Well the kids definitely liked that. For the next couple hours, we took them around the ship and let them see the various rooms, like the bridge, the engines, some of the cabins, and so on. Andromeda played guide, while Cerberus remained an even more effective babysitter than Columbus, Shiori, or me. Granted, a large part of that was because the Seosten kids didn’t get such a kick out of riding on our backs, but still. Maybe if I turned into my lion form, I could’ve given him a run for his money, even if I didn’t have three heads.
In any case, they had a lot of fun and that was what mattered. But eventually, it was time to take them back to the station so I could get on with the next part of my day. Namely, heading for the neighborhood that had been so tragically decimated by Fossor (and the fact that that description did essentially nothing to narrow down the options was pretty depressing) so I could let some of my inherited ghosts go. They deserved–okay, what they really deserved was to be brought back to life along with all the family and friends they had been forced to murder or watch be murdered. But failing that, they deserved to be released so they could rest properly.
Unfortunately, Avalon still couldn’t join us. Part of me felt a little sad that she couldn’t be there, and that she was so busy in general lately. To the point that she basically devoted all of her energy to it. But, on the other hand, that was completely selfish and I shoved it down as far as I could. She was doing far more important things right now in helping to get that spell ready. I would have plenty of time with her soon enough.
I did have Shiori with me still, and Columbus. And we had been joined by Triss (the full catgirl with white-brown fur) and Felix (the half-catgirl with pale skin and short white-blonde hair with just cat ears and a tail) as Nekomata had a whole culture built up around helping and releasing ghosts. Not to mention fighting them when necessary. Which, I supposed, made sense given creating ghost-fire was one of their natural abilities. The two of them had apparently felt drawn to be involved in something like this once they heard about it. Even if Felix was only half-Nekomata, she still embraced that side of herself. That and I was pretty sure she also thought ghosts were cool.
As we waited in one of the smaller transport rooms for someone to come help us get down to Earth, Shiori looked at me. “Is umm… Seth with you?” Yeah, introducing ghost-Seth to Shiori had been a whole thing. She tried to hug him and went right through. Then I’d used just enough power to make him solid so she could actually pull it off. Seeing her be able to actually embrace him probably wasn’t the absolute best thing I would ever do with my Necromancy, but I was pretty sure it would occupy a solid part of the top ten for a long time.
Now, however, I shook my head. “He said he didn’t really feel like being anywhere near all the depressed ghosts. Neither did Grover. I left them back in the haunted mansion.”
The haunted mansion, that was what we were calling it, because it was what Seth had called it. Basically it was just another house on the far corner of the neighborhood. Well, it looked like just another house from the outside. Inside, it was more like a castle. There were seven floors and like a hundred rooms. I wasn’t sure what it was actually intended for, but it wasn’t being used at the moment, so Abigail had allowed me to start keeping ghosts there when I didn’t want to carry them around with me. It helped with the privacy thing too. I could always summon them to me when needed, but giving them their own space was important. It helped them feel less like tools or slaves.
Also, a television with voice control. That was important too. Or so Grover had emphatically informed me. Apparently he had gotten really into some daily soap opera that one of the guards always watched back at the Runaway, and didn’t want to miss any of it.
Nearby, Felix was doing a handstand and getting Triss to time how long it took her to do ten laps around the entire room like that. She called out, “I think they’re both just scared of the stories they’ve heard about Nekomata. We’re sort of like ghost boogeymen. Sorry, boogeygirls. Boogeycats?” She kept scrambling on her hands while considering that. “Yup, boogeycats, I’m sticking with that one.”
Jumping on that, Columbus asked, “What kind of world did the Nekomata come from to naturally develop the ability to hurt ghosts? I mean, I understand someone making a spell that does it, but you guys just have it naturally, right?”
Triss, still holding her phone with the stopwatch app running in one hand, held up the other and popped her claws, making pale blue flames flicker across them as she gave a short nod. “When we get older, we’ll be able to make it bigger and stronger, even create weapons out of thin air with it. We’re still pretty young and… new to all this.” She got through all of that without reflexively looking at us with suspicion as though wondering if we were going to somehow use that knowledge against her. Which really showed how much she’d changed since the first of the year. Of course, spending every day with people probably had a way of working through your apprehension of them. Especially if you were fighting alongside them now and then.
