Dinner that evening was a somber affair - we grabbed takeout and ate in our hotel suite, none of us feeling particularly interested in going out to a restaurant. I barely tasted the food, for all my worrying over Alice, who had grown pensive and silent as the hours passed, and now picked at her dinner rather than eating. Finally, with a sigh, she shoved her jambalaya aside, looking to Rosalie.
"What did you find out about the...haunting?" she asked, with a small grimace.
Rosalie sighed, setting her own dish to one side and opening her laptop. "There are a lot of stories. It's hard to figure out which ones might be true, but the general history is fairly consistent. The house has been sold a few times - it's been a residence, of course, but people have also tried turning it into a furniture store, a bed and breakfast, a private girls' school, and a museum of local history. No one's lasted more than a year in the place. It's stood abandoned for decades at a time. The current owner is Nicolas Cage."
I started. "I'm sorry, actual Nicolas Cage?"
"Actual Nicolas Cage, the actor, yes. It's not even the only infamously haunted house in New Orleans he owns - he also bought a place in the French Quarter, the Lalaurie Mansion. He put up super tasteful signs on both houses," she replied, making a face. "I don't know who's advising him on his finances, but either they're incompetent or Cage just isn't listening."
"Rose." Alice shut her eyes, setting her jaw, her voice strained. "The haunting. Please."
Rosalie actually looked a little guilty at that, glancing down. "Right. Sorry. It's...not pleasant. But it's fairly consistent. Even today, people claim they hear a woman wailing at night. They can't always make out words but...she seems to be speaking Spanish, crying out for her children. Some locals have even connected her to La Llorona, even though we're a little outside the usual range of that legend. There have been sightings - lights moving in the house at night, even apparitions of a woman in white, weeping black tears. Sometimes...Alice, this gets really gruesome."
"If it's real, we're very likely to see it for ourselves," she replied firmly, opening her eyes again. "Tell me. Please. So I can brace myself."
"Right, well...from what Bella told me you found, this...could be accurate," Rose allowed. "They say her throat is cut and leaking blood, that she has open wounds, sometimes, on her arms and face. She seems to be in terrible pain, racked with grief and anger."
Alice nodded, and when she spoke, her voice was very quiet. "Yes. Of course. That makes perfect sense."
My heart seemed like it was about to rend in two. I reached for her, unsure what else I could do. "Alice…"
She rose lightly to her feet, stepping away, not quite meeting any of our eyes. "I need to lie down. I don't know if I'll even be able to sleep, but I just - need to lie down. Bella, um...I really think I need some time alone. Okay?"
"Oh," I breathed, feeling suddenly like the girl I'd been seven months before, lost and frightened and unsure of the ground beneath my feet. "No. I mean, sorry, yes, of course that's okay. I'll...I'll sleep on the couch."
"She'll stay with us," Emmett interjected, and Alice looked at him, nodding curtly.
She turned back to me, giving me a hollow-eyed stare, speaking with a faintly shaking voice. "I love you. I'm sorry. I'll see you tomorrow."
"I love you," I echoed, and she nodded again at my response, half-raising her hand before retreating into our bedroom, shutting the door behind her. I turned to the others, opening my mouth, but before I could speak, Rosalie shook her head tightly and rose to her feet, gesturing at their room on the other side of the suite. I bit my lip but nodded in agreement, picking up my takeout only to find I'd finished it. Sighing, I dumped the containers in the trash, following Rosalie into her bedroom, with Emmett following behind us.
"Shoes off, socks too, get in bed," Rosalie ordered.
I glanced between the two of them and their king-sized bed as Emmett shut the door. "Uh."
Rose rolled her eyes. "You know that's not what I mean. There's a time to do your usual 'laugh it off and deflect' routine, but this isn't it. Come on."
"...right. Okay." I took off my shoes and socks, then slipped under the covers. Rose joined me on one side, pulling me close, her fingers running through my hair, while Emmett settled his comforting bulk on the other, leaving me sandwiched between them. It felt weird as hell, to say the least, but something about being snuggled between two of my favorite people left me feeling safer, calmer, for all that I was worried half out of my mind over Alice. I still couldn't help giving voice to that worry. "This is bad, isn't it?"
Rosalie and Emmett exchanged a glance over my head. It was Emmett who spoke at last. "We've all had our...issues, Bells. We've all had trouble dealing with the things we've seen, or done. Alice, too. You know she hasn't always led the life she wanted. With memories like ours, none of our baggage every really goes away completely. We just learn to carry it. But it...it hasn't been this bad in a long while. Maybe ever."
"Look, she's had a terrible day. She's just learned that her mother was murdered," Rosalie said, counting off on her fingers. "Not only that, but she may have been murdered by one of the most infamous serial killers in the city's history. More, she suspects someone in the household may have helped the killer get around her own visions, forced Alice and her mother to drop their guard so the murderer could strike. And to top it all off, it sounds very likely that her mother's spirit still dwells in the house as an angry ghost. Even a fraction of that would put a strain on anyone. We just have to hope that whatever we learn at the house gives her some kind of peace."
I shook my head. "No. Closure, maybe. But I think peace may be a long time coming."
Rose hesitated, then kissed my forehead gently. "You might be right. But she has you. She has all of us. We're all going to do everything we can to see her through this."
"If she'll let us," I replied, very quietly.
"She will. Have faith. She just needs time." Her fingers stroked my scalp, and she hummed softly for a moment or two, thinking. "Bella...you said you used to bind, ward, and banish spirits. What does it mean to banish a ghost? Where do they go?"
I shut my eyes tight. "Wherever they're meant to go. The afterlife. Home to the goddess, so she can watch over them until the time comes for their next lives. That's what I always believed...or maybe it would be more accurate to say that's what I always hoped. And it was all just...feeling, for me. I've seen things that I would call ghosts, but they weren't quite what you described. They weren't full apparitions. They didn't speak. They were doors opening and closing of their own accord, blurry masses of light or shadow, hideous things in mirrors, powerful sensations of dread and despair. The supernatural powers and beings of the world I remember were subtle. I've told you. You could never quite be sure if they were there or not, if what you did actually had any effect."
"What did it feel like when you banished them?"
