The circus was in town.
Not just any circus, either, but Carson & Kindred’s Circus Fabulatoris and Menagerie of Mystical Marvels. The circus Jerusalem Morrow ran away to join when she was seventeen years old. Her family for seven years.
She laid the orange flyer on the kitchen table beside a tangle of beads and wire and finished putting away her groceries. Her smile stretched, bittersweet. She hadn’t seen the troupe in five years, though she still dreamt of them. Another world, another life, before she came back to this quiet house.
Cats drifted through the shadows in the back yard as she put out food. The bottle tree—her grandmother’s tree—chimed in the October breeze; no ghosts tonight. Glass gleamed cobalt and emerald, diamond and amber, jewel-bright colors among autumn-brown leaves. Awfully quiet this year, so close to Halloween.
Salem glanced at the flyer again as she boiled water for tea. Brother Ezra, Madame Aurora, Luna and Sol the acrobats—familiar names, and a few she didn’t know. She wondered if Jack still had the parrots and that cantankerous monkey. The show was here until the end of the month. . .
It’s the past. Over and done. She buried the paper under a stack of mail until only one orange corner showed.
Salem woke that night to the violent rattle of glass and wind keening over narrow mouths. The bottle tree had caught another ghost.
She flipped her pillow to the cool side and tried to go back to sleep, but the angry ringing wouldn’t let her rest. With a sigh, she rolled out of bed and tugged on a pair of jeans. Floorboards creaked in a familiar rhythm as she walked to the back door.
A cat shrieked across the yard—they never came too near when the bottles were full. Grey and charcoal night, stars milky pinpricks against the velvet predawn darkness. Grass crunched cool and dry beneath her bare feet.
The shadows smelled of ash and bitter smoke. Goosebumps crawled up her arms, tightened her breasts.
“Stay away, witch.”
Salem spun, searching for the voice. Something gleamed ghost-pale on her roof. A bird.
“Get away!” White wings flapped furiously.
The wind gusted hot and harsh and glass clashed. Salem turned, reaching for the dancing bottles.
A bottle shattered, and the wind hit her like a sandstorm, like the breath of Hell. Glass stung her outstretched palm as smoke seared her lungs. She staggered back, stumbled and fell, blind against the scouring heat.
Then it was over. Salem gasped, tears trickling down her stinging cheeks. The tree shivered in the stillness, shedding singed leaves.
Cursing, she staggered to her feet. She cursed again as glass bit deep into her heel; blood dripped hot and sticky down her instep. The burning thing was gone, and so was the bird.
Salem limped back to the house as quickly as she could.
For two days she watched and listened, but caught no sign of ghosts or anything else. She picked up the broken glass and replaced the shattered bottle, brushed away the soot and charred leaves. The tree was old and strong; it would survive.
At night she dreamed.
She dreamed of a lake of tears, of fire that ate the moon. She dreamed of ropes that bit her flesh, of shining chains. She dreamed of trains. She dreamed of a snake who gnawed the roots of the world.
On the third day, a bird landed on the kitchen windowsill. It watched her through the screen with one colorless round eye and fluffed ragged feathers. Salem paused, soapsuds clinging to her hands, and met its gaze. Her shoulder blades prickled.
It held a piece of orange paper crumpled in one pale talon.
“Be careful,” she said after a moment. “There are a lot of cats out there.”
The bird stared at her and let out a low, chuckling caw. “The circus is in town. Come see the show.” White wings unfurled and it flapped away. The paper fluttered like an orange leaf as it fell.
Salem turned to see her big marmalade tomcat sitting on the kitchen table, fur all on end. He bared his teeth for a long, steam-kettle hiss before circling three times and settling down with his head on his paws. She glanced through the back screen door, but the bird was gone and the bottles rattled empty in the sticky-cool October breeze.
That night she dreamed of thunder, of blood leaking through white cloth, shining black in the moonlight. No portent, just an old nightmare. She woke trembling, tears cold on her cheeks.
The next morning she wove spells and chains. She threaded links of copper and silver and bronze and hung them with shimmering glass, each bead a bottlesnare. They hung cool around her neck, a comforting weight that chimed when she moved.
As the sun vanished behind the ceiling of afternoon clouds, Salem went to see the circus.
