Sunday, March 27, 2016

Those from the Shadows



Beneath the feeble glow of a waning moon and a flickering streetlight, Gareth Tuthill stood on the front stoop of Jarvis Speake’s quaint but cosy abode and knocked on the door. As the schoolteacher waited for his old college chum to answer, he wondered why Jarvis had begged to see him at so late an hour. He also wondered why Jarvis had sounded so urgent over the telephone. The desperate tone of Jarvis’s summons had prompted Gareth to dress in haste and rush across town in case something serious ailed his long-time friend.
The door opened. A pale and haggard Jarvis Speake greeted his visitor with a thin smile. Streaks of white that had not been there a fortnight before shot through Jarvis’s ginger mop. Jagged lines cut across his forehead. Dark circles ringed his ice-blue eyes.
Taken aback by his friend’s dreadful appearance, Gareth gasped.
“You look terrible, Jarvis,” he muttered. “Are you ill?”
“Always honest to a fault, aren’t you?” Jarvis grinned. “Don’t just stand there agape, come in.”
“Is all well with you?” Gareth asked.
“All’s fine, now that you’re here,” Jarvis replied as he led Gareth inside. A maleficent gleam shone briefly in his eyes, but soon faded. “Please, step into the back room, and I will lay all your doubts and fears to rest.”
Jarvis guided Gareth around tables piled high with manuscript leaves and scrolls bearing cabalistic figures and arcane formulae, past shelves loaded with leather-bound tomes and brass-plated gadgets, down a hall hung with weird paintings and peculiar tapestries, and into a darkly panelled chamber. Heavy drapes blocked out lamplight and moonlight, adding to the gloom.
“It’s awfully dark in here,” Gareth commented. He never liked the dark, although he felt that it was childish for an adult to suffer from nyctophobia.
“I’ve grown accustomed to the dark as of late,” Jarvis said. “Certain of my experiments are best carried out in darkness. However, it may be best if we talk with a light on.”
As Jarvis pushed the button to switch on the unshaded electric lamp that dangled from the ceiling, Gareth thought he caught the briefest glimpse of fleet silhouettes scurrying away from the light. However, the strangely shifting shadows disturbed him less than what he saw sitting in the centre of the room.
Within a white conjurer’s circle chalked on the hardwood floor stood a high-backed oaken chair. All around this chair, along the periphery of the circle, papers inscribed with sigils and other mystical markings were tacked to the floorboards. Opposite the throne-like seat, incantations scrawled in a carmine material that looked suspiciously like dried blood covered the wall.
“What the blazes?” Gareth exclaimed. The late hour and uncanny sights had gotten the better of his composure. He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses, something he often did when flustered. “Good God, man. You don’t expect me to sit there, do you?”
“No,” Jarvis stated. “I reserve that honour for myself. The conjuration I intend to perform requires a certain mindset which, my dear Gareth, you woefully lack. However, before I begin, I must ask you a question.”
“If it pleases you, ask away,” Gareth said in the kindliest tone he could muster, one that he frequently used with his particularly troublesome students. Sure that Jarvis’s eccentric studies had driven him dangerously close to falling over the edge of sanity, Gareth wished to humour his friend the best he could.
“Might you be willing to set aside your inherent scepticism and consider the possibility that things from elsewhere slip through the shadows to enter our plane of existence?”
“Wh…wh…what?” Gareth stammered. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Even though Gareth had always enjoyed those odd evenings spent with Jarvis sipping sherry and smoking cigars while deciphering cryptic ciphers or translating bits of Old Latin, he considered himself to be an affirmed agnostic when it came to matters supernatural. He never understood Jarvis’s obsession with the occult.
“What you call supernatural may merely be a part of the natural universe not fully understood by modern man.” Jarvis retorted. “Are you able to open your mind and accept the notion that residents of twilight visit our dimension and interact with humanity? Normally spied out of the corner of one’s eye, but able to manifest themselves in full view when they wish, these beings have been seen by peoples of every culture and every era. Shades and devils are names ignorant folk give to those who normally exist on a separate plane, one that overlaps our own on the verge of shadow.”
Gareth laughed nervously. He felt that his friend, through some mental disease, had slipped entirely into the realm of fantasy. It seemed as if Jarvis’s eagerness to believe in things beyond reality had caused him to become unhinged.
“Laugh, will you?” Jarvis shot his sceptical friend an angry leer. “Laugh if you must, but I know they exist; I have seen them!”
“What you think you’ve seen are nothing more than hallucinations, products of your endless study of occult nonsense!” Gareth averred, though some of what his friend said unnerved him. Also, he could not get the sight of swift silhouettes fleeing the light out of his head.
“Not nonsense, fact!” Jarvis asserted. “I will prove it to you.”
The occultist retrieved a kerosene lantern and small nightstand from the adjacent room. He removed a pair of scissors and a box of matches from the stand’s single drawer.
“The dimmer glow of a hurricane lamp set low disturbs them less than the stark illumination of an electric light,” Jarvis explained as he trimmed the wick. He then struck a match and lit the lantern.
“I can summon them in total darkness, but I want you to see what I have seen,” Jarvis expounded while he adjusted the flame to his liking. “I want you to witness the end result of my work.”
Satisfied that the lantern light was just right, Jarvis switched off the overhead lamp. Stepping over the plethora of papers tacked to the floor, he took his place upon the wooden chair. With hands clenched firmly to the armrests and chest thrust proudly forward, Jarvis looked like a king seated upon his throne. A fey spark flashed in his eyes.
“My theories regarding the nature of certain paranormal phenomena led me to experiment with various invocations,” Jarvis elaborated. “I pored over a multitude of esoteric works, copied dozens of magical seals, recited numerous spells, and finally drew those that live on the other side of shadow into our world.
