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.

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