BORN OF WRATH
“Huh.” Sagira patches a strand of Light into the jumpship’s control deck as they tumble through the black-drop, stars twinkling out beyond reach. “Something’s in the static out there…”
“What is it?” Osiris asks.
“Some kind of subspace transmission. Hang on.” Sagira boosts the jumpship’s comm receiver. “It’s Cabal.”
“From?” Osiris absentmindedly pushes a sack of candy corn aside with his foot and leans forward.
“Somewhere outside the system. Some pretty heavy encryption at work, but… there’s a repeated phrase. A name. Caiatl?”
“How many Cabal leaders still vie for dominion atop Ghaul’s grave? Let them grind each other into dust.”
“There are responses from Nessus, the Reef, the EDZ. She’s calling the Legion home… or, no… back to her bosom? She wants them to capture Calus to prove their loyalty, but it sounds like the Leviathan is missing.”
“Their bloody feud continues. If Caiatl is stirring up the Legion, the Vanguard will want to know their plans.”
“One of the response signals is offering Caiatl tribute from somewhere near Sorik’s Cut. Some other weird noise too.”
“This message here,” Osiris says and points to the on-screen readout of Sagira’s scans. “Caiatl sends an emissary to receive their tribute.”
“The Shore . We’re not far behind,” Sagira says. “Eavesdropping or crashing?”
“We’ll hit them after the offering is made. I don’t want the Cabal Empire to know we’re tapping their communications.”
A horde of Cabal crowd into a crude shelter, assembled from several decommissioned drop pods. Green light shines through the cracks. A royal blue banner of Cabal make lay cast in squalid bubbling mud. Sagira and her Guardian survey the scene, perched on Fallen ruins high above the Boil. The bulk of the evening is spent silent. The only exception: Sagira’s repeated affirmations. “They’re still just huddled around that rock.”
“Patience is a virtue, Sagira.” Osiris closes his eyes to the Reef sky and waits for signals to guess at the Darkness’s plans. The stars watch, all the weight of jet-black space upon him. He is extinguished among their lightyears.
Screams in the night. Osiris stirs awake. His eyes open to the nebulous drift of the Shore. “Sagira, report.”
“They’re all still in there. Eighteen life signs. No shots. No one’s even moved. I don’t like it.”
Tired hours flit by. Morning rises. There are no Cabal skirmishes against the Scorn, no metallurgists patching Phalanx shields with molten slag, or Psion lookouts tracing firing lines.
“They’re on the move!” Sagira leers over the edge of their perch. The escape latch on the frontal pod dome bursts open and slams against the pod wall. Ten leave: nine unsteady forms in dull red, one vivid blue. They disperse out into the Shore.
Osiris rubs his eyes. “Finally.” Through the cracks he sees them; the remaining ring of Cabal kneel in a tightly wrapped circle. A stony protrusion centers them.
“What is that stone’s constitution?” he asks.
“Pretty stoic, I’d say.”
“Sagira… this reeks of suspicion.”
“You’re right, and I hate saying that.” A moment passes as the tiny Ghost directs long-range sensors to the stone. “Oh, it’s not a rock. It’s Hive; biological.”
Osiris floats down to the acrid pools on feather-Light; Sagira follows close behind.
He bounds through the open pod door. A celestial flame dances in each palm. Eight Cabal sit dormant.
The Cabal huddle around the protrusion. Their massive bodies form a bulwark of trembling flesh. A soulfire pitch blisters through their turgid pressure suits. They are fixated—bulged eyes rabid and screaming of rancor. Frontal plating blighted by Hive barnacle growths. Hands tightly grip their throats. Slug Rifles lay prostrated before the idol.
Osiris steps among them without their notice and lowers his hands. Sagira breaks the Cabal perimeter to scan the protrusion.
“Creepy. They don’t even notice us. Keep those spitfires ready.” She turns to Osiris. “This is the most vascular rock I’ve ever scanned.”
Osiris peers into the Hive protrusion. Metallic flecks shimmer, and he sees a long and empty road. Meandering. He wishes to plant a great banner over it, so that all may see. A beacon, alight with Phoenix flame. Looming in the nascent flamelight hangs the terrace of blades. The terrace dominates the road; its precipice at his throat. He raises the Dawnblade to meet them. Rupturing cacophony ravages his senses. I AM THE WAR YOU CRAVE. PURPOSE ETERNAL. A LEGACY IN BLOOD. “It’s full of soulfire veins.” Sagira’s voice is wind to Osiris. She nudges him.
WHEN YOU DRAW BLADES, YOU DRAW ME.
“Do you hear the whispers?” Osiris’s words slur.
YOU CANNOT RESIST WITHOUT INVOKING MY BANNER.
“You’re hearing something?” Sagira floats near him.
EMBRACE ME, LIGHTBEARER, AND BE A GOD OF DEATH.
“Whispers.” His mind clouds.
One of the Cabal stands and turns to Osiris.
“Snap out of it; they’re waking up,” Sagira says and decompiles out of danger.
CONSUME OR BE CONSUMED.
