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Headstone House - Gathering

By: Agatha Brennan


A grave is where you go to end a story. And the more stories that end, the more headstones you find. I suppose if you build a house atop the headstones, it becomes a place that welcomes those that are already dead. And if you listen closely to the walls, you can hear the cold pulse that still runs through them. And all the stories they carry. I lived in a house like that for 204 years. The Headstone House, I called her. And I know all her stories. This is but one.

“Just sign here, and you’ll be an official resident,” I offered.

I pushed the contract to my latest arrival, along with a cup of Earl Grey tea.


As she requested.

By all accounts, Madeline Finch was the ideal tenant. She was quiet, orderly, and based on previous reports, always paid her rent in full and ahead of time. There seemed to be nothing more to her than being a diligent resident of the properties she had stayed at in the last ten years. It could have all been so perfect. Except for the timing of her arrival.

She became a tenant of the Headstone House on Halloween of 1922.

This would have marked the beginning of our time as landlord and tenant, but she would not be admitted to the premises until the end of All Hallows Eve. Being a new resident in this place posed certain…challenges. And after cleaning up the remains of the last ones, I knew that this house and its longtime residents would take advantage of the situation. With the glow of the Harvest Moon, monsters like us received more Powers of the Grave.


Our fangs grew sharper, our eyes grew brighter, and our appetites became insatiable.


While nobody else had learned the truth in town, they had certainly taken precautions against my little monsters.


We didn’t have any visitors this time of year, anymore. The procession of distraught spouses, confused policemen, and paranormal investigators took one night of reprieve. And it would all start up again on November 1st.


It could have been so perfect.


But if there’s one thing humans love more than their little secrets, it’s when you make exceptions for them.

“I just have one question,” Madeline insisted.

“Of course,” I allowed.

“The contract states that I am to stay off of the premises during Halloween. Where does that leave us for today? I’m afraid I have nowhere else to go in the meantime. I’ve moved my entire life out here, and I’d like to have a place to hang my hat.”

“I understand your trepidation, but I assure you that the time you’ll be spending out of the house on Halloween is for your benefit.”

“Being homeless for the next 24 hours is a benefit? I brought you the money for rent, and it took everything I had to bring you every last penny.”


“All sixty dollars worth. You have my thanks. But I won’t be leaving you in a lurch. You’re clearly a very thoughtful person, and I want you to know that this gesture has not gone unnoticed. I’ve made arrangements for you to stay at the local inn, out of my pocket. It’s owned by a friend. The prices are usually quite high, but I’ve made arrangements like this for tenants in the past.”


“I need to stay here,” Madeline insisted.

She looked at the ground, and wrung her hands together.

“You need to stay in my home? Starting tonight?” I asked.

“I do,” Madeline confirmed.

There was clearly something that was weighing on her mind, and it felt wrong to ask her to go anywhere else. She had gone to different houses in the last few years, and she never seemed to want to settle down anywhere. Clearly, she was determined to put an end to the running.

I had no choice.

If you’re going to stay here for Halloween, we need to establish some ground rules.”

Madeline’s head shot up, and her eyes were eager.

“Of course,” she accepted.

“We’re going to have a Gathering here tonight. Normally, I’d ask all tenants to take advantage of other arrangements we offer.”

“They won’t even know I’m here,” Madeline promised.

“They greatly cherish their privacy. And by having someone here that’s not a part of their…festivities could make things difficult.”

Madeline nodded.

“I’ll stay in my room. And I won’t come out. I promise.”

I was surprised.

“Oh, you don’t have to stay in your room. Although it may make things easier.”

Madeline hesitated.


“I don’t understand.”

“You’ll be allowed to have usage of the common areas of the house. And you may use your room, of course. But the company that’s coming by tonight would prefer it if you never speak of what you see.”


Madeline had doubt lingering in her eyes, but she looked out the window of the Headstone House, and steeled herself. She had no idea what she was agreeing to, but she knew that whatever it was would be better than taking her chances outside the house.

