Wraith
The Ties That Bind

by
Kevin Andrew Murphy

It was autumn, and the leaves would have been brown if there were any. There weren't, and cold sunlight slanted down, illuminating a Saturday more dismal than most. I had always detested the Mission District, even in life, and the soot and grime and uninspired graffiti did little to improve that opinion.

However, I had an appointment. The wheels of time turn slowly, but it is possible, when one is dead, to catch glimpses of their future positions. I had paid those whose foresight was better than mine to tell me when and where I might find a certain man; a living man of whom I had made the acquaintance some years earlier, and of whom I currently had need of service. A man, who, in my humble opinion, had met with Destiny and other weird and otherworldly things.

Not the least of which, of course, being myself. It was an acquaintance I intended to renew.

Peter came down the sidewalk towards me, boots clomping in not-quite-military precision. He'd changed a great deal in the three years since I'd seen him last. Gaunter, with dark circles under his eyes, hair long on top and shaved round the sides, and he'd affected a little ring in his nose and weighted clamps for earrings. A Goth now, though I might have expected as much. The mark of Death was gone from his face, but the scars were still there, showing in the shadows under his eyes.

Not that they mattered. Death may be a fearful and jealous mistress, but even La Morte has been known to relinquish Her claim when confronted with the proud and haughty visage of Destiny, who takes precedence before even that most dread of ladies. Those whom Destiny claims are Hers alone, and though the rewards of such a liaison are often great, it is seldom an easy relationship.

I make no claims to being a great man, or even to having been a great man in the years before my death. But I will admit a certain talent in recognizing greatness in others--or at least its potential. There are some who hear the call to Destiny and answer readily; others who run from it, screaming in denial.

Then there are those who merely recognize it as it rushes by and, if they are quick enough, can reach out and grab it by the coattails.

Peter walked right past me, paying me no more mind than did any of the living. It's a rare man who can see ghosts, for, as you've no doubt discovered, the Quick have an instinctive fear of the Dead, and shutter their minds away from even the slightest glimpse of that-which-lies- beyond. However, this man, as I knew from experience, could see me as plainly as he could the rest of the world. He just wasn't paying attention.

"Peter, hold a moment."

He paused, listening, then continued down 10th, hunching into the collar of his pea coat.

I caught up a second later and tapped him on the shoulder with my cane. "Hello, Peter. Remember me?"

His eyes narrowed, grey mirrors that reflected the Shadowlands, and I saw the spark of recognition. "Fuck you. You're dead. Leave me alone." The words came out in a fierce whisper and he turned away, loping off at a swift pace.

"Peter--wait." I had to jog to keep up.

"Get the fuck away from me. I've had enough of everyone thinking I'm crazy. I don't need this shit."

"Wait, Peter. Wait. Peter--Do you want me to tell everyone else?"

He stopped and glared, and the whisper came out in a sharp hiss. "You're a fucking bastard. I ought to beat your face in."

I tried to smile as ingratiatingly as I could. It is always paramount to give one's best appearance, especially when dealing with those who view one with disfavor.

Peter broke eye contact and continued on down the sidewalk, rounding onto Folsom. He spoke again, louder this time, as if he were only talking to himself. "I'm going to Mary's, and I'm gonna get myself a fucking burger, and a fucking table by myself, and I don't wanna talk to anyone."

I followed him down the street and into the restaurant. He didn't speak a word the entire time, and I chose to respect that.

Hamburger Mary's is the type of San Francisco eatery that they've had since the Summer of Love--exposed wood and posters and little bits of stained glass and bric-a-brac. It's one of the jewels of SoMa, the South of Market area, staffed by gays who call each other "Mary," though not nearly as much as they do in City legend. It's a nice, casual place, where the staff is neither on display nor in hiding, and aside from the shadows on the faces of the doomed and the dying (and there's a fair number at Mary's), the feeling is good. As much as anything in the Shadowlands could be.

Peter got a little table in the back and pretended I wasn't there until finally he kicked the chair opposite him out just enough so I could sit down. I waited till he'd finished looking over the menu and ordering before I said anything. "Peter, I need your help."

"Fuck you." His lips formed the words, but he didn't voice them.

I've heard tell that there are some wraiths, mostly Norwegian, who are so scandalized by vulgar language that it sends them screaming into the Tempest. Perhaps, but I'm not Norwegian, and it certainly didn't apply to me. "Peter, listen--I wouldn't really tell everyone that you're a Topper, but I need your help. I have a friend, another wraith, who's lost every connection to this earth except his grave. He was one of the plague victims, the miners they buried out in the potter's field by the Port Authority Building. They've rediscovered it, and the City plans to dig everyone up and cremate them and cast the ashes in the Bay."

"There'll be a monument," Peter said softly, looking at the grain of the wall. "The City likes that sort of thing."

"Probably. It doesn't matter, it wouldn't be the same. Once the fetter is broken, Frank will be lost."

"Fetter? What is he, a fucking horse?" Peter glared back at me. "You talk weird even for a ghost."

I took off my spectacles and began to polish them. "I beg your pardon, Peter. A fondness for legal terminology has followed me even into death, and while it has served me in good stead when dealing with the various Guilds and Hierarchies the Dead have seen fit to amuse themselves with, I do have an unfortunate tendency to slip into the vernacular. My apologies." I placed my spectacles back atop my nose and adjusted the ribbon. "By fetters, I refer to the ties that bind, the reasons a person has for living that are so strong that they continue to hold true even when that person has ceased to live. And when a fetter is gone, your reason for living--"

"`'s your reason for leaving/Don't ask me what it means,'" Peter finished for me, singing. "ABC, 'The Look of Love.' Know it."

"Exactly," I said, continuing blithely onward even though I hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. "Yes, well, when a fetter is broken, your reason for living is your reason for leaving, and the ties that bind can hold you no longer. And the body is one of those, for what could be a more obvious reason for living than that which holds one's life itself, even when that vessel is broken and the spirit no longer infuses the divine machine?"

I think I was beginning to lose Peter, for he was playing with his napkin and humming the song he'd just recalled, interspersed with snatches of verse: "'I don't know the answer to that question . . . if I knew, mmm-mmm- mmm-mmm.'"

When you're dead, you grow used to the living paying you no mind, but I knew Peter was deliberately ignoring me, and I'd never had patience for that sort of thing. I snapped my fingers quickly in front of his face. "Peter, pay attention." He glared at me and I continued: "If Frank's fetter is destroyed, he'll fall into the Tempest. And by that I mean neither a mundane rainstorm nor the Bard's play, but a maelstrom of spiritual energy that will suck him down to Oblivion, if he isn't caught along the way by various fiends, who will enslave him or worse.

"And that's why I'm here. Frank would be scattered with his ashes, and if not destroyed outright, he'd be made into a slave. The miners left so little that's tangible, but their legend is strong. There are spirits who want that power, and are willing to sacrifice Frank and others like him in order to seize it."

