Margo heard a noise outside her door.
She lay in her bedroom Below (the room itself dark, but the sky outside the window faintly noxious green). She’d grown accustomed to strange noises in the night. The wails of ghouls and screeches off barghests had become as normal to her as the late night barking of dogs.
But this noise was made by no ghoul or barghest. It was far too nervous.
She climbed out of bed and unlocked the door. Quint stood in the passage (literally in the passage, he had sunk into the floor up to his transparent ankles). Margo took a little bit of pleasure in the fact that she was – at that moment – a little bit taller than him.
“Dragomir wants to meet with us,” Quint said.
“Not in the house. But Below.”
“How’s he going to open the Bridge?”
“He’ll cut it open with his crossbow.”
“Keep your voice down.”
Margo pulled Quint into the room and shut the door. “What’s so urgent that he has to discuss it tonight?”
“He didn’t say.”
Margo could tell Quint was hiding something. Usually Quint’s ability to hold eye contact was worthy of basilisks, but now he glanced at the floor.
“He says we’re in danger.”
Margo raised an eyebrow. “What a revelation.”
“No, Margo. Real danger.”
“Why didn’t he just tell you that while he told you
all this?” Margo said. “Speaking of which, how on earth did he contact you?”
“He put a letter through the Bridge. I just went to pick it up.”
Margo’s expression turned to steel. “You went out at night? Alone?”
“I had to.”
“You do realize how idiotic that was?”
“I can take care of myself,” Quint said, bristling.
“Quint, there are a thousand things out there that
would love to take a bite of ghost sirloin steak. You should have at least
asked me to come with.”
“I didn’t need you, okay?”
Quint said nothing. He just looked at one the pictures beside her bed. It showed Margo and Charlie, sitting on a tractor, both looking rather grumpy for a family photo. It was the only picture Below that looked exactly as its counterpart Above.
“I’m not some breakable buttercup,” Margo said, “I can
“Maybe I don’t want your help.”
“Quint, what are you talking about?”
“You shouldn’t be down here, Margo. This isn’t a good
place. Dragomir said so. Everything down here wants to hurt us.”
“I know that. I’m not stupid.”
“I never said that.”
“And yet you’re trying to exclude me.”
“Because you should be kept safe.”
“Why? Because I can’t look after myself? I can’t handle ghosts?”
“Because you’re not dead.”
Margo recoiled as if stung. “What are you trying to say?”
“You’ve got something to lose,” said Quint. “I don’t. The risk’s bigger for you.”
“I know the risk…”
Quint cut her off. “No, you don’t. You don’t know why it’s like to be dead.”
“You act like it’s such a crime for me to not be dead,” Margo said. “So maybe I don’t understand how it is to be ghost. For God’s sake, I don’t think I understand how it is to be a human. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help.”
“You don’t understand what you’re throwing away,” said Quint.
“Who says I’m going to fail?” said Margo. “Who says I’m going to die?”
Quint was silent.
“You don’t have a monopoly on pain,” Margo said, trying to keep her voice down, “I might not know what death is like but know loss and I know what life’s like when it sucks. And, believe me, my life has sucked at times in epic proportions. I know exactly what I’m risking.”
“You’re not listening to me,” Quint half whispered, half shouted, “I don’t how you can be so selfish. Do you know what I would give to be alive again? Do you know? But you don’t care. You’re wasting your life, and that’s an insult to me, to all of us. You don’t get death. I do. When I was at Sunday school, they told us that Man was made from spirit and dust. Death’s like, it’s like the spirit’s gone from you, and all that’s left is the dust.”
“You don’t need to lecture me.”
Quint said nothing.
After a long while, Margo said, in an attempt to end the fight, “Where does Dragomir want to meet us?”
“At the Bridge.”
Evenings in the world Below are very different from their cousins Above.
