The Previous Tenant of My New Flat Left a Survival Guide

Kat's Story: Season 1

The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. I'm not sure I want to live here anymore.

I moved in with my boyfriend yesterday. We've been together for 5 years now and we're old and wise enough to settle down and finally leave our parents' houses. He just turned 24 and I'm 22. He's the love of my life. His name is Jamie and I couldn't be happier to be living with him.

When we decided to make the leap we spent 2 months looking at flats and houses, we couldn't afford to buy yet so renting was our only option but the prices were astronomical. For our budget, we would have been lucky to get a box room and a stove.

Jamie works for a local 24-hour fast-food restaurant and I'm training to be a teacher. The early stages of training don't pay much and I owe a lot in student loans so finances are tough.

We had almost given up hope until we found our flat. It was nothing special, but to us, it was a palace. A spacious 2-bedroom apartment with views of a city park, a balcony, and local conveniences. It was in a tower block in a not-so-nice area, but neither of us had been wealthy growing up, we weren't fussy. Just grateful to be together.

The advert was sweetened by the deposit-free option and open-ended tenancy. The landlord was happy to sign a five-year contract if we wanted. That sort of thing never happens in the city. We were told that along with no deposit we would also have no inspections, but would be liable to pay for any damage when we ended the tenancy. I'd never heard of anything quite like it.

We knew that for our budget and location we weren't going to get any better. We snapped the place up fast, not even bothering to view it. It felt like our only chance.

Move-in day rolled around quickly and yesterday we got the keys to our first home together, it was such a strange feeling. The day was chaos, getting our stuff in and up in the lift. We were flat number 42, on the 7th floor. The items we couldn't get in the lift had to be taken up all the stairs by the removal men. I think they were grateful we weren't any higher but I still wish we had been able to give them a better tip.

In the evening we settled down on our second-hand sofa, given to us by a cousin of a friend, and watched some TV. We smoked cigarettes on the balcony, looking at the park, and fell asleep on our mattress on the floor super early because we had no energy to put the bed together yet and Jamie had work at a hideous time of the morning.

We slept soundly last night, I felt safe and happy. I don't think that feeling is coming back any time soon and it's all due to the note I found this morning.

I found it in the kitchen, having a coffee, hours after Jamie had left for his early shift at work. It was in one of the cupboards that were fixed to the wall, there were a bunch of useful items from the previous tenant. Spare keys to the flat, a set of tiny keys that locked and unlocked the windows (necessary for those with kids this high up), spare smoke alarm batteries, and a folded-up piece of paper.

The note was handwritten with "New occupier of flat 42" in beautiful cursive on the blank side. I opened it up and sat down to read. I can't really describe it to you, so I'm going to copy it out below.

Dear New Occupier,

Firstly, welcome to your new home. I lived here before you for 35 years with my husband. Unfortunately, he had an incident at home recently that I'd rather not discuss that claimed his life. My sister has now decided I can't keep up with the demands of the property and has insisted that I move in with her and her husband. I was reluctant at first, but the stairs do kill me at my age and without Bernie, it's filled with sadness.

Anyway. When you've lived somewhere for as long as I have it feels like a person that you know. You understand its personality and what makes it tick. I thought it was probably pertinent that I impart some of that knowledge on you.

It's a wonderful home, honestly, I have lived through best and worst years, and leaving it behind is very emotional but if you are to survive and get the best out of it then there are some steps you need to follow.

  1. The landlord will never bother you, he doesn't visit, call, or communicate in any way. But make sure to pay your rent in a timely fashion always. I have only dealt with him once in 35 years and let's just say I never missed another rent day. Any repairs required you speak to the agent you rented the place with.
  2. DO NOT use the communal lift between 1.11 and 3.33 am. Just don't do it. This step is vital if you are to have a happy life here. It really is life or death. Don't do it. This has cost me and many others in the building greatly and I would rather not elaborate on why you shouldn't do this. Just please don't do it. I cannot stress this enough.
  3. When you hear the strange animal noises coming from flat 48 don't question it, Mr. Prentice lives there and he's a lovely chap. Don't be afraid to say hello to him in the corridor or on the stairs (he's old school, so he never risks the lift) but whatever you do, don't check on him when you hear the noises. You'll know when you hear them.
  4. If you ever come across a window cleaner on the balcony, ignore him. He may seem like the nicest fellow you've ever had trying to sell you something at the door but it really is best that you don't engage. He will go away if you ignore him. But he tries pretty hard the first few times so you'll need some resilience. Whatever you do, don't offer him anything. No money, no hot drink.
  5. Don't leave food scraps out. Bin or refrigerate them immediately. If you have small animals, it is imperative that you watch them eat and take away any leftover food immediately after they are done. This and rule 2 go hand in hand, the things forage all day and seem to really love animal feed. You don't want them in your flat. I promise. You can leave what you want out between 1.11 and 3.33 am so you may want to feed your pets then.
  6. Don't communicate with any neighbors who claim to come from flats 65-72. These flats suffered a fire in the late 80s that devastated the whole floor, all the residents died in their homes. The building was mostly council-owned at the time and they never bothered to renovate the flats. They've been empty ever since but every now and again someone will knock at your door claiming to live in one of these flats and ask to borrow some sugar. They will seem entirely average but you must shut and lock the door immediately. I installed two extra security bolts to avoid these fuckers. I don't like to swear at my age but they really are fuckers.
  7. Simple one for you here, keep a weapon in each room. Sometimes you follow all these steps and something still slips through the net. Better to be safe than sorry.
  8. The building has a committee that will try and get you to join. It's one of those neighborhood groups about improving living conditions for all residents. It's a nice group and the lady who runs it - Terri from flat 26 - is a fantastic neighbor. By all means, get involved. But I wouldn't recommend babysitting Terri's 2 children. She'll ask you, because the poor woman needs a break, but if you accept don't say I didn't warn you.
  9. Stray hairless cats sometimes roam in the hallway. I know they're supposedly a special, expensive breed, but they don't belong to anyone. They're mostly harmless, but don't pick them up. Not unless you see one of those neighbors that claims to live in 65-72. Then grab the cat and lock it inside with you. It'll burn your skin a little but the cats are friendly and I wouldn't want to see them hurt.
  10. There is no way to fix the damp patch on the ceiling in the bedroom. Sometimes it will turn a deep crimson and look quite concerning, but please try not to be alarmed, it doesn't drip, it doesn't get any bigger and it's been there longer than I have. The landlord won't budge on it, according to the agents. I flagged it many times, even called the police the first night it changed color, but it was a waste of time and it will be for you too. It's best to ignore it.
  11. You can trust the postman. His name is Ian Flanders and he's been the postman since before I moved in. He has his own key to the main door and delivers post to the door every morning at 8.54. I can't include everything here, or it would become a novel but if you have any questions Ian will help you.
  12. Finally, the first few weeks are the worst. You'll feel like you've made a mistake, I'm sure reading this you already do, but if you can get through the first few weeks it really is a lovely block to live in. Every property has its quirks and this one is a little extra special, but you can be truly happy here if you just take my advice. I wish you all the best, I really do.

Yours truly,

Mrs. Prudence Hemmings

I don't really know what to think after reading the note. Hopefully, it was some sort of joke but the agent had said the previous tenant was an elderly lady and I can't see anyone named Prudence Hemmings attempting to play practical jokes on someone they'd never met.

There were also parts of the note I couldn't disprove, there was indeed a large damp patch above the bed that I and Jamie had already discussed reporting. No crimson but it definitely existed. I had also commented on a beautiful Sphynx cat roaming the halls as we were moving in. I started to get seriously freaked out.

Our dream, our beautiful little home had just become a source of fear and confusion. I checked the time and it was 9.14. Damn it. Out of time to catch postman Ian. When I opened the door to check, sure enough, two letters addressed to a Mrs. Hemmings sat on the doorstep.

At about 11.15, my worst fears were truly confirmed when a friendly middle-aged-looking man carrying window cleaning equipment knocked on my balcony door. I ignored him. I didn't want to take the risk until I'd spoken to Jamie and showed him the note. I'd texted him already to rush home. I felt bad as the man rapped his knuckles against the door for over 10 minutes, but honestly, the longer it went on the more I was terrified.

My windows were sparkling, and due to our lack of curtains, I couldn't even hide from his gaze. I felt so exposed. He stayed for a total of 30 minutes exactly and never once did he stop looking at me or knocking. He shouted the occasional ultra-friendly line or humble request for a beverage in the heat through the door but I did my best to avoid eye contact.

When he finally left I looked outside every window in the flat, but I couldn't see him on any of the other balconies or see any equipment suggesting he was around. He had vanished completely.

Jamie still hadn't texted me back, he must have been having a rough shift, it was a Friday and they were always busy. It wasn't often that he didn't reply. He was due home in around an hour anyway.

I read the note probably hundreds of times over, I tortured myself reading it for the next hour. Desperately waiting for Jamie to come through the door to tell me it was all crazy and I should relax.

I hoped for that so much.

But Jamie never came. His shift should have finished around midday but by 2 pm he still wasn't home. I panicked, I cried, I left over 100 voice messages on his phone but got nowhere. I finally decided it had been long enough that calling his work wouldn't embarrass him and his boss told me that he had never turned up for his shift.

I thought about it, what could have happened? And then it hit me. Jamie's shift started at 4 am today. He would have left the flat at 3.15 and taken the lift down the stairs.

I don't know what to do. I've tried to convince myself it was all just a big joke. Maybe Jamie wrote the note and got his boss in on it. A voice in my head kept telling me that he couldn't write like that if he tried but I had to attempt to fool myself. It's getting late and he still isn't home, what if it's all true? I think we made a big mistake.

The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. I think I'm going to need more than a guide.

So much has happened in the last 24 hours. I'm so stressed and I've barely slept since I discovered that Jamie was missing. It's starting to make me feel a little twitchy. But I thought I'd better update you guys.

I was overwhelmed by all the suggestions you gave me and have taken more than a few of them on board. I'm definitely going to be getting a huge planter full of sage for the balcony and I did spill a little salt in my doorway. I'm sorry to disappoint but that didn't help at all.

There's nothing I'm following quite like Mrs. Hemming's rules. I've followed them to the letter so far, and lo and behold I'm still alive. That's not to say it hasn't been tough. I'll start from the beginning.

I was going crazy. And a few hours after my last post Jamie still hadn't returned. He had been gone for almost 24 hours. His work has called me multiple times. I don't know what to say so I just keep ghosting the calls.

I was bang in the middle of the danger time when I decided checking the lift had to be my first step. But I wasn't going to break that rule.

I waited. I waited desperately for 3.34 to come and I'm ashamed to say that when it did I remained paralyzed on our sofa for almost half an hour before I found the nerve to leave the flat. It was 4.02 when I finally reached the lift.

The lift in this building is old and rickety. It hasn't been updated in a very long time and has likely been here as long as the building. Its big, clunky buttons stared back at me as I glared at them, hoping for some sort of answer or clue. My heart thumped and I was overcome with a feeling of dread but nothing came of any of it. It was hopeless.

I stepped inside the lift, rode it up and down a few floors, and searched the entire perimeter with a phone torch for anything I could find. I found nothing. Jamie had completely disappeared.

Sobbing and exhausted I rode back to floor 7 and turned my key in flat 42, the perfect home that felt anything but home at that point.

I sat at the cheap flat-pack dining table we'd managed to put together on move-in day and cried. My hands shook as I held my phone.

I was flitting between reading all your comments and contemplating calling the police for an hour. But I decided to call my friend Georgia instead. I needed a real person here, things were so crazy I wasn't sure the police would be able to help with what little information I had. But I knew I needed to sound it out with someone.

I'll spare you the details again, but I told her everything. She promised she'd be with me in the late morning, she had to take her younger brother to school.

I waited anxiously. Not before arming every room exactly as advised. Before I knew it, I looked at the clock and it was 8.23, I had around half an hour until the postman was due to show up.

There was no way I was missing him today. I stood by the door looking vacantly at the wood, like someone in a film who was possessed. The exhaustion was really setting in but Jamie was all I could think of. Pure adrenaline was keeping me standing.

At 8.52 I opened the door. The next two minutes were the longest of my life but when I saw him a wave of relief swept through my entire body.

Right on cue, at 8.54 the postman, Ian Flanders, stood in front of me, a smile that barely hid his concern covering his younger-than-expected face. He didn't look old enough to have been the postman for over 35 years but I was too distracted by the answers that I needed from him to care.

"You must be the new tenant," he stated, but in a way that it sounded like a question. I struggled with my answer, so I got straight to the point.

"Mrs. Hemmings left me a note, she said to speak to you if -"

"Can I come in, dear? I think we need to chat."

I ushered Ian in, my hands still shaking as I flapped them in the direction of the sofa, gesturing for him to sit down. I shoved the now slightly crumpled note into his lap and waited.

"I'm glad Prue still thinks that highly of me. I will miss that old girl," he said with a coy smile as he reached the end of the note.

"Can you help me or not?" I had no time for his ego trip over a moved-on neighbor.

"I can help. But I can't stop for long so it'll have to be quick. I've walked these halls delivering the post for 40 years. I've seen it all, everything Prue's mentioned and more. What do you need to know?" he said.

Ian was nothing like what I expected. The note made me feel like he was going to be a kindly, old grandad-type figure, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Postman Ian spoke with a thick city accent and wore a heavy gold chain around his tattooed neck. He had dyed his greying hair boot polish black.

His demeanor was thankfully non-threatening but extraordinarily cocky. He was the sort of man I imagined in a betting shop, rubbing his grubby hands on notes as he bragged over a win.

He didn't ask as he lit a cigarette in my living room. I didn't question it, we would usually smoke outside but I wasn't going to argue over technicalities. I grabbed a bowl for the ash and lit one too.

"Let's start with the things in the lift. My boyfriend is missing and he took the lift at quarter past 3 over 24 hours ago. We hadn't got this note yet. I haven't heard from him since. I need to get him back," I barked at him as if the louder I spoke the more I could influence his answer. But nothing prepared me for what he said.

His skin turned pale and his harsh-looking face became more sympathetic as he explained.

"He's dead, love. Forget about him now. Only one person has ever come back from the lift at that time of night and it was Prue herself. After witnessing it. Those creatures ripping their victim apart. Poor Prue was traumatized. Your boy is gone, let go and follow the rules." He was blunt but I could tell he felt sorry for me.

"There must be something I can do!" I pleaded.

"There are things I've heard to bring back those who are lost but I've never seen solid proof they work. It would be irresponsible of me to tell you to do something that might get you killed too. It's nice here, honest, just get over him and live the status quo. Sorry if I sound harsh, I don't mean to, but you seem like a decent young lady and I don't want to see you go too soon."

I asked about what Mrs. Hemmings had seen in the lift and if they were sure it happened to all who entered it. I refused to believe that Jamie was dead. There had to be something I could do and if I knew what I was dealing with I could be better prepared.

"It was awful what happened. I wasn't there, but this is what I was told.

Little Lyla was such a cute kid. She used to open the door and give me a tip when I delivered the post. She was Prue's granddaughter. Lyla was her son's little girl and that night she was staying over for the first time. Prue finally felt confident that she could protect Lyla from all the strange things that happen here...

She was wrong. Little Lyla had a problem with sleepwalking. And she took a trip into the hallway at half past 1 in the morning. Prue took a little too long to notice the sound she had heard was the front door, and by the time she reached the lift, she saw the creatures dragging Lyla's limbs away from her body. She tried to fight them, even killed one, but she couldn't save the little girl."

I was hysterical, imagining Jamie's fate.

"What are the creatures? Have you ever actually seen them?" I asked.

"No one really knows what they are, love. They're something to do with the building and all its quirks, no one's ever seen them elsewhere. We don't know where they came from, just that they're here.

I've seen them a few times over the years, usually when new neighbors have left biscuits down for their cats and dogs or haven't disposed of food waste properly.

They're curious little creatures. Mostly harmless out of the hours Prue warned you about, but if they're fed they can become quite viscous looking for more food.

That's why you have to bin all your scraps, hide them or pack them, or whatever. Just don't leave them out and don't use the lift at those times and you're safe from the creatures.

They're a little smaller than humans, but they're a similar shape, they come with grotesque rodent-like features, and are far larger than any rodent could be. Like rodent children, I suppose. They have two sharp rows of teeth per jaw and are consistently hungry.

When they eat they crunch down in a violent and disgusting way, dripping spittle everywhere. Prue said she could hear her granddaughter's bones shatter in those jaws." He went pale at the thought of that but continued.

"When they first arrived in the building there were hundreds, it caused pandemonium amongst the residents. We lost the residents of more than 30 of the individual homes. But the residents fought back and managed to kill all but the strongest minority of them.

The creatures left over were incredibly dangerous and seemingly impossible to eradicate, so the residents struck a deal. A deal that they will be left unharmed and allowed to live in the building in return for the residents' safety at all times, but if anyone wanders into the lift between 1.11 and 3.33 am they are fair game.

This timeframe is the period the creatures are at their most frenzied and restricting them to the lift was safer for all parties. God help anyone who encounters them during those hours.

They've been here ever since, claimed lots of unsuspecting people avoiding the stairs, but nothing like when they first arrived. A few got put down for not holding up their end of the bargain but we haven't had an incident outside the lift in years. Count yourself lucky you missed that crisis.

Everything here's pretty peaceful right now. I'm sorry about your boyfriend. I really have to go, I'm late for my round." He scrawled his phone number on a bit of paper and handed it to me. "Emergencies only, I don't like to be bothered."

"You can't go! The note said you would help me!" I exclaimed.

"And I will!" he snapped back, "When there's something I can help with. I can't resurrect your boyfriend and I don't like to be late delivering the post. I will see you soon, love."

I was in shock, I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and I couldn't believe he was leaving me after the information overload and the small ray of hope he had lit inside me and then squashed.

"I'll call the police!" I shouted, desperate to feel as if I was solving this somehow.

"You can try if you want," Ian sighed, as he opened the door to leave. "It just aggravates the creatures, and it isn't going to bring your boy back. Mr prentice hates it when police come too. If you want to get any sleep in the next week then I'd avoid it. Wait a week, report him missing, and learn to adapt to life here, love, or you'll be dead in days."

And with that, he shut the door behind him. I opened it again, I had so much more to ask, but he was gone, no sign of him anywhere in the corridor.

Maybe it was me losing my mind, I might be imagining all these things. But no matter how much I willed it the note was still there. And Jamie still wasn't.

Georgia arrived not long after Ian had left. I, of course, asked if she had seen him in the corridor, to try and affirm to myself that he was real, but she hadn't. She looked at me worried, and held me as I sobbed and told her what the postman had said about Jamie and the creatures.

I wasn't sure she believed me. Even as she read the note she looked skeptical. If she was skeptical I wouldn't have blamed her, but she had always been supportive. She sat with me for hours while I just sobbed, heartbroken. I was so conflicted as to what do to. It felt insane that I hadn't contacted anybody, but this note had turned out to be accurate so far and if the postman was to be trusted then I should wait.

Georgia had been my best friend for many years, she stuck up for me when I was too scared to do it for myself and had always been the brave one of the two of us. I felt safe around her, so after hours of crying and despairing at the way my life had changed in a matter of days, I finally decided to take a nap. It was early evening and Georgia was watching some TV. Just there for me if I needed her.

Despite the deprivation, I struggled to fall asleep. I tried to imagine Jamie's arms around me but it became a more painful reminder that they probably never will be again. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity of staring at the damp patch on the ceiling, I drifted off.

About three hours ago, I woke up, staring at the goddamn damp patch on the ceiling, and could hear chatting in the living room. I jumped out of bed and walked toward it.

Georgia was on the sofa, with a middle-aged-looking woman, both nursing a cup of tea in the matching mugs that Jamie had got me as a move-in present. My blood boiled but it wasn't their fault. I cleared my throat to get their attention.

"Oh, Katie! This is Natalia, she lives upstairs. We got chatting so I made her a cup of tea. I hope you don't mind." I looked at the dark-haired woman on the sofa, drinking tea from my cup, and nodded. Georgia was a sociable idiot with no understanding of when to not be herself. I wasn't going to lament her for it right now. It was her coping.

"Of course. Hi Natalia, what flat do you live in?" I tried my very best to be polite. I would have to discuss not bringing people into my home mid-tragedy with Georgia after she had left but until then I would be neighborly.

"Flat 71. It's so nice to meet you, you have a lovely home," Natalia responded, her lips curled at the corners into a smile that wasn't replicated in her eyes or the rest of her facial expression. She looked at me smugly, with full knowledge that I was aware of the implications of what she had just said.

The rules...

The flat number...

Every now and again someone will knock at your door claiming to live in one of these flats and ask to borrow some sugar. They will seem entirely average but you must shut and lock the door immediately. I installed two extra security bolts to avoid these fuckers. I don't like to swear at my age but they really are fuckers.

Prue's warning echoed in my mind and I couldn't take my eyes off Natalia. Something really was off about her. I looked at Georgia, sitting on the sofa next to her, and noticed her sweating. Anyone in the UK knows that it's been hot for a few days but this was beyond just the ambient temperature. Her entire body was dripping.

Suddenly, she began to pant. Natalia's eyes were locked on mine just like the window cleaners had been. Nothing happened before with the cleaner, except this time the rule had been broken. She was already in the flat.

Georgia started to scream as her skin blistered and charred. Her hair fell from her scalp as the skin flaked and melted away from every inch of her. She was being burned alive without a flame in sight. She scratched frantically at her own melting face, digging into the exposed raw flesh. The sound a person makes when they burn alive is like no other. That will never leave me.

I screamed and screamed but no one came to my door. I tried to grab my phone to call postman Ian but the wooden surface I had set it down on burned my fingers to the touch and forced me to recoil. She was going to set the whole flat alight.

My actions needed to be quicker than a phone call.

I grabbed hold of the large knife I had set down on the side earlier when weaponizing, the handle blistered my fingers instantly but I didn't care, I needed to get her out now and help Georgia if I could. I ran toward the dark-haired lady, sweat dripping from my brow the closer I got, and plunged the knife into Natalia's throat. She gripped it and fell to the floor.

She didn't bleed like a normal human. Her insides were black, she was still moving, and I figured it probably wouldn't be long before she stood right back up and tried again. So I dragged her into the hallway ready to bolt the door.

As we reached the entrance of the corridor one of the cats was waiting, hissing at her semi-conscious body. I caught her eyes fixated on it as I dumped her on the floor. I grabbed the cat, pulled him inside, wincing as its skin caused more burns up my lower arms, shut the door, and watched through the peephole. She got up and held her hand to the wound, cauterizing it and walking off toward the lift. As if she hadn't been injured at all.

I'd dropped the cat by that point but every bit of naked skin it had touched throbbed and burned for at least an hour.

Georgia hadn't been as lucky as Natalia with injury recovery. I anonymously called an ambulance for her. I couldn't believe it but she was still breathing. She was badly burned and her life wouldn't be the same again but she was alive. And for that, I was grateful.

It sounds awful but I left her at the park across the road from the building. With no phone or ID. She's my best friend and I want to be there but if I own up to involvement in injuries that bad they'll suspect me, and I lose the already slim chance that Jamie might be savable. It doesn't mean I don't care about Georgia, but she's alive. I won't believe Jamie isn't until I see it.

So now I'm alone again, in the flat, conflicted about what to do.

I want to leave. So badly. But this was mine and Jamie's first home together. If he's alive, and I can save him then I want it to be here for him to come back to... and if he's dead, and the postman is right, then I don't know if I can leave his memory behind.

There's only one person I think could help me right now. So tonight, I'm going to do some research, hunt down an address, and tomorrow morning I'm going to visit Prudence Hemmings.

The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. Today I finally met her.

I didn't get much sleep last night either. The lack of sleep is making me wonder whether all these things happening are in my mind or not. But I'm reminded every time I see that damn note that it's all real.

I spent hours last night searching for anything I could about Prudence Hemmings. If she had lived in a big creepy mansion I imagine she would have been easy to find. But us folk who live in tower blocks aren't so well documented. No one cares about our lives, no matter how extraordinary.

I found an article about a missing person, Lyla Hemmings. It suggested that she went missing under the care of her grandmother while playing in the park opposite the flats early in the morning. Interviews with her parents stated that they had both disowned Prudence.

Despite the many years that had passed since Lyla's death/disappearance her parents appeared to have remained unforgiving of Prue. There was no mention of her on either of their social media accounts and she appeared to have no involvement with the children they had acquired since.

Searches for the Hemmings family in the local area were equally dead ends. I looked at link after link, desperate to find something but they all started to blur into one. Until finally I saw something.

An obituary for Bernard "Bernie" Hemmings, who had fallen from the tower block in unexplained circumstances after being diagnosed with dementia months before his death. I was surprised it hadn't made bigger news. It had only been about a year. There were no details of where to find them, but his wife Prudence and her sister Bridget were listed as contacts to get find out details of the funeral.

It's scary what you can do with the internet these days, but just with those phone numbers, I was able to put them into a reverse directory and find an address for Bridget and Tony Bishop, the sister and brother-in-law that Prudence was supposedly living with.

About 4 am I managed to get some sleep, not much though, I was back up and wide awake at around 7 am, planning my route and working out my day. I saw a post on social media from one of her relatives that Georgia was identified and is stable. This loosened the knot in my stomach that has been present since I found the note somewhat.

At 8.50, I opened the door to my flat hoping to see postman Ian. 4 minutes passed, and instead of the postman, an elderly gentleman made his way down the corridor. He had a walking stick and kind eyes. In his free arm he carried a small plastic bag containing a newspaper and milk. He smiled and said "Good morning," as he passed.

I smiled back. He reminded me of my grandad. I imagined him pulling cola cubes from his pocket for his grandkids and shushing them when their parents weren't looking. A little further down the corridor the old man stopped and turned. He looked me dead in the eyes with a sympathetic expression and spoke.

"No post on a Sunday, if that's what you were waiting for." He smiled knowingly and turned to unlock a front door that until shut I couldn't see the number of. When I saw the door close and the number 48 boldly displayed above the peephole I understood what Prudence had meant. Mr. Prentice did seem to be a lovely chap.

I sat back in my flat and sighed, staring at the various tabs open on my laptop. At about 9.15 the knocking on the balcony door started.

The window cleaner was back.

I didn't feel half as terrified as I had the first time, if anything, I was just angry. It took every ounce of restraint I had in my tired body not to engage with him, if only to tell him to fuck off. His genuine seeming requests just irritated me. After about 20 minutes of being watched the knocking started to give me a headache, so I grabbed a bag and left the flat.

I decided there was no time like the present. If I was going to turn up on the Bishops' doorstep looking for her sister because of the freaky flat she's left behind then I had to get it over with. If the address was old, or the Bishops weren't the people I was looking for then I was going to look stupid whatever time of day I went.

And I couldn't take the window cleaner's eyes anymore. There was something about them, they really do make you want to open that door.

I looked at the lift as I entered the communal hallway and decided today I would take the stairs. I couldn't stand to be in a small box that my partner probably died very painfully in. My heart dropped into my stomach just at the sight of it.

The stairs were as grotty as the lift. We'd taken them multiple times on move-in day but I hadn't really taken it in the same way I could now. I thought about the rules and all the strange things happening in this building. I looked at the badly painted numbers on the walls as I reached each landing.

Nothing in this building is simple.

I looked at the numbers. 7, 6, 5 ... 5, 4, 3, 4, 2, G. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation but my legs were in agreement with my mind that I had definitely just descended more than 6 flights of stairs. They'd glitched.

I looked at the dusty and poorly-lit stairwell from the bottom. It seemed dark despite the sun pouring in from the glass panel in the main building doors. The note never mentioned glitchy stairs, maybe I really was losing my mind.

As I turned to exit the building a woman walked in. She was in her late thirties to early forties and had 2 small children in tow. One boy and one girl. I guessed that they were twins, they were both incredibly blond, with deep brown puppy-dog-looking eyes, and couldn't have been any older than 6 - 7. They were as close to identical as it gets in twins of different genders. I'm not a fan of kids, but they were super cute.

The lady had a short bob haircut that got longer at the front. It was uniform and dyed a perfectly even auburn color. I knew it was dyed because her roots were blonde like her kids. She looked as tired as I felt, but she pulled herself together when she saw me, running fingers through a part of her hair that she must have missed however early she left this morning.

"Hi, are you here visiting?" she opened with, trying to make small talk.

"No, I just moved into flat 42, on the 7th floor, I was just leaving actually. Whereabouts are you?" I was desperate to go, I had geared myself up to see Prue but I didn't want to be rude.

"I'm flat 26, my name's Terri. This is Eddie and Ellie." She gestured to the two small children hiding shyly behind her skirt. "Welcome to the block. If you ever need anything, please feel free to give me a shout."

"My name is Katie but people call me Kat, too. That's really kind of you, thank you. I will... Hey, is there something wrong with the stairs?" I stopped myself before going into detail.

"Nothing wrong, they just skip sometimes," she answered, shrugging.

"Well, I'd love to stop and chat but I actually really need to get going. It was nice to meet you, Terri." I tried to work out what was wrong with the children as I stepped forward to walk away, still baffled by the stairs.

"By the way, we have a residents committee. You should come to one of our meetings, they're every Tuesday in alternating flats. This Tuesday is at Molly Jefferson's place in flat 31, come along. We'd love to have you!" Terri suggested, waving me off.

I walked out the doors after my encounter with Terri, feeling sick. Every minute in this place made the note more real. Every word jumped off the page and into my life. Made it more likely that Jamie was really gone.

I rode the bus from a stop not far from the flats. It felt like it took an eternity to reach the little suburban area I was looking for. A five-minute walk away from the bus stop I got off at and I was staring at a quaint little bungalow, belonging to Bridget and Tony Bishop.

I knocked on the door. The lady who opened it was unsteady on her feet, she was probably in her 70s, with wispy white hair neatly scraped back into a bun, two strands left hanging that just softened her wrinkled face. She wore a dusty rose-colored dress that hung just below her knees and smelled of stale cigarette smoke.

"Can I help you?" she asked bluntly.

"My name is Kat. I'm looking for Prudence Hemmings," I answered, stuttering slightly.

Her eyes widened slightly.

"Why?" she asked, bizarrely.

"Is she here? It's private."

The lady ushered me into the house, and sat me down on a sofa. Within minutes, there was a cup of tea in front of me. She didn't say anything to me for a while, we just looked at each other. Then she finally broke the silence.

"I wondered if you'd try and find me. It took me a long time to decide whether to leave that note or not but I decided that you deserved a head start. That's more than I ever got."

The woman was Prudence, she was nothing like I had imagined. She seemed tough and hardened and spoke with a mostly blunt tone. She contributed before I could answer.

"Terri called me not long ago. Told me that she had met the new tenant. She said you looked shaken up, and said that my note may not have been enough. I did say I couldn't fit everything on there. And the stairs didn't seem too important. The committee wanted to organize a meeting with you on your moving-in day but I told them that was intrusive. The whole committee thing always seemed a bit excessive to me anyway," she spoke flippantly like it was nothing.

"It may have been intrusive, but we needed a warning, we spent a night in the place before I found your note! My boyfriend had already left for work at 3.15 and taken the lift... he didn't know." I broke as I told her what had happened. Her face dropped. And so did my hope for Jamie.

"I'm so sorry... I really don't know what to say. I thought my note would reach you in time," she mumbled, her face to the floor, refusing to look at me as tears streamed down my face.

"He's gone, isn't he? I didn't want to accept it but I spoke to the postman and your face says all it needs to. The postman said there might be a way I can have him back," I bit at her, devastated and angry.

"He's gone. You can't have him back. What Ian is referring to isn't what you think. There's a way to get people back from the lift. But not as themselves. Trust me, I learned the hard way. Once they're back you can't reverse it. I'm sorry about your man. But he's gone forever. Don't dig into the other way, to be gone forever is luckier than that alternative." She still wouldn't look up from the floor.

"What do you mean...?"

"I don't want to talk about it. I said in the note that there are things I'd rather not discuss and I need you to respect that or I won't be speaking to you at all. Now move on and ask what you need to ask," Prudence cut me off. I decided not to push the topic further and moved on to some other things I needed to know.

"What's the deal with Terri's kids? They seem sweet and normal."

"Those little demon creatures are anything but normal," she answered, wincing slightly at the thought of them. "When she went into labor, Terri never made it to a hospital. They were the first children ever to be born inside the building and with everything that goes on it's like something's rubbed off on them. They're average children in the daytime, but they never sleep, ever. Poor Terri hasn't had a day's rest since they were born. They also really love to steal birds and rats they find the cats playing with and torment them. Really annoys the cats."

As she finished speaking, a small hairless cat strutted out from behind an armchair across the room, meowing softly. It brushed its head up against Prue's exposed legs, leaving scorch marks where it touched. She didn't react, she reached down and stroked the top of its head, smiling as it purred.

"And those?" I asked, eyes stuck to her now badly burned legs.

She chuckled, pulled out a box, and lit a cigarette, tapping the top layer of ash into a small silver dish in front of her. She offered me one and I took it gladly.

"They've always been my good friends. I couldn't leave the building without bringing a part of home with me. This little guy is Damon. He's seen some things," she gushed, not taking her eyes off the cat.

"But where did they come from, why are they everywhere?" I asked, watching in disbelief as her burns subsided. It seemed impossible, but I looked at my arms where I had picked up the cat the night before and there was no evidence it had ever happened. They didn't even appear sunburnt.

"No one really knows. They started to appear after the fire, a few years after I'd moved in. It was rumored that they were the pets of the residents that burned, and that was why they had no fur. But I don't think that's true."

I interrupted.

"I met one of those neighbors last night. She said her name was Natalia. She almost killed my best friend. You're crazy if you think your note was enough of a warning!" I ranted emotionally.

"Look, girl. If I had made a song and dance about warning you, then you'd have thought me crazy and challenged the rules. You'd have been dead already. Be grateful you got anything. I didn't. I had to work it all out. Your generation is so spoiled," she tutted in frustration at me. I was angry, but she was probably right. An elderly lady telling me rat-like creatures would kill my boyfriend in a lift would probably have gotten some laughs from me a few days ago. I stayed quiet and waited for her to calm down. After a while. she sighed and started again.

"I think the cats are the neighbors that burned. They've never meant any harm and they hiss and run from the imposters that roam the building. Besides, there's no way there were that many cats living on one floor.

The imposter people don't even match up with the residents that died in the fire, none of them look like or claim to have the same name as the dead. They just claim to live in their flats. I've met Natalia before, she left a bad scar on Bernie's leg from an incident we had, nasty girl.

Before the fire there was CCTV and there was a recording saved of about 15 people marching into the flats and up to that floor about half an hour before the fire started. It was the only evidence found. CCTV wasn't great in the eighties so they were never identified. And the flames melted the relevant cameras so nothing ever came of it.

I think the people that entered that night are the ones that ask for sugar. I don't know any more than that but if you avoid them like I said you don't need to know more. They hate the cats. I hope your friend survives, but I've seen what those people can do so maybe she was better off dead," Prue carried on stroking Damon. I watched the skin of her fingers melt and twist as they made contact with him.

"What happened to your husband?"

I asked the question so fast I didn't have time to consider that this was a topic she had explicitly said she didn't want to discuss in the note. But I had to know.

She scowled at me. "I said I didn't want to talk about that," she hissed.

"I just lost the love of my life. I need some answers," I begged.

"What happened to Bernie won't help you. I know you'd think any deaths in that building would be down to the quirks but this wasn't. For the most part, anyway.

Don't forget that we had lived there for 35 years, Bernie knew the rules, we knew how to take care of ourselves and have a happy life there. It was our home."

"I don't doubt that, Mrs. Hemmings. I'm sorry," I interjected.

"Bernie had dementia. It started about 6 months before he died and he deteriorated very rapidly. Toward the end, he started wandering. The doctors said it was common, but in our position, it was incredibly dangerous. More times than I can count, I pulled him away from the lift just in time.

Along with wandering, he was forgetting the rules. He let that smug awful window cleaner in 3 times. Thank lord for the big metal pipe I kept by the balcony door, chased him out a treat. Not that anything stops him from coming back. I'm sure you're already acquainted.

After all the dangerous situations Bernie was in, by the end he made the smallest and most fatal of errors.

He left a bowl of food out for Damon at 10 am. I was out shopping with Terri and a few of the girls from the committee and when I came back I found one of those awful creatures..."

Prudence started to cry. I put my hand on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her. After all, I truly knew how she felt.

"It was eating him," she sniffed and steadied herself to continue, moving my hand. "I chased the creature away with the same metal pipe I had the window cleaner and pushed Bernie off the balcony. He was heavy but I didn't want anyone to know what really killed him. Its teeth..." she shivered "... they made such an awful noise. It reminded me of -"

"Lyla," I finished her sentence. I hadn't meant to. I was so invested in her story I couldn't help it.

"I gather you spoke with Ian then," she said, sounding resigned. "I never meant to hurt that little girl. I loved her so much." Tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks. Damon, who was now sitting next to her on the sofa, shuffled closer as if to cuddle her.

"Haven't you ever been curious about getting her back?" I asked, my mind turning back to the methods hinted at by both Prue and the postman. "I miss Jamie so much. I'd do anything to get him back."

Her face filled with a look of horror and shame. "Of course, I have," she answered, "Which is exactly why I'm telling you not to."

But I couldn't let it go.

"Surely anything must be better than gone forever?" I pestered. I wish I hadn't.

Prudence, frustrated, stood up and gestured for me to follow, she led me outside to the back garden of the bungalow. At the back was a large shed, the kind people used for a man cave or a summer house. It was pretty, the sun shone down on it lighting up the few cobwebs in the corners and making them twinkle.

Mrs. Hemmings was careful to look into both neighboring gardens to ensure there was no one around before she unlocked the door to the shed. We stepped inside and the first thing to hit me was the smell, it was putrid, like rotting meat. I looked at the floor and covered my nose with my hands. Staring back at me was a pool of blood.

I followed the blood with my eyes as Prudence locked us in the shed. Then after I made it past the animal bones, I finally saw it.

Just like postman Ian had described.

One of the creatures was watching me, from a heavy-duty metal dog cage in the corner of the shed. It looked reinforced but still, the metal had chew marks. Their jaws had to be strong to cause that.

That didn't surprise me looking at it, it's rodent-like nose and beady, yet somehow human-like eyes were nothing compared to the two very visible rows of jagged sharp teeth that lined each gum. Despite its small stature, it was terrifying.

Prudence opened a drawer in a dusty cupboard across the room and pulled out a can of dog food, she poured the contents into the bowl and passed the bowl through the feeding hatch. The cage had a safety feature meaning the animal couldn't access the food until the hatch was locked from the outside. I was grateful for this.

Prue turned to me and spoke. She brushed one of the two strands of hair framing her face behind her ear. Gesturing to the hideous creature she said, "Kat, I would like to introduce you to my granddaughter, Lyla."

The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. Last night my survival was threatened.

I was in complete shock. Looking at it. At her.

Prudence had a facial expression filled with guilt and now I knew the truth, I could see it. The creature was exactly how Ian had described, except with wavy ginger hair and a sadness in its beady eyes.

This abomination was Lyla. This was how Prudence had bought her back, and this was the only way I would ever see Jamie again, a risk I wasn't going to take. After days of disbelief, the reality finally hit me like a ton of bricks. Jamie was dead and he wasn't coming back.

"Why did you do this?" I asked, my voice shaking with horror.

Prudence scowled at me, trying to mask her shame.

"I didn't want this. If you think this was my aim then you're sicker than I am. I just wanted my granddaughter back.

When she died a part of me died. My son blamed me, his wife blamed me, and although he never said it, I could see in Bernie's eyes that he did, too.

I'd pushed for her to stay, I wanted to spend more time with her. I got cocky about my ability to cope with the strange occurrences in the flats. I know what you must be thinking. But I swear I didn't know about the sleepwalking until it was too late.

We had moved into the flat not long after my son left home to move in with his girlfriend. He's the youngest of three and was the last to fly the nest, so we downsized for the two of us. He never knew what we were facing in that flat, or the dangers that he sent his little girl into.

When it happened it was a few years after the fire and the troubles with the creatures. We'd struck the deal with the things in the lift and the neighbors of the burned flats had become a fixture just like the other quirks. I really thought she would be safe."

Prudence paused to gaze longingly at the mutated little girl in the cage, the creature just twitched. In return, it bared its four rows of teeth and made a gentle hiss.

"But how did you do this!?" I stopped her with more urgency this time, looking at rat-Lyla in disbelief. I had to get answers out of her fast. I didn't want to spend any more time than was absolutely necessary in this shed.

"The gardener helped me," she answered, her voice trembling.

"Who the fuck is the gardener?" I grew more impatient with every new confusion she threw at me. The last thing I needed was something new and potentially malevolent in the mix.

"I didn't mention him in my note because he's been gone for over 20 years. He'll be of no concern to you, so don't worry. His damage is in the past now...

Around the time Lyla went missing, the council granted planning permission for the tower block next door. But before that was built the land it sits on acted as a communal garden for ours and the neighboring tower block on the other side. It had a regular gardener named Derek, who you would often see tending the flowerbeds out front.

Derek was one of the first people I met when I moved in.

Like I said, I had to work it all out myself and the first time the window cleaner came to the balcony, I naturally reached to let him in and offer a cup of tea.

As my hand applied pressure to the handle to open the balcony door, there was a knock at the front door. I made a gesture to the cleaner to indicate that I would only be a minute and answered.

There was Derek. He stopped me and told me not to let the man in, that I would be making a huge mistake.

I thought he sounded crazy, and I told him so. After a while of arguing, I got up to reboil the kettle and let the man in, and Derek grabbed my hands and shouted at me to look at the man outside.

When I turned to look, there was no man outside, but a monster. He was tall and impossibly thin, flesh and bones but somehow thinner than bones with graying skin stretched over them. He had eyes that seemed to be so deep-set they went on forever, like the blackest cave you can imagine. Saliva dripped from his mouth and landed on my balcony floor, some sliding down the glass panel of the door.

I opened my mouth to scream, but as I did, Derek let go of my hands and the monster was gone. In its place was that smug, friendly man, begging for a drink while he cleans the windows.

It took me a minute to process it, but I know what I'd seen. That was the real window cleaner. I never intentionally opened or tried to open the door for him again.

That day Derek didn't stay long. He didn't tell me what the window cleaner is, or why he visits every few days. He didn't explain anything about the weird things that go on. As much as Derek was a part of the strange happenings, he was like one that had been carved from light.

He said that he'd always be around when I needed him, that it was his job to look after the residents just like the flowerbeds.

Over the years he appeared a few times. He was instrumental in striking a deal with the creatures. When the neighbors died in the fire he created a special display for them in the garden and made sure that nothing planted was poisonous to the cats as soon as they arrived. He also stopped an imposter from killing Bernie at our front door.

He seemed like such a good thing for the residents. Always there to help. Offer some gentle advice or a creative solution. Someone to be trusted.

He changed when they granted planning permission for the other block though. He knew his garden would be dug up to lay foundations and his uses redundant. He became grumpy and bitter over time but no one paid enough attention to notice. Especially not when my tragedy struck.

When Lyla died, I was devastated. Derek appeared to me as I sat on a bench in the garden, crying. He offered to help me, to use the garden to get her back. I snapped at him. I told him it was his fault and that he should have been there when it happened to stop them.

He worked so hard on the agreement with the creatures, he spent a lot of time with them. Lyla broke the rule and he had to allow them to do what had been agreed, he said. He couldn't have stopped them. But he wanted to help make things right.

I understood why he hadn't intervened. But I couldn't accept it, I lashed out at him. I'm embarrassed to say I actually slapped the poor man along with stamping on his freshly planted flowerbed. I was angry and grieving.

I quickly burned myself out and collapsed into a blubbering heap on the floor. Derek attempted to comfort me but his mind was on his garden.

He said he was sorry for my loss but I shouldn't have attacked the flowerbed. That he'd always been nice to me and I should be kinder in return.

I snapped and told him that it didn't matter because it was all about to be bulldozed in the next few days anyway.

I should have taken more note of the way he twitched as I said that. He snapped.

He said that he knew I was angry. But there was no need to take it out on him. If I was that desperate to get Lyla back, he knew a way. But it was dangerous.

I begged. Anything, I said. I would do anything.

He told me it was simple and that all I had to do was enter the lift and offer the creatures some food whilst repeating the phrase revertetur mortuis during their frenzied hours.

He said that there was no guarantee they wouldn't be crunching on my bones before I even got the first word out but that if I succeeded I would have Lyla back.

Of course, it was successful. There wasn't a creature in sight as I performed the ritual as instructed.

I thought nothing happened at first. She didn't appear straight away, but a few days later I found her running 'round inside my house. She'd taken a chunk out of Damon's ear with her teeth. I tried to kill her at first, but just as I was about to finalize it I saw in her eyes who she was.

I tried to look for Derek but by that point, the workmen had started. Nothing was left of his garden, and nothing was left of Derek. No one's seen him since. You see, Kat, nothing in that building is totally harmless. You have to be on your guard at all times.

I've kept her like this ever since. You may think I'm crazy but I couldn't kill my own granddaughter. I'm not a monster."

Prue sighed and ushered me back out of the shed. She locked the door behind us, closing the padlock on her most hideous secret.

I was exhausted. It was a lot of information to take in and as a result of the information I'd received, real grief for my boyfriend was finally settling in. Every hope I had was dashed. I know many of you tried to tell me in the comments that he was gone but I wanted you to be wrong so bad.

I couldn't bear to look at Prudence Hemmings for another moment. I made my excuses and left, morosely riding the bus back to the tower block I had once been so excited to live in.

It was mid-afternoon by time I got home. The choice between the stairs and lift didn't strike much enthusiasm into me but I opted for the stairs, and after what I'm sure ended up being 11 flights, I made it the 6 flights up the stairs to my flat.

I laid on our mattress on the floor and sobbed for Jamie. I sobbed so hard my throat went dry and hurt and my stomach cramped with each gasping breath. I sobbed myself to sleep. My body and mind must have given up fighting the need to rest and shut down.

When I woke up it was late, about 10 pm. I wrote as much of my update as I could for you guys, hit post, and just sat at the dining table with my head in my hands.

My whole life had fallen to shit and I knew it.

I thought about so many things, questioned why they were happening to me. I searched social media for updates on Georgia but there were none. Jamie wasn't super close with his family but I knew it wasn't long before they'd start to worry. Everything I considered just snowballed in my mind.

The loneliness in dealing with this situation was killing me.

I decided to do something I usually wouldn't. I went downstairs and I knocked on the door of flat 26.

Terri answered. Her perfectly bobbed hair was a little unkempt and out of place, she had huge bags under her eyes and I could smell wine on her breath.

"Are you okay, Kat?" She looked concerned. I found it ironic that she looked so disheveled I had forgotten it was me who came for help.

"I'm not... I'm sorry... I know I don't know you... I... just..." I could barely speak.

"Don't worry. Prue called me. She told me everything. I'm sorry about your boyfriend, it's a shame I never got to meet him." Terri stared back at me with the same expression a mother would, warm and understanding. "Would you like a cup of tea, maybe something stronger?"

"I'd love a coffee please." I answered meekly, making my way into the living room. Her sofa was comfy, it reminded me of being back home at my parents' before any of this started.

Terri trotted out to the kitchen, stumbling slightly. I could see the kitchen counter from the sofa, and the empty bottle of wine that accounted for her stumbling.

As she boiled the kettle there was a huge crash from somewhere inside the flat. I jumped, feeling startled. Terri coughed in a meager attempt to conceal the noise.

"Excuse me for just a moment please," she muttered apprehensively as she walked out of the living area and into the hallway containing the bedrooms.

I heard another crash, giggling, and some inaudible shouting. After a while, things went quiet and Terri came back into the living room.

"Sorry about that, kids you know," she announced, brushing off the noises. I'd almost forgotten about Eddie and Ellie. It was late already and the resigned expression on Terri's face indicated that this was how all her nights began.

I nodded. I couldn't muster up much more of a response. I think she could see that I just needed to sit there. She got up to finish making and then set the cup of tea in front of me with 2 digestive biscuits. I hadn't eaten properly in days and I really needed the sugar.

It turned out Terri and I get along really well. We have similar tastes in movies, music, and food despite the age gap. We spoke for about an hour about random, normal stuff. It was nice to get a break from the madness. I got used to the crashing around from the twins. I even laughed a few times. I'd forgotten what that felt like these past few days.

The break didn't last long. The next noise that we heard was louder than the first. It was quickly followed by two small children, running into the living room, diving into their mother's arms.

I was taken aback for a moment. Eddie and Ellie were dressed in pajamas and were still the cute children that I had met in the hallway, but something was different. Their brown puppy dog eyes had become deep voids, like what I'd imagined when Prue described the window cleaner's true form. And at the ends of their fingers were long sharp claws protruding from where nails should be.

I didn't have time to recoil in terror at their new looks, Terri clutched them and asked what was wrong. They wailed and buried the voids where their eyes should be into their mother's shoulders. Despite their terrifying exterior, these were two very scared little kids.

It had been a very long day and I thought my nightmare was over but it was only just beginning. Ellie mumbled into Terri's shoulder, in that high-pitched voice kids do when they're scared.

"Mummy, we're sorry, we didn't mean to let them in. We were just teasing..."

"Shhh, they're coming!" hissed Eddie, in the same distressed high-pitched tone.

"Who's... what have you done?" Terri asked, color drained from her face.

The kids didn't get a chance to reply. Terri's face turned paler than I thought possible. I looked up and standing in the living room doorway were about 10 people, all incredibly average-looking.

They were almost expressionless, they didn't look angry or pleased to see us. They were dressed in non-descriptive clothes. I imagined trying to describe them to one of those artists that draw pictures for the police and I genuinely don't think even one of them had a distinguishing feature.

That's why it took me a while to spot her in the crowd, even though she had been glaring at me the entire time.


The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. Things just keep getting weirder.

When I first saw Natalia all I could picture was Georgia. The way her skin melted off her face, the smell of her hair burning, and the sound that she made.

I didn't have time to count but there were more than I originally thought. I figured these must have been the 15 people Prudence talked about, entering the flats that burned before it happened. I already knew that Natalia was one of them.

Eddie and Ellie clutched Terri's skirt, trembling with fear. I wanted to help protect them, but I still couldn't help but tremble a little myself every time I caught a glimpse of those hollow voids where their eyes were.

"Hi Terri, the kids said we could borrow some sugar?" she asked menacingly, grinning at the frightened family stood next to me. After a moment or two of intense staring, Natalia finally addressed me. She appeared to be the spokesperson for the group. "How's your friend doing? It was a shame we had to end our visit. I was enjoying her company."

"Don't speak about her! She's got nothing to do with you, you sick bitch!" I screamed at her, I couldn't bare looking at her face again. "You don't scare me with all your freak friends. I'm not going to let you hurt this lady or her kids!"

Natalia chuckled. I gulped.

I may talk a good game but I am no hero. Mere days ago I was just a young girl excited to move in with her boyfriend and now here I am. My boyfriend's dead, my flat is like living in my own personal horror movie, and I'm standing up challenging demonic flame neighbors to defend demonic-looking children.

But when I said she didn't scare me, I meant it. Something inside me was eradicating any fear of these people, I just wanted to protect the residents. Life really does throw curveballs.

"I know you aren't scared. I saw it in your eyes when you stuck that big knife in my throat. That's why we're here.

"My brothers and sisters are not freaks. You're the freaks! Thinking that your lives have meaning. We watch you people go about your day-to-day lives and your mundane routines and nothing really changes. Your lives are pointless and disposable.

"That's why we set the fire, all those years ago," she chuckled throughout her words. There was an animation in them like she was a psychotic cartoon character, finally catching its prey after 138 episodes of chasing.

"Those people weren't disposable..." Terri mumbled, barely a decibel higher than a whisper.

"What was that, Terri? Did you have something to say?" Natalia went from psychotic cartoon to school bully. She made my skin crawl.

"I was only a child, but those people were friends of my parents, they were good people," Terri said with slightly more confidence.

None of the other people had moved. They just stood there staring.

"Why would you burn people alive? What can you possibly gain?" I interjected, taking a slight step between Natalia and Terri and the kids. I could see she was getting ready to go for them and I couldn't let it happen.

"We were living with the great leader, Michael. All of us. Living in the righteous manner that he had directed us to live," she gestured to the people around her. The name Michael appeared to inspire some sort of emotion in the group.

"Michael's brother Jonathan lived here, on the floor we burned. He let us hang out there sometimes, but he didn't live the righteous way that we did. He didn't like our beliefs, but he took us in when we lost the place we were staying because of the growth of the group. He and Michael rarely saw eye to eye. They argued passionately.

Our group never believed in living within the constraints of societal norms and we were up at all hours, we came and went as we pleased, embracing freedoms and listened to music as we did introspective work."

Terri shoved the kids further behind her and snapped, infuriated.

"You were a group of entitled, bratty hippies following some middle-aged, mentally-ill twat. Listen to yourself! The stereotypical cultish drivel coming out of your mouth right now!" Terri cried. I was shocked at her outburst. Although I couldn't have agreed more. It did sound like cultish drivel. It made me so angry that this was what an entire floor of people died over.

As Terri ended her rant, the curtains hanging on the window behind her burst into flames. I jumped and felt my heart skip a beat.

"Don't insult us. I'm sick of hearing simple-minded people call us a cult," came from the back row. An average-looking man with dark hair and jeans had piped up, smiling and watching the curtains burn. He had done that. They were all capable of what Natalia had done to Georgia at the very least.

For the first time since the people had entered Terri's flat, my nerves of steel had wavered. I realized that we were only alive because they were allowing it so far. We were in big trouble.

Terri swiftly shut up and Natalia continued her story.

"Michael was the true leader. Not like all the fakes you hear of in the news. The people you're talking about. He was teaching us to build a world of peace and harmony. But he didn't deny that in order to do that you had to eradicate the non-believers. He taught us to embrace the bad in us. To harness it so that we could do extraordinary things," she smiled wickedly as her hands glowed hot coals as she spoke.

It may have sounded like cultish drivel but Michael being a total faker wouldn't explain their powers.

"Things went wrong when someone went to the police after Michael and Jonathan had a terrible argument one night. When the police arrived, Jonathan told us to go.

The group had been planning to leave this building anyway. We'd had nothing but interruption and trouble in our time here, this place is weird. But we had nowhere immediate to go. The police already disliked us after overcrowding the last property. We didn't need any more attention.

"Michael was furious. We brainstormed in a field for hours about who could have done it. I personally suspected the next-door neighbor, Mavis. The woman was so nosy, always knocking and asking us to keep the noise down, interrupting our spiritual sessions.

"Michael couldn't make a certain judgment on the person who had done it. All we thought we were sure of was that they had to be on the same floor. So he instructed us to go back that night and eradicate the whole floor and every non-believer who lived there.

"As you know, we obliged." This incited sick laughter from the crowd. I waited, forcing myself to let her finish. Buying time.

"We took pleasure in their screams, in watching every man, woman, and child go up in flames through their front door windows. It was the first time we'd unleashed all that energy and we felt so powerful!

"But then as we left the burning hallway behind us and entered the stairwell, this building found a way to fuck us over one more time.

"I couldn't give you a number on the amount of times we tried to run down those stairs, leave our glorious victory behind us, and return to Michael. It didn't matter how many times we tried.

"We couldn't make it past that floor, the stairs wouldn't let us. It didn't take long before the fire reached the stairwell we were trapped in, burning us all, along with the non-believers. We died just in time for the fire engine to arrive.

"We may have been dead but we didn't disappear. We couldn't leave the building, we were stuck just wandering it, in and out of the burned flats and hallways but not allowed anywhere else unless we were asked. It was awful. We didn't try to cause any trouble at first. We waited for Micheal to come and find us, instruct us.

"Two months passed and he hadn't come. Instead came confirmation. A newspaper put through the door of the building. Headline news.

"Tower block resident Bernie Hemmings information vital to imprisonment of local cult leader on drug charges."

I gasped. I couldn't believe I hadn't found that when I was researching Prue. But I suppose local news wasn't so heavily online back then. Natalia saw my shocked expression and grinned wider than before.

"The old bat didn't tell you that then?" she asked, although it wasn't really a question. "That her stupid husband is the whole reason we're here!"

"We started to really cause issues then. Did anything within our power to fuck the whole building over. But it didn't take them long to work out that we had to be asked to come in.

"We only stopped when Prue worked out a way we could die a second time, and that we would come back again. She killed two of our group. She was the only person that could stop us. We couldn't do shit with her around. We stopped and reached a stalemate. Then she moved out. We were going to honor that stalemate. Until you stabbed me. Prue's gone. It's fair game in here now."

As Natalia got angrier, a member of her group started getting agitated. They all soon followed like a hive mind, working as one. The stillness became chaotic, with all of them moving and making noise.

I didn't notice at first when one started walking toward Terri and the kids, but I noticed when it got near.

It was a teen girl, slender and pretty, but still unsettlingly average. As she got within a meter of the family, Ellie suddenly went rigid. The claws that replaced her fingernails grew longer and sharper, with jagged edges growing so fast. The voids deepened if that was even possible.

She opened her mouth to reveal rows of sharp teeth, blood caked where the tooth meets the gum where they had grown too quickly as well. Ellie jumped. She reached out toward the girl and slashed her face with the claws, leaving deep gouges across her eyes. She clung to the girl using her claws as wall pegs keeping herself at eye level.

Eddie controlled the crowd. His own claws grew and he ran toward them, sending them scattering out of the flat, random bursts of flames erupted everywhere. Lighting up the whole room.

Shit had hit the fan. The two demon children were successfully fending off a group of 15 dead superhuman cultists. Natalia ran from them, too, but kept her eyes locked on mine as she did. As she ran from the flat, she spoke to me.

"This isn't over!" she screamed, and I knew that it wasn't.

I stayed on Terri's sofa that night, we organized all the burned items in the house and threw things out before we crashed out in the early hours. The kids' claws retracted and they returned to their earlier state, causing mischief in the hallways. They were too young to really understand.

I didn't sleep much. Nothing new.

When I woke up, Terri was still asleep. I didn't want to disturb her so I walked back to my flat, desperate to avoid anything strange on my way. The stairs must have noticed because they didn't skip on my way up.

I hadn't checked the time when I left Terri's but I reached my door at the same time as a familiar face. Postman Ian was standing there, dropping letters on my doorstep.

"Hey, love!" he shouted as he noticed me.

"I need to talk, can you come inside, just five minutes? Please?" I practically begged him at the doorstep.

I told him everything that had happened the night before. How Natalia was out for revenge and I was the object of her rage. I begged him to tell me how to kill them, but he claimed he didn't know. He said if kept my doors locked and didn't let them in then I'd be fine.

He looked shirty as I mentioned killing them. Didn't even suggest asking Prudence how to do it. Something was telling me there wasn't much point. He seemed so disingenuous.

I wanted to trust him. So badly I wanted to trust him. I had been so vulnerable with him over Jamie.

But if Prudence Hemmings could forget to mention what Bernie had done, and conveniently never pass on the method to kill these awful people, leaving them around to terrorize her friends and neighbors... then could she be a liar, too? Could I really trust Ian?

When he provided no answers and no real help, something inside me told me that I needed to get him out of my flat. I needed to rethink. Start working things out on my own. I made excuses to Ian and sent him on his rounds.

Prudence left me these rules, but she left so much out. How do I know I wasn't always a pawn in some sick game? Her fantasy life as a puppet master, setting me up to fail. She's kept her granddaughter in a cage for years. Maybe she enjoys suffering.

I wasn't going to give up easily though. Natalia wasn't going to win.

I decided then and there that I needed to attend the committee meeting today and start building an army against Natalia. I didn't need Prue's help or her methods. With enough manpower, I could do it myself.

This was war.

The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. I might need some help.

I sat all morning thinking about everything, cup after cup of coffee in front of me to keep me awake. Once the postman had left and I was alone with my thoughts they just continued to get louder.

I thought about Natalia and the cult. About the kids and their nighttime antics. About the committee meeting. Jamie and how much I missed him, Georgia and my burning guilt, and Mr. Prentice, who was finally making those aforementioned animal noises.

Most of all I thought about the note left for me on move-in day. How it had changed everything. My whole life was different now, I was alone and it felt like my new home was attacking me from every angle.

I re-read the note a few times over my coffee. I worried about my rent, it was tight but manageable. School is currently out in the UK but as a training teacher assigned to a school I still get paid a small amount through the summer. The rent is low and with a second summer job, I can just about make it without Jamie.

It sounds strange. But it felt nice to worry about something normal for a minute; even if I should have been worrying about my survival and the many entities currently trying to kill me.

I didn't get to stew for too long, I had to get ready for the committee meeting. After the events of the night before and my growing mistrust of Prudence, it was imperative that I got the neighbors on my side if I was going to achieve anything like my goals of eradicating the imposter/cultist neighbors.

The meeting was at noon in flat 31. There was a poster on a communal notice board by the entrance that I was glad to spot, Terri hadn't mentioned the time when we met and all our meetings since had been a bit hectic to discuss it. The poster promised tea and cakes and my stomach rumbled at the thought, I hadn't eaten properly in days.

At 11.55 I left the flat, and wandered out into the corridor. I'd never seen so many neighbors. Mr. Prentice, however, was still making that awful noise and I watched in disbelief as every single person in the corridor walked past his door as if it was silent.

I did my usual deliberation on whether to take the stairs or lift but yet again the stairs won. I still couldn't bear being where Jamie died and all these extra flights were keeping me fit.

Flat 31 belonged to an older lady named Molly Thompson and her husband Eric. She had a blue-rinsed head of curls attached to her head and had gone to the effort to make homemade batten-burg cake. Other neighbors had brought along baked goods as well. It reminded me of a school fair.

The flat itself was decorated for the 70s, with plenty of china cat ornaments littered around. I sat down on a dusty plastic garden chair, one of many that Molly seemed to have acquired and laid out for the residents pouring in. I hadn't seen community spirit like this in my life.

I smiled as I saw Terri, Eddie, and Ellie wander in. It was nice to see some familiar faces. I had noticed people looking at me, wondering who I was. It probably wasn't often they got new neighbors. Eddie came running up to me, swung his arms around me, and sat down in the rickety garden chair next to mine. It was so sweet. Terri smiled at me and took a seat on the other side of mine, Ellie sat next to her brother. The brown puppy dog eyes were back. No claws.

"I'm glad you came!" Terri said to me, loud enough to hear over the voices of the other neighbors. "I really want you to see the good side of the block. We don't bite really!" She laughed nervously as she realized the irony of her statement.

"Terri, I need help, we need to stop those people from coming back again and from terrorizing people. The block can't go on like this." I wanted to make the purpose of my attendance clear to her, it was time for things to change.

"But if you don't let them in then they don't bother you. I've spoken to the kids, they know not to do it again, that those people are dangerous." She paused for a moment and sighed. "Although them running away didn't help, the kids think they're indestructible now. They've been telling me all morning that they're going to kill the bad guys."

She looked so resigned. But it was true, they did run away from the twins. Maybe there was something in that. I knew they could die, I just had to work out how. But as the thought crossed my mind and I looked at Eddie and Ellie, I couldn't imagine taking the risk.

I could've flat-out gone back and asked Prudence. But to be honest. I didn't want anything to do with her. She gave me such a bad feeling. I was doubting everything she told me.

"It doesn't matter if you can keep them away. We can't all live in fear. Yours aren't the only kids in this building." I knew this from surveying the room. "But I bet not all the kids here are as... special... as yours. What if another family burns to death because their kids were hyper one night."

I could see this struck a chord with Terri. She looked at me with glassy eyes as if on the verge of tears.

"You're right. Molly's the chairwoman and she can be a little strict but you can bring it up under any other business," she spoke with a lump in her throat. "Here you go by the way." She handed me a piece of printed paper.

Any other business felt a bit lackluster but it would do. As long as it got discussed.

I turned my attention to the piece of paper, it was the agenda for the meeting. For something written so formally, it appeared farcical. It seemed other flats and floors had different but equally strange issues to mine.

There were only 6 items on the agenda for the meeting with AOB as of the 7th. They were as follows.

  1. Welcome and introductions with apologies for absence.
  2. Replacing of the flickering lights on floor 11, it seems to incite vicious behavior from the pets and elderly of that floor.
  3. Serving a formal residents letter of concern to the man who doesn't move from the bottom of the stairwell on floor 5.
  4. Finances - budgets for general maintenance and the annual barbecue.
  5. The stairs with no grip leading up to floor 14 at the very top and the health and safety hazards this presents.
  6. Soundproofing of Mr. Prentice's flat, number 48.

I was comforted to know that I wasn't alone in dealing with all these strange occurrences. I was also chilled to the core to know for certain that it was the entire building that was more than a bit odd.

What really struck me as odd is that when I thought about it, I had seen that man on floor 5 when going down the stairs. But I'd never noticed that it had been every time, or that he had never moved, until this moment.

The meeting began with a loud and dissatisfying clink.

By this point the tiny, 70s-themed flat was packed. Garden chairs had all run out and people were standing. Molly Thompson stood up from her floral patterned armchair and bashed a teaspoon against the outside of her cup.

She reminded me of a very strict, disciplinarian school teacher I had worked with during my university placement. She commanded quiet in the room.

"I think we should get started, everyone!" she shrilled, her voice growing louder with every word until the crowd came to a silent hum.

