Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Looking for a Halloween Read?

Then you might like to dip into Phantasmagoria.

The cellar was dark, and if not dank then certainly musty. Bella couldn’t believe it normally smelled so ensanguined; the metallic taste seeped into her mouth, causing a thickness in her throat.

A cowled figure beckoned them into the unknown from the bottom of the steps. Niamh clung to her arm, already trembling. Beyond the wine cellar, the rooms were lit with a sickly green glow, giving the illusion that they were at the bottom of some murky pool. Cobwebs and tattered linens shrouded barrels and caskets, and a notched scythe stood propped by the door.

Tremulously, they followed their silent guide into a vaulted chamber, where four more robed figures formed an arch around a gaping black hole in the brickwork. The guests huddled together behind them, ladies clinging to their escorts’ arms, and the gentlemen all standing to rigid attention, the only indication of their fear their consciously slow breathing as they waited, ears straining, in fearful anticipation.

It began with a discordant note, like the wail of a child torn from its mother’s chest, followed by the hiss of smoke. A white shape flickered in the darkness, suspended in mid-air within the black maw, and the hooded figures began a liturgical chant, calling forth a being from the void into the realm of the living.

Slowly, the blurred outline sharpened. Bella rubbed her eyes, but the hideous apparition of death remained. Jealousy burned in its hollow eye sockets, and a grey cloak swaddled its chill white bones.

A shrill scream ratcheted the tension in the room an octave higher. Mae swooned into the arms of her escort, and a titter of laughter escaped several mouths. It died away rapidly, as the skeletal figure opened its jaw with a grisly scrape. ‘Hear me now,’ it cawed, ‘the messenger of my Lord, Sebastian Alastair Elisud, Marquis of Pennerley, master of this domain. My lord has arisen hungry from his long sleep. He thirsts for the blood of innocents and the black hearts of ignoble curs.’ The voice was deep and menacing, hissing sibilants in the semi-darkness. ‘Once he was like you, with warm flesh and a beating heart.’ The skeletal image flickered. Red hungry flames danced in the pits of its eyes. ‘Fleeing madness and suicide, he travelled far, seeking what pleasures the ancient world could offer. In Persia, he found a magus, toothless and vile, who promised a glimpse of heaven and hell.’

The image faded and a new sight superimposed itself—the baleful glare of a wizened sorcerer, cruelty etched into his face.

The first figure returned, and heatless flames licked around the form, while a light fell from above and gave a ghastly pallor to the death’s head. ‘My master followed him to the Towers of Silence, where the living have parted from the dead since the days before Mohammed. There united, they commanded the spirits from rotting corpses to do their bidding. But the magus tricked my master.’

The apparition grew larger, until it almost touched the cowled figures that held it contained. Bella gaped, only dimly aware of those around her, and Niamh’s hand still clasped within her own. To her left Gabriel stood mesmerised, and she watched as the fine hairs on his neck slowly rose until they stood straight out from his skin.

‘The magus’ bargain was struck, but not with my master. He wanted a soul to take his place and suffer his damnation. A horror came, a spirit of murder and rage from the past. Something unchristian.’

There were several gasps. Then a shadow rose in the dark space, a leering demon made of red roiling smoke. ‘Pursued by that unclean spirit, my master returned to his homeland, back to this castle. And know this: It does not have him yet. The thing is appeased by sacrifice, and has been fed by his hand since that accursed day. Harken! It hungers. It nears.’

The inhuman shriek that had greeted them rose again. Several answering cries came from the audience.

‘As he was tricked, so now are you. The thing must have blood. Tonight, one of you must die, that he might live again!’

Mocking laughter drowned out the screams of the guests. The apparition flickered and faded. Something cold brushed the back of Bella’s neck, then the tip of her nose, and one exposed arm. Beside her, Niamh shrieked.

Before them the skeletal apparition solidified again and expanded to monstrous proportions, seeming to grow nearer and more menacing. It yawned impossibly wide and spat a snake from its gaping mouth, which hit the floor with a very real thwack. At the same time, bodies pressed into her from behind, and something soft and wet, with a rubbery pustulant flesh brushed her ankles.

The figure vanished, leaving darkness rent by screams, thumps and curses.

Niamh was roughly pulled to one side, and her fingers slipped from Bella’s own, leaving her clawing frantically at the empty air. Bella felt panic and horror rising, as she was swept in circles by the now hysterical mob. No one took her hand. She recoiled from the touch of coarse fabric against her fingertips and something hairy scuttling near her feet.

Wet briny puddles reflected the eerie green glow, dotting the way out. While the rest of the group surged up the stairs to the hoped-for-safety of the Great Hall, Bella followed a little more carefully. If she knew Vaughan, the terrors would not be confined to the cellar.

By the time she caught up, the bloods had recovered some of their bravado and the ladies were swooning for effect. In their absence someone had extinguished all the candles, and left the Great Hall illuminated by nothing more than the dying firelight.

