The light from the candles’ small flames wavered as they struggled to hold back the pressing darkness. There were only two―unceremoniously stuck to the cold concrete floor, secured in place by the melted wax that had recently begun to drip down. In the middle of the small area of light they provided was an altar of black stone, and on it lay a boy who had just barely begun to enter adulthood. He had messy, pale blond hair, a thin, pointed face, and skin lightly tanned from a disinclination to be pent-up indoors. His name was Ray Weiss.
His narrow chest swelled as he began to stir and his eyelids fought to open, but it was no use. He didn’t have the energy. He tried to call for his friend, but it caught in his throat. A steady dripping noise attracted his attention and started to get his mind working, while his body was still showing a reluctance to cooperate. He welcomed the sound as it repeatedly crashed in his eardrums, distracting him from the throbbing pain in the back of his skull.
He drew a sudden, sharp breath as his memory came rushing back, and immediately regretted it. The place reeked of a musty, putrid stench so intense that it gagged him. He coughed and retched, wanting desperately to plug his nose, but found that he couldn’t move his arms. There was nothing restraining him as far as he could tell―his body just wouldn’t respond.
Though his common sense urged him to get a hold of himself and find a way out of there, an agonizing itch on his wrist demanded to be addressed. The skin burned and stung the more thought he gave it, and it was further intensified by a warm, sticky liquid that trickled down his palm and across his fingers. Gathering his strength, he lifted his head just enough to check if his body was still in one piece. To his relief, his limbs were all still attached. But realization of his situation quickly set in and dread began to spread like poison through his veins, paralyzing his lungs and making it even more difficult to breathe.
His arm was draped just over the edge of the altar, his hand turned slightly to the side. Since his palm was hidden from his view at that angle, he lifted it as much as he could in his weakened state, and saw that blood that was leaking out of a small slit on his wrist.
Horror filled him with each sickening splash, and the drops fell faster as his heart beat out of control. He had to calm down. Panic wasn’t going to help him. After a few deep breaths, he got to concentrating on moving again. If he could move his arm to his chest and stop the bleeding with his shirt, he should be fine. He hoped.
But his body wouldn’t obey. In fact, the harder he tried to move, the more disconnected he felt. He anxiously wondered if he had been drugged.
“It’s no use,” said a cold, deep voice from within the shadows.
Ray whipped his head around towards the source, briefly relieved that he was able to move something, however unhelpful it was. “Let me go,” he said, wincing at how pathetic he sounded, meaning it to be a demand.
A low, rumbling laugh was the only response he received. Ray glared defiantly into the darkness, willing his eyesight to adjust. Beyond the flickering candlelight he could just barely make out a tall figure, its eyes gleaming with an unnatural light.
As if to demonstrate just how hopeless Ray’s chance of
escape was, the figure raised its arm, and to the boy’s dismay, his own arm
raised by itself, as if it was strung up like a puppet. An unbearably long
moment later, the figure’s arm returned to its side, and Ray’s arm did the
same. Normally, Ray’s stubborn pride wouldn’t have allowed him to accept defeat,
but he was too exhausted. He wondered how much blood he had lost. It felt as if
his very soul was drained from him―or most of it, at least. He closed his eyes,
vaguely hoping it was all just a bad dream, and that he’d wake up soon.
“Ray! Wait up!”
The moment Ray heard the voice of his arch nemesis calling him, he stopped. Not because he wanted to, but because if he ignored him and kept walking, the guy would have kept calling his name. He felt a headache coming on, and a talking Seth was slightly less irritating than a loud Seth.
“I was hoping you might be absent again,” Ray said flatly when he caught up.
“Nice to see you too,” Seth laughed. “I’m feeling a lot better now, in case you were wondering.”
“Oh. Well.” Accustomed to these sorts of grumpy retorts from Ray, he cleared his throat and looked around for ideas in a change of subject. What he finally settled on was: “Nice weather today,” and a hopeful grin spread across his boyish face.
Ray stared at him, his expression unreadable except for his pierced eyebrow being raised. Sighing as if it took a great amount of effort, he lifted his eyes to the sky to make his own determination.
