Week 43 of Odd Prompts: Something Different

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something different this way comes.
*

This week, on Odd Prompts, we’re honoring Halloween. The spookiest time of year, when darkness reigns and winds whip through a lonely man with a blaze of fallen color and cold rain. Women shiver and huddle in their safe houses, protecting children ill-content to stay inside.

Until the darkness comes, of course, creeping in as inky shadows. Waiting…

So this week, rather than a rousing round of traded prompts and spares, we present to you a single Halloween-themed prompt. Give us your horror, your unimaginables, your inconceivables. Delight us with the shuddering laughter of a misperception you choose to believe when reality is too far broken to stand. Feed us your screams and stolen glimpses of safety, too far away to touch. Take us trick-or-treating through childhood innocence, before the monsters become real.

This week, everyone’s prompt is:

In the shadow of the hanged man was…

Leave your Samhain offerings in the comments. And that low, rolling laughter that made your spine crawl just now? Definitely not us. Nor the monster under your bed.

It’s the monster in the attic that should worry you.

*With all apologies to the Bard himself, of course.

Header image by GerDukes, Pixabay.

17 comments

  1. This week we all had a common prompt: In the shadow of the hanged man was…

    Below is my (longer than usual) offering in response.

    It was early on a Saturday morning. Cuthbert Bracebridge was walking Goldilocks, his Golden Retriever, through Norton Park. The pair were heading to a field near the centre of the park, where Goldilocks would be let off the lead and play fetch with a ball, and generally run around for an hour or so. Currently they were making their way through the Western Woods.

    As they passed around a corner in the path they both stopped dead. There was a dark, very unpleasant stench in the air. Goldilocks sniffed, then sniffed again. “I’m not smelling anything. Must be a nasty spell.”

    Cuthbert nodded. “We need to investigate. I haven’t smelt anything this bad in a long time.”

    “A pity. I was looking forwards to my run-around.”

    Despite himself, Cuthbert smiled. “If we have time, you can have your exercise after we find out what that is. Otherwise we’ll have to negotiate another visit to the park with Catherine.” (Catherine was Cuthbert’s wife.)

    “If it comes to that I’ll just run around the garden.”

    Oh, no! Catherine hated having Goldilocks running laps of the lawn while she was trying to garden. The last time she had threatened to sell Goldilocks to the nearest zoo for bear meat – not that she ever would, for she loved the bitch as much as Cuthbert, but even so not a fate to be tempted.

    Cuthbert just walked forwards. “Come on. Let’s just find the problem.”

    It didn’t take them long to find it. A few turns later and they passed out of the woods. Directly ahead of them was the dam built a century ago to form Shortmeadow Pool, which spread out to their left. On the far side of the pool stood a lone tree. Hanging from one of the branches was a dead body.

    Cuthbert got out his phone. “Time to notify the authorities. Then we need to deal with the spell residue.”

    “And hope we can identify the caster.”

    Cuthbert found the non-emergency number for the local police and informed them of what they’d found and where.

    The pair then approached the body, making sure to keep a certain distance between themselves and the crime scene. Under the body, on the grass in the shadow cast by the body, was a pattern marked in chalk. The pattern was not circular, was not an ellipse, was not even egg-shaped. The outline was deliberately asymmetrical in every way. The internal pattern was likewise completely asymmetric and looked incredibly ugly to Cuthbert’s sight.

    “Black-source.” The disgust was clear in Goldilocks’ tone.

    “I’m worried the spell used the pain of death to power the result. We need to cleanse the area.”

    Goldilocks merely nodded her head. Both of them knew that leaving the residue of black-source magic in an area would gradually poison anything growing there, or merely passing through.

    “Lord, assist us in cleansing this darkness.” Cuthbert reached for power, and the light was available to him. He could feel grey-power hovering, tempting him to switch sources, but rejected it once more. The light-source power flowed through him, and he could sense Goldilocks helping, both increasing the amount of power available and increasing his stamina.

    Cuthbert focussed the light on the area of greatest darkness, a cloud of black magical residue between the corpse and the pattern. The residue resisted. Cuthbert wasn’t worried that there wouldn’t be enough power for the task at hand – light was always more powerful than dark – but he was worried that his stamina wouldn’t hold out.

    The residue continued to resist, and with every second Cuthbert became more and more convinced that it was the remnants of a really, really nasty spell.

