Returning Sins

The smell of rot and dirt displaced the stale air in the bedroom and I tried not to choke on the overpowering stench. Huddled in a corner by the door, shivering in the sudden cold draft, I listened for the slightest sound, praying she was gone. Or that I would wake up from this nightmare.

Scritch, scritch.

There it was, the faint scratching noise against the wood. Fingernails scraping at the grain. I caught my breath.

No. I don’t want to hear it again. I don’t want…

Scritch, scritch. 

Only louder this time. Like an animal clawing to get inside. I whimpered and my stomach churned.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” The words blurted out before I thought.

“Liar!” A horrid screech ripped from behind the door, shuddering through the air. “Bad, you were bad! Left me alone! Left me to die!”

A thundering crash sounded as something slammed the door, bending the wood. I jumped inside my trembling fear and hugged my knees, rocking on the cold dirty tiles of the room. I answered her shriek with my own, a long continuous wail, to drown out her voice, shut out the memories. Every pounding of the door ripped against my skin, racing my adrenaline, shredding my nerves.

“Stop it! Just go away! Leave me alone!” I screamed my terror to the empty room before burying my head between my knees.

“Like you left me?”

The quiet question hurt and frightened me more than her anger. “I didn’t mean it.” My words felt like a lie. Maybe they were. She didn’t answer, and the silence unnerved me. I babbled, “Why now? Why did you come back?”

“Secrets lost. Secrets found. So, I’ve come home, Mama.”

I whimpered. My lost little girl. My thrown away child. I thought I was done. I thought I escaped. “How is this possible?”

“Scared now, Mama? I was scared.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Another whimper and I hugged my knees tighter.

“No! Not sorry. Scared I’m back.” 

Bang! Something rattled the door.

“Why Mama, why?”

Bang! I saw the hinges rattle and bend.

“The closet was dark. I clawed to get out! You never came!”

My eyes closed slowly, my body trembling. Blocked memories surfaced, images of the horror I wrought. I shuddered. “What happened… I can’t… I was high, drugged out of my mind. You were too much for me to handle.”

“I loved you. You left me alone.”

The door frame convulsed, and splinters of wood flew across the room.

“I was so hungry! So thirsty! I cried, and I cried. I was all alone!”

Bang! 

The door slammed open, smacking hard into the wall, and she stood there, framed in the light. My little girl. She looked so thin, with red-rimmed eyes. Hate shone in those eyes.

“You killed me.”

I had no excuses left. Only fear and the truth. “Yes.”

She smiled, rotted teeth grinning at me like a demented thing. “They found me. My bones. Where you buried me. They’re coming for you.”

She laughed as she vanished, and I heard police sirens in the distance.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2021 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Immorati

I was born in the strangled breath of blood, in squeals of mayhem and greed, clothed in the skin of murder and deceit. I opened my eyes with the first cry of death’s sweet tune and the first taste on my tongue, the salty tang of tears. My heart beats to the rhythm of chaos, and I wander where I am called. I have many names, whispered in the unspoken anguish of your deepest thoughts. I am the dread, the darkness, the outcast of creation.

I walk among you, the silence against your shadow.

I have been here since the light broke across the horizon and the sharp stone edge cut the flesh of man. I sat among the dying of the city of Ur to celebrate their passing, and witnessed the fall of Troy to the wondrous song of the sword. I laughed as Alexander conquered and empires fell. I stood within the fires that burned Rome and feasted on their terror. I watched the ashes rain upon Pompei and lapped at the misery and despair resounding in their whispers and screams.

All of it filled my hollow soul with shattering delight, yet still I hungered.

I rejoiced as blades became gunpowder’s bullets, and the world roared in carnage. I danced in the streets of Paris as heads fell from the guillotine and blood ran through the gutters. I inhaled the smoke of cannon fire, hummed to the music of groaning soldiers breathing their last upon the battlefields. It was an exquisite age to exist.

I did not believe there could be a better era. I was wrong.

I waited, and you gave me bliss. The thundering boom of artillery fire, the choking stench of mustard gas, and the wondrous shrieking dogfights overhead. So much carnage, so much pain. I engorged myself on your butchery and sung my dark ecstasy to the world.

