“Two more books for our reading list,” Rose said.
I groaned a little, grabbing one of the fancy fountain pens from my grandmother’s desk. It was still dark outside. “It’s too early for this.”
“You wanted to go on the offensive while he was otherwise occupied.”
While Laird was sleeping. “Right. Titles?”
“Title is Standards, subtitle is ‘A history of practices for dealings between the gifted’.”
“Ummm… Bookshelf seven, shelf five.”
I looked at the sheet I had sitting beside me. I’d drawn out two octagons, with numbers at each side, excepting the sides that opened out into the second and third floor hallways. I identified bookshelf seven, looked, and was pretty sure I could see the book she’d mentioned. I wrote it down. “Standards. Sounds like a thrilling read.”
“The second book, bookshelf six, bottom shelf, right at the bottom, we’ve got ‘Deaths in the Eastern Realm of the White Tailed Deer.‘”
“Not sure I follow,” I said, even as I wrote the name and location of the second book down. I put the paper and pen down beside the folded letter Rose and I had written the previous night.
“It’s not about deer. It’s about the general area. A straight list of practitioner deaths, times of death, and causes of death since we settled in the new world. It’s only as recent as twenty-eleven, but I think it covers a list of executions and reasons for execution. You can skim it for the executions and see if there are any trends.”
“Me?” I asked.
I glanced at Rose. “Me? You said ‘you can skim’. You usually say we instead of you, unless we’re arguing. You’re assuming I’m reading this list of deaths?”
“I’m going to get started on Standards, since you’re already looking through… what was it?”
I double checked the cover of the book that now lay across my lap. “…Prominent Feuds.”
“Right. You’re reading that. I’ll start on Standards, you get started on the deer book when you’re done reading what you’re reading.”
“I’m already pretty fed up with all this. How long is this death-ledger?”
“Long. But like I said, you can skim down the one column. Will you go over it?”
I craned my neck, but I couldn’t see the bottom shelf on the floor above us. “Can you show me?”
There was a pause. “I could.”
I turned to look at Rose in the mirror. “Please?”
She sighed. “It’s too heavy to lift.”
“You were trying to con me,” I said. “Trying to get me to commit to reading over some ridiculously huge tome.”
“I was. Just a little.”
She managed to look suitably guilty, all things considered.
“Damn it, Rose,” I said, but I couldn’t help smiling, but I wasn’t exactly amused, either. She’d almost gotten me. “We can’t mess with each other when we’re so busy watching our backs against everyone else.”
“I really don’t want to have to read all of that thing,” she said. “And I thought it would be a little funny.”
“There isn’t anything here I want to read,” I said. I tossed Prominent Feuds to the floor. “This plan isn’t working.”
“We’ll find something,” Rose said.
“We haven’t found anything that gives us an exact answer,” I said. “We probably won’t. Nothing modern. All research does is eliminate possibilities. We get through all of these books, read them backwards and forwards, and we’ll be able to say that we probably aren’t breaking the rules and getting ourselves executed if we mess with Laird’s job and family. Not definitely. Just probably.”
“Local powers probably like leaving people a little uncertain,” Rose said.
“Well, it works.”
“We could ask someone. Which is probably how everyone else figures it out. They attend meetings and sit back and they figure out what they can do and what they can’t do.”
“Unless the entire town wants to murder you,” I said. “Kind of throws a wrench in the whole ‘ask a friend’ option.”
“Which raises the question. Who do we ask?”
Rose dragged the chair on her side over to a spot beside the mirror, so we could see each other. “Maggie?”
“I don’t trust Maggie. I’m not sure I wholly distrust her either, but I get the feeling that if she could profit from misleading us, she would.”
“If you’re being that selective about our allies, we’re going to be very lonely,” Rose said.
I sighed. “Maybe.”
I nodded slowly, doing my utmost to avoid rejecting the idea out of hand. “Maybe. I don’t like it.”
“I don’t either. But they’re there, and we do need to talk to them sooner than later. You need the allowance if you’re going to pay for what we need, and we have questions they could answer.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Which brings me to my next set of questions. First off, how do we get in touch with them? How do we mail this letter without cluing anyone in to the fact that we did it?”
