“This is a bad idea, you guys,” Noah informed the group, as he looked stoically up at the ghoulish and bloodied figures hanging from the veranda above them. The five of them stood at the entrance of Henrietta’s one and only official Halloween attraction, a creaky old mansion on the outskirts of town that was decked out every October in full haunted house regalia. Actors dressed as ghosts, zombies, vampires, and other creatures of the night lurked inside, waiting for fresh meat.
Blue thought the whole thing was kind of ridiculous. “I can’t believe we’re paying people to jump out and scream at us,” she complained, rubbing away the gooseflesh that had risen on her arms from the chilly breeze. “I’ve been scared enough times in the last few months for an entire lifetime.”
“Technically, I’m paying,” Gansey said. He was dressed more for a dinner at a nice steak restaurant rather than a jog through a house full of corpses. “And there’s no reason to be frightened. It's just normal people in there."
“Unless it's not,” Noah murmured, more than a little forebodingly.
Ronan leaned against one of the peeling wooden porch supports, looking profoundly disinterested. “Why are we doing this, again?”
“Because it’s historical,” Adam said. His hands were in his pockets, but they all heard the air quotes around the word.
Gansey nodded enthusiastically. “Precisely. The Higby house has been here since 1810; it’s absolutely full of historic value.”
“And termites, probably,” Ronan said. “You don’t have to lie. We all know you dragged us here because of your hard-on for Halloween-related activities.”
Gansey raised an eyebrow. “Scared, Lynch?”
Ronan just looked at him, ignoring the bait. “You can see a ghost anytime you want, you know.” He jerked his head toward Noah, who whirled around to look behind himself, startled.
Blue couldn’t help but laugh. She reached over to take Noah’s cold hand. “C’mon. We can hold hands.” He smiled ruefully at her.
“Shall we?” Gansey said cheerfully, bouncing on the balls of his feet. His face was alight with excitement in a way that was utterly boyish and charming.
As they opened the door and entered the foyer, Adam leaned over to mutter to Blue, “This is his favorite holiday, if you couldn’t tell.”
Inside, a dim chandelier strung with fake – or possibly real? – dusty cobwebs hung from the ceiling, painting the room with a sickly yellow glow. A ticket booth was set up near a statue of a life-sized marble lion, and an honest to god suit of armor stood next to a sweeping staircase. There was also a collection of remarkably realistic-looking skeletons and ghastly figurines covered in fake blood posed about the room.
“Very impressive,” Ronan muttered, sounding decidedly unimpressed. Noah gazed up the stairs, looking a bit hazy around the edges, and Adam, hands still in his pockets, studied a cracked oil painting of a stern man on the wall.
Gansey paused to rope Blue into a selfie with one of the skeletons, grinning broadly, and then paid the teenage girl staffing the ticket booth. She pointed wearily at a door to their left.
“Do we just…wander through the house?” Blue asked the girl, recognizing her as a sophomore at Mountain View. She wondered offhandedly how much this gig paid.
“The way is pretty obvious,” the girl said bluntly, and then recited tonelessly, “Enter at your own risk. Follow the open doors. Don’t touch the actors and they won’t touch you.”
“Thank you,” Gansey said, and the five of them turned to stare at the door. For the first time, Blue detected a hint of uncertainty in Gansey’s expression. “Who wants to go first?”
For a moment, no one volunteered. “Pussies,” Ronan said, finally. “I’ll do it.”
Blue punched him hard on the arm. “Derogatory language!”
Ronan rolled his eyes. “Pansies. Wusses. Blubbering infants.” He raised a sarcastic eyebrow at her. “Better?”
Blue smacked him again for good measure. “Lead the way then, valiant asshole.”
As Ronan opened the door to reveal the dark room beyond them, Noah balked a little, and Blue squeezed his hand tightly. The five of them poured slowly into the room. Blue squinted, trying to make her eyes adjust faster to the dimness.
It was hard to make out details of the room, but Blue thought it might be a study. Wingbacked chairs covered in white sheets skulked in the corners and heavy brocade curtains covered the windows. The only light came from a set of brass candelabras on the walls. It was all very Haunted House 101.
For a minute, they all stood there, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. “Um,” Blue said to the empty room. “Are the ghosts on a coffee break?”
As a unit, they moved forward through the room. Nothing stirred, but the darkness felt heavy and watchful.
“This place is giving me the screaming heebies, but I guess that’s kind of the point,” Blue commented thoughtfully. “Nice job.”
Gansey was squinting down at the wall trim. “Do you suppose this is the original wainscoting?”
“For fuck’s sake, Gansey,” Ronan said conversationally.
They moved toward the other side of the room where a door stood open like a gilded invitation. “Do you suppose we just –” Blue started, and then there was a thing in front of them, materializing out of seemingly nowhere. It looked like a person, but it moved wrongly, crawling toward them out of the darkness like a broken-legged spider. Ronan let out a high shriek, as the thing was coming right at him, and they all broke into a run into the hallway beyond the room, leaving the thing (the actor, Blue reminded herself fiercely) behind.
“This has higher production value than I expected,” Gansey said, slightly breathlessly.
Blue’s heart was pounding hard, and she laughed, poking Ronan in the side. “What was that sound you made?”
Ronan glowered at her. “It surprised me.”
“Pansy. Wuss. Blubbering infant,” Blue taunted, and he bared his teeth, looking ready to launch into a profanity-laced diatribe.
“Sargent,” Gansey said, sounding a bit out of breath himself. “Why don’t you go in front, then?”
“I don’t want to be second!” Noah cried, tightening his hand around Blue’s.
“Oh, honestly,” Adam said, grabbing Noah’s other hand. “Here, go behind me.”
