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  1. [ trust ]

 

On Friday, the 12th of September, Inaho said the 5 words to Slaine that would change their lives forever.

 

“Slaine, our apartment is haunted.”

 

Slaine stared at Inaho for a few seconds, trying to make sure that he’d heard correctly. All the while, Inaho remained where he was on the couch, looking over at Slaine with his usual deadpan expression.

“Explain.” Slaine demanded, abandoning his bag by the doorway. He planted himself in front of his roommate and folded his arms across his chest. “I was gone for seven days , and you’re telling me, that in those seven days, some ghost decided to move in?”

“Demon.” Inaho corrected, “It’s a demon.”

 

Five days ago

 

There were many things that Inaho was proud of. Although, if you asked him, it would be less of a pride, and more of a satisfaction. He acquired satisfaction through meticulous works, took joy from discerning patterns from seeming chaos. He derived his pleasure through the acrobatics and feats of an agile mind. Yet, above all that, what Inaho treasured the most was his ability to be a good friend.

When Calm turned up at his doorstep that afternoon with a camera and a duffel bag, Inaho didn’t think too much of his odd request, and instead welcomed him in with no hesitation. Inko arrived only about an hour later with her own equipment and Nina in tow. Rayet was nowhere to be seen, but Inaho figured that she would come later and brought out a mug for her too.

“Okay, while we wait, let me explain what I’m planning to do.” Calm said, the sparkle in his eyes betraying the nonchalant manner that he exhibited. “I’ll put the details up later on the blog, but basically it’s just a simple game of hide and seek!”

Inaho watched from the kitchen as his friend rambled on into the lens of the camera. He had three cups of coffee ready- judging from the way they moved and worked, they probably hadn’t had much sleep the night before. And if things were going down the way they seemed to be, they wouldn’t be sleeping much tonight either.

“Don’t trust him!” Inko looked up from her laptop, “When has he done anything that simple?”

“Simplicity is not Calm’s forte, I agree.” Inaho added, bringing the coffee over. “But then again, neither is anything boring .”

 

12th September (Present Day)

 

Strangely enough, Slaine burst out into laughter after hearing Inaho’s solemn declaration. “I can’t believe this,” He choked through his fits, “I’m so proud of you.”

“What?”

“I know what this is,” Slaine snickered, turning on his heels to inspect the furniture around them. “Where’s the camera? I always knew your poker face was good for pranks. Who put you up to it?”

“It isn’t a prank,” Inaho said, standing up to follow Slaine around the apartment as the other boy started poking around the curtains and the table clothes. He tried to sound as earnest as possible, he really did. And yet none of his efforts seemed to be succeeding.

All he got was a derisive eye roll in return, “You can drop it. I’m sure there’s enough footage for Inko and the others to put a good video together.”

“I’m not recording anything, I’m being serious.”

They were in the kitchen by now, and Slaine was emptying their decorative fruit basket onto the kitchen counter. “C’mon, you can’t expect me to believe that you, Inaho Kaizuka, of all people, somehow invited a demon entity into our apartment.” When the fruits of his labour turned out to be in vain, Slaine redirected his attention towards the spice cabinet. It was the last place in the kitchen that could provide a hidden camera with a decent view of the living room. “I mean, I didn’t even know that you believed in the supernatural, Mr. Astrophysicist.”  

“I’m not an-”

“Astrophysicist yet, I know, I know.” Slaine worked quickly, pushing the bottles and containers aside. “But you might as well be, I mean, how many third year classes are you in already?”

“Three- but that’s besides the point.”

Anyway , my point is, that you’re far too rational and logical to do something stupid like summoning demons into our apartment.” With his search exhausted, Slaine finally threw his hands up in defeat. “Okay, maybe there was no camera. Did you prank me just for fun? In that case I’d be even prouder of you.”

Inaho tugged at the ends of his sweater in mild frustration. There were times when he hoped his sense of humour would finally get through to Slaine, but this was not one of those times. “I keep telling you, it’s not a prank.”

“And I’m telling you in return, I don’t believe you.”

And Inaho suddenly understood what it felt like to be so frustrated that you wanted to scream. Slaine was looking at him with those stubborn eyes; resolute with a kind of misplaced, questionable faith in his judgement, and Inaho knew that there would be no convincing Slaine now. He sighed and shook his head. “Fine. We can stay here and you’ll see eventually. Come to your own conclusions.”

With the matter settled, they fell back into their usual routine of preparing dinner, working around each other with clockwork efficiency. It was something they’d done ever since they started rooming together- an unspoken agreement at the start that had slowly made itself a permanent fixture in their schedules.

“Inaho, where’s the ladle?”

Inaho didn’t look up from the stove and gestured vaguely at their utensil drawer, “I left it in there after I dried it yesterday.”

A pause, and then the soft clinking of metal being rummaged around.

“It’s not there.”

A longer pause.

“I’m pretty sure I returned it to the drawer.” Inaho slid the lid back onto the pot and made his way over to where Slaine was, noting with mild dismay that it was indeed missing from the drawer. It was unlike him to misplace things.

“Perhaps your demon moved it,” Slaine smirked, before grabbing a normal spoon. “I’ll make do with this for now. I’m sure it’ll turn up eventually.”

“It’s not a prank,” Inaho repeated, but Slaine didn’t seem to hear it. He couldn’t understand why the other didn’t seem to take him seriously. Inaho couldn’t ever remember a single instance where he had deceived or intentionally lied to his friends, so wasn’t that track record enough to lend credibility to his current words? He had always tried his best to be a constant- consistent and reliable and stable, so why should anything change now?

But since Slaine refused to listen to him, he would let him figure it out himself. A demonic haunting was bound to make itself known, one way or another, and eventually Slaine wouldn’t be able to deny the evidence.

 

That night, Inaho couldn’t sleep. His mind lingered on the shadows in the corner, the changes in the temperature of the room around him, and the way Slaine had smirked as Inaho carefully lined the boundaries of his room with a line of unbroken salt. If he closed his eyes, he could still pretend that he could smell the lingering traces of burnt sage, even though it had already been four days since Calm and the others attempted to purify the apartment.

Inaho guided his mind away from that memory- imagination was a dangerous hobby, and if he could convince himself that he could smell sage in the air, the next thing he knew, he’d be seeing spectres in the shadows. Even so, as a precaution, he ran yet another visual check, tracing the darkened patches on the wall and their sources for the fifth time that night. Nothing was out of place- neither the placement of his books nor the subtle rasp of the heater.

The heater was old. It was something that Yuki had given to him because he got cold so easily. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. On quiet nights, Inaho would fall asleep listening to its breathing-

- like there was someone sitting in the corner of his room.

The blanket fell halfway off the bed as Inaho shot up abruptly, his eyes intent on the corner in front of him.

There was silence.

And then a soft cry from the walls.

Inaho scrambled out of bed and into the adjacent room, where Slaine was curled fetal on the bed, hands clutching the pillow against his face. Rushing forward, Inaho gently shook the sleeping boy’s shoulder, prying the pillow from Slaine’s clenched fingers.
“Wake up, Slaine, wake up!”

He felt a gasp as Slaine awoke, and trembling hands curled around his wrists. “Inaho- Inaho, is that you?”

“It’s me, you’re safe. Don’t worry.” He said little in terms of comfort, but he held Slaine close to his chest, stroking his soft, ruffled hair. They sat like that for a while; Inaho on the bed with Slaine’s head on his shoulder, and their fingers tightly intertwined between them. “Is there anything I can get you?”

He felt Slaine shake his head, and then a quiet, “Stay with me.”

“I’m not leaving you. I’ll be right here.”

About three minutes ticked by before Inaho felt Slaine’s breathing even out, and the pulse that he felt through their skins slow down to a reasonable rate. He shifted a little so that they were both leaning against Slaine’s ridiculously huge stack of pillows, carefully probing, “It’s been awhile-” (exactly 43 days, not that he counted.) ”-since your last dream. What triggered it?”

Slaine sighed, “I don’t know. Maybe it was your stupid demon.” He couldn’t seem to find enough energy to put his usual bite behind the words, but Inaho picked up on the dry shift in tone either way. “Or my trip back home. Probably that.”

