[New and want to jump in? Please read the Instructions, but go ahead!]
The candles were providing plenty of (admittedly unnerving) illumination, flickering in the faint movement of air as Sweet shifted to the end of the bed and began to rise, casting long and deep shadows around the room.
Septimus leaned forward and grabbed the back of his shirt, holding on so hard his knuckles went white. “Don’t go.”
“Don’t go,” Septimus repeated, more firmly this time, trying to sound less afraid. “We don’t need power, right? It’s already late, it’s—” he fumbled for his phone. “Midnight. I mean, we fucked up and drank coffee, but that doesn’t mean we have to have the lights on. Our laptops are charged, our phones are charged, we can huddle together under the blankets to stay warm and watch videos or play a game together or whatever. All we have to do is stick it out until dawn, right?”
Sweet drew an unsteady breath in. “I have to. It needs me.”
Yikes. It had already seemed like a terrible idea to let Sweet back into the basement, and was only sounding worse the more he heard. “So it’s… calling you or something? Can you fight it?”
In the flickering candlelight, Sweet didn’t seem to have whites to his eyes, just an endless field of black reflecting the flames like a million stars. Nevertheless, he met Septimus’s eyes, and Septimus held his gaze.
“I’ll try,” Sweet said hesitantly. He held out his hand to Septimus, who took it with his free hand before letting go of Sweet’s shirt, just in case. It felt like ice, and Septimus folded his other hand around it as well, trying to warm him.
It began to shake in his grasp. Septimus said, after a moment, “Will it be worse for you to stay up here than it would be if you went down there?”
Sweet’s sigh made the candles flicker faster. “It might,” he admitted softly. “But you’re here with me. I’ll try.”
“Let me know,” Septimus said. He rubbed his thumb over Sweet’s knuckles. “Maybe we should just keep movies running. We could restart this one,” he added, jokingly. “It waited until the end, so maybe it’s a fan.”
“That’s just because the movie’s only an hour and a half,” Sweet said, but he was smiling a little now. “I don’t think it’s because it’s Hocus Pocus.”
Septimus laughed, then realized what he’d said. “Wait. So it’s—regular?”
“It’ll happen again at three am,” Sweet said. “By six am, it’ll be done, and I can leave if I want.”
That was the sort of information he sort of had hoped Sweet would have volunteered earlier. Even so, right now, he couldn’t muster any frustration. He could tell Sweet off about it later, when they were in the clear. After 6, apparently.
“So what happens if we hold out until three am, without you going down there? If it can’t happen again because it’s still happening—”
Sweet shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said softly. “I haven’t done it before.”
Christ. Now he was second guessing himself. If Sweet hadn’t done it before, but had come out of things relatively okay when he’d gone down each time before, it seemed dangerous to experiment with now. “Is there any way to try to tip the odds in our favor?” he asked, uncertain. “You said your mom didn’t have bad effects that she let you see. Did she have a way to protect herself?”
“I don’t know,” Sweet said. His voice was coming out more and more strangely, distracted, almost pained. “She didn’t like talking about any of this. She’d punish me if I did. Not—meanly. She meant well. It scared her. But I learned not to talk about it young, and just act like I had a nightmare.”
That still earned a flash of hot anger. “Are you okay? You sound—”
“I have to go,” Sweet said. “I have to. It’s driving me crazy.”
Septimus wanted to protest, but knew he shouldn’t. It was Sweet who was experiencing this right now, Sweet who knew best what he needed out of this. “All right,” he said. “You take a flashlight. I’ll take the other—”
“You can’t come with me!” The panic in Sweet’s voice cut through the strange sluggishness. “You can’t go down there—”
“Just to the basement door,” Septimus promised, and squeezed his hand. “Let me go that far, okay? You’re not alone. I want you to remember that.”
Sweet blinked rapidly, his eyes fracturing further with sudden wetness, but he just nodded, squeezed Septimus’s hand. “All right,” he said, roughly.
Septimus handed him a flashlight, then took one himself and shoved his cellphone in his pocket. As they rose, he gathered up the comforter in the crook of his arm. “For when you get back,” he explained. “You were cold before.”
“Yeah,” Sweet said, and smiled, relieved. “Thanks.”
Together, they headed carefully back downstairs to the basement door. For a moment, they both just stood there, looking at it; then Sweet began to pull away, and Septimus let him, feeling Sweet’s fingers slip from his.
“Don’t come down,” Sweet reminded him, opened the basement door, and shut it behind himself.
Suddenly boneless, Sweet sank down against the wall, wrapping himself in the blanket and pulling the phone out to check the time. Still 12:00, which was concerning.
Was there some other way he could count time? He wished suddenly he had some thread or something like that. There wasn’t anything he could do with it—he wasn’t very craftsy—but if he put a knot in every time he counted to a hundred, he could keep track in some way. Something similar to that might work. A paper he could mark, or something like that…
But it was a useless thought. He didn’t have any string and wouldn’t know where to start rooting around to find it. He could open up a note on his phone and put a letter in every sixty seconds too, but if his phone wasn’t telling time, he wasn’t sure he could trust it not to alter it in some way that physical things wouldn’t.
He checked his phone again just in case. 12:00.
It was impossible to tell how much time was passing; he didn’t think it was very much, but he’d thought that before, too. And Sweet went through this every year? If they stuck things out together, could Septimus? Was this the sort of thing that he would eventually find normal? If it was the house doing this, maybe they could destroy it. Burn it down sometime. A different day, when it wasn’t active. But that didn’t help tonight, and might not solve the problem at all, if it wasn’t the house but whatever was underneath it.
What even was happening to Sweet down there?
Sweet’s story came back to mind and Septimus shuddered. Was it sucking out Sweet’s hopes and dreams? His love? If it was, would Septimus be safe? Sweet had made him a lot of promises that he wouldn’t get hurt, but there seemed no way to guarantee it, not without knowing what was actually happening. It seemed like too awful a situation to be able to just blithely assume they were both just going to be fine if they played along.
He didn’t want to leave, didn’t want Sweet to come back to an empty hallway, but…
Septimus rose, and headed back upstairs. If Sweet’s mother really had avoided having any problems, and hadn’t just hid them from her son, maybe she’d had something to protect her. And if she’d only needed it in the house, maybe she’d left it here.
Resolved, he opened the master bedroom door.
The room inside was bigger than he’d expected from the rest of the house. The bed was king-size, if not larger, a heavy-looking thing with a faded maroon duvet accented by gold thread. A heavy carpet lay on the floor, with an old-style chest sitting on it right at the foot of the bed. Against one wall sat a large dresser, its uncovered mirror warped and reflecting the room oddly. An empty bookcase was next to it. Across the room, a large window was spattered with rain, blurring any view of the darkened forest outside.
It felt like he’d ended up somewhere he shouldn’t be, but Septimus stepped inside anyway.
He only wished he knew how much time he’d have to look around.
[Please offer actions, thoughts, or concerns for Septimus in the Comments.]
[Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Conclusion | Author’s Notes]