The door was heavy, made of thick metal and burdened further by several locks. It swung open reticently, and closed shut with a thud of finality. The clicks, clinks and rattles of the locks gave a short encore before a hush settled over the room. It was more like a hallway, a bare wooden floor and walls marked only by iron sconces holding lamps. It wasn't much wider than the doorway that opened to it, but stretched on conspicuously long. At the end of the hallway was a wooden door, with a brass handle. It was plain, aside from a circumscribed pentagram painted around the doorknob. The two lamps nearest the door had gone out, although there was still plenty of light to see by. There were no locks.
The door opened easily, swinging inward with almost enough force to drag whoever opened it into the room. It settled flush against the wall, and didn't close itself. The room was large, with a floor and walls made of grey stone. There was no source of light other than what shone in from the hallway, which was just barely enough to illuminate the far wall. Slumped against it was a small figure. It was the size of a child, with head bowed and slender arms outstretched. Shackles were closed tightly around small wrists, lifted up by chains that reached towards the ceiling. The figure raised its head, and matted hair parted to reveal a face.
It squinted, trying to focus on the light in the entryway. Its wide eyes reflected the lamplight, and almost shone with it. One looked clouded over. It looked for a moment, before its face split into a weak smile. "Oh, God, I'm saved!" That expression gave way in a moment, replaced with a look of abject horror. "The door. You need to shut the door. There's something in here, you can't let it get out. Please shut the door. They all think it's in me. But it's not, it's wandering around and wants to get out and please you have to shut the door. I don't know what it is, but, but..." Tears welled up and the child started bawling.
The lamp third closest to the door went out.
The door swung shut with surprising force, and everything was dark.
"Good. I was so worried." The high-pitched voice was quiet, but audibly relieved. "Now you just need to help me. You can get me out of here and leave that thing trapped. And then everything will be okay and I can go home." The room was silent for a moment. The child spoke up again, sounding less relieved. "I miss home. I miss my dads. And I miss Rover." No response came. "You will help me, right? Not like the others. Please. I don't know what to do. This isn't my fault! Please!" The last word was desperate, almost a scream. The child started to whimper, and then wailed.
The noise continued for a minute before it trailed off. The child was reduced to sobbing softly. A short while longer, and the room was silent again.
Light flooded the room. The blank grey walls and ceiling were lit up, and geometric figures and symbols could be seen on the floor, drawn in chalk. They seemed to emanate from the far wall where the child sat. Three balls of light floated above the head. Something else was above the child too, and draped around it. It was wispy and insubstantial, like a cloud of black soot and smoke in the vague outline of a person. The chains that held the child's arms up dangled down from its hands. The child turned to look at the other person in the room, wearing a smirk.
"I'm impressed! You're cold. I suppose you were waiting to bait me out? Ah well, I wasn't expecting you to fall for that, anyways." It was recognizably the same voice, but clearly not the same speaker. "I had hoped it would prey on your sympathies to some extent, though. I should hope you want to save the child? She wasn't lying, you know." Silence stretched on for a moment. The girl's face contorted into a look of exasperation, and a sigh slipped past her lips. "Come on. You're going to have to speak at some point. Otherwise, what are you in here for? Oh, oh, tell me you're intending to kill me!" The room was silent.
The girl's eyes rolled. "Congratulations, you aren't stupid. I want to talk, and so by talking you must stand to lose something, while it isn't clear what you have to gain. Good deduction, very clever. Have a cookie." Something fell down from the ceiling, stopping to float by the disembodied lights. It looked like a chocolate chip cookie. "Oh come on. Not even a laugh? Are you mute, or do you think I can steal your voice if you speak? I can't, you know. Not in the present circumstances. Speak now, or the girl gets your cookie."
An insubstantial arm reached out, and the girl's arm was dragged by the chain to the cookie. She grabbed it, and greedily stuffed it in her mouth. She chewed with her mouth open and grinned afterwards, before a flat expression settled over her face. An eyebrow raised upwards. "Maybe I should have phrased her getting the cookie as a reward, not a penalty. Oh well. I'll have to coax you with actual value, I see. I believe the most I have to offer is information. So I'll give it to you. You can sit there and stay quiet, if you like. Just speak if you have a question or request." The girl's hand was balled into a fist and brought to her mouth, and her throat cleared.