In a single-file line, they moved down the hall: Blue, Ronan, Gansey, Adam, and finally Noah. Blue was skilled at acting braver than she actually felt, and she sort of missed the reassuring tug of Noah’s hand on hers. A loud bang from further down the hall made them all jump, and Blue felt Ronan’s hand briefly touch her back. She took a breath and pressed onward, reminding herself that there were only other living people in this house. Probably. Maybe.
There were oil portraits lining the walls, and Blue glanced at them as she moved slowly past. It was cliché, but she could swear some of the eyes were following her. Up ahead, an open door beckoned them forward. She glanced back briefly at her boys – Noah was following Adam so closely he was nearly on top of him, and Gansey was clutching the back of Ronan’s shirt – and then moved quickly through the doorway.
This room was brighter than the previous one, but barely. It was a small ballroom with a polished wooden floor and a grand piano sitting next to floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the dark woods beyond. Most of the floor space was taken up by a scattering of antique-looking coffins, all of which were closed. “This one’s a little less subtle,” Blue stated.
“Gansey’s got a vampire kink, so he’s probably really enjoying this,” Ronan said loudly.
“Quiet, you,” came Gansey’s retort. “It was one book series.”
“It was Twilight,” Ronan said in Blue’s ear, and she laughed delightedly.
“Oh, Gansey, it wasn’t.”
“It was Anne Rice!” Gansey protested, and then was abruptly silenced by the sound of a long, slow, creak.
“Guys,” Noah whined, and Blue looked back to see him pointing at the coffin to his left. The lid was lifting slowly, but it was too dark to see inside.
“Let’s keep going?” Adam suggested. Blue was already moving forward, a delighted thrill going through her as she noticed the other coffin lids slowly rising as well. A low, guttural moan came from directly beside her and she bolted forward.
“Zombies, not vampires!” Blue yelled breathlessly, as a dirty and rotted-looking hand grabbed at her ankle.
“Shitfuck!” Ronan yelled back, as a very convincing zombie burst from the shadows to their right and stumbled toward them. “Go go go!”
Blue broke into a sprint, reaching behind her to grab Ronan’s hand and drag him along, catching him doing the same to Gansey out of the corner of her eye. They peeled out of the room in a human chain, and Noah slammed the door behind them. “Zombies are gross,” he said, matter-of-factly. “All that rotting. Unsanitary.”
Blue was laughing again, and let go of Ronan’s hand to shove her bangs out of her eyes. Gansey looked ruffled, his face red. “I wasn’t expecting there to be this much exertion.”
Adam was the only one of them who didn’t look equal parts terrified and thrilled. He looked back at the closed door thoughtfully, and then forward. “Let’s see what’s next.”
This room was clearly a library, with long bookcases stretching along the walls and bisecting the center of the room into aisles. “There must be several thousand books here,” Gansey said wonderingly, stepping out of their line to run his fingers lightly over the dusty spines. “Surely someone should be taking better care of them than this.”
“They’re just props,” Ronan told him. “Don’t try to adopt the books, Gansey. You have enough.”
Adam moved forward to take a closer look at the titles with Gansey, his shoulder brushing Ronan’s. “Shouldn’t we be scoping out the creepy room, not the books, guys?” Blue asked.
“In a second,” Gansey said distractedly, pulling a large volume from the shelf.
Noah gasped, drawing everyone’s attention forward. A barefoot little girl stood at the end of the row of shelves. It must have been a trick of the light, but her eyes looked like empty black hollows, and her arms were streaked with dark liquid. Fresh adrenaline shot through Blue; the girl’s costume and makeup was very well done, and a sense of despair seemed to emanate from her.
“Nope,” Ronan said succinctly, immediately backpedaling. Blue wholeheartedly agreed. Gansey shoved the book back on the shelf with uncharacteristic lack of care and they all tore around the shelves to the other side of the room.
The girl was gone, but a woman with long tangled dark hair knelt in the nearest corner, her shoulders heaving with silent sobs. Something about the way her back was hunched was incredibly disturbing.
“Oh,” Gansey said uselessly. The woman was between the five of them and the next open door.
Ronan whispered something harshly that Blue couldn’t make out. His dark skin looked a few shades paler even in the dim light. Noah had his eyes shut tightly.
“I don’t like this,” Adam murmured, sounding deeply uncomfortable. “Is there another way we can go?”
“Back to the zombies?” Blue suggested, a little hysterically. The woman’s shoulders had stopped shaking, and she was slowly turning her head toward them.
“That way,” Noah said, pointing at a bookcase against the wall. His eyes were still shut.
“That’s not a way,” Ronan growled, edging slowly backward. He looked angry, which meant he was suppressing another emotion. It wasn’t hard to guess what. Something about the crying woman was just wrong.
“Yes, it is,” Noah insisted. The crying woman was staring at them now. She had the same dark, empty eyes as the little girl. She slowly began to open her mouth, wider and wider and wider.
Noah suddenly slid sideways through the bookshelf, and a second later, the bookshelf glided away from the wall with a screech of hinges, revealing a dark doorway. Blue had a second to think I thought those were only in the movies before all of them tumbled through the doorway.
The bookshelf slid back into place with a loud clanking sound, leaving them in complete darkness. A whoosh of air went through the space, and a clatter as something metal fell into place echoed loudly.
Blue nearly jumped out of her boots when she felt a hand on her arm. “It’s me. Sorry,” came Gansey’s voice from behind her. “Hang on, let me just –”
There was a sudden glow as Gansey pulled his phone from his pocket, and then a bright light. “Flashlight app,” Gansey supplied, and shone it around.
Which made it obvious that Adam, Ronan, and Noah were no longer with them.
Blue stared around the small dusty room, willing the other boys to materialize. “How - but they were right beside us!”
Gansey looked shaken. “I don’t know. Do you think they’re still…”
Blue and Gansey looked at the back of the bookshelf-wall behind them. Blue shook her head. “They were definitely with us before it shut.”