“Even when he’s gone?”

“Even when he’s gone.”

“It’s harder for instinct to disappear, I guess. I keep expecting him to round the corner or something- even though I know that’s not gonna happen.” His fingers tightened, and Inaho patted his hand.

“That’s not going to happen here.” Inaho said, “He’s dead now, and we’re too far away.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“I know.”

The hours passed as they sat there in silence, leaning into the other’s warmth, drifting in and out of sleep. Neither of them bothered to move until the first rays of sunlight filtered in through Slaine’s sky blue curtains, pooling in a warm puddle at their feet. They were dimly aware of the sounds of the waking world outside- the faint bell of a cyclist on the pavement, the splashes of water as their neighbour above watered her plants, and the shrill calls of a bird somewhere nearby. They seeped into their little apartment alongside the sunlight, moments where the world outside intersected with their own.

A reminder of reality, as Slaine would put it.

Wordlessly, they both climbed out of bed and Inaho returned to his room to change. Not much was said about what had transpired the night before. It wasn’t a common occurrence, but it wasn’t something that he was unfamiliar with. He returned to his usual routine, pausing only to take the batteries out of his alarm clock. Usually it would have rung just before dawn, but he hadn’t heard it this morning.

“Are you going out today?”
Inaho looked up at where Slaine was standing at his doorway and hurriedly pulled his shirt on. “Yeah, I’m going over to Inko’s place so we can look at the edits of some of her footage.”

“Cool, say hi to them for me. Can you get some milk on your way back?”

“Got it.”

 

Inko stayed in a house about 15 minutes away on foot. She rented a room there and shared it with a couple of other people: Calm, Nina, Rayet and Okisuke. It wasn’t a particularly large house, but it had just enough space for the five of them.

Inaho walked up their driveway, noting that the inflatable pool filled with cornstarch still remained on their lawn, untouched even after filming for their last video had concluded. He stopped at the front door and knocked, noting the pairs of shoes that stood by the rack. Everyone was accounted for, except for Calm.

Okisuke opened the door, greeting Inaho with his usual smile. “Calm said he went out for some snacks, so he’ll be back in a bit. Meanwhile, the rest are in the dining room.”

“Thanks,” Inaho said, and nudged off his shoes before going inside. The dining room was to the right of the main entrance, and Inaho was able to catch sight of the others easily, all clustered around the dining table chatting as Inko worked away at her laptop. As expected, her screen had been turned away from the others and she gently smacked anyone who tried to peek at it.

“Everyone has to be here before we watch the video,” She sighed, and Inaho could tell from the exasperated inflections in her voice that it was probably the third time that she’d said it. “That’s probably Calm with the food- oh, Inaho!”

“You usually take fewer days to edit the footage.” It sounded like a statement, but Inko recognised the question for what it was. Having grown up with him since middle school, she was more familiar with his phrasings and mannerisms than most.

“I wanted to take a closer look at what happened that night, before… You know.” She shrugged and gestured at the screen once more, “I was hoping we could maybe find some signs, some clues. Anything.”

Inaho pulled out an empty chair and took a seat, his expression unchanging as he listened to Inko. “And did you find anything?” A slight tick on the end of the sentence- an indication of his interest.

“You’ll see.”

Calm chose that moment to come tripping into house. There was a loud thud and crash as he stumbled on the entryway and caught himself on the doorframe. Bags of chips and soda bottles littered the immediate area around the sheepish boy’s feet. He looked up at the group clustered around the dining table, all staring at him, and shot them a sheepish grin, “I’m home.”

Inko gesticulated impatiently with a hand as she kicked out a chair from the table with a leg, “C’mon, we’ve been waiting for you for ages.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t take longer,” Rayet spoke up, looking up from her phone. “Hasn’t he been mooning at the new part timer at the convenience store?”

“Hey, she’s pretty okay? Blame me for looking.” Calm coughed, turning away to hide the blush on his cheeks. He gathered the food from the floor and dumped it on the middle of the table. “Anyway, I’m here now. Show us what you found, Inko.”

Inko rolled her eyes, but nevertheless flipped her laptop around. She hit a few buttons to maximise the volume and play the video. It started off with their familiar intro sequence, something Nina had designed and animated in her free time. Calm’s voice was the first to be heard from the video, overlaid on an image explaining the background and the rules of the game they had played that night.

His face on the screen was bright; bright and cheery and full of anticipation. “ Hi there! Today we’ll be playing the most requested game from the subscribers for our 10 000 subscriber special.

 

Inaho found his gaze shifting from the Calm in the screen to the one that sat next to him, the Calm with shadows under his eyes and a barely noticeable twitch to the corner of his lips.

I’m really excited guys, this will be one of our biggest games yet!

Underneath the table, fingers latched onto the hem of Inaho’s shirt. Inaho froze, but relaxed when he realised who the trembling fingers belonged to. He schooled his expression into his usual neutral look and sneaked a glance at Inko. Her attention was completely on the screen; she hadn’t seen what’d just happened. Inaho said nothing, but leaned in a little closer to Calm, knowing that the proximity would provide the other some measure of meagre comfort.

I’m not gonna lie, we were a little dubious at first when we saw the game, but hey, that’s what we’re here for.”

“Oh my fucking god, we’re going to die.”

Rayet rubbed her face with a hand- she had never been fond of her own voice.

We don’t recommend that you try this at home, especially since everyone inside the house is automatically a part of the game, whether they like it or not.” Inko’s voice chimed in, overlaid on a short clip of their group walking up the stairs to the front door of Inaho’s apartment. “ And since Okisuke has opted out of this one, we’re borrowing the apartment of our friend who doesn’t mind having us.”

Inko hit a button on her laptop a couple of times, skipping ahead the first few minutes of the video. “I’m going to cut to the first incident since the bit with the rules and explanation is pretty standard.” She turned the dial up on the volume to its maximum and gestured for them to lean in closer.

“This is around... 20 minutes into the game?” She checked the timestamp at the bottom of the video, something from the raw footage that she always liked to leave inside the edited one. Something about authenticity. “Yeah, pay close attention to the moments just after we stopped talking.”

Inaho bent forward closer, ignoring the opposing pull of Calm leaning back against the chair.

“- happened yet.”

Inaho caught it instantly. The way that a sigh echoed after Calm’s voice- the trailing end of a tired breath. It was soft, and easily overlooked, but he was good at picking up things like this. Inko replayed the cut a few more times until realisation dawned on Rayet’s face. “That’s the first one.” She announced.

Inko jumped forward another five minutes in the video and let it play. There it happened again, but it seemed to Inaho that it might have been louder than the first. And this time, he squinted at the screen.

“You missed this one.”

“Did I?” Inko leaned in and looked at where his finger pointed. She slid the slider to a few seconds prior and watched the very same spot intently as the seconds crept by. “Oh shit, you’re right.” It was a brief flash of bright red- nothing bigger than a small dot that streaked across the windows.

“Couldn’t that just have been the camera’s light?” Rayet asked.

“Look closer, the blinds are closed.” Inko replied, a little distracted as she edited in a red circle to highlight the dot. “It couldn’t have been the reflection of our camera.”

“Okay, what’s so special though?” Nina asked, more curious than harsh. “We’ve had these things in our videos before. Soft voices, glowing dots and smudges.”

“What do you mean what’s so special?” Calm interjected urgently, startling the rest of the group.

“Shut up, she wasn’t there because she sat out at the last minute, remember?” Rayet said, “She doesn’t know yet because none of us could tell her.”

“They’ve always happened, you are correct.” Inaho answered instead, ignoring the other two who had started snidely arguing with the other in sharp whispers. “But in this video they occur with a higher frequency and intensity. As Calm would put it, there’s simply a lot more activity than in other videos that you guys have filmed.” And ignoring Inko’s pointed gaze of disapproval, he tapped the screen with a finger where the video duration was displayed. “And it’s only the first 7 minutes of the video.”

