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His ghost was cold.
It was frozen, down to the last string of whatever incorporeal ooze it was made of. Whatever else changed around it—and things were always changing—the cold was a constant, unwelcome thing.
For most of it, there was a house around him. It was small—just a couple of bedrooms, barely a kitchen, a cozy fireplace that he could never warm up with. The single hallway was long and empty, sometimes swept clean, sometimes cluttered with dust and leaves and bits of trash. He could stand in the living room and blink and it would be different every time he opened his eyes.
Outside the windows, seasons snapped in and out of place like slides in an old projector. In one moment there were long, luscious blades of grass waving at him from the yard. In another there was a blanket of clean white snow, untouched and unbroken. And then it would go back to summer, then to spring, then to winter again, then to fall. In the trees, he could see leaves stuttering in and out of existence, as cardinals dripped through the branches in streaks of bloodred.
He couldn’t remember ever having been here, in this house, but he was sure that it was a part of his memories. He felt lucky just to have that one little bit of confidence. There was a lot about his life—and everything that came after it—that he couldn’t pin down. It shifted in his mind as sporadically as the seasons outside.
Sometimes he wasn’t sure. Sometimes his memory would slip and he would lose it all, and he would slump to the floor, cold as ever. He would sit there with his head in his hands, staring between his feet, trying to ignore the unhinged passing of time.
It was a joke to think that he could ever eat or sleep or do anything that seemed even remotely normal. Normality was so, so far gone. He just sat on the floor, against the wall, letting the world flicker around him, watching tiny dunes of dirt and dust build themselves up and break themselves down along the floorboards.
Occasionally the house would unbuild itself, becoming a sturdy wooden skeleton standing in the bright sun atop a freshly laid concrete foundation. Then it would be gone entirely—or never there at all—and he’d be sitting in the empty field. He liked those moments the best. He could see the sky, the clouds rocketing across it. He could see blue fade into black and the stars chasing one another above the atmosphere in swarms of light. Given enough time, he might have been able to will himself to stay there with the wide-open sky above him. Every now and then, he’d even try to do it.
And that was usually when time shifted in the opposite direction.
The house would become a ruin, clothed in darkness, slumping against itself. Broken beams poked down out of the tattered ceiling; the floorboards rolled and snapped from the damp and the cold. It was empty and lonely and forgotten.
He would see her then, in the deepest shadow of the farthest corner. There was only ever the unfocused outline of her body—her knotted hair, her too-thin arms and legs. And, of course, her eyes. Black with just the tiniest white pinpricks for pupils, staring out at him with something that could have been curiosity or barely withheld rage.
He didn’t know or care. What he knew was that even here, in a place that should have been just his, cursed as it was, she had found him. She had found him, and clarity would slam into him like an alarming gust of wind, and he’d be afraid. For his friends, for the ship that he abandoned, for the souls that he had been made to protect. What had she done to them?
How had they lost?
“Because you were foolish enough to think that you could not,” she said once, somehow hearing the question that he never spoke. Her voice was the same as it had always been, a force of its own, thrumming with a thousand other voices. Only now, here, it was more subdued, somewhere between a rumble and a whisper.
“What do you want from me?” he asked her, forcing himself to meet her gaze.
“All the parts of you that you could never hope to understand,” she said. “The power that you’ve only just scratched the surface of.”
“So why don’t you just take it? Take me?”
Her grimy teeth shone in a horrid grin. “It is a game, Soul Keeper. And the only way to win is if everyone keeps playing.”
Time cycled forward, and then it cycled back. Furniture appeared and then vanished. The sun came and went in violent flashes of light from the windows. Except for the darkest days of the future, when the demon girl was there watching him, he was alone.
And he had never been more terrified.
When he finally heard the voice, he wouldn’t allow himself to believe that it was real. The voice that called to him was one he hadn’t heard in so long, and missed so deeply, that if he believed he was really hearing it and it turned out to just be another trick of his awful prison, his mind would snap like a dry twig under a heavy foot.