Being that it was still early in the morning, the sun still hung low in the sky, painting the thin, cottony clouds a pale orange. The crisp breeze carried the first earthy traces of autumn. Birds were singing. It was picture-perfect for taking a before-school selfie, which a couple of girls were in the process of down the street. But near the opposite horizon, dark, foreboding clouds billowed. Ray shivered and shoved his hands into the pockets of his black, worn-out hooded sweatshirt, and with his signature half-shrug and a noncommittal grunt, he turned and continued his way into the school. Several other students stopped in their tracks to let him pass through the door at his leisure. Seth hurried to keep up.
“It was food poisoning,” Seth informed him from just over his shoulder.
Ray snorted and increased his pace. “Awesome. Mind staying away from me, then?”
“It’s not contagious.”
“You’re still in my personal space.”
Even though Ray knew it was hopeless to avoid Seth since they had the same class for first hour, he took a sudden turn down the Science hall to try to lose him in the crowd. He was unsuccessful. Seth was still sticking to his heels like a shadow.
“Um, Math is the other way.”
“I’m getting my book,” Ray explained through his teeth, stopping in front of his locker. It took him a few tries before he got the combination right and he flung open the narrow door, Seth flinching as it crashed against its neighbor. Inside, several textbooks were carelessly tossed one on top of the other. Ray reached down and pulled one out from the bottom of the pile, a cloud of dust swirling in its wake. He slammed it shut again and headed back towards the Math hall.
“You never bring your book!” Seth exclaimed.
Ray stopped and Seth jumped at the sudden rage in Ray’s usually distant blue-green eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you?” breathed Ray in a low, dangerous tone. “We’re not friends, and we never will be. So leave me the hell alone!” And with that, he threw his book to the floor, the sudden noise startling everyone in the vicinity to stop and look in their direction. Seth was stunned into silence, which almost never happened.
“I’m so sick of you hanging around me all the time,” he continued. “It’s not my fault you can’t make any friends, and it’s no wonder why. You’re so frickin’ annoying!” And ignoring the look of hurt that flashed across Seth’s face, Ray stormed off.
Ever since kindergarten, Ray had endured the bothersome, one-sided friendship of Seth Williams. He wasn’t sure what he did to deserve it, but from the very beginning he had been trying his best to push him away. The guy was too happy-go-lucky―too much of a goody-goody. It made him uncomfortable. So he made a habit of dismissing the boy’s kindness, often returning it with hostility or ignoring him altogether, depending on his mood. Though, with all that had been going on at home recently, Ray had been lacking the energy and motivation to keep his guard up. So instead, he had been tolerating Seth’s company, bottling his various degrees of aggravation inside, which resulted in this angrier-than-usual outburst.
Swallowing his rising guilt, he pushed his way out through the double-doors at the end of the Math hall, no longer having any intention of going to class. He couldn’t bring himself to go back and sit in his assigned desk directly in front of Seth for an entire forty-five minutes.
Since it was a weekday morning, the streets of downtown New Haven weren’t nearly as busy as Ray would have liked. Even though he was a senior and could have passed as college-aged, he could still feel suspicious stares as he walked along. A pair of elderly ladies moved closer to each other as they passed him, clutching their floral-print purses and fancy boutique shopping bags, making a point not to look at him directly. He didn’t care much about what he was sure they were thinking, but he didn’t like how much he was sticking out. At that time of day, he didn’t belong there. If he came across a cop, they would probably stop him and ask questions.
Black clouds hovered overhead as he took a turn towards the deserted historical district. He often wandered there when he wanted to be alone. It had a reputation of being haunted, not to mention it was more or less claimed by a notorious gang by the name of Blackblood, so most people tended to steer clear of the area. Most of the city’s attempts to demolish the older buildings had been sabotaged in one way or another―usually in a strange and unexplainable way, and sometimes in a way that had Blackblood’s name literally all over it―so the area had been allowed to go on existing.
Ray didn’t mind so much about its paranormal reputation. He was used to it at home. As for the gang risk, he was used to sneaking around without getting caught. To him, the solitude of the old abandoned buildings―one in particular―was worth the risk of venturing into that area. The peace and quiet gave him the opportunity to work on songwriting in peace. And that one building that he favored weighed on his mind at times, drawing him there. He felt as if some great secret lay in hiding there, waiting to be discovered.
A plastic grocery bag rolled past him across the sidewalk, pushed by the strengthening wind that carried the smell of rain. He looked up through the towering buildings, wondering if his already crappy day was about to get worse, when a bloated drop of cold water splashed right between his eyes.