Wordlessly, Gansey reached out his hand to her. Blue took it without protest. It was clearly for his comfort just as much as hers. “I don’t think this is part of the attraction,” Gansey said redundantly, holding his phone light a little higher.
“Can we call them?” Blue asked, and Gansey immediately looked at his phone screen, pressing a number on the speed dial screen. Nothing happened.
“No signal,” he said, a little helplessly.
Blue squeezed his hand. “I guess we should go and find them, then.”
He was back on the hard-packed dirt, split veins emptying onto unforgiving earth, ripped open by night horrors. He couldn’t move. His head was wrapped in cotton and packed with cement. His arms were horribly slick with blood. No.
He sucked in air, trying to breathe, to force himself upright, to find some way out.
He could feel the life draining from him, pint by pint.
No. Not again.
He was bleeding and suffocating and everything was dark and –
This wasn’t happening. He wasn’t – he hadn’t – Ronan forced himself to breathe, to make sense of things. His arms weren’t screaming with pain, just his head. The liquid on his wrists was cool, not hot with life, and it wasn’t thick enough to be blood.
Ronan forced himself to sit up slowly, stomach roiling at the effort. Nausea curled around him and he shut his eyes against the blackness, trying to force it back. He hated throwing up.
“Jesus,” he whispered. It took him a moment to feel past the pain and the panic, to hear past the pounding in his head, to realize there was a warm body next to him, speaking.
“Ronan?” The voice asked, quiet, accented, afraid, Adam; and Ronan could breathe again. The relief was immediate, sharp enough to make the nausea worse for a moment. He was here and now and he was alive and he wasn’t alone.
“Well, it’s not Jack fucking Skellington.” Ronan raised a trembling hand to his aching temple – now that was blood. It was hard to think straight, and he was still catching his breath.
“Are you okay?” Adam asked. Ronan felt a hand touch his arm cautiously.
“Concussion, I think.” Gansey really wouldn’t like this. Where was Gansey? “What in the name of ever-loving fuck happened?”
“We fell. I don’t know how. Or where we are. Are you going to throw up?”
“No,” Ronan said stubbornly, although the subject wasn’t completely off the table. “Where are the others? I can’t see shit.”
Adam’s hand was still on his arm and it was welcome, steadying. He hoped Adam couldn’t tell how hard he was shaking. “I don’t know. I can see, kind of. I think we’re alone.”
Ronan took a second to wonder how Adam could “kind of” see when Ronan couldn’t even see an inch in front of his face, and hoped he hadn’t damaged his vision somehow. The thought made him feel colder. “Fuck, my head.”
Adam’s hand moved to his forehead, and Ronan hissed. “Feels like you bumped it pretty good. Did you get knocked out?” His voice was clipped, and Ronan wondered how many concussions Adam had dealt with to sound this familiar with them.
“Only for a second. It’s fine. Let’s get the fuck out of here. Is this water?” They were sitting in half an inch of liquid. It covered Ronan’s arms and was seeping into his pants and the back of his shirt.
“God, I hope so. Do you think – are we in the cellar?”
Ronan tried once more to collect his thoughts – it was like all coherency had been tossed from his head when he hit it – and considered. The floor was dirt beneath them, and the air smelled unused, thick with dust and the scent of mold. Ronan bent his knees, experimentally transferring his weight to his feet and slowly rising. Immediately, dizziness overtook him as his stomach and head protested, and he swayed, grabbing at empty air to try to regain his balance.
“Jesus! Hang on,” Adam said, and then he was standing next to Ronan, steadying him with his hands on Ronan’s biceps. “Slow down. Head injuries can be serious, you need to take it easy.”
“I want out,” Ronan growled, another pulse of panic going through him. “This was all such a stupid idea. Gansey!” Ronan shouted into the darkness, “Come here so I can kick your ass!”
“Shut up, he’s not here. Neither are Blue or Noah.”
Ronan stared at the place where he assumed Adam’s face was. “You can see that well? It’s pitch black.”
“My eyesight’s gotten a lot better,” Adam admitted. “Since Cabeswater.”
Oh. Ronan supposed that made sense. It also gave him hope that he wasn’t completely blind now. “Well, use your heightened senses to get us out of here, Batman.”
“Batman’s rich,” Adam replied. “And he doesn’t have heightened senses. Do you have your phone?”
Ronan felt like an idiot. In his defense, he rarely remembered his phone was on him unless it was actively ringing. He scrambled in his back pocket, heart sinking when he touched the case. It was dripping wet. Sure enough, it didn’t turn on. “Piece of shit Apple products,” he snarled, thrusting it back into his pocket.
Adam sighed. “Worth a shot.”
“Give me a minute, I’ll dream a new phone, or a light, or -”
“No,” Adam interrupted firmly. “You can’t sleep with a head injury. Let’s just go. Can you walk, or do you need me to carry you?”
“Fuck no.” Ronan took a step forward and staggered. Silently, Adam grabbed Ronan’s arm, draping it around his shoulders. “Don’t walk me into anything,” Ronan warned. His head still felt split down the middle, but he was marginally less dizzy and nauseous. Progress.
Step by step, they trod through the darkness, shoes sloshing in the water puddled on the floor. Ronan felt despicably helpless as Adam steered him around objects he couldn’t see.
“There’s stairs up ahead,” Adam told him.
Stairs sounded impossible, but staying in this dank hellhole for a second longer sounded even more impossible. “Let’s go, then.”
It took an uncomfortably long time, but with Adam pulling half of Ronan’s weight, they made it to the top of the stone steps. Ronan could see a sliver of faint light coming from beneath the door at the top. Adam did something to the door that Ronan couldn’t see, but nothing happened. “Open it,” Ronan urged him, trying to keep the note of hysteria from his voice.
