This story is my entry to The Inklings Challenge 2022. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a month-long writing event for Christian authors of fantasy and science fiction, inspired by a real challenge attempted by the original Inklings writing group. For this tumblr challenge, participants were randomly sorted into one of three groups, with each assigned to a different type of speculative fiction story inspired by their namesake. I was in the Chesterton group, so I chose the prompt “Intrusive Fantasy”: Stories where the fantastical elements intrude into the real world. There was also a prompt list of seven Christian images to incorporate into the themes of our stories. If you’d like to read more about the challenge, and read the other submissions, you can find all relevant links on the tumblr blog that is hosting the challenge!
Marcia squinted into the fog and cursed the night. Roiling storm clouds obscured the clear light of the full moon, casting shimmering beams and warping shadows over the bog. Wind whipped her short, straight hair across her face. It stuck in the corners of her mouth whenever she took a panting breath and flicked into her stinging eyes. For the dozenth time in half as many minutes, she swiped it behind her ears, frustratingly aware that it was a futile effort. The sky hadn’t opened into a downpour yet, but the freezing mist clung to her clothes, her clammy hands, her eyelashes. Any other night, she could hear frogs croaking, birds crying, and the water rippling as turtles breached, but now, only the howling gale filled her ears. She gritted her teeth and stomped forward aimlessly.
This was all Conner’s fault.
He left her alone. It was his stupid idea to explore the abandoned dig site on Halloween without checking the weather. She asked him to stay in, just put on a spooky movie instead, but he whined she was boring, that they’d been planning this for weeks, that she’d be a coward to back out now. Their friends were coming, and they couldn’t cancel without looking lame. His friends. She’d never really got on with them. Especially Dan, who always reeked of cheap alcohol and cigarettes, and looked at her the way a vulture looked at fresh roadkill.
There was a fine silver lining for this miserable night. Dan was gone. He couldn’t bother her anymore. She had watched some creature drag him under the mire with an arm far too long and skinny to be human. She tried to tell herself he got what was coming to him. He should not have touched her like that. If she hadn’t shouted at him, maybe the thing wouldn’t have noticed them. He’d been so drunk and she’d been so distracted swatting his grubby hands away that neither realized the monster creeping up on them until it seized dan by the throat. Conner ran, of course, the useless prick. He took their only flashlight with him, leaving Marcia to fend for herself in the dark. She fled with the gurgling sound of Dan being dragged under the bog, still filling her ears like boiling mud. Poor bastard. She tried to forget the bug-eyed look on his face. The strangled pleas for help as the hands with too-sharp fingers wrapped around his neck. The disgusted grunt as his hands recoiled from the blackened, shriveled skin.
He didn’t deserve that. He was gone because of her.
Marcia flinched as her foot hit a puddle and freezing water seeped past a hole in her shoe. What if that splash caught the monster’s attention? She froze. If she pulled her foot out of the water, that would only cause more ripples. She hoped that making a meal of Dan would give her enough time to get away, then promptly squashed that thought as a pang of guilt wrenched her stomach. The idea of that thing eating her friend—however shitty of a friend — made her nauseous. It smiled at her, as it took him, with its owlish orange eyes and gaping mouth filled with too-many too-sharp teeth.
What if there were more of them? Did the water look a shade darker? Did the waves move slightly wrong? Lighting flashed in the distance, and for a second, she glimpsed the silhouette of an emaciated figure standing waist deep in the pond, before everything went black again. Her pounding heart echoed the thunder as she watched for any sign of movement. Ten seconds passed. Twenty. A minute. When the next bolt of lightning struck, the figure was gone, but in the afterimage, Marcia noticed something else.
A pale blue light, floating in the far distance.
She blinked several times to clear her sight, but it didn’t flicker away. Could that be the light from Conner’s flashlight? She finally dared to pull her now-numb foot from the mud. Her foot came free with a squelch, but it left her sneaker behind. She scrambled onto drier land, unwilling to take the risk of retrieving it. Her legs ached from miles she must have run, and the added misery of pins-and-needles shooting up from her sole whenever she took a step. Despite that, she resumed her headlong flight through the mire, doing her best to stick to whatever dry paths she could find.
When she looked over her shoulder, the light bobbed closer than before. Should she call to Conner? Would he come to save her, or would the noise summon more lurkers from the murky pits? Already her panting breath threatened to betray her, and the chilly night air stung her lungs. The glow drifted toward her, seemingly unbothered by the wind. It didn’t have the conical shape of a normal flashlight beam. Just a soft amorphous glow, bobbing gently up and down.
Like an anglerfish, her mind unhelpfully supplied.
In her wearied state, no logic eased her nerves. It didn’t matter that anglerfish were deep-sea creatures, and she was here, safe on land. It didn’t matter that anglerfish could not possibly grow to be so large. It was following her. She could not follow its lure.
Oligan’s child ran toward demise. How the poor dear found herself in the middle of such a place at such a time was beyond the guardian’s power. Back at the house, in the car, along the path to the trailhead, Oligan sent warnings, subtly working to turn Marica back from this dark road. Missing batteries for the flashlight, engine troubles, literal orange warning signs posted by the local park rangers, with the text slightly altered to caution against travelling at night. Even before, when Marcia had first met Conner, Oligan tried to help her discern he was nothing but trouble. Dan should have been a sign enough on his own. His guardian couldn’t help either of them now. Dan’s guardian should mourn the loss of his charge’s soul to the gravefiend.
