Help Wanted

A shy man hires a pretty young maid for his mansion.

I

HELP WANTED

Young woman wanted for the role of live-in maid. Must be willing to live and work in same house for a minimum period of a year. Must be willing to wear cute maid outfit and defer to master's whims at all times. Must be attractive. Asian preferred.

Room and meals included. Salary negotiable.

Contact Steven on XXX if interested in interviewing for the position.

I didn't expect the ad to get any serious responses. In truth, I put it up as a joke, mostly. But it's not as though the idea would ever have occurred to me at all if it wasn't something I found deeply appealing.

I'd actually forgotten all about the advert when it got its first respondent. I let my phone vibrate four times before gingerly answering the call.

"Hello?"

"Is this Steven?" asked a young female voice, crackly through the bad connection, but sweet enough to make my heart leap into my throat.

"Y-yes, speaking."

"My name is Delilah. I'm calling about the live-in maid advert you put up. I'm very interested in interviewing for the position. I think I would be a perfect fit for the job!"

"A-are you serious?" I asked, blurting out the first thing that came to mind. Maybe she didn't read the whole thing.

"One hundred percent serious, Steven."

There was an awkward, too-long pause during which I strongly considered the possibility that I had died and gone to heaven.

"Hello? Steven? Are you still there?"

"O-okay, you can do the interview!" I couldn't believe the words coming out of my mouth. Was I actually following through with this? I hadn't seriously expected things to get this far.

I told her my address, and we worked out a suitable time. The interview was to take place at 2PM in three days' time. She was delighted to be given the opportunity and said she looked forward to meeting me. I managed to hold myself together long enough to exchange similar pleasantries and say goodbye.

Finally, she hung up, and I slumped into a sitting position on the floor. During the entire call I'd been nervously pacing up and down my kitchen, getting more and more excited.

I pinched myself. No, this wasn't a dream.

* * *

About a year ago, both my parents died in a car accident on their way back from a seaside vacation. This was of course very tragic, and left me quite distraught, but it did have a certain upside, in that my parents had willed all their earthly possessions to me as their only child.

I'd grown up in an average, middle-class home, right up until my last couple years of high-school, when my dad hit the big-time with his business, and subsequently did even better with a string of lucky investments (cryptocurrency, of course). In a few years, we'd moved to a bigger house and my dad had a garage full of exotic cars.

But it was only after I came to own my family's wealth myself that I understood the true extent of it. Apart from our massive house and my Dad's precious cars, I came into possession of the vacation home my parents had had their final vacation at, a number of rental properties (thankfully managed by agencies), plenty of stocks and bonds, a good store of gold, and a very healthy bank account.

I can still recall the twinge of guilt that nagged at me as my parents' lawyer explained all this to me. Here I was, a 21-year-old college dropout, who had never had the guts to tell his parents about his having dropped out, with his grubby, failure-marked hands on their enormous fortune. Had they known, had I not promised myself to tell them only after they returned from their vacation—selflessly planning not to spoil it for them, of course—things would have turned out very differently. Very differently.

But that wasn't the reality I was living in. This one was. The one where I'd cheated fate and ended up falling and failing into exactly the kind of comfortable, care-free life I'd always wanted. My parents' lawyer told me, with a knowing wink, that as long as I was sensible with the money, I'd never have to work another day in my life.

And so it was that I embarked upon my playboy's life of leisure. My parents' old financial advisors were transferred down to me, and they took care of all their investments and assets. I allocated myself a monthly stipend, which I would transfer from the main savings account to my current account at the beginning of every month. I took up full residence in my parents' home. And I lived.

In the first few months, I indulged myself buying games and anime. I played and I watched and I spent. I bought figures and posters and box-sets, but I avoided going completely overboard. After all, I knew that I needed the money to last for the rest of my life, and that there would be no sense blowing it all now and having to go get a job later.

Even so, I had my groceries delivered and ate tonnes of takeout. I could afford that. It helped that I didn't spend any money on alcohol, or cars and fuel, because I rarely left the house. I'd always been a bit of a shut-in, and now I could stay as long as I wanted in my warm cocoon without fear of suspension, expulsion or having to drop out. My money worked to make more of itself, and all I had to do was not spend too much of it. My life seemed perfect.

Well, except in one area. Some men, upon acquiring great amounts of money, would probably head out to the nearest bar and attempt to use their money to attract women. They would buy drinks for those women and for themselves, and they would have a long string of one-night stands. But a man needs a certain amount of personal charm for that, of which I have none.

Some other types of men, upon acquiring great amounts of money, would probably head out to the nearest brothel and spend a night with the most expensive girl there. But you need a certain amount of courage for that, a courage I could never work up. I don't think I've so much as had a conversation with a non-related, flesh-and-blood woman in the last five years.

Even the kinds of prostitutes who do house calls, I could never go through with hiring. Many times I've called up a promising number, been greeted by a voice deeper than mine of which I could smell the smokey breath over the phone, and hung up in disgust. I've never been able to go through with purchasing sex.

So, eventually, I came up with another plan. What if I hired a cute live-in maid, who I paid enough to stay in the house the whole time and act as a companion to me? If I kept her around for at least a year, and we had regular conversations and contact, I'd surely get over my shyness. And with that much interaction that often, well, there's bound to be a spark, right? As far as I can tell, that's how this sort of thing works—if a girl and a guy spend enough time with just each other, romantic feelings are bound to blossom.

I congratulated myself on coming up with this plan, typed up that advert and posted it online, and then stayed up half the night refreshing the page and fantasising about what my new life with this maid was going to be like.

I woke up the next morning with a pain in my back, stiff from falling asleep at my computer. Bleary-eyed, I looked up at the monitor and reread my advert. It was awful, stupid and really quite pathetic. Shivering in disgust, I closed the window and tried to put the whole thing out of my mind.

But I didn't take the advert down. Thank god.

* * *

At exactly 2PM on the day of the interview, my doorbell rang, shaking me out of my nervous pacing. I hurried over to open the door, pushing all my worries out of my mind. In retrospect, I might have been more careful about the whole thing, but at the time I wasn't thinking straight at all.

And the girl at the door didn't do my rationality any favours. Long black hair with a perfectly uniform fringe of hair stopping just above her light green eyes. Half-Asian features, that perfect and breathtaking combination of the best of Asian and European beauty. A small nose and a beautiful, white-toothed smile. Modestly and tastefully dressed in well-fitting jeans and a woolen jumper.

Delilah stood there, just beyond the frame of my front door—the spitting image of the girl I'd made up for my maid fantasies. She was perfect. I needed not to have worried about her being a large man come to beat me up, or an over-the-hill escort with rheumatism, or fat. She was a normal, pretty young woman—the girl next door, the childhood friend years later, the girl on the other end of the lecture theatre.

"Hi Steven," she said, her voice soft and musical, hundreds of times more enticing than it had sounded over the phone. "Delilah Roth at your service."

I took her dainty hand in mine, and managed to scratch out something like, "It's nice to meet you, Delilah," through the sudden intense dryness of my throat.

She smiled that radiant smile, and stepped over the threshold. I suddenly felt extremely self-conscious about the stacks of empty pizza boxes against the hallway wall. "I'm sorry the place is such a mess," I said.

"That's why I'm here," Delilah replied, eyes sparkling. "I can see you need lots and lots of help."

"Err, yes." I avoided looking her in the eyes, or looking at her at all, afraid I'd get caught staring.

Luckily I'd had the foresight to write down a list of questions for our interview about an hour before she arrived. I produced this crumpled list from my pocket as we sat down on opposite sides of the breakfast table in the kitchen.

