Phanticide – Conclusion

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“Er, now,” said Archcleric Pygram, wholly uncertain what he was going to say next. He scanned the pages of the Holy Book, searching for wisdom. While he knew its contents by heart and knew it contained an inexhaustible supply of wisdom, he could see none obviously related to the current situation. Most definitely none on the pages he had open.

He rested a palm over the verses, seeking comfort in the touch of the pages paper as well as obscuring their shortcomings on this occasion.

The spirit erased and re-wrote its plea on the air.

PLEASE

The letters guttered like candle flame.

“I – I cannot,” managed the Archcleric after watching the smoky script fade once again. The phantom hovered before him still. And now Pygram doubted the power of his sacred magnet to detain the spirit in place. Was it held here in front of him by the trappings of ritual or merely staying of its own will? “That is to say, it is not that simple.”

WHY

Something like a breeze blew the word away and a punctuation mark hung in its place. Alone.

?

“Why,” repeated Pygram, wracking his brains for a way to transform it into a statement. “Why, indeed. Why, life is sacred. And – and you, I discover, have thought and emotion, desires, pains. And my mission is to save lost souls. I – I should at the very least endeavour to understand you before I help you on your way.”

SERIOUSLY?

Archcleric Pygram was temporarily dazed by the bluntness of the retort. He stroked the edges of the Book’s pages, wondering still if there was some passage hidden somewhere within them to which he could turn. “Yes, well, I ought. Do – do you have a name?”

The spirit ghost-wrote:

Tomuel

Wispering, Pygram decided, was a good description of this manner of communicating. How deep was the well when a soul drew on itself for ink?

“Good. Well. Tomuel,” Pygram tested it aloud. “It is my pleasure to meet you. Perhaps you would explain to me why it is you wish to be exorcised.”

WHY?

WHY?

WHY DO YOU THINK?

WHY DID YOU COME HERE?

Archcleric Pygram swallowed, his throat dry as old parchment and as drained of wisdom as the pages of his Book. The candles on the mantel flickered as though they’d been hissed at by some coldly venomous serpent. The Archcleric stiffened, closing the Book and clasping it to his breast. “Why, Tomuel, I came here to assist you. To guide you to the far realms, to see you safely across to the shores of the heavens and into the radiant benevolence of the Lord Meloch, Guardian Of Paradise, King Among The Stars and – ”

LIAR

“I – I beg your pardon.”

YOU CAME TO CLEAR THIS HOUSE OF A TROUBLESOME SPIRIT

“Yes, yes. That is – part of it. We of the church answer to our clients, it’s true. But – but we have a responsibility first and foremost to souls. Of the living and the – the – ” He couldn’t very well say undead. Such terms were bound up with unfortunate connotations, the sorts of creatures one had to stake or decapitate to see them to their eternal rest. “Undeparted,” he said finally. “And instead of a troublesome spirit, here in this house, I found a troubled spirit. That – well, that changes everything,” he asserted with a firmness of conviction that had eluded him up to that point.

DOES IT?

“It is a question of willingness. Most spirits I have encountered are unwilling.” Desperately uncooperative, if truth be known, even combative in a great many instances. “But you. You, Tomuel, are willing. Far far too willing.” The Archcleric clutched at a thought that seemed to have been there. lingering before his eyes for some time. Like a cranefly, the phantom beat of its wings at the very fringes of audibility, the occasional blur of motion at the periphery of his vision. Bothersome and so he’d tried to shut it out. But eventually enough of a nuisance that it flew into sharp focus. “You harbour no desires to be ushered into Paradise.”

COULDN’T SAY

NEVER BEEN

“No, no,” Archcleric Pygram countered. He’d detected the shrug in those words and more besides. Feeling too much like a prosecution lawyer, he pressed on because he sensed he was on the trail of the truth. “Your eagerness to be banished from this house is just that. It is nothing to do with where you wish to be. But everything with where you wish not to be. I – I have seen it before,” he concluded quietly. And then appended, even quieter: “In the eyes of a young girl. Too young.”

Archcleric Pygram’s emotions hung in the air, it seemed, not as visible as the ghost and yet much much harder to ignore. The spirit appeared to ripple, trembling as it were, perhaps in mirror of Pygram’s heart. Was it mocking him? Or sensing the deeper story? Could it see the overflowing river rushing as Pygram could see it, as vivid and enraged in memory as it had been that night?

