The House of Secrets
Part 2. Xelloss's Perspective.
I have always known that Filia Ul Copt derives quixotic courage from my presence.
I have always known that we are mirrored. That outrage consumes her at seeing her inverse, her shade, her purple feral anti-reflection, in a perpetrator of historic genocide against her race. That her anger makes her feel, perversely, invincible.
I know that I am her secret weapon. It is a fact both comical and horrifying.
Allow me to reminisce, because that abandoned mansion was a perfect example. The recklessness that I inspire was the real reason why she "permitted" me to tag along with her that day, while she "exorcised" the building like a novice.
You see, I even know why silly Filly "felt" eyeballs in that bathroom mirror.
Because a physical, psychological, and spiritual space so long devoid of the struggles, affections, and clutter, that are standard to a mortal life, has a way of nibbling at the corners of someone's mind. It has a way of bringing out worst fears as if they are tangible and real. And one of Filia's worst fears is to be scrutinized, watched and judged, for her startling bond
So let us say I felt a sense of responsibility when I sauntered into that place, on that day, and sensed, under all her bristling hostility, the slackening of her breath, in secret relief, at my presence. Oh dear, oh dear. I am not usually one for snowy steeds and incandescent armor. But it was almost too funny to pass up.
And so, one thing led to another. I tagged along willingly, with my own grocery list to check off. While the sun set outside, we discussed my truancy from a ghost ship, I unsuccessfully baited the resident ghost, I cringed at Filia mentioning the humiliation of human-monster pacts, and I indulged in a little ruminating on how evil can actually be quite sane and logical and even involve an axe and a spousal murder-suicide.
We meandered through a sitting room, a bathroom, and a kitchen, the two of us full of bickering and boredom.
And at last, in the kitchen, we stood over the basement landing. Together. That
was the moment.
The tide changed. I don't know what it was that compelled me. It had something to do with the way the chill air below sucked her Lighting spell into oblivion, that first caused me genuine
I would call it concern, but that might be misinterpreted as something perilously
sentimental. Let us, for argument's sake, coin it "attentiveness."
Yes. No doubt, it was in that moment, in which the black void gulped down that fragile, quivering brightness just beyond Filia's outstretched palm, and the soft draft from the underground gave such a resigned and sinister sigh, that my somewhat formidable pragmatism, my will to live, overrode my curiosity. Call it the monster's paradox to have such ruthless survival instinct, when our dearest goal is to destroy the world. But it was then that it hummed loudly through my whole self and commanded my attention. Red flags writhed in the veritable wind of my psyche, and my fingers itched to do violence to that pointless sugar-coated shack.
And this predatory urge had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that, when the light died, my view of Filia's taut, alert young face became fuzzy and dim, and reminded me of a fading photograph, or a face in a fresh grave being increasingly obscured by shovels-full of black soil. Nothing whatsoever.
"A fire spell should do the trick," I heard myself say, and even I was surprised at my singsongy nonchalance, when I had been sure my fingers wriggled with arson-lust.
Filia's predictable response was to accuse me of insanity and moral depravity, and to indicate thatshocker!the house might be reduced to a pile of unproblematic, innocuous ash. Also, typically, while doing so, she broke the decibel scale.
But that wasn't what made me turn and observe her more keenly.
No, it was more the fact that, from the start, she had exhibited some kind of
.for this dusty, empty, impressively forlorn pile of bricks and bric-a-brac.
From the nauseatingly bucolic exterior with its sunbaked-excrement-brown and toothpaste-blue hues, to the China collection bursting with insipid designs of frolicking Hansels and Gretels (making me long to be the cannibalistic witch), to the creepily confrontational family portraits
Hadn't the painting of the last full-blooded Grogan recorded a blond woman of fading beauty, and hadn't I first walked in on Filia having an inexplicable urge to straighten her frame? At the time, I had merely taken it as Filia's characteristic impulse to crusade, organize, and generally meddle, but
Inside my mind, the red flags flapped all the wilder.
I donned my Patience of a Seasoned Elder and tried to indicate the manner in which all our problemser, I mean Filia'swould be solved by the house's incineration.
Her cheeks puffed out, that ridiculously adorable expression of hers that is something akin to a chipmunk having struck a goldmine of nuts.
I inhaled for a derisive laugh. With luck, it would camouflage the uncontrollable surge of fondness that her look inspired. I needed to recover my dignity, after all, since I had been unable to hide my delight with her when she had made a crack about spraying meME!with holy water.
