“Oh no, the ghost-man has eaten my yellow pseudo-circle!” Perched on the floor of the living room in the house where I lived with the others, Persephone intently moved the stick of the simple controller we’d given her. “Yellow pseudo-circle junior shall avenge you, yellow pseudo-circle! The big dot! Muahahha, yes, flee! Flee, ghost-men and tremble before the power of the big dot as yellow pseudo-circle junior casts aside his doubts and seeks vengeance for the–my big dot has worn off. Curse the transitory nature of invincibility ball and flee! Seek life now! Live and take your smaller circles! Take all of the tiny balls, for the ghost-men guard them jealously, so taking them all will be a much finer revenge! Flee and eat them all!”
“So uhh, she likes Pac-Man.” Sitting beside me on the couch, Shiori noted that fact while miming writing in an invisible notebook. “Hell, she’s getting pretty good at it too. Isn’t she, Choo?”
Beside the couch, the now fairly-large warthog-like Jekern huffed cheerfully, a spark of electricity zapping out of his snout with a sharp crack. He was dividing his attention between watching the screen with real interest, and eating an assortment of meat treats out of a bowl on the floor. Actually, come to think of it, he was only eating whenever Pac-Man ate. Every time the so-called ‘yellow pseudo-circle’ ate a line of pellets, Choo would quickly lean down to start scarfing from his own bowl. When Pac-Man stopped, so did Choo. I had no idea what that was about.
After watching Persephone finish another stage (crowing about the ghost-men losing their pellets), I gave a short nod. “Yeah, you were right. Starting her on a simple game like this was the right way to go. Give it a little more time and I think she’ll be ready for Mario.”
“Excellent,” Shiori murmured in a Mr. Burns impression while staring at the screen with heavily-exaggerated intensity. “Soon, she’ll go from Mario to Mario Kart. And then the ultimate culmination of Operation: Get A Fourth Player For Mario Kart Battle Mode Splitscreen.” After a brief pause, she added, “It uhh… it’s a pretty self-explanatory plan.”
Snorting despite myself, I caught the other girl’s hand and squeezed it before focusing on the screen once more. “Hey, Percy. When you’re done there, we should take Savvy and the other kids over to the Quietus. I promised they could see an actual pirate ship before Christmas, and it’s getting pretty close.” Belatedly, I added, “Besides, Doug has some research ideas about those anti-Whisper markings and wanted me to take some pictures while we’re over there.”
“Oh, yes!” the white-haired woman agreed cheerfully. “And later, you will go and say goodbye to some of your ghost friends.” Her smile turned to a scowl as she looked back at the screen. “Not the bad tiny ball-hoarding ghosts. They are terrible and mean and do not deserve to say goodbye. Only death. They deserve death and an eternity within that tiny square prison.”
My head bobbed. “Yup, gotta take some of those ghosts over to that neighborhood tonight and let them get their last words in. They umm…” I swallowed a little, interrupted by thoughts of what Fossor had done just to the people of that neighborhood when they had dared to even very slightly inconvenience him by showing up with flashlights to investigate what he and his zombies were doing. Fifteen people were killed that first night and then reanimated into ghosts to help torment and destroy the lives of everyone else who lived there for the next week, before being forced to serve him in other ways for the past ten years. No wonder they wanted to go back to where they had lived and get some sort of closure before I released them. The things that piece of shit had made them do to their own friends and family, the things he had– I cut my own thoughts off, forcing myself to focus on the here and now, finishing with a flat, “They deserve that much.”
“Speaking of umm, people who deserve better,” Shiori managed weakly, “what’s going on with that Denise girl now? And what about umm, her parents’ bodies?” She asked the second part with a visible wince.
Exhaling hard, I slumped back against the couch and shook my head. It was hard to believe all that stuff with tracking down Denise and ending up at the Auberge had happened only yesterday. “I think she finally got to sleep, with a little magical aid,” I muttered. “She’s staying in Asenath’s apartment. Bobbi gave up her room for the night to sleep on the couch. I don’t think…” A lump had formed in my throat and I had to swallow hard. “I don’t think she’s doing very well. I mean, who could blame her? She’s really–she’s really messed up. All that shit she’s been through already and then Kushiel…” Saying that name made my voice turn to a growl. It was all I could do not to bring my fist down hard on something.
“Kushiel was not a good living person.” That was Persephone, speaking up without looking away from the game on her screen. “She is not a better dead one.”