“I’m trying,” Adam insisted. “It might be locked. Help me.” Ronan’s hands joined Adam’s on the handle, and they both pulled with all their weight. With a creaking groan, the door eased open, scraping heavily against the stone step. Ronan let the air out of his lungs.
Before them was a dark, old-fashioned kitchen, lit only by the faint moonlight filtering in the window. A huge iron stove towered along the far wall, brass pots and pans hanging from its head, and a wooden table with knives and kitchen tools sat before them. Everything in the room was covered in layers of dust and cobwebs. It wasn’t much, but it was an immense improvement from the cellar.
“How’s your head?” Adam asked, a little out of breath.
It fucking hurt. “Still attached.”
Adam nodded. “Shall we?” he asked, echoing Gansey’s earlier words in a Gansey tone of voice.
“Excelsior,” Ronan said bitterly. Adam put his arm back around Ronan’s shoulders, but Ronan shrugged him off. “I got it.” He was sick of feeling helpless. Now that he could see, the dizziness was nearly gone. He’d walk on his own.
Adam didn’t protest, simply led the way toward the arched doorway across from them. Outside was another hallway lit by dusty candelabras. Ronan was very much over this whole haunted house bullshit. If anyone tried to jump out at him, he was going to punch their teeth out.
Gansey was a few steps ahead of Blue, and had whirled around when she’d cried out. “Don’t ask if I’m okay,” she told him sternly. He had been shining the phone flashlight behind him so that she could see where to put her feet, but it wasn’t helping much. Most of the damage to the wood wasn’t obvious. “Just keep going.”
Gansey obeyed, turning back to carefully pick his way up the spiral stairs. “We’re about at the top, I think – yes!” He stepped onto a narrow landing and turned to face her. “Watch those top two.”
Blue did, jumping over the last few stairs to join Gansey. Next to the landing was a door that began halfway up the wall, like a dumbwaiter. Blue really hoped it wasn’t a dumbwaiter. She wasn’t about to climb into some ancient piece of machinery and hope for the best. Blue pushed Gansey to the side a little – the landing was very narrow, and he was clearly trying to be polite and keep from pressing against her, but he was blocking the door by doing so – turned the handle, and pulled.
The door opened onto a piece of wood. Blue frowned, shoving against it experimentally. It swayed forward.
“Try pushing it to the side,” Gansey suggested, and Blue did, finding that it moved quite easily to the left. “I think it might be the back of a painting?”
Blue raised her eyebrows and pushed the wood to the side until the room behind it was visible. There was enough space for her to step up and through the hole the painting covered when she held it to the side, and she continued to hold it so that Gansey could follow her. They both turned back to regard the large pastoral painting, watching how it swung back into place when Blue released it, covering the hole perfectly.
“Huh,” Blue said. “Handy.”
They were standing in a large bedroom. A huge four-poster bed dominated one side of the room, a pair of regal armchairs pulled up next to a fireplace dominated the other. It was lovely, if you were into antiquated extravagance. Blue wasn’t. Something about the room bothered her, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was.
Gansey was checking his phone. “I’ve got a sliver of service now.” He pressed a few buttons and held the phone up to his ear. Almost immediately, “Squash one, squash two, squash threeeee,” sounded tinny and obnoxious through the speaker, and he stabbed at the end call button.
Blue stared at the phone and then at Gansey. “Is that his voicemail message?”
Gansey sighed the sigh of a long-suffering friend of Ronan Lynch. “Yes. And the fact that it went straight to voicemail means that he probably let it go dead again.”
Blue could tell that Gansey was more bothered by this turn of events than he was letting on; the worry-crease was there, nestled neatly between his eyebrows. “They can’t have gone far,” she told him, for both of their benefits. “It’s not that big of a house.”
“Yes, but apparently it has hidden passages. Can you think of the kind of trouble Lynch and Parrish could get up to with the possibility of secret passages available to them?”
There was a beat of silence where Blue tried very hard not to blush, and Gansey seemed to hear the words he’d just said. They both glanced at each other and then away. Gansey cleared his throat.
“Let’s move on, why don’t we?”
“Yep,” Blue replied quickly. As they started toward the door, they crossed over the shadow of the windowpanes on the carpet, and Blue realized what had been bothering her. She turned toward the window, frowning out at the night.
“What is it?” Gansey asked, looking out with her.
The moon was a pearly crescent half covered by clouds in the deep indigo sky. “The moon’s too high,” Blue said, pointing at it. “We got here around eight, right? And the moon had just risen. It’s been less than an hour and it’s already way up there.”
Gansey frowned, thumb to his lower lip. “Could it be an optical illusion? We are on the second floor.” He pulled the phone from his pocket again. “Let me -” Gansey started, and then went quiet, looking down at his screen.
“What is it?” Blue asked, becoming aware of the unease that had been twisting her stomach since the library in the same way one recognizes a sudden increase in the volume of background music.
Gansey turned the phone screen to her. Blue stared at the numbers and they stared back.
“Maybe it’s wrong,” Blue reasoned. Time slips happened in Cabeswater. She’d never experienced them anywhere else. “Are we on the ley line?”
“Not that I know of,” Gansey said slowly. “Damn. I wish I had my journal.”
Blue shook herself, getting back to the problem at hand. “Well, that’s weird and all, but let’s focus on finding the others.”
Wordlessly, Gansey reached out his hand. Blue took it. Together, they hurried from the silent bedroom.
“Ronan,” Adam said, possibly not for the first time. They’d stopped to rest. This hallway seemed to go on forever, but that could just be because Ronan’s head pounded with every step he took, so it was slow going. He needed a strong painkiller. Or a drink. Possibly both.
“Ronan,” Adam repeated, and the use of Ronan’s first name combined with the urgency of Adam’s tone finally caught Ronan’s attention.