"Like pushing someone so hard they disappeared from any kind of reality I could perceive," I replied. "It felt like justice. It felt right. I can't say it felt good. I only even attempted it with spirits that seemed actively dangerous."
"And they never - obviously they never spoke with you, but you never found any way to communicate?" Rose asked.
I shook my head. "Not in words. Not in any way I could easily understand. They did things that scared me, or - well. When I was in college, after I'd come out and started transitioning, I lived with some friends in a little apartment in one of the women's dorms. There was supposed to be a ghost there, the ghost of the woman who'd paid for the place, and she hated men. Supposedly she'd attack girls' boyfriends if they stayed after dark, push them off fire escapes, that kind of thing. The first night I slept there...I swear she was in my dreams, sifting through my mind. I thought I could feel her. She wasn't angry, she just didn't seem to know what to make of me."
"Mmm-hmm. So what happened?"
I cracked a small, lopsided smile. "What else? I did a spell. I didn't banish her, I just gathered some herbs, tried to make a sort of potion to affirm my womanhood." A small, soft laugh bubbled up from my throat. "It was awful. I'd never done it before, I had no sense of blending or steeping things, it was just - loose herbs in a cup of tap water. I spent more time paging frantically through my herbal trying to confirm that everything I wanted to use was safe than I did on the actual rite. I had to choke it down. But it worked. She left me alone after that. In some ways it was almost...disappointing. She'd touched my mind, but as soon as she was satisfied I belonged, she didn't seem to have anything else to say."
Rose smiled fondly at me, rolling her eyes a little bit at the story. "It sounds like you're lucky you didn't poison yourself."
"I did research! I said I checked my herbal. Everything I used was safe for human consumption," I protested. "I lived, it worked, all's well that ends well."
"I suppose it ended well enough," she said, with a one-shouldered shrug and a teasing smirk. Any hint of a smile soon fled from her face, though. "This ghost speaks. Supposedly. And it speaks Spanish, at least, same as...well, all of us, really."
"Yeah, even with Alice's tutoring and the whole perfect hybrid memory thing, I don't know if I'd trust my one semester of Spanish," I muttered. "Anyway, even if she can speak...I'm not sure most ghosts are stable enough to hold a conversation. Some of them seemed to have a kind of consciousness, in my experience. But a lot of them, based on both my experience and everything I read on the subject, were more like echoes of life than anything. Recordings of the past, playing on a loop, or maybe a rudimentary consciousness acting out base desires. Alice's mom could be like that, in which case banishing her might be a kindness."
Rose frowned deeply at that. "I don't like the idea of banishing whatever's left of Alice's mother right in front of her."
"Uh, yeah, seconded, that sounds counterproductive," Emmett added. "Isn't there any kind of witchy thing you two could come up with?"
Rosalie looked expectantly at me, and I sighed, looking up at the ceiling. "...maybe. We could try a sort of summoning. If she's not completely there, maybe we could call her consciousness back from the afterlife. We'd need - let's see. Dittany of Crete and wormwood to call upon the spirits of the dead, plus dragon's blood for power, garlic and vervain for purity and protection, and rosemary to strengthen the mind and memory."
"Do I get to fight a dragon?" Emmett asked, instantly perking up. "Holy shit, Bella, do I get to fight a dragon?"
I couldn't help laughing softly at his reaction, despite the somber mood hanging over all of us. "Down, boy. It's not literal blood. It's a resin."
He deflated, letting out a long-suffering sigh. "Oh."
"I was definitely not going to let you fight a dragon anyway, babe," Rosalie told him, before turning back to me. "Rosemary and garlic are easy. Where would we get the rest?"
"It's New Orleans. Next to Salem, it's probably one of the best places on Earth to find a shop selling occult supplies," I replied. "But you're probably looking for a place that caters to pagans in general - Wiccans in particular, if you need to get specific. My faith and practice are close enough to Wicca for jazz. Voodoo or conjure? Not so much. I only have a cursory understanding of either, so I have no idea if they'd sell the same herbs or supplies."
"There's a lot of 'you' in there and not a lot of 'we'."
"Yeah. Sorry. I'll make you a list, but...while you're looking around, I think I should call Callie." Rosalie made a face at that pronouncement, and I sighed softly. "I know you're not her biggest fan."
"She's - fine. But I don't like the way she's treated you in the past."
"Sometimes our friendship's been a little bumpy. I promise - I keep telling you - it's fine," I returned, giving her a slightly reproachful look. "Anyway, necromancy's not my specialty. You want to ward against the dead? Bind them into something? Banish them from this world? I have a good grasp on the theory. You want to talk to them? I have ideas, I know some of the principles, but I'm out of my depth. I don't think it's Callie's specialty, either, but she remembers a world where magic was a lot less subtle, a lot more potent, and significantly more common. If anyone in this world can point us in the right direction, it's her."
Rosalie sighed as well, but relented. "Okay. You're right. You should talk to her. Better you than me. And...I'm sorry I keep getting...prickly about her, I guess. It's just going to take time for me to warm up to her."
"Well, it would help if you gave her a chance," I muttered. "Sorry. That's not fair. I just - I do want you to get along. I love you both to pieces. But more than that, she really is the best available magic teacher on the planet, as far as I'm aware. She remembers more than I do. Her magic works. And your only other option is Jessica, who'd just be teaching you what Callie is teaching her - plus I'm pretty sure if I left you alone in a room with Jessica Stanley, one or both of you would lose it."
Rosalie shifted uncomfortably. "...okay, you might have a point."
"I'm pretty smart. It's not just this." I gestured vaguely at my face and body, and Rose and Emmett both chuckled quietly.
Emmett's laughter broke off into a deep, extended yawn, and Rose and I both found ourselves echoing the gesture. He chuckled again and wrapped his arms around me in a brief, fierce hug. "I think it's past time we actually got some sleep. It's not going to get any easier to talk to ghosts if we're dead on our feet."
Rosalie made a face, reaching over to lightly swat his hand. "Emmett."
"No, you're right. I just…" I looked at the closed door leading to the sitting room, thinking of Alice sleeping in the room just beyond it. "What if she needs me?"
