CW: Swearing, Mild Violence, and Death
Day/Time: Thursday, 5:13 a.m.
Current state of mind: Cold & exhausted
What are you wearing? Black leggings & a lilac sweatshirt that says, “If my mouth doesn’t say it, my face definitely will.”
What are you listening to? Where the Lonely Ones Roam by Digital Daggers
What are you drinking? Mulled wine
Where are you? On my bed
Someone—or something—was following me. If I had to make an educated guess, I’d go with the latter. I was used to being haunted, used to being stalked by the souls of the dead, especially this time of year when the veil was at its thinnest.
I tossed a glance over my shoulder, hoping to spot the spirit in the late-night crowd, but my stalker was nowhere to be found. They’d immersed themselves in the sea of witches and apparitions that flooded the streets of downtown. It seemed like the entire city and neighboring towns had shown up for The Festival of All Souls.
All my meticulous planning had paid off. I should’ve been thrilled, but it was hard to be happy when you were on edge, just waiting for shit to hit the proverbial fan. I heaved out a sigh, tossing my empty cup of mulled wine into a nearby bin.
“What’s wrong?” Ryan asked, draping his arm over my shoulder.
I tucked myself against him, basking in his warmth. “Um—oh!”
I doubled over, clutching my stomach as a whirlwind of emotions—sorrow, rage, panic, terror—slammed into me like a hard, swift sucker punch to the gut. The air whooshed out of my lungs, my heart squeezing in my chest as an agonizing pain ripped through my body like I was being torn apart from the inside out.
“Ash!” Ryan roped his arm around my waist, keeping me from kissing the pavement. His touch was soothing. Invigorating. His powerful magic melded with mine, giving me the strength I needed to fight off the mystical attack.
My pain eased. The vise on my chest released, my heart resuming its normal beat as fresh oxygen flowed into my lungs once more. He wrapped me up, holding me close. I rested my head against Ryan’s hard, leather-clad chest, taking shelter in his protective embrace.
“What happened?” Ryan asked, his low, resonant timbre reverberating against my ear.
Good question. I wasn’t an empath. I didn’t feel other peoples’ emotions—well, not anyone alive at the very least. But spirits—powerful ones—could manipulate my feelings, could make me feel whatever they felt. It rarely happened, but…
“I think someone’s trying to get my attention,” I mumbled, getting the notion my otherworldly stalker was nearby. I could feel them, could sense their emotions permeating the frosty air, gathering strength like a building storm.
“Help!” A disembodied voice shrieked into my ear.
I whirled around, coming face-to-face with an apparition of a girl who looked like she could be my long-lost sister.
“What the hell?” I stumbled back, colliding with Ryan. His hands encircled my arms, steadying me as I gaped at my dead doppelgänger. It was like staring at a reflection of myself when I’d been in my early twenties. Our features were nearly identical. The only difference was that her blonde hair was longer and lighter, and her eyes were cornflower blue, not aqua like mine.
“Who are you?” Ryan asked, his tone calm and level.
“Wait.” I spun, craning my neck up at him. “You can see her?”
Ryan never saw ghosts—well, not never—just the dead, deranged witches at Lost Souls. But they didn’t count. Everyone saw them.
“Yeah.” He nodded, keeping his eyes locked on the apparition. If he noticed the resemblance between us, he didn’t show it. Not that I was surprised. He had an excellent poker face, unlike me.
I shifted my attention back to my ghostly stalker. “What’s your name?”
The name didn’t sound familiar, but that didn’t mean anything. I probably had a shit ton of relatives—dead and alive—that I didn’t know of. Not that Celina and I were related. Though it was possible, or it could just be some freaky coincidence. Who knew?
“What do you want?” I asked, folding my arms across my chest.
Fear filled Celina’s haunted eyes. Her form flickered, fading in and out like she was losing whatever foothold she had in our realm. The streetlights buzzed and hummed, their bulbs strobing along with Celina’s appearance.
The wind whipped up, spinning up a vortex of dead leaves and twigs which tore its way through the town square. Screams and shouts of panic rang out as the crowd scattered for cover. Fury and frustration saturated the frigid air, the potent emotions culminating with the force of a volcanic eruption.
