Posted in Short Stories

Tread Carefully…

Tread carefully, when you walk upon Our Land, my boy. Stay your step and take that second thought. We will wait here in the air long after you cease to breathe it, and our roots are nourished by your blood and bone. You have so much of both, my boy, do you really wish to give it to us?

Tread carefully, when you approach the Stones. Your people think of stones with graves, and that is for good reason. You are filled up with resources, and we can use every inch of you for something. You bring nothing of value save yourself. Do you mean to offer it up to us?

Tread carefully, my boy, and close the Gate up fast. The Guardsmen are sleeping and many of us have but waited long for this moment. We do not sleep, we do not dream, we do not hope. We only wait and watch and when a weakness is found, we strike it. Others should not have to suffer for the foolishness which is all your own, do you not think? Close the gate behind you, if tread beyond it you must…

Tread carefully, your people say that grass is made of blades, and you should listen to your elders, boy. Our fruits are laced with poisons sweet, our branches spiked with thorns. Your feet will bleed and your tears will only replenish our thirst, and you cannot afford to make us stronger. You will only weaken as we grow, and for everything we feed you, we will take back a thousand-fold. How much can you lose?

Tread carefully, for see how the storm-clouds gather above? The Huntsman rides this night, and his hounds have gone too long without feasting. The wind carries with it the sound of his Horn, and the cheers of his Riders break the night. Maybe you shall be fast and clever, able to evade them long enough they will take you for their one of their own, but you are so slow, so ill-used to these games, my boy, it is far more likely still that you shall provide them their sport in other ways. How do you think you shall taste to them when they catch you?

Tread carefully, when you think to follow the Hidden Path. It was hidden for a reason and wiser folk than your foolish young spirit learned the lessons to avoid it. Its twists and turns are beyond your mind’s capacity to hold firm, and you will not enjoy losing your grip on the world’s truths… nor on your own self. It is such a pretty, pretty mind, my boy, but it will be prettier still when it shatters into so many brilliant fragments…

Tread carefully, when you think to enter the Wilds and seek your fortune therein. You are a Tamer at heart, and the Wilds have no interest in buying what you sell. Tame things live lesser lives, shorter ones, Wild lives race along a razor’s edge and are all the more certain for it. You think to explore, but you wish to take with you more than memories and pictures and all things come at a cost. We do not give you of ourselves without consuming all that we can from you first…

Tread carefully, when you feel the Watcher’s gaze. It is not your imagination, for you cannot think of anything so terrible as Them shall be when they catch you. No, you cannot outrun them, nor outwit them. They were tearing apart those such as you long before even the language you think in. They will have their rightful prey when it wanders so willing into their den…

Tread carefully, you were not invited here. You were not wanted, and you were not sought out. You brought yourself, and that is an offering to the hungry. You are softer than you think, and know less than you ought. You are a candle trying to match itself to a forest fire.

It is not a contest.

Won’t you turn back, my boy, before you tread further? Before you become Ours, for ill or for worse…


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Posted in Short Stories

Over the Hills and Far Away…

When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When the birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din—
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope—these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.

Fairy Music, by Rose Fyleman, 1919

You wanted something different. Something new. Anything was better than this world, you thought, embittered by your own small problems and nebulous so-called larger issues which now seem so small in hindsight. And you had wanted an adventure of your own, to see if magic truly existed in the world, after all.

You danced at the standing stones, strayed from the paths in the woods, accepted the deal at the crossroads.

You were so happy to find Them at last. You were so eager, so excited…

Besides, nothing which sang so sweetly, which laughed so merrily, could be so very bad. They were so kind to welcome you, so eager to talk to you, as eager as you were to talk to Them. With moonlight skin and silver eyes, They were so wonderful to look at, so compelling to watch as They danced and danced, and you were welcomed to dance with Them in your turn…

Salt and silver, bread and milk, do not give them your name, do not take their deals, do not listen to their songs, do not eat their food, do not listen to their pretty, pretty lies…

You had heard the warnings of your elders, and you remember still their words, although their names have long since faded. Or perhaps they were taken from you? So many things have been taken from you by now, and it is pointless to try to count and trace them all. Time is a thief in its own right, but at least the soft fading away of long-ago memories is painless and natural. Nothing else about your life has been natural is so very long…

Ah, but you were so foolish back then…

But you see… You had so wanted to see another world, wanted magic and legends and something more than the dull grind of a callous world. Different would be better, and nothing could be worse, you had thought.

