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The Icebound Star

Chapter Text

“One strange night in a weird forest, an unusual starfall has passed.”

Vanessa looked at the writing, then pulled out a page and tore it. Paper scraps fell on a dusty floor like snowflakes. Other thoughts have disturbed her today, and beautiful words did not come to her mind. She slammed the torn diary shut.

The agitated forest hummed as loudly as her poor head. She could hear the faint whisper of the dwellers and ghosts, the singing of fire spirits praising the rain of flame, the alarmed murmur of the prince. A quiet and dead place was extraordinary lively today.


For the first time in hundreds of years the sky over Subcon Forest was illuminated by white light. For a moment, the eternal night gave way to a shining daybreak. The ghosts, indifferent and silent, looked at the sky for the first time, and for the first time the ever-blackened sky was radiated by starlight. The stars had fell down into the dead forest, like drops of moonlight, and after another moment, everything calmed down and became dark again.


A starfall is a good omen. If you make a wish on a shooting star, it will come true. Vanessa wished to meet her prince again.


After a little thought, she opened the diary and wrote down these words. Much better now.


The star that carried her wish flashed next to her window and fell into a snowdrift at the porch. Vanessa did not like to leave her house and preferred to watch the forest’s life from afar. But today was a special night, and today she crawled out of her cold haven, clearing a pile of snow at the front door not without difficulty.


The star was still shining, casting rainbow glare on the needles of ice. Extremely distressed, Vanessa gently launched her claws into the snow and pulled it out. However, it was not a star. In her black hands rested a warm hourglass. Small like a toy, decorated with colorful gems, it emitted an unknown light.


Vanessa held it in her hands for a moment, then pressed newfound treasure to her empty heart and wandered back into the lair. A strange relic cut her eyes and hands with its burning radiance. But she did not throw away this strange hourglass, but carried it to the attic, where she hid it in a small chest.


Let not a star, but this little thing will surely bring her luck.

 

***


A small hourglass was not the only gift from the skies. A few days later, a living soul wandered into the Subcon Forest and instantly attracted the attention of all nearby ghosts with its presence.


She was no exception. The prince could think of the forest as his possession, but Vanessa had her own opinion on this matter. And of course, she was able to observe every corner of the cursed land from the comfort of her den. She was called a witch for a reason.


At first glance, the guest looked like an ordinary human, and if Vanessa was an ordinary human, she would have never seen any differences in the girl. But she was not a human anymore. Her ghostly gaze caught the details invisible to a simple eye.


Ignoring the warning signs, the girl was cheerfully hopping along the path into the forest. Neither dense fog, nor purple twilight, nor dead drooping trees scared her. She looked like a bright spot of paint on a black canvas of forest, in her bright lilac tunic, white pants and yellow cloak. Her top hat was an even brighter and more outstanding detail, the same lilac, with multi-colored badges and a lemon ribbon tied in a luxurious bow. No creature on this planet would wear such stupid hats.


The girl went deeper into the darkness, ignoring the shadows whispering around. The only thing she carried with her was a blue umbrella decorated with stars and stickers; not a weapon that can help to fight off a horde of embittered ghosts. Child’s resolute fearlessness seemed amusing to Vanessa until she could make out the girl’s face closer. She looks like an ordinary child, but what kind of eyes she has! Huge, transparent blue, childishly cheerful, they glittered from the inside, like moonlight on water surface. If the eyes are mirror of the soul, then Vanessa could not imagine how beautiful her soul would be.


She almost regretted the prince will snatch it soon.


Noticing the silhouette on the road, the girl called to it. The ghost rushed away, taking the victim deeper into the forest, and she followed him - right into the trap. Snatcher's servants gathered along the road waiting for their master and looking fearfully at the trap. A hanging sack was swaying wildly on a branch, screeching and howling, as if possessed by dozen evil spirits. The girl definitely did not like to be stuck in confined spaces.


The prince appears a minute later, chuckling and rubbing his hands, then picks up the victim in his pocket dimension. Vanessa's ghostly gaze could not pierce through this veil. She even regretted that she could not see the outcome of this story. Will he kill the victim quickly or slowly? Or maybe he will give her to servants to tear apart? Will he hang her on a pine branch or drown her in a ghostly swamp?


Or he will make a contract with her.


After a few minutes, the prince with minions disappears into the shadows, and the girl continues her run along the path leading to the village. A folded parchment with a dark seal and ominous warnings was now sticking out of her pants pocket. However, neither the contract nor the meeting with the prince spoiled her energetic mood in any way.


Vanessa's empty chest was burning in icy hatred.


Why doesn’t she tremble with horror, remembering a nightmarish ghost? Why doesn’t she cry, looking at the parchment? And most importantly, why didn't the prince kill her?! Why does he need this little girl with a pretty face and transparent blue eyes?


Oh no, the prince will not spare her, will not stare at her, he won’t dare! This forest and all its inhabitants belong to her, to Vanessa! And prince is hers, only hers! He can hate her, can taunt her and believe that everything is now in his possession. That's because Vanessa allowed him to think so. After all, they are trapped together forever in this forest, and no one, no aliens from the skies will be able to take away her prince!


