Chapter Six
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     On the ride back, I kept my gaze out the window the entire time, looking at every detail for even the smallest indication of a threat. I also listened to every single word my classmates uttered on the bus, hoping that none of them were talking about me. Not a single one knew what happened in that place. The only thing they knew was that Carmen suddenly went missing, but they didn't know what happened to her. I just wanted to go home and forget what had occurred. I was lucky to even be alive. 

     Dawn was asleep on the couch when I entered the front door, despite having a bed she could have slept in. After all, the couch was where I was supposed to sleep, but she probably didn't think I'd be back so soon. I gently shook her to wake her up. She groaned and drowsily opened her eyes.

     "Back already? After it was so peaceful as well," she said.

     "We had to end it early," I explained. "Now move your legs or I'll sit on them."

     She curled her legs toward herself and put a pillow over her head, going back to sleep. I sat down opposite her and let out a sigh. I was exhausted, and I felt filthy. I always felt pretty tired when I was in Dawn's apartment because of how little light she let through the blinds, but today I was especially tired. 

     I wanted to sleep, but before that I made sure to take a shower, in case there was still any blood on me that I couldn't see. After my wound disappeared, all traces of blood seemed to have gone as well, but I wanted to be sure. As I was drying myself off, I heard a knock on the bathroom door.

     "Annie gave you a call," Dawn said from the other side. "I have another shift so I'm on my way out, but I left her number on the counter. Be sure to call her back."

     "Oh, sure," I responded half-heartedly. 

     By the time I was dressed and exited the bathroom, Dawn was already out the door. She was always working, but she still lived in such a tiny apartment. I grabbed my phone and called the number she'd left for me. It took a while for anyone to pick up, but eventually a female voice answered.

     "Hello? Who is this?" she asked.

     "Is this Annie?" I responded with a question as well. "Dawn said you called me."

     "Oh! Iris, it's so good to hear from you!" she said. "It's been so long. How was the coma?"

     "It was uneventful," I replied. "Anyway, isn't that rude to ask?" She was about as insensitive as I remembered.

     "It's alright, you were rude for not answering me, so now we're even," she said.

     "I was showering! Why did you even call in the first place? You didn't even visit me in the hospital when I woke up."

     "I'm a busy woman!" she argued.

     "Dawn said you quit your job, so clearly you aren't.”

     "I can still be busy, honestly… I've been working very hard," she went on.

     She was incredibly obnoxious, but in a way that somehow managed to lift my spirits. Dawn had a tendency to make everything around her dull and depressing, so Annie was a nice contrast that I didn't have before, even if she did grind my gears.

     Annie was like a sister to me, from what I could remember. I lived with her and her mother for my whole childhood, until the coma. Why she wouldn't visit her own adopted sister in the hospital didn't make any sense to me. 

     "Anyway! Could you come to my house?" Annie asked. "I'll pick you up."

     "I have to admit, since we haven't talked since we were kids, I kind of don't trust that you're not going to abduct me," I said.

     "Oh, don't be like that. If I wanted to abduct you, I would've done it when you were unconscious. Trust me, I've thought about this a lot."

     I couldn't help but laugh at that comment, but I tried not to laugh too loud so she wouldn't get the satisfaction. After all, she hadn't visited me at all, so this was my way of getting back at her for that. "Alright, but I'm letting Dawn know so that if you do abduct me, you'll be the first suspect," I warned her.

     I could hear a frustrated groan from her, as if her plans had been foiled. "Alright then, I'll be over in a bit."

     She arrived in a red car, which made me much less carsick than Dawn's car did. I wasn't sure whether it was because of her driving or the car itself. When I arrived at her house, I was reminded how nice it was. A proper two story family home with three bedrooms, situated in a safe little community. It was exactly how I remembered. 

     "Let's go to my room," she said, gesturing for me to follow.

     I was a little bit on edge, considering she was luring me into her bedroom without explaining why, but if she tried anything, I knew where her weak points were. Once I stepped into her room, I immediately saw how messy it was compared to the rest of the house. It was like a hurricane swept through and littered the floor with papers and laundry.

     "Watch your step," she cautioned. "I think I left some scissors on the floor somewhere."

     I'd taken my shoes off when I entered her house, so I took this warning seriously even if I was still wearing socks. Once Annie navigated to the other side of her room, she pulled a blanket off the wall that was covering a bulletin board, with all sorts of photos and articles pinned on it. It looked like something straight out of a detective show.

