Sprawlin' on the Bayou

The Heights of Terror: Session 2

Unintended Consequences

Hudson spun the cylinder of his revolver as he stepped out of his car. Six shells gleamed in the noonday sun. He slid the pistol back into his shoulder holster. West Texas had more than its fair share of crazies and Hudson had never regretted arriving at a secluded compound armed. He flexed his ankle to feel the reassuring pressure of his knife in his boot and looked longingly at the shotgun resting on the passenger seat. Heavily armed.

As he turned toward the gate, Hudson had to admit that the was one of the nicer ones he had ever seen. The gate was wrought iron, custom-made to be both appealing and capable of stopping an armored car if Hudson was any judge. A ten-foot high brick fence topped with iron security spikes surrounded the compound as well, rather than the typical scrap metal and plywood. The buildings that he could see through the gaps in the gate were scattered over a close-cropped lawn, with small flowerbeds beneath most of the windows and fresh paint on the walls.

The only thing missing was people. All the paths between the buildings were empty, though Hudson thought he saw the curtains twitch on a building just to the right of the gate. Other than that, the compound looked as abandoned as Chernobyl’s mess hall. Hudson would not have been surprised to see a tumbleweed blow across the scene.

Hudson pondered what to do next. The gate was chained shut and there was no callbox beside the driveway. He supposed he could pull out Max and try and shoot the chain. However, that action was unlikely to get him back into the Ranger’s good graces. Or endear him to the residents for that matter. Or actually work. The movies were always more optimistic about the success rate of that particular trick than they had any right to be.

Sweat started to trickle down the back of his neck as the sun beat down. Hudson missed his hat as He glanced back his car. His trip to the evidence lock-up had been fruitful. Frank had been happy to let him rummage around the evidence lock-up and Hudson had managed to lift a locket and a goathead pendant while Frank was blinded by the light of Hudson’s badge. The locket held pictures of the Yates children. A boy and girl on one side, both about five years old, were so similar in appearance that Hudson assumed they must be twins. The other side held a picture of a red-faced toddler, all chubby cheeks and a cherubic smile. A small tag on the chain had been labeled ‘Maggie.’

The pendant had been something altogether different. Instead of a cheap, sentimental necklace, the pendant resembled a goat’s head with curling horns about the size of a poker chip with warped, asymmetrical lines. At first glance, it just appeared crudely made or perhaps melted. Closer inspection revealed that the unbalanced appearance was more deliberate than amateurish. The twisted lines gave the pendant an unsettling, nauseating appearance. Hudson would have left it lying in the evidence locker, probably for decades more, if he hadn’t read the inscription on the back: To Jerome Yates – I Will Fear No Evil.

No matter how disturbing or emotional, both pieces obviously meant something personal to the deceased and, as Hudson understood it, that was what was needed for whatever Charlie and David had planned. He pocketed both on his way out and knew that, given the nature of the case, no one was likely to notice they were missing unless there was an audit. And let’s face it, Hudson thought, HPD wasn’t that well organized.

With that thought, Hudson turned to walk back to his car. The trip to the compound had been something Charlie had suggested anyway. Just a hunch that wasn’t panning out. Hudson was an investigator. A lot of dead-ends in that job. Nothing lost but a little daylight and he still had the two items from evidence. Time to hit the road.

As he pulled his keys from his pocket, a voice called from within the compound, “Usually you folks are a bit more insistent upon entry, lawman.”

Hudson whipped back around, his hand darting underneath his jacket to rest on the butt of his gun. Where moments before there had been a deserted lot, an old and weathered man stood. Not feeble or weak, but worn like the stones of Ireland, battered and shaped by time but strong and eternal. Shaggy hair and a gray beard hid most of his face, apart from flint eyes that stared out from behind heavy glasses. Neatly dressed in tan slacks and a button-down shirt, he watched Hudson from just over an arm’s reach inside the gate.

“You going to stand there with your hand on your piece, or you going to tell me why you’re here?” he said.

Hudson snatched his hand out from under his jacket, rubbing it along his pants. Damn, he thought, getting twitchy in my old age. The man’s voice was almost as surprising as his appearance. It wasn’t a Texan’s accent, the lazy twang of the high plains. His voice was the drawl of the Deep South, of Alabama and Mississippi, a voice that evoked memories of sweet tea and plantations. “Excuse me Mr….?”

“Just call me Deacon, Ranger. I’ll ask again, why you here? You don’t look like someone who has seen the light of the Shepherd.”

“No sir but you might say I came here looking for enlightenment,” Hudson eye’s swept the compound behind the Deacon again. “Where is everyone by the way?”

“They’re hiding. Your federal brothers have a bad habit of razing sanctuaries like ours. You can seek your enlightenment through me.”

Hudson nodded ruefully, “Fair enough Deacon. Do you remember the Yates murders of a few years ago? Married couple, murder-suicide with a couple of kids? I understand the husband, Jerome Yates, was a member of your…sect.”

A ghost of a grin flitted across the Deacon’s face at Hudson’s verbal stumble, “Aye, Brother Jerome was strong with the Shepherd. A good man slandered by secular authorities. And now here you stand, Mr. Ranger, asking questions again after all these years. What business have you with the ghost of our poor fallen brother?”

Hudson shivered at the Deacon’s choice of words, “There have been…disturbances at the Yates’ old residence. I’ve been asked to investigate by some interested parties. I’d hoped you might be able to give me some information about Mr. Yates.”

The older man chuckled openly now, “ ‘Interested parties,’ huh? I’ll take that to mean this isn’t an official visit then, lawman.” The Deacon rubbed his hand along his jaw line as he took in Hudson’s shallow nod. “Perhaps I can be of some assistance after all.” The Deacon shook his head, “The Yates’ property is filled with spirits most foul, Ranger. As it ever is when mortals meddle with powers they cannot hope to control.” The Deacon’s face twisted into almost a snarl, “Maggie,” he spat, “That witch tried to see the world through God’s eyes and took our brother and his children with her to hell. And her spirit haunts our brother’s home still, preventing him from seeking his blessed rest with the Shepherd. A travesty that, despite our best efforts, we have not been able to rectify…” The Deacon’s voice trailed off at the end and the flint of his eyes struck the steel of his soul. “What exactly is your intention, Ranger?”

Hudson thought it best to answer honestly under that piercing gaze, “It’s simple, Deacon. I’ve been hired to clear the property of all supernatural influence. Investigate and eliminate.”

The fire in the Deacon’s gaze lowered an alarm or two, “Perhaps you and your friends can do what we could not. Perhaps you can put our brother’s spirit to rest.”

