Thursday, 26 July 2007

Bullets and Banshees

The following is the first part of a short story due for publication in late 2007/early 2008.

The Lexington Hotel on the corner of Michigan and 22nd was difficult to miss. The brick and terracotta structure dwarfed the surrounding buildings, reducing them into insignificance. Nevertheless, the cab driver still saw fit to announce it as we pulled up at the front.

"There you go, miss. Lexington Hotel."

"Thank you." I reached for my purse, intending to tip the driver.

"You don't need to do that." The driver waved at me to stop. "Fare and tip both paid for in advance. Be more than my life's worth to hustle you for any more."

As I stepped from the taxi, I looked around to gain my bearings. The trolley line ran outside the hotel with a stop nearby; I would be able to get back home easily enough. I would have ridden it to the hotel, had my prospective client not insisted on sending the cab.

Even though I had chosen to wear my Sunday-best frock, I felt distinctly under-dressed for the occasion, as I stepped into the hotel lobby. Bedecked in crimson and gold, it was a far grander place than those I usually frequented. I felt as if every eye was on me as I approached the reception desk, although I knew this to be just my own paranoia. Yet the beady gaze the rat-like reception clerk gave me made me wonder if there was reason behind my paranoia. I must confess that his unwelcoming expression threw me off my stride a little.

"I have an appointment to see a Mr. George Phillips." It was barely a whisper, my voice betraying me at the vital moment.

"You'll have to speak up," the clerk sneered. His gaze lingered derisively on my dress, but he refused to make eye contact. Clearly I had been judged and found wanting.

"An appointment." My voice cracked this time as I tried to keep a lid on the annoyance I felt at this creature's prejudice. "With Mr George Phillips."

The clerk's demeanor changed immediately. The snotty tones dropped from his voice; his body language took on a more subservient mien.

"Mr Phillips, yes, right away madam."

He lifted a telephone receiver and dialed a single number.

"I have a miss ..." He ran his finger down a page in a ledger open in front of him. "Sara English to see Mr. Phillips."

He listened intently for a couple of moments before replacing the receiver in its cradle.

"You're to proceed to the fifth floor."

He indicated the bank of elevators across the lobby from us.

"Which room?" I asked.

The clerk laughed nervously. "All of them."

Upon arriving on the fifth floor, I was met by two sharply dressed men. Neither of them had the look of a reputable gentleman: their faces looked battered, in the manner of boxers; and there was a leer to their expressions as they regarded me. They insisted upon checking the contents of my purse, but stopped short of patting me down for concealed weapons, which was gallant of them, if a little naive.

Frankie, the broader of the two men, who had the physique of a boxer to match his crooked nose and cauliflower ears, led me through into the suite of rooms. We passed through into an office, where a widely proportioned man with thinning black hair sat in an armchair reading that morning's newspaper.

"Mr Phillips?" I ventured.

"If you like," he said as he lowered the paper to look at me.

I stifled my response. The features of the man in front of me were immediately recognizable, considering he was the most famous man in Chicago and a regular feature on the front pages of the city's newspapers, including the one he had been reading.

His name was not George Phillips; it was Al Capone.

"She clean?" Capone asked.

Frankie nodded.

"Then get lost. I want to talk with her alone."

Frankie nodded. Backing out of the room, he closed the doors, leaving me alone with the man considered to be Public Enemy Number One.

"Take a seat." Capone gestured to a two-seater sofa. "Something to drink?"

I shook my head as I sat. "No thank you."

Capone sat facing me, not saying anything for a moment. I shifted in my seat, my levels of discomfort rising until the realization hit me: the most-feared man in all Chicago was nervous about telling me his problem.

"Ray tells me you're the real thing," he finally said.

I nodded, unsure how I should respond. "I was able to help Mr. Manelli with his problem."
Capone leaned forward in his seat. "I got similar ... issues."

"I'm sure I could try to ... "

"No!" Capone hammered his fists against the arms of his chair in a violent outburst. Had I not been seated, I would have jumped back several feet. "I've had enough hucksters 'trying' to help. You're genuine: prove it."

My heart was racing, but I was resolute that I wasn't going to let it show. "I need to know more about the spirit," I told him as calmly as I could. "What appearance it takes, when and where it appears."

The tension dropped away from Capone. The act of taking his problem seriously seemed to have gone some way toward mollifying him.

"It's a dame ... a woman," he told me. "She's all dressed in black ... a long flowing black dress. I been seeing her every night since I did that stretch in Pennsylvania. First she'd appear at night outside my cell. Now she takes to floating outside the hotel. And what's worse is that noise she makes."


"Yeah. Broad wails as if someone capped her kid."

Capone could not have failed to notice my reaction. I am sure that I must have blanched as white as snow.

"You know what I'm dealing with?" he asked.

"A banshee."

"Then you can help."

It wasn't a question. I wasn't sure I should tell Capone that the banshee’s cry traditionally foretells the death of the person who heard it. On one hand I didn't think he'd take the news well; on the other he had survived for more than a couple of nights after hearing the wail, suggesting there was something unusual about his situation. Either Capone had some form of unusual protection, or something else was holding the banshee back. Whatever the case might be, it meant that there was some room for me to work. It was possible that I would be able to help Capone after all. Even if I couldn't, the chances were that he would be dead, in which case I didn't exactly have to worry about his response to my failure.

"I can help."

