Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
“This can’t be the place they were talking about,” I said as I eyed the dingy antique store.
It was wedged between an old, closed movie theater and a barber shop. Its wooden, faded red sign read “Antique Bargains” and seemed it could fall off the storefront at any moment, crushing Morgan and me as gawked at the strange, rustic store.
My best friend Morgan and I were on the hunt for summer jobs, motivated by our desire to raise money for a spring break trip. We hadn’t had any luck until some of our friends told us about a “hiring” sign they had seen in the window of a “cute little shop.” From that description we had pictured a trendy boutique of some sort, not a suspicious, abandoned-looking shop.
“I guess it’s worth a try. But, Cassie, if this doesn’t work out, let’s head home for the day, okay?” Morgan’s shoulders slumped. She threw her long, dark hair over her shoulders. With her gorgeous, olive-toned skin and high cheekbones, she looked like a model even when she was exhausted. Morgan tired easily and I didn’t want to be a pest, but I had had a feeling that today would be the day I’d finally get a job.
“Yeah, okay.” I let out a small sigh and looked at my faint reflection in the store’s glass door.
My reddish blonde hair that had been neatly curled this morning was now disheveled. I had applied a modest amount of makeup to my heart-shaped face in an attempt to look presentable. I tried to smile at my reflection to prepare myself for the casual, friendly banter I knew was waiting behind that door.
I grabbed the cool, metal door handle and it felt like ice had shot through my veins. I gasped and let go for a moment.
“What was that? Did you shock yourself or something?” Morgan’s delicate features contorted with worry.
“It was nothing…the handle just felt really cold,” I said nonchalantly.
“Mhmm. I know the tough Cassie Warren better than anyone, you don’t squeal about little things. That’s my job. Maybe it’s a bad omen. Why don’t we go ahead and leave? We can grab pizza from Benny’s.” Morgan smiled.
“Don’t worry about it.” I laughed. “Come on, we’re not letting any bad omens scare us off.”
I pushed the door open and shuffled in with Morgan at my side. The musky smell of old books immediately assaulted our senses, provoking a small cough from each of us.
I glanced around and saw that the dimly lit store was home to hundreds of aging books, porcelain sets, and old furniture. In the far left corner, the cashier station sat unattended. Confused, I walked toward the station.
“Can I help you?” a faint voice whispered from behind me.
Startled, I spun around, heart racing. A slender woman with stringy, black hair stared into my eyes, smiling wistfully. Her tiny frame and pallid tone made her look like a skeleton- even her cheekbones jutted prominently from her face.
“Ah, yes, I’m sorry, you surprised me.” I laughed nervously.
The woman said nothing and continued to stare at us. Morgan shot me a nervous glance.
“Anyways,” I began awkwardly, “my friend and I were looking for a job and we saw that you’re hiring. Could you give us some details?”
The woman’s eyes lit up and she ushered us to the register.
“Of course! We are definitely looking for employees. How early can you start?”
“As soon as you need us!” I said enthusiastically.
“But don’t you want to interview us or have us to fill out applications or something before we’re hired?” Morgan’s voice was skeptical and it made me feel uneasy, especially considering the woman’s hasty job offer.
“We just had many people quit. They all moved far away. We’re looking for any help we can get. We’ll pay you well- ten dollars an hour, and you’ll only be expected to perform normal retail duties. We also allow you to be very flexible with your hours.” The woman’s energy increased as she talked, and she seemed very excited.
“Wow, that’s exactly what we’re looking for!” I grinned at Morgan. “Told you this would be the place.”
“It seems a little too good to be true,” Morgan whispered sharply, too low for the woman to hear.
I ignored her worry. Everything had fallen into place so easily. I knew this was the perfect job.
“Excellent. I just have a legal agreement you need to sign and everything will be ready to go.”
The woman handed each of us pens and forms with x’s that marked where we needed to sign. I clicked the pen with my thumb and cried out in pain at the same time Morgan did.
“Ouch! I think your pen stuck me.” I looked at the small pool of blood that formed on the tip of my thumb and winced.
“Sorry about that,” the woman murmured, seemingly preoccupied with something in the room behind the counter.
Morgan and I finished signing our documents at the same moment. As I set the document down I looked around for the woman, who seemed to have disappeared.
“Excuse me, m’am!” I called.
“Ha ha ha.” The woman’s laughter trickled from a closed door behind the counter.
She burst through the door and at first I didn’t recognize her. Her face was warped. It was as if her features had suddenly rearranged to the most grotesque position possibly. She was much thinner than before, and her black dress hung off of her like a sheet.
