11 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part nine

He took her hand gently and helped her to her feet. She was still unsteady but the shaking had all but died away; which was a great relief.

'Sorry, I must seem like an utter fool now,' she said, half laughing through her nerves.

'Don't fret so much,' said Peter. 'You're under a lot of strain and with what we've seen today I don't blame you.'

She was not sure how to take his comments but decided that the last thing she needed at that moment was an argument, so she let it slide and sipped her tea instead. It was cooler than she would like, but she drank it anyway. Her mouth was dry, either from the shock or as a side effect of her medication, so the liquid helped.

In the corner, the computer bleeped. Sarah felt for the coffee table, put down her mug carefully and hurried over to her workstation.

'What was that?' asked Peter.

'I've got an alarm on the computer to alert me when certain people send me e-mails,' said Sarah, distractedly. 'Ah, it's from Howard.'

'You contacted her too? I thought you said you'd only called me.'

'He's a he now,' said Sarah as she brought up the e-mail. The text displayed in her usual magnified font. She read it quickly. 'Ah, he's finished processing the sound file I sent him.'

'Hang on, back up a minute,' said Peter. He sounded confused. Sarah rolled her eyes. She did not have the time for this.

'Can we discuss this later?' she asked. 'I think this is important.'

'Okay. What's the e-mail about, if you don't mind me asking?'

'I sent him a copy of the recording I made at the hotel and asked him to run it through his equipment for me. You know he's a sound engineer now? I was hoping his equipment would pick up something mine would miss.'

'And did it?'

'Apparently so. Turn on the speakers, would you?' she asked, pointing to the doorway. 'The amp is on a table behind the door.'

A high pitched wine made its way into her head without going through her ears. She hated that sound but there was little she could do to stop it, save for buying a new set of speakers and without a sudden pickup in the number of articles she could sell to the paranormal rags and occult websites, that was not going to happen any time soon.

The whine died down, the amplifier clicked noisily; telling her it was ready to receive a signal. She double-clicked on the file attached to Howard's e-mail.

A whistling sound like steam escaping through a broken kettle piped through the speakers, blurring into a digital chattering. For a moment it sounded like a hundred voices all talking at once, in another room.

'What is this?' asked Peter.

'White noise filtered through a load of digital effects to screen out background noise,' said Sarah. 'Just ignore it. Listen for anything that sounds like real speech.'

The chattering continued but now there was another sound. Plastic creaking, under pressure. The dictaphone casing creaking as she clipped it to her jeans.

'GET … OuT … noW.'

The voice was harsh and seemed to be formed out of the background chatter itself. It was as if someone with no means to make sound on their own had taken parts of the white noise on the dictaphone recording and played with them, enhancing the base of some, the treble on others and arranging them in such a way that the intended message would be heard, albeit in a synthetic and highly foreign to the ear manner, when played back.

Sarah felt for the mouse and quickly clicked on the pause icon.

'Did you just hear that?' she asked.

'I'm not sure,' said Peter. He sounded nervous. 'What do you think you heard?'

'A voice.'

'In that case, yes.'

'What did it say?' asked Sarah.

'I think it was “get out now” but I'm not certain.'

Sarah nodded slowly. 'That's what I heard, too.'

The floorboards creaked as Peter walked over to the armchair nearest to the computer table. 'What do you think it means?'

Sarah shrugged. 'Honestly, I don't know. I could be nothing, of course. This stuff often seems to be nothing more than random chatter and fake warnings.'

'So you've heard weird voices like this before?'

'Many times, yes. It's called Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or EVP for short. Like in that film with Michael Keaton?'

'Sorry, all I remember him from is Batman.'

Sarah rolled her eyes again. 'Your knowledge of modern cinema is sadly lacking.'

'Yeah, yeah. You're getting off topic now, love.'

'Hint taken,' said Sarah. She smiled, brushed a few stray hairs out of her eyes and turned back to the computer. 'Okay, let's just play it through and see if there's anything else on here.'

10 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part eight

Chapter Four


'Sarah,' said Peter. His voice was soft and low, almost as if he did not want to wake her.

He shook her shoulder gently. She stirred, but showed no sign of actually waking up.

'Sarah,' he repeated, this time with more force. 'Wake up, Sarah.'

She groaned. 'What?' she asked. She was clearly a little dazed. 'Where am I?'

'You're on your sofa. You fell asleep while I was scouring the Internet.'

'Oh. Right.'

She brushed some stray hairs out her eyes, then stopped suddenly, her hand still at her forehead.

'Hang on. How long have I been asleep?'

'About an hour.'

This news did not hit home well. She looked like someone had thrown a brick through her window, then asked for the brick back.

'Oh bloody hell,' she moaned. 'I've missed taking my tablets. No wonder I feel so bad.'

'Can I get you anything?'

She shook her head but even that looked like it took something out of her. 'No, it's okay. I'll deal with it. You go and put the kettle on, yeah?'

'Your wish is my command, madame.'

'Yeah, right,' she said as she fought her way to her feet and walked unsteadily out of the room. 'In that case, you can get me a million pounds and a golden egg while you're boiling the kettle.'

'You know what? I don't think I can manage that,' said Peter.

From the tone of his voice, Sarah got the impression that he was smiling. That was good, she thought. He needed to smile more. She was certain he had not smiled in a long time.

