A/N – The first non-canon for THIS story was posted a couple days ago and is available for everyone right here
“So all fifteen of those ghosts are just gone now?” As Sands asked that, she feinted toward the left before moving quickly toward the right, foot lashing out in a kick toward my knee. At the same time, she lifted her left hand toward my face and released a burst of energy that spread out like the blast from a shotgun. Up close like that, the burst would damage or unravel various types of spells or magic constructs. Against a conscious mind on the other hand, like the one inside my head, it would leave the person incredibly disoriented and confused for a brief moment. Long enough for her to get several good hits in if I let it happen.
Needless to say, I wasn’t going to let it happen. Twisting sideways so that my back was to her rising leg and my right side was to her arm as it lashed out, I snapped my right hand down and back to swat her foot out of the way. My other hand caught her elbow and pushed it to the side enough that her blast of disorienting energy flew into the face of Sarah instead of me, as the other girl came up from behind me in an attempt at an ambush.
It was Sunday, the twenty-third. The day after my visit to that neighborhood in North Carolina. And I was facing both of the Lucas (formerly Mason) twins head-to-head. We weren’t really fighting, of course. Well, actually, we were. We were sparring in one of the training rooms, but basically going full-contact. Or as close as we could without actually trying to kill each other. Powers were allowed, magic wasn’t. And we weren’t using our weapons either. Not this time. Oh, and no ghosts. We were fighting without Necromancy this time around. Mostly to make sure I didn’t fall behind in everything else while trying to work on that.
“Almost,” I replied while pivoting once more to put my back against Sands’ front. With a grunt, I gave a sharp heave to throw her up and over my shoulder. A yelp escaped the other girl as she flipped over in the air. In the midst of that, I released her, but she didn’t go flying or fall. I had used my five-second pause power to freeze her shirt, so she basically stayed right in that spot, lying on her back in mid-air.
Before she could free herself or the pause wore off, I took a step and pivoted all the way around. In mid-motion, I used my pause power again. Or rather, I used the rewind portion of it. Instead of being frozen, her shirt was yanked backward along the path it had taken when I threw her over my shoulder. It put her on a collision course with my foot as I spun into a roundhouse that collided with her back. The force of that sent her flying forward into Sarah, who had just recovered from the burst of disorienting energy that Sands had accidentally hit her with.
Just as Sarah was stumbling backward from the collision with her sister, she managed to lash out with her own foot, stomping into the ground. She used the power to turn similar surfaces into portals for her limbs in order to send her foot up out of the floor behind me. The kick hit the back of my knee just hard enough to make me stagger.
Sands, meanwhile, had already shifted into her two-dimensional shadow form, sliding right off of Sarah. “Almost?” she echoed in mid-move.
The girl’s transformation left her twin free to catch herself on her left foot just before she would have fallen, before shifting her energy-construct arm into a long, coiled whip. Which she lashed out with while I was stumbling from her kick. The whip wrapped around my arm, sizzling just a little. Not painfully, but it was definitely warm. Before I could react, she was yanking hard to pull me forward, toward her.
No, not toward her. Toward the Spider-Man-like web that Sands was shooting right into that space while calling out, “What do you mean, almost?” It was the power she had gotten from way back when they fought the Spinnevurrs while Avalon and I had faced Doxer and Trice. The webs were incredibly strong and sticky, and she could ignite them with fire if she wanted to. All in all, not a good thing to get caught in.
So, I didn’t. Snapping my free hand out even as I was being yanked that way by the other, I created a portal in the air right in front of where Sands was aiming. The web went in the portal and out the other end, right behind Sarah. At the same time, I replied (a bit hastily), “Turns out Gimcrack–” I had to stop talking for a second then, because the web didn’t actually hit Sarah the way I’d planned. Instead, the girl used her Tzentses-given energy construct power to create a shield at her back, catching the web before it reached her. At the same time, her mouth was opening. Which meant she was about to hit me with another newish power of hers. And that was something I really didn’t want to happen.