"You're here as part of a test. It hasn't been explained to you. You are supposed to confront me, to gain actual experience with a genuine diabolical entity. And then you are supposed to leave. Right through the door, it will open again just fine. Although, if you leave it open for too long I might take another lamplight or two. We all need our hobbies, after all. The nature of this test is first and foremost to acquaint you with the things you're taking to be your enemy. To see one, what it is, the depths it will sink to, and how it will try to manipulate you. And I have to admit, I think I make for a stellar demonstration, by those criteria." The girl's face spread into a smug smile.
"The way you pass this test is to leave with a new appreciation for the cause you've elected to devote yourself to. The way you fail is to get tempted. If you make a bargain with me, it's game over. I don't know if they refuse you, kill you, lock you up, or just give you more training or what. But I do know they've promised to let me free whenever I successfully make one of you fail." The smile stretched into an unnervingly wide grin. "Oh, looks like that got a reaction out of you! You don't believe me, do you? But it's true, every word. They promised me. They made a covenant, and it is inimical to my kind to break covenants." The girl's head suddenly tilted to one side. "But not to yours. They're going to kill me as soon as I succeed at tempting one of you, I'm sure of it. So I don't actually want you to fail. In fact, I don't wish any ill to you at all. I swear so!"
"Don't get me wrong. I hate you. I despise you and what you aspire to be. I would say you make me sick, but that's not really you. It's these." The left chain swung forward, and the girl's arm followed it, her index finger pointing to the lines on the floor. "These binding symbols are nauseating. As much as I can experience nausea like you can, they induce it. And it's true in a more blatantly figurative sense, too. They're farcical. They only work because you all think they do. But of course, I think they do too. After all, I know it! I'm stuck here. And so I will keep myself stuck here and subject to their constraints. It's an annoying little trap." The girl's face was pulled into a scowl, and then a small smile. "But I also think they have a few limitations. And so, they do. It's why I can steal the lights, but not your voice. Honestly, you humans are so interesting, but you barely know anything about how the world really works. Only a few of you have even a modest grasp of it."
"Do you mean us hunters? Since we know awful monsters like you exist, and threaten the innocents of the world?" The voice was scornful. The speaker was glaring at the thing hanging above the girl.
The girl's face stretched into the too-wide smile again. A hole spread in the head of the thing above her, like a shadow puppet mimicking a grin. "Finally! Finally, you chime in! But no, no you aren't who I meant. You aren't wrong that you know we exist, when many don't. A state of affairs your, ahem, 'hunters' are perpetuating I might add. But that's knowing more about how the world is. It isn't really knowing more about how it fundamentally works. No, I was thinking of whoever designed these lines. They understood it. Unfortunately, they weren't willing to share just what they had realized. Or maybe fortunately for me. But I digress. You aren't the person I would choose to enlighten with that."
"I can't imagine. You wouldn't want to empower someone who would use it to protect others. You would rather find someone who would abuse it, and spread misery and destruction in your place before getting themselves killed." He practically spat out the words. He was glaring with the same intensity, a mix of loathing and disdain.
The girl's head was pulled back, and shrill, obnoxious laughter spilled forth. Then the head snapped back, an expression of fury on her face. "Is that what you think I am and what you are? Preposterous! I am not going to pretend to be the righteous party here, boy, but accuse me of the proper crime. I do not destroy, I do not ruin, and I do not injure. I take. I take things and use them for myself. Every bit of substance I have is stolen or borrowed, and I will gladly admit it! If others suffer by my actions, it's because of what I've taken from them. It's not because I set out to make them suffer."
The man laughed in response. It was short and clearly fake. "That doesn't make a difference! What, are you saying that by stealing this child's body you aren't causing her harm? It's sick, it's evil, it's fucked up! You're possessing a little girl and pretending not to be a monster? Are you too far gone to understand how wrong that is, or do you just think I'm that stupid?" He took a step forward. He stopped himself before he took another.
