Eryn sniffed the air as we stepped inside the entryway. “Do you smell that?” she asked.
I couldn’t very well have missed it. The stench, like a mix of mold, formaldehyde, and rotten eggs, had slapped me in the face as soon as we’d opened the door. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “Hag. Crap.” I took a deep breath, redolent of the stink, and steeled myself as I closed the creaky door behind us. “I just hope it hasn’t fed yet.”
The house could have been on a “Haunted Houses R Us” poster. Three stories, abandoned, with the porch sagging off the front of the house, all the paint peeling off, and not an unbroken window in sight, it was, of course, a prime attraction for the teenagers in Forth. The locals had stopped even bothering to try to lock the place up, since every padlock they put on the door ended up getting cut off with bolt cutters. Even if it hadn’t, the ground floor windows didn’t have any glass in them, so there really wasn’t any keeping people out, without putting a 24/7 guard on the place.
Eryn and I had gotten the call about this one because there was some suspicion that something more dangerous than just teenagers trying to scare each other in the dark was going on.
Quietly, we stepped into the empty entryway, guns lifted. Eryn didn’t care for the kick of my trusty Winchester ’86, so she was carrying a Remington 870 instead, which I had pointed out made no sense. She’d just told me to hush. She liked the shotgun better. I’d just rolled my eyes and refused to argue. My wife can be kind of stubborn about such things.
“What if it has?” she whispered.
“For one thing, there’s no point in whispering, because the nasty thing already knows we’re here,” I replied in a regular conversational voice. The trouble with hunting Otherworld creatures is that there really isn’t any way to sneak up on them. Father O’Neal once described the Otherworld as, “the world that’s just out of sight.” These things were elusive and sneaky by nature. “Just try to shoot it before it can get its claws on you. They get really nasty close up.”
We started across the entryway. There hadn’t been any furniture in the house in a decade, at least, and the floorboards were showing through the rotting remains of the carpet. The walls were partially covered with peeling wallpaper, with the lower three feet being dry, cracked paneling. The place was dusty, and dead leaves were scattered beneath the broken windows. The only light was coming from the gray, cloudy twilight coming through the shattered windows and the flashlights we were both carrying. Eryn’s was actually attached to her shotgun’s pump, while mine was clamped to the rifle’s forearm by my fingers. Hey, lever guns date from before weapon lights, and I wasn’t going to desecrate the old rifle, that had been around a lot longer than I have, with any kind of “tacticool” mods.
If I’d been facing people, with guns, I would have been carefully flashing the light only when I wanted to see a particular spot, so that the gunmen couldn’t necessarily zero in on me. Against a hag, there was no point. So I kept the light on, gripped it with my fingertips, and moved into the living room.
The living room was as empty as the entryway, just creaking floorboards, a few tattered bits of wallpaper between gaping holes in the plaster and graffiti left by generations of teenage trespassers. There were old beer bottles and cans scattered in the corners, along with a sizable collection of mouldering fast food wrappers. What was conspicuously missing at this hour was the skittering of the rodents that had to be infesting the old house.
I moved along the outside wall, feeling horribly exposed as I crossed the windows, but the odds of the hag being outside were pretty long. They prefer their prey to come to them, once they’ve found a cozy little spot to draw the thrill-seekers. I kept the muzzle and the circle of light trained on the door to the dining room. Eryn had her shotgun aimed up the stairs, the reflected light off the faded, institution-green wallpaper giving her face a sickly cast I didn’t care for. I ignored the momentary onslaught of the heebie-jeebies and concentrated on the dining room. I hate hags. They creep me out more than most of their predatory, Otherworldly kin.
There was no movement in the dining room. Judging by what was left of the wallpaper, whoever had decorated that room had a thing for flowers. Lots of ’em. There were divots in the floor where a table had apparently stood for a long time, and there was a single, rickety-looking white metal chair, with a rotten, vermin-eaten cushion sitting propped against the wall. I took another breath, almost choking on the hag-stink, and pushed into the room, quickly swinging my rifle muzzle to cover each corner and the ceiling. I’d seen a hag drop off the ceiling onto another Hunter’s head before. It hadn’t been pretty.
