When Lori woke she found herself in a bed, wrapped in animal furs. She was horrified to discover that she was naked underneath them, until she remembered how damp and ruined her clothes had been. It was probably a good idea to get dying, hypothermic people out of wet garments. Even so, the idea that her rescuer had stripped her down was more than a little unnerving.
She sat up, taking stock of how she felt. She was still cold, but it was a normal, manageable level of chilliness that didn’t threaten to knock her senseless. Her fingers and toes all worked and her mind was clear enough…clear enough to realize that she was underground. The walls were slick with ice, which explained why she was still cold despite the furs. She took a tentative step off the bed and then decided that a lack of shoes combined with a freezing floor were not a good mix. She settled back on the bed and curled up, drawing the furs around her and trying not to be afraid.
The wind began to howl from some tunnel nearby. With it came the sound of cracking ice again, floating down to her like an invisible bell choir. She wanted to disappear under the furs rather than deal with whomever this frozen freak was. She didn’t care that he had saved her life; his purpose for doing so might not be so innocent. Despernot had taught her nothing if not suspicion.
“You’re awake,” a voice said.
Reluctantly, she sat up again and faced the ice man. The bones on his belt gleamed with a sickening shine. To even have a belt of bones and jewels was disturbing enough; to painstakingly polish them was just down right creepy.
“Who are you?” Lori demanded. Her voice sounded like a bed of frogs.
“I don’t suppose it matters much,” he replied. Water was dripping off the tips of his fingers, but none of the drops ever met the ground. They froze one on top of the other, turning his hands slowly into claws of ice.
“Well,” said Lori, “I’m guessing you’re dead, for a start.”
“Are you…do you know Peter Grey?” She was beginning to fear that this was his boss—the shark to his pilot fish. Someone whom even Despernot had been afraid of was not someone with whom she wanted to be stuck in a cave.
“Was the owl yours?”
He took a few hesitant steps forward. Ice was beginning to creep up the cavern walls, and Lori could feel the temperature around them drop. It took her heart along with it, and the only thing that kept her from running, nakedness be damned, was the inkling of fear in his eyes that told her he was just as uncertain of her as she was of him.
“It was,” he nodded. “Now let me ask you something.” Flexing his newly formed claws, he stood mere inches from Lori’s pallet. “What were you doing on that ship?”
Lori could see his breath curling white and smoky into the air. Definitely alive; at least he wasn’t lying about that. She had almost no desire to trust him, but also no reason for not telling the truth. It wasn’t as if her experiences on Despernot’s ship had been a big secret. “I was looking for information,” she said, “about the man who killed my dad. My godfather and I…we thought it was a ghost ship when it docked in England. Abandoned, I mean. We got on board, and it sailed off with us. There was a…a ghost, I suppose. He was insane. He killed my godfather and he probably would have killed me, too, if I hadn’t….”
“Gotten to him first?” the ice man suggested.
“More or less.”
He was silent for a moment, turning her words over. Then he sat on the edge of the bed. “My name is Samuel.”
She hesitated for only a moment. “Foxe.”
Samuel broke the ice from his hands. It fell to the ground and shattered. “I’ve been looking for that ship for ages. Centuries.”
“Centuries? I thought you said you were alive.”
“I said I wasn’t dead.”
Lori decided it would be best not to argue that you had to be one or the other. After all, she was rapidly discovering that she knew very little about the laws of nature. Still, she couldn’t help but find it highly convenient that a centuries-long search had ended minutes before she might have breathed her last. She said so, and Samuel frowned.
“There was something on that ship,” he said. “Something that kept it sailing, drifting from port to port. It knew how to avoid me.” He lifted his eyes to hers. “I think you got rid of it when you disposed of this ghost.”
“Sorry, I guess?”
He held her gaze for a moment and the shrugged, sending a few small patches of ice crumbling to the ground. “It will turn up again, as will the others. Did you find a silver box?”
“Yes,” she said. “But it was empty.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“I know,” he said. She waited, but it quickly became clear that he was not going to give her anything more, which was highly unfair. Ripping a juicy steak away from a staving dog would have been kinder. Speaking of starving….
“Do you have any food?” she asked.
“No. Do you need some?”
“Uh, yeah. Like, bad.”
Samuel looked around the cave, as if expecting food to melt out of the walls. “Where were you going? I could take you there. Or perhaps back to England.”
Oh, this question. It had been coming, not from him, but in general. Lori had known she would have to ask it of herself eventually. She had survived the ship, which meant it was decision time. What was she going to do? Go back to her aunt and cousins in Seattle and live with guilt and dissatisfaction? Let Foxe die for nothing?
“I still need to find him,” she sighed. “The man who killed my father. Peter Grey.”
Samuel’s looked vaguely bemused. “And what do you mean to do, once you find him?”
