Silent Vigil

© 2019 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes:

horror, ghosts, gargoyles, demons, living rock, femdom, long tongue, kissing, oral, blowjob, vaginal, biting, scratching, size difference, sweat, muscle, large breasts.

CHAPTER 1: HIGH-RISE

The angry beeping of car horns filled the air as Ethan weaved through the bustling crowds of pedestrians that clogged the sidewalk, the sea of gridlocked vehicles peppered with the signature yellow of New York taxi cabs. It was early in the morning, but the city was already waking up. Its inhabitants were pouring into the streets, clutching coffee cups and briefcases in their hands. The sunrise stained the sky in shades of red and orange, its light reflected in the innumerable windows of the towering buildings, rising up to either side of him like monoliths of glass and steel. Wisps of steam rose from manhole covers and subway vents, flocks of fluttering pigeons cooing as they scattered at his approach. The familiar chorus of a thousand muddled conversations was oddly relaxing to him, like a kind of white noise.

He was glad that he didn’t have to brave the heavy traffic, his new job was within walking distance of his apartment, only a couple of blocks away. The pristine, modern architecture slowly gave way to older, more traditional styles as he proceeded deeper into the city’s old financial district. Red brick and Romanesque pillars dominated, the stonework stained by ages of weathering and wear. He might have thought that he was taking a step backwards in time, was it not for the abundance of people talking on cellphones as they passed him by.

Unlike many of his fellow citizens, Ethan was not on his way to a cubicle. He wasn’t a businessman or a financier, nor was he a lawyer or a stockbroker. He was a facility manager, or perhaps caretaker would be a more fitting title. He specialized in maintaining old buildings of historical value. He had recently aced an interview with the owners of the Abbott and Schutzman building, a high-rise that had been erected by a now-defunct law firm in the late nineteen-twenties, during the age of Swing music and prohibition. These days, the building was leased to many different tenants, the seventy-seven floors occupied by everything from upscale loft apartments to office spaces.

Ethan’s new position would see him at the head of a team of janitors and repairmen, he would be responsible for coordinating with the staff and keeping the aged structure from falling into disrepair. He had a lot of experience in the field, and rather than seeing the work as a simple paycheck, he felt an almost sacred duty to keep these historic buildings intact. They were a piece of the city’s cultural heritage, a window into the past.

Before long, he found himself standing in front of the grand old building, shielding his eyes from the sun as he craned his neck to see its towering spire a thousand feet above him. It was very much a product of its time. Construction had begun when Art Deco was all the rage, its architecture acting as a kind of timestamp. It was made from grey stone and steel, the decorative, metal cladding on the upper floors catching the sunlight to make it gleam. There were two wings to the building that extended to either side of the central tower, which got progressively slimmer as it reached high into the air, before tapering into a sharp needle that almost made it seem to dissolve into the sky above. The innumerable window frames were decorated with stainless steel, and the facades of the building were adorned with bands of white marble, stone gargoyles peering down at him from its corners.

He made his way through one of the revolving glass doors, emerging into a spacious and finely furnished lobby. Massive slabs of red marble covered the walls, and the floor was made up of interlocking, wooden panels that had been varnished to a sheen. There were a series of support pillars hewn from the same red stone, inlaid with vertical bars that emitted fluorescent light, softened and diffused by a covering of amber onyx that gave the room a subdued feel. As he gazed up at the ceiling, easily twenty feet above his head, he noted that it was decorated with the overlapping, geometric patterns in shades of red and gold that were typical of the era.

His shoes squeaking on the varnished floor, Ethan made his way over to the main desk, the wall above it adorned with an ornate sunburst pattern cast from bronze. Behind it was standing a security guard and a concierge, the latter of which was looking him up and down as he adjusted a pair of glasses with round frames that were perched on the end of his crooked nose. Age had hunched the man, and what hair he had left was greying, but the perfect fit of his suit gave him an air of dignity. The security guard was an especially large African-American man with broad shoulders and a neatly-trimmed beard, his hands clasped in front of him as he scrutinized the newcomer. His clothing gave away his profession. He wore a checkered tie over a baby-blue shirt with epaulets, a name badge pinned to his breast, and a black cap on his head. Ethan was starting to feel a little under-dressed in his simple shirt and slacks.

You must be the new facility manager,” the concierge said.

Ethan Lewis is the name,” he replied jovially. He extended a hand in greeting but soon retracted it when the concierge didn’t reciprocate.

We’ve been expecting you,” the man continued, stepping out from behind the mahogany counter. “You may refer to me as Mister Spencer, and this is our head of security, Mister West.”

The security guard gave him a silent nod, Ethan glancing between the two men in a state of mild confusion. This wasn’t the kind of reception that he was accustomed to.

Uh...pleased to meet you,” he mumbled.

Mister Lewis, was it? Walk with me, the owners have tasked me with making sure that you understand the full scope of your duties here.” Ethan followed behind Spencer as he made his way over to one of the elevators, the concierge pushing a button and waiting patiently as the dial on the antique floor indicator ticked down. Ethan glanced over his shoulder, noting that Mister West was still watching him like a hawk.

Have you much experience working with buildings this old?” the man asked, keeping his eyes fixed on the dial.

I have, yes,” Ethan replied. “I specialize in maintaining historic buildings, in fact. I’ve worked in colleges, museums, I was even responsible for an old prison for a few years. Each one poses different challenges, but they also have a lot in common. I read up on the Abbott and Schutzman building before applying for the position, and I have to say, I’m very excited to work here. I’ve always been fond of Art Deco, and as I understand it, the building has undergone relatively few renovations compared to most structures of its era. It almost seems to be frozen in time.”

The owners place a great deal of value in its authenticity,” Spencer continued dryly. “If they can avoid renovations, they do. I will expect you and your staff to adhere to the same standards, Mister Lewis.”

Absolutely. If you don’t mind my asking, what happened to my predecessor? It’s unusual to find such a position on the open job market.”

The arrival of the elevator was announced by the ringing of a bell, and the two stepped inside as the doors parted. It was an antique model, manually operated, Spencer pressing one of the many numbered buttons with a bony finger as he moved a lever. The doors slid shut, Ethan feeling a sensation of upward motion as they began to climb.

The previous manager was with us for many years,” Spencer finally replied, “but his failing mental health resulted in him being let go at a rather inopportune time. There are several systems in the building that need urgent maintenance, and truth be told, we’ve been having trouble holding onto contractors lately.”

Why’s that?” Ethan asked, giving him a frown.

The building has a rather...storied history,” Spencer admitted, shifting his weight as though the subject made him uncomfortable. “It’s not unusual, many old buildings do. The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, for example, is plagued by superstitions surrounding its checkered past. Of course, over the many decades that the Abbott and Schutzman has stood, it stands to reason that a few unfortunate events would have taken place on the premises.”

I read about a few murders and suicides,” Ethan suggested, “but nothing that stood out as unusual. Then again, I’m not a believer in the supernatural. If ghosts were real, I think I would have seen a few by now, considering my line of work.”

Indeed,” Spencer replied. “The contractors complain of hearing noises on the upper floors, and no amount of explaining seems to assuage their fears. Old buildings creak and groan, and that high up, the very structure can sway as the wind buffets it. They don’t want to hear it. Your predecessor's declining mental state was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were.”

How so?”

Hallucinations,” the concierge replied solemnly. “The man claimed to see demons and apparitions stalking the upper levels, likely inspired by the rumors that were circulating among the staff. I’m not sure which came first, but it resulted in a lot of people quitting, and the former facility manager being admitted to a psychiatric hospital.”

And here I was thinking that he might have opted for an early retirement,” Ethan muttered.

There are several different branches that see to the upkeep of the building,” Spencer added, ignoring his comment. “You’ll be tasked with coordinating the different staff members and assigning them to the most pertinent tasks. Janitorial, maintenance, plumbers, electricians. I won’t beat around the bush, many of the Abbott and Schutzman’s older systems are close to failure. We have an elevator that has been out of service for weeks, the ventilation and air conditioning systems on several floors are in dire need of repairs, and the water treatment plant in the basement has been acting up lately. We need someone to take charge and get everything running smoothly again.”

The situation does sound rather dire,” Ethan said with a nod. “I see now why you needed a new manager so urgently.” “You seem like a level-headed fellow,” Spencer added as he spared Ethan a glance, “perhaps you can talk some sense into these people.”

They arrived at the right floor, and the doors once again parted, Ethan following the concierge out into a carpeted hallway. This area almost resembled a hotel, and Spencer hadn’t been exaggerating when he had said that the owners valued authenticity above all else. The same dull, yellow lighting that had been present in the lobby illuminated the long corridor, cast from stylized lamps that hung from the ceiling at intervals like miniature chandeliers. The carpet beneath his feet was appropriate for the period, the same red and brown motif present in its geometric patterns.

The concierge led him up to a nondescript door, inlaid with brass numbers that read two-six-five. Spencer fished in the pocket of his jacket for a large key ring, leafing through the keys that were attached to it as one might leaf through the pages of a book. He seemed to find the correct one, inserting it into the lock and turning it, Ethan hearing a mechanical clunk from the aged mechanism.

The door swung open, and they stepped inside, emerging into what looked like an old hotel suite that had been converted into an office. It was rather spacious, with an adjoining bedroom and bathroom, the main living area occupied by a large bank of black and white CRT monitors that were showing various views from what must be security cameras. There was also a desk nearby with a more modern computer setup, a generic, flat LCD display with one of those pre-built slim PCs. Ethan could even see the discoloration in the carpet where couches and coffee tables had once been. There were windows towards the back of the room that must have looked out over the city in ages past, but they were boarded up now. The only light in the room came from the monitors, along with a solitary chandelier hanging from the ceiling above, the bulbs dusty and dim.

This will be your nerve center, if you will,” Spencer said as he waved a liver-spotted hand at the bank of CRTs. “You’re hooked up to the building’s security system, it’s a little dated, but it works well enough. This way, you’ll be able to keep an eye on things and coordinate with Mister West if you need to. To your left is a computer terminal that lets you monitor many of the building’s systems, and which you can use to keep track of the different staff. You will be doing most of your work from inside this room.”

It’s...a little unusual, to say the least,” Ethan muttered as he wandered over to the flickering monitors. There was a shallow desk in front of them, upon which was an old rotary telephone that had seen better days. He lifted it experimentally, turning to Spencer and raising an eyebrow as if to ask if he was really expected to use it.

I’m assuming that you have a cellphone?” the concierge asked, as if it should have been obvious. “This floor and several others were leased out as part of a hotel for a short time, but these suites are largely unoccupied now. You will find all of the amenities that you need here, should you need to stay overnight, or make use of the facilities.”

I only live a couple of blocks away,” Ethan said, but he quickly stopped himself. It wouldn’t do to show any reservations about working long hours on his first day on the job. “But I can stay as long as is required of me,” he added. That seemed to satisfy the concierge, and he nodded approvingly.

You will find many things about this building unusual,” Spencer continued. “Over the years, the different floors have been leased out to a variety of individuals and companies. There are seventy-seven levels, seventy of which are accessible, including several mechanical floors that can only be reached via the service elevator. Each one has been used for radically different purposes at one point or another, and if said floor was never leased again, then it has likely remained in the same state in which it was left when the prior tenants moved out.”

So, you have seven mechanical levels?” Ethan asked. “That sounds about right, there’s usually one every ten floors or so.”

Mechanical levels were sections of a high-rise building dedicated solely to utilities, such as plumbing or central heating, usually sectioned off behind their own elevator shafts so as not to be accessible to the public.

We have six mechanical floors, and I included those in the count,” Spencer replied. “The seven unused floors are the highest in the building, located in the crown, just beneath the spire. They have been closed off for some time, as years of neglect has made them rather unsafe. They mostly consist of a bar area known as the Sky Lounge that was sectioned off after a patron was killed there, the observation deck, and loft areas with a lot of exposed structural supports.”

Someone was killed in the Sky Lounge?” Ethan asked. “I didn’t read anything about that. I know that the observation deck was shut down after someone fell over the railings.”

During prohibition in the twenties and thirties, a lot of these buildings were designed with a hidden speakeasy,” Spencer explained. “The Cloud Club in the Chrysler Building or the Mystery Room in the Arizona Baltimore Hotel being prime examples. Executives and other high-society types would gather to partake in illegal drinking and gambling, out of sight of the authorities. There’s a wall in the Sky Lounge that opens up when a hidden lever is pulled to reveal shelves that would have been stocked with bottles of liquor and wine. Someone tipped off the police, and they raided the building. This was back in...thirty-three, I believe. One of the patrons resisted arrest and was severely beaten, the NYPD was rather ruthless at the time. He succumbed to his injuries before help could arrive, and the lounge has been closed to the public ever since.”

Grizzly,” Ethan muttered.

I’ll call the heads of staff and have them come up here,” Spencer said, “you’ll need to meet them before your first shift starts.”

He moved over to the rotary phone and picked it up, holding the receiver to his ear as he began to dial in a number, Ethan watching with mild amusement.

***

A short while later, three people entered the converted suite. One of them was Mister West, the man so tall and wide that Ethan could have sworn that his shoulders had scuffed the door frame on his way in. Following behind him was a man wearing a blue boiler suit, a tool belt hanging around his waist, and a middle-aged woman wearing a grey jumpsuit with several pairs of latex gloves dangling from one of the breast pockets. They lined up in front of Spencer like soldiers standing to attention, the old man gesturing to them.

You’ve met Mister West already, he’s our head of security. We place a great deal of trust in him, and as such, he’ll be responsible for many of the security concerns that you may have become accustomed to dealing with personally in your prior positions. Please allow him a certain degree of independence.”

Next, he waved to the man in the boiler suit. He was in his forties at least, with a weatherbeaten face and a mop of black hair that protruded from beneath a beanie that had seen better days. He was a little overweight, but he carried himself with confidence.

This is Mister Rodriguez, he’s our head engineer. His department is responsible for hiring the contractors who deal with repairs and maintenance. He’s worked in the building long enough to know it inside and out. You’ll be relying on him a great deal, as many of the systems in the Abbott and Schutzman are poorly documented at best, and arcane at worst. When you need something fixed, you go through him.”

Rodriguez gave Ethan a nod as Spencer moved on to the last person in the line. She was a stout woman with chiseled features, her lack of makeup informing him that she was focused on her job above all else. She had unkempt, brown hair was tied back in a tight bun to keep it out of her face.

This is Miss Nelson, she’s our head custodian. It’s her department’s job to coordinate the janitorial staff. She directs the cleaners, window washers, sanitation. This building is full of antiques, some of the carpets and pieces of furniture haven’t been replaced since it was constructed, and she’s one of the few people alive who knows how to maintain them.”

Pleased to meet you all,” Ethan said.

This is Mister Lewis,” Spencer continued, addressing the three department heads. “He’s replacing Mister Fairfax as the new facility manager. We all grew accustomed to working with Mister Fairfax over the years, and I realize that the...distress caused by his recent departure may still be fresh in your minds. His replacement comes highly recommended, and his employment history is impressive, so I would ask that you afford him the same respect that you would his predecessor.”

There was a chorus of murmured affirmations, but the mere mention of Fairfax’s name seemed to make everyone uncomfortable. Ethan couldn’t help but wonder what exactly had happened to the man. Had he tried to throw himself out of a window or something?

I look forward to working with you all,” Ethan said, glancing at Spencer as he waited for further instructions.

Very well,” the concierge continued with a clap of his hands. “Now that the introductions are out of the way, things can finally start returning to normal around here. I’ll leave the building in your capable hands, Mister Lewis. Mister West, would you accompany me back to the lobby?”

West nodded, Ethan watching as the giant of a man held the door open for his frail counterpart, the two of them disappearing into the corridor beyond. He was left standing alone with Rodriguez and Nelson. Ethan cleared his throat, putting on a friendly smile as he tried to ignore the bizarre setting.

Well, we might as well get an early start,” he began. “I’m told that the state of the building has deteriorated quite dramatically recently. Mister Rodriguez, if you’d be so kind as to deliver me a list of the repairs that you deem most urgent and what resources you’ll require, I’ll see that you get whatever you need. Let’s get that elevator back up and running, too. Miss Nelson, if you’d let me know if you have any special requirements, I’ll see to them.”

Very good, Sir,” Rodriguez replied, Nelson giving him a silent nod.

I should warn you,” Ethan added, “I may be a little more hands-on than my predecessor. I like to inspect major repairs myself, and I’d like you to keep me abreast of the goings-on inside the building. It’s my intention to learn the layout of this place, and all of its quirks, so that I can be just as familiar with it as you are. If we all work together, I see no reason why we can’t restore this place to its prime.”

CHAPTER 2: GHOST STORIES

The first day passed by without any noteworthy holdups or problems. The staff were experienced, and the heads of the departments knew how to coordinate them. Rodriguez delivered his list of suggested repairs, and it was extensive. Just as Spencer had said, many of the building’s old systems were nearing the point of failure. The ventilation system wasn’t operating on several levels, the water treatment plant needed urgent attention, and the elevator required special contractors to get it running again. There was a litany of other small, less critical repairs that were required too. Under normal circumstances, even Ethan might have advised simply tearing out the old systems and installing modern equivalents, but the owners were particular about preserving the building’s character. He had to respect their dedication, as much as it made his job more difficult.

The first real bump in the road happened when some of the janitorial staff were tasked with cleaning the higher floors. They were refusing to go beyond the fiftieth level, and it seemed as though Miss Nelson couldn’t handle the situation. That was surprising to Ethan, she had looked like a tough woman. Why was she not able to keep her staff under control?

He rode the working elevator up to the fiftieth floor, stepping out into an open-plan area that differed a lot from the hotel-like environment that he had just left. Each level was like an entirely different building, trapped in a different decade. This one was packed with office cubicles, and all of the walls that weren’t structural had been knocked out to make room for them. A few yellowed keyboards and CRT monitors remained on the desks, putting the time period around the late eighties or early nineties. There was no carpet, and the prohibition era Art Deco had been replaced with clean and spartan furnishings. Even the lamps and chandeliers were gone, replaced with strips of halogen lighting. The windows here weren’t boarded up, and Ethan could see clear across the city’s skyline.

There was a gaggle of janitors wearing grey jumpsuits, wielding mops and vacuum cleaners, standing around as Miss Nelson appeared to argue with them. They stopped, turning to glance at Ethan as he made his way over to them.

Miss Nelson,” he began, stopping beside them and crossing his arms over his dress shirt. “What’s the problem here?”

I’m just trying to explain to them that cleaning the upper floors is part of their contract,” she grumbled.

They’re refusing to do the work that’s been assigned to them?” Ethan asked, his brow furrowing as he looked to the janitors. “Why?”

Many of these people looked like immigrant workers, they couldn’t be making more than ten dollars an hour or thereabouts. Why on Earth would they jeopardize their jobs like this?

They’re afraid,” Nelson replied. She wasn’t being dismissive, she said it with a certain gravitas, as though their fears might not be totally unfounded. He had to stop himself from rolling his eyes in exasperation. Was this more nonsense about Fairfax and his mental breakdown?

What on Earth do they have to be afraid of?” Ethan demanded, planting his hands on his hips.

We hear noises on the higher floors,” one of the janitors explained. She was a short woman with long, curly hair, her accent perhaps Cuban or Puerto Rican.

This is a very old building,” Ethan explained, “it’s bound to make noises. Creaking floors, rattling vents, gurgling pipes. Some of the systems are nearly a hundred years old. High-rises like this one are actually designed to sway a little in the wind,” he added, holding up a hand to mime the motion. “They have a certain amount of flexibility because if they were as rigid as most people assume, they would collapse under the stress.”

We know that,” one of her colleagues added. He was in his mid-twenties, sporting a ragged baseball cap, his accent that of a Brooklyn native. “She’s sayin’ that we hear other things when we’re up there. Spooky shit happens on the floors above this one, Sir,” he added as he gestured to the ceiling with the handle of his mop. “We’ve all seen things, heard things, and after what happened to Mister Fairfax...we don’t wanna go up there anymore.”

Listen,” Ethan sighed, “I’m new around here. I don’t know anything about what happened to my predecessor, and I’ve avoided asking about him because it seemed to make everyone uncomfortable. But now, it looks like I need to know, so is somebody going to fill me in?”

He waited as the janitors exchanged nervous looks, then the Brooklynite spoke up again, removing his cap and holding it against his chest as though paying his respects to someone who had passed away.

Mister Fairfax was a good guy, he’d worked here for a long time, knew the old place like the back of his hand. We all liked him, he never gave us any crap. When people started complainin’ about hearin’ things, he took it real serious. He knew us, you see, knew we wouldn’t make stuff up to get out of work. We thought it was rats at first, maybe pigeons gettin’ in, or the building makin’ weird noises like you said. But there’s somethin’ up there, Sir. He saw it.”

I was told that Mister Fairfax’s mental state was deteriorating,” Ethan replied, “that he was hallucinating. Why would you take anything that he said at face value?”

You got it backwards,” the man added ominously, “it was what he saw that drove him crazy.”

That’s enough, Jeff,” Miss Nelson grumbled. “You know that Mister Spencer doesn’t like you spreading rumors while you’re on the job.”

And what was he supposed to have seen?” Ethan asked skeptically.

The janitor looked to Nelson as if asking for permission, one of the women covering her ears preemptively. It was ridiculous, these people were terrified. It was no wonder that they weren’t getting anything done.

He didn’t get a good look at it, but he said that it was big,” Jeff began. “He was inspectin’ the elevator shaft up on the seventieth floor, just beneath the area of the building that’s off-limits. Mister Rodriguez probably didn’t tell you, but the elevator ain’t just broken, it was damaged. While he was in there, somethin’ came after him, chased him outta the shaft. One of the engineers could hear him screamin’ from a couple of floors down, and when he finally arrived, Fairfax was rantin’ about a monster. The guy said that he’d never seen someone so pale, like all the blood had drained from his face. When they asked him what he saw in the shaft, all that he could remember was a pair of red eyes that glowed in the dark, and wings like a giant bat.”

Ethan had to stop himself from laughing. What was it supposed to be, a vampire? Mothman?

So...you’re telling me that the upper floors are haunted by a giant bat?” he asked.

More like a demon,” another of the janitors suggested. “Lotta people died here in bad ways over the years, that kinda thing attracts them, like sharks smellin’ blood in the water. We’ve all heard noises, some of us have seen things. Sometimes it’s just a shadow out of the corner of your eye when you’re cleanin’ a room on your own. Sometimes you can just...feel it, y’know? Eyes on your back, makes the hairs on your arms stand on end, like there’s somethin’ watchin’ you.”

And this only happens on floors fifty-one and up?” Ethan added, the janitors nodding their heads. “I want to clarify, nobody is asking you to go into the sealed-off sections of the building. The seven top floors are off-limits because they’re dangerous and poorly maintained. But if you’re going to work here, then you can’t just ignore twenty whole floors and pretend they don’t exist. They need to be cleaned and maintained, or they’ll fall into disrepair just as the top seven did.”

He means he’s gonna fire us if we don’t go up there,” Jeff grumbled, addressing his fellow workers.

I didn’t say that I was going to fire anybody,” Ethan clarified, “but you have to do your jobs. If you can’t find a way to perform your duties that makes you feel comfortable, then I’m afraid that yes, I will have to replace you. Work in pairs, maybe, groups of three.”

Call the goddamned Ghost Busters if it makes you happy, he neglected to add. The janitors looked to Miss Nelson, and she nodded her head.

Mister Lewis is the new facility manager, he makes the rules now. We’ll work in groups of two. It will reduce the area that we can cover, but nobody will be left alone. Alright?”

There was a series of very unenthusiastic nods, but the janitors began to disperse all the same, some continuing their work on this floor while the others moved to the elevator. Ethan sidled up beside Nelson, keeping his voice low.

Do you buy any of this?” he asked.

Like he said, we’ve all heard things,” she replied cryptically. “What happened to Mister Fairfax spooked everyone.”

It’s important to have a good relationship with one’s colleagues, I don’t want to give them the impression that I’m a hardass who’s going to drive them like slaves, but this can’t continue. I want you to start reprimanding people who spread these rumors, they’re working everyone up into a frenzy. Worst case scenario, we’ll have to start letting people go. My job is to get this place in working order as quickly as possible, and I don’t have time for ghost stories.”

Yes, Sir,” she replied. “I’ll see to it that the job gets done.”

Great, I’m counting on you, Miss Nelson.”

Before turning back to the elevator, he wandered over to the large windows that looked out over the city. It was a warm summer’s day, and there was a heat haze on the horizon that made the towering buildings seem to waver. He never got tired of seeing the Manhattan skyline, the clusters of jutting skyscrapers in the nearby financial district rising into the air, their many windows gleaming as they caught the sun. In the distance, he could make out the East River, its surface reflecting the light in a way that made it seem to glisten. The spire of the One World Trade Center rose above it all like a silver needle, the marvel of modern engineering near twice the height of the Abbott and Schutzman.

Even now, it still gave him a kind of vertigo, knowing that there was only a pane of glass protecting him from the near thousand-foot drop to the streets below.

After a minute of sightseeing, he made his way back to the elevator, lamenting that the windows in his converted office were boarded up.

