it all began in Gryder's Cove...
The night air was cool, even for October, especially way up on Cranton Ridge’s highest point, known locally as Gryder’s Cove. It was an unnatural, biting chill that seemed to slither out of the wet mist and over the skin. The date was October 30th, Devil’s Night, and it was dark, the kind of dark one only sees in a place like this, surrounded by seemingly endless pine forest, miles away from street lights and traffic. A thick incense comprised of pine needles, fallen leaves and decaying timber seeped into the dampness, intensifying as it rode a stirring breeze. The moon hung in a gray haze behind a bank of ominous clouds that threatened to burst forth a storm at any given moment by growling low with mild thunder. It seemed gigantic, too close to the earth, but stayed blanketed in the storm clouds, refusing its light to the occupants of the woods. Disconcerting as all this was, two young boys stood in this clearing staring at a dilapidated little house....and it stared right back.
The black-haired boy by the name of Jude Gunter pulled a pint of bourbon out of his back pocket and slowly unscrewed the cap, never taking his eyes off the house as he took a gulp then nudged the kid to his right, a young tough-guy type named Dillon Harper, with the bottle.
“SHIT!” Dillon spat, startled back to reality from the trance the house’s gaze had put him under. “Dude, seriously, what the....God....gimme that.”
He snatched the bottle and took a pull from it, grimacing as the liquor burned once it hit bottom.
“Ugh! Next time we spring for the good shit.”
He capped the bottle and handed it back to Jude.
“You sure this is the place?”
“Yeah, this is it. Ain’t another house for miles around here. There’s the blackberry thicket Harold Rymer told us about and most of the trees we saw on the way up were pines, and alla these up here around the house are dead for a few hundred yards, just like folks’ve always said, not to mention the whiplash I got on the way up here ‘cuz o’ that shitty excuse for a road. Gotta be it. Shit, dude, no wonder nobody ever comes up here. I told ya Delia shoulda asked for her daddy’s big ol’ jacked-up truck.”
“Where’d Billy and the girls go?”
“Lacy had to take a piss. All the beer she’s sucked down tonight, I’m surprised she held it this long. Billy’s makin’ sure nothin’ eats her head or whatever.”
Just then three more teenagers joined the two boys in the overgrown yard. One was a slouchy runt of a boy named Billy Randall, meandering along with his aimless gait, hands in his pockets, as always. The other two were the Bell sisters, Lacy and Delia, looking as though they were having some difficulty maintaining a steady stride as they carried several flashlights up to the place where the boys stood. Delia and Jude had been dating since their sophomore year in high school. Dillon had taken interest in Lacy recently, and had asked her to come out with the group tonight ‘to see something scary’. So far, Dillon figured, promise fulfilled.
“What the fuck are we doing out here in the sticks at 1:30 in the morning, Jude?” asked an intensely intoxicated Delia in a drunken slur, “I thought we were gonna see something scaaarrryyyy! Hahaha!” She made claws with her hands and waved them around as she laughed, almost tripping on her own feet. She caught herself on Jude’s arm and laughed even harder.
The friends looked at each other in turn, the alcohol slowly wearing off as fear seeped in and hearts began to beat harder. Delia slipped under Jude’s arm and looked up at him, but his attention was still on the house. Billy looked to the still-clouding sky, then to the house, then back to his friends.
“Shit yeah, I’m in!” he chuckled, putting out his fist. One by one, hands laid over it until Dillon’s was the only one missing. The erratic mist of his breath betrayed his bravado as he finally put his hand in and said, “Alright then, boys n’ girls. It’s on.”
Each taking a deep, bracing breath of the chilled night air, they advanced together, flicking on the flashlights and staying close to one another as they approached the front porch. Jude reached for his bottle, uncapped it and took a mouthful.
“Little more liquid courage?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Dillon, stepping up onto the aged boards of the front porch steps, which groaned a slight protest under his weight. He took the bottle and sipped a little bit, then a little more before handing it back to Jude, who offered some to Billy.
“Hell no,” Billy smiled, “I wanna see this stone sober.”
Billy had never been much of a drinker, and tonight promised to be a night to have one’s faculties intact. Dillon tried the knob, found it unlocked, and turned it. The door swung open voluntarily with a loud, steady creak, then stopped when the corner caught a warped board in the floor. A musty, moldy smell like decades of wet filth and rot came rushing out of the doorway, causing them all to gag and cough. Lacy turned around just in time to throw up over the edge of the porch.
“What the fuck is that?” she choked.
