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Authors: J. P. Hightman

Spirit (12 page)

BOOK: Spirit
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T
he blue mist reached into Tess. She stared horror-struck as it passed through her, leaving part of her body aglow.

The mist was moving like a snake inside her, splintering into many, slithering in her intestines, her stomach shuddering, her muscles weakened.

Mist-tendrils whipped upward, stabbing into her head.

Her eyes shut, for an instant Tess experienced a flood of emotions and then felt nothing but cold. Her brain felt punctured as if by a sword of ice.

She saw a rapid scattering of pictures in her mind's eye: scarecrows, hands, a church, the train, as she detached from the reality before her.

In warm yellow light she awoke. She was in a different train car, snow covering the windows. Everything was moving strangely, fast and then slow. She was staring at many well-dressed men and women, in clothes such as her parents might have worn. They were being thrown against the walls.

A woman was screeching, “GET THE CHILDREN OUT!!”

And a ghostly female voice hissed an icy sound, “We do not want to hurt—”

And Tess knew she was seeing the story Lucinda had told her of the buried train, only it was not a story but the truth seen through someone's eyes.

Someone who had been there.

The Puritan girl was trying to speak in the only way she knew how, through dreams and images. This was a warning, a message about her mother, the true witch, and Tess knew this as if it were her own knowledge. Then everything before Tess vanished.

She found herself now in yet another dark passenger car, with a group of children. They had barricaded the door, and their hearts were filled with terror. As if in a dream, an older girl of nine or ten years looked at Tess, saying “She wants us dead, she wants us all dead…

“She would feed on us,” intoned the girl, in a slow, empty voice. “Malgore, they say she chews you open and feeds on your bones while you live…keeps you alive to feel the pain…and takes your bones to use in her magic…

“Your spine,”
she whispered,
“she rips your spine out and curls it round her bed—”

“No…,” murmured Tess.

The girl nodded. “In Blackthorne, men killed themselves before she could get to them. They did not want to die at her hands. We shall all be murdered here, Lord deliver us….”

Tess knew. The little girl had never said such words. It was the ghost speaking as directly as it could. Dream was blending with memory.

Then the vision was gone.

 

She awoke feeling dazed, the influence of the ghost still clinging.

Outside in the field beyond, Tess saw the lost blind boy, his face normal and restored, alive but wracked with fear. She shot a glance to Annette, who was pulling herself up, safe, free of the snowy ground that had held her like a living thing.

The witch's power was weakening.

Her abilities are not endless, thought Tess with relief.

She tried the door. It gave.

She smashed her way into the snow, Abigail's spirit still inside her. Shouts came from the train behind her and she glanced back wildly, seeing figures in the whitened windows. She battered at her chest, to drive out the thing within, and fell to the icy earth.

A force poured out of Tess, rippling the air, and shaping itself into the figure of a young Puritan woman. The bottom of her face was gone, mere vapor, and then all of her fell away into glimmering ether.

Still searching for her, the witch pursued, leaping from the train roof, limping grotesquely. Tess saw her suddenly stop as she came upon the body of Josiah Jurey in the snow.

Malgore saw the cross and other amulets upon it. She hissed, crunching his ankle in her claws, and dragged the witch-hunter off into the woods.

Tess watched the ghostly feminine form of Abigail, a flowing curtain of blurring waves in the air, and below that, the witch striding off, a swift shape in the snow, limping, moving unnaturally, dragging its dead prize.

 

Long after Tess was free of the encounter, Malgore continued to pursue the misty cerulean form of Abigail. With its animal mind, the witch knew the spirit desperately wanted to be followed. The bait would not be taken. Abigail desired nothing more than to draw Malgore away—but the witch would not be deceived into leaving her human prey out there in the forest ahead.

The widow dropped Josiah Jurey, leaving him like a hunter's kill. She hissed and after a moment, something huge crackled in the brush in response. Malgore gave a satisfied sigh, motioning her servant closer.

Now she would hunt the men properly.

M
ichael and Sattler tried to keep pace with Tobias as the pale daylight crawled on toward three, then four o'clock. The woods were as still and quiet as the day of creation. Tobias shook himself out of a daze.