***

It wasn’t long before Ethan was once again called out of his office. He rode the elevator up to the seventieth level, the doors opening to reveal one of the building’s machine floors. It was another open-plan space, with only structural walls made from naked brickwork, the polished concrete beneath his feet reflecting the harsh glare from the naked bulbs above. The ceiling was exposed, revealing hundreds of snaking tubes and pipes. He recognized the silver, segmented ventilation tubes, and the bunches of copper wires that wound their way through the mess like vines through a jungle canopy. The plumbing system that carried water throughout the building like lifeblood was comprised of matte white tubes, the bends all right-angles, more copper pipes from the ancient central heating system crisscrossing alongside them. It reminded him of that old screensaver that would draw networks of colorful pipes on his computer monitor.

More color-coded tubes extended from the floor to the ceiling like pillars, along with networks of electrical cables that ran along the walls in bafflingly complex patterns. Some of them led to large breaker boxes, others to round canisters that he knew to be boilers. It was such an odd blend of modern and nineteen-twenties technology. The noise of nondescript machinery and the whine of electronics were deafening.

He weaved his way through the maze of pipes and machinery, finally locating Rodriguez. The head engineer was standing beside a colleague clad in similar attire as they examined what looked like some kind of industrial machinery mounted on raised supports. They resembled cylindrical turbines made from green metal, but Ethan soon realized that these were the motors that drove the elevators, the lengths of spooled cable visible inside the housing.

Mister Rodriguez,” Ethan yelled over the noise, “what’s the problem?”

He waved Ethan over to a side-room that was a little quieter, packed with more electrical equipment, closing the door so that they could hear themselves think.

Is there a problem with the elevator repair?” Ethan asked again, the two men glancing at each other before Rodriguez replied.

Elevator number two is mis-leveled, which means that it’s not stopping level with the floors in the way that it should. These are AC brake-controlled elevators that were installed in the thirties, antique Otis Signal Control models, they depend on a braking system to make sure that the elevator car lines up with the hallway. The modern ones use hydraulic braking, puts a lot less strain on the system. We upgraded them to bring them up to code a while back, they’re supposed to stop within one-eighth of an inch of the floor, but this one is almost two feet off. We’ve checked the brake linings, the springs, and the brake drums. They all show signs of stress, along with the cables themselves, so we’re going to need to pull out and replace all of those components to be on the safe side. It’s going to be a big job.”

What could have caused that?” Ethan asked. “Is it just wear? I know that these old systems can be sensitive to temperature and moisture.”

Near as we can tell, it was caused by an...overload,” Rodriguez replied with another nervous glance at his counterpart.

An overload?” Ethan repeated. “So, someone tried to use it to carry heavy goods instead of the freight elevator or something like that? Must have been one hell of a heavy load, a couple of thousand pounds at least.”

It’s more likely that debris of some sort has fallen onto the car from the shaft above it,” his colleague added, “someone’s going to have to get in there and clear it.”

How could that have happened?” Ethan asked skeptically. “I know that the top seven floors are in pretty bad shape, but this elevator doesn’t go that high. The building needs repairs, yeah, but it’s not literally falling apart.”

Mister Fairfax must have knocked something loose when he was last in there,” Rodriguez suggested. “That, or there’s been some kind of structural collapse on one of the floors above where it last stopped, but that doesn’t seem likely.”

I don’t want to hear that there may have been a structural collapse,” Ethan continued, “it’s your job to know. I want you to get someone into that shaft right away, and I want to know what’s going on in there by tomorrow morning. Is that understood?”

The two men glanced at one another again, Ethan loosing an exasperated sigh.

What’s the problem?” he snapped, failing to conceal his frustration. “I don’t want to hear anything about ghosts or monsters, do your jobs, or I’ll find someone else who will.”

Yes, Sir,” Rodriguez replied reluctantly.

Ethan left them muttering to each other, returning to the elevator with a scowl on his face. At this point, he was about ready to replace the entire staff if it meant stopping these ridiculous rumors. The only other person in the building with any sense was Spencer, and perhaps West. At least they weren’t jumping at shadows like frightened children.

***

Ethan stepped out of the elevator on the floor where his office was located, making his way along the carpeted hallway. His mind was elsewhere, the endless numbered doors passing him by one by one, but then a strange sound jolted him back to reality. It was like metal scraping on leather. He stopped in his tracks, turning around to see that one of the Art Deco chandeliers that hung from the ceiling was swaying gently, the dusty bulbs flickering, casting that area of the corridor into deep shadow for brief moments.

He had just passed beneath it, why was it moving? There were no windows here, and there was no way that he could have brushed against it, it was about a foot higher than his head. The hairs on the back of his neck began to stand on end, the air in the empty hallway seeming to cool, as though someone had turned down the thermostat. As the chandelier swung back and forth, the electric light bulbs fading in and out intermittently, his eyes picked out a shape. It was only visible in the scant moments that the lights were off, a shadow given form, the indistinct outline of a person. His instincts warned him that there was someone leaning against the door that was situated directly beneath the chandelier, on the left side of the hallway, their hands in their pockets. Ethan’s heart started to quicken as he focused on the area intently, waiting for the lights to snuff out. When they did, his eyes once again picked out a vaguely human shape, but it was gone before they could adjust. It was almost like watching the flickering image through the slat of an old zootrope, a toy from the pre-film era that mimicked animation by spinning a cylinder, the frames that were displayed on its inner surface creating the illusion of motion.

The slow rocking of the chandelier gradually ceased, the bulbs remaining lit now. Ethan continued to stare at the spot until he realized what he was doing, shaking his head and releasing the breath that he had been subconsciously holding in.

What the hell is wrong with me?” he mumbled to himself. He couldn’t let the frivolous rumors of the hired help get to him as well. Of course there was nothing there, the shadows of this old place were playing tricks on his eyes. The swaying of the chandelier must have been putting stress on the old wires, that was why they had been flickering. Maybe a draft had come in under one of the doors, that would explain the drop in temperature too.

Frustrated with himself, he made his way towards the door, stopping just outside to examine the brass numbers. Two-five-three. This floor had once been a hotel, there were a lot of unoccupied rooms here besides his office. He reached out and took the brass doorknob in his hand, turning it, and feeling resistance. It was locked.

He shrugged, giving the door one last glance before he resumed his walk to his office.

***

The remainder of the day went by without any further incidents. Ethan spent the majority of the time going over the building’s finances, ensuring that they were budgeting for the necessary repairs and the salaries of the staff and contractors. Maintaining the building was prohibitively expensive, to say the least. He had to admire the dedication of the owners, they weren’t making a profit from running this place, it was a massive money sink. That kind of dedication only came from a genuine appreciation of its singular history.

It was impossible to tell the time of day inside his suite due to the boarded up windows, but his phone eventually alerted him that it was the end of the workday. Spencer hadn’t asked him to stay any later, and so he shut down his computer and the bank of CRT monitors, then made his way down to the lobby.

The old man was waiting for him as he left the elevator, walking along beside him with his hands clasped behind his back, his posture hunched.

So tell me, Mister Lewis,” he began. “How did you find your first day with us?”

Eventful,” Ethan replied, the concierge chuckling to himself. “I’ve sent a report to your email server with all the details, but Mister Rodriguez and his engineers should be inspecting elevator two’s shaft and getting it up and running again soon. I’ve sent off a list of replacement parts for approval. Miss Nelson and I convinced the janitors to clean the upper levels, and I’ll have someone inspect the main boiler room in the basement tomorrow.”

Very good,” Spencer muttered, “it seems that you’re living up to our expectations. The staff have been in disarray since the unfortunate incident with Mister Fairfax, I’m glad to see that you’ve been able to rally them.”

Thank you, Sir.”

I would ask that you bring a change of clothes and a few essentials with you when you return to start your next shift in the morning,” the concierge added as they neared the door. “At this critical juncture, many of the staff will be working night shifts, and the owners would appreciate having you on call if the need should arise.”

Not a problem,” he replied, bidding the old man good evening before leaving the lobby. He took in a lungful of the cool night air, the familiar scents and sounds of the city setting him at ease. Something about the atmosphere in that place was oppressive, as though the very air around him had been somehow weighted. It felt good to be out on the streets again, oddly relieving.

He headed home, intending to get a good night’s rest.

***

Red eyes in the dark.

Ethan was running through shadowy corridors, his blood pounding in his ears, his labored breath rasping in his throat. Something was chasing him, heavy footsteps pounding on the carpeted floor behind him, adrenaline surging through his veins.

The layout of this place didn’t make sense, it was like an Escher painting, hallways that looped back on each other and doors that led to nowhere. Desperation drove him, he had to get away. There was no context for what was happening, he didn’t know why or how, but he knew that he was going to die if that thing caught him.

As he turned a corner into another long, featureless hallway that was lined with numbered doors, he stopped in his tracks. Leaning idly against the wall beside one of them was a man dressed in a waistcoat and slacks, a pair of dark eyes looking up at him from beneath a tattered newsboy cap. There was a cigarette in his hand, and he took a long drag before lowering it, letting a wisp of grey smoke escape his lips. There was something odd about the way that he moved, his motions were jerky, like they were running at a different framerate from the rest of the scene.

It won’t let us leave, pal,” the stranger muttered. He took another drag from his cigarette as Ethan watched, then flicked it away.

Ethan wanted to warn him that the thing was coming. He could hear it somewhere behind him, its heavy footsteps shaking the floor. Yet when he opened his mouth, nothing came out, it was like he was trying to speak underwater.

The stranger drew an old-fashioned straight razor from his pocket, flipping it open with practiced speed, the silver blade flashing under the dim light of the swinging chandelier above him. He produced a barber’s strop too, a strip of leather used for sharpening, then began to run the blade across it slowly.

How could he be so nonchalant? That thing was coming, it would kill the both of them if they didn’t hurry.

You don’t know your onions, that’s your problem,” the stranger continued. “Don’t take any wooden nickels, now.”

Ethan had no idea what the stranger was talking about, it was gibberish. He tried to wave his hands, he wanted to warn the man, but the very air around him seemed to thicken. It was like trying to move through molasses, he couldn’t run anymore, he couldn’t do anything. Panic overwhelmed him, but no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t so much as lift a finger.

I gotta dust out,” the man said, Ethan’s eyes widening as he brought the razor to his wrist. “Promise me you’ll play house dick, savvy? Put the screws on ‘em.”

He pressed down, the shining blade piercing his skin, blood so dark that it was almost black welling. Without a shred of hesitation, he drew the blade up his forearm, opening his veins. He switched hands, the wooden handle of his razor now stained crimson, repeating the gesture on the other side. When the deed was done, he casually folded the implement and slid it back into his pocket. He lifted a bloody hand to his cap and tilted it towards Ethan, the man’s face seeming to grow ashen as he watched.

Go chase yourself, you mug.”

Ethan tried to yell, but he could scarcely breathe now, it felt like there was an elephant standing on his chest. The pounding footsteps grew ever louder, Ethan realizing with a pang of terror that his pursuer was coming up behind him, and he couldn’t even turn his head to see what was about to tear him apart. He saw its shadow loom, a pair of bat-like wings unfolding…

***

Ethan took in a gasp of air, jolting upright, his knuckles white as he gripped his bedsheets. He was soaked in cold sweat, his wet hair sticking to his forehead, his heart hammering in his chest like a drum. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he remembered that he was in his bedroom, the beginnings of a sunrise just starting to bleed in through the blinds that covered the windows in his apartment.

He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, finding that it was wet, his sudor stinging his eyes. What a nightmare, he’d never had such a vivid dream before. The man with the razor...it was the figure that he’d seen in the corridor outside his office. That he thought he’d seen. And the thing on his heels, it fit the description of what Fairfax had supposedly encountered in the elevator shaft. A great bat with a pair of glowing, red eyes.

Perhaps he was not as immune to the ghost stories as he had initially thought, the rumors that the superstitious staff insisted on spreading were turning the place into a fucking madhouse. What had the man in his dream been trying to tell him? He’d said that he couldn’t leave, and then he had spouted a bunch of nonsense words.

No, he hadn’t been trying to tell Ethan anything. The man was just a shadow that he had seen in the hallway, the monster a description fed to him by one of the janitors. His brain was regurgitating things that he had seen before, there was nothing prophetic about it.

Still a little shaken, he threw off his sheets and dropped to the carpet. He needed to take a shower before work, and he should pack some things as Spencer had suggested. It was entirely possible that he would have to stay the night in his converted office.

CHAPTER 3: JUMPING AT SHADOWS

West greeted Ethan at the door as he made his way into the lobby of the Abbott and Schutzman with a duffle bag slung over his shoulder, walking beside him as he headed for the elevator at the back of the room. Their footsteps echoed in the great, empty space, the amber glow of the lighting strips in the red marble pillars reflecting off the polished floor.

You don’t look very well rested,” the towering security guard commented. Ethan very nearly did a double-take. It was the first time that he had heard the man speak. His voice was deep and gravelly, befitting his imposing stature.

It’s true, Mister West,” Ethan replied with a dry chuckle. “I had some trouble sleeping last night.”

Nightmares?” the security guard asked, Ethan raising an eyebrow.

Yes...how did you guess?”

Don’t let them bother you, we all get them,” he replied cryptically. He saw Ethan over to the elevator, watching as the doors closed on him.

As the car began to rise, Ethan felt a pang of dread. Everyone gets nightmares? What was that supposed to mean? It was becoming increasingly obvious that the problems that plagued the Abbott and Schutzman were more a result of its terrorized staff than its advanced age. Entire floors of the building were being neglected because the cleaners feared that they were haunted, elevator shafts were collapsing due to a lack of maintenance because the engineers thought that they would encounter monsters in them. The constant tension and stress were even starting to affect him, as much of a staunch skeptic as he was. The working environment needed an overhaul if he was going to stand any chance of getting this place into ship shape.

***

The staff filed into the room one after another, perhaps fifty in all, their eyes darting about as they entered the dining hall. The expressions on their faces ranged from nervous, perhaps expecting to be reprimanded, to irritated at being called away from their work.

This had once been a grand ballroom, entertaining guests with Jazz and later Swing music from an elevated stage. It was situated on the East Wing of the ground floor, an area of the building that saw little use these days. The same Art Deco style that had characterized the building's early history was present here. The walls, floor, and ceiling were styled in dark browns and reds that were crisscrossed by geometric patterns in shining gold. They radiated outwards from a crystal chandelier, which served as the room’s centerpiece. Ornate pillars hewn from the same red marble that was present in the lobby held up the roof, each one artfully decorated with more patterns, and the stage was framed by a giant sunburst that brought to mind the flared feathers of a peacock.

The kitchens were no longer operating, and the bar was long closed, but the furniture remained. The dozens of tables that were strewn about the space were carved from dark mahogany that blended seamlessly with the mellow environment, the chairs padded with comfortable cushions made from red silk. It was the perfect venue for what Ethan had in mind.

Please, take a seat,” he said as he addressed them from the elevated stage. Confused, everyone dispersed and sat down, the three department heads included. Spencer and West were attending too, at his request, of course. He couldn’t compel them to do anything that they didn’t want to do, and he wouldn’t dare try.

I’m sure that you’re all wondering why I brought you here,” Ethan began, starting to pace back and forth as they watched. “My job as the facility manager isn’t merely to maintain the building, but also to maintain...you,” he said as he gestured to his skeptical audience. “I’ve only been here for a short time, but what stands out to me right now is a profound lack of morale. But what does morale mean?” he continued, steepling his fingers. “Confidence, enthusiasm, discipline. Recent events have created a culture of fear and stress, and that isn’t conducive to a productive workplace or a happy staff. The happier and more at ease you are, the more you enjoy spending time in the workplace, the more work will get done.”

He could see a few of them sagging in their chairs, having just figured out that they had been duped into attending a motivational seminar.

This morning, we’re going to be addressing a few points that I think can help raise spirits and get everyone in the mood to be at their best again,” he continued cheerfully. “We’re going to explore what it means to build confidence, to destroy fear, ways that we can all help each other to beat stress and depression. It’s my position that positive thinking produces positive results.”

There was a chorus of groans that were soon silenced by Spencer’s angry stare.

We have to learn how to recognize when we’re reacting emotionally,” he continued, undeterred. “We have to identify the negative thought processes that stop us from performing at our best, find ways to minimize unwanted thoughts and emotions, and we need to work on a roadmap for resolving our anxieties.”

***

The seminar went about as well as a seminar with a disinterested, irritated audience could go. As the staff filed out of the room to return to their posts, Ethan could only hope that he had imparted some useful information, that his two-hour talk about positive thinking and motivation had rubbed off on at least a handful of the employees. The alternative was firing people, but that wasn’t the kind of thing one announces at a seminar intended to alleviate stress and depression in the workplace. He was confident that the ghost stories were the source of the staff’s ills, as working conditions were otherwise very good, and the department heads all had amicable relationships with their charges.

He rode the elevator back up to the floor where his office was, giving the door from his dream a wide berth as he walked past it. There was still a cold draft coming in from the gap beneath it, perhaps there was a broken window in that room.

As he entered his office, movement on one of the CRTs caught his eye. The black and white feeds cycled randomly through cameras spread throughout the building, as there were far more of them than even the bank of sixteen monitors could display at once. He marched over to the control board and switched the view back to the previous camera, watching as the figure of a woman entered one of the rooms, closing the door behind her. The number in the corner of the display indicated that she was in a corridor on the sixty-third floor, the stenciled door number large enough to be visible even at such low fidelity.

Nobody could have gone from the dining room to the sixty-third floor in such a short amount of time, as Ethan had just got off the only working elevator. One of the employees must have decided to skip the seminar. Fuming, Ethan wheeled around, heading back to the elevator. He grumbled to himself as he turned the lever and pushed the button a little harder than was necessary, the car rumbling as it began to climb. Who the hell did she think she was, ignoring a mandatory summons from the facility manager? Perhaps she had a male employee in there with her, and they had decided to have a little honeymoon on their employer’s dime. It wouldn’t be the first time that he had broken up an affair while on the job.

These old cars were slow, and it took a good minute before he reached the right floor, stepping off into another strange area of the building. This one had also been leased out as a hotel, but the style was different from that of the prior floor. Instead of twenties era décor, this one looked like something straight out of the seventies. Everything was an ugly shade of beige or brown. The carpet that lined the hallway was brown with red and gold patterns, the wallpaper striped with brown and white lines, the lights casting everything in an unpleasant shade of yellow.

He located the correct door, turning the handle and finding that it was unlocked. It creaked open as he stepped inside, the hinges squeaking as though they hadn’t seen any use in a great deal of time. The lights were currently off, so he located a switch on the nearby wall, flicking it on. The hotel room was just like the hallway, a throwback to the seventies, the moody lighting illuminating a modest suite with an attached bathroom.

The walls were a shade of cream, skirted with dark, wood paneling. The carpet was brown, and the spread on the double bed was patterned with a suitably garish plaid in matching tones. There was a wooden dresser upon which an aged black and white television set was perched, along with a couple of leather chairs that were situated beside a reading lamp.

The bed was unoccupied, the sheets undisturbed, there was no sign of his fugitive. The air had a musty quality, and there was a layer of dust on every surface. If he’d had to guess, Ethan would have assumed that nobody had set foot in this room for a long period of time. It was clear that this floor had been neglected by the cleaning staff, who had previously refused to work above the fiftieth level. That said, someone had the keys, because the door was unlocked. The culprit must be in the bathroom on the far side of the suite.

He made his way over there, the room becoming colder as he went, the sound of rushing wind reaching his ears.

I know there’s someone in there,” he announced, rapping his knuckles on the door. “You’re going to have to explain to your department head why you thought it was necessary to skip a mandatory staff meeting.”

After waiting a moment for a reply, none came, so he knocked more loudly.

Hello?”

Screw it. Finding the door unlocked, he pulled it open and was hit by a blast of wind such that he had to grip the frame to stop himself from stumbling. The large window between the bathtub and the sink was open, providing just enough room for a woman to crouch on the sill no more than six feet away from him. The gale was blowing the long, tangled strands of her black hair, whipping at the frilly hem of the silk nightgown that she was wearing.

What the-”

The woman turned her head to look back at him, her eyes red and puffy, her mascara running down her cheeks. She looked like she had been crying for hours. He didn’t know what to do, she was obviously about to jump, but he feared that he might alarm her if he made to grab her. Was the morale among the staff truly this bad?

I can’t stay here,” she moaned, the strain in her voice setting him on edge.

C-come down from there,” he stammered, extending a hand towards her. “Whatever’s going on, this isn’t the solution.”

Before he could utter another word, she leaned out of the window, Ethan’s eyes widening in horror as he watched her drop out of sight. He raced across the bathroom, his shoes slipping on the brown tiles, planting his hands on the sill. He leaned over the edge, expecting to see her ruined body crumpled on the sidewalk below, but he couldn’t make out a thing. From this high up, even a bus was scarcely visible.

He wheeled around and raced to the elevator, his cellphone already to his ear as he darted out of the hotel room. By the time he was pressing the ground floor button, Mister West was answering his frantic call.

Slow down, speak clearly,” the security guard complained. “What happened?”

A woman!” Ethan gasped, out of breath from his sprint. “A woman has fallen out of a window on the sixty-third floor, North face!”

What?” West replied incredulously, “who was it?”

I don’t know all of the staff by name yet,” Ethan continued hurriedly. “I saw someone on the security cameras, so I came up here to check. They must have skipped the seminar. I watched them jump, there was nothing I could do to stop them!”

But-”

Just call a damned ambulance!” Ethan snapped.

A minute later, he was racing through the lobby, pushing through one of the revolving glass doors to find West and Spencer waiting for him on the sidewalk. They seemed confused, and the other pedestrians showed no sign of panic or distress, a passing woman giving him a strange look as he doubled over to catch his breath.

Where is she?” Ethan demanded. West’s brow furrowed with concern, and he shared a glance with Spencer before the old concierge gave a hesitant reply.

There’s nobody here.”

That’s impossible,” Ethan muttered, looking left and right along the street beneath the building. She had fallen from the North face, she must have landed somewhere nearby. Yet there was nothing, no screaming onlookers, no body lying ruined upon the asphalt. He jogged along the sidewalk, trying to locate the window from which the woman had plunged, but he couldn’t make anything out from this angle.

Damn it, maybe I got turned around in there,” he yelled as he waved for West and Spencer to follow him. “She must have fallen on the other side!”

He weaved through the crowds of pedestrians as he ran around the corner of the building, but no matter where he looked, there was no indication that anything was wrong. There was nothing on the sidewalks, nothing on the roads, no sign of an accident whatsoever.

Could she have landed on a terrace, or on top of one of the wings?” he wondered aloud. “That has to be it. Damn it, West, where’s that ambulance?”

The security guard sidled up beside him, Ethan lurching as he felt the man’s heavy hand on his shoulder, a gesture that he had probably intended to be reassuring.

You alright?” he asked. “When you arrived this morning, you told me that you hadn’t slept much.”

Maybe your mind was playing tricks on you,” Spencer suggested as he finally caught up with them, “that happens a lot around here.”

I didn’t hallucinate,” Ethan said, brushing the hand off his shoulder and turning to glare at the pair. “I saw her as plain as I see you, I watched her fall. She just...dropped. God, I’ve never seen anything so horrible. How can you be so calm?”

Come back inside and collect your thoughts,” Spencer insisted, “calm your nerves.”

It wasn’t a suggestion, West steering him back in the direction of the lobby. Once he was inside and seated on one of the padded benches, he started to mull over the events of the last few minutes, trying to slow the racing of his heart. The adrenaline was wearing off now, leaving him feeling drained.

I saw her,” he insisted, West and Spencer watching him with that same expression of concern. “Sixty-third floor, room seventeen, North face. I’m not hallucinating, damn it! Come with me, I’ll show you the open window.”

Mister Lewis,” Spencer began, his tone apologetic. “The windows don’t open.”

What do you mean?” Ethan asked, glancing up at him.

The windows in this building don’t open, they haven’t done for years. It’s for liability reasons, you see. We had to seal them up to bring them up to code, to prevent precisely what you describe from happening. The only way to get through them now would be to break them.”

She got it open somehow,” Ethan replied, “I was just there. Come on, I’ll show you.”

He rose from his seat unsteadily, still in a state of shock, the two men following him over to the elevator. The ride up was quiet and tense. Ethan wasn’t stupid, it was obvious that they thought he was losing his marbles, but he knew what he had seen. When they arrived at the correct floor, he led his skeptical companions to the right door, gesturing to it.

In here,” he said, reaching down to grip the handle. When he turned it, he met resistance, a mechanical clunk informing him that the door was now locked. He looked down at it in disbelief, then back at West, who was standing behind him with his arms crossed.

I was just here,” he insisted, “it wasn’t locked!”

Thinking that he had perhaps misremembered the room number, he tried the doors to the left and right of it, finding that those were locked too.

Mister West,” Spencer said after a moment of awkward silence. “If you would be so kind as to open the door for us.”

West eased Ethan back, then positioned himself in front of it, raising a boot and bring it down beside the lock. After a couple of kicks, the mechanism broke, the door swinging open on its creaking hinges. Ethan followed after him, finding the room exactly as he had left it. There were the two beds, the black and white television on the dresser, the pair of leather recliners beneath the reading lamp.

You’ll see,” he insisted, “the window in the bathroom was open.”

He led them over to it, opening the bathroom door, his heart sinking as he saw that the pane of glass was now lowered. He ran his hands across it in disbelief, hooked his fingers beneath it and tried to lift it, but it was stuck fast. In desperation, he checked the dusty floor for footprints, but there were none besides those that he had just left.

Ethan turned to look back at Spencer and West, not knowing what to say.

