For three days Veronica followed the ghost. It’d been years since she feared the dark, and even crooked alleyways with slanted, tilted, drunken brick buildings with shadows hemming in on every side didn’t shake her. She bristled with magic, a special kind: it is said one in every hundred are able to touch magic, and of that one percent, one out of every hundred had suppression magic.
Veronica’s powers were similar to other sorceresses: she could conjure lights, create electrical fields, fight and defend in the usual ways, but unlike her peers, her magic was corrosive and soporific. What was fear when dangerous rough fellows couldn’t stay awake around you? What was fear when a tiger yawned and dozed?
She’d joined the city’s police force as an HN officer, which meant “hostile neutralization,” although everybody had been told not to refer to her position as that. Officially “HN” meant nothing, and being called in was just standard for brawls and riots and whatever else the government wanted stepped on.
An example: she usually stayed at the downtown station across from the little shrine to the Goddess, and smoked and read trashing pulp novels until needed: and every night, one of the bars would have a call. She’d join whatever police were on the scene and hang around until things calmed down. If they didn’t-- well, she was useful, wasn’t she?
Last night when she’d been called on scene, to a bar called The Nine and Two, the standard lasses had a big fellow, a drunken sot maybe two Veronicas high and about three wide, up against the wall. They wanted her there just in case. It was always “just in case” and here was a fellow who’d gotten mouthy and they were writing him a ticket, and both of Veronica’s fellow coppers were a might-bit nervous about this giant fellow and wanted her nearby.
They’d been trying to tell him some procedural stuff when the man’s wife started in. This big fellow trying to talk his wife down as she drunkenly screamed at the blue lasses, and the two warning her that an HN was nearby. Veronica, bored, decided to see if she could talk the woman down, and the woman grabbed her. Out right grabbed her.
‘Twas a mistake, as Veronica reached out and turned the woman’s mind off like she was putting out a lamp, and the gal was dragged off to the drunk tank drooling, with stars dancing in her eyes, and a blackeye from where she’d fallen against the asphalt.
So, a ghost didn’t seem scary.
It was a small thing. A girl of twelve, wearing comically outdated clothing. Veronica didn’t know what to call the little twee bonnet it wore. The word “wimple” fit, but Veronica recalled that wimples were married women’s headwear and this gal was too young by half to be married.
Though, Veronica thought, ‘haps they got married young back then, and she is dead. She ain’t a modern lass, no fool’n.
She’d spotted the kid out by the flooded tolly-pier after hours, where two buildings met to create a triangular dark shadow extending across a little yard nearly up to the water. The little bint right stood ‘bout where the water lapped the cobbles, glowing unhealthy-like with her wimple wrapped round, and her face ghastly white even in the gloom.
Veronica noted her, and at first thought she was a lost child. You see it sometimes. Homeless children about in the city backways, but they’ve usually got enough sense to be hidden by dark. Setting chalk by the curfew, minors weren't allowed to stroll about, and Veronica was about to remind this potential reprobate of that. She sauntered up in her way, a kind of defiant strut that dares the world to try fistlocks, and addressed the girl.
She found the girl utterly dead. Stiff as a board, blank as a fish. Moldy as cheese too, and transparent without hardly a blocked cobblestone: all the bricks waivered clear through her chest.
Veronica was startled, but not in a hand-over-mouth way, or a quake-in-your-boots way. She was startled in the way that you get when a fact is more interesting than expected. An oh-how-neat kind of way, and she did her big sauntered around the dead girl, who stood staring with her dead eyes across the river, in the shadow of the buildings, almost in the river herself.
“Hey-oh,” Veronica said. “You get what I’m saying, lass?”
There wasn’t a reply, nor did she expect one. A gal as full of mildew as this bint probably didn’t have working ears. Now, a sudden curiosity filled Veronica, and she put her hand out to touch the girl.
There wasn’t anything there, not really. With nothing to touch, her had seemed to always float in front of girl until it was behind her and wavering. She’d heard ghosts were cold, like an icy breeze, and she’d expected to feel a chill like having cold water splashed on her, but there was nothing.
Further curiosity drove her to produce a small light entirely with magic to see if the girl could be induced to glow. She could not, and remained her particular shade, but her whole head swung toward the light and followed it as if it were the most fascinating thing in eternity. Veronica gave herself a twinge upon realizing that the girl’s neck didn’t care much where the head was going and it remained stiff even as the moving head and blind eyes twisted it about.
Still, that was disgust, not fear.
When the hour had elapsed and the big bell on the river struck three; the girl turned and headed for the alley.
Veronica followed down the damp passage. Trash-lined, rat infested, with dumpsters, and leaking pipes, the alley grew narrow. The ghost traveled smoothly, but Veronica-- not a thin woman-- had trouble and lost her at a V-bend behind a failed haberdashery.
