It was cold, she was tired, and her legs ached.
Crouched uncomfortably behind a hedge wearing a heavy black cloak and mask, Lena tried to keep her mind from how exhausted she felt. Adjusting her short cherry-coloured hair beneath her collar, she moved her weight from foot to foot, unsuccessfully trying to steal back some blood flow.
Neck twisted at an uncomfortable angle and nose going numb in the cold evening, she tried to keep her thoughts away from how she ached to be somewhere warm, preferably sitting alone in her room, pouring a single malt over crackling ice and enjoying the amber fire burning down her throat.
However, there was a job at hand, and she had to be ready. One slim, pale hand kept eager fingers on the smooth handle of her dagger, which was encased snuggly in her scabbard, ready for a quick draw if need be.
The estate’s rose garden was quiet and still in the evening gloom; tall, shadowy arches of candy pink and blood-red roses standing ethereal and expectant in the ghostly stillness.
The breeze carried the scent of autumn chill and the cloying and slightly decayed perfume of the gardens. There was no other sound except her gentle breath, exhaling pale-grey plumes of vapour into the crisp evening air.
The high windows and turrets of Slate manor were haloed by the fading October sun; setting a fiery cast over the lilac wisteria that crept gently over the age blackened brickwork of the building. Old legends and local rumour said the manor and its gardens were haunted, that the estate had been build over an old ossuary, although no land registry documents had ever confirmed this.
A gentle creak of the iron gate alerted Lena to a presence, and her eyes fell upon her mark. A young woman had entered the rose garden through the curling, ornate metalwork of the rusting silver gate, just a few feet away from Lena’s hiding place.
Turned away, the girl’s dark auburn ringlets fell softly down the back of her long black winter coat. She glanced around nervously, looking out from under long ginger lashes, her steps quiet and tentative. She was so close that Lena could smell her perfume on the cold air; violets and green tea.
Lena moved quickly, jumping silently and fluidly into the open space, her sharp knife licking the air as she cast a fast, slicing movement towards the redhead.
Caught off guard, the young woman wheeled around sharply before lurching backward and away from the knife-wielding assailant in panic. Narrowly avoiding the cut of the blade, her pale blue eyes widened in surprise and her mouth fell open in fear. A hoarse scream tore itself from her throat, the shockwave of sound filling the gardens and echoing around the enclosed space.
Lena pressed forwards again, a menacing shadow looming in the almost darkness, brandishing her blade again and closing the distance between herself and her victim in seconds.
As the girl’s scream faded, it was replaced by a new sound. Laughter.
Catching her breath, the red head’s face broke out into a wide grin, eyes twinkling with glee. Hand clutched to her chest to still her frantically beating heart, she turned and ran back out of the gardens to return to her friends.
Chaotic and wild laughter rang out and echoed around the avenue of the gardens, disturbing the quiet of the serene and imposing perfectly manicured hedgerows that lead up to the manor.
Lena smiled to herself under the mask, congratulating herself on another successful scare, returning to her station behind the bush. Other actors had been placed all around the grounds, waiting to jump out at thrill-seekers attending the annual Halloween event. Scare acting could be exhausting work, but it was certainly an interesting profession.
She had earned many pints in local pubs as she shared her best fright stories and spookiest locations. When it came down to it, people loved to be scared. They enjoyed the thrill, the rush of adrenaline. Their heart attempting to slam wetly out of their chests. The feeling of being alive.
The evening had now faded into inky darkness, the only light coming from the hanging lamps outside the manor and the wash of the waxing moon, pale as funeral lilies and bone. The cold had become unforgiving and biting, sinking into her skin and leaving her lips numb.
Stamping her feet and flexing her legs to retrieve some feeling, Lena listened for more approaching guests. Silence. The gathering shadows of the rose garden felt expectant, as if the roses were holding their breath in a silent vigil.
Her eye caught a flicker of movement up at the manor, the fleeting backlit shadow of a figure standing at one of the lancet windows in the east wing, gazing silently out over the grounds.
She shivered, not entirely due to the cold, and felt a slight prickle of unease.
Were there actors inside? She didn’t recall that being mentioned during the afternoon briefing. It was entirely likely that there were, she thought, pushing the thought to the back of her head.
She chastised herself for getting spooked. She was meant to be the monster here! Shaking her head slightly and readjusting her mask, she laughed off her own unease.
Even professionals could still get the creeps in these places. Old abandoned houses and misty forests were still the stuff of nightmares even if you were the thing hiding in the shadows; often alone and concealed in total darkness. That was the thing about fear and doubt, they spread so easily.
As more time passed and no-one else entered the moon-soaked garden, it became clear that she was alone, with only the cracked face of a stone cherub on a nearby fountain to keep her company.
Where was everyone? She knew she shouldn’t break character, but this was eerie.
“Hello?” she called out, her voice a small and fragmented echo. In reply, the silence opened its mouth wide in the darkness, seeming to taste her inquietude.
Slowly standing from her hiding place, tightened thigh muscles screaming, she moved out into the rose gardens, passing silently through the gate and out into the shadows of the main walkway, facing the manor. There was now no light emitting from the lamps, making the manor look towering and ruinous.
The tranquillity of the grounds seemed sinister now, the path bathed only in cold, gentle moonlight. A brief gust of wind left the barest feeling of an ice-cold touch on her exposed neck, and she heard the faintest sound of a whisper in her ear.
Despite herself, she sounded shrill and panicked, even to her own ears. She heard the sharp crackling sound of leaves further down the path, delicately dry and broken exoskeletons littering the ground.
Lena turned sharply to look down the walkway, soft black-red hair whipping in the freezing air, breath caught in her throat. Fearing flooded through her body and she felt paralysed.
A thin, willowy shape could be seen at the end of the row of pergolas, almost translucent in the gloom. Each archway was decorated by trailing and entwined rows of white roses, creating a delicate dance of light and shadow that surrounded the figure. The sound of whispering returned briefly and seemed to drop away just as suddenly.
Look at me.
Mouth dry, a feeling of overwhelming panic sent static waves of fright through the delicate whorls of her brain.
She looked again, despite herself.
The presence at the end of the walkway had limpid black pools for eyes and a small, cold smile; its slimy blue-grey skin painfully stretched over the high pale bone and feral features of its face. It began to smile wider, the wet skin of mucilaginous lips smearing back from rotted teeth.
Then it came for her.