But that was when I felt a gorging influx of violent fury, skulking possessiveness, oozing from Filia.
I was being force-fed one of the most ardent mood swings ever to emanate from the dragon priestess. In the unguarded moment, my eyes opened wide.
"Destroying something is not a viable solution!" she was roaring, but her voice carried something more raw, more plaintive, than the usual righteously indignant screech. "Maybe this house doesn't mean anything to you," and to whom did it mean anything?, "but that doesn't mean it should go up in smoke!"
I was flabbergasted. She seemed to see it as irritation or suspiciousness, because she looked ready to erupt again. I hastened to override her.
"If you're afraid of the dark," I mustered, indicating our inertia there in the stairwell, "then what do you propose we do?" I was barely able to resist stuttering. The feast of negative energy she had just dealt me had sent me near nirvanic stupor. Were I a human, and ill-mannered, I would have belched, or at the very least, sighed in ecstasy, and made some torpid remark about self-satisfaction. But I was still sharply aware of the fact that something was extremely
off here, and that my mazoku appetite was getting in the way. I grappled for my wits, and my infamous self-control.
By that point, however, Filia was already halfway down the cellar stairs. "You," she ordered, with a comfortingly normal imperiousness, "will get matches and candles."
Though she will probably recollect this moment as one in which I threw some peevish one-liner at her, I actually just bobbed my head to and fro and let out a loud, wordless snort. I was waiting, you see, for her to get the implications of telling the Dragon Slayer, the Lesser Beast, ditto ditto et cetera, to play fetch.
Filia either didn't get it or didn't comment on it. She flung her mane of lemon hued hair over one shoulder and blindly stompedwith supreme discretion, mind, youdownward.
My lips thinned. I repressed the desire to snap something extraordinarily witty and withering, like "FINE, be that way!", at her back. I turned on my heel and briskly walked the other direction.
The cellar door slammed shut behind me. I blinked and glanced backward. My face fell in disgust. Did she really have to draw even more of the malicious energies floating around the place? Apparently so.
Fine, whatever. I kept walking. Infuriatingly, as I rummaged around in the supremely dull kitchen's drawers, my mind incessantly returned to Filia's peculiar behavior. It was a larger kitchen than I had recalled on our way down, plenty of nooks and crannies to sift through in search of pyrotechnic equipment, plenty of time to
ruminate. I peeled off my gloves, to spare them the dust, and peeked up at my surroundings again.
By the moon, which was a miserly, sinister slice of white crescent in a sea of blackness, there was still enough light beaming through the kitchen windows to see cobwebs and tiny particles of dust eternally descending onto the countertops. In fact, it had the effect of leading the eye down the dank seeming infinity of the hallways, straight to where we had begun our ghostbusting search that night. Hallways that had endless corners, holes, and curtains that could conceal
I cocked my head down that long narrow passage, weirdly entranced. The longer the place settled in tomblike silence, the more probable it seemed something would peek out, or scurry forth, skulking through the dim corridors, to maim the interloper. Nothing is more disturbing than the unknown potential of a dark void, of unseen pieces.
I clicked my tongue in approval. It was a novel effect. Perhaps Lord Greater Beast would even want her front foyer on Wolfpack Island to be remodeled like that hallway. I'd make a note of it.
What actually unsettled me, though, were the little figurines. When we had first come through this space, there was only one pair of them: a blue-frocked girl with a kitten and a boy in lederhosen. Now? It seemed like everywhere I looked they stood there, smiling at me with wide, unblinking, suspiciously innocent eyes. Soulless and complacent in their chiseled, painted stares. They appeared in the coffee mug rack, the breadbox, the utensil drawer, the mop closet, the long-dead ice box, and finally? Next to an axe that seemed to suddenly materialize propped against the door on the landing. The pair of them, by its dubiously stained blade. Smiling. Smiling. Smiling
.And I had the clammiest feeling that all of their twin brothers and sisters were watching me behind my back, too.
At that point, I judged it was actually preferable to ponder Filia's behavior.
