by Gail Z. Martin
I’d never been a fan of hunting, and I liked it even less when Teag Logan and I were the prey.
“They’re getting closer,” I yelled, as the wind swept around us, and the sound of braying dogs grew louder. Hoof beats thundered far too close, and I felt sure we’d be ridden down at any second.
Teag didn’t move. “They’re not real,” he replied, raising his head to the wind. In one hand, he held a staff carved with protective runes and wrapped with spelled rope. In the other, he gripped an iron rod. I could see the tension in the twitch of a muscle in his jaw, and I knew Teag better than to think he’d take a reckless chance. But as the pounding of horse hooves and the wild barking of dogs closed in on us, my heart thudded like our days were numbered.
“They can’t do anything if we stay inside the salt ring.” Teag knew I knew that. This wasn’t our first rodeo…or our first spectral “hunt.” But this manifestation sounded big and real; and the circle of salt that enclosed us seemed like flimsy protection, although I knew how powerful it was in the spirit world.
I held my athame—the handle of an old wooden spoon—in one hand, and in the other, I grasped a smooth agate spindle whorl, a powerful protective charm. A shake of the dog collar that wound around my left wrist, and a spectral dog appeared beside me, the ghost of Bo, my old golden retriever. Bo must not have liked the barking hounds, since he lowered his head, bared his teeth, and bristled.
“Here they come,” Teag murmured.
On the horizon, the shadows darkened, sweeping toward us in a wave with the gallop of dozens of horses, eager hounds running around and between them. If they kept their course, they were heading right for us.
I almost expected the ground to shudder beneath us, but these shadow horses glided across the grass. Even though I’m not a medium, I could pick up the disquieting energy, which felt like a gathering storm.
A horn blew, rallying the hunters. I thought about the old stories I’d heard of the Norse gods leading an eternal, infernal hunt with red-eyed horses and demon dogs. While I didn’t see a glint of hellfire in the eyes of these ghostly horses, I had no desire to get a good look up close. The cloud loomed like black roiling smoke, and sometimes the darkness took the shape of horses and other times of dogs before vanishing into the inky mass.
The hunters bore down on us, and the wind picked up, gusting hard. And when it howled past, it swept away the ring of salt that protected us from those pounding hooves.
“Run!” I yelled. But after a few steps, when I didn’t see Teag close beside me, I turned. He’s taller than I am, with long legs, and he should have been able to outrun me. Instead, to my horror, I saw Teag standing still, staring mesmerized into the roiling darkness, as the ghostly horses headed straight at him.
“Teag!” I focused my will, leveling my athame at the spectral hunters. A blast of cold white force blazed from the tip, as Bo’s ghost sprang into action, planting himself between Teag and the apparitions, barking furiously. The white force shredded the darkness, scattering the black fog. I held on tight to the agate whorl in my left hand, drawing on its protective power, and channeled everything I had into the blast of light. A few seconds later, the sound of the ghostly hunters was gone.
“Teag?” I’d never seen him freeze like that, and as I stepped closer, Teag shook himself like he was waking from a dream.
“Cassidy?” Teag was disoriented, and I put a hand on his arm to prove I was real.
“They’re gone,” I replied. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so,” he answered. I had the feeling he wasn’t telling me everything, but sometimes Teag holds back until he’s thought a problem through. I’d just have to bide my time.
Teag looked back toward where we had set the salt ring. “They say that Geoffrey Nicholson’s horse threw him right over there,” Teag pointed to a spot near an old live oak tree, “and he broke his neck. The horse stepped into a hole and busted its leg, so it was put down, too.”
“That was in 1878,” I mused. “But from what we saw with the ghosts, Nicholson never stopped hunting.”
“All of the men in that fox hunt the day Nicholson was killed died within a year, under unusual circumstances.” Teag scanned the horizon as if looking for ghostly hounds and riders. A lock of straight, chocolate brown hair fell into his eyes, and he pushed it away.
“Do you think they still ride with him?” Part of me wondered whether their hunting dogs crossed over with them, and I hoped that the unfortunate fox wasn’t doomed to a perpetual reenactment.
“That’s what the stories say, but I thought it might be a dramatic flourish—until what we saw. Now, I’d say odds are pretty good.” Teag walked carefully around the old live oak tree, and I scoured a nearby section of ground. We both looked for trampled grass, hoof prints, anything that would suggest a physical—rather than ghostly—reason for the sightings.
