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Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Ghostlight

BOOK: Ghostlight
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APRIL 30, 1969 SHADOWKILL, NEW YORK
THE FREAK SPRING STORM BATTERED THE OLD HOUSE with unceasing ferocity, as if attempting to gain entry to that which went on within. Flashes of lightning burst upon the figures inside the room with staccato intensity, illuminating the scene as if for some demonic surgeon's scalpel.
It was a circular room, its only windows those that ringed the cupola above. Below those windows a ritual as old as the land upon which the house stood was being enacted. Between the lightning flashes, the candles the observers held provided the only illumination, but it was enough.
A naked woman reclined upon a draped wooden altar, her body glistening with oil. Her black hair was spread like a fan over the furs and velvets on which she lay. At her head a red-robed woman stood, her own head thrown back in ecstatic communion with the forces summoned here tonight. Her hands cupped the unclad woman's temples
and she cried out words in an ancient tongue in counterpoint to the thunder.
Seven men and one woman, robed all in dark forest green, stood at the quarter and cross-quarter points of a circle cut into the floor. Another robed figure stood just outside its barrier. Each held a beeswax candle in his hands; their chanting a sonorous antiphon to the red-robed woman's ecstatic cries. In the north and in the west, braziers filled with incense sent their perfumed smoke skyward in pearlescent columns; in the east and in the south, great crystal bowls filled with water and with flowers hummed faintly, resonating to the ecstatic chanting and the fury of the storm.
Over the sound of wind and voices, a hammering could be heard at the chamber's one entrance.
“He comes! He comes!
He comes!
” shrilled the red-robed woman.
The chanting stopped. The doors flew open.
A man stood in the doorway. His eyes were shadowed and his long blond hair flowed free. His head was crowned with silver antlers and on his brow was the golden disk of the sun. His skin gleamed with oil and shadowy painted designs. He wore nothing but an animal skin tied about his shoulders, and before him he bore, point raised, a great silver sword that gleamed in the light of the candles.
“I am the key for every lock,” he intoned in a voice that held the deep organ notes of the sea.
“I am the Opener of the Way!”
He paced slowly forward, sword upheld, until he reached the robed figure standing in the South and—lightly, lightly—touched the point of the sword to his chest. The man fell back, and the others all began to chant, their voices faster and somehow more urgent.
“The sun! Comes the sun! By Oak and Ash and Thorn, the sun! Comes the sun!”
“The sun is coming up from the South!” cried the
red-robed woman. “I call thee: Abraxas, Metatron, Uranos …”
Her litany went on unheeded. The horned man lay his great sword down at the foot of the altar and leaned over the naked woman. The smell of ambergris, civet, and opium rising from her skin was strong enough for him to smell even through all the other perfumes. The empty wine cup was still clasped loosely in her hand.
“Katherine—are you all right?” he whispered under the sound of the chanting. He could feel the power building in him; the ritual was proceeding just as he had written it, but something here in his Temple this night was not right.
At the sound of his voice her eyes opened. Even with only candlelight to see by he could tell that the pupils were enormous with drugs.
“Come … the … Opener of the Way,” she said, her voice slurred and husky.
The robed ones at the perimeter of the circle chanted in unison, their voices blending into an uprush of power that would not be denied.
“By Abbadon! Meggido! Typhon! Set!” cried the red-robed woman. “Open now, open now the Way!”
Her eyes rolled up in her head and she sank to her knees, and the horned man could feel the Powers congregate within the Temple like a rushing of wings. He drew a deep, chest-expanding breath and raised his hands to the heavens.
“Hierodule and Hierolator! Hierophex and Hierophant—” he cried out.
His voice was drowned in a crescendo of thunderclaps, blending with each other into the roar of an onrushing train. The doors, closed a moment before by one of the robed acolytes, burst open again with enough force to shatter their hinges, and an icy gale poured into the room.
“No! Don't break the Circle!” the horned man shouted, but it was futile. Panic spread like a fire through oil-soaked rags; all was screaming and chaos.
In a flash of lightning he saw the woman on the altar fall to the ground and begin vibrating spasmodically, like a puppet in the hands of a vengeful god. A crack of thunder louder than any before it seemed to split the room like an executioner's axe.
Then darkness.
Screams.
And, somewhere, a child crying.
WHAT IS TRUTH?
Beholding the bright countenance
of truth in the quiet and still air
of delightful studies.
—JOHN MILTON
 
 
 
