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As Miles and Royce knelt next to one another in the small garage-like space, where their teammates’ bodies had been laid out in front of them to keep the four safe until they could be put to rest, neither said anything. Nor did the ghosts of those four dead friends speak. They hovered at the back of the open space. This place was meant to keep several small vehicles, but they had been cleared out before Nevada came to this planet. She had been keeping space open for other things that she might need to bring back with her. Not something like this.
After kneeling in silence for what felt like an hour, but was almost certainly only a few minutes, Miles rose to his feet. He turned away from the bodies of his deceased friends, moving instead to face their ghosts while putting a hand on Royce’s shoulder. It took him a moment to open his eyes, and once he did, there were visible tears in them. But he forced himself to look at Chas, Emily, Jason, and Kaleigh. “I… I’m sorry.” It was all he could do to get those words out, but he owed it to them. That and so much more. “It’s my fault we were here, my fault we went into that fight. It’s–”
“Royce?” Kaleigh interrupted, floating a little bit closer while gesturing with one hand. “I don’t want to use up the energy Flick gave us, so would you mind?”
Before Miles could ask what she meant, he felt a hand smack the back of his head. It was Royce, who stepped beside him and grunted, “We all made our choices.” And yet, despite his words, Miles could tell the other boy felt just as guilty as he did. They had survived while their friends hadn’t. It wasn’t fair. That was all that was to it. Not that something being unfair was unexpected, or new by that point, but it seemed to have reached new levels with this.
Chas nodded while moving right in front of Miles. “Hey look, I spent most of my time at Crossroads thinking I was training to be a hero and save people. If I had to go out, I’m glad it came when I really was saving them. That was a whole planet’s worth of innocent people, buddy. You can’t know that Flick and Shiori would have been able to pull that off if we weren’t there. Yeah, we died. But if we didn’t go in that chamber, they might not have made it. And then a hell of a lot more people would be dead right now. Maybe even everyone else who went in there. Maybe we didn’t add that much, but we added enough.”
“Exactly.” That was Emily, moving forward to join him. “So while you’re thinking about everything, we should’ve done differently, just remember that. We chose to be there. We knew what could happen. But if it meant letting those monsters kill more people, I wouldn’t change it.”
“Neither would I,” Jason agreed. “Wait, no, I would tell that bitch just how much of a pathetic coward she is for not going in to help. Oh wait, I can still do that. You think I’ll get another chance?”
Royce was the one who answered, his voice firm. “Yes. Even if I had to find some necromancy powers of my own and summon you up after I take a bat to her face a few times.”
“Or a few dozen,” Kaleigh put in darkly. “I wouldn’t object to that.”
The others all voiced their fervent agreement with that before Miles shook his head. “Okay, I get it. You wouldn’t change things because if we weren’t there, everything might have been a lot worse. You change one little thing and you might make the situation much worse instead of better. I’ve seen all those time travel movies. It never works out properly. But still. While we were in there, I should have covered you better. I was the team leader. I should have been watching you. I should have been stronger, faster. I got distracted.”
“They were Revenants, dude,” Jason reminded him. “You kind of had your own fight to deal with. You had to focus on that or you’d both be dead too. We’d all be dead. So don’t go on blaming yourselves for what happened to us that way either. Yeah, we died and it sucks. Believe me, we’re not happy about it either. Probably even a little less happy than you are. But we don’t want you to start thinking it was your fault.”
“It wasn’t,” Kaleigh agreed. “We all did the best we could against those things. I’m just glad all of us didn’t die, you know? You can go back and tell stories about how cool we were. Maybe you could use that to hook up with some hot people, huh? At least then I might get to feel like I got some vicariously.”
She made a face partway through saying that before sighing as they all stared at her. “Yeah, I get it, that one was a little more morbid than I was going for. Trying to lighten the mood and totally killed it.” A slightly wry smirk crossed her face. “Get it? Killed it.”
Miles snorted, head shaking as he unthinkingly reached up to shove the girl by the shoulder. But of course, his hand went right through. In that moment, as he stared at his hand sticking through the girl’s semi-transparent form, the full crushing weight of what had happened came slamming back down. He recoiled reflexively, a curse finding its way to his lips before he clamped down on it. Forcing his suddenly shaking hand to steady, he made a fist before letting out a long breath as he met the girl’s gaze. “Kaleigh… fuck.” Tears tried to find their way to his eyes once more, but he blinked them away. “I know it wasn’t our fault. I know you wouldn’t change it if it meant letting those people die. But I–” It felt like there was a rock in his throat he had to swallow in order to continue, and when he did, his voice was even more strained. “I’m sorry.”
