(Short Story) The Corpse Road
Corpse Roads were once used to keep the dead from haunting the living. One of these abandoned roadways in Yorkshire, England is haunted once more, but the banisher charged with clearing it may be up against something more.
Rating: Teen +
Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy
Warnings: Magic, Demons, Spirits, Mild Language
He found the cross etched into the stones leading from the dilapidated church, just as he was told he would. Little remained of the 14th century house of worship and even less of the graveyard that once stood adjacent. Few foundation stones remained, almost indistinguishable from the smattering of moss-covered headstones.
Declan Connor looked out over the remains of the ancient cemetery, which stood to overlook the valley that stretched below. There was something so peaceful about this place, something so utterly quiet that he could hear the blood surging through his own veins. Below, the valley was a sight of incomparable beauty. Thick grasses of the truest green rolled over the hills, with heavy limbed trees lining a meandering stream that curved through the land like a lover’s hand.
He couldn’t stop the smile that spread over his face at the sight. Yorkshire was, truly, the most beautiful place on earth.
As he stood admiring the sight of an English sunset from his perch above the valley, Declan heard the eerie sound he had been waiting for. It was a low, keening wail that rather reminded him of the sound a man might make whilst being pushed from a cliff. The scream brought a heavy, world-weary sigh from Declan’s lips as he ran a hand over sparse red hair covering his scalp.
It was difficult to force himself away from the scene before him, even as the sun dipped away beyond the horizon. Dusk was now in full swing, with the hand of twilight coming just beyond the trees. For most people, it would be time to head home from a long day to tuck into their suppers before sending the children to bed.
For the Connor family, twilight was time to go to work.
He turned to face the east, looking over at the thick copse of trees that flanked the rear of the church. Bending at the knee, Declan stopped to inspect the Celtic cross that marked the entrance to the corpse road. It was long-faded, worn by wind, and earth, and time. The symbol was there, though, nearly half a millennia after the church had burnt. No one knew its name, that knowledge was lost when the armies of Henry VIII set fire to the sanctuary and cemetery on the grounds of heresy. The king had stripped the clergy of their riches; from hand-painted tomes to the stained glass in the windows.
The tree-line beckoned him closer, inviting him in. It covered the hillside, slid down the back end away from the church and into the neighboring valley. At just 2 square miles, it wasn’t the size of a full forest, but enough that travelers had disappeared in the past.
It had a name, he was sure, but Hunters and Witches and the like never bothered with it. To them, the forest was known only as the Wood of the Wisps, home to the massive clan of fairy-like creatures who were borne of mischief, not malice.
To be safe, he had 3 silver medallions in his pockets and with every step, the coins jingled musically. Though Wisps were clever little imps who loved to lure travelers into bogs, they had a deep, abiding love of all things silver. The Connor family learnt long ago that safe passage through the Wood and even helpful information could be bartered for a few shiny trinkets.
As he stepped into the wood, he felt the chilled air change around him. The Wood of the Wisps weighed heavily, as though there was not enough oxygen to permeate the thick tree-line. Through the darkness, Declan could make out the faintly glowing shapes of Wisps. Even if they were not trying to glow, they had a very faint luminescence that was barely perceptible to humans.
If one was not an expert in all things magical, it was quite easy to see nothing at all.
Hearing his name in that strangely choral voice sent a shiver racing down his spine. In his life, Declan had only twice tangled with the Wisps. On one of those occasions, they parted as enemies.
Maybe they had short memories.
Declan. You have silver.
Smiling through the creeped out feeling he was desperately trying to ignore, Declan reached into his pocket. He removed only two of the small, round medallions so he could hold one in each hand.
Almost immediately, a group of Will-o-the-Wisps flared into light. They ranged in colour, all of them, from a brilliant white to the deepest of blues. Excited, harmonic twittering resounded through the Wood, bringing it alive.
Wisps darted around him, attempting to take the coveted silver. Declan, however, was used to their games. He palmed the trinkets quickly, almost feeling bad when the brilliant light seemed to dim a little with disappointment.
“I need a favour.” Declan said, revealing his silver once more. “I need safe passage through the Wood, to the other end of the Corpse Road.”
But that land is cursed!
The Wisps cried out, frightened. It was not fear for this well-being that moved them and Declan knew it. They would not stray into cursed land, which meant that his lovely, wonderful silver, would go with him. It was this addiction that Declan had counted on.
