Weeks passed, the greenness of Whitechapel House’s trees started to leak away, and Margo didn’t see a single ghost. She went to school, and she avoided her parents, and she thought about the world she’d brushed – if only for a second – which now felt like a distant dream. Sometimes she thought the spirits were gone, for some reason even more complex than the spirits being there in the first place. Sometimes she felt as if the ghosts were being mean to her, avoiding her on purpose. This wasn’t true. The ghosts were scarce because they were afraid.
And there were very few things which could scare ghosts.
While Margo sat on her bed, arms wrapped around her legs, bobbing along to an album by a rapper who’d been insulted by two presidents, the council of Whitechapel met.
They stood under the oak tree, where they could melt into the shadows. The triplets sitting in the branches, the Bride leaning against it.
“We have to call the Lich,” said the Bride. One of the girls almost winced at its name.
“It’s Majesty will be pissed,” said another Wren girl, possibly Tara. Tara had lived in a decade where ‘pissed’ wasn’t part of the slang. Ghosts learned more from the living than the living knew.
“We’ve got no choice,” said the Bride, “this is all
“You’re scared of a dark power, so you’re going to another dark power for help?”
The Bride narrowed her eyes. “Why are you so against this? It’s almost like you want the murders to continue.”
The girl leapt down from the tree, her body translucent, and glared at the Bride with eyes that didn’t fit any child. “Watch how you speak to me.”
“What could you do to me?”
“I know things about you that you wouldn’t want exposed.”
“Are you threatening me?”
One of the triplets interrupted. “We didn’t come here to argue.”
“Yes. But what did we come here for?” said the glaring girl.
“To call a monster, you mean.”
“I admit the Lich is dangerous…”
“Dangerous?” said the girl. “You don’t know anything about it.”
“I know what it is.”
“But you’ve never seen it.”
“Liches can destroy ghosts,” said the girl who’d been Reagan.
The Bride had heard stories about liches. Some claimed they’d inspired the Biblical image of burning souls.
“You are not summoning the Lich,” said Reagan Wren.
“I’ll do whatever the hell I want.”
“Then there’s no place for you on the council.”
“I’m trying to help.”
“You’re trying to meddle in the affairs of things much bigger than you,” said Tara, “and big things tend to squash little things.”
“I’m looking for a way to stop the killings,” the Bride said, “What’s wrong with you? You’re pathetic.”
“You’re trying to convince us to wake a sleeping god,” said Tara.
“So that it can help us. It can destroy whoever murdered Martin.”
“And what if it decides that we should be destroyed?”
A light went on in an upstairs window, and the ghosts became almost transparent.
“I’m going,” said the Bride. “Come or stay. I don’t care.”
She made her way toward the far corner of the garden, leaving the three ghosts standing vitriolic under the tree.
There were dense trees in the corner, where an austere and rusted gate separated the garden from the park – Mr Gainesbury’s park – which had once formed part of the estate. Under the trees, there was darkness.
The Bride had to stop herself from shaking as she looked into it.
There were a handful of haunted places around the world, but only a few had liches. And those places were generally best avoided. The Lich at Whitechapel had killed three kings, two movie stars, many ghosts, one other Lich, various unidentified denizens of the night, and one (unverified) god.
She called. The Lich came.
A breeze, like an invisible python, twined around her, rustling the leaves of the trees. It was so cold. Had the Bride been alive, her pulse rate would have escalated. She felt a presence descend on the trees, and she saw something move in the shadows. It had six eyes, reflecting the moonlight. They watched her.
The only thing the Bride had brought with her was a teacup. The Lich always required a sacrifice – sometimes it was a firstborn child, or a soul, but of late the Lich had demanded household trinkets or snatches of music. A strange thing, the Lich.
“What have you brought for the Lich?” said the thing with six eyes.
The Bride bowed her head and set the teacup down. The eyes looked at it suspiciously, and a black thing in the vague shape of a hand reached out and felt it. Liches that disapproved of their offerings were known to become murderous. Towns had vanished that way.
Then the Lich made one of the most terrible noises the Bride had ever heard. It squealed with delight.
“Let the Muses look upon it with envy,” said the Lich, snatching away the teacup and disappearing into the shadows, “this artifact shall be with the Lich for always. The Lich will have parties, yes, and drink. Such fun. A picnic with the damned, the Lich likes this. Do you wish to be a damned soul and join the Lich for tea?”
The Bride felt like she was talking to a grenade. One wrong word could upset a Lich.
“No, thank you, Your Tyrannical Majesty,” said the Bride.
“Are you sure? I have biscuits also.”
“I’m not hungry. But I appreciate the offer.”
“This is disappointing,” said the Lich.
“Your Majesty,” said the Bride softly, “what do you know about the murder?”
“The groundskeeper?” said the Lich. “Yes, the Lich knows. The Lich feels the dying racing away like vibrations along a spider web.”
The Lich spoke with a thousand voices fused into one – the voice of everyone it had killed. Liches could only speak words their victims had spoken, so their sentences were pieced together from scraps of words. It wasn’t uncommon for Liches to use mediaeval phrases and Twitter hashtags in the same sentence.
“There’s been more than one death?” said the Bride.
“Oh yes. Death’s everywhere. Can’t you see it? It looks like tar dripping off the trees and seeping along the ground.”
“Who’s killing them?”
“The Lich likes the rainbow colours you see in tar sometimes. Or is that oil? Blood, perhaps.”
“Who’s killing them, Your Maleficence?”
“The detective,” said the Lich.
“Who’s the detective?”
But the Lich was distracted again. “Did you steal the Lich’s knife?” it said.
The Bride froze. “Your Majesty?”
“Did you steal the Lich’s knife?” The eyes stared at her, unblinking.
“No, no, Your… I didn’t steal anything.”
The Bride tried to keep calm. She felt the breeze stiffen around her and the thing in the darkness stirred. It slowly emerged from the shadows. It hadn’t been hiding in the shadows; it was made of them. It was in the rough shape of a person, as if it had been sculpted by someone who’d never seen a person but had been told what they looked like.
“Someone stole the Lich’s knife,” said the Lich. “The Lich wants to tear them into pieces, and use their skin for a picnic blanket for the tea party. Was it you?”
The Lich stared at her for the longest time. Then it sighed. “Then the Lich won’t use your flesh as a blanket. The Lich misses the days when there was no house here and no pesky ghosts stealing knives. When there were just a few cairns and a bunch of warriors with shields and swords and braids. That was a good time. The Lich had a throne made of skeletal remains back then. When was the last time you saw a throne made of skeletal remains?”
“Been a while, must say.”
The Lich nodded sadly, and sank back into to the shadows.
“Please, Lich. I need your help. Tell me about the detective.”
“There is no one the detective can’t kill,” said the Lich, “Except the Lich. No one can kill the Lich. There are a number of souls pinned to the gates of Hell who can attest to that. The detective’s a scary one though. I can feel his ambition, and his fear, but I can’t feel any remorse in him.”
“What must I do? Give me advice.”
“You want advice?” said the Lich, sidling down into the darkness, “Pray for a swift end.”
A breeze rippled across the garden, and the Lich was gone.