Webcomics and Stories
Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien
A Region Yet Unknown
Word count: 12,059
This urban fantasy / supernatural horror novelette was originally published in issue 16 of Nightscapes, an Internet magazine devoted to the Cthulhu Mythos. Though technically not out of print — the site is still active — it has been over two and half years since it first came out, and a more recent issue has supplanted it. Also, it has been modified from the original version; the modified version is presented here. It takes place in the fictional city of Cairnsford, Colorado, during the eighties.
Beside the pleasure derived from acquired knowledge, there lurks in the mind of man . . . an unsatisfactory longing for something beyond the present — a striving toward regions yet unknown and unopened.
When January Ian Mariposa invited Jeremiah Arkenton and Medb hErenn to dinner, he did not know they had previously met. As such, he was surprised when, before he had a chance to introduce them, she took Jeremiah in her arms and kissed him passionately.
Jaim stood to one side, with Bastet cradled in one arm, and watched the tableau in amusement. The small, short-haired black cat, with liquid green-gold eyes, simply purred. When Medb finally came up for air, he observed, "I take it you two know each other." His voice was a cultured tenor with a hint of a British accent.
"Indeed we do," she confirmed in her sing-song contralto, giving Jeremiah an affectionate pat on the side of his face. "What has it been, five, six years?"
His face its usual stony mask, Jeremiah replied in a robust baritone, "It was the year before Kathleen disappeared."
"And I am still waiting for you to give her up," Medb countered in a stern tone.
"Yes, well," Jaim intervened, "I have appetizers and apéritifs waiting in the parlor." And he motioned for them to proceed him down the hall.
"After you," Medb told Jeremiah, but Jaim was doubly amused when he saw her pat him on his buttocks as he passed her.
When they reached their destination, Jaim settled his guests into overstuffed leather chairs and filled their glasses. Medb took a glass of dry sherry and Jeremiah accepted a glass of Madeira, while he poured a rosé vermouth for himself. Bastet took cream, naturally. Jeremiah then accepted a small plate of crackers and cheese, while Medb took a bowl of nuts, Bastet a few bay shrimp, and Jaim served himself a plate of potato skins smothered in melted cheese and sour cream, sprinkled with bacon bits.
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As they made small talk, Jaim examined his guests. He reflected on how there could not be two more different people. Jeremiah was a bit taller than average, wiry and muscular despite just having entered his seventies. He was dressed in a casual dark-blue leisure suit and white turtleneck sweater. The aquiline features and steel-blue eyes of his lean face accentuated its marble impassiveness, which was only slightly offset by his shock of wavy salt-and-pepper hair, now more salt than pepper. Yet it reflected his introverted, taciturn demeanor, which was now stronger since he lost his wife five years before.
Medb stood a full head taller than him, and was more massive, with a generously endowed figure. Her shoulders and hips were wide, her arms and thighs well muscled, and her ample breasts and backside round, firm, and smooth, but her waist was narrow and she had a hard, flat stomach. She wore an exotic outfit consisting of a black velvet jacket and knee-length skirt, with black leather knee-high, high-heeled boots, a black bowler hat, and a white ascot secured with a gold pin. More odd was the heavy neck-ring, open at the throat, made of braided gold with large red, uncut gems at the ends. Her long oval face with its sharp features was more handsome than beautiful, but she had perfect skin the color of adobe mud and enchanting emerald green eyes. She wore her gold-tinted bronze hair long, straight, and loose, except for two braids that hung down her front from either side of her head. She exuded a powerful sexual magnetism that was only made stronger by the self-assurance she wore like a cloak, and her flamboyant, regal manner.
Yet their friendship was abiding despite the squabbling.
After some minutes, Medb said in an impatient tone, "All right, Jaim, out with it; why did you invite us here tonight?"
"Do I need a reason to enjoy the company of two close friends?" he asked, playing at evasion.
Medb returned him a sarcastic smile. "You very rarely invite me anywhere, and you have never had the two of us together at the same time," she added, indicating Jeremiah, who said nothing.
Jaim gave them both a feline smile while Bastet purred. "Very well; I had not expected to keep it a secret for very long in any event. The Cairnsford Psychical Research Society has asked me to oversee an experiment."
That piqued Jeremiah's interest, as Jaim knew it would. "What sort of experiment?"
"A sheep and goats experiment," Jaim replied.
Jeremiah nodded, but Medb said, "I do not understand that reference."
"About forty years ago," Jeremiah lectured, "a psychology professor conducted a study of telepathy in which she tested a group of students who had expressed a belief in psychic powers on a questionnaire. She used a group of students who stated that they did not believe as a control group, but the non-believers scored significantly below chance. When the professor repeated the experiment, this time with a neutral group as the control, she confirmed that the non-believers, referred to as goats, scored below what was expected by chance, while the believers, called sheep, scored above."
Jaim added, "Based on this result, psychical researchers theorize that just as belief puts a subject in a frame of mind that is receptive to psychic stimuli, disbelief does the exact opposite. This has been used, and misused, by proponents of psychic powers to explain why experiments and demonstrations often fail in the presence of skeptics and debunkers. The CPRS wants to conduct a similar experiment, but with two major differences. They want a believer who has actually experienced paranormal phenomenon and a skeptic who is a hardheaded materialist, and they want to conduct the experiment in a haunted house."
"To what end?" Jeremiah pressed.
"To understand that, I need to explain a bit about the site of the experiment. Are either of you familiar with the Doherty House here in Cairnsford?"
Medb gave him a quizzical look, but Jeremiah remarked, "I seem to remember Kathleen reading about it in The Denver Post."
Mostly for Medb's benefit, Jaim explained. "The Dohertys were one of the Second Families that settled in Cairnsford after the Civil War. Liam Doherty was a first-generation Irish American who inherited frugal tendencies from his father. He made his fortune by mining gold from Willow Whisper Creek canyon, but he also diversified into mining silver and lead from the surrounding mountains and building smelters around Lake Garthyme.
"He built the house in 1878, as a birthday present for his wife. In keeping with his penurious ways, he built it on land no one else wanted. Three generations lived, and died, there, before it was finally abandoned in the late forties. There were several attempts to occupy it by other parties, the latest being in the mid-seventies, but each time the new occupants soon left, so it has remained abandoned to this day. The city had plans to tear it down a few years ago, but the Colorado Historical Society managed to raise sufficient funds to buy and restore it, and now it stands as an historical monument.
"It has been notorious for apparitions, poltergeist activity, suicides, bizarre deaths, insanity, and disappearances for nearly eleven decades now, with manifestations still being reported by caretakers, tour guides, and visitors. As such, last year the Denver Committee of Skeptics decided to investigate. They reported no unexplainable activity and have actively debunked the stories ever since.
"My involvement began when I suggested in a letter to the DCS newsletter last month that the sheep and goats phenomenon could explain their lack of results. The director of the CPRS saw it and contacted me about conducting this experiment. What he proposed was to have three people spend one night in the house and see if they have different experiences. The predicted outcome, in his words, would be that the believer would see ghosts while the non-believer would not; the neutral person would determine which sightings are real based on whether he sees the same thing as the believer. I agreed only if I could choose the believer and non-believer, and conduct the experiment myself, to which he acceded."
"Sounds intriguing," Jeremiah evaluated, "but why us?"
"Three reasons. The first is that you two are not merely a believer and non-believer. Medb has actually experienced paranormal and ghostly phenomena, whereas you will stop at nothing to find an explanation, even a paranormal one."