“Alright, kiddies. Show time.” Dillon exhaled, seeming surprised that nothing lurched out of the darkness and ate them. First inside was Dillon, followed by Lacy, then Delia and Jude, with Billy stepping in after everyone else had assembled just inside the doorway and to the immediate left, shining their flashlights around the room. The house appeared to be only this room and one other, as often it was for houses this old. There was a small bookshelf in one corner, covered in cobwebbed books and stacks of papers. Other shelves across the room were lined with dusty jars filled with indiscernible contents. Billy approached these shelves with his flashlight, running his finger down the side of a quart jar to remove the grime.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed as he revealed the jar’s contents.
“Dillon! Jude! Fuckin’ eyeballs, man!”
Everyone gathered around the shelves, looking at the cleared streak down the side of the jar. Sure enough, eyeballs of all sizes and colors peered in all directions from inside it.
“Eeeww!! Oh my God!” said Lacy, disbelief contorting her mouth, “Why the hell would anyone have that?”
Upon inspection, it was revealed that more jars contained more body parts, others dried plants or bone fragments, though no one could tell if they were human or animal. Elsie Gryder had been a witch alright....or at least thought she was.
Delia had wandered away from the group, and was concentrating on the only picture hanging in the whole room, a faded picture of a homely young woman in an old flowered dress trying to hide her face from the camera. Being as she forgot to stop walking while looking, she stumbled over a table and knocked something off of it.
“Shit! Ow!” she exclaimed, rubbing her knee.
“What the hell? You knockin’ shit offa tables over there?” asked Dillon.
“Probably broke it, too, whatever it was,” she said with a furrowed brow. Shining the flashlight around the table, she found what she had toppled, a black candle in a ceramic candle holder with lilies painted on the side. Placing it back on the table, she noticed that the table had markings burned into it. “Wonder what these mean?” she said to herself as she traced them with her finger. She could only make out the symbols at the edges; N, S, E, and W. There was a sun and a moon, but other than that, nothing else was familiar.
“Look at this, everybody,” said Delia, but everyone else had gone their own way, each investigating another part of the room. Billy was still brushing off jars. Dillon was turning over the broken-down, sunflower-print couch and the ratty red velvet chair with the exposed springs. Lacy and Jude were blowing the dust off the spines of the books to read the titles: Candle Magick of the Ancients, The Magus, Heptameron, Malleus Maleficarum and about fifty others. Opening some of the covers, each nearly crumbled in their fingers.
“It’s gotta be here somewhere,” muttered Dillon. He glanced around apprehensively.
“Maybe in this other room. C’mon, y’all, let’s take a look.”
None of them were prepared for what was revealed when the door swung open. There, in the yellow cast of everyone’s flashlight, was a small iron bed, covered in an old, rat-chewed quilt that had become the death shroud for the decayed body of Elsie Gryder. Her skeleton had started to deteriorate into the wet black stain in the mattress that had once been her flesh. Delia recognized the remnants of the dress she was wearing as the one from the picture in the other room.
“It was her favorite...” Delia said softly to herself, momentarily seeing the woman Elsie might have been and not just the witch she was remembered as being.
What remained of her stringy white hair was so long that it spilled off of the bed and the tips bent against the floorboards. The putrid stench that permeated the house originated from this room, no mistaking it.
“Jesus...Harold...Christ,” Jude said slowly, transfixed on the gruesome discovery. No one could tear their eyes away till Dillon managed to shake off the shock and said, “It’s gotta be in here. Look around. There’s two dressers in here, that chest, and the armoire across the room.”
He pointed at each with his flashlight as he spoke. Lacy was already rummaging through the widest dresser, tossing the clothes out onto the floor. She stopped when she came across an old crocheted jacket and held it up in front of her. It was hideous: a dark orange trimmed in brown with huge lilies. Lacy raised an eyebrow and sneered.
“If I had to wear this, I’d die too,” she said.
Billy was looking through the old cedar chest at the foot of the bed, hoping for more jars, but found only blankets and three dead mice. Delia had chosen a short, narrow dresser and from the top middle drawer had produced candles of all colors, some white ceramic candle holders, and a pewter snuffer. In the bottom drawer she found several small brass bells of different sizes, pieces of incense, and a box of matches. Placing a black and a white candle in two of the holders, she lit them and placed them in the middle of the dresser Lacy had been looking through. All the while, Dillon had been looking under the bed, even under the covers and between the mattresses, jostling the bones of their hostess.
“Where is it, y’ damned old bitch?” he muttered near the place where her right ear used to be. Just then, the thunder that had been nothing more than a distant purr voiced itself louder, issuing a stern reminder of its presence, drawing all eyes to the windows.
