My attempt to get into the ‘spirit’ of Halloween.
It was strange to return after all these years.
This had been the forest of her childhood, full of wonder and magic, a king’s treasury of things to do and see. She’d explore it for hours, get caught up in the building of a spider’s web, or watch squirrels hide their winter stashes, or imagine herself among the hawks soaring above the pines, or rarely, with the eagles above the hawks.
At night, she knew where to find the owl’s nest, and where the foxes burrowed.
She hunted rabbit and quail, and fished the river.
If she got there in time, she’d watch the torrent of bats blast from their caves into the warm summer nights.
She’d return home then and eat dinner; her mother had stopped worrying about her forays, thinking one day death’s hand would simply close, and that would be the end, but she left dinner out all the same.
They had their ritual, which sometimes varied, but not much: Jaika would sit down to eat, the scrape of her chair signaling to her mother that she’d arrived safely, and her mother would join her.
“How was your walk?” she’d ask.
“It was wonderful. I wish you’d explore with me.”
“I’m too old, and you’re too curious. I’d slow you down, Jaika.
Jaika would smile, and look fondly at her mother, now with subtle white streaks in her chestnut brown hair, knowing it was true, but saying it wasn’t.
Her mother would smile too, and wonder at her daughter’s own ginger mane, all disheveled and smelling of creation, her freckled cheeks flushed from the outdoors, her dark brown mahogany eyes, bright but slowly filling with sleep, and she’d sit with her chin in her hand, loving her daughter, listening to the woodland stories until Jaika finished eating.
Jaika had her father’s appetite. He’d passed away some time ago on a boar hunt. As he chased one, he didn’t see the other in time as it burst from the underbrush, and the horse reared and toppled him. The younger boar’s tusks were smaller, but they killed him all the same.
She shot it in the leg with an arrow to mark it by its limp, and when her time of grieving ended, she sought it out and slaughtered it, leaving the carcass for the scavengers.
There was no one left who remembered now, but the act of vengeance satisfied her.
After her mother died, she left home the following summer and went off to see the world. In the years that followed, she learned that just beneath the surface of the senses were creatures of nightmare and beings of dread so harrowing that if they ever breached the ethereal barriers that held them, the sight alone would drive people insane.
It was a new forest in a new land, and its wonders were a bit darker; there was a sense of timeless power buried deep within, full of the sense of presence and aura, but invisible, inaudible, moving just underneath, and all over, like meadow mice.
She could almost hear the chants, feel the runes etched in wood and stone, see the small lights that flickered in her periphery fade from her direct gaze.
She felt no danger; her instinct was well-honed for such things, but she was wary, and walked with a lighter tread than she would have normally.
The needles beneath the pine were still dry, and she had a blanket in her pack, which she spread, and laid out some light fare, and her water skin, and sat in the lap of the tree’s roots, a spreading web of wood covered tendrils like fingers grasping and clutching the ancient dirt beneath.
Around her, the land was quiet in the way that rainy forests are, full of small noises and rustlings that would have otherwise gone unheard and unnoticed.
She’d come across the abandoned temple quite by accident, not even seeing it at first, as she took shelter under a panoply of thick and fragrant pines to get out of the damp drizzle that caught her outside in the early afternoon.
About to close her eyes for a moment’s respite, she saw the ravaged gray wall through the lattice of evergreen branches.
Knowing by the light that evening was soon, and not knowing when the weather would break, and doubtless far away from anything that resembled civilization, she regrouped, repacked, and set out to explore what could be excellent shelter to spend the night.
She hoped she was right.
The temple walls were broken in diverse places and heights, cracked and discolored with age, but they weren’t fallen.
Unfamiliar ivy snaked along its sides and roof, seeking out the holes, and slinked through them to claim the inside too.
The surrounding grass was high, which could work to her advantage, or detriment; she was willing to gamble. Whatever hunted her would have to see her first.
There was a door, but something was blocking it, which only made her curious.
Walking around, she found a stone she could step on, and testing the sturdiness of the ivy, she used it to pull herself up.
She peered through one of the cracks, and gave her eyes time to adjust to the view.
A bare altar of black marble was the first thing she noticed, with black candles in bronze stands on either end of it.
There was a runnel carved into the altar on one end; her knife had one. Her mind resisted the implications of what that could mean.
Above the altar was a symbol, a rune of some sort that she didn’t recognize; another vibration of that unseen power shimmered under her skin, a sense that she ought to know it, but nothing came to mind.
She walked around to the back, and peered through another crack.
There were two rows of long benches, ten on each side, and a center aisle.
And in the aisle, just by the door, was a casket, old and ruined, long and heavy, but the wood was broken and splintered outward, as if what had been inside broke through to walk the earth again.
“Or maybe it was just broken up for firewood.” But she wasn’t convinced.
The drizzle turned to rain, and the sky had grown perceptibly darker.
The rain hardened, and she pulled her leather vest over her head, which was the only thing it could protect.
Hearing water falling inside, she looked in again, and saw a hole in the roof, the water cascading through it, draining off somewhere she couldn’t see.
She hadn’t noticed it; she dared not ask herself if it had been there all along.
It was big enough for her to get through, and the drop wouldn’t hurt as long as she braced herself. She’d jumped off enough rocks and boughs to have gotten the hang of that.
Her choice of shelter, it seemed, had been decided for her.
She scrambled onto the roof, pelted by the hardening rain, and tossing down her pack and short sword, she turned feet first and let herself slip through, landing on the floor with a solid slap as she bent her knees to absorb the impact.
And the place flared to life about her, full of candlelight and fireplace heat, with the low rumbling speech of men in blue tunics and the dulcet, softer tones of women in red gowns.
There was a window full of resplendent moonlight, and the air full of funereal music, and a man in black leather crosshatched with bands of gold studs was standing at the altar, a long blade dagger glinting like a steel diamond in his fist, looking directly at her with silver-blue eyes that heated her skin and iced her spine.
There were no cracks in the wall, no water, no ivy, and nowhere to run.
The altar gleamed with dancing firelight like a portal into the void.
The music stopped, and every eye in the room turned to focus on her.
The man at the altar smiled, and a drop of blood bloomed at the corner of his mouth, and meandered its way down to his chin.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
October 23, 2014
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