(Author’s note: This is part 7 of an ongoing series. For episodes 1 to 7, click here: http://thegoblinguy.com/category/serial-fiction/)
In an ancient graveyard at the edge of town, at the center of a small cypress ringed grove, a single headstone stood apart from all the others. It was a few hours before midnight, in this grove and beside this grave, that Messrs. Grundy, Dooley, and Smarr (Esquires) raked the fallen autumn leaves into a pile. They each wore their standard respectable business attire along with a long wool overcoat, as the air had turned rather chilly of late. Messrs. Grundy and Dooley wore their Wellingtons as well, since the ground here was muddy and marshy. Mr. Smarr wore steel toed boots and made squishing noises as he walked.
Occasionally the fog parted and the sharp silver disc of the full harvest moon could be seen in the sky above, but for the most part the trio worked in darkness. They liked the dark. It was easier to hide the bodies.
Back in his office, Dr. Ignatius Fade paced slowly from one end of the room to the other. After every turn he would stop, eye the clock on the wall with a frown, glance towards the door, then sigh and begin his vigil again. Ragnaline was late. Very late. And it was not like her to skip an appointment.
A glass of brandy sat on his desk and every few turns he would stop and take a sip from it to calm his rattled nerves. Despite his efforts, a growing fear continued to gnaw at his insides as he fretted over his patient’s absence. He tried to think of this as just an innocent delay and not the slow unraveling of his master plan, that he was certain it foretold. He was not angry at being kept waiting, just irritated and troubled by his options. He was not an angry sort of man, not anymore. Anger only served to get him in trouble.
In the small apartment above the library, Yadra, the old woman who made the candles, leaned down and kissed her husband on the cheek. The Librarian gave a slight nod of absent-minded acknowledgement and continued to read. He did not notice that Willm had not returned but this was not terribly unusual, to say the least. The boy kept mostly to himself and the librarian often spent entire days lost in his books and oblivious to the outside world.
Yadra had noticed her son’s absence, but she said nothing. Her cards had indicated a matter of the heart and she had learned that is was best not to meddle in such things. She pulled her black velvet cloak tightly around her, stalked silently through the library to the large front doors, and then slipped off into the foggy night.
She did not head towards the church for her nightly candle dipping vigil however. Instead she dashed quickly across the square and made her way towards the graveyard at the edge of town. The skitters did not bother to follow her as she was not fresh and juicy enough for their appetites.
At least that is what they told themselves. The reality of it was that she could unravel them with but a muttered word and a stern glance. They had learned this the hard way. It was perfectly safe for the witch to walk through the streets at night alone. The worst things she might find there, found her to be much worse indeed.
Miss Mary stood at the door of the orphans’ bedroom and silently counted her sleeping charges. All safe and accounted for, save for the one who had vanished two nights before. Thomas Root had been a kind, if easily frightened boy, and she had already said her prayers for the safe passage of his soul. It was best not to dwell on such losses, and she was uncertain if any god would even listen to a prayer from the likes of her. Still, she promised the sleeping children that she would make Ignatius pay for all the lives he had disrupted. Somehow, someday, and hopefully very soon. She blew out the lantern beside the door and tiptoed down the hall, one step after the other, always on the tick of the clocks.
Tick… Tick… Tick…
Mary paused at her office and peeked inside. The new baby was sleeping soundly to the steady beat of the metronome. Her house was in order. All inside were snuggled down warm and well. She closed the office door on the slumbering baby and locked it inside with the only key.
Tick… tick… tick…
The front door opened on the fourth tick, and she stepped through it on the fifth. She closed it behind her on the sixth, and the key was turned to lock it on the seventh. The eighth tick did not matter, for she could no longer hear the ticking from her house filled with clocks. Free for the moment from all patterns and constraints, she scurried off as well, into the fog shrouded night.
Having no one to rescue from the skitters tonight, the watch children relaxed peacefully in their own beds. Thomas dreamed of finding his parents, Eli dreamed of becoming a watchmaker. Garrett dreamed of becoming a great scientist, Ace of being a famous explorer. Allie did not dream at all.
Deep in the basement of the library, the paper brains of long expired authors did not dream either. They simply screamed.
Mr. Smarr hauled the bulk of a fallen tree over to the pile of leaves in the graveyard.
“A bit too large, I think.” Dooley suggested. Grundy nodded in agreement as he dumped an armful of smaller branches and twigs atop the pile.
Mr. Smarr shrugged and promptly set to work tearing the tree into smaller, more useful pieces. He did this using only his bare hands and occasionally his teeth. The calm serenity of the grove was disrupted by the violent sounds of snapping and splintering wood. But after a few minutes of noise, Mr. Smarr was satisfied and silence fell again.
Mr. Dooley surveyed the pile and let his lips curl in a smile at the job well done. It was not their usual line of work, but this sort of job every once in awhile made for a rather refreshing change. Manual labor agreed with them. It felt good to get back to nature and get their hands dirty. It was nice to remember their humble beginnings. He reached into his overcoat and retrieved two bottles of very strong red wine. After uncorking both, he set one down on the headstone and placed three sturdy stemless glasses beside it.