"She'll find you. Or you'll hear her," Rose told me gently. "Go to sleep, Bella. Get whatever rest you can."
I found myself yawning again, and nodded wearily. "I'll try."
Even nestled as I was between Rose and Emmett, safe and warm and comfortable, I couldn't stop fretting over Alice. Every time I tried to turn my brain off, the guilt and worry came surging back. From the way they both shifted and grunted beside me now and then, I felt certain the other two weren't having the easiest time falling asleep, either. But eventually exhaustion claimed them, it seemed, and they settled, their bodies growing slack, their breathing deep and even. And then, at last, it was my turn to reach the end of my tether and drift off.
A moment later, I opened my eyes.
I was in the seaside cottage again, but it was dark and empty. Alice - or the version of her that had previously been here - wasn't with me. There was no sign of the cats. I sat up in bed, screwing my eyes tightly shut and clutching at my head.
"No," I groaned. "No, no, no, no, not again, no!"
Someone knocked on the door. Three slow raps, loud and steady, and then they stopped.
I opened my eyes again. Through the curtained windows, I could see lights, and human figures shifting dimly. I stared for a moment, then slowly, cautiously, I rose to my feet and paced over to the door, pulling it open and stepping outside.
There were seven women assembled on the beach. I knew six of them.
Esme was there, first of all, but she was dressed in a white gown tinged with green, and clearly heavily pregnant. Flowers were woven into her hair, and she was glowing and visibly delighted. Then there was Eleanor, wearing simple, homespun clothes that exposed her brawny arms, and a leather apron carrying an array of tools over everything. Callie - in the form of Tara Chen, as I knew her here - wore a light, short, vaguely Grecian shift, and held a torch aloft, one of the lights I had seen. There was a sense of motion about her, even a sense of flight, though she stood waiting and watching me in the sand.
Alice, my Alice, the Alice I knew and loved from the waking world, wore a purple gown, and her eyes were dark and distant. Leah stood beside her, wearing plate armor and a blue surcoat, of all things, a shield strapped to her back and a sword at her hip. And then there was Rosalie, dressed in a black chiton, resting her weight on a wooden staff with a hook at the top to hold a lantern.
Last of all, there was a woman clad in shifting blacks and greys like a mass of shadow. She held a shining candle, and her face was covered by a white mask, and though her eyes seemed vaguely familiar, I couldn't place her.
"Hello, Bella," Esme said gently, offering me a smile.
"Hello," I said automatically. It seemed only polite, and I felt a strange pressure to be as graceful and respectful as possible. "I'm sorry, may I ask a question?"
Esme nodded. "Of course, dear heart."
I spread my arms, looking around. "Why am I back on the threshold? Am I...am I going to die?"
"Not at this time. Not for a while yet, at the least," Rosalie replied. She exchanged a glance with the masked woman, and they nodded to each other before she turned back to me. "This is more than the threshold of life and death."
"What does that mean?"
Alice stepped forward, reaching up and touching my face, shaking her head sadly. "You don't understand. You don't know us. How small you've become."
"Small?" I echoed, feeling vaguely hurt and substantially offended.
"Compared to what you were, yes. You had already been diminished before you came here," Eleanor added, folding her arms and frowning at me. "You have lost even more since."
I shut my eyes, shaking my head tightly. "Yes. I know. Is that why you're here? Whoever you are? Because I don't think you're the people you seem to be."
"Very astute," Esme said, her voice genuinely warm. "Oh, Bella. What happened isn't your fault. Not entirely, at least. Your passage through the worlds has made you less. But you are recovering some of what you once were. And here...here you are a shadow of your former self. Be quiet. Reach out. Let it come to you."
I wanted to say more, but something told me to do as she asked. I kept my eyes shut, breathing deeply, trying to settle my mind and just feel. And I did. Suddenly, I could feel the world around me again, sense magic flowing, feel the power radiating off the figures arrayed around me like the summer sun beating against my skin. My eyes popped open once more, my mouth dropping in shock, and tears came to me unbidden. "I can feel it again. I can feel it, I - oh!"
I dropped suddenly to my knees, bowing my head. "My ladies, I...I didn't know you. Goddess, how could I ever have forgotten you?"
"Rise, Bella," Esme told me, stepping forward and taking me by the chin, carefully tilting my face upward to look at her. "I told you. It's not your fault."
"I'm sorry," I said, the tears running down my cheeks now as I rose to my feet. "I'm so sorry. I still don't remember your names, just...Mother. Shaper. Messenger. Dreamer. Protector. Traveler. Shadow. I've missed you. I've missed you all so much."
Esme - the Mother - pulled me into her arms, warmth and compassion and safety flowing like tangible forces through her embrace. I supposed those things were tangible here. "We've missed you, too, little poet."
"But why have you come?" I asked again. "What are you doing here? Does this have anything to do with the dreams I've been having?"
"We came because you called us." It was Callie who spoke, the Messenger wrapped in a form I knew. "Some part of you awakened, and remembered, and cried out to us."
"You're in pain. And your beloved is in pain," the Mother added.
Alice, the Dreamer, looked up at me and shook her head sadly. "Callie won't be able to help you. Part of you already knows it. Necromancy was never your specialty. You wouldn't have taught it to her."
I felt the wind go out of me, and my gaze fell to the sand at my feet. "Then what can I do? Alice is in pain - she's in so much pain, and seeing her mother the way she probably is now, anger and madness and grief wrapped up in a shell of what she once was...it's going to cut her deep. She needs to know the truth, whatever it is. She needs to talk to her mother."
"Do what you always do, dear heart," Esme told me, pressing her forehead against mine, cupping my face in both hands. "Spin your heart into rhyme, spin the rhyme into magic. And trust your sister to cast the spell. We cannot linger here. But a part of you called us. We see the plea for help in your heart. We are not gone. We answer."
She stepped back, and the Messenger walked over to me, leaning down to kiss me on both ears, and then, chastely, on the lips. "I grant you grace."
Alice stepped forward next, acting as the Dreamer, and she smiled up at me, gesturing for me to close my eyes. When I did, she kissed both my eyelids. "I grant you grace."