And still you amaze me, still you feed me such succulent delicacies.

The madness of another world war flowed seamlessly into more conflict, and spilled over into terrorism, plagues and disasters; you find new and delicious ways to inflict death upon each other, new ways to disfigure your own world. I regret you avoided nuclear annihilation, but my hope remains that I may one day taste that luscious banquet of agony.

You are rich in pain and decimation, and I thank you.

You give me continued life, your discordant harmonies flow to me, strengthen me, make me more vibrant. I am symbiote to your host, sponge to your slaughter. With every cycle I grow more robust and you become entrenched in your brutal patterns. I am what you made me, you humans with your careless, violent ways. I will follow you, monsters of death and destruction, and always feast on your ruination. I will increase in vibrance and substance. So one day you may see me. See what you cannot escape. 

You will see the face of the devil you created. 

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2021 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

A Winter’s Night

I whispered, “When the winter snow falls, hide your eyes. When the winter wind blows, stay by the fire.”
The beginning of an ancient warding, one I prayed still held power, but in my heart I knew there would be no stopping her. I knew the moment I heard her roar tremble the trees, the wild winds bellow my name. I ran, chased by the frenzy of her storm.
I sealed my fate that moonlit evening in the forest.
There would be no escape, however long I might pray. I was hers. Even now I could hear her voice shrieking through the frigid squall howling around my hunting lodge.

I am the Bride of Winter. I am the Reaper of Night.
I stand on the edge of insanity, of cruelty, outside the deceptive warmth of the fire.
And I see you, Nikolai. You cannot hide.

I shouted in defiance, “I can try!”
She laughed.

I am the stilled heartbeat of the dead. I feel their remnants, their throbbing fury careening through the veins of the living. They sing to me. They scream to me. I answer with sweet whispers that swirl and fester in your subconscious thoughts.
Shiver in your terror, slumber in your fetid nightmares.
You have lost.

I slumped in my chair. Three nights now, three nights she stalked me inside the never ending storm. I threw the last log on the fire and murmured, “Keep away, oh, Winter Bride, your storm at bay against the fire. Stay away, stay away, Reaper of the Night, or you will burn with the flames.” The windows rattled within a fierce screech and a hail of ice slammed against the panes. Her wailing voice followed.

Fire is fleeting, its warmth an illusion.
It will die. Everything will die. Yet, I remain. Resurrected eternal to swallow the yowling nightmare shame and veniality. I will outlast the fire. I will outlast your words. My ice will steal along the edges of light, slithering frost to pierce your heart.
You will be mine.

I knew her words to be true, even as my mind swelled with inescapable bitterness.
I didn’t mean any of it. There was no thought, only madness. What is one girl’s death, after all? And such a low-born thing, seeking marriage, threatening to ruin me. I had better prospects for a wife than her. Why should I have settled? Who should blame me for acting rashly, violently? The girl should have known her place.
I stared into the wavering flames. “Perhaps I should have burned your bones, Katia, instead of burying them? Perhaps your spirit would have been quiet then and not called to her?”

It would not have mattered. Your fate sealed itself with the act of her death. Wronged bones rest uneasy in the grave. Innocent blood stains the ground in sacred trespass. The act itself calls to me, as restless spirits beg for vengeance. You cannot escape the blood spilled. You cannot run from your own nightmare.

At least I had that solace.
It was the only thing I had as I waited.
The hours passed as the wood burned until only a flicker of flame remained.
I sighed. “There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, if the fire dies.”
As the darkness came, I heard the creak of the door and the cold winter wind blew into my bones. I turned and welcomed my deadly Bride.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2021 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Ask About the Sinners

“Do you believe in angels, Dr. Wells?” The rest of the therapy group rolled their eyes.

“There she goes again, on about those damn angels,” Randy growled. He crossed his arms and kicked at the floor, his metallic chair rattling against the tiled floor. “The girl’s got a fixation and I’m sick of it.”

“No, judgements, Randy. You know the rules.” Dr. Wells frowned at him and then turned to Cindy with a condescending smile. “Tell me about your angels.”

