Julie, Deirdre, Olivia and Prince had barely been at the rental house in the mountains for ten minutes before they accepted the fact that they were all going to die there. Anna’s car keys on the kitchen counter, covered in a visible layer of dust, had been the first clue, and the discovery of Anna herself was what settled it. Anna, who had supposedly arrived only one day prior, lay peacefully on the bed in the downstairs bedroom, surrounded by her well-lived-out-of luggage, still wearing the maxi dress they all recognized but her body itself reduced to skeletal form as if it had been lying there a hundred years.
Further investigation served only to reinforce these cues: the lack of cell phone reception, televisions that displayed only static (and, in some cases, refused to turn off) and of course, the inability of any of them to open any exterior doors or windows. The house was haunted, or something close enough that it made no difference. It had sealed their warm bodies, all the flesh and fluid and breath that they were, inside its cold, covetous shell, a clever and inescapable trap. It was easy to anticipate how things would proceed. The rest of their friends would either be strangely, perplexingly unable to locate the house, or, upon locating it, would find it empty. Meanwhile the four of them, neatly removed from time and all other forms of logic, would be devoured one-by-one in secret agony.
None of them having any children to worry about, and all being well out of childhood themselves, they were empowered to confront their imminent demise in a relatively mature fashion. They hugged; made themselves as comfortable as possible, with a fire in the fireplace and a bottle of red wine from the stash they had brought; talked through their feelings, and, with all the stoicism characteristic of their generation, resolved to do everything they could for themselves even though it was probably hopeless.
Near the end of this initial conversation, Olivia raised her glass and toasted, “To miracles.”
“To miracles,” said the others, each meaning something entirely different. Then they breathed, and set to work on letting the fire and wine warm them, and on managing their expectations.
For advice, they first looked to Deirdre, the survivor. At the age of eight, she had moved with her family to a house in Kingston, Massachusetts. During their four-month stay, she, her mothers, and their Siberian Husky had experienced a sampling of spiritual harassments, beginning with ceramic lawn ornaments that turned to face you when you weren’t looking, building up into walls that birthed thousands of noisy flies out of their blistered, peeling paint, and eventually leading to the house engulfing itself in flames.
“How did you get out?” asked Olivia as she refilled her glass, which had drained quickly after the toast.
Deirdre shook her head. “That part was easy. The house wanted us out. That was the whole point. Carol and Liz didn’t want to let their property go, otherwise it wouldn’t have escalated so much.
“A ghost who just wants to be left alone?” said Prince, whose name had nothing to do with any musical ability or wearing inordinate amounts of purple. “Strange. I wonder what it was up to.”
“I don’t think it was up to anything,” said Deirdre. “People need their space. Ghosts too, I guess. Maybe some spirits just want to lay cold and quiet, not be around anything with a pulse. What we have here is clearly a different story.”
“You think the house wants something?” said Olivia.
“I think it’s got what it wants,” said Deirdre. They drank in silence for a few minutes.
Julie, ever the detective, had been scanning through the house’s guest book all the while, looking for any clue as to what had triggered the haunting, when it had started, how it could be stopped. The entries went back less than ten years, though the house must have been there since at least the sixties. There were dozens of them along the mountain road: vacation homes over-built too far from the nearest ski resort, empty most of the time and quite cheap to rent. The entries she found included a dozen men up for a “bach party” who advised her not to sit on certain articles of furniture, or the pool table; a generation of cousins and their respective spouses, triumphant about having pawned all their children off on various grandparents for a full week; a group of friends celebrating a gay wedding, with two monochrome rainbows penned into the margins. None mentioned anything haunt-like but almost all had sex practically bleeding out of the corners.
She flipped back to the beginning for a second read. Julie believed that every dark presence had a code for its demise, if only you knew where to look. She had believed this since, at the age of 15, she had climbed into an old well near her friend’s house on a dare and found the Blade of Purity at the bottom, which she had spent the subsequent three years using to defeat the demon lord Gargantofruss, assisted by a talking cat who also served as her conscience.
