Ell was slow to wake, the fatigue of the last few days still weighing heavy on her body. She rolled over in the semi-darkness, blinking at the clock through dream-fogged eyes.
Briefly, she wondered why she hadn't gone on sleeping. Something must have awakened her. A noise perhaps... She listened, but everything seemed in order. Fans humming in the ventilation shafts, computerized equipment beeping softly out in the halls. Yet there had been something, she hadn't imagined it.
Mei was curled in a formless blob in the far corner of the room, a patch of darkness that few would have guessed to be a living being. Ell's night-light, plugged into the far wall, ringed the shadow-girl's tiny frame with a golden glow. She seemed to still be sleeping, or whatever shadows did for rest. The noise hadn't affected her, then. Perhaps a dream...
There it was again. A rapid ticking noise, so far away it barely reached her ears. Like pebbles falling into a tin can. It came from below, either the first-floor or the basement level. Most likely someone rolling a stretcher with a bad wheel. Nothing to worry about.
The power went out. The blackness hit Ell like a physical blow, and she let out a short gasp, sitting up on the bed. In the sudden still, she could hear muffled voices, people moving outside her room.
Someone opened the door, and she tensed.
“Hey, you okay in there?”
She couldn't see who it was, nor did she recognize the voice. It was male, but not daddy's voice. A stranger's voice, gruff and hard. She imagined him away, but it was oddly difficult; imaginary people were easier to ignore when she knew what they looked like. She needed to find her flashlight. Daddy stored light in it, just in case this happened.
Hopefully, Mei was still sleeping. The poor shadow would be terrified to wake up in the dark.
The man was speaking again, but not to her. “First floor, what's going on down there? The power's out on level two, and we're hearing an odd noise in your direction.”
The quiet drone of static was his only reply.
“First floor, respond. Harris, what's going on down there?”
Lights flickered back on as the backup generator switched on. The man was standing with his back to Ell, his massive frame filling the doorway. He wore a gray suit, similar to the one John had worn. Maybe his son, then. He was talking into a wire-mic clipped to his collar.
“Ops, this is station four. I can't connect with station one, and we're experiencing power issues up here. Everything alright?”
This time, a female voice spoke from the receiver on his belt. “Copy, we can't raise first floor either. One minute.”
Ell finally found the flashlight, tucked in the back of her nightstand's drawer. She clicked it on, testing to make sure it worked. On, off, on, off. Good. She set it within easy reach, just in case the lights went out again. In the corner, Mei was slowly uncurling, her huge eyes blinking in confusion.
“Something's going on, Mei.” Ell whispered. “You should probably get in the bed.”
The man at the door heard her, turning his head to see her. Beneath his crew-cut, his face bore a striking resemblance to Dr. Mortimer's, if a good deal less wrinkly.
“Sorry to wake you, kid. Faulty wiring or something. They'll get it sorted out. Try to-”
He was cut off by the sudden wail of the fire alarm. Ell covered her ears, glancing around for the source of the noise.
A dull boom shook the walls, and the lights went out again. The fire alarm cut out as well, and Ell could hear the ticking again, almost continuous now. She clicked her flashlight back on, shining it on the door. The suited man looked briefly into the light, his face now tense and drawn.
“Ops, power failure. Sounds like someone blew the generator. I think... I think I'm hearing gunfire...”
A series of loud pops cut through the night, an uneven racket punctuated by high-pitched screams.
“Ops, agents returning fire. Repeat, Castle One is under attack. Package secure in home box, moving alone to clear the area.”
Drawing both a light and a gun from his belt, he moved quickly out of sight down the hall. Ell could hear him continuing to speak: “View from front window, no visible hostiles, but it's dark as pitch out there. Seems to be a fire in one of the utility buildings near the edge of the grounds. Moving to...” His voice faded as he turned a corner.
For several minutes, Ell sat on the bed, shining the flashlight randomly around the room. Daddy had said that if the red fire lights ever blinked and the siren sounded, she was supposed to walk out of the hospital and wait on the back lawn until he arrived. However, he had also told her to stay in her room at night...