Next came Leah, standing in for the Protector, who kissed both my hands; and Rosalie, as the Traveler, who kissed my brow. The Shadow stepped forward last of all, and I felt a strange, mingled sense of gratitude and anxiety as she strode slowly toward me. She did not kiss me. She did not speak. Instead, she lifted her mask, and whatever lay beneath it surged into my mind, dug into my soul, and the world around me fell away.
I woke with a start, gasping loud enough to wake Rosalie, at least, though Emmett kept snoring away beside us. She moved into a sitting position at once, touching my arm. "Bella, what is it? What's wrong?"
"Paper," I blurted, scooting out of the bed and going to the desk against one wall. "I need paper and - a pen! Thank God."
Finding a hotel pad and pen, I dropped into the desk chair, beginning to write rapidly, stringing words together as quickly as I could, occasionally scribbling something out and replacing it as I went. Rosalie padded over on bare feet, putting her hands on my shoulders and watching as I wrote, pursing her lips.
"This came to you in a dream?"
"It's complicated," I replied distractedly. "Basically yes. I still need to call Callie after this, there's some stuff she failed to mention before. There might still be some gaps she can fill in."
Rose nodded, then frowned. "This doesn't rhyme."
"It doesn't have to rhyme. Here I thought you'd be grateful."
"I am, don't get me wrong. What are these names you're invoking?" she asked, pointing.
"They're more like titles. We're calling across the veil between life and death, we need the help and consent of the divine. Or at least a few specific aspects." I glanced up at Rosalie. Now that I was thinking of the aspects of my goddess, it felt strange to look at her, having last seen her standing in for one of them. I half-expected to see her clothes turn into the black chiton she'd been wearing. "The Traveler. She watches over us on journeys, even the journey from death to what comes next. The Messenger. She forms connections, from alliances to friendship to love, and aids in communication. The Protector, well, you can guess what she does, we'll invoke her to ensure peace. And the Shadow...she represents magic, mystery, and the search for knowledge. To walk in darkness, seeking light."
"Is that...from something?" Rose said uncertainly. "I've never heard of these goddesses."
"You wouldn't have," I replied, shaking my head. "Don't worry. I'll handle the invocations. You shouldn't call on gods you don't worship."
"Bella, you don't have magic."
"For this? For calling out to my goddess? I don't need it. Besides, I..." I shut my eyes, forcing my thoughts to a low murmur, reaching out with my mind. There was...something. It was like I was trying to grasp something through multiple pairs of gloves, and it was only just within my reach, just at my fingertips, but it was there. "...I can feel it again, Rose. Just barely, but - I think I can."
She dropped to her knees beside me, taking both my hands in hers, her blue-violet eyes searching their reflection in my own. "What does that mean? Can you do magic again? Or - are you going to be able to do magic again, eventually?"
"I don't know. The universe is talking to me again, I just - I don't know if I can talk back and make myself understood. But I have to try, I'd...fuck, I'd work miracles if it would help Alice, I'd move mountains if I could…" My voice began to shake, and my vision blurred slightly with tears, and Rosalie moved to sweep me into her arms.
"Shhh. Shh, I know, little sister," she replied quietly. "I'd do the same for Emmett. Or Ellie, honestly. Or you. Maybe that's all love comes down to, in the end."
I let out a small, scoffing laugh, sniffing and wiping at my face. "That kind of sucks. Love boils down to feeling - lost? Broken, useless?"
"No. Love, true love, changes us. It makes us push ourselves. It drives us to be better people, to help our loved ones, to make them proud," Rose said. "Love makes us stronger. And if we're very lucky, maybe it makes us the best possible versions of ourselves. I don't think I'm there yet, but hey. There's always hope."
I slung my arms around her shoulders and sighed as I pulled her into a loose hug. "I don't think you're as bad as you think."
"I don't think you've known me all that long," Rose retorted, echoing my sigh. "You think you can get back to sleep?"
I shook my head, and she gave me a crooked grin. "Yeah. Me neither. Come on, let's get dressed and duck out to Cafe du Monde. We can surprise our sweethearts with coffee and beignets."
Alice still seemed slightly lost when she rose an hour later, though she kissed me absently and managed one or two faint smiles over breakfast. Since we weren't going to try and get into her childhood home until after dark, Emmett appointed himself chief morale officer, dragging her off right after we finished eating, pitching her relentlessly on a day trip to Six Flags as they left. Rosalie turned to the Internet to look up local occult shops, and I took the opportunity to call Callie.
She answered after a couple rings. "Hey, Belladonna, how's the fact-finding mission?"
"I worship the Sevenfold Goddess, and her aspects are the Mother, the Shaper, the Messenger, the Dreamer, the Protector, the Traveler, and the Shadow," I said, without preamble. "And here is the greatest of mysteries: all gods are one god, infinite beyond the capacity of mortal minds to comprehend, and these are but masks upon masks, but still I believe, still I invoke, and still I serve."
Callie was silent for a long moment. Her voice shook when she found it again. "You remembered."
"Not everything. Not yet. If you knew, why didn't you tell me?" I asked, a little plaintively.
"You called us the Coven of the Sevenfold Goddess, but it wasn't a requirement to worship her. You were very adamant on that point," she replied. "You always said that everyone had to find their own path to the divine. That it was the seeking that mattered, not what you found at the end. We didn't exactly discuss what I should do if you ever lost your memory, but I figured it would apply to you, too. Either you would remember on your own, or you would find a new path."
I shut my eyes, leaning against the wall, sliding slowly to my knees. "Do you worship her too?"
"No. I'm kind of agnostic. I'm not sure there is some divine power overseeing everything, but I'm not ruling it out, and I'll invoke the elements and the natural world. I only know this stuff because you told me, and even then, there were things you held back. You wouldn't tell me the names of the aspects or the goddess they formed, for instance. Not directly. Sometimes you would mention names I didn't recognize in one incantation or another, and I could make some educated guesses as to which name went to which aspect, but I wouldn't be able to tell you for sure."
"I can't seem to recall their names either," I said quietly.
Callie paused another moment. "Okay. That sucks. But you're starting to remember some things! How did this happen? Was there something in particular that kicked your brain back into gear?"