Julie had never told her friends about her battles against Gargantofruss and his underlings. They did not bear the kind of public hanging-out-to-dry that Deirdre’s childhood trauma did. For a timid and confused teenager, they had served as a particularly dramatic pathway through adolescence and into young adulthood which, as far as she was concerned, was for her alone. Knowing Deirdre had helped Julie to understand that she was not alone in having lived through a forceful paranormal intrusion around which her identity was shaped. What she still didn’t suspect was that almost everybody else had as well. Not knowing this, she had never begun to question what magic was for.
Julie glanced over the top of her book at Prince, on the opposite side of the living room near the window. She was, as always, aware of the way he watched her, even when, like now, he wasn’t directly looking. His vigilance had saved her life in her teen years, though she had mainly viewed it as an inconvenience at the time.
Prince–so called because he was one, and because the curse he was under disallowed him from saying his name or what he was the prince of–had, at this point, been around Julie almost constantly for fourteen years. While the Blade of Purity had disappeared upon the death of Gargantofruss, he had not. The ability to speak had always made him a little human, but over time, the human aspects had asserted themselves more and more. In Anansi-like fashion, he was never completely man or cat, but always both to varying degrees. The balance had simply tipped fully in the other direction. Julie wasn’t sure how to feel about this; whether people’s assumptions about her relationship to her chronic male companion, who only she could see was really an enchanted cat, were more or less difficult to bear than the way they laughed in high school when she swore her pet cat could talk.
“Anything?” said Prince, cocking an eyebrow.
Of course he had picked up on what she was doing. “A lot of people have fucked in this house,” said Julie. “No word on how many have died. Nobody says anything of any use.”
“They wouldn’t, of course,” he said. “The spirits here are clearly in complete control of the environment. They wouldn’t allow anything that could be used against them to remain.”
“Except by oversight,” she said.
“Yes,” he agreed, “but given what happened to poor Anna, they appear to have all the time they need to be thorough. I don’t mean to be grim, but we can’t count on the house to make a mistake.”
“Unless there was something they couldn’t get rid of,” she said. “A magic circle, or something, that allows them to be here in the first place.”
“They’re ghosts. Not demons.”
“I picked up on that.” She closed the book.
Prince was still trying to protect her, of course, which was a sort of problem that he had. Thanks to Gargantofruss, Julie had never dated or fooled around with anyone before reaching adult age. After that, she had tried dating boys twice. Prince’s severe dislike of both had made it impossible to maintain after a few weeks. He had been far more comfortable with her dating girls, but the subtext of this preference almost upset her more. Why were girls okay but not boys? She often though they should just screw and get it over with, so he could see why it wouldn’t work. Had, in fact, come quite close to suggesting it on several occasions lately, always stopped by the fact that he was, after all, a cat.
“Did I miss something?” said Olivia. She set her glass on the coffee table. “Well, the Malbec is gone. What now?”
“Look around,” Julie suggested. “Get a full sense of the environment.”
Deirdre stood, apparently in agreement. “We all go together, in a group. To go alone is death. With Anna, I–” Her voice wavered. “I get the sense that’s how it works here. Small bites. Chew and swallow.”
If anybody had anything to say to that, it never made it past their lips.
The house was a literal labyrinth. Three floors plus a loft, all laid out in a way that made it easy to forget which one you were on. There was nothing like a main hall or landing on any of them, only a series of narrow, angular corridors. All of the doors were unmarked, and closed by themselves. Countless bedrooms, and every non-bedroom had a pull-out couch. Two kitchens, but they looked so similar that the group was never sure whether they had found the second one, or simply wandered back into the first through another entrance. Most rooms had at least one television, all of which were, at this point, displaying a fuzzy black background with a single white scan line jumping continuously from bottom to top, making a noise not quite static and not quite drone. Other rooms included a home theater, billiards room, jacuzzi, a claustrophobia-inducing laundry room, and something of which the purpose was unclear.
“Uh-uh,” said Julie, looking through the dark doorway. “Veto.”
“Better not,” Deirdre agreed.
“Belly of the beast written all over it,” said Julie.
“I don’t know…” said Olivia.