The Cabal trundles forward. Osiris billows incineration. The blaze cooks the interior of the pod. Kneeling Cabal break free of their trance and stand in the scalding air. Of the remaining seven, two fall immediately to a hail of celestial firebolts. Osiris grounds himself and unleashes a cascade of Arc across the mass of lumbering Legionaries. Lightning bends inward against the pod’s magnetic shielding. He holds the storm on them until pressure gel hisses and spits from their suits. Osiris exhales. Their smoldering bodies invade his nostrils. The scene clarifies. Horror, scorch, and char.
“You ready to tell me what that was all about?” Sagira asks. She hovers just above the jumpship’s control deck, piloting.
I wish I could. I remember tracking Caiatl’s emissary. Finding the Cabal. The night sky. Then… flame and rage. It took everything in me to push those thoughts from my mind.” Osiris slumps in his seat.
“There is one clear memory. I felt the Dark whisper that we’ve been chasing. Like a needle in my spine.
It must be at the root of all this.”
As his thoughts fixate on senescence, old iron words from the past ring in his ears. “Soon the City won’t need men like us. Lone wolves, Osiris. We die. Make sure when your end comes, it’s something worth your Light.”
“Okay,” Sagira says. The concern is thick in her voice, but she buries it. “I sent out scans. Long range, short range… anywhere that has a prominent Hive presence. There’s no way this is isolated to the Reef.”
“Petra, how were we so blind?” Osiris muses. “The Hive swell in Darkness as Guardians run to Europa.
The warning fell between her words, and I did not see it.”
“That’s enough moping. We’re on this early. Maybe it’s a good thing.”
“I can’t pull the Vanguard’s eyes from Europa with hazy recollections and guesses. They have just begun to see me again, and trust is so thin.”
Resonance pings blip onto the ship’s monitors, catching Osiris’s attention. “Signals from your scans.”
“The Moon. That’s a much stronger signal than the one we found near Sorik’s Cut.”
Osiris shifts and raises his head. “You may be right about our timing. We can end this before it begins.
Open a channel to Eris.”
“I’ve been trying. She’s uh… well, she’s not answering.”
“Then we go to her.”
“Oh no. First that, and then it’s a suicide mission into the Hellmouth. You’re in no condition. Recuperate and we’ll talk.”
Osiris stews in thought. Sagira’s words are true. He is bleary from lack of sleep. “Then turn around.”
“Osiris, I already sent everything we have to Petra and the Vanguard. I’m taking us to Earth.”
“Whatever we are dealing with is spreading through the system’s underbelly. There is one on the Shore who knows those pathways. Surely, I’m not too fragile to have a conversation, Sagira.”
“I’m sure there are plenty of people in the Tower who would be just as helpful.”
Osiris glares at her. “I am not some doddering invalid!” He grabs the flight stick. “Turn around, or I will.”
“This Spider guy better have answers,” Sagira says.
“From what I’ve heard, it’s just a matter of how persuasive we are,” Osiris says and follows an Eliksni
Associate through plum curtains and into the Spider’s abode. The massive Don of the Shore lounges before them.
“Welcome, most esteemed Osiris. Though you have not graced my chamber before, your reputation precedes you.” Spider trellises his eight fingers together as his voice breaks into a series of gaseous staccato slurps. “The literature you sent me… very interesting, but behind the times .”
Spider chuckles. “I already have top men working on these… cryptoliths. But I’d never, what is it? Ah yes, ‘look a gift horse in the mouth.’”
His Associates rush around the edges of the room. Cargo exchanges hands at a frenetic pace. Osiris follows their movements. A decorated Associate approaches the Spider and waits at his side.
“What is it, Arrha ? You know better than to interrupt our guest’s audience.”
Arrha glances to Osiris before quickly speaking in Eliksni. Spider slams down a meaty fist. “Then go find it!”
Spider turns back to Osiris as Arrha scuttles away. “Apologies. Business interruptions in the aftermath of these…” he gestures half-heartedly upward, “… trying times.” He stifles a cough and clutches at his Ether rebreather.
“Cabal aren’t the only ones having troubles, eh?” Sagira asks and jets in front of Osiris. “You know I speak Eliksni, right?”
She plays snippets of Cabal distress transmissions and orders from Caiatl’s scouts to lock down encampments; she displays images of slaughter, graves, and empty Cabal fortifications. “If it’s hitting them this hard, your Associates must be, what’s the phrase? Dropping like flies.”
“Wise Osiris and his brilliant little Light,” Spider muses.
“Sagira,” the duo corrects.
“Of course you are. I see no reason why this… can’t be a mutually beneficial partnership.”
Osiris steps forward. “What matter do you need addressed, Spider, sovereign of the Shore?” Spider giddily laps up the title. “I know the cryptoliths are of the Hive. I know the broods here burn Oryx's banners. And I know his Worm’s skeleton , the one in Saturn’s rings, is awake.” Spider throws his four arms into a shrug. “My jurisdiction ends at the banks of the Shore, of course… but not yours.”
