A pall lay heavy as a wet woolen blanket over the small valley, turning hearts and minds inward in retrospection. It was almost time. The invitation would arrive any day now and people eyed each other strangely as they passed in the street or stood in line at the local grocery store. Who would be summoned? Who would be chosen to spend the Valentine’s night at the imposing caste in the hills? Irony was as thick as the atmosphere of fear. Valentine’s Day, a day of love, but not for this town.
Grace, tall, with a halo of wild brown hair that fell to her shoulders, leaned back in her chair and sailed a folded triangle of paper to her friend Hanna A. The blonde deftly snagged it out of the air and promptly dropped it. She banged her head on the desk when she bent to retrieve it, and Profe frowned and rolled his eyes. Both girls looked up with wicked grins. Profe understood. He knew they were as preoccupied with the tension that filled the town and school as he was himself. Who would be chosen? Who would not be back at school on Monday? It was always a student, and always one this age. This group had made a pact with each other as kindergarteners that they would not let that happen to them.
“Did you talk to Tiny? Will she come with us?” the note asked. Hanna, a short blonde with blue eyes, grinned at Grace and said nothing, she merely pointed at Tina, their friend and post from the basketball team. Tina nodded once to Grace, her face a careful mask. She was ready. The group had been planning this for years. No matter who was chosen, they intended to get to the bottom of what was going on in the castle, even if it killed them.
The group was busy the month before, hustling around town gathering supplies, checking on each other, and holding whispered conversations in the back of classrooms. Profe had only been in town for a couple of years, but when he heard about the mysterious disappearances, he even offered to help with the research. He liked these kids a lot and did not want to think of any of them not coming back to his class.
The invitation arrived that afternoon in a fancy, cream-colored envelope of heavy paper, the name on the front printed in raised red letters. A hush fell over the town as everyone held his breath. Within minutes the entire population knew that it was Grace to whom the missive had been addressed this year. She was instantly surrounded by her friends, but was inconsolable.
“Leave. Run away,” Sierra advised. “Just throw your stuff in the car and drive as fast as you can out of here.”
“Don’t you remember what happened last time someone tried that?” Emaleigh asked, her frown uniting her eyebrows in the center of her forehead. This was her friend they were talking about. “That kid three years ago tried it. She was found parked in the woods down in Comal county. Dead and not a sign of violence on Her. Just drove off the road, parked her car under a tree, and died.”
Linzey shrugged, “That’s true, but we can’t just let her go to the castle. No one ever comes out. It’s like they disappear off the face of the Earth.” She looked at her friend Katherine who was even paler than usual. The put their heads together, whispering urgently as Ashlynn and Hanna B hurried over to join the “study group.” Profe sighed. He knew they were studying something that was much more important than his lesson.
“We have a plan. Are you with us?” Tiny asked. Her face was grim as she cracked her knuckles. Sierra nodded.
“What about the boys?” Hanna asked as she nodded toward Kirby, Matthew, and Julian. “Will they help?”
Hanna A. grinned, “Oh, they are going to help, all right. I’ll make sure of that. The bell rang ending the class and the students trooped out like an army behind the determined looking girl. Some looked frightened, others puzzled, while still others appeared clueless. They would soon be in the know.
Grace’s hands were sweating as she walked through the hardware store. Chris and Tori were with her, but even the presence of her friends didn’t help all that much. Part of her problem was that every time one of the adults walked by, they would hug her, pat her head, and murmur some nonsense like, “Oh, you poor dear,” “We’ll miss you, Honey,” “I’m so sorry,” or another of the million other things they said every year to the Chosen One. She practically snarled at Mr. Smith when he took off his hat and stood with his head bowed and tears in his eyes. She wanted to scratch his eyes out. “I’m not dead yet, you idiot!” she thought, wishing she could be rude enough to say it out loud.
The time came and Grace walked slowly up the cracked walkway to the castle on top of the hill. Sprigs of green sprouted up from the crumbled places in the path and from this distance she could see the peeling paint and broken windows. Her eyebrows shot up. Those details were not visible from the town. Grace rubbed her eyes, but the signs of deterioration did not fade way. If anything, they increased her sense of foreboding. She glanced to the left and saw a head full of fluffy brown hair poke out from behind a tree, another, darker head a foot above it. She waggled her fingers behind her back to acknowledge her friends, squared her shoulders, and stepped onto the wide porch.
The ancient door creaked and she almost cried out, but a dark shape resolved itself, or at least partly resolved itself into the shape of a man wearing a tuxedo. He was tall and gaunt, his eyes sunken and silver hair spread in a halo around his head. Hanna could not get the figure completely in focus. It was as if the form blurred with every movement as he stepped back from the opening door and beckoned her silently to enter. Well, that’s why she was summoned, right? She had no choice. The Chosen never had a choice. She took a deep breath and strode past him, her short legs kicking out the skirt of her formal blue dress as the toes of gold slippers peeked out from under the hem with every stride.
