2: Long Dark Hallways

“Come on…Come on, you stupid…Ah, there. Good…Phew…”

 

Clancy sighed in relief as he watched a pool of white light pierce the near-impermeable darkness of his surroundings.

 

With some trepidation, he swung the heavy duty flashlight around, looking behind himself.

 

Pressed by a need to confirm that, that feeling that something was creeping up on him, that feeling that had been building up all this time while he was wandering in the dark, was just in his head.

 

He sighed, letting loose the breath he’d been holding all this time, as all he saw behind him, was an empty hall, dust-laden overturned furniture, and walls covered faded floral print wallpaper and old pictures.

 

Breathing easier, if only marginally so, as he swung back around and resumed his exploration of the empty house.

 

31 Mcallister Rd, was an ordinary house from the outside. It was a New England Colonial with a crooked chimney, and few of windows missing shutters. One could see at a glance that it had been some time since people had lived there, but it hadn’t been so bad that city had felt the need to condemn it.

 

The fence surrounded the house was still standing, the paint was still mostly unpeeled, and only one of the windows had been broken.

 

In other words, for the down and out folk, of the down and out small town of Hatterton, it was what most would have called a fixer upper. Bad, but not so bad, that a little elbow grease, or if you had it, a little money, couldn’t make things livable again.

 

Or at least that’s what they thought, till kids started disappearing.

 

Well, first it was few homeless folk who started going missing. The house had sat empty for some time and the few patrolmen of the county police force rarely went all the way down to that part of town.

 

Thus it was only natural that few squatters would try and temporarily take it for their own, when the seasons started to grow colder.


The Autumn when the incidents began had been a particularly inclimate one, filled with hard rains and biting cold. The leaves drying up and falling like they were in a hurry to do so. Leaving all of Hatterton’s trees barely like distorted black skeletons.

 

After a few homeless folk began to go missing, stories started being told about the house.

 

Those stories were spread amongst the town’s youth, and small towns being small towns, eventually, inevitably, the kids started daring each other to go inside the house.

The Adults tried to order youths away from the place but it was a half-hearted token effort, mainly made to keep the kids from hurting themselves or causing property damage.

 

With the old house being an old house, with no owners, and with none of the children ever hurting themselves, the parent’s objections eventually grew weaker. Especially when those same parents were former-kids who could remember being dared to enter the old house when “they” were young.

 

Again, this was all before kids started to go missing. The first missing child was girl by the name of Kitty Horne, the second was a boy by the name of Erving Steering. Though the disappearances were spread out enough that most were slow to make the connection, by the third child, Geraldo Wendal,  the townsfolk started to get concerned.

 

Runaways weren’t unheard of, and occasionally did just go missing, but enough tales about the house and what happened if you entered after midnight, was more than  enough to get people spooked.


Finally getting the police to tape up and board up the house. When the fourth and fifth children went missing, concern became fear. The fourth child wasn’t paid all that much attention, the fifth child was the former-mayor’s nephew, Roy Stanning.

 

For him, the state police were called in, for him, the town’s patrolmen actually did, what they’d till now, thought nonsensical to do, and tried entering the house at night, after the midnight hour.

 

It was after the disappearance of the town’s entire police force and six state patrolmen, that the Foundation was called in.

 

By this point it was clear that this house was not just a house, this house had somehow become an entrance into the Monochrome.

 

While it was unclear whether this entrance lead into the spirit world, faerie worlds, a heaven, a hell, or any of the countless alternate realities that were tied to the black and white cage that surrounded this world, one thing was known. The house was an issue that could only be handled by a foundation certified Wizard.

 

Clancy was on such Wizard. According to the silver-engraved card in his wallet, he was Class-2 Foundation Freelancer. Which meant he was just anomalous enough and skilled enough that the good folks at the Prospero Foundation could let him take on the tasks that the Class-3 elite freelancers, and the Foundation’s own Caster Forces, were to busy to deal with.

 

Considering that the outside of the house showed only three floors, and Clancy had been wandering through it for hours, having climbed from the basement up to what seemed to be a seventieth floor, it was questionable whether this was one of those jobs.

 

All the same, it had been on the task board and Clancy had taken it, so he figured he might as well finish it.

 

He wasn’t entirely sure of his actual ability to do so, but finishing what you’ve started was one of the few values Clancy’s parents had instilled in him, so he was determined to keep on going till either he saw what he needed to see, or things got too dangerous.

 

For all that he spent a large amount of his time wandering through dark places, Clancy didn’t like the dark.

 

Perhaps it was because he knew of all the terrible things that could be hiding there.

 

That’s what the flashlight was for. Heavy duty, metal jacketed, thick and strong enough to be used like a club, with its light scrolled over with sigils of blessing and evil repulsion.