“Then I experienced the ultimate breakthrough. I became able to call those from elsewhere with thought alone. My mind, a mind clearer now than it has ever been before, allows me to consort with unearthly entities. It permits me to commune with the unknown.”
“Please, Jarvis, stop this now!” Gareth pleaded. “This latest project of yours is taking too great a toll.”
“A great toll, yes,” Jarvis mumbled. For a moment, the fire in his ice-blue eyes grew faint. “It requires mental energy of a certain frequency to bring them here with any sort of regularity. That’s why I said you lack the right mindset; belief is a factor. Summoning them can be taxing, but that’s not the worst of it. To maintain themselves on our material plane, they demand an earthly sustenance, nourishment of a particularly sanguine nature.”
“Jarvis, why have you called me here tonight?” Gareth asked in a sombre tone. He began to worry about his own safety.
“For years, I’ve tolerated your inflexible scepticism, your disbelief of anything outside the accepted norm,” Jarvis sneered. His countenance grew savage. In the wavering lantern light, his pallid flesh shone with an eerie luminosity.
“A part of me held onto the hope that you would realize the error of your philosophy. I considered sparing you, if you had opened your mind but a crack. Now I see there is no hope in this. You remain blind to the broader truth. I’ve reached the end of my tolerance for your continued blindness.
“I brought you here, my dear Gareth, because my new friends need to feed, and I dare not give them any more of my own blood.”
Jarvis’s wild gaze intensified. The atmosphere in the room throbbed with eldritch energy. Splinters of darkness detached from the Cimmerian gloom lodged in the corners of the room, slithered across the floor, and cloaked Jarvis in an ebon shroud. These fragments of shadow heaved and quaked as they took on a variety of grotesque forms. Beings barely humanoid in form crawled over Jarvis in a squirming, gibbering mass, and danced a manic reel around his enshrouded body.
Gareth stood transfixed. His disquieted brain refused to comprehend what his unblinking eyes saw. The sight made his skin crawl and his short-cropped hair stand on end.
The entities began to chant in unison, repeating the same incomprehensible words over, and over, and over again. Their arms beat in tune, rising and falling faster and faster as their rhythm and tone grew more and more insistent. Seeming to understand what they wanted, Jarvis responded from beneath the chanting heap.
“You will feed!” Jarvis cried. “You will have blood! I offer you the blood of the unbeliever! Make him pay for his lack of faith!”
The sound of Jarvis offering him up as a sacrifice, and the sight of a hundred dusky heads turned his way, spurred Gareth into action. He grabbed up the still-burning hurricane lamp and lobbed it toward the bevy of shades. The lantern smashed against the paper covered floor, showering Jarvis and those from the shadows in broken glass and flaming kerosene. Fed by the tacked-down papers, the flames soon spread to the heavy drapes hung over the window.
Recoiling from the growing blaze, the dark creatures closed about their summoner in a screeching pile. Smothered by that wretched throng, Jarvis gagged and gasped for air.
Ever the concerned soul, Gareth tried to reach for Jarvis to pull him out of the burning chamber, but he dared not touch any part of that hideous horde. The quivering mass clung tightly to Jarvis and enveloped his whole frame. Repulsed by things that challenged his view of the universe, terrified to make physical contact with beings from beyond his version of reality, Gareth found it impossible to rescue his one-time friend. Soon the spreading flames and rolling smoke drove him from the room.
Gareth tottered down the hall and across the outer room, knocking over piles of books and stacks of scrolls as he stumbled. He felt his way through the thickening haze and reached the front door. Wheezing and coughing, he staggered out the door and tripped down the front steps.
For a moment, Gareth lay in a dazed heap upon the gravel walk just outside that house of horror. Then the enormity of what he had just witnessed sunk in. With adrenaline pumping and heart pounding, he dragged himself up and bolted for home. Sirens wailed in the distance as smoke billowed in the starry sky, but he never looked back. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him and did not stop running until he arrived at his own front door.
Shaky hands fumbled with jingling keys, but Gareth managed to find the right one and let himself in. He tried to pour himself a brandy to calm his frayed nerves, but he spilled most of it on the carpet in the process. He then collapsed into his favourite armchair and gazed into nothingness. His staring eyes eventually closed as weariness overcame fright. Gareth began to fall into an uneasy sleep.
Gareth’s slumbering mind envisioned a host of new terrors. It carried him back to that dreadful room in Jarvis’s house. It kept him there while a hellish firestorm engulfed Jarvis’s body. It forced him to observe the grisly scene left in the inferno’s wake.
In his mind’s eye, Gareth saw Jarvis’s blackened figure bathed in a corpse-light shimmer and surrounded by a multitude of writhing grotesqueries. Untouched by the conflagration that had burned his flesh, Jarvis’s icy eyes looked upon the scene with a rabid glare. Then his charred lips pulled back in a ghastly smirk and he let out a diabolical laugh. He continued to laugh as the gruesome mob poured out of the shouldering ruins and into the night.
The sound of several small feet tromping on the flagstone path just outside his window roused Gareth from those fitful dreams. He heard an unintelligible muttering at his front door, as if a throng of strange savages stood on the steps. Tiny fists pounded the door’s oaken panels, louder and louder, harder and harder. The sturdy wood groaned under the strain and then started to buckle.
Gareth realized those beings from the shadows had neither perished in the blaze nor departed this world. They had come for him. They had tracked their marked prey through mystical means or senses unknown to humanity. They still hungered for his blood.
Gareth screamed as the door gave way.