“The legal documents give a phone number for the lawyers. The little black book says we just need to say the firm’s name three times. Same idea, I think.”
“Which isn’t ominous at all.”
“Not in the slightest,” Rose said, solemn.
“Should we get it over with, then?” I asked.
“We need to do it,” she said. “Downstairs? Feels strange, inviting anyone else here. Even if we know they were here to set things up after Molly died.”
“No,” I said. “I get what you mean. It feels wrong. Downstairs? Living room?”
“Sure,” Rose said. Then she cut in, “Wait. One thing, first. Can you grab a book on your way down?”
“Bookshelf two, third shelf from the bottom. It’s by the same author that wrote the book on Vestiges. Valkyries.”
Meaning I had to climb the ladder up to the next floor, then walk around to the third floor hallway and make my way to the ground floor. A pain.
I bit my tongue before I said as much.
“Sure,” I said. I gathered up the books I needed to have on hand, then made my way to the shelf in question.
The book was easy enough to find. The image on the front was similar to that of the Vestiges book. A woman’s face in profile, complete with a winged helmet, pressed into the leather cover.
“I-” Rose started. She stopped when I jumped a little at hearing her voice.
Right. I had a bicycle side-mirror hanging from a cord around my neck.
“Keep going,” I said, as I made my way downstairs, arms full of books.
“I read it because I thought maybe it was related to vestiges like me. And it is. But this one focuses on ghosts too, on historical elements, and some more practical applications. You’ve got practitioners who specialize a hundred percent on ghosts and vestiges. A kind of necromancy.”
“Right. In this case, you’ve got practitioners convincing warriors, usually dying soldiers, that there’s an amazing afterlife of parties and respect for their deeds waiting for them, so the warriors agree to give up their spirits after death. Use that agreement to help make a vestige or create a ghost, a representation of their skills or their knowledge, their strength, whatever else, and imbue all of that into a vessel.”
“Do you want to be imbued into a vessel?” I asked.
“No. That would be worse than being inside these mirrors. Not moving ever.”
“Right,” I said. “But?”
“But I like the concept. I like the author. The book talks about working with ghosts being an option for a practitioner without many resources, in an area where practitioners have already taken hold of everything worth holding, or where the Lord forbids certain practices. You take a ghost, you imbue an object, and you’ve got…”
“A magical item?” I asked.
“A tool, yes. I don’t think every Other in Jacob’s Bell is beholden to one practitioner or another, and we don’t really have a Lord here dictating rules, but in our situation, we don’t have a lot of options.”
“So we use ghosts?” I asked.
“We can. They can be violent, but that’s only a small subsection of the categories they fall into. We know how to protect ourselves.”
“And what makes ghosts easier to contact than any of the other Others?”
“Those woods behind this house? The marshes? All grandmother’s property. Ghosts, like any vestige, don’t hold up that much to poking and prodding. They’re remnants of horrible or inspiring events. Psychic impressions, right?”
“So you said, last night,” I told her.
“They function best in enclosed spaces, especially any enclosed spaces they have connections to. Houses, houses with bodies still in them, lurking near their murder weapons, and so on. But that’s not the key bit. They also function in places with very few humans to mess with them. The wilderness.”
“The woods and marshes,” I said.
“Exactly. There aren’t many places where you find intact ghosts, and they aren’t really sought after, because they’re unreliable to work with and they tend to burn out if you draw on them for power.”
Like a vestige does.
“Too much expenditure for minimal gains.”
“So we’re supposed to go looking for them in the woods, a good distance from this sanctuary? Put life and limb at risk, for a minimal gain?”
“We could. Or maybe grandmother has a book where she wrote down notable ghosts and their locations. We call them to us, instead of going their way.”
I stopped midway down the staircase. I had to shift the books to one arm before I could pick up and move the makeshift mirror-pendant I wore. I could see Rose standing a short distance up the stairs. When I had her in my sights, and vice versa, I gave her a disapproving look. “You mean I’ve got to trek back to the library and go look for some hypothetical book of ghost names?”
“Nope,” Rose said. She lifted a book so it was visible to me. “See? I’ve already found it, and I’ve got it. Nothing needed here that I can’t recite aloud for you.”
