I felt like my stomach had dropped through the floor.
“Luke?” I stammered at last. “What are you doing here? How did you get in?”
“One question at a time, darling.” Luke murmured. “You shouldn't be here, it isn't safe.”
“She's with me and I can protect her just fine, mate.” Brody interjected with irritation in his voice. Luke ignored his comment and his gaze didn't leave my face.
“Kristina,” he said again “you need to leave. Now.”
“But there's no way I'm going home, not after what happened with Emeli and Jakob-”
“I don't care where you go, just get out and get yourself somewhere safe. Anywhere is better than here.” The light from the lamp flickered across his face and illuminated his icy blue eyes, which seemed to have fixed rigidly on me. The intensity of his gaze sent shivers down my spine.
“Look man, I think I know what I’m doing here,” Brody told him. “I promised her a night to remember, and that’s what I’m going to give her.” Luke’s eyes immediately snapped to Brody.
“If you’re involved, I’m sure the poor girl would rather it be night she’ll soon forget.” he threw back at him.
“She chose to come with me, I think that stands to prove how she feels about me!”
“It’s called Stockholm syndrome, look it up dumbass…”
“Both of you, just stop it!” I cried at last. They both turned to look at me, as if they had forgotten I was there. “Don’t I get a say in any of this?” I asked, my voice rising higher with every word.
“No,” they both said in unison. I opened my mouth to argue further when Luke interrupted.
“Listen to me, Kristina. Do you actually realise what he’s planning to do here tonight?” he asked. I shook my head. Glancing at Brody, I saw his head was turned away from me and his eyes were downcast.
“He’s going to try and summon Charles Linton’s spirit.”
There was a slight pause as I processed this, but I noticed no argument from Brody about the truth of what Luke had said.
“Well...is that such a big deal? I mean ghosts aren't real, are they? The worst that can happen is just a rather awkward anti-climax.” I said. The corner of his mouth upturned in a half smile.
“Oh darling, if innocence be the flower of love, bloom on,” he murmured.
“Just butt out man, alright? I've got everything under control,” Brody said with irritation in his voice.
“Of course, because a headstrong seventeen year old with a penchant for rule breaking is going to deal so well in this situation, let alone any other. I'm sure you know everything there is worth knowing about violent spirits...”
“What, and you do?” Brody snapped.
Luke's eyes flashed at him.
“More than a bumbling, thick-headed pretty boy like you will ever know.”
That was enough for Brody. He gave a cry of rage and launched himself forward at Luke, a clenched fist aimed at his face. Luke was momentarily caught off guard and only just moved out of the way in time before Brody's fist was brought down on the edge of a bookshelf instead of the intended target of Luke's right cheek; the consequent crunching of his knuckles made my stomach turn over.
“Shit!” he cried as he shook his hand in pain.
“What's the matter, rich boy?” Luke said tauntingly as he moved in a semi circle across the room. “Can't handle a little pain?”
“I'll show you what real pain feels like!” yelled back Brody. He charged towards Luke again, his full weight behind him. Luke hopped to the side again but not quite in time, and he was tackled roughly, audibly winded. They went crashing backwards into the chair at the desk and the oil lamp was knocked out of Luke's grip as the chair came crashing down with them.
What I saw next made me scream aloud in horror. As the chair had fallen, a body fell from its seat and landed half on top of Brody, one of the arms flopped around him in a kind of morbid embrace- it must have been sitting in the chair but had been obscured from our view thanks to the high raised backing. Brody recovered from the fall and turned his head to come face to face with the corpse. His eyes widened immediately and he too screamed at the sight of it before flailing his arms about in an attempt to get away from it, and he shuffled backwards across the floor hurriedly, panic-stricken. Even Luke jumped up from where he had fallen without his usual graceful confidence when he saw it.
“What the hell is that thing?” Brody choked out.
