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Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

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BOOK: Ghostlight
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The fury that Truth had felt Julian wield like a lash was gone, carrying all Truth's anger at Fiona with it. She felt drained but calm, her only emotion a faint pity for
Fiona, who had been so brutally put in her place. Now, only a few minutes later, it was hard to believe the words spoken here—Fiona's and Julian's—had ever been said.
She walked over and picked up the dress, lifting the scissors carefully clear first. She inspected it closely, but Fiona's handling had left no marks on its shimmering surface. She draped it over one arm and went on to retrieve the vest. She wondered if she'd ever be able to wear it without remembering this scene. She laid both garments out on the bed.
“Pretty.” Julian's verdict was frankly appreciative and frankly male. Truth found herself coloring slightly at a remark that was far more than casual—and at her reaction to it.
“It's like the old joke—‘I saw it in the window and I just had to have it,'” Truth said, trying to deflect the compliment.
“You have good judgment,” Julian said, couching his next tribute in more carefully neutral terms, though his smile was warm and intimate. “Any act of judgment is a risk. Most people are afraid to take risks.”
“I'm not afraid,” Truth said, meeting his eyes.
“No,” Julian said with an inward smile. “I don't imagine that you are.”
 
Dinner was a quietly hurried affair, from which Fiona was absent without explanation. The others, having by now accepted Truth's presence entirely, spoke freely in front of her—but in the technical vocabulary of high magick, which employed a terminology as alien to Truth as that of any physicist.
What, for example, was a Lesser Banishing Ritual? It seemed to be similar to a Middle Pillar Exercise, for all the good that information did her. Talk of paths, pillars, gates, and houses—and left- and right-hand trees—gave Truth the Mad Tea Party feeling she'd been dropped down into a gardeners' convention—at least until they started
talking about operations and workings. She didn't know what any of this meant, but she was beginning to grant it a grudging respect.
Light was radiant, as caught up in this as any of them and in impish high spirits. All of the others, even Ellis, treated her as an adored baby sister, but Truth had seen what the others seemed to ignore—what the exercise of Light's powers cost her—and knew that even loving ignorance could kill.
She had to get Light out of here, and it seemed that in this Michael was her only ally.
It was odd, Truth reflected, that what she would not do for herself—leave Shadow's Gate—she would do on the instant for a woman she had known for barely a week. But Light was her sister, her blood, and blood called to blood.
“I'm afraid we have to leave you now,” Julian said, interrupting the train of Truth's musings. He leaned proprietorially over her chair, his hand on her shoulder. “But as Gareth says, you are always welcome to become one of us.”
Truth forced herself not to look at Michael, sensing it would be a tactical mistake. It was a bad thing when you knew you really couldn't trust your only possible ally.
“Give me more time,” Truth said, and the coaxing pressure was withdrawn.
“All the time you need,” Julian said, smiling, and followed the others from the dining room, leaving Truth and Michael there alone.
“Michael?” Truth's question stopped him as he was rising from the table. He stood and waited, head inclined at a courteous angle of attention.
“If I asked you your opinion of my joining the Circle of Truth, you'd say I shouldn't, wouldn't you?”
Michael pondered the question for a moment—choosing his words with the care of a lawyer or a judge, Truth realized.
“If you were to join Julian's Circle, you would find neither happiness or rest in doing so, and would probably destroy any hope you had of finding either in your lifetime,” he said at last.
As nice an equivocation as she was likely to find outside a Jesuit rectory, Truth thought sourly.
“Michael—you don't believe in magick, in the Work, do you? You think my father was crazy, right?”
And that being the case, why are you here, Michael Archangel?
“No. I think he was right,” Michael said simply. “That's the problem. Everything he said was true. Good night, Truth. Sleep well.”
And with that Michael left her, and Truth was alone in the dining room of Shadow's Gate.
 
After the affair with Fiona and the conversation with Michael, sleep should have been elusive, but Truth had taken a long walk in the fresh air that day and had endured a sleepless night before it. She barely kept her eyes open during a quick bath in the new bath salts that had been another purchase today in Shadowkill, and was asleep almost before she turned off the light.
