The next thing Alice knew, she was waking up in the flat. Her head throbbed with an agonising headache that extended from her forehead, down through her teeth and into her neck. Her vision was blurred and blotchy, as if she'd been staring at the sun for too long. She was sprawled out unceremoniously on the sofa, one of the throw cushions propping her head up. The lights were back on. Swinging her legs around, she tried to stand up, but paused mid-motion to stop her head spinning. Bloody hell, what a dream, she thought as she regained her balance. She felt like she had a horrendous hangover, but at least it had all been just a dr-
‘Hey, hey, hey! Not so fast. Take it easy,’ a voice said from somewhere behind her. She craned her neck, which made a disconcerting noise like crumpling paper, to see who was speaking to her. She felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as reality started to dawn on her again.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?!’ Alice screamed, leaping to her feet with fury, and immediately regretted it as her head threatened to explode.
The kitchen looked as if a bomb had gone off. The cupboards had been emptied, their contents scattered across the counter tops. The bins had been upended, rubbish strewn across the floor. The fridge stood with it's door lazily hanging open. At the heart of the debris, and presumably the catalyst of this chaos, was the man in the coat and hat. He was knelt down amongst the contents of the bin, but stood up when Alice shouted at him. He dropped a torn-up page of the Guardian. Oh god, it hadn't all been a damn dream.
‘Have you received anything unusual lately? Strange gift, unexpected letter, something out of the ordinary? Weird artifacts which give you a lingering sense of dread?’ He asked, completely ignoring the visible rage, fear, confusion and myriad other emotions etched on his unwitting host's face, and clearly oblivious that breaking and entering – and rummaging through someone's bin – is unacceptable behaviour in civilised society.
‘What?! No! Who are you and what are you doing in my kitchen?’ Alice asked furiously, mixed with the panic of having a complete stranger pillaging her kitchen, and she felt as if her eyeballs were about to pop out of their sockets. ‘What are you doing to my kitchen?!’ The man took a few steps forward, kicking aside empty bottles and packets as he went.
‘Sorry, I don't believe I've formally introduced myself yet. Terrible manners. I'm Sam. Sam Hain.’ He extended a hand towards her, but Alice refused to shake it.
‘Like the Pagan festival?’ She asked indignantly.
‘As a matter of fact, I do, although that's pronounced “sah-win”.’ Sam replied helpfully. Alice didn’t care. She simply stood the other side of the sofa from her unwelcome guest, uncertain as to what to do. She eyed the house phone, off of its base unit and laying on one of the kitchen counters. Her mobile wasn't in her pockets. If she wanted to call for help, she'd just have to make a run for it. She span on her heels, and made a dash for the door.
It was locked.
In her panic, she fumbled with the lock, trying desperately to open the door, but she wasn't able to release the catch on the handle fast enough. The man who called himself Sam Hain was stood right behind her. He lifted his hands to hold her by the shoulders, but he left them hovering.
‘Please, don't panic. I'm not an intruder – well, I suppose I sort of am – but I certainly don't mean you any harm,’ Sam spoke softly, trying to calm her down. She didn't trust his calmness, and turned around as she pushed herself back against the door.
‘So what, precisely, do you think you're doing in my home?’ Alice spat through gritted teeth.
‘You've been having piercing headaches, sometimes with disturbing visions. Like a nightmare you can't quite wake up from. Am I right?’ He slowly took a step back, allowing her some space. Tentatively, she nodded.
‘That's why I'm here, Alice. I'm one of the few people who knows about the things you're experiencing.’
‘How do you know my name?’ Alice asked, her voice quivering more with worry than with anger now.
‘You really shouldn't throw out your old bank statements, you know. Don't you keep account of your finances?’ Sam sat down on the sofa, and gestured for Alice to take a seat. ‘That's not why I'm here, though. I'm here because of what happened last night, and what's been happening since.’
She was still unsure about the situation, but Alice got the sense that this man really didn't mean her any harm, even if he had completely trashed her kitchen. Cautiously, she took a seat in the armchair nearest the door. She was shaking inside, and wished Rachel would get back home soon. Where the hell is she?
