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The Darkest Night - Part Five

Not all tales can be found in books, but all myths are born of truth.

This is what they meant when they said ‘dark as pitch’. Clarissa shuffled along, one hand on the clammy wall to guide her, the other held out to keep her from bumping into something or – much as she hated to consider it – someone. She felt confident that if she kept along the wall, she would soon encounter a door. Surely every room had to have a door, albeit that she’d come to the conclusion that there were either no windows or if there were, they had been painted over, for surely the starry night sky would have borrowed some of its light to the room if it had been allowed. Soft scurrying sounds from the other side of the room halted her in her tracks. She waited. Listened. Could it have been her mind playing tricks? The only thing she could hear above the rapid beating of her heart was the rhythmic ticking of a clock somewhere in the room, the same ticking that had been slowly grating on her nerves.

The last thing Clarissa could remember before waking up in what felt like a spacious tomb was walking up the creaky porch steps to knock on the door of the creepiest looking house ever. Did she make it to the door? Why couldn’t she remember anything? She never should have gone all the way out there by herself, but at the time she could not find a way of explaining her theory to anyone without running the risk of them questioning her sanity. Truth be told, there had been moments when she had seriously questioned her own sanity.

Clarissa jumped as something furry brushed her foot and before she could stop it from happening she was falling into the dark void to her right with a loud shriek. That was how she came to discover that the space surrounding her was filled with far more than darkness as whatever she knocked into clattered to the ground. She was groping around trying to find her way back to the safety of the wall when soft light flooded the room, its source a slowly opening door at the far side of the room.

“Hello? Who’s there?” She called out; trying to keep the rising panic she was feeling out of her voice. “Let me out of here at once! Why am I locked in here?”

“You’re not locked in,” replied a calm, heavily accented male voice belonging to the silhouetted figure observing her from the doorway. “Clearly.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, I demand you release me. This instant!” Clarissa said, her voice not carrying any of the authority her words demanded.

She continued toward the light, keeping the wall to her back so she had a clear view of the entire room. As she had suspected, there were no windows set into the unpainted walls of the oversized room. From the way boxes and dusty furniture were piled around the room, she got the sense that she was in a basement, a very large basement. He stepped away from the door as she neared it, but still lurked close enough to make her uncomfortable as she stepped out into the hallway.

“I would advise you to stay where you are, sir. Or I will scream.”

Only once the words had slipped from her suddenly dry lips did she remember that there were no neighbours for kilometres around. Not only was there a long drive up from the main road, but the house was also flanked by dense woods on two sides and a wide open space leading to the foot of Misty Mountain on the other side.

“Go ahead.” His tone left no doubt in her mind that her words didn’t faze him at all.

“I’ll have you know that I know taekwondo,” she said while striking a pose that could only be described as comical. “An... and I’m not afraid to use it,” she continued, arms held up defensively.

“Okay. I’m waiting.” He crossed his arms across his chest as he observed her with obvious amusement.

“You’re not going to hurt me, are you?” She asked after several seconds of watching him with obvious suspicion.

“Aren’t I? How can you be so sure?” He raised one brow quizzically.

“I’m not. I need to trust that you won’t, because I uhm... I need to use the facilities.”

“Up the stairs, second door on your left,” he said after a slight pause. “And don’t try leaving; it’ll merely end with you back down here.”

*

“Nooooo!!! Ugh! Shiiii... let me ouuuut!”

Seth chuckled with quiet amusement at the angry sounds coming from beyond the basement door. Women! Why do they always think that they’re the smartest person in the room? The moment the basement door had shut itself he knew that she had disregarded his instruction. He leaned back in his chair and listened to her cuss, moan, bang and clatter her way back toward the door. There were moments he considered opening the door to help guide her out, but some lessons needed to be learnt the hard way.

“Not only were the ‘No Trespassing’ signs on the gate not clear enough for you, but you also can’t follow simple instructions,” he said when she finally emerged after nearly 10 minutes. “Did I not warn you about trying to leave?”

“So I’m your prisoner?” She asked, panting between words as if she’d just completed a marathon. “Why? How?”

