Under his palm, the table was smooth as glass.
And then it wasn’t.
Thomas disliked the beginning of trances. As a child the weightless, cold sensation had scared him, convinced him that if he stepped too far off the path, he would not be able to find his way back to the surface. Nearly twenty years on, Thomas was used to the mechanisms of his trances, the tendrils of his magic latching onto things unseen and unknown, just beyond the veil. He had sat for months with his mentors learning how to control it, balance it. How to dip his face beneath the surface of mortality and return unscathed. How to reach and press a hand to the thin curtain that separates the living world from the dead and will something, someone to grasp his fingers.
The lessons, at first, had been to entertain him and his fantasy-prone mind. A way for his parents to placate his energy, focus his wandering thoughts. Not even his teachers expected his depth of ability, a fact that both annoyed and emboldened a younger Thomas.
They came in threes.
Clairvoyance, clairsentience, and trancing.
Then the altered states — channeling and levitation and the voices. So many voices, all from one small body. Thomas' body.
Finally, the manifestations and materializations. The once-alive who could harness enough of his strength to pull themselves back through and sit with him at the table, side by side. The knocking, the tapping, the way his hands and arms and hair would move like puppet’s joints.
Felix, his brother, always said those last abilities were the most unnerving. When Thomas went limp and quiet in the chair, Felix said the room would come alive, as though his brother’s spirit was wandering beyond his skin. Doors and drawers would open and shut, books would rattle on shelves. Pens would shuffle along Thomas' little writing desk. Pillows would sit up and plump themselves.
The last time Felix was in a room for a session, he had screamed when an unseen hand fisted itself in his hair, sending him sprawling on to the carpet as he ran for the safety of the hallway. It had been the man who had kidnapped Felix a few years earlier. Thomas had swiftly banished the shade back through the Veil, but the damage was done. Felix didn’t sleep for days unless Thomas was nearby, was still overcome by dread when he thought too deeply about it.
Felix arranges his performances, his private sessions with wealthy clients, connected him with the right societies and researchers of the phenomenon Thomas lived with. He always stood just outside the door, standing guard to prevent disruptions and disbelievers. And Thomas was thankful for the help. It kept the brothers connected to one another, and Thomas had other projects he needed to invest his full energy in.
But tonight, his full power of his blood was being channeled into this room. For the small audience of noble and notable believers gathered by Edward Alfred Knight, a repeat customer who believed more whole-heartedly in the secrets of the dead than anyone Thomas had ever met. Believed whole-heartedly in Thomas and his specialized kind of power, magic, ability, whatever it was.
Many believed in mediums and psychics, in the productions of their parlor seances.
Fewer believed in the exuro, who could access all manner of physical and mental abilities at the drop of a hat. Who’s power sang in their souls, throwing out strong tethers across the dimensions to their guides and other spirits, could harbor those ghosts in their own skins and come back entirely themselves.
Exuro was what Thomas was. Without question.
A foot in both worlds, a hand outstretched.
Unblinking and unafraid of standing in death’s shadow.
“Place your hands on the table, open your eyes, and walk with me,” Thomas whispers to the small audience. He removes his left hand from the smooth, black table top, pulls a small silver knife from his waistcoat, and slices a clean line through the palm. He ignores the spike of pain up his arm, the gasps garnered by the action. It was what set the new attendees apart from the old; those familiar with how exuro mediums functioned and those discovering the process in time.
True exuro from frauds.
Thomas casts sharp blue eyes over the audience, an eyebrow arching. “Hands, ladies and gentlemen. Flat to the table please. There will be no hand-holding during my sessions.”
Quickly, each quest did as asked.
“Good. Now, attend.” Thomas squeezes his injured left hand, warm wet blood leaking out between the cracks in his fingers. He replaced his palm on the table, fanning the fingers. The blood smeared unnoticed in the room’s low candlelight. Edward Knight always had a flair for the dramatic, something that Thomas appreciated the more he performed for the man. Satisfied, Thomas closes his eyes and settles in. “Deditionem…”
To surrender and slip between worlds, seen and unseen.
Thomas hated the sensation but he knew it well. Like a frequently visited, frequently irritating relative. From two decades of practice and repetition, Thomas knew exactly how long each step down, each layer took.
Cold drained over his head, trickling in thin rivulets down his spine. Spreading out through his veins, his arms and legs. It came to pool at his ankles and toes, surrounded his shoes and congealed, holding him to his chair.
