(Reader discretion advised.)
Ted opened the door with the chain on, and looked out. A pair of inquiring brown eyes met him, and moustache a good deal bushier than his own.
“Excuse me, you don’t know me, but I’m a traveller… Sorry if I disturbed you folks, but I got word that there was someone in trouble, someone pursued… have you seen anyone? It was a young lady, a girl. Her guardian’s been asking everyone about, as they’ve got a nasty enemy after them.”
Wilhelmina spoke quietly, but not as if she didn’t want the stranger to hear,
“If the man is my enemy, your door cannot stop him from coming in. Please, let him in so I can see him.”
Ted asked Dolores if she wanted to take Kitty to another room, but she answered, “Not if a door can’t keep him out.” It was obviously uncomfortable for Ted to let a strange man into the house with his wife and daughter in night-dress, enemy or no enemy, but he took off the chain and opened the door. The man did not understand this at first.
“Then, have you… Oh…”
He stepped inside, and stood awkwardly, not sure where to look. After a moment or so he settled on Kitty, perhaps because she looked the most lost and nervous.
“Ah, so you are here. Your guardian gave everyone he asked one of these as a token – said only you would know it.”
He took out and held up a page of notepaper, with a wobbly symbol and a few words in very clumsy handwriting.
“I know it,” Wilhelmina said, and the man was confused again. But Wilhelmina went on,
“Look at my eyes.”
“Oh,” he said with a self-conscious shrug, “alright,” and he met her eyes like an obedient dog told to sit.
There was a long silence, in which Otto and the Bauers felt like uncomfortable intruders. In the end, Wilhelmina spoke again in a quiet voice, without looking away,
“That’s enough, I know now. You are Marius, my enemy.”
The man did not try to disagree, but simply took a breath, and let the little paper fall to the floor.
He held up his hand; the lights began to flicker like a brownout, and they all felt a sensation of something crawling on their skin. A crack ran up a window with a strange low hoot, the beams creaked and throbbed in the roof, bits of plaster sprinkled down, a little vase of flowers fell from the mantlepiece and shattered on the hearth, patches darkened in the white paint of the walls, and a seam under the arm of Kitty’s nightgown parted several inches, so that she yelped and squeezed her elbow to her side. Then all was still for a moment. Marius spoke:
“I do not intend to harm anyone here. I and Mina will simply leave now; you can all remember this as a time when you saw something incredibly horrible take place, and leave it at that.”
Very awkwardly, Ted walked, and stood in front of Marius, looking him directly in the eyes, though it was clearly painful to do so.
“You will not touch her.”
Now it was when Marius’ brown eyes looked dangerous.
“Rest assured, Ted, I will touch her.”
Ted compressed his lips, and struck out. The blow was straight and fast, but somehow didn’t connect. Ted stumbled forward, then sprang further to get away from Marius, and stood with his back to the wall by the door. Marius half-turned towards him, and when he did so, Wilhelmina suddenly gave a laugh, and cut it off with a hand on her mouth. Marius glanced back at her, and, in the moment he was not looking, Ted silently brought the shotgun out from behind his back, where Otto had left it leaning against the wall.
“If you touch her, I’ll kill you.”
Ted’s voice, which was so familiar in that house, now sounded so strange, filled with such harsh and deadly feeling. Kitty trembled, holding the tear in her nightgown, and slid down the wall to a crouched position. “Dad…” she said in sad confusion, and bit her lip. Otto was petrified, his eyes nearly as round as the glasses he wore. Marius, however, merely glanced at the weapon, apparently minding as little as if Ted had threatened to try punching him again.
Dolores had tears on her cheeks, and didn’t wipe them away, apparently because she was hiding her shaking hands behind her back. She suddenly spoke in an odd tone,
“Oh, Marius, it must have been you out there in the lane, who put your… who grabbed my shoulder.”
Otto looked at her, then at Ted. Ted stood out in the room like something cut from a darker photograph and pasted in. The air throbbed as if the house was his heart.
“Y’know what?” he said, in a strong accent which even Dolores rarely heard, “I think I’ll kill you anyways.”
With an awful twist of his lip, he fired both barrels of the gun.
The flash lit up the homelike walls like an indoor firework, and the deafening explosion rattled the windows and set the doorbell humming. Kitty screamed a little, and Dolores closed her eyes, squeezing out more tears. Wilhelmina leaned on her hand excitedly, revealing when she took it from her face that she was smiling brilliantly.
Otto saw something then which made him feel more queer than anything that had ever happened to him: the kick of the gun had driven Ted backward half a step, but Marius did not move at all, no more than if he was a tan rainbow Ted had fired at. The blast had left no mark, had not even struck the wall behind; the buckshot had vanished like the light from the flash. Marius spoke, and though the anger had gone from his voice and eyes the lack of emotion was more frightening:
“Oh, Ted, you would have only lost your hand you know, I would have had your daughter as payment, and that would have been the end of it. Now I’ll have your widow also. I think you’re no fool when it comes to magic, you know the consequences of striking out against a power. You would rather say your piece and take death for it, and that’s a good soul. How innocent too for you to think, even of me, that I would simply leave your wife and child to mourn you, rather than making proper use of them in recompense for your defiance. There are some who enjoy even their type.”
Kitty turned pale and sick, Dolores’ eyes were still tightly closed, and Otto tried to steel himself to fight. Wilhelmina was breathless with some sort of anticipation. If Ted was in despair, he was hiding it well, and only looked exhausted. Marius concluded:
“God bless you, Ted, my dear. You’ll see him soon.”
He was about to turn, Otto was about to rush forward, Kitty was about to scream with all her heart, but Marius paused. He touched his forehead, then looked at his finger. There was silence, except for Kitty’s breathing, which was nearly whispered sobbing. The expression of Marius’ entire face and body was one of incredulous perplexity. Otto could see Kitty in agony as they waited through that long period. Marius looked involuntarily to Ted as if to ask a question, and with an immediate and opposite impulse abandoned the inquiry. But in his brief movement, Otto noticed what had puzzled the man so.
There was a spot in his forehead, like a fingerprint of leprous decay baring the very white of his skull, fringed with powdery flakes and dissolved flesh. His fingertips were now similarly decomposing. It seemed for a moment that he was about to exert his strength against it, but could think of nothing to do. Then he spread his palms upward, with a blasphemous nonchalance, as if to say, “So I die, what is that to me?”
His arms sagged, honeycombed with loose, mouth-like holes; at the same time the hair shed from his head and face, both blood and pigment shed from his skin through distended pores, and the now pasty flesh fell away in strings, while his eyes vanished into melting pits. Stale air blew from between his ribs, his clothes thinned and clung to his body as it fell apart, his whole form took the colour of filthy sludge, toppled, and collapsed with a sound like horse’s dung falling on the carpet. A hopelessly foul smell filled the room like smoke.
There was nothing left of their enemy but a jumbled heap, dark on the parlour floor, crumbled with rot, and that suffocating smell.
The absolute silence was broken by the only thing Otto had the breath to say,
The previous part: The Small Stranger – Part Two: Merowinter
The next part: The Small Stranger – Part Four: Farewell