A/N: Happy Halloween, folks! Here's part 1 of a Xellos/Filia fic that AmberPalette and I have been working on together. Part 1 is from Filia's perspective and written by me and part 2 is from Xellos's perspective and written by AmberPalette. The link to part two will be posted in the description.
House of Secrets
Part 1. Filia's Perspective.
It wasn't even as though it was a particularly scary house. It was… well, maybe a little imposing, but only in the way that really big houses always are. It didn't have any of the features that I'd have expected on a haunted house—no crushing façade, no prowling gargoyles on the roof, no windows that looked suspiciously like faces… apparently Jacob Grogan, the head of the merchant empire family that had first commissioned the house, had decided that he didn't want his family living in a gothic cathedral, so the architects had opted for something a little less fashionable and a little more rustic. It was mostly made of brick of a warm cinnamon shade, but the upper levels were white, or at least were once white. It was no barn, but the roof had clearly been designed after one, right down to the jaunty rooster-shaped weather vane. From each level dripped wood-cut decorations in a fading shade of blue, like frost on a life-size gingerbread house. It still had such a… such a homey feel even after being uninhabited for decades. It was so homey, in fact, that a person might be tempted to shelter under its awnings during a surprise rainstorm and then perhaps notice that the door was unlocked and venture inside to dry off.
And that was exactly what had happened to Phil Harrod who'd disappeared on his way home from his shop last Tuesday during a rainstorm. He was found on Saturday huddled in the corner of an upstairs bedroom staring at nothing and muttering gibberish. That's when everything got turned over to me. The doctor couldn't do anything… even my holy magic didn't seem to have any more effect than to calm him down. Three days later and he still hasn't woken up.
What did he see in there?
I took a deep breath and then immediately wished I hadn't. I didn't want to look uncertain if… if someone was watching. Not anyone in particular or anything. Just… you know, someone.
I resisted the urge to take another calming breath and marched up toward the front steps with a stride that hopefully conveyed that I was confident and eager to deal with this matter and not say, terrified that if I slowed down I'd have second thoughts and leave altogether.
I should've probably eased up my faux-self-assured-running-walk a bit considering that the mortar slabs that made up the walkway hadn't been replaced in a long while. One crumbled under my feet and I nearly lost my balance altogether which I'm sure someone would've found hilarious. Not that someone should've been around anyway—spying on me. Surely someone had better things to do with his time—like ringing people's doorbells and running away.
I got my balance again and went back on my way through the neglected garden that made up the courtyard, though this time careful not to step on a rotten tile or on a thorny weed or in a snake hole or something.
When I reached the front door I saw that, indeed, the padlock was nowhere to be seen, despite the assurance of Maggie Downing over at the mayor's office that the place had been locked up since it became city property ten years ago. It explained how poor Phil was able to get in. But where did the lock go?
I tensed my hand around the knob and let the door slowly open. The hinge didn't creak or whine, which made no sense at all to me considering that the house obviously wasn't being maintained at all. This house wasn't playing by the haunting rules. It wasn't giving out warnings. It was simply curious, charming in its antiquity and its country-fried kitsch… and inviting.
It was dusty inside, but my way wasn't blocked with cobwebs, though there were a few downed webs that suggested that Phil had already knocked them down when he first went in. Of course the lights weren't working and the dim light that had already filtered through the trees on the hill wasn't helping much.
"Lighting," I whispered, knowing full well that any menacing fiend scrabbling around the place wouldn't be the least bit intimidated by my candle's worth of light. A spell like that couldn't extinguish horrors, just illuminate them.
Nothing fiendish appeared where my light cast, but my eyes did fall on the portraits that lined the entrance hall. The Grogan family stared back and me from painted canvases—though only in the figurative sense. Their eyes weren't literally following me around. That's just an artistic trick so there's no need to get over excited about it.