You have long-since learned that you were wrong. The mouse learns that the cheese in the trap is no better than food outside of it too, much good as the lesson does you both, now that you have learned it.

They liked you at first, you were different to Them. New. Your tongue was one They were unused to and you sang Them songs They had not heard time beyond telling. You showed Them the dances from your own childhood, odd hopping movements, and complicated gestures in the air. They laughed, and you laughed with Them then. They asked and asked and asked for the things which you knew back then, and you gave it all up to Them freely, asking little and less in return from Them. It did not occur to you to bargain, to hold anything in return, to keep anything in reserve should you have need of it later.

You were so foolish back then… So very foolish…

Perhaps you would have enjoyed those days of wonder, of light and sparkle and laughter, but even back then you could see – pushed aside and into the shadows, forgotten for a while in the face of something new – the eyes of those who had come before you. Could see your own future staring back from the corners of the room and the shadows they daren’t creep out from.

Faded beings, empty eyes and grasping hands, mouths slack with hunger or tight with pain, once human and now… not. But still too human to remain unmauled, even once they had been stripped of their colour, their spark and life. What remains of them is uncanny and stilted, but far worse is the sense that they are now … missing pieces. You wonder how they might have come to bargain away anything which you can sense, human as you are, but you just as quickly cast the thought aside. Best not to think about it. They looked at you with envy, aye, but they looked at you with pity also. The new, bright, hopeful auditioner, a new favourite… for a short while. Never for long.

They are like children, you think sometimes, though the words hold only the last remaining dregs of their remembered meaning. You’re not sure, if you try to think about it, if you really know what children are, what they look like, if you yourself were ever such a thing. But still you keep saying such phrases to yourself, trying to remember thoughts from a time when you knew they were your own. Sometimes They play a game where they slot new thought after strange phrase into your mind to see how long it takes for you to realise. Sometimes They take things away until you reach for something and find it is no longer there. Once the game is up and the laughter has ended, sometimes They give you the missing pieces back.

Sometimes.

If They feel you’ve earned it.

They are like children, easily distracted, easily charmed and no object permanence at all. Quick to discard a toy once it ceases to entertain Them, and quicker to forget and move onto the next shiny new thing to wander across Their vision…

Except there they are nothing like children at all. They never truly forget about their toys, after all. If they did, perhaps you could hide. But you can’t. No matter how far you push yourself into the shadows, no matter how small you ty to make yourself appear, They come to find you quickly enough.

They took and took and took from you, everything you could think to give, poking and prodding to remind you that there was surely always something more to feed to Their endless curiosity, and you gave it all up with open hands, freely at first and then more and more fearful. You do not even wish to imagine what will happen should you disappoint them. Your fears whisper to you and you determinedly close you ears to them. Your hands tremble as you hold out yet another part of yourself – some small detail, some new thought or memory or secret you had held within yourself for so long – to be gobbled up, sucked dry and you feel some inner core of yourself start to shrivel with the constant plundering by greedy ears and mouths and nothing new to feed it with. You will think of something new tomorrow. You must.

Eventually, the inevitable. You search within yourself for yet more to feed to Their hunger and find that there is nothing left that is new. And you realise that your fearful thoughts are only the beginning. Now comes the true price of your foolishness…

Your voice begins to crack, to dry up, your mind begins to empty. They do not wish to hear the thoughts which They put there for you. They want more from inside you. You have nothing left to offer, and now the real test begins. Your songs become stale to The, the melodies faltering, the verses hesitating, the notes unsure. You have sung this song since Before, surely you cannot forget it now? When they wait to hear it? But no matter how you stretch your mind, it finds only half what is needed and even that you are unsure of.

Your stories dull and wandering; you do not remember the endings anymore, cannot always keep the threads straight in your mind. You think at first that the suggestions They call out to you – to the sea, he goes to the sea! No, to the hills, you said to the hills! Ah, but he has wings, so he must fly! – are to aid you, that They have taken some pity upon you at last, mocking though Their pity only ever is. But you begin to realise that you have told the beginning of the same story seven times over and gotten no further than the first of the hero’s tasks, cannot remember now what the task was, nor why they were attempting it, and the silver bells of laughter around you echo so loudly in your ears that you cannot hear yourself think long enough to find and pick up the shivering threads.

You look up, lost and beseeching, but the silver queen stares straight back at you from her frozen throne, her silver eyes which pierce you through like spear-tips, uncaring as you bleed beneath your wounds, and you wonder why you ever thought that she was kind.

“I will have my story, child. Begin again.”