Copyright © 2014 Richard H. Fay

Story originally published in BĂȘte Noire, Issue #14, February 2014.

Vengeance of the Alpe



While Carius the Uncanny prowled lea and dale in search of monkshood and belladonna for use in various nefarious concoctions, he spied a site far more pleasing to his lecherous eyes than any blossom or berry. A young maid of exceptional beauty tended a small herd in high pasture. Surrounded by an aura of innocence and purity that drew men’s hearts like the mystical lodestone attracted iron filings, the lass knew little about the more dangerous nature of womanly allure. She blissfully sang the strains of an old folk tune about valiant heroes and true love as she went about her business, at first unaware that she had caught the attention of the region’s most notorious practitioner of the dark arts.
Passion’s fire burned in odd places as Carius watched the maid skip from cow to cow. He grinned crookedly as a leg flashed from beneath linen skirt and flaxen hair bobbed upon pretty head. The wizard yearned to make the maid his. To corrupt such a pure soul would be quite a feather in his pointed cap, but he also knew that his arcane powers might fail against such innocence. To sprout in another’s mind, his enchantments needed a seed of darkness planted in fertile ground. Carius decided to use subtler charms against the maid, to enthrall her body and spirit through flattery, and more.
“Good day,” Carius grunted as he approached the object of his desire.
“Good day to you, sir,” the maid replied. Wary of the hoary stranger, she looked down at her toes as she spoke.
“I am Carius the Uncanny,” the wizard proclaimed with a flourish, certain that his reputation preceded him. “Who might you be? The goddess Aphrodite mingling amongst us mortals, perhaps?”
Although she wasn’t quite sure who Aphrodite was, and was leery of the old man’s reputation for foul misdeeds, Hilde let the smallest of smiles break upon her face. She appreciated the apparent compliment. Besides, her mother had always told her to be kind to even the strangest of strangers. Otherwise, she would have bolted from the pasture to escape the wizard’s repugnant stare.
“My name is Hilde,” the maid said. “I am a mere milkmaid, nothing more.”
“Modesty and beauty together, what a truly rare quality!” Carius exclaimed as his bushy brows knitted together in an expression of mild surprise. “My dear, you are more than mere milkmaid. I have wandered this plane for more moons than I care to remember. I have seen many wonderful sights, but none compare in grace and comeliness to the one I see before me now. You are purer than mountain snow, more awe-inspiring than a sunset sky aflame, and more exquisite than a string of mounted pearls. You are, simply put, the loveliest thing I have ever laid eyes upon.”
Hilde wished to say that Carius was the ugliest thing she had ever seen, with a face as cragged as the snow-capped peaks that rose high above that little mead, but she held her tongue. Instinct told her to say as little as possible in hope that the wizard would take his unwholesome interest elsewhere. She merely stated that she was no goddess.
“Ah,” Carius cooed as he sensed an opening, “You could be. Beauty such as yours should grace tapestried court, not dung-filled pasture. As a goddess amongst men, you could whisper wise advice in a king’s ear, instead of reciting foolish ballads to a herd of cows. You could garb yourself in robes of velvet and cloth-of-gold, instead of being forced to wear that wretched homespun kirtle. You could have the power of the gods. I could show you how, if you but let me.”
Visions of lofty towers, glittering halls, and gaily attired nobles drifted through Hilde’s dreamy head. She imagined herself a princess in one of those old tunes, rescued from a dragon’s hungry jaws by a handsome knight. She envisioned herself marrying her gallant champion, and living an idyllic life in his gleaming castle.
For the briefest moment, Hilde seriously considered the wizard’s offer. Simple sense then prevailed, and the thought quickly passed. Amused by her momentary lapse of good judgment, she twittered like a springtime warbler newly returned to its summer roost.
“That is not the life for me,” Hilde chuckled.
“The world could be yours,” Carius growled. “Consider my proposal carefully, child. I do not make such offers lightly, and to refuse such a gracious gift would be a great insult.”
“If I were to accept, what must I give in return?” Hilde asked. She reasoned, based on her knowledge of old tales, that such things were rarely given without some burdensome cost attached.
Carius smirked sinisterly. He suspected that his prey teetered on the edge of his trap, and needed just a nudge to tumble headfirst into the pit.
“The power and knowledge of the ancients, the grace and wealth and nobility, would all be yours, if you would but be mine,” the wizard replied. His icy blue eyes flared menacingly.
“That sounds too high a price to pay,” Hilde muttered. She shifted about nervously, unable to pull herself free from the wizard’s preternatural gaze, but unwilling to give in to his unpalatable proposal. She wished for a real rescuer.
“Is this person troubling you, Hilde?” a lad’s voice called out, breaking the spell.
Gunther the Shepherd stood at the ready, with rowan staff in both hands and growling dog at his side. He had seen Carius take an unnatural interest in Hilde, and left his flock grazing the hillside to protect a more distressed soul. His own fondness for the pretty maid was well known, but Hilde had never shown the shepherd much affection in return. More often than not, she would avoid Gunther’s clumsy attempts at conversation. Now she beamed at the sight of the rough shepherd in his sheepskin coat and leather leggings.
Carius seethed, thwarted in his lustful designs by a simple rustic. Whether through accident or design, Gunther’s choice of material for his plainest of weapons deftly countered the wizard’s diabolic sorcery. Plus, the sharp teeth of the shepherd’s loyal companion proved a powerful deterrent against further action.
“I am troubled no longer,” Hilde said. Somehow, she knew that the wizard’s terrible will had suddenly waned. With bolstered confidence, she turned toward Carius. “You ask too high a price. I am sorry if you are insulted, but I decline your offer. For the sake of my heart and soul, I must say no.”
“You may just be sorry, my dear,” Carius snarled.
“Be gone!” Gunther shouted as he brandished his staff over his head. His dog barked fiercely. “Leave this maid alone, or by my maker, I will crack open your rotten skull!”
Rebuffed and threatened, and unable to act against the natural power of rowan wood, Carius backed away. Besides, for all his mystical wizardry, he dared not risk physical confrontation. A swift blow, or jaws about his throat, could end a fight before he uttered a single incantation. And such magic would be useless anyway while the shepherd carried his staff.
“Come, Hilde”, Gunther said as he offered the maid his arm. “I will walk you home.”
“That is an offer I will accept.” Hilde said. “Right now, I would feel much better walking home with you at my side, than being on my own amongst the cows.”
Hilde headed, arm-in-arm with Gunther, down the hillside toward her family’s farm and the secure embrace of her father and three brothers. The shepherd and his dog both kept a wary eye on Carius the whole way, but Hilde never looked back.
“If I cannot have you for my own, no one will,” Carius grumbled to himself as he watched the two youths depart for friendlier surroundings.