“There’s been enough rain that anything out here should have left marks,” I replied. Plenty of humidity, too—enough to frizz my strawberry-blonde hair, and pink up my very pale Scots-Irish skin. “So I’m betting on ghosts. But the real question is, are they repeaters, or sentient? And what’s juiced them up enough that people aren’t just seeing them, they’re being chased?”
I’m Cassidy Kincaide, owner of Trifles and Folly, an antique and curio shop in historic, haunted Charleston, SC. The shop has been in my family for three-hundred-and-fifty years, and in all that time, we’ve learned to keep a secret or two. One of those secrets is my magic—I’m a psychometric, able to read the history and magic by touching an object. Teag, my assistant store manager, best friend, and sometimes bodyguard is a Weaver, with the ability to weave spells into cloth, or data into information, making him a hell of a hacker. Did I mention that my business partner, Sorren, is a nearly six-hundred-year-old vampire and that the shop itself is cover for an alliance of mortals and immortals who get haunted and cursed objects out of the wrong hands and protect Charleston—and the world—from supernatural threats? When we succeed, no one notices. When we fail, the destruction gets chalked up to natural disaster.
“Did Kell and the SPOOK crew get a look at the ghostly fox hunt yet?” Teag asked. Kell Winston is the head of SPOOK—the Southern Paranormal Observation and Outreach Klub—a reputable paranormal investigation group. Kell’s an ally, and he’s also my significant other.
“He’s been out a couple of times to try to get readings,” I replied. “Picked up plenty of EMF and some audio of dogs barking in the distance—a lot of them, not the neighbor’s terrier. But they didn’t see anything themselves.”
“Tell that to the groundskeeper,” Teag replied. Kell’s group had been called in by owners of the historic plantation because a “ghostly fox hunt” had started terrorizing workers and tourists. Kell called us since he’s in on our secret.
“Let’s check out the house while it’s open,” I suggested. “And then we can hang around once it’s dark and see what we see.”
Teag and I headed to the grand entrance of the Nicholson mansion. Back in the mid-1800s, Geoffrey Nicholson had been a prominent cotton trader and farmer, an influential man in Charleston politics, and an avid fox hunter. We paid our entrance fee and walked into the historic home, stopping to notice the decorations in the front hall.
“No one’s going to miss that he liked hunting,” Teag remarked. Paintings on the walls showed red-jacketed riders on horseback surrounded by dozens of foxhounds. Everything from candlesticks to vases had a “hunt” motif, either in the shape of dogs, horses, and riding tack, or with those images painted or inscribed.
“Mr. Nicholson lived for the hunt,” a docent said, coming up on us from another room. “We have an extensive collection of his hunting equipment, clothing—even some taxidermy trophies of foxes he shot.” She introduced herself as “Patti” and offered to show us around.
I barely repressed a shiver. In my experience, stuffed dead things were trouble. “We’d love to see them,” I managed, hoping my smile looked sincere. Teag and I exchanged a glance. If the museum had that many items Nicholson had owned and used; then the odds were good something anchored his spirit. With luck, we could figure out what was keeping his ghost here and find a way to set his spirit—and those of his ghostly hunters—free.
“Did you come because of the exhibit?” Patti asked as she began her tour. We were close enough to closing time that Teag and I appeared to be the only visitors at the moment.
“Exhibit?” Teag asked as I studied a porcelain statue of a fox on a shelf. A sideboard revealed a set of china with pictures of hunters and foxes. Two oil paintings appeared to be portraits of favorite horses and hunting hounds.
“There’s an exhibit on The Sporting Life at the Museum of the Lowcountry,” she replied, “and another one at the Historical Archive. Just in time for hunting season.”
I made a mental note to check those out, and see if any items carried supernatural residue. “We’ll look into them,” I replied.
Our chatty docent kept up a running patter as we moved from room to room. I quickly decided that Geoffrey Nicholson’s wife must have either shared his fixation with hunting and foxes or had the patience of a saint. As we made our way through the house, I called to my power, trying to sense whether any of the objects on display had magic, or carried a hint of haunt. For now, I kept my hands behind my back, unwilling to touch anything before I knew what we were getting into. Old memories, curses, and attached spirits can pack a real wallop for me when they trigger my abilities, so I try to control the conditions to keep all hell from breaking loose.