"The 'paranormal' is simply a term for natural phenomena that do not as yet have scientific explanations," Jeremiah told him.
"My point exactly," Jaim replied. "You will not simply deny the reality of a manifestation, but will try to understand it, even if you believe it has a natural rather than supernatural explanation."
"You do not believe in the supernatural?" Medb asked Jeremiah. The tone of her voice suggested mild contempt for his lack of imagination.
"In fact I do," he replied, "but I define 'supernatural' literally, as anything that is beyond the natural world. Natural phenomena operate according to various physiochemical laws and forces that can be understood through science, but there are a number of phenomena that act independently of these laws and forces, and so cannot be explained using naturalistic theories. These require new theories, based on a different set of non-naturalistic laws and forces, which may or may not be amendable to the scientific method. What I do not believe in is the so-called 'spirit world'; in that sense I am a strict materialist, though not a philosophical naturalist."
"So you do not believe there is a realm that transcends the material universe, a realm of spirit rather than of matter and energy?"
"No," he said in a firm tone. "If it is truly transcendent, then it cannot interact with the material universe, and so cannot be investigated. If, on the other hand, it can interact then it should leave traces that we can investigate, at which point it becomes a material phenomenon rather than a spiritual one."
Looking at Jaim she remarked in a sardonic manner, "You made a good choice with this one." Jeremiah's only response was an arched eyebrow.
"You said there were two other reasons," she went on, "what are they?"
"One is that you are both highly knowledgeable and experienced; the other is that neither of you frighten or panic easily. That last is especially important, because there are aspects of this haunting that are possibly dangerous, which we can discuss over dinner."
"Who will the neutral party be?" Jeremiah asked, as they stood up.
"An investigator from the CPRS," Jaim replied as he opened the panel doors leading into the dining room.
"That doesn't strike me as a good choice," Jeremiah remarked, ever the empiricist.
"You may be right," Jaim conceded, "but she assured me she was without an opinion on the existence of ghosts, so we shall see. Besides, she was the concession I had to make on my side of the bargain."
The conversation turned to more mundane topics as Jaim served them the gourmet dinner he had prepared. Once they were seated, however, and had begun to eat, Medb asked him to tell them the history of the haunting.
"The manifestations actually start in prehistory; the land the house is built on is taboo to the local Utes. A shaman I spoke with some decades back explained that it was shunned because it was an abode of spirits so dangerous that only the most evil of skinwalkers would traffic with them, and even they were not entirely safe."
"What is a 'skinwalker'?" Medb interrupted before taking a sip of the Médoc claret Jaim had served with dinner.
"A skinwalker," Jaim explained, "is a Navaho term for a witch or shaman who traffics with evil spirits and violates the dead. In any event," he continued, "I have found accounts of Ute legends that describe spectral lights and strange whispering voices, as well a few disappearances. One tells of a warrior pursuing a skinwalker who had placed a curse on his wife for spurning him. The witch tried to call up the spirits to eliminate the warrior, but the latter sang of his love for his wife and what the skinwalker had done to her, and instead the spirits took the witch and cured his wife.
"Similar reports of ghost lights, disembodied voices, and vanishings persisted after the white man arrived, but with a twist: some of the prospectors and later settlers began telling of seeing apparitions, particularly a procession of mounted braves and maidens. One witness, a prospector named James Cohen, gave what is generally agreed to be the most detailed account. He was headed for the canyon when he was caught out in the open by a violent thunderstorm. Despite his superstitious fear, he made for the 'Indian burial ground' as it was mistakenly known then and sought shelter inside one of the dolmen."
"Wait a minute," Medb interrupted again, "there were structures on that land?"
Jaim nodded. "No one knows what they looked like exactly, because there are no drawings or photographs, and most witnesses described them as simply piles of rock, but from the few more lucid descriptions, including that of Mr. Cohen, they bore a striking resemblance to dolmen and tumuli."
"What happened to them?" she pressed.
"Liam Doherty tore them down when he had the house built. It is rumored he used some of them as part of the construction." Medb lapsed into silence as she attacked her meat.
"Anyway, to get back to the story, despite being cold, wet, and miserable, Mr. Cohen managed to find a dry spot to sleep on and to build a small fire. He fell asleep after dusk, but awoke sometime around about midnight. His fire had died, but at first it looked as if the rain had stopped. Then he saw that beyond the 'burial ground' the storm still raged, but inside around the dolmen it was clear. The first of the riders came by soon after that. For the next few hours he watched as mounted men and women filed past the opening of his dolmen. He described them as being dressed in robes and feathered headdresses, mounted on white horses, and all aglow with a soft iridescence in the moonlight. He was scared to death at first, but he was in the rear of the dolman, in full darkness, and none of the company gave any indication that they could see him, so after a short while he relaxed and watched them in awe. Then, as the last one came abreast of the opening, she stopped. She kept looking ahead for some moments, then turned her head and glared straight at him. She looked neither angry nor pleased, but when Mr. Cohen considered trying to speak to her, her eyes flashed and he fainted."
"They don't sound like Indians," Jeremiah remarked.
"No, not exactly, but after that night Mr. Cohen was never quite right again, so we cannot be sure his recollections are entirely accurate. He was found the next day, wandering in a daze. The people who found him gave him some bread to eat, but as soon as he swallowed it he fell into a coma. He lay unconscious in a makeshift hospital in Garthyme's Ford for three weeks, but finally revived. After that, he just sat around staring off into space with a slight, happy smile on his face, taking no interest in anything anymore. He took up residence in one of the saloons, where he worked at various odd jobs, but mostly he sat in the common room and told his story to anyone who would buy him a drink. He disappeared in 1875; the last anyone saw of him, he was walking towards the 'burial ground'.
"No strange phenomena were reported while the house was being built or for three years afterward, which led some locals to believe the ghosts had departed. Liam and his wife Maria had by then been married for five years and had four children, one conceived and born in the house itself. Then, starting in the third year, the youngest child caught some kind of wasting disease and died within three days. A year later the next oldest child died, and the following year the next oldest, until only the first-born, Robert, remained. During this time, the family and their friends and guests reported hearing footsteps, raps and tapping, voices, and other strange sounds. The friends and guests also saw ghost lights, but the family claimed to see actual apparitions, occasionally at the same time others saw the lights. The only other person who saw the apparitions was an exorcist, Monsignor Paul O'Malley, and he claimed they chased him out of the house.
"To protect his remaining child from whatever curse hung over the house, Liam sent Robert to boarding school, but while he was safe, the troubles continued. Maria's brother came for a visit; he fell down the stairs one night and died from a broken neck. In Liam's diary he confided that his brother-in-law had a look of stark terror on his face. Once, Robert brought home a friend from boarding school during a holiday break; he disappeared after three days. Liam's recently widowed younger sister came to stay; she soon began reporting that lovers visited her in the night, and she told how she would sometimes accompany them into their world. Over the years she grew increasingly insane, and while she lasted the longest of anyone — she still lived in the house when the last of her family abandoned it — she finally hung herself the year the city took possession.
"Maria started claiming she saw her dead children, abetted by her sister-in-law, and she too slipped slowly into madness, only she did not last as long. A couple of years after Robert returned home to stay, she drowned in her bath. There were no signs of violence, yet the coroner did not believe anyone could commit suicide that way, so his verdict was that she had had a stroke, even though there was no evidence of a brain hemorrhage. Yet she never really left the house, because she became the only apparition that anyone could see, family and strangers alike. Whenever someone is to die in the house, she appears in the main ground floor rooms, naked, her skin and hair soaked as if she had just stepped out of a bath. She makes not sound, says no word, just touches the unfortunate on the shoulder and departs."
