The eight of them agreed to sleeping in shifts. After trudging back up the hill, moods sullen and heavy, they made their way back to the dining hall, no one speaking a word. Outside, night had fallen, though the storm made it nearly indistinguishable from before. The realization of their situation had withered their sleep, however, and now, no one quite knew what to do.
The one to break the silence was, of course, Lucine, who’s mood seemed to have become more positive after their encounter with the barrier, a fact that gave her more than a few suspicious stares.
“We should sleep in shifts,” she suggested, “since all of you are so paranoid.”
“With good reason,” Ivan muttered. Echo pursed her lips.
“What if the Eighth used their shift to attack us?” she asked. Lucine tilted her head.
“Hmm… good point. Alright then, we’ll go in pairs.” She pointed to herself and Fay. “Fay and I will take the first shift, then Mortimer and Ed, Ivan and Echo—” she ignored the groans of protest, “—and finally, Willow and Iris can take the last shift. Agreed?”
Echo raised her hand. “Excuse me, but I can’t find any reason for me to paired with Ivan.”
“You’re not the only one,” Ivan grumbled. Lucine raised an eyebrow.
“It’s simple, really. Echo, you have the most combat experience, and Ivan the next. If one of you were the Eighth and was paired with one of us normal folk, then you could easily kill us. Correct?”
“Whether you would or wouldn’t doesn’t matter, it’s all about possibilities.” Lucine grinned. “Isn’t that right?”
Ivan made to retort, but thought better of it. It was late, and the day’s events had made him too weary to bother with arguing, especially when he knew no words could sway Lucine’s opinion. He sighed.
Lucine smiled. “That’s the spirit.” She turned to the others. “Any other complaints?”
Her words were met with silence, which seemed to satisfy her.
“Are we going to be guarding the whole hall of rooms, or…?” Iris asked. Lucine shrugged.
“It would be safer if we spent the night here,” Echo said, tapping her finger against the dining room table. “That way, it’ll be easier to keep an eye on everyone.”
Iris nodded. “Makes sense.”
“Then should we bring the mattresses over?” Mortimer asked.
“I would much prefer that to the floor, yes,” Lucine said. Mortimer nodded and stood, the others following suit. As the Saviors filed out of the room, Echo lingered, eyeing the movements of the last few members before shutting the door.
Finding beds was no hard task, as the mansion was littered with guest rooms. They soon came to the realization that constantly opening and closing the heavy mahogany door was more trouble than it was worth, so they agreed on having two of them stay behind to hold the doors open.
“I’ll do it,” Fay volunteered. Echo glanced at her, but said nothing. Iris also volunteered, and the two stood by, watching the other six step in and out of the room until the hall had eight mattresses, a generous number of blankets and pillows, and extra matches in case the center lamp went out.
Soon each of them had occupied their own section of the room, the mattresses hugging the wall. The center table was left alone, the flower vase replaced with the lamp. Listening to the sounds of the grandfather clock, the weary Saviors settled into sleep, the flickering flame their only light.
It took Ed some time to find a comfortable sleeping position. Mortimer had helped stack the pillows to keep weight off his injury, but it still took some time before he was able to relax. Mortimer himself was still as a rock in a corner of the room, using the smaller tables as a barrier to both hang his bag and keep the light out of his eyes. Ivan had done a similar thing, though he kept his bag near him, ensuring his hand was securely around the strap at all times.
Iris was one of the few who didn’t face the wall, not minding the lamplight. Willow was the first to fall asleep, her weariness overweighing the unfamiliarity of the situation. She usually had trouble sleeping in unknown places, but today, she found herself dozing off upon hitting the mattress. In contrast, Echo was the last to fall asleep, eyeing Fay from the shadows of her corner. Once she was satisfied, she rolled over to the wall, her dagger cold under the blankets.
“—Looks like they’re all asleep,” Lucine said, silently shuffling her deck of cards. Fay sighed, eyes gazing at the grandfather clock. Over two hours had passed before the breathing around the room had settled into a slow rhythm.
“Good,” Fay said. She paused, then whispered in an even lower voice, “What is it?”
“What is what?”
“There must’ve been a reason you called me for first shift,” Fay said. Lucine didn’t bother feigning innocence, her tone unwavering as she continued to shuffle.
