Unlocked

The door jolts open and clatters against the wall. A brief gasp punctuates the air and then two distinct thuds echo down the hallway. He winces, face contorting; part of him hopes the pain will go away, if only he can screw his face tight enough. Another part—the unfortunate, secondary thud otherwise known as his ankle—just screams at him.

Perhaps elevating the mattress was not a good idea after all.

‘You’re still here?’ Andrew says to the mostly-dark room. The blinds are still drawn; the only source of light—apart from the hallway behind him—is from the always-on computer tower underneath his roommate’s bunk. The intermittent flashing lights mean something. Probably.

Lacking a response, Andrew tries again: ‘Didn’t your class start half an hour ago?’

Indiscernible moans erupt from the pile of blankets on the floor of the dorm room. After a few seconds, the pile rises and a grimace reveals itself.

‘Guess I overslept.’

With a flourish, Hunter throws the blankets up onto his bunk. He wears only yesterday’s trousers, his shirt long discarded on the floor.

‘Are you going to stand there, or…?’ Andrew prompts.

Hunter grips his chin and strokes a non-existent beard before announcing: ‘I won’t be going to class today.’

He spins on one foot and walks to his computer, switching on the monitor. After a moment, the computer springs to life and Hunter resumes his browsing. After checking his painfully sparse inbox, he sighs. ‘What I wouldn’t give for a mystery.’

Andrew drops his gym bag. ‘Mystery, huh?’

Hunter spins in his seat and stares intently. ‘I’ll take it.’

‘You’ll take what?’

‘You know of a mystery; I can hear it in your voice,’ Hunter says. Standing, he continues, ‘and I am so inconceivably bored that I will take whatever dregs of a mystery you might possess.’

Andrew laughs, but it is not a laugh of surprise. He knows Hunter well; they’ve been roommates for almost a year. In that time, he learned an important fact: Hunter is odd. Instead of attending his forensics classes, he rents himself out as a freelance investigator. And when there aren’t cases calling, he hunts them online.

‘Give me the details,’ Hunter says.

Andrew pauses for a moment, deciding what to say.

‘No, you’re right,’ Hunter says, patting his stomach. ‘I should probably get dressed and eat before business.’

An hour later, Hunter and Andrew are driving. Hunter sits in the passenger seat, tapping an eager beat on his knee. Usually this nervous energy would be spent riding to his destination, but today the distance is too great.

‘Let us go over the details once more,’ Hunter says. The first time Andrew explained the situation, Hunter was too giddy to truly take notice. At the first mention of ‘haunted’, Hunter was beside himself. The occult is his obsession—a curious infatuation for someone pursuing a career in hard facts and corporeal evidence.

Andrew sighs. For him, the story is both personal and embarrassing. Telling it a second time is uncomfortable. ‘Almost three years ago my grandmother died,’ he says. ‘One of the items in her will was an old house. It’s apparently been in our family for generations, dunno how many.’

Hunter rubs his hands together. Mysterious old houses are a breeding ground for the occult, and it being something of a family heirloom only serves to increase its value.

‘Anyway, my grandmother was massively superstitious. Wouldn’t go near the thing, convinced it was haunted. Unfortunately, my mother inherited most of her superstitions too,’ Andrew says.

Despite previous setbacks, Hunter is still excited. With blind optimism close at hand, he hopes this will be the time he uncovers bona fide mysticism, and not simply a case of cats in the rafters or draught-causing holes in the walls.

‘She says nobody can live in the house until…’ Andrew pauses. Unlike others in his family, he is a sceptic. He has no time for spirits or demons or anything of the sort. They are the domain of fanciful fools and children who don’t know better. There is a rational explanation for everything—except why some still cling to such baseless notions as the occult. ‘Maybe if you wander around and vouch for the lack of supernatural activity, my mother will drop her apprehension and let me move in.’

He looks over apologetically, but Hunter isn’t watching. ‘I mean, you’re a good roommate and all,’ Andrew says, ‘but you have to admit, having a house of my own this close to campus… Not a bad life.’

