This cover was drawn by the author.
This episode is PART ONE of FIVE of our OCTOBER SPOOKY-LINE.
“Signed it out. Never brought it back,” said the lanky old woman. Her hair draped down to her knees. She stood stark amongst the dust in light, and cast a motionless shadow to my feet. The sunset outside blared harsh through the autumnal trees and window. “Ledger on the table. Can rats read?”
“Mouse, actually,” I said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of strange folk out here over the years. A ratman is definitely an addition to the list. All the strangers are part of the issue, you see, in all this missing bodies. . . don’t know who took em and don’t have the funds to track em down again.”
I hopped on a table side-stool and sifted through the piles of ink-stained parchment and leather-bound goods. A weathered, empty pistol showed itself like a corpse to a grave robber. I held up the gun, thinking it an odd place for something most see as either personal, or murderous, “Yours?”
She shook her head, “My son’s. Lots of his stuff still lying around. Can’t bring myself to get rid of it.” She plucked a scarred tome from the edge of the table and slid it before me. The book was tall, yet surprisingly thin. A hundred pages, no more.
A quick skim of recent pages gave me what I was looking for, “But the return date is signed.”
“Always does that the night before.”
“What is the purpose of a ledger if every time you sign something out, you sign it in ahead of time?”
She said, “Well, no one uses the key but Nebill. He’s the only one around here who’s protecting anyone, as most of the men are dead or about to be dead, and the mother’s can’t risk it. Too many mouths to feed—one mommy dies, and that’s five motherless kids someone else has to take in.”
I nodded, “Tough situation. And Nebill is often guarding?”
“He does rounds all night and into the morning. Takes hedgamite seed—bit of a drug—to keep himself going. Uses rituals, too. Some sort of witch, he is. But it’s good we got one. He wards off the beasties.”
“Witch. . . what kinds of powers?”
“Uses woods, crystals, burns these little smelly sticks. He can talk to the trees, and they’ll do work for him out beyond the creekbed by the dam. Helps maintain a watch for the beasties.”
I stood up, “You said three days?”
“Three days. Two nights.”
That was a long time for a local militiaman to go missing. He was likely long dead by now. “I’ll find him, and bring him back.”
“Please, hurry,” she said. “He’s a hearty old man, but he’s still old. And I worry. . . I worry about that key. Imagine if the beasties get that key? All the kiddies will go. All of them.”
“Who was the last person to talk to him?”
“Take me to her.”
Kerri Molder was barely taller than me. She wore buns of hair larger than my ears. She must have been thirty, no more, but seemed twice that if you looked into her eyes long enough. Shadows lingered behind those aqua eyes—memories and echoes of a haunting which refused to pass.
My feet pattered through tussling autumn leaves. The entire village had been swallowed by the fallen leaves, and the wind only inspired them to dance in place rather than move on.
Kerri was a soldier in this invasion, with a rusted old rake as her weapon of choice. She swept her tiny backyard on repeat between broken fences. The leaves remained an evasive foe, churning back with the wind and landing right about where she originally swept them away. A large pig slept against a crude stone stack on the edge of the yard.
“Last I saw, he was out walking towards the nothing. In the dark with his lantern like always. He carried a long rifle, drooping so long he dragged her through the leaves. . . and trudged slow like he always did.” By her tone, she’d recited her tale more times than preferred.
I didn’t hold onto my noticing of, “You said, ‘did,’ past tense.”
“People around here don’t go missing and come back. Not the way things work in these woods.”
“The ‘beasties’ I have heard about?”
“Yeah.” She glared at me and leaned on her rake. A cool breeze swept through the trees and tussled my fur. How could such a beautiful day feel so ghostly? She said, “Been happening since my girls were young. Never had problems with anything out there. . . then a whole tribe of them moved in. A dozen lanky fiends. Ghoulish fanged bastards quick as can be and silent as the dead of night. Like. . . corpses. . . all white and shriveled to the bone.”
“I was told Nebill defended the town against these ghouls.”
“As best he could. I gave up a long time ago. Most of the others did. There comes a point in accepting the inevitable. He was a good man, though, since all the rest are gone. Sixty years on this earth and still telling ghouls off—wish I could do it.”