Grundy ran his fingers across the faded letters etched into the headstone, as Dooley double checked their instructions, and he mumbled aloud the words he found there. “Zosime Isobella Fade. Beloved Mother and Wife. Born 1861. Died 1588…”
“I should certainly hope so!” Dooley replied, not catching or perhaps not caring about the anomaly. “They make such an awful fuss when you bury them alive.”
“Extra paperwork.” Grundy agreed.
“It seems all is in order, gentlemen.” Dooley nodded and tucked a small folded square of paper back into his pocket before handing the other bottle to his partner. “I do believe the honor is yours this time, sir.”
Grundy nodded, took the bottle, and pulled a dirty handkerchief from his own pocket. Stuffing the cloth down inside the uncorked mouth of the bottle, he produced a match from up his sleeve, struck it on the gravestone, and then lit it to the end of his makeshift torch.
“Geronimo!” Grundy bellowed as he hurled the cocktail into the middle of the leaf pile. All three Esquires stood silently by and watched as the bottle exploded in a whoosh of flames and broken shards of glass. The kindling, now drenched in alcohol, caught quickly and the bonfire roared to life. Satisfied that their commission had been completed to the requested specifications, one by one the gentlemen picked up their rakes, turned away from their handiwork, and headed towards the pub.
“She said the girl would be here.” Yadra muttered and scowled at the flickering flames of the bonfire.
“Give her… time.” Mary softly urged. “It can’t… quite be… midnight… yet.” The two women had arrived separately to the empty grove, and had already slipped off their shoes, pulled off their stockings, and poured the wine. They had been waiting there for quite a while and were already well through their second glasses.
“For someone who lives her life surrounded by clocks,” Yadra spat, “you have a terrible sense of time. It is almost two in the morning.”
“Oh…” Mary sighed in defeat. “I guess… we better… get started… then… We won’t… be waking… the dragon… tonight.” Her words retained their familiar shuttered cadence, despite the open air of the graveyard.
“Or any night… without a third.” Yadra muttered. “How many years have we been waiting?”
“Too many.” Mary said. “But what… is a few… nights more?”
The two women finished what was left in their glasses, Yadra with a gulp and Mary at a more measured pace. Then they set them back down on the headstone before walking in opposite directions barefoot around the bonfire,and taking up their customary positions around the circle. If there had been a third standing on the grave, they would have formed a perfect triangle.
As it was, they simply stood on opposite sides of the fire, barely able to see each other through breaks in the flickering of the flames. In unison however, as if they had practiced this many times before, they pulled their black hoods back up over their heads, raised their arms towards the heavens, and began to chant their ancient and powerful words.
“Venire ventus venire,
Somno draco somno,
Nunc exspectas nunc,
Dormiunt nocte dormiunt!”
Twice through the phrases they chanted, steadily increasing the volume and intensity behind their words each time through. Mary did not actually know what the words meant, but she said them anyways. The spell had been given to them by a ghost, and Yadra had confirmed that they should work, based on her own rudimentary knowledge of Latin.
Nothing happened. It never did till the end.
“Venire ventus venire…”
The wind picked up and rustled through the leaves of the swamp trees. It tugged at the hems and hoods of the witches’ cloaks. It forced the bonfire to bend and bow before twisting the flames around and nudging them ever closer to the moon above.
“Somno draco somno…”
The earth rumbled beneath their feet and a murder of sleeping crows lept into the air with startled scolding cries. The fog slowly thickened throughout the slumbering city.
“Nunc exspectas nunc…”
A ghostly figure began to take shape above the lonely grave. It was a woman in a long colonial style dress. Her form was blurry and pale, like an imperfect memory of the woman she once had been, but her neck was darkened with violent burning lines. Rust colored blood seeped from a slash in her belly and dripped steadily down her skirt to pool on the ground at her feet.
“Dormiunt nocte dormiunt…”
The voices of the witches faded away, their last word barely a whisper. The wind died down, the ground settled, and the crows eventually returned to their roost. The fog continued to roil through the cemetery and out into the city streets beyond. The figure at the grave remained.
“It is not yet time.” The ghost whispered, her voice heavy with sadness. The two women broke from the circle and walked around the fire to join her.
“You said the maiden would be here tonight, Zosime.” Yadra scolded. “You were wrong.”
“Something happened…” The ghost explained. “She has slipped beyond my sight.” Her words sounded distant, like a muffled whispered echo overheard at the end of an impossibly long hall. She wavered for a moment, like a candle flickering out, but grimaced and redoubled her efforts to remain visible among the living.
“Is she… dead?” Mary asked matter of factly as she poured a third glass of wine. She raised the glass in a salute to Zosime and then knelt down beside the headstone and slowly poured the contents of the glass onto the ground.