***

Back in the dim seclusion of his cluttered wizard’s den tucked away in the shadowed hollow of a rocky spur, Carius plotted. By the smoky light of tallow candles mounted in human skulls, he poured over his arcane tomes and mystical scrolls. The wizard searched for just the right vehicle for his revenge. He decided that the maid must die, but how? Potions and poisons required close contact, something he was reluctant to hazard again. Hexes and incantations worked from afar, but could be countered by protective symbols, holy charms, and even natural defenses. No, he required something that could slither in undetected, and yet possess the strength to perform the deed swiftly and surely. He needed something more potent, something more elemental.
Carius found the answer within the cracked parchment pages of an old book bound in faded red leather. Translated into Low Latin from a long-forgotten tongue, the treatise detailed the lore surrounding the dwarfish alpe, servants of the ancient gods. Partly gods themselves, these blood-thirsty, shape-shifting beings once patrolled sullen forest path and misty mountain pass. Feared by men for the harm they did in the names of their cruel masters, the alpe guarded sacred sites and wild places against mortal intrusion. They also wrought magical arms in subterranean halls, weapons used in the ultimately futile war against human encroachment. Driven deep underground by a new faith, cut off from their former lords by fading beliefs, they eventually became the stuff of nightmare and legend.
The work went on to say that, through the use of black arts, the dreaded alpe might be drawn from their dark lairs and sent forth to plague mankind once more. At the behest of an individual of great skill, they may spread disease and bad dreams. They could even be used as instruments of death, eagerly consuming a victim’s life-blood.
Determined to set the alpe upon Hilde, Carius prepared the necessary spells. He slit a vein in his arm with a ceremonial blade and let a copious amount of blood drip into a stone bowl carved with runes. After he bandaged his arm with cloth strips steeped in a powerful healing elixir, he took up the stone bowl and stirred in a pinch of dirt from an alpine glen. He then spoke a binding incantation over the crimson mixture. Grabbing a piece of chalk retrieved long ago from a distant shore, Carius drew a circle on the flagstone floor. He then unrolled a scroll of summoning and studied the letters intently before reciting the words that would call the alpe.
“As if a god of olden days, I command the alpe to come to me,” Carius intoned. “In the names of deities now lost to time, I summon thee! Those who once waited upon timeless divinities, come to me. With blood and soil, with words of power, with thoughts and deeds, I summon thee! Forsake your place snuggled within Gaea’s cool embrace, and come to me. Alpe, I summon thee!”
An unnatural wind blew through the wizard’s den, rattling the many weird metallic devices that hung from the rafters. This cold draught carried the dusty scent of rock and earth. Wispy shadows swirled in the agitated air. Dusky shades murmured strange chants as they took on more solid shapes. Smoky strands coalesced into arms, legs, and torsos. Soon a belligerent horde of hairy little men surrounded Carius.
Each alp was clad in leather breeches and wore a wide-brimmed scarlet hat. Grime matted their unkempt beards. Deep furrows lined their ugly faces. Pinpoint embers of malice burned in their coal-black eyes as they glowered at their summoner. They stomped their feet and spat curses as they tried to break the wizard’s magic circle, to no avail.
Carius remained calm, confident in his ability to control that rowdy rabble. He placed the bowl containing his own blood outside the chalk circle.
“Please, partake of my offering,” the wizard said as he gestured toward the bowl. “Take of me, and perhaps give something of yourselves in return.”
The alpe greedily descended upon the bowl, eagerly lapping up the blood. They passed the vessel around amongst themselves, each one taking his share, until it was licked bone dry.
“As a god of old, I called you, and now I control you!” Carius declared. “With your element and my blood, I bind you to my will. Now, go. Use the uncanny abilities given you by your past masters and find the maid called Hilde. Make her pay for rejecting me. Take from her until you can take no more!”
Bound to the wizard’s will by the spell of blood, the alpe were forced to obey. With a nod, each alp transformed itself into a black-winged butterfly. Then the fluttering cloud drifted up the chimney and into the night.

***

Safely tucked into bed, Hilde slept fitfully on her straw-filled mattress. Frightful dreams disturbed her rest. A lecherous dog chased her through a murky wood. As she fled the baying hound, and plunged deeper and deeper into the forest, she heard an unearthly voice call her name. A tall, muscular figure sporting antlers atop his head stepped out of the mist. Hilde tried to run, but she could not move. The fearsome being grabbed her and demanded possession of her body and soul. Hilde tried to refuse, but she could not speak. The dark entity ravaged the maid while dreadful dwarfs danced gleefully around the brutal scene. Then the brute tossed her down a bottomless pit.
As Hilde found herself trapped in the clutches of her terrible nightmare, a bevy of ebon butterflies entered her room through the unglazed window. They alit upon her heaving breast and pierced bedclothes and skin to drink her blood. Instinctively sensing life ebbing away, endlessly falling through a lightless void in her dream, Hilde screamed.
“Hilde!” Gunther cried out as he leapt into the room through the window. Being the protective sort, and thinking the wizard might assail Hilde during the night, the shepherd had posted himself outside the maid’s window. Drowsiness and darkness had dulled his attentiveness, and he hadn’t seen the diabolic insects pass right over his head.
The butterflies arose from Hilde’s bloodied bosom. Irritated at having their meal interrupted, they swarmed around Gunther. They pricked him with their oddly sharp snouts. They darted and dodged as he tried to strike them with his staff. He hit a few as he swung, and the swarm pulled back. The alpe then metamorphosed into their true forms and renewed their attack upon the shepherd. Pointed teeth tore at Gunther’s flesh as lapping tongues licked his oozing wounds.
Hearing the commotion, Hilde’s father and brothers burst into the room. Knowing of Gunther’s vigil outside Hilde’s room, they had kept their own watch inside the cottage, with rustic weapons at the ready. Hilde’s father grasped an iron-tined hayfork, while her brothers brandished broad knives.
The sight of cold steel glimmering in the moonlight that poured through the window drove off the alpe. They scurried over the sill and scuttled across the rocky hills, swiftly disappearing into the darkness. None of the mortals cared to follow.
“My rescuer,” Hilde declared as she wrapped her arms around Gunther’s neck and kissed his tanned cheek. She then slumped back down onto her bed.
“This was that devil wizard’s work,” the shepherd groaned breathlessly, exhausted by the encounter, and the loss of blood. “I am sure of it.”
Hilde nodded weakly. She knew a little something about the darker tales. She had heard roving storytellers whisper about the alpe, and knew those fey folk could be summoned and enslaved by fell witches and foul warlocks.
“Where do you think they have gone?” Gunther wondered.
“Back to their homes beneath the mountains,” Hilde said. “Or back to their master.”

