Chapter 1: The Fool
Spiritualism is the concept that death is not an ending, that the dead can speak to the living if only they know the right means and ways. The practitioners, who are referred to as mediums, employ several methods to make the wishes of the deceased known. While most spiritualist mediums were women, this was by no means a universal truth. Some men learned the art as boys at their mother’s knee. And in the wake of the American Civil War, hundreds of thousands of people who would never have ventured near the art sought it out to seek some solace, some last comfort with their loved ones lost. It is against this backdrop, with the cannon smoke just beginning to clear and soldiers returning home, that our story truly begins.
Taako was nervous but that wasn’t unusual. His sister was the bold one, the one who grabbed opportunity by the reins and made things happen for them. He was the cautious one who kept them from leaping from the frying pan and into the fire. And speaking of the frying pan, the one sizzling above their campfire was nearly hot enough for the pancakes he was cooking. Where was she? He heard two sets of footsteps coming up the trail and smiled. There, and she’d kept their meal ticket in one piece. More to the good. He turned, long pointed ears flicking back, and grinned.
“How’d it go, Lulu?”
Lup flashed him a smile and spun her parasol, propped against her shoulder as it was.
“A piece of cake. Barold had a word with the ghost and bam, problem solved.”
Barry Bluejeans, the medium in question, wavered on his feet slightly and she caught him by the arm to keep him standing.
“Come on, let's get you sitting down and see how much longer it takes Taako to get some grub going, huh?”
"Shouldn't be too long." He poured the batter into the pan, shaping three small pancakes. "Did they pay?"
Lup got Barry sitting down on an upturned log and handed the precious dollars over.
Taako counted them out and frowned. Then Lup held out a handful of change.
"We stopped so he could get a honey stick, so it's a penny short. He wasn't going to make it back to the camp if we didn't, Koko."
Barry looked up, adjusting his glasses. He was still pale and breathing hard from the effort it took to channel the spirits.
"Sorry, Taako. I tried but uh… but this one was rougher than normal."
Taako waved that off and reached for the spatula to flip the pancakes.
"Whatever, we can deal as long as there's enough to get us through to the next job." He considered that for a moment, watching the batter brown in the pan. "Maybe it's time for another show…"
Lup chewed her lower lip for a moment and then nodded.
"Maybe. It'll definitely get us the cash to make it through but…"
She adjusted the skirts of her dress and sat beside Barry, looking up at her brother. It was Barry who responded though.
"I can do it, Lup. I just might need some… some help."
She looked at him, more than just a little concern in her eyes, but then she nodded.
"Alright, Bear. But you're doing it my way this time. I don't want you collapsing again."
He grimaced at that and Taako shook his head. Their last show hadn't gone well at all. At least, not for Barry. Barry had never had any trouble conjuring the spirits or getting them to respond to a spirit board, not since he'd been a little boy at his mother's knee just learning the arts from her. But that didn't mean it went well for him. It was a lot, at times, to channel the deceased through him.
A few days later, with a venue sorted out in a rented room above a tavern, Taako started canvassing the town with advertisements. Barry was spending his day resting as much as he could and making sure he had a solid meal in him before he had to go on and Lup stayed with him. He finished the last of his stew, mopping it up with a roll, and looked up at Lup.
"You know if the spirits want to take me, I can't stop them, right?"
Lup sighed and sat beside Barry at the small table. She rested one gloved hand on his arm and looked into his eyes. Then she smiled a little and reached for his glasses.
"I know, Bear. And you've got some dirt here. Let me just..." She took the thick lenses and wiped them clean before handing them back. "There. And... I know the spirits will do what they want, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try to keep you in one piece through it, alright?"
That drew a small smile from him and he nodded and rested his hand on hers.
"I know, Lup. I just... I just want to make sure you understand. I don't want to... to be a burden. But I don't have control of this. I'm not as good as my mother was."
The door to the public house open and Barry pulled his hand back, hearing Taako's distinctive voice. Lup cursed inwardly and then turned towards him. Taako had a huge smile on his face and he held up a printed broadsheet.
"We're on schedule, Lu. I got these all over and we're ready to go. We just need to hope the audience is big enough to make all this shit worth it."
On the other side of town, a man stood before a broadsheet hanging on a wall. It advertised a real seance and he snorted a laugh. He would be the judge of that. He opened his jacket and produced a silver pocket watch. Yes, he could make this performance with time to spare. Kravitz McAllister tucked his pocket watch away and turned towards the tavern the tavern the advertisement had mentioned.
Chapter 2: The Magician
Most mediums can only perform in the dark, but then most mediums are frauds. Barry? Barry stood shakily in front of the crowd in the rented room with candles lit on the table and a lit lamp on the one shelf. Most mediums have tricks. They employ cabinets with false backs or sleight of hand or even speaking tubes piped through tables. There are so many ways to fake an encounter with the supernatural. And there are so many ways for the mind to refuse what the eye is seeing as a woman with soft gray hair suddenly appeared beside her son and rested a hand on his shoulder.
"They're coming now."
He said it softly, cryptically, and a light mist seemed to come from the very floor. And in the audience, a young man in a blue uniform jacket from a war that he can't seem to leave behind watched in astonishment. He thought that maybe this is his chance, this could be the way he can see his wife again, even for just a moment.
Most mediums are just knowledgeable in the art of cold reading. But Barry closed his eyes and began to speak, not looking at anyone in the room, just letting the voices speak through him.
"There… there are a lot of them tonight. Something… something bad. Not the war, not entirely. Something else." He wavered slightly. "An explosion?"
And then whatever had gripped him moved on and he stumbled as the next spirit caught him up. This time, a spectral form rose up out of the fog that lay on the floor. It took the shape of a man and he stood at attention, his eyes sharp as he looked around the room. The crowd gasped and one man in the back stood up, startled. The man was a gnome, the ball of fluff at the end of his tail puffed out to the extreme as he watched the specter moving about. He was gesturing wildly and the human woman beside him tried to shush him, a hand on his arm as she tried to coax him back into his seat.
"Davenport, please. You're making a scene."
The woman was dressed in pale blue and looked like a nurse, but there was something in her posture and tone that said she was quite a bit more than that. Not that Barry noticed a thing. Taako was the one watching that scene unfold. Even Lup noticed nothing, her attention squarely focused on Barry as he wavered at the front of the room. Another spirit caught him and the first specter vanished with a salute. That seemed to settle the gnomish man again and he watched the next few spirits with rapt attention. In rapid succession, two children passed through and then for the briefest of moments, a woman stood before the young man in the back in his blue uniform jacket. She held her hand out to him and then vanished as he stood. There was a thud at the front of the room as Barry fell to his knees. Lup ran to him, putting an arm around his shoulders and Taako tensed in the doorway. The crowd looked anxious and the man in the back was still on his feet, staring at the stop where the specter of the woman had just been standing.
The man's voice broke and he reached out towards that now empty space like it might hold the answers he needed. He looked up towards the medium on his knees at the front of the room.
"What happened? That was... that was my wife." He paused for a beat, suddenly realizing what he was seeing. "Is he alright?"
Lup helped Barry to his feet and he kept an arm around her shoulders.
"I'm... I'm okay. I promise, Lup. I can finish this. Just... stay here, okay?"
She hesitated for a moment but then she nodded, keeping an arm around him as he opened himself to the spirits once more. The moment he had, the mist began to rise from the floor again and the woman returned. She stood in front of the man in his blue uniform jacket, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
It was quiet, just a bare whisper only loud enough to be heard over the sounds of an anxious crowd. The man, Magnus as his name seemed to be, reached for her and she stepped into his arms.
"Jules, Julia." His voice was tight, choked even. "I missed you, sweetheart."
"I missed you too, Magnus."
Sitting near to the back, Kravitz frowned slightly and slipped a small notepad out of his jacket pocket to begin to take notes. Two outbursts from the audience. Potentially scripted. He would need to determine if there was any connection between these two former military men and the medium. He noted that both men were wearing Union uniforms. The gnomish man appeared to have a nurse or some other kind of caregiver. Kravitz had read about soldiers who had seen the harshest fighting or been imprisoned in the Rebel camps suffering still after the war. Side effects of starvation and exposure, perhaps. Kravitz's eyes flicked to the man and woman embracing before her spirit faded again. He would have to figure out how they'd pulled that trick off in a lit room, but it was certainly doable. Tricks of the light, mirrors, refraction. He saw that sort of thing all the time. It could have been anything. He made a note to rent out the room later and see if he could find signs of how they had managed the trick. Then he heard a gasp and looked up. A woman in a dark gown with raven black hair stood in the center of the room, looking around curiously. The medium had collapsed again and yet the woman remained. At first, Kravitz was excited. This was what he needed, a sign of their tricks. The actress portraying the spirit had clearly missed her cue to vanish. And then he looked up at her face and the pen dropped out of his hand. It rolled across his floor with a clatter as he stood, pad still gripped tightly in his hand.
Chapter 3: The High Priestess
She had vanished mere moments later, leaving Kravitz McAllister with a distinct sinking feeling as his stomach dropped out from under him. His mother. His mother. But then he shook it off. It was a trick, an illusion. It had to be. There was no such thing as a real medium and he would prove this fraud just the same as the others. It would perhaps just take longer than most. The medium, Barry, if that was really his name, was leaning heavily on the woman who was his assistant. He was pale and he looked like he was going to drop any moment now. Kravitz shook his head. The audience was restless and the man in the doorway was looking worried. But of course he was, after all, if the audience didn't get the show they wanted, they would demand their money back. But as Kravitz looked around at the audience, he realized quickly that they were less restless and more excited. They were chattering eagerly. They believed what they had seen. They pitied the medium. Idiots, all of them.
As the audience filed out, Lup coaxed Barry into a chair. Taako had the lockbox that contained their profits for the night and was counting it without paying any attention to anything else. Which meant he didn’t notice the man from before, Magnus in his worn blue uniform jacket, stop near Lup and Barry.
“Excuse me, I’m really sorry to bother you, I just... I wanted to say thank you.”
Lup looked up, confusion on her face. Barry was pale, head in his hands, and he didn’t look up though he did seem to be listening.
“For... That was Julia.” He gave Lup a sad smile. “My wife. We were from Ravens Roost.”
That caught Lup’s attention. She knew that name from the papers, about 6 years ago. It had been right in the heat of the rebellion and most of the town had gone Union but the leadership had tried to go Confederate. It had ended with internal fighting until someone had blown the stores of blasting powder they had for the mines under the town. She opened her mouth and was surprised to be cut off as Barry looked up, eyes unusually clear.
“She’s always around you, Magnus. She uh... she worries about you. She said you need to stop rushing into things face first.” He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to focus. “She loves you a lot.” And then his tone became confused. “Who’s Kalen?”
Whoever he was, the name certainly meant something to Magnus Burnsides. He pulled back like a scalded cat, like Barry had said something truly vile.
“He’s... I always thought he was behind the explosions. Had no proof though and... Dammit, he couldn’t take losing. But it was hardly a fight. The town was never going to go Reb. And he couldn’t take that... and...” Magnus looked down, looking like he might cry. His hands were tight fists at his sides.
After a moment, Lup put a hand on his shoulder.
“The three of us were going to grab something for dinner. You should join us.”
Taako opened his mouth, ready to protest. They had money in their pockets for the first time in weeks. They didn’t need to go sharing it. But Lup silenced him with a look. They had enough to share this once.
Lucretia led Captain Davenport back to the carriage that had brought them here. The man was quiet, strangely so even for him. But he was frequently quiet and she thought nothing of it. He had been like this since the war. Since he had come back from that hell on earth they called Andersonville. She had been waiting when he had returned, excited to see him again. He wasn’t her father, not exactly. He wasn’t her protector, not since she was a child. But he was her friend and mentor and she had sworn that she would help him through this. But now he was staring out the window of the wagon, his tail flicking back and forth almost irritably.
“Did you enjoy the seance?”
His mouse-like ears quivered and swiveled towards her. He’d heard then, but didn’t answer. That was fine. She could ask him more over dinner once they got home. The outburst during the seance had been the most animated he had been in years. Perhaps... perhaps the answer was in the medium.
As they climbed the stairs into his home, she turned towards the coachman.
“Avi, the Captain enjoyed the show this evening. Could you see to it that the medium Barry Bluejeans and his traveling companions are extended an invitation to visit the manor?”
Avi gave her a grin.
“Of course.” Then he leaned in, a bit of worry on his face. “Did he really like it, Lucy? Is he alright?”
She put a hand on his shoulder and smiled.
“He spoke during the show. One of the spirits called forth meant something to him. And I think... perhaps...”
Avi nodded, a bright smile coming to his face.
"I'll get the invitation there first thing in the morning. Anything else, Lucy?"
She shook her head and then turned.
"I should go make sure he gets to bed alright. Poor man's been keyed up since the medium raised that spirit."
"Good lucky, Lucy. Sounds like you're gonna need it."
Magnus was still with them when morning came, having slept on the floor in the room he'd insisted on renting for them in the inn. Taako had slept well and was up early for once in his life, gone out to find a few things at the general store before they set out for the next town. Lup was sitting on the edge of the bed Barry was still fast asleep in. His eyes were squeezed tight shut, his jaw clenched. It was as though something she couldn't see was harassing the man and it tugged at her heart. She brushed his hair back from his face, wishing there was something she could do. He awoke with a start, sweat dripping down his face, and turned towards her with fear on his face. Then he saw her and smiled, relieved.
