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From the Journal of Marzi Allyntahl Renée

Voxstein, Brittany, Waldalchia Province Tuesday, February 27

Diary Entry—Ch. 1

Sometimes life can be so unfair; one minute, I'm so innocently minding my own business trying to win the top spot in the social pecking order of Swanwick Sweet River High … The next, my parents so totally ruined my life by selling the house in Swanwick and moving us all to the big city.

Apparently, my parents, being the "cool open-minded adults that they are," wanted a much more vibrant life for me and my siblings—one with more cultural diversity and anthro contact and more access to facilities.

Yeah, like the paltry and lame open-air malls around here are waaaaaayyyy better than the trendy village Royal Emporium of Chic and Carrousel Du Licorne down in Swanwick.

Yeah, thanks a lot, Mom and Dad. Really brilliant move. If you were the concerned parents you claimed to be, we wouldn't have moved in the first place.

"Tyler?" a childish voice called out from the courtyard.

I narrowed my eyes as I concentrated on the paper before me. Meanwhile, the "Tyler" in question squatted on my left shoulder like a furry Muppet gargoyle, scrutinizing my work with sharp, beady eyes.

Doing my best to ignore the latest uninvited guest/book critic, I continued with my daily woes.

And now, here I am. My stylish 16-year-old self stranded…

"Heeeeere, Tyler!!! Where are you?" the voice sang out at the top of its lungs. At the same time, a trolley rattled by on the main street, adding to the din.

…With no friends,…

My quill scratched forth my latest teen angst with excruciating slowness.

…No decent nail salons, haute couture malls, highbrow boutiques or luxury spas and resorts. . .

… And enough magical weirdness to fill up several enormous Olympic stadiums, including the Anz one in Australia.

Here in Voxstein, logic has taken a back seat to the bizarre and totally absurd. This town does not follow common sense protocol or any known universal rule of science.

It's a very strange place indeed. There's no telling who…

Out of the corner of my eye, a pair of bizarre beasts scuttled in through the opened patio door. Resembling hairy bandicoots with deer-shaped heads and spiky, oversized donkey ears. Much to my chagrin, the beasts plopped down in the shade of a rubber plant, grooming themselves and looking rather smug. Meanwhile, the other annoying beastie nestled in my hair and cooed softly to itself.

Letting out a despairing sigh, I wrote on.

…Or what might be lurking behind the brightly painted doors and stone and mortar walls.

I swear to the fashion gods, it's like the freakin' Twilight Zone or X-Files around here. Even if I do tell my parents about this weirdness, they won't believe me. They'll just think I'm being homesick, or worse yet, nuts!

I'll give you a few examples of these weird/crazy things I've noticed within the first few weeks of moving here.

Item 1: This bokor guy who looks a lot like that mad scientist in that Dr. Strangelove movie lives on my block.

Item 2: Instead of rats and mice raiding our trash bin and pantry, its roof dragons and these hairy penguin-like things called "grankle birds."

Item 3: At one point, we had 400 grankle birds living next door. Exterminators tried everything to stem the hairy tide but to no avail.

Eventually, the city had to enlist combined help from the local witch covens and feral cat colonies.

Item 4: And now, just when I thought things in Bizarro Ville couldn't get any worse, I find out that there's a computer virus going around that's making everything monochromatic. . . so everything's like a black & white movie, which totally sucks since now… I'm colorblind and I can't color-coordinate my own closet!

Talk about a major disaster!

I mean it would be great if everyone wound up colorblind but nooooooooo!

"MAARRR-ZZZZ!!!" the shrill voice was back, causing me to wince. "Have you seen Tyler anywhere?"

I sighed loudly, rolling my eyes and noting the chimaeroid now curled like a furry beanie on my head.

"Your snake-ferret's right over here!" I hollered back. "Please remove him before he piddles on my head!"

"Ramidreju!" the voice hollered back. "It's a rami-dre-ju!"

Small sneakered feet stampeded up the patio just as the two beasties decided to book it out the nearest cat door. The rubber flap barely shut behind the second departing tail before a tow-headed urchin catapulted into the den.

"There you are!" he exclaimed, skidding to halt.

I pointedly ignored the lil' pest as I scrutinized my newest filled page:

This virus/curse/whatever doesn't affect everyone equally. So now people at school keep staring at me like I'm a total dork loser… all because of a major color clash in my outfit which I can't see anyway.

"C'mon you!" the youngster said, tugging the sleepy Tyler from my new perm… along with several strands of hair. "C'mon you! No more sleeping on Marzi's head!"

Oh, to anyone arriving late to this narrative, I would like to present my eight-year-old brother Leonard. A major annoyance as well as a collector of action figures, movie monsters as well as possibly diseased wildlife.

Oh, did I forget to mention the "zoo" in the garage for all the neighborhood kids to visit? It's driving me and my parents crazy! It's started out with a few snakes, frogs, and baby turtles. Now it's all these pesky faerie animals!

"It's not safe for you," Leonard went on. "She probably has fleas or cooties."

"Sqweep-wheek?" was Tyler's startled response.

I snorted indignantly. "Since I'm very busy I'll disregard that pesky comment you just made about my cleanliness."

Immediately, I regretted my snarky remark, for Leonard was now looking at me with renewed interest.

"Wha Cha doing?" Leonard asked.

"Working," I replied, pretending to ignore him.

"On what?" he asked, looking curiously at the scribbled pages.

"A story."

"About what?"

"Stuff that happened," I muttered, hurriedly shuffling the pages on the table, trying to hide my writing. If only Mom would give me a new iPhone on a Blog Cube to post my innermost thoughts or some juicy gossip instead of this refillable, hippie-handmade travesty.

"What kind of stuff?" Leonard asked, now standing next to me. His eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement as Tyler draped himself around one arm like a scarf.

"Like a story about this teenage Gerdin girl," I said flatly, resting my chin in my palm. "She had a brother who so very annoying that she summoned up this huge demon who tore him into little shreds, and then she made a tasty sandwich of the bits seasoned with mustard seeds and coriander."

Leonard narrowed his eyes cynically. "Last time you tried to summon a demon you stank up the entire apartment, and then you screeched when the cat jumped out of the closet." He eyed me thoughtfully for a moment. "Mom, Dad and Marie were pretty peeved off."

"That demon was actually a stink weasel spirit," I said gruffly, grimacing at the memory, "and I was trying to get rid of the rats and roaches."

"Well, you made everyone else leave," Leonard cheerfully pointed out as he pulled up a seat next to me, "not just the wall critters. We had to move out too… right after Mom and Dad had that long talk with the police, landlord, and fire department."

"Yeah… well," I shrugged. "At least we don't have to worry about things running across our faces in the middle of the night anymore."