She struggled to her feet and followed him into the kitchen. At first her legs were cold and would not respond but she managed to massage enough life back into them that she could walk. She was unsteady, her body felt like it was weighted down with lead, and even the smallest of movements felt like her muscles were being torn apart, but she managed it.

She reached the 'fridge, cut herself a couple of chunks of cheese and ate them slowly while Peter busied himself making tea. She was no big fan of cheese, but it was a quick snack and she had to take her medication with food otherwise it would attack her stomach lining and make her even more ill.

'There's cheese in the 'fridge if you want any,' she said. 'I'll be back in a second, I just need to take my tablets.'

'Thanks. I'll take the teas through to the lounge.'

By the time she reached the bathroom, she was fully awake. Her head was full of cotton wool and she was groggy but that was all part of being ill and she had long since stopped taking any notice of such feelings. Instead, she concentrated on the tasks at hand: sifting through her e-mails, or writing articles for low-paying magazines, or whatever the day demanded in order for her to be able to pay the bills. Today the day demanded that she take her tablets quickly and the convince Peter that Coxton Hall was a problem that was worth pursuing.

She felt for the pull cord out of habit, and yanked it to turn on the light. The cord clicked but the room stayed dark. Great. Another problem to add to her ever-expanding list. Still, it hardly mattered to her. In the time she would be in the room, the energy-saving bulb would have little time to warm up; meaning what light it did give out would only serve to emphasise the murkiness of the shadows that made out what was left of her eyesight. She settled for swearing under her breath, yanking the cord again and then fumbling for the plastic box on her windowsill.

She ran her fingers over the rough lattice of square lids that made up the upper side of the box until she came to the one with the correct date on it; printed in Grade One Braille. She flicked open the lid, poured the tablets into the palm of her hand and swallowed them with a glass of water.

As she put the glass down on the sill, the scratching noises began again. It began directly below her, on the ground floor, on the wall she was facing. That was unusual. Normally, the scratching would begin on the wall by the door; like someone was trying to claw their way through the wall to get into the old Post Office. Maybe now they were trying a new tactic, going for a different wall in the hope of finding a weak spot?

Or maybe they're just trying to get to you.

She wanted to turn and run but she was rooted to the spot. The noise, that scritch-scritch, slow and steady, dug deep into her and froze her solid. Her hand remained fixed gripping the glass, shuddering under the strain as she gripped tighter and tighter, unable to let go.

What is wrong with you?

In her mind, she screamed at herself. This was not the woman she knew she was; or had been once. The woman she knew would not freeze in terror at the slightest of sounds. The woman she had been would have grabbed a torch, opened the window and found out what was going on outside. Hell, it was probably just rats getting into the empty shop below. The neighbourhood was on the verge of turning into a slum so rats were not outside the realms of possibility.

The scratching drew nearer but now there was another sound as well. A dull scraping noise, like heavy cloth being dragged along a dry stone wall. It was getting nearer, moving up the wall outside, coming right for her.

Oh shit! Oh shit. What is it? What the hell is out there?

Scritch ... scritch ... scritch ...

It was coming nearer! Her mind's eye filled in the picture for her. Something was out there, climbing the walls, scraping at the brickwork, trying to get into her house. Soon it would reach the window, and then what? What was out there? She wanted to run, but she could not. Her legs could not carry her that fast even if she could get them to move, but she was rooted to the spot. Fear and illness had conspired against her.

'Sarah, are you alright?' The voice came from the doorway behind her.

She screamed, and collapsed into a ball of terror. Torn between turning and confronting the newcomer and risking leaving her back open to whatever was outside, or staying facing the stranger outside and risking not seeing who was behind her, she elected to drop into the foetal position and tremble on the floor. She knew it was stupid, but she could not help herself. Her mind had conspired against her.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and screamed again, pushing herself away across the floor until her back was pressed against the wooden panels along the side of the bath.

'Get away from me!' she shouted. 'Stay back!'

'Sarah, it's me,' said Peter. 'What's gotten into you?'

'Peter?' she asked.

'Yes,' he said, reassuringly. 'It's okay. It's just me.'

She could feel herself shaking. Her bottom lip quivered. She did not want to cry in front of her friend, but some things just can't be helped.

'For fuck's sake, Peter. Don't scare me like that!' she pleaded.

'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. It's just that you've been in here ages and I was getting concerned. What took you so long?'

'I thought I heard something outside,' she said. 'Someone trying to break in downstairs. I was listening in case they got inside.'

Peter was silent for a moment. The floorboards creaked over by the window and she guessed he was trying to see out through the frosted glass.

'Well, whoever was outside, they're gone now,' he said.

Sarah smiled an unconvincing smile. 'That's good news.'

'Here,' said Peter. 'Let me help you up. Maybe your tea won't have got too cold yet.'

09 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part seven


The day dragged by for Sarah. At first it had seemed like such a good idea to visit the faire, which had been advertised as a “fun day out for all the family” and was supposed to include many shows, including re-enactments of historical events of local significance, and performances by all kinds of local entertainers. There was going to be a hot air balloon ride, many stalls to browse around and a good friend to chat with, along with the possibility of winning a prize or two on some games. Sarah thought it it would be like being a kid again and being taken to the village fête in Bowlan, the village where she grew up.

But the hot air balloon was late in arriving and would not go up because of problems with the furnace, or some other excuse the operator gave whenever anyone asked him. The local “entertainers” turned out to be a comedian who was re-hashing material so old he must have written it before Sarah was born; a performing dog who had no interest in performing; and some dance routines performed by girls from the local junior school.

