Episode 21 – Unbound

**Content warning – reference to suicide

Even if you’ve never seen a ghost before I bet you’d be able to describe them. With the occasional exception, they look just like they did in life. It’s what you’d expect considering they’re the souls of the dead. Why would they look different?

That’s why every muscle in my body froze when I saw what I thought to be a ghost return my stare with ruby red eyes. No ghost I’d ever seen before had shared that trait. This could’ve meant a couple of things, but the foremost in my mind at the time was that I’d been wrong, and this wasn’t a ghost at all.

Remember, these were the days before Ewan and my ghostly education, back in the simpler time when all I thought existed were ghosts and loops. In my opinion, ghosts didn’t have red eyes, therefore it wasn’t a ghost.

Our staring match didn’t last long, it probably wasn’t even a second, and as soon as it disappeared time restarted. It was like I’d been underwater where everything was peaceful, silent, calm, and as soon as whatever it was vanished, I’d broken through the surface and taken one long gulp of air. I could hear the young lad sobbing, the choking sounds the young woman was making as she wriggled pointlessly.

When I glanced back into the room, about to race towards the two and help get her down, there was a loud thud that they would’ve been able to hear three floors down. There was a mish mash of body parts and clothing. The shirt had buckled under the girls’ weight, or whatever had attached it to the ceiling hadn’t been able to withstand her struggling, and had sent her falling to the ground, gulping in air as if she were in outer space.

The young lad continued to sob as he watched the girl claw at the bind around her neck. I gathered myself long enough to call the emergency services. I honestly don’t know how I got away with this one. The coincidences sounded preposterous.

I just happened to go and stretch my legs up the stairs just as someone was attempting to take their own life. I mean who voluntarily goes up the stairs to stretch their legs? Unless you’re training for a marathon, which I wasn’t. Again, the team believed me, although it may have been for a lack of an alternative explanation.

Looking back on it now, remembering Strother and I’s penultimate meeting, he must’ve been suspicious enough to do something to those cameras in the asylum. For nearly three years I’d been following and talking to ghosts of all kinds, and none had been caught on camera. Yet, at the asylum, I’d seen it clearly on the screen. I may have gotten away with my pathetic excuses in the short term, but I think in the long run they unravelled me.

The young woman, Leyla, was taken to hospital and understandably placed on suicide prevention watch. The story from the young man, who turned out to be her boyfriend, was that they’d been revising together and he’d went to make them a late dinner, but when he’d returned he found her in the middle of a suicide attempt.

The paramedics thought it was lucky the ceiling, and whatever contraption she’d set up for herself, hadn’t managed to hold her weight. Obviously, I don’t think it was that simple. The shirt she’d used to do the deed wasn’t attached to the ceiling by anything visible, no nails, no industrial strength cement. So, what was it held there with?

At the time I didn’t really want to think about it. Ghosts didn’t usually have the kind of power to kill someone, not unless it’s one heck of a grudge they’re harbouring. Which made me more certain it wasn’t a ghost, a thought which frightened me more, because if it wasn’t a spirit, then what the hell was it?

I did the healthy thing and buried my fear and doubt deep down in my mind where it wouldn’t bother me and continued. Just a small piece of life advice, if I may. Don’t do this, it’s not healthy, and it doesn’t help. Ignoring something doesn’t make it go away.

We saw nothing else for the rest of the night, which forced Strother to conclude that there wasn’t anything in the accommodation. A few days later Steph was allowed to go and see Leyla, along with a rep from student support, to ask a few questions. On her return, she reported that Leyla denied she’d tried to kill herself and was adamant that her shirt had wrapped itself around her neck.

Understandably, after this story she was placed quietly into the psychiatric ward for further tests. She’d have to learn the hard way that talking about strange things to doctors never did you any favours.

During further research Ken also found that Leyla, Emily, and Kieran were all on the same exclusive course together. In light of this information the team concluded that perhaps the course was putting too much stress on their students, causing them to take extreme measures. I also found this connection suspicious but didn’t arrive at the same conclusions. You know how I feel about coincidence.