Osiris impales a Wizard’s head upon a stunted spike, surrounded by a freshly bloodied Hive sigil. The Dreadnaught console sputters to life, accepting his tithe.
While Cayde’s old transmat zone is no longer in operation, the massive breach left by the Dantalion Exodus VI’s impact remained agape. Entry had not been difficult despite the halls crawling with newly spawned Thrall. They were young, and nearly a century of navigation through the Infinite Forest had honed Osiris’s ability to remain unseen.
The Dreadnaught’s systems present as living memory —chronicles and hymns recounting histories. It is a rat king of fading ideas, wracked with failing connections and dying interpretations as Akka suffers a slow, final death, damaged beyond repair. But there is knowledge to glean here. Osiris directs Sagira to rip spokes of data from the console for Vanguard High Command.
“You found the most disgusting one; I’m not touching that. Dictate it to me.”
Osiris sneers and grasps the head. He navigates the recounting of the Hive from Oryx’s death. They are fractured, broken by internal power struggles. It leads into a recounting of Savathûn: banished, branded as heretic and set to burn. Many Hive turned to her when Oryx fell. Many of those same broodlines defected as the Darkness invaded Sol, sending Savathûn into hiding. She is still hunted by the hounds of war. Her pursuer has no local story to recount here, for it is yet to be written in blood. War’s Celebrant rides to wrest Crota’s lost foundlings from the Witch Queen’s schemes. To bring unity. To bring reckoning. To bring glory. Luna will be reformed in her image. All tithes to Xivu Arath. All tithes to the black edge of her singing blade.
I AM THE DIN OF RAPTURE. I AM THE HERALD OF PEACE. MY BANNER IS KNOWN TO YOU.
“Xivu Arath,” Osiris says. Words spoken on compulsion. He takes his hands from the Wizard’s head as emerald smoke wafts from its orifices.
Osiris slumps to his knees. “This must be the echo we’ve been chasing. An omen of her voice, resounding through the Darkness, heralding war.”
“A Hive war god. This is bad,” Sagira says.
“The third sister . She has finally come for us, and her champion seeks to supplant Crota’s remaining daughters on Luna. That is where we go.”
Into the chasm on Luna. They follow the trail of signals down into the Enduring Abyss . Through the Nightmares of so many.
He stands at the face of it for what feels like hours. The Great Angular Thing —the edge of night that plays behind his mind.
“Speechless?” Sagira teases. “Maybe they’re not so bad.” Her chuckle is thin .
They press on.
Osiris swipes away silken threads of webbing above the shadow of Luna’s Pyramid. Braziers illuminate a synod of Witches and Wizards deep in the chasm. All point in alignment toward a monolithic sigil of Xivu Arath set atop a cryptolith adorned in blades: her will, projected from some far-off, unseen cosmic hollow . At the base of her visage—a monstrous Knight, adorned with tapestries charred by scorching brands.
“There it is,” Osiris whispers.
“Along with the entire Scarlet Court,” Sagira’s voice crackles.
“Crota’s remaining children, and their spawn, can be destroyed in one fell swoop.”
“What is it with you and suicidal ideas? We can’t transmat out of here, and they won’t just kill you. They’ll rip out your Light, Osiris.”
“They’re all here, Sagira. In one place.”
“You’re worth more than a bunch of Hive nobles. Wait for backup. Let me go topside and call for help.”
“No. We stop this now. Halt her here.” Osiris looks to the convocation below. “It is decided.”
“You can’t just decide that!”
Osiris turns to Sagira. “Go for help, but I can’t wait for the Vanguard. I’ll see you soon with reinforcements.”
“If you’re going, I’m going.” She decompiles safely beneath his armor. It is decided. Together they make war on the Hive.
Solar wings combust from Osiris’s back. In each hand, he wields a blade of dawn. The calamity of his inferno sends Hive scattering in every direction. Voshyr and her two daughters, Yishra and Ayriax, turn to confront the Phoenix. They are ashen before their first incantations complete. He paints the scene apocalyptic. Fifteen noble-brood are reduced to cinders before a defense is mounted.
LAUGHTER LIKE CLASHING SWORDS.
Osiris sails through the air as daggers of dark power whistle past him. Golden echoes split from his body to cut down fleeing Hive and soak reprisals. Kinox, last daughter of Crota, scurries through cracks between the rocks as her son, Ulg’Urin, and his cohort of lesser Knights raise shields to defend her. Osiris extinguishes a blade into his palm to form a singularity of Void and hurls a Nova Bomb that consumes them. With his other blade, he dives. He drives it into the ground, erupting a Well of Radiance surrounded by a phalanx of gilded echoes.
Nobles shriek for their Thralls to charge. Bolts of flame and Arc tear through them as Osiris blinks through the Void from one echo to another. Their advance breaks. He steps over their smoldering husks and turns the blaze to their masters.
Osiris revels in the slaughter. Xivu Arath’s sigil drinks in his fervor and the nobles’ deaths.LAUGHTER
LIKE SCREAMING FEAR.
Her visage emboldens. The Celebrant waits at the foot of Xivu Arath’s cryptolith, unburnt.
