Chapter 1: Prologue
The bright red A is a beacon against the stark white of the paper. Heather Granville nods to herself. Another perfect score. Not that she would have expected anything else. To be less than perfect is unthinkable.
She places the paper neatly into her folder, and Heather follows the students as they shuffle out through the door. Heather, without even thinking about it, pulls a mirror out of her purse and flicks it open. Her lipstick had been smudged, and Heather feels the beginnings of a now familiar headache. Carefully, she pulls the wine red lipstick out of her purse and reapplies it.
She balances her backpack on her shoulders, walking down the sidewalk while mentally counting the work she has to do for her classes. Absentmindedly, she admires the weather. The sun shines brightly, with only a few white clouds strolling across the sky. It is a perfect day.
Until she sees a man with a crooked nose and dark clothing step out of the alley ahead of her. Heather feels her head pound, the pain clawing at her skull, trying to get out. Still, she keeps her smile on her face.
The man is tall, with a faded gray top hat atop his head. A long black instrument case is strapped to his back, and he holds a cane loosely in his hand. He has a small gray mustache and narrowed eyes that look as if they’re perpetually squinting. From where she stood, Heather thought, the eyes looked solid black.
“How do you do this fine day, miss?” He croaks out. His voice is old from disuse, scraping against his throat as the words find their way out.
“Perfect, thank you for asking,” Heather snaps as her headache scratches against the sides of her mind. She walks quicker, trying to pass him by.
“I thought so.” He said, nodding thoughtfully. “You’re perfect, aren’t you? At least you like to think so. And it hurts when you fail, and you don’t know why you feel it clawing at your mind.”
Heather pauses. The man is behind her now, and she could keep walking. She knows she won’t. “You don’t know anything about me.”
The man laughs softly and holds out a piece of paper for her. Heather keeps on smiling and takes it from his hand. “What is this supposed to be?”
“Many things. Answers, perhaps.” The man says. “Or perhaps you’ll only find darkness. It is up to you.”
Heather looks down at the strip of paper in her hand. It was an address for the old house just out of town up on the hill. Everyone had always said it was haunted. No one would even dare others to go inside. There was a date and time on the paper, for 8 in the morning on Saturday. Heather glances back up, a question on her lips, only to see an empty alley.
“I don’t need this,” Heather says, and another flash of pain hurtles through her skull. She buries the scream of pain inside and her smile never falters. “I suppose indulging my curiosity wouldn’t hurt.” She straightens her shoulders and keeps walking, each step purposeful.
“It’s been a while since your last Confession,” Father Rhinehardt says.
“Yes, Father.” The man says, a shadow against the booth of the Confessional. His voice is oily, snakelike. “God forgive me, for I have sinned.” He says the words with a trace of sarcasm, and Rhinehardt can picture the slight smile on his lips.
“What have you done?”
“I have tricked an innocent man and led him away from God.”
Rhinehardt steeples his wrinkled fingers. “Such is a grave offense against the Lord. You must atone by rescinding your false guidance to this man.”
A thoughtful hum comes from the dark shadow. “We talked last time of religion. Pain and death are part of God’s plan. If He did not wish for them to be here, they would not be.”
“Yes.” Rhinehardt murmurs, remembering every hushed conversation about blood and pain and death. He clears his throat. “I don’t understand.”
“There is more than that that you don’t understand.” The shadow offers a small envelope over the wall, and Rhinehardt reaches upwards and takes it from his hand. “This is a gift for you, Father, from a friend.”
Rhinehardt has grown used to the strangeness of this visitor to his Confessional. He knows better than to ask what it is or who this friend is. The door opens, scraping against the wooden floor, and light pours in from the outside. The dark shadow of the man leaves.
With trembling fingers, he pries open the envelope, a paper slipping out of his hands. It lands on the floor, an address staring back up at him. “The house on the hill,” Rhinehardt murmurs, picking it up. He turns the page over and sees a date and time.
“Saturday at 8 AM. I suppose I should see what my friend wants.”
Candles line the room, with smoke drifting slowly through the air. Dark curtains cover the windows, so the room is lit only dimly with the candlelight. Crystal balls sit on tables for decoration. Madame Zostra’s tarot cards fly between her fingers as she shuffles her deck. It has been a slow day, with few customers wandering into her shop. A knock came at the door, six sharp taps. Madame Zostra glances up at the door. Knock knock knock knock knock knock! This customer is an impatient one, she thinks, as the customer virtually pounds on her door. She stands up, shifting her fortune teller robes, and walks over to the door. The customer knocks again, another six raps on the door. Madame Zostra opens the door with a sunny smile. “Come in, please,” she says.
The customer is a handsome young man whose foot taps impatiently on the ground. An instrument case sits outside the shop where he set it down. His eyes lock on her from the moment she opens the door, like a predator focused on prey, and Madame Zostra can’t help the shiver that creeps up her spine. “Are you Madame Zostra?” He asks, even though it is clear in his eyes that he knows the answer.
She nods, barely able to bring herself to speak, and gestures sharply for him to enter. “Are you here for a tarot reading?” She says, picking her deck back up and shuffling them so her fingers don’t betray her nerves.
The younger man nods sharply and sits down at her table, folding his hands. Madame Zostra follows and offers him her deck. “Shuffle the cards,” she says, “so that they are imbued with your energy.”
The man takes the cards and shuffles them thirteen times before handing them back to her. “I think a simple spread will be enough.” Madame Zostra says, forcing a smile. She places three cards facedown. “Past, present, and future.”
She flips over the first card. A colorfully dressed man stands at the edge of a cliff, a dog at his heels. He carries a stick with a bag dangling at the end of it. “The Fool. It stands for new beginnings. Have you begun working on something new recently?”
“Yes. A project, you could say. I want to know how it will turn out.”
“Tarot is not true fortune telling. It shows us what is in our hearts and minds, and what is likely to be our future. But we can always choose a different path.” Madame Zostra says. “Now, let’s see the current state of this project of yours.” She flips over the center card. A woman stares out at the viewer, with a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other. “It’s Justice. But it’s upside down. Have you been unfair or dishonest to others while working on this project?”
“I suppose you could say that.” For a moment, Madame Zostra feels as if this stranger is laughing at her. She moves on, flipping over the next card with only a moment of hesitation.
“The Wheel of Fate.” Madame Zostra’s fingers tap the table. “Usually, the future card might come as a suggestion for actions to take. But this is not so for you. This tells me that your project is now in the hands of fate and chance.” She leans back, glancing over all three cards. “This project you’re working on is important, isn’t it?”
“I think I may die if it fails,” the man says with a laugh.
“I thought as much.” She says. “All three of your cards were from the Major Arcana.” She looks up, staring into the man’s eyes. “A word of warning. Do not bet what you cannot afford to lose.”
“That sounds more like common sense than some fortune telling.” The man says, standing up. “But I will take the advice all the same. And I would like to extend an invitation to you.”
She raises an eyebrow. “An invitation?”
“Yes.” The man slides an envelope across the table. “There’s the time and place, if you’re curious.”
Madame Zostra nods and picks up the envelope, fidgeting with it. “I shall see if I am open. Anything else?”
“Just a question. Have you ever read your own tarot cards?”
