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An hour later, warmer and sipping on a glass of brandy to smooth out the edges, Philip slid his rook down the board and waited for Berg to realize the game would be over in four moves. Two moves later, the Warden got the message.

“Oh. You beat me again.” He tipped over his king, then sipped his whiskey. “You’re a much better player than me. Sorry, I can’t offer you a challenge.”

Philip leaned back in his chair. “No. You’re good. And I appreciate the distraction.” It’d been a weird couple of days, between Orl and that haunting presence, a presence he now knew wasn’t Orl. She had an entirely different feel—electric eel crossed with a pinecone. “You’re playing better than last night.”

“Benefit of taking on a stronger player, and I’ve had less to drink.” Berg raised his glass and held Philip’s eye a little longer than necessary. The man was flirting, a tempting proposition. Brandt’s oh-so-subtle nudge, nudge, wink, wink, conveyed that the team assumed he was sleeping with the Warden. Sure, sex was a great distraction and his favorite a hangover-free coping strategy. But he’d been performing under par, thanks to post-lacunae malaise. As Gervais had so kindly pointed out, over and over. And he was here on business. Instinct told him Berg was a decent guy, but he’d still need to pose his questions carefully.

Berg must’ve sensed hesitation because he straightened up and began resetting the chess board. Philip pulled a chapstick from his pocket and semi-discretely applied the ointment to his lips. It didn’t hurt to keep Berg interested, but also the chill in the yard and in this room had dried out his lips. Plus, nighttime power conservation translated to icy toes in bed, another reason to keep his bunking options open. He lay the chapstick on the table to serve as a reminder of sorts. “Do you know about a small cemetery? It’s out that way.” Philip indicated the direction with a wave. “Between a barn and a paddock. The earliest burials predate the 1700s, so the grave markers must’ve disintegrated long ago.”

Berg’s eyebrows shot up in genuine surprise. “No! How’d you find it?”

“Our historian came across a mention in his archive.” He’d need to remember to bring Jemin in on this lie. Hopefully, Jemin didn’t have a problem with convenient lies in the service of a greater truth.

“Hmm. That’s a surprise. The founder’s record doesn’t mention a graveyard. I suspect it’s an old family plot. This land was in private hands for centuries, a large prosperous farm, then several smaller, not so prosperous farms. Wouldn’t surprise me if several generations are buried on site. Later on, when the region was more populous, they buried folks just over the river in a worship-house plot.” He frowned. “That cemetery the home of our monster?”

Philip chuckled to divert serious consideration of the supernatural. The Warden’s monsters must have some rational explanation. “We inspected and nothing’s disturbed. Seems folks are laying quiet in those graves.”

Berg looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well, maybe. ‘Cept I have to twist some folk’s arms to pen the chickens at dusk. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn. But a few complain that yard gives ‘em the gooseflesh. I thought they were lazy, but maybe I was wrong.”

A few chicken-minders must have low-level perception; amazing, given the odds. “What happens now, if somebody dies on site?”

“Any death is official business, so we notify the regional coroner and transport the remains to New Delphi. Their office documents cause so nobody’s left wondering what happened. The family, if we can find one, can’t ever afford transport fees; which are astronomical, given refrigeration. So remains are utilized in the reforestation effort around Delphi. They’re trying to counteract borer damage by planting resistant tree species. Our folk end up plant food, is what I’m saying.” Berg made the circle of life sign with his fingers, then continued. “Course, we couldn’t find Lincold’s remains, which caused me a pile of paperwork. Come spring, he’ll be feeding fish and tad—”

The candle guttered out, leaving “tadpoles” hanging in the air. To keep the conversation sounding natural, he’d change the topic, lest his interest in mortuary practices sound excessive. No matter. The verbal and sub-verbal information he’d already gathered indicated the Warden was unaware of the barnyard’s recent grave.

“Hang on.” Berg stood and started patting down the top of a bureau while Philip’s eyes adjusted. Strong moonlight cast wavering shadows on the uneven floor. Shadow cloaked the room’s corners, and indistinct shapes silently loomed blue and black against the walls. He knew the dark masses were furnishings covered with clothing and mysterious objects in states of partial repair, farming implements or some sort of hobby; Berg was not a tidy man. So why was he unsettled?

He shifted to limit his view to Berg’s search for, presumably, a box of matches. Turning off his perceiving would be such a pleasure, but his mind, restless and relentless, kept sending out feelers, searching.

Nothing. Nothing is out there.

Tap. Tap.

“Somebody knocking?” muttered Berg. “Must be one of your crew, cause none of my people are insane enough to disturb me after dinner. Where’s those dog-gone matches?”

