The Ghost and the Graveyard

Chapter 14


Prudence Meriwether
Old-fashioned and weighty, I rolled the antique key in my hand. The wide end looped around twice like butterfly wings before twisting and melding into the blade of the key. Was it forged by hand? Hundreds of years old? If this house was built for Isabella, it was ancient. A house of secrets.
I climbed the stairs one apprehensive step at a time, glancing back at Logan until I took the bend at the second-floor landing. At the attic door, I paused. What I was about to do would change me forever, no matter what I decided.
The key slid into the lock, and the mechanism began to glow. The door transformed, the chipped paint gleaming white, the wrought iron knob turning to pearl. I opened the door and stepped into pure light and warmth, an open space with soft edges and stained glass. Beyond the windows, I could see it was night outside, but the light came from within, from the floor and the walls. I took a step inside. The door closed behind me.
"I wondered when you would come, Grateful."
A dark-haired woman, about my age, stood near the closest window. Her heart-shaped face turned toward me. She was wearing a nursing uniform from the 1960s: white skirt, white blouse, complete with one of those white square hats that nobody wears anymore.
"Prudence?" The ghost was a far cry from the glowing torso I'd seen on my stairs and in the family room, but really, who else would be in here?
"Yes, it's me." She smiled all the way to her eyes, a peaceful, authentic smile. "I can't believe how much you've grown, my dear."
"But you look so young. Weren't you, like, seventy when you died?"
"Seventy-two, but who's counting? That's the beauty of death. You can take any form from your life. Today, I'm my twenty-six-year-old self. That was the year I first met you."
"I'm only twenty-two. You would have been fifty when I was born."
"I mean, the last you. Your name was Samantha Graves. I was twenty-six, and you looked to be about the same age, but of course you were much older."
"I don't understand. You mean, I looked younger than I was?"
"Quite. The witch is not immortal in the sense that she can be killed, as you were, but she does not age, so long as she takes her caretaker's blood."
"Yes, the blood thing. I wanted to talk to you about that. Can you explain what exactly becoming the witch entails? Does there have to be sex and blood, or is there another way?"
"Oh, dear. Have you seen the caretaker?" She giggled to herself, then frowned when I didn't join in. "In my day, women would have clawed each other's eyes out for a night with Rick. Have tastes changed so much?"
"Ah, no. He's gorgeous by anyone's standards. I'm just not sure I want to rush into a relationship."
She knitted her brow. "Rush? You do know you spent more than a lifetime together? That you were married more than once?"
"Yes, he told me. But that wasn't this body. I don't have those memories."
"Oh, I see. Are you a virgin, then? Unwilling or afraid to complete the act itself? Morally against premarital sex?"
"Um, no. I lost my virginity when I was eighteen to a guy in the singles group at my church."
"Then you are with someone? Are you still seeing the church boy, is that it?"
This was getting embarrassing. "No."
"Then what is it, dear? What is keeping you from accepting your responsibility back from me? Is one act of sex with a gorgeous immortal for the sake of maintaining the balance of good and evil so appalling to you?"
Okay, she was getting angry. That was the voice nurses used with uncooperative patients. "It's not just the sex. It's what the sex means. It's a lifetime commitment. I get freaked out when I think that I might be in the same career for the rest of my life. That's why I chose nursing because you can move around and do different things. But this feels permanent."
"And what exactly is wrong with committing to your life's purpose?"
"I..." I couldn't answer that question.
"If you don't take up this responsibility, Grateful, the repercussions will be horrific."
"What? What will happen?"
"Rick will weaken. It's what the vampires wanted when they killed you."
"I thought Reverend Monk killed me."
"Reverend Monk killed the first you, Isabella Lockhart. I'm talking about the last you, Samantha; the one I knew and loved. And I've always speculated that Reverend Monk was a pawn for whomever gave him The Book of Flesh and Bone."
I paced, rubbing my palms together. "In my last life, I was killed by vampires, and my death weakened Rick? I thought he was immortal."
"Immortal he is, but Rick feeds on sex, on blood, and on love. Those were things you provided him when you were alive. Without them, he weakens. Without you, he has to control the population of the unholy himself. More work with less strength. The last twenty-two years have been hard on him."
"So, that's all I am? His food?"
"Stupid girl! Haven't you been listening at all?" She was definitely angry now. "He is yours. He is your caretaker. You strengthen him so that he can protect you. You love him, and he loves you. You are the witch, and he is the caretaker. You balance each other. There are things that you can do that Rick can't. You were very powerful once. You could be again."
"If Rick was supposed to protect me, if I was so powerful, then how did I die?"
"Why don't you see for yourself?" Prudence moved toward an altar at the back of the room. I didn't remember seeing it when I first came in. On top was an enormous book. When I say enormous, I mean Guinness World Record sized. Once when I was a kid, my father and I visited the Library of Congress where I saw the Gutenberg Bible. This book dwarfed that one.