“You can relax now, everyone’s asleep,” was all she said. Fay sighed.
“So you noticed.”
“Echo did, too,” Lucine added. At this, Fay flinched and furrowed her brow.
“Was it really that obvious?”
Lucine paused. “Your movements have been getting slower, and you barely spoke after returning to the mansion. It was only natural for Echo to be suspicious. Oh, and your breathing was faster by 0.89% and had skips in rhythm over 14.78% more often than usual, though I doubt anyone else caught that. Don’t worry, the others probably assumed you were tired, if they noticed anything.”
“That’s good,” Fay said, leaning back in her chair. She stared up at the ceiling, where the lamplight cast a spotlight, long shadows crowding around the golden hue. She shifted her gaze to her bag, which she’d set on the chair beside her. Lucine glanced at her, expression posing a question, before Fay shook her head.
“I’m fine. I took some in the woods,” she said, turning away from the pouch. Lucine chuckled.
“I thought so.” She restacked the cards and pointed to them, a bright smile on her face. Fay gave a crooked smile.
“You know the shift’s almost over.”
“I can beat you before then.”
Fay shook her head and straightened. Lucine grinned and began distributing the cards. As she did so, Fay asked in a low voice, “Any guesses on the Eighth?”
In contrast, Lucine’s voice was remarkably bored sounding. “A few.”
Fay furrowed her brow, but knew better than to press the issue. Instead, she asked a different question, rearranging her hand of cards. “You weren’t lying about the barrier, were you? You really can’t do anything about it?”
Lucine pretended to pout. “You know I don’t lie. Not directly, at least.”
Fay sighed. “This is becoming more and more of a hassle.” She glanced at the sleeping figures scattered about the walls of the room. “What do you think we’ll be doing tomorrow?” she asked. Lucine shrugged.
“I really can’t tell with those six, but I suppose we’ll be touring the island for clues. We’ll probably be searching for the servants, while we’re at it,” she added, an edge to her voice. Fay’s eyes narrowed for a brief moment before she sighed.
“It’s a shame, I was looking forward to controlling my power, too.”
“Tis an unfortunate turn of events,” Lucine said, throwing a card down. “I was surprised, though, Willow has far more talent than I would’ve thought. Not as much as me, of course, but a satisfactory level.”
Fay glanced at Willow’s sleeping figure, her stomach steadily rising and falling.
“It’s good, though. I thought she’d be more worked up today.”
Lucine raised an eyebrow. “Well this is a surprise, I didn’t realize you two were so close.”
“We met in the city,” Fay explained, “before Echo. I was surprised to find her here.”
“Careful what you say, you have connections to too many of us. The skeptical ones will be on your case,” Lucine warned. Fay laughed.
“It really is an odd coincidence,” she said. “I just hope I don’t end up with a knife to my back.”
“You’re not the only one worried about that, it seems,” Lucine remarked, nodding her head towards where the other Saviors were resting. Echo, with her dagger, Iris, face illuminated by light, and Ivan, his bag tucked close. Fay set down another card.
“At least they’re sleeping well, I almost don’t want to wake them,” she said, glancing at the grandfather clock.
“Humans sleep well when they’re tired, regardless of circumstance,” Lucine recited.
Fay chuckled. “Another book of yours?”
“No, personal experience.” Lucine glanced over her shoulder. “Well, it seems not all of them have been blessed with dreamless sleep.” She nodded towards where Ed was. While his silhouette was hard to make out through the thick shadows, he seemed to be rolling around, trembling. Fay shook her head.
For a while, the two sat in silence, the sound of cards, clock, and ongoing storm their backdrop.
It was a cliff, always a cliff.
While the dreams tended to have variation—different times of day, different specifics—it was always atop the same cliff, the one that overlooked the village. Ed couldn’t remember when the nightmares had first begun. From what he knew, they’d always been with him.
As usual, he found himself standing atop the cliff, overlooking the dreary town beneath. Behind him, the snapping of twigs and pounding footsteps sent chills down his spine. He thought he heard a voice, one familiar yet indistinguishable. For a moment, he feared the consequences of turning around, but always did. This time, too, he faced the approaching shadow, his vision cut off as the ground beneath him cracked, sending him falling down into the worn houses.