Strother recommended to the dean that every student on that course be given an evaluation by university counsellors to see if any others were thinking about taking their own lives. As a reward for suggesting this the dean asked if Strother, Ken and Steph would use their psychological expertise and help out with evaluations.

I can tell you now, I’d never seen Strother so disgruntled. I’m unsure if he thought it beneath him to evaluate undergraduates, or he thought his time might be better spent doing his own research, but he stormed around the place like a petulant bairn who hasn’t got their own way for the few days the evaluations took place.

Whilst all of this was going on, I was abusing the power we’d been given to investigate the rest of the students on the course. Why was it three from the same degree, an exclusive one at that? Why was whatever it was harming them, going so far as to try to take their lives? Were those three connected in some other way? It was difficult for me to accept I might not be dealing with a ghost, so I convinced myself it was a ghost, just not one I’d seen before. I preferred the theory that there were different species of spirit to it being something else entirely. Perhaps its eyes were red and it had the power to harm the living because its grudge was so great. I mean, I’d seen spirits that no longer took the form they had in life because they’d been dead for so long, maybe this was similar.

But no matter how much logic I piled onto the mystery my nightmares about those eyes wouldn’t stop waking me up in the middle of the night.

It comforted me to do something, to pretend like illegally looking through confidential student files could solve the problem. It was as I was going over the victim’s records that I noticed, in passing, that they were all at the top of the class. Surely this was a sticking point when it came to the suicide theory? Why would students who were heading for a first-class degree suddenly decide to end their lives? I kept these questions to myself as the atmosphere in our team was subdued at the time.

As the only member of the team who didn’t have a background in psychology, I remained safe in the office as disgruntled and nervous undergrads piled into our office space. Sometimes I recognised them from the picture on their file, and some were unknown since I hadn’t managed to get to theirs yet. There weren’t many on the course, between 20 and 30, but since I wasn’t supposed to have access I had to do my digging covertly, which took longer.

When I’d go to get a cup of tea or coffee, even to get lunch, there always seemed to be a student waiting in the hallway or coming out of one of the interview rooms. It was when I was on one of my runs to the kitchen that I noticed something unusual. It’s difficult to describe this feeling. It’s kind of like a noise that you can’t consciously hear but your jaw clenches anyway, as if steeling yourself against it somehow. The muscles in my face tightened and I could feel my teeth grinding together yet didn’t seem to have enough control to get them to stop.

I heard Ken speaking from the door to our office space and out of habit I looked towards the noise. He and a young lad were walking towards where I stood, empty mug in hand, feeling the muscle in my jaw spasm painfully. Ken was telling the lad about what was going to happen during the meeting and that it was nothing to worry about. I stepped aside to let them pass me, and this is going to sound crazy, but I swear I heard whispering in my head as the lad passed. It built up gradually until it was at its loudest at the point he passed me, and then it faded away.

It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, and as soon as Ken led him into one of the small meeting rooms it felt like a weight had been lifted in my mind, the brain fog dissipated. Believe me, they ran every test imaginable when I was a bairn, and schizophrenia was ruled out, so the voices weren’t in my head, per se.

I didn’t recognise the lad, and I didn’t have his name. Luckily for me students were supposed to leave their bags in the small meeting room before going for their interview. Almost as soon as Ken closed the door I went to rifle through the student’s belongings. Just in case you thought I was a moral person.

I found his student card, which identified him as Adam Balantine, and thankfully this matched the driver’s licence in his wallet. Don’t fret, I didn’t steal any money, I’m not that bad. He had books, pens, an Ipad, but the more I dug into his bag the quicker the heaviness returned. By the time I found the black leather-bound book I thought I was going to have to make a trip to the dentist.

