There was a mansion nestled in a clearing; the estate surrounded by woods, thick and dark with age. The lights inside the mansion were the only ones for miles. It was how Lina knew where to go. She followed the walkway. Followed it to the deep brick façade and white trim, with its slate roof and iron gateway. Vines of ivy clung up its face and along it stairs.
Lina found herself inside.
She needed to find him.
As she walked among the guests they turned and stared. Welcoming. Disinterested. Women wore gowns that shimmered, following the very curves that made men hunger. Men fitted in suits angled to evoke jealousy and wealth. But not one face could Lina see.
This was a masquerade.
Music drifted around her, accompanied by the soft conversations she tread around. The string of violins and cellos sung to one another, creating a melody she felt she knew but couldn’t name. The pluck of a string, the run of a bow, and tap of it’s wood striking.
Yet something wasn’t right.
A cord out of tune. A note, slightly wrong.
But she noticed only if she listened, and right now she couldn’t.
She needed to save him. The only problem was she didn’t know who he was.
Lina tapped the shoulder of a man, he paused in his conversation, then turned. His mask was simple. Black, with a single golden horn sprouting from its forehead. The horn, broken. The mouth, forever cast in a grimace of pain. Or pleasure, if you looked at the eyelets too long.
Lina began to ask, “Where can I—”
The man put a finger over the lips of his mask and shook his head. He pointed up the north flight of stairs. Lina turned to the marbled steps and saw they were littered with revelers. As Lina worked her way up, she noticed each mask was more elaborate then the last. Brilliant reds, rich indigos, and yellowed ivories. Horns, feathers, beaks and tusks were gilded and painted in excruciating detail. Unable to tell the difference, in this flickering fading light, if the masks were just that. Masks. Something urged her not to ask the question aloud.
The stringed music grew louder, the disconnect in melody more obvious, intentional. Through the revelers, she could smell their sweat and alcohol. Their laughter, sharp. Other smells began to mingle. Jasmine. Ammonia. So strong the scents, they were sticky on her skin. Clingy in her mouth. She didn’t want to breath, didn’t want to move any further.
But she had too.
Finally, at the top of the stairs, Lina saw the north wing stretch out. A hundred doors. A hundred choices. All of them the same. All of them hidden behind and army of masked faces and drunk bodies. There was no way. No way she’d find him here.
Lina tapped the shoulder of a woman in red, her dress dipping in a sharp “v” to the small of her back. The woman turned. The front exactly the same, stopping just above her navel. Her mask was blank. No face. Just a shield, porcelain white with deep cracks fissuring the glaze.
“I’m done. Tell me where he is.” Lina demanded.
The woman pointed out. Past the windows that started at the ceiling and ended at the floor. She pointed to the garden, with one pathway lined by red lanterns. They led far into the night, to an iron gazebo draped in red linen.
Lina would have to push her way past the people down the stairs again.
So she did.
They pushed back, touched more, rubbed harder. Still she slipped between them, all the while the discordant music and pungent aromas followed her.
The air outside was no better.
Like juniper left to rot. The breeze was warm, carrying with it the music from the mansion. She was at the iron gazebo.
Two men stood sentry, their polished buttons and finely tailored tuxedos doing little to tame their golden masks. The chins long, mouths open in a roar. Two sharp black goat horns gleamed in the weak lantern light.
Lina held her head up, “Move.”
They stared at her.
She rubbed at her left wrist, tracing the red inked lines of her Solomon’s Key.
“Do as she says,” bade a voice, slow like honey, from inside the tent.
The tailored guards pulled the curtains aside.
Lina stepped inside. A woman dressed in gold lounged on a couch. Small antlers protruded from her forehead. The makeup on her face ran, the liner smudged and lipstick faded. She held tightly to a leash. On the other end a man curled in upon himself, silently weeping. A second leash sat curled at her feet, waiting.
Men and women alike, in varying degrees of undress littered the floor. Writhing, twisting, and holding out hands to the woman in gold. And to Lina, beckoning.
“Tell me,” Lina demanded, “tell me how to save him.”
The name came unbidden, as if it had always been there, on the edge of her tongue, “Wilc.”
The woman laughed, “I can’t.”
“What do you mean you can’t?”
The lights flared, then extinguished. The woman was gone, as was her company.
“I can’t help you.” The woman repeated from the dark, “but he can.”
The party had gone silent, along with the music.
Lina was alone.
In the dark.
Except she wasn’t.
Slowly, Lina turned around. A figure stood behind her, twice her height. Twisted and shadowed, what other features this figure might have had, she could not see. A warm breeze recalled the mixed smells.
