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Child's Play

Shadwell's abandoned schoolhouse has a long and storied past. Many tell tales of the ghosts and spectres which haunt its corridors: the wayward souls of the ragged school's long-dead pupils; the labourers who lost their lives in the workhouse; those baleful shadows embittered by time and grief.

When an overnight security guard hears the sound of children's laughter echoing through the schoolhouse's old halls, he decides it's best to leave well enough alone. Especially on Halloween. Instead, he calls on the expertise of occult detectives Sam Hain and Alice Carroll to investigate. However, as they venture deeper into Shadwell schoolhouse's shadow, the two supernatural sleuths find themselves dealing with more than they bargained for...

Embark on an adventure into the arcane with Sam and Alice in this stand-alone Sam Hain - Occult Detective novella.


“What was that?”

Alice’s sharp whisper cut through the silence of the night.

In the depths of darkness, with only the light of their torches to guide them, the atmosphere within the halls of Shadwell’s deserted Victorian schoolhouse was palpable. It could be a haunting place even in broad daylight, but shrouded in midnight shadow it felt all the more ominous. An aura of dread which loomed imposingly over them. Thick, inky blackness surrounded them, enveloping the passageway and obscuring the path ahead beyond the veil of night, barely breached by the glow of torchlight. Eerie shadows stretched out across the aged floor and walls, elongating into unearthly shapes as they fled from the pool of light cast by Alice’s phone.

The torch had been a practicality at first, simply to make sure they didn’t trip over anything as they walked through the dark. The further they had ventured into the shadows of the schoolhouse, however, the more the torchlight had become a much-needed comfort. A reassurance. A shining light to dispel the darkness. This small patch of light had become their final bastion, islanded amidst the black of night.

Unable to see beyond a few paces ahead of them, Alice’s nerves had grown on edge. Her senses had heightened, almost to the point of hyperfocusing, alert and attuned to every sound or movement around them. Each careful footstep boomed in her ears. Every creak of floorboards carved through the still night air. Even the sound of her own hushed voice felt like it carried through the ether. A beacon to all the unknowable things which stalked through the shadows, calling out an invitation: ‘easy prey, right here, get it while it’s fresh!’

There were many things Alice enjoyed about Halloween. The terribly elaborate and the elaborately terrible costumes; the all-night parties and weekend spooky movie marathons; the abundance of chocolatey treats and sickly-sweet seasonal drinks. As the weather grew colder and autumn shifted into winter, these were the things which brought comfort through the darker days. The thing she didn’t enjoy quite so much was the fact that, on this All Hallows’ Eve, the veil between worlds was at its thinnest. The realms of the living and the dead, and those eldritch spaces in between, overlapped, and things from beyond would bleed through the barrier.

Invariably this meant that whatever else she may have had planned, it wouldn’t be long before Sam Hain would swoop in with some quest of interdimensional importance. And not even the sweet and warming taste of a pumpkin spice latte could bring comfort in the face of whatever strange situation they would soon find themselves in.

Tonight was no different.

“What was what?” Sam asked. The question echoed through the darkness, reverberating off of the walls of the abandoned corridors. She could tell he was trying to keep his voice down, but staying quiet wasn’t one of Sam Hain’s strong suits, and all he’d managed to do was lower his pitch to a sonorous bass.

Her shoulders tensed. If Alice thought her whisper might catch the attention of things lurking in the darkness, then Sam’s could’ve drawn in anything from several postcodes over.

“I don’t know,” she said, “it was a kind of gurgling, rumbling sort of sound.” She tried to mimic the noise, drawing up the air from the depths of her chest and rolling it at the back of her throat. “Like, bwhargle-ahrgle-blargh.” It wasn’t exact, but it was close.

She arced the light from her phone around to face Sam. He flinched and squinted as the glaring beam shone into his eyes, slowly easing back to a more comfortable expression as she angled the torch lower. In the peripheral glow of torchlight, she could see he was looking at her with a quizzically raised eyebrow.

“You sound like a bloody cartoon creature,” he joked, his attempt at a quietened voice raising with amusement. “Did you want to give it another go, or are you happy with how that sounded?”

“I can shine this torch straight into your eyes again, you know.”

“Noted,” he nodded. “But no, I didn’t hear it. Especially nothing quite like that— Ah!” His sudden exclamation bounced through the silent corridor as the brightness of the torch found its way to his face again. He thrust his arm up to block the beam. “Alright, alright, no more mocking your monster impressions. Are you sure it wasn’t just the rumble of the tube shaking through the building?”

Through the haze of the torchlight, he could just about make out Alice shaking her head.

“I doubt it,” she said, lowering the light back down towards the floor. It wasn’t anything quite so remote or distant as a tube line. It had sounded much closer, more present, than that. Plus, she suspected they would’ve been able to feel the vibrations through the floorboards if it was a passing train. Come to think of it, she wasn’t even sure any underground lines ran that close by this place to be able to hear it. “Why? Are we above a track or something?”

