When her mother dies, Clairvoyant Ellefair Smythwyck discovers she has a rare talent: that of a Conductor, a psychic medium who helps spirits cross beyond the Veil to find eternal peace. But one fateful night, evil spirits tear a rift in the Veil and enter the human realm, possessing dead bodies and wreaking havoc upon the living. This attracts the attention of the prestigious Agents of the Society of Spectre & Shadow, changing Ellefair’s life forever.
Will Ellefair and the Agents be able to save humanity from this terrible evil?
I was born with gray eyes.
Not blue, like most babies. My eyes were gray, the rarest color of all. The eyes of a Conductor, of a Seer, the village Elders would say. As a child, I had no idea what that meant. Until I turned seven.
Everyone had gathered at my mother’s bedside. Her sick bed had now become her death bed. I stood at the foot of the bed, close to the doorway, frightened by the death rattle emitting raggedly from her throat. I clutched my floppy, faded rabbit toy to my chest for comfort, as if it could make all the suffering disappear.
“Ellefair, go say goodbye to your mother,” my father Bramwell whispered, gently guiding me to my mother’s right side. Her once beautiful porcelain skin was now a deathly, unnatural white. The translucent white of a moth’s wings. Her lips, once full and pink, were cracked like the parched earth during the drought we’d had that previous year, when Father’s garden had become a barren, broken landscape of barrenness. My mother’s hair, once so lustrous and shining like spun gold, now lay like dry, discarded hay that populated the chicken coop. Sickness had taken her beauty; Death was now taking all of her. I could see him standing in the shadows in the corner of the room, unseen by everyone else, his skeletal face obscured by his black hood.
I should have been crying, but I was too stunned to let the tears flow past the gate of my eyelids. It frightened me, seeing my mother like that.
My father, always so gentle, took my tiny hand and placed it in my mother’s, so cold and dry. Sweat beaded her brow; her eyes flitted rapidly from side to side beneath her paper-thin eyelids. “Goodbye, Mother. Death is here, waiting for you.” I gestured to the corner of the room, at the head of Mother’s bed in my parent’s small but tidy room. The eyes of the other mourners in attendance, the priest, my mother’s friends, the Tremaine’s, all dragged their eyes over to the same corner, where they saw nothing but shadows. The priest and my father whispered something I couldn’t hear, but I didn’t think about that at the moment.
Death finally walked out from his corner, now standing on my mother’s left side. I looked up at him, feeling empty inside, instead of the fear I should have felt from gazing at Death himself. “Are you taking her now?” I asked, ignoring the whispers of the other people in the room, wondering who I was talking to. Me speaking to spectres wasn’t exactly unusual, but I had never encountered Death before.
Death nodded once, solemnly and silently, and took my mother’s other hand. Her ragged breathing slowly stopped, her mouth dropping open slightly, her limp hand dropping from mine. With her last breath came a chorus of sobs erupting from my father and her best friend, Tillie Tremaine, her husband wrapping his arms around his wife to comfort her. My father was still kneeling by my mother’s bedside, clutching her hand for the last time.
At that moment, I could see a white, wispy form escaping from my mother’s body, creeping like the mist in the meadow behind our house. I reached out to touch it, but the mist only scattered away from my hands, as if afraid of my touch. The mist kept rising and forming, until I knew it was my mother’s spirit I was seeing, levitating above her body. Death took her spectral hand and tried to lead her to the portal he had opened in the thin air with a wave of his bony hand.
But instead of peacefully walking through the portal, my mother snatched her hand from Death, seeming to shrink away from him in fear. She looked around the room, as if searching. I could feel her fear, her confusion. She didn’t seem to see any of us. She looked so lost, so afraid.
My heart shattered.
“Mother!” I yelled, running over the portal, where Death still stood patiently waiting. I peered inside. It had appeared like a darkened doorway at first but standing in front of it I could see it was a long, dark tunnel instead, with a light at the end of it. It looked impossibly far away. “The light is over here, Mother!” I pointed inside the tunnel, reaching up to take her ghostly hand of mist.
My mother suddenly looked down at me, as if seeing me for the first time. She drifted down slowly, a warm smile on her phantom visage. Tendrils of mist wrapped around my hand, the cold snaking its way up my arm. We slowly walked to the portal, and I looked back, everyone’s eyes shimmering with tears, trained upon us. Well, me. They couldn’t see my mother, or Death, who still stood beside the portal, his arm outstretched, beckoning her inside.
“It’s time, Mother. Death is waiting.”
My mother, seeing Death once again, shrank back and began drifting away again.
“Mother, if you don’t go soon, the portal will close, and you’ll be trapped in the Aether for all eternity! Please, Mother. I’ll walk with you to the light. To the Veil.”
“No!” my father shouted, springing from his crouched position by the bed and pushing the priest aside. “You can’t go in there, Ellefair! No living person can pass beyond the Veil! She’ll find her own way,” he said, his voice cracking, tears spilling onto his already wet cheeks.
“I’m not going beyond the Veil, Father, I’ll stay in the Aether,” I insisted, pulling away from him and rejoining Death by the portal.