The book I dug from the depths of his rucksack was the scabbiest thing I’d ever seen. The leather was cracked, marked, and dented from what looked to be centuries of abuse. There was no writing on the cover or the spine, and in all honesty I was reluctant to open it to see if there was one on the inside page. I turned it over in my hands, felt the scaly leather beneath my fingertips, grinding my teeth to try and overcome the sudden pressure I felt on my temples and the constant stream of nonsensical whispers that thrummed through my ears. It was only when I glanced at the skin around my nails that I noticed it starting to turn black, tiny veins of dark grey feeling their way up my fingers.

Instinctively I dropped it, spiralling quickly into a panic. But when I scrutinised my hands again they were back to normal, no marks that shouldn’t be there, no creepy dark veins. Still feeling panicky I stuffed everything back into Adam’s bag, zipped it up, and left.

I may not have known then what I do now, but even I could sense that something wasn’t right with that book. Why did he have such a thing? What was the pressure and the whispers I heard whenever I was near it?

I retreated to the safety of the office, and after I popped an aspirin I looked up Adam Balantine’s student record. He, like the other 3 victims, was near the top of his class, on track for a first-class degree. The score he received on their last test placed him fifth in the class, after Leyla, Emily, and Kieran, who were the top 3.

Was this bigger than just those 3? Was that red-eyed monster going after top achievers in that course? But what, if anything, did that book have to do with it? Was that how it got to its victims? The book would appear out of nowhere in its victim’s belongings, and then after it’d succeeded in harming them would disappear? Or was the book more like a pin on a map, a target the creature was aimed at? Did it have its own free will, or was it being controlled by someone?

Was Adam future victim, or perpetrator? Unfortunately, the answer to that question wasn’t in his record, so I’d just have to ask.

Another obvious coincidence was that Adam shared the same accommodation with Kieran and Leyla. I decided, after work hours, to go and pay him a visit. Was this dangerous? Perhaps, but if the creature had wanted to hurt me it had ample opportunity before, and it didn’t really occur to me at the time that Adam posed a threat.

I arrived at the flat number recorded in his file. His flatmates let me in after I told them who I was looking for, and I knocked on his door. For a brief moment, between my knock and the door opening, I had an unwelcomed flash back to Leyla’s so-called suicide attempt. I was building up to forcing the door open when he opened it himself.

There was no recognition in his eyes as he looked at me. Obviously, our encounter earlier that day had struck me more than him. My plan, going in, was to somehow get the book from his bag and take it away with me. My working theory was that somehow the book was a target for whatever that creature was, and it went after the person who had it in their possession. I didn’t know how true this theory was, all I knew was that the book was malignant, and it wasn’t a coincidence it’d turned up now, so close to the three incidents.

I told a lie as close to the truth as possible. I said I was a colleague of Ken’s and that I was sent to do the follow-up interview Adam was told about. When he returned a blank stare, I pretended Ken had just failed to mention it. Using his confusion to my advantage I brushed past him into his room. As soon as my feet crossed the threshold, I was looking for his bag. It wasn’t long before I could hear the whispers again, faint, like white noise.

I began asking mundane questions, ones I, in my ignorance, assumed psychologists asked their patients. How they were, what they’d been getting up to, if they’d had any relapses or other symptoms. I then threw, as casually as possible, a question about whether he’d seen anything out of the ordinary. I made it seem as though high levels of stress could bring on hallucinations. He gave a similar reply to all my inquiries. A grunt of refusal. But when I asked if he’d seen strange things his eyes immediately darted to his desk. When I followed his line of sight I saw the book lying open, strange symbols and even stranger writing scrawled across its bruised pages.

I’ll confess, I was naïve. I’d gone in assuming Adam to be possible victim since whatever it was appeared to be targeting high achievers, of which he was one. I also had no idea how that book was connected to the ghost-like creature. I’d assumed the book was like an anchor, something that it was connected to, not something it was driven by.

As if craving attention the whispering became louder, more rushed and chaotic. My guard slipped and I asked, panic in my voice, what it was. He told me he wasn’t sure and that one day it’d just appeared in his bag. When he’d got to reading it he realised it was a grimoire. For us mere mortals, grimoire is a fancy word for spellbook.