“Alright,” I said. I started making my way downstairs. I found Rose waiting for me in the living room. “Sounds like a plan. Sounds like we’ve got some disturbing, soulless freaks of nature to summon. When we’re done that, we can take a break and summon some ghosts.”
“What do- right. Har har.”
“Seriously though, lawyers or ghosts first?” I asked.
“Lawyers. We can’t keep putting it off.”
I found grandmother’s phone. When I picked up, however, there was no dial tone.
“Fuck!” I swore.
“Nothing?” Rose asked.
I shook my head. “Someone must have cut the line recently. Or the service was disconnected.”
“Repeat the firm’s name, then? Everything seems to indicate it gets the same result.”
“I have trouble buying that,” I said. “I can’t help but feel the ominous repetition has a little more weight than a phone call.”
“You said it yourself, we can’t keep putting it off.”
I nodded, looking for and finding the little black book in the pile of books I’d collected.
“Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.”
My words seemed hollow and small in the crowded living room with its books and the lingering mess.
“Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.”
My eyes roved around the room, looking for some sign that something was happening.
“Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.”
The third utterance.
We stood there, quiet, waiting for a response. I couldn’t shake the notion that the moment I relaxed and heaved a sigh of relief, there would be a knock on the door to startle me, a ring of the phone.
But I did relax, after a few minutes, and there was no knock.
“Nothing?” Rose asked.
I shook my head. “Maybe I have to be outside.”
“They came in from outside once already. The lawyers are the only ones this house doesn’t protect against. Them and the witch hunters.”
“There’s no rush, Blake. We find another way to contact them, or we keep researching, and we figure out if it’s safe to send this letter.”
“There is a rush,” I answered. “If we don’t do this soon, they’re going to figure out a trick to throw at us. A way to get us out of the house, like they got Molly, or the witch hunters, or something else. What if they come after us and there isn’t an opportunity to do anything like this for days or weeks? The whole idea is that we’re taking the offensive, to put them on the defensive and distract them to buy ourselves some breathing room.”
“Okay, no, I don’t disagree. I’m fine with going on the offense, so long as we’re smart about it.”
I nodded. I placed my hand down on the Valkyrie tome. “Since lawyers are off the table, and I’m done with the research for now… You’re thinking ghosts, then? Equipping ourselves, experimenting. This is smart?”
“I hope so. We’re going to have to go outside if we’re going to call one and trap it. Grab salt on the way?”
I nodded. “Okay. Okay on the ghosts, and okay on the salt. I’m open to this.”
She nodded. I saw a glimmer of that doubt and anger in her expression, but she said, “Thank you.”
I grabbed my winter stuff, the hatchet and bat, then picked up a box of salt from the kitchen. I passed under the stairs to the back of the house, pulling on the coat and gloves as I went, and stepped outside.
It was still in the early hours of dawn. The sun had only just started rising, and it was dark. I’d slept, then woken up early in the hopes of catching Laird off guard, while he was deep in sleep. If anyone was watching for connections while they were awake, then this was the hour to act.
Hillsglade House was situated on a hill, naturally, but the hill wasn’t a single round hump. There was a tail, and the tail disappeared into a sparse tree cover that gradually got thicker as it got further away from the house.
It put me in mind of my fight to escape the bird-skull things. Disappearing into the trees, getting turned around, not being sure of where to go.
The back porch was covered in snow, grit, and piles of leaves that hadn’t quite been cleared. Snow had piled up around a short wall that enclosed the area. Stairs led down onto the snow-covered ‘tail’ of hills that gently sloped down into the trees.
Not that gently, when I thought about it. With the snow and ice, the path would be treacherous.
“Since we’re outside… Mann, Levinn, and Lewis,” I said. “Mann, Levinn, and Lewis. Mann, Levinn, and Lewis.”
There was only the sound of the wind whistling through the trees. Eerily quiet.
We looked around, but there was no sign of anyone being nearby.
“Worth a try,” I said. “We need a phone, which is another catch-twenty-two. We need the phone to get hold of the lawyers to figure out when and where we might be safe enough to go get access to a phone.”
“Well, having ghost help might make a difference, in terms of being able to defend ourselves if we’re making a run for it. If you’re ready?” Rose asked.