"Hey, Bear. How are you feeling?"
He shook his head a little, trying to clear it.
"If uh... if I'm being entirely honest? Not great." He scrubbed at his face for a moment and then reached for his glasses on the nightstand. "What time is it?"
"It's still early. Don't worry. And we'll go get some breakfast in a minute."
He nodded a little and then both of them turned as they heard a knock at that door.
Chapter 4: The Empress
Lup pulled herself away from Barry and moved towards the door, ears flicked back as she tried to conceal her worry over the man. And who could possibly be at the door? Taako would just come in and it wasn’t like they knew anyone else. Unless someone had come looking for Magnus?
Instead, she opened the door to find a handsome young man with dark hair tied back in a ponytail wearing a coachman’s livery. He took his hat off and gave her a smile.
“Hello, Miss. I’m Avi and I work for Captain Davenport. He and Miss Lucretia were at the seance last night and they’ve asked me to invite the medium and his companions by the manor for dinner this evening. I’m fairly sure that they would also be interested in a private seance, if you can do that.” He paused then, taking a breath and taking in Lup’s expression. Her hand was tight on the doorframe and her ears flicked back still. “Don’t worry, Miss. The Captain can more than pay.”
She glanced back to where Barry had just gotten himself up and was hunting through his bags for a clean shirt. Another seance so soon would take so much more out of him, but was this an opportunity they could turn down?
She closed her eyes for a moment and then nodded.
“Let them know we’ll be there. What time should we arrive?”
Avi lit up in a smile,
“Dinner starts at 4! They’re going to be so happy, Miss. Thank you!” He toyed with his hat between his hands for a moment, looking down. “Is it possible other spirits might come through?”
Lup smiled at him, finally starting to relax some. She could make sure Barry was alright through this. Even if it meant they would have to get creative. She just wished she knew why he was getting so sick so suddenly.
“Barry would be the one to know. But from what I’ve seen traveling with him, the only guaranteed spirit is his mother. The others come to see their loved ones.” She paused, watching his expression carefully. “Is there someone you’re looking for?”
Avi hesitated and then he nodded.
She gave him a sad smile. She knew that tone.
“Maybe he’ll come through. You can always hope.”
Avi nodded again and then crammed his hat back on.
“Thank you again, Miss! See you tonight!”
The moment he was gone, Lup closed the door and leaned heavily against it. They would need to start getting ready now. At the same time, she felt giddy. A manor house! She and Taako might just have a chance to do their work. Then she looked at Barry. Time to make sure he was alright. She didn’t want him collapsing again if she could help it.
By the time Taako returned, Lup and Barry were both ready for the day and Magnus was up and washing his face in the basin of water left on the table for that purpose. He dropped a basket of dry goods on the table and stretched. After a moment, he looked at Magnus, watching the man button his jacket and then reach for one of their bags. Then he looked at Lup, ears flicking down in annoyance.
"Lulu, no. You already have one human puppy dog. You can't have two. We can't handle two."
Lup rolled her eyes.
"We've got a gig tonight and Magnus offered to give us a hand with everything as long as he gets to stick around and maybe see his wife again."
That got a quiet sigh out of Taako. Then his head snapped up and his ears flicked up in excitement.
"A gig? What sort of gig?"
Barry adjusted his glasses, voice quiet when he responded.
"One of the people at the show last night wants a private seance. He uh... he invited us to dinner, I guess." When Taako started to look annoyed, Barry quickly added. "And he can pay."
That certainly mollified Taako, at least for now. The fact that they would be staying here at least another day wasn't great but it certainly could have been worse. At least they were staying another day with work and not without. And they had the money from the night before. They would just need to move on before someone figured out Barold's trick. Not that Taako had figured out Barold's trick, but there had to be a trick, right? Lup believed it was real, that Barry Bluejeans could really summon spirits from beyond the grave, but Taako sure didn't. After all, if he could really summon real spirits who had passed on, then why would he be traveling with the pair of them and starving half the time? It didn't make sense, now did it?
"Sounds good to me." He dropped into a chair, leaning back and putting one foot up on the other chair. "What're we looking at? Rich guy, right? If he can afford a private show."
Lup nodded, a grin crossing her face.
"The coachman that came with the invite said he's got a manor, Koko. We get to live it up real good."
They would have to talk later, make plans about how they would handle that. Figure out how much money they could get out of this Captain Davenport while they were at it. Barry suddenly leaned heavily on the table and Lup was immediately at his side.
"Bear, what happened?"
"I'm... I'm okay. Just a little dizzy for a second there but uh... but I'm okay. I just... Let's go get breakfast, okay?"
Taako frowned a little and met Lup's eyes. Was Barry getting worse? It sure seemed like it. Lup only met Taako's eyes for a minute. She didn't want to think about that. She didn't want to admit that Barry was paler than he'd been the night before, she didn't want to admit that he was probably sick. She especially didn't want to admit that nothing they'd done for him was helping.
Chapter 5: The Emperor
They arrived at Davenport’s manor house in the early evening, the autumnal sun setting behind the trees and casting everything in fiery hues. Lup stayed close by Barry’s side, watching him like a hawk for any sign he might collapse again. He had never had a dizzy spell outside of a seance before and she was scared for him, scared she was going to lose him. He was already human, she didn’t need him to be sick too. Magnus carried a large basket that held the things Barry might need, depending on what sort of seance Captain Davenport was interested in. Privately, Lup hoped he was interested in table tipping or the talking board. Those didn’t take nearly so much out of Barry.
The manor was an imposing thing with sprawling, chaotic outbuildings. A stable boasted horses, some of which leaned out of windows and eyed their approach. The young coachman was there, caring for the animals and tending to their space. Lup gave him a wave and he lowered his rake to wave back. The windows of the manor itself were dark, most of them covered with heavy curtains of a deep blue fabric. It gave the overall impression of a building which was sad somehow, as though something was missing and not quite mourned but only out of a sense of disbelief that it was truly gone. Lup wished silently that she could reach for Barry’s hand for something to anchor her and calm her nerves, but his hands were in his coat pockets, and furthermore he had no idea how she felt about him. Now was not the time to tell.
Taako took the lead as they approached the front door, raising his hand to the knocker the moment they were assembled. He half expected to be shuffled off to a side door like servants, but instead he soon found himself looking up into the eyes of the woman from that night, the Captain’s nurse or perhaps companion.
Lucretia had waited by the door for much of the day, earnestly awaiting the arrival of the medium. He had done something that had broken through to the Captain. He had to be able to do it again, and mores the better if he could do it here, in a private space where no one could see how truly unwell the Captain was. Better than only these few outsiders see him at his worst. She dreaded the idea that someone would see, someone would realize, and that someone would try to take him away to one of those dreadful hospitals. He didn’t need a sanatorium, he needed to be home with fresh air and those who cared for him. Wasn’t that what his doctor kept saying? And when had Dr Highchurch steered anyone wrong?
And now they were here. She was surprised to see a second human man, having been under the impression that only the medium and the two elves were behind the performances, but either way, she gave them her best smile and opened the door wide.
“Yes, please, come in. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. Captain Davenport will be so excited when he knows you’re here. Please, please, come with me and we’ll get everything settled so you have time to prepare for dinner.”
She was brusque and efficient, if a bit young, Taako privately assessed. And she cared about the man more than most would care about an employer. That implied something more and he nodded. He tried not to eye the things in the house. The foyer where they stood was graced with an ornate silver mirror and a fine rug he was sure was imported. It was one of those ornate woven rugs with intricate designs in it. And here they were walking across it in their booted feet. If the man had this kind of money, then no reason to feel bad pocketing a bit of the cutlery or a pocket watch. He turned to his sister and gave her a grin. She grinned back and then turned to Lucretia.
“Did... Captain Davenport, was it? Would he like to talk to Barry before dinner? Magnus and I can bring things wherever the seance will be.”
Lucretia hesitated for a brief moment, but just enough that Lup and Taako noticed.
“I can take you to the drawing room. That would be where we retire after dinner. And if you need anything, just let me know. Or any of the staff.”
Barry nodded a little, looking around with open curiosity. He had been a city boy growing up, born and raised in Paterson, New Jersey. His mother had been medium, his father died when he was an infant. He’d had excuses growing up to be in wealthy homes, of course. You couldn’t grow up the son of Marlena Bluejeans and not see all sorts of things. They’d traveled constantly once her career as a medium had taken off and he had been in all kinds of homes, but they had all been in the city. It wasn’t until he’d met up with Taako and Lup that he had started exploring the countryside. They seemed to prefer it and he wasn’t one to argue. Not when he was very certain his mother had guided him to them for a reason.
Lucretia led them to a small room with an array of comfortable looking chairs and a military flag hanging on the wall. Barry didn’t know the symbolism well, but he was reasonably certain the man had been in the navy between the anchor on his flag and the several small wooden ships haphazardly strewn about the room. Lucretia moved to his side then, seeming uncertain suddenly.
“Will this do?”
Barry gave her a reassuring smile.
“This is perfect, thank you. Do you uh... do you know what sort of things he would prefer? I know a lot of people like the talking board, so I made sure to bring mine...”
He trailed off as Magnus set the basket by the door. The talking board was a simple thing, just the letters of the alphabet, the numbers from zero to nine, and the words yes and no, nothing more. His was a bit unusual in that it had more than just the letters of English, but then it had been his mother’s and Marlena’s first language had been German. Lucretia followed his gaze and then shook her head a little.
“Like last night, if you could. Someone... a spirit came through that the Captain recognized. If you could do that, bring him forth again, that would be wonderful.”
Barry tensed. His summoning of the spirits wasn’t reliable like that. He would always call someone, but he couldn’t guarantee anyone specific. He said it again and again. But he didn’t want to let this woman, or Captain Davenport for that matter, down.
"I suppose that's really all you can do, isn't it?"
Chapter 6: The Hierophant
The dinner was positively sumptuous, with trays and dishes full of food. Taako caught a quick glimpse of the chef at one point, a dark elven woman who stayed in the kitchen. If they had time, he might just see if he could go have a word, give his compliments to the chef and all that. If absolutely nothing else, he was going to have to ask for the recipe for her biscuits, because they were absolutely divine. Barry was having a quiet conversation with Lucretia. Something about some book they’d apparently both read. Whatever. Taako was much more interested in the silent gnomish man seat at the head of the table. The man’s tail flicked back and forth as he methodically ate his dinner and he was utterly silent. He didn’t even seem to notice the conversations going on around him. Every so often, Lucretia would pause in her conversation with Barry to check on the man, but he still said nothing. Taako watched their interactions and then grinned to himself. Was it the gnome’s idea to have the seance or was Lucretia spending the man’s money for a little fun for herself? He approved.
After the dinner though came the entire point of the evening. They walked to the drawing room and Lucretia sat in a straight-backed chair while Davenport moved for a large rocking chair adorned with a comfortable looking wool blanket. Magnus took a seat in the back along with Avi and the chef from before, a quiet woman named Ren. Lup and Taako took up their usual places, one by the wall and one by the door. Last but not least, Barry stood at the front of the room. They turned the gas lamps in the room up, making sure it was well lit, and Barry closed his eyes.
“Mother, if you would?”
He said it quietly and immediately a gray-haired specter took her place beside her son. He smiled, eyes still closed, and held his hands out at his sides.
“The doorway is open, for those who wish to take it. Is there anyone here who wishes to make themself known? Anyone who would like to uh... to speak with Captain Davenport?”
Lucretia leaned forward expectantly, her eyes flicking back and forth between the space around Barry and Davenport in his oversized chair. For a long moment, there was only that woman, but then her expression changed from one of focus to one of concern.
“Barry, you need to-“
Her frantic words that hung and echoed in the air like so much smoke were suddenly cut off as she vanished. And then a little boy stood in the center of the room. He was pale and shivering, leaning heavily on a crutch. His longs pointed ears were flared out with fear, his eyes wide.
“Please!” His shout cut at them, it tore through them like nails dragged over stone and rasped and crackled like a flame. “I don’t want to- Make them leave me alone!”
Barry gasped for air less like he was choking and more like his lungs were suddenly full of liquid. But it was as though no one in the room could move. They all had their eyes locked on this boy.
“Tell them I won’t. Tell him I won’t.”
And then the boy vanished, releasing Barry just as suddenly as he’d seized him in the first place. Lup got an arm around him while he coughed, flecks of blood showing on his handkerchief. He straightened with effort and another spirit stepped through. This one was the man from the night before in his blue uniform. He stood and saluted and then smiled.
Davenport’s head snapped up and he stood, practically leaping out of his chair. For a moment, he just made a series of sharp gestures with his hands. Lup realized it had to be sign language, even if she didn’t understand what was being conveyed. The spectral man seemed confused and then Davenport took a breath.
The spectral man smiled and then vanished once more.
Over the course of the next hour, dozens of spirits made their way through the room. Each arrival and each departure left Barry a bit more pale, a bit more cold, a bit more weak, but he pressed on. For her part, Lup kept thinking back to that first little boy. The spirits could talk, from time to time. They usually preferred to do it through Barry since it was easier. But that little boy had shouted. And he had hurt Barry somehow, more than just the strain this put him under. It was as though that boy had died of the white plague and briefly visited his condition upon Barry. If that was possible, then what else could they do? It wasn’t a comfortable question.