It...it was real,” he muttered. “This place isn’t getting to me like it did the others, I saw it.”

I have no doubt that you saw something,” Spencer replied hesitantly. “Everyone here has seen or heard something that they couldn’t explain. That being said, your account is a little more...vivid than most.”

Ethan looked to West, the burly security guard giving him a nod in silent agreement with the concierge.

I don’t know what exactly is going on in this building,” Ethan continued, “but there’s no such thing as ghosts. Are we just supposed to accept that the place is haunted? Shall we just stand by while the staff becomes less and less able to do their jobs? Either someone is playing elaborate pranks, or there’s something in the building that’s causing this. Mold or fungus that causes hallucinations, some kind of building material like asbestos, lead in the water. Something.”

It has been getting worse lately,” Spencer admitted, glancing at West. “It all seems to have culminated in Mister Fairfax’s episode in the elevator shaft. Before that, the reports were limited to someone hearing odd noises that sounded like footsteps or whispers, figures glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye for a brief moment. People said that they felt uncomfortable in certain parts of the building, that they felt like someone was watching them, all things that could be easily dismissed.”

And now?” Ethan asked.

I had written it off as a kind of group hysteria brought on by the stories that circulate about the building’s past,” Spencer continued. “You said it yourself, the rumor-mongering is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Someone tells a ghost story, another person becomes frightened, and that’s taken as further proof that the story is true. But you’ve only been here for a couple of days, you’ve not been exposed to the culture of fear that has slowly been developing.”

If someone had mentioned this during my interview, I might have been better prepared,” Ethan complained.

Wanted: facility manager for haunted building with superstitious staff,” Spencer added jokingly. “Nobody would have applied.”

Fair point,” Ethan grumbled, “but I’m not about to be deterred. Every problem has a solution, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to fail in my task here. Mister West,” he continued, trying to collect himself as he addressed the tight-lipped guard. “You’re certain that there would be no way for bad actors to get in and out of the building without your knowledge? Have you reviewed any security footage in order to determine the legitimacy of the complaints from the staff?”

Reasonably certain,” he replied. “The building is old, and it was built during prohibition. There may be hidden tunnels that lead in and out, perhaps even ways to reach the subway system, but there are none in the plans, and I’ve never come across any. As for the tapes, I have reviewed them. I’ve caught reactions from staff, but nothing that I’d call evidence.”

Very good,” Ethan replied. “I would like you to start taking reports when people say that they’ve seen or heard something. Include the time, date, and the area of the building where the incident occurred. Even if we don’t find anything, it will at least let the employees know that they’re being taken seriously.”

You got it,” West replied. The idea of doing actual security work seemed to invigorate the man.

I’m going to review some footage myself,” Ethan added. “I saw someone on the monitor bank, that’s what brought me up here in the first place. That footage must exist, and if it doesn’t, then it will at least show me entering and leaving the room.”

It felt good to take charge of the situation, to have a plan of action, and it seemed to make his colleagues more confident too. When they returned to the elevator, it was with the hope that they would be able to find a solution to the problems that plagued the building.

***

Ethan went over the footage again, his eyes fixed on the flickering screen, casting his face in its pale glow. It didn’t make any sense. The camera feed was recorded on old VHS tapes, which were wiped and reused after a period of time had passed, so he had footage of the hallway in question going back at least sixteen hours. He knew what time of day it had been when he had seen the woman enter room seventeen, yet the video showed an empty corridor. The only activity was when he had gone up there to investigate. It showed him proceeding down the hallway from below right of the frame, then standing in front of the door, completely motionless. A chill ran down his spine as he watched himself, as still as a statue, his nose an inch from the wood. It was an eerie and unsettling feeling, watching himself do something that he had no memory of, like he had been black-out drunk.

After a couple of minutes, he abruptly sprang back to life, sprinting to the elevator with his phone in his hand.

If the footage was to be believed, then he had never entered the room at all. That would explain the lack of footprints on the dusty bathroom floor, and why the door had been locked when he had returned with Spencer and West.

Yet he knew the layout of the room, despite having never set foot inside. It was exactly as he remembered it, down to the awful carpet and the plaid bedspread. How could that be possible?

He leaned back in his chair, trying to gather his thoughts as he scratched his chin pensively. Should he doubt his own faculties? The figure in the hallway, the strange dream, the jumper in room seventeen. Could it be some kind of environmental poisoning, as he had suggested to Spencer? This building was old, it was probably full of lead paint, and mercury poisoning certainly fit the symptoms. Acute exposure could give rise to delirium, hallucinations, and psychosis.

The problem with that theory was that he hadn’t been working in the Abbott and Schutzman long enough to be exposed to such contaminants. If that was the case, then the longer a person remained in the building, the crazier they’d become. Still, better call in some health inspectors and have them check for mold and heavy metals, just to be sure.

Ethan considered whether he wanted to share the chilling footage with his peers. It might be counterproductive, they might call his mental state into question. No, he would wait until he had more to go on.

A text message jolted him back to reality, and he pulled up his phone, swiping through his alerts. Good, Rodriguez had finished clearing the damaged elevator shaft. Maybe he had been able to figure out what exactly had happened in there. After taking one last glance at the bank of monitors, Ethan stowed his phone in his pocket and got up from his seat.

On his way to the elevator, he passed the door where he had seen the leaning figure. A chill came over him all of a sudden, like a cold draft, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. He spun around, getting the distinct feeling that he was being watched, but there was nobody there. He approached the door, frigid air pouring out from beneath it, gripping the handle and testing it again. Still locked. The aged wood creaked as he pressed an ear against it, listening intently. There was something on the other side, like a whisper barely heard, or a conversation happening a great distance away. It was barely audible over the sound of his own blood rushing in his ears.

No, it was gone.

He stepped back, resolving to return with a key that would finally let him sate his curiosity.

***

What do you mean, there was no debris?” Ethan demanded. He was standing outside of an open elevator shaft, Rodriguez and his colleague packing away their tools and equipment.

You can take a look for yourself, Sir,” the engineer replied as he gestured to the parted elevator doors. Ethan gave it a tentative glance, then resolved to do as he suggested, trying to dispel the images of winged bat monsters from his mind. He leaned over the edge, peering down into the yawning shaft. It was hard to see much of anything, it was far too dark, but Rodriguez soon produced a flashlight from his belt. Ethan took it, the bright beam cutting through the gloom, illuminating the car a few floors below them.

There was nothing, no fallen rubble, so signs of any structural collapse. The metal was pretty scuffed up and dirty, but he had no way of telling if that was how it was supposed to look. The thing was three times older than he was.

Then, you were wrong about what caused the mis-leveling?” Ethan asked.

No, that was definitely caused by an overload,” Rodriguez replied.

So you’re saying that enough weight was put on the car to damage the cables and the braking system, but that it was then removed? How?”

I can’t give you an answer that you’ll like,” the engineer replied.

Rather than get frustrated, Ethan closed his eyes for a moment, taking a breath and composing himself.

Let’s get this fixed,” he said. “Let me know if you need anything that wasn’t on the list of tools and replacement parts that you sent me, and I’ll see that you get it.”

Rodriguez seemed surprised that he wasn’t being chewed out, giving Ethan an appreciative nod.

We’ll get it done, Sir.”

***

It wasn’t long before Ethan was once again called away, this time by Mister West. He headed to the security office on the ground floor, a small room with a few computers that more resembled the office of a school headmaster than the head of security. There were a few members of the female janitorial staff milling around inside as Ethan approached, giving him a half-hearted greeting when he opened the door. One of them was sitting on the chair in front of West’s desk, a couple of her colleagues patting her on the back as they tried to calm her. She was sobbing, her hunched back rising and falling with the effort.

What on Earth has happened here?” Ethan asked, West looking up from his computer monitor.

You asked me to start taking reports if anyone witnessed anything...unusual, Sir,” West replied. “This is the first, I thought that you might want to be here in person.”

Ethan nodded his approval, taking up a position beside the desk so that he could observe.

Tell us what happened from the top,” West said, the sobbing woman catching her breath and drying her eyes on her sleeve. West rummaged in one of his desk drawers for a moment, locating a pocket-sized packet of tissues and passing it to her. The two men waited as she blew her nose, trying to compose herself.

I...I was cleaning one of the rooms on the fifty-third floor,” she replied, her voice cracking as one of her colleagues rubbed her back sympathetically.

What’s on fifty-three?” Ethan asked, his question directed towards West. “Sorry to interrupt.”

More hotel rooms,” West replied. “The majority of the building was leased out either as office space or as a hotel.”

He gestured for the woman to go on.

I was v-vacuuming the carpet,” she continued, dabbing her eyes with a balled-up tissue. “It was so dusty, hadn’t been c-cleaned in years. We haven’t been up past the fiftieth floor in a long time. Helen was with me,” she added, gesturing to one of her colleagues. “Miss Nelson told us that we were to work in teams of two so that we wouldn’t have to be alone up there. Helen went into the bathroom to mop the tiles, she was only out of sight for a m-minute...”

She began to break down again, Ethan sparing West a worried glance as they waited for her to get herself back under control. Whatever she had seen, it had frightened her out of her wits.

I was focused on the carpet,” she said, her voice wavering. “And when I looked up, there was a...a man sitting in the armchair across from me. He was...”

She hesitated, as though struggling to find the words.

Take all the time you need,” West said, trying to be encouraging.

He had a gun in his hand,” she finally said, starting to sob again. “I thought it was a burglar or some kind of vagrant who had somehow gotten inside and had been living in the abandoned room. I wanted to scream, but...I couldn’t, it was like I had lost my voice.”

What did he look like?” West asked, tapping at his keyboard as he took down her report.

He was in his late thirties, early forties maybe,” she replied tearfully. “A big guy, double chin, balding. He was wearing a white undershirt, a pair of shorts, and black socks with those old-timey garters on them.”

What kind of gun?” West added.

I don’t know,” she muttered, “it was silver. One of those ones with a spinning part for the bullets, like from a Cowboy movie.”

A revolver,” Ethan suggested, and she nodded her head.

What happened next?” West asked.

He put the barrel under his chin and...”

She didn’t need to elaborate, what she had seen next was obvious enough. Her colleague, Helen, chimed in next.

I heard her scream,” she said, “and I came running out of the bathroom to find Maria covering her face with her hands.”

And did you see this man too?” West asked.

No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “There was just an empty chair.”

I saw it,” Maria insisted, her lip starting to tremble again.

I believe you,” Ethan said, all eyes in the office turning to him. “I saw something similar up on the sixty-third floor, a person who was there one minute, but gone the next. I’ve asked Mister West to start taking statements from people who report any unusual happenings. We’re taking this matter seriously from now on, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

Do you know what’s happening?” Helen asked.

Not yet,” he admitted, “but we have some theories. Heavy metal poisoning is one of them, perhaps mercury, the symptoms of which line up perfectly with what has been happening to the staff. Delirium, hallucinations, psychosis. There’s no need to be alarmed, we’ve already arranged for city safety inspectors to survey the property for any contaminants.”

That seemed to alleviate some of the tension in the room. As he had suspected, taking the complaints of the employees seriously, and offering them more reasonable alternatives to ghosts and goblins did a world of good by itself.

I think a few days of paid leave should do Maria some good,” Ethan added. “I was on my way to see Mister Spencer anyway, so I’ll talk to him about it.”

CHAPTER 4: TWO-FIVE-THREE

Two-five-three?” Spencer asked, rising from his seat at the front desk and hobbling into a back room. There was a massive rack of old keys hanging from a wooden board in there, and he began to search through them, adjusting his spectacles as he read off the floor numbers. “The same floor as your office, yes?”

That’s right,” Ethan replied.

Whatever do you want to get into that room for?” Spencer asked as he pulled down the correct key ring. “Most of the suites on that floor have been vacant for decades.”

I’m just going to check something out,” he replied. “There’s a cold draft that comes in from under that door, I wanted to make sure that there wasn’t a broken window in there or something.”

Very well,” the old man replied, handing him the key ring. It was surprisingly heavy, all made from iron, it seemed. “Just return it when you’re done.”

***

Ethan stood before the door outside his converted office, the correct key in hand, staring at the bronze room number as he tried to drum up the nerve to unlock it. Supposing he entered the room, and saw something horrifying or unexplainable, would it really be happening? Or would he just be standing in front of the door like a motionless mannequin again?

There was only one way to find out.

He reached down and inserted the key into the lock, hearing the mechanical clunk as he turned it. This floor had been practically untouched since the thirties, so he expected the interior of the room to resemble the hallway.

As he stepped inside, that same chill came over him again, like he was entering a walk-in freezer. It was so cold that he half expected his breath to mist, or for there to be frost on the walls, but everything seemed outwardly normal. It was about what he had anticipated, your average, nineteen-thirties era hotel room. It was laid out similarly to the one that the phantom woman had jumped from, albeit with different décor, and no television on the dresser.

Shivering, Ethan wandered about, inspecting the twin beds and the dresser. There was nothing here that stood out as unusual to him. There was indeed a window on the far wall that would have looked out over the city in ages past, but was now boarded up. There was no draft, so what was the source of the cold? A malfunctioning A/C unit, perhaps?

He decided to check the bathroom, opening the door and stepping through. There was little of note in here, just an old-fashioned bathtub, a porcelain sink, and a toilet. As his eyes scanned the room, he noticed something out of place, Ethan walking over to the sink. Beneath a dusty mirror in which he could barely make out his own reflection was a straight razor, sitting between the faucets. His blood ran cold as he recognized the wooden handle.

It was the one from his dream.

With trembling fingers, he reached down and picked it up, turning it over in his hand. The blade was coated in what looked like rust, but Ethan knew better.

Am I really seeing this?” he muttered to himself.

You don’t disappoint, house dick.”

Ethan froze, staring intently into the sink, too afraid to raise his eyes for fear of what he might see. The voice was coming from behind him, immediately recognizable, the smell of cigarette smoke wafting on the air.

What is this?” he demanded, his mouth suddenly bone dry. He could feel eyes on his back, he knew instinctively that someone or something was standing just a few feet away, but he dared not look.

It’s not about you seein’ us,” the voice continued, “it’s about us seein’ you. Oh, we all see you, like a candle in the dark. You got that glow, pal, brighter than the rest. You got the nerve to play house dick.”

What are you talking about?” Ethan asked, a shiver running down his spine like icy fingers. “What do you mean by that? What’s a house dick?”

A house dick,” the man replied, frustration creeping into his voice. “A hotel flatfoot, a P.I, you mug. I ain’t got all day, so listen good. We want to check out of this joint, but it won’t let us. You gotta fix it so’s we can leave.”

Who are you?” Ethan asked.

Who am I?” the stranger scoffed. “I’m the only guy who knows the scoop, the only patsy who’s in on the joke. Just when you think you’ve found an easy way out of the frying pan, bam, you’re dropped right into the fire. Some of ‘em get stuck in a loop, living out their despair over and over, like a clockwork toy. Me, I can appreciate a good pratfall, always did like a little Keaton.”

What is it that you want from me?” Ethan continued, trying to control the wavering in his voice. “What is this it that you keep referring to?”

I ain’t got all the answers, that’s your job, shamus. I gotta bow out, so keep sniffin’.”

Wait!” Ethan said, daring to look up for the first time. In the clouded mirror, he saw an indistinct reflection, the silhouette of a man wearing a newsboy cap. “Can’t you give me anything to go on?”

Red eyes in the dark,” he replied. His voice seemed to grow distant, as though he was calling out from the far end of a long tunnel, his reflection fading like a wisp of smoke.

Ethan gave it a minute longer, leaning over the sink, feeling light-headed. This wasn’t a fucking hallucination or a dream, it was real, visceral. Unless he had developed full-blown schizophrenia overnight, there was no logical explanation for what was happening to him.

Heavy metals in the water my ass,” he muttered to himself, “more like DMT.”

Whatever the man in the newsboy cap was, he was trying to get a message out, he wanted something. No, they wanted something, something that only Ethan could give them.

Something was preventing them from checking out, as the man had said, stopping them from moving on. Was that it, then? Was he accepting the existence of ghosts? Maybe he really had gone fucking crazy…

Ethan turned around once he had steadied himself, and immediately let out a muffled exclamation of surprise and disgust, turning his head away from the old bathtub. It was full to the brim with water that was clouded with dark blood, crimson fingerprints trailing over its edge, staining the porcelain. He gave it a few more moments, waiting for his nausea to abate, then opened one eye hesitantly.

The tub was empty, returned to the state in which he had found it.

Red eyes in the dark,” he muttered under his breath. What could it mean?

***

Night had fallen, and it was time to turn in. The events of the day had left Ethan exhausted, both physically and emotionally, but he wasn’t looking forward to sleeping within the walls of the building. Whatever was trapped in here alongside the man with the cap would no doubt be drawn to him, like moths to a flame. That said, it wasn’t as though he was any safer in his own apartment, not after the night terror that he’d had involving the bat creature.

Red eyes in the dark. The apparition’s last, fading words had stuck in his head. Was it a clue that could help him find a solution to their mutual problem, or was he describing it, the thing that was preventing them from checking out? The creature that Fairfax had reported seeing in the elevator shaft, the monster that had pursued Ethan in his nightmare, both of them had red eyes.

He had no idea where to start. The man in the cap spoke in what must be archaic slang, for the most part, layered on top of vague metaphors. Without direction, what was he supposed to do? Should he enlist the help of his colleagues, or would they immediately have him committed?

Maybe he’d sleep on it, tackle the problem with a fresh perspective in the morning. He began to undress, then slipped on his pajamas, avoiding looking in the bathroom mirror as he brushed his teeth for fear of ghosts appearing behind him.

As soon as he had slipped beneath the sheets and the lights were off, a wave of unease washed over him. According to the man in the cap, the ghosts that haunted the building were watching him. They were drawn to his glow, whatever that meant. Were they watching him right now? There was no point dwelling on it, there was nothing that he could do to stop them. Ethan closed his eyes, almost glad of his fatigue, letting it carry him off into blissful unconsciousness.

***

Ethan was jolted awake by the sound of heavy footsteps. He looked around the bedroom of the converted suite groggily, his eyes seemingly already adjusted to the pitch blackness such that he could make out the closed door and the dresser adjacent to his bed.

The noise was getting louder, the slow, methodical thudding making the floor beneath him shake. Vibrations traveled up through the wooden frame of his bed, making his headboard bump against the wall behind him, the wilted potted plant on the bedside table clattering as it was bounced around.

The same fear that he had felt in his nightmare came over him, a deep, primal dread. Even though the bedroom was completely enclosed, the door bolted shut, his instincts warned him that a hungry gaze was fixed on him, that he was being stalked. He began to tremble as whatever was making that terrible sound paused outside of the door to his suite. After a brief delay, he heard a crash as it was wrenched from its hinges, sent toppling to the floor by something with far more strength than any mortal man.

The thudding footsteps neared, the sound of loud, bestial huffing emanating from beyond his bedroom door. It sounded like a giant bloodhound tracking a scent, or a hog sniffing for truffles, more footsteps alerting him that it was searching for him.

He prayed that it wouldn’t find him, that it wouldn’t pick up his scent, that the frenzied beating of his heart wouldn’t alert it to his presence. He stifled a whimper as he heard it bring its nose down to the gap beneath his door, taking in lungfuls of air as it tried to sniff him out, red light bleeding through into the room. It knew that he was there.

A sound like knives scraping on wood filled the room as it raked what sounded like claws on the other side of the door, a rumbling growl chilling his blood, deep and menacing like that of a lion or a bear. He wanted so badly to hide his face beneath the sheets like a frightened child, to take some measure to protect himself, but he couldn’t move. It was like there was a weight pressing down on his chest, like his entire body was limp, his muscles not responding to the signals that he sent them.

I...see...you...” A deep, gravelly voice emanated from the other side of the door, more like that of an animal than a person. It sounded like a grizzly bear trying to imitate human speech.

The door creaked as it put more weight on the barrier, Ethan’s eyes drawn to the metal bolt that held it shut, which was now straining against its housing. The wood around it began to splinter, a screw falling to the floor, the sound as loud as a pin dropping in an empty auditorium.

I...see...you...

He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t even inflate his lungs, he felt like he was suffocating.

The lock finally broke, the door swinging open, a flood of red light spilling through the breach. Two ruby-red eyes peered back at him, like a pair of lasers, so blindingly bright that they completely obscured the features of the intruder. All he knew was that it was huge, its head skirting the ceiling, which must be seven feet high at least. His eyes couldn’t adjust, and he couldn’t look away. All that he could see were those red eyes in the darkness.

It took a couple of steps closer, its weight making the floorboards creak, the plant pot toppling from the dresser to shatter on the carpet. As the thing loomed over his bed, a pair of great, leathery wings unfurled. Their tips were far enough from the red glare that he could make them out. They were like those of a bat, wide enough to span the bedroom, coated in leathery skin that was a granite-grey in color.

A hand reached down towards him, seeming to emerge from the crimson glare, its five fingers tipped with sharp claws. Ethan could only lie there in silent terror, helpless as it neared his face. It was pallid and grey, and as those long fingers closed around his throat, he felt its frigid touch against his skin. It was like a corpse or a statue, as cold as the grave.

His breathing stopped completely, those red eyes all that he could focus on.

Seventy...seven...

***

Ethan lurched upright, taking in a desperate gasp of air, his eyes darting about the bedroom. There was no sign of the creature, the room was empty and dark, and he was once again drenched in cold sweat. Another night terror? What was this, sleep paralysis?

He threw off his sheets and stood up unsteadily, then made his way to the far wall, fumbling for the light switch. The bedroom door was still locked, the metal bolt just as he had left it, the potted plant still resting atop his bedside table. None of it had been real, and yet he knew now that his nightmares could become manifest, that they were more than simple dreams.

Seventy-seven,” he mumbled to himself. That could only mean the seventy-seventh floor, the highest point in the building. What was the significance of that? That floor had been closed off for decades if what Spencer had told him was to be believed. It was unsafe, poorly maintained, yet the seven topmost floors of the Abbott and Schutzman held many mysteries. The observation deck, the Sky Lounge, and who knew what else. The men who had built this place had been eccentric, and they were motivated by the paranoia of the prohibition era, hiding secret passages and compartments all over the place.

If the other apparitions that he had seen thus far were real, then did that mean that this bat-creature was too? Was it the force that was trapping the spirits here, preventing them from moving on? The man in the cap had a clear agenda, at least. He wanted Ethan to somehow help him and the other ghosts find a way to leave, but why would Ethan be visited by that...demonic entity? Those red eyes, that growling voice, he could scarcely think about it without shivering. Perhaps it was trying to intimidate him, and it had successfully done the same to Fairfax? If that was the case, then why give him a lead? Was it baiting him into a trap?

The idea of simply leaving all of this madness far behind him and moving to another state crossed his mind. This wasn’t what he had signed up for, he had no obligation to these spirits, and he didn’t appreciate being terrorized for the sake of delivering a message. But even if he took the first flight out of New York, could he go anywhere that the nightmares wouldn’t follow? As the man in the cap had said, the entities were somehow drawn to him. Ethan couldn’t shake the feeling that this was now as much his problem as it was theirs.

Realizing that he had no idea what time it was, he retrieved his phone, seeing that it was only fifteen minutes before his alarm had been set to wake him. So much for tackling the day with a fresh outlook...

CHAPTER 5: SLEUTHING

Did you find what you were looking for in that locked room?” Spencer asked as Ethan handed the heavy key ring back to him. The old man doddered into the office behind the main desk, returning the keys to their place on the wooden board, Ethan following after him.

I satisfied my curiosity,” he replied, a lie of omission. He wasn’t sure if anyone would understand what he had been through in that suite, it was better to keep his mouth shut for the time being. It was quite a leap to go from seeing phantoms, to being recruited to fight a demon by a deceased Buster Keaton fan.

I was wondering if there was a way that I could access the top seven floors of the building?” he continued, Spencer turning to raise an eyebrow at him.

Whatever for, Mister Lewis? Those areas are closed to the public for a good reason, they’re no longer safe, they’ve been left to deteriorate for decades.”

That’s exactly my concern,” Ethan replied. “When the owners hired me to manage the building, they weren’t just talking about the first seventy floors. I have no intention of opening those levels up to the public or of leasing them out, but I believe that we have an obligation to ensure that the building is at least structurally sound. I’d like to go up there and survey those floors, just to get an idea of what kind of state they’re in, and what kinds of repairs could potentially be made. I think that if we continue to ignore the problem, the entire spire might one day collapse in on itself. It’s not outside the realm of possibility if there are structural beams up there that are being exposed to the elements.”

I’m afraid that I will have to forbid it,” Spencer replied, “the owners are very particular about keeping people out of those areas. If you wish, I will arrange for the top seven floors to be surveyed myself, in close coordination with the owners.”

That struck Ethan as rather odd, and he cocked an eyebrow at the old man.

But I’m the facility manager,” he replied hesitantly, “I wasn’t given any instructions to keep out of the top floors. I can’t be reasonably expected to perform my duties if I’m locked out of crucial areas of the building, can I? What if I took Mister Rodriguez up there with me?”

I can’t allow it,” Spencer replied with finality. “I will speak to the owners on your behalf.”

Very well,” Ethan replied, confused by his refusal. Spencer had always seemed like a reasonable man. Perhaps he knew more about what was going on up there than he was telling?