Wilder was saying, “These woods were feared by the Indians long before any Salem witches came into it. That's what the old man on the train said. He said the creature came to gain strength from the power emanating here.”

For just an instant, Tobias saw shapes in the dim, snow-shrouded forest, hundreds of them,
people
in ragged old-fashioned dress.

“Do you…sense something?” Sattler asked.

“I sense nothing but happiness and dandelions out there, waiting to be reborn.” Tobias kept going, visibly nervous. Were the dead railworkers? The deceased from Blackthorne, the burned bodies from the plague?

“Come now. What did you see?” Sattler was used to his bleak humor by now.

Shrugging him off, Tobias treaded onward.
Many died here.
He was thinking.
They're tied to the place, but put it out of your mind—they're not the ones to fear. There's something else out there.

The other men were calling for him to slow down, but Tobias was slogging on. “We have people counting on us. I'm sure that's as new a feeling for you as it is for me, but that's that.”

And then there was silence, a hole of sound where the young men should have been.

Tobias turned. The others were gone. The forest had been swallowed by the smoky blue and white mist. His heart was pumping hard.

“Sattler?”

He heard their voices calling, distant.

Michael: “Where are you—?”

Sattler: “What in God's name happened?”

Staring at the wall of fog, Tobias turned, listening, the voices moving around him….

“Can anybody hear me?” called Sattler.

His voice trailed off, as did Michael's. There was no sign of Wilder at all. Tobias saw the haze in the forest growing, reaching toward him.

He gave a quick prayer. In an instant the mist surrounded him.

Tobias stumbled around in the gloom, fearful, listening, lost in the snow-painted trees, trying to be calm. “Are you here…?”

But there was no answer.

Suddenly Tobias heard a low growl at his side. He could see nothing in the drifting, cloudlike masses. Then a more disturbing sound came from directly in front of him.

It was a savage howl, a murderous cat-kill screech carved out of the quiet, and out of the mist before him, Tobias saw Michael
thrown to the ground, a rageful white creature pouncing upon him with incredible fury. Tobias stared in shock.

He stumbled back, away from the white beast—what was surely a witch—but Tobias was so stunned he could not find the word in his head. The thing ripped into Michael's flesh, his arm, his chest, the college boy's fingers were snapped by the creature's jaws. Michael's head slammed backward, and he fell unconscious.

The creature looked up, saw Tobias, and dropped its attack on Michael. Instead, it began slowly, inexorably, striding toward him.

For a moment Tobias could only stare.

He thought he saw the shadow of a wolf behind the witch, moving toward Michael. But the mist seemed to shuttle the four-legged creature away, and Tobias had no more courage to watch.

He turned to run, but Malgore leaped for him, as he felt a rush of air from behind. His head met the ground hard, the witch's brutal strength pushing down upon him.

He looked up, gasping. The Thing was astonishing. To call it a “witch” was to stretch the definition. It was a beast, a horror, its skull stretched and deformed, its feminine face tightly narrow and extremely thin, barely covered in white skin and crowned with a long mane. A skeletal woman with small, bright eyes loomed over him.

It opened its huge jaws, rising back for a final, joyous strike of death—

But Wilder rushed out behind it, firing his pistol. The witch was struck, but turning, it flew at Wilder and pinned him to a tree.

Tobias was staring in a near stupor when he felt a grasping at
his arms. Out of nowhere a misty form tugged him back, lifting him high off the ground, pulling him up into a tree to safety.

He could scarcely see what had saved him. Tobias glanced at the shape, which had the vague look of a man in Puritan clothes, but it was blurred, subtle, becoming mist almost as soon as Tobias cast his eyes upon it.

Below him, Malgore slammed Wilder against the tree again and again, his enormous frame struggling. Behind the creature, a second billowing presence, this one female, was soaring away, and the witch turned to it, hissing.

The witch gave chase, releasing Wilder to choke upon the ground.

