves, but never fucking zombies! It wasn’t scientifically possible. It had to be some kind of illusion.

But the smell. I can’t even describe the foul odor of putrefaction that wafted up to meet me. An oozing, noxious stink of rotting carcasses that invaded my nostrils, nauseating me and making my eyes water. 

I climbed back over the balustrade, gagging and tripping my way back onto the terrace.

Rezmorta was standing at the balcony doorway, clearly unmoved by the nightmarish sounds and stench beneath us. That broken and disjointed smile had not left her face. “We must get you dressed, madame. The Master is awaiting you at dinner.”

 

 

*to be continued *

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Diary 30th May continued:

 

 

I eyed Rezmorta quizzically as I stumbled past her into the fresher air of the bedroom. “The Master w-what?” I choked.

“The master is awaiting you at dinner. We must get you dressed,” she repeatedly placidly, closing the balcony doors again as if nothing extraordinary had just occurred.

“Dressed?” I coughed.

“Of course, madame. That costume of yours is not suitable for dinner.”

I looked down at my jeans and grey t-shirt. Costume?!? I watched as she rattled towards the closet and threw it open, pulling out some garishly ornamented green gown and a handful of frilly underpinnings.

“Absolutely not!” I rasped as my voice returned. “I am not wearing that!”

She turned those frightfully glassy eyes towards me. “But madame...”

“I suppose I’ll just have to be unsuitable then,” I muttered irritably. “And where is ‘dinner’?”

She sighed, a wheezy hollow sound. “The dining room is down the staircase and to the right, madame, but-“

I didn’t wait to hear the rest. I made for the adjoining room with the flickering firelight. It was indeed some kind of sitting room, full of bookcases and ornamental statuary. There was a dusty couch and bearskin rug lying in front of a tall granite fireplace. I didn’t stop to examine the room more thoroughly, but continued to the large double doors I presumed was the exit.

As I stepped out into the hallway, I confirmed that I was indeed on a second floor. Before me was an airy open landing surrounded by a wrought iron railing. I walked to the railing and looked down upon dual curving staircases that led down to a vast marble floored foyer. Directly across from me on the other wing was another dark hallway, and another, and another... It was utterly labyrinthine. The only architecture that didn’t blend with everything else was a columned archway at the top of the stairs that seemed to lead into an enormous ballroom.

Jesus this place was palatial. It was dizzying, chimerical. It felt like a haunted mansion dimly lit by a battalion of those eerie blue gaslights. And it was so silent, quiet as a graveyard except for the ominous grumbling of thunder outside. 

I had tread carefully as I descended the staircase in the semi-darkness. There was a squat little clown standing at the foot of the stairs. I recognized him immediately as the ticket man I had seen at the gate of the Carnival. He wore blacked out glasses so patently similar to Rezmorta’s mirrored eyes. His black lips stretched into a smile as I approached, revealing small jagged teeth. “Please follow me, Miss.”

He led the way down another dark hallway. I followed a pace behind, taking in the strange assortment of art on the walls. There were broken marionettes dangling at odd angles, framed old black and white photographs of sideshow freaks, a faded time-worn banner proclaiming, “The show to end all shows! One night only!” 

“Just ahead there, Miss,” drawled the spectacled clown’s voice. He had stopped, gesturing to the end of the corridor. Ahead was a lighted doorway, yawning wide as if waiting to devour me. I moved past him, my footsteps echoing loudly in the silence. I could hear my own heartbeat in my ears as all too soon I arrived at the threshold. I released a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding and stepped cautiously to the room.

It was a spacious candlelit dining room dominated by a long black lacquered table set with a twisted golden candelabra...and Christ there he was...

Mr. Tophat was reclined in a chair at the far end of the table. He had one hand cradled under his chin with a finger draped over his lips, the other was rotating his cane in a lazy circle into the floor. There was an appraising expression on his face, cryptic amusement in the delicate crinkles around his eyes.

He stood up as I entered, tugging regally on his waistcoat and buttoning his jacket. He inclined his head towards me, a small secret smile ghosting over his lips. “Good evening...I’m so glad you could join me for dinner. This is indeed very, very special night. Bartholomew, please fetch our guest a glass of champagne...”