"A Bean Sí," Medb remarked, interested.
"Exactly," Jaim confirmed, "though the fascinating thing is, everyone can see her except the person fated to die. Her first official act was a year later, when Liam held a dinner party to celebrate making his son a partner in his business. She strode through the dining room, clear as day, visible to everyone except Liam, who did not even notice that his guests were staring off into space. That evening he caught the wasting disease that had killed his children and was dead in three days. Just before he died, however, he became delirious and started raving 'tek plawg, tek plawg', but while everyone heard him clearly, no one knew what he was saying."
"He was saying 'plague house' in ancient Irish," Medb announced, "and based on what you have told us so far, it seems an apt description."
"Did Liam Doherty know Old Irish?" Jeremiah asked.
"He gave no indication of it in life," Jaim confessed, "though he knew some contemporary Irish taught to him by his father. But that is just one of the many mysteries that surround the house. Another is that with Liam's death things seemed to settle down for a time. Except that Robert's paternal aunt still reported her visitations, there were no overt manifestations. Nonetheless, it is clear from Robert's diary that something was preying on his mind; there is a subtle, gradual, yet noticeable deterioration of his faculties over the years. Still, nothing physical happened until after he married a Cairnsford girl named Michelle. At that point the pattern of the first generation repeated itself. At first there was only poltergeist activity — rappings, footsteps, and voices — as well as ghost lights. Then Robert started seeing apparitions, exactly like the ones he saw as a child. Interestingly, Michelle never saw them, but she began to be affected psychologically.
"They had a number of children, but after three years passed they started dying off, one a year starting with the youngest, until only the eldest was left; his name was Michael. As his father had done with him, Robert sent Michael to a boarding school to protect him. Meanwhile, other family members who tried to live in the house either committed suicide or died of bizarre accidents if they were from Michelle's side, or went insane if they were from Robert's side, though there were few of them left. As with Maria, Michelle started saying that she was visited by her dead children, and as before the resident aunt confirmed her belief. Robert finally shot his wife one evening while they were alone in the house. Though he was arrested, his connections kept him from being tried. When Michael turned sixteen, he volunteered into the army and fought in World War One. The same year he returned home Robert shot himself, on the anniversary of the date that he murdered Michelle.
"As before, the manifestations stopped with Robert's death, though the slow mental deterioration of the aunt continued and that of Michael began, but the whole cycle began again when Michael married. This time, however, Michael killed himself when the stock market crashed in 1929, leaving his wife, Carrie, to raise their only surviving son, William, alone. She was unable to send him away as his father and grandfather had been, but as before the physical manifestations mostly stopped with Michael's death, except for a few rare occasions. She was an exceptionally strong woman, and she held out against the influence of the house better than anyone before her, but as William grew older and less dependent upon her, she started retreating into a fantasy world. Like the aunt, she claimed that lovers visited her in the night, and that sometimes she visited them in their world. Unlike Michelle, she could see the apparitions when they appeared, though oddly enough William saw only vague misty glowing forms. He was accepted into West Point in 1936, graduated with honors, and fought heroically in World War Two, winning a number of citations and awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. When he left home, however, Carrie went into virtual seclusion. Almost no one saw her for seven years, and then she disappeared entirely in 1943, leaving the house to the aunt. William never returned home; he made the army his career and deeded the home to the aunt; he in turn never married and was killed in the Korean War.
"The aunt committed suicide in 1948, at which time the city seized the house in lieu of property taxes. It was sold at auction to a bank that then intended to rent it out to returning veterans and their families, but as soon as the first moved in the manifestations started again, the only difference being no one reported seeing apparitions other than ghost lights and, of course, the ghost of Maria Doherty. Yet the younger children would die, family members would have accidents, commit suicide, or go insane, and visitors sometimes disappeared. No one would stay in the house longer than five years, and one family left after only seventeen months. Ever since the last family abandoned it, there have been no further deaths or accidents, or reports of insanity, but people do still occasionally disappear. As I have already said, poltergeist activity still occurs, including ghost lights, but other than the banshee there are few reports of apparitions. I have, however, documented numerous emotional and psychological problems among the staff who work regularly in the house or on the grounds. Few people will remain employed for longer than a year, and of those who do, there is an increased chance of some form of emotional or nervous breakdown the longer they stay. And that is pretty much the history of the house."
By this time they had reached the dessert course. "What was the family name of the third wife, the one who could see taibhsí; Carrie I believe her name was?" Medb asked around mouthfuls of Dutch apple pie à la mode.
"Speak English please," Jeremiah admonished her.
Giving him a mischievous grin, Medb said, "Sorry, Jerry, that would be ghosts to you."
"I believe it was McGrath," Jaim replied. Then: "Do you have some insight on what has been happening there?"
Medb grinned as she as she drained a large glass of mead in one gulp. "I have a couple of ideas," she said in an evasive manner.
"I have a few of my own," Jeremiah announced in an absent tone, as he sipped a glass of port. "But please explain exactly what the CPRS hopes to discover from this experiment?"
"The Skeptics witnessed no apparitions, not even ghost lights, and only heard a few tappings which they explained away as the house settling. The Society hopes to show that belief, and particularly strong belief at that, will influence one's experience. They hope Medb will see apparitions while you will not, and they hope their member will see at least some of what Medb sees, thereby demonstrating that they are real and not just illusions. They then plan to return with special equipment to record the apparitions and gather telemetry that will show some physical manifestation is taking place."
"Too bad one of the skeptics was not fated to die, or they could have seen Maria," Medb remarked as she downed yet another full glass of mead.
"The experimental design seems reasonable in principle," Jeremiah evaluated, "provided this Society member is truly neutral. As a proper control she should counter Medb's overactive imagination."
She gave Jeremiah a dirty look, but addressed Jaim instead. "By the way, what is her name, and when is this 'experiment' to take place?"
"Her name is Anna Regan, and we are to meet her at the Doherty House late tomorrow afternoon." Medb gave him a thin smile, but said nothing.
+ + + + +
Medb was, however, surprised by the appearance of Ms. Regan when she and the two men arrived at the house the next evening. She had expected a scholarly type, middle-aged, dumpy, homely, and frumpish, dressed even more conservatively than Jaim and with her hair bound into a severe bun behind her head. Instead, Anna was young and quite pretty, with a peaches-and-cream complexion, big, soft hazel eyes in a round face of diminutive features, and a billowing mane of caramel-colored hair. Though of above-average height, she had a slim, petite figure and incredibly long, athletic legs. She was dressed in the latest pantsuit style, with a scarf around her neck and platform shoes on her feet, and she wore earrings, bracelets, and a decorative ring on her right hand. Medb felt an instinctive antagonism towards this woman, but then she felt the same about any woman better looking than herself. As such, she was able to affect friendliness as she shook her hand after Jaim introduce them.
Medb did not fail to notice that, for her part, Anna looked curiously askance at her attire. While the men were dressed no differently from the day before, she had chosen to wear a simple red velvet robe held closed by a matching rope belt, and she went barefoot. Her head was also bare, but today she secured her hair with a band of silverish metal around her brow.
