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Second Saturday Stories Presents The Wraith Chapter 8: Atrox Mal

She looked it up years later, when she wasn’t convinced she had dreamed the whole thing. She found a latin textbook in the library and didn’t dare bring it home. She flipped to the glossary and ran her finger down the great weathered pages until she found it: Evil. Cruel Evil. 
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The August heat left them as they descended. The tiles on the stairs went from chipped, to cracked, to whole. Esther felt her amethyst bounce off her breast bone and a chill lifted the hairs on her neck. She could feel Clark behind her, hear his breath as it came in long, controlled waves. She could hear Merfey in front of her, his breath coming out of him in short chops as he took the steps sometimes two at a time. 

The door at the end of the stairwell wasn’t locked. The small pane of glass set in it reflected their beams of light back to them. It let out a small creak as Merfey swung it open. Their beams danced around the vast corridor that opened around them. Signs of humanity that were present in the floors above ended here. The only thing they were left with was the rat droppings, the spiders, and the darkness. Esther could feel the darkness dampen her second sight as if she were wrapped in a wet blanket. She shivered and longed for the blazing summer sun. As the boys spilled into the corridor around her Esther felt eyes boring into her, like if she were to turn suddenly she would catch something staring into her. She shivered again at the thought. In her mind's eye she saw a dark figure at the end of her bed, one with eyes that blazed red like two burning coals in the pitch black, she remembered feeling frozen to her mattress, her arms like lead. She shut her eyes against the memory but still heard the otherworldly voice, a deep groan that filled the room even as the words muttered were almost inaudible: 

Atrox Mal. 

“Esther!” Clark called making her leap out of her skin and back to the present darkness. Esther stifled a small cry. 

“Are you coming or what?” Clark pressed. Beyond him Merfey stood in the middle of the room consulting one of his gizmos. In the dim light Esther could see his furrow of concern. He adjusted an antenna on the metal box in his hand and the device gave a weak crackle, corresponding lights tickled red before being extinguished completely. He looked at her as she approached. 

“Think you’ve got another one in you?” he asked. 

Esther nodded trying to keep the fear from her eyes. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was staring her down just beyond her vision. She felt unwanted in this space. The fact that it seemed like no one else had been down here wasn’t comforting. All of this was evidence for her not to make contact. She could hear her grandmother’s voice in her head delivering the same stern warning all those years ago. But the sooner she tried the sooner they may find the spirit of the dead woman, and she could either be put to rest or expelled from this place. Esther shared Merfeys scientific curiosity but only to a point, she mainly wanted to stop anyone from experiencing what she had when she was younger. 

“Never again.” she muttered “no one else.” 

She slipped the purple crystal from her neck and wrapped the chain around her index fingers until the crystal was suspended by a couple of inches. It swung in the darkness like a hypnotist's watch. Esther shut her eyes and began to breathe deeply, taking the air in through her nose and expelling it in a gust from her mouth. Her feet spread shoulder width apart. She felt the familiar dull throbbing in the centre of her forehead. From behind her closed eyes a picture began to emerge, her breathing increased as she took in more essence from the world around her. Her sense of smell and taste was assaulted by decay, mildew, shit, and sickness. These were not good omens. A vision began to crystalize for her but not in the world of the living. Just as she had done before Esther Sanderson gazed through the veil that separates the living from the dead. She was an observer, seeing events as if through a milky haze. Those she observed could not see her, and that was her preference, if she began to focus too long on one picture they would see her, and those who saw her could hurt her, or could travel back with her when she returned. 

Atrox Mal

She turned away from the memory, knowing that even invoking it could muster something evil. She saw as the hall lights glowed to life, the chips in the floor filled in and retreated. The hairs on her neck stood up and she once more felt unseen eyes boring into her. She took three steps to rid herself of the feeling. She passed by a few of the rooms and inside saw doctors speaking to patients. A young man with a brush cut and a vacant look in his eye gazed at her over his doctor's shoulders. His tongue lolling out around a rubber mouthpiece. The doctor recording observations as he touched metallic stylus to the man's temples. Esther smelled the stomach turning reek of burned hair. She pushed forward. Winding through the hallway letting the crystal guide her, a small tug at the end of the chain as spiritual essence increased. She described it to Clark once as like a magnet that’s guiding her to metal. The closer she got, the stronger the pull. Clark had nodded but seemed troubled by the whole thing. 

He knew about her parents, but not the whole story. Not about how she had spent months in a grief fuelled trench trying to get something, anything that would indicate they crossed over. It wasn’t until her grandmother caught her with a homemade spirit board that she had given her a warning. Simple and brief, her face a line of wrinkles that told of truths forged through the mistakes of youth.  