I AM THE OPPOSITE

TOO OLD

THIS IS NO LIFE

AND I HAVE LIVED TOO LONG

THAT IS WHY

I TRIED TO DROWN MYSELF IN THE BATH

I TRIED TO HURL MYSELF FROM THE TOWER

I TRIED TO THROW MYSELF ON THE FIRE

The wispering grew faint as though the spirit had exhausted itself. But rather than its quill running dry, Pygram pictured its hand growing weak as it tried to set down its feelings.

The Archcleric hung his head. He patted the Book. “It is as I feared. To despair of existence – of any kind of existence – is no reason to end it. We must find strength and courage within ourselves and overcome adversity. We must make our peace in this life and not seek release in another.” He shook his head. Gravely. “I cannot be a part of it. I cannot help you.”

PLEASE

Archcleric Pygram bent to recover his effects, began to pack them away in his bags.

PLEASE

He aimed his gaze everywhere but at the word in the air.

Although wherever he looked it persisted to bother him somehow. Like the cranefly.

No, he realised with leaden heart. Far far worse than the cranefly.

More like the eyes of a young girl.

***

Dear Archdeacon

Two months ago I wrote a very strongly worded letter concerning the shoddy service I received at the hands of one of your young Archclerics, a fellow name of Pygram. The chap was here all of five minutes before declaring he was unable to clear my house of the damnable ghost, pardon my language again, then rode back off into the rain. Extraordinary behaviour, especially for an Archcleric. Mind, I did remark he was young for an Arch at the time, but there was no excuse for that level of rudeness or indeed for leaving me so abruptly in possession of a haunted property.

You were gracious enough, Archdeacon, to reimburse me my fee and relieve young Pygram of his Arch.

It is, therefore, with a modest quantity of egg on my face and the taste of humble pie on my tongue that I write to you now and state that I may have written in haste. The fact is, things have been uneventful in the supernatural department since your chap’s visit. Not a squeak or a bump, bathtimes to myself, all round peace and quiet.

So in short, I feel I owe you apology, your grace. I enclose the full value of my fee plus a little extra for the collection plate. And perhaps you might see to reinstating young Pygram.

Yours gratefully and not a little shame-faced

Krispin Vandergut

***

Hovering without wings. Watching without eyes.

All the pomp and ceremony was a bit much. It didn’t seem that long ago that he’d attended Pygram’s demotion ritual and now here he was as the young man was sworn in again as a full Archcleric of Meloch. Bravo, well done. Tomuel clapped without hands. And made no sound. Stirred only enough air to gutter the first row of candles on the altar.

The Archdeacon and all the gathered clerics, priests and acolytes and whatever glanced around, shrugging it off as a perfectly ordinary breeze through their hallowed temple. Archcleric-To-Be Pygram was the only one to pay it no heed, smiling nervously as he waited for the Archdeacon to proceed with the ceremony.

And why would Pygram bother to look? He was the only one here who knew the cause.

Two months, he had been with Pygram now. And these two ceremonies – demotion and promotion – made for the longest, most tedious occasions in both those months. The rest of the days and nights were fun. Time positively flew by.

The way Tomuel saw it, he was Pygram’s responsibility now. So he owed it to the (Arch)cleric to remain by his side, waking or sleeping – or waking when he wanted to be sleeping. Haunting was a brand of revenge that kept on giving.

Of course, Pygram could end it any time he wished. With an exorcism.

Funny thing though.

He’d found his raison d’etre. His mission in afterlife.

Now he never wanted it to end.

SAF 2014

Note: The Tortenschloss Chronicles will be taking a short break, but will return at some point in December with a Christmas(ish) story! See you then!

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Phanticide – Part Four

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Well now, this was new.

Archcleric Pygram read and re-read the wispy writings before they faded, leaving nothing more substantial than a memory on the air. Spirits indulged in many forms of communication, but he’d not seen that one before.

The spirit lingered, of course, invisible but tangible as a chill on his nose hairs. Pygram’s nose hairs were sensitive to the especially troubled spirits. This one, he fancied, was peculiarly disturbed and unlikely to be agreeable to the prospect of being banished to the other side. As such, the only reasonable way to interpret its words were as a dare, a challenge, a spooky gauntlet-slap to the face.

It was probably more deeply rooted here than Pygram had believed. So possessive of its residence it sought to drive out the building’s earthly owner. Archcleric Pygram viewed his rites and rituals as a service as much to the spirit as to the client. Not a banishment, but rather an assistance, lending a guiding hand to a lost soul caught on the wrong bank of a river. But many were surprisingly resistant to his help. Often they would dig their talons into the riverbank, as it were, clinging on for dear life (of a sort), as though fearful of being swept away in the currents that flowed between realms.

