Wednesday 6:15 a.m.
In the front hallway, Gregg told his men, "Search the entire house for an exit. I'll tackle whatever task the machine has planned for me." He motioned with his hand. "Go."
Michael raked fingers through long, brown hair. "Your men will keep Linda safe."
"We have your back." A smile on his round face, Luther hurried to join them. "Clarissa can't outsmart the three of us."
"I hope not." Gregg hurried to the staircase. “She’s delayed us long enough.”
Once they reached the second floor, the hallway's lights dimmed. The first door drifted open, trailing a patchwork of lights across the carpet. The soft notes of a harp floated to their ears. Ghostlike figures twirled around the circular room. At the center, a crystal chandelier spun on its chains, sending prisms of bright colors across the rounded walls. As more instruments added their music to the mix, the transparent couples danced faster. Voices and shrieks of laughter intensified as the cacophony grew louder. Guests appeared at the perimeter of the room, holding wine glasses, as they conversed in groups.
When the noise reached a high-pitched crescendo, Gregg shouted, "Stop." The figures froze, turning their translucent faces to him. The music died, and the chandelier stopped spinning. He emitted a growl from deep in his throat. "I hate games."
The dancers flickered and faded from sight.
"This isn't a game, Gregg," Clarissa replied. "This is a challenge you must win to survive."
"What do you mean?" She paused, then added, "Because I said so."
"Who gave you permission to play games or set challenges?"
"I don't need permission." Clarissa laughed. "I control the house."
"But who controls you?" Gregg's hand followed the curved walls until he located a speaker recessed above a marble pillar cradling a glass statue of embracing lovers. "Reece and The Elders are dead. There is no one to repair you in case you stall or your wires fray. Your parts will decay."
Luther raced from the room.
"Where did he go?" Her voice rose. "I allowed no one to leave."
"How will you stop us?" Michael joined Gregg in front of the speaker. "You don't have arms or legs. What power do you have? You can't fight us."
"With a click of a switch, I can set you on fire."
The archangel chuckled. "The house will burn to the ground."
"I'll cut the airflow."
"Vampires don't need air," Gregg replied.
"You're trapped here until you die."
"I doubt it." Michael paced the room. "We'll escape before that can happen. We won't age, but your circuits will rust."
"Damn you, angel," Clarissa shouted. "Leave the room. The challenge is between Gregg and me."
A bolt of lightning sizzled across the room. Michael dove for the exit, landing on his feet in the doorway. "I'm leaving," he said before disappearing.
"Good," Clarissa replied.
The music resumed, and the dancers appeared.
"What do you want from me?"
"Gregg, I want you to win. You're my favorite."
He wandered the dance floor, letting his body flow through the swaying couples. "Nice holograms."
"What if they're real?"
"Don't toy with me," he replied, dragging fingers through his hair. "I don't have patience. Let's finish this game."
"This isn't a game." Clarissa's voice thundered louder. "I won't repeat it. If you lose, you die."
"Do you see the sword?"
He lowered his gaze to the weapon at his feet that wasn't there moments ago.
As he lifted the sword, a dancer brandishing a foil lunged at him. He sidestepped the vision but not quick enough. The blade sliced his upper arm. Gregg spun as the man came at him again, his sword severing the dancer's head from his body. The head rolled across the floor, coming to a stop between the feet of the twirling dancers. Gregg tore the sleeve from his shirt to staunch the blood flowing from the wound in his arm. The sound of footsteps echoed behind him. He turned his head to find an army of ghosts advancing toward him, sharp blades glistening in their shadowy hands. As he backed toward the door, the figures followed him. Once they reached him, Gregg spun on his heel and raced through the doorway, slamming the door shut. In the hallway, he waited, his gaze fixed on the closed door as he clasped the blade with both hands. No one appeared. A tap on his shoulder and he twirled to face another foe, his head spinning, his heart racing.
A vampire stood before him. Gregg lowered his sword. "You scared me to death."
"The mighty vampire frightened to death," Luther said with a smirk on his baby face. "A splendid bedtime story."
"No jokes. Those holograms might appear again." He directed his gaze to the closed door.
"They might not be holograms," Luther said, then hesitated, "but ghosts."
Gregg frowned. "Computers can't control ghosts. Clarissa has whatever Reece had stored in his house. We killed the animals in the basement. Nothing else lives in this house."
Luther’s blue eyes sparkled. "Ghosts live in the house as separate entities from the computer program. Clarissa uses them as servants to do her bidding. She plays music, they dance. She gives them weapons, they fight."
"Ghosts haunt the mansion?"
"Yup. Once we disable the computer and destroy the house, the ghosts will vanish."
"That's all we need to do?" Gregg asked with a scowl.
"I know how to disable her. A few wires, then poof, she's gone. You gave me the idea with her death by rusty wires."
Gregg faced him. "So, why didn't you do it?"
Luther stepped back. "I wanted to check with you. Michael can exorcise the ghosts."
"Okay." Luther hurried to the staircase.
"Gregg, where are you?" Clarissa asked in a singsong voice.
The door to the ballroom opened. The dancers watched him from the doorway.
"I'm not finished with you. Return to the ballroom."
"No." Gregg stood firm.
"It will get nasty if I must follow you." Her voice sharpened.
"I'll step inside if you get rid of them." He pointed to the translucent figures.
"I can't, Gregg."
"You can't because you have no other weapons. The ghosts are your arms and legs."
"So smart." Clarissa sugar-coated her voice. "I'll miss you. I'm clearing them from the doorway."
As the figures retreated, Gregg approached the ballroom. "I'll fight them, one on one. A fair battle."
Clarissa hissed. "That will take too long."
"Are you in a hurry?"
"She should be," Luther said. "Her power is weakening as her wires short circuit."
"Leave now." Clarissa raised her voice. "What's happening?" she asked as the hall lights flickered.
"The end is nigh." Michael’s tall figure stepped forward, intoning verses in Latin. The figures faded and disappeared. "One nuisance eliminated." He grinned.
"No," Clarissa shrieked in pain. "My wires are burning. Help me."
"Gregg…" Her voice weakened as the lights dimmed. Clanking noises signaled the removal of the metal siding. The windows brightened as sunshine filled the ballroom.
"Is she gone?" Gregg asked Luther.
"Yup. Dead as a doornail."
Gregg shook his head. "You have a strange sense of humor."
"I know." Luther grinned. "But I saved the day."
His hawk-like nose pointed in the air, Michael strode past him to the hallway. "You helped save the day. Remember that."
"Yeah. Yeah." Luther followed them to the staircase where vampires waited with grins on their faces.
"Job well done, men," Gregg said to them as he descended the steps and opened the front door to daylight and freedom. A text came through his phone. He ran to his car, yelling over his shoulder, “We’re off to the swamp.”
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