“Jo!” Henry shouted. “Jo, can you hear me?”
Muffled cries came from behind the featureless wall, followed by the sound of hands pounding frantically.
“Miss Devereaux, help!” Henry called over his shoulder. “They’re trapped!”
The gaslight faded from soft yellow to ghastly blue, and the air grew colder by the second. Henry ran his hands over the wall, searching for some catch, some indicator there had ever been a door. “We have to get them out!”
“Stop shouting at me, Mr. Strauss. I can see the situation.” Miss Devereaux stepped up to the wall, staring at it with narrowed eyes. “He’s strong,” she murmured. “To be able to do this, to fool our senses in such a way...it’s almost unheard of.”
The pounding on the wall increased. “Henry!” came Jo’s muffled voice. “Henry, help!”
“I’m coming! Hold on!” He took a step back, casting around frantically. “An ax—there must be an ax or something about. We’ll chop through the wall—”
“No need.” Miss Devereaux closed her eyes and slid her fingers over the paneling. “The door is still here, even if we can’t see it.”
“I don’t see what good it does us.”
“Have you forgotten my talent? Objects speak to me, Mr. Strauss. And doorways are powerful things.” Her hand stilled. “Here.”
The spot looked no different than the rest of the wall. “What good does it do to have a door in front of me that I can’t open?” he demanded.
“Close your eyes. The door is there, but you can’t believe it, because your eyes are lying.” She leveled a glare at him. “Do it, Mr. Strauss. Close your eyes, believe the door exists, and break through it if Reyer is holding it shut. It’s the only way we’ll get them out of there.”
For just an instant, he hesitated. He was putting Jo’s life in the hands of someone he’d wronged just hours ago, someone he’d caused to receive threats and cruel blows.
Logic, now that he was ready to listen to it, assured him Vincent couldn’t have been in on some scheme to trick everyone and kill him with the chandelier. But he still couldn’t be sure of Miss Devereaux’s innocence in the matter. What if—?
No. He had to trust her. There was no other option if he was to save Jo.
Closing his eyes, he took a step back before kicking the wall as hard as possible.
It didn’t open, but something gave beneath the blow. Encouraged, he kicked again and again, agony shooting up his foot as the wound on the sole reopened.
With a loud crash of splintered wood, the door flew open. Jo and Miss Prandle stumbled out into the hall.
Henry pulled his cousin into his arms, holding her tight. She shook against him, and he pressed a kiss into her hair. “It’s all right, Jo. You’re safe.”
“Are you hurt? Either of you?” Miss Devereaux asked.
“N-no. Just frightened.” Miss Prandle shivered. “It was toying with us—throwing things.”
“Gathering its strength,” the medium said. She shook her head. “Our plan has changed. We leave everything here. Nothing in this house is worth our lives.”
“Agreed,” Henry said. He gave Jo a last squeeze and let her go. “Come—let’s meet Vincent and Bamforth out front.”
He turned and began to retrace their steps along the balcony, back to the stairs, moving at a quick walk. His nerves pulled tight—if only there was some way to know if the spirit was nearby. But all his equipment was in the schoolroom.
If he survived this, perhaps there was a way to make some sort of portable device...
No. He was done with this madness. Best just to leave and forget it all.
Shouldn’t they have reached the stairs by now?
He stopped. They were back by Miss Prandle’s door.
“The devil?” Surely he hadn’t been so intent he’d missed the stair and walked all the way around the floor? And even if he had, someone else would surely have noticed.
Miss Prandle let out a gasp. “Oh God! It’s keeping us here! It’s not going to let us go.”
She was right. They were trapped on the third floor, with an angry ghost at their backs.
~ * ~
Vincent’s shoulder struck one of the wine shelves, sending more bottles crashing to the floor. The smell of spilled wine rose up around him, almost strong enough to mask the flavor of rust. The soaked legs of his trousers adhered to his skin in the freezing air.
His shoes slipped in the spill, and he swore. The flickering shape of Reyer would be on him any instant. He stretched his legs, praying he could run faster than the ghost could siphon energy out of the atmosphere to attack him. The basement stairs appeared at the end of the row, and with a glad cry he made for them. The amulet burned cold against his neck, and every breath excoriated his lungs. His limbs felt heavy, mired in treacle, and the basement seemed to stretch impossibly far in front of him.
Reyer played his tricks again. Vincent firmed his will, whispering a mantra in his mind, the way Dunne had taught him. He wouldn’t let the spirit alter his perception, wouldn’t let it drag him down into madness and death with it.
The world snapped back into place, the stairs only feet away now.
A flickering shadow shape appeared just in front of them, blocking his path.
Vincent skidded to a halt just as it reached out for him. One shadow hand brushed his right arm, and it was as if he’d plunged the limb up to the elbow into a snow bank. All sensation vanished, replaced by cold that seeped deeper and deeper, creeping into his chest and making for his heart.
He thrust his left hand into his pocket, dug out a handful of salt, and hurled it into the ghost’s face.