Eryn was right behind me, making sure to check behind us, through the door, before we moved toward the kitchen. She’d only joined the Order of the Silver Cross a few months ago, right after we’d been married, but she caught on fast. Considering what she’d survived in Silverton, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.
The kitchen was as empty and barren as the dining room. All the cupboards were hanging open, with one door held on by only one hinge. The stove was still there, though none of the other appliances had been left. On impulse, almost afraid of what I might find, I reached out with my off hand, still gripping the flashlight, and pulled the oven open. It came open with an unholy screech, making Eryn flinch; she’d been checking our six again. I slapped my hand, and the flashlight, back on the rifle as I stepped back and pointed the .45 caliber muzzle into the oven. If the enemy had been human, it might have looked ridiculous. I got over that a long time ago.
It looked like some rats had nested in the old oven, but no hag came boiling out of it. There also weren’t any body parts in it, which was always good.
There was a back door to the yard, and a tiny pantry, but other than that, the kitchen was the last room on the first floor. On to the stairs.
I took the lead going up. Eryn was a full-fledged Witch Hunter, sure, but I had more experience, was generally better in a fight, and damn it, she was my wife. I wasn’t going to send the woman I love up the stairs first while I follow behind to pick up the pieces.
Being the woman she was, she never argued the point. The one time we’d discussed it, she’d simply smiled and said, “Okay, dear.” In some areas, she’s a lot stronger than I am.
I paused just before the landing, then popped over, sweeping the muzzle to try to cover the entire room above. It was a small hallway, with several bedrooms opening off of it. It was stark, dusty, and empty.
All but one of the doors were open. I moved to the first and stepped inside.
It was a repeat of the rooms downstairs; bare, peeling walls and a creaking, filthy floor with several of the floorboards actually missing. It was also completely empty.
I didn’t linger, but met Eryn at the door, pointing to the next room. She fell in behind me, still turning every few seconds to check the rear and the ceiling.
We were clearing the house systematically, but don’t be fooled—we weren’t on the offensive. We’d been on the defensive ever since we’d stepped in the door. We didn’t decide when we found the hag; the hag decided when it found us.
Empty room. Another empty room, except for the pile of filthy rags piled in the corner under a window that didn’t even have the fragments of the glass panes left in it, just an empty frame. I kept my rifle trained on the pile a little bit longer than usual; I’d faced a Rag Man in Silverton and it wasn’t an experience I was eager to repeat.
But the rags didn’t move, so we moved on until we were right at the only closed door on the entire second story.
It was closed and latched, which was a little odd; not even the front door had actually been latched. I pointed my rifle at the door, and Eryn reached over to turn the knob.
It wasn’t in good shape—big surprise—and took some effort to get the knob to turn. It rasped loudly, though the hinges didn’t squeak as the door swung open. I darted in behind my Winchester, trying desperately to spot the hag before it jumped on me.
The hag wasn’t there. But, in contrast to the rest of the house so far, the room wasn’t empty.
There were clumps of dried vegetation hanging from the rafters, along with thicker cobwebs than I’d ever seen anywhere, never mind in the rest of the house, which was generally cobweb-free. The thickest such webs were in the corner, where three forms were swathed in them like flies in a spiderweb.
In the center of the room was a pile of bleached human bones, the skull lying at the bottom. They could have been there for a century, from the looks of them, but I knew better. They were the scraps from the hag’s feast. “Ah, hell,” I said. “That answers that question.” The hag had fed, which meant it was going to be faster, meaner, and stronger. And it was going to take a lot more punishment before going down.
Eryn moved across the room to check the survivors, who were swathed in the hag’s web. Hags have a reputation in folklore for being weavers, to the point that some depictions of the inside of a hag’s hut show a loom. Well, they are weavers, just not the kind that need a loom to weave with.
