Sheets of rain lashed against the windshield as the car wound through the forest, its tires skidding on the old dirt road, kicking up torrents of mud that left streaks across its flanks. It was a full moon, but dark clouds choked the sky, and a thick fog had rolled in between the gnarled trunks of the naked trees. Freddy cursed to himself under his breath, keeping his eyes on the shadowy path ahead as he reached for his high beams. They lanced forth, cutting through the first few feet of mist like a knife but quickly fading as the haze consumed them. He squinted, but between the torrential downpour and the obscuring mist, he could scarcely see ten feet ahead.

The vehicle groaned as he eased up on the accelerator, frustration furrowing his brow as he found himself torn between making good time and not wrapping his ’93 Bronco around a tree. He tapped at the GPS that was crudely mounted above his dash with a suction cup, his cab bathed in red light as it flashed a no signal warning.

“Piece of shit,” he grumbled to nobody in particular. The only reason that he was out here to begin with was because the app had suggested a quicker route, something that it had assured him was a shortcut that would shave an hour off his journey. At this rate, he wasn’t even going to make it to the meeting at all, never mind on time.

There was a hiss of static as he tried to turn on the radio, cycling between the channels to no avail, each station spewing out nothing but crackling noise. It was like he’d driven off the map entirely, like some ancient mariner sailing his ship off the edge of the world.

He returned his attention to the road instead, his vehicle slowing to a crawl as he navigated through the woods. Even with four-wheel-drive, the truck was having a hell of a time finding purchase on the track, if it could even be described as one. Winter had stripped the trees of their leaves, creating a canopy above his head like the interlocking fingers of some skeletal creature, the gaunt branches swaying in the wind. Just where the hell had he ended up?

As he rounded another bend in the snaking road, there was a sound like a gunshot, Freddy almost jumping out of his skin as the truck suddenly veered off the road. He fought against the wheel, but there was nothing he could do, his seat belt digging into his shoulder as the vehicle plunged nose-first into a ditch. There was a loud thud, then he opened his eyes to see grass directly ahead of him.

Muttering things that would make a sailor blush, he fumbled to unbuckle his seat belt, then struggled out through the driver’s side door. The drop was higher than he was anticipating, and he stumbled as he landed, immediately pulling up the hood of his jacket to protect himself from the hammering rain. As he turned, he saw that his truck was hopelessly stuck. It had plunged grill-first into a ditch, muddy water now rising past its headlights, the rear wheels lifted a good foot off the ground.

His shoes splashing in the mud, he walked around to the other side of the vehicle, raising a hand to shield his face from the almost horizontal downpour. There was the issue — the front left tire had blown. There must have been something sharp on the road, maybe a broken bottle or a piece of rusty metal. He had a spare in the back, but there was no way he was getting his truck out of the ditch without a tow. Turning his back to the wind to stop his phone from getting soaked, he tried to make a call but quickly realized that the device wasn’t faring any better than his GPS.

Uttering one last curse, he reached into the cab for his keys, then set off along the dirt track. He had no idea what lay ahead of him. All he knew was that he hadn’t passed a gas station or another driver for a solid hour, so there was a marginally higher chance of finding help if he kept going.

Lightning cracked across the sky, Freddy pulling his jacket tighter as he trudged along the side of the road. This was the kind of weather that a raincoat provided little protection against, the frigid water and creeping wind finding their way into every little crack and crevice. He glanced up as he passed beneath one of the swaying trees, seeing an owl perched on one of its branches, its yellow eyes peering down at him like beacons. The bird wasn’t faring much better than he was, its wings wrapped around itself protectively as the wind ruffled its dark feathers.

Freddy spared one last glance at his truck, then headed off down the path.




Freddy had been walking for a couple of hours, and his shoes and socks were completely waterlogged, the friction starting to rub his feet raw. He was shivering, his jacket so soaked that he wasn’t even sure if it was wet on the inside or just cold. He had passed the point where turning back would have been an option, so he had decided to keep going, surmising that he must come across civilization eventually. Inconvenience was starting to turn to danger, and annoyance to genuine concern for his safety. Although he was sticking to the road, he was still lost in the middle of a forest, and his phone was a useless hunk of plastic.

