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Things are not always what they seem.. or are they?

Prologue

"You know your duties, Walker. Do I need to go over them again?" articulated professor David Styles slowly, as if his butler were incapable of understanding normal speech.

"No need, Professor," replied the butler, a shade too loudly. He bowed respectfully as his master departed the main hall.

Left alone, Walker took a final tour of the place to check that everything was in order. The long mahogany table was set for ten in the cheerfully lit dining room, the beds were made, the maid was at her station in her kitchen, and everything that should have been hidden was. Just as he was moving back into the main hall, the massive doorbell gave one long, plaintive ring.

Walker grinned to himself. The party had just begun.

Friday Evening

"Be welcome, Madam Marion, to Dread Hill House. I am Walker, the professor's servant, and now yours as well."

Completely ignoring the butler's curtsey, Marion rushed inside the vestibule, shaking her umbrella and muttering to herself. The muttering got louder and louder, but the aggravating man kept nodding with an idiotic smile and not responding, so she abandoned the pretense and looked the butler straight in the face.

"I rang the damn bell three times. Even I heard it over this pouring thunderstorm. My new silk blouse is ruined! How can I ever wear it again with these wet stains all over it? It'll get.. wrinkly!" She caught sight of the mirror and screamed. "My hair!! Oh, my hair.."

The butler nodded.

Marion straightened what she could of her pathetic hairdo and bounded on him. "What's wrong with you, are you deaf??"

"Yes, Madam."

"What??"

"I am deaf."

"Well.. how can you hear me then?" sputtered Marion, having decided to lay the entire blame on him for the absurdity of the situation.

"I can hear loud sounds, and for the rest I can read lips."

"Ah." Before she had a chance to think about starting to feel stupid, she shook her head and petted her clothes miserably. "Can I go someplace and change from these?" she yelled in the butler's face.

"No need to strain your voice, Madam. Right this way, please." 'Walker' turned and motioned for Marion to follow him inside the house.

"How did you know I was straining my voice?"

"I could hear what you were saying."

This house had better be worth it. Marion tightened her mouth into a very thin line of disapproval and followed him inside. Any muttering would have been wasted on him.

***

"And where did you say the kitchen was?" inquired Bearic for the second time. The Walker dude seemed deaf, or at least stupid, but damn if he was going to keep him hungry after being on the road for hours.

Okay, one hour. Almost.

Bearic shook the water out of his denim jacket as he took in the huge house. He had thought the main hall was the largest room he'd ever seen apart from lecture halls, but, as he passed through it towards the gigantic staircase, he could spy even larger rooms on both sides of it.

This was cool.

"What're those rooms, Mr. Walker?" he asked as the butler turned towards him and pointed up the stairs.

"The room on your left is the living room, through which you may access the projection room. The one on your right is the dining room, and the kitchen is accessible from there."

"What food do you have here?"

"Just cold snacks until dinner is served, Sir Bearic."

Bearic heard his stomach rumble, and for once was glad the guy was deaf. "Do you have dumplings?"

"As a matter of fact, yes; we have frog dumplings. The maid will help you with food after you have arranged your things in your bedroom."

Frog dumplings? Oh well, as long as they were dumplings.

Bearic's joints started making a fuss long before they arrived at the landing of the second floor. A huge heavy oak door loomed right in front, and Bearic wondered if that was the master bedroom as he followed the butler towards the right. From here, if he leant over the railing, he could get an awesome aerial view of the hall below and the chandelier that dangled over it, stabbing his eyes with its million tiny bulbs.

There were ten identical, smaller doors, to the right and the left of the staircase, facing each other over the chandelier. The butler led him to one of the five on the right. Bearic stole a short glance at the opposite landing and, just then, from the room facing his, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen opened the door a crack, met his eyes and disappeared back inside. He had only had time to register a flash of red hair and two blue eyes circled with black.

"Who was that?" he asked, dreamily.

"That, Sir, is Madam Marion. The model," Walker added. "She also is to be a guest at this house during your stay."

"Wow.." And Bearic decided he'd go downstairs to the living room as soon as he had tamed his hair and his heartbeat enough.

***

gabnic took another sip of water as he moved about the living room. He had seen plenty such fancy houses from the outside, but very few from the inside; that was only when the men had wanted extra service from him.

As he brushed a hand through his long hair, he wondered if the Styles fellow had a pool. He needed the money. Although fat chance of that with the storm outside. But if he played his cards right, he could have his own pool in front of Dread Hill House by the end of the week. And his own master bedroom on the second floor. And his own maid and butler..

A pretty redhead entered the room, gave him a bored look, immediately followed by a interested one, and went to the bar, brushing against him in passing. gabnic sighed inwardly.

"There's no alcohol there, I checked," he informed the woman.

"No alcohol?! What can they possibly think of next?" she scoffed, covertly checking herself in the mirror- probably to see if she had managed a sufficiently glamorous 'angry' face.

She seemed satisfied, because her reflection met his eyes, blushed and smiled to reveal a lot of very white teeth. The woman poured herself some water from the tap and practically slid over the floor to where he was. She propped herself delicately against the table, took a few sips, jerked her right red high-heeled shoe impatiently, and gave him the look over the rim of her glass.

I should have brought along the flowery shirt. They seem to get that one.

"So.." she drawled.

"So?" he asked.

"So.. Styles gave me the nickname Marion for tonight. I'm a supermodel. And you are..?"

"gabnic. It's nice to meet you." He shook her hand briefly.

"What's the likes of you doing in a dump like this?"

"Same as you, I suppose." He moved a little farther from her, because his water was starting to taste like perfume.

"So you are my competition for the house. It could have been worse." She played with her fingertip on the rim of the glass and gave him a look that said they could share. The house. And the drink, of course.

"I'm not your only competition."

"Oh, yes.. did you see that kid's hair? Sticks out in every direction! I pity him, though, having to wear that unflattering school uniform." She petted her spotless pink jacket affectionately.

And they all ask me why I don't like women.

"He's right behind you, you know."

The look on her face as she spun around and blushed for real was priceless. The look on the poor kid's face, not so much. gabnic decided he was very interested in the green vase from the hundredth Bing dynasty, and wondered how he was going to survive the weekend.

***

"What d'you mean, nothing to drink?" r leaned on the bar to keep himself somewhat upright and tried to focus on the butler, who kept shifting in and out of existence in front of him. Either there was something wrong with the butler, or he himself was drunk silly.

This damn house makes me all philosophical.

"Sir r, there is a fine selection of fruit juice, and of course there is water running everywhere in the house."

r's heart leapt a little. "Water.. running? In the house? What the hell, man!"

"I was referring to the taps in the basins and in the tubs, of course." The butler flickered and vanished. r rubbed his eyes and looked again. Damn, he was still there.

"Oh. You can take the foul liquids and make a fire with them. I want my spirit. I haven't had a drink in three hours."

"I'm afraid there is nothing I can do to help you, Sir. Professor Styles insisted there would be no alcohol served to the guests for the duration of the weekend."

r nodded knowingly. "How much does he pay you? I'll triple."

"How much money do you have, Sir?"

"Well.. lessee." r counted the coins in his pocket. ""Five bucks. Take or leave."

"I think I will do both." The butler took the money and left.

"Hey! Where'd you.. Where's my spirit??"

"Try our selection of tropical punches," the butler suggested over his shoulder and disappeared into the kitchen.

r cursed a bit, and then cursed some more, and then realized the three (or was it four?) people remaining were staring at him from behind that huge table. There was the redhead, who looked like someone had punched both her eyes at the same time, and there was the kid, munching on some gross lumpy food, and the pretty blond boy, who was obviously a fruitcake. Men only grew their hair if they were vampires or gay. Or gay vampires. And they were still staring at him.

"What're you looking at?"

The redhead scoffed and turned back towards the pretty boy, who was still hanging by the glass case that showed off expensive crap. The kid blinked. "I'm called Bearic here.. Nice to meet you." He extended his hand.

After three failed attempts, r shook it. "I'm r. Styles called me r cause it's the only letter I can spell."

The kid widened his eyes. "But you did get a letter, like the rest of us?"

"Yeah."

"And could you read it?"

"Nah. Styles himself read it to me when he picked me from the corner downtown. I should buy a drink for my buddy who entered my name in the contest. And I could use one for myself right now." r scowled. "You hear that, Walker??"

"How many of us do you think there are altogether?" asked Bearic, sitting down on one of the chairs that looked like they'd been made for people with canes where their spines had used to be.

"How the hell should I know? Not too many, I hope. Why d'you need the house?"

The boy scratched his head absently. "I'm a student, but I still live in the basement of my parents' house. They won't let me move out until I buy my own place. And.. well. What about you?"

"I need this house 'cause I don't have one."

"Ah.. Um.. I wonder why she needs it." He pronounced "she" with such reverence that r felt the urge to puke. Or maybe he was just drunk silly.

"Who knows, maybe the trash cans filled up in her other three."

Before Bearic could fire some sort of reply, the doorbell rang.

***

Krss shut the door unceremoniously in the face of the butler and threw herself on the soft bed with a deep contented sigh. She remained in a flat starfish position for a couple of minutes, until all the aches of the road had gone and been replaced by a headache from the garishly pink canopy. Groaning in disgust, she stood upright, took off her black corset jacket and aimed it towards the hanger. It fell smoothly on one of the hooks. She congratulated herself and rose to assess her surroundings.

The prof hadn't spared any expense with the bedrooms. The bed could accommodate four fat people piled one on top of the other. Under the window there was a large writing table with a complete set of stationery. She could also see a gigantic clothes closet, a dressing screen painted with penguins, two armchairs, a fluffy carpet of a suspicious yellow color, a reading lamp, a small, tacky version of the chandelier downstairs and an empty bedside table. The walls were plastered with a whole lot of tapestries that depicted the mating rituals of vegetables, and hung with five paintings of hideous frilly women, whose age was inversely proportional to the amount of clothing they wore.

I think the redecoration will cost more than this house.

With a yawn, Krss strolled over to the heavily barred windows that looked like they'd never been opened. She sketched the futile gesture of wiping away the dust and grime that caked the exterior side of the glass; the rain was probably the windows' only cleaner, and so far the storm had made a half-arsed job of it, managing only to smudge the filth into a shape that vaguely resembled an atomic mushroom.

The sudden knock on the door made her jump.

"Madam Krss?"

She threw open the door. The stuck-up, greasy-haired, beady-eyed butler was arranging his cuff links, which matched his tie pin. "What is it, Walker?"

"Dinner will be served at eight o'clock precisely, Madam."

"Did you come all the way here to tell me this?"

"Yes, Madam."

"That's a bit inefficient, isn't it? It's a big house. Don't you have some sort of telephone, closed-circuit TV, intercom, smoke signal machine, to communicate with other floors?"

"No, Madam. Although sometimes when Mrs. Perkins, the maid, mis-times her cooking, there is smoke."

"You.. made a joke! You might be human after all!"

"I apologize, Madam."

"Oh, never mind." As an afterthought, she added, "At least I have my cellphone."

She thought she caught the butler grinning, but the next moment he was back to his severe countenance. "Is there anything else you'd like, Madam?"

"Not really. You're dismissed. Go back to.." She made a vague gesture. ".. whence you came."

"Indeed I shall." And Walker disappeared with a bow.

Now that she had seen more of the room than she cared to, it was time to expand her territory. She closed the door to the bedroom behind her without locking it -she hoped none of the other guests shared her size and taste in clothes- and found herself in the front left corner of the second floor landing, from where she could hear animated voices floating from below and could see the ghastly chandelier.

That thing better fall by the end of the week.

Her bedroom was to the left of the master bedroom, and was separated from it by a small staircase leading upwards. She was in no hurry to join the others, so she climbed the flight and emerged in a dark, smelly attic with several doors leading off into adjoining rooms. She walked around carefully for a bit, feeling the silence follow her around.

A low, angry moan came from behind Krss. She turned so abruptly that she sprained a neck muscle. Rubbing her neck, she took in the sight of a woman dressed in very clichéd "French maid" attire, who looked and smelled as if she had just swallowed an entire mouthful of cat food.

"Mrs. Perkins?"

The maid continued to make angry, guttural sounds, shaking her finger, giving the unmistakable message that the attic was off-limits.

"Okay, I get it. I'm going down. Down," she spelled out, very slowly and carefully.

With one last warning noise, the maid vanished through a door. Krss decided she'd had too much excitement for one day and went down the stairs to the dining room.

They'd better have veggie food.

***

"Now if you will follow me, I will carry your luggage into your bedroom, Madam."

"I have no luggage," remarked Almirena dryly. It was not her place, as a lady of proper upbringing, to remark upon it, but was the man blind as well as deaf? The butler was looking at her in curiosity, so she said, "The airline misplaced the suitcase in which I had all my clothes."

"I am sorry to hear that, Madam. Perhaps one of the other lady guests will be able to offer you some clothing."

Almirena severely doubted any of the other guests shared her fine taste and propriety, but she made no comment. Self-restraint was the mark of a superior woman. "I think I will manage with what I am wearing now."

"As you wish, Madam. I can lead you upstairs."

"No, I think I will lounge in the living room awhile. My head hurts from being forced to argue with the airline employees like a commoner. I will converse with myself in peace and quiet."

The butler bowed and left. A decent servant, this Walker. He knew how to treat a lady. Almirena entered the lavish living room and sat on one of the firm couches, her straight posture never betraying her travel weariness and disgust with the state of the world. After a few seconds of rubbing her aching temples, she straightened her high hairdo and turned her attention to the room around her.

Her couch was one of three arranged in a circle around a small coffee table. Further in front of her there was a pool table, with cue sticks and chalk, which sat before two loveseats. Behind her, the wall that separated this room from the projection room was made up entirely of bookshelves. Her attention being piqued, as she was a devourer - in the polite sense of the word - of books, she rose and walked to the bookcase.

She gasped with delight at the large, rich collection of famous philosophers and artists, paragons of light and knowledge from the dark ages to modern day. She ran her finger down the spine of one book, reveling in the smoothness of its fiber. The only area in which it was proper to show well mannered frivolity was reading, and Almirena let her hair down by taking out books and leafing through them. The professor's library contained the venerable Aristotle's Organon, Physica, Parva Naturalia, Historia Animalium, Ars Rhetorica and Ars Poetica; illuminated Umberto Eco's Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale, Opera aperta, Il nome della rosa and Il pendolo di Foucault; sage Ouspensky's A New Model of the Universe and The Fourth Way; Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, of which.. Guilty Pleasures..? The Laughing Corpse? Circus of the Damned, The Lunatic Café, Bloody Bones???

Almirena's hand paused and recoiled from these foul volumes. She gave a delicate snort and withdrew her attention from the library of someone with such appalling taste in books.

***

The heavy raindrops scrolling down on the outside of the car's window brushed translucent shadows over the plain white paper that Santi had opened for the tenth time that evening. The snores of his taxi companion - the man with the strange name that sounded like "Guys", with an unhealthy throat-clearing sound at the beginning - mingled with the wails of the storm to create a comforting atmosphere. It was good to be in a warm, enclosed place while nature tore its hair out.

The rereading of the letter revealed nothing further from the first nine readings, yet Santi insisted something would jump out at him if he studied it enough. Signed "Professor David Styles" and with a return address of "Dread Hill House, Dread Hill, Oxford", the text read:

"Esteemed competitor,

Congratulations! You are among the few final candidates for the next owner of Dread Hill House. Since I will be retiring overseas in less than two months' time and I am anxious to leave the manor in good hands, the gathering and evaluation will take place on the weekend between September 29th and October 1st.

To be eligible for the ownership, you must arrive no later than dinner time on Friday evening and you will remain here until Sunday morning at the earliest. During your stay at the manor, you will use the pseudonym Santi and address the other guests by their own pseudonyms. To ensure objectivity, you will be met and instructed by my butler, Walker. He and my maid, Mrs. Perkins, will attend to all your needs.

Attached you will find a map of the area. RSVP to confirm your attendance.

Sincerely yours.."

No doubt, the pocket of the man beside him contained a similar letter. They had met at the station and, since there had been only one cab available in the stormy darkness and they had had the same destination, they had shared it.

To be honest, even if he kept rereading the whole letter, the only part that bugged Santi was the "evaluation" bit. Yes, the restriction on time was odd, and the pseudonym thing was creepy, and why wouldn't the host be there to meet them? But it was the word "evaluation" that unsettled his normally tranquil mind - a mind used to solve the little mysteries of the human body on a regular basis. The phrasing disturbed him, and it did so because it reminded him of his own work with lab animals.

Or maybe spending his life in a laboratory had warped his judgment so much that he would let a matter of semantics come between him and the million pound house.

His cell phone beeped shrilly, and he stole a guilty look at his sleeping partner, but the man only stirred and shifted his head a little. The number was from the hospital; he'd have to phone as soon as he arrived, and tell them with great satisfaction that for once he wasn't in his laboratory and couldn't be there in five minutes to fix their sloppy butchering work.

The man next to him whimpered in his sleep, and Santi turned to look at him. His long white-blond hair covered most of his thin face, tips brushing against his lips to the rhythm of the car, and he was frowning. Maybe he was having a nightmare. Santi was debating whether to wake him when the man opened his lips slightly and murmured something that sounded like Jeegwal.

Since Santi had never heard of Jeegwal, and wasn't particularly interested in it either, he sighed, propped his forehead on his hand and opened the letter again. Maybe he'd ask "Guys" about it during the long "evaluation" weekend.

***

Gijs rang the bell for the fifth time. "D'you think it was all a hoax?" he shouted to Santi over the noise of the storm, and kicked the massive wood three times, which didn't help his nerves or his foot any.