Osiris’s echoes reconvene into him. “FACE ME!” he exclaims and steps forward.
Xivu Arath’s visage emits a shockwave that thunders through the chasm. It rips away Osiris’s Well and throws him across the stone floor. His back slams against the cliff face behind him.
“What is this?” Shock punctuates the question. He pulls against an unseen force to no avail.
YOU BURN OFFERINGS; I ACCEPT THEM.
Xivu Arath’s will crushes the pressure of his Light. Seals the flames into his flesh. Stakes his body to the stone on paralytic pins. Her image distorts in a concave canvas around him, the Celebrant at its core. Shadows encroach, dousing the borders of his power.
Osiris focuses his mind on the spark at his core. Flames billow from within. Countless gilded echoes ripple from him, testing Xivu’s hold, pressing vulnerabilities. The Sun sings to repel the shadow. He finds a moment, wrenches a hand free, and unleashes the Reach of Chaos. The beam of Arc tears through Xivu’s sigil. Soulfire shards rocket away as cracks fork through Xivu Arath’s projection.
Unfazed, she does not relent.
RESIST ME, LIGHTBEARER. Her will overcomes him, stronger than before.
The Celebrant steps forward. A massive cleaver dangles from its hand, weightless. The beast carves a rune into the stone on either side of Osiris, its eyes locked with his. It nods to him, and then turns to the sigil.
“All tithes to Xivu Arath. War Dominant. Endless.” Its tone is soft rasp and soot. The runes kindle in harlequin gleam.
"Osiris." Sagira's voice statics in his ear. "One of us has to make it out; warn them."
"I’m sorry, Sagira… Run…" His words are thin from duress.
The Celebrant drives its sword into the cliffside stone above Osiris’s head. The cryptolith erupts in neon flare.
"Die well, Osiris." The Celebrant bows and withdraws from sight into Luna’s depths.
Wisps of Light hemorrhage through his skin, trimmed in blood and drawn around the blade embedded above him as if it were a nostepinne spike.
Sagira’s voice is a whisper. “I’m not letting them take you.”
YOUR STRENGTH LIVES ON THROUGH ME.
"Give Saint… my private drive,” Osiris exhales and closes his eyes. He sees himself in a million permutations. Each path: a life in glimpses. He takes what he can from them. Not enough to savor, but enough to be immortalized in nostalgic haze. In one, he is a blazing warrior, driving back the horrors of the longest nights. Another, a vigiled gargoyle atop the Infinite Forest. A grizzled elder overseeing keen disciples.
In so many, he is dead.
But there is one where Osiris finds happiness. He finds a time away from strife. He finds Saint—a dream of warm serenity. The peace to his purpose. With Saint, there is a future that could have been enough.
So many unlived moments lost between calls to action. He wishes Sagira had not come to watch him die. His faithful companion. His guiding starlight. His hope, his humanity. “Sagira. For as many lives as we had… you were always my better.”
His Light is breaking.
"Osiris, why don't you ever listen to me?” She compiles in front of him.
"What are y—"
"Shut up! Listen to my words!” Her iris is bright with Light. “There are great things still left for you; don't lose hope in the darkness." She is luminant.
Osiris breathes the word, as if he could hold it back: "No." He would understand in time. She had seen it.
Blinding Light erupts from Sagira’s core as she splits apart. A wave of Light surges and tears across the chasm. Her sacrifice cleanses every trace of Xivu Arath’s presence. The sigil: erased. The cryptolith that supported her projection: destroyed.
Osiris draws breath. Alone.
The aegis of Sagira’s Light stands strong in the shadow of the Pyramid for days.
We were a thousand miles from home when the car gave up the ghost.
To be honest, I was surprised we made it as far as we did. My old Nissan had been on life-support for the better part of the last decade. Now that it was dead, I almost felt relief, like the machine could finally be at peace in the great afterlife parking lot in the sky. Of course, that relief was easily outweighed by the newfound panic of being stranded in the middle of an unfamiliar nowhere.
Jerry was under the hood doing everything short of dark magic to get the engine running again while I paced the road with a cell phone over my head, hoping for a single bar of connectivity and feeling about as useful as male nipples. This certainly wasn’t the highlight of our cross-country road trip, but it wasn’t the worst moment either (that particular honor fell upon the roadside “marsupial petting zoo”). To be fair, this was
taking my mind off of all those things I’d left back home, which was the entire purpose of this surprise vacation, after all.
That’s what my friends called it--a “surprise vacation.” Their delicate phrasing conjured a much kinder image of what turned out to be a low-key kidnapping. I got home from my overnight shift to find them all waiting for me in my living room, intervention-style. My roommate Jerry--the mastermind behind it all--had two go-bags waiting by the front door and a map plotting our impending road trip to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life.
Jerry had been prone to these spontaneous well-intended (but highly irresponsible) gestures for as long as I’d known him. At least this time he didn’t try to gift me a stray animal he found. Normally, I would simply say “thanks” and shut it down before things got out of hand, but I wasn’t in the proper headspace to fight back. I’d just gone through what can only be described as a traumatic event. Some people close to me died, and there was a major “misunderstanding” with the new sheriff (but that’s probably a story best saved for another day).