“How’d she even know where Denise’s parents lived, anyway?” Shiori shifted a bit, looking at me curiously. “I mean, her address wasn’t listed at the hotel or anything, was it?”
“No, they had no idea who she was,” I replied. “Not exactly anyway. But we do know how Kushiel found out her address. Turns out one of the powers Francis Gale picked up from someone at the Auberge was the ability to know where people live, where they come from. That sort of thing. So when Kushiel possessed him, she was able to sense where Denise lived. Err, where Denny lived. She doesn’t like being called Denise. I think it’s that whole ‘my name is’ thing.”
“Poor kid,” Shiori murmured, head shaking slowly. “What about her parents’ ghosts?”
“No go,” I replied. “Just like the people Kushiel killed at the Auberge, there were no traces of any ghosts left behind. I tried, but I couldn’t summon them. Not even long enough for Denny to say goodbye or anything.”
Shiori’s gaze dropped, glaring off into the distance. “I can’t even–fuck, that’s rough. And right before Christmas too. She’s never gonna forget that. Every year she’s going to associate Christmas with walking in and seeing her parents like–” She blanched, and I had the feeling she was pretty tempted to hit something too. Instead, she reached out to touch Choo’s head, scratching behind his ears as he gave a series of happy, approving snorts.
“Yeah, fuck Kushiel,” I put in. “Like Percy said, she’s just as bad dead as she was alive.” With that, I had to push myself up, standing as a rush of anger ran through me. I paced to the nearby window, staring out at the grass before adding, “Anyway, as for what we do have of Denny’s parents, their umm… their bodies are up here. They put them in storage until she’s ready to have a funeral. Then they’re gonna have to figure out what to say to her aunt, the one she told her parents she was staying with. And their neighbors. And–yeah. It’s a whole thing.”
“She can’t live with her aunt, right?” Shiori asked. “I mean, Kushiel could probably find her if she did. And she umm… probably doesn’t want to put her aunt in danger.”
My head bobbed. “Yeah. I mean, even without knowing her aunt’s address, Kushiel said something back at the hotel about how she sensed the ‘dark presence’ in Denny as soon as they brought her in. We don’t want to take the risk that she could maybe track the kid down somewhere else on Earth that way. So yeah, just to be on the safe side, she can’t really go down to Earth. At least until we get the Kushiel thing under control. Or find a way to shield her from being detected. Which means finding out exactly how Kushiel does that. But no one can even really start working on that until, you know.”
“Until after they finish working on the anti-possession spell,” Shiori finished, taking her own turn to push herself to her feet before pacing. “So like I said, poor kid. I wish you could’ve just archangel-blasted that bitch into monomolecular dust. I mean, I know why you couldn’t, but still.” She looked toward me with a serious, troubled expression. “She’s not done making trouble.”
Before I could respond to that, Persephone set the controller down and popped up, her voice flat. “I am very sorry that dead-Kushiel has hurt your new friend so much, Felicity. Normally, I would offer to kill the person who has caused you pain. But I am afraid that would not work in this case.”
“Yeah, that might be a bit difficult,” I agreed with a slight grimace. “But hey, just knowing I’ve got a friend like you to throw down if need be, that’s helpful.” Offering the Revenant-woman a small smile, I paused. “Hold on, that’s a good question. I mean, not what you can do, what you are. When Kore died, she didn’t leave behind any sort of ghost, did she?” I figured if anyone would know the truth about that, it would be the woman who had taken over her body and been… close to the ship’s resident necromancer.
“No,” Persephone confirmed, “she never appeared as a ghost. Not that I saw, in any case. But then… there was the whispering.”
Shiori and I exchanged looks quickly before turning back to her. “Whispering?” I pressed, confused. “What sort of whispering?”
“At times, Manakel forbade me from entering his private rooms,” Persephone explained. “He said that he needed to be alone. And sometimes, when he did that, I would hear whispering. I assumed he was speaking to himself, but there were different voices. So, I assumed he was communicating with someone elsewhere. Now that you ask, however, perhaps there was someone else in the room whom I did not know about. Whom… no one else knew about?”
Well that was unexpected. Once more, I exchanged a look with Shiori. “Right, maybe we should find out more about that. Hold on, you said whispering. Did you actually hear anything he said in these whispers?” It was a long time ago, yes, but the Seosten memory should hold up. That was, if it still applied while the Seosten’s body was being possessed. Actually–wow. I had no idea how that worked.
