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Okay. Okay, okay, okay. No, no, not okay. What the fuck?! Staring at the ghost figure in front of us, I heard a sound not unlike the emergency alert tone on the television go through my head. Before I knew what I was doing, I had already shoved myself in front of the others and snapped my hand up. With a grunt of effort, I forced every bit of power I could summon toward the dead man so I could trap him in place and stop him from doing anything. But could I even manage that? I hadn’t been able to stop Kushiel before because she was empowered by Tartarus. What made me think I could do it now? And yet, what choice did I have? I had to try.
Sure enough, I felt the same problem I had with Kushiel. My Necromancy couldn’t catch a hold of him. It kept glancing off. I was going to have to try something else. I was going to have to call someone else for help, call everyone for help. Tabbris, call–
“Please, please,” Manakel abruptly put in, “it’s all right. Please, calm yourse–” In mid-sentence, it was his turn to be interrupted, as a sudden fireball exploded right in the middle of him. It disrupted the ghost’s form briefly, obscuring him from sight.
Flak, who had apparently taken over from Jordan, held her hand out with another fireball forming at the tips of her fingers. “He’s a bad guy, right?! Can we go?! Can we get out of here?!”
“Ahem.” Manakel’s ghost appeared a few feet to the side from where the fire had been. “Please, before you burn down the entire hillside and that town over there, may I speak?”
In the back of my head, Tabbris was telling me to hang on, and that she was getting people to help. I focused on the ghost, shifting over a few steps to keep myself in front of the others. I could feel Marina lift her weapon protectively in front of Dakota as well. Still, I kept my focus on the man in question. If he could be called a man now. “So,” I managed, “you came back too?” It really shouldn’t have surprised me. Hell, apparently this was the time for people to come back in one form or another.
Manakel hovered there, his eyes watching me. But strangely, I didn’t feel any of the hatred and utter contempt that I had felt from him before. Or even from Kushiel’s ghost more recently. Instead, I felt something more like… shame? I felt disgust, but not at me. It was… what?
The man spoke finally, his voice quiet. “As I was saying, I owe you an apology, Ms. Chambers. I owe a great many apologies. Far too many to ever truly manage, no matter how long my… extra existence may last.”
I was absorbing all of that, still confused beyond belief. “Are you trying to say you don’t want to kill me?” I finally managed. Even as I said that, I was still keeping a wary eye on the man while holding my staff up. A single word would activate one of the ghost-fire spells I already had prepared on it, but I held off for the moment.
There was a brief pause before the ghost gave a slow bow of his head. His voice was soft. “Ms. Chambers, I can safely say that killing you, or any of those who might believe I hold some vendetta against them, is the furthest thing from my mind. This may be difficult, or impossible, to believe, but I am quite truly not the man you knew me to be.”
Looking over my shoulder briefly to exchange a quick look with Marina and the others, I then turned back to him. “What exactly are you saying? You died and now all of a sudden you’re not a giant piece of shit anymore?”
Clearing his throat audibly, the man grimaced before nodding. “I suppose that is one way to put it. You are correct that in my old state of mind, I would have quite loathed you for your actions. And yet, that hatred would not have been limited to you or to any who had actually wronged me. Before my death, I was… not the sort of man I ever wanted to be.”
Before he could say anything more about that, or before we could respond, a portal opened up nearby. Several figures came rushing out. The first was Sariel, with Tabbris right behind her. They were accompanied by Athena, Mercury, and my mother. And, just behind them, Puriel came as well.
The new arrivals spread out, and I found myself gently pressed back by my mother as she put herself in front of me. Which was funny, considering the way I had done the same to the others before.
“Manakel,” Sariel immediately started, “if you wish to enact some vendetta against the one who killed you, then look to me, not her.”
“No one is going to be the subject of a vendetta.“ That was Puriel. The man focused his gaze firmly on Manakel’s ghost. “You came back.”
With a soft, somewhat beleaguered sigh, Manakel confirmed, “Yes, apparently I have. And as I was just saying, I’ve not come to enact any revenge plot. Or any other plot. I’ve come to apologize. To a great many people, actually. But I am glad to see that several of those have already come to me.”
None of us were going to let our guards down, obviously. But we stood there and cautiously listened while he explained. Apparently, the man had actually partially reformed shortly after his death. The connection with Tartarus had brought him back, as it had Kushiel and the others. But for some reason, that same connection had been at least partially severed. It was like he was being pulled in two directions at once, connected both to Tartarus and to something else. He couldn’t understand what that other thing was for a while, but it gave him a sense of clarity that he had not had for a long time. It made him think about the person he had become over the years.
At one point in his past, before the Olympus had come to earth, Manakel had been a good man. That much we had heard already from others. He took care of Sariel, Apollo, and Chayyiel not only as the ship’s doctor, but as a source of advice. And he had been a close friend to Puriel, who had actually countered some of Kushiel’s influence.
So yeah, he had, at one point, been far different from the man we had come to know. But over the centuries, he had found himself becoming more and more corrupted by that same connection to Tartarus. In his new ghost form, with that strange connection to something else, he was able to think more clearly and fully grasp the type of man he had become. Faced with the guilt of the things he had done, he let his ghost form drift in a state of near-nonexistence. He expected to be taken by the void anytime, and had even wished for that.
