Ethan stepped into Hamilton Hall on New Year’s Eve for a free meal and a bet with Mickey resting casually on his left shoulder.
Behind him, the world was getting dark, the storm having let up somewhat, but not entirely, leaving the world covered in a blanket of snow. Living in the snow was a new experience for Ethan and it was not a thousandth of as much fun as the movies would have led him to believe.
He stood in the open doorway for several moments, people looking up at him in a strange way he was not familiar with, and could not find Melvin Michaeladis anywhere in the room. Old Michaeladis was reputedly a very strange man, even by Bartlett Bay standards, and it was said he sometimes told ghost stories and liked to bet people that they could not spend a night in Beechwood House, which he owned. He used to do it on Halloween night but he had stopped for some reason a decade or more before Ethan was born.
Since the very instant that Ethan had laid his eyes on Beechwood casually passing it on his casual town explorations, he found it had a strange hold over him. It had wormed into his thoughts when he wasn’t distracted and, just lately, it had wormed his way into his dreams as well.
They were horrible and frightening but not entirely so, having a strange sense of nostalgia somehow intermixed within. Sometimes, he dreamt he was wandering its halls and rooms on some long, lost summer day, it simply a sad and empty building from the nineteenth century where the echoes of voices belonging to long-dead people filled his ears. Usually, however, he found himself in front of it in the dark of some night where he would look up and see all the windows turning into eyes and the entrance into a gaping maw. That maw would always move up and down, left and right over and over again with jagged broken wood-like teeth, uttering two simple worlds.
He would not have gone anywhere near it under any normal circumstances, he would in fact have loved to burn it down long before ever entering, but it wasn’t a normal circumstance because it was his house: the home he had built when he was Thomas Bartlett almost a century a half ago and that skewed everything.
He focused on the new looks people gave him and how different, and unfamiliar, they were from before.
Before there had been an overwhelming, unwelcoming quality to his entrance but after either his cure of Grace O’Brien or possibly, his reopening of the cannery and fisheries, he found they had become warm and even kind. He didn’t really know how to handle that and wasn’t sure how to behave.
Ethan gave his jacket to a servant whose pleasant smile made him feel a little uncomfortable and entered inside. He was underdressed for the occasion, wearing a short-sleeved raglan black shirt with orange sleeves, black pants with black boots but no one seemed to care about that.
As he walked across the dining area, he instantly felt a soft hand touch his shoulder. He followed the soft hand with his eyes to find Claire, smiling pleasantly.
She was wearing a low-cut, attractive white dress emphasizing a near-perfect body with her dark hair hanging around her head in large curls. “I—” she bit her lower lip “—I wanted to say hello.”
“Hi,” he said blandly.
She continued to smile cutely. “I wanted to talk to you,” she told him.
“Now that I’m rich?”
Claire looked at him as if she had been slapped. “No.” She took his left hand, held it gently with both of hers and looked into his eyes. Ethan thought maybe she was hunting down that feeling again but if she felt it, he felt it alone. “I—broke up with—Bryce.”
“Yeaaaaah—” Ethan’s eyes tilted away for a moment “—look, I gotta go—”
“Oh, uh, of course.” She swallowed and looked miserable. “You—I—do you want to go out sometime and maybe—see a movie?”
“Maybe,” he replied a little uncomfortably. He found himself unable to believe he was going to refuse a woman that good-looking on anything but he was. “We’ll talk about it later sometime. Maybe.”
Claire could not believe it either. “You are not a very forgiving soul, are you?” she asked.
Ethan laughed. “No I am not,” he agreed. “Nobody ever understands me. They either think I’m the sweetest guy in the world or I’m an emissary from hell but they’re all wrong.” He pulled his hand away gently. “Especially you.” He then turned and walked away.
“Ripped out your heart?” asked Mickey.
“Big-time,” Ethan said and he managed only three more steps before a rougher hand caught him by the shoulder and turned him around. He could only blink at its owner for several moments in surprise. “Robert Le Sueur? The fuck you want?” Le Sueur, in his fancy black suit, frowned at him like he had been wronged. “I’m not dating your cousin so leave me alone.” His hand tightened. “Get your hand off my shoulder, Robert.”
He let go. “I think we’ve had some misunderstandings, Bartlett,” Le Sueur told him as if he expected Ethan to apologize.
“Oh I don’t think we have,” Ethan replied. “You made it all crystal fucking clear. You’ve insulted me regularly, convinced a bank manager to change his mind about hiring me for a fifteen dollar an hour job, blacklisted me all over town and tried to connect me to the Ku Klux Klan—”
“I did not try to connect you to the Ku Klux Klan!” he said angrily but with some amount of nervousness and in a hushed voice.
“The best job I could get after you fucked me was a minimum wage job working at a pizza parlor which Pierce Pennington thought it was just hilarious to get me fired from.” There was an odd quiet in the room and it seemed, to his surprise, that the glares and dislike were not centered on him but Le Sueur, who looked very uncomfortable. “What the fuck do you want, Robert?”
“It’s a waste of time dealing with you,” he said and turned around and walked away, his head held as high as if had been greatly and unjustly offended.
“Why?” asked Ethan. “Because I shockingly don’t forgive you when you half-man up to say your incredible amount of cruelty was all a ‘misunderstanding?’ ” Le Sueur did not reply as he walked off into the crowd, his posture that of a man filled to the brim with incredulous self-righteousness.
Ethan turned around and walked on toward a table. “Asshole,” said Mickey.
“Big-time,” Ethan replied and got only three more feet when something else grabbed his hands. “What the f-oh, hey girls.” Sarah and Britney Wellington looked up at him with big sad eyes and hugged him at the waist, both of them in adorable little dresses, Sarah in blue and Britney in red. “What’s wrong?”
Sarah looked up at him. “You were angry,” she said sadly with a pout.
“Oh yeah,” he agreed. “That loser just tried to ruin my life a bunch of times, so I don’t like him.”
“He is mean,” Britney told him with a frown.
“Sure is,” said Ethan. “He was working up some kind of worthless excuse to say what he did wasn’t his fault now that have a formidable wealth. I had to suffer that attitude from Henry VIII but I will not suffer it from him.”
“Who’s Henry VIII?” asked Britney.
“A king of England I used to sort of be friends with.”
“You’re silly,” said Sarah with a smile.
“Yeah, I am,” he told her. “Have you seen Melvin Michaeladis?” They shook their heads in unison. “Okay, I’m going to get some food and I’m going to need you to let go.” They grinned, gripped onto his hands tighter, and then when he started toward a table the little girls continued to cling onto him, giggling happily all the while as he pulled them along.
* * *
“He hates me,” Claire said softly, her heart thudding her chest. She was unable to stop it, feeling misery like none she had ever known before welling up inside of her, and she found herself looking out at all the people around her judgmentally for the first time ever.
They were all phony. All of them liars and cheaters and utterly full themselves. Somehow, she wasn’t quite sure how, she had never noticed it before despite the fact that it was had at present become very obvious.
It seemed like she had been living her life in a pleasant dream world only to have awakened in an unhappy, distrustful reality. For the life of herself, she could not kill the bitterness that she found growing inside of her because of it.
When she looked over at Ethan ordering something from a waiter with those two girls clinging onto him, she felt her heart sink even more and even felt like crying. As she stood there, Jenny Le Sueur moved up to beside her and gave her a dark smile that made her even sadder. Jenny had become gorgeous after what had happened on Halloween, capable of getting any man she wanted, but was still jealous of her.
The girl’s newfound meanness was just one of Claire’s new revelations.
“You know,” whispered Jenny from behind, “You did tease him and hint and play with his feelings before ripping out his heart. Oh—” she looked at her “—how did Bryce work out by the way?”
Jenny knew quite well how it worked out. Bryce cheated on Claire with his dirty old girlfriend after he had taken her virginity, which only happened because she had been tricked into drinking too much alcohol. He was Bobby Le Sueur’s friend and that should have told her not to trust him but all the girls vouched for him and now, like Jenny, they turned around and told her it was all her own fault while simultaneously denying ever vouching for such a man.
Johnny, who she thought might do something, did nothing nor did Bobby, who laughed and her cousin Jenny obviously had no real sympathy.
She looked over at Ethan and felt that he would have done something had he still had that thing between them and that made her want him even more. That look he had, that look of love in his eyes she saw before, had never been seen in any other man and she now felt naïve to the point of retardation for not having known how rare it was.
It was only after meeting the opposite that she had come to understand that look was not common.
* * *
Loraine Wellington approached when Ethan finally sat down.
“Hi Loraine,” he said. “Can you unlock your children for me?” She said nothing at first and when she got close, he was not entirely surprised to see how tired and pale with both eyes having such huge black bags under them that extremely heavy makeup couldn’t even hide them. “You alright?”
“Girls, go over there but not too far from Ethan.” She sounded nervous and again, he wasn’t surprised.
“Okay mommy,” said Sarah and both girls hugged him tightly before running off.
“Cute kids,” he said.
“Ethan, I’m scared out of my mind. I want—is there anyway—can she find them here.”
“Yes,” he said simply and her face filled with almost absurd fear for her children. “I can’t prove it but that’s my gut feeling on the matter and you should probably behave as if she could in case I’m right.” He looked down and saw that her hands were shaking badly. “To be perfectly frank, Loraine, I never expected to actually see you again.”
“We bought a house in Colorado. William works out of the house anyway, so it’s not a problem. We signed the deed, enrolled the girls in school and even found a new church but his father—his father threatened to cut us off.” Her voice lowered. “He owns part of William’s company and he even threatened to have him fired if we didn’t return. I begged him on my knees for New York or even New Haven but he wouldn’t have it. Nothing short of Bartlett Bay, Connecticut would do.” Her eyes had grown wider with worry and fear with each word.
“That’s suspicious,” Ethan told her and he locked the information away. Saturnine, his mind told himself. Her father-in-law, Albert Wellington is one of the Saturnine.
“Well,” said Ethan in a half-jokingly, “He’s either luring you back at the hag’s behest, hates your children or is simply just the singularly stupidest son of a bitch alive.” He laughed. “I bet the fucker has to wear kneepads and a helmet just to jack off.”
Something crossed her eyes, he saw it very clearly, and then she got up and kissed him on the cheek. He had no idea what it was she thought or intended to do but his half-joke had apparently been some final push into action. “Thanks,” she told him and she went over to her children and hugged them tightly. They hugged her back and completely missed whatever was happening with their mother.
“I really hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me,” he said and he turned to see Johnny Le Sueur was right over him as he walked around the table “Jesus!” he cried.
“Can I sit?” he asked.
“I don’t own the place,” he said and Johnny, looking sadder than he remembered, sat down. He was wearing a white dress shirt and black slacks, which seemed too damn proper for a man his age. “Johnny, why are you talking to me?” he asked.
“We had a misunderstanding.”
“I thought I explained it to your uncle pretty well,” he told him.
“No, me and you,” he said. “I thought you were going to be like your psychotic cousin.”
“Which one specifically?”
“Specifically, Little Julian.”
“Fair enough,” Ethan replied with a shrug. “He was a monster.”
“So, you’re a little rough on Claire, don’t you think?” he blurted out and Ethan sighed. “Seriously, you weren’t even dating. She’s had a rough time and she’s a very—” for a moment he couldn’t seem to find the right word “—special girl.”
“You mean with the Bryce thing? It’s no big deal in the long run. She’s a very pretty girl and good guys will be banging on her door for the rest of her life.”
“And a lot of bad ones too.”
“I don’t know what I can do about that.”
“She seems oddly hooked on you,” he replied.
Ethan almost told him about their past life together but thought better of it for some reason. It was the one aspect of his past lives that he didn’t feel comfortable talking about. “According to my sources, this Bryce guy was a real piece of work. I heard the words ‘donkey punch’ thrown around.”
“Darcy should learn to shut up,” said Johnny.
“You want to be the one to teach her?” They both laughed and then the waiter placed down a tri-tip steak, Caesar salad and baked potato in front of Ethan. “Now that is service.”
Johnny leaned back. “Where is Darcy anyway?” he asked. “Last year she was here.”
“Oh she has friends now,” Ethan told him as he began cutting his steak. “Darcy, Becky and Carrie and a few other uber-sexy girls have dragged their boyfriends off to go dancing at various clubs up in New York City somewhere. I would have come but I guess there’s some awkwardness between me and Darcy’s boyfriend Paul, so I wasn’t invited.”
“Oh, the underwear model.” Ethan sighed and Mickey laughed from wherever in the room he had gone flying off to. “I’m not kidding, that’s actually what he is, or at least part-time. He’s as dumb as tree stump but there’s no doubting why women like him.”
“Well, golly gee wilikers,” Ethan replied blandly. “Any more good news for me, Mr. Buzz Kill?”
“Listen, did you do something weird to Claire?”
Ethan stopped cutting and looked up at him. “Define weird?”
“Well, after Halloween she’s been pacing around her room every night, sometimes all night, and then sometimes I catch her staring off into the distance like she’s mesmerized by something. A week ago, she asked me if I would go into the Engelstad with her.”
She wasn’t hit by anything those dead girls were casting on Halloween night, Ethan would have bet a fortune on that, so her strange behavior subsequently was baffling. Perhaps, it could be just a psychological effect after seeing what she saw. “Maybe your sister was the one you should worry about,” he told him.
“My sister is turning in a narcissistic brat, yes,” he said, “And Mom is spoiling her now that she’s become so pretty.” He leaned closer. “You did something to Claire. I can tell.”
“I did nothing to Claire and I don’t know why she’s asking about those woods.” Why Claire Le Sueur should bring up entering the Engelstad felt both ominous and unexpected, so much so on the latter that Ethan was suddenly curious. “Tell her if she wants me to, I’ll take her in there,” he told him.
“Really?” Johnny looked surprised and suspicious in equal measure.
“Yeah, why not?” asked Ethan with a smile that seemed more to creep up his face than grow.
“Maybe I will,” he told him but it was clear he wouldn’t. Only an idiot would go into those woods frivolously and Claire was hardly the kind of girl conditioned for it in the singularly best of circumstances.
Johnny then stood up and walked away without another word, his face thoughtful.
Mickey flew across the room and landed in the arms of Sarah Wellington who immediately began to pet him happily. Ethan smiled at that, feeling content for the moment, and continued to eat his food quietly while his mind went to questions. Why would Claire of all people want to enter the Engelstad? was the chief question but of course, there was no answer to that. He barely knew Claire in all honesty and who knew what secrets she had or why she was even in their little city in the first place when she could just as easily be in New Orleans or Baton Rouge the other members of her branch of the Le Sueur family.
All around him, he caught more strange glances and then when he heard the name Anne Creed, he knew why their attitude had changed. He leaned back, cracked his neck, and recalled the confrontation his cousins forced upon him while he was eating at a restaurant with a pretty girl he met at Starbucks.
I’m on a date, Anne, he had said.