In any case, Persephone shook her head. “Manakel asked me to respect his privacy, so I did not eavesdrop. I heard only the presence of voices, not the actual words.” After saying that, she visibly flinched. “And now by respecting the request of Manakel, I have disappointed you.”
Quickly, I assured her, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it. I just–yeah, we’ll figure it out another way. But if you think of anything else from back then that might be relevant about ghost-Olympians, let us know, please?”
Brightening at the prospect of being useful, Persephone gave a cheerful, “Of course, I will do that. If anything comes to mind, you will be the fourth to know.”
The specific number made me blink. “Fourth?”
She, in turn, pointed to herself. “I will be first because they are my thoughts, Cerberus will be second as he is a good dog and often gives me the best ideas, Andromeda will be third because she is good for telling me if I am doing something wrong, and you will be fourth.”
“Oh, well, that’s clear enough.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “Speaking of Cerberus, you should grab him so we can head over to pick up the kid. She’s been so excited about going over to that ship, she’s probably bouncing off the walls by now.
“And knowing Seosten athleticism, that could be very literal.”
A short time later, we had liberated a handful of toddler Seosten from their caretaker for the day (or possibly the other way around), and were heading down the corridor with them. Or, to be precise, they were riding on Cerberus’s back. Yes, this three-headed robot dog, shoulders taller than my own even in his small form, was trotting proudly down the hall with four tiny Seosten children on his back, all in a line. Little dark-skinned and dark-haired Savvy was at the front, with the red-haired boy Penemue (half a churro sticking out of his mouth) behind her, the artistic, brown-haired boy Kemetiel behind him, and the blonde girl, Grisiniel, at the very back. All four were cheering as Cerberus bounded ahead of us down the hall, executed a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn and came bounding back. He was actually a very good babysitter, as far as that went. One of his heads was always turned to keep track of what the kids on his back were doing, the second focused straight ahead to know where he was going, and the third kept an eye out for any potential threats or problems coming their way. Not that there should have been any of those right here, but I appreciated the devotion anyway.
Meanwhile, I was walking with Persephone slightly behind and to the right side, Shiori to my left, and Columbus next to her. Amethyst the cyberform porcupine-armadillo was hanging over his shoulder, apparently asleep. Or recharging, or… just not active.
I had told Persephone she didn’t have to hang back, but she insisted that the place at my side was reserved for Avalon. Who, unfortunately, was still busy with the whole spell thing. Given the critical stage they were at, they had to have constant and immediate access to Avalon and her blood, just in case. I missed her, but then, this was more important than my own personal feelings. The last thing anyone needed right now was for the spell to fail right at the end after everything they’d all put in it.
Which was another reason, among many, for why I was glad we were living inside the freaking sun right now. There was less chance of someone like, say, a certain deceased-yet-still-evil Seosten woman showing up and fucking the whole thing over.
The thought of that made me frown a bit to myself before I was distracted by Savvy calling, “Fick! Fick, we’s-we’s–we-we-we’s got–got a–we’s got a–”
Smiling as Cerberus came to an obedient halt in front of me, I looked up at the girl. “It’s okay, you’re not paying by the millisecond. Breathe. You’ve got what?”
She, in turn, took a very deep breath and held it for several seconds, cheeks bulging out dramatically, before blowing it all out. Then she tried to speak again. “We’s got a dog to ride, and he has three heads and he’s cool!” Then she jabbered for about three sentences in Latin, amounting to talking about how Cerberus was the bestest most amazing guard puppy ever.
“He’s pretty cool, yeah,” I agreed, reaching out to rub one of his heads. “What about the rest of you guys, you all ready to go see the pirate ship?”
With the churro still sticking out of his mouth like a cigar, Penemue gave a quick nod, words coming in a somewhat muffled rush. “We did all our homework early so we could go. It was hard, a whole page! I hadda color seven letters!” To demonstrate, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled up piece of paper with the letters A through G on it. Each letter had an animal or a bug that started with that letter next to or on top of it. There was an alligator around the A, a bee hovering above the B, cat lying on top of the C, dog next to the D, elephant with an E balanced on its stretched-out trunk, a fox curled up on the lower horizontal line of the F, and a gorilla half-hiding behind the G. Each of the letters and associated animals had been colored in by clearly enthusiastic-yet-young hands. Penemue had tried, in general terms, to stay in the lines and use appropriate colors. It was adorable to look at, and I made sure to ooh and aww over it and tell him just how good it looked for all the effort he had put into the page.