“I’ll keep my mouth shut about what happens tonight. But I want your solemn promise that I’ll be able to stay here.”

I nodded.

“You’ll stay here. So long as you don’t violate this agreement.”

I held out my hand, and Madeline shook it.

The low rush of approaching cars had appeared in front of the house, and Madeline looked out to see who was here.

There was a flock of solemn strangers coming out of those cars. Some appeared in lavish cars, and dressed in lavish clothing. Others appeared in jalopies and dressed in rags.

The sole characteristics they all shared were fierce eyes that seemed to glow, and snow-white fangs that seemed to glitter in the moonlight.


All of them were here for the Gathering, and I hoped that Madeline would be able to keep her promise.


“That’s quite the cabal of friends you have,” she attempted.

“They’re not my friends. I just agreed to host their Gathering this year,” I insisted.

As each figure came into the house, Madeline sat in the corner and was transfixed by the lineup of visitors. It was unlike any other Gathering you were likely to find in Flint.

The hearth burned brightly, but the shadows cast by each of the new arrivals made everything colder. Every new stranger coming into the house seemed to drop the temperature another five degrees. Before long, every breath was chilled into a white vapor.


They hardly spoke as they greeted me, and they seemed wary. It was only fair, many of them had quite the journey getting to my home. And the number of attendants was already too small for comfort. There were supposed to be twenty attendants, but now, there were only nine.

Finally, the last of our visitors came through the door. The house took notice, and the door shut swiftly behind them.

SLAM!

The last of the arrivals was the most alluring of all.


And Madeline couldn’t keep her eyes off of her.


I suppose in any other situation, I would feel compelled to introduce the two of them. But I was a landlord, not a matchmaker.


To me, they were both guests.


“Good to have you with us, Narcisse,” I greeted.


Narcisse looked around the room, and seemed disappointed by the turnout.


“I was hoping more of us would be here tonight,” she lamented. “But it is an honor to be in the company of old friends,” Narcisse smiled.

Madeline looked at all the nightwalkers, and had no idea what to say.

But that was common in Gatherings like this.

Humans were always lost, while nightwalkers were always in control.


Finally, Narcisse took notice of Madeline, and her somber eyes melted into a gentle gleam of intrigue.

“Who’s this petite beauty?” Narcisse asked.

The French nightwalker crossed by me, and in seconds, was upon Madeline. There was a sudden rush of fear that ran through Madeline. But the tremor in her heart suddenly changed. When Narcisse drew closer, Madeline’s pulse became slower and much more intense. I wasn’t sure if it was terror, or excitement.

Neither would have surprised me.


“A tenant,” I answered quickly.

Narcisse stopped, and hovered in place. Her lavender eyes fluttered when she got just close enough to Madeline that the spell could still be broken.

“Welcome to the Headstone House, ma chérie,” Narcisse welcomed.

KISS.


It was a long kiss, and it had sent Madeline’s pulse from a steady, intense beat to the beat of a hummingbird’s wings. But as soon as the surprise set in, Madeline’s face had turned as red as a cherry and her body had gone limp.


The remaining nightwalkers smiled in approval.

Narcisse pulled back, and smiled with deep satisfaction.


Then Narcisse turned to me.

“Marko, if this one ever wants to find alternate living arrangements, please have her call me.”

Madeline’s eyes had entered a haze as she looked at Narcisse.

Without another word, I stood in front of the hearth, and Madeline looked on at the strangers that scattered across the foyer. Her eyes often gravitated toward Narcisse, and she was enraptured with the mystery of who they all were. And why they were here.

“Welcome, everyone. I know the journey has been a difficult one, but it is a tradition that must be upheld. And of course, I have made the necessary arrangements to ensure that nobody would be visiting us that would compromise the secrecy of this Gathering.”


Everyone looked straight at me. As though they couldn’t bear to look around and be reminded of the nightwalkers that were missing.


