Isabel, once known as Wasp, has become leader of the fearsome upstarts, the teen girl acolytes who are adjusting to a new way of life after the overthrow of the sadistic Catchkeep-priest. They live in an uneasy alliance with the town of Sweetwater—an alliance that will be tested to its limits by the dual threats of ruthless raiders from the Waste and a deadly force from the Before-time that awaits in long-hidden tunnels.
Years ago Isabel befriended a nameless ghost, a supersoldier from the Before-time with incredible powers even after death, and their adventure together in the underworld gave her the strength and knowledge to change the brutal existence of the Catchkeep acolytes for the better. To save Sweetwater, Isabel will have to unlock the secrets of the twisted experimental program from centuries gone by that created the supersoldier and killed his friends: the Latchkey Project.
The Archivist Wasp Saga continues in Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Latchkey, available July 10th from Mythic Delirium Books.
In the past, when Isabel was known as Archivist Wasp, the upstarts of the Catchkeep temple were her enemies: girl acolytes who were expected to fight her to the death in ritual combat for the chance to take her place. Now, the former adversaries have become friends, with Isabel their leader.
She and several of the upstarts have helped to hide the most vulnerable members of the town of Sweetwater—young children, the elderly, the sick—as brutal raiders emerge from the dusty expanse of the Waste. Yet there’s additional danger: the long-abandoned tunnels from the Before-time where they’ve taken refuge have been known to contain the occasional blood-thirsty ghost. This doesn’t just describe an attitude: ghosts gain strength by drinking human blood. Even with the hatch to the world above sealed, the upstarts cannot let their guards down.
In the tunnels, at first everything was chaos. Kids yelling, kids crying, babies crying. The injured man David moaning in pain, presumably from the less-than-gentle descent. Bex and Glory hustling to move the supplies to a corner of the cleared area where they could be guarded and rationed and kept safe from accidental spillage.
Isabel got to work. She had a clear sense of what to do and how to do it, and it gave her the same weird sense of peace that she got from loading up on chore rotations at the Catchkeep-shrine. Alongside her, Bex and Glory pulled their own weight and then some. Gradually, things calmed.
First thing: make sure everyone else stayed busy and out of their own heads. They’d all watched that hatch close, watched their light dwindle to what they carried. It wasn’t just her that could use the distraction.
There were only three adults plus the sick one.
Lin, the perimeter guard, who was healthy.
The songkeeper, sworn to the Chooser, whose faith did not permit him to fight. The father of one of the kids who brought boiled lakewater to the shrine every morning, slowly organizing rations with a bandage on his head. Another earthquake casualty like Glory, Isabel guessed.
She made sure everyone knew not to touch the ghostgrass for any reason whatsoever. She set older children in charge of keeping the smaller ones away from the perimeter she’d staked out the day before.
“I have to check you all for cuts and scrapes,” Isabel said. “Anyone who knows they’re bleeding, or sees someone bleeding, come to me. I’ll get around to all of you but those ones are first.”
Nobody came, so she collared Onya and gave her a quick once-over. Found a scrape on her upper arm and bandaged it. “You’re my eyes,” she told her. “Anyone’s hurt, bring them here.”
In between checking people, she surveyed the pile of supplies. There were half a dozen big jugs of water, which turned out to be most of what the supply-cart had been holding. A couple sacks of acorn flour, one of dried meat, two of black walnuts, one of dried plums. A few loaves of bread. A basket of carrots, still dirty from the garden. A basket of raw eggs, some broken. A roll of bandages. A jar of lamp-oil. Three lamps.
It would be enough for a few days. They’d be hungry, and thirsty, and uncomfortable, but they’d live.
As she worked, Isabel kept glancing over at David. Bex had stashed him off in the corner of the ghostgrass perimeter nearest the waypoint. More bundles of ghostgrass lay at the head and foot of his blanket, and some of Glory’s ghostgrass paste was smeared around his mouth. He lay there, muttering feverishly, tended by the midwife’s apprentice, an eleven-year-old girl named Rina.
Commotion behind her as the songkeeper began to unpack his puppets. Isabel caught a glance of The One Who Got Away with His/Her arms sewn into a position of time-biding patience, Carrion Boy and Ember Girl all in black, and the Chooser with Her good eye and blind eye and little scaled-down cape of mouse- and bird-bones stitched together.