“Time!” Felix called while flipping from her hands to her feet in one smooth motion as she reached the corner of the room where she had started ten laps ago. “And what sister-dear means is that we are so incredibly awesome right now, but just wait until we learn a few more tricks. Then we’ll totally kill the awesomeness meter.” With a grin, she held up her fist, creating a similar blue-flame glow around it before slyly adding, “And when that turns into a ghost, we’ll kill it again. How many people can say they broke the awesome-meter and then killed its ghost?”
“She says,” Triss put in dryly, “to the girl who can make ghosts perform the King of New York sequence from Newsies if she wanted to. Also,” she added while glancing toward Felix, “one minute, twelve seconds. Not your best.”
“That’s an oddly specific hypothetical,” I informed her with a small smile. “And hey, I’m not quite that good yet. I mean, unless I just ask them and they’re in a good mood. Actually, I’m pretty sure some of them would do it anyway. I’ve seen a few that seem like they’d be into that. But the point is, I’m not good enough to force dozens of ghosts into an intricate, coordinated dance number against their will.” Belatedly, I added, “And I wouldn’t do that anyway. But if that’s something you’re interested in, maybe I can see if there are any musical-inclined ghosts later. Sounds like pretty good practice, come to think of it. All that coordination and–okay I have to stop thinking about directing a bunch of ghosts in a play now.”
“Probably a good idea,” Shiori piped up while giving that familiar and incredibly endearing goofy grin. “After all, you don’t wanna confuse Patrick Swayze. He won’t be able to figure out if he’s in Ghost or Dirty Dancing.”
Leaning close to her half-sister, Felix loudly whispered, “Who’s Patrick Swayze? Actually, wait, scratch that entirely. What’s Dirty Dancing? That sounds like the far more important question.”
Before any of us could respond to that, Triss cleared her throat, pointedly changing the subject. “Anyway, as far as why the Nekomata developed these powers, our ghosts are sort of umm… difficult. They have a habit of turning into what you would call a poltergeist more often. Not all the time, but enough that it’s a thing. They become really angry and hostile. So we have the ability to defend ourselves from them and… and end the angry ghost. I guess a really long time ago, our people did some big project to write ghost-fire into our DNA or whatever. Sort of a mix between genetic manipulation and magic.”
“Sort of like how the Seosten extended their lifespans and made themselves all attractive and all that?” I suggested.
Triss, in turn, shrugged. “I guess so. I’m not sure how it worked. But I do know that most of our people probably wouldn’t react well to the comparison.” She looked to Columbus then, and I saw… well, not a blush. She had fur. But there was something in the way she looked at him that made me think there was something possibly there. Or maybe I was just crazy. Either way, she focused on him while adding, “I guess it was really bad for a long time, back in the ancient days. We had whole rituals set up to expunge ghosts. It wasn’t just Nekomata either. Something about everything that lives or comes from that world makes them more likely to create ghosts, and much more likely for those ghosts to turn violent. Which made it hard to build things that lasted. When they created our ghost-fire powers, that was when our people were really able to focus on expanding our civilization.”
For once sounding completely serious, Felix flatly added, “Yeah, until people like Fossor found out what they could do and started hunting all of us nearly to extinction. Between him trying to get rid of anyone that could innately fight his ghosts, and Heretics trying to steal our power to do it for themselves, we–” She stopped, blanching just a little with a glance toward Shiori, Columbus, and me as her extra cat-like ears flattened. “Errr, I mean…”
“It’s okay,” I immediately assured her while restraining a wince. “Trust me, we get it. Boy do we ever get it.”
Thankfully, it was right around then that the doors slid open, and Nevada strolled in. “Hey there, guys! Sorry I’m a little late, had something I had to take care of. Hope you didn’t die of boredom waiting for me.” She exchanged a high five with Felix, then Columbus before turning to the rest of us, holding a hand out expectantly.
“We survived,” I promised while slapping her hand. Shiori followed suit, with Triss going last.
Only once she’d gotten a high five from everyone did Nevada continue. “Good, cuz if I had to come in here and find a bunch of corpses because I made you wait too long, I’d probably have to fill out like… a pile of paperwork at least six inches thick.”
“You’re just scared of Abigail’s reaction to finding out you let five students die right here on the station,” I retorted.
“Pffftt, hell yeah I am,” she confirmed while vigorously nodding. “Your sister is scary, babe. And trust me, I know–” She cut herself off then. “Never mind, come on, let’s get this show on the road.”