So, I used my boost. Just enough to yank my arm free of her energy whip before diving into a roll. The motion carried me under the wide spray of freezing mist that had just erupted from Sarah’s mouth. One touch from that mist, and anyone hit by it would find themselves incredibly cold. But it was more than that. The mist made you cold and slowed you down considerably, making you move at about half-speed. The more direct and full of a hit you took, the longer the slow-down lasted. And the thing was, even if you were immune to the cold aspect, the slow part affected you anyway.
In this case, I managed, although barely, to avoid being hit by it. My diving roll carried me just under the spray, before I popped back to my feet. But I didn’t simply stand up. No, they were expecting that, and already adjusting their aim to hit where they thought I would be. Instead, I used what was left of the boost I had triggered to launch myself high into the air. It wasn’t anywhere near what I could do with a burst from my staff, but I still managed to get a good seven, eight feet up from that boost added onto my already enhanced-strength. On the way, as Sands’ web passed through the space where I had just been, I quickly blurted out, “Gimcrack’s brother studied necromancy!”
Still in mid-air, I flipped over and spat in front of myself. Not actual spit, of course. I was using the hardening-resin power I’d taken from that Fomorian deer-snake thing just before I’d met up with Nicholas Petan in the future. It passed through a new portal that I had created. The other end appeared in the floor right behind Sands. The resin expanded to encase both of her feet, trapping her there even as she tried to step forward.
Meanwhile, Sarah had already taken two quick steps to the side, transforming her whip-arm into what looked like a harpoon gun. Yeah, it was part of an upgrade that Columbus and Nevada had helped her with. I wasn’t sure exactly how it worked, but she could ‘shoot’ energy constructs out from her arm. It could be single bullets, arrows, a harpoon like she had right now, spears, or anything like that. The larger the object, the more time and effort it took to ‘reload’ after firing.
Needless to say, I was in no particular rush to get hit by her harpoon. Even if she had blunted the end so that it would only hurt rather than piercing all the way through. So, before I could fall the rest of the way to the floor where she was already shooting, I used my pause power on my own pants. It… wasn’t exactly the most comfortable feeling, to say the least. A wince escaped me as I was abruptly jerked to a halt in mid-fall. But hey, at least Sarah’s harpoon went through the empty space where I had been heading instead of hitting me directly.
While briefly suspended there, I focused on Sands, who was bracing herself to rip her feet up out of the resin. Which, given her enhanced strength, was something I was pretty sure she could manage. Or at least, she could have if I hadn’t chosen right then to hit her with another power I’d gotten from the planet with Petan. Namely, the one from the Fomorian ape-crocodile that dramatically increased the amount of force needed to move something. It was the same power that monster had used to stop Petan’s ship from getting off the ground. Though, of course, mine was a lot weaker. It was, however, enough to make Sands incapable of generating enough force to break the resin trapping her feet to the ground. At least for another moment, she was still trapped there.
By that point, I had disabled the pause and allowed myself to drop the rest of the way to the floor. Which put me directly in front of Sarah just as her harpoon hit the wall somewhere behind me. Before she could manifest a new one, I lunged that way.
Or rather, I pretended to lunge that way. In actuality, it was a feint. In mid-motion, I dropped to the floor, catching myself on my hands. At that exact instant, Sands, whose motion I had detected with my object-sense power as the sleeves of her shirt rose and extended my way, sent another attack my way. I had expected webbing again. But this time, the air above my head was filled with purplish arcs of what looked like electricity. But no, it was definitely not electricity. Instead, any being struck by the ‘electricity’ would be forced to copy the physical motions of Sands for about three seconds after she hit them with it.
I knew immediately why she had used that power rather than the webbing. It was because the puppeting-electricity (or whatever it was actually called) wouldn’t actually go far enough to hit Sarah on the other side of me.
At least, it wouldn’t have. Except for the fact that, while throwing myself down, I summoned a portal right on the floor. My right hand went through it and out the other end, directly behind Sarah. The force of the hard shove sent her stumbling forward toward me. And thus, directly into range of the purple energy arcs.
