The sea of faces floated below her as she walked the short distance across the stage. The large lecture hall had been set up to accommodate fine dining and even finer decorations. There was something beautiful about the old building and its hundreds-of-years-old architecture. A circular mouthpiece the size of a dessert plate sat atop a thin metal stand that was hooked into a sound projection system at the base of the stage.
“Welcome,” Dr. Elisabeth Avery said into the device with a smile, her voice resonating through the room. “It is my distinct pleasure to be invited to open this year’s gathering of the greatest minds in science. We are here to introduce our newest innovations and share our advancements in all fields on the scientific frontier. My focus on ectoplasm research has been very successful, but I believe the best way to highlight this is by showing you rather than telling you.”
A few chuckled in the audience as she tried to hide the nervous shake in her hands. She admonished herself silently. She was a scientist who could perform complex procedures, after all, but she couldn’t handle a room full of people. Life really did have its ironies.
Beside her was a simple suit made of thick fabric and metal—a deflated containment suit. It was airtight with bronze details. The most noticeable part was a clear circular part for the helmet at the top of it that looked like a cage. The metal strips at the seams had rivets to help keep their shape, but the dark blue fabric was mostly bendable and sat on the stage in a pile next to her. Many people strained their necks to get a look at it.
“May I present A.J. Dennett,” Elisabeth said, holding an arm out.
There was an awkward pause, which was quickly filled with whispers. Elisabeth licked her lips nervously, wishing she had thought to bring a glass of water onto stage. She put on a fake smile and glared down at the suit. Any second, A.J.’s neutrino-based mass would fill the space.
“A.J.!” she snapped through clenched teeth.
Like magic, the suit began to fill with a strange white and sparkly substance until it was completely inflated. Elisabeth had always loved the way A.J.’s incorporeal form looked when he moved around. Without something to contain him, he would eventually return to what he was—stardust.
“My apologies, Miss Avery. I dozed off waiting for this to begin,” A.J. said, expressing his sympathies like a well-aged gentleman in the same accent that Elisabeth possessed. As they’d worked together for months on end, his voice had become as familiar to her as any in Ashlad. “I hope I haven’t caused any distress.”
“It is quite all right,” Elisabeth said, finally lowering her arm. “I believe it still had the desired effect.”
Half the audience was slack jawed. Many held their spectacles up to their eyes, but most were leaning forward to get a better look. Her work in ectoplasm research in the field of Fringe Sciences really should have been called “How to Trap Stardust That is Conscious,” but that didn’t sound quite as distinguished. If Elisabeth had learned anything in her career, it was that most of the people in the room simply valued distinguished-sounding titles.
“Good evening,” A.J. said, slapping his arms to his sides as he bowed. “Miss Avery has turned what should have ended a life into a life with which I can give back.”
Elisabeth could still remember the first time she’d heard about the haunted house. Never had she imagined this moment would come to pass—that after searching dozens of haunted houses, she’d find one with a real spirit and build him a body. If it weren’t for Elisabeth’s unique, inherited ability, A.J. might still have been there.
Someone started clapping and then others joined in, their faces filled with wonder. It was difficult not to let her feeling of victory over them appear on her face. For most of her career, her peers had all thought her unworthy of their attention. Now they would pay closer attention.
“Thank you,” Elisabeth said with a little bow of her head. “Please come to my presentation on Fringe Sciences tomorrow and learn about this process. Any questions can be answered then. For tonight, please enjoy the evening.”
When Elisabeth left the stage, A.J. followed her, his steps heavy because she had weighed the suit down to allow for ease of walking. When she sat down, he stood next to her, still waving to the audience. She glanced up at the swirling stardust though the helmet, hoping A.J.’s face would form. It did every once in a while, which always reminded her that he had been a person once and gave her a strange sense of comfort.
“Thank you, Dr. Avery, for that astounding introduction to our convention,” the moderator said. He continued to introduce additional distinguished members, but Elisabeth stopped listening. She glanced up at A.J. again and wondered if her choice to put him on display had been a mistake. He was a sentient being who had accidently become what he was. Elisabeth was still new to the field of ectoplasm and had primarily focused on building a vessel for him to live in. Yet the laws of their world were specific about what had rights. They did not extend to spirits.
“Elisabeth?” said her protector and friend, Milo, leaning over to touch her arm, “You look troubled. It was an excellent introduction.”
“Thank you, Milo,” Elisabeth said softly with a forced smile. Her conscience was suddenly at war over her hurried decision to show her success with A.J., but the damage had been already done. It was kind of Milo to reassure her, even if he was wrong about what was troubling her.
When the moderator finished, Elisabeth stood, and she and Milo headed for the door with A.J. bringing up the tail. She’d nearly made it when Dr. Nive Harrid and Professor Jacob Greenly cut her off by standing in her path, wearing smug looks. They were older men with outspoken beliefs about anyone who wasn’t like them—which constantly extended to Elisabeth.
“It is a miracle what you’ve done with the Fringe Science field,” Dr. Harrid said with a half-smile. “And it only took you a few years.”
“Despite your disadvantages, you have overcome everyone’s expectations,” Professor Greenly said with an equally coy half-smile.
“Disadvantage?” Elisabeth said before she could catch herself.
“Why, being half demon, of course,” Professor Greenly clarified.
