Survival of the Fittest
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by Gillian Ferry
Category: Romance/Dark Fantasy
Description: Emily Peters is delighted to inherit an old Victorian house, from an Aunt she never knew she had; until she moves in and discovers its horrifying secret. Contained within its attic is a portal to another world, one inhabited by werewolves who have reduced the human population to outcasts and slaves. Sucked through the portal during a full moon, Emily is rescued by Jake, a powerful loner, consumed by his past. Together they flee from werewolves and humans, trying to stay alive until the next full moon. It's a journey fraught with extreme danger and shocking revelation.
eBook Publisher: Cobblestone Press, 2012
eBookwise Release Date: April 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [203 KB]
Reading time: 135-189 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
Emily Peters stood in front of Chepstow Villa, and the contrast between it and the other houses on the street couldn't have been more striking. She had walked down an elegant avenue, full of beautifully restored, detached, Victorian properties, until she had arrived at this one. Whereas the others had gardens which were full of well-tendered plants and neat box hedges, Chepstow had a wilderness. The others had a welcoming open frontage; Chepstow's, or the parts you could actually see of it, were bleak enough to deter many a visitor.
Emily wrapped her fingers around the bars of the huge wrought-iron gate and stared at what could be her new home. It had taken Harris and Harris, probate researchers, two years to find Emily and inform her that she was the sole beneficiary of Great Aunt Phillipa's will. Yet, the lonely desolation that seemed to seep from the building's very brickwork had taken a lot longer than that to evolve. A rush of different emotions flooded through her body--sorrow she had not known her aunt, despair at the scale of dilapidation she saw in front of her, and a tiny spark of excitement; after all, this was to be her first home.
She currently shared a flat with two others in the city; this house was a little farther away from the center of London and the British Library where she worked, but it was still within commuting distance. Her original plan had been to move in while she carried out any necessary updating then rent out the spare rooms, in order to give herself a small, extra income.
However, now that she had seen the house, albeit just from the outside, she doubted she would have enough in her meager savings account to restore it to its former glory. Even opening the gate to gain access to the garden was a chore. Vines had twisted themselves around its curves, and rust had eaten at its hinges, so that Emily had to struggle to create even a small space to squeeze herself through. Someone with a less petite frame would not have made it.
Already her white T-shirt was stained with ugly brown and green smears, and she had yet to fight her way through the shrubbery. Thorns pricked at her flesh, and nettles stung her hands and legs as she pushed her way through to the door. It wasn't until she was standing directly in front of it that she finally realized what a substantial house Chepstow Villa was. It was double fronted with large bay windows on either side of the door, three more windows on what would be the first floor, and she knew from the road that there were two windows in the roof.
Unfortunately, the lack of maintenance was also brought into close relief--the drainpipe hung unconnected from the guttering, which was itself rusted and holed; the window frames, which were no doubt the original sash ones, were rotted and growing several types of fungi. Nor had the brickwork escaped the ravages of time--the pointing needed redoing, while several climbing vines no doubt hid a multitude of other faults.
Emily took the key from her bag. It was on a ring with several others; each one had a luggage label attached to it so that she would know its function. Her hands shook as she placed the key in the lock. The magnitude of the situation suddenly impressed itself upon her. She only hoped that the inside was in better condition than the exterior.
She had to struggle with the lock and the door for a while before gaining entry. When she finally managed to take her first step into the entrance hall, the thing that struck her was the smell; the air was damp and musty with neglect and emptiness. The sorrow she felt at the state of the exterior intensified with the knowledge that a human being had lived and died within these walls, and from the impression given on entering, her aunt had died in extreme poverty.
The entrance hall would have been grand in its heyday, with its sweeping staircase, high ceilings, and ornate finishings. All that remained of that time was the parquet flooring. The once dramatic wallpapers were peeling away and completely absent in some places where the walls had simply crumbled with damp. The stairs no longer claimed a stylish banister, and only a single bulb hung from the ceiling, as opposed to a crystal chandelier.
There were four doors that ran off from the main entrance hall. Emily entered the first one to her right. She went to the window, intent on opening the curtains in order to let a little light in, only to discover that the covering was in fact a cheap, black sheet that had been hammered in across the frame. As she pulled at it to try and fix it open in some way, the sheet merely tore and came down upon her. Dust and decades worth of dead spiders surrounded her, clinging to her skin and her clothes, making her sneeze violently. She shuddered and brushed at herself furiously, and all the while she wondered how her aunt could possibly have lived in such conditions.
Turning away from the window, tears smarted at her eyes as she surveyed her aunt's lounge. The only furniture to be seen were two white plastic garden seats and a matching table. That was it, nothing else, no personal knickknacks, nothing that indicated a comfortable life. The chairs and table were placed around an open fire, and a glance at the antiquated radiators confirmed that this was probably her aunt's only source of heating.
Emily wandered into the two remaining reception rooms, only to find them empty and abandoned. She just couldn't understand it; her aunt had obviously sold everything she owned in order to remain in the house, but why? Even in its current state, it would be worth a fair bit because of its proximity to the capital and the street on which it stood. Why hadn't she sold it and lived out her remaining years in comfort? What had been so special about this place to keep her here, a virtual prisoner, within its walls?
