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The Ritual

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"Omnes cras grandinem multam tenebris dominus," Adam called out, breaking the stillness that had laid claim to the chilly graveyard. He was standing in front of a make-shift campfire that stood nearly three feet high. The crackling flames ate away at the broken remnants of the wooden benches that lined the stone pathways leading through the graveyard.

 

Unlike many graveyards, this was a modern creation, with mere plaques set into the ground instead of tall headstones. The utter lack of trees in the area, along with the freshly trimmed grass, made for a flat expanse of swallowing darkness, fought off valiantly by the light of the campfire. Stephanie resisted a shudder, pulling her black hoodie closer to herself as if a cold wind had just rushed over her frame. Looking over the fire, she stared at Amber, her dark eyes reflecting the flames with miniature sparks jumping in her irises.

 

Adam had brought Stephanie and Amber out to the graveyard, saying he had a way to speak to a friend of theirs that had passed away over a year ago. She'd been a member of the Choir as well, but sudden cancer had consumed her internally, clawing her into a frail wisp of a creature that could barely press the button that gave her pain medication. In the end, she'd died miserably, weighing a mere sixty-two pounds. Her near skeletal frame had been wrapped in her best garments and laid down to rest in the plot they now stood around, the campfire directly over where her coffin was buried.

 

Adam, tall and bald with caramel skin and frameless glasses, stood before the fire calling out words in some foreign language while Stephanie and Amber exchanged glances between each other. Stephanie, standing at an even six feet, towered over the other two, her height accentuated by the fact her hair was long enough to reach the small of her back. She didn't regard Adam as anything other than an acquaintance, someone who sang baritone in the Choir while she and Amber hung out with the other Soprano's.

 

This changed when he bumped into her after Choir, physically knocking into her to cause her to stop. He looked up at her with an emotionless mask; then he asked the strangest question she'd ever been asked.

 

"What would you do to achieve your dream?" He'd asked, tilting his head as he locked eyes with her. Caught off guard, Stephanie had stammered for a moment before Adam pressed onward. "Do you miss Claire?"

 

That had struck home with Stephanie. Claire's death was still a fresh wound for the young girl. Stephanie had clutched her books closer to her chest and merely nodded, eyes still locked with Adam's, even as she'd felt the prickling of tears at the corners of her eyes.

 

"Tomorrow is Halloween," he'd said, looking away for a moment. "Bring a friend, another friend of Claire's, to her grave tomorrow night at midnight. I'm going to make it to where you can talk to her again."

 

And then he'd walked off as if he hadn't just proclaimed he would make a dead girl speak. Stephanie hadn't reacted fast enough, as Adam had left the Choir hall before she could even think of a reaction. Before she left, she'd approached Amber and asked her to come as well; she'd known Claire since Kindergarten and still cried sometimes during class, always excusing herself so she could go and fix her make-up in the bathroom.

 

Back to the present, Stephanie and Amber stood opposite each other, one standing to the East the other to the West. Adam stood to the North, just behind the bronze plaque buried in the short grass that bore Claire's name. He'd written on two sheets of paper what Stephanie and Amber were to say when he motioned for them to speak. They'd taken the notes and scanned over them, instantly being lost at strange words.

 

"What is this, Greek?" Amber had asked.

 

"Latin, translated from Aramaic," Adam had replied before moving into position. "Remove any and all jewelry. Rings, necklaces, bracelets, nose piercings... I mean all of it!"

 

Adam produced a bowl that already held a silver chain with a crucifix at the end, along with a pair of stud earrings that were obviously from Adam's ears. Amber had removed her nose ring and tossed in her bracelet and earrings while Stephanie only had her necklace, a simple golden chain with a cross dangling at the end. The bowl filled, Adam had set it aside and begun chanting.

 

That had been ten or more minutes ago, and Stephanie was beginning to get worried that someone might catch them out here in the graveyard. What would any adult think of a group of teens standing around a campfire, with pages of Latin script, on Halloween? They'd be arrested before they could even begin to try and explain what they were doing.

 

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity Adam nodded towards Amber, who began to hesitantly call out to the sudden winds rushing through the graveyard her passage of Latin text. Her lyrical voice made it sound almost musical, as opposed to Adam's deep chanting that had reminded Stephanie of what the monks in old monasteries did in between services.

 

Stephanie blinked as she saw the smoke of the fire swirl as if in a sudden cyclone, a shadow of a girl cast against the rising smog. Stephaine could scarcely believe what she saw, but the shadow remained, floating lifelessly in the smoke, tendrils of black curling around her frame. Her legs were still in the fire, but Stephanie could see a definitive shape forming. She wanted to call out, but a harsh look from Adam told her that no, that would be a bad idea.

 

Amber finished up her chanting, nodding to Stephanie, who looked down to her paper, beginning with a loud and clear call out to the sudden winds and the blazing fire. While she didn't understand the words, she began to feel a presence, and her darting eyes allowed her to glance up in between phrases at the coalescing frame of a young woman. Stephanie sang out the last few lines of the Latin, doing her best not to mispronounce anything from her limited exposure to the language.

