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Author's Chapter Notes:
spectral replay
At first, Shades told himself that going around the side of the mansion wouldn’t be so bad. He quietly hoped that this Melissa would be unable to find a way in, but between the vibes he was getting from this place, combined with how long she had already been gone thus far, he was already sure that was just wishful thinking on his part. Sure enough, he found a wrought-iron gate set in a second, inner fence hanging open on one rusty hinge, leading into the rear grounds behind that wing.

At first he thought it wouldn’t be so bad, after making it past the outer gate, but he was wrong. Even just peering in the front window a couple minutes ago made him feel like a child himself. How an actual child could hold up in the face of this place’s atmosphere left him wondering if it wasn’t an unhealthy side-effect of growing up next-door to an eldritch location like the Woods.

The vines along the walls back here were even more rife, as if the growth out front was just a preview. Vineholdt… Found himself pondering why rich people so often felt the need to name their houses. As if they were a separate country or something.

This was worse than being in another country. This was like being on another planet. The knowledge that the outside world was so close at hand only made it worse; at least when he wandered off into the Sixth Dimension one dark and stormy night, he had no idea how far away from his own world he really was.

The fact that he even thought of this estate as being somehow apart from the surrounding world only served to remind him of what this place was. Though the idea existed in his mind, he had no name for it, no proper words to describe it. In his travels, he had encountered a couple places that were sort of like this, but not exactly; whatever all haunted those Woods outside of town was largely overshadowed by whatever evil resided in here.

Along the way, he encountered a fountain built into a niche in the mansion wall, of an ornate floral motif. Its waist-high basin full almost to the brim with blackish, brackish water he could fairly smell even several yards away. A horrifying thought crossed his mind, and he took a couple steps forward before he caught himself, breathing a sigh of relief as he observed that the foul water and the basin ledge were completely undisturbed.

Wondering why such a grim thought even came to mind, it finally dawned on him just what it was he so instinctively disliked about it. The water itself. Not merely its toxic appearance, but the realization that it hadn’t rained around Pickford in at least two or three days. Even in the shade, the water shouldn’t be nearly as full after that much evaporation.

Though there was still something else about the fountain he didn’t trust, could’ve sworn he heard something plink and splash, but when he looked back, that black water stood perfectly still.

Moving on, around the corner, he found a little-used side door. Gaping wide open, yawning into darkness. Shades couldn’t help but groan as he looked upon it.

“She didn’t…”

Or course, he already knew she went inside. After all, that was exactly what the House wanted. Wasn’t sure just how he knew, but he was more certain of that than he was about much of anything else going on around here.

The dusty footprints just inside the threshold, too small to belong to an adult, merely confirmed his suspicions.

“These people have suffered more than enough because of you…” Shades glared back at all those unwelcoming windows with more conviction than he actually thought he could muster. “You won’t have her, too.”

Still, he hesitated in the doorway, reaching into one of his many pockets and producing a compact flashlight. Switching it on, he tested it, finding the beam strong, if narrow. Moira had warned them of rare, but potentially dangerous, blackouts that happened around town once in a blue moon, and even though he was only out by day, their past misadventures had taught him how many different situations a flashlight made for an adventurer’s best friend.

Ordinarily, he took comfort in how the power cells and bulbs designed in this world tended to last a lot longer than batteries, especially, from his own, but now he found shame in wishing they’d failed. And after making such bold declarations. Yet he found he was less ashamed of showing fear in front of those kids than he was at the thought of coming back without so much as a clue about what happened to their friend, so he put one cold foot forward.

The house seemed to push back with waves of stuffy air, but it mostly just invoked his own stubborn streak as he strode forward. Pressing on, he swept his light around to reveal a small foyer full of shelves of garden supplies, as well as the long-withered remains of what was once fresh produce, the shriveled husks of herbs and vegetables, surely the source of most of what he was smelling. Through the next door was a large kitchen, equipped with a mix of old-fashioned-looking equipment, and electric appliances of outland make that would look right at home in Moira’s kitchen back at the Pines, or even his own mom’s, if not for the mix of peculiar brand names.

Off to his left was another door, to a flight of stairs leading down. He looked down those steps into some sort of cellar. His flashlight illuminated part of an old furnace, with a row of circular ducts branching out from it like tentacles, and a faint updraft fed him a whiff of coal and soot.

Shook his head, just couldn’t imagine her going down there for anything. And could all too easily imagine those rickety steps collapsing under him right on cue. Didn’t care to get caught down there with anything that made itself at home in a place like this, his inner Admiral Ackbar being particularly vocal about that view.

Reminded himself that abandoned buildings could host their own share of mundane hazards an unwary explorer might fall prey to. Resigned himself to the possibility that he just might have to search every room of this warped place. Deciding that he would only risk coming back here if his search of less obviously dangerous, and far more likely, places proved fruitless.

As he turned for the only other door, he found himself wondering why he hadn’t tried calling out to her. After all, he was all but certain whatever haunted these halls was already well aware of his presence anyway. That rescuing her from this place wasn’t really going to be a stealth operation anyhow.

Starting with the cellar door, he called out: “Hello! Melissa! I’m here to help you!…”

And the house answered him with ominous silence. Not even the building settling, nor any other sound. Just the creepy sense of anticipation, as if the entire house was waiting for something.

Concluding that she must not be in this area anymore, he moved on to the next door, which led into a dining room. As he skirted around the long table that occupied most of the room, he couldn’t help but be impressed by the child’s boldness” or at least sufficient preoccupation to not notice those cellar stairs” as he was fairly sure she actually went this way. To the side were a couple smaller doors that looked like closets to him, and another door at the far end of the room.