And then Lup's ears flicked back as another thought shot through her mind unbidden. What if Barry really was sick? What if he was consumptive? What if she had to watch him cough himself to death? Gods, she hoped not. She didn't think she could take that. But for now, he was just staring straight ahead while the spirits came and went, pale but otherwise alright.
When the seance was over and done, Barry swayed a little on his feet but managed to stay standing. Then he blinked a little, confused.
“That man... Cameron? His name was Cameron McDonald, right?” Davenport’s head snapped up at the name and he nodded once, much to Lucretia’s surprise. “He wanted to say thank you? For... for something?” Barry looked confused but then he looked towards Lucretia. “Something about Angus? I... have no idea who that is.”
Lucretia looked startled. How could anyone have known? The boy was upstairs in his room asleep at this hour. He had taken dinner with his tutor like he always did when they had company. None of these outsiders should have known about him any more than they should have known about his grandfather, Cameron. She would have to have a word with Maureen later and see if anyone had been asking questions about the boy. Or if Lucas had talked to anyone about him.
The little boy in question, though, was not sleeping. Angus McDonald was sitting up in his bed, very aware of the fact that his tutor, Maureen Miller, was up and reading in her own room and the other adults were downstairs socializing. He always preferred staying upstairs when they had company. It felt less like he was in the way. But now he wished he was downstairs where they were more people than just Maureen as he stared into the darkness of his room and stared through the spectral form of an elven boy just a bit older than him who leaned on a crutch. He was pale, his eyes dark and sunken in his small face, and he was staring at Angus. The boy moved closer and Angus could hear the crutch thump on the wooden floor. He pulled back, pulling his blanket with him as he tried to hide. He pulled the blanket up over his head and spoke in a quiet, shaky voice.
"G-go away. Please?"
When he pulled the blanket back down, the specter was gone. But then he heard a quiet voice whisper in the darkness.
Chapter 7: The Lovers
Kravitz ran his hands over the wood paneling of the walls, trying to find somewhere that the medium or his damned helpers could have secured a bit of thread or perhaps some tubing. There had to be some explanation for how they could create the seemings of spirits. Perhaps they had infused the air with an intoxicant. He knew of several things right off the top of his head that could cause vivid hallucinations. And several of them could be made into a smoke or perhaps a power in the air. There were any number of ways they could have been drugged. The question now was how to prove it. It was also possible that it had all been a matter of sleight of hand. Perhaps a very literal game of smoke and mirrors. Still, he couldn't get the image of his mother's face out of his mind. That had been her, that had been Raven McAllister and there was no question of that. But how?
And where had the medium gotten off to? They had left the inn in the middle of the day and hadn't come back. He would have to investigate that, but he bet they’d skipped town. That would be typical. Do their little show, con the people out of their hard earned money, and then move on. Typical.
He paused where the medium had been standing and then knelt, running his hands over that spot. Was there a trap door? Probably not. That would be harder to rig in a temporary location like this. But there still had to be some explanation for the appearance of the woman who had stood next to him. The gray haired human woman had looked a bit like him, perhaps his mother? Perhaps a sister made up to look older. Yes, that could certainly explain it. And if they used a mixture of smoke and intoxicants, with real actors and the audience’s expectation for spirits... then the whole matter would be trivial. Now he just needed to catch them out.
He returned downstairs and dropped a few dollars on the bar.
“Thank you so very much. You’ve done a great deal to help further my investigation.”
The barkeep, a petite halfling woman, nodded and gave him a smile.
“Always glad to help.”
“I don’t suppose then...” he leaned in. “Do you know where they were head after this? Did they make mention of a town?”
Her eyebrows went up and she laughed.
“You hadn’t heard then? I thought it did the rounds already. But then, I suppose no one would’ve told you. No, no, they haven’t left. They got hired on for a private seance up at the Captain’s house.”
Kravitz rocked back on his heels, momentarily stunned. They hadn’t left? A private seance?
She reached for a cloth, wiping down the bar as she spoke.
“Captain Davenport. His place is up the hill. Can’t hardly miss it. He’s a good man, the Captain is, even if he came back from the war a bit funny.”
Well then, now it seemed he could add conning a distinguished veteran to the rolls of their sins. He would need to find and expose them sooner rather than later. But... this did give him an important piece of information. They could be hired for private engagements. He could use that to keep them in town another night, if he could catch them.
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
He tipped his hat as he headed for the door, dark coat swirling around him as he stepped out into the evening light.
Lucretia didn’t know what to make of any of this. Cameron McDonald appearing in spirit. Davenport, animated and alert, communicating even. And it hadn’t stopped after Cameron had vanished back into the spirit world. He was, even now, signing in earnest and rapid fashion. He had so many questions and the poor medium could barely keep up. Barry, it seemed, didn’t understand sign language, but his companion, Magnus, did. Of course, the fact that any of them did was something wondrous. That was education normally reserved for the few schools for the deaf that were just beginning to spread across the country.
She gave her head a little shake, clearing the errant thoughts. She needed to focus. Her plan had worked! Davenport was looking so very much better. But what of the boy? Who had that sad spirit been? And what was he talking about? She looked around and saw Lup standing to the side, nervously watching Barry and Davenport talking. Lucretia stood and went to stand by Lup.
“I can arrange rooms for you, since it’s so late.” Then she paused. “I have a question though. Last night, the spirits seemed to only whisper, or perhaps say a single word. But this... the boy...”
Lup’s wars flicked back and she shook her head.
“I’ve never seen one yell before. I’ve never seen anything like that.” She glanced at Barry again. “He might know, but he might not. If it’s not something that’s happened to him or his mother before... Well...”
“Of course, of course...” then she sighed. “I should check on Angus. I’ll find you rooms and then check on him, I suppose.”
She gestured for Lup to follow and they went down the hall and up the stairs towards the garret.
“We have a few spare rooms up here, along with Angus and his tutor.” She paused, trying to decide how delicately to put this. “Do you have a preference for... who rooms together?”
Lup only barely concealed the embarrassment that tinged her cheeks.
“Really, anything is fine. We’ve been traveling together for a while.”
Lucretia took out a ring of keys and opened the first door in the hallway.
“I wasn’t sure if you... and perhaps Taako... or Barry...”
Lup’s ears shot straight up at that and she hastily corrected.
“Taako is my brother. We’re twins.”
Lucretia had the good grace to look mortified and immediately dropped the subject, showing Lup the two garret rooms. They were small but warm and serviceable, cozy even. They would do nicely. Lup set her bag down on one of the beds and then turned back to Lucretia.
"Angus is who Barry mentioned before, the one the spirits were talking about?"
Lucretia tensed slightly but then exhaled, forcing herself to relaxed.
"He's Cameron McDonald's grandson. We took him in after... everything."
And that was when they both heard the scream. It was further down the hall, in the garret with them, and it sounded like a child. Lucretia turned, running towards sound. She pulled the door to another one of the garret rooms open and reached to turn the gas lamp on. The moment light filled the room, she saw Angus pulled tight into one of the corners of his bed against the wall, eyes wide behind his glasses that had been hastily jammed on. He was staring at an empty space in the middle of the room, his slight frame shaking. Lucretia followed his gaze, trying to figure out what had scared him. Lup was a step behind her, confusion on her face. There was a rocking horse tucked off to one side of the room, a relic of Angus' younger years, and as the two women watched, it began to rock slowly all by itself.
Chapter 8: The Chariot
The elven twins dropped their hands, both of them breathing hard. Something had interfered with their work. Someone else was still communicating with the other side. That shouldn’t have been possible, not if their ally had kept his end of the bargain. With a hiss, the woman stood. She shook out her skirts, annoyance plain on her face.
“We’re going to have to figure out who is still operating, dear brother.”
Her brother stood, a contemplative expression on his face. Then he nodded and began to snuff out the candles that had sat on the table between them.
“That shouldn’t be too difficult. Don’t worry one bit, darling. Just give me a bit of time and I’ll see to the entire problem.”
She looked across the room at the small bed still tucked in the corner and then nodded. Then she moved to snuff the last of the candles.
“Do it quickly, Edward. And I can see if I can talk to our ally. Perhaps he knows something.”
Edward hesitated. Their ally was certainly capable of finding the information but he was dangerous. But then he too glanced towards the small bed in the corner. If this was what they had to do to get their little brother back. If this was what they had to do in order to get their little brother back, then this was what they would do. In the end, it would be worth it. Keats would always be worth it.
He turned away then and headed towards the door. Then he paused, one hand raised to lean against the doorway.
"Just be careful, Lydia. Promise me that. I can't lose both of you."
She was quiet for a long moment. Then she stepped up behind him and hugged him, leaning against him for a moment.
"I promise." Then she pulled back. "Go. I'll be fine. Honestly, Edward."
She went to gather the candles and carried them into the other room, the room they usually used for their late night seances. They had only used Keats' old room because it was him they were trying to contact specifically tonight. She arranged the candles around the room, setting them back in their usual places. That done, she leaned against the table and closed her eyes. He was right, of course. Their ally was strong, powerful, capable of ensuring that they could get exactly what they wanted in the end, but he was also dangerous. Every session they spoke with him was a risk. Every time they made another deal was another mark on their souls. She had to believe though, that it would be worth it in the end. She closed her eyes, picturing their little brother as he had been so long ago, before the disease that had ended his life had first taken him. He had always been a bit sickly, but he had been a happy child. And they had tried so hard to give him everything he needed, but there had been the war on and it was so hard to get things. And then money had become worthless where they lived. Neither of them had ever sided with the Confederacy, certainly, nor had they lived there but they did have the ill fortune to live along the battle lines. And the decision not to leave, not to uproot their lives and go further north, would haunt both of them for eternity. For it was that decision that had cost them so dearly.
Lydia lit a single candle and sat at the table, hearing the sound of the door closing as her brother went out. Edward would solve the problem his way and she would solve it hers. Even if that meant taking a few eggs. After all, you had to break a few eggs to make a cake. The talking board was already out on the table from where she had left it the last time. Resting her hands lightly on the planchette, she began to move it in a circle.
"To the one who reached out to us before, I need to speak with you again. Someone else is getting through."
After a moment, she felt the planchette tugged out nearly out of her hands as it slid to 'yes'. And then it slid up to the number one.
"Only one person? But still, you said there would be no one strong enough to break through what you'd done. That only Edward and I should be able to-"
It jumped again, harshly landing on 'no.' Lydia tensed but did her best to keep her expression and tone neutral.
"Can you at least tell me where to look? We can find this medium on our end and deal with the problem, but we need to know who and where."
The planchette slid slowly towards the letters, beginning to spell out a word as she watched.
"N...E...A...R. They're near? P....R....O....T...E...C...T...E...D... And protected. Physically or spiritually? B...O...T...H..."
Lydia nearly spat a curse at the board. What did he mean both? Well, it didn't matter. They would find this medium and deal with it. And if they were near, more's the better. It shouldn't be too hard to locate a nearby medium strong enough to break through.
"That should be enough for us to find him."
The planchette jumped more quickly then, darting between letters.
"B...A...R...G...A..I...N... I know, I know. We'll manage it as soon as we possibly-"
Her words were cut off by a scream as pain shot through her. It was like a shock had run through her body, leaving her cold and shaking. She pulled her hands back and the planchette slid to 'goodbye' all by itself. She shoved herself away from the table, knocking the chair over in the process, and leaned heavily against the wall. It took a long moment before she could bring herself to look at her hands, but when she did, she saw that her fingernails had been blackened, almost like she'd burnt them and she had bruises around her wrists as though someone had grabbed her. Well then, she would have to find her gloves. She couldn't let Edward know. Not this.
Edward strode into the public house, a basket on his arm already laden down with a few groceries he'd needed to pick up. He greeted the halfling behind the bar cheerfully and looked over the bill of fare, contemplating bringing home a pair of hot pies for both of them. That was when he saw the flyer hanging on the wall.
"A seance? Here?" He laughed, looking at the barkeep as though he thought it was all a big joke. "You must be joking. You believe in that?"
He didn't notice the handsome half elven man walking down the stairs behind him as he asked it. The barkeep gave him a smile and shook her head.
"It certainly did happen and it was quite the thing, or so I heard. I didn't go up to see. Had to keep my custom down here. But I heard tell that there were spirits walking up there. And it was so good that the Captain hired them to do another private showing." Then she gestured towards the man behind Edward. "Kravitz saw the whole thing. If you've got questions, you could talk to him about it."
The man, Kravitz, held his hand out and Edward shook it immediately.
"It's nice to meet someone else who doesn't believe all of this nonsense immediately," said Kravitz, by way of greeting.
Edward smiled slowly.
"You don't believe, but you went to the show? An odd choice."
Kravitz laughed at that. The pair stepped a bit away from the bar as another customer came in for a drink, and they ended up sitting at tables in the corner while Edward waited for his pies to take home.
"I'm an investigator, looking into frauds. I have reason to believe that this Barry Bluejeans is a con artist, just like every other medium out there."
Edward filed the name away for later but then he settled on a thought. A way that they could handle their little problem quite neatly.