He turned to his right, and a gargantuan man emerged from the shadows in the corner of the room. He was shaped like a boulder, bald and bearded. He wore an enormous black bell-shaped overcoat, and one of the sleeves had been rolled and pinned to his side. He was missing an arm...

Mr. Tophat moved fluidly to the chair adjacent to his own and pulled it out. “Please have a seat,” he said cordially and flashed a brilliantly white smile. “I promise I don’t bite.”

I stood rooted to the floor. “But maybe I do,” I countered impertinently and he threw his head back and laughed.

“Ahh,” he sighed, as if he had enjoyed a tremendous joke at my expense as he returned to his seat. “Well it would be my pleasure to risk your bite, young lady. Please...” He gestured graciously to the empty chair opposite him.

I walked slowly over to it, keeping an eye on the behemoth Bartholomew as he retrieved a bottle from a serving table and poured two glasses of champagne.

Mr. Tophat was watching me raptly, grinning in self-satisfied delight as I cautiously sat down. It was so surreal to finally behold him up close. He had such an otherworldly aura, but his face was so human. Ruggedly handsome features, a solid chiseled jaw with a cleft on his chin, a small mole on his cheek. I realized those dark eyes were not actually dark at all, but a startling stormy green.

I decided to cut to the chase. “What are you?” I asked frankly, leaning forward to rest my elbows on the tabletop. An effort to make it appear that I was utterly relaxed and unintimidated, though in truth I was as tense as bowstring pulled completely taut. “A trickster? A warlock perhaps? A djinn?”

He chuckled. “Nothing so illustrious as that, my dear.” He sighed melodramatically. “I’m just a poor player, a mere paltry performer..."

“Oh but you are so much more than that, aren’t you?” I pressed keenly.

“You flatter me,” he remarked glibly, waving away the question like smoke. “But enough about me, let’s talk about you. Y/N Carpenter....” he said my name slowly and grinned at my stunned expression. “Oh yes, I’ve been expecting you for quite some time. The girl who will portend the destruction of my Carnival.” He rotated his cane between his fingers and fixed me with that penetrating gaze. “Though I must admit,” he continued smoothly. “I didn’t expect you to be...such an attractive young woman.”

“You flatter me,” I echoed him curtly.

He chuckled heartily again, as if my demeanor was a source of great entertainment to him. “And imagine my surprise when my beautiful little nemesis came with hunters in tow,” he emphasized the word disdainfully. “How very unfortunate.”

“And what’s happened to them? Where are they?”

“They’ve been taken care of,” he smirked darkly. “But don’t worry your pretty little head. They haven’t been harmed very much, and in fact they won’t even remember this night.”

“Congratulations,” I huffed. “So you managed to sidestep your hunters. Now what? Why am I here now?”

“Well you know what they say,” he mused airily. “You should keep your friends close, and your enemies closer...” His eyes twinkled with mirth. “In this case I think I should keep my enemy much, much closer.”

I swallowed, the full dread of realization hitting me full in the face. This grandiose mansion was my prison cell...

Bartholomew was meanwhile balancing two large silver lidded platters upon his arm and placing them on the table before us. He lifted the lid of Mr. Tophat’s platter and I jerked my arms away from the table in alarm. A swarm of black scorpions was wriggling on the plate, spilling onto the tabletop. Mr. Tophat plucked one from the teeming pile, and to my horror he smashed it into his mouth with a crunch.

I recoiled in disgust. He was consuming that hellish creature with zest, forcing its still twitching appendages between his lips and devouring it. I was so awestruck with repugnance, it took me a moment to realize that Bartholomew was reaching over me to lift the lid of my platter...

I tensed and drew back in my seat, fully prepared to see more of those odious things writhing before me. But as he pulled off the lid, the plate revealed nothing more extraordinary than a slice of beef roast, a serving of vegetables, some sort of soup in a silver cup. My eyes darted back to Mr. Tophat’s plate. The scorpions were gone. His plate looked as unremarkable as mine...what the fuck?

I looked up to see the man watching me closely, chewing his lower lip amusedly between his teeth. He raised a theatrical brow. “Something wrong with your meal, my little hunter? Aren’t you hungry?”

