The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(10)

by Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood gave a gasp of effort. There was a crack as wood grains tore.

All across the study came a sudden rustling: magazines flipping open, books moving, dusty papers lifting off their piles like flocks of rising birds. My coat was pressed against me. Wind howled around the margins of the room. The ghost-girl’s hair and dress were motionless. She stood staring through me, like I was the one made of memory and air.

Beside my boots the filings began to drift and scatter.

‘Hurry it up,’ I said.

‘Got it! Give me the seal.’

I turned as quickly as I dared – the key thing now was not to cross the iron line – and offered him the folded net. Just as I did so, Lockwood gave a final heave upon the crowbar and the board gave way. It cracked across its width, near the bottom of our hole, and ruptured forward, carrying with it two others that were nailed to it by connecting spurs of wood. The crowbar slipped from its recess, and suddenly came free. Lockwood lost his balance; he fell sideways and would have tumbled right out of our circle, had I not lunged across to steady him.

We clung together for a moment, teetering above the filings. ‘Thanks, Luce,’ Lockwood said. ‘That was almost bad.’ He grinned. I nodded in relief.

At which point the broken boards fell out towards us, revealing the contents of the wall.

We’d known. Of course we’d known, but it was still a shock. And shocks that make you both jerk backwards are never the best when you’re already off-balance; when the two of you are already on the brink. So it was that I didn’t get much of a look inside the cavity before we toppled over together, arms locked, legs tangled, Lockwood above and me below, beyond the protection of the iron.

But I’d seen enough. Enough to have the image seared upon my mind.

She still had her blonde hair; that was the same, though so smirched with soot and dust, so choked up with cobwebs that it was impossible to tell where it finished or began. The rest was harder to recognize: a thing of bones, bared teeth and shrunken skin, dark and twisted as burned wood, and still propped snugly in the bed of bricks where it had rested maybe fifty years. The straps of the pretty summer dress hung loose upon the jutting bones. Orange-yellow sunflowers glinted dimly within a shroud of webs.

I hit the floor. The back of my head struck wood and the dark was seared by light. Then Lockwood’s weight drove down onto me. My breath burst through my mouth.

The brightness faded. My mind cleared, my eyes opened. I was lying on my back with the silver chain-net still clutched tightly in one hand. That was the good news.

I’d also dropped my rapier again.

Lockwood had already rolled off me and away. I rolled too, knelt back into a crouch, looked frantically for my blade.

What did I see instead? A mess of iron filings, scattered by our fall. Lockwood kneeling, head down, hair flopped forward, struggling to pull his sword clear of his long, heavy greatcoat.

And the ghost-girl, floating silently above him.

‘Lockwood!’ His head jerked up. His coat had got twisted tight beneath his knees, and was preventing access to his belt. He couldn’t free his sword in time.

The girl dropped low, trailing wreaths of other-light. Long pale hands stretched out towards his face.

I tore a canister from my belt and hurled it without a thought. It passed straight through the stooping shape and struck the wall behind. The glass tab broke; sheets of magnesium fire licked out and sliced across the girl, who vanished in billowing plumes of mist. Lockwood threw himself sideways, iron sparks flickering in his hair.

Greek Fire’s good stuff, no question. The mix of iron, magnesium and salt hits your Visitor three ways at once. Red-hot iron and salt cut through its substance, while the searing light of the ignited magnesium causes it intolerable pain. But (and here’s the snag) even though it burns out fast, it has a tendency to set other things on fire as well. Which is why the Fittes Manual advises against its use indoors, except in controlled conditions.

The present conditions involved a study filled with papers and a very vengeful Spectre. Would you call that even the slightest bit ‘controlled’?

Not really.

Something somewhere wailed with pain and fury. The wind in the study, which had perhaps died back a little, suddenly redoubled. Burning papers, ignited by the first surge from the canister, were plucked aloft, blown directly at my face. I batted them away, watched them whirl off, willed by something unseen. They blew in squalls across the room, landed on books and shelves, on desk and curtains, on curls of wallpaper, on bone-dry files and letters, on dusty cushions on the chair . . .

Like stars at dusk, hundreds of little fires winked into being, one after the other, high, low and all around.

Lockwood had risen to his feet, hair and coat both smoking. He flicked his coat aside. A flash of silver: the rapier was in his hand. His eyes were fixed past me on a shadowed corner of the room. Here, in the midst of whirling papers, a shape was starting to re-form.

‘Lucy!’ His voice was hard to make out against the howling wind. ‘Plan E! We follow Plan E!’

Plan E? What the devil was Plan E? Lockwood had so many. And it was hard to think straight with every other stack of magazines going up in flames, and those flames leaping higher, and the way back to the landing suddenly blocked by smoke and flaring light.

‘Lockwood!’ I cried. ‘The door—’

‘No time! I’ll draw her off! You do the Source!’

Oh yes. That was Plan E. Luring the Visitor away from where the crucial action was. And already Lockwood was dancing through the smoke, moving with insolent confidence towards the waiting shape. Burning fragments blew about his head; he ignored them, kept his rapier lowered at his side. He seemed unprotected. The girl made a sudden rush; Lockwood leaped back, rapier swinging up at the last minute to parry an outstretched spectral hand. Her long blonde hair, blending with the smoke, curled round at him from either side; he ducked and feinted, slicing the misty tendrils into nothing. His sword was a blur of movement. Safe behind its flashing steel, he steadily retreated, leading the ghost ever further from the chimney breast and the broken wall.

In other words, giving me my chance. I plunged forward, fighting against the raging wind. Air slammed into me, screaming with a human voice. Sparks spat against my face; the breath was driven from my lungs. Flames rose up on every side, reaching out as I passed by. The wrath of the air redoubled. I was slowed almost to a standstill, but ploughed my way onwards, step by step.