Ice House: Asetma
Brian Mark Weber
Robert 'Admiral' Coeyman
I have been told that I was found later that evening, wandering near the lot where the bus had been hidden. My memory lost the events of that day until I awoke in my own bed the next morning. Truthfully, I do not want those memories back. Without even knowing what I have forgotten, I am thankful for the loss.
Several days passed since that morning yet my mental state was not improving. I became convinced that some secret mind within the estate had chosen me for this assignment, which I was unprepared to endure. It compelled me to fight the weakness of my injuries against the only nature I had known myself to have. Trapped behind unforgiving walls, I would never see the sun rise over the ocean again until the questions of Asetma were answered. If I failed, then Orsa would pay for my sin.
Maybe I would end up in the realm of a hideous nightmare, drawn back, as another specter in the gallery of Asetma. I turned once again to literature for strength and even that failed me. At the time I was reading a book on ancient literature. Most of the books in Asetma are written in strange languages not resembling any that I'd ever seen before. Many of the dusty tomes that I could read, were on the occult, the mysterious or the dead.
As in my childhood, I turned to prayer for strength. A few hushed lines gave me the fortitude to turn back to my reading. It rested my soul just to not feel as alone. I could not live alone.
Just as I sat down to read, I heard a faint tapping at my door. At first I assumed that it must have been my imagination, but then I heard it again, louder and more distinctly. A moment passed while I paused in preemptive fear. My mind rationalized not answering the door in a house where candles never burn out, disconnected phones ring, and the only repeat visitors are convicted murderers. The knocking did not go away, becoming three taps, a pause, and then five more taps that transformed into knocks, and soon, a continuous pounding. My mouth was as dry as the backyard sand lot while my body was swimming in a river of cold sweat.
I carried myself out of bed, staring continually at the door, taking cautious steps rapidly toward the door. My right hand lifted, fingers spread, and slowly closed around the doorknob. My body shook with fear. It was something that I knew I had to do quickly, so, gathering all my strength to feign courage, I pulled the door open to see emptiness. Emptiness filled the hallway, flowing inward into my sinking heart.
I screamed my challenge to my unseen tormentor. "In God's name, who is doing this to me?" Then a cold breeze rushed into my room. The candle on the forward wall flickered, nearly died, only to rebound with renewed energy. I fell to the floor, drained of all energy by another episode of fear. I would not move again until morning.
While I rested, I did not care that I was vulnerable the evil of the estate. Sleep was rest enough for me. Faith guarded my dreams for another night. The night itself was eventless.
When I awoke the next morning I decided to walk to the window so that I could breathe some fresh air. The Asetma air became stale overnight and, since my room was without a window, I had to walk down two flights of stairs and to the end of a long hallway to find the nearest outlet to nature. When I arrived at the window I noticed that a thick layer of dust had accumulated on the windowsill, which I found strange because I had just had the windows cleaned the day before. It was monumentally hard to lift the heavy pane. Finally, it flew open as if by its own volition to allow fresher Obsille air to gush in.
The sky was clear and bright above, but a thick fog had settled below the second floor of the mansion so that only the tops of the trees were visible. That was town meeting day in Obsille--the day when all the old men in bad suits met at the corner theatre to bicker and plot secret deals. Their world, like mine, was in the shadows. No visitors would come that day so I could relax--or so I thought.
Pulling in one last gasp of air, I heard light footsteps coming nearer to me. I deftly turned around to see a large heap of a woman, with uncombed hair, who was holding a tray covered by a large bronze lid. Not a word slipped from my lips. She did all the talking.
"I am Oletta, your new maid and financial consultant. Eat your breakfast now, before it gets too cold. I've prepared your favorite meal: dry toast, two eggs, an apple, and raspberry tea. Would you prefer to eat here or in your room?"
"Well," I replied. "I really would like to eat in the dining room."
"Fine. In your room it is. I'll meet you there."
I couldn't speak. My mind labored to make sense of the day. A strange woman had been hired without my knowledge, had made my favorite breakfast, a menu that only my mother knew about, and she didn't seem to hear a word that I said. Suddenly, as if only in defiance, I wasn't very hungry.