Within five minutes the songkeeper had drawn a crowd, two dozen pairs of eyes now staring enraptured at his recital of “Catchkeep’s Favorite Children.”
He could’ve grabbed some food instead, Isabel thought, but then realized how quiet the tunnels had become and changed her mind.
Out of the corner of her eye, a couple of older kids about Onya’s age were rifling through the debris piled along at the other edge of the perimeter.
“Hey,” she called out. “Leave that stuff alone. Glory!”
“You two! Over here!” a voice barked out. The perimeter guard, Lin. She had her daughter slung sleeping across her back and was adroitly nursing two other babies as she summoned the kids with her eyes. Onya and Andrew, the songkeeper’s grandson.
“Everybody has a job to do,” Lin told them. “Your parents would be really proud of you if you help with the babies and little kids down here. They’re really scared and they don’t understand what’s going on and they’re way too little to take care of themselves. Or,” she continued, “I can tell them you were causing trouble. Or I can just deal with you myself.” At their look of terror, Lin’s face softened. “But I’d rather not. See that tall lady over there with the spiky hair?” Nodding across the way at Glory, crankily wrangling a swarm of toddlers into the songkeeper’s circle. “I bet she could give you some important work to do.”
They ran off and Isabel mouthed thank you at Lin.
“So this is turning out to be an interesting day,” Lin said. “Straight from a party to a lockdown.”
Isabel hesitated. It was a rare thing, someone from the town talking to her. Someone not of the Catchkeep-shrine, someone not Ruby when she wanted something.
“What’s it like up there?” she asked. Carefully not asking: did Ruby even explain what was coming before it got here? Not asking: was anyone ready for it? Or: were the ex-upstarts the only ones who even knew?
“I don’t know,” Lin said. “They rushed us down here first thing.” Then, quieter: “Yulia and Jacen assembled the guards earlier and told us. Some of us went to ready the defenses while the people were distracted.”
Somehow, Isabel wasn’t surprised. “That sounds familiar.”
“They’ll be fine,” said Lin. “Perimeter will spot the raiders miles off.” Lin attempted a gesture that might have been the beginning of the drawing of a bow, before realizing her arms were full. She adjusted her grip on a protesting baby and grinned. “Target practice.”
Isabel made a noncommittal sound. But Lin was just warming to her subject.
“Plus we still have a few surprises stashed in the guardhouse for just such an occasion. These slag-for-brains are only getting in along the Waste-road, unless they’ve grown wings or they plan on swimming. We’ll mop them up by dinnertime.”
“Well,” Isabel conceded. “I hope you’re right.”
“I saw some of yours up there keeping pretty busy too,” Lin said. “Lissa and Meg made this one thing with tripwires and some old broken knives that looks pretty nasty.”
“That sounds like them. Listen, do you need me to get you anything? Water? Did you eat?”
“Bex took care of me. I’m good.”
“Okay. Yell if that changes.”
Lin nodded. “Will do.”
She didn’t even realize the midwife’s apprentice had come up behind her, the girl was so quiet. When Isabel turned she almost tripped over her.
“David says his skin is stinging him,” Rina said.
“His skin is stinging him?”
“And he’s dizzy.”
“Okay,” Isabel said. Trying not to let her exasperation show. “What do you usually do about that?”
“I don’t know. It just started. When we came down here.”
“Keep him comfortable. We’ll be out of here soon.”
Glory came up to her, looking troubled. “Isabel.”
“Where are they supposed to pee.”
Isabel turned to stare at her. She hadn’t even thought of it yesterday, and now their options were pretty limited. For one second she entertained the notion of sending the kids down the hall to squat with that glowing ghost-passage at their backs. No chance.
So she took a lamp and a bundle of ghostgrass, set Glory in charge, and went off to clear the space directly on the other side of the hatch entrance.
Before she’d even made her way back over the dented fallen door, she could hear noises coming from the hatch. No: from directly below the hatch. Instinctively she ducked out of the open doorway, curling her body around the lamp to hide its glow in the wide wings of the Archivist-coat. Making sure the harvesting-knife was within easy reach. Running through scenarios in her head, none of them good.