The Deacon reached a hand into his pocket and drew forth a medallion on a long chain. At first glance, Hudson felt déjà vu again. The pendant was similar to the one he had taken from the evidence lock-up, only this one was larger and backed by a solid silver circle with a rim edged in stars and angular geometric figures. The figures stared to swim in Hudson’s vision and the nausea he had felt looking on Jerome’s medallion returned ten-fold. Only when the Deacon closed his fist around the pendant to hand it through the gate did the nausea subside. Hudson avoided looking at the pendant as he stuffed it into his jacket but imagined he could still feel it pulsing out of sight.

As he looked back up, the Deacon was turning away, but called over his shoulder, “The Shepherd can make use of even the unholy in the pursuit of greater justice, Ranger. Please give our gift to your friend, Mr. Harper.”

With that, the Deacon strode back toward the compound, “May the love of the Shepherd shelter you, Hudson Pearce.”

Hudson watched the man as he retreated toward the buildings full of frightened cult members before he realized something. “I never told you my name,” he shouted.

The Deacon merely waved back over his shoulder as he kept walking.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie and David stood should-to-shoulder in the middle of the Yates’s gravel driveway. There was something about the – alleged yet highly likely – presence of ghosts on a property that necessitated retaining the possessive. Almost two acres of brush and tangled undergrowth covered the lot. The bright light of the Texas afternoon was muted amongst the undergrowth, and the sleek lines of David’s Jaguar clashed with the riotous vegetation of the urban jungle. Traffic was hushed as well, leaving Charlie and David to feel as if they had left the city behind and been transported to another world.

“So, here we are,” David said.

“We are definitely here,” Charlie responded.

“Looks to be a house back there.”

“Maybe two.”

“Probably ghosts in it.”

“Yep.”

“You noticed the significant drop in temperature when we walked onto the property, I take it?” David asked.

“Probably just the shade,” Charlie replied.

“That is what I thought.”

Charlie glanced at his friend. While not the magical generalist that Charlie was, David’s mystical senses were highly developed and his knowledge of the supernatural rivaled anyone Charlie had ever known, except his grandfather. “How you feelin’ there David?”

“A bit apprehensive. You?”

“Working on anxious. Also thinking Hudson might have gotten off easy breaking into HPD and talkin’ to crazy cultists.”

“You may be onto something,” David replied, without a hint of humor in his voice. He took a deep breath before continuing. “Alright, we have ‘boots on the ground’. Now what, Charlie?”

“Hey, this was your idea, but I guess we oughta search the property.”

“Think we should split up?”

“Hell no.”

David and Charlie combed the property. Aside from the house and trash that seemed to have been blown onto the land, there was little more than brush and undergrowth. No shopping carts, no dumped trash, not even much evidence of animal habitation. Charlie and David completed their circuit quickly, finding nothing overtly threatening. They both felt the rising sense of foreboding though, a feeling of disquiet that permeated the air as they stood in front of the house.

“Well, that was spectacularly useless,” Charlie said as they stood looking at the house. Apart from the peeling paint and sagging roof, it appeared to be a fairly standard Houston home. Two stories, a broad porch in the front, and boarded windows.

“Think we should knock? I would hate to fail to uphold my nation’s reputation for politeness.”

“I’m not knocking until I know what we’re getting into,” Charlie sighed as he seemed to come to some sort of conclusion. “Watch my back, I’m going to try something.”

Charlie closed his eyes as he knelt on the ground. Behind him he heard the soft scrape of leather and the rustle of boots as David pulled his gun. Truth be told, he really did not want to do this. He wanted to be home, sipping whiskey he really couldn’t afford and listening to Led Zepplin records. He wanted to be stuck in Alice’s Tall Texan past midnight, forced to hit on homely girls for a ride home. Almost anything, in fact, held more appeal than what he was about to do.

Charlie directed his thoughts to spot on his forehead directly above the bridge of his nose. As always, unlocking his Sight was hard to describe. Honestly, the closest analogy he’d ever managed to come up with was taking a shit. You just sort of loosened…things and stuff happened. Scatological metaphors aside, Charlie could feel the power blossoming behind his eyelids, phantom pressure straining to surge outwards, to burn away illusions and veils, to reveal the hidden secrets of the world.

Of course, many things are kept hidden because the knowledge of them can be scarring.
Equally true, however, is the aphorism ‘knowledge is power.’ Sometimes the only way to acquire knowledge was to burn away the deception and bask in the harsh clarity of reality, no matter the risk to you sanity.

As Charlie opened his eyes, his Sight poured over the landscape, seeming to spill forth from his eyes. His consciousness flowed outward with, bringing depth and sharpness to what he saw, enhancing the sent of decaying vegetation, turning the muffled sounds of the street into a symphony. A symphony played by six-graders on hand-me-down recorders, but a symphony nonetheless. He could even feel individual grains of sand on his palms as he gathered himself to raise his gaze to the house.

At first glance, noting about the house seemed amiss. With his Sight, the home appeared almost normal, surrounded only by a light blue aura that Charlie had always associated with a threshold. Slowly though, the house began to change. It seemed to writhe in his Sight. Pieces of siding rotted like a time-lapsed photo, decaying and falling to the ground. Holes appeared in the roof. The porch sagged and an extra layer of grime coated the exterior.

Then, as the house disintegrated in double-quick time, it began to recede into the distance. Almost like everything Charlie could see was being stretched along a dimension he wasn’t meant to observe, dragged by the rotting and putrid house. The house’s retreat accelerated as he watched, pulling further and further away, yet seeming to swell as well, until it was all Charlie could See.

Slowly, Charlie became aware of his heels dragging along the ground. Not only was the house filling his vision, but he was being drawn toward it as well, hauled toward the disintegrating porch. The rotting holes became jagged teeth, ready to tear him to shreds. The boarded windows cracked like a gunshot, pulling back to reveal depthless eyes. The porch collapsed entirely, becoming a gaping maw.

Sweat poured down Charlie’s forehead as he pitted his will against the strength of the vision, but his eyes remained locked on the house. Pressure mounted behind his eyes while his pulse pounded in his ears. His breath came in rapid gasps, but still the house drew him closer, his shoes gouging furrows in the yard. The house was almost gone now, replaced by a lightless void, endless and imminent.

David’s tackle hit him low and hard, tearing his Sight away from the house. The pair tumbled across the yard, trees and dirt streaking across Charlie’s vision. With his Sight open, the movement turned to streaks and swirls of color, form vanishing into information overload. Nausea overtook Charlie as they rolled to a stop, and he lost his breakfast on the lawn. Unfortunately, he was so disoriented that he wasn’t able to aim at David and share the moment. With his gaze finally torn from the house, he managed to squeeze shut his Third Eye, and simply lay on the ground for several moments, breathing heavily.

When Charlie gained control of his respiration and various senses, he realized David was still on top of him, holding him down by leaning his weight onto his back. It took Charlie a few attempts, but eventually he was able to speak, “You can let me up now David.”

“Are you sure? I have no wish to chase you back down.”

