Yup, Rahanvael, Fossor’s sister… apparently. She was a ghost, as in a real honest to God ghost. She’d first contacted me almost two months back, basically right after we saved Sean from the Crossroads prison. I’d been standing alone, lamenting that we had no real advantage over Fossor when she had simply… shown up out of the blue. Which, yeah, was a tad convenient. Too convenient, really, aside from the fact that I had been deeply wishing for some kind of advantage. According to the ghost-girl herself, my inherited necromancy had responded to that, pulling at anything dead that was connected to Fossor. She’d felt it and appeared.
But again, that was all really convenient. I’d basically figured the whole thing had ‘Fossor trap’ written all over it. Especially given how pissed off he had to be about Sariel taking his two hostages. It seemed just like him to pull something like sending some ghost claiming to be his sister just so he could fuck with me. Hell, it could even be the start of his play to grab me later.
So yeah, the whole trap/trick thing definitely occurred to me. In fact, I was basically assuming it at first. I was just waiting for her to try to tell me how I had to keep her a secret so no one found out she was helping, conveniently isolating me from my friends and all that. She’d tempt me with promises about being able to save my mom if I kept her a secret for an advantage or whatever.
And then she told me to get people who were stronger than me, people who knew magic better than I did. Necromancers if possible. She said I shouldn’t listen to anything she said until I brought someone, preferably multiple someones, who I trusted completely that could test her. She told me she wouldn’t say another word until I brought people who knew how to test ghosts for various things, such as to find out who was controlling them or if they were lying or not.
Yeah. That uhh, that had definitely thrown me for a loop. But I’d done as she asked, getting Professor Dare, Wyatt, and Sariel. Between the three of them, I figured if there was any chance this was a fake or a trick or whatever, they’d be able to figure it out. And then Sariel had (with my permission) brought Apollo in on it too. Four. I’d even wanted to bring in Brom Bones, but he wasn’t anywhere near the camp at the time. But still, four of the strongest people I knew were checking out this ‘Rahanvael’, running her through every test they could figure out.
And they’d come up with nothing. As far as all four of them working together could determine, the ghost wasn’t connected to Fossor, or to anyone else aside from the tether she had with me. My energy was supporting her appearance here. She wasn’t being controlled by anyone. Further, when she said she was Fossor’s sister, every truth spell or power they’d used had come up clean. She let Apollo talk to her long enough for his power to work (he said it had worked on ghosts before plenty of times), and telling her to tell the truth hadn’t changed anything. Magic, powers, whatever they used, the story stayed the same. She was Fossor’s sister. She wanted to help take him down. As far as we could tell, it was all true.
Unfortunately, no sooner had Dare, Wyatt, Apollo, and Sariel convinced themselves that the ghost-girl wasn’t some creature summoned by Fossor to fuck with me, than she’d started to disappear. All she’d had time to say was that it was incredibly hard to manifest and that she would reach out to me again as soon as she could, and that if I sent out a sort of… necromantic beacon to her, she’d try to grab onto it again and come back.
So, we had taken the time to be as certain as we could that it wasn’t some Fossor trap (and Wyatt was still at least half-convinced that it was even if he couldn’t explain how), only to run out of time to actually talk to her. But I wouldn’t have changed what I did. Better to be sure (or as sure as possible) than to start taking information or advice from something Fossor had thrown together to fuck with me. She’d be back, and maybe then I could actually get the whole story out of her.
But that had been a couple months ago. And the most I’d managed so far while ‘throwing out a necromantic tether’ was to pull in several unrelated ghosts. Some of them were fun to talk to, or at least pleasant about the whole situation. Others… weren’t. I’d had a few turn violent. Most of those I could simply dispel, shoving away from me back to where they’d come from. One had been too strong for my still-budding power, and I’d had to use the spell on my staff that let me hit ghosts. That left a bit of a mess, and I’d held off a bit on trying to summon Rahanvael again.
I’d also talked about ghosts a bit with Brom Bones once I actually had the chance to.