All Sam could offer was a non-committal shrug. He prided himself on what he considered to be an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the city (although it likely wouldn’t stand up to expert scrutiny), but there were some things which eluded his understanding. The London Underground was one such thing. He seemed to innately know the best routes between any given points, but that was the extent of it. The network of tracks and tunnels which lay beneath the streets of London was an entirely separate mystery. The trains may as well be travelling through subdimensional corridors outside of reality for all he knew.

“Only speculation,” he said. “Once you have eliminated the possible, whatever remains, however impossible, must be the truth.”

“I don’t think that’s quite how the quote goes.”

“No, but we need to rule out the real to identify the unreal. If there’s no tube line running beneath this school, and there’s no other likely source, then we can surmise that we’re in the presence of something… Grumbly.” He straightened the lapels of his greatcoat with the air of someone who believes they’ve just said something terribly wise, and strode onwards, the etheric glow of his transphasic probe (which Alice affectionately referred to as a TechnoWand) leading the way. “Come on, we’ve got more ground to cover. And keep your ears open in case it happens again.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Alice hushed, picking up the pace to walk alongside him, “the witness said they heard laughter coming from one of the classrooms? Not grumbling, or growling, or whatever that sound was.”

She was right. They’d received a report of a ghostly presence at the abandoned schoolhouse from one of the night watchmen. The security guard in question had been monitoring the premises through the night and, after hearing the distant echo of children’s laughter, had clocked off early to let someone else handle it. The place was spooky enough as it was, without the mischievous giggles of little ghost children drifting on the night air too. And least of all on Halloween. He’d seen enough horror movies to know he wouldn’t survive the story, so he got out before it even started.

“That’s what the contact reported, yes,” Sam said, “but this building has a storied past. Who knows what else could be roaming these corridors. Ghost children, spiteful spirits, demons which feed on pain and misfortune…” He hadn’t intended it to, but his speculations had sent a disquieting shiver running down Alice’s spine.

On their way to the location, Sam had quickly read up on the place to have more of an idea about what they might be walking into. It had a long and rich history, though it was one steeped in suffering.

It had been a schoolhouse since the early Victorian era. Not unlike the charitable ragged schools of the time, which paved the way for government-funded elementary education, Shadwell Schoolhouse provided a basic education for underprivileged children. However, this particular school quickly grew a reputation for mistreatment and cruelty. Its pupils were frequently flogged for minor misbehaviour, or forced to perform various chores and manual labour. Meanwhile, those who ran the school were riding on the illusion of goodwill, and making a tidy profit from the money meant to help fund education.

Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, the schoolhouse had been closed down and portions of the building were converted into a workhouse. However, its reputation for mistreating those it claimed to support persisted through the years. While the inmates toiled over their busy work of breaking stone and weaving rope, anyone considered to be slacking was summarily beaten, had their food allowance restricted, or found themselves being thrown into isolation. The circumstances had changed, though the pattern remained the same; many workers lost their lives to their poor living conditions, or to their even worse treatment.

By the time of the Second World War, the building had once again been repurposed, this time as a municipal hospital. Throughout the Blitz, it provided emergency treatment and triage to the victims of the bombings. Overworked, understaffed and woefully underfunded, it was little surprise that the mortality rate for the patients treated there was higher than average. Some chalked it up to negligence or medical malpractice. Others, who knew of the history of that building, suspected it to be cursed; haunted by the vengeful spirits of all those who had suffered there.

As the years wore on, the building began to fall deeper into disuse and disrepair. For a brief period it reopened as a museum, designed to emulate the old schoolhouse of the nineteenth century, but it closed again soon after. The museum staff frequently complained of headaches while at work, suffering from nosebleeds and audio-visual hallucinations in certain rooms. An investigation by the council led to them concluding the building was not safe, and it was officially condemned.

Not that that prevented people who had heard of the place’s history, and the rumours of its spiritual scars, from paying a visit. Urban explorers and amateur ghost hunters—and the custodians charged with guarding the abandoned property from aforementioned trespassers—often came away from there with reports of various disturbing incidents. From the sounds of laughter or wailing emanating from its rooms to the sights of shadowy figures, the ghosts of its past still haunted its empty halls. There had even been an incident in which the walls began to bleed, although the official line was that the property had been infested with a strange strain of mould. Try as they might to dismiss the claims, the old schoolhouse’s ghostly legacy lived on.

It was generally regarded as one of the most haunted locations in all of London, although it was not considered the most haunting. That dubious honour belonged to the Houses of Parliament, where being a detached-from-reality ghoul was considered a desirable trait for working in government.

Alice snapped Sam out of his thoughts. She came to an abrupt halt, placing her hand on his chest and stopping him in his tracks.

“There!” she said, her voice hushed and urgent. “Do you hear that?”

Sam froze. He held his breath, straining his ears and training all of his focus towards the sounds around them. A cold draught blew through a decaying window frame, faintly whistling between the glass and rotting wood. The distant patter of plaster crumbling from the walls, dusting the floor with flakes and fragments. The slow and rhythmic drip of water leaking through one of the ceilings. Then, there it was: the deep, guttural growl.

It sounded close. Uncomfortably close. He felt the growl rumble through his core, reverberating just below his ribs. His stomach did a somersault. Alice had clearly felt it too, the vibration rolling against her palm. She pulled her hand away from Sam, fixing him with an incredulous expression.