"Is that what your story's about?" Leonard beamed at me. "How you made that Big Stink that got us to move?"

"No," I replied as I stared off toward the far wall, a faraway look in my eye. "It's about what happened shortly after our move to this country when we were living in Oise…and when Sis was still living in Harnam and hadn't reunited with us yet."

Ch. 2--The Brass Key

It was the first day of Spring… Tuesday, March 20, to be exact.

Marie Louise Renée, or, as she preferred to be called, Kes Allyntahl, had just turned sixteen shortly after she moved back into the Rue Des Jardins Lodge.

Kes's last place—the infamous Lum House—had burned a few days ago, and she felt nothing but relief that the ghost and demon problem had finally been resolved.

The boardinghouse sat in an upscale area at the edge of Harnam. Very nice house, quiet and relaxing with cozy beds and space for artwork.

Kes loved it. Her room had a good view to a back garden; there was even a door that led to a path through shady woodlands.

But lately, she noticed some weird things. . . like how nearly all the closets and wardrobes had no doors…

Or how the cats never ventured past the back garden wall into the meadow beyond…

Odd, thought Kes, a few days into her stay. How they would explore the house and front yard. Just not the back.

Also, none of the wildlife she glimpsed in the forest came near the house even though there was plenty of vulnerable poultry.

Then there was the strange Baldpate Room with keys of every shape and size, from every shape and size, from every country, weighing down the rafter… sometimes floating up from them.

Lines of salt were set across the Baldpate Room's doorway to keep out demons and other unwanted spirits, although it did little to keep out the occasional thieving magpie, jackdaw, or ghoul.

"What about sock monsters?" Leonard interrupted.

"What about them?" I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Are there any sock monsters in this story?"

""No, Leonard," I replied patiently. "There are no sock monsters, although there are plenty of other monsters… like ghouls, vampires, Yokai, and Oni."

"Oh… Well, I like sock monsters," Leonard said, reflectively. He glanced up at me. "You shouldn't be afraid of sock monsters. They're the friendly kind. Not mean and bitey."

"You know Andy's the one that ate your gerbil," I said, looking at him doubtfully.

"That's okay," Leonard reassured. "Simon would have died anyway. He was old—nearly eight."

I snorted. "Yeah, well, it's still disrespectful to eat people's pets. Anyway back to my story."

Kes had always been a sound sleeper, never walking up during the night unless she had to go to the bathroom or had the munchies. She had heard about the Witching Hour Wake Up Time before from her fellow tenants but dismissed it as simply superstitious

So when Sis started having sleeping problems, she blamed hormones plus the stress of moving to a new place. However, she soon noticed that it was always between 3:00 and 3:20 when she woke up. The other thing she'd noticed was Miss Tabitha hissing and growling at the window. Upon looking out, she would sometimes glimpse a figure sitting in the back garden.

No matter how cold and wet the nights were, the golden-haired elf would always be sitting in the same exact spot… always in the same broody, angsty, tragic hero pose.

This happened almost every night… for a week!

At this point, Sis took to latching the window at night and keeping the curtains tightly shut. Part of her still felt like she needed to open the window to check, maybe prove herself wrong, and she was just letting her imagination run away from her. Yet she stayed put--nervously listening and watching the window. Her worst fear was getting up to peek out and seeing a pale face staring back.

From the Journal of Kes Allyntahl

Voxstein, Brittany, Waldalchia Province

Saturday, March 24—Happy Belated Birthday

The sun rose at six o'clock, and Rue Des Jardins Lodge came alive. Doors slammed. Locks clicked. Feet thumped on the oaken planks, heading downstairs as the smells of cooking wafted from the kitchen.

I sat at the open window, thinking.

The whole house is waking up, and I'm haunted by weird troubling thoughts…like who's that guy in the garden? Where does he go when the moon reappears from behind the clouds?

What's so important that you sit and brood out in the open so late at night?

Is he a ghost or simply a weirdo? Did anyone else notice him beside me? Is he anyway responsible for the various weird incidents last November including the ghostly winterscape I saw and the talking rat king invading my closet? And why did it call me Marguerite? Who the heck is Marguerite anyway? A previous tenant?

"Heyy-loh!" a raspy voice suddenly interrupted my dreamy mussing. "What's up, Kes?"

Looking down, I soon noticed the eccentrically-dressed speaker standing barefooted by the brick path.

"Uh, hey, Izora," I replied, nodding politely. "How's your Saturday goin' so far?"

"Mal," the visitor croaked. "C'est très mal."

Izora Jardins, eldest changeling sibling of the 15-year-old twins Nissa and Asira, and 11-year-old Isabella was a wannabe Emo-Goth who was always trying to outdo herself with her odd fashion choices. Today, it seemed she scaled back the fabulously bizarre and went instead with thrift-store, shabby-chic consisting of a dirty-gray hoodie, faded jeans, and a messy blue hairdo.

"I was supposed to hang out with my fellow cosplayer/aspie friends," she said, smiling broadly, showing off yellowed-stained teeth, "but she bailed at the last minute. She's been doing that lately… wonder if her Mum and Big Sis have something to do with it."

Izora flicked some greasy bangs from her eyes with a hand holding a wicker stick figure. "And now Mum and Nana have dragooned me into dishwasher duty," she went on. "Plus my kid sisters are bugging me to clean my flippin' room!" She snorted contemptuously. "Hope your day's better than mine. I bet it is. Haha! You just have a pussycat bossing you about."

Izora was always the troublemaker of the family. Hot-headed, stubborn, and impulsive beyond belief, she was a real thorn in her family's side. Sometimes I wondered if the Jardins had ever regretted their decision to adopt a changeling with issues. Still, I tried to be nice when I could. Besides being "a real pain in the arse," Izora was also a massive grudge-holder and I didn't want to be on the receiving end of a revenge scheme.

"Wow," I said as cheerfully as I could muster. "Sounds like you had a much more hectic morning than I have." I glanced over at the stick figure she clenched. "Sooo… what's with the wicker doll thingie?" Were you planning a Blair Witch reenactment?"

"Naw," Izora replied with a shrug. "It's actually a talisman—Japanese nori no wara ningyou (doll to curse a person). Exactly at midnight, I'm going to nail this sucker straight through the heart to a sacred tree, and then (if my wish comes true) I'll hex that stupid, interfering little rat fink responsible for much of the trouble around here!"

I looked at her in surprise. "Who? One of the twins?"

"Of course not!" said Izora angrily. "I may be crazy, but I'm certainly not stupid! Mum and Nana would most certainly have me committed if something were to happen to the Twins! "No, the person I'm really after is that spoiled, self-entitled American currently residing in Rm. 201."

"You mean Carrol?" I said astonished. "What did she ever do to you?"

Carrol was the most inoffensive and pathetic-looking person I had ever come across. Timid and homely with hardly any friends (except for the Jardins, and I guess maybe some of the “Special Ed kids”), she seemed the least likely candidate to earn Izora's ire.

"Well, you weren't here when she came to stay with us," answered Izora gruffly. "She was just so awful. I have never met anyone like her before. From what I heard, she was bouncing around relatives' houses, getting kicked out for not following the rules. Eventually, her aunt didn't have the time for her rich girl crap, so she sent Caroll packing to an elite boarding school. So I guess we're stuck with boarding this pest."

"Well, she seems civil enough now…" I began.

"Yeah, well," growled Izora, "that was right after Grandma read her the riot act, but she still does annoying stuff from time to time—"

"What? I prompted. "Like dressing up in werewolf pajamas last November and running amok?"

"That's minor stuff compared to the other things she did," Izora scowled.

"What then?"

"Like stealing valuables and doing art theft online."

"So she stole some of your stuff?" I was genuinely puzzled.

"Yeah," Izora spat the word along with a yellowish gobstopper that landed in the damp grass. "Some of my stories which she turned into Mary Sue garbage. Also, she spread rumors about me online, turning people against me." For an instant, Izora's gray eyes seemed to flicker with pale green flames. "Well, I'm going to fix her so she doesn't do that ever again. I'm going to fix her for good!"

Then like a grim specter out of a horror movie, Nissa appeared behind Izora.

Thin and wiry, the eldest Fae twin wore a long dark somber dress with a black lace coiffe topping her red-orange hair.

"Izora," she said flatly. "Mom wants you to take out the trash and compost. And will you please stop trying to put curses on the new lodgers. It's giving us a bad reputation."

Tensely, I watched as the arguments began. Now sparks began to fly—literal sparks flowing off Izora's hair and Nissa's odd eyebrows antenna.

Miss Tabitha also watched the sisters closely as if weighing the situation.

"But Nissa," Izora's writhing arc currents crackled as her shrieks bombarded my eardrums, "that lil' turd deserves it! She's like a disease!"

"And will you please stop comparing people to turds and diseases!" Asira warned, annoyance filling her icy tone.

"Speciest, Sis! Spee-she-ist!" By now, Izora was raging and venting so much it was a wonder she didn't explode. "She's a barbaric hualau human and I'm of the Faire Folk!"

"Yeah, whatever," said Nissa with a roll of eyes. "Let's go, weirdie."

The moment the Fae clamped a thin hand on Izora's shoulder, the buzzing light show died away.

"Let's go, Miss Prima Donna," said Nissa, impatiently turning her sister toward the kitchen door.

"Nissa, wait!" Izora cried, digging her heels in. Then turning, she gave me a beseeching look. "Watch out for Carrol, Kes! No matter how much she cries or begs! She may look harmless, but she's a master manipulator. Don't fall for any of her mind games or brainwashing or you'll lose big time… like me!"

Nissa's face became stern. "Get a move on, why don't you?" Her tugging and shoving became harsher.

"Ow, leggo!" Izora bawled. "Okay, I'm going, I'm going!"

"And quit hassling Kes," Nissa grunted. "She's not one of your 2D Anime characters."

Craning my neck and leaning out of the window, I watched as the two exited the garden. I heard the bleak calling of the crows as they perched and strutted about on the rooftop, and wondered what they thought of the whole spectacle. Even though I didn't particularly like Izora, I pitied her.

Life was tough enough when you were a human changeling going through the storm of puberty. But throw in some mental quirk into the already volatile mix— A sharp clinking sound scattered my thoughts.

Swiveling around, I saw a large brass key on the window seat.

A magpie streaked across the lawn, closely followed by a hawk's shadow.

Picking it up, I looked it over. It was old, tarnished, and fairly large: much too large for any of the doors around here, maybe it belonged to a large bridal chest or a wardrobe.

I recalled Grand-mère Jardin's advice when I first arrived here. That any stray keys I found lying around should immediately be handed over for categorization and eventual containment in the Baldpate Room.

As I decided whether or not to keep my new prize, there was a sudden flash of bright silvery light, then absolute darkness.

* * *

"And what happened next?" Leonard asked impatiently.

Even as he asked, I shot him a stern glance as he was about to slip Tyler some savory crepes.

"No, Leonard," I said. "Mom told you before, we don't feed the ramidreju at the table."

Embarrassed, Leonard returned the crepes to his plate much to Tyler's drooping disappointment.

"As to your question," I said, taking a sip of tea, "that was the part of the story where Kes didn't quite remember. Oh, she still heard her name being called out as she passed by the various boarders on her way downstairs. Yet as she shambled past, she didn't acknowledge them, not even to respond to Monique Aloisio's snide question about if Kes just scarfed down some catnip?

All she saw in her befuddled mind was that key and the words repeating over and over—This way.

Saturday, Mar. 24—Harnam

I don't remember walking out of my room or discarding my light blue cardigan for that ghastly ill-fitting mad scientist lab coat. Well, at least my pants stayed on as well as my underwear so I wasn't doing the zombie walk in inappropriate fashion attire.

Anyway, the walk downstairs was a blur, like moving underwater, everything all running together in a mass of color and flashing shapes.

"Oh, hey there, Kes!" one of the Lewis Twins called out.

Apricot, I guessed. Amber was the more snooty-sounding one.

No! A very small part that was still me called back. Get help!

But still, I kept walking.

Then I heard Monique Aloisio the Kawauso girl.

Kes, are you okay?" she said. "You don't look so good."

Out of my mind's more like it, my inner voice grumbled.

"You look like you're totally blissed out there," Monique continued. "Did you just scarf some catnip down?"

Cut that out! my mind snapped angrily. This is no time for jokes.

I brushed past something which later proved to be Olivia Satoui accompanied by her overly-spoiled Angora cat Muezza. Then I was outside, running my hand along the ornate yew hedges until I came to an archway with a plain wooden door.

By now the words—'This way' were going all strobe-light within my head. It was getting harder to concentrate on my rational self.

Some freakin' good luck piece you turned out to be! I thought bitterly, glancing down on the source of my troubles. "I'll either have meningitis or worse, an alien fungal parasite that sprouts a stalk from my skull and infects the whole of France!

I looked closer. Now that's weird. The key's different now.

It had now shrunk to half its original size, fitting comfortably in the palm of my hand, its two squarish bits having been reduced to a singled ridged one.

Yeah, I decided, I must be dreaming alright.

Walking slowly up to the door, I brushed aside the tangled foliage, revealing a latch and a silvery keyhole. I could have sworn I saw something moving within the shadowy depths. Not like sunlight, something round… with a pale green dot at the center. Geez, don't be stupid, it's just an illusion caused by a bit of dust or even a passing spider plus this is all just a dream and there's really nobody waiting and peeking from the other side.

Meanwhile whatever strange Alice in Wonderland spell that I seemed to be under was now passing. The scenery was returning although still blurry, and so were the various outdoor sounds…including the distant voices calling my name.

Well, at least things in this dream seemed to be back to normal, I thought, bending down to peek into the hole. That was so totally weird with that repeating message. If this hypno dream walk keeps happening, I'm so getting out of here, no question about it, even if it means I have to leave all my friends behind. It's every Yokai for himself or in this case herself.

Peering through the keyhole, I see nothing but dust and cobwebs. I lifted the latch and tried to open it. No success.

I looked at the key, turning it over several times, and thought about it. Then I slipped it into the keyhole and found it fitted perfectly. As I took hold of the handle, a sudden unexpected weight came down on my shoulder. It was soon followed by a voice with a thick Boston accent.

"Hey Kes, what's going on?" a heavy scaly hand shook me gently.

"Hey, you okay?"

Slowly I straightened but made no reply.

"Hey! Earth to Kessey! Hey… Hellow… You there? Heeeeellllloooooo?"

Letting go of the key, I slowly blinked my glazed eyes.

"Uh…Wha?" I mumbled incoherently. "Huh…huh? What? Who… "

Another shaking, this time harder with sharp poking claws.

I woke slowly, the haze affecting my vision fading like smoke in the sun.

"Da heck?" I groaned, glancing around. "What on earth and I doing out here?" I shook my head. "Seriously…What Am I Doing Out Here?!"

Something warm and furry brushed around my ankles, causing me to stumble a bit. I looked down only to be met with Miss Tabitha's stare of concerned curiosity.

"M-Man…This is creepy." I raked my fingers through my hair and studied my outfit worriedly. "Why am I wearing white? Why am I standing in front of this door."

My brow furrowed as I tried to make sense of the morning. I... I seem to remember getting ready to close the window and then. I heard…Yes… Yes…the old brass key!

Turning back to the door I was prepared to go through, I saw it was gone. In its place was the familiar yew hedge, nothing marring its clipped surface, except for a rusty old key jutting out of a tangle of a climbing vine.

"Uh... Hey there, Sheila," I said, noticing the frowning Oni Bostonian. Then my eyes widened at the crowd of twenty teens gathered around. "WHA... !? Everyone's here?"

Nobody said anything. They all stared at me as if I'd completely lost my mind.

"Um... Is this some kinda practical joke?" I asked hopefully.

Everyone just looked at one another, then back at me.

I glanced around nervously and then cleaned my throat. "Um... what's going on? Am I being punk'd here?"

"Did you see it?" Apricot Lewis abruptly asked.

"See what?" I said blankly. "What do you—?"

"She must have," her twin Amber broke in, gesturing behind me. "The key's there... "

One of Amber's snobby friends Chloe added. "That's bad if she opens the door. Very bad."

"Even worse," chimed in another snob named Miriam, "if she saw the one who waits in the garden."

"Very unlucky!" the third fashion witch said, grimly. Jeanette, I guess. "Terrible things sometimes happen to people who go in there alone..."

"She wasn't alone," Sheila said sharply, giving the clotheshorses a level stare, "because I followed her down and jolted her awake before she was able to get through the hedges." Then she gave me a concerned look. "You alright, now, Kes?"

I nodded and thanked her even though I didn't know if I was really alright. Just when I was about to open my mouth to ask what was really going on, Grand-mère Jardin suddenly cleared her throat, causing us all to jump.

Noon Voxstein, Brittany, Waldachia Province Tuesday, Feb. 27

"When does all the monster stuff happen?" Leonard asked, drinking up the last of his hot carob.

"Not till the third and fourth part," I replied, getting up for a tea refill. "You want some more carob."

"Okay."

Turning, I went into the cramped, narrow kitchen and prepared more hot water. While Leonard continued devouring the crepes with gusto, I continued on with my story.

"Grasping for straws for any explanation, Kes first thought the whole sleepwalking episode was the result of Izora somehow hypnotizing her. But seeing as Izora had never played a mean prank on her before, she soon dismissed that thought and eventually decided that it was the result of hormones and stress—the usual teenage psycho-drama.

"That is... until her fellow boarders took her aside and explained that not only was Sis was wearing Izora's white cursing outfit, she was also standing in front of a certain door. A door that wasn't supposed to be there since it was bricked and plastered shut and incorporated into the hedge wall."

As I peered into the carob bin, my usual serene expression slowly became a frown. Empty, but I could have sworn... Puzzled, I made a careful search of the pantry shelves. No boxes of carob anywhere, yet I distinctly remembered Dad buying a couple boxes weeks ago.

"Really weird," I muttered. Rubbing my chin, I strode to the kitchen threshold and peered around the corner. "The carob seems to be all out, Leonard," I announced. "So you'll have to have tea instead, and without skim milk too, since I used the last in the Vichyssoise Crème Glacée."

"Oh, okay," he seemed disappointed. "What about the chai latte?"

"No, but we have Vanilla Chai," I replied. "Is that alright?"

Leonard thought for a bit. "Okay," she said finally, "and can Tyler have some too?"

Frowning, I glanced at the ramidreju now draped boa-like across Leonard's shoulder.

"Okay, but only a little," I said, finally nodding in approval, "and not at the table."

Leonard's face brightened up immediately, and just as I was about to duck back into the kitchen, I stopped.

"Hey, Leonard?" I said, giving Tyler a long look. "While you were eating, did Tyler ever... ?"

"He didn't go into the kitchen," answered Leonard quickly. "I would have seen him."

I nodded. "Okay, just making sure."

The carob theft must have happened earlier when Tyler was AWOL. Hmm, but can a ramidreju be smart enough to lift the lid off a food bin and then put it back?

I gave Tyler another long hard look that made the little bugger squirm uncomfortably before getting back to the business of tea.

Saturday, Mar. 24—Harnam

After the incident in the front garden, we had breakfast. It was a very good breakfast, indeed, consisting of honeyed fruit salad, pastries, and yogurt. For appetizers, we had a bit of soup of most flavorful herbs, such as rosemary and garlic. Served to us in these small ceramic tankards as soon as we got to the front door, then followed shortly by a sprinkling of salt over our heads as we were ushered inside without our shoes.

It was all rather interesting. I didn't even know Brittany had a salt purification ritual. Felt a bit sorry for poor Shelia though; being an Oni and all that. She was seriously freaking out, probably more due to the salt sprinkling than due to the garlic in the soup. I was half expecting her to suddenly burst into flames or projectile vomit all over everyone, but she pulled through okay.