She left the lamp, tiptoed through the doorway in the almost perfect dark. Somebody was frantically trying to jam the broken rungs of the ladder back into the holes it had ripped from the wall.
Isabel snuck up on the figure, grabbed it, spun it around.
“Sairy?” Sheathing the harvesting-knife. “What the hell—”
“I was trying to—”
“You’re not even supposed to be here.”
“I know. I was helping settle people in. When I went to leave, the hatch was already shut, and the ladder . . . ” In a fit of frustration she hurled a broken rung at the wall. “There has to be a way to fix it. There has to.”
Cursing under her breath, Isabel fetched the lamp. Raised it toward the hatch. It was easily six feet above her head, and it weighed more than any three of the ex-upstarts combined. For all its weight it opened surprisingly easily on its hinge—but only if they could reach it.
“This is a problem,” she said.
“I know. I screwed up. I thought Jen would wait for me—”
“Go find me the strongest person in there who isn’t Lin.”
Sairy took off and returned with Bex. After several minutes of taking turns boosting each other upward on interlaced hands, they fell back defeated. They hadn’t even managed to so much as brush that hatch-wheel with their fingertips.
“It’s right there,” Sairy wailed, gesturing violently upward. “It’s right there.”
“Okay,” Isabel said. “Get Lin.”
Bex went and got Lin and they still couldn’t reach the wheel enough to grip and turn it.
“We need a ladder,” Lin observed.
“No shit,” Sairy said.
“You were trying to push the pieces back into the wall?” Lin said. “Some Before-people tool put them there, you can’t just do that with your hands.”
“We had a whole plan,” Sairy wailed. “Me and Lissa and Meg and everybody, we were going to work together, they don’t trust the high seats, they’ll—” She trailed off, horrified. “All hands in the fight. They said we need all hands in—”
“You need to breathe,” Isabel said, because now Sairy was eyeing the tunnel wall like she was planning to dig her way out through that and twenty feet of dirt beyond. “Jen knew you were supposed to be up there. She’ll come back for you. Or she’ll send someone. They can open it from above.”
But a very different thought was running through her mind.
I told Jen I was staying down here. And Sairy’s been shadowing me for years. Jen must have thought—
And I told Ruby that the ex-upstarts only take orders from Sairy.
“And what if she doesn’t? Or she can’t? What if she’s pinned down in the fight and I can’t get to her?”
“Sairy. Listen to me. Right now you need to calm down and you need to—”
A distant cry came from behind her, way up the hall in the cleared area.
“That’s Glory,” Bex said, and took off running, Sairy right behind her.
“What the shit now,” Isabel hissed under her breath, following them as best she could. “Ragpicker take this day and every—”
She stopped when she saw Glory’s face.
“Please tell me,” Glory was saying, “that Onya and Andrew are with you.” Looking around the cleared area like maybe two ten-year-old kids were hidden under a brick she hadn’t checked yet. “I just saw them a minute ago.”
“Well, they didn’t go that way,” Bex said, nodding down the hall in the direction of the waypoint and cave-in.
“And they sure as hell didn’t go up,” Sairy said.
Glory caught sight of her. “Sairy? Aren’t you supposed to be—”
Sairy blew out a frustrated breath, throwing up her hands. “Surprise.”
“If you just saw them, they’re not far,” Isabel told Glory, already walking backwards down the hall, away from the waypoint. “Nobody moves. Nail them to the floor if you have to. I’ll just be a minute.”
“Bring them back safe so I can kill them,” Glory called after Isabel’s back. A pause. Then, incredulous: “Did they take a lamp?”
After a few steps Isabel caught sight of someone approaching her shoulder. “Sairy, what part of nobody moves—”
“This is my fault and I’m going with you and that’s just how it is so let’s go.”
For one second Isabel considered this. It’d probably be easier to push a Sairy-sized boulder back to the cleared area, by hand, uphill, than it would’ve been to talk her out of it.
“Then you get to hold the lamp,” she said, and together they headed into the dark.
* * *
Soon they’d gone far enough that the collected lamplight of the cleared area beyond the hatch couldn’t reach them. The sounds of the townspeople could only be heard faintly, wavering, like murmurs at the bottom of a well. Ahead was black. Behind was black.