Suddenly, being a kid again would have its advantages, Sarah realised. The foremost advantage being that the standards by which she judged everything would be much lower, so perhaps the “entertainment” would not seem so bad.

An hour into the day and Sarah had found another way of lowering her expectations. She found the beer on sale in the drinks stall was warm, flat and difficult to hold down; while the spirits all burned the back of her throat, or made her feel sick, or both. The mead was just fine, however.

'Any more of that and you'll be paralytic,' said Howard as she helped Sarah to a seat in the corner of the marquee housing the drinks stall.

'Nonsense,' Sarah protested. 'I'll be fine.'

'If you say so.' Somehow Sarah did not believe she meant that.

'Where's Peter anyway?'

'Watching the historical society massacre an ancient pagan tradition.'

'You sound like you disapprove,' said Sarah. 'I never knew you were so judgmental.'

'What, and you don't?'

'I'm sure it's meant in the finest of educational … umm … somethingorothers. I've forgotten the word.'

'You're drunk,' said Howard, disapprovingly.

'See? I was right. You are disapproving. And you've had several yourself.'

'I was merely making an observation. Also, aren't you supposed to be driving Peter home?'

Sarah shook her head. 'I drove here but he's driving us back.'

Howard nodded. 'Fair enough.'

'Why do you care anyway?' asked Sarah. She sounded more aggressive than she had expected, and tried to tone it down. Best to attempt a modicum of decorum, after all. 'I thought you were all friendly with the bitch crowd and couldn't be seen with the likes of me.'

'What makes you say that?'

'Well, today is the first time you've spoken to me since I left PaganSoc, even though we're on the same course.'

Howard looked down at her plastic cup and said nothing. Sarah began to wonder if she had said the wrong thing.

'I suppose I'm just shy around people I like,' said Howard, uncertainly.

For a moment, Sarah wondered how to take that; the she decided it did not matter. Howard's choice of words was her own problem. Still, the girl seemed nervous now. It would probably be better to try to put her at ease.

'Hey,' she said. 'We've all been there. The thing is though, you've just got to bite the bullet and do what feels right, because if you don't everyone else will just step on you to get ahead.'

Howard nodded slowly but still sounded unsure of herself. 'Yeah, you're right.'

Sarah patted Howard on the shoulder. 'Come on,' she said. 'Let's go and find Peter.'

At six foot three and with dark skin, Peter was easy to spot amongst the crowd of short, pasty locals even though the light was fading. The two women weaved their way through the crowd and took up position on either side of their large friend; Sarah hooking her arm around his, Howard simply standing there with her hands in her pockets.

'Have we missed much?' asked Sarah.

'I think they're about to start,' said Peter.

The crowd formed a wide circle around what Sarah immediately recognised as a basic magic circle. Formed from a thin white rope and decorated, rather unnecessarily in Sarah's opinion, with glitter so the circle sparkled in the candlelight. On the northern side of the circle stood a large stone altar with a deep velvet cloth laid over it. Upon the altar stood two large candles, one gold, old green; while a tall lantern holding fat white candles stood at the south, east and west points.

The crowd on the other side of the circle parted and thirteen robed figures filed in, walking in procession around the circle to the south point, where they stepped inside. The first eleven took up position between the altar and the lanterns, the twelfth knelt to the left of the altar. The thirteenth, knelt at the altar with their head bowed for a moment, then stood; took up a knife from the velvet cloth and walked with a singularity of purpose to the eastern lantern.

Kneeling, the thirteenth figure raised the knife and chanted in Latin. Sarah worked hard to translate what the woman was saying.

'We hail the guardians of the East, the element of Air. I ask that you come forth to guard and protect this circle, and watch over this, our ritual.'

Sarah raised an eyebrow at this. The chant was similar to the one she would have used in her own rituals. It felt wrong to be watching this actor play out a mockery of her faith; and more wrong to stand by while someone who most likely did not know what they were doing called forth creatures over which they would have no control.

She quickly chanted her own protection spell under her breath and noticed Howard do the same.

'What are you two doing?' Peter whispered in her ear.

'Making sure we don't get hurt when these berks bit off more than they can chew.'

The thirteenth figure, a young woman with pale skin and dark hair if what Sarah could see of her in the candlelight was correct, moved on to the south, west and, finally, the north side of the altar and called forth the other three elementals. Sarah held her breath, half expecting screams of terror from the participants or the audience as something burst forth and devoured the actors. It would have been fitting, but also very unlikely.

Sarah watched with interest coupled with a strong sense of revulsion as the actors went through the motions of recreating a stereotypical pagan ritual. No doubt this had been what the Pagan Society had been roped into helping the historical society script, although Sarah wondered if they would have agreed if they had known how badly it would be acted. Those with speaking parts had clearly not rehearsed enough, and the others simply looked bored.

For the finale, the woman who had called the elements forth, and who Sarah had therefore dubbed the faux High Priestess, plunged her dagger into a dead chicken that was held by her would-be high Priest. The High Priest then poured the blood that poured form the poor bird into a wooden bowl on the altar while the faux High Priestess dropped to her knees, raised her arms in supplication and cried out in poorly-accented Latin.

'Lords, accept this offering as a show of our commitment to your cause,' the woman cried. 'And look favourably upon us, I beg of you, when your time of ascension comes around.'