"I...well, I think it was a combination of factors, honestly. One of them being - Rosalie's a witch now. I was able to modify her power to make her a natural adept, like Jessica."
"Wait, what the shit? How? Why?"
"Her power already involves imposing her will on reality, that's the how," I replied. "The why is...I'm pretty sure the town of Bull Bay's haunted. I was afraid for Alice. I didn't think I could put up an effective ward myself. I saw an opportunity, I took it, and it worked. When she cast it...I could even see her magic, as light and color. Red and gold."
"Of course that girl's a Gryffindor," Callie muttered.
"What? Gryffindor's an insult now?"
I rolled my eyes. "I've spent the last two or three days telling Rose she needs to try and get along with you. You need to do the same, Calico, you're the best magic teacher we've got."
"Sorry, fine, you're right," she replied, with a slight grumble to her voice. "Anyway. You can see magic now? And you talked to your goddess - goddesses? I was never totally sure whether I should use the singular or plural. Which one is right?"
"Both," I said, laughing softly as she groaned. "I can see Rosalie's magic. I haven't had a chance to look at anyone else's. I figured it was some kind of connection between us, since I'd made her a witch, but...it is starting to come back, Cal. I can feel magic. Only just, but it's there. Please don't make a big deal out of it."
Callie was silent for a full two minutes before she spoke again. "Right. Of course not, but...it's progress, right?"
"It's something," I agreed. "Anyway. Alice needs help again, I think that's why some part of me reached out, reconnected me to my faith. We found her childhood home. I'm pretty sure her mother's ghost is still there. We're going to try to talk to her."
"Shit. Uh...shit," she said. "I wish I could help you, Bellwether, but as far as I can remember, you spent your old life avoiding ghosts."
"I know. It's fine, I think I've got it figured out. We're going to give it our best shot. I guess I just...wanted to see if there was anything else you could tell me about how things used to be. Anything that might help."
"I could send you a spell to lay a spirit to rest, but that's about it. What little I knew about your faith...that's all I was holding back."
I bit my lip, a crawling sense of uncertainty in my gut. "You promise?"
"I...promise I'm not holding back anything relevant."
"We all have secrets, Bella. I'm sorry, but you're not getting all of mine, and I wouldn't expect all of yours," she said. "I'd better go, I have a shift coming up. Was there anything else you needed?"
I sighed and looked out the window. "Not now. We'll talk when I get back. Send me that spell, please? Just in case."
"Yeah, I'll e-mail you before I go. Love you, Bellflower."
"Love you, Calypso," I replied, a little distantly. "Give my love to Leah, too."
"Will do. Bye hon!"
I hung up and dropped into a chair, holding my head in my hands for a moment, unsure what I was feeling or why. But there wasn't time to unpack it. Finally, taking a deep breath, I stood and went to find Rosalie.
We reconvened at the hotel after sunset, after Rosalie and I had assembled everything we'd need, and I'd talked her through the process of consecrating amulets to protect the four of us from spirits. Emmett and Alice returned laughing and smiling, and Alice was very nearly her old self, dancing in on her toes and producing a red Wonder Woman shirt, reaching up to tug it on over my head. I snickered at her antics, and laughed louder when I saw she was wearing a black tee with a picture of Catwoman and the legend Practically Purr-fect.
She threw her arms around my neck, and my hands slid into place at her waist as I leaned down to kiss her. "Did you have a good day, baby?"
"Oh, Six Flags was cheesy as hell. But surprisingly fun," Alice replied, with a twinkle in her eye. "It was just...good to get out of my head for a while."
"Emmett's always been good at that," Rosalie remarked, leaning up to kiss his cheek, her lips curled into a warm smile.
Emmett grinned back at her, goosing her ass. "Damn straight."
I cleared my throat. "Technically there are children in the room."
Rose looked over at me and arched an eyebrow, smirking. "You sure you want to play that card, Bells? 'Cause I might just have to start acting like a responsible adult next time you order a cocktail."
"Objection withdrawn," I agreed immediately, and Alice laughed, high and clear and tinkling, and all was right with the world.
Dinner was filled with more laughter, as we talked about nothing in particular over some of the best food the city had to offer. Part of me wanted to linger there all night, to let the sunrise catch us unawares, to go on without a care in the world. But a distant sense of obligation ran through the whole meal, and the night to come loomed above us. It was there in the way we quietly ignored the drinks menu, determined to keep clear heads, and in the way Alice or I would lapse now and then into a pensive silence. Even Emmett seemed distant and worried once or twice, though he was quick to play it off with a joke or a quick round of flirting with Rosalie.
The evening eventually came to an end. We left the French Quarter after midnight, while Bourbon Street was still a sweaty, noisy crush of drunken revelers and laughter and music filled the night. Uptown was quieter at this hour, at least along the largely residential stretch of St. Charles Avenue where Alice's old home still stood. The street was split in two by a grassy median through which the streetcar tracks ran, and tall fences ran between the sidewalks and the yards of the stately old double gallery homes. The neighborhood seemed virtually idyllic, like something out of a dream.
The Brandon House stuck out like a sore thumb.
The iron fence surrounding the place was overgrown with thorny vines, and the gate was chained and padlocked. The house beyond had been painted black at some point, and the balustrades on the upper gallery had rotted and fallen away. The windows were boarded up, and I could see a heavy-duty lock on the front door. The worst of it was the lurid sign that had been mounted on a post overhanging the walk. It featured a grinning Grim Reaper beckoning and swinging his scythe, and a legend printed around it in a font that was supposed to look like blood but mainly looked like the titles from a cheesy horror movie: BRANDON HOUSE.
I turned away from my initial survey of the place to see Alice staring up at that awful sign. I put my hand on her shoulder, and she reached up to stroke my fingers. I leaned in to kiss her temple lightly. "This is complete bullshit, Alice. I'm so sorry."
"No. It's not…" She trailed off, then sighed. "Yes, it's shitty, but as far as anyone knows, everyone who would actually care is dead, so what does it matter? There's a saying, you know - in Europe, a hundred miles is a long distance. In America, a hundred years is a long time. It's been close to a century since my family's particular tragedy. Why should anyone care if some actor buys the site of the local ghost story and puts up some stupid sign?"