    The core gave up the ghost, but Cuthbert kept pouring light into the residue. The sphere of light grew but the shell of darkness continued to fight, resisting dissipation by expanding in volume, but doing so caused it to thin. Eventually the shell thinned to the point of nonexistence.

    Already tired, Cuthbert turned his attention to the more difficult task – removing the black magical stains from the pattern without damaging it (for that would not go down too well with the local coppers). Too much power, and the residue’s destruction might break the bonds between the pieces of chalk, potentially causing pieces to jump into the air. There was a very persistent urban legend of a mage that completely destroyed a spell pattern by cleansing it too quickly.

    Cuthbert throttled back the power, and shone a very diffuse beam of light onto the pattern and the immediate surrounding grass. This part couldn’t be hurried, no matter how much he wanted to – and when he was as tired as he was using more magic was easier than using the little that he needed to.

    The pattern gradually released the dark power that had seeped into it, but by the time it was clean Cuthbert could hear the sirens of the approaching police cars.

    Cuthbert then shone light on the corpse and cleansed it of the magic that had been involved in its demise. Finally, he took out his phone again and snapped the pattern with its camera, before sending it to Catherine (just in case he had to temporarily hand over his phone to the police).

    There was still a dark cloud in the surrounding area, but disconnected from the spell remnants in the area of casting it should dissipate quickly. Duties completed, he looked down at Goldilocks. “You alright?”

    “Tired, but I think I can make it back home.”

    “If you feel otherwise I’ll call Catherine and get her to pick us up.”

    “Please don’t! She’ll call me bear meat again!”

    Cuthbert laughed, and then swallowed it as the first bobbies appeared. They probably wouldn’t think humour to be an appropriate reaction in the presence of a corpse.

    The police did the necessary, taking his statement, taking photos, and preparing for the forensics. Just one incident of note before the pair were released: One of the PCs remarked that whoever it was must have been a beginner, for everyone knew that spell patterns were circular.

    “Idiot! Black-source spell patterns are never circular! Demons that far below Screwtape insist on a complete absence of beauty!”

    Goldilocks sounded indignant and irritated. Cuthbert wanted to smile, but didn’t want to be seen doing so – the policemen had heard only dog barking unless they were also a light-source mage. He knelt down, stroked Goldilocks, and said softly “I know. I know.”

    When the police released Cuthbert, he and Goldilocks went straight home. No sooner had Cuthbert shut the front door and released Goldilocks from her lead than she went straight to her dog bed, curled up and went to sleep.

    Time to find Catherine. She was in the study. She had blown up Cuthbert’s photo on the computer screen. The safe was open. Catherine had extracted some of the dangerous books on magic that they kept in the safe and was comparing their illustrations against the pattern. She was shaking.

    Cuthbert spun her chair around, reached down and hugged her. She got up and hugged back hard. “I didn’t want you to do this,” he said softly into her ear.

    “I’m quicker than you. The sooner we interpret this spell the better.”

    Tears came to Cuthbert’s eyes. He knew what Catherine meant, and that she was annoyingly right. She had been a grey-source magic user before they had met, and had drifted into very dark grey, black-source in some traditions, before becoming one of the very rare examples of those who go from black-source or grey-source to white-source.

    But in the immediate aftermath she had completely abandoned magic, fearing a drift back into the darker-sources. It was only when Goldilocks spoke to her and she responded that Cuthbert realised that she was a white-source mage. Even now, she wouldn’t cast spells alone, feeling safe only when working with another white-source mage.

    But her experience with the darker sources of power meant that she had a better knowledge of the patterns in such spells than Cuthbert did. And if they were to figure out what was going on that knowledge would be very valuable in shortening their investigation time.

    Cuthbert could tell Catherine had already deduced something really bad. She only shook like this when elements of the pattern triggered bad memories from her previous dark magical experiences.

    Cuthbert continued to hug Catherine as she rested her face on his shoulder and started to cry. He said nothing, just held her as her memories worked their way through her system. Eventually she released him, but he kept hold of her, hands on her waist. He kissed her.

    Cuthbert hated to see Catherine suffer like this, but he could never quite find the words to say so – not least because he knew that he might need her to study black-source patterns again.

    As he was struggling to fashion something to say, she asked “How are you feeling?”

    “Tired, but I’ll last until tonight. I may need an early night.”

    “And Goldie?”

    “Already asleep in her lair. She’ll be very hungry when she wakes up.”

