"Ghost Walker", A Story for Boxing Day 2019

He was a familiar sight by now in the town when in costume to deliver his spectral tour talks but was ordinary and incognito as himself.  His tales were thoroughly researched against local lore and lurid histories, which he tailored to his listeners' expectations.  Last night's had been a spectacular success, finishing in the hilltop hotel he resided in himself.  It was a magnificent Victorian structure where its builder, Hanson, a one time railway speculator and amateur necromancer on the fringes of the Golden Dawn, having gone abruptly bankrupt, had locked himself in his chambers and was said, after performing one of his arcane rituals, to have vanished forever from the face of the earth, thus escaping his creditors and delighting a credulous populace.

Some maintained that a shadowy figure, glimpsed occasionally in the miniature railway tunnel walkway he had made in the embankment below the hotel, was that of Hanson himself, a matter the Ghost Walker made much of for the benefit of any children in his audience when they all stood together in its darkly forbidding centre whilst he beguiled them.

The Ghost Walker was not from the seaside town originally but it had been, far in his past now, a place of childhood holidays.  Finding himself, at last, in search of bearings (being a person always harried by a sense of coming loss which life gradually and inevitably bore out) he had retired here in the hope of feeling settled.  He enjoyed his new hobby.  His father had been an excellent storyteller and he imbued his own efforts with an elegiac sense of relish which drew people in while the moment lasted.

He went out for his customary early morning walk on this day with a particular satisfaction.  The Ghost Walker always attempted to ensure that his stories were as accurate as possible.  He had spent the rest of last night in completing an experiment, drawn from an old, leatherbound volume which had once belonged to the library of the disappeared Mr Hanson.  The Ghost Walker had hunted it down through the byways of the internet and bargained successfully for it with its present owner, a collector of all things occult.

The book was filled with disturbing etchings of strange creatures, demonic alternatives to cherubim and seraphim, ranged, as the heavenly ones were, in their hierarchies of power.  Diagrams of signs and mechanisms, cogs and wheels intertwined with incantations, listed the supposed pathways to calling up the strengths of these dark forces and binding them to your own needs.  He had always enjoyed tinkering with small mechanics and had attempted one or two of these miniature 'engines' himself.  Having finished this one as completely as he could, he amused himself, at midnight of course, by starting it up and chanting through the text to accompany its intricate workings.  Once concluded, not participating in any such beliefs personally, he wondered that anyone else should ever have put faith in them.  His own interest was purely intellectual and in pursuit of the veracity of the stories he told on his ghost walks.

This coast had it's strangeness, sea frets, without much warning, blanking out the sun that might be scorching the gorse moor only a few miles inland.  Today was such a morning at its early start.  He walked across the cliff top path first, feeling the cold and clammy damp of the mist driving the human warmth from his skin and, as he descended to the beach, found himself surrounded by its ethereal oddity, a chilly breath upon him.  It was patchy and cleared in places, revealing three cormorants, hunched, gloomy and ancient with saurian intent on their prey below the grey, rippled water.  Perched on the old pier's rotten rail as they would have been on a branch of some petrified forest, today's cold wind was like that of a million years ago to them, indifferent to the changing times.

He walked on forwards, well beyond them, for the tide was out and his, he thought, were the first feet to mark the cleansed sands today.  He paused to look back, as the sea mist came and went and saw the impression of another set of feet, behind and beside his, washed back and forth perhaps by sand and tide from a yesterday's visitor, although, for a moment, at a distance, he glimpsed what seemed to be a tall, dark figure, stooped forward somehow.  Yet the second set of prints was just behind and near to his, while the figure he peered at was further back.

The sea fret's eerie cawl cleared again slightly as it blew between him and what he half believed he had seen but, no, it was just one of the old pier's stanchions, what was left of its iron column and once round ball top still standing but lumpily disfigured by the endless weathering of salt filled sea gales, as rotted as a corpse and equally drowned.  Even seeing it for what it was filled him with the shivering dread he felt for the destructive sea.  The Ghost Walker never swam in its plunging waves sucking back and forth around the rocks but could watch it for hours, entranced rather than enchanted.

The mist's tendrils had once more blown across his view but had cleared nearer to him and he bent down to look at the footprints shadowing his.  They were big, blurred and shallower than his own, as if whatever had made them did not carry the weight of blood and bone with it.  Yes, he said to himself, old prints, made possibly at the last low tide in the muddy sands and, barely retained, now uncovered again.  It reminded him of the discovery made on another beach, of footprints showing the steps of a long ago woman and child from man's earliest history, foraging along their shoreline for meagre pickings.

He thought, as he straightened again, that above the sound of the sea, he could discern another, a strange plashing and stealthy padding crossing the still wet sands behind him.  He peered into the whiteness furling and unfurling across his sight.  A dog, no doubt?  And yet, these were two feet, surely, not four?

"Hello!" he called out, and "Good morning!" needing to establish what was coming but nobody called back.

The noises, which had given him again a feeling of crawling horror, had ceased, or perhaps were simply overwhelmed by the calls of seagulls now circling about with the coming of a returning tide?  He did allow nature to play on his nerves, he told himself, for dramatic purposes later but this, this felt intrinsically different.  He stared again and thought he must have walked backwards now, disoriented by the sea mist, for the round shouldered iron post remains were closer by to him, almost looming over him, still and implacable.

"Hey!  Who's there?" he called again and, as the mist blew free once more, his last sight was of something vast and enveloping, a rank darkness with a raptor's wrenchingly empty scream coming from its very essence and silencing his own as it bore down upon him, with whatever befouled and hideous purpose it had for the ones who managed to summon it.

Later, the growing sun burned off the sea mist as the tide began to turn again but the Ghost Walker was gone and the beach was quite empty of anyone.

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