"Do you have an experience cleaning houses?" I read.

"I've been helping my Mom clean ever since I was old enough to hold a duster," Delilah said proudly. "But... I've never had an actual cleaning job before this."

I didn't care.

"Can you cook?" I read.

"Yep, again, helped my Mom a bunch," she said. "I'm pretty proud of my pasta."

Something along the lines of "I will never eat takeout again if this angel is to cook for me every day" ran through my mind, and I quickly averted my eyes from Delilah's features.

"Do you do windows?"

"Yes, and Mac too!" Her breasts jiggled under her jumper as she gesticulated. Images of nosebleeds filled my mind.

"Umm... are you a size... uh..." I flipped over the paper and read the size of the maid uniform I'd ordered.

"I sure am! And as requested, I'm willing to wear a cute maid outfit. It's... almost entirely why I want the job."

"Would you like to try it on now? Y-you're the first interviewee, so no-one else has worn it."

Delilah grinned like she'd won the lottery. "Would I!"

"Stay right there!"

I raced through the house at the speed of lust to where I'd left the box containing the maid outfit. I scooped it up and zoomed back to the kitchen, where Delilah enthusiastically took it from me.

"The bathroom is just down the hall to your right," I told her, and she made her way there to change.

I sat at the kitchen table and drummed my fingers against the table. There was no way I would find a more perfect candidate than this. Frankly, I was shocked a girl like her even existed in the real world. I made up my mind to offer her the job as soon as she returned in the maid outfit.

"How do I look?" asked a voice from behind me.

I instantly spun round to face to kitchen entrance. A shapely, stockinged calf slowly came into view, followed by a milky thigh, and black frills. The uniform was just as advertised, and Delilah looked like she'd been born for it. I let my eyes travel upward, from the dainty shoes up the stockings, to the S-grade zetta ryouki, the poofy black skirt, the apron, tight black waistcoat and white blouse topped off with a bow, and the frilly cap atop Delilah's raven hair.

"You're hired!" I shouted, not using my indoor voice. "When can you start?"

Delilah clapped her hands together in glee and did a couple of adorable little hops. "I can start immediately!" she said.

"Excellent. Welcome to my service, Maid Delilah."

"I hope to serve you well, Master," she replied, with an emphasis on the final word that made me suck in a deep breath.

* * *

I set Delilah up in one of the many spare rooms. She had her things—two small suitcases—delivered to the house before five that afternoon. How she managed this so quickly I'm not sure, but I get the feeling she was banking on getting this job. It's a good thing she's the perfect maid.

From the moment she first called me Master, Delilah took her maid duties very seriously. She set to work cleaning the house and organising things at once. Her remuneration would be as detailed in my online advertisement—free room and meals, plus a very reasonable salary. Towards the end of the first week, I also gave her limited control over the house's finances, to help her with preparing meals.

Delilah's pasta was indeed the best I'd ever had, but maybe that's only because I ate it with her. From the beginning, I made it clear that she was to eat meals with me at my table, and not separately as many servants are wont to. After all, I had hired her not only as help around the house, but for companionship. Fortunately, she seemed to understand this and was only too happy to eat meals with me.

Once the house was in a reasonable state, Delilah had more free time, and she would come and sit with me. Of course I encouraged this behaviour—I didn't really care about having the house super clean all the time. She'd watch me play videogames, and sometimes we'd watch a movie or an anime together. Sitting next to her on the couch and chatting, I could almost imagine she really was my girlfriend.

Weeks passed and we got to know each other. I told her about my family, and she consoled me over my parents' passing. She told me about her family, who she hadn't seen for quite some time. We talked about the schools we went to, our abortive attempts at tertiary education, and all sorts of other things.

One subject she seemed particularly interested in was our house. Far from a gaudy McMansion, my father had bought an authentic old-school manor house for less than what it was worth from the heavily indebted Rothbard family whose old money had run out. He did it mostly for the garage space, but nonetheless spent a good deal of time and money decorating and restoring the mansion itself.

The house was three storeys in all, with both east and west wings. There was a sitting room, a parlour, a dining room, a breakfast room, a kitchen, a scullery, a wine cellar, a laundry, a billiards room, a ballroom, and all the other rooms from Clue, in addition to an overabundance of bedrooms and bathrooms and guestrooms. I used about ten percent of it.

"I really like the room you chose for me, Steven," she said during one of our discussions about the house. "There's even another room inside it!"

"Really?" I asked, perplexed. I'd explored the house thoroughly when we first moved in, but I didn't remember a finding any inner rooms.

"Yeah! It's really strange though. I didn't find it until a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed the door in the back of the walk-in closet."

"Are you sure it's not just connection to one of the other bedrooms?"

"Nope! I checked—you can only get to this room through the back of my closet. Honestly I was a little worried when I found it, because it made me wonder if there were any other rooms I didn't know about that I wasn't cleaning! I wouldn't want you to think me lazy, Master."

"Well at this point you know more about the rooms in this house then I do, so don't worry about that." I smiled and put a hand on her shoulder, dismissing the concern that momentarily clouded her features. "Show me the room, Maid Delilah."

"As you wish, Master," Delilah replied, instantly springing to her feet. "Follow me."

* * *

The one problem with the maid outfit, I noted as I followed Delilah to her chambers, is that you don't really get the rear view you'd see with pants instead of a skirt.

We walked down the hall and stopped in front of Delilah's room. She opened the door and bade me to follow her in.

I hadn't been inside this room since Delilah moved into it. It was quite changed—the bed was made up with a pink duvet, there was a dressing table in the corner, and the whole place smelled strongly of makeup and perfume. It was also very tidy, as should be expected of a maid's quarters.

Delilah stepped over to the closet doors, and swung them open. A thick wall of outfits lay beyond. "Come along!" she said, disappearing into the mass of clothing.

I put my arms out in front of me and followed her in. For a moment, everything was dark as I waded through rows of outfits, wondering how she had managed to fit them all into just two suitcases. Eventually, I emerged on the other side, where it was still very dark, but empty of fabric.

My hand brushed against something that let out a squeal. "Master!"

"Sorry!" I cried, jerking my arm back.

Delilah flicked on the torch on her phone. She was standing so close to me I could feel her breath on my face. "The door is over here," she said, pointing the torch at the far wall.

The door was small and well-hidden, being almost the same shade as the surrounding wall. But for the brass handle, I may not have seen it.

"Go on," Delilah whispered in my ear, her lips tickling my skin. "Open it."

I placed my hand on the handle, curled my fingers around it and pushed down. I must have been leaning forward without noticing, because I tumbled into the room the instant the latch came free. My hand came away from the handle and I staggered into the darkness.

There was a sharp pain in my forehead as I bumped into a wall that was much closer than I'd anticipated. "Ow!"

Behind my back, I hear a gentle giggle. I felt my face flame in embarrassment. "What's in here anyway?" I asked. "Stupid tiny room."

"Just you."

I heard a click. The latch.

Every muscle in my body tensed. "Hey!" I shouted. "What'd you do that for?"

Another click. A key turning in a lock.

"Not funny, Delilah!" I shouted. My heart was beating a hole in my chest. I was definitely going to dock her pay for this. "Let me out!"

There was no reply. I groped through the darkness and eventually grasped the door handle. I jerked it up and down frantically, banging on the door with my other hand. "Let me out right now, Delilah!"

Still no reply.

I took a deep breath and released the door handle. I reached my arms out to the sides of the room, and found that I couldn't fully extend either of my hands. The room also didn't give me any space to sit down, and the ceiling was a hair's breadth above the top of my skull. I wondered why such a room existed.