Vanessa was darting among the trees in a chilling rage. Water froze in the village well, gray bushes covered with hoarfrost. Scared minions were rushing among the ice-covered graves, fearing her anger. The villagers hid in the empty trunks and ruins of houses. The fire spirits lit a large bonfire and began to sing, banishing the aura of despondency and chill.


Soon, the light snowfall came. It turned into small rain, and the shadows came out of their shelters. The ice witch was gone.


Only the girl on the road kept shivering and wrapped herself in her cloak. Then she opened her umbrella to hide from the rain and cold wind. It blew right into her face.

 

***


This week, Vanessa observed the forest more often than usual. She was trying to suppress her gripping anxiety, but to no avail. Despite the witch was convincing herself that it was temporary, that the prince would kill the girl anyway, as he had done with all his contractors, the blind jealousy was disturbing her sleep. Therefore, as soon as the alien girl crossed the Subcon threshold, Vanessa watched her every step.


The sight before her eyes disturbed her cold soul.


The girl looked into every corner of the Subcon Forest without a hint of fear. She seemed to enjoy it for some reason. Now the girl was sitting on a felled log, taking a rest and looking around. Old graves, remains of a rusty fence, a broken stone fountain, a garden overgrown with blackthorn. Vanessa could admit that there was a certain charm left in all this gloomy desolation.


It seems that a century ago she walked in this still blooming garden. She was catching sunbeams on clear water, laughing and dancing around the prince while he cut the best roses for her.


The girl stretched her back, jumped from a log and sped off into the forest. Leaving the memories behind, Vanessa followed her.


Today her prince lives in a small house on the village edge. The girl easily jumped on the boards on spiky roots, then burst in right into the center of hollow tree. Snatcher wearily looked up from his book, ordered her to go to the swamp and went into reading again. However, the uninvited guest was not in a hurry to leave. She spun around next to his chair, climbed onto the footrest (a completely unnecessary thing for a ghost) and slowly reached her hand to the fluffy mane that framed his neck.


At this moment it seemed the whole forest froze from such insolence. Snatcher turned to her, but he did not even had time to open his mouth as the girl threw both palms into the fluff and petted him like a kitten.


A second later, an uninvited guest flew out of a hollow tree while the prince was screaming and promising to rip her head off if her foot crossed the threshold of his house ever again. In that moment he terribly regretted that this very house did not have a door he could slam over the whole forest. The girl swam out of lake under the roots, made a mocking face and sped off towards the swamp.


Vanessa was beyond furious.


What does this rascal allows herself?! The very name of the prince should cause her fright and awe! Snatcher had to kill this little brat for such insolence!


... but he didn’t. He allowed her to live, to walk in his domain, to enter his village and house, to talk with him. Too much honor for one little human. And if the prince cannot put her in her place, Vanessa will have to do it.


An angry witch swept away to her manor house.

 

***


For several days straight Vanessa was vigilantly watching what was happening in the forest. The witch rarely left her land of eternal winter, and such attention to Subcon could only mean that Vanessa had conceived something horrible once again. If the prince or one of his minions found out about this, the whole place would be immediately alarmed. But no one knew about this, so the only troublemaker in the forest was a hyperactive girl with a hat.


She came back again and again, undaunted and enduring everything. She wandered in a ghostly swamp sinking in dirt and ectoplasm to the neck, and hissed at ghostly arms reaching out to her. She jumped into the depths of a frozen well, broke the ice and rose with water flow to the surface, barely having time to swallow some air. She danced with fire spirits, spinning among sparks and flames, fanning the raging bonfire and jumping over it. She climbed to the tops of tree crowns, fighting off giant spiders with her umbrella. She broke old tombstones and swung on the hanged man’s ropes, listening to their songs.


Death surrounded her, but it did not leave a shadow of fear in a radiant young soul. She was naive, foolish and absent-minded; but at the same time she was determined and courageous. Until her body can run and fight, she was not going to give up.


And all this time she continued to visit Snatcher, despite all his attempts to discourage the uninvited guest. The ghost was unusually patient. He kept her alive and gave her more contracts. The girl, despite her mischievous character, obediently completed them one by one. The tasks, however, were minor: to expel the fire spirits from Subcon Village, to deliver the old mail, to banish the ghost from obsessed outhouse. Those were everyday little things, dirty work, with which the prince is reluctant to bother.


They did not know that Vanessa, obsessed with jealously, was watching them, like a curious neighbor. The witch raged out every time the girl approached the prince and stayed alive after that. Did he really like this alien? Vanessa could not find any other explanation, and this drove her crazy.


The girl was receiving an award for her troubles, and it angered Vanessa even more. The prince never awarded his contractors, mostly because none of them survived for so long in his dangerous forest. But the alien received a beautiful hourglass for each contract. This disturbed Vanessa even more. Of course, she knew that Snatcher had taken these fallen glitters for himself, but why would the girl need them?