"You could buy it. I mean, the family," I said quietly. "If you want. We could take down that sign, we could...I don't know. What would you want to do?"
Alice turned, and smiled sadly up at me. "You're assuming Mr. Cage would be at all interested in selling. Anyway, I don't know. Ask me again when we're done here."
I pulled her close, nuzzling her hair. "Are you sure you need to go inside?"
"Yes. I'm sure. There's still...a wall between me and the truth. We're close. I can feel it. But we need to go inside. Anyway...my mother's in there."
"We think. We're not sure. Rose and I...we could lay her to rest, if that's what you want."
"After all the work you put into finding a way to talk to her? That seems like a waste." She pulled back, looking up at me, her eyes searching mine. "Besides, this could be my only chance to talk to anyone from my human life. And I...I feel I owe her this. For forgetting her. For failing to save her life. Take your pick."
"I want to talk to her, Bella," she said, interrupting me. "I promise you, if it's possible, that's what I want. No lies. No secrets. Never between us. I promise you."
"No lies, no secrets," I echoed, leaning down to rest my forehead against hers. "And I will do whatever I can to get you anything you want. Anything you need."
Alice smiled faintly, and planted a short, sweet kiss on my lips. "I really do have you wrapped around my little finger, don't I?"
I gaped in mock outrage, but grinned when she giggled in response. "Now and always," I agreed at a whisper.
"Okay, lovebirds, let's get inside," Rosalie announced, finished working her magic on the gate. I saw her squirting WD-40 on the hinges like they were about to outlaw the stuff, and then Emmett took the lead, managing to get the gate open with only moderate creaking. We slipped inside the overgrown yard, long since conquered by weeds and wildflowers, and shut the gate behind us, staying low as we made our way up to the front door. Rosalie went to work on that lock at once, and Alice snuggled close inside my arms, shutting her eyes as we waited.
"Anything yet?" I asked, sighing softly when she shook her head tightly. "Yeah, of course we're not that lucky."
Rosalie got the door open, and we made our way inside. The interior of the house was largely bare. There was some broken or rotting furniture here and there, and assorted built-in shelves and cabinets and old light fixtures in various states of disrepair, but that was about it. There was little to look at aside from the peeling wallpaper, the mold stains, the thick layers of dust and the sprawling cobwebs. The air was hot and wet and close, and it smelled and even tasted of mildew and decay.
I turned to speak to Alice, only to find her lost in a vision, her eyes glazed over. She looked without seeing this way and that, darting around the entry hall and then, before I could stop her, back to a dining room and presumably the kitchen beyond. I followed swiftly, barely glancing back to ensure that Rose and Emmett were following, and when I arrived in the kitchen I found her turning slowly with a look of horror on her face, both hands covering her mouth. She came back to reality in an instant, her eyes focusing again as her face crumpled and she began to tremble.
I scooped her back into my arms, and she let loose a sob, her tears spilling across my shoulder. "He drugged us. I saw it, he drugged the food while the cook was out of the room for - for just a moment, my father drugged our dinner so we would sleep. He was in on it from the start. I was so furious when he brought home another woman and said they were to be married, my mother hadn't even been dead a year, and it was her, they were working together the whole time, they killed my mother, Bella!"
The whole house seemed to shake, and the doors of all the cabinets around us were flung open. An unearthly howl echoed through the empty rooms, shaking the very dust from the walls, and light, faint and flickering, shone through cracks in the ceiling. A woman's voice rang out, as if at a great distance, wracked with anguished sobs.
"What are you doing in my house?!" she screamed, the words reverberating in both English and Spanish at once. "Where are my daughters?!"
"Rosalie," I said urgently, turning to help her get set up. But then I heard Alice shriek, and the room was suddenly filled with light. I spun about, and there she was, floating before us, her whole body wreathed in a terrible blue light. She wore a ragged late Victorian gown, shredded in places by her own long, ragged fingernails, which had been twisted practically into talons. Her dark hair streamed around her, unbound but tangled and matted, defying any sense of gravity. Her eyes were heavily hooded, mere glints of light in her skull-like visage, and her lips were black and twisted in an awful grimace. She looked wildly around at us, and another scream rose from her throat, so loud and shrill that we had to clap our hands over our ears.
"Where have you taken my children?!"
The amulets around each of our necks burst to life suddenly, throwing off tendrils of light in red and gold, then faint pink and purple and blue, before shining pure white, like miniature stars. The ghost before us screamed again at the sight, but the scream didn't hurt our ears as it had a moment ago. She shielded her eyes and jolted back, snarling at us as the light from our pendants dimmed to a steady glow.
"We'd better hurry," I said. "Alice…"
"Help Rosalie. I'll be fine," she replied distantly.
That gave me pause. "Are you sure?"
Alice nodded, then reached up and tugged at her amulet, snapping the chain. I gasped and stepped forward, but she stopped me with a sharp look, dropping her necklace to the ground. "Trust me. Even like this...I'm the very last person she'd want to hurt."
There was no time to argue. The ghost surged forward, seeing a target for her rage, and Alice threw up her hands, calling out to her. "Mama! It's me, it's your Maria! Your little miracle, don't you remember?"
The ghost suddenly stopped in midair, gaping, and though her visage grew no friendlier, she seemed to relax. "Maria? Is it truly you? No...you've grown so…"
"It's been a long time, mama," Alice replied, her voice shaking slightly. "Longer than you know. It's me. Do you remember…"
I forced myself to tune out her voice and put all my attention on Rosalie, hating myself as I did, but I couldn't know how long this moment would last, and there was work to be done. "Emmett, keep an eye on things. Rose - goddess forgive us, but we're going to have to rush this."
She nodded curtly, and as Emmett kept watch, we hurriedly unpacked our supplies and she began the prep.
"Air, source of breath, of wisdom and inspiration, tower of the east, we consecrate and call thee forth," she said, breathing carefully on the cauldron we'd bought, then dropping in some tinder and lighting a fire within. "Fire, source of heat, of passion and courage, tower of the south, we consecrate and call thee forth. Earth, source of strength, of patience and resilience, tower of the west, we consecrate and call thee forth. Water, source of life, of mystery and change, tower of the north, we consecrate and call thee forth."