"I'm claustrophobic!" I shouted to Delilah. "Please let me out!" I pounded on the door again, but to no avail.

I sighed in frustration and slumped, my back against the wall. My head brushed against the ceiling. Wait, this wasn't right. Experimentally, I extended my arms. Moments ago, I had trouble extending my fingers, but now I couldn't my straighten my elbows.

The room was shrinking.

I screamed and banged on the door. I could feel the back wall closing in. "Lemme out lemme out LEMME OUT!"

Then I fell.

Forward. As the door swung open. Onto something soft and lacy.

"Shhh, it's okay now," said Delilah, as she stroked my hair. I was crying, my face buried in her chest, my nose running, but she didn't seem to mind. "You will be fine, Master, just fine."

I cried for a good minute. I'm not proud of it. But Delilah sat still, stroking my head and making reassuring noises. Eventually my eyes dried and I sat up. The outfits in the closet had been moved, and we were both sitting on the wooden boards of the closet floor, light streaming in from the wide open closet door. Delilah started wiping the front of her outfit.

"I'm so sorry, Master," Delilah said, her eyes watering with sympathy. "It was just a little joke—I know how you enjoy a good prank—but the door stuck. I didn't realize you were so claustrophobic."

Moments earlier, I had been burning with rage for Delilah's prank, but I couldn't stay mad at her sincere and contrite expression. "Anyone would be claustrophobic in that tiny room, Delilah."

Delilah looked at me quizzically. "It's not that small, Master." She gestured to the open door in the back of the closet.

I sucked in a deep breath and looked back. With the light streaming in, the room in the back of the closet suddenly looked enormous—bigger than Delilah's bedroom even. Curiosity overwhelmed my terror and I leapt to my feet. This time, I grabbed Delilah's hand before entering the room, and we crossed the threshold together.

Delilah and I walked around the room. It was empty and had no windows, but it was a sizeable room nonetheless—a far cry from the tiny inner closet I'd briefly been trapped in. "I'm so confused," I said. My forehead still hurt from where I'd bumped it the first time I entered the room.

"It must have been that darkness that frightened you, Master," said Delilah, who was standing a few feet from me, still in the same room. "I am so, so sorry."

"That's alright," I said. "Just don't do it again."

For the rest of the day, we avoided each other. Delilah tended to her cleaning, and I hid in my room, reading. I couldn't shake the idea that the room had changed its size. But surely that was impossible? I had seen its exact dimensions in the clear light of day.

When my thoughts finally escaped the room, they turned immediately to Delilah. She had a sense of humor, it was true, and had played little jokes on me before. But then there was the way she said, "Just you." There was an edge in that tone, an icy malice beyond mere joking. Did she intend to trap me in that room?

I entertained this train of thought for a moment, but ultimately found it too preposterous to follow. What benefit would she gain from trapping me in her closet? I paid her salary and her allowance—she had no direct access to my funds or my assets. And she hadn't even convinced me to marry her and leave everything to her in my will yet, or even take out a life insurance policy. At the very least, I should expect developments like that before attempts on my life.

I laughed to myself at this, but it was a nervous laugh. After all, what did I really know of this Delilah?

II

What did I really know of this Delilah?

As we'd gotten to know each other, she'd opened up about her life and her family, but many details remained shrouded in mystery. She grew up not far from here, in normal middle-class family. She'd attended both the rival school and the rival college to mine. She'd been studying history, but dropped out less than halfway through her first semester after her mother passed away suddenly. She had a distant relationship with her father, and nothing nice to say about him.

One subject she loved to talk about was her grandmother, on her father's side. Growing up, she had spent long days listening to and learning from her grandmother. The stories she heard, about her gran's own life, and those of her gran's own mother and grandmother, were what inspired her to study history.

She was Asian on her mother's side—Taiwanese to be precise. Her parents had met on a business trip, fallen in love and gotten married very quickly. She was devastated by the death of her mother, to a degree that made me feel guilty for showing less emotion over my parents' more recent passing.

Delilah and I had a lot in common. We both enjoyed the same sorts of media, mostly superhero comics and anime. And we were both kind of introverted, preferring to spend most of our time in the house rather than venture into the outside world. She would often disappear for hours, off cleaning some remote corner of the house.

Once the summer months rolled around, I discovered another interesting fact about Delilah: that she had a phenomenal ass. We spent many long hours outside by the pool, she in a delightfully skimpy bikini, and me in trunks and a pair of dark glasses. On particularly hot days, she would even stick to the bikini to carry out her cleaning duties, per my request. I seriously considered officially replacing the maid outfit with it.

On one such uncomfortably hot day, I found myself reclining in a chair by the pool, flipping through a comic book. Before long, Delilah made her bikini-clad appearance and diverted my attention from the comic. "Hello Master," she said, "I'm all done with cleaning for today!"

I smiled at her and nodded, and she smiled back, before taking a running leap into the pool and landing with a gigantic splash. The water lay undisturbed for a solid five seconds before her head surfaced for a gulp of air and she began her laps.

Delilah had an odd way of doing laps around the pool. Rather than swimming in a straight line, or even around in a circle, she would swim in a peculiar, quite complex pattern. First from one end to another, then a sharp turn at an acute angle, then to the end again, then another turn, and so on, cutting triangles across the water's surface.

As I was contemplating this pattern, she suddenly called out, "Come in, Master, the water's fine. You can't just lie there all day!"

I didn't often join Delilah in the water because I was embarrassed of how bad a swimmer I am, and because I don't really like swimming all that much to begin with. But I always came when she asked like that, and so, obediently, I put my comic to one side and leapt into the pool myself, making sure to splash her.

Delilah yelped as she unsuccessfully dodged the waves I launched at her and got a face full of spray. She retaliated with a big splash of her own, which I also failed to dodge.

The water caught me full in the eyes and it was a few seconds of blinking and shaking my head before I could see again. Once my vision cleared, I saw that Delilah was no longer in front of me.

I splashed around in a full circle, using my drowning-dog swimming technique, but didn't see her to my sides or behind me. I frowned. First she calls me to get in the pool and then she immediately leaves. Was she really upset with me for splashing her like that? Or was she...

Something wrapped around my legs and yanked downwards. I barely had time to suck in a breath before my head was below the water. The thing continued to pull me down, though I thrashed helplessly.

Eyes open beneath the surface, I expected to see the pool's blue and white tiled walls and smooth white floor, slightly blurred as things look under water.

Instead, I saw a vast ocean.

Ahead of me, water as far as the eye could see, a school of fish swimming in the far distance. Beneath me, far beneath me, the sandy ocean bottom, scattered with smoothed grey rocks and waving green seaweed. Above me—and the surface grew further and further above me with every passing moment—the enormous shadows of ships.

I nearly lost my held breath in astonishment. Was this some kind of hallucination?

As I continued my descent, I thought, is this a dying hallucination?

Then, suddenly, the grip around my legs slackened and fell away. No longer descending, my continued thrashing drew me back up towards the surface. My cheeks felt like they would burst with the pressure of my breath.

Somehow, I closed the distance, and my head burst above water, desperately releasing my breath and sucking in another.

As my breathing returned to normal, I became cognisant of another body pressing against mine, a pair of arms around my back, and the deeply concerned expression on Delilah's face, which was nearly touching my own.

"Master!" Delilah cried. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pulled your legs like that! Are you okay?"

"Wh-what happened?" I stammered. As the shock of my ordeal wore off, I became increasingly aware of the tightness of Delilah's embrace.

"I thought it would be funny to pull you down, but I didn't think you'd stay down for so long!" Delilah said, squeezing me tighter. "I didn't realize you couldn't swim. Please forgive me."

