Copyright © 2013 LIla Dubois
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Séan’s heart leapt into his throat and his muscles tensed as adrenaline spiked in his bloodstream. He started toward the castle, twine snapping as he caught his foot on the string outlining the path. He moved fast, narrowly avoiding gaping holes and the potted plants that waited beside them. Circling a tree, he saw the rear terrace. What had once been overgrown with ivy and vines was now clear and clean, though drenched in shadow. As his foot hit the lowest step, the rear double doors creaked open.
He had a moment to make a decision. Last time he’d run from the ghost, and he’d learned nothing. He was older now, wiser, and he would not run.
“Wait,” he yelled, mounting the steps two at a time.
The doors slammed shut. He stopped, standing uncertainly on the terrace as the breeze rustled around him. Ten seconds passed, then twenty. After a minute, Séan rubbed his stubbled jaw, not sure if he’d imagined the ghost in the window and the doors opening. He took a few steps, wanting to at least check the doors to see if they were unlocked.
One door opened, slamming back to hit the stone wall with a reverberating thud. A gray figure stood in the opening. Séan had a moment to absorb what he saw—a female figure with white hair, wearing some sort of long dress, a translucent candle hovering in the air above her left shoulder. She took two steps out onto the terrace. Now he could see her face, which was lovely and calm. For a moment she appeared almost peaceful—like a gray toned portrait or painting.
Then the woman’s dress faded away, leaving her in a ragged undergarment ripped at one shoulder, revealing her left breast. As Séan watched, long black scratches appeared on her exposed flesh. It was both familiar and freshly horrible. Her shoulders hunched and she curled her arms around her belly. Thick chains crawled out of the darkness behind her. The chain moved as if it were a living thing—a snake of linked iron that climbed her body, wrapping around her ankles, wrists and neck.
“Holy Mary Mother of God,” Séan whispered. The longer he looked, the more solid the woman became. He could no longer see through her, and the wounds that covered her were now more burgundy than black.
She was coming alive before him, and it was a terrible thing to see.
“Missus,” Séan said voice gruff with fear and alarm, “who are you?”
Her head jerked up, and just like the ghost he’d seen all those years ago, there were no eyes, only empty sockets. She raised her chain-draped hands to her face.
He couldn’t watch this again. “Don’t, please. I’ll help you.”
Her eyeless face turned toward him. “Imigh anseo mo, chol cathair.” Her voice echoed as if she were speaking at one end of a long pipe, as unholy a sound as he’d ever heard.
Séan hesitated, struggling to translate the strong country Irish. Her raised hands reached out to him, the fingers curled into claws. “Imigh anseo mo, chol cathair!” Her scream sent spikes of pain through his skull.
Séan slapped his hands over his ears. Every instinct told him to run, but he wouldn’t turn away from someone in need. He wouldn’t fail her again.
The ghost turned her head, as if she looked over her shoulder with those sightless eyes. Séan took a step to the side, stomach heavy with dread at what he might see behind the apparition.
The woman whipped back around, and Séan heard the chains clank. “Rith!” Her scream was an assault on his senses, freezing him in his tracks, but it wasn’t until she came at him, fingers clawed, mouth open wide, that he ran.
Séan stumbled down the steps, racing through the garden along the back wall of the main wing. He skirted the construction zone for the new kitchen, headed toward the lights and noise of the pub. As he skidded to a stop on the smoking patio, the door opened.
Sorcha was silhouetted by the light, her hair glowing like fire. A smile lit her face as she closed the door, muting the sounds of revelry.
“Ah, there you are. I’m very sorry to make you wait, but now the night—”
“You cannot stay here.” Séan grabbed her hand, dragging her off the concrete slab into the garden, where he ignored the path and headed away from the castle.
“Séan, where are we going?” Her voice lilted with a laugh.
The fact that she was so terribly unaware of the danger around her made him all the more determined to get her, and then the rest of them—every person in that pub—away from this place.
“As far away from this place as we can get.”
“Are you well?” The laughter was gone from her voice, replaced by uncertainty.
“I will be when you’re safe.”
They’d rounded the corner of the east wing. He could see the front drive, and the parking lot beyond that. The need to leave this place was a raging in him.
“Séan, wait, I don’t understand.” Gravel crunched under their feet as they crossed the drive.
“You’re not safe here.”
“What are you talking about?” Sorcha’s hand wiggled out of his hold.
Séan turned to her. There wasn’t enough light to see her face, but her silhouette was visible. She stood with her hands on her hips, head high.
“That’s hardly news.” She tossed her head, strands of hair catching the starlight. “I know it’s haunted.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because it’s my job. Actually, this is my dream job. And ghosts aren’t real. The stories about it being haunted are priceless as far as giving the hotel character.”
“No job is worth this.”
“Worth what?” Sorcha shifted. “It wouldn’t be a proper old building if there weren’t a few ghost stories.”
“They aren’t stories. The ghosts are real, the danger is real.”
“You’re afraid of the ghosts.”
There was a note of pity in her voice, and Séan gritted his teeth. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t scared of the ghosts, but this was too important to lie. “Yes, I’m terrified of them. Whatever’s in there is so tortured that even a priest’s blessing didn’t help. The souls left here have suffered. They’re suffering still and anyone who stays here might end up like them.”
She fell back a step, and Séan realized he’d raised his voice, something he almost never did.
“You seriously believe the ghosts are dangerous.”
“I’ve seen the bodies of people who didn’t believe this place was dangerous.”
“You mean the people who died in construction accidents? We’ve had more engineers than I can count out here, and we know where there are structural issues and what’s dangerous. Everything’s being repaired.”
“That may fix the building, but it won’t touch the ghosts.”
“The ghosts didn’t kill anyone, and the building is something—”
“I’ve seen the ghosts.” His word cut through the night. He heard Sorcha take a breath, waiting for more. “I saw one just now, while I waited for you. It’s a woman, tortured and wearing chains. And I’ve seen another one, a woman in gray, eight years ago. It may even be the same being. That woman—ghost—is in the castle right now and I know there’s worse things than her in there.”
Sorcha’s arms dropped to her sides, her fingers tugging the fabric of her pants. “You saw a ghost, just now?”
She turned her head away, hair hiding her face. “There are a lot of scientific explanations for people seeing ghosts—”
Séan grabbed her by her arms, jerked her against him. He wanted to shake her, make her understand, but as her quick breathing made her breasts brush against his chest, his need to shake her changed into something else. His blood was up, as his mother would say.
Séan wrapped one arm around her back, the other hand cupped the back of her head. He kissed her.
For a moment she was stiff with surprise, their lips pressed hard together, but then she melted against him, her body soft in his arms. She tasted like apples, and her lips were willing. The kiss lasted a minute, an hour. Séan lost himself in her, until all he could feel was the heat of desire, no more cold dread and fear.
He shifted the arm at her back and her hands wrapped around his waist. Soon the kiss wasn’t enough and he slid his hand down, finding the hem of her sweater. She gasped when his fingers touched the warm skin of her back.
Her gasp was like a splash of cold water, reminding him of where they were and what they were doing. Séan released her.
Sorcha raised a trembling hand to her mouth, touching her lips.
Séan wondered if he’d hurt her, grabbing her like that, wondered if he should apologize for kissing her without her permission.
But he said nothing. He felt empty now, as if the encounter with the ghost and now the kiss had drained him of energy and feeling.
Of the two, it was the kiss that had him more rattled.