Filia liked warmth, and control, and compartments. This place was an overgrown, untamed fixer-upper that violated twenty health ordinances in one glance. Her behavior here, her bizarre affection for this mansion, was inconsistent with her personal taste, and it raised my hackles toward some yet undefined threat lurking between the drywall and floorboards
I'll give up the ghostpun intendedand admit this. I was sent to that place that night, too. But when Lord Greater Beast sent me, I had no idea that her routine order of "make sure whatever specter or poltergeist is haunting the place isn't breaking any ectoplasmic agreements or monster treatees," a chore I met probably a dozen times a day in the past millennium, would yield such an
intriguing character study in the most frustrating individual whom I had ever met. No idea. In Weirdness Factor, strictly because of Filia's conduct, this place had the demon Anne's haunted dollhouse on the hill beat. Exponentially.
.Filia's love of the Grogan mansion did make sense in one way. Filia had spent her entire life cocooned in the rocky cloisters of a holy temple, cut off from her priest father Bazard by patriarchal sanctions, and from friends and suitors by a frozen etiquette of chastity, for centuries. Though the dragon elders held that family was the cornerstone of their quaint little society, they hardly ever put into practice these tenets, and certainly did not allow their disciples to do so.
Filia's extreme thirst for home and hearth, her defense of the dwelling place of total strangers, had to do with he own deprivation thereof.
It had seemed to me that being Val's adoptive mother, and taking in the vagrants Jillas and Gravos, had filled that hollow space for her. But it was as if, since coming to the Grogan mansion, Filia's yearnings had manifest themselves in extreme, at every turn, with the accoutrements of sickeningly heartwarming domesticity.
It was almost as if the house were
seducing her. Into its intimate places. Its
I glanced at the cellar door that had slammed shut.
Screw finding a match. It was time to light a candle my own way.
I flicked my wrist and a burst of green light, that with which I had threatened the house earlier, ignited on the end of a lantern turned on its side on the floor. I brushed a spider and a few affronted silverfish off of the lantern and snatched it up. The candlewick was long, so I decided it was worth a brighter flame, and I turned it a little higher. The entire room was bathed in this light, shadows roiling, unnamable things seeming to hide in the sanctuary that the darkness still provided.
I knew my smile at this sight was hungrily gleeful, as I thought on the light and shadow dancing together and how they were like Filia and me, and how fun it might have been had we really made out in the foyer to irritate our ghost out of hiding. I turned my candlelight up a little higher, one more time, just for kicks. I smiled perversely at how the shadowsmebecame a little sparer, yet still wrapped themselves around the light.
With this gesture, the house, the whole house, moaned, unmistakably, with anger. The sounds of settling foundational beams rumbled and sharply cracked around me. The whole mass of the place seemed to shift a little to the right, like a ship on choppy water. I had clearly activated something at last.
Good, good. Excellent. I arched an eyebrow. "Hello?" I ventured, my smile having fallen wry and lopsided. "No need to make such a fuss. I'll turn it down. I'd appreciate it, though, if you'd identify yourself?"
I shrugged. "Fine. We'll do this the hard way, then
" I lifted my left hand and extended an index finger, prepared to slash up the astral plane at my bidding.
That was when, under my feet, underground, there came a rapid scuttling, followed by the sound of a struggle, and finally, a loud thump. These sounds rang out for, simultaneously, a millisecond and an infinity.
There was no doubt in my mind that this was a threat issued me by our wily supernatural foe. And its quarry was Filia. If there had been a palpable change in the air when we first reached the basement landing, the malice now oozing from every angle smothered me.
Had I a heart, it would have quickened; as it was, I settled for a loud gulp. I, a perpetrator of true atrocity, and a being with, in pedestrian terms, brass balls.
I glanced over my shoulder.
The once-empty kitchen and hallway were now flooded top to bottom with pairs of boy-and-girl figurines.
see," I murmured. Not allowing myself time to react, I whirled back toward the cellar door. I picked up the axe, stared at it for only a brief instantit was exceedingly plain and old in appearanceand tossed it aside into a shadow.
I attempted a casual air while I
erm, flung the door wide open.
"Filia?" I called eagerly into the subterranean womb.
Oh, brilliant entrance, Xelloss.
"Had enough of stumbling around in the d"
I did not look over my shoulder again.
I was too snared by what I saw below.
Yes, it was Filia. Standing there. Covered in dirt, her big cornflower-blue eyes so dull, and holding
The axe that I had cast aside, to get to her faster.
Calm. Maintain your wits. After all, it's finally getting interesting.
"Why do you have an axe?" I tried the direct approach.