"Is that so? Well," he leaned forward, an earnest look on his face. "We can't have people like that out there. Fooling these poor folk. My own sister was taken in by one of those mediums after our young brother died. Thankfully, she didn't pay much for it, but I can tell you, it was nothing but lies and deceit."
Kravitz nodded, a vindicated expression on his face, as though he was relieved to have found someone who agreed.
"My thoughts exactly. It simply can't be tolerated."
Edward looked serious for a moment and then feigned inspiration.
"I don't suppose... you being from out of town and all, would you like help? Perhaps a local to help smooth things over and get you in places you otherwise couldn't?"
"That's a wonderful idea, and I would appreciate the help, Edward. Thank you."
Edward smiled as the pies were brought out, carefully wrapped in cloth for him, and then he turned to Kravitz again.
"No, thank you."
Chapter 9: Strength
Lucretia, Lup, and Angus all stared at the rocking horse as it continued to rock by itself and then another door opened, a harried human woman appearing. She was backlit by the small candle she'd left on her night table and her glasses reflected the light of the oil lamp in Angus' room.
"Is everything alright? What happened?"
The rocking horse stopped moving just as suddenly as it had begun and Lucretia looked up at the woman.
"Maureen... I think it's alright now. Was it a nightmare, Angus?"
The little boy shook his head, looking around almost frantically.
"There was a boy here, Miss! An Elf boy with... with scary eyes. And I could see through him!"
Lup pulled back at that. A ghost? A spirit? Up here? They shouldn't have been. They shouldn't have left the drawing room where they had the seance. And yet... and yet that little boy spirit hadn't acted like any spirit she had ever seen in the time she'd been traveling with Barry. And none of his stories of his mother's seances had ever been like that. For a long moment, she just looked around, trying to see if there was any sign that the spirit had been there or of who he was. But there was nothing.
Lucretia moved to sit on the bed beside Angus and Lup stepped back out of the room. She wasn't needed here and the longer she stood there, the more she felt like she was intruding. And someone needed to tell Barry that the seance hadn't closed properly. Or at least that the little boy was still around.
Maureen moved closer after Lup was gone and sat on the foot of the bed. Lucretia had an arm around Angus and he had taken off his glasses again, leaning into that hug. He was shaken, but he would be alright. Maureen looked at Lucretia, concern in her eyes.
Lucretia ran her hand over Angus' hair, smoothing it down and brushing it back away from his hair.
"I don't know."
"I saw a ghost."
Angus said it insistently but softly, face still buried against Lucretia's side. Maureen looked at him, surprised, and then looked back Lucretia.
Lucretia nodded slowly, an uncertain expression on her face. She had made every effort to make sure that Angus had no knowledge of what they would be getting up to in the drawing room this evening, that he had no knowledge of where they had been the night before. Where had he gotten the notion of spirits in the house, she would never know. And the fact that he had described a spirit they had all seen... It was worrying.
Lup made her way back down the stairs, a nervous look on her face and her ears pinned back tight to the sides of her head. Making her way to the drawing room, she found Barry, Magnus, and Taako waiting for her. They all looked up as she entered and Barry gave her a nervous smile.
"Everything okay? I uh... I heard a scream."
Lup nodded a little.
"Yeah, yeah, everything's good. There's a kid upstairs and he had a nightmare. That's all." She gestured for them to follow her. "The rooms are nice. And we can split up however we want."
In the end, Taako and Magnus took one room, much to Lup's surprise. She'd been expecting that her brother would want to keep them together. He usually did. Taako wasn't about them being separated and never had been. But she hadn’t particularly argued as she settled in for a night sharing a room with Barry. He was quiet still, pale and his eyes dark in the candlelight.
“Lup?” His voice was a whisper and he sat up, hugging his knees. “What was that little boy?”
“The kid upstairs?”
She asked it like she didn’t know what he was talking about, like the image of that child’s tormented spirit didn’t haunt her, like she could close her eyes without seeing his.
“No... No, that was Angus. Cameron told me about him. He's fine. I meant the uh... the elf boy. There was something wrong and I don’t know what. He didn’t feel right and he was scared.”
Lup shook her head a little, not sure what to think.
"He... I don't know, Bear. He sounded scared, like someone was chasing him or something? But fuck, I don't know. It could be anything. Maybe it wasn't even really a little boy."
They had certainly seen their share of darker things come through in the time they had known each other, even if Barry adamantly swore that the only things he should be able to let through from the other side were the spirits of the dead. But just because they were people didn't make them good or nice. And not all of them chose to wear the shape they'd worn in life. There were some who learned to be more than they were before, to shape their reality. It took a strong will to do that, strong will and a sense of certainty. It was a dangerous thing to do, of course, and something a spirit never recovered from. But that didn't stop people from doing it anyway. They would never stop, not as long as it seemed like a road to power.
"Maybe... He didn't seem like... I mean, I can usually tell. And he didn't feel like... like one of those. He didn't feel right, but not dark, not bad. Not... not twisted." Barry folded his glasses carefully, setting them on the small table beside his bed. "I don't think this is the last time we're going to see him, Lup. I just don't know what to do when we do."
Lup stopped just short of blowing out the candle, momentary distraction clearing.
"Oh shit, I almost forgot. Barry, did you close the seance?"
That stopped him short as well and he looked over at her, confusion plain on his face.
"Of course I did. If... If I hadn't... Lup, you'd know if I hadn't."
She looked away for a moment.
"The boy upstairs, Angus. He was screaming because he saw the little boy spirit in his bedroom. That was after you were done. He shouldn't have been able to stick around once it was closed, right? Not unless..."
Barry scooped his glasses up off the nightstand.
"Not unless something was very wrong. Where did you pack the spirit board? I think I need to talk to my mother."
Chapter 10: The Hermit
Barry closed his eyes and rested his hands on the planchette, a single candle lit on the night table while he sat on the floor with the board on his crossed legs. Lup sat opposite him, her eyes on his face. He moved the planchette in a tight circle, opening the board for the session.
"Mother, I need your help. There's a... a little boy who's been coming through my seances. I don't... I don't know who he is, I don't know why he isn't following the same rules as the other spirits. People are seeing him after the... after the session is closed. And I think something might be... I think something is chasing him. Do you know who he is? Do you know what's happening?"
For a long moment, there was nothing and then the planchette began to move. His fingers were feather light on it, just enough to feel the small pushes that were picking up pace quickly. Lup's gaze dropped to that and she watched each letter, writing it down on a chalkboard she carried for just this purpose. When it stopped, she skimmed what she'd written and read it aloud.
"He is being hunted by the one who closes doors. They know you're looking, Barry. You need to be careful." She paused, ears flicking back. "Bear, what does that mean? The one who closes doors?"
He shook his head, opening his mouth to respond. That was when the planchette shot out of his hands across the room like it had been slapped away.
Barry pulled his hands away from the board and then his words were cut off, his muscles constricting. Blindly, he reached out and Lup grabbed his hand. He looked terrified, his eyes staring unblinkingly at something only he could see. Biting her lower lip, Lup grabbed the spirit board out of his lap and flung it across the room. She kept holding his hand, keeping him anchored here and now even as she grabbed the front of his shirt with her other hand.
"Barry. Bear. Come on, come back to me, Bear."
He whimpered deep in his throat, the sound soft and fearful. Then his eyes closed and he sat there breathing hard.
Opening his eyes slowly, he looked up at her and slowly smiled.
"Hey Lup. What uh...? How did...? You're really pretty."
A hot blush colored her cheeks and she pulled back, laughing nervously.
"You okay there, my guy? You uh... you sort of went all catatonic on me?"
For a long moment, Barry was silent. Then he looked over at the planchette sitting against the wall and the spirit board laying on the floor. The tip of the planchette was pointed out and to the right, further down the hall. Barry stood, still holding Lup's hand, and helped her to her feet. Together, they went to the door and pushed it open. Following the line drawn by the planchette, Barry looked into the darkness of the hallway. Then he realized what he was seeing. The little boy down the hall had his door open and was looking out. The small boy adjusted his glasses, a candleholder in his other hand. Then he smiled at them nervously.
"Hello, Sir, Ma'am." He looked around a little, almost like he thought he would see someone else. Then he bit his lower lip. "Sir, did you see someone else come through here? I saw the little boy again but he ran out my door. And now I can't find him. He sounded really scared, Sir."
Barry looked back at Lup and then let go of her hand to step out into the hallway.
"Sorry, buddy. I didn't see anybody else. Can you tell me what he uh... Do you know what he looked like?" Then he paused. "Your name's Angus, right?"
Angus McDonald nodded rapidly and then adjusted his over-large glasses again.
"Angus McDonald, Sir. And he was an elf. The boy I saw, I mean. With dark hair and dark eyes. And he looked really, really scared." Then he paused. "He wasn't dressed very well either. More like... He was dirty and stuff, Sir. Is he okay?"
Lup hesitated and then followed Barry out into the hall, kneeling down.
"We don't know, but we wanna help him and we think he might be in trouble. Did he tell you anything?"
Angus looked between Lup and Barry for a long moment. Then he crossed his arms over his chest.
"I know he's a ghost, you know."
Barry sputtered a startled laugh. Then he smiled at the boy again.
"I figured. I'm a medium, Angus. Talking to ghosts is what I do."
Angus nodded once, very seriously. Then he glanced towards the stairs.
"He didn't say anything about trouble. Or... at least nothing specific. He said something's trying to get him. And he also told me that his name is Keats."
Edward strode back into the house with a smile on his face and a basket full of pies on his arm.
"Lydia! I've got dinner and some delightful news for you!"
Lydia stepped out of the back, watching him as he set the pies on the table and then went to light their oven. It would take some time to get a fire going large enough that they could heat the meat pies back up. She kept her hands tucked in the pockets of her apron for now, not wanting him to see the burn marks on her nails just yet.
"Oh? Meet someone interesting out in the town today?"
Her tone was light and teasing, with a bite of discomfort under it. Then she smiled and moved to help her brother, grabbing some of the wood from the basket by the stove while he worked on getting the kindling lit.
"After a fashion, and not like you mean. No, I found an investigator looking into a medium. He thinks the man is a fraud. But, dear sister, I think we've found our roadblock. And Kravitz has been kind enough to agree to my helping him with his investigation. Which means I should have this Barry Bluejeans dealt with quite soon."
With the fire going, Lydia set both pies to warm on the stove. She turned towards her brother with a smile on her face.
"That's amazing. You mean this should be over soon?"
Edward smiled and hugged her tightly.
"Soon, Lydia. Soon."
She hugged him back and then pulled away to reach for plates. He moved to help set the table and stopped, suddenly noticing the marks on her hands. He took the plates from her and set them on the table, looking at her with fear in his eyes.
"Lydia, what happened?"
Chapter 11: Wheel of Fortune
Edward pulled back, staring at his sister in surprise and horror. Then he reached for her hand again, looking at the marks around her wrists. The bruises had darkened to an almost black purple and looked so very much like the prints of hands roughly grabbing her that Edward had been scared someone had been by while he was gone. But she had said it had happened while she was doing a session with the spirit board. She pulled her hands back and checked the oven once more.
"He's angry, that's all. He wanted to remind us that he's going to hold us to the bargain regardless of who or what gets in our way."
Edward looked down. This was his fault, in the end. The deal had been his idea. But what else could they do? They hadn't been able to contact their little brother in all the time they had searched on their own... and this spirit had promised that not only would he find Keats, he would return Keats to the living. It had sounded too good to be true, but what could Edward say but yes. And all they had to do was what they were told.
He had done far less for their brother through the years and would gladly do far more.
At the same time, he had never wanted Lydia to get hurt. Gods, if he lost her too... He couldn't take that. An uncertain look crossed his face and he reached to put a hand on her shoulder.
"Lydia..." The words trailed off as she turned to look at him and then he tried again. "You shouldn't... This shouldn't have happened. He shouldn't have hurt you. He's forgotten that he needs us as much as we need him."
The lights in the small room flickered briefly and Lydia stepped closer to her brother.
"Edward," she hissed. "Don't say that. He'll hear you."
Barry nodded slowly. Keats. Well, that was a name at least. And that was more than they'd had a few minutes ago. Maybe he could contact this Keats directly and find out what was going on? He turned to Lup, expression uncertain.
"I don't know if I want to try another seance... not with how the last session with the board went."
Lup shook her head. She didn't particularly like the idea either. But they were going to need information if they were going to solve this.
"Maybe not the board, Bear. And maybe not channel him either... We could try the cards?"
Barry nodded slowly and turned to head back to the small room they were staying in for the evening. He stopped when he felt a hand grab his arm and looked down to see Angus looking up at him.
"Can I watch, Sir? Is this going to help?"
Barry chewed his lower lip for a moment. Things had been far more dangerous of late for those involved in the arts of spiritualism and Barry really wasn't sure if he should involve a child. Particularly not without the knowledge or permission of any of this child's guardians. But there was something in Angus' expression, something that said he didn't particularly care what Barry said and he was only asking out of politeness sake. If he wanted to see what Barry was going to do, then he was going to find a way. With a sigh, Barry nodded and headed back towards the small room.
"Is the deck in my bag, Lup? Or did that get tucked in somewhere else?"
"It's in my things. I'll get it."