The apparition stuttered, the pure crystals tearing tiny holes in its ectoplasmic body. Forcing life back into his numb right hand, Vincent dug through both pockets, hurling more salt directly at it.
The apparition vanished in a cloud of smoke smelling of something long dead. Vincent scrambled up the stairs. Reyer’s apparition might have been forced to dissipate, but the ghost still controlled the house.
He hurled the last grains of salt at the door, then yanked it open. As he lunged into the kitchen, some force tried to slam the door shut on him. It cracked hard against his hip, but he was already halfway through, and the ghost’s attempt to trap him in the basement failed.
He staggered further into the kitchen, rubbing his hip. He’d made it back in the house. Now all he had to do was find the others and get them to the front door.
There came the scrape of a drawer opening. Startled, he turned just in time to see the gleam of a knife blade lifting from the now-open cutlery drawer.
Vincent ducked. The blade thudded into the wall over his head. Crouching low to make himself less of a target, he ran for the door.
A meat cleaver thunked into the floor just in front of him while three knives buried themselves in the huge butcher’s block in the center of the kitchen. He ducked out from behind its cover, and pain bloomed as a serving fork stabbed into his shoulder with enough force for the tines to pierce his heavy coat all the way to his skin. He yanked it free and flung it blindly behind him.
More drawers tore open, and he didn’t wait to see what they might hold. Gaining the door, he slammed it shut behind him just in time to hear more objects hitting the wood.
Close. And the butler’s pantry, with all the china, was between him and the main hall.
He ran flat out, pain stitching up his side, his bruised hip screaming a protest. The sound of exploding glass came from the butler’s pantry, but he didn’t let it distract him, and an instant later, he burst out into the grand hall.
And collided with someone, sending them both tumbling to the floor.
~ * ~
“Perhaps if we run,” Jo suggested.
Ice seemed to wrap around Henry’s heart, packing against his ribs with every beat. The ghost was indeed toying with them, like a malicious child ripping the wings from a fly.
“Can we close our eyes, as with the door?” he asked Miss Devereaux.
She nodded, her loose coil of hair whispering over her shoulder. She looked pale—did her efforts to see through the ghost’s lies take some toll from her? “Yes. At least, I think so.” She straightened with apparent effort. “Join hands and form a line. I’ll lead us out of here.”
Henry grasped Jo’s hand in his, and she took Miss Prandle’s. “Close your eyes, and whatever you do, don’t let go,” Miss Devereaux ordered as she took Henry’s free hand. “If you do, you’ll be lost. I have no doubt the ghost is more than capable of separating us from one another.”
Henry nodded and closed his eyes. Jo shivered beside him, and he gave her hand a tight squeeze. “We’re ready when you are, Miss Devereaux.”
It was hard, letting her lead him, trusting his feet not to trip. With no sight to distract him, he became painfully aware of the freezing air on his skin, burning in his nose with every breath. Jo’s hand was a like a brand in his, but Miss Devereaux’s fingers felt like ice.
His foot caught on something—probably the edge of the carpet runner—and he nearly fell. The medium’s hand tightened on his convulsively, but she didn’t say anything. Her breathing grew rapid, labored, as if she hauled them behind her up a steep hill.
A finger ran slowly along his cheek.
Henry gasped sharply. “Did—did one of you touch me?”
“No,” Jo said, and an instant later, Miss Prandle let out a gasp of her own.
“There’s something behind us!”
“Keep going,” Miss Devereaux grated out. Her voice was thicker, lower, closer to what Henry supposed her natural tones must be. “It’s trying to trick you into letting go.”
Fingers pinched Henry’s side viciously, even through the layers of his clothing. He winced and tried to ignore the touch.
Nails now. Scraping along the back of his neck. A breath in his ear.
There was something beside him in the hall. Right beside him; he sensed its presence, and if he just opened his eyes, he’d see it looming only inches from his face.
“D-don’t look, Jo,” he ordered. “Keep going!”
It exhaled again, breath fetid, like a beast’s. Maybe it was a beast. A monster, meaning to kill him, and oh God he was going to die, he had to look—
“We’re at the stairs,” Miss Devereaux said. “Just a few moments longer. Henry, the step is right in front of you.”
Gritting his teeth, he fought against the overwhelming sense of menace commanding him to freeze, to look. He felt carefully with his foot, found only air instead of floor, and stepped down.
His ears popped, and warmth flooded back into his limbs. Opening his eyes, he beheld the sweep of stair, the grand hall far below.
“To the door, now,” Miss Devereaux said. Ignoring the pain in his foot, Henry pelted down the stairs after her, pulling Jo and Miss Prandle behind him. They reached the grand hall, and Henry let go of their hands.
A dark shape, moving fast, caught the corner of his eye. He didn’t even have time to turn before it collided with him.
He struck the floor, sending a jolt of pain through his elbow. Whatever had attacked him was heavy and surprisingly solid, and he managed to throw a glancing blow.