“I really don’t know.”
The silence that fell behind her words was fragile and filled with the creaking and cracking of ice. Lori hugged her furs closer and tried to focus on how hungry she was, rather than how badly she wanted to give up. Something frigid burned her ankle, and she realized that Samuel had laid a hand on her. He was clearly trying to be comforting, but the cold of his skin ate right through the furs.
“Foxe,” he said, “it is like you are a ghost yourself.”
“When you die,” he explained carefully, “you will come to a path lit by lampposts on either side. You will walk alongside the shades of those who are on their way beyond, until at last you reach the white bridge. There, you will face a choice: to ascend into the mist, or to cross.”
“Gives new meaning to ‘cross that bridge when we come to it,’” she muttered.
Samuel looked confused for a moment, but then he went on, “You will cross the bridge. People like you always do. If you die unsatisfied, wounded, or in some other way unfinished, you will cross it. Then, as a resident of Out-shift, you will wander through your afterlife, seeking things you can’t have. Looking for resolution in constant beginnings. You will never find it.”
Lori frowned. “So you’re saying I’m already living like that.”
He nodded. “Go home. Live as if you are alive. There will be plenty of time to die.”
“You don’t even know me,” Lori said, feeling suddenly angry. “You don’t know what I’ve been through. I’ve lost way too much to back down now. I’m seeing this to the end, whatever that means.”
Samuel seemed about to protest, but she shook her head. “That’s the flaw in your analogy. I might be living like a ghost, but I’m not one. I can get a resolution. And I’m going to. Preferably before I die.”
She had risen during her speech, without meaning to, and she stood before him now, wrapped in her furs and furious. All he could do was smile.
He stood, too. “You are more than I thought.”
“Damn right I am.”
Samuel’s smile was now an outright grin. It was appreciative, not patronizing, and for some reason it put Lori at ease. Enough, at least, for her to come off the offensive a bit. She sighed and lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry, I just-”
“I lied to you,” he said. “I know Peter Grey. Though I am no friend of his,” he added hurriedly as alarm began to take over her face. “I know where you can find him.”
“I will,” he nodded. “Perhaps over a meal?”
Finally, Lori managed a genuine smile. “Yeah,” she said. “That sounds great.”
She followed him from the cave, not sure where she was going to get clothes, or whether or not he meant to kill her despite the show of support. She was too hungry to care much about either and too hopeful about what he might have to say. They made their way up and out, passing through narrow, slippery tunnels of ice. Lori’s feet ached by the time they reached the top and broke out into blinding sunlight and an oppressive wave of heat.
“Where are we?” Lori marveled, shielding her eyes against the overwhelming glare. There was sand in every direction, stretching away into infinity.
“Egypt,” Samuel replied. “My home.”
“But,” she protested, “we were just in an ice cave.”
She could just make out his smile, now that her eyes were beginning to adjust. “That was a pocket of Out-shift,” he said. “We’re In-shift, now. The world of the living.”
He ran a hand over the fur she was still wrapped in. “There are owl feathers sewn in.”
“Oh, right. Makes total sense.”
His laughter was distractingly pleasant. “Owls are in tune with both places. They can pass from one to the other, and so if you carry their feathers—or any part of them, really—you can travel freely between life and death. Why do you think people always find owls so mysterious?” he added.
“You’re not wearing any feathers,” Lori noted.
“No,” he agreed. “I don’t need them.”
“Right. Because you’re not alive, and you’re not dead.”
“Exactly. You’re quite quick, Foxe.”
Lori sighed, lacking the energy to explain that she completely did not understand the logic behind any of this. The fact remained that there was just as little food in a desert as there was in an ice cave. She followed Samuel, wishing desperately for a tank top and shorts to replace the furs. She was just a few steps behind him when he vanished.
The air seemed to have simply swallowed him up. She stood still for a moment, staring at where he had been, until suddenly his head and neck reappeared. He leaned towards her and an arm and hand returned as well. “Aren’t you coming?” he asked.
“Um, yeah. Sorry.” Lori took his hand, which was refreshingly cold, and let him pull her along into oblivion. There was a slight bit of static in her ears as their settings changed…to the ocean. It was beautiful. They stood hand in hand on the edge of a green, grassy coast, next to a few spindly trees dotted with pink and white flowers. The water below them was a perfect blue.
“There’s a market,” he said, pointing along the coast a ways. Lori could just make out ships docked between an outcropping of rocks. There were at least twelve of them. She still wasn’t sure exactly where they were, but the sight of civilization and the thought of normal, living people with clothes and food and drink and no desire to kill her was enough to make her want to cry. She let Samuel lead her along, the beginnings of a smile teasing her lips. Everything was going to be all right.
(TCOS will continue Monday evening! In the meantime, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @companyofsouls!)