Capone smiled briefly before adopting a more business-like manner.

"What do you need to get started?"

On my request, I was shown to Capone's bedroom, where I was left alone. The windows looked out over Michigan Avenue and some way beyond, but my interest was not in the view, at least not the one outside the window.

The concept of a third eye, one with oracular powers, goes back into antiquity. There are a number of spiritualists who claim to have this ability, although I've yet to come across one who actually manifests their third eye. Most claim that it's about spiritual reality, not what can be seen with regular sight. However, my third eye is real enough that its plainly visible in the middle of my forehead when I use its sight. Anyone attempting to touch it though, as many have, would only feel the unbroken skin of my forehead. The prodding is irritating; unfortunately some people don't seem to be able to satisfy their curiosity unless they can stick their grubby fingers all over everything.

The eye is illusory, an outward manifestation of my abilities. Despite its unreal qualities, it does manage to set me apart from the majority of the charlatans claiming to practice the esoteric arts. At the very worst it serves as a neat party trick.

It does have its drawbacks however. Aside from the aforementioned prodding, it has also had the regrettable effect of scaring a number of people. It sent my own mother into a screaming fit when she saw a third eye blink open in the middle of her seven-week old baby‘s forehead, at least so I've been told. Despite my extraordinary mental powers, I can't claim to be able to remember the incident.

Settling into a cross-legged position (not entirely necessary, but I find it comfortable), I closed my eyes and let all the tension drain from me. I blocked out my awareness of the things around me: the noise from the traffic outside the hotel, the scent of Cuban cigars lingering in the air, the press of the carpeted floor against my rear. My third eye opened with a rush of awareness.
I had been told that with my real eyes shut and my third eye open I look like the Cyclops of Greek myth, but it was a sight I'd never seen for myself. The illusion that creates the eye is one of the mind and unfortunately cannot be photographed.

It felt, as it always does, as if a whole new world had been revealed to me. I could see the trails in the air left by people passing through in the past; I could see shadows cast by the future. I could also see the points at which the spiritual realm pressed up against our mundane world.

The building was home to several ghosts: guests who had checked out of life, but not the hotel. Some of them had passed peacefully, leaving little but the faint waft of memory to mark their passage; others died violently, leaving a psychic tumult in their wake. Several floors beneath me, the basement perhaps, a dark stain, the scene of some unspeakable crime no doubt, spread its cancerous tendrils throughout the hotel, tainting everything with its malignant essence.

More pertinent to my purpose there, I could see the trace left by the banshee: where it had been and from where it had come.

Capone lent me his limousine and two of his bodyguards, Frankie and a slimmer, weasel-faced man: Hymie. I had been prepared to take a cab, but he had insisted.

"I want her taken care of properly," Capone had informed the two men. "If there's so much as a hair outa place, I'm taking it out of your hides."

I suppose the threat was supposed to reassure me; it only had the effect of making me feel sorry for Capone's two men.

The Cadillac was a beast, luxurious to be driven about in, but a beast nonetheless. Frankie, who had elected to ride in back with me, informed me about the alterations Capone had made to it.

"Bullet proof glass, back and front," he said. "Inch thick steel plate. You could unload a Tommy gun into her and you wouldn't see a dent. Tires will run even if they're flat. And then there's this."

He opened a hidden compartment to reveal a stash of weapons: handguns, Thompson machine guns and even, Heaven forfend, hand grenades.

"Never get caught on the hop in this beauty," he said, resealing the compartment. "So, if we run into any trouble ... "

"Hopefully it won't come to that," I interrupted, not wanting to even consider the unleashing of that arsenal for my benefit. I already had enough wandering spirits to deal with in my life; the last thing I needed were a load more, created because of me.

I had Hymie stop the car several times as I rechecked where my sight was leading us. It would have been possible while moving, but it was so much easier to take a proper bearing while not ducking in and out of Chicago's traffic with Hymie using language at the other motorists that would make a sailor blush. The route we took meandered in a northerly direction, heading into what Frankie informed me was the Irish gangs territory.

"Eventually they'll all roll over for Al," he informed me. "But for now they're still causing trouble."

Irish would make sense, I thought, considering the banshee was an Irish spirit. How could such a thing be raised though? My understanding was that the banshees only sang to herald the deaths of the Irish nobility. I couldn't be certain that my facts were accurate though. Unlike other spirits, I had no real knowledge of banshees. My awareness of Celtic spirits sprang from the books I read, many of which were contradictory.

"Stop here," I instructed Hymie, wanting to once more check our bearings.

He pulled over to the side of the road and again I slipped into my meditative state. The first time I had done so in the car, Frankie's shocked gasp had brought me straight out of it again. Subsequently he had managed to still his reaction to the manifestation of my third eye. I could tell he remained uneasy though; he hadn't managed to look at me directly since.

The world opened up to me and immediately I could tell something was wrong.

"We have to go. Now!" I yelled.

Startled, Hymie froze, not sure how to respond to my sudden order. Frankie solved his quandary for him. "Drive! Back to the Lexington."

The attack, when it arrived, came out of nowhere, literally. The air several car lengths ahead of us rippled and bubbled, busting open to expel a number of riders on ferocious black stallions. Both riders and mounts were clad in dark brown leather armor. Steam snorted from the horses' nostrils, a sight made all the more terrifying by the fact that it was at least 70 degrees outside.