***

Just prior to dawn’s break, Carius heard a furious rapping and vile cussing at his door. The oaken boards began to creak and groan under the pressure applied by his rudely insistent visitors. Suspecting that his new-found servants had returned from their nightly foray, Carius undid the iron latch before they battered down the door. The alpe tumbled over the threshold in a tousled mass. Their filthy faces twisted into savage scowls, and their eyes blazed, as they gathered around the wizard.
“So, have you carried out my vengeance?” Carius asked the throng of angry, and still very hungry, alpe. “Is the deed done?”
The alpe spoke not a word, but turned on their summoner. Hairy forms swarmed over the wizard’s frame, wreaking their own kind of vengeance. Unsatisfied until they drained every single drop from the man’s veins, the alpe took their master’s blood, and his life. They then returned in a flash to their secret homes in dark hollows deep within the roots of the mountains, leaving Carius’s dried husk behind as warning to all who might tempt a similar fate.


Copyright © 2010 Richard H. Fay

Story originally published in Hungur, Issue 11, All Souls’ Night 2010.

The Redcap of Glamtallon



A steel-grey sedan pulled up a disused track and parked beneath the grim walls of Glamtallon Castle. Alec MacCrimmon, unofficial county historian and caretaker of the timeworn tower, turned off the ignition but refused to leave the relative comfort of his car. With hands clasped so tight to the steering wheel that his knuckles turned white, he glanced up at the fortress and shivered. Even though bathed in the golden rays of the late afternoon sun, the lichen-festooned edifice exuded an algid chill. MacCrimmon never liked the look or feel of the place. He especially disliked being anywhere near it so close to sunset.
“Here we are, then,” the grey-haired historian said to his two young passengers. The slight strain in his voice betrayed his troubled mood. “Though, Lord help me for bringing you here at this time of day.”
“Lovely accommodations,” Rodger Birch quipped as he stuck his head through the space between the front seats. “Lovely if you’re a ghost, that is.”
“Enough of that, Rodge,” Linda Sullivan spat as she turned and pushed back her boyfriend’s grinning face back. “Can’t you be serious for once?”
“I am serious,” Rodger smirked. “It’s a right serious place for a spook!”
“The stories of devilish beasties and malevolent haunts that swirl about this place are no laughing matter,” MacCrimmon murmured with a frown. “This peel had been built by a particularly rapacious member of the Border nobility who shifted allegiance as often as the wind changes direction. It swiftly gained a sinister reputation as a centre of torture and death. Age-old rumours suggest that an especially evil descendant of Glamtallon’s original laird practiced diabolic rites and black arts. Historical fact states that this very same nobleman was burned at the stake, convicted of being in league with the Devil and consorting with demonic familiars. Stories persist to the present day of seeing spectral lights and hearing dreadful sounds coming from the empty ruin after dark. Most folk in these parts say that the place still harbours an evil first summoned centuries ago. While I’ve never seen any ghosties or ghoulies myself, I’m never to be found here at night.”
“Nighttime is the best time for me to do what I’ve come here to do,” Linda stated as she reached for her digital recorder and infrared video camera. An American graduate student studying abroad, Linda planned on writing a thesis about supernatural themes in traditional Scottish folklore. She was also interested in parapsychology, and wanted to work true-life encounters with the supernatural into her paper. "I’m here because of these stories. I want to find out what inspired such terrifying tales. I also want to know if there is any truth behind the claims of paranormal phenomena.”
“I’m just along for the ride,” Rodger shrugged. “I’m also performing the role of resident skeptic.” Linda’s beau and flat-mate didn’t put much stock in local fairy tales and campfire stories. A biology major and avowed agnostic when it came to things otherworldly, Rodger held no belief whatsoever in ghosties, ghoulies, or other things that go bump in the night. However, as a lover of life, he still enjoyed a good yarn and entertaining jaunt every now and then.
“You’re also here as an extra pair of hands,” Linda added. “Be a dear and grab the EMF detector.”
“I don’t think I’m completely comfortable with the idea of the two of you spending the night in there,” MacCrimmon grumbled.
“It’s not like we’ll be playing house,” Linda said. “Besides, you already agreed to let us investigate overnight when we discussed it before.”
MacCrimmon groaned and shook his head. He simply didn’t understand the reckless enthusiasm of youth. He was probably born old.
“Do you have your flashlight, hon?” Linda asked Rodger.
“Nae, but I do have my torch, love” Rodger replied with an exaggerated accent. He shot his girlfriend a toothy smile.
Linda grimaced, annoyed by her boyfriend’s silliness. She worried that his less-than-serious attitude would interfere with the coming night’s vigil. Linda wished to experience those aspects of the castle’s character that had inspired such eerie myths and legends. She also hoped to capture evidence of paranormal activity. An actual supernatural experience would be icing on the cake.
“Here you go, then,” MacCrimmon said with a sigh as he retrieved a large brass key from the pocket of his Harris Tweed jacket. “This unlocks the yett.”
“Do you have a yeti locked up in there?” Rodger queried with grin.
“No, Rodge!” Linda scolded. “A yett, as in an iron grillwork gate.”
“Installed to keep out fools like me?” Rodger suggested.
“Or to keep something in,” MacCrimmon implied ominously. “Iron is said to have some affect against unearthly entities.”
“I’m liking this place better already!” Rodger proclaimed. He climbed out of the backseat of MacCrimmon’s car and stared up at one of the narrow windows that cut through the upper section of the fortress wall. The setting sun gilded the stonework around the opening but did little to drive away the pervasive murk within. As he gazed upward into that dark hole, Rodger thought he caught the briefest glimpse of a deeper blackness sliding through the gloom. It looked as if someone or something had walked swiftly past the empty embrasure.
“There’s somebody up there!” Rodger exclaimed.
“Where?” MacCrimmon asked as he leaned his head out the open driver’s side window.
Rodger pointed to the spot, on the floor just below the level of the battlements.
“Impossible,” MacCrimmon grunted. “That window looks out from the lord’s solar, on the third storey of the castle. The wooden floor of that chamber rotted away long ago. Only the undercroft, great hall, and a portion of the battlements are still accessible. No one could be in that chamber.”
“No one living, that is,” Linda added. Seeing the genuine fear in MacCrimmon’s eyes made her regret saying it. She gave the old man’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze and then joined her beau outside the car.
“I’ll return for you in the morning," MacCrimmon stated as he started his engine, anxious to leave. “For what it’s worth, I wish you well. Be careful. This is a dangerous place, and not just due to its ruinous state.”
“Strange chap,” Rodger commented as MacCrimmon’s car pulled away.
“A walking encyclopaedia of local lore,” Linda pointed out.
“I could’ve sworn I saw something,” Rodger grumbled as he turned a puzzled look back toward the castle.