Peter's mirrored eyes looked at me, and I'm still not sure whether he was looking to the core of my soul or just looking right through me like the rest of Quick. It was that sort of look.

He broke it off as his burger came. It was a big sloppy one, with fried bread on each side and lots of juice and trimmings, so thick he had to go at it with a fork. I could feel his hunger and the savor as he took a bite, and I reached out to share a bit of the real experience.

The knife flashed in Peter's hand and he whacked me with the flat of the blade. "Get your fucking fingers off my food, you rotten ghost bastard. You're gonna give me a case of grave rot." He took the knife and polished it clean with the napkin, then on second thought set it aside and took the clean one from the setting on my side of the table. "And now you've got everyone thinking I'm a fucking loony. Hey," he said, sitting up straighter and looking right through me this time, "I'm practicing for a play. Gotta problem with that? 'Alas poor Yorick. I knew him well.'" He slumped back down and locked eyes with me. "'He was a dick.'"

"Sorry." I glanced back at the two woman who were looking at Peter with over-mascaraed eyes. They shrugged after a moment and went back to their lunch.

Peter went back to attacking his hamburger and swallowed it down in big bites, juice running down his chin. "So," he said around a mouthful, "this friend of yours loses his place. So what? Why doesn't he just go into the light along with Carol Ann and the rest of you assholes?"

I'd never heard Ascension discussed so quickly and crassly, and I wasn't expecting his next remark: "Okay, fine, you can't, you're stuck, you're here in Purgatory and I'm stuck here with you and I have to listen to you whiny bastards 'cause I'm the closest thing you've got to some Poltergeist midget psychic. Fuck that. If I knew how the hell to get into the light, I would have done it a long time ago, and the only reason I haven't bumped myself off yet is that from everything I've seen being dead sucks even more than being alive. What do you want me to do? I can't stop City Hall, and once they get it into their heads to build a monument, there isn't anything in this world or the next that's gonna stop them. So what do you want me to do?"

Peter wanted the cards on the table, and I had to give them to him. "We were hoping you could dig up Frank's body and move it somewhere else."

"You want me to go graverobbing."

I tried to put the best face on it. "Well, yes, if you could, please."

Peter attacked the french fries, not saying anything for another minute or two. "Why don't you go find some girl who just died and get her to ask her boyfriend to do it?"

Believe me, I'd tried, but young wraiths are jealous of their fetters, and even if you get them to ask, most mortals balk at the idea of graverobbing, especially at the request of the dead. "I think you know the answer to that, Peter. It's a terrible thing to be chained as a thrall. The chains are forged from the broken souls of the Dead and shattered promises and dreams. Frank doesn't deserve that sort of a hell. No one does. You can save him."

"What do I look like? Fucking Amnesty International?" Peter contemplated a french fry and licked a drop of ketchup off his nose ring. "How much is he paying you?"

"What?"

"Don't give me that shit--How much is he paying you? You're not Casper the Friendly Ghost, you're Thaddeus Winters, the Greedy Bastard. I know your rep and who you are, and you're not doing this out of the goodness of your heart. What's this fucking Frank the Dead Miner paying you that you're threatening to write my phone number on every bathroom wall in the Otherworld?"

I fussed a bit with my gloves, making sure the buttons were secure at the wrist. "Frank is older than me. Not in life, but in death. He's the shade who removed my caul after I died." I glanced back up. "He's my Reaper, and I owe him a great debt."

Peter looked at me, his mirror eyes looking to the darkest corners of my soul. "Don't give me that shit. I bet you paid him off a dozen times, or at least got him to agree that you paid the debt and that he even owed you."

There are many frightening and terrible things about death, and people like Peter are among them. "You're right. I've treated him abysmally, and not as one should treat a friend or Reaper. But if his fetter is destroyed, then he'll be taken by the Regents of the Skeletal Lord. I know this. And Franklin knows where my fetters lie from the early time we spent together. And if I'm taken as a thrall, I'll be forced to tell my new master everything. And that includes everything about you, Peter." I paused, letting it sink in. "A Topper is a precious and wonderful thing to the Dead. A mortal who can see and touch us without charms or effort, and who doesn't risk being consumed by the Shadow. . . ."

"You don't know what the fuck you're talking about." He stabbed the ice in his Coke with the straw and it rattled like the chains of Stygia. "The Shining sucks worse than Stephen King ever imagined, and you bastards nearly got me killed a dozen times over. I've seen my Shadow, and that's something no living person should ever have to do."

"The mark of Death isn't upon you anymore, Peter."

"No thanks to you, asshole." He stabbed the ice again. "I bet Shirley Maclaine never had to deal with this shit. Housewives in Oregon get two-thousand-year-old medicine men as their spirit guides. I nearly die, what do I get? Some fucking Robber Baron lawyer. Who the hell wants to talk to you?"

I shrugged. "Do you want ancient wisdom or competent legal advice?"

"Fuck you."

He was evading the issue. "If you really want to go on the talk-show circuit, Peter, you can tell them I'm a law-speaker from ancient Lemuria. That should appeal to the credulous masses, and it's not as if anyone could prove it regardless. But who knows? If I'm taken along with Frank, then your name will be sold to the highest bidder, and there's no telling what number of dyspeptic old medicine men's shades may show up at your door--if that's really what you want."

Peter stirred his Coke, avoiding my eyes. "Listen, I'll think about it. But it won't be easy digging up a parking lot."

"The asphalt is already broken, and the bones are lying exposed."

"Says you," Peter said. "You wraiths see the future. I only see the present, and I don't need you to tell me things have gone to hell 'cause I already know they're going there. Anyway, tomorrow's Halloween. I've got things to do, and there's no way I'm messing around in a graveyard on Halloween night. Too much weird shit going down without digging up dead men's bones on top of it."

"We don't mind."

"Says you. Frank ain't the only one buried there, you know, and there's nastier things than you ghosts out on Halloween night. Anyway, even if you and Frank are the only things that go bump in the night tomorrow, you aren't the cops, and if the cops don't have everything guarded, I'll have to stand in line behind the weirdloops who want to sacrifice cats and read Crowley at each other. Everybody knows where those graves are, so fuck that shit." Peter threw a handful of bills on the table and stood up. "I'll be at the House of Usher on Tuesday and the Temple on Thursday. You know where to find me." The hem of his coat whipped through me as I sat there and Peter stormed out of the restaurant.

I was quite proud of Peter. He'd done a lot of growing up since last we met.

*     *     *

Frank was where I'd left him, his customary perch in the Washbag, the Washington Square Bar & Grill. "How did it go?"

I shrugged. "Better than expected. He didn't say no."