Hymie spun the wheel around, sending the car into a barely controlled spin. Jamming his foot on the gas pedal, he did his best to put as much space between us and the new arrivals as possible.

Frankie gaped through the rear window at the riders who were urging their horses forward in pursuit.

"What the hell are they?"

My third eye still open to the perceptions of the unseen world, I opened my other two eyes to look at Frankie.

"It's the Wild Hunt."

"They won't be so wild after I'm done with them," Frankie said.

He pushed on a lever attached to the rear window. The whole assembly folded down, giving him a clear line on our pursuers. Pointing his Tommy gun out of the hole where the window had been, he opened fire. The signature ratatattat sound of the gun filled the car. I clapped my hands over my ears to block out the noise; my third eye disappeared along with my concentration.

"Keep the car steady, Hymie," Frankie growled. "I can't hit these mugs if you keep juddering about."

"You wanna come up here and drive?" Hymie threw back.

Frankie resumed firing as the Hunt closed the gap between us. Despite the larger target, Frankie's aim seemed to be no better.

"I'm hitting them," he announced. "But it ain't having any effect."

"Iron!" I realized. "That's the only thing that can hurt them."

"Why didn't you say so before?" Frankie responded. "Hymie, give them some smoke."

Hymie pulled out an unmarked knob on the dashboard. Thick black smoke poured out of the tailpipe.

"Burns oil," Frankie explained to me. "Should give us the cover to make this work."

I peered into the dark cloud tailing us. I could just about make out the indistinct forms of our pursuers.

"They're still gaining on us," I told Frankie.

"Not for much longer."

Frankie slid open a small hatch in the middle of the floor between us. I glanced back behind; I could see the green glowing eyes of the horses.

"Whatever you're going to do ... "

Frankie upturned a box over the hatch. Roofer's nails spilled out into it. They rattled underneath the car.

"Pipe runs underneath the car," Frankie explained. "Use it for puncturing tires."

The sound of hoof beats chasing us abruptly stopped.

"Cut the smoke," Frankie ordered.

Hymie depressed the knob. Within seconds the air behind us cleared. There was no sign of the Wild Hunt. They had vanished along with the smoke.

Capone paced angrily, in danger of wearing a trench in the thick carpet that covered his study floor. He stopped and pointed a shaking finger at me.

"If this is a way of you extorting more money from me ..."

"Mr Capone," my tone was cold, business-like, in complete contrast to how I really felt. "I can assure you that obtaining more money is the furthest thing from my mind. At the moment it's my well-being that I'm more concerned about. Calling up the Wild Hunt is not some parlor trick."

"And you two." Capone rounded on Frankie and Hymie. "How can you go along with what this broad is saying?"

"I swear it's the truth, Mr Capone," Frankie said. "Miz English was the one who saved us from them."


"The Huntsmen, like most of their kind, are vulnerable to iron," I explained.

"Iron? So I can get rid of that banshee by sticking her through with a poker?"

"I doubt it's that easy, Mr Capone. The temporary loss of a single banshee would likely prove little deterrent to your adversary."

"Temporary loss? I thought you said they were vulnerable to it."

"It can hurt them," I replied. "Even send them back from where they came. But it won't kill them."

Contemplating this, Capone strode over to the window, where he looked out over the city. His stance was that of one who owned all that he surveyed. From the lawmakers to the law-bringers, Capone ran Chicago. His hold over the city might not be complete, but as far as it counted, the city belonged to him. How this loss of control must rankle, I thought. Here was something over which he had no power.

"These things don't like iron, huh? Hymie, get to Diversey Park. I want enough iron rounds for all our boys. If these Irish ... things want a war, we'll give them Armageddon."

After Hymie had left on his errand, Capone turned to me.

"You'll stay here. You're hired on as my ... spiritual adviser for the duration. Frankie, get her set up with a room."

I knew it best not to argue, but I couldn't let Capone run roughshod over my life without the slightest protest.
"I don't have any of my things here," I told him.

Capone scowled. "After you're done with the room," he said to Frankie. "Run her back to her place so she can pick up what she needs." He paused for a second, thinking. "And then take her over to Marshall Fields and let her buy whatever else she needs. On my account.""

According to the clock in my hotel room, it was two minutes past midnight when the wailing began. I had slept for a couple of hours earlier in the evening following my shopping expedition, but I was wide awake now. Blocking out everything but the wail, I slipped into the light trance that allowed me to access my abilities. Prepared, I stepped to the window and threw it wide open.

Floating around the building, the banshee's attention snapped onto me. She hung in mid-air for a moment, before floating over to my window. She had the appearance of a young woman, long flowing copper locks, wide green eyes and wore a long green dress that came down past her ankles, trailing behind her like gossamer in the wind.

"What do you want here?" I asked.

The banshee, staring straight into my third eye, answered, entranced. "Capone's soul."

"Why haven't you already taken it?"

The banshee frowned, then shook her head, breaking free of the spell. "Beware mortal." She pointed an accusatory finger at me. "You play with forces beyond your ken."

With those words of warning, the banshee floated away from the window to resume her wailing lament.

"I'm sure I haven't heard that before," I muttered. All manner of spiritual nasties had attempted to warn me off in the past. I was still here; most of them weren't.

A window above me, on the fifth floor, banged open. A gun barked, loud into the night. The shot found its mark in the center of the banshee's forehead. Her wail diminished rapidly, as did the banshee, until all that was left was a faint echo in the wind. Then that too was gone.

