Just like that, my romance with the night was over. A wave of adrenalized fear swept me up the steps and past him into the lobby. My teeth clacked and shivers wracked me. Whatever warm fuzziness our drinking binge had afforded me was gone. Nick handed me a beach towel and crossed the room to crouch at the fireplace. We had stacked some of the dry wood from the porch in it earlier, and now he stuffed it with crisped leaves and old newspaper from the litter in the room and set a flame to it. Sweetish smoke rose and infused the air, then the welcome crackle of burning oak. The fire leaped; we stretched our hands out to it.
“God, I could climb in there,” I said.
Nick studied me in the firelight. “Your lips are blue. Let’s find some dry clothes, and then we can clean up this mess. We aren’t going anywhere tonight.”
I turned and took in the emptied backpacks, the burst files, and items of clothing strewn across the floor. The sleeping bags turned inside out and flung aside; the pillows stripped of their covers and slashed, their guts fluffed out; my camera equipment rolled about in its cases, everything unlatched and pawed over. Only the food supplies had been left undisturbed. The cooler, while it had been opened, was intact. I crossed to it in three bounds and fell to my knees beside it, rummaging with trembling fingers. At the bottom, untouched, I found the small lacquered box I’d stuffed between the eggs and the chocolate milk. I sat back with a squelch, clutching it to me.
“I’m guessing that doesn’t contain leftovers,” Nick said, squatting next to me. “Care to share?”
I took a breath. All the things I still didn’t know about my partner floated in the murk of indecision, like the faceted prognosticator in a Magic 8 Ball. I peeked at him from under the wet straggle of my hair, trying to divine how he would react. His face was carefully blank, but I read the test in his eyes. If I insisted on keeping secrets, our partnership would be over. There would be no more crazy adventures or ghost hunts, no more road trips, no more writing collaborations. I handed over the little box.
He stared down at the contents. They were a man’s heavy gold ring—the band plain and age-mellowed, set with an impressive cabochon of malachite—and a small plastic bag containing a fat tuft of auburn hair. Nick held the latter up to the meager light.
“Is this your hair?” he asked.
“It belonged to my great-great grandfather. I found a trunk of his belongings in my great-aunt’s attic, including a Dopp kit. I took the hair from the brush and comb inside it.” I reached into the box. “This is his ring, too,” I said. “Look at the inscription.”
Nick took the ring to the fire and turned the band to the light. “Lupus autem familia,” he read, “The wolf is family? What are you planning to do with this stuff?”
I crossed to the hearth and sat beside him on the warm stone. “Nick… do you believe in spells?”
“What, you mean like witchcraft?”
“Well, something like that, yes. The ability to manipulate the seen and the unseen through force of will, word, or talisman.”
He stared at me through the aperture of the ring, his eye as ardently blue as the lick of flame creeping along the flaring underbelly of the oak logs.
“I feel you’re about to tell me something I might only believe on such a night, and in such a place, as this. So, I’ll ask again. What are you planning to do?”
I reached out and closed my hand over his, wrapping his fingers around the ring.
“I’m going to summon and bind a skinwalker. Put that ring on, and don’t take it off for love or money.”
The wind swooped through the eaves of the lodge in keening counterpoint to my muttering. I knelt by the hearth, Preston Egolf’s torn flannel in my hands, and rocked between the brilliance of the flames and the blackness of the room, between the realms of the seen and the unseen. Bits of shadow smoked from the ruined shirt, fleeing around me like scurrying insects to join the growing bulk of the dark. Nick sat cross-legged nearby, watching, the crude stick man he’d constructed laid across his knees. The heavy ring gleamed on his finger, the stone absorbing stray sparks of night. Behind me, the press of darkness groaned.
“Tess…” His eyes fixed on the wall of black. “Something’s happening. Something’s trying to come through.”
I held out my hand for the rudimentary scarecrow, little more than a broken length of fishing pole lashed to an old yardstick. He passed it to me, and I draped the shirt over it, arranging the sleeves along the “arms” of the scarecrow.
Nick hissed at me. “Are you sure this will work?”
I stifled a hysterical laugh. It was too late to worry about such things.
“Yes. In theory.”
I stood and turned to face the room. An inky tide of night had filled and obliterated it, leaving only our scant half-moon of light like an eroding beach. The surface of the blackness shivered and bulged. The groaning sound came again. I thrust forward the shirt on its shaky armature and put iron in my voice.
“Preston Egolf, I grant you form. Come forth!”
The darkness flew to the scarecrow and wrenched it from my hand. For a breathless moment, it hung against the black before folding into itself. The wooden supports cracked and snapped. It fell to the floor at my feet, where it began to writhe. A body formed of funneling shadow filled the shirt, and the missing caretaker of Pepekissimo Lodge knelt shuddering before me. Nick leaped to his feet with an inarticulate shout, and in that second of distraction the ghost stood and flitted to press its cold cheek to mine.
“Why did you call me back, cousin,” it sighed. “It hurts to be here. Can’t you feel my pain?”