Fuck off, Anne told the girl.
The girl, who was named Mandy something, gave her a dirty look. Fuck you, bitch, she had replied.
If you go to the bathroom I’ll try to get rid of this bitch before you’re back, he told her. Anne looked surprised at that, surprised at his tone or confidence, and when the girl did go to the bathroom, she gave Anne an angry, hateful glare over his shoulder as she left. What do you want? he asked her.
Is it true that you’re suing the family? she asked him coldly.
Suing? He shook his head. I’m getting my inheritance back.
What inheritance? she had replied with a straight face that seemed to imply she somehow did not know. Obviously, that couldn’t be the case due to her countless previously made jokes about James Bartlett leaving all his money to his “beloved brother” in mocking tones.
You’re not rewriting history with this, he told her. I want what was mine and that is all.
She shrugged as if that didn’t matter. You never sue family. I don’t care what your grievances are.
It’s ‘you never steal from family’ dumbass, he had replied.
Ethan had been young but he had never forgotten how Julian swept in with his army of lawyers with their encyclopedic knowledge of loopholes in the law and managed to take all that James had left for his son and grandson, 3.7 million dollars to be exact, and apparently just because he could. Julian was supposedly a billionaire, or close to it, and he sure as hell didn’t need it.
Would you prefer instead that I deal with our problems by hitting you with a car? he asked.
You poor little boy, she said, You have no idea who you’re slandering.
I know exactly who I’m slandering. A drunken sociopath who thinks she can push people around the same way she did when her daddy was still alive.
She just smiled at him, leaned down onto the table and said, You will not do anything in this town, not open a factory, build a house or go to the bathroom without our express permission, boy. You best understand that before you end up like your father.
Goodbye, Anne, he told her and then she left without another word, probably calling that sociopathic Bartlett family lawyer, Reginald James, within seconds of being out of sight.
She’s a bitch, said Mandy when she came back.
Big time, he had replied and that was that. Sooner or later, their evil lawyer and the expensive one he was hiring would clash and it would get ugly. So far, nothing had come of it, but it was only a matter of time.
Ethan finished his food and waited for Melvin Michaeladis to finally appear.
It took another hour for it to happen. An elderly man in a wheelchair appeared unspectacularly and then moved through the hall smiling pleasantly and sadly. He seemed like a kindly old grandfather, a man with almost no hair left, liver spots, and a very skinny frame withered to a stick-like form. Even his clothes, a beige dress shirt with matching beige slacks, a red bowtie and a brown vest, seemed somehow sad to Ethan.
There was something about his face though, about the lines specifically, that made him think that he had not lived a happy life. There was something pitiful and sorrowful about him too: something haunting, most especially clear in his eyes.
“Melvin,” said Ethan as he was moving past.
Melvin looked at him and his face lit up. “You look so much like him. Your grandfather James, I mean.” He smiled wider. “You act like him too, him and Mitchell O’Brien. I heard about the reopening of the fisheries and cannery.”
“It was Mitchell O’Brien’s idea,” he said. “He never finished it because of what happened to his girl.”
Melvin’s smile grew wider and kinder. “I heard about how you helped her too. That was good of you.”
Ethan smiled. “Yeah,” he said and then his smile vanished and he leaned forward. “Tell me about Beechwood.”
He barely spoke but everyone still stopped talking and looked at him.
Melvin looked up at him for a long moment, his eyes calculating something, and then he reached into his vest. “Are you sure about this, Ethan?” he asked.
He pulled out an old, large key. “You should be,” he told him. “I don’t make bets about that house anymore for a reason.”
“But you still have cameras all over it.” That was something Ethan had not missed.
“Yes,” he replied. “It’s my house and I like to keep it secure.” Something about the way he said that made Ethan think that he was lying and his face had become very tight, much like he was fighting to keep whatever real emotions he was feeling under the surface.
Ethan took the key. “Tell me about Beechwood, Melvin.”
“No real story there,” he said. “My great-grandfather had married Thomas Bartlett’s daughter who inherited the house and the Michaeladises have had it ever since.”
“What’s the story with Beechwood?” asked Ethan.
“Wander in there and maybe you’ll find out.” His eyes shifted a bit and Ethan realized if he was going to tell him anything, it would never be in front of an audience. Ethan stood up, turned to leave but then Melvin said, “Why do you want to go in there?”
“I don’t know why,” he answered honestly. The fact that he had built it or lived there in his past life warranted exploration but he was more than that. After all, he hadn’t been drawn to go to England to visit Kent Hall even though Walter Kent was born there. According to some website histories by one of the modern Kents, he even added to it extensively for his princess wife, but that didn’t matter either. “I really don’t.”
“Well, that’s not good,” Melvin told him. “A man should know why he does things.”
“I know that but there are exceptions,” he said. “I’ll bring the key back when I come and visit you in the morning.” Melvin gave him a look that seemed to say that he didn’t entirely believe him and Ethan said nothing, turned around and went to the door. As he was putting on his jacket, he saw a girl watching him.
She was a pretty, dark-eyed girl with long, silky chestnut-colored hair tied conservatively behind her head wearing the dark blue dress all the other waitresses wore. She looked up at him as he looked at her and frowned deeply.
“What’s up?” he asked and her eyes darkened. “Okay?” Mickey flew across the room, landed on his shoulder and looked over at the girl.
“That one doesn’t like you?” said Mickey.
Ethan zipped up his jacket. “No, she does not.”
An older man beside her in a suit with dark gray hair and a well-trimmed beard, who Ethan had seen but not suspected was with her, leaned over and whispered something into her ear. She frowned at Ethan again and then walked away with the man who did not look once at him.
“That was fucking weird,” he said as he slipped on his gloves.
“What part exactly?” asked Mickey.
“Everything,” Ethan replied simply and he turned and stepped out into the very cold, snowy world beyond. It was only lightly snowing then but it was a windy twenty-two degrees, far colder than any weather in California could ever prepare him for, and he quickly went to his car, opened the door, and turned it on.
He let the engine run for a minute and then drove back to the Sorcery and Stick Farm’s Barton Property where he parked the Corvette in the garage, shut the door, and went inside.
“Damn that’s cold!” cried Mickey as he flew through the warm house to his post.
Ethan took off his jacket, went to the walk-in closet he had converted into an armory, and then unlocked it, opened it and turned on the light. He looked through the mostly empty closet for a moment, sighed, then stepped inside and equipped himself.
His new armor waited for him on a white mannequin at the back of the closet, easily able to slip over the mannequin as easily as himself, built in a way that reminded of bicyclist armor. It was all black, high collared, with plates on the chest, back, arms, legs, all strapped tightly across him but not so tight that he couldn’t jump around or maneuver easily. It classified as “light armor” and was didn’t mess with his magic or anything. He wore his dueling gloves with his black jacket over the armor easily, both actually designed to go with armor, and his sword and guns were equipped just as easily.
In addition to his new armor, he added a few new things.
On each wrist, under his gloves, there was a magical wristband. They were both black with small, dark metal plates with orange runes on them. The one on his left wrist was designed to protect him from being sensed by magical spells and, to some extent, protected him from mind control spells. The one on his right enhanced his defensive magic such as his Magic Shield and Magic Armor type spells. He had found them both in Goodwin’s Enchantments and had just finished them the previous week.
For his weaponry, he added a Mossberg 500 tactical model shotgun, which he modified in several ways, most notably with a shotgun sling with fifteen extra shells, a sidesaddle with six more, a folding stock with another five more than that, a powerful flashlight under the barrel and a mount with an expensive black scope on it.
He also had a similarly modified tactical Kel-Tec SU-16 rifle but he decided he would not need it in the close quarters of Beechwood if he even needed a weapon at all.
Why he thought he might need a gun at all in an empty house, he could not say but something made him think it wasn’t quite empty. On the few nights he had gone by, he had looked up at it and seen what? Movement in the windows? A flicker of something here or there?
Maybe. Maybe not. Better safe than sorry.
He made sure all his guns were loaded, slung the Mossberg over his shoulder after checking its light, and went over to the mirror in the next room. He felt strangely—what?
What was it exactly? Eagerness? Fear? Curiosity? Excitement? All of it? None of it? He shook his head, feeling thoroughly confused and worried.
“That fucking house,” he told to his reflection and then he went over to the closet, locked it up tightly, and went back out into the living room. Mickey turned his head, looked him over and said, “You look like you’re going to shoot up a high school.”
Ethan burst out laughing. “No, I’d bring the Kel-Tec for that,” he told him and he went over to the television, turned it on, and set up the animated movie Valiant for Mickey and placed a bowl of Doritos alongside a bowl of water on the flat part of his metal post.
“Try to be back before midnight,” said Mickey.
“I should be back well by then,” Ethan replied. If there really was nothing in that house, he wasn’t likely to stay for very long. “Should be,” he added.
Then he went into the garage, climbed up the back of the black 2004 Ford Ranger truck that came with one of the farm properties, opened the lockable box at the back and placed his weapons into it. Just before he placed his right hand’s pistol into it, he hesitated and then stuck it back into the holster at his side.
“So fucking paranoid,” he said to himself and then shut and locked the box, got into his truck, and left, his sword resting in the passenger seat because it could not fit in the box.
During the drive over, Ethan was so lost in his thoughts he did not recall the drive there. It seemed that after shutting his garage back at the Barton property, he almost just appeared there. He had no recollection of driving south down Alberta, east across Edmonton, north on Wicker St or west on Edwina Rd. He had just blinked and it seemed to have formed out of the snow and sky like a haunted castle in a film where they skipped the driving-over scene.
He took a few deep breaths and looked up through the gently moving windshield wipers at the house.
It loomed above him just as it had in his dream. A house built like an “S” only stretched out into two horizontal lines with a single vertical one connecting at their ends. The centerline where he was looking was the entrance and above it, at its center, he could see the magician’s tower, Thomas’s magician’s tower, rising half a dozen stories above the other turrets into the sky where the clouds parted to reveal the almost full moon lighting up the night world like a white eye.
The windows around were caked in frost and looked contested or lethargic as though they were the eyes of a creature who knew this would happen and was unimpressed. It seemed that the house had spoken to him into his mind.
Come on in, the house seemed to say. You’re home, master. You’re finally home.
Ethan found himself staring at it for a long time expecting a vision to come every second but none did. He had not seen a vision that even came to the point of thinking about building Beechwood. That vision was somewhere in the future and after the war. He only knew Thomas had built this place because he had read about it in a book or pamphlet somewhere.
He cast his Sense Magic spell and saw something that had snapped him out of his numbness. It was that of a spell moving throughout the walls.
It was a seemingly harmless spell, perfectly European, utilizing some form of summoning magic but there was something exotic about it. It couldn’t hurt him, he was almost absolutely certain of that much, but there was still something about that exoticness that he didn’t trust. There was something wrong that he could not quite put his finger on.
It was not the first time he felt his instincts urging him not to do something but it was one of the few times that he intended to ignore them.
“‘Curiouser and curiouser,’” he said and then he went out to the back of his truck, lowered its back, and climbed up to the box. He opened it, equipped himself with his weapons and, as he took out his shotgun, he saw what he put in there earlier that morning with more than a passing glance.
It was a gas can filled with gasoline.
He stared at it blankly for a moment, trying to hold back the shuddering of horror at his memories, then shut the box, locked it, and walked up to the house.
With his Sense Magic spell still active and up close, he saw that the swirling blackish-purple mass of magic did not directly affect the inside any more than it affected the outside. It seemed that whatever lunatic reason might explain the disturbing feeling he got just looking at it, it only affected the walls.
He felt doubt there and he had a sense he wasn’t seeing the whole picture.
I really shouldn’t go in here, he told himself. Up close, he calculated that the spell would not really be capable of hurting him with even greater certainty, it could not do so with the little amount of power he felt, but his instincts still filled him with worry. It was just an empty house but summoning spells, while not harmful to a person, were tricky and, sometimes outright deceitful or so he read.
He grimaced, turned Michaeladis’s key in the lock and pushed upon the door.
The summoning magic flew past him like a gust of soft and gentle wind. He felt its more or less harmlessness again, doubted it again, but still stepped inside.
When he shut the door behind himself, it made a kind of boom sound that stretched out across the empty house like a pan being dropped in an echoing, empty cave. “Home,” he said blandly and his eyes instantly caught something and widened with surprise. “Just fucking wonderful,” he added.
The fireplace was lit.
The house was very much unoccupied, Michaeladis had not lived there since the 1970s or earlier, and he had never successfully rented it out. It had a reputation so bad that rumor had that even hobos were too frightened of it to sleep inside even during a snowstorm.
So who lit the fireplace?
He took a few steps toward it, his left hand wrapping around his sword hilt, and then stopped himself. He turned away and walked across the foyer to the staircase at the end, an imitation of the Bartlett House staircase complete with a great round window on top of the first platform large enough for a tall man to be thrown right through its center with his arms and legs outstretched and not hit the edges.
There he turned around and examined his surroundings in the weak light.
The foyer was tall, extended upward instead of outward, stretching up several floors worth of house directly under the tower itself with an ornate staircase leading up to the walkway above the foyer. All around him were paintings of long-dead people he did not recognize at a glance and he saw the furnishings in the room, couches mostly it seemed, covered in white sheets.
To his right was the ballroom, music room, drawing room and library. The library stretched out eastward toward Wicker St. To his left were the huge dining room, kitchen and pantry, which pointed toward Maplewood.
“How do I know all that?” he asked himself suddenly. He had not been able to find any blueprints so supposed he must have read a description of it somewhere. He knew there had been a large property to the south that had the Equine Acres Horse Property but that was all. “Maybe…” he added and then he laughed. “Goddamn it all.” He looked over at the fireplace and his tentative grin left his face.
Something real was in that place.
Since that summoning spell did not have enough power to summon a bauble of light let alone a merrily blazing fire, something had to be with him amid those walls.
He walked up the stairs casually, his boots making echoing clank sounds each step that he took, and moved up to the giant window. As he looked out across the woods, over Charlotte Rd, and over the Engelstad, he thought for some reason of the view from the Bartlett House. He would look out of that window to the south, see the waves crashing into the rocks below, and then uncannily be reminded of the show Dark Shadows from the 1960s.
“There is something here in the dark with me,” he whispered.
“In the dark—” Ethan spun around, his shotgun pointing its light down “—all things are possible…”
Ethan saw nothing. The voice, a quiet, ghostly whisper that could belong male, female, young or old, just came out of nowhere. He moved back toward the stairs, pointing his shotgun upward around the walls where he thought he heard it, each door that was nearby and then up the spiraling walking directly above him that led to his magician’s tower.
He saw nothing.
There was suddenly a flash of something and he thought it was, of all things, a beam of sunlight across the foyer. “That was fucking weird,” he said aloud. Several steps down from the top, raised his light at his level toward the walls of the foyer again but that time, specifically at the paintings, because he had the sudden feeling of being watched and they were the only things with something like eyes. “I’m fucking losing it,” he said as he lowered his shotgun.