NORTH OF NEW YORK CITY, ALONG THE EDGE OF THE Hudson River, there is a small estate lying between the railroad tracks of Metro North and the broad expanse of the river. Its main building was once a cider mill, and the mill—as well as the descendants of the original orchard—still occupies the site. Brick walkways cross the gently rolling lawns, and there is a yearly battle between the students and the deer for the produce of the trees.
Later buildings in the exuberantly classical Federalist mode complete the campus, but there has been no new construction on the campus for nearly a century. Its architectural conservatism makes the place so much the perfect image of an eighteenth-century college that the Dean must very firmly discourage the advances of several movie companies every year who wish to film here, but Taghkanic College guards its privacy—and that of its students and faculty—in the same stern fashion it always has.
In 1714 Taghkanic College was founded to provide education to the local Indians, mostly members of the Taghkanic and Lenape tribes, and to the free Blacks who had also settled in the area. Existing to this day on the terms of its original charter, Taghkanic College has never accepted one penny of government support to cover its operating costs, choosing to remain independent first from Crown and royal governor and later from the representatives of the fledgling United States.
Adherence to this policy has led, over the years, to a liberalization of its admission policies: In 1762 Taghkanic College opened its doors to “alle younge gentillmen of goode familie,” and in 1816 to women, making Taghkanic one of the first institutions of higher learning in the United States to do so.
Even with such broad admission policies, Taghkanic College would not exist today save for two individuals: Margaret Beresford Bidney and Colin MacLaren.
Miss Bidney graduated Taghkanic College in the same year that the Insurrection of the Southern States turned her father's comfortable fortune into a large one. She never married, and in the last years of her life she was a disciple of William Seabrook, noted occultist.
It was perhaps inevitable that Miss Bidney's fortune should go to fund, at the college of her matriculation, what grew to become the Margaret Beresford Bidney Memorial Psychic Science Research Laboratory at Taghkanic College.
From its inception, the laboratory—or, as it came informally to be known, the Bidney Institute—was funded independently of the college through the endowment fund created by the Bidney Bequest. The trustees of the college had been attempting to claim the entire Bidney Bequest on behalf of Taghkanic College for more than fifty years and were on the verge of success when Colin MacLaren accepted an appointment as director of the Institute.
Dr. MacLaren had been known in parapsychological circles since the early fifties, frequently operating under a cloud due to his willingness to accept at face value what were dismissed by others as the ravings of charlatans and kooks. MacLaren maintained that there should be no distinction made between the fields of occultism and parapsychology when studying the paranormal, that, if anything, the occultists should have the edge, since they had been studying the unseen world for centuries and attempting to distill a scientific method of dealing with its effects. MacLaren's particular field of study was trance psychism, or mediumship, and his aggressive leadership was precisely what the moribund Bidney Institute needed.
Under his guidance, the Institute took the lead in the investigation both of psychic phenomena and its wicked stepsister, occult phenomena, and became an institution of international repute. The specter of its dissolution vanished like expended ectoplasm, and it became clear to the disappointed trustees of Taghkanic College that their rich but unwanted foster child would be around until the time when Hell froze over—an event that the staff of the Margaret Beresford Bidney Psychic Science Research Institute intended, in any event, to measure.
 
Truth Jourdemayne sat brooding in her tiny cubicle at the Bidney Institute in a Monday-morning stupor unleavened, as yet, by the healing power of coffee. Her short dark hair in its sensible crop looked faintly rumpled, and her white lab coat, open over a sensible cotton sweater and jeans, looked less crisp than usual. A pile of computer printouts six inches thick lay under her right elbow: Truth's work for the immediate future.
She glanced up at the clock on her wall, shoving her horn-rimmed reading glasses up on her brow as she did so. Eight forty-five, and when she'd gotten here fifteen minutes ago Meg had just been starting to fill the
percolator. It was large, and old, and took its sweet time to boil; there wouldn't be coffee for a while yet. Truth sighed, and pulled the printouts over to her. Might as well get some work done while she waited.
Davy had finished the last of the runs just yesterday. It was part of an experiment Truth had designed; nothing out of the ordinary, merely an attempt to establish once and for all a statistical baseline for incidents of clairsentient perception. It was necessary work, but collecting the data to validate the experiment was a mind-numbing labor: ten individuals aged twenty to twenty-five, in good physical health, who were willing to participate in 100 double-blind machine runs of 100 Rhine cards each—and at that Truth thought her findings might be challenged on the grounds of being based upon too small a statistical sample.
But the experiment would have been impossibly unwieldy with more volunteers, even if she could have gotten them. It had taken over a year to amass the data as it was. And the preliminary work was sound enough. The experiment met all the International Society of Psychic Research guidelines: Responses were recorded electronically, symbols were chosen randomly by machine; there was no possibility that a human researcher could accidentally communicate the symbols to the subjects through body language.
Or even telepathy. It was hard enough having to design an experiment that would generate baseline statistics by which clairvoyance could be measured without having to design one that excluded other psychic talents—such as telepathy or precognition—as well. Still, Truth thought she'd managed. Since the computer in some sense already “knew” the order of all the symbols it would choose, that event lay in the past by the time the subject entered the experiment, so that any ability to see the future—assuming any of their subjects possessed such, which Truth hoped for the sake of her experiment
they did not—would not be involved in guessing the symbols on the cards.
Welcome to the glamourous world of statistical parapsychology,
Truth thought wryly to herself, and picked up a pencil.
 
She'd forgotten entirely about coffee when Meg came in an hour later.
“Hello? Hibernating?”
Meg Winslow was the Parapsychology Department's secretary, short, cheerful, round, and efficient. She entered with an armful of mail and a steaming coffee cup held perilously steady with three fingers.
“I lost track of the time,” Truth admitted sheepishly.

