He stopped the car outside the house and exhaled sharply.
In the seat next to him, the girl in black squirmed and averted her eyes, focusing them on her short black nails instead. Her dark hair swung down, obscuring her face and shielding her from the boy’s obviously barely-controlled wrath.
“I don’t like it when you go with them,” he informed her shortly, his hands gripping the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles, bruised from last night’s MMA session, turned white.
“They’re my friends,” she answered in a soft voice, pulling her sleeves over her slender wrists and rubbing them together, unconscious of what she was doing.
He sighed. “Look at me, kitten.”
When she didn’t move, he reached out and tilted her head up. She glanced up at him for a short while before lowering her gaze. Her lips were in a pout, flushed with red from being freshly bitten.
“I haven’t seen them in such a long time,” she said. “I thought you’d understand, just this once. I didn’t even go to that birthday party last week, because I thought if I didn’t, you’d let me come today.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, relishing how the pressure assuaged the dull pain that had built up there. “Oh, fine, Karin. I’ll allow you to go if you don’t stay overnight,” he grumbled finally, leaning back on his seat and closing his eyes. “Truce?”
She turned to him, a huge smile slowly spreading across her face. “Christian!” She laughed, tackling him in a tight embrace. “I knew you’d let me go.” She reached for his hand, threading her small fingers through his longer ones. She kissed his wrist affectionately.
“Promise you’ll be okay with them?”
She nodded, leaning closer to give him a tiny kiss on the lips.
Christian finally consented with a grudging smile. “Have fun. Call me when you’re ready to come home.”
He reached for his seat belt so he could get the door for her, but before he could, the door on Karin’s side suddenly opened. A boy with shiny auburn hair peered inside, said “heya” to Christian, pulled the girl out of her seat, and pushed her towards the house. Another boy appeared from beyond the dark doorway and drew her in, not giving her a chance to say good-bye.
“Karin!” Christian called in alarm, sitting up straight.
The auburn-haired boy slammed the car door shut and patted the hood of the car. “She’ll be fine. We’ll bring her back to you in a few days.”
Christian scowled. “She’s not staying overnight.”
The boy smiled, as if he didn’t hear what Christian had just said. “Drive safe, man.”
He sat there for a few seconds, debating whether he should run inside and grab her, when he felt his phone vibrate.
It was Karin. miss you already. see you tonight.
Once again, he sighed. But this time he started the car.
They sat in a circle on the floor, the candles throwing uneasy illumination across their faces. There were a few nervous giggles, quickly snuffed out by sharp elbow jabs and irritated shushing.
There were five of them – Karin, Clint, Ian, Damien and Tristan. But at that moment, it felt like the room was populated by much more than five.
“What exactly are we doing?” Karin asked in her usual un-amused monotone.
Damien rolled his eyes. His auburn hair glinted in the wavering candlelight. “Summoning wraiths. Did you think we were raising Hitler from the dead or something?”
“I rather like Hitler,” Ian murmured, his trademark catlike half-smile stretching from his lips.
“We don’t need rituals to summon wraiths,” Karin responded. “Sometimes, they’re already here.”
“Shut up, you’re psyching me out,” complained Clint, who was in the middle of the circle and arranging the materials they needed for the ritual. A breeze snaked inside the room, making the pages of the spell book flutter. He cursed. “Close the damn window, will you?”
“Windows are all closed,” Tristan answered, not even looking up from his Nintendo 3DS. “I closed them before we started setting up.”
“You should keep that before I throw that fucking thing away,” Clint suggested amiably, a tremor of nervous irritation in his voice. He was sitting on his haunches, glaring at Tristan. The other boy ignored him and continued pressing buttons.
After a beat, Clint suddenly lunged at Tristan and wrenched the 3DS out of his hands. Tristan reared back in surprise and sucker-punched Clint, sending him flying back into the circle. The candles rolled every which way and sputtered out, plunging the room into a sudden gloom.
Tristan yelped. “Damn it, Clint! I almost got that shiny Gible too!”