"I can see lights in the house. If we are patient, someone will hear us and open up," replied Santi.

Gijs couldn't believe this guy's cool. They were both soaked to the skin, the taxi was waiting to see if they managed to enter, and its damned meter was running.

"Anyone home??!" screamed Gijs. He raised his foot again to kick at the doors, but just then the right door opened inwards and his foot connected with the leg of a woman, who gave a nasty curse and bent down to rub it. Gijs hurried inside, while Santi went back into the storm to pay the driver.

The woman Gijs had just injured didn't look like a maid, or at least didn't dress like a maid. Maids didn't wear red corsets, seven inch-long skirts and gigantic chunky abominations for shoes. Maids didn't swear like sailors either. Gijs stepped to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"Of course I'm not okay, you just made three holes in my leg," she scoffed and raised her head to look at him. "Serves me right for opening you the door. The butler should've received your physical abuse, but I don't know where he is."

Offended, Gijs replied, "But I only hit you once, and I don't think my shoe is sharp enough to.." He trailed off, because her face was disturbingly close. She was as tall and thin as him, had a very white complexion, very black hair and very green eyes. Gijs hoped against hope that he didn't look too pathetic from the storm, and flashed her his trademark grin. She didn't return it.

"Oh, well, the other two holes must be from your stare. Have you never seen a short skirt before?" There was something familiar in her expression, something Gijs remembered like a shadow of a different life, but that was all.

Maybe he'd just dreamt it.

"Last time I saw a short skirt like that on a woman I didn't see it for long, if you know what I mean.." He winked.

"Is that the best you can come up with?" She gave him a grin for the first time and extended her hand. "I'm Krss."

"I'm Gijs." He held her hand for three seconds, and then the doorbell rang so loudly that he dropped it. He was turning to open the door for Santi when he noticed the woman had thrown her hands over her ears and closed her eyes, with a pained expression on her face.

"Are you okay?" he asked, stupidly, for the second time that evening.

She opened her eyes, shook her head and slowly took her hands from her ears. "I have a problem with loud noises.. you might call it a phobia. Please open that door before your lover rings again."

"He's not my lover!" sputtered Gijs.

"Oh.. I noticed you'd come here together, so I assumed.."

"He is not my lover!" Indignant, Gijs opened the door and Santi hurried inside. He shook himself like a wet dog. Water splattered everywhere on the fancy walls of the vestibule.

"I thought you were going to let me sleep in the storm. By the way, you owe me fifty pounds."

Every other coherent thought in Gijs' brain fluttered off.

***

Tsolaelia avoided crowds. They overwhelmed her; she needed to cut out manageable slices of them, which she could study without, if possible, entering the agglomeration. It was her job to make sense out of individuals extracted from their environments. The people roaming about the dining room, killing time until dinner was prepared, were neatly divided into three groups.

The first group, by the bar, was made up of the red-haired diva, the handsome recipient of her attentions, and the cute student. Marion was chatting excitedly about her latest appearance on the catwalk. ".. And I heard Versace tell Ralph Lauren that he wanted that blue-eyed red-haired vision of loveliness at his party."

"Who was he talking about?" asked gabnic, trying to suppress a smile.

Marion did a double-take. "Me, of course! But I was depressed because I had missed a step, so I left early, to cry."

The student, Bearic, was feeding on her every word and on a dumpling, and drinking some kind of juice in a porcelain mug. He seemed decidedly out of place, but didn't seem to care. That boy would be sorely hurt by the end of this week.. But Tsolaelia never sought out her patients. They had to approach her first.

The second group was in fact a pair, and had not been formed by affinity, but by mutual satisfaction. The holier-than-thou lady reveled in treating the tipsy fellow like gum on her shoe, while he was having a lot of fun at her expense.

As Tsolaelia watched, Almirena wrinkled her nose. "Young man, I must say that your physical proximity makes this discussion very difficult. There is no need for alcohol at the bar; your breath is enough to knock people over."

r snickered and toasted her with orange juice. "If my breath fails to knock them, you can always swing your head around a bit."

Tsolaelia smiled and turned her attention to the final threesome. They had drawn three chairs together and seemed to be enjoying the jokes Gijs kept telling (though Gijs himself seemed to be more focused on Krss' reaction to them). Despite laughing with the others, and giving Gijs the attention he craved, Santi seemed somehow subdued.

After a particularly juicy joke of Gijs' that sent Krss into a fit of giggles, Santi cleared his throat and said, "It worries me that we have no connection with the outside. There are no phones in this entire house."

Gijs and Krss stopped laughing. Krss was still smiling when she said, "Yes, Walker told me as much. Can't you use my cellphone?"

"If you will let me, I will try."

"Sure, let me rush and get it." She disappeared into the main hall, and Tsolaelia caught both Gijs' quick glance after Krss and Santi's quick glance at Gijs.

The guests were entertaining. Both groups of three contained an apparent leader and a real leader; each of them contained an obnoxious element; each of them had at least one person dissatisfied; and in each of them one person got too much attention. The pair was, strangely enough, the best balanced, because both talkers got what they wanted out of it.

The animation seemed to have subsided. Tsolaelia stared into her glass of tropical punch and thought how she'd rather be in her office listening to a patient instead of in this huge alien house that scared her, mostly because it was like taken out of a horror movie. And she hated horror movies- particularly the slasher variety. Jack the Ripper had given her nightmares for months.

"Where've you gone?"

She raised her head abruptly and spilled a little juice on her hand. gabnic had somehow escaped Marion's claws and was crouched in front of her, giving her a pleasant smile. She felt her face grow hot.

"Oh, just.. daydreaming, I guess." She returned the smile. "What did you say to Marion that persuaded her to release you?"

"Nothing, I just took off when she was touching up her makeup in the mirror."

"She'll be missing you," grinned Tsolaelia.

"She'll survive. Maybe she'll get to know the kid. He's decent.."

"Yes.. So what do you think?"

"Of the house, of the people, or of the weather?" He took a sip of his drink and looked at her seriously.

"Any of them."

"Well, the house creeps me out. At first it was okay, but now that I've spent a while here I'm starting to feel a bit weird."

"Hmm.. I haven't felt anything yet. But maybe it's not ventilated.."

She was cut off by a shrill cry. gabnic and Tsolaelia raised their heads, searching for the source of the sound. It had come from Marion. She was exhibiting the symptoms of a panic attack; she was holding a hand over her heart, shaking and sweating, and her other hand was pointing to Bearic's cup. Tsolaelia rushed to her side and, gently, helped her into a chair. The others gathered in a circle around them.

"Shh.. You're okay. You won't have a heart attack. It's your body's way of defending itself. You can't die from this. Calm down," whispered Tsolaelia. Someone gave her a glass of milk, and she handed it to the trembling woman. Marion didn't look like a haughty diva anymore, just a human being in pain. "Can you speak?"

Marion nodded slowly. Her breath was evening out.

"What happened?"

"I saw the.. cup. There was.." She shivered. ".. blood in the cup."

"It's just tomato juice." Bearic looked mortified.

"I know.. I knew that at the beginning. But then.. I didn't. And it was blood."

Just then, Krss returned with a cellphone. "What's the commotion?"

"She had a panic attack and hallucinated. I think she needs a doctor."

"I am a doctor," said Santi, crouching next to Marion. "If you will allow me.." He checked her pulse, while everyone held their breath. The woman was still wearing a scared expression, but it was relaxing by the second. "Your pulse rate is high, but not high enough for a heart attack. Are you having pains in your left arm?"

Marion shook her head 'no'.

"Then there is no serious cause for concern."

"Sure, it's not you who almost died, is it?" Marion had returned to her sassy self pretty quickly. Someone snickered, and Tsolaelia assumed it was gabnic.

She left Marion with the milk and turned to Santi. "Is she really okay? A hallucination like that isn't a good sign. I don't have any medication on me except sedatives."

"I believe she is, for now. Maybe we ought to take her to a hospital, as a preventative measure."

"There's no taking me anywhere! You just want to eliminate a competitor. I need this house!" Marion declared.

"As you wish," Santi said, and returned to Gijs and Krss, taking the cellphone. The others sat down around the table, leaving Bearic crouched by Marion. As Tsolaelia watched, Santi opened the phone and gave a groan of displeasure, then shook it up and down uselessly.

No phones for them, it seemed.

***

"Hurry up, it's 7:50!" shouted Nico at the driver, who was taking many precious seconds counting the change. Dinnertime was in ten minutes. What if they had already had dinner at 7? "Come on!" The driver was doing it on purpose, he knew it. He must have relatives in the house who wanted to eliminate him from the race. He must have been waiting at the station especially for him! Didn't he refuse a customer right in front? At the time he had thought it was just luck, but what if..

"What's the rush, gov'ner?"

"I'll miss dinner.. But you already know that! Agh, 7:53! Just keep the change."

Nico jumped out of the taxi and, ignoring the puddles, the rain, the clingy clothes and his wet head, ran up the steps to the front door. Where was the bell? He had seven minutes to get into that house! The windows were too high to knock. He searched the door again and finally found the bell right where bells were supposed to be. He rang it with all his strength, and then rang it again and again and again. It was almost 7:54! His tie was beginning to bother him, too tight against his throat. He untied it, but he felt like it was still there. At five minutes to 8, a man clad in a black suit opened the door very, very slowly.

"Sir Nico?" he asked, politely.

"Did I miss dinner? Am I disqualified??" shouted Nico.

"You are just in time. Step inside, you have five minutes to change before the meal begins. Are you feeling quite all right, Sir?"

"Yes.. I'm okay. Now where's my bedroom?"

"On the second landing, Sir."

Nico entered the house without even bothering to shed his wet outer garments, made the length of the huge hall in one minute and rushed up the stairs before the butler was even halfway to them. The second landing had way too many doors. "Which one of these is my bedroom?"

"That would be the third one on your right."

Nico rushed to the door, but it was locked. "Throw me the key!"

The dignified butler took out a key from a keychain and tossed it upwards towards Nico's hands. Nico dropped it, so he had to wait until Walker collected it and walked up the stairs to open the door, and by that time the old grandfather clock on the first floor had started striking 8.

One.. Two.. Nico threw his wet overcoat on a chair. Three.. He shook the water out of his hair. Four.. He wiped his shoes on the bedcovers, and ran down the stairs. Five.. Six.. Seven.. He entered the dining room, breathing so hard he didn't hear the last strike.

Everyone turned to look at him.

"Surprised, huh? Didn't think I'd make it!" he wheezed.

They did look surprised; but their plans had been foiled, and now that he was here he might as well enjoy dinner. He fell into one of the chairs and cradled his face in his hands, trying hard to ignore the burning sensation on the back of his neck.

Just then, the gong rang.

***

Walker waited for the voices to die down, cleared his throat and said, "Please take a seat wherever it accommodates you best, ladies and gentlemen. Dinner will be brought to you in a minute." He was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, monitoring both Mrs. Perkins' whereabouts and any gestures from the guests.

"I have to run to the ladies' room, or more precisely the people's room. You can start without me," said Krss towards Walker. "Save me a place," she added in Gijs' general direction and left the room. The remainder of the guests gathered around the table, looking at the seats and at each other, and Walker wondered why dinner places were so important for people who barely knew each other.

Almirena was the first to seat herself, at the far head of the table. r took the seat on her left, which made her move as though she'd suddenly changed her mind, but she obviously valued her vantage point too much, so she remained where she was, a sour expression on her face. The other head of the table was snatched by Marion, immediately joined on her left by Bearic and on her right by Tsolaelia, who both seemed to fuss about her. Santi and Gijs occupied the two places to the left of Bearic, gabnic sat down next to r, and Nico filled in the gap between gabnic and Tsolaelia, giving them both suspicious looks. An empty seat remained between Gijs and Almirena.

The lights in the room were causing each guest to cast a shadow over his own plate. The storm added to the eerie lighting with its random flashes, and Walker could even hear some of the claps of thunder. It was a mother of a storm outside. He wouldn't like to be out there right now.. but maybe they would, soon.

He signaled to Mrs. Perkins to bring in the entrée: ham, bacon and caviar. The scowling woman wheeled the cart in a complete rectangle around the table and set their food in front of each of them, then retreated to the kitchen. Everyone started eating except Nico, who was poking at the ham with his fork as if he expected to see worms crawling out of it.

Krss returned from the bathroom and grinned when she saw where her empty place was. Then she approached the table and the grin faded into confusion. She ran her eyes over the other guests' plates and the confusion turned to anger.

"There is no vegetarian food at this table!" she shouted at Walker.

"I am aware of that, Madam."

"I told Styles in that damned questionnaire of his that I was a vegetarian!" She put her hands on her hips and dared him with her eyes to refute that. Gijs had stood up and was giving Walker the same dare.

The corners of Walker's stiff mouth were hurting from the effort of staying serious. "The professor did not leave any specific orders concerning that, Madam."

"What do you mean he didn't.." Krss started.

r stood up from the opposite side of the table. "But he took some effort to order 'no spirits', didn't he?" he shouted.

Walker calmly looked them both in the eye, remaining silent.

"Are you telling me I won't have anything to eat all weekend?" She was growing angrier, judging by the flush spreading across her cheeks.

"Hey, how about the fish eggs? Eggs aren't meat, are they?" asked r.

gabnic made a face that said, "Oh, you are in so much trouble now."

If it weren't for the table, Krss would have physically pounced on r. Walker had to approach to read her lips.

"These are fish eggs!! Do you know how they're collected? Do you slice chicken open to retrieve their eggs??"

"Actually, it's hens who.."

Krss picked up a knife and r stopped. Santi turned towards Walker. "I am sure Mrs. Perkins will have something in the kitchen to satisfy Krss' need for vegetables." He ended the sentence with a raised eyebrow.

"I will verify that with Mrs. Perkins right away, Sir." Walker went into the kitchen, counted to ten, and returned. "I'm afraid the only vegetarian food we have in the manor is bread, potatoes and blue cheese."

"What??" screamed Krss. "I hate blue cheese! I told him that in the questionnaire!"

Walker shrugged politely.

"You need to.. you need to go out and get me some food!"

"In the storm outside I wouldn't get too far, Madam. The professor took the car when he left. You will have to do with what we have until the storm subsides.. or eat meat."

Krss punched the table and stormed from the room. Gijs darted after her. Santi half-raised himself to follow, but refrained and instead started on his ham. The uninvolved guests had followed the exchange with only mild interest, between bites of food. Sensible people. As long as they themselves had something to eat, why should they care if Krss didn't? Walker moved to stand between the two empty chairs, so he could get a good look at all their faces.

"Why did he need all that stuff anyway?" asked Bearic.

"What stuff?" said gabnic.

"The questionnaire.."

"I couldn't read mine, what'd it say?" asked r.

"Some were really weird questions. Why would he want to know what sort of things we read?" asked Bearic.

"Obviously, young man, the professor wanted to assess the level of education each person had, judging by the caliber of books he favored," replied Almirena, stiffly.

"Yeah, okay, but.. why did he want to know our eating habits if he didn't even to bother to provide vegetarian food for Krss? Why did he ask about our fears? Why do these things even matter for owning this house?"

"The questionnaire was quite strange, I agree with you," said Santi. "But this whole situation is strange. For instance, why is the host not here to greet us?"

"Professor Styles is not here so that he is not influenced by subjective impressions. I am his eyes and ears among you," said Walker. Marion rolled her eyes, but he continued unabatedly, "Breakfast tomorrow will bring you a message from him. Do not worry yourselves tonight."

"I don't like this house."

Everyone turned to look at Nico, but he'd returned to poking his food absently with a fork.

***

Friday Night

Almirena could have been married to insomnia for how faithful a partner it was. The snores of the drunkard in the next bedroom were even louder than the storm. The grandfather clock had struck midnight a few hours ago, it seemed, and the only good thing about that was that she wouldn't have to suffer so many successive strikes until noon the next day. At the next single strike, she finally decided she had had enough of unceremonious tossing about, and she could fill in dead time by watching a worthwhile film downstairs. Maybe the professor had Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Nosferatu; she needed to extend the delicate strings of her nerves to the limit.

The second floor was quiet and twilit- most of the chandelier bulbs had been extinguished, doubtlessly to preserve energy. That made walking difficult, but, feeling her way and clutching the banister, Almirena went down into the main hall. Walking between the ancient walls, under the humbling gaze of its proud lineage, she felt as though the house was already hers.

She closed herself in the projection room, turning on the feeble light enough to choose a film. She couldn't find any of her favorites, but she realized she wouldn't have known how to operate the projector anyway. Luckily, there already was a roll of film in it. She started it and sat down to watch in one of the fifteen chairs.

The title on the screen proclaimed the movie to be "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark". A trashy, dime-a-dozen action film, but it would do as a sleeping draught. For a long time she watched the mishaps of the adventurer as he battled South American natives, Nazis, Arabs and a Frenchman, the worst enemy by far. Finally, Indiana Jones discovered the location of the Well of Souls and was lowered into it by a rope.

The cavern was swarming with snakes.

Almirena recoiled and felt her pulse quickening in her throat. That was one thing she did share with Jones- fear of snakes. And there seemed to be all variety of venomous reptiles in that room. Lots of asps, and even an Egyptian cobra. Her skin crawled whenever they crawled. She was glad it was happening to Jones and not to her.

But there was something odd about the projection. Normally, the entire image should be projected onto the screen. So why did a shape appear to be moving below the rectangle of light? Almirena turned around to look at the projector, but nothing was blocking its view of the screen - and, besides, the shadow was outside the image, and was slowly slithering down the wall.

Her heart knew what it was even before she saw it crawling across the floor towards her feet. Her throat let out a strangled sound, her ears seemed to crush her skull from either side and merciful darkness embraced her.