And the air that you breathe cuts into your lungs with icicles but you gasp for it anyway. Speaking with no air in your chest hurts. You bow your head, find your tongue again and begin once more, as you were bidden. You cannot rest until you reach the ending, after all.

You think you may be taller now than you once were. Perhaps. Your hair is certainly longer, but maybe you are only remembering a different style to wear it in. You have become more and more like them and they have hundreds of their own. They do not need you, pale imitation of their own beauty that you are. You are no longer exotic, and far from perfect, and so you are simply… defective. A malformed creature in their eyes. You wonder if you look like your own people, from Before, but you have no way to know and you doubt it all the same.

You are no longer the focus of the evening’s attention, certainly. You think you sigh in relief, but perhaps it is regret also. You miss the chance to dance with Them, and you still pine for Them to smile upon you and laugh, for the days when Their hands were soft and welcoming to you, not tipped with claws and greedy to pluck ever more from your depths. You wish so much to escape from Them, but you also wish you could crawl up and curl at Their feet, sleep in peace again and be loved by Them.

Surely They loved you once? You were so sure that They did…

Ah… But you were so sure of so many things, and you were wrong… so very wrong…

Besides there is always something new out there to be found and collected, something different. There are new children come to Court, bright-eyed and giggling with excitement. They can’t believe that all of this is quite real yet, are sure that it is all some fantastic dream, which they do not ever want to wake up from. There is little enough chance that they can, so perhaps they will be happy for a while.

You pity them a little, but you hope too that they are full of interest for everyone. You are sure that they will have plenty of new songs and stories to share, perhaps even a new dance to teach Them. They like to learn something new, They always do. Things move on so fast, do they not? You have grown, no longer shining and innocent and new. There is nothing left to corrupt, nothing left to shock or bedazzle. You have seen Their tricks one too many times too.

You have not yet lost all use though. You are never sure whether to be glad of it or not. You think it cannot be worse, to be finally cast entirely aside, but you remember you used to think nothing could be worse than your life Before, and now you know better.

They find other ways to take their entertainment from you. Ways you were expecting and ways you weren’t. They change the colours in your hair, your eyes, your skin, changed the shape of your chin, the tilt and form of your ears, until you look into mirrors and even you don’t remember what you once looked like anymore. Your voice is different every day now, and sometimes it is no voice at all but the whine of a frightened beast or the shriek of a trapped bird. They like to rake you with pain and see if They can make you scream in the tongue of every creature They know, comparing the different tones and timbers of growl or whimper, pretending to pet you as They discuss which voice They should ‘gift’ you with next. You are not asked what you would wish for. You do not expect to be.

They took your eyes from you once, and you don’t know how long you spent stumbling without them, feeling your way around and trying to gauge distance from the sounds in your ears, until you remember that They can play with echoes just like anything else, and gave up all hope at last. You have eyes again, but you doubt that they are truly your own. Nothing else is, after all.

Your limbs may be longer than theirs now, but They find interest enough in them all the same. You flinch whenever they bring out the pipes, but you know there is nowhere to run to, and trying only makes things worse.

Come, dance for us! You love to dance! They call, and the pipes drone out their opening notes and you wish They had not taken your tears from you, but even if you still could cry, it would do you no good.

The notes lash themselves around your wrists and ankles and you jerk to your feet, stumbling and flailing a little. They laugh. You spin and turn, leap and bend, body moved by the music, over and over, faster and faster, never ending, never slowing, you are lost to it, until the music should see fit to realise you, and it never will. Another quick spin and you feel the skin on your feet begin to shred, blood beginning to seep out into the dry earth. It soaks the redness up without comment or thanks. You gasp for breath and find too little of it. The air is sharp and hard, you cannot breathe it properly. You need rest. You need to stop.

The music does not care, you begin the sequence again, spinning and leaping and bending. They laugh as they watch. You think desperately to scream for help, for mercy, but there is little help to be hoped for and certainly no mercy to be found. The soles of your feet are covered now in blood, you think it is probably your own, but there are plenty more just like you all around, jerking wildly and leaping and turning and you are all being pushed too far beyond your limits. You are all bleeding, chests tight as you fight for your next breath. And your next. The pipes play on, heedless, tugging you this way and that to the tune of Their fickle whims.

They laugh.

You wonder how you ever thought Their laughter an invitation.

It was a warning.

They did warn you. Back before everything.

You didn’t listen.