This one, he felt sure, had dug those talons in for so long it had practically laid claim to this turf as its home.

A sad, sad state of affairs. For a soul to be so chained to worldly possessions. Not to mention someone else’s possessions. Pygram wondered if he was dealing with a departed thief. Or perhaps merely a soul with some historical connection to the building. The lighthouse had history in abundance, enough to induce many to form an attachment to this proud local landmark over the decades.

“Defy me not, spirit. It is the Will of Meloch. You must journey onward from this land. The Light shines your way. You have only to look.”

WELL GO ON THEN. SPRAY YOUR HOLY WATER. DO WHATEVER IT TAKES.

The ghost-writing coalesced slowly, dissipating with a patience that Archcleric Pygram did not detect in the tone.

Perturbed, but undeterred, Pygram picked up his Melochim Bible and turned to the relevant scripture. He knew the incantations by heart, as though they were inscribed in blood within his chest. But resting the Book in hand, pages spread like a thousand gilded butterfly wings, lent the Words a weight that even the most stubborn of spirits could not withstand.

THIS IS TAKING FOREVER

This time, the misty mots evaporated quickly as if blown away on some stray draught. The vapour reformed into a figure, no more than a fog shadow really, with the vaguest suggestions of limbs, the faintest allusion to features. The vague arms were folded and one of the even vaguer legs was crossed over the other.

The head – merely a roughly rounded cloud like a wispy cabbage – briefly broke apart to breathe more words on the air like steamy scrawls on a window pane:

GET ON WITH IT

PLEASE, IN THE NAME OF

WAIT, WHAT GOD DO YOU WORK FOR?

HIM ANYWAY. IN THE NAME OF HIM

PLEASE

Archcleric Pygram cleared his throat. This spirit was really putting him off. Couldn’t a ghost let him go about his work in peace?

The words vanished and gathered once more into the crude cloudy cabbage of a head. The eyes and mouth were shifting breaks in the cloud, a metamorphosis between comedy and tragedy. Over-egged smiles and sighing glumness.

Waiting.

Archcleric Pygram had seen similarly impatient postures in the audience at a number of his lectures and sermons. Many among those congregations would make faces like that too, gurning to exercise their facial muscles or just to pass the time. Many wore pocket watches and would discreetly check them at frequent intervals. Although never so discreetly he couldn’t spot the glimmer of gold and silver chains from high in his pulpit. He had an eerily persuasive feeling that if the ghost had owned a pocket watch it might be doing the same.

His nose hairs bristled and the cold in his nostrils started to sting ever so slightly.

He thought again of his metaphorical riverbank. And another very real riverbank, muddy and clammy, sucking at his boots as he delivered last rites over a wretched, bedraggled creature landed from a swollen river in torrential rain. She was still alive, poor girl, waxing skin and waning eyes. Paler than salmon and young blue eyes fading swiftly to ancient grey. The villagers fretted around her, all sure she had been swept from the stone bridge in the flood. But Archcleric Pygram knew otherwise. He knew from that grey gaze, staring up at him from the mud and weather-beaten reeds. A hollow plea, a soul that had done its share of haunting before death. A broken heart beating its last in her drowned chest.

Let me go, she’d wept wordlessly. Please.

Archcleric Pygram had blessed her as though her death were a tragedy and not a crime. As he’d read from the Book, it was all he could do not to cry. The rain spattered the pages unaided and he cursed the young man who had so cruelly used the poor girl – for surely it had to be the ruins of a love affair to have brought her to such despair.

He’d asked the Lord Meloch for forgiveness later that night in the chapel. It was not in his remit to hand out curses to all and sundry. Forgive me, Lord, he’d prayed, there on his knees in front of a candle he’d lit for the girl.

Please.

PLEASE

Archcleric Pygram peered into the smokeless hollows that were the eyes in the ghost’s slowly swirling face. All he could see was that word it had written in the air with its own otherworldly material. Gone now, yes, vanished, but still so vivid somehow.

PLEASE

It couldn’t be any clearer if it had hung before him like freshly laundered linens on a washing line. And it dawned on him, that declaration hadn’t been a challenge. It had been an invitation. A request.