“The cars are gone.” Adam was standing beside a large plate-glass window, staring outside. It took a second for Ronan to register what he meant, and then all he could think was If someone stole the Pig I’ll hunt them down and gut them, concussion or not.
Thankfully, the Camaro was still there, parked a short distance down the gravel drive. But there had been at least ten other cars beside it when they’d gotten to the house, probably belonging to the employees and other thrill-seekers. Now they were all gone. “Maybe everyone else decided this place was too fucked up to stay at,” Ronan suggested. “I know I’m pretty sick of it.”
Adam frowned out at the overgrown front yard and the nearly empty drive. “Do you really think they’d all just leave without checking the house to see if anyone was still in it?”
“We were in the cellar,” Ronan pointed out. “However the fuck that happened. I doubt they’d check there.” He was getting the same feeling of being watched he’d had when they entered the library, and it was pissing him off. He surreptitiously glanced at the hallway behind them. Empty. “At least we know Gansey’s still here. He wouldn’t dare leave his old lady behind.”
Adam was still staring out the window, transfixed, like if he looked hard enough he’d find an answer. Ronan punched him lightly on the arm. “Come on, Parrish.”
They turned and continued down the corridor, which was bare of the lush accouterments the rest of the house possessed. Not a garish portrait or glass chandelier in sight. It probably wasn’t supposed to be seen by anyone but servants.
Adam tried the first door they came to, which opened to a small closet containing stacked wooden crates. A little ways down, the next door led to a sparsely decorated side room where dusty sheet-draped furniture slumbered. Ronan had a decent sense of direction, but he couldn’t get the house’s layout straight in his head. Since the drive was out the window to their right, that meant they were on the east side of the house, and they just needed to keep going straight to hit the main entrance.
So of course, the corridor led them straight around to a dead end. Ronan swore.
Adam, looking tired, touched the blank wall as if hoping another hidden passageway might spring into existence before them. Ronan kicked at it, leaving an unsatisfying scuff mark on the ancient wallpaper. Gansey would’ve shot him a look or chastised him, but Adam just looked at the wall, frowning. “Back the way we came, I guess,” he said dully, and together, they turned.
The girl with the cave-like eyes was standing at the opposite end of the shadowed hallway. Adrenaline slammed through Ronan so quickly he felt lightheaded, and he resisted the urge to back up, knowing that he’d just hit the wall. The utter wrongness of her presence seeped into him the same way it had in the library: the black holes where eyes should be, the sallow tint of her skin, the ragged dress that hung limply on her small body. She was like the flicker in the corner of your eye when you knew for a fact no one was there, the whispered word in an empty room, the trees sighing on a windless night.
Ronan reminded himself, viciously, that he interacted with a real ghost every day of his life. But Noah’s moments of otherworldly strangeness had nothing on this specter’s air of sheer sinister deadness.
Adam took a step forward next to him, and Ronan’s hand shot out, fingers gripping Adam’s sleeve. Being cornered like this made Ronan feel the same way he’d felt trying to get out of the dank cellar – claustrophobic and scared and angry. “Parrish,” he hissed, trying to pull Adam back. The girl was a good 20 feet away, but it still felt too close, and being any closer seemed like a decidedly bad idea.
Adam jerked his shoulder, shrugging Ronan off. Dropping his hand, Ronan tried to keep his eyes on both the girl and Adam at the same time. Adam, for some ungodly reason known only to himself, took another step forward. “Hello,” he called softly.
The girl didn’t react. In the bluish tint of moonlight, Ronan could make out a puddle forming on the floor at her feet; he realized her dress was dripping wet. Ronan suppressed a shudder. At least the crying woman hadn’t come with her. Banshee, his father’s voice muttered in his head, and fresh fear curdled Ronan’s stomach. Niall had brought a lot of stories from Ireland with him, and he’d seem to delight in both captivating and scaring the hell out of Ronan and his brothers with them. As Ronan had grown up, he’d dismissed most of the fairy tales, but it hadn’t stopped him from hearing the earth-shattering wail from the fields the night his father had died.
They needed to find Gansey and Blue and get out of this place.
The spirit didn’t respond to Adam’s greeting, just continued to stare with those coal-pit eyes. Then she spun slowly, moving like a black-and-white film projection, and turned the corner in the direction they’d come from. Adam started walking forward immediately, and Ronan swore again before following him.
The hallway was mercifully empty when they turned the corner. But there was a door hanging slightly ajar at the other end of the hall that they’d somehow missed the first time past. Ronan met Adam’s quick assessing glance, and Adam nodded. They went for it.
The door led to a cramped set of stairs leading upward. Without the moonlight from the windows in the hall, it was too dark to make them out in detail, and Ronan’s heart pounded hard enough to make him feel nauseous again. Adam was a stripe of darkness in the shadows beside him, but Ronan didn’t need to see his face to know which way he thought they should go. Together, they climbed the dusty stairs, and Adam pushed open the door at the top.
“How many fucking hallways does one house need?” Ronan asked irritably. This hallway was much more on par with the interior design of the rest of the mansion, and Ronan’s boots sank into the plush carpet. Thick brocade curtains framed the large windows, and stately armchairs that looked hellishly uncomfortable to sit in hunkered beside marble busts. There was an old fashioned two-button light switch on the wall, and Ronan clicked it a few times. It didn’t do shit, which figured.
Adam was already moving toward the first of the closed doors when they both were stopped short by a low, threatening creak. The second door down from them was edging slowly open, eliciting a noise straight off the first track of every ‘spooky sounds of Halloween’ CD ever sold.
“Seriously?” Ronan whispered harshly, sidling closer to the first door to get away from the creepy one. The clichés were really starting to really get to him, and his anger, ever the reliable emotion, was starting to overcome his unease.