The nightmare usually ended there, with the sensation of falling through the cold air the last memory of it. Today, however, he found himself landing somewhere else, not in the village, but the Willis Island.
It was the same scenery, the same towering trees, the inky storm, the mist swept by the piercing winds, and the feeling of muddied earth beneath him. He faced the forest, the yellow glow the only light. Ed screamed at his dream self, telling him to turn around, step nearer and get a closer look, but it was in vain.
Behind him, the footsteps approached, a sharp pain in his head sending him back to the real world.
Ed awoke with a start, his entire body covered in cold sweat. Raising his hand, his entire arm trembled. He swallowed and glanced around the room to find the other Saviors still sleeping peacefully. He sighed, relieved he hadn’t woken up screaming. Behind him, a tap on his shoulder made him jump. Bolting up, he found himself facing Mortimer, who had a concerned expression on his face.
“Are you alright?”
Ed glanced around, finding the center dining table empty, Fay and Lucine having retired to their own mattresses. His throat dry, he nodded.
Mortimer didn’t seem convinced, but he stood up, extending a hand that Ed was grateful for. “It’s our shift,” Mortimer said. Ed realized that his book was already lying on the table. He must’ve woken up before him.
Nodding, Ed took a seat, trying to distract himself by staring at the flickering flame. He fidgeted, unconsciously bouncing his leg as he glanced at the grandfather clock.
Sitting across the table, Mortimer was silent, only occasionally flipping the page of his book. More than once, he’d glance up, eyeing Ed before returning to his reading. It seemed the other Savior wasn’t aware of how pale his face was, or of the sweat trickling down his forehead.
Mortimer decided not to ask about it. If Ed wanted to say something, he would. With that in mind, he returned his attention to the book, using the lamp as a reading light.
Waking Echo and Ivan was something of a challenge for the two. Echo had managed to avoid any blatant acts of hostility, but Ed flinched at the way her hand instantly shot for her knife upon waking, even if she stopped before gripping it. In contrast, Mortimer was completely unfazed, his voice deadpan. “It’s your shift,” he said.
Echo pursed her lips and nodded, standing up. She glanced across the room. “Is Ivan up yet?”
“We were just about to wake him.”
Echo nodded. “Thank you.” She took a seat at the dining table, leaving Mortimer and Ed to step across the room.
Ed found himself hesitant to approach Ivan, who he was sure would be every bit as on edge. He’d been eagerly awaiting the end of the shift before, dying to get away from the eerie flame and oppressive silence. But now, the prospect of encountering the cliff again made him drag his feet.
Like Echo, Ivan was facing the wall, his entire body completely still, almost to an abnormal extent. Mortimer tapped his shoulder and Ed braced himself for whiplash. To his surprise, however, Ivan didn’t respond. He and Mortimer exchanged glances. Next Mortimer tried shaking him, but the thief stayed still as a statue.
“Ivan?” Mortimer called. No answer.
Mortimer furrowed his brow, then leaned over and waved his hand in front of Ivan’s face. Indeed, the Savior’s eyes were wide open, flinching as Mortimer’s hand temporarily obstructed his gaze.
“Ivan, it’s your shift,” Mortimer said again, now sure he was awake.
After a moment of silence, Ivan finally rolled over and stood up, grabbing his bag. He gave no comments to the other two, his motions inconsistent and sluggish as he made his way to the dining table.
Upon returning to his bed, Ed stayed awake for a bit, watching Echo and Ivan sitting at the table, both still as statues. From the distance, the two were shrouded in shadows. If they spoke, Ed was too far away to hear. He pulled the blankets closer, his eyelids growing heavy.
Just as his vision faded, he could’ve sworn he saw Ivan trembling.
As Ivan sat at the table, he wanted to slap himself. How could he have been so careless? If it had been the Eighth, he could’ve been killed, right then and there. He’d always prided himself on fast reaction time—and his light sleeping, which was one of the most useful skills he’d gained during his career.
Perhaps he’d been tired, but for a brief moment, when Mortimer had tapped him, he’d froze. Time had seemed to stop, his breath catching, his surroundings nonexistent. Ivan shook his head. Old habits stayed, he supposed. With all the talk of the Eight, the danger must’ve triggered it.
He was used to caution, he lived expecting to die. This was, however, perhaps the first time a threat had been out in the open, one that he could anticipate. At least, it was the first since he’d run away to begin his life as a thief.
