All Things Must Come [Olympus in the Dark #1]

Johnny Libenzon
46 min readOct 31, 2023
A story I wrote as the first part of many for a short story narrative called ‘Olympus in the Dark.’ If there is interest in this one, I may post the other two I wrote, or potentially finish the collection in the future [‘Melancholia’ by Luigi Roberto Rotella]

Lara hated the tiles only marginally more than the rest of the house.

She knew there was no logic in her animosity towards what amounted to a plain, off-white ceiling that did little to liven up an equally plain echo of a home. That same ceiling had been there since the house was built several decades ago, and had looked down upon several generations of her own family, the Windales, without missing a single moment in their lives. It had been there when the founding patriarch, Eric Windale, had ordered the construction of the house using the substantial fortune he’d accumulated through late hours on Wall Street. It had looked down disapprovingly when he’d lost most of his stockpile later in life due to a penchant for poker. It had watched one daughter born, then another, then finally — to the aging Eric’s delight — a son, who passed not twelve summers later under the weeping sounds of his mother and the carefully concealed rage of his father. It had witnessed many fights thereafter, and stayed silent throughout them all.

Years later, generations later, it stared back down at Lara Forester, née Windale, youngest daughter of the family and current owner of this fine suburban home of theirs. Though she hadn’t her great-grandfather’s knack for prudent financial investments, she maintained a careful work ethic during her time as a nurse, and had gleaned much of her current personal accounting knowledge through her own father. As such, though Lara could hardly consider herself a woman of means, she lived life carefully and saved what she could. She wanted for few pleasures, save the occasional vacation to the countryside, and even these were but road-trips with her current friends and previous husband. They went to Massachusetts, to Quebec, and even as far as New York and Vermont.

Most of the money she set aside went up in flames anyway, because paying for two growing children while trying to keep the debt collectors away from your ancestral residence is no easy task.

“Jade, what’ve you got there?”

In the corner of the room, nearly indistinguishable from the evening shadows, a diminutive figure nearly jumped in surprise at the sudden intrusion of Lara’s voice in the silence.

“It’s the — it’s ‘Fluffy Puffs.’ The cereal, with the strawberry and the candy — ”

“No, no, I didn’t buy that one for you. Let me see that.”

Lara stood from her place at the kitchen table, situated neatly between piles of white porcelain in the sink, an old electric stove with a murky black top and a refrigerator covered in both Jade and Hayden’s childhood photos. The fridge door also hosted family pictures that seemed to have been trimmed to remove a sizable portion from each. Some had been cut jaggedly, as if in a hurry, and as such did not remove the offending person neatly. One had been skipped altogether, as if whoever had done it grew tired of their work, and instead covered the face of a young but thickly bearded man with a ladybug-shaped magnet.

Jade’s small face kept an even, steady expression, her hands clasped tightly behind her back as she awaited her mother’s judgment.

The cereal box was turned over and over again by Lara’s slender hands until she found the ingredient label. Then she sighed loudly, giving voice to her displeasure. She turned her dark eyes towards her daughter.

“Do you know how much sugar is in this? Jesus, you could probably bake a cake with a quarter of this crap. I don’t even remember buying this…”

“Um, dad brought it the last time we saw him, a few weeks ago.”

“Oh, he did, did he?” Lara sighed, exasperated yet again at the actions of her ex-husband. Whatever he may have told her every time he visited from LA, she never did believe him when he said he was keeping things in order every time he was around. And now here was her proof. Probably trying to gain favor from the kids, turning them against their health-nut of a mother.

He wasn’t an uncaring father, or even a particularly bad husband. They had just… drifted apart. ‘Shit happened’, as they say, and the little things that kept them at each other’s throats in the early hours of the morning started to fester like a tumor. And then there were the children, who had begun to suspect that there was something wrong within the family dynamic. Hayden was the first to notice, having walked in on a particularly venomous exchange and wondered why his parents were staring daggers at one another. Neither raised their voice, but the quiet cut just as deep.

A ‘separation’ was what they were officially calling it, but in Lara’s opinion, it was just that neither had the will to call for a full-on divorce. And in her case, Lara feared what it would do to the family dynamic, to their finances. To her.

“Well, no more of this for you,” she said, placing the Fluffy Puffs up to the third shelf from the kitchen counter and just out of little Jade’s reach. Instead, she brought down some off-brand corn flakes. The branding on the box was as bland as the ceiling tiles Lara hated so much, but she couldn’t fight against her own conditioning. Her daughter would thank her one day for her strictness with her diet regimen, she reasoned.

Jade took the cereal wordlessly, nodding her head in what seemed to be a muted expression of gratitude, and left quickly back towards her own room.

Lara sat back down at the kitchen table, staring up at the ceiling she hated so very, very much. It was a good thing this was a Saturday evening, and that she had time to contemplate her emotions, to try and understand why she was feeling this way.

Why was she so angry? Was it because Simon had promised to visit them this month, and was now a full week past when he was supposedly meant to swing by and stay at the house for a few days? Was it because the shifts that hospital had given her the past week were brutal, soul-crushingly so, and made her almost wish she’d never chosen this profession in the first place? Was it because she felt like her kids barely ever saw her as it stands, and the best she could do on the weekends was scold them for the food they ate and stare at the ceiling?

She wasn’t even sure where to start with ‘fixing’ herself. It felt like the foundations of her mind were cracking at the seams. And yet, at the same time, nothing felt truly broken.

Lara tore her gaze away from the ceiling, instead glancing around the lightless room. What life there had once been, the moonlight had somehow managed to sweep away. Children’s drawings taped to the wall were a bright reminder of youth during the day, but looked like forgotten relics at night. The ceiling lights usually masked various imperfections below, like faltering paint on maroon red chairs or what remained of a hand-sized puncture wound in the wall, which had since been covered over with paint and drywall.

Shifting wearily in her nurse’s scrubs, Lara turned to look at the doorway leading to a messy sprawl of a corridor that opened up to both the basement and second-floor stairs, as well as the living room, and found that a figure stood there.

At first she thought it may have been Simon. Snuck in using the spare key under the doormat and here to surprise her with that shaggy beard and messy blond mop of his, hoping to see his tired but kind eyes again. But the man in the doorway was older, and appeared more haggard and thin, like his skull was protruding from his head. His eyes were a dead white. He stared into nothingness.

“Lara.” He spoke with the hoarse tone of someone whose saliva had dried up long ago.

The nurse sat on her chair, petrified. Her fingernails dug into the surface of the table. The wood felt like it was rotting underneath.

“Lara… you shouldn’t be here.”

She did not respond, her breath caught in her throat. She did her best to steady herself, slowing her breathing. Her eyes darted around the shadow figure’s face.

Her lungs rose and fell quickly. She was hyperventilating.

She closed her eyes tightly, then opened them again, and a small sound of terror escaped her throat, her mouth going dry. Her father was still there, in the doorway. He was staring at her, unblinking. His mouth was slack, the teeth having rotted to a sick yellow.

“Lara… child…”

“Fuck off, you’re d-dead.” She stuttered the words out desperately. Her facial muscles twitched violently, trying to keep her fear in check. “Fucking — get out. Get out.

