Clyde sighed wearily. This was possibly one of the most boring lessons he had ever had to sit through. He waited for a pause in the monologue and put his hand up.
“Yes... er... Clyde,” said Miss Whittaker, the social studies teacher who had decided to spend today’s lesson explaining the tradition of Halloween to them. She had come prepared, dressed as a classic witch in pointed hat, green blusher, fake teeth and carrying a broom. It might have been entertaining for the first or second years who would appreciate a slacking off period. But they were all fifteen going on sixteen and it was all just a bit silly.
“Halloween is an American import intended to sell cheap plastic trinkets and start selling sweets and chocolate a month earlier than the Christmas rush,” he said.
“It is nothing of the sort,” Miss Whittaker refuted. “Halloween is derived from the ancient Celtic worship of Samhain, the god of souls who demanded blood sacrifices on the Eve of Hallows...”
Clyde got ready to say something, but Luke put his hand up, this time. Luke was usually a quiet one in things like social studies. In maths and science and anything that had a definite right or wrong answer he was always the first with that answer. It gave everyone else a rest. But with social studies he was usually lost. Clyde tended to spend most of the evening afterwards explaining it to him.
“That word you keep repeating, Sam-hain. You’re pronouncing it wrong. It should be more like Sow-wan. And it isn’t an ancient god of anything. It’s just the old Celtic word for their feast marking the start of autumn.”
“Yeah,” Clyde added. “And they never sacrificed anything, except perhaps a goat or two for roasting on the bonfire and scoffing later.”
A few of their fellow students giggled. The vegetarians were shocked at the barbaric idea of roast goat. One boy on the other side of the class put his hand up. Miss Whittaker turned to him and gave him permission to speak.
“Luke is right,” said the boy in a soft Irish accent. Clyde was surprised. He knew the boy was called Connor O’Shea. He was in his Maths and English classes, too. But he couldn’t remember hearing him speak out loud in either class, and despite his name he hadn’t expected the accent.
“Samhain was just the old harvest festival before Christianity came to Ireland,” Connor continued. “Today, it’s the Irish word for November. Mí na Samhain – the month of souls, when in the Christian calendar prayers are said for people who have died. But not in a creepy way. It’s just a time for remembering people we’ve lost. Like... my gran who died last year. We’ll go to church next week and light a candle to remember her.”
Miss Whittaker looked at Connor, and then back at Clyde who had started this particular ball rolling.
“Be that as it may,” she said. “Halloween has become associated with the dark arts, with witches and black masses, with the raising of the dead. There are many who practice pagan rituals on this night and...”
Rani didn’t raise her hand. She stood up instead.
“Miss Whittaker, I really don’t think my father would be happy about you teaching us about pagan rituals and raising the dead. He doesn’t think much of Halloween, anyway. He says it’s an excuse for children to run amok in the streets after dark when they ought to be safely indoors doing their homework.”
Since Rani’s father was the headmaster, that seriously deflated Miss Whittaker’s ego.
“How does your dad feel about haunted houses?” asked Dean Waring, without putting up his hand. “I suppose you won’t be going to Willow Chase tonight.”
“What’s at Willow Chase?” Clyde asked. Miss Whittaker was calling for them to raise their hands before speaking, but it was too late now.
“It’s the most haunted house in Ealing,” Dean answered. “Spooky noises, strange lights at night... it’s a massive place. Full of weird old furniture, too. Ghosts and ghouls would be right at home there.”
“How do you know so much about it?” Clyde demanded.
“My mum has the keys. She’s the Waring in Waring and Kemp estate agents... on the High Street. They’re trying to sell it. I’m organising a ghost hunt tonight. Anyone who dares, come after seven o’clock.”
Clyde was surprised at how much enthusiasm there was for that idea. He was, to be honest, a little put out. He was used to being the one with the out of school plans. Not that he was interested in ghost hunting. It was all nonsense. But....
Dean Waring remained the centre of attention with his ghost hunting plan for the rest of the school day. Clyde did his best to compete, but his plan for the evening was nibbles and pumpkin juice at Sarah Jane’s house, the same as last year. Granted, Sarah Jane’s house was something special. It had a half alien computer and a robot dog in the attic. But all the same...