‘So what do you know about my… ‘visions’?’ Alice asked.
‘More than you'd probably think,’ Sam answered, and he removed his hat, ruffling his flattened hair. ‘I deal with the... extraordinary. Last night, Halloween, I was on a case. There was something here that shouldn't have been, and I had to do something about it.’
‘That man that you started fighting?’ Alice asked, wondering where this was going.
‘Yes. Although he wasn't so much a man as a thing shaped like a man. He was an entity from another dimension, causing trouble where he shouldn't.’
Alice eyed him incredulously. ‘Of course. So you're a demon hunter? Right? Am I supposed to believe that?’
‘Well, not really a demon-hunter, although that is part of the job description. I'm an occult detective. I deal with cases involving the esoteric and the supernatural.’ The man who called himself Sam Hain spoke with such conviction that Alice almost believed him.
‘All right then. Supernatural sleuth. Gotcha. Forgot to take your meds this morning?’ She retorted sarcastically. Again she considered making a move for the phone, but rather than calling the police she was now thinking about getting in touch with Bedlam to let them know they were missing a patient.
‘‘Darkness is coming.’ Am I right?’ Sam asked casually, watching Alice closely for any kind of reaction.
She felt time come to a standstill, and she could see a knowing look behind the strange man's eyes. It was as if his words had suddenly made it all the more real. How could he have known? Her voice lowered to almost a whisper. ‘Yeah. Something like that.’
Sam stood up and made his way over to the window. He gazed out, overlooking a terrace of houses, beyond which the tiny pin-pricks of light from the rest of the city could be seen. He clasped his hands behind his back pensively. ‘I've been following the signs for some time now. ‘Darkness is coming,’ they warned. Forces beyond our reckoning are stirring in the Void, trying to breach the walls between our world and their own. I'm trying to get to the bottom of what's going on, and – for whatever reason – on All Hallows' Eve, things have been converging on you, Alice.’
Alice sat in silence for a while, her mind elsewhere. She thought of the man in the hood, of running in fear and of the niggling sensation at the back of her mind that something sinister was going on. ‘Why me?’ She eventually asked, her voice quiet and uncertain.
‘May I?’ Sam asked, returning to sit opposite Alice. He raised his hands towards her head, and she jerked backwards suddenly, eyeing him suspiciously.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I'm going to take a peek inside your mind,’ he said, and he saw the look of concern written across Alice's face. ‘Don't worry,’ he added, ‘I won't see anything you don't want me to see, only the things I need. But I need your consent, if you'll allow me?’
Alice nodded silently as she allowed Sam's hands to gently hold either side of her head. She felt his forefingers against the temples on either side of her head, and she felt the pain in her head begin to fade. It ebbed and flowed like the coming and going of the tide, the headache gradually waning. First, the pain receded from her teeth. Then her forehead stopped throbbing, and she could feel the ache shrink towards the back of her head.
‘Very clever... They must really like you,’ Sam muttered, ‘unfortunately for them, I'm clever-er.’
Like water draining down a plug hole, Alice felt the pounding headache swirl out of the back of her head. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from her. She opened her eyes, and the world appeared like she was seeing it all for the first time. Sam merely grinned at her and said, ‘how's your headache now?’
Alice blinked slightly in confusion. Her headache was gone entirely. No remnant of the migraine remained, not even a vague tingling in her teeth. She didn’t even feel anxious or panicked. Apparently her look of confusion and realisation was fairly evident, as Sam gave a knowing chuckle.
‘How did you do that?’ She eventually asked.
‘Quite simply,’ Sam stated matter-of-factly.
‘It's gone completely.’
‘When I first bumped into you, I was tracking a rift, a rip in the barrier between our world and another,’ Sam began to explain. ‘Around Halloween, the veil between dimensions is at its thinnest, allowing for easier interactions between different dimensions, even to cross from one world to another. That entity seized the opportunity to come into our realm of existence, taking on the form of a man. Why, I don't know. Maybe the foothold for the coming Darkness... Some of its essence imprinted on you. Something drew it to you, and when I tried to banish it back to the Void, a part of it was left behind in you. Like a metaphysical bee sting,’ Sam paused, and with a sideways smile he added, ‘nice costume, by the way.’
