"Hello, lady?" Catrina was interrupted from her morning tea mid-sip by one of the group of nervous-looking children who had been loitering in the hotel lobby suddenly darting up to her and tugging on her sleeve. "You're a ghost hunter, right?"
"Well," said Catrina, setting her tea down to avoid any danger of it being spilled by further jostling. "Colloquially."
From the other side of the table, Evarose interjected, through a mouthful of muffin, "That means 'yes.'"
The little girl gestured to her friends, who slowly filed forward and one by one plopped handfuls of coins and crumpled paper bills down onto the breakfast table. "I knew it," she said solemnly. "You have those skulls — they just look magical — and I caught the thing on your friend's head looking around and making faces."
"With what can we help you?" Catrina asked.
The girl glanced around quickly, then leaned in toward the table and whispered, "A tree ate my friend's little brother."
"Where are the parents?" Evarose asked, eying the pile of allowance money. "I bet they could cough up more than this."
"Um," said another girl in the group, "if it's possible, I'd really rather they not find out."
Evarose rolled her eyes. "Well, all right, but if it, you know, digested him, they're gonna learn about it either way."
The second girl, who must have been the victim's sister, went pale and a little bit green.
"Let's not waste time," said Catrina, rising to her feet. "The sooner we act, the better our chances of that not being an issue. Lead the way, please." The first girl took hold of her sleeve again and led her out the door. Evarose hastily pocketed the money and grabbed another muffin for the road before following the rest of the pack.
"It's down at the park," the girl explained as they passed through the streets. The city was a dense one, its buildings tall and close-packed. The only plants to be seen were in the flower boxes hanging from apartment windows. "It started out just eating kites, you know? Then birds started flying into it and not flying out. This morning we saw a cat go up it and all got worried, and Sami went and climbed after it to make sure it was okay."
"I told him not to," said the sister. "I must have told him ten or twenty times!"
"Might have been better if you hadn't," Evarose mused. "Ghosts are more likely to hurt you if you're afraid of them."
Catrina shot her a look. "Yes, but that doesn't make it a good idea to go recklessly approaching something you suspect is magical." Evarose wheezed out a short, sharp laugh. "What? It isn't reckless if you know what you're doing." Evarose was suddenly struck by a coughing fit. "Evarose, please! Be professional in front of our clients!"
"Our clients are elementary schoolers," said Evarose. "They couldn't tell 'professional' from whistling with your mouth full."
The park, it turned out, was not far from the hotel. It came into view abruptly, like a clearing in a thick wood. It was a small area, only two blocks in size, but apparently well cared for. The grass was watered and trimmed, the flower beds neat and colorful. There were a few ornamental pear trees scattered throughout, and a red plum by the flowers. None of those elements, however, drew attention to themselves half so well as the towering pine tree smack in the center.
"Oh dear," said Catrina. Ange and Lita, the skull clips pinned to her hair bands, began to chatter their teeth. "I think we know who the culprit is."
The pine was not just tall but broad, with dense, dark needles shielding its center both from sunlight and from view. It stood alone, in the midst of an artificial and heavily polished city, as something with an air of wilderness about it. Inconveniently situated as it was, it must have been the bane of countless kites over the years. It was easy to see how children the city over could have come to regard it as something mysterious, venerable, and antagonistic, and in doing so created around it the perfect conditions for the development of a malevolent ghost — or spirit, or demon, or genius, or geist. There was as much division in opinion over what to call the flares of magic that from time to time manifested in seemingly random locations, either by possessing objects or by taking the form of incorporeal phantoms, as there was over what caused them. The one thing generally agreed upon, at least by the experts, was that they thrived on human attention. Ghosts were powered and defined by the feelings living beings associated with them. Conversely, those that went mostly unnoticed tended to decay over time and eventually cease to exist.