Frank smiled. He still looked like the boy he'd been when he died, seventeen, with golden hair and green eyes. His miner's shirt was gone, replaced with a 49'rs T- shirt, though he still had the same rough-worn denim jeans. It was a good semblance for him to wear, nothing the drunks would find remarkable when they caught a glimpse of him in the bar's mirror. My own suit and cravat were of course a trifle old-fashioned, but this was San Francisco, and in a city where men wore tea dresses and women wore lumberjack shirts, it would take far more than that to beg askance.

As they also said of the City, the miners came in '49, the whores in '51, and there, beside Frank, was Grace. She'd died in 1951, not 1851, but for all the century of difference between them, they made a couple. Grace had traded her semblance of a bloody murdered harlot for the dress of one of the movie queens of the late '40s of this century, and her auburn locks were immaculately curled and styled.

She twined her fingers with Frank's and hugged closer to him. "You've got to help Frank, Teddy."

I moved up to the bar, sharing a draught of one patron's Anchor Steam. "I fully intend to, Grace. And drop the little-girl-lost tone; I've a feeling that's part of what got you killed in the first place."

Grace gasped, playing her part immaculately, and I saw the Shadow look out of Frank's eyes for a moment. A danger. "I beg your pardon, Grace. That was a very uncivil remark, and unbecoming of a gentleman. I'm just a bit overwrought. Peter is a very difficult man to deal with."

Frank's eyes returned to their customary green, and Grace dimpled. "Okay," she said in her best baby-doll voice. "I know it's tough getting living guys to believe in you." She made a little moue. "And not much fun even if they do."

Frank hugged closer to Grace, comforting her. "Don't worry, Grace. Thaddeus says the guy's a Topper. He'll be easier to talk to." He looked up, plaintive. "He is a psychic, ain't he? We're not just wasting time?"

I glanced about, making sure that the rest of the Washbag's patrons were both living and interested in other matters, then leaned over and shared another draught of Anchor Steam. "Peter," I said, softly and distinctly, "in my personal and professional opinion, is no mere sensitive, even one strong enough to warrant being called a Topper. Oh, I have no doubts he may have started life as such-- there's a certain fey and otherworldly quality about the boy, and that sort of air only comes about through long experience--but after what he has been through and the talents he has evinced . . . no. He is a magician, a potent spiritualist--though frankly, I don't believe he's realized it as yet."

"A magician?" Grace asked. "You mean like Copperfield?"

"No, Grace," I said, biting back several choice remarks, "not like Copperfield, nor like Houdini. A true magician, a Magus, one of the wise men whom we have come to know as the Magi--though I believe they now call themselves mages to keep from offending the fairer sex such as yourself." I touched the brim of my hat in deference. "But magician, witch, sorcerer--it all comes to the same thing. They know we're here, and I know you've heard the stories and the warnings: necromancers and spiritists, living men who can drag the Dead before them and force them to do their bidding. Conjurers who trap souls in bottles, and dark priests who can send them to Hell. Soothsayers and oracles who see more of the worlds beyond Death than the Dead themselves.

"Euthanatos, I've heard they call themselves, the `Good Deaths.' Hollow Men. Strange and arcane Orders and Brotherhoods." I held out my cane, gesturing and pointing to one after another, as if representatives of all of these were before me.

I let my arm fall and shrugged. "It really doesn't matter. We gain our power when we realize that we are Dead. They gain their power when they realize the world is a stranger place than they imagined. We take our own in hand for our own reasons, and they do the same.

"Sometimes, however, one falls between the cracks. A duckling goes astray to be raised by wolves, or a fox by magpies. Pick a metaphor; I'm sure there's a better one. But Peter nearly died once, and from that, he met with the Dead--including myself. He's been doing his best to avoid us ever since, though unlike most who tread upon the hem of the Moon-Angel's robe, he cannot forget what he saw, or stop seeing it. And as dour and taciturn as he is, I see little reason for him to have ever made the acquaintance of other mages--or for him to have taken up their tricks or their politics. And as he's living, and wishes only to be left alone, he won't give a fig if he knows the location of your bones, Frank, even if he is the one who helped move them. Which leaves him our best and brightest option."

Grace gave an innocent look and batted her eyelashes with the ease of long practice. "Could we maybe meet him? If we ask him nice-like, well, maybe . . ."

I considered Peter to be one of my own secrets, but I'd already let most of my hand show. And desperate times . . . "It might be a possibility. He won't do it tomorrow, but he's mentioned two likely rendezvous points: the House of Usher on Tuesday and the Temple on Thursday. I can only assume they're nightclubs. I'll need to do more research."

Grace brightened. "They are. The H of U is at Thunder Bay in Berkeley, and the Temple is at the Oasis. They're Goth clubs. And if he's going to them, I'd bet anything he'll be at the Waydown tomorrow."

I had not considered Grace as a source of information. "The Waydown?"

Grace nodded. "It's what they call the Old St. Francis Church in the Haight. Some of the underground clubs go there, and it's where they're holding the Necrotic Neurotic Halloween Ball tomorrow night."

"Necrotic Neurotic?" I'd heard of the Exotic Erotic Halloween Ball, but still . . .

Grace dimpled. "It's a Goth thing."

Frank smiled again, looking at Grace. "Well, at least we've got something to do for Halloween." He looked back to me, and I saw the fear in his eyes. "It beats waiting for them to dig up my bones and burn them."

I nodded in assent. "Agreed. Speaking from personal experience, I must say that having one's bones incinerated is less than pleasant."

*     *     *

The Old St. Francis proved to be in the Ashbury Heights near Mount Olympus. Fire had blackened the exterior, and the marble statues of St. Francis and his little animal friends had had their heads knocked off long ago. Someone had thoughtfully replaced them with grinning jack-o'-lanterns, however, and girls dressed in cobweb lace were happily running about festooning everything that didn't move with orange and black crˆpe. Flyers done up, black on purple with illustrations in the style of Edward Gorey, proclaimed the coming revel with phrases like "It's a Dead Man's Party!" and "Every Day is Halloween!"

We felt right at home.

Grace had felt it an engaging idea to appear in the manner of our deaths, and she now looked like a murdered whore circa 1951 (though far less grisly than I'm certain she'd looked originally) while Frank looked like a miner fresh in from the gold fields (as opposed to the cholera ward). I told them I died of smoke inhalation, as I did not particularly wish to retake my aspect as a charred corpse from the Great Fire. However, my top hat and spectacles lent me a dignified air, and I noted at least one or two of the mortals had affected similar apparel.

Dusk fell, the fog rolled in, and the revelers began to arrive on motorcycles and in cabs and limousines. There were of course several who arrived in hearses, as might be expected, though the most stylish by far was the young lady who rode in (presumably from just down the block) on a penny-farthing dating to somewhere between Frank's death and my own.

Peter had not shown as yet. To brighten Frank's spirits somewhat, Grace decided to explore the inside of the church. The Old St. Francis had caught fire in the '20s as I remembered, and there had never been enough money to repair the damage or enough interest in the local Catholic diocese to do anything other than hold onto the land as an investment. All attempts at chainlink fence had of course been cut to bits long ago, and last I'd heard, hippies had used it as a crash pad.