According to Brom, ghosts weren’t actually the full person. It wasn’t like you died, you became a ghost, and then you were stuck like that forever. A ghost wasn’t a person’s spirit, it was their magic. Yeah. Basically, when a person died, their magic was supposed to fizzle out and dissipate. But sometimes (particularly with rituals or necromancers involved, or suitably traumatic experiences), the magic instead took on the form of the person it had belonged to. They were instilled with the person’s memories and personality and whatnot, but they weren’t actually that person. So this Rahanvael wasn’t actually Fossor’s sister, she was what remained of her magical energy when the girl had died. Her memories and personality instilled in a sort of… core of magic. And when I summoned her, that same magical core was brought to me and filled in by the energy around her. Essentially, the core was like a… pattern of the person, and they manifested by pulling in ambient (or projected) magical energy to fill in the rest of their form in that shape.
When Fossor summoned his ghosts to step on their ashes here on Earth, what they were doing was transporting the ashes of their bodies. Which was something they could do, apparently. Ghosts were linked to their remains, but could also be linked to other things. That was where the idea of ghosts being connected to heirlooms or cursed objects or whatever had come from.
As far as Rahanvael went, Brom said it made sense that she couldn’t manifest very easily. Her core would be very old by that point, not to mention far away from Earth. The energy and time it would take for her to project herself all the way here, without attracting the attention of her super-necromancer brother, would be extraordinary. Even with my own power reaching out to her like a hand and beacon all rolled into one, it probably took a hell of a lot of effort.
So I understood why it was taking so long for her to come back. I was just hoping we’d have a chance to talk again before my birthday rolled around. Which was why I kept trying. That and Brom had told me that the more I reached out to her, the easier it would be for her to eventually find her way back. I just had to keep, as he said, turning on the lighthouse for her to navigate to.
In any case, I’d be trying that again later tonight. For the moment, after making sure all of our stuff was safe in the room (and sending a text to Dare about which room we were in for Tabs to get her bed), we headed out together to look around the rest of the house some more.
As the two of us came out, Kersel was standing in his open doorway on the opposite end of the attic. I took that second to really look at him. Other Relukuns I had known, like Karees, the one we’d helped escape from that Seosten slave camp with Jokai, were old, ancient and twisted in form. But Kersel was young. He was about five feet tall, so a few inches shorter than me. Other than that, he looked like a human covered in bark. In his case, the bark was white with some black spots, like a birch tree. But I’d seen Relukun with much darker bark-skin. They had the same number of legs and limbs as a human, like a tree literally given a humanoid form. His hair was like vines covered in dark leaves, falling to his shoulders. His eyes (Relukun had two of them as well, just like humans) appeared to be made of glass, or something similar. They were like very high end doll eyes inside a wooden figurine.
When I waved, Kersel hesitated before raising his hand briefly. Then he just turned around, stepped into his room, and closed the door once more, all without saying anything.
“He’s so chatty,” I remarked to Tabbris, “how are we supposed to get a word in edgewise?”
She snickered a little before sobering as we reached the stairs. “Do you think he’s mad because he knows you have the wood-traveling power? You use it enough, it probably gets out.”
Pausing, I considered. “Maybe. I don’t know how mad he is, but at least distant. If he knows about the wood power, he has to know that I’ve killed one of his people. That might be why he’s keeping us at arms length. Or maybe he’s just rightfully nervous about Heretics.”
“Or both,” Tabbris pointed out, as we descended the stairs, stepping onto the second floor.
“Pounce!” With that declaration, Shiori suddenly popped up. I found myself pinned against the wall, an altogether not exactly unpleasant situation, considering who was doing the pinning. “Or both what?” she asked, holding me there while batting her eyelashes rapidly. “Something fun?”
Swallowing at the way she made me feel, I wrapped both arms around the other girl’s neck, shaking my head. “Just trying to work out why Kersel is so standoffish. You know, besides the fact that Heretics have been hunting and killing his people for thousands of years. Come to think of it, maybe we don’t have to come up with any other ideas. He’s got plenty of reason.”
“You know, we tend to call all you guys Boschers.” That remark came from Jason, who was just coming out of the nearby living room. He leaned against the archway while adding a casual, “Since ‘Heretic’ kinda lumps us Naturals in with you, and we don’t exactly like that.”
