Night of the Cloud Spectre
by Mike Phillips
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
The headlights of the Volvo made a cave of the tree branches overhanging the road. Jenny felt trapped within the gloom. The trunks of the trees and the thick bushes seemed to meld into one, imprisoning her, giving her nowhere to go should the cloud spectre suddenly appear. Even the occasional low-hanging branch did nothing to settle her fears. She could not know what lay beyond the feeble light, deep within the forest. The spectre could be anywhere.
“Courage, child,” said Miss Weigenmeister for a third time, taking Jenny’s hand. Jenny turned to her and smiled. “They say that soldiers are all afraid before going into battle, but once the fighting starts, once the anticipation is over and there is no longer time for thinking. Courage serves us best.”
“I’m not scared,” Jenny said impudently, pulling her hand free. “We’re going to get that thing, teach it a lesson.”
“Yes, perhaps, when the time comes we will.”
“You bet we will,” Jenny crossed her arms and fixed her gaze upon the windshield and the world outside ther car.
For a long while, neither said anything. Fearing the silence would lengthen into terror, Miss Weigenmeister said, “Why don’t you tell me something about that book you’re reading. Did you like it?”
Instead of talking about the book, Jenny said, “How are we going to find that thing? It must be miles away from the park by now. I’m sure it wanted to get out of there after what it did.”
“I think that whatever this creature is, it has little to fear from mortals. It may not flee the scene in fear like some common criminal; it is likely to move on, to go in search of more victims.”
“Back to the park then?” Jenny said, swallowing nervously. The thought of seeing the van or the camp made her feel sad in a horrible way.
“That would be a good place to start,” Miss Weigenmeister admitted. “Though I haven’t the ability to touch it, I can see many other things that happen in the world. I’ll try to see the negative, if you understand my meaning.”
“Don’t look for it, but look for what it has done.”
“Your understanding of the situation is quite sufficient.”
“You could change into a crow and try to spot it from the air.”
“If that is the only way, then yes, but I don’t anticipate too much trouble finding it. If I may say so, I do run into these sorts of troubles with very little effort. My guess is that it will make for town. The road from the park to town is, more or less, a straight line. We should spot it easily enough.”
“But people live out there,” Jenny protested.
“Yes, indeed, but a house is more than four walls and a roof. A house, like a church or a synagogue or a mosque, offers protection from such evils of the world. It has been that way since time began.”
“Like not inviting vampires in.”
After many turns through deserted back roads, they finally came to the park. Tracks in the gravel at the entrance showed them the way.
“I feel it,” Jenny said, shivering. “We’re getting close. Are you sure we shouldn’t call the cops? I see a cell tower. It’s dead at the park but I’d bet there’s a signal here.”
“The things young people know about these days,” Miss Weigenmeister said, slowing the car and taking the blunderbuss in her lap. “No, I’m certain that involving the police would provide little benefit. Besides, I don’t have a cell phone.”
“What?” said Jenny in disbelief. “Who doesn’t have a cell phone?”
Piqued, Miss Weigenmeister asked, “Do you?”
“Well, no, but my mom said I could get one for my birthday next year.”
“No matter. Wait, I think I see it.”
“Where?” said Jenny, straining. Then she saw it, a dark shape walking in the center of the road, gray skin luminous in the headlights.
They came to a stop some fifty feet from the cloud spectre. Miss Weigenmeister set the brake and popped open the door. The blunderbuss cradled in her arms, she proceeded to the front of the car, staying hidden behind the headlights.
She shouted a challenge, but the silent form did not turn round to look at her, just continued on its way unawares. Perhaps it was unconcerned. She shouted again, this time investing words of power with command. Slowly, painfully, the cloud spectre turned.
Its face was misshapen, hardly human at all. It had bulbous eyes and a long, crooked nose. Its ears stuck out too far from its head. The cloud spectre made a sort of smile which seemed meant to hold scorn, but the smile looked more like the gaping maw of some bottom feeding fish, born in the deep darkness of the ocean. It started toward her, stretching out its arms as if to grab her by the neck.
The blunderbuss to her shoulder, Miss Weigenmeister cocked the hammer and took aim. She pulled the trigger and the flint sparked, igniting the powder in the pan with a flash. But the gun did not fire. Something had gone amiss.
She lowered the blunderbuss to her thigh and pulled back the hammer. After clearing the pan with her thumb, she took a small horn from her purse, priming the pan once again for another try.