She blinked, and he was gone.

Lara stayed frozen for several moments, staring at the empty space where her father had just been. She lurched forward, her elbows slamming into the table as she fought to hold her head still. The nurse was sobbing, tears falling freely onto the table, dribbling into the crevices her nails had marked in the oaken surface. It took her some time to compose herself again, and she raised her strained eyes up to glance at the doorway every few moments to assure herself that he had truly gone.

For a brief, blissful moment, she thought she was simply going insane. Then she looked down near the base of the doorframe. She saw the twin dark, heavy footprints left on the floorboards.

“Oh god, oh fuck, oh my god, oh my god…”

She repeated it like a litany.

“Coffee?”

“What?” Lara glanced up, adjusting to the harsh glare of sunlight pouring through the kitchen dais. Her gaze was unfocused when it landed on the priest, who seemed quite patient with the fact that this was the third time now that she’d given him a muffled response to what should have been a simple question.

“Oh… no, no thanks.”

“No, I mean, you said you had coffee? I wouldn’t mind some, if you’re still offering. If you’re still offering.”

“Oh. Right, yeah, that coffee. Sorry.”

“It’s alright, I understand. Do you mind if I get it myself?”

“Be my guest.”

“I’d like to think that I’m already your guest. But I’ll be your coffee companion too, if you’d like some.”

“Thanks, but I’m alright.”

“Sure.”

Lara wasn’t totally sure what to make of this priest. When she’d first called in, a full week after these supernatural instances had first begun, she had wondered if even bothering to call for an exorcist like this was some mid 80’s haunting was a foolish idea in the first place. Her first thought had gone to more traditional, and perhaps far more rational, ideas; calling the police to see if it was some criminal that had caught her on a bad night, or perhaps phoning in for a psych evaluation to check if long shifts at Houlton Regional were crippling her ability to distinguish reality from dreams. She really did think it had been that — a dream, or a little nightmare to be more specific. Then it happened again. And again.

The first few were nowhere near as obvious and overly supernatural as the first. It had wound down to something small for a few nights, in fact. A missing bathroom shampoo, later found in the pantry. Cases of Diet Cola opened and neatly stacked around the fridge. Long-defunct toys turning on seemingly by themselves. The living room rug bearing several jagged marks, as if clawed at by a vindictive cat.

One night, while she was brushing her teeth, she thought she saw a figure behind her. When she whirled around to face the intruder, the door slammed shut in her face. Upon opening it, she found that she was alone, and her children still in bed — and awake. Terrified of a loud banging sound in the hallway.

She couldn’t take it anymore. She called the Versanct Reformed Church, the local religious haunt where she’d gone as a child, and asked for their guidance. After only two days, and without a single phone call or other communication from the church itself, a dark-skinned man wearing a jean jacket and going by the name of Father Malcolm arrived at her residence. He claimed he knew her case and that he could help. What could she do but let him in?

Though in her eyes, he was an odd one.

“Ah, this is one of those… with the beans. How do you…”

Lara stood and walked towards the kitchen counter. She brought the beans out in a sealed tupperware container and opened the plastic lid, letting the fresh arabica aroma spill into the otherwise dead atmosphere of the kitchen. She silently took the grinder away from him, beginning to pour the beans inside. Strangely enough, the woman preferred hand grinders because she felt that they gave the resulting product a richer taste. Her husband said that was bullshit, though of course this had only further convinced her in its efficacy.

She stood next to him, beginning to turn the mass of beans into nothing but delicious pewter. He smelled of a clean shave and the cologne that followed. And gasoline.

“You don’t look like a priest,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. When he did not give so much as a hint of surprise at her reaction, her suspicions were confirmed; he was probably some religious man, likely a former altar boy or something equally enjoyable, who was playing minister for the silly women that would pay for his services. But she’d give him some time, let him justify himself before tossing him out. Not counting her ex, she hadn’t had a handsome man in the house for months now.

“Oh, you noticed,” He grinned, his hands holding the hem of his jacket and spreading it outwards to showcase the rest of his attire — a simple white shirt (at least it was a collared shirt, thought Lara) and some khaki’s. The sleeves of the jacket were rolled up his wrists, stopping just below the elbows. If she didn’t know any better, she might have pegged him for the kind of guys she’d seen roll by town on their way to somewhere else. The kinds of people that ate at diners every morning and checked into sketchy motels every night while on their way to ‘finding themselves.’ She’d never been the type of person to bother with that sort of thing.

“Honestly, my choice of clothing for today is… questionable, I’m aware. Especially on a Sunday, am I right?”

“Sunday? Thought it was Saturday.”

“Sunday. Seems somebody forgot about mass today, did they?”

“I… No. I haven’t gone in years, actually.”

Lara glanced around nervously, her dark hair falling around her face to obscure the sudden worry that had gathered in her mind. But what if he was the real deal? Eccentric or not, he may be able to help in some way, or point her to someone else that can.

“Is that a problem?” She said quietly, turning to look at him even while continuing to grind the coffee. “That I haven’t gone? I always mean to, but the hospital doesn’t care, you know. They schedule shifts at the most ridiculous hours. Frankly, I’ve felt a few times like I should maybe sue them, with my religious rights and all — ”

“Ms. Forester, please relax. Or, Lara? Do you mind?”

She bit her lip and said nothing. Some part of her wanted to correct his use of her former husband’s surname, but she didn’t bother.

“Lara it is. Honestly, I don’t really care much for your religious habits, or your personal beliefs, or however often you might frequent casinos or fantasize about other women in your free time. That’s not my business, and I’m not so devout that it somehow influences my opinion of you. All I know from the church is that you’re a decent person caught in a bad spot. I mean, seeing ghosts, it’s all a bit crazy isn’t it?”

“Yeah, crazy.” She did her best to give a half-hearted smile. The priest’s brown eyes weren’t exactly welcoming, but they had a softness around them that put her at ease. Her left hand, which had been steadying the grinder, had almost stopped twitching.

“Right. Super crazy, I know. So if you’re willing to overlook the fact that I’m not exactly your model priest, I’m perfectly happy to overlook the fact that you’re not exactly a model devotee. I think that’s fair. Do you think that’s fair?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s fair.”

“Excellent. Then let’s proceed with coffee. I think those beans are all ground up by now, don’t you?”

“What? Oh. Yes.”

Lara opened the grinder to find that she could have stopped several minutes ago and likely had just as much of the seedy churn she saw within. God, she was frazzled to hell from all this.

It didn’t take long for her to set things up, and in minutes the two were seated across from one another at the table, both drinking from two identical ‘Happy 30th!’ mugs, likely purchased one year apart. For her part, Lara managed to compose herself using that brief span of time. Her hands were far steadier than they’d been, and she’d regained enough focus in her sleep-addled mind to look over at Father Malcolm again and see what else she could glean from his curious appearance.

He was young, that much was clear, though the knowing way he’d been watching her when she had first opened the door for him betrayed anl almost wolf-like intelligence behind otherwise plain features. Not that he was unattractive; there was simply little about the man that stood out, except perhaps that this was a very old neighbourhood and his darker skin tone marked him as either a passerby or recent addition to the premises.