“Unbroken circle, I’m assuming,” I said.
“In salt, yes. You’ll want to clear the snow.”
I looked around, half-convinced an Other was poised to leap on top of me the moment my back was turned. But it was approaching daylight, and the back of the house was in view of some of the town. If there were Others near, they were of a sneaky sort. I grabbed a shovel from beside the back door and began clearing the patio, revealing frost-crusted brick tile beneath. I had to scrape the shovel against the brick to chip off the ice where it was more stubborn. Touching the metal handle, I could feel the chill seeping through my gloves.
I caught a glimpse of something at the periphery of the property.
Which would get to me first? A clever Other or the cold?
“I’m feeling less confident,” I said. “Being outside.”
“We’re a few paces from safety,” she said.
I frowned. “Let’s make it fast.”
“Give me a second. Trying to wrangle two different books.”
I could hear her turning pages. I fidgeted, partially to keep warm.
“Salt,” she said. “Is a pure substance, and any ghosts that actively want to hurt us are going to be naturally impure. Tainted by anger and hatred.”
“Easiest way is to bleed,” Rose said. “If you’re okay with cutting yourself again?”
I looked at my hand. I still hadn’t healed from the cut that I’d made in my finger so I could draw the sigil on the mug, after getting my power. Blood didn’t bother me, but I didn’t want my fingertips buried under calluses either.
“We chant the spirit’s name. This should establish a tenuous connection. You put power into that connection.”
“How?” I asked.
“Blood. Draw a symbol, like you see in the book, the median line running parallel to any line of connection you see between yourself and the ghost. Blood is power, basically the most distilled and direct form you can offer. The caveat being that when you deal with some Others, you give an inch, they take a mile. And you don’t want them taking a mile of your blood or personal power.”
I shook my head. “No danger of that with ghosts?”
“There shouldn’t be.”
“Okay,” I said. “Anything else?”
“We chant, you draw the line, feed just enough blood into things to bring the ghost into earshot. After that, we can try communicating with it.”
“Communicating with the ghost.”
“They’re not real beings, they’re echoes of major events that happened. Typically painful, sad, or angry events. Sometimes moments of sheer brilliance. Sometimes other things. Chances are pretty good that the ghost is going to have a limited script to work with. They’ll be single minded. But you should be able to negotiate something. Remember that every second that you’re using your blood to keep it here, you’re making yourself just a bit weaker. There isn’t time to hit your head against a brick wall. Don’t argue with them if they aren’t listening. But if you find leverage, then use it. Roll with whatever happens.”
“Another thing? Misery likes company, and ghosts tend to try to bring others down to their level. Whatever grips them, they spread it. Anger, pain, sadness, madness…”
“Fuck,” I said.
“It shouldn’t be so strong that it overwhelms you. Especially not with the salt circle. But just in case, I want you to keep listening to me,” Rose said. “Even if you’re so angry you can’t see straight, even if you want to hurt yourself.”
“Right.” Listen to Rose. “Roll with it, except for the big part of this where I shouldn’t roll with it.“
Rose ignored my quip. “Let’s start with a ghost that isn’t too new and isn’t too old. The new ones are stronger, and the old ones have generally held on only because they’ve connected to other spirits or power sources, which is complicated and dangerous. June Burlison. She died in the forties, somewhere in the glades back there.”
I drew out the salt. Slowly, with care, I layered it in a circle around me. By the time I finished closing the circle, the ice beneath the first bit of salt was melting.
I could see more shadows in the fringes of the area. I was fairly sure I could make a break for it if it came down to it. The door was only two paces away, I had the axe.
“Watch my back?” I asked. I moved the bike mirror around until it hung between my shoulderblades.
And the wind, though blocked by the short brick wall, had blown a few stray grains in my direction.
We had to be quick.
I set my bag, hatchet and bat aside.
“Hi there, June,” I said. “June Burlison.”
I switched to my other sight. “June Burlison.”
I could see the connection. Frail, spirits reacting between me and the book, me and Rose, and between me and something out there in the woods. Too general, indirect and fleeting to point the way to anything.
“June Burlison,” Rose said. I could see the same connections forming. The connection passed to me, then out to the woods, like the aftermath of lighting that darted between conductive targets.