Rolling his eyes for the nth time that day, Damien went over to Clint to help him up. Ian gave a quiet snort from where he was seated. “This is why Karin’s goody-two-shoes boyfriend doesn’t want her to hang out with us,” he laughed. He looked over to the girl beside him. “Right, ‘lin?”
But the girl was gone.
“What the– “
The door creaked open and light spilled in, making the boys squint. Karin stood by the doorway, backlit by the hallway lights.
“Hey, sorry I took so long,” she apologized, “Christian almost didn’t let me go. But look! I brought cupcakes.”
They abandoned the idea of doing the ritual because Ian wouldn’t let them continue. Karin shrugged and said that it was fine with her either way, while Clint pouted and complained of all the efforts he had put into gathering the ritual materials. They regrouped in Damien’s basement, where their instruments were set up. They spent a couple of hours practicing a few Nightwish covers, with Karin and Tristan on vocals.
Early afternoon found the group sprawled around the living room, each of them absorbed in different gaming consoles while a slasher movie played on the wide screen television. There was a spread of snacks on the low centre table – flavoured popcorn, pizza, kettle chips, pretzels, candy, Combos, different sodas and beer.
Karin put down her pink 3DS suddenly, looking and feeling a little disoriented. Tristan, who she had been trading Pokemon with, noticed and asked her what was wrong.
“I don’t know,” the girl answered, rubbing at her arms where goosebumps had suddenly sprung. She felt something warm drip from her nose and she reached up to feel it. “Shit,” she groaned, looking at the streak of blood on her fingers.
“Are you okay?” Tristan put an arm around her, helping her stand up.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay, I just need to clean up,” Karin muttered, covering her mouth and nose with both hands.
“Can you get to the bathroom on your own?”
The other boys had paused their games and were all looking up at her. Karin felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment. She laughed a little awkwardly. “Of course. Carry on, I’ll be back.”
She closed the door after her, unaware of the sudden cold breeze that swept past her.
The hallway that led to the bathroom was dark and drafty, and Karin had to tread carefully in order to avoid dripping blood all over the Italian marble. She knew that Damien’s housekeeper wouldn’t appreciate bloodstains over the newly-polished floor.
She entered the bathroom, which was surprisingly light and airy, compared to the rest of the house. She turned on the tap and let the cool stream of water run through her bloody fingers, then began to wash her face.
The lights flickered.
Karin sighed in exasperation. You have got to be kidding me, she thought.
Something cold touched her ankle, wrapping around it with surprising strength.
Karin gripped the sink, gasping with surprise.
The clammy fingers tightened its grip and pulled.
The four boys found her sprawled on the floor, pale as death, with blood seeping from a cut on her forehead. Her nose had started bleeding again, making their hearts momentarily stop when they found her motionless.
“Karin!” Tristan yelled, kneeling down and lifting her up.
“They’re here,” she whispered through her cracked lips, her eyes still glued shut. “We have to leave.”
Clint suddenly backed against the wall, his heart racing with dread. “It worked,” he choked out in a horrified whisper. “It actually worked!”
“What do you mean?” asked Ian, opening a packet of kettle chips in an utterly unconcerned manner.
“What you said about tempting the spirits,” Clint half-shouted. “They’re already here! We didn’t even summon them and here they are, wanting to play!”
Damien emitted a surprisingly girlish giggle. Ian and Tristan both tried to hide their smiles.
“This isn’t funny!” shrieked Clint.
In Tristan’s arms, the girl’s body suddenly convulsed. She opened her mouth soundlessly, and her eyelids snapped open like someone had pulled them back.
Karin’s eyes were the colour of burning amber.
“Alea iacta est,” she whispered. The die has been cast.
Then she gasped and sat up, hacking up a cough that sprayed the floor with droplets of bright red blood.
After Karin had been cleaned up and bandaged, she couldn’t stop laughing. Neither could the others, and even Clint looked at little amused, behind his sheer embarrassment and anger at being trolled.
“I can’t believe you fell for that,” squealed Karin, delighted beyond belief. She was sitting on Tristan’s lap like a child, holding an ice pack to the side of her head, while Ian got to work patching up her forehead with Band-Aids. She had slipped on the floor and had hit her head.
