The Tenth Ghost [Jacob Lane Series Book 1]
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by Jennifer St. Clair
Description: When ten-year old Jacob Lane's parents mysteriously vanish, she is sent to Darkbrook, the only school of magic in the United States. While there, she stumbles upon a series of mysterious deaths. Nine students have died in the past one hundred years. Nine ghosts haunt the halls of Darkbrook. Will Jacob be the tenth ghost, or will she be able to stop a witch's reign of terror with the help of her friends?
eBook Publisher: Writers Exchange E-Publishing, 2001 Writers Exchange E-Publishing
eBookwise Release Date: July 2002
60 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [199 KB]
Reading time: 127-178 min.
"If you enjoyed Harry Potter, you will love The Tenth Ghost."--Sandy Cummins, Sandy Cummins Book Reviews
He heard her voice through what seemed to be an ever-deepening fog and it echoed through his head for a moment before he roused enough to reply.
"Come in." The cold that had kept him in bed for the past three days showed no signs of going away, and Ash knew he had to get better soon. He'd already missed three days' worth of lessons. If he missed many more, he'd never catch up with the rest of his class. He knew he should be worried, especially about Practical Magic, but he couldn't really summon up enough strength to care.
He watched dully as Clara maneuvered a tray into his little room. Her blond hair, piled up under a serviceable mobcap, escaped from the edges and curled prettily around her face. Of all the ten or so serving maids at Darkbrook, Clara had been the only one willing to look after Ash when he fell sick. No one else, save the professors, seemed to care all that much.
"How do you feel this evening?" she asked, setting her tray down on the bedside table. Ash craned his head around to look at the food, causing his headache to return with a vengeance. He winced.
"Not much better," he whispered, wishing he did not sound so much like a toad. "But I must feel better soon, mustn't I?" He tried to smile, but it felt odd, like a party mask stretched across his face.
"Yes, you need to get back to your studies," Clara agreed, and helped him sit up. "The professors are all worried about you, and your classmates..."
"My classmates couldn't care less whether I lived or died." Ash coughed when she helped him sip the tea, and shied away from the odd taste. "What is this?"
Clara smiled. For a moment, Ash thought he saw something predatory in her gaze, but the moment passed as quickly as it had come and her smile contained nothing more than concern.
"Medicine, of course," she replied. "I had Cook mix up a batch of this for you. Sometimes it's nice to work in a school of magic--I did not need to buy any of the supplies for your tea."
Although it tasted oily and heavy on his tongue, Ash pushed away his reluctance and drank the thick tea down. It sat in his stomach like a brick, making his vision swim and his face feel flushed. Suddenly, the heavy blankets were hot and cloying, and he weakly tried to throw them off.
Clara stayed his hands. She was stronger than she looked; a lifetime of lifting heavy pots in the kitchen and menial work had given her muscles Ash couldn't contest in his weakened state.
"Clara?" He could hardly hear his own voice over the roaring in his ears.
She smiled again. This time, there was no mistaking the gleam in her eye. Ash shivered and tried to mask it, but her smile only widened.
"Don't worry, Ash. You'll be feeling much better soon." She turned away from him and busied herself with the tray, mixing the eggs and bacon with fresh maple syrup. Then she carried the tray to the door, as if to leave, but she only turned around in the doorway and dropped the tray. Broken crockery and breakfast splashed across the floor.
"Clara?" Ash again tried to push the covers off, but what little strength he had remaining seemed to have deserted him for the time being. He let his head fall back against the piled pillows. "Clara, what are you doing?"
"I'm doing what I should have done months ago," Clara replied in a voice he'd never heard from her before. She had always been so meek and timid. Ash stared at her. "Years, bowing and scraping to you stupid wizards. Years! And what did I get out of it?" She dumped the pitcher of water on the floor and walked back to Ash's bed, careful to leave clear footprints in the mess. "Nothing. Girls aren't allowed to be wizards."
"Girls are witches," Ash whispered, struggling with the words. "Girls can't be wizards."