“It was exhausting keeping up that form for so long. Luckily you girls signed right on time.” She smirked and scooted toward us. “I didn’t think it’d be that easy. Most people are skeptical like Morgan.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on.” My voice was shaky.
“That’s not surprising.” The woman chuckled. “I wouldn’t expect you to realize that you signed your soul away for eternity.”
The seriousness of the woman’s voice juxtaposed with her ridiculous statement made me laugh hysterically.
“You had me worried I had signed something legally binding.” I laughed again as I headed for the exit. “Come on, Morgan, we’ll call it a day.”
Morgan hesitated for a moment and then followed me to the door. I looked back and the woman was still smiling. She snapped her fingers as if to signal someone.
“Agh!” Morgan screamed in pain.
Before I could comprehend what was happening, I felt sharp stings in my back, shoulders, and arms. I was tugged up in the air and the pain worsened. I glanced at Morgan to see that she was hoisted in the air by strings that had shot out from the ceiling. They were tied through glass shards that dug into her flesh, causing blood to trickle down her body.
I began to scream for help. I twisted my body, trying to rip out the shards, but they only dug deeper. My favorite teal shirt clung to my back, sticky with blood.
The woman watched in silence with an amused smile on her face. She waited until we had tired ourselves out and then launched into what she called our “orientation.”
“I’ve hired you onto my cult’s staff of eternal servants for the worship and comfort of our masters.” She smiled eerily. “Your bodies are bound to this through a blood contract. That pen drew your blood and filtered it into the ink. You literally signed your names in blood.”
I felt my eyes widen and I glanced at Morgan. She looked defeated as she gazed into the distance. I knew what she was thinking because I was thinking it too. This was all my fault.
“Every day you will spend your time doing tasks such as cleaning, performing ritual sacrifices, and maybe even luring in more workers like yourselves. Here, I’ll just give you a sneak peek of what’s in store!”
The woman pulled a lever by the register and the wall behind her started to shift. It opened to a room full of shackled workers. Some were making food, some patrolling the area with cleaning supplies, and some of them doing things even worse. One teenage girl with sad eyes cradled the bloody carcass of a dead lamb, carrying it to an unknown but surely awful destination.
“Don’t worry, this is only one area of workers! We’ve got dozens of other rooms you’ll be laboring in. I should also mention that you will be forced to attend our mass ceremonies, dedicated to our masters. These help keep our workers more… compliant with our ways. Oh, and one last thing. Our masters’ forms are a bit unsightly to newcomers because of their otherworldly nature. If you’re caught defaming them or expressing disgust in any way, your punishment will be much worse than hanging from these measly little threads.”
She reached around my back to strum one of the strings attached to me, sending a wave of fresh pain through my body. I bit down on my lip so I wouldn’t cry.
“Alright, time to send our newest little workers off! Good luck, ladies.” The woman waved and grinned again.
The strings tugged us toward the room like marionettes, shredding more of our flesh in the process.
“Morgan!” I yelled through the pain. “I promise you I will fix this. I promise I’ll find a way out. I just need you to hope with me, okay?”
I looked at her, hoping to find a hint of support in her eyes. Instead, she stared at me with accusation and hostility, tears forming in her eyes.
“It’s okay if you hate me. That doesn’t change anything, I’m still hoping for the both of us. I swear to you.”
My heart fell as our strings dragged us in different directions, pulling Morgan off to a place where I couldn’t protect her.
The strings finally unhooked from my back and dropped me to the ground in a dark room lit only by a single ceiling light. A mop and broom leaned against the peeling, off-white walls. I assumed that meant my duty was cleaning. I heaved the mop and began to mop in the center of the room where it was easy to see. I wasn’t quite sure why I was mopping- the tiled floors were surprisingly immaculate.
“Over here, child,” a chilling voice called softly from a dark corner of the room.
I squinted and realized that there was a faint outline of an inhuman figure squatting in the darkness. I remembered the woman’s warning and a shiver crept up my spine.
“I-I think I’m just supposed to be mopping. I’m not allowed to wander off.”
“Ha ha, I know that. I’ve left a mess over here that needs to be cleaned up. Don’t make me repeat myself.” The creature’s voice was unsettlingly soft. It reminded me of a cat’s purr.
“Ah, okay I’ll come get that. Sorry.”
I slinked over to where it was crouched and it took every ounce of willpower to keep from recoiling at the sight of what it wanted me to clean.
“Those… Is that-?” I stammered, unable to ask a question I truly didn’t want to know the answer to.
