While Bale took Quint to hunt the spirits of rabbits he’d shot in life, Margo wandered through the garden. She missed the world Above, but she doubted it missed her. Her parents wouldn’t be home yet, wouldn’t even know she’d been gone. She mulled over her new appointment as a spy, but her parents invariably made their way into her thoughts. What if she never returned? She didn’t want to think – knew it was ridiculous – but a part of her wondered if her parents wouldn’t (on some small, dark level) be relieved.
She got to the end of the garden, where the lawn gave way to a copse. The trees looked the same as they did in her world, but their leaves seemed to be caught in a permanent autumn.
A breeze rustled them, and prickled her skin.
“Who calls the Lich?”
If a meat cleaver could speak, it would’ve had that voice. Accompanying it were three pairs of eyes. They watched Margo, unblinking.
Something on a primal level, some primordial fear, the kind that drove fish to crawl out of water and made birds shake off their scales and take to the skies, told Margo that whatever this thing was, it wasn’t something she could outrun. So she said, “I’m Margo Catherine Comeau.”
“The new owner.”
“You know me?”
“Oh yes. The Lich has read the bones and they chatter a lot about you. Your destiny’s written in blood.”
“What does that mean?”
“You like hip hop.”
Margo pulled back, startled. “Huh? Hip hop? Yeah.”
“The Lich has heard you listen to it. The Lich loves rap. Are you a rapper? The Lich has never eaten a rapper.”
Her reply didn’t take too much thought. “I’m no rapper.”
“But, Margo Who Is Not a Rapper, you are the heroine, the savior, the vanquisher of demons, patron of hip hop, the one the detective fears most. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
“You know about the detective?”
“Oh yes.” The Lich’s spidery eyes glistened. They looked dead, like buttons.
“What’s his plan?”
In a perfect mimic of Bale, the Lich said, “I think I
can make each person into a god.”
“How do you know that?”
“Mortals are able to move freely in three dimensions, but only forward in time. The Lich is not bound by such things.”
“Why will Bale be afraid of me?” Margo said.
“Because you’re Margo, descendant of Siegfried, descendant of Orpheus, crosser of rivers and walker between worlds.”
“You’re talking in riddles. Why’s Bale going to be
afraid of me?”
“Because you’re the girl who will go back.”
“Why should I believe you?” said Mia.
The Lich’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know what the Lich is?”
“I’ve only heard a little.”
“The Lich is a killer of worlds, a committer of homicide, matricide, fratricide, regicide, deicide and in some time streams even suicide. If there is a ‘cide’ to be ‘cided’, the Lich has done it. The Lich is the most dangerous murderer, headsman, extirpator, excruciator and excoriator in this or any other dimension. The Lich is a lover of tea, rag dolls and bloodshed. But above all, the Lich is the terminus: the line that divides the living and the dead.”
“I’m Margo,” said Margo, “I paint stuff. I’m failing calculus. I like peanut butter. A lot. And, goddamn it, I will not be pushed around by anybody who thinks that just because they’re supernatural they have the right to be bullies.”
The Lich looked as stunned as it is possible for a trans-dimensional, immortal divinity to look. Seemingly at a loss for anything else to say, the Lich asked, “Who stole the Lich’s knife?”
Bale’s satchel darted through Margo’s mind.
Margo instead asked, “What do you need the knife for?”
“The Lich destroys with the knife. Ghosts are hard to destroy. Only Vapoursteel and Geistfire can destroy ghosts.”
“Why do you want to destroy ghosts?”
“Margo talks too much,” said the Lich. “Less nattering, more eating. Have you ever tried spinal fluid?”
“Why do you want to destroy ghosts?”
“Because the Worst Day is coming,” said the Lich in its thousand voices.
“What’s the Worst Day?”
The Lich studied her for a long time. “Margo doesn’t know.”
“Lich, what’s the Worst Day?” Maybe it was because the Lich considered it a delicacy, but a creeping spider leg feeling skittered down her spine.
“Are you afraid?” said the Lich.
“Good,” the Lich said, and it vanished into the darkness.
Margo made her way back to the house. She entered the kitchen, which was full of warmth from the stove and the smell of freshly cooked supper. She wasn’t alone.
The Dark Bride stood at the sink with her back to Margo, washing dishes. It was a common tactic Margo recognized from her mom’s arsenal.
“Where’ve you been?” she said.
“Out for a walk,” said Margo.
“Oh yeah. Where’d you go?”
“To the end of the yard.”
“What’s for dinner?” said Margo, putting her jacket on the chair.
