By Jon Crout
The chilling sea mist eased its way effortlessly over the gentle oil-black waves and wrapped itself purposefully around the castle. The time-worn fortification stood resolute in its coastal position. Defiantly planted in its large, solid foundations, it was however completely helpless against the invading fog, which billowed and felt its way meticulously around the moat and up the walls. It crept to the top of the battlements, and hesitated. There was a tremendous noise from inside the castle, and it seemed as if this was holding the mist at bay. Vibrations and rhythms echoed eerily within the cloud. Lights picked paths to nowhere through this opaque atmosphere. These were disrupted by the swaying and shuffling of assorted uncanny figures. Some indoors, some scattered around the courtyard, the throng was immersed in the cacophony. They counted the decaying, the dead, the damned and the downright devilish among their number. In a room below, a young girl’s face was screwed up into a strained grimace. A zombie doctor and a bloodstained nun were leaning in towards her.
‘I said, that’s a tenner, please!’ the girl shouted at them, desperately hoping that she had been heard this time over the very loud music. The couple did not try and answer audibly, but just nodded in sudden realisation and handed over the money. The transaction was rung through the till, and then the girl slipped away to collect plastic glasses off the floor.
She noted the time as she came out from behind the bar. It was soon after midnight. The 30th of October had now become the 31st; for the last couple of hours of the party it would actually be Hallowe’en. It didn’t look like many of the revellers had noticed. People were still chatting and dancing, elaborate costumes and thick face make-up shuffling, twitching and bouncing all over the place. This party had become an established annual event, always well attended, although it should be noted that towards the beginning of its run it had failed to get a licence from the council every year. Such petty concerns were gladly a thing of the past and, some distance away in a darkened flat across the great expanse of common, an ex-councillor huddled around an old two-bar heater. With no television or radio on they strained for any sign of noise disturbance, but there was not a peep. The party proceeded unabated without any fear of complaint and this year it had started on a Saturday night.
Going across the cobbles near the castle entrance, she stopped and stooped to gather a load of plastic that was strewn carelessly over the ground. The volume of the music made it futile to say ‘excuse me’, so she did her best to dive in and out of the legs of the animated crowd. As she did so, she became peripherally aware of an incongruous sense of stillness emanating from somewhere nearby. A well stood in the courtyard, and she could see that behind it there was one solitary figure standing straight and rigid. There seemed to be a slight mist around – and possibly emanating from – the well. This drifted away, leaving the figure more clearly visible. As would be expected they were wearing a costume, but it was very basic. What was essentially a long, dark sheet or robe seemed to start at the head and cascade all the way down to the floor. The front of the head was only notable for a very plain white mask with black slits for eyes and a gentle, raised, slightly upturned moulded shape where the mouth should be, giving the impression of vague, frozen wryness. The figure was facing towards her, its unmoving stance in stark contrast to the writhing party-goers.
Trying hard to turn off her imagination and get back to the job in hand, the girl moved across the cobbles, adding to her stack of plastic. When she next looked up and around she noticed straight away that despite her having shifted some distance, the strange figure was still stood directly behind the well in relation to her position, and was still facing straight towards her. She was about to turn on her heel and head straight back to the bar when she heard something, a sound that she could distinguish from the popular beats, a personal noise possessed of a clarity not shared by the music that now seemed to be dulled and deadened in her ears. In less than a second she realised that it was someone gently calling her name.
Not normally one to be unnerved by the unexpected, this was nevertheless a degree of disquiet that made Maude feel like she had to remove herself from the situation. She dropped her plastic glasses and slipped up the stairs above the gents. The mist was thick, lurking at the perimeter, as Maude leant against the dank outer wall and tried to peer out. In the direction of the sea there was only the dark grey of the mist in front of the Solent. Looking back towards the common she could just make out some of the sonic dampeners, stealthily absorbing all the external noise from the party so that even as far away as the closest inhabited dwelling there was no fear of anyone recognising a popular song. If only these had been invented a few years earlier. The music was quieter up here anyway. It made it easier to hear the voice again.
She flinched at the realisation that the figure was now sat on the parapet a few feet away, looking at her still. All that was visible was the mask, bright against the pitch-like quality of the robe that obscured any trace of body or limbs. The only sign of movement was a slight fluttering caused by the breeze.
‘Who the hell are you?’ she asked.
The music receded further. It was as if it was being kept from her ears so that she might focus on whatever was going to be said to her next.
‘I have come for you.’ She thought the voice sounded male but not deep, calm and a lot less muffled than one from behind a mask should be. The words seemed to be going straight into her mind.