Now and again, my gift “pinged” on an object, picking up a touch of something supernatural. Each time, I asked the docent about the item’s provenance, knowing Teag would help me remember the details. A Limoges porcelain figurine of a fox had been a present from Nicholson’s mother; I chalked the emotional resonance up to it being a gift from a loved one. The brass hunting horn that tripped my power was a favorite of Nicholson, another present.
Finding small wells of memory bound to items with special significance wasn’t unusual in historic homes. Most of the time the energy wasn’t enough to anchor a ghost, not even a repeater—the echo of a spirit reenacting an emotional moment over and over, but without sentience.
Sometimes, an object anchored a ghost enough to keep the soul tethered to this world. In other cases, dark magic or extreme tragedy could curse an item, creating nasty problems. That’s the kind of antique I searched for amid the horse statues and fox bric-a-brac, trying not to arouse the docent’s suspicions as I lingered to move a little closer to a curio cabinet or hover a hand above a decoration on display. I didn’t need to touch to sense power, and if I could get a reading without making physical contact, I might be spared having a strong resonance knock me on my ass.
Teag had smelling salts in his pocket, as well as orange juice and a protein bar in the car. He’s had to pick me up off the floor after a potent reading more than once.
If Patti thought we were odd, politeness forbade mentioning her concerns. Teag shot me a look to see if I’d found anything; I gave a slight shake of my head. Still, something felt “off” about the Nicholson mansion, like the energy simmered around us, not quite a full boil, but hardly tranquil. Something was amping up the haunting, and I wondered whether the “simmer” that I felt was a cause or an effect.
“Have you had any new additions to your collection recently?” I asked with my best nothing-to-worry-about smile. At the docent’s look, I gave a little shrug. “Professional curiosity. We run Trifles and Folly downtown—antiques and collectibles.”
Patti frowned. “I don’t think so. Nothing I’ve noticed—and they usually point out new items because repeat visitors like to see the collection evolve.”
I went at the problem from a different direction. “I understand needing to change things up, keep them fresh. This is our first visit. Have they recently rearranged any of the displays?”
Patti gave that some thought. “The preservation team brought out more hunting memorabilia from storage to play off the big museum exhibits and tie into the excitement,” she said.
“How long was that before people started to report seeing the ghostly hunters?” Teag asked.
Patti gave us a deer-in-the-headlights look as if she wasn’t sure whether she should confirm or deny the ghost reports.
“It’s okay,” I said. “The board of directors invited a team of ghost hunters out to document the sightings, and the investigators called us in to look for problem objects.”
“Ghost hunters? You’re ghost hunters?” Patti’s surprised expression turned to relief. “Oh, thank heavens. I’m glad someone is finally doing something.”
Teag and I both turned to her. “Can you tell us what you’ve seen?” I asked.
Patti looked around, making sure no one else was around. “I haven’t seen the hunters, but I’ve heard them,” she said, dropping her voice. “Hoof beats, like a stampede, only there aren’t any horses on the property—any real horses. And dogs howling. We don’t have dogs here, either. The plantation has over a hundred acres, so it’s not like we’re hearing something happening next door.” She looked from one of us to the other. “So what is it? Are ghosts real?”
“Ghosts are real,” Teag said gently. “But not everything weird turns out to be a ghost. That’s what the SPOOK team was trying to figure out.”
“Sometimes, if an item was very important to a person when they were alive, it can anchor them to this world after they leave,” I said, gauging from her expression how much of paranormal stuff she bought into. Some people dismissed anything supernatural out of hand, either from fear or because it clashed with other beliefs and made them uncomfortable. Patti seemed genuinely frightened and willing to look at anything that might solve the problem. “Do you know if any of the objects on display were particularly important to Mr. Nicholson?”
“I can show you a couple of pieces that I know were his favorites, and if you want, I’ll ask around, in case one of the other docents knows more.”
“That would be fantastic,” I said, and Teag gave her an encouraging nod.
Patti led us upstairs, and while I kept my senses open as we walked, nothing we passed gave me more than a slight nudge as far as power went. But when we followed Patti into a well-appointed gentleman’s bedroom, the resonance felt so strong I had to take a step back as if something had given me a shove.
