The road led them deeper into the night, where fog slowly crept, welcoming the car in its embrace.
They had seen no other vehicles for hours. It felt like they were all alone in the world. Lost in the middle of the countryside, far from civilization.
“I’m cold,” muttered the woman.
They had turned the heater on, but after the engine started making odd sounds, her husband had decided it would be safer to turn it off. He was concerned the vehicle would break down. They’d have to stop at the first opportunity to have it fixed.
But they had seen no houses, no motel on the side of the road, not even a branching street. And definitely no signs.
They had left the freeway when the car started making sounds, hoping to find some place to stop for the night, and maybe find a garage. Now it seemed like they were even worse off.
“Maybe we should turn back,” said the man, as if he hadn’t heard her—or maybe he just had nothing to say that could comfort her. “Get back to the freeway and find another exit.”
“We’ve been on this road for over an hour, Dan! I don’t think I could stand this that much longer…”
The darkness outside was unsettling. She had never seen blackness so stark. That had been before the fog, of course. In a sense, the fog was comforting, making her feel like they still were in a normal world.
“If we keep going and don’t find anything, it’ll be an even longer ride back…”
“There has to be something out there,” she remarked. “Otherwise, why would there be a road?”
Though he didn’t reply, he was thinking that whatever had been at the end of this road just might not be there anymore. Or perhaps it was, but it’d take several more hours to reach it—hours the car might not have. He didn’t want to alarm his wife, but he suspected from the sounds it made that it would break down on them rather sooner than later.
As if on cue, the entire structure under them trembled as more loud sounds came out of the engine. There might have been smoke, too, but that was hard to tell with all the fog.
With one last sputtering squeak, the engine died and the car came to a stop.
The two of them looked at each other.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
He sighed. “I think we’ll have to walk.”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
“You have a better idea?”
She had tried to make some calls with her cell, but there was no signal out here.
“It’s too cold outside,” she said in a small voice.
“If we walk, it’ll keep us warm. Warmer than in here.” He paused, considering. “I think we might have some blankets in the trunk.”
“Then maybe we should sleep in the car and go look for help in the morning. I don’t like the idea of walking in that fog…”
“I can’t just stay here and do nothing, hon. I could just go look for help, and you stay here…”
“Hell no! I’m not staying alone.” She sighed and opened the door. “Fine. Let’s do this. Before I change my mind.”
They both stepped out.
Dan went to the back and retrieved a blanket from the trunk, which he handed to his wife.
“What about you?” she asked.
He closed the trunk and they walked silently off into the fog.
How long had they been walking? She could have sworn it’d been hours. No way to be sure, since she’d forgotten to check the time when they’d set out. She looked at her phone now and saw it was a quarter to eleven.
She looked up and saw Dan was pointing toward a small dirt trail that disappeared into the fog. There was a sign next to it. She squinted to read the handwritten letters.
“Edhan Bruin? What the heck is Edhan Bruin?”
“A town, maybe?”
She glanced up the trail. There was nothing there but more fog.
“Wouldn’t we see some lights shining through?”
Dan scratched the back of his neck.
“Maybe there’s a house, and that’s the owner’s name?”
“What a strange name he’d have…”
Her husband shrugged. “Either way, there’s something out there.”
When they reached the path, they quietly took it.
They walked in silence, while all the while she wondered why the hell she had accepted to go on this trip. It’s not like she needed to see Dan’s parents. They’d never gotten along. His father was sick, so she understood he wanted to see him, but he could have gone alone.
It had been her idea to go with him, though, so she only had herself to blame.
The ground under their feet was muddy, either from the moisture of the fog or from recent rain.
A gentle breeze kept blowing against her face, making her shiver despite the blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
“I think I see something ahead,” muttered Dan.
She looked, but couldn’t see anything.
At least, not at first.
After a few minutes, a shape appeared within the fog. As they approached, it grew larger and more distinct.
It was a house.
More like a mansion.
An old one.
Like something out of some gothic novel from centuries past.
Made of limestone and wood, it rose many stories high—the exact number was difficult to say, as windows were unevenly sized and unevenly spread. Its cross gable roof was steeply pitched, with flying buttresses. Some of the windows had pointed arches, while others were more traditional rectangular-shaped ones.
No light shone from any of them.
Crickets sang in the distance as the couple walked up to the door.