There was another whisper clearly from above and he threw the shotgun back up.
The flashlight ended above the entrance to a painting of Colonel Thomas Benjamin Bartlett, older than he was in his last vision, with long, golden hair not too unlike his friend Autie had become known for, a distinguished beard, and in a full military uniform complete with hat. He was looking to the left side in a dignified pose.
Ethan lowered the light for a moment, laughed a bit, and raised it back up to get a second look. All the tentative good feelings he had were suddenly replaced by confusion and fear.
Thomas Bartlett was staring straight over where Ethan right where was standing. That was quite a feat since its face had been turned to a side profile moments before. Ethan did not think he was mistaken in the slightest and he could even recall posing for the painter. That last was as odd as the picture was painted later than his memories went.
He lowered his shotgun light, eyes wide, worried and confused. He could recall that but nowhere near as well as he could with the earlier past lives’ memories that came with his visions. It was filled with holes, missing vital pieces, and was vague and dreamlike, but it was there.
He raised the gun again and saw the picture had returned to normal. “Well, I’m out of here,” he announced and took one more step down when the giant window above the foyer filled with sunlight. He looked back over his shoulder, his eyes staring up at a beautiful, summer day beyond its borders, and then started back up.
He reached the top of his stairs, his shotgun held downward in his right hand and walked up to the window with wide, awe-filled eyes.
It was from another time and place. It was the window in the Bartlett House, or possibly the Kent Hall, which was also by the sea, and he saw boats with sails and masts of wood along with steamboats.
Death traps, Andrew O’Brien’s voice whispered again in his mind. Every one of them explodes.
And many did indeed. He suddenly remembered the Sultana.
Thomas had not been there, he probably would have been dead if he had, for that one had exploded all right, or burst into flames, which was pretty much tantamount to the same effect. It took twelve hundred good men, all ex-soldiers, all dreaming of home and the women and families they left behind, to their graves.
They had survived the Confederate army, many of them crippling injuries, and worst yet disease, the chief slayer of soldiers on either side, only to die because of a badly made boiler.
Ethan almost burst into tears at the faces of countless soldiers flying across his mind all at once. “This wristband does not fucking work!” he cried out in a voice that sounded like a whimper. He stepped away from the light, away from the window that showed a nineteenth-century summer, and forgot about the stairs until he went stumbling backward down them. The shotgun fell from his hand as he lost his balance and he landed with a thud back first on the ground.
In the moonlight above, he thought he saw the paintings looking down at him, every single one of them. There was Thomas’s wife, mother, children, grandchildren and others he did not know, Michaeladises maybe, all staring down at him, all watching him. He scrambled over to his shotgun, grabbed it, and pointed its light up and his eyes went wide.
He was right. They were not just looking in his direction but down at him. He felt almost completely certain of it.
And to confirm his fears, he heard whispers from their direction.
“He’s going to panic,” said a gruff voice. “They all panic.”
“No, he’s different,” said a gentle voice.
“Shut up, he’s listening,” said a third, worried-sounding voice.
“He’ll panic soon enough if he knows we’re talking,” said the first.
“It’s called him,” said the gentle voice again. “He’s different, though. I can tell. He could be the one—”
“You shut up!” snarled the gruff voice.
He clambered painfully to his feet and felt the world spinning around him. The paintings were looking down at him with disturbing expressions, some leering, some laughing, some curious, others suspicious, and when he looked away he saw other long-dead people in his mind, people he shared his lives with. Their images and voices filling his thoughts as the paintings began to babble away in their quiet, genderless voices.
Then he saw someone by the fire and everything stopped so suddenly it was as if he had hit a wall and who he saw startled him so much that he almost dropped his shotgun again. “You!” he gasped and he felt tears roll down his face. “I can’t—” he felt some blood come trickling out of his nose “—it can’t be you!” The last part came out almost like a soft, wail.
A woman stood by the fire, her lower body lit by its flames, wearing a Tudor period black and gold dress. It was so dark outside of the light of the fire that he could not see her head.
If she even had one.
Then she stepped forward and he was relieved to see that she did indeed have a head.
She was a young woman wearing a matching French hood over her head revealing the front of her dark hair and she stared at him from an attractive, if kind of long, face that was very different from the kind of women usually favored by Henry VIII and Walter Kent himself, for that matter. Few called her gorgeous, Jane Parker was better and so was her sister Mary, but there was great beauty hidden there.
Walter had seen it and eventually understood. Henry saw it too but he never understood it. He had thought he could control it and make it his own but such a thing was not really possible. Pure women’s power belonged only to women and it was impossible for a man to harness or even control. It destroyed anyone who tried as it Henry who, resigning the woman to her fate, came the closest he ever would to a complete understanding.
In body, she was slender and petite with small breasts and was short to Ethan and Walter both with long tapering fingers that her daughter would come to have great pride in. It was an unspectacularly ordinarily attractive body and it was those eyes instead, those dark deep and endless eyes, filled with promises no woman could keep that drew Henry, him, and every other man to her. He could not stop looking at those pools of blackness. Not then or now.
“Hello Walter,” Anne Boleyn said pleasantly.
“He’s not scared of what he sees,” whispered a voice above.
“Shut up!” snarled Ethan and he felt himself on the verge of weeping. “Just—just shut up.” He could only stare at her, at that woman who tore England apart only to be executed for adultery and treason three years later almost five centuries ago. He found he could not think of anything to say to her despite that he, as Walter, spent a lifetime afterward wishing he had.
He tried again to speak but nothing came out. He slung the shotgun over his shoulder, instinctively worrying about the penalty of carrying a weapon in the presence of royalty, and laughed miserably at himself and the situation. She was younger than she was when married Henry VIII and became queen so being armed wasn’t a problem and this made him want to warn her about Henry but couldn’t because he knew she would not listen and he was as helpless in controlling her as he was in stopping a runaway iceberg. He was already utterly defeated by an untrained, defenseless girl in a pretty dress with a pair of deep black eyes that seemed to understand him to his very core.
Tears began to slip faster down Ethan’s face. “Anne!” he whimpered finally. “I—I told you! I—I fucking told you! I—” she was still smiling at him and that made it worse “—I couldn’t stop them any more than I could have defeated the entire Scottish army single-handedly at Flodden! You know that don’t you?” While he had doubts for the rest of his days, he would always conclude that any involvement on his part would have ended with six men executed instead of five. “I’m sorry, Anne! I’m so goddamn sorry! You didn’t deserve this!”
Despite his sadness, he was not surprised at her fall. No one had been. He knew something was coming, even wrote her off mentally, but even he, who had been more secretly contemptuous of Henry VIII than possibly any Englishman alive, had never expected the execution for her or the five other men. Not even his uncle Thomas Howard saw that coming and he, who had laughingly fed her his annoying tut, tut sounds of mockery when it began, could not keep from breaking down into tears when he finally passed the sentence he helped push. If he hadn’t seen it coming, Walter sure as hell wouldn’t have.
A nunnery with all the titles, wealth and honor removed was what they both had believed. It was a common and traditional end for a scheming highborn lady committing a crime. No English Queen had ever been executed before. Eleanor of Aquitaine had done far more against her husband than Anne Boleyn could have ever dreamed of, which including waging war against her husband, and received no execution and died of old age and in great honor after outliving her husband and most of her children.
What happened in May of 1536 was a nightmare few men could have predicted.
And yet Walter wasn’t completely surprised at her execution exactly. Walter thought he had but Ethan felt that maybe Walter always knew there was something wrong with Henry VIII and always worried about it somewhere in the depths of his mind. That wrongness added a certain sinister twist to an otherwise perfect king.
Anne’s smile turned sad. “Are you well, cousin?”
Ethan looked at her and shook his head slowly. “No,” he said. “No, I am not.” He noticed other courtiers moving around in the darkness of the foyer. Henry Percy was there talking with Lord Thomas Courtney, who as a distant relative of Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter and thus connected to a variety of high officials, not the least of which, was the king of England. Most who knew him saw him as a self-loving egotist including Exeter himself who hated him almost as much as Walter did and felt him a disgrace to his family name. “—why is Henry Percy talking to Thomas Courtenay? I don’t like him. He stole my wife.”
“He’s even talking back,” said one of the voices.
“Shut up, paintings!” Ethan snarled and, feeling gratefully angry, he pointed his finger at Anne. “Why are you here? Why is Courtenay here? Why—Courtenay—” He felt something bad was starting to unbury itself in his mind, something like a corpse being unearthed from a feces strewn marsh in a humid hot summer day when everything sticks. It was trying to wiggle itself up out of the putrid muck like a monster reaching out to grab some unsuspecting child.
To his infinite relief, it didn’t quite make it but he could still sense that was something horrible beyond words, something wrong and evil, but all that he got clearly from it was an image of blood, guts, and gore strewed across a forest floor. There was a severed hand on the ground, one with a ring, and Ethan could tell that it was relevant but he didn’t know how. He had no doubt in his mind that Courtenay, or someone very close to him, did something bad to create that situation.
Something very bad.
But that was after Anne Boleyn had died so even if she could answer him, she could not have known what it was.
He looked over at Henry Percy, who would, after being thwarted in his attempt to marry Anne, become the 6th Earl of Northumberland. He looked very happy then but sooner or later, he would become a very bitter and miserable man who would come to hate Anne even as he remained completely in love with her. He had been full of such optimism before he was forced to marry a woman he could not stand and who could not stand him in turn and after that, it was a downward spiral of the emotional and physical to the end.
Henry VIII ruined that for him. Wolsey got the credit in Anne’s mind but Walter knew quite well that it was Henry, and only Henry, who wanted it done.
“Who was the other Northumberland?” he asked aloud. It was John Dudley, a duke instead of an earl. “What did he do?” Ethan could not quite remember but it was dangerous and risky. Something to do with the throne and Henry or his son or his father before. One of the Dudleys was executed Henry took power. “I can’t remember.”
By then, Ethan felt as if he was almost in some kind of fever and sweat came out all over his neck and face. He ran a shaky hand through his hair, slicking it straight back, and looked down at Anne’s sensual smile.
No one ever talked about what they saw in Beechwood and now he knew why. Anyone who saw something from a past life that instilled such emotion and didn’t understand what it was would not only never speak of what they saw but also run away screaming into the night. They were, as far as he could tell, harmless because he didn’t recall any stories of anyone dying from one of those bets Melvin Michaeladis made. They wouldn’t talk of what they saw, lest they spend the rest of their lives in a padded cell, but they weren’t dead either.
Some people must have seen something they like, true loves, great friends, something because he had heard rumors about some people going back.
Ethan laughed as the knowledge of what he was doing hit him right then. He was staring at Anne Boleyn in the United States of America. She was an English queen two and a half centuries before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Virginia would be discovered and then named after her daughter fifty years or so after her death.
“Walter,” she said and he jerked at the sound of his name. “I want you to do something for me, please. I am going to speak to the cardinal about Henry Percy and I need a man with the king’s ear near to me. He is not likely to listen to me without someone he respects nearby.” Her lips were pressed together and she looked genuinely worried.
“The cardinal—” he felt his tongue had gone very try “—does not respect me.”
Walter knew why she was seeing Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and he also knew it wouldn’t work. Wolsey did as Wolsey pleased and only the king could really push him around. Walter admired him, yes, but he felt his arrogance and greed would be his downfall, and Ethan knew English history well enough to know he was right.
Ethan felt a sudden need to escape Anne’s presence and he quickly moved around her, bowing politely on instinct, and aimed in a random set of doors to the east, which were the ballroom doors. He found they were locked, so he went past them to the far hallway and, before disappearing within, he looked back.
Anne was gone and he felt both absurdly grateful and relieved. There was an incalculable amount of misery with her and nothing could make him feel better than to be free of it.
The music room was on his left and he opened it for no particular reason and looked at the three windows at its wall. The one in the center showed dark and snow but the other two showed bright midday sun from some other day. Aside from a sheet-covered piano on the right, there were no other furnishings in the room.
He heard the sound of creaking and he looked up near to the piano to see a young, man, hanging from the ceilings and hidden in the shadows. He had dark, straight hair combed to the side and a black tuxedo looking like he belonged in the 1910s or so. The sound of creaking was his body’s weight pulling on whatever the rope was connected to from above.
“The hell?” Ethan replied. He had no memory of this individual and he tilted his head as he looked up at his black, choked face.
Beware the Hanged Man, a phantom voice whispered in his mind but that wasn’t a past life memory. He had read graffiti proclaiming that warning written in red under the Orange Bridge amid graffiti down near Applewood. It had caught his curiosity but nothing else.
Ethan laughed again and found he was not surprised or worried by the sense of apprehension he had by looking at the corpse. He was also not surprised or worried by how generally wrong he looked. He took out his shotgun, raised the light to his face, and examined it closely and was not surprised or worried that he did know the man even slightly. “I don’t know you,” he told the corpse and lowered the light.
He was just a highly handsome, twenty-five to thirty-year-old dead man with a strangled black face in a tuxedo that was, for some mad reason, hanging dead in Thomas Bartlett’s music room.
And that was when a dreadful thought came to him. He thought that perhaps Thomas Bartlett’s old house drew more than just him to it. The Hanged Man, the paintings, the visions and maybe others were all pulled together from their secret places to end in Beechwood for some lunatic reason.
He poked the corpse with the shotgun and he was solid. However, all it did was swing it a bit on his rope just as a pushed corpse would and nothing else.
Ethan’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you?” he asked but the corpse didn’t answer. “I know you can hear me. I don’t know why exactly but I can feel it. I know when someone is pretending.” He had no idea why he said that and he wasn’t sure he believed anything he had just said.
The Hanged Man still said and did nothing in response.
“I must be out of my fucking mind,” he said and he slung his shotgun back over his shoulder once more and backed out of the room. He turned to the left and suddenly felt a piercing pain in his head. The spell had done something new to him and he stumbled down the hall, nearly falling over, clutching his head in agony for a solid minute before it stopped.
“Son,” said a voice and he turned to see Edwina standing in front of him smiling pleasantly while holding a candle. She was much older than he last remembered seeing her but she was still pretty for her age. “I heard you pacing about. Are you alright?”
“Mother—” he had a flash of his real mother, Ethan’s mother, holding a very different kind of fire. “Oh God, Mother!”
Thomas’s mother smiled as she looked him over in a kindly, maternal way. “You were always a very good boy,” she told him. “I’m sorry your father never saw it.”
Ethan’s neck tightened and he remembered the bat and the sound of his dog Pip, his best friend and late grandfather’s birthday present, yipping at every swing until the last swing where he yipped no more.
“I love you, Mother!” he whimpered. “You were the only true mother that I ever had!” She smiled pleasantly at him and touched his face. He thought he could feel it but he wasn’t sure.