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Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

The Ghost in the Machine

It was said in the old days that evil spirits couldn’t walk the earth on Christmas Eve. I suppose that the coming of Jesus was such a holy time that no evil could stand it. Regardless, this gave rise to the tradition that Christmas Eve night was the time to tell your friends and family your very scariest ghost stories, and still go to bed safe in the knowledge that all the terrifying ghosts and ghouls you’d been talking about couldn’t get you this night.

Continue reading “The Ghost in the Machine”

Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

The Hero of the Hour, Part 2

Happy Halloween Everybody! In celebration of this spookiest day of the year, I thought it would be fun to publish the conclusion of The Hero of The Hour a whole day early! Don’t worry – there’ll be a post on Wednesday as usual, but I just couldn’t resist a chance to let our favourite ghost be the star of the day!

This story is the second of two parts; it will not make any sense without reading Part 1…

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Richards wasn’t sure if he was proud or insulted that the night-porter, Stephen-no-really-sir-call-me-Steve, appeared not in the least shocked to find the Master of the College striding back and forth in the chapel while lecturing on college history (with brief tangents in the general ecclesiastical trends and their efforts on socio-economic norms) to three bound and gagged young men.

“Interesting night for you, was it, Professor?”

Richards tried not to be too obviously embarrassed at being caught in such … unusual circumstances. He was suddenly aware that even by the standards of Devon College this was not a Normal Start to the Day.

Fortunately, the Stiff Upper Lip asserted itself, as it always ought to in Trying Situations.

“Ah, good morning Stephen! And how do you fare this dawn?”

Stephen-no-honestly-sir-please-call-me-Steve was still staring at Richards’ captive audience, but he was grinning as he responded that the dawn was especially picturesque today and that Richards would be pleased to know that the weather forecast was due to be fine and dry throughout the day.

“I’m sorry, Professor, but I really feel like we need to get back to the – ah – the visitors you seem to be entertaining?”

The poor man was giving every sign of a man who was not at all sure that he wanted the explanation, but the resignation in his tone was displaying fully their mutual knowledge that he was going to be asked for such an explanation very soon. He looked no happier when Richards provided the explanation, although they shared an instinctive feeling that it was Undoubtedly Best to attempt to get the matter cleared up before the senior fellows were up and about.

“I know, Stephen, that these may be the feelings of an old man, but I understand that the police-force is getting younger every year. There’s really no call to subject them to the Bursar before it is absolutely necessary. Some faith in humanity is doubtless an important aspect in young officers of the law?”

Stephen’s wife had been in the police force in the past, Richards’ recalled, and he hoped that this valuable experience would aid him in crafting whatever semblance of the night’s events would be socially acceptable…

*

The saying goes that the best-laid plans go often awry and sadly so it proved this morning.

It had begun smoothly enough; the Chaplain had been summoned and, when menacing Richards with an Outburst of Gratitude, was swiftly diverted onto providing the three would-be vandals with tea, biscuits and Encouraging Words. No harm’s been done after all, Horace, and I’m sure that these young men have simply lost the True Path. They just need someone to believe in them! I’ll just sit with them and have a nice chat…

Richards swiftly got out of sight as the police arrived, no reason to cause more awkward questions. Last time he saw the Chaplain, he’d pulled out the pamphlets. You almost had to feel sorry for the boys – this night was doubtless one they would long regret.

Richards tried very hard not to sigh from his perch on the chapel roof, when the Trunbridge and Farthingbury Fellows strolled nonchalantly into the quad, took one look at the uniformed officers leading Richards’ erstwhile new acquaintances out of the chapel, and all-but flew back into their shared office. He supposed it was too much to ask that the alarm might remain silent until it was all over?

Richards had the highest respect for the intellectual pursuits and talents of his colleagues, but sadly he was also well-aware of their ‘general life-skills’ as one of the summer helpers had called them. Sarah, the Bursar’s PA, would often say (in his hearing no less – she knew perfectly well that he had hidden from the Chaplain inside that cleaning cupboard!) that Richards was too hard on the Fellows. Their behaviour this morning proved his case beyond dispute.

“Sirs, I’m sorry to bother you with this, especially since there’s no question of this going to trial – the men have all admitted to breaking-and-entering. But they all agree that they were held prisoner by a ghost?”

The Detective-Sergeant was clearly eager to get the last of the questions over and done with. Stephen-no-sir-I-promise-you-everyone-calls-me-Steve had volunteered to assert that he had stumbled across the men on his rounds and had subdued them more by luck than skill (Richards’ had been impressed by the man’s humility, if not his honesty). The evidence had been plain, the culprits caught, there was surely little remaining, and yet…

“What?!” Three of the gathered academics cried, jumping like schoolboys caught with illicit cookies.