He indicates and then pulls off the road onto a dirt driveway. Through the wild field of overgrown grass lies a large, two-storey house. Andrew follows the driveway, marvelling at the height of the grass—or is that wheat? The smatterings of trees throughout the yard are mostly obscured by whatever the plants are, swaying in the slight breeze.

The car stops in a small clearing in front of the house. Within seconds, Hunter is sitting on the porch, staring back towards the road. Andrew pockets the keys and strolls over. He waits, watching Hunter, who appears deep in thought.

‘Shouldn’t you be more interested in the house?’ Andrew asks.

Without turning to look, Hunter asks: ‘Does your mother send anybody out to maintain the property?’

Andrew shakes his head. ‘Only people she’d let out here are ghost busters. At least, that’s what I’d expect, given the state of the place. It doesn’t look maintained at all.’ He kicks at a step and the rotten wood gives way. With a sigh, he adds: ‘Might need a bit of work before I can move my junk in.’

‘Without maintenance, there would be no driveway,’ Hunter says. He gestures to the clearing. The blue sedan looks anachronistic against the organic backdrop. ‘And all this would be overgrown too.’

‘Huh. I guess.’

‘The outside is certainly weathered and parts have rotted,’ Hunter continues, ‘but at first glance it seems purely superficial. No damage to the roof and no ceiling collapse. Walls seem intact.’

Andrew shrugs. ‘They made ’em sturdy in the good old days?’ he offers. It’s as close to an explanation as he can find. Hunter’s observations are obvious, now that he thinks about it, but they still mean nothing. Who cares if the building is still in good nick? Work will still be needed before it’s liveable; no way could he bring girls home to this.

Hunter stands and rubs his hands together. ‘Let’s take a look inside,’ he says.

‘Hang on,’ Andrew says as he pulls the keys from his back pocket.

With a gentle push, Hunter opens the door. ‘No need,’ he says.

Andrew feels a knot tighten in his stomach. The place should be locked. Only a couple sets of keys exist, and he has the only copy not sitting in his mother’s house.

Opening the door scatters dust around the foyer. Light creeps in through the windows, but not enough to bathe the room in light; the dust particles look like little snowflakes as they float about.

Hunter runs his fingers along the inside of the door jamb. No signs of forced entry; the strike plate and dead latch are both undamaged. He crosses the foyer and tests the staircase. The wood is still solid, but the carpet runner is worn to scraps. Is some arcane force maintaining the wood? Or is it as Andrew suggests: just good handiwork?

‘You’re not thinking of going up there, are you?’ Andrew says. His voice betrays a hint of fear; something about the dark house unsettles him. The thought of going upstairs…

Hunter smiles. ‘Attics always hold secrets. It is the most sensible destination.’

He starts up the stairs. Andrew watches, hesitates. What is this unshakeable feeling of dread? What lurks up those stairs?

‘Maybe I’ll look around downstairs,’ he offers. ‘Speed things up a little, you know?’ Andrew wants to stay close to the door, close to the light. Hunter can have his excitement.

Andrew walks over to a window and opens the curtains. Sunlight streams onto his face, warming and temporarily blinding him. Sighing, he turns his attention back to the house. Maybe checking out this old dump is pointless. From the look of things, it needs a lot of repairs. All the junk needs to be cleared out. And what a pain it would be to repaint all the walls. He can’t even begin to comprehend how long it would take him to keep the place tidy.

He whispers to himself, ‘Not like I need a place to myself yet anyway.’

But leaving is not an option. As he turns, Andrew realises that Hunter has already cleared the stairs and disappeared into one of the many rooms. He decides to wait for him to return. He grapples with his fear, trying to convince himself his imagination is just being overactive. There’s nothing to be afraid of. People explore abandoned buildings and stuff all the time. Urban exploring, though this place isn’t exactly urban.

He grits his teeth. ‘What the hell,’ he says. It’s a matter of personal pride. He starts with the first door on his left and peeks in. Lounge room. Perfect. Who ever heard of ghosts or monsters showing up in living rooms?