He had no makeup. No tattoos either, or at least none that she could see at the moment. What little jewelry he had was only something she actually noticed later, considering how unremarkable both were — just a small, steel band with some engravings she couldn’t make out at this distance, and a silver necklace half-hidden under the shirt. Perhaps something hung at the end, perhaps not. Part of her hoped there might be a cross. Another part, strangely, did not.

“Tell me what happened, in your own words. The church wasn’t exactly forthcoming so let’s imagine I know essentially nothing about your predicament.”

“I — I think… I think my house is haunted.”

“Right. Well. Maybe not nothing.”

It took longer than Lara had anticipated to tell the entirety of her sad little tale. When she started, she had thought that this whole thing would be a simple and straightforward piece on her end. There were no ghosts, now there were, and she was worried her house might have initially been christened ‘Amityvale Manor’ as a cruel joke when it had first been built. But that little joke made her mind slip back to her great-grandfather, and there a side-piece on her own family history began to spill out. Then a minute was spent regarding issues between herself and Simon. Then her own children, noting how Jade was the elder sibling at nine and wanted to be a ballet dancer, and how Hayden was seven and wanted to be eight. How both were scared to death about this whole thing and locked their doors at night in Hayden’s room, insisting it was safer than having the three of them in the same room. She wasn’t sure why she’d let them convince her as well, but they hadn’t been harmed or otherwise attacked so far, according to them, and so she was beginning to think that she was the target of all this paranormal terror. Keeping them away from her at night terrified her possibly just as much as them, but so far it had seemed to work.

After providing the priest with a half-prepared rendition of her autobiography, Father Malcolm stayed silent for several moments. He brought the coffee mug to his lips, taking a cautious sip of the milk foam. The way his eyebrows raised slightly afterwards made her think he was pleased with the taste, though she couldn’t really tell.

“When’s the exam happening?”

“Excuse me?”

“Kidding. They don’t always land.”

“Father, I don’t know what you found funny about the whole thing, but I’m really not in the mood right now.”

“Oh, but it’s funny to me. In fact, it seems like you’ve simply got a classic case of schizophrenia, or maybe trauma. You’ve got plenty to be stressed about and you’ve been worked and overworked to the bone. Since you have no lasting harm to your person or physical scars, no witnesses save for over-imaginative children, no camera footage or audio recordings for anything that’s happened in the house, or any other proof for me — auditory, visual, divine or otherwise, I think we’re done here. It’s been a pleasure, Ms. Forester. Thanks for the coffee.”

He stood up to leave, only to feel a cold hand grip his wrist tightly.

“Fuck you.” Lara said levely, her expression marked by a thick tinge of rage. For the first time that day, she felt wide awake and completely aware of everything. Her vision had taken on an almost violent shade of red in her anger, her fingers curling tightly and nails digging into his flesh. She wasn’t quite sure how it had happened, but Lara was standing now. The priest was several inches taller than her, but at that moment Lara felt that she dwarfed him.

“I’m not crazy, you piece of shit. I’m not losing my mind. I’m being fucking haunted by my own family, or some evil spirits that look like them, and that’s what’s making me crazy. I don’t care if you’re a real priest or not, but right now you’re all I have, so just shut the fuck up and help me.”

Neither spoke for some time. Father Malcolm was staring down at his wrist.

She loosened her grip, but not too much. Then she began to feel nervous.

“Please?”

On the stairwell, a small figure watched the exchange quietly, before scampering up the stairs and locking herself in her room.

“This is Hayden’s?” Asked Father Malcolm, who seemed to have sobered up since her outrage earlier. He’d adopted a more serious, contemplative expression now, instead of the amused mask he’d worn in the kitchen. Far more perceptive too, choosing to look at his surroundings and consider what he said before he said it.

“He’ll outgrow it eventually, but for now, yeah.” Lara said.

“Cute. Reminds me of myself as a kid.”

That seemed likely enough. Hayden’s room was small, and the tight squeeze was further emphasized through the large race car-shaped bed firmly slotted against the wall. The window was ship-like, small and underfitting, and toys overflowed in a river of plastic and action figures underneath it. For whatever reason, there was a collection of bottle caps nailed to the closet wall, behind which a messy expanse of graphic t-shirts seemed to go on forever. Hayden loved his room, and the purchase of the new bed had even solved the issue of getting to sleep on time. His imagination built elaborate fantasies where he would drive for Nascar and pretend he was going a hundred miles an hour down empty rural roads, leaving horses and cheetahs in the dust.

Father Malcolm knelt next to the door, dragging his finger across its base. Lara bent over as well, hair spilling around her face. She went to work tying it up into a bun.

“What is it?” She whispered, narrowing her eyes to figure out what he was squinting at but finding little wrong with the wooden frame.

“Nothing you can see, and I don’t have all the answers yet, but there’s a sort of residue here. One that you don’t normally find in a normal home. Well, an ‘unhaunted’ one.”

He looked up to see her staring down at him.

“Bad.” He clarified.

“But they haven’t encountered any ghosts in their bedroom, that’s why I let them sleep here!”

“It’s only on the doorframe, which means this is where it starts and ends. But I’ll remind you that I don’t have all the answers yet.”

“Right… sorry.”

A flush rang out from the bathroom in the hall. Both adults stood again to face the stairway and a confused Hayden, a scrappy boy with messy hair wearing a Batman shirt.

“Hayden! You didn’t wash your hands, did you?” Lara’s hands were on her hips.

“Oh, I… um, I just washed them fast because I had a quick pee.”

“I told you to be polite around strangers, we don’t say words like that.”

“Sorry, mom.”

“It’s okay. This is Father Malcolm, Hayden. He’s here to…” She glanced at the man, who simply widened his eyes and shrugged. “To…”

“…To check on you and make sure you’ve been good.” Malcolm picked up, “And you do know that tomorrow night is Samhain, right?”

“Mom said it was Halloween tomorrow.”

“Well, they’re one and the same. Samhain is an ancient Pagan holiday, and it’s what Halloween is originally based on. Well, among other things. There’s not much we do know about it, but they say dark forces are especially prevalent around Halloween. Spooky ghosts and goblins and all that.”

“Uh… does this mean I shouldn’t go trick-or-treating?”

“No, no, it just means that you have to be careful! If you’ve been naughty and lying to your mother about washing your hands or other things, that could mean you’ll be in danger from the creepy crawlies during Sa… during Halloween.”

“Oh. We got enough ghosts here, actually. Thanks though.”

Hayden walked past a quiet Malcolm and a petrified Lara. She held her breath tight as her son entered his room and shut the door.

She only began to breathe heavily, slowly, after she was sure he could no longer hear her.

Malcolm knocked on Jade’s door. And again, there was no answer.

“Jade? Jade, it’s just mommy and a friend of hers. He just wants to talk to you.”

The older daughter had apparently seen more than her young sibling had. Lara remembered the first time, only two nights ago, when she’d woken up from the sound of crying in the hallway. She remembered frantically making her way out the door, and finding Jade sitting at the top of the stairs with her arms wrapped around her legs. When Lara collapsed next to her daughter and asked why she was crying, Jade had looked up and said she hadn’t been. It had been someone else. A woman with tears streaming down her face and a single gold tooth.