“Yes, those are the human remains of one of the workers here who was a little mouthy to me. Come to think of it, he was the last cleaner in this room. I guess you’re his replacement. What great timing.” Its chuckle was rough and gravelly. “So you can see what’ll happen to you if you don’t obey me this instant.”
“Yes, right away.” I hated the submissive tone of my voice.
I leaned in close enough to see the gelatinous substance that covered the dismembered body parts of the former worker. It looked like the creature had ingested him and then vomited the poor man onto the floor.
The smell and appearance were nauseating. While scooping a piece of torso up with a dust pan, intestines poured out of the gaping hole in the abdomen and I reflexively reached out to catch it. I squealed and dropped the squishy organs into the waste bag but my hand was covered in human tissue and the gooey substance.
The creature chuckled again. “Here, child, let me help you.” It started towards me and I backed up into the center of the room.
It followed and I gazed incredulously at its form in the light. Its legs were bent like a frog’s and they were thin and short with talons jutting out of its feet. Its body was massive compared to its legs. Its hulking shoulders and bulging chest connected to a short but wide neck that propped up its large head that resembled an anglerfish. It was on all fours, resting slightly back on its hind legs so it could extend its long, muscular forelegs.
I fought to maintain a blank expression, trying not to offend it. It leaned toward me and extended its pink tongue to lick the grime off of my left hand. It felt like sandpaper sliding across my palm. I smiled weakly.
“Thank you,” I managed to mutter.
The creature only smiled and crawled out of the room, its talons clacking against the floor, making the same sound as high heels strutting across the room, leaving me to clean up the rest of the remains.
“All workers must report to the room of worship immediately. It’s time for a mass ceremony.” The woman’s voice blared on the intercom system, startling me while I was cleaning another creature’s mess.
I had no idea how long I’d been in the building. The lack of hunger or fatigue made me think it had only been a couple of hours, but my intuition told me it had been much, much longer. I had cleaned several different rooms and ran into many more creatures, each of which always seemed to have a mutilated body for me to dispose of.
I hadn’t been to a ceremony yet, at least not that I could remember. My memories had begun to run together, leaving me with a fuzzy recollection of the past. I had only one consistent thought- escape.
I hadn’t realized how fortunate my cleaning job was until it dawned on me that I had to clean every room of the horrific labyrinth, meaning I was able to observe the patterns of the monsters’ and the cult members’ movements.
The monsters tended to cluster in the sacrifice rooms, which were also the messiest rooms. They gorged themselves on the sacrifices workers brought, occasionally growing bored and lurking the halls to taunt workers.
The cult members posed the biggest threat to my plans of escape. They were like security guards for the place, constantly patrolling to ensure that workers weren’t talking and that the monsters they worshiped were satisfied.
Once, I had encountered another worker alone in a room.
“Hey,” I whispered,” do you know anything about how to get out of here?”
The brunette female worker cowered away from me and refused to even look at me. After that, I assumed the cult had scared the workers into submission enough to make them afraid of each other. I noticed something else odd about the workers as well. They behaved like puppets- they were expressionless husks. I was on my own.
My thoughts returned to the announcement the woman made on the loudspeaker. If everyone was heading to the ceremony that would leave the exit wide open for me. The other workers were clearly bound by some power that inhibited their free-thinking, yet I still possessed full power over my mind. A thousand questions swirled in my head about why I was different. I pushed them aside. I had to hope that the cult members weren’t prepared for noncompliant workers like me. I prayed that they had left the exits unguarded.
I tiptoed into the hallway, walking softly across the long, weathered red rug that ran for what seemed like eternity. I reached its end and peaked around the corner, clinging to the peeling, puke-green colored wallpaper.
There was another long hall that led to a closed door marked with strange, red symbols. They appeared to be circles with different numbers of lines and dots in each circle. I began to round the corner until a cold hand closed around my wrist.
“Did you get lost little worker?” A male cult member in a black cloak said as he smiled at me. I couldn’t tell if it was genuine or sarcastic.
He must’ve been my age, about twenty-one. He had short, wavy amber hair and a chiseled face. Another cult member with blonde hair walked beside him and smiled sinisterly at me.
“Elian, wanna toy around with her a bit? There’s punishments for getting lost,” the blonde man said in a hard voice.
My heart pounded at his suggestion. In a place like this, toy around could mean anything from mild harassment to brutal torture.
“No.” Elian’s voice was stern. “We can’t screw around with ceremonies. You know how important they are. She looks new too, that’s probably why she’s not in formation with the rest. Let’s just shoo her along.”
I sighed with relief.
