Wind chased the moonlight with a touch of frost and whispers from the grave. The fallen leaves swirled over the cold ground and crackled into the silence. From deep within the soil, blood seeped to the surface and screams reverberated in the air; the echoing pain from forgotten spirits of the dead. Tendrils of mist, grey and damp, drifted from the ground and the forest throbbed with a faint rhythm, a hint of an ancient heartbeat.
From the dark bowels of hellfire and damnation, a figure arose; a crone dressed in ebony robes and wielding a skull-topped staff made of bone. She thumped the cane three times; the skull trembled, and the wind swirled in angry gusts. The earth cracked open and a green miasma hissed forth, carrying a siren’s song that played underneath the edge of the world. The mist snaked along the trail leading to the village, searching.
The old witch smiled, placing both hands on top of her staff. Around her ghosts drifted from the trees, compelled to bear witness. Above the forest came the hoot of an owl. Then the night cloaked itself in silence and the moon hid behind the clouds.
The witch and her spirits waited.
“Come on, Sandra! I don’t want to go hiking in the woods this late. You said you wanted to go to my place. That’s why we left the party.”
“I heard something.” Sandra waved vaguely at her boyfriend, Harry. “Something… I don’t know.” She moved closer to the trees.
“Sandra, come on! What the hell are you doing?”
She ignored him, walking faster, her ears filled with a sweet strain of music. She smiled, a strange euphoria dancing in her head and she broke out in a run. She never heard Harry’s shouts or the sound of him chasing her. She only followed the song into the trees.
The green mist greeted her and wrapped itself around her body, pulling her deeper and deeper into the forest, to where the old witch waited.
As the tree cover thickened, Harry’s screams finally penetrated her perception, and she turned her head. She smiled at his thrashing body and happily watched the mist drag him along the forest floor. Her feet scuffled through the leaves and dirt and an errant breeze ruffled her hair, but her glassy-eyed stare barely saw her surroundings.
At last they arrived, stopping a foot away from the witch, and the mist loosed its grip, retreating into the earth.
Harry scrambled to his feet, bleeding from dozens of scrapes. “What the hell is going on? Let’s get out of here.” He grabbed Sandra’s arm, but she pulled away, moving closer to the old witch, a contented smile on her face.
“She’s mine now.” The crone cackled. “You weren’t part of the deal, but I never reject a gift.” From beneath the folds of her robe, she pulled out a knife and handed it to Sandra. “Kill him, my dear.”
Sandra rushed forward and slashed a shocked Harry across the throat with the knife. He gurgled, clutching at the gushing wound in his throat, stumbled and fell. His blood flowed into the soil as he bled out and died.
Sandra turned back to the witch, the knife slipping from her fingers.
The old woman smiled at Sandra. “Now it’s your turn.”
The witch stamped her staff three times on the ground. Thousands of ghosts swarmed from the trees, the air, the soil, surrounding Sandra. The ghosts snatched at her hair and clothes, beat her with fists, kicked at her, each touch burning, searing into her skin and soul.
She welcomed them with a shriek of joy, throwing her arms out wide as the ghosts surged closer. More hands tore at her, scorching her skin until it blistered and peeled away, until her blood flowed, until her body collapsed to the ground, still and cold.
Then the spirits parted, leaving a path for the old woman, who walked forward. She lifted her staff and tapped it three times on Sandra’s body, and then on Harry’s. Two spirits rose from the corpses and joined the host of other phantoms.
The old witch stepped over the bodies. “It’s time.”
This time she drove her staff into the soil. The earth quivered, vibrations racing across the woodland to the tops of the trees, and the air shattered with the howls of the damned. Red blood bubbled from the ground and flowed up the cane, twisting lines coursing into the skull, filling its hollow insides and spilling out past the bony rims of its eyes. The staff glowed in crimson energy and the horde of ghosts moaned.
With a whispered word from the old crone, coils of energy lashed out from the staff, seeking the captive spirits, each soul pierced and drawn back into the witch’s talisman. When the last ghost vanished within the skull, the trail glowed red, following a winding path towards the village.
The old witch took a breath and moved forward, walking down the trail and past the edge of the woods for the first time in two hundred years. She hummed a faint tune and wondered who she would kill first.
~ A. F. Stewart
© Copyright 2019 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.