Free Read: Invidiosa vs. the Chamber of the Dead
 
This was my Halloween story from 2016, and I'm writing a new story with some of the same characters for this month's Patreon! I'm posting this publicly mostly as a teaser and enticement for potential new patrons, and as a refresher for existing readers before the new story drops closer to Halloween.

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Invidiosa vs. the Chamber of the Dead

by Tim Pratt

A series of thudding knocks at the door roused Cutler from his doze on the couch, and he lurched to his feet thinking fire flood alien invasion. His head felt fuzzy and hollowed-out. How much had he had to drink? His belly grumbled. How much had he had to drink on an empty stomach? he revised.

Cutler peeked around the curtain at his dark front porch. Someone stood at the door dressed in a pointy black witch’s hat, holding a jack-o’-lantern under her arm. Right. Halloween. Ugh. He didn’t want to interact. He wanted to wallow in self pity and whiskey and eat a bunch of corn chips. Some of the other houses on the crowded street (mostly carved-up Victorians, rented out as student housing) had jack-o-lanterns or orange lights or skeleton cut-outs in the windows, but his tiny bungalow was resolutely un-festive, to discourage this sort of thing. He opened the door and said, “Hey, sorry, I don’t have any candy. That’s why I didn’t leave the porch light on.”

“That’s okay, because have I got a treat for you. Hold this.” The witch shoved the lit jack-o-lantern into his arms, and he was so startled he accepted it. He’d assumed the witch was a tall child, but now that he got a better look at her, he realized she was a short woman, probably in her twenties, like him. Besides the hat and the black robe she wore, she hadn’t done much to look witchy—instead of fake moles or crooked teeth she had an eyebrow ring and dark-framed glasses. Her style was more brisk barista than terrifying hag or sultry occultist, the basic witch modes.

He looked down at the jack-o-lantern. The face was more disapprovingly scowly than scary, but he had to admire the artistry. It was intricately carved, with layers of rind scraped away to make the surface translucent to varying degrees, as opposed to simple hacked-out features. When he looked back up, the woman was already coming inside, sweeping past him and pointing a—was that a wand? It looked like an excessively long fingerbone. “Whoa, hey, you can’t come in here!”

She went into the kitchen, calling, “Sure I can. This is a haunted house.”

“What? No.” He put the jack-o-lantern down on the coffee table and went after the woman. “I think you have the wrong address.”

The witch was leaning over his kitchen sink, looking into the drain. She clucked her tongue and spun around to face him. “Nothing too spooky yet, but I’ve only started looking. Give me a minute.”

“No, it’s not—”

The witch scooted around him and walked down the short hall and into the bathroom, shutting the door after her. Culter heard the shower curtain rattle back, and the toilet lid open and close, and the water running. Was she opening his medicine cabinet? He was trying to decide if this was an improbable home invasion, a case of genuine confusion, or if the woman was on drugs. He knocked on the door, still too booze-and-nap woozy to be properly angry. “Miss?”

The door swung out, and he jumped back to avoid getting hit in the face. She pointed the wand at the other door off the hallway, and the tip of the bone flared purple, like the wand was a sparkler or something. “Huh. Is that the bedroom? Mind if I take a look?”

“Who are you?”

She blinked. “Sorry, right, I’m being rude. My name is Invidiosa Alexandria Blackbile.”

He stared at her. “No it’s not.”

“You can call me Lexie. Bedroom?” She started for the door, and he put out his arm to block her.

“Why do you want to go in there?”

She looked at him from beneath lowered her lashes and pouted. It was the most transparently false bit of simpering he’d ever encountered. “You don’t think I’m cute? You don’t want to show me your boudoir?”

He sputtered. “That’s not the point, I don’t know you—”

She gestured with the wand, almost nonchalantly. A shriek somewhere between an air horn and a cat in heat came from the direction of the living room. When Cutler whipped his head around in alarm, Lexie darted under his arm—she didn’t have to duck much to do it, she was maybe four foot eleven, tops—and went through his bedroom door.