"I saw, I saw..." I couldn't describe what I'd seen, and was already not sure I'd seen anything at all. I glanced to one side, at the clear water. Beneath it lay the blue and white tiles of the pool in all their utter normality. I briefly poked my face below water to confirm that what was visible from above was the same below. It was.

"Careful there," cautioned Delilah. "I don't want to have to give you CPR."

As if the feeling of Delilah's skin on my own wasn't distracting enough, that comment put all thoughts of the ocean beneath the pool's surface far, far out of my mind. I had to reluctantly release my arms from around her and paddle back a bit.

After that, Delilah and I splashed around in the pool, she swimming and diving with grace of a dolphin, and I bobbing to and fro and occasionally scrambling around like a drowning cat. I didn't want to make it seem Delilah's little joke had rattled me, so I kept swimming longer than I might have done otherwise. Delilah didn't have to rescue me from any more sea-monsters or give me reluctant CPR, although I did briefly consider diving down again so she would.

We got out of the pool once the weather turned cold and we were both thoroughly pruney. I must have spent longer in that swimming pool then than I had spent in it cumulatively since my family moved into the house. Many times I peeked below the surface, hoping to catch a glimpse of that strange ocean again, but each time I saw only blue and white tiles. Delilah playfully grabbed my legs a couple more times, but it never felt the same as that vice grip that pulled me under.

But the more I swam up and down, the more I looked under the water, and the more Delilah swam past me and brushed up against me, the less I thought about my strange experience. By the time I got out of the pool, the memory of it was like a dream, and I considered it must have been one.

Delilah and I wrapped ourselves up in towels, grateful for their covering now that the wind was picking up. "That was fun," she said. "You should get in the pool more often, Master. Maybe I can teach you how to swim."

"I know how to swim!" I snapped back.

Delilah raised an eyebrow. "Well then maybe I can teach you how to hold your breath longer. Then you won't drink half the pool when I pull your leg."

"I didn't—" I distinctly remembered holding my breath the entire time I was... dreaming? But then, I don't think I can hold my breath for as long as it felt. "Did I really almost drown?"

Delilah became suddenly grave. "I wouldn't let you drown, Master. You weren't down there for very long."

"Delilah," I said, "I think I saw something down there. A vast ocean, not a swimming pool. Does drowning cause hallucinations?"

Delilah's expression clouded over. "I'm afraid I don't know, Master."

We stood in silence, considering. "I'm not sure what I thought I saw," I said at last.

"Let's go inside," Delilah said. "I'll start on our food while you dry off and get changed."

I glanced over my shoulder as I walked through the screen door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black shape disturb the surface of the pool. But no subsequent glances revealed anything but clear blue water.

First there was the shrinking room, and now there was this growing pool. Though my memories of both felt more like faded dreams, they persisted with enough force to disquiet me in my moments of contemplation. Either I was going mad, or something unnatural was happening. And did Delilah have something to do with whatever it was? This was the second time she'd played a joke on me with inexplicable consequences.

"Delilah..." I said at dinner, taking a moment to compose my thoughts.

"Yes, Master?" Delilah asked, her fork stopping in midair.

"I..." My thoughts remained uncomposed. "You... the house..."

Delilah looked at me, confused at first, but softening into understanding. "You know, Master, there's a story about this house you might not have heard."

"Yes?"

Delilah glanced around conspiratorially. "It's a story the girls at my school used to tell each other, usually at sleepovers."

"Tell me."

"Well," Delilah began, her voice low and deadly serious. "Years ago, before the Rothbards lost all their money, they went through some trouble with servants. There was period of about a year where they had a new maid every month. Maids would start out, get scared of something in the house, and then quit after only a few weeks on the job."

"But after that year, the Rothbards managed to hire another maid and keep her on permanently, or at least until they had to retrench her and sell the house to your parents."

"What happened? What was wrong with all the other maids?"

"It's not about the maids. A few days after the final maid was hired, Old Lady Rothbard passed away. They say she had undiagnosed schizophrenia. One of the girls at my school claimed her cousin was one of the maids. Her cousin said it was the voices that made them all quit."

"The voices?"

"Old Lady Rothbard lived in one of the bedrooms in the west wing of the house. She was bedridden, and so would spend all her time holed up in that room. Her meals had to be brought to her by the maids.

"Every time a maid would get near the room, they'd hear a whole lot of voices all speaking to each other through the door. It sounded like a whole group of people were in that room with Old Lady Rothbard.

"But as soon as the maid would knock on the door, the voices would stop. The maid would open the door and enter to find Old Lady Rothbard asleep, or just staring silently ahead of her."

"Spooky," I said.

"They made the maids stay in the room opposite Old Lady Rothbard's. That's why they all quit. That girl's cousin said the voices were constant, but there was no-one in the room. Old Lady Rothbard detested technology, so there was no radio or television there to explain the voices. And no-one else in the family would ever acknowledge them. The maids felt like they were going crazy."

"Okay, yeah, that's pretty weird, but why did so many of them quit?" I asked.

Delilah brought her chair closer and leaned in. Her eyes locked with mine. "Because the voices were speaking to them."

I felt a chill despite myself. "Well, I, uh, I hope you're not... hearing any voices, Delilah."

"Only the ones in my head," she replied cheerfully. "Telling me to kill you!"

I fell backwards, out of my chair, and landed painfully on my back. At once, Delilah was back to sweetness and light, helping me up and making sure I was okay. "I'm sorry, Master! I was only joking."

Later, I took a walk outside, to the front of the house. The clear skies of a couple hours earlier had given way to grey storm clouds and a driving wind. The house loomed in front of me, massive and ancient. It seemed suddenly haunted and full of secrets, not at all like the comfortable and luxurious mansion I had inherited.

That night, in my dreams, I returned to that strange ocean. The thing gripping my legs did not let this time, but pulled me further and further down. After I could hold my breath no longer, when my mouth burst open and filled with water, I looked down to see what the thing was.

An old woman, white haired and skeletal, had wrapped her bony arms around my legs. Her eyes were sunken so deep in her face that they looked like black holes. And she smiled with teeth like a shark's.

I shot up in bed, breathing heavily and drenched in sweat.

A shrinking room and a growing pool. An insane old lady in a room of voices. What did I really know of this house?

III

What did I really know of this house?

Since Delilah had come to work for me, I had taken a keener interest in exploring the rambling halls and funny little rooms of the place. This was mostly brought upon by Delilah's own fascination with the house. She told me she had always lived in very small homes with her parents.

Following the incidents with the room in the closet and the swimming pool, my interest took on a more serious tone. I tried to dig up more information about the house and the Rothbard family online, but little was forthcoming. The Rothbards had started a pharmaceutical company sometime in the 1800s, but the family hadn't been in control of it since World War II.

I managed to dig up a couple of old articles in some newspapers about Philip and Marian Rothbard's lavish wedding in the early 60s. These were accompanied by a few grainy photos of the reception, held at the back of the house before the swimming pool had been put in. Everything looked perfectly ordinary.

Having exhausted that avenue, I added terms like "haunting" and "occult" to my searches. Apart from an interesting article about the 19th century oujia board fad, featuring a quote from one Mary Rothbard, nothing was forthcoming. I could find no report or rumour that the Rothbard Manor had ever been considered haunted, but then, my area was hardly a hotspot of paranormal investigation.

I also couldn't find any corroboration of Delilah's story about Old Lady Rothbard, so I concluded it was just a schoolyard rumour, or possibly something she made up just to frighten me.

Innocently, I asked Delilah one day at breakfast what she thought about ghosts and haunted houses. Did she believe in either?