“Don’t try to leave again. Not until you explain to us why you’re trespassing on my property. Maybe then she will let you out.” He got up and headed toward the stairs. “Come. That needs to be disinfected.”

*

Clarissa hadn’t even noticed the deep scratch on her left arm until he’d mentioned it.

“Wait. Hey! Hold up,” she shouted after him as she hobbled up the stairs. “We? She who? Hey!”

“I’m in the kitchen. Right next to the bathroom,” he called out, “you know that bathroom you never quite made it to.”

She followed the sound of his voice. Well, that and his instruction, mostly since not following it turned out so well for her last time. He had his back to the door when she entered the kitchen, busy poring over something on the kitchen counter.

“Sit.” There was quiet authority in his voice, something that was even more pronounced by his accent. “And relax. I mean you no harm. Not yet anyway.”

“That’s almost comforting,” she mumbled. “What every girl wants to hear after meeting a sinister stranger.”

“I’m fairly certain it’s a lot nicer than what every sinister stranger says to someone who’s been caught breaking into his home.”

He gave her a meaningful look before leaning in to apply something to the scratch on her arm with a wad of cottonwool.

“Oh yes, about that, sorry? Oww!” She wasn’t sure what he’d applied, but it stung like crazy. “What is that? Ohh it hurts.”

“I know.” Nothing in his tone even remotely suggested that he felt sorry about her discomfort.

“So this is your house? I didn’t mean to break... ooh that really hurts.” Clarissa started blowing on the wound, which only made it burn even more.

“Yes, it’s my house.” His tone remained calm as he spoke despite his annoyance at her intrusion being written all over his creased brow. “Now mind telling me why I came home to find you in it?”

“I wasn’t trying to break in, I swear.” Clarissa flinched again as he covered the wound with a bandage. “I don’t remember how I got into the house, last I remember I was about to knock on the door…”

“I’m sure that’s true, but no one was home. Then you tried the door and everything’s a blank after that,” he stated calmly as he packed up the first aid stuff.

“No, I wouldn’t have done that. Sure, I don’t remember much, but I doubt I did that.”

“It wasn’t speculation. I was stating a fact,” he said with confidence.

She thought about what he’d said. She wasn’t sure how she could’ve ended up in the house’s basement, but she got the feeling that she would not like the explanation. “I was looking for someone.”

“”And did you find your someone?”

“I’m not sure. Have I? I came here looking for the owner of this house. And since you’re him...”

“I’m not him.” His curt words cut her off.

“I thought you just said...”

“I said this is my house. Still, I’m not who you’re looking for.” He leaned back against the counter and observed her for a few moments. “I’m Seth Greenwood. You’re looking for Mercutio Grimbaldi.”

Seth went on to explain to Clarissa that he’d recently purchased the house from the estate of Mercutio Grimbaldi. From what he was telling her, it seemed that Mr Grimbaldi had spent the last year of his life in a convalescent home and had died there. The house and everything else that had belonged to the late Mr Grimbaldi were sold and the money put into a trust at the local college.

“Then it’s hopeless. He was my last hope.” Clarissa felt tears well up in her eyes at the thought of George and Everett being lost somewhere in space and time. She felt helpless. She felt hopeless.

“I’m sorry.” He did sound sorry, which much as she appreciated it, did not help her. “I wish I could be of more help.”

“I guess I should go, if I’m allowed to leave...”

“Of course. I will walk you out.” He hesitated for a moment, staring down at his feet rather than at Clarissa. “Unless you don’t fancy the long drive back to the city, then you’re free to stay the night.”

“That’s okay; I figured I would be out here rather late so I’ve booked a room in town. Cosy little guesthouse.”

“Yes, I know the place.” Seth grabbed a set of keys from a bowl on the counter as he spoke. “Wait for me; I will follow you into town. There are no street lights beyond my property until you get to town.”

“I’ll be fine.” Clarissa was already feeling awkward about inconveniencing him, she was not about to let him drive all the way into town and back for her sake.

Clarissa smiled as she looked into her rear-view mirror. Despite her protesting, Seth was following her into town, keeping a safe distance, but still staying close enough for her to feel safe. She hated to admit it, but he was right, there was an eerie feel to driving the road that led back into Arancula at that hour.