"How'd you like them apples!" Capone shouted from above.

His window banged shut. I closed my own more gently, wondering what effect his action would have. Two hours later I found out as I was woken from a fitful sleep by a caterwauling from outside. I rose from my bed and dragging my bedclothes with me padded over to the window. This time it was not a single banshee lamenting the forthcoming death of Al Capone, but rather an entire chorus of them.

I returned to my bed. Stuffing a pillow over my head to block out as much of the noise as I could, I tried to return to sleep.

Bleary-eyed and in desperate need of a pot of thick black coffee, I joined the assembly in Capone's office. Out of everyone there, only Capone seemed to have had as bad a night as mine.

"Explain to me why I'm the only one who heard that racket last night," he asked me.

"The banshee's lament is only intended for the ears of one person," I answered. "So only you, or someone sensitive to the spirits would be able to hear them."

"You heard them too?"

I nodded. I caught a fleeting expression of relief cross Capone's face that he was not alone in his experience, but it disappeared so quickly that I wasn't sure if I hadn't just imagined it.

"All right," Capone announced. "This is what we're gonna do."

Fog rolled in off Lake Michigan, blanketing the Graceland Cemetery. Frankie peered out through the windshield of Capone's Cadillac, using his sleeve to wipe away the condensation forming on the inside of the glass.

"I don't like the look of this," he grumbled.

I was forced to agree; I was sure there was a preternatural quality to the vapor. I could have checked it out with my third eye, but the attack by the Wild Hunt suggested that someone had taken notice of the use of my ability and was taking steps against it. As an attempt to avoid this unwanted attention, I was using techniques that required a less conspicuous use of power. By holding a small brass pendulum over a city map, I had used simple divination to locate the cemetery, letting the pendulum be led by the power pouring out of it, rather than my own power. It was less reliable than my sight, but given the sheer amount of power being used, it was unlikely that I was mistaken in my identification of Graceland as the focal point.

"You want to turn back?" I asked. It was worth suggesting the option; I couldn't see how this could possibly go well for us.

"Only if I want Al using my head for baseball practice," he replied. "Okay, if we're doing this, let's get on with it."

There were twenty-one of us in all. In Hebrew numerology twenty-one was considered to represent wisdom. Not that Hebrew numbers were going to help us much. In Celtic numerology, as a product of three, twenty-one would be considered a number of power. Perhaps that was a better sign.

We came into the cemetery by way of the entrance on north Clark Street, fanning out once inside. Frankie kept close to me. I wondered which of us was supposed to be reassured by the other's presence.

"What are we looking for?" he asked.

"An altar. It'll have a circle surrounding it, possibly salted and probably with a couple of triangles inside it."

"Ain't going to be easy spotting it in this." Frankie looked around at the fog.

"That's why I have this." I set my pendulum swinging. It favored a direction north across the cemetery. "This way."

As we ventured deeper inside, the fog worked to isolate us from the rest of the city, so that Chicago became nothing but a memory. Phantoms, conjured up by the fog, played at the edges of our vision. Optical illusions, they nonetheless had everyone twitching at every gust of wind. A scratching sound somewhere beneath us only added to the atmosphere of poorly concealed terror.

A skeletal hand thrust itself up through the fog, breaking free of its bonds of grass and soil. A hail of hot iron greeted its arrival as all but three of the gangsters fired upon it, blasting it back to its resting place.

"Save your ammo," Frankie ordered. "We don't know what else is ..."

He didn't have the opportunity to complete his sentence. All around us the graves gave up the dead. The gangsters fired upon them, instinctively drawing into a rough circle. I took shelter in the center, scraping my own circle in the cemetery soil with my shoe. Inside the circle I drew an inverted triangle with a line bisecting it a third of the way down, forming the Celtic symbol for earth.

I crouched down over the triangle, swinging my pendulum over it, tracing the lines in the air. Trying to make the pendulum follow straight lines, when it naturally wanted to move in circles wasn't easy, but it did the job well enough for it to work.

"There's too many of them!" yelled Charlie, one of the younger members of Capone's crew.

I glanced up from my work. The press of animated cadavers, some of them nothing more than bones and rags, threatened to swamp the gunmen. Even with the automatic fire of the Tommy guns tearing them apart, every corpse mowed down was replaced by two new ones, like the heads of the Lernaian Hydra. If I didn't hurry and finish my work we'd all be dead, regardless of the weight of the firepower.

I swung my pendulum faster; the motion lines it left grew stronger, more definitive. They began to glow with a life of their own, forming a burning triangle in the air above its counterpart in the cemetery soil.

Overwhelmed by grasping hands, one of the gangsters fell to the onslaught of walking cadavers, dragged down into the fog. His screams were barely audible amid the cacophony of machine gun fire, which was some small blessing. The circle of guns drew in a little tighter around me, increasing my already screaming sense of claustrophobia.

I stopped the pendulum moving with my free hand. Even without the tracing action, the motion lines remained floating in mid-air, a bright light in the gloom of the fog-filled cemetery.

The reanimated dead overwhelmed another of the gangsters, several of them jumping on top of him at once. The others opened fire on them. A bullet finished the hapless gangster instead of the dead. Rather than fall over as the life left his body, the gangster's corpse was instead held up by the press of the dead around him. A moment later he moved again, his body animated by the same force that infected the rest of our assailants. Moving in an uncoordinated fashion, he brought his machine gun to bear on me.