Suffice to say my friends saw that I was going through a "rough patch" and thought it would be "good medicine" to get me far away from everything for a few days. They made sure my shifts at the gas station were covered until the end of the week, just long enough for things to settle down and go back to “normal.”
I couldn’t blame them for not understanding what was really going on. Hell, I only had a tenuous grasp on it myself. But the doctors assured me everything would be fine now, just as long as I stuck to the plan and took my medicine.
After a few long days filled with tourist traps, roadside attractions, cheap motels, and car farts, it looked like we’d finally reached the end of our adventure. We were a few states shy of the west coast, but low on money and even lower on time. This trip was as close to a success as we were ever likely to get, and the car’s breakdown was the final straw. I decided to give Jerry a few more seconds of vacation before breaking the news to him, which was why I was taking so long looking for cell service when I knew there was none to be found way out here.
When I got back to the car, Jerry popped his head out from under the hood and said, “Okay, try the engine now!”
I turned the key to the sound of stubborn silence.
“Nada,” I announced.
“Really? Fuck-a-doodle. I bypassed the ignition switch. It’s not the battery or the starter. Spark plugs are good. Fuses are good. Wiper blades are new. Blinker fluid is full.”
“Maybe it’s out of gas?” I offered, exhausting the full extent of my vehicular knowledge.
“Nah, it’s still got half a tank.” He slammed the hood shut and said, “Well, I’m gonna go make friends with a tree. When I get back, I’ll start taking the engine apart. In the meantime, you should build a fire and find something to cook. We may be here a while.”
“That plan isn’t going to work.”
“Relax, dude. It’s just an expression. I’m not really making friends with the tree.” He scoffed. “If anything, I’m about to give it a good reason to be mad at me.”
“I meant we can’t set up camp here hoping for a miracle or a friendly passer-by. I mean, what are the odds a good Samaritan would take the same shortcut we did?”
I wasn’t trying to be mean, but he was the one to discover this brilliant “alternate route” between highways over an hour ago, and in that time we hadn’t seen a single car besides our own. Our path had been nothing but acre after acre of farmland and trees... and of course that one enormous house back at the top of the hill.
“Alright,” Jerry relented. “What’s the plan then?”
“Did you clock that spooky house we passed about a mile ago?”
He laughed. “How could I not? It was so extra.
He wasn’t wrong. The place stuck out like a pink bikini at a Mormon funeral. Unlike the traditional farmhouses and double-wides that decorated most of our adventure through the backroads of the American south, this place was a certifiable mansion. A mix between Greek revival and Gothic architecture, including spires, columns, and even a widow’s walk. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a gargoyle or two hanging out on the roof, and I would have bet my last dollar the place was haunted. One thing was for certain, it was the sort of place I’d love to avoid at all costs.
“I think we need to go there,” I said, regrettably.
Jerry eagerly agreed. As he relieved himself by the side of the road, I went into the car’s trunk and collected a few necessities for the walk up the hill: a bag of trail mix, bottle of water, and some sunscreen. I wasn’t expecting this to take very long, but “not very long” was exactly enough time for me to burn, and poor preparation had kicked my ass too many times lately.
Jerry must have had a similar thought. He came up next to me and reached under our bags, pulling the baseball bat from its hiding place.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“Protection. Duh. There could be wolves out there.”
“No, dude. No weapons. I don’t want to show up at a stranger’s home looking any more suspicious than we already do.”
“Oh, good point.” He tossed the bat inside and slammed the trunk shut. I thought we had everything we needed. I thought we were being smart by leaving the weapon behind. In retrospect, it was the first of many bad decisions.
It took half an hour to get to the top of the hill. Another five minutes just to walk up the winding driveway through the meticulously manicured lawn. When we finally reached the enormous double doors, I was too exhausted to even feel nervous anymore. Jerry knocked while I fished (unsuccessfully) for cell reception.
“Who do you think lives here, anyway?” Jerry asked. “Some kind of supervillain? King of the farmer folk? The Munsters?”
“If I had to guess, probably the kind of people whose family used to own people.”
The door opened, and I quickly remembered how to feel nervous again.
“Can I help you?” the old woman croaked in a voice that sounded like paper tearing. She was a little over four feet tall and dressed like a Victorian era doll. With gray hair tied back below a cloth bonnet, bristly nose-hairs, skin the color of canned meat spread, and the thickest pair of wire-frame glasses I’d ever seen magnifying her pupils to the size of quarters. To put it bluntly, she was difficult to look at.
I nearly dropped my phone, but Jerry didn’t even flinch. He just tipped an imaginary hat and said, “Hello there, ma’am. My name is Jerry, and this here is my associate Jack. We hate to be a bother, but our vehicle broke down just up the street and we were wondering if it might be possible to--”
“I wasn’t expecting any more company,” she interrupted. “Are you sure you have the right address?”
Jerry and I shared a look.