“Inaho’s right.” Inko said, a small crease appearing behind her brows. “And I actually haven’t finished the entire cut. Things came up and…” She shrugged helplessly. “Anyway, there were a lot of noises in this video if you listen carefully. Small thumps, tiny breaths. Too many to count. But this is the last thing I caught before I got interrupted.” She hit play.

Inaho watched the video, but he didn’t have to look at it to recall exactly what happened then, on the 8th of September, at 2.03AM. They were in the kitchen, walking in a circle and headed out back towards the living room. The thoughts that ran through his mind then rose, unbidden, to him now again, as if he had somehow synchronised with the Inaho of the past.

The apartment is not a location for a game such as this, where we have to keep moving and avoid turning around. We’ve been through this area numerous times now and repetition will eventually lead to disinterest from the viewers. It would have been better to do this at their place.’

And right on cue, as the thought passed, a loud raspy wheeze echoed through the apartment. The movement on the screen paused as everyone immediately stilled, wide eyed and pale in the trembling firelight from the candles that they held in their hands.

What was that?” Calm’s voice echoed in the darkened room.

It’s just the heater. It overheats occasionally or the filter gets clogged. My apologies, we should go fix that.” And as Inaho heard his own voice through the video, he had to remind himself that that was how he actually sounded, and it served no purpose for him to be irked by it when the ones around him had no obvious complaints regarding the quality of his tone. Vibrations of our vocal cords through the skull create a sense of false bass, causing us to perceive our voice as lower than it actually is. Inaho mentally nodded and turned his attention back towards the video. However, nothing out of place seemed to have passed, and he could see that everyone apart from Inko bore similar expressions of confusion.

“I thought it was normal too. But then I noticed something strange with the background of the audio peaks. The static’s usually there- you can see it dip when the heater shuts off here. But here there’s some kind of increase.”

Inaho followed the direction of her finger and he noted the same observations that he had. “That’s astute.”

Inko gave him a funny look. “That’s the closest thing to a compliment that I’ve ever received from you.”

Despite their tense states, both Rayet and Calm slipped into a short bout of breathy chuckles.

“Anyway, I tried to isolate it and amplify it, but all I got was this.” She opened a smaller, separate audio file.

.....m- .. ihm..’  

“I heard that!” Nina gasped, her hands clutching the table as it played on loop.

“What’s it saying?”

“I can’t make it out.” Inko admitted, “That’s why I haven’t added the edited version to the video yet.”

.....m- .. ihm..’  

Inaho shut the others out and closed his eyes, listening to the clip. His lips moved soundlessly as the possibilities ran through his mind, each one tested and discarded in a split second. The answer felt like it was right there. It wasn’t something complicated, or an obscure thing. It sounded distinctly English and simple. Not knowing what it was, despite being so certain of its nature, felt like a thorn in his side. Like there was a pattern, a rhythm- something.

And then it fell into place.

His lips parted with an intake of realisation.

The others had long fallen quiet around the table, and with the sudden shift in expression they waited expectantly.

I’m him.”

 

 

  1.   [ doubt ]

 

“How did it go?”

Inaho looked up from his notes. “Hm?”

“The video review with them.” Slaine said, “You didn’t say much about it when you got back from their house earlier.”

“Oh,” Inaho fiddled a little with the papers in front of him, not really looking at the highlighted points and notes that he’d made in the lecture. Instead his eyes crossed the distance of the dining table over to where Slaine had his own laptop out, typing out an assignment for his course. “The video wasn’t finished, but there was definitive evidence.”

Definite evidence?” His eyebrow arched, “That’s a lot more than anything else they’ve gotten according to you.” When Inaho didn’t reply, Slaine sighed and pushed the laptop to the side. “It’s been two days and you’re still insistent on the whole demon thing.”

“I’m certain of it.”

“It was amusing at first. But now it’s just frustrating.” Slaine admitted, waiting for Inaho to look up from his work before continuing. “It’s like… a prank with no payoff. You’re saying strange things and believing in ghosts that you normally deny and you won’t explain anything to me.”

“I want to keep you safe.” Inaho said, clasping his hands together on the table. “And knowing less about it will help.”

“Do you hear yourself right now?” A scoff. “You sound like a bad TV show.”

Inaho thought of how to get his point across so that Slaine could understand his intentions. They had never been great at communicating verbally, ironically. Their feelings had always gone past the borrowed utterances and whispered nothings that most people relied on; their actions, their gestures spoke for themselves. In a world where people were walking messes of predictable variables and haphazard connections, Slaine had always been the easiest- and most challenging person to read. Even now, as he looked at the boy who sat across him, he felt his usual predictions and insight on him tinged with an alien uncertainty. He could trust his gut feelings- or he could trust his mind. Trust- trust was the key here.

“What would I have to gain from a deception such as this?” Inaho murmured, his words slow and deliberate. “You know me, as I know you. Would I take pleasure in your discomfort?”

Slaine opened his mouth, and closed it again.

“I cannot make you believe what you cannot see. But I hope that you trust me enough to give my words the credibility that they seemingly lack.”

“I want to trust you.”

The sentiment was hesitant. Longing. Perhaps even nostalgic in the way that Slaine had emphasised the syllables. In the silence, and in the way their eyes met, they both knew the memory that had resurfaced at the prompting of Slaine’s words. The first time that they had held each other’s hands, shaking fingers intertwining with the promise of hope and a better future than what the present could give.

Inaho’s mind stilled, hoping that this would settle the doubt that Slaine had expressed. But the moment fell away, and his heart sank as Slaine said his next words.

“But you’re making it so hard to.”

He sighed. “I understand where you’re coming from.” Inaho then gathered up his notes and slipped them back into his folder in their correct order. Clicked the pens and capped the highlighters as he stored them away in his pencil case. Put it all away in his bag. The disappointment was evident in his stiff movements, and how his eyes slid away from Slaine before he retreated to his room for the night. “And I will work harder to convince you.”

For the second night in a row, Inaho found sleep evading him yet again as he lay on his bed. The patterns and stains on the ceiling had become too familiar to him through the now routine inspections of a sleepless mind.

Only the breath of the heater made the night tolerable, keeping the quiet at bay as it kept his room warmed. Inaho wondered how much louder his mind would get without the dry rattles to keep him occupied. The rhythm of his room missed the steady ticking of his alarm- he had forgotten to buy batteries on his way home, having been too preoccupied by the contents of the video.

‘I’m him.’

Who was the speaker? Who were they referring to? The game had been vague and secretive about the nature of the summoned, giving nothing but the fact that it was a demonic punisher from older times, brought to torture the mind with hallucinations and fear. Had it been a confirmation of its identity? Or had it been a more pointed statement- a possible indication of its intentions?

“The Midnight Man.” Inaho murmured, “Are you him?”

The heater sputtered.

Inaho sat up and looked at the old machine, his breaths coming in shorter intervals. No, this was ridiculous. The heater had always been prone to breakdowns and momentary failures. The timing of it had simply made it seem like some sort of response. Looking at it all objectively, Inaho felt rather silly. From the name of the entity, to the fact that even his first reaction had been that of illogical fear.

The Midnight Man was urban legend. Or had been, to him. It was a challenge taken on by daring youtubers, content eagerly consumed by thousands more online who didn’t dare to take the risks themselves. In structure, it lacked the components of more credible, better-documented demonic summonings. If the act of invocation was to be so strictly followed and adhered to for its desired results, how would a simple ritual such as this bring forth such an allegedly terrifying creature?

And yet, Inaho wasn’t one to deny evidence. What happened that night had been too coincidental, too absurd and far out of the realms of probability for him to explain. Had it been a mistake to allow Calm to proceed with the game in the first place? No. At that time the risks had been low, Inaho hadn’t been convinced that it would work. And now, that carelessness caused this- this mess.

Frustration rose, uncalled for, and drove his thoughts into an unending spiral. Slaine doubted him. He doubted himself. Everything in their lives had been suddenly thrown out of balance- and it wasn’t even a large upheaval. It was a shift, small and subtle, a slow drip of wrong that coloured the peripherals of their normal routine, too noticeable to be comfortable, and yet not drastic enough to warrant quick action. Being stuck in a spot like this, made him uncomfortable.