“You – ” he said. But he had to swallow to moisten a dry throat. “You wish to be exorcised. You want me to do this.”

The spirit’s face dissipated, veils of mist breaking away to paint the air with a single word.

PLEASE

The ghost clasped its vague suggestions of hands together, as though in prayer.

Well, that was definitely new.

 

[To Be Concluded…]

 

Phanticide – Part Three

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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…]

Phanticide – Part Two

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“Well, you’d best not hang around outside.” The client stood aside and waved Archcleric Pygram through. “Come in. Come in.”

Pygram had rarely experienced such a wealth of relief since the day he had passed his exams confirming him into the priesthood. He smiled at Vandergut and tipped his hat, causing a large amount of water to run off and splash the man’s feet. Altering his smile to a more apologetic version, he stepped past into the client’s residence.

He cast glances around the gloom-infested hall. Rain-darkened daylight spilling through the open doorway revealed only minimal furnishings – a hatstand, a small bureau, a flattering portrait of the master of the house adorning one wall and the handsome embroidered rug on which Pygram profusely dripped. A staircase spiralled up to his right while a door to his left presumably led to the ground-floor rooms.

It was a curious residence for a merchant. Yet that was what he understood the client to be. Pygram was of the opinion that any intrusions from the Netherplanes or the spiritual realm ought to be dealt with as soon as possible. The Temple hierarchy held that such incidents troubling men of standing and/or wealth were all the more urgent. This man, Mr Vandergut, had quite the mercantile empire by all accounts and whatever he may have lacked in social elevation early in life he had purchased with his successes in trade and commerce. Pygram would be under some pressure to achieve a good outcome here, with some swiftness and no small measure of courtesy.

Vandergut closed the door, reducing the hammering rain to a muffled drumbeat. “Well now,” he said, “sorry about that. Wouldn’t have done to have my priest skewered by a gargoyle’s arm before he’d even gotten started.”

“No indeed.” Pygram’s appointment to the rank of Archcleric had been the reward for his aptitude for handling supernatural phenomena in a calm and efficient manner. He’d earned such a reputation in the field that the Temple granted him the singular privilege of heading up his own department. He was Archcleric Of The Un-Living and commanded a loyal, dedicated staff of one. Himself. Other priests could no doubt cope with a simple exorcism, but Pygram imagined there would be a long queue of hopeful applicants to replace the gargoyle before any lined up to replace him. “Now, clearly we need not wait until sunset to commence our work, but first, uh, I wonder if there is somewhere I might temporarily dispose of my coat?”

Vandergut gestured. “Chuck it on the hatstand.” And gave him a look of no confidence, as much to say any man who couldn’t figure out what to do with a wet coat was likely to have problems banishing a ghost. “I’ve packed most of the staff off for the time being. Didn’t want them getting in the way and most of them weren’t anxious to be here. I daresay screaming maids and fainting butlers would be a distraction, maybe put you off your stride.”

“Perhaps,” admitted Pygram, who’d encountered similar distractions on multiple occasions and was more fazesd by them than he’d ever been by demons and phantoms and the like.

“I’ve kept Shillingsworth on. He’s made of sterner stuff than the rest. If there’s any fetching or carrying to be done, he’ll see you catered for, soon as he’s done stabling your horse.”

“Excellent. Thank you.” Pygram shucked his coat and draped it on one of the hatstand’s hooks, conscious of every drip noisily splatting the floor. He suppressed a shiver that had nothing to do with the haunting and everything to do with the clinging dampness he now wore as an undergarment under his undergarments. “I wonder if I might also trouble you for a towel? I feel I ought to dry off before I make a start.”

Vandergut coughed in a closed mouth. There was every implication of more he wanted to say, but he spent a few moments picking out a few choice words. “I suppose we won’t fare well against the dead with a wet priest. Come this way, you can stand yourself in front of the fire. Shillingsworth got a right roaring one going this morning. That’ll dry you off in no time. If it doesn’t roast you alive first.”

He led the way through the ground-floor doorway. Pygram squelched after him, not forgetting to bring his two bags, laden with the weapons of his trade.

Discomfiting wetness notwithstanding, he offered up a prayer to Meloch that this would be a routine job.

***

Hovering without wings. Watching without eyes.

Not that he’d had wings in life, but he’d half expected to get a pair when he’d died. That had been a long time ago. He was sure he’d ‘lived’ longer as a ghost than he’d ever done as a man. The thought made him glum and weighed him down like a rock in the pit of his stomach, but his spirits could sink and sink while his spirit remained floating in the air. Invisible to all.