 

In case anything that the flashlight couldn’t handle showed up he had a cricket bat, in the bag he had strapped to his back. He normally had an axe, but that got…lost, during his last job, so for now he was stuck with a cricket bat.

 

He didn’t really feel all that confident going anywhere just armed with a cricket bat. He’d liked his axe more. But the bat was the only thing he could buy on short notice. He’d made sure that it too was also enchanted.

 

Covered in wards and sigils that both amplified the bat, making it stronger and sturdier. As well as amplifying the damage it could give, making the bat, heavier, filling it with a certain destructive essence, making the edge of its blade supernaturally sharp.

 

Hopefully the bat and the flashlight would be enough, he had few other small odds and ends, and he knew a few spells that might be useful if they work, but those things were just in case of emergency.

 

Though the flow of magic in air, had been growing thicker with each floor he passed, he was still somewhat hopeful, at the prospect of not running into any “emergencies”.


As his girlfriend was fond of telling him, Clancy Ambrose, was quite the optimist.

 

*****

 

Clancy had three tasks. The first involved trying to find out what happened the policemen and children who had been lost before. The second had been to try and hopefully find some survivors.

 

The third task was to somehow put a stop to whatever was going in the house.

 

Considering that this was the monochrome, and it had been more than twenty-four hours since all those people had gone missing, Clancy had immediately discounted the second objective.

 

Spending more than one day in the monochrome could be a death sentence for even the most seasoned of casters. Nevermind, talking about an ordinary person’s chances of survival.

 

As one of the small percentage of people who’d been lost in the chaotic anomalous worlds, and managed to get out alive, Clancy knew just how slim the odds were.

 

If they were alive, then it was most likely that they were alive in a place so far from mundane reality that it’d be near impossible to find them. And if the heavens smiled on them they’d soon be dead.


While there were habitable and hospitable worlds within the monochrome, the safe ones were few and far between and well warded to keep the nightmares that roamed the chaotic plane from entering. Just stumbling into one of those worlds was an extreme unlikelihood.


The vast majority of Monochrome worlds were filled with dreadful, violent, sometimes rapacious creatures that transcended the very worst the human imagination could manage.

 

On that note Clancy was focusing on trying to find whatever creature, entity or artifact that was responsible for connecting the house with the Monochrome.

 

As he climbed past countless same-looking floors, all of them procedurally generated add-ons to  the of the actual house, he found the familiar feeling of magical strangeness getting stronger.

 

Clancy hoped that the root cause of this incident would be an artifact. Though cursed, or rampantly anomalous items could still be dangerous, they were often simpler to deal with then beasts or dark entities.

 

The finders keepers policies of the Wizarding world and the foundation, meant that once he was done sealing the item, he’d have the option of taking it for himself to study or use, or giving it to the foundation to sell for him.

 

Beast were less lucrative as opponents because unless they were a completely undiscovered race, or one of the types that had valuable body parts, they weren’t worth anything.


As for Entities, those could be quite valuable indeed, but no one wanted to run into one of those. The distinction between entities and the other creatures, beasts and beings of the monochrome, was in class and scale.

 

Thinking of such a prospect, as he climbed from the seventy-ninth floor into the eightieth, made Clancy look around warily.

 

To run into an entity, one of the highly powerful, highly dangerous, demons, spirits, lesser-gods and fae of the monochrome, would be akin to having someone staple a winning lottery ticket to a very large bear and throw it at him.

 

A bit of extraordinary good luck, bundled in a massive amount of potentially fatal misfortune.


“Huh…What gives?” said Clancy. Finding himself unsure what to do once he’d reached the one hundredth floor. Which was also the top floor. The building having reached the height of a skyscraper despite its external height stopping at three stories.

 

Each addition to the house’s mundane interior, had given Clancy no small amount of trepidation, building up his anxieties as he found himself going deeper and deeper into the monochrome.

 

He’d gone through each floor, achingly slow in his progression. Using a sensor charm and his own anomalous senses to search for the source of the phenomena.


By the time he’d swept through the thirtieth floor and had  been in that house for more than two hour’s time, he could have sworn that something was watching him.


By the time the seventieth floor came, and he’d been there for six-plus hours he was absolutely sure that there was something watching him.

 

Its gaze piercing through him, it eyes laying an intangible burden upon his neck.

 

Now that he was on the top floor of the distorted house, after a full twelve hours of searching, and nothing had leapt out at him or shown itself he didn’t know what to think.

 

“….”

 

Peering into the darkness with the flashlight in his hand. Cautiously opening and closing the final set of the doors in the floor.