Of course, Sands didn’t have any intention of forcing Sarah to move at all. But she didn’t have to. The moment the energy struck the other girl, it forced her to stop in place. Because Sands wasn’t moving, thanks to the resin still trapping her feet against the ground. She couldn’t walk anywhere. Which left me free to throw myself into a backwards roll before popping back to my feet right beside Sands. She immediately froze, thinking that I was going to hit her. Which wouldn’t have done much, given how close to completely invulnerable she was when not moving. But I wasn’t hitting her. Instead, my hand barely brushed her arm as I used my power to create muscle spasms. Immediately, Sands yelped and jerked a bit, her entire body giving a violent shudder.
Then I hit her. Because her body was moving, so she was no longer invulnerable. Pivoting around, I kicked the back of her leg out from under the girl. Ten feet away, Sarah was copying the same spasming motion, still affected by that puppeting power. Likewise, as I kicked Sands’ leg, Sarah’s went out from under her too. Both of them fell toward the floor. As they caught themselves on their hands (Sarah duplicating Sands’ motion to do so), I spat twice more, sending hardening resin at both of Sarah’s hands to trap her there.
Meanwhile, I dropped down, planting my knee in Sands’ back before putting a hand against her neck. Not hard, but a bit firmly so she knew just how much control I had in that moment. “We good?”
Taking stock of herself and her sister in their current positions, Sands considered briefly, then gave a short nod. “Oof,” she informed me. “More than good in your case. That was intense. And you said Avalon was going to get on your case about not training enough. You seem pretty good to me.”
“Hi, have you met Avalon?” I retorted with a broad gesture from my free hand. “She’ll still get on my case about not training enough. Scratch that, she’ll get on all our cases.” Pushing myself up, I focused on dissolving the resin I had trapped both her feet and Sarah’s hands in. Soon, it was gone, and they were able to push themselves up. “I’m just trying to head off the worst of it. Once she’s not busy with this spell thing anymore, she’s gonna put all of us through the wringer.”
“Good point,” Sands agreed, brushing herself off. “So what was that you were saying about Gimcrack’s brother studying Necromancy? That was the gnome girl, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah, turns out he spent a lot of the past ten years studying Necromancy so he could work out what happened to his sister. After she died he was trying to find a way to pull her spirit back or whatever. And, he didn’t say it, but I’m pretty sure he meant to have some sort of face-off with Fossor too.”
With a grimace as she shifted her prosthetic arm back to its normal shape, Sarah quietly murmured, “That would have gone poorly.”
“Tell me about it.” I gestured. “But now he doesn’t have to. And a good part of that whole thing is that while he definitely isn’t strong enough to have even been a blip on Fossor’s radar, he is good enough to keep his sister around for awhile. She was ready to go before, but now she’s going to stay with him for at least a little while. It gives them a chance to have time together and get to know each other again before she, you know, moves on.”
“See, that’s something that confused me,” Sands put in. “Why are these ghosts choosing to disappear at all? I mean, they could just go on forever, couldn’t they? Especially now that they don’t have Fossor bossing them around. It’s not like you’ll force them to do anything they don’t want to do. And besides, ghosts like that Grover dude have hung around the Runaway hotel forever without having a Necromancer to keep them going. So even if they did want to leave you to stay away from the, I dunno, taste of Fossor’s energy or whatever, why does that automatically mean they have to dissipate, or fade away, or… you know? Why do they have to be gone?”
Before I could say anything to that, Sarah answered, “Natural versus Bonded.”
Gesturing, I agreed, “What she said. See, there’s Natural ghosts and there’s Bonded ghosts. Which is weird phrasing, since we already have ‘Natural Bond Heretics,’ but hey. As far as ghosts go, Natural ones are those that, ahhh, occur naturally. Ghosts that stay behind because of their own intense power and/or feelings. Or even ghosts that stay behind because of some sort of power in the environment. Which isn’t really ‘natural,’ but no one said people name things perfectly. All it basically means is that they’re ghosts who weren’t intentionally summoned and controlled by a Necromancer, or someone with Necromantic spells. That’s the sort of ghost someone like Grover is. Or Seth. They’re ghosts who weren’t intentionally summoned by anyone. So they can continue to exist without the help of a Necromancer. Even in their case, manifesting takes energy. They’re basically imprints of that person’s magical signature and personality on the magical energy around them. But it takes effort for them to appear. Usually they only have enough energy to manifest visually and audibly. Physical manifestation takes a lot more.”