The night sky almost never has stars, and when it does they are pale things that move about, sometimes following people or leading them astray. Purple flowers bloom on the trees, giving off the smell of heartbreak. Perhaps it’s this smell, or maybe just the cover of darkness, that causes the sleepiest of the dead to rise up. Coffins creak open, sarcophagi unseal, the soil beside tombstones begins to tremble. People that have been dead for a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand years, long enough to forget they were ever alive, walk again, and danger hovers over Whitechapel like the sun doesn’t.
Margo and Quint found themselves in such an evening.
They walked along the little path in the moonlight, toward the Bridge, trying to ignore the shapes shambling about in the shadows.
Margo could see a little green light reflected against the stone angel’s face. The Bridge Below was open.
Quint scouted ahead, making himself almost invisible. He floated through a hedge, and vanished from sight. Margo spent a nervous moment alone in the darkness, while something that appeared to be wrapped in gauze groaned not very far from her.
When Quint came back, he wasn’t alone. Despite being wrapped up in his black coat and wearing a broad-brimmed hat, the figure slightly-limping toward her was unmistakably Dragomir. She noticed him quickly stash a glowing, silvery thing into his pocket – his Vapoursteel crossbow, already transforming back into mist.
“Come with me,” Dragomir whispered to Margo, glancing around at the garden. He looked very much the cat amongst the pigeons – except these pigeons had iron talons and a touch of blood thirst. “We need to get somewhere where we can talk.”
“The mausoleum,” Quint suggested.
The three of them scurried through the shadows: a girl, a ghost and a ghost hunter. An unlikely band of heroes.
“What’s this about?” Margo whispered.
“I’d appreciate it if you gave more than one-word answers.”
Dragomir gave her a look that could (and had) fell giants. “It’s dangerous. If the wrong ears overheard us, we could find ourselves hung, drawn and quartered, though not necessarily in that order.”
The look Margo gave him in return was no less glacial. “Let’s whisper then.”
Dragomir glared at her (one-eyed) for a moment, then relented. “Quint’s been giving me feedback, about what you two have gleaned about Bale’s plans. And they’re beginning to corroborate something my boss has been pretty afraid of.”
“Quint said that Bale told you he wanted to save all the ghosts.”
“Well,” said Dragomir, “we’re beginning to think he’s got some twisted ideas about what that might entail.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying,” said Dragomir, through clenched teeth, “that Bale thinks the human race would be much better off as ghosts. And to achieve that, he wants to kill them.”
“I told you, when a ghost destroys somebody – even another ghost – they get stronger,” said Dragomir, “Bale’s been destroying ghosts Below nightly.”
“How do you know?”
“Our equipment can pick up the energy readings when a ghost is exorcised. “
“How many’s he destroyed?”
Margo exchanged a glance with Quint. Quint looked away.
“How strong is he?” she asked.
Dragomir was quiet.
“I’ve seen ghosts take out whole squads of spirit hunters,” said Dragomir, “but even they weren’t as powerful as we think Bale is.”
Quint exhaled loudly, and pulled his fingers through his hair.
“Look at this place,” Dragomir said, gesturing at the empty garden. “Did it never occur to you wonder why these undead sons of bitches keep a distance from the house? Why they never try to hurt you?”
Margo had noticed that the creatures of Below had never come too close to her, but had never wondered too deeply about it. At times, she’d even stupidly put it down to the ghosts being afraid of her. Now she understood.
“They’re scared of Bale,” she said.
“Bale’s what we in the Order call a DBA,” said Dragomir, “A Dangerous Bloody Apparition. It means he’s an apex predator. No ghost or mummy or anything down here can hurt him.”
“Then we need to leave,” said Quint.
“Because,” Dragomir fixed him with a one-eyed stare, “the only chance we have to nail is the son of a bitch is you two.”
“You’re mad,” said Quint.
“Probably,” said Dragomir.
“Margo could die.”
“We could all die.”
“And you just don’t care?”
“It’s not about caring right now.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Quint hissed. “This’s gotten
too big for us. Don’t you get that?”
“There’s no one else,” Dragomir whispered back. The mausoleum came into view. The door was ajar.