***

r's first thought as he opened his eyes was that he'd fallen asleep in the bar and they'd locked him inside again. Then he realized the room he was in smelled worse than the bar, so he couldn't be in the bar. Where was he this time?

Ah, in a bedroom. In a huge house. Styles' house.

Someone knocked impatiently on the door three times, and then again twice. That explained why he was awake. He groaned an "Enter!" and tried to sit up in bed. His hand went automatically for the bottle under his pillow, but couldn't find it.

Right. He had nothing to drink. Damn Styles.

A very agitated man with a mop of spiky hair rushed into the room. r barely had time to recognize him as Nico before the man crashed onto the bed and started shaking him, mumbling something r couldn't understand. The shaking was annoying, so r grabbed Nico's hands, held them behind his back and forced him to sit still.

"Okay, now out with what you wanted to say."

Nico scowled, and his body kept shaking, but he managed to utter, "Have you taken my pills?"

r stared at him in disbelief.

"You have, haven't you? I'm sure you have. You have a guilty look on your face."

"Calm down. I don't have your pills. I didn't know you had pills. I've never even entered your room."

Nico gave him a wild look. "Then who took them? I can't find them. I need to take them, even if they don't do anything, because without them it's much worse. I need to find them. Let me go!"

r released him, and watched Nico run out the door to wake up someone else. The guy was out of control. He had to stop him if he was ever going to catch some sleep around here, so he dragged himself out of bed and went out onto the landing.

Nico was banging desperately on Bearic's door. After five bangs, a very sleepy Bearic opened the door and received the same shaking treatment.

"Hey! What'd I do! Leave me alone! You're crazy!" screamed the kid.

r had had just about enough of this. He went to Nico, disentangled him from Bearic and gave him three hard slaps. Nico cried out and tried to hit back, but r caught his wrists and held him steady until his squirming subsided.

"Go get Santi," r told Bearic. "I'll keep him here. No sense waking Tsolaelia."

Bearic nodded, still confused, and went to knock on the second bedroom of the opposite landing. While r struggled to keep Nico under control, he saw Bearic knock a few times, but the door remained closed. Finally, Bearic came back and shrugged. "He's not in there."

"Okay. Bring a glass of warm milk from the kitchen. That's what the nuns gave my homies when they got into fits."

"But.. it's.."

"What?"

"It's deserted down there." Bearic's eyes were very wide.

"And you're afraid the boogeyman will come out of the closet and eat you? This guy is having a fit and he needs milk. Go."

Bearic left, but he obviously didn't like it. Oh well. r had other problems to worry about than babysitting a kid.

***

Bearic held his breath as he counted the steps down to the hall. As long as he counted, as long as he didn't look back, and as long as he didn't fall, the white ghost with large eyes that he knew was following one step behind him would leave him alone. Or so he hoped.

Fifteen..

The hairs at the nape of his neck were so upright they hurt. The stairs seemed to stretch forever. So did the house.

Sixteen. Seventeen.

He stumbled, but grabbed the banister and managed to stay upright. His heart kept throwing itself at the walls of his chest. He could feel the eyes of the ghost, so close behind. So horribly close he could have felt its breath, if ghosts breathed. Staring at the back of his neck. Waiting.

Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.

He had made the first floor. He breathed out and chanced a look behind. No one was there. With a quick prayer of thanks, he hurried towards the dining room. It was almost completely dark, but during a flash of lightning he found the light switch. Relief and light flooded over him. It was just an old house. Just an old, cobwebby house, with secrets beneath all its creaking floors.

No, don't go there.

***

Tsolaelia wasn't sleeping when the men knocked on her door. It always took her a long time to fall asleep in new surroundings; the basic human need for shelter was in fact the need for the familiar. She had heard voices outside, but hadn't wanted to go out in her nightie. Now it seemed she'd have to. She sighed, put on a robe and opened the door.

"Yes, what is it?"

In the doorway she could see r holding a very distraught Nico, who shouted, "Did you steal my pills?"

"Sorry to disturb you," said r apologetically, "but d'you think you can calm this guy down? Santi isn't in his room, and Bearic is taking a long time with the milk."

"Milk? For a manic episode? Why didn't you come to me sooner? Here, let me get you a sedative. No, two sedatives." She fumbled in her bag and handed r two pills. "Wait, I'll get you some water too."

She took a glass from her bedroom and rushed to the closest communal bathroom. The taps were stiff, and the water looked a little like rust, but it would do. She rushed back with the glass.

"Take these, Nico, they will help you sleep. We'll find your medicine tomorrow. We'll search together, I promise." She tried to make her voice as soothing as possible.

Nico reluctantly took the pills and swallowed them with the water, then grimaced. "This water tastes like iron."

"Okay, now get him to bed," Tsolaelia urged. "He'll be knocked out in two minutes."

She watched r disappear with Nico and sighed again. What had Styles been thinking when he'd chosen an unstable bipolar patient as a candidate?

***

By the time he had arrived at the kitchen door, Bearic's heart had almost gotten back to normal. He opened the door and.. darkness. All the blinds were closed, and the windows were out of reach. And he couldn't see the light switch.

Okay. This is just a kitchen. The ghost stays on the stairs.

Why didn't that sound too reassuring? Maybe because he was shaking so much? He had to go in, though. The first window on the right wasn't that far away; surely nothing had time to get him before he reached it. If he made a dash for it..

He ran without looking back. He arrived at the window after four steps and threw open the blinds. The night outside was barely casting shadows over the closest part of the kitchen, but, together with the light coming in from the dining room, he could make out a light switch on the wall of the freezer. The freezer, which was on the other side of the room. The far side.

But he'd gotten this far. He could do this. He started walking towards the switch. Walking was hard when you had to force each foot to move. He was almost there..

The door to the freezer creaked.

Bearic stopped dead in his tracks. The door couldn't possibly have done that. There was no one else in the room, and there was nothing alive in the freezer. He must have imagined it. He looked at it intently for a few seconds. It didn't move. He had imagined it.

And then, the door started opening slowly. Bearic's heart contracted in pain as he stood and could only stare as the door inched open, without him being able to see who.. what.. was opening it from inside. He would only see it when the door was fully open, when whatever it was came out of there and looked at him.

The door slammed shut.

Bearic cried out and grabbed at his chest, which was hurting badly, but that didn't matter now; all that mattered was to run away from there, run, run as quickly as possible and don't look back.

***

Krss' stomach growled for the third time that night. It was useless; she couldn't sleep while she was hungry. She was weak, she was sore, and she was very pissed off. The hideous women in the paintings seemed amused by her angry pacing. What had she been thinking, coming to this stupid house with its stupid pink beds and lots of meat? She felt just about ready to murder someone.

A high-pitched, annoying scream came in through the closed door. Maybe she'd just murder the author of that noise. She rushed to the door and flung it open. The first thing she saw was Bearic on the stairs, looking up towards Krss' right with a vacant expression. She followed his gaze and saw Marion in a very skimpy red frilly nightgown, trying to clamber over the railing while screaming her head off.

The woman was about to jump!

"Do something!" shouted Krss to Bearic, while running towards the hysterical woman. He didn't seem to hear. What on Earth could he do anyway? Catch her?

Before Krss reached her, Marion had managed to throw both her legs over the railing, and was sitting on top of it, holding on with her hands and looking down at the hall below. It was quite a drop. She wouldn't make it. Krss touched her shoulder, and Marion shook violently. Okay, maybe touching her wasn't such a good idea. Krss was running out of options. Bearic was still staring, in a daze, and Marion was still screaming, in hysterics. Was there no able person around here who could help? Ten freaking doors, for freak's sake.

gabnic opened the door immediately behind Krss and, after a second's pause, his eyes widened.

"Good boy. Now do something," she snapped.

gabnic hastened to the screaming woman and took her easily in his arms, lifting her over the railing and back to safety. She crumpled at his feet, sobbing. Krss felt the urgent need to puke at the sight.

Why am I a woman, again? Right, because I'm not attracted to them.

Bearic seemed to have finally come to his senses, and he ran along the landing towards Marion. While gabnic and Bearic lavished all their attention upon the pathetic woman, Krss realized there was something wrong about all this. gabnic had heard Marion. Krss had heard Marion. Their two bedrooms were on the opposite ends of the left side of the house. So the whole left side should have heard Marion.

Where were Gijs and Santi?

Telling herself it was just concern, Krss knocked on Gijs' bedroom. There was no answer. She knocked louder. Still no answer.

Okay, now that was wrong.

Feeling entitled to it by her worry, Krss tried the handle. The door was unlocked. She opened it a crack and looked inside.

Gijs was lying on his bed with his shirt wide open. His long white-blond hair was plastered to his face with sweat, and he was gasping audibly for air. His face was twisted in pain, or was it pleasure? because his tense hands were reaching convulsively for Santi, who was seated next to him on the bed, leaning over him.

The sound of the door banging against the wall made Santi raise his head. Krss' face must have betrayed her confusion, because he raised both his hands and said, "This is not what it looks like!"

"Then what is it?" She approached the bed cautiously. She didn't care that she had interrupted something. She needed to know.

"He has had an attack. It is subsiding now, but it was serious enough that his screams were audible from my room. I opened his nightshirt to allow him to breathe."

"Why? Why did he have an attack?" Krss noticed that Gijs was slowly coming back to his senses, so she knelt beside his bed and brushed a strand of wet hair from his face. "First Marion, now him.. What's going on here, Santi?"

"I wish I knew. My hypothesis is that Marion and Gijs are both hypersensitive individuals, and being in new surroundings has affected both. But I did not think Marion's attack was as bad at Gijs'."

Krss had to think back to realize he was referring to Marion's hallucination earlier that evening. "She had another one. She just tried to jump off the landing."

"Oh."

Gijs groaned and stirred. Both Krss and Santi turned towards him. He was blinking slowly, trying to focus his gaze.

"Are you okay?" Krss asked.

Gijs grinned. "Stupid question.."

"What happened?" asked Santi.

"Well.." He swallowed. "The canopy."

"What about it?" Krss fought off the urge to shake the whole thing out of him.

"I was looking up. It was familiar, somehow. I recognized it. Don't ask me how. The memories were bad. And then it.. descended on me."

"Descended?" asked Krss and Santi at the same time, looking up at the very undisturbed bed canopy.

"Yes. And I couldn't move. So it came closer.. Until it was right next to my face. It pressed me down into the mattress. I couldn't breathe.. I panicked. Then I think Santi came in. Thanks, man.."

Santi nodded.

"And that's it."

"You need rest now. We will discuss this tomorrow at breakfast," said Santi and rose to his feet, imitated by Krss. "Are you going to be able to sleep without a sedative?"

Gijs nodded slowly, and turned to her. "Thank you too, for coming to check on me."

Krss grinned. "How could I miss the opportunity to witness a male bonding moment?"

Santi cleared his throat. "Please don't tell anyone about this. I mean, the.. male matter."

"Sure. You go to sleep, Gijs."

He closed his eyes with a smile. She followed Santi to the door and whispered, "Did your first-aid classes teach you to hold the victim's hand?"

Santi blushed furiously and didn't reply.

***

Saturday Morning

"Now that we have assembled for breakfast, I think we need to discuss the events of last night." Santi was his usual calm self again, and Gijs finally decided he'd only imagined Santi freaking out the previous night when he'd found him fighting for air. The memory of it was still pressing against his throat a little.

Everyone nodded, except Nico, who was gripping a medicine bottle as if it was his child. Almirena's stick seemed as though it was completely up her arse, and her stern face certainly didn't give the impression she had recently fainted at the sight of a snake. Marion was holding a hand over her mouth and rocking to and fro slowly. She looked like she'd been to hell.

The line is over there; please take a number.

"To summarize the situation, half of us experienced violent mental disturbance during the small hours. Almirena," and Santi looked at her, "thought she saw a snake in the projection room - and, understandably, she fainted."

"I didn't think I saw it. I saw it."

"Bearic," Santi continued, ignoring her, "thought a white ghost was after him on the stairs and that the freezer door moved of its own accord."

Bearic accepted his words silently.

"Marion thought she saw blood coming out of the water tap."

"It was everywhere. On the sink, on the mirror, on my face, in my eyes.. in my mouth." Marion shuddered. Tsolaelia gave her a concerned look, while Krss snorted and exchanged a grin with Gijs.

"Nico thought someone had stolen his medicine and made a ruckus."

Nico gripped the bottle harder. He'd told them earlier that he'd found the bottle on his table in the morning. Gijs was inclined to believe it had been there all night.

"And, finally, Gijs thought he saw the bed canopy descending on him, pressing him into the mattress, immobilizing him and effectively suffocating him."

Thanks for reminding me.

"Between all these hallucinations, I have detected a pattern."

All pairs of eyes fastened on Santi, even Nico's. The guy was pretty good at this leadership business, Gijs had to admit.

"All of them were triggered by the sight of a real entity: the film, the freezer, the rusty tap water and the bed canopy, respectively. I think we can safely dismiss the disappearance of the pills and Nico's attack as normal circumstances and behavior."

Gijs wondered if Nico realized he'd just been insulted.

"At present, we have few facts. We don't know if there is a real snake slithering through the house- I apologize, Almirena. We don't know what could have caused the freezer door to behave so abnormally. We do know that the water was rusty, and we know for a fact that the canopy couldn't have descended. But I don't think these are our most important concerns. I think the main question is this: Why the coincidental occurrence of hallucinations in five completely different people?" He brought his hands together over the table and looked at them. His posture reminded Gijs of a talk-show moderator on TV.

"Actually, the main question is this: Why aren't we getting the hell out of Dodge?" replied r. He seemed to be in a bad mood this morning. He looked like he sorely needed a drink and a shave.

"I can only speak for myself. I am staying in this house because I need it, and the professor's letter was very specific about the timeframe we are required to spend here," said Santi. "Furthermore, I believe it would be difficult to leave, considering the storm, the lack of transport, and no phone connection."

gabnic nodded. "I think we should stick it out a while longer. No one's hurt, and maybe it's just the storm."

"You saying the storm is making someone see a bed canopy suffocate him?" r obviously wasn't satisfied. Gijs wished they'd find a better subject to use as example.

"No, I'm not saying that.." gabnic seemed at a loss.

"I think this is happening because of the storm." Everyone turned to look at Tsolaelia, and her face became pinker than usual. "This theory is not popular among mental professionals, but some of us believe that the electricity in a storm amplifies mental afflictions. This storm has proven itself big enough and long enough for this to happen here. I believe that the most sensitive of us, the ones with prominent fears and obsessions, are the most affected."

"It kind of makes sense," said Bearic. "I'm normally afraid of ghosts."

"Are the rest of you also phobic of the things that affected you?" asked Santi.

Almirena and Marion nodded. Gijs nodded with them. "Yep. Claustrophobic all the way."

"Gijs, there is something that you mentioned, um.. last night," said Santi. Krss grinned, and Gijs thought Santi blushed a little. "You said something about recognizing the canopy. A bad memory. Do you recall?"

"Yes, I do.. But it's hard to remember what it was."

"Have you had a similar experience in the past? Something falling on you, suffocating you, you being enclosed in a small space with a pink ceiling?"

"I guess there was that time when my cellmate tried to suffocate me with a pillow for cigarettes.."

Everyone stared. Almirena recovered first. "Are you a delinquent, young man?"

"I did time, if that's what you're asking."

"For what, if I may inquire?"

"I believe you are prying, Almirena." Santi to the rescue.

"That's okay, I don't mind saying. I stole a knife from a supermarket."

"And this is why you 'did time', for a knife?" asked Almirena. Gijs was beginning to feel like he was in an interrogation room.

"No, I kind of cut a guy with it."

"Murderer!" Almirena gasped. Everyone around the table was still staring.

"No, I just cut him. I didn't say I killed him. It was.. self-defense."

Almirena still looked at him as if he were about to skewer her with the fish knife.

"What's the big deal? I've been in prison too," remarked Krss.

It was Gijs' turn to stare.

"In fact, I think that's where I first saw you. You did look familiar."

"Couldn't have been me.. I was sent to Wandsworth. Would've killed to be in a joint with ladies. Figuratively speaking, I mean," he added hastily.

"This is not relevant to the matter at hand," said Santi, sourly. "The point is that Gijs' experience can be directly linked to past trauma. Are any others in the same situation?"

Everyone was silent. Searching memories. Gijs could almost see the little wheels turning.

"I am insisting upon this because if we identify and label these hallucinations we will have an easier time fending them off."

"Shouldn't that be Tsolaelia's job?" asked gabnic.

Tsolaelia laughed. "Santi is doing it better than me."

At that moment, Walker entered the dining room with a piece of paper. He cleared his throat, waited until everyone's attention was on him, and then started reading. He looked like an undertaker at a funeral.

But no one's dead, right?

"Dear candidates,

You have all passed my preliminary selection process, but only one of you will be the next owner of Dread Hill House. You are about to face your second and final challenge, which will be announced to you this evening, but until then I strongly urge you to familiarize yourselves with your surroundings. Trust me when I say that you will need the knowledge.

Sincerely yours,
Professor David Styles"

"He's going to kill us all," said Nico, softly. He turned a pair of wild eyes towards Santi. "He'll hunt us down like animals and kill us all. Because," and his voice became a whisper, "he doesn't want to give his house away to anyone." A loud crash of thunder punctuated his words, and Krss winced.

A small shiver walked its little claws up and down Gijs' spine. The room had suddenly become cold.

***

Saturday Afternoon

As he climbed the staircase towards his bedroom, gabnic realized that, no matter whether he won it or not, he'd never get used to the huge house with its huge rooms and huge beds. He was a "small cottage" kind of guy. He wanted a handsome partner, two dogs maybe, and of course a pool.. but not really a manor. He'd sell it as soon as he got it.