He was toying with me. Parlor tricks and idle flirtatious prattle. I glowered at him. “What magic is this?” I demanded, gesticulating aimlessly about the room. “This place can’t be real.”

He flashed an enigmatic smile. “Oh it’s real enough, my lovely." He tipped his head towards a darkened window and as if on cue, I could hear a faint groan from one of those inhuman things outside.  “I most certainly wouldn’t recommend going out...” He shrugged smugly. “That would end rather, well...messily for you.”

My jaw clenched with outrage. “You cannot keep me here forever.”

He took a lazy sip from his champagne glass and waved his wrist dismissively. “Time is a relative concept. Now, then, when, forever, never...none of it matters here. I would suggest you try to enjoy yourself.” He grinned with a giggle of fiendish gaiety. “Think of it as...an extended vacation.”

“You can’t prolong the inevitable, Mr. Tophat,” I hissed sarcastically. “You and I have an endgame coming. I will destroy you.”

Anger flashed across his expression for the briefest moment, his smile curling with menace. “I wouldn’t be so sure, darling,” he simpered, a growl bleeding into his voice. “Our fate is not yet set in stone.”

And just like that the menace fell away and his face brightened, his smile charming once more. “I’m confident you will eventually see reason and decide to leave well enough alone,” he continued amiably. “You’ll go your way, I’ll go mine...”

“I won’t let you continue to kidnap children and imprison them in that freak show of yours,” I said firmly, shoving my plate away to emphasize my point. “And I’m not interested in negotiating.”

He suddenly slammed his fist on the table sharply, rattling the tableware and startling me. A look of pure malice twisted his features, his eyes ablaze with fury. But before my brain could even process the fight or flight signals zinging through my body, his face was relaxing serenely and he smiled. “Well then perhaps you’ll have a change of heart...” he said softly. “After a long period of reflection.”

My heart was still hammering against my sternum at the suddenness of his outburst, but somehow I summoned an acceptable amount of defiance. I pushed away from the table wordlessly and stood, turning swiftly on my heels and storming out of the dining room.

“Make yourself at home, my little hunter,” he called delightedly to my retreating back. “You’re welcome to wander wherever you wish...”

I didn’t reply. I could hear his laughter following me out into the dark corridor. 

Son of a bitch.

Of course I fully intended to plot out every nook and cranny in this absurdly grand house. The more I knew about my cage, the better chance I had of finding a way out of it. But I had no intention of doing it on his invitation. I needed to be furtive about it, I needed to do it when I could be sure no watchful eyes were supervising me.

What had really happened to the other hunters in my group? If I had any doubts that our mission wasn’t expected, they were doused as soon as I returned upstairs to the bedroom. My bedroom. Jesus Christ....

There on the bed was my luggage from that shitty motel room outside of town. How it got here I’ll never know, but someone had obviously known where I and the other hunters had been staying.

But I was ecstatic to see the bags. They had all my gear, all my weapons. But of course I was soon disappointed to find that they contained nothing but my change of clothes, my toiletries, my perfume, my song journal... The shotgun, rock salt, stakes, silver chains, holy water, exorcism rites, and pistols were all conspicuously missing. 

I had no weapons. I had no phone. Goddamnit.

I should have known it could never be that easy...

 

 

 

*to be continued*

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Song journal, date unknown:

 

 

Nothing here is what it seems,

I never knew the devil had eyes so green

 

 

 

Diary 30th May continued:

 

 

 

I paced the bedroom for hours that first night. I opened and closed that damnable closet door innumerable times, as if I expected by some sheer stroke of luck my way out would reappear.

But it didn’t.

Rezmorta had returned shortly after my first tete-a-tete with Mr. Tophat. She brought my silver-lidded dinner with the Master’s compliments, but I refused it. A petty repudiation on my part, I know, but it gave me some measure of satisfaction to decline it. 

After she left, I made a thorough assay of my new residence: the sitting room with the dusty couch and fireplace, the bathroom with a tiled shower and deep claw-footed tub. I found another door set into the wall that contained a rickety spiral staircase. I followed it up to a kind of glass-walled hothouse on the roof that contained nothing but the dry skeletons of long dead vegetation in broken planters.