The Circus Fabulatoris sprawled across the Ipswich County fairgrounds, a glittering confusion of lights and tents and spinning rides. The wind smelled of grease and popcorn and sugar and Salem bit her lip to stop her eyes from stinging.
It had been five years; it shouldn’t feel like coming home.
She didn’t recognize any faces along the Midway, smiled and ignored the shouts to play a game, win a prize, step right up only a dollar. Ezra would be preaching by now, calling unsuspecting rubes to Heaven. Jack would be in the big top—which wasn’t very big at all—announcing the acrobats and sword-swallowers. He’d have a parrot or a monkey on his shoulder. It was Tuesday, so probably the monkey.
She found a little blue tent, painted with shimmering stripes of color like the northern lights. Madame Aurora, the sign read, fortunes told, futures revealed.
Candlelight rippled across the walls inside, shimmered on beaded curtains and sequined scarves. Incense hung thick in the air, dragon’s blood and patchouli.
“Come in, child,” a woman’s French-accented voice called, hidden behind sheer draperies, “come closer. I see the future and the past. I have the answers you seek.”
Salem smiled. “That accent still ain’t fooling anyone.”
Silence filled the tent.
“Salem?” Shadows shifted behind the curtain, and a blonde head peered around the edge. Blue eyes widened. “Salem!”
And Madame Aurora rushed toward her in a flurry of scarves and bangles and crushed Salem in a tea rose-scented hug.
“Oh my god, Jerusalem! God damnit, honey, you said you’d write me, you said you’d call.” France gave way to Savannah as Raylene Meadows caught Salem by the shoulders and shook her. She stopped shaking and hugged again, tight enough that her corset stays dug into Salem’s ribs.
“Are you back?” Ray asked, finally letting go. “Are you going on with us?”
Salem’s heart sat cold as glass in her chest. “No, sweetie. I’m just visiting. A little bird thought I should stop by.” She looked around the tent, glanced at Ray out of the corner of one eye. “Has Jack started using a white crow?”
Ray stilled for an instant, eyes narrowing. “No. No, that’s Jacob’s bird.”
“He’s a conjure man. We picked him up outside of Memphis.” Her lips curled in that little smile that meant she was sleeping with someone, and still enjoying it.
“Maybe I should meet him.”
“Have you come back to steal another man from me?”
Salem cocked an eyebrow. “If I do, will you help me bury the body?”
Ray flinched, like she was the one who had nightmares about it. Maybe she did. Then she met Salem’s eyes and smiled. “I will if you need me to.”
“Where can I find Jacob?”
Ray’s jaw tightened. “In his trailer, most likely. He’s between acts right now. It’s the red one on the far end of the row.”
“Thanks. And. . .don’t tell Jack or Ezra I’m here, okay? Not yet.”
“You gonna see them before you disappear again?”
“Yeah. I’ll try.” Laughing voices approached outside. “Better put that bad accent back on.” And Salem ducked outside.
The wind shifted as she left the cluster of tents and booths, and she caught the tang of lightning. Magic. The real thing, not the little spells and charms she’d taught Ray so many years ago.
Jack had always wanted a real magician. But what did a carnival conjurer have to do with her dreams, or the angry thing that so easily broke free of a spelled bottle?
She followed the tire-rutted path to a trailer painted in shades of blood and rust. A pale shadow flitted through the clouds, drifted down to perch on the roof. The crow watched Salem approach, but stayed silent.
Someone hummed carelessly inside, broke off as Salem knocked. A second later the door swung open to frame a man’s shadowed face and shirtless shoulder.
“Hello.” He ran a hand through a shock of salt and cinnamon curls. “What can I do for you?” His voice was smoke and whiskey, rocks being worn to sand. But not the crow’s voice.
“Are you Jacob?”
“Jacob Grim, magician, conjurer, and prestidigitator, at your service.”
“That’s an interesting bird you have there.”
His stubbled face creased in a coyote’s smile. “That she is. Why don’t you step inside, Miss. . .”
“Jerusalem.” He offered a hand, and she shook it; his grip was strong, palm dry and callused. She climbed the metal stairs and stepped into the narrow warmth of the trailer.
Jacob turned away, and the lamplight fell across his back. Ink covered his skin, black gone greenish with age. A tree rose against his spine, branches spreading across his shoulders and neck, roots disappearing below the waist of his pants.
He caught her staring and grinned. “Excuse my dishabille. I’m just getting ready for my next act.” He shrugged on a white shirt and did up the buttons with nimble fingers. The hair on his chest was darker, nearly black. Ray usually liked them younger and prettier, but Salem could see the appeal.
“How may I help you, Miss Jerusalem?”
She cocked her head, studied him with otherwise eyes. His left eye gleamed with witchlight, and magic sparked through the swirling dark colors of his aura. The real thing, all right.
“Your bird invited me to see the show.”
“And see it you certainly should. It’s a marvelous display of magic and legerdemain, if I do say so myself.” He put on a black vest and jacket, slipping cards and scarves into pockets and sleeves.
“Actually, I was hoping you might have an answer or two for me.”
He smiled. Not a coyote—something bigger. A wolf’s smile. “I have as many answers as you have questions, my dear. Some of them may even be true.” He smoothed back his curls and pulled on a black hat with a red feather in the band.
The door swung open on a cold draft before Salem could press. A young girl stood outside, maybe nine or ten. Albino-pale in the grey afternoon light, the hair streaming over her shoulders nearly as white as her dress. Salem shivered as the breeze rushed past her, much colder than the day had been.
“Time to go,” she said to Jacob, her voice low for a child’s, and rough. She turned and walked away before he could answer.
“Your daughter?” Salem asked.
“Not mine in blood or flesh, but I look after her. Memory is my assistant.” He laid a hand on her arm, steering her gently toward the door. “Come watch the show, Jerusalem, and afterwards perhaps I’ll invent some answers for you.”
So she sat in the front row in the big top and watched Jacob’s show. He pulled scarves from his sleeves and birds from his hat—Jack’s parrots, not the white crow. He conjured flowers for the ladies, read men’s minds. He pulled a blooming rose from behind Salem’s ear and presented it with a wink and a flourish. Velvet-soft and fragrant when she took it, but when she looked again it was made of bronze, tight-whorled petals warming slowly to her hand.
He tossed knives at Memory and sawed her in half. She never spoke, never blinked. It was hard to tell in the dizzying lights, but Salem was fairly sure the girl didn’t cast a shadow.
She watched the crowd, saw the delight on their faces. Jack had wanted an act like this for years.
But not all the spectators were so amused. A man lingered in the shadows, face hidden beneath the brim of a battered hat. Salem tried to read his aura, but a rush of heat made her eyes water, leaking tears down tingling cheeks. The smell of char filled her nose, ashes and hot metal. When her vision cleared, he was gone.
After the show, she caught up with Jacob at his trailer. Ray was with him, giggling and leaning on his arm. She sobered when she saw Salem. The two of them had given up on jealousy a long time ago; Salem wondered what made the other woman’s eyes narrow so warily.
“Excuse me, my dear,” Jacob said to Ray, detaching himself gently from her grip. “I promised Jerusalem a conversation.”
Ray paused to brush a kiss across Salem’s cheek before she opened the trailer door. “Try not to shoot this one,” she whispered.
“I’m not making any promises,” Salem replied with a smile.
She and Jacob walked in silence, away from the lights and noise to the edge of the fairgrounds, where the ground sloped down through a tangle of brush and trees toward the shore of White Bear Lake. The water sprawled toward the horizon, a black mirror in the darkness. She made out a bone-pale spire on the edge of the water—a ruined church, the only building left of the ghost town the lake had swallowed.
Jacob pulled out a cigarette case, offered Salem one. She took it, though she hadn’t smoked in years. Circuses, cigarettes, strange men—she was relearning all sorts of bad habits today. He cupped his hands around a match and she leaned close; he smelled of musk and clean salt sweat. Orange light traced the bones of his face as he lit his own.
“So, witch, ask your questions.”
She took a drag and watched the paper sear. “Who is the burning man?”
“Ah.” Smoke shimmered as he exhaled. “An excellent question, and one deserving of an interesting answer.” He turned away, broken-nosed profile silhouetted against the fairground lights.
“These days he’s a train man—conductor and fireman and engineer, all in one. He runs an underground railroad, but not the kind that sets men free.” His left eye glinted as he glanced at her. “Have you, perchance, noticed a dearth of spirits in these parts?”
Salem shivered, wished she’d thought to wear a coat. Jacob shrugged his jacket off and handed it to her. “This train man is taking the ghosts? Taking them where?”
“Below. Some he’ll use to stoke the furnace, others to quench his thirst. And any that are left when he reaches the station he’ll give to his masters.”
“What are they?”
“Nothing pleasant, my dear, nothing pleasant at all.”
“What do you have to do with this?”
“I’ve been tracking him. I nearly had him in Mississippi, but our paths parted—he follows the rails, and the Circus keeps to the freeways.”
“So it was just bad luck he got caught in my bottle tree?”
“Your good luck that he left you in peace. He hunts ghosts, but I doubt he’d scruple to make one if he could.”
“So why the invitation?”
He smiled. “A witch whose spells can trap the Conductor, even for a moment, is a powerful witch indeed. You could be of no little help to me.”
“I’m not in the business of hunting demons, or ghosts.”
“You keep a bottle tree.”
“It was my grandmother’s. And it keeps them away. I like my privacy.”
“He’ll be going back soon, with his load. The end of the month.”
He nodded. “That’s all the time those souls have left, before they’re lost.”
“I’m sorry for them.” She dropped her cigarette, crushed the ember beneath her boot. “I really am. And I wish you luck. But it’s not my business.”
“He takes children.”
Salem laughed, short and sharp, and tossed his jacket back to him. “You don’t know my buttons to press them.”
He grinned and stepped closer, his warmth lapping against her. Not a tall man, but he moved like one. “I’d like to find them.”
“I bet you would. Good night, Jacob. I enjoyed the show.” And she turned and walked away.
That night Salem drifted in and out of restless sleep. No dreams to keep her up tonight, only the wind through the window, light as a thief, and the hollowness behind her chest. A dog howled somewhere in the distance and she tossed in her cold bed.
Five years this winter, since she’d come back to nurse her grandmother through the illnesses of age that not even their witchery could cure, until Eliza finally died, and left Salem her house, her bottle tree, and all the spells she knew. Years of sleeping alone, of selling bottles and beads and charms and seeing living folk twice a month at best.
We’ll always work best alone, her grandmother had said. Five years ago, Salem had been willing to believe it. She’d had her fill of people—circus lights and card tricks, grifting and busking. The treachery of the living, the pleas and the threats of the dead. Dangerous men and their smiles. Living alone seemed so much easier, if it meant she never had to scrub blood and gunpowder from her hands again, never had to dig a shallow grave at the edge of town.
But she wasn’t sure she wanted to spend another five years alone.
October wore on, and the leaves of the bottle tree rattled and drifted across the yard. Salem carved pumpkins and set them to guard her porch, though no children ever came so far trick-or-treating. She wove metal and glass and silk to sell in town. She wove spells.
The moon swelled, and by its milksilver light she scried the rain barrel. The water showed her smoke and flame and church bells, and her own pale reflection.
A week after she’d visited the circus, someone knocked on her door. Salem looked up from her beads and spools of wire and shook her head.
Jacob stood on her front step, holding his hat in his hands. His boots were dusty, jacket slung over one shoulder. He grinned his wolf’s grin. “Good afternoon, ma’am. I wondered if I might trouble you for a drink of water.”
Salem’s eyes narrowed as she fought a smile. “Did you walk all this way?”
“I was in the mood for a stroll, and a little bird told me you lived hereabouts.” He raised ginger brows. “Does your privacy preclude hospitality, or are you going to ask me in?”
She sighed. “Come inside.”
The bone charm over the door shivered just a little as he stepped inside, but that might have been the wind. She led him to the kitchen, aware of his eyes on her back as they crossed the dim and creaking hall.
The cat stood up on the table as they entered, orange hackles rising. Salem tensed, wondered if she’d made a mistake after all. But Jacob held out one hand and the tom walked toward him, pausing at the edge of the table to sniff the outstretched fingers. After a moment his fur settled and he deigned to let the man scratch his ears.
“What’s his name?” Jacob asked.
“Vengeance Is Mine Sayeth the Lord. You can call him Vengeance, though I’m pretty sure he thinks of himself as the Lord.”
Jacob smiled, creasing the corners of autumn-grey eyes; his smile made her shiver, not unpleasantly.
“Sit down,” she said. “Would you like some coffee, or tea?”
“No, thank you. Water is fine.”
She filled a glass and set the water pitcher on the table amidst all her bottles and beads. Vengeance sniffed it and decided he’d rather have what was in his bowl. Jacob drained half the glass in one swallow.
“Nice tree.” He tilted his stubbled chin toward the backyard, where glass gleamed in the tarnished light. He picked up a strand of opalite beads from the table; they shimmered like tears between his blunt fingers. “Very pretty. Are you a jeweler too?”
She shrugged, leaning one hip against the counter. “I like to make things. Pretty things, useful things.”
“Things that are pretty and useful are best.” He ran a hand down the curve of the sweating pitcher and traced a design on the nicked tabletop. Salem shuddered at a cold touch on the small of her back.
Her lips tightened. Vengeance looked up from his bowl and rumbled like an engine. He leapt back on the table, light for his size, and sauntered toward Jacob. Big orange paws walked right through the damp design and Salem felt the charm break.
“Did you think you could come into my house and ‘witch me?”
“I could try.”
“You’ll have to try harder than that.”
“I will, won’t I.”
He stood and moved toward her. Salem stiffened, palms tingling, but she didn’t move, even when he leaned into her, hands braced against the counter on either side. His lips brushed hers, cold at first but warming fast. The salt-sweet taste of him flooded her mouth and her skin tightened.
After a long moment he pulled away, but Salem still felt his pulse in her lips. Her blood pounded like surf in her ears.
His scarred hands brushed the bottom of her shirt. “You said something about buttons. . .”
“Will you help me?” he asked later, in the darkness of her bedroom. The smell of him clung to her skin, her sheets, filled her head till it was hard to think of anything else.
Salem chuckled, her head pillowed on his shoulder. “You think that’s all it takes to change my mind?”
“All? You want more?”
She ran her fingers over his stomach; scars spiderwebbed across his abdomen, back and front, like something had torn him open. Older, fainter scars cross-hatched his arms. Nearly every inch of him was covered in cicatrices and ink.
“Is prestidigitation such dangerous work?”
“It is indeed.” He slid a hand down the curve of her hip, tracing idle patterns on her thigh. “But not unrewarding.”
“What will you do if you catch this demon of yours?”
He shrugged. “Find another one. The world is full of thieves and predators and dangerous things.”
“Things like you?”
“Yes.” His arms tightened around her, pressing her close. “And like you, my dear.” She stiffened, but his fingers brushed her mouth before she could speak. “Tell me you’re not a grifter, Jerusalem.”
“I gave it up,” she said at last.
“And you miss it. You’re alone out here, cold and empty as those bottles.”
She snorted. “And you think you’re the one to fill me?”
His chuckle rumbled through her. “I wouldn’t presume. Raylene misses you, you know. The others do too. Wouldn’t you be happier if you came back to the show?”
The glass in her chest cracked, a razorline fracture of pain. “You don’t know what would make me happy,” she whispered.
Callused fingers trailed up the inside of her thigh. “I can learn.”
He rose from her bed at the first bruise of dawn. “Will you think about it, if nothing else?” Cloth rustled and rasped as he dressed in the darkness.
“I’ll think about it.” She doubted she’d be able to do anything else.
“We’re here through Sunday. The circus and the train.” He stamped his boots on and leaned over the bed, a darker shadow in the gloom.
“I know.” She stretched up to kiss him, stubble scratching her already-raw lips.
Her bed was cold when he was gone. She lay in the dark, listening to hollow chimes.
Salem spent the day setting the house in order, sweeping and dusting and checking all the wards. Trying not to think about her choices.
She’d promised her grandmother that she’d stay, settle down and look after the house. No more running off chasing Midway lights, no more trouble. It had been an easy promise as Eliza lay dying, Salem’s heart still sore with guns and graves, with the daughter she’d lost in a rush of blood on a motel bathroom floor.
She didn’t want to go through that again. But she didn’t want to live alone and hollow, either.
The bird came after sundown, drifting silent from the darkening sky. The cat stared and hissed as she settled on the back step, his ears flat against his skull.
“Come with me, witch. We need you.”
“Hello, Memory. I thought I had until Sunday.”
“We were wrong.” The girl lifted a bone-white hand, but couldn’t cross the threshold. “We’re out of time.”
Salem stared at the ghost girl. Older than her daughter would have been. Probably a blessing for the lost child anyway—she had a witch’s heart, not a mother’s.
The child vanished, replaced by a fluttering crow. “There’s no time, witch. Please.”
Vengeance pressed against her leg, rumbling deep in his chest. Salem leaned down to scratch his ears. “Stay here and watch the house.”
As she stepped through the door, the world shivered and slipped sideways. She walked down the steps under a seething black sky. The tree glowed against the shadows, a shining thing of ghostlight and jewels. Beyond the edge of her yard the hills rolled sere and red.
“Where are we going?” she asked Memory.
“Into the Badlands. Follow me, and mind you don’t get lost.” The bird took to the sky, flying low against heavy clouds. Salem fought the urge to look back, kept her eyes on the white-feathered shape as it led her north.
The wind keened across the hills and Salem shivered through her light coat. The trees swayed and clattered, stunted bone-pale things shedding leaves like ashes.
The moon rose slowly behind the clouds, swollen and rust-colored. Something strange about its light tonight, too heavy and almost sharp as it poured over Salem’s skin. Then she saw the shadow nibbling at one edge and understood—eclipse. She lengthened her stride across the dry red rock.
Time passed strange in the deadlands, and they reached the end of the desert well before Salem could ever have walked to town. She paused on the crest of a ridge, the ground sloping into shadow below her. On the far side of the valley she saw the circus, shimmering bright enough to bridge the divide.
“No,” Memory cawed as she started toward the lights. “We go down.”
Salem followed the bird down the steep slope, boots slipping in red dust. A third of the moon had been eaten by the rust-colored shadow.
Halfway down she saw the buildings, white-washed walls like ivory in the darkness. A church bell tolled the hour as they reached the edge of town, and Memory croaked along with the sour notes.
Shutters rattled over blind-dark windows, and paint peeled in shriveled strips. The bird led her to a nameless bar beside the train tracks. Jacob waited inside, leaning against the dust-shrouded counter.
Salem crossed her arms below her breasts. “You said Sunday.”
“I was wrong. It’s the burning moon he wants, not Hallow’s Eve.” Witchlight burned cold in the lamps, glittering against cobwebbed glass. His eyes were different colors in the unsteady glow.
“Where is he now?”
“On his last hunt. He’ll be back soon.”
“What do you need me for?”
He touched the chain around her throat; links rattled softly. “Distraction. Bait. Whatever’s needed.”
She snorted. “That’s what Memory’s for too, isn’t she? That’s why he was watching your act. You’re a real bastard, aren’t you?”
“You have no idea.”
She reached up and brushed the faint web of scars on his left cheek. “How’d you lose your eye?”
He grinned. “I didn’t lose it. I know exactly where it is.”
Memory drifted through the door. “He’s coming.”
Jacob’s smile fell away and he nodded. “Wait by the train station. Be sure he sees you.”
“What’s the plan?”
“I had a plan, when I thought we had until Sunday. It was a good plan, I’m sure you would have appreciated it. Now I have something more akin to a half-assed idea.”
Salem fought a smile and lost. “So what’s the half-assed idea?”
“Memory distracts him at the train station. We ambush him, tie him up, and set the trapped ghosts free.”
“Except for the part where my charms won’t hold him for more than a few minutes, that’s a great idea.”
“We won’t mention that part. Come on.”
A train sprawled beside the station platform, quiet as a sleeping snake. Its cars were black and tarnished silver, streaked with bloody rust, and the cow-catcher gleamed fang-sharp in the red light.
The platform was empty, and Jacob and Salem waited in the shadows. She could barely make out the words White Bear on the cracked and mildewed sign.
“They built this town for the train,” she whispered, her face close enough to Jacob’s to feel his breath. “But the Texas and Pacific never came, and the town dried up and blew away.”
“This is a hard country. Even gods go begging here.”
Footsteps echoed through the silent station; a moment later Salem heard a child’s sniffling tears. Then the Conductor came into view.