“I’m sure and…” Charlie spat, then ground his teeth, mouth twisting like he had bitten on something sour, “and… thanks.”

David failed to smirk or gloat in the least. “Of course.”

Charlie rubbed his head as he sat up. His nausea might have been as much mundane as a result of his Sight. “Where’d you learn to hit like that?”

“Rugby. I was quite the player in my youth. Did you learn anything worth the risk?”

“A little. I think we’re dealing with a demesne, a bubble in reality. When we enter that house, we’re going to be waist deep in the NeverNever.”

“With the ghosts,” David stated.

Charlie nodded, “With the ghosts.”

The two of them were still kneeling in the dirt when Hudson pulled into the driveway. As he pulled his rented Hyundai next to David’s Jaguar, two things occurred to him. First, automobile technology had regressed significantly in sixty years. Secondly, that life was entirely unfair. Hudson’s expression could only be described as bemused as he climbed out of the car and looked down at the dirt covering David and Charlie’s clothes.

“I miss something?”

“Bite me, Hudson,” Charlie said as he and David scrambled to their feet to dust themselves off. “I’ve been here risking my sanity to figure out how we’re going to clear out these ghosts. What have you been doing?”

“Committing felony larceny, risking my job, and interviewing cultists.”

Charlie glared at Hudson before he grunted, “Fine, we’ll call it a draw. What’d you find?”

Hudson pulled the two items he had lifted from the evidence lock-up from his pocket and handed them to David. “The evidence archive had these. They were labeled with the deceased’s names and seem like personal items. Think they’ll work?”

David smiled as he took the two items, “Those ought to do nicely, constable.”

Hudson frowned as he stuck his hand back under his jacket, “I picked up one other thing.” Hudson hesitated as he grasped the pendant in his pocket. The pendant seemed to…quiver as he held it, feeling somehow eager. He shook off the feeling as he drew it out, but avoided looking at it nonetheless. “The Deacon gave this to me. Told me to give it to you, Charlie. Said it might help us.”

Charlie eyed the pendant resting in Hudson’s hand. Sparks and motes of light still swam across his vision from his use of the Sight, but the pendant reflected nothing. It just lay there solidly in Hudson’s hand, seeming to drink in the light. Charlie could feel the call of the object, but it was like the urge to jump off a cliff when you walked near the edge. He tore his eyes away from it with only slightly less difficulty than he had from the house.

“What the hell is that?” he asked with a shudder.

Hudson’s seemed to understand as he tossed the pendant to Charlie, “A chance?”

Charlie caught the pendant and collapsed to the ground.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie awoke on his back along the bank of a massive river. The sky above him looked like airbrushed stainless steel, and in the distance, Charlie could hear the muted roar of a waterfall. A quick glance to either side of him revealed that mists hid the far side of the river to his right but immense peaks loomed only a few miles to his left.

So, Charlie thought, this isn’t Houston.

A voice, low and somehow wispy with a soft English accent, spoke up from behind his head, “You have a keen grasp of the obvious, Charlie Harper.”

Still lying on the ground, Charlie bent his head back until he was staring up at the…man, he supposed. Man-shaped, about six-feet tall, the figure was dressed in worn jeans and a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He had long hair but it surrounded a face that was…blurred, almost pixilated, like mobsters who turned state’s evidence. No hint of features could be seen, just a hazy fog.

Charlie sat as his neck began to ache from its awkward position, “You look like a coed on Girls Gone Wild who didn’t sign the waiver. What the hell’s wrong with your face?”

The voice rasped again, “I am the Shepherd, insolent mortal. To look upon my true form might drive mad. Think of my current appearance as a favor to your sanity.”

Charlie rubbed his neck as he turned to face the…thing, “I think of it as nauseating. Why the hell couldn’t you have spoken to Ramsay?”

“Mortal, I am a being of infinite power and wisdom. Very few from your realm ever warrant my attention. You should feel honored.”

It was difficult to tell, but Charlie thought the figure might actually be a little insulted that he wasn’t abasing himself and averting his eyes. Well, he’d be fucked if he was going to satisfy this asshole’s ego, not matter how epic. “Yeah, honored. Honored and lost. Where the hell am I?”

“Sitting by a river.”

Charlie might not be able to identify affront in a non-mortal’s tone, but apparently sarcasm was more universal. “I’ll handle the quips here, Fuzzy Face. Where have you brought me?”

In a very human gesture, the Shepherd sighed and rubbed his forehead with his hand. Somehow, the Shepherd’s hand stayed sharp and clear while his face remained blurry and indistinct. Nice trick, Charlie thought. He didn’t even get a suggestion of what might be behind that pixilated mask.

“Your mortal form remains where you left it. I merely transported your spirit here to bestow knowledge upon you. Surprisingly, I wish to assist you in your quest.”

Charlie snorted as he faced the Shepherd, “Quest?! I’m getting paid, O Wise One. It’s a job, nothing more.” Charlie looked around the riverbank. Besides the mountains in the far distance and the obscured far bank, there was nothing but flat ground and scattered patches of grass as far as he could see. “Your realm’s a little bland isn’t it? For a being of infinite power and wisdom, shouldn’t your digs be a little nicer? I mean, you couldn’t even finish the landscaping – ”

“My realm is perfectly fine! Your corporeal mind is simply translating psychic impressions into something famil- argggg! Listen, mortal, I have need of you to act in the physical realm. If you prefer to ever see said realm again, heed what I have to say.”

Charlie raised his hands in surrender, “Whatever you say, hoss. Lay some knowledge on me.”

The Shepherd shook his head a he grumbled under his breath. He flicked his hand toward Charlie, “See then, mortal.”

Charlie gasped as the river and plain faded, to be replaced by, of all things, a kitchen. Bodiless, Charlie’s consciousness hung suspended over a refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen that wouldn’t have been out of place in millions of suburban ranch houses in the Houston area alone. Faux granite counters, white appliances, only the ragged man crying in the corner was out of place.

The man was cradling his face in his hands. As Charlie watched, blood and tears splashed down from between his fingers, stark against the white linoleum and splattering on the pistol that they in his lap. The man’s bloodstained hands fell from his face to the pistol. A mask of blood obscured his features and Charlie could see more blood and…matter splattered on his flannel shirt. With a shaking hand the man brought the gun up to his temple. It hung there, suspended and trembling as the man squeezed his eyes closed, more tears cutting runnels through the blood.

An eternity later, the man dropped his shaking hand with the gun back into his lap. “Not enough. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough!” he stuttered. The man – Jerome Yates, Charlie felt assured – started swinging his wild-eyed head back and forth, searching the kitchen. His gaze finally came to rest on a tool bag, sitting on the counter underneath a blank spot on the wall where some cabinets were missing. Jerome dragged himself across the floor and reached his bloody hand up and pulled the tool bag down beside him. Wrenches, screwdrivers, and nails went flying across the floor, but Jerome wasn’t looking for them. He reached into the bag and grasped a hacksaw; its black handle wrapped in duct tape. “Shepherd hear my prayer,” Charlie heard him utter. “Let this begin my atonement.”