High in the tree, Tobias searched for the apparition that had saved him, and then had faded as if worn out. Suddenly it made itself known as a coil of indigo vapor that whipped around the tree, becoming the slightest outline of a human form, the ghost soaring into Tobias, its hand touching his forehead. Tobias felt electrified, as the spirit broke through his skin, firing each nerve in his brain. He felt as if a gauzy substance, a curtain, were brushing upon the interior of his head. He took in a rapid flash of images: scarecrows, Salem, the train, axes, torches…

Tobias Goodraven felt his identity merge with another.

A
nd then he was somewhere else. Tobias stood before a set of open church doors. Within the church, staring out, were the faces of angry men. Their gaze was so unkind, their appearance so disturbing, their bones so severe and sharp that Tobias felt it hard to withstand the sight of them. He had a sense somehow that he would be forced to enter this place and confront them.

But gradually light engulfed them, and he found himself standing in a crowd in front of a gallows. He was seeing the Puritan witches being hanged: A young man, a young woman, and her mother. The crowd was shouting. The bodies fell, one after the other, jerking, writhing on the ropes.

A flash engaged Tobias's vision, the moment passed, and the bodies were dragged away by the mob. The old woman was thrown down a hill, and left to lie in a ravine. As the crowd left, Tobias stared down at her from the top of the hill. She was twitching, her emerald-white eyes upon his, otherworldly. She was alive.

Tobias knew what she was. In an instant, he became aware that the woman was once a living person, vicious, brutish, that she was now cheating death. She had only seemed to die, had worked
a dark and terrible blood magic, feeding on a force in the forest older than anything known.

Her wounds dripped from where the crowd had stoned her, and the stringy tatters she wore were clotted with crimson. She arose, thin muscles pulling her body out of the dead creek, and moved, sluglike, her mouth close to the dirt, her eyes smoldering in fury. Dragging herself up the hill, she was pure determination. Her white hair had fallen back from her high, withered forehead, and with the taut flesh of her face exposed, she was the equal of any creature in hell, ready for new life, power, and vengeance.

Tobias was seeing the Malgore witch being born, a living thing, but no longer human.

He was being given a history of horrors, as the ghost of the Puritan boy was showing him events of two hundred years ago in a bright, clear, unflinching vision. And the mystery that turned inside Tobias was,
Why?
What did the spirit want from him?

 

Tess lay on the snowy ground where she had fled, her eyes clenched shut as she heard the train metal stop rattling somewhere behind her. She opened her eyes. Her body was hers again.

The spirit had gone.

It went to find strength, Tess thought, to gather energy for another strike. There was time yet to prepare.

Tess stood up and moved across the snow to the train. Underneath her fear, she felt, at the back of her mind, a strange, buried
envy.
The spirits could move together, pass into each other; know one another with unimaginable intimacy. Their secrets, their history, their shared tragedy would be fully experienced by both together.
Their feelings could never be hidden or ambiguous.

She saw Annette just ahead, and moved toward her. “They're being kept apart,” Tess whispered to her.

“What?”

“I felt their isolation…” She knew Tobias would've seen it had he been here.

“I don't understand.”

“The ghosts of Salem,” said Tess, thinking aloud, her voice shaking. “There was something they wanted me to
feel.
It's the widow Malgore…. she's trying to keep them apart. She's killed or she's driven out everyone they've come near, everyone…to keep them apart.”

“Who?”

“Wilhelm. Abigail. They've been trying to reach us…”

“Reach us for what, Tess?”

Tess gazed at her, unsure. The question hung in the air.

There was something very touching about Annette, looking so helpful. Tess cursed herself for listening to Tobias, for letting him desert her.
Where in God's name was he?

 

Tobias awoke in the snow. He had fallen from the tree and survived, but Wilder was gone. Not a soul was visible in the woods. Except the one leaving him. Light and vapor fled his body, soaring away in the snowfall.

It was a man's form, in Puritan hat and cloak, but hardly there, like a rippling silk, blown away, growing even more indistinct, just silvery light fading and soon lost in the trees.

It joined with the second spirit-shape, the ghost of Abigail, and
the two vanished into the distant air.

And then from the other direction, out of the mist and trees, an emaciated woman with alabaster skin was coming forth, wrapped in animal pelts, and she was raised up, high, and Tobias saw that she was riding an immense black creature.

