To say the house had been wrecked was an understatement so gratuitous it bordered on negligence. The walls were black with mold and peeled paper, the wooden floors were rotting before one’s eyes, and the windows were all boarded up and sealed spaces with shards of broken glass beneath them. Father time and a lot of pests had come at this place like it owed them money. It was the kind of house people petitioned their city to condemn. The kind that children milled around the front gate of, eyes brimming with fear and excitement as they whispered in hushed tones telling…ghost stories.
Velt took a breath as those last two words crashed through the floor of her mind. The air stank of neglect and rotten flesh. A rat had once died in the floorboards of Velt’s apartment. She’d thought the stench had been horrific, but it had nothing on this. Somewhere in this place were dozens of rodent bodies, left where they lay by their scavenging brethren, soaking the air with the stink of their decomposition. It was the smell that drove it home, that horrifying taste careening down her throat sent the message home clearer than any of the visual stimuli possibly could have.
Velt had been tricked. The marble, the walls, the tapestries, Jeeves, none of it had been real. That in itself was a terrifying concept. Geists and Poltergeists were both capable of producing illusions that even mediums couldn’t penetrate, but nowhere had Velt ever encountered a spirit who could do it on such a large scale. To have hidden this many sensory cues, to have led her safely to the room and then left here there, it would have taken a tremendous amount of power. Velt stopped and looked behind her, realizing that this room, the one she’d been left in, looked the same. The burning candles, the pink wallpaper, the smiling photographs all remained. They weren’t part of the illusion, which meant they’d been physically prepared. This wasn’t just some poltergeist luring in an idiot traveler. Those candles had been burning when she arrived. This was a trap.
Velt would have cursed Adrienne under her breath, but it was too late for that to be any good. Right now she needed to focus less on how much she wanted to punch the woman who wore crystals and more on how to get the hell out of here. Velt had a few advantages at least: she was seeing through the illusion, she’d shaken off whatever mental fog had left her willing to sit complacent for nearly an hour, and of course she had her talent. Whatever this Poltergeist might be expecting, it wouldn’t be a girl who hit back. If she could move fast and make ground before it was ready she might be able to get out with minimal tussling. Velt wasn’t one to normally shy away from a fight, but going against something this strong with so little information was just plain stupid.
Velt took a delicate step forward, seeing the dust rise off the floor and hearing it protest loudly, but it held her weight, at least for the moment. Many people would have gone slowly, testing each board one by one before advancing. Velt knew the folly of that strategy, the more time spent on each board the greater chance of it giving way. She moved fast, like she was walking over hot coals, her steps light and continuous. Occasionally she would spot breaks in the board, each one treating her to a sight of the concrete basement floor several feet below. If she went through there it would hurt, no question of that. One might survive the tumble without breaking any bones, but that was an awfully big chance to take on a maybe. She kept moving steadily, eyes never wavering from the path before her. It was this singular focus that got her as far as she went, and it was also what allowed her to get ambushed.
She was stepping from one particularly treacherous board to the next when a scythe of shadow flashed out from the wall toward her head. She reacted without thinking, dropping to the ground in a forward roll then jumping back to her feet. The wood beneath her groaned angrily and a trickle of blood ran down from her forehead. She ducked most of the attack, but she’d gotten a deep slice near her hairline.
The weapon still hung in the air, a piece of true darkness in an area that was merely lacking in light. Velt blinked and realized she’d been mistaken on her first impression. It wasn’t a scythe that had struck her. It was a claw. The figure bubbling out from the wall had elongated fingers, each tapering off in a sharp point. It was all one inky mass of emptiness with a fluttering piece on its back, like a shadow that had dawned a cloak. Velt knew it was supposed to look like a nightmarish version of Death, and to nearly everyone else in her situation that’s precisely what they would have taken it for: A Grim Reaper, if not the true freer of souls from their earthly vessels then clearly one of his servants. It was a visage that told the viewer all hope was lost, there was no need to struggle, and it would all be all over soon.
Velt never wavered, stepping forward on her right foot and bringing the left around in a high kick. The shadow turned its hood, a smooth and empty spot where the face would be staring back at her. Even if she couldn’t see it, Velt could still feel it laughing at her. Laughing at the silly girl striking a being beyond the reach of mortals. Laughing at how helpless it knew she really was.