It didn’t take long for Lara to realize that Jade had been describing her own late mother.

“Jade, honey, please open the door. My friend Malcolm just wants to ask you a few questions. I promise it’s going to be okay.”

No response for a moment. The priest had stepped back, glancing towards Lara briefly, then instead went over to the window to gaze out over the neighborhood. It was already mid-day, and though the suburban vestiges of Fifth Street weren’t any sort of spectacle, it was surprising how populated they were during the day. Under an oppressive sun, children on scooters riding past in their worn hand-me-downs rode alongside ten-year old Hondas with failing paint jobs, allowing a glimpse into the middle-class comforts and struggles of the area. Lara wondered if Malcolm had grown up in a place similar to this.

“Mom?” A soft voice rang out.

“Jade, yes, it’s mommy sweetheart. I’m just here with someone that wants to talk to you. Is that alright?”

Lara could feel Malcolm’s eyes burrowing into the back of her head. It made her uneasy. She didn’t need something like this to get him right back to thinking she was off her rocker.

“Okay.”

A click in the lock. The door opened, and a small girl stepped out from behind, rubbing one eye with the back of her hand and peeking up at her mother through thick tresses of black hair. She wore flannel in spades.

Jade was used to hearing one thing and one thing only whenever she and her mother would go anywhere: ‘Oh wow, are you a clone?’ or the always hilarious ‘I bet your father has no doubts whose kid you are, does he?’ As if she was too young to understand the implications of such comments. But they were right on the money; Jade appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be her mother’s perfect little copy. In appearance, at least, this was true.

In personality, however…

“I was napping,” Jade said quietly, looking past her mother to stare at the priest, who had come up behind Lara to also look down on the little girl.

“What do you want?” The young girl said bluntly.

“Jade!” Lara snapped, preparing to reprimand her daughter for her insolence. She was stopped preemptively when Father Malcolm instead, unexpectedly, gave out an amused laugh.

“Your daughter’s a sharp one! She reminds me of my sister. In a good way though.”

He stepped up and raised a knuckle to the doorframe, feigning a polite knock.

“May I request entry to your humble abode?”

The young girl looked confused. Malcolm sighed.

“Right, that’s weird. What I meant was — mind if I come in?”

Jade took a while to ponder. Then she spoke and said: “Okay.”

Malcolm stepped carefully around the young girl, entering a room given the light of adolescence through equal measures of colored cotton and regal accenture. Lara, standing behind him, wondered if the priest would think that the posters of brave young women from various Disney properties and Ghibli films would make him believe the parents loved their children so much they wanted to spoil them and provide the childhoods they never had, or that they turned to materialistic pacification, providing the kids with plenty of toys and gadgets to mask the fact that neither was home very much at all. And when they were around, their jobs drained them oh so much.

“Living kills life,” Lara muttered. Something her own mother had said to her, years past, when Lara had first been accepted to nursing school. She’d thought it a snide remark at first, from a woman who never respected the profession. Perhaps it had been a warning.

She saw her eyes on that staircase again. Her mother, with the golden tooth, dead from a heart attack at such a young age…

“What did you say?”

Lara glanced up, noticing that the priest was staring. He was holding a doll clad in a mustard sundress. ‘Fall Pool Party Barbie’ or something like that. Jade was clearly embarrassed of such things still being on display in her room, and appeared ready to snatch it out of his hand.

“Nothing. It’s just — nothing.”

“You know, if there’s anything you wanted to mention, about your family or home or the whole thing…”

“I know, I know, but I was just lost. In my memories of the house, you know.”

“Right. So you’re not back with us, then?”

Lara blinked. Her hand twitched instinctively, but she wasn’t sure why.

“Nevermind. We can keep going. You take your time.”

Malcolm showed the doll to the girl, asking what it was about, and the girl quickly forgot her embarrassment and began to talk all about it. She spoke absently about how the doll was a limited edition from last year, and that it was one of the rarest dolls she owned, but not nearly as rare as her motorcycle barbie, since that was a promotion that Mattel did with some bike company, and that one was pretty cool because it had a helmet and she had ripped jeans and there were no other barbies with ripped jeans, and she was so cool and she wanted to grow up and be like her something, but Simon said that motorcycles are really dangerous so there was no way she’d ever be allowed to drive one, but motorcycles were getting less and less dangerous —

Oh, no wait. Not Simon. Dad. She said that, right?

No matter.

“…is totally bullshit.”

“This is how it works! It’s just…it’s how it works.”

“Okay but, salt circles? Carving symbols into the floorboards? That’s basically paganism. This is like if one of those girls, like the ones that call themselves ‘witches’ or whatever, came in and started throwing moonstones all over the place and telling me they were ‘balancing my energies’.”

“Right, so, you know how I’m not being paid for this? I can just go.”

“Sorry, sorry. Jesus, you can joke around, but you can’t actually take a joke, can you?”

“I can when I’m not concentrating. Mind making me another coffee?”

“Fine. Pagliacci.”

“Ha, ha, make the goddamn coffee.”

Lara’s humor was partially there to mask her concern over the fact that his strange chalk marks on the floorboards were making her uneasy, nevermind the salt he was tossing around like theater snow or the small incisions he’d made in the wood using a metal bar of some sort. From her spot in the kitchen, where Lara was once again grinding coffee beans by hand, she could make out several shapes — A large star with jagged structures protruding from each of the five triangular tips. A trapezoidal structure with bars colliding down towards the center, in which there was a treasure chest-like shape. A sickle slicing cleanly some distorted blob. A doll with crosses over her eyes. A wheel whose rubber grooves were almost snake-like in shape, wrapping slyly around on another. Each time she looked up from the grinder, the symbols seemed more complex and varied.

“Are you sure you’re not just screwing around with my floor to make yourself look useful?” She called out.

No response. He acted like he didn’t even hear her.

“Fine then, be like that.”

She glanced down. The grinder was gone, replaced with a mug filled to the brim with beautiful roast coffee. She inhaled deeply, the aroma of caffeine providing her with a deep sense of joy.

A blink, and there was cream inside too, mixed in perfectly. How wonderful! She didn’t even need to bother opening the fridge.

“So what’s it for, anyway?” She asked, sitting on the couch nearby.

Malcolm placed his steel pick down, shifting to sit on the cold floor. His skin was mired in a thin sheet of perspiration, the past hour of carving having tired him out. He took the mug from her hand, grabbing a shallow sip of the contents along the way, and instead countered her question with one of his own.

“Which of these bothers you the most?”

“How do you mean?” Lara, sitting on the nearby sofa, glanced towards the markings. Honestly, they all bothered her to varying extents. Enough to quickly dissipate the humorous flair that had briefly touched her only a minute ago.

“It’s a simple enough question. I’d like to know your thoughts on these Protection Sigils I’ve drawn, and which of the five here has the strongest effect on you.”

It didn’t take long for her response.

“The sickle. The one with the… I don’t know, it looks like a fruit.”

“Rotting Apple. Why?”