“Henry!” Vincent exclaimed. “Stop, it’s me.”
Henry blinked stupidly. Vincent lay atop him, their faces only inches apart. His dark hair was in disarray, and he reeked of wine. “Vincent? What are you doing in here?”
Vincent rolled off and staggered to his feet with a wince. “Reyer held the front door closed. I came in through the basement to find you.”
Even though Henry knew Vincent didn’t mean him in particular, it still warmed his chest foolishly. “Thank you. The spirit tried to trap us on the third floor—we’re abandoning our things and meant to leave immediately.”
Vincent nodded. “Good idea. Come along.”
They made their way toward the vestibule, both Vincent and Henry limping. As they approached, the front door swung open, and Bamforth ducked inside.
“Bamforth?” Miss Prandle asked in surprise. “But the door—”
“It just suddenly opened,” he said.
“Reyer must have exhausted himself, at least for the moment,” Vincent said. “Working against both me and your group, and holding the house sealed, drained his energies.”
“For how long?” Henry asked.
Vincent shrugged, then winced yet again. Blood showed through a small tear in his coat. “Impossible to say. If we’re lucky, he won’t be able to do anything further in the daylight. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t suggest trying to gather our things, just in case. It’s not worth the risk.”
“Agreed,” Miss Prandle said, starting for the door. “Let’s be off.”
“Forgive me, miss, but I came in to tell you.” Bamforth took off his cap and crushed it worriedly between his fingers. “The snow’s gotten worse. It’s...well, see for yourself.”
He swung the door open. Outside, past the edge of the portico, the snow came down in a blinding torrent, so thick and heavy Henry couldn’t even see the woods beyond the drive. “It’s a blizzard,” he said.
“And accumulating fast.” Bamforth’s face had gone pale. “Unless it stops soon, we’ll never make it through to the rail station.”
“Then that’s it.” Vincent exchanged a look with Miss Devereaux. “We’re trapped.”
~ * ~
Vincent sat in one of the chairs near the great hearth while Lizzie tended the punctures the fork had left in his shoulder. Miss Prandle wept quietly across from them, her arms wrapped around her stomach. Bamforth stood nearby, looking helpless, while Miss Strauss huddled near the fire. Henry had left a short time ago, saying he wanted to look over his equipment in the schoolroom. As if he thought there still might be some chance of saving them.
Outside, the storm continued to rage, snow piling high against the doors and windows. Soon the sun would set, and Reyer would return. Would the ghost take him first, or would he have to see Lizzie and Henry lying dead, just as he’d seen Dunne?
If only that would be the end of it. But even death wouldn’t free them from this place. Because there was a new taste on his tongue, of damp cigars. Gladfield’s spirit, trapped in the hall where he had died, unable to move on thanks to Reyer.
“There.” Lizzie stepped back. “At least you won’t be bleeding everywhere now.”
Vincent pulled his coat back on, glad for its warmth. Should he tell her? Wouldn’t it only make things worse?
But Lizzie deserved his honesty. He indicated the other end of the hall with a nod before standing up and making his way past their silent companions. Gladfield’s rug-covered body laid against the wall now, a grim reminder of the fate awaiting them all.
When they were far enough away to have a private conversation, Vincent came to a halt. “I’m sorry,” he said, because he didn’t know what else to say. “I’m sorry I failed you. If I hadn’t let fear get the best of me, the shop wouldn’t have foundered, and we wouldn’t have been forced to take up Gladfield’s ridiculous challenge. And now we’re going to die here, and...and I’m sorry.”
Lizzie sighed. After a moment, her hand came to rest on his good shoulder. “There’s more than enough blame to go around. I clung to the shop as if it would bring Dunne back somehow. As if keeping it meant he wasn’t really gone. But the shop isn’t him, or us. It’s just a place.”
“We won’t escape, you know. Even after...” Vincent swallowed convulsively. “Gladfield is here. Trapped.”
Lizzie closed her eyes and swayed slightly. “Reyer wants not just our lives, but our very souls. And he has the ability to keep us here, with him, forever.”
“I see.” Lizzie tipped her head back, staring up at the rafters above them. “One of us should see to Mr. Strauss. It isn’t safe for him to be alone upstairs.”
The anger Vincent had harbored toward Henry had drained away, leaving behind only weariness and a sort of grief for all the things which might have been. “I’ll do it.”
As he started to turn to the stairs, Lizzie touched his arm, staying him. “Mr. Strauss tried to make amends,” she said. “For whatever it may be worth. I will admit I’m not pleased with his actions, but at least he’s apologized. I believe he acted out of anger and stupidity, rather than malice.”
Vincent frowned. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I just wanted you to know, I think there’s hope for him. Or there would have been.” She let her hand fall. “He’s proud and stubborn to the point of foolishness, yes. But he can learn.”
Vincent glanced past Lizzie to where Miss Strauss sat miserably in front of the fireplace. “Thank you, Lizzie.” Turning away, he made for the stairs.