A few minutes later, the three of them sat together on the floor in the dim light of a single candle. Barry shuffled the deck of cards carefully, watching the darkness just beyond the bedroom door. He paused, holding the deck in his hands, and took a breath.
"Keats. If you're here. If you can hear me, I would like to talk to you through these cards."
With those words, he flipped the first card down onto the floor in front of him. He found himself staring at the Tower and his blood ran cold. Angus leaned forward and picked the card up, curious.
"What does this mean, Sir?"
It was Lup that answered, her voice soft.
"Sudden and violent change."
Angus practically threw the card back to the floor and looked up at Lup, fear in his eyes.
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know..."
She looked at Barry, waiting to see if he would answer. Instead, he flipped another card down on the floor. This one was the Devil and Barry rolled his eyes.
"You can't scare me with that, you know."
The next card didn't wait for him, falling from his hands before he could reach for it. Death fell across the Devil and Barry frowned.
"I told you. I know what these cards mean and you can't scare me just based on the names."
The rest of his deck fell out of his hands, almost like it had been slapped from underneath, and Barry suddenly looked startled. Slowly, the cards began to rearrange themselves on the floor. Letters began to take shape and Barry stood quickly, stumbling in his haste to move away.
It was only then that he thought of the spirit board session's ending and he went pale.
"Lup, did we close the session?"
His tone was slightly frantic and he scrambled towards where the spirit board still lay. Lup was shaking her head, her mouth suddenly dry as she watched the cards moving of their own accord. She had seen a lot of things in the time she'd been traveling with Barry. She'd seen him conjure the dead. She'd seen the planchette move of its own accord. She'd seen Barry speak and write as those who had passed on. But she had never seen something he wasn't in control of like this. She had never seen him rattled by the activity taking place around him.
Barry righted the board and put the planchette down on it before resting his hands lightly on it. Quickly, he moved the pointer from letter to letter, speaking quietly as he spelled it out.
Immediately, the cards stopped moving and fell into place. Lup and Angus exchanged a look and then Angus picked one card up and set it a few inches away from where it had fallen.
"He's not for you." He read. Then he looked up at Lup. "What does that mean, Ma'am?"
Lup shook her head and put her hand on his shoulder.
"I wish I knew."
Chapter 12: Justice
"The answer is simple enough, Kravitz. If we want to draw out this false medium and truly expose him for the fraud he is, then the answer is that I approach as a potential client and ask him to try to communicate with my young brother."
Kravitz drummed his fingers on the side of his coffee mug, considering. It was certainly an option and either way they would need to do something of the sort if they were going to prove this man's lies. At the same time, he didn't entirely feel comfortable about it.
"Only if you're certain. We don't know what manner of things he might say..."
Edward shrugged and took a sip of his own coffee.
"I know that. He wouldn't be the first I've heard say things that aren't true."
Kravitz nodded sadly. He'd expected as much from what Edward had said before. Still, he would have thought that the man wouldn't want to hear more of it.
"Alright. Then we'll try that. I'll get things together on my end and you arrange for the medium. We should try to arrange for a controlled environment, something where there's no way he's already had time to set up his tricks."
After breakfast, with everything decided, Kravitz went off to go make his arrangements with the local authorities and Edward went to go see if he could track down the medium known as Barry Bluejeans.
Morning dawned uncertain and nervous. Barry, Lup, and Angus said nothing about the night before as they sat to breakfast in the kitchen. It was a much more laidback affair than the dinner the night before. Instead of formal attire and the formal dining room, they sat in the kitchen with the cook, a dark elven woman named Ren. She and Taako were involved in a quiet conversation over a loaf of bread and a small book of recipes. Barry was largely silent, staring into the distance as he worked his way through a plate of eggs and toast. Everything about the night before had been awful, stressful, and nothing like anything Barry had ever experienced before. And he still wasn't sure that there wasn't a spirit unleashed in this house. But there wasn't anything he could do about that now, not unless he found Keats.
Lup was equally far away in her thoughts, poking her breakfast around her plate. She had never been afraid with Barry and with Barry's powers but now she was starting to second guess herself. Even so much as a handful of days ago, she never would have believed that anyone could get hurt interacting with spirits but now she was starting to think she had been wrong. Not about Barry, but perhaps about his powers. And that thought scared her even more. The last thing she wanted was to be afraid of any part of him.
Angus had already finished his breakfast and he was watching the two adults opposite him curiously. He had seen amazing and terrible things the night before but he hadn't gotten any answers. They had the best chance of being able to give him answers, but it seemed like what they had seen had scared them too. From experience, he knew that adults didn't like to give him answers when he asked questions about things that scared them. Adults didn't like to be scared. But he still wanted answers and that meant he was going to get answers.
"Excuse me, Ma'am?"
Lup's head snapped up and her ears flicked back momentarily. Through a conscious effort, she relaxed herself again, and gave him a smile.
Angus gave her a bright smile, eyes wide and innocent.
"I just had a few questions, Ma'am, if that's okay. About ghosts and-"
"Spirits." Barry cut in almost automatically. "Call them spirits."
Angus scowled but continued on. Quickly though, his scowl of annoyance turned into a look of bright curiosity.
"About spirits and stuff... can anyone see them or is that something special you have to learn? Can I learn? What about calling them? What about-"
Barry held up a hand, a laugh on his lips.
"Slow down, slow down. Do you actually want answers to all that or do you uh... or do you just want to ask questions?"
Angus reached for the pitcher to fill his glass of milk again and then looked at Barry again.
"Answers please." Then he paused. "And could you pass the jam, please?"
Barry passed the glass jar of raspberry jam over and Angus took it with a quiet thanks. Then Angus smeared it across a piece of toast while Barry began to explain.
Marlena Bluejeans sat by the fire and set her fingers on the planchette of her spirit board. Then she looked across the table at her small son and waited expectantly. He giggled, adjusted his small glasses, and then mimicked her.
"Like this, Mama?"
"Exactly, Little Bear."
She waited until he was holding still and slowly slid the planchette to spell out h-e-l-l-o. Barry read the letters out and then smiled.
Marlena chuckled again quietly. Then she nodded slowly.
"That's how we open the session, my little one. And now anyone who wishes to speak can come through. But you'll need to be careful when you do. There are things out there that aren't people and never were. You can't trust them, Barry, and I need you to remember that no matter what."
He nodded seriously and then watched the planchette with surprise as it suddenly jerked.
"H-E-L-L-O. Hello! L-E-N-A. Lena? Who's Lena, Mama?"
Marlena laughed again and spoke quietly.
"That's my name." Then she paused and asked, uncertainly. "Gregor?"
The planchette shot over to yes and then immediately began to spell again. Barry watched it as it shot from letter to letter spelling out hello again and then his own name.
Barry smiled at Angus when he was done explaining and Angus frowned a little. He stuffed the last of his toast into his mouth and chewed it deliberately while he thought. Then he nodded slowly.
"So what you're saying is... that I could learn if I had a teacher. So will you teach me?"
Chapter 13: The Hanged Man
Magnus set Lup's pack down, watching as she and Taako talked to the elven man who had approached them on the street. The small group had been making their way back to the inn, Barry unusually quiet after his breakfast conversation with Angus. He hadn't promised anything yet, but he had promised he would talk to his mother once he got a chance. It would be up to Marlena Bluejeans whether or not he could take a student. Magnus didn't understand all of that, he just knew that something was going on beneath the surface and he didn't like it. He'd had a dream the night before that hung in his mind even now, a darkness that had ripped Julia out of his arms as surely as Kalen's sabotage had. And there had been something in that darkness. It had woken him several times in the night and there were dark circles under his eyes to cry it like a herald. Barry and Lup didn't look much better but Taako looked entirely fine and cheerful, like he didn't have a care in the world.
"Tonight. Sounds perfect. We'll see you there."
Taako turned back towards them as the elven man he was talking to walked off and gave the small group a grin. He held up a few dollars and then tucked them into his pocket.
"Guess who just got us another private show for tonight."
Lup looked beyond him at the man receding down the street and then returned her brother's grin.
"Hell yeah. So, dish, what've we got?"
Barry and Magnus also looked on with interest as Taako quickly explained.
Later that evening, the four of them arrived outside the small house pleasantly tucked along one of the side roads near to the center of the town. It was a two floor dwelling, neat and tidy as you please with flowers planted by the front door and laundry hanging on a line in the back. The smell of something cooking wafted up the chimney and a man waited for them at the door. He was the same elven man Taako had encountered in the streets, tall and handsome with short dark hair and dark eyes. He watched Barry with something close to curiosity as he welcomed them into the house.
"I'm Edward and this is my sister, Lydia. It really is wonderful to have you here. Oh, and we also have a guest who's excited to see what you can do."
Seated at the small kitchen table was a man Taako instantly recognized from the show their first night in town. Lup did as well and her ears pinned back in surprise. Repeat customers were one of two things, they were either very very good or very very bad. There was no in between. Not in this line of work. Not with Taako worrying about whether or not Barry could keep his masquerade up, whatever the hell it was. Not with the way this handsome man was looking at them all like they were suspects.
Barry smiled though and held out his hand, introducing himself to all of them. The man at the table stood and shook Barry's hand with a smile.
"Hello, Mister Bluejeans. I'm Kravitz. It's a pleasure to meet you."
After that, they settled down to let dinner finish cooking while Barry got himself ready to channel the spirits. Lup watched him consider each item in the basket of tools he carried. In the end, he set it all aside. He would do this the old fashioned way. But first, he would need to be sure this wouldn't be like the other night. After all, he couldn't have another spirit running wild. Not when he hadn't even gotten Keats under control again. He felt a little guilty about that actually. But he'd asked Angus to keep an eye on things and Magnus was going to pop by again to see if things had settled. He didn't particularly expect that they would. But it was worth keeping an eye on, at least.
Stretching, he found a spot by the hearth and smiled at his audience. Kravitz seemed surprised to see that Barry wasn't insisting they turn the lights down low, or that they go someplace else. And the man had no props, not even the spirit cabinet many mediums liked to use. No, it seemed like he was just going to perform in front of them where they could see everything that occurred. Just like the other night. He didn't even ask to darken the room, leaving the gas lamps at full glow. Barry took a breath and then spoke.
"Before I start, I just wanted to let you know... I can't control who comes through and who doesn't. That's for the spirits to decide, not me. I'm just the door they're gonna use. It's always up to them if they walk through that door or not."
Edward frowned some at that pronouncement but stayed silent. Lydia leaned forward, bright eyes intent on Barry's face.
"Really?" She sounded surprised and there was something of a bite behind the words, though Lup couldn't fathom why. "Fascinating..."
"If there is someone specific you really want to talk to though..." Barry said hesitantly. "I can try to call them. But the only really uh... the only spirit I can definitely always call up is my mother. And that's mostly because she helps me."
With his small audience watching him with rapt attention, Barry waited only a moment more before he closed his eyes.
"Mother, if you would?"
The gray-haired woman appeared almost instantly, one hand resting on her son's shoulder. She looked out at his audience, a slight frown tugging at the corners of her mouth, but she closed her eyes and Barry spoke quietly.
"The doorway is open. Any who wish to enter may, but do so in peace."
The lamps around the room guttered and then went out, almost as though the gas had been cut. Edward was on his feet immediately, moving to check them. Then something slammed him back into his chair.
"You know, Edward, this wasn't quite what I had in mind," spoke something with an elegant and polished voice. "But I think might just work out. Consider your side of the deal met in full."
Barry Bluejeans adjusted his glasses and a slow smile crossed his face, so very unlike the expression he usually wore that Lup took a step back. Then he strode out the door, confidence in every line. Edward was breathing hard, a solid bruise spreading across his cheek. He stared at the open door and out into the night. When he spoke, his voice was a bare whisper, his throat choked with terror.
"What have we done?"
Chapter 14: Death
Angus didn't know anything about how to summon the spirits, but he was pretty sure he didn't really need to. Not to talk to Keats. Instead, he waited until Miss Lucretia and Miss Maureen were off having tea and then pushed a chair against the wall under the gas lamp on the wall. He turned the light down low and then climbed back off his chair. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his shortpants and focused on the empty space in the center of his room.
"Keats, are you still here? I wanted to talk to you. I won't scream this time, promise."
For a moment, there was nothing. Then the ghost boy appeared. He was just as pale as before with flecks of red around his mouth and coloring the sleeves of his off-white shirt. His cheeks were sunken and his eyes shadowed. His ears flicked back as he looked Angus over and Angus looked at him in turn. Just like before, Keats leaned on the wooden crutch. After a long moment of the silence hanging in the air between them, Keats tilted his head to the side just slightly.
"What did you want?"
Angus hadn't been entirely sure this would work. Mister Barry had made it sound like talking to spirits took a lot more effort and practice and stuff. He gave Keats a smile.
"I'm Angus. And... I wanted to talk to you about before? You said there was something bad, right? Something chasing you?"
Keats went paler, if that was possible. Then he looked down.
"The Darkness. He's hungry and he ate all the others. It's just me and the woman and the old lady now. Every time he finds another spirit, he eats them. And... and now he's chasing me. And I'm scared."
Angus scrambled for his desk and the small chalkboard that sat there. He scooped up a piece of chalk and started to take notes.
"Who's the woman? And the old lady?"