Their heirs, the Goths, had now made it their own, and the D.J. had set up atop the altar. The crucifix that had no doubt hung behind it had been removed, replaced by speakers and a crucified medical skeleton wearing an iron crown. Loud morose music pertaining to Lucrezia Borgia blared out of the apse, while the main portion of the nave was now arguably the dance floor, though no one was dancing as yet. At present, it was occupied by various cliques who milled about, snubbing one another, whispering behind each other's backs, and generally behaving as if they were members of some baroque court. Lucrezia would have approved.

The west transept had been set up as a lounge, the last of the pews mixed with couches and odd furnishings, while the east transept and choir loft had suffered the worst damage from the fire and now stood open to the sky. Moonlight poured in, filling them with rich shadows, and this seemed to be the smoking area, for the cherries of cigarillos and clove cigarettes winked on and off in the darkness, a cloud of smoke hovering in the charred remains of the choir loft.

At the fore of the church, the baptismal font blazed with witchfire, flames dancing on the surface as drops of molten sugar fell in from the brandy-soaked sugar loaf suspended in the silver tongs above; an old-fashioned German feuerzangenbowle, tended with painstaking heresy by a young man with black hair and tiny blue spectacles who dispensed the flaming punch into paper cups and goblets and whatever drinking receptacles were proffered. I stood by, sharing the pleasure of the young Goths in what for them was a new experience.

"Great party, huh?" a girl asked me, sipping her punch.

"Um, I suppose." I looked at her carefully. She wasn't dead or damned, which only left the third alternative: drunk.

"Ooh, what a cool cane. Where'd you get it?"

"I died with it, though originally I believe it came from the Orient."

"Cool. I like the little ball in the dragon's mouth. I hope I die with something half as neat." She took another sip of her punch and wandered off, spilling blue flames onto the floor.

Goths are very intriguing creatures. To look Death in the eye and be blas‚ about it is something most wraiths only aspire to.

But I kept my vigil at the baptismal font and was rewarded an hour later by the appearance of Peter. He'd switched nose rings for something smaller and more subdued, but aside from that was identical to his appearance the day before.

"Hello, Peter."

He paused, then studiously ignored me, getting flaming punch, tossing a handful of bills into the collection box, and going off with a quartet of three girls and a boy.

I followed, having to wait it out as he and his friends danced to various songs which proclaimed that Bela Lugosi was dead and that Joan Crawford had risen from the grave. She hadn't to the best of my knowledge, unless someone had mistaken Grace for the dead actress, but at last Peter tired and I was able to hook him off the floor with my cane.

"Hey, wha--"

"Peter," I said, "I would like to have the pleasure of introducing you to my very good friend, and Reaper, Franklin Deere. Franklin, this is Peter, the young man I mentioned. Peter is only a few years older than you were when you died, so you should have a good deal in common."

Frank, well mannered in spite of a lower class upbringing, immediately doffed his hat and held it to his chest, smiling and leaning forward, extending his hand for a handshake. "Pleased to meet you, Peter."

Peter only looked at Frank's hand, then back at the two of us. "You assholes want everyone to think I'm crazy?" he whispered. "I don't shake hands with ghosts."

I saw a hint of the Shadow twist behind Frank's eyes, and I placed a hand on his shoulder. "Steady, Frank. We must excuse Peter. Young men of his generation were never tutored in the finer points of etiquette."

I placed my cane against Franklin's cheek and the dragon's pearl glowed black for a second, the Shadow ebbing. Though I have seen many useful and magical artifacts since my death, I must say that I consider my cane to be the finest. In life, I paid little mind to the old Chinese gentleman who sold it to me, and less to his talk of dragons and pearls and the forces of yin and yang; in death, I wish I had, for though the real cane is as charred as my body, the touch of its spiritual remnant has proved anathema to the Shadow and the forces of Oblivion.

Not that my memento mori was much aid in dealing with a petulant psychic or fledgling mage. But then, serendipity provides assistance from the most unexpected quarters, and I observed Peter smile (or at least cease frowning) and look to the right of Frank and myself.

"I'm Grace," Grace said, and I noticed that the trace of blood had disappeared from the corner of her mouth and the bruise was gone from her cheek. "If you don't shake hands, maybe you'd like to dance. Teddy doesn't understand stuff like that--He doesn't know what it is to have fun. Just power and politics, that's him. But don't worry, we're--"

"Peter," a girl said, coming up behind our Topper.

"Yeah, let's dance!" Grace said, grabbing Peter by the hand and pulling him onto the dance floor along with the girl who'd come retrieve him. The lights strobed and the black lights gave the few specks of white an eerie pallor, but Peter did indeed begin to dance, or at least gyrate, with Grace. Frank's paramour, I must admit, was a lovely figure of a woman, and she'd picked up on the flow of all the modern dances--or, should I say, lack of same, as there seemed to be no recognizable form or choreography to the Goths' random cavortation.

Frank beamed with pride beside me. "That's my Grace. She knows what my momma always said: You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."

My mother had also had a number of sayings, mostly to do with painted women and the harlot of Babylon, but I was not about to complain. If Grace, and her various methods of persuasion, made Peter amicable to what he wouldn't countenance when confronted with either threats or reason, then all to the good.

The drunken girl beckoned me at one point, and Frank noticed and hooted, shoving me onto the dance floor as he joined Grace and Peter and their partners. The music went on and on, bleating incessantly about how every day was Halloween, which while certainly a pleasant thought, was very far from the truth. I manifested slightly, enough to give my partner a turn or two I knew from the fox trot, and the dance went on for some time before I could escape.

Grace and Frank followed a few minutes later with Peter, slipping out through the gap in the wall of the east transept. Someone had set up a projector and the wall of the church was illuminated with a twenty-foot-tall transvestite in a green dress and rubber gloves.

"Give 'em to Magenta--She knows what to do with bloody rubbers!" chanted the Goths in the weed-choked garden, and Peter sidestepped a number of people garbed in rather more gaudy attire than most of the assembled company. I walked straight through a blond man clad in nothing more than a gold-lam‚ jockstrap and he shivered, I knew, with more than just the night's chill.

We slipped out through the gates and away from the Old St. Francis, its hilltop an island in the sea of fog that had overwhelmed the City. Peter led the way down into the mists and we walked a long while in silence until he found a suitably private alcove.

He leaned his back against the shop window. "Okay, you guys found me. Now give it to me straight without Thaddeus here giving it his lawyer bullshit."

Frank stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked like the shy boy from the gold fields. "Well, it's like this, Peter. Thaddeus has a lot of people who don't like him, and a lot of people who want to get at him and get the secrets he knows. And I know where Thaddeus's fetters are."