*

Clarissa gawked at the reflection staring back at her from the bathroom mirror. A good night’s rest had been evading her since her colleagues had mysteriously vanished, a fact that was highlighted by her gaunt appearance. She wondered what Seth had thought of her dark circles and sunken cheeks. Then she wondered about why she even cared about what Seth had thought, it was not like she was ever going to see him again.

She showered and dressed for the long drive back, frowning as she inspected her arm only to find the gouge gone as if it had never been there. Had she imagined the deep scratch? There was no way it could’ve healed completely overnight. Was there? She dismissed it and continued getting ready to leave; she could stop for breakfast on the way home.

She slid the painting out of its cardboard travel sleeve and true to its nature; it was once again a new image that greeted her. When she arrived back at her room six hours ago the skies were midnight blue and there was a light burning in the attic window. What surprised her most at that moment was not that the picture had yet again changed, but that these subtle nuances no longer surprised her. George and Everett were trapped somewhere inside that house, she had no idea how she knew that, but somehow she just knew. She had to get them out, the last avenue she had was now a dead-end, so she had no idea how else to help them. What she needed was hope, yet all she felt in that moment was complete despair.

“I’ll listen if you buy me breakfast.”

Clarissa turned at the sound of the familiar voice. “You startled me.”

“There’s a place I know that makes the best omelettes you’ll ever taste.” He cupped her elbow and guided her down the street before she could protest.

“Hang on… listen to what? And I was just going to…” she started, looking back at the overnight bag she had been about to load into her car.

“You can decide if you still want to leave after breakfast. And forget about the bag, no one will take it,” he said as he shepherded her across the road. “The painting is something else; don’t ever let that out of your sight.”

Clarissa instinctively clutched the cylindrical package tighter. How did he know about the painting?

He was right, the omelette was light and fluffy, the kind that melts in your mouth. It was only once she’d begun eating that Clarissa realised how hungry she actually was – along with sleep, she’d also been neglecting regular meals. She wasn’t sure what he’d meant by ‘listen’, but she was planning on leaving right after their meal.

*

“He’s a good man, they both are. How could this happen?” she asked, voice still trembling with emotion.

“Does a tornado destroy only the homes of the immoral? There are some forces in this world that don’t discriminate between good and evil.” Seth continued to look at the painting, his expression dark, yet somehow comforting.

Despite her resolve to have breakfast and leave, Clarissa was sitting across from Seth in his office after explaining to him about the strange painting and her even stranger theory. Seth had listened patiently, nodding as Clarissa spoke without once making her feel like a crazy person, the way the detective handling the case had.

“There’s someone I know who might be able to help,” Seth said eventually, his discomfort clear.

“But? I think I heard a but in there,” she said tentatively.

Seth laughed, a dry hollow sound. “That would be a big but... A big but indeed.”

“How selfish would I be if I said I really don’t care?”

“Pretty damn selfish, but the good kind, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much if I were you.”

“Oh I wasn’t. I know, shameless.” At this point she’d try anything to get the two men back, she could worry about whatever debt she owed him later. “So who is this person and why haven’t you mentioned it before?”

“Because she’s a last resort. And sadly, we’ve already passed every other resort, so...” He sighed.

“Why? I mean, if she can help, then what’s the problem?”

She is. Best way to fight dark magic is with even darker magic. As magic goes, hers is black as tar, which also happens to match her heart.”

“Oh she’s that kind of witch...you sure she can be trusted?” Hang on… when did she become so comfortable talking about things that actually went bump in the night? She hadn’t even flinched when he confided that he was a practicing witch after she’d inquired about the odd things in his office.

“I wouldn’t trust her even if we took a blood oath. Like I said, last resort...” He rolled the painting and stored it away in its sleeve before handing it back to Clarissa. “Remember to keep this safe. I put a protection spell on it, but it won’t keep it safe from everyone.”

“So what exactly has to be done? I mean, why do we need this witch person?”

“There’s a powerful spell on this painting and the only way to free your friends is to undo it. Until we know why this object was spelled and by whom, I can’t undo it.”

“Can not or will not?” Clarissa asked, feeling unjustifiably annoyed at the thought that he could help, but was refusing to.

