Archcleric Pygram set his bags down at his feet and warmed himself in front of the fire.
The rain had wormed its way under his coat collar and his jacket was soaked, as was his shirt and trews, all the way through to his undergarments. He had heard of many tribal religions who practised much of their spiritualism wearing nothing but sky, but the church of Meloch – to say nothing of his host – would frown upon his stripping off. So for now, he stretched forth his arms, lightly toasted his palms over the crackling flames and basked in the heat, closing his eyes so as to make it look like preparative prayer or meditation. In a moment, he thought, he might turn around and address his host on a few points so as to dry out his behind.
A chill breath whispered past his ear. A pocket of cold air formed at the end of his nose. He retreated one slow step.
“Did you feel that?” he asked. Shivers stole in under his jacket. It was possible they were merely a result of the damp against his skin.
“Of course I did. It’s the damned ghost!” barked Vandergut, with all the gruff hospitality of a guard dog. “Try to bear in mind, you’re here to unhaunt my house, not creep me out, sir!”
“Sorry. I beg your pardon. I – well, I suppose we had better get started.”
Pygram squirmed out of his jacket. The garment put up some struggles in its keenness to cling to him. He spread it before him, meaning to shake some of the wetness out.
The hearth exploded. Erupted like a volcano, blasting hot air and hurling one or two red coals along with a fury of sizzling embers. They blew into the jacket like burning grapeshot from an angry musket. The garment flapped wildly and smoked profusely.
Startled, Pygram shook the jacket vigorously at the fireplace, attempting to beat back the flames. Droplets flew at the fire and the hearth spat and hissed, eventually settling like some serpent tamed very much against its wishes.
Pygram puffed a weighty sigh.
The chill snaked around his face, frosting his breath. Then hurried on over his shoulder, perhaps withdrawing to some other corner of the room. Perhaps departing the chamber altogether. Either way, it left Archcleric Pygram in no doubt it was still in the house.
His jacket dripped on the hearthrug, a loud pitter-patter fragmenting the silence.
If only he’d thought to bless the rainwater. Instead he’d spent much of the ride here cursing it to all seven Netherplanes. If anything he’d probably strengthened the spirit.
“There you are then.” Vandergut cleared his throat. “Now you know what you’re up against. You all right?”
“Yes, yes I think so.” A little singed around the edges, Pygram fancied, but drier at least. He folded his jacket and looked around for somewhere to deposit it.
Vandergut relieved him of the garment. “Here, let me put that with your coat. Unless you need me around, I’ll get out of your hair and leave you to it, shall I?”
“No, by all means make yourself scarce. Or comfortable, rather.” Pygram preferred to carry out his arcane arts free of interruptions and questions from onlookers. Sometimes the spirits were tethered in some way to an individual and he had to keep the person on hand in order to complete the exorcism. To sever the knot in a ceremony that always struck him as a strange inversion of a marriage. Looking around here though, he had the sense that this troubled phantom was tied to the property rather than the owner. He sensed markers, hinting of a prolonged presence in the house, its ethereal touch everywhere as firm and distinct as footprints in mud. Similar to the way a man or woman characterised the spaces they inhabited, with decor and ornaments and the like, this spirit had resided here long enough to leave some trace of its cold soul in the stone and the shadows. “That is, I would recommend you secrete yourself in your study or your bedroom and remain there until this business is concluded. I shall draw the spirit out, confront it and speed it to its final rest. Then I will come find you and report to you when the house has been cleansed.”
“Sounds ideal to me. Right then, good luck to you, Archcleric.”
“Luck will play no part. We trust to the higher powers of Meloch.”
“Whatever it takes, I don’t much care.”
Vandergut gave the curtest of bows and departed with the jacket. After the briefest of rustlings in the hall, his footsteps could be heard clunking up the stairs.
Archcleric composed himself, meditating for real for all of a second or two, then stooped to rummage in his bags.
The hairs on his neck stood, as though they had an audience. He looked over his shoulder. There was only the portraiture, gazing down from the walls, books on the shelves, guarding their tales and secrets behind dusty dust-jackets, candlesticks and assorted polished knick-knacks doing their best to glimmer in the gloom. Porcelain figurines populated shelves and cabinets and Pygram muttered a brief prayer to himself against the spirit throwing any of these ornaments around.
This ghost was going to be enough of a challenge without the added burden of having to pay for breakages.
Watching without eyes.
The priest went to work, removing items from his bags and arranging them in a row on the coffee table. He finished by digging out two torches, one after the other, lighting them in the fire and mounting them on the mantelpiece in ornate silver stands that were also part of the extensive kit he’d brought with him.
On the table there lay a book, with a black cover and gilt-edged pages, a mask, with smoothly sculpted silver features and segmented eyes of emerald, ruby and sapphire, a phial – probably containing holy water, or perhaps simply a tipple to refresh the priest and shore up his courage in the struggle to come – and a large horseshoe-shaped artefact of silver, engraved with a panoply of mystical symbols. As arrays of weaponry went, it was all a bit disappointing. Not very impressive at all. But then, unless you were a priest in life you couldn’t be expected to know the tools of the trade or how effective they might be against spirits. He supposed he would find out in short order.
The priest appeared calm, systematic and determined. The fireplace stunt had left him unharmed and undeterred. Which was good. The sight of the flickering flames had seized him like a compulsion. Their hypnotic dance promised heat, an end to cold and misery. Fire was a foreign land, somewhere he had never ventured before. Made of cold, he always imagined it to be unbearably painful and pain was a thing he greatly wished to avoid. But perhaps, seeing the priest standing there, the prospect of a witness had been too irresistible. To be seen – by a priest, someone liable to care, not like the curmudgeonly master of this house – was a prize surely worth some measure of pain. To burn would be brief, he supposed. To burn brightly, memorable at least.
The world tugged at him, pulling him from his lonely corner.
Looking without eyes, he saw the priest had donned his mask. The horseshoe was in the holy man’s hand and aimed directly this way.
Emerald, sapphire and ruby. Could ghosts be visible in one of those colours – or through some refractive combination of the three? And the horseshoe pulled and pulled, like a magnet on his soul, drawing him from the shadows. Out and out into the fluttering circle of light and warmth cast by the fireplace and the twin torches.
Hovering without wings. He floated above the table. The gold-trimmed pages of the black book ruffled open. The scriptured papers glowed.
Suddenly afraid, he bolted backwards. But slammed up against the half-shadow at the outer edges of the circle, like some moth beating its head on a window pane. He was trapped in a jar of warmth and light and he felt a sudden chill that ran deeper than any cold he had ever visited upon this house. The warm air seemed to feed on him.
“Come forth! Come forth, spirit, in the name of Meloch!”
The priest’s shouts vibrated through him.
He spun and drifted back above the table. Above the book.
It was over.
He spoke without voice. In a way he had thought about many times but never used before, he drew himself in breathy swirls, painting a bubble in the air and shaping some portions of himself into misty script:
GO ON THEN, PRIEST. FINISH ME. END THIS NOW.
“Eh? What?” answered the priest.
Which, if that was the power of holy command, was more disappointing than his array of religious artefacts.
[To Be Continued…]