He hesitated between following her and investigating the scream, and decided there was nothing too valuable in his bedroom anyway, and no way for her to escape since the windows were barred, so he went to the kitchen, grabbed the biggest knife in sight, and crept toward the living room.

The empty living room. The space wasn’t that big, and once he’d ascertained there were no scream-murderers hiding under the coffee table, he was confident the place was uninhabited. The jack-o-lantern had the smuggest look on its face—

Wait. Hadn’t the carving been all pissed-off-looking before?

Lexie reappeared, glanced at the knife in his hand, apparently didn’t judge it to be a threat, and crouched down beside the pumpkin. “Good scream. Very distracting. So, I found the thing. It’s in the closet. So cliché.”

“Better than the shower,” the pumpkin said in a raspy emphysemic voice. “I saw that once. At totality the pipes broke and water sprayed everywhere, it was a mess.”

Cutler took a wobbly step back. He suddenly felt completely sober, which was a shame, because drunkenness would have been a comforting explanation. “Did that jack-o-lantern just talk?”

Lexie shook her head. “Of course not. Pumpkins can’t talk. The thing inside the pumpkin is what talked.”

Right. Spooky Halloween trick. “Oh, like, it’s a walkie-talkie or a recording or something?”

“More like the mortal remains of Professor Emerson Blitzer,” Lexie said. “He’s my associate. Since he died he’s been working as a... freelance eschatologist.”

Cutler chose to skip over the unbelievable part of that statement to focus on the incomprehensible part. “Eschatologist? Is that, like... an expert on snails?”

“No, that’s, um, a conchologist. Eschatologists study the theology of death, the disposition of the soul, and the end of the world, among other things.”

“You oversimplify,” the pumpkin said. Did it look amused now? “But it’s close enough for jazz.”

Cutler looked closely at the pumpkin, but its carved face didn’t move or change... at least, not while he was watching. He switched his attention to the ambulatory human in the room. “If the pumpkin studies death, what do you do?”

“I don’t do, I am, and what I am, is a witch.” She briefly tipped her pointy hat. “This is a clever disguise, because on Halloween, no one believes you are what you’re dressed like.”

“There’s no such thing as witches. Unless you mean, like, a Wiccan?”

“I do not mean that, though I have nothing but fondness for my pagan sisters and brothers and others. I am more of a practical witch, that’s all, and my religious views are... idiosyncratic and evidence-based.” She gestured toward the back of the house with her wand. “I’m going to be honest with you, Cutler: there’s trouble here. Potentially world-ending trouble.”

“World changing,” the pumpkin said. “Not ending. The world would continue. It would merely continue in a way that was inimical to the ongoing existence of human life.”

“Right,” Lexie said. “That. Want to help?”

Cutler brandished the knife. “You need to get out of my house right now. I don’t do this Halloween stuff. You can’t make me part of your performance art haunted-house-without-a-house thing.”

“You hate Halloween, don’t you?”

Cutler scowled. He’d never threatened anyone with a knife before, so maybe he was doing it wrong, but it seemed like it should be having more of an effect. “No, I don’t hate Halloween, it just doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Even as a kid he hadn’t much liked candy, he didn’t get a thrill from scary stories, and it wasn’t like he had kids of his own (maybe in ten more years, if he found the right somebody).

“You had a big fight with your girlfriend, though, about Halloween?”

Cutler gaped. “You know Gina?” A week ago Gina said she wanted to do a couples costume and go to some giant street party tonight. He’d always felt silly dressing up, so he declined, and she’d said that was the last straw, that all he did was study and go to class and doodle schematics and watch TV—he never did anything fun. So she’d found someone else to be the sexy sidekick to her sexy superhero, and she wasn’t returning his calls. He had good reason to get drunk and recuse himself from Halloween.

“No, I don’t know Gina, but witches can read a room.”