Hunter climbs the drop ladder into the attic. The dust is even thicker here, like a light, brown haze. His spirits start to dampen; either he is dealing with something incorporeal—though this is almost certainly the ideal outcome—or the attic is devoid of interest. The worst case scenario begins to haunt him: what if there is nothing here?

‘Nonsense,’ he says aloud, dismissing his negative thoughts. A positive outlook will bring about positive results. We make our own luck, he thinks with a smile.

Through the window opposite him, a beam of light illuminates the room. Curiously, the attic is better lit than the rest of the house. Old furniture litters the room: a sofa lounge sits against one wall, its cushions torn and padding trailing to the floor; a bookcase stands against the opposite wall, covered with dusty tomes; a wall-mounted shelf hangs from a single screw, long-dead candles beneath it; an old wooden trunk rests in the middle of the room, the lid lying discarded beside it.

But the most interesting piece of furniture is a small wooden desk below the window. With careful steps, Hunter moves between the piles of old belongings. He is doubtful that anything truly important lies hidden here. But who knows? With any luck there might be a cursed object or two sitting amidst the junk.

He approaches the desk—floorboards creaking underfoot—and steps past the now-two-legged chair. On the desk sits an open book with a dried inkwell beside it. Hunter picks up the book, conscious of how delicate the old, sun-damaged pages are. Could this old book hold some clues? He thumbs through the book, pausing briefly as one page disintegrates. An unfortunate loss, but no words leap out at him; it is a simple diary of a former resident—an ancestor of Andrew’s, perhaps—but the owner, Clara, sheds no light on whatever paranormal events have—allegedly, Hunter reminds himself—taken place in this house.

A loud crash alerts Hunter. This could be it. Or it could just be Andrew messing about. Maybe he knocked over a cabinet and has himself pinned. Or maybe it’s nothing at all. He drops the diary back on the table and returns to the ladder.

‘Andrew?’ he shouts. His voice echoes down the empty hallways.

No response comes. Hunter heads back down to the foyer and calls out again. Nothing but silence. Strange. The front door sits ajar. Perhaps he went out for some fresh air.

Hunter steps outside and looks around. No sign of Andrew by the car and there’s no reason for him to have gone any further. ‘Which means he’s still inside but somehow unable to hear me,’ Hunter muses. ‘It seems I finally have my mystery.’

He steps back inside and regards the foyer. In the centre of the room is a fallen chandelier, broken glass scattered across the floor. Shards reflect the light streaming in through a window, which gives him an idea.

Hunter strides to the other main window and tears the curtain from the wall, letting it drop to the floor. Then he pushes the front door back, allowing maximum sunlight in.

‘Much better,’ he says. Crouching beside the chandelier, Hunter examines the broken shards. If Andrew—or anyone else—has walked over the top, then he will find a foot-shaped collection of tiny pieces of glass. He shifts around the edge, but finds nothing noteworthy. Smaller shards do lie scattered about, but there’s no evidence of a second impact; just the damage from the chandelier’s initial fall.

‘If not through there…’

Hunter stands and looks around. There’s a doorway in the left wall, and the stairs leading to the second floor on his right. Beyond the chandelier are a number of other rooms: perhaps bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, or a laundry. It doesn’t matter; they’re unimportant right now. Silently, Hunter walks through the doorway and into the sitting room.

Yellowed sheets have been thrown over the top of what little furniture remains. A sofa lounge, a small table or footstool, and an armchair are protected from the dust and decay, unlike the furniture Hunter saw earlier. The sight of worn, discoloured fabric ages the room, perhaps more than the historical furniture would. Hunter strides over and crouches by the fireplace, poking at the remnants of the last fire.

Hidden beneath the coals is a small candlestick holder, its silver lustre long since lost. Hunter stands and runs his fingers across the mantle; at the left edge there is a clean patch and a small scratch in the paintwork.