Attempting to distract himself from the memories of the past, he went back to trying to determine who the Eighth was, once again finding all of the Saviors having some level of suspicion.
All the while, Echo was watching him, aware of the sharpness of the other Savior’s breath. She’d witnessed the events that had transpired, the subtle difference in Ivan’s motion made clear to her, just as Fay’s had been.
Echo glanced over to where Fay was resting, but found that nothing was out of the ordinary. Turning back, she rolled the dagger between her fingers, feeling the cold metal hit her skin. Her eyes burned, illuminated by the candlelight.
I will find you.
“When should we wake them?” Iris asked.
By the time the two’s shift had started, the storm had already died, the outside eerily calm. Iris had put out the lamp, daylight already filtering through the edges of the curtain, though the other Saviors showed no signs of waking.
Willow glanced at their figures, then whispered, “Maybe we should wait a little longer… it’s still a bit dark out.”
Iris nodded, settling back into her chair.
Willow found herself staring around the room. While she knew it was rude, she found it intriguing to see the other Saviors so peaceful. It was nothing like the sharp atmosphere of the day, a difference she was grateful for. She liked it, a part of her wishing that this sort of tranquility could last.
With the storm departed, there was a quiet filling the room, interrupted only by the grandfather clock and one of the Saviors occasionally coughing in their sleep.
In front of her, Iris suddenly asked, “Did you sleep well?”
Willow jumped a bit. Aware that the other was trying to make conversation, she nodded. A pause. “Um, what about you?”
“Good, unexpectedly,” Iris replied. She glanced at the clock. “I wonder about the others,” she said, posing it as a thought to herself, but with enough emphasis that Willow assumed she wanted her to respond.
Willow, however, couldn’t find the words to. Deciding it would be better just to stay silent than embarrass herself, she stared at the table.
“I suppose we’ll find out soon enough,” Iris continued carefully, answering her own question. She glanced at Willow, who had slowly lifted her head. Iris pointed to her eyes, a casual smile on her face. “I guess the bags will show.”
Willow attempted to smile. “Yeah.”
Seemingly content that she’d gotten Willow to speak, Iris was silent for the rest of their shift. It wasn’t until the sun had fully risen and they’d drawn the curtains that the other Saviors began waking, the sounds of rustling surrounding the two.
Willow stood and set the lamp on a smaller table while Iris returned the flower vase to its usual position.
As she returned to her seat, the other Saviors now beginning to depart their beds, Willow couldn’t help but wish the night’s peace could last forever.
Ivan was the first to wake among the sleeping Saviors. With last night’s failure still fresh in his mind, he feigned a longer rest, listening for the other Saviors to wake. A few minutes passed, the only sounds he could hear being the rustling of blankets and someone coughing. Then, he heard their voices.
“Did you sleep well?” Iris asked.
“Considering the looming danger of death by Soul Stealer? It was great,” came Lucine’s sarcastic reply.
“We’ll end it today,” Echo said curtly. “The Eighth can’t hide for long.”
Deciding now would be a good time to wake, Ivan pretended to roll over and rub his eyes, faking a yawn before sitting up in the same manner a groggy, well slept person would do. Glancing around, only Ed was still huddled within his blankets, the rest gathered at the table, excluding Willow and Mortimer.
As Ivan sat down, Lucine must’ve noticed him glancing at the empty seats, as she said, “They’re in the kitchen. You know, food.”
The rustle of the curtains and occasional sizzle verified her information. Ivan nodded, keeping an eye on the surrounding Saviors. “So we’re touring the island today?” he asked.
“First the mansion,” Lucine explained. “If we can’t find the servants, then the rest of the mansions on the island.” Willis Island had one main mansion, but scattered within the forest were smaller buildings, seven in total. They were meant to be the homes for each separate Savior, apparently, though Ivan couldn’t see why the one mansion didn’t do.
Footsteps interrupted them as Mortimer and Willow ducked under the curtain, each carrying a sizable number of plates. Willow was stepping slowly, eyeing the plates with every move. By the time the smell of freshly fried eggs and bacon had wafted over, Ed, too, had gotten up, sitting down just as Mortimer set down the last plate. He glanced at him.
“Is your head any better?” he asked.
