* * *
The first site was easy to find, even with the changes that the land had undergone. It was a barren patch of earth near the edge of the forest, where there had once bloomed the most beautiful flowers one could hope to see. That been before the defilement, before they made it one of the hallowed sites of their rituals. Now nothing grew here, could ever grow here. There was simply too much death caked on for like to ever take root.
Hands, surprisingly strong and calloused, dug through the dirt that had witnessed the end of countless lives. How strange it was to touch again, to feel the soil give way beneath the flesh ties by muscle those thick bones. For one who had spent millennia as shadow and spectre, such sensations were utterly foreign. His brief time with a body of his own was a minor blip in the expansive realm of his existence.
Soon it would be gone, of course. Useful a tool as it was, he had no right or need to hold a living body. When the world was dead, all flesh would be pointless. Everything would be spirit, and only spirits would be real. This body would be discarded and destroyed, just as every flesh vehicle currently toeing around a spirit.
Still, he wondered if perhaps that was time to get something to eat before that happened. It had been a long while since he experienced anything unique as taste, and the body was rumbling with a desire for nutrition. There would be no harm in it, so far as he could see. It was just giving his vessel the needed fuel to stick to the task at hand, no different from raising sails to catch the wind. Yes, once the first site was finished and the end closer at hand, he would allow himself a brief respite to fuel this body. A last meal, as it were.
The last meal of the living world. It only seemed appropriate such an honor should belong to one of the conquering dead.
“A cult?” Kay stared at Velt with uncertainty, eyes occasionally flicking to her side. That was where the copper-haired woman turned every time she spoke to Auggie, so presumably her friend was located there. Despite endless squinting and head-tilting, she saw no shimmer or shadow. The only thing she did know was that her stomach had stopped bothering her. That, more than anything else, was why Kay sat listening to the crazy story this woman spun.
“Technically they were an established religious order, but given how full-out crazy they were, cult is as good a term as any.” If Velt cared about the skepticism in Kay’s voice, she didn’t show it.
“And they want to destroy the world of the living? Why, what good does it do?” Topher asked.
“Remember, this all started a long time ago. The world was different then: dark, cruel, and wicked. To some people, the power of undeath seemed like a godsend. No pain, no hunger, no fear, not the mention the ease of travel by floating around. A lot of folks decided that the flesh was holding them back, subjecting their spirit to pointless torture. That led to ideas like transcending the flesh in order to purify the soul, but it also led to a few fringies deciding that the body should be disposed of altogether.”
“Speaking as one who has just lost his body, I disagree with such a philosophy quite adamantly,” Auggie mumbled.
“So they wanted to get rid of their bodies.” Had Topher been able to hear his friend, he would have certainly responded rather than rudely pressing the argument ahead. “Creepy and all, but isn’t that a mass-suicide?”
“Wow, these fucks even did that right. They might be like the first cult,” Kay said.
“Lots of people who had the belief did exactly that,” Velt told them. “A sharp knife or a tall cliff and BOOM: no more body tying you down. Unfortunately, the sect that lived here didn’t think it was just enough to get rid of their bodies; they wanted to spread their faith to the poor, unenlightened masses of spirits who were still crammed into flesh. Hence the whole ‘trying to raise a god of the undead and bring a world of death to the land of the living’ schtick.”
“And to do that, they needed Auggie,” Topher said. Unlike Kay, his doubt had entirely evaporated, every question he asked or comment he made all but dripped sincerity. His belief in the unseen had been rooted in the core of his being for so long that such strange tales weren’t a leap of faith for him. They were barely even a hop.
“Sort of. The ritual had several components, most of them completed thousands of years ago. They set up a giant casserole of magic and left it bake, but the last bit of it has to be done tonight.”
“What’s so special about tonight?” Topher asked.
“Nothing in particular, it’s just when all the wards and spirit-capturing mechanisms they left had gathered enough energy. It’s been building for a while now, that’s how I knew to be here. The casserole is done, now someone just has to take it out of the over.”
“Did she say ‘spirit capturing’ just now?” Irwin’s question was greeted with a rousing bit of shooshing from Clinton and Art that only served to draw more attention to the trio.
“It seems like a big coincidence that all this happens on the night that we’re here to film.” Kay’s tone wasn’t accusatory, even if the narrow-eyed glare she was shooting Velt was.
“No, I doubt it was a coincidence at all. The sect still had a few followers scattered about in the world of the living. My guess is that they pulled string to get you here so that The Emissary would have bodies to use.”
“Yeah, let’s go back to that emcee guy,” Topher said. “I still don’t get why a ghost needs Auggie’s body.”
“He needs it to complete the ritual. Well, he doesn’t actually need it; the body just makes things much easier,” Velt admitted.