“No ma’am,” he said. “I was just saying that our car stopped working out of the blue. We were stranded on the side of the road, and Jack is a nervous Nelly, so we decided--”
“All the guests have been accounted for,” she said, her voice registering somewhere between a creaking door and an angry drill sergeant. “You must check your invitations, please.”
Jerry took a breath and rubbed his hands together. “Is there someone younger we can talk to?”
“Jerry!” I snapped.
“Relax, dude. I don’t even think she can hear us.”
I pushed him out of the way, stepped up to the feeble old woman, and looked into her enormously magnified eyes. “Excuse me,” I said gently. “We need to use your phone, please.”
She tilted her head up, then back down, presumably giving us both the once-over. Then she turned around and said, “Follow me this way to the telephone machine. Local calls only. No long distance, please.”
As she disappeared into the bowels of the ancient manor, I hesitated. A familiar feeling washed over me, one I could neither trust nor ignore. A feeling of dread, and an unshakable sense that something was wrong
here. Only this time, it felt stronger. It felt realer. Before I could comprehend what was happening, Jerry had already marched past me into the dark entryway, leaving me all alone with my paranoia.
I took a breath, then plowed ahead after them.
The short, elderly woman spoke in a dry monotone as we followed her past the entryway into an enormous great hall that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the first class deck of the Titanic. I was only halfway listening, but I picked up enough to understand that she was reciting the house's history like some kind of tour guide. The home was built in 18-something-something by Colonel someone-someone. It began as a plantation (I knew it!
) and then served as a hospital during the Civil War (or, as she worded it, “The War of Northern Aggression”).
As her words droned on, the interior of the manor was busy telling its own story. The hardwood floors with century-old claw marks. The enormous painting hanging over the fireplace depicting a man with side-burns and an I-dare-you-to
grimace. The suit of armor, bearskin rug, crystal chandelier. I half expected to see a diamond billboard sign reading, “We have old money, so fuck you!”
The air smelled of tobacco and old books. Voices muffled from far away transferred through the walls. There was a jovial nature to them. Some laughter, even. The place was alive with people. (At least, I hoped
that was what I was hearing).
At the base of the grand staircase was a thin door. The woman opened it, revealing a much less impressive set of steps leading down into a basement. She descended, and Jerry followed. I considered the wisdom of staying put, keeping the exit in sight just in case one of us needed to make a break for it. I looked over my shoulder to make sure the door was still there. Not that it would do much good. If things went south again, I knew I wouldn’t make it very far on my own.
When I turned towards the basement, it was already too late to tell them to stop or wait. I looked back at the exit. I was stranded. It’s remarkable, really, that even with my attention being pulled in such opposite extremes, I somehow managed to notice the shelf of books against the wall by the fireplace. Even more remarkable how I gravitated towards it, almost unwillingly, how time stood still, how I forgot where I was for only a moment. And in that moment, I must have pulled a book out and begun reading. It had been ages since I let myself relax and get lost in a good story… Krikrikrikrik. What the hell am I doing?
Time whip-snapped back into place around me. How long have I been standing here?
I was already a chapter and a half in. I closed the book and inspected it. “The Basilisk Stare.”
It was an Agatha Christie mystery I’d never heard of before. Strange… I thought I’d already read everything she’d written. How did this one escape my radar?
All at once, I became aware of an unsettling presence. A looming shadow. The same feeling you get when a cop car starts tailing you on the interstate. I put the book back where it belonged, then turned around and confirmed my suspicion--I was no longer alone here.
The young woman was silently watching me. For how long, I don’t know, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and say she wasn’t Edward Cullening me this entire time. She wore a light-blue formal dress--one that could have been plucked straight from the nineteenth century, complete with a hoop skirt and white, elbow-length gloves. She was about my age (assuming she wasn’t a ghost or a vampire, of course), with piercing blue eyes and black hair in ringlets framing a heart-shaped face. In her hands, she held an old book, the cover worn down enough to obscure the title.
She didn’t say anything. She didn’t smile or nod. She just stood there, quietly staring. I thought this behavior was a little weird until I realized that I was guilty of the same thing. I managed to get out the words, “oh,” and “hi,” in that order.
She turned her gaze momentarily to the bookshelf, then back to me. Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “You’re like me, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer right away. I didn’t know how to answer. Part of me, deep down, wanted to say yes,
but I couldn’t understand why. Instead, I tried, “What do you mean?”
When she spoke again, her voice had a little more heft, “There’s something wrong with you.”
The way she said it carried no malice. It was an innocent statement. I gave an honest response.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
Her next question made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.
“The weird stuff... Does it follow you, too?”
I looked around to make sure we were still alone before answering. “I don’t know yet.”
“This way, please!” The old woman had returned. Despite the word “please,” I could tell it was more of a command than a request.
The girl with the piercing blue eyes stepped in front of me, shelved her book, and walked away without another word. This time, when the old woman descended the stairs, I was quick to follow. The sooner we got a call in to the mechanic, the sooner we could leave this place forever. The underground room smelled exactly how I expected an underground room to smell--musty and damp. A single bare incandescent bulb hung from the ceiling, illuminating our surroundings. A broken grandfather clock against the far wall, an industrial washer and dryer combo, cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling, and an eight-foot-tall taxidermied polar bear that begged the question, how the hell did they get that thing down here in one piece?