“Was that—?”

“Yeah,” Sam sighed with reluctance, shaking his head dejectedly. “That was me.” His stomach growled again, accompanied with a pang of hunger. “Sorry, I haven’t eaten since lunch, okay? I lost track of time, and didn’t think it’d matter.”

Alice slapped him across the chest mockingly, stifling a laugh. “Christ, I thought we were being stalked by a monster hungering for our flesh. But no, it’s just you craving a calzone.”

“That’s an idea,” he mused wistfully, “once we’re done here, I wonder if— Ssh!”

“Are you shushing yourself?” she whispered.

“Yes, now be quiet,” Sam hissed, pressing his finger to his lips. His eyes scanned around the darkness as he listened intently, though beyond their pool of light he could see only shadow. His stomach made a muted grumble, but there was another sound too. The echoing sound of—

“Laughter,” Alice breathed as she heard it too. She craned her head forward, listening out for the sound and trying to hone in on where it was coming from. It wasn’t quite the light, playful giggling of children she’d expected to hear (which came as a curious relief; the mere thought of airy, tinkling laughter echoing through these haunted halls was chilling). Instead, it was a louder, less ethereal and lower pitched, humoured laugh. “Are we sure these are still kid ghosts? Is there such a thing as preternatural puberty?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Sam said.

He aimed his TechnoWand down the corridor and, with a semi-circular flick of the wrist, cast a small ball of light ahead of them. The orb shifted and shimmered as it drifted further and further away, the glow of condensed etheric energy illuminating the space several feet around it, passing decrepit furniture and empty doorways. It reached the end of the hallway, briefly revealing the corner of a connecting corridor, before dissipating into the black of night once more.

“Right, it’s likely coming from somewhere just around that corner. Keep your eyes and ears peeled.”

She didn’t need telling twice. In fact, she didn’t even need telling once. The schoolhouse exuded a baleful aura, and—surrounded by little more than inky black shadows and distant echoes—Alice was hardly going to let her guard down for a second. With a firm grip on her phone, quickly shining its torch beam around the nearest doorways, she started to walk tentatively alongside Sam.

They tiptoed their way along the corridor, moving slowly and cautiously so as to not make a sound. Still the occasional floorboard creaked beneath their feet, but with a carefully well-placed step the noise was barely notable. The cone of light from Alice’s torch, and the glimmering orbs Sam cast from the TechnoWand, cut through the darkness and forged their path ahead.

The voices grew more distinct the further along the corridor Sam and Alice ventured. It wasn’t just the sound of laughter, but of a few people talking amongst themselves, though what the voices were saying neither of them could make out. But it was growing increasingly apparent that the voices were somewhere around the corner. Every now and again, there’d come the sound of something closer, scurrying or scuttering along the side of the wall, but by the time they shone a light in the direction of the noise, it was gone.

It made the hairs on Alice’s arms and the back of her neck stand on end. She told herself it was likely just a rat rummaging around, although how that was supposed to be reassuring she didn’t know. It was much too easy for her mind to run wild with its imagination, conjuring up the thoughts of myriad unearthly horrors watching them from the shadows. There was no telling what unknowable things lurked in these darkened halls.

The corner at the end of the corridor loomed into sight. The voices were much closer now, though their words were still muffled. Sam gestured for Alice to hang back for a moment while, with trepidation, he hastened to the end of the wall and peered his head around the corner. There was another light, cast by neither torch nor TechnoWand, no more than a few paces away. It emanated from out of one of the doorways to what was presumably an old classroom. And in the pool of light moved the shapeless forms of hazy shadows.

“Next door along,” Sam whispered as he ushered Alice closer. Another laugh bellowed from out of the room, causing them both to startle. “That seems to be where the activity’s concentrated. You’ve got your warding charms?” He didn’t doubt she would have, but he thought it best to double-check before they threw themselves into whatever awaited on the other side of the door.

Alice nodded affirmatively and held up her necklace, the pentacle he had once gifted her hanging from the end alongside a pendant of turquoise crystal. She also carried a piece of polished obsidian with her, as well as a pouch of sanctified salts (just in case), but she wasn’t about to start unveiling her arcane arsenal here. What mattered was she was prepared to fend anything off should the need arise.

“Good,” he said with a smile. “I’ll project a protection spell ahead of us, to be on the safe side,” he added, and began to wave the TechnoWand around in the air ahead of them. The glow from its tip traced lines of light through the dark, hovering in the nothingness. Wisps of shimmering energy began to form the shape, connecting the lines of the sigil while he uttered the incantation.

“Through hours of both day and night, shield us from harm and blight,” he spoke beneath his breath, looping the traces of energy around the symbol in a circle. “Thrice around, the circle’s bound. Sink all evil to the ground.” With the flourish of an artist putting the finishing touch on a masterpiece, Sam flicked the TechnoWand into the centre of the sigil. It flashed, briefly burning with the brilliance of astral fire, before vanishing into those spectrums of light beyond human perception.

“Ready?” he asked.

“As I’ll ever be,” she replied.

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