But it persisted. Calling to him. Searching for him.
Mate, are you there?
He was sitting against the wall, watching the trees outside judder and flail, growing leaves and shedding them over the course of minutes instead of months.
It was the same as it had been every second of every minute of every hour since he arrived here. But when the voice spoke, the sound of it exploded into the room like a firework going off. It shook against the floor and the ceiling, and he swore he saw a sprinkling of plaster come falling down from somewhere.
Mate. Rhett. It’s me.
He knew that voice, but it couldn’t possibly be real. Yet the sound of his own name was such a sweet thing to hear that he couldn’t help but pull himself off the floor, cocking his head to listen. He thought about a time that felt like centuries ago, when he’d stood on the side of a highway in New York, talking to the owner of that voice.
My name is Rhett, he had said. Rhett Snyder. While nearby, his dead body hung within the wreckage of the car accident that had ultimately landed him here.
The voice spoke again, thunderous within the tiny house.
It’s me, mate. It’s Basil. Can you hear me?
Rhett opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out. He realized he’d barely spoken the entire time he’d been here.
He tried again. Standing in the middle of the room, he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled from the deepest part of his gut.
“I’m here!” he barely croaked. “Basil, I hear you! I’m here!”
Beneath him, the floorboards shuddered. The walls groaned deeply, menacingly. As Rhett watched them, tiny cracks began to form, snaking their way across the paint like slow bolts of lightning.
Hang on, mate! We’re going to try to bring you to us!
What the hell did that mean?
The house rumbled and shook around Rhett. Outside, he could still see the sporadic passing of the seasons. But everything inside the house had given way to chaos.
More cracks formed across the walls. The floorboards bowed upward. Doorframes leaned in haphazard directions. Some of the windows exploded, sprinkling the floor with shards of broken glass.
Okay, Basil said from … wherever he was. We’re ready to go. Rhett, are you ready?
“Ready for what?” Rhett yelled back.
Here we go. One.
The walls buckled.
Rhett shut his eyes, listening to the destruction as it happened.
There was a rush of air and a crackle of electricity. The house roared around him briefly—sounds of blowing dirt and snapping wood and collapsing reality.
Then it was quiet.
He could feel a change in the atmosphere. The world was silent … but it was also still. That feeling of time flickering around him like a constant, inextinguishable fire was gone, replaced by a smothering ache in his chest and a tingling in his limbs. He could barely breathe. And for the first time in a long time, he could feel it. He struggled to pull air into his lungs and got barely a gasp.
Rhett opened his eyes. The first thing he noticed was that they burned. Not just in a dry, itchy way, but in a way that made it feel as if someone had thrown acid into his retinas; keeping his eyes open at all was a struggle.
He fought through the pain, waiting for his vision to clear. Once it did, he wasn’t disappointed.
He was in the same house, his prison for who knew how long now, but time had finally settled. The place had long been abandoned, leaving a coating of dust across everything like a blanket of dull, gray snow. The paint on the walls was so faded and flaked it looked like dry skin after an awful sunburn. There were a couple pieces of old furniture—a caked-over mirror on one wall, a fraying wicker chair in the corner, a lone end table with a vase that still choked on a bouquet of brittle, bone-like flower stems—and it all stayed put. Nothing sputtered in and out of existence. Outside, the trees were naked and the sky was clear. A faint ray of cold sunshine angled in through one of the windows like a spotlight. Rhett stared at it for a moment, waiting for it to start rushing across the room, waiting for time to unstick itself again … until he noticed the figure standing just outside that spotlight of sun.
He would have recognized that damn blazer anywhere.
Basil stepped forward, allowing the sunlight to fall over him, and that slanted grin blew away any doubt that Rhett may have had: He was really here. They had come back for him.
“Hello, mate,” Basil said, his gaze darting up and down, staring at Rhett with wide, uncertain eyes. No, not uncertain—unbelieving. It was the same look that Rhett imagined he was giving Basil. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but … you look god-awful.”
