Margo opened her eyes.
The world was white. It was as if she stood in a great mist, or on a blank page. This didn’t worry her.
The whiteness started to ease. The world came into focus, and black things and blue things and even one or two spots of green appeared in the white. She began to feel the coldness of the white under her, and she realised that it was snow. Black dead trees poked out of it. She wasn’t in a page or fog. She was in the woods, and it was winter, and she knew the place well.
She was in a memory.
Margo sat up. She could see the frozen lake then, a few metres away. Someone sat beside it. The person was rhythmically moving their hands. Margo approached. As she got closer, she saw that he was making snowballs.
“Hey,” her brother said.
He was in his teens, with a handsome face and lean body and an earring in one ear, but his messy hair and goofy smile were undeniably Charlie. He was the age he would have been, had he lived.
That smile. “Yes.”
Margo didn’t know what to do. So she sat. They sat for a while, the Comeau children, watching the afternoon sun glitter on the lake.
After a long while, she said, “Are you a ghost?”
Charlie laughed. “God no.”
“And me? Am I dead?”
“That’s your choice, I guess.”
“I know,” Charlie said.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
Margo felt Charlie’s hand on her shoulder. It was warm.
“Have you been ok?”
Charlie nodded. “Have you?”
“I’m really scared, Charlie.”
“I know that too.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“I think you know more than you think you do.”
Margo shook her head. “I’m so confused, I... I’ve lost. I can’t help Quint, I don’t…”
“You’re not confused,” her younger brother said gently, “just take a look around, and think.”
Margo looked around her. The lake and trees and snow looked different somehow.
“Is this my memory?”
“Yeah, kind of,” said Charlie, “you fell into the memories, remember?”
Reality crashed back to Margo: Quint, the ritual, Bale.
“Is it over?” Margo said. “Has Bale finished the ritual?”
“Not yet. He needs to fight you and kill you for it to be complete. He can’t do that while you’re here.”
“But Quint’s not safe.”
“No,” said Charlie, “he’s not.”
Margo looked at her brother. “Why’s Bale doing this?”
“He really did love the Bride, once,” Charlie said, “going Below was a way to be with her, even just her dark parts.”
As he spoke, Margo realized she’d known it for a long time. “But he knew they were both Fading, and one day they’d be apart. The only way to stop them Fading is with the ritual, by making everyone ghosts.”
“Exactly. Bale wasn’t always a bad man. Just a scared one, and scared people do the worst things.”
“No.” Charlie finished a snowball, held it up to the light to inspect. “Not like you at all.”
“But I failed. I messed it all up.”
“You haven’t failed yet.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Isn’t it?” Charlie passed her the snowball. “After all, I might just be a figment of your imagination. You might be having a conversation with yourself. How can you be wrong and right at the same time?”
“It’s a pretty common thing, actually.”
“Especially in our family.”
They chuckled. It was nervous and soft, their laughter, taking the shape of curls of steam in the cold air.
Her laughter trailed off though when she saw the dark shape on the far side of the lake. It was a girl. She was made of shadows, and her shadow hair moved gently in the wind. She was watching them. Margo didn’t have to ask Charlie what she was, but she did remind Margo of something she’d been thinking for a long time.
It was something that frightened her.
“Why doesn’t Bale have a Light self?” she said.
A pause. “He does.”
Margo knew he did. Of course she knew.
“Bale, the one who killed Dragomir, the one plotting all this,” said Charlie, “That’s the dark half of him.”
“And the light half of him. It’s Quint.”
“Yes,” said Charlie.
“I’ve known for a long time, I guess. James Q Bale. It was so obvious. But I don’t understand, why? Why are they different ages? Did Bale know all along? And what about Quint?”
“Ten years ago, Bale and Quint were working together. Quint made himself look like his teenage self, and took on a fake name and identity, to earn the trusts of the old ghosts. It was Quint that found out about the alchemy and the rituals that could make Bale’s plan possible. Bale even used Quint as bait, as a way to trick the spirit hunters. They thought he’d kidnapped Quint, but really they were the same person. Quint was just his light parts – although they weren’t very light at all. Bale had twisted him, brought him under his power. You see, ten years ago the spirit hunters would’ve destroyed Bale. The only reason he survived was because he tricked them into thinking Quint had sacrificed himself to send Bale Below.”