“It looks abandoned,” whispered Dan. “Maybe we should head back. There are bound to be other houses—”
“You must be kidding me!” she snapped at him. “We’ve been walking for who knows how long, I’m freezing to death, and when we finally find a house, you’d want us to keep going? Hell no! Do whatever you want, but I’m staying here.”
Without waiting for a response, she spun and knocked on the door.
Dan grunted but remained by her side.
“I don’t think anyone lives here,” he said after they’d waited a couple of minutes.
“Or, more likely, they’re sleeping. It is close to midnight, after all.”
“You sure you want to wake them up, if they are?”
She thought about that for a moment.
“Well, we can’t just stay out here all night. Then again, if it is abandoned…”
She reached out and tried the handle.
The door opened with a creaking sound.
She threw a glance at her husband, then walked in.
After closing the door behind them, they looked around.
They were in a large hall with four doors on each side and a staircase at the end.
“Look,” whispered Dan, pointing toward one of the doors.
A flickering light shone through the darkness, beckoning them.
“There must be someone here after all,” she said with some relief.
They entered the room.
It was a small library, with bookshelves against each wall, a large table in its center, with three chairs on each side. A smaller, round table was set against one of the walls, between two shelves, with a rocking chair next to it.
A lit candle was burning on the small table.
But there was nobody there.
As they stared at the flame, they heard footsteps approaching from the hall.
They turned around just in time to see a middle-aged, stern-looking woman appear in the frame, wearing a black Victorian-style dress. She had short gray hair, dark brown eyes, and a frown on her face.
“Who are you?” she asked dryly.
“Sorry. I’m Sarah. This is my husband, Dan. We—”
The woman’s eyes had drifted to the candle. Her frown increased.
“Did you light that?” she interrupted.
The two looked at each other.
“Uhm, no,” said Sarah. “Didn’t you?”
The woman stared at them.
“Of course I did,” she said after a moment.
She walked up to the candle and put out the flame with her fingers, draping them all in darkness. Though there was enough moonlight coming through the window for them to see.
“How long will you be staying?” she asked as she turned back toward them.
They looked at each other again.
“We just got here,” remarked Dan. “Why—”
Her head snapped to look at him with a quirked brow.
“Is it not what you want?” she interrupted.
“Well, yes, I suppose. But—”
Without waiting for a response, she turned and headed back out.
They followed and saw her go up the stairs.
As they all went up, the woman talked without looking back.
“Be careful not to touch the walls,” she said casually.
A moment of silence preceded her answer.
“There are bugs.”
Sarah jerked away from the wall, grimacing.
Dan chuckled. “It can’t be that bad. I don’t see any.”
“I’m not taking any chances,” muttered his wife.
They went up two flights of stairs, then down another hall. The woman stopped at one of the doors, glanced at another on its right, then opened the one before her.
She peered inside without getting in, as if checking that everything was as expected. After a quick nod, she entered and stepped to the side to let them in.
It was spacious and ornately decorated with rich rugs and paintings, a chandelier, and a king-size bed. It smelled of incense and mint. More importantly, it looked clean.
“It’s dark in here,” remarked Dan. “Can’t we turn on the lights?”
He reached out for the switch on the wall, but the woman swatted his hand.
“No,” she said sharply. “We have no electricity here. You must make do with the moonlight.”
Sarah glanced apprehensively at the walls.
“I don’t know that I’ll be able to sleep if there are bugs in here…”
The woman clicked her tongue.
“Don’t be silly. There are no bugs in this house.”
“What? But you just said there were a minute ago!”
Their host blinked.
“Oh. Bugs. Yes. Be wary of the walls.”
Without another word, she stepped back into the hall and closed the door behind her.
“What the heck?”
Dan chuckled. “She’s just an eccentric old lady. Don’t let it get to your head. This place is too clean for there to be any bugs.”
One of the walls had a window. She stepped up to it to look outside.
The fog was still everywhere, taunting her.
She frowned and turned her head toward the wall itself.
“Did you hear that?”
Her husband was pulling the covers off the bed.
“I think there’s something in the wall…”
“Don’t be silly.”
She brought her ear closer to the surface, though she dared not press it against the stone. There definitely was like a faint scratching sound.
“I hear something!”
Dan sighed. “It must be coming from the room on the other side. Probably the old lady getting ready for bed—as should you.”