So, with Nevada’s help, we transported down to the neighborhood in question. It was a gated community on the north-west side of Cary, North Carolina. The town itself had a population of about a hundred and ninety thousand people, and was spread out across a large area. Lots of good-sized one or two-story houses with big front and back yards and positively enormous trees. Well, as far as North America, Earth trees went. There was a lot of greenery everywhere. From what I had read, the east side was where downtown was, along with a lot of the older buildings. The western side was the suburban area. That was where Fossor had been that fateful night when those neighborhood watch people annoyed him into killing all of them and making them haunt, torture, and kill their own families over the next week. All so he could search for whatever he’d been trying to find in peace.
I’d done some research about this place ahead of time, so what I saw didn’t really surprise me as we came through the portal. At one time, the neighborhood here (known as Elkwood Estates) had been one of the most prestigious places to live in the town. Given a little more time, it probably would have been a home for the truly elite in North Carolina.
But Fossor had put an end to that. Now, the place was practically a ghost town. Only about half the houses were still occupied, and they were all rundown. Graffiti covered basically every surface, trash cans lay out on their sides in the road, most of the street lamps were either burned out or broken, weeds were overgrowing everywhere (and were just about the only plants still alive), and so on. It looked like the ‘bad timeline’ in the second Back To The Future movie.
As the six of us emerged from the portal that Nevada had created, we were standing in one of those empty lots. Behind us stood a two-story Victorian-style house that had clearly been vacant for years. The ‘for sale’ sign in the weed-covered yard looked like it was about to fall over. The houses on either side of this one weren’t doing any better. Nor was the one across the street. Though the one next to that at least had a beat-up old sedan in the driveway and a couple lights were on. There were also thick bars across all the windows, and what looked like a security camera above the front door. Looking down the street, there were a couple other houses like that. Maybe one in every four appeared to be occupied. I assumed others were as well, but didn’t look like it from the outside.
“Well,” Columbus started quietly as he gazed up the street and gave a little shudder. “Fossor definitely left his mark on this place. You said you don’t know what he was looking for out here?”
“He took a small wooden chest,” I replied, “about a foot wide and just under a foot tall. The ghosts have no idea what he did with it, if anything. They never saw him open it. Not that that means much. He wasn’t exactly in the habit of sharing his plans with them.”
Nevada spoke up then, “So we have no idea what this thing was, why it was buried out here, who put it there, how Fossor found out about it, what he did with it… or anything, other than the fact that he found it and the box was roughly one foot by one foot.”
“That’s about the size of it,” I confirmed, exchanging a nod with Shiori as she gave me a quick, brief smile for the pun. “And it was ten years ago, so either he put it away somewhere or he used it and… did… something.” Offering a helpless shrug, I added, “But we’re not here for that. We’re here to help these people say goodbye.”
While saying that, I extended a hand and sent a mental call to the fifteen ghosts in question. They knew it was coming, that I was doing this today. We’d had a whole discussion late the night before while everyone else was asleep, and I had promised that when I called for them next, it would be right here in this neighborhood.
A moment later, they all appeared. Fifteen ghosts. Eleven of them human, one Rakshasa, two sibling Ailkins (basically humanoid deer people with a lot of sharp teeth and four arms), and a single gnome. They appeared, before immediately spreading out. As the rest of us simply watched in silence, the ghosts moved across the yard, looking up and down the street. I heard a couple very soft sobs, and a single quiet curse. A couple of the humans pointed down the street while murmuring something about living that way, while the Ailkins moved to the very edge of the driveway and were having a murmured conversation that I didn’t catch any of (and didn’t want to pry).
I just gave them time. In no way, shape, or form was I going to rush any of this. We were here to let them get as much closure as we could manage. And right now, that meant standing back while they adjusted to actually being here.
The Rakshasa ghost, a male feline figure with long gray-white fur, turned to me. His name, I remembered, was Keoph. Meeting my gaze, he spoke in a solemn voice. “Perhaps it would be best if we all took a walk through the neighborhood together, one last time.”
The rest of us exchanged looks, and I gave a short nod. “That sounds fine, yeah. Which ahh, way do you want to go?”
In answer, the fifteen ghosts conferred briefly before starting to head down the sidewalk together. All save for the gnome, at least. Her name, or at least the one she’d told me, was Gimcrack. She was a tiny, faintly glowing pink color with just a hint of white to it around her face. When she spoke, her voice was deeper than I would have expected, given her size. “If’n you don’t mind, I would prefer to stay back with you, Miss Felicity. There… won’t be anything for me in any of these houses. I lived alone. No one to miss me. Only reason I was even with that neighborhood watch group in the first place was because they trampled through my yard and I wanted to give them a piece of my mind. See how that turned out.”