Philip felt outside the door, then probed the hall, finding nothing either alive or dead. Nobody was at the door. The hair rose on his arm.

Tap. Tap. Scritch.

Not the door, but—

A hiss, a flare, a hint of sulfur, and Berg lit the candle. “I have to reseal that cuss-blighted window again. First the candle blows out. Now the room’s cold as the ice-house.”

Tap. Tap. Scritch.

Berg hopped toward the door, covering an impressive distance in move. “And that noise ain’t coming from the door! That’s coming from the floor!”

“Yep.” Philip could sense it now, something stone cold, powdery, and highly disordered. Dust and mold. Something terribly…not alive but in motion. He shoved his chair from the table and joined Berg near the door.

“Dang, it’s freezing all the sudden. Hope we ain’t lost the apples in this snap. Please tell me those is rats.”

“Nope. Not rats.” Philip outlined the shape’s hazy edge. It recoiled momentarily, then thunk. The floor shook, and with a screech of nails, a short board popped up, leaving a two centimeters gap. In the dim yellow candlelight, four long fingers grasped the floor. Adrenaline shot through Philip’s belly like lightning.

Berg grabbed the back of Philip’s jacket and yanked him to the door. “Don’t be fooled. That’s no kid.”

“Too big for a kid, and busting through floorboards pretty much excludes—”

“Don’t matter. I’m not big on dead things that move. Let’s get out of here.”

CRACK. An overly long arm burst through the floor, and they bolted into the hall. Berg locked his door, his face grim in the emergency exit tape’s dim blue light. “Never thought I’d be locking something inside my room.”

“A locked door won’t matter, since it can access the crawlspace.”

“I know. But locking the door gives me a little comfort.” Berg frowned. “Steaming piles of cow poop! We can’t have monsters creeping around, sneaking up on sleeping people. What’re we going to do?”

What were they going to do?

Orl pushed between the two of them and pressed her ear to the door. He tuned his chip to the slightly higher frequency that optimized her signal. It picked up an energy field spreading from the places her fingertips met the wood and generated a visual representation for his benefit, a radiant field of blues and gold.

Philip turned to Berg. “Maybe you should wake everybody and gather them in the mess hall. Orl and I are going to investigate.”

Berg eyed the bedraggled girl leaning against the door and raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but be careful. Those things aren’t only disgusting, they’re lethal. Don’t get surrounded. Run at the first sign of trouble. Second sign gonna be too late.” Then he was off rapping on doors.

Philip tried to link into Orl, but Agnet and Brandt interrupted him.

“What do you have?” asked Agnet.

“Mass without consciousness, so not a ghost. I’m presuming a…um…monster.” Such a stupid term. “Orl’s investigating, but I can’t contact her; the—uh—monster must be swamping her band width.”

Agnet frowned, as if thinking Orl was throwing up walls. But Philip was pretty sure she was wrong. Suddenly, the hall was crowded with consciousnesses, diminishing his chances of syncing with Orl and keeping tabs on the monster. Berg was shepherding staff members to the stairway. Jemin popped out of a door. Emanating vibes that said, “interested in an academic, low empathy manner but not interested enough to risk my neck,” he hustled to the stair and stumbled. His glasses slid off his nose and rattled down the stair. Jemin followed them down. Now everybody else needed to clear out. “We’ll need some space to work. Give us a few interference-free minutes to analyze this thing.”

Agnet and Brandt exchanged a concerned look.

“It’s just the one?” she asked.

“I think so. Move away and let me check.” He shooed them to the stairway, opened his chip wide, and scanned Berg’s room. The dark thing barely registered beyond a pervasive chill. It moved slowly, almost randomly, like it’d lost focus or goal. Two people radiating fear and excitement trotted past, breaking his contact. “Just the one.”

“All right,” Agnet called from the stair. “We’ll wait here.”

“Too close. Go down a flight. I’ll need ten minutes or so. If we get into trouble, we’ll run.”

Unease flitted across Agnet’s face. “Ten minutes, starting now. Then we’re back with…what should we bring?”

“Hard to say. All I know is that it successfully interacts with matter and is cold.”

“Might burn,” said Brandt.

“So might the building,” said Agnet.

“So we make it colder. Freeze it solid and break it up,” said Brandt.

“Then bring ice, an ax, a broom or rake, and a big bag.” Philip had been joking, but they both hurried down the stair. Action types on the go.

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About the author

stellajo

Bio: Writing about unusual people in unusual situations with works falling somewhere between science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Author of Harmony Lost and Discord and Harmony, available direct from website or multiple ebook retailers.

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