As the rolling fog cleared for a brief moment, he spotted a glow ahead. There was something off in the distance, maybe a house or a gas station, its elevation putting it above the treeline. The dim pinpricks of yellow light were quickly shrouded in mist again, but it was enough to get a vague sense of direction, so he kept going.

He eventually reached a fork in the road, a smaller path that led off into the woods. It was overgrown, somehow in even worse shape than the dirt track. High above the trees, he could see that faint glow, like a lighthouse warning ships away from the shore. There must be someone home if the lights were on. Swallowing his apprehension, he made his way down the track. He soon started to climb uphill, the terrain growing rockier, the dense woodland thinning out.

Through the haze, Freddy glimpsed his destination. It wasn’t a gas station, but an old house — no, a mansion. It was perched atop a hill slap bang in the middle of the woods, conspicuously isolated, the way that it rose above the mist making it look like it was sitting on a solitary island in an ocean of shifting fog. The only access was the winding trail that he was currently following. The place was old — he could see the pointed silhouette of a Victorian-style turret — but buildings that had been constructed in the 1700s weren’t unusual in the region. Still, as he advanced towards it, he couldn’t help but feel a chill crawl down his spine.

An obstacle soon blocked his path. There was a high wall around the property, the old stonework cracked and weathered, a pair of heavy iron gates standing in his way. They were painted jet black, and they had long ago fallen prey to clinging vines, leaving them so overgrown that he doubted whether they would actually open anymore. To either side of the gates were stone pillars, and sitting atop each one was a grimacing gargoyle, their shining bronze tarnished with green patina due to decades of oxidation.

Freddy appraised the gates, noticing that they didn’t seem to be chained, and decided to give them a push. To his surprise, they creaked open with relative ease, as though the visibly rusted metal had been oiled only recently. The desiccated creepers that had looked like they would seal the way shut simply crumbled and fell away. These gates couldn’t have been opened in years, so why were there lights on in the house? There must be some other way inside, maybe a rear entrance.

He was trespassing beyond this point, but it wasn’t like there was a buzzer or an intercom, so he had little choice but to head inside. The grounds were just as overgrown as the forest beyond, what had probably once been carefully tended trees and flowerbeds now overflowing, the harsh weather turning many of the plants into dried-out husks. He passed a stone fountain filled with stagnant water that now played home to weeds, its chipped surface coated in lichens, the statue that stood atop its pedestal sculpted into the shape of a woman in a flowing gown. The large jug that she was hefting over her shoulder must have been a water spout at one point, but it was dry now.

Despite how abandoned the place looked, the path leading up to the house was bathed in golden light from a lamp on the porch, drawing him in like a moth to the flame. He craned his neck to get a better look at the property as he neared, seeing that it was built in a Gothic style, probably putting it at two or three hundred years old. It was three stories tall, made from dark brickwork that had been stained and weathered by age, more creepers making their way towards the gray tiles on the roof. At each of the four corners of the building was a tall, cylindrical turret with a pointed cone, and there were balconies on the upper floors that looked out over the garden. There was elaborate ornamentation everywhere he looked, with balustrades on the roof and tracery on the large bay windows that faced the gate. It would have been a lavish property worthy of a millionaire had it not been in such a state of decay, but despite its appearance, light still poured out through the filthy glass.

Hoping that he wasn’t about to be greeted with the barrel of a shotgun, Freddy trudged up the path, taking cover from the rain beneath the sloping porch. He flipped open his hood so as to appear less threatening, his mop of damp hair sticking to his face as he tried to brush it aside, then reached for the brass knocker on the door. He rapped once, twice, then stepped back as he waited for someone to answer. After what must have been a couple of minutes, he noticed a shadow making its way along the building. Something inside was blocking the light as it moved towards the door from the left wing of the manor, passing in front of each window in turn, the glass too dirty to make out any kind of detail. It slipped out of view as it entered the foyer, Freddy feeling a lump form in his throat.

