* * *
That wasn’t Auggie. Topher would have never been fooled by the fiend possessing his friend’s flesh, even if he hadn’t known the exact circumstances. Auggie didn’t move like that, for one. His steps were measured and careful, a practiced precision that he wove into every aspect of his life. This Auggie was loose yet aware, like a snake weaving through the grass. Auggie’s eyes were never set like that, either. They furrowed in worry, teemed in exasperation, and glowed in quiet in joy. The eyes glaring down at felt were filled with violence and blood.
No, from the instant Topher caught sight of the imposter, he knew it wasn’t really Auggie. That was why he had no trouble dashing forward and closing the distance between them. Fake-Auggie looked over at the last minute, clearly surprised that anyone else was there. His head was turned just in time to show Topher an expression of shocked pain as the bigger man buried his fist in the body-thief’s guts.
Fake-Auggie fell back, letting out a strangled grunt along with an involuntary dry heave of air. His breath was gone, knocked out cleanly by a practiced blow from a much larger opponent. The Emissary struggled to keep the body on task, even as the sense of suffocation lit up a myriad of deeply ingrained survival instincts. They were loud, unwelcome distraction, clouding his thoughts as he tried to focus on handling his next opponent. He was so distracted, in fact, that he didn’t notice Topher’s advance to press the attack. Another punch caught him on the side of the head, adding dizziness to the internal clusterfuck as he spun over and fell to the ground.
“Get out of Auggie. Now.” Topher took a step back, momentarily halting his barrage. While he understood that this wasn’t his friend, he also knew that any long-term damage dealt to the body would be thing Auggie would have to deal with.
It was a gesture of basic human kindness and decency. It was also, unfortunately, the exact wrong thing to do in the given situation. Though Topher couldn’t see them, inky black shimmered into view just outside of Auggie’s own digits. They warped and twisted in the air, growing large, clawed, and horrid looking. The Emissary commanded his vessel to its feet, finally regaining some control as air at last began seeping back into its lungs.
“Stupid flesh. Soon there will be no more. Soon you will be free. Stay silent and wait for the dawning of a new world.” The words were strange, foreign clicks of syllables to The Emissary, but they were familiar to the lips of the flesh it commanded. Stifling as bodies could be, they did have their uses.
“Yeah, that’s not happening. One more chance, get out of my friend or this time I’m not stopping until you do.” At the end of the day, Topher was pretty sure Auggie would prefer a bang-up body to no body at all.
“Perhaps you shall be freed before the rest.” A sharp smile sliced across the face that had once belonged to Auggie. It was all the answer Topher needed.
He darted forward again, sure he could take this guy down. Unfortunately, the hands of shadow that stretched up from Fake-Auggie’s arms swept through the air, unseen by Topher as one curled around his torso and lifted him into the air. It squeezed mercilessly, pushing the air from his body in a far slower, more painful fashion that his own one-punch method used earlier.
Topher struggled vainly, clawing at a force that he couldn’t see, let alone grip, all while trying to fight back the instinctual panic flooding his brain. If he lost control now, that would be it. He had no doubt Fake-Auggie would kill him. Topher had to stay lucid, had the think of something he could do. If he didn’t save himself, no one would.
“Nice sucker-punch earlier, fucko.”
Fake-Auggie’s head swiveled around, and Topher focused through the slowly forming black spots in his vision. Velt’s angry glare greeted both of them. She was off the ground and looked no worse for the wear, despite her wall-smashing performance only a few minutes earlier. The only outward sign of damage she showed at all was a small trickle of blood from a cut in her bottom lip. With her right hand, she carefully smeared the blood across her fingers.
“Never occurred to me you could use your power while in the body. It was a good trick, I’ll give you, but it only works once. Now drop the idiot and lets you and me have some fun.”
Much as Topher resented the slight at his intelligence, he did appreciate that she was at least showing concern for his safety. The Emissary held no such fondness for this strange woman. It was ready to be done with the lot of them. With its free claw, it swiped forward, intending to the skewer or crush her. To its surprise, she nimbly ducked under the blow, moving past the claw with confident speed and then surging forward. For a moment, The Emissary thought she meant to strike its body, and tensed in preparation for more discomfort. It’s instinct was off, however, as she made a beelind right for Topher. Or, more specifically, the shadowy claw/hand crushing the life from him.
Velt reared back her right hand, extended each of her blood-smeared fingers, and drove them forcefully into the mass of ectoplasmic energy that composed The Emissary’s hand. For the barest of instants, nothing happened. Then the screaming began.
To Topher, it has appeared as though Velt were making weird motions toward empty air. It was only when he fingers struck that he saw something around them. It was a patch of shadow that shifted in and out of view, easy to dismiss as nothing more than his imagination yet undeniably there. He still might have written it off, if not for the horrendous noise that filled the night.