“Oh, like Hieronymous, got it,” I realized. “Boschers. Yeah, I guess I can see that. Makes sense that Natural Heretics would have another word for us so they didn’t lump themselves in with all the psycho genocide and shit.” My arms were still around Shiori, though she had turned around to face the boy so that her back was to me, and I squeezed her a bit. “Can’t blame them.”
“Hey, umm…” I hesitated a little, unsure of how this was supposed to go. “I’m sorry if this is rude or whatever, but I’ve never met a Prevenkuat Heretic. I know you can–I mean we can get enhanced hearing from them, but what do you… I mean, what can you…”
He offered me a smile that showed his human teeth… which subsequently elongated into canines. It was like in the movies when a vampire makes their fangs appear, only with every tooth. “These chompers can bite through a lot of things,” he explained. “Short of like… steel. Wood, brick, plastic, rocks, I can bite through it. Plus, whatever I bite I get a sort of… sense of. I can follow it within a certain distance, and if it’s a person, I can kind of get impressions of what they’re about to do before they do it. That’s if I’m close enough, and it’s only a second or two lead.”
“Must help in a fight though,” Shiori noted, her own voice just as curious as I felt.
He nodded. “Not super reliable, but it’s come in handy before.” With a shrug, the boy added, “Beyond that, I’ve got really good hearing, sight, and smell. Plus a little bit of extra strength. And I’m quick. Not Wally West quick, but I can run a good hundred klicks per hour. But just to answer the question you’re definitely wondering, no, I don’t have a second head. I do have a second brain. Well, sort of. One brain, but I can focus on two completely different things at once. Like read a book while thinking about something totally different. And I’m ambidextrous, so I can write two completely different things on two different pieces of paper at the same time. That’s pretty cool. Also helps me fight and think about homework at the same time. Which I’ve definitely done before. You’d be surprised how many Bystander teachers don’t take ‘I was fighting a troll last night’ as an excuse for not having your homework done.” Pausing, he shrugged. “Guess that’s less of a problem now, huh?”
“Bystander teachers?” That was Columbus, coming in from the kitchen. “You went to normal school?”
The Asian boy glanced that way while confirming, “Yeah, see, a lot of us Naturals don’t exactly have the structure the Boschers do. There are places for it, but it’s more… casual. We get mentors if we’re lucky. That is, the ones who don’t get killed by either real monsters, or the regular Alters who think they’re just defending themselves because they see a human who can recognize them and think that we’re Boschers who are immune to their Heretic sense.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I piped up. “Naturals don’t set off their danger sense because it’s the Reaper bit that does that.” So some Alters who saw Natural Heretics just assumed they were like… well, me, and didn’t give off the danger sense until they used their power. Or, I supposed, thought they were using a spell to muffle the sense. Either way.
He gave me a brief nod. “Yup. So they think we’re about to kill them and act first. It’s a real treat, lemme tell you.”
Wincing, I started to say something to that. But Triss spoke first, on her way down the stairs from the second floor. “Heretics kill you fast. If you don’t act faster, you’re dead.” She paused on the last step, glancing toward Shiori and me, then to Columbus before adding, “Most of your people don’t stop to ask questions. They see us, they kill us.” Her ears flattened then. “They’re good at killing.”
“That’s why we’re here.” Those words came from Avalon, who was descending the stairs behind Triss while reminding her, “To change that. It’s the entire point of this school.”
“Yes,” the cat-girl replied, ears flicking that way as she shot a quick glance to Avalon before descending the rest of the way and turning to put the wall to her back (and all of us within her line of sight). “That is why I am here. I wish to see this for myself.”
Tabbris, who had moved over by Columbus, spoke up. “Um, I’m sorry if this is really rude, but…you’re not a Rakshasa, right?”
“Why?” Triss asked with what sounded and looked like equal parts defensiveness and curiosity. “You hate Rakshasa or something?”
Tabbris’s head shook quickly. “Oh, no! Nuh uh, I was just curious cuz I didn’t recognize you. I–like I said, I’m sorry if–”
“No, it is okay.” It sounded like Triss was making the effort to calm her initial suspicion. “You are allowed to ask. There will be… questions, I know.” The more she spoke, the more I heard that faint Russian accent. Or maybe it was her nerves bringing it out more prominently. “No, I’m not a Rakshasa. My people are called Nekomata.”