“What kind of fortune teller has never done a reading on themselves?” She asks, standing up and opening the door for him.
“Of course,” he says with a knowing smile as he leaves. Madame Zostra collapses into a chair, resting on the soft cushions. She plucks a card without looking from her tarot deck and instinctively knows what it is.
Death. The card of her nightmares, the fear that stops her from looking at her own future. She sets it down gently on the table, as if afraid of offending the card.
She breathes out a sigh and tears open the envelope, the paper falling out. Her eyes flick across the page. “The haunted house? Why would he invite me there?”
“This stinks of fate.” She says, her hands instinctively reaching for her cards. “And fate usually gets its way.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 1:Heather Granville
The light of the chandelier dances across the wooden panels on the wall. Each had been polished until Heather could see her own reflection in them. The grand hall of the house was magnificent, with only two things marring its beauty. Heather narrowed her eyes at the fortune teller-Madame Zostra-and the priest from her church, Father Rhinehardt.
“You people?” She says, crossing her arms. “Were you invited as well?”
“Apparently.” Madame Zostra says, unruffled as she fiddles with her outfit. Heather rolls her eyes. A priest and the crazy fortuneteller. What did she do to deserve the pleasure of such company?
If she wanted to discover the secret this house was hiding, she wouldn’t do it with these two weighing her down.
The hardwood floors squeak as she walks, and she swears she hears the creaking of floorboards echoing from other rooms. She looks around the entrance hall, from the glittering chandeliers above to the mahogany doors on the walls. Two on the left, two on the right. And a magnificent staircase at the end of the hall, polished railings and large steps.
“I’ll look for our dear host on my own.” Heather says. “Don’t follow me if you know what’s good for you.”
“That’s not a wise idea.” Madame Zostra says. “There is something dark in this house.”
“Yeah, right.” Heather says, rolling her eyes. “Whatever you say.”
She dashes towards the stairs, and a wave of relief follows when she realizes they’re not following her. Heather steps onto the upper landing, a small room surrounded by four more doors. “Doors, doors, doors,” Heather says, smiling as her head screams with agony. She glances to the left of where she came up. She shrugs and grabs the silver handle, tugging open the door.
The low melodies of gospel music greet her as she walks into the room. There are echoes reverberating through the room, voices chanting hymns in Latin. Lines of dusty pews are on both sides of the aisle, parts of the wood rotting away. Candles line the walls, casting the room in a dim light. A crucifix stands at the end of the aisle, a statue of Jesus dangling from the nails in his cross. A stained glass window is behind him, throwing his silhouette onto the ground in front of him. The dishware for the Eucharist is on a table in front of him, but they’re coated with the thickest layer of dust in the room.
Heather walks around the edges of the room, watching the candles flicker and cast ever-changing shadows on the walls. “No one has come here to pray to you, have they?” She says to the crucifix, brushing the dust off her finger with a disgusted look. “I wonder how these are still burning,” she says, reaching up and slightly tugging on one of the candles.
A click cuts off her train of thought. A panel slides to the left, revealing a set of darkened stairs. The stone has been worn away, weeds growing between the cracks. Cobwebs are in the corners of the walls, spiders scuttling across the steps. The staircase leads down, and down, and down. Heather wouldn’t be surprised if it led all the way to the basement.
A shudder runs up her spine at the idea of going down these steps, with the bugs scurrying across her flawless skin and the musty scent clogging her nose. Heather grimaces and tugs on the candleholder again, the panel sliding back into place.
She walks to the center of the chapel, staring up at the crucifix and the stained glass window behind him. She hasn’t been to a church in a long time, but the prayers have long since imprinted themselves onto her mind.
Heather kneels and clasps her hands together. There is something dark in this house, Madame Zostra had said. Of course Heather doesn’t believe her, of course she doesn’t, but surely, Heather thinks, asking for protection…that never hurt anyone.
“Saint Michael the Archangel,” she says, her voice ringing throughout the chapel, “defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.” She raises her head, looking up into the sky. “Amen!” She traces the Sign of the Cross on her forehead and chest, and something right settles into her bones. She feels strong, and the room is lighter somehow, the shadows receding.
A smile spreads across Heather’s face and she turns, opening the doors to the chapel. She walks back onto the upper landing before turning to her left. There’s another door open, and she swings it open with newfound confidence.
She strolls out onto the balcony, the stone balcony cold beneath her feet. Mold and rot coat the stone, and the rocks of the railing are cracked and broken. The cold wind blows her hair into her face and the chill sinks under her skin. A door sits across from her, brown rust coating the handle. Still, she doesn’t stop smiling.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees something glinting on the balcony. Carefully, she picks it up and dusts off the metal. It’s a medallion. It gleams menacingly when she holds it out in the sunlight, and the gold is heavy and cold in her hands. It feels alive and Heather knows only that she can’t leave this behind. It radiates importance. She hides her shivering as she slides the cord of the medallion over her head and settles it against her chest.
The world is silent, and for a moment, time seems to stand still. Heather holds her breath as the world shudders before righting itself again. She glances down at the medallion. Heather had never before characterized an inanimate object as evil, but there was no better description of the medal she wore, its cord hanging around her neck like a noose.
The next door swings open as if by its own will. A gray mist hovers there, and Heather knows instinctively not to walk away. She goes to the door, stepping carefully over the rotten wood, and the gray mist fades.
Forgotten sports equipment lay on the ground, a thick layer of dust coating the room. Fluorescent bulbs dimly lit up the room. The scent of sweat fills Heather’s nose, and she almost misses the splatter of blood on the dumbbells and the floor. Someone died here, the thought passes through Heather’s mind, and she knows it’s true as if the house itself had told her.
Creaking wooden boards, claws scratching up the floor, the glimpse of a shadow and Heather reacts reflexively, balling her hand up into a fist and turning. A jaw clamps down on her arm as her punch connects with something, and a yowl splits the air. The creature disappears into the darkness as fast as her eyes can see. The lightbulbs above her dim, and goosebumps spread up her arms, hair standing on end. The lightbulbs flicker again, this time brightening. She shivers and then gently touches the skin on her arm. Its teeth hadn’t pierced through, and Heather breathes a sigh of relief, even though she thinks she can still hear the echoes of the creature’s howls
This gymnasium hasn’t been used to exercise for a long time. Still, as she looks at the worn treadmill, Heather’s muscles loosen, as if they’re preparing for a marathon. Maybe the adrenaline from the attack hadn’t faded.
“I don’t want to spend any more time in this room than I have to,” Heather says, opening the next door. Heather coughs at the smell of smoke, her arm held to her mouth. The scent is suffocating even as she pries her eyes open to look at the room.
Fire, Heather thinks. Everything is burnt, from the black ashes on the floor to the burnt remains of furniture. The scorch marks are seared into the walls. There’s piles upon piles of ashes, and Heather steps between them carefully. Designer shoes are not easily replaced, and Heather doesn’t want the dirt to mar her skin.
Something glints in an ash pile, calling out to Heather. Heather grits her teeth. What is this? Some puzzle where you have to assemble items together to win? The medallion feels heavier on her chest as she walks over, bending her knees to get a closer look. Something is definitely in there.
