A wall draped down in front of the Line, full of shifting shades of reds, pinks, and yellows. No entry.
“What are you thinking?”
Bria’s voice startled me out of my focus. The Line and magical wall in front of it throbbed before disappearing, leaving me once again standing in a dilapidated house, surrounded by a bunch of manic spirits.
I took a couple deep breaths, allowing my heart to return to normal speed.
“The other houses invited spirits in, and kept them there—”
“Giving them the choice to stay or leave,” Bria said with an impatient nod. “And if there were any, they’ve left.”
“Right. But this house doesn’t want wayward spirits. Those are being rebuffed. The spirits here can’t leave. There’s a wall in front of the Line, just like the one in the government building…”
“Valens isn’t trapping all souls, he’s trapping specific souls,” Bria surmised. “You must’ve been right—the other houses are there to keep this house free of riffraff spirits.”
“That’s certainly what it looks like. And his guy is expending an awful lot of effort to do it, what with all the different spells…or whatever you call that magic.” I dragged my lip through my teeth and checked the location of the Medium. She was out of hearing distance, waiting in the dining room. “But Kieran’s mom isn’t trapped in one location. She’s free to wander. He’s trapped the spirit of her skin. Somehow.”
“I didn’t even know that was a thing,” Bria murmured, looking at the baseboards as though hunting for a pile of seal skin.
If only it would be that easy.
I shook my head, my gaze flitting from one jerkily moving spirit to another. Someone screamed. Another banged their head against the hall in repetitive thunks.
“He wouldn’t put the seal skin here,” I whispered, disgust for this place permeating every fiber of my being. “She bore his Demigod son. In life, he exiled her to a castle on a beautiful island, with servants and medical care. He’d never lock up part of her in a place like this, even in death. If nothing else, think of his reputation. What would people say if they found out? No, she’ll be in a special place. She’ll have her own digs.”
I came out of my reverie to find Bria staring at me.
Heat infused my cheeks. “Obviously I’m guessing, but—”
“No, no.” She held up her hands and cocked her head, as though backing down. “I wasn’t judging. You’re exactly right. Everything you said is spot on. I can’t see what you do, but your assessment of Valens is correct. You’re not so far under your rock after all, eh?” She smiled playfully.
I looked around again, feeling the correctness of that assessment.
“Speaking of rocks.” Bria jerked her head toward the dining room, where she’d clearly told the Medium to wait. She seemed to agree with my assessment of them. That, or she was trying to keep the spillover of knowledge at a minimum.
We exchanged a look and headed into the dining room.
“Great, let’s get started,” Clare said when I pulled out a chair and sat.
The barrel-chested guy from the doorway drifted in behind me, hovering just above the ground. That neat trick meant he’d fully accepted his spirit status. Someone like him would usually succumb to the Line’s welcome and leave the land of the living behind. He hadn’t been given that chance. Instead, he was forced to stay here in torment.
Anger unfurled within me. This wasn’t right. Valens was disrupting the natural balance between life and death. I felt that down to my bones. He needed to face judgment for what he’d done.
Clare’s reaching hand caught my notice. The Line pulsed not far away, blocked off. A strange breeze ruffled my hair, and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
“Alexis,” Bria said, pulling my focus to her.
The breeze dissipated and the Line drifted away. The house and all its spirits remained.
“If you’ll just take my hand, we can get started,” Clare said, impatience lining her features.
“Oh.” I reached out without thinking, then stopped myself as my brain caught up. “Nah.” I took my hand back before noticing Jack’s face in the window, watching what was going on. “I’m good.”
“We need to create a circle of power,” Clare said, her hand hovering in the air.
“You guys go ahead without me.” I gestured between the two of them. “I have magic going and I’d rather not…you know.” I pointed at her hand.
“We really must—”
“It’s fine,” Bria cut in, her gaze steady and confident. She had taken a page out of Kieran’s book. “Leave her out of it.”
“We won’t know if the person we seek—”
“I’ll know,” I said. “Just tell me who you’re looking for, and I’ll tell you if they’re here.”
Clare’s eyes narrowed and her lips thinned in annoyance. Finally, she dropped her hand.
“I can’t guarantee results if we’re not all participating,” she said tersely, “but okay, have it your way. It’ll be you Demigod Kieran goes after, not me.”
“Understood.” I nodded slowly, and noticed none of the other ghosts had followed us into the room with the large guy. “Did you use some sort of spell or whatever to keep the spirits at bay?” I asked Clare.
“They are giving you room to work,” the big man told me, as though I’d asked him.
“No, we wouldn’t want to—”
I held up my hand to Clare. “Never mind. The boss who doesn’t think he’s the boss just answered.”
Bria’s brow furrowed. Clare’s lowered.
“Now, what I’m going to do is open up the veil, and see if any spirits would like to grace us with their presence,” Clare said, lighting two red candles and one white one. She rang a bell that sounded strangely out of tune, then another bell that affronted me for reasons I couldn’t identify. She nodded her head forward and raised her hands before moaning.
I leaned toward the big guy. “Why are a bunch of you burned?” I whispered.
“We must focus, Alexis, if we hope to reach the other side,” Clare scolded. Bria started to chuckle.
“Do you feel it?” The big guy pointed in the direction of the Line. “You are living, but…can you feel it?”
“The Line, or the wall blocking off the Line?” I mouthed.
“What?” he asked.
Apparently, ghosts couldn’t read lips.
“Join us,” Clare boomed, filling the space with her voice.
Two men and a woman looked around in confusion before stepping forward. The big guy held up his hand, keeping them at bay.
“Join us!” Clare lifted her arms higher.
Bodies shifted and feet shuffled, more than a few of the spirits fidgeting. A guy standing in the throng took a step backward.
“When we meet the shield, it burns,” the man said, his distasteful gaze on Clare. He wasn’t impressed with her antics. “Many of us are strong. We siphon power from those who enter this space and the batteries in their toys. We use it to join together and attack the shield.”
Wall, shield. Tomato, to-mah-to.
“And it burns you?” I whispered.
He held up his damaged hand in answer.
“Can you not change your appearance back to normal?” I asked, ignoring Clare’s pointed glare.
“It doesn’t heal, even when we shift form.” His image flickered to that of a confident younger man, stacked with muscle. His skin was still just as blistered, his nails equally melted.
“Weird.” I’d never heard of that. Then again, I’d never heard of any of this. “Bria—”
“Is anyone with us?” Clare called loudly. Her breath flickered the candles.
A little round instrument I hadn’t noticed, laying in the center of the table amid the bells and candles and various accouterments, flashed green.
Clare, eyes closed, lifted her chin. “I’m sensing…a man.”
I pointed at the large guy. He was certainly the closest. Then again, she could’ve been guessing. She would always have a fifty-fifty chance of being right.
Clare swayed. “John. John, is that you?”
“Do we have any Johns?” a middle-aged man behind me called out. “Any Johns?”
“I’m John,” the big guy said. I felt like the rest of the pack should’ve known that, since John obviously gave the commands around here. But the situation they were in wasn’t exactly ideal for casual conversation.
“There…” Clare’s voice became reedy. “John, why are you here?”
“Why are you trapped, she means,” I said. “Did you do something to Valens?”
I sure hoped Clare was in the know, and trusted, or I had no doubt this trip would grant her a visit from Kieran.
“I was one of his grunts,” John said, drifting closer to Clare. He reached out a hand, his eyes defiant.
“No, you shouldn’t—”
He put his hand on the top of her head.
“Oh!” Clare jolted and clutched at the table. “I’m making contact. He’s here! He’s touching me!”
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