Richards groaned and buried his face in his hands, as the Bursar took it upon himself to gallantly make everything worse.

“What nonsense! The college has no ghosts on its staff!” At this point, the Bursar’s brain clearly attempted to regain control of his mouth for a brief shining instant. “Not that ghosts are real of course. Because they are not. Clearly the ravings of sleep-deprivation, I should say, poor chaps.” Before sadly his habitual inability to cease and desist while ahead broke through. “And even if ghosts were real, I make a point of not employing them in the college under any circumstances!”

Richards sighed and made a note to ask Sarah if she could find the Bursar a nice unaudited ledger, or some small change to count. Something to settle the poor man’s nerves after the ordeal of having to speak to people he could not bluster into submission…

“Yes sir,” and too his credit, the Sergeant’s face barely even twitched. If being faced with a flustered Bursar first-thing in the morning couldn’t shake the man, Richards really had no wish to envision what comprised his usual duty. “Sir, do you think we might be able to speak to the Master of the College before we leave?”

There was a long, horrified pause.

“No!” “Totally impossible!” “Utterly out of the question, terribly sorry-“

Dependably, the Bursar continued to Provide Assistance. “And not because the man’s a ghost of course! Because he isn’t!”

“He’s in meeting!” The Clevebury Fellow jumped in.

“He’s at a conference,” The Meterston Lecturer spoke at the same time.

“He’s not been feeling very well lately!” Everyone fell silent to look disparagingly at the Trunbridge Fellow; it seemed that imagination was not the poor chap’s strong point.

It was hardly surprising that the police were starting to look suspicious. Richards was thankful that acting was not a key requirement across academia; he would, on this showing, be left with an empty college…

The Bursar tried to salvage everything.

“But he is, with any shadow of a doubt, alive, wherever he is! You can rest assured on that count.”

Richards wondered if Margaret had a way to send anonymous tokens of gratitude to the police force of Oxford? Something to compensate them for dealing with his fellows like this. Not one single officer laughed and no one was arrested for insanity. He wasn’t sure if this said something of the generosity of their hearts or the poor impression of academics generally? Either way, he was going to have to Speak To his fellows Most Strongly about The Importance of Interacting with Society Properly. This was obviously well-overdue.

Just as the gathering had reached its peak of utter preposterousness, a cry came from the back like the rallying-call of a beleaguered army when rescued by angels.

“Margaret! You’re here!”

Richards watched as the police, the fellows and the staff all turned in perfect synchrony, like a field of sunflowers, towards their saviour, sent as if by prayer to redeem them from the pit of their own making. Richards was momentarily afraid that the Fernbury Fellow was about to propose marriage he looked so relieved to see salvation approaching in a woolly jumper and sensible mackintosh.

*

That Margaret did not turn on her sensible heel, duck past Stephen-even-my-wife-calls-me-Steve as he tried to usher her towards the disaster that was Devon’s fellows Interacting with Society faster, and walk straight back out of Devon College heading for the safety of home was yet another sign that she was a Treasure the likes of which whole wars had once been fought over.

She smiled politely at the officers in greeting, requested their patience for a few moments longer, soothed the fellows back to some semblance of sense and coherency before shooing them off to their breakfast, and even diverted the Bursar’s attention from causing further disaster by casually mentioning that the strong-room doubtless needed to be checked for signs of a forced entry.

One officer – younger than the rest and still overly keen – tried to explain that the porters had gone with the police already to check but had cowered under the sharp glare he had received over behind the Bursar’s back. Even his colleagues had shot him reproving looks at his near-scuppering of any scheme to send the overwrought man away with some busy-work.

At last, however the crowd had been disbursed with the calm authority of an empress in her own court and Margaret was free to favour the police with a benevolent smile.

“Now how may I help you, gentlemen? My understanding is that the matter is all but cleared up, is that not correct?”

“No, Ma’am, that’s correct,” the sergeant mumbled after being pushed forward by the others, “we only wanted to speak with the Master of the College, ma’am, before heading out.”

“Ah,” Margaret’s smile was so kindly that even Richards blushed and shuffled his feet. “I see now. Well, I’m terribly sorry, gentlemen but Professor Richards is away on a research trip this week, but I shall brief him on all that has occurred and I expect that you will receive a note of thanks in the next few days.”

Richards wondered idly if he was going to see this note he was writing before it was sent…

*

The sound of fluttering tweeds signalled the return of the Bursar as the last police car drove away.