“Keep lookin’. We ain’t leavin’ without it!” Dillon said firmly.
Still wide-eyed from the sudden thunder, everyone turned attention to Dillon.
“What, goddamn it?!” he snapped, hands up and apart in a gesture of frustrated inquiry.
The group shook off the trance and went cautiously back to looking in, under, on and between everything in the room, passing the bottle of bourbon around one more time, finally emptying it. Lacy and Billy were pulling clothing out of a black armoire and piling it on the floor as they dug through each shelf and door. Lacy picked up an old shawl and threw it over her shoulders, then picked up a gauzy white scarf and tied it around her head.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOIN’ IN MY HOUSE?!” she bellowed, putting on a cracked, elderly voice, “I’LL TURN YA ALL INTO FROGS, I WILL!!”
Even Dillon stopped and snickered a little bit, then actually laughed out loud. Lacy pointed at them each in turn as she walked around the room with a limp, humped over, fingers drawn up.
“Don’t laugh at me! Don’t laugh, I say!”
By this time everyone but Billy was roaring at her impression of Elsie. He was shining his flashlight inside the door on the left side of the armoire. There was a hole, but not like the kind mice or insects would make; it looked oddly purposeful. Billy eased his finger into it and tugged gently, then a little harder. It surrendered with a creak and then slid right out, revealing the prize they had come to claim. Billy came back to himself when the storm in the distance murmured again.
Delia was still giggling at Lacy when she took a look around the room and noticed Billy staring into the back of the compartment behind the door on the armoire.
“Billy Boy, whatcha got there? Billy?”
She shined her flashlight in his direction just as he pulled the board free and into the open.
“Oh my God...is....is that...?”
Her voice caught in her throat. There was a sudden presence in the room, like the air had thickened with the breath of something unseen.
It’s the booze....just the booze.
“That’s it....” said Dillon, his eyes fixed on the board and his voice anxious, “That’s her witchboard, the one she used all them years to keep eve
ryone scared outta their wits.”
“Does it tell the future or somethin’ like that?” inquired Jude, looking at it curiously.
“I see your future, Dillon Wayne Harper! You will get no ass tonight!” Lacy cackled in her mock witch’s voice, wiggling her fingers in the air.
“Yeah, alright, real funny,” said Dillon, becoming suddenly agitated. “Can we get back to business here?”
It looked ages beyond old, burned deeply with indiscernible inscriptions everywhere they would fit. All the lettering was etched the same way, lined up in two arched rows of thirteen characters, one row atop the other. Between each letter was a symbol, each different from the next. More symbols had been burned in around the edges, all different from any on the board’s face. The pictures in the corners and on the underside depicted small scenes of death, storms, and ominous things that Billy couldn’t readily identify. Years of use had worn the finish thin, but it was still silk-smooth and sturdy.
Outside the growing storm gained momentum and volume, ribbons of lightning searing across the clouds and lighting the room through the tears in the curtains and the holes in the roof. Everyone gathered around Billy, looking down at the board he was holding, the one reason they came here in the first place.
“Where’s the other thing?” asked Dillon, looking around the floor by the armoire.
“What thing?” said Billy, still looking down at the board, tracing the letters with his fingers.
“The damn...thing...y’know, you see the letters through the hole in it, the thing you put your motherfuckin’ fingers on!” Dillon held his hands above the board and moved them around, “That thing!”
“Think it’s called a planchette. I dunno, this was all I found, man.”
“Where?” asked Dillon.
“In the back,” replied Billy.
Another feel around produced what Dillon was after. Made of dark, unfinished wood, it was round, nearly five inches across and about a half-inch thick, with a hole about the size of a walnut cut out, slightly off-center. The edges were well-worn and nicked here and there, and the bottom was smooth as glass. He dropped it onto the board where it stopped dead still, as if magnetized.
“There,” he said with an exhaled breath of satisfaction, “we got it!”
“Now what?” asked Delia, looking around at everyone.
“Now you gimme my board before I getcha!” screeched Lacy, resuming her drunken impression of the dead witch. She pointed at Billy and cackled, “You’ll be sorry, boy! It’ll be your beady eyes in a jar next!! Don’t laugh, it ain’t funny! It ain’t funny, ya little shits!”
Thunder shook the house so hard the floor felt as though it would fall through just as lightning set the clearing outside ablaze with light. The wind blasted by, shattering the windows with pieces of broken branches, pulling in dirt and leaves that began whirling around the room. The remnants of the books and papers blew from the shelves with a flash of unexplained light, and as the fragments of paper rained down, there was a sudden quiet, a dreadful, awful, silence. It was a silence that lasted all of five seconds before the resurrected spirit of Elsie Gryder dropped from above down into the middle of the group with a deafening roar of thunder. The rafters splintered and scattered all over the room in the selfsame instant, causing the teenagers to cower behind one another, shielding their faces.