“I never drank in my lifetime, you know.” Zosime closed her eyes and smiled, licking her lips and savoring the bittersweet flavor of the gift they had brought for her. A shudder of delight ran through her ethereal form and she moaned with satisfaction. For a moment, she seemed to become more solid and settled. “It is a pity that I shunned such a delicious vice. Perhaps then, I would have found my husband somewhat bearable.”
“Is the girl dead?” Yadra repeated the question, much more forcefully than Mary had. Yadra was not the sort of woman to entertain trivial fantasies. The past was gone and she was too old to waste time on small talk.
“Perhaps.” The ghost replied, dimming again with each passing second. There was no ritual to hold her here, she had just come because she knew it was expected, and lingering for long was not a pleasant sensation. “I do not know. It is too soon to tell. She is not with me.”
“Where… is she… then?” Mary straightened up and asked. “She is not… with my brood… of that… I am… certain.”
Zosime slowly shook her head, frowned in concentration, and then looked towards Yadra. Her ghostly form had dimmed to no more than a smudge of light now. “She is with your son.”
“What? My son!” The old crown squawked in confusion. “That is not how it is supposed to happen.”
“No. It is not.” Zosime’s words hung in the air as a warning, long after her form had finally faded completely away. With her departure, the bonfire snuffed out into oblivion, and the pair of women were left alone in the cold darkness, barefoot, tired, and with only the dregs of the wine.
“Your son?” Mary asked after several minutes of silence. “I thought…”
“You thought right!” Yadra muttered, “I can’t have any children. Lord knows we tried. So Harland made one out of paper. Thinks he’s a boy, talks like a boy, but he isn’t…”
“So… we just… find him…” Mary suggested. “And then… we find… the girl.”
“Easily said. Harder to do.” Yadra shook her head and leaned against the headstone to scrape the mud from her feet before slipping back on her shoes. “It’s a big city, Mary. A big empty city swallowed up by fog. Willm didn’t come home this morning. I haven’t a clue where he is.”
“Oh… I see… You would think… that she… would be… more helpful.” Mary frowned and jerked her thumb towards Zosime’s grave. “Doesn’t… she want… to leave?”
Yadra straightened up and stared thoughtfully at the headstone. “I don’t think she can, Miss Mary. She might find peace, if we manage to wake up her dragon. But I don’t think she can ever leave. Her death is settled. Ours…”
“…is still… to be… seen.” Mary finished with a shudder. They both fell into silence again for a long while, lost in their own fears and memories.
Finally Mary gave a deep sigh of resignation and shrugged. “Nothing more… to do… tonight… I’ll walk… you home…” she offered and started slowly towards the edge of the grove.
“Thank you. But it’s safer for me to escort you to your door. You have little mouths to feed, after all. Mine can feed themselves, when they bother to remember.”
Side by side, the two witches strode out into the fog.
“What ever… happened… to her… baby?” Mary asked.
“Nobody knows, Mary. Nobody knows.”
But somebody did know what had happened.
Once the intruders had left, and their fire had cooled, a ragged, wasted young girl crawled out from her hiding spot behind the Zosime’s headstone. Her grey skin was scratched and bruised and her shabby old dress was torn and muddy. Her once bright red hair was dulled with dirt and matted with grime, as was the tattered tuft on the end of her tail. She looked like an absolute wretch, a thing worthy of nothing more than pity, but her teeth were dangerously sharp and pointed and her eyes were filled with a feral glint of insanity.
She sniffed at the abandoned bottle of wine, then upturned it and lapped her tongue at the last few drops that fell from its neck. She wrinkled her nose at the taste and tossed the bottle away in disgust. Water from a birdbath tasted much better.
In a scrambling half-crouch half-crawl, she circled the remnants of the bonfire and carefully withdrew a smoldering branch, still solid but heavy with ash. Returning to the headstone, she slowly marked the childish image of a flower on its bumpy surface with her sooty stick. Once the drawing was complete, she stepped back to admire it.
“I miss you, mother,” the girl whispered to the wind. With a sudden caw of anger at the sleeping crows, she hurled her stick away and darted off deeper into the graveyard, away from the direction that the witches had gone.
She came to a crypt overgrown with brambles and vines, standing sentry amidst the once neat and orderly rows of crosses and stones, now tilted and broken, that marked the long forgotten dead. The bricks were crumbling and the gate was rusty, but it still swung open far enough to let her slip inside. The warm wetness of fog pushed past her feet and escaped into the world above as she descended the steps in absolute darkness. She did not need to see where she was going though. She had been here many times before.
A soft rumbling sound rose and fell, then rose and fell again, echoing through the vast underground chamber, but the girl was not afraid. This is where she had lived most of her life, underground, in the darkness, playing with the bones of the dead.
This is where she slept her days away, curled up, safe and sound. Nestled against the flank of a long slumbering dragon. This is where she planned to stay. Until they woke it up.
Then she would watch it eat them all, and she would laugh.
They were horrible, rotten people who deserved everything that was coming to them.
And her dragon would make sure that they got it.
Copyright 2015 by Robert A. Turk – All Rights Reserved
Robert A. Turk is a professional author and entertainer.
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