Within moments he was drenched. The sudden downpour was unavoidable no matter how close he pressed against the rough brick wall next to him, and pulling his hood over his head didn’t do much to keep him dry. If anything, it absorbed the water and clung uncomfortably to his skin. But it was a small improvement to allowing the rain to flow freely through his hair and into his eyes.
He ran for the nearest building that offered shelter under its covered stoop; across the empty street and halfway down the block; the same building he often found himself hanging around. He jumped the steps and nearly slipped in a puddle that gathered on the edge of the landing, but he grabbed the freezing iron railing just in time.
Withdrawing further inside where it was dry, he doubled over to catch his breath. As he shivered from the biting wind, he regretted ever having left school in the first place. It was bad enough that he was under-dressed for the chilly autumn day, but to be wet on top of that; he kicked himself for not heeding the sky’s obvious warning. It was too late for that, though. Since he was stranded there for the time being, he peeled back his hood and shook out his hair.
A flicker of yellow light moved at the edge of his peripheral vision, interrupting his thoughts. At first, he assumed that it was a flash of lightning. But there was no answer of thunder. Shrugging it off, he sat huddled against the heavy wooden door, blowing warm air into his hands. Then another light glimmered to his left, this time closer―but by the time he turned his head to look, it was gone.
He stared beyond the refuge of the covered porch into the thick veil of deafening rain, trying to figure out where the light could have come from. There were no cars in sight. Streetlamps in that district had been shut down a long time ago to save the city money. And it seemed too close to the ground to be lightning.
Several long minutes passed as he stubbornly watched that spot. Being no stranger to paranormal phenomena, he knew that the moment he looked away, it would probably appear again. He guessed whatever it was got some sort of enjoyment out of messing with people. He could relate. And sure enough, the moment he moved to turn away, there was a brief glow that came from around the corner of the building.
Ray was on his feet in an instant and flew down the steps, crossing the distance to the narrow alley in mere seconds; but as he predicted, there was no sign of any lights. Nonetheless, he ventured further into the alley to investigate, his curiosity stronger than his desire to avoid the rain.
“Who’s there?” he shouted into the storm, not really expecting anyone to answer. He supposed it could have been someone with a flashlight, but he doubted it. The eerie presence he felt nearby was similar to the one he often felt at home; and that was not human, dead or otherwise.
On a whim he looked up and at that moment, lightning streaked across the thin strip of black sky that he could see between the two buildings, illuminating a metal structure that jutted out of the wall. It was an old fire escape that looked like a great skeletal spider, clinging to the building with its long, spindly legs. A rusty chain attached to the pull-down ladder dangled just above his head, swaying in the wind, beckoning to him.
Even though he knew it was a completely stupid idea, his curiosity had now reached the point of insatiability. He jumped up to try to grab hold of the chain, but it was just out of his reach. So, he walked himself back several feet and took a running start, jumping as high as he could―and his fingers found the chain. The ladder resisted at first and he hung in the air for a second, his grip slipping alarmingly, but then it came crashing down with a metallic screech that resounded even over the constant barrage of rain against the pavement. His own crash landing would have been embarrassing if anyone saw. He picked himself back up and pointlessly brushed off the seat of his dripping wet, faded gray jeans.
Without a moment’s hesitation he climbed the ladder, finding the escape to be sturdier than he anticipated. It was probably rusted into place like the ladder had been. When he reached the top, he steadied himself against the wall instead of using the handrail, not ready to put his complete trust in the corroding frame.
Then a suspicious thing caught his eye. There was, of course, a padlock on the door latch; but it was unlocked. It just hung there, an open invitation for him to take it off and open the door.
The hinges groaned as he used all his strength to push his way in, and the darkness he found inside was as thick as ink. Since there was no light outside that could assist him, he didn’t take more than two steps forward, or take his hand off the door. He just gazed into the void, waiting to see if the strange light would appear again. He was somewhat glad just to be out of the rain, but not thrilled in the slightest to set foot into such a creepy place.
After nothing happened for quite some time, he decided it would be better to come back on a brighter day with a friend and some flashlights. Then, as if on cue, his eyes were drawn to the end of what he could only guess was a hallway, to a shape that seemed even darker than everything else; if that was even possible. It was a blacker than black mass that was crouched low to the floor, blocking the way. He stared at it with wide, adjusting eyes, trying to figure out what it was without getting any closer.