"I can." Clara leaned over him and traced something on his forehead that tingled. Ash drew in a breath and smelled a mixture of herbs and the ingredients in the tea she had made him drink. He coughed. "If your precious professors won't let me be a wizard, why, then I have no choice than to learn on my own." She sat down on the edge of his bed and dimpled at him. "Shall I tell you what I've learned while dusting the library?"
Ash struggled to keep his eyes open. He felt as if something sucked him down into darkness, either by whatever spell she had cast or the tea he had so stupidly drunk. "Yes," he gasped, hoping to stall her enough for someone else to see how the invalid fared, but he feared no one else would think to come.
"I found that I can steal your powers, Ash." Clara took a small bottle from the front of her dress and uncorked it. The smell almost drove the sticky dullness from Ash's mind, but something she had done kept him immobile. He struggled uselessly. Clara smeared a thick brown paste at the base of his throat, at both temples, and over both Ash's eyes. "And it won't hurt a bit, don't worry."
"Clara..." She grabbed his chin in one hand and carefully uncorked another bottle with the other. She poured this bottle down Ash's throat. He tried not to swallow, but the room started to swing around his head and the liquid in his mouth burned enough to bring tears to his eyes. He swallowed, gagged, and almost vomited. Clara held his mouth shut until the spasms had passed.
"You're the best student here, Ash," Clara continued, leaving him to retch as she turned back to the mess on the floor. "No one will suspect me. I'm just a serving girl." Her voice took on a mocking tone. "Oh, it was horrible! I thought he might need something to eat--He's been so sick lately--but when I opened the door, it was too late. I tried to save him, but I didn't reach him in time."
The part of Ash's mind not struggling under the darkness that threatened to bear him away realized she was probably right. No one would suspect meek little Clara. No one would suspect a mere serving girl. "What are you planning to do?" His voice scraped across the path the potion had left and he tasted blood in the back of his throat.
"You're going to jump," Clara wrestled with the heavy shutters and finally swung them back. Cold spring air swept into the room, dispersing some of the fumes, but Ash's mind was too far under her spell for the cold air to revive him enough for escape." Clara turned and smiled at him, "You're going to jump out of the window, Ash. Don't worry. You'll be dead before you reach the ground."
Ash stared at her. "What?" he croaked.
"Stand up and tell me your true name, Ash." Clara's voice woke something in his mind that sent consciousness fleeing and he was suddenly a mere observer in his own body, as if Ash-the-person was no longer present. He saw his own hand turn back the quilts, felt the first stirrings of weakness as he carefully stood.
"Your name," Clara commanded.
Ash felt his mouth open without any help from his waking mind. "Ashleigh Stephen Lane." He could find no handholds to fight against her spell--the force that separated him from his body seemed too strong for him to fight.
"Ashleigh Stephen Lane, stand before me."
He moved to stand in front of her, and she placed one callused hand on his shirt, right over his heart. Something wrenched through his chest, driving daggers of pain deep inside his mind. If he could have screamed, he would have. Even without screaming, he knew she saw the pain in his eyes.
She smiled again. "Do you realize what I'm going to do to you?"
He didn't answer. Speech had abandoned him along with reason. He struggled against the bonds she'd placed over his mind, but failed to pierce her spell. Oh, she had been planning for this moment. And she had planned well.
The pain lessened only briefly as she removed her hand from his chest and placed it on his forehead. This time he was almost ready for the burst of fire that filled his head. This time, he very nearly fought it off, holding the very core of his self close to the farthest recesses of his mind so she could not take everything away from him.
He had no thoughts for survival. He already knew he would not live to see the dawn.
When Clara ordered him to climb onto the windowsill, he could not resist. And when she ordered him to fall, the last sight that met his mortal eyes was of Darkbrook itself--that foreboding castle he had so longed to call home.
She had spoken the truth. Ash was dead long before he hit the ground.
* * * *
One Hundred Years Later
Jacob sped across the lawn on her new bike, heedless of the clumps of dirt that flew up behind her. She skidded through a patch of melting snow and barely missed the fence. When she stopped under the apple tree and stared up through the leafy branches, Emma applauded, her grin matching Jacob's own.
"A bicycle for your birthday!" Emma had no need to scramble down the gnarled branches; she simply let go and floated to the ground. Jacob had always been silently jealous of her ability to do that. "What a wonderful present!"