I hadn't realised my hand had gone to my mouth, but I drew my hand away and leant down to pick up the oil lamp that had miraculously fallen upright and held it towards the body, the yellow glow illuminating its sickly features. His receding hairline showed his age in death more than the thin lines etched along his forehead did, and his almost white moustache was thinning and drooping despairingly. Although he was clearly not undernourished in life, his skin clung to his bones. His harrowing eyes were bulbous in their almond frames and milking over, staring out sightlessly at a world they would never take in again.
What looked like a kitchen knife was protruding from his chest with almost blackened blood crusted around the blade where it had entered his body, and the once fine fabric of his shirt was now grey and thickly blood-stained. I had to resist the urge to gag.
“Poor man…” I whispered eventually. I didn’t hear him come over to me but I felt Luke’s presence beside me before he put his hand on my shoulder. Brody’s heavy breathing started to slow down and dragging my eyes away from old man Linton’s body I saw him smiling. My stomach sickened.
“He had nerve, I’ll give him that.” He muttered. I narrowed my eyes at him.
“What the hell?” I said. “He killed his own father for goodness sake- show a little respect for the dead!”
“He had nerve alright, but that’s about all he had…” I shook my head in disbelief at what he was saying. “You hear me Charles?” his voice suddenly raised making me jump. He looked up and around the room, pacing slowly around the corpse. “You had nothing…and you were nothing!”
“Dude, shut up.” Luke said forcefully. Brody’s eyes only flicked towards him in a glare before he continued.
“Always living in your brother’s shadow, being almost blamed for his death... a rotten coward by nature and running away when your father was violent to you, or to your mother... no wonder they both despised you...”
A groan that sounded like the creaking of wooden beams resounded from above us and made him pause, but instead of warning him off continuing, he only smiled unpleasantly and carried on.
“You weren't even man enough to stand up to him for the woman you loved, for heaven knows what reason mind you...” By this time the groaning had become louder and deeper, shaking the room around us and almost drowning out the sound of the falling rain outside.
“What's that Charlie boy, you don't like it when I talk about Eve? When I'm honest about her? You know it's true: she was a dirty slut who got knocked up and you weren't brave enough to even marry before you pissed right off and left her to die. No wonder she didn't want to live anymore if she was carrying your child. If it was actually your child that is, she had probably opened her legs to half the town-”
Before he could finish the next insult he was about to throw out, the window shattered completely with such force that we were all thrown to the floor before we knew what had happened.
I hit the floor hard and was sprayed with shards of broken glass. Covering my eyes a little too late with my arm, I somehow managed to avoid damage to my eyes, but felt the scrape of glass break the skin across my arm. I brought it away from my face and looked around tentatively, but everything seemed quiet in the aftermath of the window breakage; the others were in similar positions to me with equal expressions of shocked confusion on their faces.
“Is everyone alright?” I said. They nodded at me and we pushed ourselves upright and the only sounds in the room were now just the thudding of raindrops on the other windows and the whisper of wind and rain that were spilling in through the gaping windowpane. Brody picked up the lamp that had fallen near him and got to his feet.
“Well, that was a bit disappointing actually,” he said in an offhand voice that seemed a bit shaky to me. Luke and I also stood up, him less awkwardly than me, and brushed ourselves down of glass and dust.
I looked to Brody and opened my mouth to unleash my angry disapproval at him but my lips never spoke the words; the temperature dropped massively and at such a rate the words were caught in my throat. I let out a breath and it fogged up the air around my mouth. Luke began rubbing his arms in an attempt to counteract the sudden temperature drop.
My eyes went to Brody and widened in terror- behind him, a sort of dark grey fog was forming and snaking up around his legs. As it ascended, it began to solidify and take the shape of a man; his face was gaunt and his black eyes were almost sorrowful, and with a shoot of alarm, I realised this must be Charles Linton. A thick jet black tear ran from his eye down his grey face and a stab of pity went through me.
“What?” said Brody, his eyes flickering from me to Luke and back again.When neither of us answered the colour drained from his face in realisation and he slowly turned around to look behind him.