Eventually, she made up her mind. Swinging her legs out of bed, she pulled on her uniform, making sure to put her now-full pill bottle in her pocket. If the hospital was on fire, it might melt the pills, and then she wouldn't have any left. After her time out in the wild, she never wanted to be away from them again.
“Come on, Mei. We'll wait for daddy outside.”
The halls were oddly unfamiliar in the flashlight's weak beam, the doors shut and sealed. Daddy had told her that some patients were too scary to let walk around, and so had to be kept in their rooms at all times. To accomplish this, the doors contained auto-locking mechanisms that could be triggered remotely. For added safety, each would revert to the default “locked” position if power was disrupted.
Ell's room included one such unit, 'just to be fair'. It occurred to her now that hers should have also defaulted to a locked state with the power out, as it had with all the others. After a minute of thought, she remembered the man in the suit. He had opened the door from the outside, which was nice of him. If he hadn't, she might have gotten stuck in her room, which would not have been good with a fire in the building.
The ticking and popping noises had stopped, as had most of the noise from below. Emergency lights still glowed in places, either battery-powered or running off an independent line. The hall featured a large window overlooking the front lawn, through which she could see the generator shed, burning like a bonfire. The blackened metal reminded her of the train wreck, sending a shiver down her spine. Not good thoughts to be haunting her now. She hurried on without a second look.
The stairwell was rather treacherous to navigate in the creeping gloom, but she managed. Mei slipped along in the flashlight's afterglow, happy enough to be out for a nighttime stroll. In Elm Hope, the Whispers held little power. Elm Hope was safe. Elm Hope was Home. Even so, the shadow girl avoided the deep darkness out of habit. Better safe than sorry.
Something was blocking the stairwell door, but a good shove got it open. A nurse had been leaning against it, one Ell did not recognize, apparently fast asleep. Ell wondered why the nurse had decided to nap in that particular location; a bed would have been decidedly more pleasant.
The ticking returned suddenly, sharper and harsher, only a short way ahead of her. Someone made a funny grunting noise, followed by a heavy thump. Ell wondered if it was suit-man making all the commotion. If he was lost, perhaps she could show him where to go. Not everyone knew Fire-Alarm Protocol, and the field was hard to find if you didn't know your way around.
She passed a doctor lying on the floor, one of the pesy... psychology-ists, Daddy called them. Or something like that. He was lying face-down, so deep in sleep he seemed not to be breathing. Why was everyone sleeping? Didn't they understand? There was a fire in the building! They needed to get out.
Then she remembered; it didn't matter. They were all imaginary. Only Daddy and Mei mattered. The rest could sleep right through the fire, for all she cared. She stepped gingerly over the doctor, then waited for Mei to find her way around as well. She did want to see where the weird noise was coming from before she left for good. A tiny haze of smoke was visible now, curling down the hall like one of the silly sheet-ghosts she had seen in picture-books, but there didn't seem to be any actual fire yet. Plenty of time to take a look about.
She turned the corner, and her flashlight beam fell on another man, this one sitting propped against an overturned desk. Unlike the others, he wasn't dressed in medical garb. Overall, his appearance was quite nondescript; black hunting boots, faded jeans, a leather jacket. She lifted the beam to his face, and her breath caught in her throat
It wasn't possible... how could he be here...?
For the briefest of moments, she hoped beyond hope that he was sleeping as all the doctors were. Maybe his real eyes were closed behind those dead circles of glass, glass set in a hideous mold-yellow mask that sucked air with great heaving rasps through a deformed bottle...
Roy was not asleep.
“Hello, little girl,” he said, his voice muffled through the mask. “I've traveled a long way to see you.”
Neither moved, neither spoke. Roy continued to draw ragged breaths through his respirator, his rifle lying flat across his lap. He made no attempt to use it; he merely sat, watching.
Ell realized she was shaking slightly, and steadied herself. This wasn't his world anymore. This was her home. Here, she was invincible. Here, he could not hurt her. Mei wasn't afraid, either. She stood tall on the wall beside Ell, looming up in the low light, her customary smile now a straight, defiant line across her head.