She'd also been slightly jealous of Emma's exotic accent, even going so far as to mimic her in the shower when she was certain no one listened in.
"Isn't it great?" Jacob ran one hand down along the cold metal and couldn't keep the grin from reappearing. "I've always wanted a bike like this."
"I'd say your parents chose well," Emma said, and leaned over the bike. Her hand followed Jacob's, and she smiled a little wistfully. "I do so wish I could have had some of the toys you have when I was alive, Jacob."
"Do you want to go for a ride?" Jacob offered.
Emma looked askance at the bike. "How? There's only one seat. And it's getting dark. Shouldn't you..."
"It isn't too dark yet." Jacob shrugged off the impending night and smiled. "You can sit on the handlebars just as long as you stay transparent enough for me to see through you." She picked up a fallen twig from the apple tree and stuck it in her pocket. Without it, Emma couldn't travel five feet beyond the tree. With Jacob's help, Emma had gone to school, the library, and an amusement park.
"Really?" Emma drifted up to the handlebars and gingerly sat, her wispy blonde hair flying behind her and tickling Jacob's face. Emma's hair was one thing Jacob never felt jealous about--she liked her own short wild brown curls just fine.
Jacob turned the bike around and slowly pedaled to the driveway with Emma perched on the handlebars like an odd sort of heron. She started down the sidewalk, past Ms. Peterson's white frame house, past the two empty lots and past the little stand of trees the local kids called the woods.
"Oh, Jacob, it's wonderful!" Emma clapped her hands in delight.
Jacob grinned and pedaled faster, turning down Maple Street and swerving around the worst of the cracked sidewalk. She cut up across the elementary school's yard, through the short copse of trees that ringed her own backyard, and ended up back at Emma's apple tree.
"How was that?" She leaned over the bike, a little out of breath from the ride.
"Oh, that was grand, Jacob!" Emma twirled around in midair like a fairy ballerina and clapped her hands again. "That was the most fun I've had in years. Can we do it again tomorrow?"
"Of course," Jacob said, and leaned her bike against the apple tree. "I can leave it here for you tonight, if you want," she offered.
Emma grinned. "Oh, thank you, Jacob. I'll guard it well for you."
"And we'll ride again tomorrow."
As darkness slowly crept across the yard, Jacob glanced back at Emma and her bike and shivered. Something shimmered briefly in the trees behind Emma's apple tree, and she hoped the fairies weren't on the warpath again because of the construction a few streets over.
She put out a dish of milk for them anyway and locked the door.
It was late now; she'd spent a long time outside with Emma, and her parents were already in bed. She hesitated outside her parents' door, silently thanked them again for the bike, and crawled up the ladder to the loft and her bed.
All in all, it had been the best birthday she could ever remember.
* * * *
Emma's voice drifted out of the darkness, and Jacob opened her eyes, only able to see a pale blur beside her bed.
A ghostly finger pressed lightly over Jacob's lips. "Shhh. Don't talk." The finger vanished, and Emma drifted to peer down the ladder and into the hallway below. "Or talk very, very quietly."
"What's going on?" Jacob slid out of bed and crouched on the floor, straining to hear any sound from down below. She heard nothing, which wasn't unusual, since a glance at her clock showed it to be three in the morning.
"Jacob, do you trust me?" Emma's voice came from the bed again, and Jacob turned around, confused. She reached for the lamp, felt the brush of Emma's fingers again, and stopped.
"Of course I trust you," she whispered.
"Then you must do exactly as I say, and ask no questions." Emma didn't sound like a little girl ghost anymore--her voice was too serious for that. Jacob stood and backed away from her, the first worm of fear sending icicles into her stomach.
She hadn't felt this frightened since the baby dragon in the garden, and she'd been seven then.
"What's going on?" she asked.
Ask no questions. Right. "What do you want me to do?" Jacob asked, and joined Emma on the bed.
"Follow me, and be very quiet," Emma whispered, and drifted down the ladder. "Don't stop for anything."
"Can I put on my shoes?" Jacob asked.