“You can’t survive in the Aether either Ellefair! You’ll be trapped there with all the other lost spirits,” my father pleaded, taking my hand once more to pull me away.
“Let her go, Bramwell,” Father Amias’ solemn voice broke through the silence of the room, and he gently placed his hand on my father’s shoulder, leading him away.
“She will survive.”
“But—” my father began to protest, but Father Amias held up his hand to quiet him.
“You’ve seen her eyes. She can do this. She was meant to do this,” Father Amias said, gently pushing me back into the corner with my mother and Death, whose patience seemed eternal.
I took my mother’s ghostly hand once more, and walked through the portal, Death leading the way.
I instantly felt the cold washing over me, a cold like I’d never known, even in the harshest of Aethermore winters. But somehow, I wasn’t shivering, and I didn’t feel the cold within me. It only seemed to brush my skin, the way a light summer breeze would. By all accounts, I should have died the moment I stepped into the Aether. Yet still I breathed.
Death led us down the path, holding up a solitary lantern. The Aether was like a tunnel, a disorienting blackness surrounding us, threatening to swallow us. Sometimes I didn’t know which way was up or down, causing me to get dizzy. Occasionally I saw a flutter of blue glowing lights, but at the time I didn’t know what they were. Now I know it was the Lost, spirits of the dead who were trapped in this limbo state, the ones who still had a penance to pay, or ones too stubborn to cross over, as if being in the Aether and not beyond the Veil would somehow bring them back to life.
As we walked, our footfalls hushed, the light began to grow brighter. My mother just had to cross over the Veil, and into Celestia, where her spirit would find peace and rest. I could still feel her fear and grief at leaving us behind, but she didn’t have a choice now.
“It’s alright, Mother. Once you cross the Veil, you’ll be safe and happy,” I said, smiling up at her glowing form which hovered beside me. She was no longer a fragile mist, her body seeming to take more shape the closer we got to the Veil.
Death came to a stop, gesturing wide to the Veil, which shimmered before us. Beyond it I could only see light, but I felt my mother’s fear and grief suddenly melt away. In the milky, pale light from Beyond, I could see my mother’s face. There I saw relief, utter relief. No more pain, no more sickness, no more worry. She could finally let go. Her face was as healthy and radiant as I’d ever seen it.
She turned to me and gave me a sad smile. She didn’t speak. But I could feel what she wanted to tell me. I knew how much she loved me. I didn’t need words. Her actions my entire life had proven it.
“Goodbye, Mother. One day Father and I will join you in the Beyond. But it’s not our time now.”
My mother smiled silently down at me, staring intently, as if memorizing my face. She reached out her hand to stroke my face, but all I felt was the cold.
“I love you, Mother,” I whispered, not feeling the tears that had begun to fall down my cheeks. She looked back once more, smiling, her eyes shimmering as if with tears. Then she was gone.
And I suddenly learned what it meant to be a Conductor.
Eleven years later
“Well, Ellefair, now that you’re a graduate, what do you plan on doing? You haven’t talked about it much, and I didn’t want to pry,” my best friend’s mother, Tillie, asked as we sat down to tea in their comfortably appointed parlor.
“Mother, you’ve known for ages that Ellefair wants to be accepted into The Society of Spectre and Shadow, ever since…” she trailed off, hating to mention my mother’s death, even though that felt like a lifetime ago.
“Eliza’s right, that’s been my dream since Mother’s passing. I know I could help many Lost spirits cross over,” I said, dropping a cube of sugar into my tea with impossibly tiny and expensive silver tongues. We had nothing this fancy at our modest cottage, but I never felt that we were lacking in anything.
“You do that now, dear. Why do you have to go so far away from us? The Society is in another country! Eliza would be lost without you, not to mention your father,” Tillie replied, smoothing the skirt of her finely tailored dress, the pale blue striking against her dark skin and accenting her cerulean eyes. “It’s not like you would get to come home and visit that often.”
“I can get training at the Society, learn how to use my gifts to better serve the Lost,” I answered, taking a dainty sip of the piping hot rose tea and choosing an equally dainty petit four to go along with it.
“Isn’t it frightfully expensive though? How will you pay for it?” Tillie asked, ever the realist.
“I’m still working at the library. Now that I’ve graduated from the Academy, Mr. Chuffey has agreed to pay me a nice wage, much more than I expected.”
“Well, that’s so nice of Harland to do that. With your gifts, the Society will accept you in a heartbeat,” Tillie smiled warmly, squeezing my hand. She was the closest thing I’d had to a mother growing up, and I loved her dearly. I squeezed her hand in return, grateful for her love and support.
Eliza took a bite of her tiny cake, intricately decorated with pink and green flowers. They were so pretty we almost hated to eat them. Almost.
“I for one am looking forward to attending the university in Graventown, even though Mother and Father want me to live at home,” Eliza said, rolling her eyes dramatically to be sure her mother would see.