“So Quint’s evil?”
Margo didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be.
“He’s not,” said Charlie. “After a while, an odd thing happened. Bale’s hold over Quint faded. Quint became the Light Bale that he was all along. So Bale, the Dark one, tried to destroy him.”
Margo imagined Bale creeping up on Quint in the dark garden, his shadow leering over a gravestone. Imagined him dousing Quint in Geistfire.
“But Bale failed. All he did was damage Quint, cause him to Fade. Badly. When he Faded, he lost so many memories. He forgot he’d ever been James Bale. He forgot everything. So, no, Quint wasn’t evil. Not anymore the rest of us, I suppose.”
Margo watched the dark girl beside the ice, thinking. With every explanation, the world just seemed more inscrutable. Could Quint really be the Light Bale? They were both cocky and witty, both athletic, and they did look similar; like father and son. But Bale was a monster. He was cruel and destructive, a liar, a traitor, as heartless as the god of the dead in the Greek legends he so clearly loved.
“If Quint is the Light half of Bale, what does that mean?”
“Think,” said Charlie. “Bale’s powerful, right? He said himself that he can’t be hurt by the living or the dead.”
Margo didn’t understand how Charlie could know so much. She didn’t understand anything about this memory (if that as what it was).
“Not even Vapoursteel can hurt him,” Margo said.
“Exactly. But what if part of his spirt, a part that isn’t invincible, could be destroyed? It would break the shield around Bale. He’d still be strong, yes, but he’d be vulnerable.”
Margo was confused, but she’d learned a lot in the last few months. She knew at once what Charlie was saying.
“No,” she said.
“It’s the only way.”
“There has to be something else we can do.”
“Margo, look at me. I’m telling there’s not. To beat Bale, Quint has to Fade.”
“We can’t sacrifice Quint just for the chance to stop Bale.”
“It’s our only option.”
“It’s not your decision to make,” Charlie said, and Margo knew he was right. “If Quint wants to do it, you won’t be able to stop him.”
“You know you can’t.”
It was so cold that Margo couldn’t tell for sure if she was crying or not, but she had a pretty good idea.
“That won’t help,” Margo said. “Even if we can make Bale vulnerable, I’m not strong enough to hurt him. The Vapoursteel might not even be able to cut him. It’s impossible.”
“It would take something a lot stronger than you or Quint to stop Bale,” Charlie agreed.
“Help me then.”
“Then what must I do?”
And now there was anger in Margo’s voice.
“You have to choose.”
“I’m not like you,” Margo said, “I’m not brave. It’s like Bale said. I’m going to fail, and it’s going to be my fault. I can’t just fight him.”
“I think you’re pretty brave,” Charlie said, squeezing her hand. “And I’m glad you’re my big sister.”
Now there was no denying that Margo was crying.
“I’m so sorry, Charlie. I’m so sorry.”
They both knew what she was talking about.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Charlie said, stiffening. “And I’m alright now. It’s not so bad on this side.”
Margo cried. But when she was done, she felt a little lighter. Something wet fell onto her hand. At first she thought it was a tear, but after closer inspection she realized it had fallen from a branch above her. The snow was starting to melt.
And then she understood.
“This isn’t just a memory,” she said.
A cold wind blew through the woods, and it hinted at a place just beyond them. Margo realized then what was different: she could go to that place if she wanted to. The shadow girl would lead her. And perhaps she did want to. It was quiet and calm, the grey place on the other side of the trees. It was not scary. And that was what made all the difference.
“I think I know what to do.” Margo stood up.
“I knew you did.” Charlie got up too. He glanced at the dark girl. She raised a hand, beckoning. “I should get going,” he said. “I love you, Margo.”
Gently bouncing a snowball in his hand, her brother walked into the mist.
For the first time since the Worst Day, Margo understood.
And she had to go back.
Margo forced herself to wake up. In a moment, she did. She returned again to the world Below.
But this time, she was ready.