“Don’t tell me you’re actually starting to believe in ghosts,” Linda laughed.
“Don’t bet on it, me lassie!” Rodger shot back. “Twas a trick of the light, that be all.”
“Why don’t we find out for sure?” Linda suggested.
Mossy stone stairs set against the north wall led up to a pointed Gothic arch. A rusty iron grate stood within the dusky umbra of the threshold. A dank draught carrying the hint of mouldering decay wafted through the open grillwork. Linda managed to unlock the gate but needed Rodger’s help to push it open. The yett’s neglected hinges protested with a raspy squeal.
Only a fading glimmer of faint sunlight shone through the westerly windows of the castle’s great hall. The keep’s imposing walls perpetually imprisoned shards of midnight. Strange shadows lurked in far corners and darkened doorways. Filth covered the flagstone floor. Bats flew crazy patterns in clammy air that reeked of corruption.
Rodger remained silent as his torchlight struggled to part the stubborn darkness, his jocularity stifled by the dismal atmosphere. Linda, on the other hand, remained relatively unphased by Glamtallon’s unnerving ambience. She shot a slow pan of the gateway and hall before she recorded a few preliminary observations.
“Even though night has not yet fallen, the inside of Glamtallon is already quite dark,” Linda spoke into the microphone of her recorder. “Lack of visual acuity in such twilight conditions could produce hallucinatory effects. Optical illusions may create the impression of movement within the darkness. The mind’s eye may fill the void with all sorts of imagined entities.”
“Good point,” Rodger interrupted, glad that Linda was willing to considered mundane alternatives to the paranormal. “However, imagined or not, I don’t care to see anything other than bats moving around in here.”
“Why don’t we get this investigation really going down in the basement?” Linda said with a devilish smile as she switched off her recorder. She was annoyed by Rodger’s interruption, and felt it was time to drag him somewhere truly creepy.
“Why the basement?” Rodger wondered. He tried to look tough for Linda, but the quaver in his voice betrayed his anxiety. Standing in the unsettling murk, he felt the unknown intruding upon his neat, scientific view of reality. It bothered him greatly.
“Because nasty things always reside in basements,” Linda explained as she headed toward a decrepit spiral staircase built into the thickness of one of the keep’s four corners.
“Ask a silly question…” Rodger mumbled as he followed his girlfriend down the uneven stairs.
Shadows battled the light beneath broad masonry arches, advancing and retreating as Rodger’s torchlight played off the squat pillars of the castle’s undercroft. Dusty cobwebs hung like tattered tapestries from the vaulted ceiling. A well bespotted with a leprous growth sat in the centre of the earthen floor. Disturbed by the approaching footsteps, a large centipede scurried into a joint long devoid of mortar.
Curious and a bit bored, Rodger peered down the well shaft. He quickly reeled back in disgust. A foul odour rose up from the well’s slimy depths.
“That well became unusable centuries ago,” Linda pointed out. “It was probably contaminated with the castle wastes. That may be one of the more practical reasons this place gained an unsavoury reputation. I want to find out if there were other reasons as well.”
“That should’ve been reason enough,” Rodger stated. “It smells like shit down there.”
“You’re a hopeless fool,” Linda laughed.
“That’s why you’ve fallen hopelessly in love with me!” Rodger declared with a smile. “Who’s more the fool, the hopeless fool, or the one hopelessly in love with the hopeless fool? You do love me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do!” Linda replied as she wrapped her arms around his waist. “If we were anywhere else, I would show you how much I do love you, but this place kind of kills the mood.”
“Pretty much,” Rodger crooned as he leaned closer.
The two kissed, but loud metallic stomping sounded above their heads and interrupted their tender moment. A strident clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop marched from one end of the hall to the other.
“What the hell is that?” Rodger croaked as the blood drained from his cheeks.
“I’ve got to get a recording of this,” Linda said excitedly as she pressed the record button on her digital recorder. The device’s indicator lights flashed on briefly, but then went out. The phantom footsteps passed once more above their heads, but Linda’s recorder refused to work.
“Damn it!” She spat. “I think the batteries are dead.”
“I know I put fresh ones in this morning,” Rodger insisted in a husky whisper. He didn’t want to be heard by whatever was walking around in the great hall. “Check the camera.”
Linda switched on her infrared camera and stared in disbelief at the luminous screen. It showed only one bar in the battery icon.
“This was fully charged before we left,” she groaned. “It worked just fine when we were up in the hall.” Stark realization showed in the young woman’s eyes as she stared worriedly toward the stairway.
“I know,” Rodger breathed, reading her thoughts. “It’s between us and the way out.”
“I’m not ready to leave just yet!” Linda proclaimed.
“And what if it drains the torch batteries, too?” Rodger asked worryingly.
“So far, so good,” Linda said as she snatched the light from Rodger’s sweaty hand. Satisfied that it remained steadily light, she handed the torch back to Rodger and retrieved her own from her pocket.
“C’mon, let’s see if we can catch sight of whomever, or whatever, is making all that racket. I want to make sure we’re not the victims of some prankster.”
Encroaching nightfall cloaked the dreadful edifice in deepening darkness. Only the bats stirred in the hall, winging their way out the windows and into the evening sky. Rodger shined his torchlight across the flagstone, but saw no trace of any mortal intruder. Nothing had disturbed the layers of filth. Linda thought she spied a fleeting flash, as if the beam briefly glinted off some reflective object at the far end of the hall. They both heard a guttural muttering, low but distinct, coming from the doorway opposite the main entrance. The strange murmurs passed out of the tower and into a walled courtyard.
“The gardens!” Linda cried. She raced toward the courtyard. Rodger tailed reluctantly behind.
Brambles and nettles choked the garden grounds. Roses run wild thrust their thorny canes up through the bristly weeds. Their blood-red blooms looked black in the darkness. Twining vines and gnarled shrubs covered the broken cobbled path, making it nearly impossible to walk any great distance past the doorway.
“Nothing here,” Rodger said.
“Something came this way,” Linda asserted rather angrily. The night’s events hadn’t rattled her yet, but she was starting to get aggravated. “Someone is playing games with us.”
“Oh, joy!” Rodger moaned. “I’m ready to call it quits. They win.”
“Ready to give in when the night’s still young, Rodge?” Linda grinned. “That’s not like you at all. Aren’t you having fun?”
“This stopped being fun quite a while ago,” Rodger said. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
Linda’s expression grew grave. She became concerned about what effect the night’s events were having on Rodger. She wondered if his psyche could deal with such a challenge to his affirmed beliefs. She figured she would appeal to his protective side, to give him a reason to forget his fears.