Velt laughed too, a sizable snicker as she drove her foot into where it’s spine would once of been, following through with all her might and sending it careening through the wall. A pool of darkness evaporated off her foot as she brought it back down onto the floor. She could the hear snapping and splintering of wood, but at this moment it was low on the priority totem pole. The thing would still be active, collisions with the wall and other matter being utterly irrelevant to it. The only thing that could hurt a spirit like that was Velt. She never knew why. It was never a thought she focused on. Something about her, about her skin, about her body, disrupted the energy spirits were made of. Velt didn’t know why, and days like this she didn’t care. She just wanted to disrupt this shadowy cocksucker until her fists were numb.
She didn’t have to wait long, five blade-like fingers swinging at her from the side wall. She shifted her weight and let them slide by her, snagging the hand by its wrist once the sharp side was past. Velt gave the bony wrist a hearty tug to pull her opponent free of his material shield. Even Poltergeists were made of mostly energy, which meant someone with mass could toss them around if they could get a solid grip. She might not have their illusions, incorporeality, or other talents, but so far as any spirit was concerned fighting her strength was like trying to stop a tank with a daisy.
That was how it always had been before, anyway. This time Velt could barely move the spirit, her full-bodied jerk scarcely freeing more than half its arm from the wall. The fingers rotated around, not bound by fleshly sockets to object, and flew at her once more. This time Velt had to sacrifice her footing and still came away with five identical slashes across her ribs as she tumbled along the floor. She drew up again near the other side of the highway, far enough away from both walls to at least have some reaction time for the next attack. She winced at the pain in her side and tried to wrap her mind around what was happening.
She’d fallen for an illusion, she suspected her mind had been fogged, and now she was fighting an evil spirit that was so powerful it was nearly as strong as a corporeal person. Her kick hadn’t done nearly the damage it should have, and while the act of touching her had to be hurting her opponent, it was still pressing forward relentlessly. Velt had fought many a ghast and poltergeist before, and the strongest ones couldn’t have pulled off half of this. There was another option though, albeit one she was loathe to face.
“Wraith,” Velt whispered as she put her hand against the wound gently weeping blood on her side. She pressed her right hand to her temple, smearing the rest of the swallow cut’s drippings away with her knuckles. Wraiths were the darkest of spirits, ones fueled not just by anger and hate, but by actual death. They evolved beyond poltergeists by capturing the terror of their victims in the moments of their own demise. Velt had never really believed their existence was possible; however, she wasn’t the kind of person to deny what was right before her. Either it was a wraith or it was a poltergeist so damned strong that the difference was academic. It didn’t change anything for her.
“Call me what you will mortal. I wear many names, but all mean the same.”
Its voice came from in front of her as it slid free of its last attack position. Velt briefly thought it sounded like snakes fucking in a burlap sack. She pressed her left hand hard against her rib wounds, cupping the hand so as not to spill too much blood on the floor.
“So you’re claiming to be Death?”
“For you. For all eventually.”
“Just one problem with that,” Velt said calmly. “I’m met the actual Death, and he is nothing like you. For one thing, he isn’t such a dick, and for another-” Velt whipped her left hand forward, spraying the accumulated red fluid in the air and across the wraith’s body. “-he’s not dumb enough to stand still and taunt.”
There were few hard and fast rules of magic and monsters a person could depend on, but one of them was the potency of blood. Blood was always vital, blood was always necessary, blood was always powerful. If Velt’s body was a hammer to spirits, then her blood was extra strength acid.
The wraith screamed a horrible hissing wail as the red droplets struck its body, each spot immediately bubbling and smoking as its essence was scorched away from the central form. Velt didn’t wait for it to recover, instead she charged forward and swung with everything she had, the blood on her knuckles shredding its outer shell as her fist drove deep into its chest. The wail intensified and Velt reared back for another blow. She never got the chance though, the wraith had already focused through the pain.
It snared her legs in its massive claws and lifted her easily into the air. Velt had a moment to appreciate the role reversal in her being the one tossed about effortlessly, before the wraith slammed her forcefully into the crumbling wooden floor. She passed painfully through it, her body continuing its descent until she finally came to a jarring stop and the world went black.