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The spirit slayer

Editor’s note: This serial, which explores the days leading up to that fateful night in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” continues through Christmas Day. The story thus far: In a vision of the past, Marley sees that Samuel, his friend who died in the slums and rose as a ghost, plans to steal the power-filled torch that opens the doorway between the living and dead realms, believing mankind should be left to its own devices.

The phantom and the girl have left the torch unattended. It hovers in a clearing above a stone, surrounded by seething purple, moonlight bleeding through a gash in the clouds. Skeletal trees surround it, the buds of spring just starting to hatch from the branches in bursts of purple and red. The ground is brush-choked. A brook trickles past and glints silver at every turn.

Samuel scans the surrounding forest. Quiet and still. He makes for the torch and seizes it, praying the material will interact with his ephemeral form.

He feels the cold metal in his fingers, and his fist squeezes in delight. The fire at the center burns brighter, grander at his touch. He holds it aloft, and the dark forest about him brightens.

“I've seen how this ends.”

He turns to the voice, the one made of dead things that sounds like worms and skeletons and wind. The phantom stands there, robes trembling in the night's calm breeze. I feel the sudden shame and guilt that bloom in Samuel's chest, the anger that follows.

“How?” he whispers.

The phantom says nothing.

"They don't deserve our influence,” Samuel says, sounding almost as though he's trying to convince himself. "I lived in Queen’s Row among squalor and madness my entire life. I could have turned to thievery, to murder. I didn't. And yet ... I heard nothing. No encouragement. No ghost-haunted dreams where I awoke inspired.”

“Then you did not hear or have forgotten," the phantom retorts. "You were a living example, a fire to keep stoked."

“And for that I was forgotten," Samuel says. “The one person I ever cared for, the one ...”

He pauses, stifling rage and devastation.

“... the one I considered a son.”

The words drill deep and empty everything within me. I think back to Christmas and the coin he gave me, how he held me in the center of so much fog while I shivered and church bells pealed. Smells of smoke and dirt. How cold the world seemed and how safe I felt in spite of it. Because of him.

How, when convenience and comfort introduced themselves to me, I saw fit to forget his face.

“Which is why you must continue that journey here,” the phantom tells Samuel. “It is why you have appeared here at all.”

The old man’s face furrows with anger.

“You think he’ll listen to me now?”

“He ”

“You believe this boy will listen? That suddenly, because of a dream or a voice, he will mend his ways?”

“Yes. Because it will not be in a dream or a small voice that he hears you.”

The spirit girl comes out of the treeline behind the old man, trying, it seems, to desperately temper the brilliant light she casts about her. The phantom's story is a ruse. She means to snatch away this torch of power while Samuel is distracted. How long has she been there, listening?

Samuel whirls on the sudden appearance of light, face drawn up into a frightening sneer.

He points the torch.

“NO, SAMUEL,” the phantom howls.

The fire so powerful it can burn away the fabric separating two dimensions leaps from the torch and strikes the girl in the chest. It envelops her in a spiteful knot and sets her ablaze. She screams and dissolves from existence, the echoes from her torment taking nearly a minute to die.

The phantom charges, robes slithering swiftly over the snow-covered earth, a baleful scream howling from its hood. Samuel reacts, points the torch a second time. A lash of fire erupts from the tip and stabs into the phantom's neck like a dagger.

The phantom collapses and holds up a decaying hand to its neck.

“What’s that?” Samuel chuckles. “Cat got your tongue?”

The phantom charges again. Stutters of lightning snap off its fingertips and shred the night air. Samuel avoids them easily. He points the torch a third time. A cauldron of fire discharges. This one isn't a direct hit. The lance of molten light only grazes the phantom's robes this time. It is enough. The spectral fabric ignites, spreads. The phantom seems made of coal and dry wood; ravenous, eager fire skids across every inch of him in oily flashes.

The phantom flees, disappears into the night.

Samuel stares at the torch and listens to the peculiar mumbles that whisper inside the still-burning fire; a language of another place, another time that he cannot understand. His wicked smile is reflected within the inferno. A smile that isn’t a smile at all.

* * *

Samuel returns to where he left Thomas, torch in hand. Thomas’ eyes grow wide at the sight of it.

“You did it.”

“I did.”

“What happened?”

Samuel tells him. Thomas listens and does not shy away. Samuel has him, his first dark disciple.

“What now?” Thomas asks.

“Just one more small detail.”

“And what’s that?”

“We wait first, let whispers of what’s transpired spread.”

Truth mutates into something horrible. Samuel becomes a nightmare among nightmares; the spirit slayer, the one who wields the fire. More join his ranks. They want protection, to be on the winning side. Others stay hidden. None voice disapproval. Evil's greatest asset is silence, after all. In a few short months, the old ways have been forgotten.

Then it’s Christmas Eve.

The torch whispers more of its cryptic language.

Samuel has begun to understand it. He and the torch seem to feed each other, a circle of miserable influence where two horrific parasites engage in an eternal, codependent dance. The torch's energy has consumed Samuel and turned his humanoid form into a vaporous mass, once-specific angles and shapes that made him unique muddied and vague, eyes monotone and brilliant white. He, in turn, has injected his hate and hurt and sadness into its once-brilliant frame. It twists, rots, withers.

But he does not destroy it. He keeps why a secret from most. For now.

The others, his disciples, have changed, too. It is hard to tell one from the other but by their voices, and even those have shifted to almost-unrecognizable parlance.

And still the torch continues to whisper its otherworldly palaver into their ears, a language that’s changed from something tender and hopeful to a twisted vernacular that belongs in the world’s darkest corners.

It directs the small group of mutated spirits to the base of Mount Snowdon, to a valley of green wrapped in a high, rocky embrace. The snowflakes flash silver in the sky and blanket the ground in velvet cold. The moon gleams full and brilliant. Coyotes serenade it in the upper hills, their howls weaving through the valley in a haunting chorus.

Samuel, Thomas and the others who have joined their cause gather in the center, surrounding the torch.

“How much longer?” Thomas asks.

“Just a few more moments,” Samuel answers.

Mere seconds pass, and suddenly, a child’s cry pierces the night.

The ghosts follow the noise to a stream’s edge and find the baby there, mewling and vulnerable in the cold. Without hesitation, Samuel points the torch at its writhing form.

"No, spirit," I whimper to the girl as her nightmare vision continues.

"You will watch," she hisses, sounding on the edge of tears. "You will watch it all."

Fire erupts from the torch in a crackling roar. It takes only a few seconds before the small ghost has disappeared.

The ghosts are left alone again, no feelings of horror at what they have just done.

“And now?” Thomas asks.

“Now? Now we exist as we were meant to exist,” Samuel answers. “Apart from the living.”

They depart from the valley. Somewhere in the hills, another anthem of coyote howls erupts into the night sky.

Read part 21 here.

The spirit slayer