Blood leaked out of his nose and he forced himself away down the hall. Edwina was gone and had been for at least a hundred years but, just like Anne Boleyn, she still held immense emotion over him and he did not like that. Unfortunately, he didn’t know what to do about it so he just started forward, almost panicked, thinking that maybe he would just leave by the side door and never look back.
He passed the drawing room and was at the point where the hallway turned right when a man stepped out from the corner. He was young and handsome with a fine mustache and the attractive, dark hair combed over from the left: a man with the carefree yet attractive look of an actor.
“You!” Ethan cried and when the man did not answer him, Ethan pulled out his right pistol and pointed it at his face. “Turn around motherfucker!” snarled Ethan. “I want to savior this and make it ironic!”
John Wilkes Booth raised his fist and cried out, “Sic semper tyrannis!”
Ethan screamed and slammed his pistol into his face and, had the assassin been real, he would have broken his nose and possibly other important parts of his face as well. He wasn’t, though, and he disappeared into a cloud of mist. Ethan screamed again in rage and walked around the hall.
He looked at the right out into the eastern side yard and saw, amid a few women in black, a crowd of men with burlap sacks over their faces. He grunted as if punched, suddenly filled with absurd fear for something other than himself. He scrambled down the hall, reached the end, and walked up to the window.
He was relieved that it was snow.
Ethan leaned his forehead head up against it, sighed, and decided it was time to leave this place. Ethan rued coming to this place frivolously. It was a place like the Engelstad: not to be trodden upon without good reason.
He turned around and started back toward the Foyer.
As he walked, he heard whispers from his past lives and felt like the walls themselves had grown voices.
He cast his Magic Armor spell, unhappy that he hadn’t thought of it already, and slapped himself in the face as he walked. It was getting into his head, whatever it was, and he needed to snap out of it. Something else was wrong, something hitting him subconsciously, and he hit himself a few more times before he realized what it was.
He heard footsteps somewhere in the darkness behind him. They were soft and gentle, almost like a person in slippers, and when listened he could hear no other sound as they sounded loud in the silence. A second after listening, he heard the door to the library he just passed close gently.
It’s real, he thought. Any real sound is like an explosion compared to what I hear in my head. That was when he thought about the fireplace and wondered again who had lit it.
He didn’t grab his gun, it could still be an illusion and he didn’t want to fire into that. Worse, it could also be a homeless person or some kid hiding in the house or any number of normal and innocent things. He had doubts about those but he still didn’t dare risk firing off his weapon.
He continued back down the hall and then suddenly saw a boy lit by soft lights that weren’t on running toward him. It was a natural shade, he could tell by the fact that he was lit by something that no longer existed, wearing a little boy’s outfit from the 1930s or 1940s complete with brown cap and tall beige socks.
The boy ran through him, of which Ethan felt nothing, and he looked back to see him disappear down around the hall.
He had been running in absolute stark terror.
When Ethan turned back, he jumped, pulled out both pistols, and almost fired at what he saw. He only stopped himself because he realized it was just another shade, also clearly lit by whatever light had been shining down that hall on whatever year early last century that boy had been running by, but it was the scariest thing he had seen by far.
It was the shade of a tall, muscular man wearing a nice dark brown suit with a matching hat. He walked with one hand carrying a large axe, one side having the moon-shaped curved blade one would expect, the other a pointed, deadly spike. The handle of his weapon had metal rings on it for different places to grip, good for one hand in two, and his face could not be seen because he wore a metal Mask of Comedy over it.
What scared the boy wasn’t the axe or the mask. It was what the man carried in his other hand.
It was the head of a young girl who could not have been older than seventeen.
Something had been done to it, some kind of taxidermy or magic because it looked so perfectly preserved it appeared virtually alive. It wasn’t just cut off either. The man had put some kind of brass or bronze cap under her neck as if to transform a human being’s head into a table ornament and was carrying it by a removable hoop that went around the head from that cap. The hoop was carefully made wide as to not upset the finely combed hair and somehow that reminded Ethan of a Halloween jack- o'-lantern.
She had been quite pretty in life, glass eyes replacing real ones but not destroying the sensual, sexy quality of them, with a high cheek-boned super model’s face, a narrow nose and chin, perfect, straight white teeth and luxurious, curled gold hair.
The only thing that marred such beauty was the expression of sheer horror and agony on the girl’s face.
The axe man’s mask had leather that covered his entire head and neck and he wore black gloves so the only things Ethan could tell about him was that he was a man, he was in whatever time period that boy was in, and he was of average-sized build with a decent amount of muscle.
Ethan quickly stepped out of his way and watched him vanish into the hall.
“That was one a step above the rest,” he said softly and found he was genuinely relieved he was gone. He laughed, shook his head, and then heard those footsteps again. He holstered his pistols and then pointed his shotgun light down the hall but there was nothing there.
Nothing at all…
Something could be around the corner he had just passed through. He couldn’t quite tell where the steps were coming from. Just that they were somewhere in that general direction.
Of course, it could also be all in his mind no matter what he thought.
Ethan continued down the hall, resting the shotgun on his shoulder, and then turned to the double doors on his right into the ballroom. He opened it from the hall side and saw candles and torches that had been put up and within, he saw Tudor courtiers dancing.
“Well, son of a bitch,” he said and he tilted his head. It wasn’t personally devastating like Anne Boleyn had been and, that being the case, he found himself more curious than saddened, worried or disturbed.
But when their hands clapped together in their dance it felt like a gunshot had gone off by his head. He stumbled into the frame of the door, eyes wide, and saw flashes of Kent’s life going through his mind. They clapped again and he cried out again as the flashes had come more powerfully.
They were memories, good ones surprisingly, of dancing with his second wife, Katherine Tudor, and their children, and others. He smiled suddenly, half-weeping with joy, then forced himself away. He instantly saw something coming out of the darkness and he was about to raise his gun when he saw what it was.
The girl threw her arms around him and he felt them, genuinely felt them, against his body. “Catherine Howard,” he whispered.
“Protect me! Save me!” Then invisible hands grabbed her and she was yanked back screaming out of his arms and down the hall. She shrieked and held out her arms toward his as she was dragged out of the candlelight into the darkness. “Tell him I’m sorry!” she shrieked at the top of her lungs. “Don’t let him hurt me, Walter! Please, whatever I did, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m SORRRRRRY!”
“Catherine!” he cried out miserably toward the darkness where was she dragged into and then wept for several moments quietly when she was gone. When he stopped and looked back at the courtiers, he saw that they were gone and were instead replaced by a nineteenth-century southern ball dancing a very different dance to very different music to a somewhat better-lit room.
He looked back to where Catherine had gone and then back.
He felt better because he recognized what he saw with a genuine memory that had come from between visions. It actually kind of made him smile albeit sadly.
Once, Thomas Bartlett had gone south with some West Point friends to visit Georgia. What he was seeing in Beechwood was the very same debutante ball he had witnessed one night while there. It looked, like Henry VIII’s court, part reality and part dream, and everyone seemed as if they were content to act out as if they were in a wondrous and magical fantasy world.
Like Henry’s court, the southern states’ had a kind of knightly behavior they believed or pretended to believe in and they generally strived to imitate it. Men were expected to be brave and honorable, women were expected to be proper and elegant and like in a court, both could impress an outsider on sight, the women especially. Aside from masterful use of makeup and hairstyling, they wore the most fantastic dresses and the debutant herself at that ball, center stage every moment, seemed to glow like a second sun as she danced with men far more handsome, and Southern, than Thomas had been.
Life in court and the South was a wonderful, never-ending pageant of love and happiness.
At least, they were for those who were members.
His friend was Robert Carnie and his father, Robert Carnie Sr., had been seeking a northern connection for quite some time and decided one day to utilize Thomas Bartlett’s friendship with his son. He had been one of the Southerners who did not believe war was coming and, never dreaming the states would ever separate, he had been interested in connecting his strong Southern family to a strong northern one. That was the real reason Thomas had found himself visiting the Carnie’s plantation in Georgia one summer but it had not gone quite as well as Mr. Carnie had hoped.
Although no one was particularly mean, or even impolite for that matter, the undercurrent of dislike and distaste for the Yankee brood was clear in every man, woman, child and even some of the house slaves.
Whatever Mr. Carnie’s ideas were for the women of his family, they had others. While they were incredibly fond of West Pointers, Southern heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were all West Pointers themselves, they felt they would rather die a horrible, agonizing death than find themselves married to some short, ugly Yankee from one the Yankiest places in the north.
Robert Jr. had introduced him to his sisters, Marlene Leanne who was incredibly gorgeous and her sister, Sarah Anne, who was almost just as beautiful. The elder was a redhead, the younger a blonde, and both were so slim, perfect and petite they could have stepped out a Renaissance painting.
They had been polite as always but had made it quite clear that nothing short of a Southern gentleman of the highest standing would do for any. The implication that he wasn’t even remotely close came from the murmurs, side-glances and the occasional direct look that might have passed for sneers from everyone who knew exactly why he was there.
Ethan’s thoughts were interrupted by a flash of destruction flying through his mind.
He had gone back there once later. It was sometime during the war after his last vision and he had seen their home’s altered, ruined form and he had also seen one of the sisters much changed but he couldn’t remember which sister it was or exactly what condition she had been in when he found her.
Then the flash was gone, as quick as it came, and Ethan felt that if he spent too much more time in that house, he would probably go completely insane.
He looked into the ballroom and saw the last dance had died down and a new one was about to begin. He thought he heard something again from down the hall, looked with little interest, saw nothing, then looked back to see one of the sisters standing near the doorway by a brightly lit lamp. “Hello Marlene,” he said. “I’m actually in a haunted house seeing you a hundred and fifty years later, long after you died, so whatever you say probably won’t mean much.” He leaned harder against the frame, feeling suddenly so lightheaded and unbalanced that his feet almost slipped out from under him. “There are voices above me, footsteps down the hall, visions like yourself of long-dead people and a man hanging from the ceiling of my music room.” He grinned at her and felt like weeping some more. “Something is in here with me. Something in the dark.” He shook his head. “I can’t save you any more than I can save myself.”
“I would be honored,” Marlene lied, “To accept your dance.”
“I,” he said, “Do not believe you.” And then he looked past her. “Here we have a ballroom in the nineteenth-century America,” he said in an announcer’s voice. “Here we have the dream that was once the Old South.” Thomas had been glad, even grateful, that he had a chance to see it. He had worked on the railroads heading west with his uncle so he could see the Indian nations for himself as well and he had become forever grateful to have seen them both once, however briefly, before they were dropped off into history never to be seen again.
The Old South, the great Indian nations and Tudor England were all long gone. They were no more real to the denizens of 2012 than the Roman Empire.
“And all we got now in its place are shopping malls,” he added bitterly and then shook his head as he looked at the people dancing. “‘Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...’” He sneered even as quoted the film Gone with the Wind and added, “Easy for anyone who’s white to say,” to himself.
He shut his eyes tightly, calmed himself, and when he reopened them everyone was gone and all that remained was an empty ballroom lit by the moonlight from the windows across the hall. He turned from it and walked away feeling rather hollow inside.
It was time to leave but as he stepped into the foyer again, he found himself instead again walking up the stairs to the giant window and, then showing the real world, he looked down at the forest to the north. As he looked out into the darkness and snow, he thought he saw a light out in the trees beyond.
That was when he heard those footsteps moving up and then stopping behind him at the foot of the stairs. He heard the wood of the stairs creaking below the weight of someone as they crept up the stairs. For reasons unknown, he felt no fear of the apparitions yet the simple sound of footsteps sent shivers up his spine. They were suddenly creepier to him than even the paintings above which he believed, at least in his mind, were really moving and talking to him somehow. They spoke to him at that moment in fact.
“Run away!” hissed a voice from above. “Run now! Run fast!”
“Shut up!” snarled another voice from above as well.
“Run!” the first voice hissed again. “Run for your life!”
“He can’t outrun her,” snarled gruff voice from earlier stated simply. “He’s dead already! He just doesn’t know it yet!”
“Clichéd line,” Ethan said and his right hand found his pistol while he turned around. When he saw what was down there, he didn’t pull out his weapon and did not feel particularly afraid although some part of him said he really should be. Something was off about what he saw, something that made Anne Boleyn’s appearance feel normal by comparison.
There at the bottom of the stairs was a woman who stood just enough in the moonlight from various windows to reveal seventy percent of her lower body, her head and shoulders completely in shadow. She was wearing a black mourning dress from the 1880s or so, her hands white with long, pointy nails, and she stood there as still as a mannequin just staring up at him from that shadow that covered her upper head and body.
And then he recognized her and felt relief wash all over him. He opened his mouth to speak and started to take a step forward.
“I wouldn’t,” said the gruff voice from above.
He stopped, closed his mouth and stepped back. The woman raised one pale, long, limber left arm, slowly turned it upside down and then made a gentle fist. Then, her index finger began to curl: back and forth, forth and back, then back and forth again.
She was beckoning him toward her.
“What are you doing!” hissed that first voice from above again. “Run away!”
When the woman saw that he wasn’t going to come to her, her hand went back down to her side and both hands opened and closed tightly as if she was getting ready to do something physical and when they closed for the last time, he heard every joint in her hands crack in unison.
He made a shrugging gesture as if to say, “Are you going to say or do something?” but the woman only stared at him. Then he sighed and thought he maybe knew what the spell did. Maybe it made one vision, one person, very realistically solid, more so than even Catherine Howard was. It probably could hurt him, maybe even kill him, but if she was just a memory why would she? She was a bitch, yeah, but murder wasn’t in her nature.
And why her, for that matter? If killing him via a vision of a past life was the purpose of Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard or Thomas’s mother would have infinitely better chances of catching him off guard than her.
The woman’s body language, though subtle, indicated she really was going to do something. It began with her raising her hands, which held out her nails like claws, and she took a step up the stairs. The weight of her body made the steps creak again and suddenly Ethan was scared. He knew something was very wrong and felt that maybe it was not in his head. He could be wrong, of course, but if he wasn’t, the only courses available seemed to either talk with the woman or fight with her.
Fighting would have been his first choice but the paintings had indicated a formidability in her that he was detecting but did not understand, so he chose the other path and said the very first thing that popped into his mind.
“Hello Regan,” he said.
The woman stopped dead, only two steps up, her face somehow still covered in darkness with her hands outstretched for him. The hands lowered a little, the expression unseen, but something about her tightened body language said that she was very surprised.
“What—” her lands lowered down “—did you just call me?” Her voice was the same but not the same. It was hard, cold, without a trace of an accent and something else. The word “old” came to Ethan after a moment. The word “hollow” came next but Ethan wasn’t sure.
“How you doing, baby?” he asked and he took a step toward her. She stepped back and he heard a surprised intake of breath from above in the darkness. She’s real, he thought suddenly. I don’t know how she’s here or what she really is but an illusion she is not. The thought that the illusions were meant to disarm, distract or weaken him for the real monster crossed his mind and he was suddenly very worried and tried to mentally prepare himself for a fight.
