Of course, I yelped and stumbled back in shock. It was a quick way to get everyone’s attention, after all.
“Ghosts,” I said to answer the surprised expressions. Ironically, I wasn’t sure if I was answering them on purpose or auto pilot. ‘Ghosts’ was exactly something I would’ve made up to cover an outburst a week ago.
Only Cassie’s expression didn’t change. She’d looked back sympathetically before returning her gaze to the clearing.
“They’re shades, I think,” Cassie said. “Not quite the same. Ghosts are more substantial.”
I couldn’t see them one way or another — but when I stepped into the clearing they suddenly became visible again. I averted my eyes. To look for the wards that were keeping them hidden from outside the clearing. Not because they were all horribly torn up.
Yeah. That was why. Hans put a protective arm around my shoulders, and I didn’t even try to escape.
I didn’t really know what I was looking for when I turned away from the ghosts until I actually saw it: there were scars on the trunks of each of the trees ringing the clearing. Nearly identical scars where something had been carved.
Before I could point them out, though, Nora spoke up. “This was the focal point of the gate when it originally opened,” she said. “At least: that’s what we were told in the sorority.” While she was talking, I could hear Cassie quietly trying to get a ghost’s attention. “The fae could actually appear over a much wider area,” Nora continued, “but the local witches used their magic to push back the gate’s focus until it was just open where their changeling had broken through. Here. It was one of the graduated classes that shifted to the archives building, though.”
Hans’ hand tightened on my shoulder. I heard him swallow, but he didn’t say or do anything else. My chest tightened in response: I could only imagine what he was feeling. This was where his pack had died. I didn’t know if it was fighting faeries, or because of Salvatore, or what — but after seeing the state of the ghosts in the clearing, I had no doubt that death had been involved.
“Does your coven maintain the wards around here?” I asked. I still wasn’t looking at the ghosts — shades, Cassie had called them — but since I had insisted we all come out here I was determined to not just keep my mouth shut and let everyone else ask the questions and do the things.
“We… no? What wards?” was Nora’s answer.
My eyes widened. Before I could even blurt “on the trees” one of Fiore’s solocks had followed my eyes. He produced a high powered flashlight and lit up one of the trees. Another solock darted over for a closer look.
“They’re old,” he announced. “Anchored into the trees themselves. Probably from when the battle took place — or earlier. They’re still powered because they’re drawing on the trees. Maybe the whole forest, like to like. Otherwise I’d expect these trees to have died.”
I swallowed, vaguely remembering when I’d run through a park on frozen time. The trees themselves had pushed me back. I guess all living things have some kind of aura, I thought, but it was a distraction from more pertinent questions.
Elaine asked one of them for me. “Earlier?”
The solock shrugged. “They’re all facing this side of the clearing. It would’ve been hard to carve and imbue them while under assault. Even with a wolf pack guarding your back.”
“They’re hide the in-between stuff,” I said. “The wards are blocking the astral plane. Whoever put them there did it so no one could see or sense whatever was going on here from a distance.” My conclusion was made with the confidence I only have when I’ve blurted something out on autopilot as I’ve realized it. Good job, auto pilot.
“So, was it done by faeries or Salvatore?” Ben asked. “Or Linda?”
“Good questions,” Fiore growled. “Any answers yet?” he sarcastically asked Cassie. At least, I thought it was sarcastic. And directing his question toward her. She was the one talking to the ghosts, but for some reason he was glaring at me.
Although, come to think of it, he had the same hearing I did. So of course he knew Cassie’s questions hadn’t gotten past: “Hello? Can you hear me?”
The fucker was being sarcastic.
“No,” Cassie answered before I could chicken out on snapping at Fiore for being a dick. “I told you these are mostly shades. They’re at least as much impressions left behind by traumatized souls as distinct entities. Most of them are locked into repeating their deaths, there’s so little left. If I could jolt one of them past that it should ‘solidify’ as a ghost. But I don’t know if any of them even have enough self awareness for that, anymore.” She shivered, and I suppressed the urge to follow suit. I’d died enough to have a pretty good idea how awful it would be to get stuck endlessly repeating the process.
Despite myself I looked toward Cassie — and then scanned over the clearing. I squeezed my eyes closed and struggled to hold back my gorge almost immediately after, but eventually I opened them again and forced myself to look. I didn’t know if she saw the ghosts in the same way that I did, but I couldn’t just leave this nightmare entirely to Cassie.
Mutilated ghosts. There were about a dozen of them, although it seemed like there were more because they kept moving around. When I opened up my perception to them an echo of my headache throbbed. Not migraine level, but enough to hurt. It wasn’t helped by all the shouting and swearing taking place in the astral plane.
It took a moment for me to see what Cassie had meant about the ghosts repeating their deaths. The whole scene was a little blurry around the edges from my headache, but it became more obvious the longer I watched. Eventually — and it seemed that each one took a different amount of time than the others — each ghost would flicker toward the edge of the clearing and start creeping back in. Then they would ‘die.’