Medb ignored her questioning gaze and turned her attention to the house instead. It was a simple two-story affair, with the second story inside the gabled roof. It was block-shaped, constructed from tan-colored bricks reinforced by a wooden frame, with slate roof tiles. Its front was dominated by a porch that ran its entire width; it was covered by an extension of the roof supported by six square pillars of solid stone. Medb pointed them out to Jaim; "Those look like rough-cut blocks used in dolmen," she speculated.
"Quite possibly," he agreed after a moment's inspection, as he stroked Bastet absently. Jaim was as tall as Medb, but thinner, even compared to Jeremiah. He wore a charcoal gray business suit, complete with vest and tie, decorated by an old fashioned gold pocket watch and a jeweled tiepin. He was distinguished looking, with a round face of soft features, short-cropped jet-black hair, and slate-gray eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. By nature reserved and courteous, he was nonetheless fairly outgoing and gregarious.
"As a matter of fact, the historical society has confirmed that they had been part of the original structures on this plot of land," Anna confirmed, in a bubbly soprano that made Medb wince mentally.
"Were any more used in the construction?" she asked her.
"I believe some were used in the fireplace and mantle, and in the archways between the rooms on the main floor; oh, and the stairs are made from them as well."
"Is that significant?" Jaim asked.
"Most likely," Medb replied. She felt a grave apprehension creep over her, but she decided not to elaborate further, at least not until she was sure.
By this time Jeremiah had walked up onto the porch carrying a good-sized trunk. Anna eyed it curiously, then gave him an amused grin. "Planning on a long stay?" she asked.
Her gloom lifting, Medb cracked, "And men complain about women packing too much junk."
Jeremiah made no reply; he just stared at Anna with his usual granite expression. Medb could see that she found that scrutiny unnerving, and misinterpreting it she said, "I'm sorry, Dr. Arkenton, I was only kidding."
"Call me Jeremiah," was all he said; his face showed no change.
"Jerry is the consummate scientist," Jaim explained; "sometimes I believe he feels naked without some instrument or other device in his hands."
Jeremiah betrayed no emotion as he explained: "I brought along a few items to gather some tangible evidence we can show the Skeptics. It's highly unlikely that they will agree to participate in a new investigation without it."
"That's an excellent idea," Anna agreed, relieved.
"Come on, Jerry," Jaim said, "I will help you get set up." And he and Jeremiah went into the house, leaving the two women on the porch.
"Try not to let Jerry bother you," Medb advised Anna.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to overreact, but I just felt like a bug in a bell jar."
"Everyone feels like that the first few times, but it is nothing personal. He reacts the same way to anyone, friend and stranger alike. Shall we go in?"
The entryway was narrow and short, and it terminated in a closet door. On either side, however, were arched entries, one leading right into the dining room and the opposite opening into what would have been a living room in a modern house. Each opening was framed by blocks and slabs of stone identical to the dolmen stones supporting the roof over the porch.
Jaim and Jeremiah were in the front room, finishing the setup. Anna looked the devices over and frowned. "I thought you agreed not to use any electronic equipment tonight. I don't want anything to interfere with any manifestations."
"You do not need to worry about that," Medb said in an enigmatic manner.
"This equipment is all passive," Jaim explained. "These cameras —" he pointed to a tripod with three SLRs attached "— are loaded with low-light, infrared, and ultraviolet sensitive film, respectively. This —" he indicated a parabolic dish attached to another tripod "— is a highly sensitive microphone, capable of picking up sounds too soft for human ears. And this —" he picked up a device about the size of a pack of cigarettes with a dial on it "— measures the strength of electromagnetic fields. If the manifestations are physical in any way, we should be able to record some form of visual, audio, or electrical evidence."
"I also have this," Jeremiah said without looking up from the cameras; he pulled another device from a jacket pocket and handed it to Jaim. It looked much like the electrical field meter, but it had what looked like a short, thick thermometer attached to it by a long wire.
"This is a thermocouple for measuring temperature," Jaim told Anna. "Many manifestations are accompanied by a significant drop in temperature. Jerry theorizes that supernatural forces absorb environmental heat and use it to produce the manifestations; this causes the drop in temperature."
"We'll have to calibrate the equipment before we can attempt to make any measurements," Jeremiah lectured, "but I want to wait until after dark before we do that. What we have isn't adequate for a proper investigation, but we should be able to collect some useful data."
"The purpose of this experiment isn't to collect data," Anna objected, but Jaim interrupted with, "We understand, however, there is no reason not to try if we can. And as Jerry previously mentioned, the Skeptics are unlikely to participate in a new study without it."
"You're right," Anna said, but Medb noticed she still didn't look happy about it.
"Jaim, can you give me a hand please?" Jeremiah asked him. "I want to put the cameras in this corner. With their wide angle lenses they should be able to cover the whole room." Jaim put Bastet on the floor and helped Jeremiah move a leather chair. The cat watched the activity for a few moments, then sauntered off into the dining area.
"Where's she going?" Anna asked. "I doubt she'll find any mice."
"She is probably doing some investigating of her own," Medb replied, "though I doubt she would pass up a mouse if she found one. Let us get out of their way; show me the rest of the ground floor."
+ + + + +
Anna realized that Medb was just trying to keep her busy and out of the men's hair. Still, she understood there was no reason to hang around.
"Alright," she said, and she crossed to the opposite side of the room from the entryway. That wall was dominated by a large fireplace flanked by bookcases. She saw it was also constructed from dolmen stones, just as she had supposed. In the right hand corner adjacent to the fireplace was an archway constructed of dolmen slabs that lead into the stairwell; on the opposite side was an identical archway leading into the kitchen beyond. She crossed the threshold, but paused on the stair landing when she she realized that Medb had stopped in front of the fireplace. She frowned in confusion as she watched the massive woman touched one of the stones before turning to face her. Anna proceeded through into the kitchen as Medb followed, but again, as she crossed through the double archway, she lingered momentarily and touched the stones lightly; she even brushed each foot against the slab of the landing. Anna wasn't sure what to make of her behavior, but she didn't want to be rude and interrogate her over it.
The kitchen had two doors on opposite walls, the inner one leading down into the basement and the outer one out onto a back porch. Adjacent to the basement door was an open archway leading into a short hall. Anna waited while Medb made a cursory examination of the room, then she led her down the hall, passing a small bathroom on their left before emerging into the dining room. It was dominated by a huge walnut table surrounded by eight chairs. The front outside wall was, as with the same wall of the front room, filled with windows, while the other outside wall opposite the entry hall was covered by a built-in walnut china cabinet. An archway in the back wall led into a small library, its four walls covered with bookcases except for the window in the outside wall. Another, smaller archway led into a back solarium, which was filled with plants and contained several pieces of wicker furniture.
Both archways were made from the same dolmen stone used in the fireplace and the other entryways. As before, Medb paused within each to lightly touch the blocks. When she reached the solarium, however, she untied the rope belt and removed the robe, laying it over one of the wicker chairs. She then stood in the middle of the entryway, planted her feet apart, and reached up to lay her hands on the arch stones above her head; she then closed her eyes and began to mumble softly.
For a brief moment, Anna failed to perceive one crucial aspect of Medb's appearance. When it finally dawned on her, she was so shocked she could only stare at the massive woman wide-eyed and speechless for a couple of moments before blurting out:
Grinning with genuine amusement, Medb opened her eyes and said, "It took you long enough to notice it."
Embarrassed, Anna blushed; she then gulped and asked, "Why?"