Adam was already turning the doorknob of the first door. “What do you say we go this way before that door finishes opening?” he asked offhandedly, and Ronan shoved him through and closed the door behind them.
The massive four-poster bed indicated the room’s purpose, and Ronan glanced quickly around at the bookshelves, fireplace, and bay window. “Do you think - ?”
Ronan’s question was cut off by Adam throwing up a hand to silence him. Irritated and wary, he shut his mouth, hearing what Adam had a moment later. A muffled voice was speaking from somewhere beyond the room, and the cadence was vaguely familiar. “Noah?” Ronan yelled, striding forward immediately toward the far door with Adam at his heels. The voice had already faded, and frustration rose within Ronan, overwhelming everything else. “God damn it. Gansey?”
Gansey’s head snapped around, and he scanned the empty room behind them. He could’ve sworn he’d just heard –
“I heard it too,” Blue confirmed. She had been peering up at the fresco painted on the vaulted ceiling above them, but joined Gansey in looking back across the empty, dust-filled ballroom. “It sounded like Ronan.”
Frantic hope seized Gansey at the possibility that Ronan and Adam were within shouting distance, and he called back, “Ronan!” as he strode back across the room toward the long hallway they’d entered from.
Only – there was someone there, huddled in the shadowed corner. Gansey slowed a little, feeling Blue’s fingers catch his arm and tighten around it. As they edged closer, Gansey could make out the white dress, the hunched shoulders, and the dark stringy hair, and his mouth went completely dry.
Blue made a quiet sound, something between fear and frustration, and stepped a little in front of Gansey. “Blue,” Gansey managed to say warningly, baseline curiosity overwhelmed by dread, and Blue tsked at him, every inch of her stout frame radiating tension and energy.
“We aren’t here to hurt you,” Blue said to the woman, her voice remarkably steady and clear. The woman continued to sit and shake with silent sobs, hands over her face in an expression of complete despair. “We’re just trying to find our friends so we can leave.”
Nothing happened, except for Gansey’s heart trying rather valiantly to extract itself from beneath his ribs with the force of its pounding. Blue stepped forward again, seeming to finally catch the woman’s attention. Haltingly, the woman dropped her hands from her face, and turned her head in their direction.
It was either too dark to see her eyes, or her eyes were just pits of darkness. Either way, Gansey felt his muscles go taut in preparation to flee in an entirely automatic response. Blue was looking like she now maybe had some doubts about her approach to the situation as the woman slowly opened her mouth, as if to let out a ringing scream.
Then she seemed to flicker, and her mouth was closed again. Gansey watched as her hand raised with one finger outstretched, pointing out the hallway in the same direction they’d come from. With Gansey’s next blink, she’d disappeared.
Gansey and Blue let out a shaking breath at the same time, and with a quick glance at one another, edged past the spot the woman had been sitting and left the room back the way they’d come.
The hallway looked unchanged from the ten minutes or so they’d been in the ballroom. The faded portraits of stuffy-looking men and women that lined the walls still reminded Gansey strongly of his parent’s colleagues in D.C. He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up as he and Blue passed, as if their eyes were following their progress through the house. After everything they’d experienced, he figured that it wasn’t an entirely outlandish feeling.
The sound of footsteps muffled on the carpet came from around the corner, and a voice spoke up loudly into the silence of the house. “Christ on a fucking cracker, I’m sick of hallways.”
Gansey felt joyous relief pour through him, and he rushed around the corner, colliding with Ronan and Adam hard enough that they all cursed in unison.
“Thank goodness,” Blue breathed, and stepped forward to catch Adam in a hard hug. Gansey followed suit with Ronan, loosening his grip and wincing as Ronan gave a loud and pointed “ow.”
Even so, Ronan clung to Gansey for a moment before pushing him away. “You scared the shit out of me just now.”
“I’m so glad you’re both alright,” Gansey said genuinely, gaze raking over both his friends. He got caught on the dark stain on Ronan’s temple, visible even in the dim light. “Is that blood? Are you hurt?” Gansey grabbed at him to get a closer look, fresh worry gripping him, and Ronan batted him away.
“I’m fine, don’t be dramatic.”
“Most likely a concussion,” Adam informed Gansey seriously, and Gansey winced again. “Where have you guys been?”
“Where have we been? Where have you been?” Blue demanded, still holding onto Adam’s arm like he might disappear again if she didn’t keep hold of him. With a little alarm, Gansey noticed her sudden elevated tone, where before there’d been only calm determination. She’d been more worried than she’d let on.
“Basement, kitchen, hallway, stairs, hallway, bedroom, another fucking hallway,” Ronan listed, ticking them off on his fingers. “No, we don’t know how we ended up down there.”
“I’m thinking maybe a trapdoor of some kind,” Adam interjected. Gansey, curious, started to ask for more information, then shook himself. Ronan was hurt and Blue was scared and he was scared and Noah was still missing and Adam….Adam actually seemed to be doing fine. But this clearly wasn’t the time to discuss the quirks of architecture from this time period.
“Okay,” Gansey said, gathering his assurance. They all turned to look at him, somewhat expectantly, and he grabbed a mint leaf from his pocket and rolled it between his fingers. “The important takeaway is that we’re back together now. Our next goal should be to find Noah and then make our way to the exit. Ronan and Adam, can you lead us back the way you came? It sounds like -”
A long, jagged, terrible scream interrupted Gansey, and he dropped his leaf in shock. They all snapped their heads toward the sound, which had come from the same direction as the ballroom. When it stopped, the silence it left behind seemed to be especially loud.
“Or maybe,” Gansey said slowly, voice a bit higher than usual, “We should try that way.”
Ronan crossed his arms and threw an impressively barbed look at Gansey. “You want to go towards the banshee. Gansey, I know you’re the conductor of fearless leader train right now, but can I remind everyone that we’re in a real-ass haunted-as-fuck house? And if you remember every horror movie we’ve ever watched, I’m statistically the most likely to get my throat ripped out by the homicidal ghosts first?”
