VOLUME INDEX



Chapter XL: The Burning Time
Chapter XLI: Into the Dark
Chapter XLII: Lay Me Down to Die

 
 
 




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The rest of the group maintained a wedge formation behind Patrick after he cleared the door to Darlene’s floor. There the parade of spectral students had stopped in their tracks; standing as if at rapt attention, they watched some distant, unseen spot. Instinctively, the entire group parted around them, shoulders to the wall—passing through the ethereal people caused neither sensation nor reaction. After accidentally passing through one student, Nathan crossed himself, mumbling a quiet prayer under his breath. Megan stepped aside the moment she came out of the stairwell to avoid trespassing in the same space as a shorter girl with a fedora who apparently wanted to take the stairs, but stopped just beyond the threshold to stare with the others.

“Do you think these are the missing people?” Megan asked.

Nathan glanced at her and shrugged, but nobody else seemed to hear.

The hallway beyond stood out with the humble nondescript dress of every ASU dorm: bare walls that sprouted the occasional door, lumpy brown carpets, and the persistent smell of sweat mingled with tension. Several of the doors ahead hung slightly ajar, Patrick nudged them open when his foot as they passed and peered inside. Each time waving the group forward after latching them closed. After two such doors, Darlene spoke up after barely dodging a broad shouldered student in a dark turtleneck.

“My room is around that corner and then one more turn,” she said and forged ahead only to be stopped by Patrick.

“Stay behind me, please,” he said. “I have the gun.”

“I know where I’m—”

He cut her off by gesturing towards the wall not ten steps away. A giant centipede glyph had been hewn through the drywall with something sharp and then filled in with basted with red paint—from tail to antenna it stretched from ceiling to floor. Even from the distance she stood, Megan could feel a vibration coming from the thing, like an ache in her muscles, and a sound issued forth. The building creaked—or perhaps the centipede did—like planks on the bridge. As they watched, it writhed with the queasy motion of an optical illusion.

“It’s getting stronger,” Tiffany said from the reflection of a nearby wall picture. Her image produced a funny portraiture with the contents of the picture: a Daliesque painting of a farm scene involving twisted houses and a melting sun.

The group made their way past the centipede single file, nobody took so much as a breath until it was safely out of sight around the corner. The rest of the corridor before them didn’t show any signs of other drawings. Ahead, seven doors further, a T-intersection split into two further brightly lit hallways. Two doors down, Megan spotted a familiar sign: WOMEN’S RESTROOM.

“You go ahead,” he said as they passed. “I need to use the little girl’s room.”

“Can it wait?” Patrick asked. “We should stay together.”

“You want to watch me pee?”

He shot her a dark look and she shrugged, pushing through the door. The ghosts hadn’t done anything to anyone, and she figured with Tiffany’s help she could deal with whatever came her way. How long could it take to grab a violin anyway? She’d have precious little time to learn what Tiffany wanted to teach her about sending a servitor to assist her parents, so she didn’t want to waste any time. Especially arguing.

“Nathan, you stay with her, in the hallway,” Patrick said. “Holler if anything comes this way. We’ll be right back.”

“Can do,” Nathan said.

“Get your keys out,” Patrick said to Darlene. “We should get in and out as quickly as possible. I don’t want to stay here any longer than we have to. Do you know where to look?”

“Oh yeah,” Darlene said. “No problem there.”

Megan let the bathroom door close behind her and went immediately to the mirror. Tiffany stood next to her with a lopsided grin on her face.

“It’s so much easier to do stuff out here, you know,” she said. “Vex’s apartment has some sort of haze over it. Made me feel like trying to work through antihistamines. This room is much more lucid. We’ll make this quick.”

The restroom, at least, was absent any apparitions. Perhaps they didn’t need to use the facilities—whatever the reason, Megan felt relieved she didn’t have to share the room with any of them. Not that they did anything to them insofar, the sensation of being watched would have simply made the next task impossible.

Tiffany began by directing Megan to summon a servitor by reaching for a sweet-spot between her and the other place where they lived. She had begun to sense them in her everyday activities, like wriggling things just under the surface of unseen waters. “You’ll want a rather large one this time,” Tiffany said. “You should be able to tell the difference by how bright it feels against your hands, the slower and more muscular the movement the stronger it is. Yes, like that one. Now pull.”

Closing her hand around pinched fingers, Megan felt as if she were grabbing the center of a sheet rather than a ribbon. She pulled against the resistance. Instead of a single thread of light, this time an entire fabric webbed of differing thicknesses surged out. The thing spread away from her fingers like a fluttering scarf, twining and writhing as it flowed into the air.

