Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
The trail widened under a copse of balsams, then opened onto a meadow of thick grass. A shack over-looked the clearing, frail and wobbly on its stilts of stacked rock. A crumbling chimney, gray in the dim starlight, penetrated the slanted tin roof. The glass sheets of the windows were like dark eyes watching for company.
This was what Anna had been sent to find. She waded through the meadow, her pants cuffs soaked by the frosted grains of grass. A large rounded stone was set at the foot of the porch, as pale as the bely of a fish. She stepped on the stone and peered into the dark doorway.
The house wanted her.
Maybe not the house, but whoever had lived and then died here. Something had bound a human soul to this place, an event terrible enough to leave a psychic imprint, much the way light burned through the emul-sion on a photographic negative.
The air hummed with inaudible music. The tiny hairs on the back of Anna's neck stood like magnetized nee-dles. Despite the chil of night, her armpits were sweaty. A preternatural fear coursed through her veins, threat-ening to override her curiosity.
Something hovered beyond the door, wispy and frail as if unfamiliar with its own substance. Or perhaps it was only the wind blowing through some chink in the board-and-batten wals. Anna shined the flashlight on a knothole just above the door handle. A flicker of white shadow filled the hole, then dissolved.
Anna put her other foot on the stone porch. A form, a face, imprinted itself in the grain of the door. A small voice skirled in on the wind, soft and hol-low as a distant flute: "I've been waiting." Anna fought the urge to run. Though she
in ghosts, the sudden strangeness of encountering one al-ways hit her like a dash of ice water. And this one ... this one
Anna backed away, the flashlight fixed on the door.
"Don't go," came the cold and holow voice. Anna's muscles froze. She fought with her own body as her heartbeat thundered in her ears. The voice came again, smaller, pleading: "Please." It was a child's voice. Anna's fear mixed with sym-pathy, melded into a need to comprehend. Did young ghosts stay young forever?
Anna stepped up onto the porch. The boards creaked under her feet. Something flutered under the eaves and then joined the night sky. A bat.
"What do you want?" Anna said, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice. Her flashlight beam on the door revealed only wood and rusted hardware.
"Are you her?"
"Help me," came the plaintive voice again, fading now, almost lost. "Help us." Anna lifted the iron catch and pushed the door open, playing the flashlight's beam into the house. She glimpsed a tiny figure, a young face outlined by long locks of hair, a few folds of soft fabric flowing be-neath the begging eyes. The threads of the vision were unraveling.
"Stay," Anna said, both a request and a desperate command.
But the shape faded, the ghostly lips parted as if to speak, and then there were only the eyes, floating, floating, becoming wisps of lesser shadow, then noth-ing. The eyes had burned into Anna's memory. She would never forget them. The eyes had looked—
"Helo?" Anna called. The word died in the holow shell of the shack. She moved the light across the room. A few shelves stood to one side, a rough beam of wood spanning the black opening of the fireplace. A long table marked off what had been the kitchen area. A row of crude, hand-carved figurines stood on the table, their gnarled limbs protruding at grotesque an-gles.
Anna touched one of the figurines. It was about a foot tall, not lacquered or painted, the wood dark and bone-dry with age. The body was made from a chopped root, the arms and legs shaped from twisted jackvine. The head was a wrinkled piece of fruit, brown like dried apple, the eyes and mouth set in a deformed grin. They appeared to be folk art, something an early Scots-Irish mountain settler had carved during long winter nights to amuse the children. But the figurines were arrayed on the table like religious relics. One was wrapped in a peeling sheet of birch bark that appeared to emulate a dress. Another wore a garland of dried and dead flowers.
Anna shined the flashlight on the nearest stooped statue. The crude opening of the mouth held a gray, pa-pery substance. Anna scratched at it with her fingernail and it fell to the table. Anna identified the object in-stantly by its mottled markings and coarse, pebbly grain.