With that, Jerome swept the tools from his lap and pulled his shirt up to expose his abdomen. A horrible realization flooded through Charlie and he tried to close his eyes, to turn away, but here he had no body here, no control, no will. He was wholly at the mercy of the Shepherd’s vision. Jerome screamed as he drew the saw across his stomach, the sound echoing and reverberating in the small kitchen. Dark blood welled up to mix with the gore that already covered his body. Jerome continued to draw the saw back and forth across his stomach, causing blood and worse to spill out from the wound, soaking into his clothes and covering the kitchen’s cheap linoleum. Long after Charlie would have thought possible, probably about the time he hit his spine, Jerome finally lost the strength to continue and the hacksaw clattered to the floor. Jerome just slumped there, moaning while his life drained away.

The process took longer that Charlie would have thought. Seemingly gallons of blood poured out of Jerome as he continued to moan. Finally, Jerome shuttered, a last breath came out of him in a wracking cough, and he breathed a final sentence, “Maggie, forgive me.”

Charlie felt the power gathering as Jerome breathed his last. The room seemed to hum and shake. Sound and light condensed within Jerome’s body, like the last gasp of a dying star before it went nova. The vision seemed to pause, the shuddering, humming power concentrated within Jerome’s corpse. Then it did go nova. Power, light, and sound exploded out from the corpse, smashing into Charlie even if nothing in the kitchen moved in the slightest. His vision wavered and tumbled. If he’d had a body, he would have been thrown tail over teakettle.

When Charlie’s vision finally cleared, Jerome still lay slumped on the floor, read rolled to one side, limp in death. But towering above the body stood a shimmering spirit form – Jerome, as he must have looked in life. Tall, shaggy haired, with a stern visage, his clothes were clean and pressed, but a hacksaw hung from his right hand, clashing with his khakis. He frowned as he looked down at his former body, more confused than angry, and then Charlie saw a light begin to kindle in his eyes. It swirled, slowly at first, but ever increasing in speed and intensity, until the ghost’s eyes became miniature suns and Charlie somehow felt the heat they radiated. As Jerome’s eyes blazed to a horrible pentacle, light began to bleed to the rest of Jerome’s form, animating it and imbuing it with a horrible imitation of life.

Jerome turned from his body and raised the hacksaw. Charlie could hear him shout as he passed through the kitchen wall, “Maggie! Maggie! Where are they?! WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN?” As he faded into the wall, Charlie could hear a woman wailing in response and what sounded like the bawl of an infant.

And with that, Charlie was back along the river, staring at the Shepherd’s blurry face. He fell to his knees as he did, gasping for breath and shaking uncontrollably. The Shepherd stood in the same position he had been in when Charlie arrived, watching passively.

“Jerome was mine, magling. His death I gift to you. The beings you seek to destroy are no simple shades. They are not tired wisps of faded memory. They are beings born of rage, fear, and despair. If you enter their demesne unprepared, they will savage your mind just as they endlessly savage one another.”

Charlie shook his head to try and clear it of the memory of Jerome dragging a hacksaw back and forth across his belly. Charlie looked up at the Shepherd, “Well, what do you recommend?”

The Shepherd pointed and suddenly Charlie felt the heavy weight of the amulet Hudson had tossed him in his hand. “My talisman will draw the spirits’ abode from the NeverNever world fully into your reality. It will clothe them in flesh and make them vulnerable.”

Charlie nodded. That tracked. If they could pull the house fully into the real world, the spirits would be forced to animate an ectoplasmic body, an ectoplasmic body that could presumably be destroyed. But…

“There’s a catch here somewhere, isn’t there?”

Charlie got the impression that the Shepherd was grinning somewhere behind his pixilated mask. “Indeed. The shades will be drawn into your world, made vulnerable. But they will also be freed from their tie to the place of their deaths. They will be able to roam freely.”

The amulet felt like lead in Charlie’s hand. It drove him to his knees as the Shepherd walked up beside him. The Shepherd plucked the amulet from Charlie’s hands and draped the chain over Charlie’s neck instead. Its weight pulled him to this hands and knees. As his head bowed, the Shepherd bent over to whisper in his ear. “You must destroy them, Charlie Harper, or they will destroy you and run rampant over the people of your city. Good hunting.”

With that, the Shepherd grasped Charlie by the back of his shirt and pitched him ten yards into the river. The medallion was an anchor around his neck, dragging him beneath the waters. As he sank, the Shepherd’s voice whispered again in his ear, even though he could still see his body standing tall along the shoreline. “Keep the amulet if you survive, Charlie Harper. Perhaps you will have need of my insight again sometime.”
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie awoke to Hudson pounding on his chest and kneeling in to perform rescue breaths. Anxious to avoid another awkward incident regarding personal space, Charlie crab-walked backwards as quickly as he could between one chest compression and another.

“Damnit Hudson! I’m fine!” Charlie sat up and held his hand to his throbbing chest. “Shit, what the hell are you doing?”

“What the hell am I doing?” Hudson replied, “You collapsed and stopped breathing. See if I ever give you CPR again.”

David turned from where he had been standing with his back to Hudson, that archaic pistol of his cocked and drawn. “We were worried, Charlie. You caught the amulet and then just fell. Hudson saw that you were not breathing. We thought it might have been an attack.”

Charlie grimaced, more in recognition that he might have to apologize again than in pain. Still, he had been the one dragged to some bullshit dimension. “I had a little chat with the Shepherd.” Charlie quickly related the encounter to them. He thought he saw David’s eyes widen briefly when he described the Shepherd’s appearance, but he chalked it up to trauma and shadow.

“So, we’ve got a weapon?” Hudson asked when Charlie was done.

“Looks that way. Double-edged, but it ought to help us get the job done.”

“I hate to be a wet blanket here,” David interjected, Collier still dangling from his hand, “but is using this amulet altogether wise? At the moment, the spirits are contained. I am as enthusiastic about developing the local economy as the next small businessman, but there are no proton packs in my workshop. I am a clockmaker, not a ghostbuster. I am not entirely comfortable with the prospect of untethering a bunch of spirits and setting them loose on the city.”

“Well, they only get to run loose if we don’t kill’em,” Charlie replied, “And besides, I was given the distinct impression that this wasn’t exactly a request.” David frowned at that, worry creeping into his eyes. “Hudson, what do you say?”

Hudson responded by walking over to his car and pulling a 12-gauge Remington from the trunk. He grabbed a box of shells as well, chambering one round before putting two more into the breech. He turned back to his companions. “I say we quit talking and start kicking down doors.”