I froze, my muscles locked in a spasm of fear. My ritual was still unfinished; his bullets would not only take my life, they would be responsibly, directly or otherwise, for the death of everyone with me.

The dead gangster pulled the trigger.

Grandma's House

Grandma’s House

Originally published in Mam Tor's Event Horizon Book 2 with illustrations by Emily Hare

“Stay on the path, stay on the path,” Red muttered to herself over and over.

It was good advice, if only she’d been able to keep it. The problem was the path was no longer there. A bridge was supposed to take it across the river that ran through the middle of the woods. Unfortunately, all that remained of the bridge were two broken ends on either side. The recent rains must have swollen the river to such an extent that the timber supports had given way. The river was more or less back to normal now, it was a shame the same could not be said for the bridge.

Red had two options: turn back or find another place to cross. Turning back would mean she had failed; until she completed the journey she would not be recognised as anything more than a child. Crossing elsewhere meant using the ford that lay about half a mile upstream. That meant her journey would take her a mile off the path. The route was not an unfamiliar one, but she had always taken it with her father, during the hours of light, never alone, or in the middle of the night.

The pact ensured that no traveller using the path would come to any harm. Oaths signed in blood enforced the bargain, the old magic to all intents and purposes impossible to break By travelling off the path at night, Red was putting herself in harm’s way. The wolves would have no compunction about attacking anyone travelling through their woods, even if the travel was necessitated by the path being impossible to navigate. Nature, red of tooth and claw, did not have any sense of fair play.

By keeping to the banks of the river, Red hoped that she could mitigate the danger. Unfortunately while the wolves might prefer the shelter of the trees, they did not hesitate to venture into open spaces when it served their needs. Some of the bolder among the woodland breed would even venture into the village from time to time. After all, that was how Millie’s boy was lost, stolen by an opportunistic forest wolf.

The village men had organised a hunting party, tracking that particular wolf to her lair. She had lost a son of a similar age and had sought to replace him by stealing Millie’s child. The boy was unharmed, although from the moment of his return it had been obvious that he had been changed.

He had grown into a sullen child, shunning the company of his peers. His return to the forest was almost inevitable. Two days shy of his ninth birthday, that was exactly what he did. Millie had begged the men to track him down and bring him back again, but they had refused.

“He’s got the forest in him now,” Red’s father had said. “And there’s no turning a forest wolf into a town hound.”

The journey away from the path started uneventfully enough. Red hadn’t expected to encounter any problems right away. After all, with the path only a short distance away, it would be counterproductive for any lurking wolves to attack her while she still had a good chance of escaping. Perhaps if they were patient enough, they would wait until she reached the midway point at the ford when she would have to run half a mile in either direction to reach safety.

She almost turned back as she considered these possibilities, so convinced was she that they were lying in wait for her. However, the woods were large enough that there was every chance she wouldn’t come close to a single living soul during her midnight walk. She could easily be scaring herself for nothing.

“A surplus of imagination is what you have, m’girl,” her father would tell her; that and “Stop living in what might never be, it’s hard enough just living in the now.”

Red disagreed with her father, something she was finding happened more and more these days. Her mother put it down to the awkward nature that came with growing up. Red wasn’t convinced by that either. She didn’t think she was being awkward, she had just grown to realise how stupid her father could be. She still loved him greatly and respected him for the way he had brought her up; she was just convinced that he was completely and utterly wrong about certain things.

Still in one way her father was right, she did need to stop dwelling on those things that were beyond her power to change and concentrate on those that she could. For instance she couldn’t stop the wolves from being there by worrying, but she could plan ahead so that she could escape if they were waiting for her. She figured that the river was her best bet as an escape route. It was deep enough that she wouldn’t break her neck if she jumped in, even from a height, and it was fast enough to facilitate a quick getaway.

A crunch in the undergrowth drew her attention. She jerked her head around trying to spot the cause. She peered into the trees, trying to distinguish shadow from substance. Her imagination filled in the details of faces and forms lurking just beyond her sight. Another crunch came. This time she directed her focus to where she was sure it originated. Nothing moved, not a sight, not a sound. She held her breath, not dar5ing to make a noise, lest she startle or attract the source of the noise.

A rabbit bolted from the trees. In her sudden fright and just as sudden relief, she tried to inhale and exhale all at the same time and ended up hiccupping instead. At least it hadn't been one of the wolves. Her reaction speed had been so poor that she would have been devoured from nose to toes before having so much as a chance to consider flight.

The pregnant moon played its light across the shallows of the water; she had reached the ford. It was no coincidence that Red travelled during the full moon. The tradition that had her traipsing through the woods in the dead of night was connected to the time of the moon. The heavenly body was a symbol of the monthly cycle, the feminine tide of blood and fertility. Its passage symbolised the journey that Red had undertaken as she moved from childhood into womanhood.

The moon was also linked to the wolves, at least according to the stories told to frighten the children. They might have been more frightened were they to learn that the danger from the wolves didn’t just exist for the three days of the full moon, but all month long. The transformation the wolves underwent was one of choice, not of lunar pull. It was true that the wolves treated the moon as a sacred object when it was in ascendance. However the link was purely spiritual, there was nothing physical to it.