Silently, the girl lifted her hand and held it close to his. She was nearly, but not quite, allowing it to pass through him, giving the two of them the opportunity to imagine that they could physically touch for just a moment. The look on her face was one of mixed sadness and anger. Not at him, of course, but at the unfairness of the situation. “Just promise me, promise, all of us, that you guys won’t just give up on all this. If we can’t be there to fight, you’ve got to make up for it.”
Emily moved next to her. “Yeah, that. You have to protect the people that we would have. I’m sorry, I know it’s not fair,” she offered with a very faint, helpless smile.
“Yeah,” Jason agreed, “it’s definitely not fair, not for anybody. But if you can help people, you do it. You don’t give up just because the four of us died. You don’t walk away from this, and you sure as hell don’t turn into a couple brooding, emo assholes who hate everything.” He raised a finger to point first at Royce and then at Miles in succession. “You guys don’t get to shut yourselves off. You’re the ones representing our team now. You’ve gotta make us proud and all that shit.”
Royce made a noise deep in his throat opening and shutting his hands a couple times. “That’s not exactly gonna be easy,” he managed with a strained voice. “Listen, you guys were the first ones I told about my… about how I was going to transition, that I wasn’t a girl. I mean, besides Headmistress Sinclaire. When she told me there was a way to do it without surgery and all that, you were the first ones I told, and you… you accepted that. You accepted me.”
“Not all of us,” Kaleigh muttered under her breath. “Not the whole team.”
Jason made a face. “Hey, Keith made his choice. He transferred teams because he couldn’t deal with it. So whatever. It opened up a slot in our team and we got Emily out of it. Upgrade in my book.”
Miles gave a nod of agreement. “If Keith couldn’t accept who you are, Royce, I really doubt he would’ve accepted my situation.” He put his hand on the other boy’s shoulder and squeezed it. “You’ve been a better roommate than he would’ve been, believe me.”
Royce, for his part, blushed visibly. “Look, you guys are just proving my point. You’re all the best. You always will be, and now I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know that I’m gonna miss all of you.” Again, his voice cracked. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do without you guys.”
“Dude, don’t you get it?” Chas spoke up. “We don’t have to go anywhere. We don’t have to disappear. I mean yeah, we can’t help you the same way we could before. We can’t go out with you and fight the same way. But we’re ghosts, and Flick is like… the strongest Necromancer on Earth or something. I mean, close to Earth–in the solar system. Sure, she’s still learning and all that, but she can keep us around. She’s got that haunted mansion place or whatever. I don’t know about these guys, but I’m not done. Maybe I can’t do all the same things I could before, but if sticking around means I can spy for her, or watch her back, or whatever else she gets the ghosts to do, then I’m there. I’m going to stay in that place. And anytime you guys want to come hang out, do it. We can chill in the haunted house and see what kind of stories the other ghosts have. It’s gotta be some pretty wild shit.”
Kaleigh quickly nodded. “Yeah, exactly. We’re not disappearing, guys. Not anytime soon. We need you to make up for the fact that we can’t fight the same way we could before, but we’re still here. She pulled our ghosts out of that place so we could go back with you. We’re not just gonna wave, say goodbye, and vanish. Besides, she said she was going to release a bunch of her ghosts on that planet anyway, so she’ll need some replacements. We don’t have our powers anymore, it’s really hard to physically touch things unless she gives us extra energy and all that, but we can still help. Maybe we’ll have to stay around her all the time, just to be able to contribute, but if that’s how it goes, so be it. I’m still going to try to help anyway I can.”
“Hey, yeah,” Jason agreed, “they’re right, we don’t have to disappear forever right now, or anytime soon. We can still hang out and talk, even go with you whenever you happen to be on a mission with Flick, you know? Yeah, it won’t be the same. It’s gonna be a lot more complicated and hard. But not impossible.”
Miles found himself smiling just a bit. It didn’t erase all the loss and anger he felt, not by a long shot. But the fact that these four could still be around, that they could still talk to them was… it did a lot to help. He couldn’t even imagine how he and Royce would be dealing with this if they didn’t literally have these four right here to talk to. It helped ease the sting of their deaths. It really was as though they had moved to a different sort of existence this way. Was this how religious people felt when they lost people and believed they would see them again, or that they could communicate with them through prayer? It couldn’t be the same as actual immediate responses like this, not the same as seeing them right in front of him this easily. But still.
Royce spoke up, his voice firm. “If you guys are sticking around to help Flick, then, yeah, we’ll visit you at the haunted mansion all the time. Hey, maybe we can even still have our D&D game. She can give you enough power to roll some dice, right?” Despite his attempt to sound as enthusiastic as possible, there was still a note of sadness in his voice at the very idea that they would have to go through extra steps to even be able to do that much. But before the others could say anything, the boy straightened and smacked his own head. “Okay, damn it, enough morose bullshit. You guys are here, you’re here. If we didn’t have Flick, we wouldn’t be able to talk to you like this. It’d just be Miles and me with your… with your…” He nodded over his shoulder toward the bodies, swallowing hard. “You know how fucking awful that would have been? This is one gift horse that I’m going to stop playing dentist with. You’re still here, so let’s just be happy about that.”