Something about that shadow seemed wrong. Unnatural. And yet… familiar. Goose bumps spread across his skin as the air around him was drained of any remaining warmth. Then, two glowing yellow orbs appeared like a pair of eyes and rose as the shadowy form straightened to its full height, stretching from the floor to the ceiling.
Its shape was vaguely human-like, but that thing was no human.
Its burning yellow gaze consumed him, rendering him powerless to do anything no matter how desperately he wanted to run away. His entire body was numb. He couldn’t even scream. But when he realized that the dark figure was slowly floating towards him, with a deep violet mist swelling behind it like a cloak, his mind abandoned him, and pure instinct took over.
He whirled around and stumbled out through the open doorway, not even recognizing that the screams were coming from him. Adrenaline surged through his veins as he jumped from the platform of the fire escape, rolling through the landing below like a practiced gymnast. Later he would wonder how he accomplished that without killing himself, but at that point in time, all he could do was run through the downpour―without looking back.
Kaito Shimizu was trying to amuse himself by twirling the xylophone sticks in his fingers. Someone in the clarinet section had been off tempo during a tricky part, so the teacher was making them each play it solo to figure out who it was. Not one of the twelve girls and one guy would admit to it.
The seventh clarinet came to a squeaking halt when the door burst open near the front of the large band room. Kaito nearly fell off his tall, already-wobbly stool. There stood his best friend, Ray, looking like a drowned rat with his dripping black clothes and blond hair sticking every which way. He spotted Kaito immediately and motioned for him to come with him. Kaito shook his head quickly, self-conscious of all the eyes that were turning to him. So, Ray marched into the room, not even flinching at the teacher’s glare.
“Can I help you?” she said incredulously, gripping the conductor’s stick so tightly it looked close to snapping in two.
He waved his hand dismissively. “I’m just borrowing Kai. It’s an emergency.”
As Ray neared him, Kaito saw how pale and wide-eyed he was. Upon realizing that his friend might have actually needed his help, he jumped down from the stool and grabbed his backpack. Then he followed Ray out of the room.
He was sure he was going to get himself detention.
Ray led him to the nearest bathroom so they could talk without being overheard, checking each stall first to make sure it was really empty. Kaito noticed he was shivering.
“Maybe you should sit under the dryer.”
Ray turned and raised an eyebrow at him.
“I mean, like, you don’t have to sit on the floor. Just get under one and warm up a bit.”
“You don’t look fine. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
He froze, staring off to the side. And just when Kaito wondered if he unwittingly guessed the truth, Ray beat him to it. “You know the old part of the city that’s supposed to be haunted?”
“I’ve heard about it,” Kaito said slowly, not sure if he liked where this was going.
“Well, I was on my way there when it started pouring.”
Ray hesitated. “During first hour.”
“You cut school? What happened to trying harder so you can graduate?”
“Seth got on my nerves,” he answered lamely. “But that’s not the point.”
“I still don’t get what you have against Seth,” said Kaito with a level tone, his arms now crossed, “but go on.”
Ray sighed. “Right. So, I took cover in this porch of some old building. Then, I kept seeing this weird light, so I followed it around to this door that was unlocked.”
“You followed a weird light to an unlocked door,” he repeated warily. “Please don’t tell me you went inside.”
A guilty smile played at the corners of Ray’s mouth. “Only like one or two steps. And no people were there, nobody goes there because―”
“Are you stupid? What if some psycho killer was luring you in there? What if you walked in on a drug deal or a gang or something? You don’t go into abandoned buildings! You just don’t!”
“I know, I know! Can you let me finish?”
Describing what he saw in that building was more difficult than Ray anticipated. The words that came to mind didn’t do it justice, if Kaito’s unimpressed stare was any indication. He suspected his friend’s anger at his cutting school and being reckless was the reason behind his refusal to be sympathetic, or at least pretend to be.
“So… it was tall, dark, and had glowing yellow eyes.”
“And it sort of floated towards me,” Ray added.
“Kai, I’m being serious! That thing was unnatural, and real. I could feel it!”
“Alright, alright,” he surrendered. “So what do you think it was? A ghost or something?”