Keats paused, suddenly unsure.
"I don't know their names." His ears flicked forward and back. "But the old lady is nice and she's really pretty. She's got soft gray hair and she sings sometimes. When I first got to the other side, she helped me but she never said her name. And the other woman is younger. She's really pretty too but she's really strong. Betcha she could pick up a whole plow with the ox and everything."
Angus paused, adjusting his glasses. Then he looked up again, small brows furrowed.
"And what about the darkness? You called him a he. The darkness is a person?"
For a moment the room seemed colder and Keats vanished. He reappeared right in Angus' face, one finger raised to his own lips.
"Don't talk about him! If you do, he'll hear you and he'll come. I don't want him to take me."
The darkness in the corners of the room seemed deeper somehow now and Angus wasn't sure he would be able to sleep tonight. Not with the idea of a man who was darkness in his mind. He shook his head to clear that thought and looked at Keats again. He couldn't leave his new friend alone and scared like this. There had to be something Angus McDonald could do to help. He was quiet for a long moment and then he closed the cover over his little chalkboard and went to grab a light blanket. Into it, he put a change of clothes and the chalkboard. Then he tied it shut and hoisted it onto his back before turning towards his bedroom door. Miss Lucretia and Miss Maureen were sure to be too busy to notice him moving through the house and he needed to find Mister Barry.
Lup stared at the empty place where Barry had been standing, trying to wrap her mind around what had just happened. But no. It wasn't empty, was it? The spirit still stood there, the old woman with gray hair who always helped Barry through his seances. His mother. She had a look of horror on her face that turned to anger as she turned towards Edward and Lydia, the air around her dropping several degrees rapidly. She leaned in close, fury making her eyes dark.
"What have you done to my son?"
Edward's already pale skin went even paler and he tried to pull back away from the angry spirit. Lydia grabbed his arm, trying to interpose herself between them.
"We didn't know! We didn't mean this!" Her voice was shaky, almost ragged. Closing her eyes, she shouted. "We just wanted our baby brother back!"
Kravitz sat in his own seat, forgotten and unnerved. There was no way this was fakery. There was no way any of this was fakery and he wasn't sure what to do. His hands in his lap were shaking and as he looked from place to place, he was distantly glad to realize that the look on Taako's face meant he had believe it was all a trick as well. At least he wasn't alone. He licked his lips nervously and stood, looking towards the door, spared another glance for Taako, and then turned to Lup.
"What... what do we do now?"
Lup shivered against the unnatural cold filling the room. Then she met Kravitz's eyes. Distantly, she was glad this stranger had jumped to helping. They would need all the help they could get if what she feared happened truly just had.
"We need to catch Barry, make sure he doesn't do anything... anything he wouldn't, you know?" She wiped her hands on her skirt to try and hide the shaking. Gods, he hadn't even looked like Barry when he'd brushed past her. Everything about him had been wrong. "Taako, how about you, Mags, and..." She looked over at Kravitz questioningly.
Lup nodded at that once in distracted acknowledgment.
"How about you, Mags, and Kravitz, go see if you can't bring Barry back here." Then she turned her gaze on the twins still trapped under the fury of Marlena Bluejeans. "I'm gonna have a chat with these two and see if I can't find out what we're dealing with."
John didn't particularly like his new accommodations but he had to admit that feeling the raw power of the medium known as Barry Bluejeans from the inside was a treat. The man truly was as powerful as everyone said, and no surprise since he was his mother's son after all. He went through Barry's pockets as he walked, irritated to find only a few scattered coins. Certainly not enough to get him train fare out of this midden of a town. But he could get more without too much trouble now. Sifting through Barry's memories, he knew they had a tidy little stash in the inn. Perfect.
He ignored the voice, deeming it just one of several unimportant conversations going on as he strode purposefully. Then he heard it again, nearby and more insistent.
And then a small hand grabbed his. John turned around, adjusting the wire-framed glasses that he was unused to. He looked down into the eyes of a small boy with a cloth bundle hoisted on his back. Barry's memories supplied him with the name quickly enough. Angus McDonald. And this little boy wanted to be Barry's student. How adorable. John gave the boy a smile.
"Hello again, Angus. Can I help you?"
Angus spilled the whole story in a rush, not noticing that anything was wrong. He explained everything about the Darkness and Keats and everything. And when John reached out with Barry's otherworldly senses, he could detect Keats hovering near this boy. Well, that certainly made upholding his end of the bargain easier. Just as soon as he was on his way out of town, then.
"Come with me and we'll see if we can't sort this out. I'm just headed back to the inn to grab something."
He held his hand out and Angus took it without hesitation.
Twenty minutes later, Keats woke up on the floor of the small room in the inn with no notion how he'd gotten there and three men looking down at him. An Elven man leaned in, ears flicked up in surprise.
"Hey, Angus, you okay?"
Keats went to rub his eyes and was startled to find glasses there. He sat up a little and took them off. Everything more than a few feet was blurry around the edges and beyond that was worse. He slid the glasses back into place and looked up into those concerned eyes again. He started to reach to tug on one ear out of long habit and paused. Of course. They were calling him Angus because he was Angus now, wasn't he? And Angus' ears weren't anything like Keats' ears had been. Then he looked up at Taako.
"Sorry but... I'm not Angus. My name's Keats and I think we've got a real big problem."
John hummed to himself as he sat in his seat on the passenger train bound for New York City and skimmed through the newspaper. Every so often, the bell carefully packed in his luggage would shake and try desperately to ring. He would only chuckle quietly. He wasn't going to let that happen. Not as long as the young soul trapped inside was his insurance policy. A conductor stopped at his seat and took his ticket with a smile and a greeting.
"Pleasant trip, Sir."
John smiled back up at him.
"I've really been looking forward to this."
Chapter 15: Temperance
Never in his life had Barry had a headache like this. It was worse than the ones he'd gotten as a child before they'd realized he'd needed glasses. It was worse than the light dazzle headaches he got when he overdid in his efforts to communicate with those who had passed on. This headache made it hard to open his eyes, hard to see past the white-hot light that seemed to even pierce through closed eyelids. And then he heard a gentle voice.
"It's alright. I didn't let the Darkness grab you. You're okay. I promise."
He blinked slowly, eyes watering, until he could open his eyes without pain. Leaning over him was a woman he recognized more for her gentle smile than anything else.
"You're... you're Julia, right? I remember you. You came through to talk to Magnus."
She nodded, her smile brightening.
"I did. And I'm glad to see your mind's in one piece. I wasn't sure after you got thrown in like that."
She helped him to sit up and Barry got his first look at this strange space he'd found himself in. All around were the walls of a small log cabin and he seemed to be laying on a simple wooden bed with a straw mattress. Julia Burnsides sat on a stool next to him, a damp cloth in her hand.
"What uh... what happened? How did I get here? What's the Darkness?"
Julia blanched and put a hand on his arm.
"Oh... oh no, you don't know. We kept trying to tell you. You're the only one left, Barry. The only Medium who can still reach out safely. Or... well, you were." When his eyes started to widen, she quickly added. "You're not dead. Don't worry about that. But... the Darkness... He stole your body. And I don't know how to get you back in there from this side of things."
Barry felt cold and then hot. His hands were shaking. His body. He wasn't in his body, but he wasn't dead. He looked around again and realized he could only see a cool white light beyond the windows of the cabin. He pushed himself to his feet and walked to that window, looking out at the fog just beyond. Then he turned to look back at Julia.
"This... this is really the other side. And someone else has my body. And..." He licked his lips, absolutely terrified. Panic choked him and his heart was beating hard enough to feeling like it was going to burst out of his chest. "Lup is in danger, isn't she? And Taako and Magnus... And... and all of them. And I can't help them from here."
He didn't seem to realize there were tears on his cheeks. No more than he realized that he was shaking. He pulled his glasses off and tucked them into a pocket, not even bothering to wonder why he still needed them on the other side. Taking a moment to scrub at his face, he noticed the wetness and stopped. Then he looked at Julia, expression deadly serious.
"There has to be a way I can warn them that something's wrong. There's... there's just gotta be. I can't let Lup get hurt because... because of something I did."
There was so much more behind it, so much worry and so many unspoken feelings. There were so many things running through his mind all at once and his heart was in his throat, a love unvoiced threatening to choke him. His words stumbled and tumbled out, struggling to line up into sentences. Then he paused and looked back over his shoulder at that window. He was on the other side, the world of spirits. He wasn't helpless after all. Not here. Not like this. Maybe he couldn't just jump back over into his own body, but he was far from without tricks.
"Julia, when someone uses a spirit board, how do you answer?"
Taako sat beside Angus/Keats and looked him over again. He still looked very much like Angus McDonald but as Taako looked him over, he could see small differences in the way the boy was holding himself. Taako took an uncertain breath and then put an arm around the boy's shoulders.
"Keats, huh? What sort of problem are we talking here, bubbeleh?"
The little boy nodded and then adjusted the glasses again. He didn't quite seem to know how to move and keep them perched on his small nose.
"Keats Staunen. And big problem. The kind where the Darkness took Angus. I tried to protect him, I really did. But there's not a lot I can do. He's a lot bigger than I am. The Darkness, not Angus. But I tried." Keats sniffed a little and wiped his eyes on his sleeve again. "I'm really sorry. It's my fault it happened. He said he was going to take me home and then everything went dark. But I tried to stop it."
He sniffed again and then pulled in tighter on himself. Taako put an arm around the boy's small shoulders, murmuring something soft in the old Elven tongue. Magnus didn't understand but Kravitz couldn't help but smile. Then his red eyes flicked towards the door.
"We should get back to the others and let them know that Barry got away. Unless you have some idea where he might have gone?"
Keats shook his head and Taako lifted him into his arms.
"Come on, bubbeleh. Let's go find my sister and we'll see if we can't figure out what's going on, huh?"
The three men walked back out of the inn with the little boy carried in Taako's arms. And if Taako was brokenly humming the half-forgotten melody to an Elven nursery song, well Kravitz and Keats would never tell.
When they arrived back at the small house, Lup was waiting with open worry on her face. The much cowed Edward and Lydia had fetched their own tools of the craft from their seance room, setting it all out on the table under the knowing gaze of the spirit of Marlena Bluejeans. Lup counted their number without meaning to and felt as though a fist had gripped her heart tightly.
"You didn't find him, did you?"
Taako shook his head and set the boy on his own feet.
"Sorry, Lu. We tried but..." Then he gestured towards the little boy. "And we've got another problem too."
There was a bare moment of silence in the room and then Keats brightened suddenly, tearing across the room in his excitement as he flung himself at Edward and Lydia.
Edward turned, startled as the small boy collided with him. He didn't look like Keats but he sounded like Keats and he used the old nickname that only family had ever used. And then Edward Staunen looked down into his little brother's eyes and he knew. He scooped him up in a tight hug, a laugh on his lips. Even still, guilt clawed at the twins. This was not their brother's physical form and they both knew it. And they both knew it was to be another sin lain at their doorstep, even if they were happy for this moment.
Chapter 16: The Devil
Edward Staunen walked slowly, mindful of the fact that his little brother was struggling to keep up with him. Not that Keats wanted anyone to wait on his account, of course. He moved as fast as he could on the wooden crutch, each step an effort as his lungs struggled to keep supplying him with the air he needed to breathe. Edward stopped when the steady step-thump of Keats walking behind him stopped and he turned to see his brother holding a handkerchief over his mouth, trying not to cough. He moved to his brother's side, kneeling down.
"Cough if you need to," he whispered. "Don't hold it in or you're gonna hurt yourself."
He braced his brother as the small boy stopped fighting it and let the cough out. It was a sick sound, wet and painful. And when he was done, he lowered the red flecked cloth with a hand the shook. Keats looked up at his brother, ears pressed back tight against the sides of his head.
"I didn't want to, Eddie. I know it makes you and Lili upset when I cough."
Neither of the twins knew how it could be that they hadn't gotten sick when their parents had, their brother had. Somehow, they were left unscathed. And they both would have traded that safety in a heartbeat if they could give it to him instead. Edward hugged Keats gently, running his fingers through the boy's messy hair.
"Only because we're worried about you. Now come on, let's get home and show Lydia what we earned today."
Edward held up the small basket in his hand with a grin. The basket didn't have much in it, just a loaf of day old bread and some cheese that the man who ran the general store had cut the mold off of and assured them was fine enough. Keats returned Edward's grin, his ears flicking up in excitement. Then he was off again, pushing himself to an almost skip-run in his eagerness to get home. Edward caught up with him quickly but didn't try to slow him down. If Keats had the energy to run today, then let him. Who knew how much longer he would be able to do it at all?
It was amazing what a person could get used to when it was what they lived with day in and day out. Lydia had never thought she would get used to the sound of her baby brother's coughs, but one day it was the silence she noticed and not the coughing fit that had come before it. And the silence had continued. And continued. And continued. Lydia was the one that had found him, then, because of the silence she had grown unaccustomed to hearing. Her baby brother was gone to follow their parents to the other side and all she had left was her twin.