'What on Earth is this crap?' muttered Sarah. By this point, the drink was starting to wear off and she could no longer contain her incredulity.

'I have no idea,' said Howard. 'It's not what I thought they were doing.'

'It's not?'

Howard shook her head. Although the evening light was growing dim and the candles were doing little to counter the encroaching darkness, Sarah could tell that the other woman was just as unhappy as her.

'I thought they were doing one of the solstice rituals,' said Howard. 'I spent an entire afternoon working one out for them, too. I don't know what this is all supposed to be.'

Sarah looked back at the circle. The faux High Priestess was daubing symbols on the foreheads of her coven in the blood of the dead chicken, while the High Priest burned the carcass in a metal dish on the altar. Around the circle, the crowd looked as uncomfortable watching this spectacle as she expected she did at that moment.

When the carcass was burned, the actors filed out of the circle by the southernmost point and disappeared into the crowd.

The other events had ended with polite clapping from the audience. This one ended with silence.

06 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part six


By the time they had all made their way to the drinks tent, navigating the huddle of people who thought standing and chatting around or in front of the bar and blocking everyone else's access was an acceptable social practice, and then fought their way back out of the tent, the re-enactors were taking their positions for the first of the day's events.

'This should be interesting,' said Howard. She hooked her thumb into one of the belt loops on her jeans and sipped beer from a flimsy plastic cup.

'What are they doing?' asked Peter.

'The trial of Mary Jennings. Apparently she was head of a local witch cult, and also the cousin of a local Earl or something.'

The trio found a spot amongst the small crowd where they could get a good view of the performance and settled in to watch as a middle-aged woman in faux medieval finery was dragged kicking and screaming into to a mock courtroom made from plywood daubed with cheap paint. A fat man in black robes sat behind a dais and scowled at the woman as she passed.

The clerk of the court rose. 'Silence! This court is now in session. Lord Havelock presiding.'

Sarah leaned over and whispered in Peter's ear. 'I don't think that's how it goes.'

'I know,' Peter whispered back. 'But cut them some slack. The guy's clearly nervous.'

The clerk reeled off a list of the defendant's supposed crimes, emphasising words he obviously felt were heinous or would make the poor woman seem more vicious and cruel than she otherwise may. Sarah found her mind wandering, the amateur actor's performance not enthusing her. Her knees ached and there was a deep pain in her right thigh; like someone was trying to cut their way out of the muscle with a needle. She rubbed her leg absent-mindedly while waiting for the man to finish talking.

The defendant spoke only to confirm her name, and did so in a meek voice. Sarah thought she was meant to feel pity for her at this point but found herself unable to do so. The fight had clearly long gone from the woman, leaving her a pathetic shell. Sarah had no time for people who just gave up, or those who encouraged others to do so. She felt an urge to grab the stupid woman by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, all the while screaming “for goodness' sake woman, pull yourself together!”

'Look at her,' she whispered to Peter. 'She's not even bothering to fight these wankers.'

'She's going to be put to death,' said Peter. 'Have some sympathy.'

'If she's going to die, she literally has nothing to lose by fighting, does she?'

'You really have no sense of empathy, do you?' asked Peter.

The question took Sarah aback. It was not something she had ever thought about.

'Of course I do,' she said. 'Everyone does.'

Peter shook his head. 'Not everyone.'

Sarah shrugged. What did it matter? Feeling sorry would not bring the woman back to life after three hundred years. She turned her attention back to the performance.

The prosecution was quizzing a man about what he had seen Mrs Jennings and her friends doing in the Eshford Woods during the previous winter. The man, was clearly not the sharpest tack in the box and was dressed in the shabbiest clothes Sarah had ever seen; only one stage up from cutting a hole in a potato sack and using it as a robe. He explained how he had not actually seen Mrs Jennings because each of the participants in some obscene dance, which he described in lewd detail and would have demonstrated if not told by the Judge to remain seated, had been wearing deep hoods.

'This is a farce,' Sarah muttered. 'How this ever passed for justice, I'll never know.'

'It's not for us to judge the standards of another age,' said a woman behind and to Sarah's right.

Sarah turned and gave the woman a pitiful glance. 'Like hell it's not. It's our duty as human beings to show up these worthless scum for what they are. Why should they decide what's right and wrong? They don't know the first thing about it!'

Peter put a hand on her shoulder. 'Sarah, please calm down.'

She shrugged his hand away and walked off. He followed close behind.

'What's wrong with you today?' he asked. 'Everything started out so well. What happened?'

I'm in pain, I feel sick and I'm not in the mood to be reminded just how many bigoted scum infect this country, she thought. That's what's wrong.

'I'm just not in the mood for this,' she said. 'Seeing how pathetic little bullies can just get away with such horrible things really doesn't sound like entertainment to me.'

Peter put his arm around her shoulders and walked her back to her car. 'Come on,' he said. 'Let's get you home.'

'What about you? I thought you wanted to see the show.'

'I'll come back later, maybe.'

Sarah looked over at Peter. He smiled the warm, ever-forgiving smile he seemed to reserve for those occasions where she had done something incredibly stupid, or when she had hurt his feeling but he did not want to let on. She knew anyway, of course. She always knew, and if she was honest that was sometimes her aim, but not this time. This time she was just riled because of the pain and sickness mixed with the stupidity of what was being performed.

'I'm sorry, Peter,' she said. 'Go and enjoy the show. I'll get us another drink and see you back there.'