Evangeline was right, he should be ashamed.
“I will give you one of the silver pieces before I go and one when I return. I’ve been charged with dispelling the curse.”
The Wisps began to speak amongst themselves, their light winking and blinking. If any human were to walk by the Wood now, they would assume it was the Wisps trying to lure them to their death, or so the stories told. No one outside of the magical community knew it was just a bunch of silly creatures trying to communicate.
Leave both silvers, said the group mind in that same soft whisper.
“And have nothing to barter for my return to the church? No.”
Some of the lights blinked again, turning dark in their anger. It wasn’t wise to accuse any magical creature of breaking their word, but the Wisps were notorious for it.
You are going to remove the curse?
“Yes. I promise.”
A tall order it would be, removing this particular curse. Declan was, again, playing a dangerous game. He often told Evangeline it gave his life a certain zest.
Knowing he was in it now, Declan sighed. He settled one of the silvers on the rock at his feet, stepping away so two of the Wisps could carry it to wherever they kept their treasures. Four more Wisps set themselves alight, moving down a path only they could clearly see.
Exhaling sharply, Declan pocketed his silver piece so he could follow the Wisps.
Corpse roads were something out of historical myth in his home country. The long, winding paths – mostly lost to legend now – had once carried the dead from villages to local parishes, when one church often served several small communities. The roads were typically curved, traveled over water, and wound through the countryside to confuse the spirits of the dead. They could not follow such paths back to their loved ones to haunt, to curse.
In his line of work, Declan knew these roads had once served that purpose to the extreme. Spirits wandered the roads, even now, and when they became stuck between worlds, they destroyed the earth with their mere presence.
A pestilence currently destroying the little hamlet at the very northern edge of the Wood had nothing to do with the drought or some strange sickness, as the locals thought it.
Declan knew it was merely the spirit of someone long dead, rising to cause havoc.
The wisps led him down the long, winding path without any regard to his welfare. Declan followed not the overgrown road, but the soft urging of a magical ley line upon which it was built.
Full night had fallen by the time the wisps stopped. Declan knew their magic would be weakened by the corruption of the spirit, so he did not bother them as they reached the deadened section of Wood. He paused, kneeling in the moist loam beneath his feet. Under the smattering of autumn leaves and damp moss, he found the earth tinged with gray, veins of pure black reaching out like the tendrils of death itself.
“I think this is the place.” Declan murmured to himself, looking around for signs of the malevolent spirit.
With the practiced motions of a professional, Declan pulled the messenger bag over his head, opening the flap with practiced ease. A jar of salt was located quickly, the glittering granules spread over the ground in one solid, unbroken line. Once that was finished, Declan removed a blessed athame from the holster at his hip, using the tip to draw protective symbols into the loamy earth inside of his circle.
He didn’t expect demonic activity, but it never hurt to be cautious. John “One-Eye” Mitchell found that out first hand, the poor bastard.
The Wisps had formed a small ring around the unaffected area of their Wood, watching him work with their choral whisper almost lost on the frigid English breeze. He ignored them as well as he could, knowing they only wanted the silver in his pockets and his skill as a Banisher.
Declan pulled more items from his bag: three vials of blessed oils, a small cauldron, and a candle. He lit the candle, protecting the flame with a small lantern before he set it at the northern corner of his circle. That finished, he poured the sacred oils into the cauldron, swirling them together with a few deft turns of the iron pot.
Taking a deep breath, Declan stepped toward the edge of his circle, careful not to muss the line. When dealing with a spirit powerful enough to defile the very land it was haunting, it wasn’t wise to step out of the circle.
With a jerk of his hands, Declan threw his sacred oils onto the ground just outside of the circle. He stepped back, reaching for his athame once more.
The Wood seemed to immediately grow very still, very quiet. As ethereal as this place was on its own, the silence made it even more mysterious and frightening, which was the point. Declan felt his heart rate jump in his chest, the fine ginger hairs on the back of his neck stood at full attention. The heavy, spooky feeling of being watched settled over him as his eyes scanned the darkened tree-line.
His hand shifted on the ivory grip of his ceremonial dagger. The edge was blunted, rendering the ‘weapon’ almost useless. It wasn’t made for stabbing or slicing, though. Runes inscribed on the blade and handle were used to stay a spirit, to trap them as much as the circle protected and the scared oils enticed.
His breath was too loud in his own ears, his hand trembled just slightly as he held the dull athame out before him.