"I like to keep an open mind," she said. "But I've never seen a ghost. Well, there was one time I thought I did..."

"Really? When?"

Delilah looked to her left and her right, like she had the other day, when she told me the story about Old Lady Rothbard. She beckoned me to move my chair closer to hers, and leaned in to whisper in my ear. "It was in this house."

"Where?" I was whispering too.

"In the main bathroom. Just yesterday."

"What did it look like? Was it... an old lady?"

"No," Delilah said flatly. "It was pale man. He was... in the shower."

I sucked in a sharp breath.

"And he was... singing."

"A singing shower ghost?"

Like the flick of a switch, Delilah's expression turned from one of deadly seriousness to outrageous laughter. "It was you, Master!"

My cheeks flushed with embarrassment, for a couple of different reasons. "W-what?"

Delilah's raucous laughter continued. "You should see, haha, you should see the look on your face, Master! Do you believe in ghosts?"

"No, of course not! Why did you walk in on me in the shower?"

"It was a mistake, Master. I was listening to music and didn't hear your singing or the water. I got out as soon as I realized you weren't a spooky pale ghost."

"How come I didn't notice?"

Delilah smiled devilishly. "I'm silent... like a ninja. The cute butt ninja. Don't worry, that's all I saw."

I had no reply and sat in a catatonic state until she got up to leave the room. "And yes, Steve, that was a compliment," she said as she flitted out the door.

So Delilah was no help in my researches. I kept hoping she would venture another story about Old Lady Rothbard, or the house itself, because I strongly suspected she knew more than she was letting on, but the girl was entirely unpredictable. One day she would be serious, the next day simpering and sweet, and the next day sardonic and cruel. Most of the time, these moods didn't even last a full day. But, in truth, that was one of the things I liked about her. She was... enigmatic.

I didn't bring the subject of ghosts or hauntings up again, for fear of another long-winded joke at my expense. And we had more than enough to keep ourselves busy with without launching a paranormal investigation of the house. Life was good, and we had no shortage of entertainment. Some days, we'd choose a room and mess around in it. We'd play pool in the billiards room (neither of us were any good), taste wine from the cellar (it made me pretty sick, but Delilah liked hers), or try planting things in the conservatory (this actually went quite well, and the room was soon full of different kinds of flowers that Delilah dutifully kept watered).

One endless afternoon found us in the ballroom, practicing dance steps from YouTube. We moved very slowly and shakily, and I don't think I was very good at leading, but I avoided stepping on Delilah's feet, which I count as a win.

As we were starting to get the hang of the tango's turns and whirls, Delilah leaned in and said, "Master, do you know about the stuff your parents kept in the attic?"

"There's an attic?" I asked.

"I'll take that as a no," Delilah replied. "Maybe that's for the best. There's some really disturbing stuff up there."

I froze on the spot. Delilah kept dancing. She stepped back. I fell forward. We landed in a dazed heap of writhing limbs. I didn't altogether mind.

"I'm so sorry, Master," she said, already on her feet and helping me up. "I shouldn't have said anything."

Still in shock, I lay on the floor for a while before taking Delilah's proffered hand. "Disturbing stuff?" I asked as she helped me up. "What kind of disturbing... wait, no, don't tell me, no-one needs to know that sort of thing about their parents..."

"Oh!" Delilah cried, blushing. "No, it's not, umm, that kind of thing at all! It's, like, black magic stuff! Tarot cards and big old books and druid cauldrons and things."

I breathed a deep sigh of relief. "Well, I'd much rather my parents were secret Satanists than sex perverts. Now I'm kind of curious to check it out. And the attic. I didn't even know we had an attic."

Delilah turned off the dance music and nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, let's go now. We can try this dancing stuff again some other time, when Master is feeling less clumsy."

"Hey!"

Delilah smiled sardonically and flitted out of the room. I followed.

* * *

A stepladder was set up in the middle of the top floor hallway, presumably from when Delilah had last visited the attic to clean.

"I've gotta say, Delilah, you're really dedicated to the job. You could have never even attempted to clean this attic and I wouldn't have noticed. Which, come to think of it, goes for a lot of other rooms too."

Delilah curtsied bashfully. "Thank you Master, you are too kind. But a maid's work is never done. And I signed a binding contract to keep this house clean. Contracts are very important."

I let her climb the stepladder and enter the attic first, mindful of the incident with the shrinking room behind the closet, not because I wanted to peek up her skirt. The stepladder wasn't tall enough for that anyway.

Delilah scrambled up, seeming to be swallowed whole by the dark opening in the ceiling. There was a click, and the black maw was replaced by a pattern of brown rafters. I climbed up the stepladder and pulled myself up into the attic.

The scene before me nearly sent me tumbling right back down. Rather than a room full of dusty boxes, the attic was a full-on wizard's study. The walls and floor were covered with evil-looking symbols and writing in dark red ink. Musty old hand-bound books lay piled atop one another, and thick candles of every color littered every available surface. To one side, a collection of ceramic bowls and iron cauldrons sat, their sides stained purple and yellow. And in the dead center of the room, a human skull had been positioned in the middle of a red pentagram.

"Welcome, Master," said Delilah, who was toying with a broomstick that had been propped up against an overflowing bookshelf. "What demoniac hell spawn shall we summon today?"

"I don't think this stuff belonged to my parents," I said. "They were never this into Halloween decorations."

"Hmm, you're probably right. Maybe the previous owners of the house were?"

"Probably. They were old money, ultra-rich—at least until they had to sell the house to my dad. No wonder they left all this stuff here—whatever weird magic they thought they were doing, it clearly didn't put any money in the bank!"

I spied an old, beat-up oujia board jutting out of one of the shelves. Probably Mary Rothbard's. Or maybe it had belonged to the old lady with all the voices—I wasn't starting to believe that story, was I?

"Master, do you believe in magic?" Delilah asked. "I know you're into ghosts and hauntings."

A few months earlier, I would have laughed such a question off and teased Delilah for asking such a thing so earnestly. But lately I wasn't feeling so confident.

"I've seen some things lately that have me wondering about that," I told her. "Strange things have been happening in this house, and maybe we've just found out why."

Delilah's eyes grew wide. "Do you really think so?"

"Maybe." I waited for the joke at my expense, but it didn't come. I think, for once, Delilah appreciated how serious I was. Besides that, there was something heavy and oppressive in the atmosphere of this room that made skepticism difficult. Delilah was shifting around uncomfortably, hands absently fidgeting with a broomstick, looking less composed than I'd ever seen her.

I paced around the room, examining its decor. Although my initial impression of the room was heavy on pentagrams, cauldrons and draped black cloths, further examination revealed significant variety. There were books in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and other writing systems I couldn't immediately identify, possibly Sanskrit. A model of stonehenge sat in front of an old painting of two djinns.

The books ones titled in English promised all sorts of arcane knowledge and power—there were books on necromancy and divination, books on magic that was supposed to restore your youth and give you more confidence, books on transmuting lead into gold, books on summoning demons and cursing your enemies. They ran the gamut from hidebound tomes to ratty paperbacks.

One of the slimmer volumes, which would have looked more at-home on a waiting room coffee table, had a picture of a smiling maid on the cover and boasted of magical techniques for keeping your house clean. "Hey Delilah," I said, picking up the book, "maybe you can get some use out of this one?"

Delilah, still fiddling with the old broom, laughed when I showed her the cover.

"Maybe there's a spell in here you can use to make that thing come alive and sweep the kitchen for you!" I joked. Anything to lighten the mood.

Delilah's face fell. "I wouldn't want you to replace me with a magical broom, Master."