"This is your spell book," Prudence said. "It is called the Book of Light. Everything you need to know about controlling evil is in its pages. You also stored your memories in it. If you want to know how you died, open it and ask."
I stepped up to the leather-bound volume. It took both hands working together to open the thing, and as I did, I said in a loud, clear voice, "How did I die?"
Light poured out of the book, blinding me. The attic melted away. When I could see again, I was standing in the graveyard, only the hedges in front of the fence were missing, so I had a clear view of Rick's cottage across the street. The maple trees were mere saplings. Somehow I knew it was Halloween, and it didn't take long for me to figure out I was reliving my own memory.
Three teenagers paced outside the cemetery gate, two boys and a girl. Great. Hormone fueled idiocy. I couldn't get a break tonight. I slipped behind a granite monolith because I didn't want to give the teens any excuse to hop the fence. With any luck, they'd get bored and move on.
Rick's wings beat in the distance near the chapel on Monk's Hill. He'd gone to break up a group of vampires congregating there. Vamps could look human when they wanted and were highly intelligent. Usually, they were selfish and territorial, but lately, they'd been organizing, designating leaders and, we suspected, planning an escape. Hopefully, Rick would be able to nip the problem in the budding fang, but that meant I needed to handle these kids on my own.
My reflection in the shiny surface of the monolith temporarily distracted me. The blurred image had red hair and was wearing head-to-toe black. I lifted an arm. Leather. Wow, I was a badass in my past life.
"Come on, I'll boost you over," one of the boys said. He was dressed as Michael Jackson complete with sparkly glove.
"I don't know. It looks creepy. Let's go back to my place and hang out," the girl said. Smart girl.
"It'll be cool," the other boy said. The antennas of his alien costume bobbed around his head as he spoke. He kneeled down and cupped his hands.
Maybe I gave the girl too much credit by calling her smart. She placed her foot in his palm and launched herself to the top of the fence. Once she was over, Michael Jackson helped the alien, and then, in a rare display of upper body strength, scaled the fence on his own.
"Stupid kids," I heard myself say, only it wasn't my voice. "You guys have to get out of here," I whispered.
"Hey, did you hear something?" the alien said.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on sending them feelings of fear and anxiety. Pushing thoughts into people's heads was an ability Rick was teaching me. I hadn't mastered it yet, but it was worth a shot.
The girl backed toward the gate. "I don't like it here. Take me home," she said to Michael Jackson.
The brain thing worked, but I'd have to hold off on my victory lap. Mist rolled in behind the teens and two vampires materialized, way too close for comfort.
"Cool!" the girl said to the vamps. "How'd you guys do that?"
The vamp closest to her held out his hand and shook his shaggy blond head. "Come here, and I will whisper the secret into your ear, Amanda."
I cringed. He'd read her mind. I could see the girl was instantly intrigued.
"How did you know my name?" she asked.
Another vampire with a tight red buzz cut moved in. "No cheating. If you want to know the secret, you must take his hand."
To the girl's credit, she backed between her friends.
A third vamp emerged from shadow, a male with a long black ponytail and muscles like a linebacker. The vamps formed a triangle around the teens. Trouble.
"What are you guys doing in here?" the alien asked the vamps.
"Waiting for you," the black-haired vamp said.
"Marcus, we were here first," the redhead hissed and took a step toward Amanda.
"Don't get greedy. There's enough to go around." Marcus appeared in front of the alien boy.
"Hey, back off, buddy," the boy said.
The vamps had forced the teens into a tight clump and were closing in, licking their lips. So much for any hope the teens would scale the fence and get out of there. I braced myself for a good ol' fashioned vampire slaying.
I stepped out from behind the tombstone, my right hand instinctively reaching for the sword I kept in the sheath down my back. "Hold it right there, bloodsuckers," I said in that strange voice. My boots hit the stones with running steps.
The vamps glanced my way but moved toward the teens.
Screams rang out as the three teens either noticed the vampire's fangs or my sword. They ran for the fence, but they were too late. The vamps pounced. Shaggy blond sank fang into Michael Jackson. I launched myself off a tombstone, pivoting in the air and delivering a tornado kick to his head before sinking my blade into the vamp's chest. The undead exploded into a shower of sparks.
Bleeding, Michael Jackson ran for the fence and strong-armed his way over. Marcus had Amanda pressed against his body, and he was ready to strike. She didn't stand a chance. But to get to her I needed to go through the growling and snapping ginger-headed vamp doing his best to make a meal of the alien boy. I flipped over alien's head and drove my blade into the vamp's shoulder. He melted like wax. Alien ran screaming like someone was pulling his toenails out, but unlike Michael Jackson, he wasn't strong enough to pull himself over the wrought iron. I'd have to help him when I finished off the last one.
I whirled around to face Marcus, who had succeeded in exposing Amanda's neck. With a warrior's howl, I leaped toward him, my sword above my head.
"Sorry, witch," Marcus hissed. "Not this time."