“Down!” Ryan tackled me, taking me down to the ground. Hard. He covered me with his powerful body as the streetlights exploded, shards of glass raining down all around us.
As soon as the supernatural shitstorm stopped, Ryan eased his weight off me and helped me sit up. He crouched down in front of me, sweeping a penlight over my face and body, assessing me for injuries. “You okay?” He brushed my unruly waves away from my face.
“Yeah. Just some minor scrapes, nothing that won’t heal.” I met Ryan’s concerned gaze. “Thanks to you.” He’d taken the brunt of the damage, but other than some glass in his hair, he appeared perfectly fine. I plucked a small shard out of his short, sandy-brown strands. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” Ryan stood and extended his palm, helping me up. He swept the mini flashlight over the glass-strewn ground, the beam landing on a pearl pendant nestled in the shimmering shards. “Is that yours?”
“No.” I shook my head, reaching for the silver chain.
“I’ve got it.” Ryan picked the necklace up with his gloved hand. He ran his thumb over the lustrous pearl, the black leather a stark contrast against the white gemstone. “Think it’s hers?”
“Celina’s? Yeah. Maybe,” I murmured, memorized by the simple but pricey necklace. I knew expensive jewelry when I saw it.
“How do you feel about a ghost hunt?”
The words ghost and hunt were not a part of my chosen vocabulary, especially not together. I didn’t want to go ghost-hunting. I didn’t want to track Celina, didn’t feel like chasing after her—not after she ruined my date with Ryan. Not after she destroyed the festival that I’d worked so hard on for months on end.
And yet, I couldn’t abandon her. Every instinct in my body screamed at me to help her. Maybe it was because she looked like me. Maybe we were related, and that’s why she sought me out. Maybe that’s why she spoke to me—and Gods knew, the spirits never talked to me. Like ever.
So as much as I wanted to get on with my night, pretending that everything was all roses and rainbows, I couldn’t. I couldn’t ignore my intuition, not even if I tried. I looked up at Ryan. “I have a mirror in my purse. We could try a tracking spell.”
“Yeah.” I rummaged through my handbag, pulling out my compact. “My dead doppelgänger blew up my festival. She owes me an explanation, or at the very least, an apology.”
Ryan’s lips twitched as he handed me the necklace. “If you insist.”
With Celina’s pendant in one hand and my mirror in the other, I focused on Celina, picturing her in my mind. I silently recited an old incantation, pouring all my intentions on locating her. The mirror fogged up, but then cleared, revealing Celina’s ethereal form as she drifted along a deserted, tree-lined road.
“Looks like she’s heading west on Old Pine Ridge,” Ryan said, his warm breath a calming caress against my cold cheek.
Old Pine Ridge. It was a road I knew all too well. It was a road that led to the one place I never wanted to visit again. My gut twisted with dread as ice filled my veins, chilling me to my core. I swallowed hard. “Looks like we’re going to Lost Souls.”
“Easy, kitten.” Ryan took my hand, stroking his thumb over my skin. “There are plenty of properties located off Old Pine Ridge. She could end up at any one of them.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Ryan was right—of course he was right, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about his rightness.
I shivered as Ryan pulled up in front of Mrożek Manor. The old, three-story Victorian stood tall, engulfed by towering pines and tall, withering oaks. With its peeling black paint, mottled wood, and crumbling wraparound porch, the place reminded me of a rotting corpse—which was fitting, given the manor’s violent history.
“Have you ever been inside?” I grabbed my tote out of the backseat, which was filled with all sorts of magical goodies, including my grimoire. As Nick always said, better to be prepared than fucked.
“Yeah,” Ryan replied, cutting the engine. “The place is possessed. It’s a real fucking fun house of horrors.”
“Oh, goody!” I clapped my hands together with false bravado and hopped out of the SUV.
The air was colder here. Heavier. I could practically taste the sulfuric malevolence that encompassed the expansive property. Wilted whispers promising violence and death weaved their way through the icy wind, grazing my ears.
Chills of trepidation raced up my spine. I wanted to turn and run, wanted to hightail it the fuck out of there and never look back. But it didn’t matter what I wanted. My body had other ideas, my feet moving forward without conscious volition, the dead leaves crunching beneath my ankle boots. The world faded around me, the dilapidated house becoming my sole focus.