Lots
of lovely mail,” Meg announced decisively, “and Dyl brought in some currant shortbread he made over the weekend. I saved you a piece.”
Dumping the mail carefully on the desk, Meg set the cup down and dove into her jacket pocket to retrieve sugar and cream packets and a tile of shortbread wrapped in a paper napkin.
“You're spoiling me,” Truth protested laughingly. This service wasn't part of Meg's job description.
“If I don't, you'll starve to death, and be buried in a pile of statistics,” Meg said promptly. “I'd better get a move on—today's the start of classes, and we're sure to have a dozen lost freshmen wander in here before noon if I don't keep 'em out.” Meg swept out again, carefully closing the door behind her, in obedience to Truth's preference.
As one of the nonfaculty researchers at the Bidney Institute, Truth was entitled to an office with a door, just as if she were a full professor, and she kept it shut, whether she was in the office or not. The professors whose offices flanked hers kept their doors closed only, Truth suspected, as a vacuous show of status, especially since most of them popped up and peered out at the slightest footstep from outside.
But when Truth closed her door, she meant it. Truth kept her door shut so she could keep people out. Especially now. Truth Jourdemayne hated September with a passion more often reserved for the holiday season; she hated the flocks of returning students, the bewildered new arrivals, the graduate students.
It was not so much that she disliked any individual student, she told herself unconvincingly. It was just that taken all together they were too many—too noisy, and too energetic.
Well, after all, they're just arriving, while you've been here all summer, toiling away in the vineyards of statistical analysis
, Truth told herself mockingly. The Institute did not follow Taghkanic's academic year—a good thing, as they'd never get any work done—and so September was just another month for her, and not the end of a long vacation.
She sighed, and reached for her coffee—
Meg really shouldn't do things like this; if the professors notice they'll all want her to fetch and carry for them and she'll never get anything done
—and only then realized how stiff and sore her muscles were.
Tension. I really hate this place in September. A cross between a lunatic asylum and a three-ring circus—and at that, enrollment's down again. Everywhere but at good old Maggie B.
There were not many places in either the United States or Europe that offered a degree program in parapsychology and the services of a first-rate research lab to boot. If not for the Bidney Institute, Taghkanic would probably have closed years ago, just another liberal-arts college caught in the money crunch.
And where would you work then?
Truth took a moment to work the kinks out of her neck and shoulders before proceeding to her mail.
Most of what Meg had brought her was thick professional journals and catalogs. A book for review; another book, a publisher's blind solicitation of quotes; parapsychology
textbooks mostly, but one on statistical analysis that looked interesting. A quire of letter-sized envelopes, embossed with return addresses she knew.
And one she didn't. Rouncival Press.
Frowning, she tore it open.
And tore it. And tore it, until the envelope and three sheets of heavy paper were in postage-stamp-sized tatters on her desk. Her hands shook. How could they? How
dare
they?
“ … since you have also chosen a career in the occult … valuable service … intimate glimpses of a great pioneer of magic …”
They wanted her to write a biography of Thorne Blackburn.
Her hands were still shaking as she scooped the pieces of paper into her wastebasket. She was a scientist—she had a master's in Mathematics! Write an eulogistic biography of Thorne Blackburn? She'd rather bury him with a stake through his heart—and he was already dead.
And what was worse, he was her father.
Truth stared unseeingly at a poster of the Olana Historical Site on her cubicle wall. Thirty years ago Thorne Blackburn had been at the forefront of the occult revival that went hand-in-hand with the free love and antiwar movements of the 1960s. As sexy as Morrison, as fiery as Jagger—and as crazy as Hendrix—Blackburn had claimed to be a
hero
in the Greek sense, a half-divine son of the Shining Ones, the Celtic Old Gods. Though such declarations later became commonplace, with people claiming to be the children of everything from space aliens to earth angels, Thorne Blackburn had been the first.
He'd been the first to do a number of other things, too, from appearing on national television to conduct a ritual for his Old Gods to touring with rock bands as the opening act. Half heretic, half fraud, and all showman, Blackburn was one of the brightest lights of the occult revival during his brief, gaudy, public career.
And he'd made it pay,
Truth thought angrily. While publicly he claimed to be founding an order of heroes and working magick to bring the Ancient Gods of the West into the world again and inaugurate the “New Aeon,” Blackburn had somehow managed to amass the cash to buy a Hudson River mansion where he and his special followers could practice the rites of his so-called Circle of Truth in an atmosphere of free love, free drugs, and wild excess.
Among those followers had been Katherine Jourdemayne.
Truth felt the faint stirrings of a headache as she contemplated the old, familiar betrayal. Her mother had been Blackburn's “mystical concubine.” Katherine had died in 1969 in one of his rituals, and Blackburn hadn't had to pay for that, either.
Because that same night—April 30, 1969—Thorne Blackburn had vanished from the face of the earth.
BOOK: Ghostlight
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