David looked at Charlie who, typically, shrugged and loosened the wrench tucked into his belt. “Very well constable. Let us proceed. Before we go however….” David trotted over to his Jaguar and grabbed a box from the backseat. He pulled the top off as he walked back and withdrew a grey felt Stetson. Brushed to a sheen and shaped beautifully, it sported a black leather hatband decorated with small silver conchos carved to look like gears.

“A gift,” David said. “A Ramsay original to replace the ‘magic bullet’. You simply have not looked the same since you lost your hat at McCullough’s. It should provide you a bit of protection in the forthcoming confrontation as well.”

Hudson felt a tingle run through him as he set the hat on his head. “Now it’s a party. Let’s do this. Before the ghosts get free and I gotta start sleeping on Javier’s couch.”
______________________________________________________________________________________________

The door landed with a boom as Hudson’s Luccheses ripped it from its hinges, “And I’m all outta bubblegum!”

Shotgun lowered, Hudson leapt through the door, clearing the corners while Charlie and David covered his flanks. The flashlight attached to the barrel of Hudson’s shotgun swept across the shadowed room. Seconds passed as they held their position, breathing echoing through the room. Nothing, however, responded to their entrance.

“Well,” Charlie said, “That was anti-climactic.”

Hudson lowered the barrel of his shotgun, holding it in the crook of his arm, “Waste of a good one-liner if you ask me,” he replied. Long seconds past while nothing continued to leap out at them and try to eat their face. “No use waiting around here. Follow me.”

They kept the same formation as they crept further into the first room. Hudson took the lead, shotgun sweeping the area as Charlie and David covered him. Mystical energy shimmered soundlessly around Charlie’s wrench while David’s pistol seemed to hum in the dark to his right.

The room brought to mind adjectives like dilapidated and decrepit. Wires dangled from jagged holes in the ceiling and wallpaper hung torn and mildewing from the walls. Only scattered pieces of broken paneling and an old mattress lay on the floor. The emptiness gave the room an almost cavernous feel and their footsteps echoed in the darkness. The temperature plummeted as they walked further into the room, dropping so sharply that by the time Hudson stood in the center of the room, his could see his breath as he exhaled. Each of the companions shivered as they waited, and not only from the cold.

“Alright, we’re sure there are ghosts here right?” Hudson asked, eyes still scanning the shadows in the corners.

Charlie lifted his wrench and let a little power bleed into it. Light began to shine into the shadowy corners, revealing nothing more than the same scattering of debris. “That sheep-fucker the Shepherd showed Jerome dying in the kitchen.” He struggled to keep his teeth from chattering, “Might be a place to start.”

Hudson nodded grimly, “Alright, Charlie, you got my six. David, you’re drag. I’ll take point.” Hudson took in the confused expressions of his companions as he started toward the kitchen and sighed. “Just follow me.”

Stealth being out of the question, Hudson settled for a frontal assault again and kicked open the door to the kitchen. The door failed to crash to the ground this time, but Hudson did manage to rip it from the top hinge so that it hung drunkenly from the doorframe. A quick glance around the kitchen showed that it was much as Charlie had described: dingy tiles, faux granite, and rusting appliances. Instead of a body bleeding on the floor, there was only a dark stain to mark where Jerome Yates had breathed his last. Long moments passed once again, but the kitchen stayed stubbornly empty. Only the squealing of the remaining hinge marred the silence. Finally, Hudson took the shotgun from his shoulder and knelt to examine the dark stain on the tiles near the door.

The ghost of Jerome Yates roared up from beneath the floor as Hudson knelt. To Hudson, he looked almost translucent, faded around the edges, and glowing with a faint blue light. Jerome felt solid enough, however, as he plowed into him. The ghost wrapped fraying arms around Hudson and lifted him from the floor. Hudson felt the solidity of Jerome’s form as he flew backward into the counter, but as he his back slammed into the sink, he could feel the ghost start to ooze into him. Hudson’s body rebounded from the counter and Jerome’s spirit body started to merge with his. It was as if a layer of slime had slid beneath his skin and started to wrap around his body, squeezing like a phantom boa constrictor.

Jerome screamed as he and Hudson continued to join in a horrible intimacy. His mouth distended like a snake swallowing its prey and the barest hint of corruption could be smelled as it howled. Jerome struck like a cobra at Hudson’s neck, his vaporous fangs sinking into Hudson’s chest. Hudson couldn’t even scream as his back arched and spikes of pain shoot through his body. He finally uttered a feeble screech as Jerome wrenched his head back for another strike, leaving no visible marks but Hudson could feel something tear as phantom fangs tore through his chest.

Hudson gasped as the ghost was torn from him completely and thrown across the room. He felt the wraith’s limbs drag through his chest, agony that made the spirit’s fags feel like a hangnail, and was surprised when blood didn’t fly from gaping wounds. He heard the impact as the ghost slammed into the far wall, and looked up to see Charlie standing in the doorway of the kitchen. Charlie’s wrench was almost blinding as he brandished it at the wraith. Jerome’s ghost writhed on the far wall of the kitchen, pinned like a bug in a middle-school science project.

“Damnit David, take a shot! I can’t hold this thing forever!” Charlie shouted as David slipped into the kitchen as well. He moved to the left of the door, pistol drawn. The now familiar muted rainbow of vapor flew from the Collier’s barrel, slamming into the shade and eliciting another spectral scream. Ragged holes appeared in the spirit’s flesh where the colored steam struck it, burning away at the edges.

Hudson dove under David and Charlie’s line of fire to grab his fallen shotgun. His hand found the Remington’s stock, but before he could bring it to bear, the spirit slipped the bonds of Charlie’s spell. Jerome’s form disappeared as the ghost oozed down the wall, sliding beneath its bonds. As it cleared Charlie’s spell, the ghost didn’t so much move as stretch through the air toward Hudson, elongating itself like some sort of hideous eel. Spectral teeth flashed as the ghost slammed into Hudson again, sending more frozen spikes radiating through his chest and knocking him back to the ground. The ghost writhed nauseatingly on top of Hudson, raising his head for another strike while Hudson tried desperately to drag his shotgun into position.

But Charlie was there again, wrench flashing, his cry of “Cumhacht!” echoing in the room. A naked ball of force caught the ghostly eel underneath the chin, stopping it inches from Hudson’s neck and throwing it into the ceiling. Charlie slashed the air with his wrench and the ghost slammed into the floor like a meteor. The house shook with the impact and a colorless gel exploded from the crater. David and Charlie grabbed the edge of the counter to keep their feet while Hudson threw an arm over this face to shield himself as pieces of the ceiling crashed around him. For a moment, dust and smoke obscured the far side of the kitchen.

Then Jerome burst forth from the haze, his scream blowing the dust before him. He had reverted to his original appearance, but much the worse for wear. The left side of its skull had caved in, while its right arm dangled uselessly at its side, attached only by a ghostly tendon. Its movements were still vicious but uncoordinated. It swung wildly as it stumbled from the dust, moans filled with hatred and contempt.