No sign of Onya or Andrew.
Isabel’s wrists began to itch.
“I get to help Glory kill them,” Sairy was muttering. “She can hold them down.”
Ten more paces and they’d reached the first door.
It was made of some kind of metal that had only barely begun to rust, which amazed her, given the humidity of the tunnels and the sheer age of everything in them. It was rectangular, as heavy-looking as the hatch door, with a small opening at eye level set with the remains of what used to be a tiny window, glass layered with a very resilient-looking synthetic mesh.
There was a dent in the center of the door like someone had catapulted a boulder at it.
Isabel didn’t like the look of this door one bit. It didn’t look like a door for going in and out of. It looked like a door built in the same spirit as an Archivist’s ghost-catching jars. For locking something up and taking field notes on it, and eventually letting it out into someplace even worse.
Sairy shouldered open the door on shrieking hinges and shoved her lamp-arm in. Nothing.
There was an identical door beside that one, and another beside it. Another across the hall. Another next to that. And so on. Several had been dented by some great force. Some had been ripped straight out of the wall and flung an improbable distance. Like someone at some point had gone to considerable trouble to trash this place to hell, and had gone about it methodically, systematically, door by door by door.
“Well,” Sairy said, shining the lamp down that field of doors. “That’s creepy.”
Isabel didn’t reply. The nervous itching on her wrists was getting truly awful now, and spreading to her neck and hands. She scratched under the ghostgrass bracelets covertly.
They investigated the next room together, and the next, and the next.
Inside each room was nothing. Same floor, same walls, same ceiling. All apparently once white and white no longer. Isabel couldn’t even imagine what it must’ve looked like, all that white. Like staring down on the Waste from a height when fresh snow was on it, so bright in the sunlight that it hurt the eyes.
Each little room itself was empty but for the remains of where something had once been bolted into the wall in two places before the bolts rusted through. A bed of some kind, maybe, a narrow metal slab. On the other side of the room there was a hole where a pipe had gone into the wall, attached presumably to something else, now collapsed into rubble or missing altogether.
It came to Isabel that each door had a handle on the outside, but the inside was smooth.
No Onya, no Andrew. They moved on.
By the eighth room, Isabel was starting to get dizzy. When had she last eaten? Her vision was going weird around the edges, like she had a migraine coming on. And it was taking every crumb of her willpower not to scratch her itchy wrists to bleeding.
“What do you think did this?” Sairy asked, voice hushed. Raising the lamp at a door that, to all appearances, had been thrown so hard that the edge of it had embedded itself in the wall.
Despite herself, Isabel reached out and touched it, and Sairy gasped.
“Isabel, what the hell.”
Sairy grabbed her hand and dragged it by main force into the light.
There was an angry red rash on Isabel’s wrist and palm.
“Isabel, are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay.” Reclaiming her hand. Shoving it into a pocket. Her conversation with Rina earlier was returning to her uncomfortably. His skin is stinging him? “Come on. They can’t be far. You go on ahead.” Swallowing her pride. “You’re faster.”
“There’s one lamp.”
“So I’ll follow it. The longer we wait the farther they get.” Isabel gestured up that endless corridor of rooms. Chooser, she was dizzy. “I’m right behind you.”
“I’m going to kill them,” Sairy muttered again, and hauled open the next door.
Isabel locked her focus on the ground at her feet, shutting out the migraine aura edging in on the sides of her vision, and started walking.
No problem at all to trail Sairy. Her lamplight was easily close enough to safely follow. Nothing on the floor was likely to trip Isabel up even if she wasn’t staring at it. Just the same even field of broken tile both ways, like the thin ice on a puddle that somebody had stomped. Broken tile and mud squelching up between.
Isabel had gone a few steps like that when she slipped on a patch of ice where that broken tile should’ve been and her feet shot out from under.
She went down in a heap and sat there. She felt, and probably looked, like somebody had just tried to brain her with a brick.
In the middle of summer?