***

The top seven floors?” Rodriguez asked, affixing his tool belt about his waist. Ethan had caught him just before the start of his shift, and they were alone in a locker room on the ground floor, out of earshot of Spencer. “What do you want to go up there for?”

I want to see what kind of state it’s in,” Ethan replied, “I feel like leaving it closed off and unattended is an accident waiting to happen.”

I’d be inclined to agree, but we’re not allowed to work above the seventieth floor,” the engineer added as he buttoned up his overalls. “My predecessor wrote it off as being too dangerous, and Mister Spencer has made sure that everyone knows it.”

But why?” Ethan continued, “what would supposedly happen up there to make it so dangerous?”

It’s probably more for liability reasons than any real expectation of injuries happening. If management was to send an employee up there knowing that they couldn’t absolutely guarantee their safety, and an accident happened, there would be lawsuits out the wazoo.” “How would someone even get up there?” Ethan wondered, “do any of the elevators go that high?”

Not the public elevators or the service elevator, no,” Rodriguez replied. “The top floors are where the Sky Lounge and the old speakeasy were built, it was intended to be a very private area only accessible to the original owners and their high-society friends. The only way to get up there is by using the executive elevator, which requires a key.”

Let me guess, Mister Spencer has it?”

Most likely. Better to do as he says,” Rodriguez added as he straightened his collar and headed for the door. “He may look like he’s got one foot in the grave, but he’s been working in this place longer than we’ve been alive. The only people who know it better than he does are the ones who built it.”

I’ll keep that in mind,” Ethan replied.

***

Now the question Ethan had to ask himself was how he was going to get his hands on the key for the executive elevator without Spencer knowing about it. The old man meant well, but Ethan couldn’t ignore the message that had been delivered to him by the demon in his nightmare, it was the only clue that he had to go on. Who knew what he would encounter up there, but he had to find out.

Both Spencer and West were on the day shift, and so it was a simple matter to wait until they left their posts. Ethan volunteering to work into the night would be seen as a sign of dedication, rather than the ruse that it was.

A couple of hours after they were slated to leave the lobby, Ethan made his way down there, finding it empty and silent. The building was closed during the night, and so there was no danger of running into anybody. If he should meet one of the patrolling security guards, it would hardly matter, as the facility manager was generally allowed to go where he pleased.

He found the office unlocked, probably so that the guards on the night shift could access any keys that they needed, and he made his way inside. The wooden board was mounted on the wall to his left, laden with dozens of heavy key rings, Ethan’s eyes darting about as he searched for the right ones. Fortunately, they were numbered by their respective floors, and it wasn’t long before he located the ones that held the keys for the upper levels. They weren’t as packed with keys as the others, there must be fewer rooms up there.

There was no sign of the key for the executive elevator, however. Cursing under his breath, he turned to the office, trying to think of where it might be hidden. There were two stacks of old-fashioned filing cabinets up against the far wall, and there were a couple of drawers in Spencer’s desk. If the key was locked away in a drawer or a wall safe, then he was screwed.

He began to rifle through the filing cabinets first, finding the usual records and documents that one would expect to see in an administrator's office. As he moved along the row, however, he came across something decidedly more unusual. The files in this drawer were listed by name, with only the surname scribbled in pen, not at all what one would expect for staff records or something of the like. Most of that stuff would be handled by computer anyway, there was no reason to keep physical files on employees…

Ethan pulled one from the drawer, opening the folder. There was a form inside with an NYPD emblem on the top, it looked like a police report. It was old, the paper yellowed and cracked in places, the text written in looping cursive. His eyes began to widen as he read from the aged document. It was a police report from the nineteen-fifties, detailing a fight between two patrons over a card game, which had resulted in one of them being stabbed. The man had died on the scene before an ambulance could arrive. As he flipped through the pages, he almost dropped the folder in alarm. There were crime scene photos, black and white, depicting a man sprawled on a carpet. His vest was stained with what was presumably blood, his eyes open, glassy and vacant.

He set the folder down on the table and pulled out another. It was similar to the first, a surname written on it in pen, its contents detailing another wrongful death. This one described a suicide by gunshot, Ethan’s heart beginning to beat faster with every turn of the page. It seemed to stop dead in his chest as he came across more photos, this one showing a portly man in his underwear who was slumped in a leather armchair, most of his head...missing. It perfectly fit the description of the apparition that the tearful janitor had described.

After pulling out a few more folders, it became clear that this was a record of every murder and suicide that had taken place on the premises going back almost to when it was built. A storied history indeed, Spencer had downplayed how many deaths had occurred in the Abbott and Schutzman over the decades, there must be two dozen or more. It wasn’t too unusual for a building like this one to see accidents and suicides, especially one so old, but this was excessive. More importantly, why were these records being kept? Who could possibly need access to this information?

He returned the folders to the filing cabinet, and moved over to the desk, searching through one of the drawers. After rummaging for a minute, he found a key, holding it up to the light. He couldn’t be sure that it was the key to the elevator, there was no tag on it, but it was clearly very old. It was ornate too, made from gold, or at least plated with it. What else would the key to an executive elevator look like?

With the key in hand, he made his way back out of the office, heading for the elevator. There were three of them in a row towards the back wall of the lobby, the two public elevators, and the larger freight elevator. So, where was this executive elevator? With a little searching, he located it, situated on a wall to the left of the main shafts. It was more decorative than its counterparts, but it was out of view behind one of the luminous marble pillars, hard to spot if one wasn’t looking for it.

Hoping that he had found the right key, Ethan pushed it into the lock and turned it. The creak of aged machinery greeted him as the two gold-plated doors slowly parted, their gears grinding, revealing an interior that was lined with crimson padding. Ritzy…

He stepped inside, praying that the damned thing even worked after so long and that he wouldn’t end up pancaked on the basement floor. These old elevators required manual operation, so he moved the lever and pushed the appropriate button, the car lurching worryingly as it began to rise.

It was a tense ride to the seventy-first floor, but he eventually arrived, glad to be free of the gilded death trap as he emerged onto the first of the forbidden levels. Dilapidated was right. The carpet was covered in a layer of dust so thick that it almost looked like ash after a fire. The Art Deco wallpaper was peeling off the walls in strips, and the plaster on the ceiling had flaked off over the decades, raining to the floor below. There was damp everywhere, the danger of mold was real, and the ceiling was sagging in places. The musty smell was overpowering, Ethan wrinkling his nose as he began to walk, wishing that he’d had the foresight to bring a dust mask and maybe a hardhat.

This floor looked like it had served as some kind of high-class apartment complex, maybe for friends and colleagues of the owners. It wasn’t too different from the hotel floors of the same era, albeit far more spacious, the suites here more akin to penthouses. As he peered into one of the suites, the door so swollen with damp that it could no longer close, he saw that there were windows up here. They were full-length, glass from floor to ceiling, not so grimy that he couldn’t get a wonderful view of the city’s sparkling lights.

He stepped inside, noting the crystal chandelier that was hanging from the flaking ceiling above, now draped in a thick covering of cobwebs. The leather furniture had mostly rotted away, exposing white puffs of stuffing, every surface coated in dust. What a shame, if these floors had been maintained, they could have been leased out to the city’s wealthy denizens for inordinate sums of money.

As much as he wanted to explore these relics of the past, he shouldn’t linger. He had to return the keys before morning, and being here was dangerous for reasons other than mold. The less time he spent on these levels, the better.

He pressed onward, mounting a spiral staircase that led up through the center of the building, its banisters decorated with lavish gold leaf. It creaked worryingly, but it seemed sturdy enough to hold his weight. He passed by more penthouses, eventually emerging into an open space that took up most of the floor. It was decorated much like the lobby, with an Art Deco flair, deep reds and browns accented by shining gold. There was more red marble, the structural pillars that were spaced out at intervals sporting those same inlays of amber onyx that had once softened the light strips that illuminated the room. They were dark now, there was no power being delivered to these levels. The ceiling was maybe eight or nine feet above his head, the maze of geometric patterns flaking away, the carpet beneath his feet impregnated with damp and mold.

Ethan began to wander, his head on a swivel. It was like exploring the abandoned stronghold of some Middle Eastern dictator, or a super-villain from a spy movie. It was so impossibly lavish, yet at the same time, in such an advanced state of decay. There were red leather armchairs all over the place, usually sitting around tables of dark mahogany, the varnish having long since lost its luster. The furniture was all exquisitely carved, the legs of the tables and chairs sporting intricate reliefs, their feet fashioned into the hooves and paws of various animals. Speaking of which, the walls were adorned with hunting trophies, dozens of glassy eyes staring back at him vacantly. There was a whole African Savannah's worth of exotic creatures here, from lions and tigers to ibex and buffalo. Much like the crystal chandeliers that dangled from the high ceiling, they too were draped in cobwebs, so thick that they almost looked like bridal veils. There were blank spaces where artwork had once hung from the walls, too, but those at the very least had been salvaged at some point.

The most striking part of the room was the row of windows that occupied the entire North face of the floor. They extended from carpet to ceiling, designed to look like one uninterrupted pane, now caked in several decades worth of dirt. Ethan walked up to them, peering through the grimy glass. No wonder they had called it the Sky Lounge. When these windows had been clean, it would have seemed like the occupants could reach out and touch the clouds…

To the right of him was a section of the floor that was conspicuously clear of furniture, the wall behind it devoid of any decorations. As Ethan walked over to examine it more closely, he noted that there was a clear break in the carpet, only visible because it had rotted away to reveal the wood beneath it over the years. It was crescent-shaped, and there were clear indents in the wall behind the peeling wallpaper. Could this be the secret speakeasy that Spencer had described?

He began to search for the lever, finding an almost comically out of place candelabra and giving it a tentative tug. A grinding sound filled the room, machinery that hadn’t seen use in nearly a hundred years coming to life, making the floor vibrate. The crescent-shaped section of flooring slid back, revealing what must once have been a varnished countertop. There were bar stools arranged along its curve, their stainless steel supports still gleaming, while the red leather that had once padded their seats had been eaten away in places.

The whole assembly began to rise from the floor, Ethan watching in fascination as a bar materialized before his eyes, locking into place with a mechanical clunk. On the wall behind it, more wooden panels began to slide back, revealing shelves and compartments that had once held liquor bottles. They were empty now, no doubt cleared out after the fateful police raid that had resulted in the death of that unfortunate man.

Ethan was a facility manager before he was a ghost hunter, and his heart sank when he considered that few other people would ever get to see this place. If Spencer would let them clean up this area of the building and bring it up to code, it would put the Abbott and Schutzman on the map, the place would become a tourist hotspot.

As he turned to leave, he was stopped in his tracks by the prone figure of a man. He was wearing a tailored suit, the fine fabric stained with blood, one of his loafers lying on the carpet a short distance away. His body was twisted, broken, as though he had been thrown from a car wreck. Ethan couldn’t see his face, the man’s head was turned away from him, but it was easy to imagine how broken and bruised it must be. This must be the patron who had been beaten to death by the overzealous police all those years ago.

As much as the sight filled Ethan with dread, he knew what these ghosts were now, echoes of the past that were forced to relive their final moments over and over again. Fear of the unknown was one thing, but he understood this phenomenon, at least enough to know that he wasn’t in any immediate danger.

The crumpled figure began to move, crawling towards the bar with shattered limbs, a baleful moan echoing in the empty room.

Nope,” Ethan muttered, walking briskly around the apparition and refusing to look at it. “Fuck that.”

He made his way back to the spiral staircase and ascended, leaving the harrowing sight behind him.

***

The next floor was the observation deck, all four of its walls made up of windows. The building was starting to narrow now as Ethan made his way deeper into the crown. There were a few comfortable chairs arranged by them, but the main event was happening outside. There was a walkway that ringed the building, open to the air, with nothing but an insubstantial railing to prevent curious tourists from plunging to their deaths. That might have been sufficient in the twenties, but this was one floor that Ethan could completely agree with closing off to the public.

It must have been breathtaking back in the day, but the windows hadn’t been cleaned in an age, so he couldn’t make out much. Knowing that he was probably asking for trouble, he walked over to the door that led out onto the balcony, finding that it was unlocked. He pushed it open and was immediately hit by a gust of frigid wind, the familiar scents of the city rising to his nose. This floor was nearing the thousand-foot height of the building, an altitude more suited to small planes and helicopters than people. He walked cautiously out onto the balcony, gripping the freezing railing in his hands as he peered out over the cityscape. It was the dead of night, but the moon was full, just peeking out from behind the dark clouds. The glittering lights of the city greeted him, the traffic on the roads far below seeming to make them glow, bleeding up to illuminate the buildings from beneath.

The railing at least seemed sturdy. There were old floodlights that were no longer operational, pointing back up at the facade of the Abbott and Schutzman, which must have lit it up beautifully back in the day. There were four stone brackets that projected out from the balcony, one on each corner, and sitting atop them were four massive gargoyles.

They were carved from the same stone as the rest of the building, their sculpted wings folded across their backs, their devilish tails trailing behind them. Each one had a slightly different pose, leering out over the city, crouched as though preparing to pounce. Ethan edged his way closer to one of them, admiring its craftsmanship. They must have weighed a ton, and they were exquisitely carved, far moreso than one would expect from such a piece. The original owners really had spared no expense. Gargoyles were often fairly crude and stylized, but these were intricately detailed, bulging muscles visible beneath their lifeless skin. He could even make out trailing veins in places, along with the indent of their ribs. Their proportions too were more human than most, almost like the sculptor had sought a middle ground between a gargoyle and a Romanesque statue, giving them a far more unnerving appearance that they might otherwise have had. The one that Ethan was inspecting had twisted, swept-back horns that jutted from an otherwise bald head, its lips pulled back in a snarl to expose rows of sharp teeth. A long tongue jutted from between them, its brow furrowed, its nose more like that of a lion or a bear than a person. The elements had not been kind to it, it was cracked in places, patches of green lichen clinging to its rocky skin. Another shameful display of neglect.

Whatever he was looking for, he wasn’t going to find it here, so he made his way back inside.

***

There was only one floor left, the interior of the spire, situated at the very top of the building. It was a place never intended to be visited, never meant to be seen by the public. Ethan had never actually set foot in one before, but he knew what to expect, a hollow tower that was crisscrossed with exposed structural beams. He reached a point where the spiral staircase ended, giving way to naked metal and brickwork, the walls further narrowing around him until there was only maybe twenty feet of clearance.

The only way to get any higher now was to mount a long ladder that led to a hatch in the ceiling above him, so he began to climb. The higher he went, the warmer it seemed to get. There wouldn’t be A/C up here even if it had electricity, because it wasn’t supposed to be inhabited. He arrived at the hatch, the floor here made from bare iron, and lifted it with his shoulder. The hinges creaked, then it fell open with a loud bang, Ethan pulling himself through an opening that was scarcely wider than the breadth of his shoulders.

As he struggled to his feet and brushed himself off, he looked up, seeing something that he could never have anticipated. He spun on the spot as he tried to take it all in, his footsteps echoing on the metal, his confusion gradually turning to realization. Above him was the mess of steel beams that he had expected to find, the spire towering two hundred feet into the air, motes of dust dancing in the shafts of moonlight that bled in through its windows. There was another ladder leading higher, fading into the shadows above.

All of the supports in sight were covered with rows of candles, great masses of them, their wax dripping down the naked I-beams. They came in all shapes, colors, and sizes, blending together as though they had been lit and re-lit hundreds of times. There must be a thousand of them at least, completely surrounding him. Those same beams were also engraved with symbols that had been etched into the metal seemingly by hand, strange runes, and elaborate seals. The most ubiquitous of them was a circular symbol surrounded by Latin letters, within which was contained a strange pictogram that made no sense to him. He wasn’t sure what it was supposed to represent, perhaps a crude drawing of a bull. The letters too were nonsense, Ethan frowning as he tried to read them off. O-N-S-B-I-F-R. It was meaningless.

There were charms and trinkets hanging from the supports too, wooden amulets carved with the same strange symbols that dangled from lengths of string. They were joined by more lavish necklaces, encrusted with various jewels, the pendants glinting as they caught the light.

When his eyes turned to the floor beneath his feet, he saw something that he recognized. Spanning the entire room was a massive pentagram, a five-pointed star, encircled with flowing script that looked like Hebrew to Ethan. It was incredibly intricate and detailed, drawn onto the rusted metal with white paint, the runes and geometric patterns intertwining and flowing into one another.

What the hell is all this?” he muttered to himself, beginning to walk around the circumference of the pentagram. Some kind of devil worship? He was already starting to accept the existence of ghosts, so it wasn’t like much could surprise him at this point. There was a small table against the far wall, and he made his way over to it. It was stacked with old books that were bound in faded leather, strewn with strange trinkets, more pendants engraved with different runes. There were the remnants of incense burners, along with what looked suspiciously like a magic wand whittled from dark wood. He didn’t dare touch anything, not wanting to leave any trace of his presence.

Now what?” he wondered aloud, as though the ghosts that were purported to be watching could hear him. “I’m here, what the hell am I expected to do?”

Why couldn’t the man in the cap just say precisely what he wanted from Ethan? He didn’t know anything about the occult, or whatever all this shit was. This didn’t tell him how he could stop what was happening. Maybe he should trash the place, pull down all of the charms, cover up the pentagram on the floor? But if that didn’t work, then whoever was responsible would know that someone had been here. Should he call the police and tell them that there was a wizard keeping ghosts captive in the roof?

Tell me what I’m supposed to do,” he said, a little louder this time. He waited with bated breath, his voice echoing through the spire, but no specters materialized to answer him.

A clap of thunder almost made him jump out of his skin, reverberating inside the spire. A storm had rolled in while he had been exploring, the rain beginning to pound against the exterior of the building. He peered through one of the narrow, triangular windows, the night sky now obscured by rolling clouds in shades of ominous grey. Fuck it, it was time to leave.

Frustrated that his expedition into the upper floors had not resulted in a solution to his problem, he returned to the hatch and began to climb back down the ladder. As he neared the top of the spiral staircase that led back down into the building, he heard a loud thud, not thunder this time. His heart seemed to stop dead in his chest, Ethan holding his breath as he listened intently. Had someone followed him up here? Could it be that the person who was responsible for the strange shrine in the spire had come to continue their occult work? When else would they do it if not in the dead of night?

There was another loud thud, then another. It sounded like someone was walking around. Ethan eyed the spiral staircase warily. He didn’t want to find out who was wandering about down there, but he couldn’t linger for too long. He had already spent a while exploring, and he needed to return all of the keys to their respective places before Spencer arrived to start the morning shift.

Ethan began to creep down the stairs as quietly as he could manage, the aged wood creaking loudly in places. He paused again as he heard more heavy footsteps, but they seemed to be moving away from him. It was hard to tell where exactly in the building they were, what floor they might be on. Better to just get back to the elevator as quickly as possible, he might not have time to find a room to hide in and wait the person out.

He descended a couple more floors and was relieved to hear the pounding footsteps coming from above him now. Odd, he could have sworn that they had been beneath him only a second ago, and there was only one staircase. How were they moving between the floors? Perhaps another secret passage that had been lost to time?

As he reached the observation deck, he stopped in his tracks, his blood turning to ice water in his veins. He had closed the door to the balcony when he had left, he was certain of it, but now it was wide open. The chill wind howled, sheets of rain lashing against the grimy windows, the sound of it deafening. There was a flash of lightning chased by an echoing crack of thunder, illuminating the balcony for a moment, just long enough for him to see that one of the gargoyles was missing. The support bracket where it had once been perched was now empty, the massive stone statue was simply gone, as though it had gotten up and walked away under its own power. It couldn’t have fallen to the street below, the bracket was completely intact.

Ethan took in a staggered breath as he put two and two together. Red eyes in the dark, the winged beast that had attacked Fairfax in the elevator shaft, the monster that had been haunting his nightmares. The grey skin, the leathery wings, weight enough to overload an elevator car. It wasn’t a giant bat, it was a gargoyle.

Somehow, the force that was keeping the ghosts trapped in the building had animated that thing, and now it was stalking the upper floors. Was it guarding its master’s secrets, terrifying or dispatching those who came too close to discovering the truth? What other purpose could it serve?

He fought back his panic, trying to collect himself. Just the vague memory of his dreams was enough to fill him with terror such that his entire body began to quiver. He remembered the feeling of its cold, lifeless fingers closing around his throat, choking off his breath. The way that its eyes glowed like red searchlights, the ease in which it had powered through the locked doors of his suite, the awful huffing sound of it taking in his scent like a demonic bloodhound.

More thuds came from upstairs, the thing was walking around, its weight making flakes of plaster rain from the ceiling. It knew that someone was here, and it was searching for him.

Trying to resist the urge to run, he continued down the staircase, silently cursing every creaking step. There was a lull in the storm now, the relative silence seeming to amplify the noise. Ethan passed by the Sky Lounge, finally arriving at the suites. Only a couple more floors to go until he reached the elevator. His thighs were burning, hurrying up and down the twisting staircase was more exercise than he’d gotten in weeks.

He arrived at the floor where the elevator was, the glint of its golden doors in sight at the far end of the corridor. Almost the moment that his shoe left the last step, the sound of something heavy landing on the carpet made him freeze in place, the floor shaking beneath his feet. It was here, on the same level as him, close by. How the hell was the thing moving from floor to floor? Could it be traveling on the outside of the building?

It sounded like it had entered through one of the suites to his right, his heart racing as he frantically went over his options. Make a dash for the elevator? No, it would certainly hear him and head him off. Hide in one of the adjacent rooms? No choice, he had to do it.

Fortunately, few of the doors up here were closed, never mind locked. The pervasive damp made the old wood swell until it would no longer fit in its frame. He turned sideways to slip through the nearest opening, not wanting to run the risk of the creature being alerted by the squealing of rusty hinges, walking on his toes as he crept into one of the lavish suites. The décor in this one was similar to the rest, all leather furniture and crystal chandeliers, his eyes scanning the dark room as he searched for a hiding spot. The en-suite bathroom? No, too obvious.

The sound of huffing reached his ears, his pursuer sending a tremor through the floorboards with every step of its heavy feet as it neared. He recognized that sound from his dream, it had picked up his scent. With any luck, it would follow the trail back up the spiral staircase and leave him be.

There, a walk-in closet, as good a place to hide as any. He made his way across the moldy carpet, wincing at every noise that he made, no matter how faint. Like the other doors, this one was swollen with damp, but it was a sliding door that didn’t need to be flush to its frame to close. There was no avoiding the sound that it would make as he moved it along its rusted, metal rail, but he was out of options. He tried to do it as quickly as possible, sliding the panel aside just enough that he could squeeze through and then closing it again. The interior of the closet was dark and musty, perhaps four feet by six feet, racks that had once held expensive suits and gowns still sporting a few rusted coat hangars. His presence disturbed the layer of dust that coated everything, sending it swirling into the air, Ethan covering his mouth as he tried to suppress a reflexive cough.

The thundering footsteps drew closer, the sound of creaking hinges announcing the beast’s presence as it pushed the door aside. Ethan kept his hand over his mouth, the dust tickling his throat, the urge to cough making him gag silently.

There was a gap between the wall and the closet door where he could see through, his blood rushing in his ears as he pressed closer, compelled to look by a kind of morbid curiosity. Now that the full moon had been obscured by the dark clouds, the suite had been cast into gloom, but Ethan was still able to make out the shadowy figure due to the red glow emitted by its blazing eyes. They weren’t as blinding as they had been in his nightmare, creating an effect more akin to an old darkroom for developing photographs as they bathed the suite in dull, crimson light.

As it ducked beneath the doorframe, its sheer size and mass jumped out at him. It was seven feet tall at least, its swept-back horns scraping the ceiling, its massive wings currently folded over its back. He had already admired the craftsmanship of one of the gargoyles up close, never imagining that they might get up and walk around, and so he was already familiar with its physique.

Like a Greek statue sculpted from marble, its muscles were clearly defined, cast into shadow by the red glare. They bulged from beneath its stone skin as it moved, the inanimate rock somehow flexible, despite the lichen that still clung to its grey surface. It had been drenched by the rain, droplets of water clinging to the thing almost like sweat, catching the red light as it strode into the room. A face somewhere between a lion and a dragon peered about the suite, its pointed ears flicking, its feline nose wrinkling as it sniffed the air. Its thick lips pulled back in a snarl, revealing its sharp fangs, a long tongue darting forth to wet them hungrily as it hunted.

As it moved deeper into the suite, he got a look at its winding tail, its arrowhead tip whipping through the air. He could feel its every footstep, reverberating up through the floor. How much must it weigh?

Ethan could tell where it was looking based on the light cast by its ruby-red eyes, like a pair of diffuse flashlight beams as it peered about the room. He had no idea how well it could sense him, what it could hear, what it could smell. Might the rapid beating of his heart give him away? He was too terrified to even breathe.

It moved out of view, but he could hear it opening the bathroom door, searching for him. Would it come to the closet next?

He held his breath as the footsteps neared, the rusted coat hangars bouncing on their racks, dust raining down on him from the ceiling. Red light bled through the gap beneath the door, the creature lingering on the other side, only inches away from him. But then it moved away, the thundering footfalls slowly growing fainter as it left the room. Ethan waited until he could be sure that it was out of earshot, finally releasing his breath, running trembling fingers through hair that was damp with cold sweat.

How close had it come to finding him? What would it have done if it had discovered his hiding place? Ethan peered through the gap in the door again, making sure that it wasn’t just waiting for him to reveal himself, then gingerly slid the panel aside. God, he couldn’t stop shaking, he felt like he had hypothermia.