Tilting her head that way, Shiori asked, “I thought Nekomata had two tails, though.”
Now Triss looked more embarrassed than anything. “We… we do, when we are fully grown. My second tail has not… come yet.” Defensively, she added, “But I am still capable!”
Quickly, I assured her, “Oh, don’t worry, we’re sure you are. Besides, that just means you’ve got something to grow into. But still, Nekomata, I know I’ve heard that before.”
“They make ghost-fire,” Avalon reminded me in a quiet voice. “The flames that can hurt ghosts or intangible things.”
“Oh, wow.” Looking back to Triss, I asked, “So your people make ghost-fire?”
In answer, she held up her paws (wait, were they hands if they had the full human-like fingers and thumb and were just covered in fur? I wasn’t sure how that worked). As we watched, her claws extended, and sparks of blue-white flame appeared around them. “I can’t make very much,” Triss admitted with clear embarrassment. “Only the little bit like this. It is just enough to make my claws damage the ghosts. Full-grown two-tailed Nekomata can make and throw it as… balls of fire. And more.”
“Like Flick said,” Columbus put in, “it’s something to grow into. And hey, being able to hit ghosts with your claws is pretty cool by itself.”
With a nod, I agreed, “He’s right, it’s damn cool.”
The look on Triss’s face was interesting… and a little sad. First she perked up like she was happy that we thought her power was cool. Then her expression turned a bit more suspicious, as if she was suddenly worried about what Bosch Heretics liking her power could mean. She had almost relaxed, but that moment of suspicion and uncertainty made her withdraw a bit again. “Yes, well… you have advantages of your own.”
“True,” Columbus agreed with a look over toward Avalon. “And speaking of advantages, what’s going on with you-know-who, anyway?”
Jason’s mouth opened, but Valley spoke first. “He means my ancestor. Dries Aken, the man who killed his own father-in-law, Hieronymus Bosch.”
“Wait, so that’s true?” Jason asked curiously. “You’re really descended from the monster and the hero?”
Blinking, I raised a hand. “Why do I feel like you’re reversing the order of those two from the way Crossroads does when they tell the story?”
“Bosch is the monster,” Jason confirmed. “Dries is the hero who tried to stop him from creating his regime of genocidal maniacs and paid for it.” He did a double-take. “Wait, what does he mean ‘what’s going on with?’ I– hang on, is he alive?!” His eyes were wide and eager, like he’d just found out that he had a chance to meet one of his childhood heroes.
Muttering something under her breath before clearing her throat, Avalon gave him a short nod. “He’s alive, but he’s not great with outsiders. And Hieronymus wasn’t a monster, or at least we don’t think he was. He was possessed, by the Seosten called Radueriel. They made him make the Heretical Edge. And that whole possessing thing is what Dries… and others are working on fixing.”
“They’ve been working on that spell for months now,” I mused. “Are they almost ready to use it?”
With a glance to me, the other girl replied, “They would’ve been done before now, but they decided to make it bigger. They started with making it so Heretics couldn’t be possessed without permission, linking it to the Heretical Edge for power. But, you know, we can’t exactly reach the Edge right now. So they started looking for something else and… well, then we ended up setting up school right in the middle of a gigantic power source.”
“The sun?” Jason blinked at that, looking around. “They’re using the sun as a magic power source?”
Her head bobbed once. “Yeah. And since they had so much power to work with, they figured why not go the extra mile. Instead of linking the Seosten-protection spell to Heretics, they’ll link it to everyone who joins us. Bosch Heretics, Naturals, Alters, whatever. They’ll all be immune to non-voluntary possession, as long as they come back up here every once in awhile and renew it at the source.”
“Well,” I murmured, “that sounds convenient.”
“Should be,” Avalon agreed. “But it’s taking awhile to make it work. Hopefully they’ll be done soon.”
“No kidding,” Columbus replied with a brief dark look, clearly looking back at his own memories of being enslaved by Charmeine.
Swallowing, I pushed on. “Right, well, what do you guys say we go out, meet the neighbors, and look around a little. And make sure we work up our appetites.
“Because if I know anything about Chef Gisby, dinner tonight is gonna be ridiculous.”