“He never got attacked or injured? A man that old would be broke, I’d think.”
“Not to my knowledge. He was a witch like Milberry Stocken. Trees kept him safe and wards, too.”
I nodded, “Well, I’m going out there to find him. I could use someone who knows the area.”
“If that’s bait, I ain’t taking it. Ghouls never harmed anyone but a kid, but I ain’t taking no chances.” She pointed out over a small bridge that ran across a creek. A red church stood with the paint peeling off. “Langston preaches at the church, a friend of my daughters.” She eyed the stone stacks near the slumbering swine. With a closer inspection, they were three graves. The dates were within the last four years. The ages were all under ten. “Langston may be up for it.”
I nodded and turned, but before I left, said, “I’m sorry about your daughters.”
“Nebill got what was left of their bodies back from the ghouls,” she said, “you bring his back, and I’ll give you the same hug I gave him.”
“They take the bodies and make new hosts out of them,” said Parcella, an elderly preacher. She wore wrappings everywhere but her eyes. Langston perched on the back of the pew like a bird. Parcella’s hands spoke more language than her words. She gestured as she said, “Ghoulish ghouls. . . nasty creatures. Fiends from the foreigners! They’ve ravaged all the villages, I heard, crawling in the shadows. All the braves boys out there in the war don’t even know what kinds of evil they’re keeping at bay! Until they come home and see all their brothers and sisters are gone and dead.”
There had been twenty six murders and missing children in the village in the last eight years, Parcella told me. A war broke out between this imperial force and foreign colonizers, with influxes of black magic and powerful sorceries influencing both sides.
Parcella’s theories appeared sound, if not a tad excitable in the delivery.
I said, “Does your religion have any power against these ghouls?”
“Nebill said so, tried all kinds of stuff on the creatures out in the wood. I combed through our Alsham texts and discovered a multitude of powers to face the ghoulish hordes.”
Langston chimed in, “I’d go out with Nebill to help, sometimes. He said a priest’s presence scared them off. We were never attacked, so I’d say he was right.” Langston was anywhere from thirteen to fifteen. His voice fluctuated through the entire scale.
“I’d like to go search for Nebill,” I said. “You went out with Nebill on his rounds?”
Langston nodded, “He was getting older, and so I and other kids decided we’d take over his duties. Most of the mothers around here just can’t risk that sort of thing with all the dads and older siblings dead.”
Twenty six murdered children in a village whose population hovered around one hundred and sixty? I couldn’t fathom that. I said, “I heard about the risk. So. . . children were helping Nebill?”
Parcella nudged Langston. She said, “Parents didn’t know. But what are you supposed to do, let your siblings get carried off in the night, and leave your mums to blame themselves?” She shook her head, “Langston here and Kerri’s girl, Vivienne, got together with a couple other young ladies. They all prayed here and then went out with Nebill.”
“Did anyone else know?”
“No,” Langston said. “Unless someone saw and said nothing. But not to my knowledge. Been a year of us doing that. Vivienne,” he set his jaw, “well, she got snatched. I and Marggie and Mel are all alright.”
I asked Langston to fetch Marggie and Mel. In a few minutes, he returned and the two girls walked through the door with bonnets and baskets. They’d been picking berries.
I sat the children down, politely—if not sternly—asked Parcella to leave, and when the preacher left the room I asked, “You went on rounds with Nebill, together?”
They nodded in unison.
“A group of kids as brave as you, and your leader goes missing, I’d assume you went out looking for him.”
There was a long pause, and Mel—a girl whose voice could barely reach my ears—said, “We. . . we did.”
“Only the first night,” said Marggie. Her demeanor was harsh, and her face chiseled by expression. “We’ve stayed near town center the last three days—away from the wood line.”
A strange detail to add, I remember thinking. I’d keep it back for now. I asked, “What did you find out there?”
A chill swept under the cracked wooden door, and all the windows went grey with the clouds sweeping above. The birds outside went dead silent and even the chatter of leaves died. The rare kind of silence where all things go at once, and leave a void more suspicious than words can describe.