“Please understand, I want to help you and the people trapped in here, but this isn’t a regular spell you do for fun, there has to be a reason it’s there. What if I undo it and it has repercussions?” He looked at her, his eyes pleading for understanding. “I need someone who knows how to read old magic.”

“So you could undo it if you wanted to? That’s what you’re saying, right?” She didn’t understand his logic. He was a witch, wasn’t this his forte?

“In simple terms that someone like you can understand… I’m not strong enough to shove whatever escapes this thing back inside if it’s not something we want to let out. No one constructs a spell this beautiful if there isn’t a good reason. And it’s old, hundreds of years old. You don’t just trifle with ancient magic. Grimbaldi knew what he was doing when he kept this thing away from-”

“So you’re okay with leaving George and Everett in there with whatever you’re afraid of that’s in there?”

“I’m trying to help, Clarissa.” He walked over to the wall and pulled a tattered leather satchel from a shelf. “It’s just that sometimes helping isn’t quite as straightforward as one would expect.”

Clarissa watched as Seth pulled what appeared to be an old journal from his satchel. He placed the book on the table; one hand resting on the leather-bound cover before looking up at her with questioning eyes. She couldn’t be sure why, but somehow he looked like he’d aged a decade in minutes. She nodded; there would be time for a great many things – including his reservations – to be discussed once the spell had been reversed.

He opened the book, revealing blank pages that appeared browned with age. Why all the fuss over a tatty book if there was nothing inside? At the least she was expecting it to be a spell-book, or better yet, his little black book containing all this witchy contacts. Her curiosity was piqued when he pulled an equally old, creepy looking dagger from inside the tattered leather cover and plunged it into the centre of the page.

“What the hell? Wha- is that blood?” She stared at the page in open-mouthed wonder, blood pouring from around the blade. “Tell me that book is not bleeding... Is it?”

Seth did not reply. Instead, he continued to stare down at the book until the entire page was soaked in blood, then pulled the blade out and placed it back inside the cover. He ripped the top page from the book, revealing that not only did the blood not soak through onto the pages below, but also that there were no tears in the bottom pages, despite the dagger being plunged nearly up to its hilt. He placed the page onto a bed of rose petals inside a sunken gold plate, its engraved markings standing out boldly around the crimson paper.

“Incendia mos satus,” he chanted.

Clarissa gasped as a tiny blue flame appeared at the centre of the page and spread to its edges, reducing the parchment to dark grey ash within seconds. Seth leaned in and blew onto the pile of ash and instead of scattering the way ash usually would, it spiralled slowly above the plate before settling into what looked like a woman’s neat handwriting – “Today 2pm”.

Seth ran his hand through the message, leaving behind a grey smudge. “We should leave now. She won’t see us if we’re late.” He grabbed his bag and was halfway to the door before turning back to look at a still gawking Clarissa. “You coming?”

She looked up at the sound of his voice. “Huh?”

“You okay?” He looked at her with curiosity.

“And using a phone to call her to make an appointment would’ve been too much trouble?” She queried, voice dripping sarcasm.

“Where’s the flair in that?” He winked at her before turning to leave.

Clarissa was quiet for half the ride into town, her brain mulling over the last five hours she’d spent with Seth. Stranger things could not have happened, yet she was moving along with the flow without question.

“You know that I need to know what all that was about…” she said eventually. She wasn’t sure it was a good idea for her to be traipsing along with him to meet a scary witch she knew nothing about, although she was smart enough to accept that knowing would not save her from whatever horrors his world had in store.

“That was a supernatural e-mail, so to speak. I could have called her the regular way, but the way I secured the meeting protects us… the rose petals, the fire, with the right spell it casts a temporary shield around me, so I can walk in and out of there unharmed.”

“Shield around you? What about me? And why would she harm you?” Clarissa noted the rising panic in her own voice, but dismissed it. Was this why he’d kept this woman as a last resort? How dangerous was she?

“You’ll be safe, long as you do as I tell you to,” he said.

Why did that not inspire confidence in her?

