Standing in the middle of the hospital corridor with its harsh lighting itching at my skin and the smell of antiseptic, bleach and death tickling my nose, it finally hit me. Oren was very powerful, and I needed to learn as much as I could from him. It was time to stop holding him responsible for ancient family history, and appreciate that he was willing to help me understand how having witch blood could benefit me.
I needed to learn as much magical combat skills as I could.
I spun on my heel and came face-to-face with a young woman wearing a hospital gown. Her long, auburn hair hung like dirty strands of string around her face, her skin looked pale, and her eyes sunken. Even before her proximity forced gooseflesh to sprout all over my body, I knew what she was. My breath misted in front of me as I was compelled to enter the spook's zone and coughed a few times.
My head throbbed. After the nausea and nosebleeds back at the Council, this wasn't going to help. Although I was usually dragged into a ghost's area by their aura, this one had pretty much caught me unaware and zapped me in when I wasn't ready.
I caught my breath and met her eyes. "Uh, hi..."
"I need to get back to my room."
I doubted she was headed to her room. Anyone who was hospitalized and emaciated this badly didn't need to linger in this world. She might not remember right now, but I was pretty sure she'd been battling a terminal disease and lost.
"I need help getting back to my room," she repeated.
"Can you see the light?" I licked my lips, trying to moisten them. She deserved the peace of moving on to the next patch. I knew exactly what I was talking about because I'd once been tempted by the warm light myself.
The ghost looked up, past my shoulder and said, "I can see a bright light over there." She half turned away from me and pointed in the opposite direction. "But someone's calling me down that way."
"Ignore everything but the light. That's where you need to go." My lungs were freezing inside my chest.
This was a different experience for me. I rarely helped spirits move on to the afterlife willingly. I dealt with the ones who refused to stop making mayhem and chaos, or wanted to hurt others. But hotspots like hospitals, cemeteries, haunted houses, or any location where a group of people had died made it hard to shut wandering spirits out.
She took a step.
"No, ignore the voice and head for the light."
"Are you sure?" She frowned and it made her look a little older than I'd initially thought. "I need to go to the voice, I'm so tired."
"No, you need to follow the bright light."
She didn't answer, and instead turned to walk away.
"I'm coming," the ghost girl said, a moment before her image flickered.
Oh shit, not again! "Take my hand."
The ghost's lips were moving but I couldn't hear a word she was saying.
"Go toward the light! Turn around and go to the light before it's too late."
She did the opposite. Her skinny legs moved and she flickered off completely before appearing drawn out and gray farther down the corridor. Heading toward the same corner Oren had taken.
I sucked in a quick breath and followed, trying to keep up with the flickering image of a ghost, instead of running from it. She turned the corner and continued down the next corridor.
"Wait!" I had a feeling that whatever was calling this ghost girl would take her the same way it had taken Mrs. Wicker.
When I caught up with her and extended my hand, hers was solid enough to grab. I moved with her, holding tight and determined to follow her until she stopped in front of an open doorway.
"I need to go in there," she said, pointing at a lonely bed in the middle of the room.
"No, don't!" But it was too late, her hand slipped from mine. She flashed me a small smile and then faded, but not before I saw what looked like a shadowy hand drag her in. Not this again.
A tap on my shoulder made me jump and the coldness of the ghost's presence faded, leaving me coughing and wheezing as I tried to catch my breath. My body struggled more than usual to adapt to the real world.
"Relax, Sierra." A cool hand rubbed my back gently.
I hunched over for several seconds, hands on my knees, waiting for the artificial air of the hospital to settle around me. It took awhile, but the comforting hand never stopped its soothing motions and helped keep me grounded. I knew who it was before I looked up.
"Thanks, Oren." I straightened and his hand fell away. As I turned and met his eyes, I wondered how many times I was going to find myself thanking him today.
"I just saw..." My voice trailed off when I noticed where I was standing. "This is Mara's room?"
"Yes, how did you know?" His eyes were concerned, but also questioning. "I got rid of the security guard for a while."
"He developed an unquenchable hunger for a greasy hamburger, which he'll find several blocks from here." A small grin twisted his thin lips. "He should be gone for a bit, but you better do whatever it is you need to in order to get some fast answers."