Should she have been more obvious? Guardians were spirits. Nothing more. They could exert their will over the world around them for a short time, with great effort. Their charges had to heed the signs of their own free will. What more could she have done? She’d pulled out every trick in the book, then thrown the book at Marcia’s head for good measure. Stubborn, foolish, beloved girl. Her life had so much better in store. It still did, if she could survive the night. Now, Oligan could only try to deliver her charge safely from this valley of the shadow of death.
On this blessed All Souls Day, she mustered all the might of her choir to manifest. It was a desperate scheme to capture her ward’s attention. And it worked! Marcia froze as she saw Oligan appear. Controlling her form and movement took all her focus. She painstakingly positioned herself along the path toward safety and freedom. Six gravefiends moved in their direction. It would be a test of timing, cunning, and obedience to make it out of this gauntlet alive. Oligan approached slowly to avoid scaring-
Marcia ran away.
No! Turn back! Oligan shifted herself, imposing her will on the patch of land just in front of her charge. Her body flickered and reappeared where she intended. Marcia choked back a scream and spun on her heel to sprint the other way. Poor girl couldn’t shake the dreadseekers creeping up her legs. She couldn’t feel the claws of mournwraiths digging into her back. She couldn’t understand that her senses clouded with the sorrowshades that clung to her hair and whispered terrible things in her ears. Her steps took her straying into their domain. Soon she lost her other shoe to the mud. Marcia collapsed, kneeling to the ground, face streaked with both rain and grime and tears. She couldn’t see the gravefiend creeping towards her.
Oligan flashed in front of Marcia again, and spoke before she could flee, “Be Not Afraid.”
Marcia screamed. The gravefiend’s orange eyes rose above the water and its third eyelids blinked in anticipation.
“Quiet. I Am Here To Save You.”
“Who are you? How?”
The gravefiend lifted one hand, stretching out a bony finger, then two, then eight.
“Follow My Light. There Is No Time.”
The other hand followed. The gravefiend’s teeth glinted in Oligan’s light. Marcia still didn’t see.
“What do you want from me?”
“Your Salvation! Come!”
Oligan willed a beam of light to shoot from her form. It streaked past Marcia’s ear, causing her to shriek with alarm. The sliver caught the gravefiend in the eye and it recoiled, blinded for only a moment. Its hand landed heavily on Marcia’s shoulder. The fingers grasped for purchase. She jerked away and finally turned to recognize her attacker. She shot to her feet, speechless.
“NOWWWWWWW!” Oligan commanded, and without waiting for Marcia’s response, flew into the fog. Her footsteps followed.
Their path wound through the bog, following the subtle streams that led to an escape. The gravefiend gave pursuit. Oligan navigated them over the driest land and on animal trails through the thickest brush to slow its progress without hindering Marcia. Their direction turned sharply whenever Oligan spotted another one ahead, and they continued along the new detour. All the evil things that ever existed in this place seemed to converge upon them. Blood and rain and brackish water all poured their life out upon the earth.
Though her body was scourged with scrapes from thorns, though she’d fallen thrice, though she carried the burden of grief, Marcia followed her guardian’s light.
The spirit stretched thin, and her will grew weak. Conner’s guardian needed power and blessings now more than they. Oligan’s power ran out. Her form flickered, then disappeared. Their trials finished.
The spirit blinked away without warning. Marcia frantically looked around her, searching for the new direction, desperate for the glimpse of comfort. The glowing pale blue figure was nowhere to be seen. She checked behind her again, just to be sure nothing followed her from the swamp. The path seemed empty. Where was she? Did this seem familiar?
Shrub pines grew here now, and the rain fell lighter under their protection. She continued running in the same direction the spirit led, letting her eyes adjust now to the lack of-
The dim orange glow of streetlamps illuminated the path ahead, and Marica doubled down her pace as she stumbled into the parking lot. She fumbled for her keys, scrambled into the car, and slammed the door shut.
Still. Finally, still. Her whole body shook with relief and her gasping slowed as she caught her breath. The key was still in her hand, half turned in the ignition. Should she flee? Leave Conner behind with those demons? What if they were still coming for her?
Nothing slammed against the window. Nothing squeezed through the cracks in the door. No silhouette watched her from the forest. Though invisible, Marcia could feel the other presence in the vehicle, as if it were resting beside her. What had it been? A ghost? Another lost soul who died those creatures and came to warn her? Perhaps even Dan? The voice didn’t sound like anything she’d heard on earth or in movies. She tried to remember the figure, with glowing eyes and cloaked body, floating before her, barely the size of her hand. What had its face looked like? And why did it feel familiar, somehow? Like a childhood friend, long forgotten but recently remembered.
Marcia decided it didn’t matter. It saved her. That was enough to trust and follow it again. She turned on the car and quietly prayed her thanks.
When she checked her mirrors, a pale blue light flickered in the forest.
I hope you enjoyed this story! I wanted to write something horror-adjacent for spooky season but put a positive twist on it because our Lord has defeated the grave! The title of this story comes from the prayer to our guardian angels. I took some liberties with their portrayal to make Oligan a more interesting character to read in a short story format but honestly; I think my guardian angel is just as exasperated sometimes, haha. Please be sure to check out the rest of the Inklings submissions for more awesome Christian stories and to find more awesome authors. Next week I’ll be sharing a review of “House of Hollow”, so be sure to check back for that, or to leave a writing prompt in the comments. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy writing!