Emma's head appeared at the top of the ladder. "I suppose," she sighed. "But hurry up."
Jacob pulled on her sneakers and laced them tightly. She grabbed her jacket from the floor, and quickly followed Emma down the ladder.
Even the squeaky board in the hallway was quiet tonight, as if it realized stealth was the operative word. Jacob and Emma stuck to the shadows and crept around the hall table, the coat rack, and the umbrella stand until they reached the front door.
Which was supposed to be locked at this time of night.
Jacob had only a moment to stare at the shattered lock before Emma took her hand and pulled her out the open door. The cold air woke her completely. She twisted out of Emma's tenuous grip and started back to the house.
Jacob stopped with her hand on the broken door. "I have to go make sure my parents are okay, Emma." She thought she sounded very calm, considering the panic that kept threatening to swallow her whole.
"They're not in the house anymore," Emma whispered. "Don't you trust me, Jacob?"
"Y-yes," Jacob quavered, torn between the imagined safety of the house and the dark, cold night. "Where are they?"
A cloud passed over what moon remained this late in its cycle, and Jacob thought she saw something flash beyond the front walk, out in the middle of the street.
"Where are they, Emma?"
Emma held out her hand. "Come with me and I'll tell you," she said. "We have to hurry. If they see you, I won't be able to help you at all."
"They who?" Jacob asked, her throat almost too dry to speak. "Emma, what's going on?"
Emma sighed. "Come to my tree and I'll tell you everything I know," she begged. "Please, Jacob."
Jacob reluctantly left the broken door and followed Emma around back, to where her birthday present still leaned against the apple tree. The bike glowed in the weak moonlight, and made the blank windows of the house seem all the more sinister. She felt exposed standing in the middle of the backyard, so she moved closer to the tree and tried not to think about what could have happened. Where were her parents?
Emma vanished, leaving Jacob alone to watch the trees and the house for danger. She had no idea what she should be looking for, though, so she crouched down on the cold ground beside her bike and tried not to let the panic take over.
Something touched her on the back and she bit back a shriek.
"Shhhh," Emma whispered. "Come with me." She took Jacob's hand and vanished part of the way into the tree.
Jacob pulled out of her grip. "Emma, I can't! I'm not a ghost!"
Emma sighed. "Trust me," she said, and grabbed Jacob's hand again. This time, she vanished into the tree, pulling Jacob with her.
And instead of crashing into rough bark, Jacob felt a brief tug of resistance before she fell forward into darkness.
"Lie still," Emma whispered in her ear. "I'll tell you when it's safe to get up."
But in the darkness, Jacob felt safe enough to fall asleep. She closed her eyes, snuggled up against a quietly pulsing tree root, and lost herself in dreams.
* * * *
"There are definite traces of the child near here, Flora. But I can't seem to get a fix on her."
Jacob awoke to faint voices from above and she slammed her head against a tree root before she realized where she was.
Sunlight drifted down from between the gnarled apple roots, and Jacob could see clearly enough through the dancing dust motes to know she was alone.
Alone. And underground. She tested the panic from last night, but it seemed to be fairly quiet this morning, as if it had used up all its strength in her dreams. And now that she thought about it, she did remember some strange dreams, full of dark shambling monsters and a shining light that kept them at bay.
She tried again. "Emma?"
A faint sigh drifted from the darkest part of the little cave. "Jacob." Emma sounded exhausted. Jacob wondered uneasily how many of her dreams had truly been dreams.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm tired." Emma drifted out of the darkness and smiled at Jacob. "But I guarded you and your bike all night." She sounded rather proud of herself.
"What happened?" Jacob tried to piece together the events from last night and the fantastical dreams, but she could make little sense out of either. "What happened to my parents, Emma?"
Emma favored her with the ghost of a smile and shook her head. "I think you should go meet your aunts," she whispered. "I'll come back tonight and tell you everything I know."
"How am I supposed to get out?" Jacob asked, but Emma had faded away again, leaving her alone in an underground cave that smelled faintly of rotten apples. She sighed and crawled away from the sunlight, hopefully to find some sort of door leading from under the apple tree to the backyard.