Half an hour before the end of the school day, Mr Chandra called a special assembly. There was a lot of grumbling from the teachers about cutting into class time and a lot of speculation among the students. Mr Chandra waited until they were quiet and then launched into a lecture on the dangers facing children who ran amok after dark on the pretence that the evening of October 31st was some kind of special cultural event. It was not, he insisted. And he was especially concerned about rumours of a ‘ghost hunt’ taking place at Willow Chase. He categorically banned any student of Park Vale School from setting foot on the said property and threatened detentions until the end of their school life for anyone who disobeyed that injunction.
“Nuts to that,” Dean Waring said as they filed out of the assembly hall and returned to their form rooms to pick up their bags. “He has no right to tell us what to do after three o’clock. The ghost hunt is still on.”
“Rani!” Mr Chandra called to his daughter as she tried to slip out with Luke and Clyde. She sighed and turned back, ignoring the cold glances from Dean Waring and his immediate cohort. They had already been muttering about ‘sneaks’ and hinting that she had told her father about the ghost hunt. This would confirm their suspicions.
“I hope you don’t plan anything silly tonight,” he said to her. “Halloween is nothing to do with us. It is completely contrary to our customs and beliefs.”
“Yeah,” Rani answered. “Because in India they don’t have any kind of rituals to do with the dead...”
“Your mother and I are from Bolton, as you well know,” Mr Chandra reminded her. “Halloween is not a Bolton tradition. It wasn’t even celebrated when we were young. It’s something that has sprung up in the past couple of decades along with letting off fireworks at New Year. Just another public order nuisance and I won’t have you involved.”
“I’m going to spend the evening at Sarah Jane’s house,” Rani said. “She doesn’t think much of Halloween, either. Is that good enough?”
“Since your mother and I have to attend the planning meeting for the proposed pedestrian way outside the flower shop, that’s the safest place for you,” Mr Chandra agreed. “Go on, now. I’ll see you at home.”
Rani ran to catch up with the two boys. Clyde was explaining to Luke why he wasn’t going to the ghost hunt.
“I almost decided I would go when Mr Chandra banned it. After all, going to something banned by the headmaster is the height of coolness. But Halloween is so UNcool. And ghost hunting is totally bogus. And besides, it’s Dean Waring’s idea. I’m a leader, not a follower.”
“Dad said no, so that’s that,” Rani said as she caught up with them. “It’s not fair. Every time he gives orders to the school, he gives them to me personally afterwards. I’m fed up of him expecting me to be the ‘example’ to others around here.”
“Mum is expecting you both,” Luke pointed out.
“I know,” Clyde said. “Don’t worry, we’re coming. It’s just...”
“What?” Luke looked at his two friends. “What’s up?”
“We come around your place all the time. One of these days we need to do something different.”
“You’re bored with spending time with Mr Smith and K9?” Luke asked. “But aren’t they ‘cool’?”
“They would be if we didn’t have to keep them secret. It would be super cool to tell people about a robot dog.”
“But you can’t TELL people about them,” Luke pointed out.
“I know. I don’t intend to. But... Dean Waring, acting so smarmy because he’s got the keys to a haunted house.... I’d just like to wipe the smile off his face.”
“It probably isn’t haunted, anyway,” Luke pointed out. “Mr Smith would pick up psychic energy traces from there if it was.”
“He probably doesn’t have his mum’s permission,” Rani said. “If any of that crowd break anything he’ll be in serious trouble. Technically, it IS trespassing.”
“Yeah,” Clyde sighed. That, of course, was what made it so exciting.
Not that spending the evening with Sarah Jane wasn’t exciting in its way. She had anticipated the trick or treaters, and had a collection of chocolate treats in the hallway for handing out. Meanwhile her young guests spent the time taking it in turns to look through the telescope in the attic. There was a particularly impressive display of what everyone else on planet Earth would think were meteorites in the sky.
“They’re Munitiea,” Sarah Jane explained to them. “Each of the lights you see is a tiny rock... about the size of a tennis ball, but harder than diamond. It isn’t solid, though. Inside an inch of the rock is a creature no bigger than a snail. They travel through the galaxy in shoals, safe inside their rocks, venturing into solar systems in order to soak up the radiation from the stars. Then off again into deep space.”
“What do they look like, the creatures?” Rani asked.
“Nobody really knows. They’re impervious to any kind of scanner and if you broke open the rock you’d kill the creature inside. It would shrivel up and die. Anyway, there’s no need for us to know. Leave them alone. They’re just about the least offensive thing in the whole universe. They harm nobody. They take nothing except a tiny bit of totally renewable energy.”
“Nice little aliens,” Rani said. “It’s... good to know not everything out there is scary and dangerous.”