I eventually gave in to the exhaustion of the evening, kicking off my boots and climbing into that enormous four poster bed. I slept deeply and dreamlessly.

I wasn’t even sure it was really morning when I woke. Outside of the windows it was as dark as twilight, a mass of bleak grey miasma. What I presumed was the sun was a pale and colorless haze, smothered in a blanket of black clouds in the sky. But as weak as the sun was, I could at least note it’s origin from the horizon. I could differentiate east and west. Not that the orientation was particularly helpful. In the dim light I could see nothing but trees, as if the mansion had just sprouted into existence out of a vast impenetrable forest.

Rezmorta shambled into the room not long after I woke and insisted on drawing me a bath. I wasn’t particularly keen on the prospect, but I agreed. 

And I did spy something of interest from the bathroom windows...

There was a stone laden pathway from the house down there. A foggy path that disappeared into the trees, but beyond it I could see a tall wrought iron fence and gate. A gate that led to some kind of enormous hedge maze...

A maze that might be a ticket out of this fucking fever-dream place. I would have to see if there was a way to get to that pathway from downstairs. 

I felt surprisingly refreshed after the bath. Ready to take on the day and gather as much intelligence about my prison as possible... 

It wasn’t until I returned to the bedroom to get dressed that I realized my clothes were gone.

I rifled through my bags but found nothing. No jeans, no jacket, no t-shirts, no bra, no panties, no boots or socks. My discarded dirty clothes were no longer on the bed. Rezmorta was standing sedately at the vanity table, watching me with those glassy black eyes.

I eyed her with suspicion. “Where are my clothes?” I demanded.

“Those silly costumes have been disposed of, madame,” she replied sweetly. “Here now, I have a lovely dress prepared for you.” She gestured to a large assortment of clothing items draped over the chaise. 

Oh this rotten manipulative bitch. 

I seethed with disgruntlement as she helped me dress. Of course she had selected the garish green gown she had tried to foist upon me the previous night. It was sleeveless, with a skirt that brushed the floor and embroidered with intricate golden designs. I felt like a goddamn Christmas ornament. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was an entire wardrobe of undergarments to add insult to injury. 

There was a long strapless silk chemise that fit my body like freaking saran wrap, an outrageously uncomfortable corset that shoved my breasts up into a balcony under my neck, a pile of voluminous underskirts that made me wonder how on earth I was going to go pee if the occasion arose, stockings and garters, and a bustle- a goddamn bustle that tied around my waist and made it look like you could serve Sunday tea on top of my ass. 

It was absolutely absurd. I mean good god, how the hell did women used to wear such a ridiculous get up? I was annoyed with the waste of time putting it on. I wanted to start plotting out the house as soon as possible.

“Oh madame, we’ve forgotten your pantaloons,” Rezmorta rattled, holding up a ridiculously frilly garment that reminded me of yoga shorts.

“No, absolutely not,” I quipped. “I draw the line at wearing anything called pantaloons, Rezmorta.”

She clasped a hand to that disjointed mouth “Oh but madame! A lady cannot go without pantaloons,” she wheezed in a scandalized tone. As if I was some kind of harlot planning on prancing about the house in a mini skirt with no panties.

“Well it’s a good thing I’m not a lady,” I muttered in consternation. “Now what shoes am I supposed to wear with this nightmare?”

Fifteen minutes later I was wobbling carefully downstairs in ridiculously spindly high heels. Rezmorta was still so flustered by my refusal of the pantaloons, that I had to tactfully appease her by allowing her arrange my long hair into what she deemed was an appropriate up-do.

And I had learned one interesting bit of intel from her: Mr. Tophat wasn’t here. 

Rezmorta has offered to bring breakfast to the room, explaining that the Master would not return until later in the evening.  I couldn’t know for sure where he was, perhaps with the Carnival as it traveled to its next unsuspecting town. But wherever he was, it wasn’t here in this bizarre fantasy land. Perhaps I could indeed search the mansion surreptitiously. I declined Rezmorta’s offer of breakfast and told her that I’d just like to take a walk around the house.

I hadn’t realized what a daunting mission it would be...

