Into the Hornets' Nest
The next few moments came at her in a downpour. Bale stepped into the light. Dragomir ordered her to follow him through the trees. The groundskeeper’s cabin appeared ahead, warm light in the windows. The door opened. Fearful glances. Dragomir led her inside, shut the door behind her, told her to sit down, and gave her a mug of beer.
“To steady your nerves,” said Dragomir, moving about the cabin. It was wooden and smelt like fireplaces and cider. “I find the best cure for a run in with the undead is a good cold beer.” He was leaning against the kitchen table. Laid out on it were sauce pans, a kettle, a pistol, a bush knife, a wooden stake, a crucifix, and the crossbow. But no sooner than Margo looked at it, it crumbled into mist, and was gone.
“Vapoursteel,” Dragomir said, noticing her looking. “They call it the weapon neither living nor dead, because it can cut you, whether you’re alive or not. Pretty much the only surefire way to exorcise a ghost.”
“It’s like the knife,” Margo said softly.
“Yes. The knife and the crossbow were made by the same thing.” He didn’t elaborate as to what thing that was.
“Vapoursteel has other uses too,” he said. “Which you saw tonight.”
Dragomir nodded. “Drink.”
Margo looked at the beer for a moment – it was incredibly golden. She took a sip, hands trembling.
“The light you saw was a cut in the world,” Dragomir said.
“Like a black hole?”
Dragomir shook his head. “Black holes go nowhere.”
“Where does it go?”
“To another world.”
“Heaven?” Margo said, before she could stop herself.
When I walk through hell, I’ll be armed with heaven, Dragomir thought.
“I’m not qualified to answer questions like that. But there’s this world, where we live,” he said. “Where all this is. And there’s another place, where they are. Vapoursteel can cut the barrier between the worlds.”
“The lights lead to the world of the dead,” Margo said.
Dragomir was impressed. Margo looked shaken, probably full of adrenaline, but she was handling everything well. Most recruits puked when they were first briefed about the other worlds.
Dragomir rubbed his stubble. “It’s not quite the world of the dead, although you’re close. It’s the place vanished souls go. When ghosts Fade. We call it Below.”
“And the light is the doorway.”
“It’s more like a bridge,” Dragomir said.
“How do you know that?”
“Because it’s my job to know. There’s been a Bridge
here for as long we can remember, and it’s given my bosses a hell of a lot of
grief over the decades.”
“Because people want to get in,” said Margo.
“Because people want to get out.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because for whatever reason, you’ve ended up in the middle of this situation,” Dragomir said.
“I want to go home,” Margo said.
“And I’d love to be a in a pub getting drunk celebrating a job well done,” said Dragomir. “But that’s not how the evening played out. Bale chose you, and I find that very interesting.”
“You think we worked together.”
“I didn’t know what he as planning.”
“I don’t like liars.”
“I’m not lying.”
“Why should I believe a goddamn word you say?”
The door swung open. Quint and the Bride stood silhouetted in the doorway.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Quint said.
“Bullshit,” he said. He looked to Margo. “What’s he said to you?”
“He was telling me about Bridges.”
“What’s this about, Dragomir?” the Bride said, almost swooping into the room. The two ghosts were angry – their bodies solid, but their edges swirling like fog.
“I found at her at the Bridge,” Dragomir said.
“So? It’s her house. Dragomir, I think you should leave.”
“Trust me, I want to,” Dragomir said.
“You have no right to be here,” Quint said.
“If we told your commander that you violated the truce…” said the Bride.
“I violated no truce.”
“Margo was alone, and you’re interrogating her like she’s a phantom. Come on, Margo. We’re leaving.” The Bride turned to go.
Dragomir said nothing – just turned away from them and examined his crossbow. He picked it up, held it to the light, and plucked the bolt from its pin. When the bolt was in the light, it was just a bolt. But then Dragomir held in the darkness, and the tip glowed white.
“That’s the thing,” he said, “Margo wasn’t alone.”
Quint stared at the white substance dripping off the bolt. “Bale,” he said.
“So it’s true,” the Bride said.
“He was at the grave.”
“But he was gone,” said Quint.
“Never completely. You know that.”
“What was he doing?”
“He had the knife,” said Dragomir, and nothing more.
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Margo, her voice dripping vitriol, “but none of you have told me a damn thing.”
The Bride joined Margo at the table, while Dragomir sat at the counter with a beer of his own and Quint leaned against the door. They looked afraid.
“It’s time we told you about this house,” said the Bride.
Margo watched Dragomir. If his expression was an element, it would’ve been hoarfrost.
“James Bale has been a ghost here for almost a hundred years. For many of those years, he led the council. He was a good leader, until he began to Fade. Do you know what Fading is, Margo?”
She shook her head.
“When people first die, their ghost are lively. But they get weaker as the years go by, and their memories began to waste away. Emotions go first, generally. Some ghosts are happy, because they forget sorrow or pain. But others forget joy, and become sad. Bale forgot compassion, and then remorse, and then mercy.”
She thought of Bale’s handsome face, and its snarl.
“Fading is frightening,” said the Bride. “Ghosts that forget what it’s like to be human are terrible things. And when a ghost Fades even beyond that, they disappear. What’s left of them becomes trapped in the world Below. Bale knew this would happen to him. And it changed him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He looked for ways to slow down the Fading.”
“What did he do?”
“He stole the life of others.”
“Don’t dress it up,” Dragomir said, “He exorcised other ghosts, and took their energy.”
Margo imagined Bale, smiling at a ghost, before plunging a dagger into their chest.