They were looking through a single door at the bottom of a tiny flight of stairs, what appeared to be the lowest point in the house. The room beyond was unlit, and there was no light switch anywhere to be seen. The concrete floor was strewn with what looked like construction rubble: piles of cinderblocks, scrap wood, a broken toilet seat, dirt and dust everywhere. The water heater had first made Julie suspect it was a utility closet, until she saw that it wasn’t connected to anything. The walls, also concrete, extended back into darkness, the back of the room invisible. There was a strong, musty basement smell, but underneath it was something warm and wet, and vaguely rotten.
Julie started to close the door.
“Wait,” said Olivia.
“Wait for what?” said Julie.
Olivia bit her lip, took a deep breath. “This is it. The way out.”
“I doubt it,” said Prince, wrinkling his nose.
“No, it’s definitely the way out.” Olivia shoved her way to the front of the group, between Julie and Deirdre. She stood just at the edge of the door, assaulted by the cold, moist cave-wind from within. “Can’t you see? The house doesn’t want us to go here.”
“Doesn’t work that way,” said Deirdre.
Olivia took a small, cautious step forward. “Whatever is controlling this whole situation doesn’t want us to go into this room, and that’s why we have to. It’s trying to repel us, so we have to be brave. Once we push through, we’ll be out. We’ll have passed the test.”
Olivia’s secret: at the age of 19, during her break between high school and college, she had gotten lost on the way back from the corner store and discovered a crumbling stone tower in which a beautiful prince lay comatose, waiting for her to awaken him with true love’s first kiss. A fox she met near the tower had warned her not to be tempted off the path by voices calling her aside, of which there had been many, including those of her parents, friends, and even her older brother who had died the previous year.
She and the prince had dated for eight months, and were truly in love for at least six of those. Afterward, she often thought about how parents ought not to warn their daughters about people who just want to use them for sex, but about people who just want to own another human being under the guise of “true love.” Olivia believed that resolute courage and strength of will would see her through any challenge. She confronted things relentlessly, for good or ill, and did not see that this was the time to change that.
“No,” said Deirdre. “No, no, no, no, Olivia. That’s not what’s going on here. We don’t get out of this by being brave, we get out by being sensible, if we get out at all. It doesn’t matter where we go.”
Olivia wasn’t swayed. She took another step, now completely past the door, inside the room. “What could possibly be in here?”
“Nothing we want to see,” said Deirdre.
“Can’t you smell it?” said Prince. “It smells like a dead animal in there. A big one.” Julie thought she saw him arch his spine, but he was still human-shape. He hissed, lightly. No one else noticed.
Olivia proceeded into the room, the length of time between each step shortening little by little, like a slow clap urging her on. “Come on, guys,” she said, a mere whisper. Mustering her courage, she said, louder, “It’s just a room. Just a dark room. Who’s afraid of the dark?”
“Olivia, stop!” somebody said, but Olivia didn’t pay attention to who it was. Pressing on took more nerve than the dark stairs of the stone tower, but she knew that the fear was meant to keep her away. You can’t expect a fluorescent-lit corridor to lead you out of a cursed house. Once the spell was broken, the others would see. Until then, it was all on her.
“Prince,” said Julie, “can you still hear her footsteps?”
Prince’s ears twitched, turned to face the direction where Olivia should have been, but he shook his head.
“Olivia?” called Deirdre.
“Still here,” came Olivia’s voice from inside, her shape long since vanished into the dark. “Come on, guys.”
“What’s in there?” said Julie. “What do you see?”
There was no reply.
Julie felt Prince’s arm tighten around her middle, his chest press against her back. “What are you doing?” she whispered to him.
“Praying this isn’t our last battle,” he whispered back.
“You’re scared?” said Julie
“Yes,” said Prince.
They listened for a minute before Deirdre called out again, “Olivia?”
“Still here. Come on, guys,” Olivia’s voice came back, its tone and inflection as exact a repeat as the words themselves.
“Just as soon not,” said Prince.
“Don’t talk to it,” said Deirdre.
“Come on, guys. Julie? Deirdre? Prince? Are you coming?”
“Is she still in there?” Julie asked Prince.
She heard his nose sniffing, right near her ear. “I can’t tell. It’s that damn dead animal smell, that rotten meat smell.” He gagged, audibly. “It’s everywhere. I can’t make out anything else.”
Deirdre closed the door, knowing that this was all she could do about a room like this. “Sorry, Olivia.” To go alone is death.
“You have to summon the Blade of Purity,” Prince whispered in Julie’s ear.
“And how the hell am I supposed to do that?” She shrugged away his arm, shoved herself out of his grasp.
“I don’t know, but I’m telling you, it’s the thing to do. Cat’s intuition.”
“Why don’t you just fuck me and get it over with,” Julie heard herself say, faintly, from the other side of the door. She ignored it.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said, as loudly as possible, turning to head back up the stairs to the second kitchen (or was it the first?) with Prince close at her heels. Deirdre took one last look at the door and followed behind.
It had already started, Julie knew. The four–the three of them would not languish for years, as Anna appeared to have done. The house was hard at work. It would tear them apart, cleanly and efficiently, unhindered by any of the survival skills their young lives had weathered into them. They might as well make their peace while they could.
From that point on, they stayed in the same room at all times. They ate together, slept together, bathed and changed clothes with backs turned. They dealt stoically with the house’s shifting rooms and doorways, did their best to ignore the murmurs coming from behind the dark television screens (had once tried talking over them, and quickly resolved not to do so again), became very good at pool and stifling various emotions.
The way that Prince clung to Julie did not escape her attention. It seemed pointless to note that he was always close at hand, but she did feel that even from across the room he was considerably more tuned in to her than usual. He hadn’t tried to hug her again, but his longing was thick enough to chew.
It was nearly three weeks before Deirdre told Julie that she ought to stay away from the cat. When Julie asked what cat, Deirdre pointed at Prince, and Julie thought, Great.
She set down the guest book, which she had kept with her like a talisman since day one. “The cat’s fine. Don’t worry about him.” She knew that only confusion and fury could result from her insisting that the cat Deirdre saw was Prince, so she took what she hoped would be a more benign tack.
Deirdre stood solidly above where Julie sat on the bed. “Listen. Julie. The cat is not fine. Think. Prince disappears, the cat takes his place. This is not a benevolent presence we’re talking about.”
“Oh, no. I had hoped it was just my imagination,” said Prince. Deirdre showed no signs of having heard him.
Julie felt a familiar dip of despair from just left of center in her chest, but a mild one at worst. This is just the way it works, she thought. Once the ghost, or whatever, has engaged you there’s very little you can do about it (and wasn’t it strange, she thought, that she still didn’t know what to call whatever was holding them prisoner, only that it wanted to kill them). If you haven’t removed yourself before a certain point in the progress of the haunting, or whatever, then it’s a matter of delaying, not preventing.
Well, delay she would. “Deirdre,” she said. “You’re smart. This isn’t your first rodeo here, so I know you can stay calm through what I’m going to tell you. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Deirdre.
Julie nodded. She spoke slowly, with gravity and emphasis, the way she would talk to a drunk friend who wanted to try to drive home. “The cat? That’s Prince. You think he looks like a cat, and when he talks, you don’t hear it. That’s not real. That’s the house messing with you.” Technically, she knew, what Deirdre saw was the truth. Still, she couldn’t let the truth alienate her friend. “Okay?”
Deirdre shook her head. “I’ve done this before, Julie. I know what I’m talking about.”
Fuck. “What can I do to convince you?” It was a lousy backup plan, but she didn’t see that she had any other option.
“You can listen to me.”
Julie whispered to Prince, “A little help?”
“Don’t ask it for help,” said Deirdre. “Stay with me, Julie.”
“Difficult call,” said Prince. “Strictly speaking, the only one arguably being affected by the house here is me, and I don’t have any control over it. I think you’ll just have to try to convince her yourself.”
“Thanks for nothing,” Julie whispered. She thought of swordfighting. This was her go-to in almost any situation dealing with conflict. Who is my opponent, and how can I stab it? You can’t just strike at your target, she thought, you have to roll with your opponent’s attack. To get Deirdre to let her guard down, Julie would have to make her think that she believed her.
“Okay. I’ll trust you. What should we do about the cat?”
Prince hissed defiantly. Julie ignored him.
“I don’t think we can let it stay,” Deirdre said quickly. She sounded like she had been rehearsing this presentation, and couldn’t wait to get it out. “The house wants to separate us, and that thing is a–a wedge, or something, that it’s sneaking between us and using to push us apart little by little. It’s sneaky. God only knows how it siphoned off Prince without our noticing.”