Ed nodded. “A lot, thank you,” he said. He stared at the food, plentiful platters stacked with far more than the eight of them could possibly finish. “Did you two make all this?” he asked, eyes wide.
“Um, I just helped…” Willow muttered, ducking her head.
Mortimer shrugged. “Experience, I suppose. The ingredients were really nice.”
“I’d imagine so,” Ivan muttered, thrusting his fork into a pile of eggs. Chewing, a burst of flavor mingled with the pleasant aroma, the spices exploding in his mouth. They really were good. He glanced at Mortimer, who seemed to be contently eating his own plate.
The rest of breakfast was casual, though conversation was terser than the previous night, each Savior casting the others shadowy glances. Is it you?
They seemed to have reached a silent agreement, observing the others quietly and without loud arguments. At least, not yet. Not when they had yet to fully explore the island.
Once they did, Ivan was sure a debate would break out, if the Eighth wasn’t already uncovered. Until then, he took to watching the subtle motions of the others, eyeing for suspicious behavior. He found none he considered particularly unusual.
Once they’d finished eating and cleared the table, the eight exited the dining hall.
“So where to first?” Fay asked. The halls were long and wide, closed doors lining them. It was a maze of corridors, one that might take hours to fully search.
“The servant foyer,” Lucine replied.
Fay nodded. “Where is it?”
Lucine shrugged. Ivan, remembering his path to the dining hall, pointed up ahead. “If you take a right at the front door, the next hall’s the servant dorms,” he said. Lucine clapped.
“How observant of you.” Pointing her umbrella to the path ahead, she marched forward. At the end of the line, Echo stared at the backs of the other Saviors. Fay seemed to be moving normally, though her breathing had an occasional sharpness to it that she skillfully hid. Still, it seemed an improvement from the previous day. Satisfied, Echo slipped to the front of the crowd, knife dangling at her waist.
Sure enough, a hallway lined with rooms greeted them, each door closed yet unlocked. There were far more rooms than the Saviors had imagined, having expected only a few servants. They agreed to explore the hall separately, under the guise that everyone was in the same location and observable.
Willow and Iris were flipping through the servant parlor, which was lined with shelves of papers. The furniture, while still expensive, lacked the elegance of the rest of the mansion, though it seemed comfortable enough. Willow frowned.
“I can’t find anything,” Iris called, stepping out of the connected kitchen. She dusted off her hands.
Willow shook her head. “Me neither…”
Outside, the two could hear the other Saviors going through the different rooms, doors opening and closing. Stepping into the hallway, Willow turned to the next room when a glint caught her eye. She blinked, but found only the steady daylight..
“Is something wrong?” Iris asked.
“Um, I thought I saw something…” Willow explained. “It, it was probably nothing.”
“Where?” Iris asked. Willow pointed towards the end of the hall. Nodding, Iris stepped forward, Willow following with tentative steps.
There, the hallway took a slight turn, leaving a small opening towards the left. A curtain had been drawn over it, the same shade as the rest of the wall and indistinguishable from far away. The two slid the curtains aside—it had been the metal rings that Willow had seen.
Once the curtains were pushed away, they found a single wooden door sitting stop the floor, old, worn, and nothing like the rest of the mansion. A metal handle jutted out of it, one of the screws loose. The door wasn’t even properly shut, gaping cracks in the wooden door revealing a long pit of darkness. Willow frowned and plugged her nose.
“That reeks…” Iris muttered. She poked her head around the corner and waved to the other Saviors, gesturing for them to come closer.
One by one, the Saviors gathered. Lucine chuckled upon sight of the door.
“What do you know? A cellar.”
“It looks old,” Echo commented. She scrunched her nose. “What is that smell?”
“Probably rotting wood,” Fay guessed, shaking her head. She gave a wry smile. “I’m not too sure I want to go down there.”
“It might not be safe,” Echo agreed. “The servants might have sealed it off; the wood could be too worn to be safe. It might collapse if we enter.”
Bending over, Iris opened the door, the wood creaking and groaning as she lifted the cellar lid, half expecting the entire thing to fall apart. All at once, a fresh wave of stench crashed over them. Willow resisted the urge to puke. Mortimer, brow furrowed, examined the rickety, narrow steps. He shook his head.
“It doesn’t look very stable,” he said.
