Jorick gestured to the dusty stairs. “You might want to sit down first.”
“No, thank you. I think I’m okay where I am.”
“All right.” He set the candle on the floor, then leaned casually back against the wooden crates, his expression thoughtful. “I wonder if you’ve ever met Patrick’s brother, Michael?”
Patrick had only spoken of his brother on a handful of occasions, and always with pity and regret. They’d technically gone to school together, but he’d been a year or two younger and she couldn’t remember having ever interacted with him. “No.”
“Michael is the younger of the brothers, and not the smarter. He was too inquisitive for his own good and discovered the secret of someone... someone very powerful.” He grimaced and then relented, as though being completely vague would be too hard. “His name was Claudius. Michael confronted him and, needless to say, it wasn’t well received. In order to guarantee that Michael stayed quiet, he was forced into. . .” Jorick hesitated, “. . . servitude, and in a sense Michael dragged Patrick into it as well. Every Friday night, Claudius would throw very exclusive, very expensive parties and Patrick and Michael were little more than his servants at them.”
Katelina felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. So much for earth shattering revelations “So? He got involved with some kind of gang.”
A partial laugh escaped Jorick’s tight lips. “So he really did tell you nothing. No, it wasn’t a gang. I believe the word you want is coven.”
“A coven? You mean like witchcraft? Freaky cults and stuff?” That was a surprise. Though it made sense. Patrick had held some weird ideas and had often had a paranoid, haunted look in his eyes. She’d had no idea that there were any cults around there.
“Not exactly a cult, but that definition will work for now.” He waved her to silence before she could ask what he meant. “At one of these parties, Michael started talking about things he shouldn’t; specifically, people he should never have mentioned. Claudius likes to control people through fear, and the fear of harm befalling your loved ones is a very, very good motivator. Michael mentioned to the wrong people that Patrick was in love with you and – ”
“Excuse me?” Why was Patrick’s brother discussing her in the first place, and why did he say… Patrick didn’t love her. They were casual! They’d agreed. Time and again they’d promised each other that it meant nothing. No commitment, no feelings, no attachment. That had been the deal – his deal. He’d insisted on it, made it clear it was that or nothing. And she’d agreed; not only agreed but kept her half of the bargain. Any time she’d felt close to him she’d reminded herself that he wasn’t the kind of guy she could love. He had too much past and no future. The only way he was going was down; he just wasn’t “boyfriend” material. He was made for casual affairs. He was… he was…
Her brain stuttered and she glanced at Jorick. His gaze seemed to ask if she was all right. It was an answer she wasn’t sure about, so she looked away and jammed her phone in her pocket for something to do. “And?”
He seemed uncertain how to continue. “I’m sorry. I assumed, since you were lovers, that such attachment would be obvious, that some amount of… feeling was indicated…”
She opened her mouth to correct him and then decided to leave it alone.
With a final look of concern, Jorick continued. “Once Claudius knew you existed, he started using you to threaten Michael. Patrick didn’t know that his brother had spoken of you, and believed your existence to be a secret from the coven. That was Claudius’ new weapon, his way to control Michael. I’m sure you can imagine the consequences if Claudius hurt you, then told Patrick he’d discovered you through Michael’s indiscretion.” When she only blinked, he sighed and specified, “I’m certain Patrick would have wanted blood, brother or not, and Michael knew it. Because of that, it worked for a while, but Michael finally told his brother about his mistake and the threats Claudius had made. Patrick,” Jorick paused again. “Patrick didn’t take it well. He and Michael worked together to steal something that Claudius considers very precious, something he would kill for. They hoped to use it as a bargaining chip, but, as you know, it didn’t work.”
Katelina wasn’t sure what to feel. She tried to reason out the crazy story in her mind. If what Jorick said was true, then Patrick had been in love with her and had stolen something trying to… what? Protect her from Claudius and his cult?
She cast her thoughts backwards, searching for a hint of what sounded like insanity. She went as far back as the night she’d met Patrick in the bar. She could see it clearly: his black leather pants looked uncomfortably hot in the humidity and his tank top barely covered him. He’d been all blonde hair and smeared eyeliner, smelling of stale cigarettes and Captain Morgan, an easy smile on his lips and a twinkle in blue eyes that spoke of mischief.
The image was a punch in the stomach. She’d spent the last six weeks trying not to think about him, not to picture him. Now, there he was before her eyes, laughing, inviting her for a drink, and promising not to take advantage of her.