"And Frank's too nice to tell anyone, even though Teddy's just a bloodsucking lawyer who deserves what he gets," Grace put in, glaring at me. The bruise reappeared on her cheek. "He'd sell Frank out in a second if the tables were turned."

Peter's mirrored eyes surveyed the three of us, then he whistled, soft and low. "Now the whole story comes out-- Thaddeus screwed the Hierarchy, and now they're out to get him, and they don't care who they fuck up along the way."

I surveyed the head of my cane, perusing the skillful carving and the intricate whorls of the ivory. Pity, as I mentioned, that its powers were completely useless in the current situation. "In a nutshell, yes."

"You're an asshole, Thad. But then, we already knew that."

I was not expecting the punch, or the force of it. Pain exploded through my gut and I doubled over, falling to the tiles of the alcove which stank of urine and human sweat.

Through the haze of pain, I heard Peter's voice. "And you, Frank, are too goddamn nice for your own good. Fuck. I swore I'd never play midget psychic again, and here we go." There was another kick in my stomach, then Peter hoisted me to my feet. When they got to use it, the strength of the Quick was frightening, and I was not used to the idea that mortals could touch me, let alone hurt me. But then, Peter was not your usual mortal, or even your usual psychic. "Now wake up, you bastard. We're gonna get Frank's bones and put them somewhere safe, then you're going to apologize to Frank for fucking up his life."

"Death," Frank said.

"Whatever. How's that sound?" Peter shoved me back against the glass and pressed the head of my own cane into my throat.

"Fine," I whispered.

"Then you're gonna go to whoever you screwed and give 'em what they want, so they take Frank out of the loop, so he doesn't have to deal with shit from assholes like you."

"Fine."

"Good, now swear it on something so you can't weasel out."

"Charon's Scythe," Grace suggested, damn her.

"Charon's Scythe. Yeah, that sounds good. Swear it on Charon's Scythe that you'll apologize to Frank and do everything in your power to keep him out of the shit you've brought on yourself."

"Let him down, Peter," Frank said. "He can't breathe."

"Since when do the Dead need to breathe?" Peter asked, but did relax his hold and allowed me to take my cane out of my throat.

I paused and straightened my cravat, gathering what shreds of dignity I still possessed, then held forth my cane in the manner of a ceremonial mace, not, I'm sure, that any of the three would have recognized the symbolism. "All right. I, Thaddeus Anthony Winters, do swear by Charon's Scythe that I will do all within my power--by fair means or foul--to remove the threat to Franklin Deere posed by my enemies. And I do also hereby apologize to Franklin, my Reaper, for the heartache and grief I have caused him and his." I lowered my cane and stamped it three times on the ground. "So let it be witnessed.

"Is that sufficient?" I asked, looking to the three confronting me.

In answer, there came a thunderclap, rolling through the ether. A moment later, there was the sound of firecrackers and bottlerockets and the tolling of a church bell.

Peter looked at his watch. "Midnight."

Grace smiled with malice. "On the Eve of All Hallows. I think your oath has been witnessed."

"Full moon too," Frank remarked and a chill passed down my spine.

Let it not be said that the men of the Winters family make unimpressive oaths. And, take this as a warning--One does not meddle with the pawns of Destiny unless one is willing to come under the influence of that austere lady oneself. Peter, as I said, bore Her mark, and to deal with him was to deal with Her.

However, as might be expected, I felt more than a touch of foreboding, and was generally subdued all the while as Peter found his car and drove us to the Port Authority Building.

Fog shrouded everything, thick as a blanket and twice as dense, and it was an hour before we arrived. Frank lead the way to his gravesite, which, despite what Peter had said, was broken open and covered against the rain with a rotting tarp. There were no police out and about, or if there were, they were well concealed by the fog.

"This it?" Peter asked.

"Yeah." Frank walked around. "Under this tarp here."

Peter pulled the canvas back, and the smell of mildew and decay wafted up. Bones lay there, partially exposed, with bits of string and wooden pegs and the other props of the archaeologists' trade set into the earth around them.

The fog swirled as Peter stepped over one of the cords, and the moonlight coalesced before him, becoming a twisted parody of a human form, skin pocked with decay and rot, and eyes empty sockets filled with the Shadow.

The figure laughed and Peter leapt back. "Holy fuck!"

The spectre leered. "I've been called many names. That one will do as well as any." It looked to Frank, the Shadow of its eyes open in a lightless void. "Hello, Franklin. You've come back. Open yourself to the Dark and we shall kill this mortal, then feast on the souls of your three companions as we drag them to Oblivion. You hate the lawyer for what he has done to you, and you envy the whore for having sampled every night the pleasures you only dreamed of before you died. You know it's true. We spoke of it before your death. Died a virgin. What a shame." The spectre held up its hands and the fingers lengthened into claws. "Let's share the pain."

Its voice was hypnotic, like a siren, but it was Grace's scream that broke the spell. "Frankie! No! Don't listen to it!"

Franklin's eyes had changed from green to black as his own Shadow was drawn out, but I had no time for subtlety. I hooked my cane around his neck in a throttlehold, and the dragon's pearl spun in a black void, consuming the darkness.

The spectre turned its attentions to Grace. "Hello, Grace. Terrible, isn't it, that you could only find a man to love after one had already killed you? Poor Grace. Not even a man. Merely a boy, a virgin, and one who'd remain so forevermore. That's it, isn't it? You could never love a man who could hurt you, rape you, take his hard stick and make you bleed like--"

"Peter!" I called out. "Kill it!"

Our Topper had taken up one of the archaeologists' shovels and held it in a fighting stance. Unfortunately, I fear that his training consisted mostly of bad action movies, for his swing only hit it a glancing blow.

The rotting horror paused for a bare moment, suddenly realizing that here was a mortal who could indeed harm it, then darted in and out, barely touching him with its claws, but laughing, playing with him like a cat. "Hello, live meat. Happy Halloween. Come to play with the dead, have you?" It cackled and feinted at him again, watching him jump back.

I hoped Frank could deal with his own inner demons, for I had a more immediate and external one to deal with myself. I disengaged my cane from Franklin's neck, then grasped the handle and twisted, unsheathing the blade.

A gentleman never goes anywhere without his cane, and there are good reasons for this. I feinted and lunged, the phantom slashing back and screaming as it lost half a paw. "Hello, Thaddeus," it said. "Don't you--"

"Frippery and nonsense," I shouted back, "I've had quite enough of your second-rate badgering. You may terrify Frank and you may horrify Grace, but you are no longer dealing with inexperienced boy or a battered woman." The first rule of debate and of swordsmanship is to never allow your opponent an opening, and to always take the offensive. I pressed my advantage as best I could. "You are nothing more than some tedious creature of the Void, some weak spirit without enough sense of identity to hold its own when it met its Shadow. You are pathetic, less than nothing, and would be beneath my notice except that you have dared to annoy those under my protection."