“I’m guessing all of these symbols have a different meaning. Well, the doll and the wheel are easy — protection for each of my children. So they don’t worry me too much, though the doll is honestly freaky. Next is the star, which I can’t really make out, but I’m guessing it’s about the other side or the cosmos or something like that. Something beyond our boring little existence here. After that, the chest… I guess it’s to trap something? To catch the ghosts in this circle so they can’t hurt anyone? I don’t know for sure, it just makes the most sense.”

“Not bad. And the sickle?”

“I don’t know. It worries me. When I think of sickles, I think of corn and grain. Wheat getting harvested before the winter.”

“Nothing wrong with any of that.”

“Farms don’t sit well with me. I’ve always felt more at home around places where the internet speeds aren’t throttled by distance from urban hubs, and where you don’t have the off-chance of stepping in cow pies.”

“Very true — it’s just dog shit around here.”

“At least there’s a fine for that.”

She cracked a half-smile. Didn’t she have a dog?

No, that was long ago. Her father’s dog, Kali. Great Dane. Beautiful beast.

“But the rural places are different,” Lara continued, “Because there’s no rigidity to it, not in the same way as here. Sure you have fields that go on for rows and rows, but you don’t know what’s waiting for you between where you are and every odd scarecrow along the way. Maybe that’s why so many horror movies have those big scenes where the characters get chased around in the night through some labyrinthian grass maze by something they can’t see or hear. It’s worse than a forest or a jungle or anything, because it’s all the same. Fucking grass and corn and wheat and whatever as far as the eye can see.”

“And that’s how you feel?”

“Yes. I feel trapped. Like every time I turn around, another one of my dead relatives — or worse — is going to pop out, and I’m going to watch their eyeballs explode or their head cave in on itself or see tentacles tear out of their throats or… or…”

“Lara? Are you alright?”

“No…”

Malcolm’s hand was on her shoulder, but it did little to help. Lara had closed her eyes and placed three fingers to her forehead, clenching them around the space between her brows like she was experiencing a sudden migraine.

The priest had finished his carvings, it seemed, because at the moment all he was doing was silently sitting next to her and squeezing her shoulder for solidarity. It was unnerving, how silent he could be when the moment called for it.

“Better?” He finally asked.

“I… no. Not in the slightest. In fact I’m so much not-better that I almost feel like slamming my head against the wall.”

“Well, that won’t do you any good. Wouldn’t be the first time though.”

“I don’t recall hitting my head before.” She smiled sadly.

“It’s a metaphor. Don’t worry about it.”

“Is this going to work? This — ” She gestured wildly towards the sigils before her, avoiding his gaze to hide the tears staining her cheeks and ruining her eyeliner. “This isn’t some crap you made up to fuck with me? This is real?”

“Well, I hope so. But I guess we’ll have to see.”

The priest stood, stepping around the floorboards, and stopped on the opposite side of the protective carvings, which Lara had just realized all somehow coalesced into a nearby perfect circle, with concentric rings binding various sections of each of the five individual patterns together.

Malcolm drained his coffee, placing the empty mug down on the floor beside him, then cracked his knuckles expertly. He started stretching, preparing himself for the night.

“Limbering up?”

“Well, this isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Gotta make sure I don’t cramp or something equally stupid. Wouldn’t be the dumbest way to die, but it’s up there.”

Die?

“Well, likely not, but I’m not gonna pretend that I know everything. I’m just a priest.”

It may have been a long time coming, but Lara was starting to feel her doubts reach a tipping point. As the priest seemingly finished his routine, she stood up and raked a shaking hand through her dark hair. Lara swallowed tightly before getting ready to speak.

Malcolm spoke first. He seemed decidedly more confident.

“Step forward, please.”

She blinked, looking down at the space between them. The sigils.

“Just… on top of it? Right in the middle?”

“Yes. I need to attune the protection charms to your presence. Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”

Charms? Sigils? Markings? He used so many words for them, she was beginning to doubt that he even knew what they were. Still, not like she had any other options right now.

Lara breathed in. She breathed out.

The woman stepped forward, stepping into the middle of the markings —

— Where was she?

Lara didn’t recognize this place, and yet she did. This was a dark place, but it was also home, and that was a place that she understood.

She was just outside the kitchen, was she not? There was a coffee table, and a sofa, and nearby there was the kitchen counter, where the coffee grinder she loved so much stood. But this was not the real home of her memories, for it was darker, and the walls were like black wax melting under a summer sun. The verisimilitude of this place to that which she remembered was not unlike that of a dollhouse, meant to resemble a real building but made with cheap plastic and gaudy shades of pink and yellow.

The windows were collapsing in on themselves, swirling endlessly like whirlpools and allowing scattered fragments of moonlight through into the house. These rays danced along the wooden floor, which rolled slowly, like shallow water near beach sands.

She was almost at peace. Here in the protection spell, she was safe and warm. It was dark, and she could see her family all along the corners, but that was alright. She was doing just fine.

Great-Aunt Marcia was a swell lady, and even though her eyes were wide open, as if someone had nailed the lids to her forehead, she was smiling dreamily as though she’d remembered something that brought a fuzzy warmth back into her belly. And Grandpa Robbie was there, too, with that tiny little bullethole in his cheek when he was shot in ‘Nam. It was so small, so different from what one might imagine it would look like. It resembled a tattoo of a red giant.

Her parents were there too, and they were holding hands. Funny, how in death they seemed more at peace with one another’s company than they had been when they were alive. Her father was still looking at her with the usual disapproving look, but her mother’s smile was… gentle. Lara could almost sob at how kind her mama looked at that moment. No one had looked at her like that since she’d passed away, not even Simon.

And they were together, and that was a good place to be. A place without struggle and stress and fatigue. Where they could hold hands and be at peace…

But where were her children? They weren’t here. She wasn’t leaving without Jade and Hayden. They were her family too, yet they weren’t here.

She remembered something. She remembered a scythe? Wait, a sickle?

No. This was wrong.

Lara stepped forward, feeling resistance bearing down on her bones. The weight of the sigils was nothing to scoff at, but Lara’s will was stronger. The ghosts of the Windale lineage stared at their descendant as she gritted her teeth and pushed past the arcane powers that kept her in the confines of the circle, pushing forward, tearing through the net.

Just one…

More…

Step…

And Lara was out. Stepped past the confines and back out into the house.

She grinned wildly, watching as the phantasms slowly shifted away from her and disappeared from the fabric of her reality.

There was no force, no fucking force, that was going to keep her from her own children. And that foolish priest was going to pay for thinking he could harm them while she still drew breath. Lara stepped into the kitchen, pulling a fileting knife from the rack.

She was going to enjoy this. She was going to go upstairs —

— And there she was, at the top of the stairwell.

Darkness all around, and yet for the first time in weeks, Lara’s vision was clear. She shuddered past half-forgotten places, and though she knew the upper floor of the house well enough from physical memory, it was still awkward in its own way. She felt as though she were wandering through thick honey.

The knife was clutched beneath trembling fingers, her hair wild around her face. Her adrenaline was keeping pace with a creeping dread that had begun to settle around her periphery. She thought she saw ghosts around every corner, but would turn her head and see nothing at all. There was no way in hell that she was going to underestimate that priest again either — next time he showed his face, a blade would go right through it.