Her enemy did not wait. The cloud spectre came closer and closer, each step slow and deliberate. The distance between them shortened to forty feet and then thirty as Miss Weigenmeister fumbled with the gun.
The car door slammed shut. The engine revved, shrill and piercing as the clutch popped and the tires squealed. The old Volvo shot forward, close enough to Miss Weigenmeister to blow her skirts with the rush of air.
Jenny hit the cloud spectre with the front bumper, sending it sprawling onto the pavement, first the front and then the rear tire rolling over the body with a satisfying thump. Only after the second bump did Jenny take her foot from the accelerator, coming to a stop and turning in the seat to have a look at what she had accomplished.
The false man was stretched out on the pavement. For a few moments it did not move. But then it rolled over and put two hands upon the road, seemingly little harmed for having been run down. It pushed its torso up, rose to its knees, and stood.
A deep tire tread, steaming with gray smoke, flattened and marred the spectre from its groin all the way to its head. Venting more of the gray smoke, the thing’s chest inflated like a balloon, returning to its previous form, not noticeably diminished.
The car engine revved. Bucking under an inexpert hand, the Volvo rolled backward, running the cloud spectre over once again.
The car screeched to a halt. Jenny opened the door and shouted, “Get in.”
Breathless, Miss Weigenmeister said, “Young lady, if you think that I would condone, no less encourage, an underage and unlicensed driver to operate any sort of motor vehicle in the public right of way, no matter the present circumstances, you are sadly and most definitely mistaken.”
Jenny frowned, but unbuckled the seatbelt and slid over. Miss Weigenmeister sat in the driver’s seat and shut the door.
By the time they had fastened their safety belts, the cloud spectre was coming toward them. Miss Weigenmeister hit the gas, running the creature over for a third time, but missing it with the tire. Powerful fingers raked the undercarriage.
They had not made their escape. After only traveling a few hundred yards, the car engine began to sputter and then quit altogether.
“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Weigenmeister said as she pumped the accelerator and turned the key. The starter motor cranked but the engine failed to turn over.
“Don’t look at me,” said Jenny, “it was working fine.”
“Yes, that is most humorous. Pardon me for the moment if I fail to laugh.”
“I smell gas,” Jenny said. “You think that’s it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You think he’s following us?”
“I’m certain we aren’t on the top of its social register.”
“Hey, I think you made a joke.”
“Yes, I am capable of some wit.” Opening the car door, Miss Weigenmeister said, “We should be on our way. It may move quickly when agitated.”
“Is this gun of yours any good? Should I bring it?”
“There’s a good thought, and don’t forget your book. That’s public property and a privilege you obviously undervalue. In ancient times men killed and died for books. Now, I will admit that men are in general foolish creatures, but that does little to negate the emphasis that I place upon the matter.”
“Okay, okay, I’ve got it,” said Jenny as she stuck the book under her arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Yes, the new day will soon be dawning, which may or may not be our salvation, but we have to survive until then.”
* * *
The road was bordered by a thick forest. Not yet seeing the cloud spectre in pursuit, they made their way in amongst the trees. They hoped that it would come after them so that others would be safe, taking a winding path through the underbrush both to confuse and delay what followed.
“I know a place we can go,” Jenny said as they emerged upon the edge of a hay field. It was newly mowed and the sweet smell of cut grass gave them strength. “It should be safe and it’s not too far away.”
“Then lead on. I need to find a place to have a look at this thing,” Miss Weigenmeister said, meaning the blunderbuss.
Over the rise of a little hill, they saw the town in the distance. The street lights were still bright in the fading darkness, the shadow images of the old buildings looking like piano keys. There was a dirt road at the far end of the field, with half a dozen houses and a commercial building or two in a cluster.
A dog began barking. The noise woke other dogs, and they too began to warn their sleeping masters of the coming danger. Over her shoulder, Jenny saw the cloud spectre standing at the little rise of a hill.
“Quick,” Jenny said, starting to run, “here it comes.”
Hand in hand, they raced across the field to the road, coming to the first of the commercial buildings. It was the Finnish Hall, a cinderblock structure with a cedar roof and few windows. Jenny led them at a jog to a formidable steel door with a single, rectangular window.
“It’s locked,” Miss Weigenmeister said, pulling the handle. “We’ll never get in. We’ll have to find something else. Let’s go. I don’t see what protection this place will offer us against that thing anyway.”