Claws ripped me from the air and tossed me backward to the stones. What the fuck? I landed on my back. Four more vamps appeared out of nowhere and wrestled me to the ground. This was an ambush. This was meant for me!
I watched Marcus sink teeth into the girl. Her scream sounded wet, like a gurgle. Blood was flowing down her trachea. She'd be dead in seconds. I tried with everything I had to help, but there was something on the vamps' hands restraining me. My magic wouldn't work.
Marcus drained the girl, wiping the last of her blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. "Don't bother, Witch. Helleborine root." He licked his lips. "A little birdie told me it would temporarily render you powerless. Enjoy the show."
He easily overcame alien boy who wailed pitifully until he died. His squeals brought droves of the undead. There would be nothing left of either body by morning. The vamps would drink the blood, the zombies were partial to the internal organs, and the ghouls would eat the rest.
Pain coursed through my body as the vamps tightened their hold on my struggling limbs. "Rick!" I screamed with everything I had, but it was too late. They'd staged the gathering at the chapel to distract him, and the teens were an all-too-convenient and unexpected way to lure me out. Their real goal was to kill me, and now they would.
With human blood in his veins, Marcus was three hundred times stronger than normal, stronger than me and maybe even stronger than Rick. He strode toward me. In one graceful move, he straddled my chest and lowered himself to his knees. His razor-sharp fangs elongated near my chin.
"Stop, Marcus. If you kill me, Rick will have your head."
"I think not. With your blood strengthening me, I'll have his. And you know the beauty of caretaker flesh is that it goes on forever."
With that, he bit the place where my neck met my right shoulder, and I heard the rush of my blood flowing down his throat before my flesh tore from my neck. As I died, I had one piece of magic left the Helleborine couldn't restrain; it wasn't tied to this body. I released my soul, allowing my light to escape through my open mouth. It blew west on the fall wind. The spell took me into town, inside the open window of the nearest woman of appropriate age. I fluttered to her abdomen, and then sank beneath her skin before the blackness swallowed me.
My last thoughts were of Rick. I prayed for his safety.
As I died in my memory, the book spat me out and I was back in the attic, gasping for breath and holding my neck. I collapsed to the floor.
"Oh my," Prudence said. "I suppose reliving one's death would be a disturbing experience." She took my pulse and propped my head in her lap.
I met her eyes. "It was my mother. I saw the light enter my mother."
"I told you, you were very powerful."
I sat up to see Prudence more clearly and crisscrossed my legs in front of me. I had so many questions, I didn't know where to start. "What happened to Marcus after I died?"
"Rick tried to kill him. They fought until dawn when Marcus was forced to retreat into the underworld. With your blood and that of the two humans giving him power, he's become the leader of the vampire coven inside the Hellmouth. The vampires haven't found a way out of the cemetery yet, but Rick's been working overtime to keep it that way."
"Marcus said someone had told him to use Helleborine on me."
"Yes. Helleborine does not grow within the graveyard. Marcus had help from the outside. Maybe from the same entity that provided Monk with the Book of Flesh and Bone. Rick's spent years trying to track down your true killer."
"And without me, Rick is weaker?"
"Yes. Not only has the world missed your talents for the last twenty-two years, every day that Rick goes without you as his partner becomes more difficult for him."
"But there could be another, right? If I say no, the part of me that is the witch will move to someone else."
She sighed. "Yes. When you die, the piece of you that is the witch will be freed from your body and find another host. There has to be balance. But that would take a lifetime. And what about us? Do you know what will happen to Logan and me?"
"Logan said that the next witch might be able to sort you, but the longer it took, the harder it would be."
"Death is the great forgetting. You as the Monk's Hill witch sort the souls who are caught between life and death. You do so by remembering for us. You give us a name. You call us out and send us on. Every day that a soul isn't sorted, that soul loses more memories of his or her life. Eventually, there aren't enough clues left for you or any witch to name the dead. Logan has already forgotten. If you accepted your responsibility tomorrow, it might not be soon enough for him. And now that the magic you've given me is wearing off, I will forget too. I've been here two full years waiting for you. Logan's only been here a few months. Think how fast I will forget now that my purpose has been fulfilled."
All anger had bled from Prudence's expression, and she patted my hand, the nurse in her coming out over all else.
"I'm too young for this kind of responsibility, Prudence. I'm sorry."
"Do you know why I kept the scrapbook of your life?" Prudence asked.
"Uh, no. Stalker comes to mind though, to be very honest."
"Every stage of your life proved your worth. At six-years old, you never forgot to feed the dog. By eleven, you were cooking meals for your dad. Do you remember?"
I nodded reluctantly.
"You are here because you are responsible. A lesser person might declare banckruptcy and move on. Not you, Grateful. You are working off every dime of Gary's debt."
"It's the right thing to do."
"And at twenty-two, you are choosing to do the right thing. Seems you are more responsible than you give yourself credit."
She had a point, but I wasn't ready to pull the Band-Aid off. It was all happening too fast. I needed more time.
"Let me think about it," I said.