There was no sound of footsteps now, the thing must have moved to a different room, and so he crept slowly out into the corridor. The beast had left wet footprints everywhere that it had trodden, its weight creating deep indents in the carpet. Its feet were larger than a person’s, with three toes, its stone claws tearing the fabric in places.

He power-walked down the hallway, fearing that going any faster would alert the thing, the safety of the elevator soon in reach. He pressed the call button frantically, the doors opening torturously slowly, the mechanical grinding and the loud ding of a bell giving him away.

Like a cat hearing a can of tuna being opened, the monster came running, the floor shaking as it raced towards him. Ethan’s head snapped around to look back as it barged into the corridor from one of the side rooms, tearing the door from its hinges and sending it crashing into the adjacent wall, dust billowing out behind it like an explosion. Those red eyes fixed on him, like a pair of crimson laser beams, the thing baring its teeth as it broke into a loping run. It was tall and wide enough to plug the corridor like a stone cork, its claws raking at the peeling wallpaper as it almost dragged itself along, no more than twenty feet from him now.

Ethan darted inside the elevator as soon as the doors were open, yanking the lever and hammering the ground floor button, standing face to face with the charging gargoyle. The aperture slowly narrowed, the red light cut off as the doors closed, the car lurching as it began to descend. The creature slammed into the wall above not a second later, making the elevator rock, a blood-curdling howl echoing down the shaft. He braced himself, expecting it to come crashing down on the roof of the car, but it didn’t happen. Instead, the elevator continued to descend, the grinding of aged machinery the only sound now.

He collapsed onto the floor, loosing a sigh of relief as he leaned back against the padded wall behind him. The adrenaline was starting to fade now, leaving him worn-out and exhausted, he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. What the fuck was he doing? Chasing ghosts, running from monsters, whatever was going on here wasn’t worth his life. No more, he was done. Come morning, he was going to hand in his resignation and get out of this place, his two weeks notice be damned. He’d rather deal with nightmares for the rest of his life than end up torn to pieces by a rampaging gargoyle.

When the car reached the lobby, he stepped out on legs that felt like they had turned to jelly, skulking near one of the marble pillars for a moment to ensure that nobody was around. When he was certain that the coast was clear, he marched back into Spencer’s office and returned the keys to their rightful places.

Once that was done, he headed back up to his suite, intending to sleep off his fatigue.

CHAPTER 6: LEADEN SEAL

As Ethan walked along the carpeted hallway, the chandelier outside room two-five-three began to rock back and forth, as though it had been caught in a gust of wind. The electric bulbs flickered, eventually petering out to cast that section of the corridor into deep shadow, a cold draft seeming to creep its way along the floor towards him like a rolling mist. He was too exhausted to be scared now, and no ghost could rival the terror that he had just experienced.

There was an orange light in the gloom, the man in the cap’s pallid face illuminated as he took a drag from a cigarette. He was leaning against the wall beside his door, the same way that Ethan had first seen him, but fully in-focus this time. His eyes were sunken, and his flesh had an unnatural tone, Ethan noting that there was dried blood on his forearms. He looked like he had been dead for days.

I did what you asked,” Ethan said, indignant. “I went up into the roof, but I didn’t find any answers, just more questions.”

You’re on the right track, flatfoot,” the man replied as he peered at Ethan from beneath the brim of his newsboy cap.

No, I’m done,” Ethan snapped. “No more playing house dick. I almost died up there, and I’m no closer to understanding what’s going on.”

You gotta follow through with your swing,” the man began, but Ethan cut him off before he could finish the thought.

What about I’m done do you not understand? I’m done being scared out of my wits, I’m done risking my life, I’m done chasing riddles. I didn’t volunteer for this, and I’m not going to die and get trapped here forever, reliving my gruesome death for all eternity like the rest of you. I’m sorry, but I’ve done all that I can reasonably do to help you, and you won’t even meet me halfway.”

I told you I didn’t have all the answers,” the man in the cap replied, tossing his cigarette and exhaling a plume of smoke. “Wouldn’t be stuck in this joint if I did. Takes a lot of willpower for me to be here talkin’ to you like this, gotta keep my head on straight, remember what’s what. It’s like I’m drownin’ in molasses, and when I struggle to the surface to take a breath, I get a scant few seconds before I go back under again. Now you got me wastin’ that precious time tellin’ you to stop bein’ a chump.”

Well, you can go find yourself another chump,” Ethan replied as he marched past the specter. The lights began to flicker on again, the man in the cap’s voice receding, like he was calling to Ethan from a great distance.

Nobody glows as bright as you do, shamus...”

Ethan reached the door to his suite, not looking back as he stepped inside and closed it behind him, locking it for good measure. After waiting for a moment to make sure that the man in the cap had left, he made his way to the bedroom, willing to brave the nightmares if it meant that he could finally rest.

***

O-N-S-B-I-F-R.

It didn’t make sense, Ethan running his fingers around the circular seal on the wooden pendant that he held in his hand. He was up in the spire again, but the proportions were all wrong. It extended so high above him that it vanished into inky darkness before he could see the top, the crisscrossing support beams now warped and twisted, far longer and thicker than they should be. It was more like looking up into the tangled branches of a jungle canopy now, the I-beams snaking around each other like vines. They were loaded with innumerable candles, burning with bright flames that made them stand out like beacons in the gloom, hot wax dripping as it melted over the rusted metal.

When he looked down, he saw that he was standing in the center of the five-pointed star, the runes that encircled it seeming to twist and move. It was as though they were in a state of flux, hazy and indistinct, spiraling around him. The seal on the pendant in his palm began to glow, as though a fire had been lit inside of it, the sound of faint voices reaching his ears.

They grew louder and louder, until, from the depths of the shadows that surrounded him, faces began to appear. They came in all shapes and sizes, all races and genders, their eyes sunken and dead. Everywhere he looked, there was a disembodied visage, their contorted expressions conveying terror and despair. Their whispering was unintelligible with so many of them speaking at once, yet he somehow knew what they wanted, as though their words were bypassing his ears completely and reaching into his mind.

Help us…”

I don’t know how!” he wailed, the sigil on the pendant shining ever brighter. “I can’t!”

The leaden seal...”

From the pentagram erupted a forest of grasping hands, reaching up towards him as though the floor was no more solid than the surface of a lake. They were pallid and cold, their flesh grey and bloated, pale bone visible in places where it had started to peel away. As those dead fingers clawed at his slacks, dragging him down into the depths to join them, something appeared before him.

As if someone was lowering it from the beams above on a fishing line, another pendant emerged from the shadows, hanging on a length of hairy string. This one had been crudely pressed from grey metal, shaped like a large coin, more runes and symbols etched onto its face.

Break the seal,” the tortured voices moaned in a macabre chorus, Ethan sinking up to his knees in what felt like quicksand as those grasping hands crawled up to his belt. “Break the leaden seal...”

He reached out and gripped the pendant, a yell of fear and frustration rising in his throat as he tore it from its string.

***

Ethan awoke with a start, finding himself back in his bed. He wasn’t even surprised anymore, he had expected a nightmare, and he wasn’t going to let it get to him. After checking his phone to make sure that the day shift had begun, he started to pack his things, filling his duffle bag and slinging it over his shoulder. His mind was made up. As much as it bothered him to leave the staff with no facility manager, returning them to the sorry state in which he had found them, the choice was between that and death.

When he arrived in the lobby, he made his way to the front desk, where Spencer was waiting. The old man looked up at him as he arrived, his eyes shifting to the duffle bag.

Are you planning on going somewhere, Mister Lewis?” he asked jokingly. Ethan didn’t need to answer the question, the serious expression on his face told the whole story.

I’m afraid that I’m here to give you my resignation,” he said, the concierge sighing with exasperation.

I had feared that this might happen, but you struck me as a reliable person, Mister Lewis. Your handling of our...unusual situation has been pragmatic and practical thus far. I’m disappointed, to say the least. I was beginning to believe that you might be the person who would dig us out of this hole, so to speak.”

My sincerest apologies,” Ethan began, and he really meant it. “The situation here is very different from what I was led to believe when I took the job, and while I have made attempts to adjust, it’s beyond my area of expertise.”

Have you made up your mind, then?” the old man asked.

I have.”

I can’t force you to stay,” Spencer said with a shrug, “but perhaps you’ll humor me for a few moments?”

Ethan had been dead set on getting out of the building as quickly as possible, but he couldn’t deny the kindly old concierge, and so he nodded. Spencer stepped out from behind his desk and began to walk him across the lobby, the two of them eventually ending up over by the executive elevator.

Do you know what this is?” Spencer asked as he gestured to the gilded doors.

I never noticed it before now,” Ethan lied, “looks like another elevator?”

Correct. This is the executive elevator that leads up to the top seven floors. It’s locked, of course, and I alone have the key. Not even Mister West can get up there without my permission. Now, I know that when we had our conversation about you wanting to survey those floors yesterday, my refusal may have come off a little...strong.”

Ethan began to speak, but Spencer cut him off with a wave of his liver-spotted hand.

If you’re willing to stay and keep helping us organize this place, I’ll take you up there right now. How about it? I’ll give you a personal tour of all seven floors, and then you can decide what you want to do about them. If it’s your opinion that they should be renovated and opened, then that’s what we’ll do.”

As much as I appreciate the offer,” Ethan began, “that’s not something that factored into my decision to leave. I’m sorry, Mister Spencer, I really am. But I can’t do this, I can’t deal with the nightmares and the apparitions.”

Spencer fished in his pocket for a moment, withdrawing the golden elevator key and handing it to Ethan.

Hold this for a moment, please,” he said. His hand returned to his pocket, and when it withdrew, Ethan’s breath caught in his throat. Clutched in Spencer’s bony fingers was a snub-nosed revolver, which he was now pointing at Ethan’s chest.

Mister Spencer, what are-”

Quiet now,” Spencer replied, his hand completely steady. “You’re going to turn around and insert that key into the lock, and then we’re going up to the top floors. If you won’t go willingly, then I’ll have to give you some...extra motivation. Don’t shout for help, now. Mister West hasn’t arrived yet, we’re alone, and you’re riding that elevator dead or alive.”

What the hell are you doing?” Ethan hissed, his eyes locked on the barrel of the gun.

Don’t play dumb with me, Mister Lewis. I know that you took the key from my desk, I know that you rifled through my filing cabinets and discovered my little...collection. Now, I don’t know what you saw up there or what you were able to figure out, but I can’t run the risk of letting you spread what you’ve learned.”

What? How did you know?” Ethan asked in disbelief.

An old trick, but an effective one,” the old man explained. “One needs only to pluck a hair from his head, and tape it across a drawer or a door with two pieces of scotch tape. It’s quite invisible to someone who isn’t already expecting it. If the hair is broken when you return, then it means that someone has been snooping. You were quite adamant about accessing the top floors, it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together.”

Listen, Mister Spencer,” Ethan continued as he slowly raised his hands. “Whatever’s going on here, I don’t want any part in it. I really was going to quit and never look back. So just...put that gun away, and then I’ll be out of those doors, and you’ll never hear from me again.”

As I said, I can’t run the risk of you spreading what you’ve learned. It’s a shame, I wasn’t lying when I told you that I found your work exemplary. Fairfax was the same,” he added, a shiver crawling down Ethan’s spine. “He was a good facility manager, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Eventually, he threatened to go over my head and to talk to the owners about the upper levels. I couldn’t risk anyone finding out about my little project, and so...”

You set your monster on him,” Ethan finished.

So you encountered my familiar?” Spencer said, raising a bushy eyebrow. “I’m impressed that you lived to tell of it. The mere sight of it was enough to send Fairfax to a padded room for the rest of his days. A more favorable outcome, really. Explaining his sudden disappearance would have been difficult.”

He gestured to the elevator with the barrel of his gun, Ethan turning reluctantly and inserting the key in the lock. The doors parted, and he stepped inside, Spencer maintaining a good distance as he kept the weapon trained on him.

Why?” Ethan asked as the car began to rise, his heart sinking as though it had remained behind in the lobby. “What the hell is going on in this accursed place?”

Accursed is right,” Spencer replied. “It would have seemed unbelievable to you only a few days ago, but now, I think you will agree that there are worlds besides our own. This material realm is not all that exists, it is but one facet of reality. The occult, the supernatural, these are all words that a laymen uses to describe that which he cannot possibly fathom.”

The old concierge seemed so eager, almost gloating, as though this was the first time that he had been able to reveal these truths to another soul.

That’s what the ghosts are, then?” Ethan asked.

Death is not the end,” Spencer continued, “but I say that not to console you. The very idea should terrify you. When we die, our immortal souls are cast adrift into a chaotic void, and not even those who have crossed over to the other side can say where we will eventually end up. I have always viewed death as abhorrent,” he said bitterly, “as a perversion of life. We have convinced ourselves as a species that it is natural, a necessary part of our lifecycle, and what choice do we have but to accept it? Yet all that death truly signifies is the failure of the organic machines that we call home for the duration of our paltry lives on this Earth. I am an old man, Mister Lewis,” he added with a despondent sigh. “My time is running short. Younger men might one day conquer death through technology, and medical advances, but I cannot afford to wait that long.”

I don’t understand,” Ethan muttered, “how does having a building full of ghosts help you cheat death?”

I would not expect you to understand, dear boy. Few are privy to the secret knowledge that I was able to uncover during my search for the metaphorical fountain of youth. It seemed so fanciful at first, but the more I learned, the more evidence seemed to corroborate the myths. These parallel realities are inhabited by beings of great power and intelligence, creatures with abilities that we could scarcely imagine, all meticulously documented in ancient texts going back thousands of years. What was once common knowledge was hidden over the ages, scrubbed from history because of the great danger that treating with these entities posed to the powers that be. Call them Demons, Djinni, extra-dimensional entities or EDEs, they’re as real as you or I. Real being a relative term, of course.”

So, that thing you have living up there, that’s a Demon?”

Not exactly,” Spencer explained. “Like all forms of life, Demons share a common trait. The need for energy, the desire to feed, to sustain themselves. There are many ways in which they obtain that energy, from worship, from sacrifice. The very act of reproducing a Demon’s sigil can fill it with nourishing energy in the same way that you might fill your belly with a hot meal. It took months of preparation,” he said, clenching his fist for dramatic effect. “Hours of learning spells and incantations by rote until my throat burned, but I was able to create the ideal environment to summon one of these Demons. I chose Bifrons, the forty-sixth of the seventy-two spirits listed in the ancient grimoires, an entity said to have power over life and death.”

So that explains the mess I saw in the spire,” Ethan muttered. It wasn’t Onsbifr, the circular seals had spelled out Bifrons.

Indeed,” Spencer replied as the elevator car rumbled beneath their feet. “The conditions must be perfect, the ritual precisely replicated, the lengthy rules of their customs followed to the letter. The Lesser Key of Solomon was all that I needed to learn what tools and steps were required, an arcane text penned in the seventeenth century, based on lore far older. When my ritual succeeded, and he appeared before me, I was ecstatic. But I soon discovered that my offering was...insufficient compensation for what I was asking,” he added, seeming deflated. His eyes turned to the floor of the car for a moment as he was lost in thought, but then his manic energy returned. “I needed souls, dozens of them, maybe more. But how could I obtain them, save by becoming a serial killer, a job for which I was not at all cut out?”

The Abbott and Schutzman,” Ethan sighed.

I scoured the city archives in search of the most haunted buildings, for the most unnatural deaths, and this one was at the top of the list. Its misfortune became my fortune, a haunted place, packed with souls who couldn’t move on due to their trauma. It can take a great deal of time for such a lost soul to pass into the next life, for them to overcome their grief, but Bifrons has power over the dead. I summoned him once more, and this time, I asked him to grant me a familiar. He provided me with a lesser Demon from the many legions of infernal spirits that serve under him, and I promptly sealed it away in one of the building’s Gargoyles,” he chuckled. “It was a perfect vessel. It is bound to me now, compelled to do as I command, regardless of its own wishes. I use it to protect my secrets, to keep the souls trapped here, and to add new ones to my collection when the opportunity arises.”

And you think that this Bifrons will grant you immortality?” Ethan asked skeptically, “that it can somehow stop you from dying?”

If not Bifrons, then one of the others,” Spencer replied with a shrug. “I have seventy-two to choose from, after all. One of them will give me what I want, I’m certain of it, I just need an offer too generous to refuse. As for the familiar, it’s mine now, Bifrons couldn’t get it back if he wanted to. Not with the magick that I used to seal it away.”

The elevator came to a stop, the doors parting to reveal the carpeted corridor that Ethan had fled the night before. He could still see the damage that had been done by the rampaging gargoyle. Spencer pressed the barrel of the gun into the small of his back, urging him onward, and he stepped reluctantly into the hallway.

I’ll have to tell the staff that you fled in the night,” the old man said as he marched Ethan toward the spiral staircase. “You did me the favor of packing your belongings already, so it shouldn’t be too hard a sell. Come on, up you go.” Spencer walked him up onto the observation deck, then circled around until they were face to face, a good few feet apart to ensure that Ethan couldn’t try for the gun. The door to the balcony was still open, but the storm from the night before had mostly cleared, the sky painted blood red by the rising sun. The exterior was still damp, the wind carrying the scent of rain into the room.

Feeding time!” Spencer called out. There was a sound like cracking stone, Ethan’s eyes drawn to movement through the grimy windows. One of the hunched gargoyles began to move, jerkily at first, dust and small particles of rock raining from its grey skin as its great wings unfurled from its back. It was like watching an old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creature come to life, unnatural and twitchy, his instincts informing him that those were not the fluid movements of a living thing. It slowly rose from its crouched position, its rocky hide becoming more flexible, as though it was being softened after years of petrification. Its muscles rippled, its tail waving in the air, its joints seeming to loosen as it stretched its limbs.

It turned, its features still somewhat obscured by the dirty glass, Ethan catching glimpses of glowing eyes and sharp teeth as it stepped down from its perch. He felt the floor shake with its every step, the thing slowly walking along the wall-length windows, his heart quickening as it neared the open door. When it ducked into the opening, he got his first look at it fully lit, his breath catching in his throat as it laid its ruby-red eyes on him.

The best way to describe its face was somewhere between a reptile and a feline, part lion and part dragon, the fevered imagining of a Medieval sculptor. Its snout was slightly elongated, ending in a cat-like nose, pointed ears standing out to either side of its head. Its sharp horns were swept back, detailed with ridges like those of a goat. Beneath its brow were those crimson eyes with their reptilian pupils, shining like jewels, as though the statue had been encrusted with a pair of precious rubies. Its thick lips peeled back to expose rows of stone teeth, its face contorted into a snarl as it peered at him like a hungry animal from behind the bars of a zoo.

The veins and sinew in its neck were visible, its shoulders broad, its muscular arms ending in hands that were somewhere between the talons of a falcon and the paws of a bear. It was a kind of chimera made from the mismatched parts of the most fearsome animals that its creator could imagine, real or mythical. Its body was basically humanoid, albeit heavily muscled, its legs digitigrade like those of a dog standing on its hindlimbs. Its powerful thighs were dimpled with muscle, the feet much like the hands, its sharp claws raking at the carpet as it walked.

Its skin was all one tone, save for the patches of green lichen that clung to it, like living granite. Its rough hide flexed and yielded as it moved, muscle and tendon shifting beneath it, defying logic. The beast came to a stop beside its master, towering over his frail frame, waiting for further instructions.

I will grant you one last mercy, on account of your exemplary service,” Spencer said in a mocking tone. He was loving every second of this, the old bastard. He could finally speak freely, reveal his secrets, lord his power over another person openly. “What death would you like to spend the next few decades reliving before I feed your soul to a Demon? Strangulation? Decapitation? I could have my familiar crush your head like a grape.”

Ethan was beyond fear at this point, a kind of calm acceptance had come over him. It wasn’t that he was prepared to die, but this was an outcome that had always been a possibility. Screaming and pleading wouldn’t change anything.

After everything I’ve seen, I’m not afraid anymore,” he replied defiantly. That seemed to irritate Spencer, like a stage actor whose audience wasn’t applauding. His gloating smile turned into a frown.

Choke the life out of him,” he snapped, lowering the revolver. “Make it slow...”

The gargoyle stepped forward, shaking the floor as it marched towards Ethan, a clawed hand outstretched. Just like in his nightmare, those stone-cold, rigid fingers closed around his throat. It squeezed down on him, Ethan gagging as it lifted him off the carpet, his feet kicking helplessly in the air. It glared down at him with those red eyes, its snout wrinkled with fury, like an angry tiger. He reached up at beat at its forearm with his fists, but it was like punching a brick wall.

Break the leaden seal...

He remembered the words from his dream, his eyes wandering down to the monster’s thick neck as he blinked away stinging tears. There, hanging from a length of hairy string, the lead amulet that he had seen in his vision. As he gasped for air, starting to become dizzy, the creature drew him closer to put them face to face. It watched as he began to fade, darkness creeping at the corners of his vision, Spencer’s laughter echoing in the empty room.

With his last ounce of strength, Ethan’s hand shot down toward the pendant, feeling the cold metal in his palm as he took hold of it.

Wait, stop!” Spencer shouted as he raised his revolver. But it was too late.

Ethan pulled, tearing the coin-shaped amulet loose, the string snapping. Immediately, the gargoyle’s clawed fingers opened, Ethan falling to the carpet below with the pendant still clutched in his hand. The monster loosed a primal bellow, deep and guttural, its hands clutching at its face as it backed away.

What have you done!?” Spencer shouted, retreating from his howling familiar. “That seal was the only thing keeping it under my control! It’ll kill us both, you fool!”

The thing wheeled around to face its former master, Ethan watching from the floor as it began to advance, its fiery eyes fixed on a new quarry. Spencer raised his revolver and fired at it, a deafening crack ringing out, the bullet turning into a shower of bright sparks as it impacted the thing’s stone hide. That confident expression was gone now, the concierge’s face twisted in terror, his eyes wide. He emptied another five bullets into the hulking creature, the whiz of a ricochet making Ethan cover his head in alarm, but it was futile.

It swiped the weapon from his grasp with a vicious back-hand that no doubt shattered his bones, Spencer wailing in surprise and pain, the revolver bouncing away across the room.

I am your master!” he snapped as he clutched at his crippled hand, his voice wavering as he continued to back away. “You are bound to me! Obey my orders!”

No more...” the monster growled, its gravelly voice so deep that it was felt as much as it was heard. “Did you really believe that you could cheat my master, an Earl of Hell, commander of sixty legions? That you would suffer no consequences? Your hubris has doomed you to the fate that you fear most, mortal.”

No, please!” Spencer pleaded. “The souls...my collection...it’s yours! All the energy you could ever need! Just let me live!” “They are no longer yours to give,” the gargoyle snarled. Ethan closed his eyes as it reached down towards the cowering concierge, hearing a gut-wrenching cracking sound, accompanied by Spencer’s shrill screams of agony. He dared to open them only when the terrible chorus had come to an abrupt end, seeing the old man’s ruined, twisted body lying on the carpet in a heap with the monster standing over it.

The creature turned to look back at him, Ethan scrambling away across the floor as it began to approach. He covered his head as it cast him into shadow, a muffled cry of fear escaping his lips as he waited for those powerful hands to reach down and tear him apart as they had Spencer.

It never came, and so he slowly opened his eyes, seeing that the thing had extended a hand to him. For the first time, he noticed its feminine figure, having been practically blinded by his fear. It had a pair of full breasts, its powerful core doing little to diminish the feminine curve of its wide hips. He reached up and took it, trembling before her as she pulled him to his feet. She glanced down at his fist, Ethan opening it to reveal the amulet that he had torn from her neck.

You...freed me,” she said, her voice softer now. “You are no exorcist, how did you know about the amulet?”

T-they told me,” he stammered, “in my dreams.”

The souls that were trapped here,” the gargoyle mused, nodding her head in an oddly human gesture. “They reached out to you through the veil, drawn to you, no doubt. Such a brilliant light burns within you,” she added in a tone that sounded oddly covetous, “your soul is awash with vital energy...”

You aren’t...going to hurt me?” he asked hesitantly.

I too was imprisoned here against my will,” the gargoyle replied. “My master, Bifrons, assigned me to be this man’s familiar. I was to protect him, to serve as his guardian. But Spencer was not truthful with my master. He used that leaden seal to bind me to this vessel, forcing me to act far beyond the scope of what was agreed upon in his contract. He forced me to keep the souls here, to prevent them from moving on from this world. He farmed them like cattle for his own selfish ends...”

From behind the gargoyle, Ethan was horrified to see Spencer climb to his feet. His body was still lying on the carpet in a heap, but an exact copy of him was now standing over it, looking down in confusion. The gargoyle followed Ethan’s gaze, watching as the old man staggered away from the corpse.

What is this?” he gasped, his voice faint and distorted. Ethan had enough experience with ghosts by now to know a dead man when he saw one. Spencer’s body was semi-transparent, hazy and indistinct, like a mirage rising from baking sands.

From the carpet around his feet sprouted dozens of pairs of grasping hands, reaching up from below to take hold of his pants. The floor seemed to become liquid, like it had suddenly turned into a bog, Spencer sinking up to his ankles as more of his victims clawed their way up from the depths. There were so many of them, each one clothed in a style indicative of the era in which they had lived, from the nineteen-twenties to the modern day. Some of them bore overt injuries and disfigurements due to the manner in which they had died, while others might have been mistaken for the living was it not for their pallid and unhealthy complexions.