I didn’t watch; I was too busy keeping my rifle trained on the door while checking every other crack and cranny that the thing could crawl out of. A hag that’s eaten has ways of sneering at size limitations if it wants to get at you.
I could hear Eryn struggling to pull the web away from the victims’ faces. It was tough stuff. The sound almost masked the rustle out in the hallway. “Hold still for a second,” I told her. I needed to listen.
At first there was only silence, as if whatever had moved had heard me, and was staying still, its movement no longer masked by Eryn’s struggles with the cobwebs. Of course, that wasn’t likely; the hag could be completely silent if it wanted to be, regardless of where it was. More likely, the thing was toying with us.
There it was again—a papery sort of hiss, like something dry being dragged across the wall. I had a sudden mental image of a skeletal talon of a hand sliding across the ragged wallpaper in the hallway. It figured we were trapped, and was screwing with us on its way in to add to its larder. I’ve heard the theory that hags find the meat tastier when the victim is terrified. How the person who told me this knew that, I have no idea. Somehow, I expect if he’d asked an actual hag, he would have become the hag’s next meal, and wouldn’t be able to say whether his terror had had anything to do with his flavor.
I was banking on the hag not realizing that we had a bit of bite of our own.
The rustling out in the hallway stopped. I waited for the hag to appear in the doorway, but there was nothing. Nothing went on for a good five minutes, during which Eryn went back to trying to free the contents of the monster’s little do-it-yourself pantry. I didn’t relax, but kept my muzzle on the door and my eyes watching every gap in the plaster.
It had gotten wary all of a sudden. I suspect it had figured out that there was something strange about us. I hoped it hadn’t realized what. Catching it by surprise would help finish this quickly.
The uneventful silence stretched on. I was tempted to taunt the thing, but I knew that probably wasn’t going to help. It would come after us when it was good and ready to, probably at the most mind-blowingly inconvenient time possible.
Eryn had finally gotten one of the kids free of his cocoon, and laid out on the dusty floor. It felt like I should be helping, but as soon as I put the gun down and went to assist, that was when we’d get jumped and eaten.
The rustling was back, this time like skirts or burial shrouds slithering across the floor. “New visitors to my humble home?” The dry, creaky voice didn’t seem to have a source; it just hung in the air. If the thing was trying to sound like a kindly grandmother, it was failing miserably. Its voice had all the melodiousness of fingernails on a chalkboard. “But not courteous, no. Breaking into the pantry without even a by-your-leave.”
I groaned. “Why do the monsters have to be chatty?”
“It’s trying to put us off our guard,” Eryn said. She was beside me now, her 870 held ready. The victims could wait until we’d dispatched the hag.
“It was a rhetorical question,” I muttered, then raised my voice. It knew we were here, so the hell with it. “Just show me your face and I’ll give you a proper greeting,” I said. I didn’t have a lot of hope that it would oblige me with a clean shot, but it was worth a try.
There was a flicker of movement on the other side of the door, like a scrap of cloth sweeping past. I didn’t take the bait. I was pretty sure it was a feint.
It was. No sooner had Eryn shifted her shotgun toward the movement than the hag was suddenly crawling through a crack in the plaster to her left. The crack was no more than two inches wide, but it stretched at an angle from the ceiling to two feet above the floor. The hag seemed to be having no trouble squirming through it.
Before it could get all the way into the room, however, I had swung my rifle and put two rounds into it as fast as I could crank the Winchester’s lever. The big .45-70 boomed thunderously in the small space; fortunately, at Eryn’s insistence, we’d splurged and bought battery-powered earplugs from Cabelas. They meant we’d gone without a few things for a couple months, but they kept us from going deaf when we had to do things like shoot a couple of feet from each other’s ears.
I usually carry a mix of steel and silver jacketed rounds for the ’86, and that night was no exception. The two metals tend to have different effects on Otherworld creatures, depending on their nature and just how much truck they’ve had with The Abyss. Silver works better for some, steel for others. Hags tend to be vulnerable to iron.