Stretching her toes, Cindy softly hummed in time to the thwap of the ceiling fan. The scent of jasmine floated in the air, stirred from some forgotten corner. In the silence, she gazed at the white walls and watched the shadows dance, while tracing a pattern on the padded arm of her chair.

Finally, she spoke. “You must believe in them to see them. I mean really believe, not just Sunday-go-to-church conviction, forgotten on Monday. If you have true faith, they can help you.”

“Fat lot of good they did you,” Randy laughed. “You’re stuck in this loony bin with the rest of us.”

“Randy,” Dr. Wells stared with another disapproving look. “What did I tell you about that?”

“Not to call this place a ‘loony bin’.” Randy slouched in his chair and scowled.

“They did help.” Cindy’s voice interrupted and everyone turned to gawk. “The angels saved me.” She smiled, but wouldn’t elaborate.

Not until the next session.

The last to arrive, Cindy sat down, easing into her chair. She looked at each person and spoke as if no time had passed. “Not all angels have white wings, you know.” She hummed and gazed upward. “Some have black wings. They’re the ones who punish sins.”

“On about your angels, again?” Randy grunted. “They’re not doing a very good job. Plenty of sinners in the world.”

Cindy glared at him, raising an eyebrow and tilting her chin. “You have to ask them first. They can’t punish anyone, if you don’t ask.”

Dr. Wells cleared his throat. “That’s what you told the police, isn’t it? That you requested angels protect you from your parents? And the angels killed them, not you?”

Cindy turned her attention to the doctor. “Yes. I don’t think they believed me, because I ended up here. But it’s the truth.”

Dr. Wells smiled. “Truth can sometimes be complicated. You’re here so we can sort what really happened that night.”

“I told you. Not believing me doesn’t make it a lie.” Cindy laughed. “I’m not crazy. They’re real, and so beautiful. Ebony feathers, ethereal faces and shining eyes, with a radiant silver aura. And the loveliest things about them are their long blood-stained claws.”

“Claws don’t sound lovely.” Randy grunted into the conversation. “Your angels are just made-up monsters.”

“They are not monsters!” Cindy stared down Randy, and he squirmed.

“Stop looking at me like that. I ain’t done nothing to you. Keep away from me with your angel delusions.”

“You have nothing to fear from my angels. You don’t have many sins, even if you pretend otherwise. Dr. Wells has sins, though,” Cindy tilted her head towards the therapist. “Dark ones.”

“I’m a sinner, am I?” Dr. Wells chuckled.

Cindy nodded. “I know what you’ve done and so do the angels.” She leaned forward. “Time for you to pay.”

“Is that a threat?” Dr. Wells straightened in his chair. As he did, he felt something brush against his shoulder and smelled a hint of jasmine. A black feather fell in his lap. An invisible hand reached into his chest, and Dr. Wells felt the last beat of his heart before a force ripped the organ out of his body in a spray of blood, bone, and flesh. His corpse crumpled to the floor. Everyone but Cindy screamed.

And somewhere in the ether, a blacked winged angel feasted on the heart of a sinner.

∼ A.F. Stewart

© Copyright A.F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Under the Moon

They gather beneath the moonlight, where the silver shaded radiance meets the glowing edge of street lights and gaudy neon. They linger where the shadows settle in the cracks and alley bricks, where stagnant puddles shimmer from the lightly falling rain, and scattered refuse flutters in the wind.

Their claws scritch against the asphalt, a tiny sound against the submerged surface of the city, lost in darkness and the quiet hum of nightlife. They move and shift in scurry motions, shadow to shadow, slithering along the cracks and filth, unseen. Cars pass, doors slam, music drifts down the street. They take no heed, only finding the place they need to be.

Then they wait.

With each shallow breath, what passes for blood races through their veins, melding with the night. Their little tongues dart from their mouths, and shiny teeth knock together. The vibrations of the city hum against their bodies, disturbing the flow and rhythm.

And they wait. Until…

Footsteps echo on the sidewalk, tap, tap, down the pavement.