‘I say, what the devil’s afoot here?’ exclaimed Connelly, at the front of the group. In answer, a light flickered into being at the far end of the hall, then out of the gloom a shape came floating towards them. A pale, slim hand held a forked candelabrum, which cast a baleful glow over the woman who gazed at them. She was dressed in a full-skirted gown, which emphasised her tiny waist, the sort worn over a century ago, only it was all of sheer white. Her face might have been beautiful but for the ghastly leprous shade of her skin, and the deep shadowed hollows which held her lifeless eyes.

‘Oh Rose, thou art sick,’ whispered a voice very much like Darleston’s.

Paralysed by the terrible beauty, they watched as she turned away, and glided silently towards the stairs opposite, where she began to ascend towards Bella’s room. Or more correctly, she realised, towards the Lady’s chamber.

The figure reached the top of the stairs and entered the gallery, passing beyond their sight, and the group gave a collective sigh. Someone cleared their throat, ready to exercise their wit, but they were never given the chance as an ululating cacophony broke out in the stairwell behind them; the characteristic screech of Sebastian’s demon.

The crowd broke and ran for the door shrieking and giggling, but all equally unwilling to be the evening’s sacrifice. Bella likewise had no desire to face the thing alone, and fled out into the night with the rest.

Outside, heavy mists still curled around the grounds, although starlight showed the outline of the castle around her. The ladies and their ungallant gallants scattered and were soon lost to her sight, though their screams echoed back through the opaque air. Vaughan could not have picked a more perfect night for his grotesque parade. Nervous without an escort or companion, Bella moved forward to where a pair of candelabra hung eerily, like will ‘o’ the wisps. But deathly lure or not, lights surely meant people, and shocks were best enjoyed with a companion to cling to.

The vapours seemed to peel back, then stretch towards her again like clawed hands as she moved. She reached the entryway and saw that the great gate had been thrown wide, as if all the castle’s defences had been stripped away and spirits besieged them.

Around her, the tunnel walls glistened, their surface cold and slimy to the touch. Ahead, she thought she saw movement; heard the rustle of long skirts, only to see instead a cowled figure at the farther end of the drawbridge. A lump filled her throat, Bella swallowed it down and move hesitantly forward, but when she blinked the vision was gone, only to reappear a moment later part way across the stable yard. It raised a single bony hand and beckoned her forward.

In fear and trepidation she followed the summons, her arms clasped tight about herself. She was not by nature timid, but the phantasms raised within the cellar were vivid and terrifying, intangible, and yet impossibly real. She wondered how they’d managed to achieve what looked like magic.

The coach house door creaked as she opened it. The space was lit by a single candle, burning inside a jam jar on a shelf below the mildewed window. Next door she could hear the quiet whinnies of the horses. ‘Who is it? Where are you?’ she called, seeking her ghostly guide. Her footsteps sounded unnaturally loud on the wooden boards inside the entryway. Further in, the timber gave way to straw-strewn flags, and a ladder led up to the hayloft.

A plume of sawdust trickled down from the underside of the loft, and Bella moved towards it. ‘Who’s up there?’ she called, nervous excitement propelling her forward as far as the ladder. ‘Niamh?’

The air smelled of straw and of sickly burned sugar. She had her foot on the first rung when a whistling shriek split the still air, and a grey blur shot up through the floor. Bella froze. Her eyes stung, but she didn’t dare blink. The thing hung in the air, its tattered cloak billowing around its amorphous form. With a gristly creak its head snapped towards her revealing the half rotted visage of Sebastian’s demon. White bone showed through the desiccated flesh. Ram-like horns showed clearly in place of hair upon its head. She screamed and threw herself out of the coach house door and into the open space of the stable yard.

Panting and clammy she staggered to the trough on the opposite side of the yard, where she splashed her face with water. Her heart had taken up residence in her skull and all she could hear was the rushing of her own blood.

‘It’s just a trick,’ she told herself, trying to steady her heartbeat. Her reflection in the water stared back at her, pale and almost as ghastly as that of the white lady. ‘Just one of Vaughan’s clever phantasms.’ Her throat felt raw from her screams. She’d never felt so scared, or excited in her life. She wanted more, but she hardly dared uncurl her fingers from the edge of the water trough.

Something tapped her shoulder and she spun, terrified she’d find herself facing the vengeful spirit, only to find herself staring into the cowled visage of Henry Tristan.

‘Bella,’ he said, and stroked her cheek with a long tendril of seaweed. ‘Are you all right?’

‘No, I’m terrified.’ She recoiled from the bladdery frond and glared at him, then clasped tight hold of his arm. Had it been him earlier? Had he led her to the apparition in the coach house? Gradually, she controlled her breathing and relaxed her hold.

‘How?’ she demanded.

Henry shook his head, but he was smiling. ‘Never mind how, just enjoy the show. Are you ready for more?’

Heart fluttering in expectation, she nodded.

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