‘What shit are you peddling, you freak? As practical jokes go, this is pretty lame’.
‘Your soul is forfeit.’
Maude paused. She was not sure what was going on or what this person wanted. A moment passed and the figure remained still. Nothing more was said.
‘Right, sod this.’
She turned on her heel. Going back to ground level, she knew she would be being missed behind the bar, but instead of returning to her duties she went straight to the ladies toilet. Against all odds the cubicle was empty and she slammed the door shut behind her and locked herself in. She sat down and realised she was breathing very deeply.
‘Come on, it’s just some joker trying to be scary,’ she thought to herself, ‘calm yourself down and get back to work.’
‘Ahhh!’ she cried out loud.
There was a chill around her ankles that penetrated her bones and inched up her body. Looking down, she saw a fine mist drift under the door and around her feet. A dark shape oozed in and up the inside of the door before suddenly coalescing. She jumped to her feet to find that her nose was just a few inches away from the pale mask that she had just run away from.
‘All right, what the hell do you want?’ she hissed.
‘Your soul is forfeit,’ came the measured reply.
‘So you said. What makes you think that?’
‘Blood was spilled at the ancient place. It is the witching hour on All Hallow’s Eve.’
Maude looked at the blue plaster on her finger. She recalled how she had cut her finger on a sharp bit of plastic at the start of her shift.
‘Is that it? You think you can have my soul because of this little nick? I should be calling those injury lawyers from the telly!’ Maude still wasn’t taking the situation entirely seriously, despite the unnerving apparition before her.
‘Who are you anyway? The Grim Reaper? Satan?’
‘Men have given me many names.’
‘Well, I’m a woman, and I’m buggered if you’re having my soul.’
‘You must come back with me to the under-place. You will remain there forever.’
‘As if. You guys think you can just make ridiculous demands of a girl within seconds of meeting her, don’t you? It’s 2021, you know, the 21st Century? If you’ve got knackers under there, prepare to have them kicked. Or am I misgendering you? I bet you’re not Satan. You’re probably just some minor demonic nobody called Jenny or Jehoshaphat or something.’ Maude felt like she was starting to babble.
The almost featureless mask gave a little twitch.
‘Resisting the law of the under-place is futile. You are bound by the rules.’
‘Oh yes, of course, it’s all about the rules isn’t it? Well, tell me, are you playing fair by me? You say blood has been spilled, and at this time and place that gives you the right to my soul. But what are the rules? Have you told me all of them?’
Despite the raucous party carrying on just scant feet away, there was a palpable sense of chilly silence, and Maude watched as her breath added to the ethereal mist that floated between them.
‘You will travel with me to the under place when the witching hour is over, unless…’
‘Unless you can speak my one true name.’
‘Really? That’s a bit of a cliché, isn’t it?’
‘It is the…’
‘…rules, yes I know. So let me get this straight; I can escape certain doom and eternal torment if I can somehow discover your one true name. At first consideration, that would seem quite unlikely. I mean it could be anything couldn’t it? Unless it really is Jehoshaphat?’
‘It isn’t Jehoshaphat.’
‘OK, have you got any clues?’
‘The answer you seek is here in this very castle.’
Maude looked the figure square in its eye holes. What had seemed like jet black slits in the mask now had a sheen. They were catching the light and Maude could see tiny reflections of herself. She strained to see some sort of movement within these nefarious eyes that might betray some tiny hint of life of any sort, but she could not.
‘And assuming I somehow discern this name, I simply have to tell you what it is, and you won’t take my soul?’
‘Yes. And you must do so…’
‘…before the witching hour ends, I remember. And when is that?’
‘In the Western Christian tradition, the hour between 3 and 4 am was considered a period of peak supernatural activity, due to the absence of prayers in the canonical hours during this period. Women caught outside without sufficient reason during this time were sometimes executed on suspicion of witchcraft. The phrase “witching hour” was first recorded in 1835. Psychological literature suggests that apparitional experiences and sensed presences are most common between the hours of 2 and 4 am, corresponding with a 3 a.m. peak in the amount of melatonin in the human body. More recently, the hours between midnight and 2 am have been considered the witching hour.’
‘Bloody hell, talk about “Hey, Google!” Your name’s not Google is it?’
‘Hang on, midnight to 2 am? That’s not really an hour, is it?’
‘These are the labels of man. You must speak to me my one true name before the clock strikes 2 am. Otherwise your soul will be taken, never to return. You will be lost forever in the under-place, forever to wander the pathways of…’
‘Yes, yes, all right, spookshow, you’re on.’