As she waded into the river there was no sign she had any company, save that offered by the silent presence of the forest’s trees. She splashed noisily across the ford in wilful disregard of both her fear and all common sense. She exalted in the sensations of the pebbles beneath her feet, the water lapping up her legs and the wind picking at her hair and clothes. This was living, this wade through the moonlight-flecked waters, not knowing if she would be around to see the dawn.

Across the river, she calmed down, the full moon fever having abated somewhat. Her sense of self-preservation once more rose to the fore. She re-examined her situation. She was half a mile from the safety of the path, in the middle of wolf haunted woods, her feet were wet and cold and there was no turning back anymore. Satisfied with her reality check, she continued on her way.

She had been walking for no more than a few minutes when she discovered that her plan to follow the river had run into a snag. Her chosen path was blocked by an impenetrable barrier formed by a cluster of deformed trees twisted into one another, thorny brambles surrounding them. There was no chance of going down to the water’s edge either. The riverbank sloped upwards to form the start of the gorge over which the broken bridge used to pass.

There was only one way forward - deeper into the forest.

Red held her position relative to the moon. Whatever else might happen, she had no intention of getting lost in the woods. Unfortunately her best intentions came to naught as the bending boughs of the trees soon obscured the night sky so that she could no longer rely on it for her bearings. All she had left to judge her path was her own sense of direction.

As she navigated her way through the trees by this blind sense, she came across a clearing. Again she could see the moon, and judging by its position in the sky, she had not strayed too far from her intended path. It was while she paused to take her bearings that she saw the wolf moving out from the shelter of the trees at the far side of the clearing. Red bent low, hoping that the creature wouldn’t see her. The wolf strode into the centre of the clearing, raising his head to gaze at the moon and he howled.

He was a magnificent beast. Red marvelled at the movement of his muscles under his pelt of dark fur, restrained power, like a spring waiting to uncurl. Red wondered what he would do if he caught her. The strength of his arms could easily rip her apart. A shiver of fear ran deliciously down her spine, as she alternated between terror and arousal. The feelings were not new to her, but never had she felt them together, never so strongly.

She could visualise the waves radiating off her body, her presence overpoweringly overt.
The wolf twisted his head around, seeking something out in her direction. He had felt it too! Red felt almost dizzy as the contradictory emotions collided in a maelstrom of fear and desire.

“I know you’re out there,” the wolf growled, deep in his throat.

Red held her tongue. Conflicted between her instinct to flee and the magnetic pull of the wolf, she chose the middle option and remained hidden.

The wolf sniffed the air, tasting her scent on the breeze. He sighed with deep satisfaction.

“Young, fresh, female. Guess where you’re going at this late hour, under this full moon.”

He sniffed again, drawing the air deeply in, as if enjoying a gourmet feast.

“Such a shame to waste your prime flesh on that shrivelled old harridan. I think perhaps I should do the honours instead.”

He moved in her direction, his steps measured, full of that barely controlled power. Red couldn’t put off the decision any longer, unless she wanted him to make it for her, but she wasn’t willing to cede that responsibility. She slowly rose almost hypnotised in his presence, a sacrificial bride to this this creature of fang and claw with his deep voice and his smells of sweat and fur and forest and blood. His upper lips curled, revealing those unsheathed fangs in all their glory. The thick redness of a fresh kill stained his lips, flecked his muzzle. He was intoxicating.

Red ran.

The wolf was taken aback for a moment, surprised by this apparently sudden change of heart. Had he been quicker off the mark, he could have taken her there and then, but he was too late. Red ran into the cover of the trees. While the wolf might have had the advantage of speed in the open, she knew that the twists and turns dictated by the greenery would reduce that advantage by some degree.

Even so, she knew that she would not long keep from his reach. Her only hope lay in the path being near enough for her to make before he could close the gap between them. She dodged between tree trunks, aware now that the river was running on her left, guiding her back to the path. Behind her, close now, almost within reach, the wolf crashed through the vegetation, all subtlety lost as he abandoned himself to the chase.

“Smell so good,” he growled, close enough that he might have been speaking directly into her ear.

Red refused to turn, knowing that doing so could cost her the race. Ahead her finishing line, the path, appeared. She dug into her reserves, put on an extra burst of speed and... snagged her foot on a tree root. She stumbled headlong into a denuded bush, the bare twigs scratching at her skin, tearing at her clothes. She rolled out of it to come face to face with the wolf.

“Hello, fresh meat,” the wolf said.

Red was unsure what would come next, whether she should fear or welcome it. She wouldn’t find out. As the wolf drew its head back, a flash of silver passed across her line of sight, taking the wolf’s head with it. The man-like body of the wolf, capped by a bleeding stump of a neck, remained in position for a second longer, before collapsing lifeless to the forest floor. Red gasped, too shocked for any other reaction.

A large, hairy, but human hand reached down to help her up. She took it and was yanked to her feet like a cork from a bottle. She overbalanced into the thick embrace of her rescuer.

“Easy there.”

He set her right, letting her stand unsupported.

“Are you all right miss?”

Red nodded, unable to find her tongue for the moment.

Her rescuer looked to be in his twenties, perhaps with as much as a decade over Red, perhaps less. He was powerfully built, a tree trunk of a physique. His axe, the flash of silver that had passed before Red’s eyes, gave away his profession; he was a woodsman.

“What are you doing out here at this time of the night?”

“I’m v-visiting my grandmother,” Red managed to stutter. “She lives in a cottage in the woods.”