"Clothes get in the way of the weaker impressions," she explained as she stepped out of the archway and retrieved her robe, "and I did not want to have to take too much time undressing."
"Are you psychic?" That would explain a lot.
Slipping the robe back on and retying the rope, she replied, "Not in the way you mean it, but I am sensitive to certain influences and forces."
"Did you feel anything just now?"
"It does not work that way. It is not anything like a tangible feeling, like touching the stone with your hand. It is more of a perception, or perhaps I should say an intuition. I was trying to confirm a suspicion, but I received no insights."
"I don't understand then," Anna pressed; "if you're not psychic, why did Jaim choose you to be the sheep?"
"Your people wanted a committed believer; well, not only do I believe in the supernatural realm, I am on rather intimate terms with it, and I mean that quite literally."
Startled, Anna did a mental double take, but before she could inquire further, Jaim appeared in the archway. "We are finished setting up. It is an hour before sundown; Jeremiah wants to wait at least two hours before we calibrate the equipment. Is there any food in the kitchen? I can whip up a light supper while we wait. I also brought snacks and drinks, and a bag of coffee."
"I took the liberty of ordering a catered meal," Anna told him as she and Medb headed for the dining room. There she found Jeremiah placing the two meters on the table. "It should be here anytime soon," she added.
As the others gathered around the table, Jeremiah produced a cassette tape recorder which had a strap attached to it. He took a moment to insert a tape and plug in a microphone, then he slipped the strap over his head to let it hang from his shoulder. He clipped the microphone to the front of his turtleneck before switching it on. "Testing, testing," he said as he checked the volume intensity meter on the recorder. Grunting with satisfaction, he switched it off and rewound the tape.
"I'll have this on all the time starting in just a few moments. The mike should be sensitive enough to pick up your voices as long as you are reasonably close, but I will be using it mostly to keep a record of what's going on. Once I turn on the parabolic mike I suggest we stay out of the front room, so that we do not disturb its calibration. Since Jaim is the one conducting the experiment, I suggest that we do not ask for his opinion of any manifestation, though we are free to discuss it among ourselves. Rather, I suggest he give his impressions as and when he sees fit. Does everyone agree?" Anna nodded with the rest.
Switching on the recorder again, he checked his watch and said, "Begin Tape One; 17:47, April 30, 1985. Location: Doherty House, Cairnsford, Colorado. Append description and history of location. In attendance: January Ian Mariposa and Bastet, principle investigators; Jeremiah Arkenton, assistant investigator and test subject, non-believer; Medb hErenn, assistant investigator and test subject, believer; and Anna Regan, test subject, neutral control. Purpose: to conduct psychical research experiment on the supposed supernatural phenomena reported to manifest within the location. Append paranormal history of location. Goal: to test efficacy of sheep versus goats phenomena on the ability to perceive apparition phenomenon often reported at location. Append experimental equipment list. Equipment has been set up in front room of ground floor; will wait at least one hour after nightfall for calibration to allow temperature equilibration."
"Beltene," Medb commented when Jeremiah had finished.
"Walpurgisnacht," Jaim countered, and Anna added, "One of the nights of the year when the dead walk the earth."
"We shall see," Jeremiah said. Then any further conversation was halted by a soft meow from the entryway. Anna turned and saw Bastet giving them all what she swore was an expectant look, just before it walked off towards the front door.
"I believe our dinner has arrived," Jaim remarked, just moments before a knock sounded.
+ + + + +
Dinner turned out to be lasagna, which Medb did not care for. However, afterwards Jaim set out the snacks and the drinks, including several bottles of mead, which went far to console her. He also set up a coffee urn on the serving shelf of the china cabinet and soon the house was filled with the aroma of strong black Turkish coffee. The four then sat around the table, and Jeremiah and Medb listened as Jaim and Anna swapped stories about the house.
At the appointed hour, Jeremiah went into the front room to calibrate the equipment. First he waved the two meters around and recited readings off the dials at frequent intervals. Then he took a dozen pictures, four of each person present alone in the room. When it was Medb's turn, she shed the robe and stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips and one leg bent. He frowned at her irreverent behavior, but he realized she was trying to provoke him when she gave him a mischievous grin.
"This is a serious scientific investigation," he admonished her, in an irritated tone, "not a photo shoot for a men's magazine."
"Just take the bloody pictures," she said in laughing manner, "you'll need something to liven up the journal article."
Finally, he switched on the parabolic microphone and adjusted its volume as Medb recited passages from The Cattle Raid of Cooley in her lowest whisper. Once he was satisfied, he shooed her out of the room, turned on the attached reel-to-reel tape recorder with its eighteen hour tape, and tiptoed out of the room.
They spent the next few hours in silence, waiting for the manifestations to occur. The stillness was broken only by quiet, incidental sounds: Jaim turning pages as he read in the library; Bastet mewing or the sound of her trotting over the floorboards; Anna's nervous pacing; the occasional declaration of "Check" as Jeremiah and Medb played chess; and the three times Jeremiah changed tapes, when he stated the tape number and the time. Whenever anyone made a noise Jeremiah believed was loud enough to be picked up by the parabolic microphone, he stated the time, the nature of the noise, and what caused it, which most of the time was Anna. Though he said nothing, he was relieved when she finally got tired enough to sit at the table and watch the game. After some minutes she even managed to relax.
It was about 10:30 when finally something happened. Medb had just checked Jeremiah, when she stood to pour herself some more mead, turning her back to the entryway into the front room. Jeremiah sat with his back to it as well, so it was Anna, looking up in a moment of boredom, who saw it first.
"Oh, my God," she whispered.
Jeremiah and Medb turned around simultaneously. Neither of them said anything at first, but as Jeremiah stood to retrieve the camera shutter remote, he heard her say, "Jaim, we have company."
He took three shots in rapid succession, then began to describe what he was seeing as Jaim came into the dining room, Bastet at his feet. Both stopped short when they could see into the front room, and Bastet arched her back, fluffing her tail, and hissed.
Beside the archway by the fireplace stood a naked woman. She was of average height with an elfin figure. Her skin was a dull, dead white, free of blemishes but sallow with a light ash-gray undertone. Her body was emaciated, as if ravaged by some emotional consumption rather than disease, and her face was gaunt and haggard. Her eyes were especially haunting: they were large and round, swollen, and blood-red as if from constant weeping. Her long, straight black hair was water-soaked and plastered to her face, shoulders, breasts, back, and sides; her skin was beaded with water and she left foot-shaped puddles as she walked.
Yet Jeremiah noted that there was nothing overtly spectral about her: no glow, no misty translucence, no ectoplasmic effusion, not even the cliches of clanking chains, ghostly moaning, or oozing gore. She looked for all the world like a living woman who had just walked out of a shower to see who had invaded her home. As a matter of fact, she stared at the four investigators the entire time.
Jeremiah finished his dictation just as the apparition started towards them, and took a few more pictures. He then asked, "Medb, do you see her?"
"Yes," she confirmed, and Anna added, "I see her, too."
Jeremiah looked up at Jaim with concern. He looked back at him and replied to his unspoken question, "Have no fear, I see her as well, as does Bastet." The cat had relaxed somewhat, but she still stared at the banshee, moaning.
"But that's impossible," Anna objected. "If she's showing herself, then one of us must be fated to die, but that person shouldn't be able to see her." Suddenly she gasped in dismay. "Oh my god, there must be someone else in the house!"
