(Horror prompt)

Part One

Humans have long considered themselves the masters of their world, but that world is the world they chose to see. They ignore the things they can’t explain or understand. But it is the world where the inexplicable and incomprehensible phenomenon dwells which enslaves the human race whether they chose to see or believe. They chose to remain ignorant as they cower before the unknown.

I know I shouldn’t be so hard them. Most people have not seen what I have seen. For that, I blame my aunt Sophia. If I had not been introduced into her life, I would’ve chosen to remain ignorant as well.

When I was bussed across country from Iowa to Massachusetts, my circumstances were grim. My mother had just overdosed after a long battle with heroin. I’d never met my father, didn’t know who he was or if he knew I existed. I was a still a minor and the state wanted to see that I passed into the care of a relative. Mom had an estranged brother that I’d never met. He had some fancy executive job at JPMorgan, but he refused to take me. I suspected as much after he failed to attend mom’s services. But Sophia, one of his many ex-wives, offered an invitation, and I guess that was close enough to a blood relative for the state.

I arrived with both anxiety and exhilaration. In spite of having to stay with a complete stranger whose life and temperament I knew nothing about, I wanted to hope that this next chapter of my life would be an improvement on the last. I hoped that it wasn’t too late for me to have a childhood, to enjoy my remaining teenage years. I’d attend a new school where everyone didn’t know that my mom was a junkie. I hoped I’d make friends for the first time in my life.

From the moment I stepped off the bus, Aunt Sophia made herself known. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I never would have guessed to have such a reception. A tall, middle-aged, tuxedoed man held up a large poster reading, “WELCOME MARCIE.” He stood passively and expressionless while surrounded by a group of women who all could have been models. Gorgeous and slender, they all looked as if they’d stepped off the pages of the magazines I’d read on the bus. My aunt distinguished herself with a white sash which said, “AUNT SOPHIA,” and she held a large bouquet of white roses. Each of her model-looking companions held beautiful bouquets of flowers of various colors and varieties. When they knew they had spotted me, they began applauding and popping Champaign bottles. They cheered, “Welcome home Marcie,” as they poured glasses and passed them all around. When I reached my aunt, she paused for a moment and looked me up and down. It struck me as kind of creepy the way she examined me, but she smiled at me and gave me a big hug which pushed those feelings away. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been hugged, and her embrace was so enveloping and warm that I melted into it.

I’m not really sure what I expected, if I even really expected anything, but I did not expect this woman. I guessed her to be in her late twenties or early thirties. She had long, thick ginger hair which hung loosely midway down her back. Under the white sash, she wore a cute green summer dress which perfectly matched the color of her eyes. The heels of her shoes must have raised her a good four inches so that she reached my height.

“Marcie, darling, I’m so glad you’re here,” she released me from her long hug and handed me the bouquet of roses along with a glass of Champaign. “We’re going to have the best time.”

I received the glass apprehensively, “I’m only fifteen. Isn’t this alcohol?”

“Well, if anyone asked its grape juice, then. It’s only a little taste, just this once, to celebrate. Come on girls,” she gathered the group around her, “let’s have one quick toast.” After three or four toasts, all of them made to me, the group moved outside and into a waiting limousine. I couldn’t believe any of this. I thought maybe I was still dreaming on the bus and having some kind of orphan Annie, Auntie Warbucks fantasy. How could any of this be real?

The car ride consisted of more opened Champaign bottles while the girls chattered on and giggled. It did strike me that they all seemed to want to impress Aunt Sophia. It seemed as though she were their ring leader of sorts, and they all listened and obeyed to what she had to say. She constantly reminded the girls to make sure that I was comfortable, telling them to refill my glass and to include me in the conversation. One of the girls took off my shoes and began to rub my feet with a reassuring nod from my aunt. It all seemed a bit much, and I didn’t want to be rude, but I was glad when the car stopped and the girls began to cheer that we had arrived home.

Again, I had no idea what to expect of the new home I was arriving to, but I never could have imagined what I saw when I stepped out of the vehicle. The mansion had been built in the style of a medieval castle, complete with mote, drawbridge and courtyard. On the other the side of the mote, forests covered the horizon for as far as one could see, but inside the walled courtyard, the property was a mix of medieval style with modern convenience. It was the coolest, most unbelievable place I’d ever seen.

“I’ll give the full tour later, first you can get settled in your rooms and if you need to rest or clean up or whatever,” Aunt Sophia waved a hand in the air, “girls, please show Marcie to her rooms.” The girls lead me up a large stone staircase, and then another large stone staircase.

“You’re getting the second penthouse suite,” one of the girls explained, “Sophia has the big one in the east side tower, and yours is in the west tower. The rest of us have rooms on the floors beneath them.”

“I’m utterly speechless. This is so far beyond anything that I could have expected,” I began to form words finally.