'Only if you're sure you want to stay,' he said.

She kissed him on the cheek. His wiry stubble felt more scratchy than usual against her skin.

'I'm sure,' she said, and meant it for once.

05 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part five

Chapter Three


It was October, the start of autumn in 2000 and Sarah was sat on a wooden fence overlooking a large playing field on the edge of Coxton. In the distance she could see a group of men and women in fancy costumes constructing a medieval-themed village made of tents and easily-assembled, prefabricated wooden structures. She imaged this was what a film crew would do for a costume drama, only this was on a much lower budget.

Twigs crunched underfoot behind her. She turned and saw Peter trudging down the uneven, and somewhat muddy, dirt track. He was topless, his dark skin looked flawless in the afternoon sun, and carrying an ice cream cone in each hand. He passed one to her when he got close.

'I think we're early,' he said.

'Don't worry about it. Come and enjoy the sun.'

She hopped down off the fence and beckoned for Peter to follow her as she walked into the field.

'The guy in the ice cream truck gave me the funniest look when I asked for “Monkey's Blood”, by the way,' said Peter. 'I assume it was a little joke?'

Sarah shot him a puzzled glance and went back to licking her ice cream.

'It wasn't a joke. He mustn't have been from 'round here.'

'What is it, then? I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you weren't asking for real blood on your ice cream.'

'Good grief, no. It's just raspberry sauce.'

'Then why call it monkey's blood?'

'Because that's what everyone else calls it! You can't expect me to go against the flow with everything.'

A chill breeze blowed as they stepped out from the tree-lined path into the field proper. Sarah shuddered. This time it was Peter's turn to look puzzled.

'You can't be cold, surely?' he asked.

'A little. It's not as warm as it looks, is it?'

'I'm stood here with no shirt on and you ask me if it's cold?'

'Well yes, but you're weird.'

'Okay, you just keep telling yourself that.'

A woman shouted something from further up the field. Sarah turned and saw a short woman in a man's red shirt and blue jeans waving as she hurried toward them.

'Who is that?' asked Peter.

'Sharon Howard,' said Sarah. 'Most people just call her Howard, though. She can be a little odd, but she's okay really.'

'A little odd but okay really?' said Peter, wistfully. 'Where have I heard that before?'

'Hey!' said Sarah, faking hurt feelings. She nudged him in his side to get even. He laughed, and grabbed her around her waist so she could not escape, then started tickling her mercilessly.

'Hey!' she shouted between squeals and bursts of laughter. 'Get off!'

'Do you yield?' he asked. 'Will you apologise for making me drop my ice cream?'

'Yes! Yes, okay!' She could hardly breathe now, she was laughing so hard.

'Well I see somebody's having a good day,' said Howard as she drew close. 'How are you doing? I didn't expect to see you here.'

Peter let go of Sarah, letting her fall to the floor in an undignified heap, and smiled at the newcomer. 'Peter Rowe,' he said, holding out a hand. 'Pleased to meet you.'

Howard took Peter's hand and shook it, introduced herself and turned to Sarah, who was busy brushing grass off herself.

'Long time, no see,' said Sarah. 'How have you been?'

Howard shrugged. 'Keeping busy. Got a job over the summer so this year money shouldn't be as tight. How about you?'

'Pretty much the same,' said Sarah. In truth, she expected it was the same story for most of the old gang. 'So what brings you here?'

'Oh, I'm here with PaganSoc,' said Howard. 'I'm surprised you didn't come down with us.'

Sarah looked over at Peter. He was just stood there, not speaking, probably listening but then again she could never tell.

'I don't really get along with a lot of people in PaganSoc,' she said.

'Oh. Right. Yeah, sorry. I forgot.'

PaganSoc, the university's society for pagan students, had been established for several years by the time Sarah had joined in the first few days of her first university term. As a wide-eyed and naïve Fresher, she had eagerly flocked to join all the clubs and societies where people shared her interests or just seemed cool. After the LGBT, which had turned out to be a crushing disappointment, the pagan society had been her first port of call.

At first, she thought she would fit right in with that group. The people running the pagan stall at the Freshers' Fair were incredibly warm and welcoming. The first few meetings were great fun and she felt right at home. Then the bitchiness started; the rumour mill got into full swing and before she knew it, untruths about some of her friends, and even herself, were circulating and she found herself ostracised by people she thought had been friends. She had left by the end of the second term and never gone back.

'So they're all here, are they?' asked Sarah.

'Not everyone, no. There's been another big falling out, so there's really just three of us going regularly now. It's quite annoying but what can you do?'

Kick out Rebecca and Dawn so they stop spreading rumours about anyone they don't like? thought Sarah. It would certainly help heal some old rifts.

Sarah kept this idea to herself, however. 'So who's here?' she asked instead.

'Rebecca, Edward and Charles. Dawn might be coming along later, but apparently she's got some important meeting with the union society today so she “couldn't possibly come and help set up” our stall.'

'You sound so convinced she's not making up excuses, there,' said Peter. Sarah nudged him in the side again, but could not help smiling.

'No shit, Sherlock,' said Howard. 'To be honest with you, she's a petty little madam who deserves a kick up the backside.'

'Now that, I think we can all agree on,' said Sarah. 'Do you guys fancy getting a drink? Standing around here in the sun is giving me a headache.'

04 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part four


'Has that helped calm your fears?' asked Peter once they were clear of the hotel and driving back to the city.

'No,' said Sarah.