"Don't jump to conclusions," Jeremiah admonished; the woman's lack of discipline and objectivity was beginning to irritate him. "Let's wait and see what happens when she reaches us." Meanwhile he picked up the two meters, one in each hand. "Stay clear of the arch," he instructed, and the four people disbursed themselves, with Jeremiah standing beside the entryway, Anna in the opening to the short hall from the kitchen, Medb in the archway into the library, and Jaim next to the armoire. Bastet sat at his feet.
Presently the banshee entered the dining room. As she passed him, Jeremiah reported, "Strong electromagnetic field, twenty-five times above background; temperature reading twenty degrees below normal; no indication of interest in any one of us." But he realized he was wrong a moment later; as it passed Anna, it reached out at the last minute and touched her on one arm.
The poor woman jumped back as if struck by a snake. The banshee reacted by turning in her direction and holding up its arms, as if seeking to embrace her; it then stepped towards her.
Paralyzed with terror, Anna was unable to move, but before it could reach her Medb intervened. She leaped at the banshee and grabbed one of its arms; at the same time she called out, "Maria!" in a commanding voice that boomed like thunder.
The banshee stopped dead and whipped its head around to face Medb. For a brief moment it just stared at her; then it transformed itself into a beautiful young girl. Startled, Medb let go of it and took a step back, while in the same instant the "girl" turned wraithlike: its formally corporeal body became translucent, its hair and eyes lightened to bright silver, and a thin, glowing mist surrounded it like a shroud. It rose off its feet and its hair floated in long, snakelike locks around its head as it levitated in front of and slightly above the massive woman.
Bastet threw herself across the room towards the phantom, but before she could reach it, it opened its mouth and shrieked, emitting a sound so harsh that Jeremiah clapped his hands over his ears. He felt pain more intense then anything he had experienced before, but he managed to force himself to continue to observe what was happening. He saw that his companions were also in agony, and even Bastet had collapsed and writhed on the floor. Turning his attention back to the banshee, he watched as its glow intensified, briefly becoming too bright to bear, before it vanished in a flash. When he could see again, the specter was gone.
For a few moments, the humans remained stunned. Bastet rose to her feet unsteadily, then shook herself and meowed loudly, with intense irritation. That seemed to revive the humans.
Medb recovered the fastest. "I should have realized this sooner," she said, more to herself than her companions, still somewhat shaken. "I did realize it before, but I was uncertain; I should have trusted my instincts. Damnaigh!"
Jaim was the first to Anna's side. "Are you all right?" he asked her.
For a moment she could not speak; then she started trembling and whispered, "I'm going to die."
"We do not know that," he tried to reassure her, but she shook her head. Taking a deep breath, she got hold of herself, then squared her shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "No, I am going to die." Her voice wavered a bit, but she sounded so certain that Jaim could not respond to her.
"We all die sometime, my dear," Medb told her, "though whether you will die tonight is a different question. However, we have more important things to worry about." When Jaim gave her a puzzled look, she added, "There are no ghosts in this house."
"Are you crazy?" Anna objected. "We just saw one; it touched me —"
"The dead do walk this house," Medb interrupted in an imperious manner, "but not in the way you imagine. That which we saw was not Maria Doherty; it was something else, impersonating her. It was an actual Bean Sí, a 'fairy woman', not a ghost impersonating one."
Anna made a short, barking laugh. "Wait a minute. Are you trying to tell us that this house is haunted by fairies?"
Medb narrowed her eyes in irritation at the younger woman's insolence, but she replied, "Yes, that is exactly what I am trying to tell you."
"That's got to be the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard —" she laughed, but Jaim cut her off firmly.
"Do not be too quick to mock, Ms. Regan; according to Irish lore, what we call the fairies are the pagan dead, trapped on earth because they are too good for Hell, but not good enough for Heaven. To the ancient Irish, the fairies were ghosts, or near enough to it. If Medb is right, we may be in grave danger."
Speaking for the first time, Jeremiah inquired, "What led you to this conclusion?"
"All the clues were in Jaim's story about the history of the house. The Indian legend of the skinwalker taken by the 'spirits'; James Cohen's description of the Slua Sídhe, the 'fairy host'; the deaths of the children; the hostility of the 'spirits' to a Christian priest; the aunt's and the third wife's claims of having lovers visit them at night; those people driven insane or to suicide; the disappearances; the fact that only people of Éireann blood can see the apparitions whereas others only see the Teine Sídhe, the 'fairy fire' — it all fits!"
"Which race do you think they are?" Jaim asked.
"Possibly the Boccánaigh, but my guess would be the Daoine Sídhe."
Finally loosing her temper, Anna spat, "What the hell are those?" jeremiah understood she considered this talk of fairies to be nonsense.
Undaunted by her outburst, Jaim explained, "The Boccánaigh are what we would call hobgoblins; mostly mischievous pranksters, but with the potential to be harmful. The Daoine Sídhe are the fairy aristocracy. They are the most powerful and dangerous of the fairy races —"
"They are more than that," Medb interrupted. "They are of the humanoid race that accompanied the Xothians to our world. Their knowledge of glamour is so great they can warp the very fabric of reality. Even the Fomóraigh fear them."
"— but as I understand the legends," he continued smoothly, "they are not necessarily hostile. What do you believe set them off?"
"It could have been anything, but my guess would be the building of this house. The Sídhe are very particular; They have specific, what did you call it, taboos?" Jaim nodded. "Well, people who have angered Them by breaking one of these 'taboos' have usually come to grief: they have had their livelihoods ruined; they have been sickened, maimed, kidnapped; they can be tormented until they commit suicide or are driven insane; they can be killed outright. Even just spying on Them could be dangerous; Cohen did not interfere with the procession he witnessed in any way, yet the Banríon an tSlua, the queen of the host, addled his wits simply because he saw Them. Plus this is one of the two nights They are at Their strongest. At midnight They will begin Their move from Their winter to Their summer home. If we are still here when that happens, we may become trapped in Their world."
"How so?" Jeremiah asked. Anna had by this time given up on the conversation and had sat in one of the dining chairs in a huff.
"I believe this piece of land intersects with a portion of the Otherworld, what you would call fairyland; in fact, one of their riding paths must pass through it. Under the right circumstances, at certain times of the year, month, or even day, the barriers that separate the two worlds can weaken, allowing the Sídhe to cross over briefly into our world and be seen. That would account for all the reported manifestations, including the apparitions and the processions. The stones of the dolmen may have somehow intensified this effect, causing a true merging of the two worlds at this one spot. Any person who walked onto this land at that time could enter the Otherworld and become trapped there, while the Sídhe Themselves could carry people off into it if they wished. Liam Doherty may have sealed his own fate and that of his family when he used the dolmen stones as part of the house's construction. Had he simply removed them, probably nothing would have happened, because then the weakening of the barriers may not have been enough to allow the house to cross over. But by including them in the construction, he preserved the effect, and the next time the Sídhe came through they found a house blocking Their way. One of Their taboos is to build a house across one of Their riding paths, for which They have been known to kill."
"Why did they wait three years to take revenge?" Jeremiah asked.
"I cannot say. The Sídhe are inscrutable; They do what They do for Their own reasons, which often makes no sense to us. They have Their own code of morality, which differs strongly from ours; hence They tend to react all out of proportion to what we would think is the seriousness, or lack thereof, of the crime. I would not be surprised if the disappearances, suicides, and accidental deaths all occurred on nights when the Slua Sídhe rode through the house."