"Oh Delilah," I replied. "You know you're worth so much more to me than just some sweeping."

"Really, Master?"

"Yeah, you do windows too."

"Mean!" Delilah playfully swatted me with the broom handle.

"I'm kidding, I'm kidding," I said, putting my hands out in front of me in mock-protest. "I really do enjoy your company, Delilah."

Delilah laid the broom aside and took a step forward. "Anything to please you, Master."

A better man than I would have taken that cue. But instead, feeling crowded, I stumbled backward, knocking something with my foot. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the skull roll across the floor.

"Careful, Master," said Delilah, her face now inches from my own. "We don't want your clumsiness to anger the spirits."

Just then, the light went out. At the same time, the trapdoor fell shut with a loud BANG.

I felt Delilah's hand on my side. "Don't worry, Master." Then she started chanting.

"W-what are you—" Delilah shushed me with a finger to my lips and continued her chant. The words were harsh and guttral; her throat made sounds entirely unlike her usual, musical speaking voice. I heard her take a few paces back from me.

As her chanting grew louder and more fierce, it was joined by another voice, slight and wispy. The other voice seemed to be coming from behind me, though I strained to hear it.

Delilah's chanting was a menacing growl, unlike any language or music I had heard before. It sounded like a wild big cat, a lion or tiger. The other voice was soft and melodic, but so slight I might have been imagining it.

At once, the chanting stopped, and there was light. I was back in the attic, face-to-face with Delilah. A candle flickered between us.

"Tada!"

"W-what? Huh?"

"I lit this candle by magic, Master. It truly is real."

Delilah snapped her thumb and forefinger in front of my face, and we were plunged into darkness again. She snapped again, and the candle relit. "Pretty cool trick, huh?"

"What was that chanting?"

"Oh, I was just priming the element of fire. You have to get it warmed up before you can do anything with it, obviously." Delilah said this in such a smug tone that I forgot all about my strange visions. What's more, while her one hand supported an ornate candleholder, her other hand was suspiciously hidden behind her back.

"Show me your hand."

Delilah produced her empty hand from behind her back, fingers outstretched. "See? No matches."

I remained unimpressed, and my facial expression showed it.

Delilah stuck her tongue out. "Don't believe me, Master?" She snapped her fingers, and the light went out again. Then she started a new chant.

This time, her guttural chanting was joined instantly by two other voices, stronger this time. Both chanted soft melodies, disharmonious with Delilah's. One came from behind me and the other from my left.

In the darkness, surrounded by these strange sounds, I felt like I was falling, my feet no longer supported by the ground. The chants grew louder, and then seemed to meld into one, a voice at once harsh and melodious.

Images of black masses and virgin sacrifices filled my mind with a vividness beyond mere imagination. I saw druids with long beards stirring bubbling black broths and dragons dancing in the skies. I saw tiny forest spirits staring at me with pure white eyes. I saw a woman in this very room, standing over me, plunging a sacrificial dagger right—

And then she was gone. I lay on my back, in the middle of the pentagram. The electric light buzzed above me. Delilah was nowhere to be seen. I felt sick.

I rose shakily to my feet, opened the trapdoor, and descended the stepladder. As I reached the ground, I heard Delilah calling me.

"Master!" Her face was a mask of worry, and she barrelled into me with a force that nearly knocked me over and wrapped her arms around me. "Are you okay? You passed out when I was showing you that magic trick! I ran at once to get the first-aid kit."

"I'm okay," I said, reciprocating Delilah's hug. "Just... no more magic in poorly ventilated rooms, okay?"

We untangled. Delilah, looking at the floor, said, "I understand, Master. I will try my best to be more considerate of your delicate constitution in future."

Delicate constitution? Maybe she was right. But then, I never used to faint or hallucinate at all. Not since she started working for me. And every time I had, it had been as the direct result of one of her "pranks". She'd locked me in the shrinking room, pulled me into the ocean in the swimming pool, and now done... something in that horrible attic room. But why?

"Delilah, level with me for a bit," I said. "These little jokes of yours. The ones that always end with me completely freaking out and you saying sorry and comforting me. Just tell me: why? And how?"

Delilah tried to break eye contact, but I held it ruthlessly. "Well, Master, you've found me out," she said. "I've known about that attic since I moved in, and I've been reading the books. I've been teaching myself magic."

Experience predisposed me to believe her. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

"Because, Master," she began, her cheeks reddening. "Because I was casting a spell on you."

I stepped towards her. "What kind of a spell? Why?"

After a long silence, Delilah said, very quickly, very softly, "A love spell."

I reached out a finger to lift her chin and kissed her. More accurately, I bumped my nose against hers, tilted my head, and then kissed her.

"It worked," I said, coming up for air an eternity later.

Delilah smiled, and we kissed again.

* * *

After such physical expressions of affection, we were both quite shy of each other for a while. I daydreamed happily for the rest of the day, and we had a pleasant dinner. Neither of us mentioned the kisses; we said little, staring into each others' eyes and letting our touches linger.

Rationality took some time to reassert itself over my mind, and when it did, it was because I was turning over what the future held. The maid thing had obviously always been a bit of a sham, but perhaps now it was time to formally terminate Delilah's employment. The power dynamic, now that I thought about it, was a bit weird.

Come to think of it, the whole situation was off. Was I really going to start believing in magic because a pretty girl told me she was casting a love spell on me? Well, maybe I'd start believing in magic because of the things I'd seen, but more to the point, did I believe Delilah's explanation? What kind of a love spell involves nearly drowning your beloved? Or was the whole love spell thing just flirtatious banter? A coy way for Delilah to admit her feelings for me?

I resolved to ask Delilah these questions the following morning. At least, after one more make-out session.

IV

I woke up at eight o'clock the next morning, half-wondering if the events of the previous day—the discovery of the attic full of magic arcana, Delilah's magic tricks, my awful hallucinations and, most importantly, our kiss—had all just been a dream. None of it felt real, and it wouldn't be the first time I'd dreamed of Delilah.

I stumbled into the kitchen, barefoot and pyjama-clad, and found the usual fresh pot of morning coffee. This morning it was accompanied by a letter written in Delilah's fastidious hand.

Stevie,

There's a surprise for you in the wine cellar.

<3 D

I then noticed a trail of rose petals on the floor, leading from the coffee pot to the cellar door, which was set into an alcove in the kitchen wall.

I poured a mug of coffee and followed the petals.

The cellar door was heavy and its hinges in need of oiling. I had to shoulder it open, splashing some coffee on the tiles in the process, just barely missing my feet.

Beyond the door was a curved staircase, so you couldn't see directly cellar directly. Being an underground room with no windows, it was obviously pitch dark. I flicked the light switch just inside the door, but nothing happened. Part of Delilah's surprise? I was equal parts excited and nervous. Out of caution, I pushed the door all the way open. Between its weight and the little detail of it not having a latch or keyhole, I figured there was little chance of Delilah trapping me in this room. But just in case, I decided not to walk further than the bottom of the stairs unless absolutely necessary.

I called Delilah through the open door, but if she was there, she didn't answer. There was nothing for it but to boldly go. I took my phone out of my pyjama pocket and turned on the torch. After a swig of coffee, I made my way down.

I hadn't spent a lot of time in this room, ever. My parents had put stocked the place with wines when we first moved in—they had a snooty wine journalist with extremely red lips spend a few days advising them and arranging procurement.

The cellar was quite small, with no furniture save the large, fully stocked wine racks on either side, and my phone's torch easily illuminated the whole room. The floor, walls and ceiling were all rough-hewn stone, cold to the touch. Delilah wasn't in here, unless she'd found a spell that let her hide in one of the bottles.