‘You mean a part of that thing was in me?!’ Alice exclaimed. ‘That's what was causing the headaches and the nightmares?’
‘In a manner of speaking, yes. That's why it seemed to still haunt you. But I've removed its essence from your mind, you should sleep soundly tonight.’
Alice nodded, a little dumbstruck by what she was hearing. ‘You know this sounds like a very flimsy plot for a fantasy horror story, don't you?’ She mocked, but from the little time she'd spent getting to know Sam and what she'd experienced, it was strangely starting to sound more and more plausible. A few days ago, she was a normal girl in her twenties, going about a perfectly normal life. Now she'd somehow found herself in a world of demons and monsters. ‘Again, why me?’
‘I wish I could say that you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I really do. And to be honest, that is a large part of what's brought me here. But there's something special about you, Alice. You have a gift not many people have. I saw it in you on that night, and I see it in you now...’ He said, and he sounded almost sorry for her. ‘Let me ask you something, when you were growing up, did you ever believe in monsters under your bed? Hiding in your wardrobe?’
Alice nodded. ‘I used to think I could see monsters lurking in the shadows of my bedroom, when I was about eleven or twelve. Sometimes they appeared to be so real... My mum kept trying to tell me that it was all in my head, and it was nothing to be scared of.’
‘Well, it’s not your mother's fault for not knowing. Not a lot of people do, not really,’ he said. ‘There are things which exist in the places beyond this world. Things from other realms, other dimensions. They weren’t just in your head, Alice, you didn’t imagine them… The monsters beneath your bed were real. As were your imaginary friends. You've been given the soul-sight, the ability to see things which others don't, and to distinguish the light and the dark. Whether this is a blessing or a curse is up to you.’ He spoke in a tone not unlike an adult telling a child about the dangers of playing with fire. A shiver ran up Alice's spine.
‘You're serious, aren't you?’ She asked, and she already knew that what Sam was saying was the truth. ‘You're really, properly serious...’
‘I don't joke around with things like this,’ he replied, his face like stone.
‘So, that thing... It doesn't feel like it's in my head anymore, and I can't see it. It's finally gone?’
‘Oh no, quite the contrary. It's still here, somewhere,’ Sam said with a dismissive wave of his hand, ‘I just removed its hold on your mind. But now that its link to you is severed, I doubt it's going to be very happy...’
As if on cue, there was a sudden, ear-piercing scream from outside. ‘That'll be for us then,’ Sam said with a grin, and in one swift motion he jumped up, threw on his hat, unlocked the door and sprinted off down the corridor. Alice started after him, running along the corridor and down the stairs only a few steps behind, being careful not to step on Sam's coat as it billowed out behind him. They heard another terrified scream coming from the street, and Sam jumped the last few steps and barged through the front door. As Alice followed, she could see the light from the street lamps flickering on the pavement just outside of the door.
In the middle of the street stood Rachel, two pizza boxes balanced in her arms with a plastic bag slung around her wrist, and a man, a hood pulled low partially concealing his face, walking slowly towards her. He moved in an eerie, inhuman manner, his body twitching erratically, and his hollow eyes were as black as the night. Alice's heart dropped. The unearthly being staggered towards Rachel with its uneven gait. Occasionally it would appear to crack, like old plaster peeling away. Lampposts flickered on and off as the creature approached, and each light it passed would immediately extinguish. The road behind it was completely dark, the light of every home and streetlight now dead.
‘The thing from your nightmares? Yes, I know. Persistent bugger,’ Sam whispered, and reached into his pocket, drawing out something which looked like a wand, although it was made from a chrome-like metal with a pointed clear crystal at its front and a shiny black stone at the end. Putting on a pair of circular sunglasses, he raised the metal wand and pointed it towards the hooded entity. ‘Someone's clearly not very happy I broke its hold on you!’