Since neither Sheila and Izora were in a very talkative mood at the time, I had to ask the other boarders for the information concerning that mysterious door. I had to be careful, of course, since the discussion of inappropriate or dark topics was to be avoided at mealtimes.

Very discreetly, I wrote out the questions on scraps of napkins, passing them around like I was in class. Gradually, the response came back, written hastily in ballpoint or pencil.

A few of the students, Olivia and Monique included, were just as clueless as I was. However, the gossipy locals (The Lewis Twins, especially), were quite willing to spill the beans when it came to weird stuff.

From what I gathered from these brief snippets of street-corner and schoolyard lore, the boarding house was cursed. No one could give an exact date of when this darkness first took root, but it all had to do with that particular door and the mournful man in the sealed garden. He was said to be the original house owner, an Elfin aristocrat so wicked that even after death his spirit terrorized the place.

This haunting would continue for years until an exorcist finally bound the spirit to a far corner of the garden where the man had died. Then the only door to that place was shut and sealed up forever. Yet time and time again, the door would reappear and people have been known to disappear upon entering it. Some of them disappeared forever while others turned up looking as if they had aged several decades.

That was as far as I got before a note was intercepted by Isabella who promptly showed it to her mother, who then brought it to the attention of Grand-mère Jardin. Not long afterward, I was asked to attend a ten o'clock meeting.

Naturally, I was not particularly looking forward to a meeting with the head hostess who also happened to be a Kikimora witch.

I spent the next hour and a half packing my stuff just in case I get sent to a youth hostel or a halfway house somewhere. Wouldn't be the first time my curiosity got me in serious hot water, I thought dismally. Wish I just kept my mouth shut about the man in the garden, wish I never found that damned key.

"Marie, you're leaving?" a burbly, childish voice caused me to jump.

Without even bothering to knock, Carrol Laburnham came strolling in, stopping just inches from me. Unlike the stereotypical socially inept geek, she wasn't fat nor acne-stricken, but her flesh had a pale, flaccid look like the underside of a toad. Her dark hair hung in loose corkscrews around her freckled cheeks. Although she seemed to be showering now (probably after repeated irate pleas for better hygiene from the Jardines and her aunt), she now reeked of essential oils and talcum powder.

"That's just a rumor," I replied, taking a step back before Carrol invaded my personal space completely. "I'm sure the Jardins wouldn't throw someone out on account of them accidentally learning of some dubious town history."

"Are you sure?" she said, eyeballing me and frowning. "Sometimes you can't tell with the Fae what they might do. Look at Izora, for example? Wanna know why she's so fricked up mentally?"

"Well, she told me herself it was due to ADD," I replied with a shrug, "and maybe some Aspergers as well."

Carrol shook her head, causing her locks to fly about. "Nope, it's punishment."

"Punishment?" I gave her a baffled look. "For what? Like stealing something?"

"Nope," Carrol shook her head again. "It's because of what happened to Mr. Jardin in the maze garden."

"The boarding house doesn't have a maze garden," I pointed out.

"There used to be one," Carrol answered, fingering my licorne fleece jacket draped over a chair. As soon she caught me staring, she put her hand back. "Back when the Jardin Sisters were really lil' bitty kids, where that closed-off section is now. Used to have a lot of parties here, Great Gatsby over the top-sort of stuff—buffet tents overflowing with food, visiting celebrities, and fashion designers, a live orchestra... "

"So what's the story then?" I asked, trying not to look impatient. Once Carrol got your attention, she had the tendency to run her mouth and never shut up. Sometimes I wonder if her chattiness was the result of loneliness and social isolation.

"I was just telling you," Carrol gave me an annoyed look.

"No, I mean what happened to the Dad?" I insisted.

"Oh, well, he like died of fright or something." Carrol rubbed the back of her neck. "All happened during a 2010 birthday party for the twins."

"So that would have made them eight years old at the time," I muttered. "And maybe Izora was around ten, and Isabella would have been like four... I paused for a moment, staring at her bewilderedly and scratching my fluffy hairdo. "Geeze, those poor kids—"

"Yeah, really big tragedy it was," Carrol replied, noting my stunned expression. "Scared out of his wits and then his life. Didn't happen right away, just shortly after he rescued Izora from the hedge maze."

"Well, what was she doing in there in the first place?" I asked.

Carrol hesitated. "Well, from what I heard, it was during a game of hide-and-seek, and Izora decided to go hide inside the hedge maze. So everyone was taking their time, choosing out their various spots, trying to be really quiet. They had only been hiding for barely half an hour when suddenly the screaming began— Izora's screaming.

"The Dad, big burly Tengu guy, he ran into the maze, ready to do battle with whatever was messing with his little girl. Only been in there twenty minutes, then he came staggering out with Izora slung over his shoulder. He was all pale and shaking with his face twisted up on one side like he had a stroke. And get this, his hair had turned white. I mean, completely turned white, nearly the same color as your hair!"

Carrol paused for a moment to plonk herself down on the chair at my desk.

"They couldn't get a word out of him about what he saw in there," she continued. "Not a single word. Ended up dying two days later, and right up to the end… he was still shivering and crying."

"That's horrible," I muttered, trying to suppress a shiver. I took a seat across from Carrol, my hairless brows arching in utter confusion. "You're telling me a ghost did all that. I never heard of a ghost terrifying enough to scare anyone let alone a Yokai to death. That's, like, pure demonic evil there. I mean, ghosts can be scary, but they usually leave you alone. But this? That's so... messed up there."

"Didn't say it was a ghost," Carrol answered with a shrug. "All I know is what I heard, but what I do know is this. Shortly after Mr. Jardin's untimely demise, Grand-mère Jardin had the whole maze garden demolished and sealed off. From that point on, everything went downhill for the Jardins; their family fortune shrank as well as their social status. As for Izora, she got blamed for pretty much everything that went wrong in their lives. The twins especially hated her for what happened to their dad, and made extra sure with hexes and malicious rumors that she remained a social pariah for life."

"Really?" I exclaimed. "That's honest to gods one hundred percent true about the twins totally hating Izora's guts?"

"Oh, yes," Carrol nodded enthusiastically. "It's the truth." She put her left hand over her heart. "The whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me— "

"Carrol, could you please explain to us what this is?" a frosty voice demanded from the doorway.

Carrol yelped as she vaulted from the chair. I ducked to one side as she flew by like a zany cartoon character, crashing into a stack of moving boxes.

I hissed out a frustrated curse as I rose from my chair.

"I'll take it from here," the orange-haired Fae said as she marched past me. Her normally friendly face now hardened into a cold stoney mask. "You go meet with Grand-mère."

I hurriedly nodded. As I was turning to leave, however, I caught a glimpse of the object Madame Jardin clenched in her right hand. It looked like one of those fancy Goodbye From All of Us leaving cards with the words—"Best Friends Forever From Carrol!" added in black sharpie.