"Keep back at least this distance, if you would," Catrina told the children before stepping onto the grass with Evarose at her side. As they approached the tree, Ange and Lita's teeth-chattering grew louder, and Scarf, Evarose's head rag, pursed its lips with apprehension. When they reached the base of the pine, Catrina unclipped Lita from her hairband and stabbed the pin into its bark. Catrina hooked her fingers into the eyesockets and closed her own eyes in concentration. "There are definitely some living creatures trapped in there," she told Evarose. Then, in a more commanding tone, she declared, "Geist, my will is stronger than yours! Release your prisoners!"
The boughs of the tree began to creak and sigh as though shaken by wind. The air around it shimmered as though rippled by heat. Cloudy, subtly shifting dark holes — like the blind spots left in eyes when bright lights are shone into them — opened up one by one between the leaves. The noise and visual distortion grew gradually but steadily. Lita grimaced. So did Catrina. All at once, a cacophony of chirping and hooting and fluttering wings erupted as flocks of sparrows, doves, and starlings came streaming out into the open air. At the same time, a small pile of stiff, feathery little corpses fell into the grass at the base of the tree.
"There's still someone in there," Catrina said after a minute had passed and the noise had died down. "Way up high, in the upper branches."
"The kid?" Evarose guessed. "He can't fly, so maybe he's stuck."
"That seems probable."
"Right. I'm going in. Try to hold it all steady."
Evarose shinnied up the lower trunk, then grabbed hold of a branch and pulled herself up into the cone of the tree. It was bigger on the inside, and darker as well. The trunk stretched indefinitely upward through a blackness like the void of space. Thanks to Catrina, that void was broken here and there by sunlit little windows looking out onto the real world, but that hardly made the effect less eerie. In some places, the boughs grew spaced only inches apart, pressing together so tightly that Evarose had to break off their interlocking branches and then bend them away from each other in order to pass between them. In others, they grew sparsely and at uneven intervals, like a ladder to the moon that was missing most of its rungs. Evarose knew there was no way the kid could have made it past some of the obstacles she was facing, but she hadn't caught sight of him yet, and, malevolent ghosts being what they were, it was entirely possible the tree had made it easy for him going up and then rearranged itself like this below him.
When she reached a point beyond which there were no more overhead branches near enough to grab onto, Evarose stopped and looked up. Sure enough, some twenty feet above her a little boy sat perched on an isolated bough. He was desperately clutching something that appeared to be a small patchwork security blanket until it twitched its tail and Evarose realized it was in fact a large calico cat.
"Let me guess," she called to the two of them. "You got that high and suddenly all the branches below you stopped existing."
The child started, then looked down at her with wide, frightened eyes. "Will this one disappear too?"
"Nah, Catrina probably has that under control. Hold tight to that cat, I'm getting you out of here." Evarose pulled Scarf off her head. It came untied in her hands and twisted itself up like a towel being wrung-out. Evarose made a whipping motion in Sami's direction, and the fabric extended ten-fold and wrapped around his wrist. "Hey, kid. Do you trust me?"
The boy hesitated for a second. "Yes?"
"Great! Jump, and I'll catch you!"
The boy's eyes first widened even further, than narrowed suspiciously. Evarose shot him a winsome grin. Finally, with a sad little sigh, he screwed his eyes shut and leaned slowly to one side until he toppled over and off the branch. Scarf supported his weight as well as though it were a metal pole rather than a length of fabric, and began to lower him down.
Just then, there was a soft, sighing rustle from somewhere even further up above. Someone with little ghost-hunting experience under their belt might have paid it no mind, but for Evarose, it was enough to set her on instant alert. Sure enough, as she scanned the upper limits of her vision, a host of tattered but still eerily colorful kites drifted down from the darkness, circling and gliding like birds of prey. The nearest reached a dangling bit of twine like the arm of a jellyfish out toward Sami's throat, but Evarose quickly jerked him away.
"Hey, kid!" she called out. "Keep your eyes closed and don't drop the kitty!" With that, she swung him out one of the windows onto reality and let go of the cloth. In response, the kites dove at her like a horde of enraged falcons. Evarose spared just a split second to bring her hands up to her neck and block the tail ribbons and snapped lines attempting to wrap like bowstrings around it, then shifted her attention to controlling Scarf. She wrapped its free end around the kid's other wrist and untwisted its middle, which billowed out like a parachute. Sami hit the ground next to Catrina hard enough that he would probably be walking away from it with bruises, but at least he would be walking away. The cat, evidently in even better shape, clawed her way out of his arms and ran off.