“I have it,” the darkness said.
“Have what?” Lina carefully asked.
Lina could hear the sneer in its voice, even if she couldn’t see it.
“Do you want it back?”
“You can have it.” It whispered, “For a price.”
Now its laugh, deep and seductive, drizzled out over its bitter answer.
“Yours. For his.” It held its gnarled hand out.
Lina looked at it.
“No.” She slapped it away. “I won’t bargain for his soul. But I will fight for it.”
“As you wish,” the figure growled. The sound made its way through the dirt, crawled its way up her skin and across her nerves. Then it lunged.
They tumbled head over feet, its claws sharp and weight heavy.
“Lina!” Someone shouted.
Its blows landed and welling up inflamed.
The reek of ammonia so strong her eyes stung and watered.
“Lina, wake up!”
Her eyes shot open.
Lina was on the floor. The wood planks beneath her familiar and chilled. She was in her bedroom. The sheets and duvet twisted around her legs. She ached everywhere. Siobhan’s hands pressed on her shoulders, pinning Lina down. Her blind, violet eyes wide with concern.
“Lina?” Siobhan leaned down, a wisp of white hair fell forward. It tickled Lina’s nose.
“You’re awake,” Siobhan sat back, “and sticky.”
Lina sat up and looked at the clock, it was three in the morning.
The witching hour.
“I hate three a.m., what happened?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.” Siobhan leaned against the edge of the bed.
“I was dreaming.” Lina sighed.
“More like nightmare-ing.”
Lina grunted. She sniffed and picked up a faint scent of cat pee. Or ammonia. Which was unusual, since neither of them owned a cat.
“We need to strengthen the wards.” Lina tried to unwrap her legs from the twisted mess of sheets, they stung. She fumbled for the lights; grasped the tassel of her bed lamp and yanked.
“Holy shit,” Lina muttered.
She checked the rest of her body. There were welts and deep bruises all up the length of her arms. She lifted her shirt, which was torn, and saw the same injuries across her stomach and around her back.
“Lina, what it is?” Siobhan asked again, “Are you okay?”
“No.” She kicked the sheets away, “but I will be. Help me up.”
Siobhan stood, then held her hand out. It was a little to Lina’s left, but she grasped hold of it all the same and pulled herself up. She grimaced.
She needed a cleansing bath. Then a shower, since the cleansing never involved water.
Lina took a tentative step and stumbled, Siobhan caught her. Siobhan’s grip always surprised Lina, it was stronger than her friend’s delicate hands should allow. Then again, being part demon will do that. Lina started to head out of her room, with Siobhan’s help.
Siobhan rubbed her fingers together, smearing the blood on them.
“Lina, why are you sticky?” She sniffed her fingers, “is this blood? Are you bleeding? What the hell is going on? First I’m dreaming about a haunted party, then you’re screaming—”
Lina stopped her slow hobble to the restroom, “you were dreaming? Me too, but...” Lina squinted, as if that would bring back the slippery dream.
“Look, I’m sorry. I know I said I’d try to stay out of your dreams, but I told you I don’t always have control. What about the rest of the dream? Do you remember it? Because I don’t.”
“No.” Lina began to move again. “It keeps slipping outta my mind like a bar of soap.”
She could feel the blood begin to dry, and nothing was worse than reopening a scab just to clean it. Instead of the tub, Lina made her way to the kitchen. She’d have the necessary items there, and always found it a tad ironic that garlic was good for both her spaghetti and a cleansing bath.
“Then what is it?” Siobhan caught up with her. “It has to do with the wards, right?”
“And that cat pee smell. It was in my dream too, along with the juniper and jasmine. Normally both of those things are harmless. Even good, except when mixed with that ammonia smell. That means something that should be at peace, isn’t.”
“A ghost? No, poltergeist?”
“Maybe. Poltergeist are normally anchored to a specific place. This, felt different. Darker. Hungry.” Lina looked back at her friend, “It’s nice to know you’re paying attention.”
“You kinda have to,” Siobhan shrugged, “or you’ll end up dead.”
“Or worse.” Lina turned the corner and stopped.
Siobhan bumped into her.
“Siobhan... how long has Victor been like that?”
“I don’t know.”
Siobhan may be blind, but not all seeing required eyes. So when Lina asked these kinds of questions, she knew Siobhan would answer.
In front of her aged ash door, stood an elderly man complete with sweater vest and penny loafers. Mid-sixties, his hair was stark white and swept dapperly to the left. Victor had taken care of himself well— up until his death anyway.
He didn’t turn at their approach.