“Margaret, you were wonderful!” Steady on, thought Richards, don’t go overboard there, Bursar, you can’t go around stealing my secretary just like that! He needn’t have worried though; the Bursar could always be relied upon to sink his own fleet. “I solemnly apologise for all those times I changed my papers for the Governing Body meetings the night before to make you re-do the photocopying.”

There was a considered pause, in which Richards silently promised himself that when Margaret killed the Bursar in the main quad, he would not stand for the man coming back to share his afterlife. No, not even if Sarah threatened to cry at him.

However Margaret only smiled fondly, as though the Bursar were a ridiculous but cherished nephew and patted his forearm gently.

“Yes well, Bursar, just so long as you try to refrain from such nonsense in the future.”

As the Bursar bustled off again, Margaret turned and, presumably with the magic powers she swore she didn’t have, looked directly at the invisible Richards. She said nothing and nothing needed to be said. Richards floated meekly to her side and shimmered back into view.

“I see that you have already accomplished impossible feats before breakfast, Professor.”

“Yes, Margaret.”

She smiled at him then, warm and fond and even (a little) respectful. “Well done, Professor.”

“Thank you, Margaret.”

They went into the office together. The day had only just started, after all.

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The Hero of the Hour, Part 1

Author’s Note: I feel that for this story I should be extra clear that I know absolutely nothing about police procedure or breaking-and-entering, save for what I’ve read and seen in fiction. In case the ghost wandering around the story didn’t tip you off, this series has no basis whatsoever in fact, and isn’t based on any kind of real events!

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In the entirely confident opinion of Professor Horace Richards, one never really appreciated the true length of night-time until one had absolutely no ability to sleep through it. It was just the sort of thing, in his view, which doubtless caused so many members of the Spectral Community (should it exist, although Richards was leaning heavily in favour of this likelihood in the light of his own Situation) to resort to Childish Pranks and Irresponsible Nonsense.

Not that Richards could really comment. Why, only last week he had spent a Highly Enjoyable Time carefully moving all of the furniture in the SCR exactly one inch to the left. The number of bruised shins and scattered papers had kept him entertained for hours, along with the general concern of the Fellowship that they were collectively losing their grip on the reality as they had known it. Fortunately the Steward had found the experience just as entertaining as Richards, and though she had attempted to scold him, she had kindly not breathed a word of the matter to Margaret, who may have Had her Suspicions but had therefore been able to prove nothing!

Although Richards had thankfully not been banned from the libraries of the city, provided that he replace anything he used to its correct location, he had also taken up a habit of nightly Constitutional Walks, very healthy and whatnot for a conscientious Person of Alternative Health. It allowed him to really Come to Grips with the city which had been his home for over fifty years and yet was so often a mystery to him. It presented an opportunity to join, if only in a silent and intangible way, with the life and vitality of a population which was both so strange and so similar to that of the days of Horace Richards’ own student-years.

He had not cared for the Tone of the Bursar’s laughter when he had exposited on the Benefits of Regular Exercise for Spectral Persons to the Fellows over luncheon, but Margaret had assured him afterwards that the Bursar was likely suffering from envy at Richards’ dedication to the Appropriate Use of Free Time and New-Found Opportunities.

*

This evening, Richards was taking his Constitutional Exercise closer to home than usual. It had been a hectic week and he was glad to be on more familiar ground, not exploring new secrets in the dark. Devon College had been home for so long, at one time or another in his life, and the stones all but spoke to him as he floated around, of students and colleagues old and new, of balls and drinks and dinners, of fights and arguments and debates.

He was so caught up in the whisperings of the walls, Richards almost didn’t notice the opened window, until a stray breeze floated through it and ruffled his… whatever it was he was made of. Richards wasn’t thinking about it, and he certainly wasn’t going to let the FitzMatthew Medical Fellow take a look into the matter either!

He looked a bit closer. The window had certainly been forced open, now that one was looking. Richards was a Man of the World after all; he knew what a break-in looked like. Well! Now here was something different and exciting! After all, as the Master of the College and a Good Citizen, Richards would have to track down the Miscreants and See Justice Served!

He put his shoulders back and breathed deeply. Onwards to Glory!

*

After a short search, Richards came upon a small group of young men Advancing Purposefully through the shadows towards the Chapel. Aha! Richards took up the pursuit, silent and invisible – One couldn’t be Too Careful at his Time of Life after all!

As he drew nearer, he was able to make out the whispered conversation taking place.

“- know where the strong room is?”