“I like coloring!” Kemetiel, the other boy, put in. “That’s my favorite thing! See?” Then it was his turn to show me his version of the exact same page. And he had gotten a lot more creative. He switched and mixed colors, added new legs and antennae and wings to the various animals, drew background scenes of battles going on around them, added several spaceships shooting lasers at each other, and so on. Despite the generally amazing Seosten physical skill, he was still only four, so the pictures weren’t like, animation-ready or anything. But I could tell what they were supposed to be. Hell, he certainly drew better than I could.
I made sure to give him just as much praise so neither of the boys felt left out or ignored, before asking to see the girls’ pictures. Savvy showed me hers first, with each letter very neatly colored in. She had clearly taken her time and focused intently on staying inside the lines.
And then she had added what looked like a giant rabbit ninja with a sword in one hand and an axe in the other, with a speech bubble leading to the words, ‘I ate the ham!’
“I like ham,” she stage-whispered to me while leaning a bit closer when she saw where my eyes went. “It’s the best. No, ham and cheese. No, grillied ham and cheese. Wait… yeah. Yeah, grillied ham and cheese!”
“Well, we’ll have to get some of that later,” I noted. The promise of grilled ham and cheese might be the best way to get her to eventually leave the ship we were about to go see. Tucking that thought away, I focused on the other girl. “What about you, Grisiniel?”
The little sandy-haired four-year-old took a carefully-folded piece of paper out of her pocket and held it out to me, squirming a little self-consciously. I took it, carefully examining the work. Everything was neatly and carefully colored in, and there were no extra drawings on the page. However, I could see words next to each animal. Belatedly, I realized they were names. She had named each of them. Then I noticed something on the other side of the page, and turned it over. The entire back of the paper was taken up by words. She wrote each animal’s name, underlined it, then wrote a paragraph about that animal, going on about who they were, what they liked, what their jobs were, and so on. Again, she was four, so it wasn’t incredibly in depth or anything, but still. She wrote names and backstories for the letter animals.
“You guys are awesome, you know that?” I smiled, reaching out to ruffle her hair as she giggled.
“That’s for sure,” Columbus agreed, as he and Shiori examined the papers I was handing off to them. “I might just get you four to handle my trig homework from now on, cuz you’re obviously ready for that.”
His words prompted a chorus of giggling and protests from the kids, before they all bantered back and forth. Chuckling to myself, I stepped away, tugging Shiori with me before lowering my voice. “I texted Senny a few minutes ago to see how things were going over there. She says Denny’s still asleep. They’re not gonna bother her until she wakes up on her own. But when she does, it’s umm…” I flinched, needing to look at the chibis over on the metal dog to slow the rush of horrible feelings. Swallowing hard, I pushed on. “When she does, it’s gonna be bad. That poor kid. I want that fucking bitch to…” I stopped myself, words turning into a low snarl as I thought of Kushiel.
Taking my hand, Shiori gave a quick nod. “Kushiel deserves all of the–” She proceeded to pretty accurately mimic my own snarl. “And more. But right now, she’s not the important thing. Denny is. Whatever she needs…”
“She gets,” I agreed. “I mean, I’m pretty sure what she needs the most right now is Kushiel taken off the board. But absent that for the moment, yeah. Anyone she wants to talk to, anything we can bring her, anything just– fuck. I can’t even imagine going through the shit she is, the shit she’s been going through. It’s not fair. And yeah, I know that’s childish, especially after everything we’ve seen already. But damn it, it’s not fair!”
Shiori had nothing to say in response to that. Instead, she just put her arms around me. I returned the favor, and the two of us stood there and embraced for a few long seconds. It didn’t exactly make things better, but it helped.
And the other thing that would help was spending some more time with these kids over on the Quietus. Which was a thought that made me clap my hands together a couple times to get the attention of the others. “Okay, guys! Who’s ready to go see a real-life pirate ship?”
That earned me an assortment of cheers. And not just from the kids either. As I gave Columbus a look for being the loudest one there (to the point of making poor Amethyst jump, falling off his shoulder before the boy had quickly caught her), he flushed a little. “What can I say? I got caught up in the moment. Now let’s go see this ship, dang it, before something else happens and we end up in another brawl or something.”
That, of course, was Shiori’s cue to immediately give a bright smile while chirping, “Don’t worry, whether we’re going on a ship, or getting into a fight…
“We’ll always set assail.”