 

He took every measure a mage of his level could take, and still found nothing. This wasn’t a good thing. In the Monochrome, you paid attention to your instincts, you paid attention to your feelings, because they usually were indication of something.

 

Climbing up one hundred floors and feeling like something was stalking him, meant something was stalking him plain and simple.

 

Having it not be, whatever was causing the distortion of the house, having it not come into plain view, it was enough to make Clancy sweat.


Threats you could see, were better than the invisible sort. Every Practitioner of magic, in both sides of reality, knew this. It was the invisible threats that you had to worry about because you couldn’t know when it would eventually loom into view.

After a moment’s thought, the freelance Wizard for a nice good corner to press his back against. He got a can of spray paint out of his bag and started painting a circle onto the floor.

 

One filled with restless, shivery squiggles and sharp eye watering alphanumerics.

 

A runic circle.

 

The first circle, the larger circle was meant for a protection, a ward to watch Clancy’s back for him and keep whatever it was he was sensing from sneaking up on him while he worked.

 

The second circle was a scrying circle, centered around a map, with a bowl of water with a compass floating in it and Clancy’s original sensory charm, submerged beneath.

 

Both flared to life as they drew magic power from both the world of magic around them and the caster of the spells.

 

Clancy grunted as he felt the sigils within the circle take their power from him. It was a dizzying feeling, not quite painful, like being in multiple automatic accidents, or being knocked over by powerful breeze.

 

It left him breathless, but he still stayed on his feet. Recovering quickly after all the actual spellcasting was done.

 

Something, tested, Clancy’s ward of protection, its brief contact with the circle causing a conflagration of sparks.


Clancy drew a sharp breath, his flashlight jerking upwards, his hand going towards the bat on his back.

 

He waited for a fight, but nothing else was forthcoming. It was just a test, only a test. And one had to get used to being tested when one wandered through the monochrome worlds.

 

In next to no time at all, he calmed returning his attention to his scrying spell, as it made an extremely thorough full-scale of the entire building.

 

The air shimmered as the water in the bowl sank by an inch, burning off in a single too bright flash.

 

The plastic coated sensory charm at the bottom of the bowl flared brightly wriggling like it was alive and more than just another sigil covered book-mark.

 

Clancy picked it up and sank his consciousness into it to see what his spell had picked up, trusting his safety to the ward for a few seconds and hoping nothing really big snuck up on him.

 

“Okay…let’s….Wait, really? Are you serious? Shit.”

 

Five seconds after sinking his focus into the supercharged sensor charm Clancy knew where the thing he’d been looking for was.

 

In the basement where he’d started.

 

He’d searched in the basement already, but apparently today’s target was good at hiding. He couldn’t help swearing beneath his breath. Grumbling.

 

The reason he hadn’t used a high level scrying spell like the one he’d just used, before, was because he hadn’t known how big the house would be. He’d yet to be sure how this distortion would play out and what nature of monochrome world it would connect to.

 

Without that knowledge, scrying forcefully, was like using radar while sailing through dark waters during wartime. Sure you’d get a better sense of your surroundings, but your surroundings would get a better sense of you as well.

 

An inopportune ping could let the target know it should flee or have it charging in your direction. Which was why Clancy, being on his own as he was, had chosen to keep it as a last resort of sorts.


If nothing else, it could at least be said that the climb down was quicker than the climb up, only lasting fifteen minutes or so.

It was a good thing that this distortion wasn’t the kind where the surroundings were constantly shifting. Remaking themselves so that the whole place became a sort of labyrinth. The house was still a house, albeit an unnaturally tall one.

 

Clancy felt the feeling of being watched grow weaker as he left the distorted floors and stepped on the first real ones. A cold sweat beaded up on his brow as he made a guess on what exactly might have been watching him.

 

“……”

 

The third floor was made up of bedrooms. The second floors was sitting rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms. The first floor was sitting rooms, the living, another bathroom, and a fairly devastated looking kitchen.

 

Each everyone of these rooms had been searched beforehand.

 

Finally Clancy returned to the basement, through which he’d made his entrance into the house. Avoiding the front door, lest the disappearances be of ritualistic nature or the door be some kind of portal. A thing that wasn’t always so and was actually quite rare, but was still common enough to make a cautious man like Clancy want to be extra careful.


The sensor charm, began to hum, still being strengthened by the by scrying spell. Clancy felt a tug on his mind and heeded its direction, following it with his flashlight’s light, till finally he found what he’d missed the first time.

 

“There you are…”

 

And there it was indeed. A door, to a closet, a door covered in dust and litter, far enough back that it’d be easy to miss and  hidden by a glamour.