Beyond was a cavernous chamber he could barely discern through the faint gloom of cob-webbed curtains and dusty windows. Sweeping his light around, he took in an ornately furnished great hall of high ceilings, sporting a large crystal chandelier, and hardwood floors appointed with carefully arranged rugs. To his right was a pair of double doors, matching the front entrance outside, with a decorative glass fan window above, designed with a peacock motif, and on the far side was another door, leading into the other wing.

To his left was a grand staircase, forming a t-joint about halfway up, branching off into both wings. Wondering if she really would go any deeper into this spooky place, he went over and poked his light into the next room. Sure enough, there was the ball, still lying on the floor, untouched, leaving him with the dread certainty that she must have gone upstairs for some unfathomable reason.

Taking a deep breath, he plunged even deeper into the mansion, starting up the stairs. Even through the stiff carpet runner, he could hear some steps creak, but still held firm, so he continued up. At the first landing, there was a door hanging partway open, so he checked it out.

Inside was what looked to him like some sort of playroom. Scattered toys, stuffed animals, and an old-fashioned rocking horse. As well as scattered dead bugs, peeling wallpaper, and an antique-looking device that reminded Shades of an old phonograph, just sitting on the floor in the corner, looking every bit as forlorn as the rest of the room.

Shutting the door on this vista, which set a most unsettling tone, he turned back and looked out across the great hall.

“Taking a child…” he said aloud, no longer able to contain his own disgust at this place. “You really do have no shame, do you?”

Much like before, he expected no response, so it made him jump in unabashed startlement when a grandfather clock started tolling out of nowhere, reverberating off all the walls.

He nearly tripped on the stairs as he wheeled about the landing, seeking for a threat that failed to materialize. His free hand having already drawn one stun-stick, even as his mind pivoted just as much as his feet, uncertain if his weapon would avail him against anything in here. The door behind him remained closed, and nothing seemed to be approaching from any stairway, even as the deep chiming of an unknown hour died away.

It was only in the midst of regaining his wits that he noticed the spectral spectacle unfolding in the great hall below, that he was missing the show.

Around the center of the hall, six shimmering women garbed in hooded ceremonial robes surrounded a seventh. Each of them clasped their hands together in various ritual gestures, the others’ heads bowed as the one in the center spoke. Shades was eerily certain she had been chanting all along, but the fading echo of the clock chime left him feeling as if he just tuned in to a new radio station between gulfs of static.

…stand upon the unshakeable Foundations of the Earth under our feet, that we might stand unmoved in our conviction.

“In Her name, so let it be,” the others answered.

In the name of the Goddess, we call upon the Fire of Purity to burn away your corruption.

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, we call upon the Free Air, that your ashes may be blown away upon the Winds of Time.

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, we call upon the Waters of Life to wash away your filth that defiles this place of the living.

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, Mother of All Things, we cast you out of the place.

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, who gave birth to all life, we call upon all human spirits found herein, and grant license to quit this place… that you might return to the Source, the womb from whence all souls enter this world…

“In Her name, so let it be.”

In the name of the Goddess, who guards her children with righteous fury, we cast out all… foul things… without soul… to return to the Void from whence…

Though she started out strong, her voice was becoming increasingly strained with each line of the ritual, her words were coming out increasingly desperate. Her last incantation cut off by a strangled gasp as she was lifted bodily off the floor by an unseen force. Head thrown back, hands fumbling frantically at thin air in front of her neck. At this horrifying sight, the others looked up from their concentration as their sister struggled.

And their prayers were answered with silence.

In the name… of the Goddess…” she choked out, feet thrashing over a foot off the ground, head snapping from side to side in a vain effort to break that terrible grip. “The… Void… take thee!…

As if on cue, her neck gave a loud, chicken-bone crack, her whole body spasming, then going limp as the others cried out in abject horror and anguish.


Her body flung at one of the sisters as the others scattered.

Their screams faded even as their ghostly forms dissolved, leaving Shades standing alone on the stair landing, overlooking an empty hall.

Then, for good measure, that massive chandelier came crashing down, right on top of the faint outlines of an old six-point ritual circle, spraying crystal all over the floor.

Heart lodged solidly in his throat, gasping reflexively at the sensation. Certain that grim replay truly had happened. Quite certain that display was meant to scare him.

Okay, it worked… Shades admitted to himself, feeling his blood run cold. Felt an unseasonable chill in the great hall as he found his feet taking him down the steps. Energy blade fired up to slice the locks right off the front door when he got there.

It was only with great effort that he pulled the reins on them in mid step, his feet halting in indecision as he reminded himself what was at stake here. Quite sure that he was out of his depth, out of his league against whatever was at work here, yet that Missing Child picture of Kelly Edwards stared at his mind’s eye, pleading. Begging the question of whether Melissa would also become another chapter of this place’s horrific history.

Even as he tried to tell himself the kids outside wouldn’t think any less of him for being defeated by something that had beaten everything else that ever challenged it, the thought of facing Melissa’s parents without doing everything he could for her, that thought brought his retreat to a grinding halt.

Little Kelly had met her end years before any of them knew the Woods even existed, let alone ever set foot there, while this was happening right here and now.

Half expecting invisible hands to seize his own throat, or perhaps push him down the stairs, he strode back up, deciding to search the upper level of the wing he started with first. As he reached the center landing, he tripped on a slight curl in the rug, catching himself against the playroom doorframe. At first gasping and sweeping his energy blade around in an attempt to engage a nonexistent foe.

Then breathed a sigh of relief and laughed at himself as he realized what just happened, and he wondered if the sound of laughter was as foreign to this place back then as it was now as he continued on his way.
Chapter End Notes:
Boy is my face red. I got so caught up between the holidays, and spreading the word about the FCC's impending destruction of Net Neutrality and the Open Internet Order, I kinda forgot to finish posting the newest chapter. =P