Death made people weird.
James wasn’t unfamiliar with this fact. He had seen dead people his whole life, knew it from the moment he realized his imaginary friend wasn’t what the others were talking about. He assumed everyone had companions only they could see, but make-believe only went so far. By the time he was eight he knew what he saw and knew to never mention it. Ghosts weren’t uncommon, and with a little practice anyone could use the rune to make them visible, but most people liked to pretend otherwise. Having someone who reminded them of the fact that they weren’t as alone on the streets as they liked to think made them uncomfortable. His parents specifically forbid him to go to “haunted” places, but he couldn’t obey even if he wanted to - the ghosts were everywhere. They never hurt anyone, and he knew some of them by name, but he didn’t have an actual friend until high school.
The blonde girl lived behind the school, on an abandoned property, inside decades-old ruins. Her name was Helen, she had a wound over her heart and she felt wrong in an unexplainable way, but they formed a deep friendship. He hung out with her after classes, talking science or history for hours, and he visited occasionally even after he left for college. Helen was good company, barely older in appearance than him, but if he paid attention he could always see the cloud of sadness engulfing her. He never asked how she died - it felt awkward; not necessarily improper, but not something that was done. She never mentioned the topic, either, and he didn’t expect her to, even if after the first few months he learnt to have no expectations when it came to her. At the time he considered it more likable than weird, but in retrospect her borderline obsession with biology, blood, and explosive chemicals painted quite a creepy picture.
When he was in college he met his first poltergeist - something after a lifetime of knowing only more conventional ghosts surprised him greatly. It lived in the common area, was completely invisible even to him, felt off and liked to play with the doors. Nobody really minded, they stayed clear of hitting range, and one night a group even came up with a game for it. It delighted the whole college when the ghost decided to actually play along.
Since then he became familiar with all kinds of ghosts. After he started to practice as a detective his clientele consisted about forty percent of dead people wishing to move on, and he got good at helping them out. He assumed he gained some reputation amongst the ones not confined to one space, as more and more of them showed up at his door (or window, or stove). The matter of payment was solved in creative ways, information being the main currency, but he got his fair share of family heirlooms and properties as well. He couldn’t walk through a street in London without a transparent hand tipping a transparent hat in his direction, which he his best to reciprocate. He got used to it - it was easier to handle than the frequent traffic jams.
He knew better than to think he’d met every possible eccentricity of a ghost with infinite free time could come up with, even if he considered himself fairly experienced. But ghost mail by an actual ghost pigeon… This was pushing the boundaries.
He finished reading - or rather, the letters finished forming on the wall, and he huffed in amusement. He was eternally grateful the sender drew the line at red ink, the gold was at least somehow decorative. The case seemed reasonably common, even with the twist, so he scribbled down the address before the letters could vanish.
“How extravagant,” came a feminine voice from the doorway.
James rolled his eyes, not even bothering to look at his houseghost, a bossy menace called Ranna. Ranna moved in three years ago - he came home one day and found her in the couch, declaring she liked the wallpaper. They spent the first weeks arguing, but eventually got used to each other, and lived in relative peace ever since. James gave up trying to stop her when she chased away a client or two with her sneaky habits, on the condition that she used her contacts at the Praxian Police to get information when he needed it. The system worked out and Detective Zimmerman from the police station always appreciated his extra insights.
“Wouldn’t be the first client who’s into the whole dramatic ghost style,” he answered, and didn’t even flinch when Ranna suddenly appeared beside him.
“Hmh.” She wasn’t one to change her clothes or hairstyle as James got to know in the time spent together, but even if she did he would’ve recognized this irritated posture anywhere. “Ghost stuck in one place again? Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I see no reason why not,” he said, dismissively. “But if you have anything to say…”
The glare he received didn’t even have any real heat to it.
He had to wait until next afternoon due to an ongoing case to visit the address, and Ranna grumbled the entire time. She even went halfway with him, despite her usual insistence that an honorable ghost didn’t haunt the streets like some lunatic, but when he got on the last bus she stayed behind, half-floating in a vending machine. He wasn’t sure what to make of this - ghost pigeons or not, usually the most dramatic clients proved to be the most harmless ones as well.
When he arrived at the given address he immediately understood the ghost pigeon. Behind a garden of a green maze stood a classic haunted house, one of the most stereotypical ones he’s ever seen, the kind used in movies. It probably had been a multi-flat house, so close to the Thames he felt the wind picking up his coat, but now only the end of the left wing stood. Even the still standing walls wore the marks of an old fire which caused the roof to collapse onto the top floor. The windows had lost their frames long ago, and in the place of the glass only the leaves of the wild grape covered them which grew all over the whole building, like the glue holding it all together. James admired the novelty of it for a moment, then sighed and started to struggle through the jungle of vines which once had been the pathway to the door - romanticism was never a friend of practicality.
As he got closer he started to feel the wrongness of the place - very similar to the feeling he got from Helen’s ruin. It had nothing to do with the appearance, he saw enough burnt-out houses in his lifetime (some ghosts really had the flair for the traditional visions), but the sync of the two aspects made him uneasy. Despite his better judgement (neither of them hurt him, right?) he slipped in the barely-open door, careful to not touch the frame, avoiding the whole thing landing on his head as best he could. He knocked three times on the wall, following the common supernatural custom. The noise echoed in the empty space.