If you're alive by the end of the week.

Where had that thought come from? Yes, those people had hallucinated. So what? He hadn't. He had even saved one from.. seriously injuring herself. Was he about to lose his cool to the babbling of a nutcase? "Familiarize yourselves with the house, you'll need it", he'd said. That's what gabnic was going to do. The challenge was going to be a treasure hunt. He'd been on those before, and, more often than not, had found the prize.

So where would Styles hide the treasure, that was the question. Where would gabnic hide it if he were Styles? Definitely not in the predictable places- under loose floorboards, inside fake walls, behind paintings, in couch mattresses.. Anyone would think to look there. He'd hide it somewhere in plain view, somewhere familiar, somewhere that you'd overlook just because you took it for granted.

His gaze fell upon the row of identical bedroom doors on the left side. A bedroom? Those are as familiar as you can get in this house. He'd only entered his and Marion's bedroom, when he'd had to stay with her until she fell asleep. He hadn't noticed many hiding places in those. But maybe some of the others..

Well, it was better than spending his afternoon complaining about tomato juice or lack of booze.

Krss' bedroom was the first, and unlocked. gabnic knew she was somewhere on the first floor, arguing with the butler about the definition of "meat", so he was safe. Not that he intended any harm. He was just going to have a look around. He closed the door behind him and sketched the gesture of locking it, but then he realized it'd be useless- he'd be trapped, and he'd have a lot of explaining to do.

Just act casual.

A first look around the room revealed nothing special. Just like his own, only mirrored. A bed, a table, paintings.. Then something caught his eye on the night table. It was a plastic bag wrapped around what looked like.. a syringe?

Krss into drugs? Maybe it's some sort of medicine.. Maybe she's diabetic.

He didn't like syringes much, but curiosity made him want to know what substance it was used for. He sat down on the bed and opened the bag cautiously. Inside there was only one bottle; its label said Estradiol. Well, that didn't help him much. He'd ask Santi later what it was.

He wrapped the bag as he'd found it and pushed his palms against the bed to rise. His right hand felt a hard shape under the mattress.

Has Styles already hidden the treasure?

He would find that out. He listened for voices or steps, but all was still, so he reached under the mattress and came out with a gun.

What the hell is going on here?

The gun seemed to be loaded. What was a woman like Krss doing with a gun? She was all lady. Well, except for the cursing.

A gun.

Maybe you could use it later.

gabnic admitted that this weird thought had a point. Maybe she wouldn't miss it once the hunt began. It wasn't the first time he'd "borrowed" something from a woman- they were all so gullible, always letting him at their jewels, always falling for him. He wondered if there was a special gay guy smell that attracted them like fruitflies.

Anyway, he'd take the weapon with him. For safekeeping. Who knew what hysterics Krss might get into by the end of their stay? Couldn't trust a woman with a gun in this house.

He pocketed the gun and left the room.

***

The freezer was fascinating Santi. Despite his attempts to explore the entire house equally, he had ended up in front of the freezer three times so far. From the kitchen he could only see a large, normal enough door, and even highlighted at intervals by bolts of lightning it still looked like a normal door. It hadn't tried to move or to slam. So why had he returned to it so many times? His logic told him without a shadow of doubt that there could be nothing alive in it, but being in a large, despondent manor had perhaps worked its magic on his curiosity.

He simply had to know what was inside that room.

Having thus decided, he opened the freezer door. His nose wrinkled at the smell of chilly, stale air and at the sight of a long string of veal carcasses hung by hooks from the ceiling. Shelves with the largest variety of meat he'd ever seen spanned the walls from top to bottom, as if the master of the house was trying his hardest to make a point of his anti-vegetarianism. Everything seemed in order; everything was as dead as it should have been.

Of course, the kitchen didn't cast enough light to illuminate the back wall. Suddenly, it occurred to Santi that if Styles had hidden the deeds to the house in a niche somewhere in the freezer, no one would dare to look. He was almost certain that the object of the challenge would be the deeds. That was the only thing valuable enough to drive all of them at this point. The bottom line was that exploring the entire freezer to locate hideouts could give him a very strong advantage over the others.

And when the house was his.. maybe Gijs would..

Santi forced his mind back on track. Before that he needed the house. And before that he needed to get inside the freezer. Since he didn't fancy getting locked in with the veal, he searched for the safety the maid had to use all the time. He found it, a small iron bolt, and set it. Now if only he had a candle.. but he wasn't about to waste time finding one. He'd have to rely on his 20/20 vision.

With a deep breath, as if a lungful of outside air could keep him from breathing inside at all, Santi entered the freezer. He shivered. It was cold. It smelled even worse than when he'd opened it. He would just have a look and get out of there. It couldn't be soon enough.

Trying not to touch any of the meat and hoping the smell wouldn't permeate his clothes and stay with him throughout the day, he made his way to the back. The wall had all the customary meat shelves. Straining his eyes, Santi tried to see if there was more to it.

Were those.. cables?

Without warning, a hissing sound came from behind him. As he spun towards it, he saw the door swinging. He was about to get locked in. He rushed to it, to keep it open, to fight for control of it, to do something.. But, with a heart-stopping clang, the door slammed shut, the light went off, and the world became dank, dark and cold.

***

Ignoring the hysterical shrieking about a snake from one of the broads upstairs, r went down the stairs into the basement. Familiarize, schmamiliarize. He needed his booze. Walker was a liar. No house this big could be without a wine cellar. Or at least a rum cellar. Rum would do. He turned on the light switch and found himself in a small hall that had one door on the left end and an open doorway on the right.

Now which way to the cellar?

He took left first, but as soon as he made the end of the hall he realized he couldn't get through the door. It was made of massive iron and it didn't even have a handle, just a triangular hole. He damn sure didn't have a triangular anything to stick in there, and he figured they'd keep their wine easier to get to than that.

He took the only other way out of the hall. It was the cellar. There was a stack of potatoes right in front of him, the wine couldn't be too far.. There it was! r stopped dead in his tracks and drooled at the sight of three shelves filled with large ruby red bottles with golden stickers. After three leaps, r snatched the closest bottle and yanked the stopper out. The smell was a bit weird, but wine was wine.

He managed to swallow three mouthfuls before he realized he was drinking tap water. Old, rancid tap water. He jerked, trying to pull the bottle away from his mouth, but he couldn't move his hand, and he kept swallowing. He knew that he was going to drown, he knew, but all he could do was swallow the blasted water.

He couldn't breathe.

Damn it!!

Gathering everything he had, r managed to throw the bottle. It flew right across the room and broke into pieces. He fell on all fours and threw up the entire poison out of his stomach, until he felt empty and very, very thirsty.

"I'll see you in hell for this, Styles!" he shouted.

The silent cellar around him didn't reply.

***

The attic smelled heavily of dust, which comforted Nico. It reminded him of his father's old farm and the horses and the stable. Childhood had been the only easy part of his life. The rest of it he'd spent in mental wards and looking up at doctors. And now he was here. He could do this, he could get this house and he could change his life.

Suure you can.

Nico told the voice to shut up. He wouldn't listen to it anymore. He could have a good life too, just like everyone else. And if he had to search the entire house to win it, he'd do it. He'd taken his meds in the morning; it wouldn't make any difference he hadn't taken them the night before. He was okay, he'd be okay. He had to search.

The drying room was so large it had been used to store a whole pile of junk. This was maybe the best-lit room in the whole house, but it was also the most exposed. Rain pelted freely onto its slanted windows, so hard Nico felt attacked. By the light of the storm, he could make out lots of dusty crates, some old clothes, a few discarded toys, metal cans, two broken chairs and a stained table, a bat, mismatched gloves, and a stack of three paintings.

The paintings interested him the most. He lifted them from the pile and dusted the one on top with a rag lying on one of the crates. When he'd cleaned it off, he saw it was a painting of a vampire drinking blood from a golden cup. The cup emitted an aura of light, and the vampire had his eyes closed and his mouth open, pleasure evident on his face. The title was "Holy Grail". Nice painting. Nico set it aside and looked at the second one. It was a portrait of a young man with dark, curly hair and blue eyes, dressed in nobleman's attire.. with hairy hands that ended in long, sharp claws. "The Beast of Sigiswald". Okay.. He looked at the last painting. It showed a blond young man hanging by the neck from a tree, on top of a dark hill. His face was bloated and purple, his hair was hanging in sticky strings and his eyes were bulging, and staring directly at Nico.

It was warm, way too warm and too humid in there. Nico's vision blurred and he started to choke. He tore desperately at his tie, threw it away. He was wheezing for breath. He was going to die. He tore off his shirt, but he was still not getting any air. He needed air. Breathe in, out, slowly. Calm, slow. That was it. The air was coming back to him. It was trickling back, teasing him with life. He breathed patiently, feasting on all morsels of air, until he was almost normal again.

He slumped back against a wall and stayed there a long while, just savoring the fact that he didn't look like the man in the painting.

***

The first reaction Santi had had to being locked in the freezer had been to gasp for air. That hadn't been too beneficial. He was now inhaling the thick odor of raw meat he'd been trying not to breathe. If he ever got out of there, he'd become a vegetarian.

Of course he would get out of there.

He knew where the door was; he'd almost reached it when it had been closed; by whom, he didn't know, but he would find out. So he knew just where to bang his fists to create as much noise as possible. Someone had to hear. Someone had to. Was there no one in this side of the house?

He had stopped shivering, but that wasn't reassuring at all. It was a sign that hypothermia approached. The shivering would return in about fifteen minutes, and his blood would be shunted to the lungs, heart, and brain, leaving him numb with cold and dehydrated. If he stayed in there for more than three hours, his arms would go so rigid he wouldn't be able to bang on the door anymore. And then he'd die.

If he didn't run out of air before.

He took a rest from pounding, trying not to sweat. He needed to conserve heat. He needed to think. The door ought to have the capacity to open from the inside. The risk of getting trapped in was too great otherwise. But he didn't have a light, and there was too much squishy meat around to grope about in the dark.

The hissing sound he had forgotten came again. Santi froze, straining to listen. Was anyone here in the freezer after all? Any.. thing? Living thing?

".. Who's there?" His voice sounded pathetic even to his own ears.

There was no answer, just another soft hiss.

And then he felt a pressure against his left leg. He gasped in shock as his mind started running, trying to figure out what it could be. He forced himself to stay calm, to be rational. He was the leader. He comforted others. He could comfort himself if he needed. But what was that on his leg?

The pressure distributed itself evenly in a circle, and he understood. It was a snake. It was the snake Almirena had seen in the projection room. Someone had thrown the snake inside the freezer and had locked him in with it. It was probably venomous. He was not sure about that, because he didn't remember whether venomous snakes were also constrictors. Not that this one was strong enough to suffocate him. It felt like a rather small snake; but it was still a snake. If it was venomous, he'd do better not to move and stimulate it.

The snake burrowed under the hem of his trouser leg and coiled around his bare ankle, making Santi shiver. He didn't need hypothermia to shiver, it seemed. He would have to let the snake do what it wanted to do and then hopefully leave him alone. So he stayed perfectly still as the snake coiled even tighter and started to slither up towards his thigh, hissing from time to time.

When the thing's head crossed his knee, tickling the inside of his thigh with its delicate tongue, Santi decided he didn't like the place it was heading. But what could he do about it? That was a good question. He attempted to recall even one thing about snakes, but his memory was failing him completely, and meanwhile that snake had to get out of there!

Suddenly choosing death over other sorts of bodily harm, Santi shook the snake off. It didn't try to bite; it just slithered away into the darkness. Maybe it was disappointed. Anyway, he didn't have time to tend to the feelings of a snake, so he resumed his banging on the door.

After ten minutes of listening for the snake and for any indication of rescue from the outside, Santi fell forward, blinded by a sudden light. Blinking tears away, he fell to the floor and reveled in the heat it gave forth. It had been the maid who had opened the door for him. She was now towering over him, making unintelligible sounds punctuated with her ladle, but Santi was so relieved he burst out laughing and couldn't stop for at least five minutes.

***

Krss closed the door to Almirena's bedroom behind her and collapsed into the small communal bathroom adjacent to it. She needed to splash some cool water on her forehead right then, otherwise her head was sure to explode all over the pink tiles. She'd managed to calm Almirena enough for her to fall asleep, but it'd been a nasty and very long affair. Almirena had blabbered on and on about how she'd seen the snake in the kitchen and thrown it into the freezer to get rid of it.

"So what, it's just a snake!" Krss said aloud.

The mirror on the left wall was too small and too high for a bathroom mirror. Krss could only see her face in it, but what she could see made her curse. She had freaking violet circles under her eyes. She was sure they hadn't been there before Almirena's fit. She splashed her face liberally with the rusty water, drank two sips of it and went out of the bathroom.

Now what?

The prof had told them to explore. She didn't have anything better to do, but she'd already gone around the house a little, without much success. She didn't even know what she was supposed to be looking for. She descended the stairs to the first floor and wandered idly about the great hall. Styles sure had ugly ancestors.

She went into the empty living room. She'd have to try out that pool table later, but for now she was drawn to the bookshelves that lined the wall adjacent to the projection room. There was a crapload of books in there, and she started looking at them from the leftmost side. The first five titles she saw were in ancient Chinese, or what-the-hell-ever. She didn't want to die of boredom; maybe she'd catch a movie. On her way to the projection room, however, a series of smaller books stood out from the high literature like a sore thumb. She approached for a better look. Anita Blake, huh??

She had just finished the first one, Guilty Pleasures, and had liked it a whole lot. She'd heard the series became porn later on, and she was looking forward to it. Seemed Styles had the complete collection. The next one was The Laughing Corpse, and Krss thought about leafing through it, maybe settling with it on the couch to kill the day.

The book wouldn't come out. Krss pulled at it harder, but it only moved about an inch; instead, the bookcase itself slowly creaked open.

A secret passage!!

Excitement rose in Krss' throat as she looked around to check that she was alone and then cautiously entered the dark opening. The light from the living room behind her revealed a large rectangular hallway, with dark walls in every direction except that to her right, which was whitish. She realized she had emerged in the projection room, in the space behind the screen.

Now why would anyone go to so much trouble to hide this?

The hall was completely empty. She walked its length a few times just to make sure. Clean as a whistle. She was getting more puzzled by the second, and then at one sharp turn she noticed a small region that was brighter than the rest of the screen. She approached, and realized that the region was in fact a hole. A pretty large hole..

A hole large enough for a snake to pass through.

Someone had been there last night. Someone had waited, listening to the movie, and had fed the snake through the hole at the appropriate moment. Someone who had planted the movie in the projector in the first place. Someone who was obviously very familiar with the house.

That eliminated all the guests. Which left.. the butler and the maid. Either of them could have done it. But why would they do such a thing?

Lost in thought, Krss noticed too late that the hole in the projection screen had lit up. As the significance of that dawned on her, both her ears exploded with pain and the floor hurried up to meet her.

***

Tsolaelia gripped the small brass key tightly in her right fist as she descended the stairs to the basement. She'd found the key on her nightstand after breakfast, and she was sure that one of Styles' servants had placed it there, maybe on Styles' orders. Most likely on his orders. That meant Styles was favoring her. And that meant she needed to find a locked door that this key fit.

So she'd gone through the entire house with it, trying it everywhere, but it hadn't fit anything so far. For such a large manor, very few things were locked. Maybe she'd have more luck in the basement. She threw open the light switch and turned right, entering the cellar.

What was that smell..?

Tsolaelia stopped just before stepping in a large puddle of what looked and smelled like vomit. Her throat constricted in sympathy. She hoped whoever had produced that was okay by now. She circled it carefully and noticed, at the very back of the cellar, a large wooden shed. She rushed to it; it was locked.

Miracle of miracles! The key fit in the lock.

She didn't know what she had expected to find in there, but surely not something as mundane as gardening tools. With a groan of disappointment, she surveyed the inside of the shed, which contained a pitchfork, a small sharp axe, some shovels, a pair of large scissors and a pile of rubber shoes and slippers.

She sighed and tried to gather herself sufficiently to consider the next step.

***

gabnic was pacing wildly before the door to Krss' bedroom, trying to calm his nerves, when Santi climbed the stairs and approached him. He looked like hell, and smelled weird, but gabnic was not about to ask what had happened. Seeing Krss' twisted, unconscious face had been enough for one day, thank you very much.

Santi raised an eyebrow. "What is happening here?"

"Gijs is in there with Krss. She fainted behind the projection screen."

Santi raised his second eyebrow.

"She found a secret passage behind the bookcase.. Seems one of the Anita Blake books opened it."

"No one but she would have touched that.." mused Santi aloud.

"And then Marion went and put on a movie. Krss passed out from the noise. She's phobic about it, but I think any normal person's ears would hurt like crazy at that noise."

"And Gijs found her?"

"Yes. We both carried her here. He.." gabnic hesitated; he wasn't sure Santi was ready to hear that. After two seconds, he continued, "He asked to be left alone with her."

Santi's brow furrowed instantly, and gabnic regretted saying it. But should he have lied? Santi would've discovered it on his own anyway. He gave him what he hoped was an understanding look. Santi looked away. He needed a change of subject, like, now. He blurted the first thing that came into his mind.

"She's taking injections of Estradiol."

"Hmm?" asked Santi, obviously still lost in his rejected world.

"Estradiol. I saw it earlier when.." gabnic felt his face grow hot. ".. when I searched her room. Maybe it'll give you a clue about how to treat her." He looked at Santi and was shocked to see a grin slowly spreading over his face.

"Are you positive it was Estradiol?" he asked.

gabnic nodded. "What's so great about that?"