    She chuckled. “And she’ll want us to feed her early.”

    Perhaps it was safe to change the subject. “How bad?”

    She shuddered, and Cuthbert suddenly felt horrible. “Worse than I’ve ever considered.”

    Given that she’d dabbled in the lighter shades of black-source magic herself that was saying a lot. Cuthbert waited as she took a number of deep breaths.

    “Someone’s trying to open a permanent connection to a demon’s power, and is using human sacrifice to power it.”

    “That’s really bad.” Cuthbert felt sick, but his wife must be feeling worse, so he did his best not to let it show. “Anyone, or … ?”

    She understood. “There’s a rejection element to the spellwork. It will work more effectively with a victim that the caster loves, and who loves the caster.”

    “Thus ensuring maximum corruption of the spirit.” Cuthbert grasped the purpose, his disgust clear in his voice. “If it is a loved one, shouldn’t that make it easy for the police to track the victim?” For the caster was a victim of the demon who had got its claws into him/her.

    “No. If the pattern worked as intended the rejection will sever the connections between the caster and the sacrifice to such an extent that no-one will be able to connect them. The demon will change any unprotected records to disconnect the pair. The sacrifice’s DNA will be altered to remove any familial connection.” Catherine broke down again, and hugged him hard once more.

    Cuthbert just hugged her back. He understood – vaguely. When Catherine had shifted to white-source magic, all of her friends who had worked magic with her during her grey/black-source days had rejected her, and severed as many ties as they could. One of them was her sister, Eleanor – now the pair only saw each other on family occasions that Eleanor couldn’t politely get out of, and Eleanor wouldn’t say a word to Catherine unless not doing so was overtly rude.

    Cuthbert held her until she stopped sobbing. Then she whispered one more thing in his ear. “One sacrifice isn’t enough. The caster needs at least one more.”

    They remained there for a while. Cuthbert didn’t want to let her go as long as she needed his support. But eventually Catherine insisted that the books be tidied away.

    Later that morning Cuthbert flagged up the black-source magic use to the other light-source mages in the area. There would be an emergency meeting tomorrow afternoon to try to figure out some way to stop the next sacrifice.

    Goldilocks missed lunch, and insisted on being fed the instant she woke up. Cuthbert put food and water into her bowls. Ordinarily he wouldn’t feed her out of schedule, but post-magic was a special case.

    An hour later Goldilocks padded into the lounge, where Cuthbert was reading one of the books of mindless fiction that he kept around solely to provide entertainment that didn’t require an iota of thinking for times like this.

    “You might want to start training up another familiar.”

    “Why? You’re strong enough.”

    “For now. That mess drained me more than anything else. I might not manage another.”

    Cuthbert smiled. “It was the worst I’ve ever had to deal with. I don’t think you’re on the way out yet.” He reached out and started to stroke the dog.

    “Perhaps. But Catherine’s long since reached the point where a familiar of her own will be useful. Perhaps a cat.”

    It was an old bone. Cuthbert smiled and continued to stroke Goldilocks’ flank. “She won’t do it. That’s a spell that has to be cast alone, without support from familiar or mage. She won’t do it.”

    Just then Catherine poked her head into the lounge. “You two alright in there?”

    “I was just explaining to this little one why we won’t be getting a cat.”

    “A kitten would be better than a puppy, I suppose. But then the questions would start – and I can’t…”

    Cuthbert put the book down on the sofa, got up and walked to the doorway. The pair hugged, then Cuthbert stepped back. “I would feel more comfortable if you had something or someone around when you do the bookwork.”

    She smiled. “I love you too. But there are some things I can’t do. Possibly not yet, but definitely not now.” She looked beyond him. “And the next time you suggest to either of us that I need a cat I’m phoning the zoo – I’m sure the bears need more variety in their feed.” Catherine stepped back and headed back outside. As she went Cuthbert spotted a smile on her face – as he had thought she hadn’t meant it.

    He carefully wiped the smile off his face before turning around. “You heard her. No more cat talk. Now you’d better stay out of her feet the rest of the day just in case.”

    Goldilocks slunk out of the room.

    Cuthbert went to sleep an hour early that night. He was so tired that he fell asleep before Catherine slipped into bed beside him after putting Goldilocks to bed for the night.