The answer came in the form of a loud crash, debris fell from the first floor, followed by an unidentifiable metal subject, possibly once part of a wardrobe. James huffed in annoyance, but followed the stairs up to the floor where the thing came from - traditionalist (and most likely Victorian) ghosts all followed the same code. Hollow knocking, probably from inside a fireplace guided him further, to the flat right across the stairs on the second floor. The door was open.
He stepped into the deserted hall and continued to the main room, where the wrongness originated from. The room wasn’t any less ruined than the other parts of the house, but it seemed everything left in this particular flat was hoarded here. In the corner laid a pile of scrap metal, and in the center stood the fireplace, with still occasionally echoing sound coming from it.
“Are you quite finished?” he asked, looking nowhere in particular.
The air shifted in front of him, revealing a tall figure. His first impression was that the ghost lived up to the expectations of every mediocre horror story he’d had the misfortune of seeing during his ill-advised pop culture research phase. There was something decidedly bat-like about him, thanks to the black longcoat he wore, and his bald head only emphasized the impression. An old wound on his neck completed the picture.
“Excuse my enthusiasm,” he said, bowing slightly. “I rarely get visitors these days. John Druitt.”
“Dr. James Watson.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Watson.” A transparent hand gestured at the windowsill. “Have a seat.”
James complied and looked around. The picture wasn’t any better from here, but the destruction seemed irrelevant compared to the wrongness engulfing Druitt’s whole presence. He didn’t radiate it, it was drowning him with a sensation all too familiar. (Helen’s sad eyes, a gentle rebuttal when he offered to help, walls covered in moss.)
“When did it burn down?” he asked, eyeing the ashen remains that had to be scientific equipment in the pile of metal.
The ghost shrugged.
“A few decades ago,” he said, spreading his arms as if referring to the time passed. “I’ve been here before and I’m still here after.”
“Which is the problem if I read your letter correctly,” picked up James the line of the conversation, slipping into professional mode. Strange impressions or not, John Druitt was a client. “May I ask how did you die?”
Druitt raised a hand to his neck with a wry smile, and floated closer so he was almost laying into the opposite window frame.
“We were stupid,” he said, bitterness coloring his tone. “We were stupid enough to think we could mess with vampirism and get away with it.”
This didn’t exactly answer his question, but he could build upon it.
“Who was that ‘we’?”
A shadow of a smile appeared on Druitt’s face.
“The four of us - we were in college together. Helen, Nigel, Tesla and me.” His gaze became distant, then he blinked and looked back at James. “We died in the lab, appropriately.”
James stared back at him, almost seeing his suspicions quickly becoming reality. Different and science and forbidden and Helen, Helen, Helen.
He snapped back to the present, clearing his throat.
“So you weren’t here when you died?”
Druitt shook his head.
“We’d been in Helen’s father’s lab, on the other side of town.”
James nodded, the wheels whirring in his head.
“Do you remember the address?”
Scribbling down an address he was quite sure didn’t exist anymore he contemplated the new information. Place-bound ghosts weren’t that common, and the few he met in his life were stuck in the house (or boat, or amusement park) they died in. This was new and entirely unnerving, making him think that maybe, just maybe Ranna’s concerns weren’t without basis. (Then again, Ranna didn’t know the additional information and she was a riddle wrapped in two mysteries, a lie and a crime novel anyway, and he was about ninety percent sure she’d killed someone.) He needed more data to work with.
“So you were in the lab… working on something?” Druitt nodded. “What happened next?”
“I’m not sure.” James has never seen a ghost literally vibrating with uncertainty before. “I was standing with my back to the door, we were all watching Helen. We were so close to a serum… then someone just…” He shrugged and gestured at his wound. “I remember seeing the others die… Helen die… but not much else.”
James stared at him. He knew one or two murdered scientists too stubborn for their own good, but in those cases it was always the Praxian Police and they didn’t do curses. Either way…
“How do you know it was because of the experiment, then? What kind of serum were you working on?”
Druitt’s laughter seemed to bring down the temperature with several degrees.
“What else? We tried to make it from vampire blood to use it on ourselves. We wanted to see more, know more, be more…” He sighed and leaned on the wall, his arm disappearing in the stone. “What I said… we were stupid. Stupid kids.”
James couldn’t help but agree with the assessment. While ghosts weren’t anything to be afraid of (most of the time, anyway), vampires… The Praxian Police did a good job keeping them in check these days worldwide, with the mostly unwanted help of the freelance vampire hunters like Will Zimmerman’s girlfriend had been before, but he knew from older clients that it hadn’t been always like that. Experimenting with vampire blood in the Victorian times was stupid at best and suicidal at worst, though not as uncommon as one might have thought. Unfortunately this only meant he had to go through just about every single curse used in the 19th century to solve this particular case, which did not make things easier. He knew he should just abandon the case there and then, spending those hours (days, weeks) of research on other clients who could pay with useful information or real money instead of scavenged valuables of a burnt out house, but he didn’t start this for money. He started it because he couldn’t walk away. To leave this challenge, to return to everyday clients where every change he made would have happened eventually, every wrong he righted met with three more he couldn’t do anything about… to leave this miserable rubble, this ghost who was wrong and cursed and hopeless… he couldn’t do it either.