They hear the noise, and in eager anticipation their clicking claws keep rhythm, merging into a pulsing harmony, into a macabre sort of heartbeat. Thump, click, thump, click until the sounds are indistinguishable from one another.  

Until they are one tempo, one pattern, one in the flow of time…

Until the person who approaches is theirs, is lost to their need, to the swarm of their frenzy.

They are shadows at first, a darkening of light around his movement. Then they are sound; scritches and scratches and auditory fear. Lastly, they are pain; savage, sharp teeth, biting and gouging, devouring flesh. 

They exhale through his coursing blood, their life sliding into his, sucking, squelching, slurping pieces and bone, unmaking existence with screams and crimson splatters until every beat ceases. Until all that remains are red stains in a puddle.

Then they fade back to the cracks in the world, retreating to the lengthening darkness on scuttling claws.

And the hum of the city begins again, masking the faint clacking with the gloom of night. 

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

The Red Witch

Dalia Habershon sat in her favourite high back chair and surveyed the room. The lights were dimmed, with a few candles to lend the right ambiance. The fireplace roared and the butler had set out tea for the guest. The peeling wallpaper was barely visible, and the cracks in the plaster melded into the gloom.

We haven’t had a visitor in ages. This could be a good day.

She shifted position to ease the twinge in her back. The chair creaked, and the faded upholstery rippled, threatening to tear again. Dalia smoothed the skirt of her best dress, ignoring the old stains and the tattered edges of the fabric. She had done her best to look presentable, fixing her hair, even adding a touch of lipstick.

She cocked her head, listening to the whispers from the shadows. “Shush, he’ll be here soon. Be patient,” she replied. More whispers, Dalia strained to make out the words. “Yes, I’m certain. He’s not the type to miss an opportunity. He’s nothing but a muckraker trying to jumpstart a career, make a name for himself. He jumped at the chance to interview the infamous Red Witch.”

The double doors flung open, and two figures strode into the room. Dalia’s butler announced, “A Mr. Phillip Cobb to see you, ma’am,” before bowing and backing out of the room. He shut the doors behind him with a bang that made Phillip Cobb jump.

He laughed nervously. “This place sure plays up the spooky atmosphere.”

“It’s the way we like it. Come, have a seat on the sofa.” Dalia waved her hand at the ragged piece of furniture, hoping the springs were still holding.

Phillip sat down as instructed and took out his phone. “Do you mind if I record this?”

“Whatever you need.” Dalia beamed, playing the perfect host. “Would you like some tea?”

Phillip shook his head. “Maybe later. I’d Like to start the interview. How did you get this local reputation as the ‘Red Witch’? Rumours have it you make people disappear with your magic.” He smiled, a slight edge of mocking to his grin.

“Did they tell you how I cast spells and feed my hapless victims to my demonic pets? Or perhaps the one about how I collect souls.” Dalia snickered. “Truth is, I’m just an eccentric lady and people like to talk.” She shrugged. “It’s not my fault if people disappear. Probably should have minded their own business.”

“So you’re saying that you’re just a victim of gossip and harassment, that—” Phillip suddenly yelped, pointing at the shadows, “What the hell is that?”

Dalia sighed. Damn the ghosts. They’re so impatient. “Just can’t stay hidden, can you? Well, come out then, since he’s seen you.”

From behind the chair, several ethereal figures floated forward, crowding around the sofa. Eager moans issued from their throats as Phillip shrank away from their outstretched hands. He yelped again as something else slithered across the floor, adding a trail of slime to the layers of dust.

Still shrieking, Phillip leapt to his feet. With her foot, Dalia shoved the coffee table into his shins, upsetting his balance and rattling the tea set. As Phillip tumbled back onto the sofa, Dalia reached between the chair cushions, then vaulted over the table, brandishing a knife.

“You wanted to know if I had anything to do with the disappearances? The answer is yes,” she snarled. “The Red Witch is a killer.” She slit his throat with a laugh.

His blood sprayed against her dress, adding a touch of bright red to the faded crimson cloth. Dalia licked drops of Phillip’s blood from her lips as she watched his moaning spirit rise from his body.

“Come my pets, you have someone new to torture.”