Would this same strategy work for finding people? Objects? If I wanted to find Laird, could I call out his name until I could make out the connection?
“June Burlison,” I said. I was having an easier time making out the connection. Was she drawing closer, even without the blood being offered?
Of course. The connection wasn’t a one-way street. There was an exchange. If I tried to find Laird by establishing some kind of tenuous relationship, he’d know. He could probably use it against me.
This was the same thing as the lawyers. Calling their names until they took notice.
“June Burlison,” I said.
The line was clear enough, now. I used the hatchet’s blade and sliced a fingertip that didn’t have any cuts on it. I reached past the border of salt and drew out the symbol, copying what was on the open page in the book.
As if lured in by the blood, I could see the Others drawing closer. Slipping in through my blind spot, popping their heads up around terrain features. Every time my back was turned, they closed the distance. Since they were surrounding me, there were some approaching with every second.
“Might have to make a break for it,” Rose said.
“Might,” I said, but I started on the diagram.
“Blake,” Rose said. A little more urgent.
I glanced back. “Is it something that the salt circle will stop?”
“Can’t make promises,” she said.
I clenched my teeth, then set to drawing out the rest of the diagram. When I drew the line of blood against the edge of the salt line, I got salt on the cut.
“Fuck, ow,” I said, swearing under my breath.
I could feel the connection momentarily flare, with that.
June appeared, down at the tail end of the hill, near the treeline.
It wasn’t a fluid appearance. She stuttered, like a film feel with missing frames. Her movements were jerky, following the same repeated pattern, as she crawled towards me, clawing in the snow for purchase as she pulled herself forward with one hand and pushed herself another foot or two with one foot. She was half dressed, her clothing old-fashioned. The one hand she wasn’t using to crawl was clutching at her collar, the fingers black.
The cold cut deep into me. She was moving slowly, and I wasn’t dressed warmly. Much less standing still in the cold.
Except there was more to it. The onset of cold seemed to match her approach a touch too evenly.
Where June didn’t have the ‘program’ for how she was supposed to look or act while climbing the steeper portion of the hill, she simply disappeared. A second or two later, she was back, as if she hadn’t left at all, and she’d managed to close the ten or so feet in the meantime.
For all that the image was imperfect, it was remarkably clear. She wasn’t translucent, as ghosts tended to be in film.
And, mercifully, the shadows of Others were dropping away as this ghost drew nearer.
“June Burlison,” I said.
She stuttered again, then closed half the distance in a single leap. The remaining Others disappeared in that same moment, ducking away.
The warmth I felt caught me off guard. That warmth proved short-lived. It became a prickling heat, with a burning sensation in my extremities. She’d covered half the distance, but the intensity of what I was experiencing had increased ten times over.
“She’s… affecting me,” I said.
“On two levels,” Rose said, her voice quiet. “She’s drawing power from the blood you’re using to forge the connection, and she’s giving off a kind of radiation, related to whatever impression she made on the world.”
“Cumulative,” I murmured. Louder, I said, “June Burlison, I want to talk.”
The burning was getting worse. It was getting to be too much, to the point that I couldn’t stand still.
June spoke in a voice that was barely above a wheeze, oddly childlike, given her apparent age. “I fell asleep too close to the fire. I’ve burned myself.”
What was I even supposed to say to that?
June spoke in an alarmed voice, her voice feeble considering the intensity of what she was saying. “I was cold, and so I curled up near the fireplace. I’m burning. Oh god, it’s so hot. I’m burning.”
Fingers so frostbitten that they could barely be called fingers clawed ineffectually at her clothing.
She stuttered, disappearing for a moment, then reappeared. A small whimper escaped her lips as she fumbled at the ruined, muddy, and damp clothes with fingers that were so ruined they couldn’t cooperate..
I could feel the heat. Worse with every passing second.
“It-” I stopped myself. I’d almost said ‘it is hot‘. But that could have been a lie. I wasn’t sure if it really was hot or if I was just feeling an illusion of heat. “It does feel hot, yes.”
As if my words were a kind of fuel, the heat increased a fraction.
“Make it stop. I’m done with this. Make it stop,” she said.
Her words did the same, ratcheting up the heat.