She hitched in a steadying breath. It smelled wrong. The only parts of it she could identify were winter air and smoke, although she couldn’t guess what would smell like that when burning. There was another smell almost like metal left out in the summer sun, at odds with the general smell of cold. And another like a sudden burst of improbable flowers as someone brushed past her and kept on walking, unseen, a shadow dissolving in the dark.
“Sairy?” she whispered.
She scrambled back and hit a smooth glass wall. Which had about as much business being in these tunnels as the ice. Too startled to shout, she gave a kind of squeak and recoiled hard enough to almost flop over sideways and stared up and up and up at what used to be the low-ceilinged side of the tunnel, last she’d checked.
It was a building. A very tall building. Taller than any building, any tree, any thing she’d ever seen, short of Execution Hill—except in the city she’d entered in the ghost-place, the memory of a city from a time not her own. Glass and metal flashing blue in the low-slung winter sunlight. People walked past her, over her, through her. They didn’t say anything or notice her there. They didn’t smell like the people of Sweetwater. Their coats flapped against her like crows’ wings.
It was a hallucination. Had to be. Bad air in the tunnels. Maybe that’s why she’d been so dizzy.
Catchkeep, she thought. The Chooser. Ember Girl. Carrion Boy. The Hunt. The Ragpicker. The Crow. The One Who Got Away. Catchkeep’s Tower. The Grave. The First to Die.
Even listing constellations wasn’t cutting through this one. She felt like the tunnel had flipped sideways, not worming just under the surface but boring straight down for miles, and she was tumbling into the dark. Frantically, she marshaled her senses to anchor her.
It was silent, so if she was silent too she’d hear Sairy walking ahead. If she looked down she’d see the broken-eggshells-and-mud patterning of the tile floor.
She was quiet—and heard the footsteps of the not-there-people all around her. She glanced down—and froze.
There was a faint pale light coming from somewhere, and in it, she could just make out an even fainter silver thread, flickery but definitely there, emerging from her breastbone and fading to nothing as it fed out away from the light.
Strange, that light. It was a cold phosphorescence, like what was thrown by a ghost-passage, or a ghost—
She clung to the thread as something behind it, deep in her chest, lurched into freefall.
The light was coming from her.
“Not possible,” she whispered. She wasn’t in the ghost-place. She hadn’t left her body.
Possible or not, the thread pulsed almost invisibly along with her heartbeat. It moved—the tiniest bit—in her breath. She plucked one dull flat note on it and did not dare touch it again, because she knew what it was, what it had to be, and that nothing good would happen to her if it broke.
In that instant, the sound cut out, and all was quiet.
The silence scared her worse than the noise. The noise was something she could track. She had a horrible feeling that the silence hid something that was tracking her.
She found her feet and tried to dart off through the crowd—and the crowd wasn’t there. Mildewed walls, busted floor, slimy pond-smell, the warm humid stillness of the tunnels like a clammy hand laid across her face.
There was a person lying sprawled on the tile a few feet away. It wore a long brown coat and had short brown hair. The other end of her thread was sticking out of that body’s chest. It was a moment before she realized it was her.
It was like startling yourself awake from a nightmare. She snapped back into her body so fast that for a moment it felt wrong, ill-fitting, unresponsive.
“Sairy?” she croaked. Unsure what she would say when Sairy answered. Can you see me? Did I disappear just now? Am I back?
Shakily, she stood. No more glow. No more thread. The dampness of the floor hadn’t soaked through her pant-legs. She must’ve only been lying there a second or two at most. But it’d felt like many minutes had passed.
That unsettled her almost as much as the thread. She knew quite well where she’d experienced both of those things before.
Took two steps and stopped, splaying her hands at hip level as if the ground had just trembled underfoot. A weird feeling gripped her, one she couldn’t begin to name. It felt almost like that untethering sensation she’d get when she was almost asleep. It put her in mind of soft mud being pressed through a loose-woven basket, or one stack of papers being shuffled into another. If she were the mud, the paper, pressed through or shuffled into . . . what?
So, she thought drily, because it was either that or lose it entirely. This is new.
“Isabel.” Sairy sounded farther off than she should’ve. “Think I found them.”
One quick look over her shoulder—nothing tailing her—and Isabel set off toward the bright radius of Sairy’s lamp, shaking her head to clear it.