Something happened on the night when a wondrous starfall hit the Subcon Forest. The answer was somewhere near, but Vanessa could not see it still. As a last contract the girl was ordered to break into the witch’s house, and Vanessa was not even surprised. This time her head was surprisingly clean.


The girl signed under the next contract, not knowing what she was dooming herself to. Go to an abandoned manor and pick up some thing, what could be easier? The only thing that bothered her was Snatcher's order to leave him all her stuff. And if the girl gave the umbrella right away, she was hesitating to part with her top hat. She twisted it in her hands, then reluctantly handed it over to minion, warning him to treat her treasure carefully. The little ghost nodded enthusiastically, put the colorful hat on his head, and disappeared into the forest with his master. The girl snorted, then slowly walked through the ruined bridge.


Vanessa followed her, deep in thought. The jealous part of her almost howled with anger. The prince must have sent this girl to show her off and enrage the witch even more: “Look how beautiful girls can be! Beautiful, kind, obedient, and most importantly, alive! Your complete opposite!”. But the rational part of her tried to suppress emotions, saying that something in this story is more complicated than it seems. A strange starfall, a strange girl who came out of nowhere, a strange hourglass - everything is connected somehow.


The dweller bell tinkled softly and opened a passage into Vanessa’s icy lands. The girl wrapped herself in a cloak and wandered through the gorge. It led her to the collapsed gates of the manor house. The witch could make out a small figure from her window. She stopped to look around Queen Vanessa's manor. Forgotten, frozen, but still majestic, it towered above her like a huge black castle among the ice. Shivering from cold, the girl ran through the snow towards it.
Vanessa scratched window sill with her claws thoughtfully, leaving marks on an old tree. She could go out to meet the girl and kill her right now... but then she will not know why the girl needs an hourglass hidden in the attic. Something made her rush into an abyss full of dangers, and Vanessa, albeit accidently, but became the part of her story.


After all, mysterious stories rarely happen in this abandoned, boring cemetery of a place. Let the little troublemaker come in and become an honorary guest. Today the queen will open the doors into her dead house.


Today Vanessa wants to play.

 

***


Of all the places in the Subcon Forest, the abandoned manor was the creepiest, and Hattie could not understand why.


Actually, she even liked this forest. It only seemed dark and scary, but there were many people to chat and many things to see. Like huge mushrooms, multi-colored and bouncy, gold and white flowers with shining petals, the ruins of houses, still filled with furniture and kitchen utensils. And of course, ghosts. Some are silent, some are talkative, but all of them were quite friendly guys who helped her with advice or strange magic. Not like their mischievous braggart boss with his traps and contracts.


Hattie left this contract for the end. Firstly, because stealing from old ladies is bad. Secondly, because the old manor was located far from the main part of the forest, in a mountainous gorge filled with snow and ice. The only bridge to it was destroyed. The girl has noticed that none of the ghosts likes to talk about this place or approach it. Although, at first glance it was not that different from others, equally strange and deserted, places.


Hattie often wondered what happened in Subcon Forest. Of course, no one thought it necessary to tell her.


And yet, it’s warm in the forest at least. Here, despite all attempts to keep warm, Hattie froze in an instant. The girl ran along barely noticeable passage, hoping to quickly get to the manor house and take cover from the wind. It rushed through the narrow gorge, howled, threw lumps of prickly snow in her face, as if angry at an uninvited guest. The girl was very sorry that Snatcher took her umbrella away. What an obnoxious peck neck.


An iron gate met her from the twilight, one part of which collapsed in the snow, and the other - frozen into ice. Hattie stopped, forgetting the cold for a moment. The mountain pass parted, revealing a small valley. A huge gloomy mansion settled down in all its size. It was old, but still beautiful, with a mezzanine decorated with stone carvings, statues of angels and a high clock tower. Like a long-abandoned castle, the manor house looked at the gorge and the forest with the holes of stained-glass windows. It was built in form of “h” letter, it main building went out to the gate. Two wings departed from it, which adjoined close to the steep cliffs. So they formed a wall and sheltered the courtyard from the mountain winds.


Outside the gate was a courtyard for carriages. Buildings for servants and stables collapsed from old age, their ruins were drowned in the snow. At this moment, the cold reached the stunned girl, and she rushed forward, trying to warm her frozen fingers with her breath. She climbed the creaking stairs to the porch of main building and knocked on the massive wooden doors. They answered with a creak and crack, but did not open. However, even if the doors weren’t locked, they were heavily covered with snow.


Far in the mountains, a dull ringing of the Twilight Bell roared. Hattie rubbed her shoulders with her hands, then darted quickly along the veranda in search for another entrance. In addition, experience told her that staying close to the headless statues was not safe. Simple objects in these places had an unpleasant habit of reviving at the most inopportune moment.


She jumped from surprise when the snowdrift near the porch exploded in snowflakes. The girl cautiously descended to it. A pile of snow was now wide cleaned; the dark passage under the mansion was opened like a mouth. As if at the click of someone’s fingers, the tightly shut hatch was unlocked, inviting Hattie to enter inside.