I couldn't help but be drawn to the newest looking picture. It was of a blonde woman with her hair piled in a frazzled lump on the top of her head. She was slightly older than the other figures who had preferred to be immortalized on canvas before the flower of youth was cut short by the weed whacker of middle age. Her smile was polite, but it wasn't genuine. Her cheeks were slightly puffed out and there was impatience behind her eyes as though she had much more important things to do than to sit for a painting. The name on the plaque was unreadable.
The frame was crooked so I walked over and straightened it. I probably shouldn't have done it or at least should've been more careful since there was always the possibility that something in this house could be cursed, but I hadn't thought of that until after I'd done it. No harm seemed to come of it anyway.
"I hope you haven't graduated to looting, Filia," a weasely voice commented from somewhere behind me, causing me to jump. "I know an abandoned house full of antiques is a difficult temptation for you to resist, but you'd think even a disgraced ex-priestess would have more self-control than that."
"Xellos!" I shrieked turning around to glare at the demon in the corner who had the audacity to look casual and conversational after purposefully trying to scare me to death. It honestly had crossed my mind that he might show up since showing up when he's not wanted is his trademark (along with a bad haircut and a sneaky catchphrase that isn't nearly as clever as he seems to think it is). But I should've known that he wouldn't have shown up outside the place where his presence might have been mildly startling, but in the light of day and the open outdoors wouldn't have been too much of a trial. No, instead he had to wait until I think I'm alone, inside a dark, abandoned, haunted house staring at a portrait of a dead person. He really was trying to kill me—by heart attack. I was surprised he didn't say 'boo!'
"Filia," he returned, mocking the cadence of my voice though not managing to reproduce the tone of absolute and complete detestation.
"Why do you always have to sneak up on me?!" I demanded, stomping over to him without fear, for the moment, of alerting any angry spirits.
He reached out his tut-tut-tut finger and waved it at me. "If you're burglarizing someone's house then you can't complain too much about getting caught in the act."
I don't know how I end up getting scolded so often by someone so morally reprehensible. It's grating. Really grating.
"Now listen here, you garbage monster," I said, poking his chest with my finger—to make my point, not because I wanted to actually touch him or anything, "I'm here on authority from the mayor's office to exorcise this house of the evil spirit that's haunting it. Stealing is something a demon like you would do!"
His eye twitched slightly at the word 'garbage' but he didn't respond to any of my accusations. Instead he just adopted a mildly intrigued, "Oh." Then he gave me a look from top to bottom—which is never ever pleasant—and finally said, all unimpressed-like: "Couldn't they have gotten a more experienced exorcist?"
"Who do you think you're talking to?" I demanded, slapping a hand over my heart. "I was a priestess of the first holy order, remember? I have more training for purifying evil spirits than most professional exorcists!"
"Yes," he said—a tiny, humoring smile on his face. "More training, not more experience."
It felt like a weight dropped into my stomach, but I couldn't let him know. "I've had plenty of experience at the temple!" I snapped.
"At the temple in a controlled environment where you were no doubt purifying cursed objects with a more learned dragon looking over your shoulder the whole time," Xellos continued, ingratiating smile firmly in place.
"Only during my initial training," I corrected vehemently. "It wasn't long before I was that learned dragon looking over the shoulder of trainees and teaching them how to do it."
"But still in a controlled environment," Xellos pointed out, not giving an inch.
I crossed my arms and looked away from the ball of light floating in front of me. "For your information I've done plenty of purifications outside the temple walls."
I faltered for a moment. It had been too much to ask for Xellos not to make me cite my source. Finally I struck gold. "A ghost ship," I said triumphantly. "Back when I was traveling with Miss Lina I set spirits to rest on a ghost ship."
Xellos brows furrowed in befuddlement. "…When was this?" he finally asked.
"It was when we were all separated after the gateway partially opened," I answered.
Delightfully, Xellos looked somewhat disappointed. "I missed a ghost ship?" he asked in much the same tone a seven-year-old might say to his parents, 'you went to Disneyland without me?'