The two men walked through into the living room. The one chamber in this tower that taunted him with its name. He drifted along after them, riding the murmured wake of their conversation.

He’d seeped through the crack under the front door and lingered in the tower hall as Vandergut talked with his visitor. He could have passed through the wood as easily as hot water through a teabag, but he always imagined splinters scratching at his insides. Even though he didn’t have insides. He wasn’t positive he could truthfully claim to have an outside either. Honestly, all the time he’d spent in this sorry non-state and he had so little understanding of what it was actually all about. In that sense, it was a lot like life.

At least, piecing together these men’s words – along with the garb of the visitor and the amulet he wore about his neck – he understood the purpose of this visit. He’d had only a vague impression from high up on the tower roof. Some distant figure painted as a grey smear like a washed-out watercolour in the driving rain.

If only he’d known what the man was when he’d coiled himself around the gargoyle’s outstretched arm and applied his energies as physical strength, breaking the age-wearied stone. If he’d seen clearly as he fell, wound around the limb like an ethereal serpent, it would have been too late in any case. He could break old stone but he couldn’t fight gravity, not when it came to a struggle for ownership of such a heavy object. He wasn’t even sure if he could have nudged the missile from its path.

As it was, all he’d seen was a rush of images, his whole afterlife flashing before those eyes he didn’t possess. A few events jumped out, but mostly it was long – so very long – and dull, like the dreariest carnival procession, an endless parade of too-similar floats. As it was, the man had dodged the potential impact and all had turned out well.

Now he understood. This man – this young man – was a priest. The priest was here as his enemy. His mortal enemy.

He had almost killed his foe. That would have been a tragedy. The priest’s arrival changed everything.

He wished his enemy good fortune and followed him to the living-room hearth.

 

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Phanticide – Part One

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The bath turned icy cold.

One moment, Burgess Vandergut had been settling back for a lengthy soak. Next, he was a bag of shivering flesh and bone, while the chill locked his toy galleon in the frozen straits between his knees, which rose like two blue mountains through the ice.

He had seen a few severe winters over the years, but never before witnessed such a cold snap in his tub. Only an hour earlier the servants had drawn the curtains on a warm spring evening and filled his tub with water fit to boil lobsters. Now he hauled himself out into a bathroom wherein steamy vapours had turned to arctic mists.

Ice cracked and flakes fell from his roast-swollen and mead-filled midriff. The galleon spun aimlessly, adrift in a sea of broken bergs.

Burgess grabbed every towel in sight, throwing most around himself and rubbing vigorously with the others to generate what heat he could. Where he couldn’t return his proper ruddy colour to his bluer parts he managed to purple his skin with bruises from towelling so hard. Swaddled like some damp mummy, he cast one last shiver-inducing glance at the white-capped surface of the bath water before storming out onto the landing.

He sent a shout echoing down the tower stairs like the tolling of a thoroughly brassed-off bell.

“Send for the exorcist!”

He was a tolerant sort, all in all, but this was the absolute limit.

He’d really had quite enough of this infernal ghost.

 

***

Archcleric Pygram packed his bags and rode all night through the rain.

The rain, with typical contrariness, drove in the other direction and left him thoroughly blasted and beaten at the end of his journey. But he dropped from the saddle, handed his horse’s reins to the waiting servant and hastened to the door of Vandergut Tower with an urgency befitting the situation. At least, an urgency that would create a good first impression on the client. The truth was, now that the morning light was blinking through the curtains of rain the emergency was less immediately pressing. In his experience, hauntings and other spiritual trespasses happened mostly at night. So for all his hard riding he likely had a good twelve or more hours before he needed to get busy.

Still, the client appeared to appreciate his promptness and professionalism.

The man himself answered his own door. Heavily bewhiskered and bejowled, he presented far too unkempt an appearance to be the butler or other member of household staff. Apart from perhaps a gardener, but a gardener that portly would have trouble bending over to pull up weeds. Furthermore, any seedlings put to bed by this gentleman would likely suffer from nightmares of a breed peculiar to plant life, with memories of this grave and ominous edifice of a face looming over them. The man was not unlike a version of his own tower, tall and forbidding, although the gentleman was of proportionately broader girth, while the tower sported dense claddings of moss and bushy clumps of ivy in place of whiskers and cracked castellations instead of a balding dome. Gargoyles would have gazed down from those high perches all around the tower’s crest had any of them still possessed heads. This gentleman’s attire was in far better repair, but gave the appearance of having been thrown on some hours earlier and having spent the intervening hours hanging onto a body as restless as a cat with the wind up its tail.