Hudson couldn’t bring his shotgun to bear from his position on the floor, but his hand slipped under his jacket to find the handle of his revolver. The ghost stretched again. The fingers of its remaining arm reaching for Hudson’s throat, claws brushing the skin. Hudson ignored the renewed waves of bitter cold that flashed through him as he shoved the revolver under Jerome’s chin. His arm quivered with the effort of holding the angle of the barrel away from David and Charlie. The hammer fell and more colorless gel exploded out of the back of the ghost’s head.

Hudson watched as hatred faded from the spirit’s eyes to be replaced by…confusion. The edges of Jerome’s body started fray, sublimating into ectoplasm and dripping onto Hudson’s jacket. Hudson saw Jerome’s features go slack and the spark fade from his eyes. He watched as the final wisps of the ghost evaporated above him. From the edge of his hearing, Hudson thought he heard someone whisper, “Maggie,” before the last of the ghost’s form collapsed into ectoplasm. He fell back to the floor and starred up at the ceiling, waiting for the slime to evaporate.

Hudson hauled himself to his feet a few minutes later, stooping to retrieve his new hat from where it had fallen during the fight. Despite his own battered appearance, the Stetson was pristine. Even the ectoplasmic slime had slid right off it. David, it seemed, knew his business.

Hudson settled the Stetson back on his head as he turned to face David and Charlie, who were still leaning on the counter breathing heavily. He nodded toward the evaporating slimed that still pooled on the floor. “That was a ghost?” Hudson said.

“That was one ghost,” Charlie clarified.

“Alright. Well, your amulet works Charlie. He didn’t die easy, but he did die.” Hudson looked down at the slime covering his jacket and his boots, “And they die disgusting. I just polished these boots.” He took a firm grasp on his shotgun and brushed past the other two to walk out of the kitchen. “Let’s go kill a few more.”
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They decided to clear the basement before proceeding to the second floor. Hudson pointed out that if they had to make a strategic retreat (“Run like scared little girls,” Charlie offered), then it was best to ensure that nothing else that wanted to eat their face could block their exit.

Water damage became more apparent as the trio stood at the stop of the stairs into the basement. Several stairs were missing and they could smell the mildew growing on the walls. From the darkness underground, they could hear the steady drip of water falling somewhere in the basement.

“Grenades,” Charlie muttered.

“What?” Hudson asked.

“It sure would be nice if we had some grenades, don’t you think? Couple of grenades down the stairs. Boom. Boom. We go mop up spiritual residue. Do you think you could make us some grenades, David?”

“I suppose…” David frowned, “Actually, it wouldn’t be all that much different from Hudson’s magic bullet. I could – ”

“David,” Hudson interrupted, “Do you happen to have any grenades on you right now?”

“Well, no – ”

“And how secure are you in the structural integrity of this house?”

“Not particularly I suppose – ”

“No grenades,” Hudson said emphatically. “We do it like the kitchen, except this time with less me getting smacked around. Who wants to volunteer for point?” The silence was overwhelming if not surprising. Hudson sighed, “Alright, in formation on me. Put anything we see down fast. I’m gettin’ too old to be slammed into walls by ghosts.”

The stairs creaked as Hudson hurried down them and his boots splashed in stagnant water as he landed on the cold stone floor of the basement. The light from Charlie’s wrench bathed the room in a faint glow while the flashlight on Hudson’s shotgun swept across the room. The three of them fanned out across the room, shoes splashing in the water.

The attack came quickly this time. As Hudson’s flashlight swept across the room, a boiler in the corner roared to life, fire casting a harsh red glare over the room. The grate sprang open sending smoke and flame billowing into the room. The three of them threw themselves to the ground as the fire engulfed the room before coalescing on the ceiling.

Charlie got the impression of dozens of infant faces carved of fire somehow molded together, all glaring down at him from the ceiling. It was as if someone had beheaded dozens of plastic dolls and then haphazardly melted them together to create a massive cloud of infant eyes and chubby cheeks. No plastic doll, however, had ever been molded with the expression of rage that poured from these tiny monsters. Dozens of fire-carved infant faces shrieked as they dove from the ceiling straight toward Charlie.

The hideous monster did not catch them entirely unaware. Charlie’s wrench flashed up from where he lay on the ground and another wrecking ball of force streaked toward the cloud of angry young faces. David’s pistol flashed in the harsh scarlet light as well, its rainbow light painting the scene in a kaleidoscope of shifting colors. Both shots slammed into the creature, disintegrating several of the wailing faces that now screamed in uncomprehending pain rather than rage. The edges of the wound David inflicted continued to eat at the essence of the ghost, creeping outward. The ghost thrashed angrily, slamming into the sides of the walls, causing dust and debris to rain down from the ceiling and walls but coming no where near the companions. The howls trailed off after a moment, replaced by a muted whimpering and the mass of sobbing infant faces falling to the floor like a wet towel. Steam hissed where the weakly thrashing blanket of infant faces landed in the water that covered the floor.

Hudson strode over to the spirit, ears ringing from the earlier screams that seemed to echo in his mind. He ignored the heat of the steam as he brought the shotgun to his shoulder. He wondered about the life of this eternal infant as he tried to find a target among the dozens of squalling, writhing heads. Judging by the faces, this poor child had not been more than six months old when it died. Then it had been condemned to live a limbo existence, hiding in this dank hole, wailing at an unfair world it couldn’t possibly understand. Forced to exist in an instant of nothing but confusion and violence.

Hudson felt the shotgun punch his shoulder as he aimed and fired at the largest face he could see. He locked eyes with that baby’s eyes as it faded into ectoplasm and added to the stagnant puddles that littered the floor. Confusion and violence.
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With no more wailing, silence lay heavy in the basement. The light from the boiler and Charlie’s wrench faded too, until only the beam of Hudson’s flashlight cut through the gloom, aimed at the puddle of rapidly evaporating ectoplasm. Water and debris fell to the floor as the last of the child’s ghost melted into the puddles.

Hudson ejected his spent shell and loaded another into the breech. His back was turned to his companions, so they didn’t see the glistening in his eyes. “One more floor,” he coughed. “Let’s get to it. We’re losing daylight.”
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

The stairs to the second floor were in much better repair than the ones into the basement. The carpet just looked like it needed a steam cleaning and the wallpaper only needed a good scrub. More light flooded down from the upstairs windows as well, making the stairs appear practically blazing after the gloom of the basement and the first floor.

However, on some subliminal level, each of them could tell that they were walking into the heart of darkness. Each of the stairs rang sharply as they stole up to the second floor. The light, while brighter, cast a sickly yellow pall on the walls. Even the angle of the stairs seemed to twist like a mobius strip.