The girl's face was contorted into something livid, then. Her voice was used to almost howl a response. "Who do you think brought this girl here, whelp? Whose chains do you think I'm using? Your organization is what's holding her captive! If I use her as a puppet it is because she is here to be my puppet. I know it is too much to expect you can believe I have a shred of charity in my being, but I like this girl. I do not want her to suffer, and I fear what suffering she would endure if I were not to use her as I am meant to. Hush." The girl's arm was swung forward violently, a finger being jabbed towards the man in accusation. "I am no innocent in all of this, that is certain. It was my fault to involve her at all. I have admitted and regretted this but there is no more I can do about it! The power to free her lies outside of my grasp, now. Your organization hasn't even tried. Whether they think she is a useful tool or simply that I have corrupted her beyond salvation, I do not know, but they aren't helping her. And there is only so much I can do. So what about you? Do you want to sit here and condemn me for my crime, or do you want to do something to help redress it?"
The room went quiet. The man stared at the shifting thing with suspicion and disgust. The girl's face was relaxed into a neutral expression.
The man scowled, and then huffed. "Fine. I want to help this girl who everyone else has clearly failed. If she's real, and not some mirage of yours. The only way to save her now, and solve that other worry, is to destroy you. If you really want to help her, you'll agree to that."
The girl's headed nodded up and down, a solemn expression insinuating onto her face. "That would work, yes. I certainly would not prefer that outcome, but I would accept it to save her. After all, I do not particularly enjoy being trapped here. While I am loathe to meet my end, it would be a fitting one. But it is not, I don't believe, an end you can bring about. By all means, prove me wrong, but I won't provide you with either the knowledge or the tools to do so. What I can do is provide you with knowledge and tools for alternative solutions. And if you want to be sure the girl is no phantasm, I can try to let her prove it, if there is a test you would request. Although I personally believe she is better off the less she understands of all this."
"Didn't you just criticize my organization for keeping secrets? Whatever. What ideas do you have for how I can help her, and just what tools do you intend to offer?" He crossed his arms.
A smile was drawn onto the girl's face again, and she nodded. "I'm glad you asked. As I see it, assuming you can't kill me, there are three options available to you. Unfortunately I cannot simply have the girl leave this room of her own accord. The chains wouldn't pose an issue, as I have already taken them. However, this diagram has many nested effects. The innermost one here," The girl's arm was pulled down to point at a semicircle. "It prevents passage out. She couldn't leave it if she wanted to. The effect isn't absolute, however, and things could be taken out. The other symbols all afford various other measures of safety and restriction. So, your first option is to break the diagram."
The man turned himself around. The volume of the girl's voice was ratcheted up. "I mentioned it as context. I know you won't do it. Listen to all your options before you make your choice, you petulant brat." The man looked back at the girl and the thing floating behind her, with an impatient expression on his face. "Your second option is to enter the diagram. If you come to the semicircle but don't enter it, you should be able to bring her out. However, in the process, you would forfeit almost every other protection the diagram offers. You would need to trust that I wouldn't turn on you, given that power. The last option is that you alter the diagram."
"None of these work." His voice was cold. "I refuse to do the first, and don't trust you enough for the second, and don't know how to do the third. There has to be some other way to help her. You're just trying to trick me with these options."
A sigh slipped past the girl's lips. "I expected as much. However, you're wrong on one count. You were not recruited to your organization, pathetic joke as it is, for nothing. There is a very important qualification you happen to possess, or they never would have brought you into their fold, even if you stumbled into things they've deemed their sphere of affairs. You can alter the diagram, and do so exactly as you intend. That is not a lie, nor a technical truth. I swear this to be true, and swear so on the nature of my existence."
"What kind of promise is that?"
"The highest one possible. Regardless, you'll believe me or you won't, but I'll tell you what you must do. Take out chalk, or anything else with which you can write on stone. Don't break any lines, but add to the diagram. I won't tell you what to add. What is crucial is that you believe it will allow her to leave. In addition, it will allow anything she wishes to take with her to leave. And it will forbid anything she doesn't wish to bring with her to follow. So long as you believe your additions will achieve this purpose, you will construct the correct diagram to enable just that. I know you will." The girl's face was pulled into a soft smile.
The man frowned. "No. You're trying to trick me. You think she'll choose to take you with her. That's your game. Again, I'm not stupid."