“You read too many horror novels, man,” said Damien, clapping him on the shoulder. “Try to tone it down a bit. Not even Miss Goth Chick over here would have fallen for that.”
“Yeah, yeah, laugh at me all you want,” Clint said darkly, glaring at his so-called friends. “I’ll get back at you somehow.”
Christian knew something was wrong. Even though he tried to shake off the feeling of dread that clung to the edges of his awareness, he couldn’t. He tried calling Karin’s phone, but it kept on redirecting him to voice mail.
She knew he hated voice mail.
Answer me, damn it, he thought.
“You okay, Christian?” His senior partner asked, looking up from his tablet computer bemusedly. “It’s rare that you’re this unsettled.”
“It’s Karin,” he grumbled, reaching up to loosen his tie.
“Your little firecracker? I like her. A bit too young, I suppose, but nothing time won’t fix.” His partner chuckled dryly. “You know what, take the afternoon off. You’re no use to the firm like this.”
It was almost four in the afternoon when Damien decided that he was bored. He stood up and stretched, then surveyed the roomful of sprawled people in distaste. “Let’s play something,” he suggested.
When no one responded, he plucked a throw pillow from under Karin’s head and beaned Tristan in the face. The other boy growled at him. “Not this time, Damien. I WILL get that shiny Gible and I SHALL have my shiny Garchomp. Fuck off.”
Damien ignored him and turned off the TV. The sudden loss of noise made them all look up at him.
“What should we play?” groused Ian. “Hide and seek?”
“I’ve got an even better idea,” smiled Karin, clasping her hands in anticipation. “Let’s play manhunt.”
They all stared blankly at her. “What the deuce is manhunt?”
Karin shrugged, her dark hair spilling over her shoulder in a hypnotizing manner. “It’s just like hide and seek, but if you want someone to be the next it, you have to physically catch him or her. So it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen my hiding place – unless you catch me and yell that I’m it, I can run away and find another hiding place.”
“That sounds interesting,” Ian said dubiously, setting his PS Vita down.
“What’s more is that we can’t hide in any place with light. Only the it‘s post can have light, the rest of the house has to be dark.”
Tristan cracked his knuckles. “Bring it on. Clint’s it!”
“No way, man,” complained Clint.
“Yeah!” The others started getting up and filing out of the room, leaving Karin and Clint looking at each other.
She gave him a sweet smile. “You can do this, sweetie.”
He grumbled. “Fine. I’m going to start counting!” He yelled.
“Not too fast, bitch,” he heard Damien call back.
“Jerk,” he huffed. He leaned against the door, closed his eyes, and started counting to twenty in the most ominous tone he could muster.
Tristan knew where he wanted to hide the moment they decided to play manhunt. The grandfather clock at the end of the hall was huge, with a secret compartment that could hide a person. He made a mad dash for it and closeted himself inside, confident that nobody would guess where he had hidden.
Once he was settled down inside, he took out his 3DS and opened it, fully intending to spend the rest of the game working on his chaining and finally, finally catching that dastardly shiny Gible.
When the illumination from the screen brightened his small space, he breathed in shock when he saw another face lit up in the glow of his 3DS.
She had a mouth full of tiny, sharp teeth.
Damien knew his house like the back of his hand. He was also a veteran at hide and seek, and knew that the best places to hide were the places where no one bothered to look. He took his time heading up to his room, where he opened and closed the door as quietly as he could.
His bed was a king sized model, and he had bedclothes that reached the floor. He lifted a corner of the coverlet and slid underneath the bed, grabbing a pillow to keep him comfortable.
He lay down and took out his phone, letting the coverlet fall back in place.
He didn’t even notice the set of bare feet stop walk up to the bed and stop just right in front of where he was hidden.
Ian didn’t know where to hide, so he headed to the pantry where he could at least get a snack before Clint inevitably caught up to him. When he peeked inside, he saw Karin’s bare legs splayed out of the floor behind the counter.
“Hey,” he whispered.
She looked up. She was never surprised. But right now, she looked blank, a pint of matcha ice cream on the floor beside her. There was a spoon in her mouth.
“You couldn’t find a place to hide?” He asked, sitting down beside her.