He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her life. Tall. Dark. Mysterious. He was dressed impeccably in a tuxedo that was tailored to his broad shoulders and narrow hips. Black hair fell in waves to his shoulders, framing a face that belonged on the silver screen. His honey brown eyes pierced her soul and she could not tell whether he was twenty years old or two hundred.
Heart suddenly aflutter, Grace licked her dry lips and smiled as he held out a large, beautiful, strong hand. She placed hers into his and strode nervously beside him as he led the way through the corridors of the castle and to an elegantly appointed dining room. The space had room for at least fifty people, but only two places had been set. She slid into a chair that he held for her and gulped, eyes wide as she stared around the vast room. A linen tablecloth adorned the massive table, with gold candlesticks and delicate china set upon it.
“My name is Marco,” he said as he settled himself into his own chair at the head of the table and unfolded his linen napkin into his lap.
“G, Gr, uh, Grace,” she stammered as she followed his lead. Her face felt like it was on fire. The aroma of well-spiced food suddenly filled the air and she nearly swooned from hunger, suddenly realizing that she had been much too nervous to eat all day. Now she was famished. “Why was I anxious?” she thought. “This is a wonderful, comfortable place. I could learn to like it.” She refused to actually think about how beautiful Marco was, but part of her, the feminine part of her suddenly became quite aware of his warmth.
“You must be puzzled as to why I invite people to dine with me,” Marco stated, his voice a musical baritone that set Hanna’s mind buzzing. “I get lonely. This is a large house and I am alone except for my butler Clayton and my small staff of cooks. I crave company, companionship.” His eyes fell along with the timbre of his voice, “Unfortunately, my home has a reputation. People say it is haunted. That is silly. I am no ghost. Do I not feel as solid as anyone?” He touched her hand, the heat of him searing her skin and she felt her reason fly away. A small part of her snapped to attention when he mentioned ghost. Why did she feel like he was lying?
Grace blushed as her world shrunk until it consisted of nothing more than her hand, his hand, his beautiful brown eyes, and his full, luscious lips. She began to fantasize about feeling those lips on her, imagining the softness and the heat. Deep inside she knew she shouldn’t, but he was just so beautiful.
A young man in house livery silently opened the door to the kitchen and held it for two young women who floated in bearing food. Audrey, identified by a small silver name plate on her dress, carried a tureen of soup which she set on the table and began to ladle into Grace’s bowl. She disappeared, then returned a moment later with fresh bread and a silver dish of butter. Marco smiled and patted the girl’s hand, then turned to the young man, “That will be all for now, Kade. Please bring the next course in ten minutes.” Kade sketched a bow and flowed back to the kitchen.
An eternity later, dinner was over and Grace began to hear music playing softly. Not aware of rising from the table, she found herself, her arm linked with Marco’s, strolling down another corridor. Her slippers hissed over the plush crimson carpet as she floated past life sized statues that lined the corridor. Each statue was of a young woman, and the details were incredibly life-like. Some were tall, others as short as she, some with wide faces, others pinched. What united them was their mein. Each one bore a serene look and haunted eyes, as if at the moment they were recorded they had witnessed a horror that froze them in place. Grace frowned, thinking that there was something she should notice, but she could not form the question in her mind. She floated onward as the music gradually grew in volume.
At last she arrived at a ballroom that was easily two hundred feet across and three hundred long. Huge windows, dark against the night, lined one wall. Two other walls contained small conversation tables and a set of swinging doors occupied the last wall. Jacob led her to a table on which rested an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne chilling inside. He opened the wine smoothly and poured a glass for each. They toasted, and Grace joined him in taking a sip. Before she was aware, her glass was empty.
Marco led her to the center of the floor, music filling the atmosphere with a fog of desire as she melted into his arms, flowing across the polished hardwood as if her feet were not in contact with the ground. Everything inside her screamed not to ever let this night end. She wanted this experience to last for the rest of her life. During the lull between two songs, Grace turned her gaze up to his and fell into the eternal abyss of his eye, heart pounding a staccato as his lips descended to hers. A tiny fraction of her mind was aware that she was under some sort of spell, but the rest of her did not care at all.
They danced, floating around the floor as song after song played. Grace could not tell where it came from. There was no band, and she could not see any equipment nor speakers. One circuit of the dance floor took then close to the open double doors that looked out into the corridor. Grace’s eyes fell on the statured lined against the walls. A thought ate at her mind, and she suddenly realized that as she walked past them, the statues got newer. The ones at the far end were discolored with age, with fine lines and cracks. The nearer ones were smooth and pristine. She began to shake, realization flooding into her as she stopped and stared at the most recent one. She recognized that face! Immortalized in pale marble stood her friend Raney, the one who had been Chosen last year. She knew. Suddenly it all became clear, and she twisted away from Marco.
Grace was a strong, athletic young woman, but she could not escape. Marco was simply too strong, his powerful arms wrapping around and holding her close. His eyes blazed with a weird light, “So you understand. No matter. It will avail you nothing. You are mine, just like the rest. Mine.” He whispered the last word as he seized her hair and tilted her face up, his lips descending.
