Home > Seawitch (Greywalker #7)(15)

Seawitch (Greywalker #7)(15)
Author: Kat Richardson

Solis squinted, his eyes shifting back and forth. Then he tightened his mouth and forced his eyes back to me. I guess that was as good an answer as his nod. I remembered I’d started out much the same way, learning to look around the filters we raise between ourselves and what we don’t want to see. Most adults can’t make themselves drop those filters—the habit is too strong and self-preserving—but a few find a way to peep in, however limited the view. And then there are those rare cases, like me, who get the unlimited pass and wish they never had.

Such an encouraging thought to hold in mind as I opened the engine-room door . . .

Even barely touching the Grey, the room was black with a darkness no electric light could dispel—gleaming, energetic darkness that moved and writhed and muttered with voices at the threshold of hearing. It wasn’t like the voice of the Grey that I’d once, in near madness, listened to; this was the babble of something contained in it, not the voice of the Grey itself. I could hear Solis catch his breath behind me as I stepped through the opening and was plunged deep into the source of the icy cold that had risen through the boat. My lungs froze and I stretched upward for a surface that was not there, striving for light and air and warmth as the blackness clutched me within its ever-collapsing folds. I stumbled forward and down . . . through a sheet of mist that shattered and hung in the space around me, so frigid that the air itself seemed filled with crystalline ice. I felt my legs buckle and the hard floor of the engine room struck hard against my knees. I was in the normal world yet I wasn’t, drowning in the darkness that struck and shook me like storm waves. I heard screams, prayers, and the fury-roar of a hurricane as it battered us, overturning the lifeboats and drowning the women and children before our eyes. . . . and the crew lashed in the rigging, crying out, mouths filling with salt water—

I wrenched myself away from the invading sense of the storm-battered dying. These were not my own thoughts but those of others—hundreds of others.

Stop. I could not even gasp the word, only let it shout in my mind across the blackness as I begged and hoped. . . .

The storm around me eased and I gulped in sea-wet air. Coughing, I choked out, “I want to help.” A flood of thoughts burst against me from all directions and seemed to cut through my flesh in cold iron needles of fury, panic, horror, and a thin, keening hope as dim and ephemeral as a will-o’-the-wisp. I stretched toward that spindly thread even as my body seemed to be buffeted by blows from unseen objects careening through the air on the eldritch hurricane’s rage. That thread of possibility flickered near me and I clutched it, reeling it in and pressing the growing, glowing skein to my chest.

The tiny warmth of it seemed to ease my breathing and loosen the gasping terror of drowning that clawed at my brain and clutched my lungs. “I want to help you,” I repeated, a little stronger now. “Show me . . .”

The storm ebbed down slowly, the troubled blackness diluting to a more ordinary darkness. The ghost-filtered illumination showed me a room lit by insufficient light through an open doorway partially blocked by a human shape.

I looked around. Still the engine compartment and closer to normalcy, but somehow . . . it was filled with hundreds of ghosts. They pressed close and yet fell back into the hull of the ship, continuing on into the Grey to an impossible distance and density somehow contained within the Seawitch’s engine room. They were black tangles of energy, barely human shaped with flickering storm light for eyes. I stared around at them all, infected with a sliver of their own panic.

Solis stepped through the doorway and strode to me, reaching down as if he were going to raise me to my feet. Then he glanced around, his eyes as weirdly illuminated as those of the ghosts, and stopped moving, his hands clutching my shoulders. He shivered and pulled me up, his eyes still moving, still taking in . . . whatever he was seeing.

A voice rose from the collective in the hissing of sea spume against rocks. “We did our part. Now uphold the bargain. Save us.”

Solis glanced at me. “Do you hear . . . ?”

I nodded. Then I put one finger to my lips, afraid his presence might disrupt the conversation I needed to have.

“It wasn’t my bargain,” I started. “I don’t know what happened or what to do. Tell me. Show me.”

The darkness of spirits shuffled and opened a narrow path between them. Solis and I both turned our heads to see where it led, but the only view was a hard green-gold gleam lying low in a sea of grime.