Julie winced, grimacing inwardly at Deirdre’s ignorance. We don’t know how it separated us from Prince, she thought, because it didn’t. He’s still here. Obvious answer.
“You are not, not, not letting her kick me out of here!” said Prince. He didn’t let his dramatic flair show very often. He must have been truly concerned. Outrageous as he sounded, though, he was right. This couldn’t end with anybody being abandoned. If this was simply a choice of who should die, then there was no point, and Julie was at a loss for how to avoid that. She thought of swordfighting again, but it didn’t help. Combat was so wonderfully direct and clean-cut. Problems that didn’t involve stabbing someone didn’t have that advantage.
Deirdre continued in Julie’s silence. “I think it’s best if we trap it. That way, we can dispose of it without it attacking us.”
“Oh?” said Julie. Had she missed a sentence or two, lost in thought? It was a bit hard to hear Deirdre over Prince, at the moment. In fact, it was a bit hard to hear Prince over himself. She knew he was spouting endless protest, but somehow it just sounded like, Julie! Something something, Julie! Occasionally there would be some mention of the Blade of Purity, but the context was lost. Julie began rubbing her temples.
“What do you think?” said Deirdre, giving Prince a predator’s gaze. “Any bright ideas?”
“Uhh,” said Julie.
Deirdre peered at her. “Julie?”
“Maybe we can just leave the cat alone,” said Julie, almost unaware of herself, running circles in her head around the impossibility of them both right now.
“Don’t do this to me, Julie,” said Deirdre.
“Do what?” said Julie. The next moment, she couldn’t tell whether Deirdre had left the room after she said it, or had already been on her way out. “What?”
“She left,” said Prince. “She just left us.”
Julie went for the door. As she placed her hand on the knob, she turned to see Prince still sitting on the bed. “Well?” she demanded.
“Well what?” said Prince.
“Come on! We have to find her!”
“Why?” he said defiantly, but after Julie eyed him for a good moment, he got up regardless.
Their search was futile, of course. Upon exiting the bedroom they had expected to find the billiards room, but instead ended up in a kitchen. After going back through the same door, they found themselves in a different bedroom. Deirdre’s departure had allowed the house to separate them with ease. Julie called out Deirdre’s name once, but silenced herself almost before the whole word was out. They had long since learned against calling to each other, or answering unseen voices.
They had to wander for what seemed like hours just to find their belongings again. It was a routine occurrence, and neither complained.
“I wonder what’s happening to her right now,” said Julie.
“Best not to imagine it,” said Prince. “It’s just us now. Better get used to that.”
“You’re no good,” said Julie.
She didn’t talk to him for a while. He assumed she blamed him for Deirdre’s disappearance, which was partially true. The other part was that, given the circumstances, Julie couldn’t liberate herself from the idea that she had, through inaction, chosen Prince.
The two of them quickly accepted that sooner or later, the house would find a way to separate them, at which point they would both suffer and die. Then an unexpected thing happened: a week passed. Then another week. A month. The house was quiet, though it still wouldn’t let them leave. They worried it was letting them starve, but every time food seemed scarce, one of them would remember a stash of something, or would find something they thought they had used up mysteriously replenished. Over time, they allowed their apprehension and dread to dilute, even while fully aware of what a mistake this might be.
While Julie had spent half her life around Prince, the two of them had never been alone together for this long. Eventually, it became difficult for her to remember what life with other people had been like. When she looked at her past, she saw Prince, demons, ghosts, and flickers of human friends, family and lovers whose faces were difficult to recall. She and the cat-prince relied on each other for survival–now more literally than ever.
“Prince,” she said to him one day as they lay on a bed, close enough to share warmth, which both had been letting their guard down about more and more.
“What brought you into my life?”
“I know that,” she said impatiently. “But you showed up along with the Blade of Purity and Gargantofruss, so it was also connected to them somehow, right?”
Prince yawned. “In a way.” It sounded like a cat’s understated pride showing through.
“But when we defeated him, your curse didn’t go away.”