“How can you be my knight in shining armour if you go all to pieces on me?” Linda asked. “I may need a big strong man before this night is through. Besides, some of this may simply be our imaginations getting the better of us.”
“Right,” Rodger said. He drew a deep breath and tried to regain some of his composure. “I’m just being a silly sod.”
The same clip-clop they heard earlier sounded above their heads, from the direction of the tower battlements. Rodger stood transfixed. Linda shined her torch upward.
A head leaned out from the space between two merlons. Upon this head sat an old-fashioned red cap. Below the cap, a pair of fiery eyes glared down at the two investigators. Then the strange sight, head, cap, and all, vanished behind the decaying stonework.
“Now it’s on the battlement,” Linda stated with a mixture of worry and awe. Something about that brief glimpse troubled her badly, but she remained determined to gather some concrete evidence of the supernatural. She was more convinced than ever that Glamtallon did indeed harbour something paranormal within its dim walls.
“And I suppose that’s where we’re headed next,” Rodger said with a sigh. He was doing his best to overcome his fears, but it was a struggle.
Linda nodded.
The couple made their way back to the hall and then slowly climbed the nearest set of spiral stairs. They picked their way carefully past piles of rubble and stepped gingerly over broken steps as they ascended to the uppermost level of the keep. Through the loopholes built into the stairwell, they could see the full moon rising over the eastern horizon.
Once in the threshold to the derelict battlements, Linda whispered for Rodger to check the EMF detector while she tried to get her recorder and camera to work. The green and yellow lights on the EMF detector in Rodger’s hand blinked wildly, indicating a massive electromagnetic field fluctuation. Linda’s camera and recorder sprang to life, but both devices acted possessed. Even though set in record mode, the digital recorder played back garbled gibberish. The viewscreen on the camera flickered between mad static and a grotesque array of leering faces. Then all went dead.
“Linda,” Rodger whispered. “Linda, the torch is going out.”
Linda glanced over at her beau with fear in her eyes. Rodger held up the torch. The light slowly dimmed and then went out. Linda checked her own torch, but it refused to turn on.
The rising moon silvered the battered top of the crenellated wall. A cool breath blew across the weathered stones. Metallic footsteps echoed along the allure and drew closer to where Linda and Rodger huddled in the deeper darkness of the stairway threshold.
A squat old dwarf clad in rough leather jerkin, iron boots, and crimson Phrygian cap emerged out of the gloom. Scraggly grey hair streamed over his hunched shoulders. Pointed teeth hung from his twisted mouth. Gleaming eyes shone from beneath his beetled brow. He held a long-hafted battle-axe in his gnarled hands. The weapon’s sharp blade glinted in the moonlight.
“Rodger, we have to get out of here,” Linda whispered. “This is no ghost. This is a redcap.”
The goblin’s pricked ears picked up Linda’s worried whisper. He cocked his head, shot the young couple a sinister smile, and then turned on his iron heels and disappeared.
“Where did he go?” Linda murmured.
“Doesn’t matter, ’cause we’re outta here!” Rodger cried as he grabbed Linda’s arm and led here back down the stone stairs.
Anxious to leave, but unwilling to face injury or death by tripping down the treacherous stairs, the two investigators felt their way along in the dark. They stubbed toes and scraped elbows as they went, but they continued their descent. However, halfway down, the panicked duo once more heard the distinctive sound of the redcap’s metal boots striking the flagstone floor of the castle hall. The dreadful realisation that the creature was now between them and escape made their blood run cold.
“Now what do we do?” Linda asked nervously.
Rodger didn’t answer her. He had no answer, and it angered him. He hated feeling so helpless.
The two lovers clung to each other, shivering in the dark. They waited for what seemed like an eternity as they listened to the brute pacing the floor below. Then all grew silent.
“I think he’s moved on,” Rodger said. “You stay here while I go check it out.”
“Rodge, no!" Linda pleaded
Rodger’s anger had finally conquered his fear. He wasn’t going to be trapped in that place forever.
“You wanted a knight in shining armour!” Rodger proclaimed. “I’m going to make sure we get out of here.”
Linda reached for Rodger’s arm to stop him, but to no avail. Her beau tore free of her grasp and headed down the stairs.
“Rodger!” Linda called anxiously.
“Stay there,” Rodger hissed back from where he stood just a few steps above the hall doorway. “I think it’s clear, but I’ll double check to make sure.”
Linda heard the shuffle of Rodger’s shoes on the dusty stones as he ventured into the hall. Then she heard a sickly thud immediately followed by a ghastly moan.
Shaking and fighting against the instinct to fly further up the stairs, Linda made her way, step by step, down to the paler gloom of the hall threshold. As she peered cautiously around the mouldering jamb, her eyes caught sight of a gruesome scene that paralysed her limbs and stopped her heart.
Bathed in the moonlight that poured through the easterly embrasures, the goblin crouched over a figure sprawled on the floor. He doffed his cap and dipped it in the glistening pool of blood that spread out from Rodger’s cloven skull. Linda whimpered her beau’s name, but she knew it was already too late.
The murderous dwarf stood erect. A cruel look contorted his ugly face. He donned his grisly hat and blood ran down his wrinkled cheeks. He then picked up his axe and strode toward his next victim.
The will to survive overrode Linda’s fright and she bolted past the abomination. She ran straight for the tower’s main entrance. The redcap’s gore-stained blade came within a hair’s breadth of ending her life, but Linda raced through the gateway and slammed the iron yett shut.
Wracked by uncontrollable sobs, Linda fell to her knees, still gripping the corroded grillwork. Burning tears ran down her freckled cheeks. For a moment, she wondered if she was caught in the clutches of a terrible dream. She thought she might wake up and find Rodger sleeping soundly next to her. The sting of the gritty bars biting into her palms brought reality flooding back.
“Rodger, Rodger,” Linda moaned her slain lover’s name over and over again.
“Rodger, Rodger”, the redcap echoed in a guttural tone. He pressed his repulsive face against the yett. “Rodger be dead!”
Linda leapt backward. She tumbled off the gateway stairs. Her right shoulder popped as she hit the ground.
Dazed and in pain, Linda lay in the dirt. Then she heard the iron grate rattle in its frame. Looking up, she could see the goblin’s taloned hands clutching the bars. His sinews twitched as he shook the gate. He laughed hideously and taunted his prey.
“You next!” The redcap shrieked. “You die next!”
Linda dragged herself up and stumbled down the unkempt road that led away from the castle. She staggered and swayed, and her right arm hung limp at her side, but she willed herself onward. The visions of Rodger lying dead on the flagstones and the redcap’s leering face peering out of the gateway kept her running. She had to get away from Glamtallon. She had to escape that horror.
Bright lights blinded her as a car approached up the track. She threw her good arm up before her eyes and tried to remain on her feet, but her wobbly legs finally gave out beneath her. She fell in a faint as MacCrimmon slammed on his brakes.