Sairy was standing in the middle of the hall, gesturing with the lamp toward another door a little ways ahead. No—Isabel realized—not the door but something on the floor in front of it.
“At least they weren’t completely stupid,” Sairy was saying. “I’m still going to kill them though. You open the door and I’ll go in and give them hell.”
Then Isabel drew level with Sairy and saw what she was looking at.
Dried, bundled ghostgrass. Visibly older than what they’d brought with them into the tunnels. Paler, more brittle, less potent. Entire bundles, three of them, carefully laid to overlap end-to-end across the foot of the door.
It looked a whole lot like what had gone missing from the waypoint at the cave-in.
“This,” she said carefully, “isn’t ours.”
“Huh?” Sairy said, turning. “Then what—”
Away up the hall, Onya’s voice. Laughing. Then she and Andrew emerged from one of the farther rooms, spilling lamplight before them. Caught sight of Sairy and Isabel and froze.
Sairy fishhooked them with her eyes. “Get. Over. Here. Now.”
They obeyed. At least they had the good grace to look sheepish.
Sairy strode ahead to meet them partway. As she walked past the ghostgrassed doorway, she stopped. Seemed to lose focus. She was shifting her weight from foot to foot, rubbing her arms, looking lost. “What is that?”
Isabel looked from Sairy to the ghostgrass to the shut door beyond.
“All of you,” she said, keeping her voice as calm and even as she was able, “come here.”
“We’re sorry,” Andrew called down the hall as he and Onya approached. “Really sorry,” Onya added. “Please don’t be mad at us. We were just exploring.”
Sairy didn’t seem to hear them. “No, seriously, what is—”
She staggered sideways like something had pushed her. But nothing had.
Then Isabel realized she felt it too. Frostbite and vertigo. The exact unmistakable sensation of touching a ghost.
Except she wasn’t.
Three years Isabel had been Archivist. She’d encountered many hundreds of ghosts and was thoroughly familiar with the wide variation of every class of specimen. From the silver wisps too weak to coalesce, all the way up to the enraged blinding blurs of light too pissed off to coalesce. And, of course, the ones in between. Able to coalesce but not do much else.
The pissed-off ones had mindlessly attacked her, from time to time, and done worse to several Archivists before her. But even with the strongest of those, the frostbite-and-vertigo sensation only came when she picked one up, or one grabbed hold of her ankle like a baby, or when one’s fist slammed into her face hard enough to loosen teeth.
It came on contact. Only on contact.
But there was nothing there.
Was that a flicker of light across the darkened little window of that door? There and gone, darting past like a fish in the shallows, leaving her questioning whether it’d been there at all. It might’ve been nothing more than their lamplight reflecting. But it’d looked too silvery for that, and Isabel’s luck had never been that good.
If it came down to it, could she still fight a ghost? Or would she meet with that occupational hazard described with such horrified fascination in the field notes by the Archivists next in line? Shredded, bled out, flayed for the salt of her fear-sweat . . .
“Stop,” she said, throwing up a staying hand toward the approaching light of Onya’s lamp. Her mind was whirring back and forth between Sairy and the children in desperate calculation. None of them were going to be any help to her here. She’d have to hold this together with both hands, alone. Should’ve covered this in training after all.
“Stay there. I’m going to come to you.”
“What’s wrong with Sairy?” Onya called back.
“I said stay there.”
Already dragging Sairy away from the door. She looked like she was about to be sick. This close to the doorway, the frostbite-and-vertigo sensation ramped up and went through Sairy like a boot through rotten wood, and Isabel held her up bodily. Pulling ghostgrass out of her pockets. Shoving it into Sairy’s hands. Barely registering how it felt like it was frying her fingers. “Don’t put that down. Not for anything. I’m going to go get them. You turn around quietly and start walking back the way we—”
The silver light whipped past again and faded, shuddered and came back brighter, and the last dregs of her patience shriveled abruptly up and died.
“Sairy, Ragpicker slag you, back it up or I will put you down.”
Sairy didn’t seem to hear her. She was frozen in place, gazing toward that little window in the door. “Isabel,” she slurred, “something in there just moved—”
Shivering violently now, Sairy swayed a few steps forward and stumbled. Went down on one knee. Threw a hand out and down to catch herself. There came a dry rustling sound as her fingers caught on the end of the nearest ghostgrass bundle, shifting it ever so slightly out of line.