The girl backed uncertainly, then looked in. Nothing is visible, only a narrow earthen tunnel leading to nowhere. Hattie took a deep breath, gathered courage and jumped inside. She could not let her childhood fears distract her. A contract is a contract. Snatcher will not let her go with the Time Pieces until the work is done.

Chapter Text

Her descent ended quickly. A few seconds ride down an icy hill, and the girl landed on the stone floor with her back. She jumped to her feet, brushed off the cloak and looked around warily.

Apparently, the hatch led her to the manor’s basement. It actually looked like some kind of warehouse. Hattie moved around the puddles of leaking water into the dark room. It was barely illuminated by several lanterns on chains and candlesticks scattered here and there. Along the walls stood rows of bottle racks and pot-bellied oak barrels rising up to the low ceiling. Wine cellar, that is.

A wide wooden staircase led up to a beautiful door, covered with ragged red skin. There was another door a little further, securely hidden by a row of barrels - a strong steel grate with a rusty lock. Hattie tried to peer inside it, but that room was veiled with total darkness. Hattie sighed quietly, climbed the stairs to the only door, which would hopefully be open.

An old wooden floor creaked at every step unpleasantly and loudly. Hattie tried to go on tiptoe, although this was not really necessary. Snatcher said he once lived here, but now there is no one in the manor except an old lady named Vanessa. The poor lady lives here among the snows all alone. Maybe she won’t mind some unexpected company.

At least Hattie really hoped so.

***

Vanessa was aware of the guest as soon as her foot crossed the corridor’s threshold. The alien girl slowly closed the cellar door and tiptoed down the hall. She quietly crept along the faded carpet and examined the hall, filled with traces of its former greatness. Torn tapestries, spoiled paintings in gilded frames, even a set of rusted armor - all the treasures of the past were on display for guests entering the manor.

In the deep penumbra dispersed by the weak light of the hanging chandelier, the girl did not notice the shadow without a caster slowly following her. The girl tried to open the nearest doors into the garden, but they did not budge. After a little thought, she headed to the next corridor. There was almost no light there, so she took a candle from candelabrum and examined the torn paintings with interest, trying to distinguish what was depicted on them. The fear that had haunted her at first gave way to childish curiosity. The girl stopped sneaking, she just walked slowly, checking the doors and trying not to make much noise.

She did not know yet that this was a dead end. Vanessa locked all the doors leading deep into the manor.

Grunting with displeasure, the girl turned back and headed to the left wing. A strange cold began to pierce through her clothes. She wrapped herself in a cloak and brought her candle close to hands trying to warm them. No luck again, the doors leading to the living rooms and galleries were closed. She looked uncertainly at the window at the end of the corridor. Maybe she could get through it? Heavy snow was falling behind the glass.

The girl took a step forward, and the candle in her hand went out from a sudden gust of wind.

“Greetings, starlight.”

She is so close; the living warmth of her body was burning, her breathing felt as hot as a dragon flame. Convulsive, rapid breaths fell in rhythm with her heartbeat, they were slipping off her chapped lips and immediately freezing in air. Vanessa wanted to rush at her, to tear and freeze every piece, to kill this damned, living heat that has no place in this house...

The girl turned around to meet with the mistress of the manor.

Vanessa smiled, watching how healthy blush slips off from girl's cheeks, giving way to snowy paleness. She opened her mouth, but could not make a sound. She backed up, tripped over a crease on the carpet and fell, dropping now useless candle. She continued to crawl away on her arms, not taking her eyes off Vanessa. Oh, how beautiful those eyes were up close! In the glint of hoarfrost, they seemed to be shards of a radiant star bound in transparent blue ice.

Vanessa reached out and embraced girl’s face with her hands. And, as if dropping a moment of petrification, the girl twitched and screamed. If Vanessa had ears, they would burst from a sharp shrill sound, but now she did not even flinch. In a sharp movement she grabbed the girl by the throat and yanked her up, enjoying a moment of pure fright.

The girl kept squealing and struggling. She grabbed Vanessa's claws and tried to break her cold grip, but with every second her movements slowed down. Her skin was covering with a thin crust of ice, and her disheveled hair was covering with hoarfrost, her sighs became slower and slower until they almost died down. The trembling girl closed her eyes and went limp in Vanessa's claws.

The witch easily lifted her numb victim, still feeling the spark of life inside. She laid a puppet-light body on one hand and reached for the keys with the other.

They will have a lot to talk about.

***

Hattie woke up in a cold sweat, still trembling from the echoes of a nightmare. The girl took a deep breath and wrapped herself in a blanket. It’s colder than usual. Besides, this light and crackling disturbing her sleep...

She jumped up, almost bumping her head on the stonework. From sleep the fire seemed to be dazzlingly bright, but soon her eyes got used to it. The flame turned out to be rather weak; it barely warmed the cold hearth. Occasionally it let out a crunch, devouring raw firewood, and threw up a bunch of sparks.