She dropped it like a hot cake. "I
Right. I continued all the way down the basement stairs, and strode around examining the surroundings. It was full of emptiness and incompletion, things I would usually relish: an abandoned bicycle tire
a hoe, a rake missing a few prongs, a rusty trowel
lots of empty jars. And nothingness.
"Not much of anything down here at all," I mechanically remarked. Then I sought a jibe, in an effort to reclaim her from this place through the normal, the habitual: "Did a mouse scare you?"
She didn't answerdidn't rise to my baitand there, again, went my red flags. She was scrounging the emptiness for something. She bent and retrieved a toolbox, scrubbing at her hair almost compulsively. And she stalked right past me up the stairs.
I frowned. "Where are you going?"
"Have you seen the state of this place? It's a crime we've let it get this way. I've got to do something about it before it falls apart altogether."
For the first time, my alarm bled through. I snapped, "Oh I'm sorry, I thought we were here for an exorcism, not home improvement!" Well drat, sulky flare of temper there, but Filia often caused me to behave like a peevish child.
And yet, her responding glare had none of the usual volcanic force. It was resignedly ill-tempered. "This is my job, not yours, so I'll say what comes next."
She examined the rail as she stood at the top of the stairs, among the endless staring little statues, which she didn't seem to see. Instead, she clicked her tongue at the dirt on her finger.
"A house is like a child," she recited robotically, "it can't take care of itself."
All of my suspicions were confirmed in that instant. But I saw one last desperate way out of this hypnosis, one last way to test the resolve of whatever had her in its clutches. I would bring up Filia's most precious possession: I would bring up Val.
"A child?" I firmly retorted. I showed our unknown foe my own determination, marked my territory like the superior predator that I was, ascending to stand squarely behind Filia. I gazed straight into the eyes of the statues lining the place floor to ceiling, and shined the lantern right in their faces. "Filia, don't you have your own child to care for?"
Filia turned a wordless gaze on me. Her scowl was only faint. It was a faded thing, an alien expression that was borrowing her face to make itself known. She blinked. "We haven't had a child, owing to the fact that I'm barren. You know that."
Oooookay then. We. Right. What? My cerebrum hurt.
Ah, but then, then. Then it clicked.
I went out on a limb. "Mrs. Grogan?"
"Of course, Pa, married two decades and I go by my maiden name." She assumed a sarcastic sweetnessand, I noted, some kind of faintly coastal, nasal, no-nonsense accent. "Mrs. Adams. And your name is Jacob, isn't it?"
"Don't be daffy, of course, I know you, how you always laugh that I married a man with the same name as my grandfather. Just stop that now. And while we're at it, today's Sunday, there's a good boy. While you ask useless questions, are you going to help Ma Adams scrub down the floors, tighten the screws on the cabinet doors, or chop down the overgrown shrubs outside? We have a lot to do today."
"It's nighttime," I insisted, brandishing logic at her still. I tossed my head toward the window. "You'll perhaps note the waning moon."
Filia gazed outside, and then back at me, impassively, as if these simple observations of reality did not absorb. "Are you going to wag your cheeky lip at me all day, or are you going to be of use? Maybe it's my job, but I think I deserve a little help. At least help me put my hair in a bun, and pick a task!"
Her hilarious use of anachronistic dialect aside
.at that point I decided complying with the delusion was the best tactic. I nodded mutely and fished a rubber band out of a drawer, and twisted her hair up into a loose coiffe. I numbed myself to the surprising pang of having her cascades of hair physically in my grasp, but her psyche so remote. Emotions were useless right now. I needed to strategize.
"I'll do the landscaping
Ma," I slowly intoned. "And I'll take out the raw. Garbage." I waited to see if this would derive some familiarity of response.
Nothing. "We don't have any trash to take out yet."
"Oh. Right. Okay. Give me the axe."
"What's the magic word?"
Gods. She wasn't all THAT different from herself after all.
"Please," I hissed.
She handed the thing over.
I hesitated for a moment, then handed her the lantern. Armed with the axe, I stepped through the side door and outside. I tossed the axe, with perhaps more violence than was warranted, and an appropriately manly grunt, about twenty feet into the woods. Then I turned and, hands on hips, regarded the mansion again. It looked no different on the outside than it had when we had first entered. Whatever was causing Filia her madness, it was extraordinarily self-contained. It had to do with an environment, not a presence. Or perhaps
it had to do with both.