"If you don't want to miss things than you should spend less time skulking around and conspiring with our enemies and more time actually helping out!" I told him.
"In any case," Xellos pushed on, not addressing his skulking or conspiring, "I had no idea you had such a comprehensive catalog of ghostbusting successes as one ghost ship. Surely the people of this town must be thanking their lucky stars that they have such an experienced exorcist as you on hand to protect them from the baleful influence of the occult."
"I'm sure they are," I said harshly, purposefully ignoring his sarcasm. "Because I'm going to find the evil spirit in this house and purify it!" …Ignore the anxiety from earlier. This confidence was always there.
"I'm sure I could learn a lot from seeing you in action," Xellos smirked insincerely as he leaned against the banister.
For a moment I wasn't sure what to say. …Here's the thing, Xellos might have been annoying, but after the initial fright of his arrival, I wasn't sure if I really wanted him to leave. After all, when it came to dealing with evil spirits, there had to be safety in numbers, right? …Well, maybe not. It wasn't as though Xellos was apt to rush to my aid if anything terrible happened. He was much more likely to laugh himself stupid (or stupider). And there wasn't much hope of the ghosts being distracted from me by focusing on him. Any mischief-making spirit would be forced to recognize his mastery of their chosen subject and, I don't know, crown him their king or something.
…But nevertheless it felt better to have someone there, even if it had to be Xellos. The nice thing about being angry at Xellos is that it's harder to be afraid when you're so mad. But there was no way I could've said all that to him. He'd have taken it the wrong way. So I was struggling to come up with a way to tell him that I didn't want him around without actually persuading him to leave.
I sniffed disdainfully. "As if you care at all about exorcisms," I said incredulously. "If you're going to insist on following me around then you'd better not get in my way."
He grinned and I could see in his eyes that he was hoping to throw my words back at me at an inopportune moment. I'd be suspended over a chasm or something about to fall to my death and he'd say, 'Well I wouldn't want to get in your way.'
"No arguments," he answered.
"I'll believe it when I see it," I muttered, sweeping past him and moving into the sitting room.
The sitting room was more of a challenge than I expected. There was absolutely no truth in Xellos's little joke about looting, but… I have to admit that seeing the tea set in the glass cabinet in the corner made my fingers itched. They were such delicate little treasures with elaborate painted scenes of adorable children playing by a lake. Even a non-ceramic enthusiast would have been able to appreciate those pieces for glorious rarities. Oh! And the shelves were lined with the most beautiful gold and silver goblets from the far off land of—
Xellos said something, but I missed it in my antique-fueled fervor. "What?" I asked.
"I asked if you had any idea what kind of evil spirit you were looking for," he repeated.
"Oh," I said, still mildly distracted as I walked over to a yellow and red vase on the shelf. I turned it over. Sure enough, there was no 'Made in Zephilia' label on the bottom. "I'm not really sure," I said, setting the vase back down. "Everything I've heard says this place has a pretty dark history. No one is totally sure what the Grogans got up to in here all those years. There are some… pretty nasty rumors about what the more eccentric family members got up to. Kidnapping, extortion, murder and even worse…"
Xellos raised an eyebrow. "Worse?" he asked.
"Worse," I confirmed, not at all willing to repeat with any specificity the things I'd heard. "There was also talk about how the family got their fortune… some people say there were ceremonies where they'd call on demons and make pacts with them."
"Ah," Xellos said, shifting uncomfortably.
That was the funny thing about demon-worshipping cults. I guess it wasn't surprising that demons didn't exactly like them, after all, they were only there to make use of, not out of any feeling of fondness. Nevertheless, and I suppose I only had Xellos's reactions to go off on, they seemed almost… embarrassed by them. It was almost as if Xellos found the existence of demon-worshipping humans rather depressing.
"Those are just rumors though," I said, shaking off the thought. "The fact is, though, that thirty years ago the last full-blooded member of the Grogan family lost her mind and killed both her husband and herself."