She looked at him with a frown and pointed at the window.
“There’s no room on the other side, Dan!”
He stared at the window, then at his wife, then at the wall.
She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.
Occasionally, her eyes would drift back to the wall.
In the quiet of the night, she could hear the sounds more clearly. It was grating on her nerves.
Dan had fallen asleep. How he had managed to, she could not understand.
They should never have come here.
She should have listened to her husband when he’d suggested backtracking.
Where would they be now if they had?
In some other, more welcoming house… or freezing to death on the roadside?
A new sound reached her ears.
This one didn’t come from the walls.
She sat up and stared at the door.
There was someone in the hall.
After a moment of hesitation, she slipped out of the bed and tiptoed to the door. She cracked it open and looked outside.
A little girl in a nightgown was standing there, barefoot, her back turned to Sarah. She was singing softly to herself, rocking back and forth as she did so.
The hall was plunged in darkness, with no other sound but the girl’s voice.
Intrigued, Sarah opened the door and stepped out.
“Hello?” she called out.
The little girl turned slowly. She did not seem startled. Instead, she smiled as she looked up at Sarah.
“Hello. Would you like to see my dolls?”
The child had short blonde hair, blue eyes, and the face of an angel.
“What are you doing up so late? You really should be sleeping.”
The girl shrugged. “I tried, but I couldn’t. But it’s okay. I can sleep later. Would you like to see my dolls?”
How could she blame the child for not being able to sleep when she herself could not?
Sarah blinked. “Your dolls? Hmm. I guess. Where are they?”
The girl held out her hand. “In my room. Come. I’ll show you.”
After a brief hesitation, she grabbed the little hand in hers and let the girl pull her toward the door she had noticed earlier, on the right of her room.
The door opened, and they stepped in.
This new room was very much like the other one, except it had obviously not been used in a long time. Sheets covered the furniture, and dust covered the sheets. Cobwebs hung in some corners, and this reminded her of the bugs. She shuddered.
“This is your room?” she asked in puzzlement.
The girl looked up at her with a beaming smile.
“Would you like to see my dolls?” she repeated.
“Where are they?”
Using her free hand, the girl pointed at the stone surface.
“Inside the walls, of course!”
Sarah jerked back, pulling free from the girl’s grip.
Her voice was higher pitched than usual.
“Would you like to see them?”
Her heart was racing now.
What was this?
She turned and hurried back into the hall, then into her room, slamming the door shut behind her.
She jumped and looked back. Her husband was sitting on the bed, rubbing his eyes.
“Is everything okay?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “It most definitely is not that.”
She stepped away from the door, glaring at it.
“Everything. This place is messed up. Seriously messed up. We should leave. Right now.”
Dan got out of the bed and walked up to her. “It’s the middle of the night, hon.” He pointed at the window. “There’s still fog out there, and I bet it’s freezing.”
“I can’t stay in this place another minute,” she said.
“Why don’t you calm down and tell me what happened?”
She stared at him, then took a deep breath and told him about the little girl.
“You’ve been on edge ever since we got here,” he reasoned. “You must have dreamed.”
“Dreamed? Are you serious right now? I couldn’t even fall asleep!”
“Sometimes we fall asleep without realizing it and—”
She grabbed his arm, opened the door, and dragged him out.
“Fine. Come. I’ll show you.”
“Okay, okay, no need to get upset…”
Without a word, she went to the room next door and pulled him in behind her.
It was empty.
Only covered furniture, dust, and cobwebs.
But no girl.
“I’ll grant you it’s creepy,” he said.
“Where did she go? I didn’t hear her walk out…”
“Maybe she went into the walls,” he tried to joke.
She threw him a glare that made him sigh and shake his head.
“I think you’re just tired. It’s been a long day, and this place hasn’t helped. You really should try to get some sleep.”
This time it was he who grabbed her arm and pulled her behind him. She reluctantly followed, glancing over her shoulder at the dusty room.
As they got into the hall, a flickering light caught her eye.
She pointed, and Dan stopped.
The light came from downstairs.
“Must be the old lady,” he muttered.
She pulled away from his grip and headed toward the steps.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Maybe it’s the little girl,” she said as she started down.
He sighed and followed her.
“It’s not that big a deal, hon.”