“Run,” Isabel breathed, yanking Sairy by the shoulder as from the doorway there came a sound of metal tearing.
Sairy had hardly turned from the door before it blew off its hinges, barely missing her as it shot across the tunnel and cratered the far wall.
What stepped through that doorway wasn’t featureless and silvery, like a ghost that hadn’t been deliberately strengthened for questioning. This ghost was plenty strong enough on its own. It stood there, large as life, looking like it’d just wandered in out of the Before, fully dressed and vaguely bewildered.
Automatically Isabel grabbed Sairy, dragged her back against the wall. Stay put, she thought at Onya and Andrew up the hall. Hissing at Sairy: “Don’t move.”
Then she really looked at that ghost, and all the strength ran out of her like water.
It was female, around Isabel’s height, with olive skin and brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. It wore a uniform, basic and dark, with clean lines and black boots. A gun and a sword were stuck in its belt. It looked to have died not too much older than Onya and Andrew were now. Blackish silver light steamed gently off of it.
Isabel stared at it, a kind of hollow-seashell rushing sound in her ears.
She knew those clothes. She knew that gun and that sword and the way it was radiating strength, tendrils of visible energy shooting out of it like lightning. She’d seen all of that before.
But only once.
At that time, with the salt, and the kit, and the knife, and far fewer injuries, that other ghost had still nearly murdered her. Isabel looked across the roil of silver-black light at this specimen and knew that if it went after her, or Sairy, or Onya and Andrew, she was going to have to fight her way through it if she wanted to live. And knew, with equal certainty, that she would lose. Badly. This thing could probably spread her in an even layer across the tunnel floor without breaking stride.
Plastered in ghostgrass, Sairy was just about able to hold herself up now. “Is that a ghost?” she whispered. “It looks so . . . so real.” She narrowed her eyes. “Wait. Isabel. It looks like—”
“It looks like the ones in your drawing.”
Quickly, silently, she assessed. The ghost hadn’t noticed them, or Onya and Andrew. That much was obvious. Sudden movement might draw it down on them, but thank the Chooser, the kids had some sense.
She had to think. But it was hard to. The frostbite-and-vertigo sensation was flowing freely out from the ghost, miring Isabel’s thoughts. Waves of dark light lifted off of it, getting denser every minute, flaring and mantling like wings. The smell of it was like the lakeshore after lightning struck. The sound of it was one clear pure glassy note, shattered and reformed, still ringing, but with all its edges grinding one against the other.
It was pacing back and forth before the doorway like a shrine-dog on a too-short lead. Two steps and turn, two steps and turn. Seemingly agitated, staring at nothing from the open sores of its eyes. Blind as it was, Isabel had the distinct sensation that it was aware of her there. That if it turned her way it would see her. Not the space where she stood, which was all most ghosts seemed to be capable of. Her. Which should by no means have been possible.
But it didn’t. It kept on pacing with its hands in its pockets as a comet-tail of dark silver light raged around it, brushing the ceiling.
Whatever had killed this ghost hadn’t been pretty. An open lesion covered half of its face and tracked down its neck in weeping craters, and there was blood crusted around its nose and eyes. Patches of its hairline oozed where the hair had come out, taking scalp with it, and what little of its skin Isabel could see looked bruised.
She recognized it. She’d seen it years ago when she’d read Foster’s memories. Coughing up clots, half its nails fallen out. Caught in the jaws of the illness that Isabel knew had been its death.
Salazar, she remembered. Her name is Mia Salazar.
The longer they stood there, the closer Isabel’s flight instinct got to bypassing her brain and going right for her legs until it slingshot her back up that tunnel and away from the slag-pit of Salazar’s face. But the Archivist-part of her was driving now, and it knew better than to turn its back on this caliber of specimen. And seeing a ghost in that uniform, with that sword and gun . . . complicated matters in ways she didn’t have time just now to unpack and examine.
Salazar reached the end of her circuit and spun on her bootheel to stalk back the other way.
“Why isn’t it killing you?” Salazar was repeating, over and over. “Why isn’t it killing you?”