“Which is why you have to give energy to them so they can hit people hard enough for them to feel it,” Sands noted.
I gave a quick nod. “Exactly. It works the same way for the other sort of ghosts too, the Bonded ones. But in their case, because they didn’t come about the natural way and were summoned–I think a better word is created, but even that’s wrong, because the Necromancer doesn’t ‘create’ them. Eh, it’s complicated. The point is, ghosts who come about because someone yanked at them can’t really exist without either that Necromancer or someone else with similar power to keep them going. That’s why Grover could wander around the hotel for a century or whatever without having anyone to boss him around, but the ghosts from Fossor had to stay with me. They’re sort of… short-cut ghosts. I mean, it’s possible that some of them could actually exist on their own without any help. Possible. Especially with all the power Fossor pumped into them over the years, decades, or even centuries. But for the most part, Bonded ghosts need to be linked to a Necromancer to keep them afloat. Natural ghosts do it on their own, but they tend to be tied to a specific location or object. You know, like a haunted locket, or their own body, or whatever. It could be a lot of things. Anything they can anchor their signature to and use the ambient magical energy around them to manifest. The more energy they have, the better the manifestation. That’s why places or things with a lot of ambient magical power tend to make strong ghosts appear. They attach themselves to it and siphon energy to appear and sometimes even move things. You know, like a haunted house that has a lot of magical power running through it for whatever reason.”
“Let me guess,” Sands put in, “they can attach their energy to something else. Or someone else. Like, say, a Necromancer who wanders through their hotel.”
With a chuckle, I nodded. “Yeah, that’s what Grover did. He was attached to the hotel, and he transferred that link to me before I left. I was… a bit distracted, so I didn’t notice. That and I don’t have enough practice. That’s a whole thing. And it’s the opposite of what Fossor’s ghosts are doing. They’re taking their link off of me and then… well, mostly just fading away. Because they want to. They… they lived–okay lived is the wrong word. They’ve existed for a long time, being forced to do so many terrible things. But they think–they want to rest now. They think that Fossor being dead is the last big memory they want. That’s enough for them. It takes… from what they said, being enslaved by Fossor, forced to do all those horrible things for him, it took pieces of their soul away every time. Now most of them just want to disappear. They want to fade away and… maybe see if anything comes after this. Or…”
“Reunification,” Sarah put in.
Sands looked confused, blinking between us. “Reunification?”
“It’s a theory that a lot of people have about ghosts,” I explained. “Basically, it’s that a person can’t really move on to whatever comes after this life until their ghost joins the rest of them. If their ghost is still here in this world, then the part of them that started to move on is in a sort of limbo or purgatory. So they think that if they allow themselves to dissipate here, they’ll join up with the rest of themselves and move on.”
Shrugging then, I added, “Anyway, like I said, Gimcrack was ready to be one of those that moved on, like the others, but since her brother learned Necromancy, she’s going to stay with him for awhile first. Whatever comes next is between them. It’s something, anyway.”
Before the other two could say anything, the door into the training room slid open, and Larissa stepped partway in. “Girls,” she called, waiting until we were looking at her. A faint smile touched her face as she gave a single nod. “It’s time to start.”
Right, time to start. By which she meant it was time to get everyone together so Liesje’s spell could be triggered. Finally, after all this time, after the woman herself had spent her life running and hiding while working on the spell, after centuries of the Seosten chasing after her descendants, after Avalon’s mother had been killed, her father turned against her, her life uprooted, after a year of repeated attempts to kill her, after Tangle had been manipulated and used, after… after so much, it was finally time.
“Well?” I managed after that rush of thoughts ran through me. “What’re we waiting for?
“Let’s go finish this thing.”