“Something like that,” Ray quietly replied.
An uncomfortable silence settled between them. Ray turned away to gaze down at a sink. Kaito studied his friend’s troubled expression in the mirror, his own stern look eventually softening.
“Well, at least you made it back in one piece.”
Ray looked up at him through the mirror, but his relieved smile melted instantly, the color draining from his face as his eyes locked on something in the reflection. A shrill string of curses spilled out of his mouth as he whipped around, nearly slipping and falling back between two sinks. His eyes, wide with fear, looked not at Kaito, but past him. Alarmed by this, Kaito ducked out of the way, turning to see what had so disturbed his friend.
While he saw nothing out of the ordinary, he could definitely sense that something was off. He felt a blast of freezing air, and a sort of static electricity crackled around them, causing the hairs on his arms and on the back of his neck to stand on end. But then again, it could have just been his body reacting to his sudden anxiety.
“What’s with you?” Kaito demanded, more frightened than angry.
When Ray’s bright turquoise eyes landed on him, he could see the sharp mind working behind them; giving him a sinking feeling that his question wasn’t going to be answered. No sooner than he came to that realization did Ray grab his shoulder and steer him out through the door.
“You saw it again, didn’t you?” Kaito asked.
“Go back to your class.”
“But―” Just then, the long ring of the bell sounded directly over their heads, and the halls quickly filled with students as they poured out of their classrooms. The two of them backed up against the wall to avoid being trampled, and Kaito finished what he was going to say. “Third hour is over.”
“Go to your next class, then. I’ve got lunch. See you
later.” And with that, he blended into the crowd and was gone.
The cafeteria was still pretty empty when Ray arrived. The lunch line was just beginning to form, and students were scattered among the long folding tables, saving spots for their friends―though they always sat in the same place anyway. Ray had half of a table all to himself. The other half was occupied by outcasts, which he didn’t mind. Sometimes they ventured into his half with his permission, but today wasn’t one of those days. He wanted to be alone.
As usual, Seth found him and took a seat right across from him. Ray had long since given up on telling him he wasn’t invited. Seth knew him too well to take his threats seriously.
“Sorry for annoying you earlier,” he said with a nervous laugh as he shrugged off his backpack, setting it next to him on the bench. “You can copy my Math notes if you want.”
“Do I ever take notes?”
“Well, no… but you’re usually there to at least hear the lesson.” Seth took a notebook out of his backpack and after finding the right page, he set it in front of Ray on the table. Ray glanced down at it with disinterest, and as he pondered over something, he watched Seth proceed to unpack his lunch out of his brown paper bag.
It was very distracting how he arranged everything so particularly in front of him. First, the sandwich in the plastic bag that was so perfectly constructed with generous amounts of meat, cheese, and lettuce that it looked like it came right out of a commercial. His mother must have made it for him. Then he set a bottle of water to his right, followed by a bag of pretzels at his left, and a granola bar beside that. He made no move to start eating, but instead he neatly folded up the paper bag, setting it off to the side. For a long moment he looked down at the food before him, finally opting to pick up the water bottle and slowly twist off the cap. After taking a sip he gave Ray a puzzled look. That’s when Ray finally realized what he was doing.
“Just eat your stupid lunch!”
“You’re not going to take it?” Seth asked in disbelief. When Ray shook his head, he was taken aback and insisted, “But you always take my lunch!”
At this, Ray’s brow furrowed in suspicion. “It’s almost like you want me to take it.”
“No, no! I’m just surprised.” Turning to his backpack again, he pulled out a second brown paper bag and set it in front of Ray. “Here, have my back-up lunch.”
“I’m not hungry!”
“But it’ll just go to waste. I can’t eat two lunches or I’ll fall asleep in fourth hour.”
Ray stared down at the bag as if it did something to insult him. All that time of taking Seth’s lunches as payback for annoying him all the time―even knowing he always had a back-up lunch―the thought never occurred to him that Seth may have been bringing him a lunch on purpose. Now he was really annoyed.
“Are you feeling sick or something?” ventured Seth, seeming eager to change the subject. “I thought you looked kinda pale, but now you’re more on the red side. Oh, are you getting mad? Sorry, I’ll―”
“Just shut up!”