“Rose,” I murmured. My voice was a touch hoarse. “I don’t know if I’m up for this.”
“If it gets to be too much,” Rose said, “Break the line of blood. You can also dash salt on her. It ends the moment you do.”
June Burlison screamed, sudden, disappearing in one moment and reappearing in the next. I might have called her movements thrashing, but they were too feeble. She was playing a different image for me, one of her in the throes of helpless agony.
I realized I was screaming, too, at the wave of heat that rushed past me. The screaming only seemed to make it worse.
When she started flickering and disappearing again, I had a moment’s relief. The pain didn’t linger in the slightest, though the pounding of my heart did. I was left cold, instead.
I shook my head a little. It was Rose talking to me, I reminded myself.
“Get answers. Open a dialogue,” Rose said.
“June,” I managed, panting for breath after the screaming. I tried to stay calm, even as speaking her name seemed to fan the fires. But June wasn’t responding.
Rose tried, instead. “June Burlison. Do you remember what happened before you went to sleep by the fire?”
Abruptly, she was standing. Hugging her body with her arms. Her injuries had taken a leap backwards in severity, and her clothes were more intact.
I experienced a wave of cold emanating from her instead. It didn’t make the memory of the fire I’d experienced any better.
Rose spoke. “Do you remember? What happened before you went to sleep?”
“I’ve been left outside in the woods. I fought with my husband, and I demanded he let me out by the side of the road. I couldn’t be in the car with him any longer. Now I have to walk home.”
“It’s cold, isn’t it?” Rose asked.
“It’s so very cold,” June agreed.
“Do you fight often?” Rose asked.
“Yes. Nobody agreed with the idea, but I married him. They were right, I was wrong. Soon, I’m sure I’ll pick up the courage and admit it to my mother and father. It is shameful, but I don’t want to fight all the time.”
“Did he hurt you?” Rose asked.
“No. But we fight so much. We’re so different. It’s so cold.”
“It is,” Rose said.
She wobbled, then fell to her hands and knees. There was a stutter, and the injuries were worse. Fingers devoured by frostbite. “I’m almost home. I can’t walk anymore, but I can crawl.”
The cold was starting to get to me. Enough that I wondered if I risked frostbite myself.
How much was she taking through this blood connection? Was Rose wrong? Was a ghost capable of taking this much from me?
Did it have something to do with getting salt in the wound? Was the circle compromised?
Or, the idea dawned on me, am I already being drained by another source?
When I thought of what other sources might be out there, the only thing that sprung to mind was Rose.
“Stay focused, Blake,” Rose said.
Momentarily, I wondered if she was reading my mind, answering the thought. But it didn’t fit.
“It’s cold, you’re almost home,” I said.
“Are you?” Rose asked. “Almost home?”
“I’m so cold. But my husband will be waiting. I’ll apologize, and he’ll have a fire going in the fireplace, our little electric heater running. The house will be warm, and I’ll be able to rest easy.”
“But that isn’t the way it happens, is it?” Rose asked.
I could see the look of sheer bewilderment on June’s face. The dawning look of betrayal.
Over long seconds, I watched her expression twist in slow motion, beyond the bounds that people were normally capable of, to show a monstrous kind of despair and betrayal, so deep it altered her very being. For many of those seconds, I thought the emotion was directed at me.
I was seeing her as she had been in the moment she’d opened the door and found her home empty and cold. An imperfect replay.
The wind picked up around me. My fingers were throbbing now, almost numb.
“June,” Rose said, her voice gentle. “Was that it? You started a fire in the fireplace and went to sleep?”
A disconnect, a jerk, and June Burlison was writhing in pain again, crippled and bent low by it. I staggered, nearly stepping outside of the circle.
Heat and cold. But why the disconnect? Why wasn’t the narrative more complete?
Did it only include the moments she was awake?
I flexed my numbed fingers.
Or was it something else?
“Was the fireplace on?” I asked.
There was no response. I clenched my hands into numb fists.
“The fireplace was on,” Rose said, “You were asleep…”
“Rose,” I said. “The fireplace wasn’t on. I think maybe she doesn’t want to talk to a guy, because of the issue with her husband. You’ll need to ask her. Did she get the fireplace going before she fell asleep?”