One foot in front of the other. I made my way up the rickety porch steps and reached for the metal handle.
“Ash!” Ryan’s hand clamped down over mine, his touch breaking me out of my trance. He spun me towards him, his eyes locking onto mine. “Didn’t you hear a word I said?”
“What?” I blinked up at him. “No.”
“Stay close.” Ryan drilled his grim stare into mine. “This place has a history of swallowing people up. Being as sensitive as you are right now, those spirits are gonna try everything they can to get at you.”
I nodded and took a deep breath, bracing myself for whatever awaited us.
The stained-glass door creaked open, like the house itself was inviting us inside. We walked in, the door slamming shut with a loud bang behind us. A deafening silence filled the musty interior, the steady dripping of a faucet the only sound. The putrid scent of malevolent magic saturated the musty atmosphere, making it hard to breathe. I covered my nose. “Where to?”
Clattering sounds rang out above us. Ryan and I traded glances, beelining for the curved staircase. The stairs buckled and rolled, the wood splintering beneath our feet. I kept a death grip on Ryan’s hand as the staircase crumbled behind us. Ryan reached the landing first. I was right on his heels, but I didn’t make it. Cold skeletal fingers curled around my ankle, dragging me down. Gravity took over as the last stair disintegrated, sending me into a freefall.
“Fuck!” I flailed, hanging onto Ryan’s steel grip.
“I’ve got you.” Ryan grasped my wrists, pulling me up and into his strong arms. He held me tight, stroking my hair. “I’ve got you.”
I clutched his broad shoulders, burrowing my head into his neck. Gods, I didn’t want to move, just wanted to stay in his warm embrace, breathing in his spiced, citrusy scent. But oh no, I had to go and get myself a case of white knight syndrome. “This is the worst date ever,” I mumbled.
Ryan chuckled, easing me down. “Are you hurt?”
A bloodcurdling scream cut me off, echoing off the walls, shaking the foundation of the old murder manor.
Waves of icy terror crashed over me, the oppressive weight of Celina’s sorrow weighing heavy on my shoulders. “I can feel her,” I murmured, sweeping my gaze through the maze of darkened corridors, but I didn’t know where to turn. Everything was off-kilter, like the house—or the spirits, or both—were trying to deceive me.
I closed my eyes, palming her pendant in my coat pocket. Using my magic to guide me, I led Ryan down the hall, ignoring the smoky shadows as they slithered up the tattered walls.
We rounded the corner, veering into a spacious bedroom where we found Celina. Two soul-eating wraiths hovered over her battered and bloody body, which was sprawled in the center of some kind of ritual circle. Their heads twisted, white eyes meeting ours as Ryan palmed twin daggers, one mystical weapon in each of his gloved hands.
“Sorry ladies.” He widened his stance, flashing them a charming smile. “Party’s over.”
They dove at him just as he launched both knives with practiced ease. The gleaming blades sailed silently across the room, finding home in the bitches’ chests. The wraiths’ filmy forms burst into flames, their ear-splitting screeches dwindling along with the glowing embers of their remains.
And then the house came alive, quaking with rage, rattling the foundation and walls. Frames and mirrors and sconces crashed down onto the splintered floor with thunderous booms. The smoky shadows swirled and swelled, circling Celina’s body like spectral vultures.
“They want her soul,” I said, studying the ingredients inside the salt circle.
“Yup,” Ryan replied. “I’m betting that’s a tethering spell.”
“We need to break it.”
“We’re gonna have to get through them first.” Ryan nodded at the cyclone of spirits surrounding Celina. “I’ll distract them.”
“No.” I jumped in front of him. “There’s too many of them to take on by yourself.”
“I’ll be fine. Nick and the rest of the Coven should be here soon.” He pressed a tender kiss on the top of my head. “You just focus on freeing her while I send these fuckers back to the pits of the Underworld.”
A crackling ball of elemental energy formed in Ryan’s palm, the sphere swelling to the size of a basketball. He hurled the ball at the shadowy spirits, hitting his targets. The spectral vortex blew apart, giving me the opening I needed.