Evarose's attackers attempted to pull her off her branch. With her hands occupied preventing them from strangling her, all she could do was cling to it with her legs. "Catrina!" she called out through Scarf's mouth. "The geist's been assimilating the kites it eats! Get ahold of these things!"
"Ack!" Catrina's voice reverberated through the air. "Sorry! I didn't know those were there! Hang in there, Evarose!"
The tendrils wrapped around Evarose's neck began slamming her head against the trunk.
"Um!" came Catrina's voice again, "this could take a few minutes!"
Evarose's vision blacked for a second as her head cracked against the wood, and her grip on the branch loosened. "I might not have a few minutes, Catrina!"
"What do you need me to do?"
"Do you still have control of the tree itself?" The moment her strength recovered, she dropped down and to the side, ending up hanging upside down by her legs. The strings became tangled in the branches by the movement, though some managed to keep their grip on her even so.
"Great!" Evarose let go of the bough and flipped right-side-up again, now supported only by the kite lines holding her captive. "When I say 'go,' make all of the branches below me disappear. Can you do that?"
Evarose twisted her head around and, with a bit of effort, managed to grab the strings restraining her into her mouth. Scarf's mouth, of course, remained unoccupied. Through it, Evarose shouted out, "Go!" Then she tore through the strings with her teeth and fell.
She did not look down at the branches rushing up at her, trusting that Catrina would make them vanish before they impaled her or broke her legs. She did not look up at the kites, figuring that even once they managed to untangle themselves they would have difficulty catching up to her, since they were built to fly, whereas she was built to drop like a rock. Instead, she closed her eyes and focused in on Scarf, unwrapping one side of it from Sami's wrist and fastening it instead to the trunk of the tree. Almost as soon as she'd finished, her fall was broken by something with enough give that smacking into it only stung a little. Catrina cried out, startled. Evarose bounced once, twice, then opened her eyes and rolled out of the cloth hammock and onto the ground.
"I'm alive!" she declared triumphantly.
Catrina regained her composure and sighed with mingled exasperation and relief. "I should have known you would scare me like that." She leaned down and took Evarose's hand to pull her to her feet. "Are you uninjured?"
"Yep! And all's well that ends well, right?" She took hold of Scarf, which came loose from where it was fastened on either end and returned to its original size in her hand. "Let's cleanse this thing and get out of here."
"Yes, let's." Catrina stepped away from the tree — which, from the outside, looked just the same as ever for all that had happened within it. Evarose stood opposite Lita and held Scarf out in front of her so that the two magical items were positioned face to face. "Ready?"
Catrina once again closed her eyes in concentration, and the skull's silver jaw dropped open. A wisp of cloud-like shadow appeared in its mouth. The shadow swirled and coiled as it grew in size, eventually coalescing into an orb. The orb pushed its way past Lita's teeth and continued to swell, first to the size of an apple, then of a human head, then of a beach ball. Then, all at once, it collapsed into a beam that shot across the distance between the tree and Evarose. Scarf opened its mouth and swallowed the darkness whole.
"All clear!" Catrina shouted to the children still standing at the edge of the park. Sami's sister rushed forward to embrace him, and the others gathered round and began bombarding him with questions, chastisements, and congratulations.
"Shouldn't eat your kites anymore either," Evarose told them, rewrapping her hair. "Though don't think you'll be getting back the ones it already took."
"We should head back to the hotel quickly," Catrina said, reattaching Lita to her hairband. "Check out time is less than an hour away." She strode purposefully back toward the street they had entered by, and Evarose followed behind her.
"Thank you!" the girl who had first approached them at breakfast shouted after them.
"Thank you!" the rest of the group, abruptly reminded of their manners, repeated in chorus.
"No thanks necessary!" Catrina called back to them. "You were our paying clients, after all!"
"Barely," Evarose grumbled.
Catrina elbowed her just above the hip.