Madeline took a deep breath, but was determined to keep her promise.


“You’ve all come here because you want to have a place in the New World. I can certainly provide that,” I continued.

Madeline looked on, curious as to what brought such exotic persons to this small town, and as she looked at Narcisse, she found herself smiling. She let the grin make her cheeks go rosy, but as soon as she smiled, she felt the light dribble of blood escape her jaws.

Madeline looked down, at first with curiosity.

But as she found the crimson stain on her clothing, her hands started shaking.

“Think nothing of it, ma chérie,” Narcisse assured. “I was perhaps a bit…overzealous.”


It was true that nightwalkers could find themselves capable of having their fangs extend at inopportune moments. But a Gathering that had a human in attendance was surely one of the worst times of all.


“It will heal in just a moment, Madeline. Rest assured,” I promised.


Madeline shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and looked at the Gathering with rekindled fear. But as the moment passed, she had a look of stunned realization when she felt that any wound that had formed from Narcisse’s indiscretion had already healed. The taste of iron was still in her mouth, but no wound for it to escape from.


“I’ve made arrangements to provide you with territory at your desired locations, safe passage for everyone here, and access to a Ravenshade. As you have all requested.”

A thin nightwalker raised his voice, with a thick German accent.

“Safe passage for everyone here. You have done well to provide us with a beginning. But what about the rest of our time spent in America? How can we be sure that we won’t simply fade away before the year is out?”

Every nightwalker had tensed up. It was clear that they had suffered tragedy in getting here, and they were no closer to finding an answer as to why they lost their loved ones. Nobody was above suspicion. Least of all the nightwalker that gathered them all.

“That will be entirely up to you. I’m hopeful that every one of you will find a prosperous future here. For yourselves and all of your…surviving families. All the previous grudges have been settled, and every one of you has been given protection by the highest authority to settle in these lands.”

A cautious nightwalker raised her voice, with a flourish Italian accent.

“I share in Godfrey’s suspicions. We had all taken great expense in coming out here, and it seemed a perfect chance to do away with all of us, had that been the intention,” she observed.

“And yet, you continue living,” I added. “I have taken considerable risk in having you all come here as well. I have invoked vointa rece, to ensure all of you remain safe.”

Silence.


The suspicion in everyone’s eyes had transmuted into something different. Fear, apprehension, surprise, even sympathy.


“I’m sorry it wasn’t enough to save everyone,” I whispered.

“You would do that for us?” the Italian nightwalker asked.


“What does that mean?” Madeline asked.


I could feel a lump form in my throat.


And for a dreadful moment, I thought Madeline had sealed her fate.


But Narcisse had raised her voice, to answer the question.


“It means cold will in Romanian. It is a pact that is made with a life on the line, among nightwalkers. Marko has agreed to pay the penalty for any infractions any of us commit. No matter how horrible they are. Quite the act of goodwill.”


“But for how long?” An English voice inquired.


“One year,” I confirmed. “That is to ensure you have all found your place in the New World, and that this house becomes a safe space where your clans can be directed to find you. I hope with all my heart that they are simply delayed. Your dearest fledgling, Godfrey. And your dearest daughter, Mia.”

The two vampires seemed touched by the gesture.

Nobody spoke a word, but their eyes flashed toward each other.

“But…why?” Godfrey demanded. “Why go to these lengths? Surely, you knew that there would be casualties, and you still took all of the responsibility. By the Old Law, we have every right to rip you apart. Right here.”


Madeline’s face went pale and cold as a porcelain doll.


“That’s why you came here. You were tired of the empty promises of the Old World. Being escorted to lavish mansions for safety, just to be captured and to have everything you love burned before your eyes. One by one.”


Godfrey’s brow furrowed, and he seemed to grow older as he recounted all of the loss he had endured in another time. And another world.


I let my hand rest on the mantle, where I remembered what it was like to be afraid again. After so many years of wandering in the night.