My bones creaked as though under agonizing pressure. Bright, searing pain tore through my chest. The ghost’s embrace, cold as the depths of the lake, stole my breath. My lungs emptied a cloud of crystallized fog. It smelled of death, of mud, fish, and rot. I gagged, my eyes rolling up and my knees sagging. Nick moved toward us.
“Let her go,” he commanded, reaching for its arm.
“No, don’t touch it!” I struggled to regain my will. With a word of fire, I shook off the ghost’s damp, clinging hands. “Get back, dead thing. Answer my questions and I’ll release you.”
“You’ll release me,” it sneered. “You can barely hold me, cuz. Maybe I don’t want to go back. Maybe a lick of something warm will ease the pain.” Its baleful eyes turned to Nick. “A little blood always put things right in this family. Whadd’ya say, bud? Help a feller out?”
I snapped my fingers and reclaimed the ghost’s attention. “You won’t be staying, Preston. But I can help you rest if you tell me what I want to know. Besides, you’re not really family, now are you?”
The ghost’s malevolent vitality winked out, and it hung its head, moaning. “What do you want, witch? Why do you want to torture me? Ain’t I been through enough?”
“Tell me what happened to you. Who did this? I’ll make sure whoever it was pays for it.”
The ghost shook its head. A violent shiver almost undid it, but it clung to the scraps of flannel shirt and kept its form.
“Nothing you can do to her. Nothing anyone can do. She’s old and strong.” It sobbed, lifting its pitiful face to the firelight. “She killed me. Me! I tried to run. I run into the lake, but she caught me. She ate part of me while I drowned. She’s got no heart.”
Sickness rose in me. I leaned on Nick, and he kept me on my feet.
The ghost nodded. “She’s a monster. A cannibal. She made me help her, but I wouldn’t do it no more. When she changes, she don’t care who she hunts.” A sly look came into its eyes. “You think she won’t kill you because you’re kin. Well, maybe you’re right, but she sure as hell will eat that one down to the small bones.”
It grinned and gestured at Nick.
“Do you want my help, Preston?” When I got nothing but sullen silence from the ghost, I pasted on a smile and tried a sweet tone. “I’ll find your body and take care of it. Would you like that?”
It stared at me a long moment before nodding.
“Okay, then tell me if there are any more like Maudie. Tell me where your body lies.”
“No more,” it said, its voice growing faint. “She’s the last.”
It shuffled and looked over its shoulder at the door. A deep sigh shook it.
“I’m down there, in the lake. Not too far out, wedged under a deadfall. It’s cold there. I can feel the cold coming up from the deep. It wants me.”
The rain had slowed to a miserable, misty weeping. Nick and I stood on the wide porch of the lodge looking out at the lake, black and sullen and rolling with suppressed violence where the exhausted wind tugged at it. One of Nick’s frayed and faded sweatshirts hung to mid-thigh on me, the hood flopped over my eyebrows and the sleeves long enough to hide my hands. In my right hand, the hand of my will, I clutched the little tangle of auburn hair that was all that was left of my great-great grandfather. My fingers wove the strands about themselves in their constant, nervous twitching, and I could feel the latent power of transformation licking along my bones like flame.
“Preston, she’s here. Somewhere. Go and see, tell me where she’s hiding.”
My voice was rough, the growl rising in the back of my throat, and I closed my eyes and struggled for a moment with a fierce desire to shed my human form. It was only a memory, burning through me from the hair wound about my fingers. It didn’t belong to me.
The ghost, crouched in the shadow of the woodbox, whimpered. Its own form had thinned and faded as I prepared myself to meet Maudie. I would not be able to hold it in the living world much longer.
“I ain’t going near to her,” it whispered. “The hell I will. You said you’d help me.”
I sighed, and the growl slipped out on my breath. “You’ll do as I say, or I’ll leave your body in the lake for whatever wants it.”
With a glare of ferocious loathing, the ghost swam through the shadows and was gone into the wet night. Nick stepped in front of me and swept the deep hood back from my face.
Great-great grandfather’s ring, on Nick’s finger, glided along my jaw. The touch of it was like a summoning, and I sobbed with the effort of holding it at bay.
“Don’t get too close, it’s not safe.” I raised my left hand and grasped his, my fingers gripping the malachite ring. “Listen, she’s coming. I think this will protect you, but you’ll need a weapon.”
Nick’s gaze raked the porch and came to rest on the wickedly grinning axe leaning by the woodbox. He strode to it and hefted it, testing the balance.
“Well, it will have to do,” he said. He looked out at the Jeep parked in the drizzle. “Or we could just go. I mean, what are we trying to do here?” His blue gaze searched my face. “You’re scaring the fuck out of me.”
I didn’t have time to think about what he’d said, or to formulate a reply. Preston’s ghost flew to me like a crow on the wing, and the icy shock of its grasp emptied my mind for a breathless moment.
“She’s here! She’s been here all along,” it screeched, and then was gone in an inky burst of shadow.
The energy I’d expended to hold it flowed back to me. I drew in a deep breath, and the smell of corruption on the air was thick enough to taste.
“Come out, Maudie,” I said. “Come out and fight.”
...to be continued