Santi chuckled. "Estradiol is a female hormone."

"And..?" gabnic was drawing a blank.

"It is used in hormone replacement therapy for transgender and transsexual people."

"Transsexual? You mean like in Rocky Horror? Oh.." gabnic had suddenly seen what he was getting at.

"As in women who used to be men," Santi nodded, and gabnic decided he seemed way too happy about this.

"Do you think Gijs knows?" he asked, with an uncertain look towards the closed bedroom door.

"If he doesn't find out while he is alone with.. um, her, I will tell him personally when he comes out." Santi suppressed another chuckle, and gabnic sighed. Things had just gotten a bit more complicated.

***

Krss gave a little moan, frowned and opened her eyes slowly. They darted about the room for a second before focusing on Gijs' face. Her lips spread in a happy smile. He squeezed her hand, his heart warming in response.

"Been here all along?" she asked, sleepily.

Gijs nodded. He wondered in passing why he felt so happy about the fact that she was alive; but he didn't bother questioning it too deeply. He would take things as they came.

"Mm.. Thank you." Her eyes were wide open now, and had never left his face. He felt himself blush and looked down at their hands. That made him blush even harder.

"You.. okay?" he asked softly, so as not to hurt her ears.

"I am now. It was.." She closed her eyes for a moment. ".. nasty."

"I'm sure it was.." he whispered.

"It's okay to talk, I'm not going to break," she grinned.

"Sorry." He turned his head towards the window. The storm was howling more fiercely than ever. If she wasn't wincing at that noise, he was safe to speak. "For a moment there, I thought you'd died."

"Oh. You found me..?"

He nodded.

"Well then.. I owe you one.. or a hundred."

He just smiled at her. "No, you don't. Anyone else would've done the same thing."

"But it wasn't anyone else; it was you." She had a very serious look. Gijs pretended to be interested in the nightstand. He was running out of places fast.

"Gijs..?"

"Mm?"

She had taken his hand. She. Had. Just. Taken. His. Hand. The pulse in his throat raced crazily. He looked down to see her thumb brush a slow, tingly path over the back of his hand. He swallowed hard.

Her voice came as a whisper. "What would you like me to do?"

"Wha- What?" he sputtered, not very gracefully.

"To make it up to you," she continued with a small smile.

"Well, um.. I'd.. I would.. I.." What the hell was going on with his tongue? And his brain? He looked at her apologetically, his face burning. She raised herself slowly, unbearably slowly, so slowly he thought she'd never arrive. His blood was calling, pressing him towards her without being able to move an inch.

And then she was there, and time had gotten lost inside her eyes, and he was shivering long before her lips closed gently over his.

***

When Gijs came out of the room, all flushed and in disarray and with a huge grin on his face, Santi's heart gripped itself for a split-second. He was about to ruin this, and the motive for it was dubious even to himself. But he was going to ruin this.

"Gijs.. we need to talk," he said, taking his arm. gabnic moved a bit further away, like a good gentleman.

"Sure. About what?" asked Gijs. "Sorry for smelling of perfume." He brushed a hand across his lips. "I won't ever wash my face again," he beamed, and blushed even more. Better to have it out as soon as possible then.

"Krss is transgender," Santi blurted out.

"Um.. What does that mean?" Gijs looked puzzled.

"It means.. she used to be a man."

"Hey! Watch what you're saying! What's wrong with you? She's a girl! I just.. and I didn't notice.." Gijs' eyes were wild. "Stop saying these things, man."

"Then she's.. she has gone through with an operation. But that doesn't change the fact that she was born a man."

"I don't believe you. You're just saying that to mess with my mind!"

"You know each other. You met in prison before. You said you couldn't have; Krss wouldn't have been sent to a men's prison. Think back.. think hard. Do you remember her now - a man like her?"

"Of course not.. I mean.. Oh damn.. Damn, damn, damn. There was a man.. There was.. Green eyes, pale skin, long dark hair. My size. I saw him sometimes on fresh air breaks. He.. he liked me even then. Oh DAMN!" Gijs was pulling at his hair.

"Take it easy," Santi whispered and attempted to put a hand on his shoulder.

Gijs threw it off. "How the hell can I take it easy?? I just messed around with a man. And I didn't notice. I didn't notice..!"

This was not going well at all, and Santi was responsible for it. "You do realize that she is the same person she was a few minutes ago?"

"No, how can she be? She didn't tell me.. Why didn't she tell me?"

"Maybe because she thought you would react like this?"

"Why didn't she tell me!" Gijs made for her door, but then withdrew his hand as if the handle had burnt him. "I can't deal with this right now. I need to be alone. I need to.. go wash myself. For a few hours. I can't deal with this now!" He ran into the bathroom next to Almirena's bedroom and slammed the door behind him. Santi had started going after him when he felt a hand holding him back.

"Leave him be," said gabnic. He gently made Santi sit down on the first step of the staircase, and sat down next to him. "You'd just confuse him more. He'll come around.. eventually."

Santi sighed and nodded. "You are right, of course.."

"Yes, I am." gabnic paused. "How was it for you?"

"How was what?"

"The first time you knew."

Santi looked at gabnic sharply. Then, "Difficult," he admitted. "What made matters worse was that he was wildly heterosexual. I tend to be attracted by the wrong men." Santi chuckled.

"Maybe you're just looking in the wrong places."

"Maybe.." Santi suddenly had an overwhelming longing to see through walls. What could Gijs be doing in there?

"He'll be down for dinner, and I'm sure he'll feel better about all this," reassured gabnic. "Do you want some company until then?"

"Yes, I would appreciate it." And he did appreciate it. Over an hour later, as they descended the stairs towards the projection room, Santi wondered why he couldn't have shared a cab with gabnic.

***

Saturday Evening

The steak was stringy and flavorless, but Marion kept munching on it, her attention on the animated discussion going on at the other end of the table. Krss seemed very angry, and kept shouting in whispers at Santi for some reason. They were too far away for Marion to make out the dialogue, but the few lines she could pick up all centered around the word 'man'. Krss seemed to be obsessed with men; why wasn't that surprising in a little slag like her? Marion looked in the mirror to verify her tasteful modern outfit and pretty hairdo. Only Gijs hadn't come down for dinner; all the others had finished eating and were wandering around the dining room, keeping as far away from the argument as possible. Marion couldn't blame them. Throwing hissy fits in front of everyone, how cheap.

She had had a long restful sleep that afternoon, and she'd almost forgotten her "blood" episodes. She put them down to the creepiness of the house. But tonight she'd win that house, and after that she'd throw away the paintings and lighten everything up with abstract art wallpaper to ready it for fashion shows.

The unnerving butler came in, bowed, and waited as usual for everyone to give him their attention.

"Ladies and gentlemen, for the after-meal entertainment Professor Styles has sent you, through me, a tape of the current most popular dances."

Marion's ears perked at the word 'dance'. She quickly glanced towards gabnic, but he was with r, who was gesticulating and explaining something. No matter. He'd dance.

"What about the challenge, Walker?" asked Almirena.

"It will be announced to you in due time."

"I don't think dancing is appropriate.." started Santi.

"That's nonsense. We'll dance, " decided Marion, standing up. "Put on the tape, Walker."

The others fell silent. A smart decision. Walker conformed with Marion's request, turning on the tape player and disappearing into the kitchen. Lively music flowed through the room, adding cheer to the otherwise gloomy atmosphere. Marion's feet started tapping to the rhythm.

"Who wants to dance?" she asked, looking pointedly at gabnic. He looked away. Oh, he wouldn't get out of this. She'd invite him herself. The others were standing around the table. Most of them looked upset. "People, we need to dance! What's with all the long faces?" Just as she reached gabnic, the melody ended. She waited impatiently for the next track, but instead of music, a very distorted voice started speaking.

"Dear candidates, I have gathered you here for one purpose and one purpose only. To die."

Marion's heart leaped. What was that last word??

"Did you all just hear.. 'die'?" asked Krss. Marion winced. Couldn't she shut up and listen? This was a bad joke, it had to be.

The tape droned on. "Yes, you have all heard right. You are here to die. There is a killer among you."

Everyone gasped, but no one said anything. They were all listening as though their life depended on it. And it did. Marion's hands were struggling with each other, and she felt sweat and goosebumps break out all over her body.

"All possible exits from the house are locked and will remain locked until the last one of you has died. You have no contact with the outside world and no families to miss you. None of you will see the light of Sunday morning."

A heavy silence fell. Marion's heart was racing against her breath.

"I told you he was going to kill us all. I told you. I told you!!" screamed Nico. "We're going to die! There's a killer here, and we're all going to die!"

"Get a grip, man!" r slapped Nico viciously, and then slapped him again and again, grunting with the effort. gabnic threw himself between the two and gripped r's wrists.

"You get a grip. We all need to get a grip. This is part of the game, can't you see?"

"What are you talking about?" asked Bearic. He was shivering visibly.

"This is the challenge! We have to get through this to pass." gabnic stopped to gasp for air.

"One of you.. one of you is going to kill me! Maybe all of you!" screamed Nico again, and dashed out of the dining room. "I have to leave, I have to get out of here!"

Everyone followed him as though they couldn't think of anything else better to do. Marion was among the first. She had forgotten she couldn't run in high heels. Her breath came loud and fast. Nico rushed to the door and started pulling at it desperately, whimpering something. He looked over his shoulder.

"Don't you come any closer! Murderers! I'm not getting lynched by you!"

"Nico, calm down," started Santi, trying to approach the lunatic. gabnic was closing in from the other side.

"Don't come any closer! I don't want to die.. I don't want to.."

Nico suddenly gripped his throat with his hand and his eyes flew wide open. He was staring right at Marion. His mouth started opening and closing and making horrible choking sounds. Santi rushed to his side to give him some sort of aid, but that just seemed to make him worse. Marion could only watch in fascination as Nico's eyes bulged, he turned purple, he clawed at the air helplessly, and then.. he just stopped. Everything stopped.

Santi checked his pulse, checked again, and turned towards them with a white face. Marion couldn't hear the two words he said over her own screaming.

***

Almirena found herself staring stupidly and unbecomingly at the death scene. Marion was still screaming, and gabnic and Bearic were both trying to calm her down, unsuccessfully. What a waste of worry. It was the ones who didn't exteriorize their feelings that needed (and deserved) the attention of others. Men were so gullible.

She approached the body and knelt next to it, hitching up her long burgundy dress so as not to soil it by touching the body. Her golden square belt buckle was playing tricks of light over the dead man's face. Santi was just finishing off a series of disgusting investigations upon the corpse, including looking under its tongue, smelling its breath and putting his fingers down its throat.

"What's the diagnosis, doctor?" asked Almirena.

Santi straightened himself on his knees and brushed back his hair with the hand that had just been down Nico's throat. Almirena shuddered.

"He didn't choke on any physical object, as far as I can tell. He seemed to be in good health, without any respiratory illness.. but we have only seen him for a day, so we cannot know for sure either way. If he wasn't ill, the other likely hypothesis is poison."

"Poison! What a vile word!" said Almirena.

"Vile, perhaps, but in the context of Styles' message, probable."

"But how could that have happened?"

"He could have issued it himself, or someone might have put something in his drink or food at dinner. Who was sitting next to him?" Santi realized what he was doing with his hand and started wiping it obsessively on his trousers.

"As I recall.. Tsolaelia, who fussed over him as usual, and Bearic. But after dinner everyone mingled."

"What you are saying is it could have been anyone."

Almirena nodded.

"gabnic?" shouted Santi. "Could you please check if Nico's meal is still in the dining room?"

"Sure, I'll be right back." He was back within ten seconds. "The table's been cleared. I think the butler did it."

"Dead-end," said Santi. "We cannot verify anything."

"What's going on over here?" came Gijs' voice from behind. "Why are you guys.. Oh!" He rushed to kneel next to the body. "Is he..?"

Santi nodded. "Where have you been? You didn't join us at dinner."

"I had a.. hallucination. In the bathroom. But.. what happened to him??"

"He choked. We believe it might have been poison. Hallucination?"

Almirena's neck was hurting from looking from one man to the other.

"Yes. My reflection in the mirror winked at me. I slipped and fell, hit my head on the edge of the tub probably. Was knocked out until now."

"How odd.. Do you have a phobia of mirrors? Or bathrooms?"

"No.."

"Then it's very strange because.. No matter. Are you all right now?" Santi seemed very concerned.

"That is a corpse you are standing over, sir," said Almirena stiffly, "and you are worried about a bump on his head?"

Santi blushed, as he should have, and rose, helping Gijs to his feet. Almirena had to help herself. Santi cleared his throat and said, in a loud voice, "Everyone has to calm down. We will all gather around the dining table and discuss our situation."

"What about him?" asked r. "Are you going to let him rot there?"

Marion whimpered.

"You are right.. Um.. Let's move him into the freezer for now."

***

There was no fireplace in the dining room, and Tsolaelia wrapped her sweater tighter around herself, more for comfort than anything else. She didn't have to look in the mirror to know her expression; everyone at the table wore the same scared mask, as if a killer with an axe were going to jump out from behind the table and start hacking. New shudders made her immediately regret the direction her thoughts had taken. She looked at Santi, who was seated at the head of the table as though he had been born there. He was a natural leader, and maybe this would make the difference between whether they lived or died by morning.

Santi brought his hands together in front of his nose. "Nico has just died of what looks like poisoning."

Tsolaelia winced; there were gasps from all around the table.

"Are you sure about that? Did he kill himself?" asked Gijs.

"No, and I don't know," replied Santi. He seemed the type of man who read everything twice before he signed it.

"He was kind of crazy," said Bearic.

Tsolaelia sighed. "Crazy doesn't equal suicidal," she said. "Yes, in some cases it does. But his last words were that he didn't want to die. That is not "suicidal" by any psychology book in this world."

"So if he didn't, who did him in?" asked r. His hand was shaking, and he was gripping a glass so tightly that his knuckles were white.

"During dinner, the ones who sat either side of him had access to his food. After dinner, everyone had access to his drink. Except Gijs, of course," and Santi gave Gijs a look of.. sorrow? Maybe she hadn't read it right.

"I was by his side during dinner," said Tsolaelia, "but I didn't put anything in his food or his drink."

"I was not trying to make an accusation. It was just a supposition," said Santi.

"Nico's pills," said Krss, calmly. Tsolaelia had noticed she wasn't sitting next to Gijs anymore, and that they weren't looking at each other. What could have happened between them?

"What do you mean by that?" asked Almirena.

"Maybe someone poisoned his pills. Remember they were stolen? Yes, we all thought he was imagining things, but.. he got poisoned! The poisoner could have spiked them and put them back."

"That is a good observation," nodded Santi. "Finding the right moment to do the switch would have been tricky, but possible."

"So.. who did it?" asked Bearic. "I know I didn't."

"The killer! From the message!" exclaimed Marion.

"What message?" asked Gijs. Had his eye just twitched..?

"A message from Styles we were given at dinner. In it, he basically said that we are all going to die, that we cannot exit the house, and that one of us is a killer," specified Santi, as if he were giving a lecture.

"What??" shouted Gijs. "You are serious, aren't you? Why would he say that?"

"I would not know."

"The dude's crazy," said Bearic. "That's why." His face was very white, and he obviously had difficulty uttering speech.

"Or it could be the second challenge," said gabnic. "Like I said before," he explained. "He said he'd announce the second challenge after dinner.. and he announced it."

"And the challenge is.. whoever lives gets the house?" said r, mockingly.

"We cannot discount that possibility. But the message puzzles me.." Santi took a few seconds' pause, rubbing his temples and looking as if his head had suddenly become too heavy for his neck. He raised his eyes. "I was saying.. Um.."

"The message puzzles you," completed gabnic.

"Oh. Yes. It told us that there is a killer among us, and that we would all die. Now why would we all die if one of us were responsible for killing everyone else? Shouldn't he survive to the end? Or she," he added, looking apologetically at the ladies. That was one apology Tsolaelia didn't want to hear.

"That doesn't make sense.." whispered Marion. "Unless.."

"Unless the killer isn't one of 'us', literally. Then all of 'us' would die, and he would survive."

"The butler!" exclaimed Krss, excited. "I've been suspecting the butler of putting that snake through the projection screen. Because he's the only one deaf enough to be able to stay in there while a movie was playing."

"Earplugs," said Almirena.

"Okay, but still. Santi's got a point. And if it's the butler, the message makes sense," said Krss with a not-very-pleasant look at Almirena.

"Or it could be one of us," said gabnic. "In particular.. Krss."

All of them looked at Krss, whose eyes became almost as large as Gijs'. "What the hell are you talking about?!" She recovered quickly and stood up with a menacing expression.

"Why do you keep a gun under your mattress?" said gabnic.

"How do you know about that?" sputtered Krss. "Who gave you permission to go through my stuff?"

"So you have brought a gun with you?" asked Santi.

She turned on Santi. "Yes, I did, for self-defense. Is that a crime?"

"How do you even have a gun?" asked Bearic. "It's hard to get a license these days."

Krss started to say something nasty, but then stopped, collected herself and looked at Santi with determination. "Okay. I used to be a cop."

"A cop? Then what did you get into prison for?" It was the first time Gijs had addressed Krss that evening, and Tsolaelia noticed they were both blushing.

"I shot a rapist whom I'd caught redhanded.. so to speak."

"Can that throw a cop behind bars?" asked r.

"I shot him after the trial. He'd been acquitted on some technicality. I'd seen him do it. I'd seen the look on his face.. I had to do it. He would've re-offended." She looked directly at Gijs as she spoke.

Gijs turned his face towards gabnic. "So what if.." There was a slight pause. ".. she has a gun? It doesn't make her the killer."