 

With wary eyes, Inaho looked to the heater. To the lifeless clock. To the shadows on the room that seemed to press in closer and closer and to the pair of feet silhouetted under the crack of his door-

He forced the cry back down his throat and instead asked, “Slaine?”

“Inaho, you’re up.” The muffled voice from the other side sounded surprised. “Can I come in?”

“You don’t have to ask.”

The door creaked open, and there was a shuffle of footsteps before Slaine’s figure slid into his room, outlined in silver by the moonlight and highlighted a dusty amber by the streetlights. He crossed the room, carefully so as to not disturb Inaho’s salt line, and climbed into bed beside Inaho.

“I’m sorry about earlier.” Slaine started first, when the silence became too heavy to bear. “I do trust you. It’s just that it’s… unsettling to not know something that’s been going on. And something that makes you so anxious all the time too.”

His words settled on Inaho’s chest like a weight, slowly driving all the air out from his lungs until he couldn’t take anything more than shallow breaths. The realisation was like a crack of lightning that broke the stillness before the storm. Immediately his hands sought out Slaine’s, fingertips brushing against the other’s. When Slaine did not draw his hands away, he clasped them tightly, fingers interlocked. “It’s not your fault.” Inaho said firmly. “It’s not.”

How could he have forgotten?

Slaine had always been so accommodating, quick to place his trust in Inaho after all that had happened in the past. After moving away from his old home town, to this small apartment far away, it had been so easy to forget the pain that he left behind. Sure, sometimes the bad memories welled up through the cracks of the present, but they were always wiped away- Slaine had been so intent on making sure that the stain of his abusive father wouldn’t taint the life he’d built for himself.

But Inaho always knew it wouldn’t be so easy.

They were just nightmares, was what Slaine would say. Nightmares he couldn’t help. But Inaho knew nightmares, and he knew how the brain had a tendency to pull up whatever you tried to hide away.

He wouldn’t hide things from Slaine and ask him to trust him blindly. He wouldn’t be even the slightest bit like the man that ruined the first 18 years of Slaine’s life.

“I asked for your trust and yet I didn’t offer mine in return.” Inaho said, “It’s understandable that you’d be hesitant. A partnership is equal and relies on open communication, and I realise that I haven’t told you everything that’d happened.”

Despite the conversation, Slaine snorted quietly in endearing amusement. “Partnership. We’ve been dating for two years and you still can’t bring yourself to say it.”

“I see nothing wrong with partnership.” Inaho defended, “It holds more weight than couple anyway.”

“You’re my boyfriend, you asshole. My bed-mate. A metaphorical and literal fu-”

Inaho swifty muffled the rest of that sentence with a pillow.

As I was saying,”

He waited until Slaine had stopped laughing to himself before continuing.

“It started out as one of Calm’s games, nothing out of the usual. Their house wasn’t available because Okisuke wasn’t taking part, and one of the game’s conditions was that everyone present at the venue had to take part. We played the Midnight Man.”

Inaho waited for Slaine’s reaction, and only when he saw that wide-eyed look of astonishment did he continue. “It’s set-up seemed simple and easy to complete. However I failed to predict just how effective the ritual would be.”

“You guys couldn’t play the game till the end.”

A nod. “I felt that we were in physical danger, so I convinced the others to leave the apartment. However, the rules state that if the game is not ended properly, the entity remains in the area until the game is played to completion.”

Slaine shook his head, wondering how on Earth they’d gotten themselves into this situation. Out of all the people he knew, Inaho seemed the least likely to do something as foolish as this- and yet he also knew that Inaho was never one to turn down his friends. Besides, he’d been invested in their search for the paranormal from the very beginning of their Youtube channel, whether it had stemmed from friendly support or actual curiosity. It had probably been both.

“Okay, I think I know someone who can help.” Slaine said, pretending not to notice how Inaho’s grip had tightened for a fraction of a second. “We can go find her tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay. Will you stay the night?”

Slaine giggled. He giggled. “Ever so formal.” Almost reluctantly, he pulled himself away from Inaho and shook his head. “Nah, not tonight. You look like you’ve got some thinking to do.”

And he left, over the salt line, back down the hallway to his bedroom, leaving Inaho with only the echoes of that downright angelic sound in his ears.

And with that, he found himself alone again. Except this time, the sound of his thoughts were drowned out by a pleasant buzz, like he was tipsy off the sound of Slaine’s laugh. He curled back under his blankets and drew it right up to his chin, reassured that tomorrow morning would bring a solution for their conundrum and put an end to this mess.

He might have slept all the way until morning too, waking up to the sounds of the morning world outside. Except that he didn’t.

Because exactly at 2:03am, the alarm clock started to scream.

 

The shrill ringing jerked him out of a dream. Inaho wildly slammed his palm on the bedside table until he grabbed the clock. He stared at the screen that should have been blank, where the numbers 2:03 were now flashing and blinking. “The batteries are out- I took them out.” Inaho muttered, glancing over sideways just to confirm.

They were there on the table.

The ringing wasn’t stopping- it seemed to be getting louder in his small room. Inaho gritted his teeth and threw the clock on the floor in an attempt to break it. It landed on its corner and bounced back up once, a crack running through the screen before it clattered onto its side.

Silent.

He held his breath, waiting to hear footsteps running up the hallway. When none was heard, he sighed and slumped back against the pillows.

2:03am.

He had memorised the minutes the moment Inko showed him and the others the video. He knew what it possibly meant. The clock on the floor blinked back up at him. 2:03am. 2:03am.

The heater still continued running as if nothing had happened.

Inaho grabbed his phone and turned the screen on.

2:04am.

Whatever it was, it had passed.

For now.

 

Inaho and Slaine were out of the apartment early the next morning, briskly walking down the road that led away from their apartment block. Few words were exchanged during their journey, but then again, few were needed.

Inaho found himself being led down a familiar path, down the road to Inko’s house, but bypassing the turn in at the last minute in favour for a larger junction ahead. The small grocery store came into view, unsurprisingly empty at this time of the day.

“She’s an old neighbour of mine.” Slaine explained as they walked through the doors, greeted with a blast of cold air, accompanied by the sharp scent of fresh produce. “She knew about my ah… problems. Sometimes she’d let me hide in her house for a while.”

“You’ve mentioned her to me before, although you didn’t give me her name.” Inaho said, “Nevertheless, I’d be happy to meet someone that was of such importance to you then.”

Nevertheless,” Slaine snickered, peeking around a couple of shelves. “Anyway, I heard that she moved here recently after her grandfather died to stay with her aunt.” The counter was deserted save for a disinterested teenager- probably somebody from the local high school that worked here part time. “Excuse me,” Slaine said, “Is Asseylum around?”

The boy squinted up at the pair, “The new girl?” He scoffed and jerked his thumb back at a door that was clearly labelled ‘EMPLOYEES ONLY’. “Go on ahead, she’s in the back.”

Slaine had no issues whatsoever with that, shamelessly making a beeline for the door and pushing it open. Inaho followed at a slower pace, wondering if the manager was around- and if the boy would get in trouble for directing them somewhere they weren’t allowed to be. When he voiced this to Slaine, the other simply shrugged. “It’s his job on the line, not mine.”

The backroom seemed to have been converted from a storeroom of sorts. The lights overhead were bright and uncovered, burning like a tiny sun in the windowless area. Empty metal shelves had been pushed to the side, holding instead a couple of bags and half eaten snacks. In the middle of the room was a worn old table that looked like it’d been put through two generations of children at the very least. And sitting at the table was the girl that Slaine had been looking for.

“Seylum!” Slaine rushed over and waved as she looked up, startled by their sudden entry. Immediately, recognition dawned on her as a bright smile spread across her features, and she stood up hastily from her seat.

“Slaine!” Asseylum exclaimed, brushing away some loose locks of soft golden hair from her face. “It’s been years! How’ve you been? When did you move here? Oh- who is this?” And suddenly, the full force of her gaze turned on Inaho.

He found himself locked into place, inexplicably rendered mute as he met her burning blue eyes. Though her demeanor was gentle and lighthearted, and her countenance kind, there was something about those eyes that seemed to pierce straight to the very centre of his mind. Inaho felt himself shudder slightly, as he realised that there was more to this earnest girl than met the eye.