“We know,” another interrupted. “But Sophia mentioned that you’d had a hard childhood, and now you’ve lost your mother, perhaps your coming here is a sign of better things to come.”

My rooms consisted of a bedroom with bathroom, sitting room and study. It was bigger than any of the apartments I’d ever shared with my mom put together. As the girls entered, they each placed the bouquets of flowers that they had brought to the bus station in different vases that had been placed throughout the rooms.

“Sophia took the liberty of filling the closets with clothes for you, so pick something out and get cleaned up and changed, take a nap, whatever. We’ll be out back by the pool when you’re ready to come down. We thought we’d have a cook out later, if you’re hungry.” They exited the room and left me alone. I wanted to explore my room and closets, but I was suddenly overwhelmed with an extreme fatigue. I could barely muster the strength to reach the bed before collapsing, must have been from the Champaign, I could only imagine. It was my first taste of alcohol and by the time we arrived I had lost count of the number of glasses I had tasted. Too exhausted to remove clothing or crawl under covers, I curled up and passed out into a deep sleep.

Running, running, faster, I must move faster. I turn to look at my pursuers; they are invisible in the darkness, but I know they are still behind me. I can hear the growling and snarling closing in on me. I run deeper and deeper into the woods, but this is their turf and they know every square inch. It takes them only moments to have me surrounded. I still cannot make out their shapes or forms in the darkness as they stay hidden in the trees circling me. Growling, snarling, they move too quickly for me as they make passes towards me and knock to me the ground. Too quick and too strong for me to fight off, they pin me down and rip off my clothes. Still they remain shadows in the darkness as they carve symbols into my chest with their talons. I scream and struggle, but this only seems to give them pleasure and they raise their heads and cackle into the night sky. As they do, I look up to see clouds moving in quickly and covering the bright, full moon, making the night darker still. Suddenly it begins to thunder and rain. The rain feels like acid on my freshly wounded chest, and I scream out in agony and prayer. But my pain-filled cries are drowned out by their shouts of elation.

I showered and changed and met the girls by the pool just as it was getting dark. I could tell that most of the girls were a little drunk but it didn’t really bother me. Aunt Sophia approached me with a plate of food.

“Here, you’ve been asleep for hours, darling, you must be hungry.” She motioned to an empty place at the table for me to sit down.

“Thank you,” I took the plate graciously as I slid into the chair. There was something about the way Aunt Sophia carried herself and spoke that intimidated me. Her presence commanded respect. She stood behind me and began braiding my hair. I sat at attention, afraid to move or speak that she might be disappointed by something I said or did.

“I hope you’re feeling rested, we had a whole night planned for you. I know that most of the girls seem a little drunk, but that won’t spoil anything I promise you. First we’re going to introduce you to all the pets. Really, everyone here has a pet, sometimes I think I’m running a zoo. Eventually, you should get one too, but you really want to be sure about a pet, ya know. It’s something that a person should really put some thought into. You want to find one that you can really bond with, who almost feels like an extension of yourself, you know what I mean.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I tried not to nod my head so I wouldn’t disrupt her braiding.

“Then, we have some games planned, and oh I just know you’re going to have so much fun. Cynthia comes up with all of these really cool board game ideas that she creates. I’m not going to lie, not everyone is a home run, but a lot of them are a blast, you’ll see. And I think it’ll be a fun way for you to get to know all of the house mates.” She finished the braid and looked down at my plate. “Sweetie, you haven’t even touched your food yet.”

I first noticed the mangled, mushy, greyish glob on my plate and attempted to mask the instant feeling of revulsion that welled in my gut.

“Oh, I know it doesn’t look like much, but it actually doesn’t taste that bad. At least you get to eat your plate in the dark. Please try it, Gretchen’s been working so hard to learn the culinary arts, and you wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings. I promise, she gets five stars for taste, presentation is her struggle.”

I closed my eyes and took a taste, Aunt Sophie was right. Suddenly I felt extremely hungry, and I ate another forkful and other, it was so delicious. The more I ate the hungrier I felt and I ate more, and faster. I began shoveling it in my mouth with my hands, faster than I could swallow; it was so delectable. By the time my plate was empty, Aunt Sophie had more brought to me, and more. I was exhausted from eating by the time I felt satiated. Then I realized my manners. It was so embarrassing. It was like the food had put me into some sort of trance in which I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing.

“Oh, my, I don’t even know what to say,” I flushed and turned away from my aunt, tears welling in my eyes. “I don’t know what came over me.”
 “Psssh, don’t even worry about it. I’m glad to see you have a healthy appetite.” She handed me a napkin.

“What was that anyway? I think it must be the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.”