"Right, firstly, we are not going to skip the introductions today. Apologies have been given by Jo and Steph of flat 2 and yet again by Mr. Prentice. We have a new face in the room as I'm sure many of you have noticed." She gestured to me and looked in my direction but didn't really make any eye contact. She was just talking about me as I sat in the room. Eventually, she addressed me directly.

"Stand up, dear, introduce yourself. We're pleased to have you here."

I was deeply uncomfortable. I could feel some sort of panic coming on. I never liked standing in crowds very much. But I stood up anyway.

"Ermm, hi. My name is Kat. I live in flat number 42, I moved in with my boyfriend Jamie but he was killed in the lift by the weird rat creatures you people have living here. The people that claim to live in the burned-out flats won't leave me alone and one, in particular, seems to want me dead. Oh, and that window cleaner outside my flat makes me want to scoop my own eyes out with a spoon every time he knocks on the door. Nice to meet you all." The crowd gasped a little.

I sat down, instantly mortified. I don't know what happened, the normality and structure of the meeting overwhelmed me. There's something about a sense of order and normality amongst chaos. It does something to your brain, and for me, for the first time in this whole journey, it sent me into a meltdown.

I sobbed as I hit the chair, both in pure mental exhaustion and disappointment that I had blown my chance at building any sort of army against Natalia. Terri rubbed my shoulder. Molly broke the awkward silence that had blanketed the room.

"Nice to meet you, Katherine. I understand life in this building can be a little overwhelming. We did ask the previous occupant to let us intervene when you moved in but she was insistent. In hindsight, we may need to review our policies on new tenants. I am so very sorry for the loss of your partner. The lift is a most unfortunate situation."

She had been in positions of power in her life for certain, she responded professionally but coldly, there was no feeling in her condolences. She came off like a corrupt politician digging themselves out of a hole. She did decide to skip the introductions after my outburst.

I also hate it when I'm called Katherine. My parents named me Katie and I shorten it to Kat. Her presuming it was Katherine added to her schoolteacher demeanor.

She carried on with the proceedings pretty swiftly and interesting characters present at the meeting started to emerge.

My favorite was a large middle-aged Caribbean woman named Precious St. Fluer who would not accept Molly's claims that there was not enough in the budget to replace the lighting on floor 11.

She got up and lifted her shirt to reveal a large deep bite mark across her stomach caused by her dog after a long episode of the lights flickering. When that didn't change Molly's answer, she lifted her trouser leg to reveal a smaller, but still noteworthy bite mark on her leg, from her elderly mother who lives with her. Molly didn't budge.

It took what felt like an eternity to get to any other business. If I weren't so focused on my goal I would have enjoyed hearing about the quirks of the other floors, maybe tried to engage a little, but I just couldn't concentrate.

When the chairwoman asked if anyone had any other business, she scanned the room quickly. I stood up from my chair and she locked in on me with her eyes.

My hands were shaking and I could feel a cold sweat forming all over my body.

"Katherine, what can we help you with dear?" she asked in a patronizing tone.

"I want help in getting rid of the people pretending to be from the burned-out flats. I can't be the only person that doesn't like living in fear," I stated boldly, trying not to break down again.

"Dear, we have had this discussion multiple times and it's been taken off the agenda. I am aware you're new here but there is nothing we can do about certain problems within this building and for this particular issue we would appreciate you not letting them into your home and ignoring them like the rest of us," she snapped back.

"But that's not good enough! Terri's kids answered the door last night, they're children, it's easily done. What if someone else's child does it and aren't so lucky to survive? One burned my friend so bad a few nights ago that she's still unconscious in the hospital." This I knew from social media.

A few people called out in agreement with me from the crowd.

"The only one who has ever been able to deal with them is Prudence. And that difficult woman never revealed her methods. Don't think we didn't try. You're suggesting a suicide mission. You'd do well to remember you are new here," Molly hissed through her teeth.

Did she have to mention I was new so many times? It was grating on me.

"Well, I'm willing!" shouted Precious. She seemed stronger than the rest in her earlier rant. I was glad to have her on my side.

Where she came forward, a few others followed. Soon I had 5 people plus myself willing to form a sub-committee to get rid of the cultists. Molly didn't like it but she agreed to let us do it.

There was me, Precious, and Terri, along with a lady named Shanti who lived a few doors from me.

A man named Anton and his friend Leo from floor 8 made up the group. To be honest, they just seemed keen to get involved with any kind of battle. Leo was the loud one, Anton was mostly silent.

I invited them to my flat after Molly swiftly adjourned the meeting. Inviting anyone into my home made me anxious now. I found myself studying each of their faces to ensure they weren't too average and I hadn't invited the wrong people in. I was fairly certain I hadn't. Eddie and Ellie settled in front of my TV in the bedroom so they didn't hear our conversation. They may only be kids but I felt safer with them there.

We discussed for hours how we could bring the imposter people into one place and kill them all.

Leo was particularly creative, he came up with weird and whacky ways to end them; from locking them in a room and blasting them with fire extinguishers until they freeze, to herding them into the lift between 1.11 and 3.33 am.

The whole time, I waited nervously for a knock on the door, for them to come for us. But they didn't. We got time to plan. But despite the time it never really took off, no idea seemed feasible.

I shared everything I knew. My conversation with Prue, the night before in Terri's flat... everything. Precious listened to my tales intently before speaking.

"Derek would have helped us. He was a great man, he used to turn up at my door in the dead of the night just as those lights started and take my dog for a walk." She spoke of the gardener with fondness.

"Prudence told me about Derek. She said he's been gone since the garden was demolished," I replied flatly.

"It was awful when he left. That woman that used to live here was nasty to him. I watched out my window as she tore up the garden. I know she was grieving for that little girl but I know Derek only ever wanted to help," Shanti spoke up from the corner. She had been pretty quiet the whole time. "He was the whole reason we don't have those awful creatures from the lift all over our homes anymore. My brother was killed by one before the agreement. He was 4 years old."

I twitched as she told her story. Shanti has such sad eyes and speaking about her brother only filled them further with sadness.

"This is another thing I don't understand. Why have any agreement, if you managed to kill most of them, why not all?" I asked, feeling anger over Jamie burn through my throat as I spoke.

Precious laughed. Terri shot her a look from across the room.

"No one's told you the whole story have they?" Shanti asked, a single tear running down her face.

"What do you mean?" This was driving me insane, nothing was simple. How could I trust anyone?

"When Prudence and some of the others killed the creatures, they killed a large group of them in one hit. They had started to work out that food scraps and pet food were attracting them and they gathered all the pet food in the tower block into one empty flat on the floor the fire had happened. The creatures came in droves just like expected and they set the flat alight. Again.

"The flat was burned to ash on top of pre-existing ash. Nothing could survive that." Shanti was interrupted after this by Leo.

"And then 3 giant rat motherfuckers literally rose from the ashes, triple as smart and strong and fucked shit up!" he said, a look of excitement on his face.

Shanti rolled her eyes and continued. "So all Prudence did was cause a quite literally bigger problem. She didn't kill them, all she did was help them evolve.

"There were only three of them but they learned to sneak attack. More people died than during the original infestation. They were more intelligent but not in the way it comes across when the agreement's spoken about. We couldn't speak to or reason with them."

Terri was looking at the floor.

"Only Derek was able to do that, he spoke to them like he spoke to the garden. He made it safe for everyone again, I wasn't there. I was too young but there we were told he didn't even have to use words. They understood just a series of movements and eye contact.

"Derek explained the rule with the lift. He told us it was a gesture of goodwill. The creatures needed a home and seemed attracted to the building and we would let them live there and stop killing their kind if they would stop killing ours. But to show them some respect we would allow them a small time frame to unleash their instinctual nature. But only if someone came to them.

"There are only two left now. Prudence killed the other during what happened with her granddaughter. But that only made them two stronger. Like they absorbed the third."

I tried to take in all the information I was receiving but I couldn't. It was too much.

"Derek isn't coming back, it's been years, this is pointless!" Terri finally erupted. Precious laughed again.

"How do you know?! You speak to dear old Prue all the time, know something we don't?" Precious spoke sarcastically but I think she meant what she said. It was becoming clear that Prudence Hemmings wasn't too popular in this building.

"I don't speak to her all the time! We just keep in contact, she was always nice to me!" Terri tried weakly to defend herself.

"That's because you're naive and a pushover! She used you because no one else would give her the time of day!" Precious was about to launch into a full rant on Terri. I was glad Eddie and Ellie were in the other room and couldn't hear. I wondered if she'd seen them at night.

I decided to stop the rant. This was becoming counterproductive and we were getting nowhere with our plans. I interjected and told them all I needed them to leave so that I could sleep. Partly true, although I knew I couldn't sleep. I had other things to do.

They all filed out of my flat, Terri and the kids were the last to leave. She gave me a hug as she left and told me to get a proper nights rest, telling me she was always there for a cuppa and a chat. It was sweet. I felt sorry for Terri. The kids hugged me, too, as they left.

I know she spoke to Prue, but I was certain that it really was entirely innocent.

I sat in the empty flat disheartened that my assembling of an army had turned into a bickering shit show with no real suggestions on how to kill the imposter neighbors.

I felt totally alone. I couldn't trust Prue or Ian or pretty much anything I thought I knew. Maybe Prue didn't even kill those neighbors. They only told me half-truths about the creatures after all.

I was left alone with my thoughts again. And after a few hours, a good one finally struck me, but I needed supplies.

I left the building and went to the nearest shop to gather the items I needed. For what I needed and the time of night, I had to travel to a 24-hour supermarket. It took half an hour each way on the bus. But I stayed focused. My bags were heavy and awkward on the way back to the block but if it paid off this was going to be worth it.

I trudged up the stairs. It took me 2 trips and 24 flights of stairs instead of 14 to get everything in my flat and organize myself.

It only took 16 and a large gym bag that was much easier to carry on the way back down, thankfully.

I passed the man on floor 5 twice. Now I'd noticed him, he made my skin crawl a little.

I walked through the downstairs corridor, diverting away from the main entrance and passing all the ground-floor flats to the door at the back of the building.

The door at the back led to a small concrete area with a grass strip along the side and a bench decorated with a memorial plaque. This was the block's outside space. As is typical in the city, the whole bench was covered in graffiti. The memorial was unreadable.

I got to work. I dug the strip of grass, turning soil with my new equipment. I had never been green-fingered and to be honest, the shrubs I had bought had been so heavy I had grown to resent them a little. I worked for an hour and a half. I was sweating and night had come, it was pitch black and I was using my phone torch to see.

I had almost given up until I got up from my crouching position to stretch my knees. I reached my arms out, put down my shovel, and took a seat on the bench.

I hadn't seen him arrive but the man was already sitting there. He wore a flat cap and a jacket, despite it being the middle of summer and a beautiful night. He just smiled warmly at the shrubs for a moment without a word. Eventually, he spoke.

"I've missed this place. Name's Derek."

The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. Some people are too good for this world.

I sat silent for a moment in shock that my plan had even worked. It seemed almost too simple, too easy. But here he was.

Derek had a kindly face, wrinkles around his eyes and cheeks only added to the softness of his expression. His white hair poking out from beneath his flat cap stood out in the dark night.

"That's a lovely little patch you've planted. I can look after it if you like, I used to maintain the last garden here," he said, breaking the silence that had followed since his initial words.

"I know who you are. We need you," was all I could manage, the mental exhaustion and fatigue from the whole experience had built up, but his arrival was like finishing a bad day working at school. I felt like I could relax again, even if only a little.

"What's your name darling?" he asked.

"It's Kat. I live in flat 42 now." His face lit up as I confirmed my flat number.

"Prudence has gone?" he asked.

"She's gone. But the whole place is a mess. So many things are happening and the residents are suffering," I answered.

We chatted for what felt like hours. Outside with nothing but moonlight. He told me how he used to consider the building part of the garden, a place for him to maintain, the residents just like the plants he looks after.

I explained my whole experience since moving in. I told him about Jamie and I sobbed. Derek held me as I cried and made me feel safe, something I had forgotten the feeling of since receiving Prue's note. He didn't interrupt, he just listened.

I told him about Natalia and the cultists, the problems they had been causing. He was particularly heartbroken when he heard that they had used Eddie and Ellie for entry. He had gone before they were born, but remembered Terri as a child and how sweet she was. He was pleased when I told her what a sweet adult she had become.

My claims that Prudence was the only person who knew how to kill the imposter neighbors were met with a skeptical expression which gave me some hope.

Derek listened to my entire tale with barely a word. When I finished, he stood up and asked me to follow him. I was confused, but I did as I was told.

He walked me to the entrance of the lift. I lifted my arm to check the time on my watch. We had been outside for quite some time and the idea of the creatures being inside made my heart pound and my stomach churn.

"You are safe. It's 12.32 am, there's no need to worry or to check your watch." And with that, he pressed the "call lift" button. Despite his insistence that I was safe, my stomach continued to do gymnastics.

It felt like forever before the lift finally made the clunking sound that meant it had reached the bottom. I felt my whole body shaking violently as the doors opened. I don't know what I expected to see, we were in the safe time zone but every time I looked at the lift I pictured Jamie's dead, crunched-up body.

"Step inside," he said.

"I can't. Please don't make me," I begged

"I won't let anything happen to you. But you need to see something." There was such sincerity in his eyes as he spoke. I had never trusted someone so completely so quickly, but every fiber of my being told me this man was entirely good.

I stepped inside the lift.

Derek stepped in behind me, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder as I hyperventilated. He gently turned me to face the panel of buttons that control where the lift stops.

"What is wrong with this panel? Do you see it?" he asked cryptically.

I studied the panel. Read all the numbers, counting them. I couldn't see anything wrong. I tried. I really tried, but nothing seemed out of place at all. Everything you expected to find was there and nothing more. I shook my head, barely regaining my composure.

"Can you take us to floor 9 please?" He smiled slightly as he made the request.

I looked back to the panel to press the button, but floor 9 didn't exist. I was so confused, I had counted the numbers, I was sure of it. Derek must have made it disappear. But the panel didn't look any different to before. I can't explain it, looking at it, I would have sworn blind nothing was wrong with it even once I knew, but floor 9 didn't exist. Derek could see my frustration. It was like the building was now playing tricks on me.

He walked me out of the lift and sat me down at the bottom of the stairs before he finally began to speak.

"The building is like a living organism. It can seal off parts of the world, and it can open up others you never could have imagined. When those awful people burned that whole floor of residents, I was devastated.

"Some wonderful people lived in those flats, both of the usual and unusual variety. But those people had no limit to their cruelty. Whole families burned alive, it was a tragedy that made me so angry.

"I felt so guilty when it happened. I can predict what some of our more tricky residents are going to do and make sure I'm there to help. But those people were nothing to do with this place. I couldn't see what they were planning, so I couldn't stop it."

At this point, I noticed one of the hairless cats had sat between us. Derek looked at it with tears brimming in his eyes. He stroked it and it moved onto his lap. Dereks fingers didn't burn at all. He continued.

"When it happened, the building used its defense mechanisms and sealed off the entirety of the floor. It stopped the fire from spreading and kept the perpetrators there, to die by their own hands.

"The building only allowed the floor to be unsealed once they were dead.

"It took about a week before those awful people turned up again. Asking for sugar at people's doors, the first few let them in. It was so difficult, so many residents burned alive that I was having to use their remains for my garden just to hide the dead. The entire community was terrified and grieving for those that died.

"No matter how hard I tried I still couldn't predict them, or see them, so I took Prudence, who at the time seemed a perfectly reasonable woman, to the burned out floor.

"Floor 9, however, had been sealed again. There was no button in the lift, and it always skipped on the stairs. Only no one had noticed. This building really is a magnificent creature."

I stared at him in amazement through the whole story. I was exhausted but my brain was working in overdrive to process what he was telling me. I had started to stroke the cat too, my fingers did burn, but I didn't flinch. I found its company comforting. He carried on.

"I went back later that night and took the stairs again, alone this time. I think my intentions were clear and the stairs allowed me access to floor 9 for the first time since just after the fire.

"I brought Prudence to the floor within the hour. The stairs had stopped skipping floor 9 for me, although I later learned that when Prudence had tried alone she was not allowed access.

"We explored the floor, walking amongst the remnants of our dead friends' belongings. Eventually, we came across one of the soulless arsonists, roaming the halls. It appears that's where they spend their time when they aren't out terrorizing the residents and trying to claim more victims.

"He was disturbed and disoriented to see anyone not like them on that floor. He twitched a little and spat out the sugar line as if it was an automatic response. I almost felt sorry for him. He claimed to come from flat 66. More were approaching behind him.

"Prudence was terrified, she was starting to sweat profusely and back away from the man, but it didn't cool her down, he was burning her slowly. I felt nothing; see, the stranger things in life just don't seem to affect me, I've never known why. Sometimes I even just know how to deal with them, like it's programmed into me. On this new playing field, in their domain. I knew what to do.

"I grabbed the man and ran him down to flat 66, four doors from where we were standing. I threw him into the flat and waited. The other arsonists were approaching.

"The man tried to exit the flat, which was doorless after the wooden doors all burned to cinders in the fire. But as he reached to door something stopped him. He couldn't leave, no matter how hard he tried, or how much he screamed.

"Prudence lit up, she grabbed hold of one that had tried to kill her friend, Molly. She remembered the flat number she had claimed to be from and repeated my actions, with a lot more sweating and some winces of pain. It worked again.

"Prudence wanted to go after the rest, but as they got closer I could see the blisters forming on parts of her body. I dragged her out of the hallway and back into the stairwell. We ran.

"She begged me to take her back, kept telling me that the stairs wouldn't let her, that it was too dangerous. The residents had started to learn not to let them in and we had no casualties at all after we trapped the first two. Don't get me wrong, it's a problem I was intending to deal with, but it was around that time that we first learned the council would be building that monstrosity over the top of my garden," he gestured to the window that just showed some of the neighboring tower block.

"This left me not at my best, my intuition was failing me when a few months after that, I allowed Prudence and Molly to herd the creatures from the lift to floor 9. It's one of my biggest regrets. I should never have walked them up there. But I didn't know she was going to burn them all. She didn't give me a chance to reason.

"I became mistrusting of everyone and distracted. Not long after I went away for a long while. So I guess the arsonists remained and now they're threatening you.

"Tomorrow I will go. I will fix the mess I left behind. I am so sorry it's affected you so badly, I'd love to meet these twins. They sound incredibly brave."

"They are," I finally interrupted, "And I want to be there tomorrow. I want to lock Natalia away for good."

"I can't allow it. You'll be attacked," he cut me off entirely. I let it drop instantly but in the back of my mind, I knew I would be there, no matter what.

I went to sleep that night with my mind reeling. I wondered where Derek slept and if he even needed to.

The next morning I left my flat early, passed the man on floor 5, and sat and waited on the steps on floor 8. I tested it, of course, and just like anticipated, ascending any higher took me straight to floor 10. Or 11 depending on if you hit a skip. So I returned to floor 8, and I waited.

Derek hadn't indicated what time he was coming. But I was ready. I would wait all day and night if I had to. But luckily I didn't.

Derek was climbing the stairs at around 11 am. I had already been there for three hours but it had been worth it. He looked particularly unimpressed to see me. His face still looked kind though, even with the sour expression.

"I can't stop you, can I?" he sighed, sounding resigned in his tone.

"Not for anything."

"You have to promise to stay back. If your girl approaches, you can do what you need to do, but you have to stay back," he pleaded.

I nodded and stood up. We ascended the stairs and for the very first time in my new life here I saw the big plastic sign saying 9. The floor that didn't exist.

As we pushed through the door it was like entering an entirely new world. Everything was black. Burned to carbon. You could smell nothing but charcoal. Literally nothing but empty shells of homes and flakes of what used to be sentimental objects remained. It was devastating to witness.

If you've ever visited a mass grave site, you'll understand partly how I was feeling. It was sickening, to think of all the lives needlessly lost. But I didn't get time to think.

Natalia walked toward me, flying down the hallway.

"How the fuck did you get here?!" she screamed. Her eyes were wide and angry, I started to feel hotter already.

Derek grabbed my arm and pulled me next to him, making sure to keep a tight hold of my arm.

"Where do you live?" Derek asked her. I started to back away as the sweat dripped from my brow. I desperately wanted to shout out the number, but I couldn't. I was so hot, I wasn't functioning properly. Everything became so overwhelming I couldn't remember what Georgia had said, what flat Natalia had claimed to come from.

"I'm not that stupid. I saw what happened to them." She gestured over her shoulder to what must have been flat number 66, where a man lay on the floor, breathing but looking broken. Just existing in that room. Prudence had been creative with the truth yet again. She didn't kill them, you can't kill them.

What had Georgia said? I racked my brains as I felt the skin on my face start to sting. I imagined her melting away, it was happening to me. I was next.

And then, as my hair started to singe at the ends, it came to me.

"71!" I screamed as loud as I could. I could barely see as Derek grabbed her and ran toward me with her. She was clawing at his eyes and face, screaming at him to let go. But he didn't burn. He just kept hold of her. When he approached flat 71, he beckoned me over.

"You do it. Then get off of this floor." He was blunt but reasonable. I complied.

I pushed hard. There was nothing but anger in her eyes. She pushed my face hard with her hand as I got her to cross the boundary into flat 71. I felt my skin sizzle and blister. My whole face was in agony, but I didn't stop pushing.

Watching Natalia try to fight her way out of a door that didn't exist was both satisfying and humorous. The others had started to approach at the sound of the commotion. I lingered, hoping to watch her suffer, but Derek shot me one look and I knew. It was time to go,

I ran out of the corridor and back into the stairwell. I stopped for longer than I probably should have. But I knew I might not get to see that 9 again and it would be worth it. I waited for Derek on floor 9's stairwell. I couldn't help but imagine the cultists burning to death the first time around.

I could hear angry screams faintly from inside the corridor, they made me worry about Derek but I knew that really I didn't need to. It took a while, but he eventually left the corridor and joined me in the stairwell.

He didn't say anything, he just looked at me and the third-degree burns across my face. He didn't need to speak, I knew he'd fixed the problem.

We walked silently back down the stairs toward my flat. I looked back up at floor 9, knowing the building would seal it off for good. It took a few floors to reach floor 7 and I invited Derek in for a cup of tea. He rejected it, saying he wanted to go visit some old friends.

Despite my injuries I couldn't help but smile, something I'd done was going to help these residents. I stood at my door and watched Derek walk away, pleased that there was some true good in this building.

After a few steps down the hallway, Derek started to fade, almost like a CGI ghost in a movie. With every step, he became more transparent. I felt my stomach churn again, like it had outside the lift. I ran out to follow him. I called after him but by the time I had reached where he'd been he was gone. I walked the entire corridor to the window at the back. I looked out the window into the small concrete heavy garden and hoped to see him sitting on the memorial bench.

I didn't see him. Instead, I saw Prudence. Hacking at my tiny planted patch with shears.

The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide. It's time to end this madness.

When I saw her out the window, garden shears being gripped by both hands and a maniacal expression on her face, I just stood still.

I was frozen to the spot in shock. I felt no pain at all from the burn on my face, everything was numb. The relief of eradicating the imposter neighbors and the joy of finding a friend in Derek was hacked away in an instant. Just like every leaf from my shrubs. Why would she do this? What had I ever done to her?

Every question possible crossed my mind. I could feel the frustration bubbling inside me. Everything about this place just threw up question after question and for every answer I got, there were ten new questions waiting to be asked. At that moment in time though, only one was truly important.

How did Prudence know?

I thought about Terri and her telephone conversations. I didn't want to think that the sweet lady I thought Terri had turned out to be would do that, but it did cross my mind. I thought of Ian the postman, I'd had bad vibes from him for a while, maybe he'd seen Derek coming up the stairs while on his rounds that morning.

I stood there frozen, pondering all these things until I saw Prudence collapse onto the memorial bench sobbing, head in her hands. She was surrounded by the remains of my attempt at a garden with the shears laid out on the ground.

The stairs were kind to me on the way down, it took four flights to make it to the bottom. I ran down the corridor and out the back entrance of the block, no idea what I was going to say.

"Prudence!" was all I could manage. Nice one, Kat.

She sat bolt upright before turning and standing quicker than I thought it possible for an old lady.

"You evil, stupid little girl! Do you have any idea what you've done?!" she screamed, so much animation in her face that the spaces between her wrinkles pulsated like veins on an angry weightlifter.

"Me?! You think I'm evil! You left that shitty note hidden, missing everything I need to know, and got my boyfriend killed! And what you're doing to your own -" I screamed, tears beginning to roll, before she interrupted me.

"Don't you dare talk about her!" Her voice cracked and she broke down again, this time falling to her knees, twigs and leaves sticking to the bottom of her dress.

I didn't know what else to do. So I sat down on the ground. I knew that it was probably a bad idea. This woman couldn't be trusted and I hadn't forgotten that, but seeing an old lady crying on the cement floor still made me feel awful.

"How did you know about the garden?" I asked her calmly, trying to change my approach.

She shoved a crumpled-up piece of paper into my hand. She didn't look at me, her eyes remained on the floor.

Dear Prudence,

I couldn't exist knowing what I'd done.

I should never have told you about it.

The last two won't grow stronger, she was never theirs to begin with. But I have to end her suffering.

I'm sorry.


I knew what he had done as soon as I finished the note. Lyla, or what was left of her, was gone for good. Of all the creatures, only Jamie's killers from the lift remained. That's how Derek had spent the few hours I'd slept between our encounters.

"This is all your fault," she sniffed. "My whole family is gone because of you."

That hurt a lot. I trembled as I tried to speak but I always really hated confrontation and I could feel myself starting to glitch.

"H... how can you say that! I saw... her and she was trapped in a tiny cage eating dog food and small animals. Your family died in that lift. Just like my Jamie." I may have struggled to get my words out, but I wasn't about to let Prudence Hemmings blame me for her decisions. Lyla was better off dead than what she was, however awful that may sound.

"What happened to your face?" Prudence growled at me. "Take you to visit floor number 9? He did this to her in the first place, not me! And now he's disfigured you!" She was spinning things. I could feel throbbing as she mentioned my face, I really should have had medical attention.

"This isn't his fault! You messed him up and he did that to her because of you! You told me that yourself." I tried ferociously to defend Derek but something inside me still felt uncomfortable about what he had done. I couldn't help it, Lyla was an innocent little girl who shouldn't have been punished for Prue's mistakes. This whole thing was such a mess.

"I was grieving! And then I had her back for all those years, and then I lost Bernie, and then my home, and now I have to grieve for her all over again." Prudence continued to cry, but softer. I looked around at the chaos she created and up at the block my boyfriend had died in and rolled my eyes in disbelief that she could be so selfish. She continued.

"Let me tell you about Lyla. She was a beautiful little girl. As I mentioned before, I have two other older children, they've had many other grandchildren, however, I hadn't spoken to my eldest two in years even before what happened with Lyla.

"Lyla was my first opportunity to get to know one of my grandchildren. Bernie adored her too, always reading her stories and sneaking her sweets.

"I begged my son to allow her to stay. My children were all incredibly ungrateful, they had it easy growing up and still resented me. I gave them a good, strict upbringing but they didn't appreciate it. They said I was a cruel mother. Lyla's dad was the only one I spoke to, but our relationship still wasn't that of a typical loving mother and son. But she was a second chance.

"It was a miracle when he agreed. I was more shocked he had convinced his wife to allow it. That awful harlot of a woman never liked me, although I didn't like her either.

"They refused to speak to me after everything, I haven't heard from them since. They had more grandchildren I'll never meet. I knew at the time my relationships with any of my children were over for good. So when Derek gave me a solution, I took it.

"I wasn't entirely truthful when we first spoke. I said I hadn't wanted this, but I was desperate. There was never a way to bring her back safely. Derek explained what she would become to me. He was initially trying to put me off even trying to get her back. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.

But I couldn't pass up the idea of my beautiful little Lyla, needing her grandma forever. I suppose I was too ashamed to admit it before. But why should I be ashamed?

"My altercation with Derek happened after she was back, when he tried to kill her the first time. Spouting the same things on that note. What kind of monster wants to kill a little girl? That's why I trashed the garden. He said he wasn't coping with the news of the new block when he suggested it, that he shouldn't have told me it was even possible and she had to die. I hid her until the bulldozers came in.

"When he disappeared, I thought I was safe to spend the rest of my life with her.

"Bernie hated me. Spending time with Lyla was all I lived for, I grew to love her how she was."

I felt sick. Listening to Prudence talk bought up so many repressed feelings about Jamie. I hadn't had time to grieve or process anything, I missed him terribly. My old life and my old future felt a million miles away.

I was relieved to know that Derek hadn't tricked Prudence, or even intended to create rat-Lyla. He was truly good.

"But she didn't get to have a life. You lived for her but she wasn't really living. How could a sane person do that to their own flesh and blood?" I retorted.

"You have no idea. This place can make you do irrational things! But she had a life! She had me. It's all she needed." She was certainly right about the building and irrational actions, the pain intensifying on my face throbbed in agreement. But I was still convinced she had lost it Dr. Frankenstein-style where rat-Lyla was concerned.

She had stopped crying. Her rage levels were rising again. I tried to tell her that it wasn't really the child she'd known, but she seemed to have grown an entirely new attachment to the creature that replaced what she lost.

Every rational argument I gave was met with increasing levels of screaming. She got less coherent as she went on. The argument was going nowhere, we went back and forth for what felt like forever.

After a while, she started to get closer to me. We had both stood up by this point and despite her haggard and frail appearance, Prudence was truly frightening. She looked unhinged.

Her words were no longer going in, I was overwhelmed and had too many thoughts rushing through my mind to process her ranting. I took a few steps back clearing a small distance between us.

By this point, out of the corner of my eye, I could see neighbors in windows of the block, watching the altercation outside. Prue's screaming had brought a lot of attention. It was bright and I couldn't see well but I turned to scan the windows and did recognize Eddie and Ellie watching from their bedroom, trying to wave at me.

They frantically waved and pointed, I tried waving back and gesturing to them, but they kept pointing at me... Why were they pointing?

Then I heard it, the garden shears scraping against the ground as Prudence picked them up and charged toward me. "You ignorant little bitch! You aren't even listening. You don't deserve my home! You killed her!"

The twins had been telling me to turn around, I shouldn't have taken my eyes off her.

Luckily, unlike my earlier shock when I had first seen her, I didn't freeze. My fight-or-flight instincts kicked in and I ran faster than I ever have before. I burst back into the building and heard neighbors on the bottom floor lock their doors in a symphony of bolts clicking.

I couldn't blame them. Prudence wasn't far behind me and I wouldn't want to take her on in her current state if given a choice. But it didn't stop me from pounding on their doors begging someone to call the police, although something told me that in this building that wasn't going to happen. I ran up the stairs, still being followed by her.

By the second floor, most were still locked but a few had come out of their homes, armed with a variety of heavy objects. Even in a crisis, I couldn't fault the community spirit here. I ran another flight of stairs that became two but still lead me to floor 3 and then to the back of the corridor. I pounded on Terri's door.

My heart was racing but when I turned, Prue was nowhere to be seen. I was hoping the people who came out on floor 2 had stopped her but something was odd. I hadn't heard any commotion. This wasn't the end of it.

Eddie and Ellie hugged me tight as Terri let me in and bolted the door shut quickly behind me. I told her about what had happened. She couldn't believe what Prue had done. It turned out no one knew about Lyla.

I was edgy for the first hour. But Prue had disappeared. Terri helped to clean up my burn and put some cold compress on it. She offered to take me to the hospital, but I couldn't.

I was too shaken up from what had just happened, I couldn't face trying to explain how I'd sustained my injuries and I still hadn't reported Jamie missing. He still hadn't had any messages from his family, and work had given up calling, but his friends had started. They were harassing me nonstop but I had been too distracted to come up with a decent lie.

It had been a week since I moved in and it wouldn't be long until people realized something was seriously wrong. My conversations with my family had been short, with me insisting they didn't visit until we were "unpacked and set up".

On top of a murderous old lady and an untold amount of abnormal issues, the real-world problems were starting to creep up on me.

I sat with Terri for hours, drinking tea and chatting with her. It started to get dark and Eddie and Ellie came into the living room after playing in their room for a while. The voids replaced the big, brown puppy dog eyes again and their claws looked especially sharp, but to me, they were still adorable.

Their transformation prompted me to head back to my flat, it was late. I needed to work out what to do next and how to dig myself out of this giant hole. I couldn't just keep planting gardens. I needed to do this myself.

I wandered up the stairs, they went on for a while, but nothing too horrific. I passed the man on floor 5, nodding politely, and continued my ascent. I wondered if he'd received the letter of concern yet, he was a little unsettling.

When I got to my floor, Mr. Prentice was making his animal noises again. I smiled, which hurt my face. After all the madness, I was starting to find the seemingly benign horrors of this building oddly comforting.

I reached my flat and turned the key in the door before bolting myself in like Terri had.

I could feel something wasn't right the moment I entered. The flat was in chaos, which was nothing new because we had only moved in a week ago, and I had been too preoccupied to unpack. But things were out of place, the organized chaos wasn't how I'd left it.

Then she strolled out of my kitchen. Prudence Hemmings. She was carrying a large carving knife in her left hand this time, she had prepared for her attack. She smiled at me and lifted her right hand, jingling a set of keys that she had entered with.

I turned to unbolt the door but she grabbed me from behind before I could turn the handle to open it and held the knife to my throat.

"I will kill you for what you've done," she whispered into my ear.

Without a second thought, I leaned forward just a tad and swung my head back as hard as I could. I couldn't believe that it worked but I must have broken her nose. Prudence dropped the knife and clutched her face, blood streaming between her fingers.

I went to grab the knife but she was closer and doing the same thing. I had no other option but to run again. I grabbed the door handle and turned it to exit the flat as she tried to stab me. I was mostly out the door, but her arm was close enough to reach my side, and I felt the knife pierce the side of my torso.

I was in searing pain but I didn't stop running. As I stepped outside my flat I could still hear Mr. Prentice's noises flooding the entire hallway. It gave me an idea.

I ran toward his door, Prudence stabbing at me frantically with blood gushing from her nose. A few got me as I stopped outside flat 48. The pain was awful and I could feel myself starting to drift out of consciousness, I was losing a lot of blood.

I would give my last breath to end Prue. So running on nothing but adrenaline I knocked hard on flat 48, and shouted.

"Mr. Prentice, can you help me?"

It was a shot in the dark, I didn't know what would happen but I had to try something.

She had stopped stabbing at me, she was enjoying watching me bleed out slowly from the wounds she had already inflicted.

I was incredibly weak, and I lost consciousness not long after that, but before I did I heard heavy clunking from the inside of flat 48, chain locks being released and bolts being undone. I watched with blurry vision as a large creature, that I can only describe as a cross between a bull and a wolf, charged out of the flat and trampled the old witch to death. I heard her bones crunch just as I slipped away.

I woke up in the hospital a day later. My parents were there as were the police. Apparently, I had been found just outside the tower block with my handbag missing, by a neighbor who had been watching from a window as it happened.

The police told me that the person had seen the mugging out of their window. They had seen two men approach me and Jamie, splash something in my face, attack us, and when he tried to fight back, they bundled my boyfriend into a car, which the police had been searching for to no avail. He was officially missing.

I was baffled, but grateful that Jamie's disappearance wouldn't be blamed on me. I went along with it and made out that he had ghosted work to enjoy our first week living together.

I had been stabbed 4 times but thankfully in all the right places, if there is such a thing as the right place to be stabbed. I lost a lot of blood but I was going to be fine. They were all shallow. They assumed my burns were chemical and happened during the mugging too.

The police promised to keep us updated but they still can't find the car. They never will. I wish the story the police had been told were true, it left some hope for Jamie.

My parents weren't keen on me returning to the flat after what happened, they said the area was too rough, and that I was living proof it wasn't safe. They offered to collect my stuff for me. I insisted though, told them that I wanted to see how I felt and they couldn't force me not to.

I was released from the hospital two days after I woke up there. When I arrived at the flats, it was strange. It felt like home. Despite everything, something about this place drew me to it.

I took the lift for the first time since Jamie had died. I had to, I wasn't recovered enough to conquer too many stairs just yet, and I couldn't guarantee they'd be kind to me. I smiled at the lack of a button 9 and winced at the thought of the creatures.

As I reached my corridor, I saw Mr. Prentice walking along with his newspaper and milk in a bag. He turned to me and smiled.

"I wasn't sure you'd come back. It's nice to see you're up and walking," he made small talk as if I hadn't seen him literally trample a woman to death a couple of days prior. The whole experience had been so disorienting that I started to wonder if I really had been mugged and had dreamed the note and everything that's happened since. Then he said something that confirmed everything was real.

"I never liked that woman. But you've got a real friend in the lady downstairs." He winked at me and turned the key in his door.

I got into mine and sat down on the second-hand sofa. I felt empty but relieved. With Prue and the imposter neighbors all gone, the only threat left were the creatures in the lift, who were only a threat between 1.11 and 3.33.

Maybe I could start to live a semi-peaceful life in this place.

Terri knocked on the door, my handbag, that I had left at her place before Prue attacked me in my flat, on her arm. Mr. Prentice was right, she was a good friend.

I thanked her for what she'd done and for what she'd told the police. She said it was pure luck that she found me, she had been walking up to return the bag and found me and Prue sprawled out on the floor. I asked what happened to Prue's body and she just pointed in the direction of flat 48.

"He was eating it," she said.

It's been a few days now and I've decided to stay. I can't imagine going back to complete normality after everything I've been through and I've grown quite attached to some of the building's quirks.

I tried replanting the garden with the help of the twins. I ripped a few stitches doing it and Derek never came. I think he's gone for good.

I'm ready to fully embrace life here. The last few days have been hard but there's some time to breathe. Along with the time to breathe, came the time to grieve and I've been grieving badly for Jamie.

This leads me to the last thing I have to tell you.

Last night I laid in bed, plagued with thoughts of Prue and everything that had happened, but what I couldn't get to leave my mind was how much happiness it bought her to have Lyla back. It infected every part of my thoughts. I know you all warned me not to, but I did it. I repeated the ritual.

I haven't caught him yet, but I've heard the scratching.

Kat's Story: Season 2

The previous tenant left a survival guide. The flat isn't new anymore and I need a better guide.

It's been a long time since I moved into this flat, picked up that damn note from the tenant before me, and unlocked a world of demon window cleaners and vile, rat-like creatures that live in the communal lift.

I don't even really know how to begin this but I think I owe you all an apology. You warned me, gave me advice, and tried to stop me from making the biggest damn mistake of my life. I didn't listen. Instead, I let my emotional immaturity get the better of me. I really wish I'd listened.

I'm sorry I ghosted you all. I was embarrassed. I know I disappeared without a word and for that I really am sorry. I can't blame any of you for comparing me to Prudence.

The events following my moving into the block had me in such an emotional place. You have to understand, it was a lot to take in, no one can be truly equipped to live somewhere like this, it was bound to catch up with me eventually.

The months since I last updated you have been hellish and now I've found myself in further trouble. It wasn't long after my last post that I caught Jamie. I enticed him into the flat with cat food left out by the door. I ran the risk of being mauled alive by the remaining lift creatures to capture my monstrosity of a boyfriend.

He was smaller than I thought. I expected him to be much larger than Lyla because of the age difference, but he wasn't. Maybe as big as a large dog. Something I missed about Jamie more than anything was his once huge stature, an odd quality to consider, I know, but he was 6'3" and his cuddles felt like the safest place I'd ever been.

Looking at the small, deformed, humanoid creature, hunched over, crunching on cat biscuits with its sharp, jagged teeth tucked under a grotesque rodent nose made me feel sick. I instantly knew that I'd made a mistake, that the love of my life was gone for good, but that thing had Jamie's eyes, they were unmistakable.

Suddenly Prudence's need to keep Lyla around made sense. I could see an entire life in those eyes that had been ripped away from me and I was too selfish to let it go. I suppose in that respect I'm exactly like her. Exactly what you all think. A monster.

I fashioned a place to keep him hidden in the large built-in wardrobe of our bedroom. It wasn't like Lyla's cage was - cold and restrictive - it had space, lights, and photos of us before everything happened.

It was like a walk-in wardrobe, ironically it was something that originally attracted me to the flat. The only similarity to Lyla's tiny cage was the large padlock that secured it.

I tried everything to bring that little piece of Jamie left inside the creature out, I really did. I sat with him for hours, talking about our lives, reminiscing, and trying to feed him his favorite meals. He would make awful raspy noises when I spoke to him at first; grunting and wheezing as if he were struggling to breathe.

I received more than a few bites and scratches and he refused to eat anything that I gave him, opting for scraps instead.

I thought about killing him. A lot. It's a position I never thought I'd be in when we were searching for a home together and at some point, I realized I consider it daily. I've come close to attempting it more than a few times but every time I look at those damn eyes I can't. I'm weak.

So I've tried to cope. I've taken the best care of him that I can. I've gotten involved with my neighbors, I babysat Terri's twins twice a week at her place while she slept and I'm actively involved in the residents' committee.

I never told anyone what I did, aside from all of you. There are only two people I feel I could admit my mistakes to; one was locked in my wardrobe, whilst the other was seemingly gone forever.

Despite this, I kept the garden immaculate in the hope that one day Derek would return and it kept me sane. I even managed to revive one of the shrubs that Prudence tried to butcher during her attack, but no matter how much love I gave, it just wouldn't flourish and the bench remained empty.

All this whilst I kept my deepest shame in my bedroom cupboard.

Regardless of all the anguish this place has brought me, there's nowhere else in the world I would consider home anymore. I've never felt more connected to a place in my life. So I've stayed, I've coped, and I kept busy.

The tower block may be special, and its residents may often live in another world but we weren't completely immune to the outside. Government lockdown hit us recently, too. With lockdown came the loss of routine as we knew it.

The whole building went into chaos and I was no exception. Being trapped in the flat with him all day undid months' worth of self-distraction and denial in a matter of hours. I'd never been more aware of what an abhorrent thing I'd done than those first few weeks.

The other residents were going through their own crises. Terri hadn't slept in weeks, we FaceTimed regularly and I missed her and the kids terribly. Every time I spoke to her, she looked awful. There was wailing at night, banging at all hours of the day, and a whole building's worth of inhabitants struggling.

When they deemed window cleaning non-essential it sent that particular pest into chaos; he still appeared on the balconies but instead of the relentless niceties he just scratched desperately at the window. I tried not to open the curtains I finally got around to buying a few months ago, I couldn't take his pleading eyes.

The residents' committee tried to put things in place to keep the block going. We were running zoom meetings and a number of us started collecting essentials for the elderly and vulnerable residents of our floors, having socially distanced chats with them from the corridor as we drop off. To be honest, it was as much a lifeline for me as the elderly residents... anything to get out of the flat, away from him.

I was allocated three residents from my floor, living in flats 48, 51, and 43.

Percy and Sylvia live in flat 43, they're next door to me and generally very pleasant. Sylvia has a breathing problem so they had to isolate. They're older, but very independent, most of the time they just needed a few essentials and didn't want to chat.

Mr. Prentice from flat 48 was easy, too. He'd been an intensely private man since I'd known him and lockdown hadn't changed that. He did seem to make more of the animalistic noises I'd come to know him for, but I think being trapped inside would do that to anyone with his particular afflictions. Since he trampled Prudence, I'd been much more tolerant of the sounds anyway.

The only thing I really learned about him from doing his shopping is that he loves a drink and there's often a bottle of whiskey in the bag he carries home with his newspaper inside.

Once a week he asked me to drop off an envelope of cash to the pub he drinks in, The Pickled Gnome. He said that the owner is a good friend and he worries about her getting by financially with the pub shut at the moment. It warmed my heart. He's such a lovely man.

Flat 51 was different from the other two. I hadn't ever met the occupant, despite having lived here for almost a year now. I'd seen a young man going in and out occasionally but he never stayed long.

The flat was occupied by Ms. Esther Beckman, a blind, elderly widow. The man visiting was her son, who had his own profoundly disabled child and couldn't support his mother through the pandemic.

The first time I knocked on her door I was nervous. I wasn't sure why, I just felt uncomfortable trying to help someone I knew nothing about. I knocked and stood back, it took a few moments for Ms. Beckman to answer.

Esther had wild grayed hair, she hadn't cut it like most older ladies tend to, she'd allowed it to grow and it had formed spectacular waves. She was well-presented and I'm embarrassed to say I didn't expect that from a blind person. She wore a satin blue dressing gown over the top of a white day dress and had a pair of comfortable-looking slippers on, that perfectly matched the color of her dressing gown.

"Are you the girl Molly phoned about? I told her I'm fine but the interfering old bat insisted," she greeted me with, rummaging in the pocket of her dressing gown for a packet of cigarettes, I watched her open the pack and light the last one.

Her brash attitude didn't put me off, I liked people with a bit of tenacity and I wasn't particularly fond of the residents' committee's chairperson, Molly Thompson, either.

"I'm Kat. Although I'm sure Molly will have referred to me as Katherine... not my name by the way. Anyway, I'm happy to pick up anything that you need, and I'm here if you just want to chat," I stumbled a little as I spoke. Esther laughed.

"See, even interfering in something as personal as your name. I never liked that woman." She paused and took a few drags of her cigarette, hesitating before she continued.

"I don't need much. If you could grab me a pack of cigarettes and a microwave meal every day I'm fine. I don't like to ask, but my son can't come and without a smoke, I think I'd go potty." She took another long drag of her cigarette and reached into her pocket to pull out some change and a twenty-pound note. She winced a little as she asked for help, it clearly wasn't something she was used to.

"Throw me the packet, so I know which brand to get," I answered.

Ester threw me the empty carton after shoving her money inside and I barely caught it. She smoked the same brand I did so I reached into my pocket and pulled out 3 or 4 individual cigs and tossed them back. They hit the floor. Shit. She's blind, I thought, mortified.

"There's a few cigs on the floor in front of you... sorry... I didn't think. But they're the same as yours, they should keep you going until I get back." As I said that, she smiled properly for the first time.

"You're alright, aren't you? Thanks. Before you go, just a bit of advice for you. Take the route through the park instead of round," she answered.

I thought it was strange but everything in the tower was. I told her that I would and said my goodbyes. The stairs that constantly skipped weren't kind to me that trip, the 7 flights became 18 and by the time I reached the bottom my thighs were burning.

I exited the building and thought about Esther's suggestion. The route around the park was quicker, but I decided a pleasant wander through the trees would only keep me away from Jamie for longer so without any further hesitation I took her advice. My legs were sore from the stairs but it was a beautiful day.

About halfway through the park, I heard a loud crash and the screeching of car tires followed by screaming. I sped up and when I finally reached the exit, I turned the corner toward the shop and the source of the noise. It was utter carnage. A car had slammed into a motorbike at a zebra crossing and caused a devastating accident. Crowds gathered, with multiple people on the phone with emergency services.

I was shaken entering the shop, I couldn't stop thinking about the poor people involved in the crash. Esther's words echoed in my mind as I thought about the fact that had I taken the usual route I would have probably been crossing at the crash site as it happened.

The realization that Ms. Beckman's suggestion had saved my life sent my mind into overdrive. I know that many of you think I learned nothing from my experiences moving into the block, but I did learn that there are no coincidences here. She had known exactly what was going to happen.

I left the shop and chose to go back through the park, I was leaving nothing to chance, but it frustrated me that I couldn't get back home quicker. When I reached the building I flung the main door open and started to climb the stairs. They must have sensed my urgency because they only made me climb four flights this time.

I stared at the numbers on the flat door. 51. Why had I never met her before? Why had she been hiding in her flat? I placed the shopping bag close to the door, rapped hard on it with my knuckles, and shouted.

"Ms. Beckman!" A few moments passed. I knocked again.

"Give me a chance to open the door, Kat. And please. It's Essie. Or would you prefer I called you Katherine?" She opened the door and replied, scoffing as she said "Katherine".

"How did you know?" I demanded.

"Know what?"

"You know what. You saved my life. The crash!"

"I didn't save your life. I knew that if you walked around the park you'd be in trouble. I had no idea there would be a crash, I just made a suggestion. You saved your own life when you took it," she said flippantly.

"So you can see the future?" I asked, desperate for answers.

"Don't you dare! Blind woman... second sight. My whole life, the residents of this block have tried to reduce me to a walking cliche and I'm not doing it anymore! I don't see anything, I've been blind since birth. I've just always had a particularly accurate instinct," she spoke with passion. I could see why she locked herself away. If the other residents knew about her talents I'm sure she was hounded.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. I haven't been here long, these things still surprise me. Thank you for sharing your instinct. I would've been squished if you didn't."

"Well, I'm glad you weren't." She reached down and picked up the shopping bag, taking out the packet of cigarettes to open and light one. "Thanks for this," she said rustling the bag with her fingers. "What flat do you live in?"

"Number 42," I answered. Essie beamed.

"Hah! I overheard someone saying that the old witch was dead but I wasn't sure I believed them. I thought Prudence Hemmings would ride out a nuclear apocalypse like the cockroach she was." I cringed at the sound of her name. I try not to think about her too much, or what she put me through. I try to focus on what I love about the block. Essie could tell she struck a nerve. "Did I hit a sore point?" she continued, noting my discomfort.

"I wasn't a fan of Prudence either. The idea of her coming back with cockroach antennae in the night will keep me awake now," I answered, trying to lighten the mood.

"You're funny. If antennae would've benefitted that woman she'd have done anything to grow them. It's nice to have some young blood in this place. It was all starting to get a bit old and stale. Take care, Kat." We said our goodbyes and she closed the door.

That night I thought about Essie. I imagined introducing her to the twins. I was sure she would love them, and I thought of trying to get her involved in the block again when all this was over. It made me smile. Unfortunately, my happy thoughts were soon interrupted by Jamie.

I sat on my bed with a cup of tea and could hear him from the cupboard, scratching and wheezing. I went and opened it up to stroke him a few times. Saliva dripped from his sharp teeth down his deformed jaw. It disgusted me.

I shut my eyes and tried to imagine my once gorgeous boyfriend, arms around me on the mattress on the floor of the flat for the one night that we got to spend here together. I wished every day to go back to that, but it would never happen. When I opened my eyes there he was... that monster.

I got close to Essie over those first few weeks. I got her cigarettes and a microwave meal every day and we chatted at the door. After a few days, I was taking my morning cup of tea to sit in the corridor and talk to her. I started making enough food for two so that she could have something home cooked. She hated my lasagna, but she was grateful.

She had lost her husband young, not long after she had her son, and never dated again. Her life was fascinating. She'd spent years as a social worker before she retired. She said that her instinct helped her give great advice to her clients and she'd managed to help a lot of people out of bad situations. Essie may have been older, but she was full of life.

I asked her why I never saw her, why she never came to committee meetings or got involved. As I suspected, she'd grown sick of the whole block hounding her for predictions about their lives. She told me that once Molly had begged her to tell her the gender of her unborn grandchild before the child's mother had found out so that she could hold it over her.

It sounded like it got intense. People were offering to pay for the winning lottery numbers, or the bank details of Bill Gates. They didn't want to listen when she tried to tell them that it wasn't how it worked; so she kept a distance, saw her son and that was about it.

It made me sad, I vowed that even after this lockdown was over I was going to keep spending time with Essie. I didn't want to think of anyone holed up at home all the time without anyone to talk to. I told Terri about her, and she remembered Essie being friends with her parents while she was growing up. Terri told me she'd been a resident forever.

I dropped Essie's shopping at the door and sat down in the corridor to chat as usual one afternoon. We spoke about music and her love of jazz. It was pleasant. Just before I left, she stopped me and told me that she had an instinct that she needed to tell me about. It was unusual, she didn't like to share them and I didn't like to pester, but she insisted it was important.

"Kat, one of your friends needs help. You need to know that it is possible. It won't be easy but if you look hard enough you will find a way."

That was all she said. She claimed it was all she knew, but I think Essie liked to hold things back sometimes. Either way, it was cryptic and confusing. I lamented her for it.

"That's all you're giving me? What am I supposed to do with that?" I quizzed her.

"Haven't got a fucking clue," she replied, lighting yet another cigarette. "I got an instinct and I told you. What more do you want? There are others in this block that would kill for one of Essie Beckman's famous instincts." She laughed and flipped her wild hair mockingly.

I sat in the corridor outside hers for a while, even after she closed the door. I thought about what her instinct could mean.

When I finally gathered up the stomach to enter my flat, I thought of Jamie. What if it meant I could help him? What if what I'd done was reversible? What if there was hope?

Or maybe it meant that killing him really was the only way I could help him, and if I looked at myself hard enough I'd finally find the strength to follow through.

I struggled to sleep that night despite trying to go to bed early. Every scratch, wheeze, and gasp from the cupboard sent me bolt upright and it took until just after 1 am before I finally drifted off.

When I woke in the morning I had 5 missed calls from Terri, 2 from 3 am and 3 from that morning. My heart dropped. The kids. I knew Ellie had been going through a stage of trying to get out of the flat and I was terrified something had happened to her.

I could barely hold the phone as I dialed back. Thankfully, she answered quickly.

"Terri! Are you okay? What's happened? Are the kids okay?" I practically screamed at her down the microphone.

"Kat, I'm fine. We're fine! But I have to tell you something." Terri was serious, she was never serious.

"What is it?"

"Last night, Ellie got out. She made it all the way up to your floor to try and visit you by the time I caught up with her. As I was about to march her downstairs I spotted something. It's Ms. Beckman, Kat.... She was walking into the lift." Her words cut into my soul. I let out a gentle sob.

"I'm sorry, Kat. I tried to stop her, I screamed her name but she didn't turn. She just walked in. I couldn't do anymore, I had Ellie there and when I checked the time... it was quarter past 2. I'm so sorry."

And that's where this predicament begins, in an ironically similar place to before, with me mourning the loss of a loved one to the lift.

The previous tenant left a survival guide. When one door closes another opens.

The death of Ms. Esther Beckman hit me hard. She would've lambasted me for writing her name that way but I feel like it's important that people remember it in its entirety. Essie was special, she deserves that much.

I didn't get to spend long with her, but I was grateful that I'd met her at all. The committee's initiative to shop for vulnerable residents during lockdown had been devised to benefit those residents but I believe that I had needed Essie more than she ever needed me. She'd become my lifeline in that short time. The only distraction from my atrocious misjudgments. And she was gone.

When I got off the phone from Terri, I lit up a cigarette for Essie. I quietly sobbed at my fold-up table into my cup of tea. I couldn't understand why she would do what she did. Walking into the lift between 1.11 and 3.33 as the creatures who inhabited it were at the height of their frenzy was an unmistakable suicide.

I felt the pang of loss. It, in turn, ignited an emotional muscle memory and I was put back in the place I had been in all those months ago. I felt every emotion I had felt when I stepped into the lift and repeated the ritual. When I sentenced Jamie to a life spent as one of them things.

Essie was the first to perish in the lift since the creatures ripped Jamie apart on the night we moved in. The whole block is aware of the dangers, which ironically, made the risk pretty low. Prudence Hemmings' negligence had lead to my tragedy but there was nothing to explain what had happened to my new friend.

I had only known her for a short time but she really was full of life. She spoke about missing her son and grandson and how we would get to have a cup of tea together that I didn't have to drink in the corridor one day. She had plans. I didn't believe that she'd wanted to die.

Her last words of advice to me rang through my mind.

One of your friends needs help. You need to know that it is possible.

What if she had been talking about herself and she just hadn't realized? I wondered if I'd already failed her. Maybe this wasn't about Jamie at all. Ideas snowballed in my mind for what felt like hours, sitting at that table.

My thoughts were eventually interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Terri and the kids. I opened and they stood back a safe distance.

"I'm sorry, Kat. I know you probably want to be alone but the the kids knew you'd be sad about Ms. Beckman and they wanted to come and see you.

"I've already dropped some bits off to Mr. Prentice and the couple next door, so you don't have to worry today."

Terri was sweet. She's been nothing but nice to me right from the start and I loved those kids like my own flesh and blood. She was wrong about me wanting to be alone, just seeing the twins' faces lifted my spirits.

"Here's an air hug, Kat!" Eddie made a cuddling motion with his arms, gripping the thin air of the corridor. It was adorable. One of the hairless cats that walk the halls played at his feet, being careful not to brush against him so as not to burn his young skin.

"Air hugs back," I answered. "I miss you guys."

"We miss you, too! Mum says she can't wait until you can babysit us again! Don't be sad," Ellie added, melting my heart a little. They were growing into such kind and amazing people. You would struggle to believe that they looked like demons all night long and never slept.

I could see that Terri was struggling. She had huge dark circles under her eyes and had yawned multiple times in a short interaction. I felt for her, as much as I love those kids the lack of sleep when I do sit for them is killer. I couldn't imagine having gone as long as we'd been locked down existing on stolen hours here and there like Terri does.

"I can't wait either! We're going to have so much..." I couldn't finish my sentence, my attention was grabbed by an almighty scraping sound coming from inside my flat.

"Are you okay?" Terri started, noticing my sudden silence and change of expression.

"I'm fine," I answered bluntly.

I wasn't. The noise became more frantic in the background.

"What's that noise, Kat?" Eddie asked with a childlike innocence. I didn't want to lie him but I had no intention of telling the truth. There was a reason I only babysat in Terri's flat. I couldn't bare for the kids to be at risk or think of me as a monster. The scraping and scratching slowly started to become bangs and crashes.

"I have to go. Thank you for coming to see me. You've made my day, guys, you have no idea. I'll see you soon I promise." And with that I shut the door and bolted the latch.

I felt awful. I never wanted to be so rude, they had treated me as family but after dragging them through so much when we first met I didn't want to subject them to him. They didn't deserve to suffer my mistakes.

I ran to the padlocked wardrobe and froze, staring at it for a few minutes. I watched as the central line where the two doors met expanded and contracted with every pound from inside. As if the doors were breathing. He had started to wheeze and grunt uncontrollably. In all these months I hadn't seen behavior like it. I was genuinely fearful that if I opened the door he would rip me apart, limb from limb.

How the fuck did my life come to that? Hiding from my undead, semi-rodent boyfriend.

I sat down in front of the breathing doors with my back to them in an attempt to keep him in and cried. I felt like that's all I'd done. Cried. The fighting spirit had been knocked out of me. I'd been reduced to a snivelling mess.

The pounding on the door didn't stop. As the time passed he didn't calm down, he just became more desperate, frenzied. I wondered if this was how the ones in the lift had behaved before they tore him to pieces... or as Essie waltzed into their territory. Maybe he was only behaving this way because the others had finally gotten a victim.

My phone went off multiple times, it was Terri. I threw the still ringing phone across the floor and held my head in my hands.




It became a pattern. The pounding against my back, the phone ringing. All the noises around me started to become formulaic and repetitive. I wanted it to stop so bad.

"I don't need this right now, Jamie," I begged, frustrated. I didn't expect a reply. I'd spoken to him often, trying with everything I could think of to dig out the man I knew, with increasing futility. Regardless, I found it therapeutic to talk.

Not once had I gotten a reply. Until then.

"KA... KA," he rasped in something that I can't really describe as a proper voice. The pounding had stopped. Only the raspy breaths and sounds of saliva dripping from his mouth remained. "KAA... AT," he wheezed finally, as if in pain.

The tears stopped, I jumped up immediately and fumbled with the key to the padlock to open his prison. As it opened he stared at me, Jamie's eyes looking sad and desperate. I stared back, wiping the tears from my face. For a brief interlude, it wasn't the creature looking back at me, it really was Jamie.

It hurt. For just a moment, I was truly alone with my soulmate. But it didn't last, it couldn't.

His eyes turned from the familiar blue tone to black. It made him look more rodent-like, the lack of a distinguishable iris made them beady, just like a rat. I stood still, watching uncomfortably as he stood on his hind legs, stretching out from his usual hunched positioning. I noted the sharp teeth, tucked underneath his deformed and fleshy nose. It was one of the few patches with no fur.

In the blink of an eye he launched himself forward, clawing at my face. I was taken off guard and flew backward as he made contact. He hesitated on top of me, my face inches from his grotesque snout for a moment, baring his teeth with a lust in those black eyes, spittle dripping onto my face from the tips of his sharpened fangs.

He didn't seem so small anymore.

It gave me just enough time to roll the fire poker I kept up against the wardrobe toward me. Weaponizing the entire flat was a rule of Prudence's that, unlike others, had actually proved useful. I gripped it with my right hand as I felt his claws start to penetrate my chest, sending a seering pain through my body.

I plunged the poker into the side of Rat Jamie's neck. Watching as deep crimson blood splattered across the room and the doors of the wardrobe, I started to hyperventilate. He rolled off me in a heavy slump.

Had I killed him? I thought. Was my nightmare finally over? I agonized over the fact I hadn't had the bottle to put him out of his misery but had been able to follow through when he attacked me. I felt like such a selfish person.

Despite this, I was relieved, looking at the blood and the unmoving fur heap on the floor next to me. My hand shook violently, alerting me that I was still holding the poker. I dropped it instantly with a loud clank and took a moment to breathe.

My relief was short-lived. The furry patchy heap on the floor started to slowly rise and sink rhythmically. He was breathing. Blood stopped pouring from the wound and he lethargically raised a clawed hand to wipe at the area like an animal would. I took no chances and dragged him back into the cupboard before his strength rebuilt.

I know what you're all thinking and I assure you, it crossed my mind, too. Just keep going, keep stabbing until he doesn't wake up. It's a reasonable thought process. I wish it were that simple, but nothing in this building is. If he got up from that attack, stabbing wasn't the answer. He should've been dead... three times over with the amount of blood lost. Even if I wanted him dead, at this stage I had no idea how.

It fucked me up. Trying to make connections between his sudden ability to communicate, the attack, and Essie's prediction. I didn't even know where to start.

I placed a bowl of cat food next to the weary creature, locked the cupboard, and placed the second, unnecessary, chair from my fold-out table against the center of the two doors. I was at a total loss and things were spiralling out of control.

I sat on the now-singular chair in my living room and smoked. I smoked and I drank tea. I think it must be some kind of ingrained British coping mechanism I've adopted, because whilst it didn't cure my anxiety, it did calm me down.

I texted Terri to tell her everything was fine. I tried to type out the truth... multiple times, but I deleted every single attempt. I didn't know how to tell her I'd lied to her for all this time. So I carried on lying.

She had always told me she was there if I needed to talk. I know she meant it, she was the most loyal friend I'd ever had. Which is why disappointing her was even more terrifying.

After a few hours, the screaming started. The inhuman, earth-shattering screaming with intervals of low growls. Jamie had come to.

The noises rivalled Mr. Prentice's and I wondered if the neighbors would be concerned, but in a block like mine late-night screaming and growling is the norm. Jamie could be eating me alive and no one might think to check. Even if they did, there's not much they could do to help. I visualized Percy and Sylvia turning up their television to drown out my screams.

It wasn't screams of pain, it was anger. A battle cry. The attack he'd subjected me to was just a warning. I could feel the disdain coming through the thin wooden barrier separating us. If his behavior continued, I was going to be dead, for sure.

About 11 pm, I couldn't take it anymore and I decided I was going to take my government-approved exercise and get the fuck out of my four walls.

The halls were alive. The more peaceful of our not-so-average residents had utilized the quiet time to enjoy their home. The cats frolicked, wrestling and chasing each other up and down the stairs. I wondered if they skipped for them, too, and if they'd ever escaped each other by ending up on different floors.

As I descended, the man on floor 5 was as stoic as ever. I smiled. He had become somewhat of a favorite of mine. Passing him on the stairs always meant that home was nearby.

"Hi, Clive!" I waved at him as I passed. I gave him a different name every time in the hope that one day I would get it right. He didn't respond, didn't even look, but then again he never did. I added Clive to my catalog of not-names.

The boy who lived in the mirror that runs adjacent to the stairs waved. His hair was tousled and messy and he wore a stained green-stripe T-shirt. He pulled faces and blew raspberries frantically at me in my reflection. I blew them back, pushing up the center of my nose to resemble a pig, which was met with silent, roaring laughter.

The stairs were poorly lit at night, but I still managed to count every landing I reached. 9 flights this time. Not bad, I thought, grateful it wasn't any worse. When I reached the bottom I felt a release, like everything bad about my life was locked away in that flat and I was free.

It was chilly outside. I had worn a thin cardigan but I could still feel it in the air. I made a beeline for the bench by the postage stamp of a garden next to the block. It was strange to see the city so empty. Usually outside the tower was brimming with activity, but the threat of the virus had left it desolate. As I sat in the cool air, I tried to clear my mind.

A good friend once told me that being in nature helps our brains to release serotonin and it's true. The soil will literally make you happier. I tried to embrace the serenity of the nature but it was soon infiltrated by a series of tiny mewing sounds coming from the foliage I had planted against the outer wall of the block.

I fumbled in my pockets for my phone and played around with it until the torch turned on. I approached the greenery with caution, not wanting to spook a cat if it was injured in there.

The fallen bits of foliage crunched underneath my feet as I got closer to the small shrub but the mewing didn't stop. After a gentle search, I realized that the sound was coming from three tiny kittens.

They were so small, with wrinkled, furless skin. They weren't newborn, their eyes were open and they were relatively alert. They were for certain offspring of the cats that wandered the halls. I was baffled, I'd had no idea they could reproduce. As the largest of the three rubbed its head against my hand, I felt my fingers singe a little.