“Okay, head on that way, it’ll take you on the path to the ceremony room. Got it?” Elian asked.
I nodded and headed back down the hallway I had come from, eager to escape the prying eyes of the two men.
I sluggishly wandered in an attempt to blend in until I found other workers heading towards the same room. Their blank expressions and delayed movements made them look like zombies.
The room we gathered in was a huge auditorium, filled with movie-theater style seats that we filed into. I struggled to the back to grab an open seat by Morgan, but there was pain in her amber eyes and she refused to look at me.
Strange, even if Morgan hated me, she wouldn’t be able to resist talking for this long. I searched for another seat in the crowd and saw Elian’s familiar wavy, brown hair. A seat to his left was open and I hopped into it, too curious to stay away from the only cult member who had showed me a modicum of kindness.
I settled into the scratchy fabric of my chair and watched several cult members dressed in all black come onto the stage. They began to chant in a language I couldn’t identify as they lit candles around the stage. Smoke poured through the room, low to the ground, creeping through the aisles. It seemed to affect everyone somehow and they began chanting the same language as the people in black. Confused, I looked across the room and saw that, to my horror, Morgan had joined in the fervent chants as well.
Frantically, my eyes scanned the crowd for someone who wasn’t chanting.
“You’re not alone,” Elian whispered.
Puzzled, I faced him and noticed he had resumed chanting with the others.
“Hey, why were you awake too?” I yelled over the roar of chanting. “And why did you save me earlier?”
Immediately after the words came out of my mouth, the crowd became silent and stared at me.
“Now you’ve done it,” Elian muttered under his breath.
The crowd suddenly began to close in around us with outstretched arms and I thought of my zombie observation from earlier.
“Sorry,” I apologized nervously while eyeing the encroaching group of brainwashed workers.
“You can apologize later, right now we’re leaving!” Elian shouted and grabbed my arm.
He stuck his left shoulder forward and used it to barrel through the hordes of brainwashed workers. I sprinted behind him, elbowing and kicking anyone who got too close. We were fortunate that all of the monsters were at the stage along with the cult members. I couldn’t imagine pushing through hordes of scaly flesh and jagged claws. We burst through the auditorium doors and dashed through hallways and corridors until we finally arrived in a room I had never seen before. Its door glimmered faintly in the darkness as if it were radiating heat.
“What’s going on with the door?” I asked as we entered the room.
“This room has been shielded from the darkness of this building using the powers of my people,” the man replied while shutting the door behind us. “We can find refuge in here for a short time. In case you didn’t catch it earlier, my name is Elian.”
“My name is Cassie. Aren’t your people the other cult members? Why would you want to help me?” I looked around the room. It was the first well-lit room I had seen in a while and I had to squint. It looked the same as the various rooms I had wandered through in the building.
“I abhor these monster-worshipers. I would never be a part of them. I infiltrated this place so I could help liberate these workers. It has been the goal of my people for generations.”
“Okay who are these people and why should I trust you or them?”
“I don’t want to waste time with stories, but I can tell you a little. My people are a clan of warriors known as the Enochli. We are bound by blood to each other and protecting innocents. We use a simple, protection-based form of magic, much different from the dark arts they practice here.” Elian scowled. “Thousands of years ago when this strange dimension opened and spilled into the dimension that you and I call home, monsters poured out from it and attempted to subjugate humans. The monsters gathered human followers and taught them dark magic. These people eventually became the cult members you know today. However, some cult members escaped after they realized what they were worshiping. They taught others the magic they had learned, but only after they performed a blood oath to swear they would only use it to protect humanity. From this group, the Enochli were born and they forced the dimension into smaller and smaller factions. This place is one of the last rifts between dimensions. My people have observed it for generations, searching for a way to penetrate it and rescue the souls trapped here. I was the only one to make it in, posing as a cult member who escaped from another dimensional rift that had been closed.
“Why didn’t either of us fall under that trance? My friend Morgan and I haven’t been here very long but she joined in the chanting.”
“That is because of the prophecy written on a scroll that was stolen from us by this cult. One of my people used magic to foresee the fate of this place so that we could end it. He had a vision of a worker who would rise out of the fog of the spell that binds them and become immune to the trance that ensnares the others. This worker is supposed to be a descendent of the Enochli with our same magic bonds running through their blood. He claimed that if this worker made a willing blood sacrifice by signing their name in blood on the scroll that contained the prophecy, that would free the other workers and force the otherworldly creatures to flee this dimension. Because of the willing agreement that workers sign with the cult, another willing agreement to end the slavery is required from a worker. Unfortunately, the cult prepared for this and used dark magic to brainwash the workers so that none of them could ever use their free will. That is what makes you so special. You’re the only worker who can make your own choices. However, the scroll is hidden and locked by magic that, again, can only be broken by the blood of a worker.”