     "I thought you invited me over to hang out," I said. "What the heck is this?" 

     "This, my silly little friend, is my fortune! Or at least, it will be. That's why you're here, so we can become partners in crime once again!"

     "Woah, woah!" I waved my hands in front of me. "I'm not going to jail with you!"

     "Relax, Iris. We won't be doing anything illegal," she reassured me. "Think of it more like a treasure hunt."

     I did like the sound of a treasure hunt, but knowing her, she was bound to make trouble. "A treasure hunt for what?"

     She pointed at a specific picture on the bulletin board with an elegant staff in it, as well a gold box. Though, it wasn't a photo, but instead a drawing. The staff was tall and gold with a blue sphere at the head of the staff. The box was small enough to hold in one hand, similar to a box you'd put someone's ashes in.

     "These are historical depictions of a treasure on this island, and as luck would have it, we still know where they're being kept," Annie explained. "Have you heard of Mildred's Castle?"

     "Well sure, it's a pretty famous landmark.”

     "Do you also know about the vault next to it that hasn't been opened ever since it was sealed hundreds of years ago? Archaeologists would love to open it, but the Church of Color demands them not to, so that's why we're going to beat them to it!"

     "Wouldn't that be trespassing then? Among other things…" I said with an unamused look.

     "Oh come on, you're not afraid of a little trespassing, are you?" she taunted.

     "There will most definitely be security!" I argued. 

     Annie smirked smugly. "Well actually, I scoped the place out beforehand, and security is weak, especially near the vault."

     "Scoped the place out? So this really is a heist." I facepalmed.

     "But listen," she continued. "There's a legend surrounding it that the vault can't even be opened, which is why security would be so low. That is, it can't be opened without a specific key."

     "And? Do you have the key or something?" I crossed my arms.

     "Iris, you are the key," she said. "So, do I have you? It kind of sounds like you're my slave when I say it like that… but you get what I mean."

     I was dumbfounded for a second. "What do you mean I'm the key?"

     "The door is sealed with magic, and a specific type of magic at that. Or so the legend said, anyway," she explained.

     This gained my attention. I'd been convinced that magic was real that same day, so I wasn't doubting her for a second. If what she said was true, then this staff could actually hold some sort of power.

     "You look surprisingly onboard with this theory," she said. "Anyway, I looked into some religious depictions of magic that were tied to the legend, and found some interesting beliefs. The Church of Color claims there are ten main types of magic that dwell in all of us, which is determined by the color of your eyes."

     "The eyes?" I said to myself, remembering what I'd experienced in that house. I didn't care about what the church had to say, but I knew how the color of my eyes tied into the card and hourglass I'd been assigned. On top of that, Mina did use pink colored magic, which was the same color as both her card and her eyes.

     "Red, blue, yellow, green, orange, brown, purple and pink," she listed. "There are even people with black or white eyes, but I couldn't find a lot of information on that."

     "What about gray eyes?" I asked.

     "Oh! You're right, that is weird, isn't it?" she said, unable to answer. "Anyway, that doesn't matter. The point is, the door is sealed with red magic, and that's why I'm asking for your help."

     I saw it coming, but I didn't know what she was expecting of me. "Sorry to break it to you, but I can't use magic," I said in a disheartened voice.

     "Don't be ridiculous, that coma was totally a sign!" she said.

     "Do you seriously believe that too? Look, I have no magical abilities. That's the way it is."

     "Well, it's fine if you don't know how to use it. I'm sure once we get there you'll figure out how to open the door." she reached out her hand. "Are you in or out?"

     "I'm out," I said bluntly, turning and making my way out of the messy room. "Anyway, you should find a less illegal source of income."

     "Damn! You won't even think about it?" she replied. "I thought you'd totally be up for it."

     I shook my head and walked downstairs where there was more room to breathe. Not only was she trying to get me to commit a crime with her, but her expectations of me were too high. I didn't have the slightest idea of how to use magic, and I didn't even know it existed until earlier. I'd always wanted to believe in it, but my first experience with it was traumatizing. If anything, I now wanted to forget it existed.

     Annie caught up to me. "At least stay for a little longer," she offered. "I haven't seen you in years. I'll order food if you stay!"

     "Is that your attempt at bribing me?" I asked. "I would've stayed with or without food, anyway."

     Annie looked surprised for a moment, but quickly went back to looking smug. "I knew you could never hate me, you little softy," she teased.

     "I'm not little! You haven't changed one bit either, you know."