I sat with the kittens for ages. They took the opportunity to sit in my lap pretty quickly and I waited for their mother to return. I grew increasingly worried and the three little naked kittens seemed to get cold. I set them down on the bench, wrapped in my cardigan, and started to call for the mother, shivering myself.

About 20 minutes passed and nothing appeared. I wrapped the bundle up a little snugglier for extra warmth and started to search the bushes. They were part of a planted bed that stretched a third of the length of the tower block. I kept an eye on the bench and moved further along the foliage.

I looked hard until I eventually found something. A fair-sized ventilation grate was hidden behind one of the shrubs. I hadn't remembered it being there when I planted it. Poking through the metal bars was a vine of some sorts that seemed to be growing upward through it from the inside, making it impossible to see. The grate lead to what must have been a basement.

A basement that the block didn't have.

I squinted hard, trying to make out the inside of the room but I couldn't see a thing. After a few seconds, I noticed that the vine was visibly growing around my feet, twisting over my shoes. It freaked me out, I dropped my phone and started to wriggle my feet free when I heard an almighty yowl coming from inside the grate. It was the kind you heard when cats were fighting outside your window.

I fell backward and was tripped by the vine but broke the piece that was holding onto me as I kicked at it. The shrub I had moved aside covered up the grate again and the yowling stopped suddenly. I ripped the piece of vine off my foot and grabbed my phone with the other hand. The torch was still beaming into the night sky.

I tried to dig back through the bushes but the grate was gone and so was the rest of the vine. I put the piece that had snapped off in my pocket and returned to the bench. The yowling gave me a bad feeling about the kittens' mother, so I scooped them up and carried them back inside with me. They gently mewed the entire way.

I was frozen and covered in goosebumps. It was approaching the time that the lift became dangerous and I wanted to make sure the kittens were okay. So I didn't investigate the downstairs when I entered. I rushed up the stairs - only five flights this time - and unlocked the door to my flat.

The screaming had stopped and had been replaced by a loud, raspy snoring. Jamie had finally tired himself out. I set the kittens in a heap on the sofa and found a few cushions and a blanket for them to curl up on. I would go and get food first thing in the morning. They were adorable, cuddled up in a tiny heap.

I sat at the fold-out table and stared at the piece of vine. It wasn't growing anymore, but it was healthy. I wondered how it had survived in a basement and how it had been able to grow at such an exponential rate. How had I lived somewhere for almost a year and not realized it had a basement? I placed the vine in a cup of water and started to stress about my inability to find the grate a second time.

My walk to clear my head had just brought up more questions. I couldn't make sense of any of it. Essie's death, Jamie's sudden behavior change, the kittens, the basement... that vine. I had no idea what any of it meant, but I knew I had to find out.

I didn't want to sleep anywhere near Jamie, so I curled up on the sofa next to the kittens and put Netflix on in the background. I drifted off to thoughts of the secret basement and what the fuck might be down there.

The previous tenant left a survival guide. Can you ever really know someone?

I woke up the morning after my discovery of the kittens with them crawling all over me. I guessed that they were a little younger than 8 weeks old. They were strong and independent, pouncing on my chest with their sizzling paws to wake me up.

They were well-looked after. It made it harder to believe that their mother had just abandoned them.

I thought I knew the block. My entrance had been dramatic enough to introduce me to what I thought were the majority of strange goings on in the place. I walked the halls with a naive confidence that the building wouldn't be able to surprise me anymore. I thought I was prepared for anything.

The events of the night before had squashed that confidence. I knew that the building had sealed off floor 9 after the fire, but I never considered the possibility of other hidden floors or flats. Every other floor from the ground up was accounted for and there were no stairs leading downward. I hadn't set foot inside the lift since Derek had taken me in there and I couldn't remember an LG or -1 button from when he had.

I had never known the cats to reproduce either. By rights, they're all strays and if they had been working, the place would be overrun with kittens. The cute little bundles on my sofa shouldn't have existed.

Jamie was growling still, making low and disturbing noises. Luckily the screaming had stopped. I nervously unlocked the wardrobe and placed a bowl of cat food in there as quickly as I could before locking it again. The wounds in my chest throbbed as I looked at him and let go of the bowl.

Jamie had scratched and bitten a handful of times but usually by mistake and he had never hurt me badly. It's only made doing something about him much harder. His attack the day before had been different though, intentional, and as I dropped his food in that morning he nipped hard at my finger, drawing blood.

I sighed with relief as I secured the padlock and shuddered as I listened to him slurp and crunch on his food. I noticed the bloodstains from his attack spattered up the wardrobe door and shoved the spare chair back over the gap to make sure the door was shut and keep the kittens safe.

Walking back to the kitchen to make tea, I noticed the vine in the cup of water on my fold-out table. It had grown. Way more than any plant should in a matter of hours. It had stretched out of the cup and down the table, producing large, healthy-looking leaves. I had no idea what it meant, if it meant anything at all. If it had come from a room with no sunlight then, like the kittens, it shouldn't have existed.

Ms. Esther Beckman's words echoed in my mind.

If you look hard enough, you will find a way.

Maybe the friend I had been supposed to help was the kittens' mother. What if she was stuck in the basement and I just needed to find a way in?

I didn't have time to think too deeply about it. Terri had run my errands the day before but I couldn't expect her to do it daily. Percy and Sylvia wouldn't need anything until the weekend now but Mr. Prentice would struggle without my help. I had to carry on. So I got dressed, placed a bowl of water down for the kittens, promised them I'd bring back proper food, and made my way down the hall to flat 48.

I knocked and stood back to give him time to answer.

"Morning, Mr. Prentice." I tried my best to smile and be chirpy, putting the whirlwind of thoughts I had to the back of my mind.

"Morning, Kat. I'm sorry to hear about Essie, Terri told me yesterday. She was one of the longest-serving residents here, you know, along with myself and Molly. A terrible loss." He hung his head as he gripped his walking stick.

"She was a great person. I'm sorry I didn't get to know her for longer," I answered, feeling the fake smile I'd plastered across my face collapse.

"She helped me out of a few scrapes, Essie had an extraordinary gift. Never once gave bad advice that I know of. She was a great drinking buddy, too, back in the day." Mr. Prentice chuckled at his memories but looked truly saddened by the situation. It was the most I'd ever heard him speak in one go and his mention of how long they'd lived here made me think.

"Mr. Prentice, do you know if this place has a basement?" I asked. He pondered my question for a while.

"Well... I've never seen one. But that's not to say it doesn't exist." He smiled a little, I could see he had noticed the despair in my eyes and his smile was comforting. I struggled to find the words to respond, so he changed the subject.

"Could you drop some money to my friend at the pub today, please? And grab me a newspaper and a bottle of whiskey, if you don't mind." He threw two envelopes of cash onto the corridor floor between us and I nodded, told him I'd be back soon, and set off.

As I exited the main doors, I turned to look at the garden and considered searching for the grate again then and there but decided I would wait. It was torturous.

Instead, I thought of Essie as I made my way through the park, taking in the breeze and the bird song.

The Pickled Gnome, Mr. Prentice's drinking spot looked sad and empty, with a sign in the window stating closed due to the virus. I popped the envelope labelled Carmilla through a letterbox in the large red door and began to walk away, noticing through the window a lone woman, sat at the bar in a dressing gown nursing a cup of tea.

As I carried on toward the shop, I heard a voice behind me.

"HEY!!!" I turned to see the woman standing at the door of the pub, waving her arms. A large fluffy cat rubbed himself up against her feet. I turned and waved back.

"Please tell him thanks! I really appreciate it, drinks on me when this is over! You should come, too!" she shouted, beaming at me.

"I'll tell him! Stay safe!" I shouted back as she ushered the cat back in and closed the door again.

Maybe I would have a drink with Mr. Prentice when this was all over. I imagined him with a shot of whiskey telling stories of the block and smiled. It was a nice thought.

I ventured further than the usual shop. To one I knew would sell specialized kitten food. I grabbed the whiskey, paper, and a ready-meal; although he never asked, Mr. Prentice never turned down food and I hated to think of him hungry.

When I reached the block again, I struggled to pass the garden a second time but made my way up the stairs and toward the flat, passing the man on floor 5.

"Hi, Jeremiah," I waved at him. No response. Better take that one off the list.

I passed the woman from the Gnome's message and the items onto Mr. Prentice and rushed home to feed the kittens. As I placed the three tiny bowls I'd purchased down, I decided I should name them. I couldn't keep calling them kittens.

They became Wrinkles, Tetley, and Mr. Meow and they were about the only reason I could think of to smile. As they happily lapped up their food, I could hear Jamie growling in the background, scratching at the door. He must have smelled the kitten meat.

I waited until they'd finished every last bite and washed up the bowls immediately to reduce any risk of him trying to pound his way out of the cupboard.

Then I left the flat to finally search for the basement.

I tried the bottom of the stairs. Searched the entire lower floor for a new stairwell or a door, but there was nothing. I tried the garden, too. The same spot from the night before in the bushes was just plain concrete, no grate to be seen and no vine growing upward to match the monster in my kitchen. There was no grate the entire perimeter of the building.

My heart sunk with a difficult realization. There was only one place that I hadn't looked.

Standing in front of the lift was daunting. I imagined Essie and how it was the last thing she had looked at. I wondered if I would ever know her motives.

I imagined Jamie, before any of this, walking in obliviously on his way to another shift at work, smiling stupidly at the novelty of us having our own home. My body shook and my legs became weak, but I managed to force them forward and step inside.

Staring at the buttons inside the lift took me back to standing with Derek, how safe I had felt compared to now. Having him around felt like having my own private guardian angel, guiding me every step of the way. His absence left a painful void. It made that tiny metal box feel enormous.

I once again searched for button 9 but couldn't find it, despite nothing looking out of place. It was oddly comforting. Expected. Unlike the past few days had been.

The lowest floor I could find was G, the one I was currently standing on, but I knew the lift was able to play tricks. I could never be truly sure. Not without Derek.

I stared at it for what must have been at least 5 minutes, looking as hard as I could just like Essie had advised, but it turned up nothing.

I was grateful to get out of the lift, but frustrated that it hadn't made anything clearer. I stared at it for a while, its rickety construction and dilapidated feel made my heart pound. I couldn't look at it without imagining blood and bones lining the floor.

"Fuck you, Essie," I cursed underneath my breath as I walked up the stairs toward my flat, defeated. "Why did you have to go?"

Her cryptic intuition had done nothing but raise questions and she wasn't there to answer any of them. My life was starting to feel like some sort of cruel joke. The stairwell, devoid of average human life, was eerie and just added to my sense of solitude.

I'd conquered a huge trauma to even stand in that lift, yet all my searching efforts had taught me was that the man on floor 5 wasn't called Eric or Mikey.

I reached the flat and paced around it for a while, being careful not to step on Wrinkles, the largest of my three adoptees, who seemed to really enjoy playing around my feet.

Mr. Prentice was right. Just because I hadn't been somewhere and couldn't see it didn't mean that it didn't exist. I'd taken the building for granted and gotten too comfortable.

Derek had once described the place as a living organism and now I truly felt that it was taunting me and mocking my ill-placed confidence. I had to admit to myself that really, in all honesty, I knew nothing about it.

Jamie's growls had become like a background symphony to my life. I'm ashamed to say I was able to almost entirely block them out.

I couldn't ignore the vine though. It had wrapped itself around the table leg and stretched most of the kitchen floor, growing toward the balcony and desperately stretching for the light.

I wasn't sure what to do with it. If I returned it to the garden I might never see the grate again. The vine was the only proof to myself I had that it had been there in the first place.

I tried to trim part off, to take to the garden and compare with the other plants there, knowing that it would be an entirely futile endeavor, but as I clamped down with scissors they snapped in my hand.

The vine was rock solid. It was much tougher than it had been when I'd pulled my foot free, perhaps the sunlight had done something to it. I tried my best to bunch it into one corner but soon gave up, slightly terrified that it might suffocate me in my sleep.

Tetley was asleep on the sofa while the other two played gently with each other. I sat down and tickled them a little, feeling my fingers start to go numb from the heat.

I tried to think of other solutions to my problems than continually searching a concrete wall. I knew it wasn't going to turn up a basement... or tell me why Essie walked into the lift... or help me kill or cure Jamie.

Unfortunately, I'm from a generation that's solution to every issue is Google, so that's all I could come up with, and I loaded up my laptop.

I tried to search for original plans of the block, to see if there was some kind of floor plan or architect drawings that could confirm the presence of a basement but it turned out the place is too old for those to be online.

The block was built in 1951, at the very start of the new high-rise trend. There was limited information on the place other than a few archived articles from around the time it was built and opened. I cursed the libraries having to be shut in this pandemic.

According to the articles, it was a turbulent project from start to finish and was overseen by an architect and property development mogul who designed and paid for the building himself. There were reports that he was notoriously difficult to work with and that three construction firms pulled out of the project.

The next headline I came across intrigued me.

Cursed project finally completed, owner found hanged in unoccupied high rise flats.

There was little information on the suicide other than that it happened. If the building had been how it is today I can imagine that being alone in the place with no information or even confirmation that what you were seeing was real, could drive anyone mad.

None of the articles even had the name of the architect, leaving me at a dead end. It took a few searches and more obscure, archived city history blogs than I knew existed before I found anything else that piqued my interest.

Heir to tragic high rise architects fortune suspected of killing his own son.

The article was too blurred to read, it was a poorly taken photograph of a newspaper from the late fifties. This took away my chance, yet again, to find a name for the architect or even the son.

I thought about what bad luck the family had suffered. To be able to design and build something like that in those days meant you must have incredible wealth. But no amount of money could save them from tragedy, especially not somewhere like here.

I tried to adapt my search, instead entering a rabbit hole of murders in the late fifties. As I scanned the page I damned human nature, there were so many acts of evil detailed in the blogs. I even learned about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in the UK in 1955.

Eventually, I found an entry that matched up. His name was Albert Miles and he was the eldest of two brothers. When his revered architect father died, he took over management of the tower block that he and his brother had become the very first occupants of.

He was hugely successful and pegged to become one of the biggest names in property development in the UK. The once-empty block was mostly full by the time the killing happened. Police were called by a resident living directly below Albert Miles, who complained that blood was dripping onto their balcony from above.

When police arrived, Albert was nowhere to be found but the body of his 19-year-old son was starting to decompose in the sun on his balcony. He had been stabbed multiple times.

Albert was never found or convicted and the case remained unsolved, however, most were in agreement that he did it. A bloodied kitchen knife belonging to Albert, dropped just inside the doors to the balcony, all but confirmed it.

It was interesting, but I wasn't sure it was helpful. I started to worry that my research had gone in completely the wrong direction. I wasn't sure how Albert Miles or the death of his son could help me and I was about ready to shut my laptop and give up. Then I felt something slither across my shoulder from behind.

The vine had grown exponentially, weaving a route from the kitchen to the sofa. I started to panic as it touched my skin but it didn't wrap itself around me or try to cause any harm, just gently glided across my shoulder and to the computer. It stroked the name of the blog on the header of the page a few times before falling to the ground, only a slight overhang left on the sofa.

It didn't want me to stop. There was no more information on Google so I sent a direct email to the blog owner, asking for anything on the Albert Miles killing that they had or details of anyone they could direct me to. I claimed it was for a university project.

I stopped and watched the TV for a while, the kittens all cuddled on my lap. I was grateful for my blanket, creating just enough barrier to stop me melting. Raspy, wheezing snores came from the bedroom. I decided to spend another night on the sofa, it felt much safer.

I started to drift off a little and went to shut the laptop but a loud ping from my email box woke me. Chills ran up my spine a little as I opened the message.

Hey Kat

Thanks for your email. Unfortunately, that particular case is very little known and doesn't have a lot of information out there at all. As you can appreciate, cold cases can be difficult to catalog but I aim to provide the most comprehensive online case files possible.

The only thing I have on this case that isn't on the blog is a photograph of Albert Miles and his unnamed brother outside the high rise flats. I was new to blogging at the time I wrote that entry and wasn't sure how to insert images. Your message has reminded me to go back and include this one! I've attached here in case it's of any use to you.

I would recommend checking out similar case files that may fit your project. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any queries. Thank you for reading.


Murders In The Capital

I felt the frustration bubbling up. No further information. Another dead end.

I opened up the attachment to take a look at the mysterious Albert Miles. I was resigned that it would be of no use at all. Then the picture loaded.

Two men, handsome and maybe in their mid-late thirties, standing outside the main doors of the largely unchanged block. They were similar-looking, with a strong family resemblance but very different demeanors.

One was dressed in a sharp-looking suit and stood with a controlled posture. He had a serious facial expression and pointy features.

The other was slumped against the wall, a smile on his face and familiar, kind-looking eyes. This man wore a casual outfit that you might expect to see on a laborer of that era. Atop his head was the clue that I had been looking for in the form of a flat cap.

Standing there, next to Albert Miles, was my lost friend Derek.

The previous tenant left a survival guide. Some families are more dysfunctional than others.

My brain hurt trying to process the things I'd learned. Derek had never mentioned his family or that he, by blood, had a claim to the building. He was always so in tune with it, it made sense but it was never something I'd considered.

I woke on the sofa that morning, confused. I had no idea how to continue. The vine had grown almost the entire perimeter of the flat, carefully weaving between my furniture and appliances, its waxy exterior reflecting sunlight from the windows. It stopped at the bedroom door, not crossing the threshold to Jamie's prison.

I bit the bullet and decided to call Terri. I hadn't spoken to her since her and the kids' visit a few days prior and I wanted to see if she remembered Derek ever talking about his brother or if she knew of any basement. Terri had grown up in the building, she was bound to have explored more thoroughly than Mr. Prentice.

Before I could get on to any of that, I owed her an apology. My interaction with her had been rude and I had been too distracted to check on her the past few weeks. I had been a terrible friend.

I hit dial on video chat and waited for a response. When she picked up the phone, she looked even worse than she had the last time I saw her. The dark circles were beginning to look like deep, inky tattoos, permanently stained on her face. Still, she smiled, just like she always did.

"Terri, are you okay? I'm so sorry about the other day, I was just..."

"It's fine, Kat. I understand, everything with Ms. Beckman must have brought back some tough feelings for you. I should've waited a day or two... I'm sorry." My heart melted as she spoke, I'd never had such a loyal and genuine friend.

"Thank you. Don't be sorry, it helped seeing you guys. How are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm okay. The kids aren't behaving great at night, I'm not sure if lockdown's got to them or something else. I have to watch everything that they do. The other day, I caught Eddie trying to take apart the washing machine with his claws. By the time I stopped him, Ellie had ripped up the shower curtains trying to climb them." She sounded defeated and, at best, definitely not okay.

"I wish I were allowed to help. I miss you." I sighed, longing for the day I could sit and drink tea with her.

"Are you okay, Kat? You haven't been yourself," she asked; we may not have known each other that long but she could sense when things weren't right. Terri was the epitome of an empath. This, I'd come to realize over the months, had been the only reason she kept in touch with Prudence, she's just so damn nice.

"I'm not. I don't know if you know about Essie's predictions... but she made one for me and it's sent me to some strange places. I'll tell you more when I figure it out, but for now I need your help."

I still chose to omit Jamie from my confessions, but I was ready to be a bit more open, I wasn't too ashamed to admit I needed help. Terri clearly knew about Essie's gift. She didn't bat an eyelid.


"Do you remember Derek ever mentioning a brother, even when you were growing up?" I asked.

"Not at all. Derek was always on his own, just appearing when we needed him. I was really young when he first disappeared though, so I don't remember him well and might not be the one to ask." Terri's face scrunched up in thought as she racked her brain.

"I'm going to send you something." I minimized the video chat and copied the photo from the email onto my phone and sent it to her by text. Her video paused for a moment as she did the same to check the attachment. "He was the first to live here, Terri. His dad built the place."

Terri's video clicked back on.

"Where did you find this?" she asked.

I explained the blog and why I had been looking. It wasn't a short explanation so I'll spare you that. We even broke from the seriousness briefly for the kids to come and fawn over the kittens. Eddie loved Mr. Meow whilst Ellie wanted to kidnap Tetley. Wrinkles just curled up with me, he was my secret favorite anyway.

Terri was fascinated by the vine. She wondered if it had a connection to Derek, especially given the photo I'd found on my search. I can't say the thought hadn't crossed my mind either. I learned more about him every day, but he would always first and foremost be the gardener. The vine made sense, but the basement didn't. I was struggling to connect it to the brothers.

"I don't know about a basement, Kat. But if this place is as old as you say then who knows. I know I may look haggard..." she pulled on her cheeks and giggled. "... but I'm really not that old."

I laughed. I was sad that she didn't have anymore information but it was nice to just talk to a friend. For five minutes, life felt normal.

I'd kept my secret, and talking to Terri I'd almost managed to forget about Jamie myself. If it hadn't been for the deep bite wound on my finger from the feeding the day before and the open cuts on my chest from his attack, I might have been successful.

I still had no idea what the riddle Essie had given to me meant. I was looking as hard as I could and it had led me down a rabbit hole that just kept spewing more questions.

What I did know, was that with Jamie's seemingly permanent change in demeanor, I was running out of time. The growling hadn't stopped, the look of pure hatred as I dropped in food didn't end, and I was getting frightened.

Something had to give. Either Jamie was going to die, or I would. There wasn't another option I could see and the former may have been entirely unachievable.

Derek destroyed Lyla, but he never returned after. Prudence claimed she killed the original wave of creatures by setting light to them all on the already burnt-out ninth floor, again something entirely unachievable without Derek's presence. I had to find him.

I said my goodbyes to Terri, promised that I would update her when and if I could, and left to do my daily errands for Mr. Prentice and the couple next door. As I left for the exit, I spotted a man going into Ms. Beckman's flat. I recognized him as the son that I'd always seen visiting, eyes glazed with tears.

Terri had said that she would get Molly to inform Essie's family, but I couldn't imagine what Molly might have said happened.

I should've gone to him, just as a human being, tried to comfort him, but I couldn't bring myself to do it without an explanation to offer. I promised myself that I would visit him when lockdown was over and I knew why his mother was gone.

I rushed out and completed my errands as quickly as possible, eager to get home; even having the name Albert Miles might have been helpful if I just kept digging on the internet.

After I dropped the bags off at Percy and Sylvia's door, I turned the key in my own, entered, and shut it behind me like I always would.

That was where the normality ended and my life was disrupted by an uninvited guest.

When I turned to face the flat and caught a glimpse of my fold-out table, there was a tall figure stood right next to it.

Albert, like Derek, was a little older than he had been in the photo. There was a family resemblance but the eyes weren't the same, Albert's weren't warm and kind, they were cold and filled with malice.

He wore a suit, similar to the one in the picture but it wasn't as sharp, it was covered in a thick layer of dust and tattered, with loose threads hanging everywhere, like clothes that had been dug out of a box in the attic.

He grinned at me. It was smug, like something you might expect from a slimy car salesman.

"It's been a long time since I had to visit any of the residents up here. I like what you've done with the place, much more modern than when that old bint before you lived here."

I was frozen to the spot. I hadn't been alarmed when his brother had appeared inches from me on a bench but something about Albert was much more sinister. The thought of his son, dead on the balcony, played on repeat in my mind.

"Why are you here?" I asked.

He laughed. The smug grin extended across his cheeks.

"I like you. You didn't even pretend not to know who I am. You know, Kat, I've always appreciated a person who cuts the small talk. It's better in business and in life. That trait will hold you in good stead." He was animated as he spoke, gesticulating wildly.

"You didn't answer my question. Don't you find that ironic considering your sentiment?" I answered back, still terrified but figuring that keeping him talking might somehow help the situation.

"I don't need to answer your question. You know why I'm here." He continued to grin, raising an eyebrow and adjusting the torn sleeves of his suit. "It's not often that I've come across a tenant that causes as much chaos as you do.

"It's usually issues with the rent, and even something like that hasn't happened for quite some time, but you are something special."

He stamped on part of the vine that was growing near his feet and I watched as the enormous structure withered and shrunk in size, as if it were in notable pain.

The beginning of my entire ordeal flooded back to me. I was back in my kitchen, discovering Prudence's note for the first time, reading the one rule that I'd never learned anything more about.

  1. The landlord will never bother you, he doesn't visit, call or communicate in any way. But make sure to pay your rent in a timely fashion always. I have only dealt with him once in 35 years and let's just say I never missed another rent day. Any repairs required you speak to the agent you rented the place with.

Rule number one. So much happened that I hadn't thought much about that rule, but there must have been a reason she put it first, before even mentioning the creatures. Suddenly the literal monster in my closet seemed soft and fluffy in comparison to the ageless man stood in front of me.

"I've paid my rent. Why are you here?" I stood firmly, curling my shaking hands into fists. It was more for comfort than aggression. On the surface, I was hoping it would appear I was standing my ground.

The rent part was true. It was hard, but I always found a way. I was still training to teach and pulled in extra cash running after-school clubs as I trained. Even during lockdown, I was creating digital learning tools. This place was my home and I'd followed the first rule to the letter to keep it.

"Maybe you aren't as bright as I thought," he rolled his eyes. "Let's list reasons a landlord might want to visit, shall we?

"Damage to property. Unauthorized modification of communal spaces. Digging around where it's not wanted or needed. Nurturing my brother's unnatural experiments..." He went to continue, but I stopped him.

"What do you mean unnatural experiments?"

Albert laughed even harder than before, I could see in his eyes that he considered me entirely dense by this stage.

"You think those three little abominations you took in came out of nowhere? They were a cry for help, you stupid girl. Like a flare. And all you could do was pick it up and let it burn your fingers." He scoffed, laughing at his own bad joke. My heart sunk, wondering where the kittens were and if he'd hurt them.

"After all the trouble you caused when he helped you last time, I wasn't going to let my idiot brother continue to roam my halls. Especially not after what you did once he was gone."

I gulped. I knew exactly what he was talking about. He knew that I knew as well, Albert was more than a few steps ahead of me.

I realized that Prudence destroying his garden had probably never banished Derek at all. He had been kept prisoner by the man in front of me. If Albert could keep someone with Derek's knowledge and abilities trapped, then I didn't stand a chance.

"Shall we talk about that thing you keep in your bedroom, Kat?"

"I didn't mean to. I'm so sorry... I've regretted it since," I stuttered. I felt a tear run down my cheek as I anticipated imminent death.

"I know that. You wouldn't have even known how if my brother had never told the last woman... and he pretends to be so pious." The smile on his face had disappeared, even the thought of Derek left him with a scowl.

"He just tried to help the residents here. Please, I made a mistake," I protested, anticipating that I was about to die or even worse.

Albert didn't speak, he just huffed in frustration and turned to walk toward the bedroom. I followed him, trying not to stay too close. The floor was trailed with blood and as he entered the room I noticed the wardrobe door was practically shattered.

"You couldn't even contain your mistake properly." He gestured to Jamie who was in the corner, hunched over the blood-smothered body of a kitten that he was crunching on the bones of. Tiny bits of muscle and skin, in pools of blood, littered the floor.

His eyes were beady and black, any semblance of Jamie I'd once seen in them was gone.

I noticed Tetley and Wrinkles shivering together in the opposite corner, trying to hide from the monster. The brief relief I felt that they hadn't all met the same fate was interrupted when Jamie started to growl at Albert, baring his crimson-splashed teeth as menacingly as he could.

I watched in horror as Albert just stood there, staring at the increasingly angry beast.

The creature I had been hiding for all these months lunged at him aggressively, claws outstretched. Albert wasn't phased. He barely even moved a muscle, just reached out a tattered sleeve and waited for Jamie to make contact with his hand.

The second Jamie touched Albert, he let out the most almighty, inhuman scream you could imagine. It felt like my eardrums were about to burst and I instinctively put my hands over them. Albert put his hand back down by his side as Jamie fell in a heap to the floor.

He wasn't moving. Not like when I'd stabbed him with the poker. He wasn't just still, he was dead still. The heap of fur he had become started to morph on the floor, his jaw pulled inward as if it were dislocating and his limbs began to stretch and shed their fur.

After a while, Jamie was laid there on the floor. Not the rat-Jamie, the real one. The one I'd spent years with and searched for a home with. The one who knew me before all this shit ever happened.

And he was dead, too. For real this time.

It took everything I had not to throw myself on the floor with him. I stopped myself multiple times, but Albert's eyes bore into my soul and rendered me unable to move a muscle. I tried to fight back tears but I couldn't.

"Don't bother to cry. He died a long time ago." Albert kicked Jamie's corpse and bent down into a squat to get closer to him, not taking his eyes off me. "I didn't let him out if that's what you were thinking. No, Kat. You did when you locked an angry animal in a cage. Eventually, they all get free." I whimpered a little as he inspected the remains of my boyfriend, intensely taking in his hair and eyes.

"My brother had this preconceived notion that humans can live in harmony with the evil that inhabits this building. He's wrong, Kat. We can't. Eventually, it drives us all mad. Your mistake made such an unusual racket I had to come and see what was going on.

"Did you ever imagine keeping him like that before you lived here?"

"Of course not -" I tried to interject, but he wouldn't let me. He was in full-blown monologue.

"This place fucks us up, Kat. You can't make it any better, regardless of how many shrubs you plant outside." He stroked Jamie's cold, dead face gently, barely touching it with his fingertips.

The body evaporated beneath them, becoming nothing more than a pile of dust on my carpet. I hadn't even got to touch him, one last time. Albert stood back up, salesman grin plastered back on his face, and brushed his sleeves.

"I've cleaned up your mistake. Aren't you going to say thank you?"

I held back the bile that was forming in my throat, took a deep breath and summoned every ounce of strength that I could just to speak. He was right, this place had fucked me up. But losing your partner like that would do the same to anyone. I thought of the little boy in the mirror, Mr. Prentice... even Ellie and Eddie.

"This wasn't for me. You're wrong about this place, not everything here is evil. I made a mistake, but it's you that's evil, you killed your own son. What I did came from love," I blurted, trying to organize my thoughts.

"You don't know a damn thing about my son. And you won't. This is your only warning, Kat. Stop digging into my family. Consider my brother dead and keep quiet." He spoke sternly, I didn't dare try to talk back again. Despite knowing I'd hit a nerve, everything about him set me on edge.

He took another vicious stamp on part of the vine as he exited the bedroom. It shriveled entirely underneath his dusty dress shoes, back to the size that it had been when I pulled my foot free, except it wasn't green anymore, it was brown and rotten.

He turned to me once more before he reached the front door of the flat to leave and spoke.

"If you dare continue your pointless little mission to try and find Derek, you will meet the same fate as that blind old bat from down the hall. People here will always do as I tell them.

"Let her be an example of why not to meddle in my family business. Feel lucky that I didn't eviscerate you on the spot... or worse."

He winked at me, knowing that he had complete control of the situation and left with a simple "Bye for now, Kat."

As the door slammed, the two remaining kittens bounded to my feet, shaking with fear. I scooped them up despite the burning and held them close. I wasn't going to let anything happen to them.

The flat had an emptiness I wasn't used to, even when it had been just me with no kittens, before I repeated the ritual to bring Jamie back as a creature, there was the comforting knowledge that he existed somewhere. There was hope. The pile of dust on my bedroom floor and the shattered remains of my wardrobe were all I had left of him now.

Then there were Mr. Meow's remains, a glaring reminder of my failure to keep anything alive or safe. I cried for him, as I scooped his parts into a shoebox ready to bury in the garden the next day. It was all my fault. Jamie, Mr. Meow, Esther... they were all dead because of me.

I considered calling Terri back, telling her what happened, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. My stupidity had already cost lives and I wasn't prepared to risk her or the kids, they really were family to me.

I wasn't about to give up though. All the heartache I'd caused, the tears of Essie's son, and the months my boyfriend spent trapped in the body of a vile beast, maybe they wouldn't be in vain if I was able to save Derek from his brother. The empty, gaping grief that I felt left me perfectly accepting of the prospect of a suicide mission.

I cuddled the kittens and felt the skin of my arms start to melt and sizzle. If they really were a cry for help I had to listen. I just couldn't let it go.

The previous tenant left a survival guide. I never liked that damn lift.

The shoebox I'd placed Mr. Meow in sat atop my fold-out table. As I lit my morning cigarette and sipped a cup of tea, I wondered if it was disrespectful to smoke next to a body.

I decided that disrespect was in the eye of the beholder.

I'd often thought of Essie as I smoked. Remembering how we bonded over a few spare cigs. That hadn't made me feel disrespectful. I was smoking more than usual with the stress I was under, too. I found it was a welcome few minutes' break from life.

I'd wanted to sit on my balcony that morning to try and get some light and escape from the claustrophobic feel of the flat. I knew that with my determination to find Derek, it might be the last I saw the sun, but the window cleaner was out there, just howling and scratching at the door.

To be honest, the flat felt so empty without Jamie, Mr. Meow, or even the vine, that for a moment I almost considered letting him in.

The longer I lived in the building the less I thought of the window cleaner as a sinister entity. He was more pitiful than anything and let's get realistic, I'd grown accustomed to being surrounded by monsters.

Since lockdown, he'd stopped bothering with the niceties and chit-chat. Instead, he just whined and scratched like a scared animal. It was Wrinkles and Tetley, rubbing themselves up against my - thankfully covered - legs that stopped me from just giving up and opening the sliding door.

I spent hours in the flat that day dwelling on everything, coming up with wild plans and theories in my mind. I texted Terri and asked her to check on Mr. Prentice for me. She asked what was going on and I said that I would tell her when I could.

It was weak but she accepted my explanation, or lack of, as always, with no questions asked.

I must've paced the length of the flat hundreds of times. None of the ideas that I had to help Derek seemed to develop into anything solid. It was frustrating, like trying to solve an impossible riddle.

I analyzed every part of my interaction with Albert, trying to find hidden meanings amongst the words in my head.

I wondered if he could communicate with the creatures, just like Derek had when he struck the deal over the lift. Maybe that's why he had come to my flat when Jamie finally escaped, it would make sense if they were communicating all along. Maybe he'd been the reason for Jamie's aggression toward the end.

I knew that I wasn't going to find Derek without also finding Albert, so I decided that working to find the older of the brothers would be easier.

Translating all my loose threads of thoughts into a plan didn't come easy. I tried to stop myself multiple times, worrying that I was going down the wrong route, but when it finally hit me, I knew that I had nothing better. Eventually, I settled on my next steps.

I started after I had fed the kittens and washed up the bowls. After they'd fallen asleep on the sofa. After I'd had time to dwell and stress. After it got dark outside and no human residents were left in the dimly-lit corridors. I had little faith in my plan and didn't want to risk anyone getting hurt as a byproduct.

I made my way down the stairs, carrying the shoebox coffin in my arms and a small bag of the dust that Jamie had left behind in my pocket, shovel wedged in the gap between my arm and torso.

"Good evening, Marcus," I greeted the man on floor 5 with less enthusiasm than usual. He responded the same way he always did - not at all.

The boy in the mirror blew more raspberries, making moose horn antlers with his hands and giggling. I waved back and tried to understand how Albert could consider every single special resident evil, these beings had become my family over time.

The outside of the building was empty again, a city that usually never slept was taking the nap of a lifetime. I felt peaceful in the garden with the breeze blowing my hair around. The park opposite was eerily mystical under the stars.

It was warmer than it had been a few nights before when I'd first discovered the kittens and the grate. Even though it had only been a short time, that night felt a lifetime away.

I fought the urge to sob as I dug the tiny grave amongst the shrubs I'd found them in, and for the first time since Essie's death I was successful. My mind was so focused on my goals that I managed to pull myself together and not become a wreck. I wasn't sure I had any tears left.

I made full speeches instead, first to Mr. Meow and then to Jamie, who I sprinkled on top of the buried shoebox, vowing that I would do something good in all this before covering them back up with dirt.

I stood and stared at the patch of soil for a while. At one point, I could've sworn I caught a glimpse of the metal grate but it was gone in a blink, replaced by flat, gray concrete. Either Albert was teasing me, or I was going completely mad.

I felt my heart start to pound through my chest as I re-entered the building. What I was preparing to do was dangerous, and potentially deadly, but it was better than never knowing if I could've done more. I didn't want to spend a lifetime imagining Derek trapped and alone.

Every time my life is in crisis in this place I seem to find myself outside the lift, and that night was no different. Even if everything in me was telling me to flee up the stairs and drop it, there I was, staring at the huge metal doors.

It had killed friends, taken me to places no one else could see, and housed monsters that infected my nightmares.

As my own heart continued to pound I imagined that the lift could be considered the building's heart, carrying human life to every floor like we were the blood of the tower.

My eyes flitted from the intimidating metal doors to the display on my phone. I was a few minutes early and those few minutes felt like a thousand years. I edged as close as I could to the button to call the lift and as soon the numbers changed I knew it was time to start.

1.11 am

I jabbed the button violently, took a deep breath, and reached into my pocket. It was hard to fight back the bile as I pulled out Mr. Meow's severed foot that I had carefully plucked from the shoebox earlier, but I managed and I threw it. It landed about three meters or so from the lift's entrance.

I retreated and stood to the edge of the stairs, just out of sight, my entire body shaking as I waited for the rattling noise of the opening doors. The first part of my plan worked as well as I could've hoped and soon, for the first time, I was faced with my boyfriend's killers.

I had only seen Jamie and Prudence's granddaughter Lyla's iterations of the monsters in person. The creatures that they were spawned from had remained largely a mystery to me and I had never considered they could be different from what I'd already experienced.

They were larger, much larger, than Jamie or Lyla had been. I remembered what Derek had said about the survivors strengthening with each one that dies. They were probably the same height as a fully-grown adult male with fur-covered, defined muscular limbs. They maintained the posture of a rat, and had long, razor-sharp teeth protruding from their elongated jaws.

Their eyes were different from Jamie's, too. Instead of being a beady black, they had a bright, daffodil-yellow sheen. I thought what was living in my wardrobe had been frightening, but he was nothing compared to them.

The two huge, rodent-humanoid creatures skulked out of the lift. They were on their hind legs but their backs were hunched over in a way that would've allowed them to break into a four-legged sprint at any moment. They started to edge towards the kitten foot, sniffing at it intensely.

Knowing I had moments before they smelled me too, I left my corner by the stairs and started sprinting toward the open metal doors. I hoped that releasing the creatures during their frenzy would be enough to summon Albert, he didn't seem to appreciate a scene. If I could just hide in that awful metal box for long enough, he would have to come and if they weren't in there with me then I would be safe.

My stress and sleep deprivation had gotten to me. I knew my plan was severely flawed and I hadn't properly considered the risks. When I finally made it inside the doors, I was confronted with worse consequences than I could've imagined.

Unsurprisingly, they spotted me. As I hammered on the button that should close the doors and lock me in, I could see them snarling, long strings of saliva stretching from their mouths to splatter on the floor as they prepared to run toward me.

I was ready to die. I was almost certain that it was going to happen in that moment.

That was until I spotted the tiny figure weaving through the creatures' legs. It was fast, and I could barely make it out. It was growling and making noises that seemed to genuinely frighten them.

Long claws slashed at the rat-creature closer to reaching me and it yowled in pain as it fell to the floor. Horns first, the figure managed to enter the lift just before the doors began to seal themselves. It hissed at the uninjured creature, keeping him backed away just enough for us to hear the thud of the metal doors closing.

Most would be terrified of anything that could frighten off their worst nightmares in an instant, let alone being locked in a four-by-four space with them, but not me. As the figure became clear, I was both proud and devastated.

"Ellie! What are you doing here, your mum's going to kill us both!"

Terri's young daughter sat herself down cross-legged in the corner of the tiny room as I slid down one of the walls to the floor myself, hugging my knees. I broke into hysterical tears, I couldn't believe I'd put Ellie at risk. I knew about the twins' late night escapes. She shuffled over next to me, her horns pinched a little as she nuzzled my shoulder but I didn't care.

"Don't cry, Kat. Did you see how scared of me those things were?!"

She was delighted, her smile lit up and if you could've seen anything in the deep black voids that replaced her eyes you'd have seen childlike excitement.

The creature outside scraped and hammered at the door and I could still hear the pained screams of the one she'd impaled. For a small child, she had no idea of the impact she'd just made. It was hard to comprehend how a little girl could cause so much damage.

"You shouldn't be out! Why aren't you at home? Is Eddie out too? Your mum will go looking, what if they get her?!" I started ranting. Ellie's face dropped immediately. I usually would have felt awful but I couldn't shake the thought of her whole family being killed because of me. Of the other people that might be in mortal danger.

How could I be so fucking stupid.

"Eddie's at home playing with his truck and mum fell asleep. I just wanted to come and explore and I was playing on the stairs when I saw you. I've missed you Kat... Are they going to eat mum?" Her little voice cracked and she started to sob. I wanted to be reassuring and tell her that they wouldn't but I didn't want to lie. I started to understand the gravity of what I'd released.

I was still confident that my original plan would bring Albert out of the basement. However, I wasn't so confident that Albert would just let Ellie go. He might see her as evil, like he saw everything else here. I had to do everything I could to protect her.

Esther Beckman's ridiculous prophecy played in my mind once again and I silently cursed her.

How many more friends are going to be in danger, Esther? Why would you be so fucking vague.

I tried to calculate a comforting yet honest response for Ellie but I failed. Before I had a chance to speak the metal prison we were trapped in started to whirr and crunch, shaking and making awful mechanical noises.

I tried desperately to press the button for Terri's floor, in hope that I could drop Ellie off unharmed, but it didn't work. Instead, the box started to fall and the lift traveled downward.

It wasn't high-tech enough for a digital display. Instead, the buttons light up as you reach each floor. Not a single button lit as we fell much faster than any lift should, for what must have been at least 5 minutes.

Ellie was screaming. I couldn't do much but to hold her hand, being careful to interlock my fingers in a way that wouldn't result in a claw through my own.

I watched the button panel the entire time, occasionally trying to press on any number I could. Every attempt was futile. The lift ground to a halt and we were thrown into the air as it stopped with a huge clap.

Just underneath the numbered buttons had appeared a shrewdly drawn -1 scratched into the metal. I knew it hadn't been there before and could only signify one thing.

I'd done it. I'd made it to the basement.

As I looked at Ellie, I couldn't help but wonder, at what cost? Was any of this worth the danger I'd accidentally put her in? I hadn't accounted for the extra person, or the lift falling.

My plan ended when I threw the foot and ran. In my optimistic mind, Albert would've killed the creatures outside to avoid a scene and have to talk to me again, without being able to kill me like Essie. I knew, squeezing Ellie's hand, that I had misjudged the situation entirely.

"Where are we?" she asked, nervously.

"I don't know for sure. I think this is the basement," I replied.

"But the block doesn't have a basement."

"I know."

The doors slowly opened to reveal a huge darkened flat. It was luxury, like an underground penthouse, but without a single window in sight and it was largely empty. Not a soul inside.

I stood up from the floor of the lift, Ellie's hand still firmly gripped in mine, and tried to take in the surroundings. The lift had stopped directly in what seemed to be a living room, there was no hallway or corridor leading to a set of flats like when the lift usually stopped.

In the room was a black velvet sofa, a few side tables, and an almost-useless lamp, providing a dim glow in the corner. It lit up a few twinkling cobwebs and made it just about possible to see a huge, trailing pot plant sitting on a table that matched perfectly with the vine that had wrapped itself around my foot and then my home. The lack of a nearby grate didn't bode well.

Ellie started to cry. I couldn't see actual tears with the voids for eyes but I could hear her soft whimpers. I searched my mind again for some comforting thoughts but I couldn't find a single one. If I was right, and Derek was trapped here, we were fucked.

Attempts to jab the buttons were pointless, it was as if the lift had run out of battery, we couldn't even close the doors. I took a step into the room and Ellie followed. Before I could say a word, we heard the metal doors clap together and by the time we turned around the lift had been replaced by a blank wall.

"WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?!" I screamed, desperately hoping that Albert's smug face would just appear from the shadows.

It didn't.

All my plea did was terrify Ellie, who continued to grip my hand. It's awful to say, but I was partly grateful that she was there, if only so that I didn't have to be alone.

"Who are you looking for?" she questioned.

"Someone that can help us get home... I need you to stay close to me all the time, can you do that for me, please?" I hoped with my whole being that I could keep her safe. Ellie simply nodded in response, her horns bobbing in the dim glow.

I took a few steps in the direction of the plant, reaching out to touch it and see if it was limp or alive, like the version in my flat had been. I was disappointed that it was the former. As I ventured further into the room, I noticed that the opposite wall wasn't nearly as blank as the one that had replaced the lift.

Instead, indented in the wall was another set of metal doors, identical to the ones that had closed and vanished behind us. Next to the left side of the doors was a button with the words "call lift" carved into the metal above it. It gave me a great feeling of unease.

Despite my unease, I saw no other exit to the room and before I could even consider options my tiny companion had pressed the button. Even demon kids love buttons.

As the doors opened, relief washed over me to see that it was empty and not full of even more creatures. We took a step inside and I found myself once again staring at the button panel. This time, I wasn't searching for floor 9. In fact, I yearned for the days when that was my biggest problem.

The panel was much like the one in the lift we'd got here in, except alarmingly, every number came with a minus symbol before it... and there was no sign of a G for the ground floor.

The previous tenant left a survival guide. There isn't a guide for these floors.

Looking at that button panel in the lift that didn't lead home I felt a knot form in my stomach. Why hadn't Albert appeared, and which button was I supposed to press?

"Where are we going, Kat?" Ellie asked; she had stopped crying but every word was heavy with fear. In truth, I didn't really know the answer to her question. I stared at the panel, taking in every number and noting it's inclusion of a -9.

"We're going to see if there's anyone else around," I answered.

I didn't like my chances with whatever might inhabit that floor. If wherever we were was a reverse of the building then number 9 could be nasty, so I started cautiously, pressing the -2 button.

Mechanics whirred and the large metal doors clapped shut. I wished that I had been behind the real lift's doors, before it disappeared from sight. The lift that we stood in was as identical to the original as possible, even the shiver it sent up my spine just being inside it felt the same.

I was grateful when it stopped and the doors opened to reveal a relatively normal-looking corridor, reminiscent of the ones above in the upper building.

I would've believed that I'd imagined the lift falling and was arriving home if it weren't for the large black -2 painted next to the metal doors, the lack of any windows, and an obnoxious, artificial light that I was sure would give me a migraine if I stood there for too long.

I don't know what I hoped would be behind the red, wooden door that led to a vast stretch of flats. I didn't suppose that finding Derek in something that the fake lift had indicated was as large as the building would be that simple but perhaps it would provide some answers.

Albert himself was a possibility. I couldn't predict his moves, but I had a strong feeling he wouldn't be able to contain his intellectual gloating at the failure of my plan for long.

"I don't like it here," the small voice broke my stream of thoughts.

"Me neither, Ellie. Hopefully, someone will be home and know how we can get back upstairs." I feebly attempted to smile at my tiny companion, but she was a child, not an idiot. She saw straight through me.

"I don't think we should go through that door." Ellie gestured to the red wooden door, separating us from the windowless flats. She planted her feet firmly to the spot and refused to move any farther.

"Do you have any better ideas?" I asked, genuinely hopeful.

"I just have a really bad feeling."

Her words didn't fill me with a sense of comfort or optimism but I saw little choice. I reached for the handle and pulled at the door. It creaked loudly as it opened, releasing a strong, musky smell, like something that had been shut away for a long time.

I took a tentative step inside alone, leaving Ellie just behind in the corridor, and shouted hello; hoping that if anyone was in there that visitors were usually scarce and they may come out. Unlike my previous plans, this worked flawlessly and within minutes each of the doors were slowly opening.

I counted around ten doors in total as human arms and fingers started to emerge from behind them. The flats were filled with - and I use this term loosely - people.

They weren't typical, none of them were dressed and they had fleshy limbs and appendages sticking out of all the wrong places. There were elongated necks, multiple arms, and spines bent completely backward. It shocked me that any of them could walk at all.

Each one of them looked like a unique result of intense torture. Torture that should've killed them long before they reached the stage they were at. Remembering where I was, I realized that they probably were killed long ago, or they never lived to begin with.

One in particular caught my eye. It had a neck at least three feet long and I couldn't distinguish its gender at all. Its back was bent in a way that a child might to do the crab and it was balanced on all fours. Instead of two arms and two legs, all four limbs were left arms, all facing the same direction.

Its neck lulled backward, swinging from side to side a little and struggling to support itself. I inhaled sharply as its head lifted slightly into a steadier position and it locked eyes with me.

It screamed.

The scream that came from that... thing... was the single most distressing sound I've ever had to listen to. It penetrated my soul and I felt every inch of pain and suffering that laced it. My stomach churned and the shrill pitch burrowed into my brain.

It left me completely immobile as every other person-like creature in the room lifted its head, wherever it balanced, and screamed in unison with the first. Holding my hands to my ears, I started to feel a warm liquid trickling from them but I couldn't take my only protection away to see what it was.

I can't even begin to describe the pain that I felt. There are no words for a misery that deep. I don't know how, but I could feel years upon years of torment and unimaginable pain that they'd gone through. The screaming became so overwhelming and all-consuming that I started to feel myself getting dizzy.

There was a violent tug at my shirt, forcing me backward before an almighty hiss, vicious enough to cut through the screams and silence them, echoing through the corridor.

It took seconds for each and every one of the mangled people to shrivel back into their flats, winding limbs clambering in all directions. Leaving Ellie standing there, horn tips gleaming in the artificial light.

"What were they, Kat?" I barely heard the muffled sounds she was making that had replaced the heart-wrenching screams.

I finally pulled my hands away from my ears to see them covered in blood. Ellie noticed and wrapped her arms around me, nicking me accidentally in the side with a claw. It hurt but I didn't want to make a fuss. In that moment, I knew no pain could measure up to what I'd felt during my short time amongst the mangled people.

"I don't know... How did you do that?" I could still barely hear the sounds of my own voice. It was like I was wearing a hat pulled over my ears, despite nothing of the sort and my hair being shoved into a bun on top of my head.

"I didn't do anything, I thought they were going to eat us both!" she replied, hyped on the adrenaline.

"But they all ran away..."

"I guess I'm just extra scary!" she answered, a pride in her voice that only a child could produce. I just looked down at her and ruffled the blonde hair between her horns. She was frightening-looking, sure, but she had nothing on those things, or even the creatures in the lift.

I couldn't understand why such ferocious monsters were so scared of a little girl. Why would they run instantly? It made me uneasy, but I loved the twins, no matter how unusual they were. I just wished that I could be more of a protector for her than it being the other way round.

We stumbled into the corridor and I was again confronted by the metal doors of the fake lift. To the other side of them there was an entrance, presumably to a stairwell if the under tower we were trapped in continued to be a mirror of home. After spending what felt like hours in a lift, the idea of stairs comforted me and I ushered Ellie toward the entrance.

There were no stairs going upward, back to floor -1. They only went downward, the odd artificial light not quite covering the bottom of the set we were at the top of. My ears rang with the sound of the mangled people's screams.

"Do you think they skip, too?" Ellie asked me, looking into the abyss with her own, impossibly deep black voids.

"Let's find out," I answered, gripping her hand again as we started to walk toward the darkness.

We reached floor -3 quickly, in one average flight. I considered exploring the corridor of flats that existed on that floor, too, but Ellie planted herself firmly to the ground again and insisted we didn't. I wasn't about to argue with her, sound still hadn't returned to normal and I'd learned from my mistake. I couldn't bare to face anything like the previous floor again.

We climbed down another flight of stairs. The ones we had just descended were still there, leading back up, when we reached the bottom, giving me some comfort that as long as we could reach the lift on floor -2 we should at least be able to get back to the cold, dim but empty basement.

This time, the stairs did skip, giving some sort of semblance of home. The big, black -5 sign was jarring, but missing a floor had allowed me to tell myself that these stairs were just an extension of the proper ones.

More jarring, was the woman. She looked right at us, at my demon sidekick that had terrified everything else... and she didn't run. In fact, she didn't move at all, it's as if she were looking straight through us. Ellie didn't panic either, she didn't tell me to get away or hiss at the woman. She just stared back.

Her hair was a mousy brown and her features beautiful, yet average. There was nothing particularly distinct about her, except for how much she reminded me of someone else.

She was a perfect mirror of her counterpart, she had the same vacant yet sad expression that the man on floor 5 always had. I wondered for a moment what her name might be.

"She misses him," Ellie said.

I looked down at her in confusion.

"How do you know that?" I asked, not bothering to question who she meant.

"I don't know, I just do," she shrugged nonchalantly.

I sat on the step next to the standing woman and despaired. This whole place was like a sick joke. There was no sign of Albert, Derek, or any way out of the labyrinth we were trapped in so far, and I couldn't comprehend just how much of an imbecile I'd been.

Between the thoughts of never getting out, how I'd endangered the entire block, how hungry the kittens would get, Jamie, and those awful screams, my head felt ready to explode. The incessant ringing was only getting worse.

The woman next to me didn't move a muscle, just stood staring into the open space in front of her. I looked at Ellie, knowing that she was special, and didn't doubt what she had told me. I could feel for myself that the woman missed the man. I understood how she felt, to lose her love to the building, my heart truly bled for her.

"We need to keep going. There has to be someone here that can talk to us. We need to get you back home to your mum and brother," I spoke, attempting to stay focused.

I smiled another forced, optimistic smile at Ellie and gestured for her to follow me further down the spiraling, artificially-lit stairs. I wasn't sure what I hoped to find, or even where I was aiming, perhaps floor -9 was my best bet at any sort of answers.

I didn't get a chance to test that theory. Once we reached the bottom of the flight we were once again faced with the big, black -5. The woman was stood in the same position, facing forward.

"Come on," I grabbed Ellie and tried to repeat the action. The stairs had always skipped. It wasn't anything unusual. It wasn't until it was.

By the sixth time we had attempted the stairs, Ellie was looking tired and scared. Despite her voids for eyes, the rest of her face displayed fear like any normal child.


"It's okay. We just need to keep trying," I tried to convince myself as much as her.

"No... She doesn't want to be alone. That's why we can't leave." She let go of my hand and extended a long clawed finger in the direction of the woman.

She hadn't moved from her spot and there wasn't a noticeable chance in facial expression or demeanor, however, something about her felt entirely off. Hostile, even.

I understood grief, and doing everything possible to keep people close that you should let go. I wish that were what I thought the woman's intentions were, I really do. Instead, it felt more literal than that, more like she just really couldn't bare to be alone again, at any cost.

"Just keep going."

We ran down the stairs again. Then up them, and down again. Three more times and the terror started to build. Each time we arrived in front of the -5, the woman seemed more sinister, more malignant. She wasn't looking through us anymore. She was looking straight at us.

"My legs hurt, Kat," Ellie whined. Mine did, too.

"Do you think... you could scare her?" I felt sick even suggesting it but Ellie had the best chances of getting us away from the stairwell.

Ellie shook on the spot but nodded and took a few steps toward her. She got close to the woman's face and hissed, claws out. The woman didn't move, she didn't blink or flinch at all, she just stayed in her spot. Nothing at first, until she started to move. All that changed was her face, as the corners of her lips curled into a hollow smile.

The comfort I had felt from the familiarity of the woman and the floor number was dead in the water the moment she smiled. Ellie had retreated in an instant, tugging at my shirt again and shuffling closer. I think the fact that she did nothing else at all made it even more disconcerting.

The woman had the upper hand, and she wasn't going to let us go.

"Please," I begged. "If there's anything we can do to help you, please tell us." I fought my fear, doing everything I could to be kind. If she had ever been a person she might somehow pity our plight. "I say hello to your man. I don't know his name and he's quiet like you... I think he misses you, too. I know he does. I lost someone I love just like you did. I know how you feel."

A singular tear rolled down her cheek but the smile stayed in place. My chest thumped as my heart pounded against my rib cage... Maybe I was getting through to her?

Her eyes were haunting and hypnotic as they made contact with mine. It was like her brain was scrambled and she couldn't put the pieces back together. Her eyes were more expressive than I had ever seen before on any person, filled with confusion and sadness.

After a few moments of intimate communication with our eyes, the woman moved more than I had ever seen her or the man move. She cocked her neck to the side and tilted her head in Ellie's direction. A few seconds after her neck had turned, her eyes followed and she looked intensely at the child, smile plastered on her face and the evaporating trail of the tear still visible in the gleaming light.

Ellie started to cry, terrified. She tried to take a step behind me to use me as some sort of shield. No matter how many monsters she fought she was still a scared kid.

The woman took a labored step toward her.

It took her a long time to put one foot in front of the other. Standing in one position for so long must do a real number on the muscles, even for those of a supernatural persuasion. Nonetheless, her step was an immediate threat, I could feel that her intentions were malevolent. The sadness in her eyes had developed into a disdain and that single step was a declaration of war.

Ellie and I started to back away slowly, readying ourselves to break into a sprint down the stairs. I was prepared to run them in an endless loop forever if it meant keeping that little girl away from the woman.

Before we could even reach the first step, there was a voice. A male voice.

"That's enough now, Angela. I didn't think you were one to make children cry."

I turned to the man now standing next to the woman, who had returned to her spot by the stairs, visibly calmed. He had one hand on her upper arm but he didn't need it there, she wouldn't dare disobey him.

His kindly eyes and smile, that held real warmth, were arranged beneath a familiar flat cap.

"I wish I could say it were nice to see you, Kat, but given the circumstances, I better not," he continued, speaking directly to me this time.

"Who's he?" Ellie interrupted, tugging the same spot on my shirt, where the material had begun to stretch. I smiled at her for real for the first time since our nightmare began.

"Ellie, this is Derek."

The previous tenant left a survival guide. How did we end up here?

"Pleased to meet you, young lady."

Derek smiled at Ellie; a genuine, warm grin. They had never met before. He only knew about the twins because I had told him about them last time we spoke, and he never got a chance to see them before he disappeared. Despite this, he was completely unfazed by her demonic appearance.

I wished more than anything that the circumstances had been better. Their meeting and our reunion would've been wonderful upstairs, but instead, we were stuck in the artificially-lit stairwell, with the now still again woman for company.

I'd missed him. I hadn't realized how much it was possible to miss a person I barely knew until Derek. He represented everything good about the block to me. He made it feel like home, even in the bright, windowless underground layers.

"Pleased to meet you, too, sir," Ellie answered in the poshest accent that she could muster, giggling. She radiated a light. There was an invisible expression of instant trust amongst the black that made up her voids. She liked him.

When this nightmare began, with the prophecy and subsequent death of Esther Beckman, I never would've imagined I'd be witnessing that moment between Ellie and Derek, to see an instant connection. I hoped he would get the chance to see her in the sunlight, too, with her brown puppy dog eyes in place of the voids.

The whole scene filled me with my own warmth. Sounds were still muffled after my brutal attack by the mangled people, and I was disappointed that his voice wasn't clear, but the arrival of Derek gave me great hope. Even the presence of the woman, who was still standing by the stairwell, couldn't break that. Besides, we were safe from her now.

He took his kindly eyes away from Ellie to look at me.

"Why are you here? How?" he asked, disbelief in his tone. There was no anger, just disappointment, which was arguably worse. It was the first time I had ever seen Derek not look calm and collected.

"I'm here for you! I couldn't let you rot down here. I got the kittens and the vine... Then Albert came to visit," I blurted out quickly.

Derek smiled a little but it was strained.

"I'm sorry, Kat. You shouldn't have come here. How did you do it...? Why is this little lady with you?" he replied, confusion building. He tried to hide the concern in his voice for Ellie's sake but it was useless, she'd already seen the danger we were in.

I explained what had happened, right from the very beginning, after he went away and how Mr. Prentice trampled Prudence.

Ellie stood in a frightened awe as I spoke about my monstrous boyfriend, how I'd bought him back, kept him locked away for months, and how he later murdered Mr. Meow. Derek looked worried as I described Albert's visit and threats.

I covered everything. From Essie, to the vine, to the window cleaner and his inability to hold it together in lockdown.

I tried to reason why I had thought that my plan with the lift would work, but saying it out loud made me realize how stupid I had been. Ellie continued to listen intently. She looked a little smug when I told him how she had saved me from the creatures and again from the mangled people just a few floors above us.

I could see that my explanation wasn't complete enough, Derek had a million questions still to ask but I didn't give him a chance. After months of dwelling on his disappearance and the events of recent weeks, it was my turn to ask questions.

"Where are we?" I asked, starting as simply as I could manage. Little did I know I had just opened Pandora's box with three words. Derek began to speak.

"I call it the Undertower, or the building below. It's still a part of the building, but most residents never see it - for good reason. The things that live here aren't always as friendly as those upstairs.

"When my father bought the land to build this place, he discovered a large underground tunnel system whilst digging the foundations and it inspired him.

"He wanted to be the first architect to extend a skyscraper the same length downward, and a good deal of the excavation was already in place. He wanted to maximize the earning potential of his space, but he hadn't accounted for the power of this land.

"My father was a competitive, secretive man, so naturally he told no one outside of his workers what he was planning, not even his family. He employed a team of contractors who all signed non-disclosure agreements. We're standing in the result."

Derek waved his arms a little, gesticulating about our current setting before he continued.

"When they found him hanging he was in the basement, the grim-looking room you will have arrived here in. That room, and everything below it has been untouched since construction. They gave up on expanding that particular floor and when my father died, the underground project was abandoned.

"As is the nature of this land, the contractors started to report strange happenings across the entire tower. There were at least 5 unexplained deaths and although it was unreported to the public, those were all amongst men working below.

"Those that worked on this hidden part of the building were especially superstitious, and after my father's death they sealed all entrances to the basement, entombing an entire tower block underneath the city.

"When it came into his possession, Albert tried to convince the builders to unseal it and carry on working. He was just like our dad, you see, ambitious and money driven. None of them would agree to it, they claimed it was cursed.

"The upper tower was completed just before my father took his life, so Albert abandoned his negotiations with the contractors within a few weeks and focused on opening the place up. He wasn't going to continue to miss out on any money arguing over these lower floors.

"He said that our father's death would only explain the grand opening being delayed for so long and he had to move forward. We moved in a week later, the first residents to live here."

He paused for a moment and a sadness clouded his face, his kindly eyes welled up a little as he thought back to life before the building.

"You must be really old if your dad built this place! Even my mum isn't that old!" Ellie interrupted. I laughed, her childish thought process was the only thing that could lighten the mood.

Derek chuckled and the woman next to him remained unmoving.

"I am quite old, I suppose. Don't feel it though," he answered, chuckling to himself as he adjusted his flat cap and winked at Ellie.

"Don't look it either..." I chimed in. Derek stopped chuckling and continued, shooting me a look.

"That isn't something I can explain, Kat. Albert and I weren't close to our father. We didn't really know anything about this place until he died. The project was mostly completed and we only got to speak to a handful of contractors, who told us wild stories we would never believe to be true at the time. We couldn't have imagined how our lives were going to change.

"The only clue we have to our... extended life... is his note.

"To my boys. If you stay here, you will never die."

"That was all he left us. On a crumpled bit of paper that had to be given to us by a builder named Keith. My best guess is that he made some kind of deal with a spirit of the place... I don't know... Maybe it was just a special resident I haven't met yet... Maybe the building itself.

"It took us years to realize we weren't aging normally and by time we noticed, there was no one left to ask.

"We had to navigate every supernatural, unusual, and strange occurrence in the place alone at first. I remember exploring, being in awe of everything I met. Whenever I would cross paths with Albert, he didn't look mystified like I was, he was scared.

"My brother and I were never the best of friends and it's my deepest regret that I didn't use that time we were alone here to build a relationship with him. Maybe I could've made a difference."

"A difference to what?" I asked, trying to take in each of his words. "To his son?"

Derek looked at Ellie, letting his eyes linger on the little girl and then back at me. He shook his head.

"Not now. There's far too much to discuss. For now, we need to find a way to get you home."

I considered protesting but I could see the sadness in his eyes and I didn't want to press. He was right, I'd put Ellie at risk for long enough and I needed to get her back to Terri and Eddie safely.

"Have you been here this whole time? If you can't get out, then we have no hope," I whispered to Derek as he put an arm around Ellie's shoulders and prepared to move. He sighed a little.

"You met my brother, Kat. The consequences of my escape would be huge for the block; he's not appreciative of the way I conduct myself. He prefers to take what the building gives and make it harmful, twist it into something bad... I prefer to live with it. I don't believe anything here is evil... except maybe him."

I tried to let it go, I wanted to keep moving but things weren't adding up.

"But Albert said... the kittens and the vine. He said they were a cry for help."

"He lied. It's in his interests to keep me away. Yes, I helped them live, it gets lonely down here. When he discovered the plant, he took it off me immediately.

"Albert brought down one of the cats to feed to the thing he keeps on floor -10, I stopped him. He let me keep it because I suppose somewhere deep down he pitied me. I nurtured that little cat until out of nowhere the kittens were born. It was amazing, love created new life.

"The cats were great company and I would've freed them if I could, but I never let them out.

"I didn't have a clue how they got out until you mentioned a grate in the wall." He looked me up and down as he spoke, eyeing me unusually. It wasn't an entirely mistrustful look, but suspicious nonetheless.

"So how do we get out?" Ellie asked.

"Well, last time your friend's garden got me out of here..." He crouched to speak to her at eye level.

"We planted a garden for you! But you never came," she huffed in retort.

"I know. My mean brother told me how beautiful it is. I hope I get to see it one day! He's made it a bit harder this time." He stood up and addressed me again. "I used to go through the basement. There's a stairwell, it's just sealed up, you have to break it. The lift will only bring you down, you can't get home that way."