No longer caring whether or not it was a lunch of charity, he tore open the bag and began scarfing down the food. Something about Seth’s company made fear irrelevant. Maybe anger was a stronger emotion in him than fear, and he could always count on Seth to bring it out in him. Whatever the case, his newly formed idea was likely to work, however annoying it was bound to be. He swallowed the last bite of sandwich.
“Seth, I need a favor.”
His energetic green eyes lit up. “Yes?”
After school, Ray found Seth and Kaito waiting for him at the usual meeting spot; just outside the front doors by the flagpole. Fortunately, it was no longer raining, and most of the clouds had dispersed. Kaito was giving him a doubtful look as he approached, which indicated that Seth must have already mentioned their plan for the day.
“You,” said Kaito with noticeable skepticism when Ray was close enough to hear, “study math? With Seth?”
“What’s the problem?”
“How many times have I offered to help you?”
Ray shrugged. “Seth’s in my class. You’re too advanced. I’d just end up getting confused.”
“I’m happy to help,” interjected Seth, “but I’m not exactly a math genius, you know.”
“You’re not any kind of genius. But you’re passing, right?”
“That’s all I need to do. So if we’re done trying to talk me out of this, can we hurry up and get this over with?”
Kaito sighed and motioned for Ray to follow him. They stepped a little ways away from Seth, and Kaito gave him a look of concern, quietly saying, “You’d better not get him into trouble.”
Ray feigned offense. “We’re only studying.”
“I want to believe you, and I’m glad you’re hanging out with him, but you can’t blame me for being suspicious.”
“I don’t. But I felt bad for yelling at him this morning, and I really need to catch up, anyways. Besides, I think this will keep my mind off certain things I told you about earlier.”
Though Kaito didn’t look entirely convinced, he seemed to accept it as he gave a hesitant nod. “Alright.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, okay. See you. Good luck Seth!”
Once they went their separate ways, Seth began leading the way to his house. Ray kept checking over his shoulder while Seth attempted to make conversation, and when he saw that Kaito was out of sight, he pulled Seth in another direction.
“What are you doing?” Seth protested, trying to pull away, “That’s not the way to my house.”
“We’re not going to your house.”
“Oh, are we going to your house?”
Ray paused. “Yeah.”
“Oh, okay. Why didn’t you just say so?”
They turned down the street and Ray led on, passing shops and restaurants as they cut through the now-crowded downtown area. When they came out on the other side where the buildings were marred by time―with crumbling, graffiti-covered walls, and boarded-up windows and doors―Seth became increasingly concerned.
“You live out here?”
“Then where are we going?”
Ray stopped and looked at Seth cautiously. “Look. The math thing was just a cover. I don’t want Kai finding out about this, so I need you to promise me you’ll keep your mouth shut about it.” Seeing that Seth was wrestling with his conscience over the request, Ray continued, “I know you’re a crappy liar. That’s why you’re going to help me study after this, so when Kai asks you about it, you’ll have something to tell him.”
With great reluctance Seth gave a nod, but he still looked apprehensive about their surroundings. “What are we doing here, then?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I need to test something and see if I’m sane.”
Ignoring the eyebrow that was raised at him, Ray produced a couple of small flashlights from the pockets of his sweatshirt jacket and offered one to Seth, whose eyes widened in realization.
“We’re not going inside one of these buildings, are we?”
A sly smile spread across Ray’s face. “I’m going inside. It’s up to you if you want to let me go alone or not.”
Seth swallowed, looking down at the flashlight that was presented to him. As he found his resolve, Ray was startled by the transformation in his demeanor. He seemed to age as his expression hardened in determination, and until that moment, Ray had never really noticed that Seth was actually a bit taller than he was.
“You must have a good reason if you’re bringing me,” he said as he took the flashlight. Then something on the handle caught his eye; a sticker that said ‘Property of NHHS stage crew – do not remove from premises.’ Giving a long, dramatic blink, he raised his eyes to Ray and showed him the label.
He shrugged. “I’ll return them.”
Seth sighed. “What’s the plan?
They walked on a little further, and Ray could now see their destination looming over its neighbors like an oversized gravestone. Even in broad daylight it seemed to be untouched by the sun, casting an unwelcoming shadow before their feet. Intent on not letting Seth think he was a coward, Ray approached the building without slowing down. But Seth seemed more interested in the building itself. He hung back, gazing up at the building’s face, taking in the dated architectural style.