"Oh you don't know," Xellos commented, relishing this conversation about murder-suicide a little too much, "maybe she was perfectly sane when she did it."
"With an axe?" I asked harshly.
Xellos gave that one some thought. "Well, it would certainly take a great deal of determination to kill oneself with an axe," he said cheerily.
I groaned. His disgustingly chipper attitude was bad enough in the best of times; with the added dimension of blood-letting it was just wrong.
"I don't know if the house was already haunted when that happened and the evil spirit drove her to it or…"
"…Or if she herself is the maddened evil spirit haunting this place," Xellos finished.
"Exactly," I answered. I looked around the room, casting my light where I went and with my ears perked up for the slightest sound. Nothing unusual appeared. I sighed. "…But it doesn't seem like any spirit is making itself known."
"We could try making out," Xellos suggested.
I threw the first priceless knickknack I could lay hands on at his face, my mental processes nothing more than a series of raging exclamation points.
"Oh dear," he said, straightening up after ducking. "I'm sure that was expensive."
"You despicable piece of—!" I shouted, beyond even the point of pricing antiques.
He had the gall to cluck his tongue at me. "Haven't you ever read a horror novel, Filia?" he asked. "Avenging evil spirits always appear to punish lustful teenagers. It's just part of the job specification."
"I don't care how many horror novels say it works, I am not making out with you!" I shrieked back. Once the red void of pure rage had descended from my vision I suddenly had to deal with… with the images that horrible sentence suggested. Nothing in this house could've possibly been as frightening or grotesque!
"Ah," he responded, as though he hadn't expected me to be so unreasonable. He tapped his staff on the ground three times. "Then I suppose there's always the other option."
He took a moment to clear his throat dramatically and then said in a loud, clear voice to no one in particular: "It's a good thing that there's no such thing as ghosts!"
There followed a silence completely devoid of electronic voice phenomenon.
He squinted at the empty room. "That… usually works," he finished lamely.
I rubbed my forehead, fighting off the headache I knew I'd get as soon as he appeared. "Xellos? This is getting in the way."
"I hadn't realized," he said, oozing disingenuousness from every pore.
I turned my lighting spell toward the doorway out of the sitting room. "Let's just keep moving," I grumbled.
When I went down the hall I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. It was just a glimmer of light as though my lighting spell was reflecting off of a glass surface. I blinked and held my light up toward the room where the reflection had come from. The gleam of light that slid along the edge of a porcelain sink told me I'd found a downstairs bathroom.
A familiar feeling crept over me that kept me from moving forward immediately. It was… silly, but sometimes in the middle of the night when I had to get up to use the bathroom it was just well, eerie. It was the mirror—a perfectly normal thing by daylight was by night transformed into the mercurial surface of a lake where lost souls dwelled… or at least that's how it always seemed. It caught every movement and threw it back strangely as though the person on the other side was someone else who could reach out from beyond that gateway as easily as moving through water.
…This was why I could never do scrying very much back at the temple. I was good at it but the reflections on the dark glass and water were too much to bear. In the refracted space it all seemed so distorted and fiendish… it made me wonder who was looking back.
But I had to search out the spirit. I couldn't just bypass this room altogether. So I reached my hand slowly into the room with the ball of light held out in front of me. It wasn't until the entire ball of light was in the room that I eased the rest of my body into the room along with it. Xellos may have snickered, but I was doing my best to ignore him.
The sound of my footsteps against the tile echoed across the little room, but that was the only sound. There was no dripping of water parting ways with the lip of the faucet. The taps had probably been dry for years.
There was a mirror against the wall, and that must have been where the reflection came from. I couldn't make out much in it though, heavily smudged and dust-coated as it was. I could only see blurred shapes of myself and Xellos on the other side. His reflection was the only mirror monster. I breathed out in relief.
"So…" Xellos said from next to me, "Not planning on chanting Bloody Mary anytime, I take it?"
"Don't say that!" I snapped. "Don't even joke about that." There's no good in tempting fate!