“Does that mean the virgins here are safe?” Adam asked, deadpan, and Ronan was distracted from his ire for a second by an amused snort.
“The ghosts have had plenty of opportunities to rip out all our throats,” Blue pointed out. “I don’t think they actually want to hurt us.”
Gansey nodded emphatically, smiling at her. “Precisely. In fact, I think the woman we just saw may have been pointing us in your direction.” Ronan looked like he wanted to argue, and Gansey put up a hand to ask him to wait. “I’d prefer if we were all out of here as soon as possible, too. Especially since it’s nearly two a.m., and if we don’t get Blue home soon, we will be in real danger of having very unpleasant things inflicted upon us by furious psychics.”
Ronan stared blankly at him when he mentioned the time, and Adam frowned, opening his mouth to object. Gansey fished his phone out of his pocket to prove it to them.
“How is that possible?” Adam asked, eying the numbers on the phone suspiciously. “We’re not on the ley line. I would be able to feel it.”
“Explains all the cars being gone,” Ronan muttered.
“How is anything we ever encounter possible?” Blue said with a shrug, peering down the dark hallway. “Come on. I want to find Noah.” She started walking away without seeing if they would follow, and Gansey gave Ronan and Adam an encouraging smile before following her. After a few seconds, he heard two pairs of feet walking fast to catch up, along with a lot of pissed off grumbling from Ronan, which Adam silenced with a quiet few words.
“We’ve already looked in on all the rooms in this part of the hall,” Gansey explained to Ronan and Adam. “From the secret passage in the library we ended up in a bedroom, and then explored this section of the floor. There’s a ballroom larger than the one downstairs up ahead, which is where we just saw the apparition of the woman.”
Blue poked her head back into the ballroom as they passed it. “Empty now,” she reported. They continued on down the hall, turning a corner to find several more closed doors. It was darker here, the only source of light a flickering lamp halfway down the corridor, so Gansey turned on his phone’s light again as they moved forward.
“Do you think we should check each of these rooms, too?” Gansey asked, voice hushed. The air felt a little heavier in this section of the house, like it hadn’t seen anyone living in even longer than the rest. It was also drafty, even without windows, and Gansey’s skin prickled as a cold breeze sighed through the corridor.
“Might as well,” Adam said, and opened the first door without hesitation.
They all peered inside as Gansey held up his phone light. Dusty sheet-draped furniture filled what looked like a sitting room with a brick fireplace against one wall. “Noah?” Blue called softly.
They all waited for a moment, but there were no signs of life. Or death. Or much of anything aside from a truly distressing amount of priceless and forgotten antique furniture. Adam closed the door, and they moved onto the next one.
It was a bathroom. Or, more accurately to the time period, a water closet.
“Anyone gotta go?” Ronan asked. Everyone ignored him.
Outside the next door, Gansey paused, pulling Adam back from the handle by his elbow. He thought he’d heard… “Wait. Listen.”
At first, it was just a few strained tones muffled by the wood of the door; tinny and high-pitched, like quickly tapped metal. Then the sound seemed to speed and rise in volume and coalesce into a melancholy little melody, and Gansey’s mind supplied the image of springs and a cylinder and pins plucking metal teeth. A music box.
They listened, breathless, as the strangely beautiful mechanical song played out, until it got slower and slower and gradually, with a few final pings, stopped entirely. “I think we found the right door,” Blue breathed, her eyes wide as she curled her fingers around her opposite elbows. Gansey nodded silently, and looked to Adam, ignoring Ronan’s soft curse from behind him.
Adam put his hand on the knob, turned, and pushed the door open.
There was enough ambient light in the room for them to see that it was a nursery. A wooden rocking chair sat beside a small bed covered with a lacy canopy. Shelves with a dozen porcelain dolls seated in two neat lines were set against the far wall next to a tiny bureau, on which a small silver music box gleamed. Gansey caught movement in the corner of his eye, and he turned his head to see a rocking horse gently swaying back and forth beside them.
“Noah!” Blue suddenly cried, shattering the breath the room seemed to be holding, and Gansey watched as she ran across the room toward a massive Victorian dollhouse that resided in the far corner. In front of it, with his back to them, was the shape of Noah. Sharp relief once again made Gansey’s vision swim, and he realized that he’d been worried that in the strange liminality of this clearly haunted place, Noah’s spirit might have been somehow absorbed into it, never to be seen again. But he turned his head as Blue called to him, and Gansey’s heart lifted as he quickly strode after her.
Noah looked the same as always; silhouette vaguely murky yet somehow shimmering in the moonlight as he sat before the dollhouse. He held a finger up to his lips as Blue approached. “Shh. She doesn’t like loud noises,” he murmured, almost too low for Gansey to hear.
“Who doesn’t?” Gansey asked quietly, glancing around the space furtively. He didn’t see anyone besides the five of them, although the hair on the back of his neck was standing at attention, and the room seemed oddly funereal and devoid of sound.
Noah frowned a little, and gestured to the empty space beside him. After a moment he seemed to realize they were still missing the point, because he said, “Blue, she needs your energy.”
“Oh,” Blue said, clearly a little startled. Gansey resisted the urge to put a cautionary hand on her arm. It might have been that he just wanted the reassurance of touching her. “That’s fine. She can - go ahead.”
Something in the room seemed to shift imperceptibly and Blue gave a tiny intake of breath. In between two of Gansey’s blinks, there was suddenly a little girl sitting beside Noah. The same little girl from the library with the coal-black eyes, her arms streaked with dark liquid - maybe mud? - a ragged dress hanging on her tiny frame. There was a dark puddle beneath her, and her skin was tinted the same blue color as the dress.