“Ghosts began to disappear. It was months before we began to suspect Bale. He was always so friendly, so bright. The first good leader we had after too many years of bad ones. But by then he’d started murdering people too.”
Margo felt cold. Her meeting with Bale suddenly took on a sinister air - all of his smiles hid poison, and a knife had lurked behind his every friendly word.
“Every time a ghost wastes someone,” said Dragomir, “living, dead, anybody – they become stronger. Now you’ve gotta realize, Bale wiped out dozens of ghosts and killed about ten people. He literally stole their life to power his own. He was probably the most dangerous ghost in the northern hemisphere - except for the headless horseman of Krakow, maybe.”
“He’s evil,” Margo said.
“No, just scared,” aid the Bride, “and scared men do the worst things.”
“The Whitechapel ghosts called us,” said Dragomir. “We’re ghost hunters. Our relationship with the undead citizenry of this godforsaken house has not been what you’d call smooth. If it was up to us, we’d knock it down and introduce the ground beneath it to a couple sticks of dynamite. However, that’s just not practical. And it could cause untold ectoplasmic upheaval. The ghosts asked us to exterminate Bale and, the extermination of vermin being our specialty, we accepted the offer. We chased him, cornered him, fought him. But we couldn’t destroy him. We trapped him Below, at the grave, but the ritual didn’t go as planned. Parts of Bale stayed free, in the living world.”
“Bale must’ve been building strength, all these years,” said the Bride.
“When the groundskeeper was murdered, we decided to investigate,” said Dragomir. “Once we realized Bale was strong enough to form a body, he already had the knife. Our little story time now brings us to tonight. Bale used the knife to go Below, to find the rest of his spirit. Now why, pray tell, were you with him, Margo Comeau?”
Margo realized then that she’d never told Dragomir her name.
“I didn’t know who he was,” said Margo, trying to keep her voice even, “he just started talking to me. He was friendly. Said he was going on an adventure. So I came with. I… I didn’t realize…”
“That begs the question,” said Dragomir, sipping his beer, “what’s so special about you that Bale let you live?”
“Nothing. I don’t know.”
“I won’t lie, Margo,” said Dragomir, “from where I’m sitting it looks like you were aiding and abetting.”
“I didn’t know!”
“Leave her,” said Quint.
Dragomir chuckled. “Am I intruding on a romance?”
“What does it mean? That Bale’s gone Below?”
“It means he’s strong,” said Dragomir. “And if he
keeps hunting, he’ll get stronger. Until he’s too strong for any of us.”
“You know and then.”
Dragomir finished his beer.
“Why would I help him?” said Margo.
“To be spared. For power. I don’t know. I just don’t know you didn’t end up there tonight by accident.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m his ally.”
“But he thinks you are.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’re breathing right now.”
“You’re being paranoid,” said the Bride.
“I didn’t ask you a goddamn thing,” said Dragomir. “What did Bale say to you, Margo?”
“Margo’s not the enemy.”
“I’ve got no reason to trust her.”
“Why,” said Quint softly, “are you yelling at her when Bale’s out there?”
“The council’s been watching Margo’s family,” said the Bride. “We know she’s not working with Bale.”
“We can trust her,” Quint said.
Margo raised a hand to silence them. She looked to Dragomir. “You’re just afraid because you think he’ll kill again.”
“I know he will.”
“Then let’s do something about it.”
Dragomir stared at her silently for a long time. Finally, he said, “I’d been discussing something with my recruits.”
“What are you talking about?” said Quint.
Dragomir turned the crossbow over in his hands. The essence oozed onto the table, and began to slither toward the shadows.
“Infiltration,” he said. “If Bale was a threat, we were going to plant a double agent to get close to him.”
“No,” said Quint.
Dragomir kept looking at Margo. “We were going to use ghosts that he wouldn’t suspect. But now we have the perfect spy. In fact, we have a regular Mata Hari in our midst.”
“You want me to spy on Bale.”
“Not only spy,” said Dragomir, “I want you to act like his confidant, win his trust, and lure him to us. In return, the Order won’t prosecute you for helping him get Below.”
“That’s extortion,” said Quint. “And it’ll never work. Bale probably suspects you’re talking to Margo. He’ll never trust her.”
“I agree,” said the Bride, walking through Margo in her rage, “it’s too dangerous.”
“We’d watch over her.”
“No,” said the Bride. “No, no, no. You’ve just
admitted that you couldn’t defeat Bale, and now you want to send a girl - a
living girl, I might add – to him?”
“I don’t deny that there’s a risk,” said Dragomir, “but Bale hasn’t killed her yet and I see no reason for him to break this pattern of non-murder.”
“If you give her to Bale, you might as well put a
crossbow bolt in her,” said Quint. “What if something went wrong? What could
she do alone?”
“But she wouldn’t be alone. You’re going too.”
Quint glared. “I won’t let you do this.”
“Bale’s memories have Faded. He can’t remember you’re an enemy.”
“How the hell could you know that?”
“Because he couldn’t even remember me,” said Dragomir.
Margo thought of the groundskeeper. Of Bale. Of what she’d want someone to do if they were in her situation. She thought of how damn scared she was.
“Ok,” said Margo.
The Bride, Quint and Dragomir turned to her.
“Ok?” said Quint.
“Ok, I’ll do it,” said Margo. “But I have conditions.”
“Margo…” started the Bride, but Margo carried on unperturbed.
“We have contact with you at all times,” she said, “You make sure your ghost hunters are ready to intervene at any time. And you don’t put us in any situation you wouldn’t undertake yourself.”