Each one of them could feel the hatred of the house pressing upon their consciousness. It whispered to them. ‘Go back. Last warning.’ It was giving them the opportunity to turn back, not out of compassion or fear, but because the residents of the final floor found mortal contact distasteful, repulsive. The companions were an imposition, not a threat, and the spirits wanted to return to their brooding.

The tenor of the silence changed as Hudson stepped foot on the landing of the second floor. The menacing disdain of the house became an oppressive loathing. Hudson felt it as a pressure on the back of his mind that doubled and re-doubled again like a vise slowly squeezing his skull. Icicles formed on Hudson’s mustache as the temperature plummeted again. He glanced over his shoulder to reassure himself of his backup. Behind him the stairs seemed to stretch infinitely downward. Empty.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie kept his eyes fixed on Hudson’s back as the stairs twisted and turned. His wrench dangled from his hand, power already flowing through it, soundless sparks dribbling downward. He closed his eyes for a moment as they reached the landing, gathering his nerve before the coming struggle. His power reserves were waning after the last two conflicts. Throwing around bowling balls of pure force was tiring, and Charlie’s magical tank was running a little low. He raised his eyes to sweep the landing as he focused and found himself staring at an empty room.
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Between one step and the next, David found himself not walking out onto the second floor landing, but into a cramped, dimly lit room with a broken crib standing in the corner. He glanced behind him. The door – which had most definitely been a staircase moments ago – was shut. Something damp landed on his cheek as he turned back to the room. David swiped his hand across his face and held it in front of his eyes. Scarlet liquid stained his palm. He cast his gaze upward. A bubbling sea of crimson blood covered the ceiling and started flowing down the walls.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie took little time to observe the room, despite its interesting quality of not being where it was supposed to be. He spun back around to yank at the door handle. Or at least he tried. As his fingers touched the handle, Charlie felt something grab his shoulder. Clammy and cold, it locked onto his shoulder with an unbreakable grip and spun him around. Suddenly, he was staring down at a long-nailed hand streaking toward him. The fingers closed around his throat and started to squeeze.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson wasted no time. He could not see the bottom of the stairs, but he could see two doors from his position at the top of them. The one to the left had the faded painting of a caterpillar on the door, its cuteness at odds with the rest of the drab interior. The other door was directly in front of him, solid and without decoration. From behind it, he heard a muffled cry. Lowering his shotgun, he rushed forward and smashed his shoulder into the door.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

David turned to run when he felt a touch on his arm. His pistol materialized in his fist as he spun. When he stopped, David was looking down the barrel of his Collier at a ghost. A pair of ghosts. A pair of child ghosts, a boy and girl holding hands with expressions of terror rather than a roiling mass of fiery infant faces. As he peered down the barrel, David recognized the children from Maggie’s locket. The brother reached out his hand and pushed the pistol aside, pleading mutely with David. David let the barrel of the revolver fall as the child moved closer and reached into David’s vest pocket. The ghostly hand pulled the locket from David’s pocket, opened it, and smiled. Behind him, David heard the door creak as it opened. The young child slipped the locket into his pocket, looked up at David and smiled as the pair of them faded away.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

David peaked out through the door. The landing had returned, stairs on his right. A glance to his left showed an open door hanging by its hinges, the sounds of a struggle finally penetrating David’s ears. David brought his pistol up as he charged through the door. He was able to glimpse Hudson tearing Charlie away from a pair of grasping hands that reached out from the wall. Hudson slammed the butt of his shotgun into the arms with one hand while tossing Charlie back to the ground. David slipped to the right as stepped through the door, looking for a clean shot at the grasping arms. They disappeared back into the wall as David moved further into the room, his gun still trained where the hands had disappeared.

A quick glance showed Charlie gasping on the floor, but in no immediate danger. David swung around to the right to clear the rest of the room which gave him an excellent opportunity to see a ceramic sink coming flying out of the bathroom door. It shattered against his chest, only his armored vest keeping it from caving in his sternum. He flew backward, crashing into Hudson and bringing both of them to the ground. On top of Charlie.

Had anything followed up on the attack, it could have easily taken the three of them out while they tried to untangle themselves without out shooting, braining or crushing each other. After a flurry of activity, Hudson and Charlie were standing back to back while David had pulled himself into a sitting position along the wall.

“Anything broken David?” Hudson asked, shotgun aimed at the bathroom door.

David took a deep breath while keeping his pistol trained on the bathroom door. Pain shot through him, but it seemed to be the dull throbbing of contusions and bruising rather than the sharp sting of cracked ribs. “No constable, I appear to be in one piece. Cannot say that I am feeling my best, but I have just the thing.” David stuck his left hand into one of his vest pockets and pulled out a dented flask. An exploration of another hidden pocket produced two small pills. He washed them down with a swig from the flask, keeping his Collier trained on the door the whole time.

David held out the flask to the others. “Anyone care for a drink? The Scots may be skirt-wearing sheep-lovers, but they make excellent whiskey.” Without turning from the wall where the arms had grabbed him, Charlie grabbed the flask and tipped it up. He passed it to Hudson who took a long draught before passing it back to David. David finished the dregs before slipping it back into a pocket. As the liquor burned down his throat, the pain in his chest started to fade. A bit.

“Charlie, I now see the crucial flaw in going first,” David said as he struggled to his feet. “Hudson, how do you feel about knocking open that bathroom door while Charlie and I cover you?”

Hudson chuckled as he stepped toward the door, “Sounds go-”

The door flew open as Hudson spoke. A ragged specter of a woman flew out the room, her hands stretched into fearsome claws. She plunged toward Hudson’s chest, lightly gazing his ribs with her claws as he sidestepped her rush. Hudson swept off his hat as he spun, striking the ghost’s arms with the brim and driving them past his abdomen. The strike drew a shriek from the ghost, seemingly out of proportion with the attack. Charlie dove to the side as the wraith stumbled past him and saw Hudson’s boot connected with her lower back, driving her into the wall.

Unfortunately, no spectral arms came out of the wall to grasp her, but her screech as she crashed into the wall was most satisfying. The hag rebounded off the wall without hesitation though, appearing to invert herself, more than turn. Her front suddenly appeared where her back had just been. She leapt toward David without hesitation, claws slashing. Two swipes caught David in the ribs with horrible, brutal force. His vest took the brunt of the assault, but each swipe knocked the wind from him nonetheless. He struggled to aim his pistol, pushing through the pain radiating from his ribs.

Charlie’s shout of ‘Cumhacht!’ echoed again as another bowling ball of force slammed into Maggie’s ghost. She flew off David, slammed into the wall, and kept going. She crashed onto the landing, tumbling across the floor. David forced himself to his feet, ignoring the screaming of his ribs, but dove through the door quickly enough to catch Maggie’s ghost before she could rise. With John Woo-like skill, David drilled two jets of multihued stream into Maggie’s torso, tearing great chunks out of her ectoplastic flesh.

