The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
It should come as no surprise that I'm drawn to places with a rich and especially haunted history. Like an amateur ghost hunter, I like to visit them and stay a while to see whether I can catch what goes bump in the night. However, I'd been searching for such a place in a world with things besides ghosts and demonic possession. That's when I discovered The Silent Companions, which stood out to me with its premise of realistic painted dummy boards that would wreak terror in an old, Victorian-era country estate.
In case you weren't aware, silent companions are, in fact, real in your world and date back to the seventeenth century in the Netherlands. These flat, life-size wooden figures served as room decorations to surprise guests and presumably scare off burglars. The ones found in the estate, known as the Bridge, certainly did more.
The Bridge was home to Rupert Bainbridge, Elsie Livingstone's husband who had suddenly passed, leaving her a widow. The Bainbridge family has quite a history of death that inspired certain rumors among the villagers. Mrs. Bainbridge, however, was not one to entertain the idea of spirits and hauntings. She was a strong, rational woman who wanted to dispel the fears and restore the village. Jolyon, her brother, was no less business-minded.
As a result of the accidents and rumors over the years, staff was lacking. Mrs. Holt, the Bridge's housekeeper, was willing to let me work alongside her only two other housemaids, Helen and Mabel. We were more privileged than most servants, each having our own modest, yet pleasant guest bedroom. I had little to nothing in common with the girls, however. Helen was friendly but run-of-the-mill and Mabel, well, she couldn't read.
I did what any other restless, anticipating magical-librarian-disguised-as-a-housemaid would do and frequented the library. Unfortunately it wasn't a grand palace of dim light, crackling warmth, and the comforting smell of leather and parchment. Instead it was dark, musty, and rather small. A mere six bookcases were lined with histories (including one about silent companions), herbal remedies, and some fiction. Sarah Bainbridge, Rupert's cousin, took an interest in reading. Having a fellow reader around was nice, even though she could be a bit air-headed.
The strange happenings began with saw-like hissing sounds in the night that led up to the garret, where Mrs. Bainbridge and Sarah soon discovered a pair of silent companions, a girl and a boy. They also uncovered two diaries belonging to Sarah's ancestor that she later found contained some harrowing answers.
Since the discovery, companions seemed to be manifesting out of thin air. At first Mrs. Bainbridge suspected someone was playing a prank, but obviously none of us were. The boy companion snuck up on me once. Despite the fright he gave me, I took a particular liking to him. He reminded me of myself when I was his age: observant, mischievous, and daring. I sensed that he, unlike the others, did not like the girl. His ink-black stare and the subtle ways in which it would shift to her told me plenty. I found it vaguely amusing. Of course he wasn't fond of me or the other residents, either. Like his fellow companions, he was always watching, waiting.
To be honest, I was less worried about the companions than the black cat, Jasper. It's true what they say: animals can sense things that humans cannot—and they almost always sense something off about me. Animals very well know I am human: I look, act, and smell the part. Yet, it's as if they can get a whiff of a previous universe on me, and it raises hairs.
Jasper seemed to follow only two people around, one of whom was me. At times I felt his green gaze burning into my back, as though he were trying to decipher my true identity, and the moment our eyes would meet, he'd flee.
After a few deadly incidents, I suspected I was next. Luckily, I wasn't new to dealing with the kind of sorcery going on in the Bridge. I had concocted a glass bottle of urine and pins and needles and hid it under my bed. Strange and disgusting, yes, but the practice is rooted in folklore that permeates many worlds and, most importantly, it worked. The companions and their mysterious puppeteer couldn't harm me.
Unfortunately the rest was not safe, and following the aftermath I was hunted by that same faceless force.
I could've returned to my library. Like a video game, there is always an easy-peasy exit option available for me. But I'm stubborn. I hate quitting. I want to triumph. I sometimes ask myself, "Powers forbid, if I ever lost my ability to slip into other worlds, what would I do then?"
With my knowledge in folk magic and protective charms, I kept the wicked force at bay and even unmasked it. I couldn't say I was surprised. There had been more than one hint from the get-go. But I unearthed more secrets. A deep, vengeful anger followed the realization that this entity had destroyed the love between a scarred mother and her child. It had destroyed so much. I could not let it live another day, and so I managed to trap it and watched it burn.