She sprinkled dirt and water into the little fire, which hissed and spat and flickered, but still burned, and I could see the red and gold of her magic rising around us, tendrils weaving together steadily. I knelt beside her and bowed my head, pushing outward to that place where my mortal mind could just brush against the divine.
"Honored Protector of sword and shield, who guards us from harm," I intoned quietly. "I call you by the fading of the day, and by the half-moon as she wanes. I call you by the weary bones and by the spirit that fights to cling to its last embers. By the grace you did grant me, I ask that you shield me and mine against the dangers we now face."
"Garlic and vervain we offer, for purity and protection against all that might do us harm, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly," Rosalie said, adding the herbs to the little fire, the air filling with their scent.
"Blessed Traveler of staff and lantern, who watches us on all the roads we must walk. I call you by the coming of the evening, and by the last crescent of the moon that shines above. I call you by the mind that turns to sleep and by the heart that surrenders gladly at the last. By the grace you did grant me, I ask that you guide a pure spirit back along the path."
"With wormwood and with dittany of Crete we open the gates, and into the yawning dark we call thee forth, Luciana Constanza Campana Alvarado, of hallowed memory, whose daughter yet lives and seeks solace in her embrace."
"Kindly Messenger of scroll and torch, who links us mind to mind and heart to heart, I call you by the highest part of the morning and by the waxing of the moon nearing fullness. I call you by the heart that seeks another and by the tongue that speaks only love and friendship. Gentle Dreamer of censer and mirror, who grants us insight and inspiration, I call you by the first blush of the afternoon and by the moon just past her ripest hours. I call you by the mind given to wandering and by the truths we hold close to our spirits. Sisters astride the full moon, sisters astride the noonday sun, by the grace you both did grant me, I ask that you return both mind and voice."
"Camphor for awareness, and rosemary for remembrance. Luciana Constanza Campana Alvarado, of hallowed memory, by the powers we have called, we bid you remember and we bid you speak!"
"Holy Shadow of mask and candle, who walks in darkness seeking light, I call you by the midnight hour and by the moon that hides her face from us. I call you by the feet that walk the path and the eyes that seek only truth. By the grace you did grant me, I ask you to guide us to the truths we seek!"
"With dragon's blood we light the way, with dragon's blood we set our charge, with dragon's blood our will be done!" Rosalie thundered, dropping the resin into the fire last of all. "So will it I, so mote it be!"
My voice joined with hers on the final declaration, and red and gold light flared all around us, so bright we were all briefly dazzled. As my vision cleared, I thought I could see thin tendrils of pink, purple and blue here and there, just barely visible, but I blinked and they were gone in a moment. A loud, angry hiss filled the night, but it faded swiftly, falling into silence as our sight was fully restored at last.
A shining spirit still floated in the center of the room, but the gown she wore now was white, belted and accented with gold and silver. The light that surrounded her was softer, kinder upon the eyes. Her skin was brown and sun-kissed, darker than Alice's complexion by a shade or two, and her hair fell past her shoulders in sleek black waves. Her eyes were still dark, but no longer so deeply set, and her dark brown irises were distinct from the pupils. She looked healthy, vital - alive. There was no better word for it. She was beautiful, and there was so much of Alice in her, or so much of her in Alice, I supposed. When she finished looking around in wonder and her eyes fell back on her daughter at last, her smile, in particular, was a perfect match for the smile that always made my heart melt.
"Maria," she said, her voice high and musical with a hint of laughter, just like Alice at her happiest. She reached out with both hands. "Maria, I've missed you so much."
"Mama," Alice replied, her voice choked with tears. She stumbled forward, reaching out to take her mother's hands, and though light flared softly where they touched, it seemed they could touch. "Is it really you?"
"It is. It truly is." Luciana shook her head, her eyes wide and shining. "I can think clearly - see clearly - for the first time in years. Maria, how long has it been?"
Alice glanced back at me, biting her lip, and I gave her the most encouraging smile I could. Setting her shoulders, she turned back. "It's been almost ninety years since I last saw you, mama."
"What? How is that possible? You look only a few years older, but - what you're wearing - fashions couldn't have changed so much. Could they?"
"This is modest by modern standards, trust me," Alice replied, laughing a little before growing sober again. "I...after you died, father sent me away to a hospital. You know he always hated hearing of my visions. While I was there, I was changed into something else. Something not quite human. Almost ninety years have passed and I haven't aged since."
Luciana's lips set in a firm line. "Your father. I should never have married that man, except...except I would not have had you. Or Cynthia. I suppose some good came out of this...Cynthia. Maria, where is your sister?"
"I...I don't know. I lost my memory. I've only just begun to get it back. My visions have helped, but there is still so much I don't know."
"You must find her. You must learn what happened to her, for my sake if not hers, if not your own. Promise me, mija."
Alice trembled a little, but nodded. "I will. I promise I will, if I can. Mama - there's so much I need to tell you, about father, about what happened afterward…"
"Much of it is coming back to me," she said. "In the place where I was...not quite the living world, not quite Heaven...I could see many things. I couldn't seem to understand them completely until now. Oh, Maria. I was murdered, wasn't I? And your father had a hand in it?"
"Yes." Alice's voice shook again. "It was a hired killer. Father's new wife - the woman he married when you were gone - she hired him. And father drugged us so we would sleep the night he came to kill you, so neither of us would interfere. And when I wouldn't stop speaking of his new wife's part in things, they began to plan to kill me next. I saw it in a vision. I went for help, but we were in a new town, and father had ingratiated himself with the local authorities. He convinced them I was mad, and he had me committed. The doctors paid me no mind. There was only one person in the asylum who believed me, who tried to help and protect me, and he...he died trying to keep me safe."
Tears stung Luciana's eyes, and she pulled Alice into a hug, light flaring again along her arms as she did. "I should have been more careful, my love. I should have paid you more mind. I should have seen who your father truly was, I should have taken you and Cynthia away from this place the moment you told me my fate. I am so, so sorry, my darling."
Alice shook her head tightly. "I should have fought harder to protect you. To stop them, to avenge you if all else failed. I should have found a way."