Someone in the real world started to say something. It wasn’t Cassie, so I told them to shut up. I didn’t need distractions; couldn’t handle distractions. I looked from one ghost to another, following them from the edge of the clearing in toward the center; trying to line up all the different time lines in my head. At least Shantaya’s and Hans ghost wolves helped by not getting mixed in with the shades. They stood in sharp relief at the edges of the clearing, growling but not approaching the endless reenactment. In fact, other than Cassie, no one ventured further into the clearing.
And that made it easier for me to study the ghosts, myself.
There was one who suddenly leapt forward, swinging a staff — only to be thrown back in chunks. His dismembered arm and leg melted into the ground before he flickered and reappeared, whole once more, to repeat the brief enactment.
Another spun in place, only for his head to snap backward and his body to lurch across the clearing as though thrown.
A third one threw her hand backward protectively. She swore — then screamed and ran toward the spot where the first ghost landed. Or rather, where he would have landed if their timelines had still been synched up. She didn’t make it there before skewing sideways, intestines spilling, and collapsing like a rag doll.
A fourth suddenly sprawled on the ground. He twisted, turned, shoved something off of himself and scrambled backward on his elbows. Bullet holes erupted from his chest. A few seconds later the ghost that had been flung across the clearing landed where he had first fallen. I mentally paired the two and adjusted their sequences to match where the first ghost would have collided with him just before he fell.
They were all like that. At least a dozen. At any given moment, six or so were dying in some horribly violent fashion. Half of those that remained were draped around the clearing wherever they’d fallen. The other half were creeping from the edge of the clearing, back toward their inevitable demises.
I was dizzy, nauseous, and blind to the real world by the time I worked out which one had died first.
He looked like he was the oldest. There was a gap on either side of him, where either someone hadn’t died or hadn’t left a shade of their own. A lot of the ghosts had similar ‘gaps’ in the ranks beside them. I suspected that whoever had flanked this one in reality had survived, though. Simply because this ghost’s narrative was different from the others.
It started the same. He crept forward, focused on the center of the clearing. But then he glanced to his side. His eyes widened and he straightened. “What are you–” he managed to say before bullet holes appeared in his torso. He danced like some macabre puppet from the three shots, then collapsed backward. I couldn’t be certain that he’d died first, but the fact that he’d said something to his murderer made me think that he had. The others had died violently enough that I didn’t think anyone would be surprised to be attacked if it was happening after one of them had gone.
“They were betrayed,” I said out loud. “Half of them were killed from behind.” I pointed at the first to die, even though no one except Cassie and Thaddeus could see him. “He was shot by someone standing next to him, and he was shocked when it happened even though he saw who did it.”
Ben cursed quietly, but not quietly enough for his “fuck,” to escape my ears. Hans let go of my shoulder with such exaggerated caution that I knew he’d almost dug his fingers into my flesh instead.
I regretted that loss of contact. I couldn’t blame him for it, because what I said was probably the nail in Salvatore’s metaphorical coffin — but I was sick from the gore and scared by the implications of treachery and wished I could lean into Hans instead of having him pull away. Especially because something was still bothering me about the whole scene. Something that I knew should be obvious, even though I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“If Cassandra backs up your description,” Elaine said as she walked toward the ghost I pointed at, “then I think this is something we need to tell Director Estevez sooner rather than later. As in now, rather than tomorrow night.” Even though she couldn’t see the spirit, she stared at the spot where it had fallen. Of course, by then it had flickered back to the restart of it’s death, so Elaine was frowning at nothing.
I was vaguely aware of Valerie agreeing and someone’s phone beeping as they dialed a number. I was partially distracted by the ghost I was staring at: the one Elaine had failed to inspect. A lot of me was distracted by my stomach twisting into knots over the idea of the Director needing to get more involved in anything. And partially I was stuck coping with the over the numbing dread that I hadn’t found a reason for but knew was completely reasonable.
And then the reason for my dread clicked into place. My headache wasn’t that bad. The ghost wolves were perfectly visible: their presences were crystal clear. Or rather: translucent. But the point was that they were distinct. For that matter, so was Thaddeus. It was only the ghosts in the clearing that were blurry. That was weird. That was the disconnect that was making me so uneasy.
Well, that and the fact that I’d only ever seen ‘blurry’ ghosts once before.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make that connection until the ghost I was watching tried to step through Elaine. Tried, and stumbled instead of phasing through her.
I opened my mouth to shout at her to get back; to yell to everyone that we had to leave. But the ghost that had bumped into Elaine was already pivoting. It had grabbed onto her arm for support. It wasn’t repeating it’s death sequence. Elaine’s presence had “jolted it out” of the repetition. And the spirit wasn’t responding by just “solidifying” into a ghost.
Instead, the ghost zombie latched onto Elaine like it wanted to burrow into her soul.