All around her, she heard voices. Whispers, half-remembered, fading in and out of earshot. It was like the buzz of the forest, of the crickets and birds, if all the fauna was instead replaced with the lamentations of the dead.

“Stay back! Stay — ”

Lara ran towards the sounds of screams, recognizing her son’s cry distinctly against a black sea of other voices. She passed the shivering white walls, ignoring the paint scabs that were peeling up towards the sky and pushing forward in spite of the inexplicable pain in her head. This was her son, and he was in danger, her own mortality be damned.

In a single movement, the door to Hayden’s room swung open. Lara stepped inside with her knife held high in a backwards grip, tip pointed at her son’s would-be assailant.

In front of her, there was a massive dog.

It was a black hound of some sort, and was taller than her son even hunched on its hindlegs. Its fur was short, neatly matted against its form, though it dripped somewhat due to the rain starting to pour in through the open window. But where she expected a regular canine maw, there was instead a skull-like figure. As if someone had melted the top of its head and allowed it to reseal waxily onto the bone that remained. It had three red eyes, and each seemed to blink, in succession, as she stared at it and it stared back at her.

Lara’s throat was dry, but her body moved for her. She lurched towards the creature, bringing her knife down upon it, but the beast was faster than she was. It evaded, bounding towards Hayden, and grabbed him by the scruff. The young boy, terrified, did not resist — he did not even think to scream, falling cold and limp in his pajamas, and slumped against the racecar bedframe.

The mother tried her best to rush after them both. She failed. The dog, still holding her son, leapt out the window, falling to the ground below.
“No!” Lara cried, but she did not see where they went; there was a rolling mist on the ground floor, surrounding the house, and they had disappeared into it.

Just as she stepped up onto the windowsill and prepared herself to jump down after them, no matter what the fall may do to her legs, she heard more noises coming from the other side of the hallway. Jade.

Oh god, Jade.

“I’m… I don’t know… what to do…”

Lara was lost. Try to follow down where her son and the dog went, unable to see a thing, or run to save her daughter, who may well be gone by the time she got there?

She didn’t have time to think. Her body made a decision for her.

Pushing away from the window, Lara ran out of the room and back into the hallway. Dark thoughts, distant memories, followed her there.

At the base of the stairs, her family watched her. Erik Windale, former patriarch of the Windale clan, had one hand over his eye. His wife felt sorry for him, and yet she did not. Death did not heal all things.

By the time Lara managed her way to Jade’s room, there was little left in the room. Dozens of Barbies greeted her instead of any human child, and the pink of the room seemed almost oppressive in that moment. Taunting her for her failure.

“Jade?” No response came.

“Jade, mommy… Mommy’s here…” Silence.

She had failed. She was alone.

Lara slumped to the floor, burying her tear-stained face against her hand. The knife fell loosely between her legs, clattering to the wooden floor. She had failed. There was nothing, nothing left here for her. Both of her children were gone, and she would be next. All for trusting some shitty priest, some evil bastard, and now she was —

“Alrigh’, I dunno what’s goin’ on ‘ere, but you’re actin’ a little strange, love. Thought you’d be a little tougher when I first saw you! If anyone should be weepin’ righ’ around now, it should be me.”

Lara, startled at the voice coming from somewhere in the room, looked up.

On the dollhouse, perched neatly between the chimney and a sloping part of the yellow plastic rooftop, sat a miniscule person. Well, not quite a person, really. The figure was barely taller than the other dolls in the room, and her skin was shimmering between shades of silver and off-white. She was seemingly naked, though none of her features were prominent enough for Lara to tell due to the translucent nature of her body, and she had both wings and what seemed to be an imposing, wide crown of sorts.

The wings were akin to those of a ghostly butterfly, and the crown resembled twin clusters or leaves, spreading into larger protrusions. More like horns, really.

“Who… what are you?” Lara said, her hoarse voice barely parsing out as a whispered plea for something, anything to make sense of all this.

“What’s that, love? Couldn’t hear ya. Ear’s are real small, you know.”

“Who the fuck are you!”

“Oi! Not that small, you don’ hav’ta yell! Well, name’s Ceolmhaireacht, but most people just call me Ceol.” She pronounced it like ‘kale’, though with a bit of a lilt in the middle, “An’ it’s a pleasure to meetcha. Felix’s told me loads ‘bout you! Said you were a really impressive person. Killer barista too — couldn’t shut up ’bout your coffee.”

“Felix… you mean Malcolm? Father Malcolm?”

“Ah, yeah, he does that sometimes. Uses his first name. I don’ like it — Malcolm is some ginger bread shit, honest. Prefer Felix; got more rhythm to it, more pepper.”

Ceol yawned, swinging both arms up over her head. She seemed to phase in and out of existence as she stretched, before she smacked her lips a few times and scratched at one of her leaf-horns.

“Oh, yeah — he told me you’d probably be all pissed by now, lookin’ to stab ‘im or somethin’. I’m partial to watchin’ that sort of thing unfold, you know, but he told me to jus’ tell ya that he’s in the kitchen. Go down and meet with him, eh? There’s a good lass.”

Lara opened her mouth to speak, but before she could get a word out, Ceol raised a finger up to stop her.

“Ah, ah! I ain’t sayin’ a single thing more. This is between you an’ Felix. Bugger off now.”

Lara turned towards the door, which seemed to open on its own again behind her. When she turned backwards towards the dollhouse, the ghostly fairy was gone.

“Okay,” she said. Her voice was hollow, her mind was blank.

She’d had enough of everything. It was time to end it.

He looked far too relaxed. It bothered her more than the hunk of steel in his hand.

Father Malcolm, or Felix, or whatever his name was, sat on the same chair she’d been sipping coffee in only minutes prior. He was wearing the same jacket and casual fit, with the exception that he now had on thin leather gloves, a black ring on his ring finger, and the chain on his neck was now fully visible; it was indeed a cross, but one that seemed to be out of focus. Her eyes went to it, but it felt off, like the metal was moving around before her eyes.

His feet were kicked up onto the chair on the other end of the table, and the digits on his left hand drummed quietly against its surface. In his right, he held a weapon of some sort — at first, Lara thought it might be a sickle, but it was curved differently. It more closely resembled a sword, though with an odd bend along the blade.

“A khopesh,” Felix said, answering her silent question. “A common weapon in Ancient Egypt at one point. I’m not totally sure what the name means, but I think it’s something like ‘leg?’ I guess it does look like one. Maybe a cow’s or horse’s leg though, with the curve.”

Lara, saying nothing, walked up to the other end of the table. Her grip on the knife’s handle was bordering on painful, and she could feel her nails digging into her palm. She yearned to lunge at him without wasting any more time, but she needed to know something first.

“Where are my children?”

“Safe. Ceol and Vis are keeping them away from the house, for now.”

“Vis?”

“The Bargh — ah, dog. It’s a dog.”

“Why are you doing this? Why…”

“For their own good, of course. For yours.”

“Who are you? Who the fuck are you?”

“My name is Mal — ”

“Felix, you mean. You lying shit.”