 

Once she finished, Adam cleared his throat and looked at the form standing in the fire, shrouded by wreaths of dancing flame and curtains of smoke.

 

"Tu magis ausculta quod loquor?" Adam sang out, his voice sounding inquisitive.

 

The figure turned sharply, the bald head facing Adam. In a voice that was both raw and torn, Claire spoke. "Yes. Why have you called me here?"

 

Adam motioned to Amber and Stephanie, who both had tears flowing down their cheeks at the sound of their old friends voice. "Duo sacrificiis grimoire fascinis volo."

 

Claire tilted her head as if she were studying Adam. Stephanie couldn't hold it anymore, she stepped forward. "Claire, is it really you?"

 

Claire turned and "looked" at her, her body still hidden by the dancing flames and smoke. "Yeah Steph, it's me. I've really missed you guys."

 

"We've missed you too!" Amber cried, hands pressed over her mouth as she tried to contain her tears. "We've missed you so much!"

 

"Why did you agree to come out here tonight?" Claire asked, looking between Amber and Stephanie before her face leveled itself at Adam. "With him of all people?"

 

"What? Why? He said he could let us see you, let us talk to you! Even if he was lying just to try and score some alone time with us, we couldn't take the chance that he had a way to contact you!"

 

"Stephanie, he's not the kind of person you want to be around," Claire said, her voice strained, the torn tatters of her warbling voice slowly growing stronger.

 

"Satis! Quemadmodum ego praecepi daemonium!" Adam called out suddenly, stepping forward while waving his hands through the smoke.

 

Claire lowered her head briefly before heaving a large wet sigh. "As you command," she said before moving in a blur.

 

Lashing out of the smoke towards Stephanie, a rotted arm, more bone than rancid meat, scratched at her face, the interlocking bones of the hand clattering as they found purchase in Stephanie's hair. Screeching, Stephanie struggled, reaching up to grab Claire's arm, only to find it was as hot as coals from a fire. Blistered fingers came away from the limb as it gave a savage tug. Stephanie stumbled closer to the fire, close enough to see that the flames weren't coming from the primitive campfire that they'd built an hour ago.  

 

No, the flames were spewing up from a narrow tunnel of bleeding earth leading deep underground. A wave of blistering, nauseous heat wafted up from the tunnel, along with the distant cries of... something. Whatever it was, she didn't want to find out what it was.

 

She heard Amber squeal in agony, but couldn't see where Claire had grabbed her. Looking up, Stephanie gasped as she stared into Claire's uncovered face.

 

Devoid of hair, she only had one half-filled eye, the skin around it looking moist and pulpy. Maggots crawled over her shoulders, in and out of holes they'd burrowed into her flesh. Her other eye, along with the entire left side of her head, was bereft of any semblance of tissue. Bare cracked bone with singed marks along the jawline, Claire was something out of a nightmare. Her one human side, what was left of it, gave Stephanie an apologetic look before tugging her once more, trying to pull her into the tunnel leading deep into the earth. Stephanie cried out in pain, waving her arms to maintain balance and keep her feet planted firmly on the ground.

 

Claire, who was hovering over the pit, seemed to slacken with her other arm before Amber burst through the wall of flames and smoke, tumbling down the tunnel with a wild screech, sliding against the blood-slickened walls down into the unknown. Claire's now free hand reached out, this one covered in a sleeve from the gown she'd been buried in. It grabbed onto Stephanie's shoulder, the fingers burning through the hoodie and shirt beneath it in seconds before searing into her tender skin. The noxious stench belching forth from the pit was joined by the stench of burning flesh.

 

"Please, Claire!" Stephanie shouted, hoping someone might hear her. You don't have to do this!"

 

"Yes, I do. He summoned me with two willing sacrifices," she intoned, her voice deflated.

 

"I never agreed to be sacrificed!" Stephanie screeched, scrambling to stay on the outer edges of the fiery circle. Her shoes were getting warm from standing in the fire for so long, but that was the least of Stephanie's worries.

 

"I heard you Steph, your beautiful voice, calling me up here. You called out the invocation that made this rite possible,” Claire explained, still pulling on her shoulder and hair steadily, slowly dragging her through the flames and towards the pit.

 

“I didn’t know what I was reading! I thought I was going to get to see you again, and tell you how much I missed you!” Stephanie cried, struggling in vain. She gave a moment’s pause when she felt a pair of hands on the small of her back. Tilting her head as best she could, she looked into the maniacal eyes of Adam, his smile wide and predatory.

 

“Well now you get to spend all of eternity with her,” Adam said. “I drained her life force last year by getting her to read a card with the right invocation scrawled into it, hidden as a Valentine’s Day card. Now I’m using you as a means to further my power!”

 

“You-You killed me!” Claire cried, her deflated eye rolling madly it’s socket.