“June,” Rose said. “Did you start the fire before you fell asleep?”
“No,” June said. “I dozed off. The house was cold, but I couldn’t focus, and my heart was beating funny.”
“And,” I said, “All the blood that your body withdrew from your extremities went rushing back, trying to rescue them. A sudden, painful warmth.”
But she didn’t hear me. Not really.
“What are you talking about?” Rose asked.
“I read about it, after hearing a joke once. About some idiot sitting naked in a snowbank. Dying by cold, you experience an intense rush of warmth in the end. June was never burned, exactly. She was in the last stages of freezing to death.”
“It wasn’t the heat, June,” Rose echoed me. “It wasn’t your fault. What you were feeling, what you’re feeling now… it was only the cold.”
I could feel the heat again, but it was somehow diminished.
“You’re freezing, not burning,” Rose said. “You’re listening to me, right? You’re hearing me on some level, I think. Listen, it’s only the cold.”
“It’s so very cold,” June said. But she was in a state of dress matching the scene where she’d been burning before.
“It’s not your fault,” Rose said. “It’s only the cold. Will you make a deal with us?”
“It’s so very cold,” June said.
“If you agree, I guarantee you my partner in the circle right there will keep you warm as best as he can.”
June flickered, writhing in agony for mere heartbeats, limbs flailing, cold-blackened fingers clutching for relief from somewhere, anywhere.
Then she was standing again. “I don’t want to fight all the time.”
“I have no reason to fight with you,” I said, uselessly.
“He’s not a bad guy,” Rose said. “His heart is in the right place.”
“I don’t want to fight all the time,” June echoed herself. Not taking it in.
Rose said other things, trying to convince June, but it only got the same replies over and over again. While I listened, my mind ran through the conversation. The unhappy wife, walking home. The cold, her body failing her…
What would stick with her? With everything but this one scene stripped away?
“Ask her if she daydreamed about other men, while she was walking home,” I said. “Other husbands she might find, after she left the current one. Refer to it in the present tense.”
Rose considered, then said. “Listen, June. Are you fantasizing about the men you might marry?”
“Yes. I can imagine being held. Being warm. But then I feel the cold again.”
“When you’re imagining being with those men,” Rose said. “Do you imagine you’re fighting all the time?”
“No. I can imagine being held. Being warm.”
“If you agree to help, my friend can hold you. Keep you warm. And you don’t have to fight all the time.”
There was no reply. June was only standing there, flickering.
I wasn’t feeling any cold except the ordinary cold of winter.
My heart was pounding, my hands throbbing.
I stepped beyond the bounds of the circle.
Still, I didn’t feel the cold.
I reached out, arms extended.
“Blake,” Rose said. “No.”
“If you do that, you might resolve the dilemma, cancel out the impression. She isn’t aware enough to fight against that and keep her end of the bargain by helping us.”
“What’s the alternative?” I asked.
“The alternative is giving her a vessel to reside in. You can fulfill the bargain. Keep that vessel warm, and she helps us.”
“So… she keeps suffering?” I asked.
“She is suffering,” Rose said. “As in, that thing you’re looking at is an embodiment of a moment of suffering. What you see there is all there is. The real June went on to the afterlife. This is an emotional event that hit the world hard enough to make a dent shaped like ‘dying of hypothermia’. If you take away the suffering, there’s going to be absolutely nothing there. And maybe the balance of the world is a little better off, things are a little nicer without this memory of one bad moment wandering around the woods, but we aren’t any better off.”
I looked at June. Despondent, shivering.
“It feels wrong,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rose said. “But it’s necessary, and whatever else it might look like, you’re not hurting it. It’s not even a person. Just… an impression.”
“I’m having trouble buying that.”
“Why? Because it looks like a damsel in distress?”
“Because it is a ghost, only one step removed from being a vestige, remember?” I asked. My tone of voice might have been a little too harsh.
In the silence that followed, I shivered violently, my teeth chattering together briefly.
When Rose replied, her tone of voice had changed. “I think it’s nicer, accepting this deal, instead of just canceling her out. You can hold her and keep her warm, and except for the moments we need her to be a spectre of hypothermia, she can exist as that one fragment of a memory where she daydreamed about a man holding her.”