Isabella and the blonde twin Asira were peeking out from behind the doorway, reminding me of a couple of curious owls.

As I hurried past, I heard Asira murmur, "You're not in trouble, Kes."

"No, I suppose not," I murmured back, although at that moment I was wondering why I kept being a karma magnet for black clouds of negativity and bad luck.

I was halfway down from the second-floor landing when something made me pause. I backtracked to the wall where some family portraits were hanging. In one, a Tengu man was seated on a mat, tossing brightly-colored balls through a hoop balanced on his long rosy nose.

There were more pictures of the juggler sometimes accompanied by the Jardins, sometimes with other circus performers. Everyone in the photographs seemed full of love and laughter, including Nissa and Izora who looked more like typical happy, excited kids rather than crazy-weird, ticked-off freaks.

I scanned the photos, searching for signs of family expressions, awkward postures, parental favoritism. However, aside from a rather embarrassed Mr. Jardin wearing an ugly Christmas sweater, everyone seemed relaxed and comfortable.

That was until my eyes came to rest on what looked like a picnic scene- a large family reunion. Everyone was in their best holiday outfits, but the underlying mood there wasn't a totally joyous one. Instead of smiles, I saw deep frowns and grave expressions of puzzled concern, and nearly everyone seemed to look off toward the right-hand side. Yet I couldn't tell who or what they were looking at because that side was cropped off.

Suddenly, I heard from downstairs the grandfather clock tolling ten o'clock. Turning, I hurried down the stairs, counting off the melancholy chimes under my breath. At the seventh chime, I reached the parlor and knocked on the door.

Ch. 3—The One Who Sees

"Come in," said a nasal voice and I did so.

"Ah, there you are, Marie," Grand-mère Jardin murmured, "and right on time too." She nodded to an empty chair between her and Olivia. "Do have a seat."

Trying not to blush, I shut the door behind me and hurried to sit down.

Besides Olivia and her prissy pussum Muezza, there was Apricot and Amber, Sheila, Monique, Anne, and the only two quadruped students—Buzby Smirkquills the flightless forest griffin, and Midori the fairy dragon. Everyone looked just as confused as I was.

I also noted the purplish hydrangea centerpieces on the tables as well as tea & pastries. Okay, I thought with some relief, that was a good sign I wasn't going to get booted out.

"I suppose you're wondering why you are gathered here today?" Grand-mère Jardin said in a grave tone.

"Yeah," Sheila retorted, "it's because of that damned ghost door that nearly swallowed Kes up like a hoover vac!"

I figure she was still kind of steamed for her salt treatment.

"Don't forget the ghost," Anne murmured.

"Here, here!" chirped Midori from the back of Anne's chair.

"If it is a ghost," I muttered. "It could be something else... " My voice trailed off.

"What?" Apricot shot me a confused look. "Should we be worried—?"

"What do mean 'something else?'" Amber cut in. She glanced nervously over her shoulder at the window facing the forest. "Like something that wasn't a person to begin with?"

At the mention of the word 'something else,' I felt a sense of dread creep over me. Somehow I still forced the words out past numb lips, "Well, Carrol told me it made a Yokai guy die of fright ten years ago." I then recounted the story Carrol told me, while carefully omitting the parts about the Jardins' bad fortune and Izora getting much of the blame for the rat plague last November even though she did a Pied Piper performance to get them out of the house afterward.

Nine heads turned slowly to stare at me. I fidgeted nervously, feeling uncomfortable and out of place.

Grand-mère Jardin especially stared for a long while. She put her bony hand to her long, pointed chin. A grave expression of skepticism flickered over her dark eyes.

"And did you believe Carrol's story?"

"Well, I don't know," I muttered with a shrug. "But I can believe the ghost and the disappearing doorway 'cause I saw them myself."

"That man and the doorway are real," Grand-mère Jardin replied quietly. "All too real to those who can truly See. My son Robert paid the ultimate price when he ventured into that corner garden to retrieve a ball that a visiting guest had kicked over the yew wall. He was already familiar with the grim legend of the Lodge but thought he was safe due to his Tengu bloodline. Unfortunately, this curse does not discriminate between Mortal or Magical-born."

Everyone sat upright in their seats, staring stark-eyed at the old woman.

A chill jolted down my spine as I recalled the family reunion photo. Everyone looking with a troubled expression in one direction. Was that the moment that Monsieur Jardin stumbled into view, already half-dead with shock? Maybe he was even clutching a kickball, and not the rescued Izora as Carrol had claimed.

Before I could even open my mouth, Buzby spoke my question in that strange melodic voice that all griffins possessed. "So there's some truth to Carrol's tale then?"

Grand-mère Jardin nodded sadly. "The rest is just mere embellishment. There was no birthday party, no visiting circus or celebrities. Just a family gathering... and it is best you take every story that Carrol tells you with a large grain of salt."

"Why is she even here then?" Anne demanded, suddenly banging her clenched fists down upon the table in front of her. "All she does is stir up trouble!"

"Anne, that's enough," Sheila warned, glancing nervously at Grand-mère.

"Well, it's true!" Anne stormed back as she jumped up. "Did you see the fake going away card she was passing around earlier? She's spreading this rumor that Marie's going to be moving out and giving up her room to her."

"What?" I jerked my head up sharply. "Is this true?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Sheila replied, folding her arms. "We didn't believe her of course, and she only managed to get one or two signatures. Everyone else thought the whole going away thing was absolutely ridiculous. "I mean, who would be stupid enough to actually believe that?"

"Yeah, who indeed?" I muttered, my shocked confusion quickly giving way to simmering fury. Honestly, I had no clue why she would start a false rumor about me! I couldn't think of anything that I did to upset her, besides not being besties with her. I was just grateful my new friends were kind enough to let me know what was being said about me.

"And that's not the worst of it," Anne went on, ignoring Sheila's warning glare.

"What?" My eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Not the worst of it? What did she do this time? Create a fake account using my name and picture?" I felt my whole face flush red and hot as I lurched out of my seat. "If she did that I'm gonna freakin' kick her flabby arse from Hell to breakfast then into next Tuesday if I have to!"

"Well, nothing like that," Anne muttered nervously, clearly unsettled by my sudden anger, "although that sounds just as bad."

"Well, what then?" I demanded.

"I think you both should sit down," Grand-mère Jardin interjected, raising her bony hand in a warning gesture. "Any more displays of temper is ill-advised. Is that understood?"

We both uttered a hasty "Yes, Ma'm" before sinking sheepishly back into our seats.

"All right," Grand-mère Jardin said firmly "Any further questions or concerns?"

Monique, who had remained quiet throughout the meeting, suddenly raised her hand.