Krss shot him a look of relief and gratitude, which he didn't catch.

"That is true. Incidentally, where is the gun now?" asked Santi.

"I have it," said gabnic. "And I'm keeping it. I'm one of the sane ones here."

"All right. In conclusion.." Santi paused again. Tsolaelia was tempted to ask what was wrong, but before she could, he continued, "Anyone in this house could be a killer, or there might not be a killer and the message was only meant to confuse us. Either way, keep your eyes open at all times, and we have to stay together. If we are all together, nothing can happen."

There was a flash of blinding light, immediately followed by a giant cracking noise, as if the air was splitting around them. A huge wave hit Tsolaelia's chest hard, making her ribcage vibrate and her teeth chatter.

And all the lights went off.

***

Saturday Night

Someone screamed. Others were cursing. A second flash of lightning illuminated the scene so briefly that Santi saw a snapshot of all the others, eyes wide, mouths open, hair standing on end. Like a horror painting, the image stayed with him in the darkness that followed.

He rose to his feet. "Is everyone all right?"

He could hear groans of pain or just fear from the darkness around. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the lack of light, and he saw shadows. Many shadows.

"Ghosts," whispered Bearic's voice. "Ghosts are coming out in the dark. The white ghost with large eyes.."

"Bearic.." said Santi in his most reassuring voice, even if something inside him was straining to snap. "Ghosts aren't real. There is no white ghost, be it with large or small eyes. All right? Now, everyone else?" He waited until he got six mumbles out of them. "Where is Krss?"

"She fainted," came Tsolaelia's voice from somewhere near the display cases. "It's not surprising. But I think she's coming to."

"Tend to her, please. Now everyone, be calm. It was just a lightning bolt that hit the house. It was to be expected, because it's the highest point in quite a large area. The bolt affected the electrical circuits. We will need to fix them. Who will come with me?"

"What happened to 'we should stick together'?" grumbled r from a corner.

"It's dark. There is no way we can keep track of everyone, and we'd give the killer nine targets instead of just one."

"I'll come with you," said gabnic.

"No. You need to stay here and take care of the others." Santi considered his options. Bearic was afraid of the dark- no help at all there. r was almost insane with the lack of alcohol, and besides Santi suspected r of having something to do with the situation; the way he had been chosen as a candidate was suspicious to say the the least. Nico.. was dead. That left.. "Gijs?"

"Yes.. I could come, if you'd like." His voice had come from where Krss was lying, but Santi had more important problems to consider right now.

"I would. That's settled then. Gijs and I are going to the basement to repair the electricity. The rest of you must stay together at all costs. gabnic, you are in charge of keeping them safe."

"Who made you the boss here?" shouted r.

"This is a life and death situation. There are no workers and bosses; only victims and survivors. Which one do you want to be?"

r didn't reply.

"Does anyone else have a problem?" asked Santi.

No one replied.

"Thank you. Does anyone have a lighter or a box of matches?"

"I have a lighter," said Gijs.

"I hadn't thought you were a smoker.." said Santi.

"I keep it in case a lady needs a light. Makes connections, you know." Gijs sounded embarrassed.

Santi tested the lighter. It illuminated a small sphere of dust around the flame. "This will do. Let's go."

Gijs followed him into the great hall. Santi had extinguished the lighter to conserve gas, and the only light they had was what the stormy night allowed in and what their own eyes picked up and amplified. Gijs was walking beside him, without saying anything. What was there to say? Santi could barely see where to place the next step, and he could feel the entire house watching him. The house could see in the dark.

He could hear every uneven breath of his companion's. Darkness closed in around them, pressing them together. The storm was striking out, cursing and moaning outside, but it was behind glass. There was no killer, there was no real world, and no Krss. There was only darkness, and Santi and Gijs were the only people. Santi felt heat flow somewhere into the region of his stomach. His hand was reaching out slowly when, suddenly, Gijs gave a startled gasp and fell.

Santi knelt next to him. "What happened?"

"Just tripped. I'm okay."

Santi helped him up. "The dark.. "

"Yes?"

"We have to be careful not to hurt ourselves. I think.." He gulped. What was he saying?? But he didn't care anymore. This could very well be the last night of his life; propriety be damned. "I think we should hold hands."

"What..? Um.. If you say so.."

Gijs sounded worried, but Santi just took his hand. At once, every sensory ending in his skin jolted signals through his entire body. He felt the need to rub his hand, but instead he strengthened his grip on Gijs'. In the case of two bodies filled with electricity, and a very thin connection between them, the discharge was instantaneous, and there would be sparks. He closed his eyes and waited until the erratic waves in his chest slowed down.

"Santi..?"

"Mm.. yes?"

"The lights.."

"Oh. Right. Let's go."

They walked, holding hands, until they arrived at the stairs that went down to the basement.

"Are you ready?" asked Santi.

"No.. but let's go anyway."

Santi put an arm around Gijs' shoulder and led him down into the darkness.

***

They had all gathered together under the brightest window of the dining room, which wasn't saying much. Not that r cared. He was gripping one of the chairs in an effort to stop his hands from that damned shaking. His head was hurting as if he'd dived into a pool with no water.

"Why are they taking so long?" asked Bearic. The kid wasn't much more stable than he was. They were both worried about the same thing after all- spirits.

"They've only been gone two minutes. We need to distract ourselves," said gabnic.

"We should play a game," suggested Tsolaelia.

r snorted. "Spin the bottle?"

"Yeah.. that would be distracting," said Krss. There was a disapproving exhalation from Almirena's direction. Krss seemed not to have heard it. "But maybe we should wait until the others come back.."

"No, let's do it now." r had realized it wasn't such a bad idea. Anything that could wet his parched mouth even a little was good.

"Even if you did, because I refuse to take part in such debauchery, you would not be able to see where the bottle had landed," remarked Almirena.

"Then we'll just have to kiss whoever we can grab first," said r.

"There is a fireplace in the living room." It was Marion. She was perched on the window sill like the queen of everything. "Maybe it has some matches. We could make a fire."

gabnic's shadow nodded. "Right.. We should all move into the living room."

"What about the others?" asked Bearic.

"Once they fix the lights, they'll find their way to us easily. Okay, folks, let's go."

There was no sign of anyone or anything in the huge hall. Somehow, the storm managed to let in a little light, which only made the house look darker. It was cold, everywhere. r felt cold sweat breaking out on his neck and wiped himself with a sleeve. A scream was building in his throat like vomit, but he managed to hold it down.

"I need to go to the bathroom," Marion said.

"Do you really have to?" asked gabnic.

"Yes. Right now. Do you want me to do it in front of all of you?"

"Okay, okay. We'll wait here for you."

"No, go. I might stay in there a while. Make a fire. I'll see the light and I'll be okay."

"Are you going to be able to see anything in the bathroom? It's rather dark.." said Tsolaelia.

"The window will be enough." Not waiting for a reply, Marion left the group and went inside the bathroom.

I wouldn't want to be her right now.

"All right, let's move into the living room," said gabnic. They followed him like cattle, and if r could only hold himself steady he'd tell him a thing or two. The new room was brighter than the hall, and r could see the fireplace immediately. He started searching around for matches on the mantelpiece, but he found only dust and splinters.

"Looks like it's going to be groping in the dark after all," r grinned.

***

The lighter shook in Santi's hand as he fiddled inside the fuse box. His shadow flickered across the unused furnace, so alive that it made Gijs feel dead in comparison.

"Are you done yet?" he asked for the third time.

"Be patient," threw Santi over his shoulder and went back to work. "It might take a few minutes. I cannot find my way around here."

Gijs sighed and turned back to watch the dancing shadow. It grew, shrunk, leaped around, turned into a pear, a tomato, shrunk, grew.. Grew. And grew.

"Santi.." Gijs whispered.

"What?"

"It's coming closer."

"What is?" Santi turned around to look at him, lighter still held near the fuse box.

"Your shadow. The furnace. The wall. It's coming closer." Gijs was suddenly and painfully reminded that he had a heart.

"I can't see anything.." Santi put a hand around his shoulders. "The wall and the furnace are right over there, Gijs. You are imagining things."

But the wall was closing in. Gijs' throat convulsed in panic and he wheezed. He could feel beads of sweat trickle down from his underarms. He looked around, and all the blurry walls were coming closer, from every direction. Swaying. Two steps forward, one step back. They were going to crush.. to crush..

"They'll crush us, Santi! They're closing! The walls! The walls are.."

Santi hugged him very tightly. His warmth was reassuring, but it didn't stop the walls from coming!

"Santi, please.. Let's get out of here, let's go, if we still can, they're crushing us, my nose, my head, my chest, my bones, I can't bear this, let's go, please!!"

Santi was saying something, but he couldn't hear it. He almost couldn't even see him anymore. There was white chasing black all over his vision, and he felt he was going to throw up or faint, and he'd rather faint so he wouldn't feel the walls.. He had to hold on to Santi, he could save him, he could get him out of there.. Santi's face was close now. He could see his lips moving, trying to say something to him, but he was falling.. And then he felt himself pushed or dragged out of the room, to the right, then to the left, scrambling up the staircase.. and out into the hall.

It was large. It was lit. He fell to his knees, slumped forward and drew long breaths until he came to. Then he realized Santi was behind him, holding his head. He forced himself to straighten.

Santi hugged him close from behind and whispered, "How are you?" He smelled faintly of sweat, and it was a very comforting smell.

"Like.. hell.. Could've died there."

"And now?"

"I'm.. all right, I think. Thank you." Gijs impulsively spun around and buried his face in Santi's hair. He felt him shiver.

They stayed like that for a few hours, or maybe it was just seconds.

"Do you think you can go back to the others? I need to fix those lights as soon as possible," Santi whispered.

"I think I can."

"Be careful, Gijs."

Gijs disentangled himself with a pang of regret. The last part of them that touched was their hands. He held on for a few heartbeats and then turned towards the dining room. After a few paces, Gijs closed his eyes and allowed the memory of the sweaty scent to make him smile a little. A final look over his shoulder showed Santi going back down into hell. Gijs shuddered and entered the dining room.

He heard the sound the hard object made connecting with the back of his head a split-second before he felt the pain, and he collapsed, never noticing the difference between the two kinds of darkness.

***

Marion wasn't coming back. Why wasn't she coming back? Had the killer gotten her? Had she fainted from fear or exhaustion? Had she lost her way? Had she seen the white ghost? Bearic's head was swimming in so much worry his brain was having problems breathing.

"Why isn't she back?" he asked no one in particular.

"Maybe she's got an upset stomach," said gabnic.

"No. She's been in there for half an hour at least," protested Bearic.

"Ten minutes," said Almirena.

Bearic shook his head and hit the pool table in anger with a cue stick. "None of you care about her! What if something happened to her.. out there?" Out there.. in the darkness. Where ghosts called and witches walked. Or the other way around.

"If you're so worried, why don't you go after her? Then maybe grab some matches from the kitchen," said r.

"He can't go alone!!" said Tsolaelia. "Santi said.."

"Santi said a lot of things. Why hasn't he come back, eh? Why hasn't he repaired the lights? How hard is that stuff for a.. scientist?" spat r, voice breaking every few words.

"What's your point?" asked Krss.

"My point is.. is.. Oh hell, I don't know." r slumped back onto one of the couches. "I'm just not moving from here to get that hissy."

Bearic felt the need to punch him in the face. "That's it. I'm going after her. If I'm not back in.. Forget it."

"Bearic, don't.." started Tsolaelia.

"Leave me alone."

Bearic left the room without looking back. As soon as the courage kindled by anger had dissipated and he was out the door, he realized why he hadn't wanted to go in the first place. It was dark. And with the new rules around the house, maybe the ghost wouldn't keep to the stairs anymore.

Think about Marion.

White ghost staring at him with its large eyes.

Marion.

White ghost touching him.

Marion.

He realized he'd been standing in the same spot for some time, because he'd gone over the name Marion five times already. He had to move. If he moved, nothing could catch him. So he moved.

The door to the bathroom creaked open and Marion came out, looking very tired. Bearic forgot the white ghost and ran over to catch her in his arms.

"What's wrong?" he asked, softly.

"Stomach. Threw up everything," she managed. "I usually do after meals, but this was involuntary. Too much agitation. Too dark."

Bearic held her steadily, stroking her hair. "It's okay. We'll get out of here.. It'll be okay." He felt her cling to his chest and a rush of empowerment flooded him, then left just as quickly. Right. The darkness. "We need to get some matches from the kitchen. Do you think you could come with me? I'd like.." Not to be caught alone. ".. some company."

Marion nodded. "Thank you.." she whispered.

"For nothing," Bearic said. He took her hand and they walked slowly into the dining room. She kept stumbling, and he was trying to help her up for the third time when he heard a noise.

A rhythmic banging noise.

"Did you hear that?" he asked Marion.

"Yes.. It's coming from the kitchen. What could it be? Let's go and find out."

"No, let's not.. That'd be stupid," he said, and he meant it.

"The matches are in the kitchen. We have to get them. Let's go. We're together, what can happen?" She looked almost excited. She pulled his hand towards the kitchen and the noise. Bearic would've followed that hand anywhere. So he did.

As they entered the kitchen, the source of the noise became obvious. It came from the freezer.

"There's someone inside.." said Marion, from somewhere near him.

Bearic's left arm went numb from shoulder to wrist. Nothing could live in there. Nothing.

Except the ghost.

His ears started humming so loudly it hurt his brain. Shock glued him to the spot, and his eyes followed Marion as she opened the door. Slowly. One inch at a time. He opened his mouth to warn her.. to tell her to move aside.. to tell her the ghost hated people.. but no sound came out.. And she went on with it. And when it was open, she gasped and fell back. And Bearic still couldn't see what she was seeing..

Until the white ghost with long hair and large eyes limped out of the freezer and grabbed him with his two long, pasty-white paws.

The image of the screaming bluish face followed Bearic in the afterlife.

***

"Gijs!! What happened to you?" Thoughts chasing each other without leaving trails over the surface of her mind, Krss rushed to help Santi lie Gijs down on a couch. With the lights fixed, everything was much clearer: his large staring eyes, his tangled hair, the tears on his cheeks. Maybe having the lights on wasn't as great as they'd thought it would be. Gijs curled into a ball, whimpering something incomprehensible. Krss sat next to him and started stroking his hair gently, then looked up at Santi, demanding explanations.

"He got.. locked in the freezer. That much I know," said Santi.

"Oh my God. But he's so claustrophobic he could've.."

"Died. Yes. I think if he'd stayed in there even one minute longer, he would have. But Marion opened the door, and Gijs ran out of the freezer, grabbing Bearic in a frenzy. Which.. killed Bearic. He thought he was seeing the 'white ghost with large eyes'."

"Bearic, dead??" gasped Krss.

"Yes. And, as you can see, Marion isn't in good shape either. She had quite a shock."

Ignoring Marion's sobbing, Krss turned back to Gijs. "How did he get in the freezer anyway? Wasn't he supposed to be with you?" The last sentence was said with spite.

"He.. he had an attack in the basement. I took him to the great hall, and then I.." Santi whispered, "I left him alone."

Krss seethed. "How could you have left him alone in a dark house?? In this dark house?"

"Don't you think I am already blaming myself enough?" said Santi, his eyes full of pain.

Krss didn't care. "No."

Santi looked away, but took Gijs' hand in his. Krss wanted to slap him off, but for some reason that seemed too cruel a punishment.

"Okay.. First Almirena shut Santi, here, in the freezer with the snake, then Gijs grabbed Bearic and killed him.." drawled r.

"What's your point?" spat Krss. She was in no mood for r. Her hand continued to brush Gijs' hair. He had managed to calm down enough to close his eyes and stop whimpering. His breath was more even now. And what Krss didn't know was whether it had been her touch or Santi's which had accomplished that.

"My point? So far we're doing a great job out of killing each other. Styles' killer doesn't have to do anything. Money easily earned, I say."

"How could you possibly blame Gijs for.." started Krss.

"It's not his fault. It's Styles'. He shut us together in here and worked us into a panic," said Tsolaelia.

"Use reason, people. Do you think Gijs locked himself in the freezer?" said Almirena.

"Then who.." started Krss. It was a night for unfinished sentences.

"The killer, obviously," snorted Almirena. Krss had half a mind to punch some purple into her noble face. But maybe the killer would by the end of the night.

"He's one of us.." said Marion, rocking herself. "Styles.. One of us."

Gijs made a small sound from the back of his throat. Krss' hand met Santi's on Gijs' shoulder, and they both started, blushed and withdrew.

"She may be a lunatic, but it's the most sensible thing anyone has said tonight," said Almirena.

"Has anyone here actually seen Styles?" asked Santi. He looked excited. Oh well, if it helped him feel better about abandoning Gijs. "How about you, r? He met you, did he not?"

"I never got a chance to see his face. He was wearing a huge collar, black glasses and a hat. I only heard his voice."

"Did you recognize his voice on the tape?" asked Tsolaelia.

"Nah.. It was too distorted to make it out. And I was three-quarters drunk when I met him, anyway. I wouldn't know his voice to recognize it."

"Bull story. Maybe you're Styles," said Marion.

"What??" snapped r. "Say that again, woman, so I can have a reason to slap you."

Marion never got a chance to reply, because just then there came the sound of a thousand windows shattering at the same time. Krss heard herself gasp loudly. Everyone was frozen; everyone was as scared as she was. Gijs moaned something in his sleep. Something that sounded like Zeegwall.

"What was that noise?" Krss complained, rubbing her ears.

"The chandelier.." said Santi. "It must have fallen."

They all ran out of the room at the same time. The main hall, as large as it was, was completely littered with the remains of the chandelier- there was glass everywhere, mixed in with bent and twisted metal pieces. She had had no idea the wretched thing had been that big.