“Very well, Mr. Druitt,” he said, standing up from the windowsill. “I’ll visit when I have more information. Please refrain from sending more ghost pigeons, however dramatic they might be.”
Druitt’s laughter was sincere this time.
“Don’t worry, Detective. Pigeons were never really my thing anyway.”
James smiled, and bidding goodbye he walked down the stairs and out of the garden. It felt as if the house stared after him.
The small research section in the public Library was run by a woman named Eve. James wasn’t sure what her job really covered, but her no-nonsense attitude and the types of books she reigned over suggested she wasn’t guarding the place just against moths and leaks. She also never asked questions and didn’t bat an eye at whatever his current case required, so when he put every book on Victorian-era curses he found on the counter and Eve raised an eyebrow he knew he was really in over his head this time.
“Can you tell me where I can find a map of 1880s London?” he asked absentmindedly as he took the receipts. Eve’s eyebrows raised even higher, if it was even possible.
“Try Oxford’s library,” she said, the picture of professionalism. James nodded, put the studies in his case and bid farewell. He could feel Eve’s eyes on him even after he exited the building.
Eve was the smaller problem, of course. Ranna didn’t waste a moment to get the story out of him as he arrived home, and when she succeeded she didn’t bother to hide her opinion.
“Stop seething,” he interrupted her after a good fifteen minutes of ranting, supported by the fact that she didn’t need to breathe anymore - a very annoying perk of being a ghost when it came to Ranna. “Last I checked you didn’t haunt here on my salary.”
“Don’t be a git.”
Ranna crossed her arms and floated a few feet away.
“Why, my lady, if I didn’t know better I would think you’re sulking.”
Ranna immediately turned back.
“Ghosts don’t sulk,” she said with every dignity she could muster. “I simply don’t like the idea of my landlord interfering with something that could bring the Praxian Police on his head.”
“The Praxian Police doesn’t curse people,” sighed James. “But as I said… If you have something to share with the class now would be a good time.”
“I quite like our current arrangement,” murmured Ranna and slipped through the wall. James rolled his eyes.
“Careful, one might assume you care,” he called out, loud enough so it could be heard in the whole flat. Only silence answered. He shook his head, and sat down at his desk, taking the closest book before him. He might as well get started.
After four days of relentless work, only twice interrupted with short consulting calls by Will Zimmerman and with no luck with finding anything related to his topic, he decided to turn to a different approach. He went to the campus’ library, with a constantly-muttering Ranna in tow, and they indeed found the map with the address he was looking for. Once he identified the location it wasn’t hard find it on a new map, even if the moment he pointed out the old street Ranna disappeared without a word. The result wasn’t exactly surprising, but… speculating was one thing, knowing was another.
He needed to visit Helen.
The school looked the same as it did ten years ago when he pulled up to it in his old soapbox sometimes mockingly called a car. He deliberately chose a Saturday, so the silence shouldn’t have unnerved him, but somehow it always had. The small playground area only got rustier over time, but nothing else had changed. This wasn’t a bad neighborhood when he went there and it must had been exceptionally good back then, but the city developing program seemed to forget this district, just outside the old town. It could have been a ghost paradise. John Druitt was far from the only one embracing the cliche, and even if the majority hung around places full of life there weren’t that many acceptable “haunted” areas out there - the traditionalist ghost population learnt to live in close proximity.
Not here, though. Maybe it was the wrongness of it all, maybe a story, passing through the grapevine (Ranna clearly wasn’t as above it all as she liked to pretend), but he didn’t see any local ghosts. The few he caught sight of either looked curious, the equivalent of catastrophe tourists, or were just passing through. Nobody tried to claim a cellar in the old buildings, nobody looked for haunting space.
The abandoned yard behind the school was a jungle of branches and drying leaves. He was thirteen when they mowed down the front part of the old building so when he first snuck in he easily found paths between the ruins and the ever-growing nature, but the property was long abandoned now and those paths disappeared in the late September’s yellow-orange chaos. The hole in the fence he’d used was occupied by a rather stingy-looking bush, so he searched until he found a more or less free way and got in, narrowly avoiding tearing apart his coat.
All the paths he knew were missing, so he just started walking in what he determined as the right direction. He remembered it well - into the middle, to the right, in to the half-roofless space which had been part of the building. Helen used to haunt there, usually keeping under the remains of the staircase covering the back left of the room. It wasn’t hard to find, and even if he had trouble the wrongness of the place had been unmistakable, much like Druitt’s flat.
Or at least that was how it used to be. His unease grew with every step, not because he felt the warning he now suspected as the effect of the curse keeping them both in their place, but because he didn’t. The yard felt perfectly normal and even when he concentrated all he got was some leftover feeling. Something wasn’t right here.
He found his way to the ruin, climbed in and looked around.
Only the silence answered. The afternoon sun illuminated a tree branch with a single dried-up leaf hanging in over the wall, the moss covering every inch of the stone, but the familiar figure was nowhere to be seen.