Tillie scoffed. “One day of that abysmal academy food, and you’ll be begging to come home. Not to mention the cramped dormitories full of noisy girls. I have a feeling you’ll be home within the first week, you spoiled thing,” she said, affectionately grabbing Eliza’s chin and smiling at her, her eyes twinkling. “I don’t know why you don’t let us get you a private instructor for your university studies.”
Eliza sighed, exasperated. “I want to experience more of the world than just Aethermore, Mother.”
I laughed, helping myself to another petit four, Tillie encouraging me, as she always claimed I was too thin.
A servant entered the parlor, curtsying ever so minutely, then crossing her hands in front of her. “Madam, there is someone here to see Miss Ellefair.”
“Oh, thank you, Hattie, show them in.”
It was Phila Wickham, one of our friends from school. I jumped up from the silk-clad divan, my heart sinking to my stomach. Phila’s older sister Nellie had been due to give birth any day now. Given the tears that streaked down her face, I assumed it was happening now, and wasn’t going well.
“Ellefair, you’re needed,” she whispered, her face crumpling in sobs as Eliza and I rushed over to comfort her.
“Not our precious Nellie!” Tillie exclaimed, coming over and putting her arms around the girl’s slight shoulders.
Phila nodded silently, a sob escaping her lips. “The babe has been born, a healthy boy, but my sister…the doctor says she won’t last the night.”
“Let’s go, Phila. I want to make sure your sister crosses safely.”
With that, we left Eliza’s house and made our way across town, where I would help another soul cross over into the unknown.
Death had already taken up his post in a dark corner by the head of the bed. We silently nodded our greetings to each other, and I joined Phila at Nellie’s side. It was already happening. I had almost been too late. There had been no time to clean Nellie’s body or the bed, both drenched in blood. The coppery smell overwhelmed the room, and I blanched at the sight and smell, despite many visits to scenes like this over the years. I took a deep breath to steady myself, and walked over to Phila, putting my arm around her shaking shoulders.
“She’s untethered from her body now, Phila,” I whispered as I watched Nellie’s spirit rise from her mortal coil like mist rising from a lake on a cold morning. Phila, still gripping her sister’s limp hand, crumbled to the floor, sobbing. Nellie’s husband, Jasper, lifted her pale, lifeless body and clutched it to his chest, wailing along with Phila, a heartbreaking chorus of grief. I could hear the newborn babe crying in another room with the midwife, already grieving the death of a mother he would never know.
I walked over the portal to the Aether, beckoning Nellie to follow. She was following the sound of her baby’s voice, as any mother would. Tears began to shimmer in my eyes as I walked over to the door to bar her way out. Young mothers were always the hardest for me.
“Nellie, you must come with me now.” Her nebulous form, looking beyond me at first, seemed to focus on me suddenly. “That’s good, Nellie. Watch me and follow me. You’ll be safe beyond the Veil, and you can watch over your son from there.” The sobs and wails had gone silent, Phila and Jasper’s attention on me now. I began to slowly walk to the portal, looking back to make sure Nellie was following me.
“I love you, Nellie!” her husband called out, his voice and body racked with sobs.
Nellie suddenly turned to him, reaching out her spectral arms to him, arms he would never feel.
“Jasper, you mustn’t! You can’t attract her attention now or she’ll miss her chance and be trapped. You must let her go!” I pleaded, trying to guide Nellie back to the dark, shimmering portal. “Nellie, your father is waiting for you. Don’t you want to see him?” I asked, searching my memories for her loved ones who had crossed over. She had been particularly close to her father before he had passed the previous year.
Nellie turned toward me once again, as spirits were so easily distracted. Now, if the baby would stay quiet, we would get to the Veil in time.
Death, in his age-old gesture, pointed a solemn, bony hand toward the portal, his lantern hanging from his bony fingers. The lantern in his other hand he handed to me, as he was accustomed to my crossings into the Aether.
I turned and smiled at Nellie, trying to ignore the grief-stricken faces behind her, and stepped into the Aether to welcome her inside.
This time I led the way, Death following behind us. All noise ceased as we entered the cold, lifeless vacuum that was the Aether, the in-between pathway between the human realm and Celestia, beyond the Veil. I clutched my shawl tighter around my shoulders more for comfort than for warmth, as I didn’t feel the cold here. I watched the Lost floating all around me, glowing blue orbs that were attracted to my life force. There were more now than the first time I had entered the Aether all those years ago. As each year passed, it seemed there were more and more souls of the Lost in the Aether. We hardly needed our lanterns now, with the Lost lighting our way. The Lost, souls who lost their way to the Veil or who never wanted to cross, were now trapped here, always longing, always searching. But once here, there was no way out for the dead. Only I was able to return, an anomaly in this lifeless place.
The Veil began to glow with a bright white, lighting up Nellie’s ethereal form. Her unearthly face turned toward mine, and I could feel her thanking me. Her relief and regret, and the longing to go back swirled around me as she stepped into the light, beyond the Veil.
Another soul successfully saved. I wiped the tears from my face that I hadn’t noticed before and silently nodded my goodbye to Death as he closed the Veil, the pathway now growing dark, save for the blue orbs leading me back to the land of the living.