     "Right? I'm still as mature and responsible as I was seven years ago," she said, placing her hands on her hips. 

     I spent the rest of that evening rekindling our old friendship. She still made the same childish jokes as she did when we lived together, and she was still better than me at every game we played, even when I was trying my hardest to beat her. Annie was way too excitable, which in turn made me more excited. She really brought out my competitive side. Dawn and Grace didn't get that way nearly as much as we did.

     Annie drove me home once it became dark, and she once again put her offer on the table during the ride. It was tempting, but my decision boiled down to the fact that I wouldn't have been any help to her. Also, it was illegal, but that was less of a concern because I was pretty sneaky. She never said anything about how much the items were worth either. All she said was that she'd split it fifty-fifty between us, but for all I knew, the treasure she was looking for was worth a cheeseburger and nothing more. I wasn't going to do anything illegal for half a cheeseburger. Maybe a whole one, but not half.

     Dawn wasn't home, but she gave me a key specifically since she was busy so often. I immediately flopped onto the couch once I was inside. I fell asleep in only a few minutes, not bothering to change out of my clothes.

     That next morning, Dawn was once again away. I didn't mind being alone, but it was nice to have her company sometimes. What woke me up was the vibration of my phone against my cheek, which I must've rolled on top of. It was from Annie, and I could guess why she was calling me.

     "What's up?" I rubbed my eyes.

     "Hey, did you just wake up?"

     "Yeah, thanks to you. Did you need something?" I sat up on the couch.

     "You could say I have a new bargaining chip to negotiate with," she said. "You remember Grace, don't you?"

     "Yeah, because I actually attended the funeral, unlike you," I jabbed.

     She was silent for a moment. "Well, if you believe in magic, then do you also believe in raising the dead?"

     "That's stupid," I blurted out. "That's stupid and you're stupid for even bringing it up."

     "Well, even if we can't bring back the dead, don't you think we could get someone else to do it? After all, the same person interested in buying ancient magical artifacts would probably be able help us with magical resurrection spells, right?"

     "You're so stupid!" I repeated, scratching my head. I quickly calmed myself down. "Listen, just give up on all that."

     "Why? If I have the chance to bring Grace back, I want to at least try. And even if we can't, we'll still get a good reward, but I really think my buyer could help us out with this."

     "You already have a buyer?" I asked, suddenly curious.

     "Yeah, and I really think these items are worth the trouble, so are you sure you won't come with me?" she said. "I really need your help."

     I thought for a long time. I don't know why I did, because I knew that I didn't want to help. Still, there was something in the back of my mind, feeding me all sorts of optimistic ideas about what could come of it. I wanted Grace back desperately. I never even got to see what she was like all grown up. For all I knew, she could've grown up into a massive jerk, but either way I wanted to see what she was like. Perhaps the optimism in my head was all Grace's influence. 

     "Dammit… fine!" I said, frustrated with myself. "But if you even get into the tiniest bit of trouble, I'm dragging you all the way back to town by your toes."

     "My toes? Well, alright! I'll take it as long as you're there with me," she said. "By the way, tomorrow night is fine, right? I'm in a bit of a hurry, so a day's preparation is all you're getting."

     "You're seriously the worst… but it's not like I have anything better to do. I think Dawn has work tomorrow anyway."

     "Fantastic! I'll give you a call tomorrow then.”

     "Yeah, sure," I said before hanging up. 

     I spent the rest of the day emptying my school bag and filling it with things like snacks, water, flashlights and whatever else I could find that might help. I was hoping Annie would come more prepared than I did. Granted, she seemed like the type who overprepared, so I didn't doubt she would. 

     I also did my research on Mildred's Castle. I didn't learn much more than what Annie told me about it, but the legend surrounding it was a lot creepier than how she explained it. There were stories of trials that usually ended in punishments, but the punishments themselves were peculiar. For example, in one story there was a man who was forced to live in the sea until he grew gills and fins, after he'd committed grisly murders. Other stories involved banishing someone across the sky and the trials involved lots of mentions of magic, on both the side of the accusers and the accused. In fact, it was said that the judge themself used magic to create punishments for the accused, who was said to be Mildred herself. To think that there was a kind of magic that created golden chains to hold back vicious monsters was all the scarier to read after witnessing what I did at the Roseate Manor.