Milo took a step forward. Being a lesser demon, he could do damage, but that wasn’t how Elisabeth solved things. Elisabeth’s jaw clenched as she raised a hand to stop Milo, and she put on a smile that could melt facial tissue from bones. “I could not have advanced the technology I presented today without my gifts. By that token, it is an advantage. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an early morning planned.”
She swept around them before they could reply. On this day, she would not let their words dissuade her. It didn’t matter that it was early and that her leaving would be seen as cowardice—there were too many people too close to her. Elisabeth could remember when other children were afraid of her growing up, some even to the point of throwing rocks. Private tutors had kept her well enough away from them. But it hadn’t kept them from hurling curses at her on the streets. She sometimes thought that children were the cruelest beings because the words they spoke were embedded deeply in truth. In some cases, this carried into adulthood.
“Elisabeth,” Milo called, getting her attention. “You’re walking too quickly.”
Elisabeth stopped and turned back to find A.J. struggling to keep up and Milo bridging the gap between them. She blinked, realizing she had far outpaced them, like she always did when she was alone. She glanced down at her fingers and found they had been madly drumming against her leg. Her thoughts had consumed her, and she had forgotten about her companions.
“I’m sorry, A.J.,” Elisabeth said unsteadily as she straightened her back. “I forget myself.” She sighed.
“That is quite all right, Miss Avery.” His voice rang clear as he drew closer.
“Don’t let words bother you,” Milo said softly.
“Thanks,” she replied, but his words gave her little comfort. “Can you get my father on the line?”
He nodded as A.J caught up to them and they resumed at A.J.’s pace. The hallways were mostly empty because everyone was at the reception dinner. When they reached the base of the large staircase that led up to the guest rooms, Milo handed her the telecommunication disk.
“Elsa! How is my brilliant daughter?” His voice boomed his pet name for her over the communication piece.
“Papa,” she said as she felt the tension go out of her shoulders, “I am well. I just wanted to let you know that I’m done for the night and that A.J. is doing well.”
“And the presentation?”
She smiled, but when she glanced up as they rounded the corner on the landing of the stairs, the smile turned into a scream. A man dressed all in black suddenly slammed both knees into Milo’s chest, sending him crashing back against the stone banister. She dropped the communication device, and it skidded across the floor.
“Elsa? Elisabeth?” Malthael called out frantically. “Are you all right?”
She looked toward the device and opened her mouth to answer, but saw a long thin blade leveled at her. Her eyes went wide as she looked up at the man holding it. She could hear her papa yelling her name and demanding to know what was going on. Her hands started to shake—partly from fear and partly from her loss of control.
“Unhand her!” A.J. said, lifting his arms to attack.
The man turned and punctured the suit in one swift jab, causing it to deflate. A.J. gasped and tried to stop the leak with his ill-equipped hands. Elisabeth made it to two steps away from him before the blade was pointed back at her. She froze. Her hands were out by her sides, twisting in slightly circular motions. The man in black brought a boot down and crushed the communication device, silencing her papa.
“Miss Avery!” A.J. said as he filtered out of the suit.
“Go back to your other suit, A.J.,” Elisabeth said as she continued the motions. “I’ll be fine.”
The man made of stardust and gelatinous goo spilled over the side of the banister and down through the floor to his other containment suit. A glob of ectoplasm was all that remained. She knew he could make it to the suit, which wasn’t far off in storage, before he started to dissipate. She glanced at Milo and realized that the man threatening her life wasn’t there for him or A.J. He was there for her.
“What do you want? My father is rich,” Elisabeth said, narrowing her eyes.
She had to buy time—the demon dogs would come for her. She kept moving her hands in small circular motions, reaching into the spirit lines and calling them to her. He stayed silent and continued to stare at her with his impossibly dark grey eyes. Moments passed, and her chest rose and fell; she felt grateful that it still could.
He put the double thin blades away. Reaching behind him, he pulled a long sword from his back. She glanced hopefully at Milo, but he gave no indication of consciousness. Elisabeth calmed herself when she felt the demon dogs near. She took a step back. The man tipped his head to the side and took a few measured and lithe steps forward, bringing the blade down.
Like slivers of white, her guardians rose from the ground. An instant before the man’s weapon struck home, the Netherhounds appeared. The deadly bladed tips of their ribbon-like elastic tails shot out and blocked the man’s attack. He stumbled back, caught unawares by their sudden appearance. Unlike A.J., who was something everyone could see, her guardians were half spirits that only she and those like her could see until they materialized. They stood on two hind legs with their heads down, so she could see their strange curly ears and sets of ram-like horns on each side of their heads.
Her attacker reacted to their second strike and narrowly dodged away from the lethal blades. Nathan, the guardian on her right, took hold of the sword with his tail and yanked it free, while Duke, the guardian with the chipped horn, attacked again with his deadly tail. The man flipped backwards, out of harm’s reach, and pulled out his twin blades from a sheath strapped to his lower back. He landed on his feet in a crouch and immediately lunged toward them again, but his blades went right through her body and slammed into the banister behind her without doing any harm.
Touching the dog demons had allowed her to transform into her spirit form. Since Elisabeth was only half Soul Collector, she needed help to travel the spirit lines, which her guardians did with ease. She watched the man in black, with his piercing dark eyes, as she faded into the floor, and then she was quickly far away from him.