She pulls a pair of gloves out of her purse -one must always be prepared- and the plastic clings to her skin as she reaches down, her fingers closing around the object. With a tug, it comes loose.
A ring. There are scratches in the metal and it is coated with a thin layer of ash. She rubs the ring until it’s reasonably clean and then peers closer. Engraved in the golden circle is an inscription in some baffling language. She’s never seen anything like these runes, not in any of her world language classes. As she holds the ring, the room trembles, and Heather gasps and shuts her eyes tight. The ash is stirring, sliding around the floor and being thrown up into the air. Her headache has come back with a vengeance, a beast that’s taken residence in her mind and claws at the walls, trying to get out. Heather shivers and the tremors running through the room slow and vanish. The dust in the air drifts onto the floor. Heather slides the ring onto her finger, and somehow, it fits her perfectly. She shudders, tearing the ring off her finger before dropping it in her pocket.
The door facing her glows with a silvery light, and Heather plasters on her perfect smile. The door swings open for her, and Heather steps through. Rows of bookshelves line the room, a chandelier dangling from the ceiling. Comfortable chairs sit next to a small table, and the wooden floor is smooth and polished, gleaming in the light.
Heather fingers the ring in her pocket and wonders idly if the language is in any of the books in here. She takes a book down, the old leather rubbing against her palm. Her eyes flick over the pages detailing exorcism rituals. “Nothing about runes. And I don’t have the time to search.” She shoves the book back onto the shelf and her hand opens the next door.
She breathes in and out slowly. “No choice left but to go on.” Left unsaid is that she didn’t think she could leave. Heather hasn’t seen many horror movies, but she knows enough to know that no one could simply walk away. And what Madame Zostra said earlier, she had doubted it at the time. But with the medallion hanging around her neck, Heather knows her words about the evil in this house were true.
She steps into the next room, the lights turning themselves on. A bed is in the center of the room, fancy pillows and blankets with embroidered designs sitting atop it. Windows, framed with curtains tied back with velvet ribbons, let in some sunlight. Her feet sink into the soft and rich magenta carpet. A mahogany dresser is next to the door opposite from her. Heather is walking to that next door when a figure darts out from the shadows, childish laughter in the air, and knocks her down, her knees banging against the floor as she falls. The footsteps recede and Heather clenches her hands, her face buried in the carpet.
The beast in her mind growls, sending waves of her pain through her head. Heather doesn’t stop smiling.
She stands up and glances into the mirror above the dresser. She takes a tube of lipstick out of her purse, reapplying it before turning to face the next door. As she walks on, she pauses suddenly. She stiffens and her foot stops, hovering in the air. Her eyes dart wildly as tremors shake her body, her limbs twitching.
mUSt get ouTsIDe MuSt gEt oUt geT oUtSidE gET OuT GEt OUt GET OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT-
Her body slams into the window, cracks spreading through the glass like the web of a spider. Her fists pound against it, the cracks spreading and spreading and her body slams into it again and again even as the skin bruises and again and the glass breaks with a CRACK that sends tremors through the house.
Heather plunges out of the window, and for the first time her smile drops off her face entirely. A scream tears out of her throat as she hurtles towards the ground. She crashes into the patio and lets out a groan. There are cuts in her skin from the shards of glass, blood dripping onto the stone pathway she’s landed on. Bruises litter her skin, dark purple and blue blending into a splatter of color. The wind slashes into her, shrieking as it blows past her.
Heather doesn’t care. She’s not smiling, instead glaring down at the wounds. From her purse she takes out a pair of tweezers (necessary for eyebrow maintenance, Heather thinks distantly) and plucks the glass from her gashes.
She scowls and her beast slams against the walls of her mind. Heather clutches her forehead, her fingers digging into her skin. She swallows and looks around her. This room is off of the foyer of the house, judging from the glimpse of the room she can see through a door that’s open a crack. Dark gray clouds fill the sky, bathing the patio in deep shadows. The stone pathways beneath her feet are worn, muddy brown weeds growing through cracks. A midnight black metal fence rises up between her and the plants outside, but thorny black vines reach around the posts and into the patio, crawling and slithering like vipers along the ground.
The hairs on her skin stand up at the sight. The vines look as if they could come alive and grab her at any moment. They shake from the wind, and Heather is done. She’s out of this place.
She runs to the door to the foyer, desperately trying the handle and swinging open the door. She skids across the floor and tumbles to the ground. Heather pushes herself back off the ground and sighs. She glances around. She’s right back in the entrance hall where they started. With a sigh, she reluctantly tries to open the door they came into the house through. The doorknob jingles uselessly. “Locked. I figured.”
Heather goes to the next door and swings it open. A bear skin lies on the floor as a mat. A mahogany table sits in the corner. The room is cluttered, filled with leather skins that dangle from the walls. Still, this room feels warm. The shadows that creep out from the walls and sneak up behind you… this room is too light for them. There is something right about this room, something different from the evils of the house.
“Thank you.” Heather whispers and walks forward, opening the door across from her. A long dining table stretches down the room. Candles glows gently on the walls, and formal places are arranged, food set on the plates. In the center of the table, there is a small wooden board with a planchette on top.
And the board is calling to her. Calling to her like the ring and medallion had. She knows she’s supposed to take it with her, so she picks it up off the table. The candles blaze brightly, tiny flames erupting into columns of fire, and the light from outside the windows dims to a sliver. Heather ducks, dropping the board, and places her hands over her head as the candles settle, flames shrinking back to a regular size.
She picks the board up off the floor and dusts it off. It’s an occult thing, one of those spirit boards she wouldn’t be surprised to see in Madame Zostra’s home. She sighs. “How am I supposed to carry this?” She asks. Naturally, the evil spirits haunting the place are unhelpful.
Heather shrugs and places it on top of her head, balancing the board, even as she walks to the next door. It’s the only way to carry it and keep my hands open, she thinks and enters the next room. The ballroom floor gleams in the light of the chandelier, and a piano is in the corner, softly playing music even with no one sitting at its bench. “What’s the trick here?” Heather says. There hasn’t been a room without some kind of trick so far, and she doesn’t think that luck will change.
She walks forward into the room, glancing at each wall. Perhaps one of those candles hides a secret passage? Click! Heather looks down at the tile she’s stepped on and her world swivels. The wall there and the floor attached to it whirls around, catapulting Heather out of the room. By now, Heather’s all too familiar with the sensation of crashing into the patio. At least, it doesn’t hurt as much this time.
Heather pushes herself off the ground again. “Let’s try another door, then.” The door on her left swings open. She shrugs and steps through, her foot landing on nothing. Heather’s eyes widen as she falls onto the chute, whose sides are stained with coal dirt and Heather knows that she’s going to be dirty after this. The coal dust is on her hands already and she regrets throwing away those plastic gloves earlier.
As Heather groans about the dirt, she slides down the chute, landing in the dim basement. Heather scowls and her headache is screaming at her. She stands up and dusts herself off the best she can, picking up and balancing the spirit board on her head again. “Fine.” Heather says, glaring at the coal chute. “If that’s the way you want to be, house.”