Defeated, she dropped onto the stairs and let her elbows rest on her knees. “So I suppose Claudius killed him over this… ‘thing’?”
Jorick seemed surprised at her assumption. “Claudius? No, it was Michael.”
“His brother?” Michael was gone – had been gone, or so Patrick and the police said. He’d left months ago and never came back. If Jorick’s story was true, then that was probably when they’d stolen the “thing”, and no doubt Michael had taken it somewhere and hidden it. But if he was guarding it, why had he come back? Why would he…
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Why would he do that?”
“Because Patrick wanted to give ‘the thing’ back to Claudius in exchange for a promise that you wouldn’t be harmed, but Michael wanted to be released from Claudius’ service – only it doesn’t work that way. Once you belong to Claudius, you belong to him forever. Patrick knew that; he knew there would be no deal unless they were willing to suffer for their misdeeds.” Jorick sighed almost sadly. “And so – as has happened since the dawn of humanity – brother killed brother; Cain killing Abel all over again.”
Katelina struggled for words. “He couldn’t have…” She thought of Patrick’s mangled body, lying pale and mutilated in a pool of sticky congealed blood, his spinal column showing through where his throat should have been. “How did he do it? I saw the body. His throat was ripped out! No human could have done that.”
“I didn’t say his brother was human, did I?”
“What?” As if there was something else to be! “If he wasn’t human then what was he?”
Jorick seemed to hesitate and then a smile flickered at the edges of his mouth. “Would you like to see?”
Katelina leapt to her feet and looked around wildly. “What? He’s here?”
“Yes.” Jorick retrieved the candle. “I have him locked up right now. It’s perfectly safe. Come.” Though spoken softly, the last word held the essence of a command.
Though part of her struggled with the idea, she followed Jorick, almost against her will. Even as her feet moved, she didn’t know why she wasn’t running away. It was as if some outside force stopped her escape and propelled her forward through the darkness.
They crossed the room and stopped before a door set into the farthest wall. As Jorick carefully unlocked it with yet another key, she noticed other doors along the walls, leading to who knew how many secret passages and storerooms.
“Through here.” He ducked inside and she followed into a narrow corridor. Dark damp walls seemed to close in around her. The spark of fear pushed away the last of the overwhelming desire to comply, and she stepped back towards the doorway. Her hand snaked to her pocket and her phone; a lifeline to safety.
All she wanted to do was run out of the God forsaken house, climb in her car and drive back to a gas station where she’d be surrounded by electric lights and Twinkies and motor oil and all of the mundane things that proved the difference between reality and fantasy; between waking and nightmares. Either Jorick was insane and there was no one there, or else he had Patrick’s murderous brother held prisoner in a dark basement. Neither option was good, and she knew it was time to run.
“It’s all right,” Jorick assured her. “He’s restrained.”
If he even exists, she thought. For all she knew, Jorick was high and hallucinating. High. She imagined turning and running, tripping up the wooden stairs while a junkie, high on god-knew-what, chased her down. He looked strong, and fast. Could she really escape? So far she’d cooperated with him and he hadn’t tried to hurt her; hadn’t even touched her. If he planned to kill her or rape her, he’d have probably gotten it over with already. Maybe, if she just played along she’d live to get through this.
She’d hoped to sound brave and in control, but her stutter betrayed her, “R-right.”
Jorick led her maybe twenty feet down the corridor, to another locked door. Something moved inside and terror sliced through her. What if Jorick was only slightly delusional and Michael was really there? What if they were partners? What if he was the one who was going to kill her? Visions of her dismembered body wrapped in garbage bags flashed through her mind as Jorick unlocked the door and pushed it open.
“Let me out of here!” a voice roared.
The candle’s feeble light revealed a single occupant chained to the wall with shackles on its wrists and ankles. Pictures of concentration camp victims or the starving in Ethiopia didn’t compare to the twisted, skin and bones figure. Discolored flesh cleaved tightly to its frame and left it a living skeleton; a monster who snarled and pulled the heavy chains taut with his struggles.
Despite his appearance, there were vestiges of a human being. The thing’s eyes were wide and blue – blue like Patrick’s. Its hair was also a lot like Patrick’s: thick and blonde. It hung in snarled tendrils nearly to his shoulders.
Jorick leaned against the doorjamb and stared critically at the monster. Katelina stayed in the corridor, unwilling to cross the threshold, the bitter taste of disbelief and fear in her mouth.
“Let me go,” the thing bellowed, his hollow face contorted in rage. “Claudius – ” He stopped as his eyes, so like Patrick’s, landed on Katelina. He hissed and bared his teeth, long inhuman fangs that shone in the candlelight.