Charles' head tilted to the side as if contemplating him. Looking back later, I felt stupid for even thinking it, but for a moment I thought perhaps Brody would apologise and we could leave quietly and put this whole thing behind us. But almost as soon as this thought crossed my mind, Charles' brow furrowed and the tear streak disappeared; his eyes swirled and turned a deep blood red, and his face elongated causing his mouth to gape before letting out an ear-piercing screech that chilled me to the core.
He raised his arm and swiped at Brody, who stumbled backwards and cried out in horror. He regained his balance but Charles came at him again, baring his teeth menacingly. Brody gripped the oil lamp and swiped out in front of him desperately, again and again. I wanted to do something to help- something, anything- he was being pushed further and further backwards until there would be no more room to escape to, but I was frozen to the spot in fear.
Tears were now streaming down Brody's face. Out of panic he pulled his arm back and hurled the lamp at Charles. It went through him but smashed against the bookshelf; it landed among some loose papers and, to my horror, they caught fire.
I heard Luke curse loudly before the flames began to catch and grow, climbing the shelf and engulfing it in its blaze. Several burning books fell down and landed on the desk, which too caught fire. Charles turned to the fiery sight and gave an almighty screech before launching into the blaze, his foggy figure dissipating into it. The flames immediately billowed and grew, and it seemed for a split second to form the image of Charles' enraged face. It quickly disappeared and began reaching out across to other bookshelves; the first shelf creaked under the pressure and Luke dived over to me as quick as a flash and pushed me out of the way before it collapsed down where I had been standing. We fell onto the floor (for what seemed the dozenth time that night), but it seemed to knock some sense and courage into me.
“Thank you,” I said breathlessly to Luke, who merely nodded in reply. I looked over to see Brody on the floor as well, but motionless and helplessly trapped within a flaming cage of fallen bookshelves. “Brody!” I cried. I rushed to my feet and went to run to help him when Luke grabbed me around the waist.
“No! It's too dangerous!” he said forcefully. I fought against his strength and managed to break free, but when I came within a few feet of the fire it billowed out again and caught my left hand, nearly knocked me backwards. I cried out in pain before coughing and blinking tears out of my eyes. I went to try again before Luke took hold of me by the arms tightly.
“I'm getting you out of here. I can get help for him but my first priority is you.”
By this time, the flames were licking at the walls, consuming the room and filling it with black smoke at a pace I had not thought possible. He pulled at me and despite my struggle against him, both the smoke filling my lungs rapidly and the stifling heat meant my strength was fast abandoning me. He managed to drag me back into the hallway; my last glimpse of the study behind me was the flames devouring old man Linton's body.
As I stumbled out, I collapsed against the wall coughing and spluttering, the heat from the growing fire in the study blanketing my skin.
“You okay?” I felt Luke's hand on my shoulder and his steadiness helped cease my shaking. I balanced myself as much as I could and straightened up.
“I'm fine,” I muttered.
“Come on, we don't have much time...”
He started to race down the hallway and I had to jog to keep up. By the time we got to the top of the staircase, I felt a stabbing pain in my sides which made me regret dropping out of swimming club last term and becoming out of shape. I was never one for physical exertion. But Brody's life was at stake, and even if it was his own fault, I couldn't let him pay the price.
We reached the bottom of the stairs and looking over my shoulder I saw thick smoke coming from the doorway and the fire beginning to escape onto the corridor. Fresh panic shot through me.
All of a sudden, we came crashing into a figure that had just stepped out of a doorway by the foot of the stairs.
“What the hell is going on up there?”
“Andrew?!” I cried in disbelief.
Andrew's head turned to me and his eyes widened.
“Don't call me that!” I snapped. “What are you here for? Have you been here all this time?”
“I was looking for you two, but never mind that- who on earth started a freaking fire?”
“Her pansy boyfriend, that's who.” Luke muttered. Unfortunately I didn't have the strength to whack him on the arm for that comment.
“Well, where is he then if he's not with you?” said Andrew, looking around.
“He's still up there!” I said desperately. “We need to help him, please call the fire brigade, an ambulance, just do something someone...” I felt myself losing control of my emotions more and more by the minute, and this was time Brody couldn't afford.