“My name is Inaho,” He said, once he’d willed himself to speak. “I’m Slaine’s flatmate and-”

“Boyfriend.” Slaine interrupted, to which Asseylum’s smile widened, but she said nothing.

“That. Slaine has told me much about you, and as well as the recent passing of your grandfather. My condolences.”

Asseylum chuckled and waved a hand in dismissal, “My grandfather may not have been the happiest man but he died without regrets. He’s moved on from this reality and is now somewhere better.”

Inaho tilted his head, going over her strange choice of words, but Slaine saved him the effort of coming to a conclusion.

“Her grandfather was a spirit medium, and Seylum has had the same abilities since she was young.” Slaine hesitated for a moment and added a little sheepishly, “Although I always thought that she might have been pretending.”

Asseylum rolled her eyes, a strangely normal gesture that made her seem more- well, normal than the impression that Inaho was starting to build. “I knew you never believed me but,” She giggled once again, “here you are looking for my help. What convinced you?”

“Inaho and his friends seemed to have invited something into our flat and we were wondering if you could get rid of it.”

“A spirit? Can’t be too much trouble.”

Inaho cleared his throat, “A demon.”

For the first time since they’d met, Asseylum’s smile faded away. She stared at Inaho, and then at Slaine, her expression morphing into something more serious. “Give me a moment.” She grabbed her phone and pressed the call button, waiting for a couple of moments before speaking quietly to someone on the other end of the line. “Edie? Yeah it’s me, can you help me tell your mum that I won’t be back early today? Something came up- no it’s not serious, don’t worry. Okay, thanks!”

She tossed her phone into her bag and yanked the store’s apron off of herself, hanging it on a hook by the door. With both Slaine and Inaho in tow, she grabbed her things and rushed out of the store, barely waving a goodbye to the boy at the counter.

“Show me the way to your place, and tell me what happened in the meantime.”

“Wait, don’t you have a shift?” Slaine asked, lengthening his strides so that he was slightly in front of the group.

“I was supposed to be having an off-day today, but I spend most of my time around that store anyway.” She said dismissively, “Now tell me about your demon.”

“We played a game of The Midnight Man, but we didn’t finish the game because it got too dangerous.” Inaho started, “My heater stopped working, cups were being broken, one of my friends kept feeling something grab her ankle.”

“That sounds pretty standard when you’re playing a game like that.”

“And we saw a man.”

Asseylum looked up at him sharply. “A man?”

“Humanoid, tall. He was standing at the end of the corridor and holding something in his hand, but we couldn’t make it out.”

“So you decided to leave the apartment instead of finishing the game.”

“Yes.”

Asseylum looked away from Inaho, rubbing her temple with one hand. “How long has it been since the game?”

“About a week.”

“In my experience, the longer demons stay, the harder it is to get them to leave. Assuming you guys actually managed to summon the intended demon, that is.”

“Is the ritual not specific?”

She shook her head, “No, not enough. This one is too vague, too open. It’s like randomly sending a signal out into space and hoping something picks it up.” At Inaho’s slight reaction, she shot him a small smile. “Something told me you’d be able to appreciate that analogy.”

“Coincidentally, I major in astrophysics.”

With a nod, Asseylum continued. “Sometimes the signal goes through, other times it’s lost to many other variables. When it gets picked up, you never know if whatever picked it up wants to reply anyway.”

“And in this case, it seems to have decided to pay us a visit.”

At this point, the three of them had arrived at the bottom of their apartment block. “Usually there’s an elevator but that’s been broken for a while.” Slaine explained, leading them round the side to the stairwell. “Luckily for us, we’re only on the third floor.” They climbed the narrow staircase in a single file, and Asseylum waited patiently for Slaine to unlock the door.

When they stepped inside, she moved ahead, slowly walking a circle around the living room. Her hand trailed along the back of the couch, and against the edges of their furniture, her eyes darting from corner to corner. Both boys stood aside, watching her intently as she surveyed their home. After she finished her round of the room, she moved on to the kitchen.

Asseylum didn’t linger long in there, pausing only at the drying rack to grin at the cups there. “I see you still have the kitten cup that I gave you.”

“It’s the only one he’ll use.” Inaho supplied with a straight face, seemingly unperturbed by the way Slaine sputtered and smacked his arm.

When she moved into the corridor, she stilled at the entrance and reached for something in her bag. “This was where you saw the man?” Inaho nodded, and she carefully walked down the length of the short corridor, pausing a bit outside their rooms. The salt line seemed to catch her brief attention, but she didn’t comment on it.

At Slaine’s door, Asseylum stopped. They watched with bated breaths as her hand slowly lifted and came to a stop on the door. Her hair fell in front of her face as she looked down, as if bowing in prayer.

“Slaine,” She whispered, in a small voice that made their hearts stutter. “There’s so much pain.” And when she looked back up, her eyes were glistening in the dim light. Inaho could see Slaine stiffen up, taking a step back from them. “I was hoping that a fresh start would help, but-”

“That’s-” Slaine cut in, his voice tight, “That’s not the issue here.”

Asseylum seemed to realise that she’d crossed some kind of line, and backed off the topic apologetically with a placating gesture. “I’m sorry. But yes, there’s definitely something in your house- subtle, but it’s there.”

Inaho recalled the incident from the previous night and wondered if that would fall under subtle.

“Luckily,” She continued, “It doesn’t seem to be very strong, so the usual cleansing methods should work.”

“We’ve tried sage.” Inaho said, “But it didn’t seem to work.”

“It might have helped to lessen the demon’s presence, but usually you’d need a bit more.”  From her bag, she withdrew a loop of rosary beads, with a small cross hanging on the end. “This is mine, but I think you two need it more than me. Hang it out in the hallway, or on a door handle.”

Inaho took the rosary, the beads cool and smooth beneath his fingertips. He wasn’t one to be religious, so he would probably leave this with Slaine.

“I’ve got more things at home that can help, but I’ll have to go and get them.” Asseylum said, “I wouldn’t suggest staying in this apartment while you wait, but it’s up to you.” With that last piece of advice, she left, promising to be back within an hour.

“I don’t think it’d hurt to stay here for another hour.” Slaine said, once they were alone. “We’ve already spent so much time in here since the whole thing started.”

Inaho felt less strongly about that, but he went along with Slaine’s suggestion anyway. They spent the next hour going over their assignments and notes- something surprisingly mundane and normal that now felt somewhat strange. But it worked, with their concentrations turned towards schoolwork, an hour passed by relatively quickly.

 

They hadn’t locked the door after Asseylum left, so she let herself in with a quick knock. She’d changed from her earlier attire to something more comfortable- a long sweater and sweatpants. A grey plastic bag dangled from her elbow, its contents immediately drawing the notice and curiosity of both Slaine and Inaho.

“These are smudging sticks,” Asseylum explained, noticing their gaze, “probably similar to the sage that you used before, but I have cedar and myrrh as well.”

“We’ll just have to burn those and it’ll be over?” Slaine asked.

She caught his hopeful tone and smiled hesitantly, “It should work, this is all I can think of without you all having to repeat the game again.”

“Sage is commonly used for its cleansing properties,” Inaho started, taking one of the sticks from Asseylum to inspect. He remembered this much from what Inko had said, but was it strong enough to drive a demon away? “What about the others?”

“Cedar is associated with protection,” She replied, passing Slaine a stick and taking one for herself. From the bag she retrieved a box of matches and struck a match. Reverently, she touched the tip of the flame to an end of their sticks, waiting until they’d burned for a few moments before blowing out the flames. “And the myrrh is for purification.”

Tendrils of grey smoke drifted upwards from the glowing ends of the dried herbs, twisting and curling around themselves until they faded into the air. Slowly, the scent of the herbs began to fill the room. It was strange, but pleasing. With a small flourish, Asseylum produced a small white feather and waved it through the smoke, dispersing and scattering the ashy particles.