Hunter thinks for a moment. Hunter thinks for one moment too long. Something strikes him, halfway between his neck and the crown of his head. The pain paints an accurate picture in his mind. The weapon is small, with a blunt edge—enough to open a wound, but not sharp enough to cut nor heavy enough to bludgeon.

He reaches out to steady himself on the mantle, his other hand instinctively applying pressure to his wound. Warm blood coats his fingers. His mind shrieks—turn, run, fight, act—but everything is out of focus. He stumbles backwards, attempting to create a less stationary target, and catches a blurred glimpse of his attacker. The image is unclear, out of focus; the best Hunter can deduce—thanks to the faint yellow glow around the silhouette—is that that this villain is humanoid. Then he overbalances and the ceiling drifts away.

Hunter falls on his back and his head whips into the wooden floor. Everything turns black.

Andrew sits up, rubbing his eyes. Hanging from the ceiling is a lantern, but his eyes haven’t adjusted to the lighting yet. His head throbs; he has no idea why. He was just walking around, taking a look at things, when…

His muscles start to ache with a nervous energy. Somebody jumped him. He checks his phone, but he can’t get reception. Survival instinct takes hold and Andrew decides to act now and worry later. He climbs to his feet and then his leg hits something.

A body.

Andrew screams—an embarrassingly shrill scream. Immediately he clamps his hands over his mouth; whoever tossed him down here needn’t know he was awake. Had he just thrown away the element of surprise?

The body stirs and then sits upright. ‘Not so loud, please,’ Hunter says. ‘I have a splitting headache already.’ He lets a weak chuckle escape.

‘Do you know what happened?’ Andrew whispers.

‘We found the mystery. ‘

‘I don’t care about mysteries,’ Andrew says. His voice turns harsh; he has no time for Hunter’s eccentricities now. The situation is serious. ‘I just want to get out of here.’

‘All in good time.’ Hunter stands, makes for the lantern, and then turns his attention to the ceiling.

Andrew watches him silently for a few moments. His patience wears thin quickly. ‘What the hell are you doing?’

‘The same thing I have been doing since we arrived: looking for clues.’

He turns and Andrew sees a flash of a smile. Is he enjoying this?

‘We’re in the basement,’ Hunter announces. ‘Or cellar. Whichever. I doubt there’s wine down here any longer.’

‘Basement? How can you be sure?’

Hunter shrugs. ‘If not the attic, then the basement. That’s where you find mysteries.’

Andrew’s jaw drops just a little. ‘You’re joking, right? This is no time to be messing about.’

‘Look to the earthy smell, unremarkable ceiling design, and stone walls for further evidence. Not to mention that nobody would carry our unconscious bodies upstairs or dump our bodies somewhere with easy access to the exits.’

‘Oh.’

Hunter takes stock of the room. It’s small and, with the exception of Hunter and Andrew, completely empty. The only exit—hidden wall panels notwithstanding—is a wooden door.

‘Come here a second,’ Hunter says. ‘Is my head still bleeding?’

Andrew struggles with the poor lighting before his breath catches. ‘Yes, definitely yes. That needs to be looked at. Are you feeling alright?’

‘So we haven’t been down here too long,’ Hunter says. ‘Should we go on the hunt, or wait for our host to come back?’

Andrew shoots him a filthy look and heads for the door. He has no desire to wait around for whoever hit him from behind. He’s going home; Hunter can stick around like a moron if he wants, but that’s no longer his concern.

‘I hoped you would choose that,’ Hunter says.

Andrew briefly entertains the idea of punching him in his smart-arse mouth. Instead, he opens the door.

Several mismatched tables litter the room. Books and bottles and junk clutter every surface. Lanterns hang from the ceiling and sit amid coloured glass vials, bathing the room in kaleidoscopic light. Andrew stares, bewitched by the chaos.

Hunter edges past him. ‘Hope we didn’t interrupt anything,’ he says with an eerie sense of cheerfulness.

Andrew suddenly notices the figure, hunched over a table in the corner. The man wears dark, loose-fitting clothing. He straightens and turns to face them.