His fist tightened on the knife’s hilt. “I don’t know who you think you are—”

She tipped her hat again. “I told you, I’m Invidiosa Alexandria Blackbile. I know it’s a mouthful. One name was given to me with love, another was bestowed as a title, and a third was inflicted on me as a curse.” She inclined her head toward his weapon. “That knife won’t do much good the way it is.” Lexie plucked the blade from his hand, somehow, moving faster than his eye could follow. She held the big knife in the same hand as her wand, as comfortably as if they were a pair of chopsticks, and with her other hand lifted the top off the jack-o-lantern.

Cutler shielded his eyes as a radiant shaft of yellow-white light poured out of the opening. Was there a spotlight inside that thing?

Lexie pushed the knife blade into the beam, almost like she was stabbing the light, and a moment later put the cover back on the pumpkin. Cutler blinked at her, purple afterimages dancing in his vision. The knife blade was glowing, now, the same yellow-white as the light inside the pumpkin, but not so bright. Lexie flipped the knife around in her hand and offered it to him handle first. “There. Now it should cut what needs cutting. Come on. Let me show you what’s happening in your closet.”

“This is a trick.” Cutler stared at the blade. Maybe she’d coated it with glow-in-the-dark stuff. Except it wasn’t dark. Okay, then, maybe it was covered in the goo that made fireflies glow. He hesitantly touched his fingertip to the blade. It was cool and dry.

“It’s just magic. Some kinds of magic work really well tonight.” She picked up the pumpkin and tucked it under her arm. “I mostly carry the professor around in my purse, but he doesn’t usually barf out fifteen million candlepower in eldritch light. His powers are at peak right now. Here’s a tip: if you have to carry around a weird glowing relic on Halloween, stick it in a jack-o-lantern, because no one looks at you twice.” She patted Cutler on the arm. “Hey. I know this is weird and confusing and you don’t really believe any of it. That’s why you should come look at your closet. Then you’ll be done disbelieving and ready to move on to the next bit, where we could use your help.”

“I’ll call the cops,” he said.

“We’re too far along the ecliptic,” the pumpkin said. “Which is to say, you can try, but technology is already unreliable, and communications technology more so.”

He went to the kitchen and lifted the handset of his phone off the wall. It was dead. “You cut the line!”

Lexie rolled her eyes, set the pumpkin on the island, and reached down into the cleavage of her robe. She withdrew a rectangle of plastic and glass and handed it over. “Try mine.”

“This is your phone? It’s so small.”

“I’m a witch, not a luddite.”

He poked at the keypad on the screen. The engineer in him was impressed by the device. He didn’t keep up with consumer electronics but this seemed way beyond current technology—maybe it was from Japan or something. Dialing 911 just produced a series of beeps, and then the phone went dark. The lights overhead dimmed, too, and went out, until the only illumination came from the jack-o-lantern—now its mouth was opened in a startled “O”—and his knife.

“Oopsie.” Lexie plucked the phone from his hand and disappeared it back into her robe. She waved the wand and gestured, and the light bulbs all started glowing again, but this time with a greenish light. She made a disgusted noise. “That was supposed to be plain old white light. Everything’s going all eldritch already. Can we go to the bedroom now?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, just walked past him, so Cutler followed, holding the glowing knife. “How close are we, professor?” she said.

“Still in first contact, but it’s well underway.”

Once they were in the bedroom, her wand spitting violet sparks, she put the pumpkin on the bed. The light still shone through its carved face, but seemed to be getting dimmer. “Look in the closet.” Lexie gestured.

Cutler looked. There should have been shirts, a couple of jackets, and a bunch of empty hangers that had held some of Gina’s sleepover clothes until she snatched them down and stormed out a week ago.

Instead, there was darkness, and in the darkness, there were things.

Cutler broke and ran, though Lexie shouted, “It’s too late!”

He tore through the kitchen and out the front door, onto the porch, and then stopped short. The world stopped at the edge of his porch. No steps, no paving stone path to the sidewalk, no sidewalk, no street, no buildings. They’d all been swallowed by a darkness that seemed viscous—by shadows with texture. He poked his glowing knife forward and the darkness dimpled, like it was a solid thing, and the blade’s brightness dimmed. Cutler drew the weapon back. Did the darkness push in a little closer? Was it whispering?

He backed away until he was inside, then slammed the door, and walked slowly under the green lights back to the bedroom. Lexie was unrolling a length of midnight fabric on his bedspread, and various implements twinkled there, apparently wands of various substances—glass, brass, wood, gold, and other things.

He took deep breaths and tried to keep himself from shaking, and didn’t look into the closet. Maybe the things he’d seen in there were trapped there. “What is that darkness outside?”

She picked up the glass wand and turned toward the closet. “We’re in the midst of a metaphysical and astrological event. Like a grand conjunction?”

The pumpkin spoke. “Halloween is often a time when the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead grows thin. In some places, the membrane stretches. In others, it breaks. This is a breaking point. We are no longer in perfect phase with the rest of the world.”

Lexie slashed the wand around experimentally. “This doesn’t happen every Halloween. There are other factors. Phase of the moon, star stuff, the position of the axis mundi. But it’s all lining up just right now. Think of it like an eclipse, okay? The moon passes across the face of the sun. The world of the dead is now passing across the face of the world of the living. We’re in first contact—the passageway to the dead is just touching us, or rather, touching the inside of your closet.”

“It has become... a closet of the dead.”

Lexie snorted. “Come on, prof. Can we call it maybe a chamber of the dead? ‘Closet of the dead’ lacks gravitas. Anyway, yes. Dead things are going to start coming out of that closet soon. Eventually very bad, very powerful dead things, with the power to feed on life and make their presence here permanent. If that happens, they’ll keep feeding, and growing stronger. The dead are always hungry, Cutler.”

Cutler shook his head and pointed his knife at her accusingly. Its blade seemed dimmer now, too, and the room was darker. “The things I saw in there, they weren’t ghosts, they were monsters!”

“There are all kinds of dead things,” the professor rasped. “Earth has been home to many monsters in its history. There are creatures that have never shown up in the fossil records, but persist in our nightmares and stories.”

“The things with lots of tentacles are especially lousy at leaving fossils,” Lexie said. “Also the colloidal things. Your oozes, your shoggoths, that kind of thing. They didn’t leave a trace when they went extinct.”

“Those things I saw were ghost... shoggoths?”

“The blobs and eyeballs and pseudopods and mouths like raggedy dripping holes? That’s what we call them, yeah. Fortunately, they’re not smart. They’re sort of like if single-celled organisms were very large.”

“And multicellular,” the pumpkin said.

“Yes, okay, not a perfect comparison, but they are simple creatures and they live to eat and oh crap oh hell oh no—” A whiplike appendage flashed into the room from the closet and wrapped around Lexie’s wrist.

“Second contact,” the professor said.

Lexie touched the glass rod to the pseudopod, and it sizzled and hissed and withdrew into the closet. “Give me a hand here Cutler?”

He took a deep breath. He’d grown up in a trailer park, gotten into fights, and taken punches, though mostly from his dad, but then he’d done well in school and left physical violence behind in favor of thinking about systems and buildings and structures. He’d never wanted to be hit again. But there were monsters coming, and everyone would die, and that included him and the people he cared about, so he had to fight, didn’t he? “Can we beat them?”

Lexie grinned. “I would have put our odds at fifty-fifty, but with your help? Fifty-two forty-eight, easy.”

He sighed and stepped beside her, knife at the ready.