I nodded, soaking in the information, steeling myself for what I would say next. A part of me cowered at the uncertainty of it all. Exactly how much blood did a sacrifice entail? Enough for me to survive after? I pushed the doubts to the back of my mind and focused on my promise to Morgan. I vowed to free her.
“Sounds like I’m your willing sacrifice then. Where’s this ‘magic scroll’?”
“I’ve been searching for it for a while now, but I think I finally found it. Oddly enough, you managed to find it after only staying here for a couple of days.”
“The door with symbols at the end of the hall. I knew I was on the right track earlier. How do we get there without getting caught? Everyone must be looking for us by now.”
“Now that we have the time to draw a few runes, I can finally be of service to you. What good is an Enochli without his magic?”
Elian pulled several small stones from his cloak pocket, laying them on the floor. He withdrew a small knife and cut his thumb. He then smeared the blood across the stones in the same circular patterns I had seen earlier on the mysterious door.
“These aren’t much, just illusion runes. Hold onto them and they’ll make you look like a regular cult member. If you let go, the illusion is broken. Understand?”
“Yes. Let’s find that room. I’m ready to end this,” I said with newfound courage.
We walked swiftly into the hallway, following the red rug’s maze to the locked door. The halls were eerily silent until we neared the room. I saw the woman from the antique store, standing a few yards in front of the door, talking quietly with another cult member.
Panicked, I clutched the cool rune stones in my palm, and attempted to walk past her without drawing her attention. Elian followed me, staying back a few paces.
I made it to the door and stared at it for a moment. I had no idea how to open it.
“Take this,” Elian whispered as he passed a knife to me. “Cut your hand and turn the doorknob with it.”
I fumbled with the blade and dropped a rune stone as I cut my palm. The stone clattered on the floor. The woman looked directly at me for a moment and then sprinted at Elian and I.
“Go Cassie! I’ll take care of her,” Elian yelled.
I nodded and flung the door open. Before me was a set of wooden stairs. I sprinted down the stairs that creaked under my weight. As my foot left the last step I spotted a large, beautiful scroll on a pedestal in the left corner of the room.
The room had wooden walls and a low ceiling. The floors were wooden as well and nothing was in the room aside from the scroll.
I readied my knife to slash another wound across my hand, but a pained cry from Elian that echoed down the stairs stopped me.
I ran up the stairs in time to see the woman gouge Elian’s shoulder with a dagger. She kicked his body backward and he tumbled down the stairs, knocking me down in the process.
Struggling, I shifted Elian’s weight off of me and readied my knife. The woman came flying down the stairs, lunging at me with her arms outstretched, her nails elongating into claws.
I leaped out of the way but she hopped on top of me, pinning me to the ground. I flicked my blade up and stabbed her chest, spraying blood across myself.
“You can’t kill me, dear Cassie. You might as well give up now.”
I couldn’t kill her, but I could trap her. With my remaining strength, I grabbed her hands and forced her claws through her throat, pushing until about half a foot her claws stuck out from the back of her neck. Blood poured out of the wound like a geyser.
I shoved her into the wooden wall and her nails dug and lodged into the wood, trapping her.
I used my knife to slice my left palm and dipped my fingers into the blood, using it to write my name across the blank space at the bottom of the parchment.
As I finished, I heard a gurgling noise and gasped as I saw the woman dying. Her life must have been tied to the scroll. Signing my name had taken her life.
“Elian! Are you okay?”
He nodded weakly from the ground. The woman had wounded him more severely than I had thought. I helped him off the ground and checked to make sure his injuries weren’t fatal.
“I didn’t even have to die and everyone was still freed,” I said with a small smile.
Elian nodded encouragingly.
“I’m honored to be part of such a moment, Cassie. You made history here and I’ll make sure the Enochli remember you as a hero.” Elian’s face glowed with pride.
I smiled sheepishly. “Before we talk about future glory and everything, I have to find Morgan!”
We quickened our pace and encountered several former workers who were wandering about and looking disoriented. After pushing through the last wave of people, I saw Morgan’s confused face.
“Morgan!” I called and we made eye contact.
She ran forward and hugged me, muttering an embarrassed apology about how she had resented me.
“It’s fine, I am the one who got us into this. I think we should stick to your original plan and give up the job hunting for now. If this is what the working world is like, I can stand to wait until after college.”
Credit To – Rachel Campbell