“You knew you could trust me, because I have no power. I have nothing. I’ve been living as a man. Which means all I have is my word. And I want this opportunity to start over. For all of us to start over.”


“This is what you want? No grudges, no feuds, and no resentments?” Mia asked.

“Yes. Is this enough to convince you to scatter across this country? If it is, I would be overjoyed in helping you find a new beginning. Your directories have been prepared in the parlor. If you want to use them, take them now. If you wish to leave this all behind, toss them in the hearth, and then leave the way you came.”

Everyone looked on with a rare show of indecision.

“You do understand that by invoking this, you still stand to lose everything. Even after all the goodwill you’ve shown?” Godfrey asked.

“Yes,” I confirmed.

Silence.

“Then I will stand by you. Anyone who would risk all of that for me and my clan will have a place in our house. Just as we have a place in yours.”

Godfrey stood by my side.

One after the other, every nightwalker had joined me by the hearth. Each of them represented a clan that was older than any of us. And all of them were once the unseen royalty of the night of the Old World. Germany, Italy, Greece, all of the ancient lands. Nine monarchs turned vagabonds. And all of them had come here to the land of opportunity, to see what new night they could rule and new blood they could find. And all of it was promised under the banner of a new friendship.


When each of them had found their directories, they came back with a renewed sense of hope.


Not one of them had cast their papers into the fire.

Madeline was touched by this moment. I could see it in her eyes.

And with every eye on me, I felt a strange acceptance by all of them. All except Narcisse, who couldn’t keep her eyes off of Madeline. Although, I couldn’t blame her for that. Madeline was indeed quite beautiful.


After losing so much, the prospect of something new is so much brighter.

We felt ourselves looking out the windows, and staring into the dark wilderness that waited outside. But as soon as the warmth of camaraderie had faded, we all felt the cold sting of suspicion reach all of us. In the exact same instant. With a single sound.


Snap.


We had all grown quite careful in our preternatural age.


All it took was the snapping of a single twig, and we knew we were being watched.


We heard a presence lingering in the brush, just beyond the road.

“You hear it, too?” Narcisse asked.

She kept looking at Madeline, but she was speaking to every nightwalker in the room.

“Oh, yes,” Godfrey smiled.


The nightwalkers sauntered into the bitter cold of that Halloween night. Every one of us was getting ready to greet our unwanted guest.

Finally, it was just Madeline and I in the house.

“Stay in the house,” I insisted.

“No,” Madeline refused.

I looked at Madeline, and she had a look of absolute wrath in her eyes.


“You said I could stay here, so long as I never said a word about what I saw.”

“I can’t promise this will go well. For anybody,” I warned.

“They’re going to kill him, aren’t they?”


The sudden tremor of excitement in Madeline’s voice arrested me.

“Perhaps. You know who this is?”

“My husband has been haunting my steps for years,” Madeline answered. “And I thought that if there was one place where I could finally be rid of him, it would be here.”

She rose to her feet, and followed the nightwalkers into the darkness.


The coldness of her answer and the way she disappeared into the night made me come to a harrowing realization.


Madeline would have made an excellent nightwalker.


No matter what was lingering in the darkness, it would have made me feel better to have my phylactery on hand.


I reached for the mantle, and collected it. That crushing gemstone that was held on a black steel chain.


Just in case.

We all looked into the stretch of trees, and watched as a figure was taking panicked, shallow breaths at the number of unexpected guests to the Headstone House.

Nobody moved.

Snap.

A twig snapped again as the man tried to approach the house, but then all of the nightwalkers had sprung into action.

They hovered into the air, raced into the brush, and bellowed the midnight siren’s song that came from every nightwalker when they found helpless prey.

The man left thundering steps through the woods, but he didn’t get further than three steps before he was claimed.

The first step was an earnest attempt at running as far east as he could possibly go. For that brief second, he had a chance. By the second step, he already had a claw wrapped around his throat. And by the third step, he was hoisted off of the ground, and his feet were thrashing like a man at the end of a hangman’s noose.