*

Seth had no idea why he was trying to help her, but somehow it felt like the right thing to do. He’d never been about ‘the right thing’, unless it was the right thing for him, but he wasn’t going to over-think it, not after what he saw when he’d touched her for the first time. There was very little he trusted in this world of innate guile, but his visions were the one thing he could still rely on. There were still shadowed areas in his vision that he was trying to access, but most of what he saw pointed at the fact that she could be trusted. He would feed her whatever he felt she needed to know, along with a few things that would keep her curiosity sated while he tried to figure out why the house had imprisoned her.

*

“She’s expecting you,” the young woman behind the store counter said to Seth as they entered. “You can wait over there. Help yourself to some tea if you like,” she said, looking at Clarissa.

“I uhm...” Clarissa said, feeling like a small child under the store clerk’s intimidating eyes, even though the girl looked younger than she was. “I’m with him.”

“He knows the rules,” the girl said, her tone harder than it should be on any person that young.

“She’s expecting both of us, Ariadne.” Seth took Clarissa’s hand and walked straight through to the back of the shop, his demeanour daring her to defy him.

They’d moved too fast for Clarissa to look around, but the rows upon rows of glass jars filled with what appeared to be spices and herbs gave her the impression that it was a spice shop. They’d passed through a doorway with a colourful bead curtain as they stepped into a darkened hallway that led to a red door.

Before they entered, Seth turned to Clarissa, a serious look on his face. “Don’t speak in there, she might try to bait you into saying something, just ignore her. Okay?”

Clarissa was expecting something spectacular beyond the red door, something exotic that would match the image she’d formed in her mind of the sorceress. She did not expect the unpainted, unplastered walls. She did not expect the single light bulb hung over a shabby oak table and four chairs. She had also not expected the woman she’d been nervous about meeting to be a petite blonde young woman with a warm smile and sweet voice wearing jeans and a white t-shirt.

“So you’re the Meedian Seth’s willing to barter his soul for?” She said in her sweet voice, wearing her warm smile. “And from his bravado outside, I’d say his life too.”

“Cut the melodrama, Bella.” Seth said, his tone curt. “Will you help or not?”

“I wouldn’t be seeing you if I wasn’t curious. There aren’t many cursed objects around these parts that I’m not aware of...” she said pleasantly. “Which begs the question, why it would be so heavily cloaked if it was of little importance? So do you have it with you?”

“It’s in a safe place,” Seth said.

“Ah yes, your new home... I’ve been meaning to drop by and bring you a house-warming gift.” To any casual observer she would’ve sounded like she was being congenial, but the warmth in her tone did not reach her eyes.

“No need. My home is a lot warmer without you in it. Thank you for the thought though, it’s duly noted,” Seth said drily.

“Can we please get to why we’re here?” Clarissa interrupted without thinking.

Seth turned a warning glare on her, while the woman smirked, clearly picking up on the shared look.

“Bold. I should admire that, but I don’t.” She turned to Clarissa as she spoke in that same sugary tone. “I would heed whatever useless caveats Seth gave you before walking in here, as I’m sure he has. No idea why he thinks I harbour ill-intent toward Meeds… hurts my sweet sensibilities…”

“The painting, Arabella…” Seth interrupted.

“I need to see the object. So either invite me over or bring it here.” There was an edge to her voice as she turned her attention back toward Seth.

“The graveyard. Cilas Mon’s crypt.” Seth’s eyes were unreadable, a finality to his words.

“Do I scare you that much?” Arabella laughed, yet her eyes remained cold and flat.

“Like you said, we have a Meedian in our midst, just taking precautions to ensure her safety.” Seth’s expression was hard, as if his words held more meaning than Clarissa could imagine.

“Fair enough. If you believe that Great-Grand-Pappa-Voodoo can keep her safe. Be there at midnight.”

Seth nodded before taking her hand and leading her out of the building, only releasing it once they were at the car.

“What was that about? I was expecting someone older, creepier; you know... voodoo meets Tim Burton scary.”

“You have no idea...” Seth said drily.

“I’m confused. Why couldn’t she come over to the house to see the painting?”

“There are some things you don’t invite into your home.” At her confused look he added, “It’s complicated.”