She was awakened—she thought—by a crash of thunder, and opened her eyes to the strobe-white flicker of lightning bleaching her bedroom to a grayed monochrome image of itself.
There was a man sitting in the chair beside her bed. She drew a deep breath. To scream? She wasn't sure herself.
“Shut up,” he said sympathetically. “I hate screaming women.”
The lightning flickered again—more distant this time—and died, leaving the room dark, filled with the sound of the hammering rain. But Truth had already recognized her midnight caller. Forcing herself to move through the terror that gripped her, she stretched out a hand toward the lamp beside her bed.
“Don't,” Thorne Blackburn said.
Truth stopped. If this were a dream—it could be, it
could
be, she told herself desperately—it could end, and she struggled to awaken. But every sense was already at shrieking attention, and the man in the chair—only an indistinct shape, without the lightning to illuminate him—was still there.
“What do you want?” Truth said. Wasn't that what you were supposed to ask ghosts? Lightning flickered again, quick as a snake tongue, showing her the Thorne from the pictures—long blond hair, headband, denim vest, and tie-dyed T-shirt.
“My necklace and ring, for a start. Where are they?”
For a paralyzing moment she couldn't remember. She was too frightened at this moment to be self-conscious; she believed, sincerely and with primitive terror, that this was her father, Thorne Blackburn, returned from the dead.
“In my car,” she finally managed.
“Well, hell; I can't send you out in this to get them,” Thorne Blackburn said. The thunder followed his words with a sharp crack and a dying rumble. “Leave them somewhere around the house, will you? They're mine. I need them. More than you do, anyway.”
Raindrops drove at the bedroom window with the force of thrown gravel. Lightning again: and in the flash Truth saw Thorne's shadow printed on the wall, real and substantial as the ageless apparition before her. She closed her eyes tightly, nauseated with primeval dread.
“You're dead,” she said through clenched teeth. “You can't need anything.” The thunder following the lightning was several seconds later; the storm was moving away.
“And you're just as stubborn as your mother,” Thorne said fondly, “but it's hard enough to pull this hat trick off without wasting my time arguing. I came to tell you: Get the hell out of my house before you get your rationalist
ass singed. Who the hell do you think you are, Hans Holzer? You're not like other people, baby, you're my daughter—”
It was difficult to remain terrified while being affectionately scolded by a dead parent in a voice with faintly working-class undertones. Truth lunged for the light switch and pressed it frantically.
The lamp at her bedside came on. There was no one in the chair.
And who in God's name was Hans Holzer?
 
The room was dark, lit only by the sickly pale glow that emanated from television and VCR.
“—thank you, future Epopts of the New Aeon, it's really groovy being here with Ed tonight and we've got a really far-out cosmic trip planned for all of you—”
Truth red-eyed and sleepless, sat in the room containing the Blackburn collection, running tapes through the VCR. Looking at her father.
“I came to tell you: Get the hell out of my house before you get your rationalist ass singed.”
She'd run this tape five times already: Here, transferred to videocassette, were copies of every one of Thorne's appearances caught on film: Carson, Sullivan,
The Dating Game
, the Hollywood Bowl—even a few minutes at Woodstock. Before, she hadn't been able to bear the thought of seeing Thorne, even in the electronic flesh. Now she couldn't look away.
He was so young. In his twenties in these clips, a leading light of what had been called the Youthquake, that dazzling demographic surge in which kids in their teens and twenties took over the popular culture of the nation, from music to fashion. The Youthquake, the British Invasion: the faint Liverpudlian accent she'd heard—
—in her dreams? Oh, please let it have been a dream—
—was still discernible here in these taped performances, if you listened carefully and knew what you
were looking for, although Thorne Blackburn had worked hard at some point to attain the bland measured diction of a radio announcer. Or was the Liverpool accent an add-on, an afterthought, to capitalize on the 1960s American fascination with things British? None of the biographical information on Thorne Blackburn had been really certain about his nationality; Truth had just assumed he was American.
She'd made, she knew now, far too many assumptions.
After Thorne's appearance in her room, sleep, no matter how her body begged for it, was out of the question. After an hour spent flinching at every retreating thunderclap, fighting the impulse to simply grab her car keys and flee—
Without Light? And where would you go? You've never run away from anything in your life. Except from being Thorne Blackburn's daughter.