“Niinimoshenh. The four days are gone. If you keep calling out, something will answer.” 

Esther should have listened, she wanted to, Grandma June only spoke Ojibwe when it was serious. 

But Esther had been young. Esther wanted badly to feel something from her parents that she tried one more time. Late one night when Grandma June fell asleep in front of the television Esther dug the spirit board from under her bed, rescued from the trash, and tried again. 

It hadn’t worked, nothing had happened, or that’s what Esther went to sleep thinking. When she felt the bed springs compress as someone sat on the bed she sat up expectantly knowing in her heart it was her parents. The questions she had died on her lips when she opened her eyes. 

The mass in front of her was like staring into a black abyss. It was bulky and obscured her doorway. The colour from her afghan seemed to be swallowed up, the windchime in her window twisted and let out a small two tone chime as it traded places with the dream catcher on the other end of the mobile. The mass was sitting in profile, staring at the small dream catcher. Esther felt the temperature drop and began to shiver. Her breath plumed out of her in a great vapor. At its expulsion the mass twisted to pierce her with burning red eyes. They were two glowing masses set into the darkness of its head. The shadows folded and cascaded over themselves as it turned and Esther saw two masses on the side of its head. They looked like antlers reaching out to collect more of the room's lightness. Esther clutched her knees, unconsciously shimmying towards her headboard. The thing in front of her snorted, an identical plume of breath escaping from it. 

“W-what are you?” Esther had managed to breath the question out, to this day she had no idea how. 

The mass tilted its head ,a gesture she had come to think of as engaged curiosity, the kind a cat gets when it watches a beetle between its paws; before it swallows it whole. 

When the mass spoke Esther didn’t see any mouth move, she wasn’t even sure it spoke in a voice, but she still heard it, somewhere in the centre of her head it was as if she heard an echo of what the thing had said, rather than the words at all. 

Atrox Mal

She looked it up years later, when she wasn’t convinced she had dreamed the whole thing. She found a latin textbook in the library and didn’t dare bring it home. She flipped to the glossary and ran her finger down the great weathered pages until she found it. 

Evil. Cruel Evil. 

The mass moved then. It was faster than she ever would have thought. All of a sudden the eyes were boring into her, inches away from her own, her nightie lit up in their red-orange blaze. 

Grandma June’s voice rang clear and loud then, thrumming out the prayer song, the amethyst Esther now wore gripped tightly in her hand swinging from the chain. The Mass vanished. No fade away like in the movies. It was just gone, leaving nothing but the memories and scars on Esther. 

The amethyst suddenly dropped, lifeless, and Esther opened her eyes. She was back in the dark sub basement with Merfey and Clark staring dumbfounded at her. Esther frowned. 

“I lost it.” she muttered gazing at the crystal. “That’s a first.” 

“Once again technology bridges the divide between the divine.” Merfey chuckled as he rooted through the old gym bag. He shot Esther a glance now and again when he thought she wasn’t looking. Clark had gone quiet and she locked eyes with him. He simply nodded, but his gaze was far. Suddenly Merfey was in front of her holding out an identical device to the one he had in the nursing station upstairs. 

“We’ll cover more ground if we split up. Esther and I will take the way straight ahead, Clark why don’t you back the way we came and investigate there? We can stay in touch with the walkie talkies.” 

“Great Idea!” Esther tried not to sound too eager. “But, Actually Merfey, er, Miles, Why doesn’t Clark go with me?” Esther suggested. Part of her felt guilty, but another part did not feel like breaking Merfey’s heart down here. She continued, trying to not make it so obvious that she wanted to be away from him.  “If he’s off alone and does see something then he could just shrug it off as a trick brought on by technology. But if I’m there I can prove it. Plus alone you can use your gear to navigate quicker. If you do find something you’ll be better equipped to capture it, as smart as you are.” 

“She’s right Merf.” Clark said “That stuff’s all Greek to me.” 

“Oh. ah. Well what about-” Esther watched Merfey flounder for an excuse before his shoulders sagged. “No, you’re ah, you’re right. I’ll start down here.” he spun on his heel but not before Esther caught, the flush working it’s way up from his shirt collar. 

“Miles?” Esther called 

“Yes?” he spun, and the hope she saw in his eyes made her more than a little guilty for calling him back.

“The walkie talkies.” 

“Oh. yeah.” Merfey reached into his bag before rifling around and tossing a customized handset to Clark. He looked at it before snorting a laugh and looking up at Merfey with good humour “camp redhawk?” 

“y-Yeah!” Merfey said, surprised. Clark turned the unit over in his hands, smiling in memory. 

“You um. You jerry rig your folks stereo into this one too?” 

“HAM radio.” Merfey said. “Channel Five.” he turned on his own before dropping it back in the pack.