"So let's go!" I urged, reaching for his hand. Then I saw it. I hadn't noticed, I had been too focused on his kindly eyes.

Derek was missing all four fingers on his left hand. He looked at the floor as I struggled not to stare.

"What he did to Jamie. If I even just enter the basement, it will happen to me; I tested it. You can see the results." He lifted his stumpy hand. "I don't know how I got that cat to give birth. And I don't know how Albert does anything that he does to the things that live here. I just know that if I step in that basement, I'll die."

He looked devastated. Despite the relief that he hadn't gone straight in and done much worse damage, I knew the loss of his fingers would be major for him. He was, after all, first and foremost a gardener.

"I'll walk you there, Kat, make sure Albert lets you go. But I can't come with you."

I wanted to scream, loud enough to hurt any ears left on the mangled people upstairs. I wanted to shout and tell him that after all I'd been through, I wasn't going to leave without him. But the horned little girl beside me had thrown a lot of complications out there. Defeated, I nodded.

Derek turned to the still woman.

"I'll be back to visit, Angela, I promise. But please let these ladies leave safely." He leaned over and kissed her cheek gently before ushering us toward the stairwell. Another single tear rolled down her face.

We trudged upward fairly silently. I wondered if all my questions would ever be answered. I knew from before that Derek was mysterious, but after all I'd been through to get to the undertower it didn't seem fair that I would be marched back so unceremoniously.

Derek may have known the way to get home, but no single person has complete control of this land, I was coming to really understand that. The building would always win.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when we arrived at the large, black -7.

"Kat... they skip. You know that, there's nothing for you in there." Derek put his stumpy hand on my shoulder as I stared at the different yet familiar corridor.

He could see the curiosity filling my eyes as I was confronted with the counterpart of my home. Would it be filled with more mangled people? Or was it a true reversal, a place where me and Jamie lived happily, Mr. Prentice didn't have to deal with his affliction, and Essie was alive? Or was it home to something entirely different?

Noise suddenly became more than just muffled. My mind was actively blocking it out. The knowledge that Derek was with Ellie took away some of the responsibility that I felt as I edged toward the familiar, yet very different main entrance.

"Kat, please don't." Derek followed me, cautious to keep hold of Ellie. I think had she not been there he probably would have grabbed me, but he didn't want to spook her. I continued forward in a trance like state.


The numbers were blurred and the minus symbol stood out. I stroked the wood and the handle. It didn't feel like home. Not even a little. I was curious about what was inside, but I somehow knew that it wasn't good.

The only seemingly positive thing about the situation was the lack of mangled people on the floor. I didn't know what was behind the doors, but it wasn't them. I had already created enough noise to draw them out if they were there. No, something else was there.

Instead of trying my key, after a sudden epiphany, I turned and ran, straight toward number -51 and pounded on the door.

"ESSIE!" I screamed, realizing that if I hadn't died in that lift, then maybe she hadn't either.

I banged hard on the door and could almost smell the familiar cigarette smoke seeping out of the flat.

"Kat, stop!" Derek screamed. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him covering Ellie's voids in grim anticipation. Then the door squeaked open.

There she was. Essie hadn't died at all. Her fate had been so much worse.

My friend was standing at the door, face twisted into a horrifying expression, her mouth lulled open much wider than should be possible with a functioning jaw. More alarmingly, her eyes had been entirely removed, leaving red, bloodied, gaping wounds central to her face.

Tufts of hair had been yanked from her scalp, leaving raw skin in its place. The dress that's neatness I had previously marveled at was torn and distressed around the edges, barely covering her swollen, deformed limbs, bones jutting out of open wounds in all directions. The air filled with the scent of old ash and necrotic skin.

She collapsed to the ground, unable to stand any longer on her broken legs, mouth still hanging open. Guilt washed hard over me.

"How could you leave her like this?!" I turned to Derek and screamed, but his face was as horrified as mine.

"I didn't know, Kat. Honestly, I didn't. I didn't even know she was dead until I found you! Please, we have to keep going, don't let her see this." He kept his hand over the gaping black voids that were so much more alive and comforting than Essie's hollowed sockets.

There was real shock in his eyes. I believed him, but I was angry.

"She wanted me to help you! And this is what she got?!" I couldn't get past my rage. Essie had been left to suffer for so long already and who knew how long Albert intended her to stay like that. She laid there, writhing, and I was both desperate to help her and furious.

Derek didn't get a chance to protest. Instead, our argument was interrupted by a slow and mocking clap.

I turned to see the door of flat -42 flung wide open, Albert in the doorway, with a smug grin on his face.

The previous tenant left a survival guide. Not all heroes wear capes.

"You're so predictable, Kat. I knew you'd find yourself here, on this particular floor. Apologies for my tardiness to this reunion, I've been cleaning up a rather large mess you left while travelling here."

My skin crawled as Albert spoke, he filled me with the opposite of the warmth Derek did. The world became cold and hopeless.

"Is everyone okay up there!?" I asked, desperately hoping that my stunt with the lift hadn't hurt anyone.

"All but one," Albert replied, smiling wryly. "Aren't you going to thank me? Yet another disaster cleaned up by yours truly. It could've been a lot worse." My heart sank as I went through a Rolodex of residents in my mind. It was like I was being told off. I was about to ask who got hurt, but I couldn't find the words in time before the brothers eurrupted into a bitter row.

"Let them go home, Albert. They've learned their lesson, they won't look for me again," Derek interjected firmly.

"Are you some kind of idiot?" Albert retorted, rolling his eyes. "All the chaos this girl has caused and you think I'm going to just let her head back up there to cause more...? When she brought such a beautiful gift." He took a few steps toward Ellie, gazing in wonder, and Derek stepped in front of her.

"You aren't coming anywhere near her," he hissed at his brother through gritted teeth.

"What is she?" He stopped moving and directed his question at me.

"I'm a girl and my name is Ellie," she shouted from behind Derek defiantly, poking her horns out to the side. She was audibly annoyed at being referred to as a what.

"I'm sorry! It's great to meet you Ellie." He edged a little closer again and got down to void level, just like Derek had not long ago. There was no instant connection this time though, just a twisted fascination in his eyes. He spoke as if she wasn't even there. "Exquisite. She's natural."

"Of course, she is," Derek responded, stepping back as he continued to guard the little girl.

"Nothing you mess with works out very well, does it?"

"That depends on your definition. Your successes all panned out pretty poorly, don't you think, little brother?" he snapped back.

"What are you talking about?" I blurted, confused. I had no idea what they meant by natural or what they were arguing over. In fact, I had personally always found Ellie's demonic appearance quite unnatural myself.

Albert scoffed maniacally as Derek looked at the floor. The sibling dynamic was so visible, you could see Derek being put into a place of little brother, trying to hide behind the peak of his flat cap. Regardless, he valiantly continued to shield Ellie. Finally, Albert stood up and addressed me directly again.

"He hasn't told you anything, has he? About this place, about how it throws out creations you could barely imagine." He looked around him as he referred to the building below that we had been trapped in, and continued.

"You have no idea of the power this land has. The power it gives to people who stay. Ever wonder how Prudence Hemmings managed to throw a fully-grown man off a balcony and chase you up all those stairs - at her age? Or why Mr. Prentice becomes that other thing? Or why me and my lovely brother here aren't long dead?

"They're just all too stupid to notice. They have no idea what's right beneath them. They won't ever realize the potential."

My mind reeled at his words, maybe the building really could change its inhabitants. To be honest, I spent more time than I'd like to admit wondering how I hadn't found it easier to escape Prue. I was permanently scarred from the altercation after all. Despite my contempt for Albert, I recognized that what he was saying made sense.

I noted the residents he mentioned. All of them had spent decades in the building. It wasn't a far stretch at all to believe that it could've irreparably altered them somehow. There were others that I could think of, however, that had been there just as long and seemed as normal as you or me. All the questions hurt my mind.

I heard a yelp and some pained moans and turned to flat -51, where Essie was frantically trying to wrench herself up off the floor. Every time she got close, another bone would crack and her jaw would edge slightly lower. Blood oozed from the wounds.

"Just let them go. This is pointless," Derek tried to interrupt, to keep things moving. I wouldn't let him. Looking at my friend being tortured by her own body had only made me angry again.

"No! What do you mean she's natural?" I shouted at him, curiosity about their conversation getting the better of me. Derek spoke as Albert smugly grinned in the background.

"Kat... we can do things. It doesn't just end with an extended life, we can manipulate some of the people and things that pass through here. That's why I was able to give Prudence the way to get Lyla back. It's why those things listen to me."

Derek pointed at Albert before continuing.

"He gave that cult the ability to burn the whole floor with their minds... and I gave the residents that died new life as the cats. Since he left to stay down here, he's been messing around with anyone and anything he can get his hands on. I've tried to stop it over the years, but... I don't always manage.

"Those people you dealt with on the floor below the basement... they were all his failed experiments. Those poor people were once residents upstairs that ended up here by mistake. Fifty years' worth."

Albert couldn't let him continue. He was bursting with the need to gloat.

"I wouldn't say they failed! They're all beautifully grim. I thought you were a fan of giving things new life, little brother."

There was little to no feeling in his voice. His sharp tone and dusty suit made him almost like a caricatured amalgamation of every Disney villain recorded.

Except in Disney films the villain didn't win, and looking at Essie, writhing in pain on the floor of not her doorway, Albert had won already.

Derek stayed silent, I could see he felt guilty for even being associated. He just looked at me in desperation.

I tried to fathom what they were saying.

"So... Jamie was unnatural?" I asked timidly, taking in the inference that his monster form had been nothing more than a byproduct of Derek's power. Just another twisted experiment, like the mangled people whose screams rang in my ears. I wondered if he had felt pain like they did.

Albert erupted into laughter and once again clapped mockingly.

"There's that intelligence I liked about you when we first met! It's in there, girl! Now you get it. Can you explain to me where your little friend came from?" His words were patronizing, but he couldn't hide his curiosity.

He took another few steps toward Ellie as Derek stood bravely in front of her. "It's not often I find one I'm unaware of. I don't know how I've missed her. Especially when she was able to do so much damage to my other creations. You should've seen what she did to one of the pair that inhabit the lift. I have to have her."

Ellie reached a clawed hand forward and pushed Derek aside with such force that he was taken off his feet. She hissed, just as she had with the rat creatures and the mangled people. Albert winced, but stayed stoic as his face filled with joy.

"You're mean!" she shouted at him. My heart melted a little that she thought that those two words were fitting for the situation. If only things were as simple as they are in the mind of a seven-year-old.

Derek stumbled to his feet and watched closely, in awe of Ellie's blind courage.

Albert once again dropped to his knees to face her. She stood defiantly, her voids fixed on his cold eyes. He started to reach his hand out toward her. She growled softly in response.

"NO!" I screamed. Visions of her disintegrating in front of my eyes filled my mind. I couldn't let him touch her. I started to run toward them but Derek grabbed me and held me in place as he whispered in my muffled ear.

"He won't hurt her, but he will hurt you." I looked at his stumped hand and listened, despite my discomfort. I thought back to the article about Albert's son's death and for the first time, I wasn't sure I trusted Derek. How could I know for sure that he wouldn't hurt her? I was ready to jump forward and throw Ellie out of the way at any point.

Albert stopped just millimeters short of Ellie's face, his fingers hovering in front of the deep black voids. His eyes were filled with wonder, the expression on his face was how I must have looked the first time I saw her, too.

"It isn't just you, is it, Ellie?" he mused, a smile erupting across his face. "There's two of you."

I should've been alarmed, worried that he had realized she was a twin. I should've pondered how he knew, but at this stage semantics were pointless. Instead, his lack of knowledge about Eddie's existence filled me with relief that he hadn't been harmed upstairs. If he had, Albert wouldn't have been so fascinated by his sister.

"Eddie wouldn't like you either," she said bluntly, breaking the magic in his eyes.

Before I could make a single move, Derek had leapt across the room and got between them again.

"Let them go," Derek said calmly, one more time. "They don't belong down here."

"I'm finding it hard to believe that she didn't come from down here. And I promised that one..." Albert tilted his head in my direction, "a fate just like hers." He pointed at Essie, who had bloodied red tears running down her face as she squirmed on the floor. I watched the jagged edge of her snapped thigh bone scrape against the carpet, pulling it further out of her skin and I cringed hard.

Derek didn't respond to his brother. Instead, he grabbed Ellie's clawed hand and walked her towards Essie's flat.

"What are you doing?!" Albert cried out in a condescending fashion, scrambling up from his knees and following. I couldn't bare to see him get closer.

An anger bubbled inside me and the entire floor went dead silent. All noise was replaced by a deep mental echoing of the screams of the mangled people. I thought of all the suffering the landlord had caused and watched as he edged toward that pure, innocent, demonic little girl. And I saw red.

I sprinted at him and threw myself forward, tackling him to the floor from behind. Raising a clenched fist, I punched him hard in the face. I had never hit anyone like that before, I'd never felt the red mist that those who get angry describe, until that moment.

I wasn't sure what I thought my interference would do. I knew that I wasn't going to be able to kill him, and that I probably wouldn't be able to do any damage at all, but Ellie had saved me so many times already that night that I couldn't let him get to her.

Albert's cold, dead-looking eyes bore into my soul and he let out a joyless giggle as he wrestled me to the ground so that he had the upper hand. He hovered his hand over my face just like he had Jamie, pinning me down with the other.

I wondered if it was the last thing his son had seen before he died. Jamie, Essie before the torture, all of them. Had this been it? Could the last real memory they had be those cold eyes.

I prepared to die. Since moving into the tower block, it was something that I'd done more than most, but this time it felt permanent. Everything but Albert went black. I squeezed my eyes shut tightly and tried to think of the things I wanted to remember, the people upstairs that had become family to me.

Death never came. Instead, I felt a crushing and release as someone grabbed Albert from above me and threw him against the wall.

I sat up panting, in shock that I was alive. I was disoriented and my ears continued to ring. I opened my eyes. The artificial light started to penetrate the black and all I could see was Derek's tweed flat cap, on the floor beside me. My heart stopped.

The next sound I heard was familiar, but somehow bigger than ever before. I blinked a few times to see Ellie, claws raised menacingly in the air, roaring at Albert, who had been grabbed by his brother and had, in turn, overpowered him.

She was much taller and wider than usual, a gigantic figure towering above all of us, and her human features that came through the demonic ones were greatly reduced. If I didn't love her so dearly, I would be tempted to describe her as terrifying and monstrous.

Albert took his attention away from Derek, a smug and slimy smile forming ear to ear as he marveled at the giant girl. He moved toward her in a trance-like state.

Ellie opened her mouth as she stood above Albert with her claws, revealing long sharpened teeth with prominent fangs in the front. Somehow, her voids for eyes seemed infinitely deeper.

Then she bit him.

Her sharp fangs pierced Albert's skull, sending blood and brain matter spattering across the corridor and all over me, Essie, and Derek.

She didn't stop there. Ravenously, she laid into him with her teeth, pinning him hoisted up to the wall with foot-long claws, by his limbs. She had as good as crucified him and was consuming parts.

Bone and organ littered the floor and walls and what was left of limbs twitched as she severed nerves. I watched in horror and awe. A symphony of screaming, growling, and crunching breaking through my muffled hearing.

When he stopped moving and what remained slid down the wall, leaving a trail of blood, Ellie's size reduced as well almost instantaneously. Neither I nor Derek had any words as the now little again demonic girl stood beside a corpse of her making.

She ran toward Derek with her arms outstretched, bloodied mouth, and embraced him. He held her tightly, his kindly eyes filled with the shock of what he'd just witnessed. After a minute or so, she broke from Derek and turned to me and helped me up before doing the same.

It felt good. To know that she was safe.

She stopped hugging and stood facing us both before speaking, voids facing the ground.

"He was going to hurt us all."

The previous tenant left a survival guide. Never take the sunlight for granted.

Derek and I stared at Ellie in silence. It wasn't a stare of horror, more of sheer disbelief. I couldn't be more grateful that she had saved our lives.

What remained of Albert on the floor wasn't a source of alarm. Despite his extended life, she had ripped him into enough pieces that if he had survived, he couldn't speak and must have been in unbelievable pain. Just like the residents he tortured for years.

It would've been a cruel irony and I almost half hoped he hadn't truly died, as sick as that may sound.

"Are you okay?" I asked Ellie. She had shrunken and morphed back into a smaller demonic child, something that I felt a need to protect, despite the fact she didn't need anyone to do so.

"I'm fine," she answered, head still hung as if she were ashamed. There was a pause for a moment.

"Thank you, sweetheart. We'd all be dead without you," Derek chipped in, his normal, calm and positive tone restored. Ellie lifted her head and smiled as he recognized her for the hero she was. It wasn't that I didn't feel the same, it's just that the shock was overwhelming. "We need to help another friend now, honey. Do you want to grab Kat and come with me?"

Ellie wrapped her clawed hand in mine as I clutched Derek's blood-soaked tweed cap with the other. She looked at me with love, just like she had at the beginning of this nightmare. The cold atmosphere of the floors below that we stood in had been reduced to a pile on the ground, just like Albert.

We walked towards flat -51. Every step felt wobbly, like those few steps after a really spinny ride at the fair. I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.

Derek dropped to where Essie lay squirming and put a gentle hand over her chest, carefully avoiding the splintered rib bones that stuck out.

"I'm so sorry," he said to her as he shut his eyes, leaned down, and kissed her bloodied forehead.

The shards of bone that decorated her entire body started to move and rearrange. She squealed in pain as her skin started to cauterize over the newly-repositioned bone and innards. Her twisted limbs started to resemble something human again. I felt tears rolling down my face.

Once she was as close to her usual herself as she was going to get, Derek took a step back as she opened her eyes, which had returned to the hollowed sockets and looked directly at me.

Essie was blind, she had always been blind, but she knew that I was there. We held her gently as the three of us helped her to her sofa, an exact replica of the one upstairs, placing each bruised limb into position as carefully as we could.

The bruises shone purple and green underneath the harsh artificial lighting, reminding me that we weren't really home.

"Kat..." she struggled to speak. Her jaw hadn't quite relocated the whole way. I knew what she wanted though.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a slightly bloody cigarette. Essie reached out with broken fingers and held it to her lips as best she could as I put down the flat cap and lit it for her.

"Come on, sweetheart, we're gonna stand in the other room," Derek said to Ellie as he ushered her into the hallway and away from the smoke, leaving me alone with Ms. Beckman.

"I'm sorry, Essie." I started. She tried to reply but she could barely make a sound. "You were right though, he did need help. Now no one in the block is going to go through what you have any more... I'm sorry I couldn't save you."

Essie puffed on the cigarette with great difficulty, she could barely close her lips around it but she persisted, with a glint in her eye that indicated this was the first pleasure she'd enjoyed in quite some time. She grunted a strained no at me.

"Ellie did it. I can finally take her home now. I just wish that we could take you and Derek with us." I lit my own cigarette and took a long draw from it.

"You... ca... can. No... not... me. Go home. GO HOME," she managed. Every word leaving a trail of pain in her face. I cringed, despite her better appearance she wasn't fixed. She was in as much pain as she had been before. I smiled at her, just to try and make her feel a little normal.

"Speaking in fucking riddles again, Essie?" I responded, trying to muster a laugh through the tears that continued to fill my eyes.

She looked directly at me again and I knew that she had been serious. We finished our smoke in silence as I wept and she wheezed.

"Derek!" I shouted after a few more minutes with her, encouraging him back into the flat. He and Ellie appeared within seconds.

He took one look at me, nodded with tears in his eyes too, and he knew what to do. I got up from the sofa and pulled Ellie in for a hug, careful to avoid her horns, making sure that she faced me.

Then I watched over her shoulder as he delicately closed Essie's eyelids and the wheezing stopped. I held in a sob and clutched my young friend as tightly as I could.

Derek walked toward us and put his arms around the both of us for a moment in silent mourning before stepping back.

Ellie looked up at me, a knowing in her voids, and she spoke.

"I want to go home now, Kat."

Her words broke what was left of my resolve. The sobbing began and Derek put his hand on my shoulder. He started to walk us out of the hallway and as we reached the mess on the floor that had once been Albert, outside the door of flat -42, I came to a sudden stop.

"No further. We need to go in there," I said, directing them into the open door of my anti-flat. Derek tried to speak and protest but I stopped him the moment he opened his mouth. "Please. Just trust me."

I wasn't angry, or frantic like before, and I think that he knew I wasn't trying to lead us into more trouble. I recognized that I'd probably done enough of that to last a lifetime.

Essie hadn't led me astray before, her advice had been sound, I'd taken a few detours but I got to the right place eventually. If I were to respect her death then I had to follow the last bit of advice she gave out.

The flat was familiar. My sofa, fold-out table, and kitchen were all there, identical to the ones I'd spent so much time at. The flat was windowless, the sole indication in my confusion that I wasn't truly home. I pulled back the curtains of the balcony doors to reveal thick concrete behind them.

It was sad really, but I almost longed to see the window cleaner, tapping on the glass and begging to be let in. I would trade his persistent harassment for my current predicament in a heartbeat.

I felt my face sink. Whatever Essie had wanted me to see here wasn't as clear as I'd hoped. I should have anticipated that it wouldn't be easy. Derek and Ellie stood in silence as I inspected every inch of the place, even down to an equally smashed copy of the prison I had kept Jamie in.

Frustrated, I eventually looped back into the living room, prepared to walk out the front door and follow Derek to the basement entrance, where he would leave us again. The prospect of going through all that for him to remain trapped in these layers was more disheartening than anything I'd felt before.

Then I saw the light.

It wasn't a eureka moment. Or some sort of religious epiphany; it was an actual physical light. It wasn't artificial like the one that had plagued our stay in the under tower. It was real, and it was coming from the sun.

"How..." Derek uttered in wonder as his eyes fixed on the grate that had appeared at the top of the concrete, behind the sliding balcony doors. The sun flooding in lit up his whole face and electrified his kind eyes.

The opening looked just the same as it had the night I found the kittens, but from the other side, its appearance was all the more poignant. Who would've thought that metal bars could signify such freedom.

When it first appeared I had never imagined that something other than a basement could exist beneath the block.

"Thank you, Essie." I looked up at the ceiling and imagined her smile as it had been before Albert had gotten to her. She knew she couldn't be saved, but she made sure Derek didn't have to stay. And I knew that in her death she wouldn't have to suffer again.

The grate was just large enough for a person to fit through with enough of a squeeze and I could almost make out the shrubbery I and the twins had planted.

"See! You're coming too!" I grinned at Derek with the first bit of true joy I'd felt in quite some time. He didn't protest this time or argue at all. He smiled back and just said two simple words.

"Thank you."

I pulled open the sliding door and Ellie, who had been stood to the side, climbed the curtain with her claws as quickly as possible. I was amazed and grateful that she didn't pull them down. I watched in awe as she wrenched the bars away from the concrete and uninterrupted sunlight poured into the lower flat.

The sunlight bathed us all and Ellie dropped to the ground at the same time as her claws and horns began to retract. I couldn't pinpoint the exact moment the voids disappeared but they did.

There she was, mess of blonde hair on her head and brown puppy dog eyes looking at us as she hit the ground with a thud. A little girl you wouldn't suspect more than a tantrum of replaced the ferocious beast that had protected me through this hellish landscape.

The front door that led to the hallway where Albert's remains lay had suddenly been replaced by a thick blank wall, just as the lift that bought us here had been. All that remained was the flat, the three of us, and the open grate.

I pulled one of the chairs from the fold-out table below it and turned to Derek.

"You first, so you can pull us out."

He was busy staring at the newly transformed girl. There was guilt in his eyes, and he looked at Ellie more strangely than he had when she was demonic. Regardless, the connection was still there.

I handed him the flat cap, still soaked in blood, and he placed it on his head with a genuine smile. He looked himself again with it in place as he took a step onto the chair. Before climbing out, he turned to us and winked.

He wriggled through the grate with some difficulty, and reached his hands back through. I watched Ellie's tiny clawless hand clutch his fingerless one as he hoisted her through the gap.

Left alone in the flat, I took another look at my surroundings, and took a moment to consider all the pain beneath the block. I imagined a life where Ellie hadn't come with me and I was trapped for good, or dead at the hands of the rat creatures.

As I burst through the small gap, pulled by both Derek and Ellie, the bright sun and sensation of the shrubs in my hair as I crawled through them felt like a rebirth.

The garden was stunning. Dewdrops littered the green foliage and the rising, orange sun lit them up like fireflies. I had never been more appreciative of it. Looking back at the outer edge of the building the grate was gone, along with any indication that it had been there at all.

I wondered why it had appeared in my flat down there. Why I had been the person to find it both times, and I remembered what Albert had said about the building altering those who stay. I pondered whether he was right, and if it was possible that it had altered me already.

As we sat in the fresh morning air, I knew that none of it really mattered. Standing outside of a grim city tower block was cathartic; gray concrete had never looked so inviting.

We were home.

The scenes of carnage and destruction that I had imagined would greet us when we entered the building were nowhere to be seen. Albert had certainly cleaned up. There was no kitten leg, or creatures, or even evidence of a kerfuffle. It made me all the more nervous; I had no idea who had been hurt.

The slow trudge to Ellie's floor was painful, my limbs all ached and the ringing in my ears continued. Still, I was just so glad to be getting her home, I couldn't wait to see Terri's face when we returned her daughter safely. Ellie may have looked a mess, but she was alive and well, which was the best I could ask for given the circumstances.

I wish I could say that Terri greeted us with joy. I really do wish I could.

Instead, her face was sullen and the dark circles that sat like tattoos looked deeper than before. The skin around her eyes was puffed up and swollen with tears. When she spotted Ellie, she fell to her knees with relief. I hoped her face would brighten, but it didn't.

"Where is he?" she sobbed, grabbing hold of Ellie and clutching her as tightly as she could. "Where's my son?"

My heart dropped to my stomach. I'd made a sea of bad decisions in my time, but this... if this was what Albert had meant... was the worst consequence I could've imagined.

I tried to find words but I couldn't, I'd never seen a person look quite so broken. The pain in the screams of the mangled people wasn't a patch on Terri's sobbing.

"Is... that his blood?" she asked, gesturing to our clothes and hair whilst struggling to speak.

I had been complacent. If the creatures had overpowered Eddie, if they had won, then maybe there wasn't enough of him left for Albert to see that he was like his sister. I shouldn't have written off the possibility like I had.

Derek stepped forward and put his hands on Terri's shoulders. She winced and I remembered the lockdown situation, the only grounding in reality that I'd felt since returning to the upper layers of the block. She looked him in the eyes.

"I don't know if you remember me, Terri. You were very small the last time we met, but I remember your parents." His kindly eyes had locked with hers as she melted and collapsed into him, wailing and gasping for air.

Together we walked her to the sofa, not unlike how we had Essie not long before. I'd never known Terri's flat to be so quiet; Eddie was always playing. He was always so loud. And he always came home.

Ellie was the absconder. It's why I'd found it easy to convince myself that Eddie was playing in his room, disrupting Terri's sleep like normal as we navigated the layers below. In all honestly, I think I was just trying to convince myself that I couldn't possibly be responsible for the death of a child.

Logically, I always knew that with his sister gone for that long, he'd go looking. I just hoped... I really hoped we would get home in time. That he could hold his own. I don't know. Anything but this. I had buried my worries.

Terri couldn't breathe properly through thick, heavy sobs. The noise muffled my already fucked up ears. Derek sat with his arms around her while Ellie nuzzled into his other side and I sat opposite, blood-soaked, devastated, and alone.

Knock... Knock... Knock...

The tapping on the door brought all conversation, sobbing, and brooding to a stop. Terri sprinted to the door, hope in her eyes, and as it opened she wailed in joy.

"Get off me, mum! Where's Ellie!"

The familiar voice of the young boy jolted me back into the room and I turned to see Eddie, accompanied by none other than Mr. Prentice. Eddie spotted his sister on the sofa and ran toward the three of us.

"Woah, where did all the blood come from? Cool!" he shouted. There were a few cuts and bruises covering his limbs but he seemed mostly unharmed. His excitement was enough to tell me that he was okay. Derek stared at him in disbelief, not unlike how he had Ellie upon their first meeting.

I turned and walked toward the door, to where Terri and Mr. Prentice were speaking. Mr. Prentice wobbled slightly as he kept himself propped up with his cane.

"What happened?" I asked.

"I'm not sure. I heard a lot of banging and decided I should go and check what was going on. I found him at the bottom, by that ghastly lift.

"I didn't recognize the man in the suit, I couldn't get close enough, but I don't understand how anyone could stand over an injured child and not help. He ran into the lift when I got closer and you know how I like to avoid that place.

"I'm not sure why folk run from me sometimes, but it was probably for the best, I'm not sure what I'd have done."

I imagined Mr. Prentice, in his animal form running toward Albert. Imagining that the landlord had run scared from the beast warmed my heart.

"Anyway, I'm rather tired. So if you don't..." Mr. P stopped as he caught a glimpse of the inside of the flat behind us. His eyes widened. "Is that... DEREK!"

Derek came up behind us and reached out a bloodied hand to shake Mr. Prentice's. The elderly man looked unsteady on his cane, as if he had seen a ghost.

"It's been years!" he stuttered, beaming, firmly gripping Derek's intact hand. "We shall have to have a drink together, my friend!"

"We will," Derek smiled. "I'm back now. There'll be plenty of time to catch up."

Terri clutched the twins tightly as the two men reveled in their meeting. I couldn't help but smile quietly to myself and think of Essie. The kids were safe, Derek was back, and Albert couldn't continue to terrorize the block. And yet again, Mr. Prentice had proved himself the real MVP.

We left Terri and the kids to have some family time, Ellie hugged Derek so tightly as we left I thought she might crush him.

We walked back to the seventh floor where mine and Mr. P's flats were. It should've been a victory walk but I couldn't shake the feeling that everything wasn't entirely over.

My feeling was confirmed once the door to flat 48 closed behind Mr. Prentice and Derek looked at me gravely.

"There are a few more things you need to know, Kat. Can you get cleaned up and meet me in the garden?"

The previous tenant left a survival guide. This building will never be short of surprises.

Home didn't feel as empty as it once had. Even without Jamie or Mr. Meow, I felt more hope than I had in months. I greeted Wrinkles and Tetley, fed them, and sat down to smoke at my fold-out table.

Natural sun poured in through the windows but my home would never look quite the same after my time in the undertower.

I turned on the shower and must have stood underneath the water, watching Albert's blood run down the drain, for at least half an hour. Overwhelmed doesn't cover it. Shut down would be more accurate.

I dithered while getting ready, exhausted and starting to feel the lack of sleep once again. My eyes were heavy. Sitting down on the bed was fatal.

I woke up a few hours later, worried that I'd left Derek waiting.

I rushed out of the flat and down the stairs to the garden. They were extra kind and only made me take one flight going straight from my floor to the main entrance. I couldn't have been more grateful, I was so exhausted.

Outside on the bench, there he was. I don't know how or where he got clean but the flat cap was as fresh as ever. I suppose after all the unbelievable things I'd learned I shouldn't have even spared it a thought, but it was magic nonetheless.

"I'm sorry! I fell asleep!" I shouted before he had a chance to turn his head and notice me.

"It's fine, Kat. I had a few things to do anyway." He spoke with a smile. The kind that you can hear just in a person's tone and as I approached him and the garden I realized why.

I felt a lump form in my throat and tears well in my eyes as I noticed the tiny bundle in his lap. It was bald, wrinkly, and had exactly three legs.

Mr. Meow.

"There was nothing I could do about his foot - I think the others ate that - but I thought this little guy deserved another shot at life." Derek grinned from ear to ear as I stared in disbelief at the tiny cat in front of me. Disregarding their burning properties entirely, I scooped him up and held him close, only putting him down as he singed my face a little.

Thoughts started to whir in my mind but before they could ever fully develop, Derek turned to me gravely and squashed them.

"I know what you're thinking, but there was nothing I could do for Jamie... after what Albert did..."

"Don't apologize," I cut him off. "What I did was selfish. Albert was right, Jamie died a long time ago. Sometimes I wonder if - even if I could have him back - maybe I'm a different person now to the one he knew."

Derek didn't respond, he just watched while I played with Mr. Meow, tickling his belly as he rolled around purring on my lap.

"I know you must still have a lot of questions and if I'm honest, I'm not sure any of them have answers that will satisfy. I'm no oracle; I still have questions myself, but I want to tell you what I know."

I looked at him in confusion. Almost all loose ends had already been tied and anything else seemed almost arbitrary, but Derek did everything with purpose. So I stayed quiet and I listened.

"Albert and I were never close. I told you downstairs that not trying harder was my biggest regret. I've come to realize that was a lie, and it's time I faced the true regret that haunts me."

I tried to imagine what he could be talking about but I couldn't, I nodded and listened instead.

"When we moved in... after our father died... we continued to lead very separate lives. I worked on the garden and I embraced the strange things that happened around me.

"I don't know why I found it so easy to accept. I've seen hundreds come through this block and almost all of them have been horrified at first, but I wasn't.

"When we first got here there were only a handful of occurrences that showed themselves. The boy that lives in the mirror and the postman, along with others, came with the building.

"The longer we stayed the more we discovered. I saw it as magic, a whole new world that most people never get to see. Albert didn't see it that way. He became paranoid, always looking over his shoulder thinking that things were out to get him."

Derek took a moment to look at the grass, a sadness on his face, and I grabbed his fingerless hand to comfort him.

"What happened to him?" I asked.

"He wasn't always the man you met. He was always a cold, ruthless bastard but I would've never considered him evil. This place... the place that you and I call home... it started to drive him into darker and darker places.

"He didn't move his family in with him, he wanted to keep them separate from his business and although I was intent on staying here Albert never expected to be here longer than a few months. They would come and visit and his wife, Darla, started to express concerns to me.

"She would come by my flat after visiting him, leaving their son with him to spend some time together while she claimed she was shopping in the city. She said he seemed frightened and angry. She was worried that he was losing his mind."

Tears started to roll from his kindly eyes. Derek had always seemed so wholly good, such a wonderful person that it was hard to consider him mourning someone like Albert. But no one chooses the family they're born into. And I don't believe that anyone is entirely good or bad; having feelings for an awful person couldn't take away from his spirit.

"What did you do?"

"This is exactly it, Kat. I didn't do anything. I dismissed Darla entirely and I was wrapped up in my own world of discovery. I wrote him off under the assumption he wouldn't have listened to me anyway.

"Albert got worse, Darla got more worried, and eventually he stopped answering the door. Mental health services were terrible in those days, there wasn't a great deal we could do. Albert controlled his money and Darla couldn't get her hands on it to pay for care.

"If I hadn't ignored it then maybe..."

"His son would be alive?" I interrupted.

"I wish it were that simple," he answered and paused for a moment.

We sat in silence just holding hands for a few minutes until he spoke again.

"I need to show you, it's the only way you'll understand." He gestured to Mr. Meow. "Let's take him home."

We took the stairs, skipping a few floors as we went, before reaching the door to my flat. The real one, without the minus symbol in front. It was the first time that Derek had been inside since I had moved in and it felt good to be in a room with him while not in a state of imminent crisis.

The kittens were pleased to be reunited and were quickly cuddled in a heap on the sofa. Mr. Meow's return brought me more joy than I thought possible.

I retrieved the chair that I'd used to prop up Jamie's prison and made tea before we sat together at the fold-out table.

"What do you need to show me?" I asked. He didn't answer me directly and, instead, continued to talk about his family.

"His name was Jonathan, my nephew. I may not have been best of friends with my brother, but I loved that boy more than life itself. He enjoyed the garden and getting dirty. He wasn't like Albert, or our father, he was a worker like me."

I smiled. It was nice to imagine someone taking after Derek.

"He sounds wonderful."

"He was. He was only nineteen years old when he died. No life at all, especially when you consider how many years me and his father have lived for. He had just started his own business, had a fiancée, and even in the worst of times he didn't give up on his dad.

"It broke his heart when my brother stopped answering the door... So he got creative and resorted to desperate measures to try and reach Albert."

I started to piece things together in my head, a pit forming in my stomach as I stopped him to ask the one question that was on my mind.

"What was his business?"

Derek looked at me, shame in his eyes. He knew that he would have to say it out loud and confirm what I already knew.

"He was a window cleaner."

I didn't say a word. I wasn't sure how to respond. I racked my brain trying to comprehend what I was hearing. The knocking on the balcony doors from behind the curtain started. The familiar groaning and whining sounds soon followed.

Derek could sense my discomfort and broke the silence.

"When Jonathan climbed the tower to try and see his dad, he scared him. Albert wasn't in a good way, he was edgy and defensive. I don't know what happened for sure but that knock from the outside must have really triggered something.

"He went outside and he stabbed him. Multiple times with a kitchen knife. But you know that bit. It's what happened next that wasn't reported."

My mouth hung open.

"Albert came to me. He told me exactly what he'd done. We fought. I could've killed him myself but when I looked at him I could see that he wasn't right. It was in his eyes, Kat, he wasn't my brother anymore.

"I tried to reason with him and get him to hand himself in but he refused and got aggressive with me, saying that I just wanted to get my hands on the block. I left him in my flat to calm down so I could go to Jonathan."

The window cleaner continued to scratch on the balcony door, his whines accompanying Derek's tale.

"He was out there on the balcony. He was dead. One look at him and I knew no ambulance could help him anymore. I sat with him for an eternity, trying to work out what to do.

"I should've called the police, but I couldn't bring myself to shop my own brother. There was no hope for Jonathan but I thought I could help Albert. I was wrong. When I returned to my flat he was gone.

"I begged the building to help me. I would've done anything to bring Jonathan back, but wishes work in mysterious ways here and once the body was found Albert was already missing and my nephew had become the monster that lives on the balconies to this day."

I stopped him. I tried to process what he was telling me.

"But he wasn't found for days, why didn't you call the police? Why did you tell the residents not to let him in?" I asked, confused.

"Love works in mysterious ways, Kat. I hope that you of all people can understand that. I was never fond of my brother, but I did love him and without any way of saving his son I wanted to give him a head start."

"And the residents?" I asked again, remembering the strict rule that Prudence had left stating I shouldn't let him in under any circumstances.

"That's where things get complicated. I didn't realize at the time, but what he became was the building's way of giving him back to me. He is what he is because of me. When you see, you'll understand."

He grabbed my hand and walked me to the balcony doors, letting go and pulling back the curtain to reveal the friendly-looking man I'd always seen outside my window, collapsed against it, scratching on the glass.

Upon second inspection, I could see the family resemblance, but it wasn't one that I'd ever considered possible before.

Prudence had told me about her experience with him, with Derek showing her what he truly looked like. I still hadn't expected quite what I saw when Derek rested his hand on my shoulder and told me to look.

The window cleaner was gaunt, with bones protruding beneath his tight, thin grayed flesh, raw skin, and wounds that were in varied stages of healing. He looked truly horrifying, but what alarmed me the most were his impossibly deep, black voids for eyes. They were all too familiar.

I turned to stare at Derek, unsure of quite what to say as a million realizations crossed my mind. He started to speak again.

"I didn't want the residents to hurt him, Kat. When he gets inside, this form is revealed and so many tried to hurt him at first. I found myself constantly telling people to ignore the friendly window cleaner in the hope that he would be safe from their fear of the unknown.

"I'd seen Albert's reaction to anything remotely different and I couldn't bare Jonathan to face the same from the entire block. It was safer to leave him out here.

"After all, only someone who sees the good in everyone would let him in and accept him, and those people are one in a million." Derek half smiled, knowingly.

"Terri." I gulped, finally realizing who the twins' father was.

"I didn't know about them. Albert had me trapped below by the time Terri was in school, but the second I saw Ellie, with you in that stairwell, I knew that she was family.

"When I realized that Jonathan's new form was a direct result of my actions I started to come to terms with the power this place had given me. I embraced it and I used it.

"I used it to hide Jonathan from his father, who I discovered had fled to the sealed floors not long after the murder. He never knew what became of his son. That shielding must have transferred when the twins were born, it was why he didn't know they existed.

"Once Albert had discovered his power, along with all his issues and the isolation he drove himself into, it just twisted him up, into the man you knew him as. He made it his mission to know all of the special residents, but he never saw Jonathan again."

"Why are you telling me this?" I asked, emotion making it a little hard to speak. I wondered if Terri had continued a relationship with the window cleaner, and why she had kept so quiet about the twins' dad.

I processed the fact that Ellie had not only saved my life, but in doing so she had killed her own grandfather.

I couldn't judge Terri, or Derek, for their actions. He was right, love works in mysterious ways. Just as it had when I made my choice regarding Jamie, and when I subsequently accepted that he was gone.

"I'm showing you because I think you'll understand. And because I don't want you to spend your life riddled with guilt for Jamie. We all make mistakes. Mine was a big one, but out of it came two of the purest creatures to walk this earth, and for that I'm grateful."

He smiled again as he thought of Ellie and Eddie. Then he looked me dead in the eyes and spoke again.

"It's time I corrected my wrongdoings."

Solemnly, he walked toward the doors and slid them open, coming face to face with the monstrous shell of a man holding a squeegee. The window cleaner took a step inside, struggling to move on his bone-thin legs, and stopped, millimeters from Derek's face.

I couldn't help it, despite what I knew he scared me. The twins had balance, even in their demonic form there was a visible person there. Their father didn't resemble a person at all, the visceral reaction he ignited in me further proved Derek's point. People will generally attack what they fear. Had I been alone and let him in, I'd have almost certainly done the same.

I watched with bated breath as Derek wrapped his arms around the bag of bones in a warm embrace. I watched as he let out a gentle sob and the window cleaner began to disintegrate into dust before my eyes.

"No!" I shouted, hoping there was some other way, a happier solution, knowing full well that there wasn't. There was a heavy quiet in the room for a few moments.

"It was no life, Kat. I was cruel to let it continue as long as I did," Derek responded, turning to me.

Although similar to the way that I had watched my love disappear on our bedroom floor, Derek's action wasn't filled with malice. It was done for the sake of mercy.

Derek came toward me and hugged me. I felt emotionally and physically battered, fragile, and my ears continued to ring but regardless, with him free and with me, I felt safe. Life in the block could finally begin, with no more dark secrets hanging over me. Amongst all the death and chaos, there was joy to be found.

"It's over now. A new chapter," he whispered into my ear as I sobbed tears of relief into his shoulder and the three cats played at our feet.

Days passed and normality started to resume. I broke lockdown in order to give Terri some rest and spend some time with the twins. It was the least of all my sins throughout this time.

It took a lot of explaining and apologizing, but she eventually came around and forgave me for endangering her kids. It sounds simple when put like that and I'm sure parents reading this would deem me unforgivable. But their kids aren't Ellie and Eddie. And there aren't many folk out there as forgiving and loyal as Terri.

I haven't broached the subject of their paternity to her. I'm not sure I ever will but I hope that one day she'll feel comfortable enough to volunteer the information herself.

I continue to pick items up for Mr. Prentice and take money to Carmilla at the Gnome. I'm looking forward to a drink there when this is all over, although I'm sure Mr. P will drink me under the table.

The kittens are happy and growing every day. Truth be told, I think Mr. Meow looks badass with his missing leg, especially knowing the heroism it symbolizes.

Things had started to look so positive that I almost forgot where I lived.

I had been in such a daze of relief that I hadn't noticed that the stairs had skipped floor 5 from the moment we returned from the undertower.

I probably would have gone longer in blissful ignorance if I hadn't found myself on that floor earlier today.

The black sign was much the same as the one on the floors below that had sported a minus symbol before it. Thankfully, however, the artificial light that plagued those floors was nowhere to be seen and sunlight poured in.

I smiled when I first saw the sign. Prepared myself to greet the man with a new name. But he wasn't there.

His absence was a reminder that no matter how many tribulations I may have conquered, living here there would always be another just around the corner.

Instead of the man without a name, in his place was the woman.

Carmilla's Story

I inherited a pub in the city. My regulars aren't regular.

When I first got the call to say I'd been left a pub as inheritance, I didn't believe it. My parents had died while I was young and I grew up in foster care, not knowing any of my relatives.

When I was then told that the pub, previously belonging to my estranged spinster Aunt Darlene, was called The Pickled Gnome I almost laughed the solicitor off the telephone.

A few days after the call legal documents dropped through my letterbox. Despite my initial concerns everything seemed to be legit. I was to deal with a solicitor named Norman, who was the executor of Aunt Darlene's will.

The Pickled Gnome was situated by a city park, in a residential area with a few tower blocks and some council housing. I'd always been a small-town girl, none of the foster parents I'd lived with were from a built-up area. It came with a 3 bedroom apartment upstairs, a huge alcohol cellar, and a quaint little beer garden.

I didn't know the first thing about running a pub, the Gnome was miles away from my home, and I'd never met or heard of Aunt Darlene. But as I held the deeds and sat on the bed of my rented studio flat staring at the flaking, magnolia walls I made a decision to change my life. I packed up all my worldly belongings, totaling only one suitcase, and prepared my cat, Cheeses, for our new life.

The Gnome wasn't what you imagine when you hear of a city pub. It was like a strange relic, an antique of old Britain frozen in time. It was very much a local pub, with no other drinking establishments its side of the park and it had a thriving local community around it. Norman assured me that the business was perfectly viable, that I should be able to live quite comfortably, in fact.

The whole interior was wooden, there were hops strung across the ceiling, and vintage spirit bottles filled with lights decorating the interior. The bar was a deep mahogany, the varnish atop well worn, showing chips and scratches. At the end of the bar sat a small statue of a gnome lying on his back with his feet in the air.

"Looking truly pickled!" Norman winked, laughing a little too much at his own, poor joke.

The walls were covered in colorful, abstract paintings. Norman informed me that my aunt had been a keen painter and most of the artwork was her own. He showed me up to the apartment and I wished that her artistic flair had stretched to that too; unfortunately, it hadn't.

In fitting with the atmosphere of the pub the home upstairs was like its own time capsule, this time of gaudy '70s decor. It wasn't to my taste, but I was grateful I no longer had to sleep in my kitchen. Most of the furniture had been left behind, I was relieved I didn't have to buy it. The apartment was spacious and light and it had potential. Aunt Darlene had even left a slightly battered yet glorious-looking cactus by the living room window that I looked forward to rescuing.

I wished Norman a nice day and settled into my new home. Cheeses loved exploring the bar and all the nooks and crannies underneath it. I started to warm to the idea of running the place. Imagining me and Cheeses serving all the locals, not having to worry about money anymore. I felt so blessed.

Getting the Gnome ready to open was hard work. It took about a month of deep cleaning and getting a personal license and suppliers organized. Aunt Darlene had left the business in a healthy place, I was able to get everything done without it costing me anything.

She had also left behind a permanent staff member, Douglas, who I opted to keep on. Douglas was an older man, but not yet nearing retirement age. He had graying hair and a rotund exterior and claimed to have worked for my aunt for 10 years. He couldn't wait to get the place up and running again and told me how much the regulars had been missing it.

Douglas was a godsend. He showed me all the quirks of the pumps and how to operate and work with the traditional pub systems. Cheeses loved him, she would purr and butt her head against his legs whenever he was in the room. I believe you should always take note of what your pets think of a person, so he was in my good books.

The night I finally opened the doors it was such a relief. I didn't want to change much, I wanted to keep the same vibe Darlene had. Douglas told me the Gnome was like a home away from home, a living room you could get a drink in. I liked that and I had no intention of destroying it. My life had been pretty miserable before this happened, I'd been handed a golden opportunity and I wasn't about to destroy it.

I patted the statue at the bar as Douglas unlocked the front door. Immediately, a small influx of people entered and occupied the various tables and barstools dotted around, Doug had done a great job of spreading the word.

A disheveled-looking elderly man wearing a beanie hat sat at the barstool closest to the statue of the gnome and huffed loudly. He was unshaven and had tufts of hair sticking out of his hat but despite his appearance, there was a huge grin on his face.

"Oh Grebbles, how I've missed you mate!" he boomed, staring lovingly at the gnome he had since picked up off the bar.

Douglas emerged from out of the back instantly at the sound of the gentleman's voice.

"Jimmy! Good to see you back in position," he exclaimed, shaking the man's hand vigorously from across the bar. "How have you been?"

"Well, not bad, Doug, but I've been losing my marbles trapped inside all that time. Still gutted about our Darl as well." Jimmy paused with a sadness and side-eyed me. "Aren't you going to introduce me to our new landlady?"

Douglas slapped his hand onto my shoulder and pulled me closer.

"Of course, how rude of me! Jimmy, this is Carmilla, Darlene's niece and the new owner of the gnome." He turned to face me as Jimmy continued to give me the side eye. "Carmilla, this is Jimmy, practically lives here. Don't worry, he'll warm up to you, I think he was expecting Darl to leave the place to him as he's here so often." He burst into ferocious laughter and I smiled nervously as I realized I'd just inherited an entire community of people who might not be so welcoming.

"Nice to meet you," I managed. I kicked myself, landladies were supposed to be charismatic but I could barely say hello.

"I didn't know Darl had a niece," Jimmy said flatly, the tufty whiskers around his mouth bouncing as he spoke.

"I didn't know I had an aunt," I answered.

"Well, it's nice to meet you, Camilla," Jimmy responded, sounding as genuine as a vegan ordering a t-bone steak.

"It's Carmilla. Who's Grebbles?" I asked nodding at the statue and trying to change the subject. Douglas had an awkward grin on his face and I wanted to lighten the mood. Jimmy's expression finally eased as he stroked the drunken-looking statue with his grubby fingertips.

"Ahh, Grebbles here is my best friend Camilla." I winced as he got my name wrong again but I didn't bother to correct him, he was less sour-looking and I preferred to count my blessings. "We've seen many an adventure together... lock-ins... invasions... that time the rabid fox tried to eat Jessica Polchester in the corner over there and our Douglas..."

Douglas cut him off by slamming a shot of whiskey down in front of him and coughing.

"Come on, Jimmy, plenty of time to reminisce, but let's toast to the reopening of the Gnome first shall we?"

I wanted to know more, the rabid fox story sounded interesting, but Douglas went to a great deal of effort to stop Jimmy talking. He placed a shot glass in front of me and one in front of him and lined up 20 more on the bar.

"Say something, Carmilla. Give them a little opening speech!" He grinned at me. I detested public speaking with every fiber of my being and couldn't imagine a worse request, but just over Doug's shoulder was a photograph of Aunt Darlene I'd hung behind the bar. I may have never met her but feeling like I belonged to a family for the first time in my life gave me a weird sense of responsibility. I didn't want to let her down.

I panicked a little before finally grabbing a plastic jug from under the bar and banging it against the chipped mahogany worktop. The rumblings of conversation stopped and the entire room focused on me.

"Welcome!" I shouted. It was a weak start but I had no idea what I was doing. "If you'd have told me this time three months ago, I'd be running a pub in the city I'd have laughed at you... To be honest, I still laugh at the idea of it now. I never knew my Aunt Darlene, but she chose me to take over this place and I want to do her proud.

"I hope to get to know you all over a drink and an interesting story, but for now I want to propose a toast. To the Pickled Gnome, my Aunt Darlene, and a lifetime of great nights drinking!" With that, I raised my shot glass and knocked it back, feeling the burn as what I suspected was very strong vodka hit the back of my throat.

The crowd clapped and cheered before knocking back the shots that Douglas had handed out as I spoke. I looked at him for approval as I started to pull pints and he gave me a reassuring nod. I seemed to have gotten off to a good start. Even Jimmy was pleasant as the evening progressed.

It was a busy evening, there wasn't a barstool free all night, and as my first night in hospitality it was an initiation by fire, but I loved it. Customers shared stories of my aunt with me and times they'd spent in the Gnome. They made me feel welcome, like I was a part of the community already.

About 10 o'clock, a man and his wife walked in. My new friend Jimmy informed me their names were Phil and Sheila Moorcroft and they lived in one of the houses opposite the pub. He said they could be difficult occasionally. Regardless, he called them over to introduce me and they seemed like lovely, warm, and kind people. His assessment appeared to be unfounded.

Sheila was at the bar, telling me how much I reminded her of Darl and what good friends they'd been. She looked emotional as she sipped her gin and tonic and looked at the photograph behind me.

When Phil slipped off to the toilet her demeanor changed. She tearfully told me that they had been fighting that night. She suspected that he was cheating with a lady called Jessica. I felt bad that she didn't have my full attention but her saying that reminded me that I really needed to ask Jimmy about that fox.

She got more and more distressed as she told me about her situation. I found it uncomfortable, having a practical stranger spill their deepest problems to me. All whilst Jimmy sat next to next to her, Grebbles in front of him, listening to the entire tale.

I could see her husband making his way through the people littered across the pub back to us. I worried about Sheila's ability to hold it in. I was right to worry.

Just as Phil reached the bar, Jimmy looked me dead in the eye.

"Buckle up," he said with a sigh, and for the first time the whole night, he left his chair and went to join a group of older men playing cards at an already packed booth.

Within minutes, Shiela was screaming. People tried to pay no attention but they couldn't help themselves, there was a live soap opera happening at the bar.

She screamed about Jessica. How she apparently smelled "that slut's" perfume the other day when she got home from work. That she'd seen messages between the pair. Phil ferociously denied the allegations.

I asked Douglas if I should break it up, or ask them to go outside. He looked at me with a sincere expression on his face and told me, "You need to back away and let them run their course. They're all regulars in here, don't worry, this happens a lot. The other customers will understand."

I didn't get it. The Moorcrofts seemed like a perfectly reasonable married couple, I was sure if I just spoke to them...


I didn't get the chance to finish wondering why Douglas seemed almost frightened to get involved, or why Jimmy had walked away and the other customers had all managed to inconspicuously create a 2 to 3 meter distance between themselves and the couple.

Sheila answered my question as she picked up a large shard of the glass she had just smashed across her husband's face and my pub floor. Before I had a chance to react, or even to blink, she was drawing the sharp edge of the shard across her husband's throat as he desperately tried to push her away.

Phil was much bigger than Sheila. He should have been able to fend her off easily but she seemed to have gone into a superhuman rage. She clawed at the wound she created with her fingernails, still sobbing and wailing about a Jessica.

I stood in complete shock and horror at what I had just witnessed. Sheila's eyes were blackened with smudged mascara as her now-dead husband bled out in my pub.

My pub.

My mind began to race, what on Earth was I going to do? It took me a moment of panicking to realize that no one looked anywhere near as distressed as I was by the scene.

Jimmy was sat at the booth with the other men, looking at the dead body on the floor with a vague disgust on his face as he shuffled the pack of cards again casually. Douglas had made his way out there and put his hands on Sheila's shoulder to stand her up and take her away from the scene.

As he walked her to a seat at the end of the bar, she passed me and looked at me with tears still in her eyes.

"I'm sorry about the mess, love. I didn't want to make such a bad impression on your first night. Please forgive me."

I didn't think my jaw could get any lower until I turned to see a customer with Phil's hand in his, helping him up off the floor. He looked wobbly, and was clutching his neck. But he stood. When he finally took his hand away I saw that the wound itself had disappeared entirely, leaving just the blood behind. No scratches or cuts on his face, not even a piece of embedded glass.

Douglas continued to serve drinks as I stood at the bar, catatonic. Phil joined his wife in the corner and after a quiet and inaudible discussion, they made their way out of the pub. I faintly heard Douglas making a last call in the background and continued to just stand, staring at the pool of blood all these people were delicately avoiding.

The last stragglers drank up and left. A few gave me reassuring words as they left. "You did great." "Darl would be proud." "You'll get used to it, don't worry!" They all flew over my head.

Jimmy's friends had left but he returned to his position next to Grebbles and remained there as Douglas locked the door.

"That muppet didn't tell you anything, did he?" Jimmy spat, giving Doug a far more nasty look than the one I'd received when we first met.

"Tell me what? Why is that man not dead?" It was the first I'd spoken since the incident. My words were hoarse and strained and I could see the pity in Jimmy's eyes as he looked at me.

"I didn't want her to run a mile, Jimmy. Darl picked her and she's our best chance of it not going to auction. I didn't think something like that would happen on the first night," Douglas chimed in, a heavy guilt in his words.

"You think she won't run a mile now?! You daft man..." Jimmy retaliated.

"Please, can someone just tell me what's going on? I'm right here," I begged, still struggling to pick my bottom jaw up enough to speak but bothered enough by them talking as if I wasn't in the room. Douglas looked sheepish, Jimmy sighed again, something he did a lot of, and started to speak.

"This place ain't normal, Camilla. Those who drink here tend to have something a little different about them, or they don't mind those who do.

"The Moorcrofts are harmless. Just got a bit of a need for the dramatics. Phil's not cheating, but he is an asshole and Sheila's a drunk with trust issues, makes for some huge blowouts.

"As fair warning, the Moorcrofts aren't the Gnome's only unique regulars. Not all of them will get their throat slit and get up off the floor ten minutes later, but some might try to get in your stores through gaps in the door frames or grow sharp claws on a Thursday night that pierce all your glasses. Best to use disposables on Thursdays, you'll thank me later.

"Anyway. You'll see. That is if you decide to stay. Darl was very accepting, she made us all feel welcome, no matter how unique. She must have thought you'd be good for this place." I tried to take in what Jimmy was saying but I couldn't. I had wondered about the sealant on the cellar door's frame though, I'd presumed it was pest-proofing but now I wasn't so sure.

"How could she think that when we never even met? She didn't know me," I answered, feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the whole situation.

"And you didn't know her. She chose you for a reason, I promise. But if you wanna leave... we get it." He scowled at Douglas one more time and finished up his drink, looking resigned.

Thoughts whizzed around my mind. Phil's dead body on the floor. Aunt Darlene's photo. That fucking peeling magnolia bedsit wall. Jimmy got up and made his way toward the door.

"I'll stay," I broke the silence in the room. Jimmy turned and smiled, Douglas looked relieved, his face had gone from pale to ruddy again. "But you have to help me clean that up," I finished, staring at the pool of blood still very present in the middle of the floor.

Douglas grabbed the mop from out back and some cleaning products from under the bar and I started to sweep away the excess glass, the ends of my broom smearing the blood like paint.

I turned to Jimmy.

"So. That rabid fox?"

I inherited a pub in the city, it came with some issues.

My first few months at The Pickled Gnome were excellent. My life had become so much more than I ever thought it would be. I had fun with my customers, enjoyed my living space and the city, and even Cheeses seemed happier.

In 3 months I witnessed Phil die at least 8 times. Jimmy told me that was a good run and the Moorcrofts seemed happier than ever. It made me dread what could be considered as a bad run.

Cheeses really took to Sheila. The cat would trot through the pub to take a space on her lap and hiss at Phil. I felt sorry for the poor man, he was never anything but nice to me. He even helped me clean his brains off the pumps when Sheila battered him to death with Grebbles, couldn't be more apologetic if he tried.

I got to know all of our regulars and how to deal with some of the more unique ones.

Mrs. Turner, for example, loved to drink but god help you if you let her have more than 6. Something about that 7th drink would turn her into a complete demon. She frightened the life out of poor old Michael when she bit the head off that bird in the garden, poor little thing didn't stand a chance; I found Cheeses playing with the bottom half the next day. Douglas and I took to using a tally chart for her, we make a mark for every drink we serve her, it works.

As the months went by business got better and better. Eventually, I had to employ another staff member to work the bar with me and Douglas, so Natalie came along.

Natalie had just turned 18 and was nervous of everything. I gave her a far more thorough induction than Douglas gave me but I think the first time she witnessed Phil sprawled over the bar with a high heel sticking out of his neck she was traumatized.

She proved useful though. She'd grown up in the area in a tower block down the street and she knew quite a few of the guys. They all couldn't believe how big little Natalie had got and would ask about her grandma who raised her. Natalie still lived in the block with her and spent her time working and caring. It made me sad that she never seemed to go out with friends her age. So I tried to go easy on her when I could.

I knew she was a keeper when one of our older gentlemen, Mr. Prentice, took a funny turn and locked himself in the disabled toilet for 3 hours. When he started making disturbing, animalistic noises I instructed Douglas to open the door. Natalie insisted we didn't. Mr. Prentice lived in her block and she was very clear that it was best not to disturb him.

When Mr. Prentice finally emerged, he came up to the bar with his walking stick and small bag of shopping and apologized. He said that he usually makes it home in time when he's feeling a little off but the Gnome made him feel so comfortable he stayed longer than he should have.

He offered to pay for any cleanup and I declined. I couldn't take his money, he reminded me of the grandad I'd always wished I had. He had such kind eyes. And honestly, how much mess could he make?

I regretted my complacency when I inspected the damage. There was poop everywhere; up the walls, on the ceiling, and even in the sink. The most troubling part of it was the inside of the door was covered in deep, impossibly large claw marks. The frail old man who had just left couldn't possibly have done that. Who knows what might have happened if we'd opened that door.

I didn't have Mr. Prentice pegged as a unique regular, but I learned that day that you don't ever know who or what you're really talking to. I just knew that for the most part, my customers were harmless.

Natalie reveled in her small victory, but she was back to her jumpy self in no time when a strange visitor entered the Gnome later that night.

I didn't recognize him, and over the previous months, I'd learned that we don't tend to get many newbies at the Gnome. I welcome them, of course, but the majority of my customers are repeat. I wasn't too concerned until I saw Jimmy leave his barstool as the man approached the bar.

I'd come to learn that Jimmy only tended to leave his position when he felt threatened or thought there was going to be trouble, he would wander over to the largest group and join them. I think being part of a pack made him feel safer. Aside from home time, I'd only seen him move a handful of occasions. To be honest, I don't know if Jimmy even urinated, nothing would surprise me.

The newcomer approached the chipped mahogany worktop, he wore a jacket with the hood up and had his arms pulled up into his sleeves. I watched as a thin pale hand extended out from one of them over the bar and placed a few coins in front of me.

"You must be the new manageress. My name is Kain, Darlene and I had a prior agreement I was hoping to continue. Could we discuss over a large red wine... please?" He spoke with a constant sense of mystery in his voice, as if he was narrating a ghost show, or was going to present me with a deal the likes of Rumplestiltskin would wince at. He practically spat the word please as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. It really put me on edge.

"Nice to meet you, Kain, my name's Carmilla. If you could just excuse me for a moment please." I didn't give him an option, I left his coins where they were and went out the back, leaving Natalie to man the bar whilst I went to find Douglas.

Douglas was arguing with a particularly slender woman when I found him at the entrance to the stores. The lady looked at me sheepishly and ran through to the bar.

"One of those flat people?" I asked, gesturing to the minuscule gap surrounding the door. Douglas nodded and laughed. I didn't have time to ask about it, I jumped straight in.

"Do you know about Aunt Darlene's deal with a man called Kain?"

Douglas's face dropped. He looked like all the blood had rushed from his cheeks straight down into his feet.

"I was hoping he'd let that go when Darl died. I should have warned you, I was just hopeful... I'm sorry Carm, I really am."

He spoke so gravely I started to panic.

"What do you mean? What does he want?"

"Kain holds a meeting in the Gnome on the 3rd Wednesday of every month for his weird friends. Darlene loved him at first; he paid on time, they always bought drinks, and he was polite.

"Things changed when Darl found out what they were meeting about. They had always demanded strict privacy, but she thought she'd heard the door go and was expecting a delivery so she came downstairs to the backdoor and overheard the content of their meeting.

"Darl told us that Kain and his group were Cloaks, people who help others commit and cover up crime and evade punishment. They weren't aiding and abetting minor crimes though, they were the worst of the worst. Rapists, murderers, and worse use this group to find victims to escape the law.

"Naturally, Darl confronted him, kicked the group out of the Gnome, and threatened to contact the authorities.." I interrupted. "Just like I'm about to do, too! I won't have a person like that under my roof!" I started to storm back to the bar, ready to get rid of Kain, but Douglas grabbed me in protest.

"Stop! You didn't know your aunt but, damn it, are you stubborn like her sometimes. Kain isn't a person. He's a monster. Darl would never have let him walk free if she had a choice." I felt my heart drop into my stomach. We were surrounded by the unusual and things people would find traditionally scary, it was our normal. To hear Douglas refer to Kain as a monster truly scared me.

"How did he take away her choice?"

Douglas opened his mouth to answer, but the words never made it out. There was an eruption of shouting and commotion from the bar followed by a shrill scream.

"Natalie!" Douglas ran toward the door and I followed.

Inside was carnage. The first face I was confronted with was Sheila's, mascara tears running down her face. There was no comforting dead Phil that followed her though. Instead was a room full of terrified punters.

"Carm..." Natalie wheezed from her position standing on top of the bar.

Kain was sat calmly in front of her with a large glass of red wine in his hand. He had taken his hood down and I could clearly see his gleeful expression as my bartender danced for him, limbs broken-looking and contorted like a marionette.

Natalie looked like she was in so much pain, the positions her body parts moved into as she danced were so unnatural. The more pain she showed, the more ecstatic Kain became. She clearly had no control over her movements, and his abilities terrified me.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he dropped her and I watched as she collapsed, cracking her ankle as she slipped off the bar and into the tower of glasses behind her.

He turned to me and then to Douglas and smirked.

"I see you've been catching up on who I am. I suppose there's no need to explain the arrangement to you. Shame really, I thought we could be civil. I'm sure Brainless here filled you in on all the information.

"My group will be meeting here next Wednesday at 5 pm. The pub will be closed for 3 hours while we meet and that will continue on a monthly basis. You do not want to find out what happens if that doesn't happen."