 

“Yeah, you stupid bitch,” Adam said to Claire, looking over Stephanie’s shoulder. “You were the healthiest girl in Choir, as well as the only one who didn’t wear any holy symbols. You were an easy target.”

 

“I thought you liked me! We dated in secret for all those weeks for what? So you could make sure the spell took hold?” Claire howled, her frame surging to the edge of the flames, allowing Stephanie to back up a foot. Adam wasn’t paying attention, the mad light in his eyes focused on his dead girlfriend.

 

“You daft bitch, why in the Hell would I love someone like you?” Adam spat, laughing madly to himself, “all you ever did was whine about things, and you never wanted to do anything other than kiss! I had to wait months for the spell to take hold on you when it could have taken days!”

 

“You bastard!” Claire cried, releasing Stephanie’s hair to try and reach out for Adam. The shadows roiled around her wrist, pulling her limb up and away from him in a violent twist.

 

“Ah, ah, ah,” Adam said with obvious pleasure. “You should know that you can’t harm the one who summoned you. You’ll bend to my will bitch when I need you, and that’ll be true till the day I die!”

 

Stephanie took that moment to stomp down on David’s foot before swinging her arm back to grab him by the testicles. Adam let out an unmanly squeak as Stephanie pivoted with Claire’s hand, now fused to her shoulder from the heat, pulling Adam to the edge of the pit. With one final movement, Stephanie kicked him in the back of the knee, causing him to topple forward, dropping into the fiery hole. He spun as he fell, allowing him to grab onto the bleeding earth that was the tunnel. From the steam rising off of his fingers and the screams he was letting out, the blood must be boiling Stephanie thought.

 

Claire ripped her hand free from Stephanie’s shoulder with a crisp pop, causing the living girl to nearly black out from the pain. Looking at her shoulder, she could see singed muscle flexing as she moved her arm. She winced, but chose to peer over the tunnel to look down at Adam as he fought to climb out of the pit.

 

“Bitch! You’ve already made the vow, so make yourself useful and just give up!” Adam hissed from his spot on the wall. He cast a baleful glare at Claire. “Why aren’t you trying to grab her? Throw her down here and help me out you imbecile!”

 

“You only command me while we’re both on the mortal plane, Master,” Claire said, clearly delighted by the turn of events. “You’re technically in Hell right now, well, the entrance at the very least.”

 

“No! You can’t let me die! You obey only me!” Adam called up as he slid, leaving steaming finger marks in the muddy walls. His fingers appeared to be nearly skinless from the exposure to the heat and his clothes were steaming. He scrabbled at the wall and tried to climb higher, but the more he moved the deeper he sank. At one point, when he was perhaps forty feet down, Stephanie could hear Adam’s screams rise in pitch, his baritone going to a tenor instantly. Stephanie, who couldn’t see down the hole that far due to the cloying darkness, looked up at Claire, who merely smirked with the human side of her face.

 

“What happened?” Stephanie asked.

 

Claire gave her an enigmatic smile. “He got his just desserts. Now that there’ve been two sacrifices, I have to return to the abyss.”

 

Stephanie looked up at Claire’s face, the sad smile gracing her morbid features. “Do you really?” Stephanie didn’t want to see her friend go, but part of her knew that there was nothing for her here in the real world.

 

“Yeah,” Claire looked away for a moment, a thin trickle of blood running down her puffy cheek. It took Stephanie a moment to realize that was a tear! “Just… just go and give my mom a hug for me, okay? I’ve really missed her since I passed.”

 

Stephanie felt tears beginning to resume their path down her cheeks. “I promise,” Stephanie whispered.

 

“Then I can return happy,” Claire sighed before a wicked smile came to her human features. “I’m going to enjoy looking after Adam’s torture personally.”

 

Stephanie shivered at how demented her friend sounded when she said that, but chose to merely smile as Claire waved with her skeletal arm as she slowly drifted down into the tunnel, the flames dying down and the smoke clearing slowly. Once she was fully submerged, a bright flash occurred, blinding Stephanie temporarily. She fell to the ground, wincing as she moved her injured shoulder. Pushing herself up onto her knees, she saw something sitting in the middle of a charred crater roughly the size of the campfire they’d made.

 

Crawling over towards it, she gasped; it was a book, bound in leather. Roughly stitched with what looked like wire, the ghoulish item was the at least a foot wide, and a little taller. It had a flap with an elaborate lock sealing the tome from prying eyes. Resting on the cover was an elaborate black key, the handle ending in a small pentagram.

 

Reaching out towards the book, Stephanie picked it up and cradled it in her hands. It was warm to the touch, and throbbed as if it had a heartbeat.

 

Standing up, Stephanie looked over at the hole where they had been; two friends had gone down it, along with a traitorous murderer. All for this book, it would seem.

 

Stephanie gave a wane smile and rubbed the spine of the book affectionately. “Let’s take you home,” she said, limping out of the dark graveyard, guided only by the starlight and the bright moon hanging high in the sky.

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