"It's you, isn't it?" I questioned the brick wall (cognizant, of course, of the hokiness of such an act). "You are the haunting." My hand caressed the side of the building gingerly. "Fascinating. But I'm not pleased with this turn of events. You'll be giving her back. Fair warning."
A quick glance through the kitchen window showed FiliaMrs. Adamshad already moved to another room in the house. Though, the window was open and steam was rising through it, a telltale sign that dinner was on the stove.
She was certainly making herself at home.
I shifted around to the front and spotted her: scrubbing the grime off of the house's eyesthe front windows.
She looked up at me in that moment. Her face was ashen. I don't know why, but it terrified even me. It was the blankness of it, the catatonia. It was the way she glowered purposelessly at me, with pale and almost pupilless eyes, and pointed one index finger directly at my face. It was the way all her hair was wasted in that tight little bun. It was the way I could have killed the whole of her race, not just one third of it, this time, and she would have just kept passionlessly staring.
I grinned winsomely, waved at her, and gestured reassuringly at the shrubbery.
She nodded and returned to her window-washing.
With this, I teleported straight inside, to the attic. Before I could form a solid plan of attack, I had to make sure I had examined the entire corpus of my foe thoroughly.
I lit a green demonic fireball which hovered above my palm.
The attic was full of dreary bookshelves.
And there was a woman. A blond woman in her forties with prim, thin, no-nonsense lips that she was pursing at me. She was seated in a rocking chair, aimlessly knitting something with red yarn.
"You men never understand," she said. "It's a man who trapped me here, like this. You men never understand duty or take it seriously." The same dialect that had suddenly afflicted Filia peppered this woman's speech.
"I'm neither a man nor a woman, technically," I pointed out, smugly. I was relieved to face some tangible essence of my foe that was less diffuse than a pile of bricks and timber.
"I don't like you," she rebutted. Her whole body was faintly quaking with rage.
I smirked. "Get in line."
"You're about to find out how much I don't like you, intruder."
"How cordial of you. I accept your challenge."
That was all it took: she dematerialized into the walls, very like the shadows that I had banished, earlier, with the lantern that I had lit.
I scoffed, and strode over to a bookshelf. Thinking nothing of doing a little more snooping, I opened it. I was vaguely aware of how Filia would have preached that my fatal flaw is my large ego and my tendency to underestimate enemies.
The moment I tried to read a page of the book, I realized she was right.
It was inscrutable. Like in one of those disoriented nightmares humans have. There was prose all over the page, but I simply could not read it.
I flung the book aside and seized another, thinner one.
The same problem.
I snatched a third, a fourth, a fifth, of different sizes and weights. Within moments I was tearing through the entire attic library, and nothing I tried to read yielded any knowledge.
I was ignorant. I was powerless.
The hallucinated woman's words rang clear in my head. So this was how the house thought it would intimidate me. It caused both greatest desires and worst fears to materialize. Even for me.
Prescient now of my opponent's plan of attack, I decided perhaps the house was like a Jabberwocky, a menace of purely psychic nature. Perhaps my mere awareness of the falsehood, the hallucinations, being imposed on me could disarm it, could break the spell. I grabbed one last book and tried it.
It reared out of the pages, a stinking flayed creature with two thin patches of flesh where there should have been eyes. Branded into these two spots were grotesque, bloody red X marks and a sea of sutures.
It was not its appearance, but its ceaseless, hopeless groping, and the way it tried in futility to wail in frustration for answers, for a direction, for a purpose, that spun my head. I dropped the book and stumbled back, my ball of green light extinguished.
The thing bucked out of the book and grabbed my throat, and its fingerslong slender pincersdrew back to pierce my eyes.
I was a startled wolf; my eyebrows shot up and my lip drew back to bare fangs. "Die," I breathed, like a cold crooning wind. In one decisive blow I sent a pivoting corkscrew of dynamic magic through its belly. My assailant writhed, fell, and dematerialized like my aging hostess had.
I growled a curse, equal parts disturbed and annoyed; it was that familiar "oh shit" sensation I'd had when Gaav and Valgaav, respectively, had beaten me to a pulp. Ego bruised, I staggered down the stairs. Another room greeted me, one so sweeping that it took up the whole of that floor. Remembering the necessity for sight, I ignited another green fireball.