“My full name is Malcolm Felix Vazhar Shaye. Felix I reserve for my friends. But I don’t think we’re very friendly right now. Most of my friends don’t want to kill me.”

“You kidnap your friend’s kids often, asshole?”

“I told you, they’re safe.”

“From the ghosts?”

“From you.”

For the first time that day, Lara was truly speechless. Not only was the priest malevolent, but he was trying to play mind games too? After all this?

“Fuck off.”

“Before I do that, let’s recap here: You thought you saw ghosts in the house. Your first response was not to call the police to see if there were intruders, or to take your children out to someone else’s place, or to at least set up cameras, or anything. You didn’t think about this whole scenario at all logically. Why?”

“I don’t… I was tired, I wasn’t thinking straight…” Her vision was becoming blurry.

“What day is it, Lara? Saturday, or is it Sunday? That’s alright, don’t think too hard: It’s Wednesday. And you made me coffee six times today, thrice without asking, before pouring it away and coming back again. You’re entirely disassociated from reality.”

Lara’s chin was trembling. Malcolm’s brow softened, his eyes lowering in pity.

“Am I going insane, Malcolm?” She finally said.

“No, Lara, not quite. What’s that in your hand?”

“A knife. To stab you.”

“Knives I can handle. That’s no knife.”

“What? I — ”

“Stop a moment and look at it, Lara. Properly.”

Lara looked down. Her eyes searched for something different, something special about the metal blade in her hand, but she could find nothing remarkable about it. Just a kitchen knife, haphazardly kept sharp with a whetstone her friends had brought a few years back as a birthday present. The wooden handle felt oddly warm to the touch.

It felt light. Too light. Like it wasn’t there at all.

A blink, and the knife was gone. In its place was a long, jagged claw of ash-white bone, covered in gelatinous flesh that seemed to tear out from her fingers. Fingers that were webbed, and ghostly gray, and seemed caught somewhere between a toad’s hand and a wolf’s paw.

Lara gasped, and the world around her was normal again. In her hand was a simple kitchen knife. Nothing to be worried about.

Fingers unclenched, letting the knife fall to the floor. And yet while she expected to hear the sound of steel clattering against hardwood, she instead heard the sickening pop of sharp bone protrusions slipping back into the meat of her arm.

She fell to the floor, sobbing violently into the crook of her arm. She was a monster — some beast that had been haunting or even hunting her own children, likely for days now. And even if she wasn’t hurting them directly, what was stopping her from doing it later? She didn’t understand what was happening. She was terrified to learn why.

Even as she wept, tears filling her vision, she could hear the chair clatter backwards nearby. Within a moment, she felt his hand on her arm, and looked up.

“I don’t know for certain,” he said quietly, his voice taking on a softness that slowed her panicked breathing, “But I’d put the time of death a full week ago. Heart attack, most likely, caused by excess stress and a prevailing heart condition that your maternal lineage suffered from. But you’ve been hanging in there, for your children, to keep them fed and washed and safe, all while holding your new, darker nature at bay.”

He smiled sadly, his hand wrapping around hers, squeezing tightly.

“You’re a good mom, Lara.”

“What happens now?”

A cup of coffee rested between Lara’s hands, which trembled like leaves in the autumn wind. She felt a chill rush through her body, despite knowing full well that she shouldn’t feel anything at all anymore.

“What happens to my children?” She said, looking up at Felix, who now stood near the window and stared out at the mist beyond the house premises. His khopesh was set against the wall, emitting a faint, silvery glow.

“They go live with Simon and… they just have to deal with this? With me being trapped in this house?”

Felix seemed to latch on to this, turning slightly towards her.

“Why would you say that?” He said.

“Because I am, aren’t I? I haven’t left the house in days. I didn’t call anyone and ask them to come here. My mind isn’t my own, not anymore. And I’m scared that the longer I stay like… like this, the higher the chance I’ll one day go to hug my kids only to find out that I’ve killed them.”

“That is a possibility, yes.”

Shallow breaths. Trying to keep calm, in spite of things, before speaking.

“Help me.”

Felix did not move. She thought she heard him say something under his breath, but his voice was low and she couldn’t catch it. He turned to look at her, and in the moonlight he looked a decade older. Like there were imaginary lines on his face that outlined the pain hidden under an otherwise neutral expression.

“There’s not much I can do for you. Just tell you how things are, and what’s going to happen.” Felix said.

“What’s going to happen?”

“Not really supposed to say. And you might not believe me.”

“Felix, I’m dead. Who cares what I think?”

“I do,” He said, and for the first time Lara thought she heard a spot of venom in his voice, “I do. Being dead doesn’t mean you’re gone.”

He twitched slightly, closing his eyes as if he’d just remembered something unpleasant.

“I just meant — ” Lara started.

She didn’t notice it, when he got close again. Things came back into perspective only when he placed his hand over hers, warm flesh on cold, and then he spoke.

“You’re not hearing me: dead doesn’t mean gone. Remember that, or at least try to.”

“Stop speaking in riddles. Talk to me.”

“I will. I was just waiting for the go-ahead.”

He began to speak, and something about his tone both unsettled and reassured her. He spoke at length of things she did not understand at first, and could not believe, but slowly warmed up to the more he spoke of them. As if, in what passed as her new heart, she knew them to be true.

Felix spoke of the true afterlife, of the varieties that existed. He told her that there was another world beyond this one, though it was rare for humans to get there, as it belonged to those that called the night their home. It was a realm known only as The Shadow, and in that dark place there dwelled a civilization built upon the bones of dead gods. Where once it had been the darkest recesses of human culture, coagulating and mixing into a larger forum, it had become a new world, with its own economy, society, culture and more.

She thought he was telling her stories, at first. But he went into details. Of a subway system built upon the spinal column of a great serpent deity. Of vampiric caste systems stretching back into the far reaches of antiquity. Of dark, god-like figures that have cannibalized the great, legendary pantheons of old. Their own forms of leisure and entertainment, their own legends and cultures… it was a place beyond death, but one scarce few humans were able to make it into.

“The immigration laws are quite strict within Sheolam especially. It’s easy to get a one-way ticket out of the Shadow and into Mortalis — well, Earth. That’s what they call our boring mortal plane over here — but quite a bit more complicated if you want to move back in. That’s the capital of the Shadow, by the way: Sheolam. Very important place, though I’ve only been there a few times.”

Sheolam. The so-called ‘Olympus in the Dark,’ whose apparent owners, those dark gods of the Shadow Pantheon, are the only true pantheon with legitimate power still in existence.

“God, I have so many fucking questions…” Lara’s head was in her hands. “So wait… they ate the Roman Gods, Egyptian Gods, Norse Gods, other…?”

“So the people say. But you know, it’s not exactly something you can prove. No one sees them anyway, the Lord Shadows, since they’re really just religious figures with shrines and whatnot. Many doubt they’re real.”

“But it’s literally called Olympus.”

“Yeah, well, people on Earth like making themselves and their leaders or deities seem more important than they really are. The Nightfolk over there are the same.”

“Right. And when I die, I can go there? What’s the alternative?”