Nothing. He turned around, searching for something, anything, but the only movement he could see was a squirrel’s tail as it jumped on the big oak next to the ruin. He slowly shook his head. Helen wasn’t here.
He walked under the stairs, trying to find something - he wasn’t even sure what. Even if he hasn’t visited in the last four years or so, he’d always thought of Helen as a constant; never changing, just like the school and other mementos from his teenage years. Helen was the beginning, the first ghost he became friends with, the inspiration for his whole career, the reason he’d been seeking. He wished her the best - and in his experience most souls moved on after finishing their previously-unfinished business, apart from the occasional weirdos, but he couldn’t help feeling like he had failed her somehow. He could have pushed when she sent him away, could have asked more… but he hadn’t.
The only thing that caught his attention was a burn mark in the shape of a half-circle on the wall. He absentmindedly swept over the stone until his fingers touched something decidedly unnatural under the moss. He looked more closely, peeling the green strands from the surface. He’d never examined this part of the wall before, this was Helen’s space, but the carving was deep enough to be felt through all the greenery, so he had his suspicions even before the figure became recognizable. It must have been much deeper back then, but it was still clear enough. He ran his fingers along the twirls of the symbol - one he knew all too well.
The Praxian Police.
The Praxian Police never used curses. Officially.
He turned and left the place, not even looking back. He had to ask Ranna about this - he had some relationship with the organization, he could get some information from them from time to time, but hardly anything incriminating. He didn’t know what Ranna had had to do with them, but her connections existed. One didn’t simply ask her about them, though.
He wanted to speak to her as soon as he got home, but he was met with an unexpected obstacle - Ranna was nowhere to be seen. It happened sometimes, so he wasn’t worried, but it was annoying. She’s always had the worst timing, and her disappearance now meant he couldn’t count on her help for the next two or three weeks. He had to put this particular clue on ice for the time being. He could either pursue other cases or continue his search for the curse, neither of which sounded very appealing.
Which was the reason of him turning up at Druitt’s flat after two days of consideration, carrying a stack of books, a fluffy blanket and a camping chair. Druitt seemed bemused by all of it.
“Why, Dr. Watson, I didn’t realize you found my humble residence so inviting,” he said with a barely concealed smirk.
“Shut it,” grumbled James and put down the chair in front of the empty fireplace. “I identified Helen.” Druitt perked up at that, and James raised his hand to stop him. “She’s gone.”
“Gone?” echoed Druitt. “What do you mean, gone? How did you find her, then?”
“I didn’t find her, I identified her.” He sat down on and fixed Druitt with a glare, who anxiously slipped in and out of transparency. “I checked the address and discovered that I knew her for a few years, back in school. I went back but she was gone.”
Druitt almost visibly deflated at the news.
“I see,” he murmured with a faraway look. “So in the lab… and now she’s gone. For the best, I suppose… just, how?”
“Exactly what I’m trying to find out,” said James dryly. “Shall I explain the rest of it?”
Druitt floated a little closer, wisely keeping silent.
“Thank you. Now, the PP may be involved, but it’s a bit unclear. My informant is not available for a while, so that track is on hold, and for the time being…” he gestured at the books, “research.”
“And you find this atmosphere inspiring?” quirked an eyebrow Druitt.
“Not exactly.” He held up a book. “Well, Mr. Druitt. How much do you want to get out of here?”
Druitt laughed out loud.
“Well played, Dr. Watson, well played.” He took the book, and seemed to arrange himself in a comfortable position in the air, all with the practiced ease of an old ghost. “Now, what are we looking for?”
They spent the day in companionable silence, only exchanging a few words when one of them found something remarkable. James went out to get lunch at one point and returned with a notebook and a pen for Druitt so he could take notes as well - working with someone who actually had a clue about research was quite refreshing. At the end of the day when James started to pack his equipment Druitt stopped him.
“Don’t bother. Take the books, but the rest…” He stopped and floated over to the doorframe next to the pile of scrap metal, and gestured inside. “It should be dry enough.”
James took a look and without further objection put the chair and the blanket inside the windowless storage, deep enough to protect them from the elements. He looked up at the walls, checking their dryness and froze in place.
“Mr. Druitt,” he began slowly, “have you ever seen the symbol of the Praxian Police?”
“No, they didn’t really advertise it back then,” said Druitt and floated inside after him. “What does it look like?”
The twirling symbol was like a painted target as they stared at it.
“I guess the involvement of the PP is no longer so unclear,” hummed Druitt and James let out a deep sight.
“I need to speak with Ranna.”
“Ranna?” repeated Druitt. “As in, Praxis’ Seneschal Ranna?”
“No, she’s…” James paused. “I don’t know.”
Could it be true? The identity of the Seneschals wasn’t exactly public knowledge - while they were in office, yes, but after they stepped down, their name and face vanished, thanks to an old ritual or some kind of hidden technology, it was hard to tell with the PP sometimes. There were perfectly acceptable safety reasons for that, the PP didn’t have the resources to protect every single one of them from possibly vengeful vampires and rule-breakers. Whatever it was it didn’t include dead people, but most of them was occupied with their own business and the exceptions were manageable. Ranna could have been Seneschal a century ago and he had no way of knowing her name - no reason to want to know it, either.
