Sam couldn’t breathe.

Or at very least didn’t want to, because any movement might cause the figure on the other side of the table, on the other side of the hagstone, formerly on the other side of tangible reality to realize that it wasn’t alone or intangible.

The air in the café felt cloying and stagnant, heavy with cold and damp, as though they had stumbled into a climate rife with despair. Sam was sure that any breath would be visible, any words would be swallowed by the shadows which seemed to clamor for purchase. The whole atmosphere of the room had shifted with the appearance of whatever Sam had inadvertently called forth.

In the periphery, Sam could see that Herb and Alex had adopted a similar tactic, utterly alert in their stillness, breath held. Being dead, Casey didn’t need to worry about breath or bodily harm but still was inching as slowly as possible behind the two living beings next to him, who fortunately had no idea he was doing so and didn’t react.

The figure was absurdly tall but bent so dramatically where its eyes might have been were directly level with Sam’s. It was covered in an opaque black veil, its features hidden from sight, so there was no way to know if it was a man or a woman or even human. Whatever it was, Sam had never been as sure of anything so much as a desire, no, a need for that veil to stay exactly where it was. There came a sound from the shape, an intermittent rusty inhalation which froze Sam’s blood in anticipation of what it might say. But instead of words, the sound stopped suddenly, as though it had been so long since air filled its lungs, it had forgotten what came next.

However, what came next was horrifying. A hand, fingers long and grey with knuckles of bone barely covered by skin, nails torn with dirt under them as though it had clawed itself out of the ground to comply with the invitation to come and sit across the table in some twisted nightmare which Sam knew there was no waking from. That hand, that terrible hand, a mirrored mockery of Sam’s flesh and blood, it’s broken nails scratching lightly against the surface of the table, as though it was stuck in a loop of digging its way out, digging its way free and Sam knew that any minute now, the creature might work out that it was free and then who knew what it would do? Could it be sent back? Sam wanted so much to close one eye, refocus on the light through the stone and blow it out but that meant looking away from the creature, which did not feel safe.

The hand kept moving incrementally across the table and Sam realized it wasn’t trying to work out what had changed, but was definitively sliding toward Sam’s hand which held the stone. Did it know about the stone? This might have been completely new territory but Sam felt that keeping the hagstone away from whoever or whatever was on other side of that table was imperative. Sam wondered if there was a way to communicate to Alex and Herb that they needed to distract it long enough for the connection to be broken, but then thought they likely wouldn’t want to draw its attention either.

Suddenly, Shooter’s advice from earlier popped into Sam’s head unbidden.

“If you’re not sure how to help someone, I’d say asking them what they need is a good start.”

“Hi..” Sam’s voice cracked. “Ahem, um, hi. There. Yes. I am wondering if you need some help?” Upon realizing that it was being directly addressed, the creature’s head lifted and though the veil still covered it, the horrific crackling sound which emanated was either it trying to find its voice after being long dormant, or perhaps it was unhinging its jaw to swallow Sam whole. Either way, Sam had never felt so foolish as in this moment. And then it spoke.

“Your curiosity will bring you to places dark, inescapable…” it pointed at Sam, who wanted to twist away from the grating quality of the creature’s voice. “…retribution demands you come and find me there….” Alex let out an involuntary whimper. “…at the end of it all…” It swerved to include Alex and Herb. Herb felt as though it was especially focused on him, those hideous claws digging into his psyche, questing, seeking a place to latch onto. Sam took advantage of its attention being elsewhere and quickly closed one eye.”…you’ll find yourself as meat…” the T at the end of meat was drawn out, slithering free with the expulsion of air. It inhaled again, sharp with loathing as though it was wasting breath on this pronouncement. Sam tried to focus on the flame, sending up a prayer that this thing which had never been tried would work.

“…for the beast!” The word burst forth as it reached for the stone. At exactly the same time, Sam blasted the candle flame with something more than mere exhalation. Something akin to a pneuma perhaps, of breath combined with fierce intention. Whatever it was, the moment the flame went out, the figure went with it, and the air in the café was instantly bereft of the dreadful miasma. No one moved for a moment, still caught in the spell of terror. Alex was the first to break free.


Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash