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|The Reckoning(Darkest Powers #3) by Kelley Armstrong|
Tori snickered. “Guess Chloe doesn’t need that stuff after all.”
Margaret greeted the woman, who glanced her way, but her gaze-and smile-swung back to me.
“Aren’t you a sweet little thing,” she said. “How old are you, doll?”
“And you can see ghosts. I can tell by the glow. I’ve never met one of you, but I’ve heard the others tell of such things. They call you a…” She struggled for the word.
“Necromancer,” I said.
Her face screwed up, like she’d bit a lemon. “In my day, they called people who talked to ghosts spiritualists or mediums. Much nicer words, don’t you think?”
She looked from me to Margaret and laughed. “All these years of not believing folks when they talked about you people, and here I meet two in one day.”
She reached out and tapped the air around me, my glow, I guess.
“So pretty,” she murmured. “It draws the eye…Yours is so bright, dear. Much brighter than hers. I suppose that’s because you’re younger.”
I’d heard that the stronger the glow, the stronger the necromancer, and it must be true, because Margaret’s lips tightened.
“C-can I try something?” I asked.
“Of course, doll. No need to be shy. This is a special day for me.” She lowered her voice. “It can get a bit dull on the other side. This will be a lovely story to tell my friends.”
“I’m going to take off my necklace, and I’d like to know if it changes my glow.”
“Good idea,” Tori murmured.
Margaret harrumphed, like it was a waste of time, but didn’t stop me. I lifted the ribbon over my head and handed it to Tori.
The old woman gasped. “Oh my.”
I turned to see her staring, eyes like saucers. Then there was a shimmer to my left…and one to my right.
Margaret let out an oath. She lunged over, snatching the necklace from Tori and pressing it into my hand. The air continued to shimmer, shapes taking form as I yanked the necklace back on.
Edith vanished and in her place appeared a young woman in a pioneer outfit. She knelt in front of me, sobbing.
“Oh, praise God. Praise God. I have been waiting so long. Please, help me, child. I need-”
A young man in a ripped and filthy denim jacket grabbed her by the shoulder and yanked her back. “Listen, kid, I’ve been stuck here since-”
A heavyset man gave the young guy a shove, sending him flying. “Have some respect for your elders, punk.”
“Thanks.” I looked past him to the pioneer woman, cringing and sobbing. “How can I-?”
“I was talking about me,” the man said. “I was here first.”
“No, you weren’t. I’ll get to you.” I tried leaning around the man.
“You want me to take a number? Fine.” He grabbed the pioneer woman and threw her. She disappeared. “Whoops. Guess she left. My turn.”
I leaped to my feet. “Don’t you-”
“Don’t I what?” He lunged forward. His face went purple, swelling to twice its size, eyes bugging out, black tongue lolling. I reeled back. The guy in the dirty jacket jumped behind me. I spun out of his way.
“Sorry, kid.” He smiled, showing rows of rotting teeth. “Didn’t mean to spook you. Spook you. Get it?” He laughed. I backed away, but he closed the gap between us. “Got a problem you can help with, kid. See, I’m stuck here in limbo, on account of a few things I didn’t do. Bum rap, you know? So I’m trapped here, and I need you to do something for me.”
“And me!” a voice behind me shouted.
I turned slowly and found myself surrounded by ghosts of all ages, at least a dozen of them, pressing closer; eyes wild; hands reaching for me; voices rising, shouting, demanding, snarling. The heavyset guy who’d flashed his death mask planted himself in front of me.
“Don’t just stand there, brat. This is your job. Your duty. To help the dead.” He shoved his face down to mine, purple and swollen again. “So start helping.”
“We will,” said a voice to my left.
I turned. The mob of ghosts parted. Margaret stood there, a saucer filled with dried plants in one hand, a burning match in the other.
“You’re scaring the child,” she said calmly. “Come over here and speak to me instead. I can help.”
The ghosts swarmed her. Then they screamed. They howled. They cursed. And they began to fade, fighting and struggling and cursing some more, but continuing to vanish until only Margaret was standing there, blowing smoke from the burning plants in the saucer.
“Wh-what is that?” I asked.
“Vervain. It banishes ghosts. Most of them, anyway. There’s always a stubborn one.”
She strode past me and I turned to see a grandfatherly old man backing away.
“No, please,” he said. “I wasn’t bothering the child. I was only waiting my turn.”
Margaret kept advancing. Tori scuttled out of her way, looking around in confusion, only able to see and hear us.
“Please,” the man said. “This might be my only chance. It’s just a message.”
He looked past Margaret to me and his eyes glistened with tears. “Please, dear. Just one moment of your time.”
A creepy, queasy feeling snaked through me. This felt so wrong-a grown man begging me for a favor.
“Hold on,” I said to Margaret. “Can I hear what he wants to say? Please? He wasn’t one of the ones scaring me.”
Margaret hesitated, then waved for the man to continue quickly.
He took a moment to compose himself, then said, “I died two years ago. I fell asleep in my car and it went off a cliff. They never found it and they said…they said I took off, left my wife, kids, grandkids. All I need for you to do is send them a letter. Just tell them where they can find the car.”
“I have to write this down,” I said, turning to Margaret. I was sure she had paper in the car. Even a cell phone would do-I could text in a message-but she shook her head.
“Wait,” Tori said. She pulled a few pieces of folded paper and a pen from her pocket. “I was going to make a list of stuff we need. Andrew said someone would go shopping for us later.”
I took down his wife’s address and the location of the car. It didn’t make sense to me-roads and landmarks I wouldn’t know-but the ghost said his wife would understand. He said to add a note from him, that he loved her and would never have left her.