Tobias looked upon it with total incredulity.

It appeared to be a great black jaguar, with massive muscles and odd lumps of flesh beneath its slick hide. Its slightly misshapen head was marred by tumorous clumps and growths covered in dark fur, and two small sharpened horns. It stepped over to Tobias, its fangs bared. The woman leaned down and hissed savagely. She grinned, showing ragged teeth made of thorns, and a bony, almost-feline face, like that of her steed.

Widow Malgore had returned.

She had donned the gear of hunting, as her sick mind saw fit, and she was enjoying the pleasures of the chase.

She kicked at the jaguar—who proceeded to dive into Tobias's chest, lifting him. Tobias wheezed painfully as he was flung around, writhing, and he could see the snout and jaws of the animal on his chest, clutching his clothes. He was trapped in those strong jaws, hanging by the loose clothing at his midsection as if he were held in a sack. His feelings were of detached horror—
how very strange, these jaws have hold of me…

“Tobias!”

It was Wilder, rising from behind a tree, injured but fighting, firing his pistols. The huge jaguar was struck in the middle, crying out; it dropped Tobias, leaving him gasping. Widow Malgore stabbed the cat with a small pitchfork, and the monstrous animal
galloped away in extraordinary leaps, carrying her into the mist.

Wilder went to Tobias, lifting his head. “Are you all right?”

“Exceptional.”

“The others?”

Tobias shook his head, not knowing.


Diàvolo.
It was her demon, wasn't it? In thrall to her…,” Wilder asked, quoting the nursery rhyme. “Old Widow Malgore, kept a devil slave…'?”

Tobias couldn't answer that, but told him of the spirit-vision he'd received from Wilhelm, and his discovery: “She's alive. She can be killed.”

The foreigner scoffed. “I always believed it. It was never in doubt, Goodraven. That's what this is for.” He set down the witch's dagger in the snow. “But you wouldn't listen. I suppose we have to learn things for ourselves, don't we?”

“This is proof, don't you understand? The spirit is helping us; I saw the mother survive the gallows with my own eyes.”

He wasn't sure Wilder was even listening to him; the man was examining Tobias's injuries. “Your wound's not deep,
signore,
you'll be all right,” Wilder said, “and she'll need time to draw strength. We need to keep moving. I can protect you.”

“That's no longer convincing.”

Wilder scowled. “I shall tear the head off the wretch and crush her skull….”

Without warning Malgore flew from the mist and leaped upon him. His eyes went wide. He'd been stabbed in the back.

Tobias gaped in horror as the huge man's face imploded, sucked inward.

The witch pulled back, floating above, carrying Wilder's spine in her claws.

His skeleton had separated from his body.

Wilder's skin flagged to the ground, bloodless, in a heap. The witch dropped his bones to the snow, and turned, flying back into the mist, her strength depleted.

It was an instant and nothing more.

Tobias stood stunned before the grisly heap of skin and bones. The man was dead.

Wilder was dead.

The wretch was gone, a retreat made clear by a long, terrible silence in the woods.

Tobias stumbled away, and stared into the white void.

After a time, Tobias retrieved Malgore's dagger and pocketed it, though he could hardly imagine putting it to use. He slumped into the snow, placing his back against a tree, shivering, fighting to keep his brain working.

Eventually, he became aware that Sattler was running toward him from ahead in the woods. “WE CAN SEE THE TOWN…,” he was yelling.

Saying nothing, Tobias remained in a daze, as Sattler got closer. He was shuddering uncontrollably. There was little hope of getting through this now. Wilder had been the most capable of them, and they had lost his protection. The spirits could not keep Tobias safe and Malgore was out here, somewhere alongside them in the forest. They would be killed for certain.

“What happened?”

Tobias was not speaking, his thoughts running wild. Whatever
it was the Puritan wanted him to know, the wretch did not want him to hear it. He had only part of a message.

“It's an endless feud…between them…and I don't know how to end it,” Tobias uttered quietly, not sure if his words were even audible. “I'm going to die here no matter what.”

Sattler stared at him in shock.

But Tobias knew, it was the truth.

BOOK: Spirit
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