Anna moved behind the table, facing in the same di-rection as the figurines. An old fireplace was directly across the room, its stones blackened by the smoke of ten thousand fires. The heap of ashes gave no evidence of when the fireplace was last used. The corners of the room were thick with cobwebs, which drifted like di-aphanous sails against the breeze that leaked through the log walls.
One upper half of the room was covered by a loft. Anna climbed the rickety ladder, but saw only thick dust and the scattering of leaves that marked a rodent's nest.
She was checking the primitive kitchen when she heard a noise outside. The moonlight at the window was briefly interrupted. Had the ghost returned?
Anna ran outside, holding the flashlight at chest level. A stooped human form crossed the meadow, heading for the thicket of hardwoods behind the shack. A ragged shawl trailed out behind the figure in the night wind that had arisen.
"Wait!" Anna took a step and tripped over a loose piece of planking. She tumbled off the porch and landed on her wrist in the packed dirt. An electric shock of pain raced up her arm. By the time she got to her feet and collected her flashlight, the person or thing had disap-peared into the black trees. Anna followed. When she reached the edge of the forest, she waited and strained her ears. The night made a hundred sounds: the wind moaning through the branches, limbs squeaking, leaves scraping against bark, animals disturbed from sleep, unseen birds clut-tering. Any hope of hearing footfals was futile. It must have been human. Anna sensed no ethereal thread she could folow. She wondered if the person in the shawl had also seen the ghost. Or was it someone who had arranged the primitive figurines in a strange mockery of ritual? Had she realy seen the ghost or was she victim of an elaborate trick? Was she so desperate to find proof of afterlife that her own mind was deceiv-ing her?
Anna rubbed her wrist for a moment. No one, not even Anna herself, had known her destination that night. The ghost had been real, she was certain. The figurines were probably the handiwork of one of the manor's guests and left behind as a gift or tribute. Or maybe it had been the idle tomfoolery of one of the manor's workers. She turned to follow the flashlight back toward Korban Manor, bothered by the strange sensation that she was heading home.
She realized why she had come to Korban Manor. She had been fooled into thinking it had been her choice, that she needed to make contact for her own reasons. Out of al the reputedly haunted places she could have spent her final days, she hadn't simply picked this moun-tain estate. She hadn't dreamed of this place because of some long-forgotten paranormal journal she had once read.
No, she had been
The snapping of a twig brought her out of her reverie. Something large emerged from the forest shadows. Anna raised the flashlight, ready to use it as a club if necessary. The beam flashed across the looming black shape.
"You!" she said.
Mason held up his hands as if to ward off her anger. "I saw her."
"What ghost? I saw an old woman spying on you, then she took off running through the woods. I tried to follow her but she must know these old trails pretty well."
"How dare you folow me? What are you, some kind of slimy pervert stalker?"
"No, I just... well, Miss Mamie's little party was boring me to death, and I couldn't help being curious after all that talk about ghost stories. When I saw you leave the manor—"
"You arrogant bastard." She shoved past him and headed down the trail, not caring that she was leaving him in darkness. She only wished that ghosts really
evil, so that one might bite off his stupid oversize head. With any luck, he'd wander off the trail and have to spend the night in the forest, then wake up cold, sore, and miserable. She broke into a run and told her-self it was the wind and not anger and embarrassment that filled her eyes with tears.
Miss Mamie took off her pearls and placed them on the dresser among the purple velvet ribbons and bottles of rosewater. She looked in the mirror, bringing the lamp closer so she could check her skin. Anyone seeing the faint beginnings of wrinkles around her mouth and me streaks of silver at her temples would think she was fifty years old. Not bad, considering she was going on a hundred and twenty.
Ephram had promised to keep her young. Ephram always kept his promises. He was the perfect gentle-man. That was what had first attracted her, why she'd falen in love with him. His was a complete and perfect possession.