There was an almighty, icy wheeze like some otherworldly intake of breath. This indicated that the figure acknowledged Maude’s understanding of her situation, and it withdrew in much the same way as it had arrived. Once the last wisps of mist receded under the toilet door, Maude flung it open and looked at herself in the mirror opposite. The overwhelming sense of cold was leaving her, and her cheeks were flushing. She checked her watch. It was well after midnight. She had over an hour to her deadline.
‘Come on, you,’ Colin shouted, ‘I’ve been sent to find you. The bar’s really busy and Jeff is wanting his break.’
Instead of complying, Maude grabbed Colin’s arm and steered him into a corner of the courtyard.
Around them the party continued wildly, and Maude was forced to explain very loudly the details of her grim situation.
‘You’re nuts,’ he told her after she had told him what had happened.
‘It’s all true,’ she retorted.
‘I don’t doubt it,’ came his surprising reply. ‘I just mean you’ve little more than an hour to discover the name of a demon and repeat it to him to avoid eternal damnation! It can’t be done, surely? I mean, it could be anything.’
‘That’s what I said. It said the answer was in the castle.’
‘Be serious. What about the bar? I can’t try and figure this out if I’m serving Bloody Marys to vampires.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll cover for you.’
Maude made her way back through the party to the well where the figure had first appeared. She cast her eyes around. Everywhere she looked intoxicated people in phantasmagorical raiment milled about, and like Prospero’s guests they represented the beautiful, wanton and bizarre, something of the terrible and not a little of that which might have excited disgust; but nothing inspired her to an answer. She peered into the well itself. A swirling pattern could be seen far below the protective grate. Flecked with dark reds and purples it was not in the least bit inviting, yet Maude knew that this could very well the manifesting of the means by which her essence might be transported below. This spurred her on to further action. She returned to the steps where she had cut her finger. Hoping that this might somehow be connected to that which she sought, she searched the stones and cobbles in vain for some hint of a clue. Nothing.
Maude next tried searching back up on the ramparts. Her mind raced as she went from one end to the other. She was trying to fix upon anything that could reveal a name. She struggled to think as laterally as she could about anything in front of her, hoping that some hidden meaning might reveal itself. Still nothing.
Returning to the well to meet Colin as they had arranged, she had no possible solution to offer.
‘Nil desperandum,’ he tried to buoy her spirits, ‘how long have we got left?’
They both turned to see the figure had returned, assuming a familiar position behind the well. The light from the turbulent swirling beneath was now easily visible to them both. As before, the music around them seemed to be muffled deliberately by their visitor. This time both Colin and Maude realised that he could speak to them directly in a way that went unnoticed by everyone else.
‘It is almost time, Maude. You must come with me.’
‘What about the rules? What about speaking your name?’
‘Do you have an answer for me?’
‘Rumplestiltskin!’ Colin shouted out. The figure carried on without acknowledgement.
‘You must come with me.’
‘Oh, come on,’ Maude implored. ‘If you’re going to drag me to hell, at least tell me who you are. Tell me your name.’
‘I will show you.’
The figure drew itself up. A thin, dark hand reached up to the false face and pulled it away. Maude found herself looking at her own features, framed by the dark hood of the hell-spawned robe.
‘It’s you!’ said Colin.
‘I said it was a cliché,’ replied Maude.
The music around them stopped. The party was over.
‘You must come with me,’ the ghostly double of Maude repeated.
‘Hang on,’ the real Maude interjected, ‘if I had simply told you that your name was Maude, then this would be over and I wouldn’t have to come?’
‘You are correct.’
‘Then consider it done, “Maude”.’
‘No. You are out of time. We must go below.’
‘I don’t think so, Ms Doppelgänger. I had to speak your name before 2 am. Since the clocks have just gone back an hour, it’s not going to be 2 o’clock for nearly 60 minutes. I’ve managed it with plenty of time to spare.’
The vortex in the well emerged as tendrils of dark light. These wrapped themselves around the figure with Maude’s face, and there was just a moment when those features registered an expression of utter befuddlement before they were sucked out of sight in an infernal implosion that was unseen by all except Maude and Colin.
The party dispersed, smeared make-up and sweaty costumes drifted away, oblivious to the night’s eerie events.
‘Come on,’ Maude said, ‘let’s go and find something to drink.’
Image ‘J. M. Wright – Edward Scriven – Robert Burns – Halloween.JPG’ is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.