The sound of a sliding bolt rose above the patter of the rain, and the door swung open on squeaking hinges to reveal a tall figure. Freddy couldn’t help but take a faltering step back as the stranger loomed over him. Their features were cast into shadow by the chandelier on the ceiling behind them, but the porch light soon revealed them as they drew closer.

It was a woman, tall and willowy, with raven hair so long that it reached the small of her back. The first thing that he noticed was her clothing. She was wearing a gown made from a heavy, black fabric whose hem reached low enough to obscure her feet, tapering into a narrow waist that might have been the product of an unseen corset. She wore a jacket that looked almost like the upper half of a two-piece suit, but in a more feminine style that gripped her figure tightly, the two halves joined by a single button that gave it the appearance of a butterfly’s wings. The lapels were open wide to expose the soft ruffles of the cream-colored bodice that she wore beneath it, its collar fastened about her slender neck tightly enough that it looked uncomfortable. The sleeves were equally form-fitting, though they expanded at the shoulders to give them a wider profile. The outfit was decorated with swirling embroidery in shining gold, outlining the hem, the lapels of the jacket, and the cuffs with ornate patterns. It was clearly an old style, but not so old as to raise eyebrows.

As his eyes wandered up to her face, he was struck by her lily-white skin, the dark hues of her hair and her choice of clothing making it all the more apparent. Her cheeks almost seemed drained of warmth, and suddenly, the frigid wind behind him seemed welcoming in comparison. She peered back at him with a pair of blue eyes so icy that they bordered on gray, expressionless save for a hint of curiosity. She was older than he was, maybe in her late thirties or early forties, if he had to guess. She clasped her hands neatly in front of her, waiting for him to explain himself.

“H-hi,” he stammered, not sure how else to address her. “I’m really sorry to bother you, but my…I crashed my car in the woods,” he continued as he gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “With all the rain, I just lost control and…into a ditch, y’know? I saw that your lights were on, and…my cell doesn’t have any reception…” He trailed off, realizing that she was waiting for him to get to the point. “Can I use your phone?”

She looked him up and down, then her pale face broke out into a warm smile, and she stepped aside with a gesture for him to enter.

“I’m afraid that I don’t have a working telephone,” she replied, her voice deep and breathy. “But please, come in out of the rain all the same. You’re liable to catch your death out there.”

He stepped into the foyer, finding it just as lavish as the exterior of the building and no less run down. The ornate chandelier that hung high above their heads was draped with a thick layer of cobwebs, making it look like it hadn’t been cleaned in years. Even the bulbs were dusty, dimming the light that they cast on the checkerboard tiles below. There were elaborate plaster casts of flowers and cherubs on the ceiling, the paint that had once adorned them now peeling. At the far end of the room was a winding staircase that led to the upper floors, carved from some kind of rich, dark wood that might be mahogany. The banister was sculpted all the way up, Freddy taking a moment to admire it.

“You’re soaked to the bone,” the woman said, watching him drip rainwater on her tiles. He was indeed drenched, his wet clothes sticking to him, his shoes leaving muddy footprints.

“Jeez, I’m sorry,” he grumbled as he raised his arms impotently as though that might somehow help. “I’m tracking mud all over your floor.”

“No matter,” she said sweetly, gesturing to the leftmost doorway that led deeper into the building. “If you haven’t noticed by now, the property isn’t quite as well-maintained as it once was. Please, take a seat by the fire.”

The tall woman shadowed him as he made his way into the next room, passing beneath a high arch and into a short hallway. There were windows to his left, but he couldn’t see out into the garden due to the grime that coated them. Against the right wall was a series of small tables that were adorned with marble busts of men and women that he didn’t recognize. There were paintings, too, but most of them were covered over with protective sheets that were themselves caked in dust and cobwebs.