A strangled cry escaped her lips and she hid behind Jorick. This could not be real!
Jorick seemed oblivious to the horror of the ghoul – unaware of the monstrosity of it all as he introduced them like dinner guests. “Katelina, this is Michael, and Michael, I assume you know who Katelina is?”
Michael. How could it be Michael? Patrick’s brother had been missing for months, not years, and it would have taken years for a person to turn into the walking skeleton before her. No, this had to be someone else.
Michael snarled a reply, his voice dry and raspy, “What are you up to now, Jorick? Damn Patrick for saying we could trust you!”
“I’m not up to anything, Michael,” Jorick said. “She’s come to see her lover’s killer.”
“Then tell her to take a good look. I’ll kill her next! If it weren’t for her and for you–”
Jorick cut him off. “I’ll never free you, Michael, and you know it.”
The thing’s words left her uncertain. If he wasn’t Michael then why did he mention Patrick? Why did he as much as admit to killing him? In the shape he was in, how could he even still talk, let alone pull on the chains with such inhuman strength?
“I didn’t say his brother was human, did I?”
But if not human then what?
Jorick went on, “Even if I did release you, what would Claudius do with you?”
“He’ll come for me,” the demon hissed, a malevolent smile on his face, his thin lips pulled back from fangs.
“We shall see.” Jorick looked over his shoulder at her. “Have you seen enough?”
She nodded, unable to speak. The thought of a brightly lit gas station full of reality seemed very far away.
They stepped out into the hallway and Jorick pulled the door after them. “I apologize for the shocking introduction, but it seemed the best way to make you believe me.” He stopped suddenly, his body rigid, as if he was listening.
Katelina strained, but she couldn’t hear anything except Michael’s sudden coarse laughter.
“I told you they’d come for me!”
“God damn it,” Jorick cursed. “Shut up, you foul creature!” He pulled Katelina close enough to hiss into her ear, “There is someone here. It may be nothing, but it could be Claudius come to find his servant. You must stay here, do you understand?”
“No!” she cried helplessly. The insane scenario had descended into the depths of madness. If a coven of witches was really attacking the house, how did Jorick and Michael know? She hadn’t heard anything. Maybe Jorick was a lunatic, but, she’d rather be with him than alone in the damp corridor with that thing on the other side of the door.
She tried to explain that as Jorick shoved what was left of the candle into her hand and pulled away from her to hurry towards the main room of the basement. She tried to follow, but as she reached the door he slammed it in her face and locked it loudly.
The hallway seemed to shrink in on her. The darkness became a tangible object that might reach out and strangle her at any moment. Fear choked her and sweat ran down her spine in a thin, chilling trickle. She backed against the stone wall and stared into the blackness, trying to ignore Michael’s muffled cries.
She shuddered. If that thing had once been Patrick’s brother, then something had happened to him; something to make him not human, because he wasn’t human anymore. She could feel that in the very depths of her soul with a sickening certainty. Her skin crawled at the thought of his nearness and her whole being cried out that he was something no one was ever meant to see, something never meant to walk the earth at all.
“Not real, not real, not real,” she whispered to herself, screwing her eyes shut. She was an assistant to a newspaper editor in the world of paper and glass and plastic; a glorified gopher that made coffee and fetched things and talked on the phone! She was not the heroine in some horror movie! The newspaper, that was real. Her boss, Mr. Fordrent, he was real. Her apartment with the pink flowered curtains, that was also real. Jorick and this tunnel, that thing in the room and the smell of damp and earth and fear… none of those things were real.
She opened her eyes, but the darkness was still there, held back by the trembling rays of light from her nub of a candle. She looked desperately for some crack in the façade of dream she was trapped in. She thought of Sarah and her warning. Yes, this was how people died.
Suddenly she remembered her phone. Sure, she shouldn’t mention to the operator that there was a monster locked up not ten feet away from her, but that was okay. It really didn’t matter what she said. She’d heard enough 9–1–1 tapes on the news to know that she just needed to gurgle something that sounded like, “help.”
She dug the phone from her pocket and mashed the button. She waited for the ringing to start, but nothing happened; there was only silence. Panic filled her and she hung up and redialed. Nothing. And then she saw the symbol on the screen. She had no signal.
“You have to joking,” she nearly cried. “This cannot be happening. Oh my God. This cannot be – ”
A scraping sound interrupted the flow of her terrified words. She snapped her phone shut and bit her lip until she tasted blood. Some instinct told her that she must remain quiet. Even though it seemed impossible, this was real. The hallway, the creature, the sound; it was all terribly, incredibly real.