Kaleigh spoke up after the brief moment of silence that followed. “Okay, one, we are definitely continuing the D&D game. That’s just a given. Do you think being ghosts is gonna make us let you off the hook on keeping the adventure going? We’ve got a necromancer to track down and kill.” As soon as she said that, the girl covered her mouth and giggled despite herself. “Boy, that sounds really weird now, doesn’t it?”
Snickers escaped the others before Chas agreed, “Yeah, it’s a little weird, sure. But so is basically everything about… I was going to say this whole situation, but really, everything is weird. Think about it. I mean, tracking down monsters, rebelling against Crossroads, living in a space station in the middle of the sun, getting tricked by Denuvus, going to another planet to fight Revenants and..” He swallowed. “Look, there’s nothing not weird about our lives… and unlives or… post-lives? Whatever, all this shit is just right on brand.”
The group talked for a bit more about what they were going to do and how they would continue as best as they could. Before long, the pocket dimension was opened from the outside, and Nevada let them know that they were back at the Fusion School.
Exchanging looks of encouragement, the two living students and their four deceased but still present teammates and friends walked out of the box together, emerging into the bright lights of the sun station. They expected to step out into one of the landing rooms, where everyone who arrived was supposed to appear and be scanned for any potential issues or threats. Instead, they were in one of the private recreation rooms a couple levels up from that area.
Nevada, standing out of the way along with Principal Abigail Fellows, Athena, and Professor Dare, spoke up as she saw them look around. “We thought you might prefer to have some more time away from everyone staring at you. Flick put some of her power in these.” She held up a couple black crystals. “They should help keep the… the four of you stable until she can get back. You can draw energy out of them when you need it. And if you need more, just ask. We have–”
‘I’m sorry.” That was Abigail, stepping right up in front of the group, clearly unable to contain herself. “I’m so sorry. I should have noticed something was wrong. I should’ve paid more attention to all of you. I–”
“Principal Fellows, stop.” That was Chas, protesting as he shook his head. “You just got brought into this whole situation last year, and now you’re running an entire school like this. You can’t blame yourself for not being able to magically figure out what that bitch was up to.” He hesitated a little after saying that word. “Sorry, I mean–”
“No,” Abigail interrupted, “I think you’ve earned the right to call her a bitch. Call her anything you want. You have my blanket permission to use foul language when it comes to that woman.” Her own voice caught a little upon saying that, and she swallowed hard before clearly forcing herself to continue. “Whether it’s reasonable or not, we still failed to protect you the way we were supposed to.” She raised a hand to stop them from interrupting. “It was still our failure, and we’re going to learn from it. We’re going to do better, you have my word. We’ll find a way to protect everyone else from her.”
“Yes,” Athena agreed, speaking up from where she was standing next to Nevada and Dare. “Now that we know she’s been sneaking around here, messing with our people, we need to do something about it. There’s no guarantee that you are the only ones she’s affected. Felicity has already said that she believes Denuvus affected her mind to prevent her from noticing Miles’ absence, or the fact that she hadn’t talked to him about his parents yet. There must be more.”
“I… I think there is,” Royce murmured with a frown. “I think I half-remember seeing others, but she must have messed with our memories.”
“Sariel can look into that,” Athena noted. “She’s very good at bringing lost memories back to the surface. And she can use that opportunity to see what the signs of Denuvus’ memory tampering might be, so we can check others. If you’re all willing to be part of that.”
The whole group, ghosts and living alike, agreed immediately. After what they had gone through with Denuvus, all of them wanted to be part of making certain she couldn’t manipulate or use anyone else at the Fusion School. Even if they couldn’t get away with punching her as much as they wanted to, this was something, at least.
“Yeah, I– ow, what the hell?” Royce flinched, reaching into his pocket to produce a piece of paper that was folded up. “Where’d this come from?”
“May I see that?” Dare stepped forward, gently taking the paper. There was a rune scrawled on one side. “This is a spell. It’s enchanted to heat up once a specific conversational topic is mentioned.” She examined it a bit more closely. “It’s what we were just talking about, identifying people Denuvus has manipulated.”
“What,” Miles snapped, “did she leave a nasty note for us and slip it into Royce’s pocket?”
“Not her,” Dare replied after unfolding the note. “This is from Trice. He left the note for you, and enchanted it so you’d find it once you started talking about how to find the other people she’s used her power on.”
“What does it say?” Emily asked, voicing the question they all had.
Dare was silent for a moment, before turning the paper so they could see it. There were only four words scrawled on the paper.
She Has Klassin Roe