A soft rustling preceded Jack popping up like a jack in the box right next to the porch.
I jerked back, surprised. My foot hit a soft spot in the wood. A loud crack barely prepared me for my foot breaking through the porch.
“Shi—” I windmilled my arms, trying to shift my weight.
“I got ya.” Jack was beside me a moment later—his huge arms wrapped around my middle, his legs braced wide.
I dangled for a moment, catching my breath, before tapping his Popeye forearm. “Thanks. I’m good.”
“Sure, yeah.” Jack lifted me while swiveling. My feet bumped down in front of the door. “Watch where you’re stepping. If anything happens to you, the boss’ll kill me.”
“What’s going on?” Bria called from near the first house, heading my way. “Are we going on a walk-about?”
“He paired you with the crazy Necromancer,” Jack said, stepping to the side. “I heard that. Tough luck.”
“Tough luck, yeah.” I couldn’t help but get sidetracked. “Is she really…with Zorn?”
“Yeah. Don’t try to make sense of it, there is none. And don’t engage if it’s ever brought up. That shit is crazy. Best not to look it in the eyes.”
My chuckle at his flabbergasted tone dried up quickly, the strange buzz recaptured my focus. I gestured with my palm to the gaping doorway. “Is there anyone in these houses?”
“Squatters, maybe,” Jack said, staring in. “Want me to check it out?”
He extracted a long knife from a holster in his leg before drifting into the house’s murky low-lit interior.
“Wait, did you feel anything when you walked in?” I asked.
“Nah,” Jack said. “Felt like any old doorway.”
“What have we got brewing up here?” Bria stopped on the sidewalk in front of the house, her hands loose at her sides. If she was annoyed that I’d taken a detour, she didn’t show it.
Clare, on the other hand, had thunderclouds rolling across her face. She stomped up the sidewalk toward us, her bag tinkling against her side.
“Okay. Go check it out.” I waved Jack off.
“I don’t sense any souls,” Bria said, stepping onto the brittle front yard. “What’s got your attention?”
“Isn’t it odd that all these houses are deserted?” I asked her, closing my eyes to concentrate on that hum. After a moment, I felt something else, throbbing beneath the buzzing spirit welcome mat. Almost like a warning. It told me I did not belong, that the living had no business in a place of death. A place of rot.
I furrowed my brow. I’d never felt anything quite like it. But then again, had I ever concentrated this hard on a place?
“Not really,” Bria answered. “This area housed a weird magical cult a while back. A self-proclaimed high priest sacrificed humans for power, and his disciples put their hands out for the scraps. It went under the radar for a while until they were caught kidnapping an influential Chester. That’s when Valens finally put a stop to it. He was getting heat from the Chester government.”
“How’d he put a stop to it? Let me guess, he killed them all?”
“Obviously, yeah.” Bria made a funny face. “If you can kill Chesters and get away with it, fine. But when you get caught, he makes an example out of you.” She narrowed her eyes at me before lowering her voice. I wondered if she was trying to keep Clare from hearing. “You know he’s a ruthless kind of crazy, right? That he’s unhinged and kills at the drop of a hat? I’d hate for this to be a surprise, being that you might be stepping on his toes.”
A reminder I didn’t need.
Jack drifted back into view, a graceful sort of lethal. Shadows slid across his large frame. All the training he’d done that morning with the kids, and still he looked ready for battle. The man was in great shape.
“Clear,” he said, hovering near the inside of the door. He correctly assumed I was coming in.
“And no one else wants these fixer-uppers?” I asked, affecting a light tone as I crossed the threshold. An electric zing sizzled through me, tugging at my squishy center. The cage of my body held my spirit—my soul—in place, not allowing the force field, or whatever it was, to pull it away.
“Weird.” I put my hand to my sternum, my mind churning.
“What?” Bria stepped up onto the porch. She eyed the doorway. “What am I missing? And what magic are you using, or do you know?”