Ronan was cursing again behind them, and Gansey’s autonomic nervous system was trying to alert him to the fact that he was in a situation fraught with potential danger. But he didn’t feel the same sense of urgent terror he’d felt in the library when they’d first seen her. As the girl looked at them, turning her head so that they light caught her fearful dark eyes, Gansey felt a wave of sympathetic sadness. “Hello,” Gansey murmured, finding a steadiness within himself that he hadn’t possessed since everything had started going awry.
Noah looked at the girl with an infinitely sad and knowing expression, then turned to the rest of them. “She’s not much for talking,” he explained. The girl pointed at a miniature chair sitting on the second floor of the dollhouse, and Noah picked it up and held it out to her. She tried to grasp for it, but her hand went through his completely, and Noah set it back down slowly. “She doesn’t remember her name, either.”
“Oh,” Blue breathed, crouching down so she was level with Noah and the girl. Gansey felt a little gobsmacked himself, and glanced behind to where Ronan and Adam were standing, much closer together than was strictly necessary. Adam had his head tilted slightly, an indeterminately stoic expression on his face, but Ronan met Gansey’s eyes, forehead furrowed tightly. Gansey turned back.
“Is she...alright?” Gansey asked inelegantly, feeling the need to move forward; to make the puzzle pieces of the night fit together into a coherent whole. The girl turned her gaze to him, and he was speared by the depth of her solemn little face. She had to have been only six or seven when she died.
“I mean…” Noah said slowly, holding up one of the small dolls for the girl to see. She turned her attention back to Noah, and Gansey let out a slow breath. “As alright as she can be. She and her mom have had to deal with a lot of unquiet, lately.”
It took Gansey a second to process this, and Adam beat him to it. “With the house being used as an attraction, you mean.”
Noah nodded. “It’s kind of rude, you know. None of you would like people tromping through your house screaming their heads off when you’re just trying to have a nice quiet afterlife.”
There was silence in response to this for a moment, and then Blue said, “Her mom...is that the other woman we saw?”
“Yep,” Noah said simply. The girl wrapped her skinny arms around her bare legs, and leaned her head on her knees. Gansey had the odd urge to offer her his jacket, as if that would make a difference. She was just so...small.
“How can we help?” Gansey asked seriously. “Do they want to…move on?” Even saying the words felt frightening for him to suggest. It made him think too much about the fact that Noah would probably someday also need to move on. The favor, Gansey reminded himself fiercely, fighting back a wave of familiar pre-emptive grief.
Noah frowned and looked to the girl. The two seemed to share a silent conversation, and they both flickered a little, going in and out of focus momentarily. Gansey blinked to clear his vision. “No,” Noah said finally, and looked back at them. “They’ve been just fine here up until the last few years. They just want quiet.”
The girl flickered again and then was suddenly standing a few feet closer to them, between Gansey and Ronan. She looked up at Ronan and held out a small translucent hand. Ronan’s expression was a little awestruck and stripped of its usual guardedness as he slowly reached his hand out parallel to hers. A spark flew between their fingers and Ronan snatched his hand back in surprise, and then reached up to his bloody temple, eyes widening further. “Thanks,” Ronan said quietly to the girl, and she parted her lips in a smile that revealed two missing front teeth.
Gansey drew himself up a little, a plan laid out refreshingly clear before him once more. “My mother is close friends with the members on the board of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. I’m certain if she speaks with them, they’ll have no problem re-designating the Higby house as historic landmark and decreeing it inappropriate to use as an attraction.”
Blue and Noah both beamed at Gansey. The girl turned and ran back toward the dollhouse and into the arms of the crying woman, who was suddenly standing near the corner of the room. The woman scooped up her daughter, cradling her head with the back of her hand. She didn't look up at them, but her face was softened out of its previous planes of misery, and Gansey felt a sense of peace steal over him. The music box began to play its gentle, haunting melody from the bureau behind them.
“Thank you for leading us back to each other,” Blue murmured, and got to her feet, reaching a hand out to Noah. He stood as well and took her hand, giving a small wave to the ghosts. As a group, they turned back toward the door and walked quietly out of the room.
Back in the hall, Gansey let out a great breath, and retrieved another mint leaf from his pocket to chew on. “What did she do?” Adam asked Ronan, and Ronan, still looking a little shocked, touched his head again.
“Hurts less now.”
Noah nodded, swinging his hand where it was joined with Blue’s. “Dead people are very polite, you know.”
“Good job, gang,” Ronan said sarcastically. He seemed to have recovered from whatever softness he'd been feeling in the nursery and was back to his usual levels of asshole. “Let's get back to the Mystery Machine and get the hell out of here.”
Gansey tilted his head as they walked down the drive. “Am I Fred?”
“Well, you're certainly not Velma. I'm Velma,” Blue told him, glad to be able to take part in this particular pop culture reference. “The only voice of reason around here.”
“Who does that make me?” Adam asked, and Ronan and Noah replied “Daphne,” in unison.
Gansey grinned as he unlocked the Pig. “Guess that leaves Ronan and Noah as Shaggy and Scooby.”
Ronan rolled his eyes as he swung himself into the car, groaning a little. “Shut up and take me somewhere I can get an ice pack and a burger.”
Gansey obliged by starting the engine, which miraculously turned over after only 30 seconds of grumbling. Blue watched as the mansion faded into the misty darkness behind the Camaro, and leaned her head on Noah’s shoulder.
“You know,” Gansey said thoughtfully, “There’s an attraction like this over in Richmond I’ve been wanting to check out. What’s everyone up to next weekend?”
The chorus of silence that followed the question as Ronan, Adam, and Blue all glared at him was perfectly in sync.
“I’m in!” Noah said brightly. "I could use more friends with mutual interests!"
Blue shook her head and rolled her eyes, but wasn't able to keep the smile off her face.