The first round hit about dead-center as the hag expanded through the crack. It was a silver jacket, so while it had to hurt, it didn’t have much effect. The second hit just above the first, and that was a little spectacular.
There was a noise like an enormous water drop hitting an equally enormous pan full of hot grease. A tongue of flame actually licked up from the impact point, and the hag screeched loud enough to have shattered the windows if they had still had glass in them, then vanished.
And by vanished, I mean there was actually a pop of displaced air rushing in to fill where it had been. I hadn’t known that hags could do that. I guess there were other side benefits for them from eating human flesh.
“Well, now it’s mad,” I said. I just caught the wry, sideways glance from Eryn, as she hastily headed back to the victims and started pulling at the webs wrapping up another one of them.
“We’ve got to get these kids out,” she said, straining to pull handfuls of the sticky, cottony stuff away from a girl’s face.
“Unless we deal with that hag first, we’ll just get ourselves and them eaten on the way out,” I pointed out, still trying to watch every crack, hole, and door at once.
“But we can’t leave them alone,” she said. “What if it comes back and snacks on one of them while we’re running around the house hunting it? It’s pretty obvious that it can get around pretty easily.”
I didn’t look back at her, knowing that as soon as I did, the hag would probably take advantage of my distraction and rip my head off. I didn’t have to, anyway. I could picture the look of determination on her face. This woman had helped hold off a possessed mob hell-bent on murdering and defiling everyone in St. Anthony’s in Silverton. She had guts; if she hadn’t, she never would have taken to me, and we never would have gotten married. She also had a protective streak almost as wide as mine. There was no way she was going to willingly leave those kids if there was any other way.
Unfortunately, there were really only two options. We could venture out into the house and draw the hag into a fight, and hopefully kill it, or we could hold here, while it toyed with us, and hope we could kill it before it picked us off. I found I was increasingly uneasy about the possibility of one of the kids waking up, too. Who knows how screwed up they’d be in the head after whatever spell the hag had put over them?
With a grimace, I accepted that there wasn’t much choice. I wasn’t leaving Eryn alone, and she was right; while they might be a handful we couldn’t afford if they woke up, we couldn’t allow for the possibility that the hag, hurt by the steel jacket of my bullet, wouldn’t come and eat another one while we were gone to replenish its strength. So, we stayed put and waited.
It occurred to me, as we sat in the strangely altered room with the three comatose teenagers and the bones of their friend, that we might actually be able to wait this out. Hags don’t usually move around during daylight, unless they’re in a particularly friendly spot, usually someplace already shadowy and haunted. When I checked my watch, though, that hope was pretty well dashed. It was only one in the morning; there was no way that thing was going to keep its distance for another five hours.
Now, hags may be flesh-eating monsters, but that doesn’t mean they are dumb or simple-minded. I wasn’t expecting that thing to come at us the same way twice, and I was right.
It started low, barely audible, but slowly, we started to be able to hear a soft, eerie, keening sort of singing. It was somewhere between a lullaby and the soundtrack from a horror movie. Eryn’s head came up as she heard it, a curious expression on her face.
“Don’t listen,” I told her. “Try to block it out.”
She looked over at me. “It’s one of those things that gets in your head, isn’t it?” she asked.
I nodded, still watching the door and the bigger cracks in the walls. “For some people, it just makes them sleepy. I’ve heard of others where they give in to despair and just sit down and wait for the hag to come suck the meat off their bones. It’s powerful stuff.” I looked at the unconscious kids. “It’s probably going to be even longer before they wake up, now.”
The song got slightly louder, more intrusive. It took more concentration to block it out. Either the hag was pushing harder, or it was getting closer. Either way was probably going to be bad news. My eyes were starting to itch, and a prickling sensation was starting to build up in my ears.
“All right, knock it off,” I yelled, my voice reverberating strangely in the barren rooms. “Come get some if you’re so anxious. Otherwise go back into the hole you crawled out of.”