The scraping noise grew louder, and was soon followed by a crash as something heavy struck the floor. She slid down the corridor, her back pressed against the wall to keep as much distance between her and Michael’s door as possible. She stopped, raised the candle, and peered down the tunnel. A section of the ceiling had fallen in and, as she watched, a figure dropped down from the newly formed hole. She caught her breath and dashed the candle against the damp stone.
Michael’s horse cries grew louder as he called the newcomers to him. She pressed herself tighter against the wall, trying to be invisible as the footsteps drew nearer.
Someone grabbed her and pulled her into the open. In her panic she let go of the candle nub and scrabbled to free herself one handed. A thick masculine voice spoke over Michael’s cries, “Well, well, it seems Jorick’s trying to hide a little treat from us! Wants it all to himself, does he?” The laughter that followed made her blood run cold.
A cool hand touched her face and slid towards her lips. Thoughtlessly she sank her teeth into it. As he cried out, she jerked her knee upwards and caught him in either the groin or the stomach.
When he released her she did the only thing she could think of – she ran towards the locked door, and hopefully Jorick.
She slid to a stop and banged on it with a clenched fist, shouting for the man who’d invited her into this nightmare. She didn’t know anything else to do and her panic screamed too loudly to come up with a plan.
A cold hand closed around her throat and pulled her backwards with almost inhuman strength. She heard herself scream, but it sounded foreign and far away. She gripped her cell phone tightly in her hand and tried to use it like a rock to hit her attacker about the head. He caught her hand and squeezed it until she cried out and the phone slipped from her fingers. She heard it hit the floor, followed by a sickening crunch as he stomped on it.
Before she was able to wail a sorrowful, “Nooooo!”, he stabbed her in the shoulder with something sharp. A burning sensation shot down her arm and she cried out both in surprise and pain.
The door jerked open and Jorick stood in the doorway, framed in a glaring blaze of light. His black hair was wild about his face. Blood splattered across his pale features and his dark eyes were filled with anger. As if to make the scene more surreal, he brandished a bloodstained sword.
Without a word, he pulled her from her attacker and threw her behind himself. The intruder lunged and Jorick lashed out at him with the blade.
Katelina’s screams had stopped, replaced by someone else’s. She looked around to find the basement bathed in the brilliant light of flames. The pile of wooden crates looked like a miniature bonfire, as did a screaming man. He danced around and tried to beat out the fire that engulfed him. Two bodies lay slumped some distance from him, face down on the basement floor. Dark puddles spread beneath them.
A new cry sounded and Katelina looked in time to see the attacker in the corridor fall. Jorick paused indecisively over his body, and then quickly turned away.
“Come on!” He grabbed Katelina’s arm and tugged her after him. The wooden beams above their heads began to catch fire and the thick smoke rolled against the ceiling.
“The stairs,” she cried and pointed desperately to their only escape.
“No. There are more of them upstairs. This way.”
He pulled her to another padlocked door. Though he didn’t bother with his keys, he only kicked the door to shreds in one smooth motion and dashed though it. The darkness quickly swallowed them as the tunnel twisted and turned, going ever upwards. Katelina glanced over her shoulder time and again, eyes scratching the darkness for signs of pursuers, but she saw nothing.
At last Jorick stopped. He released her hand and threw open a trap door above them. Cool moonlight spilled down into the corridor and she shrank back from it.
Jorick pulled himself through the opening. He motioned for her to stay where she was, then disappeared from her sight. He was back in a moment, crouched at the edge of the opening. “It’s clear, come on.” He held his blood stained hand to her and she took it, too numb to care. He pulled her up into the night where she collapsed on the dewy grass and gasped mouthfuls of fresh air.
“We must not linger; we may yet be followed.” He slammed the trapdoor shut and busied himself locking it from the outside.
Katelina sat up and nodded mutely, all of her limbs shaking. She tried desperately to catch her breath and gasped out the question, “Who... who were they?”
Jorick sighed. The moonlight made his skin gleam white and turned the blood splatters into splotches of black. “Vampires,” he said quietly. “They were Vampires. Just like Michael.”
Katelina stared at him for a moment, waiting for the punch line. When one didn’t come she threw back her head and laughed. “Of course they were!” In that moment it seemed the slender thread that separated waking from nightmares had snapped, and she suspected she’d never see a Twinkie again.