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Ghost Story - The Devil's Riddle

Ghost Story - The Devil's Riddle

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Published by: LabRatFan on Jul 25, 2012
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The Devil's Riddle
by J. Edward Tremlett (reggies_ghost@hotmail.com)
Part One(Summer): Christian HospitalityThis article originally appeared on Ex Libris Nocturnis at the URL: http://www.nocturnis.net/articles/wraith/default /2001/May/281/page1.htmlOn the way out of town, in the middle of a farmer's field of soybeans, there's a house on a hill that no one will look at forlong.It's an old one, that house. It sits there on its hill, both long since abandoned. The only life either of them can claim is the seaof green, stubby leaves that surrounds them for half the year.Your history professor would classify the house as a Victorian Eclectic. It has a mansard roof, palladian windows and agothic archway over the front door. It was probably built around the tail end of the 19th century, back when people liked tolive in creepy and imposing places.No one's lived there for a long time, now. The enigma of a child's swing hangs by one, rotting rope from a thick, gnarledbranch. Off in the back there might be the remnants of a horse carriage, now little more than rusted, stout wheels and a pileof wormy lumber. Or maybe it's just a scrap pile that no one's ever done anything with, and probably never will.No one's taking care of it, either. The hill's grass is blonde, long and waves in the breeze. Old, dead trees threatening to falldown with just one good gust of wind surround it. Bats roost in its rotting eaves and birds fly in and out of its emptywindowpanes. The empty doorway gapes like an elderly man drooling in a rest home.The farmer who tends those fields says the house is his property, but he chooses to let it sit and rot. If you asked, he'd sayhe's hoping a good electrical storm will settle the thing with minimal crop damage. Truth is, he won't set foot too close to it.Not even to post KEEP OUT signs.But they're not really needed, are they?You've seen that house on your walks to and from your apartment. And every time you pass, the sight of it makes you wantto quicken your pace and look at something else. Even in the cold, hard light of day, with lots of friends at your side, youwouldn't want to set foot near it, either.Haunted -- it's haunted. There's no other word for it. Somehow you just know that there is something in that house:something that should have passed on quietly a long time ago, but never ever did.Something that walks through old, moldering halls unseen and unheard, but sharply felt. Something that muffles the soundsfrom outside and leaves the decaying house as silent as a tomb. Something ancient. Something cold.Something that's watching you as intently as you're watching it...________________________________________________________Richard Smith snarled and brought his saw-toothed right hand up and over his head, his narrowed eyes locked on the demonthat was trying to send him back to Hell.They were caught in a hideous embrace, these two: feet mired in the mud and slop of a blasted farmer's field as the Stormraged all about them. Richard had his free hand wrapped around the thing's other, more recognizable fist, but a clutch of slimy, off-gray tentacles -- the thing's less-recognizable hand -- was wrapped tightly around his waist. The tentacles and fisttightened in their grip, preparing for this moment -- when the fanged mouth they belonged to came in for what should havebeen a solid, final strike at Richard's stomach.But that was a bad move. The moment it lunged forward to chew on Richard's navel, it left its long, whipping neck exposed.Richard let out a whoop and brought his sharp-edged hand straight down, cutting right through its ropy length seconds beforethose teeth could even nick him.
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The demon's body twitched as its head fell down on its own webbed feet. Its neck whipped about like an unheld garden hose,spurting runny, dark green sludge all over Richard's waist and legs. He winced and tried to go backwards to escape the dyingthing, but the grip around his hips and left hand tightened. The maimed demon was still trying to press the attack, evenwithout a head on its shoulders to direct it.Spattered with hot, noxious sewage, Richard snarled from sheer frustration: why wouldn't the thing just stop moving and goback to Hell? He brought his sword up and down one more time -- right at the spot where the elbow turned into an anemone-- and pushed hard with the left side of his body. The combination of the two got the demon off-balance, and it fell back,letting go of his left hand as it did.Richard snapped his momentum right around, and leapt back into a crouching position. There he knelt, bashed-in andbleeding from the nicks the thing's teeth had given him so far, and he held his blade out towards the falling thing, waiting forit to make another move. If it got back up again, he'd be ready to slash and run yet again.He didn't have long to wait. The demon twitched back and forth, apparently unable to do more than that while down a headand a hand. Then, with little warning, it started to spasm and flake apart where it fell. The ground received a measure of itsfoulness, and then started to do the same.The demon was dying, and now a Hell Hole was forming right under it.So Richard rose, turned right around and started running again, shaking the thing's collapsing arm off as he went. More thanlikely the pit would just take that creature back to Hell, but there was always the chance that ten more would clamber upafter him. And then the fun could start all over again. For them, that is -- not him.He just ran.The Storm's warm, slimy rains spattered across his face and soaked his clothes. Tiny shards of metal, glass, barbwire andother sharp things raked his skin. He felt tiny, squirming creatures squishing underfoot, and almost lost his footing when hestepped on something that burst. But there wasn't time to fall, or stop, or wipe his eyes or scream. He only had time to run.That was something Richard understood very well: running. His body was lean and athletic -- a track star's build, includingwhat his team's coach had diplomatically called "the preferred racial stock." He'd even retained his running gear in death,right down to his team number, tube socks and shoes.Not that death had gone completely by the wayside. His skin was paler than it should be, and the poisonous wind of theStorms had given his close-cropped, black hair an unhealthy sheen. His eyes, once warm and brown, had grown narrow andsharp from having to look everywhere at once, and his face had become sunken and drawn, like a man who's had too muchbad news all at once.Then there was his body, and what he could do with it. It had taken him a lot of practice, but over time he'd learned how tomake his skin tough and thick like good shoe leather, which made running through the Storms a lot less