The other ghosts rushed in, moaning eagerly, and hauled Phillip’s spirit away to the darkest shadows. Dalia listened to his phantom screams as her pets played with their newest toy. She chuckled.

It will only hurt for a little while, Phillip. Then you’ll become one of us.

More shadows shifted, and a reddish tentacle reached out towards the sofa. It wrapped around the corpse’s neck and squeezed. Bones snapped and flesh dissolved until the head popped off. The slimy appendage dragged the head into the shadows and they both disappeared into the dim murk of the room. Blood oozed and pooled on the sofa cushions.

Dalia nodded. “That’s it, feast, my pet, but save some meat for me. Winter’s coming and the freezer needs stocking.”

She scooped some blood from the stump of the neck into a cup and poured in some tea. Dalia settled back in her chair, sipping her drink and licking blood from her fingers. She gazed at the body on the sofa and listened to the sweet sounds of screams and crunching bones.

Dalia smiled. “Well, it was a very good day indeed.”

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

The Crows

“The crows can see you. They are waiting.”

I didn’t look at my sister—still in disbelief she returned to the city—but I felt her shift beside me on the bench. I replied, “There are no crows in the city, Isabella. There haven’t been for years.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw her shake her head. “They’re still here.”

“No. You’re wrong. They left us.” I stood and walked away, leaving her alone on the bench. 

Her voice followed me, “They see you, Anna.”

I walked home through the empty streets. The city wasn’t crowded since the plagues. Many left, followed the crows, but a stubborn few remained. As I climbed the stairs to my apartment, I wondered why I stayed. Fear maybe, of what was beyond the city, or perhaps habit. Lately, none of my reasons mattered. I entered my apartment with Isabella’s words ringing in my ears.

“The crows can see you.” 

I hadn’t thought of them for a long time. Memories shifted in my mind, and I recalled the last days of the final plague. When the world understood. When we finally saw the crows: black-winged angels, guiding the souls of the dead away. In those end days, the sky was black with them and the air strident with the sound of their wings and caws. Yet, they vanished after the plagues. Abandoned those that remained.

“No. They never abandoned you.” 

I glanced towards the door. Isabella stood there.

Damn, she followed me home. Why? Why did she come back?

Isabella looked at me and said, “It’s time to go. Time to stop pretending. This isn’t life, Anna. You need to remember you’re dead.”

I snorted and looked at my sister with contempt. “Do you think I’m that stupid? I’m not one of the delusional ones. I know I died. I know you’re dead too.”

Isabella sighed. “Then why do you stay?”

I hesitated, then replied, “I don’t know. Fear, perhaps. The city is familiar, comforting, even if it is a city of ghosts. It was home.” I turned away, staring at a dusty picture of my deceased husband. “Maybe we’re only echoes, afraid to move on, but it’s something to cling to.” 

“Is it enough?” Isabella held out a hand.

I turned away. “Why have you come back? Why now? You crossed over years ago. You didn’t stay. Not like me.”

Isabella moved to my side, putting a hand on my shoulder. I glanced at her and she smiled.

“I’m a harbinger. The crows sent me, and others, to guide the last souls to their final rest.”

I shook my head. “The crows abandoned us.”

“No. They only waited. No soul can move on until they’re ready. Now they sent me to bring you home.”

“After all this time?” I trembled and jerked away. I walked to the window and stared at the city.

What’s beyond this? Is it good? Am I ready?

If I could have cried, I would have. I blurted, “What if I don’t want to go?”

“We both know you want this, Anna.” Isabella came over to stand at the window with me. “Leave this place. Your family is waiting for you.”

I gasped, staring at her. “They are? Mother and Father will be there? Josh?”

She nodded. “They’re eager to see you again.” 

I looked back out at the city and I knew I wanted to see my family again. “How long before…?”

Isabella took my hand and led me out of the building. As we stood on the street she whispered, “The crows are coming.”

I glanced around and saw the sky full of black wings and heard the echo of the empty metropolis. I felt a whoosh of air and the sound of beating wings.