Marion fell to her knees, wailing and sobbing loudly. Krss did not want to hear that. She had had enough of that to last a few lifetimes, and this particular life might end soon enough; she didn't want to waste it by listening to Marion. "I'll take her upstairs. I can't deal with her anymore. I can't," she said, looking at Santi. He nodded.

Careful to avoid the shards, Krss dragged Marion up the stairs. When they arrived at the top, Marion whimpered, "I have to go to the bathroom.."

Krss let her go and waited near the banister. From up there the spectacle was even worse. Or better. The lights from the other rooms fell upon the wreck of the chandelier, which was issuing more light dead than it had alive. It sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow. Everyone was wandering around it aimlessly.

Marion exited the bathroom and limped towards her bedroom. Krss followed her. Right in front of her room, she stumbled and grabbed a piece of the banister, which broke and made her fall on all fours. Krss rolled her eyes, picked her up and shoved her inside her room, then hastened back down. All the others were still looking at that chandelier as if it heralded the apocalypse. Krss went back into the living room to check on Gijs.

He wasn't there anymore.

***

Tsolaelia spread Marion's silky red hair over the pillow with her fingertips. She was sleeping so soundly that she had had to check her breath to see that she was alive. Santi was pacing to and fro in the bedroom.

"We'll find Gijs. Someone is bound to come across him in our search. There are two people covering each storey," Tsolaelia whispered reassuringly.

Santi pulled at his curls. His hair was in disarray, but Tsolaelia couldn't blame him. Hair was the least of their problems that night. "Let's go out and search with the others," she said.

They went out onto the landing. There were so many doors.. Gijs might be anywhere, and it would be so easy for him to hide in one place until they'd passed something, and then go back to the area they'd already covered. But she didn't tell Santi that. He didn't need more anxiety. He needed a stimulating topic to keep his mind off Gijs.

"Funny.." she began, while they entered Gijs' bedroom. It was empty, but then she hadn't expected it to contain Gijs. That would have been too easy. Santi let out another frustrated sigh. She had to entertain him. "Funny how our little group of guests reminds me of a dysfunctional family."

"A dysfunctional family?" he repeated blankly, as they went back out.

"Yes.. it's just that some of the people here have assumed the classical roles of children in a dysfunctional family." He seemed interested in that, so she could continue. "There's the 'Good Child', the family hero who assumes the parental role.. That's you," she smiled.

He smiled bitterly back. "I could be Styles' killer for all the good I did Gijs.."

Not Gijs again. Okay, think, Tsolaelia, think. "There's the Problem Child.. that's definitely r," she snickered. "The Caretaker, the one who takes responsibility for the emotional well being of the family.. I guess that's me," and she felt her face heating. "And gabnic, of course," she added quickly.

They were now in Krss' bedroom. The Estradiol was on the nightstand. So many problems caused by one little bottle.

"Who else?" asked Santi.

"The Lost Child; the quiet one whose needs are often ignored or hidden. That was Bearic." She felt a pang of pain as she spoke of Bearic in the past tense. It was still too hard to believe two people had died in the same house as her.

Santi nodded.

"And then there's the Mastermind. the opportunist who capitalizes on the rest of the family's mistakes to achieve his own goals. That one.. I don't know who that is. If we have one."

"I hope we will find out before Sunday morning. Because, if we believe Styles, none of us will see it. Now where could Gijs be?"

Tsolaelia abandoned the hopeless cause.

***

"I think I found a loose bar here," came gabnic's shout, followed by the sound of breaking glass. Krss came closer to see what he was talking about. He had just broken the glass behind what indeed looked like a loose bar in a kitchen window grating. The storm screamed and tried to invade the house through the open frame, but all it could manage to do was wet gabnic's shirt.

He looked up at her in excitement. "Maybe we can get out through here! I need a crowbar or something.."

Krss had an idea. "I'll get you one from the attic. I saw some wooden sticks earlier when I searched the house."

"Okay, rush and get it."

Krss nodded and went out in the hall. She avoided the remains of the chandelier and ran up the stairs to meet with Santi and Tsolaelia just as they were coming out of Almirena's bedroom.

"gabnic might have found a way out! I'm going to the attic to get him a crowbar."

They both smiled strained smiles.

"Anything.. new?" she asked, but she already knew the answer to that before they shook their heads. "Well.. keep looking. We'll find him." Krss noticed that Santi had circles under his eyes, and for the first time she felt kinship towards him. "I'm off to the attic."

She was almost at the end of the flight of stairs when they disappeared into r's bedroom.

***

Bottles. So many bottles. So many full bottles. Large, red, with golden square labels. r's hands and jaw had never shaken so much in his life. He had given up trying to wipe off his sweat a while ago. It was useless. His head was splitting in two. His body wanted the drink. After three tries, he managed to grab one of the bottles. It looked ruby and inviting. Yeah. He knew better than that. Poison, all of it. He threw the bottle into a wall.

"Poison!! You're not doing this to me again, Styles, you b*stard!" shouted r. The room was spinning in red and gold. He could feel his stomach rushing up to meet his mouth but he didn't care. Almirena was out there somewhere, he could barely see her. Her mouth moved but she made no sound. She was so blurry, so unreal in her stupid red dress with that oversized yellow buckle..

What was that.. a tool shed? He stumbled towards it. He had to reach it. He knew he'd find something good inside. A cure for the poison. He fell to his knees, waited until his head stopped spinning and grabbed the first weapon he could find- a shovel.

He limped painfully to the bottle shelves and swung the shovel wildly into it at random. "Taste this, you son of a.." Glass exploded. He could see, barely, that shards had lodged themselves in his skin, but he couldn't feel them. He raised and lowered the shovel again and again, spilling the damned liquid all over the walls, all over the floor, all over himself. That was Styles in the shelves and he could kill him if he broke all of his bottles. He hit, he kicked, he screamed out loud, and he broke glass after glass, bottle after bottle, liquid spraying like a fountain..

And then r collapsed. He had broken all of them; he would live now.. But what was.. what was that giant bottle, red with a golden label, almost as large as he was? The ultimate bottle. He had to kill that one, because it would spawn more bottles if he left it alive. It was running away, don't let it run away!

r tackled the bottle and when it was pinned under him he hacked at it with the shovel until the bottle stopped squirming and shed its liquid. But why was it so red? The other bottles of rusty water hadn't been this colorful. It didn't matter. It didn't matter anymore; he had killed all the bottles and their mother and he would live and.. was that water on his face?

He fell back. There was water falling on his face.. He didn't know where it had come from, and he didn't care. It was water, poison, and he had to run if he wanted to live, but he knew he wouldn't run. As surely as he knew he was going to die.

***

gabnic was drumming impatiently on the window sill when Krss returned with what looked like a stick. "Where did you get that?"

"The attic."

Had she just smirked? It didn't matter. gabnic took the stick from her hand and placed it into the grating as a lever. "Help me with this."

She came and grabbed the free end of the stick together with him. "Say when."

"Now."

They both grunted and pulled, but it wouldn't move.

"Again?" Krss asked.

"Now."

gabnic thought his muscles would jump out of his skin, but it didn't move. "Again," he said.

This time they were rewarded with a crack. Something surged into his throat as he checked the grating, but the bar hadn't moved. Then what..?

"Oh, damn, the stick broke," said Krss matter-of-factly.

A bitterness filled gabnic's mind. Maybe the bar wasn't as loose as he'd thought, as he'd hoped.. They needed help.

"Call r and Almirena to help," he told her.

"Aren't you coming with me?"

gabnic shuddered. The basement.. the coal heap. "I'd rather wait here. I have a.. kind of.. phobia of being buried alive. And the coal down there.."

"Okay," she nodded. "Stay here, I'm going to fetch them right now. And we'll break out of this place!"

***

"The second storey is clear," announced Tsolaelia.

"What's the next step?" asked Santi. He knew very well what the next step was. The attic. No one else had found him anywhere else. Santi was deadly positive about what he'd find in there. Which was why he didn't want to say it. Maybe if he didn't say it, and maybe if they didn't go there..

What if he's alive after all? But the lone thought seemed nothing more than his mind's way of comforting itself.

"The attic," said Tsolaelia.

Santi felt his voice catch in his throat. He couldn't do this. "You go first." He had to do this. ".. No, wait. I'll go first."

There were thirteen steps up to the attic, and each new step slowed Santi down, until, when he finally stepped into the attic, he was barely moving. The main hallway of the attic was empty, dusty and dark. He allowed himself to breathe and flicked open the light switch.

The door to the drying room was closed.

No, not closed. It was locked from the outside.

Santi's heart was beating at an alarming rate. Maybe he isn't in there; he could be anywhere in this house, it's a big house..

His heart grew heavier with each inch he took towards the locked door. He didn't want to do this. He unlocked it slowly, held his breath and counted to ten.

He would do this.

The door creaked open, and at first Santi had a flutter of hope that the room might have been empty.. But it wasn't. Gijs was curled into a ball next to a painting. He was dead. Santi knew that without having to touch him. Gijs was.. dead.

He is dead.

Santi knelt next to Gijs' body and touched his neck, uselessly. There was no pulse. His death mask was contorted, as if he had died of fright. And he had died alone. Santi felt the sobs rising in his chest, but he managed to do one last thing before he crumpled next to Gijs. He looked at the title of the painting.

"The Beast of Sigiswald"..

Jeegwal.

***

The first thing that told Krss something was wrong in the cellar was the smell. It smelled like a toilet that had been puked into. How could r and Almirena stand that smell? What had they been doing down here all this time, anyway?

The first view of the scene was so strange it took half a minute for Krss to comprehend it. The blood was the first thing she understood. Blood was everywhere. On the walls, on the floor, on the shelves, even on the ceiling. r's body was lying on its back, water flooding over his face. The water came from a small window someone had broken, which was allowing the rain to pour inside.

By looking at the easiest part, Krss was postponing looking at the centerpiece of the room. But now it was time to see that too; so she looked. In the middle of the cellar floor laid a heap of some things her mind told her were pieces of a dead human. There was a shovel next to the remains. It still had a bit of flesh glued to it.

Trying very hard to fight her nausea, Krss rushed up the stairs and into the kitchen. gabnic was waiting by the window.

"r and Almirena.. they've been killed.. they're dead!!" she shouted. "You have to come!" She grabbed his hand.

"Calm down, there's no use throwing hysterics," gabnic said, following her back down into the basement.

"Look!!" Krss pointed towards the two bodies.

Unlike Krss, gabnic actually threw his stomach up. After doing it, he looked at her. "How did they die, do you think?"

"Shovel! And water! r obviously killed her, there are pieces of her all over him. And then he was held under the water and drowned!" Krss couldn't seem to find a way to keep the shrill tone out of her voice.

"Drowned? By whom? I was on the first floor all the time, I would've seen the killer.."

Krss looked at him closely for the first time. His shirt was wet.

His shirt was wet.

"Oh my God, it was you!" she shouted. "Your shirt is all wet from holding him under water! You're right, you would have seen the killer - if it weren't for the fact that you are the killer!"

"What the hell are you talking about?" he shouted back. "It's wet from the storm! I didn't even know they were dead! I puked my guts out at the scene!"

"You were pretending. You are the killer. You killed Nico and Bearic too, and you shut Gijs in the freezer." She was so certain.

"That makes no sense at all! I was with you when Bearic and Gijs got knocked out!"

"I don't care!" She pushed him back onto the coal pile. "Strong enough for you? I used to be a man, remember telling Santi and Gijs about it? Let's see just how phobic of being buried alive you really are."

She took a shovel and started throwing coal at his face. The fact he was lying there and doing nothing only made her angrier. After five shovelfuls she realized he was dead. And then a voice came from the doorway.

"Just what do you think you are doing, Krss?"

It was Santi.

***

So Krss was the killer. How simple it was, and Santi wondered why it hadn't occurred to him sooner. She was still holding the shovel she had just used to bury gabnic's face. Caught redhanded, much? He heard Tsolaelia rush in after him and gasp.

"What do you mean, what do I think I'm doing? I think I just killed Styles' killer," she said, but Santi no longer believed her lies. It had been right in front of him all this time. He had been so stupid. So stupid that Gijs had died. She would pay for that. But he had to get the advantage, first.

"Killer, hmm? Very well; I want to take a look at the body. May I?" he asked, pouring fake sincerity into his voice. It worked, because she moved aside for him. The first thing he did was retrieve the gun from the dead man's pocket and point it at Krss. "Raise your hands now, slowly, and only you will get hurt."

"Santi? What are you doing?" Her eyes were wide with innocence. What a snake. No, not a snake, snakes were beautiful creatures. She was a killer.

"I'm killing Styles' killer."

"But I just did that.." She looked towards gabnic.

"No. I mean the real killer. You."

"I don't understand.. Tsolaelia, he's insane, are you going to let him do this?"

"Leave her out of this," Santi snapped. "You killed Gijs. How could you do that?? He liked you." His voice was breaking; this wouldn't do.

"I didn't kill Gijs! I would never do that to him! And Gijs isn't dead, anyway. You're just trying to mess with my mind."

"Gijs is.. dead. And you killed him. You are the only person who was in the attic."

"I wasn't.. Okay, so what if I was?" She defied him with her hands on her hips.

"His body was in the attic. In the drying room. You said you took a crowbar from there. You would have perhaps noticed, say, the dead body of your lover lying on the floor?" His mouth was so bitter it hurt his teeth. Why was he still talking to her?

"I didn't kill him. I didn't go to the attic at all."

"No? Then why did you lie about it just now?"

"I didn't kill Gijs, okay? I wasn't in the attic because during that time I killed Marion."

Tsolaelia gasped aloud. "Marion is dead? Why??"

"Because she put Gijs in the freezer. I couldn't let her live. You have to understand that." She seemed almost reasonable. It didn't even sink in that she was confessing to a premeditated murder.

"Why do you think she did that?" Santi was suddenly feeling very, very tired.

"You and she were the only ones who had the opportunity. When we moved from the dining room to the living room she pretended to go to the bathroom, but she never went. How do I know that? Because when I took her upstairs she wanted to go again. So if she wasn't in the bathroom, where was she? Knocking Gijs on the head and putting him in the freezer! She even helped kill Bearic. She knew what was inside that freezer when she took him there by the hand. By the hand, Santi!"

"That is a possibility. But have you forgotten the butler and the maid?" He was actually arguing with her? Kill her while you have the chance.

"I haven't seen them since the tape played. I think they left the house."

Santi was confused. Could she be right? Had Marion locked Gijs in the freezer? Then who had killed him?

Suddenly, Krss gasped and pointed behind him. "Gijs! There he went!"

Santi and Tsolaelia spun quickly, but there was no one there.

"He's alive, why were you lying to me? We have to catch him!" Krss flung herself at Santi. She was trying to get his gun! Do not let her at the gun. She has already killed two people. She will kill you too. She was struggling, she was about to knock it out of his hand..

And Santi shot.

Krss gave him a wide-eyed look and collapsed on the floor.

Tsolaelia rushed to her side, crying softly. "You killed her. Santi, you killed her.. You shot her."

Santi wiped his brow and knelt next to the body. "There is no wound. Look, do you see any wound?" The pistol! He checked it quickly and, surely enough, it was loaded with blanks. "It had blanks. I couldn't have shot her."

Tsolaelia shook her head. "What does that mean..? How did she die?"

"I think.." He scratched his head. "I think she died because she thought she'd been shot."

"Hey, I believe in the power of the mind as much as the next psychiatrist, but.. I don't think that's possible."

"Come, we need to have a talk about all this." Santi took her hand and led her out of the basement.

***

Marion would have seemed asleep if it hadn't been for the narrow hole in her forehead. Tsolaelia winced, like she'd winced at.. how many deaths? There were only the two of them left, so.. eight people. Eight people whom she'd gotten to know and like had died, almost in front of her. She was still crying when Santi showed her Marion's high-heeled shoe.

"I think Krss hit her with the heel," he said. "It was red to begin with, but you can make out a few spots of blood on it. And hair.."

Tsolaelia shivered. How ironic.. "Let's get out of here. I've seen enough," she said, almost pleadingly. He seemed to understand that she was approaching her limits, because he just nodded and followed her outside.

"I don't remember seeing a bar missing from there," said Santi, pointing to a gap in the banister grating.

"Is that important?" asked Tsolaelia.

"I think this might be the lever Krss took with her to give to gabnic. She had to have taken it from somewhere, and she wasn't in.."

In the attic.. the unspoken words were heavy in the air.

".. And the banister was weakened from when Marion tried to jump," he ended.

"That sounds likely. You said we needed to talk?"

"Yes. Let's go.. there. Let's go to the attic. I don't want him to be alone."

Santi's face was so different from how it had looked when she'd first seen him.. the night before? Or a lifetime before. He was trying to pretend, but she knew how much he was hurting from the guilt and loneliness.

"All right.." she said.

They fell silent, and in silence they went up the stairs and into the drying room. The first thing Santi did was cover Gijs' body with a blanket. "I don't want to see his face," he explained, needlessly. There was no light in the room, only what came in through the door they'd left open. They sat down with their backs to the wall, so that the slanted roof and its small window were in front of them. The storm was going at it still, but somehow the patter of the pouring rain felt friendly. It was, compared to what had happened in the house. Eight people..

Santi cleared his throat. "Pretend for a moment that Krss died because she thought she had been shot."

Tsolaelia wanted to say once again that it was impossible, but at least he was talking, so she waited quietly to hear what he had to say. That's what she did best, after all.

"If that is true, then some of the others could have died for similar reasons. Take Nico's death. We all thought he had died of poisoning; but now I am certain he only died because he imagined all of us lynching him. We were all converging on him. He got worse when I tried to touch him."