Grace knew instinctively that the kiss would be her last. She raked at Marco’s face with her long nails, but he laughed, her fingers passing harmlessly into the mist that had been solid flesh a moment before. She screamed, throwing her head back and howling like the damned.
Hanna A.’ head snapped up, her eyes alive as she held up a hand to silence the others. The whole class stood milling behind her, muttering and stamping their feet against the cold February night. “Hush!” she hissed. Silence fell, and they all heard the second scream. They burst into action, surging as one to the dark back door of the castle. In addition to weapons fashioned from PVC pipe and assorted other materials from the local hardware store, they also wore silver talismans that Profe had put together for them. Some were mountain lion, some wolves, some other shapes. He said they would help if they were facing supernatural beings.
Kurt threw a shoulder at the door, but it didn’t budge. Jesus tried, then both together. No luck. Tiny shoved them aside and spit on her hands, then picked up the tool she brought, a ten pound sledge hammer. One swing at the door and it crashed open with a huge bang and the group poured into the mysterious manor that had taken so many from their midst over the generations. Their mood was ugly and they were armed to the teeth, strange looking “guns” held in sweaty hands with hoses that let to tanks strapped on their backs. They surged down the corridors like a tsunami.
The butler Clayton met the mob at the intersection of two passages and fell screaming and melting into the floor as spray from a dozen weapons struck him. Kirby and Matthew stopped to give each other a high five while Ivonne looked on proudly. It was her idea to mix up the noxious blend of garlic, salt, and holy water. The foul brew proved to be effective.
Kade was the next to fall, followed by the maid Audrey, their forms turning insubstantial and hissing into the air as they took the full force of spray. The group sprinted onward and found the statue-lined corridor in the center of the castle. They froze, considering, then Ashlynn tried her spray on the oldest of them. At the touch of the liquid, the oldest statue began to writhe and moan. In seconds, the wavering form of a women stood before them. She looked young and yet ancient as if she had been standing there for two hundred years. The kids gaped. She probably had been there that long. The legend of the disappearances from town started that far back. The form sighed hugely and smiled, obvious relief panted on her lovely features as she turned entirely to mist and flowed upward through the ceiling.
“Quick! Spray them all,” Hanna A. shouted. The spray releases them from whatever torment they have been suffering all these years.” When the others hesitated, she stamped a foot and sprayed the next one herself, “We are setting their souls free. They are already long dead, we are helping them.” She caught a glimpse of Grace through the open door of the ballroom fifty yards down the corridor, a strange, dark man bending her over backward as he tried to kiss her unwilling lips. She growled and threw herself into a run. She tripped, but Kurt helped her rise and almost dragged her along as they ran screaming toward the ballroom.
Marco looked up with wide eyes, “No!” he whispered, “No, they are ruining everything.” He released Grace, who shouted to her friends to hurry. Marco ran toward the attacking kids, screaming incoherently. Tori and Chris simultaneously sprayed him but he laughed and reached out a bony arm, talons on the inhumanly long fingers yearning for their flesh, slavering jaws gaped, thirsty for blood as the illusion of beauty fully fell away. The pair ducked away and ran, with the ghost in pursuit. One by one the statues disappeared as the teens freed them from their unnatural bondage. The corridor became a game of tag with the ghost chasing and the kids fleeing. They were puzzled. Why didn’t the mix work on him?
Grace took in at a glance what was happening to the statues and looked around frantically, her eyes falling on a statue that stood upon a raised dais at one end of the ballroom. It was Marco! She shouted or the others and Tiny was the first to hear. The strong girl swept into the room, eyes following Grace’s finger as her friend pointed at the statue. Two long strides carried her to the dais, and with a mighty swing of her hammer, the head burst into a million pieces.
Marco screamed and all the kids sank to their knees, clutching their ears in pain. His form swelled until it filled the corridor, now completely bestial in appearance. He roared and flowed at the teens who had all dodged past him and were running into the ballroom. Hate filled his red eyes as he pursued.
“Oh no you don’t,” Grace muttered. She reached into the lining of her sleeve and extracted a silver bladed dagger. It wasn’t actually a dagger, but rather a letter opener she had swiped from her mother’s desk, but it would do. She hoped.
The teens stood frozen in horror as Grace charged the attacking form. She lashed out and instead of mist, her blade encountered something solid. The dagger sank deeply and a toxic green liquid spurted, covering her. The creature’s blood felt like fire, but she kept stabbing. Its roars turned to screams, then faded to moans as Marco’s ghost dwindled. Soon nothing remained but a puddle of slimy green goo on the floor.The class gathered around, staring in disbelief at the mess. Hanna A. and Sierra found linen napkins on a table and began to wipe the ichor off of Grace’s skin as their friend stood shaking. “It’s over. It’s really over. We did it. Our town is free,” she muttered. She looked around at the faces of her friends and knew that this was a night they would never forget.