“Naturally.” He rolled to face her, crossing his paws. He uncrossed them and they were hands again. He propped himself up on his elbow. “The curse and the demons both brought me to you. That doesn’t mean they had anything to do with each other.”
“I hadn’t considered that,” she admitted.
Prince shrugged. “I’m a cat. I traffic with the supernatural.”
Something was beginning to nag at Julie. An inkling of something she was missing. A while back, they had had a conversation in which Prince confided that he had, in his words, always cared for her. She had replied, I know. That had been the suitably ambiguous end of the conversation.
“When you fought the demons,” Prince continued, “I was there for you. But I was also there for myself. Still am, on both counts. Get what I’m saying?”
“I think I’m beginning to.” Julie rubbed her chin.
A moment later, she felt Prince’s face brush against hers. His hand on her shoulder. Contact that was unsolicited but not necessarily unpleasant. Because, of course, their world contained only the two of them. Each one was all the other had.
“Listen, Julie,” he said quietly. “My curse. True love breaks it.”
Julie thought, Really? True love? Just the term sounded silly.
Having never heard Olivia’s story about the prince in the tower, Julie had never begun to question why the supernatural world was so obsessed with princes and true love. What was so special about it. What it was good for. It was hard enough to figure out what the phrase was even supposed to mean. If she had known, perhaps it would have rubbed her the wrong way even more than it did now. Instead she felt herself giving in, acquiescing to the situation, much as the two of them had long since given in to their future deaths at the will of the house.
She broke free. Stood up.
She looked at the room around them, cursed when she realized they weren’t in the room with their suitcases. “Where’s the guest book?”
“The guest book?” he nearly shouted. “You can’t possibly be serious.”
“Never been more.” She shook her head. “Ooohh. I can’t believe this. Come on, get up.”
Prince was reluctant, but he stood and followed her to the door. Julie tried to open it, but it refused to budge. The door on the other side of the bedroom was stuck as well.
“What are you doing?” said Prince.
She slammed her shoulder against the door, largely in frustration, knowing there was no point. The door was sternly against letting them out.
“True love,” she sneered. “Is that what this was about, all of these years? All that bullshit with Sam and Kevin?” She started digging through desk drawers, on the off-chance that she might somehow discover the guest book in one of them. “I love you, Prince, yeah, but that is the most incredibly naive–God, I mean–on so many levels–”
Prince had been trying the doors himself, ears bent back submissively. “Julie,” he said, “what the hell is going on?”
“I need to find the guest book.”
“You said there was nothing useful in it.”
Julie sat on the bed, took a deep breath. “Jesus, there was. I just wasn’t looking for it. I mean, did you ever read that thing? You could practically hear people making love through the pages. Out of you, me, Deirdre and Olivia, why are we the two who are left, Prince? Why us?”
Prince leaned against the wall, facing her. “Go on.”
“Whatever spirit inhabits this house,” she said, “we thought it was trying to separate us from each other, when really it was trying to separate the two of us from everyone else.”
“No,” said Prince, but she could hear he believed her. “You’re saying the house wants us to–”
“Why would it want that?” he said.
“Don’t know,” said Julie. “Cat’s intuition.”
“I’m the cat,” said Prince.
“Then tell me I’m wrong.”
Prince opened his mouth, shut it again. Looked at the ground. “The doors won’t open.”
“Ah, you noticed.”
At that, both doors spontaneously clicked open and stayed, though they normally swung shut by themselves if they weren’t held. Instinctively, Julie and Prince backed away from both, toward the center of the room, toward each other, an old battle stance.
“Do we pick one?” said Prince.
The TV clicked on. Static and drone out of the speakers, a murmur underneath; darkness on the screen, but under it an indistinct shape.
“We have to be brave,” said Olivia’s voice.
“Was that you?” said Prince.
“No,” said Julie.
“We don’t get out of this by being brave,” said Deirdre’s voice. Were the voices coming from the TV? It didn’t sound like it.
“I don’t think we should pick a door,” said Julie.
The drone of the TV began to approach a voice.
“I don’t think we can very well stay here, either,” said Prince.
Julie reached for his hand. He clasped hers tightly. “This might be it,” she said. “We’re not doing what it wants, and it’s not going to stand for this shit.” The room felt uncomfortably cold, yet there was ripe, rotten smell beginning to assert itself.