A little deeper now. Deep enough to feel the fluttering of gauzy fabric against his cheeks, sun-dried sheets on a laundry line. His eyelashes flutter. The soft chill wind of a mausoleum, opened after a lonely century, catching at his ears and shirt collar. The swirling sound of moths’ wings against paper, muffled far-off voices, freshly upturned grave dirt damp and moldering.
Hands brush over his shoulders and lapels. Nails card through his clean red hair, scrape against his scalp. Trailing over his arms, forearms, wrists, settling at his left hand. Phantom fingers dip into the pooling blood, tracing through it, testing its texture and strength.
It is good. You are safe. Take my hand, walk with me for a moment or more…
Thomas pulls in a long lungful of air, straightening up to full seated height. “Requaero.”
To find, to seek, to offer himself up.
When Thomas sees the white tendrils of his power, gossamer and silvery, snaking out into the darkness behind his eyes, he blinks them open. The stares of the curious were on him, but Thomas focuses his own blue gaze up over their heads, settling on a bronze curtain rod across the room. The phantom ribbons, tied to his blood and seen only by him, glimmer in the air. They would move only at his command. He lifts his right hand, swirls two fingers in his blood, and reaches out.
At the center of the table, he marks out a symbol. Thomas was well versed on how to perform this ritual without the aid of symbols and words, his mentors had made sure of that. It kept the audience engaged, excited, enraptured. Hosts paid for wondrous feats and macabre dramatics that would make their parties the talk of London. It was a simple give and take that left Thomas with no choice but to comply. When asked, he claimed the symbols made it easier for spirits to come knocking.
Thomas rests his hand back and tenses his shoulders. “Elicio.”
To call. Enliven the connection, tighten the tether and lure someone through, sould and voice.
Come on… Where are you? Are you out there? Find me, talk to me, I’m safe… Thomas concentrates, minutes and minutes passing.
Finally, a single fingernail drags up the back of his neck. He gasps and blinks, drawing the eyes and concern of his guests. Thomas lets his blue gaze wander over their faces. Four women, four men. Edward insisted on keeping the guest list balanced, saying he had heard it would make each session easy for the young medium he hired. Four women, four men. Shocked and awed, uncertain and amazed, a few nauseous and frightened expressions.
Exactly as every session went. Right on cue.
“Hello?” Thomas calls, voice welcoming and even. Friendly in the darkness. “Is someone there?”
Two knocks sounded, rattling the table under their hands.
Thomas only grins. “Hello. Can you come through on your own, or shall I help you? Once for yes, twice for no please.”
Another two knocks.
“Alright then. Take what you need.” Thomas turns over his right hand, using the finger to maneuver the gossamer ribbons. He shifts three of them into a rope, casting it further into the thin place he had created. Thomas bows his head in concentration, the ribbons stretching and tightening as someone grasps then pulls.
“Oh my goodness!”
“Can you see that?”
“Look! A shape!”
“I think I might faint…”
Thomas twists his wrist, reeling the soul in. He watches over Edward’s shoulder where the first fog of a manifestation had appeared. The little ball of white light glows and bobs in the air, pulsing as it grew before them. Slowly but surely, the ball turns, expands, grows into the unmistakable shape of a man.
“Thomas… Thomas…” A voice, low and teasing calls.
Tall, broad-shouldered, and strong. The faint smell of ask, blood, and hot iron. “Thomas… Thomas Marsh…”
“No. Not you. Interfic--.”
The words are lost and broken as an unseen hand strikes him across the face. Shrieks go up in a crescendo as a hard gust of wind rips through the room. Candles snuff out, plunging the parlor into blackness. Candelabras, picture frames, and trinkets clatter to the floor around them. A man’s chair is pulled out from under him, sending him to the floor with a crack. All the while Thomas can hear his own name on the spectral wind, taunting, lilting, and full of malice.
“Damnit, Cameron.” Thomas hisses, raising both hands off the table. “Ladies and gentlemen, stay where you are. You’ll be safer.”
A wicked laugh echoes around them. Curtains flair in the dark, doors open and slam, locks shuddering into place. “My will against yours, Thomas.”
“What is this about, Victor?”
“You know quite well what this is about,” Victor growls from the shadows, his form now solidified and moving. He stalks around the table, green eyes empty, shoulders rolling like a slinking panther. He flexes one hand into a fist and the back of Thomas' suit jacket is gathered into a ball, yanking him up to his feet. He catches himself against the table, swaying from where his shoes are still stuck fast to the floor. “Are you really so arrogant as you seem, Kell, or only as naive?”
“Victor, stop. This has to --.” Thomas' voice is cut off as a hand closes around his throat. It tightens until he can only make sickening, strangled, wheezing noises. His bloody hands slip, finding no purchase on the man’s spectral hand. He shouldn’t touch, he knows better, but the grip is too tight.