I cast my torch around the small room, examining every inch of it for Delilah's surprise. As I was drawing it over the floor, I noticed a book lying open at my feet. It appeared to be an old diary. On the lefthand page was drawn an incomplete pentagram, three of the points joined, the others left as arrowheads. Halfway down the right-hand page was the following text, in a faded cursive:

In all my researches, I have found but three sources of real power. All else is parlor tricks and the domain of charlatans.

The first of these is the five-pointed star, the goat's head, the pentagram—this I learned from the writings of my dearly deceased Mama. This symbol, formed with intent, is the kindling of all truly potent magicks. But like kindling, it is so often lit in error, with the spark of ignorance.

The second is the secret language, and for this knowledge I have paid dearly. A fluent speaker of this dialect of the aether controls the spark to light the kindling.

The third is strict observation of the protocols. Through this, we channel the fire to our ends. I do not pretend to understand these things—I am old and my mind is overstuffed. Sarah has already surpassed me in her knowledge of this area.

This is a new magick, with parts of what came before, but new and potent. It was my mother's gift to me, and, having no daughter of my own, I pass it now to my daughter by marriage, Sarah Melody Rothbard.

I turned the page, feeling cool glass under my finger as I did so. On the other side of the page was the same pentagram, this time with all of its lines filled in. The facing page had a hole cut out of the middle, which reached all the way to the spine of the book. Inside the hole was a phone—the glass I'd touched.

The phone's screen turned on, and it began chanting. The chant, this time, was beautiful. Words that sounded like Latin, spoken by a soft, angelic voice, filled the small room. It made me think of long summer days, the view off the top of a mountain, the wild smell of nature. Of sunrises and sunsets, rivers and lakes, enormous uncharted forests, the power and majesty of the earth. It made me think of Delilah's smile, and the way she laughed, and the kiss we shared.

The pentagram on the facing page started to glow softly, more pink than red. A feeling of disquiet raised its head, but it was small and distant, and was quickly drowned out by the music. I knew, somehow, that I could not leave while this beautiful chant continued. I had to listen to all of it, or I would be like a pot taken too early from the kiln.

At the height of the chanting, I heard a crack. Followed by a pop. Followed by the phone exploding in my face.

"Aargh!"

I stumbled back, dropping the mug of coffee I'd forgotten I was holding on the hard stone floor, where it shattered and poured scalding brown liquid all over my feet. I cursed, fell backwards, a banged my head on a stone step on the descent. Somehow, I kept my phone torch in hand.

After rubbing my head for a while, I looked back at the book. The phone was a mess of glass and circuitry, and the ancient pages had coffee all over them. The pentagram had stopped glowing.

I left the cellar and went straight to the bathroom. My face was bleeding in multiple places from where pieces of glass from the exploding phone had cut into it. Luckily none of them had gone in my eyes. I washed the wounds and opened the bathroom cabinet to look for band-aids. Instead I found another note.

The love spell is now complete.

Meet me in the ballroom.

💋

The note was signed with a red pair of lips.

As I exited the bathroom, I heard music from the other side of the house. It was melodious and earthy, with layers of chanting female vocals—not as beautiful as the voice in the cellar, but pleasant. There was something solemn and ancient about it. It must have been coming from the sound system in the ballroom.

The music grew clearer as I came closer to the ballroom, and although I wanted to run, I found myself walking slower and slower. There was something about it that made you feel serious and respectful, contemplative.

At last I reached the ballroom entrance. "Delilah, this music is beautiful," I said as I stepped into the room.

The ballroom was entirely changed. Sunlight had been blocked out by the long black curtains which now covered the windows. In its stead, the room was lit by scattered candles of various colors, on the floor and on tables scavenged from around the house. A giant crimson pentagram had been painted on the ballroom floor.

And at the end of the room opposite to the door, Delilah stood with her back to me, arms outstretched, dark hair loose and cascading down her back. She was facing a large banner hung against the wall, which depicted a white-haired, pregnant woman. The woman on the banner was naked, and so was Delilah.

At the sound of my voice, Delilah spun round to face me, dropping her arms. She was smiling and made no motion to cover herself, but her face showed the hint of blush. I stared shamelessly. Everything was even better than I had imagined.

"There you are." She raised an eyebrow and beckoned me forward with a curl of her index finger.

"Delilah, what is this?" I asked.

"Come and find out."

I might have resisted this invitation but that she followed this up with a hip gyration that entirely relieved me of my senses. I shuffled forward like a horny zombie.

As soon as I stepped into the pentagram, Delilah's expression hardened, and her arms shot up again. Her face twisted into hideous expressions as she began the guttural chanting of the day before, much at odds with the music that came from all sides.

My feet weren't on the ground anymore.

I was hovering three feet above the pentagram, and I couldn't move my legs or arms. Delilah had ceased her chanting and was staring at me with an expression of contempt, entirely unlike any I had ever seen on her face before.

"Boys are so easy," she said. "Especially pathetic shut-ins like you. You really thought you were going to get lucky, didn't you?"

If the ground hadn't already been swept from beneath my feet, that would have done it. Delilah had never spoken to me with such contempt before. She strode towards me, slow and confident. Despite recent revelations, I couldn't keep my eyes off her body.

"That's right, take a good long look. This is the most you'll ever see of a woman's body, Master."

Delilah twirled around. "I know you like my ass, Stevie-boy, you've been staring at since I got here. Don't think I didn't notice."

My face flushed with embarrassment. "Delilah, I..."

Delilah made a closing gesture with her hand, and my jaw snapped shut of its own accord. "Save it. I don't love you. You were just getting to close to the truth, so I had to make something up. I almost can't believe you fell for it. Love spell! Ha!"

In my defense, I hadn't been thinking with the logical part of my brain. Or any part of it, really.

Delilah continued, "This is a ritual of rebirth, so it calls for nudity. Fertility and feminine energy. Such are dear Granny Sarah's protocols—I wonder at the necessity of some of them, but that's neither here nor there."

Delilah stretched her arms out in front of her and brought one hand on top of the other. Her face contorted as she said a brief chant, and then she forced her hands apart.

My pyjamas ripped off my body, top and bottom flying in opposite directions.

"My my, you're very happy to see me," she said, making my face go even redder. "Yes, that's good, that blush makes you look less like a ghost."

Delilah made a circular motion with her hands, and suddenly I was staring up at the roof. My body was oriented as though I lay on a sacrificial alter, legs straight and arms pinned to my sides. I couldn't even move my head.

"Delilah..." I said through a dry throat. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because," Delilah yelled, shoving her face into my line of vision, "you stole my birthright."

My head spun. Had I heard correctly? "What?"

Delilah's hateful expression softened slightly. "You're even stupider than I thought. A girl called Delilah Roth comes to live with you in the mansion you stole and you don't even think twice."

Delilah Roth. She'd mentioned her surname in passing once or twice, and it was on all the forms, but I hadn't really thought about it. It was so obvious. She knew about every little room, every nook and cranny—and she knew stories about the place that couldn't be found online.

"Did you really think anyone would sign up to be your full-time maid, subject herself to leering looks, wandering hands, requests to work bikini-clad and having to call you 'Master' without some ulterior motive?"

Initially I hadn't.

"You fooled me," I said. "I thought we were friends... I thought..."

Delilah sneered. "You thought I had fallen in love with you, just as you planned. That you could act the benevolent Master, and act out some ridiculous love story."

"No!" I shouted. "I didn't, I just... I just wanted..."

"You just wanted some eye-candy that could double as a new Mommy. Well, you got your wish, for a time. Now it's time for me to get mine."

