A/N – there was a non-canon posted for this story which is now available for everyone to read on Patreon right here
Mom was the first to find her voice, unsurprisingly. With the black-bladed sword held out protectively as she scanned the room to watch all those other doors as though expecting something to rush through them at any moment, she spoke up in a quiet, tense voice. “What do you mean, pilot the ship to Tartarus? Why–and how would these Whisper things do that?”
Aletheia, in turn, regarded her briefly. She seemed curious, but didn’t want to bring up anything that wasn’t directly related to the situation at hand. “The former requires speculation. As to the latter, there are, as it turns out, certain locations within this universe with very minor… links to Tartarus itself. Similar to the portal whose study led to the original Summus Proelium project. Except rather than a portal, per se, these spots are closer akin to windows. Or, for a more suitable comparison, the connection used all those millennia ago was a direct hole between our universe and that one. Whereas these windows still have some material between them, thin as it is.”
From the corner where he was standing, Seth muttered something about how much more complicated everything got once you left Earth, and how he missed having good solid ground under his good solid feet.
Meanwhile, Aletheia turned that same curious look from before my way, the expression making it clear that she wanted to talk about certain things later, when there was more time. But for now, the woman simply finished with, “Call them potential portals between this universe and Tartarus.”
“Let me guess,” Apollo put in. “Our Whisper friends have ways to, ahh, realize that potential.”
“But why would they do that?” Avalon demanded. “You said it required speculation?”
“Yes,” the Seosten woman confirmed. “Speculation which… I am unprepared to make right now without further investigation. Suffice to say, the Whispers have arrived on this ship and are attempting to pilot it toward the nearest of these windows so that they may send it, and all of us, through to Tartarus itself. I do not believe I am the only one here who would prefer to avoid that.” After a brief pause, she added in a slightly more quiet voice, “One thoroughly chaperoned and tethered trip into that place was more than enough.”
“You’re telling me,” Apollo agreed. “And I didn’t have nearly the chaperoning or tethering you did.” To the rest of us, he added, “We need to get everyone off this ship or take control of it back and kick the Whispers off before they reach that window and open it. You do not want to be in that place. No sane person does, and I’m not teleporting off and leaving the people still on the ship stuck here. Not a chance in… uh, well, not a chance in Tartarus.”
Finally unable to take it anymore, Tabbris hopped out of me, her attention solely focused on Aletheia. “Where’s my brother and sister? Where’s our grandparents? Where’s Puriel? What happened?”
“What she said,” I agreed, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Where are the others? Also, how do we stop the Whispers from piloting us straight into hell? I suppose that’s two missions. First, take back control of the ship. Second, find everyone. And then teleport the hell out of here with them if we can’t manage the first one.”
Aletheia, by that point, had stepped out of her little magic circle protection thing and took a knee in front of Tabbris. She offered the girl a faint smile. “It is good to finally meet you in person. I have heard a great many… and many great… things. You remind me of your mother. And your siblings.”
“You’re Savvy’s mom,” Tabbris pointed out solemnly, before adding, “she wants to meet you.”
“And I her,” the woman murmured before her eyes flicked back and forth between us. “Your family members are going to be very pleased to see you, when we find them.” She straightened up then, clearly addressing everyone. “I do not know where they are on this ship. I was attending to other things in preparation for our arrival when Puriel sent a message warning me of the Whispers’ presence. I attempted to return to the bridge, but detoured down here to investigate what the Whispers were doing. On the way, I left a few protective runes, which I learned from Chayyiel, in an attempt to contain or slow these creatures down. Unfortunately, upon arriving in this area, I found myself overwhelmed and was forced to create the protective circle you see there in order to prevent the Whispers from influencing me. They are… as you have no doubt seen, quite powerful and dangerous in large groups like this.”
“You said you found out they were down here and came to see why?” Dad asked curiously. “Did you find out anything else before they, ahh, surrounded you?”
Practically sliding along the floor to where I was standing, Seth spoke up. “They did try to keep all of you out of this area. And I doubt it was just to isolate her.”
He had a point. The resources it must’ve taken the Whispers, whatever they were, to stop my mother and Apollo in particular from realizing that we were all walking in circles had to be considerable. It felt like there was a bigger, better reason for that than as merely a way of keeping us from finding Aletheia. And if she had detected them down here to start with… yeah, there was something else.
“Mercury said that communication jamming was coming from down here,” Avalon pointed out. “The source of the interference is somewhere on this deck.”