Then I embraced the crows and let them take me away from the city of the dead.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Crack in the Sky

Moonlight whispers against the grey stone of the church, reverberating against the silence of the night. Blood drops onto the snow, staining the pristine white in taints of crimson. I stare at the contrasting colour and then reach towards the crack in the sky. More blood runs down my arm.

“Are you satisfied yet? Is this enough?”

No answer. The crack does not close. I go back inside the church.

The bodies are still there, but the blood is gone. Except for what remains on my hands. They never take that. I think it amuses them.

I hear a rustle, beyond the pews.

Did I miss one?

I move forward. A child crouches behind the altar and scuttles backward into the shadows when he sees me.

I smile, the sadness of inevitability behind the gesture. “You’re afraid, I understand. I must seem a monster to you. Were some of these people your family?”

I barely hear him reply, “Yes.”

“I’m sorry about that, but it was necessary. They were brave people, sacrificed to save the world.”

Another whisper, “You killed them. I saw you. I heard them scream.”

I sigh. How do I explain to a child I’m keeping demons at bay, monsters far more terrifying than me?

Doesn’t it even matter? I can’t spare the boy. I can feel them hunger for his blood already. 

“I’m sorry.” I move forward and shut my ears against his shrieks until the church is once again silent. The new blood disappears quickly. The only drops left are the spatters on my clothes and the fresh stains on my hands.

I turn and make my way past the bodies, heading back outside. I look up at the sky again, hoping perhaps this time I’ll see a black night and stars, not a fissure in the fabric of space. I sigh. 

It’s still there.

No matter how many I sacrifice, it remains. No matter the gender, the age, the numbers, it never closes completely. But I know, if I stop, they’ll come through. Then the world dies. So I will continue.

Blood keeps the crack in the sky from widening. Blood keeps the hoards at bay.

For now…

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Shadow Blight

The Shadow Blight lived between the bewitched wind and the waning moon, beneath the cold whispers of autumn and the first kiss of winter. He moved as a gossamer ghost, shifting along the seasons when the old year turned new, when the voices of the forest told their stories. He smiled. His tale was foremost, a warning to all and veneration to appease. 

Weave my story with your words and summon me.”

Among the trees the Shadow Blight slithered, listened and lingered, melting into the flickering silhouettes cast by the flames of campfires. The air turned chill and the light dimmed as once more a story unfolded, one told for a thousand years. 

“Beware the Shadow Blight. A cursed spirit of the land, a soul reaper.” An old man stirred the fire, nodding at his compatriots. “Born from the primal night and the eternal fear, the creature comes to us for our light and hope, feeds on our warmth and joy. We must be vigilant and reverent, guard our homes and words, to never invoke its wrath or presence, lest we fall to its power.”

Then another voice scoffed, “A child’s tale, lies meant to scare, nothing more.” The man who spoke snorted, as the others made warding signs. “I’ll not believe in a fool’s story.”

The wind blew suddenly, and the fire snapped with sparking embers.

Do not mock me, unbeliever.” 

The Shadow Blight laid a hand on the man’s shoulder fusing cold despair into his bones that would never vanish. The man shivered and fell silent, staring into the flames. By morning, he would be a hollow shell: afraid, hopeless and slave to a forever misery. 

Remember me, always.”

The Shadow Blight moved on. 

He drifted as an imperceptible phantasm, shifting along the edges of vision and well-worn roads, drawn by the voices of the crackling hearth and their whispered warnings. The settlement lights delighted him, and he slid from village to village. His dark fingers brushed window sills and shutters as he wandered past each house. He rattled door handles and knocked softly on the wood.

Let me in.” 

The people inside shivered with his words, terror bled from hidden depths and spilled against the night. Not a door opened until he came to one neglected, one entrance unlocked to his presence.

I am here.”

The door creaked open, flapped in the wind, and the doomed inhabitants gasped. The candle flames and hearth fires flickered, then died, and frost filled the windows. A happy family of four felt the ice form in their veins as the Shadow Blight’s arms encircled them, as he murmured in their ears. 

“Come to me. You are mine.

Their eyes closed and their breath slowed. One by one they died, their bodies still and frozen, their lives over. But their souls… 

Their souls followed the Shadow Blight home.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Final Harvest

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.