“Well, no, not-“

“Exactly! But I’ve seen the Chaplain here, he’s got all this ‘Faith in Humanity’ stuff going on. He’ll never have the good stuff locked up. There’ll be something worth taking – and what the hell? Did anyone else feel that?”

“Feel what, Mike?”

“Like an icicle dripped on your spine?”

The silence Mike’s statement was met with suggested that his companions had not felt the icy blast of Richards’ cold rage, but that was of no matter so long as the focus of the rage was on the receiving end. How dare this- this- this brigand go around insulting the Reverend Lawrence Hargreaves?  Richards himself may have considered the Chaplain to be a touch … well, trusting would have been a moderate phrase if not untrue. But that certainly did not mean that other people were permitted to cast aspersions upon the Chaplain like this!

That settled it. As if the indignity of having one’s college ransacked were not enough, one thought of how Lawrence’s faith in humanity and the sanctity of his chapel being both broken in one thoughtless act was too much for Richards to take. Just because one’s heart had stopped did not mean that it was made of stone, after all! These young men would not be the ones to build the poor Chaplain back up again, to comfort him when his optimism was challenged, to (Richards shivered for a moment) share in cups of tea and provide Emotional Support. That lot would fall to Richards after all, as Master of the College he could not in Good Conscience shirk his duty.

The Chaplain had been nothing but kind to Richards since his death, and indeed had been nothing but universally caring towards any human or animal who so much as paused when in his eyesight and someone needed to step up and defend the man in return!

Richards watched as the lead figure bent, picking the lock with what, even to Richards’ amateur-eye, seemed to be expert ease. Richards was at least glad that experienced hands were trying to ransack his college. He wasn’t sure he could stand it if his college were being besieged by amateurs on a lucky break…

“Didn’t they have those candlesticks? In silver?”

Richards suppressed a snort and he followed them inside the vestry, and tried not to knock over the racks of vestments and other oddments the Chaplain insisted were necessary. The Bursar should be so lucky; solid silver candlesticks indeed…

“I dunno ‘bout no candlesticks, but I definitely saw a golden glass once.”

“A golden glass? Really?

No, Richards thought to himself, as his eye twitched in annoyance. Not really. He tried to think of what they might be referencing, coming up only with –

“Chalice.”

Everyone froze, Richards silently berating himself for losing his composure and speaking up at last, and the burglars presumably in response to a voice apparently coming from nowhere.

Richards had no sympathy.

“Stan, was that you?”

“No. Hey, what’s a chalice, Bob?”

“I dunno, do I?”

Still irate and invisible, Richards decided that covert operations were for people with pulses and blithely talked over whatever Mike thought he was going to say next.

“That, gentlemen, is painfully obvious to us all. Golden glass indeed. I recognise that there is little use in the modern world for the term ‘chalice’ outside of religious circles, but I would hope that when one resorts to the sale of other people’s property, one would have the gumption to know what that property was called,” as the beam of one torch flashed past him, Richards allowed his face to become visible in the weak light, disembodied and floating. “Would you not agree, gentlemen?”

One of the men – Stanley, Richards thought – squeaked. The other torches came up, frantically searching the wall behind Richards, but he had hidden himself again. They may not be able to see anything, but they clearly had better instincts than knowledge of ecclesiastic equipment, since they still huddled together and backed out into the main chapel space.

Richards followed, stretching out to find some small and easily replaced items to float around them. Now, it isn’t easy to make The New Edition of Psalms and Hymns look threatening and Richards had a feeling that he was not going to get sufficient credit for this later. No one appreciated his genius…

Attempting to be Vaguely Dramatic (Richards hadn’t really put much thought or practice into a really frightening haunting and now he regretted that oversight, what sort of Spectral Being was he?) Richards allowed himself to come once again into focus in the soft multi-coloured moonlight streaming through the stained glass.

Bob, or rather Robert, who now that Richards could see him properly illuminated, was clearly the youngest of the group, quite suddenly burst into tears.

“Me Ma al’ays tol’ me there’d be no good from robbin’ a church! Mike, I tol’ you this was a bad idea! Now there’s an angel of the Lor’!”

Richards had a sudden moment in which he was blindingly grateful that none of the Fellows had heard such a speech. The theologians would never stop laughing. Then he huffed.

“Really now, young man! A church indeed! Why, this is manifestly a chapel! Have you no notion of the Important Ecclesiastical Difference between them?”