She felt a bit like Alice when she fell through the rabbit hole, but Alice never had a friend like Emma to help her out.
And what had Emma meant about aunts? Her hand brushed against something smooth that wasn't a stone, and she stopped and waited until her eyes adjusted to the murky darkness.
She'd never asked Emma how she had died, or why she was tied to the old apple tree.
Jacob stared down at the small skeleton lying in the dry dirt, and carefully placed the bone she'd disturbed back into place. She thought she saw a flash of light in the skull's empty eye sockets and waited for Emma to appear, but her friend remained absent; the skeleton remained a skeleton, old and brittle in its resting place down under the ground.
With quiet reverence, Jacob brushed the smooth skull with one finger and started to back away. "Thank you, Emma," she whispered.
This time, the flash of light left afterimages behind, and when she could see again, she found that she was sitting against the rough bark of the apple tree, above ground now, facing the woods.
She peeked around the side of the apple tree and saw two old ladies standing near the back door. One wore a vivid purple cape embroidered with silver stars, the other a serviceable tweed suit.
Jacob had never seen them before in her life.
"Aha!" The one in the purple cape spun around, and Jacob saw she held a large crystal in one hand. Her silver hair held more crystals--all different colors--piled in the remnants of what had started out as a tidy bun. Her eyes were as blue as the sky overhead, and twinkled through the wire frame glasses perched on the tip of her nose.
"Aha?" The other aunt turned, and Jacob saw a more severe version of the first one. This aunt held no crystals, and her eyes were more stern than twinkling. Her hair was cut short and curled around her ears. "Come out here this minute, child! And don't dawdle!"
"I told you..." the other aunt began, and tucked the crystal away in one of the pockets of her cloak. She bent down and smiled. "Hello, child. I'm your Aunt Flora, and this is your Aunt Agnes." She glanced at the other aunt and whispered, "Her middle name is Pennsylvania, but she doesn't like anyone to know it."
Jacob smiled and stared through the spokes of her bike's front wheel, remembering how happy she had been yesterday. The panic slowly started to bubble up again. "Where are my parents?"
The smile vanished from Flora's face, and she turned to Agnes for help.
But the other aunt only shook her head and frowned. "Come into the house, child, and we'll try to explain."
Jacob wished Emma were there so her friend could tell her if it was safe to go inside, but she really had no other choice. She stood, stepped away from the tree, and saw the damage for the first time.
The top of her house--right over her bedroom, in fact, looked like it had been blown apart. The rest of the house still stood, but debris from the roof littered the ground around it. Either none of the neighbors had seen a thing or it was too early for anyone to be out, for her aunts seemed to be the only two people--other than Jacob herself--awake in the whole neighborhood.
"What happened?" The panic, roused from sleep, reared its head and turned her voice into a squeak.
Aunt Agnes followed her gaze and frowned again. "We can talk inside, if you don't mind," she said, her voice thawing only a little when she saw how frightened Jacob was. "Flora, if you'll hide the evidence?"
"Of course," Flora murmured, raised a long wand with a crystal molded into the tip, and muttered a long phrase of odd-sounding words under her breath. She waved the wand in a circle, and pointed it at the roof.
The debris on the lawn vanished with a loud pop. The roof mended itself before Jacob's dazzled eyes, and she didn't even notice when Aunt Agnes took her arm and led her inside.
"Now that we have that taken care of, why don't we eat breakfast?" Agnes opened the fridge and looked inside. "It looks like you have plenty of..."
"Where are my parents?" Jacob asked again. She crossed her arms and leaned against the side of the cabinets. "And what happened last night?"
"Last night..." Flora said.
"Last night, your parents were either kidnapped, killed, or carried away," Agnes said shortly. "Your mother gave us this." On cue, Flora held out a small crystal bound in silver wire. She carried it gingerly, as if fearing it would break, and when Jacob saw it closely, she noticed that the crystal had broken, almost as if it had been dropped. The pieces lay inside the wire like the broken twigs from Emma's tree.
"Your mother told us..." Flora began.
"That if the crystal ever broke, we were to come right away," Agnes interrupted.
"And here we are." Flora smiled, as if their appearance should have answered all of Jacob's questions.