He had already been claimed, and there was nothing that could have saved him. He still had the right to survive this encounter, if the nightwalkers believed that he would be able to keep the secret. That’s one truth that never seems to emerge in any story surrounding our kind.


But the act of running away had already sealed his fate. They had a tight grasp on every sound he could make. They lifted his feet off the earth to prevent the sound of a pursuit, and they had a tight grip on his throat, and he couldn’t call for help.

With the same ease they had taken to find him, the nightwalkers brought him back to the foot of the Headstone House.

Our friend, Ibraham, a nightwalker of Morocco, had released his captive’s throat. But he was careful to collect just the smallest sample of blood from his neck. By cutting the soft flesh with his extended fingernail.

Ibrahaim sampled the crimson drops by sliding his tongue across his nail, and he seemed to be assessing the flavor. Or something deeper that the rest of us couldn’t see.

“I trust that if he dies on the grounds he will still be claimed by the house?” Godfrey inquired.

“He will,” I confirmed.

Madeline looked at her husband, quaking on the ground and not able to produce a sound. He was a large man, and clearly capable of doing great damage to another human. But Ibrahim was considerably thin, and lifted this mammoth of muscle with no effort. And no matter how badly this man wanted to call for help, he seemed incapable. The powerful grasp around his throat had clearly done damage to his windpipe. Ibrahim clearly did that on purpose.

Narcisse hovered just behind Madeline’s husband.

But her voice went back to the rest of the nightwalkers.

“Tell us, Ibrahim, what’s this one’s name?”

Ibrahim had savored the taste of the blood, and provided an answer.

“Patrick,” Ibrahim confirmed.

Madeline was clearly shocked by Ibrahim’s accuracy. She had refused to tell anyone her husband’s name. Not even I knew the name until that moment.

“Tell us…Patrick,” Narcisse began.

She placed a hand on his back, as though to comfort him.

“Would you see fit to keep this night a secret, for as long as you shall live?”


Patrick nodded, feverishly.

“You would never tell a soul? Not by word, not by writing, or by the faintest of whispers?”

Patrick took a moment to consider the whole question, but he nodded again.

“What if I were to tell you that I don’t believe you? That I know you’ve been chasing your wife, and this alone proves your lack of restraint?”

Patrick could feel the nightwalkers closing in around him.

“What if I were to tell you that you are a vile, self-centered bastard that doesn’t deserve another night on this earth?”

Narcisse had let her touch on Patrick’s back to become dark and sinister. It was no longer offering gentle pats of comfort.


Her fingers were starting to bore into his flesh.

Pelch.


The soft squishing of the muscles parted, and Narcisse had let her fingers wander to the center of Patrick’s spine, and she brutally grasped his spinal column.


Krek.

The pain was so immense, that Patrick’s face had flashed from the labored red of desperate escape to ghastly pale of horrific pain.

He had never known fear like this before.

“Take a good look. Your wife is done with you,” Narcisse whispered.


Madeline breathed shallowly.


Patrick’s entire body had gone pale, like a porcelain doll.

Narcisse slowly pulled on the spine, and it came loose with remarkable ease, but agonizing slowness. Each of the vertebrae had popped out of place, and left tendrils of nerves, muscle, and sprays of blood in their wake. It was a vital part that was never meant to be removed. And now that it was gone, it reduced Patrick to a lifeless pile.

His eyes had gone dark with true terror, and the overpowering smell of gore perforated from his body. The nightwalkers crowded around the display, and as blood started to burst across their clothing, they became eager to have more from the source. It was terrifying to see them huddle around Patrick, but I looked at Madeline and saw that she was smiling.

Patrick never broke eye contact with his wife as he was getting ripped apart and swarmed by these nightwalkers. And as Narcisse had finished pulling the last of the spine off of Patrick, they all helped themselves to the dying remains.

“You don’t have to see this,” I offered.