    The next day Catherine and Cuthbert went to Church as normal, followed by a Sunday lunch of roast lamb and mint sauce. Goldilocks got a little of the lamb as a reward/bribe for being good while the couple were out the house.

    After the plates and cooking equipment had been washed up and put away, the other light-source mages in the area arrived. First was Rob Quarrel, young, barely started work, and still growing into his power. No sooner had he and Catherine been seated in the lounge with a mug of tea each than the doorbell rang again.

    It was Julia Isaacson, holding a pet carrier. After greetings were exchanged she put the carrier on the floor and opened the door. Out came Argenta, her grey and white Burmilla familiar. Argenta went straight through the open door into the lounge and leapt into Catherine’s lap – for some reason the cat adored Catherine, and the feeling was mutual.

    Cuthbert got Julia a mug of tea, and brought it into the lounge along with one of his own.

    With everyone settled, Goldilocks lying down by his chair and Catherine stroking Argenta who was purring in response, Cuthbert explained what he’d discovered and what he’d done to cleanse the area.

    Then it was time to pass around the photo of the spell pattern. It was Catherine’s turn to explain what it meant. She continuously stroked Argenta all the way through the explanation.

    She seemed better able to cope with the past when she had Argenta on her lap. Cuthbert wasn’t the only one who’d noted this – he was sure that Goldilocks had spotted it too, although the other mages probably hadn’t. It was why he secretly thought that her having a familiar of her own was an excellent idea, although unlike the dog he wasn’t fixated on a cat – a rabbit, a hamster or something else that would sit in her lap and be stroked might work just as well. But until Catherine was willing to cast the spell that would elevate a pet into a familiar, he would support her not having one whenever Goldilocks raised the issue.

    “So, there’s no way for the police to trace the caster from the victim. That’s annoying, it would be nice to be able to rely on them to bring these sacrifices to an end.”

    “Sorry, Rob, but that’s not possible with the rejection element of the spell,” said Catherine softly.

    “How many more sacrifices will this black-mage need?” asked Julia.

    “Possibly one, possibly two. It depends on how badly each sacrifice corrupts the caster, and how much power their deaths supply. For both elements the closer the victim is to the caster the greater the effect.” If anything, Catherine was stroking Argenta even more than earlier.

    “What is the required timing?” It was Cuthbert’s turn to ask a question.

    “If it’s like the multiple casting rituals I was a part of, either monthly tied to the phase of the moon, or weekly. Given that the full moon is next Friday night, I’d suggest weekly.”

    “Would that suggest that the caster is planning on three sacrifices, the central one on the full moon?”

    “I hope not, Rob. But it sounds plausible. I dread to think how badly the caster’s spirit will be corrupted by three sacrifices of people that individual loves.”

    The whole room shuddered at Catherine’s comments.

    “And the timing. Midnight?”

    “Yes, Julie. Midnight is traditional, being when the sun is on the opposite side of the Earth, when we’re deepest into the umbra of night.”

    “So, plans. If we assume that the next sacrifice will be on Friday night, at midnight, then we need to prepare for that probability. If you, Rob, and you, Julie, pair up then you can try to patrol the northern part of Norton Park, while Catherine and I patrol the southern part. The park’s large so there’s no guarantee any of us will come across the deed in action, but I don’t want to face that spell alone. Everyone happy?” Not mentioned was that Cuthbert’s plan would ensure that each pair had a familiar.

    All present agreed to the plan, familiars included. Conversation switched to lighter matters, and a few more mugs of tea later the visitors headed home, Argenta having to be persuaded into her pet carrier once more.

    The week passed swiftly, and on Friday evening after dusk fell, Catherine and Cuthbert headed out. Since it was expected, Goldilocks was on her lead, and had opted to be ‘led’ by Catherine. Cuthbert suspected a belief that she needed more emotional support – not that he said anything – Catherine would not be impressed and that was probably an understatement.

    It was a half-hour walk to the park. They reached it at about 8:30pm, which was in time for the gates closed at 9pm, after which they would be locked into the park until the gates re-opened at 6 the next morning.

    The trio made their way into the park, keeping to the more open paths. It was a cloudless night with a full moon, so they had just about enough light to see by once their night sight had developed. The temperatures continued to fall, but they had chosen to dress warmly and wear gloves, so they were not too badly affected.

    It was at a quarter to midnight when Catherine stopped in the middle of a crossroads of paths. “I think … perhaps this way?”

