Sorry for the late update! It's practically springtime in Georgia, which means school gets crazy. I'll try my best to do better next time. Thank you so much for the lovely reviews!
A Quick Word: The prologue was sort of a Sympathy for the Devil type-thing. Please keep in mind: the devil is still the devil, no matter how much sympathy she receives.
Chapter One: Advent
Hill House was dark. Its infinite hallways and drafty rooms were bathed in feeble candlelight; no electricity and no moon either. Banks and banks of heavy purple clouds loomed in the night sky, gorged on water, waiting like sheep to be bled. Every so often, a few drops of moisture would fleck across the House's numerous windows, disturbing the accumulated dust. It had been exceptionally dry that year-the grass was parched, the trees sagged beneath the weight of their own branches. The world was stained in sickly coffee. Rain would be welcome indeed.
In the library of Hill House, a fire snapped merrily in the grate. It was stoked by dried wood and long-dead leaves, and tended by a tired gentleman in a tired suit. He was not very old, but everything about him seemed sad and dusty. His drooping eyes were rimmed by fleshy bags; his hair, which might have once shone, was lusterless. The warm orange glow of the flames was a strange contrast with his empty eyes.
As it was prodded, the fire leapt up high, sending a spray of ashes across the man's face. He coughed and wafted them away with a limp hand, as if he hadn't the energy to deal with such things. Sparks drifted, like fireflies, up the chimney and out into the damp twilight.
He stood from his kneel by the hearth and did not bother to brush the cinders off his fading black trousers. Turned his back to the fire, letting the golden light spill from his face, and looked out to ponder his surroundings. It was splendid room; lined on all sides with a world of books, an affinity of small, expensive antiques, a plethora of overstuffed armchairs and couches. Shadows poured across the oriental carpet, casting distorted silhouettes of these rich treasures. His eyes-wary, searching-delved into the startling patterns of chiaroscuro. But, to his obvious relief, he was alone.
He selected a chair, drew it into the circle of firelight, and selected one of the numberless books as well. In a moment, his mind would be lost in its pages...
Movement in the forest! A bird, startled from her nest, let out a shrill cry of alarm. The sound rang for a moment, suspended in the night air, and then died. The first raindrops came down with a faint patter.
For a minute, all was still.
And then something large was tripping through the underbrush. Low-growing brambles caught at the figure's ankles; its hands, which were stained with sap, were held protectively before its face.
A streak of lightning, first of the evening, tore through the sky with a glorious snap. For an instant, the forest sparkled with electric gold and white. The earthy colors-rich brown and crimson-were illuminated in vibrant, hot intensity. The figure was female now, with crow-black hair and the face of a lovely corpse. She stopped in the brief light, her head turned towards the sky, her lips forming silent calculations. Evaluating. She was off again, in a greater hurry than before, when the thunder resonated through her bones.
Large wet droplets were beginning to spatter the windows. The man was drawn to their sound; he rose stiffly, leaving his book (Great Expectations) in the chair.
He pressed his forehead to the window glass, which was cool against his skin, and put his palms against the wall for support. The raindrops grew harder, heavier, before his eyes. Soaking into the parched windowsill, running in thick rivulets down the glass. The fire grew distant; the suffocating warmth of the room was forgotten. The clock was increasingly lethargic, as if time itself were sedated.
The candles behind him flickered and dimmed. He never noticed.
Last year, there had been a storm like this. Frighteningly loud, too close for comfort. It had scared him then. He had worried for the house. If a tree fell... If lightning struck... A thousand questions, a thousand concerns.
Memories, dry and dusty, floated to the surface of his hazy consciousness: the wrecked debris of that night, of that storm. Bodies on the sofa, bodies on the floor. Gunshots and dark bedrooms. A woman, slender and pale, tugging at his tie. The tidbits of thought expanded as he watched them. Folding out upon themselves, bloating like dead things in the water.
His hands tensed on the faded wallpaper. He was old now. Old, and horribly empty. A dried-out shell of what he had been before. One night, one year. That wasn't so long, was it? He didn't know.
His lungs were filling with water. Bittersweet drops clung to his cheeks too, though he couldn't have said why.
Perhaps it was simply the memory of it all. This rain was significant. But not if not in sadness...in cleansing, perhaps? Rain was fresh and new each time it fell, and yet it was as old as the earth itself. Perhaps...
A new beginning?
No. These were dangerous thoughts-too hopeful. The rain was awakening his emotions, like it awakened plants in spring. He was drowning; washing away in this strange storm. He wrenched himself away from the window. His breath had made a pattern of frozen clouds upon the glass. His fingers were in his eyes, angrily smearing away the lingering moisture. He was ashamed. Ashamed for himself, because there was no one else to be ashamed for.