Swallowing hard, I gave a quick nod. “Sure, walk with us. But I umm, I think you’re wrong about people missing you. Just because you didn’t have family here doesn’t mean you didn’t affect their lives.”
“Aww, that’s sweet of you to say, dear,” she informed me. “But I’m afraid I was a recluse. Bit of a hoarder. Never talked to my neighbors, didn’t see the need, seeing as they wouldn’t know anything about me anyway. Far as any of the humans were concerned, I was just a little old lady who lived by myself and never talked to them. Probably thought I was a witch. Being little and a lady is about the only true parts that salaud Bystander Effect didn’t erase, and they didn’t even know how little.”
Something told me there was a story there, about her being screwed over in trying to reach out to people but constantly losing them because they couldn’t remember details about her. Which was just one more sad thing on top of a whole heap of depressing that this entire situation was.
So, we walked together like that. Columbus and Shiori kept asking Gimcrack a lot of questions about her life, while Felix and Triss moved ahead to walk with the rest of the ghosts. I stayed around the middle, watching as we passed all these mostly-empty houses. Every time we reached one that was supposed to belong to one of my little group, they would split off and fly over that way. I let them go, simply sending a bit of power their way so they could interact with a couple things. Brush a hand over a person’s face, touch a portrait, stuff like that. Bystanders wouldn’t be able to see them, but the ghosts themselves would get some measure of closure. And, in a small way, I liked to think that the Bystanders would too. Even if they didn’t remember it.
Meanwhile, the rest of us walked onward, taking a slow, long loop through the once-promising community. On the way, Keoph fell back a step and focused on me. “You, you’re a good person, Miss Felicity. Been a long time since any of us were around good people for very long. I think you ahh… I think you mean to do positive things with these Necromancy powers of yours. Thank you for that. And for this. It’s–it’s more than we thought we’d ever get. Which is what makes asking for anything else–”
“What is it?” I quickly put in. “What can we do? What can I do?”
He hesitated, before offering a heavy sigh. “Just… maybe, if you get a chance, look in on this place once in awhile? I don’t expect you to fix all the problems it’s got, but just… I don’t know. I’m sorry, forget I said anything.”
“No, I–it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I get it, really. I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll check in on this place and… maybe find out if there’s any way to get it cleaned up. Or find people who could move here. You know, Alters would understand about the haunting thing and that Fossor is dead now so it’s safe. I’ll figure something out, I promise.”
By that point, we were down to only the Alter members of my little ghost group. The humans would be joining back up with us soon enough, after saying goodbye to their old families and homes in their own way, but right now, it was just Keoph, Gimcrack, and the two Ailkins (their names were Hijer and Jiher). And we had just reached the small, wooded area where Fossor had been when they found him. When… yeah. This was where they had all agreed they would say goodbye for the last time.
And lined up in that wooded area, right where Fossor had been, were three long picnic tables. An assortment of figures surrounded the tables, of several different species. There were coolers and baskets spread out both on the ground and up on the tables.
The moment we came into view, the people around there looked up, and immediately started calling out the names of these four. And the four, in turn, called out names of people they recognized. Their family and friends. Three of them rushed that way, after recovering from obvious surprise. They couldn’t exactly embrace them… or at least, they couldn’t until I pushed enough power in them for it.
Meanwhile, Gimcrack was staring up at me. She pointed with a shaking hand. “That… that is my… brother over there. My brother I never told anyone about. How did he…?”
Offering her a faint smile, I quietly replied, “I did my research. I reached out to people and asked anyone who had any connection to the people here to come for this. Even got a few who had some connection to the human ghosts, so they’re not completely left out. I wasn’t just going to send you off without any goodbyes. Now go on. Talk to your brother. Take all the time you need.”
Using part of the power I had given her, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it. There were tears in her eyes. Then she pivoted and moved that way, the ghost gnome meeting the living one in a tight hug.
Stepping back with Columbus, Shiori, and the others, I lowered my voice. “Hope you all weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere, because I’m planning on staying for awhile.”
“Nope,” Shiori murmured, “as far as I’m concerned, these guys can have all the time they want.
“And if anyone tries to ruin this, we can help you restock your ghosts.”