"Oh, and one more thing," the caretaker says as they stop in front of a door. He unlocks it, and then pauses just outside the room, the corridor stretching dark around them. "If you hear knocking at night, don't answer."
Liam raises an eyebrow, ready to roll his eyes, but the grin the guy gives him, like he knows what Liam might say, stops his reaction. Instead, he asks, "And why is that?", playing along.
"You don't want visitors." The answer is as cryptic as expected.
Liam huffs. "What if it's you then? Or room service."
"We call ahead. If it knocks twice, don't open the door."
Liam lets the air rush out of his lungs in an unabated sigh. Right. Tourist attraction, haunted house or whatever, it's why he's here after all. To investigate this cabin out in the hell-knows where. There are rumors people might be disappearing from the area and the deputy chief has tasked Liam with a surveillance assignment. Chances of fabrication are high, of some guy spreading rumors online to up his ratings, but it doesn't mean they should ignore the request made by the sheriff of Lethe, a small nearby town stretching over the slope of the mountain.
"Let me guess," Liam says, barely holding back a snort, "only devils knock twice." The phrase has been all over some specialty forums, making its rounds among those passionate about urban legends and places with a paranormal flavor.
The caretaker's grin widens, oily at the edges. "Got it, city-boy."
Liam's skin crawls and he hides the incoming shudder by sidestepping into the room.
"I'll keep it in mind," he says over the sound of the door closing.
Rain patters on the window. Soft, at first, but with increasing force as the wind howls through the pine trees. It's as eerie as advertised and Liam has to give the owners credit. This place would create a wonderful experience for the horror aficionados. Lost in thought, he almost doesn't hear it, that's how much it drowns under the drumming on the glass.
A knock at the door.
Chill spreads through the soles of his bare feet and Liam stops, pajama pants halfway up his thighs. He listens, intently, for another. When nothing follows, he shakes his head and finishes preparing for bed.
This time, Liam freezes with his hand on the bed covers, a leg already raised off the hardboards. He huffs with a headshake, half impressed, half warily curious. For a fleeting moment he considers indulging in the show, but the sooner he can eliminate the theatrics, the better he can do his job.
He wonders, idly, if there are any hidden cameras around the room as he walks to the door, yanks it open—
There are bones inside the fingers and the meat around them shakes with pain. The teeth are blunt. More bones to run the tongue onto. It catches on a sharper edge, but it's not enough to cut. The vision is dull, just like everything else about the new container.
Wood, there's wood under the fingers and the bones of the knees. Scratches, without avail. Wants to scream but nothing comes out of anywhere.
The fingers are too thick and soft, meat soft, to rip at the throat but still presses them there, where voice should form. The flesh ripples under numb nerve endings. The skin is clammy, wet and cold and so, so disgusting.
Ao gags. The ripples change shape. Maybe they need to ripple differently. They try, again and once more.
Their hearing is just as impaired as the rest of them.
The body feels like a cage, bounding them to the unrelenting void that presses from all sides. They give into the shaking of the bones and collapse. The air scratches at the throat, but Ao pushes through inhaling and exhaling, trying to clear their mind.
Beyond everything, beyond bones and flesh and cold, it dawns on Ao that they're alone. There's no thrumming of otherness inside their mind, no companionship. The human better be appreciating the warmth of the homefire.
Regret grips them, sharp and foul. The progenitors have rules in place for this very reason, urging patience and experience before visiting. Ao was too curious, too rushed to taste and understand, and they sneaked into the calling chamber without a tether, to avoid immediate discovery. The growl they want to let rumble through their chest, as they search for comfort, fails to emerge.
It's not worth it, they conclude. Ao can already imagine the mouth-slit of their hatcher allotting the punishment of having their name removed.
The shivering subsides, after a long while, and they push at the flesh until it stands on its own. Still a bit trembling, more fatigued than anticipated, the sensation peculiar and unwelcome. This sort of body should require much less energy to yield, and yet Ao is drained. One thing is sure, though. They're not coming back here anytime soon. It's sickening.
They're looking around for a blade to pierce the flesh and draw blood, since they don't have sharp talons anymore, when the boundary of the space gapes opens. A human stands there, baring mouth-bones, and Ao tries to do the same.
"You don't have to do that. I know your kind doesn't smile."
A hand lifts and that's—
The meat of their belly lurks and Ao takes a step back. Stumbles. It's hard to walk with only two legs.
"Easy, now." The human is nearing, arm extended, but there's nowhere to run, not when Ao's back hits a wall. Or is it a table? A thing solid enough to hold them there.
Just like it.
Ao can't look anywhere else, chest hurting with the pounding from within. There's no escape and the thought pushes something fetid up the throat. The rune nestled in the human's palm is hot when it touches the shoulder and Ao knows they'll be trapped if it gets past the thin cloth that covers it. Knows, somehow, that they'll need to cut off the meat on which the sigil will sit.
"There we go, let's tame that spirit of yours."
The tainted symbol presses, as unyielding as basalt, until it burns, only this time Ao does hear their own scream. The human falters at the sound, so they take the chance and push. Hard.
There isn't much will left in Ao, but they use it all to run and run. The ground, frigid and squelching with water, trips them, as if it wants to keep them here. All around, immovable creatures whisper among their own shedding flesh, unending dead spikes piercing at the soles of the feet.
One of them, of the living wood, trips them with its limbs sticking out of the ground and Ao snarls. It's not enough to make it go away. The time they lose ends their run because next they know, something has gotten hold of a leg, pulling them back.
Ao twists, uncooperative body flopping through the mud. They can't give up, won't, and they grip at things until their fingers bleed, until they can kick, until they free themself. Ao scuttles away again, but not back into the dark sea of tall monsters. Light's coming from the side, and that's where they go. As Ao gets near, its color less faded, they smell it.
Hope swells under their ribs, more painful than the fear, as Ao pushes the large door open. The space is wide, covered in putrefaction. Yet, right there, in the very middle, is a homefire spawn. It's tiny, an infinitesimal piece, but it halts them. They stumble to it, caution forgotten, basking in its warmth.
Something locks around their throat, heavy enough to make Ao crumple, knees on the ground.
The human spits, flinging water and dirt with savage hands. "You're feisty, but no worries. You'll learn, just like the others."
That's when Ao hears. Sees. Around them, bodies are strapped to tall poles, whining softly, the holes in their chests leaking sluggish amber. They're human vessels, but he recognizes what they are underneath. Kin. Harvested for their essence.
"Here. Let me make some room." Ahead, the human rips a hollowed body off its hook, knocks on the stained wood of the pole. Once. "This one's yours." A perverted simulacrum of their invitation to visit. Twice.
Liam closes half of his eyes, soaking in the comforting presence of the progenitors for one moment longer. It does little to muffle Ao's pain, swirling at the back of his mind. From across the chasm he can feel his old fingertips bleed, beckoning. I'll bring them home, he promises, as the wall of the calling chamber closes behind him.
*** *** ***
Author's note. This story is inspired by a superstition from Dobrogea (Romania). It is said that those who are called late at night or when alone, must wait for their name (or the knock on the door, or the banging at the window) to repeat three times. Otherworldly creatures only perform their lure of choice twice. To make sure it's another human, one must wait for the third attempt.