In wake of the quiet, the sun crept in from the window and a thick ray blinded Mel. She put up her hand to block the light, and also held her eyes from my own.
The sun left a twinkle of shame in her eye.
“Why have you stayed in town center?” I asked. “Why haven’t you gone near the wood line?” I leaned in, taking the space between the aisles and smothering it. “Ghouls?”
“No,” Langston said.
“The trees,” Mel said. “They blocked the path to the—,” she caught herself.
“To the what?”
Marggie ignored her friends. She said, “Nebill has a cabin in town, but has another far in the wood past the creekbed. Not built of wood or stone, but an old shack as big as an outhouse. His trees keep watch out there. They told us not to go. Said terrible things happened there, and if we went any further, they’d happen to us.”
I tried to reassess, “Any details?”
“Only that if we went any further, we’d be in big trouble. We haven’t gone near the forest since.”
I reckoned that was hard to accomplish, given that the village stood in the midst of the forest. “Past the creekbed you said? Right. I’ll be off. You all stay here—get inside. Bring anyone else inside. Not sure what I’m walking into here.” I dismissed the kids.
Before I left, Parcella came waddling out of a back room. She waved goodbye. I asked, “Ah, preacher. I had another question. Have there been any attacks since Nebill has gone missing? I’d imagine the ghouls would take delight in his absence.”
She shook her head, “Not a sighting, or a sound. Quiet. No fiend or foe at all. I guess the world—and even the world’s evils—must mourn the loss of a man that good.”
I opened the church door, and ran my hands along the huge knocker. The lock lie directly below it, cast in solid brass with deep, embedded mechanics. I ran my paw through the intricate casting and called back to Parcella, “One more question, actually. . . the Master Key that Nebill had has gone missing with himself. I wondered if it really did allow one entrance to any building in the village?”
Parcella nodded, “Yes, it does. Nebill cast these locks himself—was a smithy, you see? Made his trade in trinkets. Thought it’d be safe once the war began to cast the village with special locks, and a Master Key to whoever could protect everyone. But not even locks and keys keep the ghouls from snatching kids from their beds.” She sighed, “That worries me, that Key being out there missing. Find good Nebill and let’s bury him. Find that Key so we can, at the least, have an illusion of safety.”
I marched from the church and past the children, who all insisted on coming along with me. “We have to finish this,” they said, “if you’re going, we’re going.”
I wasn’t sure I could tell them off, so I agreed on their accompaniment. In the end, I doubted these ghouls would be anything more than small town monsters, and that Nebill was likely picked to the bones and scattered through the forest. I wasn’t sure I could find him or his key.
But we could try.
The blanket of leaves crunched and slipped beneath my paws. Langston and Mel led on while Marggie eyed the forest in distress. This place held great terror. The air was thick with grief and longing. The trees which died from summer to winter, even, spoke of a slow melancholy.
Graves stood in every other backyard—many of which had multiple shrines to the dead. Some were decorated with war uniforms and colors, but others with dolls and toy swords. A great death swam in the air.
We crossed the bridge over the creekbed and through a long archway of trees. Several kilometers later, and in the setting sun, a tiny shack creaked alone in the forest. The kids were correct—it was no more than an out house.
A thick oak trunk stood alone in the center of the road. Black bark shedded from its outside, and a knot had decayed to a hole. Branches clutched the hole like hands to a heart, and a wooden face screamed in frozen agony.
“This wasn’t there a few days ago,” Langston said.
“He’s dead,” Mel said.
A dozen more of the dead trees stood across the clearing. All in eternal pain, scarred, burnt, and screaming.
I said, “This shack. . . how exactly was it used? How could you train out of a building smaller than a shipping crate?”
They did not know what a shipping crate was, but Langston replied, “Nebill went beneath and brought out our supplies. He carried packs and such with tools up here and we worked in the forest.”
“Under the shack.”
I motioned the kids the stay put, and trudged up the small hill to the shack. I couldn’t believe the structure still stood, as a handful of rusty screws held together boards devoured by mold and insects. I brushed the leaves from the floor. A metal trapdoor was built as the only tile.
It was locked.