Rachel remained stood in the middle of the road, frozen in fear as the thing approached her. She no longer screamed, she just stared directly at the man in the hood with her mouth agape. The inexplicable shadow emanating from the man stretched out, causing the remaining street lights to go out, and an unnatural darkness descended upon them all. Wordlessly, Rachel dropped the pizza boxes to the floor.
‘Hey, you! Person!’ Sam shouted towards the inanimate woman in the road.
‘Rachel,’ Alice said helpfully.
‘Rachel! I'd step away from the being of unimaginable darkness if I was you,’ he said, but she didn't seem to hear him.
Taking a couple of steps forward, Sam addressed the creature. ‘You know you don't belong here,’ he declared, and the being in the hood stopped. It remained stock still in the middle of the road, a few paces from Rachel. Its body convulsed and juddered, and it hissed viciously at Sam. ‘I sent you back to the Void, and you just came crawling back. But your power is fading, and try as you might you can feel your grip on this plane weakening. Now, you can either do the sensible thing and go grovelling back to your Dark Masters, or you can try your luck with me.’
The creature leered forwards and hissed in defiance. It began to stagger towards Rachel, and wisps of shadow reached out to her.
‘Oh, suit your-bloody-self’ Sam said, almost wearily, and he raised his wand, pointing it at the creature. ‘Being of Darkness, Devourer of Light, I banish thee back to the Void from whence thee came!’
The creature writhed uncomfortably as Sam spoke, hissing and spitting in defiance. But nothing happened. The darkness continued to spread, unabated by Sam’s magick, and tentacle-like shadows lapped at Rachel's feet, coiling around and around, until one latched onto her ankle. The creature seemed to have her completely paralysed. Sam spun on his heel and faced Alice.
‘Alice, this thing has a foothold on this world and, like it or not, it used you as an anchor. When it left a part of itself in your mind, it was like a foot in the interdimensional door. I need you to be one-hundred percent focused,’ Sam said.
Alice felt fear grip her once again and she tried to look him in the eyes, but couldn’t see through the dark lenses of the circular glasses. She nodded uncertainly to him.
‘Good. Now, I need you to cast this demon to Hell.’
‘What? How do I-? What?!’ Alice stammered. She glanced over towards the entity, the form of the hooded man now swathed in darkness, a shadowy form of something far more sinister and forbidding looming large behind him.
‘My will alone can't banish this thing. It used your mind to bring itself back into this world, and your mind can send it back.’
Alice steeled herself for the worst. Twenty-four hours ago, she had been at a Halloween costume party, forgetting about the day-to-day reality and having a good time. Now what had once been the day-to-day seemed like a distant memory. She would've been afraid, but fear no longer seemed like a strong enough emotion to describe what she was feeling. It was like being called up in front of the class to do a presentation in primary school, but a thousand times worse and involved shadow demons from another dimension. She glanced back at Sam, her eyes watering. He simply nodded to her.
‘I banish thee to the void from whence thee came,’ Alice said, her voice wavering uncertainly. She was about ready to crumble and collapse to the floor. The creature in the man in the hood snapped its head at an unnatural angle to face her, and she froze in place. I can't do this, she thought, why the hell am I even in this mess? I don't- I can't-
‘Believe in the words you’re saying, Alice,’ Sam said, ‘believe you have the power to send this thing back to the Void! Nine-tenths of magick is intent. A spell is nothing but empty words if you don’t believe in it.’ Sam held his hand out to her, and smiled gently. ‘Take my hand, we'll do this together.’
Something about the man called Sam Hain was peculiarly calming. Maybe it was something about the way he spoke, she didn't know, but Alice felt her nerves slowly begin to settle. Hesitantly, she took hold of Sam's hand, and felt his grip tighten.
‘Now let's send this bugger back to the shadows, hey? Let's show them not to mess with Sam and Alice!’
‘We banish thee to the Void from whence thee came!’ They shouted in unison, and Alice felt an energy course through her veins. It felt as if her entire being was being enveloped in some kind of etheric energy, and for a brief moment seemed to meld into Sam too. Then she noticed the crystal point beginning to glow.