“Wonderful, my body was stolen for convenience. I’m sure that will earn me ample respect in whatever heaven scientists go to.” Auggie paused for a moment, the weight of his statement fully striking home. “Wait, scientists do go to heaven, right? Don’t tell me all that ‘need to believe’ bunk is true.”
“No idea,” Velt said, turning slightly so the others knew she was speaking to Auggie. “I only deal with the ones stuck on this side. Whatever lays across the horizon is as much a mystery to me as to you.” Technically that wasn’t entirely true, but she had enough on her plate at the moment, there was no need to complicate the issues any more.
“Can we go back to the bit about us being evil ghost bait, cause that bullshit seems important.” Kay wondered if any part of this was real. It seemed to long-winded and elaborate to be a joke. Maybe she’d drank homemade moonshine and gone into a vivid hallucination. If so, this was going to be a bastard of a hangover when she came to.
“I doubt it was personal. You’re just people who would walk right into a place renowned for being haunted without thinking about personal safety. It didn’t matter who came, all that mattered was that they had bodies. Otherwise The Emissary would be stuck stealing energy from lesser spirits so it could complete the ritual.”
“What’s left to do? You make it sound like the hard stuff got completed forever ago,” Topher pointed out.
“To my understanding, there are four sites on the grounds: three forming a triangle around that island and one on the island itself. They have to be uncovered and have rites performed, a task that’s much easier with a physical body. Each one brings the dead closer to our world, and the final rite will actually awaken an old god who will finish the overrunning process. The only saving grace is that until that god actually rises, everything will be contained to the grounds of the ritual, otherwise, shit would start getting crazy in the rest of the world.”
Auggie felt a strange stirring in his ethereal body, something akin to the shiver that would sometimes pass across one’s back. It lingered longer than any sensation in his flesh ever had, growing in intensity with each passing moment.
“Just to be clear, you want us to believe that an old-ass cult started a ritual to end the world in the prehistoric days, and tonight is when they finish it by digging up places that are magically still accessible yet haven’t been found by anyone else in the thousands of years since they made them. Since Auggie obviously isn’t really here, I’ll have to be the one to say it: you’re crazy and full of shit.” Kay rose from her seat, half-full bottle clutched angrily in her hand.
“Of course they’re magically protected and accessible; they’re part of a magic ritual. That much should be obvious.” Velt remained seated, seemingly undisturbed by the aggressive body language of Kay. In truth, she was perfectly braced for three different angles of attack and was confident she could disarm the woman with minimal bruising. “I know this a lot to swallow. Honestly, I never planned on bringing other people into it, but my plans went to shit when The Emissary nabbed your friend’s body. Now, instead of being able to just take him out in spirit form, I’ve got to worry about a civilian life and try to track him down on this enormous campground. You have surveillance stuff stashed all over, so I need your help.”
The tingling had turned to a light stinging. Auggie was twitching about in a futile effort to find a position that afforded him some measure of comfort.
“Come on, she’s clearly lying. I don’t know how she found out the code-phrase, but there’s no way you’re buying this, right Topher?”
“She seems honest to me. I know its farfetched, but we seek out things that most people don’t believe in for a living. Should we really be the ones to dismiss the unexplained so easily?”
“What unexplained? She’s offered us nothing supernatural, just a wild story and a few tricks that could be research and cold-reading.”
“I think this debate just became pointless,” Velt interrupted. She was staring at her side, where Auggie had finally stopped twitching as the maddening tingle faded away. This was quite evident, to everyone in the room, because Topher and Kay could now the semi-transparent form of their friend and co-worker perfectly clearly.
“Auggie?” Topher said, taking a tentative step toward his friend.
“Am I… can you see me?”
Topher nodded, then leapt forward to embrace his best friend in hug. He went right through the spectral man, leaving both with a momentary feeling of chills and discomfort.
“But how?” Kay asked.
“Like I said, every rite brings the dead closer to our world,” Velt got out of the chair and walked over to the broom closet, yanking it open and sending three more ghosts tumbling out. “Even the ones who thought they were hidden. Now, are you two ready to stop doubting and start helping me? By my count, we have three rites left to catch this son of a bitch, and after that the whole world is going to get a very firsthand look at just how real and dangerous all this stuff is.”
Topher, Velt, and Auggie all nodded, while the three spirits on the floor struggled to untangle themselves.
-This group has gotten too large to work for dialogue. Split them into two groups: Auggie, Kay, and Topher in one, with Velt and the ghosts in another. This will let us jump back to the Spectre Quest crew's dynamic and reassert a sense of normalcy.
-Flash back to The Emissary once more. Keep going on the hunger angle, moving him into a position where he can be spotted and we can switch back to action.
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