"Quiet!" Anna suddenly said. Jeremiah looked at her as Medb fell silent. "Hear that?"
Jeremiah strained his ears, as he imagined the others did, but it was Bastet who heard it first. She had been sitting on the table, listening to the discussion between the four humans, but now she stood and looked around, her ears swiveling to catch the slightest noise. Then she began to moan softly.
"What do you hear?" Jeremiah asked Anna.
Her face brightened as she smiled. "Footsteps!" she cried.
"I also hear them," Jaim confirmed, "as well as what sounds like knocking or tapping."
Medb nodded as she added, "I also hear whispering; it sounds vaguely familiar, but I cannot quite make it out." Focusing on Jeremiah, she asked him, "Do you hear anything?"
He did not answer; instead he picked up a pair of earphones from the table and put them on. Their wire ran through the entryway into the front room, where it was attached to the parabolic microphone. He frowned as he listened for a few minutes, then he reported: "The footsteps are a measured tread, like marching; the rapping is actually the sound of horse hooves stamping on hard ground." His frown then deepened. "The voices sound like chanting, or singing. . . ." He took off the headphones and handed them to Medb. "It sounds like Gaelic; see if you can translate."
Medb took them and put them on, and then closed her eyes as she listened intently. Meanwhile, Anna came up to Jeremiah to whisper to him: "If you can hear the voices, why didn't the Skeptics hear any?"
"If Medb is correct," he speculated, "they may have simply chosen the wrong night for their investigation."
As if in response to his words, Medb's eyes flew open. Her face livid with fear, she ripped off the headphones and threw them away. "It is the Daoine Sídhe," she declared, her voice trembling.
"How sure are you?" Jaim asked as Jeremiah retrieved the headphones from the floor.
Medb made a visible effort to get control of herself. "I once lived with Them for seven years, and very nearly did not escape. I did not learn all Their secrets, but I did learn Their language; I can never forget it. It is Them."
"Then perhaps we should leave," Jeremiah concluded in deadpan understatement.
"I think it may be too late," Jaim countered, and he indicated the archways: the stones were beginning to glow with an eerie silvery light, and it grew brighter by the second.
"We can't leave now," Anna objected, "the real experiment is just starting."
Medb turned on her, enraged. "Are you really so monumentally stupid, or do you simply fail to comprehend just how much danger we are in?"
"Now just a minute!" Anna cried out, her own anger rising quickly. "I don't have to take that, especially not from a bitch slut like you!"
Jeremiah was startled by Anna's words, but he was even more surprised when Medb raised her hand to strike the other woman across her face. He knew she had a volatile temper, but she didn't act on it unless threatened. Her actions were out of character.
Jeremiah grabbed and held her arm before she could carry through with her assault. At the same time, Anna leaped forward to attack the massive woman threatening her. Jaim had to seize her to restrain her.
"That's enough, both of you!" Jaim ordered, raising his voice for the first time all evening. Jeremiah noted that was also out of character, as was his speech.
"Fighting amongst ourselves won't help," Jaim continued.
"It's starting already," Jeremiah said, to no one in particular. As if reacting to the open hostility all around her, Bastet started pacing up and down the width of the table, yowling in consternation.
Anna's fury evaporated almost immediately. "Oh my god, what's happening to me?" she asked rhetorically, her face a mask of fear.
"Let me go!" Medb ordered Jeremiah, who tightened his grip on her arm.
"Medb!" he barked, commanding her attention. "Focus! You're not thinking straight, you're just reacting emotionally. Think!"
Her eyes flashed at him with renewed outrage, and for a moment he feared she would strike him instead. But then her face softened and she visibly relaxed. "I am all right now, Jerry," she assured him at last.
"What just happened?" Jaim asked, worried, as Jeremiah let go of Medb's arm.
"The house is starting to get us. That slow mental deterioration you described, whatever's happening now has intensified it. It's breaking down our self-control; it brought out the latent hostility between the women, and just now you used contractions in your speech."
"It doesn't seem to affect you," Anna ventured in a hopeful tone.
But Jeremiah shook his head. "I can feel it attacking my own reserve; I'm just more in control than you three."
"What, are you inhuman or something?" she snapped, her own control slipping for a moment.
For the first time all evening the hint of a smile appeared on his lips. "In a manner of speaking; I'm borderline dissociative."
"What does that mean?" she pressed.
"It means that I am disconnected from my emotions."
"You mean, like a sociopath?" she asked in a nervous tone.
Again Jeremiah smiled faintly. "Not that far gone, no, but definitely along the same path. The point is, the effect suppresses reason and allows the emotions to come to the fore. Since my emotions are normally deeply suppressed, I can resist it longer than most people." To all of them he added, "We have to focus our attention on what is going on now, otherwise we are finished."
"But what's causing it?" Jaim inquired, trying to concentrate on an intellectual conundrum.
"The Otherworld," Medb replied with certainty. She had by now recovered more of her normal ironclad self will.
Jeremiah nodded. "Exactly. Human sanity is a very complex and delicate balancing act. Fortunately there are several factors that help to reinforce it. One of the most important is the psychic web produced by the biosphere. We evolved within it, and it affected our rational development. That also means, however, that we depend on it, so if we encounter another psychic web different from the one we are used to, it can adversely affect us in turn. The 'Otherworld' of the fairies operates by a different set of laws and forces from our own universe, similar enough that we can live in it, but sufficiently different that its psychic web will drive us mad after prolonged exposure."
Medb favored him with a lopsided grin. "You are becoming positively garrulous, Jerry."
He gave her a grim smile response. "I told you I was being affected as well."
"I'm sorry, but as fascinating as all this is, if you're right we need to get out'a here."
"Anna's right . . . is right," Jaim agreed, trying hard to concentrate. "Medb, what are our options; can we just leave?"
She shook her head. "We may be able to get out of the house, but that would not do us any good, because the whole property is affected."
"Couldn't we just walk off the property?" Anna asked.
"Without knowing the right path, we could walk right into the Otherworld instead, and the paths change constant."
"So where does that leave us?" Jeremiah asked, betraying no concern.
Medb sighed in resignation. "As I see it our only hope is if we can convince Them that we would destroy the house if They let us go."
"Would they believe us?" Anna asked.
"I believe I can convince Them, but it could be difficult; I have no idea what demands They might make to ensure our good faith."
"We . . . will . . . just have to deal with that when and if it comes up," Jaim said.
"It may be difficult getting the historical society to agree to tear down the house," Anna observed.
Staring at her with barely suppressed wrath, Medb replied, "I will destroy it myself then."
Refusing to be intimidated, Anna asked, "Okay, for now, what should we do?"
"We wait for the Slua to appear. The Sídhe ride single file and the Rí an tSlua, the king of the host, leads the way. It is with him that I will need to parley. If you three want to salvage any of the evidence we have collected so far, I suggest you do it now."
"Alright then," declared Anna, "let's get cracking." And she marched into the front room. Jeremiah could not help but admire her sudden resolution.
+ + + + +
Anna rewound and recovered the rolls of film from the cameras while Jaim secured the audio tape from the parabolic microphone and Jeremiah recorded a conclusion on the tape recorder that included a description of their planned encounter with the fairies.
Medb let her companions do the work as she watched, but at one point she came over to Jaim and quietly said to him, "I am worried about Anna."
Jaim looked at her in surprise. "How so?"
"She accepted the idea of her death more quickly than I would have expected."