She opened the locket attached to her necklace. Inside the locket was Ephram's young face in sepia, with its sharp cheeks, a narrow angle of nose, thick beard and sideburns burgeoning over a high stiff collar. Oh, and those dark eyes, those cold burning eyes that had swept her heart away and caged her soul, that had sparked the tinder of her desire. He'd always had power, even back when he was a mortal. But now, mow ...
"Now we are ready," he said from the mirror. "Just as I promised." Her heart accelerated and her palms grew moist. She placed a hand on the mirror's smooth surface. Ephram's face coalesced in the reflection of the fire-light. A row of peeled apples hung drying on a string by the fire, carved into heads, with protruding ears and noses. The eyes and mouths glistened like scars. The faces would take shape as they dried, taking on their own unique features.
"How do you like them?" she asked.
"You've chosen wel." Ephram's voice was low and sibilant.
"They will feed you, given time." Miss Mamie looked into those seductive eyes. She felt a flush of warmth. Her love had never faltered.
Her dead husband's eyes flared in a storm of red and gold. "Even now, their dreams give me strength. And the blue moon is coming again."
"Just like the night you died."
"Please, my love. You know I don't favor that word. It sounds so... permanent."
"What about Sylva?" Miss Mamie said, lowering her eyes, anticipating his anger.
"What of her? She's just an old witch-woman with a sack of feathers, weeds, and old bones. Her power is noth-ing but the pathetic power of suggestion. But
— his voice rose, thunderous, until she was afraid that the guests upstairs might hear—"mine is the power that shapes
"So many years." Miss Mamie ran her hands over the neckline of her lace nightgown. "I don't know if I can wait much longer."
"Patience, my heart's love. These are special. These are true makers. They carve me, they write me, they draw me into life. Their hands give me shape, their minds give me substance. They make me just as you make them. And soon, Margaret—"
Ephram reached up through the mist that swirled in-side the mirror and placed his palm against the glass. Miss Mamie put her fingers on the mirror, craving the cruel and arousing electricity of his touch. Her dead husband smiled.
"Soon all those we have sacrificed will find their home, their true eternal life, in me. I will have what any lord and master deserves."
"What any lord and master deserves," she repeated in a whisper. Then the mists faded. Ephram collapsed into an ethereal smoke, and the mirror was again clear.
She studied her own face. She was a lucky woman. Her own hopes and dreams were about to be reborn. Soon Ephram could escape the mirror, these wals, this house. Soon she could touch his flesh again. She went to bed, alone with her lust.
she told herself. Ephram had promised her. And Ephram always kept his promises.
"I need something stronger."
"You ain't supposed to come out here in broad day-light, Ransom. What if somebody seen you?"
"I'm scared. I ain't coming out here in the dark. It's bad enough when you can
and it's getting worse."
"Was you folowed?"
"Not by none of the guests. Miss Mamie told them they ain't allowed up Beechy Gap. But the others"— Ransom lowered his voice and hunched his head as if afraid that the cabin's knotty walls were listening— "you know,
—they's everywheres now."
Sylva Hartley bent and spat into her fireplace. The liquid hissed and cracked, then evaporated against the flaming logs. She ran the back of her leathery hand against her shriveled mouth. She looked past Ransom, staring down the decades that were as dark as the smoky stones beneath the hearth.
"Lord knows it's getting worse," she finally said in agreement. She puled her frayed shawl up around her neck.
"The last charm worked right fair for a while. Kept them scared off. But now, they just laugh at me when I do my warding."
Sylva thought Ransom ought to have a little more faith. That was the key: faith. All the charms in the world didn't amount to a hill of beans if you didn't
Ransom had been raised Christian, and that was al fine and dandy. But when you got right down to it, some things were older and ran deeper than religion. It was too bad about George Lawson. George was an outsider, not born on the mountain. He didn't know what he was up against. With the proper charms, he might have dodged Ephram's litle games. But maybe not. Ransom was right. They were geting stronger. Ephram was geting stronger. And now George was on their side, too. Along with al the other people Ephram had fetched over in the last hundred years.