“Well, it’s no time of day for a young lady such as yourself to be travelling through this forest,” the woodsman told her. “How old are you anyway? Fifteen?”

“Seventeen!” Red replied, her fear displaced by indignation. It was the age of majority in those parts and she was not going to let this stranger think of her as a child.

Obviously the answer was pleasing to the man, as he grinned foolishly at her. “Well even so, you shouldn’t be going about unescorted at this time of night.”

“Perhaps you could walk with me the rest of the way to my grandma’s house.”

“I’m sure I could at that,” he replied, trying to appear nonchalant.

Without a backwards glance, Red walked off in the direction of the path, knowing that he would follow.

“So why are you travelling in the dead of night?” he asked after catching up with her.

“It’s tradition.”

“What sort of strange tradition requires midnight hikes through monster-infested woods?”

His reply was mocking. Red shot him a hurt look. He backed off immediately.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult your customs. I just don’t understand why you would need to do something so dangerous.”

“It’s not dangerous if you keep to the path. The wolves can’t bother travellers on the path.”

“I wish I’d known that before I stepped into the woods. That’s the second of those brutes I’ve had to kill this night.”

“There was another?”

“Aye. Evil looking brute. Eyes as dark as his wicked soul. He would have done for me in an instant had I faltered. So, can you tell me more about this custom, or is it something strangers aren’t supposed to know?”

“It’s customary among my people that when someone comes of age, they’re initiated into the rites of adulthood by their oldest living relative. The Journey of the Moon is one part of that initiation.”

“Journey of the Moon?” The woodsman looked up at the full moon. “That’s why you’re out here on your own?”

Red nodded. “I’m supposed to make the journey by myself along the path. Only the bridge must have washed away, which was why I was walking through the woods.”

“Is it all right me being here then?” he asked. “My presence doesn’t invalidate the ritual or anything?”

“No. You’re a stranger to us, so it doesn’t matter you being here.”

“So what else does this initiation involve?”

“There is the Kiss of Welcome and the Sharing of Flesh. My first act as a woman is to find a man.”

“I see.”

Even though they were only lit by the moon, Red could still see the darkening of the woodsman’s cheeks as the blood rushed to his face. She touched his arm.

“I’m hoping I won’t have to look too far.”

The woodsman was spared the need to fumble for an answer; their destination was in sight. In the middle of a clearing in the woods, next to the path, stood a cottage with a thatched roof and gabled windows. A white picket fence surrounded the tidy rows of a vegetable garden; a cobblestone pathway neatly bisected the garden, running from gate to door.

“You need to remain here,” Red told the woodsman.

He nodded and settled down to wait.

“Will you be long?” he called after her as she walked up the garden path, but she was thinking so hard about what was to come next that she forgot to respond.

Red knocked on the front door.

“Come in, dear,” a voice called out from inside. “The door’s on the latch.”

Red pushed the door open and stepped inside the cottage. The interior gave the lie to the rustic charm of the outside. It felt more like cave than cottage: dark, claustrophobic and drafty.

“I’m in the back, dear,” the voice called.

Red walked along the narrow passageway that wound itself through the house. Candles, stumps of red wax perched in recesses along the walls, provided a flickering illumination. The pulse of the light was almost rhythmic; Red found herself keeping in time as she walked.

The passageway seemed unusually long, even with its surprising twists and turns. Red was sure that the cottage she had seen from the outside couldn't have contained it. She finally came to the end: a wooden door. She was about to knock when the voice called out again.

“Come on through, come on through.”

The room beyond, curtained with red silk sheets, was no better lit than the passageway. Smoke from the candles spread across the room lent a hazy pall to the atmosphere. Wooden tables, cabinets and shelves held all manner of macabre bric-a-brac ranging from petrified monkey paws to rune-covered skulls.

In the middle of the room, a shawl covering her legs, a gnarled old woman sat in a gnarled old rocking chair. She peered at Red over a pair of wire-framed spectacles.

“Come closer dear, these eyes don’t see so well.”

Red moved nearer to the old woman, unsure of what to expect. The old woman scrutinised her closely. Red blinked in surprise, she was sure the woman’s eyes hadn’t been so large a moment ago.

“Your eyes...”

“You’ll have to bend closer,” the woman said. “My ears don’t hear so well any longer. Now why are you here?”

Red bent to speak into the woman’s ear.

“It’s my time of majority.”

Red jumped back, startled. She knew that the woman’s ears hadn’t been so long a moment before.

“Then I welcome you with this kiss.”

The old woman opened her mouth, revealing rows of large, sharp teeth.

Then she leapt out of her chair to sink them into Red’s arm.

The woodsman had waited at the bottom of the garden, far enough from the cottage that when he heard the first scream he hadn’t been quite sure that was what it was. By the time the second came, he was almost at the front door, close enough to be certain.

The screaming had stopped by the time he reached the back room, but the cause of it still remained. A wolf, stood over the body of the red-headed girl. It wiped a paw across its bloody muzzle.

“So you’re the one who’s been killing my boys in the forest.”

The voice was that of an old lady. Distantly the woodsman noted that it seemed strange coming from those jaws. His eyes flicked to the body of the girl and back again to the wolf.

“In defence of myself for the first. The second only after he tried to hurt the girl.” He wasn’t sure why he was talking with the wolf. It must be the shock of it all, the coherent part of him considered. The rest of him just thought about taking his axe and putting an end to the life of another murderous wolf.