“One of us needs to explore it,” Ivan muttered, already taking a few steps back from the cellar to avoid retching. An odd sensation had entered his stomach, and he didn’t plan on risking it.
“Who’s the lightest?” Echo asked, glancing around.
Lucine pointed to Ed with her umbrella. “You.” The boy was underweight from living in the village outskirts, unlike the others, who seemed to have managed to find better methods for survival. That, and the few who came from the city and had no reason to resort to such tactics.
The Savior swallowed, staring into the depths of the cellar.
“Here,” Mortimer said, handing him a lantern. Ed took it, hand trembling, and muttered a thank you.
“Be careful now,” Lucine called with a cheery voice, waving.
Casting the long flight of stairs another glance, Ed shuddered, but plugging his nose with one hand and gripping the lantern with his other, he slowly descended the steps. There was a loud creak and he froze.
Thankfully, the stairs remained intact.
“How far down does it go?” Echo asked. Ed shone his light forward.
“Really far,” he called back, shaking his head. “I can’t see the floor.”
“Well then, take your time,” Lucine said, stepping away. “I’m afraid I can’t handle this stench any longer.”
“Are you fine by yourself?” Mortimer called. Taking a deep breath, Ed nodded. “Be careful,” Mortimer instructed, “You don’t know when the stairs might collapse.”
With that, the bobbing orange light made its steady way down the flight of stairs, sinking into the shadows. The other Saviors left the cellar door open, a few resuming their final sweep of the rooms, the others waiting beside the wall, all a safe distance away from whatever fumes the cellar was emitting.
They had just settled back into a rhythm before it was disturbed again.
A piercing scream rattled the mansion, lingering long after it stopped. All at once, The Saviors darted down the cellar stairs, not minding the creaking, narrow steps. Their weight was miraculously supported by the worn wood. Ivan scrunched his nose, the foul stench wafting up from beneath the stairs, each step feeling heavier as he made his way downwards.
There, collapsed at the bottom of the stairs, was Ed, his entire body trembling, mouth hung open with only indistinguishable gibberish pouring out, giant eyes trained on the shadows in front of him. Beside him, the lamp had fallen, the flame burnt out, casting only the flickering of dying embers. Ed’s breathing was corse, loud, and uneven, audible from where Ivan was standing. Brows furrowed, Ivan took a tentative step forward, raising his own lamp and shining it’s light into the darkness.
What he saw almost made him drop it.
Slewn about the cellar were bodies, each stacked one atop the other. Despite being “bodies,” the only thing that made them still distinguishable as people were the servant uniforms, torn and shredded. Moist organs littered the ground, limbs intermingling and bodies contorted to impossible positions. Their faces had been torn, shredded until no features could be made out, as though their expressions were melting off, eyeballs rolling within the pooling blood to join the scattered organs.
The blood. Where there were no bodies, blood was plentiful, pooling to every inch of the room, sinking beneath the floorboards and settling into the cracks, splattered about the walls all the way up to the ceiling, as though someone had painted the room red. Drips rained down, bursting atop the rotting corpses.
A rusted stench intermingled with the rotten smell, smothering the room so that a mere sniff made Ivan’s stomach lurch. He tried to cover his nose, but his hand was stuck, shaking, knowing that if he moved, he’d collapse.
Behind him, Mortimer, too, had frozen, hand held to his mouth, incapable of function. He heard someone dash back up the stairs in uneven steps—Iris. Ivan thought he heard voices, too, Fay screaming to Willow, telling her not to look, but his mind was too numb to process it.
Because he’d seen this before.
Not this many, certainly not to this extent, but the red landscape had been permanently burned into his memories, a nightmare that haunted him to this day. The alley, the stranger he couldn’t recognize as human, and the inhuman mutilation.
Behind him, Ivan heard Echo’s breath and managed to jerk his head around.
He nearly flinched, for the Savior’s eyes were burning, lit aflame with a passion and heat he could practically feel, radiating from where she was standing. But Echo’s fervid gaze wasn’t one of disgust or even one of horror. It was pure, raw rage, the anger of a survivor that had been left unquelled for too long.
She recognized it, too, and whispered the name that plagued the others’ minds.
Her voice coarse, hands trembling, mouth snarled, she spat them out.
“The Red Artist…!”