She stomps through one of the doors, swinging it open. This time, she stops and doesn’t fall. Heather grits her teeth. A massive chasm lies ahead of her, wind whistling though the jagged stones. Two stakes have been pounded into the stone, ropes dangling from them. Their ends have frayed into a thousand strands. She glances over, and a river rushes below through the chasm, the waves crashing onto each other and against the cliffs.
“I’m not going to try to cross that,” she says and backs off, turning towards the door.
The chimes of a grandfather clock hitting midnight echo through the house, echoing and echoing. Heather stops dead in her tracks and stares upwards. “We got here at eight. In the morning.” She says and holds up her wrist to look at her watch.
The hands of the clock are whirring wildly, so fast her watch shakes on her wrist. Then, it all comes to an abrupt halt. The hands are pointing…
“Midnight? That can’t be…”
Chapter 3: Chapter 2:Madame Zostra
“I will follow her,” Madame Zostra says to Father Rhinehardt as Heather disappears up the stairs. “Though I will try not to let her know it. You do as you will.” With that said, she turns and walks up the grand staircase, the wood creaking with every step she takes.
She comes out at the upper landing and her eyes dart around, looking at each door. There is no surefire way to tell which one Heather used, so Madame Zostra will just have to try. She opens the first door and religious hymns float through the air. A stained glass window casts the silhouette of a crucifix on the floor and the pews, covered with dust, have long since been abandoned.
Zostra steps into the room. There are footsteps in the dust on the floor, so it’s possible Heather had been here before. She follows the footsteps through the room to a candle. Her eyebrows furrow. The dust on that candle has been disturbed, though she can’t imagine why. She tugs on it slightly, and a door slides open. A shadowed staircase leads away from the chapel, spiders scurrying across its dusty steps. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling and the walls.
“Heather would not have gone this way, even if she had seen it.” Zostra says to herself, tugging the candle again to slide the door closed. She walks away and pauses to glance at the crucifix. She bows her head in respect to the figure, but she turns and heads out the door. “She must have found the chapel and then gone through a different door."
Zostra turns to her left and opens the next door, stepping across the balcony and into a gymnasium. Broken down equipment litters the ground and wooden boards are missing from the floor. “I will not let you die of your naïveté, Heather.” Zostra whispers, glancing at a blood splatter on a dumbbell. She feels stronger at the declaration of her mission, and she readies herself for the next room.
“She might have backed out of this room after seeing the blood.” Zostra says, glancing back. She grits her teeth. “Why did I let her go so far ahead of me?” She walks back to the upper landing, crossing the balcony, and tries another door, opening it with such strength it slammed into the wall. Hallways. Three new doors. The floor is coated with dust, and the thick layer of dust even covers the walls and their decorations. “She’s not here, or otherwise there’d be tracks in the dust.”
The door to her right swings open, its handle glowing. Madame Zostra raises an eyebrow, but she would be a fool to ignore the spirit’s message. It wants her to go through that door, and she doesn’t want to know what this spirit will do if it’s ignored.
She goes into the next room, where a massive organ sits in the center of the room. Its music plays softly at the edge of her hearing, an echo of what once was. Drip. Madame Zostra-drip- tenses, but nothing-drip- else comes. No monster-drip-crawls out-drip-of the shadows-drip- to attack. Only-drip- the dripping. There’s nothing-drip- in the room-drip- the dripping could-drip- come from, no-drip- water falling-drip-from the-drip-ceiling. Drip. She clenches-drip-her hands-drip-into fists. Drip. Drip. Drip. The sound-drip-aggravates her-drip-mind, breaking-drip-up her-drip-every thought.
She sprints from the room, kicking open the second door in the organ room. The first thing she sees is red, a bright vivid red stain. A metallic scent fills the air, and Madame Zostra’s eyes widen in realization. Blood.
People had been killed here, their blood splashed onto the walls in patterns as if it was some sort of macabre art. Madame Zostra’s eyes focus on the small lump between patches of blood. She steps over the first puddle of blood and leans down to pick it up. A rabbit’s foot dangles from her hand. “Good fortune.” She says, tucking the rabbit’s foot away in a pocket. “I could use that right now.”
I won’t find Heather down this path, and I have to try again, she thinks, turning back to the door. But if I remember the layout right…there should be a shortcut. She turns to the door right of where she entered and opens it. The upper landing. Perfect. She dashes through the balcony and the gymnasium. The next room has scorched marks that coat the walls, piles of ash on the floor, and the lingering scent of smoke. What it doesn’t have is Heather Granville.
Madame Zostra barged through the next door. A library, with bookshelves lining the walls and chairs where you could curl up and sit for hours doing nothing but read. Zostra breathes in. You’ve got to think about Heather, no matter how tempting those books are. Still, Zostra picks up one book on rituals, glancing at its diagrams, before stepping through to the next room. A bedroom.
The bed is fluffy with decorative pillows and sheets. An ornate dresser sits next to her, and the carpet is soft on her feet. The odd thing about this room was a broken window, likely caused by some malevolent spirit. A shudder goes up her spine and Zostra decides not to stay too long in this room.
Zostra steps into a laboratory, chemicals bubbling away on long tables. Graphs and charts paper the walls, and notes that she can’t make heads or tails of are spread out on the desks. A wind blows through the room, and some of the papers fly off the desks, even though there are no windows or doors open. “I’m under the floor, buried under the floor…”
The soft, ghostly voice fades away, but that doesn’t stop Zostra’s skin from feeling eerily cold. She kneels down on the ground, prying up one of the wooden boards. Zostra reaches in, picking up a bottle full of roiling black liquid. “I better take this with me.” She says, staring at the bottle. “Even if I don’t know what it is.”
“Next room, I suppose.” Zostra says, opening the door. A conservatory. An old telescope with a broken lens sits on a stone slab. The rocks are cracked, with brown grass growing over the stones. And then dirt hits the back of her neck. Zostra reaches up, touching the back of her neck, before…
Dirt. The dirt is flooding up around her, falling from above, swallowing her whole. She feels as if this is the dirt from her own grave, and Death, her least favorite tarot card, flashes to the front of her mind. No…not death. Not the unknown. Madame Zostra grits her teeth and punches, flailing and trying to shake off the dirt. Swing by swing, she pulls herself out of the dirt and lies on the cold stone of the observatory, trying to catch her death.
She feels stronger than ever. This house tried to kill her. But she…it’s a temporary victory, but it’s a victory. She pushes herself off the ground and brushes off the dust. “The spirits of the house let me come this way because Heather had already left. So I’ve got to go back.”
And she sprints, through the lab, the bedroom, the library, the charred room, until she skids to a stop in the gymnasium while trying to turn. She takes a moment to catch her breath, breathing in and out.
Then the chimes of a grandfather clock echo through the house. Zostra stiffens. “Midnight. It’s begun, hasn’t it?”
Chapter 4: Chapter 3:Father Rhinehardt
The girl darts off up the stairs. She truly has no idea what she’s getting into. What an innocent child.
“I will follow her.” Madame Zostra says, her hair brushing over her shoulder as she turns to me. “Though I will try not to let her know it. You do as you will.” She disappears up the stairs, and Father Rhinehardt sighs heavily.
It may be for the best if I find our host on my own. Father Rhinehardt steps into the foyer, his footsteps echoing. His eyes flicker to the right, and his hand grips the door handle and slowly opens it. He peers into the new room, hesitantly walking inside. Junk is scattered across the floor. Claw marks line the walls, as if an animal had been trapped and trying desperately to get out.