“You see—?” I started in a whisper.

“There is a light that cannot exist, gleaming where I cannot go.” His voice was low and unsteady.

“Yes, you can. Hold on to my arm and we can’t be separated. This is like walking a tightrope: Don’t look down and don’t look back until your feet are back on solid ground.”

I sucked in a preparatory breath, squared my shoulders, and felt his grip on my elbow. I started toward the glow. Solis came along a step behind me. I could feel the warm impression of his presence at my back, even though I didn’t dare turn to see him. I did not want them—whoever they were—to take any notice of Solis, nor did I want to lose sight of whatever it was they were showing me, leading me toward.

The ghosts remained nebulous and thready as we passed between them. I heard Solis breathing a little harder and faster than usual and I wished I knew what he was seeing, but it seemed a bad time to ask.

It felt like an hour but it must have been only a minute or two until we reached the gleam, walking slowly out of the Grey and back into the normal—or nearly normal—world. It lay near our feet, a reflection of light obscured by mucky water in the crook of the floor where it met the hull and gapped a bit here and there between the boat’s ribs. The reflection was duller here and the ghosts had become less present, though they were far from gone. I stooped and reached out for whatever the green-gold flash was coming from, shivering as my hands pushed into gelid water thickened with algae and gunk.

There was something cold and metallic below the water’s surface—just the merest inch or less of a curved edge sticking out. I pushed my long fingers between the hull and the thing to get a grip on it. It was hollow, and once I had hooked my fingers under the edge I pulled upward with care. The thing was chilly and heavy and felt too large to come back up through the narrow gap between the boat’s ribs.

Something clanked against the floorboards. Solid, normal floorboards. I risked a glance back over my shoulder at Solis, hoping he was really there, or really here depending on how I thought of it. He was and he stared down at me with a frown that was too tight around the mouth and too white around the eyes, but he was solid and willing.

“There is something?”

“Yes, something real, but it’s too big to pull through the hole. We need to lift this section of floor if we can.”

Solis reached into his jacket and brought forth a penlight. He sighed relief as the unexpectedly bright light came on at his flick of the switch, nearly blinding me. The flashlight cast a bright, shivering circle on the floor and hull just around the gap where my hand vanished into the hole. The illumination bounced off the metal edge I held on to and rekindled the strange spark of color we’d seen earlier. Solis played the light shakily across the floor until he spotted a seam nearby and, turning slowly, followed it to more seams.

“You will have to move to your right,” he said, his voice deadened by the insulation on the walls but no longer quivering. “Can you hold on to the object if you move?” Our return to the normal world must have reassured him everything was all right. I was a little less sure, but I’ve had more experience with ghosts.

I kept my own counsel on that score and replied, “I think so. It feels loose in here. . . .” I shifted the heavy thing into my left hand and shuffled awkwardly to my right like an injured crab with one claw dragging. It pulled on my fingers and made my knuckles feel swollen and overworked as it clunked along beneath the floor, jamming on ribs and thudding to a halt. I had to stoop like an ape and pass it from one hand to the other around each rib, then back into my left to drag it on until I’d moved my weight clear of the floor seam Solis was illuminating. My back, shoulders, arms, and hands ached from the strain and the chill, but I held on.

Solis bent and stuck his fingers into a depression in the floor to get a grip and lift the segment of floorboards. The thick planks came up with the screech of swollen wooden structures reluctantly scraping open. The smell of cold swamp water and brine wafted on the updraft.

Solis leaned the hatch against something bulky and denser than the ghosts. I guessed it was one of the engines, but I wasn’t sure and I wouldn’t risk my grip on the thing to look around. I wiggled the metal object loose from where it had lodged next to a rib and pulled it upward. It felt huge and ridiculously heavy for something hollow. . . .

Solis shone his light on it and it gave back another sickly green-gold shimmer.

“A bell . . .” I whispered as it came up into the light.

“Our soul . . .” the ghosts sighed, melting away and taking the remnant Grey with them. I didn’t think they were gone for good, just exhausted and satisfied that we had what they wanted us to have.