Robert just shrugged, sniffed and wiped his eyes on his sleeve, looking very young indeed. Margaret, Richards promised himself there and then, could never be allowed to discover that he had made a young boy cry. She had Ways and Means to make him suffer. Eternally. He tried to look less threatening, hoping to give the boy heart and look less like a vengeful celestial being.

It must have been more effective than he imagined because one of the men, possibly Mike as the leader had clearly reached the end of his rope and grabbed the lectern. He swung it wildly, still a feat because that thing weighed a ton, and Richards certainly hadn’t thought to try and lift it, bringing it around to smash into Richards’ ribs.

There was a moment of truly horrified silence from the men when the lectern passed right through Richards. This probably wasn’t going to help Young Robert and his fear of damnation, now that Richards really considered the matter…

Mike’s grip on the lectern slackened and Richards reached out with a frantic burst of adrenalin (or the spectral equivalent, he still wasn’t going to ask the Medicine Fellow about that) and caught the antique before it could smash into the medieval tiles.

“Careful now, young man, that’s not easy to repair if you break it, you know.”

“What?”

Richards shook his head, “That lectern, young man, was presented to the college in 1783 by the widow of Sir Paul Mildews, a most distinguished professor and a valued member of the college in his day. Very pious man, or so I hear, not that I knew him personally of course… Regardless! I will not have you desecrating his memory by breaking it in such a careless manner, you hear?”

The men were still standing in stunned silence, but Richards had a feeling this wouldn’t last for long. He sighed.

“And now what am I to do with you all, hmm?” Young Michael opened his mouth as if to answer, but shut it with a snap at Richard’s irate eyebrow. “I was not opening the floor to suggestions, young Vandal. Do you know what I shall suffer if the Bursar discovers this? He will flap, gentlemen. He will flap around until he’s made a security system so sound that none who work for the college will be able to get in.”

Speaking of security though…

The night porters were fine men with admirable dedication to the college, however they were well-known to nap through the darkest hours, not that Richards did not understand and envy them for this. Richards was uncomfortable with the notion of leaving the three men in the chapel unattended while he went to alert the duty-porter of the need for help. There was no telling what they could get up to! But what was Richards to do with them?

Horace Richards was not a family man, and he may have spent the last few years of his natural life negotiating with men and women as powerful, mature and argumentative as himself but he has started off teaching crowds of what he had been continually assured were bright young minds (in flagrant contradiction of the available evidence, if you asked him.)

The result was that when Richards gestured imperiously at a row of pews and barked, “Now sit!” there was an instant and obedient response. Richards fixed them with a gimlet-eyed gaze before moving his hands to grip the lapels of his jacket in what any of Richards’ past students would have identified as his lecturing pose.

Unseen by the men, Richards reached for the curtain ropes even as he steamrollered on into a Distracting Yet Stern Lecture. Someone ought to explain to these men the travesty that they were about to subject the college and its heritage to, after all. He had until dawn and there was no reason to allow this chance to educate the masses (or even a small portion of them) to go to waste after all!

“Now then, gentlemen,” he clapped his hands – he was actually looking forward to this, he hadn’t given a proper lecture in years, “this chapel which you were intent on plundering like so many Viking raiders, though originally founded in the 1450s, was extensively remodelled into the form you see today during the mid-nineteenth century under the instruction of Sir William Hinchfield. Now this replaced an earlier remodelling occurring in the early eighteenth century, and largely seems to have been motivated by fashion, although it is also possible that the college wished to make a statement regarding…“

By the time Young Michael and his companions thought to try and run, the curtain ropes had wound themselves around all available limbs and torsos and needed only to pull tight to keep them immobilised. Richards didn’t even pause in his account of the events leading to the installation of new glass in the South Window.

“- in accordance with his wishes the design was based around the surviving glass from Pre-Reformation French Late-Gothic fashion. Not, in my opinion, really in keeping with the style of the rest of the chapel, but very fine in its craftsmanship nevertheless. Kindly cease and desist from struggling like that, Young Robert; if you injure yourself while in my custody I’m quite sure that I shall never hear the end of it from the Chaplain. Now you will note, I hope, since the sun is helpfully rising in the right direction, the inclusion of the lemon tree in the far-left corner there? By the mules’ – ahem – rear-portion? Yes? Do pay attention Young Stanley, you are Learning Something of Interest here. Now, this inclusion has been speculated to be allusion to –“

*

I’m trying something a bit different this week, with a two part story. Let me know if you like the extra plot and intrigue? If there’s enough enthusiasm I’ll try and do more of them.

New to the Ghosts & Gowns series? Catch up on all the fun here.