It was surprisingly austere, as if the Grogan family had shed pretense in its most private space and just plodded through its extreme unhappiness in the sack, in the most utilitarian sense. In the center of the room was a king-size bed, with four grand but plain wooden tiers, and a white bedspread that was stained with about a six-foot blotch of red-brown. The place still reeked of a familiarly metallic odor. Evidently, the conjugal bed had been the site of the most recent Grogan murder-suicide: that of Jacob Adams and his homicidal wife.
I decided that this was probably pretty significant. Yeah. Probably. Good show, Xelloss. At that point I realized my hands were shaking at my sides, and became cross with myself. I was a vicious war general and a shrewd priest, after all, so it was more than a little disheartening that a single haunted house had me as rattled as a schoolboy.
For a moment I indulged in pettiness; this was all Filia's damned fault. All of it. I had but one task that evening, and otherwise, the night off, and she was wasting my valuable free time going crazy and needing her holy behind saved yet again.
Oh well. I needed to steel myself.
The full bathroom accommodating the master bedroom was attached without walls or curtains, an odd breech in privacy that I found impressively kinky, and, at the moment, convenient. I dashed over to the sink. I succumbed to a simple mortal calming device: I splashed some cold, rusty water on my face.
Think, think. You are still the superior predator.
I looked up into the grimy mirror. A mirror not unlike the mirror in which Filia had allegedly felt eyeballs. There was just enough clarity near the center to make out my own face
Filia. There she stood, directly behind me.
Two reflections. Two little statues, boy and girl. Two insistent complements stuck in a strange limbo with no end. Was I really so vulnerable to this clomping, doe-eyed maiden?
Then she attacked.
I didn't know Filia was capable of moving so fast, but then, this was not Filia. A wild-eyed valkyrie flew at me, face smudged with grime and sweat and something else, hands raised high overhead, bleached rivulets of hair loosed from her bun and writhing around her face like Medusa's snakes. She was wearing a high-collared white lace gown with yellowed edges that flapped about like moldy angel wings, a dubiously stained kitchen apron, and big rubber galoshes. And in those raised hands was that bloody axe.
She brought it down with a strangled wail. I might have yelpedslightlyas I darted out of range. The axe lodged itself in the floor, and she strained to pull it free. I stood there gawking at her in an idiotic stupor.
"You don't understand!" she shrieked, like a bruised, burned, wailing soul left too long to rot in some prison without light. My line of work made me quite familiar with that kind of scream. "You NEVER understand!" Tears torrented down her grotesquely contorted, blotchy face. It looked like a slab of raw meat, and her pain, whomever it belonged to, was real.
At that moment I became unsure where Mrs. Adams ended and Filia Ul Copt began. Which, I suspect, was precisely the house's intention.
She took another swing at me. I dodged and as a result two of the bedposts were demolished into splinters. Another swing, and the mirror was no morea fragmented sea, falling shards of selfhood. She screamed and screamed until her screams became hoarse, dry, mangled rasps.
Of course, I had every ability to disarm a single dragon flailing an axe with exceedingly poor aim. But I was unsure of how doing so would damage her from within the house's psychological cage. Still, I refused to submit to a classic hostage situation.
A wild thought occurred to me, and I took a mad risk. Most of the time, ghosts, be they humans or houses, needed to re-enact some unresolved trauma to pass onto a higher plane. It's a cliché, but one of the truer ones. With this in mind, I thrust myself onto the bed and held still for her, gambling that the axe was only operable on the physical plane, where it could not really wound me.
Filia hacked into my chest. Because I am thorough in my methods, my illusive body contained all the proper false organs, and squelched appropriately upon contact. But, as I came out of my braced cringe, with the axe still lodged in my chest, it came clear that she had not hurt my astral body. Oops, but I still had to "die." So I sort of
squiggled and writhed
.in a marvelously cheesy feint of death. I even thought to drape my tongue out across my left cheek. Then I held still.
Xelloss?" A fervent bleat.
My eyes flew open. Had it worked? "Are you alright?" I detestably blurted. I wished she had chopped off my ears first, because they were burning. Not because she was literally straddling me. No, I rather enjoyed that part.
Filia's eyes now held their usual wide-open sparkle. They were swimming with her own chagrined tears. "When did I do this?" she blubbered, meaning, apparently, chopping at my body like a deranged Victorian lumberjack. She drenched my face in salty wetness as she hovered over me, bawling. Then she had the gall to smack my nearest arm and whine, "This is all YOUR fault!"
My face started
twitching. But despite wanting to turn that axe on her, I raised a handstrictly for empirical reasons!and rested a palm against her cheek. "I think you should let me burn this place down now. Let's call it a night, hm?"
She didn't have time to answer. The light sank from her eyes as though down a blue drain, and the color seeped from her cheeks. Inconsolable rage again twisted her features, rage that was not hers. The bedroom door sprawled open and a black yawning Nothingness sucked her bodily backwards and downwards, with dizzying speed. It was and was not Filia: because she did not struggle. And then she was gone.
I rose from the bed, stole a look downward, and saw that the axe had disappeared again. I was drawn, then, to the Nothingness.
It was deafening, and it was supreme stillness: it called my name over and over, without a voice. It was eternity and timelessness. It yawned out at me, called me toward its abyss, spread its night and devoured every molecule of anything it touched. It was black opacity, it was an impenetrable embodiment of the impossible, the finite, the empty, the void. There was nothing down there, in that nonexistence, cut off from all else: nothing to study, to tease, to explore, to expand, to gain, to understand. It was cessation. It was denial. It was an overflowing black hole, massive anti-matter. It was worse than death, any ghost, or any monster. It was Unknowing: a big placidly glopping lake of Unknowing. It was an infinity of dark drowning.
It was a secret.
I stood there, reckoning with everything a mazoku should seek in life, and I could not breathe. I could not think. I could not remember my own name. I wanted more than anything
to simply back away and run. In that moment I faced the fact that I am an aberration against my own kind. A demon afraid, more than anything else, of the demons' true mission ever coming to pass: of things ending, ending so fully that they had never begun, and not being interesting anymore. In that moment I blasphemed. I felt something at my very core searing with guilt and agony. I was a freak.
My too-realistic body dry-heaved. It brought me to my senses. I left a mess in front of the devastated bed. I wiped my mouth and staggered to my feet. I remembered where I was, and its peculiar powers, powers it was exacting over me that very minute. I became angry, and smiled my poisonous smile.
"Nice try," I whispered at the rafters, swiping sweaty bangs from my forehead, "but do remember: I'm ME."
And then I walked right over to the stairwell, and submerged myself in the waters of Unknowing.
It felt the way a human body feels deprived of blood. Like the tingles of poor circulation. And very, very cold. Slimy, scaly, crunchy things passed around my ankles, behind my neck, and underfoot, and I diligently ignored them; they were just more chunks of my demonic imagination, probably conjured recollections of my many victims and adversaries. My body seemed to be descending in a roughly consistent manner, which told me I was successfully going down the mansion stairs.
It didn't seem like I was doing too badly, except for the pitch blackness that surrounded me. I didn't even mind the relentless chorus moaning my name in soundless voices or the occasional appendage lashing out to clutch at my hair and cloak. Visits to Hellmaster Fibrizo's private abode, a few eons ago, hadn't been so different from this.
Then my right foot struck something soft, solid, and warm. I knew, before I even knelt and turned it over, what, or who, it was.
Filia lay unnaturally prone, her neck turned back against one shrugging shoulder, her arms flung up over her head as if echoing a recent struggle. The axe was plunged into her belly and her white gown was marinating in redness. Her eyes were open and they stared at me with faithless accusation: "You didn't get here fast enough," they plainly stated.
She was dead.
Somehow, at some point, I had gotten down on the stair with her, and she was in my arms. I think I cried out; I
can't recall. But even then, I know my incessant pokerface was intact.
But that didn't change the fact that I suddenly wished for the pool of Unknowing to return, and swallow me. It was a strangely suicidal yearning; I didn't think myself capable of such feelings.
Regardless, I didn't get my wish.
Instead, the air began to buzz, and then to shimmy, as if the astral plane were suffering a shift in its plate tectonics. My eyes darted upward and around, because I knew that sensation well. It was the sensation of a demon expiring.
The house, every timber, every piece of furniture, ever accoutrement and decorationand the Filia in my arms, axe includedbegan to glow translucently, gelatinously. "I stand severely corrected," it declared, in the voice of the old woman. "Farewell, great demon, and his great love. I am extinguished at last."
Do what? His great WHAT? Despite my growing awareness that I had defeated the damned thing, I wanted to rip its bricked ass a new proverbial hole for calling HER my
The haunted house quivered and sighed one last time before vanishing in an explosion of iridescence. It was no more.