“Oh, lots of things out there are PERFECTLY safe,” Sarah Jane told her. “We do seem to have had more than our fair share of the nastier visitors in recent years. But it’s not all bad. I wish you could meet...”
“Sarah Jane!” Mr Smith’s voice interrupted her. He had an urgent tone. She had long ago stopped worrying about how a computer voice managed subtleties like that. Mr Smith was more than just a computer.
“Yes, what is it?” she asked.
“I am picking up unusual energy patterns in the Greenwood Estate area.”
“That’s where Willow Chase is,” Clyde commented. “The haunted house. Oh, don’t tell me there really are ghosts?”
“This energy has nothing to do with paranormal manifestations,” Mr Smith responded. “There are high levels of Meison particles, ionic residue and gamma radiation.”
“Radiation?” Rani looked worried.
“Gamma radiation isn’t dangerous,” Luke pointed out. “It’s...”
“It was for the Incredible Hulk,” Clyde said. “It’s what made him mutate.”
“That’s just science fiction,” Sarah Jane reminded him. “In REAL LIFE Gamma radiation in combination with ionic residue and Meison particles means some kind of shift in the time vortex. We need to check this out.”
Rani looked worried for a whole different reason.
“My father expressly told me not to go to that house,” she told Sarah Jane. “Even if I’m going with you... I wouldn’t want to lie to him....”
“Oh, come on, Rani,” Clyde said to her. “This is the sort of thing you should be getting stuck into if you want to be a journalist. Sarah Jane would have when she was your age.”
“Sarah Jane didn’t have my dad,” Rani answered. Then she realised that was insensitive, given that Sarah Jane was an orphan who had been raised by an aunt. “I mean... I’m sorry, I didn’t mean...”
“That’s all right, Rani,” Sarah Jane assured her. “I think you’re being very sensible. If your father has expressly forbidden you to go to the house, then....”
“She can stay in the car,” Luke suggested. “Park outside the gates. Then she ISN’T in the house.”
“Well... that’s not exactly...” Sarah Jane began. But she glanced again at the data on Mr Smith’s screen. She really didn’t have time to discuss the fine points of the matter.
“Come on, then,” she said. “Rani, take my watch. You can monitor the energy readings while I concentrate on my driving. Mr Smith will keep you updated.”
Rani accepted that role in this adventure. It was, indeed, a bitter pill to swallow, but she couldn’t go against her father.
“Actually, he banned all of us from going there,” Luke said as the two boys sat in the back of the lime green Figaro.
“Outside of school hours he has no business banning you from going anywhere,” Sarah Jane replied. “Especially not when you’re with me. Clyde, if you think your mother might be bothered by you breaking Mr Chandra’s rules, you can always wait in the car, too.”
“Nuts to that,” Clyde answered. “Mum’s on night shift. She hasn’t even HEARD about Mr Chandra’s ban. And she said that when I’m with you, you’re in loco parentis.”
“More like just plain loco,” Sarah Jane sighed. “Going off in the dark to investigate mysterious energy with three children.”
“We’re not children,” Clyde protested. “We’re nearly sixteen.”
“You’re still children,” she replied. “But I suppose it’s far too late to worry about protecting you from danger, now. After everything you’ve got into in the past few years.”
“Mum... what’s that?” Luke asked, not deliberately changing the subject, but drawing her attention to the odd lights in the sky directly above Willow Chase.
“Could be fireworks,” Clyde said. “But I bet they’re not.”
Sarah Jane pulled the car into the side of the road, close beside the high fence overshadowed by tall trees that shielded Willow Chase from casual sight, but not ON the property. Rani was still obeying her father’s instructions – just.
“Mr Smith has got incredible readings,” Rani told her. “All those energy traces... they’re not traces any more. They’re overloading.”
“What’s the Meison level?” Sarah Jane asked.
“One hundred and twenty-nine per cent,” she replied.
“If it reaches one hundred and fifty let me know straight away,” Sarah Jane told her.
“I’m not sure it isn’t scarier sitting here, looking at these readings from Mr Smith than going in there,” Rani said.
“It isn’t, you know,” Clyde commented as he and Luke followed Sarah Jane through the unlocked gates to the old property. “I’m feeling pretty scared right now. Only, don’t tell anyone I said so. Especially not any girl.”
“I don’t mind anyone thinking I’m scared,” Luke said. “When I am. What’s happening, mum?”
“A huge concentration of different kinds of energy all focussed on this house,” Sarah Jane replied. “What I don’t know, yet, is why.”