No doubt the fellow had been pacing his abode and peering frequently out of his windows, anxiously awaiting the Archcleric’s arrival.

“Good good, you’re here. No time to be wasted. Wave your holy symbols, spray your blessed water wherever you need and tell this bally thing to clear off!”

Pygram deemed it best not to open with the bad news. “Good day to you, sir. Allow me to introduce myself.” He bowed, then shouldered his bags so he could proffer a free hand. “Archcleric Pygram.”

“A little young to be Arch, aren’t you?”

Pygram wondered how best to expedite his ingress, indoors and out of the rain. Now that he was dismounted and stationary, he was more acutely aware of the quantity of water dripping off of him. And how that was surprisingly very little compared to the quantity that had soaked through his coat, waistcoat, shirt, breeches and undergarments. He was sure if he dared to flex his toes at all he would find he could go paddling in his own boots.

His obvious youth was a stalling point for many a client.

“Experience and promotion are not the progeny of age alone. I was admitted to the Temple Of Meloch on my twelfth birthday and my rapid rise through the ranks of the church owed much to my facility for dealing with demons, angry spirits and all manner of phantasmal phenomenon. Why, I have only just now, sir, ridden from dispatching a vampires who had risen from a hundred-year sleep to terrorise the community of Direweather.”

It had been a sorry business indeed. The creature’s muscles had atrophied after such a protracted slumber but had managed to prey on the calves and ankles of the remote rural village, not to mention the ankles of a few calves. Pygram had caught her attempting to sup on the varicose veins of an elderly milkmaid and the she-beast had tried to drag herself away into the night but it had been the easiest of tasks to catch her. And almost a mercy to plunge the stake into her heart and decapitate her in accordance with proper practice. He had administered the post mortem blessings and sprinkled a full flask of holy water over and around the corpse, even though it seemed something of a waste of sacred fluid in the pouring rain. He was going to have to re-stock before tackling this haunting, but while he was collecting ample rainwater in his clothing he was in no position or mood to go waving his holy symbol over it and imbuing it with the blessings of Meloch.

“Direweather? Can’t say I’ve heard of it,” said the client. “Still, I daresay if you’ve defeated vampires and demons this ghost will prove no trouble for you.”

“Yes, quite.” Pygram smiled awkwardly. Despite his pressing desire to be in the dry, his heart deemed it past time for full disclosure. “As to that, I feel it only fair to warn you it is unlikely we will be able to achieve anything material until evening at the earliest. Ghosts are rarely to be enticed into any activity during the hours of daylight and until this one makes an appearance I will be unable to confront it.”

There, he’d said it. The client curled his upper lip like a rotten piece of lemon rind.

The skies cracked. Pygram looked up, expecting to see black clouds and lightning.

He only saw fields of grey and the arm of a gargoyle spearing down towards him.

He yelped like a distressed pup and leaped aside. The stone limb stabbed its pointing finger into the earth less than a yard from where he had stood.

“You were saying?” grouched the client. In a tone that dared Pygram to attribute the ‘accident’ to weak masonry.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Figboot – Part Ten

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Figboot waited quite a while for any answer from the man in his ear.

When it came it was like an explosion.

A deafening, ear-splitting POP! Not unlike, he supposed, how the first crack of thunder must sound to a tiny creature like a man. A warm downpour burst forth in his ear, adding to the illusion of a storm in his head. Pain – furious, raging pain – spread like fire through his brain and put paid to any more supposing or imagining.

Figboot tried to lift his arm to cup a hand over the wounded ear. But he never made it that far.

His hand dropped to the ground and the rest of his body toppled to one side.

Then, after a long lifetime of doing everything slowly, he did one last thing with surprising suddenness.

Figboot died.

***

Siggy floundered in a lake of blood. At the bottom of a deep cave.

Thinning daylight taunted him from high above, hazy rays finding their way down through a distant ceiling of thick, matted hairs.

He’d won. He’d slain the giant. With victory so recent, it was a wonder just how far away freedom seemed. The blood around him was viscous as red treacle, he barely had to paddle to stay afloat. But the walls of the ear were smooth and rounded and looked well beyond his ability to climb.

All in all, his situation could have been worse.