“She might not believe I sent a message from the grave, but she’ll look anyway. I won’t take up any more of your time. Thank you.”
Before I could say a word, he disappeared.
“Now that was cool,” Tori said, taking the pencil and extra paper from me.
As I folded the page with the information, Margaret reached for it.
I handed it over. “I guess it’ll have to be mailed from someplace far from here, huh? Just in case.”
“It’s not being mailed.”
“What?” Tori and I said in unison.
“You never promise to deliver a message for a ghost, Chloe. Never.”
Her hand cupped my elbow, voice going gentle. “You can’t. If you do, then what you saw today will be only the beginning. Word will get out that you’re willing to help, and while there are perfectly good requests, like this one, you heard some of the others. Most of those ghosts were in limbo. Sentenced to limbo. You can’t help them, and you don’t want to, but that won’t keep them from hounding you day and night. So you have to ignore both: the good and the bad.”
I looked up into her face and briefly saw someone else there, a younger, sadder woman. I realized that what seemed like cold efficiency was self-preservation-the tough, no-nonsense necromancer, her heart hardened to the pleas of the dead. Was this my fate? Toughen up until I could throw that note in the trash and never think of it again? I didn’t ever want to be that way. Ever.
“Are you okay?” Tori whispered.
Margaret had moved away and was dumping out the ashes of the vervain. Tori touched my arm. I realized I was shaking. I wrapped my arms around myself. “I should have brought a sweater.”
“It’s still chilly when the sun goes in, isn’t it?” Margaret said as she came back to us.
She held up a baggie of dried stuff.
“Vervain,” she said. “I’ll give you some back at the house. Obviously you could use it.”
She tried to smile, but she was out of practice and only managed a twist of her lips.
“Thank you,” I said, and surprised myself by meaning it.
“Are you up to some more work?” she asked.
I glanced down at the bag she held, like it was a prize for a lesson well done, and as much as I wanted to quit, that eager-to-please part of me blurted, “Sure.”
“IT’S EASY TO SUMMON ghosts who want to be called,” Margaret said, “but sometimes you need to speak to a reluctant one. While we try to respect the wishes of the dead, you’ve just seen the importance of maintaining the upper hand in the necromancer-ghost relationship. Some really believe we exist only to help them, and we must quickly disabuse them of that notion. Being firm in your summoning is one way to establish the proper reputation.”
Margaret took the lead, going from grave to grave. We visited four ghosts, chatting with them for a minute, before she found one that didn’t want to answer her summons.
She let me try. The ghost didn’t answer me either.
“Do you know how to increase the power of the summons?” Margaret asked me.
“Exactly. Slowly increase your concentration and sharpen your focus. Start doing it now. Gradually, gradually…”
We kept on like this for a while, Margaret getting frustrated by how slowly I was ramping up the juice. Finally, I felt an inner twinge that said “that’s enough,” and I said so.
She sighed. “I understand you’re nervous, Chloe. Whoever raised those bodies has frightened you.”
“That’s not possible. Yes, you are clearly a powerful young necromancer, but without the proper tools and rituals, you just can’t do it. I don’t even have the ingredients with me.”
“But what if that’s one of the modifications they made? Making it easier for me to raise the dead?”
“There would be no reason to-”
“Why not?” Tori interjected. “Raising the dead must have some use.”
Armies of the dead, I thought, and tried not to remember the old pictures I’d seen, crazy necromancers raising undead hordes.
“All right,” Margaret said. “You girls are worried because you don’t know what’s been done to you. But the only way to overcome that fear is to understand the extent of your powers and learn control. I’m not asking you to give it everything you have, Chloe. Just a little more.”
I did, and caught the first shimmer of an appearing spirit.
“Wonderful. Now, just a little more. Pace yourself. That’s it. Slowly, but firmly.”
That inner alarm clanged louder now.
“No more,” I said. “It doesn’t feel right.”
“But you’re making progress.”
“Maybe, but I’m not comfortable with going further.”
“If she doesn’t want to-” Tori began.
“ Victoria?” Margaret held out the keys. “Please go sit in the car.”
Tori stood. “Come on, Chloe.”
I got to my feet. Margaret’s fingers wrapped around my leg. “You can’t walk away and leave a spirit like this. Look at him.”
The air shimmered. An arm poked through. A face began to take form, then faded before I could make out any features.
“He’s caught between limbo and the world of the living,” Margaret said. “You need to finish pulling him through.”
“Why don’t you?” Tori said.
“Because this is Chloe’s lesson.”
Tori started to argue again, but I silenced her with a shake of my head. Margaret was right. I had to learn to fix this problem. I wouldn’t be responsible for trapping a ghost between dimensions.
“I’ll push him back,” I said.
“Banish? That doesn’t work on trapped spirits.”
I shook my head. “I mean push him. Like summoning, only in reverse. I’ve done it before.”
The look she gave me reminded me of when I was seven and I’d proudly informed our housekeeper that I’d donated half my clothing to a charity drive at school. It had seemed perfectly sensible to me-I didn’t need so much stuff-but she’d stared at me like Margaret was now, with a mix of horror and disbelief.
“You never, ever push a ghost back, Chloe. I’ve heard it’s possible, but-” She swallowed, like she was at a loss for words.
“I think it’s a bad thing,” Tori whispered.
“It’s a terrible, cruel thing. You have no idea where you’re pushing them. They could be lost in some-some…” She shook her head. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but you can never take that risk again. Do you understand?”
I nodded. “So I keep tugging this one…”
I knelt and kept at it until sweat trickled into my eyes. I went past the mental alarms and finally the ghost began to materialize.