The inside of the closet was bigger, now, or, more accurately, it had transformed into a portal to another place. Cutler looked down on a sloping plain of gray sand dotted with misshapen boulders that seemed distressingly organic, like they were tumors cut from the body of a leviathan and ossified. Immense tumbleweeds rolled to and fro, and in general, the plain teemed with things. Up close there were bubbling, roiling masses of ambulatory slime, the shoggoths. Farther back there were things that looked like dinosaurs, but were those feathers? There were people, too, off in the distance, some naked, some clothed in rags, but they broke and ran from the approach of something else, a towering twelve-foot tall figure that resembled a human in the way a saber-toothed tiger resembled a housecat. Its limbs had too many joints, and its head too many teeth, and it moved toward the portal with menacing deliberation.

“There were giants in the Earth in those days,” Lexie murmured. “What do you think, professor? Big show of strength up front, or save you for the grand finale?”

“If that horde rushes the door, we’re doomed. There are more than I’ve ever seen before. We’d better start with a bang.”

Lexie held out the glass wand to Cutler, who took it without question. The wand was a weapon, and it was better to have two weapons than one. He watched the door as the dead crept forward, moving slowly up the slope toward their world.

She picked up the pumpkin and pointed its now very serious face toward the closet. “This is going to get bright,” she said.

Now Cutler saw the jack-o-lantern’s face change. The mouth opened in that wide surprise “O” again, but now it kept widening, until the mouth swallowed up the nose, the eyes, and the weirdly expressive eyebrows. Soon the whole side of the pumpkin was a single aperture.

The light pouring out brightened in intensity, and the professor grunted like a man doing lifting weights. Light cannoned out of the jack-o-lantern like a solid thing, a cylinder of fire a foot in diameter, and just the backwash of the illumination made Lexie glow like a diminutive divinity. She moved the pumpkin back and forth in slow arcs, and she grinned. “Look!”

Cutler forced his gaze away from her face and looked into the closet of the dead, where the professor’s light was laying waste. The blobs were too slow to get out of the way, and they were seared out of existence: if the light touched a shoggoth, the blob lightened in color until it disappeared entirely. Some of the human figures turned out not to be human at all, and as the light swept their way, they unfurled great wings and launched themselves into the gray air and away, fleeing the onslaught. The weirdly birdlike dinosaurs all ran away. The tumbleweeds turned out to not be tumbleweeds at all, though, but mobile assemblages of sticks and bones, and they were surprisingly dexterous, somersaulting and vaulting and dodging out of the way.

Lexie tried to take aim at the giant, which had watched the rout impassively, but it simply stepped over or around or ducked below the beam with balletic grace and improbable speed. The overwhelming brightness of the light was fading, and Cutler realized the professor’s power wasn’t eternal. “Lexie!” He shouted. “Leave the giant alone, it’s trying to make you waste your ammo!”

The witch looked startled, then nodded and turned her attention to burning out the last shoggoths and chasing off the last of the winged humanoids, and even managed to catch a few of the stick-things glancing blows. The light began to stutter, releasing bursts of brightness instead of a steady stream, and the professor released a low moan. “Don’t use yourself up,” Lexie said.

The light cut off abruptly, and Lexie looked down at the pumpkin with fondness and concern. At that instant, a winged figure swooped down from the sky and arrowed its way through the closet door, launching straight for her. How had Cutler ever mistaken those things for human? Its face was birdlike and beaked, its eyes flat black, its body too long and thin.

Cutler slammed into the side of the flying man, knocking it off its path before it could strike Lexie. Hitting the bird-man was like tackling a sack of feathers—the thing must have had hollow bones or something. It twisted and writhed on the carpet, trying to snap at him with its beak, and he shoved the glowing knife into its shoulder, hoping to make it shy away. Instead, when the knife sank in, the creature faded like the shoggoths had under the beam of light, and in two seconds Cutler found himself crouching alone in a spill of filthy brown feathers.

“You saved me,” Lexie said. “I owe you, Cutler.”