I made a circle in the air with my finger. “If you come through, you don’t leave.”
“Like hell you don’t,” Jack murmured.
“No, I mean—” I screwed up my face and shook my head. I wasn’t used to talking about this stuff. Up until recently, I’d had little to do with magical folk. As far as my power went, things just randomly happened and I largely ignored them. I’d never had to piece together a bigger picture before. “Spirits are invited in, and once they’ve crossed the threshold, they can’t leave. It’s a trap, like at the government building, but this trap actually invites them in.”
Bria stepped up to the doorway and put out her hands, but her expression didn’t change. She stepped through, her gaze finding me, and then stepped back out. She shook her head. Just like Jack, she didn’t feel what I was talking about.
The crisp sound of a bell interrupted my thoughts. The medium was hard at work creating racket for no reason.
I blew out an annoyed breath and hurried farther into the house. The smell of mildew and stuffy air permeated my senses despite the still-open door and one cracked window. No signs of life disrupted the dust layering the ground or the furniture. Upstairs, the two small bedrooms lay bare, the hardwood floors scuffed and closet doors lopsided. The house was empty of people and souls.
“Why would he try to lure spirits in and then trap them?” I scratched my temple and made my way out of the house, scooting past the medium who’d moved into the living room. “Why would he expend the energy? It’s not like the spell’s targeted—this would work on any spirit.”
“He, who?” Bria asked, before stopping at the front door and turning back. “No, no, Clare, I’ll shadow her to the other houses. You see if there are any spirits lingering in this one. She seems to think there are.”
“No, I don’t—”
Bria elbowed me before I could finish. Then she pushed me along toward the next house with Jack following silently, blessedly leaving Clare behind.
“First order of business, get faster on the uptake,” Bria said. “Now, what the hell are you talking about? I feel like a mime at a public speaking event.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled, because she was exactly right. I usually wasn’t so slow, but this situation was throwing me for a loop.
I took a deep breath.
“I’m talking about the guy—or lady—who’s trapping spirits here. Give me a second, though. I need to check something.” I quickly moved through two more houses. Both were set up in the same way as the first, and both came up empty. “He’s not even really trapping them. He didn’t put up a wall blocking off the Line.”
“Stop. Stop, stop, stop.” Bria yanked the strap of her backpack in frustration, moving it higher on her shoulder. “Start at the beginning. I still have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.”
I looked down the street at all the empty houses, each abuzz with magical activity. Each empty of spirits.
I smoothed back my hair. “The spirits in the magical government building have been barred from leaving.”
Bria nodded with a furrowed brow. “That I did hear, yes.”
“Right. Well, the same thing is happening here. In each of these houses.”
Bria nodded again, her gaze darting to the empty dwellings around us.
“In addition,” I went on, “these houses have a strange sort of lure. Each one, independently, is beckoning to spirits. There wasn’t anything like that in the government building. It didn’t want new spirits, it just wanted to keep the spirits already there…in place.”
She nodded again, on board the information train.
“But here, unlike the government building, there is no wall between the world of the living”—I pointed at the ground, as if that would help—“and the Line…”
She held up a hand. “That’s the part I’m missing. What is this wall you’re talking about?”
I crossed my arms over my chest and stared out at nothing, thinking back. “It’s a magical concoction of some sort. It looked like a sheet of various colors, draped in the air in front of the Line to block it off. No going around, no—”
She held up another hand. “Wait. You’re telling me that you can actually see the Line? The place where spirits cross over into the afterlife—you can see it?” She put two fingers in front of her eyes. “With your eyes?”
“Yeah.” I frowned at her in confusion. “I can see the Line, the crossing point, but not beyond it.”
“Yes. The crossing point. The freaking Line.” She leaned back, her eyes widening. “Holy shit, Alexis. You’re a fucking fountain of power. No wonder Kieran is basically pissing himself in glee.”
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