Her eye sockets were deep and hollow, housing sallow eyes with no glint of life, rotted gray skin, impossibly long white hair flowing out behind her like sheer fabric in the wind. Her almost lipless mouth twisted her skeletal face into a sneer of pure wrath, and she was reaching out toward them with her gnarled hands. Dillon had almost pissed himself, and the girls clung to him and Jude, screaming. Billy held tightly to the board, inanimate with fear, his heart pounding fit to burst, eyes closed tightly and teeth clenched. The planchette began to jerk and vibrate, then zip back and forth over the board, letter to letter, but nobody even noticed, being as they were all screaming and stampeding for the door. All but Billy, still standing there like a statue, afraid to breathe, afraid to move.
“Who’s come inta m’ house? Who’s come here to laugh at the crazy old witch-lady? Who’s tryin’ to take what’s miiiiiine?” the apparition rasped. Her voice was grating and sloshy, and seemed to come from somewhere far off before the words came slithering from her toothless mouth. The lies other visitors to the house had told were suddenly all too real.
The demon board had suddenly come to life in Billy’s hands, the planchette scratching out unknown messages over and over while Elsie spoke, and he dared not look. Feeling it happen alone was terrifying him way beyond his tolerance.
“Y’all little whore mongers might learn some respect tonight!” Elsie chuckled, floating in a billowing corona made of her own blanched hair, “Ol’ Elsie gon’ make sho’ o’ that!”
She raised her emaciated hands while gliding toward Billy and the witchboard, stopping to hover just above him. The round wooden planchette stopped scurrying over the board and began to follow the movements her hands were making. She began to chant something that sounded obscene and ancient, nothing like any language ever heard by the kids. They could only look on in stark horror, too afraid to run, too drawn by what they saw to contemplate escape.
Out in the distance, they heard it: faintly at first, but steadily louder. Branches breaking, dead leaves scattering. Howling....like wolves, only more powerful, loud and vicious. It sounded like they were tearing the forest apart to reach the house as they approached faster and faster. Delia was the first to regain her voice enough to squeak, “Jude.....oh my God Jude...”
Tears slipped out of her widened eyes.
“What the fuck is that?” she managed to blurt out in a coarse whisper. Jude swallowed hard and took her hand.
“I dunno. I don’t wanna find out.” His voice wavered in his throat as he said, “We’re gonna run, Delia. We ain’t dyin’ like this.”
Dillon overheard the conversation, and it brought him back to his senses for just a moment.
“Lacy!” he said, taking her by the arm. “Lacy!”
She snapped her head around quickly and looked at him, her entire body shaking, lips trembling and trying to form words. He looked into her eyes, then nodded toward the open door. She slowly shook her head no, indicating no desire to go out there toward that noise that was bearing down on them.
“Run, Lacy, run straight for the car. Don’t look back and stay on my arm. We’re gonna make it.”
The look of terror on her face made that statement hard for even Dillon to believe.
Suddenly there was a peal of derisive laughter, echoing all around, coming from some hollow place.
“Gon’ make a run fer it, are ya?” cackled Elsie, never turning her attention away from her task, “Might be a li’l late fer that...hahahaheheeheeeee!!! Meet m’ friends, y’all!”
At that moment, Dillon found a sliver of courage and yelled out, “EVERYBODY RUN FOR THE CAR!!”
As though suddenly released from a slingshot, four of the five bolted for the door. The howling outside was louder than ever, and they could see the trees parting, giving way to whatever horror was barreling toward the house. They were already out in the yard when they noticed Billy wasn’t among them. Glancing back inside, Jude saw he hadn’t budged one inch and still stood there frozen with absolute fear, his breath labored and broken.
Elsie came tearing outside, swept past them once, circled back, then went high above them and called out, “Here, this way!! Come on an’ have yo’selves a feast!” The sound of cracking limbs stopped, and one by one they came streaking into the clearing, at least eight of them, growling and snapping their foaming jaws. They seemed to run just above the ground, some on all fours, some on their hind legs, but all coming faster as the black clouds finally slid away from the moon. The sudden light reflected like yellow fire in their eyes and made them horribly, horribly visible. Werewolves....at least at one time they had been, but now something worse.