Loneliness and fear were what had driven her to the first seance, curiosity was what brought her to the second, and hope to the third. After that, Lydia and Edward began to study. It wasn't too hard to learn, not really. Even without a real teacher and just being able to copy what they had seen, they began to make strides. Things were different in the small house after that. With Lydia's new found talents, they were making more money than before and living a better life for it. It stung bitterly that they couldn't have had these things while Keats was alive to enjoy them. How many times had they had to tell him they couldn't afford the treats he'd wanted? How many times had they had to make do and stretch what they had to try and give him anything that might help with his illness? And nothing had been enough.
Late one night, they were sitting on opposite sides of the table with the spirit board between them. A single candle was lit, set on the table beside the board along with a few small sweets Keats had always wanted but could never have. They hadn't had the money and then he'd been too sick. But now? Now it was the perfect offering for his young spirit. They reached across to each other, holding hands to open the circle. A subtle power passed between them and slowly the feeling of the room changed. The candle flickered slightly as Lydia spoke softly.
"Keats, if you can hear us, we want to talk to you, sweetie. We miss you so much. You can talk through the board, just guide us to which letter to point to, alright?."
They looked at each other nervously and then let go of each other's hands slowly before letting them rest on the wooden planchette atop the spirit board. Together, they slid it to spell out 'hello' and then waited. They waited in the silence like that for a long moment while their lone candle flickered and Edward watched not the planchette, but his twin’s face. Then they felt the tug of the planchette moving under their fingers and Lydia’s ears flicked up in excitement. Mere moments later, their excitement, their hope, would turn to something else.
“I am not this Keats,” was what the spirit said. “But I can bring him home to you if you help me. I can return him to life if you give me what I need.”
The twins exchanged a look, excitement on one face and uncertainty on the other. It was a chance, it was a risk, but it was also a bright hope that burned in their chests.
“We’ll do it.”
Lydia’s voice had a firmness that the slight flicks of her ears betrayed and Edward nodded his agreement, worry plain on his face.
“We’ll do it.” He agreed. “What do you need from us?”
And that was how it began. That was how the Darkness began to spread outward, fueled on power given to him by the twins. Even as Lydia’s dreams became haunted by the screams of the spirits trapped within the Darkness. Even as Edward began to feel a gnawing sense of guilt that tore into him and made him wonder if their smiling, innocent little brother would approve of what they were doing.
And now? Now, Edward hugged this little boy tightly, knowing that Keats couldn’t stay. Not for long, not forever, not like this. This was someone else’s boy, someone who would be missed just as much as Keats was missed. Even still, he ran his fingers through the boy’s hair and closed his eyes, trying to decide if this one hug had been worth it because this was probably all he was going to get.
“That’s why we did it.” Lydia’s voice was soft and scared, and she reached to take the small hand reaching out towards her. “We couldn’t just abandon him. Not if we could save him. You have to understand, this isn’t what we wanted.”
Taako’s eyes flicked to his own twin and then down.
“Yeah... I get it. But what are we gonna do now?”
Chapter 17: The Tower
Maureen Miller was the one who realized Angus was gone. As was her custom, she'd knocked on his door just after seven o'clock to see if he was up and ready for breakfast. He always was, so when no response greeted her knocking, she pushed the door open. The bed was perfectly made, save for the absence of one blanket Angus had had since he was an infant.
"Angus?" She looked around, noting that the wardrobe was slightly open and his chalkboard for lessons was no longer on his desk. "Angus, are you in here?"
The silence answered her question and she turned, heading down to the kitchen. Maybe Angus was already up. Even still, her heart drummed in her chest. What if he hadn't? Silently, she ran through the scene she'd witnessed. Things out of place, things missing, Angus nowhere in sight, but at the same time, the windows had been firmly shut and a quick inspection of the front foyer on the way through showed that the door was closed as well. She turned into the kitchen to find Lucretia sitting alone with her scant breakfast of toast and jam as always and froze.
"Lucretia, have you seen Angus?"
Lucretia paused, setting down her tea, and gave Maureen a confused look that quickly morphed to worry.
"He wasn't in his room?"
The quiet calm that characterized the usual morning of the large house was shattered as Lucretia and Maureen quickly gathered the household staff and set them to searching for the missing boy. Avi was sent to check the stables to be sure the boy wasn't hiding there. Maureen and Lucretia double checked every room in the house, with Ren checking the spaces that usually only the servants went. Soon it became clear that Angus was nowhere to be found and there was no other possible recourse. Taking a moment to steel herself, Lucretia rapped on the door to Captain Davenport's rooms.
The door opened and the gnomish man blinked up at her, his tail flicking back and forth. He tilted his head to the side curiously and she took another breath.
"It's Angus, Captain. We can't find him anywhere."
Davenport reached back into his room and grabbed his uniform jacket off a chair and tugged it on.
"I want the entire staff to- to report to the front hall. We're- we're going to make an organized search of this."
It was Lucretia who was stunned into silence as she followed after him. Davenport had only rarely spoken since he'd come home from the war, usually signing to signal he needed something. And alright, he'd stumbled a little over his words, but he'd spoken two entire sentences in a row with barely any hesitation. She wasn't sure what was happening, but she hoped it might last.
The Captain strode down the stairs with a purpose he hadn't felt in years, the ghosts of the battlefield leaving his mind clear as he looked over his assembled staff. Avi came running into the house last, breathing hard.
"He's not in the stables or any of the other outbuildings. And all the horses are accounted for."
Davenport nodded slowly.
"He can't have gone far without a horse. Send someone to the- the train station. Everyone else, check the town. Avi, I want my- get my horse saddled. Maureen, you stay here just incase he comes back on his own."
It took them all a moment to realize that it was the Captain speaking but as that realization dawned, they each ran to accomplish the tasks he'd set. Maureen went to the kitchen to put on another pot to boil. She would make tea while she waited for them to bring news. Hopefully, she wouldn't have to wait long.
Keats sat between Edward and Lydia and kicked his feet against the bottom rails of the chair. Taako was still staring at him with his ears flicked back and Keats buried his head down against Lydia's side. She put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him close.
"The first problem we're going to need to deal with is Angus' guardian." Lup sighed. "If Lucretia or the Captain come looking for him and they take Keats here thinking Ango's just playing some new game, we're not going to be able to fix all of this."
Keats froze and looked up, meeting Lup's eyes.
"He ran away last night. He was going to go looking for Mister Barry because I told him about the Darkness. They don't know he's gone." He looked up at his brother and sister. "I could pretend... But I wouldn't be able to do it very well."
Lydia shook her head and only held him tighter against her side.
"They won't believe us if we try to explain. We're just going to have to... fix this ourselves. Without them finding out. And that means the first thing we need to do is find out where the boy's soul is." She took a breath and then looked down, ears flicking back in visible discomfort. "I'll... I'll see if I can find it."
She looked at the spirit of Barry's mother, still silently watching the three of them, and then stood. When the woman made no move to stop her, Lydia walked into the other room and got her spirit board. Coming back with it held against her chest, she looked at the others with eyes full of tears.
"Here. I should be able to talk to him. But... someone else is going to need to help."
Angus couldn't even scream anymore. His throat was too raw, his voice too tired, and his resolve drained. He had tried hammering on the solid darkness that surrounded him. He had tried crying out for someone to let him out. Only his own voice had reached his ears and he hadn't made so much as a dent in the darkness around him. He was alone and he was well and truly trapped.
Chapter 18: The Star
Lucretia herself was the one who ended up at the door of the Staunen home. She didn't particularly think that Angus would have gone there. He didn't have a reason, after all. He didn't know them. But it was possible that the twins had noticed something amiss. It was possible that one of them had seen the little boy. She raised a hand to knock, hearing voices within. That was odd in and of itself. In all the years she had worked for Captain Davenport, she had never seen the Staunen twins socializing with anyone. They would appear in town, certainly, and they weren't unfriendly per se. But this still struck her as out of the norm.
Edward opened the door, pushing it open just a bit. When he saw the worried woman standing on his front step, he blanched.
"Lucretia, hello. It's been... What brings you by?"
Lucretia paused a little, noticing just how nervous he was, but she brushed that off.
"I know this is going to sound like... Well... Have you seen Angus? He wasn't in his room this morning and it looks like he might've run away."
Edward's ears flicked back and he started to turn into the room. Then he hesitated.
"No, no, I don't think so. I can see if Lydia has."
He glanced back again and Lucretia frowned just slightly.
"I'm sorry if I'm interrupting. Do... do you have company?"
Before he could hesitate again and seem suspicious, Taako stepped up beside him with a friendly smile on his face.
"Hello again, Lucretia. Wonderful to see you again. My sister and I dropped by to visit, but if you need help looking for little Angus, we'd be more than happy to help. Isn't that right, Ed?"
She was admittedly surprised to see them here, especially so soon after they'd been at the Captain's house. But perhaps Edward and Lydia had wanted a seance. That had to be it. They must have wanted someone to try and make contact with their young brother. Of course, that made perfect sense. She smiled at both men.
"I really would appreciate the help, if you would."
Edward closed the door behind him as they left, leaving Keats in Angus' body sitting alone in the living room with Magnus. They could keep Lucretia busy while they tried to figure out how to fix all of this. Hopefully, Lup and Lydia would have an answer by the time they got back.
In the end, it was Lydia and Lup sitting on opposites sides of the board at the small table in Lydia's seance room. They rested their hands on the planchette on the center of the board and Lup glanced up at the visibly nervous elven woman opposite her. Lydia looked scared and Lup was no longer sure if it was just because of the perceived threat of someone finding out what had happened to Angus or if there was something more, something that made Lydia's hands shake when she began to open the seance. She had set a small plate of cookies near the board and began as always, by spelling the word hello out for the spirits. Then she began to speak softly.
"Angus McDonald. You don't know me, but you should be able to hear me. I hope." Her ears flicked back nervously. "Please, if you can hear me, then answer however you can."
Lup watched curiously, noting small differences between how Lydia conducted her seances and how Barry conducted his. For one, he didn't bring the food offerings. For another, she was almost subservient, almost afraid of what might come through. It was also taking much longer than Lup was used to for there to be any sort of results. Then the planchette jerked almost violently, skipping to the N. The letters O and T followed and Lup's ears shot up as both women read.
"Not... Angus. It's... Barry."
Lup gasped, very nearly taking her hands off the planchette in excitement.
"Bear? But how?"
Lydia shot Lup a startled look and then looked down at the board between them.
"But we were trying to get the boy?"
The explanation came out more than a bit stilted since each word had to be spelled out, but soon they knew about where Barry was and that Julia had saved him. Or at least, had managed to keep his soul from being consumed by the darkness.
"This is all well and great, Bear, but we don't know where Ango's soul is and we've got no idea where your body is. I don't suppose you've got any clues for us?"
The planchette shot straight to no and then jerked away again.
Both women looked up again at that. That was incredibly bad news. If the possessed Barry Bluejeans had boarded a train, he could be anywhere by now. Or at the very least on the road to anywhere.
"I'll find Angus."
The next message came quickly and Lup nodded.
"Sounds good, Bear. And if you can find where you are, do it." She paused for a second and then spoke quietly. "There's something I need to tell you when you're back and I'd rather do that sooner rather than later, if it's all the same."
She could almost hear his quiet laugh, close to her ear. Then the board spelled out two more words before it went silent.
Chapter 19: The Moon
Finding Angus, of course, was easier said that done. Barry was still trapped on the other side and he didn't really know how he could contact another soul. The only blessing they had was that Julia was absolutely completely certain that Barry was the only one who had crossed over. Angus wasn't here and Angus wasn't trapped in the darkness. Where that left him, they didn't know. Presumably trapped somewhere.
"It's not like you can't... you know, imprison a soul. There's lots of ways to do it. No one should. I don't know why anyone would, but I also don't know why anyone would steal my body and get on a train."
Julia wasn't sure either, honestly. She didn't know anything about how to find Angus, no matter how much she wanted to help the little boy. The idea of a child trapped somewhere without a body, scared and alone, was awful. But Barry did have ideas, so they at least had something to try even if they had no assurances that any of it would work. Which is how they came to be sitting on either side of a small table with a small glass set between them and letters chalked around the outside. It was as good as they could manage on the other side, but hopefully it would allow them to contact Angus.
Barry took a breath, more out of habit than anything else, and tried not to think about whether or not he was really breathing. He flipped the glass and rested two fingers from each hand on the bottom.
Julia nodded slightly and copied him.
"As much as I'll ever be, I suppose." Then she hesitated. "Barry, after this... once this is over. Do you know if I can... can I use this to talk to Magnus?"
Barry couldn't help but smile. He could have guessed she would ask something like that. How many times had he sat down with his own spirit board to talk to his parents? But they needed to focus right now.
"Maybe. Let's find out if we can talk to Angus first, alright?"
She nodded again and he began, closing his eyes for a moment while he tried to reach out. It felt odd, backwards. And it was, wasn't it? He was reaching from the other side now, not to it.
"Angus McDonald. If you can hear me, please give me a sign."
Things were quiet for a long moment, just the two of them looking at the glass and waiting. Then it jolted to the side and then to the letter Y. He could hear them then. Barry was visibly relieved.
"Hey buddy. Where are you? Can you see anything?"
Angus could have sobbed with relief when he heard the voice hanging in the air. It was Barry, the real Barry. And he could hear another person, a woman who sounded kind. He wished he had answers for them, but he hadn't been able to get beyond the darkness even once. Then he stopped, thinking. He did have an answer.