I drew blood again, or at least putrescent ichor, but then the fiend managed to slip a paw past my guard. "Pompous ass!" Blood welled up on my side. "Everyone hates you! You have nothing more to defend yourself than words and hot air!"

"That, and a good sword," I said, slashing the creature down the side. It screamed, puss oozing from the wound. "As for the opinions of others, I don't care a whit, especially for the opinions of creatures such as yourself."

I would like to say that my rapier wit, or at least my rapier, finished the beast, but that is far from the truth. At the moment when I was about to sally forth with a new and deadly offensive, there came a sickening crunch, and the spectre began to discorporate, screaming. Almost as quickly, a webwork composed of tiny bones appeared about it, twisting and confining, then abruptly taking it . . . elsewhere.

I have seen wraiths go not-so-gently into that good night, and even the final end of spectres, but this was like none of them. It was old magic and arcane magic, and I recognized the bone motif as the hallmark of the Skeletal Lord, the lord of disease and pestilence. The lifeweb set to catch Frank and the others had taken its first victim.

I stood there, panting, trying to staunch my wounds, my sword still at the ready. But when I looked around, I saw Peter and Grace standing over a recently excavated and shattered skull. A hole in the brainpan would have been sufficient to release the spirit and ruin the fetter, but Peter had been a bit more thorough. The spectre had not been destroyed, only severed from its connection with the Shadowlands, then caught by the magics of the Skeletal Lord.

Frank crawled over, his eyes once more green. He reached his hands out to touch the bits of crumbled bone. "Miles. It was Miles. I knew him. . . ."

The encounter with the spectre had shaken me very badly, but not as badly, I knew, as it had touched Frank. Now was not the time for harsh words. "Even the best of us can succumb to the darkness, Franklin. I'm sorry you lost your friend."

Grace comforted Frank in ways I never could while I wiped my sword off on one of the tarpaulins, the black ichor turning to dust. I sheathed the blade.

Peter looked at me, the strangest mixture of expressions upon his face. "Don't be so dumbfounded," I said. "Fencing was a common skill for men of my class, and now that I can safely admit it, I must say that my skill with the blade does not match my command of the language. And you were right about additional complications. If you could see to retrieving Frank's bones, I'll tend to my injuries."

I sat down rather heavily. The pain from the wound the spectre's claws had left was intense, but began to ease as Grace used her gifts to bandage them. "Thanks for helping Frank, Teddy."

I wished she wouldn't use that name. "Think nothing of it, Grace. We all do what we must." I closed my eyes. "Clever of you to destroy the beast's fetter while I kept it busy."

"Peter was the one who did it," Grace said, but I knew it was she who had told him where and what to look for. I had been seriously underestimating the woman's capabilities, for all that she downplayed them so well.

I opened my eyes. Peter had taken up the shovel again and was digging about, and I could see from the cast of his features that he had allowed Frank to slip inside him, as Frank knew how to handle digging tools, and knew the precise location of his own bones as well. One by one Frank's bones were freed from the earth and placed atop the tarp.

"Do you have all of them?" Grace asked, coming up beside them.

"Yeah, everything, plus a little dirt," Frank/Peter said, reverently folding the canvas over Frank's remains and gathering them up in his arms. Frank slipped out of Peter's body, leaving our Topper holding the precious fetter.

Peter stood there, looking at Frank. He was still shaken from his encounter with the spectre, and though there were no physical marks on his body, the psychic wounds were probably near as great as my own. "Where do you want me to take them?"

Frank was at a loss for words, as I saw him no doubt realize that just setting them in the corner at the Washbag would not do.

"And no, you can't stay at my apartment," Peter said. "You seem like a nice enough guy, Frank, but I have enough trouble with living roommates without having a dead one too."

In the distance, I heard the moan of a foghorn, sounding its beacon across the Bay. "I'm sure anywhere relatively safe and secure would be fine, Peter. Preferably somewhere no one is liable to go digging, and where the other wraiths are more pleasant company." After the debacle with the spectre of Miles, I understood why Frank had been having so much trouble with his Shadow.

"You could be buried with me," Grace said.

"Really?" I inquired. "And where might you be buried, Grace?"

She looked shyly at her feet and scuffed a toe through the dirt. "Nowhere near here. Sorry."

Frank hugged her anyway. "It's alright, Grace."

"Well," said Peter, "we can't just stand around here all night, and I'm not going to wait for that fucking thing to come back. How'd you like to be the patron saint of the Goths, Frank? There's a reliquary back at the Waydown just waiting for some bones."

"Safer than many places," I said, "and there is the added bonus of having your bones honored. It should prove more satisfying than taking corpus from local football games, if less entertaining."

"Settled, then," Peter said and walked off through the fog.

*     *     *

The Goths at the Waydown were enraptured with Peter, for he had won some unspoken contest to be "more morbid than thou." To not only rob a grave--alone, and on All Hallow's Eve--but to then treat the stolen bones as saints relics was an idea that captivated one and all, and the various cliques became united in purpose to share some of the glory and pooled their knowledge and resources as they prepared Frank's bones for the reliquary. One girl knew that relics were to be washed in wine, while another donated a white silk scarf for the cerements, and a boy wearing enough crosses to outfit a sidewalk vendor in Barcelona had on him a Latin prayer book, including last rites, prayers for the dead, and requests for the beatification of saints. It now being All Saints Day by an hour or so, it seemed to be a perfect time to go about the process, and the Goths queued up to enter the sacristy while the D.J. felt it appropriate to put on the rave mix of Orff's O Fortuna.

After what we had just gone through, Frank especially was sorry he couldn't stay for it, for the power in such a ritual was great, even if Peter's associates didn't know exactly what they were doing. However, there were still things to be done, and places to go and people to meet if I wanted to fulfill my oath, which was what Frank and peripherally Grace wanted as well. Also, a plan was forming, based on suppositions I could make and on the interesting manner of departure of the spectre, Miles. With luck, it would cost me very little to see this matter to its close.

We prevailed on Peter to drive us again, and he was intrigued, or at least shellshocked, enough to go along with the idea. I promised I would make it worth his while.

Now, there are some things those not of the City do not generally know. One is that, with the exception of the Military Cemetery at the Presidio and the old graves at Mission Dolores, and the odd potter's field or plague monument (such as Frank's), no one is buried in San Francisco. All of the graves were moved to Colma just south of the City, and the Necropolis there is one of the jewels of the Hierarchy. The Citadel of the Presidio is the heart of the old guard's military force, but the heart of pride and politics is the Citadel at Colma.

How do I describe the splendor of Colma? It is a grand and glorious nihil, filled with the avenues and palaces of the dead, and each of the nine cemeteries is dedicated to one of the Nine Legions. Cypress Lawn is the province of the Legion of Thorns, and was my home until the Insurrection. That happened in the '60s of this century, and consisted of the Renegades (or Loyalists as we prefer to be called) breaking free from the Hierarchy (or Usurpers as we Loyalists like to call them). As I said, the Dead have devised all manner of petty politics to amuse themselves, and the whole shambling monolith of robes and titles and masks is a medieval scholar's wet dream--and something of which I was admirably suited to take advantage, being, as I am, a classically educated gentleman with legal training.