A tribal mask hangs off the wall. It radiates a strange and unsettling aura, and Father Rhinehardt knows that this mask is important. The left half of the mask is a bold and angry red with a frowning mouth. The right half is an icy blue and the mouth is smirking in smug delight. With shaking fingers, he reaches out and lifts the mask off the wall.
The lights in the room flicker, the junk levitating off the floor. Rhinehardt grips the mask tighter, glancing around. The lights flicker again, and red glowing eyes peer back at him from the darkness.
Crash! The junk collapses back onto the ground, the floor trembling with the force. The lights turn themselves back on and Father Rhinehardt can breathe again.
He turns to leave, but his foot hits some of the garbage and he slips, falling down and through the next door. He slams hard into the cold metallic floor of the next room. Rhinehardt swears at his sprained ankle and looks up.
“An elevator?” Rhinehardt says. This house has long been cut off from electricity, meaning it has to be-
The elevator shakes and the door swings shut. Rhinehardt braces himself against the walls and the elevator moves, hurtling downwards. He slips and crashes onto the floor as the elevator slows to a stop.
The door opens with a beep, announcing their arrival. Father Rhinehardt rises to his feet, straightening his clothes to their dignified appearance and steps out of the elevator.
The basement is dimly lit and the cold of the concrete ground sinks into his feet. Splatters of black ink cover the walls. At least he hopes it’s ink. Coal dust is smeared across the floor. Screams echo in the silence, and even worse is the deep laughter from the walls.
“I suppose I must try to find a way out.” Father Rhinehardt says, stretching his ankle and turning to his left. He opens the door and steps through to a hallway. Ghostly footsteps echo, and the floorboards creak, a constant background noise.
“Which door should I try next?” Rhinehardt says to himself before shrugging and continuing on to the door across the hall. He unlatched it and stepped through.
Stalactites hang from the cave’s damp ceiling, dripping cold water down into puddles on the cavern’s floor. A lake is in the far corner, the water tinted a sickly green. Bubbles rise to its top from dark shadows that dart beneath its surface. A chilling breeze blows through the cave and Father Rhinehardt shivers. Then the scent hits his nose.
Rot fills the air, the smell of decaying flesh. It turns his stomach and he feels nauseous as his food struggles to come back out. Father Rhinehardt clutches his priestly robes with both hands and steadies himself. “This is an illusion of your creation, dark spirits. I refuse to believe in it.” The spirits try to trick you, he knows. One must resist their whispers, or insanity awaits. The scent of rotting flesh fades from the air.
Father Rhinehardt glances to his right. The wooden door in the cave wall is a strange sight, and he takes one step forward before doubting himself. What good comes of merely wandering around and playing the spirits’ game?
Rhinehardt turns around, walking back over the creaking floor of the hallway. He swings open the door to the basement landing, the black ink rubbing off onto the white and purple of his robes. His eyes dart to a crack in the wall he hadn’t noticed before. His fingers pry at the crack, and a section of the wall slides away.
“A staircase.” Rhinehardt whispers. Insects and webs cover the steps, but he doesn’t have the luxury of caring. He climbs up the staircase, his way out. Candles light the passage intermittently, dimly lighting the staircase, and shadows fill the passageway. The darkness feels tangible, as if it grabs at his skin and tries to hold him, pull him back from every step.
The door at the top of the stairs slides open, and Rhinehardt blinks as his eyes adjust to the brighter light. Wooden pews stand in rows. The echoes of hymns fill the air and more candles are burning and lining the walls. “A chapel.” He says, looking at the crucifix. He clasps his hands together in prayer. “God, be with me now more than ever. These spirits try to tempt me away from your will. Please, deliver me from this evil and lead me down your path. Amen.” He breathes in as he feels God’s grace settle over him, and he turns from the crucifix, swinging open the doors of the chapel.
“The upper landing. So I’m out of the basement.” He says and he reaches into his robes, taking out the mask he’d put away. The smirking blue face of the mask taunts him. “If you’re important, it must be for a reason.” The mask slides over his face, fitting him perfectly.
“So a fool has deigned to put on my mask.” A feminine voice says, and it cackles, a horrible sound that doesn’t leave Rhinehardt’s ears.
“Excuse me? Your mask?” A second, deeper voice says.
“Our mask, then,” the first voice says. “Now, what do you want to know? For no one calls upon our spirits without reason. But do not worry. We are generous in our knowledge.”
“I want to know how to navigate this house.” Rhinehardt says, and he pretends his hands aren’t shaking from the voices in his head.
The second voice hums. “Turn left and continue on.”
Rhinehardt considers the advice, but anywhere in this house is dangerous. He can’t avoid it, so he might as well face it. He opens the door to his left, crossing over a stone balcony and stepping into an old and unused gym.
“Here!” The first voice shrieks.
“What am I supposed to do here?” His eyes flicker over the room. There’s a blood splatter on the floor, and a thick layer of dust covers everything except for two trails of footsteps. He pauses. “Are you trying to direct me to Heather and Madame Zostra?”
“Please. As if we care about those two.”
"Think of your ankle.”
Rhinehardt stretches out his foot and his eyes widen. “It’s healed. My ankle isn’t sprained anymore.” He still has the bruises from his elevator ride, but he takes what he can get.
“What now?” He asks, and the spirits are strangely silent. He sighs and opens the next door. The next room has been scorched to a crisp, likely by some pyromaniac spirit. Ashes coat the floor and burn marks are scattered over the walls. “Left.” Father Rhinehardt decides, opening the door.
There is a silvery gray ladder dangling from the ceiling, and he climbs up the rungs, crawling into the attic. The ceiling is low, low enough that he has to be careful not to his head. A chest is to its left, and a bloodied handprint curls around its handle. Black and white photographs hang off the walls, people staring out of the pictures. In every image, their eyes glow crimson from the camera’s lens flare.
“Ha ha ha!” The first voice’s cackling laughter comes back with a vengeance. “Look at what happened! And he doesn’t even know! Do you think that the girl will go splat?”
“Not tall enough for that.” The second voice says. “But it’s amusing all the same.”
Father Rhinehardt sighs, backing away from the attic and down the ladder. His hands slip on the metal rungs and he falls, slamming into the ground. Ignoring the laughter of the spirits, he pushes himself to his feet, his back aching from the bruises.
Muttering angrily, he crosses the charred room to the next door, across from the attic. He swings open the door and stares into the storeroom. Dark brown rust coats the walls, spreading onto the storage racks lining the room. A dim lightbulb dangles on a cord from the ceiling. A music box sits in the center of the room, its handle slowly spinning and the rhythmic melody pouring through the room.
“Pick it up.” The second voice says. “You may need it.”
Rhinehardt takes the music box with trembling hands. The music box is silent in his hands, and he tucks it away in his robes, forming an unnatural lump in the cloth. Gritting his teeth, he leaves the storeroom. “Maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to run into Zostra and Heather.” He says to himself, hoping the spirits won’t answer.
“Basement.” The second voice says, and reluctantly, he opens the door to the gymnasium, backtracking to the balcony and then to the chapel.