“I’m not one of your hunters,” Quint fired back.
“If you leave, and we can’t stop Bale, then everything will be your fault,” Dragomir said.
“Keep your voices down,” Margo said, glancing around at the darkness. She heard a passing ghost repeat “Keep your voices down”, and giggle as it vanished through a wall.
“Let’s get somewhere we can talk,” Dragomir said, “and we can work something out.”
They stepped into the doorway of the mausoleum.
“Margo, Quint. Good evening. And who’s this?”
Sitting in the mausoleum, at a little table lit by a candle, having what appeared to be a romantic dinner, were Bale and the Dark Bride, holding hands.
“Join us,” Bale said, gesturing to a few free chairs.
With the force and infinity of the Big Bang, the thought oh shit oh shit oh shit rebounded in Margo’s mind.
“We wouldn’t want to intrude on you two,” Margo said, surprised she could even put the words together. She’d heard it said that tension could be so thick that it would be possible to cut with a knife. While the tension in the mausoleum right was certainly thick, it felt as if it was made of the most indestructible thorium, impervious even to Vapoursteel.
“There’s always room for more at a midnight dinner,” said Bale, ever the gentleman.
“I’d prefer it if we dined alone,” said the Dark Bride, her black lips a tight line. Margo’s heart rose with hope.
“Nonsense,” said Bale with a smile, “I insist.”
And Margo’s heart crashed earthward.
And so it was that Quint and Margo and Dragomir sat down to dinner with the deadliest ghost that ever was and his wife.
The scariest thing about the Dark Bride wasn’t her eyes (black), or her nails (black and long) or her tongue (black, longue and forked). It was how eerily similar she looked to the Light Bride. At that moment, her eyes were trained on Margo, her nails playing an arpeggio on the tabletop, and her tongue licking at her lips.
Margo tried to ignore it.
“Dent,” said Dragomir.
“Mr Dent,” said Bale. “What brings a man like yourself Below?”
“Curiosity, I guess. Came to explore.”
“What do you think?”
Dragomir glanced around at the dim mausoleum. “It’s alright.”
Bale laughed. “Alright? It’s more than alright. This place is magnificent. Although, I can see why you’d have your reservations. Being alive, and such.”
Silently, Margo praised every higher power she could think of that Bale hadn’t recognized Dragomir. Ghost’s memories faded quickly, after all.
Bale looked at Margo and Quint. “You’re all frightfully tense. Relax a little bit. Could I persuade you to indulge in some chardonnay?”
Bale poured them all a glass nonetheless. “Tell me, Mr Dent, how did you learn about the existence of ghosts that this humble little abode of ours?”
“Heard rumours,” said Dragomir.
“Rumours! Yes, there are lots of rumours about this little house. Do you know they say I murdered someone?”
“I hadn’t heard that,” said Dragomir.
His face was stone. He was trying to hide his nerves. So were Quint and Margo. Margo couldn’t speak for Quint, but she wanted to scream and run or hide or do anything but sit for even a second longer at the table.
She quietly took a sip of the chardonnay.
“Oh yes. And the rumour’s true. I was lynched, you see. Because I had indeed killed someone. The thing about rumours though is that so often they’re lies. Don’t you agree, Quint?”
“Hmm?” Quint looked up. “Oh. Oh yes.” Under the table, he compulsively clenched and unclenched his hands.
Elsewhere under the table: the Dark Bride ran one foot along Bale’s, Margo tapped her foot on the floor, Dragomir’s hand crept toward his crossbow.
“Lies have their place, I admit,” Bale continued. “I lie all the time, but only because I have to. In fact, I think a lie with a good reason behind it isn’t a lie at all. It’s a precaution. For example, when you told me your name was Mr… Dent, was it?”
Dragomir said nothing.
“That was a lie,” said Bale. He downed his chardonnay. “And it was a precaution. Because you were scared of what I’d say if I knew your real name.” He paused. “Dragomir.”