A book infested with ghosts
The days were growing short, and the air turning chill when the visitors came. Despite the remote location, guests weren’t unusual at the witch’s hut, deep in the wood, edging the swamp. Sometimes it was local people, in some desperate need. Most locals knew they could bring their non-urgent troubles to the witch’s boy, when he visited town every month, saving themselves the trip into the woods.
So it was, a good potion of their visitors were finely dressed travelers, from far further away, drawn by his mistresses’ reputation. They often wore cloaks to try and offer some semblance of obfuscation, but their well bred horses always gave them away. He liked to watch them as they picked their way through the woods, so out of place, letting his mistress watch through his eyes, if she so desired. It was easy to become lost, if you didn’t know the way, and so he, the small golden cat, the witch’s familiar, eventually appeared to lead the travelers to their destination.
It was a king this time. He was beautiful, for a human, with his meticulously trimmed beard and long face, though his eyes were sunken and dark. Haunted. He rode with a small party of guards, but there was more to his entourage than that. He had a second following, a mass of flickering, silvery shapes, pulled along in their wake, like a flag fluttering madly in a strong wind. He could see them without aid, though it was hard to pick out individuals. He knew what they were. Cats never needed assistance seeing the spirit world.
When they arrived his mistress greeted them, and bade the king alone to come inside. It was always amusing to watch the finely garbed visitors shuffling and unsure, shifting in their chair while his mistress made them tea. Though she lived alone, aside from him, his mistress understood people. She knew what they wanted, how to soothe them, but never sugar coated what needed to be said.
There was something else that held his interest more than the king. He hopped up on the windowsill, one of his favorite perches, and looked outside. The men were uneasy, but arrayed around them, all through the front garden, were ghosts. He’d never seen so many in one place. They all stood stock still, staring at the house. He felt the fur on his back rise like a saw blade, his tail swishing back and forth. His mistress could sense his distress, and sent a touch of reassurance across their link. He wasn’t entirely sure how she was so calm given what was out there. Frankly, they gave him the creeps, and he saw plenty out in the swamp. Perhaps it was the way they stared, without blinking.
Calm yourself, my dear one.
Behind him the king was speaking. He hardly dared to remain in the window with those eyes upon him and so he hopped down and crossed the space, climbing up onto the table and curling up at the edge of it. The king had accepted the tea, and told his story over the steaming cup. There was a book, an item of state, a family heirloom, but he couldn’t keep it anymore. It was haunted, he said. He couldn’t sleep, and dark thoughts had taken up residence in his mind. He feared for his family, his mind, and his crown. He begged her to cleanse it, willing to pay any price she desired.
If he’d had such an item in his possession, he would have wanted done with it as quickly as possible.
His mistress agreed, after some small negotiation, and followed the king outside. He followed in their wake, fur still bristled in the presence of the ghosts, and the king handed the book over. It was wrapped tightly in black cloth. Even like that, he could feel an aura around it. His mistress charged him with leading the party safely out of the woods, as she took time to examine the book. He didn’t like to leave her there, but she could well take care of herself. He took one look back as the branches embraced him, the ring of ghosts still arrayed around the witch’s comfortable home.
They were still there when he got back. He paused at the edge of the wood, part of him not wanting to go through them. His mistresses’ voice rang in his mind, sounding a bit amused. Afraid, Crescent?
If you must know, yes. They have a fell aura around them. He tried to sound dismissive, but was sure she saw right through it.
I believe some dark magic in the book imbues them with that feeling. Come inside, I have need of you.
He wouldn’t deny his mistress, and so he slunk his way toward the house, wary and alert, through the ring of ghosts. They never looked anywhere but forward.
There was an old man, just at the edge of the garden. Like all the others his form was silvery, slightly see through. A long beard ran down the front of his chest and even being a cat he could tell the clothes were ancient. He chanced a look back as he passed and he could see a dark ring around the man’s neck, as if he’d been strangled, or worse.
A young girl, in what looked to be a nightgown, stood in the center of the vegetable patch. She was soft looking, in that way human children were. Despite her silvery hue one could see her lips were stained a dark black, and puffy, her skin with a tint. Her dark hair fell loose around her, looking as if it were wet, and dripping. He felt sure the water had taken her.
Near the front, uncomfortably close to the door, was a woman in a long flowing gown, with three children clutching at her skirts. From the back they looked relatively normal but seeing their fronts all four were stained all over with what must have been blood. All the while they never moved, staring at the wooden door.
They were only a few among many, all looking as if they’d died in horrible ways. He half bolted the rest of the way to the door and, thankfully, it opened the moment he reached it. His mistress wouldn’t have been so cruel as to make him wait out there.
“It’s all right, my dearest,” she assured, picking him up and settling him in her lap, running a soft hand over his fur. He took comfort from her touch, as he always did, and he nuzzled her side with a cheek. She knew his very soul.
The book was across the room, still wrapped, but it was hard to relax with it in the house.
His ears swiveled back, flattening against his head. I don’t like it. It feels alive.
“Its is, in a way.” She frowned softly. “This book is not just haunted, it’s infested. I’ve never seen an object have so many spirits bound to it.”
What caused it? You said you thought there was something inside it.
“Yes”, she said, gently scratching behind her familiar’s ears. “It’s been cursed with something dark. There’s almost a presence there now. I doubt it was anything more than a curse at the beginning, meant to drive the owner mad. But the souls that have been bound to it over the years have given it power, made it in to something else. I doubt it will have influence over us, but we must be swift, and careful. The entity will not take kindly to us trying to strip it away.”
Can you cleanse it?
She looked down at him, an amused little smile on her lips. “You doubt me Crescent?” Her tone suggested she was mildly teasing him, and he lifted himself up, gently bumping her chin with the top of his head.
Of course not! I just want you to be careful is all!
She laughed softly, but it was not a cruel sound, and wrapped an arm around him. “That’s why you’ll be there too, to help me. Who better to assure I don’t do anything foolish?”
He was sure there were far better people, including herself, but despite his dislike of the book, he would never leave her alone to handle something like this.
The witch and her familiar had taken the rest of the day to ready things, setting wards, gathering impliments, and making sure everything was in its proper place. That night they met in the ritual space behind her hut. Despite the chill in the air, she would never have done this in the house. The wards were strong, the ground marked, and the scent of burning herbs floated in the air. The moon above shone strong, lending her its power. They had done all they could to assure their own safety.
She unwrapped the book, and ran a pale hand over it. They could both feel how wrong it felt. It was warm, almost as if it were alive and breathing.
“Are you ready?” She asked, looking over at her golden cat, one dark brow arching in question.
As ready as I’ll ever be.
She opened the book, and the air quickly began to chill, shapes flickering and forming into a silvery circle around them. “Then let’s begin.”