He struggled to his feet. Lexie was watching the closet for more attacks, a wand in each hand, her feet set in a fighter’s stance. He looked into the passage, where the giant stalked balefully back and forth, haranguing the few creatures that remained on the other side, its voice a distant atonal rumble. The monsters didn’t look like they were planning to rush the door, at least not in the next second or two.

Cutler looked down. Lexie had dropped the pumpkin, probably in surprise, and the lid had fallen open, spilling out the contents. A withered, mostly skeletal hand with curled fingers lay on the carpet, glowing faintly. “Is that the professor?”

“What’s left of him. He could have used the power of the conjunction tonight to make a physical body for himself, though it wouldn’t have lasted much longer than morning. Still, the chance to eat, to drink, to dance, to do... whatever... he passed that up and used the power to fight them instead.”

Cutler overcame his instinctive revulsion, picked up the hand, and put it gently on the bed. “Will he be okay?”

“He’s dead, but apart from that, yeah. He’s worn out, but he got us through most of second contact.” She gestured vaguely with a wand. “In eclipse terms, that’s when the moon covers the face of the sun entirely. The portal is at its most wide-open right now. I really wish we’d been able to hit the big guy. Most of the dead seem confused and disorganized, as a rule. They try to escape into our world, but it’s like moths rushing for a flame, unthinking instinct. Their memories are scrambled and they don’t connect well with reality, maybe because their reality over there is so strange or changeable, who knows? But that giant guy... maybe he’s been dead for enough millions of years to get used to things, and get his wits about him. He looks like he has plans.”

“We just have to hold the door, though, right?” Cutler thought of all those old war stories, of a small group of men guarding a narrow pass against overwhelming odds. The defenders usually died eventually in those movies, though.

“That’s right. Hard to say how much longer. Once totality ends and third contact starts, and the moon begins to move off the sun, the dead might get desperate—”

The portal shifted. A narrow slice of Cutler’s closet appeared on the right, and the gateway to the dead grew correspondingly smaller. The giant howled and raised his arms, and the stick things charged toward them, rolling like tumbleweeds again.

“Get ready.” Lexie’s wands flared.

The next few minutes were chaos. The narrowness of the opening meant only one stick-thing could try to come through at a time, and Cutler and Lexie pushed forward to hold them back. He hacked with his knife, though it was like chopping at branches with a machete. The knife worked its magic, sending the ones he struck to oblivion, but the things turned out not to be single organisms but clusters of them all tangled together, so he sometimes had to strike six or seven times to make a whole death-tumbleweed disappear—and that just cleared the way for another one to attack. The stick-and-bone appendages tried to scratch at him, their limbs covered in thorns (or claws), but he had remarkably good luck, and they didn’t draw blood, or even hurt him. Lexie wasn’t so lucky—a thorn almost took her eye, and drew a line down her cheek.

Cutler growled and redoubled his efforts, and then had an idea. “Don’t make them disappear!” he shouted. “Leave them broken so they block the door!” He started to kick, and Lexie joined in, her heavy black boots unerringly snapping limbs. His own blows didn’t seem to do the things any harm, just rebounding harmlessly away, maybe because his sneakers weren’t strong enough to snap their fibrous bodies. Fortunately, Lexie’s attacks were vigorous enough that in a few minutes the narrowing doorway was jammed with broken monsters, their smashed appendages oozing caustic sap. The things behind them tried to push forward, but there was no room, and they just reached partway through the blockage and flailed ineffectually.

“That might do it,” Lexie said. “Good thinking!”

But then the tumbleweeds burst into flame, burning blue and green and producing a foul stench that sent stinking smoke into the bedroom. They burned fast, and turned to a heap of gray ash. The giant crouched in the distance, one hand outflung, smoke rising from its too many fingertips: it had hurled fire at its own allies to clear the way.

“The giants in the Earth had great magic.” Lexie shivered.