“Why is it always complicated? If I’m going to be a part of this then I need to understand what I’m getting myself into. And what you’re getting yourself into on my behalf.” She huffed in annoyance as he looked at her and got into the car without replying. She raised a brow at him as she got in and buckled herself in. “Yes, I know that I pretended not to notice, but I get the feeling that there are consequences that you’re not telling me about.”

He pulled out of the parking lot and they drove in silence for a while before he sighed and started talking.

“My home is protected from all things supernatural. Most homes around here are. Once you extend an invitation to someone like Arabella, you’re inviting them into more than just your home. And I can’t take the painting to her, there’s too much dark magic there. The graveyard is neutral ground, the crypt is the resting place of one of our ancestors, he won’t allow her to break any bonds we seal.”

Our ancestors? You’re related to her?” Clarissa asked with an incredulous expression.

“Not by blood, but the Yokuu community is a small one over here, so everyone’s considered kin. Well, sort of…”

“Wait, hang on…Yokuu? What’s that? So sooo confusing.”

“We have a few hours to kill until midnight. Ask me whatever you like.”

“I just did,” she said with a very childish roll of her eyes.

“Most witches have their own ancestry,” he said.

“A coven?” she asked.

“Not a coven, more like where their bloodline originates. Mine is Yokuu. Our powers are slightly different to most other witches. But same as all covens, some of our kind wield more power than others... Arabella more than any one person has a right to.”

“Why did she call me a Meedian?”

“That’s what you’re called in our world,” he said, pausing as he tried to find the right words. “Someone who isn’t like us, who isn’t supernatural...”

“Someone who isn’t a witch or someone who isn’t supernatural? Because I thought I heard a tone there…”

“Are you any good at cooking?” he asked as they pulled up to the house. “I have some work to do before the meeting, so feel free to use whatever you need…”

Clarissa glowered at his smooth side-step.

*

“Is that it? You called me out here for this?” Arabella asked, eyeing the painting with disdain. “Looks ordina...” Her words trailed off, eyes widening as she reached out to take the canvas.

“You were saying?” Seth asked, one brow raised in obvious amusement.

“Where did you get this?” She looked between Clarissa and Seth, a look of panic in her eyes. “Keep that thing away from me,” she said as she backed away from the painting.

“What did you see?” Seth grabbed her arm, keeping her from leaving the crypt.

“Deal is off. I want nothing to do with this. You hear me, don’t summon me again.” She pulled free and backed slowly toward the exit.

“We had a deal.” Seth’s eyes narrowed, a clear warning in his tone.

“Claim what you like from me, not even Cilas can make me touch that again,” she said as she left in a rush.

“What was that? Where did she go?” Clarissa was confused. What happened to the sassy, confident witch she’d met a few hours ago? What about the painting had spooked her badly enough to flee like a scared little girl?

“That, my dear, was not a good sign.” Seth rolled the painting and sheathed it. “With love and deepest respect, I release thee from this circle…” he chanted softly and snuffed the candles he’d lit before they left.

*

Why were the spirits guiding him toward this quest if it was daunting enough to make Arabella flee? Truth be told, he had been ready to leave Arancula after his mother’s funeral, but the Grimbaldi house had been shoved into his path and some signs were not meant to be ignored.

While he was a strong warlock, a lot stronger than most realised, since he had never been one to brandish his power lightly, he still needed guidance when it came to ancient magic. Mother knew best… and he still wasn’t ready to wield the power passed to him upon her death.

*

“Wasn’t that our last resort?” Clarissa’s words broke through the stony silence.

“I will think of something. Don’t lose hope yet. Okay?” He didn’t turn to look at her, his eyes staying on the dark road that led to his home.

“It’s hard not to. They’re in there all by themselves. Probably confused, maybe hurt, or worse...” she said, her voice filed with pent-up emotion. “This feels hopeless. And I’m a horrible person for expecting you to help save strangers.”

“You’re not horrible,” he stated flatly.

“You said that Arabella is the strongest witch you know and what she saw in that thing scared the beejeebees out of her. Don’t think I’m not aware of what we’re dealing with here.” She covered her face with both hands, taking in a deep breath, before exhaling slowly. “I can’t put any more people’s lives in danger, Seth. Not even to save them.”

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