It was watching him, testing him, assessing him. Declan knew the spirit was nearby, but it was old, wise, and not so easily lured. Most apparitions that were trapped on this plane were wild with rage, easily falling into a snare that any Banisher worth his blade was capable of setting.
This one, however, lingered in the trees, waiting.
Declan turned slowly, facing the undamaged area of Wood where the wisps waited. He saw nothing, heard nothing, aside from that choral whispering and muted blinking of the fairy-like creatures he was here to help.
“Come on out,” Declan called. “I know you’re here.”
Silence, not even broken by an insect’s buzzing, was his only greeting.
Declan turned again in a slow, deliberate circle. The thing had to come closer for the Banishing to be effective. His salt circle was deliberately small, with scarcely enough room for a grown man to stand. How could it resist coming so close to a fully-armed Banisher? Especially one alone in the woods.
A sense of chill sliding down his spine proved to be the only warning he would receive. Trusting twenty years of experience, Declan dropped to his knees, barely missing being whacked on the back of the head by something heavy he couldn’t quite make out in the darkness. He let out an exasperated sigh, pushing up on his hands to look over the area again.
This time, the fully-formed spirit was visible.
Of course, it was a reflection of the soul, so the thing looked terrible. Standing at the edge of his circle, translucent and luminous, the spirit growled at him menacingly. For clothing, it wore what it had been buried in: a threadbare sheepskin tunic, ankle chains, and unkempt hair. The eyes were dark as pitch, empty with no refraction of light within their depths.
It was the picture of a 1950’s horror film. That made it no less terrifying to behold.
“Give me your name.”
It grimaced at him, the lips pulling back to reveal a hollow space that housed no teeth. It lunged at him again. Declan didn’t have to fear it, not within the confines of his circle. Still, the flash of blinding light that kept it on the outside burned white-hot. Declan shook his head, dropping the athame back into his holster.
“Alright.” He sighed, reaching for the tattered, leather-bound journal that held his Banishing Spells. “I tried to make this painless.”
The creature laughed; a horrible, grating sound that seemed to echo in the stillness of the Wood. The wisps had long-since deserted the field, leaving him without even the hive-like humming of their speech. Really, he was lucky they had a code of honour and hadn’t simply knocked him over the head to steal his silver. Lovely.
Declan found his hands were no longer trembling as the spirit prowled the outside of his circle. He often wondered why the spirits didn’t just move the salt away from the ground and trounce him, though he was very glad they hadn’t caught on to that.
The book in his hands was his, honed to his personal experiences since the age of 21, when his family considered members to be adults. Declan spent the last 23 years writing in it, crafting Banishments, recording his experiences. Someday, if he was considered a success, the record of his Banishings would be kept in the familial library.
Right now, however, he searched the dog-eared pages for the correct Malevolent Banishment.
“Sure you don’t want to tell me your name, mate?” Declan asked the spirit as it gnashed its gums together in a way he supposed it thought was frightening.
Well, it wasn’t wrong.
“Tell me your name and you can go back to your own grave, all cuddly and warm. If you don’t tell me, I’ve got to send you Otherside, mate.” Declan paused, having found his Banishment. “No? Alright.”
He took a deep breath, centering his mind as his magic reached for the ley line at his feet. There was a reason Banishments worked better over the lines that crisscrossed under the planet. Working with only human power was a really good way to end up dead or possessed.
The cadence of Latin rolled from his tongue, his eyes drifting closed as he gave himself to the spell. The words were not important, not really. Intention gave the casting its power.
Declan extended his right hand, flattening his palm against the air. The ley line’s warm magic slid up from his feet, filtering through the blood in his veins. It was hell to contain the magic he siphoned from the earth itself. The power wanted to simply flow out, to erupt into the world. That wasn’t a bad thing, not really, except when you needed to focus that energy on something specific. Declan closed his eyes, trying to rein in the power and focus it toward his outstretched palm.
When he opened his eyes, the spirit was staring at his hand, as though confused as to what Declan was doing.
So much the better.
In Latin, he ordered the spirit away, commanded it back to the grave he had slithered out of. Declan felt the force of ley magic in his arm, sliding, slipping through his veins toward the palm. He grit his teeth to contain it, focusing, struggling with the magic. His fingers curled into a fist, his mind using that as the dam behind which the magic churned.