Childishly, I chose to play her game. Instead of going to my room to eat, I headed down to the library in the cellar to catch up on my reading. My book was not on the table where I had placed it and my mind was not on reading. As I woke to the day, my thoughts cleared to the questions and tasks at hand.
First I was compelled to find out who had hired Oletta. Hiring her was an odd thing for the Sheriff to do and would have been even an odder decision for the old men in bad suits. The only people I employed were John McGregor III, Asetma's gardener, and the town newspaper boy, Tommy, whom I paid five dollars each week to buy my groceries. No other living soul hired help for Th'Estate.
I walked out onto the East side of the estate where the heavy mist dampened my hair. I called for Mr. McGregor a few times but he did not respond. A soft rumble of thunder rolled in the distant fog. It had been a clear morning but I knew that it would storm any minute.
Maybe he was in his office near the library. It occurred to me that I should have checked his office first. I walked up the eighteen steps to the side door yet, when I turned the knob, it was locked. More out of frustration than the possibility that someone on the inside could hear the knock, I banged hard on the cement door. Looking down at my feet, I found a note on brown parchment paper. The note was in beautiful script and read:
I said to meet me in your room for dry toast, two eggs, an apple and raspberry tea. Do not deceive me, sir. A polite man would have informed his maid, and financial consultant, if he wasn't hungry. Just for that, you'll miss lunch and maybe dinner. When you come to your senses, I'll open the door.
"Financial consultant," I screamed. "It's my house! I'm being locked out of my own house by the maid I never hired."
It was more than I could bear and the weather seemed sympathetic to my plight. Large bolts of lightning streaked across the sky, and the thunder was loud, shaking the foundation beneath me. I was lost and confused. My only day off in a year and I was spending it outside in a storm every bit as violent as the one forming in my head.
Rain poured and poured for what seemed like hours. I sat, curled up and freezing, as the water soaked me beyond the soaking point. The wind howled, swirling the raindrops while the old trees creaked and contorted. Even the trees seemed to call out for shelter from the storm.
And then I began to notice small white flakes mixed with the rain. It was beginning to snow, as I should have known that it would. Winter comes early to Asetma. It was only the 27th day of September yet, within an hour, the snow was eight inches deep all around me. I was sure to die. Only moments before I gave up on ever making it back inside, the large door swung open and Oletta stepped out into the blizzard.
She was wearing a heavy black coat that touched the tips of her snowshoes. The coat's hood almost covered her fat face. Her presence was better to my mind than the thought of dying alone. After staring at me for an eternity, heat from the house flowing through the open door thawing my drenched form, she spoke softly to me.
"Your eggs are cold."
"How dare you do this to me! You are fired! I could have died out here. Who are you? I demand to know."
She disappeared into the mansion and I followed. I heard the wind slam the door shut behind me. Oletta walked ten paces ahead of me. At each lantern, she stopped and blew out the flame, leaving me to walk in the dark. Oletta led me up to my room.
Near my bed, lay the tray on the night table. Oletta removed her coat, but not the snowshoes. "Sit down," she ordered. "I have combined your breakfast and lunch into dinner. Everything is hot now, but not for long. It took me all day to decide whether or not to reheat your meal. Fortunately, I heated everything, except the eggs. Enjoy. Eat and retire to the library in fifteen minutes for some financial planning."
At this point in the day, I envied the old men in their bad suits meeting downtown. I just wanted to be normal again. I ate the meal that Oletta had prepared and found the food to be delicious. Oletta could really cook. After eating the whole of my meal, I had four minutes left to read.
My wall clock was missing, but a thirty-minute timer had been set on the floor. Oletta must have set the timer before rescuing me. The title of the book which I had been instructed to read was "Financial Planning: New Investments, New Rewards." I had been given three marked pages to read and they were interesting, albeit unusual.
The pages described ways of giving away all your money and property while doubling your income at the same time. My mind must have been depleted because the ideas seemed plausible. I wanted to read more but, as the timer's bell rang, Oletta's heavy breath poured down the back of my neck. "Damn you, Oletta! Who the Hell are you?"
"Interesting book--is it not?"