Hattie slowly got out of coverlet and looked around. The room was barely visible in the hearth’s light. A pot-bellied cauldron stood next to the stonework, rows of iron pots and clay bowls rose on a countertop nearby. Tables, bottle racks, piles of barrels and drawers were visible in the corner. Smells of spoiled food, dampness and rot filled the air.

The girl crawled a little closer to the hearth to warm herself. She forced herself to replay that nightmare in her head.

Distantly, it resembled a blurry silhouette of a middle-aged woman. More accurately, it looked like a shadow sewn from black icy fog, with long arms, a mop of disheveled hair descending almost to the ground. It wore an old-fashioned and tattered dress and a small, neat crown. The creature hunched over, stretching out arms in front of it, and its touch was piercing with grave cold. And it was creepy, the creepiest of all monsters inhabiting Subcon Forest.

Of course, it was full of inhabitants very unique in their appearance. Despite this, they remained friendly, except from one. Snatcher was scary... at first, but now he was grumbling and cursing more than actually trying to harm her. The grumpy owner of the forest was like an old dog that barks a lot, but barely bites.

This creature was different. One memory of it made shudders run down her back. It knew that the girl would go into her manor house. It let her in, and Hattie obediently rushed right into her hands. When caught in the claws of this monster, the girl did not hope to break out of them. Even now, listening to the beat of her still living heart, she was sure it was the grip of death itself. But still... this creature kept her alive.

As a bird fallen from the sky, Hattie's heart sank into her stomach. The creature kept her alive, which means...

... it will definitely come back to check on her.

This thought alone filled her veins with adrenaline and warmed the body better than any hearth. The girl jumped to her feet, ignoring the pain in her throat and stomach. No matter how much she wants to leave, the contract is a contract. She will not get to the attic if she lingers in the kitchen, especially, if the manor’s mistress decides to come back.

Moving on tiptoe, the girl briefly examined the room again. Judging by the exterior decoration of the hall, the mistress did not bother herself with cleaning. Clean and dirty dishes are scattered in a mess, the remnants of food were strewn around with candle cinders and ceramic shards. Intuition did not let Hattie down: in the cupboard between the cookie cans, she found a small, long-lost key. Beautiful, carved, made in the form of a musical note, it unlocked some instrument. Something like a piano that will surely stand in the parlor to entertain guests.

The girl gathered her thoughts, picked up the key, then quietly looked out into the corridor. There was nothing except ominous darkness. After stomping a little on the spot, Hattie took a deep breath, gathered her courage and darted into the blackness.

***

In the parlor the piano lid slammed with a rumble of powder cannon. By the time the witch entered the room, she was met by utter silence.

Of course, it was foolish to think that the girl would stay on place. Living people, especially children, are too restless, too... lively. Their life is short, so they are constantly in a hurry to spend the miserable time allotted to them. On the other hand, Vanessa had enough time to get tired and bored.

Therefore, Vanessa slowly walked around the parlor, pretending not to see the edge of yellow fabric under the musical instrument.

“So you want to play? Well... you will hide, and I will seek...”

She stopped near the piano and scratched its lid as if thoughtfully. Then Vanessa fell on it and quickly launched her hand down. Claws reached the cloak and grabbed it; she heard a crackle of tearing fabric. The girl shrieked loudly and flew out from under the piano, like a mouse from a hole. Vanessa hit the carved piano leg and a massive instrument collapsed under her weight. The old floorboards shuddered, the witch howled, books fell from the shattered shelves. In this chaos the girl grabbed a fallen key and disappeared behind the door to the dining room.

Vanessa pulled her hand out from under the rubble and rushed after her.

A long dining table with a tablecloth hanging almost to the floor, dusty tapestries with wall niches behind, bottle racks with spacious lower shelves – there were so many great places to hide! Vanessa recalled those times when she was a child playing days on end. Sometimes she invited village children, and they crawled around the manor, hiding in all the cracks, like masked snakes. Maybe that's why their souls returned exactly in this guise...

“Come out child, don’t be shy. We can have some tea...”

The tablecloth’s edge moved. Vanessa picked it up, but no one was under the table. The curtain on the window jerked slightly. The witch opened it up, but there was nothing under the windowsill either. She walked around, feeling the subtle warmth somewhere near. The girl hid and sneaked, quickly and silently like a mouse running away from a fox. Vanessa tugged at the tapestry, but the wall niche was empty. Annoyed witch ran her claws over the stones. A sharp rattle cut through the silence.

“I know you're not from here, girl with starry eyes. You came from far away, from space, right?” Vanessa went forward, leaving deep nicks on the wall. “Well, girl from the sky, are you looking for your fallen star? I know where it is. I hid it in my attic...”

The doors in one of the cabinets opened slightly.

“... the only question is - why do you need it.”

A small shadow darted behind Vanessa, the door creaked slightly. When the witch hurried after, she did not find a trace of a small rat. Whatever. She has enough time to find the hidden cheese while Vanessa prepares a mousetrap.

