They pad down the hallway, breathing in tandem, Nazlı’s hand resting lightly on Julian’s forearm close to where he holds the candle out before them. The black flame barely wavers. They both let out a little huff of extra breath on hearing the gentle snore of someone in the master bedroom, a good sign to suggest that nobody in the house has yet been disturbed by their footsteps. Julian’s little obscuration cantrip is a good help, but far from a guarantee, and good old-fashioned stealth is the best thing to see them through without getting accused of attempted burglary, or worse. There’s not a lot of legal protection for their professions.
They reach the door to the child’s room. Julian draws his fingertips gently down the wood until they meet the handle, then lifts as he turns it so the latch slips smoothly away. They open the door just wide enough to stand together in the opening.
Here, in the darkness that would be absolute to most eyes, Nazlı sees the room described in shades of dark grey on black, shapes that clarify themselves slowly the longer she stares. The child still sleeps in her bed, looking no more at peace than she had when they’d first arrived.
Nazlı takes a couple of steps into the room, leaving Julian at the door with that tiny wisp of un-light. He has closed his eyes, standing with one shoulder against the jamb. Although he’s not afraid of the dark, per se, Julian doesn’t like to stare into it with eyes open, spooked by what he sees or thinks he might be about to see materializing out of the nothingness.
Stopping about a pace short of the foot of the bed, Nazlı lets out a long breath and realizes the source, or at least some of the source, of the obnoxious tickle in the back of her throat and behind her eyes.
“What is it?” Julian whispers, tugged by the change in the sound of her breathing.
“This is not human child,” Nazlı says, scanning the line of the baseboard where it wasn’t covered with furniture, looking for a loose or crooked panel. “This kid is from down below.”
“Like… completely? Not just… afflicted, or something?” Julian hisses, a little tenser.
“She’s a purebred fucking demon.”
“Shit.” His breath ruffles her hair as they close together again in the center of the room, hands catching. “Do you think the parents know?”
“I think the grandmother suspects. I’m not going to be able to look for a charm or anything without getting some proper light in here, though. Come on.”
They fumble their way out of the room much the same way they’d gone in. The snoring has stopped in the master bedroom, but there’s no sound of movement and the door is still latched shut. Once they’re back at the far end of the hallway, Nazlı hesitates between the door of their borrowed room and the mouth of the stairwell.
“Do you want to go down, have a look around there, too?”
“Yeah, maybe,” she says. “I wish I knew where the old woman was sleeping. But if I go down alone, I can cop looking for a glass of water for no foul, I think.”
She steers him back into their room and he extinguishes the black flame.
“Back in a sec. Keep that thing handy if there’s still any powder left in the wax, just in case I find something good.”
As she turns away, the dull blue light of Julian’s cellphone illuminates the slightly-open door. Nazlı descends the stairs, wincing at every creak in this unfamiliar house. Even having a legitimate potential excuse, every sound is excruciating, and she’s hyper-aware of how she fumbles. It’s different to sneak up and down a staircase in a building where you have lived your whole life, evading parents and siblings alike to go smoke cigarettes on the other side of the wood shed or talk on the phone to the girl in the next grade who you hope might be your first. That’s the kind of nauseating adrenaline that this kind of trespassing always evokes for her. Sure, it felt like an adventure as a teen, but standing far to the other side of her twenties, the shine has worn off.
She takes a second at the bottom of the staircase to get her bearings, taking in a living room filled with the indistinct shapes of furniture directly ahead and, to the right, what looked to be a dining area and kitchen with a lighter floor beyond the edge of the carpet.
It’s even darker down here, more enclosed by trees, perhaps, the dense spruce forest huddling up close to the windows of the lower floor. Even her keen eyes are struggling. The shadows swim as her pupils thirst for light, in and out of focus.
A scraping sound freezes her halfway to the kitchen. She turns her head, holding her breath and trying to triangulate the source of the noise.
Se jumps at Julian’s voice, not raised but still the loudest thing in the last hour. “What??”
He’s at the bottom of the stairs now. She can see him, mostly.
“I thought I heard something…”
“I heard it too. I… think it was the pipes…”
Before she can ask, a hand touches her face, sliding across her cheek. It is not Julian’s hand, small and smooth, like the hand of a child, but very cold. She flinches away with a gasp, the icy little fingers tracing along the side of her neck, and on her other side sways into some kind of soft mass that gives like fruit gone rotten under the skin. All at once, a sickly-sweet smell envelopes her, thick and choking, stale incense and crushed flowers covering up something far more fleshy.
All thought of waking up the house evaporates. She cries out, misjudges the position of the first step and hooks her foot, pitching forward into Julian’s shoulder and past it, landing with the bones of her forearm against the edge of a stair.