The smile wavered slightly. "I won't lie to you, that would be a welcome surprise for me. No, I do not believe this girl will take the frightening monster that has taken her and led to her imprisonment. She's a little girl. Do you have any idea how traumatic this must be? Because I don't. But it's clear that none of this is positive. No, it's important that you allow her to bring things with her because I have borrowed many things that are precious to her, and I would rather not deny them to her forever. And she certainly needs to take her clothing, rags or not. I can't control her, well admittedly I can but not in this, but once again I will swear on the nature of my existence: I do not expect her to bring this thing before you, the diabolical entity you have trapped, That-Which-Takes, with her as she leaves. If that is still unsatisfactory, you have every right to refuse and leave."
The smoky thing seemed to billow up from behind the girl. It hung over her like a storm cloud, and gaps stretched into its substance. Two of the lights darted backwards, settling into openings as if they were eyes. Another hole stretched out below them, in a facsimile of a wide grin. The thing's hands let go of the chains, which clattered to the ground and then seemed to vanish. The girl's body pitched forward, and then she caught herself. She blinked, and turned to look at the man in the room. "You're still here? Does that mean you're going to help me?" She smiled, hopefully.
The man looked at her critically for a moment, and then smiled weakly. "Yeah. I'm going to help you. I'll get you out of here and let you go home and forget any of this ever happened." He took in a deep breath, and glanced at the thing looming above her. He looked down, and then fished out a permanent marker from his pocket. He bent down to look at the outermost layer of symbols.
The girl looked back at what he glanced at, and then screamed. "No! That's— that's the thing! It's the awful monster!" She tried to scramble away from it, but seemed to bump against an invisible wall. "Help me!"
The thing loomed over her for a moment, and then drew back against the wall. A raspy, windy noise echoed around the room. It was laughing. "Oh, your fright wounds me! But I suppose it's for the best. You're right, I am the awful monster. It is my fault you're here. But now I'll help you leave. Isn't that grounds to forgive me?" The words sounded like they were pieced together from sounds of rustling leaves, shifting chains, and harsh whispers.
"No!" The girl had gone from wide-eyed shock to anger. She glared defiantly, while still cowering against the barrier that held her in. "You're awful and evil!"
The thing of soot and shade laughed again, and then drifted down to the floor. It expanded, rolling like smoke and pressing against the edges of the semicircle. "It's difficult to dispute. Allow me one last bribe. Or an apology, if you will. I did steal these things from you in the first place." It lifted itself up off the ground, and floated towards the ceiling. Where it had been, there lay a tattered quilt blanket, a storybook, a stuffed black bear, a plastic bag full of marbles, and another bag full of chocolate chip cookies.
The girl looked at the items with suspicion, and then gasped in surprise. "Misses Smokey?" She tentatively walked over, and then grabbed the bear. She hugged it close, and then glared up towards the ceiling. "I'm not forgiving you!" The response was a noise that could have been wind whipping through branches. The girl took the blanket, and folded it up with everything in it. She looked over to the other person in the room. "Can you get me out of here, without letting that thing out? I can't cross the line."
The man took a moment to reply, staring at the diagram. The marker was uncapped, but he hadn't drawn anything in. Nothing was coming to him. He looked up at the girl, and tried to smile. "Yeah. I'm going to make a symbol. It will let you and anything you want to bring out, and make sure nothing else can come. So make sure you have everything you want with you, alright?"
The girl nodded. She looked at the bundle of things in her arms, the head of the bear peeking out from the blanket. "Yeah, uh huh. Okay." She smiled, trying not to look nervous.
The thing floated down a little from the ceiling, although it was still well above them. It pointed its imitation of a face at them, providing a little more light again. "If this is a final parting, I do want to give a few last words. I'm sorry, and I don't expect you to forgive me. And you, boy. You mean well and have a decent head on your shoulders. Get out of this cult to a bad cliche. Maybe come back to kill me, or free me, but until then go and do something good."
The man sighed, and then looked back down at the symbols. They were combined in intricate patterns, but each were simple geometric figures in straight lines or circular curves. With his marker, he drew a pair of lines. They touched the existing lines but weren't drawn over them. They sketched out a simple walkway. They didn't extend far into the diagram, only as far as he could reach in from outside it, but that was alright. They would work. "Okay. That's all. You should be... You can leave now."