“It ends when I say it does, Thomas Marsh.” Victor lets go.
Force throws Thomas back down into his chair shivering and gasping weakly. He can still feel Victor behind him, dark and solid, as he swallows down gulp after gulp of air. As he recovers, he makes fearful eye contact with Edward Knight and prays the man knows better than to intervene, that he can read his expression and know none of his cobbled-together rituals will dispel this. Fingers clench the roots of Thomas' hair tight, jerking his head back.
“This is about how slow you are, Thomas,” Victor hisses in his ear, turning Thomas' blood to ice. “You could have done something, you could have been faster, saved me from being ripped away. You left me, Thomas.”
“V-Victor, I--, I didn’t--.”
“Ah ah ah, too late for that, darling.”
Thomas' head is forced forward into the table. He hears the sickening crunch of his nose and the cracks in the glass before he feels them. Thankfully, the hand releases. Blood pours out of his nose, over his lips and chin and tongue, misting onto the glass as he breathes.
“You let that spirit hold me, drag me down.” Victor's voice continues in dizzying circles. “You let the demon take hold, take me, let him rip me away from this world. You let it happen, Thomas. You and only you.”
Thomas pushes himself up on bloody hands, blinking in pain. “I’m s-sorry, I’m s-so, sorry, Victor.”
“Hush.” Victor appears again behind one of the ladies, grabbing her by the collar with both hands as she screams. Victor merely smiles. “No more apologies. You had your chance, you failed. Now, I will have my say in the matter.”
He dissolves into white smoke, curling in the air before darting directly towards Thomas' face. This time, Thomas was just quick enough.
The white smoke splits in two, cut clear down the middle. It vanishes into the air.
“I’m sorry,” Thomas gasps. He collects himself. “Illuminare.”
The lamps flicker to light and he can see the full breadth of the aftermath. Shattered glass, sloshed candle wax, spilled wine staining rugs and dresses. Hair and clothes askew, bodies and chairs tossed like figurines in a dollhouse. Only Edward seems unfazed, staring at Thomas in yet another variation of his ever-present awe of the medium. Thomas clears his throat and speaks softly through bloodied lips. “Ladies and gentlemen, I… My deepest apologies for what has just occurred. I could not have known who would avail themselves to me.”
Edward Knight stands, leaning over the table with a handkerchief in his hand. He gestures for Thomas to take it, wipe his face, smiling when he does. “Is everyone alright? Have any of you been injured in the proceedings.”
A chorus of ‘no’s follows, soon replaced by praise for Thomas. His skill and quickness. The concreteness of his manifestations, the amount of strength it must have taken to produce such a clear image. His coolness under pressure. Thomas sat in the chair, wiping at his mouth and chin, bewildered by the compliments.
“Thank you for your kindness. You are free to go.”
An hour later, the parlor had been put to rights and Thomas' face was clean. He stood in the sheltered doorway of Knight's Belgravia townhome, smoking, and waiting for a taxi one of Knight's house servants was endeavoring to hail for him. Edward stood with him, pleased beyond measure but with enough good sense not to say so. For once, the ability to control his limitless exuberance did not fail him.
But he still wanted to talk, as always. “That man. You knew him in life?”
“I knew him, yes,” Thomas answers flatly, breathing out a cloud of tobacco smoke. “He was exuro as well, a master of astral projection, and… one of my mentors. Victor Cameron is half the reason I have the ability I do.”
“I recognize the name… Was, how--.”
“How did he die?” Thomas turned towards the man. “Short answer is, he didn’t. We had both gone into a trance and an exceptionally powerful entity came through. Cameron was… grabbed. He was pulled across for too long.”
Thomas let his words fall to the pavement, not looking to explain more. Victor's soul has been separated from his body for too long, his powers sapped into the void by the unnamed spirit. When Thomas has managed to grab hold of him, his hair had gone white, eyes dull and blank, he was near death. It would have been a fool’s errand to try and revive him.
“I’m sorry,” Edward said gently. “But you’ll forgive my curiosity… he, he called you ‘darling’?”
“Yes, he did.”
“So, you… You prefer the company of men, Master Marsh?”
Thomas took a long drag from his cigarette, exhaling a perfect ring. “I only ever preferred the company of one man, Mister Knight.”
“Indeed.” Thomas' heart leapt as he saw a carriage pulling up in front of the house. He wouldn’t have to continue this conversation for a moment longer. “Edward, goodnight. Until next time.”
“Until next time.”