Addison started forward, ready to step over the crumbled stone and into the village, but Lance reached out and grabbed her arm.
“Wait,” he hissed. “Me first.”
Addison glanced at him.
“On account of me being the trained professional in this motley group,” Lance explained. “And yes, I just used the word ‘motley’ in everyday conversation.”
“Ha. This is not everyday,” Addison corrected breathlessly, glancing over at the ruined town before them.
“Then I am exonerated. Thank you,” Lance pulled the training sword from his makeshift sheath and edged forward.
“We expecting trouble?” Albert asked in what seemed to Addison to be a little too eager a tone.
Lance glanced over his shoulder, a look of dry tolerance on his face. “Well, considering this is a probably-but-not-certainly abandoned ruin of an ancient village which is very probably haunted and in any case directly spawned from my warped and twisted imagination, yes, we are expecting trouble.”
“Awesome,” grunted Albert.
“Please tell me that was sarcasm,” groaned Addison.
“Children, please,” Lance waved an annoyed hand at them and proceeded to clamber gracefully over the wall and land on the other side. He posed dramatically for a moment with his sword, whipping it around in both directions and scanning the perimeter.
“All clear,” he called out after a moment, sheathing his weapon and turning around. His hand was out to help Addison scale the piles of stone, but his assistant had bounded over before he crossed the distance between them. She gave him an incredulous look.
“I can climb a wall by myself, Mr. Wimberley.”
Lance cleared his throat and nodded abruptly. “Coming, Albert?”
“What time period do you think this is from?” Addison asked as they walked down what looked to have been a main road at one point. The remnants of a cobble street could be seen between the thick, dry patches of moss and bracken. The three travelers stepped carefully. Lance had warned them to avoid stepping in the vegetation: “We don’t want carnivorous insects or tiny rabid vermin attempting to ingest our feet, do we?”
“Man, are you sure you don’t do drugs?” Albert had wanted to know. “Because this whole imagination of yours is pretty damn warped.”
“I’m an author, Albert. I don’t need drugs,” was the half-interested reply.
Lance looked around at the buildings. “Several of these are Tutor,” he noted in answer to Addison’s previous question. “I would imagine Renaissance, maybe early Victorian. I had been planning on basing my next autobiography sometime in the late 1600s.”
“What is your book going to be about?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Lance said. “It’s in the fetal stage at the moment. That’s why I take these vacations. Something’s always bound to pop up. I had thought about ghosts, however.”
“Ghosts,” Addison repeated.
“Sick,” whispered Albert.
“Don’t you like ghost stories, Albert?” Lance asked patronizingly.
“No, look,” Albert pointed.
The three were now almost directly opposite what looked like was once the town hall. It was a story taller than the buildings around it. The front door was arced by an intricate – if filthy – piece of crenellation, and it was open. Someone was standing in the darkness beyond.
“Oh dear,” Lance muttered. “I really should be more careful about what I think. My dear children, your first ghost.”
Addison drew a sharp breath and felt panic shoot like lightning through her body. It was the young man dressed in white. He was leaning against the doorframe, apparently relaxed. One hand was covering his face. He could have been laughing or crying.
He seemed to realize he was being watched, and lowered his hand to look up at them. His eyes met Addison’s, and she felt as though she were falling; then he whipped around and strode quickly into the interior of the town hall.
“Should we follow it and kill it?” Albert demanded, taking a step forward.
“Don’t!” Addison grabbed his shoulder. “He’s not hurting anyone!”
“Addison is right,” Lance pointed out. “But we might be able to communicate with it in some way. Ask it why its here, what happened to the rest of its village, why it’s still lingering. Maybe it revealed itself to us for a reason.”
There was a change in the author’s voice as he spoke. It became deeper and he spoke faster. Excitement was in every syllable – the prospect of discovering a character with a story to tell was tantalizing him. Addison glanced over to see his eyes bright with anticipation and a hint of recklessness.
“Um,” she began, but it was lost on Lance.
“Come on,” he darted toward the town hall, the others following at his heels. He pulled out the tiny recorder from his pocket and updated it. “It was with hardly any trepidation that I hurried forward. The ghost might still be within the building. If it was, it could prove a crucial piece to the puzzle. I could only hope for the sake of my companions that it was benign. While I had been trained to handle such apparitions even at their most violent, my companions were mere Readers and had never experienced such things firsthand before.”
“Thanks a lot,” grunted Addison as they paused before the door. It was now firmly closed. Addison hadn’t remembered the ghost closing it behind him, but there it was. A tingle went down her spine.
Lance pocketed his recorder and unslung his backpack. “Okay,” he muttered, reaching in and pulling out a half-crushed bag of Wonder bread.
Addison and Albert exchanged worried glances.
Lance ripped open the plastic and yanked out three slices. He rolled one up and stuffed it in his jacket pocket, then extended the other slices to his companions.
“No thanks, I’m not hungry,” Albert said.
Lance rolled his eyes. “This is for protection. What did I say? Mere Readers. Listen, all unholy beings can be fended off using bread.”
“Why?” Addison demanded, taking a slice for herself and looking for a place to put it.
“It’s a symbol of the Bread of Life,” shrugged Lance. “It’s the same with salt, which represents purity. No matter how atheistic a person is in this life, religion suddenly takes a new precedence in the next.”
Albert took a bite of his bread, then stuffed it down his shirt. He watched Addison searching for a place to put her slice. “Nature’s pocket?” he suggested with an evil smirk.
Addison paused in her search to look disgustedly from Albert to Lance. “Your nephew is disgusting, Mr. Wimberley. No offense.”
“It’s the truth,” Lance said, putting the bread back into his backpack and pulling out a glass jam jar of dirt. He twisted the cap off and told the others to hold out their hands. He proceeded to pour a small heap of the chalky brown earth into their palms.
“What’s this for?”
Lance spread his own handful of dirt over his face and neck. “Dirt from a consecrated graveyard. Another ghost repellant. Rub it over every exposed inch of skin on your bodies.”
“This is ridiculous,” huffed Addison.
“A ghost’s touch can kill you, you know,” Lance closed up the jar of dirt and stowed it away again.
“But it’s your imagination,” the girl argued. “You wouldn’t allow something like that to happen.”
Lance sighed and stared into the middle distance, squinting at the buildings across the street. “I don’t have absolute control here, Miss Stump. My magnificent brain only gives birth to the ideas. Once they are born, my creations exist as things separate from me, and unable to be controlled by me. That’s what makes this line of work so dangerous.”
“Whatever you do,” whispered a thoroughly filthy Albert, pulling Addison aside, “don’t mention hydrogen bombs. Or zombies. Zombies freaking scare the shit out of me.”
Addison made a mental note of this. “You realize you just revealed your weakness to me,” she pointed out in a low voice. “Now you have to be nice to me, or else . . .”
“Bitch,” growled Albert.
“You know it.”