One night I thought to myself, you know, self, the bits of FF3 set in Rei's house really lend themselves to a more Lovecraftian/cosmic/surreal kind of horror. Wouldn't it be fun if someone wrote that? So then I wrote that. AU, obviously.
Rei can’t remember when she last went outside. She remembers what it was for: the assignment in the old mansion. She has dreams about it, the whispering house with the vast subterrain packed in between its foundations, but since she set foot in that place time moves differently.
Or perhaps it’s not time but her memory that’s malfunctioning. She remembers standing underneath the mansion and raising her eyes to the ceiling, where all the words were carved; she remembers tendrils of smoke rising from the film compartment of her camera, the acrid smell of melting plastic. She remembers the shadow rising up behind her. But she can’t remember how she and Miku escaped, or how they arrived back home. Whatever burned the camera film to nothing burned away her memories as well, and now there’s a gap where nothing is trustworthy or certain.
The obvious course of action would be to ask Miku, and sometimes the temptation is strong. She’d say, “Miku, ever since we went on that job, something isn’t right. I can’t remember what happened there, but there’s something growing on my back, I can feel it.”
But the thing on her back is only an itch and an idea, and it’s easier to pretend that everything’s fine.
Miku is busy with the washing up, but she turns the tap off and comes out of the kitchen when Rei comes downstairs. Miku is that sort of person, the sort who stops whatever she’s doing to talk to you. It’s always made Rei feel vaguely guilty.
“I was just thinking about that house we went to on our last job,” she says, trying to sound nonchalant. “What happened to all the information you dug up beforehand? I’d like to take another look at it.”
As Rei knew she would, Miku says she has the material all filed away in her room, and while she’s upstairs fetching it Rei flicks through the magazine on the kitchen counter. It’s been left where Miku usually puts the new mail when she brings it in, but it’s last month’s issue. Strange.
“Here you go, Rei.” Miku passes her a thin folder, labelled with the date of the assignment and client’s name. “This is everything I could find about the house.”
“Thanks, Miku, I really appreciate it.”
“If you need anything else, just let me know.” Miku’s gaze drifts over to the window. “It’s raining again.”
Rei notices something else: there are no dishes in the sink or on the drainer where Miku was standing only a moment before. “Miku...”
“It’s raining again.” She says it exactly the same way. Her eyes, when she turns from the window, are calm, and flat, and blank.
Rei’s arms prickle. “I’m just going to borrow this for a while,” she says, holding up the folder. “Thanks.”
In her room she sits at her desk with the folder in front of her. There are footsteps, crossing from the kitchen to the window, and Rei’s imagination fills in the image of Miku standing there, silently staring, without even pulling the curtains aside.
The first section of the folder is full of photos of the mansion, most taken from the air. Until recently, the nearest road was more than twenty miles away, and the location was inaccessible except on foot, meaning that very few people had visited in the last century.
(Downstairs, Miku walks back to the kitchen and turns the tap on. Rei can picture her watching blankly as water runs into the empty sink, away down the drain.)
Miku’s neat handwritten notes explain that the mansion’s existence was unrecorded and entirely forgotten until five years ago, when it was rediscovered during a survey along the proposed route of a new mountain pass. As it has remained untouched for so many years, historians consider the site to be of great potential significance.
Rei recalls that they were supposed to be meeting one of the historians on the team, a man named Amakura, but when they arrived on that overcast day, nobody was there but them. They waited for nearly an hour. Miku was in favour of driving back to the last village and calling Amakura’s hotel to see if he was there, but Rei suggested they just go in. They were experienced enough to know not to damage or disturb anything, she said; they didn’t need to be guided around like tourists. She was thinking of Yuu as she said it, the reverence with which he treated anything old, and his room, still preserved like a museum exhibition. Rei knows to leave dead things untouched. She thought she did.
(The pipes clank as Miku switches the tap off, and there comes the sound of her crossing to the couch, the soft huff of air from the cushions as she sits down. She will be opening a book, Rei knows without checking, and it will be the same one she was reading two weeks ago, and she will look at the pages but never turn to the next one.)
The file on the mansion is thin, because so much of its past is a mystery. No one knows who built it, Miku’s notes say. No one knows who lived there. At some point, probably late in the nineteenth century, it was abandoned, but nobody knows when or why. There are some instances of writing on the walls which look like graffiti, but the location is far too remote to make that likely. The writing is in an unknown language.
Rei twists in her chair, trying to ease the itch on her back. She remembers how there was more of the writing the deeper they got into the house. In some of the innermost rooms the ceilings were black with it, and the shapes seemed to whisper and change. She remembers thinking that it didn’t look like writing so much as some kind of organic process, but it was Miku who said it: It looks like mould. It looks like it’s growing by itself, don’t you think, Rei? Should we be wearing masks? There could be spores.
But that was the moment when Rei opened the doors upon the great staircase, and heard the water flowing. She never answered Miku’s question. Did she hear the rustle and scuttle of something moving down there, even then? Yes, she thinks she did.