Except if the PP was really involved in this mess.
“I really need to speak with Ranna.”
It was easier said than done. Ranna didn’t come back after two weeks, nor after three weeks, and when the calendar first showed November, James started to get worried. He picked up some other cases and helped out at the station in the meantime, but he spent at least three days a week at the old house. John was good company. At first they only spent time with doing research, but on the second week he decided to bring over a chessboard, which lay mostly unused in his flat, and they discovered they made worthy opponents. The hollow house felt homier with every passing day, even as he had to bring warmer clothes as the weather turned chilly.
“This is ridiculous,” he sighed one evening, flicking up his king. The lamp he’d brought over at some point in October cast a golden light in the room.
“Oh, don’t start now,” said John with a decidedly smug undertone. He comfortably floated across him, much more relaxed than when they first met. His clothes had changed a bit, too, looking more casual, even if he didn’t give up the black longcoat.
“Not that,” snorted James, sending a mock-glare over the board. He waved towards the ever-present stack of books. “You’d think we could have found something by now.”
John shrugged. “Maybe we’re just looking at the wrong place. Rematch?”
They got lost in the game once more, but something kept flickering in the back of James’ mind. What if they were really concentrating on the wrong issue? He envied John’s patience, but then again, the ghost had a century of practice; a month or two must have felt like minutes to him. He didn’t have that advantage, and the situation had started to get on his nerves.
His distraction showed in the match, and after he lost his queen John looked at him suspiciously. He didn’t answer the obvious question, and they took the game to its predictable conclusion.
“I suppose we could look at what groups the PP were working with at the time,” said John after few minutes of silence.
James stared at him.
“You mean to say the PP worked with other groups back then and you just thought of mentioning it now?”
“I thought they still did.” John didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest. James groaned.
“You could have lead with that…”
“Hey, you’re the detective, I’m just a ghost…”
“Oh, shut up.”
After a visit to the library yet again they were faced with a new problem. The once-contributing groups were documented, all right, but the majority operated in secrecy, so he’d never heard of them. John recognized a few, but without knowing if they even still existed, they couldn’t do a whole lot with the list. Consequently they spent the next two weeks comparing symbols - while John poured over an insane number of catalogues, James followed leads and felt like a bloodhound, but in the end they narrowed it down to three organizations. One of them John dismissed as laughable even in 19th century scientist circles, another proved to be a dead end, so in the end they were left with one option - pretty straightforward, and just as dangerous.
“I’d understand if you wanted to stop here,” said John as they stared at the result. “You can take the payment and all… just stop by sometimes.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” said James tiredly. “We’re not quitting now.”
“Are you sure?”
He rolled his eyes in response.
“Completely. Now, where could we find them?”
“You’re crazy,” sighed John but he didn’t argue, and James had a feeling he wasn’t far off the truth.
The Cabal symbol stared back at them from the paper.
Ranna was still nowhere to be found.
James spent the next few days in a frenzy, looking for possible locations and checking in from time to time with John, forever cursing the fact that ghosts couldn’t use phones. It was a Thursday afternoon when he finally found a small island close to the perimeter of Belgium, and took the map to double-check with John. He ran up the stairs, barely paying attention to his surroundings, and stepped in their usual room already speaking.
“…the symbols check in so we can…” he stopped at the emptiness that welcomed him. “John?”
Silence. He looked around - all the furniture he carried over was in place, the chessboard on its usual table, the pieces waiting for the next match.
He had a bad feeling about this. Now that he paid attention the wrongness he’d become familiar with in the last weeks was also missing, only an afterthought staying. He looked around and spotted what he was looking for - the burn mark forming a half-circle, same as at Helen’s place.
He turned around and left. Something was going on here, and he had to take the next step.
He wasn’t sure how to go about getting backup without the means to make this an official investigation - because if he was doing this he was getting backup -, but fortunately Will Zimmerman’s girlfriend all but jumped at the opportunity. Kate Freelander was certainly a character, and she had all the combat experience he lacked.
The journey to the island was uneventful (if one didn’t count Kate getting into a snark duel with one of the passengers on the plane, but that was just Kate). They left their rented boat in a small bay and walked into the forest covering the whole place, save for a few cliffs in the distance.
“This is the start of every other horror movie,” murmured Kate beside him. “Why are we here again?”
“Because something is making ghosts disappear and not in the good way,” sighed James for the umpteenth time.
“And you have to investigate it, of course.” Kate climbed up on a bunch of rocks which could have been a waterfall once and peeked out on the top. “Will was right, you have no survival instinct.”
James left the sentiment go unanswered and looked around. He was eternally grateful for the lack of snow to leave tracks in, even if it was quite chilly. Unfortunately the leaves had fallen off some time ago so the cover wasn’t as good as it could have been, but it was still the best they could have hoped for in December. He followed Kate, and after a good hour of climbing they found themselves at the door of the cliffs. They stared up at the cold granite. It came down in an almost straight wall to their feet, but the higher parts seemed to be just rocks piled up on each other.