In this manner she moved around the apartment, half lidded and her lips moving silently. As the harsh bright light of the afternoon gave way to the early evening, the muted glow through the windows gave way to the quiet light of the embers; hues of red and orange reflected across Asseylum’s fair skin. Despite the clothes she wore, she looked… otherworldly in the process of her ritual, her movements laced with the familiarity and confidence of perhaps, a high priestess from older times.

They lost track of how much time had passed, as they made their way through Inaho’s room- where the empty clock still laid on the ground, and the heater emitted its steady flow, and through Slaine’s room. Inaho didn’t count exactly, but he was certain that Asseylum lingered there for longer, passing the stick through every crevice and corner with painstaking care. Whether if it was for his benefit, or hers, Inaho couldn’t be certain.

“There we go, it’s done.” Asseylum said, once they’d finished a round of the house. She extinguished the sticks in a bowl of water, and wrapped them back up in a faded red cloth. “I can’t guarantee it’ll work, so please let me know if anything still feels off. I’ll leave the sticks with you so that you can cleanse the house regularly if you want to.” And with a hint of the cheerful girl that they’d met at the grocery store, she flashed them a grin, “Plus, your apartment will actually smell nice for once.”

“E-excuse me?” Slaine sputtered, but found no retorts as Asseylum dissolved in a short fit of giggles.

“We appreciate your help, Seylum.” Inaho said, as gratefully as he thought he could.

Asseylum tilted her head towards him, smiling. “Anything for my friends.” She said, the sincerity evident in her voice. “I’ll leave you two to yourselves then, my aunt’s expecting me home for dinner.”

Slaine deflated a little at that, “You sure you can’t stay for dinner? We have a lot to catch up on.”

“Another time, Slaine. I’ll be here for a long time.”

And with that, she left.

 

  1.   [ hunt ]

 

Inaho awoke to the steady drumming of rain against his window. He laid in bed for another two minutes more, letting the white noise wash over him. The scent of smoky herbs still lingered in the air; persistently, like the last wisps of morning mist. The nights had started warming up again, to the point where Inaho didn’t have to use his heater as often. So for now, the old, ancient, machine laid resting, waiting until it would be needed again. His blanket laid in tangles around his legs; his penchant for neatness and order didn’t seem to carry over into his sleeping habits, unfortunately. It was something Slaine had always complained about- he liked being tucked in to his chin, securely wrapped by the sheets. The thought of Slaine swathed in a fleece blanket, fast asleep, brought a small smile to his lips. The past few nights had been peaceful for him as well. Inaho had initially feared that the reappearance of someone from his past, as well as the issues in the apartment would give rise to an increase in the frequency of his nightmares. However, as carefully as he listened, Inaho didn’t hear a single sound of distress from the other boy’s room.

It had been four days since Asseylum had come over.

Four days of quiet, of silent nights and of normalcy. Slaine had returned to his normal schedule, but Inaho was careful not to fall into complacency. Asseylum checked up on them every now and then, dropping texts to ask if everything was okay. So far, he’d not had to give her a less than ideal response. He hoped that it would stay that way.

A quick message to Calm had also confirmed that they were slowly but surely recovering from that night. Inko was well on the way to finishing the video, and Calm had regained the hours of sleep that he lost to any lingering traces of fear and paranoia. It was seconded by Okisuke, his roommate who had to suffer through his late-night anime marathons to keep the nightmares away.

Perhaps soon, it would be okay to say that everything was alright.

Inaho finally climbed out of bed, glancing over at the clock that had recently gotten a fresh change of batteries. 7:49AM blinked back at him reassuringly. He went through the motions of combing his hair and finding a decent change of clothes. Outside, he could hear the sound of Slaine in the kitchen, making breakfast for him as well if he was lucky.

And lucky he was; two plates of scrambled eggs had been set out on the table, and Inaho could smell the sweet aroma of pancakes from the stove.

“Morning,” Slaine called out over his shoulder, flipping the pancake onto a dish. “I got up early today, so I made us breakfast.”

“Thanks,” Inaho said, taking a seat at the table. “I’ll do the dishes after.”

“Of course you will,” Slaine agreed, bringing the pancakes over. “I’d kick you out if you didn’t.”

Inaho shook his head in amusement, “That’s a heavy punishment for neglecting a chore.”

Slaine snorted, “But it’s an effective deterrent.” He played around with his food for a while, cutting up the eggs and pancakes into smaller pieces, stacking them on top of each other. “Do you have any plans for today?”

“I have to meet my professor to discuss a project in the afternoon, what about you?”

He hummed into a bite of pancakes, shrugging. “I was supposed to meet Asseylum for lunch, but I’m not really not feeling up to it.”

Inaho’s gaze snapped up to him. “Why not?”

“It’s just one of those moods, y’know?” Slaine gestured vaguely with his fork, “The kinds where you want to snuggle up in a blanket and read a book or something. Or maybe work on an assignment.”

Inaho shrugged but let the subject go. Perhaps he’d drop by on Asseylum after he met with his professor and invite her over. It wasn’t unusual for Slaine to cancel on plans to stay back at the apartment, and it didn’t happen often enough to warrant Inaho’s concern.

“Hey, I just wanted to tell you something though.”

“Hm?”

Slaine smiled as he looked Inaho in the eyes, the corners of his lids crinkling. “Thanks for staying with me the last few nights. I thought it’d be harder to sleep through all that was happening. But having you there really helped.”

Inaho’s fork froze midway. “The last few nights?” He ventured carefully.

Slaine shot him a funny look. “Yeah, don’t tell me you were sleepwalking. Although, thinking back on it you could have been. You just turned up at my room quietly and got into bed with me.”

A loud clatter rang out as Inaho’s fork dropped to the plate. And even though the fork stilled after coming to a rest on the table, the sharp ringing from the impact didn’t go away. It grew louder and louder in Inaho’s ears, until he swallowed and forced himself to calm down. Slaine had said that he had shown up in his room the past few nights. Slept with him. In the same bed. Yet Inaho only remembered getting into bed, and waking up with his sheets still fully tangled around him.

There was no way he could’ve left the bed and gotten back in without the sheets falling off the bed. It couldn’t have been him. His family had no history of sleepwalking. “Slaine… Slaine, that wasn’t me.”

“What do you mean it wasn’t you?”

“I haven’t been to your room at all in the last few days.”

“No it was you! I saw you!”

“Did you really?” Inaho asked urgently. They were both standing up now, food forgotten. “Did you see my face?”

A look of horror dawned on Slaine’s face. “I didn’t. It was always a silhouette, I just assumed that…”

“If it wasn’t me, who was it?”

There was a moment of deathly silence as both boys stared at each other from across the table, faces paling and hearts racing.

From Inaho’s room, the alarm clock started to ring.

 

They crashed into Inaho’s room, slamming open the door to get to the clock. The screen flashed as the shrill ringing grew louder, the black digital numbers standing out sharply against the bright green background light.

2:03AM

2:03AM

2:03AM

“What the fuck?!” Slaine yelled, “What’s wrong with your clock?”

Inaho rushed forward and grabbed the clock- he had half a mind to take out the batteries, but experience led him to believe that it wouldn’t stop the ringing. He dropped it on the ground and lifted his foot. With no hesitation, he brought it down hard on the device, feeling the flimsy plastic body give way beneath his bare sole. There was a sharp pain as the sharp jagged ends of the broken components dug into his foot, but the deed had been done.

The ringing had stopped, leaving behind a thick heavy silence that draped itself over their shoulders at the implication behind the event. It weighed down on them, and for a moment, neither of them moved. They stood, watching as drops of red blood slid down the plastic shards.

Slaine stirred at the sight of the blood and pulled Inaho away with trembling hands. “We should get that cleaned up.” He said. Inaho allowed himself to be led away from the room, hobbling compliantly towards the bathroom. Slaine pulled out an old cloth and ran it under hot water, pushing Inaho back so that he was sat on the edge of the bathtub. Methodically, he wiped away the excess blood and rinsed the cloth before repeating it again. With each wash, the water that ran down the white porcelain sink slowly faded from a deep red to a rusty copper. The cut itself, upon inspection, was more wide than deep.

“We should still get it checked out by a doctor.” Slaine insisted.

“It’s not that bad,” Inaho shook his head, “I want to go find Seylum first.”