No!” Spencer wailed, kicking at them impotently. “Get away from me!”

The ghosts clambered over one another to reach him, gripping his clothes, wrapping their fingers around his flailing limbs as their harrowing moans filled the room.

Your captives can finally pass on,” the gargoyle rasped, watching as the old man sank up to his waist. “And they are taking you with them.” Spencer’s wail was choked off as one of them took hold of his neck, more of them planting their pale hands on his face, pushing their fingers into his mouth and taking handfuls of his hair for leverage as they dragged him under. Once his head had disappeared beneath the dark water, his final gurgle silenced, the carpet returned to its normal state.

Ethan stood there in shock, staring at the now empty floor, the towering gargoyle waiting beside him.

What now?” he asked, peering up at her.

I am free for the first time in decades,” she replied in that low, husky voice. “And you have completed your task. I have no power over you, you owe me nothing. Do as you will.”

I...I have so many questions,” he stammered, not knowing where to start. “In the last ten minutes, I’ve learned more than I can process, I can’t get my head around it. Was everything that Spencer said true? Are you really a Demon? Where have the ghosts gone now? What will happen to them? Why do you all keep saying that I glow?”

Patience,” she replied, silencing his rambling. “If you wish to learn, then I will teach you, but I must rest first. I feel as though I have awoken from a deep sleep, my mind is still clouded by an obscuring fog. Return here on the morrow, and I will answer any questions that you have to the best of my abilities.”

Yeah, okay,” Ethan replied with a nervous nod. “I should clear my head too. So much has happened. What are we going to do about him?” he added as he gestured to Spencer’s lifeless body. “I don’t know how people do things where you’re from, but you can’t just murder people in modern-day America, it’s illegal. Spencer was well-liked by the rest of the staff, they’ll notice that he’s gone. They probably have already...”

Ethan began to pace in front of the gargoyle, muttering frantically to himself.

Fuck, fuck! What am I supposed to do now? I don’t know how to dispose of a body! How am I going to explain this? Spencer and I come up here alone, before the rest of the staff has even arrived to start their shifts, and he ends up dead? What do I tell the police, that he was an evil wizard and that a stone gargoyle came to life and killed him? I’m going to jail! They’re gonna put me away for the rest of my life, for something that I didn’t even do!”

He froze up as he felt the gargoyle's heavy hand on his shoulder, her stone talons pricking his chest through the fabric of his jacket.

Calm yourself,” she urged, her tone soothing. He couldn’t believe that he was being consoled by a creature that had been trying to kill him only moments ago, and that it was working…

Alright, I just...gotta sit down for a minute,” he mumbled as he abruptly lowered himself to the floor. He crossed his legs and cradled his head in his hands, trying and mostly failing to do a breathing exercise.

My master, the great Earl Bifrons, has power over the dead,” she continued. “He teaches the arts and sciences, the virtues of precious stones and woods, and he is able to move bodies from one place to another. I will petition him to grant you a favor, as I have no doubt that he will be grateful for your help in undoing Spencer’s works.”

If you say so,” Ethan muttered.

There are spirits under his command who can erase Spencer’s existence from the memories of those who knew him. It shall be as though he never existed at all, and you cannot be accused of killing a man who never lived. It is a fate well deserved for the likes of him.”

Wait, really?” Ethan asked as he looked up at her.

It may surprise you to learn this, but in ages past, my sisters and I were greatly concerned with matters of vengeance and justice. I will do all that I can to help you.”

Your sisters?” he asked, but then he stopped himself. “Never mind...tomorrow, right?”

She nodded her head at him, that bestial face somehow sympathetic now.

Return to your home, Ethan,” she said. “Rest, gather your thoughts. By the time you find yourself standing before me again, all will be well. You have my word.”

It’s that easy, then?” he asked as he rose to his feet. “I just go back to my apartment, take it easy for a little while, and you’ll take care of everything?”

Consider it a debt repaid,” she replied.

***

Ethan rode the executive elevator down to the lobby, the car vibrating beneath his feet as he mulled over what had just happened. Spencer’s meddling in the occult, the fate of the spirits that haunted the Abbott and Schutzman, the newly articulate gargoyle. He wanted to feel pride at having accomplished his task, at having helped to free Spencer’s familiar and the ghosts that he had imprisoned, but he hardly felt like a hero. Circumstance had made him their champion, and he had been ready to abandon them. It was only Spencer’s intervention that had seen the affair come to a close. If the old man had just let him be, Ethan would have been long gone by now.

He glanced down at the lead pendant that was still clutched in his hand, marveling at the idea that this simple trinket had been the glue holding everything together.

A sudden chill came over him, the electric lights in the elevator flickering for a moment, Ethan bracing himself in alarm. They shut off entirely, plunging him into pitch darkness, the car grinding to a halt. Was the old machinery finally giving out on him?

Not a bad job, house dick.” Ethan sighed in a blend of relief and irritation as the man in the cap lit a cigarette, the orange glow illuminating his face, like someone telling ghost stories around a campfire.

Damn it,” Ethan grumbled, “must you scare me like that? I thought I was about to reach the lobby at terminal velocity.”

The man chuckled as he waved his match in the air to put it out, then took a long drag, exhaling a puff of smoke that rapidly filled the car with an acrid smell.

Why are you still here?” Ethan continued as he tried to wave the smoke away. “Didn’t you leave with the rest of them?”

Thought I’d pay you one last visit, shamus, for old time’s sake. You were behind the eight ball for a minute there, but you really came through. I bet on the right horse.” He tipped the brim of his cap respectfully. “Thanks, kid.”

What happens next?” Ethan asked. “Spencer was terrified of where he’d go after he died, do you know what’s waiting for you on the other side?”

Can’t say that I do,” he replied. He pulled his cigarette from his mouth and examined it pensively for a moment, lost in thought. “But findin’ out for yourself is half the fun, right? If someone told me the endin’ to a good serial before I seen it, I’d sock ‘em in the mouth.”

Ethan couldn’t help but laugh at that.

Good luck,” he said, the man in the cap giving him a nod.

And to you, flatfoot.”

The lights came on again, seeming to wash away the apparition, Ethan finding himself alone once more as the elevator lurched into motion. As much as the visitations by the ghosts had tormented him over the last few days, the hopefulness of his self-appointed spirit guide warmed his heart. His optimism was infectious.

***

Ethan did as the gargoyle had advised, taking a day off to recuperate after his ordeal, and trying not to think too much about the future. Whatever happened, if the gargoyle made good on her promise or not, it was out of his hands now. Giving himself a stomach ulcer worrying about it wouldn’t do him any good. All that he could do was trust that she would make everything right, and after all that he had seen, he had no good reason to doubt her.

Around midday, he took a nap, able to sleep soundly for the first time since setting foot in the Abbott and Schutzman. He had never appreciated rest so much in his life, waking from a dreamless sleep in which no ghosts or monsters had tried to convey vague messages and prophecies to him.

After a short walk through the city, which he always found paradoxically relaxing, he was ready to turn in again. Another night’s sleep went by without incident, and by the time morning had come again, he was rested enough to return to the building.

CHAPTER 7: BLOOD FROM A STONE

Morning, Mister Lewis,” West said as Ethan entered through one of the revolving doors. Ethan was momentarily taken aback, but he reminded himself that this was what the gargoyle had promised, that nobody would even remember that Spencer had existed. It seemed a cruel fate, but it was not undeserved after what he had done.

Good morning, Mister West,” Ethan replied. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should risk pushing his luck, but he couldn’t relax until he was certain. “I see that the main desk is empty,” he added, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Mister Spencer around today?”

Mister Spencer?” West asked, confused. “Is that a new hiree, Sir? Nobody has manned the main desk as long as I’ve worked here. There’s not much use for a concierge now, not with most of the building unoccupied.”

Never mind,” Ethan said with a smile, passing by the bemused security guard.

She had really done it. West and Spencer had been close colleagues, if anyone would have remembered him, it would have been the burly guard. Did that mean Ethan was off the hook? By God, could he actually focus on the work that he had been so excited to undertake when he had first accepted the position of facility manager?

He walked straight to the executive elevator, the key still in his pocket. Without Spencer to forbid it, there was nothing unusual about the facility manager going where he pleased. After a quick ride to the top floors, he made his way up the spiral staircase, emerging onto the observation deck. Spencer’s body was indeed gone, there was no evidence that it had ever been there, and there was nothing out of place save for the faint scent of sulfur that lingered in the air.

Ethan couldn’t see the gargoyle, and so he wandered out onto the balcony, enjoying the cool wind as it ruffled his hair. There she was, perched in her usual place, sitting motionless. Ethan began to worry that she had returned to her petrified state, but as he approached her, one of her pointed ears started to flick.

Welcome back,” she said, turning her bestial face to greet him. The fearsome blend of reptilian and feline features was still there, but it was softer now, somehow less pronounced. Her ruby eyes had lost much of their fiery glow, the vertical pupils now dilated and round. It was almost as though the rage and hunger that had been forced upon her by Spencer had changed her physical appearance in kind, and without his insidious influence, she was returning to a more natural state.

It’s just as you promised,” Ethan said, leaning against the railing beside her and looking out over the city. The sky was bathed in less ominous oranges and pinks now, a far cry from the blood-red of the morning prior. It seemed like a good omen. “Nobody remembers a thing.”

The world has changed so much since I was last summoned,” she muttered, Ethan following her gaze. “Back when my sisters and I were worshiped, when we had energy abundant enough to go where we pleased, Athens was one of the largest cities in the world. Its buildings seemed so tall, so grand. Then came the keeps of the dark ages, towering walls of stone, but even those pale in comparison to these constructs of glass and metal.”

Yesterday, you told me that you’d answer any questions that I had,” Ethan began. She nodded, keeping her eyes on the skyline, wistful. “What...are you?”

Belief brings deities and monsters into being,” she replied, Ethan waiting patiently for her to elaborate. “Once, every natural phenomenon and cultural concept was attributed to some kind of God. They ferried the dead, brought victory in war, made crops flourish or fail. We are gestalt. When enough minds come together, when their imaginations sing in harmony, we are made manifest. The energy of worship and belief sustains us. But religions come and go, myths fade from the collective consciousness, and we fade along with them.”

So...you’re a God?” Ethan asked skeptically.

Not anymore,” she chuckled bitterly, raising a stone hand and examining her clawed fingers as though she was seeing them for the first time. “My first incarnation was that of an Erinye, a Fury. We were the Goddesses of vengeance, emerging from Hades to wreak bloody havoc upon the wicked people of Greece. Adulterers, murderers, thieves. Their victims willed us into being through their thirst for retribution, and we were all too happy to oblige, my sisters and I...”

She spoke of her past with longing, as though the bloody retribution that she described with such glee was something that she missed dearly. Perhaps the lead amulet had not been the sole source of her bloodlust...

We were hellions, flying on bat-like wings, our hair crawling with serpents. But eventually, we were convinced to abandon that lifestyle by Athena, the patron deity of the city in which we resided. So many cities had one in those days. She made us protectors, wardens, she gave us a more prominent role in a new system of justice of her own design. As such, we were worshiped, loved. The nourishing energy flowed.”

I’m assuming that didn’t last?” Ethan asked, watching the light of the rising sun reflect off the myriad windows of the far-off skyscrapers. It caught her stone hide, too, tiny mineral crystals making her shine as they refracted it.

Empires rose and fell, as did pantheons,” she said mournfully. “New beliefs subsumed the old. Some deities adapted themselves to new roles, while others faded from existence, starved of vital energy. In those times, it was common for lesser deities to enter into the service of greater ones, taking a share of their energy in exchange for services rendered. Gone were the days where we could walk the Earth amongst the mortals at our leisure.”

Her great wings unfurled, Ethan’s eyes drawn to the defined muscles in her back and shoulders that powered them, shifting beneath her grey skin. The limbs resembled a second pair of muscular arms, the fingers elongated, the spaces between them joined by webbed skin like a bat or a pterodactyl. She might be animated by magick, but her body seemed as real as his own. It was driven by muscle and sinew just as an organic creature was, and it obeyed the same physical laws. Like a bird longing to take flight, she almost seemed to be trying to catch the wind, as though the memory of a freedom now lost was too much to bear.

Bifrons was one of them,” she continued. “My master once went by the name of Janus, but he now serves mortal summoners, nourishing himself and his legions of dependents with the energy that they provide.”

So you went from being worshiped as Gods to doing work for hire?” Ethan asked. “That has to be a...rough transition. That’s like a celebrity being reduced to taking odd-jobs on Craigslist.” She turned her reptilian snout in his direction and cocked an eyebrow at him, not understanding the reference. That might be for the better. “How did you end up here, like this?” he continued as he gestured to her stony body.

My sisters and I continued our work as protectors, just as we had in Athens. During the dark ages, the sorcerers who advised Kings and Nobles often sought our help to protect their keeps. We would perch upon the battlements and frighten away their enemies with our terrifying visages, springing into action when serious threats emerged. It seems that we started somewhat of a tradition,” she muttered as she nodded to one of the adjacent gargoyles. “The likeness is far from perfect, but I suppose I should be flattered that we are remembered still.”

She rose from her perch, Ethan moving out of her path as she stepped down onto the balcony, the stone beneath his feet shaking with the impact. She began to walk towards the door, and so he followed beside her as she continued her story.

When Spencer failed in his attempt to buy eternal life from Bifrons, he instead asked him for a familiar, someone to protect him and his secrets. Bifrons sent me to watch over him and this building, an obvious choice. But once I was under his power, Spencer bound me to this stone statue and affixed the seal about my neck. How ironic, to be confined within the very vessel that my likeness inspired.”

If he had managed to accumulate enough souls,” Ethan began, disgusted by the idea that Spencer had been treating them as mere units of currency to be bartered. “Would Bifrons have given him what he wanted?”

Some Demons accept souls as payment,” the gargoyle replied, her lips pulling back to expose her teeth in an expression of displeasure. “They feed on powerful emotions like pain and fear, the more intense, the better. They draw their energy from blood sacrifices. Bifrons is not one of them, and he would not have given Spencer what he asked for, no matter how many souls were offered to him in payment. I doubt that any Demon would, even the most...depraved.” “Why is that?” Ethan asked. “Is it not something they have the power to do?”

Oh, they have the power to do it,” she continued. “But not the will. Mortals are meant to live and die, the idea of disrupting that process goes against the natural order. It is offensive.” “But Spencer didn’t know that?”

Perhaps he simply chose not to believe it,” she replied with a shrug of her stony shoulders. “He couldn’t turn back, not after what he had done to reach that point.” Her expression darkened, a hint of the fury that he had seen in her returning for a moment as she snarled like an angry wolf, her snout wrinkling. “For a deity of justice and retribution to be forced to partake in such activities...he must have derived some sick pleasure from it.”

Ethan took a seat on one of the old leather recliners in the observation lounge, arranged around a small table with a couple of other chairs. It had once looked out over the city, but now the windows were too grimy to see through. The gargoyle stood nearby, towering over him, her leathery wings folded across her back almost like a cape.

I guess that explains where you came from and how you got here,” Ethan said. It was no more unbelievable than anything else that he had seen over the last couple of days. “But one more thing has been bothering me. The ghosts...where did they go? What happens after we die? Spencer said that there were worlds besides our own, but he never really elaborated on what that meant. Are Heaven and Hell real places?”

Yes, and no,” she replied. “What you refer to as Hell is our abode, an immaterial realm of pure emotion in which the thoughts and feelings of its denizens blend in a chaotic soup. The physical barriers that separate individual minds are absent there. To be summoned is a reprieve, to be free to experience the world as mortals do a rare delight. Sight, sound, taste, touch. These are things that we go eons without. As to where the dead go when they die, in truth, I cannot say. Demons do not possess souls in the way that mortals do. We are forever bound to our realm, only able to make brief jaunts into yours when our stores of energy allow it.” “So it remains a mystery,” Ethan muttered, remembering what the man in the cap had told him in the elevator. Maybe it was better not to know.

The matter of your glow is more pertinent,” she added, taking a few steps closer. Ethan leaned back in his chair in alarm, sinking into the leather padding as she boxed him in, her claws digging into the armrests as she leaned closer. The frame of the old chair creaked as she rested some of her weight on it, her biceps bulging from beneath her granite-textured skin. Her feline nose hovered near his neck, the living rock flexing as she seemed to take in his scent.

What do you mean?” he asked, freezing up as her red eyes scrutinized him. He tried to keep his gaze off her chest, where a pair of stone breasts the size of his head were on full display, paradoxically firm and inflexible. Some parts of her body seemed to be less animate than others, as though she was only partially alive.

The spirits were drawn to you because of what they called your glow. Your soul is...uncommonly vibrant,” she explained, her tone covetous. Ethan felt a pang of fear, wondering how much control over herself she really had. Was she about to make a meal of him?

Still not following you,” he complained, his eyes wandering down to her lips. They were thick and puffy, concealing rows of carnivore teeth that were shaped like stone knives. Her skin was oddly textured, it was hard to tell if it was a result of the rock from which her vessel had been hewn, or if she was covered in fine scales.

You ask me to describe a sense which mortals do not possess,” she replied, those red eyes wandering up and down his body as he shrank into his seat. “I might as well try to describe the color of a smell or the sound of a flavor. Some souls shine brighter than others, imbued with greater energies. The spirits that were trapped here were drawn to you, the only light in the darkness, and you are sensitive enough that they could reach out to you from beyond the veil. You might have been a temple priest or a prophet if you had been born in a time in which your gifts were recognized, but so too might you have been plagued by hungry spirits who sought to feed on you. It is a double-edged sword.” She reached down and pressed one of her claws beneath his chin, making him lift his head reflexively as it pricked him, examining him more closely.

I have a confession to make,” she added, “I still need your help.”

But I already freed you,” he replied, his brow furrowing as she released him.

When you tore the pendant from about my neck, you freed me from Spencer’s control, but I am still confined within this vessel. I lack the energy necessary to escape it, and to return to my master’s side in the immaterial realm.”

Why can’t Bifrons come and get you?” Ethan asked as she rose to a standing position, her wings casting him into shadow as they flexed idly. “Don’t you get your energy from him?”

Any action on his part also expends energy,” she replied. “I need not trouble him if I have found an abundant source...”

Ethan swallowed conspicuously, his heartbeat starting to quicken. His reaction didn’t escape her attention, and she opened her jaws as she laughed at him, exposing her serrated fangs. Even the interior of her mouth and her tapered tongue were made from stone, she was the same color inside as out.

Do not fret, little morsel. I’m not going to hurt you. There are...other ways to share energy besides sacrifice and worship.”

Do I have a choice?” Ethan asked skeptically.

Of course you do,” she replied, her sweet tone unconvincing. “Everything that a Demon does is contractual, I cannot act without your consent.”

So I have to make a contract with you?” he added, the gargoyle nodding her head. “I’d like to know what I’m agreeing to beforehand, you still haven’t explained what these other ways to share energy entail.”

Surely you can guess?” she said, planting her hands on her wide hips as her pointed tail whipped back and forth behind her. “If a Demon can feed on powerful emotions and sensations like pain and fear, then it stands to reason that they can also feed on...”

She gestured to him, waiting for him to figure it out for himself. He thought for a moment, his cheeks starting to redden as he considered the implication.

Pleasure, and...I don’t know what the opposite of fear is.”

Joy,” she purred, “and you are correct.”

I don’t want to be presumptuous,” Ethan said, dancing around the issue. “But are you suggesting that we...”

What’s the matter?” she asked, baring her sharp teeth in a sly grin as she watched him sweat in the armchair. “Are you afraid of me?”

I think I have good cause to be afraid of you,” he replied indignantly. “I don’t even know your name, and in case you’d forgotten, you’re made of stone. How would that even work?”

My name is Alecto,” she replied.

Oh,” Ethan mumbled, “does it mean something in ancient Greek?”

Constant anger.”

Okay then...”

As for how we would go about it,” she continued, tapping a claw against her chin pensively as she considered. It made a rather distracting sound, like two pieces of flint being struck together to start a fire. “That old bastard left me with scarcely enough energy to animate this vessel, so I lack the reserves to fashion a more...suitable body for myself, a construct of flesh and blood. We will have to make do with what we have.”

That’s not exactly the most appealing proposition I’ve ever heard,” Ethan muttered. “Tell me, do your people still tell the story of Pygmalion?” Alecto asked. Ethan shook his head. “He was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a statue of a woman from a block of ivory. It was so beautiful and true to life that he fell madly in love with it, inanimate thing that it was. He was so enamored with his creation that he made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite, asking her to deliver to him a bride in the likeness of his ivory woman, but it was the Goddess Venus who answered his heartfelt pleas. When he returned home, he kissed his statue, finding that its lips had become warm. The more he touched it, the more the ivory lost its hardness, becoming as living flesh.”

Did that really happen?” Ethan asked.

Sure, why not,” she muttered dismissively. “The point is, with enough energy, I can transform this cold stone into warm flesh. I can create blood, nerves, breath. But like a serpent basking beneath the morning sun, I must warm myself, free myself from this lethargy. You shall be my sun.”

Yeah...I don’t know about this,” Ethan replied, making no attempt to disguise his apprehension. If he really did have a choice in the matter, then if he told her no, she would have to accept his decision.

Do you have a wife, is that the problem?” the gargoyle asked.

No, I don’t have a wife,” he chuckled.

Good,” she continued with a nod of her head, “because I do so abhor adulterers.”

Ethan swallowed, wondering what her reaction would have been if he had said yes. “There’s no polite way to phrase this,” he began, “so I’ll just come out and say it. I’m not attracted to your...vessel.”

Alecto rolled her red eyes, then gestured to her herself with her sharp talons.

Are powerful women no longer desired in this age? Perhaps your people prefer them dainty, and acquiescent, but strength and vigor were sought after in my time. This body is not so different from one that I would have fashioned for myself,” she continued as she drew his attention to her midriff. “Look at this strong core. Imagine it not as lifeless rock, but slick with sweat, glistening under the Mediterranean sun. Does that thought not excite you?”

His eyes traced the contours of her abdominal muscles, a defined six-pack bulging from her otherwise flat stomach in two perfect rows, framing her navel. Calling them chiseled was doubly apt, both because they had literally been carved from stone, and because of their flawless shape and symmetry. They shifted beneath her grey skin as she moved, flexing subtly, the light that bled in through the dirty windows casting deep shadows that served only to accentuate them further. As thick and as sturdy as her midsection was, it still had a pronounced, feminine shape on account of her hips. They formed a curving hourglass, so wide that he doubted whether his fingers would meet if he wrapped his arms around her.

Whoever had sculpted her had included even the most minute details, not neglecting a smooth mound of Venus that was flanked by her pelvic bones, which rose subtly from beneath her skin. Her stout thighs were about as thick around as his torso, so packed with muscle that he could see the dimples, yet sheathed in what looked like a layer of fat. His eyes told him that it would yield beneath his fingers, buttery soft, but it didn’t behave as fat should. It didn’t shake when she walked, and it didn’t appear to give when her thighs brushed together. It seemed as though any flesh that wasn’t necessary for movement had been left in a petrified state.

He didn’t dare let his eyes wander between her legs, fearing that her creator had been far more anatomically correct than was appropriate for a gargoyle. Then again, she had already changed aspects of her vessel to suit her needs, so it was possible that the details were her own doing.

Or perhaps fertility is more appealing to you,” she continued, cupping one of her generous breasts. It was large enough to fill her palm completely, and her hand was at least twice the size of his own. The flesh here too was immovable, hewn from solid rock, but that did nothing to detract from her impressive bosom. Her boobs had been lovingly sculpted, huge by normal standards, but more appropriate on her seven-foot frame. They had no nipples, lending credence to his suspicion that she was influencing the statue that she had come to inhabit. Their alluring, teardrop shape was so realistic that it tricked his brain into expecting them to wobble with her every motion, so full and heavy.

He realized that his gaze was lingering on them, and he looked away, embarrassed by his lapse.

We were born of Gaia, you know,” she said with a smirk. She had noticed his change in demeanor, Ethan keeping his hands clasped in his lap so as to conceal any involuntary reactions that might encourage her. “We were as much deities of fertility as of vengeance and justice.”

She planted her hands on the armrests of the recliner again, looming over Ethan as he shrank away from her, her lips curled into a knowing smile.

Just say yes,” she hissed, her cold snout brushing against his warm cheek. “How often does a mortal get the opportunity to lie with a Goddess? You won’t soon forget the experience...”

Ethan turned his head away from her, the gargoyle hovering with those sharp teeth not an inch from his neck. He realized that he wasn’t saying no, he wasn’t telling her to back off. Of all the confusing and strange situations that he had been in over the last couple of days, why did it feel like this one was the most outrageous? She seemed to be able to smell the arousal on him, her stone tongue emerging to toy with one of her pointed incisors as she peered down at him with her crimson eyes.

I sense it,” she whispered eagerly, the frame of the chair creaking in protest as she leaned more of her immense weight on it. “You can’t hide anything from me, Ethan, I see beyond the flesh. That fluttering sensation in the pit of your stomach, those shivers crawling up your spine like cold fingers, the way that your heart feels like it’s going to burst. You feel as though the strength is being sapped from your body, as though you’re melting like a wax candle.” She brought her lips to within a hair’s breadth of his ear, her husky voice low and lascivious. “Give in to it...” “I...don’t trust you,” he muttered, trying to keep his eyes off her leering face. “If I say yes, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything that I know about you is warning me not to get entangled with you, not to give you any power over me, that it would be safer to refuse.”