Rhett couldn’t help but laugh. Except it didn’t sound like much of a laugh at all. It was a horrid, choked sound. He watched the muscles in Basil’s face twitch slightly.
“Listen, mate,” Basil went on. “We’re here to help you, okay?”
Why was Basil putting his hands out like that, like he was talking to a child or a stray animal about to run away? And who was we?
For the first time, Rhett noticed other shapes lurking in the shadows of the house. And until they began coming into the light, each one gave him an unpleasant jolt of fear. Fear that they might be her.
Rhett also realized that there were lines crossing in front of his field of vision, forming a grid. Not just lines—bars. Metal ones. When he focused on them, he could see speckles of rust.
He was in a cage.
“Basil…,” he started, but he couldn’t go on. The sound of his own voice was too jarring. It sounded distant. It sounded broken. It sounded … haunted.
He put a hand up to try and grab hold of the cage and had to force back a scream.
His hand was barely there, made mostly out of roiling gray smoke, shedding flecks of what could have been ash or skin with every motion. When he balled his fingers into a fist, any indication of his fingers vanished, leaving only a fist-shaped bulb of churning matter. His arm was the same way. And when he looked down at his feet, he realized that he had none. There was only a slowly boiling mass of gray, like a miniature storm cloud clinging to his body, infecting him somehow.
Rhett looked up, panic rising inside him, and found Basil had come closer to the cage. His hands were still outstretched, but his face was relaxed and confident.
“Stay calm,” he said. “You have to be cool, Rhett.”
Rhett put a cloudy hand up again, reaching for the cage, but the bars buzzed with electricity when he got too close. Sparks sprayed out and he felt a strange current roll through him, like slowly dipping into a pool of water.
He didn’t want to speak, didn’t want to hear the unnerving sound of his own voice again.
It still hurt to breathe. It still hurt to see.
What was happening to him?
“Okay, so, here’s the deal,” Basil said, obviously spotting the panic on Rhett’s face. Did he even have a face? He didn’t want to know. He just focused on Basil’s voice. “You’re … still a ghost.”
Rhett gave him a look that was meant to say You think?
But it had never been like this. How had they pulled him out of the prison of his haunting?
He glanced around the inside of the cage and then looked beyond it. Electrical wires curled and twisted along the splintered floorboards, connecting to what looked like old car batteries and a white, plastic desktop computer from the nineties.
He returned his gaze to Basil, who had finally moved across the room so that he was standing just beyond the cage. There was somebody else beside him: a shorter, skinnier guy with a baseball hat that was still just the faintest shade of red twisted up in his hands and a jagged, unkempt head of hair.
Basil motioned to him. “This is Jon,” he said. “He set this up for us. I’ll let him explain all the … I’ll just let him explain. Jon?” Basil took a small step back.
The other guy—Jon—took an equally small step forward.
“Uh … h-hi,” Jon said.
Rhett just stared at him, trying not to imagine how horrifying he must have looked in that moment—a vaguely human-shaped cloud of smoke and ash floating inside an electrified cage, staring out with a dead face and impatient eyes.
Jon’s eyes widened slightly, but he went on. “S-so, the idea here is that you need energy to … to manifest … in order for us to be able to see you. The … uh … cage provides that energy. If we were to shut the power off, then you’d go back to … wherever it is that you came from.”
Rhett listened, feeling the slightest thump of panic at the thought of going back. From the other side of the room, near the front door, he heard what sounded like the squawk of a walkie-talkie. After a moment, one of the other syllektors—a woman with wavy brown hair—stepped up beside Basil and leaned toward him.
“Captain,” she murmured, but Jon spoke over the rest.
“I understand you have … um … an ability?” he asked. He stared at Rhett hopefully.
Rhett knew what he was referring to, but he didn’t know if he really had the ability or not. He had only used it once … and it had cost them all everything. He gave Jon what he hoped was a shrug.