Sairy’s voice in Isabel’s ear. “Is it talking?”
Every ghost had a moment it couldn’t move past. Its death, usually. A choice it made wrong. A screwup it regretted enough to imprint upon. In any case, a loop it couldn’t break free from. It stayed caught there like a leaf frozen into a block of ice, neither drifting nor landing.
It didn’t escape Isabel’s notice that Salazar’s inability to break free of her loop was very possibly the only thing keeping her and Sairy—and everyone else in the tunnels—alive.
“Are you going to capture it?”
Another tight shake of Isabel’s head. There was no way she was getting this thing in a jar. Besides, it’d been three years. Did her knife even still work?
“Are you going to destroy it?”
Her ghost-destroying kit was still in the pocket of her Archivist-coat. But part of that ritual involved lighting a fire. Outside was one thing. But in the tunnels?
“Only if she makes me.”
“Did you put that ghostgrass in front of the door?”
Sairy took this in. “Then who—”
Eyes glued on Salazar, Isabel clapped her hand over Sairy’s mouth.
Over by the doorway, Salazar had begun nosing at the air, scenting like a predator. Suddenly, viscerally, Isabel wished Salazar still had eyes. Her slow blind triangulation of their position was extremely unnerving. It made Isabel uncomfortably aware that she was, at best, a slow-moving bag of blood, and it would take precious little effort on Salazar’s part to unzip her.
Isabel’s brain chose that moment to remind her of something she was far happier forgetting. Something she’d heard Foster say, when Isabel had read her memories.
We’re not special, Foster had told what few of her fellow operatives had survived their treatment so far. Martinez was special. Tanaka was special. Salazar was special. You know what we are? We’re just the ones who didn’t die.
Martinez. Tanaka. Salazar. The best and brightest operatives that the Latchkey Project had to offer. And one of them, Chooser knew why, was here.
Had Salazar lived out her treatment, her strength and abilities might’ve surpassed the ghost’s, surpassed Foster’s. This was distinctly terrifying. Isabel had to focus on the had she lived part. Because if Salazar had already surpassed them despite dying so young, Isabel might well be staring across fifteen feet of empty space at the strongest ghost she’d ever seen.
But this old bundled ghostgrass, however it had gotten there, had held Salazar in that room. Even when she’d met the other ghost on Execution Hill three years ago, she’d had to remove the bundled ghostgrass from her door before he could enter.
As plans went it wasn’t her first choice, but it wasn’t nothing.
“Stick to the wall and head back the way we came,” she commanded Sairy. Talking low and fast under her breath. “Slowly. You don’t stop til you get over our ghostgrass perimeter and then you make sure everyone stays put. I don’t care what you hear, you keep moving.” Nodding toward the silver raging of Salazar’s light. “I’m going to put her back where we found her. Then we—what are you doing?”
What Sairy was doing was pulling the rest of the ghostgrass from her pockets. Brandishing it in front of her. “Helping.”
“Not happening. You’re getting out of here.”
“It’s what, a dead thirteen-year-old girl? You get it back in the room. I’ll fix the ghostgrass. Done and done.”
Isabel stared at her in horror. You really have no concept of the depth of what we’re standing in, do you?
What Sairy saw in Isabel’s face decided her. “Fine,” she whispered angrily. But she set her face and began backing away.
One down, Isabel thought. Okay.
She waited until Sairy was almost out of sight up the hall. Then, ghostgrass held out in front of her, she took a tiny careful step toward Salazar. Then another.
“Why isn’t it killing you?” Salazar was still whispering to nobody Isabel could see. “Why isn’t it killing you?”
Still sniffing vaguely at the air, and all at once Isabel knew what she was looking at.
She wasn’t hunting at all. Stuck in that memory like quicksand, Salazar was crying.
A sound from way behind her, and she turned just in time to see Sairy stumble, tripped by something in the rubble. Saw her land neatly, one hand one knee. Heard her curse softly under her breath as she lifted that hand into the lamplight and stared at it, horrified, as the blood started trickling down.
Isabel spun back toward Salazar—and Salazar was no longer there.
Excerpted from Latchkey, copyright © 2018 by Nicole Kornher-Stace.