The brick building was wide and tall, with six stories of narrow, arched windows. Several large chimneys rose from the roof. The center of the building was decorated with columns on either side of the stoop, but the two surrounding wings had a smooth face aside from the many windows. The black roof had taken most of the damage of time; it was sinking in places and curling up everywhere else, though Seth couldn’t see that from his angle on the ground.
“What was this place?”
“I don’t know, but we can’t get in through that door. Come around this way.”
Just as Seth was about to turn from the porch, something glinted at him from next to the door. He climbed the steps to get a closer look, finding a bronze plate fixed to the wall with some rusty screws. It was covered with so many layers of grime that he couldn’t make out the words engraved there, so he pulled his sleeve over his fist and started rubbing at it.
“Come on, Seth!” said Ray, reappearing from around the corner. “What are you doing?”
“I want to see what this says.”
Ray joined him on the porch and looked over his shoulder. “I never noticed that.”
When he had cleared enough of the dirt away, Seth stood back so Ray could see it better. They stood in silence as they read it: ‘Blackthorne House for Children―established 1852.’ The two exchanged looks of surprise.
“It’s over a hundred and fifty years old!” exclaimed Seth. “I can’t believe it’s still standing!”
“So, what is it, an orphanage?” The idea made Ray uncomfortable, somehow. He knew orphanages never had a reputation for being happy places, but the creepy vibe he felt from this place suggested a more sinister past.
“Must have been. Do you still want to go in?”
To Ray, it was never a matter of want. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt like he had to face whatever was in there. Especially after letting it scare him off the first time. “Yeah. Come on.”
The fire escape ladder was still pulled down exactly how Ray had left it, verifying that he really had been there earlier that day. He could see that the door above was still open as well.
Ignoring a chill, Ray gripped both sides of the ladder in his hands, giving it a firm shake to make sure it wasn’t going to fall apart. “One at a time. I’ll go up first.” He made the climb slowly and carefully, and had to wonder how he managed it in the rain. The noise of the storm must have drowned out all the nerve-racking groans and creaks, and the wind must have masked how the structure swayed. When he reached the top, he made the mistake of turning to look down. “I jumped from here?” he blurted.
“You what?” Seth called from below.
“Nothing!” He backed up to the door, but couldn’t bring himself to look inside yet. So, he stood on the threshold and pulled the door closed a little, using it as a shield from the darkness inside. “Your turn!” Feeling exposed being up there alone, he wished Seth would hurry up. Maybe it was his imagination, but he could feel cold air wafting out from behind him and creeping over his shoulder like icy fingers.
It wasn’t too long before Seth’s face appeared as he pulled himself up onto the platform, wide-eyed. “You don’t think this thing is a hundred and fifty years old too, do you?”
Eager to get his feet on more stable ground, Seth squeezed past Ray and entered the building. Right away, he seemed to notice something was wrong. He stood deadly still for a minute, holding his breath, then remembered the flashlight and twisted the top to turn it on. The narrow beam of harsh light shot down the hallway until it hit a wall at the end. Then he aimed it all around, thoroughly inspecting the walls, floor, and ceiling.
Paint had been peeling off the walls, rolling down and breaking off to form white piles like shed snake skins. Shining threads stretched from wall to wall, with enormous webs woven between them, dotted with little white masses marking each victim that was caught and wrapped. The light found one unsuspecting spider―alarmingly large, its abdomen bulging―that scuttled across a nearly invisible bridge and disappeared into a small crack in the wall. Seth, who was not fond of spiders, squirmed and backed into Ray.
“Don’t be a baby,” Ray grumbled as he shouldered past him, venturing further inside, but taking care not to get too close to the web. “Man, look at how many dead bugs are in this thing.”
“Yeah, that’s great.”
“It must have been here for a long time.”
“Yeah, so let’s leave it alone.”
“I’m not bothering it, I’m just saying. Nobody must have been through here since this web was made. Like earlier today when I was here, the thing that came at me wasn’t a person. It didn’t have physical form, or this web would have been broken.”
Seth was quiet for a few moments, processing what Ray said. “What ‘thing’ came at you?” he finally asked.
“Oh, this dark, shadowy…” he paused as he searched his vocabulary for a suitable word, finally deciding on: “thing.”