Figboot could have keeled over in the other direction, slamming this ear to the ground and drowning Siggy under a cascade of blood. And even if by some miracle he survived that horrible fate, well, he’d have been as securely trapped as a spider under a teacup. With the full weight of a giant’s head and a giant’s brain above him instead of a glimpse of sky.

Light, hairy and hazy as it was, offered some hope.

Siggy swam. Applying his best crawl, he ploughed through the syrupy gore. If he got himself out of this, he’d need to bath for a full week. And he’d have to fork out on a new fork for Mr Tarwick, since the gardening implement had sunk without trace somewhere below him. Lodged, presumably, somewhere in the depths of the giant’s skull. Maybe on a bed of brain.

As his arms pulled and his legs kicked, Siggy’s stomach turned.

Whether he was disgusted with his situation or more with himself, he couldn’t say. He was no killer. Killing was another thing for other men besides him. But he’d had to do it. He’d had to. Stabbing those rusty prongs through a giant’s ear drum had been no easy thing, but once he’d pierced that wall all hell broke loose. The world had fallen over, placing hell on top. And now here he was swimming in it.

He touched the edge and hauled himself out. He dripped blood everywhere but as it happened everywhere was already red and wet and very slippery. He picked his way to the nearest wall, lifting his feet high and placing them down carefully – not unlike he’d seen the giant do.

The insides of an ear might be rounded but up close and this large they were not so smooth as you’d think. The skin was ridged and uneven and the hairs that on Siggy’s scale would have been fine were thick as tree-stumps when magnified to Figboot size. The ascent was going to be long and hard work but not nearly so impossible as he’d imagined.

About halfway up it started to get a tad easier as he began to turn tacky. Then he decided he ought to get a shift on in case the drying blood glued him in place.

Finally, eventually, Siggy stood out in the open air with the triumphant exhausted feeling of a man who’d conquered a mountain. He was still the width of a giant’s head above safe ground, of course, but he was confident the descent could not be as difficult as the climb out of the ear. There wasn’t much of a view from up here as he was lost in a forest of bristles. But heads being what shape they were he knew he could pretty much walk in any direction and soon find himself headed (no joke intended) down towards terra firma.

First of all he sat a while, his back propped up against one of the bristles. Catching his breath and recovering what he could of his energies.

But the longer he sat, the more he thought about how he was sitting on the side of a giant’s head. A dead giant. A giant that he’d done for.

In years to come, thousands of years maybe, earth would build up over Figboot’s bones and legends – or myths or fables – would probably tell of how Figboot ridge, there on one side of Tortoise Mountain, had once been a giant, the giantest of all giants.

Siggy dragged himself upright to begin the long walk homeward. The thought of his pasty and that cider waiting for him back at his boat spurred him on. Least ways, he hoped his packed lunch was still there, because he had every intention of scoffing and guzzling the lot before rowing back to town.

Most of all, he hoped that when folks told the legend they’d leave his name out of it.

***

Legends – and myths and fables – did tell of Sigfred’s heroic duel against the giant Figboot.

They told how the slain giant became Figboot Ridge.

They told how Sigfred returned home to a hero’s welcome and how he easily paid for a new garden fork out of his reward. They told, in many instances, of how he became a wealthy man who nevertheless stayed in his modest cottage in Heel district. Not quite as wealthy as Burgermeister Chaffinch, mind you, who lived more lavishly than ever up in Big Toe, rebuilding the Town Hall and adding numerous extensions to his already spacious home, obliging several neighbours to move to smaller Toe districts.

They told how Burgermeister Chaffinch, on hearing Sigfred’s tale, sent carts and wagons by the dozen to collect those mysterious bulbs from the giant’s lair and commissioned the town’s wisest scholars to devise some means of tapping the energies contained within.

They told how that was the way in which men first discovered how to harness the power of electricity. Which many said was almost as good as magic really.

They told how that was how the expression ‘too big for your boots’ came to be. For if Figboot had only been as giant as other giants people might not have colonised his footprint and there might not have been half so much trouble. But creatures of differing sizes were forever finding it difficult to live side by side in peace.

What they hardly ever mentioned, but Siggy was apt to remind townfolk for all his years of long life afterwards, was how every time there was a flood, an earthquake, a fire or disaster of some other nature the aftermath was always more difficult for a great many to handle with no one like Figboot around to blame.

 

 

 

SAF 2014

Figboot – Part Nine

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Was his audience sitting comfortably?