The house was indeed a labyrinth of corridors, made all the more mystifying by the encompassing darkness and blue gaslights that made them all look the same. I decided to begin with what I presumed was the “east wing” downstairs. I found a hallway of guest bedrooms full of cobwebs, a lounge, a bar room with a billiard table. And at the center near the foyer, just beyond a small army of rusted suits of armor, I found the conservatory.

It was floored in broken stone pavers that radiated from a central fountain. The fountain gurgled and spouted sickly green water into a murky and fathomless marble basin. There were rows of rose bushes on every side, but they were unlike anything I had seen before. 

The roses were lush and black as night with brambled vines of thorns as thick as fangs... 

But as strange as they were, they were not the most intriguing thing I observed. From the conservatory windows, I could see that none of those horrific zombie-like creatures were prowling outside. It was a good sign. Perhaps the zombies only appeared to secure the grounds at night? My question was soon answered...

A motley squad of clowns came plodding into my view outside. One tall, one short, one heavy, one gangly... All slathered in black and white face paint like cartoonish ghouls. The short one spied me looking through the window and shot me a sharp-toothed leer....

Then they all stopped and stood looking at me with ravenous smiles, mindless moronic evil in their eyes...

I backed my way out of the conservatory. The implication was clear. While the zombies might be conveniently absent during the day, there would always been some kind of sentries patrolling outside.

I returned to the bedroom to regroup. I needed to rethink my plan. What good would it do me to get outside if I was going to be unarmed and meet resistance?

Rezmorta has laid out a lavish tea time lunch in the sitting room. I was famished, and ate finger sandwiches and fruit until I was full. After lunch I decided to take a look at what secrets the upstairs “west wing” across from me held. But I didn’t get far...

I had only rounded the corner of the first hallway when I stopped in my tracks. Two tall wide-shouldered clowns stood blocking the way. I considered them for a moment. “Excuse me,” I said slowly. “I’d like to get by.”

They didn’t reply. They stared vacantly ahead, unmoving and silent. 

“I’d like to get by,” I said more loudly, as if I could wake them from their stupor.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Miss,” came a gravely voice behind me. I whirled to find the squat spectacled clown beaming at me with his jagged teeth. “This wing is prohibited.”

“Prohibited?” I repeated dubiously. “Why?”

He shrugged casually. “Can’t say, Miss.”

“Well I’d like to see it,” I persisted.

The jagged smile deepened on his face. He flipped up the frame of his black spectacles and I drew back at the sight. Where his eyes should have been were two empty holes, the tissue scarred and leaking milky fluid from the sockets. “We can’t always see what we wish,” he giggled maliciously.

I abandoned my survey of the upstairs west wing. Temporarily at least.

I didn’t know that the evening would hold more potent thrills and chills for me...

The sky had only begun to darken from grey to black when Rezmorta appeared in the bedroom and announced that the Master wished for me to join him in the library for a drink before dinner.

I was sorely tempted to refuse. I could only imagine his delight at seeing me forced to wear this ridiculous dress...

And yet, as much as I hated to admit it, I wanted to see him. A human face, if only a facade. I had my fill of monstrous visages for one day.

I followed Rezmorta’s direction downstairs, to the left, to the last hallway. I found it without difficulty. A high ceilinged room walled entirely in bookshelves. Countless books wherever I looked, ladders to reach them, plush couches on which to read. It was amazing...

“Good evening, Y/N,” came his unmistakable baritone voice from deep in the room. He emerged into my view, one hand on his hip and the other leaning on his cane with exaggerated nonchalance.

He cut a very dashing figure tonight, clad in an entirely black suit and blood red bow tie. Gone was his infamous top hat, his dark wavy hair combed back elegantly from his face.

He stilled for a moment, his lips slightly parted speechlessly as his eyes took me in. “My lady,” he  exclaimed and then exhaled. “You look absolutely stunning.”

I bristled. “This get-up is absurd.”

He smiled as he approached, his movements lithe and graceful. “And yet it becomes you so enchantingly...” He held out his gloved hand, beckoning me to take it.

I eyed it warily for a moment and cautiously placed my hand in his. He brought my knuckles swiftly to his lips and kissed them gently, and I was startled by a strange electric current that seemed to emanate from the touch. It tingled up my hand and into my arm...