“I don’t think any of them have discovered these stairs yet or gone to the basement.” Rhinehardt says. The first voice hums in his head, not a denial or confirmation. He climbs down the stairs, each step echoing in the dark staircase.
“You’ve explored the door to the left already.” The first voice speaks, and he nods. “Try the door to the right.”
He can hear a smirk in her voice, but the spirits haven’t guided him wrong yet, so he opens the door and steps into the room. The walls are bare, with only a carpet on the floor. Thick layers of dust cover everything. This room has been abandoned for a long time.
Something dangles on a cord from the ceiling, and Rhinehardt reaches up to pluck it from the air. “A holy symbol?” He asks the spirits and his hand brushes it up against it.
And the house trembles from the moment he touches the symbol. A grandfather clock’s chime rings through the air, and every hair on Rhinehardt stands on end. The light of the room dims and a chill sinks into his bones as the clock chimes again.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4:Heather Granville
The house shakes, rocks crumbling off the walls and falling into the chasm. Heather drops to one knee, bracing herself against the floor. Glancing up, she sees the door across the way open, revealing a set of stairs upwards, a bright light shining down the steps.
“What is this?” Heather whispers, getting to her feet as the tremors subside.
Soft violin music plays, coming from the walls and the ceiling and inside of her. “Do you not feel the desire to dance?” A melodic voice sings in her ears, like a mother singing a lullaby to her child. Soothing and rhythmic. The stairs glow brighter. And it’s right, the voice is right even though it sends a chill up her spine, it’s right. The urge to dance thrums under her skin. “Come, join our dance and around the ballroom we shall dance and dance…”
Her headache roars to life, pounding against her mind. Heather breathes in and puts on her plastic smile. “No. I won’t come with you.” The demon’s song fades, but it’s a constant murmur in the background. She knows it’s a demon awakened in this house, perhaps by her, or even Madame Zostra or Father Rhinehardt. Maybe it even awoke with the power of those objects, those dark omens that the house showed to her. “I can’t…” She holds her aching head, massaging her temples. “I can’t hold him off forever…” Heather says to herself, even as her smile stays firmly on her face. “A demon…that book about exorcisms…” She squeezed her eyes tight and willed herself to remember. She had to, she knew she could remember… Her eyes snapped open and she turns back to the door she came from. “There’ll be a chamber in this house for the ritual. And candles, candles for the pentagram.”
Her watch has stopped on her wrist, the hands stuck pointing at midnight. Still, she feels the clock ticking inside her, she knows it won’t be long before her resistance falters, she doesn’t have time to waste.
She swings the door open and considers for a moment. Heather cuts it short with a curse and Heather rushes over to the door to her right and opens it. An underground lake awaits her, the cave walls dripping with water and stalactites dangling from the ceiling. Creatures dart to and fro underneath the lake’s bubbling surface. Heather looks at the next door, the wood standing out like a beacon against the stone walls. She throws it open and nearly weeps with relief.
A chamber, almost prepared for a ritual, waits through the door. A pentagram is drawn in chalk on the ground, and candles line the wall, most of them unlit. Heather rushes through the work with trembling fingers, placing three candles among the pentagram design. “One for each of us,” she whispers, thinking back to the diagram in the book. She stands up, her eyes frantically searching the pentagram.
“It’s missing! Exorcisms need a holy symbol. A holy symbol…” She says, falling to her knees. A holy symbol. Where can she get one? It’s impossible.
The door creaks as it opens up behind her, and Heather freezes in place, slowly turning around to face whatever came through the door. “Heather.” Father Rhinehardt says. Madame Zostra stands next to him, dirt staining her clothes, but mostly unruffled. His robes are stained with ink and soot, and there’s a rectangular bulge in them. He wears some odd mask over his face and bruises line his arms. And a holy symbol dangles from his hand.
A smile spreads slowly across Heather’s face. “Thank you, Father.”
He nods. “You know what we need to do, then?”
“With our own concentration, we must light the candles while resisting the dark spirits trying to prevent this ritual.” Heather says, sounding as if she’s reciting from a textbook, and Father Rhinehardt nods.
“Quickly. Get into your places. We don’t have much time.” She walks over to her corner of the room, the pain in her mind subsiding briefly.
“I will try to light the first candle.” Father Rhinehardt says. He closes his eyes, and after a few moments, one of the candles light up. The shadows in the room shrink. Still, the music taunts Heather. So beautiful, and yet with every verse, something inside Heather hurts, as if her soul is shriveling up and dying.
“Madame Zostra. If you would.” He says.
She breathes in, clasping her hands together. “Of course.” She trembles and a bead of sweat rolls of her brow, but the second candle lights up. Madame Zostra smiles slightly and turns to Heather. “Here.” She says, holding her hand out to Heather.
“A rabbit’s foot?” Heather says. Madame Zostra gives her a mysterious smile.
“It’s said to bring good fortune.”
“Sure, if you say so.” Heather says, tucking the lucky charm away in her pocket.
The music, playing softly in the background, suddenly flares louder, rising in a crescendo. The melodies beat against her mind, like ocean waves crashing down on a beach, and Heather‘s mouth curls into a smile even as she screams inside. “Join me! Why resist such a beautiful melody? What reason do you have? Join the dance, join me, and put an end to those who would put an end to our music!” The voice is soft and soothing, and Heather’s breathing slowly relaxes. It’s right, isn’t it? What harm comes from music, and especially from music as beautiful as the tunes playing in her mind? Anyone who wishes to stop the musician from playing would have to be evil.
Heather’s arms slowly lower to her sides, her concentration faltering. Her body sways slightly to the beat inside her head until her hand brushes across the lump in her pocket. Startled, she blinks and reaches in. The rabbit’s foot. Her headache roars back to life, and for once, she’s grateful for the pain that helps her resist the music’s trance. She tenses up, and the music vanishes altogether from her mind. And she swears that she heard that soothing voice growl in frustration.
Now for the candle. Her headache is roaring and Heather clutches at the folds of her skirt, grounding herself. Focus on the candle.
Not on the beast inside of your mind. Heather has always been perfect. She’s made the world around her perfect too, and even the slightest thing off, a crooked photo on the wall, dust on her clothes, a 99% on a test…the headaches always came and they pounded on her mind, as if something was trying to claw its way out of her mind.
And now she’s stained with dirt and dust and her head is being torn to pieces. Heather closes her eyes and focuses. The headache fades as she concentrates, something being pushed down inside of her.
Heather opens her eyes. The candle isn’t lit. A part of her isn’t surprised, and a part of her isn’t sad at all. The headache’s gone, and for once that’s enough for Heather.
Father Rhinehardt smiles softly. “It’s all right, Heather. We can handle it.” He closes his eyes, and the final candle lights up.
“The chant.” Madame Zostra says. She begins, murmuring the Latin slowly and enunciating each word with precision.
A shadow forms in the pentagram, growing out of the darkness cast by the candles. It carries a fiddle and the spirit shrieks oaths of vengeance on every descendant they’ll ever have, even as his hands still play defiantly. Father Rhinehardt and Heather join in, their voices combining into one chorus of ancient words.
