The old Caretaker sucked in a ragged breath as the razor-sharp pain ripped through his chest and tore at his heart. The huge bunch of keys he was holding fell to the wooden floor, shattering the peaceful silence of the library, and the ground beneath his feet lurched suddenly. He staggered back from the violence of it, the sheer brutality, and clutched at his chest half expecting to feel his rib cages torn open, bits of shredded skin and muscle hanging over a broken heart.
He knew with certainty she was gone. The Soul Guide was dead.
In that moment, he wanted to die too but somehow his heart remained beating. Bertram’s body shook with the realisation of what had happened. It took all his strength to remain standing, knowing, if he were to submit, he’d most likely fall and never get back up.
Through the pounding in his ears, he could hear the feint tick-tock of the antique grandfather clock, the sound an ever-present heartbeat of the manor house in which he lived. He concentrated on that sound, waiting for his erratic pulse to return to normal, and the dizziness to abate, before crouching down with a groan to pick up the bunch of keys he’d dropped. His arthritic hands curled around them and he was glad of the comfort they gave him; it took the edge off the pain coiling around his heart.
With shaking hands, he found the large, ornate, rust covered key he was seeking and pulled it free from the rest. Holding the key in his fist, he made his way to the back of the library. He knew what he must do, but the knowledge of her death was a shackle on his soul and he found each step torturous to take. Sweat beaded his brow, his feet were heavy, his steps clumsy, still he forced himself to move forward.
The height and breadth of the back wall of the library was covered in custom made, dark oak bookcases that held at least one thousand books in varying colours and sizes. This room had always been his favourite within the manor, but now the colours appeared muted, dull, as if her death had sucked the light from the room, from him.
Reaching the fourth bookcase that lined the wall, Bertram ran his fingers along the shelf closest to his shoulder. He watched the dust motes float away from him in the fading evening light that pooled through the open window. The sweet smell of a warm summer’s day still lingered in the air as the sun dropped behind the forest that circled the manor. He watched the sky fill with warm oranges and reds, a watercolour painting spreading out across the horizon. It reminded him of the Soul Guide, the way her hair caught the light, a fiery halo. Now, even that memory of her was lost behind a bleak fog.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I think you’re the person I’ve been looking for?”
The younger Bertram, startled at the sound of the voice behind him, looked up from his kneeled position in front of the unlit fire. Behind him stood a flame-haired woman in her early twenties. She wore a green summer dress that matched the colour of her eyes and fell to the floor in a swirl at her feet. Bertram’s gaze flittered across her shoulders where a smattering of freckles, bronzed darker by the summer sun, stood out against her otherwise creamy skin.
“Who are you?” Bertram asked. “And how did you get in here?”
The woman’s slim freckled hands clenched the bag she held in front of her like a shield, a look of uncertainty crossing her face. “This is going to sound crazy, I’m not sure where to start,” she responded.
“It might be better if you told me your name first,” Bertram said, standing. “Then perhaps you can tell me why I would think you crazy other than the fact I have no idea who you are and it appears you have broken into my home.”
The woman said nothing. She stood, sizing him up. Bertram stared back. He couldn’t help but notice the cut of her cheekbones, the beauty spot above her eyebrow. It had been a while since he had a conversation with someone so beautiful. A conversation with anyone in fact. Eventually he spoke. “Well? Are you going to tell me what you’re doing here, or should I just call the Police?”
“No, please, don’t do that. My name is Mellissa and I’m, well, I suppose I am a…” She shook her head. “Perhaps it would be better if I took your hand?”
Bertram frowned. “Okay,” he said, not understanding where this was leading, but going with it anyway. He rubbed his ash covered hands against his jeans and took her proffered hand. Hers were so creamy white he wanted none of the ash to mar them.
The instant his fingers touched hers, light fractured from her middle like a crystal splintering the sun’s rays. Bertram stood transfixed, unable to take his eyes off her. He watched her with fascination and without fear. Her red hair fanned about her face as if she were underwater and her emerald eyes shone bright, somehow illuminated from within. He felt a tingling sensation pass through her hand and into his. It moved up his arm in slow, deliberate waves. It wasn’t painful, but felt like the first touch of summer sun on his skin; warm and relaxing.
Her hand tightened its grip on his as the library span away in a blur of light and colour. Once his eyes had adjusted, Bertram could see that they had been transported to a vast white hall that stretched on endlessly. It had a high, arched, mirrored ceiling. When he looked up, he saw himself and Mellissa staring back. The hall itself was spotless. He couldn’t see a single mark on the white marbled floor, only thin silver veins running through it. The white walls sparkled as if dusted with minute diamonds. Floor to ceiling pillars stood every ten meters and were decorated in an intricate flower and bee design in gold leaf that wove its way up from the bottom of each pillar. The bees looked real, their wings flashing iridescent in the light. It was breathtaking.
Bertram could sense, rather than see, others about them, the heat of their gaze resting on the two of them, patiently waiting. Yet, he wasn’t afraid.
With every moment that Mellissa clung to him, he felt a gradual sense of peace and of belonging. It was like a piece of him he didn’t know was missing was somehow slotting into place. He felt an unfathomable connection with Mellissa and although he didn’t understand how, he knew he was inexplicably linked to her.
