PREVIOUSLY, from 1.4 Hallway of Nine Doors:
Nothing but him and a Silhouette occupied this Hallway of Nine Doors.
The Long-Fingered, Long-Nailed Silhouette, with ragged nails and ragged dress. The Silhouette on the wall made of ink that stained his fingers. The Silhouette that bore five paler spots where he had touched it.
Undaunted, Eryx started downstairs with little light and a lot of dark.
The first stair creaked beneath his weight.
The third sounded almost human in its moan.
But Eryx continued steadily on.
As the first, small landing came in sight, Eryx heard a creak behind him.
He froze on the tenth and last stair before the landing.
A moment later another stair creaked, and Eryx had to make a decision: Was he Eryx the Coward Who Runs or Eryx the Brave Who Stands His Ground?
How about Eryx the Cautious Who Douses His Little Light, Presses His Back against the Wall, and Lets the Stranger Go on His Way None the Wiser?
That one, he thought, and he turned down the lamp’s wick until the flame went out. It was bad enough that his follower had seen it, but at least this way, the other would no longer be able to mark his position.
So much for Eryx Who Sought Company.
That Eryx didn’t want it creaking up behind him, was all.
Eryx the Poor Liar, Eryx Who Couldn’t Even Lie to Himself, Not Really sidled over to the wall. The darkness was absolute. His follower, who had no light that he could see, should instinctively clutch the banister and use it as a guide as he descended the stairs.
Third stair up from the landing moaned, betraying his follower’s position. Eryx’s hand tightened on his lamp. His grip tightened as the follower progressed. Paused. Progressed. Paused. And so on until he was two steps from Eryx’s position.
Or she was two steps away.
The wall art and its model and those long fingers and long nails crept to mind.
Definitely the follower could be a she.
One more step, and Eryx the Cautious might find out. Eryx held his breath.
Then he or she—how about safe and neutral “it”? —moved to his stair.
Paused on his stair.
Breathing. Why can’t you hear its breathing?
Perhaps it was cautious, too, just like him, but searching for the creep on the stairway it sensed in the dark.
It could be just as frightened as he was, and it didn’t have a light to guide its way or to banish the mysteries and fears that flourished in the dark.
But wouldn’t it move faster to get away from the sensation of watchfulness, of searching, of lurking in the dark? In this moment, Eryx desired to do just that.
Maybe the follower simply wasn’t scared—or in a hurry—or—
It took a step and moved on, stairs creaking one by one.
Thank . . . No deity’s name came to mind. Well, thank any god listening. His breath gusted out swiftly, noiselessly.
Eryx stayed where he was until the stairs had stopped creaking and, a few seconds later, a door closed to the . . . left, by the sound of it.
The follower was gone.
Thank a god, thought Eryx Who Decided to Explore Right Instead of Left Once Downstairs. He reached into his duster pocket, captured the matchbook, and counted the matchheads by feel.
Seven. Seven matches left.
He pulled out the matchbook and tottered in place as he set the lamp down safely one stair up, snug against the wall. Time to relight the wick before he took a tumble.
As he gently teased out a match, he heard it: the first stair creaking again.
Eryx righted himself, a dizzy little act in the referenceless dark. He left his lamp where it was as he steadied himself against the wall behind him.
Down the stairs it creaked.
Step by step.
This time when Eryx held his breath, this time when it paused on his tenth stair—again—his thoughts were not encouraging. Perhaps because this time he was listening the entire time, and he couldn’t hear his follower breathe. Its only noise came from foot plied slowly to the stairs and later a shutting door.
When it started up—again—for the third time, Eryx, plastered against the wall, wondered dizzyingly if the stair-goer were the owner of these borrowed things, silently sniffing out its clothes, but not quite able to make out where the old blood smell came from in the dark.
Crazy. Just plain crazy.
No crazier than thinking it the same person, who less than half a minute after exiting a door downstairs had made it upstairs, down the artsy hallway, to creep down this stairway again and again and again.
But what is the other possibility? The landlord training the entire upper floor to ignore all knockers but come down one by one, to pause extra long on said knocker’s stair, and then head out the left-hand door below?
Maybe it’s nothing to do with you at all. Maybe it’s the stair you’re huddling on.
After the fourth time the door below shut, Eryx decided to test this saner theory. Still holding onto the loose match, he snatched up his lamp, stepped quickly down to the small landing, and stayed put.
Down it came. Eighth stair.
Tenth stair and long pause, he thought at it. Tenth stair and long pause.
Instead, it took one more step and stopped on the landing. Beside him. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting too long to be normal.
Oh, god. It knows I’m here.
That realization was too much for his fingers. The match he held slipped against the glass of the lamp he was strangling. It dropped away into the dark.
He never heard it drop, yet it must have made some sign, some noise. His follower turned on him instantly, breath puffing against his face. There was something familiar smelling in it.
Eryx tried, but failed, to shrink back. There was nowhere to go as it snuffled him.
The behavior was not at all humanlike. It started at his face, whuffed its strange breath down to his right hand—and he remembered, remembered the scent then as ink.
God, gods, ink.
The snuffling stopped and was replaced by a wet tongue that lapped slowly, lingeringly, gently against the back of his fingers.
Eryx startled and reacted badly, thrusting the only weapon he had forward, the lamp. It slammed into a head of short hair, matted, sodden hair—and it shattered. Sniff-licker reeled back.
But it didn’t cry out in pain or anger as Eryx ran.
Rather, it scrambled and scraped after him, giving chase. Sounded like it possessed far more than two legs, perhaps four.
Eryx stumbled faster, down the stairs, tore hard right—not left—around the bend, and banged into the wall in the dark. He didn’t feel a door. Needed a door. He scrabbled along the wall as he jogged. Felt a frame.
The scratching sound was only a few feet behind him.
Eryx slapped across the wood of the door, grabbed the cool metal doorknob—turn, please turn, turn—
Something snagged at his leg.
The knob turned. Eryx plunged inside, eyes stabbed by, blinded by the light. He turned and slammed shut the door, leaning against it, scrambling for and seizing the doorknob to prevent the door from being opened again.
It never tried for that. Rather, clawing started at the bottom of the door.
That didn’t mean it wouldn’t eventually wise up.
Because his vision was still spotty, Eryx searched for a lock, or better yet a key in a lock ready to turn, with his free hand.
The door didn’t have one.
So he backed up blindly instead. Maybe the thing claw-claw-clawing at the bottom of the door wouldn’t be able to hunt him down if he were fast and far enough away. Maybe.
Eryx turned and bumped into something solid.
He retreated with a yelp before his eyes finally cleared enough to take in distinction of shape and color. They placed him in a company room.
One that was bright yellow. With chairs and tables. And low-backed sofa—which he had bumped into.
And on that sofa reclined a naked man staring up at him, mouth round in surprise.
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Jodi Ralston, All Rights Reserved. 2016, 2017.