David ducked to the side as Hudson came through the door as well, shotgun pellets hitting the ghost in her stomach, causing more slime to stain the carpet. The ghost was staggering as Charlie joined them on the landing, seemingly a little unsteady himself, but a halo of cobalt light shown brightly from his wrench. The sapphire light illuminated Charlie’s eyes as he aimed the focus at the flailing spirit.

“Cumha – ” Charlie’s incantation was interrupted as two small ethereal figures materialized in front of Maggie’s wounded spirit.

“Please…Please…Don’t hurt…Don’t hurt…our mom…our mom…” Their voices bleed into one another but were just far enough from simultaneous to create an eerie echo as they pled for their mother’s spirit.

“Son of a bitch!” Charlie yelped as the Shepherd’s amulet lying on his chest suddenly burned cold, taking the spell from his mind and the fire from his blood. The two toddlers looked up at him with expressions of hope and fear that he couldn’t ignore. He let his hand fall to his side and slid wrench into his belt.

“God damn all ghosts, spirits, and non-mortal entities!” Charlie swore as he turned away from the children and their dying (again) mother. All the fight seemed to have left her as well. Ectoplasm dripped onto the dingy carpet around her as she floated to her feet and wrapped an arm protectively around each of her children. Hudson shrugged as David looked toward him, changing from implacable monster hunter to wide-eyed bachelor in length of time it took David to roll his eyes and holster his pistol. David knelt quietly in front of the phantom siblings, each one of them latched on to one of their mother’s legs.

“We mean her no harm, little ones,” David realized that ectoplasm was soaking into his pants leg. “Well…no more harm anyway. But she cannot stay here. Neither can you.” David looked up at Maggie. The rage in her eyes had faded and a spectral hand smoothed the hair of each of her children. Ectoplasm still dripped from the gouges in her side, but she seemed lucid. For a ghost anyway. David looked into her eyes, “It is time to move on.”

Maggie’s eyes flared as David spoke, but the anger faded as her son reached up and grabbed her hand. The boy and girl spoke in their asynchronous stereo. “The locket…the altar…the attic.” A hatch opened in the ceiling as the ethereal family faded into mist and swirled up into the opening.

Hudson grabbed the ladder and pulled in down so the three of them could follow. As they poked their heads above the rafters, they could see the family huddling around a small altar in the corner of a massive open room. The three spirits cast a faint glow throughout the room.

The three companions tread softly over the rafters, picking their way warily across the rotting floor. As they joined the three ghosts, the boy laid his mother’s amulet on the top of the altar. A circular slab of stone with a small mirror on the back surrounded by mounds of melted wax, faint dark stains marred the altar’s surface. As David knelt beside the small family, he could see shadowy tears in Maggie’s eyes as she clung to the children and starred at the locket.

“Maggie. Maggie!” David called until he got her attention. “You don’t have to stay. The others have already…” David hesitated. “They have moved on. So can you.”

Without taking her ghostly eyes from the altar, Maggie lifted a small teddy bear to her chest, incongruously lying on the floor next to one of the candles. Her voice was barely audible to David only inches away. “Toby…?”

David hesitated for a moment. Toby must have been the_ enfant terrible_ in the basement, who they had turned into so much ectoplasmic slime. Surprisingly, Charlie stepped in to reassure the mourning ghost. David even thought he heard real compassion in his voice.

“We laid your boy to rest mam. Your husband too. There’s no reason to cling to this realm. Take your children and meet the rest of your family in whatever comes next,” Charlie laid his hand on the ghost’s shoulder. Maggie rested hers on top of Charlie’s and smiled up at him. David felt a bit piqued that Charlie’s smooth lie got him a smile but his rapport had earned him nothing but looks of confusion and wariness. He grimaced as his another spike of pain from his ribs shot through his body. Life, even the afterlife apparently, was far from fair.

The spirits started to fade from sight as he watched, seeming to almost solidify before they started to fade, lines growing sharper while becoming fainter and more translucent. A few moments later the room was empty except for David, Charlie, and Hudson. Charlie heaved a sigh of relief a few minutes after the spirits faded, unironically wiping sweat from his forehead.

“Thank god that worked. Hate to see what she’d have done if she had found out we annihilated her bouncing baby monster.” Charlie reached over and picked up a book lying next to the altar where the bear had fallen. He thumbed quickly through a few pages. “Looks like Maggie’s journal.” Charlie slipped the slim volume into his pocket. “I’ll give it a look see later, might learn something.” He glanced at the other two. “We got any pressin’ reason to stay?” Everyone shook their heads. “Then let’s get the hell out of here.”

The trek back through the house was as uneventful as the first time had been thrilling. The temperature had risen as well and Hudson began to sweat under his jacket. He had almost expected an intrepid chase sequence after the ghosts faded, dodging fallen debris as they raced through a collapsing ruin. They would crash through the front door and leap off the porch just as the house collapsed in on itself. One of them, Hudson’s money was on Charlie, would make a pun-based quip as they lay on the lawn, panting and covered in dust.

Instead, David and Hudson supported each other as they limped down the stairs and through the rooms while Charlie took point. Nothing leapt out at them and no spirits manifested and tried to eat their face. Instead, three wounded men shuffled through a wrecked house (slightly more wrecked since they had shown up) and back out into the fading daylight.

Since fitting all three of them into Hudson’s rental was out of the question, they hobbled over to David’s Jaguar. David, obviously overcome with pain, tossed his keys to Charlie as Hudson helped him slide into the backseat. Hudson shuffled over to the passenger side while Charlie took the keeps and coaxed the stately engine to life. The last daylight faded as Hudson called Cassaro while Charlie mandandled the Jaguar onto the road and they drove off into the sunset.
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Two diminutive figures shaded their eyes as they watched the motorized coach pull out onto the asphalt.

“They defeated the spirits,” said the one on the right.

“Skillful mortals indeed,” the other replied. “Should tell Lord Vior?”

“Or the Lhiannan Sidhe,” the first creature said. “This information could be traded for much influence.”

“The tale of their success will be stale soon. The Cold Court will move quickly to occupy this nexus. Better is the information on the abilities of their hirelings. Firearms, force, crafting.”

The first creature raised a tiny hand to stroke his silky beard, “Hmm, correct you may be. Quickly have these mortals grown in power and daring. The void will they fill? Perforce, the Court must confront them either way.”

“But which aspect of the Court, my liege?”

“That remains to be seen, Lieb. Come.”

The creature slid down the bank into the storm drain. The other followed and together they trotted into the culvert pipe. A few feet inside, the first one stopped and waved his hand over an unremarkable portion of the concrete. A small door shimmered into existence and the figures darted through the opening. The door winked back out of existence as it shut and only a trickle of water remained in the pipe.

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