"I'm with the man, the one who stole your body."
No, too long. He wasn't sure how he knew, but it felt like it didn't work. Frowning, he tried to think. Did he know anything about this man? Anything that could identify him other than the body he was in? He closed his eyes, trying to remember. There was something there, just a fragment of something and he didn't know what it was really or how he knew but.
"New York City."
There, that felt right. Somehow, he was sure that had gotten through. Mister Barry could come find him now. Soon, he could go home. He couldn't wait.
Lup nearly jumped out of her own skin when the planchette suddenly shot across the board and started spelling words out again. Lydia was already writing it down, almost like she was used to this. And if she'd been being extorted by a spirit all this time, Lup supposed she must be. Lup's ears flicked back as she studied Lydia. She'd done all of it for her baby brother. That was what she and Edward had said. Could Lup ever do something like this? Hurt countless people and provide power to something that was so clearly evil just to save one person? Her mind flicked to Taako and then to Barry. She could and would. The thought didn't make her feel better but it did make her sympathize with Lydia's situation.
"New York City..." murmured Lydia, voice low. "It's only a few hours away by train. We could make it there before the day is out and track them both down... but it's a big city."
Lup was on her feet even before Lydia had finished talking. She strode towards the door, shoulders back and purpose in every stride. She stopped at the door, one hand on the wood of the doorframe as she turned back to look at Lydia squarely.
"I don't care how hard it's going to be. I'm going to find Barry, I'm going to kick this... thing out of him, and I'm going to bring him home." She paused, throat tightening as she fought with her own emotions. "Barry owes me a pretty big conversation and... and I aim to collect."
Then she turned and headed out to the main room. If they were going to get to New York City, they needed to get moving.
The bustling crowds paid no attention to yet another neatly dressed man with glasses and his hands in his pockets walking down the street. He paused, looking up the street towards the Central Park. That was where he needed to be, that was the place in this cesspit with the most power for what he needed. Unless, of course, he wished to try and subvert another emotion. He paused, torn between the cemeteries he knew had been turned under and left in the dirt when that park had been made and the endless source of power that was the beacon in the harbor.
There would be a certain irony if he chose to wield her light as the fuel for his darkness. With a quiet chuckle, John turned away from Central Park and moved towards the docks. The crowds didn't part for him now, not with him wearing the skin of this man, Barry Bluejeans. But soon they would see John for who he truly was. No longer would he tread on the earth in anonymity. Soon, the world would see his aspirations and bend the knee before him. Soon, they would call him ascendent.
Chapter 20: The Sun
Everyone else seemed to be busy working on finding ways to get Angus back or to locate the medium Barry Bluejeans, which left Kravitz adrift and more than a bit lost in his own thoughts. None of this was supposed to be real. Everything he had ever learned had said this should all be fraud and hoax. And yet everything he had seen today said otherwise. He sat in his chair at the table, both hands around the rapidly cooling mug of coffee Lydia had made for him what seemed like hours ago. When he looked up, the spectral woman was still there, still standing near him.
"This is... It's real, isn't it? All of it. And you're-"
"Marlena Bluejeans. I'm Barry's mother."
Kravitz nodded a little. Of course, she was. That made as much sense as anything else he'd heard.
"And he's really gone off with someone else driving the wagon, as it were?"
She moved to sit in one of the chairs and stopped, frowning at it meaningfully. Then she opted to continue standing.
"I understand that you don't believe. Well..." She amended, a knowing smile on her face. "Didn't, before today, anyway. But there are things in this world far beyond the things which we can see with our eyes and those things are wondrous and just as possible as they are impossible."
He looked down.
"My mother believed. She promised me she would give me a sign if it was all real."
Marlena reached out, putting two fingers under his chin. He looked up again even if she couldn't lift his chin without simply passing through him.
"And she did, Kravitz McAllister. Do you remember the ravens?" His eyes widened and she smiled. "They've been following you, haven't they? Since then, everywhere you go there are ravens, aren't there?"
For a long moment, Kravitz was silent, staring into the distance. Then he took a breath and sat straighter. He had. He'd seen them nearly every day since his mother had died. There had been ravens everywhere in his life. Tears welled in the corners of his eyes and he swiped them away with the sleeve of his jacket. He felt the barest impression of a woman's arm around his shoulders and he smiled just a bit.
When he looked up again, she was gone.
"We're going to have to bring Keats with us if we're going to get Angus back into his body."
Lup's tone was level even as she paced the front room. Taako and Edward were still out distracting Lucretia, but Magnus had gone in search of them. At this point, knowing everything they knew now, they would have to tell her everything that had happened. Without her help, there was no way they were going to get either Barry or Angus back safely. Not if they had to get all the way to New York City in order to do it. Not if they had to find one man in a city of nearly two million.
Distress showed on Lydia's face, her ears flicked back even as she hugged the small boy. And Lup couldn't blame her. She just wished it wasn't going to be so hard to set things to rights. But after a moment, Lydia nodded.
"I know. I know that."
Keats looked up at Lydia, distress on his face.
"Don't be upset, Lili. I'll still be around. Promise."
The door opened then and they all turned to see a haggard looking Edward walk in. Taako, Magnus, and Lucretia were a step behind him.
"We couldn't find anything. Magnus said you got through?"
Edward's voice was tinged with a shaky hope, with a hope he wasn't entirely sure he should be feeling. This whole thing was a mess. Lucretia ran to the small boy, looking him over with a slightly frantic look on her face. There was a split second where she seemed like she might grab him and run but then her shoulders slumped.
"It's true, isn't it? Keats?"
The little boy nodded, leaning back into his sister's hold. She hugged him tighter and he gave Lucretia a sad smile.
"I'm sorry. I tried to stop him. I really really did. But he took Angus and left me here instead."
For a long moment, the room was silent. Then Lucretia knelt so she was on the same level as Keats. It was even easier to see this close. The way he was standing was just wrong. Even the slightest details of mannerism and posture, all of it was wrong. But it was right for a boy she barely remembered, for the young brother of Edward and Lydia who had died of the white death the summer before the war had begun in truth.
"It's certainly not your fault, Keats."
She looked up at Lydia and the elven woman turned away, ears flicked back and guilt plain on her face.
"It's our fault, Lucretia. Edward and I... We made a deal with this thing and..."
Lucretia put a hand on Lydia's shoulder, effectively silencing her. Then she turned to look at Edward, eyes serious.
"How are we going to get him back? Do you have a plan? What do I need to do?"
Lup was the one who responded.
"We made contact with Barry and he told us where to look. We... we're planning on going to New York City. The sooner we can leave, the better."
Lucretia nodded once and turned towards the door.
"The train is fast enough, but we would have to wait for one to come and get tickets. I suspect that Avi can get us there faster, even with all of us going."
It didn't take long for the horses to be hitched and for Avi to take his seat on the front of the carriage. Seated inside, Lydia and Edward had Keats tucked safely between them with Lucretia sitting beside Lydia. Opposite them, Lup, Taako, and Magnus sat with a silent Kravitz. He was still overwhelmed by everything he'd seen but he knew he had to do what he could to help, especially with what Edward and Lydia had been telling them all about the Darkness that they had contacted. Something had to be done.
Chapter 21: Judgment
Lup could barely believe how quickly they arrived at the outskirts of New York City. It had been a long time since she and her brother had been there, decades in fact. Not since they were kids. Back then, it had been so much smaller. Now? Now, it was a sprawling metropolis on the rise, with buildings that were beginning to reach towards the sky. The train station would be nearer to the center of the city, she thought as they approached. Turning, she looked at her twin.
"Okay, Ko, what's the plan here? Do we have a plan?"
She looked around at the others now as well. Somehow, when they'd been sitting in a country town, trying to track down one man in New York City hadn't seemed quite as daunting a task as it seemed now. There had to be thousands of people in the city these days and they were looking for one man, and one who wouldn't even particularly stand out.
"Don't suppose the ghosts had a plan on this one, Lu?"
Taako was staring at the sky above the city, a slight frown on his face. He leaned just a bit further out the window of the carriage and Magnus turned to look at the same spot. He narrowed his eyes, one hand up to shade against the light of the sun.
"Is that... smoke?"
Edward's ears flicked back and he looked as well.
"I hope not... In a city like this, can you imagine what a fire could do?" Then his ears shot up and he grabbed his sister's arm. "That is absolutely not smoke. Lydia, are you seeing this?"
Lydia couldn't quite see what they were looking at at first but as they rounded a bend to come up into the city itself, she and Keats got a good look. Keats clung to his sister, eyes wide behind Angus' glasses.
"That's it! That's the hungry darkness!" Keats nearly fell out of Lydia's grip, he was leaning so far. "I've seen it before! We need to go there!"
Lucretia leaned forward and slid a small window open in the front of the carriage.
"Avi? Take us to that smoke. As quickly as you can."
It wasn't nearly as easy as it sounded. The city streets were packed with people and carriages of their own. On top of that, Avi wasn't quite sure where he was going in the criss-crossing network of streets. Eventually, he pulled over and turned to look back at them all through the small window.
"I think you're probably better off moving on foot. There's no way I can get through this crowd."
Lup nodded and opened the door.
"Thanks for getting us this far." She slid out the door, taking a moment to adjust her skirt before she reached back to grab the basket of things she'd brought just in case. "We still need a plan for when we get there."
Edward lifted Keats out of the carriage and then reached up to give his sister a hand.
"We're going to have to get that thing out of Barry and stop whatever he's doing. Can we come up with a plan before we really know what we're facing?"
Lydia brushed off her own skirts and then reached to give Lucretia a hand down. Lucretia took it gladly and then looked around as well.
"Either way, we should move quickly. I don't particularly like what I'm seeing."
Lup and Taako exchanged a look.
"We don't know where exactly he's going to be or what he's going to be doing..." Taako spoke slowly, thinking this plan out as he explained it. "Our best bet is probably splitting up. Edward, Lydia, you keep Keats with you and Magnus will go with you. Lucretia, you're with us. We split up, hopefully one group finds him faster and we approach from different directions. Sound good?"
Edward was already holding Keats in his arms and he nodded. Then he looked over at Magnus.
"Come on. And if he does anything supernatural, leave that to us."
They ran off, headed as directly towards the smoke circling high over the city as they could. None of them could really be sure where it was coming from but Edward had a gut feeling and he was trusting to that. Lup nodded to Lucretia as she and her brother turned to head down another street.
"Let's go. And while we go, we need to come up with a plan for not killing Barry to get out of this."
Edward was already struggling to catch his breath as they rounded the next block. Keats wasn't as small as he'd been, not in Angus' body, and Edward wasn't in the physical condition he once had been. He simply wasn't used to carrying a child in his arms any more. Still, they could see the smoke circling above and knew they were headed in the right direction. Magnus realized Edward was slowing down and stopped, turning to look at him. He held out his hands.
"I can carry Keats. You're the one who knows anything about this thing other than to just punch it."
Keats nodded, already starting to lean towards Magnus. He would've argued, said he could just run by himself. But there was no way he could keep up with the adults with these short little legs, and anyway, he knew how important this all was. If they lost this fight, neither the living nor the dead would see peace.
And then they turned a corner and Edward could see a green expanse in front of them. It seemed like a joke, a field left fallow in the middle of a city like some sort of mockery of country folk. Then he saw there was a large vegetable garden to one side and a pond full of abandoned toy boats. A human child sat near there, alone, sobbing, and frightened. No, this place had been made for people to enjoy, to give them some semblance of peace. And that dark cloud hung over the top of it. There, near to the center, stood a lone figure silhouetted against the dying of the light and cast into macabre relief by the mix of light and shadows playing over his form. It was Barry and it was John and it was something far, far worse. It was the hunger of all living things to stay living and the hunger of the dead to return to that state. It was the hunger of eternity as it lashed out senselessly and pulled all life into it. It was nothing, it was empty, and it desired to be filled. Lydia grabbed Edward and Magnus by the arm, pulling them back around the corner.
“How do we stop that thing?”
She’d seen it too then. She knew this was far greater a threat than John had ever appeared to be. Edward shook his head.
“We need to break his concentration without just letting that thing free. And we need a medium who can cast him out.”
Lydia’s eyebrows shot up into her hairline, her ears flicked back with consternation.
“You’re the only one left, Lydia. We saw to that ourselves, remember? I’ll distract him, you get him out of Bluejeans and the two of you can close that rift.”
The plan would work so much better if they had the others. If they had more than one or two targets for this hungry darkness to lash out at. But they had no idea where the others were.
Lup held tightly to her brother’s hand, towing him along as they wove through the old city streets. Lucretia was slower to keep up but Kravitz had gone ahead, faster and in better physical condition than any of the rest of them. He suddenly appeared in front of them from an alleyway, eyes wide with fear.
“I found it. I don’t know what I found. Taako, Lup, it’s...”
They turned down the alley and burst out into an open green expanse, a city park, Lup realized. Most of the people had fled but she could hear a child crying somewhere. It put her hackles up as they moved forward. Somewhere here was John. Somewhere here was the body of the man she loved. And she would bet anything he was at the center of the miasma hovering over the city.
“Taako, Kravitz, you stay together. Find John. Lucretia, you’re with me. I’m pretty sure there’s a child out in all this and I want them safe before we pick a fight.”