The footsteps reached the top of the stair and stopped. She pressed her ear to the peeling paint of the bedroom door and held her breath to listen. For a long moment there was silence, and then she heard a soft moan. A voice whispered. She pressed her whole body to the door to catch the sound.
“Please,” it said. Something dragged along the hall carpet, and the voice muttered low and unintelligible before repeating itself. “Please.”
She stepped back from the door and cast an anxious gaze about the room. A tarnished candlestick stood on the mantle, a mouse-eaten nub of taper protruding from it, barely big enough to hold the wick. She crept to it and held it to the fire. It smoked and gasped, but caught the flame, and she went back to the door and turned the knob, and thrust the meager light ahead of her into the black of the hallway. Nothing stirred. She ventured out.
The hall formed a high gallery. The oak bannister, gap-toothed and unreliable, wandered beside a dusty length of carpet to the stairway that staggered down the wall. A shape leaned against the newel post by the top stair, and, at the sight of it, she nearly retreated behind her door. When it did not move or speak, she tiptoed toward it, her candle held high. Finally, the weak nimbus fell full upon it, and she stifled a shriek. The shape was a man, but not like any she had seen before. He appeared young, and yet his face was lined and grooved with weariness and pain. He was pale as wax, and she thought he might be a macabre waxwork until he drew a shallow, trembling breath. His eyes fluttered open and fixed on her.
“Ah, you heard me,” he said, his voice like the memory of sound. “It is far past time.”
“I don’t understand.” She disliked having to speak to him. A wave of fatigue passed over her, and she glanced back at her door.
His hand rose from the newel post, so slowly it was like the dream of motion, and pulled aside the torn fabric of his shirt. She gave a raspy little scream when she saw the clockwork heart in his chest. The gears turned with the lethargy of nightmare, stuttering in their smooth action with effortful whirrs and clicks. A slot in the middle of the fine gold mechanism pulsed scarlet and dark, as though some furnace within it flared and subsided to the working of a diabolical bellows.
“What do you want of me?” she cried.
She gaped at him, shaking her head in bewilderment. He took a halting step toward her, his brows drawing together like a massing thunderstorm.
“The key,” he croaked. “For pity’s sake, the key!”
He reached out and grasped her by the silken cord that hung about her neck.
“Let go, let go!” She lunged backward, pulling him after her.
The cord snapped. For an instant she saw, held aloft in his gaunt fist, a shining key. He fell to his knees before her. Her candle puffed out. Night rushed in where the light had been. She turned in terror and fled back into the bedroom where the firelight glowed, and slammed the door.
to be continued…