Chapter 17: Ballroom

Alexander had found the ballroom. It was the cleanest room he’d seen in the mansion so far. The floor was still hidden beneath the requisite veneer of dust, but there was very little clutter. Tired benches and tables lined the walls, shredded curtains hid tall windows, and in one dark corner stood a piano.

Alexander made for one of the windows and flung himself behind the drapery, praying the rippling cloth would still itself before whatever was out there found him. He stood perfectly still for what felt like hours, listening. The mansion continued to slowly destroy itself around him, its screams slowed and stretched to the familiar creaks and sighs of ancient wood. Behind him, beyond the filthy glass, the sun was relinquishing its grip on the sky.

Not good, he thought. He’d wanted to be out of the house—out of Hallowdale—before sunset. Instead he was cowering in the last place he should be after dark. But then, he hadn’t expected her to be so…overwhelming.

Of course, he hadn’t seen her face. He didn’t know for certain it was her. But who else would it be?

He felt inside his coat, running his hands over his arsenal. I didn’t search and prepare for all those years so she could frighten me like this. I should’ve stood my ground, faced her, finished it. He wondered where John was. He was angry with the younger man for bolting, but he couldn’t blame him. Now John was probably dead somewhere in this devil’s nest. Dead, or something else.

Footsteps caused Alexander to stiffen. They were outside the ballroom, in the hallway. They weren’t the ominous thuds that had sent John scampering off, however; these were light, uncertain.

With a burst of warm relief welling inside him, Alexander stepped out of his hiding place and ran into the hall. There was John, creeping through the shadows, looking pitifully small as he clung to the walls and jumped at every little noise.

“John! It’s me!”

John spun around, clutching his stake in a white grip.

“I can’t believe you’re alive. What happened?”

John stared at Alexander. His eyes were huge, and his face looked gaunt in the deepening gloom. “I’m looking for the cellar.”

“The cellar?” Alexander repeated. “Why?”

“I…” John frowned. “Sister put them there.”

What? wondered Alexander. “John, what are you talking about?”

Something snapped on John’s face, and he said, “Sorry, I’m not sure what…I think I just had the worst scare of my life.”

Alexander attempted a chuckle.

“Let’s get back to work,” John said. “Anna’s waiting for me.”

Alexander’s forced smile faded. “You know, there’s a more than likely chance she’s—”

“Shut up!” John shouted. “She’s still alive. She has to be.”

The two men stared at each other, then a piano began playing.

Alexander turned back to the ballroom. He couldn’t see the piano from where he stood. “There’s no one in there,” he said, his mouth dry.

The music went on, but it wasn’t really music. The notes were random, off-key.

“Remember the kitchen?” Alexander asked, trying to ignore the thing in the ballroom. “I think we should find out what’s behind that brick wall.”

John nodded, but he didn’t move. His hands shook and his eyes—which threatened to fall out of their sockets—were fixed on the ballroom door. He had a different angle on it than Alexander did; Alexander wondered if he could see the piano.

“Come on, let’s get back to work.”

John managed to tear his gaze from the ballroom and followed Alexander back to the kitchen. The bricked-up door was waiting for them, just as they’d left it. After studying it for a moment, Alexander noticed a dark speck in the mortar: a hole. He peered inside.

“Can you see anything?” John asked.

He shook his head. “We need to find something to knock it down,” Alexander murmured. “Wait here a second.” He jogged out to the parlor with its cold fireplace and retrieved an iron stoker from a rack by the mantle. When he returned, he shoved the point into the hole and began scraping. The ancient mortar crumbled easily under the iron, and soon Alexander had enough leverage to pry one of the bricks loose. He handed the stoker to John. “Take over. You’re younger, and I want to be out of here before dark.” Through the kitchen window, the light was a deep gold that set the forested hills on fire.

As John attacked the wall, Alexander took a position facing both the dining room and the hall. Whatever had sent them scattering earlier was still out there. Alexander could feel the halls and rooms stretching away beyond his sight, empty yet full. He heard the dust stirring, phantom motions where none living could see.

There was a crash of rubble. Alexander glanced back to find John kicking over the remains of the wall. Bricks clattered into darkness, tumbling into the unknown. “I think there’s stairs,” John coughed. He had an arm draped over his face. A second later, the smell hit Alexander. Rotten air rushed out of the opening.

“Anna couldn’t be down there, right?” John asked. “It was closed off, how could she?”

“There might be other entrances we haven’t found,” Alexander replied, “and I don’t think our enemy’s as physically limited as we are.” They stood side by side at the edge of the darkness. The first few steps were barely visible, the rest swallowed in liquid shadows. “Come on. The sun’s setting.”

He led the way down, going slow. It was more than blindness that hampered his progress, though; years ago he’d made a similar descent. He’d come to an empty house. His search led him to a basement. Down there he’d found—

John cried out as his foot slipped. He fell into Alexander, who lost his balance, and together they bounced the rest of the way down. Alexander cracked his skull against a solid, invisible surface, and was gone.

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