The rain was blurring her vision. It hissed at her from all directions: down from the sky, from left and from right, and up from the very ground itself. She no longer knew which way she was walking. There was only water, and angry wind, and slick black boughs-thin lines of ink against an inkier sky. Her hands were spread before her like small birds, like a blind man's fingers, to feel for impediments in her own crisscrossing path. Still, several of the trees' gnarled arms had caught her across the stomach, sending her reeling and doubling over in pain.
The road was somewhere far to the left, lost in the darkness of the night. In the past hour (but she had no watch), there had only been one car. Its roar was distant, even then. More than once, she had been sorely tempted to return to the pavement. But now she doubted she would be able to find it at all.
A few birds cried to each other in the trees, and their voices were warped and frightening. They sounded as banshees, as witches, as demons up from the pits of hell. The woman stumbled past their eyes, fearful of all these things and feeling very small in the storm. She nervously tugged at her the hood of her coat, as a scared child would finger the blankets of its bed. Where was the light? It should be here now. And oh! she was cold and dreadfully wet and her thoughts were growing increasingly irrational...
Wouldn't she die of hypothermia, or some other horrid disease, in weather like this? Her face would turn blue and her lips purple. Ice would line her lungs and freeze her heart even as it bled. And she would fall to the wet leaves and breath shallowly for a while and the birds would pluck out her eyes and use her hair to build a nest and the squirrels would eat her insides...And then she would only be a skeleton, alone in the darkness for an eternity or two. A small, unhappy frown played about her lips. Death was an optimistic wish, and she was never, never an optimist.
The minutes of confusion passed one after another. She fingered her way forward. And she noticed:
The trees were growing smaller, more sparse. And the underfoot lining of damp leaves was thinner as well. The woman moved faster, galvanized, on weary feet. Thin noises of exaltation escaped her dripping mouth. And through the tangle of rain and branches and violent wind, the silhouette of an enormous house was visible. It rose from the sky itself, a large expanse of sleek ebony and cold black marble. Tiny pinpricks of wavering light were visible on its face. Candles, probably, judging by their dim infrequency. She suddenly remembered how prone her destination was to power outages.
Weak laughter tore from her lips as she left the forest, violently shrugging off the branches, looking more a part of the trees than when she had entered the brush. There it sat, less than a mile before her, looking like some castle in the midst of a wild, overgrown kingdom. She allowed herself to feel triumphant at her endurance. And then the fear-fear of being spotted on an open road-struck her and sent her tearing towards Hill House. Her feet were as unsure on this crude driveway as they had been in the foliage.
The doorbell rang, shattering the air like a gunshot. Fragments of high, clear sound reverberated off of every surface in the house. The man flinched. His fingers fumbled, the book slipped to the floor.
The bell in the corner swung back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. Delicate cobwebs were caught upon it like strips of lace, and the once-bright bronze was dusted in a film of grey. Like so many other things in the house, it had gone for much too long without use.
He stood slowly, cautiously, from his chair and stooped to pick up the fallen book. He was nervous and it showed in his trembling hands. Who would visit here? The house was empty and dead. He might have been a ghost, a faint phantasm, drifting through its hallways. What living being would dare to ring that haunted bell?
A moment passed. Apprehension bit at him, gnawed at his core. But in a shaking show of deliberation, he whisked off to the door, dusting his jacket as he went. The hallway seemed like a vast cavern, and his shoes were unreasonably loud on the tiled floor.
He paused at the door. It was large and windowless. But someone, something, was out there, pacing perhaps, masked behind the wood. He breathed deeply.
The hinges squawked indignantly. The wood scraped against the floor.
At first she was a shadow, lost in a sea of black, frayed and fluttering in the wind like some abandoned tidbit of fabric. But as she as she swept closer, into the circle of oily candlelight, her pale face glistening with rain, something like recognition surfaced. The man blanched. His eyes bulged, and his hand slipped from the doorknob.
"Mrs. White," the words were automatic, and they fashioned his voice into a small, hoarse whisper. It was instinct to refer to her by her alias, even though he knew her real name.
"Wadsworth," she replied in that low, melodic tone of hers. Her lips quirked slightly.
She approached him gracefully, almost feline in her movements. But there was fear too, and desperation, behind that fluidity. Not the hunter anymore. Her proud eyes were begging, pleading for entrance. Wadsworth stepped silently aside.
The room bathed her in candlelight, catching and shimmering on her wet lips and nose and dripping black hair.
In some ways, she was familiar (darting, lustrous eyes, disdainful frown, colorless cheeks). But there was something else too, a barely concealed difference: perhaps her clothes were rattier. Perhaps her legs were slightly thinner. Perhaps her face was graver than ever before.
He was speechless, so numerous were the questions.
The door clicked shut, enclosing them both, wary adversaries, in that vast tiled hallway of Hill House.