I wanted to scream, to do anything I could to stop this from happening but I could still hear Natalie whimpering on the floor, and I couldn't bring myself to risk it. I'd been blindsided.

Kain was walking toward the exit as he turned to me.

"By the way, it's nice to meet you too, Carmilla. You remind me a lot of Darlene." He said it with venom, the words slithered out. He spared one last glance at Natalie, who had barely pulled herself up to stand. He chuckled smugly and stepped outside at the same time as I heard a loud crunching sound and another scream.

As the door swung the crowds of shocked customers erupted into shouting and chaos. I ran toward Natalie, whose wrist was now bent backward so far her knuckles were flapping against her arm. She was bruised, cut up from all the glass she'd smashed into, and was hyperventilating.

I tried to calm her down and started to pick the glass out but she was so distressed and she desperately needed medical attention.

Nicole, a middle-aged woman who never drank alcohol, offered to take her to the hospital by car. Natalie gratefully agreed and I told them to keep me updated the whole way. I offered a round on the house to all the shaken regulars and they eventually retreated to their respective tables and chairs, leaving me, Douglas, and Jimmy, who had returned to his spot, at the bar.

"I really hope she's okay," I voiced, totally defeated.

"That was nothing, Camilla! You have no idea what that creature is capable of!" Jimmy ranted, not taking his eyes off of Grebbles.

Douglas's face sunk.

"I didn't get to finish telling you the whole story. Darlene had no choice but to keep the Cloak's booking. Not after Iris."

I watched as a tear rolled down Douglas's cheek as he spoke. Jimmy looked equally distressed and focused so hard on that little gnome I think he was trying to block out the world around him.

"Iris was another regular here, she was young, about Natalie's age, used to come in with her parents. Everyone liked her, she was a nice girl and she brought her young friends for drinks here, but they never caused a bother and it was nice to have some young blood in the place.

"When Darl booted Kain and his followers out they came back 3 days later for revenge. Iris was unlucky, she was standing closest to the door.

"I don't know how he does it, but he can make people do things with their bodies that their mind doesn't want to. I think he leaves their awareness alone on purpose, so they feel the pain, and they always remember.

"He whispered something in Iris's ear at the entrance to the Gnome and she lost it. She walked behind the bar, grabbed a bottle of absinthe, and soaked herself in it... screaming that she didn't want to... I'm sorry... it's been a while." Douglas paused to compose himself.

"While she was burning, Kain entered and made a speech, told us all that if he or his people were not treated with some respect and given their venue back that he would annihilate each and every one of us in twisted new ways. His followers were so happy, those crazy fuckers were sniffing the air and smiling. Have you ever smelled a burning human, Carmilla? There's nothing more repulsive." Douglas knocked back a shot of whiskey and I sat in disbelief, trying to find words.

"Why hasn't anyone done anything, tried to hurt him or just do something?!" I begged.

"Darl tried," Jimmy piped up. "She made plans every month to try and stop them, end them all while they were in one place. Kain is always one step ahead. Nothing she did worked, it just made him angry. She gave up for the sake of everyone. She didn't want anyone to get hurt."

It infuriated me.

"Cowards! What about the people they're hurting anyway?! There's enough of us to overpower him surely? Fuck this. Fuck Aunt Darlene's agreement. This ends when they return."

Jimmy shook his head at my optimism and got up to leave the bar that had slowly emptied as we spoke, he didn't say a single word. Douglas started cleaning and collecting glasses silently. They didn't fill me with much confidence, but I was determined to think of a way to take Kain down.

When everything was closed and Douglas had left, I sat with Cheeses and tried to come up with a plan. Nicole texted me to tell me Natalie was going to be fine, just a cast for her wrist and lots of rest needed, the text came with a photo of Natalie, looking tearful but relieved.

I stared at the photo. I thought of Iris, Darlene, and all of the regulars I'd come to love so dearly, then the way to win finally hit me.

I inherited a pub in the city, some people aren't easily thrown out.

If you're new to The Pickled Gnome, welcome! Pull up a stool and try my artisanal lemonade, it's really good. I promise Jimmy only looks grumpy, but he'll be grateful for the company.

Last time we spoke I told you about Kain, his group of Cloaks, and the deal he forced my Aunt Darlene into. It made me sick thinking of what happened to Iris and I felt even worse when Natalie returned to the pub with her wrist in a splint, looking beaten.

I couldn't let the deal continue. Aside from how I abhorred the group's philosophy, they had frightened my regulars. Not acting on it would make me an awful landlady.

My plan was solid, I hoped, but I knew I couldn't do it alone. To take down someone with the strength Kain had demonstrated was going to require some help.

I approached my regulars for assistance over the course of the week, most of whom were terrified after the events in the pub during Kain's visit and turned me down swiftly.

I had an entire community full of people who could do or become extraordinary things but none of them were willing to risk their autonomy to help.

Mrs. Turner was too frightened of the things she may do under Kain's control. She couldn't be convinced by an offer of limitless drinks for the night or my promises that I would do everything possible to keep her safe.

After my conversation with her, I was disheartened. It was the same story with over 15 other people I spoke to.

Mr. Prentice even laughed at me, he couldn't understand what help I thought an old man like him would be. I tried to mention the incident with the toilet but he just looked baffled, as if he didn't remember it at all. There's no tactful way to ask someone if they're a monster.

No wonder Aunt Darl had failed to remove the Cloaks.

Jimmy and Douglas were in. To be honest, I didn't give them much choice. I threatened Jimmy with a ban from the bar and Douglas with his job. I felt terrible, realistically I wasn't going to follow through on either of those threats but by this stage, I was desperate not to be alone in my endeavor.

Natalie was a different story, her nervous demeanor had gotten worse since her attack. I tried to insist she took some paid time off but she refused, she told me she had to work to keep herself sane. She was jumpy and struggled to even collect glasses but I wasn't about to come down on her. I hadn't even asked for her help.

She offered it when she overheard me talking to Douglas about how hard a time I was having enacting my plan. I told her no a thousand times, but she was desperate to do something despite her terror.

Those three were all I had and by Tuesday we had gotten no further in our endeavors. The plan I had thought was perfect was never going to work with that few people and we were about to get royally fucked by Kain. So I took to drastic measures.

I told the patrons of the Gnome the day I opened that I wasn't a public speaker, so for me to stand on the bar itself and beg for their help was huge.

"Hi, everyone. As you all know we have a customer here at the Gnome that we're struggling to remove from the premises.

"I want to keep you all safe, but I can't do that without your help and if you all want to continue drinking here then I suggest you get involved!" I thought I'd made a great speech but I'd never seen a pub clear as quickly as that. These people were scared.

My plea for help acted like a last call, the majority drank up and got up. It was only early in the evening so I knew it signified a lack of faith in me, but a few remained.

Phil and Sheila didn't disappoint me and I was grateful to see them still sitting there, their talents were going to be particularly useful.

"I don't think there's much he can do to me... not that the wife hasn't already," Phil joked to break the silence, making a through-cutting motion with his finger and twitching his head in his wife's direction. Jimmy laughed and Sheila gave him daggers, but with Cheeses firmly anchored on her lap and I don't think Sheila wanted to disturb her by getting up.

Another lady sat across the bar next to Natalie. I knew her name was Tiffany, but we hadn't interacted a lot.

"Thanks for being here," I said handing her a vodka lemonade, her usual drink, and the only other thing I knew about her.

"I wouldn't miss it," she started, tears in her eyes. "Iris was my best friend. What that monster did to her..." Her voice broke as she tried to find the words and the only other customer to remain threw his arm around her shoulders.

Quentin was a daily visitor of the Gnome. He never stayed for long and would pop in on his route home from his job as a road sweeper. He was always dressed in his high-vis gear and this occasion was no different. Tiffany was a very glamorous young girl but despite Quentin's grubby work gear, she looked grateful for the comfort. He tried to change the subject.

"I stayed because those fuckers always made it so I couldn't get a drink on a Wednesday. Ruined the whole day. Fuck those guys." I think that was the most I'd ever heard him speak.

I didn't know if Quentin or Tiffany were standard regulars or not and I didn't want to pry, I just really hoped they could hold their own.

We strategized over drinks for hours and after many a useless suggestion, mostly from Douglas, we finally settled on a course of action.

I was going to be in the apartment upstairs alone when they entered, to make them feel as if they'd won. Then Phil would enter as our bait a while into their meeting. He was going to try and incense the whole group to bring their focus onto him. He intended to look like a rogue, protesting alone.

Sheila was insistent that after he had their attention, she would go in.

"Nothing makes me as angry as Phil... except for people hurting Phil," she said, convinced that their reaction to him would cause her superhuman rage to kick in.

I pointed out the issues; that Kain could take control of her, use her rage against the rest of us. Which is where Tiffany came in. She had been quiet throughout the conversation and she winced every time Kain was mentioned but after hearing Sheila's intentions she finally piped up.

"No. I go in after Phil," she said gravely.

"Why would you do that?" Sheila spat at her across the bar. I could see the insane jealousy bubbling inside her. Luckily Douglas had spotted that, too.

"Not the time, Sheila!" he shouted at her from his seat. She did back down, and let Tiffany speak.

"I have the best chance of resisting him," she said flatly. After a moment of silence, she could sense the confusion on our faces and continued. "He's not the only person who can do things. Watch."

Tiffany took a step back from the rest of us and stood with her arms on either side of her, palms facing us. She closed her eyes and in less than a blink had vanished entirely.

"What the fuck..." I heard come from Jimmy, someone who is rarely shocked.

"He can't control me if he can't see me," came Tiffany's voice from thin air. "I can come in behind Phil, while Kain is using him like some plaything I can find the right position and kill him."

I felt something hit the back of my neck and I turned around to see Tiffany, standing behind me, meters away from where she had vanished. Her words made me uncomfortable.

"I'm not so sure about killing..." I started, but Quentin interrupted me.

"You have no idea how many people they've killed; and how many that survived wished they'd been killed. If anyone deserves it, it's them."

"Iris didn't want to die, we were going to go to Amsterdam that year," Tiffany added from behind me.

Natalie looked at me from across the room. Since the incident, she'd had a look of despair in her eyes that I couldn't get out of my mind. She just looked so broken and those eyes were boring into my soul. The idea of killing made me uncomfortable, but I doubted I was as uncomfortable as Natalie, strung up like a marionette puppet on the bar.

I knew they were right. There was no way to do this without a death, not counting Phil, of course. I thought of all their victims, too, and how much I wanted to help them.

We finalized details and planned for Phil to enter the pub 15 minutes into their meeting to kick things off, the rest of them would arrive in the garden out back as Phil entered.

We had one last drink together and they started to venture home, leaving just me and Douglas to clean up. Natalie walked home with Tiffany, so that she wouldn't be on her own.

"Carm, you know Darl tried, right?" Douglas mused as he swept the seating area. "She walked with a stick for the last two years of her life after Kain broke her leg when she called the police. He talked his way out of everything, all the evidence she gathered. It broke her, Carm, I don't want to see the same thing happen to you."

I thought of my aunt. I never knew she walked with a stick. But then, I never knew her. There was so much about her I had to learn.

"It won't, Doug. I've got all of you, Kain and his creepy friends don't stand a chance. You saw Tiffany, we won't fail... we can't." I put on a brave face, I was trying to convince myself as much as Douglas.

"I just hope you're right."

We finished up about an hour or so later and Douglas went home, leaving me to lie in bed, mind racing, with Cheeses in my lap. I tried to organize my thoughts, but they just meshed into a deafening white noise. I was amazed I heard the phone buzz at all.

There was a video attachment from an unknown number. I opened it up and it was taken a few minutes down the road from the Gnome, outside the tower block that Natalie, Mr. Prentice, and a number of my regulars lived in.

I watched Natalie arrive outside and give Tiffany a massive hug, look around, and then enter the building. Then it cut to a different shot of Natalie, this time much closer. It was taken from above her while she slept in bed.

A thin, pale hand reached out and moved a stray hair away from her face so gently I wasn't sure he even touched it. The person then turned and calmly walked out of the room before the footage cut out.

My stomach did backflips. As the video finished, I noticed a text message that had followed it. It made me want to throw up.

I can get to her any time I want. Don't try anything. See you tomorrow.

I inherited a pub in the city and I would do anything to protect my regulars.

My heart raced after receiving the video from Kain. I didn't bother to text him back, or give him the satisfaction. Instead, I called Natalie.

"Are you okay?!" I asked frantically.

I'd clearly woken her up and she sounded groggy. She didn't know what I was talking about. Kain was gone, it had just been a way to scare us into submission. I told Natalie what happened. I didn't want to, I knew what it would do to her, but she deserved to know the danger she was in.

"Carm, what am I supposed to do? I've got my grandmother here, she can't be hurt. What if he comes in... It was so painful last time..." I could hear her starting to hyperventilate over the phone. I had to stop her.

"Is there anyone that can stay with you? Just until tomorrow and then you come straight here. He wants me, not you, I'm so sorry, Nat." I tried to think of viable solutions, more than a few of our more special regulars lived in that block, and I know none of them would want anything to happen to her.

"I'll be okay for the night Carm. I'm gonna barricade my front door, deadbolt it, and everything. At least then I'd hear him come in. If he was going to hurt me he'd have done it then." I could tell she was trying to convince herself and she wasn't doing a great job of convincing me she was fine.

I didn't get a minute's sleep that night. Instead, I counted the stains on the bedroom ceiling multiple times. 37. I was feeling pretty disheveled and tired by the time I heard a knock at the door, I almost jumped out of my skin.

It was Natalie. She was alive, thank fuck. I gave her a massive hug and she smiled weakly.

"Is the kettle on? Just going down the stairs in the block felt like a marathon today," she huffed, hands on her thighs.

We got the tea going and sat together in the bar, it had better seating than upstairs.

"Have you worked out what you're going to do now? What's the new plan?" Natalie asked. I sighed. Staring at my ceiling counting stains hadn't given me any inspiration. I had nothing.

"The plan remains the same. I still think we can blindside them with Phil. Don't worry, I've got this under control." It was a lie.

"You're underestimating Kain and you know it." I didn't have time to respond, just tut and shake my head. Douglas was at the door, he'd brought pastries for breakfast.

"You look awful, Carm!" Wasn't the friendliest greeting I'd ever had but I couldn't argue with him.

Natalie shot me daggers as she ate her cinnamon swirl. Cheeses napped on Douglas's lap and just looking at her made my eyes feel heavy. I had no idea how I was going to stay awake to face Kain, let alone remove him.

The day passed and the clock ticked. We didn't open the pub that day, we just waited, knowing that it could very well be the end of life at The Pickled Gnome as we knew it.

Natalie's cold glare softened when we heard them enter downstairs. She went from a hardened presence that was judging me to a little girl I had to protect in minutes.

"We just have to stay here," I said, trying to keep my composure. I wondered how long it would take Phil to arrive, I could already hear tables and chairs being moved around below me. Fuck, I wasn't cut out for a leadership role here.

It didn't take long, I heard the most gut-wrenching crunch followed by shouting.

"Carmilla, I suggest you get down the stairs now!"

I froze for a moment at the sound of his voice. Had Tiffany entered yet? What about Sheila? Were my regulars all dead on the floor downstairs? How did they kill Phil this time?

"The girl and that blundering idiot, too. Hurry up!" Kain sounded impatient this time.

Natalie grabbed hold of my arm, digging her nails in so hard I'm sure I bled but the poor girl was so scared I couldn't stop her. Douglas led the way, the scene was awful.

Kain's friends had literally torn Phil apart, they'd slashed his limbs with broken glass and severed an entire arm. I gasped at the sight and the closest goon to the body booted him so hard in the face his features collapsed inward.

"I tried to warn you, Carmilla. Why have you done this to yourself? Your friends?" Kain smirked at me and raised an eyebrow, he enjoyed the game.

I surveyed the room. It was hard to take my eyes off Phil's grotesque corpse on the ground, I wasn't sure he could reattach his arm, Sheila hadn't dismembered him before. I couldn't see anyone else, but I knew that didn't mean Tiffany wasn't there.

"Please don't hurt anyone, I didn't know he was going to do this. I got the message, I promise!" I pleaded, feigning ignorance and sticking to the original plan. Sleep deprivation was getting to me and I was struggling to speak properly.

"I don't think you did. I hold the manageress responsible for any issues my group has during our booker time here so I'm afraid your weak begging won't cut it." He looked me dead in the eyes and I felt Natalie's nails dig further into my skin.

She wailed and convulsed before collapsing in agony, arms suspended in midair holding her up as if she were tied to something.

"Stop it, you monster!" Douglas screamed, making me jump.

"Please don't hurt her! Hurt me! It's me that deserves this, not her!" I added, running down the stairs toward Kain.

"I wouldn't come any closer!" he said calmly, holding his palm out toward me. I stopped. He scrunched his hand into a fist and I heard a wailing from behind me, I turned to see Natalie being hoisted off the floor by her own arms. Her feet dangled desperately until even her tiptoes couldn't reach the floor. I heard her arm click out of place as it struggled to hold her weight, watched as her joints dislocated under the strain. I'd never seen pain like it.

I turned back to Kain.

"You're evil," was all I could manage, I was in pure shock and had no words.

"And you're stupid. Hurting you wouldn't be half as fun as..." He was cut off. Literally, in fact, by a large knife that sliced into his throat. In the blink of an eye, Tiffany was visible behind him, hacking at his neck like she was possessed. Natalie hit the floor with a thud, panting with relief.

"Iris was beautiful! She was the most amazing person and you took her!" Tiffany cried as she sawed through vertebrae with an incredible strength.

The room instantly descended into chaos. I realized that the part of the plan I hadn't thought through was the bit where we would be hugely outnumbered by Kain's sociopath friends. There were more than I thought, around 10 of them.

Douglas had already been grabbed. He was being beaten viciously to the ground by two of them. I tried to run to him, but caught Natalie being manhandled by a large, vile-looking man and changed course, I knew Douglas would understand.

When I was eventually grabbed myself, I realized that we were hopeless, it was likely we were all going to die in the Gnome. The man's fingers dug into my collarbones as he dragged me across the room. Another grabbed a barstool and began to lift it, I was certain he was going to use it to end my life.

Then the door opened. The crack of dusky light was like a ray of hope that was soon blocked by Sheila's incredibly angry silhouette.

She screamed when she saw him, Phil, on the floor with his face all squashed in like that. It wasn't like the multiple times she'd killed him, it was real devastation. She let out a guttural, primal cry that hurt my soul. It stopped every inch of chaos in its tracks, no one could take their eyes off her, the man holding me even loosened his grip. She stopped for only a moment before unleashing her overwhelming anger on the room.

Sheila was a small woman, only about 5'4" in heels, but she could attack more violently than any man I'd ever seen. She was the true human incarnation of rage. She ripped through the room, blood spraying in her path. Quentin had come in behind her and was battering the attackers with a broom, a satisfied look on his face. They would've eaten him alive if he hadn't been with Sheila.

The bodies began to pile up, it wasn't long before she'd reached me and ripped the face off of the man who had been holding me, flaps of his cheeks littered the floor.

Sheila finally made it to Tiffany, who wasn't moving on the floor after a violent beating by two of Kain's goons, next to their decapitated leader. She reached out toward one and dug her thumbs into his eye sockets. Individually, they started to bleed. You expect eyeballs to come out easy, but they don't, there's a lot of mess first.

As she turned to attack the last remaining follower he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gun. It stopped Sheila in her tracks.

I felt woozy, no amount of rage was going to make Sheila bulletproof and no amount of strange antics in the pub could have prepared me for this slaughter.

"Stop! Please just go! No one else needs to die!" I screamed.

"Oh! Now you want to be peaceful because I have a gun, right? Well, that isn't going to work. All my friends are dead, you're coming with us you fuc-"

Thud. He hit the floor.

Have you ever seen an old friend and felt warm inside, like everything in the world was okay?

That's how I felt when I saw Grebbles, coming toward the gunman's head with quite the velocity. I had wondered where Jimmy had been all this time, I don't know how long he'd been under the bar for but I'd never felt warmer inside. He'd chastised me for even attempting to stop Kain but in the end, he was there for us.

Sheila grabbed hold of the gun from next to the unconscious man and shot him 3 times in the face. She didn't stop to stare, she dropped it instantly and ran to Phil's mangled corpse and sobbed.

I surveyed the pub, the bodies everywhere, and my friends. Trying to pick up the pieces. Douglas was comforting Natalie while she cried into his arms.

Jimmy stood with Sheila, desperately trying to wake Phil. It may sound sick, but he'd never looked more dead before.

In the corner was Quentin, standing over Tiffany. I ran to them, I wanted to try and help, to get her up so we could get her to the hospital but as soon as I saw her I knew. It was too late. She was gone. I looked at Quentin and pulled him close for a hug.

As tears streamed down my face I could see the front outline of someone standing up. It was Phil.

His features were no longer sunken in and disfigured, but he looked far more disheveled than usual, and he was noticeably still missing an arm.

"You're alive!" Sheila screamed.

"Of course, I am, honey, you've tried harder than they did before." He chucked awkwardly. "I'm not sure I'll get that appendage back though." He pointed to his severed arm with the one that remained. He tugged at the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a perfectly healed stump.

I smiled a little; amongst the chaos, there was some normality but my moment of peace was bittersweet. I was instantly reminded of Tiffany.

There was nothing any of us could do. We tried CPR and everything but she had stopped breathing, there was no heartbeat.

"Her parents knew about her special talents, they were there when Iris... They deserve to know the truth," Quentin suggested after a long bout of silence amongst the group. He tried to be strong but his voice cracked as he fought tears.

"We'll come with you. Let's take her home," Sheila answered him softly, putting an arm around his shoulders. She had gone from killing machine to someone who was gentle and maternal.

We all helped wrap Tiffany in bedsheets, I made sure they were clean ones, it felt more respectful, and then load her into the back of Quentin's council van. He only ever had one pint at the end of work so often parked the van outside.

When they drove away there was a void. Everyone left in the pub could feel the pangs of loss. Natalie was lying in a booth recovering. The damage to her arms wasn't as bad as I had initially thought, Tiffany had stopped Kain in time. The endurance of the human body is amazing and Natalie was one tough cookie.

Douglas was cleaning. It's what he did after any event he found stressful. Jimmy stopped him.

"There's no point mopping, Doug. We need to get rid of the bodies."

Fuck. Another thing I hadn't thought of.

"I know how," came a feeble voice. Natalie hoisted herself up. "But you need to cut them up first."

Jimmy didn't question her.

"Come on, Doug, as the lady says." He grabbed Douglas by the arm and they started moving the bodies into the cellar.

Once they were all gone I grabbed the mop that Douglas had gotten out and started to clean the Gnome. I wasn't about to let all the sacrifice be for nothing. We were going to open the next day and have drinks for Tiffany. I focused so hard on removing every drop of blood that my vision started to blur.

"Carm, you need to sleep," Natalie commanded from her booth.

"No, Nat, I can't. This was all my fault, I have to do something," I answered, scrubbing at Grebbles who Jimmy had left safely on the bar.

"Tiffany knew the risk. We all did. You should be proud, you had the balls to stop them. Think about all the people you've saved tonight, all those victims they were trafficking." I tried to take in her words but I couldn't, my mind had shut down.

I carried on cleaning. Eventually, Jimmy and Douglas surfaced. About 11 pm, Natalie weakly stood up. She insisted she needed to get the dismembered parts home, she said she could dispose of them in her block once it reached 1.11 am. This raised a huge amount of questions that I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answers to, so I decided not to ask.

Douglas loaded up his car and helped Natalie into the passenger seat. The Gnome was clean, the bodies were gone, but it still felt like a different place, like Kain had ripped the soul from it.

Jimmy checked I was going to be okay and made his way home. I locked the doors and made my way upstairs where I lay in my bed cuddled up with Cheeses. My mind raced but eventually sleep deprivation got the better of me and I crashed.

I woke up the next morning unsure how I felt. I realized my idea to hold drinks for Tiffany may have been a bit soon but I was determined to get the place up and running. Douglas arrived and made tea around noon. It was refreshing to see him.

I asked if he'd heard from Natalie and he said he'd spoken to her that morning and everything had gone smoothly. I considered asking about her methods again, but decided it was better I never knew.

We prepped the bar and things started to feel almost normal. Opening the doors was a release. Jimmy was in position within minutes and Phil and Sheila were at a table telling some other regulars about Phil's lack of an arm.

Maybe the Gnome was going to be ok. I was feeling hopeful.

"Camilla," Jimmy stopped me between pouring pints. He still never got my name right.

"Larger?" I asked, almost smiling.

"No... well, yes... but... I need to tell you something." My heart sank.


"When we moved the bodies..." I shushed him.

"Don't talk so loudly," I begged.

Jimmy looked around. Then he said something that sent chills up my spine.

"It's Kain, we never found his head."

Dayna's Story

I'm a dentist for monsters and last night I took on a new patient.

I'm going to get straight to the point. Monsters are real. All of them. You might think you know a lot about them but you don't. The stories and legends got so much wrong and I've had the privilege of getting to learn the truth about most of them.

For example, no self-respecting vampire would be caught dead - or alive - standing at your door waiting for an invite. And shapeshifters do not change once a month and howl at the moon. That's just ridiculous. And the popular ones are just the tip of the iceberg.

Do with that information what you will.

One thing that the stories did get right, however, was the teeth. Sharp, crowded, tall, tiny. They all have them, and sometimes they need attention. A monster without teeth loses a huge percentage of its scare factor in an instant. It's something they pay handsomely to avoid.

That creature that's haunted your nightmares, the one with a few too many teeth? Real. And probably in acute oral pain.

My name is Dr. Dayna Danworth and I own a dental practice for the paranormal.

It wasn't what I expected when attending dental school, to be sometimes shoulders deep in some of the most putrid and awful-smelling mouths you've ever seen. But the opportunity fell into my lap and it more than pays the bills. The money is worth the risk and I get to live very comfortably.

Regardless, the risk is very real. I was reminded of that last night during my appointment with a new patient. It left me somewhat shaken; a rarity in my field.

Some of my patients are able to present as human for at least enough time to make it to the practice without issue. To the general public, it looks like your average, private, city dentist and the daytime patients are generally the easier ones to deal with.

This particular patient was not able to feign humanity. This meant overnight work, something that I was no stranger to but that I always detested. Overnights and the rare home visits generally always yielded difficult patients.

Thankfully, I was able to charge double for the inconvenience, triple if I had to travel. Often the astronomical price turned out to be entirely justified and this was no different.

My receptionist, Coco, had booked him in. I love her to pieces and she's a true friend, who has the best of intentions, but she's truly terrible at the basics of her job. She never collects the relevant information for new sign-ups and doesn't ask any questions that might prepare me.

If it weren't for her relentless charm, I would have fired her years ago. But Coco has been with me from the beginning, has her own skill set, and despite my frustrations, she's here to stay.

Mr. Eurastix was booked in for 11 pm. He wanted the full cover of darkness for his arrival. That was all Coco knew. Blackout blinds down, I prepped the room, knots forming in my stomach.

"Dayna, do you want a coffee?" Coco shouted from the front desk, where she watched the security camera waiting for our arrival.

"Water's fine."

"You're mad, aren't you? I'm sorry, Day. How the fuck are you supposed to ask someone what kind of monster they are? I feel rude." Coco was always worried about offending, it was sweet, but useless.

"You could at least ask what the problem is! Didn't you learn from the incident with the woman of the water? Traipsed me all the way out to a rock pool with a bag of tools and no informa-"

My rant was cut off by the sound of the buzzer. My patient had arrived and he was standing just outside. Coco shot me a guilty and apologetic look and approached the door to unbolt it.

Within milliseconds, she was floored and totally winded. The door was left swinging with not a soul to be seen. Great.

I squinted, searching for a minuscule creature, or something translucent perhaps, but nothing. Instead, there was a sinister, high-pitched voice from behind me, inches from my left ear. It sounded like one of those cringeworthy, over-enthused children's TV presenters and it made my skin crawl.

"Nice to meet you, Doctor! My name is Mosaph Eurastix. You can call me Mo if you prefer."

His presence cooled the immediate area around me and Coco wrenched herself up from the ground to bolt the door shut. I would've gone to help her, but I assure you she'd faced much worse whilst working with me and I felt there were more pressing matters at the moment. Instead, I turned to face my newest patient.

I understood immediately the need for darkness.

Mo wasn't a big, hairy creature. He was far more humanoid than I expected from a patient requesting an overnight appointment. He wore a floor-length hooded cloak swamping his seemingly average body.

But Mo had a fleshy face.

He had striking red irises, with pupils that were shaped differently from a human's. Over the top of his eyes was a thin, fleshy layer that created a veiny, translucent veil. As if an eyelid had formed but never separated, leaving him with his own protective eye windows.

The same paper-thin skin veiled the opening to his mouth, ever so slightly muffling his high-pitched words and failing to conceal a perfectly circular arrangement of small, razor-sharp teeth. His mouth didn't move as you would expect. Instead, the voice projected from the back of his throat and through the skin.

Where most people would be horrified, I was fascinated. There's a certain point in an industry like mine where you're entirely desensitized to the horrific sights of these monsters. I'd never seen one like Mo before. I wasn't scared, more curious.

"Welcome, Mo. I think you owe my employee here an apology, don't you?" I stared him firmly in the eyes. "Dr. Danworth." I stretched out a cautious hand. This was something I did often, I was always fascinated to see their hands. Mo's were like mine. Except for the thin, veiny pieces of skin that connected each finger. It made a change from the array of claws I'd become accustomed to.

"I do apologize, I was merely concerned that I might be seen. I didn't mean to cause any harm! That could've caused some trouble," he laughed.

The excess skin was everywhere. The more I looked at him the more I noticed. It covered his ears, connected his lobes to his head, covered his nostrils and seemingly his actual skin beneath it, and even webbed his chin to what I presumed was his chest under the cloak. It was a mess.

"Can I get you a coffee, sir?" Coco beamed, unfazed as ever. It was the kind of moment that reminded me why I kept her around. Top-notch customer service, however useless her admin was.

"Not for me, thank you. In fact, that's partly why I'm here. As you can see, I have some restriction drinking at all." He lifted his webbed hand, flesh covering the fingernails, and stroked the delicate skin that covered his mouth.

"Let's get straight to it then, follow me."

I lead Mo into my treatment room, winking at Coco as a signal for her to keep an eye on the treatment room camera. He took a seat on the chair and I turned my lamp on. The bright light shining through the flesh made for quite a sight, illuminating the perfectly circular jaw underneath the clung-on skin and creating ghastly shadows.

"Please tell me a bit about yourself and what I can do for you."

"Woah. I wasn't expecting a date, doctor. What do you want to know?" His voice was cheeky and came laced with giggles but something about it still made my skin crawl. It was as if Mo sucked all the joy out of the room; some of them had that effect.

"And you aren't going to get one. But I need to know about your specific afflictions and diet etcetera in order to treat you correctly." I watched as Mo became visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of explaining what he was. "Don't worry, there's no judgment here."

"Well, doc, I don't always look like this for a start. It's never gotten this bad before. Usually, the skin appears... then it hardens and... I eat it."

He looked at me as if I was supposed to be in some kind of deep shock, but I'd kept geckos as a kid. When a gecko sheds its skin it does it in one go like it's taking off a tiny cardigan, then they consume the remains. It's highly nutritious. Mo's red eyes were quite reptilian. I stupidly thought at that stage that I had him all worked out.

"So you need some assistance with removal? I work with teeth, Mr. Eurastix, not the rest of the anatomy."

"You just need to cut this, doc." He nonchalantly pointed at the flap of skin stretched across his circular jaw. "The rest should dislodge easily then you can get to work on the teeth."

"And what appears to be the issue with those?"

"Isn't it obvious? I did tell your receptionist." Mo rolled his red eyes behind their horrendous fleshy windows.

For fuck's sake, Coco.

That's what I thought but I didn't say it. I would never lament her in front of a patient. I inspected what I could see of the rounded jaw and gathering of pointed teeth through the lamp and tried to ponder what he could possibly want.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Eurastix, but I haven't worked with anyone with your particular afflictions before. You will have to bring me up to speed."

"Well, I don't subsist entirely on my shed, doc. My teeth were designed for a purpose but they've lost their... edge. Part of the reason I'm dealing with all of... this." His eyes brightened with a ravenous hunger and he pulled at the skin connecting from his chin.

"So you're looking for a sharpening? May I ask what you eat?"

I was curious. I make it my business to catalog each monster that I work with for my own personal research, but I couldn't liken him to any other. He wasn't reminiscent of even an old urban legend. I couldn't place him but over the years I'd come to understand that most were defined by their bite. It was always a good starting point.

"I eat brains," he answered in the most unassuming voice I'd ever heard.

I'd had worse, but this was new. Was he what your average person might describe as a zombie? I had been certain that they were nothing but a myth. I would've regretted it had I not asked the question but that still didn't prepare me for the answer.

"No!" Mo laughed a high-pitched, false and cold laugh. "What I am is far worse than the laughable construct of a zombie. All we share is diet. Nothing more. Now I think it's time you got to work, doc."

I gulped but didn't respond. I picked up my scalpel and prodded at the excess skin covering his rounded jaw with the point. Despite its delicate appearance, even with force, it remained infallible. Within minutes, I found myself viciously stabbing at my patient's mouth.

Yet another occurrence I hadn't expected in dental school.

I placed the scalpel down and walked over to the locked cupboard in the corner of the room. It was the one I used to house my special tools for special cases. Mo didn't even flinch when I returned with a diamond-tipped drill in my hands.

My second attempt was more successful. The drill met some resistance and created an awful noise in the process, but after breaking a sweat it finally pierced the layer, sending grotesque blood and unidentifiable matter across the floor.

The smell that filled the room was indescribable. I dropped the drill on the side as I heard Coco gag at the front desk. It almost stunned me enough to stop me from catching Mo's next move.

Each flap of excess skin started to pull and tear away from its position on his face and hands, moving upward from beneath his cloak and making it very apparent that he was covered head to toe in the stuck shed.

He sucked in with the ferociousness of an angry Henry hoover as he consumed his own flesh as it ripped to reveal fresh, raw skin. The scene was truly horrific. But as the thin windows of skin peeled away from Mo's eyes to reveal a brilliant scarlet he looked truly satisfied.

That's what I want, right? Satisfied patients.

Placing a new face mask over my mouth and nose, I attempted to combat the smell that had saturated the first one.

"Better?" I asked, as Mo slurped the final bloodied pieces of himself down. He nodded with glee.

"I can't wait for a real meal now. I've been sooo hungry." He looked at me like dinner. I held in vomit as I tried to get a look at his now unobstructed teeth.

"Well, if you want to enjoy a real meal then you won't make one of me before your teeth are done," I laughed nervously and he delighted at my discomfort.

"Are you scared of me, Dr. Danworth? I thought you were experienced. You came highly recommended by the Beast of Cordyline Hill."

Of course, I did. I fucking hated that guy. He was the patient I always dreaded and now he'd sent me another living nightmare.

"Not at all, Mo, just a joke. Shall we move on with the sharpening?"

I could see that he knew I was lying. Although he couldn't contort his circular mouth it was in the eyes. I've found that even in the most monstrous of eyes there is emotion. People say that they're windows to the soul, but they're also windows to the soulless.

I picked up my file and got to work.

The jaw was solid and perfectly fused into its shape. Lining the entire edge were around 80 roughly three-inch-long, incisor-shaped teeth. They had clearly been blunted with time, but it didn't make them or him any less intimidating.

They sharpened up with ease. Grinding against them, I felt like some sort of Classical Greek sculptor. Carving my masterpiece.

I tried not to give too much thought to the poor victims that would fall prey to those particular teeth. I couldn't work out how he got to the brain but I was certain that it wasn't pretty. Nasty, but natural. Think of it like the food chain of the animal kingdom; it's just the part no one talks about.

I put my all into my work and soon found myself faced with a perfect set of monster gnashers - if I do say so myself.

"You're all done, Mr. Eurastix. Would you like to take a look?" I lowered the circular mirror slowly and he snatched it from my hands at a similar speed to how he'd entered the practice. It took me aback a little.

With his red raw hands, he ran his fingers along the jagged edges of his teeth, checking that each individual one was to his liking. It made me incredibly nervous, watching him scrutinize my masterpiece.

"They're perfect," he uttered under his breath.

I smiled sweetly, determined to get the patient out of my practice and into the world... away from me.

"I'm glad you think so, you can make payment at the front desk with Coco." I turned my back to him to tidy my equipment for mere seconds. A rookie mistake.

Seconds were more than enough.

I felt a harsh pulling on my hair accompanied by suckling noises. It was painful, each individual strand being tugged hard from the end, roots snapping. Fuck. I screamed. The slurping noises coming from behind me intensified.


With one final tug on my hair, Mo hit the floor and I turned to see Coco standing over him with a large ceramic tooth that usually decorated reception. She dragged him out of the treatment room and into the entrance as I tried to tidy my hair with my fingers and compose myself.

I tried to remain professional but I found myself hyperventilating.

"What do you think you're doing, sir? The doctor here provided you a service, now please pay up and leave," Coco bit at him the moment he opened his creepy eyes. These were the moments that I was best reminded of the reasons she retained her job.

Mo looked up at her in shock, steadying himself on his raw hands.

"I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me, doctor. I'm just so hungry, and I'm sure you've got such a juicy brain." He stared me dead in the eye with his bright red irises and extended an equally bright red tongue, licking each sharp tooth gently. Menacingly.

His tone wasn't genuinely apologetic at all. Desperately shaken I waited with bated breath as he reached into his cloak pocket and handed a stack of cash to Coco.

"It's time you leave, Mr. Eurastix. I can recommend a colleague in the industry for further appointments but I won't be continuing to treat you." I opened up the bolted door and gestured for him to leave.

"Oh, doctor, whether or not you treat me we will meet again, I assure you."

After a lingering glare, Mo lifted his hood to cover his face and stepped outside into the dark night.

My relief soon turned sour. I hadn't noticed the drunken gentleman walking along the path, but Mo certainly had.

I watched in abject horror as he grabbed the man by both shoulders and latched on hair first to the back of his head. The man screamed in pain, pleading. The awful slurping noise was unbearable.

I ran towards my patient but before I could make it outside to try and help he latched his ring of fangs around the man's scalp. The bite was followed by an almighty crunch, deadening the screams.

There was no hope for the man.

Mo slurped at the inside of his crunched skull as if it were a delicious fresh oyster. He moaned and groaned with intense pleasure as he chomped down on the contents of the head. When he was finished he dropped his victim to the ground, hollowed out, and turned to me.

"Thanks, doc, I feel so much better now. I'll tell the Beast you said hello."

He practically chirped those words. Then he was gone. Disappeared.

Mo had moved so fast and destroyed the passerby with such deadly precision; I realized that if he had wanted me dead then I would have been. And his final words, about the Beast. It made me wonder if the Beast of Cordyline Hill had sent him in the first place.

Coco made a call to PSEC, or for those who don't know The Paranormal Services Emergency Cleaners to dispose of the body. They were swift and professional... as always.

It's terrible, but this hadn't been the first fatality on my watch because of a patient, and my guilt was unfathomable.

Today I've spent hours pondering why I continue to do this job. Why I put myself at risk of death on a nightly basis. But in all honesty, it's quite simple. My fascination just won't allow me to quit.

Adding my notes on Mosaph Eurastix to my research files, I felt electrified. Another monster for my collection, and I can't wait to find the next one.

I'm a dentist for monsters. This new patient was a real old hag.

Running a leading paranormal dentist in the city is no picnic. There's plaque, fangs, and more than the occasional incident. It's good money, but that's not why I do it.

What keeps me going is pure fascination. Ever since my first day, I've been in awe of the monsters that hide in plain sight, the numerous species that brazenly kill while humans mock the prospect of their existence with costumes and movies.

I aim to collect them all. Not like Pokemon. I'm not some kind of sicko preserving them in formaldehyde either. No. More like the type of collection you might find in a museum. An educational tool of sorts.

I catalog the defining features of my patients; keeping what may be the most comprehensive database of monsters in the country. Some of the friendlier ones have even allowed me to hold on to extracted teeth.

I thought it was about time I shared some of my findings.

Last time I told you about Mosaph Eurastix; a curious humanoid with reptilian skin and a hunger for brains. Aside from his diet, I couldn't liken him to any myth or legend that I'd researched. He was a true oddity.

Oddities, as I affectionately call them, make up a huge proportion of my patients. Unique monsters that can't be categorized or defined by a well-known spooky tale. Some, like Mosaph, are sinister and vicious. Others are gentle, earning the title of monster by appearance only.

Not all my patients are a complete mystery though. Some of the stories got more than a few things right, making the patient almost instantly recognizable, even to an unsuspecting human.

Ms. Eudora Finch was a patient who made up part of that category. None of my patients are dull, but some make a bigger impact than others and Eudora was an especially memorable character.

She was a daytime patient. Usually, they're the ones who give me the least trouble. Dare I say it but daytime can sometimes be boring.

The particular day that Ms. Finch came into my life had been especially slow. It's been a long time but I remember that I was tired. I'd had an overnight appointment with a set of adorable twins who were average by day but took on a demonic form at night. They were favorites of mine, and remained quite cute as monsters go, but they were also especially energetic and could be clumsy with their long claws.

After working with them and gaining multiple scratches, I'd struggled to sleep. I barely got four hours before the alarm went and I found myself back at the practice, Coco in my face with a coffee, the insufferable morning person that she is. Exhausted, I watched the clock tick as I performed mundane checkups on regulars. She was my last appointment of the day.

Ms. Finch looked sweet. There was a plastic polka dot bonnet wrapped around her head as protection from the rain, underneath were a set of unruly blue rinsed curls. Behind her, she carted one of those shopping bags on wheels.

Eudora wasn't a handsome woman, her features were crooked and her skin wrinkled. Regardless, she had Coco totally charmed in minutes with her impeccable manners. Coco was a sucker for a polite old lady, an admirable trait that could also be deemed suicidal in our industry.

I left the treatment room after a while alone, expecting to strike her off as a no-show when I found them.

"Coco, who's this?" I asked, confused as to why my receptionist was sitting on the waiting room sofa with an elderly woman.

"Ooh... Dayna! This is Eudora, she's your four o'clock. We got chatting and..."

"Dr. Danworth! What a pleasure to meet you!" Eudora locked eyes with me, as if she was no longer remotely interested in Coco's existence. "I'm so glad you agreed to help me with this issue, it's difficult to find anyone who will treat someone like me. My gratitude is immense and I intend to reward you greatly."

I've been in this business a long time. A traditionally ugly, enchanting elderly woman offering great reward in return for assistance screamed witch. Specifically a crone or hag depending on which term you prefer.

"Money will do just fine," I answered.

She wasn't the first that I'd seen, and she certainly wouldn't be the last. Crones always had particularly awful teeth to work on, their extended life coupled with poor hygiene practices all around generally resulted in diseased mouths and extractions. Never pretty, but then I never did expect glamour from my work.

Eudora Finch's species provided me with quite the moral dilemma whenever I found myself in their proximity. I work with teeth, so diet is important to me and my research. I'd learned to compartmentalize the death and destruction that my patients caused in the name of a good snack but I'm human and sometimes I find that more difficult.

A defining feature of these witches and an unfortunate accuracy from a number of the stories I've read about them is their hunger for children. A fact I struggled to push aside in the name of inclusion.

"And what exactly is the problem, Mrs. Finch?" I had been so focused on thoughts of her diet that for a split second, I forgot that we were in the waiting room. "I apologize, I'm getting ahead of myself; let's go to the treatment room to discuss it." I stood up to lead her down the hall.

"It's Ms. actually. Could you imagine a man able to love this face?" She let out, for lack of a better word, a cackle, raising dirty, stubby fingers to her wrinkled face. I giggled uncomfortably and continued walking as she followed, noting the trolley still dragging behind her.

"Would you like to leave your bag at the desk with Coco, Ms. Finch? I assure you it would be safe."

"I'd prefer to keep it near me actually, Doctor, if you don't mind. It has some items of... sentimental value... that I like to keep a close eye on."

Concerned, but not enough to argue, I nodded and raised an arm coaxing her into the room and onto the large black, leather chair. She obliged without issue.

"So... the problem, Ms. Finch?" I know I may sound as if I were being rude, but I'd found that witches of all subsets would take a mile when given an inch and I wasn't prepared to put myself in that position. I kept a heavy guard up.

She sighed and looked at the floor, shame in her eyes.

"I was tricked, Dr. Danworth. I'll get straight to the point. I was promised the firstborn child of a couple with fertility issues that I helped."

"I don't settle disputes, but I have a great friend at Campbell's Law clinic who can."

"I'm not looking to settle a dispute. The couple knew the consequences of not holding up their end of the deal and they've met them. It always troubles me that people find it so easy to break promises.

"I gave them everything. They'd have had twenty more healthy, beautiful children if they'd wanted but, instead, they chose to deprive me of what was rightfully mine. It was misguided of them."

"I'm still not understanding what this has to do with your teeth?" My skin crawled. The idea of her chomping down on... it just doesn't bear thinking about.

"This particular couple thought they were clever, Doctor. They must have poured hours into creating that faux child. They weren't wealthy, but the father was a sculptor, and well... I better show you."

She opened her mouth to reveal a set of teeth so damaged that they rivaled the worst I'd ever seen. Broken, chipped, exposed nerves and the diseased gums that witches were renowned for. In layman's terms, she had bitten hard on something hard.

Mentally, I celebrated the couple's ingenuity. The love and dedication that they had for their child had been truly admirable. It made it harder to accept the awful fates that I'm sure Eudora had ensured they meet... and the fate of their young one.

I may have been uncomfortable. But it's part of the job, even in times like those it's important that I put aside my prejudice and complete the work at hand. After all, I wasn't there to save people, just to fix teeth.

"I think a false set is the best avenue to go down. There are a few options... implants, veneers, and dentures. I'm afraid that your gums will struggle to take the implants... and veneers are an incredibly expensive process that will require more than one visit."

"Dentures will do just fine, Doctor. I just can't go on like this. Existing on soft foods is just no fun."

I tried to imagine the soft foods that she might be referring to... worms, maybe? A specific mixture in a cauldron? I didn't expect it would be that on the nose. But then the stories did get the actual crooked nose right so you never know.

"Can I grab you a drink or anything before we start? This could get quite uncomfortable, Ms. Finch."

"I'm no stranger to discomfort, dear. Just get on with it."

On the instruction of my patient, I got to work. Injections, extraction, cleaning, and a putty mold. I would be able to send her home with temporary teeth that day; but she would need to return for a reshape and realignment. It was a shame she hadn't opted for veneers, they would've been a great earner.

It was about as close as I ever got to what I expected at dental school. Fitting dentures for elderly women. I had never expected to be fitting dentures that may one day consume an infant, however, a fact of which pulled me starkly back to reality.

The tiredness still hit me in waves and Eudora Finch wasn't half as entertaining as the demon twins. I slogged my way to the end but ensured I didn't sacrifice the quality of my work because of how I felt. Coco grew increasingly bored at the front desk.

Finally, the moment came to pull down the mirror and allow Ms. Finch to inspect her new gnashers. They changed her face completely, making her almost attractive. But they did nothing to correct her wonky features.

"Thank you, Doctor. They're beautiful." She rubbed at the perfect white teeth with her brown, dirtied fingers, causing me to hold in a cringe.

"You're welcome, Ms. Finch. You can pay Coco at the front desk and I'll see you in a month's time for alignment."

I should've known by the look of discomfort on her face that I wasn't going to receive traditional payment for the job but I am ever the optimist. And I really wanted the old hag out of my chair.

"We can organize installments if you weren't expecting the price. I understand it's a lot of money."

"You have done me a great service today, Dr. Danworth and in return..."

My heart sank. She was a crone, nothing unexpected or new like Mo; and crones never gave anything for free. Accepting their present was like catching an STD. Uncomfortable and difficult to get rid of. I tried to stop her.

"I don't want it! Whatever cursed item you're going to try and ham fist into my life... I'm not interested! Just leave the practice!"

I stood with as much confidence as I could muster and pointed to the now-open doorway. She smiled an evil smile and let out another cackle that only further drove the despair I felt.

"You're meant to be a professional, Doctor. I thought you would be more familiar with the dealings of my people. The service has been provided... and so will the gift."

Eudora was correct. I knew that the curse she would put on me for turning down her gift would be far worse than the one I was obliged to accept. That didn't mean that I was going to realign her dentures though, that ship had sailed. I can be one petty paranormal dentist when I want to be.

"What is the gift?" I asked nervously.

She shot me another wicked look and reached for the battered old shopping trolley. I felt sick. I'd heard lots about the deals and gifts that crones specialize in but I'd never been a party to one myself. The others that I'd treated had all paid with little fuss.

"They gave me a concrete baby. Could you imagine how hurt I was? And not just the teeth. Emotionally. I was invested in that child, Doctor, she was rightfully mine. So I doomed the parents to match the firstborn that they provided me with."

"What happened to the baby?" I asked, shaking, my heart pounding in my chest.

"I collected her, of course. That's what I'm owed then that's what I'm going to get, right?

"But then I looked at her. I'm not totally heartless, Doctor, she had survived the deal I made with her parents and they felt the consequences. I'm fair. Besides, it was obvious she was more than just a tasty snack."

Her filthy digits fiddled with the fastener on the bag and I held back a violent urge to vomit. A baby would've cried, right? What the fuck was she about to hand me.

"I can't keep her. She causes a whole host of issues and whenever I feel a pang of hunger the temptation rises. That and my discovery..."

She pulled a large draping shawl from the bag and unwrapped it to reveal a beautiful, healthy-looking child dressed in a brilliant white gown, unspoiled by her captor's grime. Relief washed over me, in honesty I had expected far worse. Then the panic set in.

"You can't keep her?! And what makes you think I can?! You could've left her on a hospital doorstep... or anywhere she'd be found and loved! I don't want her!"

My lifestyle wasn't conducive to the safe rearing of children. I knew and accepted that. My feeble attempts to find love over the years had always been a catastrophic failure. I wasn't destined for parenthood.

"Did you even listen, doctor? I said there was a discovery, if you'd have just let me finish." She shot me daggers.

I gulped. It didn't sound good. I let Eudora continue, knowing I'd probably sacrificed my chance of a clear answer.

"It soon became apparent that her parents hadn't only come to me for fertility help. Just another reason that I can't claim her. I couldn't leave her on any old doorstep. I had to seek out someone more understanding of the things that people don't acknowledge. Someone like you. I assure you, I see your fascination, your need to know. She is a special gift. You'll see."

Eudora put the baby in my arms and got up swiftly, grabbing her trolley and making her way to the exit. I protested but she didn't turn back once, until eventually, I heard her leave.

"Coco, dear, it was a pleasure to meet you!" followed by the sound of the door swinging shut.

The baby gurgled in my arms and I stared at her little face in acute shock. Unsure what to do I screamed for Coco. She locked the door first, a genuine moment of common sense from her, and joined me in the treatment room.

We spent more than a few moments in silence staring at the bundle. I spent most of that time in terror, wondering what Ms. Finch had meant. Who else could the stone parents have gone to for assistance? I wish that I was still as naive to that question now as I was back then. Despite the abundance of stories, fertility magic-wielding monsters aren't ten a penny.

At the time, I hadn't come across any non-crones with that particular trait.

Coco was much more maternal than I was. After hearing the story, she felt an immediate connection to the little girl. She took the child from my arms and started to rock and bounce her.

"What are we gonna do, Dayna? She needs a good home." She kept talking as I tuned out. "She's beautiful, don't you think!? Isn't Nellie a lovely name... or how about Sadie?!"

I started to weigh up my options, running through a Rolodex of paranormal-affiliated contacts that I might be able to call. Without knowing the details, I couldn't in good faith contact a regular adoption agency.

Then it happened.

Coco screamed. As I had been tugging at my hair trying to make sense of a stream of nonstop thoughts, she had been babbling her lips with a finger to entertain the baby. She had made the terrible mistake of gently doing the same to the giggling baby's lips.

It was a wonder that she had kept hold of her and hadn't dropped the infant. There was a remarkable amount of blood.

In retrospect, the little girl was just playing, but at the time it was quite the drama. It was only her giggling at Coco's screams that made her affliction apparent. And I knew instantly that there was only one option left for the baby.

Her bright blue eyes needed me... and so did the rows of sharp, pointed teeth that my receptionist had just fallen victim to. I had to take her home.

That's how Coco lost her finger. And how I became the mother of a monster.

I'm a dentist for monsters. Sometimes I do home visits.

Dr. Dayna Danworth here. Your friendly neighborhood paranormal dentist. Last time I introduced you to my daughter, a baby that had been born cursed and given to me in return for a pair of dentures.

I decided not to opt for Sadie or Nellie as Coco had suggested. Both lovely names but neither felt fitting for the little girl that I bonded with in the weeks following my appointment with the crone, Eudora Finch.

She became Pearl. Coco said that it was too much like a bad dentist pun for pearly whites but it fit her perfectly, and it stuck. My beautiful little Pearl.

She wasn't planned and she certainly wasn't easy. I had to hire a nanny well-versed in all things monstrous. I couldn't risk her developing a taste for fingers or an unsuspecting babysitter going into cardiac arrest at the sight of her pointed teeth. So I made inquiries in the professional circles I run in.

Evan was a fantastic caretaker. He had experience with special children and came highly recommended by the nannying agency. Evan had a stomach of steel and wasn't at all phased by feeding her small rodents. He took quite some delight in her giggle, in fact.

There really are services out there for everyone.

I felt safe coming to the practice and knowing that Pearl was with Evan, but I did cancel overnights for quite some time, opting to spend them with her. It took a few months before I was ready to do those shifts again and I insisted on finishing by 1 am at the very latest. I didn't want to be an absent mother, not like mine had been.

The first home visit I did after taking on Pearl was especially hard. Home visits were never my favorites pre little monster and they only became more of a nuisance after. They were fantastic money though, and I was providing for two now.

A home visit would only occur when a particular patient was absolutely unable to come to the practice. Often they would take place in caves and balanced on precarious ocean rocks. Sirens, shadow dwellers, and elemental monsters always came to mind immediately when Coco bounded up to me, eyes bright, with the two words I dreaded most.

"Field trip!"

That night, I was packed. My go bag by the door was familiar yet felt somehow so different this time. I brushed it aside. It was just teeth, right?

I left two small chicks to thaw on the kitchen side and kissed Pearl on the forehead before handing her to Evan. It broke me that first night. Coco was excited as ever, she enjoyed home visits and when she rolled up to collect me she resembled a kid in line for a rollercoaster.

I could never understand it. She'd sustained more than a few injuries on these trips but nothing dampened her eagerness. I love her, I really do, but it was tiresome. I was annoyed before I even got in the car.

Her negligence didn't have the same comedic charm when traveling to a remote set of coordinates. With the other life, I now had to think of the stakes being higher and I couldn't help but lament Coco for her inability to gather any real information on new patients.

"Where are we driving? Evan's great but I didn't intend to leave Pearl full-time." It was about an hour into the drive and I was starting to worry that it was going to be a longer trip than I anticipated.

"It's not that far, a little village called Abelfort. It looked quite quaint on the postcard."


"Oh! I thought I showed you! Not every day a patient books by postcard, is it?"

I took in a breath and tried to soothe myself. Coco knew she was about to get a barrage for her dopey indiscretions and interjected before I could start.

"It's in the glovebox, Dayna. Can you just try to be a bit fun for once in your life?" Without taking her eyes off the road, she managed to scold me with them.

I didn't say another word. She was right, I could be uptight sometimes. I was even more so in those months after receiving Pearl and I felt bad for taking it out on her. Silently, I opened the glovebox in front of me and pulled out a slightly crumpled postcard. Another thing she was right about; Abelfort did look quaint.

I turned the card over and was met with the most beautiful cursive I've ever seen. The exact wording escapes me; I was too caught up in the lettering, but the note was insistent that the appointment take place in the village under the cover of darkness.

The cover of darkness had become quite the cliche in my industry. A term that had become worthy of eye rolls across the board. Having seen the photograph of the gorgeous village center, I remember being entirely unbothered for the remainder of the drive, right up until the last turn.

"Strange." Coco stopped the car on a country lane at the edge of a vast field, characterized only by a large, dilapidated farmhouse.


"Well... I'm supposed to make a sharp right turn here. Directly into the field."

"That doesn't sound saf-" It was too late. Before I could even finish the sentence, Coco had spun the steering wheel and sent the car straight over the uneven, muddy terrain. I clung to my seat, knuckles turning white as she laughed.

"Will you relax, Dayna! I got some special tires put on this thing. It's about time they got some use!" She chuckled with utter delight, accelerating and making revving noises in time with the car. After about 400 yards she slammed her foot on the brake pedal, directly outside the old farmhouse.

"Here!" she squealed. Just like a teenager would as the school bus pulls up to a boring museum. It didn't matter where I took her, she just enjoyed being out.

"Remind me of the patient's name, please? It wasn't on the postcard."

"Oh... erm. She didn't say. I called to confirm the booking but our conversation was very brief."

As I despaired at the inadequacy, I tried to take in my surroundings and look for any clues as to what I may have been dealing with.

The farmhouse looked haunted; boarded-up windows and broken outer cladding decorated the building like bunting. I wasn't a nonbeliever, my job simply wouldn't allow that, but I couldn't see why a ghost would require my services.

The land was expansive, with thick woodland at the borders. I was in awe of the sheer beauty of the nature, even in the dark night. It took me a few moments to notice that not only had we driven across grass, but that there were no traditional dirt tracks leading to the house. It seemed as though a crane had picked it up and plonked it in the middle of a lush, green field.

It didn't bode well. Any monster that adverse to visitors and locals accessing them generally had good reason for it. I had never arrived at a home visit in an actual home either, it was a welcome change of pace from the dingy swamps and dark caves I had anticipated.

"Well, I guess we better meet the patient."

I stepped toward the rotting, wooden door, secured by multiple locks and bolts, barely visible through the worn paneling. I knocked three times, loudly, heart in my throat. The anticipation never got any easier.

It's ironic, but the perfectly average-looking woman who came to the door was more of a shock than any monster could've been. She was young but had large, swollen bags under her eyes and wild, graying hair. Aside from being a little disheveled, she seemed unmistakably human.

I'm not one to discriminate, but you expect them to look freaky when they don't attend the practice.

"Hello, my name is Dr. Dayna Danworth, this is my assistant Coco, pleased to meet you..." I held out my hand in the hope that the woman would lead with her name.

"Esme Jacobs." She grabbed my hand and opened the door as far onward as it would go, ushering us in. "Thank you for coming on such short notice. Did anyone see you make the turn? I don't want the village knowing I have company."

"We're professionals, Ms. Jacobs. We can assure you we were discreet." Coco chimed in. I wondered what part of her car clambering across mud was discreet but I decided not to voice my concerns. Coco had a far better bedside manner than I could dream of.

Sat at a dusty old, green sofa in Esme's dimly lit lounge she presented us with a cup of tea each. I never cared for tea much, but as a British staple I had it offered to me often. If anything could strengthen human-monster relations it would be tea. Coco took time to compliment her mugs.

"Ms. Jacobs, I hate to be so direct, but I need to know why we're here?" I asked, breaking up the initial pleasantries.

"Of course, Doctor. I was told that you work with... abnormal..."

"Well, that's why I'm a little confused. Forgive me for being presumptive but you seem perfectly able to attend my dentistry... May I ask?"

"It's not me!" Esme laughed. It wasn't a joyous laugh; instead, it was cold and filled with pain. "I wouldn't be forking out this kind of money for myself, it's all I have, but if we don't fix this then my whole family will perish."

My interest was piqued. I started trying to guess what she may be referring to, the suggestion that her family would perish helped me to categorize the patient before I'd even met them. Esme Jacobs was living with a curse.

Bloodline and area-specific monsters were a fascination to me. At the time of Esme Jacobs' appointment, I was yet to meet the Beast of Cordyline Hill and was somewhat naive to the power these creatures had on any that crossed their path. I retained the excitement of a newbie.

"What is it? And where do you keep it?" I asked, making sense of the lack of access to the farmhouse.

"He's my family's biggest secret... and our deepest shame. He's much older than I am, but I'll tell you the story my mother told me before she died. The burden she passed on."

I sipped my tea, catching a glimpse of Coco, already enthralled in the tale.

"My great-grandmother was married to the son of the village mayor at the age of twenty-two. Her father owned the land that this house sits on and the marriage was mostly political. There wasn't an iota of love involved.

"She had an affair with my great-grandfather, who she was deeply in love with but wasn't deemed worthy of her. She hid the affair from her husband, meeting with her sweetheart in secret. They had three children, two girls and a boy, who the husband believed were his.

"The affair was exposed when the boy grew into the spitting image of my grandfather, causing a huge scandal in the village. The mayor's son was humiliated. Rightly so, I suppose, but it didn't justify his course of action."

"What happened?" Coco asked, totally entranced by Esme Jacobs.

"He took a hunting rifle and shot his kids. Made my grandmother watch before turning the gun on her and then finally himself. One of the girls survived, albeit with horrific injuries, and was raised by her biological father in exile, hence my existence."

She was flippant. Despite the enormity of the tragedy she described she seemed quite dissociated from it. It only furthered my curiosity.

"Forgive me, Esme, but that doesn't explain why I'm here." I tried to keep the appointment moving.

"My grandfather struggled with the loss of his soulmate and the children, he drank himself senseless at first. People reported him talking to himself by the edge of the land, next to the trees. But he wasn't alone.

"They've been a local legend for hundreds of years. The people of this village believe that there's a race of forest folk, who aren't like us... who can grant wishes."

I knew exactly where the story was headed, the mere mention of deceased children and forest folk helped every piece come together like a jigsaw.

"Where were the kids buried?" I asked, interrupting her story.

She looked quite indignant, as if no one had ever been so dismissive of tales of the forest folk. I wasn't intending to be dismissive, however, forest folk as she called them were highly elusive creatures; fascinating monsters. Not one that I'd had the pleasure of working with. But not half as fascinating as the particular wish I knew they'd granted.

"I don't know. No one ever mentioned it," she replied, racking her brain for an old conversation or tidbit of knowledge that just wasn't there.

"I would be prepared to put money on it being that same spot by the edge of the land, next to the trees. Are you familiar with the term changeling Esme?"

Coco smiled. I think she enjoyed the home visits because she saw them like a live-action national geographic show that she could watch unfold in front of her. To be honest, on this occasion I felt much the same. Changelings were an often spoken of but rarely seen monster.

The forest folk are more commonly known in story form as dryads or the fae. Fairies; to reduce them to a kid's tale. Changelings are a faux child that the fae give to a human family in place of the real thing that they are said to have taken.

The story fit. The only part that didn't make sense was that the children were already dead, not the usual prey for creatures of this type, who were said to prefer healthy, living young.

"Of course, I am. And I wish that it were that simple, those things seem positively delightful compared to him." She winced in the direction of a rickety-looking wooden door across the room from the sofa, tucked in the hallway.

"They rejected the dead child?" I thought aloud to myself, trying to suppress the stream of thoughts hitting me. "Thought it was a gift gone wrong?" My limited knowledge let me down. I stopped looking at the floor and stared Esme straight in the eyes.

"I'd like to meet my patient please."

It's cliche. To keep a monster in the basement. I wish that some of the people cursed with such home visitors would start getting more creative. I thought of Pearl, and her stone parents. Would they have kept her in the basement if they'd lived to see her for what she was?

The farmhouse basement was at least spacious. I'm not some sort of monster rights activist but I do struggle with some of the cages and makeshift homes I've witnessed. He at least had some legroom.

He sat alone, chained in the corner of the dark room, on the cold concrete floor. I wondered why it was only him, no changeling for the deceased little girl in sight. He was pale, dead-looking in fact, with blue veins connecting his features like a dot-to-dot.

I could understand why she wouldn't want to bring him into the practice. A child that resembled a walking corpse would garner quite some attention in the city.

"What's your name?" I asked as gently as I could. Catching a tiny glimmer of light hitting him from an air vent I noticed his emaciated frame. He didn't respond to my question, so I turned my attention to Esme.

"What's his name? And what does he eat?" I asked, angry at the state of the boy. I knew that changelings were rumored to be incredibly dangerous, but seeing a perceived child in that condition would tug at anyone's heartstrings.

"It's Dennis. And this is the problem, Doctor..."

"What does he eat?!" I was much firmer the second time. I wasn't fucking around.

"Livestock... animals... people when he gets the chance. But he broke his teeth trying to get through the bars and now he can't eat a thing. I can't let him die... If I do, the forest folk will never bring the real Dennis back. He hasn't aged a day since he returned, he craves blood, he's a monster." Esme started to cry as she gestured to the air vent, dented metal barely visible.

I shook my head and approached Dennis. I was familiar with the idea that the fae would eventually return the original child but after so many generations I was surprised that Ms. Jacobs was deluded enough to expect that outcome. To keep him locked away simply seemed cruel.

"Hi, Dennis, my name is Dayna. Esme tells me you've hurt your teeth. I'm a doctor and I'm here to try and help. Could I take a look?"

Dennis turned to me, black eyes the central focus of his gaunt face. There was no iris remaining, just pools of darkness. His eyes glazed like he wanted to cry and I imagined the years that he'd been locked up in the vast, empty room. He nodded at me, desperately, before opening his mouth to reveal two rows of shattered, jagged teeth.

"Could you leave me with Dennis now please?" I turned to Esme and Coco.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Esme tried to protest.