If there was any indication of where Nebill went, it would be down in that hole. Otherwise, he was beyond lost. So I took out my starspear and slashed the lock in half.
Who needs a Master Key, anyway.
Langston ran up, “Don’t go down there! That. . . that’s really not the best idea.”
“Well, he’s a locksmith and a witch,” Langston shrugged, “he figured the best he could do was imprison the bastards terrorizing our town.”
I sighed, “You didn’t think to tell me that the shack in the woods was a prison for your ghouls?”
The kids eyed one another and shook their heads.
“Curses,” I muttered under my breath.
I opened the hatch, and climbed down the ladder into the dark.
A snicker echoed in the hall. A single lantern flickered on the far end, held on a shelf beside a large locked door. Dank floors were colonized by roaches. The ceiling was a kingdom for the worms, and the spiders. But the webs were cut back.
Somebody came down here, recently.
By the laughing, somebody was down here, now.
I did not charge any sorcery—as my eyes would alight—and instead drew my saber quiet as I could. Behind me, the three kids all pursued. I wanted to scream to turn back but I couldn’t make much noise. I mouthed the words, but they were far from adept at reading mouse lips.
The door ahead appeared locked. When I came nearer, I realized it wasn’t.
Strange, that the door above was locked, and this one wasn’t?
I turned to Langston and whispered, “The Master Key opens these?”
He shrugged. Mel and Marggie did not know, either.
I pressed my paw to the rusted handle, and pulled slow. The hinges screeched like murder, and the spiders retreated with the light. Inside was a chamber big as the church in the village. Cages lined the walls in mirror to the spiderwebs in the hall. A single electric bulb hung down from the ceiling, despite the torches currently unlit on the walls.
On the floor was a head.
The head was—by Langston’s expression—Nebill’s.
I stepped inside.
With sorcery, I pushed the children back and slammed the door shut. They banged on the door but couldn’t break my magic.
A female human strode into view behind the lightbulb. Graceful and lean, her boots clucked out with resounding confidence. She wore the robes of a nun and so many chains that one could barely make out the robes beneath the jewelry.
Her face was young and starlight white—an unnatural pale sheen. Her hair was shaved and replaced with hundreds of tattoos, which ran down her neck and shoulders.
She claimed her face the the only part of her not inked in the markings. I believed her.
I had never heard her true name before, but met her twice. By all accounts she certainly remembered me. She grinned ear to ear, red lipstick as bright as her pupilless red eyes. Then, with a giggle, she said, “Opaline. . . the ratman comes to my domain.”
“What are you doing, Threshold?” I said, using the title Porbiyo used. Her true name had been lost even to herself, said Peridot.
She stepped into the light. Her chains began to levitate, spinning like the circular runes of a god-sorcerer. The chains were not links at all—but keys. Thousands of keys of all shapes and sizes. They glowed and she hovered just above the ground. The tattoos across her head shined brilliant—each tiny marking was a keyhole.
Threshold, Master of Keys, was one of us. . .
One of Peridot’s cursed Agglomerates.
“This man was a good man,” I said, readying for a fight. I pointed to Nebill’s head, “He protected these people and you killed him for your collection!”
Threshold laughed. She hovered towards me, and opened her palm. In her hand lie a rusted iron key. “Come, little one. Let us watch, shall we, and be the arbiters of this man’s fate.” With her words, Nebill’s head rose into the air, and his corpse hovered from the other side of the room. His body was adjoined again and he fell to the floor, screaming:
“Please, no! Not again. . . please, I beg you!”
His lips were sewn shut.
Threshold did not flinch to do these feats of magic. Her eyes—solid red—looked to me. I’d never seen a creature so resplendent, with such terrifying features. Like the beauty of a venomous arachnid, or the gorgeous fear stricken by a bright serpent. She spoke calmly, “Look around this room, Opaline.”
The cages. Inside were ghouls.
“Really look. . .” she whispered.
I glared through the dim light. Cages, with water bottles and bowls. The rancid stench crawled against my whisker and into my nostrils. Bones lined the floor. Weapons. . . but kitchen tools. Knives, and spoons, pots and such. Small saws. Tomes stacked against the wall.
Then, I saw them.