Aletheia nodded once. “Yes, I detected that as well. I believe I was on my way to it when… well, they truly did not wish for me to progress any further.”
“Which means progressing further is exactly what we need to do,” I pointed out. “These Whisper things don’t want us to see what they’re up to down here, so it’ll probably help stop them. But… we need to let the others know what’s going on too.”
“I’ve tried to get through again,” Apollo noted with a grimace. “No luck, ever since we had that brief conversation with Mercury. It’s like the Whispers turned up their jammer, or closed the frequency, or… something like that. Both tech and magical communications are blocked.”
“Too bad you guys aren’t using that ‘magically connect all your people who are out on missions together so they can permanently communicate no matter how far apart they are’ spell,” I pointed out. “It screwed us over enough last year, getting it to work in our favor would be nice. Oh hey, I can use ghosts.”
Everyone was staring at me for just completely changing my own subject practically in the middle of a thought, and I flushed a little bit before gesturing. “I meant I can send ghosts out to look for the others and–hold on, Seth, were you able to see those Whispers when they were in here, beyond the ripple in the air?”
“One, yes but they were still pretty indistinct. Just a little clearer than ‘ripples in the air.’ And two, did you just flip between three entirely different thoughts in the span of a couple sentences?” he demanded while staring at me. “Is that what just happened?”
“Seth,” I insisted while waving off his words, “we seriously don’t have time. I mean, I assume we don’t have time. Wherever this–hey Aletheia, how do you know they’re taking us to one of these Tartarus window things anyway?”
“Four!” Seth blurted in the background while I turned back to the woman in question.
She, in turn, met my gaze while explaining. “The protection spells I used prevented the Whispers from gaining control of me, but I could still hear some of what they were saying. In summary, they were attempting to convince me that going to this window and opening it to get back to Tartarus was a good thing, for all the power it could offer. There was… much talk of how useful having stronger abilities would be, and how many things I could accomplish with such a boost. Their words did not have the magical coercion effect they are capable of, and yet… and yet I did hear them. Some of them, at least. Enough to understand what they are attempting to do.”
Right, that made sense. I exchanged a glance with my mother, who nodded and spoke up pointedly. “You said something about sending ghosts to communicate with the others?” There was a tenseness to her voice, despite her clear attempt to sound calm. She knew just how dangerous this was, just how much we really needed to stop the ship, or grab the others and get off of it, before these Whispers piloted it into Tartarus.
“Yeah.” Focusing on that, I continued. “I can summon ghosts and send them through the ship to find the others and tell them what we found out. The bridge should be easy, we know that’s where Mercury, Haiden, and Larissa are. And uhh, well, I figure I can send the ghosts off and let them search for the others. You know–” I looked to Miranda. “So you don’t have to sacrifice your… uhh, the version of you that’s right here just to tell them what’s going on. Actually, even that would only inform the original you, who is…?”
“With Haiden and them,” she answered with a small grimace. “In other words, the one you can find most easily without my help. So, you know, I’m being incredibly useful right now.”
“Hey, I’d rather have a version of you helping every group by being there, than waste your individual existences by letting you turn yourselves off just to send information,” I pointed out, offering her a faint, hopefully reassuring smile. “Besides, like I said, I can summon ghosts.”
“Grab that Grover kid while you’re at it,” Seth put in. “If I’m not back there enjoying the Haunted Party, he might as well get dragged into this too.” After a brief pause, he coughed and amended, “I mean, I’m sure he wants to help.”
“Uh huh.” Rolling my eyes a bit despite myself, I looked to the others. “I can summon the ghosts and send them out, but we shouldn’t wait here for as long as it takes me to do that.” Extending a hand toward Tabbris, I added, “Hop in, drive me along with the rest of the group, and I’ll send those messages with some ghosts.” Pausing then, I played back everything I had just said in my own mind before tilting my head. “I uhh, we have very strange lives.”
“You say that,” Dad muttered with a grimace. “Imagine that whole thing from my perspective.”
“I would say it gets better,” Mom informed him while putting a hand on his back. “But mostly you just get better at rolling with it.”
“And manipulating it, from time to time,” Apollo added, before turning back and leaning over to whisper something quietly to Aletheia. From the couple of words I picked up, I was pretty sure he was asking about how Puriel was doing and whether she trusted him right now.