A bolt of violet energy burst from the front of the wand and struck the man squarely in the chest. The thing that looked like a man began to convulse, its body shook violently, and a brilliant blue light burst from its eyes and mouth as it screamed an unearthly scream. Its limbs wobbled uselessly at its sides. There was a sudden flash of dazzling light which forced Alice and Rachel to cover their eyes. When they were able to look again, the figure of a man had disappeared, and where it had once stood only a pair of shoes remained. All of the lights down the street came back on.
‘What just happened?’ Rachel asked, her voice wavering and a look of fear mixed with confusion on her face.
‘Halloween trick,’ Sam said nonchalantly without missing a beat. He removed the sunglasses and put them back inside his coat's inside pocket, along with the thing which resembled a wand. ‘Good, isn't it?’
‘B-but, the smouldering shoes? The, the-’
‘Amateur theatrics. Not as good as some of the stuff they can do on the West End, but this has been our best trick yet. Wouldn't you say, Alice?’ He nudged her with his elbow as he said this, and tilted his head towards her.
‘Oh, yeah. Yes. Definitely,’ Alice stammered uncertainly. Everything she'd experienced had finally caught up with her, and she was feeling more than a little overwhelmed by it all. Despite everything she'd just witnessed, this seemed to be a good enough explanation for Rachel. She knelt down to pick up the pizza boxes and made her way towards the door to the flat.
‘If these pizzas are ruined because of your little trick, you're paying for them, mister!’ She shouted before disappearing into the building.
‘You know, I really didn't think she'd buy that,’ Alice said, looking up at Sam.
‘Nor did I...’
They both stood in silence for a little while, staring at the pair of shoes which now sat in the middle of the road in Islington, a few faint wisps of smoke still drifting out of them. The night was still and serenely quiet, and for the first time in what felt like forever, Alice didn't have a sense of dread hanging over her.
‘The Earth plane is shifting again, in a few hours the divide between this world and the next won't be quite as thin,’ Sam said, standing with his head towards the sky, as if he could feel the change in the wind. ‘You can feel it too, can't you.’
‘This is all so... Insane,’ Alice said to him. Sam simply nodded.
‘I understand, it's a bit much to take in all at once. When you've had some time to process this, or if you ever need anything, here's my number.’ He handed her a business card. It was black with golden text, and a pentagram in its centre.
Divination – Evocation
Astral Projection – Magickal Protection
‘If you do decide to venture down this particular rabbit hole, please get in touch. I could use someone with your skills. After all, the walls between worlds may be building back up, but things are never as normal as they appear.’ He secured his hat firmly on his head, and with a final nod he bid her farewell. ‘I have a feeling this won’t be the last I’ll be seeing of you, Alice Carroll. Until our paths cross again, take care.’
Alice watched as the strange man walked down the road, his coat billowing in the cold night wind. For the briefest of moments, she was sure she could see the glimmer of an aura around his figure, but in the blink of an eye it was gone. Although she couldn't quite explain everything, she felt like something important had happened to her. She turned and made her way back towards the door of the townhouse, and she cast one last glance over her shoulder towards Sam, but he was already gone, vanished into the night.
She stood for quite some time, staring down the street and out into the night, lost in her thoughts.
‘Do you want your pizza or what?’ She could hear Rachel calling out to her from the second-floor window.
‘Just coming,’ Alice shouted back, looking up at the window with a wave. She skipped over the doorstep, closed the door, and walked back up the stairs towards the flat. It was perfectly, reassuringly normal inside. The lights cast a warm glow over the room, where Rachel was sat on the sofa flicking through the channels on the TV. The smell of fresh takeaway pizza and chips filled the air.
‘Fancy a drink?’ Alice asked as she flung her coat over the back of the sofa.
‘Yeah, please, cider’s in the fridge,’ Rachel said. She must've have bought the whole Halloween trick thing, because she didn't seem to have a care in the world. ‘What do you want to watch?’
‘I don't know, what's on?’
Rachel began to reel off the exhaustive list on the TV guide, but Alice didn't hear a word of what she was saying. She stood in the entrance to the kitchen, dumbstruck, faced with the horror which awaited her. The contents of the bins, strewn across the room from Sam’s haphazard investigation, still in the state of chaos he’d left them in.