“I'm getting you outta here, even if I have to drag you kicking and screaming,” Luke said with steely determination in his eyes.
“Right, Kristina- call the fire brigade. Just get outside where it's safe. I'll make sure your friend is okay.” Andrew told me. I couldn't bring myself to smile or speak anymore just yet so I flung my arms around his shoulders and held him tightly for a moment before Luke grabbed my wrist and dragged me away towards the front door as Andrew shot up the stairs.
We practically fell out and down the stone steps, the cold night air washing over us like a bucket of ice water. I quickly delved my hand into my jeans pocket to find my phone but had to fumble around for a while before I managed to get it out. With hands shaking and raindrops dropping onto the screen I struggled to unlock it, but once I did I dismissed the alert for 12 missed calls from my adoptive parents and quickly punched in 999.
“Hello? Help, please help me, I need a fire engine urgently! There's been a fire started at the old Linton House and my friend is trapped inside! Yes, send an ambulance as well!”
“He's still not out,” Luke said beside me as I shoved my phone back into my pocket. I looked up at the house and saw smoke puffing out of two windows at the front and glimpses of flames within: it was spreading fast.
He turned to me with concern in his eyes and hesitated but for a moment.
“Stay here.” He touched my arm briefly before rushing up the steps and into the now blazing house. I cried out to stop him but it was too late.
I hopped from foot to foot and ran my hands through my hair which was cold and damp- I'd almost forgotten it was raining. The air shook with smoke and rain and fire, all thundering together with war-like animosity. Panic coursed through my veins like ice; I could handle the burns, the scratches from the broken glass... hell, even being grounded for months would be small reparation for the well-being of everyone there that night. What on earth was taking them so long?
Just as I was considering going in myself, I saw the shadowy shapes of a few figures approaching through the smoke. I exhaled massively in relief and went to help them, but to my dread I saw only two figures coming through the doorway. Andrew was covered in soot and was semi-conscious with his arm around Luke's shoulder. I ran up to them and took Andrew's other arm around my own shoulder and helped him down the steps and path; he smelt like dirt and singed flesh.
We made it through the gate and collapsed onto the grass by Brody's motorbike, the now sodden ground breaking our fall. I sat up and pushed my wet hair out of my eyes and smudging mud across my face in the process before leaning over to check on Andrew. His eyes were half closed and his mouth was hanging open, a searing burn dominating the left side of his face. I shuddered at the sight but gritted my teeth as I stroked two fingers down from his right ear to his chin. It seemed to cause him to stir a little.
“Bloody hell, mate...cutting it a bit fine weren't you...” he mumbled with half a smile before passing out completely. Luke looked over him to me but unlike Andrew he wasn't smiling. A jolt went through my gut but I had to be sure.
“Where is he?” I asked.“Luke, where's Brody?”
He stared into my eyes for a moment before his gaze dropped and he shook his head slowly.
My jaw clenched in the attempt to hold back the tears but a few betrayed me and fell to the ground along with the thousands of raindrops that might as well have been my own tears.
“It's my fault.” I choked out.
“Don't say that,” Luke said softly. I looked to him through wet eyes, his auburn hair sticking to his temple, his eyebrows raised in the way they do when he's actually being compassionate, the falling rain soaking his shirt wet through.
“I should have stopped him... I could have... If I had an ounce of courage in me...”
“Kristina, no. There was nothing anyone could have done. You know how bloody stubborn that guy was, there was no way he'd have listened to anyone. Not after-”
“Not after what?” I said. Luke opened his mouth and closed it again, looking annoyed with himself.
“He just wouldn't have, okay?” He reached over and took my hand in his. “Hey,” he said with the edge in his voice gone. “It'll be alright.”
A single tear slid down my cheek. I turned my head to gaze up at the inferno that had devoured the Linton house; an explosion of oranges and reds danced from the roof and towered above us on the black canvas of the night sky.
If nothing else was accomplished that night, I hoped that would finally be the end of the torment suffered by Charles Linton.