Rei finds she doesn’t want to look at this after all. She closes the folder, and realises at the same moment that it’s dark already. She can’t tell how long she’s been sitting with no lights on, staring at nothing. It frightens her.
“I’m going to bed now,” she says, standing outside Miku’s door. There’s no answer, but she tells herself Miku is probably already asleep. She doesn’t know what time it is. The clocks have all stopped. “Goodnight,” she says eventually, and goes back to her room.
She doesn’t want to sleep. She knows she’s been sleepwalking, and it scares her, the way the hours slip out from beneath her while she dreams of things she can never remember upon waking. In stories, people can sleep for years and years. But there’s nothing else to do, and Miku keeps telling her to sleep, so she does.
She thinks she gets up early the next morning. The light is grey and gloomy, but Miku is already at the window. “It’s raining again,” she says. “Don’t go outside today.”
Rei waits with her hand still resting on the banister, but Miku doesn’t turn to face her.
“Rei, you’ve been working too hard. Go back to sleep.”
So she goes upstairs again, to her room, which hasn’t changed much. She could look out of her own window and see for herself, but she doesn’t want to do it alone.
She puts it off as long as she can, but there’s nothing else to do, so eventually she crawls between the sheets and buries her face in the pillow. While she’s waiting to fall asleep, she listens for the sounds of Miku moving around downstairs, but there’s only the rain striking the window like fingernails. And anyway, Rei is dreaming already.
Under the whispering house there were more words etched in bleeding stone, letters and shapes that made her eyes crawl to look at them. One of the words was Yuu, but after that first moment she couldn’t pick it out of the bristling mass.
The creature settled first on her back, and she supposes that makes her lucky. It was an endless, multifaceted thing, even in the glimpse she’d caught of it: now it was wings knotted up with bone, now it was a woman-shape painted with shadows, now it was a mouth and a scream that would shatter her teeth if she listened. She hurled it off her in disgust and horror, and it scuttled away, but it had already planted its claws in her. At night, while she is dreaming, the words are beginning to take root in her skin. When she wakes up, she feels them spreading, and tells herself she mustn’t look. If she looks, she’ll change.
The house is so quiet, she can hear the rain chuckling in the gutters outside. As she walks down the landing, she hears Miku’s door open, and the voice, lower than usual. “Rei? Are you having trouble sleeping?”
She turns unwillingly. Miku stands there in her usual pink pyjamas, but there’s a bandage wrapped around the length of her left arm, and a rivulet of water running out from under her hairline, trickling down her cheek.
“Do you need to sleep in here with me?” she says. Beneath the unvarying tones of her voice, Rei can still hear the rain in the gutters, that endless gurgling, somehow obscene.
“No,” she says, and her mouth is so dry she can only whisper.
Miku’s fingers work at the collar of her lacy blouse, around the shoulder on the left side. Her nails dig into the skin, scraping and burrowing and if she’s trying to pry something out.
“Don’t,” Rei says. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
The look Miku gives her is hopeless, lost. She returns to her room, and there’s a small puddle of water where she was standing. Black threads swim through it like hair, like letters. Rei doesn’t like to go any closer, even to step over it, so she stands where she is, backed up against the banister.
She is perversely glad that when the creature in the whispering house descended to her, it sought its grip between her shoulder-blades, and not on her wrist. It must be very hard to avoid looking at your own arm, hour after hour, when you can feel the words hatching beneath the skin.
She wakes to find herself in the dark-room, with no idea how she got there. It was one of the first rooms she abandoned when the house started to change, and it’s so different that at first she doesn’t know where she is. Then she recognises the sinks that hang askew from the cracked wall. The light is red, and she should be used to it, but it’s somehow internal, and the walls, cracked and rotten, begin to look organic. Water is seeping up from somewhere on the floor, soaking through Rei’s slippers. Up near the ceiling, there are water stains that almost look like writing.
She trips on a crack in the floor – but it’s not a crack, it’s a fissure, it’s a rupture, it’s an orifice – and catches herself on the edge of the sink. It wobbles like a broken tooth, and she nearly overbalances trying to get her hands away from it. In the photographs clipped to the drying-wires the landscapes have changed, and keep changing as she passes them. It’s like looking out through a series of windows. It’s mountains she sees, and ancient constellations, and the mansion growing out of the hillside like a vast, complicated gall.
Maybe, Rei thought, edging towards the door, trying to avoid the worst of the puddles, that’s what I’d see if I looked out of the window right now. Maybe I should ask Miku.
Somewhere in a different room, like an echo from another world, the phone starts to ring. Nobody comes to answer it. Rei leaves her slippers behind in the deepening water.
The infection, whatever it is, has spread through more of the house, and after this she’ll have to abandon the corridor and the altar room, as well. Strange shadows droop and billow down from the ceiling, like ink in water, and Rei skirts around them before they can touch her. She reaches the living room, darts for the phone, but the ringing stops just before she can reach it. She picks up the receiver anyway, cradles it along her cheek, and whispers, “Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?”