Not one of the teenagers could believe what they were seeing even as the creatures bore down on them and attacked. As quick as the lightning that still ripped through the clouds above, two of them latched onto Dillon, one sinking its teeth into his throat, the other biting down on his right calf, tearing it effortlessly away at the knee, spraying blood across the grass where his head landed seconds later. Two others grabbed Lacy and they went tumbling over the grass, each coming up with an uneven half of her body, which they immediately began to shred and devour, the pieces falling through their spectral bodies onto the ground in bloody chunks.
Jude and Delia had bolted off into the woods with three of the beasts snapping at their heels. Jude screamed something unintelligible and reached for Delia just as two of them overtook him and began to savagely rip him apart. In her panic, the young girl had run in a half-circle through the trees and found herself back in the clearing, only a few yards away from Dillon’s car. She made a beeline for it, fumbled the door handle and finally got it open, slamming the door just as the demon wolves leapt over the vehicle and seemed to disappear. Delia’s eyes darted in all directions, trying to see through the trees, around the house, everywhere as her breath came in small snatches. Seeing no sign of the spirit beasts, she took in a deep, trembling breath that came back out as a broken sobbing, then outright crying. She reached for the ignition switch, and was relieved to find the keys still in it. Steadying her breathing, she collected herself as best she could, closed her eyes, and turned the key. Nothing but a whirring sound. She tried again: more whirring.
“God-DAMN IT!! NNNO!!” she screamed, pounding the steering wheel over and over. Reaching for the key again, she turned it just as a loud cackling laugh sounded in her ear. Jerking her head to the right, she saw Elsie Gryder in the passenger seat, grinning that horrible black-toothed grin and laughing. The seat was burning anywhere her body touched it, curling up and peeling off around the edges where the burn marks traced her outline.
Delia froze in wide-eyed terror, unable to move, speak or breath for an eternity of seconds before shoving the car door open and running back to the house, where Billy Randal still stood holding the board, eyes clamped tight, praying and cursing alternately.
“Billy!!” Delia shrieked, “Billy, help me!!”
Slowly, Billy opened his eyes a little bit, enough to see her running toward him. She began to feel just a little bit safer seeing Billy still alive, and called to him again just as one of the wolf-things raced past her, headed straight for her last living friend.
“Oh God, no!! BILLY!!” She reached out as she ran, jumping over the steps and onto the porch in time to see the ghost leap into Billy’s chest and then...it was gone. She ran to him and held him tightly as she burst out crying, pulling at his shirt.
“We gotta get outta here, Billy, we gotta go now!” she sobbed, holding his face in her hands. Billy just stood there, looking stunned, muttering something she couldn’t make out. He dropped the board he’d been holding onto this entire time, blinked a couple of times, took in a breath, then bellowed as if in unbearable pain, throwing his head back and grasping the girl’s arms so tight she thought they would break off. He buried his scrunched-up face in her hands, and seconds later, it wasn’t his face at all, but the face of a man-sized wolf on two legs. Delia screamed long and loud, a scream that was cut off by one quick, hard bite to the throat that separated her head from her body, leaving a bloody trail in the werewolf’s fur as the spurting neck fell against his chest and the body slumped to the floor. With a long, almost mournful howl, the demon left Billy’s body, the exhausting transition leaving him on his knees by Delia’s corpse in a deepening puddle of her blood. He had seen it all happen from inside his own body; seen, heard, tasted, felt. Tremors washed over him, grief too great to imagine, a horror like none he had ever known. Picking up the board again, he stared at it, shaking and panting. Immediately he felt sick, the copperish taste of blood still filling his mouth and nostrils. He gagged, choked, then threw up chunks of Delia’s neck: muscle, veins, shattered vertebrae. He spewed and sputtered til it was all out of his stomach and mouth. He tried to steady himself, closing his eyes and breathing slowly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Then, like that thing in the dark that’s unseen but felt without question, a hand slid over his shoulder and a voice came to his ear. Paralyzed again, he listened as Elsie spoke.
“You go ’n tell ’em, boy. I let ya live so you can tell ’em all. Stay the hell outta Gryder’s Cove!”
In a gust of wind and roll of thunder, she was gone. The spectral beasts that had been sitting out in the trees slipped off into the darkness. The storm had subsided, the black clouds paling to gray, allowing the moon to blaze through into the clearing. Billy Randal clutched the witchboard to his chest, his heart slamming against it, his lungs seizing as he dropped to his kneand passed out on the bloody floor beside Delia’s headless body. Outside the house, off in the trees somewhere, the old witch’s derisive laughter, overlaid then overwhelmed by deep and savage howls as the lycanthropic spirits dispersed into the tall pines. Elsie Gryder was awake, and worse yet, severely pissed off.