“Well, there goes nothing,” said Kate, and turned to walk along the path running around the stone. James followed her, keeping his eye on the cliff. They were halfway through when he stopped.
Two slabs of granite stood before him. One of them reached over the other, dwarfing it in a manner that was almost… unnatural.
“What?” Kate followed his gaze. He didn’t answer, just ran his hand over the stone, stopping when he felt it curling inside. It looked like his fingers were just engulfed by it. He felt his way around a bit more, then carefully stepped forward. As he crossed the invisible barrier the illusion disappeared, revealing a narrow path leading to a cave opening between the two stones.
“Creepy,” whispered Kate behind him.
They made their way to the entrance, mindful of every step. They stopped before the real stone, listening to any sign that they weren’t alone, but the only sounds were their own breathing and the distant hum of the sea. James took off his backpack and got out a flashlight, then - to Kate’s surprised but appreciative look - a small nightlight. They stepped into the opening, pausing to let their eyes accommodate, and James lifted the nightlight. A long corridor stretched in front of them, safe and empty. Now Kate took the lead, weapon in hand, ready to defend them at the first sign of hostility.
The light coming in from outside quickly faded, then entirely disappeared, as they turned the first corner. James held the nightlight in his hand, barely letting out enough light for them to see. He could practically feel Kate’s uneasiness, and he wasn’t any happier about their situation either - they were a glowing target for any attack coming from the darkness. The stone under his feet was smoother than any mine had the right to be, the walls rough, but stable. If the Cabal was here, they had technology that to his previous knowledge only the PP possessed.
They’d been walking for about half an hour when Kate stopped and gestured to him to hide the light. He complied, and then he saw it too - a luminous glow ahead of them, coming from a wider tunnel running across theirs, seemingly from the right side. Kate readied her weapon and sneaked close enough to peek in. She let out a soft gasp and tiptoed around the corner. James followed her in a slower pace, looking around for possible threats.
The corridor ran in a straight line behind their backs, but it widened after a few meters in the other direction, transforming into a hall. The whole space was immersed in soft light coming from the line of containers standing next to the wall. They surrounded an altar-like stone standing in the middle of the hall, with symbols carved into its surface around seven white crystals. The containers had a white substance in them, somewhere between gas and liquid, too otherworldly to be either. Human figures floated in them, just as unsubstantial as the surrounding fog.
Three out of the seven tanks were empty, aside from the white fog. The closest to him contained a man he didn’t know with the PP’s symbol on his coat, clothed in gear used in the first world war. His gaze swept over him, drawn to the familiar figures across him. Helen would have looked absolutely angelic with her blonde curls framing her face if not for the fact that her eyes were wide open and staring off to nothing - as it was, the picture became horribly unnerving. In the tank to her left, Ranna’s eyes were at least closed, but seeing her this passive was… disconcerting. And the last one… John. James took a deep breath. Well, he found them, all right.
“What is this?” whispered Kate. “Some sort of summoning?”
“Some sort of prison.” He stared at Ranna’s blank face, then something occurred to him. “You can see them?”
“For the first time in my life.” Kate sounded as disturbed as he felt. “I know they can be made visible, but…”
James turned abruptly at this and crouched down before the center stone. He took out the flashlight and focused it on the symbols. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he immediately found the rune enabling everyday people to see ghosts - it wasn’t difficult to use, sometimes even he used it when a client needed to contact a living relative. He looked over the other ones - some of them were obviously linked with the crystals and he remembered those from his studies on bidding signs, but they weren’t anything special either. The rest was unfamiliar.
“I don’t think this place is very important to them,” he mused. “Everyone uses the best quality traps for spirits. This, however…”
“This is a ‘good enough’ storage,” Kate finished the thought. “Like when you need to get a high-profile bloodsucker and you just lock up the other ones coming your way so they don’t interfere.”
Sometimes it was alarmingly easy to forget that Kate’s expertise came from a successful career as a freelance vampire hunter.
“So they don’t interfere, you say?” James looked around, trying to see the prisoners from the Cabal’s perspective. They weren’t important or powerful enough to be actual assets—and if he’d learnt anything from his very limited sources, it was that the Cabal collected power—with the possible exception of Ranna. Two of them were members of the PP, but the others not. There didn’t seem to be any connection between them, aside the century-old incident, and if they were kept here now it obviously still had some significance.
Helen was captured at some point in the past few years—she was trapped in the place where it happened. John asked him to investigate. Ranna… Ranna disappeared in the moment he found the address of the old house: she knew something. The whole thing was very logical… he just had no idea where that logic lead. A curse, some college kids messing with vampire blood, what did the Cabal get from all of this? He was missing something here.
“How do we break them out?” Kate broke the silence. She was eyeing Helen with great distrust. “Have we come for them, by the way?”
“Exactly. As for breaking them out…” James grimaced. “We have to get the crystals out, how to do that is anybody’s guess.”
“Hmm.” Kate circled the stone. “Are those bond-runes on the crystals themselves? Because shooting those usually destroys what’s inside.”
“Maybe, but I doubt shooting them when we’re supposed to be sneaking around is really a splendid idea.”
James surveyed the area.
