Merry Imbolc, or Candlemas, or Groundhog’s Day. Whatever floats your metaphysical boat upon your noumenal reservoir. It is a time to contemplate renewal amidst the cold and dark of winter, a time to take stock of your resolutions in the second month of the new year. Or a time for dead black magicians to return from the grave. Your choice.
This is an excerpt from “The Ren Faire at the End of the World” which happens in Arcanum on Imbolc. This explains a little why Arcanum Ohio is the scariest town in the world:
Marc followed the trail through the slush left by yellow-suited crime scene technicians. In one of the older quarters of the Arcanum cemetery, yellow police tape was strung from yew tree to yew tree to cordon off the ruins of the Stone family mausoleum. Photographers and deputies slipped under the tape going back and forth.
Brenwyn stood at the outskirts of the activity, wrapped in a gray woolen cloak. She was poised as if listening carefully to something no one else could hear. As Marc came up beside her, he could see that her eyes were closed.
“I should have known that we’d wind up in a graveyard at some point,” he said.
“We all do,” she replied, her eyes still closed.
“Cheery.” He sighed. A graveyard is a tough room for comedy. “Picking up anything on your radar? Besides the police calls, that is?”
Brenwyn opened her eyes. They were a flat grey today that nearly matched her cloak. The three vertical scars on her cheek seemed even darker against her olive skin for some reason. She drew closer to Marc.
“There is something behind this, something that goes back before Jeremiah’s death,” the young witch said. “It is vast and dark and hidden.”
“Isn’t that pretty much what ‘Arcanum’ means?”
He at least got a lopsided smile out of her for his efforts.
“Do you know what today is?” she asked.
Marc did some quick calculations in his head.
“Our three-and-a-half-month anniversary?”
“Possibly.” She acknowledged that with a nod. “It is also Imbolc today.”
“And that is?”
“One of the eight Great Sabbats, it is a time of renewal after Midwinter,” she said. “You would know it as Groundhog’s Day.”
“So, there’s a chance that we’ll go through this morning over and over again?”
“Not likely. But Jeremiah did say something about the groundhog seeing his shadow this year.”
Marc knew that the last message from Brenwyn’s ex was just a trick of modern phone technology, recorded as he stood with the noose around his neck and left on her answering machine two weeks later, but the thought of that little goth weasel coming back from the dead still made his skin crawl. There was only one rational response:
“Rat’s ass, indeed.”
Brenwyn leaned in closer and Marc wrapped a protective arm around her. As they settled into each other for warmth, a low, cultured voice boomed out from behind them.
“Aw, how touching: The conspirators share an intimate moment.”
Marc and Brenwyn turned towards the sound, separating as they did. Lieutennant Throckmorton of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation stood there, smiling, a tall black man in a cheap black suit. Marc put a hand on Brenwyn’s shoulder and pulled her back beneath his arm.
“Good morning, Lt. Throckmorton,” Brenwyn purred with false cheer. “Did Sheriff Latchke call you also?”
“Maybe to help string yellow police tape?” Marc added.
“I am engaged in an ongoing investigation, if you don’t mind.” The long-standing animosity between him and Brenwyn over his investigation of Jeremiah Stone was evident in his voice.
“Oh no, do go ahead. Detect or do whatever you do,” she said.
“You’re too kind, Ms. Czarnecky. Would you two care to join me at the crime scene?” He gestured as if showing them to their seats in the theater.
Marc looked anxiously at Brenwyn. She gave him the slightest of nods.
“I was, actually, hoping to get a look,” he said.
“Perhaps, you could share some thoughts,” Throckmorton replied.
Throckmorton turned and headed for what was left of the miniature Gothic cathedral that housed generations of the Stone family dead. Marc and Brenwyn followed him at a distance.
“Careful, dear…” Brenwyn murmured.
“I know,” Marc replied. “As always, I’m the prime suspect.”
A single whoop of the siren shattered the morning peace as the sheriff arrived last on the crime scene. Marc could see, even from outside the perimeter, that the Stone family mausoleum was simply shattered.
One side of the ornate structure had collapsed, scattering its rough-cut red granite stones over the dead grass and crushed foliage. The interiors of two of the crypts were visible through the breach in the nearest wall. There was one coffin missing.
A leafless magnolia leaned away from the building. The tree’s roots raised into the air along with a mat of turf and soil. Patchy snow around the grounds was trampled to slush by a myriad of what looked to be animal footprints.
The sheriff and a half-dozen of his deputies gathered around his SUV on the far side of the building to go over the situation within the cordon of yellow police tape. None of them seemed interested in a visiting contractor and witch.
Lt. Throckmorton stood waiting for Marc and Brenwyn at the edge of the crime scene.
“Thank you for coming down,” he said. “I’d appreciate any insight you might have.”
As they drew closer, Marc started to make his usual assessment of another male:
Could I take him in a fair fight?
Then, Marc remembered this was the same state cop that had stood by without complaint as Jeremiah’s father threatened to blow Marc’s brains out. He decided it best to cooperate and make no sudden moves.
Brenwyn looked quietly horrified at the desecration of the tomb. Marc was honestly impressed by the sheer scale of the damage.
“My God, what a mess,” Marc said. “Any idea who did this?”
“What did this,” Brenwyn corrected. “Do you remember the Samhain bonfire? The second one?”