Emily continued the rest of her inspection as sorrow and anxiety tugged at her heart. She no longer felt that glimmer of excitement at inheriting the property, because the evidence of her aunt's deprived existence hung heavy within its walls. The only room that still maintained some modicum of comfort and intimacy was her aunt's bedroom. It contained a large, rather ornate, black, metal-framed bed, a heavy, oak wardrobe, with a matching chest of drawers, and a bedside cabinet.
Emily stood at the door, almost afraid to enter because in this room, she could feel her aunt's presence. None of her possessions had been removed, and Emily had not been prepared for that. She opened the wardrobe door to find her aunt's clothes still there, abandoned on their hangers. There were precious few garments, and as she ran her fingers through them, stirring the musty smell from within their folds, Emily could see the evidence of mending and making do. Only two pairs of shoes rested in the rack at the bottom of the cupboard, and a quick look in her chest of drawers revealed very few items of clothing there. She crossed to the bed. A photograph frame lay facedown on top of the side table; Emily lifted it up.
"Oh." The gasp burst involuntarily from her mouth. The frame contained a photo of a man and a woman. Emily assumed the woman to be her aunt, and she was beautiful. Beside her stood a striking male with brooding, dark looks. Yet, it was an odd photo because, although they were both smiling, their appearance was strained and rather disheveled. Her aunt's long tresses looked unclean and matted together; both had smears of dirt on their faces.
Emily frowned. Yet another mystery to add to that of her aunt's determined existence in the house. She replaced the photo so that it stood up as intended and continued her exploration, this time up to the attic rooms.
There were three large bedrooms on the first floor and two further ones built into the attic. Emily chewed the side of her lip as she considered the rental potential, which would have to be offset by the renovation costs, and although she knew it could be a beautiful house once more, she really didn't understand why her aunt had been prepared to suffer so much in order to keep it. Emily was becoming increasingly convinced selling it would be her only real option, even though that decision felt like a complete betrayal of Aunt Phillipa.
The first attic room she entered was surprisingly spacious. It was empty of furniture, but at least it was flooded with much-needed light. She crossed over a small landing to the next one, but that door refused to open. Emily fumbled in her pocket for the bundle of keys. She looked through the labels but found none with "Attic Room" printed upon them. Emily wondered if it could be merely stiff with age and neglect, but no matter how hard she pushed and pulled, it absolutely refused to budge.
Frowning, she went back down to her aunt's room and headed for the bedside cabinet, assuming that would be a good place to start looking for the missing key. She couldn't explain why, but gaining entry to the attic room had suddenly become extremely important to her. The first drawer contained nothing but receipts and bills, the second her aunt's nightwear. Emily's skin prickled as she slipped her fingers beneath a graying, white nightdress. She felt uncomfortable in this betrayal of her aunt's privacy but supposed her things would have to be removed eventually.
As she reached right to the back of the drawer, her fingers touched what felt like a small envelope. She pulled it out, and after a moment of indecision, she opened it. Three items were tipped into the palm of her hand--a silver chain, a key, and a folded piece of paper. She held the chain up for inspection first. It held a round disc of silver upon which someone had inscribed a message; the disc looked to have been hammered out by hand, and the writing also looked to have been a homemade job. It simply said:
You make me whole x
Emily stood a moment and rubbed her thumb across the message. At least it appeared her aunt had been loved. At least she had experienced that, more than Emily herself. She fastened the necklace around her own neck then unfolded the paper.
If the mirror still exists, destroy it! God knows I should have done. If you don't do this, mankind will be in terrible danger. You must destroy it now!!
Emily reread the note several times, and she couldn't help but wonder if her aunt's mind had failed her toward the end. Surely living the way she had, it would have been understandable if that had happened. Yet another sad chapter to her aunt's life, especially as Emily had never seen any mirrors in the house. She sighed then took the key and headed back up to the locked attic room. It turned easily in the lock, and the door swung open.
It was exactly the same as the room opposite, yet completely different in its feel. It seemed to Emily that despite the sun flooding in through the window, it remained cold. She was reluctant to enter, as her mind jumped and her body felt ready for flight. She gave herself a mental shake, warning herself not to be so ridiculous. The room, after all, was empty. Yet, as she took a nervous step inside, she found that not to be so.
A covered shape was fixed to the wall, behind the door. Emily stared at it. Whatever lay beneath the sheet was tall, almost reaching the roof, and at least a yard in width. Even as she reached out with shaking hands to grasp the blanket, she knew what she was about to uncover. A tug at its sides, and the mirror was revealed.
Emily took an involuntary step back; it seemed as if the cold in the room flowed forth from it. The mirror was huge, mounted amongst a swirl of black wrought-iron work. Emily stared at her reflection. At first she merely noted the dirt on her T-shirt, her pale, delicate features, the glasses she wore, despite not needing to, and her conservatively cut, bobbed, black hair. The truth was, everything about Emily screamed cautious and withdrawn. She wore the clear glass spectacles to create a barrier between herself and the rest of humanity.
She straightened her hair and wiped an imaginary bit of dust from her trousers. She was silly to have been nervous, she thought. It was only an old mirror after all. But the more she stared, the more she seemed to be pulled toward it. Her whole body tilted forward as her eyelids started to close. It was only as her body stumbled that she managed to pull herself out of the hypnotic seduction of the mirror. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her body then hurried from the room. She became upset, scared even, and yet, she didn't know why.
Emily hastily closed the door and fumbled with the key in order to lock it after herself. It was as if she feared the mirror would come to life and chase her down the stairs.