This piece is dedicated to the lovely and talented Deborah Mitton (@DeborahMitton), author of “Ten for the Devil” Thank you so much, Deborah!
The librarian, a well-educated and most affable fellow from Boston, proved all too happy to aid me in my quest. The old deed fascinated him beyond measure, and I do believe that being in the presence of such a document was a true delight to him. With his help, I poured over maps and surveys of the town from every century spanning the time between the creation of the deed and the present. It became clear that Ripton had once been significantly larger than it was now, stretching up into the hills that surrounded it. This was where Ash Manor, if it existed, was to be found.
It was well after midday by the time I felt I had a definite idea of where the Ripton house sat. I made extensive copies of such charts as I thought might prove useful and set out despite the late hour, being equipped with a small torch loaned to me by the librarian. I felt confident enough in my research to make an attempt at finding the estate of which I was now owner, and the librarian wished me luck while extracting promises from me to report back on whatever, if anything, I should find. I do not doubt that my ultimate failure to return disappointed the scholar, though I pray he was never tempted to retrace my steps on his own.
I had intended to take my car up into the foothills, but was thwarted soon after setting out. Roads up into the mountains may have once existed, but they were now so overgrown and strewn with the debris of receding civilization that they were impossible to navigate by automobile. Unperturbed by this complication, I gathered my maps and torch, left my car at the bottom of one such path, and set out on foot into the darkening prominences. Behind me the sun started its gentle descent behind the rolling horizon, its red and orange rays casting long shadows around me as I picked my way up the hill.
By and by I began to pass certain relics and ruins which denoted the former existence of houses and streets. Rotting wood and corroded metal filled the air with a pervasive evil odor, which grew in strength the nearer I came to the zenith of the hill. The sounds of birds and other wildlife lessened until it disappeared entirely, as though the pinnacle of this heavily wooded knoll had been abandoned by both man and beast alike.
As night seeped through the forest, I checked my map from time to time, orienting myself by the dim lights of the town below. A full moon hung in the sky, shining with such preternatural brilliance that I rarely needed to make use of the torch. Only once did I stumble in the growing dark, spilling my maps onto the ground as I fell. I took a moment to get my breath back before twisting around to see what had tripped me. Poking out of the dirt was a lopsided stone, rectangular cut and covered in lichen and moss, pocked by time and water, but beyond a doubt shaped by man. Lifting myself up onto my knees, I took up the torch and shone it before me. The path ahead was strewn with similarly crafted rectangles and I deduced that I must have stumbled upon some sort of stone staircase which led up to the peak of the hill.
The promise of discovery pushed me onward, though the rancid smells and crushing silence tempered my speed with caution. Following the ruined path through the twisted trunks of trees and thick undergrowth, I soon burst out upon the prize I so doggedly sought. All at once the titanic structure loomed before me, peaked roof piercing the black sky. For a structure allegedly destroyed by fire centuries ago, it was very much intact. Dirt caked panes still stared out from the windows and colorless paint flaked from every piece of wood, giving the entire structure the look of a dying, molting bird. There could be no doubt in my mind: this was Ash Manor.
I paced around the building in a frenzy, as if possessed by some violent spirit that was not my own. I do not remember taking the cracked key from my pocket, but when I at last discovered the front door, hidden behind a pair of overgrown briers, I looked down to find it clutched in my hand. The ominous sensation that had washed over me when I first discovered the deed returned to me with overwhelming force. I was bathed in sweat; my breathing labored as if I had run all the way up the hill.
I stepped back from the door, thinking on the words my father had scrawled across the aging envelope; Never enter. Could this have been the very spot on which my father stood the night before his death? Was it from this ramshackle ruin that he had returned, wild-eyed and covered in dust and mud, before locking himself in his study, never to be seen alive again? Could there be some force or object inside this abandoned dwelling that could drive a man to suicide?
My very breath trembled as I struggled in vain to check these riotous fantasies running rampant through my mind. I stared at the portal before me, taking note of its rotted frame and worm-eaten surface. Surely a door such as this would admit any one who possessed the meager strength required to push past its fetid remains, key or no. I placed my shaking hand against the sodden wood. It didn’t give a single inch. I leaned my full weight onto the door, but it was no use – it was sealed, the lock within the browned handle somehow still functioning after all this time.
I examined the door again, this time running my fingers over the moss-covered lintel and frame. There, beneath the rot and ravages of time, I could feel impressions, carvings in the wood that had long ago been obscured from sight. I did not recognize the markings as any language or set of symbols I had studied. As I envisioned the shapes in my mind, they called up in my memory some alien passages transcribed by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, whose most famous work I had had the misfortune to glance at in the Oxford library. If the text over the door was anything like that recorded by Alhazred, perhaps the stories told of Jedidiah Ripton were more than malicious gossip after all.
I backed away from the cursed house, and was on the brink of fleeing back to Ripton when my ears caught a sound. Oh that I had never heard that subtle creaking of feet against floorboards that emanated unmistakably from within the deserted house itself!
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