"My apologies," he said, shifting his tone from taunting to insinuating, "I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised that you'd have reason to be afraid of mirrors."
"You're the one who should be afraid of mirrors," I answered, letting my lighting spell float free as I clenched my fists. "Aren't evil things like you not supposed to have reflections?" Not to mention, who'd want a bowl cut looking back at them first thing in the morning?
"You're thinking of vampires," he corrected. "But I'm sure I shouldn't have to tell an almighty exorcist such as yourself the differences between monsters and vampires."
"Holy water works on both of you," I answered with as much sugar-coated hatred as I could.
He chuckled and rested his chin in his hands. I had to wonder if he was just shrugging me off or if he was actually enjoying this. "I'd like to see you try, Filia."
I turned away from him and looked back to the dirty mirror. "Well, if I had water," I said, "I'd clean this up." I leaned across the sink and closer to the mirror itself which seemed much less ethereal now than it did before my exchange with Xellos. "This is such a pretty old house that it's a shame that no one is taking care of it." I reached out my hand the wipe away some of the filth and immediately drew back with a screech, bumping against the back wall in my haste to be away as I clutched my hand.
"There was an eye there!" I cried.
Xellos raised an eyebrow. "Yours, I assume?" he asked. "You were looking right into it after all."
"No!" I answered. "I didn't just see an eye—I felt an eye!" The phantom sense of the fragile, moist surface still tingled on my fingertips.
Xellos squinted at the mirror. "Well… it is a bit slimy looking."
"I felt an eyelash!" I roared.
"Huh," Xellos said, as if this were little more than a curiosity. He leaned over and studied the mirror. He leaned in even closer to the slightly cleaner spot where I'd wiped away the dust. Then he reached out and felt the mirror itself.
For a few tense moments he ran his fingertips across it, a focused expression on his face. The white blur of his gloved hand on the grimy mirror seemed to meld into his real hand as though with just a little more pressure he could push beyond. Then he wrote 'Wash me' in the dust.
"Nothing out of the ordinary here," he summed up, brushing the dust off his hands.
I turned my head aside, jaw out. "Says the monster," I responded, voice still somewhat shaken.
But still I felt the sensation on my fingers, even though I could see nothing else stirring from the other side of the mirror.
The next room we went to was the kitchen. I had my arms held close to my body for fear that if I hung them loose they might brush against something disgusting. I don't know if I needed to worry about anything more disgusting than Xellos because nothing otherworldly had appeared since the eye beyond the mirror. In fact, the kitchen was adorable for all its dust. There was a shelf with a line of coffee cups on it from the smallest espresso shot to the biggest all-nighter jug. They probably could've nested inside each other. I reached across the counter to pick up two figurines. One was a cherubic little girl with long eyelashes wearing a blue dress and holding a kitten, the other was of an equally cherubic boy in lederhosen playing a violin. They were salt and pepper shakers. I couldn't reconcile how a spirit of malevolence could dwell in a place with two such adorable figures.
I put them back on the counter and moved to look over Xellos's shoulder. He was looking in drawers and seemed somewhat bored. I shifted my weight from onto the next step and a tortured moan filled the room.
When I had landed back on the ground again I was halfway between cursing the creaking floorboards which had already made me jump five times since I'd entered the house and hiring a carpenter to come out to the basement and nail up some strengthening planks to stop their squeaking.
I blinked. The basement…?
I turned without needing to be directed to the basement door. It seemed somehow more shadowed then the rest of the room, as though all the darkness in the entire house had leaked out from under the door. Dark and earth… that's where a spirit would be.
I walked over and opened the door, Xellos already following. I could make out a stairway down there, and somewhere far beyond a dirt floor, but not much else. Just like in the bathroom, I reached out my hand with the lighting spell floating above it.
The minute it crossed the threshold the light was extinguished with a hiss.
"Well, well," Xellos said, finding this much more intriguing than looking at the old family silverware, "I wonder what could be down there."
"White magic is too weak to overpower whatever it is," I said, worried.