At the far end of the hall was a door, and after the stranger encouraged him to open it, he stepped through into an expansive room. The ceiling here was just as impressively high as the one in the foyer, and there was another chandelier draped with a blanket of silvery spiderwebs hanging from its center. To his left was one of the bay windows that he had seen from outside, and at the far end of the room was a fireplace with a marble mantle in onyx black that looked as though it must have weighed a solid ton, the stone carved with intricate reliefs of plants and animals. A welcoming fire roared in the hearth, its wavering flames doing more to light the room than the dim chandelier, casting the furniture that was arranged around it in an orange glow. Couches, padded armchairs, and coffee tables faced it in a rough crescent. It was all dark leather, maybe black or brown — it was hard to tell in the gloom.

The woman guided him over to an armchair by the fire, Freddy grimacing as he left wet footprints on what must have been a very old and expensive carpet. She seemed indifferent, even though it would probably have cost him a month’s wages to have the thing steam washed. The old, cracked leather creaked as he sat down, its padding so soft that he felt like the chair was trying to swallow him whole. The warmth of the fireplace immediately began to drive off the chill, and just being off his feet for a moment was a huge relief.

“This won’t do,” the woman tutted, looming over him as she stood beside his chair. “Allow me to fetch you a change of clothes, and we can set yours to dry by the fire.”

“A change of clothes?” Freddy repeated, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “But, how-”

“I’d say that you wear a size forty-two,” she said, those icy eyes playing over him. “Trust me, tailoring is my profession. Please wait here. I’ll return shortly.”

“But, I just needed to use your…”

She was already gone, gliding gracefully out of the room, the hem of her black dress trailing behind her. Now alone, Freddy glanced around, taking in his strange surroundings. Like the rest of the house, everything had an air of disuse about it, as though the sheets and coverings that would have protected the furniture had only recently been removed. A fine layer of dust coated every surface, and the cobwebs were ever-present. They also looked old — the kind that obviously had no living spiders tending to them, waving in the air gently like tattered wedding veils. They were confined mostly to the corners of the high ceilings, so they were probably a bitch to reach without a ladder. Still, the fire roared on a bed of freshly cut logs, and hearing the rain hammering against the bay windows made him feel oddly cozy.

He wanted to remove his wet clothes, but without anywhere obvious to hang them, he preferred to just wait for his host to return. What was her deal, anyway? She had told him that she didn’t have a working phone, but she’d probably surmised that there wasn’t really anywhere else for him to go. The company meeting was a write-off, just like his car. All he could do now was wait for the storm to clear.

He noticed something sitting on a small table by the window. It was a phone. He glanced over the backrest of his seat to check if the woman had come back yet, then slowly rose to his feet, walking over to examine it. It was an old rotary phone, and when he lifted the receiver to his ear, he heard nothing but an electrical hum.

“The phone lines are down because of the storm, I’m afraid.”

Freddy replaced the receiver, turning to see the strange woman standing in the doorway with that same warm smile on her face, a bundle of fabric clasped against her chest.

“Sorry,” Freddy stammered, making his way back to his seat. “Thought I’d check.”

“It happens every time we have bad weather,” she explained, striding over to him. “The lines are old and poorly-maintained, as you can no doubt imagine. All it takes is a little wind and rain to put them out of commission.” A crack of lightning distracted her, the flash bleeding through the grimy windows. “And what frightful weather!” she continued with a chuckle. “I’m surprised you made it here at all.”

“Do you get any cell reception up here?” Freddy asked. The woman didn’t respond, and as the silence became awkward, he reached into his pocket for his phone. “I guess not,” he mumbled after checking the connection. “No WiFi either…”

“You should get out of those wet clothes,” she said, changing the subject. She set the bundle of fabric down on the armrest of his chair, then approached the fireplace, where she produced some kind of iron rack. She unfolded it in front of the crackling flames, then turned to him expectantly. “How do you take your tea? I’m afraid that I’m not quite as perceptive when it comes to guessing one’s preferred flavors.”

“Tea?” he asked.

“I’ll fetch some while you change,” she continued, passing him on her way to the door.