She glanced at him. “You don’t think it’s important for me to know that I’m not going nuts?”
He knew better than to answer that, so he didn’t.
The light drew them back to the library.
The candle on the small round table had been lit again.
An old man now sat in the rocking chair next to it, with a large smile on his lips. He stared straight at them as they entered the room.
“Oh,” she said in surprise. “Hi.” She looked around, but there was nobody else there. “Have you seen a little girl?”
The man rocked back and forth, still smiling, but he said nothing.
“Maybe he’s deaf?” whispered Dan.
Ignoring him, she took a step toward the old fellow.
His eyes followed her, so at least he wasn’t blind.
“Do you live here?” she asked. “Was it your wife we met?”
The wooden chair creaked with each rocking motion, but still, the man smiled and remained quiet.
“It’s no use,” said her husband. “I’m going back to bed. Are you coming?”
Sarah grimaced but nodded. She kept looking over her shoulder as she headed out, but the old man just watched her with glee in his eyes.
As they made their way up the stairs, she suddenly froze and let out a yelp of surprise.
“What is it now?” asked Dan, glancing back at her.
She pointed at the wall.
When her husband followed her gesture, he saw bulges forming on the rocky surface. They’d pop up and disappear in quick succession, as if the stone itself was bubbling.
Then one of the bulges took a more distinctive shape, that of a hand, as it sprung out toward them. A loud, piercing scream rang out at the same time.
They turned and ran back down, now both in a panic.
As they reached the library, the light of the candle died out, as if blown by a breeze—though there was none. And while the rocking chair was still rocking, it now was empty.
“Where did he go?” asked Sarah in alarm.
They went back into the hall. It was darker there, as the windows were too far for the moon to light much of anything.
Dan looked in every direction, trying to decide what to do next. His eyes kept darting toward the front door.
That was when they heard the footsteps.
Despite the darkness, there were still shadows.
Blacker spots than the blackness around.
One of them grew as the footsteps came closer.
At first, she reasoned it must be the old woman.
But then she realized that lady had never been noisy. Besides, this was a heavy step, that would better match a man.
It definitely couldn’t be the little girl.
Not even the old man from the rocking chair, she decided. That one had been too frail.
And the shadow matched none of them.
“We need to get out of here!” cried out Dan, his voice filled with distress.
She could only agree.
They bolted toward the front door.
But when they tried to open it, they found it was locked.
“This can’t be happening!”
“Maybe we can break a window,” muttered Dan.
They turned, intending to go through the closest door, but it was too late.
A huge shape loomed above them.
It was a mountain of a man.
With scars all over his face.
He had short black hair and a hard, cruel gaze. The right corner of his lips was marked with a burn that froze his face in a permanent grin.
The man’s mouth opened, and a guttural voice boomed out from it.
“You should not have left your room! Now, you must follow me.”
They took a step back and found themselves pressed against the door.
“No!” said Sarah. “We just want to leave.”
The giant snorted. He leaned over and grabbed them both by the arm, one in each hand, then pulled them behind him. They tried to resist, to pry away, but they were no match for his strength.
“Let us go!” screamed Sarah.
The man said nothing as he dragged them into the kitchen. There, he violently threw them to the floor, their heads banging against the wall.
While they rubbed their skulls and slowly got back to their feet, the man swung toward the counter to grab a large blood-stained cleaver.
He turned and lifted it to strike them.
The man’s gesture stopped midway.
He gurgled and sputtered as his body spasmed, contorted, and shifted.
They heard the sound of cracking bones as the shape shrunk and morphed.
Hair lengthened, wrinkles appeared, chest popped out.
Even the clothing changed—shirt and jeans replaced by a long Victorian-type dress.
The cleaver dropped from a now smaller hand.
They stared in disbelief as the giant changed into that same old woman who had welcomed them just a few hours earlier.
The woman staggered. Held out her hand to grab the counter and steadied herself.
Her weary eyes turned toward the couple.
“You should not have left your room,” she said, echoing the giant’s words.
They could hear a touch of reproach in her voice.
“I don’t know what’s going on here,” said Dan, “but we’re leaving. Right now.”
The woman sighed and shook her head.
“That is not possible. Not until dawn. Until then, the only safe place in this house is your room. You should go back. Let nothing lure you out. No matter what.”
“Why?” asked Sarah, still recovering from the shock of having her life threatened.
