by M. K. Knight
"The Cauldron" is from Silver Webb's All Hallows' Eve: The Thinning Veil, an anthology of 13 wicked tales, now available in our bookstore and on Amazon.
“Unless the inside is gutted, there’s no way this is in my price range.” Natalie followed the realtor onto the porch of an imposing two-story Victorian, built into the slope of the hill.
“This one’s different from the others I’ve shown you,” Kyra responded. “It’s owned by a trust. They only care about finding the right person to live here.”
“What’re they looking for?”
“There’s this maintenance thing. It’s nothing big, really, just, not everyone is cut out for it. You strike me as someone who could handle it.”
“What kind of maintenance?”
“Let’s see if you like the place first.”
Kyra led her into an oak-paneled foyer lit by a starburst chandelier hung through an opening from the second story. “This is all original woodwork.” Kyra pointed to symbols carved into the panels. “You’ll find lots of these sun, moon, and star patterns.”
The script winding around the handrail and balusters of the staircase caught Natalie’s eye, a series of squiggles, dots, and lines that ran like a thread between the recognizable symbols, reminding her of hieroglyphs. “What language is this?”
Kyra squinted. “Is that writing? Looks decorative to me. It’s throughout the house.”
A wooden mantelpiece extended to the ceiling, dominating the living room. Engraved to resemble a giant clock, a large star with twelve points of different lengths at the center. Numbers were replaced with symbols that reminded her of constellations, separated by more of the mysterious script from the staircase. Natalie stared until it swirled in her unblinking eyes.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Kyra interrupted.
The central star and its sharp edges called to Natalie. She reached up to feel the bottom-most point. Dad would’ve loved this, she thought. To Kyra, she asked, “Is this what needs to be maintained?”
“No.” Kyra drew the word out. “Let’s finish the tour, then, if you’re interested, we’ll talk about what the trust needs done.”
“I’m interested now. Why make me keep looking if I can’t do the maintenance?”
“You really need to see the whole house first. Otherwise…” Kyra shook her head.
“This is the one place you’ve shown me where I wouldn’t have to camp in the backyard while I renovate,” Natalie pointed out. “I moved to California to do research, not home construction.”
“Humor me, okay?” Kyra eked out a fake smile. “I’ve been showing this property a while.”
Natalie gritted her teeth and nodded. Something more tugged at her than the desire for a move-in ready home. The strange markings that looked like writing, the star on the mantelpiece, all of it intrigued her, a puzzle to be solved. Ridiculous, she knew, was the feeling that the house wanted, no, needed, someone who could actually solve it.
The basement, a musty warren of root cellars and utility rooms, had the same markings etched into the field stone foundation. They finished in a windowless back room, where the house cut into the side of the hill. A large folding screen leaned against the back wall.
“Now that you’ve walked through the whole house, did it feel like home to you?”
Natalie nodded, although that wasn’t what it felt like at all. More an all-consuming desire, a craving that pushed logic into a corner.
“You’re the first person I can see living here. No one else appreciates the decorative work like you do.” Kyra sighed. “A house this magnificent deserves that.”
“What’s the catch?” Natalie asked. “You still haven’t told me what the maintenance is.”
“It’s easier to show you.” Kyra moved the screen to reveal a round wooden door built into the foundation, leading to a chamber extending a good twenty feet below them. More of the mysterious markings covered the packed dirt walls, which rose into a perfect egg-shaped dome, the air surprisingly fresh. A stone slab staircase jutted from the wall, leading to the only source of light, a cauldron of bubbling green liquid. A pale staff leaned against the wall.
“The cauldron needs you to stir it for at least ten minutes every day.” Kyra whispered, her voice amplified by the natural harmonics. “I’ve been taking care of it, but the trust needs someone living here to do it.”
Spellbound, Natalie descended.
The chamber looked different from the bottom. The cauldron’s glow cast shadows, replicating the motifs from the mantelpiece, including the twelve-pointed star in the center top, the chamber door obscured in the shadow of the largest point.
The cauldron was cast iron, etched with faint scratches, more of the mysterious markings. Hip-high and about three feet in diameter, it held an odorless liquid, steaming and bubbling away without giving off heat. Natalie didn’t see a flame under it.
“What’s in there? Is it toxic?”
“I don’t know, exactly, but it’s perfectly safe.” Kyra had followed her down but remained on the bottom step. “It’s quite beneficial.”
“You drank it?”
“Of course not. Speaking from personal experience, there’s something about stirring it that makes good things flow into your life. You’ll have breakthroughs in all the areas where you struggle, whether career, relationships—” She flashed the diamond on her left hand. “Anything. You could be the next CEO of MeleCure Labs.”
“Give up doing actual science? Not on your life.” Natalie smiled. “Look, I don’t care about the woo-woo part. I really like this house. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
“Okay.” Kyra hesitated. “You have to stir it for ten minutes before they’ll consider you. It’s harder than it looks.” She nodded for Natalie to take the staff.
It was heavier than she expected, made from a solid piece of light-colored wood, with a bend that created natural handholds. It was also covered in the mysterious markings. Dipping the staff into the bubbling liquid, Natalie expected resistance. There was none.
“Looks like you passed the first hurdle.” Kyra started up the stairs. “I’ll be back in ten.”
Natalie slipped into the rhythm of the stir, legs, arms, and torso circling the cauldron in concert, entranced by a simple tonal melody vibrating through her fingers from the staff.
She had just gotten started when Kyra’s sing-song tone intruded. “Coming down!”
“You said I had ten minutes.” Natalie’s hands tingled and she was breathing hard.
“Fifteen minutes ago,” Kyra said. “Set a timer, and go easy at first. You’ll be sore for days if you’re not careful. How do you feel right now?”
Fifteen minutes? Natalie patted sweat from her forehead. “Good. Really good. I hope this proves I’m right for this house.”
The Los Perdidos adobe was the only historic landmark in Sunset Acres, and Thaddeus Crawley looked like he had been there since it was built. His granddaughter, Sandra, a stout middle-aged woman and the other half of the Crawley and Crawley Law Firm, did most of the talking.
“It’s very important that you follow all of these requirements.” Sandra directed Natalie to page five of the Viajeros Historic Preservation Trust, where the tenant’s obligations were spelled out. Beyond stirring the cauldron, roommates were forbidden, including spouses, children, and pets. No overnight visitors, no travel. “That means no stray cats in the house, no boyfriends spending the night. You need to go to a work conference or a funeral, you call me first. Is that understood?”
Natalie nodded. It was a lot to give up, but none of those things mattered if she could stir that cauldron again. “What if I decide to get married?” Natalie nodded towards Kyra’s ring.
“You don’t strike me as the kind of young lady who covets marriage.” Thaddeus had a voice like thunder, unexpected from such a decrepit body. “More inclined to a private life, where you can conjure up new ways to fix a broken body.”
Natalie stared at the old man. She signed a non-disclosure agreement just to interview at MeleCure. How did he know what she was working on?
“Call me immediately if that happens,” Sandra said. “Whatever you do, don’t shirk your obligations to the trust.”
To read more of "The Cauldron," consult Silver Webb's All Hallows' Eve: The Thinning Veil, an anthology of 13 wicked tales.