Two corpses, hanging on the far wall. Dead and gutted. No older than ten. One was mummified, the other fresh within the month. I’d seen enough rot to know of such things. But the body turned white. . . bleached by some alchemical process.
Threshold took my paw and pressed the key within. On her body, all of her lock tattoos shifted as if mechanically, clicking in mime as well, until a particular keyhole shifted into place in the center of her porcelain forehead.
Her glow ceased. She gestured to the key.
I pressed the key into her forehead, and disappeared.
I arrived in the same room, but long ago, and caught flashes of memories. Like a ghost I flashed through the room’s remembrance. I saw Nebill building the chambers. I saw the years it took to build it all. I watched him cry to himself, and sing to himself. I saw him nail the cages to the wall. I watched him make himself a meal, and sit under the stars. I saw the roof go ahead and cloak it all in shadow—all while the trees, slaves to his magic, aided him.
Then the first child was thrown into the pit. And the second. And the third.
And the ghouls grew in number, as he tore their skin from the bone and bleached them white. He took his tree-men and wrapped them in the children’s skin. All while he told the mothers, and the fathers, and the siblings that he protected the very babes which he mutilated.
“Please stop,” I begged her.
“This is our duty,” Threshold said, “we do not turn away.”
I won’t recite what all I saw. Only that Nebill was a demon in all ways the word is used. A creature from a part of the Garden no person should ever witness. An absolute monster.
I came back into the real room, the space’s memories fading out. Threshold took her key and clicked it onto her necklace. A dying Nebill cowered against the door. The pounding outside grew louder.
Threshold cocked her head, “I have killed him four hundred and thirteen times.” As she spoke, Nebill’s body was dragged through the room and suspended in the air beside the lightbulb. He screamed at the top of his lungs. “I have done to him all he’s done to these children. And I will do more. Do you wish to interfere, Opaline? I have heard you often interfere.”
I set my jaw, and walked to the door. “No. . . No, I don’t think I will.”
“And to my collection shall be tucked this room and its horrible little mutilator. To be shown to any who would turn a blind eye like all the rest.” She ran her hands along her thousand-key-chains. The grand necklaces spiraled and carried her into the air again. She moved towards Nebill, “You may torture him, if you wish. Simply find me. And you may enter my domains. Pass the threshold. You are welcome anytime.”
I politely declined the offer. “Should I. . . tell the town?”
Threshold stated, “I will regardless of your actions.” She tapped her key. “They must know the evil in their world—in the Garden. How do we extinguish hate by hiding behind doors and shutters? No. All must be shown.”
As she said this, Nebill was torn in half. Not swiftly. She ripped him slow, and steady, smiling wider the more intense his face contorted.
My stomach turned both at Nebill’s horrifying murder and at the thought of those mothers seeing their children’s fates. I clenched my fists, “No. . . don’t show them.”
“You cannot stop me.” Her tone sent chills down my spine.
I said, “Let me tell them. Please. I’ll do it. If they see what I saw—they’ll die. I can’t imagine it. This man was their hero. We need to be more sensitive than laying out this scene for them.”
Threshold was silent.
“Hello?” I peeked up. Nebill was in pieces in Threshold’s hands. He began to reassemble, slowly coming to consciousness as her facial expression solidified to acceptance.
“I have considered your offer. Go and spread word of this evil.” She licked her shining red lips, “But tell truths, little rat. Or else I will show them. Call my name, friend, when injustice wiggles into view. I understand you interfere in dark deeds.”
“I do my best.”
“The door is always open, if ever you require aid.”
I hoped that wouldn’t happen, but found the offer somewhat endearing. Her tone had changed, with those words, from harsh to welcoming. I quickly shuffled from the room and the remembrance of its horror. I guided the children back home. They begged to help Nebill, but I told them Nebill was long dead, and that a ghoul got him.
I stepped into the town hall. Night fell. The woman from that afternoon peeked up from her book-keeping and said, “Any sign of that Master Key?”
I sat down, sick to my stomach, and spoke words that would change that town forever. I hated every minute of it. But the Master of Keys would have shown merciless visions of the truth. I hated the thought of that even more.
END, to be continued. . .