“I can transmigrate,” Prince burst out.
“What?” said Julie.
“The cat’s body isn’t my body,” said Prince. “My cursed spirit transmigrates between animals and the astral plain. I stuck around all these years because–never mind. I can release the cat’s body and get myself out of here.”
Julie barely let herself think about this for more than a second. Her old willingness to trust her instincts during a fight was back with a vengeance. “Go,” she said.
“What will you do?” he said.
“Hell. Summon the Blade of Purity, I guess.”
He came up beside her, to look her in the eye. “Just one kiss?”
She huffed. “Yeah, okay, whatever, Prince.”
She leaned toward him, but he only chuckled. “Forget it. For what it’s worth, I’ve enjoyed our time together. Goodbye, Julie.” And he was no longer there. There was only a brown tortoise-shell cat, looking up at her from the floor.
“Goodbye, Prince,” said Julie.
“Nya,” said the cat. It trotted through one of the doors, and then both of them slammed shut, leaving Julie alone.
Julie looked back at the TV. There was definitely a face in there. She couldn’t quite pick out features, but it was a face if it was anything. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Did you not like that? Well, I’m so sorry, but–”
Slowly, with all the grace and poise she could muster, she raised her arms straight out to either side, then whipped her body sideways, bringing it back to the en garde stance.
“Light of purest goodness,
Hopeful, bold and bright,
Hear me now and aid me
Against the darkest night.
Her palm started to grow warm. It came to her that while the Blade had disappeared when she defeated Gargantofruss, she had never known where it went. She let herself believe that it had never really gone away. That it was only hiding.
“I stand against great evil,
With but my strength of will
And purity of mind.
She knew that the rhyme sounded silly. More than that, it wasn’t even strictly necessary, or at least, it hadn’t been against demons more than a decade ago. It was a ritual. An affirmation. A child’s prayer, to summon strength into a person who had none. She had been quite proud of it when she made it up at 15, though by 18 she was completely over it. Still, it couldn’t hurt. She felt a weight within her fingers.
“Shining force of justice,
Obey now my command,
And let my foes be vanquished
By the Blade within my hand!”
There it was: the familiar sensation of the golden roses on the pommel pressing uncomfortably against her thumb and fore-finger. Ridiculous-looking sword. But effective. As she shifted her stance, she felt that she had even managed to get the costume back. And it still fit, thank you very much.
The face on the TV roared.
“I am Julie Brock,” she crowed, “chosen by the forces of light to banish demon-kind from the Earth!”
Shit, she thought. It’s not a fucking demon. Evil. Evil! I should have said, to banish evil from the Earth. Oh, well. Too late now. Go big or go home. Do the perky quip.
She made gun-fingers at the TV with her off hand.
“And that means you!”
The house shook, and the very air seemed to hum with static.
In a room of this house, a woman is pushing through total darkness. It seems she has been walking for a very long time, but this may be an illusion. She has to keep going, no matter what her senses tell her. Her senses are fickle, and cannot be trusted. Only her mind has the strength she needs. She believes this. She has to believe it.
In a room of this house, a woman sits meditating. A voice she remembers well, from a long time ago in a house in Kingston, Massachusetts, says the most terrible things to her. She is resolved to preserve her rationality. Her dignity. When it realizes there is no point to this, it will release her. This is the only way. It has to be.
Outside this house, a cat runs across a thickly wooded mountainside in the dark. Cats have ways of getting into and out of places. It is pursued by things that are not quite like dogs. It cannot see them, even though its vision is very good at night. The cat scampers up a tree. The things circle the bottom. The cat crosses its paws and waits. It is smart enough to know there may be other dangers in the trees, but they will just have to wait their turn.
In a room of this house, a woman holds a sword. Her opponent is very unusual. She still doesn’t know what it wants. Despite her experience, she doesn’t know much about the supernatural world. Like the others, she knows only what it took to get her into adulthood alive, which was as big a feat for her as it is for anybody. It seemed like it should be enough to get her through anything, but now she finds herself hoping she is not about to be undone by a foe she cannot stab. Hoping she can do it again. Survive.