"Ah, but that can't hold a candle to your Holy magic, can it?" Xellos prodded.
"A candle is the problem," I answered glumly. "It's going to be hard to see down there."
"So? A fire spell should do the trick," he said, fingers twitching slightly.
I turned on him in horror. "Are you crazy?" I demanded, praying that he wouldn't actually do it. "The whole house could go up!"
"And thus your haunted house problems would be solved," he said with maddening patience.
"But it would destroy the house!" I screeched again as if he hadn't heard me the first time.
"It's not your house," he said simply. "The city has no use for it. It seems it's better off gone if it's going to become a nuisance."
I grit my teeth together. Leave it to a monster to pull that kind of attitude! "Destroying something is not a viable solution! Maybe this house doesn't mean anything to you, but that doesn't mean it should go up in smoke!"
Xellos gave me a mildly suspicious look, which was pretty uncalled for considering that he was the one suggesting arson. "Well then, since you're too scared of the dark to go down there without a light then what would you propose?"
"I'm not scared of the dark!" I shot back. I hate it when he treats me like I'm four!
"My question stands, Filia," he said.
I didn't have an immediate answer for that. I pursed my lips and thought. Finally I came to an uneasy conclusion. "Matches," I said. "There's got to be matches somewhere in the house and candles too. You," I said, looking imperiously at him, "can find them and bring them to me."
"Oh, can I?" he scoffed. "And what exactly would you be doing all the while if I was actually willing to play fetch for you?"
I glared at the entrance to the underworld—I mean the basement. "I'll be in there seeing if I can sense out the ghost. My night eyes aren't too shabby, and I don't need to see very well to be able to do that anyway. If there's anything I really need to see then I'll find out once you bring me the candles."
He stared at me for a moment again as if I was four. "…You'll trip over a box and break your neck," he finally said.
"I will not!" I answered, stamping my foot. "If the only other suggestion you can come up with is still to torch the place then save it! You can either make yourself useful and get me some light or you can buzz off and let me work!"
With that I swung my legs down onto the steps and walked—slowly so as not to fall in the poor lighting—with anger in every step as I willed myself not to turn around.
I fumed as I made my slow way down the staircase, gripping the handrails for support. Maybe it was stupid to send him away but… but… it just made me so furious how he could casually talk about burning the house down! Maybe it was just some fancy old pile of sticks to him, but monsters don't really understand homes. It's not just an old abandoned shelter; it's where people lived for generations. Of course, he couldn't feel it. He could only feel the malevolent energy that poisoned the atmosphere. He couldn't feel what else this house had, but I did. Even beyond the anxious fears and the hunting energy there was something stronger in the house… love. Someone loved this house. Someone had loved it for so long.
And that monster wanted to take it all away just because it was more convenient? It made my fists itch just to think about it! Well, I wasn't about to let him take it away—or anyone else for that matter! If he thought he could—
I stopped as my foot hit packed dirt. I'd gone all the way down the stairs on pure adrenaline. Hesitantly I turned back to the door above—closed. There was no Xellos-shaped silhouette framed against the stale blue light. There was nothing but dark.
I turned away from the door fiercely, trying to summon up aggression to once again push out the fear. Of course he was gone. And no doubt not to get matches either. He'd probably just quit.
…But the rage wasn't coming. It was hard to be mad at him in the grubby darkness underground. Hard to be mad at him when I was regretting sending him away…
"Hello?" I called into the shadows.
Nobody answered, which was a very very good thing. My heart couldn't have taken the ghostly sigh of my name that I'd half expected.
I walked forward, hands stretched out in front of me. My night eyes weren't as good as I had bragged to Xellos—who probably didn't even need light to see. Maybe I should've sent him down here… but you can't very well expect a monster to know anything about purification. This was up to me.
I stretched my senses for the negative energy that I'd sensed from the top of the steps but it had retreated a distance. It was there, but the signal had moved.