Mercury’s voice was quiet as he asked, “But what happened then? Pretty obvious you didn’t disappear into the Void.” Even while he was saying that, my item sense picked up something. On the man’s shirt was a button. Well, there were a lot of buttons. But this was a particular button that wasn’t a button. Instead, it was a camera. A camera that was picking up audio and visual stuff, and, I was pretty sure, transmitting it to Chayyiel.
There was a brief pause before Manakel sighed. “No, I did not. Some time ago, I felt a rush of power, an explosion of sorts, coming from the other end of whatever I was connected to besides Tartarus, the thing that prevented me from being subjected to its control. It took me a while, but I brought myself together and followed that power to a small prison world. A human Heretic prison world.”
Realizing what he was saying right then, my eyes widened as I blurted, “You’re talking about the place we went to. That explosion, it was me using all that necromancy in that fight. You felt me, because I’m the one you’re connected to. When I killed you— I mean when we killed you, I reaped your power. That connected you to me.”
Looking my way, he gave a short nod once more. “Precisely. I learned that you were the one preventing me from falling back under the sway of that place. You may have aided in my death, but in so-doing, you reaped my power and thus gave me a… connection which prevented me from falling entirely back under Tartarus’s influence. After that realization, it took me some time to decide what I should do about it.”
Athena took a step forward, exchanging a look with Puriel before speaking carefully. “And what decision have you come to?”
I could tell this was a lot for them to take in. Not only because of the whole ‘him supposedly not being an evil dickhead anymore’ part, but it was even more confirmation that if they died, they would be turned into Tartarus ghosts. That had to be hard to think about.
Manakel was quiet for a moment before his eyes focused on me. “I wish to teach you. I have no idea how long the connection between us will allow me to maintain my own thoughts and personality. But for whatever time we have, I want to use it to help you understand how to use my power. I had millennia to practice with it.” He paused again before quietly adding, “And, with any luck, I will be able to instruct you well enough that should the time come where I no longer control myself, you will be able to send me through the void where I can no longer harm anyone. As, I hope, you will do with all of our people, removing them from Tartarus’s influence and sending them on.”
Okay, yeah, that was a lot to take in, to say the least. He wanted to teach me how to use Necromancy so that I could destroy him if he ever turned evil again? And then use that same knowledge to destroy other Olympian ghosts so they couldn’t be used by Tartarus? Even assuming that was true and this wasn’t some sort of trick, wow. I just… wow.
Puriel spoke up carefully. I could tell he was trying not to instill his will on the situation, even if he did have an opinion. “It is true that over the centuries since we were connected to Tartarus, he did change, quite substantially. I was far too distracted to pay attention at the time. Nor… nor would I have done what I should have if I had.”
“It… was not specifically the connection to Tartarus,” Manakel informed us. “It was the deaths. Every… every one of us who had that connection and died, some part of me felt them. Their deaths… weighed on me. Not in the normal way. I felt that connection to them.”
It was Sariel who realized it first. “They died and were tied to Tartarus, just like every one of us who dies and becomes one of its ghosts. Like Kushiel. Even though you weren’t dead, you were connected to them. You felt its influence on you through them. Because of your necromancy. Every Olympian who died gave you another small connection to Tartarus. That… changed you.”
Athena took over, her own voice clearly contemplative. “When you died, you should have been taken by it too. But Miss Chambers reaping your power connected you to her as well, and that… saved you. Like being thrown a safety line when you’re about to be sucked under a whirlpool.”
“That… is an accurate assessment,” Manakel agreed. His eyes focused on me. “All of which is why I say that I hold no ill will to you, Miss Chambers. Were it not for that connection, I would have been lost entirely and would simply be a thrall of that place. The fact that I retain any of my own faculties is because of you. I wish to repay that… and make up for my actions before my death, as well as ensure those who I was given charge of are not eternally enslaved.”
Mom‘s voice was flat and somewhat dangerous. “You want me to believe the only thing you’re here for is to teach my daughter how to stop you and the rest of the Tartarus ghosts?”
“Mrs. Chambers,” he replied in a voice that showed far more respect than I would have expected, “to say that I understand your doubt would be an understatement of epic proportions. It is part of why I did not make myself known for some time. Not only your doubt, but that of everyone else as well.” His eyes flicked toward Athena, Puriel, and Sariel. “And yet, when I sensed Miss Chambers’ disappearance from this reality, I thought perhaps you had been taken by those still beholden to Tartarus.” He paused and let out a heavy sigh, his ghost form flickering slightly. The impression I got was that it was from the various emotions he was having. “I thought it might be too late, that I had delayed for too long, and at any moment, my connection to you would be severed. I feared I had made yet another mistake and would be back under the thrall of that place. It was… a disturbing, terrible fear.”
I believed him. I wasn’t exactly sure why exactly, but I did. It just felt like he was telling the truth, like… I could feel his sincerity. He was terrified of being controlled by Tartarus the way Kushiel apparently was. Or, I was pretty sure, being taken by the Whispers like Charmeine had been.