Irritated, he did not bother to conceal it as he said, "I think we all have."
"But I would expect it of you and Jerry; you both have very strong characters."
"You should give Anna the same credit," he snapped. Medb narrowed her eyes at him, but she said nothing more, and he then ignored her as he turned back to the tape.
When Jeremiah finished his recording, he popped the cassette out and gathered the others together. Along with the film and the tape, they went into a duffel bag, which Jaim then tossed onto the front porch through one of the windows. Afterwards they sat in the front room and waited for the inevitable. Jaim discovered that having resigned themselves to their fate actually made the waiting easier, and the psychic effect of the influence of the Otherworld environment helped them to relax. Only Medb seemed nervous as she paced about the room, but he figured her nervousness was over the fate of her friends being in her hands; he knew that she more than any of them understood what would happen soon.
Jaim had opened his pocket watch and laid it on his lap to keep track of the time. "It's midnight," he announced finally.
At the same moment the air in front of the fireplace distorted as from a heat shimmer above a road. The sound of singing and the tread of feet and hooves came louder now, and grew louder by the moment. Anna and the two men stood and gathered by the entry hall as Medb shed her robe and walked into the middle of the room. After a moment a horse and rider emerged from the distortion. Both were magnificent in their splendor: the steed was of purest white, with a silver mane, eyes, and hooves that sparkled as if made of real metal. The rider was tall and fabulously handsome, his own eyes and hair silver, and his skin ghostly pale. He was dressed in a flowing white robe richly decorated with gold and silver designs, and he wore a tall, narrow, diaphanous crown made from a pale, silverish-blue crystalline material inlaid with gold and silver filigree and studded with diamonds. Its delicate design made it look like it was made of feathers. Both horse and rider were surrounded by a glowing silvery fog.
They came to a halt just in front of Medb. The fairy king looked down at her for some moments as if trying to decide what to do, but presently he dismounted, though he seemed more to float down as if he were only a cloud. He glided around to the front of the horse and stood before the massive woman, staring down at her from his greater height.
Medb started to speak, and the Fairy King answered her. Jaim realized they were not speaking any form of Irish a Gael, ancient or modern, would recognize. It had the same lilting, sing-song rhythm, but it was more complex in its grammar and syntax, and more delicate in its structure. It was as if she was singing a cappella, though it was clear that she was conversing with the fairy king rather than entertaining him.
The other three humans stayed very still and quiet at first, partly enthralled by the tableau before them, partly in fear that they might break some spell protecting them. Eventually, however, Anna could no longer restrain herself. Leaning towards Jeremiah, she whispered in his ear as softly as she could manage, but in the preternatural silence, Jaim still heard her clearly.
"What do you see?"
Jeremiah frowned at her inopportune question, but when he leaned towards her, rather than reprimand her he reported, "I see the fairy king."
She flashed him a startled look. Looking up at Jaim behind them, she mouth the same question to him; he pantomimed the same answer. Stepping back beside him, she stretched up towards his head as he bent down closer to her.
"This is no longer the same experiment," she whispered to him. He gave her a puzzled look, but she simply returned his stare. He then realized she wasn't looking up at him, but at Bastet sitting on his shoulders. Cat and woman locked eyes for a moment, then Anna stepped back out of sight into the entry hall.
Jaim was about to turn around when he was distracted by Medb breaking off the conversation, and he instead stepped forward beside Jeremiah. Medb turned and walked up to them.
"He has agreed to let us go," she reported, "in exchange for removing the house from Their path."
Jaim sighed and even Jeremiah relaxed the tension in his face.
"But," she continued, "as I feared He wants some assurance we will keep our word."
"What does he require?" Jaim asked with trepidation.
Her face expressionless, she replied, "He wants one of us to serve as a hostage. I have volunteered to go with Him."
Both men gave her shocked looks, though Jaim's expression was more animated. "What guarantee do we have that he'll let you go afterwards?"
"None," she said in a cold manner.
"With the house gone," Jeremiah asked, "how can we get you back?"
"You cannot," she replied with finality.
Jeremiah acknowledged with a grim nod. Jaim said in a grave tone, "We will miss you, my dear."
Medb managed a weak, mocking smile. "I have lived among them before and managed to escape; I will find a way back, rest assured."
"If anyone can, you will," Jeremiah agreed; he then took her by the shoulders, pulled her close, and kissed her. When he let her go, she quipped in a wistful tone, "Now you get affectionate." Then she squared her shoulders, turned, and started back to the king.
Anna came around the corner of the entryway into the front room. Jaim saw her out the corner of his eye; something odd about her appearance made him turn to look, and he was startled to see her naked. Jeremiah spotted her as she walked up behind Medb, but before either man could intervene she hit the massive woman on the back of the neck at the shoulder line with the heel of one of her shoes. Stunned, Medb fell to her hands and knees. Anna dropped the shoe beside the stricken woman and made for where the king stood.
As Jeremiah knelt beside Medb to check on her, Jaim moved to catch Anna, but Bastet threw herself off his shoulders, landed in front of Medb, then turned and spat at her master. He stopped dead, confused and consternated at the same time.
Anna halted just before the king and turned around. "Don't interfere," she warned them all.
"Anna, wait, consider what you're doing," Jaim tried to counsel her.
"I have, Jaim, very carefully, believe me," she assured him; "but this is the opportunity of a lifetime. I have the chance of doing something no other paranormal researcher has ever done, to actually travel to another world and learn about it first hand." She then began to back up.
"But if you go with them now, you may never be able to get back," he pressed.
"I understand the risk, but I've always been an explorer at heart. Well, now I get to indulge my fantasy literally as well as figuratively."
Jeremiah looked up at her. "This isn't necessary Anna. Now that we know the Otherworld exists we can find ways to observe it safely."
Anna chuckled, pausing in her retreat. "Jaim called you the consummate scientist, Jerry, so you of all people should understand why I'm doing this. Besides, this is what the fairy woman was trying to tell me: not that I would die, at least not in the conventional sense, but that I would join Them in Their world and become one of Them."
Shaking her head, Medb tried to struggle to her feet, saying, "Idiot . . . woman; . . . I . . . cannot allow you . . . to do this."
"It's already done," she said in a firm voice, taking a few steps further back. Then she added, "I give myself freely to Them." As if in response, the king opened his arms to receive her. Without hesitation, she turned towards him and walked into his grasp. She embraced him as he folded his arms around her head, hiding her from view behind the folds of his robe. The glow around him and his horse intensified until it was blinding; it flashed once, and vanished. When Jaim could see again, the stones in the fireplace and the stairwell archway were dark and the shimmering in the air was gone. The only sound that remained was Bastet's mournful yowl.
Banríon an tSlua (BAHN-ree-uhn ahnt SLOO-uh) — Queen of the Host
Bean Sí (BAN shee) — Fairy Woman; banshee
Boccánaigh (BOK-kaw-neye) — hobgoblins
Damnaigh (DAWM-neye) — damnation
Daoine Sídhe (DEE-nih SHEE-ih) — Fairy People
Éireann (AY-rawn) — Irish
Medb hErenn (Mayv HAIR-rayn)
Rí an tSlua (ree ahnt SLOO-uh) — King of the Host
Slua Sídhe (SLOO-uh SHEE-ih) — Fairy Host
taibhsí (TAV-shee) — ghosts
Teine Sídhe (TYEH-nih SHEE-ih) — "fairy fire"; will-o-the-wisp
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