I went to take another step, but found myself flung suddenly to the ground. My nose stung where it hit the floor and my hands were scraped from trying to catch myself. Beside my foot was something that may or may not have been a box. I spat out some dirt and pushed myself up into a sitting position.
I felt something small under my hand as it touched the ground. I picked it up and was glad that I hadn't fallen on it, whatever it was, since I could've easily cut myself on it. I ran it over in my hands. It was like a small, thin shard of rock—superficial grooves covered it, but they didn't seem like they'd be carved. They were natural, like a porous piece of stone.
I put it down and felt around—another piece followed, bigger this time. Then another and another—curved and jagged around the edges as if it had been broken off a bigger piece of rock. I crawled forward and felt a larger structure—maybe some kind of cage? But it didn't feel like metal.
I reached up above it and felt more of the ancient stone. Rounded with two wide, deep holes on the front and below it a triangular opening and below that…
I screamed and took my hands away from it, pushing myself as far away from it as I could and kicking it further away as I sprawled over on the ground. And then the roar went up.
It was like an earthquake with a personality—not the kind of personality that spares or reasons or humanizes, but the kind that stalks and stabs and devours. It was the bellow of every grinning, fiery furnace that hungers the more its ashy stomach consumes. I couldn't see it with my eyes, but—! I could see it still!
It was undecided except for its size. It was all scales and fangs and fur and watchful eyes and coils and legs. It was all bodies and stitches and putrefied fluids. Pinnacles thrust from its sides that might have been spikes or teeth. It was the face in the wood grain, in the flowers, in the wallpaper, in the brass handle that only stirred to menace in the darkness. It changed from every angle.
It wasn't a demon. Nothing like that could've been born except by imagination. It was internal—separate from the physical universe of the basement with the dirt floor and the groaning roof. It was internal and yet it was real.
I patted my leg frantically for my mace. But no… not there. It had been left behind because it couldn't do much against anything spectral. It may have had no effect but I wanted it. I had to have something!
I reached around the ground in a wild search. Even one of the bones would do! I needed something to be my sword and my shield against the creature whose moist breath was already humidifying the air.
It screeched and the air smelt like a filthy penny. The ground floor grew wet like an underground stream had risen to the surface, but it wasn't water. In the darkness I smelled red. The stench of a battlefield of fresh corpses preserved in the snow…
"Holy Resist!" I shouted, not sure where to direct the spell. Not even so much as a tiny blue spark caught fire. "Holy Resist!" I tried again.
The dark void of the basement left my sight, my optic nerve overridden by other images. A curved spear, a plucked feather, a broken horn, a bloodied nest…
I dug through the mud of the basement floor that I knew must be there beyond my sight. My hands closed around something—a long wooded stick by the feel of the grain, weighted at the end. I forced myself to my feet, my dress clinging to my legs as the water began to rise.
"Holy Resist!" I screamed, flailing the haft blindly in front of me. "Holy Resist!"
Rushing winds numbed my ears. A bloom of fire burned my eyes and ate away at the visions. Xellos? Had he come back? Had he come back with the light for me?
The flames scalded my vision from edge to edge leaving burning after-images. When the curtain of blue smoke rolled aside, the stage was no longer subterranean blackness.
I blinked. When my eyelids rolled back up I was in a room I recognized. It was a pale pink with glass frames of pressed flowers hung on all sides. There was a table in the middle where a worn looking, fair-haired woman was sitting drinking tea.
"…Really gone to seed, no thanks to that man," she was saying.
"…What?" I tried weakly. It was the best I could do. The cellar had been swept away from my sight, my boots were dry, and my weapon was gone. "Where am I?"
The woman looked up at me as though I represented the most recent in a long line of disappointments. "Sit down, Miss Filia," she said. "Your tea is getting cold."
I looked down. There was a tea cup set on the table across from the woman. It had a decorated scene of a little girl wearing a pink polka dotted bathing cap swimming in a lake of blue paint.