They reached the end of the tree lined driveway and looked in astonishment at the house. It was glowing with an actinic white light. Lightning created within the glow arced all around it and thunder crackled. The house had its own electrical storm going on around it.
“Help!” A voice called out and a figure ran from the house. Luke and Clyde both called out his name at once. Dean Waring almost collapsed in Sarah Jane’s arms. He looked terrified beyond his wits.
“You’ve got to stop them,” he said. “The others... they’re doing something... something they shouldn’t...”
“Doing what?” Sarah Jane asked. “Dean, what’s wrong?”
“They’ve got Connor,” the boy gasped.
“Connor?” Clyde queried. “Connor O’Shea. What does he have to do with this?”
“He came... to stop us... and...”
Dean fainted. He actually fainted. Clyde and Luke looked at each other and decided there and then that they would NEVER mention that to anyone at school. Much as it would give them some brief pleasure to make Dean look small in front of the in-crowd they knew they wouldn’t.
Because both of them were thinking the same thing.
Just what was so scary and how were THEY going to react when they faced it?
“I’ll put him in the car,” Sarah Jane said, lifting the boy in her arms gently. “You two... don’t go anywhere until I get back.”
Clyde and Luke waited until Sarah Jane had reached the gate before they blatantly disobeyed that instruction and headed toward the house. The front door was wide open, anyway. And to their surprise the actinic light and the arcing electricity did no more than make their hair stand on end and their clothes crackle as they passed through it.
They found themselves in a big old-fashioned hallway with a grandfather clock against one wall and a wide staircase going up. There was a smaller staircase going down, too. The only light in the house and the sound of voices came from there. The voices were chanting. At least most of them were. Somebody was crying and somebody else was screaming.
Not screaming with fear, but with triumph.
They moved slowly down the stairs. They turned a corner and the stairs opened into a wide basement that had to run all the way under the whole house. The roof was held up by thick square brick pillars. Luke went left and hid behind one of the pillars. Clyde went right and did the same. From their vantage points they could see everything that was happening.
What was happening could only be described as a pagan ritual. There were twelve of their school friends taking part in it. They were moving in a circle around a big wooden table carved with grotesque figures that might, to the imaginative, be thought of as an altar for some kind of dark rite. The words they were chanting were mostly incomprehensible, though Clyde thought he heard ‘Samhain’ mentioned more than once.
He imagined the scene a couple of hours ago. Ghost hunting in an empty house must have got boring and somebody came up with an idea like ‘hey, why don’t we try raising the dead.’ And of course, they decided to try.
Then again, maybe not. He turned his attention from the ring of chanting teenagers to the table itself where Connor O’Shea was lying, his shirt ripped open and his hands and legs tied with ropes. He was the one doing the crying. He was obviously scared for his life.
And standing above him was the person who was doing all the triumphal screaming. It was a woman in a long black dress and a hooded cloak. She was wearing a black veil over her face, but Clyde was sure her voice was familiar.
“Mrs Whittaker!” Luke called out the name of their social studies teacher and rushed towards her, through a gap in the chanting, circling crowd. He grabbed the veil and pulled it from her face. It distracted her long enough for Clyde to rush from his own hiding place, knocking two of the chanters out of their circle. He started to unfasten the ropes holding Connor to the altar table. It was difficult. Somebody tied them very tightly. He was really struggling. Around him his classmates were still chanting and circling. They seemed to be hypnotised in some way. For the moment, that was good. They weren’t stopping him from rescuing Connor.
But Miss Whittaker was. She brushed Luke aside and flew at Clyde in a rage.
“You interfering brat!” she screamed. “You’re going to ruin everything. I need him… I need his lifeforce…”
“Get off, you barmy woman,” Clyde responded. “Get away from me.”
Luke ran at her again. Both boys fought to keep her away from Connor, but she seemed to have twice their strength.
“Leave those kids alone,” Sarah Jane cried out. Luke and Clyde both saw her charging towards Miss Whittaker. They saw her fist connect with the teacher’s jaw. Miss Whittaker collapsed to the floor beside the altar, stunned by the knock out blow. Sarah Jane stepped over her and used her slimline sonic screwdriver on the ropes. They fell away easily. Clyde helped Connor stand up. He wobbled a little, and clung to him.
“They’ve stopped chanting,” Luke said. Until he did, Clyde hadn’t even noticed that the gestalt voice had stopped. He turned and saw his classmates standing around him, looking at each other in surprise, as if they didn’t know what they were doing there.