“Got any better ones?” shrugged Kate. “Anyway, guarding a ‘good enough’ storage seems kinda pointless to me.”
“You might be right,” sighed James. “Go ahead.”
“Just step back,” Kate warned, and he obediently backed off to the corridor. Kate aimed her gun and pulled the trigger.
After all that time in semidarkness, the flash of the small explosion blinded him. Kate leaped out of the way just in time, as the crystal dissolved into dust, followed by one of the containers and the WWI-gear-wearing man. White fog filled the room, and when it cleared up there was nothing left in its place.
“Okay,” breathed Kate. “Maybe… not like that.”
James checked on the others - none of the tanks were harmed in the explosion, and their residents remained unresponsive. He turned away from Helen’s unnerving gaze and examined the altar-stone - it had stayed the same as well.
“There has to be some way to break it without… well, breaking it,” he hummed, mostly to himself.
“You don’t say.” Kate seemed to be rather frustrated by this turn of the events. “If everything fails we still can bring down the mountain…”
James laughed and glanced at the ceiling, only to freeze in confusion. Instead of the plain stone he expected to see, the ceiling was full of intersecting lines, which slightly glowed in the dark. He slowly turned around, searching for some pattern in the chaos.
“There it is,” he said quietly.
“What?” Kate came to stand beside him, and was glaring at the stone with furrowed brows. “I can’t see anything.”
“The Praxian symbol.”
Kate tipped her head to one side then the other.
“Yeah, still can’t see it. I guess you have that freaky vision-thing like Will… so symbol, now what?”
James didn’t answer, just walked back to the stone, keeping the symbol in his peripheral vision. His suspicion was right, every crystal aligned with the crossing points of the pattern. He brought his hand between two of them. Nothing happened. He followed the lines more closely, and discovered the crossing point had a counterpart, and covering both they cut off a whole segment of the main pattern. He touched the equivalent of both points on the table. Nothing happened, but he heard Kate’s breath hitch behind him.
“What is it?”
“This one… the one with Blondie turned blue for a moment.”
He repeated the movement.
“Hmm…” He reached out with both hands and covered two of the trigger points.
He spun around at Kate’s exclamation and found himself face-to-face with a very confused, but free and alert John Druitt.
“Apologies, my lady,” bowed the ghost in Kate’s direction, then looked back at James. “Not that I don’t appreciate the change in scenery, old boy, but what happened?”
“You got put into storage by the Cabal, apparently,” said James with a certain amount of relief.
“Not a career path I’ve ever considered before,” mused John. James couldn’t help but grin back, even as he mentally counted down the seconds. John turned around, then… “Helen?!”
The expression on his friend’s face mirrored his own feeling ever since the second he first saw Helen’s lifeless, staring eyes.
“What happened to her?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” sighed James, searching for the next trigger point. “We found her like this… all right, next try.”
This time one of the empty containers glowed. It took two more attempts - during which he did his best to filter out John and Kate who were busy introducing themselves - to finally get it right.
“Greetings, Seneschal,” he heard John’s icy tone and turned around to join in glaring at Ranna.
“Care to elaborate?”
“I wasn’t worried about the PP, all right,” she rolled her eyes, and gestured at the room, but maybe at the whole situation. “Do you like this better?”
“What I would like is if you shared with us what the hell is going on!”
He crossed his arms, laying against the altar-stone. Ranna looked around, wincing when she met John’s accusing stare. Even Kate seemed to pick up the mood.
“The PP and the Cabal had a partnership when I was around,” she started hesitantly. “Too many secrets, not enough people… the old drill. They had permission to use the symbols and all of it.” She paused for a second, but sensing the general hostility quickly continued. “Their only condition was to be given the ‘dangerous experiments’ section. It was relatively harmless… warnings, sabotages, no-kill missions.”
“Well they sure killed us.” John’s tone was somewhere between one of an icicle and a growling animal.
“Yes,” sighed Ranna, with obvious reluctance. “We figured it out later. They wanted the experiments because they wanted to try them. There must have been a shortage on strong vampires or I don’t know…” she snorted, humorlessly. “They killed everyone, took the experiments, and tried it on the next group. This long-binding one, too…” she shot a sad look at John, who couldn’t seem to decide whether to be horrified or furious.
Kate didn’t have such problems.
“And nobody had noticed?!” Her voice was filled with angry disbelief. James shook his head.
“Tell me you did something,” he murmured, frozen in place.
“When we realized we cut every tie and made sure nobody else died. I quit as soon as the next Seneschal could have been elected.”
“And what about us?”
“How did you die?”
John and Kate spoke at the same time.
“I tried to lift a curse from a group who were alive,” whispered Ranna. “They knew about the murders… decided to take revenge and they did.”
The silence seemed to echo between them.
“And the PP?” asked John, not giving up on his glare. “What did the new Seneschal do? Just threw us to the wolves?”
Ranna bowed her head.
“Why didn’t you continue in this form?” James was surprised to hear his own voice - dry, irritated, betrayed. “What could have stopped you?”
Ranna’s self-deprecating smile could have cut through glass.
