The thief crept toward the house.
They heard him coming and awoke.
His avaricious eyes were fixed upon it. Lit only by moon and stars, it stood all on its own in a patch of skeletal woodland. Years of neglect had seen the trees grow tangled and thick, but it was always visible because they never bloomed. The earth was barren too, grassless, weedless, dry as dust.
He did not notice. He saw only it.
More of them awoke the closer he came.
It had been untouched for years. It was older than the town. The town grew around it and ignored it. People were fearful. There were whispers of strange happenings and horrific crimes. Ghostly laughter. Demonic screams. The dying cries of slaughtered bodies buried in the cellar. But he was young and they did not deter him. Such places always bred dark stories. He had watched it for weeks now and seen nothing. It was deserted.
But he did not think it was empty.
They were all awake now, listening, desperately listening.
It was his prize. He deserved it. Because only he was not a coward. Only he dared to approach it. To explore it. It was huge, sprawling, ancient. It had been sealed for ages. Lifetimes. It had to contain unimaginable things. Gold hidden in rotting chests. Silver plate stored in warped cupboards. Jewelry secreted in little decorative boxes. His fingers itched in anticipation.
It would make his reputation.
They began to whisper among themselves, excited, unable to keep quiet any longer.
He heard them as he worked his thin-bladed knife into the crack between the shutters on a ground-floor window. He froze for an instant and then relaxed, hearing only the creaking of old wood in the wind. It did not occur to him that he could not feel the wind licking the sweat from his neck. It did not bother him that he heard no other noise at all, not even the rattle of bare branches. Excitement had narrowed his mind to one task.
He let out a triumphant sigh when he lifted the rusted latch.
They fell silent in anticipation, no noise escaping them at all.
He climbed through the open window and stood up. The first thing he noticed was the stillness. The air felt like ice. He did not dare breathe, afraid he would crack it. But he could not hold his breath forever. The stillness pressed against him. Sharp. Cold. It was more than stillness. It was deadness. The absence of life.
His tortured lungs ruptured in a scream. But there was no sound. Because there was no room for it. They were upon him.
They bunched around him and they carried him along. Up stairs. Down stairs. Through rooms and corridors and cellars. They swept him through the whole of the ancient house and, with every breath he tried to draw, they filled him…
…with the hazy, skittering memories of countless insects…
….with the sharper, slower and more patient memories of spiders in their webs…
…with the dark, darting memories of bats in the chimneys…
…with the nervous, bemused memories of pigeons huddled in the attics…
…with the quick, dim memories of mice running through the walls, nesting in the backs of old drawers or in the seats of chairs leaking their stuffing…
…with the sleek, confident memories of cats hunting the hallways, padding through the dark, ears alert for the faintest twitch…
…with the memories of babies, sometimes sleepy, sometimes startlingly bright…
…with the memories of children who saw eyes in the windows and dragonwings in the shadows…
…with the memories of young men and young women who were nervous under their parents’ eyes, who avoided each others’ eyes but who still knew, meeting for kisses and fumbles in the closets…
…with the memories of married couples who quarrelled and loved and laughed…
…with the memories of the very old who treasured even their dying moments…
…filled him with all of those who were gone, gone save for their memories.
Those lived on, taking life where they could find it. They took it from him. They turned his hair to snow, his skin to parchment and his bones to glass. But they did not take it all.
They left him enough to lurch away, blind with panic, scrambling back through the window, when he was full and could hold no more of them. Because they did not just want to live. They wanted to be free.
And, when he was outside the house, able to breathe again, if only in arduous gasps, they left him with every breath he exhaled.
They would become rumours, dreams and nightmares, borne on the wind. Some people would grow even more fearful of the ancient house. But others would become obsessed by it, tempted by it, until they could not resist seeing it for themselves. Then those ones would find the open window and more of them would be free.
Those that were left settled back into their death-like slumber. They could only wait and endure.
But at least the house was no longer quite so crowded.