She shifted in her seat. She had never been comfortable as a passenger; something about her personality always wanted her to be in control of the vehicle. She tried to shake the feeling that at any moment they were going to hit another car, or have a lorry slam into the side of their vehicle. It was silly to be so worried and she knew it, but the feeling clung on to her nevertheless.

'Look, just because they were probably messing with the occult doesn't mean It's back,' said Peter. He sounded forceful, probably more aggressive than he wanted to be.

'I know, I know,' she sighed. 'Even so, we need to look into this further. There's something about that place that just doesn't fit right.'

Peter said nothing. They drove on in silence for several miles, slowing only when they reached the city and hit the inevitable traffic.

'You're not convinced, are you?' Sarah asked. She already knew the answer, but felt it was best out in the open.

'No.' Peter's voice was flat and filled with concern, but for what? She was not sure she wanted to know.

'I wish I had your confidence.'

'I just feel you're looking for signs because you want them to be there.'

'I certainly don't want them to be there. That's the last thing I want.'

'Are you sure? It seems to me that you've been spending your time looking for clues that we didn't kill that thing because--' He stopped suddenly. Catching himself before he said something he would regret? Probably. Sarah was too upset to leave it at that now, though.

'Because what?' she demanded. 'If it's dead, great. Fantastic. I'd honestly like nothing more.'

'But you don't believe it is, do you? You think it's going to come back for another try.'

'Yes! That's exactly what I think. It's going to come back because we didn't kill it. We can't kill it, Peter. That's the point. All we can do is keep it from getting a foothold here again.'

'That's not enough for you though, is it?'


Peter stopped talking. Sarah pressed on at him regardless. If he had reservations about what they were doing, they needed to be aired now. She needed to know whether she could count on him if she turned out to be right.

'Look,' he said, with a sigh. 'I don't want you to get hurt, Sarah. You're my friend and you always will be but right now I think you're jumping at shadows because you can't put a line under what happened to you and move on. I just don't want to see you get hurt again.'

Sarah ran a hand through her hair, rested her head on the seat's rough headrest and sighed.

'Peter...' she said, but the words just would not come out. What could she say to that? He was cloaking his own fears in overzealous concern for her well-being and surely they both knew it.

She let the rest of the journey play out in silence.


Sarah sat in silence in the worn out armchair by the window in her small lounge. The sun was warm against her skin and the light was bright enough to see the room by, but that did little to lift her mood. Peter thought she was paranoid, or that she had still not fully recovered from their ordeal eight years ago, or perhaps both. For all she knew, he was right. But how was she expected to 'recover' from something like that? There was no counselling session available for her problem; no support groups she could go to; nothing. The only people who had been through what she had were the same people who had packed up and fled town as soon as they could. She had been left to sort herself out on her own.

The floorboard by the door creaked; an ever-present sign that someone was coming in. She glanced around, then turned back to the window. Peter walked over to her in silence, put a mug of tea in her hands and headed back to the kitchen; returning moments later and sitting on the sofa in silence.

She nursed her tea, enjoying the warmth of the mug as it spread into her hands, making the joints in her fingers ache a little less.

'I'm sorry for being so snappy,' she said.

'I know,' said Peter. From the sound of his voice, he was either staring down at his feet or muttering into his mug. She could not tell for sure; a cloud had dulled the light from outside, sending the room into murk.

'I'm sorry for being overprotective,' Peter continued. 'I can't help it. I suppose some things never change.'

'You don't have to stay if you don't want to.'

Peter stood up. Sarah felt her heart pound in her chest. For a moment, she thought he really would just leave, but instead he began pacing the floor.

'I really don't know what to think about today,' he said. 'It's all come out of the blue.'

'I know,' she said noncommittally. He needed to talk, so she kept her responses short.

'I'm sorry to say that I don't think it's back. Not based on what we've seen today.'


'But the pentagram, or magic circle or whatever the hell was drawn in that hotel. That's got me worried. I'm sure I've seen it before.'


Peter fell silent. He paced across the room and back several times. In the silence, his footfalls echoed on the wooden floor. Sarah sipped her tea and waited for him to continue talking.

He snapped his fingers. 'Marden festival. Remember? We borrowed your Dad's old tent and you got legless on cheap mead.'

'Vaguely,' said Sarah. It was the first and only time she had been completely out-of-her-head drunk and consequently, much of the weekend was a blur.

'Remember the re-enactment group? They did a dramatisation about a witch cult, or something?'

'I remember a load of guys in armour running about and shouting something,' Sarah conceded. 'And a woman with a hairy wart just under her lip.'

'That's it, yes. They had a ritual circle just like the one in the hotel.'

'Are you sure?'

'Positive,' he said. He finished his tea in one big gulp. 'Can I borrow your computer for a minute? I think I might be able to find what they were re-enacting.'

03 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part three

Chapter Two

I had been lost for many hours before my pride would let me admit my error. My search for the lost goats had led me far from the mountain pass and as I looked around me, I knew I was far from home. Should I turn left, or right, or go straight ahead to reach the path worn of footfalls of so many of my ancestors, the path that would lead me back to the town? I did not know any longer. I came to town only to sell the goats, and because of that I was unfamiliar with these mountains.

I had been stupid to wander so far on my own, but youthful pride had left me now. I was alone, lost and miserable. That is when He came to me.”