“I wanted to.” She looked away, avoiding everyone’s eyes. “I was afraid. Then by time I wasn’t I lost all the traces.” She seemed to force herself to glance at John. “I know it… doesn’t matter. But I’m really sorry.”
John looked at Helen. James looked at John. Nobody spoke.
In the silence the sudden noise coming from the tunnel made everyone jump. Stone knocked on stone, and Kate spun around to face the entrance, ready to fire.
“You must have triggered an alarm,” hissed Ranna.
James and John exchanged a resigned look.
“I knew it was too easy…”
“My investigation tipped them off first,” said Ranna, taking control of the situation with remarkable speed. “If this thing has another entrance…”
“Wait, wait,” James raised a hand. “Not mine?”
“No, no,” Ranna shook her head. “The symbols have a way to sense intent, they just need someone to check on them. They must have looked over all of them periodically after I got captured and that’s why they got you,” she nodded at John. “So if this thing…”
“And what about Helen?!” John’s voice was way too much loud for their predicament.
“Too late.” Ranna paused to look at the container. “If her eyes are open like this you can’t wake her up. She was in too long, and because she has nothing to stay for except the binding… She’s stuck.”
“We can’t just leave her like this!” John floated closer angrily.
“Of course not,” sighed Ranna. “See those?” She pointed at two unfamiliar symbols behind the binding ones next to the crystals. “Those are… well, the so-called curse. If we destroy them it vanishes.”
“Are you saying,” started James slowly, “that these are responsible for the whole thing?”
“That’s bullshit,” interjected Kate from her post at the opening of the corridor. “Why would they put every card here?”
“Because this is damage control,” answered James, putting the pieces together. “To stop them from interfering… They still have the other two, they don’t need you,” he glanced at John. “They’re burning the bridges.”
“Oh crap,” sighed Kate. “We’re totally dead, aren’t we?”
“As I was saying,” said Ranna, irritated, “if this thing has another entrance, you two are safe. They don’t know you’re involved, just me.”
“You can’t seriously suggest…”
“I have explosives,” perked up Kate, finishing the argument before it even had a chance to start. “If you destroy those runes while someone is in the tank, they disappear, right?”
“In this case yes, but…”
“Very good, Ms. Freelander.” John snapped his fingers. “Destroy everything, make the Cabal think you’ve done their work for them, break the curse in the process…”
“That… could work,” admitted Ranna.
James kept quiet. Kate’s plan was sound, but he just realized that in between two chess matches and the excitement of the investigation he somehow forgot the original goal. Breaking the curse meant freeing John - and it also meant that the burnt out house next to the Thames would become empty. He was going to have to take the champing chair, the chessboard, the notebooks, take them home, take the payment John offered, and move on to other cases.
Helen was already gone.
Now John would be as well.
“Don’t look that forlorn, Detective.” He looked up at John, who was watching him with a wry half-smile. “You’ve solved the case.”
“Why, I believe I have, Mr. Druitt,” he answered, but the tone fell flat between them.
“Thank you, old boy.” John’s hand passed through his shoulder. “And good luck.”
None of the responses seemed adequate.
“It’s been an honor,” he said in the end. John nodded like he understood, and turned to Kate.
“You may proceed, Ms. Freelander.”
Kate obeyed without a word, warning James to stand back. She put the explosives directly on the stone, and fiddled with the timer for a bit before looking at him.
“We’ll have five minutes before all of this is blown to hell. Ready?”
“There is an other tunnel after the corner,” reported Ranna, who James didn’t even register that left the room earlier.
“That way, then.” Kate connected the wire to the timer. “Three… two… one… go!”
Ranna waited for them at the opening of the other tunnel. James let Kate take the lead, switching on the flashlight and trying to hold it so both of them could see. The stone was uneven under his feet here, going down and down, until the air felt humid and brought the smell of the sea. They were running on vertical ground when they heard the explosion, but neither of them reacted. Ranna sometimes floated beside him, sometimes went ahead to check the way until they reached a small cave.
The sea sparkled in front of them, bathed in moonlight - while they were inside the sun had set. He switched off the flashlight.
“I’ll go check where we are,” whispered Kate. Her figure was almost ghost-like in the dark as she slipped away.
James looked back at the sea.
“I’m sorry,” said Ranna quietly. She seemed to reflect the moonlight.
“For not telling me you were Seneschal?”
“For using you to get away from it.” She paused. “And… for that too, I guess.”
James smiled to himself. Leave it to Ranna to give a non-apology about keeping secrets. As for the other part…
“Did you really go to a seer detective to get away from it?”
Ranna laughed - silently, humorlessly.
“I know, I know.” She floated a little closer to the sea. “I get it if you don’t want me around anymore… especially with the Cabal after my head.”
“Like that ever stopped you.” James had to roll his eyes. “I don’t mind the Cabal. In fact…”
Ranna raised an eyebrow.
“In fact, what?”
“We could start to unravel all of this. I may have a lead.” It was a bad idea, a dangerous idea, but he couldn’t let it slide. It was a chance, too. The biggest chance he’s ever got. “Partners?”
Ranna looked as taken aback by the offer as himself, but didn’t hesitate more than a second.
The stars were brighter than any time he’d ever seen them before.