Jerry already had the receiver of the corded telephone between his ear and shoulder when I walked in. His hands held a yellowed phonebook.
“Alrighty, thanks bud… Yeah, you too...” He looked at me with a strange expression. His mouth formed a smile, but his eyes were saying “you’re not going to like what I have to tell you.”
“What is it?” I asked.
He put the phonebook on the table, cradled the receiver, took a deep breath, then answered slowly, “I’ve got good news and bad.”
“You know I hate this game, right?”
“The mechanic knows exactly where we are. He’s sending out his truck for a tow, but…”
“He won’t be able to get to us until morning.”
“Then we try someone else.”
“Yeah, about that… He’s the only mechanic in the entire county.”
“Oh? Did he tell you that?”
“He’s the only mechanic listed in the phonebook.”
“He… what? How is that even possible?”
I stepped over to the table and picked up the book. It immediately opened to the page for mechanics. If I weren’t so paranoid, I might not think anything about it. But the fact that it fell open directly to the exact spot I was looking for registered less as serendipity and more as a red flag big enough to propel a sailboat.
I sighed once I saw that he was right. A single entry under “Mechanics, Automotive.”
I put the book away and said, “That’s fine. We can make it through one night in the car. We’ve survived a lot worse.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin when the old lady began speaking (I’d honestly forgotten she was still there). “If this is what must be, I will not begrudge any travelers the safety of shelter for one night. There is a spare room available on the third floor--the Woodrow Harper suite.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “We couldn’t possibly accept such an imposition.”
Jerry made a noise that sounded like a quack and said, “Uh, yes we can! What are you talking about?”
She insisted, “It’s no imposition at all. My family has long been blessed with the fruits of fortune. It is only right that we extend our hospitality to those in need. However, there is one... condition upon which I must insist.”
“No, really,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“No, really,” Jerry echoed. “Did you say ‘suite’?”
The bad feeling in my gut was growing stronger by the second. “Jerry, do you mind if I talk to you in private for a moment?”
He followed me to the far corner, below the watchful eyes of the dust-covered bear. “I don’t like it,” I whispered. “There’s something wrong here. Something about this place doesn’t make sense.”
Krikrikrikrik. For a flash instant, I thought I saw something crawling up the wall next to us... but upon closer inspection, I realized that there was nothing there. My mind has a tendency to play tricks.
Jerry didn’t bother with the inside voice. “Yeah, I know. It’s creepy as fuck, but grandma over there hardly strikes me as a murder-cannibal. I’m reasonably certain that if push comes to shove, we can take her.”
I looked over my shoulder to see if “grandma” had heard us. If she had, her face didn’t show it. I turned back to Jerry and continued, “It’s not her I’m worried about.”
“Then what is it?”
I took a second to try and find the answer, but realized I didn’t know. Instead, I shrugged.
“Hey, it’s cool,” Jerry said. “If you’re getting bad vibes, we can peace right outta here. But let me ask you this: If your gut is correct, if something is wrong, do you really think we’ll be any safer waiting it out in the car?”
He had a point. Whatever was triggering my nope-radar could probably follow us a mile down the road. But if we did go back to the Nissan, at least I could spend the night with a baseball bat in my hands.
The old woman’s patience must have finally run out. She turned to the stairs and called over her shoulder, “Follow me this way. I will show you to your room.”
Jerry read the look on my face and tried to pump the brakes, “Actually, we’re just gonna rough it in the car tonight. No need to show us to any… oh look, she’s already gone.”
We hurried up the stairs behind her. When we’d all reemerged on the ground floor, she started towards the grand staircase. But Jerry and I took a different route, heading straight for the front door. Just before I could reach the handle, the lights flickered, and a booming noise filled the room, freezing us in place. The sound of a distant explosion lingered for a couple seconds, then dissipated. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it sounded like thunder...
I broke free from my deer-in-headlights moment and opened the door to see that the sky outside had turned murky black. Waves of thick, torrential rain rocked the trees on the horizon like hands frantically waving goodbye to the world. I’d been through enough tornadoes to know what bad weather looked like, but this… this was something different.
A bolt of lightning cracked open a tree on the other side of the road. A half-second later, the noise washed over us. I instinctively stepped back and shut the door.
Jerry laughed, “I guess that settles it, huh? Looks like we’re hunkering down for the night whether we want to or not.”
“It appears the looming tempest has finally reached us.” Once again, the old woman snuck up on me, only revealing her presence when she spoke.
I turned to her. She showed no signs of concern. No smile or frown. No emotion at all, really. She just stood and waited for me to say something, which, after finally finding my voice again, I did. “You said there was ‘one condition’ to our staying the night?”