“Okay,” I said. “I can buy that.”
I searched my person, but there wasn’t anything I could really use. I didn’t want her to imbue the keys I’d chosen before, rescued from the bowl I’d used for the awakening ritual. I didn’t have much else, besides spare chain and the mirror around my neck.
Looking down, I saw the hatchet beside the bag. I picked it up.
“I hope he’s chopped enough wood for the fire,” June murmured behind me, barely audible.
As I turned around, she disappeared, and something hit the hatchet.
My already numb fingers froze as cold creeped up the handle. In the span of one or two seconds, they became so stiff I couldn’t open them to drop the hatchet.
“Done,” I said. “Inside, now.”
“It’s a little more complex,” Rose said. “If we-”
“I’m going to be a ghost soon if we don’t get inside,” I said. I grabbed the bat, stuffed book and salt into the bag, and looped it over one shoulder.
“If she gets loose inside the house, sanctuary won’t help us.”
“We wrangled her once,” I said, heading for the door. “We only need to keep her content, right?”
“We need to bind the axe with something.”
“Hatchet, and we will. Inside,” I said. I unzipped my jacket and slid the hatchet underneath, so it sat between my coat and my sweatshirt. I held it there, stiff fingers still gripping the wooden handle. “Better, June?”
The cold didn’t feel as intense as it had.
“Good,” I said. To Rose, I said, “Inside.”
I made my way indoors.
The cold in the hatchet was noticeable, but growing less intense by the second.
“We’ll need a way to inscribe the handle, or she can leave any time she feels like it, and she’s liable to go out in one big intense shot of cold the moment you hit something,” Rose said, as I made my way into the hallway.
“That could be useful,” I said.
“It would almost definitely kill you,” Rose said.
“Less useful,” I replied.
“You could have chosen a better tool. That handle looks like some kind of textured rubber, and I don’t know how we’re going to engrave anything into the steel, either. ”
“She chose it, not me,” I said. I pried my hand away from the hatchet’s handle.
“Well, this works as a kind of stopgap measure as a half-implement and half-familiar,” Rose said. “Not sure how you’re going to conceal that hatchet all the time, but it works.”
“It does. A step forward,” I said. My hand was throbbing now. I could feel the cold in the core of my bones. “We need to do it a few more times, in a few different ways, and we’ll have a passable power base.”
“There aren’t that many good options,” Rose said.
“We can try the less-good options,” I said. “And hopefully I don’t lose any hands doing it. Ow.”
“Hopefully,” Rose said. “Let me go over the inscriptions, and I’ll walk you through it.”
“I’m going to keep our new friend nice and warm like we promised, and see if I can’t warm myself up too,” I said. “Anything that involves the stove and kettle.”
I stepped into the kitchen to dig through the cabinets. I’d overlooked the hot chocolate before, dismissing the unpalatable mix of chocolate powder and water, but it suddenly seemed like the best idea I’d had in a long time.
In terms of hot food…
I grimaced and put the oatmeal aside as well. The only thing I could make in a reasonable span of time.
“Damned oatmeal,” I muttered. Louder, I said, “Remember that bit I said last night? About how you had to get on my case and remind me that I could have gone shopping but didn’t? Now’s the time. I feel like I’m going to cry.”
“Blake?” Rose called out.
Something in her voice caught my attention.
I turned around and came face to face with a scene.
A gray haired man, a twenty-something man, and a thirty-something woman sat on the couches and chairs in the living room. All wearing suits, all with nice, utilitarian hair styles.
Rose, for her part, was visible in the mirror. I couldn’t even process her expression. Even for this sudden appearance, the level of dawning horror on her face that I saw seemed like it was too much.
Was she seeing something I couldn’t? Or had she glimpsed something before I turned around?
“The lawyers of Mann, Levinn, and Lewis, I presume?” I asked.
“More specifically, we are Mann, Levinn and Lewis,” the young woman said. Blonde, with a tidy ponytail and a lock of hair strategically draped over the corner of one eyebrow. One of her pantyhose-covered legs was crossed over the other, her hands folded over her knee. “Please, don’t cry while we’re here. I can’t speak for my partners, but I’d be embarrassed on your behalf.”