From our first meeting I had felt compelled to physically challenge this beast, yet I knew that she was powerful. I could feel her dangerous presence and thought that it wouldn't hurt to find out what she wanted. Asetma teaches its captives caution. Oletta, however, did not feel like a fellow inmate.
So we walked down to the library, together. Halfway there I thought that I'd challenge her with a question that had been eating at the back of my mind. A poor substitute for thought, compulsion was all that I had. "Have you seen John McGregor, the gardener?"
"Oh yes." Oletta replied in an uncharacteristically high voice. "The honorable John McGregor III, man of wisdom, man of courage, dedicated gardener of Asetma for seventy-two years. A man who cared for all; who gave without receiving. A man of God. I fired him last night."
"What?" I stopped walking as thought it was too hard to do while arguing.
"He took it well, very well. Almost too well. But it's not important anymore. I gave him two months salary and now we can have this place to ourselves."
"He was not yours to fire. I run this place. He was my trusted employee and friend. I will ask him to come back first thing tomorrow."
To show my resolve, I started walking again. I did not even look up from the floor to see Oletta. If I had broken there, I knew that I would always be broken. One Asetma is enough.
She shook a deformed finger at me and squinted sternly. "As your financial planner, and maid, it is my duty to inform you that he simply is not cost effective. The prison chain gangs do most of the work, anyway."
"He's not cost effective? He's more cost effective than a maid that I can do just fine without. He was skilled labor."
"Such language in the presence of a lady! I should have left you outside rather than saving your life like that."
We had walked into the library before I could respond so I
decided to ignore Oletta. Asetma had the
largest collection of antique books in the world, which was the only benefit of
my job. Most of it was beyond my ability
to read, although I could read enough of it.
To my surprise, one of the bookcases slid out, pushing me aside and off my feet. Oletta kept talking to herself, in the maid and financial consultant way, so I crept behind the wooden structure, into the hidden cavern behind it, and out of her range. Something compelled my will to force me into the foreboding eclipse of the unknown admittance. Oletta's voice grew silent as I slipped behind the heavy wooden structure.
From Asetma's musty basement, I slipped cautiously into the long passageway. Green light flowed in from a thin phosphorescent band inches below the ceiling and rolled across the floor before me. A comforting, dreamlike feeling drew me deeper into the murky unknown. My nerves trembled around my stomach.
Nothing existed except the cavern and the cold humidity of it. The cold reached into my flesh until I gave myself to its icy fingers. I loved it. Green fog massaged every micrometer of my willing flesh, consuming the warmth within. Then Orsa's image formed in my mind. My arms closed around her absence.
I thought that I heard the maid behind me but, when I turned, only rats existed behind me for as far as any mortal eye could see. Euphoric numbness no longer revealed itself to me from within the eerie fog. My clothes became uncomfortable from the moldy moisture and I thought of tearing them off. They represented a world that I had to be free of.
My pace accelerated. The fog dissipated as I neared the bright light at the end of the tunnel. Once closer, I heard the sound of flowing water and rhythmic dripping. Hearing the echoes woke me from the demonic trance. I was again in a real place.
Dark forms drew shape as silhouettes against the intense glow beyond them. And I slowed when I saw one move. It sat low in the cave's floor, producing a splashing sound as it undulated in the low light. Hand-like projections rose from the floor, drawing the form beneath the waves. Then it arose, shaking the milky fluid from its fur. That was close enough for me.
From my viewpoint I could make out scaled skin beneath the creature's thick, dark fur. The long hair flowed and parted like that of a beautiful woman yet the scales beneath it, running down the beast's back, convinced me that this thing wasn't human. I wanted her to be human. Once, she may have been.
Legend in Obsille reports of an Asetma warlock named Adrian,
who was rumored to have amused himself by transforming villagers into vampires
and other such beasts. His own son
killed him after
Suddenly, the form spoke. "I sense your presence, spawn of Asetma."
I hastily scanned the cavern for the horrid monstrosity she had referenced, though I found none. Then I realized that she was talking about me. My tongue refused to say a word as she began to move. Sinking deeper to retain her dignity, she turned around to face me.
"It's the old witch woman." My words found voice with no breath to spare.