In any case, I asked Seth to take that trip back to the bridge to tell Mercury and the others about what was going on, then come back to us. As he set off for that, Tabbris took my hand and jumped back into me. Then I focused on summoning a few more ghosts while she, uh, drove my body to keep following the others in searching the engine deck for the source of the jamming. And whatever else we could find that the Whispers very clearly wanted to keep us away from.
We really were a long way from the station now. A long way from the mansion where I had left all my ghosts so they could party on their own terms, specifically because I didn’t think anything would be going on today. Or at least that I wouldn’t be going anywhere. You’d think I would have learned by now, but here we were.
With that distance, it took me a bit of time to reach out to the ghosts. I could still feel my connection to them but it was definitely a stretch to make full contact. Even more than it had been when I pulled Seth over, likely because the ship had been moving that whole time. We were getting further away with every passing moment. Not for the first time, I thought about the fact that Fossor had been able to reach all the way back to his home planet, and realized just how much work I still had to do if I was ever going to be more than an insect compared to what he had been capable of.
Not that I wanted to be capable of–yeah. I needed more training and practice, that was the point.
Finally, after what felt like hours but was more like a couple minutes, I gently convinced several ghosts to accept the pull, then guided them my way. Grover was there, as Seth had requested, along with a few other ghosts from Fossor’s old collection who had not been released yet. Including Rahanvael, whose presence I had been surprised to feel. Ever since the death of her brother, she had been mostly dormant, just waiting to go back to her home world and… disappear.
They didn’t exactly appear around us (I checked in on the outside world just long enough to see that we were searching along a massive engine thing), but they were definitely here. I could feel their invisible presence, their curiosity, their… well, let’s just say they weren’t surprised that I had found a way to get into trouble again. I was pretty sure a couple of them had won a bet.
Quickly and silently, I passed along a detailed idea of what was happening and what I needed. It was a bit like how I communicated in my head with Tabbris, but more… if talking to Tabbris in my head was like a normal conversation, this was the equivalent of sending an e-mail. I composed every thought I had and then pushed it out to them. They, in turn, sent back their own fully detailed e-mails of thoughts.
Thankfully, they understood the urgency and quickly spread out to set off. I made sure to stress just how much they needed to hurry, and that if they encountered anything odd they should let me know immediately. I also made them go on a buddy system, since I had pulled more ghosts than there were groups to search for, just to cover the ship more thoroughly and efficiently. They went in pairs, Even to the point of sending Grover to find Seth, because I didn’t want my ghosts being alone out there with these Whispers around.
Rahanvael, meanwhile, stayed with me. She made it clear that she would keep an eye out and be ready to jump in if we ran into Whispers, or any other ghostly thing (like Kushiel) along the way. Apparently she didn’t trust me to stay out of trouble on that front. Which, well, fair. She could also give advice on the Necromancy front, given how long she had been connected to Fossor and watched over his shoulder.
Finally, with that done, I focused on the outside world, sliding back into control while asking Tabbris what was going on. She, in turn, let me know that we hadn’t found anything yet, aside from Apollo managing to detect a faint trace of the jamming source, which we were all following. There had been another attempt to throw us off like before, but now Mom and Apollo were ready for it, so we pushed right on through. Which was good, but it made me wonder what the Whispers were going to do when we got closer. I doubted they’d give up, or that that was their only trick.
Which also made me wonder just how many of these things there were, or how strong they were. From what I had heard from Doug, those protective runes had been enough to keep them out of his head entirely just by having a set of them on a hat. Yet these Whispers were only somewhat held back and limited by them. And it wasn’t a lack of power thing, because I was pretty sure Aletheia was as good at magic as Doug’s uncle.
Looking around, I took in the sight of the room we were moving through. It was much larger than the corridor where we had started, with huge machinery all around us. We were deep in the engines, with Apollo leading the way while holding some glowing stone in front of himself. The thing he was using to track the source of the jamming. Aletheia was just behind him, using a flashlight to illuminate all the dimly lit corners behind and under the machines. Mom and Dad were near the back of the group, whispering together while keeping an eye that way. Meanwhile, Tabbris and I were in the middle, with Avalon to the left checking that area and Miranda to the right. Everyone was keeping their eyes peeled.
“How close are we?” I spoke up in a whisper.
Aletheia glanced back to me. Now I could see more of the anti-Whisper runes that had been drawn all over her outfit. She’d gotten a spellpower boost from all the adults for that while I was distracted, which would hopefully be enough to keep those things at bay. At least while we were down here.