That sounded interesting. But it was impossible. They weren't psychic. They were all normal people. Had been.

Santi went on. "And Bearic died because he thought he'd seen a ghost. Heart attack, yes, but I think it was his own thoughts that killed him. r also died on his own. His phobia of being drowned killed him by making him believe he was really drowning. gabnic died because he thought he was being buried alive. There was no blood on him, no signs of asphyxiation, just the coal. Krss hadn't touched him with that shovel. Krss herself died because she thought she'd been shot."

"What about the others?" Tsolaelia asked.

"Marion was killed by Krss. Almirena was killed by r in whatever fit of insanity he was suffering."

"That leaves.." She looked towards the blanket.

"I don't know how he died. Of all the deaths, this is the one that really puzzles me. Someone went to great lengths to make him suffer. Of all of us, he suffered the most." He blinked. "He hallucinated painfully three times, he was locked in the freezer, and he was locked in here. I don't know who did all the locking."

"You know.. I think there might be something to your theory. There have been so many hallucinations and delusions this weekend that I kept feeling I was in a severe cases mental ward, not in a house with normal people."

"Too many to be a coincidence. I believe their triggers were carefully staged. Styles knew everything about us from the questionnaire. He knew our phobias, he knew what books we read, our habits.. He brought us all here, locked us in, got us into a panic, deprived r of alcohol and Krss of vegetarian food, set a snake loose, and in fact created conditions ideal for us to kill ourselves and each other."

"But why? Why would he do that?"

"I wouldn't know. Maybe he is a lunatic, like Bearic said."

They stayed in silence for a minute.

"There's something strange about one of Gijs' hallucinations," said Santi.

"What is that?"

"The mirror winked at him. He had no previous phobias connected with mirrors. Why would he see that?"

"Maybe he didn't. Maybe he made it up." She was sorry for saying it as soon as it had left her mouth. "No, I didn't mean to say.."

"Never mind. Yes, he could have lied. But why?"

"I don't know.." she whispered.

"And what about the painting? 'The Beast of Sigiswald'? Why did it have such a strong effect on him that he had a nightmare about it in the taxi before he arrived at the house?"

"Maybe he knew it from somewhere.." she suggested.

"Maybe. It still doesn't explain why he would come to the attic, of all places, to look for it. It is as if he knew it was here.. But how could he have known?"

"We all explored the house. Maybe he saw it then."

"Maybe.. So many maybes. No real answers. But there is something more to this house, Tsolaelia. I would bet my life on that. Something that makes normal people act crazy."

A gigantic shadow fell across the slanted roof. It was a woman brandishing an axe. Tsolaelia felt her throat caving in. A killer with an axe. A serial killer. The axe was going to split her head in half and her brains would pour out. The shadow was coming at her, it was falling down, and when it touched her she would die.

She heard Santi shout her name from far away. He was trying to tell her that it was just a shadow, but she knew better. Her mind. Her mind knew better. And, as she slumped down at the foot of the wall and hit the floor hard with her head, Tsolaelia understood the true power of the mind.

***

Santi's first instinct was to reach for Tsolaelia, even though he knew she was dead; but then self-preservation kicked in and he turned towards the source of the shadow. The butler and the maid were on the hall of the attic, and the shadow had come from the maid, who was still posing in front of the door with her axe. His hand flew to the gun he'd carried with himself for some reason. He pointed it at the smirking butler.

"I'm sorry, Sir, but I know that gun is loaded with blanks. I put them in myself."

Santi shot anyway. The butler never even flinched. Santi shot at the maid, who had ended the charade and was now resting on the handle of the axe. She didn't flinch either. She just grinned a toothless grin.

"The mind tricks don't work on us, Sir," said Walker. Santi couldn't believe his nerve. He spoke in the same tone as if he were announcing dinner was ready.

"What do you people want from us? From me?" asked Santi. His body was cycling through cold and hot shivers, and his heart was thumping so fast he couldn't keep up with it.

"Just for you to die, Sir." The butler's hand moved towards his pocket. There was a bulge there. Something large.. a jar? Something scuttled inside, which sent a cold arrow down Santi's spine. Could that be..

"Yes, it is exactly that, Sir. A spider. A tarantula, to be precise."

Oh God, help me. If Walker opened that jar and showed him the spider.. maybe throw it on his face.. maybe shove it down his throat.. Santi would die. His vision blurred and his ears started ringing. He couldn't faint now. But the spider! Oh God, the spider.. His skin crawled, all his hair stood up, and his legs were getting woozy. He would fall, and the spider would crawl all over him and..

No!

Santi charged blindly at the butler. He had to keep his hand out of that pocket. That was the only thing that mattered in the world. He grabbed the hand and struggled. The butler was strong. Too strong. Santi could hear the spider shuffling its.. legs.. hairy legs.. so many legs.. spider.. and fell back, holding something small, hard and pointy.

"And now, Sir, it is time for you to die," said Walker.

Santi looked up at him and noticed a trickle of sweat on his cheek.

His vision wasn't blurry anymore.

He watched Walker put his hand inside the pocket and take out the jar, in which the spider was throwing itself against the glass.. But it was just a spider in a jar. Ugly, yes, but just a spider.

What's going on here?

Answers later; he needed to end this now. As the butler let the spider loose on the floor, Santi rushed inside the drying room and grabbed the first weapon he saw: a wooden bat. When he returned to the twosome with it, he was satisfied to see looks of horror on both of their faces. They hadn't expected this to happen, had they? They had thought he was going to die like all the others, without a struggle. Well.. not him. Not now.

Santi swung the bat twice and the two fell to the floor. The spider ran off somewhere, but Santi didn't care at all about it. He went into the clothes hanging area of the drying room and took two long ropes with which he tied the two bodies. They'd live. He was not a killer.

Oh, but he was. He'd killed Krss. The gun had only had blanks, but that was a technicality. He'd shot her. This house had made a killer out of him. And then he realized what Styles had intended in the first place, with his ominous messages. He had cleanly divided them into killers and victims. Tell someone there is a killer after them, and they will either decide to fight or to die. Nothing in between.

And then the killers became the killed. Even him. He was supposed to be the last victim. What had gone wrong? He realized he was still gripping something in his left hand and opened it. It was one of the butler's cufflinks.

The mind tricks don't work on us, Sir. Why didn't the tricks, whatever they were, work on them? What was so special about the butler and the maid?

They were protected by something. Santi's head had cleared immediately after seizing that cufflink. He wondered..

He left the cufflink on the floor and took five steps away from it, towards the jar. He was assaulted by the image of the spider inside that, even if it was empty now. Maybe it lurked somewhere, waiting for him, maybe it was climbing on his leg right then..

Santi shook himself and picked up the cufflink. The spider thoughts vanished.

All right. Now that it was settled that the cufflink offered some sort of insulation against the 'mind tricks', and with the two killers tied up and unconscious, he could sit down and think about his situation. He was alone, locked in a large house, in the middle of a storm, with no connections to the outside. A question formed itself in the back of his mind. He waited patiently for it to get to the surface. He had all the time in the world.

Where had Walker and Mrs. Perkins been until then? They had searched the entire house and not found anyone. But to be able to orchestrate all that had happened, they had to have been in the house. The only place they hadn't explored was behind the large iron door in the basement, but that door was locked with a strange triangular key. Maybe the butler had such a key on him.

Santi went to the two bodies outside and searched the butler's pockets. In his left pocket there was a keychain with at least ten keys. None triangular.

So maybe they hadn't stayed in there after all.

What was another place he hadn't gotten in? The master bedroom. There was surely a key to the master bedroom on that chain. That made sense. Santi rushed down the stairs and stopped in front of the large bedroom. His heart had restarted its pounding. God only knew what waited behind that door, but it was his only lead.

The seventh key fit the lock. Santi opened the door a crack, expecting something to fly out of there and bite him. Nothing came out. He entered the room.

All the furniture was covered with white sheets. The sheets were dusty. The whole place looked as though it hadn't been used for some time. There were paintings on the wall, all of them of a pretty young woman with almond eyes. Who might she have been?

There was no time for idle speculation. Santi went around the bedroom in search of anything that might have looked like a key to the front door. He passed a small mirror on the right wall, placed quite high, so that he could see only his face reflected in it. He lifted all the sheets in turn waiting for a hand to grab his every time. Nothing. He finally arrived at the closet on the left wall.

Something could be in there poised to kill him, but he would have to risk that over starvation and loneliness. The doors of the closet creaked open and Santi found himself looking at a dumb waiter, big enough to fit two people in.

Aha.

The carriage was pulled by cables, and, through a crack, Santi could see it went down at least one floor. He climbed inside and slowly pulled at the cable. The thing moved perfectly, showing that it had been used very recently. Well then, he would find out what secret the house was hiding from him.

The first stop was dark and cold. Santi realized he was inside the freezer. Suddenly everything that had happened in that place fell together. The servants could have come and gone through there often enough to scare Bearic, often enough to roam the house in the dark.. often enough to hit Gijs on the head and drag him in. The last thought made him seethe. Maybe he'd kill them later; now he had to know.

He continued his descent until the dumb waiter hit a floor. Santi had arrived in a dark, closed space, which he realized was another closet. What would he see when he opened the doors?

Taking a deep breath, he threw both doors open.

He was met by a familiar smell and a familiar sight. The smell and sight of a laboratory. It was a huge room, and it seemed empty. On his left he could see a large worktable, strewn with scribbled-on papers, on which stood a computer. On his right was another long table, covered with jars filled with a pinkish liquid in which floated.. human brains?? What kind of a madman was Styles?

Santi continued his exploration. Against the wall in front of him, he could see a series of freezers whose contents he really didn't want to know. Then there was a medical chair, which had a headpiece sporting a tangle of wires connecting to a few large electronic devices. On the left wall there was a table bearing numerous measurement instruments, connected to even more brains floating in jars. Some of the devices were actually beeping. What kind of sick twisted experiments was Styles conducting in here? The last piece of furniture in the room was a dressing screen, which seemed very incongruous in a laboratory.

Santi turned to the computer. Could it be connected to the internet? Dare he hope that he could send a message to the police or to his colleagues? The screen displayed on the monitor was mostly blue and black. It looked like a table filled with text. The title said, "CORT-X Guestroom". Doubtlessly some morbid society Styles belonged to; it was irrelevant for now. Did Gmail work? Santi opened a new browser window and wiped his sweaty hands on his pants, because the mouse kept sliding from his grip. He typed in the address and waited, breathlessly.

The screen was loading! Now, what was that password?

"Do you need any help, Santi?"

Santi started so violently the mouse went crashing into the wall. He turned around. A man was emerging from behind the dressing screen. Why hadn't he thought to check there! Stupid, stupid! He froze in his chair as the man came closer. He was wearing a long, dark robe, his blond hair was in a ponytail, and his face was hidden by a mask that reminded Santi so much of the Phantom of the Opera that he had to stifle an insane giggle.

"Styles.." he whispered.

"Yes, I am known to you under that name.. but, as a matter of fact, there is another I would rather you used, in the few minutes you have left to live." The man slowly took off his mask. Santi forgot to breathe.

"Gijs.." he whispered. "How? Why? .. How?"

"Almost. I am Gijs' twin brother. You may call me Gijs2."

***

Gijs2 took a chair next to Santi, whose hands had gone numb. He looked so much like Gijs that his heart hurt. Gijs2 smiled at him. "You have a very strong mind, Santi. I knew you would be the last. I'm sorry that you will have to die too, but think of the knowledge I will gain from studying your brain patterns. The man who resisted the amplifier for so long."

"The amplifier?"

"You surely have figured it out by now. The entire house has been saturated with the waves of my neural amplifier. What it does, basically, is amplify brain waves.."

".. until your own mind kills you."

Gijs2 nodded. "You see the importance of my experiment, which was so successful. The power of the mind triumphed over matter. Your phobias and instabilities were amplified to such an extent that some of you died by yourselves, while others were the victims of newly-made murderers.. who, in turn, themselves died. Only you remained. And I feel lucky for that, because I have been aching to discuss this with someone intelligent. Walker and Perkins are boring company."

"You dirty.. bast.."

"Language, Santi. Do not forget I hold your death in my pocket. It is eight-legged. Don't try anything rash, either. I also have a gun, and this one is loaded."

Another spider? Then Gijs2 didn't know Santi was protected. Maybe he could use this to his advantage.. Santi's mind started racing. Once Gijs2 discovered he was immune to the spider, he'd use the gun. He had to gain time. And he had plenty of questions for that.

"Why did you kill your own twin? Why did you make him suffer so much?"

"Just because he was my twin, and it was an opportunity to study the reactions of my own body without me actually having to go through the process of dying. So you can understand how delighted I was when he entered the bogus competition for the house."

"The mirror.. It was you in the mirror, wasn't it? That wasn't a hallucination at all. You winked at him. You were in your bedroom and the mirror there somehow communicates with the one in the bathroom.."

"You are astute. Yes, indeed. I hadn't expected anyone to make the connection."

"And.. when Krss said she saw Gijs behind us, when we were in the basement.. she really saw you."

Gijs2 nodded.

"Tell me about Gijs. About the painting. Everything." The amplifier's waves were probably all over the lab. Gijs2 must've had protection too - protection that he would still be wearing. Where could it be? He wore a robe, no cufflinks.. The buttons! Santi had to use this knowledge to his advantage, somehow.

"That is understandable curiosity.. Gijs lived here when we were both small. Once, he cut the rope of the chandelier and it crashed into the great hall. Our father was so angry that he locked him in the attic for a week, with that painting of the werewolf, 'The Beast of Sigiswald'. That was what made him into a claustrophobe. Soon afterwards he ran away from home. I can only assume he repressed his early memories. He never consciously knew he had lived here."

Buying more time.. "Where did you come up with our nicknames?"

"Oh, I took them from a messageboard where I lurk as a guest. They're all quirky people. I had to laugh to myself at the irony of some of the choices."

"So.. The butler did it?"

"Yes. My two domestics spent a lot of time here in the lab, with me, but sometimes they went out. To place that snake, for instance, or to replace the bullets with blanks, or to replace Nico's pills with placebos. I sent Walker for candles when the lightning bolt struck and the lights burnt out. He found Gijs and took the initiative. And then, he cut off the chandelier rope from the attic at my orders; I had hoped Gijs would remember some of what he had repressed and come to the attic. He did, and Walker locked him inside. He died, of course."

Santi realized that the man in front of him was going to die. And that he was going to kill him. But still he didn't know how. "So none of your 'announcement' was true? About the killer being among us?"

Gijs2 yawned. "Your mind was the killer among you, dear Santi. And now, I'm afraid that is all I have to say. It has been a pleasure knowing you, even if briefly." Gijs2 took the jar out of his pocket and unfastened the lid. The spider rushed out and scrambled across the floor towards Santi. It was ugly, and hairy, but just a spider. Gijs2 looked almost impressed. "You are stronger than I had thought! Let me increase the amplitude a little." He reached over to a machine and turned a knob to the right. "Not even now? You brain will be a miracle for my studies. I can see what my brother saw in you."

That was enough.

Santi lunged forward and ripped off the buttons off of Gijs2's cloak. Gijs2 gasped in surprise. Santi kicked the buttons far away, to the other end of the lab, and ducked under the computer table. Gijs2 still had the gun. He would use it. But maybe he'd be lucky and he wouldn't have the time.. if his calculations had been correct.

"Santi, such manners.. I'm going to have to shoot you now." Gijs2 made for the gun, but then his eyes fell on the faraway table with the pink jars. His eyes widened and he fell back on his chair. "Don't.. don't come closer. Don't! Brains can't hurt me, they can't do anything, they're brains.. Don't come closer!!"

Santi took the moment to rush to the knob and turn it all the way to the right. "This is for Gijs, you son of a b*tch."

Gijs2 crashed to the floor, desperately trying to cover his face with his hands. "Stay away!! Brain slime on my face, in my eyes, in my nose, in my mouth.." He stopped talking and started making ugly throaty noises. Santi watched with detachment as Gijs2 writhed on the floor in agony for five whole minutes before he was finally still. And then, he switched off the amplifier.

It was finished. The first rays of dawn came in through the small windows of the laboratory, and Santi realized the storm was over and he had survived to see the light of Sunday morning. He had, in fact, fulfilled all the requirements for owning the house. The large, empty, cold house.

A little hiss came from behind the dressing screen. Santi started. Was it not really over? But it was just the snake, the little snake that had coiled around his leg in the freezer. He walked towards it and extended his hand. The snake hissed softly twice and slithered onto his palm, and up towards his elbow, coiling itself tightly around his arm.

Santi was no longer alone. And, his mouth stretching itself into a smile for the first time in his new life, Santi picked up the professor's mask and carefully placed it upon his own face.

***

Epilogue

Samantha Everett couldn't help staring at the man in front of her. The mask he wore was impassible, but the eyes behind it were sad, and old. They were seated on a couch in the living room. Comfortable place. She could get used to it.

"Fascinating," Professor Styles said. "Magic tricks are something I have never gotten a chance to learn. Maybe you can teach me."

"Does that mean I get the job?"

"Most definitely. The house needs a warm woman's touch. It has seen too much desolation.. lately."

"I couldn't say about 'warmth', but I'd be happy to live here and help liven this place up. It's dreary."

"Then it is settled. Walker will show you to your bedroom; it is right next to mine. It holds.. dear memories."

Samantha nodded. The guy was weird, and if he thought he could order her around he had another thing coming, but at least it was a roof over her head. A huge roof. "Could you give me an example of the jobs I'll have to do?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. Are you familiar with the Oxford campus?"

The End

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-script by Alex


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