"What wish?"

"I am the first Rothbard daughter for many generations. The blood of five generations of great witches flows through my veins. This house, its secrets, the things hidden in its walls, the spirits of my family—it was all to be mine! But my father was a drunkard and a fool, and he denied me that birthright. Without my grandmothers to guide me, I watched helpless as he sold their very souls."

Delilah withdrew and was silent for a moment, her emotion getting the better of her. Then, in a calm voice, she said, "We now begin the final stage of the ritual."

At these words, the music had stopped. Delilah raised her arms to the banner and cried, "I, Delilah Marian Rothbard, call upon the spirits of the past!"

Straining against the invisible force that held me in place, I twisted my neck to watch Delilah walk to the end of the room at my right.

"Marian Sophia, I call you from the shrunken place," she cried. "Seek the conduit, the way I have made."

I saw a vision of Old Lady Rothbard, stepping out of her bed from the first time in years, legs shaking with the burden. There was a hammering at her door, but she ignored it, and slowly shuffled towards the closet. I recognised her room.

Old Lady Rothbard pushed open the door to the closet, and then pushed open the door to the room inside the closet. Here she sat as the walls closed in.

A wave of nausea passed over me, and I felt a tightness in my chest. I held it down and turned my head again, to watch Delilah walk to the north end of the room. It was easier this time.

"Elizabeth Esther, I call you from the watery depths. Seek the conduit, the way I have made."

Elizabeth, mother of Marian, ran across the deck of the cruiseship, through the driving rain, to separate her husband and the other man, locked in combat. She grabbed both their arms, they tried to fling her off, the ship tilted, and she was lost to the sea.

The nausea returned, stronger now. I could see the vast ocean scene from the incident in the pool, where the body of a woman was slowly sinking. I fought it back, and tilted my neck to watch Delilah walk to the west end.

"Sarah Melody, I call you from above. Seek the conduit, the way I have made."

An old lady hovered in the middle of the attic, cross-legged and chanting to herself. She was naked, her skin criss-crossed by intricate, finely detailed patterns, expertly painted in light blue ink. She was meditating to slow her heart rate and the blood clot that approached her heart. It was almost there.

My chest was burning now, and I tasted vomit. I lifted my head up and strained to lift my back, my eyes following Delilah's slow steps toward the south end of the room.

"Mary Helen, I call you from below. Seek the conduit, the way I have made."

Mary stood at the top of a tall mountain and looked down. I do not know what she saw at the bottom, but she was smiling as she jumped.

As Mary jumped, so did I, escaping the magical suspension and landing solidly on my feet. I was elated, but briefly. For though I could now move, it was not my mind that moved me. Something else was controlling my body.

My body walked forward slowly, uncertainly. My head moved side to side, and then down, surveying my surroundings and my body. My hands clenched and unclenched. My mouth opened, and four voices spoke out at once. "We have come, Delilah Marian." They were all female voices, and they spoke in old-fashioned accents. They were not in unison, precisely, but spoke in a musical cascade. Mary, Sarah, Elizabeth and Marian. "You have called us and we have answered."

Delilah's eyes widened, and all at once she was not a pagan witch, but an innocent young girl. "G-gran!" she squealed, running up to embrace my body.

I could feel every sensation as my body hugged her back.

"Careful where you stick that thing, Gran," Delilah said, releasing her embrace and stepping back. "Urgh, I'm sorry about the conduit, but he was the only one bonded to the house. You know how it goes—contractual protocol, Granny Sarah. I'm sure we can get you a better body later."

"This will do," said the four voices, carefully examining my hands. "This will do for now. Thank you, child. We knew you would rescue us." I felt an urge to vomit.

Delilah looked up at me with a genuine expression of pure love, an expression I'd never seen before. "I missed you so much, Gran! After the accident with Mother, Father lost the house, and we were destitute. He took up drinking."

Delilah's expression darkened. "Without you or Mom, I had to do terrible things to get by. But I never forgot about you, or about my heritage. I bade my time, watching and waiting, until an opportunity to return to this house presented itself."

"In the form of this boy," said the four voices.

"Yes, exactly that. He is the legal owner of this house, and has a lot of money. Before we find you a new body, we can use his to sign these things away to me."

The corners of my mouth twisted into an evil grin. "An excellent suggestion, Delilah. We're so proud of you!"

Delilah smiled bashfully. "I'm just glad to be with you again, Gran."

This time, only one of the voices spoke. "And I to hear you, sweetheart. We have so very much catching up to do."

"And after that, I have a whole lot of other plans. I want to continue your magic research, discover new words in the secret language, and new protocols."

"You will be far greater than any of us every were," said another one of the voices. "You are a link in the chain of blood, where we were linked but by contract. Yours is a destiny beyond compare, my child."

"Oh Gran, stop, you're embarrassing me." Delilah blushed and looked away. "All I really want to do now is find a way to bring Mom back, and I can't do it without your help. We can worry about destiny after that."

"We are behind you every step of the way," said the voices.

"Oh Gran!" The naseau was rising once more, this time uncontrollably. Delilah reached her arms out for a second hug with her beloved Gran(s?).

Then I vomited.

Projectile vomited. All over her. A powerful spray of mush exploded from my mouth, blasting like water from a firehose. Delilah screamed and tried to block the spew with her arms, but it already covered her face and hair. The spray burned my throat and mouth, and I felt like it would never end.

But at last the force weakened, and it spluttered to a stop. I doubled over, panting, hands on my knees.

"Gran!" Delilah squealed, spitting out gray chunks.

"I'm sorry!" I said instinctively.

"Gran?" Delilah's eyes filled with horror.

I had spoken in my own voice. I blinked my eyes and experimentally moved my hands. I was in control again.

"No!" Delilah shrieked.

I grabbed her by both shoulders and held tight. She was a pathetic sight, naked and covered in the gray puke remains of her ancestors. Her eyes burned with anger.

"It's over," I said, tightening my grip.

In reply, she kneed me in the crotch.

I doubled over, watching her bolt at the edge of my tear-obscured vision. Biting my lip, I pushed through the pain and limped after her. I couldn't let her escape.

I expected Delilah to run for the front of the house, but she surprised me by taking a turn towards the back. She scrambled across the hallway, knocking down any piece of furniture in her way to try and slow me down. It worked.

When I burst through the screen doors, she was already diving into the swimming pool.

I took a deep breath and dove in after her.

When I opened my eyes to the vast ocean with its green seaweed and schools of fish, I realized the mistake I'd made. Delilah was already far ahead of me, swimming at a speed I could never hope to match. I watched as she receded into the distance.

My breath ran out, and I surfaced back into the middle of my normal swimming pool. I glanced beneath it once more, and saw only tiles.

* * *

I don't know what went wrong with Delilah's spell. Maybe my body rejected her ancestors out of some complex spiritual incompatibility, or maybe she said one of her chants wrong. She was powerful, but still young.

And even though she staged an elaborate ruse to gain my trust so she could use my body to try bring back her dead relatives, I'm grateful to her. She showed me a lot of interesting things, and now I have a new hobby that delights me, and a purpose that gives me a drive like I've never had before.

The books in the attic are not light reading, and the Rothbard magic was never intended for use by men, much less outsiders, but I'm making progress. I've successfully summoned a couple of demon toads, and I've been able to scry visions of dear Maid Delilah, on an island somewhere in the Pacific, living off fruit and seafood and scheming her revenge.

When she returns to try again, I'm going to be ready. And I'm going to make her very sorry for all the nasty things she said about me. Maybe I'll even summon her grandmothers to watch.

END


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