But before I could begin to wonder at the bizarre sensation, he was leading me to a enclave amongst the bookshelves with a roaring fireplace, a sweethearts’ couch. 

He released my hand, his eyes roving over my face and then down my dress in a way that made me want to figit uncomfortably. Standing there with him towering over me, I was struck by a maddening variety of things. I caught the scent of some kind of diabolically savory cologne. An animal musk tempered with amber, sandalwood, something sweet like vanilla. And beneath it a lurking, smokey tang of brimstone...

The tailored cut of his suit. The glimmer of gold scorpion cuff links at his wrist. The small smile on his plush lips. The delicate crinkles around his deep green eyes as he regarded me warmly... 

Christ, why did he have to look so goddamn alluring and otherworldly? But I refused to allow my guard to drop. I had every suspicion that he was a cobra ready to strike...

“Would you like to sit down?” he asked genially.

“I don’t know that I can,” I muttered. “This bustle may not fit on the seat.”

He laughed heartily as he moved to a side table. “Then at the very least I can offer you a drink, little hunter. I watched as he poured two decanters of some dark concoction from a brandy bottle. “Cheers,” he whispered cheerfully as he handed me my glass. 

My eyes fell to his jacket. One of those strange black roses was pinned to his lapel, fanged thorns and all. “Lovely flower,” I commented. “It becomes you.” 

“Doesn’t it though?” he replied amusedly. He took a drink from his decanter, his eyes never leaving mine. “La flor romántica,” he trilled, in such unexpected and flawless Spanish that I think my lips must have parted in surprise.

He regarded my bewildered expression with enjoyment. “I was born in Cuba, you know,” he offered in explanation. “It was a beautiful country. But I confess that America called to me with the promise of such great opportunity, corazón.” The word rolled fluidly off his tongue. 

“Is that so?”

“Oh yes.” He placed his glass on the rim of the fireplace. “A chance to capture the American Dream with both hands. An opportunity to succeed where my father failed...”

I was stunned. Had Mr. Tophat actually been human once? Was he still human now?

“Somehow I can’t picture you growing up anywhere,” I replied flippantly. “I imagine you popping into existence from some hellish dimension.”

“You break my heart, little hunter,” he chuckled indulgently. “You know we’re going to be spending quite a long while together, darling. I think it’s only natural for us to get to know each other, don’t you?”

I took a sip from my glass, considering him over the rim. I didn’t buy it. I didn’t believe he had any intention of revealing the secrets of his origin or the source of his power. He was showing the cards he wanted to show, the rest he planned to play close to the vest. And no doubt he had some aces concealed up his tailored sleeve...

The brandy burned sweetly in my throat. “There is something I’d like to know,” I ventured. “Why is the upper floor on the west wing off limits?

He shrugged indifferently, though his eyes flashed with calculation. “Those are my rooms,” he remarked with a evasively casual tone. “My study, my bedroom.”

“Oh? And here I thought that I could go anywhere I pleased,” I challenged pertly.

He raised a brow gamely at the bait. A darkly suggestive smile curled over his lips in reply. “Are you truly wanting to see my bedroom?” He purred, his voice low and whisky warm.

I felt my cheeks heat traitorously at his implication. And shit he must have seen it happen because his eyes lit up with satisfied delight at my discomfiture. It infuriated me how effortlessly he had set me back on my heels. “No,” I spat.

“That’s too bad,” he crooned. “It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve...well, entertained a beautiful young woman.”

“And here I would have guessed you were quite the entertainer,” I remarked archly.

“I certainly can be,” he murmured, his voice dropping an octave. His eyes roved over me again, glittering with some provocative and salacious challenge. “That I can assure you...should you ever wish to find out.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I quipped sharply.

He laughed loudly. “Ahh, my little temptress. How you do love to wound me,” he sighed, clutching a hand over his heart, every bit the vaudeville performer. 

I refused to oblige his teasing banter. “Tell me this then, Mr. Tophat,” I glowered. “Why do you and your demented minions kidnap children? Is it just Lucifer’s bidding? Or do you feed on them somehow?”

The humor fell from his expression. “No,” he countered sharply, as if the very notion was offensive to him. “We don’t feed on the Disappeared.”