Victor stood, staring at the door. Or through it.
When most ghost show up at Espiridion, it’s because they need help. It requires time and patience on Lina’s part to coax them to move on. Not Victor. Pushy and opinionated, Victor hardly shut up since he showed up four months ago. Lina would’ve gladly helped him move on, except for one complication.
Victor didn’t know who he was.
It happened sometimes, when the death was particularly violent.
“Victor?” Lina whispered.
His image flickered and thinned.
That was never good.
“Victor?” Her breath puffed out in a cloud. That wasn’t good either.
He screamed. Lina and Siobhan jumped. Victor’s hair lifted up, tossed as if caught in a whirlwind. It affected only him, she didn’t feel or hear the maelstrom at all.
Victor hunched over, struggling.
“What’s in his hands?” Siobhan leaned forward.
Lina squinted, it was dark but Victor was luminescent. She couldn’t see what was in his hands, her second sight wasn’t as strong as Siobhan’s. Victor screamed again and tumbled through her front door.
They stood in silence for a moment, then rushed the door.
“What the hell was that?” Siobhan asked.
“He’s caught in a death loop,” Lina said, wrenching it open. “Come on, or we’ll lose him.”
“Lose him?” Siobhan followed, “Lina, you’re hurt and in nothing but a shirt, don’t go.”
She didn’t listen. Out the door, Victor still wrestled with whatever was in his hand. He made it to the stairs, tripped and tumbled down. Lina and Siobhan looked over the iron railing at the figure of Victor, his neck twisted at the bottom of her stairs.
Lina covered her mouth, “Oh, Victor.”
Slowly, like smoke, his ghostly form began to disappear. It wafted and lifted until Victor was gone, leaving nothing behind.
“So that,” Siobhan gulped, “was a death loop?”
Lina nodded, recalling halfway through Siobhan couldn’t see it.
“It only happens where a person died,” Lina explained. “And I think I’d notice if an old man died at the foot my stairs.”
“Victor could’ve died a long time ago. You know, before you lived above your shop?”
Lina didn’t answer. She would’ve argued that her family had been in this very spot since the city’s inception. Besides, Lina may have only been living above the family shop for a few years now, but she’d know if it was haunted. It’d be ridiculous if an exorcist didn’t know a ghost haunted her own front porch.
“Hey,” Lina squinted into the dark, “someone left something in Benaiah.”
“The drop box?”
“Yeah,” She went down the stairs.
“Lina,” Siobhan called to her in a harsh whisper. “What are you doing?”
“Seeing what Benaiah is holding.”
“Now? You don’t even have pants on,” Siobhan cautiously followed.
“You don’t have pants on either.” Lina toed under the giant sycamore, stopping at the backdoor of Espiridion, in front of a giant six-foot iron plate in the ground.
“Every time you open that thing it’s never good.”
“You came out of it.” Lina knelt before the intricate lid.
“That’s hardly the point.”
“Look, it’s a drop box for cursed objects. You didn’t think unicorns came out of it, did you?”
The box was more like a fancy hole in in the ground. Or an esoteric man-hole.
Scared people had a habit of leaving things at the front door of Espiridion. On more than one occasion it led to complications. So, when Lina started running the shop, she commissioned the creation of Benaiah. Family forged, Divinely blessed.
It started with the consecration of the ground, then a portion dug out and followed by the lowering of a 400-gallon iron cauldron inlaid with silver. Inside that cauldron was a barrel made from acacia wood, lined in gold with yet more dirt packed between the two. The bricks surrounding the cauldron lid were hand made by Jeri, and when laid out properly, made a Solomon’s Circle similar to the one in her workshop and inked on her wrist. Both designed by her hand.
It was, of course, laid out behind the shop. No need scaring the neighbors.
The lid was made from all four materials and very, very heavy. No man could lift it, and anything stronger wouldn’t be able to touch it. Either way, Lina always knew when something had been left inside, mostly because it remained open unless something had been dropped inside.
Ben crafted the mechanism that opened Benaiah. A complicated series of bricks that would open the lid when pressed in the correct sequence.
Or sink it, if done incorrectly.
Lina pressed the bricks and key sigils. There was a clunk and whirling of tiny gears as the five seams cracked the lid, pulling back and opening like as iris. The scent of jasmine billowed upwards, which wouldn’t have been bad, if the stench of ammonia hadn’t followed.
She gagged. Lina heard Siobhan cough and stumble backwards.
Through watery eyes Lina peeked over the lip, and far at the bottom, was a tiny, beat up cardboard box. On it a note that read:
DO NOT OPEN. DARKNESS INSIDE.