The woman stared at them for a moment, then lowered her eyes.
“I suppose you are owed an explanation, though it is likely you will believe none of it.”
“After what we’ve seen tonight,” argued Sarah, “I think I’m ready to believe just about anything!”
The old lady grimaced, then nodded.
“Edhan Bruin was built three hundred years ago by a sorcerer of ill repute. On his deathbed, he lay a curse on all his belongings… including the house itself—”
The woman shrugged. “Because he could? Because it was in his nature? Who is to say? Either way, he gave the house to the man he had chosen to be its Caretaker—my ancestor. He was cursed, too. And his curse passed on to his successors. It did not matter whether the next Caretaker was of the same blood. So long as you were linked to this house, you were doomed—”
“Then why take the job?”
The woman clicked her tongue in annoyance.
“The Caretaker can choose a successor, but the chosen one can never decline the offer. It is part of the curse. You are drawn to the house. It is a calling that cannot be ignored. It gnaws at you, haunts you until you come. And once you are here, there is no going back.”
“And what is this curse you speak of?” asked Dan.
She looked at him, then at Sarah. She seemed to have regained her strength as she pushed away from the counter and straightened before them.
“The curse is different for each Caretaker,” she said in a quiet voice. “Mine is the merging of four individuals. All of us were drawn here in the same fashion, then trapped in the same fashion, then merged by our curse in the same fashion.”
Sarah gaped at the old lady. She must not have heard that right.
“Each of us is desperate to escape. Each of us has a theory as to how to achieve this.” She looked at them with sadness in her eyes. “I believe I must atone for my sins. Only by helping others, like yourselves, may I be someday forgiven and granted my freedom.” Her eyes went to the cleaver. “That… beast… the one who threatened you… that monster craves for blood… he believes killing any who come here will set him free.” She nodded her head toward the door and the library across the hall. “The old man lights a candle every night. He thinks if he can stay quiet until it burns out completely, it would save his soul. But the candle always blows out before the wax all melts.” She then glanced up at the ceiling. “As for the little girl, she just wants to collect dolls.”
Sarah frowned. “But there are no dolls in her room!”
The woman opened her mouth to answer, but it twisted and curled in an ungodly way. Her body spasmed and shifted as she held on to the counter.
Again, her body shrunk, until the old lady was replaced by the little girl in her nightgown.
She looked up at Sarah and smiled.
“Come, and I will show you my dolls.”
They ran back up the stairs. As much to get away from the girl as to follow the old woman’s advice. Deep down, they knew they had no reason to trust her more than any of her other personas, but they had to do something.
When they reached the door, Dan tried the handle, but it refused to open.
“What the hell is wrong with this place?” hissed Sarah.
“It’s locked,” said a small voice from behind them.
They jumped and turned around.
The little girl was standing there, smiling.
“Elise locked it. She likes to do pranks.”
“Who’s Elise?” asked Dan, squinting at the girl.
“One of my dolls. But it’s okay. I can get you in.”
“You have a key?”
The girl giggled. “Of course not! Don’t be silly. But there’s another way in. Your room has a connecting closet with mine. Come, I’ll show you!”
They reluctantly followed her back into the dusty, unused room.
“You can’t really be sleeping here,” said Dan with some distaste.
The girl headed toward the back of the room and opened the door to a large walk-in closet. It was dark inside.
“It’s in there,” she said, pointing. “Straight ahead, you’ll find a door. This one doesn’t have a lock, so you can always open it.”
She smiled prettily at them.
Dan glanced inside, then at the little girl.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Just go straight. It’s not very deep. You’ll find it.”
Sarah rolled her eyes.
“Oh, for crying out loud!”
She marched past Dan, heading resolutely toward the back of the closet. Her husband straightened and followed.
“Hey! Wait for me.”
As soon as they were both in, the little girl slammed the door shut behind them, giggling.
Plunged in total darkness, they spun around and rushed back to the door to bang on it…
Except, there no longer was a door there.
There was a stone wall.
“No!” cried Dan. “How is this possible?”
Sarah hurried to the opposite wall—the one shared with their room—but there was no door there either. Just more stone.
They banged against it.
And banged some more.
From the other side, bulges appeared on the surface, in the shape of their fists.
Their screams resonated through the house.
Outside, the fog parted as the sun rose on the horizon.