“Okay,” he said. “Fair enough. Well, if you do have the … ability and you can bring yourself … back, you’re going to need a lot more energy for that.” He gestured at the car batteries, maybe a dozen of them, lined up at his feet. “Right now, we’re drawing power from two of these. In order for you to … do what you can do, we’re going to need all twelve.”
“Jon,” Basil said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We need to hurry this along.”
Jon looked back, and Rhett watched as they communicated silently. Something was wrong.
“Aye, Captain,” Jon said. When he looked back at Rhett, his face was even more unnerved than it had been before. But he got back into his explanation. “Once you start … doing your thing,” he said, “these puppies won’t last long. You’ll have to use up all the juice and then be quick. Because as soon as the energy level in the cage starts to drop, your window of opportunity will close.”
Basil stepped forward again. “We’ve got one shot at this, mate,” he said. Then that devilish grin spread across his face, smooth and sarcastic as ever. “Don’t screw it up.”
Rhett took little comfort in Basil’s humor—which was usually the case when Basil tried to crack a joke in the middle of something serious, so this shouldn’t have felt any different. But it did. It felt like the end of the line, like one last wink of hopeful light before Rhett was to be cast back into the hell that he’d been existing in.
He closed his eyes, momentarily thankful for the relief it brought—now all he had to do was focus on the ache in his chest. He let the images flicker around in his head for a moment. Endless days of constantly moving time that gave way to those last moments aboard the Harbinger, right before she sank, right before he told Basil and Mak to do this to him, to keep him and his power away from the souls, away from her. Urcena.
He saw those piercing, deadly eyes watching from the corner. The power was what she wanted; using it was dangerous. But the souls that she intended to use the power on were at the bottom of the river in the afterlife, still tucked inside the monstrous hull of the Harbinger. Rhett’s parents were among those souls. He had promised himself that he’d protect them if nothing else, because he hadn’t been able to do that in life. She had come for them, too.
Urcena had caused all of this. He wanted to end her.
Around him, electricity hummed and snapped along the bars of the cage. He heard Jon’s voice, along with what sounded like the clacking of computer keys.
“Okay,” Jon said, raising his voice over the sound of the electrified cage. “We’re up to full power! It’s now or never!”
“Always the optimist, aren’t you, Jon?” Basil cried.
The energy rushing through the cage was stronger, louder. Rhett felt it mixing with the tingling sensation in his ghostly limbs. He felt the weight pressing into his chest, crushing his lungs.
He saw the girl from the apartment building, surrounded by flames and sparks of purple lightning. He remembered hearing her heart beat in time with his own … and he could hear it now. It thumped in his ears, just once. At the same time, something beyond the cage popped and sparks fizzled against the vibrating metal.
“Shit,” Jon hissed.
“It’s okay,” Basil said. “I … I think it’s working…”
Rhett could feel the surge of life coursing through him. Well, not life exactly. But the fibrous extensions of his soul were reconnecting themselves, turning him back into what he’d been on the Harbinger.
His heartbeat sounded in his ears again. Whump-whump.
He opened his eyes.
Veins of purple electricity snaked their way around the cage, weaving in and out of the bars. One of the car batteries was a smoldering husk of melted black plastic, spewing noxious smoke. Another one popped as Rhett watched, launching a wave of glowing sparks into the air. Everything was charged. Light bulbs in the house that probably hadn’t been lit in years flickered violently.
Rhett took a step forward, putting his nose right up against the metal of the cage … and then he stepped through it.
Basil and Jon took a few stumbling steps backward, watching Rhett pass through the solid, electrified bars.
Rhett moved through them, feeling the density of the steel. He left the bubbling cloud of smoke and ash behind, let it dissipate along with the energy in the cage. He stepped onto the wooden floor as if breaking through the surface of water, gasping for air.
As he fell forward onto his hands and knees, Basil tried to catch him, and they ended up on the floor together amid the dirt and the dust. But Rhett was there. He was back.
He was a syllektor again.
Copyright © 2019 by Devon Taylor