"Shit, I'm sorry. I could've ruined this--"
"No, I was on my way to tell you I'd gotten rid of the guard when I found you just standing there in the middle of the corridor, rigid. I didn't want to interfere and instead watched you head right for this room, reaching for something." His brow furrowed. "What happened, Sierra?"
I shivered at the recollection of what I'd seen. "I saw a ghost. She wanted my help, so I tried to encourage her to follow the light. But she wouldn't. She said something else was calling her and led me here." I figured the edited version of events was better suited for now. The last thing I wanted to do was mention the similarities between Mrs. Wicker and the sick dead girl. It seemed more important to focus on the fact that I was pretty sure the spook hadn't been called into this room, but dragged.
"A ghost led you to Mara's room?"
I nodded, slowly. My eyes focused on Mara, lying in the only occupied bed inside the hospital room. There were actually four beds but when I'd followed the spook, this was the only one I'd seen.
"Something strange is definitely going on in this room. I can't feel the dead like you, but I can certainly feel the unnatural nature of whatever is haunting her." Oren actually looked uneasy. I'd never seen him this way. He was usually cool, calm and collected--in control of everything, and full of cryptic answers.
I took another step and my skin crawled. I struggled to suck in a shallow breath and exhaled, trying to focus on my surroundings. The room was painted off-white, the same color as the curtains separating each bed. The dividing curtains were all pulled open, displaying the neatly made beds with no charts hanging from the ends. Mara seemed to be the only patient and her bed was situated near the sole window. Her chart looked thick, the pages curling because they'd been handled so much.
The blinds over the window were slightly open and I could see day was already blending into night, which in summer meant it had to be past eight. So much for my day off! I hadn't had a chance to do anything remotely relaxing.
We were high up, so the only things I could see in the distance were the winking lights of the city below and the clear indigo sky. No moon to look at yet.
When there was nowhere else for my gaze to stray, because I was standing at the end of Mara's bed, I glanced down at her motionless body. I had so many questions but doubted she could answer any.
She was connected to a bunch of machines I couldn't even begin to name. One made a continuous beeping sound, the rise and fall of a vertical line marking her steady heartbeat. There were other things connected to her arms, including an IV unit. A thick tube was pressed into her mouth and her eyes were closed, both arms at her sides as if she were already dead.
"It's not pretty, is it?"
For the second time while inside this hospital, I jumped. I turned enough to find Mara standing beside me. Her long, straight, black hair hung down to her waist, shiny and silky, not limp and dirty like it really looked. She was also wearing low-ride jeans and a clingy T-shirt that stopped high enough to expose her trim abdomen.
"You're not dead, though," I said.
She shook her head and the curtain of dark hair swayed around her. "Not yet, anyway."
"Then why can I see you?" To be honest, I'd never gone near a person in a coma before, so I didn't know how close someone in this condition was to death. This was a first for me. The implications of a spook catcher being able to communicate with coma patients made my body chill. Which also begged the question--could we all do it? Or was this a result of my other magical side?
Mara shrugged. "I guess I'm in limbo or something. You know, not quite dead yet barely living. Those machines are keeping me alive."
"It sounds cruel."
"Trust me, it is. I've begged for release so many times. I'm not even sure how long I've been stuck in limbo. I'd rather move on than linger in this state. If only the doctors would listen to me."
I didn't want to ponder what she was saying. The fact her family hadn't given the okay to shut down the machines after all these weeks made me wonder if they even knew about her condition. The Council did its best to minimize contact.
Some parents and guardians didn't like to deal with their spooky offspring and gladly sent their girls off to the Council, while others were proud and kept in contact. I didn't know if Mara still kept in touch with hers.
I sighed, turning to face her. I stared into her lovely, light brown eyes. She looked sad, but seemed to be trying to hide it behind her usual cheerful facade. I'd known her for a while. She started with the Council about six months before I left. I trained her in a few things and we'd stayed in touch--an email here, a phone call there, but nothing overly social. Still, I liked her. She was powerful and a very genuine person. Mara was the epitome of what you see is what you get. I hated to see her in such a helpless position.
"What happened to you?" I asked.
"I'm not sure, but it's still happening..."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't remember everything, just snippets. Things that don't make any sense to me, but might mean something to you..."
Before I could respond, she wrapped both of her cold hands around mine and a jolt of pain rushed into my head. I couldn't look away, glaring into her eyes as I tumbled into a scene that made my skin crawl.