Peter parked a ways down from the gates. It is always disconcerting to realize the discrepancies between the ways reality is viewed by the Quick and the Dead, for Peter--despite being a Topper, a budding necromancer, and no doubt other things besides, and easily sensitive enough to see Frank, Grace, and myself--said he saw only a low stone wall between the road and the graves on the other side.

I, on the other hand, saw the high walls and ramparts of the Citadel of Thorns, the white roses of Death climbing all across the stonework, here and there holding some hapless soul prisoner, who had then been set alight as a beacon.

"Remember, Peter. You are just a harmless and somewhat stupid drunk, and they dare not touch you without bringing a flock of priests and psychic investigators down on their heads. Hop over the wall and ignore what you do see, and Frank and Grace and I will join you as shortly as possible."

"Gotcha," Peter said, uncorking the bottle of wine and passing straight through the seemingly impenetrable ramparts of the Citadel of Thorns. "Hey!" I heard him call from inside the wall. "I've got some wine! Anybody want a drink? It's Halloween."

If you by any chance are living, and wish to enter a cemetery on Halloween night, I'd advise against it, of course, but notwithstanding, if you are still set upon doing it, then Peter's course of action is advisable. Wine poured on the graves will endear you to all but teetotalers, as there are very few who remember the ancient Greek sacrifice, and being a gracious guest usually makes for gracious hosts.

Frank and Grace and I walked by the walls until the gates of the Citadel of Thorns towered high before us, traitors to the Hierarchy impaled on stakes to either side, burning with unquenchable flames. Wraith guardians stood there as well, and their spiritual armor was barbed and fluted and altogether overdone, just as I remembered it. Each of them held three chains which were attached to the collars of an equal number of slavering barghests, the near mindless phantoms staring at us with mad eyes through the grillwork of their iron masks.

All of this was intended to terrify and awe, and it accomplished this quite nicely, at least in the case of Frank and Grace, who clung to each other, dumbstruck. I, however, had already seen it.

"Halt, shades!" cried the guardian to the left. "State your name and rank within the Legion before begging admittance to the Citadel of Thorns!"

I polished my cane, admiring the luster of the ivory. "Nice to see you again too, Herminia. Former rank or current?"

"Current!"

"Currently I hold no rank within this Citadel, as well you know, though I possess the Mark of the Flames, which makes me a victim of happenstance of the highest order. Regardless, I take for myself the name and office of Herald and Advocate, and have business to discuss with members of the Legion. These shades accompany me and are under my protection."

"You are a Renegade!"

"Quite true. Now, Herminia, are you going to set your barghests upon us and report to your superiors that you destroyed a Herald and Advocate and dashed any hopes of reconciliation between the factions, not to mention that you obstructed business which is of direct interest to your superiors, or are you going to allow us within the gates of the Citadel?"

Pomp, circumstance, bluff and bluster. It often becomes tedious, but then the same may be said of chess in the opening moves. We were kept waiting while messages were sent, and the barghests' chains were rattled so they slavered a bit more so as to terrify Frank and Grace, but the whole effect was ruined when several older wraiths riding in carriages and motorcars wished to exit the Citadel, drunken from Halloween revelry.

"Thaddeus!" cried one woman I knew of old, and I waved as they rode out the gates.

"Hello, Penelope! Charles! Walford! Happy Halloween!"

"Give 'em Hell, you old bastard!" Charles called, waving a bottle of champagne from the back of the Nash Rambler. He was inebriated as usual.

"Never fear, I will! Give my best!" I waved after them, tipping my hat to the ladies, watching them disappear into the moonlight and fog.

Herminia and her fellow guard were left at the gates, and I smiled at them. "Rotten luck, isn't it, having guard duty on All Hallow's Eve? What say you escort the three of us to Lord Montalieu and we'll see what we can do about getting you relieved for the rest of your shift?"

"Silence, traitor!" Herminia barked, then exchanged a quick glance with her fellow guardian. "You and your companions may enter the Citadel of Thorns. Proceed directly to Lord Montalieu and beg his mercy if you value your souls."

Herminia stepped aside, reining in her barghests, and I shepherded Frank and Grace inside.

"Teddy," Grace said, clutching my arm. "Wha--"

"Don't worry, Grace. Everything is proceeding to plan." I disengaged her fingers from my arm and led the way down the grand avenues of the Citadel, in search of Peter.

Little had changed in the intervening thirty years, though there were a few less citizens and a few more thralls, although I'd expected as much. I took Frank and Grace down the avenues, and we collected Peter along the way, much to the annoyance of his new drinking companions.

But drunks wandered where they would, and the shades could hardly stop him from following us.

At last, we came to the grand portico of the mausoleum of the Regent of the Emerald Lord, or, more mundanely, Lord Montalieu's house. I rapped once with my cane and Peter jumped. "Holy fuck! The grave just opened up."

As I mentioned, the perceptions of the Quick and the Dead are quite different, and where Peter said he saw a grave yawning forth in Shakespearian fashion, I only saw the door being opened by Brandon, Lord Montalieu's manservant.

He was dressed in finery befitting the festive evening--assuming that it was still the Court of Louis the XIV--and he goggled as he saw me.

"Hello, Brandon," I said. "My, my. You haven't changed a bit. Now, if you could escort us to Lord Montalieu? I believe he's already received some word about me, probably warning him of the appearance of a rebel spy, though I told Herminia at the gate that I was a Herald and Advocate. My companions are nothing quite so grand, though I will vouch for their character."

Brandon recovered nicely, holding open the door. "If you will step this way, Mr. Winters. Lord Montalieu will receive you in his study."

Brandon led us down the halls, past parlors where the dead danced and musicians played in an exultant danse macabre. Lord Montalieu was holding his annual ball to which he invited only his most staunch supporters and those who held the most dirt on him, excepting, of course, wraiths such as myself. It was something the Goths would have given their ankhs to attend, and Peter was looking at everything in alternating wonderment and terror.

Brandon also did an excellent job of taking us by the circuitous route, allowing Lord Montalieu time to be briefed and ready himself so he wouldn't look surprised at our arrival.

We were ushered into the study and Brandon made a sweeping bow before the desk. "Reverent Lord, this Renegade has begged audience with you, and has also brought with him these two shades and this mortal. He claims to be Herald and Advocate."

"Which I am," I added, "though honestly we're here on private business this evening."

Montalieu gestured. "Leave us. I know this shade."

Brandon bowed low and slipped out, and Montalieu arranged himself behind the desk. I believe he'd been the dean of a French boys' school several centuries back, or at least he gave that impression: cultured accent, penchant for scholastic robes, and, most telling, a tendency to play with rulers when agitated. The ruler was already out on his desk and he was beginning to nudge it.