"I assure you, I'm more than equipped to deal with my patient," I retorted, not wanting to spend another moment in the presence of a person who thought this treatment was okay.

Reluctantly, Esme led Coco back upstairs, leaving me and my bag of tools alone with Dennis. I had a few burning questions to ask before getting to work.

"Are you okay, buddy?"

"It hurts, Doctor."

I looked at what remained of his teeth, certain that it was agonizing.

"Was it always just you? Did you have a sister, too?"

"I'm not supposed to talk about her. She's been gone for a long time now, how did you know?" He looked up at me with a wisdom in his dark eyes.

My heart sank as I remembered a particularly nasty human belief. That in order to influence the return of a child stolen by the fae you could harm the changeling, forcing them to swap the original back for it. It was a belief that caused a lot of unnecessary suffering in less regulated times.

At least when the female changeling died and the daughter didn't return the Jacobs family was intelligent enough to stop harming Dennis. It made it all the more deplorable that Esme kept up the facade. What was her stake in all this? I realized that I had been wrestling with my inner monologue for quite some time when Dennis spoke.

"She can't have children of her own."

The tiny voice had answered my thoughts. That was new. Something the stories hadn't already taught me.

"How did you..."

"You want to know why. She keeps me here because she can't have children of her own. Her husband left her for it. If I die so does the bloodline, and the last hope of continuing it."

His words were wise beyond the years his body tricked me into thinking he'd been alive, but I knew that Dennis was much older than any human I'd met. I was completely enamored. Despite the years of deprivation, his power shone through.

Fixing his teeth seemed so arbitrary. A prolonging of his suffering and inevitable demise in the cold, dingy basement. They looked painful, but not half as painful as eternal imprisonment. Sure, the money was great but wasn't it dirty? I found myself in the biggest quandary of my career.

So I took action. Action that I never thought I'd take.

I reached into my bag and pulled out the diamond-tipped drill that was already a favored piece of equipment. The very same drill that I would later use to penetrate Mosaph Eurastix hardened shed skin. And I used it.

As quickly as I could I drilled through the shackle that chained Dennis's ankle to the wall. He watched me the entire time, tears pouring down his face. As the drill burst through the final millimeters of metal and cracked open the shackle he said only seven words.

"Thank you. You are an excellent mother."

And I said one.


Run he did. As emaciated as Dennis was he had some serious speed. I struggled to keep up, sprinting behind him up the stairs, ready to grab Coco and get in the car. I should have anticipated the changeling's actions. I sometimes wonder if I did and subconsciously encouraged them.

As I reached the top step Dennis had stopped sharp before the main door, grabbing hold of Esme by the throat with his bony hand. In an instant, he squeezed. She barely let out a wheeze before dropping to the floor like a sack of potatoes.

As awful as it sounds, I was quite pleased to see her meet her end so unceremoniously at the hands of her prisoner.

Coco babbled, trying to make sense of what was going on, I shot her a look and we made our way outside, standing in the rickety doorway as Dennis sprinted across the field.

"What the fuck, Day?"

"Just get in the car! I'll explain. Quickly, we don't want to be seen here."

She nodded and we fumbled with the handles on either side of the vehicle. My hand shook as I fastened my seat belt, thinking about the corpse of my making that we left behind. Had that been worth the freedom of a monster?

Coco revved up the engine and switched on the lights illuminating the trees ahead. She accelerated forward before swinging the car around to cut back across the field where we'd entered.

Just before that turn, I caught the most beautiful sight of my life. Hundreds of people, all stood with lanterns in the forested border staring back at me. There was no malice in their faces, just an outpouring of gratitude.

To the center of the group was a tall, beautiful woman who radiated a natural light. Both her hands perched on the shoulder of a young boy. A young boy who was recognizable. The same... but different. He looked healthy, plumper. His family had fixed him. I'd never quite felt reverence for a patient like it.

I should've cursed the lack of payment for such a high-risk job. But as Dennis smiled at me from his mother's arms and I caught a glimpse of his perfect teeth I knew I'd made the right decision.

Sometimes we are the monsters.

I'm a dentist for monsters. It's not just teeth they need help with.

It's me, Dayna. I know it's been a while since my last post but I got more emotional than I expected whilst telling you all about Dennis. You never expect to side with the monster; it feels fundamentally wrong... but so does a little boy in chains and I stand by my decision.

That's the problem with working with the types of patients that I do. Empathy, morality, ethics; they all become a blur. Add to that the responsibility of an unexpected infant and it's a recipe for emotionally-driven decisions.

I told Coco not to book any field trips for a few months after our experience in the village of Abelfort. She listened at first. I think she knew that I needed some time to adjust to motherhood before I was ready to be back out there dealing with deadly teeth in remote locations. I was grateful for it, but that gratitude was premature.

Around a month into my home visit hiatus, she came to me with that familiar, excitable look in her eyes. It was early, before we even opened the practice. I suspected this was to allow time for my inevitable freakout. She played the dope well but there was so much more to Coco.

"Day, you need to get your bags packed. I'll pick you up at-"

"Stop! What did I ask!? No field trips. I'm not packing a bag, Pearl needs me." I was firm and wildly gesticulating. I'd found the only way to cut through her persistent pleading was a strong start.

Coco jutted out her bottom lip and it wobbled slightly as her eyes glazed with forming tears. Maybe I'd been a little harsh.

"You've forgotten, haven't you? Everything's booked, Evan knows," she asked, an audible lump in her throat.

I knew instantly that I'd made a mistake. I'd been so wrapped up in myself, everything that I had going on, that I had completely omitted Coco's favorite event of the year from my mind. She was right, Evan did know and had known for weeks.

The Paranormal Services Convention.

It's exactly what you think it is. Booths, panels, like some kind of demented wedding fair. It was an annual event that I had always found utterly loathsome. Coco, however, was a social butterfly and thrived on mingling and monotonous small talk. I knew what it meant to her, so every year I reluctantly played ball.

"I'm sorry, of course, I hadn't forgotten! Just a temporary moment of morning madness. Are you excited?" I chuckled softly and cracked a smile in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Coco's eyes brightened and her bottom lip returned to its original position. She knew that I was overselling my enthusiasm but she appreciated it all the same. She threw her arms around me and within seconds was showing me outfit options on her phone.

I spent the day performing my duties whilst simultaneously stressing about the Convention. I was so distracted I almost nicked the gums of a shapeshifter that I was working on. She could have lost a tentacle if I hadn't acted fast.

The Convention was a great networking opportunity, sure, but it was also an enclosed space housing hundreds of monsters and more than a few service providers that I'd rather avoid.

And Campbell.

Campbell ran the leading law clinic in the industry. Settling civil disputes for those of a paranormal persuasion. He dealt in curses, broken promises, and magical mistakes. After a brief fling, I had found him to be a less than magical romantic mistake and someone I would rather not be thrust into monotonous small talk with, yet every year I was. And every year he tried to make a move that would make my skin crawl.

I held Pearl extra close that night as I fed her a bottle of blended blood and organs. She lapped it up, giggling and burping as she stared into my eyes, helpless. I'd never felt love like it. Leaving her again was going to hurt, albeit a little less than the time before.

Coco was outside in her car at 4.30 am sharp. The convention was held three hours away, in the wreckage of a castle buried deep in woodland. It was home to the Harakungu, one of the oldest known monsters walking the earth and a respected figure, who was instrumental in negotiating relations with humans.

The Harakungu was an oddity, a formidable creature, unlikely to ever pass in the human world with his long, needle-thin fangs that crowded his mouth and the spines that ran from the top of his head right down his back, protruding through fabrics that he draped himself in.

He somewhat famously dreamt of a fully integrated society, but settled for a small network of open-minded individuals after the genocide of witches at Salem and the countless times that, when faced with a monster, man's response had been simply to kill it.

The Harakungu terrified me, but I respected him. No one was entirely sure of the extent of his power, but he had a lot of influence in the paranormal world, as close as a monster could be to what I would call a celebrity.

His dilapidated castle was a truly spectacular facade, housing an interior palace, only accessible to those invited. If you stumbled upon it in the woods you would think it nothing more than a pile of destroyed stone. The Harakungu was filthy rich, and his funding made the convention and more than a few of the services it promoted possible.

"Ready, Dayna?" Coco asked, a wicked glint in her eyes as we reached a familiar quiet road lined by a densely forested area.

I took a deep inhale.


Coco swiveled the steering wheel propelling us into the trees. I shut my eyes tight as tiny branches made scraping noises against every window and the car jolted with each bump. It was so reminiscent of the turn we'd taken into the field at Abelfort that I struggled to suppress images of Dennis from my mind.

In seconds we had broken the threshold of trees and made it to the familiar clearing, with the familiar stone ruins. Shaken from the journey, I unclipped my seatbelt and staggered out of the vehicle while Coco beamed.

"I'm so excited, Day! I'm going to pick up so many samples." She fiddled with the underneath of her driver's seat before pulling out a tote bag adorned with the words Little Monster.

"Bad taste much?" I quipped.

She didn't get a chance to respond or bite back. Instead, we were greeted with a shrill tone.

"Ahhhh! The ladies of Danworth's Dental practice! Ravishing as ever, thank you for taking the time!" The voice belonged to August Proctor, a master of ritual and general annoyance.

He was someone who would help plan and ensure any event, seance, or ritual went discreetly and smoothly... for a hefty fee, of course. For as many years as I had been attending, August would greet guests at the convention. I'd long suspected he lived in the Harakungu's pocket.

"August. Always a pleasure," I lied as I extended a hand and smiled through gritted teeth. "Any key speeches this year?"

A young man emerged from behind August and made his way toward Coco, gesturing for her car keys. He was unmistakably human, a baby Proctor for sure. I'd attended university with August, it made me feel mighty old to know he had a kid that age. Coco handed over the keys and the boy got in the car and drove off calmly, deeper into the woods.

August caught me looking.

"I hear you've finally joined the rest of us in parenthood, Dayna. Congratulations!"

"How would you know that?" I replied, flatly, with what I expected to be quite the look of disdain on my face. I'd always struggled to hide emotion.

"Relax! My son went to school with Evan, small world, huh?!" He chuckled and I took silent note to berate my babysitter upon return. I wasn't prepared for the world to know about Pearl's existence yet and my hand had just been forced. I decided not to engage August further on the matter.

"The car will be okay, right?" I asked.

"When have I ever let you down! And as for speeches - you won't want to miss Aurora Inez's panel on consent, she's got a siren and a vampire guesting. Hard-hitting stuff."

I watched as Coco's eyes lit up and August animated with enthusiasm. Aurora Inez was a well-known succubus, I supposed it could be quite the contentious topic and not the sort of politics I wanted to get into. I planned to give that talk a hard pass.

"You gals ready to head inside?" August exclaimed, throwing an arm around each of us. I cringed deep within my soul, both at his touch and the use of the word gals.

Standing in the wooded clearing, the stone rocks protruding from the earth like spines on a porcupine, I wondered how my life had ever gotten to where it was. I used to love the woods as a kid, now everything was just littered with monsters. August finally took his hand off my shoulder and I took a deep breath.

The only entrance to the Harakungu's palace was at the foot of a tree on the border, in the gaps between a particular pile of stones. They were tight, reminding me of the extreme caves that thrill seekers explore. Not much phased me but I'd always been terribly claustrophobic and I'd never quite found a way to ease it.

My heart pounded as I lowered my legs into the narrow gap and prepared to drop through the cavern. I looked at Coco. For all her faults I'd always found her incredibly comforting. She smiled back and I pushed forward with my legs as I raised my arms to descend.

In one quick drop through the darkness, I was surrounded by a plethora of sights and colors. It was somewhat overstimulating, dropping into the center of the grand hall via a small crack in the wall. The stones above would never have indicated the sheer decadence and opulent sights below.

The perimeter of the room was lined with booths; ranging from poorly-constructed tables to spectacular displays of professional marketing. I noted all the big players in the industry. Mangleglove's Optical Services, the Ethical Organ Collectors, Connected Railways, the Paranormal Postage Society, and Campbell's Law.

PSEC, the paranormal services emergency cleaners took pride of the place; no surprise when they were entirely funded by the Harakungu in an attempt to keep monsters as hidden as possible.

"Will you ever let us run a booth? I've got some great design ideas that I think you'll love," Coco begged, hopeful as she scanned the enormous room for pretty colors.

"You know how I feel about marketing. Our work speaks for itself, we don't need to fork out for a fancy booth and key rings that none of the monsters in attendance want or need. It's supposed to be a market for them. This whole thing is so... painfully human. I'm amazed he goes for it."

"It's not all about the marketing, Doctor Danworth."

My entire body shuddered as I felt thick breaths go down my shirt from behind. The voice of the Harakungu was unmistakable. I was standing just inches away from an ancient, immortal beast and he'd heard me criticizing him. Great.

I turned.

"I've always admired your unique take on relations, Doctor, your desire not to participate with peers. Although I find it somewhat troubling that you would describe anything as painfully human. Do you loathe your own kind that much? Do you feel contempt?" Every word he spoke had purpose, his flow twisted each sentence into its own riddle with heavy breaths and pauses.

I struggled to answer. I stuttered a few times before I managed any words.

"I just... I just want to do my job. I'm not in it to make friends. I would rather spend time with my patients than my peers. I see the value of networking though, which is why I'm here."

The last part was a lie and he knew it. His eyes were elongated vertically, with a vibrant yellow coloring of the iris. The mouth full of needles salivated and the spikes atop his head stood proudly; despite his inability to provide me with recognizable facial expressions, I knew that he saw straight through me. He looked me up and down, burrowing into my soul with those yellow eyes, then turned to Coco and back to me.

"I think you could benefit from some humanity, Doctor. We may not see eye to eye on relations but you are a passionate ally and for that I thank you. Enjoy the day, ladies."

He didn't wait for me to say another word, he glided into the crowd ahead, eventually disappearing into the meandering hoards. Coco elbowed me in the ribs and laughed once he was out of sight.

"He's right, you know. Grumpy. That's you." She laughed at her own joke, reveling in it.

"Totally. I'll adopt the humanity of my ancestors, the same ones that would've gone at them with torches and pitchforks." I rolled my eyes and smiled wryly at the irony of the Harakungu's suggestion.

Coco dropped the subject and we made our way through the stream of humans and beasts. It was rare, even in an industry like mine to see so many unimaginable creatures in one place. It was quite a challenge not to stare. Oddities, urban legends, and area-specific monsters all congregated, making no attempt to hide their true nature.

I even spotted my favorite patient, a shapeshifter named Kevin, walking freely in his adapted form as a human-animal hybrid. Kevin was no ferocious werewolf type, or even anything reminiscent of a Minotaur. Instead, he was a grotesque amalgamation of a person and a beaver. It would be comical if he didn't look so horrific. He shot me a wave from the secluded homes booth. Maybe he was hoping to move somewhere a little more private.

The day went by uneventfully at first. Coco collected pens, key rings, stress balls, and a huge selection of sweets. She was like a small child on Halloween. Maybe she could come trick or treating with me and Pearl in a few years, I was certain she'd love it.

It had been uneventful. Until, of course, we reached Campbell's Law. I tried to shuffle quickly, turning a corner to the next row of booths but it was too late, he'd already spotted me and was making a beeline.

"Dayna! You look fantastic. Come here, let's have a hug!" He pulled me in and as if on perfect queue he reached his hand a little too low behind me. Campbell's classic move. I shuddered, waiting out the awkward embrace.

"She doesn't like that, you know," Coco interjected, unfiltered as ever. I appreciated it.

"She liked it when..."

"It was years ago, Campbell. Let it go," I jumped in, trying to put a stop to any escalation. "Have a great day." I grabbed Coco's wrist and stormed away from the law booth. In my anger and haste, I made a near-fatal mistake that changed the course of the event entirely.

I bashed headfirst into an oddity.

It wasn't one of my patients, which made the situation even more alarming. All over its body were short, solid spines, forming an impenetrable protective layer. I would've been more curious, probably asked a few questions, made a note in my database. But it was mere seconds after our collision that I realized its spines had punctured my fragile human skin.

Warm blood clung my clothing to my body as it started to seep from the various holes now covering my torso and face. I ran my fingers across the facial wounds. They were superficial, shallow punctures, but damn was there a lot of blood. It had been a miracle I hadn't lost an eye.

It's not a position anyone wants to be in. Bleeding out in a room full of beings who would quite literally kill for a taste. Whilst attending dental school, I hadn't considered that particular scenario a risk of the job.

It took a minute or so, maybe I was in shock, I don't know. But eventually, every tiny hole erupted in searing pain. I attribute it now to a possible venom, but the oddity didn't stick around to tell me. I felt as if I were burning, cooking from the makeshift acupuncture holes I was covered in. I tried to hold back the scream, I really did.

But I am painfully human.

It attracted plenty of attention. Thankfully at the type of event we were at, the monsters were doing their upmost to maintain decorum and not give in to their ravenous nature. Thousands of eyes in all shapes and sizes focused on me, hunger in each one, yet they abstained.

A few rushed to my aid, of all species. I watched, writhing as my clothes turned a deep crimson and I continued to burn. I hurt my own ears shrieking but I couldn't hold it in, any outlet for the pain would do.

It was only a matter of time I suppose, in a congregation of that size, before someone gave in to temptation.

It may seem predictable, for a vampire to be unable to control her urges, but as I said to you when I started sharing my experiences - the stories did get some things right. I barely caught the flash of brilliant white fangs but they were so distinctive I couldn't miss them.

No other creature had teeth like a vampire.

She ran toward me, a battle cry exiting her mouth and echoing throughout the entire palace. The whole room erupted into chaos. Limbs, tentacles, and teeth everywhere, I braced myself for a quick and disappointing death. Through the pain I desperately pictured Pearl, I wanted her to be the last thing that I thought of before the vampire got to me.

I hadn't expected to be saved. But if I had I would've placed bets on Coco or even the Harakungu himself in some kind of noble attempt to protect his precious relations. I wouldn't have expected anyone else to jump to my aid.

The tall, imposing figure rushed to my side in competition with the vampiric woman. He got to me just in time to open his mouth, revealing a horribly crowded set of thick, sharp teeth; the only discernible monster feature aside from his enormous stature. He let out a ferocious roar.

I tried to focus on the scene but my vision began to blur. The room gently faded to black as I passed out from blood loss in the gigantic arms of my rescuer.

I didn't know how much time passed before I woke. I didn't know what kind of catastrophe might have been had while I was unconscious. I wasn't in the Harakungu's palace anymore. Instead, I was laid across the backseat of Coco's car, in the wood clearing with the stones.

Groggy, I started to take in my surroundings. I ached but the burning pain was gone. My clothes were still blood-drenched but I couldn't feel any of the chasms that had caused the bleeding in the first place. August and his son sat perched on one of the stones meters from the car. It was odd for August not to be in the middle of any drama but it soon became apparent why he was keeping a distance.

The man from the palace was so engrossed in monotonous small talk with Coco that he almost didn't notice me sit up. He had to have been at least 7 feet tall and was built large, like a nightclub security guard after way too many roids. And those teeth. I'd never seen crowding like it; they jutted out in all different directions, it amazed me that he was able to breathe through the cluster at all. The one who saved me.

"Day! It was so cool. He stopped the vampire and got us out through the crowd, then made all your cuts go away!"

Coco's mouth ran a mile a minute as per usual, I couldn't focus on her though. I was far too fascinated by the monster before me.

"What's your name?" I asked tentatively, still adjusting to consciousness.

His response was innocuous at the time but was one that would soon become etched in my mind forever... for all the wrong reasons.

"Hello, Doctor, I was hoping I'd run into you here. I need your help. They call me the Beast of Cordyline Hill."

I'm a dentist for monsters. I prefer the city to villages.

I thought about the Beast of Cordyline Hill often in the week that followed the convention and the incident that had occurred there.

If I had continued to lose blood at the rate I was losing it in the moments after my accident then I would've died. Quickly. That's if nothing else had made its way to me before I succumbed to the blood loss.

Coco said that once he got me out of the underground palace he held onto my arm and one by one each puncture wound closed and disappeared, as if it had never been there in the first place. The Beast of Cordyline Hill had healed me. I owed him my life.

And all he wanted in return was an appointment.

I wasn't familiar with the Beast, but I knew about Cordyline Hill, a well-known hotspot in the industry for monster activity. A place I would later grow to detest the mere mention of.

Secluded, idyllic, and only served by the paranormally inclined Connected Railways the village was barely ever noticed by average humans. The few that did reside there were entirely accustomed to the strangeness.

It was situated just far enough out of sight that without directions and intention, it was difficult to just happen upon it. Cordyline Hill was a haven for the abnormal.

It was an area I had only visited once, not long before I met the aforementioned Beast at the convention. Forgive me for the lack of linear events but it's important you know about that trip to the village before I tell you next time how the Beast's appointment went.

Coco and I traveled there the morning after my first night with Pearl.

My life turned upside down the day I became a mother. I'm sure there are plenty of you with children thinking the same thing, but I assure you, your experience wasn't a patch on mine, I had nothing to go on.

I knew Pearl needed a good home as soon as she consumed Coco's finger on that first day in the practice, after Eudora Finch had placed her in my arms and fled. I'd spent years gathering information on monsters of all varieties and, while scared, I was pretty confident I could handle her.

What other choice did I have anyway? Dump her at a regular hospital for her to become a spectacle? Or leave her with someone else well-versed in all things paranormal, none of whom I trusted.

There wasn't really a choice at all.

Sometimes I missed my routine from before I had to consider anyone else. My selfish, wonderful routine. Wake up, drink a coffee, stare at the dishes from the night before, wondering how long they were going to sit there, wait for Coco to pull up outside my apartment, and get ready for another day scraping fangs.

Coco was terminally delightful in the mornings, whereas I could barely function. Every time I heard her car horn I would berate myself for never learning to drive and that particular part of the routine hadn't changed post-Pearl.

I'd never planned for kids. They weren't something that I'd ever factored into my life, but every time Pearl giggled and flashed me a glimpse of those pointed teeth my heart melted. I may have missed my routine, and I may have resented having to wash up regularly, but I wouldn't have changed a thing.

I loved her. Whether or not I gave birth to her was utterly irrelevant.

Despite all that fluffy shit, no amount of warm maternal instincts could prepare me for actually having to care for Pearl. The first night had me about ready to walk out of my apartment and never look back.

I should've known when she ate the finger that she wasn't going to subsist comfortably on a diet of milk and baby food. I don't really know why I bothered buying them, probably the undeniable human conditioning. That first night I was so disoriented I was surprised I managed to acquire any supplies. All I got was formula, puréed food, and nappies but when I offered them she screamed.

There's no sound more distressing in this world than a baby crying. It's one of those noises that we're preconditioned as a species to react to. I just couldn't stop her tears. I bounced, I played gently, I changed her, I even tried singing to her but nothing worked.

She was so hungry.

It was difficult. Pearl was an oddity; something of unknown origin. The crone had given her to me knowing that she wasn't the result of a spell she'd cast, and without information on what she was a result of I couldn't liken her to anything in the database I'd collected. I didn't know what she ate. Aside from Coco's finger, of course.

She wouldn't attempt any traditional infant food. To be honest, I would've cried if someone tried to feed me that purée shit, too. Nothing worked. Not until I offered her raw steak. The second a droplet of blood hit the tray on the makeshift high chair I'd built for the night she lit up. So did I.

It sounds strange, but I found it quite endearing watching her tear the cut of meat to shreds. Blood smeared across her face I snapped a few photos, they reminded me of the ones you see of kids covered in spaghetti, except a little more sinister. Cute, right?

It wasn't the biggest breakthrough, it was something that should have been obvious from the start, especially to an individual in my profession looking at a set of perfect incisors like hers. But it was a piece of information I had that I hadn't before.

My daughter was a carnivore.

After she finished, piece of bone crunched and all, she gave me the first real cuddle that we ever shared. It was a beautiful moment. In an instant, I went from a child-adverse spinster to a woman with maternal feelings I had previously been convinced weren't in me. It really was a different kind of love. I even found the blood on my shirt endearing.

The night would've been pure bliss, all things considered. I started to drift off on the sofa with Pearl in my arms, then I was jolted awake by that distressing screaming noise again.

That didn't cause the problem, she just needed changing and eventually, she accepted a bottle. I knew I would have to come up with a better solution than formula but at least she was drinking something.

The problem was caused when there was a knock at the door.

Fuck. I knew I wasn't ready to present my daughter to the world. In the circles I ran in she was perfectly normal, but to the average human she was an abomination. That early on I hadn't considered the trouble I would run into trying to hide her.

I could fix it. I could build her a set of teeth, something to cover up the fangs, but not that early, she was too little, it would've been too obvious. No baby had a full set of teeth. I had to keep her hidden.

I ran to the bedroom with her in my arms and placed her on the center of the bed, building a cushion fortress around her in a misguided attempt to keep her in one spot. I looked her dead in the eyes and shushed her. A baby.

I shushed a baby. Someone gave me a degree, guys.

The knocking continued.

"I'm coming!"

I opened the door and was faced with my upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Pepperbottom, a nosey widower who made it her business to know everyone else's.

I know, what a name. It sounded a lot jollier than she actually was as a person, the type of name that you'd expect on an eccentric character but in reality, my neighbor was extraordinarily plain. Face wrinkled up like a prune, she raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down, hovering momentarily on the slightly bloodied patch of my shirt. I watched her struggle to bite her tongue.

"Who's baby is it, Dayna? It is rather late, I'm struggling to hear the television over the crying and I won't be able to sleep through that."

"Sorry, Mrs. Pepperbottom," I snickered a little and she shot me a look of disdain. "She's my cousin's child, and she'll be staying for a few weeks while her mother recovers from an operation."

The woman huffed. We hadn't ever been the best of neighbors, which I'm sure Coco's early morning horn contributed to.

"I would've appreciated some warning. I gather there isn't a father in the picture? In my day we had to parent through any illness, I wish your cousin a speedy recovery."

Without an ounce of sincerity in her words or a moment to let me respond, she stormed off back up the stairs of the communal hallway. I breathed a sigh of relief and bolted the door shut.

I hadn't thought any of it through properly. So I did what I always did in a crisis and I called Coco.

Coco may have been a liability in the workplace but as a friend and functioning member of society, she did far better than I ever could. Ironic really. She set me straight and helped me plan for looking after Pearl. She canceled every appointment at the practice for a week and made one with a babysitting agency for the next day.

The next morning as I sipped a coffee and Pearl gulped back a bottle that she clearly wasn't enjoying, there was a loud honk from outside. I could've cried when we made it out there, Pearl wrapped in a huge blanket hiding her teeth, and I saw the car seat that Coco had installed in the back. I could feel Mrs. Pepperbottom's eagle eyes from her window above but I couldn't care less.

"What time's our appointment?"

"10 am."

"How far is it?"

"About an hour and a half away, Day. Pearl,s first road trip!" Coco grinned and Pearl giggled. Despite their somewhat violent meeting those two seemed to have an understanding from the start. I envied it a little.

"How did you find these guys?"

"It wasn't easy. I had to dig out an old business card from last year's convention but they only had a small booth that wasn't giving out freebies so I couldn't remember their name. I can't wait for this year, not long now!"

I rolled my eyes, unaware of the dangers that I was going to face at the event. It didn't surprise me that the babysitter's booth was small. Regardless of my lack of interest in regular children, I found young monsters both terrifying and fascinating.

It's ironic really, human kids are scared of dentists and this dentist is scared of monster kids.

They were rare and unusual, often unpredictable and they were sometimes far more dangerous than their older counterparts.

I hadn't collected a huge amount of information on monster children. I had a few that came into the practice; mostly oddities, some the result of fertility spells like Pearl and others the result of old land or a family curse. Even the occasional complete anomaly, just born that way.

Most of the more well-known monsters, like crones, vampires, and certain types of shapeshifters were made that way, not born. Others like sirens and succubi were notoriously private and if they did have infants, I knew nothing about them.

That's not to say that it was impossible to encounter younger versions of those creatures. One of the more disturbing stories I'd come across working within paranormal services was that of the eternal children.

Eternal children was the name given to young kids turned by vampires. Not all of these are claimed by their maker, however, with human families of dying children manipulated into buying their immortality. Desperate parents with connections to the monster world paid thousands to make their kid better.

What they're left with is a violent, bloodthirsty creature with no impulse control and no mentor, who will never grow up. Many of the families died horribly at the hands of the child they'd tried to save, leaving the eternal children to wander aimlessly in search of prey. I'd heard that they were far more copious in number than anyone suspected, expertly camouflaging themselves all over the world.

I'd always wondered how many of them lived on the back roads of the city, hiding in plain sight.

The rest of the road trip was pretty quiet. I watched as fields and flowers flickered past the window and rocked the car seat gently, holding it secure. Pearl slept most of the way and Coco sang in unison with the radio. It was peaceful.

We pulled up to a modernized barn, nestled in a clearing of trees in the remote village of Cordyline Hill. It was an idyllic place, with flowers and huge, spiky succulent-type plants scattered across the landscape. I'd heard about it often as one of the centers for paranormal services but hadn't yet had the chance to visit.

"This is it."

We got out of the car and I lifted the car seat out to carry Pearl into the barn. It was so much easier than having nothing to put her in. I was excited for our supplies trip after the appointment, there were so many things that I needed. I was grateful for Coco, no partner but I still didn't feel alone raising Pearl.

We entered to a glossy, sleek reception desk in the gorgeous interior. Instantly I knew that babysitting services for my little monster weren't going to come cheap.

A gorgeous woman in her early twenties sat at the desk, sleek black hair and deep brown eyes that were utterly entrancing. She was so beautiful I wondered if she were entirely human.

"Welcome to No More Nightmares Nannies! Do you have an appointment?"

I tried to think of words but I just couldn't stop looking at her, babbling wildly. I was overwhelmed by the whole situation. I stuttered a few times and Coco chuckled and interjected.

"Forgive my friend here; we're booked in under Dr. Danworth."

She scanned the computer screen in front of her and smiled.

"Take a seat. Armand will be with you soon."

Armand. I recognized the name but with everything I had going on and the trance the receptionist had me under I couldn't place it. I sat in the waiting area trying to work it out, hoping that it wasn't another university acquaintance that I'd rather forget.

Coco nudged me in the ribs.

"Anyone would think you'd never seen a pretty woman before. Are you okay, Day?"

"I think so. I think she might be... special."

"I didn't notice," Coco answered, oblivious as ever as she picked up a magazine and started thumbing through it.

The waiting room reminded me of a regular human doctor's surgery, or even the one at my practice, but the secluded location had allowed this service to take more liberties than mine. I was regularly visited by human patients requesting a space and didn't exist in a haven like the village, so the practice had to remain innocuous.

No More Nightmares had taken the opposite approach. The walls were adorned with portrait-sized photographs of monstrous children having fun. One of a young girl with a tentacled face playing catch with a woman, another of a spiked oddity enjoying lunch with a horned child, and pride of place was a relatively average-looking little boy with a vacant expression between two people I presumed to be his parents.

There was no mistake in the placement of that portrait. The two fangs, barely visible, protruding between the young boy's lips told me all I needed. He was one of them, one of the eternal children. Displayed as if he were some kind of trophy. I recognized his father instantly and realized where I had heard the name Armand before.

Minutes later a man entered the waiting room from a side hallway and called my name. The same man that I had just been looking at in the portrait of the eternal child. Armand Locket.

He hadn't been an old acquaintance, but I did recognize him. Armand had recruited me years ago, along with a handful of colleagues, into the paranormal industry. He was a pleasant man and someone that had been nurturing and supportive. It had been years since he'd been on my mind. Armand was the reason for my job, my life, and my daughter.

"I had to take the appointment personally when I saw your name, Dayna... Sorry... Dr. Danworth. I'm so pleased you decided to stick with this industry, you showed an aptitude for dealing with all the craziness right from day one." He threw his arms around me and gave me a kiss on the cheek before turning. "And the lovely Coco! Who could forget a delightful thing like you?"

"It's so good to see you, Armand. You don't need to call me Doctor!" I smiled.

"Who is this little bundle then, I gather she's the reason for your visit today? You wouldn't drive out here just for my pretty face." He gestured to the car seat delicately balanced on the waiting room chair next to me.

"This is Pearl."

Armand cooed over my baby, still sleeping soundly in her car seat, tiny sharp fangs sticking out as she lightly snored. He ushered us through to a grand office with luxurious high ceilings complete with exposed barn beams and shut the door.

"So, if you don't mind me asking, how did Pearl come into your care?"

"Hah. You guessed she isn't biologically mine then."

"You never did express a want for kids, but I couldn't imagine you turning down someone in need, no matter how hard you may appear on the exterior."

"She was a gift from a crone."

Armand laughed knowingly. "Say no more."

"If you don't mind me asking, Armand... The boy, in your picture."

"Yes. He's one of the eternal children. I promise he never ended up wandering the streets like the majority of them, though. A few years after we last saw each other my wife and I experienced a great tragedy.

"Our son, Darius, became incredibly ill, nothing the doctors could do. It was a tough decision, Dayna. Honestly, I didn't make it lightly. But I couldn't watch my wife suffer whilst knowing I had another option. Darius isn't the same, but he's here, and as a byproduct so is my wife. For that, I'm grateful."

Armand welled up a little bit, swallowed the obvious lump in his throat, and changed the subject.

"I know too well how difficult it is raising a special little one with a full-time job! I suppose you need someone quite regular for our lovely little Pearl. Great name by the way, very... fitting."

"I told her! I told her it was a bad dental pun!" Coco exclaimed, vindicated that she hadn't been the only one to see it. Armand laughed with her.

"Yes. I need someone I can trust, I'm not entirely sure what she's capable of yet, I just know that she's carnivorous," I started.

Coco raised her hand and wiggled the stump.

"Learned the hard way," she cut in.

"I just don't think I'm ready to share her with the world yet. Privacy is paramount."

"No problem, Dayna, nothing we can't deal with at No More Nightmares. I have the perfect person, she's young, fit, and grew up in a household with an oddity for a sister. Although human herself, she knows what she's doing. I have plenty of references."

"That sounds great, are you sure she's trustworthy?"

"Absolutely, I've used her to care for my own son on occasion. My wife is getting older and it's hard for her now."

His answer broke my heart a little. As great as it was that Darius wasn't on the streets now at some point his parents were going to die and he would be left, ravenous and free. It wasn't my place to say a word, so I didn't.

"If she's good enough for you, she's good enough for me."

We signed a document and discussed pricing. It was a big hit financially, but I pulled in enough money at the practice to cover it. I was going to need to accept a few home visits if I wanted any disposable income though.

Exiting the office, I felt responsible. I'd done the first big thing I would ever do as a parent and I couldn't have been more elated.

Then in a flash, my entire world was threatened.

To the left, further up the hallway was a disappointed-looking young man and to the right, toward the exit was doom. An older woman, much older than me came toward us, a young boy walking beside her with his hand in hers. The same boy from the picture. The same wife.

Darius looked much less average in person, his pale skin almost shone in the barn lights. His vacant expression was cold and unfeeling and sucked all of the air from the hall. I watched him sniff the air.

Vampires are known for their speed and their proficiency for quick attacks. I learned that day that Eternal Children were no different. He sprinted at us, in a direct path to Pearl. I screamed. Armand shouted for his boy to stop but it happened too quickly.

Initially, I feared for my baby, I put an arm out to try and stop him, desperate to protect her. But there hadn't been any need. Pearl opened her mouth wide as Darius reached her and bit down on his hand, crushing bone and mangling tendon. She locked her jaw and refused to let go as Darius whined and whimpered.

Armand's wife started to wail. I tried to stop Pearl but I'd not even had her a week. I had no real idea what to do.

Darius made the fatal mistake of trying to bite back but Pearl was too fast for him. I watched as she unclamped her jaw and, still in her car seat, aimed her face at his throat.

Just as things were about to get bloody I heard a jangling noise from the opposite end of the corridor. It caught the kid's attention. Pearl turned and giggled in amusement as Darius' blood dripped from her teeth, I even noticed a piece of necrotic-looking vein stuck to one fang.

The disappointed-looking boy was just playing with a set of keys. It was simple, yet genius. An injured Darius had retreated, sobbing into his mother's dress whilst Pearl was utterly distracted by the clanking of metal.

Armand's wife grabbed hold of her son tightly and gained better control of the situation.

"I'm so sorry," she whimpered, expecting a barrage of abuse from me.

"She's not hurt. I should be apologizing," I answered, looking at the creepy little boy's mangled arm.

"He isn't either. Trust me," she answered, terror in her eyes as the kid continued sobbing. The look on her face said she didn't believe his tears and I was inclined to believe the look on her face. There was something more sinister about Darius than most monsters I'd encountered.

"Thank you!" I turned to the boy. "You saved his life!"

Armand shook his hand in gratitude.

"Don't mention it. I better go." He started to walk away.

"Wait! Do you work here?" I stopped him; in contrast to the feeling I got from Darius, this guy gave me a great gut feeling.

"I just failed the interview, ma'am," he answered, suddenly explaining the defeated look on his face. I shot Armand a look and he tried to change my mind, despite knowing it was already made.

"You've already signed, Dayna. I can't hire someone based on a universal way to amuse a baby."

"I will buy myself out of the contract if I have to, Armand, and you know it."

He sighed and rolled his eyes. It may have been years but I had always prided myself on being incredibly difficult and I'm sure he hadn't forgotten that easily. I watched his face change as he relented and turned to the boy.

"Welcome aboard No More Nightmares, son. Meet Dr. Danworth, your first client. What's your name?"

The boy smiled across his entire face and I felt a wash of trust.

"It's Evan, sir. Nice to meet you all."

After the necessary paperwork had been completed, Coco and I ventured out to the car, buckled Pearl in, and I took in my surroundings as we drove away.

Just before we exited the village, I noticed a small shack on the edge of the border, up a large hill. I didn't know at the time, but that was home to the Beast who would soon become the source of all of my nightmares.

My experience with him at the convention had been an oddly positive one but all good things come to an end.

I'm a dentist for monsters. It's time we talked about the Beast.

It's time. Time to talk about the oddity in the room. I know you're all desperate to know what the Beast of a quaint little village, who went on to be my savior at the convention could have possibly done to cause so much offense.

I know I can be brash, but I assure you my opinion of the Beast wasn't formed lightly and certainly wasn't the mere result of my antisocial tendencies. No. He's the source of a thousand sleepless nights and the bringer of tragedies you aren't aware of yet.

We'll get there, I promise, but there's so much more you need to know.

When I met the Beast, his teeth had stood out. I'd never seen such crowded, angry-looking fangs. I'm loathed to even describe them as fangs, they resembled thick tusks, battling each other for space.

Instantly I knew what to do. He needed a multiple extraction job and when he asked me about it I could hear his pain. His gums were swollen and red-raw and his mouth couldn't shut at all. Even I winced a little looking at them.

He saved my life. So I didn't charge.

I offered my services pro bono, with genuine gratitude. Fascinated by his abilities and unusual adaptations, I found myself genuinely excited for the appointment.

Pearl had taken over my whole world and since taking her on I'd put my pursuit of monster knowledge on the back burner. I'd let my emotions get to me in Abelfort and I hadn't checked my database in far too long. I was so wrapped up in motherhood.

The Beast reignited my passion.

I booked him in for a week after my incident at the Harakungu's underground palace. It was the earliest I had available and in the run-up I enjoyed a mundane week filled with regular, local patients.

When the day came I was inexplicably nervous. I was used to monsters, nothing shocked me, but he was like nothing I'd ever seen before. He could heal.

I had so many questions I was ready to burst.

I felt like I did when I first opened the practice, waiting for the first patient to sit down. I'd been fortunate back then to land a golden patient for my first, but I doubted the Beast was going to be half as easy as kind, elderly shapeshifter, Mr. Prentice.

"Day, do you want a coffee?" Coco's voice rang in my ears. It wasn't her fault, I appreciated her kindness but I'd been up much of the night with Pearl and it was the end of the shift, with only the one appointment to go.

I'd just finished a plaque removal and deep cleanse on a particularly foul-smelling oddity, who lived on a diet of insects and small mammals. The mention of a coffee or any other liquid made me heave. I never knew bugs could make teeth so... brown.

"I'm good, thanks."

Coco shrugged and switched on the kettle behind reception anyway.

"Pliers at the ready?" she asked. "Do you think he'll let you keep one?"

That was a prospect that hadn't crossed my mind. I loved to keep extraction trophies. Creepy, I know, but they were great for research and my collection was truly fascinating. The Beast needed multiple teeth removed, I'm sure if I asked nicely he'd consider it.

"I hope so," I responded, grinning. "I need to get set up, can you keep an eye out here?"

Coco nodded and swirled a spoon in the No. 1 receptionist mug I'd gotten her for Christmas, bobbing her head to the faint sound of the radio. I made my way along the hall to my treatment room and gagged a little at the lingering smell.

I spritzed the room with freshener, placed my used instruments into the sterilizer, and disposed of anything single-use. I laid out pliers and a syringe full of anesthetic, sanitized the chair, and readied myself. While I waited for my patient I sat at my computer, smiling at the photograph of Pearl that sat next to it.

Her little face kept me going through the day. Coco and I were planning to pick her up a small bird on the way home, for dinner. I couldn't wait to see her but just for this appointment, I was grateful for my job and for her sitter, Evan.

Distant sounds of a chattering Coco were what alerted me to his arrival. I waited for a few minutes before I went to collect him. I usually lamented my friend for her overt friendliness with patients but when I entered the waiting room to see her giggling away next to a giant, warm and smiley man I couldn't blame her.

Despite his obvious affliction, the Beast was traditionally attractive and gave off an air of charm that was intoxicating. Longish, tousles waves just stroked his shoulders and his arms were muscular through his clothing, which was incredibly human for a monster living in a hotspot like Cordyline Hill.

I don't know what I'd been expecting but robes would've been less of a shock than the jeans/shirt combo he was in. If it hadn't been for the abominable mouth and near-giant height, I suspected he'd have been quite the traditionally desirable bachelor.

"Good afternoon, Doctor, it's nice to see you on your feet!" He spoke with a slight impediment, words struggling to carry through the forest of teeth and inflamed gum.

"It's nice to be on them," I replied. "Would you like to come through?" I gestured to the hall and let him lead the way to the treatment room, turning just in time to catch a glimpse of Coco swooning slightly at her desk.

"Have a seat..." I stumbled, realizing that it felt quite jarring to refer to someone in person as the Beast. "What do you prefer I call you? Is it Beast or do you have a name?"

The Beast struggled to squish himself into my extra large dental chair, the armrests pushing into the sides of his enormous legs.

"I had a name. But no one's asked me that question in a very long time. Beast will do for now."

I noticed a slightly wistful look in his eyes as he mentioned names. It gave me my first clue as to his nature. If he had once been named then I suspected the Beast of Cordyline Hill had been made, not born. I was almost certain he had once been human. This was rare for oddities, even more so for area-specific monsters who are usually what they appear to be for an eternity.

He was an anomaly.

"Can I get you anything to drink?"

"It just slips through the gaps, Doctor. I'd give anything for a glass of water. It's been months."

My brain was whirring. Was he immortal?

"How do you survive without hydration? If you don't me asking? You can call me Dayna if you prefer, by the way, you saved my life and no money is exchanging hands, no need for formalities."

"I wouldn't call it surviving... Dayna."

His cryptic responses weren't going to cut it. I'd never been one to keep my thoughts to myself and I felt the word vomit coming.

"Forgive my rudeness but there's really no delicate way to ask this. What happened to you... to make you like this?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"It isn't frequent that the monster saves the human. I don't believe you were always a monster and I've always been incredibly nosy. Tell me to shut up and I'll fix your teeth without any more questions if you'd prefer, but you said that no one's asked your name in a long time and I'd hazard a guess that you don't get to talk very often."

I felt myself shaking a little. The Beast had saved me but he was also more than capable of crushing me in an instant. And there I was, asking him detailed, personal questions like I was some sort of therapist. For fuck's sake, Dayna.

He looked uncomfortable, but not like he was going to crush me. I watched as he mulled over my requests and battled his own confusion that I even wanted to know. Then he offered me a deal.

"You think I'm a monster? Ha. Nothing new from the wonders of humanity. Fix me and I'll tell you my story. You can consider it a tip if you want," he spat.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. Deal."

I washed my hands and put on a fresh pair of gloves before picking up the anesthetic needle. My backtracking hadn't worked and the Beast was still looking at me with a level of disappointment I could practically taste.

"That won't be necessary, Dayna."

"Do you not feel pain?"

"I do. I'm not invincible. But I don't want that needle and you can't force it on me. Start pulling them... please."

I shuddered at the thought of feeling each tooth yanked at the root from its home. The feeling of the cold metal of my pliers touching his swollen gum and clamping down on exposed nerves. I looked down at my patient, noted his stern face, and realized there was no point in arguing. So I picked up my tool and asked him to open wide.

I counted a total of 76 teeth, more than double the average human. I'd seen monsters with hundreds before but unlike those examples, his anatomy was overwhelmingly human and not able to support the sheer number.

Extraction was a workout. Each tooth was much larger in circumference than I was accustomed to working with. He never made a sound but the expression on his face had enough pain in it to keep me wincing on his behalf.

After around half an hour of medical torture, he was done and I was exhausted. I took off my gloves and turned to the tap by my station.

"Finished." I handed him a small, plastic cup of water. "Try that."

He sat up and took a few deep breaths before closing his mouth for the first time since we'd met. A real, distinguishable smile was visible, something I'd yet to see on the Beast's face. Without the tusks on display, he was just a giant human man.

I felt like a hero as he shot the water and looked at me, desperate for a second. It was chasing a feeling like that that had gotten me into dental school in the first place, albeit originally for slightly different patients.

"Thank you!" He savored every drop of his drink and I continued refilling the cup. "You have no idea how much this will change my life."

"You're welcome. Mind if I keep one of those?" I gestured to a pile of extracted, bloody teeth on tissue.

"You're a very strange woman, aren't you? Knock yourself out. They're no use to me."

"Thanks." I ignored his strange comment. "It's your turn now. Time to answer my questions."

"How do I know you aren't out to lynch me and just trying to find out my weaknesses."

"You don't. Nothing's certain. But you do have my word."

"Strange. That's your word. I'm going to trust you, Dayna. Don't misuse it, or you will find out why they call me the Beast."

I sat opposite him and nodded. I think he knew at the time that I was serious, but then we hadn't hit any complications yet.

"My name was Edric Miller."

"Edric," I responded automatically, noting the visible reaction my patient had to hearing someone else say it. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

"I was born in Cordyline Hill, long before it was like it is now. My father was a miller and my mother died in childbirth, which my father resented me greatly for. It wasn't a comfortable existence back then; damp wooden home with no electrics and none of the selection of foods that are readily available today.

"We lived an average existence. I had no dreams to be any more than what my father was.

"All things considered my father and I were amongst the wealthier villagers and as such when I grew so did the list of prospective wives. None of them interested me.

"Then I met a girl... a woman, traveling through the village. Her name was Rhea and she was electric, more alive than anyone I'd met before. It wasn't a regular occurrence at the time to find a woman traveling alone. She came from a wealthy family, more than able to fund her adventures.

"We spent months together in the village, building a relationship, a life... dreams. But Rhea couldn't be tethered to one place, she wanted to keep moving and she wanted me to go with her."

Eyes wide, fully enthralled in the Beast's tale, I asked, "Did you?"

"I agreed to, of course. I thought Rhea was my soulmate and wherever she would be would in turn be home. I gave her only one condition and that was that she married me. I wept when she said yes.

"Rhea became somewhat cagey once we were engaged. She was distant and less vibrant than she had been. Eventually, after I queried meeting her father to officially ask for her hand, she told me her secret."

The Beast lowered his eyes and attempted to shuffle in the almost comically tiny chair. This wasn't a story he'd told for a long time, I wondered exactly how long. Decades, hundreds of years? I didn't want to interrupt, but I knew at some point I had to ask. After a few moments, he continued.

"Rhea wasn't human. I laughed when she told me." He rolled his eyes at the irony. "She said that she wanted to let me into her world, take her to meet her family, but that I had to know that her father was an actual monster.

"It seemed ridiculous. I wouldn't have believed a word that came out of her mouth had she not been able to provide me with proof. I thought she was hysterical as she raised a blade to her arm and cut right down the middle. Blood poured out and I became inconsolable; but not for long.

"She just touched the wound and it's like her skin started to stitch back together, piece by tiny piece, until there was no wound at all. All within the space of a few minutes. I hadn't previously been a believer in witches but in that moment I was sure I was going to marry one. And I didn't care.

"I was so blinded by love and so oblivious to her true nature that I followed her, all through the countryside, sleeping under the stars, making love in meadows of wildflowers. I didn't know it that early on but we'd conceived a child. A romance with a witch would've been an unconventional life but I was prepared to give up everything for her.

"I followed Rhea. We traveled, ending up in another small village. A clearing in the woods that you've been to before. Where we first met, Dayna. Do you get it yet?"

I took a moment to mull over his words as things started to fall into place, his story asking far more questions than it was answering. I was beginning to regret asking the initial question at all.

"Rhea was... was she?"

"The Harakungu's daughter."

Those three words opened an entire world of unexpected possibilities. I mentioned before that the Harakungu was a celebrity of sorts in the monster world, his story seemingly universally known. Yet not once had I ever heard of a daughter, a human-passing one at that.

"What happened next?" I asked, desperate to know how Edric Miller had come to be the Beast of Cordyline Hill.

"I wasn't this big... before. I was never small, though. I loved her enough to humor her ridiculous notion that I simply had to squeeze through the entrance. I expected to be covered in mud and making some serious decisions about my future with the madwoman. Then I dropped into the palace.

"Most people don't know this about him but what you see isn't what he looks like."

I shuddered thinking about the Harakungu's yellow eyes and needle-sharp fangs.

"What does he look like?"

"Nothing. Everything. He can change his form however he sees fit. When I met him he was far closer to human-passing, although the grand set of wings were quite the giveaway. I was terrified and way out of my depth but every time I looked at Rhea I saw the madness as worth it.

"We stayed in the palace for weeks, he was good to me at first. The disdain for humans was clear, he'd traveled across the whole world watching humans kill anything remotely like him for thousands of years. Still, he accepted my presence for Rhea's sake and to mask his own hypocrisy. Rhea's mother was human and other than that fact she was never spoken of.

"He grew angry as his daughter's belly began to swell and we realized we were expecting a child. He sat me down and threatened me, made it clear that no human would be joining his family. I had to submit to my curse... to live with a part of the Harakungu's power... as a monster or die and never see Rhea again."

"What happened to her? And the baby?"

"It's like a piece of tragic literature. Rhea perished in childbirth, just like my mother had, except months too early for the baby to survive. I lost them both. The Harakungu insisted it wasn't possible, made every attempt to save them but no power would bring them back. I tried to heal her like I did you but she was cold. Gone."

I felt a tear roll down my cheek, imagining a life without my own child. I had so much empathy for the Beast. I could understand his choices, how he'd come to be a monster. He continued.

"He was devastated and furious, unable to bear the sight of me. He sent me away, broken and like... this. I went back to my father, who kept me chained up like the disappointment I'd always been to him. Until I broke the chains and tore him apart. Since then I've lived in the same home, on the edge of town, abused by almost all who stumble across me."

"Do you really let them abuse you?" I asked. Despite my compassion, I struggled to imagine the Beast taking trouble from angry villagers.

"Not anymore. I used to but it didn't get me anywhere. I grew to share my ex-father-in-law's opinions of my previous species, perhaps even feel them to more of an extreme. Forgive me, Dayna, but humans are the vermin."

"I don't disagree with you entirely. Why did you go to the convention, wasn't it painful?" I'd already overstepped my mark so I continued to query.

"To meet you, I had to eat, to drink. There were a few others I was looking out for, too, but I'd prefer to keep that private. It's been hundreds of years, the Harakungu didn't hold a grudge for tragedies beyond my control, especially when I keep his secrets. He would lose a lot of credibility if it was known that he reproduced with a person, so I'm tolerated. Still, I don't often go out of my way to be around him."

I nodded. "I'm sorry. Let me book you in for a six-month check and I'll remove any that regrow. Free, of course."

"Thanks, Dayna. I'm grateful, honestly."

I turned and walked out of the treatment room, leaving the Beast smiling on the chair. I checked on Coco, who was watching some Netflix on her computer at the front desk, and got her to book in his follow-up then I returned to the room to walk him out.

He was stood up when I returned and his demeanor had changed. The smile that had followed his relief was nowhere to be seen but it wasn't the result of sadness after telling his story. It was as if something had happened to change his personality entirely just in the time I was out of the room.

He looked agitated. Angry.

"I've booked you in for..."

"That won't be necessary."

"Oh, what's..."

"Do you want to hear another story, Doctor? This one's even more tragic."

I struggled to understand why he was being so formal all of a sudden.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Hundreds of years. That's how long I've been beaten, set light to and victimized by humanity. Yet still, when shown kindness I've given it back. Just like I have for you, Dayna."

"I'm incredibly grateful, I don't understand." I saw him seething, the teeth I had previously been all over suddenly seemed quite intimidating and by fixing the crowding I had given him the ability to bite. My heart pounded.

"I helped a nice couple not long ago," he rambled, pacing across the room, knocking over dental instruments with his giant body parts as he walked. "I felt real sorry for them. Reminded me of me after I lost Rhea. They'd had 8 miscarriages. Infertility is an awful thing. So I fixed her. Healed her. And they had a baby."

I gulped, realizing the direction the conversation was going.

"What I didn't know was that the couple had visited a witch as well, by the name of Eudora Finch. She killed the couple in an attempt to claim the child that she had nothing to do with. Do you know what witches do with babies, Dayna?"

"They eat them," I answered, knowing that he knew that Eudora hadn't eaten Pearl.

"They eat them! Good answer. I suspected that was what had happened too, Eudora ate the baby and the couple became a bad plot of a sad fairy tale."

I didn't say a word but glanced over to my computer desk, where the photograph of my daughter should've been. My worst fears were confirmed when I noticed the frame, face down on the floor. Terrified, I went to shout for Coco but the Beast spoke first.

"That isn't what happened though, Dayna. You know that though. Eudora didn't know about my involvement in the child's conception, just as I hadn't known about the couple's desperate plea to her. Recently, in fact, I've learned that Eudora didn't eat the poor, orphaned, monster baby at all. She gave her to a human. One that without so much as a conversation, branded me a monster."

I thought back to my offhand comment at the start of the appointment. A faux pas without this information but a fatal mistake with. The venom he spoke with was pungent, permeating the room with its vitriol.

As he'd told me his tale he had considered me an ally, but now I was nothing more than a threat, taking a monster-child for my own. I could've handed her over. Solved the issue in an instant.

That was never going to happen though, Pearl was my daughter and I wasn't going to palm her off to a bitter, unstable creature who would teach her hatred. In the space of minutes, the Beast became an enemy of proportions that childless me could never have understood.

"I will find her."

That was all that the Beast of Cordyline Hill hissed at me before pushing past and storming through the hall and out of the practice. He slammed the door so hard on his exit that the glass panel shattered. Flustered and trying to follow, I grabbed hold of Coco, who was confused and babbling.

"Day, what happened?!"

I didn't answer. My mind was too full. I tried to process the danger I was in but I couldn't, it was only the beginning. All I knew at the time was that I had to take Coco and go home to Pearl.

We had to run.

I'm a dentist for monsters. There's nowhere you can hide from them.

It's me, Doctor Dayna Danworth. Your antisocial neighborhood monster dentist, back again.

Wow, that was a mouthful.

I'm sorry to keep leaving you all hanging, we've reached parts that are difficult to relive.

I don't even know what to say. I was as confused as all of you were by the sudden change in the Beast of Cordyline Hill at the end of our appointment. I wish I could provide satisfactory answers, but that would mean there were answers that I deemed satisfactory.

I could understand his reservations; a long and soiled history with humanity, a deceased family, and the idea of someone with no biological monster connection raising a child he felt was rightfully his.

Regardless, that didn't explain the aggression he showed me, especially not after our polite and cordial prior interactions.

I was baffled. If I hadn't been so dumbstruck I'd have tried to speak to him at the time. To calm him down. But if you'd seen the look in his eyes you'd have frozen just like I did. The Beast could've snapped me in two without giving me time for a last breath.

That aggression, that look in his eyes, the speed he flipped... whatever caused it didn't matter. It showed me that he wasn't fit to care for Pearl.

My use of the term monster, that he claimed had been the issue, was never intended to offend. It was laughable. I don't think that was the issue at all. I was the issue. Tolerable until I affected him, he couldn't get past one thing.

I was human.

He had hatred for us; that much had been apparent long before he spotted Pearl's photograph, although somewhat more subtly. I suspected that hatred, however, lay somewhere with jealousy and that gave me an inkling of hope that some of his human self, Edric, was left behind.

After he left and some time had passed for me to babble an explanation to Coco, we locked up and got straight in the car, she sped the entire way to my flat - nothing new but somehow more urgent than usual. In the car, I was hysterical, unsure of what to do.

The Beast knew where I worked but as far as I knew he didn't know my home address. Still, I found myself shaking as I fumbled at the door, struggling to zone in on the keyhole, desperate to see my baby. It was ridiculous and unnecessary.

Pearl was fine.

Of course, she was. She was home, giggling over a baby TV show that Evan had put on to entertain her while he cooked. The pure love I felt as I saw my sharp-toothed daughter melted a lot of the anxiety away. She may have had the Beast's teeth, but she had a beautiful spirit.

The Beast said he'd find her, but he hadn't said when. A monster of his proportions in the city wouldn't have the luxury of waiting and following. The more time that passed and the less I feared the monster turning up at my door demanding my child, the more of a plan started to formulate in my mind.

"Dayna! Wasn't expecting you back so early, Pearl's... What's wrong?" Evan's face dropped as he turned and noticed the look of horror in my eyes.

I sat down and hysterically told him the same story I'd struggled to tell Coco back at the practice.

"Where did he go?" Evan asked, Pearl now sat on his knee as he bounced her gently. She warmed my soul.

I stuttered. Realistically, I didn't know where he'd gone. I had speculation but no assurance. Coco had been certain we weren't followed on the way home and I suspected the Beast would need to make inquiries about me to get any further than the practice.

If he had killed me he couldn't get to Pearl and I think he knew I wasn't going to lead him to her after his outburst. That's why he fled. I didn't think for a second that he was going to turn up an hour later and rip me to shreds.

The monster in him couldn't keep in his rage and the human didn't want to let it explode.

As I mentioned, the Beast of Cordyline Hill didn't have the option to walk around waiting either, he stuck out too much in such an average part of the city, visiting me had been enough of a risk. If my office hadn't been so close to a connected station he would have been a home visit for sure. Maybe that would've been best.

If he stalked me he'd be lynched. As long as he didn't know where I was going home to, we were safe. Pearl was safe.

"He left... I don't know. I know he took the train here, connected railways. Maybe the station?" I babbled again, trying to get my head straight.

"And you weren't followed?" Evan continued, gripping Pearl so she didn't wobble and fall, he was so good to her.

"I made sure," Coco rebutted seriously. I wasn't sure how she could be so certain but I didn't doubt her.

"That's good, did he see the car?"

Evan presented a point I hadn't thought about, Coco's car was innocuous yet distinctive, full of charms and dangling things, and always parked directly outside the practice. If the Beast had made the connection it was now a beacon, Pearl's car seat in the back the treasure.

"He probably did," I answered, noting Coco's panic as she realized the same. "We have to presume he did."

"What are we going to do?" he asked.

The "we" was poignant. It felt good to know that Evan was on my side, protecting my daughter. Not many babysitters would be willing to help shield a baby from a Beast without severe renegotiation of pay. I made mental note to give him a raise regardless.

"We're going to hide her, and I'm going to talk to him. He didn't give me a chance and I will get my turn to speak. But Pearl can't be anywhere near the situation," I slowly forced out. "I've met worse monsters than him."

That was all the plan I had. I thought of the Beast's story, the revelations about the Harakungu and the hypocrisy of monsters rejecting humanity. The death and the hatred didn't benefit either party. The words I'd accidentally shared with the ancient monster in his underground palace at the paranormal services convention sprung to mind.

This plan was... painfully human.

"You can stay with me if you like, my flat's small but you'll be safe. Then if he looks for Coco's car it's still here but you aren't. My car's parked two streets away and if he's considered that a nanny might exist he'll go back to No More Nightmares first to try and get information out of Armand."

"He's right, Day, you should call Armand." Coco looked genuinely frightened. She never did. Something about seeing her like that and watching Pearl smile up at me changed something in my head. Removed all the fear.

"No! I can fix this. Thank you, Evan, we'll stay with you tonight just as a precaution but tomorrow I'm heading to Cordyline Hill and I will fix this. Coco can deal with the patients and Pearl can stay with you. He was angry and emotional. There's a person in there and I will get through. I'm not raising Pearl running."

Both of them looked at me uncomfortably but I didn't care. I was determined that Edric Miller would be reachable, reasonable, and the person that I'd known right up until those last tense moments.

"You aren't going alone, Day, don't be ridiculous," Coco piped up.

"I have to. He has to know I'm not scared."

That was it. It was risky, full of potential problems, and came without a contingency for failure. It was also non-negotiable and both of them knew that. So we packed some things and we bundled into Evans's car.

Passing Mrs. Pepperbottom's car I was relieved to be going. I doubted the Beast would be so brazen, but I didn't need my neighbors subjected to a world they knew nothing about.

"How far do you live?" I asked, realizing I didn't even know what Evan went home to. I felt a pang of sadness at my own self-interest and made a conscious note to pay better attention to others.

"Oh, I'm only down the road from the practice, just opposite the opening to the park. The big tower block."

I cuddled Pearl to my chest; we'd had to leave her seat in Coco's car and I'd wrapped her in my jacket in an attempt to keep her safe and hidden.

I didn't have much practical knowledge of the Beast and his abilities. Did he have an acute scent? Tracking abilities? Or was he just a poor, misunderstood, angry healer? I'd packed my journal that formed part of my database in my bag. Despite the stakes, I still hoped to learn something.

I had more than a few patients who lived in the same block as Evan and I was familiar with it by mention only. Thinking about those patients, I wondered if Pearl would even be a spectacle at all in that building. I'd suspected we lived in somewhat of a hotspot for a long time and Evan's block had made me a hell of a lot of money. I struggled to hold in a burning question.


"Yes, Dayna?"

"Are you a monster?"

There was a silence. Coco cringed, she'd always hated that question, probably one of the reasons she was such a difficult receptionist. She thought I threw it around far too easily. From the backseat, I couldn't see Evan's face, focused on the road.

"Well, how did you even know about the job you were applying for? And that block - Coco how many times have you written that address on patient forms? It's a valid-"

"I'm not a monster," Evan replied sincerely, his smile still audible but a slight sadness in his voice. Unbothered by the response either way, I sighed with relief that I hadn't caused major offense. I had to stop doing that. "I grew up in Cordyline Hill, my mother is Carla Parks, she was recruited from a normal university just like you were," he finished.

"Carla is your mum!?" Coco exclaimed.

"Parks isn't my surname, people don't often make the connection. It isn't something I advertise," Evan answered, solemnly.

I didn't respond to his revelations. I was reeling. Carla Parks was head of one of the most controversial services in the monster industry. She led the so-called Ethical Organ Collectors, an organization steeped in scandal and conspiracy.

It was originally set up to provide sustainable, ethically sourced food for monsters that exist solely on organ-based diets. It isn't a huge market of monsters but the consumption from that market is positively enormous.

I hadn't met him at this point in my tale but looking back I expect Mosaph Eurastix, who first prompted me to share my story, was a regular customer of Evan's mother.

TEOC, as Carla's organization was commonly known, claimed to contact those who were terminally ill and near to their final breath, asking them to voluntarily donate their organs to save the lives of a new species. It was sketchy and not a whole truth, but TEOC marketed it brilliantly, focusing on the long and fulfilling life the human led.

I'd always struggled to think of humans as if we were free-range chickens.

In reality, there were stories of a black market-style organ harvesting ring. The worst of the stories involved kidnapping and sourcing humans as live prey for monsters to play with, the best of them involved manipulating dementia patients on their deathbeds. Either way, the "ethical" organ collectors made my skin crawl.

Evan felt the same. That much was obvious; he remained quiet after his admission until we pulled up on the familiar road, my office just yards away from the towering block of flats we were next to.

"Home sweet home!" Evan chirped, helping me out of the car with Pearl.

"It's just one night. I promise."

"Well, you're welcome for as long as you need."

I was grateful for Evan, I really was. But I couldn't shake the thought of his mother. The mentally invasive theory that maybe, just maybe, he worked for her. That we might be walking to our deaths. I didn't want to feel that way, paranoid and desperate. Fearful of someone who had been nothing but a friend for months by this stage.

I had always taken pride in my decent judge of character but after the Beast's appointment, that confidence had been shattered.

I will only admit this once, here. But prior to his freak-out, I had genuinely started to like Edric Miller, the Beast of Cordyline Hill.

I shook aside my paranoia and followed Evan into the looming building, noticing a small but well-manicured patch of garden to the side of the concrete and one small bench facing away from me. A young girl sat on it alone in the dark, just watching the garden, she could only have been in her early twenties.

My thoughts turned back to Evan's home and my fascination with its inhabitants that had already made it into my database. I was certain there were plenty more in the building that weren't on my books. I silently cursed myself for not bringing a few business cards.