Burning the doorway clear seemed to freak out the giant’s remaining allies, and the ones that survived fled in a great clattering stampede. The aperture continued to close, and now fully half the closet was visible. The giant didn’t rush them—it probably couldn’t have squeezed through the opening at this point anyway. “Are we okay?” Cutler said. “Is that it?”

“Maybe? But what’s the giant doing?”

The monster had broken off one of the stick-creature’s limbs and was scratching at the dirt, apparently drawing something intricate. Occasionally the giant looked up at the aperture, its maw a permanent grin, and then looked back down.

“We’re almost out of third contact,” she said. “Not much longer.”

The giant glanced up and flicked its fingers almost dismissively. A greasy ball of fire flew from its hand straight for Lexie. Cutler tried to throw himself in front of the ball of fire (though he hadn’t planned on that level of self sacrifice; the move was pure instinct), but the projectile actually dodged around him to get to the witch.

Lexie crossed her wands, one of brass and one of wood, in an X in front of her, and the fireball struck that seemingly flimsy barrier. There was a flash, and the room shook, plaster raining down from the ceiling. Cutler scrambled toward Lexie, his ears ringing.

She lay sprawled on the bed beside the withered professor, her cheeks sooty, the wands melted and broken beside her. He was afraid she’d been killed, but then she opened her eyes and blinked. Lexie tried to sit up, but only succeeding in slithering off the bed. She sat, slumped, on the floor, leaning against the side of the bed. “Ugh. That... wow.”

“Are you all right?”

“I will be. I just... shielding myself from that attack used up a lot of my strength.” She tried to lift her arm to point at the closet, but only made it halfway before her hand dropped down. “The door is almost closed, though. Fucker.”

They waited, watching, and then the professor on the bed gasped. “No,” he said. “Look.”

Lexie squinted at the closet, and then cursed softly under her breath. It took another moment for Cutler to see it, but then he realized the portal was opening again, sliding wider. The giant stood about twenty feet away on the other side, and held its hands out before it like it was trying to force a pair of elevator doors open, head lowered, shoulders tensed, arms straining.

“It must have been drawing some sigil, doing an incantation,” Lexie said. “Casting a spell to lever apart the crack between worlds, and open the way again. We have to stop it.” She tried to rise but clearly didn’t have the strength.

“Crap.” Cutler covered his face with his hands for a moment, then sighed. “Fate of the world, right? I never wanted to be a soldier or a hero, Lexie. I just wanted to make stuff. I was going to build bridges. Now... I guess I have to break one.” He picked up the glowing knife.

“Cutler,” the professor said. “What you do now, we will remember.”

“Hey, now. I’m not going to suicide mission if I can help it. If I can get back out again, I will.”

“Go kick its ass,” Lexie said.

Cutler took a breath and started running.

The change when he crossed the threshold was immediate. The air over there was thinner, and smelled of burnt monsters and dust. He felt stronger, too, and like his body was made of denser stuff—because he was a living man in the world of the dead? Because he was more real there? Whatever it was, he took advantage of the change, lowering his head and leaping forward once he judged himself within range.

The giant glowered at him, but didn’t lower its hands—maybe it couldn’t. Maybe it was locked into its spell. Cutler slammed into the giant’s body, but it was like running into a tree. So much for the dramatic tackle. He bounced back, lifted the knife, and stabbed as high as he could reach into the thing’s abdomen. The giant howled.

Cutler had read once that real knife fights weren’t cool and elegant and full of feints and parries—they were fast and brutal. The best way to kill someone with a knife was to stab them over and over very quickly. This thing was already dead, but the knife blade still glowed, and he flurried his arm, stabbing the giant in the torso, and then, in a flash of inspiration, ducking down and slashing at the backs of its legs. The giant’s tendons were as thick as elevator cables, but the knife parted them, and the creature dropped to its knees and howled. Its body was growing lighter in color, but not disappearing yet, and the knife was barely illuminated anymore: he’d used up most of its magic.