A warm, gentle breeze ruffled his hair as Mellissa withdrew her hand from his. Within moments they were back standing in the library once more as if the most extraordinary moment hadn’t occurred.
Mellissa reached into her handbag and pulled out a bunch of assorted keys. “You’ll be needing these now, Bertram Ash,” she said, placing them into his hand with a knowing smile on her lips…
Bertram winced as the pain of that memory sliced through him. It was over forty years since he’d first met Mellissa, during the same year he had come to live at the manor when he had turned twenty-five. Her sudden appearance had flipped his solitary existence upside down, and now she was gone there was a cavernous emptiness left in her wake. Like black ink, he could feel the bond that bound them together all those years ago, seeping out of every pore in his body and it hurt like no physical pain ever had.
Swallowing the sob that burned his throat, Bertram continued to run his fingers along the shelf. Moments later he had found what he was looking for, a lock shaped hole carved into the surface of the wooden bookshelf. The key hadn’t met the lock for several years, and his fingers, being as they were, made turning the key even more difficult. “Blasted hands,” he muttered under his breath.
With a little patience and whispered words of encouragement the key turned with a resounding click. Cold air puffed out of the slim gap that appeared between the two bookcases either side and horizontally above his head. With a deep breath, Bertram pulled the key from the lock and pushed against the bookcase. The gap widened a few inches to reveal a secret door set back against the row of bookshelves. It was a door of books within a wall of bookcases.
Bertram looked out the window, the walled garden in the grounds of the manor were abundant with an array of fragrant flowers he and Mellissa had planted together over the years. He’d been looking forward to spending time out there, now it was unlikely he’d be returning before summer was over.
Sighing, he reached for the only red leather-bound book on the door and pulled it towards him. The door swung inwards with a loud creak and revealed a dark, stone staircase that curled upwards and out of sight. The air smelt stale, old. Despite his reservations, he took one last look at his beloved library, then stepped over the threshold.
Pulling on the leather-bound book once again, Bertram moved aside as the door closed behind him. The stairwell was briefly dipped in darkness before an oil lamp, fixed to the wall above the first stone step, fluttered on. Knowing the climb would not be an easy one, Bertram regretted his love of Golden Virginia rolling tobacco. Despite this, he placed a foot on the first stone step. At intervals, whilst he ascended the stairs, oil lamps above him lit up, sensing his presence. It was one of the many mysteries of the Manor he had long since stopped questioning and just accepted.
After what seemed like hours but would probably only take minutes to climb by someone younger and fitter than himself, Bertram reached the top of the circular staircase. In front of him was another door that seemed to pulse in the dim light cast from the oil lamps on either side and arched into a point above his head. Its surface was not smooth and flat but bumpy and ridged like one of the very old and very gnarled trees in the forest that surrounded the manor.
This door, however, was not opened by one of the keys in the bunch that now hung from a loop on Bertram’s jeans. It only opened to the sound of the Caretaker’s whistle and a willing offering of his blood.
Bertram stroked his bristly grey goatee and asked himself whether he had the strength to face what was on the other side. He knew, however, that he had no choice. He was the Caretaker, and like the Soul Guide, he had a job to do despite his heavy heart and tired body. Until his last breath he had promised to fulfil his role, and that’s exactly what he intended to do, heartache or not.
Bertram placed his hand on the centre of the door just where a piece of knotted wood protruded out. Like the door below, it had been several years since he’d opened it and he questioned whether his fading memory would recall the tune he needed to whistle for him to enter.
He needn’t have worried because the moment his calloused palm rested on the wood the haunting tune left his lips. Bertram closed his eyes and felt the slice of pain slash through his palm. Still, he whistled on as the warm trickle of his blood seeped into the wood of the door. Not stopping, even, as he felt the door ripple beneath his hand. As the last note left his lips, Bertram opened his eyes and stepped into a long, white corridor on the other side of the door. It stretched off into the distance, seemingly no end in sight.
He took one glance back and set off to his destination.
By Kelly Stock
“For centuries, the Soul Guide and the Caretaker have ensured light and life remain on Earth. But the Soul Guide is dead and the Dark are rising…”
Sybil, on a break from her first semester at University, gets stung by a bee in the middle of a winter snowstorm. But this is no ordinary bee, it is a bee that can travel between the Veil; the place of souls and Earth. She has been chosen as the next Soul Guide. With just a few days to reach the Veil and complete the Passing Over ceremony, Sybil must find her courage to do what’s right before it’s too late.
But with such responsibility comes much danger and Sybil is being hunted. Hunted by creatures from her nightmares, creatures that lurk in the dark.
On the run with only the old Caretaker, and a man who she’s drawn to and repulsed by in equal measure, Sybil must overcome her fears, leave the world she once knew behind, and fulfill her destiny.
On her journey, from the streets of London to the gothic Clayhill Manor and beyond, through doors only the Caretaker can see, Sybil will find herself embroiled in a world just hidden beneath the surface and will question everything she’s every believed to be true.
Will she reach the Veil in time? Can she trust the man whose been sent to protect her or the old Caretaker who seems lost to his own grief? Read book one of The Soul Guide series to find out.