“I really do,” Madeline rejected.


Madeline looked on, and saw in Narcisse’s eyes that she had gotten what she wanted. And that she was deeply satisfied to have done a service for her.

The terrible, unmistakable sounds of beasts lording over a provided meal rang out. But only for a moment. They were clever enough to keep quiet, but the sounds that escaped into the Halloween night were some of the most gruesome that this house had yet heard.


I reached for my phylactery.


Before long, it would have a soul to guide.

A small plume of light had formed, and hovered just above the shifting shadows. And the sounds went from eerily quiet to completely silent.

The light had grown brighter as Patrick’s life had faded into darkness.

The light started small at first, no larger than the light of a common matchstick. But it grew to the size of a torch, and simply hovered in the air. Without seeing a human face, I knew that the light was confused and trying to remember what had happened. As much as I didn’t want to extend any kindness to the man, I had pity on the soul that would be here forever. And the newly anointed widow that was presiding over his slaughter.

I held the phylactery to eye level, and I whispered the incantation.

“Anima Perdita, cade in umbram huius domus, et non videaris, nisi comparere dixerit,” I commanded.

The soul had started to morph into a plume of darkness, just as soon as it had appeared. And it began to vanish from view. It reduced itself to a small handful of cinders. Light and ethereal at first, but dark and sinister in their final bursts.

Patrick’s soul was bound to the house.

And I was glad that he would have other souls in the shadows to help guide him in his torment. I was also glad that I had taken the time to agree to a Pact the souls could agree to, and make this process so much easier.

I was sure it was getting crowded in the refuge they had built for the lost souls.

Madeline was shaking, and each of the nightwalkers had sauntered back into the abode, and flocked to different parts of the house.


It would be their home, if only for just one night.


Only Madeline remained outside with me.


She was shaken in every way a mortal could be when they see a person die. And that meant as the attended landlord and caretaker to the Headstone House, my duties were still to be observed.

I went into the kitchen to prepare two cups of tea. I liked two scoops of sugar. Madeline liked six scoops of sugar.

I had grown accustomed to having to clean up after the house, but looking out on the location of the slaughter, I saw that my current guests were more vicious a pack of monsters than anyone had been in a long time in this house. They had ripped apart the man’s entrails, broken all of his bones, and drained every drop of blood. There was not a morsel of evidence to be found.

I could get used to help like this.


But they were not here to serve me. I was here to serve them. And this was an act of goodwill that would not be forgotten. By anybody.


Peace had prevailed in the house, and I enjoyed it long enough for the kettle to release a plume of steam.

HIIIIIIIIIIIIIISSS!

I poured the tea, and found that Madeline was staring into the fire, hypnotized.

I placed the cup in her hands, and she still looked on.

She didn’t look afraid now.

She looked comfortable.


“Have you enjoyed your stay with us so far?” I asked.

“Immensely,” Madeline breathed.

 

More info on The Headstone House


What if the monsters we feared, were in fact, our neighbors?


That is the question that gave rise to the most terrifying haunted house that you never heard of.


And it took far more than just one author to answer it. The premise inspired thirty authors to tell that story, together. The story of one monster being a neighbor to countless others.


So who is this monster?


His name is Marko Lundy, and he is a vampire (or nightwalker, as he’d prefer to be called). And he has been the proprietor of America’s most haunted house for 204 years.


The stories he has collected have been fragmented and fleeting for all this time, and now, they have finally been committed to paper.


Join us as we unravel this harrowing collection of supernatural sightings, monstrous creatures, and harrowing crimes. Told by a very old monster, and penned by very new authors. All at the peak of their powers.


Welcome to the story we all made together.


Welcome to The Headstone House.


Five stories are to be digitally released this October on Long Overdue Publishing’s website. The list of stories and authors you will find leading up to Halloween of 2022 include the following:




Gathering - By Agatha Brennan


Chute - By Roslyn Price


Max - By C.W. Lochland

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