“We’ll have to ask Gretchen later, but I doubt she’ll tell you. She’s very adamant about keeping her recipes a secret, so much so that she won’t even tell you what it is.” She handed me a chalice, but it was too dark for me to see what was in it. “This is your party cup for the evening, it shall remain full. Girls,” she called over to the others, “it’s time to feed the pets.”

Aunt Sophia led us inside, and everyone began calling out the various names of pets, and from all directions animals scrambled to their masters. Gretchen’s cat jumped into her arms; Cynthia’s beagle heeled at her side; one girl had an iguana, and other an owl which perched on her shoulder. I was the only one startled to see a large white tiger enter the room and lie at Aunt Sophia’s feet. I started in disbelief as each of the girls took a knife from their pockets and pricked a finger until it released a steady flow of blood. They held their bloodied fingers out to their respective pets who liked their wounds clean.

“What are you doing? I’ve never had a pet, but is it normal to feed them blood like that?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking.

“Of course,” Gretchen answered, “it solidifies the bond, and unites us. They are an extension of us, and they will do anything to serve their master, the one who shares their blood.”

“Oh, I guess I’ve just never heard of that before,” I stammered.

“We know a lot of things that other people don’t,” a blond whose name I had not yet learned responded as she stroked her owl’s feathers. “But we’ll teach you.”

It’s dark again, complete blackness, I can see nothing. I wonder if the night is really so black, or have I lost my ability to see. I hear a scratching noise on each side of me that moves closer and closer in my direction. I try to shout or scream; no sound comes but instead an intense pain fills my throat, as if my vocal chords have been ripped out. The scratching moves closer and closer. I can sense that I’m lying down, my arms and legs in shackles; I cannot move away from the noise that approaches me. It scratches closer and closer until it finally reaches me. I open my eyes wide attempting to see the creature that breaths heavily on my face as it claws at my body. I see nothing but blackness. I feel a talon carving symbols into my chest and blood runs down my torso. I feel a tongue, wet but rough like sandpaper, feeding on my blood and I can sense that the creature grows stronger; it’s breath heavier, steamier.

When I awoke the next morning, I tried to put together the pieces of my memory from the night before, but I couldn’t remember anything after we fed the pets. I woke up in my bedroom and pajamas, but I had no idea how I got that way. My head felt heavy and ached, and I felt an awful pain in my chest. I made my way to the bathroom to look at it in the mirror. My face looked terrible, almost green with dark circle rims underlining my eyes; my chest was red, but there were no signs of the claw marks I half expected to see there. Maybe I had a close call with the tiger and my mind was blocking out a traumatic memory. Nothing was making sense. This place. These women. I felt as though I’d stepped into some alternate reality where I wasn’t really supposed to be.

My thoughts were interrupted when Cynthia’s face appeared in the mirror next to mine. I jumped back in surprise, and she giggled at my reaction.

“Sorry, honey, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just came to see if you were ready to come down for breakfast. Gotta fuel up before school.”

“School? Isn’t today a Saturday?” I asked trying to remember myself what day it actually was.

“Yes, but here at Castle Sophia there are no days off from learning. We get the most we can from every day.” Cynthia noticed my look of confusion. “Don’t you remember me telling you this last night?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I really don’t remember much of anything about last night.” I rubbed my head where it was still pounding.
 “Humm, well, the girls and I will be home schooling you. Sophie’s library is extensive, and each of us has our own areas of expertise. I’ll be your math and computer science teacher; Gretchen will teach you the sciences, biology and chemistry and physics; from Heidi you will learn history, psychology and social studies, and Laura will instruct you in language and arts. Now hurry up and get dressed; Heidi wanted to start your day with a history lesson, and she has an obsession with punctuality.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be down as soon as I can.” I rushed into my clothes and met the group the dining room.

After breakfast, my five instructors lead me to the library where the day’s lessons commenced. Cynthia wasn’t kidding about my aunt’s extensive collection. I had never seen so many books in my life. When it was not their subject to teach, the girls seemed to have their own lessons from Aunt Sophia in another part of the library. I could only wonder what they were learning. My questions about it remained unanswered. “You’ll learn about that when you’re ready,” was there rehearsed response.

I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be attending a real school, not that I wasn’t grateful for all the efforts that each of the girls had put forth. I wanted a normal life. I wanted to make friends, and now I’d never be able to socialize with other kids my age. Growing up with my mom, I had to be the adult who made sure that things were taken care of. I wanted to be a kid.

After my lessons, we all went for a run in the woods then settled in or around the pool as the sun began to set. We enjoyed another deliciously ugly dinner, painstaking prepared I was told once again, by Gretchen. When the girls ran off to feed their pets, I went back to the library to work on the poem that Laura had asked me to write for homework.

I couldn’t help myself in wanting to explore the library a bit. It took up most of an entire wing of the castle-mansion. Old, new, they covered every subject imaginable. Curiosity drew me to the section where Aunt Sophia had been teaching all day, but a locked gate blocked me from accessing those rows of shelves. I wondered what could be such a secret.