If she had been in her room when it started ringing, she could have reached it in time, but she woke up in the dark-room today, with no idea how she had got there. The line is dead in her ear. She can’t explain why it feels as though she’s just missed her last chance.
“Miku? Is everything okay in there?”
If everything were okay, Miku would have come out by now, but she hasn’t. Rei knows this. She’s been standing here for ten minutes, knocking, calling out, hearing the noises from within: the shiftings, the slitherings, the muffled, furtive thuds. She imagines Miku, or whatever Miku has become, slinking over to the door, pressing her hands against the other side, breathing wetly through her mouth. It makes Rei want to flee back to her room, but when she woke up this morning there was something in her closet, and she’s afraid to be in there with it, alone. Oh god, she’s afraid to be alone.
Silence from the closed room, but something moves at the edge of Rei’s vision. She looks down to see a slow-spreading puddle of something dark oozing out from beneath the door. It could be ink or filthy water or something else entirely, but it reminds her of the plunging shadow-pillars in the altar-room corridor downstairs, and she steps aside before it can reach her bare feet.
She backs along the hall and finds her own room. She hasn’t been in Yuu’s – she’ll never go in his room again, she’s decided – and if she goes downstairs the temptation to look out of the window will be too great. So she goes back into her own room, where everything is still relatively intact.
But it’s not, of course. The pages of her books are black and oozing around the edges, and the landscapes in the photographs are growing dark and ominous, and something inside the closet makes a low, inhuman moan. There’s nowhere in the house that’s safe any more.
Are you just going to sit here, too scared to open any of the doors? she asks herself. Are you okay not knowing?
No, that’s not her way. She always chased after the truth, or even just a good photo. Once she walked down a staircase with the walls crawling around her. If she can do that, she can find out what’s moaning inside her bedroom closet.
The sound comes again when she grips the doorknob. She wrenches the door open, jumping back at the same time, moving out of the way just as something launches itself out at her. She catches a glimpse of tangled black fur, eyes like marsh-fire, and tries to remember how long it’s been since she last saw Ruri. She assumed the cat had fled, back when all this was just beginning.
She listens to the patter-scrabble of Ruri’s paws on the stairs and away. In the closet, all her pretty clothes are black with mould, and damp. There’s water spreading out across the floor, around her feet.
Rei crawls into her bed. She’ll sleep with her eyes open. She won’t sleepwalk this time.
There’s silence from inside Miku’s room now. The noises from before were distressing, but the lack of them is worse. The phone hasn’t rung again. In her dreams, the whispering house expands further every night.
“I don’t think it’s about us at all,” she says to Miku’s door. She sits with her back against the banister, the living room behind and below her. “It’s about the house. We’re just moving canvas for that thing’s – ” Chronicles? Prophecies? Nothing so esoteric. Its blueprints, she thinks, but doesn’t say. She’s talking to herself anyway. Miku is gone. The whole of her back itches like a mania, and when she looks down she can see marks on her shoulders, black at the corners of her vision. When she cries, her tears leave smeary watercolour streaks along her hands. Soon, the words will be where she can see them clearly, and then she’ll look. She won’t be able to stop herself.
The silence goes on from behind the door. Perhaps when she comes back upstairs, Rei will look into Miku’s room, and know for certain.
If she comes back, after seeing what’s outside the window.
The stairs feel unsafe as she descends, and she knows it’s the words, and the shadows, spreading like rot on the underside of the floorboards, insinuating themselves through every crack and crevice of the house. Fingers of black mould are inching down the curtains in the living room. Rei stands a moment longer, staring through a black-and-white haze at an obscure world, and then she sweeps the curtain aside.
At first, in those last dissolving seconds, she sees what she expects to see: the wet black curve of the road, the clouds bellying down heavy with rain. Then that begins to shift and melt like a painting underwater. The road is a riverbed, worn smooth by the flood, not deep but unimaginably wide. There’s no sky at all, only a high rocky ceiling, crawling with graven letters in no human language. Before they overrun her grip on reality, Rei sees Yuu’s name written there. And her own.
She isn’t in her house at all. She never was. Her camera is still around her neck, the smell of burning plastic telling her whatever pictures she took are lost. She was here all along, with the water rolling over her feet. Behind her is the ancient structure she took for an altar: the seed from which the house is growing, the plain beginnings of an organic feat of architecture.
At what seems to be a very great distance, she sees Miku descending the staircase, one hand over her heart, beginning to raise her eyes to the ceiling. Her name will be written there too. Rei opens her mouth, but before she can discover whether she means to give voice to a warning or only a howl of despair, she senses movement behind her. A billowing shadow is unfurling; she won’t have time to see what it is, and she’s glad of it. From the other shore she sees Miku cover her eyes. The creature plants its claws in her back.