—she'd given up and gotten dressed. And come down here, looking for proof of a sort. The tapes that Julian had gathered. All the footage there was of Thorne.
“Who the hell do you think you are, Hans Holzer?”
No. Hans Holzer was a lecturer and author of numerous popular books on ghosts, hauntings, and the occult whom Thorne had affected to despise for his bland middle-of-the-road approach to the world of the supernatural. For that reason if no other, his books were represented in the Blackburn collection. She must have heard of him from Dylan or someone, little though she remembered it. It was not possible that her information came from Thorne Blackburn.
Seeing the tiny, moving figure, preserved forever on tape, Truth was able to wonder about what she had seen—or dreamed. If it had been a dream, then certainly the man in her room had been Thorne Blackburn.
“You're not like other people, baby, you're my daughter—”
The voice, the face, everything was the same. Even though her unconscious mind had not had these tapes to draw upon, she'd certainly had access to enough material to create a dream image so close to the reality that her waking mind could merge the two.
Then what about the handwriting in your book? Or what spoke through Light? Or the man you saw in the hall outside Irene's room? What about them?
Truth put her face in her hands. Helplessly, hating it, she believed.
“Oh God damn you, Daddy. God damn you to Hell.”
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
This truth within thy mind rehearse,
That in a boundless universe
Is boundless better, boundless worse.
—ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
 
 
 
BUT HAVING TAKEN THAT FIRST STEP INTO THE ABYSS of unreason, Truth didn't know what to do now. A True Believer, she supposed, stepping off the curb of Reality, would be looking for signs and portents to point him in the direction of his new delusion, but she didn't even want the proof she had, much less to get any more of it.
At least she didn't have to believe in magick, Truth told herself desperately. She only had to admit to seeing—and listening to, and talking to—ghosts.
A
ghost, anyway.
But ghosts were worlds away from the safe sane sterile world of clinical parapsychology, of PK and ESP, of test series run in modern, brightly-lit buildings.
And she was afraid that ghosts were just the beginning, as if she'd fallen into some weird shadowland between Magick and Science; a place controlled by the rules of neither one. And now Thorne, too, was demanding she leave Shadow's Gate.
Before I get my rationalist ass signed. But I'm not a
rationalist any more, am I, Daddy? No, I'm afraid Daddy's little girl has gone right off the deep end.
She wanted to cry, but her eyes were aching and tearless, as if she had already cried all the tears she had to weep. Truth shook her head, wearily.
A hiss of static startled her. The tape in the VCR had come to the end again. She muted the sound and hit the “Rewind” button and got up, stretching stiffly, to turn on the lights. Sitting in the dark hadn't gotten her anywhere. She looked at her watch. Almost five o'clock in the morning. So much for the peace of a night's sleep.
Everybody—well, counting Thorne and Michael as everybody, anyway—wants me to leave Shadow's Gate. But it isn't because I'm in danger, not really. Neither of them has said that.
She tried to concentrate on what Michael had said to her in their maddeningly inconclusive conversations.
Not because I'm in danger. That's not why. It's because I'll
learn
something.
What? Truth's lifelong mistrust of Thorne Blackburn returned full force—if there was something he didn't want her to know, she was determined to find out what it was.
Her hand was still on the old-fashioned push-button light switch when the library door opened.
“Oh—it's you,” Irene and Truth said in chorus.
Irene Avalon was obviously either just on her way to bed or had just gotten up. Her white hair was pulled back neatly under a silver hairnet and her face was bare of makeup. She wore fluffy purple scuffs on her feet, and her stout person was swathed in a heavy flannel robe the twin of the one she'd loaned Truth. Truth contrasted the woman before her with the slim laughing redhead in the pictures—who could not have been young even then, if twenty-five years had aged her so—and thought that Time's magic was the cruelest sorcery of all.
“I saw the lights were on in here,” Irene said. “I was
meditating in the Temple after the Work tonight and I was on my way up, but I just wanted to make sure none of those rascal boys had left the lights on again. Good boys, all of them, but not one of them has ever had to worry about where the next penny is coming from, if you ask me.”