Sarah Jane looked around at them all, then she reached for her phone. Its ringtone was the only sound within the room, but they were all aware of a noise like rushing wind and static electricity beyond it.
“Sarah Jane,” Rani told her. “The Meison level is one hundred and forty-nine. And the light looks really WEIRD from out here.”
“Everyone get out of here,” Sarah Jane called out. “Luke, Clyde... get them all out. There isn’t much time.”
There was an urgent tone to her voice that caught even the most bewildered of the youngsters as they shook off the trance they had been under. They began to run. The stairs were a bottleneck, though. They pushed and tripped each other and it seemed for an anxious few minutes as if nobody would get out at all.
But somehow they did. They all got to the top of the stairs and ran through the hallway and out through the door. Scared, confused teenagers looked back and saw the house within that strange, ethereal glow and then kept on running.
“Come on, Connor,” Clyde said, helping his schoolfriend along. “It’s going to be a tight squeeze in Sarah Jane’s car, but you’ll be all right.”
“Oh!” Sarah Jane exclaimed. She looked back at the house. “That woman. She’s still in there....”
She started to run back, but Luke caught hold of her.
“No, mum,” he begged her. “Don’t. It’s too late. Don’t....”
He held onto her tightly as the light around the house got so bright it was like daylight on the driveway. Then there was a whooshing noise and the house shimmered. For several seconds it disappeared completely, then as the light finally faded, it returned.
“Help Connor to the car,” Sarah Jane told her son. “I... have to look.”
She was gone for nearly five minutes. When she finally came back to the car, all four of the boys were squeezed into the back of the Figaro and Rani was sitting patiently on the front seat. They all looked at Sarah Jane expectantly.
“She’s gone,” she said.
“Gone where?” Dean asked. “She did it, you know. She came to the house when we were partying. She had this thing... a crystal. It made the white light... and all the kids started acting weird... She told them that Connor was hanging around outside....”
“I came to... to try to tell you... not to do it... the ghost hunting,” Connor said. “I wanted to warn you that it was wrong...”
“As if we’d have taken any notice,” Dean responded scathingly. “But I didn’t want you to be... Miss Whittaker told them to get you... She said you would do... your life force... That’s when I knew it was all just too weird. I hid... and ran when I had the chance.”
“She was going to kill me,” Connor moaned. “I was so scared.”
“I’m going to take you both home,” Sarah Jane said. “Just go to bed and get some sleep and try to forget what happened. Miss Whittaker won’t be back, I promise you. Don’t say anything to your parents. It will look bad for your school, a teacher acting like that. I wouldn’t like Mr Chandra to get into trouble.”
“As if anyone would believe me,” Dean pointed out.
“What really happened to Miss Whittaker?” Luke asked once Dean and Connor had been dropped off at their homes and they had a bit more space on the back seat for the rest of the journey. “Is she... dead.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane replied. “She’s a pile of organic dust on the floor in the basement. Her lifeforce was extracted.”
“By what?” Rani asked. She shuddered at the thought.
“By an Ekakosian Entity,” Sarah Jane continued. “Its ship must have been in low orbit. Miss Whittaker... This was her first term at your school, wasn’t it? She must keep moving, never taking more than one victim in one place. Somehow or other she had become beholden to the Ekakosian. It made her find victims... The ritual... most of it was nonsense. All the Samhain rubbish. But there must have been an element that was real. Words have power. The right words, in the right place, the right time. In this case it created a psychic connection between the Ekakosian and Miss Whittaker. She offered Connor to it. But we took him away and they took her lifeforce, instead.”
“That’s really horrible, but... she deserved it... sort of...” Rani tried to rationalise her feelings, but it wasn’t possible. “No, she didn’t, really. She deserved to go to jail or something. But not that.”
“Explaining what she did to the police would be tricky, mind you,” Clyde pointed out. “This way.... it looks like most of the kids can’t remember what happened. Dean isn’t going to tell anyone. Or Connor, either. Your dad will need to get a substitute teacher in when Miss Whittaker doesn’t turn up, but that’s the only consequence. We got off ok.”
“Not quite the only consequence,” Sarah Jane said. “Mr Smith has been analysing the Willow Chase site. He thinks that a permanent spatial Rift might have opened up under the house. Something like Torchwood takes care of in Cardiff, only this one is very small... a hairline crack in time and space.”
“Trouble?” Luke asked.
“I think we might have to keep a close eye on Willow Chase from now on,” Sarah Jane replied. “This might not be the last we hear of that place.”