I turned the bell in my hands, letting the filth-crusted bronze catch the beam from Solis’s pocket flashlight as I wiped the worst of the gunk away. The bell was huge and weighed more than ten pounds, easily. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed too large for the bracket we’d seen the day before up near the boat’s bridge. The light caught on the cast edges of a deep engraving along the bell’s mouth. I read it aloud as Solis picked out the words with the penlight’s illumination: “S.S. Valencia.”

TEN

The penetrating chill of Seawitch’s engine room was too uncomfortable to encourage any further investigation once we had the bell in hand, so Solis and I agreed to head topside and catch the light and warmth before discussing what had just happened. The sun was still up, even though it was definitely heading for the western horizon, but at this latitude and so close to the solstice the light would linger until nearly eleven at night. We carried the slippery bell down to the dock and rinsed the worst of the slime off it. Solis kept a wary eye on me throughout the move and cleanup.

“I did warn you things were going to get weird,” I said, not looking up from the bell.

“You did. I had not expected quite what happened.”

“What did happen?” I asked, glancing at him as I brushed off the worst of the muck from the bell.

He gave me a puzzled frown in return. “You were there. . . .”

“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure that what I experience isn’t the same as what you do. So what was it like?”

Solis sat on his heels and thought about it. “Cold. Like a nightmare I used to have in my youth: darkness like sharp black lines that crowd in from the edges of vision, thicker as they draw together until I can only see straight ahead. Yet things continue to be there in the corners of my vision, stabbing at my eyes. I could see you—shining silver but dim, as if light barely touched you. Your arm was cold and hard to hold on to—insubstantial. There was sound, whispering that sometimes rose to sharp words and then quieted again, like people arguing when they don’t want to be heard but can’t stop themselves. And then the reflection of light off this bell was like . . . a distant star, so small and yellow. It shone where it could not have. It was under the floor but I saw the light. And then . . . just cold. But I felt as if someone watched us from concealment.”

“Huh,” I grunted, taking it in. It wasn’t so far away from parts of what I’d experienced, just less intense. It was his admission of nightmares that was most interesting, since the Grey tends to reflect and produce what the people in an area impress on it. This was the first time I’d had any proof that the experience of the Grey was individually tailored. It also made me wonder what other odd things had happened in Solis’s life to let him get that close—because even pulled into it by me, a pragmatic hard case like him shouldn’t have experienced that depth.

Solis shook off the mood he’d created and turned his gaze back to the bell. “Valencia. Not Seawitch . . .”

“It’s obviously been there for quite a while.”

“Perhaps it was taken from another boat for service on board Seawitch.”

“Are you giving credence to the idea of a curse brought on by mounting parts from a doomed ship?”

“No . . .”

His voice wavered a little and I guessed he didn’t actually believe it was true but he was unsettled enough at the moment to let the idea slink into the back of his mind. I stuck a pin in that trial balloon. “It’s too big for the bracket we saw on board Seawitch. This bell never hung on that boat. Someone hid it in the engine room. I admit, I’d like to know why, and how it got there in the first place.”

“Do you wish to continue tomorrow? It’s after five now. . . .”

I hesitated. I wanted more answers and I wasn’t ready to stop for the night just yet, but I didn’t want to presume he had nothing better to do—he was married, after all, and I assumed from the way he’d mentioned his wife that his was not one of those barely functioning misery marriages that are too common among cops.

He echoed my own thoughts. “I would like some answers rather than endless questions. If you’re willing to bring the bell to my house, perhaps we can find some.” He raised his eyebrows, issuing a silent invitation.

“All right. I think there’s still a lot to talk about, too.”

He nodded and got to his feet, letting me take possession of the bell. “Agreed.”

Technically the bell was part of the boat’s inventory and therefore mine to oversee, so I appreciated the courtesy, but the damned thing was still pretty heavy and awkward to carry. Still, we could look at the bell in better light and more comfort at Solis’s house than Seawitch offered, and the other reports and photos would be available through his computer. So I wrestled the bell into the back of my Rover and followed Solis to his place.

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