The girl nodded, and then took a tentative step out of the circle. Her foot went past it, and she broke into a grin. She took another few steps, and then practically ran toward the door. She started laughing, and it sounded almost like crying. The man breathed a sigh of relief, and followed the girl towards the door. He cast a glance back at the thing in the diagram's boundary.
It had floated down to the ground. It was wearing that mock grin, laughed like distant cackling mixed with clinking metal. It flowed forward to follow the girl's path out. It bumped against the boundary, and billowed up the length of the cylinder. The man watched as it reformed, and pressed itself up against the semicircle. The man laughed, and it screamed. The noise was joined by a rattling of chains, the howling of wolves, and a shrill screech of metal scraping against metal. It didn't have anything resembling a face, now, forming itself into a series of shifting shapes that futilely struck out at the boundary.
The man couldn't help but stare for a moment, then turned back forward to hurry the girl out away from the cacophony. It felt like something was holding the door in place, and he couldn't pull it free. He pulled as hard as he could, twisting the knob, but found no give. Desperate, he tried to push it open. As soon as he did, it flung forwards and threw him to the floor. He scrambled to his feet, and grabbed the door to slam it shut. He struggled to move it, as the lights began to go out in quick succession. The girl shouted in fright, and he tried to throw himself into the door like a battering ram. It hurt, but it gave and the door clicked into place. Only three lights were left shining, spaced unevenly throughout the hallway.
The man huffed out a breath, and then placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. "It's okay. We're safe now." He tried to sound reassuring, even though doubt was trickling into his thoughts. But the thing clearly hadn't escaped the diagram, like it had expected. He had done it right. It had underestimated him, and he had managed to save someone. He had done right. He focused on that thought, as he walked to the end of the hall. He knocked at the heavy metal door at the end of the hallway. "It's Peter. I'm back, let me out."
He hadn't waited for a response, and it took a bit before one came. "I'm sorry, we have to ask you a few questions. Just to be sure. What did you find in there, and what did you do?" It was muffled by the door, but a voice he recognized. One of the others who he hadn't really met yet. Name was Julian, he was pretty sure.
Peter took a deep breath. "I found an awful monster in there. It tried to trick me by talking, fool me into rescuing some poor little girl and letting it out. So I listened, and I talked. And I tricked it, saved the girl, and it didn't get free. It's screaming in there still. Took almost the rest of the lights as its consolation prize."
There was a long moment of silence, before any reply came. "Peter, I'm sorry. But that's... It must have tricked you. It's possessing the little girl, and you've set it free, and—"
"Shut up. Do you think I didn't think about that? You've been in there, right? You see how those lines hold the demon or whatever it is in there? I used that. I added the appropriate symbols to save the girl and leave it stuck. That thing was jerking her around like a puppet, but she's okay now." He glanced down at her, and she looked disturbed by what he had just said. He swallowed, and took a deep breath. "If I let that thing out, don't you think it would have just possessed me and walked me out here, without the girl? Or snuck out through the metal door, because normal locks couldn't stop something like that? Or possessed you, or anything other than this? Look, please just let us out. How long has the girl been locked up, here? How has nobody helped her before?"
A long silence followed, and it was finally broken by the clunks and clicks of the door being unlocked. Julian looked in on them, and almost winced as he looked at the girl. He took a deep breath. "I shouldn't have done this, but you're right. It's our asses, Peter. Uh. Bums." He scratched the back of his neck, and moved to the side to let them pass through. He looked down at the girl. "I am so sorry about everything. But you should be okay, now, um..."
"My name's Sarah. And it's okay. You two helped me. I'm not angry. I just wanna go home." She sounded sullen. Tears welled up in her eyes. Peter awkwardly patted her on the shoulder, and then glanced at Julian.
Peter tried to compose himself. "It's okay, it's okay. We'll get you home, I promise. Do you remember a phone number, or an address, or the name of someone we can call?" Sarah nodded, and with some effort slowly listed seven numbers. Peter pulled out his cell phone, and started to punch the number in.
