's 2016 Horror Write-off:

Cracksman's Last Mistake

Submitted by River Langham

The wraith ran headlong through the fields up above Downvalley, slow as the moon. One Thursday afternoon Farmer Moor found it just inside his field. When he first saw it, the pipe fell out of his mouth and he almost ran. Both its legs were off the ground in mid-stride. It hung there like a cobweb in the morning air, but who ever saw a cobweb so black or so substantial? It was just man-shaped, gaunt, without much of a head or well-defined feet, and it gave a quietly echoing thud when Moor gingerly knocked on it with his fist. He'd never seen one before, but he must have heard the rhymes about them a thousand times before he was ten, like everyone else.

    A month later the wraith had made it to the far end of the field. For three full weeks it scrambled over the fence, and Moor decided it would be a good time to tell somebody about his visitor. He brought it up twice at the Tuesday council in the village over the next month. "wraithes be damned, I don't believe a word of it", they would say, until finally he managed to drag Councillor Longlegs out to see it, on the pretense of selling him a well-aged cask of spiced wine.

   (Moor's wine was the best, a real old-fashioned scuppernog with an exquisite bite. It was said he added three drops of dragon's blood to each barrel, although none could say why dragon's blood would improve wine, or even be tolerable in wine; nor could they say where he could have gotten such a thing, being a stout man from the eastern marches, but on the whole, no dragon-slayer, even of decently small dragons.)

   Whether purposely or not, the wraith was headed for town, there was no mistaking it. And a wraith walking idly through town might bowl over any number of walls as it went, frighten the children, and bring a stew of horrible luck to the town that might never go away, the village elders said. The next two councils debated their problem without much fire, till hot-blooded young Captain Cracksman of the village Watch announced that he'd take matters into his own hands. He rode out to see the creature that same afternoon. Moor showed him the spot, now several feet into the edge of the forest beyond his field.

   Even brave Cracksman couldn't bear to look at the thing for very long. Seeing that the young guard could do nothing about the problem at once, Moor invited him inside for a drink. They exchanged pleasantries and news about their respective families, for instance that Moor's wife was again expecting (at the ripe old age of 40, no less), or that Cracksman's father, the Old Captain, was enjoying his retirement very much. It was nearly an hour before they got to business, an hour in which a fire had been made and a cask opened.

   As they sat, sipping mulled wine, they discussed many ways they could perhaps undo the creature. Axes and picks had been tried in this case, as in many cases like it. A strong young farm-hand had chipped Moor's best axehead on the thing, in fact, and earned himself a hard knock. Build walls around it to trap it, and it'd surely bust right through. Water wouldn't bother it, and neither would ropes and chains. No, Moor had read a bit in the great-old commonplace book passed down from his great-great-great uncle, and wraiths were common enough, or had once been, that the venerable old tome recorded their weakness in an offhand way. Moor even showed him the entry, in his uncle's scratchy capitals: "RATHE BURNING UP AT CHILSKEYS FARM TODAY I SHALL ATTEND I BELIEVE - IANUARI 20"

   "Rathe", Moor said, could only mean "wraith", and a "Rathe burning" could only mean that wraithes were routinely done away with in the old days by burning. Hell, Moor said, they even made a bit of a to-do about it when they did, and invited their neighbors to see it go up in flames. Fire, he concluded, could kill the monster, or disappear it or thereabouts.

   (Little did Moor know, sadly, that a "rath" or "rathe", in the language once spoken out to the East, is a straw effigy of a goblin or an hob, burned on minor feast days, and unrelated to wraithes, as it turns out.)

   "Well, I learned my Black Jig once. If I could just remember the steps, I'd burn it right down with a blast of fire from my fingertips! As it is, I do not," said Moor.

   Cracksman looked at him very strangely for a moment. The middle-aged farmer did not seem at all like the sort of man who would have learned the ancient, sorcerous Black Jig, or any form of the Black Arts, for that matter. At any rate, the idea of portly old Moor dancing at all was rather comical. But he kept it to himself, and said "No, I remember the steps, but I'm wary to use magic. Who knows what that could do? We'll just wrap it in straw and limbs and light it up the old-fashioned way. It'll mean touching the little imp more than I like, but it'll do the trick."

   Moor was disappointed. He had meant to use conventional fire as a last resort. He'd really hoped, in a way, that Cracksman would be willing to use magic, or that he'd get someone who would. In the end, Moor said only "aye," and went to get more wine.

   So they did it the next day. They got greengrocer's twine and lashed some dry limbs and much hay around the wraith. It kept shifting just slower than the eye could see, so that it had moved an inch and shifted its arms considerably while they were tying it up, but the ropes didn't have to hold long. To top it all off, Moor went and got a pail of grease from his wife's kitchen, and drenched the beast. When it was all done, Cracksman pulled a real vesta match from his pocket.

   "I thumbed this from my cousin who works at the Inn. A thing of wonder, to be sure," Cracksman said. He crushed the matchhead in his hand, and when he pulled it out, it was making sparks and beginning to flame. He blew on it, and the flame shot up. He stuck it to the greasy hay.

   The hay and grease went up like a firework. Moor bolted at once, and was later seen drawing many-pronged wards in the dirt by his door; but Master Cracksman stood his ground. It was his last mistake, in fact. The wraith's form vanished instantly, but just as suddenly there came a strong wind, blowing towards the spot where it had stood. A black gash hung in the air there, and Cracksman found himself blown or rather sucked in.

   Blackness--pure, tangible blackness overwhelmed him completely, strangling him and filling his lungs and making him go numb in his fingers and toes. He drowned in the abyss, but he found himself quite unable to die. Inhuman voices spoke long and low, now close about his ears and now at great distance. Then a white-hot searing pain washed over him, and he lost all sense. He tried to scream, but could not. He tried to flail his arms and legs, but was unable to tell if they were moving at all.

   After what seemed like a decade of agony, he slowly came back to his senses, and the burning subsided somewhat. At length, he found himself lying on his back, in the spot where the wraith had stood. The sky wheeled over him in the gaps in the forest canopy. Storms after storms danced by in the little windows between the tree-tops, and stars shot like arrows. His mind seemed to be raging mad with a desire to be anywhere but where he was. When he finally stood, he found the madness compelled him to run. Run. Run. Run, until it was all he could think about. He ran headlong through the forest as the sky spun over him. Run. Run. Run!

   He ran for hours, past houses, through farms, and right by the old mill, but through it all, he never saw a single human being. He ran at last into the deep gash in the earth above town, ever downward at a crazed pace, until he could see Downvalley ahead in the distance.

   But with every bound Cracksman took, the thatched roofs decayed further, and more and more of the stone walls crumbled away, till at last he reached it. It was in ruins. He howled, an unearthly sound.