The Winter Story (fiction)
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On one of those slow days where the flakes fell in no particular hurry, meandering to the ground as they were wont, gravity having no great power over them, the campus emptied as students filtered home from their finals. The ground was white and the sky perfectly gray. The snow had almost sapped the color out of the entire campus and the University took to it well, gray stone buildings matched the sky, but to liven it up, to keep from being swamped by the purblind color, the campus’s brick buildings fell into revolt. Red stood against white, all feverish and flushed.
One of these brick buildings had a little foyer with several large gilded windows looking out though the frost around the glass framed the view with ice crystals. The foyer was filled with rich green vines, an unexpected sight after the gray afternoon outside.
Two girls sat on a bench in the foyer, one kept throwing glances at the windows though she was too far away to see anything out of them. This girl’s name was Elizabet, a dark-haired girl who wore a scowl as one might wear a scarf, draped around her chin and all the tighter for the cold.
The other girl was a blonde and slight and gave her smile freely. Her eyes kept darting up to the words above the doorway and then down again. The words read “Richte honrable knychtis do entre at the ladis lyking.”
“Selen, you keep looking up.” Elizabet said, fidgeting in her coat to keep the cold off.
“And you keep looking out the window,” Selen said, snapping her fingers and producing sparks. Literal sparks. The girl nearly glowed with magic. Elizabet sometimes thought that the other girl’s internal temperature must be near the flash point, she radiated heat. Even now, Selen wore summer clothes; only a light dress. Her feet were bare.
“I'm looking for somebody,” Elizabet said, shrinking into her coat. A thin shell of magic radiated around her too, but in comparison to the other girl's it was as a dying coal is to a furnace.
“Aye, I bet you were,” Selen said. “So’s you can get your ego beat to hell when he doesn’t show. You’re too needy and your honorable ‘knight’ knows it.”
“And you’d know about knights,” Elizabet said, giving the other a glare.
“Only cold nights alone, I’m afraid. Though not as cold as they could be,” Selen said. She produced a small blue flame in her palm and then rolled it across her fingers as one might roll a coin. The blue coin turned into blue smoke and escaped upwards as the little fire sorceress laughed amused with her power.
“He told me he would be here,” Elizabet said. She sounded more tired than worried and the stress was clear in her voice. The voice of a person who had spent too much time worrying at a subject until every angle had been covered and through perverse habit continued.
“Did he?” Selen asked. She pointed up at the words engraved above them. “Right Honorable Knights enter at a lady’s liking. That means they don’t force entry, but it also means that they don’t keep a lady waiting. He’s no knight.”
“He probably just forgot,” Elizabet said, narrowly eying the other girl.
“How long do you suppose it’s been? An hour? More?”
“An hour thirty.”
“Mmm…” Selen said by way of noncomment.
A rush of cold air buffeted them as the door opened and Elizabet perked up. But her face fell again as a brunette decked in fur, and wool, and denim came in. Stomping snow off her shoes, she gave them nervous smile.
“I think I passed the final,” the new girl said. “There were a few problems I didn’t get, but I think I… How did you do, ‘Bet?”
“I don’t know. I think they do different tests for each magic… type,” Elizabet’s response was slow, but the girl didn’t seem to notice.
“Fire and air right?” the girl said, absently brushing snow off of her coat. “Well, I don’t envy either of you. Well, I’ve got some chocolate up in my room, if you want to join me…”
“No,” Selen said. “We’re waiting for somebody.”
“Okay,” the girl said, sweeping past them in a flurry of snow.
“Them water sorceresses have it easy,” Selen said after the girl had left. “We have five tests and have to fight our instructors, but they sit around trying to tie ice into knots.”
To demonstrate she created a rope of fire and it knotted itself several times before dissolving into smoke.
Somewhat impressed with herself, Selen created another large fire rope, but Elizabet wasn’t watching, her eyes had returned to the window.
“Damn it, Elizabet,” Selen said. “It’s eating you up.”
“Hnnn,” Elizabet said.
Selen sat on her hands and frowned, giving Elizabet a very narrow look.
After awhile she said, “I found a ghost.”
Elizabet’s head turned. “What?”
“A ghost. I found a ghost.”
“Really?” Elizabet said.