The wolf cackled in response to his statement. “Hurt her? Hump her more like knowing those randy buggers. That’s why they won’t let them in town. No manners whatsoever.”

The woodsman swung his axe back. “So it’s only you who kills children?”

“Only to bring forth the adult.”

As the woodsman swung his axe, his legs were yanked from under him. He crashed to the ground, his weapon flew across the room as his chin met the floor.

Red let go of his legs and sat up. The woodsman turned to see her leaning over him.

“Now we share flesh,” she told him.

There was just enough time for the woodsman to say one more thing.

“My, what big teeth you have!”

Friday, 18 May 2007

Extract from The Tourist Guide to Hell

Where to Stay

Hell does not have any tradition of hospitality whatsoever, unless one includes the type of hospitality that involves flails, nails being driven into eye-sockets and the over-use of red hot pokers; however the recent change in management style has seen a number of guest houses and hotels spring up. While the options are still fairly limited, there is enough to cater to most traveller’s tastes. Prices vary from the extortionate rates charged by some of the palaces that accept guests to the extremely cheap flop-houses that don’t actually offer a bed, but do offer a line to lean against while sleeping.

The accommodations selected have been chosen for their good value, excellent facilities, or location. Where indicated, hotels may also meet the needs of a more discerning clientele. Should a traveller be disturbed by loud screaming throughout the night, or not relish the opportunity to have their genitals nailed to a board, then it is advised to steer clear of these establishments.

Beelzebub’s Palace. This sumptuous palace in a Medieval style offers much to the traveller willing to pay extra for luxury. Built c.1130 AD, the palace was originally intended for the Lord of Flies, however he only stayed in it for two nights before ordering the architect boiled in pig fat and a new palace built closer to the centre of Dis. Master bedrooms come with hot and cold running succubae as standard. One word of warning: the pool is not for swimming. Unwary guests have found themselves short a limb or two after a quick morning dip.

Cthulhu House. A themed hotel built specifically for tourists. Cthulhu House offers the Disneyland approach to vacations, presenting a more sanitised version of Hell. Indeed it is even rumoured that Uncle Walt himself had a hand with the initial designs, although the Walt Disney Company‘s press office categorically denies any suggestion that its founder is anywhere south of the Pearly Gates. Guests are greeted by a reasonable facsimile of Howard Phillips Lovecraft at main reception and taken up to rooms in either the Miskatonic or Dunwich wings of the hotel. For the more discerning visitors, an extra £500 per night will allow them to stay in the Arkham Suite (straightjacket optional).

Pandemonium Hotel. A welcoming, if noisy establishment. The Pandemonium Hotel was first opened to cater for travelling demons and as a result has easy access to Dis Central Terminal. The west wing of the hotel has been redesigned to accommodate human tourists and rates are quite reasonable. For cheaper rooms, it is possible to rent suites still intended for the more Hellish denizens, but travellers are advised to use the communal showers as those installed in the rooms tend to only be suitable for guests with acid-impervious hides.

The Bates Motel. Another themed hotel, although without the charm of Cthulhu House. The Bates Motel can be found on the main road out of Dis and is one of the better stops outside of the capital city. Accommodations are fairly basic, but of an acceptable standard. Special rates are available to transvestites. A cheaper rate is also available for cabin number one, although travellers are advised that the savings made are not worth the risk of a mid-shower visit.

The Flogged Sinner. A guest house in the old tradition. Very popular with the S&M set, although these days it also caters to a wider clientele. The inn provides one of the better breakfasts in Dis, the whipped omelette and the flailed partridge being particular delicacies.

Eating Out

Travellers are advised to ensure they take sufficient supplies to last their stay. While the restaurants in Hell cater for all palates, those with anything less than a cast-iron stomach will find it difficult to keep down their cordon bleu fare when the eater at the next table may be tucking into a dish of suckling paedophile. However, eat outside of the main dinner hours of 4-10 pm and the experience can be well worth the awkward timing.

The best restaurants in Dis can be found in the Glutton’s Quarter. Intended as punishment where over-eaters would be forced to eat until they literally burst ( a sight far more unpleasant than the one portrayed in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life) , the quarter has given rise to some of the best chefs on any plane of reality. Open 24 hours a day, it’s best to time your visit to the moment when the gluttons are still on their early courses. Breakfasts are usually safe, save in the few cases where there are still some late night eaters whose stomach staples have not yet burst.

Outside of the Glutton’s Quarter, there are cafeterias on most main streets. The food served in these establishments tends to be plain fare, often cooked with a little too much brimstone, lending to a rotten egg smell to much of the cuisine, but there are rarely any customers exploding at the next table. For those customers not interested in cannibalism, the long-pig-in-a-blanket is definitely off the menu. It is also worth checking the ingredients used before ordering the soup du jour.

When travelling outside of Dis, it is strongly advisable that tourists eat only the food they have brought with them. Most eateries cater to demonic tastes and usually involve some form of cannibalism. Travellers are reminded that even though Hell permits such practices, the International Convention on Infernal Travel allows for the prosecution of all tourists once they are back on home soil. A chain of roadside restaurants has recently opened under the banner of Pit-Stops to provide tourists with non-human fare, but there have been issues regarding food contamination. If any dishes are labelled “May contain nuts”, it is advisable to steer well clear of them.