"Yes, Monique?"

"Uh... well," the Kawauso cleared her throat. "Two questions actually."

"Alright... "

"Well, when is Carrol going to get the boot exactly?" Monique replied quickly. "And could you please have someone search her room, because I think she might have taken some of my stuff?"

"Oh?" Grand-mère Jardin's owlish eyebrows went up, and she frowned. "What sort of stuff exactly?"

"A sewing kit, some brooches, and rings and a music box that played 'Scarborough Fair.'" Monique paused, looking troubled. "All of them are family heirlooms from my Mom's side."

The rest of us watched as the house mother pulled a pencil and notepad from her dress pocket, and began taking notes. "When did you first notice these items missing?"

"Two days ago," Monique muttered

"Hhmm, I see." Grand-mère Jardin's frown deepened."As to your first question, I will have to consult with Mademoiselle Laburnhan's current guardian first to consider new accommodations." She glanced around the table. "Anyone else missing something?"

Hands immediately shot up including mine.

"Hhmmm," said Grand-mère Jardin, stroking her chin. "Interesting."

Finally, she stopped stroking her chin and cleared her throat. "All right then." She handed me the pad and pencil. "Maire, why don't you go first and list what is missing before passing these on to the next person?"

I nodded before listing down my missing possessions. Some of them had been in my family for generations—woven baskets, ornate wall hangings, wooden and bone ornaments. Others weren't heirlooms, like a paint set and a couple of journals and drawing pads.

Mostly people lost stuff that wasn't vintage—pocket money, comic books, costume jewelry, clothing. The biggest missing item was a mini-fridge that Anne was using for her special vegan diet dishes.

Finally, after the list was passed back, Sheila raised her hand.

"Yes, Mademoiselle Blackshear?" Grand-mère Jardin inquired.

"Yeah," Sheila said sourly as she lowered her arm, "is it possible we could get some decent doors with locks installed on our closets? And what's the deal with the storage spaces not having any doors to speak of, anyway? Were they nicked by ghouls or goblins?"

Grand-mère Jardin wrinkled her nose as she studied the missing item list. "They weren't nicked, they were taken down as a precaution."

"A precaution against what?" Sheila asked, impatiently. "Vandalism?"

"Against visitations from the Realm of Shadow," Grand-mère Jardin replied gravely. "Especially the one who dwells in the far back garden." Then noting our stunned faces, she continued. "He always tries to get in when space is totally enclosed and dark or like what happened last November, when the fennel is removed from a doorway. Speaking of which..." She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "We still haven't found out who did it."

"This happened before?" I asked, feeling my face grow cold as the frost I had felt on my window during that Winter Scene.

"Oh, yes," Grand-mère Jardin nodded. "When this was an inn, they used to entertain many guests. Whenever a strange occurrence happened, the owners will not discuss it nor mention it at all. It's a common superstition around here as well as other places in Europe that to even speak of a ghost is to invite its company. But the gossip still got out either from the servants or from some of the guests who didn't feel bound by polite consideration to not reveal what befell them during their visits to the Lodge.

"Not every guest experienced the haunting for they weren't Ones Who See."

* * *

"What?" Leonard suddenly exclaimed, causing me to upset the sugar bowl. Sugar spilled across the lace table cloth.

"Dammit." I quickly got a napkin to scrape it back into the bowl before Tyler got to it first.

Fortunately, the ramidreju didn't notice, having gone to sleep in my brother's lap.

"I don't get it," Leonard continued to stare at me with a puzzled frown. "What's Ones Who See?"

I immediately explained. "That was what Grand-mère Jardin called certain psychic individuals who could see past and future events that are distant in time or space. In my sis's case, she was a Retrocog (past-sighter) rather than a Precog (future sighter)."

"Ooh, okay," he said, nodding slowly. Then looking more puzzled, he asked. "If Marie's psychic, are we psychic too? What about Mom, Dad, or Grandma...?"

I shrugged, scrunching up my face. "Sis definitely," I replied after a moment of thought. "The psychic stuff tends to skip over a couple generations before landing in one kid only.

"Even Sis was surprised and confused when Grand-mère Jardin informed her of her 'Sight.' Yet Kes was also skeptical. Sure, she saw and felt some weird stuff, but that didn't mean she was supernaturally 'gifted.'

"Other people have 'seen' the man in the garden. Shelia Blackshear the oni had seen him too although what she saw was more like a misty blob rather than a solid humanoid form. Everyone else had that familiar ‘gut instinct’ or that ‘hunch’ that someone was out there in the dark even though they couldn't see who it was or there was 'swirling tension in the air.'

"Intuition it's called. We are all born with it. Animals use this valuable sense all the time to survive in the wild, whereas anthros and humans rely more on logic and reasoning instead of instincts."

"I don't think he is there now, " Grand-mère Jardin explained, looking around gravely at her inquisitive boarders, "because I am here and I do not see.

"Marie is the only one here who sees clearly," Grand-mère Jardin always insisted on using my sister's French name, "but she will not see him when she is with people who don't see. And one shouldn't look him in the face for it is not a good sight to see."

"And one shouldn't look him in the face for it is not a good sight to see."

"What?" Kes's eyebrows arched. "What is he then? A ghost?"

"A demon?" said Olivia Satoui, her face ashen.

"The same shmuck who stole half my wardrobe and tooth sharpener!" Sheila snarled, her horns flaring neon-yellow with fury.

"Quite likely a member of the living world made off with your possessions, Mademoiselle," Grand-mère Jardin replied as she straightened her headdress. "As to Maire and Olivia's questions—only the gods could say what he truly is. Who he was I can perhaps tell you."

We listened intently as she spoke quietly, and as the story progressed, terror gradually descended upon us and our blood ran cold.

"Nearly two hundred years ago, there dwelt in this same parish an old Gentry family by the name of de Gourcuff. There were three sons, the eldest of which was named Arzhel. He was rather handsome and charming, but alas, not very good. Besides being something of a cad, he was also well-versed in the dark arts.

"Eventually, the young warlock fell passionately in love with Marguerite, the youngest daughter of the Vandemar family."

The moment Grand-mère Jardin mentioned the name Marguerite, there were wide-eyed glances cast in my direction. My sharp ears pricked at the hushed words of 'rat king' and 'demonically-possessed animals.'

Sheila and I then stared irately at Anne, who shrugged sheepishly.

"I... I'm sorry," Anne whispered. "But I couldn't keep it to myself, I was really scared... "

"Sssh," Midori hissed. "Storytime, no talking."

"She was a beautiful slip of a girl," Grand-mère Jardin continued, "Pale and gray-eyed, and already sought after by many suitors.