“Keep an image of your parents in your mind,” Tiffany said. Her eyes twinkled in the mirror as she moved around the servitor spirit; she looked clearly impressed by its appearance and nodded her approval. “Be sure to include all the emotions that fill you when you think of them, especially your desire to keep them safe and deliver them from harm.

“It’s…” Megan began to say, but she couldn’t quite articulate the feelings she felt emanating through her. The scarf of energies withdrew and reshaped into a vaguely bird-like shape, the head cocked and turned two empty spaces that mimicked eyes towards her. “I think it’s asking me permission.”

“Grant it your will,” Tiffany said. “It needs some of your own strength to its duty, much like a scalpel is the tool of the surgeon’s will, the servitor will take your thoughts and direction to do its work.”

“Okay.” Megan closed her eyes and felt for the servitor with her thoughts. Under her breath she whispered to herself directing it to her parents and giving it the permission it wanted.

Make my parents safe, protect them from harm, take them from this place. By my will this be done.

The manifestation of the servitor raised its bird head and opened its beak; then it flowed once again into the webbed fabric of bright threads and spilled upwards, vaulting itself through the ceiling. Megan presumed this meant it sped on its way to her parent’s house in North Phoenix. She could still feel the servitor tugging at her mind as it propelled itself on task, and the disease in her stomach abated. She knew parents would be safe.

“Excellent,” Tiffany said.

 

“How did I end up with so much stuff?” Darlene said from inside the room.

Patrick took up a position outside the door after making sure it was empty of people—ghostly or otherwise—and let her get to work hunting for her violin. An easy enough matter, he noted she was an organization and neatness freak. Everything in the room had a place, either ensconced in a tray or popped into a plastic container. He glanced in after her and saw that she’d tossed several extremely large tubs onto her bed and strewn their contents onto the floor. He shook his head. His mother was exactly like that. She’d stow everything in its own place, forget where she put it, and then came the emergency that made the store room look like a hurricane had passed through.

Down the hall, he could see Nathan lounging against the wall where he could see both Darlene’s room and the restroom.

Nathan noticed Patrick’s gaze and nodded. Lifting his head, he shouted, “You and Vex make a good team.”

“Thanks,” Patrick said. He hefted the gun in his hands; he didn’t feel safe holstering the weapon, especially with the spectral students walking past, and it only felt prudent to have the only weapon they had at the ready. “I like her too. It’s been a totally new experience for me.”

“It’s been like that every day since high school,” Nathan said. “I never thought she’d find a guy she’d bring along through stuff like this. Sometimes she doesn’t even trust me.”

“I don’t think she had a choice.” Events as they were, Patrick mused, it would have happened sooner or later.

“I guess not.”

“Hey,” Nathan said, his eyes tracking a ghostly student with a torn jeans jacket. “I take Renaissance History with that guy.”

“How is it going in there?” Patrick asked Darlene.

“Another few boxes. It’s gotta be in here somewhere,” she said.

“She hears voices, you know,” Nathan said, looking away down the hall. At first Patrick didn’t think he’d heard him right. “That’s what she’s doing right now,” he continued. “She’s gone somewhere to talk to her mother. She doesn’t think that I know, but it’s been her thing for a long time.”

A chill flushed along Patrick’s arms. “Isn’t her mother dead?”

Nathan looked his way, a light glinting in his eyes. “After everything you’ve been through, does talking to dead people really surprise you?”

“No, I reckon it doesn’t.”

“I’m just saying,” Nathan went on, “you need to be careful with her. She can get wrapped up in her own world. You can’t let her listen to them too much. She starts losing touch with reality when that happens.” He paused. “Not that anything that’s going on is all that real right now, but you know what I mean.”

“I found it!” Darlene said as she headed for the door.

Nathan turned his head towards the restroom and opened his mouth to speak, when his eyes suddenly widened. His entire body convulsed as an invisible hand struck him and threw him against the wall. Barely conscious, he slumped down and fell over as a shadow, bleak as night, crept up from the adjoining hallway. The ghost students that the shadow eclipsed lost solidity and stopped walking, confused.

“Nathan!”

Patrick grabbed Darlene with his free hand and pushed her back into her room. “Stay behind me,” he admonished. Obeying, she shrank away and wrapped her fingers tighter around the violin. “Nathan!” he shouted. “Don’t move!”

A figure, cloaked in a hungering darkness slid around the corner—the ghosts of students it neared suddenly became blurry, twisted as if in gale force winds, and vanished.

Patrick leveled the gun and fired.

 
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