“The storm woke me up,” Truth said. A half-truth, after all, was better than none. “I thought I'd come down and do some work while it was quiet.”
“Not sleeping well?” Irene studied Truth's face closely. “No,” she answered herself. “Child, you look positively haggard. What you want is a good cup of cocoa and a nice lie-in; it's my belief you're half-attuned to the Work already; no wonder you can't sleep when the Circle is working.”
Irene's explanation, smacking strongly of mumbo-jumbo as it did, was still preferable to having to admit the reality, at least in Truth's opinion. She let Irene lead her off to the kitchen, where the older woman took down a small saucepan and set it on the stove.
“Real cocoa, and none of those nasty modern mixes full of chemicals and hydrogenated vegetable fats—pah! Just a pinch of saffron in it, to help you sleep. They used to use it in possets all the way back to the Middle Ages; there's no harm in it,” Irene said soothingly.
“Just as long as I don't have to go back to the Middle Ages to drink it,” Truth joked feebly.
Irene laughed, pottering around the kitchen, taking the milk from the refrigerator, adding saffron and vanilla and brown sugar and cocoa, and finally whisking the steaming brew into a froth and pouring it out into two large mugs.
Truth held the cup under her nose and inhaled deeply. The honey-sweetness of it was like a field of edible flowers in the sun; the strong scent of vanilla and the luscious tropical chocolate smell were underlain by the faintly winy tang of molasses and the delectable, earthy savor
of saffron. She sipped at it. It tasted even better than it smelled.
“Delicious,” Truth pronounced, but even if she drank a swimming pool–full she didn't think she'd be able to get back to sleep.
They talked inconsequentials—the weather, the shops in town. Truth had a sense that there was something Irene wanted to say to her, and for her own part, Truth's tongue was tangled with unasked questions.
Irene was just topping off their cups with the last of the pot when there was the sound of a key in the door that once had been the tradesman's entrance, and a moment later a man came in, shrugging off a heavy corduroy barn coat. There was a woman, similarly dressed, behind him.
“Oh, Mr. Walker,” Irene said. “This is Mr. and Mrs. Walker, Truth—they do the housekeeping here—in the morning, while there's no one to get in their way.”
“Good morning, ladies,” Mr. Walker said—civilly enough, but his desire to have his domain to himself was plain.
So that was why Truth never saw the people who cared for Julian's house—they were probably gone before nine o'clock, and Mr. Hoskins left by eight P.M., leaving the house—and the night—to Julian and his apostles.
“Oh, and here I've gone and dirtied up your kitchen, and I dare swear you won't let me hear the end of it, Mr. Walker,” Irene said ruefully. She made as if to take the offending pot and wash it, but Mr. Walker waved her away—curtly, Truth thought.
“Come on, Irene, let's go somewhere else and leave the poor man to do his work in peace.” Truth took the older woman's arm and, carrying their unfinished cups of cocoa with them, they left the kitchen.
Truth would have chosen any other room in the house for a cozy chat, but Irene's destination turned out to be the Temple. It had not been completely tidied away from
the events of earlier in the evening; when Irene and Truth came in there was still a ring of stools in the middle of the floor, giving the space an eerie resemblance to a deserted classroom.
Irene pressed the button that turned on the lights, then sat down on a stool and patted the one next to hers invitingly.
Truth sat as she'd been bidden and stared into her cup. The fact that Irene had brought her here showed plainly enough that for Irene, this room held no terrors—and she had actually been here the night Katherine died.
“Tell me about my mother,” Truth said. “Did my—did Thorne love her, do you think?” she blurted out, flushing.
It was a childish question and an awkward one, but Irene gave it serious thought. Truth saw a faint smile tug at the corners of her mouth and light her eyes, as though whatever memories Irene had of those times were happy enough to blunt the horror of its end.