"Arzhel would have eliminated the competition through magical means, but the Vandemars were a powerful family. Besides being wealthy merchants, they were also powerful coast wizards, steeped in the occult wisdom of Europe's northern reaches. Marguerite herself descended from Louchi the Sorceress Queen and was said to possess similar shapeshifting abilities like her illustrious forebear."

Listening to all this, I thought about my blue-feathered cloak that I had carefully hidden between two quilts on my bed. A dwarf-wrought treasure I had discovered during my stay at the ancient, Mortal city of Calpurnia, it turned anyone it enfolded into a phoenix-like bird. I wondered now if it had possibly belonged to this Marguerite... or maybe even to one of her godlike ancestors.

Meanwhile, Grand-mère Jardin continued on, "Arzhel became particularly riled when his boisterous burly cousin--Phillipe Clemmon appeared on the scene. Growing green and yellow with envy and jealousy, he watched from the sidelines as Phillipe cleared the field of all other rivals, and the fair Margueritte returning the champion's attention. Perhaps Arzhel saw himself as a knight-errant with the formidable Black Knight being Phillipe Clemmon himself. "As for Margueritte, she was far from the damsel-in-distress often depicted in chivalric romances. She was a free-spirited fey woman who was a bit of a flirt. Had she known more about Arzhel's history, she would have discouraged the highborn elf's attention.

"For some time, much to the amusement of their neighbors, the pairs tried to one-up one another--Phillipe with his social and athletic skill, Arzhel with his dancing and singing voice. There were even bets placed on which suitor would Margueritte make her chosen mate. As the gossip flowed and the jokes began, it was clear that Phillipe was the town favorite; unflattering comparisons were soon made between the friendly, sociable rustic and the not-so-studly Highborn. The warlock, however, said nothing, but quietly bided his time.

"A few days after Margueritte had told him that Phillipe was her choice, Arzhel acted. In the dead of night, he went to the low places in town and met with certain individuals who cast no shadows. And at secret moonlit coves and remote moorland crossroads, he made bargained with the dark entities there and requested certain Artifacts; one of which you are all now familiar with--the peculiar Baldpate Room with its myriad of floating keys. Each one capable of opening a gateway or portals to its country of origin.

The Key.jpg

"As to that One Key that somehow snuck into Kes's possession, it's now safely bottled up in a monastic vault. Thank the gods Marie was reached in time before that One Key could let Him out. That only key is a multi-changer, capable of shifting and opening any lock, including combination types. And the longer it is kept in a person's possession, the more their obsession grows to unlock that hidden door and see Monsieur Arzhel up close."

The old woman took a sip of her tea before regarding our watchful faces darkly. "As to the final fate of Phillipe Clemmon, we have some account. According to the gossip vine, just three days before his wedding, he was shaving before a mirror. Whatever horrific sight he glimpsed over his shoulder caused the straight razor to slip across his throat."

Jaws dropped, followed by a series of shocked gasps. Across from me, Anna the faux elf blanched before clamping her hands across her mouth.

I glanced back to Grand-mère Jardin questionably.

"All and all there was a lot of blood," the housemother went on with a sonorous voice, "and a look of extreme terror still etched across his dead face... as if he looked into Hell itself.

"As for Marguerite, after nearly wasting away from grief, she eventually married again, this time to an Icelandic seer from the Vestmanna Islands and went back with him, never to return."

"And Arzhel?" Shelia asked the same question even before it left my mouth. "What happened to him?"

"Ahh, a dreadful occurrence," the old woman murmured, shaking her head slowly. "Very dreadful 'accident'... or maybe it was a deliberate act devised by the vengeful Vandemars or maybe someone from the demonic realm.

"While he was walking home, he was savagely attacked by something and his face was disfigured. Magic couldn't fix everything and the surgeons at that time couldn't do detailed facial features."

Around the table, there were exclamations of shock and disgust.

“Oh Gawd!” Abricot Lewis exclaimed, sitting up so fast that her chair scraped against the oak flooring with a screech. Everyone sitting around her winced.

"Well damn," murmured Shelia with a rueful shake of her horned head. "That sucks."

"Très terrible," Grand-mère Jardin gave a nod of agreement. "He had been so handsome, and now... he had nothing left... except for the eyes. So he became like a freak of nature and had to go about wearing a thick veil. And all his friends and former lovers stayed away because he was so hideous to look upon.

"Eventually, his father commissioned a well-known Venetian mask maker to create a replacement face for his son, and a very realistic replica it was, with eye, nose, and mouth holes. But still, people treated him like a pariah, some going as far as mocking him to his new face. So his parents brought him here, it was a summer residence back then, and hired some servants to aid and watch him, but they didn't watch him closely enough. Not long afterward, he was found lying in the middle of a topiary maze, an empty laudanum bottle by his side."

“Oh...my…gods,” Anna whispered in shock. "Poor guy."

Shelia crinkled her nose in a slight frown. She blew out a slight raspberry, clearly unimpressed by the shy girl's sentimental piffle.

"So why does he bother coming back then?" I asked, clearly baffled by all ghosts' behavior. "If he had so much suffering here?"

"Qui sait?" Grand-mère Jardin simply shrugged her narrow shoulders. "Qui sait avec certitude... why he comes? Or where he goes exactly when he is not here. Like I said before, it is better for one not to see him ...not even to console him. As one popular saying goes--Il ne faut pas se fier aux apparences--'One should not trust appearances.'

"In life, he used his good looks to lead people astray, and now... Well, he's like a Venus flytrap waiting for its attractive petals to lure in prey. Already five people have looked and four have died within two or three days. The fifth... hélas... still quite mad, I'm afraid."

Suddenly and without warning, a shrill, ear-piercing scream echoed through the study. Everyone shot bolt upright in their seat, eyes wide in terror. The next moment, everyone was taking the stairs two at a time in a mad dash for Carrol's room. The scream had issued from that direction and, for one panic-stricken moment, I had visions of that pudgy American lying in a pool of blood like the unfortunate Monsier Clemmon or being dragged bodily away by that Thing that once had been of the living.

Upon exiting the hall, we instead found Carrol slumped over in Nissa's arms.

"Izora again," the granddaughter said grimly, holding Carrol up with great difficulty. "This time as L'Ankou."

“Quoi?” Grand-mère Jardin asked incredulously, pushing her way through the muttering crowd. "Qu'est-ce que c'est?"

"Ce gamin changeling Izora!" Nissa burst out frustratedly. "Ma terreur d'une demi-soeur! She's been trying to get Carrol traumatisé enough to leave the house, maybe even go back to les États. I've caught her a few times, dressed up as other monsters." She drew herself up and flashed an indignant glance down the hall toward the back of the house where 'Ce gamin changeling' was skulking. "Including that misérable Monsier Arzhel!"

The Brass Key Cover.jpg



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