painful. And he'd alsolearned to make a short, rasping sword of sorts from the bones in his wrist and hand, though that was really hard to pull off.It had taken him more than a few go-arounds with this thing beforethose bones finally cooperated with him, but the results were more than worth it.Back there, now a fair clip away, he heard one more sickening, wet bellow, like an elephant screaming through somethingmoist and slick. The death scream changed its tone and pitch as the Hell Hole claimed what was making it, eventuallysounding too much like a baby's cry for comfort. And then there was silence -- an eerie white noise, soon replaced by thewhipping, rasping cry of the Storm.Richard could only hope that noise would be enough to cover his retreat, in case others like that one were closeby. He didn'thave enough power to do any more stunts with his hand or his skin, which would also make healing the wounds he'd gainedslow going, too. And, any moment now, the Devil was going to start whispering in his ear again.So he kept running, his track-star muscles taking him across blackened, sere fields of pig feed as fast as he could ever go. Off in the distance, through the blinding, gray and stinging winds, was something that looked like a house. He thanked God forthe chance to rest and headed that way immediately, hoping it wasn't just some damn mirage.The Storm could be that way, sometimes -- especially when he really neededsomeplace to rest..."There's someone coming," the old man said, leaning back into the ratty, upholstered chair by the gaping window."That's odd. The Quick don't normally get too close--""He's not Quick. He's Dead."That caused some stir in the sitting room. The old man leaned back so the younger man and the little girl with him could see."It's just some nigger," the younger man spat, black-stained hands on the sill: "What's he think he's doing?""Running here, God-Bespoke," the older man replied, standing up from the chair."Can we let him in, Uncle Mattias?" Marybeth asked, eyes wide as trenches as she jumped up and down in excitement.The men looked at one another, knowing a little too well what the other was thinking. God-Bespoke knew if he protested toomuch he'd get a lecture on Christian hospitality. Mattias knew if he proceeded to lecture on Christian kindness he'd get anearful of God's intentions for the lesser races. And they both knew what would happen if they disappointed Marybeth.
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God-Bespoke sighed, ending the silence: "I'll go greet him at the door, Mattias.""Let me be with you," the older man said, hitching his breeches: "Marybeth,you sit here and behave."The little girl obeyed, still so excited. A guest! They hadn't had guests in so long.About halfway to the house from where he first spotted it, Richard blinked his eyes and saw that it was much further awaythan he'd thought. This dejected him somewhat, but he didn't have time to feel sorry for himself. So though his muscles feltlike taffy from running so hard for so long, and he wanted nothing more than to just stop and rest where he was, heredoubled his pace.When he'd been alive, he could only run so fast for so far before he had to quit. Here, in this dead world, he didn't need totake a breather so much at all, but it didn't stop him from feeling tired. And a man could get very, very tired when he rannon-stop for three whole days.He'd have given almost anything to be able to run like this when he was alive. What he could have done! He could havebeen the next Carl Lewis if he'd been able to push himself this hard for this long. Tired or no, he had to give these deadmuscles some credit.But now those muscles were all he had to rely on. That and those tricks his friends had tried to teach him before they'ddisappeared. They'd called them a few names he couldn't really remember, and said that those things would just comenaturally if he used them whenever he could."Practice makes perfect...," he mumbled as he ran, remembering how much of a shiver he'd had when those words -- whichhis coach used to say all the time -- tumbled out of his dead friends' mouths in almost the exact same way. But before hecould learn more of what they knew, they were gone, leaving him lonely in this stormy, dead world.Lonely, but not alone. There was the Devil, of course. And then there were the Devil's own, always lurking around cornersor lying in wait out in the open. And on that cheery thought, he was sure that he could hear something -- or severalsomethings -- skittering after him.He gritted his teeth and ran all the harder, not daring to look back for fear of what he might see. Better safe and tired as hellthan sorry and back in Hell. Much better.
 Do you need some help, Richard?
the Devil asked."You be quiet," Richard hissed, putting more effort into running just to spite him: "I'm not interested."
 Really? You have to be joking
, the voice mocked:
That house is too far away, and you're too tired to make it before myservants catch up to you.
"It's not that far...," he replied, but then he saw that, somehow, it was still even further away than he'd thought. Hadn't hecovered the distance by now...?
 Not that far? I think you were wrong there, Richard. But that's okay. I can help you, if you'll let me...
Richard could almost taste what the Devil was offering. It glittered in his mind. He remembered the gentle rolling of pills inhis hand, and the bitter aftertaste on his tongue after they were down his throat. And how he felt when they were doing theirthing. And how..."The Lord is my shepherd..., I shall not want...," he prayed as he made himself run just that much harder and faster.
They're coming now, Richard. Can you hear them?
the Devil mocked. Sure enough, over the roiling hiss of the storm,Richard really could hear more demons right behind him..."He leadeth me through green pastures..."
Teeth and claws and things you never got to learn about, Richard. And they're all for you. All for you.
"And though I shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
That's this.
"I shall fear..., no evil...," he insisted, the house getting closer or farther away with every other step, the demons gettingsteadily closer.
Foolishly naive of you, Richard 
, the Devil continued."For thine..., is the kingdom..."
Full of blind angels -- eyes plucked out by their own hands...
"And the power..."
To send one bastard son spiraling into the masses, throwing his father's pearls before swine...
"And the glory..."
Of my kingdom, where the swine eventually wind up in droves...
"Forever and ever..."
 I'll be seeing you soon, running man. Very, very soon
.Richard stalled out there, not knowing if he should say "Amen" to that. But the moment of realization disappeared assomething pulled his feet out from under him. He landed right on his face, colliding with something hard and painful with hisfeet, then knees, then face. It was like being thrown to the mat by some over-eager wrestling partner, and he was sure he'dbloodied his nose on...
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