While I was thinking about that, he continued. “I understand that this is difficult to believe, if not impossible. But as I said, I mean none of you any harm. The man I was before my death, the things I did and what I became…” He bowed his head for a moment before lifting it to look at them. “I am not proud of any of it.” Looking toward Puriel, he added, “You entrusted your daughter to me, and I was not the man you believed me to be. I did not help her in any way, certainly not as you expected.”
The others looked like they were still absorbing that, while Athena spoke up. “If we are going to allow you to continue to exist anywhere near us, and particularly near young Miss Chambers, we are going to need certain assurances. Special assurances, not merely your word.”
Mom gave a quick nod at that, not taking her gaze off the translucent man. “That’s for damn sure. You say you want to help my daughter learn to control your power better, so she can stop others like you? Maybe you’re telling the truth, but before I’d let you anywhere near her, we’re going to make sure you can’t make us regret that.”
For a moment, Manakel looked like he was considering those words and how best to respond to them. His form flickered a little more, as the impression I got was… disgust. Not at them or any of us, but at himself. He felt sick about the fact that we, and particularly his old friends, were reacting to him this way. Sick at himself. I felt the disgust directed inward. He hated what he had been, and the things he had done. I was completely certain by now. In the time since I had first laid eyes on him, I’d come to sense his emotions and general state of being better with each passing moment. And right now, I was completely certain that he hated himself. He genuinely wanted to pass on everything he knew to me so that I could destroy him when the time came. He wanted to be sent through the Void before he could be turned against the people he cared about again.
Reaching out, I put a hand on Mom’s arm before speaking up. “You don’t have a problem with that, right? You’re okay with us making sure you can’t hurt anyone else.”
His eyes centered on me, and then softened. I knew he could tell that I sensed what he was feeling. He gave me a short nod without breaking that stare, before speaking softly. “Yes. Whatever measures you deem necessary.”
This was still a lot to take in, to say the least. This guy had been doing his level best to destroy my life and kill my girlfriend through most of last year, and now he was dead and his ghost wanted to help? I wasn’t sure what to do with that. Part of me strongly wanted to tell him to take a hike. Of course, that would have been a waste, and yet, it was still right there on the tip of my tongue. After everything he had done, everything he tried to do, I was just supposed to forget that and accept that he had been affected or turned evil or something by Tartarus even before he died?
I found myself looking at everyone else for a moment as they seemed to be waiting to see what I said. Apparently since I was the one he wanted to teach, they were waiting for my opinion. I still hesitated before offering a shrug. “I’ve got all this power, and I barely know how to use it. I mean, Brom is helping a lot, and so is.. uhh… Persephone…” Trailing off then, I glanced toward Manakel. He looked a little surprised to hear that she was around, and then his expression turned to one of shame. He was obviously thinking about how he’d treated her.
Letting that go for the moment, I pushed on. “Anyway, they’re helping, but learning from someone like him? I think I need that. I think he could really help me use this power the right way, before it’s too late. I need to get better at it. And you know there’s no better teacher than him.”
There was a moment of silence as the others absorbed that, before Athena and my mother exchanged a brief, whispered conversation. Then the Seosten woman nodded toward Manakel. “We will discuss how to contain your spirit somewhere safe within our home. You will not be allowed to leave that area, and Miss Chambers will come to you there for instruction. Is this acceptable?”
He agreed, and then all of the Seosten started to discuss things together. Not just how to contain him, but also about everything they have missed. Leaving them to that, I turned to my mother. There was something else incredibly important that we needed to do.
First, of course, I found myself facing Tabbris. She sprang my way to give me a tight hug. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I should’ve been with you, I shouldn’t’ve–”
“Stop,” I insisted, returning the hug. “I’m fine. You can’t be there all the time, Tabs. You have your own life. You were visiting your dad. Which–is he…”
“He’s still here,” she replied. “He’s visiting Michael right now.”
“Good.” Hugging her more tightly for a moment, I added, “This was a really long day, and I wanna hear about the rest of it. But uhh… first, I think–Mom? You need to meet someone.”
Her gaze had already moved to Flak, taking in the red skin and all that. “Denny? What–”
Boy, this was going to be complicated. Glancing toward Marina, I gestured. “Explain it to the others, please? Let them know we’re fine and we’ll be right back.” Then I turned back to Flak. “Would–”
“Yeah, yeah,” she immediately replied, waving a hand dismissively. That shimmering wave passed over her again, as the body shifted from Flak to Walker, with her gray skin and cloak.
Needless to say, Mom was even more confused. Her eyes widened at that, taking the whole thing in. “Okay, now I really need to know what’s going on.”
“Mom, that was Flak. This is Walker,” I informed her. “They’re–it’s a long story, but easier to tell inside.” Reaching out, I took the gray-skinned girl’s hand, before offering my other one toward my mother and Tabbris. “Trust me?”
They did, both reaching out to touch my arm. I waited until we were all ready, before looking back to Walker with a nod. She returned it, before visibly focusing. And then we were gone, taken inside Denny so they could meet the rest of the Aspects.