He also thought about squeezing his eyes shut for a moment and see if she would vanish like the ballroom dancers but he was afraid she wouldn’t.
“You will tell me who you are and how you know my name,” she said in a dead voice that hit him like a hammer hitting wood. “I will not ask you twice.”
Ethan felt a headache coming and didn’t know what to think.
“You don’t recognize me? Even Anne Boleyn recognized me.” When she didn’t answer that he said, “You know when I came back from the war, I couldn’t find you. I looked and asked but no one knew where you were or if they did, they would not say.” As far as his visions and memories could say, the last time he spoke to her was by the church after his brother’s wedding. He had seen her around many times before leaving but she refused to speak to him. Beechwood showed him Anne Boleyn as a grown woman and Catherine Howard, who wasn’t even born for a decade or so after his latest vision, but there was nothing up there from Beechwood about Regan Kavanagh. “What the fuck am I looking at?” he asked.
Regan just stared at him from the darkness. The only thing he could see was the twitching of her hands and the only thing he could hear was that insane, awkward quiet. She had never been even a little quiet before let alone that quiet.
Ethan cast his Torch spell, tossed it at her feet, and saw the familiar face filled with an insane level of rage and bitterness with the addition of an utterly predatory glare in her eyes. Her countenance was hinting at so much aggression he actually stepped back from her on instinct.
“Obviously, something serious has happened to you since last we met and obviously you never quite caught that rich husband—” her eyes narrowed “—but at least you’re still pretty.” That she did not like and her old expression of annoyance crossed. “There you are,” he added with a smile.
“What do you know about me, boy?” she asked in that dead voice again.
“You asked twice—”
“That is a third question, boy,” she replied simply.
“Well, where do I begin,” he said. “I know you fucked Malcolm Anderson but if he promised he was going to marry you, he was certainly lying—” The look she gave him was of such incredulous surprise and shock that he laughed aloud.
She blinked and actually smiled back but it was a strange, distant smile of a woman who did not smile often. That was odd because although Thomas had been one of the very few people who could make her smile when she did not want to she had often been happy and often smiled.
It was also odd because what he was said wasn’t funny.
He went up to the rail and leaned on it while looking down at her and she looked up at him looking very much like she used to with a kind of surprised, sad expression on her face. “So, what’s eating you, Regan?”
Her look turned dark and the smile became an unfamiliar one of near evil. He didn’t use that word lightly but that was what it thought he saw: a malicious and evil smile. “Nothing eats me,” she replied and then that dark smile grew bigger. He noted that she was very pale, like corpse-level pale.
“Why don’t you recognize me?” He turned his head away for a second. “Every summoning spell is linked with horror. I wonder if it’s so real in my mind it’s actually imitating—” he turned back and she was an inch from his face. “Hi there,” he said, his left hand resting casually on his hip by his gun. He had not heard her come up the creaky stairs although he heard it creaking from her weight below now that she had gotten up there.
“In this rare moment,” she said in a sultry, seductive way that was painfully her, “I would like to grant you the distinct honor of asking you a question twice.” That evil smile grew yet even bigger and it was no longer amused exactly. “Who are you, how do you know my name and what do you actually know about me that isn’t unsubstantiated gossip?”
“You were never a nice girl but this vision is getting out of hand—”
Her smile slipped away and her eyes grew very hard. “I’m not going to ask you a third time, boy.”
“My name is Ethan Bartlett—” she let an ahh sound as if that explained a lot “—once I was a—” she looked at her hand and checked her nails as if they were knives to be examined “—a courtier for King Henry VIII—” she looked at Ethan with sudden curiosity and he remembered that Thomas had told her about that “—and you would know me as Thomas Benjamin Bartlett.”
She just looked at him, her expression unchanged. “Say that again,” she said.
“I said, ‘say that again.’ ”
Ethan looked around and felt a strange emptiness in the room. The other visions were gone and he looked up and saw the paintings were still as if they were normal so all that was left was the girl. He was alone with Regan Kavanagh. “No,” he said and he stepped back.
“I think you’re lying,” Regan told him. “This upsets me. I do very bad things to people when I am upset.”
“Gee and golly, you sure changed a lot,” he replied.
“You don’t know me but before tonight is over, you certainly will. Perhaps, if you tell me everything right now, I’ll let you die quickly.”
“Creepy,” he replied.
When she looked at Ethan, he saw in her eyes that she was mentally checking out, her face glazing over as she prepared for something unpleasant. He found that by then she had become so familiar he was utterly unafraid but he thought maybe should have been. Maybe, he said mentally with a half-mad laugh, I should have been running out of this place in stark terror.
He found himself very worried about how she hadn’t vanished like the other visions.
“What do I have to do to prove this?” he asked. “Talk about that stupid tree in August?” She looked at him in jaw-dropped, hilarious surprise. “Oh you thought I forgot about that, didn’t you? I wanted to go to town. I wanted to buy my mother a present. I’m minding my own business and then it’s suddenly raining little girls. Why were you climbing that stupid fucking tree anyway—” she stepped back and stared at him in horror “—oh relax, you dumb fucking bimbo. It was over a hundred and fifty years ago and I caught you anyway.”
He turned around and felt his head spinning.
“This is a fucking wild ride,” he added and he walked up toward the window. He stumbled and hit it with a thud. “Ow. Fuck. Shit. Ow!” He steadied himself and felt his jaw. “Here I am, in the House of Dark Shadows with the clumsiest Irishwoman ever to live. Fully knowing she was clumsy, she decided to climb the tallest tree around in a goddamn dress.”
He cried out in something. Maybe rage. Maybe misery. He wasn’t sure he cared anymore.
“Why are all my lives full of batshit crazy women? Did the Rat Pack have this problem? Did Frank Sinatra deal with insane women like this? I could be a member of the Rat Pack. I could also be Tony Stark and—”
“Thomas is dead!” Regan hissed from behind.
He looked back at her for a moment, startled at a cat, or maybe snake-like sound, that had come from her, and groaned loudly in annoyance. “Oh, you’re still here! Goddamn it all!”
“You tell me exactly what I whispered to Thomas Bartlett when he caught me!” she hissed.
“No, I—” he recalled quite well what she had said to him and shook his head “—I don’t remember. I—don’t.” He shook his head again. “I damn near broke my ankle and you ran off to find comfort in Malcolm Anderson but you didn’t sleep with him just then.” She turned around and hid her expression from him. “I do remember the feeling of your breasts against my chest. That was nice.”
“Don’t you mock me, boy!”
“I’m not mocking you,” he told her. “That was all you ever gave me.” He lowered his eyes and remembered coming up below her and asking, Are you seriously climbing that damn thing?
Yes and shut up, you little sissy, she had replied.
I like climbing trees as much as the next man but I only voice my concern because you’re not exactly dressed for— she lost her grip, her completely wrong shoes for climbing slipped and she shrieked and fell. Damn it, Regan! he cried and threw himself under her. He caught her, twisted his ankle badly, and screamed in agony, having almost certainly saved her from an impact on her head, neck or back. You stupid, stupid brat, you!
Ethan felt Regan creeping up behind him.
He sighed and, in a mocking Irish accent, said, “‘I love you. Why can’t you be beautiful? I love you.’” He laughed bitterly. “You were such an incredible bitch! You went right to that pretty boy Malcolm and left me limping home like the world’s biggest asshole!” He could see at all like it was yesterday: the endless gray sky, the dark brown tree, and the stupid girl falling to the world below with a beautiful green dress flapping in the wind as she had flown down right into his arms and onto his ankle. “You stupid, stupid bimbo, you!”
When he turned around, he saw she was not behind him at all but at the rail still and her body was moving up in down as she tried to stop herself from crying.
“Tommy—” she whimpered, “Tommy, will you marry me?”
He scoffed. “No!” She turned, hissed at him but then saw him holding out his arms with a smile. “See!” he cried. “It’s not funny when it happens to you!” He laughed and then she laughed too, a merry, happy laugh that filled the entire foyer. “Feeling better?”
She bit her lower lip, that old familiar gesture from when she was a child and nodded. “Yes, I do,” she told him and then she looked up at him sadly. She was about to say more, than she tilted her head as if she heard something, and sneered in that earlier evil way. Ethan stepped past her, looked through the darkness, and then looked back.
Regan was gone.
“Oh thank God,” he said. “I can’t handle any more-oh somebody is standing down there.” He was already holding his pistol with its safety off by the time he had finished saying that, his instincts taking over completely.
He stepped down the stairs with his pistol ready and saw several figures standing in the dark near the entrance and these he knew were indeed real.
“You,” said a voice from the darkness. “You killed my son.”
“‘It’s possible. I kill a lot of people.’” Ethan made a “yes” motion with his body because he had always wanted to say that. “Who was your son?”
“His name was Rory,” said the voice.
“Perhaps you remember my sisters,” said a familiar female voice. “The one aged to a crone and the other missing a hand.”
“Or perhaps my little brother,” said another man’s voice.
“Oh fuck me,” Ethan said and he fired his Torch spell up above the center of the foyer and finished stepping off stairs with his gun pointed in the general direction of four people standing along the entrance’s wall near the door.
One was the older man with straight dark gray hair and a short beard from Hamilton Hall carrying a rifle with a short blade at his side, a familiar dark-haired woman carrying a pistol with a younger woman beside and slightly behind her, and another man in his twenties with dark curly hair carrying a shotgun.
“Let me guess,” Ethan said and he gestured to the older man with his head. “You’re Rory Upton’s father—” he gestured at the girl “—you’re my best girl Julia—” he gestured to the girl behind her “—another one of her bitch sisters—” he gestured at the other man “—and you are—” he shrugged “—who are you?”
“Alan Thorne’s brother,” he told him.
“Oh him,” replied Ethan and he shrugged. “Why are we about to do this exactly?”
“You murdered my son,” said Upton coldly.
“I did some crazy things in the woods that day but murdering your son was not one of them.”
“So you say,” he replied but it was clear he did not believe him.
Thorne took a step forward, his shotgun held ready, but not aimed, in his hands. “This place is covered in cameras but we cut the power to all of them,” he stated.
“You’re surrounded, Bartlett,” said Julia. “Bellator women are all over this place.”
“We’re going to kill you,” said Thorne. “Probably slowly but there are things we should talk about first.”
You should have just fired the instant you saw me, he thought. “I really don’t think this house was the best choice to have this fight in.”
“This house is evil,” said Upton. “There’s no better house to murder someone in.”
“I’d admit that seems true and I would normally agree but—” Ethan’s eyes moved around the room for a moment “—stick around for a while. You’ll see.”
Honestly, he was surprised it took this long for something to come up from Rory Upton and Alan Thorne. Two young men, perfectly healthy and trained in combat, vanish into the Engelstad and not, until that moment, had he even been so much as even questioned about it.
He suspected Upton and Thorne had bothered the Bartlett Bay Police about it but the moment someone somehow would have mentioned those woods, they would receive only silence or dodges. That would not be the end of course because they did not know what those woods were really like. Sooner or later, when they exhausted all the normal routes, they would have come looking for him personally and they finally had.
Julia sneered at him and then when the girl behind her tried to speak she hushed her. She was equally beautiful and incredibly scared and possibly sensed what was in the house. “You should be dead right now, Bartlett,” Julia told him. “I would have killed you, you understand, but I need to know if you have another potion like the one you gave Sleeping Beauty and probably Sissy Spacek.”
“Maybe,” he replied. So that was the real reason he was still alive.
“Do you have it on you?” she asked.
“Who were you talking to before we came?” asked the girl behind her.
“Just a girl I used to know who she wasn’t really here, I think. Maybe.” He grinned, despite everything, and added, “Even women with breasts as nice as hers still tend to lose their looks in their hundreds.” They just stared. “Feeling it, don’t you? It’s why we really haven’t started something.”
“The pictures!” squeaked Julia’s sister. “They’re looking at me!”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot!” hissed Julia.
“No, they are,” said Ethan. “When you start hearing the sound of screaming don’t be surprised if it’s your own.” The girl looked scared and they didn’t fire or act yet for some reason.
“Very poetic,” Upton told him but there was a hint of discomfort in him. “You do understand that you aren’t getting out of here unless we get satisfactory answers and that potion?”
“Again,” he said, “This is not the wisest place to try and kill me.” His hands twitched but he did not directly aim his gun. Upton was watching him very closely and he sensed he was no amateur in combat.
Julia’s sister shrieked suddenly. “Shut up!” she cried and she clutched her head. “No, no, no! Shut up, shut up!”
“What the fuck have you done to my sister?” cried Julia.
“I told you—” Upton made a move and Ethan jerked instantly to the right toward the hall that went around the dining room. Upton was good and the bullet scraped him across his left arm in such a way that he had not jerked to the side just in time it would have probably shot him through the lung or the heart.
Ethan fired three times in quick succession while sidestepping and then he charged across the room. Upton was hit first, but he was armored and it did nothing or very little. Thorne was hit second, also armored and hitting harmlessly, while Julia had dodged him. The shot had startled everyone but Upton though, so they had not managed to fire anything until he was rushing down the hallway.
Upton hadn’t flinched and he fired five more times at Ethan’s back as he charged, missing each time, but the last was so close that when it hit the corner of the hall it had only missed Ethan’s head by an inch or less.
Ethan stumbled a bit, his left shoulder agony after that rifle shot, and then went onward in a straight charge. Clearly, Upton, unlike his son, knew exactly what he was doing and it felt like it was pure luck he wasn’t dead already.
When Ethan turned a corner, he grabbed his healing potion with his left hand, popped open the top and drank it while moving.
That was the exact moment the wall to his right opened and something white with red eyes and claws leaped out at him. He fired on instinct, pummeling it full of holes, and then almost gagged when he saw it was both clothed like a man and still standing after he unloaded the entire clip into it.
It didn’t look dying, it looked stunned, and then when it started to move forward, Ethan kicked it in the chest and sent went flying back into the darkness. It hit a very steep flight of stairs and tumbled head over heels down dozens of them before Ethan heard it crash hard at the bottom.
He cast his Torch spell down there, saw the long wooden stairs leading down in the darkness to the hard earthen ground, and for a split second, he also saw the legs of the thing as it scrambled out the light.
Ethan stood there for a moment, gun barrel smoking, and felt the inserted Beechwood memories helping him recall the building passageways under the house. Thomas had been thrilled by the idea of secret passageways in secret castles in old gothic stories and putting them in had simply been something “fun” to do.
He stepped forward pulled the lever down with his left hand, and the wall shut behind him.
Ethan took out his empty magazine and inserted a full one as he stepped down toward the bauble of light. At the bottom, where the last six steps had been broken by the creature’s falling, he jumped down and then heard the creature scramble farther away down the passageway.