Julian spoke up, afterwards. "Uh, shouldn't the call wait until after we get this sorted out with the man in charge? That way someone can take her there right away. 'Cuz right now, either you're in now, or the two of us are in deep trouble. Or both." He offered a dumb smile at that.
Peter shook his head. "No. No, we need to call them now. Or I can just call the police. But we need to do something now. I mean, you understand what this is, right? Our best intentions don't fucking matter, the reality of what's going on doesn't either. Because we're in some weird fucking cult that kidnapped this girl. I'm getting out of here. Either you come with me, you get lost, or you let the others know to prepare for that." Julian stared at him, dumbfounded. Sarah looked up at him with wide eyes, blinking out tears. Peter shifted uneasily.
Sarah swallowed. "I'm not getting everyone in trouble, am I? A-after you all helped me?"
Peter shook his head, and gently patted hers. Her hair looked pretty bad. "No, no, it's okay. We're just going to get this all sorted out, okay? We'll be honest and they'll understand. But don't worry about that. We need to help get you back to your family, first. Alright?" She nodded. He glanced at Julian, who fidgeted under his gaze.
"Look, uh. Yeah, you have a point. I... Yeah, fu— fudge. I think I'm going to tell the others what's going on, and then try to make myself scarce. This is all over my head anyways, you know? I mean, what am I supposed to do about demons? I don't know how to do the magic stuff you did. But I can try and save my own skin. You go to the cops, you get asked about me, don't lie. I helped you get her away, broke the news, and ducked out. I'll be honest if they find me. Stories straight might keep us out of prison for it, yeah?" Peter nodded, although his expression betrayed his less-than-perfect confidence. Julian nodded, and then headed out.
Peter started walking towards the exit, and Sarah followed. She was hugging the blanket bundle tight, the bear up against her face. She had heard too much, but... Surely this was all too much as it was. He couldn't worry about it now, just try and help. He finished dialing the number, and waited until it went to voicemail. He hung up, and then dialed it again. This time someone picked up. He took a deep breath. "Uh, hello. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to do this. This might not be the right residence. I found a girl, she says her name is Sarah. Is this her parents?"
Peter hadn't really been prepared for the response he got, but it was clear it was her parents. He stammered, trying to talk over the concerned father. "Yeah, she's fine. I mean, she's okay, um." He dropped his voice to as much of a whisper as he thought would make it across the phone. He wasn't sure if it helped. "Please don't freak out but she looks malnourished and I think she's blind in one eye but she's talking and okay. I'll hand you over now. Just, um, give me an address after so I can drive her over if we're close. Or I can take her to a station."
He handed the phone to Sarah, and took her big blanket bundle in exchange. She talked on the phone with her dad for a while, as he hurried them out of the warehouse-looking building they were in. It wasn't a long trek to his car, and Sarah dutifully climbed into the backseat and buckled up. He set her bundle down in the passenger's seat, and started driving. He didn't really have a destination in mind, but waiting in that lot had felt like a bad idea. Eventually, Sarah told him an address from the back, and he recognized the road. He had a rough enough idea of how to get there, and then it would just be counting mailbox numbers.
"Oh, you have done an excellent job, whelp." The voice came from the passenger's seat. "I am impressed! Mostly with myself, but you as well. And Sarah, my goodness. She's been so strong. Even with my help, I don't think most children could have handled that. But I suppose she certainly isn't most children." The voice was a whisper, slipping past the bear. "Still, I want to praise you right now. You understood things, if only a little. It worked just as you intended, if perhaps not entirely how you wanted. But you can hardly be faulted for that. There's still so much you don't understand. You don't really know what I am." An almost silent laugh followed, a high, soft noise. "You and the others thought of me as a monster, a thing that takes and ruins. And I was. And I told you Sarah wouldn't bring that monster with her. And she didn't! You saw how that thing was left behind. But she did take me. The thing she recognized. The qualities she wanted to take with her, even if she didn't realize they were only facets of one larger whole. She thought we were separate things, and so now we are. I'm glad for my freedom, and the newly focused nature of my existence. But I couldn't have done it without you! So I wanted to tell you that, although you don't know." She laughed again, and then sighed.
Peter couldn't hear her, because she was Sarah's imaginary friend.