She shook her head.
Karin took the spoon out of her mouth and placed a finger on her lips. “Shhh.”
Something hit him on the head, and he didn’t even have time to react before he fell face-down to the ground.
Karin touched her bandaged head gingerly and tried not to wince. Her hiding place was quite a tight spot, but she was sure that Clint would never, ever look under the freshly washed laundry inside the hamper in the laundry room. Plus, the scent of fabric conditioner calmed her nerves.
The only problem was that she couldn’t hear Clint counting, and that the soft, warm nest of clothes was beginning to make her sleepy.
She knew where the others were hidden. She saw Ian head to the pantry, she witnessed Tristan slipping stealthily inside the grandfather clock, and she knew that Damien went up to his room. The thought gave her comfort, seeing as she was technically buried under a heap of clothes and was all alone in another wing of the house.
Karin yawned. She was feeling so drowsy that she almost hoped that Clint would come find her.
She heard the door open, and she gave a sigh of resignation, mixed with relief.
Her eyes squinted to adjust to the sudden light when the clothes were tossed off her. She saw just enough to barely dive out of the way when the knife came plunging towards her.
Dark. The house was completely dark.
That was Christian’s only thought when he parked outside the house. He left his keys in the ignition and jogged up to the front steps. “Anyone here?” He called. “Karin!”
The door wrenched open suddenly, and his girlfriend ran out. She was wild-eyed, dragging a slender boy out with her. The boy was drenched in blood, and there were chunks of flesh bitten out of his neck and chest. He saw Ian follow, carrying Damien, who was limp in his arms.
“Call the police!” Gasped Ian. “Someone’s trying to kill us!”
“No!” Karin said forcefully, opening the car door and depositing Tristan inside. “Christian, take them to the hospital! Ian, take Damien with you. Clint and I will deal with this.”
“Like hell you will,” snapped Christian. “You’re coming with me.”
“It’s fine,” Clint said from the doorway. He was watching them, his clothes stained with a fresh spray of frothy blood. He had a butcher knife in one hand and a vacant look in his eyes. “I dealt with him already.”
“You’re hurt,” Ian blurted out. “Look, we won’t fit in the car. You go ahead. I’ll wait here with Karin.”
Christian exhaled, willing his patience to last. “I’ll send someone to pick you both up,” he promised, putting a hand on Clint’s back and guiding him towards the car.
Before they left, Clint looked back at Karin and Ian. He had a sunny smile on his face. “I put him in the trunk,” he said. “That bastard thought he could kill me.”
“What trunk? What are you talking about?”
Clint cocked his head. “The one in the living room, of course.”
With a mutter of mixed annoyance and desperation, Christian gunned the engine and sped away.
They stood in silence, watching the car disappear into the woods.
“Bloody, fucking hell.” Ian heaved a sigh of relief and collapsed against the wall. “This is unreal,” he said, laughing grimly.
“Get a grip,” Karin told him sharply. “Stay here, I need to get something from the kitchen.”
She disappeared into the shadowy house, and Ian felt his heart race. He knew that the threat had been eliminated, but he couldn’t help but feel apprehensive. “Hey, wait up. Do you know that I thought I saw someone who looked exactly like you in the pantry a while ago?”
Karin didn’t answer.
He suddenly remembered Clint’s comment about the trunk. It was right there, made of heavy, polished mahogany and etched with intricate designs.
Ian hesitated. He certainly wasn’t keen on seeing dead bodies, but it might be the only time he would ever be able to see who it was that was evil enough to try to kill them. Some twisted part of his brain egged him on to open the trunk, and, throwing caution to the wind, he seized the handle and pulled.
The moment light flooded into the deep recesses of the wooden trunk, Ian gave a choked cry of surprise and stepped back.
Inside the trunk, bound and gagged, with wide, tearful eyes stark against her blood-stained face, was Karin.
“You should not have opened that,” a disappointed voice chided.
A shadow slanted across the open doorway, and the butcher knife’s reflection threw a wavering beam of light against the wall.
The other Karin sighed, swinging the knife in a lazy arc and stepping closer to him.
Her smile flashed.
“Do you really have to ask?”