"The water's not on in the house, isn't it?" I mumbled to myself, unable to put into words my larger objections with what reality was presenting me. "How could you have… whoever you are, how could you…?"
The woman gave me a teacherly smile, taking a drink from her own steaming cup. "You have much to do. The pipes have lain dry for a long time now. The entire system will no doubt have to be overhauled. Then there are the gardens to replant. The paint is peeling something terrible all over. Nothing holds up forever. The tiniest worm can cause a great crash if it eats through a support." Her disapproving look returned. "You've let things go for too long, you know, Miss Filia."
I stared at her, my mouth hanging open. "What are you talking about…? And… how do you know my name?"
She pursed her lips, strands of hair falling out of the tight bun on top of her head. "A house is like a child, Miss Filia," she said. "It can't take care of itself."
For just a flash there was a tear across her body—a red stain across her heart. Then it was gone and her pressed white and periwinkle dress was as solid and clean as ever.
"By the way," she said as if nothing had happened. "He'll be a problem."
"Who?" I asked, shaken.
"That man," she went on. "He doesn't understand. They never do. Mine lapped up profits and spread them across failed investments overseas. He preferred to stay in hotel rooms, chalets, summer houses… some people have no concept of what a home is."
Despite myself I found that I was nodding. Yes, some people will never know that feeling or what if means to have that threatened. Some people like…
"I set him right in the end," she said demurely, taking a sip from her tea. "I have every confidence that your priorities are in order and that you will do the same. After all, the homestead must be protected. Don't you agree, Miss Filia?"
"Well… yes," I said. I couldn't help feeling the same. Everything she said seemed so natural the way she said it. I felt instinctively that I'd had so many doubts just a moment ago clamoring for my attention, but they seemed less and less distinct. But what could they be anyway? Clearly hearth and home came first. It all made sense.
"You take your responsibilities seriously, don't you, Miss Filia?" the woman asked.
"Of course I do," I answered, more sure this time. I took a sip of my tea and felt righter than ever in the moment I was in.
The woman smiled. "Good," she said. "Then I'm sure you're eager to get back to work."
"Filia?" a voice cut across the scene.
Darkness amidst a lantern flare soaked up the sitting room and the woman at my name.
Xellos appeared in the circle of firelight meandering closer. "Had enough of stumbling around in the d—" he began. Then he raised the lantern he was carrying to get a better look at me. "…Why do you have an axe?" he asked.
I looked down and sure enough there was a long-handled axe in my hand. The blade was covered in what I hoped was rust. I dropped it. "I… no reason!" I said.
Xellos, not entirely satisfied with this response, turned his lantern light to the rest of his surroundings. There was a shelf with empty glass jars on it that must have once held preserved food, an old, beaten up bicycle tire, various gardening implements and tools, and boxes filled with paper. The rest was empty space.
"Not much of anything down here after all," he commented. "Did a mouse scare you?" he asked, raising a sardonic eyebrow.
I ignored him. I had more important things to do then listen to his insults. That would only slow me down. I cast around my eyes for… yes, a toolbox! I picked it up, brushing my hair out of my face as I leaned down. I'd have to find something to pull it back or it would just get in my way.
Xellos frowned at me as I stood back up and began making my way back toward the staircase. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"Have you seen the state of this place? It's a crime we've let it get this way. I've got to do something about it before it falls apart altogether," I said, unable to believe there could even be any question about what had to be done next.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Xellos said sarcastically. "I thought we were here for an exorcism not for home improvement."
I glared at him. "This is my job, not yours, so I'll say what comes next."
I ran my hand across the rail along the stairs, now visible in the light of the lantern Xellos had brought. It was fine, solid wood, but so worn and dirty now… it would need a good cleaning and polishing to restore it to its former glory.
"A house is like a child," I said. "It can't take care of itself."
"A child?" Xellos repeated, walking up from behind me. "Don't you have your own child to care for?"
I frowned and gave him a curious look. I couldn't for the life of me understand what he meant by that.
End of Part 1.