The sea of faces floated below her as she walked the short distance across the stage. There was a large lecture hall set up to accommodate fine dining and even finer decorations down on the floor below her. There was something beautiful about the old building, hundreds of years old architecture and she amongst it. A wide circular mechanism was hooked into a system at the base of the stage.
“Welcome,” Dr. Elisabeth Avery said with a smile. “It is my distinction to be invited to begin this year’s gathering of the greatest minds. We are gathered to introduce our 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 rather than telling.”
A few chuckled in the audience as she tried to hide the nervous shake in her hands. She was a scientist that could perform complex procedures but she couldn’t handle a room full of people. Life really did have its little ironies.
Beside her was a simple suit made of thick fabric and metal. It was a complete covering suit, a deflating suit used for containment. It was air tight with added metal details and a clear circular part for the head that looked like a cage. The metal strips had rivets but the dark blue fabric was mostly bendable and sat on the stage in a pile. 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 while she held her arm out. She licked her lips a little nervous and wished she had something to drink. There were some whispers and she put a fake smile on her face as she glared down at the suit.
“A.J.!” she snapped between clenched teeth.
Like magic the suit began to fill until it was completely inflated. A strange white and sparkly substance began to fill the suit. Elisabeth always loved the way he looked when he was moving around. Without something to hold him in, he would eventually return to what he was – stardust.
“My apologies, Miss Avery, I dozed off waiting for this to begin.” A.J. expressed his sympathies like a well-aged gentleman, in the same accent that Elisabeth possessed and had become as familiar to her as any voice in all of Ashlad. “I hope I haven’t caused any distress.”
“It is quite alright,” Elisabeth said 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 with a conscious; that just didn’t sound as distinguished. If Elisabeth had learned anything most of the people in the room simply valued distinguished sounding things.
“Good evening,” A.J. said slapping his arms to his side as he bowed. “Miss Avery has turned what should have ended a life into a life I can give back with.”
Elisabeth could still remember the first time she had heard about the haunted house. She had been to a few haunted houses and some of them had been haunted and she had been able to dispense of their spirits. However, A.J. had been different. He had been killed by a demon. For some reason his body had gone with the demon, but A.J.’s spirit had stayed tethered to the house. If it wasn’t for Elisabeth’s unique ability he might still have been there.
Someone started clapping, and others joined with wonderment still on their face. It was difficult not to let her feeling of victory over her peers appear on her face. They had all thought her unworthy of their attention; perhaps they would pay closer attention now.
“Thank you,” Elisabeth said with a little bow of her head before she returned to her seat.
A.J. followed her; his steps were 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 slightly. She glanced up at the swirling stardust and sometimes A.J.’s face would form. It was the barest of moments, but it did every once in a while and that always reminded her he had been a person once.
“Thank you Dr. Avery for that shocking introduction to our convention,” the moderator said and continued to introduce additional members that were also distinguished but Elisabeth stopped listening.
She glanced up at A.J. 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 on what had rights. It did not extend to spirits.
“Miss Avery?” Her secretary and friend, Milo said leaning over to touch her arm, “You look troubled, it was an excellent speech.”
“Thank you, Milo,” Elisabeth whispered with a forced smile. Her conscience was suddenly at war over her hurried decision to show her success with A.J. but the damage was already done. It was kind of Milo to reassure her even if he was wrong as to what was troubling her.
When the moderator finished Elisabeth stood and so did Milo as she went to leave the room. She nearly made it to the door when she was cut off. Dr. Nive Harrid and Professor Jacob Greenly stood in her path with smug looks on their faces. They were older men with outspoken beliefs on 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.