    They had no reason to take any of the paths, so the party went down the path Catherine suggested. It was only a minute before they were all convinced that the spell they were seeking to oppose was starting, and they were heading towards it.

    It took them five minutes to reach Steward’s Pool. The spell was still in operation. The caster had drawn the spell pattern on the dam, and had hung a woman from a tree above it. She was still alive, and the caster had his back to the trio, standing in the pattern at the other end from the sacrifice.

    “O Lord, grant us the strength we need to defeat this evil.”

    “Amen,” Catherine responded.

    Cuthbert reached for power and drew from the light. So, he sensed, did Catherine. Goldilocks supported them both.

    The caster was too deep into the spell to respond to their interference, but no sooner had the trio started to attempt to break the spell than the demon fought back.

    Light fought dark. The demon doing all in its power to fulfil its part of the bargain, and the trio doing everything in their power to prevent it.

    Initially it was a stalemate. Then the light started to overcome the dark. Cuthbert felt the strain of holding the light open. This was his second major power usage in less than a week, and he had still not fully recovered from the first.

    The strain grew, and grew, and then Cuthbert’s strength gave out. The spell was still in operation, and Catherine kept fighting the demon with Goldilocks’ fading support. Then Goldilocks dropped out, also exhausted. Catherine fought on alone.

    But the demon was also weakening, and then the spell snapped. Power flared, and the chalk suddenly burned, flame leaping into the air, for just long enough for the caster’s clothes to ignite. The caster ran into the pool, and then flailed around.

    Catherine looked around. Cuthbert was exhausted, just able to wave her forwards. Catherine ran and extracted a swiss army knife from her pocket. She reached up and cut down the intended sacrifice. The woman was still alive, and Catherine desperately loosened the noose around her neck.

    Then Catherine turned her attentions to the caster. He was still flailing in the water. Catherine cut a length of the rope used to hang the victim and offered one end to the caster. The other end she put on the ground, and stood on it. Now the caster was unlikely to drown.

    Urgencies over, Catherine got out her phone and dialled 999.

    The next few hours were not pleasant. Explaining to the police why they had gone walking in the park after dark was not easy. At least coming across the sacrifice was straightforward to explain as a fortunate occurrence (for the intended victim). The spell burns on the caster were not explainable, but “I don’t know” sufficed for now.

    The trio were dropped back home by the police at about 3 in the morning. They went straight to their beds and sleep claimed them.

    A week later they were informed that they wouldn’t be needed as witnesses. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the backlash from the spell collapsing (not that the police phrased it that way) had cost the caster his mind. He was insane, too far gone to be tried for his crimes.

    That night, around the dinner table, Catherine broached a new topic. “Perhaps it’s time to get a kitten.”

    Cuthbert smiled. “Are you sure?”

    “After last week, perhaps I can cast alone safely. I’ll want you and Goldilocks observing, just in case.”

    “Of course. What breed do you want?”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The prompt that rules us all…

    In the shadow of the hanged man was…

    One quick response…

    In the back of your brain, way down deep,
    The bugs, the little larva, bite and grow, stinging hard
    Shadow eating memories, thoughts, and all.
    Of what, you say, wondering, as
    The holes grow larger and larger.
    Hanged on the tip of your tongue, now and then
    Man, who was I?
    Was I? Who…
    … All’s quiet now…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. A frustrating week, as I noted on my LiveJournal at https://starshipcat.livejournal.com/1044837.html. I had a strong image, but picked the wrong POV character, and just could not get words to come. By the time I figured out the problem, I was busy dealing with a convention, then vehicle problems afterward, and there just wasn’t time to start over again. But given that this is going to be part of a much larger work, for which I’ve already done some things, I’ll definitely sit down one of these days and get it sorted out properly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another little bit of contemplation about the prompt that rules us all…

    In the shadow of the hanged man was…

    In the shadow of the hanged man was a strange movement, as the angry spirits crept out of the land and rose, to fly off and look for their desire. The ghost of a three-year-old, boiled to death by his own mother when she got angry because he wanted to play. The ghost of an ancient man who had fallen down the stairs of his house, pushed by his son who was tired of waiting for his inheritance. And all the others…

    As the shadow moved, minute by minute, hour by hour, new slices of the land fell under it, and more ghosts boiled out.

    It was a sundial of the macabre, that shadow thrown by the hanged man, and it held terror in its embrace.

    Liked by 1 person

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