The giant was kneeling now, though, and that meant Cutler could reach its outstretched arms. He began hacking at its wrists, and it screamed in his face, breath icy cold, but he soldiered on. Don’t think about being in the underworld. Don’t think about saving the real world. Don’t think about Gina or Lexie or anyone. Just do the job in front of you: hack, hack, hack.

The giant gave up on trying to hold the portal open, and slashed at Cutler with its other arm.

He felt the impact, but the blow didn’t actually hurt, and despite the many fingers and their cruel talons, Cutler’s flesh didn’t part under the attack. The giant couldn’t seem to hurt him, no more than the bird-thing or the thorny stick creatures had. Why not?

The creature seemed as startled as Cutler himself at how little damage it had done, and it spun and scurried away on its hands and knees, leaving a trail of black blood in the dust.

Cutler looked behind him. The portal, a rectangle hanging in the air an inch above the grim plain, was closing again. He ran toward the passage, thinking faintly that it was a bad idea to run with a knife in his hand. He flung himself through the opening before it closed, though he had to turn sideways to do it, and then he sprawled on the carpet.

Lexie made her way over to him and stroked his hair. “Fourth contact,” she said. “The passage is closed. You did it, Cutler.”

He looked past her, at the ceiling. “I’m dead, aren’t I? That’s why they couldn’t hurt me. Why I couldn’t hurt any of them, either, except with the knife. Because we’re the same. We’re already dead.”

“You made yourself a good body,” Lexie said. “Very solid, very real. But you’re right. The dead can’t harm the dead. I’m sorry, Cutler.”

“Why don’t I remember... being dead?”

“Sometimes ghosts remember their deaths, and sometimes they don’t.” She sighed, still stroking his hair. “We did a little research, when we realized the portal was going to open here. You died about eight years ago, on Halloween, though that’s coincidence, I think. You had a bad breakup, got really drunk, and tripped and fell on your own front steps. Busted your head on one of the paving stones. You were dead when they found you.”

“But I didn’t come through the portal,” he mumbled. “I don’t understand.”

The professor said, “You did, though. You were the first one through, because you were so close to the border—because this was your place, the spot where you died. The geography of the dead is... idiosyncratic.”

Lexie said, “You still have a connection to this house. You even made it look like it did when you lived here—the same energy you used to make your body, you used to make this place look familiar.”

Cutler looked around, and realized the room had changed. The dresser was different, the art on the walls, the bed, even the contents of the now ordinary closet. He whimpered. “Other people live here now?”

“They’re at a Halloween party, yeah. That made things easier.”

Cutler closed his eyes. “What happens now?”

“Well, you’re on this side now. The pathway back is closed.”

“I’m okay with that. That place looked horrible.”

“The afterlife may not be all bad,” the professor said. “If your only glimpse of Earth was a torture pit, or a desert full of bleached bones, you would think this world was awful too. There may be more... pleasant neighborhoods. Not that I’ve been in a hurry to find out myself.”

“I’m good here,” Cutler said. “I saved the world, so I should get to stay in it.”

Lexie went mmm. “Your body won’t last, though, Cutler. You used up a lot of energy creating it, and more making the house what you remembered, and even more fighting. You only had that much power because of the conjunction. Soon you’ll be an intangible ghost, and that’s how you’ll remain, at least until the next time all the elements line up just right. You’ll haunt this place.”

“Ugh. That’s horrible.”

“There is one other way.”

“What’s that?”

“You could haunt something else,” she said.

Invidiosa Alexandria Blackbile—the first name a curse of envy that would leave her forever unsatisfied; the second name a title given because of her immense store of knowledge, which made her a sort of living library, albeit one destined to be burned; the last the shared surname of her first coven, now all dead, bestowed on her with love—stepped off the porch, carrying a faintly glowing jack-o-lantern under her arm, with a knife jammed into its fibrous side.

The knife said “Where are we going now?”

“Into the land of the living,” Lexie said. “That’s where all the good stuff is.”