“Don’t think I don’t know,” said the Dark Bride to a china saucer she was scrubbing.
Sweat prickled at Margo’s neck, but she kept her voice casual. “Know what?”
“Why you’re really here.”
The Dark Bride’s tone was friendly, as if they were discussing the weather. It was terrifying.
“Living girls don’t come Below for fun,” she said, setting the saucer on the draining rack. She scraped it with one long black nail.
“I came here with Quint to explore,” said Margo, “I only stayed because Bale asked me to help him.”
“It’s the truth. Ask him.”
The Dark Bride turned around, staring at Margo from behind eyes like chips of onyx. They were full of anger and suspicion and jealousy and coldness.
“Why does Bale want your help?”
“There’re some things living girls can do that dead
The Dark Bride tongued the inside of her cheek. “I think you’re a lying bitch, Margo.”
Margo held her ground, but every atom of her wanted to run. Fortunately for the aforementioned atoms, the kitchen door swung open.
“That was some proficient rabbit annihilating, Quint,” Bale said, as the two stepped into the coziness of the kitchen, furiously rubbing their cold hands together. They appeared to be in high spirits. They could almost have been father and son.
“I guess I’ve watched a lot of Bugs Bunny,” shrugged Quint.
Bale smiled at Margo and the Dark Bride. “What are you two ladies up to?”
“Margo was helping me with the dishes,” said the Dark Bride, “and we were discussing the importance of honesty.”
“Sounds boring,” said Bale, with a wink to Margo. “Margo, would you mind joining me to attend to the garden?”
A skeletal cat saw them, raised its head in disapproval and stalked off along the wall.
Margo and Bale walked beside the wall, where a freshly dug cabbage patch burgeoned with pumpkins and tomatoes. Bale was immensely proud of it.
“Gorgeous, aren’t they?” he said, gesturing to a pumpkin that looked like a papal orb, “But the night crawlers are a menace.”
He kicked at something in the soil. It scurried away into the darkness, making noises that Margo was sure were swear words.
“I doubt you brought me here to show off your vegetables,” Margo said.
Bale smiled. “You’re learning.”
“I’ve got a good teacher.”
“We’re here to speak with the Triplets,” said Bale.
They found the Dark Wren Triplets at the tree, where they had died.
They were arguing over who would have the first bite of a ghoul they’d caught, and didn’t notice Bale or Margo until they were a few metres away.
“Detective,” said the Triplets as one, by way of greeting.
Bale doffed his hat.
“Why are you here?’ said one of the Triplets, brushing a lock of hair stiff with dried blood out of her eyes. “It’s not hunting time yet.”
“I’m afraid my business here is a tad more serious,” said Bale. His grin looked wolfish in the failing light. There had not been wolves at Whitechapel for many decades, not since Bale had been alive. “The Lich’s knife, Erebos, is gone.”
Fear is an emotion that looks highly out of place on a ghost’s face.
“Has the Lich stolen it back?” said one of the Dark Triplets.
“Then who took it?”
Bale ignored her. “Have you ever been cut by Vapoursteel?”
The Dark Triplets exchanged glances, but said nothing.
“Well, as it happens, I have,” said Bale “I’ve heard people say Vapoursteel is made out of the empty parts of space between stars. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that after being cut by it, I started believing in hell. The knife is made of Vapoursteel.”
“We can help you look for it,” piped up one of the Dark Triplets.
“Your charity is inspirational,” said Bale, but he was looking up at the tree. “You died at this spot, yes?”
“Yes.” The Triplets answered casually.
“Could you tell us how?”
“We don’t like to talk about it,” said one of the girls, whose dress was black around the edges with soot.
“I think Margo would find the story fascinating.”
The Dark Triplets looked at Margo with unveiled loathing.
“Tell her what was here in the tree,” said Bale.
After a long silence one of the Triplets said, “We had
“It had a red roof, I believe,” said Bale. He glanced at Margo. “I’m sure it had a red roof.”
“Blue,” said a Triplet.
“Close. What happened in the treehouse?”
“We were playing in there. With our dad’s oil lamp. We’d found it in the old mausoleum. He used it as a workshop.”
“There was a fire.”
Bale looked as if he was listening to an exciting story. Margo tried to keep her horror from showing in her face.
“Floorboards started burning, then the wallpaper. We tried to climb out, but the flames were in the way. They were roaring so loud. At first we thought it was our parents shouting, but our parents weren’t home. Then wooden beams in the roof started falling, hit one of us, but I can’t remember who. Then there was smoke. And then there was nothing.”
“What’s this got to do with the knife?” said a Wren girl, glaring at Bale.