"You don't know what happened to my parents?"
Flora's smile slipped a little. "We'd hoped you could tell us."
The panic monster reared its head again, and Jacob struggled to keep it at bay. "You don't know what happened to my parents."
"Do you?" Agnes emerged from the fridge with a gallon of milk in her hand.
"I didn't ... Emma said..." Her aunts' faces blurred.
"Oh, child," Flora murmured, and enveloped her in a hug that smelled like lavender.
Jacob sniffed and tried to wipe the tears from her eyes. "My name is Jacob."
"Who's Emma?" Aunt Agnes asked, just as Flora drew back and looked Jacob in the eye.
"That explains it then," she said.
"That explains what?" Jacob asked, confused.
"Who's Emma?" Agnes asked again.
"Agnes, it doesn't matter!" Flora turned and her cloak billowed out around her. "They were looking for a boy!"
"Of course they were," Agnes snapped. "I, unlike you, did not forget our niece's name." She pulled a large mixing bowl down from the cabinet and pulled open a drawer to search for a spoon. "Jacob, child, who is Emma?"
Jacob sniffed again. "My friend," she said, and wondered if she should mention that Emma was a ghost. She searched her jacket pocket for the twig she'd picked up yesterday--had her birthday only been yesterday?--and was only a little comforted to find it still in the pocket. That meant Emma could come into the house when she woke up, or whatever ghosts did when they were tired.
"And where is this friend now?" Flora asked, leading Jacob over to a kitchen chair. Jacob thought about resisting, but the aunts seemed to be relatively harmless, as aunts go.
Jacob remembered the small bones under the apple tree, and suddenly breakfast didn't sound very good at all. "She's under the apple tree," she whispered. "Emma guarded me and my bike all night long." Again, the shadowy creatures from her dreams rose up out of memory, and she shivered. "Are you sure you don't know what happened to my parents?"
Flora and Agnes exchanged a look Jacob knew well. It was her mother's version of the adult look--the "you're-too-young-to-understand-look."
"You do know what happened!" she accused.
Agnes sighed. "Tell us about your friend Emma who lives under the apple tree," she said. "And why you had a bowl of milk on your back porch."
Jacob hesitated. "Emma lives under the apple tree," she said slowly, not quite certain why they needed to know. "She brought me there last night, after someone broke into the house."
"Did you see this person break into the house?" Agnes asked.
"What does Emma look like?" Flora's question came at the same time, and Jacob didn't know which one to answer first.
"The bowl of milk is for the fairies," she said, deciding to take them in order. "Emma's a ghost, and I didn't see anyone. The door was broken when Emma woke me up."
"Emma's a ghost." Flora turned on Agnes, smiling broadly. "And the milk was for the fairies. Of course! Do you realize what this means?"
Agnes glared at her sister. "What this means is Jacob's parents are missing, Flora," she snapped. "Nothing more, at least for right now. We have to find them first."
Alive or dead hung in the air as if Agnes had spoken it aloud. Jacob felt the tears threaten to slip free again, and tried to blink them away.
"Can we talk to Emma?" Flora asked gently. "Will she talk to us?"
"I don't know. She's never appeared to anyone else before." Even Jacob's mother and father hadn't been able to see her, although they had believed her when she told them her best friend was a ghost. After the dragon and the fairies, a ghost had probably seemed pretty tame.
"Do you think she'll appear to us?" Agnes asked.
"I can ask her," Jacob said doubtfully. "But she's resting now."
"Resting?" Agnes measured out the pancake ingredients and stuck a chunk of butter in the skillet.
"She stayed up all night..."
"Guarding you and your bike. I remember." Flora busied herself gathering condiments from the fridge, and Jacob stayed where she was, watching her aunts busy themselves around the kitchen. They never asked where to find anything, and Jacob found that the oddest thing of all, because she knew they'd never been in the kitchen before.
"How do you know where everything is?" She ventured to ask when Agnes had a spare minute from flipping pancakes so fluffy they almost floated off the skillet by themselves.
Flora answered, though, and Jacob supposed she should have expected the answer.
And from seeing the roof repair itself, Jacob could only agree.