 

Putting away his charm and slowly sliding his bat out from bag, Clancy prepared to meet whatever was on the other side of the door.

 

It sat in a pit of scrap cloth, bedding and bones, a gnarled, twisted, squat little man, with a matted gray beard, a pointed cap and ash on its sunk cheeks. It was both small and big, like a shrunken giant or an overgrown gnome, with short legs and long spindly arms.

 

Its eyes luminous and malicious.

 

Clancy didn’t know what expression to make, he’d hoped for an artifact and instead found a creature that sat somewhere between an entity and a beast.

 

It was a Mal-Duende, an evil house spirit. A malicious member of the clan of hobs. One of the feral fae.

 

It seemed to one of the older amongst its kind, magically potent enough to heavily distort the house, and well on its way to becoming a duende-lare. One variation of what the Greeks and Romans called household gods.

 

Looking at the bones and bits of sneaker and blue and gray uniform that surrounded it, it seemed he’d also found what had become of the policemen and the children.

 

The creature had eaten them. It might have lived on rats and insects before, but such beings rarely turned down larger fare if they could get it.

 

The puckered wounds on its arm, torso and face, spoke of the bullets that likely struck it as it faced against, the cops.

 

Vulnerable and wounded, Clancy guessed that the reason the creature hadn’t gone after him was because it had needed to recuperate.

 

Any anomalous being that preyed on humans was slated for subjugation, these were the rule and there were very few exceptions.

 

Even if this were one of those rare exceptions, the way the Mal-Duende, hissed and made itself bigger, as he stepped into its lair made him sure that there’d be no settling this issue peacefully.

 

Clancy exploded forwards, not wanting to let the creature have the first move. Swing his bat down onto the creature’s brow.


Dancing out of the way, Mal-Duende spat sparks and smoke like from out of a broken stove pipe. Clancy ignored them, taking the damage and exchanging with his own. Swinging his bat a second time, the blow breaking on of the Mal-Duende’s long spindly limbs, collapsing its shoulder blade.


The Mal-Duende gibbered angrily, cursing the interloper in its fae tongue. Clancy burnt away a bit of his magical aura to keep the curse from becoming something troublesome and swung his bat twice more. This time striking down on the creature’s head, knocking off its cap and crushing its skull.

 

It lashed out and Clancy felt a sharp pain at his side he ignored it and kept swinging the bat, keeping his arm in motion to saw the light leave the Mal-Duende’s eyes.

 

He continued swinging, breaking all its limbs, the magics that sharped the bat flaring as he severed its head from body.

 

He dismembered the Mal-Duende and kicked the pieces away from each other to be sure it stayed, one never knew which creatures were quick healers and which weren’t.

 

Then once all this was over, he stopped and tottered backwards, breathing heavily. One hand pressed to his side, as he waited for the wound to stop bleeding.

 

Swinging the bat a final time to shake some gristly and ichor of its length.

Clancy reached into his pack and pulled out a rag cloth, using it to wipe the length of the cricket bat.

 

While staring at the dismembered corpse of the Mal-Duende, Clancy frowned, making sure there was no sign of the pieces crawling back together and coming back to life.

 

If they did, he’d incinerate the body and reduce the beast to ashes, wealth was good, but staying alive was more important and he didn’t want to have to fight the creature again.

 

It could and would have been far more dangerous had it not been wounded already, and had he not gotten the drop on it.

 

Once he was sure that this wasn’t what was going to happen, he found himself hoping that he hadn’t made too much of a mess of the body.

 

High level fae corpses like these were valuable for artifact creation and potion making. Clancy brought out a knife and a bunch of decent-sized plastic-zip baggies. Dissecting the beast and placing the pieces into his bag.

 

Though the Mal-Duende had been the size of a bear, or two times the size of your average man, he was able to store all of it. One of the perks of having a girlfriend who knew her way around an artificer’s lab, was a huge magic-craft geek,  was that she could make bags of holding, inventory items, whenever he needed. Even though it was a lot of work to do so.

 

Thus all of Clancy’s pockets were deep, and his backpack was closer to a small closet, in volume.

 

He double and triple bagged the pieces of the Mal-Duende, to avoid losing any of the precious magically potent blood.


Then once that was done. He did a quick prayer rite, to free and commend the spirits of the creature’s victims into the hands of any angels or similarly benevolent beings that happened to be nearby and exited the building.

 

With the Mal-Duende gone, the house might well return to normal, but considering the extremeness of its distortion he’d be recommending that either the foundation or the town, demolish or watch the property, just in case something else moved in.

 

In either case, that wasn’t his problem. His job was over. Clancy was done for the day.

Now all he wanted to do was to report his completion of the task to the town and the foundation, and head home.

 

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