“Begone.” Declan commanded when the pressure behind his hand reached the breaking point. “Begone!”
Under the flesh of his hand, the magic built in warmth until it burned. Once the magic scorched, it was time to release it. As Declan commanded the spirit to go, he slowly uncurled his fingers. Dusk-orange light erupted from his skin, rushing out of him with such sudden ferocity that it dropped Declan to his knees.
The spirit wailed again, this time so loudly that leaves fell from the trees into his circle. Declan braced himself on his hands as the light faded, before he simply gave up and flopped onto his back in triumph.
“Another one,” Declan sighed to himself as he raised his fist in victory. “Bites the dust.”
He lay in the quiet for a moment as Wood-typical sounds filtered back. There was no need to check the earth, or the creatures coming out of hiding now. Declan had Banished for 20 years, he knew by feeling when he had done well. The veins of ectoplasm that infected the land would be retreating back to Hell. By sunrise, there would be no more foul crops or diseased lands. The villagers nearby would believe the plague had run its course. All would be well.
As he lay on the moist loam, recovering from a use of magic that hadn’t even winded him in his younger years, Declan realised that the wisps had not returned.
Why hadn’t they? The last two times he had dealings with the creatures, they were all over him for silver before the dust could a settle. Strange. It was very strange.
A step in the loam to the south of his circle told him there was a reason that the wisps had not returned. Leaves rustled under the newcomer’s feet, so at least Declan knew it was not a tandem spirit. That had happened back in ’76 and it hadn’t ended well.
Still, when the being behind him started to clap, Declan was forced to stand.
He scrambled to his feet, staying within the confines of his salt-circle. The creature before him appeared to be a human male, its lithe, fit body tucked into a well-tailored three-piece suit. Its hair was trimmed neatly, face cleanly shaven. It might have been someone’s lawyer or banker.
From the green cast of his eyes, however, Declan knew it for a demon.
“Well done, Banisher.” The thing said with an oily voice broadcasting a posh London accent. “You’ve managed to undo weeks of work with just one little tug of a ley line.”
Declan offered the demon a small smile, checking the symbols he had carved into the earth. “Well, I’ve had training.”
The demon stuffed its hands into its pockets, rocking back on the heels of its very expensive leather shoes. Who was this demon trying to fool? Anyone could see it was the very image of evil incarnate.
Then again, maybe the suited-lawyer bit was dead on after all.
“So, you have.” The demon moved idly around the circle, toeing at the salt in a mockery of Declan’s defenses.
When the thing hissed in pain, cracking its neck to the side, though, Declan knew his demonic protections had worked. That was a comfort, at least.
“I could use a man with your set of skills,” the demon said enticingly. “Your protection charms are amateur, yet effective. The use of ley line magic is impressive.”
Declan allowed a wolfish grin to curve his lips. “And off limits to demons.”
The creature smiled, revealing four rows of serrated teeth that reminded Declan of the Great Whites he and his wife swam with on their honeymoon. He fought the urge to shudder with revulsion, remembering his sister’s words. Diana was one of the country’s leading exorcists. She’d taught her baby brother a thing or two over the years.
“Look, I’d love to trade spars all night, but I’m tired. I’m dirty. And my sister is Diana Connor.” Declan revealed her name viciously.
The demon had a brief crack in its armour, revealing a moment of panic as its green eyes darted about the nearly-vacant Wood. Declan barely suppressed a chuckle at the demon’s fear.
“So, if you don’t mind, piss off.” Declan finished with a negligent wave of his left hand.
It left without another word.
Declan let his shoulders slump as he gathered his things. The sooner he got home, the better.
The moment he had broken his circle, Declan heard the choral tones of Wisps return. He groaned as white and blue lights surrounded him, their hive-voice chanting ‘silver’ over and over again until the word lost all meaning.
Declan slung his pack over his shoulder with a sigh, reaching into his pocket for two more silvers.
“Get me back to the church,” he said firmly. “And you’ll get two more.”
The wisps blinked to the effect of a strobe light with glee, bouncing along to corpse road brightly to light the way. Declan chuckled to himself as he headed out of the Wood, glad to know his night’s work was through.
But as he ventured back into the woods, he felt the chilling burn of magic against his back and knew, the demon had marked him. Declan turned, looking back into the haunted woods. He could no longer see the creature haunting the end of the corpse road, but it’s mark burned into his flesh.
They were not done, Declan and the demon. Not by a long shot.