“What is it, Cassidy?” Teag asked, moving closer. I shook my head, letting him know I was all right.
“Show us the pieces,” I said to Patti. “I think there might be something here that’s important.”
It didn’t look like Patti sensed anything out of the ordinary, though I could tell from Teag’s fidgeting that while he might not have my psychometry, his magic picked up something that made him jittery.
“Mr. Nicholson was especially proud of his hunting trophies,” Patti replied, indicating a shelf of sporting awards with figures of horses and guns. “In the armoire,” she said, opening the door to the large wardrobe, “we have the jacket he was wearing on the last, unlucky hunt, as well as his collection of favorite walking sticks.” I saw a jumble of long staves, including a long staff that looked much older and might have been carved with runes, but the traditional red hunting jacket with black trim caught my attention immediately.
“You said he had that on when he died?” Teag pressed.
“So the story goes,” Patti replied.
“Are there any other items he might have had with him when he was thrown from the horse?” I asked, making a slow circuit of the room. The energy I sensed off the trophies felt positive, but the vibes from the wardrobe creeped me out. I suspected we hadn’t found everything.
“His watch,” Patti said, pointing to a pocket watch under a glass dome. When I looked closer, I saw that the engraved cover was open, and the glass over the watch face had shattered.
“What about that long staff in the closet?”
Patti pointed to the old wooden walking stick that was probably only a few inches shorter than my own five-foot-six height. “This?” she asked. “It’s a family heirloom. The Nicholsons are very proud of their Scottish and Scandinavian ancestors, and this piece supposedly belonged to an ancestor.”
“Were the jacket and watch pieces brought up from storage because of the hunting exhibit?” I asked. Patti nodded. I made the rounds of the room twice more, but nothing else stood out to me as having any particular resonance. I had no desire to touch either the jacket or the watch, and since Nicholson’s death wasn’t a mystery to be solved, fortunately, I didn’t need to.
“Thank you,” I said, as Patti led us downstairs. “I think we’ve learned what we needed to make a recommendation.”
She looked nervous. “You won’t tell the board members that I mentioned the ghosts, will you? They only want us to talk about them at Halloween.”
I smiled. “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with us.”
“Do you think that if they put the watch and jacket back in storage, the ghosts wouldn’t be as scary?” she asked.
I didn’t want to lie to her. “That won’t make the ghosts go away completely. But if those are items that his spirit is particularly attached to, taking them off display might make the haunting less…rambunctious,” I said. “At least, that’s the recommendation we’re going to make.”
“What would it take to make the ghosts leave for good?” Patti was more interested than I would have expected, and then I thought about docents needing to go out to their cars at dusk with few people around and decided I couldn’t blame her for being frightened.
“If those pieces are really the anchor, then destroying them would probably be the only way to set the ghosts free,” Teag replied. “Which is probably not something the board or the family would be willing to do. But it might help to put them in a lead box, not just take them down to storage.”
“And even destroying them might not send the ghosts packing,” I cautioned, in case Patti decided to take matters into her own hands. “There could be something else that bound the spirits here, and it could take a priest—or someone else with special skills—to get the ghosts to leave.” We often worked with a local priest to dispel troublesome spirits—but we also had a Voudon mambo, a medium, and a necromancer on speed dial, just in case. I didn’t think Patti needed to know that.
“Thank you,” she said, as she walked us to the door.
I looked around. “Will you be all right? You aren’t alone here, are you?”
Patti smiled and shook her head. “There are some people in the offices. We all try to go to our cars together. No one wants to be the last one here.”
Teag and I walked out to his car, giving a last look in the direction of where we had sensed the ghostly hunt.
“Okay, spill,” I said as we got in and buckled up. “You froze back there when we heard the horses. What happened?”
He stayed quiet as we pulled out of the parking lot and drove down the long lane. Century-old live oak trees lined each side of the driveway, and their twisted branches formed a tunnel that dripped with Spanish moss.
“I had a dream,” he said finally, as we pulled out onto the main road. “It was about a fox hunt, and at first it all looked like what you see in those paintings. But then the moon came out, and they were all zombies. With red eyes.”
Teag chanced a look in my direction. “I don’t usually have dreams like that, Cassidy. But I’ve dreamed it three times this month. I don’t know what it means, but it’s got to be important, and frankly, it scares the hell out of me.”