Still not deterred, she followed a second night. More successful, but not totally. She followed further, but the dark and confusing mess of passages mean that when she did lose the ghost she was lost herself, and it took her until dawn to find her way out again.
The third night, Veronica returned to watch the ghost. Again, at the same time, the girl glided away, and Veronica followed, determined not to lose her this time. There were turns down blind alleys, through homeless camps, over forgotten ditches, by rotted tenement buildings, lost taverns, burned out whorehouses, deeper and deeper. The ghost went left, and sometimes right, and often through obstacles, and Veronica was nearly choked of breath before finally, they came to a forgotten place in the the center of a molding block of crumbling brick and mortar.
It must have been a square at one point, next to a crumbled temple, and an open market. Veronica again was surprised, for the square was filled with people, as transparent as the girl, walking around ghostly stalls. There were all the things expected at a town market: food stands, a tailor, various vendors of all types, musicians, and even a puppet show. But all of these were pale shades of the real thing. The food was as rotten as it was ephemeral. The tailor had a rictus corpse grin and his threads were mothworn. The vendors all were dead. The musicians played no tunes for their strings had decayed away, and the puppets were so rotten the puppeteer’s bony fingers stuck through.
Veronica stood in amazement. Each person who passed her wore the same archaic style as the girl. There were wide-brimmed hats over coifs with tunics and odd pointed shoes. They spoke in whispers, and what she could hear was unintelligible: Ƿel farynᵹe þeƿ she be, sheseiþ she be nat ƿrooð lußheburᵹhes and the like.
Not one to let amazement slow her down, she collected herself and asked one of the vendors who everybody was and what they were doing there.
The reply she got was just as confusing as the general banter, and while she was committed to staying until dawn, she began to feel a chill. Not of fear, but of cold. The hour before the dawn was the coldest they said, and lest the frost got her, she tried to warm herself by magic, but at the first cast of her weave, the crowd rounded on her as one and reached for the tiny spark of spellwork. She let the magic go in alarm, the first time she’d felt that emotion in years.
Still, the bell of the temple rang, and the ghosts forgot her as soon as the peal went out. The collapsed tower had no bell to call the ceremony, but it still rang in solid, rattling chimes. Again, curious, Veronica followed them to where the cadaverous priestess stood to preach to the flock.
Veronica had seen many sermons, and even without knowing the words, she knew what was being said: The Goddess is the only thing between howling black Chaos and you. She smites the unworthy and loves an underdog. She killed the prime Deity and ate his children.
She grew bored and inattentive. Her mind wandered. She focused on the clothes the faithful wore. Tight stitched. Hand stitched even. Old. Falling to pieces. Mold in fabric. Dead lice in the fabric. The detail was stunning. Getting close, even the nits were visible.
Realizing there was silence, she straightened hastily to find all the dead fish-eyed ghosts staring at her. She swallowed.
The priestess asked her question again.
“Ƿho be þou?”
She thought she understood so she stammered out, “Veronica,” and then thinking a last name would sound more formal said, “Miss Veronica Falmoer.”
“Ƿel, Phereníkee Falmœr, haþ ee sƿich convicsion for to stonde bitƿix þy synne und þe Ᵹodesses myᵹht?”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she said, holding her hands up. Around her the ghosts grumbled. It was unpleasant, and rising in volume.
“Allas,” the priestess said, “þann Ic kan nat stynte þy sorƿe.”
The pale faces advanced, arms reaching, and Veronica fled. But the alleyway was crammed with trash, and rot, and homeless camps, and twists and tight dead ends, and the offal dumped from houses and damp and water. She slammed off walls and scraped her hands as she tripped and all around her were hands: grasping, clutching hands, with nails and the dirt of the grave upon them.
She woke suddenly, and said, “Ow, my head.”
“You’re awake, good,” the voice was familiar to her.
Sitting up in bed, Veronica eyed the redheaded police captain through one eye.
“What happened?” Veronica asked.
“I was hoping you could tell me,” the captain said. She sat in the corner of the room; a sterile-white hospital room. Her hair seemed the only color in the place.
“I d’nay hardly know,” Veronica said.
“We found you in Northlanding raving at the sky,” the captain said.
“I followed a ghost,” Veronica said.
“Ah, well,” the captain said, standing. “That explains it. Did you get to the phantom market?”
“You know?” Veronica asked.
“Not personally, but I hear enough reports. Leave the dead alone. Not everybody’s so lucky.”
The captain adjusted her hat and tipping it left the room.
But, as Veronica tried to adjust her ill-fitting hospital gown, and shrug off the uncomfortable hospital bedsheets, movement caught her eye, and turning to the window, she could just barely make out a pair of white eyes staring through at her.
It was broad daylight, but they were still there.
Behold a Pale Horse: The 2021 Halloween Horrorquest