Ell broke the silence. “You don't belong here.”
Roy didn't reply. He reached up and grasped the straps holding the mask across his head. The buckles clicked, and the mask fell away, giving Ell her first clear look at the face beneath.
He was pleasant enough to look at, the sort of man one would expect to see in a nice suit, driving about in a flashy car. His reddish hair was matted from the gas mask, the tips hanging down over his eyes. He smiled at her, his perfect teeth gleaming in the light.
“I go where I am needed, girl. I help people all over the world, people like you. Sad people, people who are afraid. Are you afraid, Ellie?”
“Not of you!” she said, a bit too forcefully.
Roy laughed. “How adorable. How are you, by the way? I couldn't tell if I hit you or not, back at that school. What with the fire and all.”
Ell frowned. “I had a dream that my shoulder got hurt. It didn't really happen, though.”
Suddenly angry, Ell took a step forward. “This is my home. You can't be in here. Daddy will get you.”
Roy laughed again, this time from surprise. “Daddy? Who is daddy?”
“My dad. He owns this house. He's gonna hurt you if he catches you. You should probably run away.”
“You mean... Dr. Anderson...? You think... you think he's your father...?” Roy's humor turned to a look such sadness, Ell almost wanted to give him a hug.
“You poor, poor girl. So hurt, so damaged, and they've covered it all with drugs and make-believe. Well, don't worry,” his expression grew hard, “I'll take care of your daddy next.”
Ell had had enough. “Go away! Get out of my home!”
Mei doubled in size, looming over Roy's prone form. Ell had never seen the shadow hurt anyone, but Mei was certainly about to try.
Roy did not seem to realize the danger. “Haven't you noticed? I've set it all on fire, Ellie. Your so-called home is about to become nothing more than soot and ashes. Just like your daddy's little toy train.”
Images of stripped metal and the smell of singed upholstery overlapped with reality, and Ell staggered slightly. She jammed her hand into her pocket, wiggling out her pill bottle. Roy saw it, leaning forward despite his obvious discomfort.
Ell ignored him, tossing one of the tablets in her mouth.
“Hey, girl. What are those? What's in them?”
She thought about ignoring him, but there didn't seem to be a point, so she told him what he wanted to know. Memorizing things, like the label on her pill bottle, was something she was good at, and so it only took her a few minutes to recite the names of the chemicals the pills consisted of.
“So that's what they're using. Damn. No wonder you're all messed up.”
Ell squinted at him. “You're weird.”
Roy tried to lift himself to a standing position, but only made it part-way before collapsing back with a grunt of pain. Ell noticed for the first time the blood running down his leg. It looked like he'd cut himself on something, leaving a circular wound just above his knee.
“Sorry about the mess, girl. One of your FBI friends put a round through my leg. Didn't expect them to be here. It's alright, though. I set them free, in the end. As for the hole... well, I heal fast.” He tried to move his leg, failed, and settled back with a wince. “Those pills you're taking, they're for the visions, right? The monsters in your head. You see them, too.”
Anger temporarily forgotten, Ell was somewhat interested. “You know about the Whispers?”
Roy paused before nodding. “Yeah, that's a good name for them. It's part of the curse we carry, you and I. A side-effect of our gifts. Those things would kill us if they could, so we take our pills like good little boys and girls. Of course, the medicine I use doesn't have all the side-effects yours does. It's a wonder you can still function at all.” He chuckled. “I wonder what those things do to you. All those years of trauma stacking on top of each other, nothing to counter the noise... it's probably like acid in your head.”
Ell inched up to Roy's feet. “You said we... have a gift? Like a Christmas present? I like getting presents.”
Roy shook his head, a small smile curling his lips. “No, Ellie. Ours is a different gift. It's not something you can hold or unwrap. It's inside of you. Inside your heart. Have you met John?”
“Well, Ell, John is here because of your gift. He wants to take it from you. He wants it for himself, for the men he works for. He wants to take your beautiful, special gift, and use it to hurt people. John is a very bad man, Ellie. That's why I came to stop him.”
“I don't understand. I don't have anything.”
Roy sighed. “Well, I can show you mine. Want to see it?”
“Alright then. My special gift is... a song! It's a special song, Ellie. A man I know wrote it just for people like you! It's made to... set you free. Would you like to hear it?”
Ell nodded again.
“Ah, good. Here goes.”
Roy hummed a few bars, cleared his throat, and began.
The song was in perfect pitch, with such rich overtones, it hardly seemed possible for a human throat to emit it. It curled inside her head, like electricity in musical form, bending her thoughts and emotions, gripping her soul
“Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's going to buy you a mockingbird.”
And with those first lines, it was as if the Devil himself had reached up from the ground and dragged her down to hell.
At first, there was just pain. Pure agony, blanking out all other feeling, as if someone had placed every part of her in a blender and turned it on. She tried to scream, and the noise cut her ears like a knife, somehow worse than the pain before, burning her as it sliced apart her brain.
“And if that mockingbird won't sing,
Mama's going to buy you a diamond ring...”
The words were crushing her, as if the moon itself had dropped from heaven squarely on her chest. She couldn't breathe. She was drowning, burning alive. Freezing claws pulling her apart, snapping off her limbs like bits of pretzel.
She opened her eyes, and immediately wished she hadn't. The walls were crawling with Whispers, swarming over each other like flies on a dead animal, their hisses rending the air, black pus leaking from every surface. Every bloodshot eye was on her, every misshapen mouth whispering her name through clicking teeth.
Roy was there as well, and he was their King. He stood before her now, leering at her, his eyes bubbling into a thousand smaller eyes that stared into every crevice the pain could not reach. His chest was a hole, and his heart was a stringed instrument, orchestrating the agony in waves of white-hot sound.
“And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama's going to buy you a looking glass...”
The song was killing her, yet it would not let her die.
Numbness crept across her body, replacing all feeling with a sensation of such utter emptiness, she almost cried out for the pain to return. She had to escape. She had to make it stop, to get the noise out of her head. In desperation, she reached out for Roy's rifle, but it was as if gravity had increased tenfold. Her limbs gave way, and she dropped to the floor, bruising her knees. The new pain hardly registered through the crushing oppression; there was nothing left. Nothing.
Nothing but Mei, sitting calmly at her side.
Ell could barely see her through the world of misery coiling about her senses, but there she was. Mei was holding on to her hand, a steady, gentle pressure, a single point where Roy's death-song could not penetrate. The shadow girl was placing sign-letters into Ell's palm, the sensations curling into actual, visible symbols; words carved from cobwebs, drifting letter by letter through the fiery haze.
It made no sense. Why tell her to sing? Why add to the infernal noise? Colors hurt to look at, now. It felt like her eyes were melting out of her head.
Even breathing was a struggle. She had fallen to her side now, the hard floor like a mass of thorns digging into her flesh.
So she did. She opened her mouth, and sang. She sang Roy's song right back at him, with all the force she could muster.
if that looking glass gets broke,
Mama's gonna buy you a billy goat...”
The line seemed to hang in the air, a brilliant golden line twisting through the nightmare. The Whispers slowed to a crawl, the fires ceased to dance, and Roy, mouth gaping, went suddenly silent...
Then, like a great spring coiling back on itself, the entire terrifying mass of illusion and agony reversed its course, drawn from Ell like a great black river, crashing down on its startled master.
Roy jerked, his spine arching so far back Ell thought it would snap. His eyes went wide, and a strange sound rattled up from deep within his chest. From all sides, the torrent of Whispers and searing heat continued to flow, and for a minute Roy was lost from view. A great grinding noise shook the walls, as if two massive gears had become frozen against each other; each fighting with relentless, titanic strength to break the other.
The black river parted, and Roy was on his feet, standing tall on his suddenly-uninjured leg. Ell's fallen flashlight cut every shadow from his frame, and he was nothing more than a man, blinking in the light. His right hand weakly clasped a hunting knife, the polished blade shaking ever so slightly as he brandished it at Ell.