A tall man, dressed like his name, black hat pulled low over his face. Even across the platform Salem felt the angry heat of him, smelled ash and coal. A sack was slung over one broad shoulder, and his other hand prisoned Memory’s tiny wrist.
Salem swallowed, her throat gone dry, and undid the clasp around her neck. The chain slithered cold into her hand. Jacob’s hand tightened on her shoulder once, then he stepped into the moonlight.
“Trading in dead children now?” His growl carried through the still air. “You called yourself a warrior once.”
The Conductor whirled, swinging Memory around like a doll. His face was dark in the shadow of his hat, but his eyes gleamed red.
Jacob took a step closer, bootheels thumping on warped boards. “You fought gods once, and heroes. Now you steal the unworthy dead.” He cocked his head. “And didn’t you used to be taller?”
“You!” The Conductor’s voice was a bone-dry rasp; Salem shuddered at the sound. “You died! I saw you fall. The wolf ripped you open.”
Jacob laughed. “It’s harder than that to kill me.”
“We’ll see about that.” He released Memory and dropped the bag as he lunged for Jacob.
Memory crawled away, cradling her wrist to her chest. The chain rattled in Salem’s hand as she moved; Jacob and the Conductor grappled near the edge of the platform, and she had no clear shot.
Then Jacob fell, sprawling hard on the floor. The Conductor laughed as he stood over him. “I’ll take you and the witch as well as the dead. The things below will be more than pleased.”
Salem darted in, the chain lashing like a whip. It coiled around his throat and he gasped. His heat engulfed her, but she hung on.
“You can’t trap me in a bottle, little witch.” His eyes burned red as embers. Char-black skin cracked as he moved, flashing molten gold beneath. A glass bead shattered against his skin; another melted and ran like a tear.
She pulled the chain tighter—it wouldn’t hold much longer. The Conductor caught her arm in one huge black hand and she screamed as her flesh seared.
“Didn’t the old man tell you, woman? His companions always die. Crows will eat your eyes—if I don’t boil them first.”
A fury of white feathers struck him, knocking off his hat as talons raked his face. The Conductor cursed, batting the bird aside, and Salem drove a boot into his knee.
He staggered on the edge for one dizzying instant, then fell, taking Salem with him. Breath rushed out of her as they landed, his molten heat burning through her clothes. Her vision blurred, and White Bear Valley spun around in a chiaroscuro swirl.
“Jerusalem!” She glanced up, still clinging to the chain. Jacob leapt off the platform, landing lightly in a puff of dust. “Hold your breath!”
She barely realized what was coming as he stuck his fingers into the ground and pulled the world open.
White Bear Lake crashed in to fill the void.
“Wake up, witch. You’re no use to me drowned.”
She came to with a shudder, Jacob’s mouth pressed over hers, his breath inside her. She gasped, choked, rolled over in time to vomit up a bellyful of bitter lake water. Her vision swam red and black, and she collapsed onto weed-choked mud. Cold saturated her, ice-needles tingling through her fingers.
“Did he drown?” she asked, voice cracking.
“His kind don’t like to swim.” He turned her over, propping her head on his soaking knees. “I could say it destroyed him, if that’s how you’d like this to end.” Above them the shadow eased, the moon washing clean and white again.
“What could you say if I wanted the truth?”
Jacob’s glass eye gleamed as he smiled. “That it weakened him, shattered that shape. He lost the train and its cargo. That’s enough for me tonight.”
“Not too bad, for a half-assed idea.” She tried to sit up and thought better of it. The cold retreated, letting her feel the burns on her arm and hands. “Are you going to thank me?”
He laughed and scooped her into his arms. “I might.” And he carried her up the hill, toward the circus lights.
Halloween dawned cool and grey. Glass chimed in the breeze as Salem untied the bottles one by one, wrapping them in silk and laying them in boxes. The tree looked naked without them.
The wind gusted over the empty hills, whistled past the eaves of the house. The tree shook, and the only sound was the scrape and rustle of dry leaves.
“Sorry, Grandma,” she whispered as she wrapped the last bottle. Light and hollow, glass cold in her hands. “I’ll come back to visit.”
When she was done, Jerusalem Morrow packed a bag and packed her cat, and ran away to join the circus.