     That next day, I waited anxiously for the sun to set. Dawn went to work before then as I predicted, so I wouldn't need to explain where I was going. Annie eventually arrived in the dark of night, giving me a call when she did. She was wearing all black, as well as some sunglasses which were entirely unnecessary for the time of day. On the contrary, I just put on the first thing I found that wouldn't be an inconvenience. A T-shirt, some shorts and sneakers.

     "You ready for this, partner?" Annie said, trying to look cool.

     "You look the most suspicious I've ever seen you, and that's saying a lot.”

     The car ride itself was a mixture of me being nervous and Annie getting upset at the GPS. We took a lot of winding roads which were pretty high up, since we were driving towards the east of the island where the more mountainous areas were. Mildred's Castle eventually came into view, resting against the side of a mountain. The moonlight bathed it, accentuating its sinister aesthetic. Annie parked some ways away behind a treeline, turning off the car lights before exiting. She also removed her sunglasses, deeming them unnecessary for hiking in the dark.

     "I probably should have painted the car black too," Annie said.

     "I think you have enough black already. Anyway, I'm just your little puppy, so you lead the way."

     "I should've brought a leash too!" she said regretfully. "Damn my lack of foresight."

     We stumbled around in the dark for a while, trying not to slip over any cliff faces. When we reached the main road leading to the building, Annie stopped to make sure no one was watching. Once she confirmed the coast was clear, I followed her across like a duckling. We kept walking up the road until the main entrance was within view. A large set of wooden doors.

     Annie made a puzzled face. "There was a security guard out front next to a van the last time I came, but I don't see anything like that," she said. "The door is wide open, too."

     I squinted to see what she was talking about. The door wasn't wide open like she exaggerated, but it was definitely open. "Do you think we can slip inside while no one is looking?"

     "Yeah, I think so. The inside has plenty of rooms to hide in, as long as we do it quietly."

     "You've even scoped out the inside?" 

     "I was with a tour guide, so it wasn't like I was scoping it out illegally.”

     Once she was certain no one would see her, she snuck her way to the front door with me following close behind. She peeked inside and we slipped through the door since there didn't seem to be anyone roaming the halls. She opened the first door to our right. There weren't any doors to the left of the hallway, because the left wall looked over the cliffside. There wasn't anyone inside the first room, and there wasn't anything particularly interesting either. Although, for me this was basically a free tour of a world famous landmark, so it had me a little bit interested.

     "Normally they'd walk around with flashlights, but I haven't seen a single light in this place yet, so let's keep walking," Annie suggested.

     I originally figured we'd need to bring our own flashlights, but I quickly realized that it would be in our best interests to not shine a massive beam of light in the dark showing everyone that we're sneaking around where we're not supposed to. It looked like I wouldn't get to use them. Either way, we voyaged through the darkness a little longer, only stumbling every so often. The place was pretty well maintained, which was to be expected. The building itself wasn't as huge as I thought it would be, but it was by no means small. Annie stopped at the end of the entrance hallway, looking out of a window to our left.

     "Over there, see?" she said, gesturing to me to look out the window.

     I scooted in front of her, spotting a few red lights on the side of the mountain. "What are those?"

     "That's the vault I talked to you about, and those are magical seals keeping the doors shut.”

     "So you think by having me here with you, the doors will suddenly open? Why didn't you get someone else with red eyes to do it?"

     Annie sighed, continuing down the hallway. "You just don't get it." She shook her head. "I don't want to do this with some random stranger. We've always gone on these adventures together."

     I caught up with her before she opened the door to the next hallway. "The adventures we went on were never law breaking. We used to just fight off angry wasps, which was honestly scarier."

     Annie laughed. "Well, if it makes you feel better, I didn't see any wasps in this place," she reassured. "Hey, hand me a flashlight. I haven't seen any security around, so I think we're fine to use them." 

     I obliged and pulled out two flashlights from my bag, handing her one of them. Switching the flashlights on made me feel more nervous, because we were more easily spotted with them. It wasn't like anyone was around to spot us, but my basic human instincts made me feel unsafe, as if someone was watching me.

     Before Annie started walking again, she sniffed the air, making a disgusted face. "Do you smell that?" she asked. "It smells awful."

     I gave the air a whiff as well, and while I didn't pick up on it as quickly as her, I knew what she was talking about. It was a smell that I didn't recognize, not that I was any good at identifying smells. Still, it was so overpowering and invasive that I wanted to leave immediately. Instead, I plugged my nose and tried to bear it. Annie did the same, looking like she was about to hurl.

     "I think it's this room," she said in a nasally voice. 