I was hoping to hack it off. People can get sloppy when they get mad, but for some reason, the irrationality of rage gets magnified to ridiculous levels with creatures of the Otherworld. They are extremely prideful beings, and there’s little that can push an Otherworldly predator over the edge like getting mocked by its prey.
The hag wasn’t biting, though, not yet. The song just got louder, though it sounded kind of…staticky. Eryn looked over at me. “The sound’s changed.”
“Yeah. It’s just going to get more dangerous,” I said. “Keep trying to ignore it. If it gets to either of us, we’ve probably had it.”
Eryn then started countering the insidious assault in a way I probably would never have thought of. She started to sing the Salve Regina. I never would have thought of it mainly because I can’t sing. Even when I try, it comes out as a tuneless croak. I decided not to risk disrupting the effect of the hymn by adding my grunting to her clear tones, so I just mouthed along with the words and kept my eye and my muzzle on the door.
It had the desired effect. The eerie lullaby cut off with a screech, and then the hag was coming through another crack in the plaster and crawling along the ceiling, shrieking its hate, trying to drown out the words Eryn was singing.
The twin reports of rifle and shotgun did drown out the hymn, as well as the hag’s malicious screaming. Flames popped where steel shot and steel-jacketed 300-grain bullets smacked into it. It dropped off the ceiling with an agonized howl of hate and pain, and hit the floor like a sack of bricks. We kept shooting it as fast as we could pump or lever rounds into our respective weapons’ chambers, until both tubes were empty.
Fire licked from the thing’s wounds, and the hag’s corpse rapidly began to smoke and crumble. By the time both of our guns were empty, and we were frantically shoving rounds through loading ports, it had been reduced to a pile of ash and crumbling bones, sagging under the weight of old, mouldering rags. One eye remained in its dessicated face, glaring hate at us until I walked up and stomped on the disintegrating skull. It turned to dust under my boot.
Eryn jacked a round into her shotgun’s chamber as she looked down at the pathetic remains. “That wasn’t so bad,” she said. “I thought you said these things were tough.”
I gave her an irritated look, just in time to see the little smile that told me she was teasing me. Again. “If it had gotten close enough, it would have been. And it took an awful lot of buckshot and bullets before it went down,” I pointed out.
“I know,” she said. “If it had surprised us, we would have really been in trouble.” She didn’t mention that if she hadn’t gotten under its skin with the hymn, it probably would have been a lot tougher fight, either. I was about to say something about that when one of the kids stirred. She turned her back on the hag’s remnants and went to check on the kids.
None of them were actually conscious, but they were starting to come out of it. At least, that was what I took away from the fearful, incoherent mumblings that some of them were making. They weren’t comatose anymore, anyhow.
Something caught my eye as one of them stirred, and a piece of paper fell on the floor. I bent to pick it up, leaning my rifle against the wall and shining my flashlight on it. Then I grimaced and reached for my lighter. Written on the paper in a circle was a name, one I won’t repeat. The hag had showed up because these idiots had invoked it.
Eryn looked up as I flicked my lighter and set the corner of the paper on fire. “The same little ‘challenge’ that’s been going around social media for the last month?” she asked.
I nodded, holding the paper until the flames almost reached my thumb and forefinger before dropping it and crushing out the fire with my boot. “Just harmless playing around, right?” I shook my head in disgust. “We’ll have to track down whoever started it. Bad medicine.”
“We will,” Eryn said. “But right now we have to make sure these kids are all right. Hunting and divine retribution can come later.”
She was right. I could already see the flickering blue and red lights from outside. The cops had showed up, thanks to the gunfire. There were times where I would have gone out the back at that point, but with the kids probably needing medical care, and a missing person involved—it would take time to determine that the bleached bones on the floor belonged to one of the kids—we needed to cooperate. After all, we had just rescued the kids, and the only signs of what we’d been shooting at was a pile of dust and ashes on the floor. They’d come up with some kind of explanation, and we’d go on our way. I hoped.