There was suspiciously no blood anywhere: not on the steps, not the walls, not even on the ground where it had landed.
Yet he had very clearly put holes in the thing that had attacked him.
The hall turned only one way and so he cast another Torch spell down that direction and saw the creature standing at the edge of the light looking at him.
It looked just like a slender young man, his age or a little younger, with short dark hair, dark eyes with a pretty boy face wearing the remains of a dark suit, the holes in his chest through the shirt blazingly obvious and bright red yet also without any blood. It held up its arm immediately against the light and opened its mouth in a hiss to reveal two snake-like fangs instead of canines.
“Oh fuck me,” Ethan said softly and he placed his gun in its holster.
“Man, you gotta help me!” it told him and when it lowered its arm its eyes were glowing red again. “I didn’t mean to attack you, you know! I can’t help it! I just—I just can’t!”
Ethan’s hands were by his side and he gently took a step toward it. “I understand,” he said and he wasn’t lying. “What’s your story, exactly?”
“I was just swimming on Fisher Street—”
Ethan suddenly knew. The creature inside the secret crypt had gotten it and then he even recognized it because its picture had been plastered on the newspapers and the news as it had been one of the dead bodies that been found floating face first in the water by that church. It must have risen from its grave and it was even wearing the suit its family had buried it in.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Ethan said.
“I’m sick, man!” it told him and then it took one step closer. “I’ve got problems! I woke up in fucking darkness!”
“Darkness,” Ethan said with wide eyes, “Is where you’ll stay.”
The thing looked him over and its face darkened. “Buddy, I think you can help me out,” it said.
Ethan looked it straight in its red eyes and said calmly, “This is where you attack me, dude.”
It hissed like a snake and jerked toward him like a rabid animal. Ethan grabbed his blade, whipped it out, and sent its head flying off its shoulders to where it hit a wall and bounced off into the darkness. Once again, not even from the arteries at its neck, there was no blood but the creature was dead for the second time and permanently and its body fell to the ground without even a twitch. Few things could survive being decapitated and even the undead were not typically among them.
Ethan made the runes on his sword glow orange and started into the labyrinth under his past life incarnation’s home.
“This turned out to be a strange night,” he said to himself and then he felt that summoning effect still manipulating him. “Just fucking wonderful,” he added and then he jumped as he suddenly heard a woman scream from somewhere close by in the labyrinth. It was a terrified, high-pitched scream that ended far too quickly.
A monster got a Bellator woman.
He soon heard more screams, gunshots from above, and thuds, slams and whacks that sounded crazily violent. He was astounded by that: he had just been up there and he had been almost certain nothing real was there. The Order of the Autumn Rose and the women of the Bellator Mulieres, both dangerous and successful hunters, sounded like they were being wholesale slaughtered by whatever was up there.
Ethan moved through the halls toward the first scream, not too far below the other side of the stage, but all he saw when he arrived was a small bit of blood. She was gone, another fanged monster having gotten her and dragged her away off somewhere into the dark.
He looked back up at the sounds that were going quickly quiet.
What was happening up there?
* * *
Julia unloaded a clip into one of the undead when they appeared, her face filled with terror. “Vera!” she shrieked but she received no answer. Her sister had been behind her one minute and then gone another.
One of her Bellator non-blood sisters screamed as a young man thing with red eyes appeared out from a wall, bit her in the neck from behind, and dragged her down through the opening in the wall that had just appeared.
Julia quickly dropped her empty clip, put in a full one, and tried to fire but the girl was gone from sight before the gun could go off. As she rushed forward, her Bellator sister’s body was dropped out of the secret door, pale as a ghost at the feet of a boy who looked to Julia’s eyes like he was in absolute ecstasy.
“Lady,” the handsome blond undead boy said, “Just kill me. Just fucking please, please, kill me.”
Julia raised her gun and fired. His forehead sported a new hole and he fell backward down the stairs that were there. She went to the edge and fired into the darkness where he rolled, confident she was hitting him.
Bartlett is my curse! her mind screamed. Every time she confronted him, directly or indirectly, a sister was maimed, killed or lost. She looked around for her companions and realized she was alone and it had suddenly become very quiet. “Where is everyone?” She looked back down and she realized that her sister must have been down there. If she weren’t, she would have responded to her call. “Damn you, Bartlett!” she cried.
She heard the younger man’s, Thorne’s, shotgun fire off once and then the silence returned.
It was a very bad idea to come there but who could’ve known that. Bartlett couldn’t have set that up, he wasn’t that cunning, and it was her mother’s idea to attack him there besides. One sister was aged, another was crippled, a third had turned traitor and now one had vanished and it was all, somehow, his fault.
Everything had been perfect before Ethan Bartlett came into their lives.
Julia pulled that out of her head along with everything else. She might come off as a monster, Bartlett wasn’t the first to think so, but she loved her sisters and she would die for them. If that’s what it took to save them, it would happen, simple as that, and she had no time for second thoughts or regrets.
So she reloaded her gun, took it in both hands, and started down the stairs. Her pistol had a flashlight on it and she turned it as she went down.
* * *
Ethan moved through the maze-like hallways with disturbing certainty of his way until he found a heavy door. He had stopped only once when heard a young woman call out the name “Vera” but then that had turned so instantly and ominously silent that he then continued on to that door without exploring it.
As he reached for its handle, he heard a scuffle right behind him. He turned quickly but saw only the shade of a petite, mousy-looking woman pulling something toward him. He knew it was another natural shade because, like the man with the axe and head, he did not recognize whom he saw and her dim lighting was from a different time’s light source. Candle, he would guess.
She was wearing a mousey brown 1940s dress with a matching round hat and was dragging a very young nearly unconscious black boy wearing overalls and a white shirt with holes by one arm toward the door. She was grinning maniacally as she went and that was when Ethan saw that her other hand was holding out a large, old-fashioned hypodermic needle that looked to have been used.
Ethan found himself remembering a small section of a Black Family’s History of Bartlett Bay by Noah Waddell. He had talked, almost casually, it seemed, about rumors and tales heard around bars and the local barbershop from local blacks. More than a few had mentioned the disappearances in the early half of the nineteenth century. As few as two or as much as several dozen black children were supposed to have disappeared, one mentioning the house by name, never to be seen again and then he went on to a different subject. Noah Waddell knew or would say nothing more on the subject.
Madge Michaeladis was the one name someone mentioned. She owned the house at the time and in the few other parts of Noah Waddell’s history where her name came up next, he mentioned there were rumors about her insanity.
She had probably used that needle to drug the boy as he was not dying, struggling weakly as he was being taken toward the door. The woman had already opened it in her time because in Ethan’s time she walked through its wood as if it was opaque mist. Then, inexplicably, she gave out a creepy, near-insane and almost hysterical witch’s cackle as she dragged the boy through the door after herself, his bare feet’ toes vanishing last.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Ethan said softly and then he opened the door and saw it just led to some kind of cellar room. “That laugh…” He had never heard its like, not in that life or any other, but it reminded him a lot of Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West laugh from The Wizard of Oz but it was too hysterically insane sounding to belong to any woman remotely like Margaret Hamilton.
She had not been a crazed psychotic. In fact, if memory served, she had been a pleasant and kind woman who had devoted her life to children. That Madge woman was not acting and to Ethan’s ears, she seemed to shriek genuine insanity.
As for the cellar, it looked simply normal, something Thomas Bartlett used for nothing and may have intended for something but never got around to it. Perhaps it was just an idea that never took off or perhaps it was just a hangout. Whatever it was, it was below the foyer and its fireplace shared the same tube as the one above.
He saw them after a few quick moments. Four of the creatures with glowing ready eyes crouched in a corner and, nearby were six dirty old coffins that were probably the very ones they were buried in. They were all young men, several covered in blood, looking at him like a man-eating tiger looks at its prey.
Then the door opposite Ethan’s opened and Upton entered into the room, his sword out as well and the runes on his glowing bright purple.
There was an awkward pause with everyone looking at everyone else.
“Kill them!” hissed one of the creatures and before it could do anything more Ethan and Upton rushed toward them.
Ethan took the speaker’s head off first, Upton stabbed another when it jumped at him, knocked a third over, and then ripped his blade out in such a way that it tore out more flesh. Ethan stabbed a fourth and Upton chopped off the third’s head almost as soon as he pulled his blade free of the second. The one Upton knocked over jumped up and rushed at Ethan and he fired a lightning bolt into its chest. When it stumbled, Upton came up behind it and chopped off its head while Ethan swung his blade around and decapitated the one Upton had stabbed before.
It had all been less than a few seconds.
They then turned onto each other without even a slight pause, the fluid motion of two professional dancers moving in sync, and when their blades clashed it sent sparks of purple-orange out as if they were two pieces of flint being rubbed across each other.
“You killed my son!” Upton cried in an instant when they were tangled and Ethan knew somewhere on him was a golden rose: the symbol of the Order of the Autumn Rose, a hunting guild slash knighthood that Ethan recalled his son had claimed to have been a part of.
“I did not kill your son!” Ethan told him. It was technically true: he was already dead when Ethan was forced to destroy him.
Upton attacked him as violently as he could and he was getting through Ethan’s defenses: his sword was smaller and they were too close, too confined, and he was too well trained.
Ethan got through, cutting him across the shoulder, and Upton got through to him, cutting him down from the shoulder across the chest. Neither were injured, they were protected by their armor, but Ethan managed to get a few steps back.
“He was turned into a zombie and tried to murder me,” Ethan told him holding out his sword at him at its full length. “I didn’t even want to even kill his corpse but then it was made a much easier choice since your son was an idiotic borderline psychopath.”
Upton pointed his blade back at him and the enchantment runes on its sides, almost the exact same version Ethan had, glowed purple. He said simply, “You killed my son and my best friend’s son and now I’m going to kill you.” He swung at Ethan who jumped back up a bit. “Those boys may not have been the nicest kids alive but they did not deserve to die.”
“Stick around Bartlett Bay for a while,” Ethan told him. “See the sights, wander the woods, and maybe if you’re really unlucky, you’ll find the monster who really killed your son. It has a lot more to answer for than I do.”
“You can do better than that.”
“The truth is ever so overrated—” Ethan fired an ice shard at Upton who parried it competently aside with magic and then threw a purple fireball almost casually back. Ethan knocked it aside but, luckily, it didn’t explode. It just happened to be fire in the shape of a ball. If it had been the exploding kind, they might both have been buried alive.
“Nice try,” said Upton and then he rushed forward. Ethan defended himself but Upton had a beat on his style by then, a blade that was, due to its size, better for fighting in a small area like the cellar, and, as it was quickly becoming apparent, he might well be the better swordsman.
As he started to force Ethan backward, he spoke.
“My son died never knowing how proud I was of him!” Upton told him, his eyes locked on him, filled with both pain and rage. He swung hard and Ethan had to jerk back too many times, once almost stumbling on the fireplace’s corner where had he done so even slightly, he would have almost certainly made a fatal opening in his defense. “He thought because he couldn’t master magic he wasn’t a real man in my eyes! He died thinking I didn’t love him!”
Well, that explained why he hated Ethan so much so quickly.
“Do you really think we should do this here?” Ethan cried, barely holding his ground.
“Now that you’re losing, yes!” He got through, scratched Ethan across the side of the neck, and Ethan barely managed to avoid getting his neck slit. “You think this is the first undead I’ve killed, boy!” he cried. “You’re not the first smart-mouthed little punk I’ve killed either.” Ethan felt himself tiring and he knew if he slowed down even slightly Upton would get through.
Upton knew it too and he was waiting for it.
Ethan started firing lightning and ice shards at him as he moved around the back of the fireplace and Upton knocked each aside easily. “No easy win there, Bartlett,” he told him.
“We think alike, Mike and—” Upton made a surprise move when Ethan parried, almost knocking his sword away, and Ethan had to throw himself too quickly backward, that time stumbling over a coffin.
He scrambled quickly around to the doorway where Upton had entered and grabbed the door. He threw it open as he came forward, the blade hitting solidly into its wood, and then Upton followed Ethan around it and fired a lightning bolt at his back as he charged down the dark hallway.
Ethan turned, knocked it aside, turned back around and sprinted. Upton was quick on his trail, charging like a bull after a flag.
Out there, it was a smaller area and Upton’s smaller blade was an even better advantage. Ethan wanted to grab his dagger or a gun but he would be dead before he got close so he had to turn and fight off Upton with his too-big sword in a too-small area.
Upton came on too hard, Ethan tried to surprise him by rushing at him, and suddenly the two were suddenly tangled. Instantly, Upton slammed him in the face with his forehead and Ethan sliced the blade out awkwardly across Upton’s chest. It had done nothing, just scratched across the armor, but Upton dropped his guard for a moment, unaware that Ethan was able to ignore the pain of a nearly broken nose.
Ethan didn’t attack like Upton expected, he wouldn’t have gotten through anyway, and he retreated down the hall at nearly full speed around the back area of Beechwood’s foyer. He came to a stone wall on the north side that caught his attention. He almost ran past it, looking at it strangely, then turned and saw Upton’s purple blade’s light approaching from around the corner.
He laughed, elbowed back. He grunted in pain, remembering only then that he was much shorter as Thomas, and then scooted down and elbowed lower. Something clicked with his elbow and then he reached up and stuck his fingers into five holes that had appeared with the opening of a secret compartment.
“What are you doing?” asked Upton as he appeared around the corner.
“I don’t know,” Ethan replied. “I really don’t.” It felt like a half-truth. He didn’t know but Thomas Bartlett did.
He turned the latch with his fingers in a clockwise manner, back again and then once more and when he felt the wall unlock behind him, he pressed his feet against the ground and pushed it back. He felt it spreading widely and easily behind him. As he started to disappear within, he gave Upton a salute with his left hand’s index and forefinger.
Upton rushed forward suddenly and Ethan startled him by rushing back. The room behind him gave him a little more room to swing his blade, the door itself almost five feet wide, and Upton was caught uncharacteristically off guard.
Ethan managed to get through his defense across Upton’s side and shoved him into the wall. As Upton fell over, he then threw himself backward into the opening and then slammed the door shut behind him. Even though it was a door made of stone, its hinges made it swing as easily as if it was made of softwood and it slammed shut before Upton could get something between it and the frame.
His sword would have worked perfectly had it been longer.
Instantly he heard the sound of Upton slamming his blade handle into it from the other side. “You killed my son, you son of a—”
Everything stopped rather abruptly. No screams, no bangs, no anything and he wasn’t trying to manipulate the controls to open the door either, as Ethan heard no clicks, clacks or bangs to imply such.
One of them got him, he thought but he found that doubtful. He was a very formidable fighter and if they did get him, they were going to get hurt in the process and make a lot of noise all the while.
So what happened? He blinked a few times and found no answer came to mind. Then he shrugged and decided he didn’t really care at this point. He sheathed his sword, took out his shotgun, turned on its flashlight and sarcastically said, “Well that was just what I fucking needed.”