‘So they live,’ he says. His voice cracks as he speaks, as if rusty from disuse. ‘I feared I did too much damage, and it would be such a waste of good specimens.’

‘This is the part where you explain what you’re doing down here,’ Hunter says. ‘You see, I have a mystery to solve and my head is haemorrhaging blood at a slightly alarming rate.’

Andrew nervously agrees. ‘Y-yeah! We’re leaving, so you better just get out of our way.’

‘I’m afraid that’s not a possibility,’ the mysterious man says. ‘I’m in need of human subjects and they’re ever so difficult to acquire. Passing up two who have delivered themselves to me, well, that would be very ungrateful of me.’

‘What kind of experiments?’ Hunter asks.

‘No, we’re not interested,’ Andrew says. He dashes towards the other door. If he can make it outside and find phone reception…

The man lunges forwards, scattering objects over the floor as he clears the table. In an instant, he stands between Andrew and the door, claw-like hands raised threateningly.

‘You have to be commended for your effort,’ he says. ‘But I must insist you remain here.’

Hunter cautiously steps forwards and steadies himself on a table. His vision drifts in and out of focus, further impaired by the swirling coloured lights. He trains his gaze on the man and blinks. Hunter is fading fast; escape must come quickly.

‘If we can return to my investigation,’ Hunter says. ‘How long have you been lurking down here?’

‘Of all the questions you might have…’

‘How long?’ Hunter insists.

‘This is my briefest residence, less than three years. It matters not; I will move onto new locales as required.’

Hunter laughs. ‘Guess you were right, Andrew.’

Andrew doesn’t respond, his focus firm on the exit.

‘If you’re done wasting my time—’

‘One more question,’ Hunter says. His eyes are beginning to glaze over, but there’s still something undeniably queer about this man. ‘What’s with the yellow glow?’

Concern flashes across the man’s face. ‘I thought there was something curious about you,’ he says. ‘So you have the talent.’

‘I have many talents. To which are you referring?’

He relaxes. ‘So you don’t know. Excellent.’ He steps forwards, hands hanging low. ‘I’ve had a change of heart. You two seem more trouble than you’re worth. But do not despair: I’ll put your bodies to good use.’

Hunter runs. His eyes flit between unaware Andrew and the pulsating red hands of the man. His legs are unsteady, each stride too inefficient. His mind ticks: he realises he won’t reach Andrew in time; too late to shout; too far to leap.

It’s too late. He can’t do anything.

Red hands rise and Hunter catches the glint of a smile, sees crazed eyes. He feels the room heat as fire—actual arcane flames!—spews forth from taloned hands. At long last, Andrew reacts; he turns and shields his face, but it is not defence enough. Despair wells within Hunter as it he senses the end. His eyes screw shut as he waits.

And then it happens. Blue light radiates out from Hunter’s body, engulfing the room. Books and bottles alike are flung against the walls with ferocity. Andrew is tossed against the wall, collapsing with a solid thud. The flames are snuffed out and the heat evaporates as everything is consumed by wild blue energy.

When Hunter opens his eyes, he is transfixed by the silence. The room is in tatters. One of the tables has flipped. An extinguished lantern swings back and forth.

The only sign of the enemy warlock—or was he a wizard, perhaps?—is a black stain on the floor and wall. Hunter feels a pang of sickness, a combination of fearful guilt and blood loss. Somehow he disintegrated a man; the man might have been murderous, but it was an unsettling realisation nonetheless.

Andrew groans, calling Hunter back to reality. With laboured movements, he helps Andrew up and the two carry each into the next room. Hunter smiles as he spots the exit.

‘We get to climb through a trap door,’ he says with as much glee as he can muster.

Andrew mumbles a response.

‘Hey, I need you to switch on a little bit,’ Hunter says, gripping the ladder. ‘No more mumbling, I need your assistance.’

‘Wrap something around your head to stem the bleeding,’ Andrew manages.

Hunter laughs and then winces. Laughing is a no-go until his head stops pounding.

‘That’s not my dilemma,’ he says. ‘I need you to get us out of here. I can’t drive.’