“Knew it... I knew it... you aren't like me, Ellie.... You're better. You, your Deathsong. A thousand times what I... I could never hope to... you...” He staggered, almost fell, righted himself. “I came... to set you free... and now...”
He coughed, and his eyes lost their focus.
“Now... you have set me free.”
A trail of blood rolled slowly from his nose. Ell took a step back, wary of the ugly knife, but Roy made no move to strike. He held out his free hand, and in it was a small plastic container, the size and shape of a tic-tac dispenser.
“Please... girl... so many suffering souls... I'm leaving behind. Go on in my place. Sing for them, Ellie. Sing for them all.”
And without another word, Roy drove the knife into his own throat.
His face contorted horribly, but he did not stop, his hand dragging the jagged edge across with a gut-wrenching ripping noise. Ell let out a startled gasp, reaching out to stop him, but Roy was already fading away, now little more than a passing thought slithering through her imagination. The container he had held clattered on the floor, its contents rattling like maraca beans. What remained of the dark illusions sank away, and the hospital was once again still and peaceful in the night.
Ell retrieved her flashlight from where it had fallen, passing it slowly across the ground, searching for the plastic pill box. She found it in the corner, leaning against the wall, its contents still safe within. She picked it up, wincing slightly from the residual pain still crackling in her finger joints, and tipped a few of the pills into her hand.
They seemed to be the same bland white pills she took every day, only with flecks of something silver glistening on their surface. Someone had told her what they were, someone she had forgotten... She frowned. Ray, maybe, or Rob. He'd said the silvery pills were better than the ones Dr. Mortimer had given her. Perhaps daddy would let her take them.
Perhaps she should just take them now. If they were stronger, if they kept the bad things away forever...
Ell's head jerked up. The voice spoke inside her mind, but it did not come from there. Where...?
“You can't escape us.”
She looked left, out the window, searching the darkness. It was out there, she could feel it. The voice was unfamiliar, but she knew who it was. What it was.
Slowly, it came into view; a hulking black Thing, with two great eyes that shone with pale, sickly light, crawling like an enormous slug up Elm Hope's entry road. It wasn't a Whisper, though it was certainly forged of the same blackness and terror they composed themselves from. It was merely a lifeless vessel, dragging its cargo ever onward, ever closer to Ell's sacred sanctuary. Though it lacked windows, she knew what was within, and she was powerless to stop it.
Behind her, masked in the gloom of the lightless halls, a radio spit static. “...any surviving units, we have a SWAT team inbound. Check in if you read this, use the twin-pier ID to confirm your numbers. Again, SWAT team inbound, eta two minutes.”
But it was not a member of SWAT who stepped from the demonic transport. Perhaps it had once been a man, but it was certainly not any more. The Whisper had eaten him. The Whisper was strong, for the first time in all time. No longer ethereal, it had mass, it had form and shape. As it hauled itself from the vehicle, it saw her, even across the great expanse that separated them.
It saw her, and it smiled.
“The song has cut the chains. We are free, girl. And you are finished.”
And from the oozing mass poured an army of Whispers, free at last from the prison of her mind, moving with superhuman swiftness up the road to Elm Hope's gate.
Ell did not wait to see more. She turned on her heel, catching up Mei's hand in her own, and ran as fast as she could manage back the way she had come.
Where was daddy? He could stop the Whispers, she knew he could. Every time before, when they had been on the verge of tearing her mind apart, daddy had protected her. He had held her, talked to her, watched over her as she slept. He had given her the pills, to defend her from the chaos and confusion the Whispers always brought.
Where was he? Where had daddy gone?
Then she remembered; the fire alarm. The escape procedure. Everyone would be out behind the building. That was where he would be.
Roy's pills went into her pocket as she ran. She could take them when she was safe. The hospital was a maze to those unfamiliar with the twisting hallways, and would serve to slow the Whispers long enough for her to escape.
There was nothing more to do. Daddy was her last hope.