Slaine’s grip on Inaho’s foot tightened slightly, but if the latter felt anything, it didn’t show on his face. “No, whatever’s in this apartment can wait. “

Inaho made to protest, but a look from Slaine halted whatever he’d been about to say.

“I just want to make sure that you’re okay.”

A sigh, “Fine. But we can call Asseylum while we’re waiting.”

 

The waiting room of the hospital was strangely quiet. Not many people were around, so the only voices that occasionally broke the silence were the soft whispers of nurses’ conversations, or a wet cough or sniffle from one of the patients. The white lights overhead did little to make the area less clinical and distant, the fluorescent glow harsh upon weary eyes.

It was in this room that Asseylum found them, her shoes squeaking across the polished tile as she rushed across the room at them, frantically murmuring apologies. “I’m so sorry! I really thought that it’d be safe- I can’t believe you got hurt!”

“No, no, it didn’t hurt him.” Slaine interjected, “He hurt himself.”

At her look of confusion, Inaho decided to explain. “The alarm clock was acting up again, so I broke it with my foot.”

“O-oh,” Asseylum stammered. “That’s a… relief?”

At this point, a nurse walked out of one of the offices and called from her clipboard, “Inaho Kaizuka.” Inaho stood up, motioning with a hand for Slaine and Asseylum to keep talking. After the door to the office had closed behind him, they turned back to each other, and Slaine filled her in everything that happened.

“It was quiet for awhile after you came around. I thought it’d be all okay.” Slaine said, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. “Inaho came by my room every night- at least, I thought it was Inaho. I don’t know why I never realised it, but it wasn’t him.”

Asseylum inhaled sharply, and she gripped his hand. “He- It, it didn’t do anything to you?”

“No. But the part that scares me the most is that I had no idea. It came into my room, it climbed into my bed. And yet- and yet-” He pressed the back of his hand against his mouth. Asseylum patted him on the back soothingly. “And this morning. The alarm clock rang again, and when it did, I swear the time was wrong.”

“Slaine, I think I know why the demon is still around.” Her gaze shifted away from him, and she looked almost uncertain of the words that she wanted to say. “You might not want to hear this, but if you truly want to be free of this entity, it’s something you have to acknowledge.”  She couldn’t see his expression- she was too hesitant to face him. But, slowly, she heard him take a deep breath.

“What is it?”

“You seem so much happier than before. But when I was at your room, I felt it. I felt all the pain that you’re trying to hide. You push away what you don’t want to acknowledge and try to move on without fixing any of it. Keeping all this bottled up inside of you- it’s not good. And the demon can feel it. Demons are always attracted to negative energy, and you have a lot of that hidden away.”

“So what are you saying that I should do?”

“Face your past head on. Learn to let it go.”

Slaine seemed visibly frustrated, but when he spoke, he was careful not to raise his voice. “How do I let it go? It’s not just something I can gather up and chuck out of the window.”

“By acknowledging everything that he’s done to you.” Her voice laced with pain and regret as she continued, “When we were younger, I used to think that it’d be okay if I just… helped you forget what was going on. Like if I pretended that everything was normal, you’d be alright too. But that was my mistake. My world does not overlap with yours, and what I could only give you was a fraction’s worth of happiness, even if it was my whole reality. And we were so young. In doing so, I feel like I made you think that the only way of coping was to turn a blind eye to your pain.”

“Seylum- it’s not your fault, you were only trying to help me.” Slaine insisted weakly.

“My intentions were in your interest,” She admitted, “But the things that I’ve done seemed to have ended up in more bad than good. It’s something I’ve come to terms with.” Her profile was firm, and despite that, Slaine could still see traces of the kind-hearted girl that had first noticed him crying in his garden when they were seven. Her desire to help still burned strongly, despite having made the mistakes she claimed that she did, and when she pinned him with that look, he abruptly realised just how much deeper his respect for her ran. “Have you?”

 

They ended up leaving the hospital two hours and five stitches later. Inaho had refused the crutches that the hospital offered him, taking instead a prescription of pain medication. Slaine insisted on calling a cab so that he wouldn’t tear the stitches or suffer too much pain until he could go home and take the medication. Despite being away from the apartment, their mood was still sombre. On the way back, in between reassuring pats and whispers, Slaine haltingly relayed the information that Asseylum had presented while he’d been with the doctor.

And Inaho, well, he felt terrible. He had always thought that he was good at reading people, and even more so those that he held close to his heart. And yet, it seemed that Slaine had simply been better at hiding than he’d been at looking. Or perhaps it was because of just how much he’d trusted him?

It was with those thoughts that they returned to the apartment, walking underneath the threshold like it was the entry to a graveyard. What had once been welcoming and inviting felt unfamiliar and threatening. When they sat down on the couch, Slaine couldn’t help but rub at his arms slightly.

Asseylum was the one who broke the silence. “We can do another banishing ritual with the herbs, but it likely won’t work if we just attempt to chase it away.”

“I know what I need to do.” Slaine said, quietly.

To this, Asseylum nodded, a brief flicker of pride in her eyes. “What you’re doing may not make the demon happy. You might want to get the beads I gave you the last time, to be safe. While we wait, we’ll set up here.”

Slaine pushed himself off the floor and headed for his room, looking back over his shoulder a couple of times to watch as Asseylum pulled various sticks and candles out of her bag. The sounds of her items clunking against the table, and her soft voice explaining what purpose they served faded away as he approached his room. Where did he keep the beads again?

He left the door open as he rummaged around his desk, pulling open his drawers and pushing things aside. Unlike Inaho, he wasn’t as bothered about the state of his belongings, so it took a while before he found the string of beads. However, when he lifted it out of the drawing, something different caught his eye. The cross that dangled from the end of the chain was missing.

Slaine frowned and brought it close for inspection. The small metal loop that held the two pieces together was bent and snapped- the jagged edges indicating that some force had done this rather crudely. His heart beating faster now, he yanked out the contents of his drawer one by one, trying to spot even just a single corner of the small wooden symbol, but it was nowhere to be found.

“Inaho!” He called, the worry and fear seeping into his voice. When they didn’t reply, he turned back around just to see the door swing shut.

With a click, the lock firmly slid itself shut.  

Slaine slammed his hands on the door, and then yanked at the door knob, trying to get it to give way, but the tumblers didn’t budge a single centimetre.

“Seylum! Inaho!” He yelled, “Help!”

He heard their voices, muffled- their footsteps pounding against the floorboards as they rushed to his door. Vaguely, he could register their voices shouting his name, asking him what happened to please, please just open the door. But there was a ringing that drowned them out- a ringing and something else.

It sounded like breathing.

Slaine gasped and flung himself away from the door, pressing back into the corner of his bed as he wildly looked around his room, trying to find whatever it was that seemed so wrong. It felt like someone was in this room with him, and it wasn’t a nice thing.

His breaths came in shorter as he pulled the sheets around him, feeling like the world was spinning and he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. His cries for help got softer and softer as he stared at the corner, at something.

The banging that had all but faded from his notice earlier intensified, but now instead of concern, what he felt from the other end of the door was pure, malicious, fury.

“Open up!” His voice roars from the other side. “I told you not to touch my things!” And yet, Slaine makes no move towards the door. He’s curled up on the bed, the bright blue sheets around him and his stuffed toys pressed against his side like a reassuring hand. Before him, on the foot of the bed lies a stack of papers, carefully spiral bound. Colourful strips of post-its peek out from between the edges of the paper, where little marks of ink can be seen.

He knows it was wrong to take His papers, but those papers always kept Him from Slaine, and Slaine was just… lonely. He thought that if those papers were gone, maybe He would spend less time away or in his office.

Suddenly, the banging stops. Slaine feels his breath flee from his lungs. The silence is what he fears the most. Cold, uncaring, empty.

But He is still there.

He calls out with a voice that is sweet and impatient, cunning and caring. A voice that Slaine so dearly craves; yet makes him feel… wrong inside. “Slaine, Slaine dear.” The way that voice curls around the syllables of his name like slow dripping honey makes his stomach churn. “You know I have the key to your door, but I’m going to let you be a good boy and open it. Can you do that for me?”