I was sitting in an abruptly vacated 8,000-square-foot hole in the ground.
And Filia, the real Filia, wholly intact, lay in her own clothes, face-down in a bucket of soapwater on the ground where some household object in need of cleaning had been. The bucket disappeared, with a plorsh, leaving her completely uninjured face squelched in the mud. Her tail was sticking straight up under her skirts.
"I don't see why you STILL had to tag along after I exorcised it!" Filia squawked at me as we strode out of the mayor's office. Well, I strode. She stomped.
I counted to ten
thousand. "As I told you numerous times in the past four hours at that diner where we got our quaint little country breakfastand more coffee than you should ever consume"
"I'm bouncy because of my VICTORY, not five cups of breakfast blend! I wanted to try something other than tea as celebration!"
Probably to spite me. I continued levelly, "As I was saying, I had professional concerns invested in eradicating that haunted house as well, and carrying out this mission to completion will provide me a far more thorough report for Lord Greater Beast."
"Don't say HER name in front of me," Filia sniffed.
Ten thousand? Try ten million. "You do realize that's an invitation for me to say it compulsively in every facet of conversation that I am able." Heh.
"Whatever." Her tail lashed beneath her skirts. "Lend me your expertise for a moment."
"Hm?' Red, yellow, and gold leaves crunched underfoot as we wandered at a leisurely pace down the gravel path overlooking where the house had been. Death painted in beautiful hues, that was autumn. My favorite season.
"We weren't able to provide a terribly satisfactory report of events to poor Phil and the mayor," Filia began cautiously. "So I was just wondering what your conjectures were
"But of course," I bemusedly supplied. "Your reports of rumors of Grogans making monster pacts got me thinking, and eventually it came clear. The house itself was a demon, a monster, a mazoku, whichever of those terms you wish to use. You are familiar, I believe, with how higher-up demons can project false physical bodies while moving around entirely on the astral plane. Most of us choose humanoid bodies for convenience's sake. But this demon, I suspect, chose to manifest as a house. The house spoke to me at one point in the form of the last full-blooded Grogan, a blond woman"
"It spoke to me too," Filia shuddered.
I moved closer to her. "It told me Jacob Grogan the First was the reason it was 'trapped here,' which, I wager, means the terms and conditions of the Monster's Pledge made with Grogan were that, in exchange for feeding off him, it would remain stationary, on Grogan land, and serve as the Grogan homestead. I'll bet anything Grogan's wife was not pleased with this turn of events, nor were any of his heirs, including his sole granddaughter. Curiously, the demon's words were extremely reminiscent of those of a woman scorned: 'You men never understand,' it told me. In other words, the 'house' lived symbiotically with its female keepers
and absorbed as much of their emotions as they did the house's. Neither was truly host nor parasite in the end. And it sought a new mistress, to ease its loneliness, in you."
"So we were running around inside a monster's guts all night?" I don't know if she was aware of it or not, but Filia leaned against me in that moment. "It's so cold out here," she murmured. She pressed against me a little harder. For some reason, I let her.
We had paused directly above the former Grogan grounds. The giant rectangular hole in the dirt was still there.
I cringed. I knew the question would come sooner or later. "Yes?"
How did you stop it, and free me? I mean
how did you HELP me exorcise it?"
She must have seen something she liked in my smile, as I peered at her from under my bangs, because she smiled back, as I confessed, "You would never believe me."
"I thought you were going to say, 'That's a secret.'"
I chuckled. "At the moment, I figured I owed you more than that."
We studied each other. She cocked her head. "The Grogan women hated their husbands because they had no regard for them." Her gaze had become more exacting.
"Yes," I confirmed as blandly as possible.
"But the house said to you, 'I stand severely corrected.'"
I sighed. "Yee-eesss?"
"Maybe it's the coffee talking. But do you remember your first suggestion
for how to exorcise that place?"
Something devilishly thirsty coursed through me. I reached out and caressed her lips. Full, soft. Moist. My finger traced them with more wonder and tenderness than I care to admit. She turned her head to nibble on my finger, her cheeks flaming. "Yes, I remember," I told her. For some reason I was whispering.
"Take me down there?" she requested, just as softly.
"Well alright," I conceded. "Just don't draw and quarter me with any sharp instruments."
"Shut up," she said.
And we teleported straight there, to make out in the dirty rectangular grave of our conquest.