***

“Over there? No. Over here? No…”

Until that moment Hattie thought of herself as a brave and strong girl. Long expeditions, explorations of other planets, whole solitary missions on the edge of the galaxy? Her usual life. There is nothing a young space traveler could not handle.

But now, hiding in a remote corner, she felt how courage holding her was evaporating, like a hot breath in frosty weather.

While wandering in numerous rooms, halls and galleries, the girl frequently came across statues placed in some strange order. Some of them stood on tables, chairs, window sills, even bookshelves. Ice figures of various shapes and sizes adorned almost every corner of the old house. Hattie was not surprised. The mistress of the manor, obviously, loved to collect different antiques.

In all that darkness the girl could not examine the statues properly; but once when Vanessa was passing by, she had to hide behind one of them. Only then did Hattie realize that something was wrong, only then did she see the bright colors of fabric under the crust of ice. And only when the witch had left, and the girl looked into the statue's face, she realized what kind of sculptures Vanessa was collecting.

The frozen figure of young woman hunched over in fear. She raised her hands in front of her in an attempt to defend herself from invisible threat. Rustic dress was torn, blood stains blackened on white apron. Her face was twisted in a grimace of utter horror; no sculptor could have carved it.

Someone mutilated her, then froze and put here, in a small gallery of an old manor, where is no one but the ghost of its past owner.

Frightened to death, Hattie held her scream and ran out of the damned room. Now she knows what is the price for losing in this game. She regretted of not staying unaware, because the face of a frozen, mutilated woman would probably pursue her in nightmares, just like the cold claws of her killer. The fear of becoming another ice figurine on a bookshelf tormented her more than the cold emanating from Vanessa.

That very fear made her move forward. Despite the huge size of the manor, Vanessa somehow found her and always roamed nearby, as if she felt where Hattie was going. Numerous locked doors and holes in rotten floor barely visible in the dark did not make her task easier. Hattie was now stuck in Vanessa’s bedroom when she tried to get a key from bed’s top, but fell and dropped down a heavy copper candlestick. There was enough noise to shake the whole floor, and the girl barely managed to hide from the witch who had rushed in the room soon after.

“... maybe he sent you here on purpose. Purposely to annoy me and upset. His beloved Vanessa…” the witch stopped emptying out the closet and began scouring under the bed and in the chest. “Yes, I treated him cruelly, but did I have a choice? Someone had to punish this impudent filthy whore. So many years have passed! Couldn’t he forgive me?... But no, he didn’t!”

Hattie shuddered when Vanessa throw down the lid of the chest and scratched it with her claws in rage. “I'm so lonely here! I know you are listening...”

She slowly walked around the room and looked around, hoping to notice movement or bright fabric somewhere. Taught by bitter experience, the girl picked up her cloak and froze in place, afraid to breathe.

“When I find you...”

Hattie swallowed anxiously and curled into a ball, silently praying that Vanessa would not check the small corner between the wall and dressing table.

Chapter Text

Vanessa was not lying when complaining of her loneliness. As it turned out, this very loneliness may well drive a person crazy, especially when combined with a broken heart and frantic jealousy.

When the witch left, Hattie allowed herself to cry for a while. She never knew how to restrain her emotions for long, and it was necessary to release feelings so they would not torment her every time Vanessa was passing by. Somehow gathering her will into a fist and rising to her trembling knees, the girl returned to her job. That damned key still teased her with its golden glitter and complete inaccessibility. Vanessa’s luxurious, albeit ragged bed with a high velvet canopy rose almost to the ceiling.

The witch put her candlestick in place and carefully laid out a diary and a stack of letters on the night stand. Despite the dangerousness of her situation, Hattie could not resist and looked into the torn pages to satisfy her childish curiosity.

The writings were pretty sweet, romantic and sad – the girl could hardly believe that all of this was written by a terrible old witch that kills everyone in her way. The beginning of the diary was full of descriptions of joyful days, blooming gardens and promenades with the handsome prince. However, soon the writings became gloomier - Vanessa grieved from parting and was jealous to prince's teacher. After that - a short note that her beloved will still belong to her, Vanessa, no matter what.

Most pages in the middle were torn out. The latter were filled with vague descriptions of the same snowy days.

The letters did not contain any details either, just Vanessa crying for her prince. This figure was so mystical and ideal that Hattie started to doubt his existence. However, the letter from the law school dispelled all her doubts. The prince really existed despite being the same mysterious incognito for her. In fact, the girl could remember the portraits depicting a handsome young man in a scarlet caftan, but all of them were torn with claws.

Hattie recalled Vanessa's distressed mumbling. Did the witch know that Snatcher sent her here or she was just raving? Maybe she confused him with her prince? Hattie would not be surprised if the prince just run away from his crazy princess. That old bigmouth Snatcher probably knew about this and decided to play a joke. He himself was the worse candidate for a prince anyway; he was neither nice, nor courteous.

On the other hand, what would she care? Better not to think about it too much and get out of the chilly manor until its mistress found a petty thief.