Clutching Pearl, I made a beeline to the lift that stood perfectly opposite the main door.

"No, Dayna, we're taking the stairs, I'm not too far up, don't worry."

"She's too lazy for stairs," Coco giggled back at Evan, mocking my inactive disposition as she bounded toward the cold metal doors with me.

"No, honestly... It breaks down all the time. Come on. I'm only on floor five." Evan looked sincere, serious even, and I wasn't prepared to argue with someone showing me such kindness.

I sighed and readjusted my baby on my hip, making sure the blanket covered her face and in turn, her teeth. We started to climb the stairs. After what felt like a few too many steps - a symptom of my poor fitness, I'm sure - and passing more of those bald cats than I'd ever seen in one place, we reached a landing with a large painted number 5.

"Don't mind him. He's never been a bother," Evan piped up, in response to Coco approaching a still man in the stairwell, so astoundingly human and average that I was sure he couldn't be human at all.

"What's the deal with this place?" I asked, trying and failing to take in the man's facial features. I remember getting close to him, inches away, and I still couldn't tell you what he looked like. The man didn't flinch. Not even a blink. "Who is he?"

"I don't know. Does it matter? We're all just... living," Evan answered, nonchalantly.

I was a scientist. I'd never been satisfied with any answer containing the word just. Mr. Average, stoic in the stairwell, was a type of monster I'd never seen before, a catalyst for my natural curiosity. I parted my lips to speak again but Evan had already opened the main door to the hall of flats and was ushering Coco through.

I considered one last glimpse at Mr. Average but decided that interestingly, it would be fruitless. A note that would later make its way into my journal.

Evan's flat was small but neat and clean. We set up Pearl's travel cot that we'd bundled into the boot of the car and our host set up the sofas for Coco and me. Once we settled, I nursed a cup of tea and cuddled my sleeping daughter as the other two looked at me disapprovingly.

Everything felt so surreal. A few months prior to that moment I would never have imagined myself with a baby, let alone hiding with her from a vicious beast as an unknown monster stood just meters outside. In the home of the most controversial woman in the industry's son.

"How long has that man outside been there?" I asked, trying to break the silence.

"About six months now. He never moves, never does anything. Just stands there."

"And no one in this building finds that strange?"

Evan just laughed at my question. It was a warm laugh, one that said he'd probably heard that question asked about different things a thousand times. He seemed so comfortable around the unexplainable though, I could swear he smiled at the walls.

"Not everything needs an explanation, Dayna. There are no humans or monsters here, no one's that self-aware. I like it. Have you ever considered just sharing your world with monsters? Not separating the two; no experiments or notes, just existing? It's peaceful."

I paused, thinking about his words. I thought about the man, not too far from the flat door.

"You sound like a hippy, you know?" Coco butted in before I could respond. Evan, exasperated at her inference, sighed.

"You sound like my mother."

Eurgh. Coco cringed as she thought of Carla Parks, practical supervillain and former university colleague of ours. She realized her visible reaction and the look on Evan's face and steadied herself. "I'm sorry, it just..."

"It's okay. I get it."

"Are the stories true?" I asked.

Evan lowered his eyes and scoffed solemnly. "Which ones?" he responded. "The human trafficking or the live stream events?"

"I haven't heard anything about a live stream," I answered, mind racing, feeling queasy at the thought of what sick entertainment her business must have made.

"That's because most people don't know the half of it, they think it's all just conspiracy so no one looks into it. I've tried to talk to people, but no one takes me seriously. Carla never advertised the fact she had a kid, so I sound like another lunatic. It's been that way since I left. She doesn't even deem me enough of a threat to come after."

"When did you leave?"

"I left as soon as I thought I could survive on my own. I've been alone since I was sixteen. This was the only place that didn't ask for a guarantor, the neighbors were strange, but they're nice. I didn't have to put up with... help with...."

"I'm sorry, Evan. You must have seen some real shit," Coco interrupted, taking a seat next to him and placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I always thought there was something creepy about your mum, even before the Organ Collectors started."

I tried to fight my insatiable curiosity. I tried to let Evan and Coco have their emotional moment. I did. Motherhood bought with it a level of restraint I wasn't sure I had but it couldn't quash that remaining fascination. I'd always had it and I always would, it was my hubris.

"What does she live stream? What happened to make you leave?"

Evan looked visibly sickened. It was instantly apparent that I'd unlocked something quite traumatic. I felt bad but I had to know. I had to.

"I held the camera for a long time. She puts on a real performance; hosting as if it were some kind of sporting event. Human hunting. Those monsters... the ones that only eat people... they aren't the fluffy creatures her marketing guys make them out to be. They're predators. And they pay a lot of money for prey they can hunt without risk or human interference.

"My mother provides that. She owns land all over the country where she hosts these events, an entire shadow staff of retrievers, who collect the type of prey she's looking for.

"The weak mostly; sick, disabled, dying. Her ethics aren't entirely a lie, just twisted. Well... I thought so." A single tear rolled down Evan's cheek. Coco moved her hand from his shoulder to around his neck, holding him close.

Pearl gurgled a little and I gestured for him to wait a minute as I got up and bounced her gently for a moment before placing her back down and taking my seat.

"I'm sorry, carry on."

"The few months before I left things had started to escalate. Some of the customers were making tougher and more disturbing requests. Carla was more than happy to oblige.

"The night I left was a major event, she claimed it was being streamed at a prestigious club night in Las Vegas. The hunter for the night was some kind of big deal in the monster world and he'd handpicked his own prey. We were there just to give him the private space to hunt and to film it..."

The tear that had escaped turned into another, which turned into a whimper and an inability to continue his story. I could see the guilt written all over his face, the disgust that he was ever party to what went on.

"You don't have to-" I started.

"No. I do," he cut me off, took a deep breath, and continued his story. "He was only about four feet tall, with this sickly blue skin and claws that could slice through metal if he tried. I don't know who he was but he was excited when he arrived.

"He stood in the tree line and I put my eye to the camera. I focused on the cage, waiting for the prey -people - to get let out. Mother said the people in Vegas would want to see their scared faces.

"The collector waited for the sound of the starting gunshot then released the door of the giant cage. Two people piled out, one teenage girl about my age and an older man, about sixty. It took them a few seconds to realize they could run but they ran. They took off so fast I struggled to pan the camera quick enough to catch it. The monster didn't run after them though. It waited. I couldn't work out why and I wish I never had.

"Carla hit me from behind and pointed back at the cage without a word so she wouldn't interrupt the stream. I panned back to see the third victim. The little girl."

Coco gasped. I felt my heart sink. For years there had been whispers in the industry about Carla's sketchy behavior but no one took it seriously, no one listened, and no one suspected the level of evil it was at.

"She couldn't have been more than six," Evan sobbed, unable to steady his emotion any longer. "The fear in her eyes was the worst I'd ever seen. She wasn't dying. She wasn't sick. She hadn't signed away her organs to a friendly hospital visitor. I felt every lie I'd ever been told smack me in the face in that moment.

"She was a fucking terrified little girl and my mother was prepared to watch her torn apart for money. And she expected me to film it."

My throat filled with bile. I'd never been extra sensitive to the suffering of children before. All suffering was suffering, right? But imagining a girl like Pearl, only a few years older, being hunted by Carla Parks set off a special kind of hatred I didn't know I could feel.

"What happened to her?" I asked.

"I don't want to know," Coco interjected, knowing that her protest wouldn't stop me from asking.

"It was so fast, the monster took one look at her and started to sprint. I dropped the camera and I just ran. For the sake of filming, I was just that much closer that I got to her first. I threw myself in front of her and took the claws while she ran into the woods behind the cage.

"If Carla hadn't stopped him, I'd be dead. She had just enough sway to get that creature off me. There must be a heart somewhere in that cold bitch, she couldn't watch her own son die. But she was angry. She told me to go. Said I could find my little friend and a new place to stay. That she wasn't prepared to keep a liability around."

Evan stood up and slowly lifted his t-shirt, revealing thick, deep, purple scars across his back confirming his story. They'd healed badly, with raised lumps and indented flesh.

"I looked for the little girl but I couldn't find her. Honestly, I probably just spared her from a monster to hand her to the elements. I was on the streets for a while until I could get a job and afford this place. But it was all worth it to be away from her. I thought I'd take down TEOC but I didn't stand a chance. She's bulletproof."

Coco and I spent a while comforting Evan but it was difficult to know what to say. We were shocked. I wanted to think of a way to help him, to take down Carla, but I had to focus on one issue at a time.

Until I'd fixed my problems with the Beast of Cordyline Hill, the Ethical Organ Collectors had to stay off my radar. I didn't need to make any more enemies or put my friend and babysitter in danger at the hand of his abhorrent mother.

After Evan retreated to bed and Coco began to snore on the sofa opposite the one that would be my bed for the night, I laid awake plotting my journey to the village Edric Miller called home. I'd never taken a train with connected railways and I couldn't be certain my miserable plan would work.

I wish I'd saved myself the hope and admitted I already knew that it never could.

A faint noise from outside got my attention, some sort of minor kerfuffle coming from the park opposite. As I sat up to peer down from the window to the street outside I felt the air knocked from my body.

There he was, staring up at me. The Beast of Cordyline Hill.

I'm a dentist for monsters. The baby and the Beast.

It's me, Dayna. This time solemn, without a witty or dry opening for you. This part of the story doesn't warrant that, and I'm afraid some of you who hoped for mediation will be sorely disappointed.

For that, I'm truly sorry.

When we left off, I was hopeful that I could negotiate with the Beast of Cordyline Hill, too; that I would be able to come to a peaceful compromise.

I was wrong. Misguided and painfully wrong.

When I saw him, I didn't make a sound. I didn't want to alert Coco or Evan, or worse, wake up Pearl. I just sat there, face in the window, staring at the Beast.

The scene outside was bordering on picturesque, Evan's flat was just high enough for a stunning view of the near-empty piece of city, and just low enough that I and Edric could watch each other with unblinking eyes. Had it not been for the sheer anxiety, the quiet treetops would've been quite peaceful.

It was late. Late enough that only the few up to no good human creatures of the city walked the night, scurrying through the streets paying no mind to anything around them. And the Beast, draped in a dark hood, drew little to no attention.

The young girl on the garden bench from before had gone. A stillness had fallen outside the tower block. Behind the Beast was a street filled with parked cars and large, iron gates opening onto the pitch-black park.

My reliance on his otherworldly appearance to keep me safe was shattered by the lack of nearby life and his ability to blend into the darkness. Without teeth visible, he was nothing but a giant man.

A man that I was sure no average human would bother.

He locked eyes with me the instant my head appeared. I found this alarming. How had he known where I was? How had he known which window I would be in?

I started to wonder about Evan. He was the son of the most controversial figure in the industry and scars or not, I couldn't accept his story with complete certainty. I wondered if he had sold us out to the Beast. If Coco, Pearl, and I were just sitting ducks.

As thoughts snowballed I felt Edric Miller's eyes burrowing into my soul, even from that distance. They were hypnotic, as if they were searching for a part of me I hadn't even met yet and drawing me out, closer to him.

I couldn't just sit there. I had to do something.

I couldn't be prey.

Despite my discomfort and reservations, I wanted desperately to trust Evan. His love for Pearl had always seemed so genuine and he was willing to help without question. The disdain he had for his mother and her actions was so clear that I felt bad for even considering the possibility that Evan was acting.

But I had to.

I glanced at the sofa where Coco lay, her gorgeous, dark braids brushing the edge of the fabric as she snored like a tractor. I knew I could trust her. She would do anything in her power to protect my daughter, from anyone she needed to.

That was the only certainty I had.

So I took a risk. I left Pearl in her crib and I went to face the Beast; knowing if my uncomfortable feeling about Evan turned out to be at all founded, that Coco would look after Pearl.

I peered into her crib briefly as I opened the flat door as carefully and quietly as possible. She gurgled slightly, making tiny, sleeping baby faces. My heart filled and my nerves hardened. It was all worth it for her. My daughter.

Biology and monster magic didn't mean a fucking thing.

Running into the stairwell I was faced with the still man, familiar yet unrecognizable. Despite my sheer panic, his world hadn't changed, Mr. Average had remained where he was. He provided me some comfort as I rushed toward the metal doors of the lift.

It had to be quicker than the stairs, right?

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Doctor."

A chill ran up my spine as the young voice from behind me echoed the cryptic warning that Evan had given me on entry to the building.

I turned to the spot behind Mr. Average, where a small figure perched on a concrete windowsill, feet occasionally balancing on the handrail that ran beneath it but mostly swinging back and forth.

As the figure became clear I recognized one of my youngest patients. A girl; one half of a set of twins, deep black holes for eyes and pointed horns.

I'd wondered throughout many of our appointments if her affliction were a direct result of the building we stood in. Having finally seen it for myself I was almost certain my theory was right.

"What's in there?" I asked, pointing toward the mysterious lift, skipping the formalities in keeping with the urgency of the situation. The lift had become quite ominous.

"It doesn't matter, Doctor, just take the stairs. I like coming to your office, I wouldn't want that to stop." She grinned at me, revealing a set of shining, sharp teeth that had clearly been well-maintained since I saw her last. I'd always enjoyed my appointments with her and her brother, too.

I heeded her warning but not before offering her some words of encouragement that would've usually come with a sticker.

"It's nice to see you looking after those teeth. Thanks, Ellie."

With that I started to charge down the stairs, leaving the still man and the little monster behind, the latter waving me off.

What had felt like a perilous journey on the way up was over in seemingly a mere few steps, as if the building itself were willing me to reach the Beast.

I made it to the entrance lobby in seconds, threw open the main doors, and there was... nothingness.

The empty street felt bigger than it had before, the cold, late-night wind kissed my cheek as I looked around for the monstrosity that it should've been impossible to lose.

The gaps between the trees that lined the pathway through the park were black and infinite. I could feel an energy around me that was so dark and oppressive, I could barely stand. There was more power in the air than I could've ever anticipated.

"Wake up, Doctor, I thought you were sharper than that."

The Beast's cold voice crept up behind me, echoing through the still-open doors of the tower block. I turned, expecting to see him standing inches from me, ready to kill. Instead, he sat inside, nonchalantly on the bottom few stairs, leaning heavily against the wall.

I cringed, taking in the expression on his face, the furrowed brow and the aggression in his deep-set eyes; raw, hostile emotion. A few steps back into the building and the loud clank of the doors shutting left me alone with him in the lobby.

I wondered if any of the inhabitants of the building would respond to cries for help?

I opened my mouth to speak but he didn't allow me to make a sound, raising a patronizing, wagging finger.

"It's my turn. You'll get yours, I'm sure, but right now, in this moment, you're going to listen to me.

"I know she's here. There's no point in any niceties, Dayna. No point denying that you aren't the sole thing standing in the way of the only chance I have at fatherhood.

"When I lost Rhea I'd already given up everything; my future, my past... my humanity. All in the name of a family that was ripped away from me. I had to watch her die, watch them both die, knowing there wasn't a thing I could do to help her. Do you know how that feels?"

The question was rhetorical but I couldn't ignore the lump in my throat that formed in response.

The tickling memory of my own mother flooded my brain, just like the alcohol had hers, sprawled out on the whiskey-soaked couch as I shoveled dry cereal into my mouth at six years old. Years of that until she got really sick.

The tubes in the hospital and the incessant beeping of machinery, interrupting rhythmically as I tried to study. Her liver failing as she sabotaged every chance of a transplant with her addiction. The missed classes and parties, the romances I never got to have. The stale vomit. The human monster. I knew exactly how that felt.

"I spent hundreds of years in the village, mourning my love and our beautiful, breathless child," the Beast continued, a genuine tear escaping his steely eyes. "I wanted to die, too, so I could go to them. Hell, even nothingness had to be better. But it isn't that simple when you are what I am.

"So I stayed as everything around me decayed; my parents, my friends, my home, my soul. I became a local legend, a spectacle for kids to ridicule, and an existence that your kind debated. And still. Still, I helped anyone I could.

"That little girl's parents searched for me, they begged and pleaded with their god that the magic the kids claimed I had was real. The hag's, too, I'm sure. I didn't know that at the time, I thought they saw through this." He gestured to his teeth, baring them at me as his eyes welled with bitter tears.

"I didn't know they'd cast out a net, hoping to find any creature able to fix their problem. Exploiting those who hide in the shadows for their own gain."

I remembered his story as he'd first told it on my dental chair while I watched the hurt in his eyes build. There was a man buried beneath the monster, a person who just wanted his family back. A person that was left with the same empty feeling the child in me had when my mother finally choked on her own spew.

For that, I had true sympathy.

His emotion infected the entire room, building a heavy, thick smog that clouded my thoughts. Slowly, he stood, taking a few steps forward and slapping an enormous and frustrated hand on the metal of the lift door.

There was a whimper. Whimpers.

For the first time, I had an insight into the real reason I'd been advised to stay away from it. It wasn't cursed and it didn't frequently break down.

It was home to what sounded like multiple monsters, monsters who were terrified of the one on the other side of the metal.

It didn't bode well considering how fearsome Evan and my young patient had considered them to be. I wondered for a moment if I would be safer in that little box. Safer amongst the whimpers.

"How did you find me?" I managed, nervously.

The Beast smiled and traced his tongue along the tips of his thick fangs as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, clear plastic cup before tossing it to the ground. It made an awful, echoing sound as it collided with the concrete.

I remembered how many of those little plastic cups I'd handed him at the practice.

I'd handed him my scent, a personalized tracking device in a neat little bow. I realized in that moment that the Beast's powers went beyond just healing, he'd found me with ease and the intense darkness I could feel was perfectly intentional.

"Humans." He rolled his eyes. "See, I don't want you to feel disrespected, Doctor, I actually think you're quite intelligent. As a species though? Pathetic. It's a wonder you haven't been wiped out, that you manage to keep the rest of us in the shadows. I suppose you're the elite in cruelty."

"I was never cruel to you," I pleaded, realizing my feeble assumption that I would talk him down and live happily ever after with Pearl had been mistaken.

"You don't get it, do you? You claim to help, you're polite on the surface. But all you do is seek to humanize. She's a killer. A monster just like me. Just like Rhea was, like our child would have been. My second chance. I could stomach you in a professional capacity, Doctor, but raising something I created? Not a chance.

"You've got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here, Doctor. I'm going to offer you the benefit of the doubt, a chance to hand her over. You didn't realize before, I get that, but now you know what she is you will give her back. Or I will take her."

I thought of the sleeping baby upstairs. The child that I'd bonded with, raised for months. My blood boiled at the complete disregard for my parenting. I'd kept her alive, loved her. I loved her.

"You aren't taking her. She is my daughter," I spoke firmly, an inaudible wobble in my voice as I fought to mask the fear.

The Beast scoffed at my pitiful anger, it only incensed him even further. Towering over me he took a few steps closer, closing the gap and imposing his gigantic presence.

Almost foaming through his perfectly organized fangs he was a vision of terror, one I couldn't bear to imagine with Pearl in his arms. When he continued, he spoke with vitriol that had its own foul stench.

"You said it first, back in your office. She's a monster. A thing that can never be a part of the world you exist in. People like you. People that see us as nothing more than a subject to learn about while you profit off our struggles, you can't possibly be blind to the sort of treatment the rest of your kind give us? Stupid enough to think that you can protect something like her?"

His words were an attack on everything I'd believed about myself. For a moment, he made me question my own intentions with Pearl.

Had I seen her as some kind of selfish and twisted experiment in my pursuit for knowledge? I thought back to my fascination with the Beast, my thirst for information, I even considered the small buzz I got from realizing he'd used abilities to track me down. Maybe he was right.

Or maybe it was time I stopped cowering and did what my mother never did for me.

"If you think that baby is nothing but a killer then it's you that doesn't understand. It's you treating her like some sort of commodity for your own fucked up beliefs and it's you that's the problem. You'll have to rip me to shreds to get to her!"

My hands started to shake. I talked a big game but I knew that if he wanted to, the Beast could easily call my bluff and tear me limb from limb. I cursed myself for not having woken Coco before I departed the flat, for being complacent in my defenses.

This time the Beast delighted, the smog became heavier and I felt my knees buckle as he grinned. I curled my hands into tight fists and my knuckles pulsated in time with my heart. He noticed every tiny, subtle feeling, no matter how hard I tried to conceal it.

"That's it! Feel it! Feel that rage!"

I did, I felt every part of it coursing through my veins, forcing my heart to beat faster than it ever had before.

"Do you know what that feeling is, Doctor?" he asked calmly, inches from my face as I panted in rage and terror. "Did you know that when a mother thinks her child is in danger she's capable of lifting cars? Capable of fighting a polar bear with her bare hands to protect her young? Incredible, unimaginable strength. Who's the Beast now?"

"I'd do anything for her," I hissed back at him, fighting the smog to stay balanced. I raised a fist, puny, I know, and as expected the Beast encased it with his own in an instant, flipping me over and onto the ground with barely a wrist movement.

Winded, I struggled to breathe but it didn't deter me. I got back up and threw my weight at the Beast but was knocked to the ground again with ease. I felt the impact on my bones as I hit the cement. He craned over me, beady eyes that had once been filled with tears and emotion now vacant, expressionless and cold.

"Now, Doctor, I want you to imagine the capabilities of a father in that same position.

"You never stood a chance in the first place."

That was the last thing that I remember hearing before the Beast reached into the pocket that hadn't held the plastic cup and pulled out a closed fist. He winked at me before blowing sharply into it and shooting a fine mist of yellowish powder into my face.

Within seconds, there was nothing but black.

I wish I had a more dramatic recollection of the events after that moment but there isn't much I can report from my time knocked out cold on the floor.

I often wondered if any residents had passed me, or if they'd encountered the Beast in the halls. It was late and if I'm honest I doubted the Beast would be of much note to come across in a place like that.

I haven't returned to the block since that night. I never got the answers I sought and I'm not certain I ever will.

When I finally woke up, I was surprised to even be alive. The first ray of morning light coming through the frosted glass of the main doors hit me like a train.

I sprinted.

Aching from the impact with the ground I forced myself up, ignored the pain, and sprinted up the stairs, towards Evan's flat.

My friends, my daughter. Pearl.

I willed the Beast to be on the ground of the flat, a mess that we could employ PSEC to clean and never give a second thought to. I hoped that my faith in Coco's abilities to protect Pearl hadn't been overzealous.

It was no reflection on Coco. No. Once again, I'd underestimated the Beast of Cordyline Hill.

The still man remained in position on the stairs; an observer, stationary as a baby was taken from her crib. The flat door was wide open, the scene much like the one I'd left, except for the missing child.

Coco was in the same position, braids still dangling from the sofa. The snoring had stopped, however, and her face was coated with a fine yellow dusting, just like the unidentifiable mist the Beast has used to put me to sleep.

I stumbled into the hall, panic building as I noted Evan's open bedroom door.

Still unable to shake the feeling that he had been complicit in the event I stepped inside, relieved to be instantly proven wrong. Evan lay silently, golden powder layering his face.

I woke Coco first, shaking her hard and babbling desperate nonsense, Evan not long after.

There was a somber feeling in the flat. A gaping hole where a baby's giggle once sat. I felt powerless, we all did. We'd been ambushed and we'd lost. Now Pearl was caught up in the Beast's maniacal hatred of humankind. Of the people who loved her.

I wasn't about to let it drop. A mother's love knows no bounds.

I'm a dentist for monsters. A friend in need's a friend indeed but a friend who'll bleed is better.


That's all I've got for you this time. It's a feeling you think you've felt before, until you've really felt it. Without Pearl, I was hollow. A shell of a person. Broken.

It was as if the Beast had reached inside me and ripped out my soul. My baby didn't leave my mind for a second. Was she scared? Was he taking care of her?

Her empty crib stared back at me as a glaring reminder of my failure. Of my stupidity. Of my inability to protect my baby from the Beast that made her.

It was sick but for a moment I considered if I should forget her and return to normality without the child I'd never asked for. I considered it, but I couldn't bear the thought.

It's the moment I realized that family is a story that's often told wrong. It isn't blood, as evidenced by my own poor excuse for a mother, and it isn't a fairytale that romanticizes the monsters that walk among us. It's raw, painful love. The kind that you don't ask for but can't live without.

I couldn't live without her.

At this point, I wondered if I would've preferred he killed me. He could've. I know it and you know it, too. I didn't know what the powder he'd used to knock the three of us out was, but aside from its powerful sedation qualities, it hadn't appeared to bring any real harm. Why didn't he just kill?

Many of you mentioned your own confusion at his mercy and suggested it may be a symbol of the last of his humanity. I can't pretend that hadn't crossed my mind at the time.

I was wrong. You were wrong.

"We'll find them, Day, we'll get her back." Coco wrapped her arms around me and tried to be comforting. She was somewhat, but she couldn't fill that gaping void in my chest.

The air inside the flat was heavy with Pearl's absence and sheer panic.

Panic. It's a funny thing.

We all reacted differently; I stayed silent and frozen, traumatized by the things I hadn't done. Coco did as she always did, she babbled incessantly, and Evan... Evan paced.

The pacing was aggressive. There were banging and scrunching sounds as he started to collect necessities. I'd shaken my previous reservations about his involvement in the Beast's sudden appearance but I couldn't avoid the thought that Evan was acting strangely.

It was a stressful situation, sure, but he was usually so calm. Initially, he'd been the organizer, helping us to work out a plan, giving us a place to stay.

"What did he say to you, Day, where was he going?" Coco asked, white noise surrounding her as I started to feel overwhelmed, the pacing like a pendulum for me to follow. I mumbled a meek response.

"I don't know. I don't remember anything after he blew that stuff in my face."


Evan's fist made contact with the wall, punching a small hole into the plaster. It shook me out of my trance-like state. I couldn't hold my tongue. Nothing new there, I suppose.

"What is it? What aren't you telling us?!" They were the first truly coherent words that I'd spoken since waking in the concrete lobby.

I stepped toward him, feeling the same motherly rage build inside me as I had during my conversation with the Beast.

Evan inhaled sharply and relaxed his hand, letting it hang loosely by his side again. With the other hand, he gripped his dark hair in frustration and fought back tears.

"I promise I didn't know for sure... I never saw him..."

"Talk," I snarled in response.

"I know what that stuff he used was. It proves he's a customer of the organ collectors. I suspected as much, but I'd never seen or heard of him in my time there. Just a suspicion... I mean, what the fuck else does something like that eat, right?"

It was the one question I hadn't asked, a poor indictment of my skills as a dentist. It was the simplest question and usually always my first. Transfixed by the Beast and his story during our appointment, I had never thought to ask about his diet.

He couldn't drink when he first arrived at the practice. I'd given him back his ability to bite and he'd run straight to Evan's mother, Carla. I'd done that. I became quite enveloped in my own shame for a moment, until a single real voice cut through the hundreds in my mind.

"What was it?" Coco asked, trying to diffuse the tension in the room as she dusted a few specks of yellow from her face.

"Have you ever met the forest people?"

Evan's response jarred me, what did those particular creatures have to do with anything? I thought of Dennis, of the simpler times just doing my job and our adventure in the village of Abelfort. Whatever the answer, he was genuinely distressed.

"Of course," Coco replied as I seethed silently in the background

"They keep themselves to themselves mostly, right?" he continued, a look of pure disgust on his face.

The forest people, or the fae, were a traditionally illusive species. Dennis was the first and to this day the only forest person I'd had the pleasure of working on. They were famously disconnected from the paranormal and human worlds, choosing to stay mostly amongst the trees.

Coco nodded and Evan continued.

"They're powerful. One of the most powerful creatures to walk the planet, in fact. It's the type of power that you can't snuff out entirely, even in death. Their... parts... can be worth a fortune to the right customer." Evan shuddered at his own words, taking a deep breath before he carried on.

"One of my mother's shadier contacts offered her a product that could be a great asset to the collection side of the company, a product that promised to harness that power as the strongest sedative in the world. Perfect for prey extraction."

Realizing the direction the conversation was taking, I started to feel queasy, tugging at my skin to ensure every speck of dust was gone. Fae were a noble, proud race. I remembered their grace and gratitude as they lined the forest to guide us out safely after we rescued one of theirs. They'd been reduced to a weapon. A sick fucking pun. Dust.

Fairy dust.

"That's... awful. Are we poisoned?" I asked groggily, trying to process and think of anything but Pearl. That wasn't helping me to clear my mind.

"No. That was the main selling point for Carla. It knocks a person out for a few hours but after that, they're ready to run and scream, dead power can't last an eternity. It just made collection easier, it sold for a bomb to customers, too. Trouble-free kidnapping." Evan panted as we all rubbed at our faces; attempting, with much futility, to be subtle.

"Why didn't he kill me?" I asked, not expecting an answer of any kind.

Neither of my friends were able to provide me with an answer to that question. The moment was punctuated with an awkward silence.

A little calmer after our conversation, Evan gathered our coats and his car keys and bundled us down the stairs. Once again the flights felt short, like the block was helping us along. For the first time, I wondered if there was more to the place than just its inhabitants. Were the bricks and mortar their own monster?

I hoped that one day I'd be able to answer that question but with my baby missing, it was the least of my concerns.

There was no real aim. Maybe if we'd had any sort of plan things may have gone better than they did, but instead, we just fled aimlessly in the direction of Cordyline Hill.

Leaving the building felt quite unusual, as if we were stepping from some sort of safe haven into the wide unknown. A cold, human world that wasn't geared up for the kind of problems we were experiencing.

Evan stepped toward the driver's side as we reached his car but Coco quickly interjected.

"Hand me the keys," she demanded.

"Do it. Get in the passenger seat."

Evan didn't dare fight us both. If it hadn't been for the situation I'd have chuckled, he was in for quite the surprise with Coco's emergency driving.

I worried a little for the state of his car. If she wrecked it I'd have to replace it, along with giving Evan a hero's raise like I'd already planned. He was becoming a very expensive babysitter, albeit through no fault of his own.

We sped out of the city. It was the crack of dawn and the sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, as the sides of the roads became expanses of field and forest I noticed the dew sparkling, creating little lines of light as we whizzed past.

The journey was mostly silent until halfway, when Evan uttered two words.

"I'm sorry."

"For what?" I answered.

"For not being able to keep you all safe. I just wanted to do better. When I couldn't find that little girl from the cage I hated myself. I applied for this job because I just wanted to help someone instead."

My heart broke a little at his words. I knew what it was like to feel like a failure and I recognized that expression written all over his face.

"It's not your fault. It's mine. I was too complacent, I should've done my research on Pearl. That photograph should never have been on my desk."

"Both of you shut up," Coco interrupted the pity party with an authoritarian tone. It wasn't chipper, like her usual persona, but it also didn't feel pointed or devoid of care. "Wallowing gets us nowhere. Pearl deserves to be raised by people who teach her to love, smile, and believe in herself."

There was a quiet. A million sassy remarks about her greeting card-style quote crossed my mind but none of them felt fitting. Sometimes the cheesy messages that you find on greeting cards have their place.

"Right?" she prodded.

"Right," Evan answered, sniffing back a sob and forcing a smile onto his face as he turned to look at me.

For a moment he was the goofy kid in the hall of No More Nightmares again, jangling his keys to save a vampire from my child. I suppose he always was. I felt a pang of guilt for ever suspecting that he had nefarious intentions.

Evan hadn't been in our lives for long but he was family. This traumatic experience, his vulnerability and honesty about his mother, and his sheer determination to help had shown me what a pure and wonderful person he was. I felt motherly toward him, I wanted to keep him safe, too.

"Right," I affirmed, cringing at the camaraderie that I simultaneously valued so dearly.

The three of us continued on, the once strange atmosphere lifted and less tension filled the air. Any remaining periods of silence were cut through by the tinned pop music on the stereo. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, I felt humbled to have friends willing to face a Beast with me.

"He's not going to give her back easily. What's the plan? What if he just knocks us out again?" I started to word vomit, desperate to share my panic.

"I doubt he has any more of the dust, it's expensive beyond what you can imagine. He had enough to knock three of us out, I'd put money on that being the entire supply," Evan responded.

"We still can't dismiss the possibility. We also can't ignore the fact that he could physically overpower any one of us."

As I finished my sentence I felt the car speed up in response, Coco incensed by my words.

"That sneaky bastard took your baby while we were sleeping. I'm not asleep anymore, Day, I won't let him keep her."

Coco spoke with a smile on her face, I knew it even though she was facing the road and I couldn't see it, her voice sounded different when she smiled.

I believed that she believed her words. I'd seen Coco fight before but not since our university days. She could be fearsome... terrifying, in fact, but I wasn't certain she could tear down a monster like the Beast. It had been so long, I wondered if she could still fight at all.

If it was even still in her.

None of it really mattered. All that mattered was that we got Pearl home. We didn't discuss it but we'd all considered the fact the Beast might have to take his last breath before he let go of the baby.

We were all aware that we might be driving home murderers.

It took us just over an hour to reach Cordyline Hill, a journey that would've taken much longer had it not been for Coco's erratic driving. As I suspected, Evan spent much of it gripping his seat and wincing.

The village didn't have the same postcard appeal that it had the first time we'd visited. It was cloudy, with morning sun shooting through the gaps in the sky like poorly drawn blinds. The light irritated me, making it hard to take in the sweeping landscape and quaint cottages.

My heart started to race as the shack came into view. I'd noticed it upon leaving No More Nightmares but at the time it hadn't seemed like anything at all. Now it sat, decrepit and dilapidated, a beacon of everything I wanted to protect Pearl from.

"That's it, isn't it?" Coco stopped the car just far enough along the winding country road that the shack was nothing but a blurry shell.

They both turned to me as I nodded, palms starting to feel clammy. It's as if I could feel my daughter's presence, a strange kind of magnetic bond. I knew he had her there.

With my nod came a culmination of our lack of planning, a turn of events that had I been clear-headed, I may have predicted in time to limit the disastrous consequences.

We got out of the car, abandoning it in a small dirt lay-by on the seemingly endless road. And we walked. We walked like lambs to the slaughter, every step another step closer to doom.

The image of the shack got bigger as we neared it and the twisting in the pit of my stomach intensified. The road was dead still, not a single other soul in sight. In such a glorious countryside setting you would expect to hear birds, but the air was stagnant without any signs of life.

Until the cry.

It was a cry that stopped my pounding heart, a familiar, primal sound that I knew was calling for me. Pearl.

Only yards from the shack we heard it, and whilst I took a moment to sigh relief that my daughter was alive and that we hadn't struggled to find her, my friends didn't react the same.

Coco took my hand and sped up, ready for some kind of demented battle. But that wasn't the problem. The problem was Evan.

Evan ran.

He ran toward the shack so quickly I couldn't comprehend that he'd gone. Coco and I screamed after him and made a desperate attempt at pursuit but it was too late. He disappeared, pushing a broken door that barely hung on its hinges, into the home of the monster.

Looking back, I wonder if it was our screams that alerted the Beast.

We reached the opening just in time to see Evan, fingertips away from a giggling Pearl, obviously delighted to see a familiar face. A smile almost crept onto my own lips but that was wiped away in an instant.

I watched helplessly as a giant hand wrapped around Evan's neck, dirty fingernails tightening enough to lift him meters off the ground.

"Stop!" I screamed, taking a step inside the isolated wooden building, knowing no one that could help would hear me.

It didn't matter.

The Beast flashed me a smug, toothy grin as he dropped the young boy to the floor, like an object. Like nothing. Evan's entire body convulsed with the force of him hitting the cold, hard ground. He tried to push himself up but he couldn't, I'm certain he'd broken multiple bones.

Edric Miller turned to me and I searched for the shred of humanity you'd all hoped for. The humanity I'd hoped for. It just wasn't there.

"I didn't expect you to be so stupid, Doctor. Coco, it's a pleasure." He winked in the direction of a seething Coco, his arrogance permeating every inch of the rancid shack.

There had been another change in the Beast. This time it wasn't one that brought confusion, or muddied my view on what lurked beneath his cretinous surface. This time I saw exactly who he was.

He was a monster.

Quicker than we could react he took action that I don't think either of us anticipated in the moment. If it had been expected things may have ended differently. Action that changed the course of my life forever.

The Beast turned away from us, smiling down at the injured boy before him, and he forced an enormous hand into his chest, puncturing skin and ripping out innards.

That sounds flippant. To reduce the violent death of someone I cared so deeply for into one sentence. I don't mean it to. The moment lasted less than a second but it felt like, in that shack, time froze.

I watched as the spark in his eyes, head flopped to face us, went out for the last time. I watched as blood ran. So much blood. It layered the floor in a macabre river of suffering. I watched as the Beast reveled in the pain he was inflicting, lifting parts of Evan to his disgusting, perfectly manicured fangs. I watched as Evan died, trying to help my baby.

Pearl started to cry. I started to cry, too.

All in a split second. That's all it takes for your world to change forever.

It only took another split second for my world to change again, like the peaks and drops of a rollercoaster, forcing me along its track, twisting my stomach along the way.

As I looked on in horror, devastated by the events, something started to happen in the background. Shadows started to form; behind me, around me, creeping up each time-worn crevice and cranny of rotted wood.

I felt an anger that was somewhat familiar, yet stronger than ever before. It wasn't the motherly anger that the Beast had been excited to ignite. In fact, it wasn't even my anger. It was one that he ought to have been far more afraid of.

I noticed the shadowed specter rising behind me, encompassing everything inside the room, the shadow that had been there, dormant, to protect me for so long.

The Beast stopped consuming Evan's corpse to look up in a terrified wonder at the creature before him. One that had outsized him quite considerably.

I'd seen it before, only a handful of times and not for quite a number of years. I suppose it hadn't been given much prior reason to manifest.

She hadn't been given a reason.

I thought back to my doubt on the journey that it was still there, still in her; the monster. I should've never doubted at all.

Of course, Coco still had it in her.

I'm a dentist for monsters. Sometimes it's better to say goodbye.

It's me. Doctor Dayna Danworth. Your friendly neighborhood... fuck this.

Excuse my outburst but is there any point anymore? You know who I am and you know why we're here. Let's skip the small talk.

You got me. I've been keeping a pretty big secret from you and although many of you had your suspicions you need to know that I couldn't confirm them. And more importantly, why I couldn't confirm them.

I didn't want you to think of her that way. Another spectacle to fawn over like the rest of my patients. A creature of social and scientific interest with no real depth beyond pure fascination. Really it comes down to a rather simplistic issue.

I didn't want you to see her as a monster. Not her. Not my Coco.

When Evan died, violently and brutally at the hands of the Beast of Cordyline Hill, for a moment the world stood still. The crimson blood spilled across the floor of the dirty, wooden shack was the only macabre color in a scene of pure gray.

That moment felt hopeless. Desperate. Like it was never going to end. The only sound I could hear was Pearl's cries. My daughter calling out for me, begging me in her own unintelligible way to come to her. And I couldn't.

I froze.

Fight or flight. They're the two human reactions to stressful situations that are often discussed as if they're the only options. No one talks about freeze. In that moment; that excruciatingly extended moment, feet stuck to the ground, I felt like the most worthless mother alive.

Coco's reaction didn't fit any of those painfully human boxes. Her reaction wasn't simply to fight, it was so much more than that. Her reaction came with more humanity than many of us can ever hope to muster. No fight, flight, or freeze.

Only protect.

The Beast looked up in sheer terror at Coco's enormous, shadowed form. She'd become a mass of infinite blackness, tendrils of darkness forming an ethereal incarnation of her distinctive braids.

I looked up at her, too, but not with a look of terror. From me, it was a look of awe and admiration. She looked just as she did when we first met, terrifying and lovely.

"What are you?!" the Beast called out, genuine fear etching itself across his previously murderous face.

I laughed. The power dynamic had taken a dramatic turn. The Beast cowered behind the corpse of the boy whose heart he'd ripped out. Suddenly the blood that coated the monster wasn't so sinister.

Suddenly the giant man seemed so small.

"She's your worst nightmare," I answered flippantly, feeling the smug grin that I was struggling to conceal as I peeled my left foot from the ground, making a break for Pearl.

I grabbed hold of my baby, turning my back to the rotting wall and clutching her beautiful little face to my chest. Her fangs dented my skin through my clothes but I didn't care. She'd already watched Evan die, she didn't need to witness any more death.

The darkness that engulfed the shack felt warm and inviting, the opposite of what you might expect given the circumstances. It took me back to university; to the night that I'd woken up to that same darkness and to my neurotic roommate cowering in her bed.

I shut my eyes and remembered the moment Coco and I became family.

Michelle was a drip of a girl, she had a nervous disposition and was scared of everything. I had originally been disappointed when I was assigned to room with her, certain that I would be doomed to a mundane existence.

Little did I know that Michelle would give me the greatest gift I could've hoped for at the time, until I met Eudora Finch years later.

Our first night together in the dorm I woke to that darkness, to the enormous shadowed figure towering over the bed opposite mine. Ignorant of the monsters that walk among us I felt the same fear that Michelle did, even if only for a moment.

"What's happening?" I begged to no avail, the room remained silent and, just like in the Beast's shack, I remained frozen.

The monster didn't attack, she just floated, an ethereal specter in the corner of the small dorm room. Despite her deep black voids in place of eyes, I could sense the pain that the monster felt. That Coco felt.

I can't explain my reaction, or why I felt such a deep sympathy for the shadow I'd never met. I often wonder if it was the sole reason I was headhunted for paranormal services. Perhaps even the reason that I am who I am today.

I didn't scream, or run. I froze. I just sat on my bed, watching the shadow in awe.

Michelle didn't answer my question, not until the next day. She was catatonic at the time, mentally tortured by her fear of the creature that visited her every night.

I came to learn that Coco had originally been a creation of Michelle's vivid imagination, a friend. As a child she had been someone that my roommate leaned on, a wonderful made-up person who provided a playmate, a sister, and a confidant for her creator.

In all my years working with monsters and the unexplainable I have never come across another like Coco. A creature that was willed into being by human determination and loneliness.

As Michelle grew older so did Coco. Her parents became concerned that their daughter was living in a fantasy land, with an imaginary friend that had long outstayed her welcome.

Out of concern, they pleaded with their daughter to say goodbye, insisting she would never live a normal life if she continued to talk about "Coco".

Eventually, after enough ribbing and counseling, Michelle started to agree with them. She told Coco that it was time to go and that she needed to move on. She didn't realize that she had created something entirely sentient, that any control she had was gone.

Lost and confused Coco stayed by her friend's side, desperate to rekindle the relationship and without anywhere else to go. Michelle felt the loss of control and one night, during a particularly terrifying nightmare about her unshakeable friend, the shadow was born.

Coco had gone from an innocuous plaything to a nightmare, still bound by Michelle's imagination despite the autonomy she had already gained.

Every night, without fail, the shadow would appear, forged by Michelle's fear. Coco was trapped, eventually no longer able to appear as the friendly entity that she wanted so badly to be.

My roommate had stopped discussing her problem with anyone. Her parents put her through years of mental health treatment, therapy, and meds to address the night terrors but none of it worked. In truth, I believe they wrote her off as a disturbed individual, packing her off to university to avoid the issue.

I'd never believed in fate before, it was a concept that I found quite insulting given my own unfortunate upbringing.

My mind changed during my conversation with Michelle. She opened up to me, grateful that someone finally believed her and saw what she was facing. Most poignantly she changed my life with a single sentence.

"You're the only person who's ever been able to see her."

On our second night together I stayed awake, waiting for the shadow to appear. I watched Michelle shake in the corner as the thick darkness crawled over every surface, pulling at her hair and sobbing.

And I watched as the shadow sobbed, too.

You couldn't see it, tears didn't fall through the darkness. But I felt an instant connection to the specter, a visceral version of her pain. The initial fear of the sighting was gone and having heard her story, I wanted so badly to see the person that Coco was supposed to be.

"It's nice to meet you... Coco. My name is Dayna," I attempted in a moment of sheer curiosity, not expecting any kind of response from the shadow.

I wish I could offer a solid explanation as to what happened next but I just can't. As I sat and willed the creature, heart heavy with intense empathy like I'd never felt before, she started to shrink.

It was a perfect reverse of the situation that was currently unfolding in the shack. The darkness crept down each wall of our dorm and Michelle looked on in disbelief.

Within moments, sitting on the edge of my bed, was a beautiful young girl; around my age with long dark braids that cascaded down her back, deep brown eyes, and a smile warmer than I'd ever seen.

"Hello, Dayna. Do you want to be friends?" she answered in the same peppy tone I've come to treasure.

I nodded, barely noticing my roommate, frozen with shock on her own bed. I couldn't see anything but Coco.

"I do... but you have to say goodbye," I answered, nodding in the direction of the terrified girl. Coco tearfully stood and walked toward her, planting a gentle kiss on her forehead before rejoining me.

As I said, I wish I could offer a solid explanation. I'm a scientist, after all, a doctor. But I can't. I only have one simple theory as to why I was able to free her from the shadow she never wanted to be.

Coco and I are soulmates.

Her tie to Michelle was broken and her life finally began, intertwined with mine. I saw her for the person she was and miraculously, so did others. For the first time since her inception Coco was visible... whole.

Whatever curse Michelle's nightmares had inflicted on her was broken, and from day one we were inseparable. Michelle fled the university, both traumatized and relieved, ready to start fresh at home. We never kept in touch but I do hope that she found some peace.

I only ever saw the shadow a few more times; once when a boy on my course attempted to spike my drink and again when I was attacked by a patient, two years after opening the practice. Neither survived.

And, of course, in the shack with the Beast.

As I clutched my baby I watched as Coco raised a shadowed arm, shards of darkness making up claws at the extremities, slowly, bringing it down toward the Beast with speed and intensity.

"PLEASE-" he begged but she didn't give him a chance.

Three deep wounds appeared across his face, neck, and body as she tore through his clothing. In seconds he was knocked to the ground, whimpering in more pain than he had been when I performed his dental work without anesthesia.

I reveled in his misery, still heartbroken by the sight of Evan's mangled corpse. I hugged Pearl tightly, knowing that with us she would always be safe. Coco flashed me a look with her voided eyes and she reached down to the monster who lay on the floor.

Imitating his own method of murder she forced a dark, clawed hand into his chest and rooted around, searching for a heart I wasn't convinced was there. Instead, she ripped at his lungs, tearing the muscle apart and dragging them out of the opening she created.

Just before she tore the red, raw muscles in two the Beast faced me and left me with one final foreboding warning, rasping as he hemorrhaged on the dirty ground.

"She'll never be yours. I'll haunt you forever."

It happened fast. The whimpering stopped and the darkness fell. Soon all that remained were two bodies, one belonging to the Beast and the other belonging to Evan.

The shadow was replaced by Coco. Bright and beautiful as always she smiled warmly at me, just as she had that night in the dorm room.

"Thank you."

I pulled her in close and we stood amongst the blood and innards for just a short moment, sharing a family embrace. I felt the hole in our unit left behind by Evan, devastated by his loss. Despite the sadness, I mostly felt gratitude. Gratitude for my baby, for my life, and mostly for my wonderful friend, Coco.

Pearl let out a small giggle before extending a tiny hand out to play with Coco's braids. She looked up at her with pure love in her eyes and I knew that their bond, like ours, was for eternity.

Cordyline Hill was especially beautiful that morning. As we exited the shack and silently got in the car there wasn't any awkwardness, just a strong feeling of relief.

I sat in the back with Pearl, enjoying every sound and gargle she made and Coco played with the radio, driving much more carefully than she had on our way there. The sun beamed in the sky and I could swear Evan was still with us, even if only in spirit.

The journey to building my family had been a tumultuous one, filled with hurdles, difficulties, and monsters. But in that moment none of it mattered. We were going home. Together.

A̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶a̶l̶l̶ ̶l̶i̶v̶e̶d̶ ̶h̶a̶p̶p̶i̶l̶y̶ ̶e̶v̶e̶r̶ ̶a̶f̶t̶e̶r̶.̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶ ̶e̶n̶d̶.̶

I know. I wish it were the end, too. Beautiful, right? We slew the Beast, freed the baby, and drove off into the distance. It was poetic.

Life did return to normal for a time, I reopened the practice, went back to No More Nightmares and hired a new sitter for Pearl; a boy named Devon, a wonderful person but no replacement for Evan.

I spent months going about my daily business. Loving and lamenting Coco for her poor reception skills and bonding with my beautiful daughter. Life was perfect.

It was.

Now I want you to think back to the moment I started chronicling my adventures here.

You remember Mosaph Eurastix, right? The monster I had suspected was some kind of twisted version of a zombie. I'm sure none of you have forgotten him in a hurry.

Think back to the words he said to me as he sat in my chair. The words that changed my life and sent my perfect little world out of orbit.

"You came highly recommended by the Beast of Cordyline Hill."

I didn't mention his death or even the Beast's real impact on me at the time, playing him off as just another, albeit hated, patient. I wanted you to truly understand first. There was far too much to explain in a few paragraphs.

Forgive me for misleading you, it was never my intention.

I wondered if he had communicated with Mosaph in the short time between our first meeting at the convention and his "death" in the shack. I had desperately hoped that was the explanation.

Since I started sharing this journey I've learned that I was mistaken. The Beast is alive and he's out there. We should never have underestimated his healing abilities. It's only a matter of time before he comes back for us.

These past months have been tough, the Beast hasn't been the only threat I've needed to worry about. Despite her behavior toward him, when Carla Parks learned of her son's death and my involvement she was livid. Understandably so.

My perfect life was shattered. Now I have to protect Pearl again, not only from the Beast but also from the Ethical Organ Collectors and Mosaph himself who, unfortunately, I hadn't seen the last of.

This will be the last you hear from me for quite some time. It's better that way. I need to focus, to do everything I can to preserve the normality that we worked so hard for and, most importantly, to protect my daughter at all costs.

One day I hope to return and to continue sharing what I've learned of the monster world with you.

Until then, it's time I run from it.

Elle's Story

I work at a train station that services unusual destinations. Last night a passenger exploded.

"Elle, is it?"

"That's what my name badge says," I responded flatly to the man in the red bowler hat on the other side of my plexiglass ticket booth.

He'd been complaining about a cancellation for at least twenty minutes.

"Well, Elle, I'd like to speak with your supervisor."

Great. My favorite line. I prepared my scripted response.

"I'm the only staff member on duty at this time. If you have an issue you can log it with the phone number on the poster."

I tapped the glass next to the poster detailing how to contact Connected Railways' head office. It was one I'd had to demand after one too many incidents with disgruntled passengers angry at delays, cancellations, and prices.

I didn't control that shit, and I was sick of being abused for it.

Red bowler hat inhaled sharply for a prolonged period. His face turned so red it reminded me I had some strawberries in my fridge at home that needed using before they went bad.

As he took in more air, buttons on his shirt began to detach and ping in all different directions. I was suddenly more grateful than usual for the plexiglass as the little plastic pucks bounced off it. I sighed deeply and hit the red security button underneath my desk as I braced myself for whatever onslaught was to come next.

Then he blew up.

Not blew up as in he ranted and screamed at me like a normal asshole customer in a service-based industry. No. Red bowler hat man inhaled so much air he quite literally blew up, spattering blood across the floor of the station entrance, my ticket booth, and any other passenger in a ten-foot radius. Luckily there was only one, who hastily made their way to the platform.

I looked on in despair as his hat rocked a little upon impact with the floor.

I know I should sound more shocked, frightened even, when I talk about a man exploding before my very eyes. That would be a normal reaction; but incidents like that one were ten a penny at the station and had become more of an annoyance than a source of terror. In my line of work, a man exploding was relatively normal. Not terribly extraordinary, at least.

"What a mess. Is everyone okay?" Atlas arrived, befuddled as he looked at the pile of scattered organs on the floor.

Atlas was the night security guard, one of only two other members of staff in the entire station, and my savior, from both boredom and the unusual passengers. He had long, dark hair that he pulled into a messy bun on top of his head that always made his hat sit strangely.

"I think so. Just need to call Nicky and get things cleaned up. Sorry for summoning you, I thought it was going to be much worse than that, the guy looked angry."

"Never a bother, Elle. You know that. Nicky's going to love-"

Atlas was cut off by a loud and nauseating slurping noise as the organs and bits of person started to move together across the concrete floor as if they were suddenly magnetized.

The blood on my booth congealed into droplets that danced down the screen and towards the collecting mass. The explosion hadn't been entirely out of the ordinary, but this was beginning to pique my interest.

"Good job you called," Atlas continued, a curious expression on his face as the mass built to a height that towered above us both.

Screaming, naked, and covered in a transparent goo, red bowler hat man was reborn and much bigger and angrier than he had been before. He bent over, picked up the bloodied hat, and placed it on his head before approaching the booth.

I wasn't sure on the purpose of the hat. After all, the rest of his clothes remained shredded on the floor. Regardless I found him quite intimidating and almost wavered through my next scripted response.

"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave Connected Railways' property."

Red bowler foamed at the mouth, revealing a set of yellowed teeth, and continued squealing into the open air. I cringed a little and tried to look away, watching the unsuspecting, oblivious people in the street behind him and envying their ignorance.

They were only a few feet away and yet to them, the incident wasn't happening at all. Oh, how sweet it must have been to not see the booth, the blood, or the naked man screaming in the night. That would've been a real treat.

The station I work at is only visible to those who are already aware of its existence, or it would've been quite the scene, even at 2 am. That's what I've deducted in my time here anyway. I'd walked this street a thousand times before my interview and never once seen a station entrance.

There was no other explanation. My employment, as a normal human that stumbled across the advert by pure dumb luck, was more unusual than anything I'd witnessed from red bowler hat man.

I stayed firm, maintaining eye contact as I watched Atlas creep up behind the creature and hold up a pistol. A security guard with a gun wasn't a typical sight in England, even in the city, but then nothing about my workplace was typical.

He pulled the trigger releasing a sharp point and injecting a yellow liquid into the man's neck. I watched as he dropped to the floor, shrinking into the disgruntled passenger he had been prior to the explosion, albeit stark naked.

"Where was he headed, Elle?" Atlas asked, grabbing hold of the now comatose creature and struggling with the dead weight as he tossed him over his shoulder, careful to avoid certain regions.

"He was moaning about the cancellation on the village line. Cordyline Hill via Monsoon Valley. I tried explaining that there was one thirty minutes after but he didn't let me..."

"I'll take him down to the platform now and page the guys at Monsoon Valley. Village line comes in at 2.22 and reaches MV by 2.46. He should stay like this until then. He's their problem now."

"Finish," I added just as he walked away.

I sighed. I was grateful for Atlas but he could be tone-deaf at times and was blind to the irony of cutting me off just like Karen in the red bowler hat had. I leaned back in my chair, kept one eye on the large antique clock on the wall to the left, and prepared for the rest of the night to go by uneventfully.

I know it seems strange, to be so positively apathetic. You have to understand how real desensitization is, the more we consume the easier it gets and bowler hat wasn't the first and definitely wouldn't be the last monstrous transformation I'd see.

I can't explain the things that go on at the station entirely. I have my theories, but I have no way of confirming or denying them.

The only hard facts I have are these; I have never heard of a single station we service. I'm absolutely certain that at least ninety percent of our passengers aren't of the human variety. Regardless of the risk I run of being eaten I'm still paid a pittance like every other booth worker in the country and on any given day I might have to drive home soaked in blood.

So why do I stay? I stay for passengers like the one that followed red bowler hat.

I'm not immune to curiosity. I recognize that I'm shafted by Connected Railways on a regular basis with only a poster and a charming but undeniably human security guard for protection. But that doesn't change the fact that when you work with things that are out of this world every now and again you come across one that makes it somehow worth it.

The woman in the floor-length tweed coat was not your run-of-the-mill, angry, potentially explosive customer. She was much more.

She approached with a small dog in her arms, her coat sweeping across the hard ground where bits of organ had previously been strewn, walking with such dainty steps it was almost as if she were floating.

She wore a scarf that matched the coat and had a face with more wrinkles than necessary to tell a story. I would've put her in her nineties at best, although she was perfectly mobile.

"How can I help?" I asked, attempting to put on my best customer service face.

"A single to Meander Place please, no return."

Meander place wasn't a destination I was often asked for tickets to, it sat on the barely used Epstar line, which was mostly used by the more intimidating of passengers.

I'd never taken any of the trains myself, despite my curiosity, but I tried to take note of the people I saw and where they were going. There was no other viable way to pass the time.

"That'll be £29.50 please"

"I'm afraid I don't have that, I spent the last of my money in that delightful pub across the street, we're going to have to come up with another method of payment."

I held in a sigh. The station sat opposite an unusual, traditional-looking old pub called the Pickled Gnome, which seemed to be a popular stop for my passengers before their journeys. I often questioned the type of patrons that it served, although I suppose I was in no real position to.

"I'm sorry, we don't offer payment plans or alternative methods here."

"You don't understand, do you?"

The woman made eye contact with me and I felt my head freeze into position, staring back at her. Her eyes were an incredible marbled yellow with flecks of green. Her next words make my skin crawl.

"This is a transaction between you and me, not a faceless company you represent, Elfida."

My blood ran cold. No one, not my employer nor even the few people I considered friends, knew my full name. I managed to break my trance-like fixation on the woman to check my badge and just as suspected, it said Elle.

"Who are you?"

"Interesting. You don't want to know how I know your name, you want to know who I am. You have a habit of asking all the wrong questions, don't you?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Hah! See, again. Another useless question. I suppose as I know your name it's only fair you know mine... Agnes Copper. Haven't you ever wondered why you're here?"

She placed the small, scruffy-looking dog on the floor and extended a frail, skeletal hand out toward the booth. Hand shaking I pressed the security button hard, eliciting a wry smile from Agnes.

"That's not going to work, Elfida. I'm glad I have your attention though, if that weren't the case you'd have noticed the clock you've been watching for the past few hours stopped."

She was right, the clock had stopped. And I hadn't noticed. I gulped. I'd dealt with some incredibly unusual passengers, but none of them had ever rendered my security button useless. Or known my full name.

"What do you want?"

The dog barked, making me jump. Agnes shushed him before continuing.

"That's a better question, dear! Although you already know the answer. I want a ticket to Meander Place. The question is... what do you want?"

I took a moment to try and comprehend her question. She spoke with a glee that made me deeply uncomfortable. In the short term, I wanted Agnes Copper gone and to forget about her yellow eyes.

I had a feeling that wasn't what she was referring to, however.

"Come on, Elfida, there must be something."

"Please stop calling me that. My name is Elle," I spoke with a quiet defiance. She smiled, enjoying my agitation.

"Oh. Am I getting somewhere? Now, why would a pretty girl like you hate a pretty name like that so much?"

I felt a pang in my stomach. I hadn't thought about my life with that name for a long time. Life before Irene disappeared.

"It's personal."

"I know, dear. I think you're aware I already know the answer." Her eyes lit up and she licked her puckered, wrinkled lips as I shuddered at her words. "You're wondering now if I know where she is, aren't you?"

I was. She was right. Who wouldn't wonder? When my little sister went missing there wasn't a trace of her left in my parents' home... my old home. She was only eight years old and one morning she just wasn't in the house, they never found a stitch of evidence. That was enough to drive my parents to alcoholism, abuse, and eventually divorce.

I got it. They lost a kid but it sure did suck to be the sister left behind in the shit storm. Ten years old and I had to roll my mother over to stop her from choking on her own vomit. I put up with eight years of that before I fled, came to university in the city, shortened my name, and never went back home.

Of course, I wondered where she was.

"Do you... know where she is?"

Agnes laughed an evil cackle, sinister enough to make every bone in my body vibrate. I felt weak, like all the wind had been knocked straight out of me. I tried to control it, but tears fell against my will. I hadn't thought about Irene in so long.

"Are you a gambler, Elfida?" Agnes asked, ignoring my question entirely.

"I've never considered myself to be a betting woman," I answered, voice shaking audibly.

"Well, I think it's time you start. If you print me a single ticket to Meander Place I will give you a clue. What a wonderful thing? A little piece of hope. The clue could lead to that little girl you seek... or it might not. After years of no answers, isn't it worth the risk? For the minimal cost of a £29.50 ticket."

"If the clue is useless, what are the consequences?"

"A better question. Finally, you've got it! Shame we're almost out of time, my train leaves in a few minutes and I'm not too quick on my feet. Make a decision, Elfida, I think you know I'm getting on that train either way."

I hated arrogant customers. I made a point of ensuring I did my job properly, no matter what crazy things were going down in the station, but Agnes made a compelling case. She may have looked old and frail but she froze the air in the space around her. I wasn't confident I'd even get close to stopping her from boarding that train.

How could I let the opportunity to find Irene slip away?

I printed the ticket. Of course, I did. One way to Meander Place, the Epstar line. Agnes continued to frantically lick her lips as the machine made the printing noise. Her mouth moved like a snake, it terrified me.

As I handed it to her through the slot she reached into her pocket and pulled out a tiny red box, only large enough for small pieces of jewelry, replacing the paper slip with it.

"Thank you, Elfida. I hope you find what you're looking for." She winked a reptilian yellow eye and shuffled away from the booth toward the platform entrance.

I sat there for a few minutes. Staring at the box, then back at the clock that continued ticking the moment Agnes was out of sight. I searched for her on the platform security cam that faced me inside the booth but she'd vanished. No trace.

Just like Irene.

I stroked the box, unsure I even wanted to know what was inside, while simultaneously desperate to see the contents.

"Elle! Monsoon Valley just called, the guy had the same argument with them. Popped all over again, the guard there is having a total crisis. Thank fuck we're rid of that shit, right?" Atlas interrupted my deep and brooding thought.

I shoved the box into my pocket as quickly as I could and looked up, blinking away any residual tears from my interaction with Agnes.

"Ha, sounds like a blast," I joked, managing a chuckle from Atlas, "We'll have to tell Nicky about it when she's done with platform nine."

"Yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and check on her anyway, the Epstar line just blasted through there, never know what unsavory characters might be about."

Atlas spoke seriously but I struggled to take him so. He always seemed impervious to the strangeness that surrounded us and my recent meeting had cut through my apathetic disposition. I was relieved when he wandered off, giving me a chance to breathe.

After a few moments collecting myself, I finally gathered the strength to reach into my pocket and open the red box. When I saw the contents I almost flung them and the box at the floor and ran.

Inside was a finger, a small severed finger. The nail was painted pink, splotches on the skin around it, like it had been painted by a child.

It had. I'd painted Irene's nails that exact shade the night she went missing. But it didn't make any sense, it had been years... and the finger was so fresh... Even if she was alive, how could she still be so small?

Fighting the bile in my throat I noticed a pattern... words, intricately carved and so minuscule they were a struggle to read.

Find me in Thistle Park.

I work at a train station that services unusual destinations. I finally boarded one of the trains.

"Elle... There was something watching me play in the garden earlier. I saw it in the trees."

"Don't be silly, probably just an animal or something."

"It wasn't!"

"Don't be a scaredy cat. Tell mum and dad if you're worried. Why are you in my room anyway, leave me alone."

That was the last interaction I had with my little sister.

Irene didn't protest or even attempt to say another word when I dismissed her, she just skulked off, presumably used to my shitty pre-pubescent attitude that had blossomed around that time.

I was ten years old and just starting to develop any kind of interest in being cool. My eight-year-old sibling just didn't make the cut, especially not when she still believed in fairytales.

Irene was a creative child almost to a fault. She was convinced there were fairies, nymphs, and gnomes alive and well, populating the corners of the world that people didn't look in.

I thought she was utterly ridiculous, despite secretly wishing I lived in her make-believe world. Now, with the job I have and the things I've witnessed, I deeply regret writing off her stories completely.

I'd spent a lifetime running from my guilt. I don't know for a fact that she ever spoke to my parents about the watcher but I suspected that she did, and that their guilt over ignoring it was what solidified our family's downward spiral.

Is it a little sick that I resented her?

In my mind, Irene got to spend eternity in fairytale land, never growing up and dealing with reality, while I was left to clean up the drunken mess my parents became. It didn't seem fair when I was a little kid.

It didn't seem fair as an adult either.

Especially not as I sat in my car, severed finger in its box in one hand and a return ticket to Thistle Park Station in the other, parked up at my workplace on my day off.

I felt quite farcical, following the advice of a strangely-knowing old lady. A lady who had outright said that there was potential for the finger to be a dead end. A game.

There were a million other things I could've been doing that weren't chasing answers to an impossible question.

Either way, I felt a responsibility to the memory of my sister to at least check, regardless of my desperate previous attempts to numb the pain by forgetting all about her. Her being alive would change so much.

If Irene was out there, I had to bring her home.

I lifted my hood to avoid being seen by any of my coworkers. I didn't work alongside the day crew often but we intermingled from time to time and I didn't feel like sharing my deep familial trauma with them. I knew my boarding one of the trains would've caused quite a stir.

Skulking past the ticket booth I noticed Amanda, my daytime counterpart, frantically cleaning the desk. I'd never interacted with her, but I had always been mightily irritated by the booth smelling of bleach. I complained about it to Atlas nearly constantly.

She was an obsessive cleaner and I always arrived to an immaculate workstation that I would soon turn into my preferred chaos. It took quite the resolve not to peek in and ask her to stop. I managed through the urge, continuing on to the platform.

Thistle Park was situated on the Village line, a few stops beyond Monsoon Valley but way before Cordyline Hill, where the train terminated. It brought me some comfort that I wasn't going too far from home; the journey, if it ran according to schedule, should've only taken me 46 minutes.