“Yeah, it’s really creepy. You ever seen one?”
“I’ve seen some pale folk, but never like an actual ghost,” Elizabet said turning her eyes away from the window. It looked like there was actual interest there.
“Aren’t the pale folk ghosts?”
“More like shades…”
“What’s the difference?” Selen asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Wanna find out?” asked Selen a mischievous look coming into her eyes.
“But I…” Elizabet made one desperate look at the window.
“But nothing!” Selen said getting up and grabbing Elizabet's hand. She physically hauled up her friend. “It’s over in the physics building. So, it’s not that long of a walk.”
The physics building was old stone, what is sometimes called fallrock. It wasn’t built well. The building had been placed into a depression in the ground, but the builders had neglected to give it an outlet. Water had collected in the basement and the building began to lean. It wasn’t used very much in any capacity now except as a basis for arguing about who would pay for its repair. The building was locked off from use by big padlocks on every door.
Not that had stopped Selen. She had broken a window on a previous visit and it was there where they slipped through now.
Elizabet followed her down dark steps, her breath fogging the air. Selen had no problem with the cold. Steam drifted up from her arms in sheets. Elizabet felt irritable now that she going heading down into a damp basement. Selen took the steps two at a time, while Elizabet took them a half-step at a time, carefully picking her way down.
“Really,” Elizabet said. “You couldn’t have found a ghost in a warmer spot?”
Selen shrugged, “I was looking for water sprites when I found her.”
They had gotten down into the basement proper. Horrified, Elizabet tarried on the last step.
“I’m not setting foot in all of that,” she said indicating the water massed around the floor. It was slurry, with large chunks of ice floating in it.
“Don’t worry about it,” Selen said. “I’ll dry you off afterward. It’s not like you’re going to catch a cold.”
“I’d better not. He’ll be worried if I do.”
Selen threw a scowl and muttered something that sounded like “I bet”, but Elizabet didn’t catch it.
“Look,” Selen said. “If you’re that worried about it I can waterproof your shoes.”
Elizabet would not have been able to deny that the spell felt weird. It dried her shoes out and melted the snow stuck to them, but it didn’t make her feet warm, and it carried no heat.
“Good’s’new,” Selen said. “Now, she’s down here.”
She led Elizabet through a door. It was too dark to see, so Selen lit a floating fireball that kept itself behind them so that they cast long shadows into the room. This area of the building looked like it could have been a lecture hall. A round room with what could have been arena style seating, but that was hard to tell because the chairs had been removed and most of the room was underwater.
“It’s in here?” Elizabet asked.
“No,” Selen said. “Come on.”
The edged around the room. The ripples they made at the edges waved out to the center and then rebounded off each other riding slowly back. Elizabet watching this noticed movement under the water.
“Selen! There’s fish in the water.”
“Yeah,” Selen said. “Sorta weird, huh? I don’t think when they were building this place they imagined the classes would be mostly schools of fish.”
Elizabet rolled her eyes at the awful pun.
They had reached a door and Selen opened it. This room was slightly lower and the water came up to their hips. Elizabet gasped. The spell only protected her feet up to her calves, it seemed.
“Bear it. We’ve only got a little way to go.”
Unlike other areas in the building that had been pretty well striped of debris, this room had floating cans and pencils and a few empty tins floating around. Mops and brooms leaned against the walls and what looked like white fungus or frost ate into the broom handles. It glittered in Selen’s fire light.
They caught their first glimpse of the ghost as they rounded a corner. She was between two support pillars clutching her hands together. She was further down in the water than they were because she was shorter, but she caused not a ripple and disturbed none of theirs.
Elizabet gasped when she got her first good look at her and involuntarily took a step, not backwards but forwards, her first thought being: We’ve got to get her out of here. Selen’s found a girl. A living girl, trapped down here, afraid and alone. But that thought went as fast as it came, because closer the only thing the girl could be was dead.
A girl. Ten years old. Crying silently, and completely unaware that they were there. She cast no shadow and Elizabet could clearly see the rot set into her checks and fungus in her hair. The ghost was in an old fashioned dress with a floral pattern on it, something that would have been very popular with little girls twenty years ago. The faded yellow bows in her hair must have been festive once, but those looked just as rotten as her limp damp hair. She trembled and quaked, but didn’t look at anything and her eyes were as vacant as any corpse.