She could be referring to any number of horrors that gathered around the illegal bonfire Jeremiah had set on the faire grounds, from protean demons from before the time of Creation to the flock of skinned rabbits and squirrels possessed by those spirits. From the clues, Marc was guessing something compact and skinless.
“Looks bad, smells bad, about the size of a shoe box?”
“That would sum it up.”
Throckmorton lifted up the tape to allow Marc and Brenwyn to pass underneath it.
“What are you two talking about?” the lieutenant asked irritably.
“Nothing,” Marc chirped. “Nothing at all.”
Marc moved closer to the mausoleum and hunkered down, squatting to avoid putting the knees of his black BDUs in the mud.
“Please don’t touch anything, Mr. Sindri,” Throckmorton warned.
“I’ve seen enough cop shows to know that.” Marc pointed at mud and stone of the shattered foundation. “Have you taken a look at these marks?”
Throckmorton crouched down beside him.
“I haven’t had a chance yet.”
“These aren’t tool marks, at least not any kind of tool I would have used. It looks more like this area was dug up by animals.”
The lieutenant eyed him dubiously.
“Any more ridiculous than digging with a blade a quarter-inch wide?” Marc asked. “What would have that—a bonsai yard rake?”
“We have people in the state lab who can work that out.”
That sounded like the classic lie: We’re from the government, we’re here to help. Marc looked up at Brenwyn, who only shrugged sadly in response.
“Yeah, right,” Marc said.
Marc stood and slowly surveyed the ground around him. He focused his attention on a large stone angel toppled from the mausoleum. It seemed to be making a pained mewling sound.
“Hey, there’s something under this.” Marc started over to the statue as he spoke.
“Why do you say that?”
“Statues don’t make noise on their own—normally.”
Throckmorton slipped on a pair of black rubber gloves and handed Marc a pair.
“Let me call one of the photographers,” the lieutenant said.
“You might wish to wait on that,” Brenwyn advised.
“Sure, this might be nothing.” Marc backed up her point. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it won’t run away.”
“Whatever you think best.”
Marc and Throckmorton rolled the stone angel onto its side with a good deal of straining and grunting. An undead, skinless rabbit was underneath, all brownish-green and smelling as bad as it looked. The creature’s feet and tail were still fluffy though filthy. The falling angel had pushed it into the soft soil, splaying out its limbs like an “x.”
“What the Hell is that?” the policeman asked.
“We do not really have a precise definition,” Brenwyn replied.
The bunny pulled its head out of the earth and screamed, a sound like fingernails on a chalkboard.
All the other investigators on-scene stopped to crane their heads to locate the sound.
Marc and Brenwyn took a step back and both tried to look innocent.
Throckmorton levelled his gun it at the creature that continued to pull itself out of the earth with agonizing slowness.
“You don’t want to do that,” Marc said.
“Your reason being…” There was quite an edge in the cop’s normally smooth voice,
“It’s already dead,” Marc said. “How are you going to write that up in your gunfire report?”
Throckmorton kept his gun trained on the zombie rabbit as it shook off the dirt and limped off into the bushes. Its hindquarters angled away from the rest of its body where its back was broken.
Only after it had disappeared into the bushes did a gangly crime tech with his Darke County windbreaker thrown over a “Cthulhu for President” tee-shirt show up on the scene. He quickly took in Marc holding Brenwyn and Throckmorton pointing his gun at a breach in the bushes.
“What the Hell was that?”
“An injured rabbit,” Brenwyn said somewhat honestly.
“Was it hurt bad?” For a man who spent his workdays at scenes of death and mayhem, he sounded awfully concerned.
“I can guarantee you that rabbit is never getting any better,” Marc said.
“Sadly true.” Brenwyn nodded in agreement.
“And the gun, Lieutenant? Was the rabbit under arrest?” No amount of compassion, it seemed, could prevent a little bit of inter-departmental snark.
“I was—um—intending to, uh, put it out of its misery.”
Embarrassed, Throckmorton re-holstered his gun.
“Unfortunately, he got away.”
“I could go find him.” The crime tech made one step towards the bushes.
Marc, Brenwyn, and Throckmorton all shouted at once:
“Okay, whatever.” He shrugged and obviously chose not to argue with the man with the sidearm. “Let me know if you need me.” The tech went back to work at the far side of the tomb. The others all remained pretty much motionless until he was gone.
“What the Hell is going on here?” Throckmorton asked through gritted teeth.
“Appropriate choice of words.” Marc turned to Brenwyn. “Do demons actually come from Hell?”
Brenwyn easily slipped into the pedantic mode that Michael seemed to live in:
“There is no such thing as Hell. That is a Judeo-Christian fiction to maintain hegemony over the under-educated masses.”
“What?” snapped the Lieutenant.
“So if there is no Hell, those aren’t really demons reanimating the bodies of dead rodents and lagomorphs?”
“They are amorphous primeval remnants of Creation,” Brenwyn replied, “but if it make you more comfortable to call them ‘demons,’ feel free, dear.”
Throckmorton put his hand on the hilt of his pistol.
“I swear, I am going to shoot someone if you two don’t stop talking gibberish.”
“He seems a bit unhinged,” Marc observed.
“It happens quite a bit here, lately,” the young witch responded.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“There are some things in this universe,” Brenwyn told Throckmorton, “that cannot be explained in simple terms.”
“And they all live here in Arcanum!” Marc added cheerily.