“A lot, just give me a moment,” said Bale. “Margo, do you know what’s different about ghosts that died in a fire?”
“I don’t,” said Margo softly.
“They have a gift called Geistfire,” said Bale. “Show her.”
For a second the Dark Triplet just held eye contact with Bale. Margo thought she would say no. But then she raised her hands. Green flames twined out of her palms, oozing along the grass. The ground it touched blackened and singed, but the fire felt icy cold. Margo took a step back from it. She could feel that it was something otherworldly, and it scorched the ground as if it was as hot as a fallen star.
“Geistfire,” said Bale, “is one of the few things, along with Vapoursteel and Liches, that can destroy a ghost. It’s emotion that takes a physical form. A very useful gift. I always wish the mob had burned me at the stake rather than hung me. I could’ve done so much with it.”
“Stop speaking in riddles,” snapped one of the girls. She stepped toward Bale, baring hands at him with nails almost as long and sharp as claws.
Bale sighed. “If you insist. I’ll say it plainly. Perhaps you’ll understand then. Knives like Erebos aren’t like an IKEA cutlery set. Not anyone can use them. They have a master, and only one at a time. For anyone else, they just turn into mist. The Lich was the knife’s master, and when I took the knife I became its master. And now the knife is gone. It won’t answer my call. Which means I’m not its master anymore. Someone else is. And I believe that person is one of you. So if I’m speaking in riddles, it’s just to cover my anger. And I’m not a shouting kind of angry right now. I’m a plague-of-locusts, rain-of-fire kind of angry.”
“We didn’t take it…” started one of the Triplets.
“Don’t lie to me!” Bale said. For an instant, the real Bale emerged from under the charm and smiles. She saw the murderer in him, and his eyes and face and even his mouth brought to mind
bloody daggers and gallows and burning treehouses.
“Give me the knife.”
“We don’t have it.”
Bale regained his composure – but his eyes smouldered.
“I trusted you,” he said. “But you betrayed me anyway.”
“You’re making me do this.”
“You’re wrong,” said one of the girls, “you’re an idiot and you’re wrong.”
“Losing the knife could ruin everything,” Bale said. “But if you just gave it to me…”
“We don’t have it!”
“I thought you’d say that,” said Bale, suddenly
sounding almost sad, “I can’t let you go without punishing you. You know that.
So I’m giving you a choice.”
The words hung in the air: venomous and cold.
“Either I destroy all three of you,” said Bale slowly, “or the two of you destroy her.”
He pointed at the Dark Triplet in the middle, who whimpered.
“You can’t do this,” said a girl.
“I can do whatever I want! And let me assure you that ceasing to exist is far more goddamn painful than even Vapoursteel.”
“Bale, please…” Margo said, but she fell silent when Bale’s gaze turned on her.
Peanut – earn his trust.
The Triplets said nothing, but Margo could see their little shark eyes flicking between each other. These were the Dark versions of the girls who had died in that treehouse all those decades ago – all their selfishness and hurt and hate. They may have lacked the memories of their own names, but they certainly didn’t lack self-preservation.
A slightly-forked tongue whipped out of one of the girls’ mouths. A silent understanding passed between them, and Margo knew what they would do.
It happened quickly. The green fire snaked out of the hands of two of the girls. The third – Bale’s chosen one – hissed, raised her hands and unleashed jets of her own flame. The fire shrieked, and there came the smell of burning grass, burning bark, and a watery smell that could only be burning ghost. Margo screamed and shielded her face from the cold. The Dark Triplet in the middle screamed too. Flames; a thousand shades of emerald, and the silver of the dead girl mixed together. Margo forced her eyes away. There was excitement and anger and fear in the Triplets’ faces, but little remorse. Finally the screaming stopped.
When the Geistfire faded back to whatever place it had come from, there were only two Wren triplets.
“You did well,” Bale said, “I know that must’ve been hard for you. Go get some rest.”
Margo thought she saw something like glee in the Triplets’ (now Twins’) faces. Before she could be sure, they became light as air and dispersed into the trees.
On the other side of the garden, far from Margo or Bale or the flames, a silver wisp darted between the trees. It shimmered in what was left of the sunlight, so much so that a few nearby spectres mistook it for a ghost. But it was not a ghost. It was more than that. It was the Knife.
Now and then the strands of the Vapourtseel would fuse together, almost communicating. If they could’ve spoken, their tone would have been urgent, maybe even afraid. It moved this way too, weaving between the ghosts of Whitechapel Below as if it was in a great hurry.
For indeed it was. It was seeking its master.