Elizabet was appalled.
“Selen! She’s… pitiable!” It was the only word she could think of.
“Not scared?” Selen asked, coming around one of the support pillars to stand closer to Elizabet.
“I… a little yeah. A little,” Elizabet said. She had forgotten about the cold, about any prior engagements. “She is dead, right?” Elizabet knew the answer but asked anyway.
“Where’s her body? Is that her body?” Elizabet asked stepping closer to the girl despite her repulsion.
“No, I don’t think so,” Selen said from behind her. “It doesn’t cast a shadow.”
“Maybe she has no body,” Elizabet said. “Maybe it rotted away. Can you touch her?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t try.”
Elizabet reached out and seeing that her hand was shaking, steadied it before trying to put a finger through the girl’s temple. There was no resistance. Her hand went through making not even a ripple against the girl’s skin. Elizabet got a good look at the skin while doing this and pulled her hand back as if she had felt some sort of grime under her fingers. The skin was pale bluish-white with spidery capillaries crisscrossing it. The rot, a fungus, or major bacterial colony maybe, could be clearly seen under the skin weaving above it, under it, and between the blood vessels. The rot traveled into the child’s eyes, eyes that might have been blue once but were bleached now and sightless.
The young woman suppressed a scream. Turning back to Selen, she said, “Isn’t there anything we can do for her?”
“Like what?” Selen asked.
The girl continued to tremble in the corner, looking quite solid in spite of the light passing through her and the ripples that acted as if she weren’t there.
“Why did you…? If this…” Elizabet said, out of words.
“I…” Selen said giving the dead girl a look, “I guess I didn’t want to be the only one to see her. I thought she might have been something my brain cooked up. Pressure of exams or something. And, I…” She stopped.
“I can’t bear that girl’s sadness alone. She’s hurting or was hurt. I don’t know,” Selen said, almost pleading and Elizabet could feel irritation rising almost out of the horror. Selen brought her out here to see this because she was too weak to handle it? Elizabet gritted her teeth. Did it ever occur to Selen that Elizabet might be too weak?
Elizabet crushed the feeling down and turned back to the dead girl.
“We can’t leave her here. Do you know anything about exorcisms?” Elizabet asked.
“No,” Selen said. “I don’t know anything about ghosts.”
“If we get one of the… Selen! Look!”
Selen started and stepped even closer to Elizabet. The dead girl’s eyes had traveled up to the fireball that Selen had conjured. It wasn’t an interested stare, but it was almost puzzled.
“She sees the light,” Elizabet said. “Can you make it stronger?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Just do it!”
The fireball didn’t grow in size, but it did grow in intensity. To Elizabet’s eyes the spell dilated sucking in even more air. The dead girl gaped at it. The expression wasn’t awe, but more like curiosity. She lifted an arm and weakly stretched a hand out toward the light. Elizabet could clearly see the girl’s bone outlined through the putrid flesh.
“Now what?” Selen asked.
The dead girl had taken a step closer to the fireball.
“I think we can lead her out,” Elizabet whispered.
“Yeah,” Selen said. “I think you're right."
Selen gestured slightly and the ball floated a little bit to the right. The ghost’s head followed it. A little to the left and it swiveled left.
“Okay,” Selen said. “Let’s go.”
It took longer than expected. The girl moved every bit as slow as a corpse would be expected to. The movements were stiff and slow when she raised her limbs, but fast and clumsy when she took a step. It was a little like watching a mannequin walk. They led her around the arena. Elizabet's horror spread from an intellectual curiosity in her brain to a missive throughout her entire body to see that when the girl stepped out of the water her lower stomach was a mess. A large caliber gunshot wound had ripped open the stomach, blood had seeped into the dress, and in some places the dress had fused with the flesh, a by-product of rot.
“Who would do something like that to a little girl?” Selen asked mouth agape. The fireball dimmed and without out the light the little girl started to shake and cry silently again. Selen quickly regained her composure and restored the light. The little girl started reaching for it again.
Elizabet shook her head at Selen at a lose and they kept moving.