#

Blackness gave way to a murky haze as Linda awoke in a hospital bed. Her shoulder ached, and she felt the discomfort of an intravenous needle in her arm. She could hear the murmur of doctors and nurses talking in the corridor outside. As the haziness slowly lifted, she noticed MacCrimmon standing at her bedside. His bushy brows were screwed up into an anxious frown and his rheumy eyes displayed a disturbing sorrow.
“Rodger,” Linda muttered, only half-remembering the night’s events. “Where’s Rodger?”
“I’m so sorry, lass” MacCrimmon said. “I don’t know where Rodger is. I’m not exactly sure what happened last night, but I can hazard a guess.”
“It was you on the road, wasn’t it?” Linda asked, trying to remember.
“Aye,” MacCrimmon nodded. “Troubled by the thought of leaving the two of you in that accurst peel, I decided to go back. I never expected to find you wandering the road in such a dreadful state. It looks like you suffered a dislocated shoulder, along with some cuts and bruises. When I first found you, you seemed to be in a state of shock. All the way to the hospital, you kept muttering about Rodger, blood, and murder.”
I searched Glamtallon just after dawn, but found no trace of the lad. I then called Constable Frasier, so he could conduct an official inquiry. Seeing no evidence of foul play, Frasier seems to think it was simply a practical joke gone wrong. He’s convinced that Rodger will turn up in a few days.”
“But, but, but, it was no joke!” Linda stammered, recalling more details of the previous evening’s terror. “You found no trace of Rodger at all? No body? Nothing?”
“I did find one small clue to his fate.” MacCrimmon stated grimly. “I didn’t want to show the constable this thing. He wouldn’t understand. You and I understand all too well.”
The historian held up the blood-stained cap that he had safely tucked away in his jacket pocket.
Linda screamed.


Copyright © 2013 Richard H. Fay

Story originally published in Cover of Darkness, Issue 14, March 2013.