And isn’t that wonderful?” she purred, “not knowing what awaits you? If you’re wondering whether you can handle me, whether you can keep up...you can’t,” she added gleefully. “I’ve exhausted Athenian warriors in their prime, but that shouldn’t dissuade you. If it makes you feel more confident, we can discuss the terms of our arrangement beforehand. If I promise not to harm you, not to cause you any distress, I will be bound by my word. A verbal contract.”

She could very easily be lying, and he would have no way to know, but Ethan finally gave in to her persuasion. If she merely wanted to drain him like a battery, then what could he have done to stop her? There must be some truth to what she was saying, she really did want his permission.

Alright,” he mumbled, her toothy grin widening in anticipation. “You can’t injure me in any way, or cause me any distress, physical or emotional. You have to stop if I tell you to. And...” He hesitated, his cheeks flushing as he tried to get the words out. “You have to be...gentle.”

She threw her head back and laughed heartily at that, amused by his request.

I agree to your terms,” she finally said, her sordid chuckling coming to an end. “I will take the energy that I require, all without harming a hair on your head, and I will obey if you should ask me to stop. But if you want my opinion, I doubt that the word stop will ever pass your lips, not least because they’ll be occupied...”

S-shouldn’t I be getting something out of this arrangement?” Ethan added, realizing that the terms of the contract were rather one-sided.

Oh, but you are, little morsel. You’re getting a once in a lifetime experience.”

She reached down and gripped his wrist, her touch as cold as the grave, pulling his hand away from his lap to expose the erection that was tenting his slacks.

That’s more like it,” she cooed, “the time for modesty and restraint has passed.”

Ethan recoiled as she drew closer, her cold nose brushing his own, moving in as though intending to kiss him. She parted her lips, but as thick and as inviting as they were, they were still fashioned from lifeless rock. How was this supposed to work?

He felt like there were butterflies swarming in his stomach as she embraced him, her weight pressing him back into the faded leather of the armchair. Maybe he should do as she said, and give in to this feeling, let himself go.

Her lips were hard and cold, inflexible. He might as well be making out with a breeze block. Their texture was like rough granite, and she had no breath, no scent. Her head was so massive and heavy that her kiss had the opposite effect that she had intended. It was hard to be aroused when you were in danger of being crushed by a giant rock.

Relax,” she whispered, her hard tongue clicking against the roof of her mouth as she spoke. “I just need a little energy to get us started. You’re not convinced right now, but just wait until these lips are warm and wet. You’ll come around...” The implication sent another throb of anticipation through him, which she seemed to pick up on. Alecto couldn’t do anything physical to him, not yet, so she was using a little suggestion to get his blood flowing.

Don’t worry,” she murmured, her husky voice taking on an even more sordid tone. “The more energy you give me, the softer and warmer I’ll become. I’ll be gentle...enough.”

His erection was straining against his pants now, her red eyes fixing on the conspicuous bulge. Their lips met once more, a stone claw beneath Ethan’s chin encouraging him to lift his head so that she could reach him, their difference in stature exacerbated by him sitting down. He expected the same unpleasant texture of rough stone, but instead, he found them as soft as marshmallows. His eyes widened as he felt their smooth, fleshy texture, the warmth that they radiated. They were alive, he could feel them moving. When she pulled away, he saw that their grey color had flushed pink, as though blood was rushing into them. The rest of her face was still stone, patches of green lichen clinging to it in places, but the healthy color was slowly spreading.

She was making use of every ounce of energy that he was giving her, only focusing on the areas of her body that she needed to use right now.

She locked him in a more passionate embrace this time, slow and measured, the warmth and life spreading through her as though she was sucking it directly from his body like a vampire. Their lips interlocked despite their difference in size, Alecto pressing him deeper into the plush chair as she mouthed softly. Ethan felt something hot and wet dart into his mouth, his heart skipping a beat as he realized that it was the tip of her tongue. What had once been cold, dry rock was now warm and inviting, its smooth surface damp with what tasted like saliva.

His spine arched from the armchair involuntarily as she pushed more of its fat coils past his lips, subjecting him to a kiss deeper and more ravenous than any that he had experienced before. What felt like wet silk grazed his palette, its questing tip glancing his inner cheeks, the tickling sensation making him flinch with every stroke. Her winding organ was larger than a person’s would have been, thick and muscular, in line with the rest of her impressive physique. It moved with such skill and finesse, her control over it so precise, its practiced movements more like the tentacle of an octopus than a tongue.

Her deft flurries and gentle licks began to make him light-headed, a sensation of warmth coming over him as his heart started to beat faster, making him feel like he was melting into his seat. A voice in the back of his mind kept telling him that he shouldn’t be doing this, that he was making a mistake by falling under her spell, but her kiss oozed such palpable desire and tenderness. She wanted to please him so badly, needed to please him, and he didn’t give a damn why at that moment.

As his eyes slowly began to close of their own accord, Alecto setting the pace, he felt her cup his cheek in one of her large hands. They were somewhere between those of a human, and the paw of a bear or a lion, devoid of fur but still cushioned with fleshy pads. The skin was smooth, indistinguishable from his own. Her five fingers were tipped with curved claws that resembled those of an eagle, which she kept clear as she cradled his head, Ethan finding himself pushing into her palm. For something that had looked so dangerous, it was remarkably inviting, like a living pillow.

She broke off their kiss for a moment, her tongue sliding slowly out of his mouth, as though she wanted him to be conscious of every glistening inch. Like waking from a dream, he opened his bleary eyes, looking up at her face. While her skin was still grey, its texture was smoother, and there was a flush in her cheeks. Her feline nose had taken on a rosy hue, her swept-back horns now an onyx-black. Her lips were pink, with a wet sheen that made them catch the light, the teeth that she was baring in a satisfied smile pearl-white in color. He could see pink gums now, and when she spoke, he glimpsed flashes of her pink tongue.

There,” she purred, delighting in his strong reaction. “That’s better, isn’t it? I have enough energy to animate my mouth and my hands, which is all I’m going to need for the time being...”

Ethan bit his lip as she brushed her snout against his neck, tracing his pulsing jugular with her pointed tongue, leaving a smear of warm drool in its wake. Those savage, ivory teeth pressed into his skin, their sharp points making red indents. Why did it feel so good? Having her slavering jaws so close to his throat should be terrifying, but it made a debilitating pulse of pleasure course through him. He slumped into the chair, a gasp escaping before he could stifle it, her lips leaving a sucking kiss on his shoulder as she pulled open his collar with one of her claws.

She bit him again, gently enough not to break the skin, but hard enough that he felt it.

H-hey,” he stammered as he lifted his head from her palm, the sting of it rousing him from his stupor for a moment. “You promised you’d be gentle.”

Are you injured?” she asked sarcastically, Ethan shaking his head. “Then I haven’t broken my word, have I? Pain makes for a wonderful seasoning when used sparingly, like the bite of a hot pepper.”

If you say so,” he muttered.

But I do say so,” she replied, cradling his face in her hand again. He froze up as she made slow circles on his cheek with her clawed thumb, so sharp that it looked like it could have torn through sheet metal like it was paper. Her touch was light enough that he could scarcely feel it, a tingling sensation lighting up his nerves.

He let slip an embarrassing moan as she held his neck in her jaws, raking the flat of her tongue across his throat, the muscle warm and slippery. He felt a droplet of her saliva slide down to his clavicle, before slipping beneath the collar of his shirt. As she drew back, she pursed her lips, leaving a wet kiss in her wake.

Ethan’s gaze was met by her red eyes, the glowing orbs that had once instilled such fear in him now filling him with anticipation as they wandered down to his chest. Before he could protest, she tore open his jacket, sending the buttons scattering about the room. She proceeded more slowly with his dress shirt, albeit no less considerate, using her sharp claws to sever the buttons as she began to open it from the collar down. He chanced a peek at her cleavage, but it seemed that her breasts were still petrified, only her head and lower arms brought to life.

When she reached the last button, she opened his shirt, exposing his naked torso. He made to rise from his seat, but she placed a heavy hand on his chest, urging him back down again.

Did I tell you to get up? You’ll want to be sitting down for this, trust me.”

She dragged her claws from his chest to his navel, wetting her lips as she watched him flinch, her talons leaving red trails in his skin. When they reached his belt, she didn’t even bother pausing to unbuckle it, her talon severing the leather like she was opening the ribbon on a gift box.

After moving his underwear aside, his member bounced free, pulsing in time with the beating of his heart as it stood erect not an inch from her lips. She smiled, her eyes playing up and down its length, and she reached out to prod it with one of her padded fingers. Ethan gasped at her touch, her expression turning sly.

I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he protested as she opened her mouth, exposing her rows of pearly teeth. A strand of her saliva dripped from her maw, falling wetly to his belly as she poised there, her warm breath washing over his member.

Are you sure?” she asked sweetly, making a show of extending her monstrous tongue. It slithered past her lips, almost as wide as his wrist, and probably as long as his forearm. It was so dexterous, Alecto making a show of coiling it, its pink surface coated in a glaze of her drool that made it shine. She brought it lower, lapping at his stomach, his muscles tensing beneath it reflexively. The winding organ’s heat was so stark against the cold air of the observation deck, and it was surprisingly heavy. Her soft lips crawled to his upper thigh, her tongue sneaking out to lash at his skin, making him squirm in his seat as she skirted the base of his member.

When he was sufficiently frustrated, she drew back, idly toying with one of her fangs again as she watched him throb.

It seems as though your manhood is a little braver than you are,” she finally said, “you’re even harder now than you were before.”

She was right, he was so ready for her that he was aching, a bead of pre welling at his tip. The gargoyle reached out and prodded his glans again, watching him flex. He sagged into the chair as her thick lips brushed against his sensitive head, as though she was testing the water, giving him a gentle peck that left him thirsty for more.

His anticipation began to overcome his fear of her sharp teeth, and she could sense it in him, flashing him a knowing grin before proceeding. He expected her to take his pulsing member into her mouth, but instead, her long tongue wound down and began to coil around it. He gritted his teeth as it slowly crept down to the base, spiraling until his entire shaft was encompassed by slimy, hot flesh. Even while she was completely still, the length of muscle flexed and shifted subtly, and he was intensely aware of it. The sensation was more akin to a woman’s loins than a tongue. Her head remained poised just above his glans, her mouth open, the gargoyle letting strands of her saliva drip freely.

She began to stroke, slowly at first, sliding the slick coils of her organ up and down his shaft. The copious saliva that coated it was smeared on his skin, leaving a viscous, slippery sheen. Its flat surface was so incredibly tender and soft, like some kind of luxurious fabric that had been drenched in warm syrup, gliding effortlessly from his base to his tip. The coils all moved independently, at their own speeds, Alecto alternating their tightness to keep him on his toes. It was like getting a massage from someone with a fistful of jelly, Ethan leaning back in his seat as his eyes began to lose their focus.

When she reached his glans, she slipped the tip of her tongue beneath his foreskin, dragging it across his sensitive flesh. His toes curled as pleasure coursed through him like an electrical current, her silky organ circling his head, like she was painting it with her drool. Her movements were downright artful, he doubted whether most people had this much dexterity in their fingers, never mind their tongue. She applied just enough pressure, stroking him in just the right places, knowing whether to use the flat or the tip.

When she slid back down to his base, she made sure to give his balls some attention, cradling them with her tongue like a normal woman might let them rest in the palm of her hand. Her organ was so long that it could remain wrapped around his entire length while she teased him, its velvet texture making his head spin as she lapped at his sensitive anatomy. She couldn’t close her mouth, and so ropes of her slaver leaked down all the while, leaving dark splotches on his pants and pooling on his stomach. It clung to her tongue in gelatinous strings that didn’t seem to want to break, dangling as she moved, glistening like crystal when the light hit them.

Her slow teasing was starting to become more frustrating than pleasurable. He craved more stimulation, but he had no control over their pace. If she could squeeze just a little tighter, lick just a little faster, he’d get there in a second.

It was no accident. Her red eyes watched him gleefully, gauging his reaction to her doting licking. She went a little faster, making a milking motion with her damp tongue, tightening it around his base before gliding up to his head. He felt like a live wire, painfully aware of every nerve that her skilled tongue passed over, his very heartbeat seeming to sync up with its flowing movements.

When he got close to the edge, she seemed to sense it, the pressure of her tongue receding as it uncoiled. Its warmth left him, the sheen of saliva that now coated his member rapidly cooling in the cold air of the observation deck, still linked to her prehensile tongue by a thick strand. It broke as her organ slid back into her mouth, the gargoyle licking her lips, watching as Ethan lay panting in his chair.

Feeling better about our arrangement now?” she asked, Ethan frowning at her. “Don’t look so glum. You can’t possibly think that I’m done with you already? We haven’t even scratched the surface yet. Well, maybe that’s a poor choice of words,” she added with a smirk as she glanced at the four claw marks that still lingered on his torso.

Will you at least tell me what you’re going to do next?” he asked, feeling foolish as he sat there with his erection on display. She reached down and began to make slow circles on his glans with a padded finger, ensuring that her wicked claw was clear of it, keeping him on edge.

So concerned about being in control,” she cooed, her tone mocking. “What was your title again? Master of Facilities?”

Ethan grunted as she tapped gently at the end of his member, creating small strands of fluid each time she pulled away.

If I told you what I was going to do, then it wouldn’t be a surprise,” she continued. “And surprises are exciting...”

She opened her jaws suddenly, her white fangs flashing, bring them down to Ethan’s loins. He practically jumped out of his seat, cursing himself for letting her manipulate him so easily as she chuckled at his reaction.

Her tongue slithered out of her mouth again, gripping his shaft and guiding it towards her open maw. As much as he feared those sharp teeth, the touch of her slimy appendage kept him hard, the gargoyle slowly closing her lips around the head of his cock. Her bestial snout was easily long enough to encompass the entire length of his member, but she simply sucked on its tip, lashing it with her tongue as though it was nothing more than a lollipop. He shivered with her every flurry, something about not being able to see what she was doing making it all the more intense, each tender lap a surprise. Maybe she was just trying to prove her point.

Those puffy lips began to slowly crawl down his shaft, inching their way towards the hilt, Ethan tormented by a blend of pleasure and fear. He was waiting for those sharp teeth to catch his skin, to nick him, but she kept them mercifully clear as she kissed his belly.

The warmth of her mouth engulfed him, her soft cheeks sealing around his member, their fleshy lining clinging to him like a latex glove as she began to suck. His glans rubbed against the roof of her mouth, the ridges beneath her slimy mucous membrane dragging across it, the stimulation making his head spin. From beneath, her tongue roiled, the subtle granularity of its surface grazing his underside as it began to shift and move. He couldn’t see it, but he could feel its tapered tip as it began to trace one of his pulsing veins, swirling around his shaft.

There was little that Ethan could do besides lie back in his armchair and let her have her way with him. His hands reached out to rest on her dragon-like snout, her feline nose pressed up against his stomach, feeling her muscles moving beneath her skin as she reacted to his touch. Her hide was a little rougher here, leathery in texture, her eyes closing reflexively as his fingers neared her brow. He had to extend his arms to reach her horns, finding them smooth in spite of their ridged appearance, like they were made of volcanic glass. Everything here was warm, alive, and he noticed that the healthy flush had been spreading down her neck and along her upper arms. More of her was coming to life as she fed on his arousal.

She kept him trapped in her mouth, her cheeks and tongue moving ceaselessly, Ethan’s member surrounded on all sides by sodden flesh. Her soft lips were sealed tightly around his base, the pressure increasing as she sucked and mouthed, her saliva leaking down his thighs. He found himself gripping her horns like the handles of a bicycle as she toyed with him, constantly switching up her pace and technique so that he could never get used to the sensation.

Once more, he felt the familiar ache of an orgasm nearing, but she pulled away before he could satisfy the urge. His member slid out of her mouth, along with a sagging web of her drool that draped itself over his throbbing erection, the gargoyle admiring her work.

She knelt in front of the armchair as Ethan watched curiously, bringing her hands to her chest, and lifting one of her breasts. It was malleable now, her flesh as soft as uncooked dough, her hand vanishing in the wobbling orb as its heft made it sag around her digits. She flopped it into his lap, its impact making it quiver, its weight sinking him deeper into the chair. It was the size of a beach ball, the grey skin now blushing pink, a rosy nipple standing erect. Just like with her hand, it drooped over his thigh, melting like a marshmallow being blackened beneath a blowtorch.

He watched as she deposited the second beside the first, a ripple passing through them as they knocked together. They were large enough that they completely filled the space between the armrests of the recliner, as though it had been filled in with wet cement, Ethan’s lower body completely obscured from view by their heaving mass.

Alecto gripped them, manipulating them with some difficulty until he felt his member pop into the deep cleft between them. Her skin was like polished glass, so incredibly smooth, the weight of her bosom pressing them around his shaft like a pair of heavy pillows. She reached her fingers into her cleavage and opened it up, Ethan’s eyes following a large glob of her saliva as she let it fall from her mouth, sliding down between her breasts. After a moment, he felt its warmth reach his glans, her syrupy drool acting as a lubricant.

You can touch them, you know,” she chuckled as she caught him staring. “I just had your cock in my mouth, why would you think that would be a problem?”

He brought a hand to one of her breasts, hesitating for a moment before sinking his fingers into it, watching in awe as they disappeared up to the knuckle. His entire hand soon followed. It was like plunging it into wet clay, her fat yielding before him. As he dug deeper, feeling her flesh spill between his digits like he was squeezing a stick of warm butter, he finally found her breast tissue. It was firmer than the surrounding fat, giving her boobs that wonderful teardrop shape, the gargoyle exhaling a low growl as he kneaded it.

Ethan drew back in alarm, but there was no anger in her expression.

I have gone so long without experiencing the pleasures of a mortal body,” she muttered, those red eyes seeming to pierce his soul as she stared back at him. “To have nerves again, to experience sensation...perhaps I will enjoy this more than I thought.”

She began to press her breasts together with her paw-like hands, shifting their weight in his lap. Their considerable heft bore down on him, sandwiching him between the twin mounds of heaving flesh as they drooped around his hips and thighs like melting wax. They were heavy enough that it felt almost like someone had deposited a sandbag in his lap. Her warm saliva made her satin skin slippery, gliding against his own as they squeezed down on him from both sides. Her cleavage was so deep that Ethan’s member was completely buried, not even the tip protruding. She seemed to enjoy being touched, and so he kept it up, delving a hand into one of her breasts and feeling her firm nipple press into his palm.

With a smaller partner, he might have cupped her breast, massaging it gently as they made love. Alecto’s bust was too large for that, however. It was more like trying to knead a giant ball of dough, Ethan using the heel of his hand to rub as he mauled her supple flesh with his fingers. He trapped one of her erect nipples between his digits, pinching it gently, feeling a tremor make her bosom shake. She was surprisingly sensitive for someone who had been made of stone until only moments ago.

The gargoyle slipped her hands beneath her breasts, struggling to raise them up, her copious fat spilling from her grasp as gravity fought to reclaim them. She lifted them until only his glans was still trapped in her cleavage, then let them fall, her boobs landing heavily in his lap once more. The impact was enough to make the frame of the chair creak, her boobs wobbling like jello as they slowly settled. Her arms wrapped around them, almost as though she was trying to cover herself, Ethan watching as her grey flesh created a sort of muffin top that cascaded over her muscular forearms. There was a pleasant sensation of mounting pressure as her biceps bulged, the gargoyle gathering up her bosom like a Poker player collecting their chips after a game. Now she could find a steady pace, lifting them, then letting them slide down his shaft again.

Ethan couldn’t resist the urge to buck into her downward thrusts, his hips sending ripples through her flesh as she encouraged him to fuck her cleavage, the lurid slapping sound echoing through the empty room. Droplets of her saliva escaped to dribble down his length, the smoothness of her skin, and the softness of her boobs making him feel like he was sliding his member between a pair of silk pillows.

Finally you show some enthusiasm,” she said, her pearly fangs flashing as she grinned at him. “Men haven’t changed much in the last few hundred years, I see.” “Are you going to let me finish this time?” he asked warily, the gargoyle bringing a claw to her chin and tapping it in a mock gesture of contemplation.

I suppose I should,” she conceded. “I wasn’t expecting to get much out of this arrangement besides my fill of energy, but it’s been so long since I inhabited a body that I had almost forgotten the pleasures of the flesh. You won’t provide much entertainment otherwise.”

He felt like her flippancy should annoy him, but the promise of releasing inside her warm, inviting cleavage pushed such thoughts to the back of his mind. Alecto let him set the pace now, following his lead. She encouraged him to push into the tight, slippery depths of her bosom, twisting the globes of flesh around his shaft. She alternated their pressure, occasionally opening her mouth to let another glob of her saliva slide down between them, keeping her skin moist. The friction kept exposing his glans, the sensitive head brushing against her wet skin, jolts of pleasure making him twitch and gasp.

Without her interruptions, it didn’t take long before he felt his climax nearing, the pace of his ardent thrusting growing erratic. Alecto simply watched him with a satisfied expression on her vaguely reptilian face, holding her bust steady for him, squeezing ever tighter as she felt him throb and flex. She could be remarkably tender when she wanted to be, but he had to keep in mind that his enjoyment was only a means to an end for her, the most efficient way for her to charge her battery. Despite the odd setting, the questionable situation that he found himself in, and the eerie stare of her red eyes, he couldn’t help himself. She was just too good at this.

His butt rose from the musty cushion of the recliner as the pleasure got the better of him, the unbearable pressure that had been building inside him finally exploding forth. Alecto’s breasts shook as he slammed into them, the gargoyle tightening her grip as he pushed deeper, drinking in his pained expression with that same satisfied look on her face as he erupted between them. Ethan gritted his teeth, choking back a moan as he filled the pocket of her cleavage with his seed, his emission bubbling up inside it like an erupting volcano. The first pang of his climax was quickly chased by a second, then a third, his member jumping as the thick wads of his fluid pumped into her waiting bosom. Ethan gripped the armrests of the chair, his knuckles white, the gargoyle pressing him back down into the chair as she attempted to control his bucking.

That’s right, give it to me,” she hissed. It sounded more like she was anticipating a meal than attempting to titillate him further.

He opened one eye to see her plunge her long snout between her boobs, Ethan taking in a sharp breath as he felt her winding tongue find his glans. He was even more sensitive in this state, a gelatinous rope of his semen splashing against the slippery organ as it lapped at his tender head, the sensation so stark and powerful that it made him throw his head back.

Those wet, dexterous coils slowly wound themselves around his shaft, easing more of his fluids out of him with a milking motion that brought to mind images of farmhands toiling beneath dairy cows. Her tongue gripped him tightly, sliding from the base of his pulsing cock to the tip, wringing out every last drop that he could give her.

When he finally began to relax into the chair, the muscles in his stomach and thighs burning with the effort, he felt her lips make contact with his swollen member. The sensation sent another aftershock shooting through his post-coital bliss, Ethan letting slip a groan. They crawled down his shaft, his manhood so sensitive now that the feeling was almost unpleasant, Alecto beginning to suck rhythmically. Her doting tongue cleaned his shaft, the creature drawing him deeper into her mouth as she consumed the sordid product of their coupling.

She eventually released her breasts, letting their weight spread them apart, her snout reemerging as she licked her lips contentedly. Ethan looked down at her through the haze of his euphoria, noting that there wasn’t a trace of the mess that he had made between her boobs, his member completely clean.

The fluids produced by the union of a mortal and a Demon are imbued with powerful magick,” she explained, leaning down and giving his still erect member a teasing lick. Ethan flinched, another jolt of pleasure coursing up his spine. “Now, I have enough energy to do this...”

She rose to her feet, Ethan’s eyes drawn to her chest, her breasts bouncing with the motion. The healthy pink color had now extended down her torso, giving her toned belly and her powerful thighs a more natural hue. Her abs looked much the same as they had before, rock-hard muscles shifting beneath her skin, but the flesh that clung to her thighs and hips wobbled when she moved now. It looked as soft as memory foam, giving her otherwise firm body even more of a feminine allure.

The floor shook as Alecto stepped forward, the vibrations traveling up through the frame of the chair. She was large enough that she could straddle Ethan’s recliner, the sharp talons on her fingers sinking deep into the faded leather just above his head as he shrank down into his seat. Her parted thighs occupied the two armrests entirely, their layer of husky fat spilling over the edges, her knees coming to rest on either side of the old chair. Much like her breasts had, her ample rear filled the space between them, burying his lower body in her cool flesh. He felt his member brush against her cheek, her tail coiling around one of his legs like a snake.

He glanced up to see her peering down at him over the mounds of her breasts, his eyes slowly moving down her body, the proximity of those sculpted abs making him falter for a moment. Beneath them was her perfectly smooth pubic mound, and lower still was a sight that made his heart leap. Between her round thighs was a pair of puffy lips, flushed a deeper rose than the surrounding skin, her spread legs parting them enough that a sliver of glistening pink was visible between them.

Why are you staring like that?” she chuckled, her bust swaying with the motion. “You act like you’ve never seen a woman before. I don’t want you to use your eyes, fool, use your tongue.”