With a sigh, Hattie got back to her work again. With difficulty she managed to climb onto the old bookcase that was creaking dangerously and threatened to collapse even under her light weight. Trembling girl rose to her bent legs and jumped, clutching on the steel ring of hanging chandelier.

Of course, if she had an umbrella everything would be much easier, but now Hattie had to act in the old-fashioned way. She swayed back and forth, the chandelier was creaking like a badly oiled swing. Finally, the girl threw both legs forward and picked up a protruding key with her toe. It rolled over and fell to the floor with a quiet jingle.

Hattie did not rejoice for long, because at that moment the rusty chain broke and the chandelier fell down with a terrible crash.

This time, the noise she raised was enough to wake the whole Subcon Forest. It seems that the long-frozen and sleepy manor startled, shook with displeasure and creaked at the uninvited guest. The damp planks scattered, exposing the stone floor. For a moment Hattie was stunned by the rumble and pain, but fear dispelled the veil in her eyes. Vanessa screeched somewhere in the distance. She had to hurry.

Right now the girl realized how unlucky she was. She hit her back hard, and the steel lampshade of the chandelier collapsed on her leg. The knee hurt with every movement, and Hattie barely could crawl out from the wreckage. The witch's steps were approaching, and miserable distance to the key seemed incredibly long. Assessing her chances, the girl left the key and limped to the saving door next to her.

Better to stay safe and return later than to take risk and get caught in claws of an angry ice witch.

She barely had time to leave the bedroom when she heard the rumble of an open door and Vanessa’s hiss. Hattie hid behind a small playing table, then allowed herself to exhale and look around. The small room she hid in seemed to be an old nursery - peeling blue paint on the walls, chests with old toys, bright tapestries with embroidery and faded paintings. In fact, all the paintings in manor looked the same, mostly because time and dampness ruined them beyond recognition. But one of them looked very new and strange. The image of a child without a head is clearly not a suitable image for a nursery.

The footsteps got closer, and Hattie recoiled again and froze, ignoring the pain in her back. The door opened and Vanessa's hunched figure peered out. The witch went into the room, looking around and rubbing her hands.

“Don’t be afraid, come out. I won’t be mad...” She walked past the table, not daring it with a look. “The garden looks beautiful tonight. We could go see it together...”

The answer was same silence and darkness. Vanessa peered into the chests and under the small bed, then straightened the rickety picture and went out. She messed around in her bedroom for a while, then finally calmed down and left. After waiting for Vanessa's steps to completely subside, the girl climbed out of her hiding spot. The leg ached unpleasantly, but this time she got off only with a huge bruise.

She put her ear to the bedroom door - everything seemed quiet. Slowly – in case Vanessa is still nearby - the girl examined the nursery. To her regret, she did not find anything useful, except a few torn and dusty pages from the diary. In one of them Vanessa complained that the prince loves bacon too much. On the other, she told how she pulled out and picked up the prince's hair so their haircuts looked similar. The third turned out to be a short and very frightening statement about how Vanessa wanted to lock her lover in the basement forever.

The girl put the pages under the table. Something told her that love story of Vanessa and handsome prince never had a happy ending.

When leaving Hattie glanced at the strange picture and shivered unwillingly. Suddenly a head appeared on the child’s shoulders, but the face was missing. And outlines of the head and hair very much resembled her own... The girl turned away and went out.

The mayhem in Vanessa’s bedroom increased slightly. An angry witch emptied the closet and dumped everything on the floor. The letters and diary pages lay in disorder among torn clothes. However, when Hattie began to rummage through the trash looking for the key, she was horrified to realize it was missing. The witch must have taken it with her!

The girl almost groaned with resentment. This damned contract was not going to get any easier.

                                                                         ***

Snow was still falling behind the dirty windows. As if the snowfall was going on forever, burying the old buildings and the ruins of the manor underneath its white coat with each hour. Sometimes a flash of lightning cut through the thick dark sky, causing Hattie to flinch nervously and look around. Looks like a rainstorm was raging in the forest nearby.

Her small body was completely drained by cold, and her nerves were exhausted from constant tension and fear. Hattie found a good place under the windowsill and sat down, embracing her legs. A tall mafia man kept her company. He was standing on his knees and raising his hands in an imploring gesture. Judging by the icy glow of his skin, the witch stayed deaf to his pleas.

She did not feel so lost and helpless for a long time. Even when her ship lost all its fuel and she was alone on an unknown planet - even then she could find a way out. Now the situation was a vicious circle. She cannot fulfill the contract, because Vanessa has the key to the stairs, and Vanessa will kill her on the spot. But she cannot leave without fulfilling the contract, because Snatcher will surely kill her for disobedience. Or he will punish her one way or another. He did not seem bloodthirsty, but he was not kind-hearted either.

Besides, she did not even know where this damned attic was. The manor is huge! Three wings, three floors, many halls, rooms, galleries and corridors, spacious verandas, a courtyard with a garden and a whole clock tower!

…clock tower. Of course.