Now, ghosts was one thing, witches quite another. But young Sarah was about to find out the world was a lot bigger than she’d ever thought. Adam turned into what I’d always thought a psychopath caught by the police would act like. It was as though he’d been desperate to tell someone how clever he was figuring out how to use it. He said it was simple, he collected a few ingredients, some from specialist shops, said a few words over a few nights, and his wishes came true.

One of those wishes was to be the top of his class. The course, that was the vein connecting all the victims, was cut throat and only the top 3 students were offered employment with partner companies at the end of their degrees. Adam, at number 5, was just missing out. I was unsure if the book functioned like a twisted genie. The owner simply stated a wish, and the book would do whatever it liked to make that wish come true. Or it was more sinister, and Adam had purposely found a spell that removed people from his path?

I mean I’d just found out that magic possibly existed, so I wasn’t in any position to theorise. The stranger thing was that Adam just kept on talking, the words were falling from his mouth like teeth in a nightmare. He was showing me pages filled with severely written words, nonsensical diagrams, and stains on the page that, honestly, looked like dried blood. He came to rest on a page which had a drawing of something I immediately recognised, complete with ruby red eyes.

The page it was spread across named it as a vengeful spirit, someone who’s died with regret and anguish and lingers in the world aimlessly. What the spell claimed to do was harness this spirit and turn it into a weapon.

If you’d told me, at that stage of my life, that it was possible to control a spirit I’d have scoffed arrogantly. But I was staring at proof it was possible, and with what looked to be very little effort.

 When the shock wore off, or at least lessened, I began to realise I was in a difficult position. He’d told me all his secrets, everything that he’d done to his course mates; what happened to me now? Would I be able to just walk out? Could I make a run for it, or would that vengeful spirit find me anyway?

I didn’t care about that book, or about getting it away from him. These were powers I had no experience or knowledge of. And why was this my responsibility? I understood ghosts, to a certain extent, I could sympathise with them, and that sympathy compelled me to help them as best as I was able. But this? A book filled with spells that whispered curses. No thanks.

As I was trying to manoeuvre my quick exit from his room the door burst open as if a hurricane had torn it down. A petite woman, no more than 5 feet, stormed in with a frosty look on her features. Adam still had the book in his hands, thumbing through the pages, not realising his fingers had turned black.

The woman didn’t say a word, she made a beeline for Adam and swiped the book from his hands before either of us could do anything. Before our eyes she wrapped the volume in some red cloth, possibly linen, and suddenly the whispering stopped.

She seemed to know that it was Adam who was responsible, or who’d been using it for his own gain. I felt like a fly on the wall as she never once looked at me, or even acknowledged I was there. She pinned Adam with a cold stare and warned him, in the most threatening tone I’d ever heard, that if he tried to mess with things he didn’t understand again she’d let the spirit he’d enslaved loose on him to do what it liked.

On her way out of the room, bundle tucked under her arm, she stopped for a brief moment and glanced at me, narrowing her eyes as if I had a spot on my face that offended her. She warned, rather than told, me to never mention what I’d seen in that room to anyone.

And for a few years I kept that promise, until I met Ewan and emerged from the darkness of ignorance. I’ve never met her again, I couldn’t even tell you her name, but I know what she is. You probably know as well. A witch. A very powerful witch from a very powerful family of witches.

I won’t go into detail as it’s not really relevant, but yes, there are witches, and yes there are spellbooks. But the thing Adam had was more of a curse book, created to cause suffering and death. Witches don’t like to have those kind of things loose, so they retrieve them with as much stealth as they can muster, scaring the shit out of whoever gets in their way.

As for the consequences, Adam dropped out of uni, became a lorry driver and runs a paranormal investigation blog. *laughs* I’m kidding. He took the witch’s warning to heart, and unfortunately reaped the benefits of his paranormal interference. He was offered one of the coveted 3 jobs for the top 3 in the year, and after that I lost track of him. I like to believe that somewhere down the line karma caught up with him, but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on that one.

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