“Yes,” she answered. “As you have undoubtedly discovered by now, this is no ordinary Bed and Breakfast. A typical reservation is made a full year in advance. The experience of spending a night in Bedside Manor is quite valuable--in more ways than one. If you will be present, I expect you to behave as legitimate guests. That means engaging in all of the evening’s activities, exploring the various mysteries, and staying in character. Above all else--” She raised her voice to emphasize this next part. “--You must not let any of the other participants know that you did not pay for a room. Is this understood?”
“Clear as mud,” Jerry answered.
“Excellent. Please follow me to your accommodations.” Her explanation was way too much for me to digest all at once. Activities? Bed and breakfast? Character??? She continued to speak as we followed her up the grand staircase, further from the safety(?) of the outside. “Bedside Manor contains thirteen bedrooms: five for guests, three for family, and an additional five for the servants. At one point, it was considered quite progressive to allow the help to live within the main quarters, but Eustice Bedside saw it as an exercise in practicality. Keep your friends close, and your workers closer.”
I hung back a few steps and caught Jerry at a safe whispering distance.
“That storm really came out of nowhere.”
“It’s a cloud burst,” he said with a shrug. “They happen.”
“I got sunburned walking up the hill. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”
“Good thing we got here when we did, huh?” He wasn’t taking the hint.
“Yeah,” I said, resigning myself to the situation. “Good thing.”
The old woman reached the top of the landing and waited silently for us to catch up. When we were together again, she continued the monologue, explaining the sordid history of the generations of Bedsides like it would somehow be relevant to the plot or something. I wasn’t really paying attention. I just assumed Jerry was listening and could fill me in later.
Before we knew it, we were standing beside a reddish brown door with a mercury knob and a brass nameplate above the frame that read: “Woodrow Harper. (1846-1857)”
“Do you have any questions for me at this time?” she asked.
“Is there a WiFi password?” Jerry asked.
“Bedside Manor offers a full experience in the immersion of a simpler time. We have neither computers nor television machines. Save for emergencies, the telephone will not be available to anyone during the course of their stay.”
I asked the next question, “And what did you say your name was?”
“My name is Margaret. Margaret Bedside. But you may call me ‘Maggie.’”
“Thank you, Maggie.”
She offered us the key, as well as a strange apology--“So sorry. I’m afraid there’s only one bed in the Woodrow Harper suite.”
I took the key and replied, “That won’t be a problem.”
She looked like there was something she wanted to say but didn’t. Instead, “I’ll leave you two to get cleaned up. Please feel free to use any clothing you find in the armoire. Dinner begins at seven sharp. There will be a chance for social mingling at six. I expect to see you both there.”
With that, she turned and shuffled back towards the stairs.
The room was--in a word--magnificent. There was a king-sized bed complete with its own curtains. A separate sitting area by the book cases. Even a crystal chandelier.
I tried to keep a calm voice. “Jerry, what is your understanding of the situation we find ourselves in right now?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Not at all.”
“Dude. Check it: This is one of those murder-mystery themed bed and breakfasts!” He could barely contain his excitement. “I’ve always wanted to try one of these!”
He started exploring the room like a kid in a candy shop. “It’s like an escape room mixed with a dinner theater! Here’s what’s going to happen. Someone’s going to ‘die’ tonight, and then we get to spend the weekend playing detective. The reason everything here looks and feels so creepy is by design! Old Maggie’s probably just an actress. This is going to be awesome!” He rushed into the bathroom, then excitedly called out, “They got a bidet and toilet paper! How fancy do you feel right now? Because I’m feeling monocle fancy.”
I approached the window overlooking the front of the property. At the rate the surprise storm was churning along, it couldn’t have much longer to go. Eventually, the sky would have to run out of water, right? “You are aware that we can’t stay here overnight, aren’t you? We don’t have any of our stuff. We don’t have clothes. I left my medicine in the car, and I can’t afford to skip another dose. Not after what happened last time.” I thought about the moment earlier at the book shelf. About the lost time. And then, I thought about the girl with the blue eyes.
Jerry soon interrupted my train of thought, returning to the main room wearing a silken bathrobe around his neck like an oversized scarf. “Yeah, I haven’t forgotten about that,” he said. “Tell you what--when the storm clears, maybe we can pull an Irish-Goodbye. But in the meantime, let’s see if this wardrobe comes with its own complimentary Narnia portal.” He opened the double doors to the armoire, took a step back, and whistled.
“What is it?”
“Hey Jack, what size suit do you wear?”
“I don’t know. Medium? Why?” I crossed the room to see that the piece of furniture held two complete tuxedo suits--formal wear, with tails and top hats (no thank you), shoes and bow ties. Exactly two sets. At a glance, they seemed like they would be pretty close to Jerry’s and my sizes. The pull-out drawers beneath the suits contained socks and underwear. The bathroom contained two unopened tooth brushes.
Jerry showered up first. When he was done, he tried on his clothes to find that they fit perfectly. After my own shower, I wasn’t even surprised that mine fit like every piece had been tailored specifically for me. Coincidences abound, but even Jerry had to admit that this one was a little too lucky.
Everything about this room felt like someone had been expecting us.
Continue to part two