He took out another healing potion, drank it down, and felt the wound on his neck and nose close up with a stinging sensation along with various bruises and cuts that he had not realized he had. He then took a deep breath, pointed his shotgun in both hands, and looked down its tunnel of light at what was laid out before him.
It was just a tunnel into darkness walled in stone.
Of course, it was obviously more than that, but his head was starting to throb again and he couldn’t remember quite what it really was. It was a secret tunnel within a secret tunnel, which meant that its end, for better or for worse, contained something interesting.
That, he suddenly felt certain, was the real pull for him. Whatever he was looking for he would find there.
Ethan started forward and the tunnel began to turn randomly for what felt like a long time. He quickly lost his sense of direction, assuming that he had one to begin with, but he was not lost because it never had any forks in it. It was one path that went, albeit crookedly, toward something.
He took one turn to the left and the flashlight caught onto a figure standing there.
It was tall, powerful man in a silver doublet, white hose leggings and gold and black garters. All he wore on top was a white shirt meant to go under his clothes, open to reveal the hard muscle of his athletic upper body, and he was breathing heavily after some kind of sport, possibly royal tennis.
He was disturbingly beautiful, a dark reddish-gold-haired man with sweated hair slicked back standing over six feet tall, virtually perfect physically and especially in the legs, popular to be shown off on men in those days. He was beardless then, around eighteen or so, and while Walter would have praised him with the eyes of a contemporary and in awe of royalty. Even modern-day Ethan was impressed by his physical beauty.
Something about his earlier golden prince appearance made Henry VIII’s eventual fate much more disturbing.
“I’m going to marry Catherine, Walter,” he told him and Ethan saw love in his eyes. Ethan felt certain that Henry only, or mostly, loved her because she had been his brother’s wife. He was covetous of other men’s women it seemed and in addition to that joy, she was a great and beautiful prize that he could show off. That made him, in the eyes of those who knew him young at least, his brother’s equal and it would gain him the remarkably sneaky King Ferdinand of Spain as his ally, which might have mattered. Walter had believed that Henry married Catherine of Aragon simply because he loved her and nothing more and on that first, they both agreed: Henry loved Catherine of Aragon.
At least for a while.
There was something more personal, more masculine, involving Henry’s brother, Prince Arthur. Ethan recalled through his normal past life memories Arthur saying something angry, vicious or insulting to Henry. Walter himself couldn’t have recalled quite what it was, he was very young at the time, but he remembered the dark look on Arthur’s teenage face as Henry danced with Arthur’s new bride, Catherine, at their wedding. Henry even stole his brother’s thunder by stripping off most of his upper clothes as he did so. It was something that should have been humiliating but, as always, someone came to save Henry from his deserved humiliation. That time, it was his father, Henry VII, making light of it and since the king did so, everyone else did as well.
Everyone, that is, except Arthur, who was secretly fuming at the time, and Walter’s grandfather, Edward Kent although he never said anything to either Henry or Arthur. He was old at the time and had lived through all the years of the Cousins War, which Shakespeare would later dub the War of the Roses, and Walter remembered a rather uncomfortable look on Edward’s face as if something really bad or terrible had just happened. He was a man of deep dignity and tradition but he was also quite wise and very good at reading people.
When the young Walter shyly asked him what that look meant he had said simply, “Just for a moment, I thought I saw the Duke of Clarence dancing with that lovely Spanish princess.”
“Is it possible to be jealous of what a dead man has?” Ethan asked aloud.
“I love her, Walter,” said Henry. “I love her with all my heart and she loves me back.” He sounded like he was bragging.
“I know you do, Henry,” Ethan replied. “It’s just that with you, love doesn’t last.”
Henry must have been out of his mind. He was eighteen, a new king, and as good a queen as Catherine was going to be, she was from an ideal political choice at that time. Her mother, the great Isabella of Castile was dead, her father Ferdinand of Aragon and Henry VII had been over some kind of crazed duel over her dowry that was not yet settled, the two monarchs were both untrustworthy knaves as far as Walter could tell, and she was seven years older than Henry as well. No one thought he would marry her but he did because, without doubt, he loved her.
At least for a while.
Walter loved her too, though, and he never stopped.
He had also never really liked Henry. It was the way he treated him, so very much like the way his brothers had, that made him distrust him and it made him think his motives less pure. He had too much, too easily, and all of it so simply automatic. The opposite of that was why he respected the Cardinal Thomas Wolsey so much. He, despite incredible arrogance, was at least a man that had come from nowhere and earned his place as opposed to some lord who had just inherited it by some happenstance of birth.
Ethan was torn between talking and shooting but after a moment, he did neither and instead just looked the king over. He had been the Golden Prince, Bluff King Hal, a man revered as the most beautiful prince in all Europe and it really wasn’t a lie. He was muscular, tall, perfectly built, and it did not surprise Walter that he could get almost any woman he wanted and he would have been successful at it even without his crown or even high wealth. He was an educated scholar, a great sportsman, amazing in every possible way except a few notable ones, which in time even a blind fool would not fail to see.
In the end, only his children and the truly naive were fooled.
“Henry wants what Henry wants,” Ethan said softly.
Ethan felt Walter understood from his earliest age that crowns were simply just circles of gold and jewels on someone’s head and they did not really bestow any kind of intellectual, spiritual or physical prowess by being there. If otherwise, the Cousins War would have ended as soon as one person got the crown and kingship. It seemed Walter was always instinctively on the lookout for something bad to happen and Ethan could not remember it fully yet but throwing over his loyal wife for Anne Boleyn would not have been a complete surprise to Walter from what he could recall from the beginning.
What happened three years after would, however.
Eleanor of Aquitaine had not been a fluke. Edward II’s wife Isabella of France and King John I’s wife who legend had it had to sleep under the hanging bodies of her lovers, were not executed either for their adultery and treasons and some were barely inconvenienced at the very worst, considering the level of their crime. Even Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary, a Hungarian serial killer born just a highborn lady and no queen, was simply walled up inside of a room until she died.
Henry truly was a monster in the end but despite that, Ethan found he felt genuine and uncharacteristic pity for him. They told him all his life he was the golden knight of Christendom and that he was God’s instrument on Earth. For some reason, some internal weakness or flaw perhaps, he actually believed them and never saw their words as flattery but fact. No one could make him let go of this belief and in the end, Ethan was certain he could not live without it even to the point of obsessive and desperate self-delusion.
What else would drive a late-middle-aged man to marry a teenage girl who was a politically unconnected, and rather unfit, English subject like Catherine Howard? Stupidity couldn’t be the answer. He was many things but an idiot wasn’t one of them.
Unless he actually believed that she loved him.
“I really can’t stand this anymore. I’m going to shoot you in the fucking face.” He raised his shotgun to young Henry VIII’s beautiful face. “You never learned humility, you evil dead royal fuck!”
My father was the absolute greatest man on Earth, Kent, said a voice in his head. It was a young boy’s voice and Ethan thought maybe it was Henry’s son, Edward, speaking. You had best well remember that it is his son stands before you and when I come of age and rule in my own right, I will remember the days you thought to question my words and faith.
Ethan grunted in pain suddenly, blood leaking out of his nose again, and when he opened his eyes again he saw that Henry had given him a mocking smile he saved just for Walter; the kind that made Ethan want to knock out the grinner’s two front teeth. Ethan distinctively remembered that moment, it was right around the time before Henry and Catherine were married, and it was probably said because he sensed Walter’s crush on her went beyond the chivalric playacting of the court.
Come to think of it, Henry was even dressed the same way. He had just finished a really exciting game of tennis and had beat Walter by a very great margin.
Then the apparition said, “You will never have a wife to match my Catherine.”
Ethan laughed in Henry’s face, his voice echoing out all around him, and replied, “Well, neither will you, Your Highness!” He swung the shotgun through the ancient dead king and watched Henry VIII fade into the air with that same self-righteous smile on his face.
Ethan felt incredibly hollow inside and his head was throbbing. He lowered it for a moment, bitterly sighed, and then started onward down the tunnels. Others soon appeared but he quickly whacked at them with his shotgun before they could speak and draw him back into the past.
There was Nathan Bartlett Sr., General George B. McClellan, George Armstrong Custard, Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, Edward VI as a young man; all quickly vanquished by the swings of his shotgun as he passed.
And then Catherine of Aragon appeared at the end of her life and he found he could not make himself swing the shotgun.
“No!” he cried miserably. “I don’t want to see you like this!” He found he could still not make the swing and he instead raised the shotgun light up toward her once beautiful face and found it still had the power to hypnotize him.
She had lost all her beauty in her six pregnancies, became overweight enough to seem almost as wide as she was tall, and her face was lined with sadness, loss and loneliness. She was wearing a black and gold dress with the gable hood over her red-gold hair and she looked into his eyes with bright blue eyes of her own seeming, despite the fact that she was not even five feet, to be as tall as or even taller than he was.
Ethan felt his heart sink and tears began to run down from his eyes uncontrollably. He tried to speak but he couldn’t find the words.
He had not seen her old yet in Walter’s memories, in those she was still young, beautiful and desirable. Although she had taken some physical knocks from her earlier pregnancies by the time her daughter Mary was born, she was a far cry from the elderly looking, unattractive and overweight woman that stood before him.
It was Henry that did it to her. Not directly or even intentionally, he wasn’t that cruel, but it was his fault.
Walter did not care about the rules of propriety, king’s rights or any other stupid thing Henry would claim to justify it: he had abandoned his wife, plain and simple. He gave her no power, gave her nothing to do except pointless ceremonial tasks, and while she had nothing to fill her endless hours with but food, he spent his days in play and took mistresses that he flaunted right before her eyes.
And he had the nerve to blame her for the death of their unborn children.
During her pregnancies, Catherine had been emotionally abused, ignored, and cheated on all the while she had to summon the full force of her will simply to maintain the propriety of her position and her dignity. Stress alone could cause a miscarriage, it would later happen with Anne Boleyn, and Catherine’s position was hardly secure in those early days. Once, in the days of the Anglo-Spanish alliance, Ferdinand had done one of his more irritating tricks, one that tricked Henry into protecting his army as a diversion while, instead of attacking France as was agreed, Ferdinand went after his own lands in Nevarre. Henry had taken out his anger on Catherine with such violent and traumatic screaming all through the night that it had caused a miscarriage shortly after. Henry, of course, blamed it entirely on her or possibly Ferdinand.
But never, ever, himself.
For a man who wanted a son more than anything else on Earth, Henry didn’t seem to have it in him to provide a pregnant wife with a lifestyle that didn’t involve worrying endlessly about her husband and position day and night.
In Ethan’s normal past life memories, he could already tell that any sense of love Henry had for her only was moving through Mary and she was alone. Very alone. Spain and her one remaining sibling Juana were a long way away and she would never see either again.
Ethan fell to his knees before her. “You’re Highness,” he said in a weak voice. “I—I don’t know.”
“Walter,” she said in that Spanish accented voice of hers. “You have always been kind to me.”
“Sometimes I think England is you,” he told her in a strange moment of clarity and it seemed that he was suddenly speaking as Walter because his voice suddenly had an English accent. “It was a beautiful land, as you were a beautiful woman, and it became ugly and bloated, as you did, both under Henry.” He bowed his head and continued to weep quietly. “I’m sorry, Catherine,” he told her sincerely. “I tried to deter him, tried to get Anne away, but he didn’t listen, she did not understand him and there was nothing I could do. Henry would have destroyed all of England to get what he wanted. Wolsey said so and tried to talk him out of it and failed as well and he was smarter than I was.”
When he looked back up, he saw Catherine was smiling down at him kindly. “I’m not a fool Walter,” she told him. “I do not know all my enemies but I know all my friends.”
Ethan looked up at her and the image of her dancing as a young and beautiful teenager at her wedding to Prince Arthur flashed across his mind. It was the very day his crush had begun and it seemed to have followed him all the way down to the twenty-first century.
“I’m sorry I failed you,” he told her and then he saw her start to fade, that kind smile still on her face. “Find me again someday,” he added as Ethan. “Find me before the end of time so I can see you dance again and remember what love is.”
Then she was gone and he was alone.
He stood up, rested the shotgun on his shoulder, and said, “Why couldn’t I have come up with something that romantic while I was at that fucking court?” He laughed miserably and wiped tears off his face. “I fucking hate this house. Why in God’s name did I build a house like this?”
He couldn’t take anymore and as he walked. He carried his shotgun like a club and swung through the illusions as quickly as they appeared. There was Abraham Lincoln, Henry Percy, Desiderius Erasmus, Anne Boleyn again, Jane Seymour, Abraham Lincoln, Anne of Cleves, Thomas Cromwell, Uncle Andrew O’Brien, Anderson Greenwood. He was soon swinging so fast that he couldn’t see who the countless others were as they vanished with each swing.
By the time he had made it around the last corner and saw a bright red light, he was covered in sweat and his arms were aching.
Before he could see what it was, the summoning spell hit him again and on such a deeper level of agony that he dropped his shotgun, stumbled and grabbed his head. He was forced to shut his eyes for several minutes, his head throbbing in unison with his heart, before he could finally manage to wipe the blood that had come out of his nose, ears and eyes with his gloved hand and look up.
The path led to a square room with four bricked sides with empty shelves, empty tables, and a back wall that he remembered having something important.
In the center of the room was a blood-red ritual carved into the ground, triangular and glowing, connected by small pillars with small red flames about the size of candle fire sticking up out of their black metal tops. He could read the runes clear enough. It was a summoning spell with the components of “mind” and “spirit” prominently displayed but it was had several illusion spells too and that was when he realized he had been fooled. It had tricked him into seeming weaker. The ritual was devastatingly powerful in truth and had illusion not been there, he would have probably felt the way he would if he was wading through a tornado’s worth of summoning magic instead of a light gust of wind.
Ethan knew the room well from the Beechwood memories. It had been his treasure room.
He also knew very well who appeared in the center ritual and that was far, far, far too much. He walked up to the ritual and aimed the shotgun at the illusion standing there but he wasn’t able to pull the trigger.
She should not have been able to stand. She had been a beautiful and slender once, dark-haired and sultry-eyed, but then half of her face and ninety percent of her body had been burned. It had not been bandaged yet, the wounds raw and red and oozing and all of her clothes were gone except the one long, white sleeve of her nightgown on her right arm still connected at the shoulder. Her red and bloody burnt left hand still held the gasoline can.
“Hello Ettie,” said the figure pleasantly.
“Goodbye Mother,” he replied and he fired.
Dana Bartlett vanished into the air and he shouldered his gun slowly, his eyes shocked, horrified and miserable at once. Then quickly as he could, went to the brick wall, took out the brick that held the secret lever, pulled it and opened the panel at the back. He stopped for a moment, leaned against the wall with his right hand, the secret lever on the left side because Thomas had been left-handed, and forced himself to take several breaths.