Her voice was pleasing, like Orsa's. "You be the keeper of Th'Estate."
"Yes, ma'am, I am. But you're supposed to be the last Asetma."
She smiled, rising from the water. I turned away, as my manners commanded, and her voice lowered, assuming my maneuver to be one of distaste. There was warmth to her presence that did not belong to or in Asetma. It was not fear that I found in her presence this time. Her essence felt angelic and kind.
"Goodness Grasshopper, no. The Asetma line must never come to an end. But I also ain't one of them."
"The Asetma line is dead, gone from this land these two centuries since Miriam's burning." I wasn't sure how much she knew or would tell me. How much of what she knew was even true?
"Miriam had twins. Her daughter died here, yet their father did take the boy away long before that. Tried to get both, he did. Asetma has been having a new name near about ten generations. It just now be coming back to Th'Estate."
"What's the new name? I've never heard about Miriam ever having children."
"It had been a real scandal, way back than. Nothing new to the Asetma line, for sure. Her kin not be me, nor you neither. Your power come from a powerful warlock who fought the Asetma's on the other side. Black Scabbard it has been called." She paused a moment before going on. "Now, if you will not be minding, getting cold, I am."
I turned around to see the entire cave empty. New ideas flooded into my mind until I no longer fit under my own skullcap. The old witch woman had knowledge about the Asetma's which was my only hope in life. New Asetma's could claim this spook ridden tomb and set me free. And she knew things about me which no other being had ever hinted at. Or was she simply crazy?
Stepping into the tunnel home, a new feeling came over me. It began with the smell of mold and dust in the fog. Then a cold bit into me with clamminess I cannot deny. Feeling in my legs dissolved into rampant terror running quickly into my arms and up my spine. Another mind occupied my head, pushing me into a state between life and death. Nothing mattered, so what could be wrong?
Something in my spirit refused to yield to my captor's will. The demonic presence pinned me to the soggy floor with enormous gravity. All my strength focused on holding my eyes closed, playing dead. Hoping I was dead, I cried out.
"Black scabbard set me free." Malice in my foe's thoughts betrayed my failure to us both.
It forced my eyes open but there was nothing to see. Green light hovered in the fog, as before revealing no solid form. The fog almost burned my eyes yet all of my other senses were no longer speaking to me as they once had. I felt like an infant sleeping helplessly in his mother's womb. Even understanding would have helped, yet I had none.
The fog parted around a silhouette. A black gown floated into view just above the floor. A hooded veil above it revealed characteristic green eyes. I struggled against the form with only my torso obeying. The form stopped, bending down to touch me. Her hands were pale but well shaped and unblemished.
Her touch of my forehead sent a hot jilt through my numb flesh. The heat was intense yet it did not burn my defenseless skin. White dots formed in my vision, getting brighter with every moment. Geometric forms filled with bright colors arose from the random dots and I moved into the image. There was no feeling of movement or any sound.
Instantly I woke up. I felt better than I had on any day since being imprisoned in Asetma. Only Orsa could ever make me feel more calm and renewed. Energy filled me to the point that I never thought I would sleep again. I had to run as fast and as far as the wind ever dared.
But Oletta had noticed my absence. I took no more than three steps out of the passage when I noticed her standing in front of me sending earthquake caliber shockwaves into Asetma's foundation with her foot. Asetma's power pulsed with Oletta's rage. All my energy fled and I fell flat.
"Sir, how do you expect us to have a good working relationship when you keep walking off like this?"
I turned around as I got up yet the massive shelving had moved into place denying the simple existence of the passage. "It's only as hard as running a household when your maid keeps firing all of your valuable employees."
She reeled from the impact of my words. It would not have been Oletta unless she had a counterstrike. "And to think I just discovered an oversight in the books. Don't look at me that way. Don't expect me to tell you that you've been paid under minimum wage and that Obsille owes you, after taxes, $2,495,665.44. Don't even ask nice Oletta."
"What in tarragons are you babbling about?"
She slapped me! "Sir, I said not to ask. But stick with me guy and I'll have you owning this gold mine."
I laughed at the thought of owning Asetma. Then she put me to bed.