"No. Maria, no. You were still in your youth when I died. This was not your responsibility. It was not your fault. It was my duty to protect you and you sister, and I failed."
"You did everything you could," Alice protested. "But mama...if you knew what kind of man father was, why did you marry him?"
"I did not know in life. Not truly. I suspected some things, toward the very end, but I didn't think it was in him to kill me," Luciana said. "His words were milk and honey, once. He treated me so kindly, looked at me with such fire in his eyes, and he was handsome and charming. My father did not like him at first, but George won him over. In truth, looking back...my family was wealthy, and there were not many of us left. It all came to my papa, who had only daughters. Silver and jewel mines, land, a pearl diving operation, even an oil well. Your father did business with us, before he began to court me. He hoped to gain it all one day, or a significant portion, at least, but when papa died, only some of it passed to me, and most to my sisters, still unwed, still in Mexico. I think that must have been when George's heart turned completely."
"That's horrible. He loved you only for your money? All this time?"
"I still can't be sure what was in his heart. Perhaps he did love me once. Perhaps he was never able to love at all. But as I said, he gave me you, and he gave me Cynthia, and both of you were the lights of my life," Luciana said, with a small smile, leaning down to kiss Alice's brow. "Maria, tell me. Whatever you have become, whatever strangeness has passed into your life...it is nothing unholy? You are still my sweet girl? And you are happy?"
"I…I don't think it's unholy. It's been difficult, but - I've tried to be good. I've never stopped trying." Alice sniffled, reaching up to wipe at her face. "And I miss you. I miss you so much, and I've learned so much these last few days that - that cut me deeply. It hurts, it hurts so badly, and all of it still feels fresh. But I...I found people who care for me, mama, and I care for them. We look after one another, love one another, like a family. And I…"
She looked back, and reached for me, and my eyes flicked between her and her mother as I bit my lip. But Luciana had turned her gaze to me, curious but apparently not angry, and Alice's arm was still outstretched. After a moment's thought, I stepped forward and took her hand, and she pulled me to her side.
"This is Bella," Alice told her mother, her eyes shining as she smiled at me, then turned back to Luciana. "She is the love of my life, and we're going to be married. She helped me find you. She helped bring you back, for this."
I felt my cheeks heating slightly, and my mouth was suddenly dry. I had literally no context for this kind of situation. What was I supposed to say to the ghost of my fiancée's mother, and more, a woman who had died when homosexuality was both scandalous and extremely illegal? In the end, I could only fall back on my best manners. "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
Luciana stared at me for a long moment, then burst out laughing. "Is she always this red, mija?"
Alice let out a breath I hadn't realized she was holding, and smiled fondly at me again. "Only on increasingly rare special occasions. I kind of like it."
"You're...not upset?" I offered hesitantly.
"I should be. But there is a sort of peace that has begun to settle over me," Luciana replied. "I feel as though so many of the things I knew, so many things I believed...they matter less, now. I feel something calling to me, something warm, something kind. God, perhaps. And what I feel above all else is love. Love for my family. Love for my daughter. And love for the one who has brought my daughter joy. You will keep her? You will cherish her? You will not let love fade from your heart?"
I swallowed and nodded, looking over at Alice and squeezing her hand. "I love her more than I have ever loved anyone. I could love her until all the stars go out and it wouldn't be enough. I'm not going anywhere."
"Then you have my blessing. For whatever it is worth. Life is too short to deny true love, and you two shine for one another." Luciana leaned over to plant a kiss on my brow, and her lips were cool but still felt soft and pleasant against my skin. It reminded me of Alice's kisses, when she was still a full vampire, and I was still fully human. "I don't know if I would have felt this way when I still lived. But there is much I did not understand, then, and much that I am only beginning to understand now."
"I wish you could stay, mama," Alice said, fresh tears in her eyes. "I wish we could give you another chance at life, I wish - I wish you could see our wedding."
"Mija, I promise you, when I get to Heaven or wherever it is I'm going, I will watch over you. I will smile on your wedding day," Luciana replied, though tears streamed down her cheeks as well. "I wish I could be there to embrace you as a married woman, to give you whatever advice I have to offer, for whatever good it would do in your marriage. I wish I could be there to spoil your children, if somehow you have them. I wish I could stay forever. But that's not how things are meant to be. You will always be in my heart, my love. Let a part of me live in yours, and never forget how much I love you."
Alice nodded, her voice choking up as she spoke. "I won't forget. Not again. I promise."
There was a sudden burst of brilliant white light behind Alice's mother, like a door had just been thrown open and the light beyond was shining through. I could just make out a figure standing in the glowing portal, but could see little more than the shape of a woman holding a staff in one hand and a lantern in the other. Luciana turned and gasped.
"Abuelita? Maria - oh, this is my grandmother, she died when I was just a girl, you never met her…"
"I can't see her, mama. It's okay, I - I'll see her someday," Alice said, leaning into me. I put my arm around her shoulders, holding her close. "You should go to her. Go into the light."
"Oh. Yes. Yes, I see," Luciana said, turning back to us, her smile fading slightly. She reached out to brush her fingers along Alice's cheek and chin. "My little miracle. My Maria. I love you. Goodbye, mija."
"Goodbye, mama," Alice replied, wiping at her eyes and sniffing loudly. "I love you so much."
Alice's mother hesitated a moment longer, but I could tell she couldn't resist the call. At last, she turned back toward the light, and with one last, lingering glance, she stepped into whatever lay beyond and vanished from our sight. With a sudden rush of wind like a weary soul sighing in relief, the light was swept away, leaving us in darkness.
The house around us was still and quiet, and though the scent of decay lingered in the air, there was a sense of peace to it. Alice collapsed at once into my arms, weeping openly, but though her tears were filled with grief and sorrow, there was something different about them now. They weren't the great, racking sobs of a lost soul, unsure of ever finding solace. They were tears that would pass, in time, when the great wound that caused them began to heal. I could remember them, dimly, from my own time of mourning. It would take time for the grief to pass. It would never go away completely. But Alice had me as surely as I had her, and together we could see our way through anything.
I would keep the faith.