Rain falls into the chamber, even though there’s a ceiling overhead. The water flows over the chalk and the white lines remain pristine. The raindrops soak into the fiddler, his skin beginning to bubble and melt. The darkness becomes a misshapen, hunched man. What would be his limbs are twisted unnaturally and he’s bubbling, smooth shadows looking now more like the scribbles of a child with a black marker. His face splits in half, the red of his eyes fading into black. The three of them chant faster, faster, faster.
The shadow melts into an inky puddle on the pentagram. The house goes silent, the music ended forevermore.
Heather’s hair clings to her skin as it drips water, but she can’t stop herself from smiling.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5:Madame Zostra
The music plays throughout the house, and Madame Zostra trembles. It’s hauntingly beautiful, and a part of her just wants to listen to it, be soothed by its melodies, but there’s something wrong, something that crawls on her skin and sinks under and stays there no matter how she scratches away at it, plunging her nails into her skin to try and get it out.
Madame Zostra clenches her hands into fists. The musical spell slides off her mind, and she kicks open the door to the balcony. She strides across it, the wind ripping into her skin, but she never falters.
“Demon.” She says, turning into the chapel. The stained glass window is darkened now, no sunlight lightening the room. The crucifix is another dark figure among many. The candles against the walls are dim, and the shadows behind them flicker. “You are playing your music as if it matters. It doesn’t. Here’s a prediction for you that I don’t even need my tarot cards for. You are going to die today.”
She pulls on the candle and the door slides open. Madame Zostra brushes away the cobwebs and walks down the stairs, shaking off the spider creeping up her leg. The darkness is a weight on her shoulders, pressing into her, but she could carry the weight of the world now.
She pries open the door at the bottom of the stairs, and she blinks. Father Rhinehardt stands in the middle of the room, shivering from the cold of the basement. He wears a tribal mask over his face, and if it weren’t for his robes, she wouldn’t have recognized him.
“I know what happened,” she says as Father Rhinehardt turns to her and opens his mouth to speak. “Do you have the holy symbol we’ll need?”
He lifts up his hand and the holy symbol dangles from it. Madame Zostra doesn’t let her relief show on her face. “Very well. Where do you plan on having the exorcism?”
He points at the next door, and she struggles to keep up as he hurries through the doors. He dashes through an empty hallway, and the wooden boards creak under our weight. He rushes past a bubbling underground lake and throws open a door with such certainty that it baffles her.
He’s right, all the same. The door leads to a chamber where a pentagram is drawn on the floor in chalk. Heather kneels next to the diagram, adjusting one of the candles. She looks up, and the creases between her eyebrows ease and her eyes shine. “Thank you, Father.”
“You know what we need to do, then?” He says.
“With our own concentration, we must light the candles while resisting the dark spirits trying to prevent this ritual.” Heather says, as if reciting a line from memory. Rhinehardt nods, and Madame Zostra smiles slightly. People can underestimate Heather, with her blonde hair and love of shopping and girly nature.
But underneath that appearance is a cunning mind, and those people soon regret their assumptions.
“Quickly. Let’s position ourselves. We don’t have much time.” Father Rhinehardt says, and Madame Zostra takes a place at the one of the star’s points.
“I will begin and try to light the first candle.” Rhinehardt says, and he puts his hands together. He trembles, his robes flapping, but the candle lights up. “Madame Zostra. If you would.”
“Of course,” she says.
“Listen to the beautiful music flowing through your soul.” The demon is in her mind. “Feel each melody, each pleasing note, as you dance to the music, your soul singing along…”
She pushes the song aside and her eyes lock onto the wick of the candle. She thinks of flames, of their warm hues and marshmallows melting over a campfire.
The demon snickers in her head. “How about people’s flesh melting off their bones? What? Not a pleasing image for you?” He shrieks in her mind, a mocking imitation of a dying scream. “Death. You fear death. What happens after death is beyond your knowledge, beyond your tarot cards, and no matter what you do death is inevitable. That’s why you humans fear it so. It’s something you can never know. And when you fall under my spell, I’ll make you dance until you die. You’ll see death coming, but all you’ll be able to do is dance and watch it devour you whole.”
People talk about going to death with dignity. They have no clue what they’re talking about. When I go, I’ll go kicking and screaming, even if it is inevitable. Madame Zostra thinks. And the day I die won’t be today. I’m not going to die to you. The warmth from the second candle spreads across her skin, and the flame dances, sending flickering shadows over the walls.
Zostra turns to Heather and reaches out a hand. “A rabbit’s foot?” She asks.
“It’s said to bring good fortune,” Madame Zostra says.
“Sure, if you say so.” Heather says, shrugging and putting it in her pocket. Then she stills, her body freezing up unnaturally. Her lips are dragged into a smile even as her blank eyes show faint traces of her horror. She’s humming softly, and the melody chills Madame Zostra to the core.
Then her hand brushes against the lump in her pocket, and Heather blinks, her eyes slowly opening. They flicker over to the unlit candle. “It’s all right, Heather. We can handle it.” Father Rhinehardt says.
He closes his eyes, and a flame glows on the third candle. The pentagram is glowing softly in the darkness of the chamber, and the shadow of the demon is emerging from its center. It squirms even as the pentagram binds him, holding him solid and there. His hands play on, plucking the strings of his fiddle even as he struggles.
“The chant,” Madame Zostra says. She speaks the words, emphasizing each syllable. Heather joins in, uncertain at first, but her voice grows firm. Father Rhinehardt says the Latin words, familiar with them from years of the priesthood.
There’s a ceiling over their heads, but rain still falls on the pentagram. The shadowy demon melts away, like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. He bubbles and his music fades as the three continue to chant. The demon screams in their minds as the last of him melts away, leaving a black puddle in the center of the pentagram. The fiddle falls, discarded, to the side.
The mind-numbing chill of the house recedes, and Madame Zostra feels warm. Darkness lingers in this house’s halls, but for now it’s been fought back. For now, they’ve won.
Chapter 7: Chapter 6:Father Rhinehardt
Rhinehardt stares in horror at the holy symbol in his hands. What has he done? The enchanting music echoes through the house, but the symbol he’s holding glows. The music still plays in his mind, still sends a chill up his spine, but the symbol protects him. It clings to him, even as Rhinehardt shakes his hand in an attempt to get it off.
“The Dark Fiddler finally started his stupid plan.” The second voice says from his mask.
“At long last.” The first voice says. “Do you know what you have to do, Rhinehardt?”
Rhinehardt’s arms dangle helplessly by his sides. “The Dark Fiddler is a demon, isn’t he? The only way to deal with him is an exorcism. And I’m a priest. I can do that.” This is his fault, isn’t it? He has to make it right.
He needs to find a chamber where he can perform the ritual. In a house like this, it should be easy enough. The first voice hums in his head. “I can’t say I’ll be angry at seeing the Dark Fiddler fail. He’s a bit of an idiot.”
Father Rhinehardt steps out of the abandoned room into the basement landing, shivering from the music playing through the house. What snaps him out of it is the creaking of the door to the hidden staircase. Madame Zostra emerges from the darkened passageway. Her eyes flick over to him.
“I know what happened.” She cuts off all of his explanations. “Do you have the holy symbol we’ll need?”
Rhinehardt lifts his hand, showing the symbol. “Very well. Where do you plan on having the exorcism?” Zostra says.