“Clearly, this spell jumped up a notch,” he said to himself.
Then he smelled it, the smell of burning flesh and death, and after that, he felt the power growing inside his head again.
Ethan grunted, grabbed his dagger, turned and threw it at the ritual’s corner. It hit a line of runes, cut into it, and the ritual predictably exploded. He had meant to explore more, meant to open the other secret door in the room, but he realized if he felt another burst of magic that was even slightly more powerful than the last, it might actually kill him. He could have chanced it but he realized they had been getting stronger since he started and the odds were against him.
He also couldn’t handle seeing her again or his father, possibly standing on broken legs with his bloody baseball bat, or anyone else from his present life for that matter.
His attack did what he thought it would do only at first. He was pushed against the wall like a tornado pressing him against a mountain but as he tried to wait it out, he was suddenly yanked forward. He had never even heard of a spell doing that.
Ethan was suddenly spinning around over the ritual as if he was trapped in a whirlwind. It jerked him so fast that his shotgun flew from his hand and landed there easily and completed unaffected by the spell’s effect. He was instantly sick and he threw his Ice Shard spell downward randomly at the floor at least a half dozen times over several seconds until he hit some other vital part of the ritual’s runes.
Then he dropped like a rock. The whirlwind did not slow. It simply stopped as if someone flipped a switch somewhere that turned it off.
Ethan landed on his feet, spun around a few times, and then fell backward onto the center of the ritual where he landed with a thud. He felt something on his back, something like a bump, but he was too stunned and sick to do anything about it.
“I thought I built this house,” he said hoarsely, “But it was Clive Barker all along.” He grinned weakly, felt his stomach churning, and in the spell’s fading light turned white, he looked up and saw something on the ceiling. Thomas had not painted what was up there and he had never seen that mural or its like before but something about it seemed both familiar and terrible.
It depicted a great red sky with a dark Death-like figure carrying a black bladed two-handed sword in black robes with no face on the left while on the right there was a figure wearing white shining armor carrying another two-handed blade but glowing white with a face equally hidden under a magnificent shining helmet. Both were flying toward each other toward predictable combat and on the dark side’s end, the mural was darker and more horrid while on the light side’s end, it was becoming brighter and blue.
“War is coming,” he whispered and he could hear the rebel cry shrieking in his mind.
He drifted off into sleep and somewhere in his dreams, he felt something cold touch his lips. It was so familiar it almost made him cry because he had, a century and a half ago, kissed those lips although then they had been warm then. He dreamed of her face, dreamed of the tree, and dreamed of that cold and windy autumn day over a century and a half ago when the Indian nations were still strong and Fort Sumter was just an island out in Charleston Harbor.
He told her in his dreams, “Regan, you were supposed to catch me. How the hell are we going to get even now?” He heard the sound of her laughing and that made him smile.
* * *
Stephen Upton vomited for the third time after laying Julia down against his car. He looked at her for a moment, utterly snow pale from her ordeal and decided finally that the hospital was the correct place for her. Then he turned away and leaned up against his truck with one hand.
That spell was quite certainly not what it appeared to be. When it ended somehow, the effect of it was almost mind-shattering.
John Thorne had escaped earlier and Upton wasn’t surprised. John was brave but not that brave and his car had probably been one of the first to leave. The Bartlett boy, on the other hand, was simply full of surprises.
He had gone willingly down into the dark, had fought the undead with absolute efficiency and without fear, and then fought him off as well. He could have killed his son, there was no doubt in Upton’s about that, but there was something about the boy, something Upton could not quite place, that made him think he might not be a murderer.
There was something off about the Bellator women’s story too and Julia’s mother was a serious problem. She was reckless, far too arrogant and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. He wouldn’t have trusted her either but his son’s death had been wearing down on him and making him reckless and, before Beechwood, he had always had good, if not ideal, results from working with Bellator women.
He now suspected they were lying to him about his son and maybe even tampered with his lie detection spell. Even the one that had been turned into a crone was under her mother’s intense control.
Upton needed closure. He had been dreaming about his son for months now and, now that he was out of that house and no longer distracted, Upton wondered about what Bartlett said about those woods. In his dreams, his son was still a young boy and he was always, always, lost in a dark and evil forest.
He had never seen anything quite like that house. Not since Blackwood in England, a small town said to be built on the ruins of a haunted forest, had he ever gotten such a bad vibe from a place.
He vomited again and almost complete blood came out.
Julia twitched and he picked her up and placed her in the passenger seat. He had healed her with his magic, easily closing the wound at her neck, but she had still lost a lot of blood. He had come across her in the tunnels as he made his escape after their master attacked him and found one of the undead sucking on her neck. Had he been but one second later, she would have been dead.
He got into the truck and gratefully drove away.
The things he saw in that house would haunt him for the rest of his life. He could not have known a peasant woman in medieval France and yet he did. How he could not even imagine but there was no doubt. He had never been in France except once on vacation when he was six. The woman spoke to him in French and he did not speak French but somehow he very much understood every word she said.
He had seen Bartlett talking to his visions too, deeply and emotionally entrenched in them, and he could possibly be raving mad or even being eaten by one of the monsters even at that moment. He doubted that, though. Men like Bartlett don’t die easily.
He looked back at the house through the mirror as he fled and thought, During the daylight, they will be sleeping.
* * *
Claire turned her head over her shoulder and looked through the kitchen walls as if she could see what she felt.
“What is it?” asked Johnny.
Claire smiled kindly and wanted to say that she felt the rip in the spirit world had just repaired itself but he would think she was crazy or joking. “Nothing,” she told him.
“You look happy,” he told her from the kitchen.
“I am happy.”
“You look—different.” She looked up at his handsome face and thought she saw something missing there. Something was wrong in his reality. Someone was missing who was supposed to be there. She could see it as clearly as the nose on his face. “What happened?” he asked her.
She really wanted to tell him everything, her other half would do so without hesitation, but only because it did not fully understand lying. It would tell him all about Walter Kent and the time she had seen him in the woods and how he had petted her nose, given her a carrot, and told her that she was the world’s most beautiful creature and that it was wrong for his king to try to capture one of her kind. She would illuminate on how he had informed her about the piles of unused horns in the ancient Roman vaults and how it was a waste when they could still be on their owners to be seen roaming majestically through meadows and forests to remind men of magic and wonder. Kent had looked at her with such incredible kindness, admiration and sincerity that she discovered that she deeply and genuinely wanted his love.
She would have also told him about the other one too. He was frightening, even to her, and he hated all humankind and lived only to cruelly taunt and hurt them. Most humans weren’t that bad, even he knew that, but he didn’t care. To him, they were all the same and all deserving of the worst possible treatment.
Claire walked up to Johnny and gently touched him on the chest.
“Are you alright, Claire?”
“I made a mistake with Ethan,” she told him. “I was naïve and I didn’t mean to be.”
“I know,” he told her and he took her hand and smiled. He was lonely, she could see it in his eyes, and she could feel how he was instinctively looking around for that other person that was missing. It made her very sad but she could not fix that nor replace it with herself even if they both wanted her to.
She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re a good man, John Le Sueur,” she said.
“Are you really alright? You look different somehow.”
“I feel complete.” She sounded casual but it hadn’t been easy by any means. For her to be complete, she was required to meet her other half physically and that required incredible misery or even trauma to get over her human half’s discomfort with those woods. As Emeline Le Sueur, she lived near her other half for most of her life but was only able to enter the Engelstad and make herself whole after she lost Thomas. “I’m alright, Johnny.”
He smiled kindly at her. “I’m glad,” he told her. “I am.”
Claire felt an overwhelming sisterly love for him. “You’re a good man,” she said again, “And I am glad I have you near me.” She slipped her arms around him and hugged him tightly.
Johnny smiled a bit uncomfortably. “You’re going to give me a big head,” he told her.
She shut her eyes and thought about Walter. She had become Lady Constance Clavel of Bolougne and tried for him but just after she was born, Katherine Tudor had snatched him away. When he was Thomas and she was Emeline Le Sueur, she was ready for him, and the two spent a lifetime together. Now he was Ethan and she was Claire but, although there was still time, she could tell it was already a miss. Too little of her spirit had been in the Claire half, probably his doing, and she had been consequently unaware of how far she was driving Ethan off until it was too late. Sadly, in his life as Ethan, Walter had become rather unforgiving and hard.
“Never trust a black horse,” she whispered in Johnny’s ear.
“What?” Johnny asked.
“He gets jealous. So jealous.” She kissed Johnny on the cheek again, went upstairs into her room and took a quick shower, which felt a little alien now that she had reconnected to her other half. Afterward, she put on a pink nightgown, jumped into her bed and went to sleep. Claire had never felt more drained in all her life but she had never felt better either.
She avoided thinking about the other as she drifted into unconsciousness even though he thought about her often and desperately wanted to mate with her. They were not compatible in any way other than physically and that had never been enough for her. She instead thought about Ethan, whom she found was asleep and then, for the first time in Claire’s lifetime, she connected to a human being’s dreams.
In the distance, with her still conscious horse ears, she could hear the other screaming out in his jealous rage.
* * *
Ethan was Walter again and he stood in the Darkwood on some bright day nearly five hundred years ago.
Before him was a white unicorn and he was feeding her carrots. She had come to him when he called to her and she ate the carrots happily. That made him feel better but not particularly good. Six people, one of them the Queen of England, had just been executed and it had blown his mind into a new perspective.
“A creature like you,” said Walter, “Could never be ridden as a mere horse nor have its horn be cut off.” It looked at him with understanding. He was almost certain he could see it on its horsey face. “I’ve lately learned a valuable lesson in life, unicorn. It involves the power of females.” He petted her nose gently and she nudged him in a hugging kind of way. “I lost a cousin some years ago and it seemed the very moment I got her back, she was executed. I lost my friend Norris, I saw an amazingly well loved friend, Francis Weston, die too. Brereton was less surprising, Rochford even less than that although what they accused him of was ludicrous and Smeaton—” he shook his head and felt like weeping “—why did Smeaton confess?”
The unicorn looked at him sadly and sympathetically but, obviously, couldn’t give him any insight.
He stood there for several moments, the forest quiet and ominous, and looked at the unicorn. It looked right back at him, its face pleasant and calm. “I like you better than the other one,” he told her.
And then in a cheerful voice it said, “I like you too, Ethan.”
* * *
Ethan’s eyes bolted open and he said, “Well that was fucking weird.”
Then he shot his Torch spell at the ceiling of the darken room, looked around and found it was entirely empty. Then he stood up awkwardly, shot more Torch spells into each of the corners lighting up the room completely and then leaned down tiredly on his knees.
The Beechwood’s additionally memories were gone and all that was left was a blinding headache.
“No more funhouses,” he told himself and decided to make Summer House, which was what he was calling the lighthouse he was rebuilding on Sorcery and Stick Farm’s hill by the sea, would be a more typical house with no secret tunnels.
He grabbed his shotgun, turned off the flashlight, threw it over his shoulder and went over to the open secret compartment to find its primary treasure was a dust-covered black book inside. He remembered nothing of what went through his mind when he had opened that compartment but when he blew the dust off and read the orange letters across the front, he knew exactly why he had.
The letters read simply:
* * *
Thomas Bartlett’s Book
Plant and Food Magic
Improved from the works
Walter Kent, 2nd Duke of Edmonton
* * *
Ethan quickly glanced through it, verified it was real and shut it reverently. The spells within were written in the vein of Faas Cuypers aiming for peaceful and economic uses as opposed to violence and destruction. Thomas had learned the spells from the published Irish version of Walter Kent’s book of spells that had found its way somehow into the Bartlett library but somewhere between the Civil War and 2012, had simply vanished.
Ethan had combed every inch of the library and house top to bottom looking for it and found, unless it was in one of the nearly empty wings, that it was quite gone. It might have been taken to Beechwood’s library or its magician tower but it didn’t really matter because that was just an Irish edited version and he had a version improved by no less a person than himself.
He leaned down, looked past where the book had been and found a jewel. He grinned at the sight of it, a ruby surrounded by gold, vaguely heart shaped, and he was suddenly reminded almost painfully of the film Titanic. He picked it up, thinking its value had to be in the millions at least, blew off the dust and examined it carefully. He had no memory of that ruby and no idea where it could have possibly come from.
He shrugged, slipped it over his neck, shut the compartment and started out. Before he left however, he found the bump he had fallen on, discovered it was a metal ring, and pulled it up to reveal a compartment below.
It was just a hole in the ground, about three feet down, three feet long and three feet wide. He guessed, for he had no reason other than instinct to think it, that the hole was where Madge put the black children she kidnapped and that it powered the spell with their life force but something was not quite right with that theory. She had been kidnapping in the 1940s and the spell was still active in the 2010s, which meant it would need a new victim to do so but no one had gone missing that he knew of.
He decided to not think about it and he shut the little door and left.
He found his way back to the secret wall easily enough because, strangely enough, it was just a straight line. He had gone through some kind of twist and turn before but it was gone now. One of the illusion spells, perhaps.
He opened the secret door, which was easy from the other side, closed it behind him, and then promptly got lost. Without Beechwood’s effect on his mind, he didn’t know his way through the tunnels, and there was no evidence of any of them having been down there, except for the coffins, which were all empty.
The bodies were long gone, the undead and those that weren’t.
It took him about a half of an hour to find his way back to a staircase and that led him up to another secret doorway. Ethan found the lever, pulled it, and stepped out of a small door that led out behind the staircase in the foyer. After he stepped out, he shut the door behind himself and heard the loud clank as the mechanism reset itself.
“Well that sure was fun,” he said and he laughed weakly as he stepped back out across the foyer.
The foyer in daylight was robbed entirely of its creepiness and he found that it actually looked rather pleasant in the hazy blue light although by then he was mostly beyond caring. All the paintings were back normal, the entire place looked like just another unoccupied, but well-maintained home and everything was fine.
His boots made loud thuds as he walked across the foyer bathed in morning light and he reached for the door’s handle with the thought of just sleeping away the day back at home. Of course, there was just one more thing needed doing. He was on the verge of something in that room, some secret thing that might have been another secret doorway, when—
“It calmed down—”
He pulled out his right hand’s pistol, pointed it upward at the paintings and cried out, “Who the fuck is there?” None of them were looking at them but he heard them that time without a summoning spell affecting his mind. “You got to fucking be kidding me?”
They didn’t respond to him, a thing that gave him more relief than he would have believed, and he quickly turned around and opened the door.
“He saw the house and the house saw him,” a voice said just as he stepped out. He slammed the door behind him, locked it with the old key, and looked out onto the snow-blanketed world of early morning Connecticut.
“What a fucking night!” he said and he walked through the snow that had fallen through the night, got into his truck, and drove away. “Why the fuck did I ever go into that house?” he cried aloud.
In the distance, the sun was rising and he saw it was going to be a very beautiful day.