I darted forward, dropping to my knees inside the circle. More shadows emerged, and Ryan fired off more elemental bombs, pissing the spirits off. He bolted out of the room, the swarm of shadows chasing after him.
The sounds of a supernatural battle erupted below—bangs and explosions and shouts and shrieks resounded throughout the halls. How the hell was I supposed to focus? How could I concentrate on reversing this stupid fucking spell when Ryan was fighting off all these spirits alone?
And it wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in him. I did. Ryan could handle himself. He was one of our best fighters. If anyone possessed the skills to take on a bunch of deranged spirits and win, it was Ryan. But the worrier in me wouldn’t shut the fuck up. The odds were stacked against us. Team Ghost had the numbers and the advantage of being on their home turf. And Celina would be joining their ranks soon.
Fuck. I raked my fingers through my tangled hair, cursing as I thought about just torching this place to the ground. But I needed to free Celina. Then I’d burn this gods-forsaken place down.
I flipped my tote over, dumping its contents on the floor. I gathered everything I needed, organizing the candles, herbs, and crystals around Celina’s body.
“Need some help?”
I snapped my gaze up at the sound of Kari’s voice. She and Holly walked into the room, their faces covered in soot and dirt. Relief flooded through me. “It’s about time.”
Holly and Karina plopped down next to me, their eyes widening with one glance at Celina. I heaved out a sigh. “Before you ask, I don’t know her. All I know is that someone bound her soul to this house.”
“Probably the dead guy in the kitchen,” Karina replied. “Pretty sure he’s a demon—or was.”
Well, wasn’t that the newsflash of the hour?
“You know, we could free the rest of the souls here,” Holly said. “We have the ingredients and the power.”
Karina fiddled with her sapphire bracelet. “Plus, there’s a ton of backup downstairs if we need it.”
“It’s a hell of a spell,” I mused. Freeing bound souls was no easy task. The spell was complex and would take up a lot of our energy, but they were right, we had the numbers. And the power to pull it off. “If that means I never have to come back to this cursed shithole again, I’m in.”
The three of us finished prepping the intricate spell. We joined hands, our powers flowing through each other, merging as one. The candles flared to life, their flames shooting up high, grazing the ceiling as we recited the ancient incantation.
We repeated the archaic words, our magic surging with each invocation, culminating in an explosion of light. I flew backwards, crash-landing against the far wall. Pain hammered my skull. My vision dimmed, my grip on reality quickly fading as the darkness came for me, swallowing me whole.
All Hallow’s Eve
The flurries tumbled from the dark, cottony sky as I placed the remaining candle on Celina’s makeshift grave. It turned out she was a distant cousin of mine. And since she didn’t have any other living relatives, it only seemed fitting to give her a proper memorial. She’d lived such a lonely life. The one person she trusted turned out to be a demonic douche. The shit stain had lured her out to Mrożek Manor—which we burned down, BTW—and brutally murdered her.
I hated that she died alone, hated how she’d suffered by herself. I could only imagine how she must have felt—how hurt she must have been to be betrayed like that—to be stabbed in the chest repeatedly by someone she loved.
Gods, I wish I would’ve known her, wished that we would’ve met sooner. Maybe she’d still be alive. I blinked back a stray tear and bent down, sweeping my palm over the four candles. The wicks flared, the bright flames flickering in the icy breeze.
“You okay?” Ryan asked, wrapping his arms around me.
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” I heaved out a heavy sigh, nestling my head against his chest. “I just wish things had turned out differently. I hate that she was all alone.”
“I know.” He stroked my back, resting his heavily-stubbled chin on the top of my head. “But she had you. You helped her, set her soul free, and now she can rest.”
“I hope her next incarnation will be happier.”
“Me too,” Ryan replied, cupping my cheek. “You ready to go?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “It’s freezing.”
Ryan took my hand and the two of us made our way towards the wrought iron gates. The cemetery was all aglow, the soft candlelight turning the gloomy graveyard into a magical place filled with hope and light.
We spent the rest of the night drinking, eating, and telling stories around the fire. We celebrated life, and remembered all those who passed, knowing that nothing was permanent. Not even death.
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