“I wonder.” The voice cackles. “You explored the basement first, and you still didn’t see it, even though you came so close!”
"Hush! He’ll be able to figure that one out, idiot.”
Rhinehardt points to the door, and Zostra nods, following him through the hallway, even as it creaks with their every step. He hurries through the underground lake, not even pausing as Zostra glances around. He flings open the second door, and he sees Heather, painstakingly arranging the candles in the pentagram on the floor.
Zostra comes into the chamber after him, and Heather smiles , relief flooding her face at the sight of his holy symbol. She must’ve known about the ritual too, even though it doesn’t fall into her area of expertise like him and Zostra. “Heather,” he says.
“Thank you, Father.” Heather says, standing up.
“You know what we need to do, then?” He asks. Just tell her, you can explain it to her! He thinks to himself.
Surprisingly, Heather does know. “With our own concentration, we must light the candles while resisting the dark spirits trying to prevent this ritual.” She says, as if reciting from a book. He has no idea where she would have read that, but he nods.
“Quickly. Let’s position ourselves. We don’t have much time.” He says, placing himself at one of the points of the star. Madame Zostra places herself at another. Heather goes to stand in her place in the pentagram.
This is your fault. You need to fix it. “I will begin and try to light the first candle.” He says and his hands instinctively clasp together as if praying.
“You think you can stop me?” The Dark Fiddler laughs in his head, his voice crawling under his skin. Rhinehardt merely closes his eyes and concentrates. “I may not be able to put you under my spell, but why not join me of your own free will? After all, if I succeed in turning you all into dancers for my song, then isn’t that part of God’s plan, little priest?”
Does it matter? Rhinehardt thinks, and somehow the demon hears.
“What? You’re a priest! You have to follow God’s plan! You have to obey His will!”
No. Every human has the right to follow their own plan, to make their own choices, to find their own destiny. And if God’s plan really is nothing but needless death and destruction, as you claim it is, then I’ll defy it to the end.
Rhinehardt opens his eyes and one of the candles has been lit. The room is lighter now, even with that single candle. The evil that seeped under his skin recedes, driven back momentarily. “Madame Zostra. If you would.”
“Of course.” The woman says, clasping her hands together as he did. Even as she shivers either from cold or fear, the second candle lights up. She turns to Heather, passing her something and whispering in her ear. Heather straightens, but Rhinehardt’s eyes narrow.
“Watch.” The Dark Fiddler says. Heather is unnaturally still, her every muscle frozen. Her pupils dilate and her eyes seem dead, as if she’s no longer even there. She closes them, humming softly. He doesn’t think she even realizes.
What are you doing? Rhinehardt thinks.
“I’m going to make you watch as she obeys my orders.” The Dark Fiddler says. “I’ll force her to attack you, and then you’ll have to kill the girl with your own hands. Won’t that be nice?”
Father Rhinehardt stares at Heather. Resist him, he thinks desperately. Heather slowly sways to a melody only she can hear, and a smile that stretches too wide and shows too many teeth spreads across her face.
Then she freezes again, her hand having brushed against something in her pocket. She blinks, and hope blooms in Rhinehardt’s heart. She opens her eyes fully and looks at her candle.
“It’s all right, Heather. We can handle it.” Rhinehardt says. More than all right.
He closes his eyes and begins to focus. “My offer still stands, you know.” Dark Fiddler says. “You can join me-“
I thought you were smarter than that, smarter than trying to convince me to join you. I suppose I don’t know why I thought that. You clearly haven’t evinced much intelligence so far. The demon is mercifully silent even as the spirits of the mask laugh, and Father Rhinehardt isn’t surprised to see the last candle light up.
The shadow of the Dark Fiddler grows out of the pentagram, the candles illuminating his dark form. “The chant.” Madame Zostra says and begins murmuring the Latin.
The spirit glares and his fingers continue to pluck at his fiddle, his sickening melody filling the air. “Death to you all! Death upon all of your offspring! May a thousand plagues follow your every footstep!”
Father Rhinehardt and Heather join in the chant, and Rhinehardt thinks of Mass, where all of the voices sing one hymn in unison. Rain falls into the room, splashing onto his robes and the shadow begins to melt, even as the fiddler continues playing. The water falls down on the pentagram and the darkness inside until there’s only a puddle of ink on the floor. The fiddler’s faint music trails off and fades into blissful silence.
Father Rhinehardt straightens, taking off his mask. The voices fade from his mind, and he has it all to himself again.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
Heather snatches the towel off the rack to dry out her hair. The last of the dirt is off her skin, and she can finally breathe a sigh of relief. She’ll have to redo her nails, her hair…and that’s not even mentioning her makeup…
She shakes the last drops of water out of her hair. Heather pauses and looks in the mirror. The fall back at the house had cut up her face, leaving red marks with traces of blood. “And then there’s you, isn’t there?” Heather says into the mirror as she picks up her brush.
The pain pulses through her mind. Heather closes her eyes and puts her perfect smile on. Her brush sweeps through her hair, forcing itself through an unruly knot. “You are weaker than me.” She says to the mirror, never once dropping her smile. Her eyes open, and they glow a bright red. “I can feel you pushing at my mind. At every mistake, you push and push, scratching at your cage. That’s why I’ve had to be perfect, because of that pain. No more.” She sets down her brush and tugs a ribbon out of her drawer. In a single motion, she ties her hair into a ponytail. “I don’t have to be perfect to beat you. I’m strong enough as I am.”
The pain fades as it stops clawing at her mind. The red vanishes from her eyes. The plastic fades from Heather’s smile and she walks into her dorm room, glancing out the window in time to see the sun rise.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d return.” Father Rhinehardt says, folding his hands on his lap.
“Of course I would. So you went, did you?” The shadow in the confession booth moves, turning to look at him.
“You knew I would.”
“Have you come up with the answer?”
“To your question?”
“Yes. If death and pain are part of God’s plan, then how can you justify stopping them?”
Father Rhinehardt takes a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter.”
“What?” The voice echoes through the chamber.
“So many people have claimed to be acting for God. The crusades, the witch hunts...but God chooses to keep his plans mysterious to us. If those are truly part of his plan, so be it. Humans were given free will for a reason, after all.”
The shadow laughs, and his soul trembles in fear. “I see. Good day to you, Father.” The door opens and the shadow steps out of the booth. Father Rhinehardt sighs in relief, brushing sweat off his brow.
Madame Zostra opens the door, breathing in the familiar scent of incense. She hurries to a drawer, pulling a candle out of it. She sets it at the center of her table and pulls the curtains closed so that no one can look in and see what she’s doing. With a sigh, she takes a lighter out of her pocket, setting the wick of her candle aflame before tucking it away again.
Her tarot cards fly between her fingers. She doesn’t need to think to shuffle them anymore. By now, it’s muscle memory. She sighs and stops shuffling, placing her deck in front of her. She taps the top of the stack one, and then draws the first three cards.
“Past. Present. Future.” Madame Zostra says, looking at the three cards for herself. “Death, do you lurk behind one of these cards?”
Her hand hovers over the cards, hesitating to carry through. Madame Zostra takes a deep breath, steeling herself, and she turns over the first card.