Elisabeth’s jaw clenched and she put on a smile that could melt faces. “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 because on this day she would not let their words dissuade her. It didn’t matter that it was early and that it would be seen as cowardice — there were too many people too close to her. Elisabeth could remember as a child when other children were afraid of her; some even throwing rocks. It had been worse at the orphanage before her adoptive father, Malthael, had taken her in. Private tutors had ended her constant contact with them, but they had still thrown stones and called curses. She sometimes believed that children were the cruelest because what they spoke was bedded deeply in truth – in some cases this carried into adulthood.
“Miss Avery,” Milo called, getting her attention, “You are 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 turned herself into a human rocket like she always did when she walked 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 alright, 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 soon caught up to them and they resumed at A.J.’s pace. They soon reached the base of the large staircase that lead up to the guest rooms. Milo handed her the telecommunication disk as they started up the stairs.
“Elsa! How is my brilliant daughter?” His voice boomed over the communication piece with his pet name for her.
“Papa,” she said as she felt the tension go out of her shoulders, “I am well. I just wanted to let you know I’m done for the night and A.J. is doing well.”
“And the presentation?” He pressed.
She smiled and glanced up as they rounded the corner on the stair’s landing. She gave a strangled cry as a man dressed all in black slammed both knees into Milo’s chest. It sent him crashing back against the stone banister. She dropped the communication device and heard it skid across the floor.
“Elsa? Elisabeth?” Malthael called out frantically, “Are you alright?”
She looked to the communication contraption as though it could help her. Elisabeth opened her mouth to answer as a long thin blade was leveled at her. Her eyes went wide as she looked up it and to the man who held it. She could hear her father yelling her name and his demands to know if she was alright. Her hands started to shake — part from fear and part from her loss of control.
“Unhand her!” A.J. said, lifting his arms.
Their attacker turned and punctured the suit in one swift jab. Elisabeth shifted and made it to two steps away from him before the blade was pointed back at her and she froze. Her hands were out by her side as they twisted in slightly circular motions. She was turned partially away from him but refused to look away. The man in black brought a boot down and crushed the communication device, silencing her father.
“Miss Avery!” A.J. said as he filtered out of the suit.
“Go back to your other suit, A.J.,” Elisabeth said as she moved her hands slightly, in a circular motion. “I’ll be fine.”
The man made of stardust and gelatinous goo spilled over the side and down through the floor to his other containment suit below. A.J. could make it to the suit 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?” Elisabeth asked, 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 just continued to stare at her with his black eyes, so dark a grey that she almost didn’t notice there was any color at all. Moments passed and her chest rose and fell with exact joy in doing so. She did not like what this man could do with that blade. If he threatened her life, she feared she would not be able to contain her gift. She glanced hopefully at Milo, but he gave no indication of consciousness.
Elisabeth calmed herself as she best she could as she felt the demon dogs near. She turned and took a step back so she was abreast of him. He tipped his head to the side as she back-peddled, unwilling to turn away from him. He took a few measured and lithe steps forward but her sudden movement had caught him off guard.
Like slivers of white her guardians rose from the ground. Unlike A.J., who was something everyone could see, her guardians were half spirits that only her and those like her could see them until they materialized. She threw her arms out and touched the top of them as they solidified under her hands. They couldn’t attack in their spirit forms.
Their heads went down, with their strange curly ears and set of ram like horns, and their tails shot out the moment they appeared. They were ribbons of elastic skin with blades as the tips. They shot out like deadly whips. Her attacker narrowly reacted to their sudden strike and shifted away from the blade. Nathan, the guardian on her right, took hold of the sword and yanked it free while Duke, the guardian on her left with the chipped horn, attacked again with his deadly tail. Their hooves clacked on the ground as the man flipped backwards, out of harms reach, and pulled out his double blades.
Their forms suddenly vanished and her with them. Touching them had allowed her to transform into her spirit form. Elisabeth was only half Soul Collector — she needed help to travel the spirit lines. The man in black landed in a crouch after his backward flip and immediately jumped towards them. The blades of his daggers slammed into the ground through her body. She watched him, and his dark eyes, as she faded into the floor and was quickly far away from him.