“The tracing spell indicates that the source should be directly ahead,” she informed me quietly. “Which… judging from where we are, would put it on the heart of the Slide Drive’s power core.”
Grimacing, I nodded. “Not surprising, I guess. Hang on, I’ll send Rahanvael to scout ahead.”
So, everyone stopped and settled in a group, watching warily while the ghost figure appeared beside me. Rahanvael, for her part, gave them a nod and a whispered promise to hurry, before heading out. I shifted my senses to see through her eyes, while reaching out to grab Avalon’s hand to one side and Miranda’s to the other. They both squeezed back.
Watching through Rahanvael’s eyes, I saw the room passing by quickly. She was searching that way, not really waiting to look around. Her focus was ahead. I supposed it made sense that she would know what the Slide Drive core looked like and that it wasn’t any of the things around her.
There, that had to be it. Well, the entrance to it anyway. I could see a fifteen foot tall, ball-shaped structure ahead with a hatch on it that had a bunch of security consoles nearby. That was the way into the core.
Unfortunately, getting in there wasn’t going to be simple. Not even for a ghost. Because the whole area around it was swarming with… distortions in the air. Whispers. I recognized them from a few minutes earlier when they had been trying to get through Aletheia’s protection circle. But there were a lot more here. That much was clear just from how visible the distortions were, like waves of heat coming off the hot desert sand. There had to be at least a few dozen of them, if not more. All bunched up around each other like… well, swarming really was the best word I could think of. They were protecting the core, ready to stop us from getting anywhere near it by any means possible.
And they had all stopped to look at Rahanvael. I wasn’t sure exactly how I knew they were looking at her, given I couldn’t actually see them. But it was definitely the impression I got. They were staring at her, while she stared back at the, well, distortions they made in the air.
“They won’t allow her to go any closer. They won’t allow any of you to go closer.”
The all-too-familiar voice came not from where Rahanvael was, but from nearby me. Opening my eyes, I turned it to look along with all the others. We saw the figure coming into view from behind us, a ghostly form approaching with a deceptively casual motion.
“Charmeine?” Avalon blurted. And yes, it was her. Or at least her ghost. Her dark skin and short white hair was immediately recognizable. Which in and of itself was a bit weird. Though she had the ghostly semi-transparency going on, and I could feel that she was one, she was full-color. She looked like herself instead of having a tint to her like basically every other ghost did.
Reflexively, I reached out to stop her with my power, only to have it slide off just like it had when I was facing Kushiel back at the Auberge. The Tartarus connection still made them next to impossible to control.
“Oh, she does not like you,” Charmeine noted, with a glance toward Avalon. “Or any of you, really. Not even you two.” That was added toward Apollo and Aletheia. Stopping there, about ten feet away from us, she added, “And to answer the question, no, this is not Charmeine. Weeeelll, sort of. It’s what you would call her spirit, what remained after her death. But me? I’m just giving it a little test drive.”
“You’re one of the Whispers,” Mom noted, sword held out protectively.
Charmeine’s eyes turned that way, a small smile playing at her lips. “Is that what you call us? Interesting. I suppose it’s as good a name as any. Yes, I am.”
“Let me get this straight,” Miranda put in. “That Seosten chick is a ghost, but you, a completely different creature, are… uhh, essentially possessing her? You’re a Whisper possessing a Seosten ghost.”
“Very good,” the… creature confirmed. “But to differentiate between your Charmeine and what I am, why don’t you just call me Invidia? It’s another of her names, after all.”
“It’s a distraction,” Avalon snapped. “We need to get to the core and shut down the jamming and the slide drive itself.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t try to do that if I was you,” Invidia drawled lazily, her eyes scanning over all of us.
“Why is that?” Dad carefully asked, stepping a bit to the side as though to draw her attention that way to give Mom an opening. “Are you going to stop us?”
“Little old me?” Invidia smiled again. “Wouldn’t dream of it. After all, you’re such strong fighters. Even with Charmeine’s gift, I probably couldn’t take all of you by myself. But then, I’m not exactly by myself. You see, there were many Seosten who died on or connected to this ship.”
As she said that, more figures began to appear all around us. Seosten ghosts, all of them with Tartarus-links and thus hard for me to do anything about.
Invidia chuckled low, as a dozen or more Whisper-possessed Tartarus-powered Seosten ghosts surrounded us. “It has been quite some time since we were able to express ourselves physically.
“This should be fun.”