- Mustafa Faisal, 'Wanderings'


The journey to Coxton was an unbearably long montage of flashing lights interspersed with flurries of colour and sound. Sarah gripped the cane that rested on her knees, folded so it would not take up too much space in the car. She wanted to talk to Peter about what they might find when they arrived, but there were no words to express the myriad emotions that seemed to plague her.

The car was unbearably hot even with the windows open and air vents on the dashboard all blowing cold air at her. Perhaps it was her fever causing yet more problems, or maybe it was just that the situation was putting her too much on edge. Whatever the reason, she could not wait to get out of the car and feel the wind on her skin.

'Are you okay?' asked Peter.

'I'm just nervous,' said Sarah.

'You'll be fine. Remember, I'm here if you need me.'


'I'm here to help if we find anything. Like those symbols in your old books?'

'Ah. Yes. Let's hope we don't come across anything like that.'

'You thought I meant something else?'

'Sorry. I can't help it. I get a lot of people wanting to 'help' me when I don't need it, and I just get a little edgy.'

'To tell you the truth, I think you were always a bit edgy, Sarah. Ah, we're here.'

'There should be a red convertible on the driveway. That's Pearlman's car.'

'I see it.'

Gravel crunched under the tyres. The car slowed and came to a halt with a jolt. Sarah reached around to the back seat to grab her bag and felt the loud cracks in her back. She winced.

'I heard that,' said Peter. 'Are you okay?'

'I'm fine.' She felt around for the bag, pulled it over to her and turned back around.

'You seem to be having a lot of problems,' said Peter. 'Are you still seeing your doctor?'

No, I've given up on experts and decided to just let the illness run its course. Idiot.

'I see them when I have to,' she said. 'Are you ready?'

'There's no need to be snappy. I'm just trying to help.'

'I don't need help with this. I know very well what's going to happen to me and I don't need doctors poking and prodding me all the time just to come back and say there's nothing they can do.'

'Alright. I didn't mean any offence. I was just concerned.'

He really sounds upset, she thought. Maybe I was too harsh?

She sighed, ran a hand through her hair, and brushed away the strands that came free. 'I know, but can we just drop it, please? I'll be okay, and we have work to do.'

The car drew to a halt in silence. Sarah felt around for the door handle and let the door swing open while she fought with the release catch on her seatbelt. Her fingers were swollen and a little unresponsive, which was doing nothing to lighten her mood.

She swept the ground with her cane before climbing out of the car. The drive was made from loose gravel and the air was full of the smell of burning charcoal. The whole experience reminded her of summers spent at home with her parents, when she was younger.

'Doctor Barclay?' a male voice asked. A blue-grey shadow was crunching along the gravel toward her. She smiled.

'Mister Pearlman, I presume?' she said, extending a hand. The shadow took it, shaking her hand with a vice-like grip. She imagined he worked out regularly. His strong aftershave stung her eyes.

'Thank you for letting us visit so soon,' said Peter. 'We both appreciate it.'

'Oh, it's no trouble,' said Pearlman as the trio walked toward the mansion. 'To be honest, I'm hoping you can help me as much as I can help you. I take it you're aware of my plans for this place?'

'I've heard talk of a museum,' said Sarah. 'Something about showcasing all the murders that have happened here, and the hall's occult history?'

'That's it in a nutshell. Coxton has a rich history of witchcraft, murder and intrigue; most of it involving this building. I think it's time people were able to see the place in all its glory, and to learn about the real history of the Hall.'

'It's certainly a nice idea,' said Peter. 'But how do we fit in?'

'Well, the majority of the work on the museum is being carried out by my researchers but Doctor Barclay's phone call gave me ideas for how to launch the museum. If what she's told me turns out to even be partly true, just think about the potential. A real-life modern cult active in a sleepy northern English village? The tourism potential is immense.'

'I've not promised anything,' said Sarah. 'We're merely here to check out a possibility.'

'Oh of course, of course.' Pearlman fought with a lock on the main doors, and the large wooden edifice swung open. 'Well, here we are.'

They stepped inside and immediately Sarah felt there was something wrong. Perhaps it was her imagination playing a cruel trick on her, or perhaps it was simply that they had stepped into the shade after walking through the warm, spring air. Whatever the cause, Sarah felt an icy chill rush over her. She shuddered.

'It's cold in here, don't you think?' she asked.

'I'm surprised you can feel anything through that huge coat of yours,' said Peter. Sarah was clad in the Royal Air Force greatcoat she had bought from an Army surplus shop in Durham when she was still a student there. The coat was old and the lining was wearing thin but she still wore it whenever she went out.

'Snide comments aside,' she said. 'I can definitely feel a breeze. Are the windows intact?'

'Most of them are broken on the ground floor. Some on the other floors are still in one piece, but I think that's more down to luck than good management. Does it matter?'

Sarah shook her head. 'It just means we'll have more background noise on the recording, that's all. It's nothing I can't fix with a bit of work. Shall we get started?'

She fished a battered Dictaphone from her pocket and felt for the 'on' switch. To her right, someone closed the door they had entered through, throwing her world into murky darkness. She clipped the Dictaphone to the waistband of her jeans so it could record every word and sound but would not get in the way.

'Where do you want to start?' asked Pearlman. 'There are some strange markings in the dining room. I've not been able to work them out.'

'That sounds perfect,' said Sarah.