     She opened the door she was talking about. I was immediately hit with a wave of the stench that filled the room. She shone her flashlight around the room, before her face tensed up and her eyes widened. She dropped her flashlight and stepped backwards.

     I peeked over her to see what she was looking at, but I couldn't see anything from my position. "What happened?" I asked, before realizing I filled my mouth with that putrid smell by talking.

     She shuffled backwards towards the wall behind her, pressing her back against it. "There's… there's bodies piled together in there."

     I looked at her in disbelief, and my curiosity got the better of me. I peered inside the room, lighting it up to see what she was talking about. Once my light illuminated the back corner of the room, it was revealed. There were several corpses stacked on top of each other, all of which were lacking skin. I couldn't even tell what was skin and what was muscle, because the blood pouring over them coated them in a layer of crimson. Some of them were missing body parts altogether, but wherever those limbs went, they weren't around the room that I could see. I absorbed all of this in a brief moment before stumbling backwards and covering my mouth, but not falling over. I hadn't eaten much that day, but I was certain that I was about to throw up, so I shut the door and backed away.

     At that point, I was ready to leave without a second thought. I felt my hair stand on end as sweat seeped from my skin. This feeling was familiar. The feeling that I was in danger. I grabbed Annie by the hand and turned to rush outside, but before I could, the door slammed in our face. Annie screamed, and I think I wet myself, but I tried opening the door anyway. I twisted the knob, and it wasn't locked. It wasn't, yet when I pulled on it, something held it closed. I pulled as hard as I could, yet the force on the other side was always stronger than me. Even if I was able to open it an inch or two, it wasn't enough.

     "Don't open it!" Annie yelled. "There's something on the other side." She swallowed and tried to steady her breathing.

     My heart felt as if it was climbing up my throat, desperately trying to escape my body. "Is there another way out?" I tried my best to ask calmly. However, my fear was apparent.

     "I don't know!" She panicked, glancing back and forth rapidly. "Just don't open it."

     I felt uneasy about walking deeper inside, but there was bound to be another exit somewhere. I gripped tightly onto her hand subconsciously and rushed down the corridor, glancing back at the door every so often to see if it opened. I'd forgotten to pick up Annie's flashlight, but I still had mine, so I used that to look for any obvious exit doors as we ran. All of the rooms looked similar throughout the building, so I kept running with Annie in tow. We were both struggling to stay on our now weak feet. I didn't slow down until the door was out of sight. I stopped running once we were in the next room, trying to collect my thoughts. It looked like we were in a dining room. Both of us were out of breath.

     "What was that?" I said, shutting the door behind us.

     "There was a woman, didn't you see?" Annie said.

     "I didn't see anyone." I propped a chair against the door, hoping it would do something.

     Annie grabbed me by my sleeve and led me to the next door. "We can't stay. That thing… she's probably on her way by now.”

     “Right,” I looked back and forth, going through the door furthest to the left.

     Not knowing what was chasing us terrified me. We ran through corridor after corridor. The building was like a prison, but everywhere we went, the left wall never had any rooms. Each time we ran past a window, I caught a glimpse of the gleaming red lights, beckoning me as we got closer. I kept my eyes peeled for an exit, but everywhere we went felt the same. Door after door after door. The hallway felt like it stretched on forever.

     A loud screeching suddenly echoed behind us, and both of us picked up the pace immediately. Annie nearly tripped over, but she quickly steadied herself. I soon saw that the end of this corridor was different, and I finally had a glimmer of hope. The door at the end of this hall jutted out to the left. 

     The screaming from behind us grew louder, and I turned my head around to catch a glimpse before we reached the door. It was dark, but I saw her. My eyes widened as I nearly lost all control of my bowels. There was a woman shambling towards us. She was pale and her face sagged with bony limbs. Her hair was long and black, looking as if it hadn't been washed in years. Her mouth was agape and didn't look like that of a human's. It was unnaturally stretched and her teeth looked more like fangs. Her stare was horrifically hollow, as if it was pulling me in. Her eyes were gray with not a single bit of color in them. The most terrifying part about this woman was her fingernails, which extended to the point where they reached the floor.

     This sight had me sprinting at full speed towards the door. I pulled it open as soon as I could reach the handle, and it led to the outside. However, it wasn't the outside that I expected. The path outside was precariously close to the edge of the cliff, without any railings. Either way, I wasn't going to turn back. I shut the door behind us once we were outside, pressed up against the edge of unstable terrain.

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