“You’ll see,” Jenny said. She jumped up, trying to hook her fingers into the groove above the door. “My grandpa used to take me here all the time. There’s a key somewhere.”
“Let me try, I’m a bit taller.” Though she had to strain, Miss Weigenmeister could just barely reach above the door. Her eyes brightened as she found a key. She inserted the key into the lock, turned it, but was unable to open the door. “It’s stuck.”
“Here he comes!” said Jenny, pushing Miss Weigenmeister aside and jiggling the handle. “It’s tricky sometimes. You got to work it.”
The door came open. They hurried inside and locked the door behind them as the cloud spectre lumbered across the parking lot.
The cloud spectre tried the handle, but found the door immovable. Wasting no time, it punched through the window, reaching over the broken glass to find the latch.
Jenny screamed. The library book in both hands, she frantically beat the spectre’s arm, driving it onto the broken glass. Before she realized what was happening, the hand fell to the ground.
The hand was utterly different from a human’s hand with skin, muscle and bone. It was solid, like a manikin’s hand. Like melting ice, it soon became misshapen. The hand withered, turning to gray vapor, and was gone. All that remained was the pungent stench of sulfur clinging to the air.
Jenny clasped her mouth, then retched.
“We need to escape. Is there a back door?” Miss Weigenmeister said.
Jenny wiped the vomit from her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket. The fear and nausea had left her. She felt she was now a brave girl who had faced a most terrible monster and had dealt it a grievous injury. Her heart swelling within her, Jenny sprinted down a wide hall, dashing through the open door of the first room she came to.
“I can do better than that. Follow me.”
The cloud spectre put its other hand through the broken window, showing no concern over the loss. With no opposition, it reached down and took hold of the latch; turning it with the same careful deliberation it showed walking. The lock clicked, the door swung open, and it was inside.
“Here it comes!” Jenny shouted from the hallway.
They had turned on the light, but being able to see the cloud spectre better gave her no comfort. Just the opposite, as Jenny watched the vacant features, the lumbering gate, and felt the horrid intent of the thing approaching her, her courage failed just as it had on the beach. She was again powerless and held in its thrall.
The cloud spectre walked toward Jenny, awful mouth agape, bulbous eyes lit with malice and contempt. Each step toward her was like a wave upon the ocean, strong and irresistible, coming closer and closer as she felt herself go mad with the desire to run. But she could not run. She could not resist.
Behind Jenny, Miss Weigenmeister was grinning. This room was a place of safety beyond all others. Not sparing a moment, she began work on the blunderbuss, clearing the chamber of the wadding, silver balls, and powder. Now she would have time to start over again. It took some doing, but the job was soon complete.
Satisfied with the results of the cleaning, she retrieved the small powder horn from her purse, packing the salvo tightly into the barrel. She raised the weapon and took aim in what she knew to be the general direction of the door. What she saw filled her with dread.
Jenny stood blocking the doorway, as still as a stone. The cloud spectre was in the hallway beyond, only a few paces away.
“Jenny?” Miss Weigenmeister said, cocking the hammer. “Jenny, get out of the way now.”
The girl did not respond. She watched the cloud spectre as if fascinated, as a rat watches the gentle swaying of a cobra.
The enchantments of her voice investing the word with command, Miss Weigenmeister shouted, “Ready!”
The spell was doing its job. Jenny realized what was happening and dove to the floor. The cloud spectre continued toward them untroubled. It tried to take a step into room, but found that it could not. Some force kept it from entering.
“See, I told you he couldn’t get in here,” Jenny shouted triumphantly.
Dismayed, the cloud spectre looked uncomprehendingly at the interior of the room, unable to grasp the reason why it had been refused entry, knowing no law of the ancient world that could have stopped it. Then it looked up to see the image of an enemy against which it had no power.
This was a holy place. The old church Jenny had attended since birth was finally being remodeled. The Finnish Hall had become the temporary home of its congregation and was a place of safety from evil.
With Jenny out of the way, Miss Weigenmeister took aim and started to pull the trigger. But she stopped. The day was dawning, and the sun was working its daily miracle, bringing light and heat to the world. Though none of its rays fell upon the spectre, the power of the sun could not be denied. The cloud spectre returned to mist and rose into the sky. For another day it was banished to the clouds, cursed to drift upon the wind in search of victims.
Copyright © 2012 by Mike Phillips