I settled on a bench at the far end of platform 5, noticing a few familiar-looking youths on bikes by the stairs at the other end, waiting for the same train I was.

They were regulars at the station, often passing through late at night, inconspicuous in dark tracksuits always on bikes. They'd never caused me any particular bother but I'd noticed that no matter how often I'd encountered them I never saw their faces. It seemed the angle was always off, but it felt like more than that.

One uneventful night I even made a game of it, watching them on every camera I could to catch a glimpse. No avail. They were no different on the platform, playing and interacting with each other, moving around freely. Just never turning quite enough for me to see a face.

The faceless youth, as I lovingly nicknamed them, had always seemed relatively harmless whilst I was working, but crossing the threshold onto the platform and facing the prospect of traveling to the destinations that I'd always found mysterious had left me with a deeply uncomfortable feeling in my gut.

Even passengers as innocuous as them seemed more dangerous without my plexiglass fortress and security button. More sinister.

I tried googling some of the stations when I first started, without any real results. The stations that we serve don't appear on any other line in the city and judging by the passengers that travel to them, I wasn't sure I'd be entirely welcome. I didn't fit in and amongst the eccentric customers, my incredible plainness stuck out like a sore thumb.

Now approaching Platform 5 is the Village line service to Cordyline Hill. Please stand clear and mind the gap between the train and the platform.

My legs wobbled as I got up from the bench and tried to remain steady while the train sped to a stop. My anxiety irritated me. I don't know what I expected, to be eaten by some sort of monster within moments of embarking on my journey? Ridiculous. Thoughts of Irene kept me focused.

There were only two other passengers in my carriage. An older man, maybe late forties, sat in the left corner facing the window, and central was a teenage girl. The girl was disheveled-looking, washed-out pink hair sticking up in all directions and dirty slightly ripped clothes. She had headphones stuck over her ears, creating a gentle, rhythmic hum throughout the small space.

I hesitated for a moment before settling on a seat. Compared to some of my more eccentric customers my two carriage mates were positively average. That was, until the man let out a gentle growl, helping ease my decision to sit closer to the girl, and also to the exit.

As the train pulled away the robotic announcer told us that the first stop would be Monsoon Valley. I sunk into my seat, thinking about the explosive man from my shift the night before. Atlas had laughed about staff at MV having to deal with him and being so close we had frequent contact with the guys working there. Despite this, I'd never once wondered what Monsoon Valley looked like.

Is that strange? All the customers, the destinations, the incidents, and never a moment of curiosity. I wondered if there was something wrong with me.

I watched out the window as the cityscape entered winding fields that I never knew were so nearby. It seemed almost impossible that such vast expanses of natural beauty could be so close to a concrete jungle. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the pink-haired girl glance at me on occasion and I was careful not to make eye contact.

The closer we got to Monsoon Valley the more unbelievable the landscape became; the winding fields became deep valleys between intimidating, rolling banks and hills. The sky outside the window, despite it only being early afternoon, was a dusky shade of lavender. The change was sharp, from blue to purple, eliciting an audible gasp that I tried to stifle.

Beautiful and otherworldly, a glaring reminder that I was somewhere entirely new.

The train slowed as we reached a picturesque village, smatterings of cottages set in beautiful plots of land with rivers separating them littered the view as we reached a quaint station that sported a hand-carved, wooden platform sign.

Welcome to Monsoon Valley Home to the end of the Rainbow

I felt my brow furrow as I struggled to conceal my confusion and amazement, pulling my hood further over my head in a pathetic and frankly futile attempt to hide how out of place I felt from my carriage mates.

Home to the end of the Rainbow. I wish I could say that didn't make me want to step off the train and chase the impossible location it promised. Had it not been for the red body part box in my pocket, I probably would've done just that.

It felt as if we sat at that beautiful, quaint little station for an eternity. Like the driver was tormenting the valiant explorer inside me. Goading me.

I was grateful when the doors finally shut that no one new had joined my carriage. Everything I could see of Monsoon Valley was gorgeous, but almost too much so. The idyllic little area had a mysterious feel, and not one I particularly liked. I wondered what sort of people might live in a place like that.

The next stop will be Blackwater Place. Change for the Epstar line.

I pondered what the next stop would look like and more importantly, what Thistle Park was going to bring. Monsoon Valley had surprised me, although I wasn't sure where my expectations had started.

I didn't get long to delve too deeply into my thoughts because mere moments after we pulled away from the quaint little station, the pink-haired girl stood up and took a seat directly next to me.

"You're not a local, are you?" she asked, a knowing smile in her eyes.

I ignored her at first, hoping she would just go back to her seat and stop bothering me but she was persistent.

"Where are you headed? Hey!" She got closer and closer to my face until there were only millimeters between us, revealing crusted makeup and open sores on her own.

"Thistle Park," I answered eventually through gritted teeth, giving minimal information in the hope she would at least back away. She didn't.

"Ooh. Ever been before? I bet you haven't!"

"How would you know?"

"If you looked that scared at the last place then you definitely haven't been to Thistle Park. Ha. The Valley is for suckers chasing the rainbow, a holiday compared to the park."

Engaging with the girl terrified me but not half as much as going into my situation blind did. Even if, best way, Irene was alive and well in Thistle Park, I still had no idea where I was going to start looking. Maybe she could provide some answers.

"Are you from there?" I asked nervously. The girl laughed.

"No, I'm headed further up the line, but I've spent some time there. A nice, innocent-looking girl like you wants to be careful in a town like that." She licked her dry, cracked lips picking up bits of what appeared to be day-old red lipstick flakes.

I smelled stale cigarettes on her breath and she scratched at her greasy hair that had flattened under her headphones, now perched on her shoulders.

Everything about the girl was repugnant. Still, I couldn't bare to take my eyes away from her for even a single second. I was entranced by her, suddenly completely uninterested in the views outside the window. She was all I saw.

"My name is Penny, what's yours?" she asked, deep brown eyes fixed on mine.

"It's Amanda," I answered, thinking on my feet and assuming the identity of daytime counterpart me, in an attempt to protect myself. It didn't work.

"No, it isn't," she frowned.

Those three words were said with such a seriousness and change in tone that I felt my heart stop for a couple of beats. Just like it had when Agnes used my full name with such ease. I was defenseless from the moment the train pulled away, and I was starting to regret my impulsive decision to follow a note on a finger.

"There's no purpose lying is there, Elfida?"

I felt sick.

"Who are you and where the fuck am I?" I retorted.

"I'm Penny. I already told you that. It doesn't matter where you are but it does matter what you're looking for and I know what you're looking for... or maybe I should say who you're looking for?"

I must've become visibly uncomfortable because Penny smirked before continuing.

"I'm warm, aren't I? Ha. The resemblance is uncanny, I can't believe it took me an entire stop to work it out."

"You know where Irene is?"

My sister's name stumped Penny briefly, she genuinely looked dumbstruck for a moment before another smug grin stretched across her face.

"You have no idea what you're doing, do you?" she laughed, throwing her head back in a wicked cackle, flakes of painted skin dancing on her lips.

"Answer me... please."

I remained transfixed on Penny, the background beginning to blacken as I lost all sense of anything but her mocking, disgusting face. I felt a fear and a vulnerability that I wasn't used to and couldn't explain. It's like she put me in a vacuum and replaced all the oxygen with her laughter.

It reverberated through my soul, making me feel tiny, powerless... weak.

I felt so weak I could barely sit up. I tried to look down at my hands to see if I could move them but my head was frozen and she was all I could see. The fear started to get worse and my chest pounded as I took in short, sharp breaths, desperate for air that she hadn't tainted or weighed down.

"How are... you... doing this?"

"Doing what, Elfida? We're just having a conversation. Don't you enjoy my company? I think you need something to calm your nerves. I KNOW! Music!"

Penny grabbed the headphones from around her neck and licked her lips furiously as she placed them on my head. I fought my broken body to stop her but it was pointless, I was completely paralyzed.

The sounds that entered my ears and dug into my mind were horrific. Instead of the gentle humming that I had first noticed stepping into the carriage, the headphones blasted screaming and sounds of excruciating pain into my ears.

It was a symphony of distress... torture.. a cacophony of pain... and it made every bone, muscle, and organ inside me hurt. I don't know when I started to wail, but I did.

"That's it, be part of the music!!!" I read on Penny's lips, glee written all over her face, unable to hear her over the unimaginable screeching.

I hadn't felt fear like that before. A thousand abstract thoughts crossed my mind as I searched for something to distract me from the pain. What if I never even made it to Thistle Park? What if I died here, on this train, at the hands of a dirty teenage girl?

What if Irene was out there and I couldn't save her?

The black splotches blocking out the view behind Penny grew, taking over her face as I screamed and pleaded for air, desperate not to die. I felt faint and the world started to blur... she started to blur.

Then a crash.

It came from the back of the carriage and was the result of the doors that connected us to the next car smashing, glass raining down on the floor. Penny turned, breaking the eye contact and providing me with some minor relief. Paralysis waning, I yanked the headphones off and pelted them at the floor, craving the end of the torment.

My vision started to stabilize, and I noticed that the growling man in the corner was turned, facing the two of us as Penny stood, hissing at the newcomers who had burst through the adjoining door. The man had teeth like nothing I'd ever seen before, crowding his mouth and overhanging at sharp points in all directions.

I would've usually spent longer inappropriately staring at the man. Even in my line of work, fangs were uncommon, especially ones as mighty as he was sporting. I didn't get a chance to linger on them, however, I was interrupted.

Penny screamed.

I tried not to look, hugging my knees to my chest and screwing my eyes up tightly to avoid whatever was terrorizing something as terrifying as she was. Her scream was followed by the sounds of ripping and tearing, whimpers, and then eventually silence.

"Are you alright, miss?" a young boy's voice asked, breaking the quiet.

Slowly I opened one eye, noticing spokes and rubber. Penny lay on the floor, no obvious signs of breathing, with what appeared to be tire-patterned wounds across her face and chest.

The entire aisle was littered with bikes. The faceless youth stood at the angles I expected to see them, hoods up and turned just enough to conceal any identifying features.

All except one.

I looked up at my nearest rescuer, finally catching a glimpse of his face after all the wondering. I tried to hide my shock as I did but with what I saw it was a challenging task.

He didn't just have one face, he had three.

Amelia's Story

I investigate the link between monsters and missing people. Sirens don't take kindly to visitors.

I stared at the patch of damp in the corner of my rented office. It was easier to focus on than the grieving mother in the seat just opposite.

"You were supposed to bring her home."

I blinked back a tear and inhaled deeply. I knew what I was about to say might seem cruel, heartless in fact, but it was quite the opposite.

"Mrs. Fortmason, I never promise to bring a missing person home. In fact, it's very rare that that's a possibility at all. I promise to find out what happened to them. Your daughter was killed."

She stared back at me, eyes filled with anger and sadness. No one wants to be told their loved one is dead.

I'm not made of stone; I knew it wasn't a satisfying answer. Nonetheless, it was the truth, accepting it was going to save her from a lifetime of extra pain, although I'm sure the truth would provide that anyway.

"I want details. How am I supposed to just take your word for it?" There was an arrogance in her tone I didn't like.

I cringed, remembering the murky waters that Chloe Fortmason had plunged into and the creatures that were there to greet her. How she risked everything for a midnight swim.

I wanted to spare her mother the nightmares she would suffer after learning about the fate her child had met.

"You came to me because I investigate cases like your daughter's... Cases that involve elements that aren't human. I'm telling you, Chloe is dead. You don't need to know any more than that."

"I paid a lot of money, Amelia. I want details or I'll hire someone else." She brushed her hair out of her eyes and sniffled defiantly, as if it were some kind of threat.

I rolled my eyes. It was tiresome. I understood how devastating it was to lose a loved one, trust me, I really did. But Mrs. Fortmason's entitled attitude was beginning to piss me off.

"There is no one else, you know that. You don't need to hire someone else because the job is done." I opened my desk drawer and pulled out the charm bracelet that Chloe was wearing when she disappeared.

It was rusted a little from years in the ocean but it was unmistakably hers. It was a piece of proof that I'd hoped I could hand over without explanation as to where it came from.

I watched Mrs. Fortmason's expression change as she realized what it was and exactly what it meant.

"Where did you get that? Please, Amelia. I know some people wouldn't want to know... but I do. I have to know."

She took the bracelet and sobbed. I pushed the box of tissues between us a little closer to her and sighed. I felt sorry for her but I got the distinct feeling that nothing I said was going to satisfy.

It never did in my line of work.

"Chloe was killed by sirens. She never left the beach that night. Your daughter was drunk and she jumped into the water after all her friends had gone to sleep. Fully clothed in the pitch dark.

"I don't know why she did that. But I know I got incredibly wet getting that back for you and my life was in real danger. Sirens are nasty creatures, as your daughter came to realize when she swam into their territory." I cleared my throat, holding back the urge to elaborate further.

Be nice, Amelia, be nice.

"How do you know she didn't drop it in there? She could still be out there somewhere..." she responded, disregarding everything I was telling her.

I started to tune her out, feeling the annoyance building inside me. I tried desperately to search for a pleasant way to frame her daughter's death but it didn't exist and I was feeling particularly irritated.

Her words of doubt buzzed like a fly that just wouldn't leave.

"They gave me the bracelet back still attached to your daughter's bony, rotted hand, and then used it to pull me in. It was remarkably well-preserved for how long she'd been in the water.

"They'd repurposed her skull into an accessory, similar to a handbag, being used to hold all the shiny things they'd collected from their victims.

"Apparently, Chloe wasn't the only human stupid enough to end up in their home. It was decorated with bones, way more than make up just one small girl.

"That's a lot for someone to see while holding their breath, isn't it? If I hadn't stabbed the siren dragging me I'd have died down there. Is that enough detail?

"You paid me a lot of money. I did my job. I told you when you hired me that justice is not my department. You wanted answers and I got them. Accept it and parent your other children," I hissed.

"That's not..."

"I kept Chloe's hand. Do you want it?"

That last part was a bluff and for a moment I wondered if I'd taken things too far, but it was effective.

Speechless, the mother shook her head and stumbled to her feet, backing toward the door.

I know I sounded cold. I felt it as Mrs. Fortmason got up and left my office in hysterics. Not half as cold as I'd felt in the water after being dragged in by a vicious sea monster, mind you.

I sounded like a stone-cold bitch, but I was honestly trying to be kind.

I'd visited the grieving mother's home when I first took the case. It was littered with back-page newspaper clippings that archived the meager local media attention the case received, and photographs of her missing daughter.

The house was a dusty, macabre monument to Chloe.

It irked me. I know it shouldn't, I know most people fall into the same pit of despair that Mrs. Fortmason did when faced with a missing child. A piece of them just gone with no explanation, their whole world.

But Chloe wasn't her whole world. Mrs. Fortmason had three other children, children she'd neglected and ignored in her decade-long search.

Her husband moved out of their home with the kids six years after Chloe disappeared, citing her relentless obsession costing them their family life.

His wife was so busy searching for a ghost that she'd forgotten about the living.

I could relate but I couldn't sympathize. It sounds hypocritical to condemn an obsession that I personally share, but I didn't leave anyone behind in my pursuit.

It was fucking sad. All of my cases were. Every lost person is a tragedy.

I thought about the sirens; their long, slender, scaled bodies topped with the head and shoulders of beautiful women, clawed arms extending from the water, accompanied by an otherworldly song. It was a sight that most wouldn't consider possible.

What child obsessed with fairytale books would've thought mermaids would be so dangerous?

What self-respecting adult would believe in monsters at all?

What are monsters? Creatures that are commonly written off as stories, conjured by the minds of overly imaginative children or the mentally ill. Maybe you think I'm mentally ill, too. I certainly wish I were young enough to be an overly imaginative child.

I wish I imagined Chloe's rotten hand.

I didn't believe in monsters either. Not at first anyway. Nor do most of my clients when we initially meet.

I stumbled on the dark underworld that harbors them while searching for my own lost loved one, the only person I'd not been able to find.

My childhood sweetheart, Valerie, who disappeared when we were sixteen years old.

After years of immersing myself in the world of unsolved disappearances, unsuccessfully looking for answers on her, I started to investigate other cases. I earned a reputation in the online amateur detective circles as someone who was determined and relentless.

I started accepting payment for my services, like some sort of unregistered PI.

I still remember the first, a young teenage boy named Kai who had disappeared at a party, featuring underage drinking and popular kids who he didn't fit in with. I'd thought it was so obvious.

Bullying, a prank gone wrong, a coverup... solved.

I hadn't expected that he'd been willingly bitten by a vampire that night. Who would? That he'd thrown his whole life away to fit in with the other little monsters.

My investigation led me to a rural house that Kai had been spotted going in and out of a few years after he disappeared. When I arrived I was greeted by a girl no older than twenty or so, Kai, and a few other kids in a room in the background.

They were huddled around a corpse, suckling on puncture points all over it, draining every sip of blood they could. It was grotesque. Vile.

It took me some time to believe it, I thought the fangs may have been filed down or capped but it was impossible. Kai hadn't aged a day, despite disappearing more than twenty years prior.

The kids came toward me, bloodlust in their eyes. I was lost, terrified, and thought I was about to die. Until I shouted the name of Kai's brother, who had hired me.

The fanged boy shed real tears as he remembered the life he left behind. He provided me with his T-shirt and asked that I told his brother that he died. He couldn't go back and he wanted people to stop searching.

I respected his wishes.

After that it was as if I'd turned over a rock that had been pressed against the ground, hiding all the creepy crawlies for an eternity.

I saw monsters everywhere. Every case led me to something new. Sometimes a recognizable creature; something that lived in the nightmares of the collective humankind. Other times the monsters were different, creatures that not even your wildest nightmare could create.

I'd come a long way since Kai. By the time I was faced with those sirens and that hand, I knew exactly what to expect.

It had been fifteen years since Valerie disappeared. Chloe's case marked the three hundredth missing person that I'd successfully found and even more monster encounters that I'd survived, alone.

It should've been a victory but it wasn't.

I was battered. My body was covered in bruises and scars from my battle with the sirens. I was tired, weak, and had cases piling up. Things were starting to get on top of me; that was probably why I'd bitten so hard at Mrs. Fortmason.

I needed someone who would help pull me out of the water next time. I couldn't continue as a one-woman band. I needed an assistant and I'd been scouting mystery forums for some time.

Defeated and exhausted, I locked up the office and headed to a nearby bar that I frequented. Everyone needs a way to unwind and that was mine; every bad day, every battle wound, and every kid ripped apart by the monster that really did live in their closet led me there.

It wasn't the alcohol or the music that enticed me. It was the prospect of yet another pretty girl as lonely as I was. Desperate to forget their troubles for one night. Women were my poison.

And tonight's poison was beautiful.

She was on her own and I thought I'd struck gold. Her eyes lingered on mine from across the bar as she adjusted her figure-hugging black dress. She was sophisticated-looking, with long, dark blonde hair that cascaded down her back and wicked green eyes that mesmerized me even from a distance.

When she approached, I felt my heart racing. I tried to mentally prepare a smooth opening line but I didn't need to.

"Olive. Would you like a drink?"

Her voice was smooth and I tried to conceal my goofy grin. I'd picked up plenty of women in plenty of bars but something about her was throwing me off kilter. It was as if the rest of the room behind her had disappeared from focus.

I pushed my pint glass to the side, pretending it belonged to the man next to me and racking my brains for a classier drink that I'd be able to stomach.

"Am... Amelia," I answered, unable to take my eyes away from her. "Double vodka and coke, please."

Olive nodded toward the blurred-out bar and smiled sweetly as the landlady asked for her order. I felt slightly dizzy, drunk even, but I'd barely sipped the drink I started with.

"We'll take two beers," she told the barkeep, in that smooth voice.

I started to protest but she held a slender finger to her lips. Her nails were manicured perfectly into long, black, pointed claws. I realized that I was struggling to breathe, like she'd knocked all the air from me.

Something was seriously wrong.

"There's no need, Amelia. No point hiding who you are with me, I already know exactly who you are." Her tone was seductive but dangerous, not dissimilar to the siren's song.

"What do you want?" I stuttered, trying to turn my head but I couldn't. It was like she had me cable-tied with her eyes alone.

"This is more about what you want, Amelia. You want me... that's for sure. But I'm sure you'd drop me in a pit of lava if it meant you could have Valerie." She chuckled, plump lips framing her perfect smile.

I went from dizzy to sick. I could feel the excitement spreading across every inch of my face, I couldn't conceal it. Fifteen years without a single lead and now this. It confirmed the suspicion I'd harbored for years.

Valerie was taken.

"Where is she?" I spat, still unable to prize my neck from its position.

"That's the issue, Amelia. You need to stop looking. You're getting noticed by allllll the wrong people and trust me, you don't want to go down this road any further."

The excitement dropped. Unable to move I started to panic on the spot. The people that worked in industries adjacent to mine weren't renowned for their friendliness.

I was frightened, genuinely frightened.

"Who are you?"

"I'm Olive. And I'm trying to help you. You can take it or leave it but if you continue down this path you will regret it. Stop looking for Valerie. She's gone."

I swallowed a lump in my throat. Olive was stunning, a beautiful monster. I wondered what she was, who she was. I tried to speak but I couldn't, my mouth wouldn't move no matter how hard I tried. I realized I had no power at all.

"She was right though, you are really very pretty."

Olive leaned in, her perfumed, spiced scent filling my nostrils and the very ends of her hair resting in my lap. She placed a black-clawed hand on my cheek and blinked her piercing green eyes. Her lips touched mine and I felt my heart stop for a moment.

It was more than just an attraction. Olive was a real enchantress.

Leaving me static in my chair she pulled away and got up slowly, landing gracefully on her black heeled shoes. I stayed there, still, until she stepped out of the bar door and the hold was broken. I shook my head and took a few labored breaths.

"Wow, I'm surprised you let that one get away," the landlady joked, now back in focus, as she noted my dumbstruck expression.

I laughed it off and left the bar, searching for Olive along the street but she was long gone.

At home, I tried to piece together what she'd said. "She was right though..." Did that mean Valerie? Did that mean that she was alive...? That she sent Olive? I replayed the warning in my mind, knowing it only served to stoke my curiosity.

I also thought about how much the lack of control scared me.

Just like it had in the murky waters, retrieving Chloe Fortmason's bracelet. Just like it had in Kai's vampire commune, trying to avoid being eaten. I couldn't keep doing this alone.

I needed someone.

Sweating, I dialed the number of a boy I'd been corresponding with online. An online sleuth meticulous in his research. I'd spoken to him about how I'd considered an assistant before and he seemed keen.

I'd put off hiring, struggling to work out a way of breaking the human perception that monsters aren't real in an interview. It was still a risk, he still might laugh his way out of the office, but I couldn't waste any more time.

If there was even a slim chance Valerie was alive then suddenly my survival mattered more than it ever had before.


"Daniel, it's Amelia. The job is yours if you want it."

I investigate the link between monsters and missing people. The trees are a death trap.

"Daniel, can you run through the case for me one more time, please?"

I looked across the desk at my new assistant. He was exhausted, I could tell. His brain was frazzled from repeating every tiny detail so many times.

He took a sip of water and prepared to do it again, just once more.

"The target is Liam, he was twenty-three years old at the time of his disappearance six years ago. He lived with his parents, Brenda and Steve, and was a single father to Macy, four years old at the time. He was a responsible young guy and an outdoorsy person who often took his daughter to the local woods."

"Good," I replied. "What happened to him on March 6th?"

"He'd spent a day in the woods whilst Macy was having a rare overnight visit with her mother. He didn't get to hike alone often and took whatever opportunities he could.

"He returned to the home that evening, agitated. His parents said he wouldn't calm down and kept repeating that something was following him. His behavior was erratic and paranoid."

Daniel took another sip of his water and rifled through the mounds of paperwork on the desk to jog his memory of the timeline before continuing. He was doing well, but I enjoyed watching him sweat.

"His parents managed to calm him enough to get him to sit and eat dinner. There was no one surrounding the house or in their garden, despite searching.

"Still unsettled, he told Brenda at 9 pm that he was going for a walk to clear his head. She thought it may help and didn't stop him. When Liam didn't return by 11 pm, Brenda began to panic.

"She tried to call her son but his phone was switched off, which was very unusual. She didn't know what to do. She and Steve drove around the local area but couldn't find Liam anywhere. He didn't return home and was reported missing the next morning."

"Has there been any evidence since?"

"Nothing. Not a single sighting either, which is odd for a case like this. But there are numerous theories, most relating to a photograph that Liam took and posted online only hours before he returned to the home."

I picked up a photograph that stuck out amongst the local news clippings and documents I'd managed to acquire from police, rescue forces, and PIs.

It was one I'd spent hours looking at.

It showed Liam, a handsome young guy beaming at the camera, trees around him, and his face reflecting the happiness he felt within nature. I'd started to feel like I knew the missing boy's face better than even his mother did, having studied it so intensely.

It would've been fairly innocuous, if it weren't for the shadowed figure just visible in the background.

Humanoid in shape, the figure appeared to be standing behind a tree, watching Liam as he walked through the forest. Its features were clear; eyes, a nose, and a smile, all engulfed by darkness. Every time I looked at it I felt a chill of fear and excitement.

The case had gained very little traction; police had mostly written Liam off as a runaway. They kept up a cursory investigation but explained away his erratic behavior with drugs, despite everyone close to him insisting that it was completely out of character.

Most professionals involved had disregarded the photograph as an optical illusion.

Not all were so eager to declare the mystery solved. Difficult to find internet forums discussed the photograph regularly, coming up with a colorful array of theories.

Did Liam run away and stage the picture? Was he kidnapped by some sort of Bigfoot? Did he stumble on something he shouldn't have in the woods and paid for it on his later walk?

Some even speculated that his ex, Janie, killed him to gain custody of their daughter. This was a theory that was fiercely denied by both Janie and Liam's family. The couple maintained a good co-parenting relationship and the arrangements for Macy were agreed upon.

His mother contacted me when police officially closed the case after seven years of following useless leads and tips from conspiracy theorists. Macy had started to ask about her dad, to question what happened. Brenda couldn't bear the not knowing.

"I got your number from a friend at a support group I attend. She said you're the best."

That's all Brenda said to me when she called.

She couldn't pay. Usually, my services are very expensive but Liam's case intrigued me, so I took her on pro bono.

It was Daniel's first case and my first working alongside someone else. It was unusual, to have someone in the office who wasn't crying, or lamenting me for not being able to resurrect the dead.

It was going to take a while to adjust but after the incident in the bar with Olive, I was grateful not to be alone. I hoped I'd made the right decision, Daniel's online credentials were shining as he reeled off the case in perfect detail.

If it worked out I would have so much more time to work out who was trying to stop me from getting to the truth.

I thought of Valerie. The hour that I waited for her in the park to turn up and how cold the bars were on that swing. We were sixteen, confused and in love, her disappearance broke my heart.

I couldn't be more desperate to follow the lead but I had to be smart. I needed Daniel to acclimate before I trusted him to help me with something so important.

I had to see how he'd cope when faced with a monster.

In Liam's case, everything pointed to him having been taken against his will by the entity in the trees. I'd had the photograph studied by experts in editing, all of them said it was untouched.

That was rare. I'd never before had a piece of evidence so compelling. I ran the risk every time of unearthing another human monster and another human tragedy. Or finding someone like Kai, who didn't want to be found.

Not this time.

"Tomorrow we're traveling to the woods and we're going to retrace Liam's steps. Are you okay with that, Daniel?"

He looked nervous. Daniel was young, inexperienced, and sceptical of almost everything I'd told him. Regardless, he showed promise.

I'd tried to be upfront and whilst I was grateful that he hadn't left immediately exclaiming my insanity, I was concerned that he was woefully underprepared.

I'd met him online two years ago, where he'd obsessively categorized missing persons cases, sparing no detail. His reservations were natural.

It's a hard pill to swallow, finding out that monsters are responsible for a huge number of unresolved disappearances.

Daniel thought that I was making some kind of sick joke, that it was an initiation.

He nodded and we parted ways, him carting a huge folder out of the office to study the case overnight. I'd tasked him with mapping the route and helping us find the spot where Liam took the photo. I wanted to really test him.

I pulled up an hour or so before sunrise outside his small flat, just above a shop.

He'd dressed ridiculously, in a shirt and blazer. I held my tongue, making a conscious effort to come across nicer.

"Morning, Amelia!" he beamed, feigning a cool exterior. He couldn't hide the sweat on his brow or the small tremor in his hands. Not from me.

"Are you ready?"

"I am. Last night I did some research into the local area and the woods Liam went missing in. Did you know there are eight people who disappeared in those woods in the last decade alone?"

"I didn't know that. Good work. I think we could be dealing with something very dangerous... I have to ask, Daniel... Why the suit?"

I just couldn't stop myself.

"I'm working. These are my work clothes."

I laughed a little and touched the accelerator with my woodland walking boots, feeling a little smug as Daniel whimpered a meek protest.

"You've not done any fieldwork in your research have you." I smiled to myself, reveling a little in his fear.

"I find my skills are on a computer. I can dig up dirt, hunt anyone down via their digital footprint, and put together a comprehensive file. But no... I've never taken it out of my bedroom."

"Do you know why I offered you this job, Daniel?"

"Because I'm thorough. I'm useful."

"No. That's not it."

I smiled again as I took a hand off the wheel and reached across him to the glove compartment, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and lighting one as I wound my window down slightly.

Online sleuths were ten a penny but there weren't many with the skills that Daniel had, I'd chosen him for a reason.

"I hired you because I traced you back to the email address I received the anonymous files from. I haven't come across many internet detectives with the balls to hack a secure police system."

Daniel grinned, it was a victory he needed to help subside his nerves.

"Like I said, Amelia, my skills are online. I saw some old posts of yours about this case on the forums and I thought I'd give you a hand. We'd been talking for some time and I really wanted this job."

I felt my whole body cringe. I did need a hand. The files he sent were regarding the case that kept me awake every night for over a decade. The only one I'd been unable to solve.


I didn't want to burst Daniel's bubble by telling him I'd already seen those files and that they were of no use to my investigation. It was his drive and ability that I was interested in. I let him have his victory.

"Tell me if I'm overstepping but I didn't realize that you... knew her," Daniel continued, plugging the silence that had followed his admission.

"You are overstepping," I hissed back. "We aren't discussing Valerie today. Who is the target?"

"The target is Liam-"

"The target is Liam," I asserted with finality, tossing the end of my cigarette out of the window. I wasn't ready to let him in, not yet.

We continued toward a small village silently, an antiquated sign marking our turning off the busy stretch of road and into meandering hills and valleys.


I stopped the car abruptly in a small, deserted car park on the edge of the woods.

"Where did he enter?" I asked.

The woods weren't especially large, not in comparison to the vast national parks of America. For England, however, it was more than just a small smattering of trees. Certainly enough to be classified a forest.

Choosing the correct entrance point was vital to covering similar ground to Liam.

"He lived over that way." Daniel clutched a piece of paper and pointed to his left, dawn just breaking in full over the tree line. "So he will have gone in through something the locals call the cross tree."

He pulled another scrunched piece of paper from his pocket and I despaired a little as I noticed his formal shoes. They looked expensive. He unscrewed a photo of two trees that had intertwined about two meters up, creating a perfect natural archway.

It wasn't hard to find.

There was something about the way the trees danced with each other in the morning light that made it look more eerie than peaceful. Like two lovers in a violent, passionate embrace.

"There's no need for work clothes in this job, you know?" I joked, trying to make conversation and squash the earlier tension as I held my copy of Liam's selfie up to various different trees.

"I'm learning that now. There was no induction pack."

I scoffed. I supposed I wasn't such a traditional employer. When should I have broken it to him that we were extra busy during holidays?

The forest terrain was treacherous. Even through my boots, I could feel the protruding tree roots and uneven surfaces. Daniel was struggling, shivering a little under the canopy that blocked out the freshly risen sun. We walked for hours.

I wasn't sure what exactly to look for, I couldn't liken the monster in the photograph to anything else I'd dealt with, leaving us in unfamiliar territory.

Finally, after starting to feel hopeless, I noticed something.

I faced Daniel and held my finger to my lips, stopping him in the clearing we'd reached.

The sounds that accompanied the trees had stopped, there was no birdsong, no tree branches moving in the wind, not even the sound of insects rustling in the leaf litter. Instead, there was a faint hum, surrounding the area and vibrating from every direction. It was low-pitched and hypnotic.

Daniel started to shake as he noticed the low, rhythmic tones. I felt my own heart start to pound a little.

Whatever was near was doing a great job of trying to insight panic. I wondered if that hum was what Liam heard, alone, following him through the trees as he made his way home.

That would fuck with anybody.

"Come on! You didn't hide very well the first time, why are you hiding now? We're here for Liam!" I shouted into the open space.

I was angry. Angry that something would be so blatant and yet so cowardly. It was trying to use us as playthings.

"Who said that was the first time?"

The hum came to a grinding halt as the creature spoke and its words echoed directly through me.

"Come out. Face me."

I noticed that Daniel had dropped his map and his whole screwed-up pile of printed documents. The internet wasn't going to help him now and he knew it. I was confident I could keep him safe... for the most part.

The leg came first. The burnt-looking shadowed leg that lengthened and contracted as it moved, like a slinky making its way down a steep set of stairs. The body followed. Unlike anything I'd seen before the monster moved like the laws of physics didn't apply.

It wasn't typical of the monsters I was used to facing. Many of them resembled humans, or at least things that humans might recognize. This, however, was something entirely new.

For a moment, I felt exactly what Liam must have felt. The panic, the terror, the desperation to flee and go home. It wasn't a good feeling.

As it stabilized, fully in our view, it morphed into the human-like shape I'd grown so familiar with when studying the photograph.

Its extremities resembled the branches and roots of the trees around it. Its eyes formed in the space between the shadows, glowing a yellow that just stood out amongst the winding branches.

And that grotesque, sinister smile.

Not all monsters were so unpalatable, but I could feel the hatred coming from inside this one. Like its sole purpose was misery.

"What happened to Liam?" I quivered desperately.

"Which one was he?"

Without the forest to obscure it, the monster's voice echoed with each word, like a second, and third, and fourth voice all lived inside it. A mocking laugh following every letter.

"The one you couldn't resist so bad that you let him take a picture of you," I held up the photograph, inching slightly closer.

"Mmmmmm... Hahahahahah."

I took my eyes off the monster long enough to recover from the profound effect that his evil smile was having on me. I turned to Daniel, scanning his torn and muddied clothing as I noticed a damp, dark patch on his posh suit trousers.

I hadn't intended to scare him so badly. I hadn't expected to be scared so badly myself.

"Is he alive?" I shouted.

"Of course not. He tasted so good. How do you think you taste... Amelia?"

I felt my face sink. I tried to control it but I couldn't.

"How do you know my name?" I demanded, shaken.

"Your reputation precedes you. There are so many out there who would consider me a hero for removing you from this world."

I took a step back, piecing together the parts that didn't make sense. A monster like this wouldn't reveal itself. It just wouldn't.

This was a trap. Just like Olive.

"Who hired you?" I screamed, my hands clammy and sweat forming on my neck. I tried to hold my composure.

"There are plenty of candidates, aren't there? Your work, your life, your involvement with that pretty, young girl... What was her name? How did she taste, Amelia?"

I swallowed a lump in my throat. The sickening voice spoke with such knowing of my intimate personal tragedies.

He knew way too much. And we'd found him far too easily.

"Who are you working with? How do you have these details?"

"I bet you'd love to know the answer to that. You still didn't answer my question though. What do you think you taste like?"

I snarled. I wasn't going to get anything from him and I knew it. Distressed, it took me a few moments to notice the creature extending a long, branch-like arm toward my new assistant.

"Daniel, move!" I screamed, watching in horror as he leaped backward, stumbling in his muddied shoes and tripping to the ground.

I ran toward the monster, fumbling in my pocket for the knife I'd used to sever my connection with the sirens. One that had got me out of many scrapes. The creature noticed the small blade in my hand and its smile extended, past the perimeter of its face.

"They said you had weapons... Your weapons won't be effective against them. You have no idea what's coming."

I plunged the knife, deep into the shadowed mass as it stood and waited, laughing, accepting its fate. It was apparent the entity was nothing more than another message, a living warning on a suicide mission.

That terrified me even more.

As the knife made contact the creature started to disappear, fading into blackened particles. I didn't like to kill anything, that was never my aim, but no one deserved to die like Liam did either.

One by one the particles faded into nothingness, leaving behind a lighter atmosphere. As the last of the creature was obliterated the colors in the forest grew brighter and the sharp tweet of a bird broke the silence.

"What the fuck was that!?" Daniel's voice brought clarity to the area as he hoisted himself up from the ground. The creature was gone. I clung hard to my blade.

Clarence, a good contact working closely with monsters, hadn't explained to me how it worked or what it was made of when he'd given it to me. He said it was a secret of the organization he worked for and if they found out I had one he'd lose his job.

I'd tried to turn him down at first, insisting I'd rather die than kill, but I'll be damned if it hadn't come in good use more than a few times.

"I meant..." Daniel continued, breaking my stream of thought.

"I know what you meant and I told you when I hired you, open mind. You need to adjust to the things you're going to see. Now get us back to the car, please."

We stumbled through the trees and out of the woods. Daniel was embarrassed, he tried to hide the wet patch in his trousers but he knew I'd seen.

"It's okay to be scared, you know."

"You weren't. I don't want to be scared anymore, Amelia, this was awful... and the most exciting thing I've ever done. I'm ready for our next target."

"Me, too... But first, we have to inform Brenda that her son won't be coming home and that her granddaughter no longer has a daddy."

I shed a tear for Liam as we loaded the car and got back on the road. I had nothing to give his mother, no evidence of life or death and not a single real answer.

Daniel was wrong, too. I was scared.

Monsters and the people that work with them are responsible for so much damage. And I know all about it. There was a chance that these warnings led to Valerie, and an even bigger chance that I was being trapped.

Whoever was after me already knew the answers to my cases and they'd reached the monster first. They were able to make such a terrifying creature willing to die for their cause.

This wasn't just about stopping me from finding Valerie. Someone wanted me dead.

I investigate the link between monsters and missing people. Good friends aren't always good people.

"Amelia, are you really expecting me to believe that this is the office of your most valuable contact? If this a trick, it isn't your best," Daniel wondered.

I smiled to myself. It didn't look much, I'd give him that. A small, corrugated, metal shed on the side of a city park wasn't where one might expect to find someone like Clarence.

But that was exactly the point.

"Did you have to wear the suit again? I told you this job doesn't require work clothes," I retorted, looking Daniel up and down, giggling at how out of place he was.

"You told me this was a visit to a colleague. Do you have to swerve every question I ask?" he responded, a mildly irritated expression on his face.

"It's no trick, the monsters that we come across are hiding in plain sight. It's only pertinent that the humans that help them do the same. Once you understand that, you'll see that they're everywhere."

I sighed, realizing he was going to take some time to adjust.

"So who is this man? What does he do?"

"He's a refuse collector. And if he has the information I think he does then we'll get this one closed fast. No fieldwork, your shoes are safe."

I knocked hard on the outer metal exterior of the shed. The hinges creaked and I wondered how it remained standing. It was a miracle that vandals hadn't destroyed it entirely.

There was a symphony of clanking and crashing. I giggled to myself imagining Clarence tripping through the mountains of junk he kept inside. I knew Daniel was expecting men in black and he was going to be sorely disappointed.

"Amelia!" a warm familiar voice cut through the sound of the creaking door. "Always a pleasure to have you visit."

Clarence was a short, thin, elderly man. On the surface, you'd have expected he was someone's grandfather, a kindly old man and perhaps a dab hand at competitive bowls.

You would never have suspected that he was a high-level operative, working for an organization that cleaned the messes of murderous monsters.

I'd already introduced Daniel to the monsters that hid in the shadows of our world, now it was time he met the humans that helped them to stay hidden.

"And this is?" He gestured to my companion, inspecting him through his magnified, circular glasses. Daniel found it unsettling, I could tell.

"This is my new employee. He's very promising."

"An employee," Clarence scoffed and raised a tufty eyebrow in surprise. "He really must be promising for you to take someone on. I thought you were the lone shark."

He stopped his intense inspection of my assistant to laugh gutturally at his own bad pun. It was one he'd been using for a number of years.

"You're the only one who calls me that and you know it. Anyway, are you going to let us in? Daniel's outfit won't hold up in the elements."

Daniel dusted himself off from my ribbing indignantly, following us into the pokey little shack, filled with industrial garden tools that perfectly matched the facade. I watched him panic, wondering if we were going to converse in there, shoulder to shoulder.

How very cozy.

Clarence opened up a hatch in the floor, revealing a set of dimly lit stairs that led to a much larger, more accommodating room. It was nothing special, but it was carpeted and housed a few chairs and a desk. Much warmer than the shed above.

The acronym of the company Clarence worked for was emblazoned on a brass plaque on the desk - PSEC.

"What does PSEC stand for?" Daniel asked, taking in his surroundings as he took a seat on a plastic bucket chair. Clarence shot me an irritated look.

"Did you tell this boy anything? Why is he so confused?"

"I tried," I started. "He's still a bit of a skeptic."

My contact and dear old friend rolled his eyes. It must have been hard for him to imagine not knowing what he knew. The monsters, the underground network of services specially for them, and the countless swept-up murders.

"I work for an organization called the Paranormal Services Emergency Cleaners. We deal with messes that would cause mass hysteria if left to be discovered by the public, in an efficient and timely fashion," I tutted as Clarence reeled off the PSEC promotional spiel.

"What he means, Daniel, is that he's body disposal." I turned to the old man. "You know I don't do bullshit, Clarence, let's not start with that."

"Amelia... must you always be so disparaging of my work? You could lighten up a tad," he responded, smiling at my defiance. I knew he appreciated it really.

"I'll lighten up when my cases stop leading me to you," I snapped back.

I thought back to the number of times I'd come close to finding someone, only to realize they'd already been disposed of by Clarence and his colleagues after being ripped apart by beasts.

The amount of grieving families I'd had to tell that their loved ones were dead and I had no body for them. No proof. Just my word.

"I'll let you elaborate in your own fashion in that case. Who's the target this time, why are you here?" Clarence responded gingerly, desperate to move on. "You know, it would be great if you just popped in to say hello sometime, maybe a cup of tea."

I noted his avoidance. He didn't like it when I confronted him with just how problematic his work really was.

"Next time, Clarence, I promise," I lied, just like I did every other time he made that suggestion. "Daniel, please run through what we know."

"The target is Mika, missing for six months. She was a university student in the city. She went missing a month after her closest friend, Lola, disappeared.

"Lola had been talking to a boy online who lived out in the country. Her housemates on campus, including Mika, found a note saying that she'd left to be with him. Lola didn't have much money so she will have train-hopped and hitched to the village the boy lived in.

"When she didn't arrive it was presumed that she ran into trouble along the way. No body was found but police suspect it's only a matter of time."

I spotted Clarence's left eyebrow twitch. It was subtle, but it was a tell of his that I'd noticed over the years. He knew something about these girls. I watched him carefully as Daniel continued.

"After the loss of her friend, Mika became withdrawn. She was upset as she felt that there wasn't enough effort being put into finding Lola, she subsequently spent a lot of time in her room.

"A month to the day after the housemates found the first note they found a second, this time from Mika.

"It said that she had found duplicate accounts online matching the boy Lola was talking to and she had theories that traffickers were involved. She feared something much more sinister happened to her friend.

"Mika's note said that she'd gone after Lola and didn't want anyone to follow her."

Clarence tugged at the collar on his tattered polo shirt, taking a breath.

"She left an explanation in her note by the sounds of it. What makes you think this has anything to do with PSEC?"

I rifled through my satchel, pulling out a plastic carrier bag containing the only piece of evidence I had. It was a shirt, the one that Mika was wearing when she disappeared, and it was covered in blood.

I placed it on the desk and Clarence's left eyebrow twitched again.

"So she's dead?" he asked. "You know we wouldn't leave that behind, we're professionals, Amelia, like you!"

"Maybe," I responded, growing tired of the deception. I understood Clarence's loyalty to the company and his reluctance to divulge information but I could see through his blatant lies and he knew it.

He was just prolonging the process.

"That's not her blood though. It isn't Lola's either," Daniel interrupted, realizing our exchange was about to get heated. "We traced the blood through one of those genetic makeup companies and found a familial match in a girl named Polly Tackett. Amelia said you know her father."

Clarence's eyebrow twitched one more time and he realized I had him. I knew that his partner, Artie Tackett, had died on the job last month. Clarence had called me personally in tears.

"What happened to that girl's friend? And if she killed Artie, where is she now?"

A tear rolled down his wrinkled face and he took his glasses off for a moment, rubbing at them with his fleece jacket sleeve to clear the steam.

"We were attending a clean at a site frequented by one of our long-time clients. They subcontract us to ensure their organization is kept secure and operational. They'd held an... event..."

"Carla," I hissed.

Suddenly everything made sense. Mika's friend Lola had fallen victim to one of the most heinous organizations in the paranormal industries. The Ethical Organ Collectors.

A misnomer if ever there was one, they were headed by Carla Parks, a ruthless woman who was known to hunt unsuspecting, innocent people to stock food for monsters. I'd come across her before, even met her face to face once.

She was by far the most terrifying monster I'd had the displeasure of meeting.

The Ethical Organ Collectors pretended to provide an alternative to killing for species that needed body parts to survive. They claimed to reach out to people on their deathbeds, making desperate appeals for the hungry monsters; in reality, they just made finding prey easier for them.

The event Clarence was referring to would've been an organized hunt. Terrified, healthy, innocent people hand-picked and lured by the collectors were set free, only to be tracked through the woods by fearsome, hungry creatures and ripped to shreds.

That's what the boy Lola was talking to was, a lure. A collector.

PSEC had a contract with the collectors, disposing of any excess blood, bone, and shrapnel left behind by the ravenous punters.

"You know I can't confirm or deny Amelia. But I can tell you our clean was interrupted. Your target found us, I don't know how, but she did. She stabbed Artie when she spotted him bagging up that girl's body, more times than would have been necessary.

"The scene was scattered so I didn't have a line of sight on him. That's on me. Her first blow was to the throat; he couldn't scream for help and by the time we found them she'd carved his face up good. She was still going too, all frenzied like."

I thought about how that clean would've looked. The body parts left everywhere amongst the grass and trees, as a group of inconspicuous men tossed them in bin liners with litter picks. It made me sick. I'm sure it made Mika sick too, maybe that's why she snapped.

Clarence struggled to compose himself, I knew how close he and Artie had been. I thought of Poppy Tackett, I'd never met her but Clarence spoke about her like a surrogate daughter. I wondered if she was coping.

My friendship with Clarence had always provided me with a huge moral quandary, but never as strongly as in that moment.

"What did you do with her?" I asked, swallowing a lump in my throat that came naturally with the suspicion that a friend of mine was capable of what I thought was the answer.

Clarence was like a grandfather.

I knew he wasn't really, but it still took quite some mental arithmetics to imagine him a killer, even if in self-defense. Daniel sat, mouth agape, waiting for an answer. It must have been quite the information overload for him.

It was strange, but I genuinely feared Clarence's answer.

I thought about Mika, an average student who had fought so hard for her friend that she'd stumbled on an entire hidden tier of humanity. I could relate to that. I wanted so badly for her to be alive.

"It's rare, as you know. In all my years working for the company I've never had to neutralize a threat. I understand this is difficult, Amelia... but she was a threat. You didn't see what she did to his face!" he shattered my hopes.

"You killed her. Say it. No company jargon, be real with me."

"I killed her, Amelia. It was above board, a clean kill. I think you knew that before you knocked on the door though. So are you going to tell me how you got hold of that?" He pointed to the bloodied shirt in his desk.

The one that shouldn't have existed.

"You killed someone?! You?!" Daniel interjected. He'd finally succumbed to the overwhelming confusion at his situation.

"Not now, Daniel. This isn't the time." I put a hand out to try and halt his hysteria and continued to address Clarence, now shaking at the realization that someone had betrayed him.

Whoever sent me that shirt was trying to expose him for murder.

"It was mailed to me anonymously shortly after I took on Mika's case. That's why I'm here. I can bury this for you but you needed to be warned, I walked into a trap during my last case, and now this. I'm not sure who it is yet but someone's playing a game with me.

"They're baiting me. This proves that they know about our connection and about your work. I'm scared, Clarence."

"Thank you, Amelia! I appreciate the warning. I'll interrogate and then terminate the entire team on site for that clean and report back."

"Don't!" I responded frantically. "Whoever's doing this is smart, slick. This isn't one of your operatives, even if one is working for the one behind this. All you'll do is alert them that we know."

"What do you want me to do then? Just continue to work with traitors?"

"For the moment," I answered solemnly as he struggled to accept my predicament, trying desperately to untangle the knot in my stomach ready for my last and final request.

I knew there was only one thing that I could do to bring closure to Mika's family. I needed that bit of normality; to solve a case like I was supposed to.

I needed Clarence and I wouldn't expose him but I had to give them something. It couldn't be the bloodied shirt, it only asked more questions. I needed proof of death.

I had to do my job.

Clarence on occasion kept trophies from interesting cleans without permission.

I knew because I caught him hiding one when we first met, it was my leverage to get him to talk to me. I suspected that Clarence would've kept a piece of evidence but I couldn't be sure; knowing his preferred trophy, I really hoped I was wrong.

"Clarence, I'm going to need you to hand her over."

His face dropped.

"I haven't got her. I wouldn't. Do you think I'm sick?" he spat, disgusted that I'd even imply what I was implying. I didn't buy it. His disgust was nothing but projection.

"I don't believe you. A girl kills your friend brutally and you avenge him personally. You're telling me she isn't locked up with all the others right behind you?" I tried to steel my face but it was difficult. I told you before, I'm not made of stone.

I gestured to the padlocked storage cupboard that sat behind the desk. The one that I knew was filled with horrors I couldn't imagine. I'd never asked him to open it before, we'd had an unspoken agreement.

We never discussed what was in the cupboard.

His collection.

"I'm so sorry," he said.

Knowing I wouldn't let up and with tears in his eyes, he stood and fiddled with the pocket of his corduroy trousers. I turned to Daniel, a look of baffled terror on his face.

"You won't be so skeptical after this," I told him as Clarence turned the key in the lock and opened the doors.

Revealing rows upon rows of severed heads, preserved in pickling jars.

Monsters of all shapes and sizes littered the dusty shelves. More often than not it was human bodies PSEC disposed of but that wasn't always the case. In the event of a monster-death, Clarence's fascination would get the best of him and he always kept the head.

I locked eyes with the one I'd seen him hiding that first time, a horned creature with a beak more deadly than a hornbill. It had haunted my dreams for a long time.

I'd always wondered what it was, but never worked up the nerve to ask.

His hands scanned the third shelf down before settling on a jar containing a face I recognized. One that looked out of place amongst the myriad of creatures that surrounded it.

I felt my stomach drop as he handed me a jar containing the preserved head of Mika. Her face had been cut and Clarence wouldn't make eye contact with me, knowing how I abhorred his work.

"I'll bury this. But if I ever trace a death back to you like this again I'll kill you myself, got it?" I warned as Clarence shrunk into the corner. "No need to see us out."

Shoving Mika into my satchel I dragged Daniel up the stairs and out of the metal shed. We walked in silence for a bit, settling on a bench in the center of the park.

"What just happened? Is there really a..." Daniel broke the silence but struggled to hold it together. He bent over, heaving as he vomited on the floor, a small splash landing on his perfectly ironed shirt. I suspected he'd been holding that in for quite some time.

I felt bad. I hadn't adequately prepared him for anything and after finding out what Clarence was capable of I really needed a friend. I had to let him in.

"Yes. There's a head in my bag. I'm sorry... I'll stop swerving your questions now, I promise."

Nerves shot to pieces, I reached past the piece of person in my bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, shaking as I lit one. Daniel took a few deep breaths before he spoke.

"What the fuck were those things in jars and what did Mika find? What were they cleaning up after? Who's Carla?"

I felt my body tense in anticipation at the sound of her name. Carla Parks wasn't someone I'd ever hoped to interact with again, but with someone chasing me I didn't need to make any more enemies.

"She's a human monster, Daniel... She's also our next client, her son is missing."

I investigate the link between monsters and missing people. Not all grieving mothers are the same.

"I've never seen anything like this before."

Looking up at the spectacular building, I could understand Daniel's amazement.

The extravagant example of modern architectural design wasn't something anyone would expect to find built into the side of a mountain, hidden deep in a rural British village. It was striking, beautiful in fact, as the sun set just beyond the expansive peaks.

"Be honest, since you took this job have you seen anything boring?"

I chuckled nervously. Daniel had only assisted on two cases so far, both relatively easy and for lack of a better word, regular. This case wasn't going to be like that. Just like the structural art jutting out of the mountain, our client was unique.

"Daniel... no loss of bodily fluids today, okay? Third time lucky."

"Scout's honor. I've used the toilet and I don't think anything could make me feel as queasy as that cabinet of heads."

"Never underestimate a client or case," I replied, knowing there was far worse out there than a few decapitated monsters.

I'd briefed him better this time than I had before our meeting with Clarence, having a frank conversation with him about the humans that orchestrate the paranormal services and what to expect while dealing with The Ethical Organ Collectors. Still, I couldn't be sure that even I knew what to expect.

There was nothing regular about Carla Parks.

There was nothing regular about the situation either. While I hunted monsters and missing people, I too was being hunted by someone desperate to stop me from solving the case of my lost love, Valerie.

I told Daniel about that, too, albeit briefly. He knew that I was in danger, but I still hadn't found the right time to open up about my history with the missing girl. He was proving himself a trustworthy ally. Just not yet.

I thought about her as we approached the fortress belonging to the Ethical Organ Collectors.

It had been fifteen years without a single viable lead. Despite my involvement with the monster world, I had never been sure that Valerie's disappearance was like the others I investigated.

I often wondered if she was just murdered by a maniac. Maybe I was just looking in all the wrong places? Maybe while I waited on that cold swing, some man bundled her into the back of a van, did what they wanted, and left her bones somewhere in the woods. Maybe the last fifteen years of my life had been pointless.

It was oddly nice to put those thoughts to bed.

Now, after the messages I'd been receiving, I was certain that her disappearance involved the supernatural.

And I was closer than I'd previously thought; if I hadn't been nearing a breakthrough then I would've never received the warnings, surely?

A gruff voice broke my train of thought.

"Name and order of business."

The man guarding the door of the enormous building was relatively small in stature, with a set of remarkably average features that made up his forgettable face. He was so incredibly standard in every way that it was almost distracting.

"Amelia Engel, accompanied by Daniel Prasad. We have a meeting with Miss Parks at 5 pm."

The man nodded and entered a code into a keypad just beside the door. He was careful not to let us see the numbers, although I was far too distracted by his face to pay attention anyway. I caught a brief glimpse of Daniel inspecting him, too.

"Visitors for Carla. Can you escort them upstairs?" the guard spoke into the receiver below the button pad in a monotone voice. His request was granted.

Just before the door opened he turned to us and spoke once more. "Don't call her Miss Parks, by the way, she hates that."

"Got it," Daniel replied, still transfixed on the guard.

The door opened and we were met by an identical guard, with an identical indescribable face. Just as I had suspected.

"Are you brothers?" Daniel asked instinctively. I kicked him hard indicating he should shut up, and the second guard smiled as he ushered us inside and shut the grand, metal door.

They weren't brothers. Nothing of the sort. They were the collectors, an incredible type of monster with the ability to disguise itself amongst people. Our inability to comprehend their faces was no mistake and neither were their positions in the organization.

They could abduct people in plain sight, in full view of crowds of others. They could flaunt their wrongdoings without ever being caught. It's what made them so ideal for someone like Carla. No one was able to describe them, making them a sustainable army of ruthless kidnappers.

The collector led us to a futuristic-looking lift, coated in gaudy chrome fixtures.

"Straight to the top, knock on the door, she's expecting you." He gestured to the larger-than-average lift interior. I was shocked he wasn't accompanying us, I expected security measures to be much more stringent than they were.

I suppose if they thought I were any kind of threat I'd have been dead on sight. That in itself was disconcerting.

"What was up with those guys, were they the collectors you were telling me about?! They were freakier than I expected," Daniel blurted in excitement as the doors slammed together in the middle, securing us inside the metal box.

"Yes. You need to be careful though, this isn't a zoo and you can't show your fascination. Pissing off the wrong person in this building would be fatal," I warned, wondering if I was rushing his training too quickly.

It took a long time to reach the top, my anxiety building as the lift jolted at every floor. No one joined us, thankfully, and eventually, the large metal doors opened, leaving us faced with a door.

The office door was grand, a brass plaque engraved with cursive sat in a prime, central position.

Carla Parks The Ethical Organ Collectors CEO

I knocked hard three times and inhaled slowly, composing myself. She was a client, a grieving mother, a person who needed closure... a mass murderer.

"It's been such a long time. I wasn't sure you'd agree to meet with me after our last dalliance. Hello, Amelia, who is your handsome friend?"

Carla Parks was a tall, slender woman. She dressed in tight-fitted black trousers, a black ruffled blouse, and a tailored black blazer finished with killer heels. Her hair was in stark contrast to her outfit, a shocking silver, pinned back into a well-manicured ponytail. She oozed class.

She led us into her cavernous, decadent office, taking a set on her throne of a desk chair, whilst gesturing for us to take a seat on two oversized, black leather seats. The decor was very modern gothic, everything sleek, clean, and black.

I thought back to our last interaction, the only time I'd previously been in her presence. I was tracking a little girl, maybe six or seven years old, I don't remember.

The investigation led me to the mountains, where TEOC had been hosting an exclusive hunt for the richest of monsters. I was able to locate the girl's corpse, the poor thing had succumbed to the elements hiding from her hunters.

I was spotted by the collectors though, and Carla led me off the property personally.

Carla was deadly, but I couldn't deny how attractive I found her. She was sexy.

"I almost didn't after our last meeting. I find it hard to turn down a grieving mother though... so here I am. This is Daniel, my assistant, he's going to help me locate Evan."

Carla scoffed.

"Do you find the fact your son is missing funny, Carla?" I asked, keeping a poker face.

"No... it's not that, Amelia. Contrary to popular belief, I actually do have a heart and whilst I may not win any mothering awards I did love my son... that's the key. Did.

"Evan is dead, Amelia, it's a great shame... but he was a weak young boy and he defected from the fold. When he left home I couldn't reasonably protect him from the big, wide world. I hadn't seen him in a few years when he died, although I kept tabs, of course.

"Anyway, I digress, you aren't here to locate Evan. I was perfectly capable of that on my own. He was left in some filthy shack, rotting."

My heart sunk into my stomach. If she knew all of this then I served no purpose.

"Then why am I here?"

"Because my son died for nothing and I can't have that."

She placed three photographs on the desk in front of us, all had clearly been taken without the subjects' knowledge. Two were women, around the same age as Carla. The third photograph was more intriguing. It showed an impossibly large man with a mouth filled with long, intimidating fangs.

"Who are these people?" Daniel asked.

"I'm glad someone's showed some interest!" She answered, throwing me a smug wink. "These people are all responsible for Evan's death."

I stood up and shot Daniel a look that told him to do the same.

"I'm not a bounty hunter, Carla. Get your own vengeance... Get up, Daniel."

"Sit down," she commanded, cooly.

"Get up, Daniel!" I raised my voice a little, determined not to bend to her will. Carla sighed and rolled her eyes, barely moving a muscle.

"I was hoping I wouldn't have to resort to persuasion this early on. Let's talk, hear me out and perhaps you'll change your mind... The payment I'm offering is more valuable than money."

I didn't sit back down, I didn't want to succumb to her whim too quickly.

"What is the payment? I'm not going to agree to sacrifice my morals based on a gamble."

Carla smiled wickedly, she knew I wouldn't be able to turn down her offer.

"Good! I wouldn't expect you to! Credible information, Amelia, on the disappearance of your little friend. I know about your schoolyard romance, about your investigation, and about that pretty young thing in the bar not too long ago."

Was she behind the warnings? Why? Why would she do all of this and then give me what I want anyway?

"You. You were behind that thing in the forest... and Olive, you sent her... why? Who is she?"

"Wrong. I'm not behind any of it nor is anyone here. Your little business is an annoyance, absolutely, but I have nothing to gain from eradicating you. I've never considered you a real threat to our operation. You're small fry.

"I didn't send those warnings, but I know who did. And I know where your girlfriend is now.

"So it's like this; I have a problem that requires the touch of someone even less recognizable than the hundreds of men walking this building right now and I have something that you want.

Are you ready to hear me out?"

I didn't respond. Instead, I pulled the black leather chair slowly and slipped back onto the seat. I kept eye contact with Carla for a moment and noticed Daniel hovering, only sitting once I had. I nodded toward the photographs.

"Go on then... what happened? I'm listening."

Carla cast her eyes to the photographs and allowed a slight scowl to form on her face. Slowly, she reached into her blazer pocket and pulled out a fourth; an image of a boy with the same silvery hair as her, except much warmer-looking with kind eyes, approachable almost.


"My son was a disappointment from a young age. He wasn't built for this world, always looking for rainbows and silver linings that just aren't there. He assisted at a few of my events until he eventually decided he no longer wanted any part of it.

"He lived in mediocrity for some time, he rented a flat in a run-down tower block and got a job as a babysitter. For this woman - Dr. Dayna Danworth, a dentist who works exclusively with monsters." She gestured to one of the pictures of the two women.

Daniel giggled.

"A dentist for monsters? That's the most ridiculous job title I've ever heard."

"It sounds it, doesn't it, but you or I couldn't eat without teeth, so what makes you think they can?" Carla continued. "Evan looked after the dentist's child for a while, until there was an altercation with this gentleman here, known only as the Beast of Cordyline Hill, a previous client of mine. Nasty piece of work."

I stared at the image of the large man. For Carla Parks to call anyone nasty was rather ironic.

"The Beast kidnapped Dr. Danworth's child; I'm yet to find out why but I'm working on that. Danworth, accompanied by this woman, Coco, and my son, drove to the shack in Cordyline Hill where the man lived.

"Evan was killed by the Beast in a futile attempt to get hold of the dentist's child. The Beast was badly injured, and the women retrieved the baby, leaving my son on that disgusting floor."

I processed her words but I was still confused about what she wanted.

"If you know all of this already then why do you need me? You want me to hunt down a dentist?"

"Ha! No, after allowing my son to sacrifice his life for her little brat she's mine, I'm merely biding my time with her. I have no need to locate her either, she's a sitting duck in that practice of hers.

"The Beast of Cordyline Hill is my issue, he's familiar with the organization, our collection methods, and he's skilled at hiding. As you can appreciate, monsters are not my usual prey and I need someone on him who he would never expect came from me.

"I need you, Amelia."

I sat silently as Daniel glanced between Carla and the photograph of the Beast in awe.

"I'm not a hunter, Carla. And as much as I hate to admit we have anything in common, I find people, not monsters. What makes you think he wouldn't rip me to shreds, too?"

"I don't really care if he does, I have other options besides you but they're expensive. What it really comes down to is just how much you want to find Valerie," she responded, a blank expression on her face. She was being honest, she really didn't care if I lived or died.

I needed the information, but not like this. I wasn't interested in interfering in a war among the paranormal services. I doubted the story was as simple as it had been made out to be and I wasn't prepared to be Carla's lackey. I just wanted Valerie safe.

I felt an idea creeping into my mind. It turned my stomach. I knew that regardless of the manner in which I left the fortress I would be leaving with my sense of morality shattered.

"I'm not going to do that-"

"Then we have no business here. I'm sorry about your girlfriend, she's grown into such a lovely woman, if only you'd get to see it," Carla answered bluntly as she stood and walked toward the door, her movements fluid and calculated.

"Wait! You said you have other options, better ones I'm sure. Ones that could execute your mission better than me. If I leave right now, then you wasted your time today. I'm not going to agree to your terms but I can offer you something useful... in return for what I want."

My heart pounded. Negotiating with Carla was terrifying. I tried desperately to stop my body from shaking as I wondered if she were going to pull out a gun and just shoot me on sight, or worse, save me and Daniel for her hungry customers.

"You have one more minute of my time, quickly, it's precious."

"I can bury them. Every case that leads me back to you, I can bury it. I have contacts, contacts that can provide me evidence of your wrongdoings... and I can destroy all of that."

"I know about your friend, Amelia, where do you think that bloody jumper came from?" She smiled back. I held my breath. "I'm not worried about you doing any damage whatsoever... but like I said, you are an annoyance."

I noticed her face start to change as she considered my offer, weighing up just how useful my blind eye would be.


"What?" I babbled, the confusion audible.

"Are you stupid?" She babbled a little, mocking me. "I said it's a deal. Any case that leads you to us, you stop investigating. You make something up to the poor crying family and you forget that person ever existed."

I felt sick. I thought of all the victims I was letting down. All the people who would disappear into complete obscurity, even to their families. All because I wanted one missing person more than all the others. I nodded.

"It's your turn."

Carla reached into the drawer of her desk and I felt a sense of dread wash over me. I wondered if Mrs. Fortmason had felt the same as I rifled through my desk drawer for that damn bracelet.

There was no bracelet, or worse, severed hand. Instead, there was nothing but a large brown envelope, which Carla handed to me readily before insisting we left and didn't return again.

Outside the architectural sculpture, with an indistinct guard not far behind me, I inspected the outside of the envelope, marked with only one word.