The path of my blade sheared the ends off her hair. The pieces float down and she watches them sink into the floorboards, like Mike did moments ago. Something passes across her brow, a tightening, a sadness, and then she looks at me and bares her teeth.
“Why have you come back?” she asks. I swallow. I don’t know what to say. I can feel myself backing up even though I tell myself not to.
“I gave you your life, packaged as a gift.” The voice coming out of her cavernous mouth is deep and awful. It is the sound of a voice without breath. She still carries the faintest Finnish accent. “Did you think it was easy? Do you want to be dead?”
There’s something hopeful in the way she asks that last part, something that makes her eyes keener. She glances down at my knife with an unnatural twitch of her head. A grimace takes hold of her face; expressions pass crazily, like ripples on a lake.
Then the air around her wavers and the goddess before me is gone. In her place is a pale girl with long, dark hair. Her feet are firmly planted on the ground. I look down at her.
“What is your name?” she asks, and when I don’t answer, “You know mine. I saved your life. Isn’t it only fair?”
“My name is Theseus Cassio,” I hear myself say, even though I’m thinking what a cheap trick this is, and a stupid one. If she thinks I won’t kill this form then she’s dead wrong, no pun intended. But it’s a good disguise, I’ll give her that. The mask that she’s wearing has a thoughtful face and soft, violet eyes. She’s wearing an old-fashioned white dress.
“Theseus Cassio,” she repeats.
“Theseus Cassio Lowood,” I say, though I don’t know why I’m telling her. “Everyone calls me Cas.”
“You’ve come here to kill me.” She walks around me in a wide circle. I let her get just past my shoulders before I turn too. There’s no way I’m letting her behind my back. She might be all sweet and innocent now, but I know the creature that would come bursting out if given the chance.
“Someone’s already done that,” I say. I won’t tell her pretty stories about how I’m here to set her free. It would be cheating, putting her at ease, trying to get her to walk into it. And besides, it’s a lie. I have no idea where I’m sending her, and I don’t care. I just know that it’s away from here, where she can kill people and sink them into this godforsaken house.
“Someone did, yes,” she says, and then her head twists around and snaps back and forth. For a second her hair starts to writhe again, like snakes. “But you can’t.”
She knows that she’s dead. That’s interesting. Most of them don’t. Most are just angry and scared, more an imprint of an emotion—of a horrible moment—than an actual being. You can talk to some of them, but they usually think you’re someone else, someone from their past. Her awareness throws me off a beat; I use my tongue to buy some time.
“Sweetheart, my father and I have put more ghosts in the ground than you can count.”
“Never one like me.”
There is a tone in her voice when she says this that isn’t quite pride, but something like it. Pride tinged with bitterness. I stay quiet, because I’d rather she not know that she’s right. Anna is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Her strength seems limitless, along with her bag of tricks. She’s not some shuffling phantom, pissed off about being shot to death. She’s death itself, gruesome and senseless, and even when she’s dressed in blood and veins I can’t help but stare.
But I’m not afraid. Strong or not, all I need is one good strike. She’s not beyond the reach of my athame, and if I can get to her, she’ll bleed out into the ether just like all the rest.
“Perhaps you should fetch your father to help you,” she says. I squeeze my blade.
“My father’s dead.”
Something passes across her eyes. I can’t believe it’s regret, or embarrassment, but that’s what it looks like.
“My father died too, when I was a girl,” she says softly. “A storm on the lake.”
I can’t let her keep on like this. I can feel something in my chest softening, ceasing to growl, completely despite myself. Her strength makes her vulnerability more touching. I should be beyond this.
“Anna,” I say, and her eyes snap to mine. I raise the blade and the flash of it reflects in her eyes.
“Go,” she orders, queen of her dead castle. “I don’t want to kill you. And it seems that I don’t have to, for some reason. So go.”