Steve insisted on being present when Hank was removed from the house.
“It's not entertaining,” I warned him. “It's not like going to the movies and seeing a lot of special effects. You can walk away after you've been to the movies without a mark on your soul. But seeing a ghost removed impacts you, in inexplicable ways. Your own spirit will shiver when you it bears witness to another being forced forever out of the mortal realm.
“I would think my soul would rejoice. Aren't we righting a wrong?” Steve asked.
“Yes, but we're using force to do it. Souls don't like to be forced. Your own won't want to see this happen.”
“I'm going,” Steve insisted.
Father Blackman accepted Steve's presence without question. He handed my cousin the incense burner, and told him where to stand.
“Will you call the ghost?” Father Blackman asked me.
I nodded and pulled a cheese-cracker out of my pocket. The orange squares had taken on almost as much significance as a communion wafer. Which reminded me...
“Did you ever talk to Mrs. Johnson about Hank's obsession with food?” I asked Father Blackman.
He smiled. “When Hank was alive, it was Nora who obsessed about food. Hank choked once, here in the kitchen. He performed the Heimlich on himself using the rounded top-post of a chair.”
“And after that, Nora nagged him to take smaller bites,” I concluded. Father Blackman nodded. “Good to know,” I murmured.
“Why? Is is helpful?” asked Steve.
“Choking, I'm told, is a very unpleasant experience. Hank's experienced it twice. I suspect he remembers quite vividly what it feels like.” I held the cracker high above my head and crushed it between my fingers.
“SMALLER BITES!” screamed Hank.
Instantly, Father Blackman threw a handful of fine, white salt in the air. He signaled to Steve, who made quick circle with smoke from the incense burner. The salt and the smoke blended together. They hovered then settled slowly into a vaguely human form.
“Greetings, Hank Johnson,” I said.
The form took on definition. A tall man in his early eighties, bald, but still strong with a workman's bulky build. “You,” he growled.
“Yes. The name's Maryanne Wells, by the way. Not that I expect you to care.”
“I don't.” Hank Johnson looked around the room slowly. He spied the priest and sneered. “Going to try again, are you?”
I rubbed the cracker bits between my fingers to get Hank's attention. I wanted him focused on me, not the priest. Hank turned around and glared at me.
“Don't toy with me,” he said. Suddenly, he grabbed the edge of the table. Hank lifted the unwieldy piece of furniture and tossed it across the room. The priest and Steve ducked, dropping down to the floor.
I laughed. “What a dangerous power,” I said. “Has it occurred to you, Hank, that if you are sufficiently corporeal to lift up furniture and throw it, you might be subject to physical things hurting you?”
“What do you mean?”
I pulled a fresh cracker out of my pocket. “I wonder what it would be like to choke to death twice. Say we were to force this into your throat whole, and the little corners got caught. What would it be like for you to feel the sharp edges digging in, to know your air was being cut off, to feel fluids seeping back from your mouth and getting caught in your throat.”
Hank backed away from me. His eyes were fixed on the cracker. “You can't do it,” he said; “It's impossible.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe if you can lift a table, a cracker can choke you.”
He drew himself to his full height and swelled with range. “You can't force it into me. You have no power.” He raised his ghostly arms and shouted, “Try and hold me down.”
“If you insist,” I said mildly. I looked beyond Hank to a spot near the window. “Now, Anthony,” I shouted.
Anthony materialized through the wall and grabbed Hank from behind. He wrapped his arms around Hank's trying to pin down the stronger ghost's limbs. The two struggled and stumbled around the kitchen.
I dodged around the ghosts and joined Father Blackman. “Open the portal to the next realm,” I ordered him.
Father Blackman stared at the sight of the wrestling ghosts. “Why...why are there two?” he gasped.
“The new guy's on our side. Quickly, open the portal.”
Fumbling a little, the priest pulled out his bible and began to read in Latin. I closed my ears to the words and turned back to the ghosts.
“Hold him down, Anthony,” I shouted; “I'm coming with the cracker.”
Hank struggles instantly increased.
“It's done,” Father Blakman
“Now, Anthony,” I yelled.
Anthony nodded and dragged Hank to the portal. The suction from inside pulled at them both. Father Blackman gestured for Steve to wave the incense, as he began to pray aloud. Anthony released Hank and floated back.
Hank choked on the incense and stumbled closer to the portal. I looked into his eyes and saw the resolve – he would fight us, to the better end.
“You'll have to drag him,” I told Anthony.
He looked at me mournfully for a moment then floated over to the portal. With one hand Anthony grasped the edge. He let the bulk of his form drift inside. The he reached out his free arm and grabbed Hank around the neck.
“Time to go,” Anthony said.
Hank screamed and clawed at Anthony's arm. Father Blackman prayed louder. Hank glared and tried to kick the priest. The motion threw Hank off balance, allowing Anthony to yank him into the portal.
“NO,” Hank screamed. He hovered for a moment in the center of the portal, before the force sucked him in. We watched him disappear from sight.
“He's someone else's problem now,” I said. “Anthony, climb out of there.”
The ghost gasped and shook.
“Quit playing,” I said, alarmed.
Anthony looked at me. “I'm not,” he said weakly. “The pull is too strong. I don't have enough energy left to fight.”
I grabbed Father Blackman's shoulder. “Close the portal, quickly.”
He flipped through the bible. I watched him scan handwritten notes in the margins. “I'm not sure I can,” he confessed.
“What? What do you mean?”
“After my last encounter with Hank, I realized he was stronger than other ghosts. For this battle I changed the nature of the portal, to better deal with Hank. It absolutely will not close until it's captured every ghost in the house.”
No. Oh, no.
When I'd goaded Anthony into helping me, I hadn't really believed there was any danger to him. I wanted to scare him, that was all. He needed to know there were worse things to fear than our mortal enemies. I never meant for him to face those things.
“Anthony,” I cried out. I lunged for his hand, only to see my solid fingers pass through his own. There was nothing I could do to keep him here.
He smiled sadly. “My time's up. We both knew this day would come.”
I shouldn't have told him to come. “I'm sorry,” I choked out. I started to cry. It was all my fault. “I knew you betrayed us, but I could never think of you as a traitor. I thought...I thought...”
“It's okay, baby.” Anthony grabbed the lip of the portal with both hands. He used the last of his strength to pull himself forward. “Got to tell you something,” he gasped. I stepped as close as I dared, and looked him in the eye.
Anthony said, “The Vildru sorcerers are falling apart. They're arguing with each other. Two groups. Two plans to rule the world. Winner takes all.” He grimaced. I looked beyond him and saw the vortex growing in strength.
“Paris...was just the beginning,” Anthony gasped. “It was a test.”
“What will they do next?” I asked.
“One group is stronger than the other. A natural winner. But if you take down the strongest, first...then the weakest...save...the world.”
“Who? Who's stronger?”
“Don't know. But they experimented on...the same...victim.” He reached out a trembling hand. The vortex roared and grabbed at his feet. “You have to save her,” Anthony shouted; “you have to save -”
He was gone. The portal folded in on itself then shut with a bang.
“What the hell was that about,” demanded a wide-eyed Steve.
I wiped away my tears. “You don't want to know,” I said thickly.
“Is someone in danger?” Father Blackman asked.
“Everyone. But if you're wondering if Anthony was referring to someone in particular, he was. And I know who.”