Peter offered his arm for guidance, and Sarah accepted. Together they followed Pearlman out of the entrance hall and down a short, formerly wood-panelled corridor toward a large, open space that felt a lot like an immense conservatory. Peter described their surroundings as he walked and Sarah tried to make a mental picture of the building in her head, but with little success. There was something about the place that kept her from concentrating too well.

'Here we are,' said Pearlman, with a hint of regret coupled with something else. Anger? No, not quite that strong. Annoyance, definitely. 'As you can see, it's a bit of a mess. Most of the glass in the ceiling was intact until about a fortnight ago, but I'm afraid it's all shattered now. It's going to cost a fortune to replace.'

Sarah looked around, appreciating the brightness of the light the room offered. The floor was a mix of sandy brown, green and a deeper brown. Dirt and litter, maybe? The scent of slightly damp soil certainly suggested it. There was something else here, however. Clinging to the scent of dirt was a more acrid scent that coated the back of her throat.

Has something been burning in here?

Around the edges of the murky floor was a border of light cream, above which a blue-grey mist hung. Her mental picture formed into a large sun room with low, cream-tiled walls and a deep green carpet. Above the walls would have been a lattice, probably white, of glass window panes. It had probably looked very nice when the hall was still being used as a hotel.

She looked over at Peter. His tall, brown-and-blue haze was easy to pick out in the light. He was kneeling on the floor, with Pearlman's wider, pink-and-black figure close by.

'Do you see anything?' she asked.

Peter stood up slowly and walked back toward her. 'There are markings on the floor. I think I recognise them, but I'd have to check with your books. Do you have a camera?'

'Oh...,' she faltered. Cameras had not been a concern of hers for almost a decade. 'Ummm... I think there's one on my phone. Give me a sec....'

She fished around in her handbag until she felt the cool plastic block, and handed the phone to Peter. He took it and stood beside her for a moment, probably working out how to use it, then walked back to Pearlman. The wider man had not moved from where he was crouched. Whatever they were looking at, it must have been interesting. She made her way over to them, scanning the ground with her cane as she went.

'Hold on,' said Peter. Sarah froze. Peter stood and took her hand, guiding her over to where he and Pearlman had been examining the floor.

'Do you have any idea what this is?' asked Pearlman.

'I don't know. Can you describe it?'

Pearlman took a deep breath and puffed it out in a bemused manner. 'Where to start?'

'It's a chalk circle about eight feet in diameter, with a variety of sigils around the outside,' said Peter. He sounded professional, like he was describing the symptoms of some routine illness to a group of students. 'There's another circle about one foot in diameter, touching the outer circle in the lower-left quadrant. That has more sigils around its inner ring. A scalene triangle with its hypotenuse bisecting the larger circle is touching both circles.'

Sarah built a mental image of the diagram, but it wavered in her mind. Why could she not concentrate? It was so frustrating.

'What do the sigils look like?' she asked.

'Hard to say. Geometric shapes, runes, hieroglyphs maybe? I can't say for certain.'

'What do you think it is?' asked Pearlman.

'It sounds like ritual magic,' Sarah replied. She chewed her lip in thought. 'That's very interesting.'

'What's ritual magic?' asked Pearlman.

Sarah breathed in sharply through her teeth as she mulled over how to explain what could be a very complex subject. 'In simplest terms, it's like doing magic by rote. Practitioners believe that there are certain chants to say and certain forms to produce in order to get certain magical effects.'

Pearlman sounded surprised. 'Does it work?'

'I have trouble saying any sort of magic works. I'm not a great believer in it.'

'But you study it?'

She shook her head. 'No, not really. I'm more interested in the reasons why people believe in it. Most magical effects can be explained in more simple, scientific terms if you look hard enough. Belief is just taking a short cut.'

She turned and walked a few paces away from the circle, scared that she might accidentally damage it before Peter was finished examining the area. Pearlman stood with the deep grunt of someone both overweight and unfit, and followed her.

'I thought you investigated this stuff,' said Pearlman. 'Don't you need to have some belief in it to do that, or do you just think it's all hocus pocus nonsense.'

'I used to believe,' said Sarah. 'People change. I've yet to find a single legend, folk story, haunting or whatever that doesn't have a simple, rational explanation. I think anyone would share my scepticism under the same circumstances.' As lies go, she thought it was a believable one at least.

Pearlman grunted non-committally. 'So what do you make of this circle?'

'Honestly? It worries me. It must have something to do with the squatters disappearing, but I'm having trouble thinking of a way to explain it nicely.'

This seemed to satisfy Pearlman. He grunted acknowledgement once more.

'I think we're done here,' said Peter. 'I've taken some pictures, we can compare this with your books when we get back.'

'Is there anything else we should look at?' asked Sarah.

Pearlman thought for a moment. Sarah could not be entirely sure what the man did then but it seemed to her that he shook his head. 'No. Not that I can think of. You're free to look around, of course, but this is the main attraction, so to speak.'

'Then let's look around,' she said.

They walked for what seemed like hours, taking regular rests while Sarah recovered enough strength to go on; and occasionally snacking on the cereal bars Sarah carried in her satchel in case she needed something to eat so she could take her medication. With rests, snacks and the occasional chat about what they all thought the history of the building might be; with none of them claiming to know all the facts, or even anything more than they had read in the newspapers or picked up through hearsay.

The search took up most of the afternoon and throughout, Sarah could not help feeling she was being watched. Not the group as a whole, just her. She knew it was paranoia, but the feeling was compelling and despite her best efforts, it would not go away.