“Not quite. To enter the Shadow as a ghost, or to be reborn as Nightfolk, is considered a rare honor. It’s given to only those actually interested in living a second life and generally to those that have ‘earned’ it in some way. The rest go to what’s called ‘The Hush’, where they’re judged by uh… let’s say they’re judged and leave it at that. If found worthy and willing, then they go on to live within the Shadow. If not, then they’re sent into the Darkness.”

“The Darkness? That sounds… somehow even more grim.”

“Nothing so bad, actually. It just means you enter that afterlife you were originally thinking of — whatever gamble you made for yourself, you know. Whether those that go into the Darkness actually enter the Heaven or Hell they expected, I don’t think anyone really knows. I sure as hell don’t. But while people are awaiting judgment in the Hush, they can still appear as ghosts here. Once they’re in the Darkness or allowed to live within the Shadow, then that’s that.”

“So… my family…” Lara whispered.

“It’s a long queue and they weren’t considered important. I met a ghost a month ago that died in ’33, during the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine. He said his number was up soon, though.”

“That’s fucked up.”

Felix shrugged. “Hey, I don’t make the rules. Take it up with the one in charge.”

“Who?”

“The Whisperer. One of those dark gods I mentioned before.”

“But you just said — ”

“I know what I said. Let’s just say that it’s complicated and leave it at that, okay?”

“Fine,” she sighed, “Then… what happens to me?”

“That depends. On several factors, but you can let me worry about those. All you need to know is that you have a choice: Would you like me to petition for your passage into the Shadow, or would you prefer to simply enter the Darkness?”

Lara bit her lip. She still didn’t understand why she could feel all the physical effects of her actions, when all she wanted was to feel nothing. These all-too-human sensations were a sick joke, creating brief fantasies of still being alive that shuddered into nothingness every time she remembered the fact that she was already deceased.

“Let me understand: I can either enter the Shadow, where I get to continue on and live as a ghost or whatever in some supernatural fantasy world, or I can gamble and enter your ‘darkness’ and just hope that whatever’s on the other side doesn’t involve hellfire and brimstone and all that other shit?”

“I doubt you’ve done anything to justify burning for eternity.”

“Well, who knows which religion got it right? I’ve had a couple of one-night stands during college. Kissed a girl once, too. Maybe I’ll get a thousand years of torture for it.”

“For having a spot of fun? Doubtful. Yes, some people think of it that way, but most don’t get that choice.”

“Right, you’ve said… so how come I do?”

For the first time during their conversation, Felix seemed to hesitate on giving an answer for entirely personal reasons. It didn’t seem like he was going to directly deny her an explanation, but something was weighing on his mind. His eyes darted away, as if ashamed.

“I’m… I can call in favors, sometimes. Let’s leave it at that.”

She didn’t want to press him on it. All her hatred for the man had evaporated by now, leaving only a dull, aching sense of heartache. There was only one topic remaining before she made her choice.

“What happens to my children? Both Jade and Hayden? Will they get the same choice? And will they know what choice I made?”

“I don’t know, and no. I am not permitted to tell them.”

“Says who?”

“Does it matter?”

It didn’t. It would likely just be another ominous name that made Lara feel increasingly aware of her own inconsequentiality in the grand scheme of things.

She looked up, matching her gaze with Felix’s. It was the first time she looked at him, really looked at him, and it shocked her when she realized just how young he was. The man was likely even younger than herself, perhaps in his late twenties. But if this was what he did, going around talking to spirits and helping them pass on, then no wonder he seemed so much older and forlorn when she’d first met him.

And he seemed to recognize that she was studying him, choosing to sit up straighter and smile. It was a kind smile, and one that was meant earnestly to try and cheer her up, despite how out of place it was following what was easily the most morbid conversation of her entire life. She decided that it was appreciated, even if it did little to help.

“Can I ask one final question?”

“Of course.”

“You scared the crap out of me today. Trapping me in your little circle, stealing my kids… why?”

“Part of it was to shock you, get you to realize what you were. The other part… I was afraid. Of you. When you grabbed my hand, I was sure I was about to lose it.”

It was her turn to smile.

“Thanks for being honest. Although, I guess it’s like they say — no need to keep secrets from the dead, huh?”

He said nothing.

She sighed. Lara was ready.

“I’ve made my choice.”

Felix sat on the trunk of his car, an older-looking model with a silver sheen from a popular manufacturer within Sheolam. His feet swung loosely below, black boots clicking together absently. His mind was elsewhere, unfocused eyes still watching the mist-plagued house in the distance, where he’d sent a sad ghost off to her afterlife of choice.

This place is lost, and there are other tasks to be done. A dog believes we should depart summarily and move on.

The voice, rumbling in the back of Felix’s mind, came from a large hound that had lumbured out from the mist. Vis the Barghest, a Black Dog of the Northern Thicket, slowly came up under one of Felix’s swinging feet and curled up on the cold earth, opening its maw wide to yawn.

“And the kids? Where’d you leave them?”

A shimmering presence on his shoulder appeared just in time to provide an answer, crossing her legs over a worn leather patch sewn amateurly onto his jacket.

“Oh, we left the little shits o’er at the nearby police station. Last I saw, their father came by already to pick ’em up. I expect they’ll be back home soon. What’d’ya do with the mum, anyhow?”

“She’s at peace.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Ceol laughed, “But I meant the body, doofus.”

“In the kitchen, slumped over the table. It seemed right.”

“Quite the sight for the kids an’ the husband when they saunter on in, eh?”

“It’s not funny.”

“To you, aye.”

Depart, depart. A dog does not wish to be here when those that are small arrive with one that is big.

“Fair enough, Vis. Let’s get back to the Shadow, find a place for the night. I’m sure Adomira will have something new for us in the morning.”

The Barghest entered the car through the open sunroof, while the Dark Faerie simply shimmered into the vehicle and likely made herself at home under the dashboard, preparing herself for a well-earned nap.

Felix slipped from the car and wandered over to the driver’s seat, but took a moment to stare at the house again. That mist wouldn’t do.

He raised the khopesh into the air above him, waiting a moment to collect himself and for his forearm to begin aching, before moving it in a slow arch over his head. It took time, but the mist Felix had initially created to help aid in the children’s evacuation began to gradually recede, removing itself from the premises and vanishing into ash and dust. His arm hurt from the effort, and he was exerting himself more than necessary; it would have evaporated on its own after another day or so. But this felt right.

The arm dropped and Felix relaxed, rolling his shoulder ruefully. It hurt, but this pain was temporary. And he did not wish to set any more ominous scenes for people to stumble upon. He’d enough ghost stories for the day.

His work done, Felix slipped into the car, tossing his sword in the back and eliciting a startled bark from Vis when it nearly grazed some of his thick fur along the way. A small apology and a grumble from the dog was enough to settle that.

A foot hit the gas pedal. A chime on the radio sounded, switching dials. It had been on a radio station that was discussing famous hauntings of the last decade, but the channel was quickly switched to some cheap new-age pop instead.

Felix never saw the rest of the family again. But this was just as well; he was far too busy to dwell on the past.

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Johnny Libenzon

Toronto-based aspiring author writing a mix of sci-fi and 'rural fantasy' short stories