“I don’t like it,” Selen said, moving forward at a march. “There was a murder here. Some bastard is still running around out there loose. If I knew who he was I’d lock him down here with her and he could freeze to death with her watching him."
Elizabet shifted uncomfortably. The ghost followed closer to her than to Selen, the fireball followed its master dutifully, but Selen was a faster than Elizabet and was in the lead.
When they reached the steps, Elizabet didn’t want to look back at the ghost, afraid that the girl’s feet might be mutilated or something else equally horrific, but she did to make sure the ghost was still following. The girl was wearing perfectly normal slip-on type shoes with a little bow tied to each. The bows might have matched the one in her hair once, now they were grayish-blue like everything else about her.
They climbed at an even slower pace, the dead girl moved up the stairs almost bent double for balance, grasping for the fireball. Elizabet had never seen such a strange, yet sad sight.
“Don’t look at her,” Selen said. “Just go.”
Up and up, it seemed like an eternity but finally they got to the lobby of the building. Light shown in through the windows, but it was a weird gray light and they could see snow falling though the frosted and murky glass.
“We can’t go out the window,” Elizabet said.
“It’s got to be the door,” Selen said. “I’m going to blow it open.”
“And then what?” Elizabet asked as they neared the door.
“What do you mean?”
“What happens when we get the girl outside?”
Selen looked startled, “I don’t know. It was your idea. She… just disappears?”
“What if she doesn’t disappear? What if she disappears and comes back down there tomorrow?”
“Then we’ll haul her out again,” Selen said, nodding firmly. “I’m not leaving her down there. I’ll keep doing it as long as I have to.”
“Okay,” Elizabet said.
“The door then.”
Selen’s hands filled with fire. The door, an old wooden thing reinforced with metal leaned in its door way all stooped and tired. The blast from the sorceress flung the door apart and turned the metal into glowing red droplets.
“You could have just melted the lock,” Elizabet said.
“I wanted to keep moving, I…” Selen trailed off.
The dead girl was now looking at her. Selen back away hands raised.
“You must still have magic on your hands,” Elizabet said.
“Yeah,” Selen laughed shakily. “Look, little girl, just follow me to the door everything will be all right.”
The girl raised her own hands and began to step forward as Selen backed through the door. Elizabet followed close behind the dead girl. She could see the exit wound on the back of the dress. A shredded mess of intestine and blood, it stayed clear even though the bloom from the door should have hidden it from Elizabet’s eyes. Elizabet thought she might vomit.
“I don’t like her looking at me,” Selen said. “Elizabet… I think I’m going to panic. I… I…”
“Just walk straight back,” Elizabet said.
Selen closed her eyes tight and walked backwards. She hit her feet on the door’s sill and fell hard. Instant panic filled her and she froze up, looking up at the ghost as it advanced.
Elizabet step forward, magic filling her body and Selen was hauled as if by invisible hands out the door where she rolled several times in the snow. Elizabet ducked around the ghost as it turned on her, and stepped outside.
Elizabet blinked almost snowblind. The snow was falling lightly and the campus stretched out gray before them. There was a footpath and beyond that the dorms. The sight was incredible after the damp basement. Elizabet turned to mention it to Selen, but the little sorceress was looking at the dead girl.
Transformed, the ghost stood replete in a little blue dress with yellow flowers on it and matching bows in her hair and on her shoes. The hair swept in bistre waves framing a face of pink skin with red cheeks and brown eyes that blinked in the light. No bullet hole, no exit wound. The girl smiled up at the sky, unaffected by the cold even in her summer dress, and then she wavered and vanished. She left two footprints behind. The only mark she had left in the world. Elizabet didn’t think the girl would come back.
Elizabet did vomit then. She let loose in the snow where it steamed. A strange reaction, or maybe the stress of the day had caught up to her. Selen was instantly by her side asking her if she was all right.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“Yeah,” Elizabet said, slowly regaining herself. She shook, but that might have been her wet clothes rather than nerves. “I think I need to get back to our dorm and take a shower.”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
They headed toward the dorms crossing the footpath. The snow crunched behind them.
They turned to see who came down the walk. Selen stiffened expecting to see the dead girl. Elizabet stiffened expecting to see a young man in a greatcoat. But they saw nothing on the path except the white snow building up as it fell in no particular hurry.