“Will you be my good boy?”

“No.” Slaine croaked, his voice hoarse and muffled as he tried to blink away his tears. “Stop it.”

“Good boys listen to their fathers, they don’t lock them out.”

His vision blurs and bends, warping until nothing lies in his sight but the door. The door and the chair that’s been propped up underneath it. Slaine takes a step towards the door. He wants to be a good boy. He’s done something bad, but he doesn’t want to be a bad son. Maybe this time, He will forgive him.

“Don’t open it!” The door was bad, Slaine could remember that. He shouldn’t have opened it, it would-

The lock slides back, a hand- his hand, pulls open the door, and His shadow falls upon him. He is tall, much taller than Slaine, and His hand is raised high. Is it to knock? Or something else? Slaine shuffles away from the weight of that glare, and takes the papers in his hand.
“I-I’m sorry.” Slaine mumbles, holding it out. “I just wanted you to-”

“Do you know what this is?” He asks, snatching the papers from his hands. “Of course not. You can’t even read properly yet.” His tall figure moves away from the door frame, back down the long carpeted corridor to the polished oak doors. Slaine follows behind, staring at his bare feet, until he reaches the threshold where carpet gives way to wooden flooring. He stops at the door. This is His study, and Slaine is not allowed inside.

Uncaring, He walks into the study and takes a seat at the majestic table. Wide and neat and ornate, it’s something fitting of a man such as Him, and Slaine wonders if he’d ever be able to sit there one day.

“This is my research.” He says, from fifteen feet away. “This is what our future depends on. This is something that’s bigger than you, or me. I can’t afford to lose it because my son suddenly thinks that his time is worth more than a 30 million dollar grant. Do you understand?”

“Yes, father.” Slaine mumbles. He isn’t smart enough to know how many zeros are in 30 million dollars, but it sounds important.

“What is this?”

“Your research.”

“What are you?”

“Your son.”

“And should my son be coming into my study and touching my precious research?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Good. Go back to bed.”

His eyes are burning and his head feels cloudy, but he knows he can’t let this show. Slaine picks up his feet as he walks back to his room, head held back, because His son does not cry after a scolding.

That is not the first, and it will not be the last, that Slaine is reminded of his position in the Troyard household.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry-” His hands were pressed tightly against his eyes in a futile attempt to stem the tears. But they leaked out from the corners, dripping down his wrists and arms, leaving behind a burning trail of shame on his skin. A reminder. “I was stupid- I didn’t know any better- I- I-”

He choked on his tears, hands clawing at his throat as if something else had its grip there. The hot tears and the mess reminded him of -

Summer. It is summer when He finds out. Slaine has found home in the house that sits beside his own, in the room and company of a golden haired angel who does her best to make him smile. She calls his name through the berry bushes between their estates, and leads him through the foliage into a happier place.

The way she speaks is innocent and gentle, a welcome change from condescension and formal affection. But Slaine has been too careless, and He is too smart to fool for long. His study overlooks the garden, and a glance outside reveals that His son has been led astray by another child, fooled into wasting time playing silly games and dulling his mind. He tells Slaine all that in the open garden, his voice loud and clear in the afternoon air for all to hear.

And Slaine knows, Slaine knows that she sees it. She, who was just about to emerge from the bushes, scared off by the sudden appearance of Dr. Troyard.

“Do you think you’re a genius? A prodigy who’s ahead of his peers?” Is what He says, “Do you think you have time to waste playing around with some girl? Your complacency will eventually bring shame upon yourself, and my name. My son will not be the disgrace of the family. Do you hear me?”

And this time, something’s different. A small seed of anger burns inside his heart, because intuitively, he knows that she is a wonderful person, and she doesn’t deserve to be insulted by Him like that. But what can Slaine do? He is only a stupid, stupid child.

“... stupid, shouldn’t have let him-” But what’s the point? Slaine did nothing then. He stood and did nothing as his father displayed his arrogance and elitism for the whole neighbourhood to hear. How he hated himself for that. If only he’d said something- even a word-

Unbidden, her smile rose to his mind; that look that she had when she asked if he had truly moved on. Asseylum wouldn’t have been angry at him for holding his tongue. Was this what she meant by learning to let go?

“I was a child,” Slaine said, his voice shuddering. “I was a child who had no one else to rely on.”

A child who isn’t worthy of the mercy that He shows-

No! Children don’t know any better. You expected me to understand the world of adults and yet took no time to show me the way. I kept trying to live up to your expectations, just wanting your approval, but now I know even that wouldn’t have been enough.”

He took care of you even when His project failed. Even when He lost the grant and His position. He still put a roof over your head and gave you food to eat.

“And that’s what parents should do. It’s a responsibility not a privilege!”

You will never amount to anything if you can’t even take this. The world outside is crueler than you can ever imagine. It’s cutthroat, filled with people who won’t think twice about sitting down to dinner with you and taking all that you have. How can you even begin to make your way through that?

“That’s enough!” Slaine screamed. His hands were fisted in his hair and his voice was coarse. Somewhere, he registered that the banging on the door had fallen silent. “I’ve lived my whole life trying to prove to you that I could make it. That in a way, making my own way in this world was exacting a kind of vengeance on your memory. But that’s still letting you be a part of my life, and I won’t let you have that anymore. No more.”

 

Silence.




Click.

 

“Slaine?”


 

  1.   [ epilogue ]

 

The door was unlocked when they tried again. Inaho entered first, finding Slaine huddled on his bed. He had his sheets wrapped tightly around his frame, his eyes squeezed shut and his fingers digging tightly into his wrists. With gentle hands, they pried his fingers away from himself and led him down the corridor, past sporadic smears of blood where Inaho had torn his stitches rushing to Slaine’s room, to the living room where Asseylum’s things had been scattered.

They spent a good part of an hour calming him down, washing the inflamed cuts on his arms where crescent nails had dug into the skin, and assuring him that neither of them would be leaving him alone. They stayed up long into the night, with either one always by his side as the other made them food. A pot of hot soup, cups of hot chocolate- whatever made the hours more bearable.

Nighttime passed without any further incidences, and the slow light of dawn seeped in through the windows. It filled the room with it’s soft blue hue, like an intangible rain that washed away the horrors of the night before. It shone on the faces of the three huddled on the couch- over glimmering tear tracks and the shadows beneath their eyes, and into the dusty corners of the apartment.

Inaho was the first to rise, roused by the bell of the passing cyclist. He took a moment to himself, looking at the boy that he held in his arms. No one would be able to tell just how much he’d suffered from looking at him. He had smiled through his pain and walked forward where many might have stopped. He hid his past so well, that sometimes even Inaho forgot. But look where it brought them. Never again, Inaho vowed. Under the halo of the rising sun, he leaned over Slaine, whispering a quiet promise against his forehead, and pressing a kiss against his skin.

 

A house stands at the end of a road. It’s a quiet house- the curtains drawn over the glass windows and the garden overgrown. Over Christmas, over Thanksgiving, it remained dark and silent as the houses around lit up with festivities. The snow had piled up on the walkway, with nobody around to clear it.

But today, today is different.

A cab slowly makes its way down the road, past the immaculate houses standing tall, and finally comes to a stop outside of the quiet house. Out steps a boy, his hair the colour of a winter’s dawn. He stands at the entrance of the house for a couple of minutes, staring at the curtained windows and the garden around it.

He seems to be in a reverie, lost in his thoughts. A foot moves, as if to take the first step, but something pulls it back. In front of this looming house, his stature looks so very small. Gloved hands clutching the key to the door fold and retreat back to his chest in a tight grip.

And then, his companion joins him. Another boy bundled up in a thick coat and two scarves. Underneath his arm he carries unfolded boxes and a roll of tape. He doesn’t say anything as he walks up to the first, but rather takes his hand with a reassuring squeeze. His presence is enough to rouse the first boy from his thoughts. There is a moment where everything seems to pause, when the wind ceases to blow and the sounds of a nearby road fade away. In their little space, their private bubble, they share a tender look.

 

A nod,


A smile.



Together, they walk up to the front door.



[ end ]