“Maybe later you can draw me a picture.”
The sound of heavy footsteps echoed from around the corner at the end of the hall, and the two boys fell silent, staring at each other, neither even daring to breathe. Initially fearing that it was a person―more specifically a psycho killer, as Kaito had so kindly put into his head earlier―Ray put out his flashlight and motioned for Seth to do the same. They stood frozen for what seemed several long minutes, the only assurance coming from the open door a ways behind them, allowing in a little sunlight.
As convincingly human as the footsteps were, the unnerving presence Ray now felt reminded him of his encounter earlier that day, and it made him want to turn his flashlight back on.
“What if we get jumped by a homeless guy?” whispered Seth unexpectedly.
A startled Ray shined his flashlight in Seth’s face and answered in a near hiss, “Nobody in their right mind would hang out in here.”
Seth followed Ray’s lead and turned his flashlight on as well, unintentionally blinding Ray. “What about people who aren’t in their right mind?”
Ray didn’t have an answer for that. Once again, he was doubting the state of his own mind. Turning away from Seth, he looked for something to break the web with, and found a pebble-sized piece of plaster by his shoe. He picked it up and threw it down the hallway, then waited for something to happen―but he wasn’t sure what he was expecting.
“Is anyone here?” he asked as boldly as he could, given the circumstances. Both of them now had their lights fixed on the spot where the plaster landed. Ray’s frustration was building. “I know you’re there!” he shouted, “Are you afraid of the light, or what?”
Something small flew past Ray’s cheek from the end of the hallway, causing him to jump back and swear. Then, at the exact same moment, both of their flashlights went out, engulfing them in total darkness. In a panic Ray and Seth stumbled over each other trying to turn and make a run for the door, but there was no light to guide them back. The door had been closed.
Ray’s cursing was now unceasing, his voice at a higher octave than usual. Seth grabbed his arm and hushed him, but the silence was broken almost instantly. A beastly snarl rose from behind them, and when they both turned to look, a pair of glowing yellow orbs stared back at them.
The flashlight slipped out of Ray’s hand and clattered to the floor, the impact jolting it back on. As it rolled, the light swept across the hall, revealing a dark clawed foot, which recoiled back into the shadows. The sound Ray made at the sight of it was somewhere between horror and revulsion, but Seth was projecting a strange calm. He bent down to pick up the flashlight Ray had dropped and moved in front him defensively, holding the light like a weapon that pierced the darkness.
“Stay away, whatever you are.”
A swirling black smoke gathered at the end of the hall, curling in on itself as it grew right in the middle of the light for them to see. Then it seemed to vanish on the spot, darting from side to side to avoid the light as it streaked towards them.
But it was unable to reach its target.
A dazzling white light erupted from out of nowhere, erasing every shadow from every crack and corner. For a split second, Seth watched as the creature’s true form was revealed―its leathery black skin, clawed hands with skeletal fingers, and a startlingly human-like face. Though, with its skin pulled so tight, it more closely resembled a skull. Its body, starved and wretched, was like a hybrid between a human and a bat, equipped with a pair of wings that attempted to shield itself from the light, however futile. Then he met its bright yellow eyes, and it gnashed its long, needle-like teeth at him before being dissolved by the light.
Ray, on the other hand, witnessed something completely opposite. He had turned away the moment he realized the thing was charging at them, so when the light burst, he saw the source. A tall person clad in white had materialized just behind them, shining so brightly that it hurt his eyes. But he couldn’t look away.
The person―whom Ray deduced to be a man, judging by the muscles on the arms―was wearing sleek plates of armor on his shoulders and chest over a silky material that glistened different colors in the light. His flowing white hair framed his ivory face, where Ray’s eyes were drawn to the most striking feature; fiery blue eyes, like the hottest part of a flame, burning as they were locked on his foe. They were terrible and beautiful all at once, filling Ray with fear and awe.
With everything around him turned white, he thought in a panic that he had died and was facing judgment. Then the man’s eyes rested on him, and there was no trace of wrath left in them. Instead, they danced with a joy that seemed unquenchable, and the man gracefully extended his hand in peace. But Ray was too disoriented by that point to direct his body to make any sort of response. Before he knew what was happening, his knees buckled, and everything went dark as he fell.
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