I raised my cane in salute. "Happy Halloween, Monty. Allow me to introduce my companions: Franklin Deere, Grace DuBois, and Peter Cameron."

Frank and Peter grinned idiotically, but Grace had the presence of mind to curtsy. "Pleased ta meet ya."

Lord Montalieu surveyed the three of them, his gaze lingering on Peter. For a mortal to enter the Realms of the Dead was a thing almost unheard of. Unless, of course, the shade whose grave had formed the Gateway were a spirit of almost boundless power and erudition (and the inclination to use same), or the mortal were a potent sorcerer or shaman.

Even if he had the power (which I seriously doubted), Lord Montalieu had not invited Peter into his home. Which left only one possible explanation (though I think only the two of us realized it) and I was not going to enlighten him further unless he came out and asked.

One also does not ask mages what they are doing in one's home so long as they are being civil and reasonably well mannered. Peter, in fact, was acting like a shy and nervous schoolboy, and this was something I knew that Lord Montalieu could deal with: "Be seated. This is not a formal audience."

Frank, Grace, and Peter sat down on a hard wooden bench--another quirk that made me think that Montalieu had formerly run a boys' school--while I took the one comfortable chair facing the desk.

He gave me a withering look, but did no more, studiously ignoring Peter. "What do you want, Thaddeus?"

I went for the formal mode of address, for that was the mood he was in, regardless of what he said. "I crave as boon, Lord Montalieu, something easily within your power."

"Yours is not the place to ask, Renegade. You might at most beg for your existence and my mercy."

"You might also go to the Emerald Lord and speak to him of your loyalties and a certain matter which transpired, oh, about fifty-four years ago, but that's not very likely either." I leaned forward in the chair, resting my hands and chin atop my cane. "Let's not mince words, Monty. You would like to get me in your power, to ensure my silence and the silence of my agents with regards to various matters, and you've had more than one gambit to that end. Noteworthy among which is maneuvering for my Reaper to be lifewebbed by the Skeletal Legions, then arranging for his last fetter to be destroyed so he would be caught by the magic of the Skeletal Lord, who considers him his property, justly or not. A thoroughly amoral and reprehensible act, Monty, and just the sort of deed I'd expect from you. Also, rather ineffectual. My own fetters are well protected and relatively indestructible, and discovering them would prove useless to you and simply annoy me.

"Troubling Frank is another matter. I'd like him left out of this game, and am willing to pay for it. Pay well."

Montalieu looked at me, and I could tell that he had not considered this option. "Perhaps . . ."

"No, Monty, the moon, the stars and the sun are out of the question, and so is what I'm certain you're thinking of. Past business is past business, and there is some information I would only be willing to part with for the steepest of prices. However, I have just recently come by a new bit of information. Scandal. High scandal and near treason with regards to the Skeletal Lord himself, or at least his Regent, knowledge dangerous and near useless for me to possess, but of great value to a wraith such as yourself, especially a Regent of the Emerald Lord."

He paused, considering. "What, exactly, do you want done regarding this wraith here?" He pointed the ruler at Frank.

"Simple enough. We want him left out of your maneuverings against me, and we request that you use your influence with the Skeletal Legions to get them to quit actively pursuing their claim on Frank. His fetter has already been removed from their current machinations, so you needn't worry about getting them to desist in that plot."

"Removed?"

I smiled. "Removed. We'd also appreciate if you would spread the word that you would be very displeased if anyone else tried to get to me through Franklin. And Peter Cameron here is merely a silly drunken mortal, but he has proved useful to us, so we'd also like if his name could be put on the list of those mortals whom the Legions are not to bother under any circumstance. It's quite a trivial thing to ask really--the Dead are forbidden to trouble the Quick as it is--but you know how things are in these trying times. Peter would be happier, and we would rest easier. That should be sufficient."

Silly drunken mortal, eh? the look spoke, but I retained my same expression, and Peter continued to look young and nervous, despite the nosering and the mere fact of his presence.

I know Lord Montalieu was beginning to entertain the possibility of some third option, that I had learned some arcane rite that allowed mortals to rend the veil between Life and Death and crash his party, or perhaps the Ashen Curtain had worn thin of its own accord, and this was one of the wonders that heralded the Day of Judgement--for Peter certainly did not act the part of a mage, let alone a dread necromancer.

The living are not the only ones who shutter their minds away from that which disturbs them, and Lord Montalieu turned back to the simple and easily understandable business of intrigue and blackmail. "Possible. Certainly possible." He laid down the ruler and steepled his fingers. "But first, I would like to hear this 'scandal' you have regarding the Skeletal Lord."

I twirled my cane once between my fingers, remembering how useful it had proven against the spectre. "The Skeletal Lord has seen fit to destroy a number of fetters belonging to those who died with his mark, namely, the mark of pestilence. Among those, as you know, is Frank. The Regent of the Skeletal Lord set up lifewebs to catch the souls as they fell into the Tempest, one for each of the miners in the potter's field.

"One of those was a nephwrack, a foul and hideous spectre consumed by its own inner Shadow. We destroyed its fetter, but before it could dissolve into the Tempest, it was caught in a web marked with the sigil of the Skeletal Lord. It is forbidden by the Covenant to take creatures of Oblivion as anything but beasts for the blood pits. But if you know the Regent of the Skeletal Lord, and you do, that spectre will instead just be chained as a thrall and forced to work as any other wraith."

Montalieu rested his fingers atop the ruler. "Do you have proof of this?"

"Certainly. I have the name of the spectre, and any wraith with skill in the proper arcane arts can ascertain who, where and what he is. We can give you that information in exchange for your promise." I laid my cane across my knees. "As this is All Hallows, will a binding oath suffice?"

"Indubitably," said Montalieu. "It is agreed then?"

"It is agreed." I stood and we clasped hands, speaking the particulars of the pact. "So let it be witnessed!"

"So let it be witnessed!" cried Montalieu, and as we did, there came a thunderclap and a ripple through the ether.

As I expected, Peter's Patron had been keeping an ear to the proceedings. One does not, as I mentioned before, meddle with the pawns of Destiny unless one is willing to play Her game.

"It is witnessed," I said.

Montalieu looked with shock at the way Fate had taken note of our bargain.

I just smiled. "The spectre's name is Miles. Miles . . ."

"Kirk," Frank supplied, looking shaken.

"Yes, Miles Kirk. A pleasure doing business with you. I don't suppose you'll be inviting us to join in your festivities, will you, Monty?"

He gave me another withering look.

"Ah well, then, we shall just have to find our way out. But in any case, it's been a pleasure doing business with you, as always."

I tapped my cane to my hat in salute, and Lord Montalieu barked for servants to escort us from his home, and from the Citadel of Thorns.

Ah yes, it was always a pleasure doing business.


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