Figboot felt only an absence of movement in his ear so wondered if he should begin. It was very important to begin right. The last man he had spoken to in this manner had panicked – and if his voice did sound like a thunderstorm, Figboot supposed a measure of dread was to be expected. Thunderstorms were a nuisance and to such tiny creatures as men he could imagine they were fearsome entities. But the man had dashed about in such a frenzy, he’d managed to make Figboot dizzy, much the same way flapping birds did when they accidentally flew into his ear and found themselves trapped. And they were very difficult to extraxt without breaking their necks or wings. Small creatures were made of such flimsy parts. Had he made the world, he might have created small things strong and large things weaker, to even everything out. Then he may not have slain the Tortoise. Although the Tortoise would have been weaker than him.

Figboot sighed. There was no easy way to win in this world and he supposed it was just as well things remained as they stood. That aside, he reasoned he had best not remain standing, just in case the man currently in his ear got himself in a flap.

Slowly, he rearranged himself on the ground and sat. Laid his legs straight out in front of him and leaned his back against his home. The Tortoise’s shell had amassed a covering of rock and earth over the ages and it made for a great support when Figboot was in the mood for sitting up outside.

There. Now he was sitting comfortably at least, so he could begin.

He strived to remember how fast and high he had pitched his murmurs to communicate to that last man who’d visited, wanting to get it right first time on this occasion. And he mulled over the best words to set this latest visitor at ease.

He cleared his throat, then muttered the friendliest of greetings under his breath:

“Do make yourself at home.”

***

Siggy averted his eyes from the skull. His skin crawled with the idea that the hollow gaze of those sockets might follow him around the chamber.

He guessed the skull’s owner had ended up buried. In what he could only call a waxslide. Siggy hadn’t spied a shovel or other digging implement anywhere so perhaps the doomed chap had been forced to excavate with his hands. That must have made for a singularly unpleasant final few hours or days before his singularly unpleasant demise.

If it came to it, at least Siggy had his garden fork.

The substance, he supposed, must come loose readily enough without too much toil – otherwise how would it slide and bury a fellow? – but there was such a quantity of it all over this ear. And then what? Would the giant just transfer him to the other one?

Siggy did not fancy being crushed between the giant’s finger and thumb for the purpose of that transfer. Just to resume his labours all over again. Left ear, then right. Left, right. Left, right. Too much like being in the army and Siggy was no soldier.

What other options did he have?

The chamber rumbled and shook. Giant horses with boulders for hooves galloped up from the world’s darkest depths.

He could probably push his way through the dense growth lining the entrance, but movement through those thick hairs might tickle and then Figboot’s finger would likely come in to deal with the minor irritation. At best, shutting off his escape. At worst, squishing him. And even if he side-stepped that hazard, what then?

The throaty tremors seemed to form a word, crashing in on Siggy like some mighty iron avalanche:

“DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMM!”

Siggy clapped a hand over his ear. Without letting go of the fork, his other ear was left defenceless. The sound got in and rattled his brain around inside his head.

Far as he knew, the giant was still kneeling but that still placed Figboot’s ears at a height bound to do for Siggy in the event of a single slip. Sure, he might find a climb down through the beard safe enough, but after that? Would a giant’s chest hairs provide sufficient foot and hand holds? Siggy’s schooling was limited and he didn’t know of any education that included such details.

Siggy reeled as the ‘ground’ trembled some more and some hellish drum beat out another syllable:

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACCCHHHHEEEEE!”

People like us, his dear old Mar, rest her soul, used to say, don’t have many options, living down here at Heel. We have to make our own out of what we got.

Doom. Ache.

These were the only things he could expect if he stayed here and weathered this dread thunder.

Abandoning his ear to fend for itself, he grasped the fork in both hands.

“YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWRRRRRSSSSSSSSSS!”

He scrambled up the deposit of hardened wax and staggered deeper into the chamber.

“SSSSSSELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!”

The ‘words’ no longer made any sense. But the noise fell on Siggy’s thoughts like lead rain as the chamber shook itself apart.

“FFFFFFFFFFFFAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATTTTTTTT!”

Wax crumbled, throwing Siggy off-balance.

He had to make it stop.

“HHHHHHHHHHHOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMME!”

Home. Precisely where Siggy wanted to be right now. Now the quakes were playing tricks on him, toying with his fears.

He was no warrior. But he had to make one out of what he had.

He had to make one of himself.

He had to slay the giant.

 

 

 

[To Be Concluded…]