Running, tripping, falling, up and running again my desperation pushes me farther and farther into the darkness. A scream chases me deeper into the woods. I find myself surrounded in blackness. No longer able to see, I stop. I can’t escape, it pounces and I fall. The creature binds my arms and legs with an invisible web and clamps down on my throat making it impossible for me to breathe. Again symbols are etched into my chest and I can feel the beast grow stronger, fiercer by my anguish. It releases my neck, and I begin to wheeze, but the creature seems to be sucking the air out of my lungs and I can’t get a good breath. I grow weaker and fainter…

The days, weeks, and months passed following this same routine. Once every couple of weeks or so we would all have to celebrate some holiday or another. I’d never heard of any of these holidays, but the girls informed me that it was all part of an ancient religion. They assured me that I would learn all about it when the time was right. Their secrecy only fueled my curiosity further, but still my constant questions yielded the same response. I would have to wait until the time was right to learn, but when would that be.

Each of these holidays was celebrated by excessive drinking and dancing and feasting. Gretchen always made a special dish and made sure that I would get a double helping. She said that it would aid my development, but I never understood exactly what that meant.

On one occasion when she got rather drunk, I thought I would bug her about what was in the dish she served me.

“Oh, do you like it, babe? Well you better enjoy it now cuz it’s really hard to get the stuff that goes in this.” She heaped more on my plate.

“But what is it?”

She smiled wide and giggled, “Babies,” she laughed. “And there getting harder to get. People don’t leave them unattended like they used to anymore.” She kept laughing to herself as she walked away.

“What? What on earth is that supposed to mean?” I asked Aunt Sophia who had just taken a seat next to me.

“Oh, ignore her,” she answered. “She’s messing with you. When she’s had too much her sense of humor gets a little weird.” She chuckled into her Champaign glass and took a long drink. “But what about you, darling, I want to know how you’re doing. How do you like being here? It’s been a few months now. I hope you’re not missing farm country.”

“No, I don’t miss Iowa,” I didn’t want to seem unappreciative to someone who had been doing so much for me. “I like it here. Though, I guess it would be nice to be around other kids my age sometimes…not that I don’t really enjoy you all.”

“Oh, well, I can understand that,” she responded. “But, I can tell you, whether you believe me or not, that you’re not missing out on anything. Other kids your age would never understand you. They’d never relate to you and you’d never relate to them. The life you’ve had to live has matured you beyond your age and you’re far smarter than your peers.”

“I guess I understand what you’re saying, but…”

“The girls and I will be much better friends to you than any of the little bitches you’d meet at school.” She seemed to be getting a little angry.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any offense. I love being around you all. And I am eternally grateful for everything you do for me.”

Aunt Sophia refilled her glass and swallowed it down quickly. “You’re welcome.” She stood up, “You should probably get to bed early tonight. The girls and I have some rituals to perform for the holy day, and I’m afraid you can’t take part.”

“When will I be ready?” I stopped her from walking away. “Everyone says I’ll learn about this stuff when I’m ready. When will that be?”

“Soon.”

Again, I’m engulfed in blackness. Sounds of snarling and gnashing teeth flood my ears and I cannot move. I’m more that bound by shackles, I’m wrapped in a web like cocoon so tightly it’s hard to breathe. Again this creature feeds on my pain, fear and anguish, and the snarling grows louder and turns to howling and then an almost sinister form of laughter. The more I struggle to move, the tighter the cocoon wraps itself around me. I can feel the creature clawing at me; its breath steams my face; it’s in here with me! It etches the symbols in my chest and feeds on my blood once more. I can’t breathe; its grasp is too tight; I can’t breathe…

At breakfast the next morning, I was surprised to find that the girls were all in high spirits and full of energy. Usually they were a little hung over after their late night celebrations. But this time, I was the one who felt awful.

“What’s the matter, honey?” Aunt Sophia asked right away. “You’re looking a little haggard this morning. Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, I just didn’t sleep well. Bad dream.”

“Oh?” she raised an eyebrow. “What was the dream?”

“It’s nothing. I barely even remember now.”

“Sure you don’t want to talk it out?” she persisted.

“It’s just that I’ve been having them a lot since I came here. Maybe it’s some psychological reaction from losing my mom or something. It’s strange because I don’t remember much of what happens in them, but they terrify me. And that feeling of absolute terror stays with me for a long time after I wake up.”

“Do you remember anything that happens in them?”

“I just remember a beast of some sort but I can never see it. I’m always engulfed in blackness when it shows up.”

Aunt Sophia sipped her coffee and pushed away her breakfast plate. After a few moments of contemplation she said, “I’m sorry, darling, but those are not dreams.”

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