“The Disappeared?” I echoed.

But he continued as if I hadn’t spoken, turning to glance thoughtfully into the fire. “We don’t gain our vitality from those lost souls, Y/N. It’s the conscious, animated lives we need. What nourishes us...” he paused, “is their fear...” He said the word so silkily, his voice so deep and honey sweet that it made the back of my neck tingle hotly.

“Oh yes, the fear,” he said softly, almost to himself as he stared into the fire. His face turned back to mine and he smiled slowly. An alarmingly manic glint lit his eyes that raised the tiny hairs on the back of my neck.

He was setting his cane aside against the fireplace and advancing on me. His eyes were so aglow with that rabid glee that I instinctively stiffened, my glass falling from my hand to shatter carelessly on the floor. I drew back a step, but I had no room to retreat with the couch behind me. 

“Fear is such a delicious thing, isn’t it?” he whispered as he approached. “And it does such exciting things to the body. The breath quickens, the pupils dilate, the heart pounds...” 

My eyes widened as he closed the small distance between us. We stood toe to tie, chest to chest. I could smell that diabolical cologne invading my lungs, the note of brimstone sharp and drowning out the musky sweetness.

“The body just hums with energy, doesn’t it?” he continued in an madly exhilarated undertone. “Every nerve shudders with tension. Every sense is so painfully aroused...”

I didn’t see it coming.

In an eyeblink, he seized a handful of my hair at the back of my scalp, jerking my body flush to his chest. I cried out in surprise and struggled against his hold, but he yanked my head back harshly, his grip as solid as iron. I had no leverage to strike out, my arms were trapped against his torso. I shoved bodily against his chest, to my dismay he was immovable as a brick wall. 

His face was just inches from mine, those fiery green eyes so close, radiating something so dark and dangerous. And god I was certain he could see my pulse hammering in my throat, could hear the shallow pull of breath on my lungs. He held me fast as I writhed, smiling all the while like a spider who had just snared a fly in his web.

 

From the corner of my eye, I saw his other gloved hand move to hover over the side of my face so maddeningly close. My god, I expected at any moment to feel that iron grip crushing my throat, or to see him suddenly sprout fangs to sink into my neck and drain me to the brink of death like a vampire. My entire body was tensed, awaiting the strike, the attack, awaiting something! The anticipation was fucking excruciating! 

Leather fingertips landed softly on my cheek, the movement so swift that I flinched and gasped-

There...” he sighed ecstatically. “The fear...” He hummed. “Mmmm...You see? Absolutely exquisite...”

Adrenaline was singing through my veins. The touch had been soft as air, but I was wound so tightly that it shook me more profoundly than any blow. I was angry, embarrassed at my reaction. Some primitive recess of my brain had been electrified, but the survival signals were hopelessly misfiring... 

To my horror, I realized there was something even more disturbing lurking in my subconscious. I was revolted to feel desire simmering insidiously under that anger and embarrassment!

In that moment I was at the mercy of a madman, powerless in the sway of his looming brutality but god...

I positively aflame in his cruel embrace, trapped tightly against his body. Transfixed by those stormy green eyes and wickedly smiling lips, inhaling that heady goddamn magical cologne into my lungs. My face felt hot, my chest tight-

I latched desperately onto my anger and clenched my jaw in defiance. “I’m not interested in being your meal,” I hissed venomously. 

His eyes drifted down to my mouth and he hummed again deeply, a disturbingly seductive sound. I felt his thumb graze delicately over my lower lip. “Oh but the taste of your fear is particularly delectable, little hunter. So unique. An absolute delicacy...”

Let me go,” I fumed, jerking in his hold.

His eyes flickered back up to mine. I saw the madness clearing from his gaze like smoke wafting behind glass. He released my hair and I shoved away from him, stumbling in my heels.

He regarded me with such goddamn smug amusement. “Will you join me tonight, corazón?” He smiled darkly. “I would love to have you for dinner...

“Go back to hell,” I growled and stormed out of the library. His echoing laughter followed me out of the room for the second goddamn night in a row.

I made up my mind in that moment.

I was going to get the fuck out of here. One way or another...

 

 

*to be continued*