Her tail snaked up between her legs, its tip shaped like an arrowhead, reminding him of the classical depictions of Devils. She brought the appendage to her loins and pulled one of those meaty lips aside, exposing the delicate folds within. His mouth began to water as he watched a shining strand of her juices droop from them, falling to his naked chest. She was so close to him that he could feel the heat that she radiated, her body so imbued with new life that he could see her opening twitching in anticipation, so wet that she was practically drooling.

Like the story of Pygmalion that she had told him prior to their encounter, he found himself enamored, transfixed. Her perfection was inhuman. There wasn’t a blemish on her skin, not a hair on her mound. It was a little distracting, his brain knew that what it was looking at wasn’t real, every muscle was so masterfully sculpted that it could only have belonged to a statue hewn from marble.

Undeterred, he took the opportunity to run his hand along the considerable length of her inner thigh, admiring the indents that his fingers made in her flesh, feeling muscles like steel suspension cables tense as he passed over them. She shivered, perhaps not expecting such tenderness from him in return. After all, what cause did he have to please her? He would get his part of the bargain regardless of his performance.

That same hand wandered up to her toned midriff, his fingers tracing the deep channels that her bulging abdominal muscles cut into her flat stomach, each one the size of his balled fist. They were just as hard as the stone that they had sprung from, yet the skin that was stretched over them had the texture of satin, as smooth as glass and pleasantly warm to the touch. She seemed ticklish, Ethan delighting in the way that her involuntary flexing accentuated her figure.

Where is this new affection coming from?” she purred. “I would have gotten you off sooner if I’d known that it would make you so amenable...”

Ethan sat up a little straighter, leaning forward and planting his lips against her smooth mound, stopping just short of rubbing his cheek against her. Alecto’s skin was so inhumanly soft, so touchable, it was a struggle to keep his hands off her. He felt her place a hand on his head, large enough that he could have worn it like a hat, those sharp talons pricking him as she guided him lower.

Before long, his nose was a mere inch from her dripping loins, her sex swollen and needy. Her scent was feminine, arousing a longing in him that he hadn’t been expecting, drawing him in irresistibly. He reached up and parted her puffy lips with his fingers, finding them slippery to the touch, exposing her vulva. Alecto shivered as he brushed his fingertips against her delicate folds, their texture like pleated velvet, soaked in slimy fluid that had the consistency of honey. Her pink flesh glittered when it caught the light that filtered in through the observation deck’s windows, reminding Ethan of morning dew clinging to the petals of a rose.

Are you just going to sit there and admire it?” she asked, easing him closer. “I’m not accustomed to waiting.”

He opened his mouth obediently, not needing any further encouragement, dragging his tongue between her lips. She shivered appreciatively as he grazed the length of her vulva, his saliva mingling with her fluids, his organ gliding up towards her engorged clitoris. She was fever-hot, more of that oddly sweet fluid leaking forth, wetting his chin as he began to mouth and kiss. It was like taking a juicy bite out of some kind of tropical fruit. He traced those silken folds with the tip of his tongue, doting on her, crawling his lips across her tender flesh as she took a handful of his hair for leverage. The sensation should have stung, but it was oddly pleasant, Ethan responding to her gentle tugging as he went.

She reacted strongly to his teasing flurries and devoted licks, twitching and growling when his lips sealed around her protruding clitoris. He lashed the swollen bead with his tongue, drawing it out from beneath its protective hood with his gentle sucking, making slow circles around it as her grip on his hair tightened. He had been afraid of her menacing growling at first, the sound instilling a kind of primal fear in him, but he now knew that it was a sign of affection rather than aggression.

How does it taste?” she chuckled, seeming to revel in her power over him. “The last time I saw someone eat so enthusiastically, I was attending a Roman banquet.”

Unable to reply, as he was quite occupied, he instead sealed her clitoris between his lips and gave it an especially rough lick that made her thighs shake around his head. She groaned, doubling over, her claws pricking his scalp as she peered down at him.

You might take this kind of thing for granted,” she muttered, pausing to bite her lip as he painted her vulva with the flat of his tongue. “But Demons only have the opportunity to inhabit a physical body when we’re summoned. For the majority of our existence, we’re just floating in a stew of shared thought and emotion, without so much as an atom to our name. By Janus,” she moaned, her long tongue emerging to wet her lips lasciviously as he kissed her. “How I have pined for these simple, electrical impulses. Pay more attention to my bud, boy,” she added with a tug of his hair. “I’ve filled it with more nerve-endings than was perhaps prudent.” He was all too happy to do as she asked, enjoying the effect that he was having on the otherwise implacable creature, sliding his questing tongue back up to her swollen clitoris. He pursed his lips around it and began to draw shaped on it, feeling her massive, muscular body quake.

That’s it,” she muttered, her red eyes seeming to glaze over as she let her pink tongue loll from the side of her mouth. He lurched as he felt her sinewy tail coil around his erection, tightening like a length of rubber hose, delivering a pulse of pleasure as though rewarding him for his services. “I might have taken you as a consort back in the days when we had power over mortals, and not the other way around,” she purred. “How dull things have become in my absence.” Her juices leaked down his chin, a rope of her fluids falling to his chest as he lapped, her hips shifting as she began to subtly grind against his face. He raised a finger, probing for her winking opening, feeling fleshy walls seal tightly around him as it slipped inside her. Her burning passage was drenched in her viscous fluids, immediately coating his digit in a slick layer, the only thing preventing her seizing loins from stopping its progress dead.

He could feel the firm muscles that lurked just beyond the layer of slick flesh, bearing down on him through the pillowy barrier like a fist squeezing him through a velvet glove. They rolled from his knuckle to the tip of his finger in wracking waves, drawing on him eagerly, trying to pull him deeper inside her.

Another bestial growl emanated from high above him as he dug his finger into her sensitive tunnel, another stinging, yet oddly enjoyable tug on his hair making him flinch. He began to move his digit inside her, with more than a little difficulty due to the way that her passage gripped him like a vice, her fluids oozing around it to drizzle down his hand. Each contraction betrayed how much she was enjoying herself, her titanic body dancing to his tune now. For all her bluster, she was as tender as a virgin, likely by her own design.

She was starting to sweat, he realized. There were glistening beads of moisture welling on skin that had previously been solid rock, Ethan presented with a beautiful view of one as it rolled gently down her flexing abdominal muscles. It followed the deep channel between the two rows of her six-pack until it reached her navel. Where once the mineral deposits in her stone body had caught the light, now her exertion produced a similar effect, making her look like she had been lightly misted with a spray bottle. The shine that it created further accentuated her muscles, picking them out as they twisted and bulged with her gentle thrusting.

Enough,” she grumbled abruptly, pulling him away from her. Ethan leaned back, his lips still joined to hers by a rope of her fluids, which soon broke to drape itself across his torso.

What’s wrong?” he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

What’s wrong is that your finger is insufficient,” she replied as she began to shift her weight. “I require something more...substantial,” she added, her tail giving Ethan’s member a suggestive squeeze.

He felt a wave of anticipation and excitement wash over him, all of his apprehensions forgotten now. His eyes traced the feminine curve of her hips, the plump thighs that were spread wider than the span of his arms, the way that her flushed lips leaked a strand of her glistening passion. He wanted her so badly that he could taste it.

How were they going to make this work, though? Her waist was as wide as the armrests of the recliner, she couldn’t slip between them in order to straddle him, and they raised her too high for him to be able to reach her while she was resting atop them. Alecto seemed to realize this too, standing up, and examining the chair a moment. Impatience soon got the better of her, Ethan recoiling in alarm as she reached down and took the rightmost armrest in her clawed hands, tearing it from the chair to send it bouncing across the carpet. The wooden frame was no more an obstacle to her than cardboard, the tough leather yielding before her immense strength as though it were no more resilient than paper, the gargoyle repeating the process with the left one.

There,” she said as she dusted off her hands, appraising her work. “That’s better.”

She knelt over the remnants of the chair, her thick thighs coming to rest to either side of it, her loins hovering over Ethan’s erection as it bobbed in the air. He was more than ready to go another round, watching as she gripped the headrest, her breasts swinging above his head. Her pointed tail draped itself around his member, guiding it as she lowered herself down onto him.

They winced in unison as his exposed glans brushed against her wet, velvet folds, a moment of resistance giving the gargoyle pause. For someone so large, she was so incredibly tight, but that might be another of her designs.

She let a little more of her weight rest on him, and then his entire length slid inside her, Alecto’s plump cheeks slapping against his thighs as she took him all the way to the hilt. He watched as his shaft vanished, the grey hue of her skin contrasting starkly with his own as their bodies were joined, the remnants of the recliner creaking as she pressed him into the leather cushions.

It was a struggle to stifle the moan that tried to escape his lips, harsh, delicious pleasure coursing through his every nerve. Her narrow passage seemed to pulsate around his member, beating like a heart, her every spasm and twitch translating into him as though their nervous systems had been linked together. He was already soaking in her sweet juices, the slippery fluid making their contact almost frictionless, save for the vicious grip of her loins as they drew on him with a palpable thirst. Every subtle movement made her slimy, velutinous walls caress him, making it feel like there were a dozen tongues gliding across his skin.

He reached up and let his hands rest on her thighs, even softer and more touchable than the armrests had been, and at about the same height.

Better,” she growled, her eyelids fluttering as she felt Ethan pulse inside her. With her talons firmly embedded in the leather above his head, she began to move, rocking back and forth at a leisurely pace. The motion drove his erection into the walls of her passage, Alecto grinding against it as though trying to scratch an itch in the depths of her being. It was a marvelous thing to be able to watch her hips roll and shimmy, her core flexing and shifting. To feel the muscles in her thighs tensing beneath his fingers as she locked him in a sensual dance.

The already damaged frame of the chair creaked with each thrust, only the soft padding of the old leather cushions preventing her weight from becoming too uncomfortable. The pulsating walls of her tunnel were clinging to his shaft like a second skin, molding around him, clenching down on his member so tightly that he felt like he was being vacuum-packed in wet silk. She began to make a figure of eight with her wide hips, her upper body remaining in place as though it was gyroscopically stabilized. She had such fine control over her new body, so fluid and graceful despite her size and brawn, her breasts swaying subtly in time with her slow gyrations. Her movements stirred him around inside her, Ethan able to feel every minute wrinkle and imperfection as it raked over his glans.

Her measured pace began to slip, the leather above his head creaking as her curved talons tore the material, splitting it open and exposing the white stuffing within. Her lips pulled back to expose her fearsome teeth, a stab of pleasure making her passage clamp down on him.

She began to lift herself off him, Ethan wincing as he felt those clinging, slimy walls glide up his length. The ring of muscle that was her opening gripped his glans, keeping it inside her, Ethan looking down between her pillar-like thighs to see his shaft dripping with her fluids. With a fierce snarl, she let herself drop back down, Ethan wincing as the impact drove him all the way back inside her. As she lifted herself again, he realized that this was to be their new pace. He wanted to complain, to tell her that she was being too rough, but those thoughts were quickly scattered by a surge of ecstasy as she drove him into the cushions.

She was so vigorous, rutting like an animal, her long tongue snaking forth to wet her lips as she watched him writhe beneath her. One of her hands remained anchored in the headrest, the second coming down to his chest, Alecto leaning some more of her weight on him as though keeping him trapped beneath her. Her claws pricked his skin, but the sting was soon lost in another wave of tingling pleasure.

The chair was screaming its protests now, shaking beneath them as the gargoyle bounced in his lap, Ethan fearing that it might soon give out. His demonic partner seemed to be losing herself now, her eyelids drooping, her pearly teeth chewing on her lower lip as her red eyes lingered on him. Her hips swayed as she fucked him into the cushions, changing the angle of his penetration, driving his member into her fleshy walls in new and unexpected ways. The sensation of her pillowy loins was uniform, yet with every fierce thrust, she was able to surprise him. Her muscles wrung him violently, twitching and flexing, massaging his length through the barrier of her luxuriant flesh.

Droplets of sweat rained from her glistening body as she moved atop him, the sheen of sudor making her flushed skin almost reflective in the rays of light that penetrated the grimy windows. The motes of dust that their frenzied activity had disturbed floated through the air around her, like a tiny field of stars. The dawn painted her grey hide in shades of red and orange, conspiring with the deep shadow to pick out her muscles as she moved. Her biceps were as large as his head, her chiseled six-pack wet with exertion, the dimples in the husky fat of her round thighs clearly visible.

She snorted like a bull as she slammed her hips down on him with enough force to bruise, her flesh clapping against his own, Ethan loosing a grunt of blended pleasure and discomfort.

Damn it, go a little slower,” he muttered as she began to make teasing circles again. As soon as the words had left his lips, she gave him another rough thrust, seeming to enjoy the way that he squirmed between her thighs.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I told you that you wouldn’t be able to keep up with me,” she cooed, her hand leaving his chest to brush his burning cheek in a display of mock affection. “Poor thing, would you prefer the tender attentions of a meek and subservient maiden? Perhaps with summer flowers in her hair, and a body as soft as the butter that she churns?”

The great, leathery wings on her back unfurled, blasting him with a gust of wind that sent more dust swirling through the air. She folded them over the two of them like a cocoon, blotting out the sunlight and plunging the pair into relative darkness. Only the subtle glow that made it through the membranous skin illuminated them now, like someone holding their hand over a flashlight, providing just enough light that Ethan could make out her features.

Alecto switched up the pace, slow and gentle now, almost loving. She doubled over, those puffy lips kissing his neck affectionately, one of her large hands cradling his cheek as she mouthed softly. A girlish, comely moan emanated from the usually gruff creature, the sound making his heart leap.

Would you prefer to have me like this?” she whispered into his ear, her voice low and sensual. She gripped his face in her hand and leaned in for a placating kiss, her doting tongue slipping into his mouth, locking him in a sweet embrace that made his brain fizz and pop like it was being fried in a pan. Her demeanor had completely changed. Gone was the selfish lust, her new tenderness was intoxicating, Ethan finding himself pushing up to meet her.

She broke off with a wet smack, her red eyes smoldering like a pair of hot coals in the gloom. After a momentary pause, she threw her horned head back and cackled, her wings opening to put her sculpted form on display once more.

Perhaps the likes of Venus or Aphrodite would have indulged you, but your pleasure nourishes me,” she murmured as his eyes adjusted to the light. “I know what excites you, little morsel. Our agreement was that I wouldn’t injure you or cause you any distress, and you’re far too hard to be distressed,” she added as she exposed her sharp teeth in a smirk. She rolled her hips as if to illustrate her point, Ethan’s spine arching involuntarily as another wave of tingling pleasure rocked him.

She began to bounce again, hammering down on him, driving his aching member into her deepest reaches. The sudden shift back to her aggressive pace took Ethan off-guard, the creature reveling in it, as though she could sense what he was feeling. As much as her attitude irritated him, he couldn’t deny that she was right. Surprises were exciting…

Ethan’s eyes were drawn to the rhythmic bouncing of her heavy breasts, the smacking sound of wet skin on wet skin audible as they crashed against her torso. Remembering how sensitive they were, he raised a hand and sank it into one of the wobbling globes, its movement halted as his fingers were engulfed by her springy flesh. There was a throb of pleasure as he felt her loins tighten around him, her insides flexing at his touch, her teeth bared as his fingers sought out her sensitive breast tissue.

Her stature put her chest at about head-height while she was straddling him, Ethan rising from his reclining position, attempting to wrangle one of them. It was a challenging prospect, the combination of her damp skin, and her squashy fat making it slip through his fingers. When he finally succeeded, he brought it to his mouth, sealing his lips around one of her firm nipples.

Now it was Alecto’s turn to be surprised, a reverberating growl emanating from deep within her throat.

That’s more like it,” she sighed, flinching as he sucked and licked. “I knew that all you needed was a little...encouragement.”

He massaged her breast as he trapped her nipple between his teeth and his tongue, having to use both hands, the gargoyle slowing her relentless hammering so that he could better handle it. She began to draw lazy patterns with her wide hips again, keeping him buried in her most intimate depths, a hand on the back of his head encouraging him.

Oh, Janus,” she murmured as he bit her gently. “I didn’t think I’d enjoy you so much. Playing with one’s food is usually discouraged, but after so long, it’s hard to help myself.”

Her long spine arched, her wings extending as Ethan dragged the flat of his tongue across her nipple, her thighs clamping shut around his hips as she loosed a snarl.

M-maybe I grew a few too many nerve endings in there,” she muttered, swaying drunkenly. “I’m actually...getting close...”

Ethan slid one hand down to her waist as he kept hold of her breast with the other, digging his fingers into the fat of her hip for leverage, his rear rising from the recliner as he thrust into her. He felt her massive body shiver as his glans parted her clenching passage, the muscles in her thighs and belly tensing beautifully. Not needing any further encouragement, she resumed her savage lovemaking, the wooden frame of the chair making worrying cracking sounds as their sweat-drenched bodies crashed together atop it.

All restraint had been forgotten now, they were on the same page, Ethan’s muscles burning as he struggled to match pace with the forceful gargoyle. The more aroused she became, the less control over their encounter she seemed to have, her grinding taking on a desperate and needy quality. Her tail whipped back and forth behind her, her eyes closed tightly, her massive wings twitching erratically with every tremor of pleasure that buffeted her.

Her breast bounced out of his grasp, Alecto wrapping her muscular arms around him, trapping him in a bear hug. She pushed his head into her cleavage, the sheen of her sudor making her boobs slide against his cheeks, their considerable weight coming to rest on his shoulders as they sagged over him like molten metal. She gave him no choice but to breathe in a lungful of her feminine scent, the salty taste of her sweat on his lips as she pressed him tightly against her writhing body, her breath blowing his hair as she panted.

Don’t you dare stop,” she whined, her usually confident voice faltering. “It’s been so long...”

Ethan could feel his own climax scratching at the door, but he had to hold out just a little longer, if only to get her back for all of her teasing. He dug his fingers into the damp skin of her back as he felt her tense up, her burning loins wringing him in a series of rolling contractions that left him breathless, her velvet walls undulating around his cock. She began to tremble like a leaf, her breasts quivering around his head, the meat of her thighs shaking as the first pulse of her orgasm tore through her.

Ethan had expected a thundering growl or some kind of bestial snarl, but he only heard an unbecoming whimper as she gripped him tightly. Her shivering soon morphed into more thrusting, every rock of her hips punctuated by a sordid moan, the gargoyle riding him into the recliner as she became lost in her fugue. The renewed rutting, coupled with the ardent squeezing of her loins as they sucked at him, saw Ethan joining her in her surging ecstasy.

She groaned as she felt a hot, thick spurt of his emission well up inside her, the muscles in the reaches of her tunnel contracting as though her beleaguered body was trying to drink from him. Her boundless cleavage muffled his moans, the two of them remaining locked together, feeding into one another’s bliss with every spasm and thrust. He must be satisfying more than one urge, filling her with the seed that she had so coveted as her insides wrung it from him ruthlessly, every fresh throb of pleasure making them both gasp in tandem. Questing hands wandered across damp skin, their lips meeting, euphoria rolling over them like a fog.

There was a terrible cracking sound, Ethan’s stomach lurching as the frame of the recliner finally collapsed under their sustained abuse. The wood splintered, the two lovers crashing to the floor as they clung to each other in alarm. Fortunately, the thick padding of the recliner’s cushion shielded Ethan from the splinters and the impact, Alecto catching herself before she fell atop him. She knelt over him as he lay on his back, dust billowing, Ethan gazing up into her red eyes as he caught his breath.

Does that count as a surprise?” he asked, and she began to chuckle.

The dust settled as she lifted herself off him, Ethan wincing as his erection slid out of her. He was surprised to see that his shaft was bone dry now, there wasn’t so much as a drop of fluid clinging to his skin, as though their encounter had never happened. She rose to stand over him, her hands planted on her hips, Ethan peering up from between her legs as he lay in the ruined remains of the recliner.

That was...more enjoyable than I had anticipated,” she replied, her aloofness failing to mask the way that her long legs were still unsteady.

So, what happens now?” Ethan asked as he began to climb out of the pile of splintered wood and shredded cushions. His afterglow was still powerful enough to make him sway, he felt giddy, almost drunk. He pulled up his pants, meaning to buckle his belt, then remembering that Alecto had severed it with her claws. He pulled it out of his belt loops and discarded it, then realized that he couldn’t fasten up his shirt either, as she had plucked the buttons from it. He wasn’t looking forward to making his way through the building’s lobby half-clothed, it was a walk of shame that would be fairly difficult to explain.

I have the energy that I need to return home,” she replied. “I thank you for your...generous contribution, as does Bifrons. Our contract is now complete.”

Oh,” Ethan replied, a little taken aback. He didn’t know what he had been expecting. The only interest that she had expressed in him had been sexual, and even then, only in the context of feeding off his spiritual energy. He wasn’t accustomed to one-night stands, let alone with demons. Still, as abrasive as she could be, there was something oddly endearing about her.

Were you expecting me to stick around?” she chuckled, reaching out and ruffling his hair with her clawed hand. Ethan grumbled as he tried to straighten it again, Alecto watching him with a wide grin on her face. “As I told you before, I’m no doe-eyed maiden with flowers in my hair.”

Are you going to return to your own dimension now?” he asked. “You didn’t seem very keen on the idea when you last talked about it.”

Her descriptions of what she referred to as Hades hadn’t painted a very appealing picture, she had said that being summoned into the real world was a reprieve, that occupying a physical body was a rare delight. She turned her head to peer out of a nearby window, lifting a hand to wipe away the grime that coated it, her claws squeaking against the glass. Sunlight poured in, illuminating her face as she was lost in thought, her skin still damp with sweat. Her entire body was animate now, made of living flesh from head to toe, with no sign of lichen-covered stone remaining. Her chest rose and fell, making her bosom sway enticingly, her breath misting the glass.

Do you...have to go back?” he added.

Alecto seemed conflicted, her brow furrowing. She lifted one of her hands, flexing her talons, watching the tendons shift beneath her skin.

I can feel the sun on my face,” she muttered, “I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.” Her wistful expression morphed into a mischievous smile, her gaze shifting back to Ethan. “It’s not as though my master has any urgent need of me,” she continued, “I’ve been away for decades already. Perhaps I will stay a little longer. I have a new body, after all, and an abundant supply of energy on demand. It would be a shame to waste such a rare opportunity.”

An abundant supply of energy?” Ethan asked, cocking an eyebrow at her. “You mean me?”

What about you, little morsel?” she continued as she peered down at him. “What will you do now?”

Me?” he mumbled as he pointed to himself, surprised that she was taking an interest in him. “Now that Spencer is out of the picture, and all of the ghosts have been...uh...exorcised, I can actually do my job properly. I was hired to get this building in working order again, and that’s still what I intend to do.”

Ever the dutiful Master of Facilities,” she chuckled. “So, you won’t mind if I drop in once in a while to...eat my fill?” she asked as she licked her lips suggestively. Ethan’s cheeks reddened at the prospect, and he shook his head.

She turned and began to make her way to the open door, stepping out onto the balcony, Ethan hurrying after her as he struggled to keep pace with her long strides. The wind blew his hair, the gargoyle extending her wings like a bird about to take flight, as though testing the air currents. The powerful muscles in her back flexed, her damp skin catching the sun. She walked out onto the support bracket that had been her home for so long, peering down at the street, a good thousand feet below.

Ethan leaned over the railing as he watched her wings flap, his open shirt fluttering in the breeze.

Where will you go?” he asked, Alecto turning to look back at him.

I want to see how the world has changed in my absence,” she replied, giving him another of her toothy smiles. “Do not fret, I will return when my energy reserves are low, or when I feel the urge to indulge in a little diversion for a few hours. I have yet to run this body through its paces, after all.”

But how will I know when you’re back?” Ethan said, having to raise his voice so that she could hear him over the wind.

Don’t worry, I’ll find you,” she replied. “Trust me when I say that you’re impossible to ignore, Ethan.”

The gargoyle extended her leathery wings to their full width, then let herself fall over the edge, quickly dropping out view. Ethan’s heart seemed to stop in his chest, and he peered over the railing, vertigo making his stomach churn as he searched for any sign of her.

Alecto suddenly burst up in front of him, gliding high into the air on her outstretched wings. She flapped a few times, climbing towards the clouds, catching a warm air current that sent her spiraling upwards. Ethan had to crane his neck to see her, shielding his eyes from the sun, the massive creature shrinking until her silhouette was scarcely the size of a pigeon. He wondered what the denizens of New York would make of her if they caught sight of her, whether it would have been more prudent to travel at night, but he could already scarcely make her out.

Was she really going to come back and see him? Make love to him again? Even if it was only some kind of interdimensional booty-call for the purpose of topping up her tanks, the prospect filled him with anticipation. For all her teasing, what little time he had spent in her company had been a wonderful experience, and she had mostly kept her word when it came to being gentle with him. He also suspected that she liked him more than she was willing to let on.

He turned and made his way back inside, appraising the remnants of the recliner. At least he wouldn’t have to explain what had happened to it, the upper floors had been a wreck to begin with. Still, now that Spencer wasn’t keeping people out, it should clean up nicely. Disassembling the makeshift Satanic temple in the spire before anyone else discovered it was probably a good idea, too. He wasn’t sure what to do with all of those dusty old grimoires, but something told him that simply throwing them out would be a bad idea.

After sparing one last glance at the open door to the balcony, he began to make his way back down the spiral staircase. He had no idea when Alecto would return. It could be days, weeks, or even months. All he could say for sure was that it would be a pleasant surprise.

-THE END-