“She was his soul mate; there's no doubt of that in my mind. There were two women he loved that way—oh, not the way he loved me, but I don't grudge it them; better to have one-tenth of a man like Thorne and the memories afterward than all of something you'll only regret. But for Thorne—
“There were the two of them, Katherine and, well, let's just call her the other one. He couldn't have them both, and when he had to choose, he chose Katherine, even though it meant losing the other. Oh, it wasn't about jealousy—we were none of us jealous that way in those days, we were building a new world and all the rules were going to change. I think it was you as made the difference to Thorne when it came to Katherine, but there I'm telling tales out of school, and I haven't a right to. But he loved them both, and gave up one of his loves for the other, so never doubt Thorne loved your mother.”
Irene sipped at her cocoa, her mind obviously caught up in memories of those days.
“In a way it's as if Thorne Blackburn—of all people—was put on this earth to curb Katherine's wildness. You've got the look of your mother but there's more of Caro in you, to my mind. Stubborn, that one—Thorne always said that nothing could shift Caro but Caro, and once she'd made up her mind you could save your breath to cool your porridge. Oh, but Katherine, she was a one for desperate chances; reckless as Lucifer and just as proud. That night … she just went too far, that was all. She went too far.” Irene shook her head, the memory of the pain dimming the joy.
“Aunt Irene, what happened to Thorne that night?” The honorific slipped out before Truth realized it; she felt a sudden fierce love for the old woman, and for a moment she could almost imagine she remembered Irene from before.
“He … saw that she was dead. There's more to it than that, but I'm afraid I can't tell you; I'm sealed to the Circle.” Irene took up the tale easily. It was not necessary to specify which night—in the tale of Thorne Blackburn there was only one. “But he knew she was dead. He stripped off his jewels—they're like badges of rank, lovey, you can see him wearing them in those old photos—and threw them away; a ring, a necklace, and a bracelet—and cradled her in his arms, crying like a baby. But the police never found him, though they looked all around here for two days and put roadblocks as far south as Fishkill.”
She sighed and shook her head. “I tell you, it gave me quite a turn, seeing Julian wearing Thorne's bracelet. But it isn't the original, he told me, just a copy made to the specifications in the workbook. You take nine iron bands, you see—”
Irene rambled on, like a partridge fluttering in front of the hunters to draw attention away from her nest, but Truth refused to be diverted.
If this were true, then she'd been wrong. All these
years, when she'd blamed Thorne Blackburn for her mother's death, she'd been wrong.
“You said Thorne saw Katherine dead? How did she die? Julian said it was a drug overdose—was it? What happened? What happened to Thorne?” Truth demanded.
“I can't tell you,” Irene said simply. “You aren't sealed to the Circle. I swore, you see: to protect, conceal, and never reveal any art or arts, part or parts—”
“Yes, all right. Does Julian know?” Truth said impatiently.
“Oh yes. He asked me, and as soon as I was satisfied that he could work the proper Grade I told him.”
And that was something Truth couldn't do if she sat here till doomsday. “But the police—” she said in frustration. Surely
they
hadn't accepted an explanation like that? People who pleaded the Fifth Amendment these days went to jail, and that was reporters, never mind what would have happened to nut cultists in the sixties who tried it.
Irene shook her head sadly. “I'm sorry, pet; I'd tell you if I could, but it's like asking a priest what goes on in the confessional, don't you see? Oaths are real things and you can't break them. I can tell you what I told the police, though, and it's every bit of it true.”
She patted Truth's hand, and Truth forced herself to smile. It wasn't Irene's fault … .
That she was crazy? Or conscientious? Or simply loyal? Truth didn't know. It seemed that suddenly there were no villains any more, and that frightened her as much as evil might have.
“What I told them was this, and it's true enough, being all that outer eyes could see. A sudden storm blew up while we—the Inner Circle, all thirteen of us—were in the Temple, and it blew open the doors. The front doors, and the ones in here. Katherine—your poor mother—went into convulsions. They did decide later it was a drug overdose, which Thorne would never have permitted if
he'd known, you must believe that—but at least they called it an accident, or we'd all have been facing murder charges. But Johnny's father—that's our Johnny; one of us—the Circle as we were then—poor lad, he's been in the ground these fifteen years—had the money for some fancy lawyers, and if they didn't charge him, the rest of us had to get off too. I don't think they cared much, the police didn't, although if they could have got their hands on Thorne it would have been a different matter … .”
“Yes, Aunt Irene. But about that night. You said there was a storm?”
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