Hattie stood on tiptoe and nervously looked out the window. There lied a courtyard, barely visible under a thick blanket of snow. The tower stood on the other side of the garden like a lone annex. The heavy gates inside were tightly closed with a lock, but the girl could make out a hole in the wall - apparently, the structure collapsed from old age. She could easily climb inside from the roof of garden outbuilding. She just needs to find a way to get to the third floor and go down to the courtyard. In fact, the method has been found already, she just had to get the key!

Breathing heavily and hopelessly, the girl continued her journey through the grim corridors of the manor.

                                                                                          ***

Obviously, Vanessa decided to take a break from the intense game of hide and seek too, because the girl found her in the bathroom. Hattie hesitantly moved towards the door, then put her ear to it. Inside, a splash of water, footsteps and quiet singing were heard.

Plucking up her courage, the girl opened the door slowly. It creaked treacherously, but song rose on a note higher and drowned out the sound. Hattie slipped inside on tiptoe.

Like everything in the mansion, the bathroom still held the remains of its former greatness - walls and floors paved with stone, red carpets, deep bathtubs casting weak silver shine, and of course, a huge mirror in a patterned golden frame. A huge brown inscription “My Prince is Gone” was written on it, without any doubt, in blood. The victim was found nearby - the ice figure of a girl hunched over from pain.

Hattie turned away from the frightening sight and followed inside. She could see the dark silhouette of Vanessa behind a white velvet curtain. The manor’s mistress was purring a quiet song under her breath and was lying in a huge bathtub. The girl did not know if the ghosts needed to wash themselves or Vanessa just did this out of habit, but she obviously enjoyed the short respite.

The girl's eyes stopped a faint golden glitter. Here it is, lying on the shower shelf between the bottles with essential oils and tubes with creams and lotions. So close, only a few steps away - but these steps were hardest for Hattie to make.

The witch was separated from her by a small bath curtain alone, and if she suddenly wants to pull it up...

Lightning flashed for a moment, a thunderous rumble drowned out Vanessa's song. The girl gasped, stumbled and fell, but the carpet absorbed the fall sound. The witch's hand leaned out from under the curtain, and Hattie froze in horror. Fingers rummaged around the shelf, rubbed the key, then grabbed one of the bottles and disappeared again.

Hattie, trembling to the toes, exhaled without a sound and rose to her feet. On tiptoe, barely breathing, she reached the cherished shelf. Before she could grab the key, Vanessa's hand stuck out again and clutched a towel hanging nearby. Smell of flowers reached her nose, the silhouette of a woman rose from the bathtub. Less and less time left.

Gathering all her courage into a fist, Hattie took the final step, got up and picked up the treasured key from the shelf. She turned to run back, and at that moment the bath curtain opened.

Red, burning like embers in a hearth, Vanessa’s eyes stared at the cringed girl. Judging by her distorted features and a wave of burning cold, Hattie could say that Vanessa was certainly not happy to see her now. The girl pressed a key to her chest, smiled guiltily and run.

The heartbreaking screech reached her in the next second, forcing Hattie to jump and rush forward at double speed. Vanessa, furious at her for this desperate trick, was ready to crash everything on the way. Hattie rushed along the corridors, barely managing to dodge the spear-shaped icicles the witch threw at her. Soon she began to suffocate, a dull pain in bruised leg was getting worse, but the girl did not stop for a second.

She darted into the nursery, hid behind a sofa and covered her shelter with a curtain. Only now she allowed herself to sit down and catch her breath. Vanessa screeched and muttered nearby, examining rooms and other places where the troublemaker could hide. The witch did not expect Hattie to decide and disturb her rest so unceremoniously. She expected the frightened girl to wander aimlessly around the manor until she finally got tired and gave up.

She completely forgot that Hattie never gives up so soon.

The girl had to wait until Vanessa finished her search. After a tense, agonizingly long game of hide and seek with running from one shelter to another and an inevitable life risk, the witch left again, and Hattie allowed herself a sigh of relief. She got out from under the table and straightened her aching back. The key pleasantly warmed her hands and heart, like a trophy gained in a hard battle. Hattie turned to leave and buried her eyes in the damned picture.

The girl on the picture finally got a face, her face. An ominous smile stretched on her unevenly sewn mouth; the edges of bloodied threads were sticking out from her lips. Swollen eyes seemed frozen as if drawn. In one hand she was holding a Dweller fox mask, in the other - a needle she brought to her right eye.

Hattie shivered, looked away and swept out of the room as if Vanessa was still chasing her. However, the picture imprinted itself in her head, and the girl rubbed her lips and right eye nervously, trying to convince herself that this worries were imaginary. This is just a picture; it cannot harm her. Unlike the unfriendly mistress of the manor.

The key turned in lock with an unpleasant creak, and Hattie nervously turned around. The witch did not hear that. The girl slipped inside, closed the door behind and ran up the creaking spiral staircase. No matter how sore her legs were, she had not felt so confident in her abilities for a long time.

If she could go this far, she could pass the test to the end. And then she will come to Snatcher and kick his filthy ghost tail for not telling the whole truth about the manor.