Julian claws at her, his voice becoming part of the confusion and the dark through which her panic swims. Between her trying to climb and him trying to carry her, they both fall. Nazlı clutches her bruised arm, ducking as an impact comes down near her head. Then, there’s the scraping sound again, followed by the tearing of claws in carpet.
Now, she can hear the breathing.
Julian is upright. He yanks her to her feet. As one, they retreat. A couple of strides later, they’re sliding on sock-feet over the cold linoleum of the kitchen floor. Nazlı’s arms pinwheel over countertops and knock into cabinets, searching for a knife block or a cast iron skillet. Instead, she finds a door handle.
Either this will buy them some time or they are just putting themselves away with the rest of the food items in the house.
The door slams shut, enveloping them in dark, frigid air. Basement air.
She and Julian catch up, arriving where terror has driven them a few seconds later than their physical selves. They gasp and tremble on the landing, arms linked tightly, shadows of their adolescence.
“Fuck,” says Julian.
There’s no sound on the other side of the door, but nobody believes that is because whatever was in the living room isn’t coming for them. Nazlı feels for a lock, doesn’t find one. Not that the door—or the walls, or the floor—of this house will necessarily contain the damn thing.
Nazlı grabs Julian’s hand and starts down the steps. The basement is unfinished, there is no handrail along the steps, and the draft pouring in suggests a crawl space off to the left. A rattle, a click, and the space floods with yellow light
She flinches and throws up a hand to shield her eyes from the bare bulb.
“Jesus, Julian, what—”
“I can’t do it, Naz. I’m jumping at everything.”
Looking up, she can see it in his wide eyes and clenched shoulders. He’s still shaking. Sometimes she forgets what Julian looks like when he’s scared shitless. For all the crap she gives him, he holds it together remarkably well through all manner of insanity.
“Hey, it’s okay. Stay with me, here.”
He sort of smiles, a weak expression without much feeling behind it, then glances back at the dirty, bare-board stairway they’ve just come down. “All our gear is upstairs.”
“We’ve been in worse pickles than this. Pull yourself together, Faith, and let’s figure a way out of here.”
She claps his shoulder and does a circuit of the room while he pulls out his phone to text the home office. Not that they can afford to wait for help… Anchorage is hours away. But at least this way, if they don’t come back, someone will know what became of them.
Weirdly, it doesn’t sound like anyone upstairs woke up. Maybe their whole scuffle was a lot quieter than she thought.
“So,” Julian says, a little more freely than he’d spoken before. “What do you think it was? A hant?”
She shakes her head, peering around a nook with the light from her phone in hopes of discovering a pitchfork, or at least a rake. No dice.
“It smelled like a demon.”
“Way less wholesome than a ghost.”
Julian looks at his phone again, even though there’s no notification.
It’s a fully underground basement, too. No windows to kick out. No external cellar door. She and Julian just aren’t very lucky.
“At least there’s no hellhound,” he says.
The air pulses with a heavy blow against the door at the top of the stairs. A long, dragging scratch follows.
They skitter away from the stairs. There’s no cover to speak of here, and now Julian is casting about, too, looking for anything to prolong the standoff to come. Nazlı’s magic doesn’t really lend itself to demon-repelling, but she nonetheless tries to gulp down a couple of calm breaths and focus enough to call up a spell.
Another, even more insistent hit above them.
She raises her hands.
A second later, Julian spins her around by the wrist and drags her across the basement toward the crawl space.
“We can’t—” she gasps, already choking on the idea of that small, rough opening. The claustrophobia fills up her veins, one hand flashing out to catch the rough concrete edge of the opening in the foundation.
A tremendous crash, and then the staccato of splintered wood tumbling down the stairs. Nazli twists in Julian’s grasp, trying to look behind despite being pretty confident in what she’ll find there.
She only catches a glimpse, the suggestion of a shape, before the swinging light bulb goes out with a helpless little pop.
They’ll be stuck there, and the thing, this thing that has no place in their world at all, will be out on the open side while they cower and beg for the invention of a benevolent god.
“Shh,” Julian breathes, cupping her chin in his palm. “Nazlı. Calm down. There’s a breach. Stay with me.”
She blinks up at him, then goes limp, closing her eyes and allowing herself to fold into the space that stood about two-thirds of her height.
A little prickle moves through her senses. They are reversed now, she’s given over total trust to Julian’s guidance, now blind. Where they should have run into stone, run out of vertical space to escape the beast, the walls fall away. Clean, thin air swirls around them. For a moment, Nazlı is every woman who has wandered into other lands and never returned Her sense of the beat of moments, already loose from panic, slips away with the sense of herself, of history.
They run. Hand in hand, wheeling through the darkness, almost flying. For a moment, Nazlı forgets that they are prey.