At first, it sounded like a human’s screams: disturbing but well within the realm of normality. But after a moment another sound came on its heels. A horrible wail, like that sound of a thousand men’s guttural grunts as the noose snapped their necks while vultures cawed in anticipation of tearing at their innards. It was impossibly awful, far worse than the sensation of being crushed to death. Even Velt was gritting her teeth, worming her fingers in deeper while keeping her grip on the arm.
Topher felt himself jerk up, just the slightest bit, then come crashing down all at once. He landed in a heap atop of something that smelled like dirt, sweat, and just the slightest hint of lavender. It took him longer than he was proud of to realize that he’d been tossed onto Velt, who was struggling to untangle herself from his bulky limbs. Due to pain, numbness, and the brain fog of near suffocation, Topher wasn’t able to add much to the process.
It didn’t take Velt long to get free, but it took her longer enough. By the time she was back on her feet, The Emissary was gone, his stolen body vanishing into the woods at the far side of the clearing. If she gave chase, he’d had the advantage since his wraith arms could attack her through physical obstacle likes trees. Plus it would be too easy to lay an ambush. No, she needed to regroup first. Wraiths were dangerous opponents, even for her. If she took him lightly, there was a very real chance she could end up dead. And if she went down, so went the rest of the world.
“Hey,” Velt said, looking down at a still-recovering Topher. “We need to have a talk about what ‘stay the fuck out of the way’ means to you, because there’s no chance we’re working from the same definition.”
“You’re… welcome,” Topher wheezed out. Each breath was painful coming in, a sharp bite in his lower chest. He’d played enough football to know a cracked rib when he felt it. Given what that thing had been trying to do to him, that little of an injury would be getting off easy.
“I didn’t need your help, I was playing possum. Wraiths are powerful as all hell, but they’ve also cruel and full of ego. After his sucker-punch, I wanted to lure him in close so I could get a good grip and tear him out of your friend’s body.”
Topher stared at her, then barked a short, slightly painful laugh. “Doesn’t that just figure. I finally get the chance to play hero for a beautiful girl, and it turns out all I did was get in the way.”
Velt started visibly at the word ‘beautiful’ then immediately composed herself. Still, her face and voice softened a few degrees when she spoke next. “Look, I appreciate the sentiment. And, to be honest, what you did was kind of brave. Stupid as playing the lotto for retirement, but brave. I’m just not the kind of girl you need to worry about saving.”
She reached over and took his arm, helping pull Topher back to a standing position. He leaned on her slightly as he found his balance. Thankfully nothing in his legs protested beyond voicing the presence of bruises and stiffness. Given the harshness of his landing, he’s been braced for a sprain or a break. Luck, it seemed, hadn’t entirely abandoned them tonight.
“Thanks. So… what was all that? What did you do?”
“I stuck my fingers into its arm. It’s real arm, not the one from your friend’s body. Normally that wouldn’t have been quite as painful, but my blood added a bit of extra kick.”
“You say that like you think it’s an explanation. It’s really not,” Topher said.
Velt shrugged, a motion he could feel against his chest as she helped him take the first few steps back toward the main hall.
“I hurt spirits. Something about me, in my blood and my touch, it causes them pain and destroys the cohesion of their energy. Spirits are usually holding onto this plane through force of will, fueling their grip with the emotions of the living. I pry that grip off, sending them on to whatever comes next. No one knows why I can do this, or at least no one who is willing to tell me. It’s just something I can do.”
“You… unmake ghosts?”
“No, I send them on to whatever comes next.”
“How can you possibly know that? If you don’t know what comes after this life, how do you know you aren’t just destroying their souls?” Topher was aghast at the idea, a shiver of terror running down his large back.
“Because when I first started, I was afraid I was doing exactly that, so I tracked down someone who does know what comes after our world and demanded some answers. He assured me that they were still crossing over.”
“And you just trusted his word? What if he was a con, or scamming you?”
“I’m not stupid. I didn’t go to some hack or con. Remember, I’m the real deal. That means I know how to spot my own kind.” Velt let Topher go, if he was strong enough to question her judgment he was strong enough to walk on his own. “And yes, I trusted his word. He damned sure knew the truth and he’s not the type to lie. Actually, I’m not even sure he can lie, and that’s all I’m going to say about him. Trust me, you’ll sleep a whole lot better at night if you don’t press the issue.
Topher wasn’t sure he believed that, but it was clear Velt was finished discussing the issue. At the moment, their most important task was finding Auggie’s body anyway. Maybe once it was over he could try to wriggle more information out of her.
Assuming they all made it through the night, that was.
-Close chapter here. Now that Velt’s powers and mysterious connections are established, I can stop hinting around at it and let her talk in plain terms to the team.
-For next chapter opening, switch to The Emissary reacting to the surprise of being hurt. He’ll probably see Velt’s power as blasphermous, since his religion is built around spirits being immune to shit like pain.
-Almost halfway through, so after Velt and the others lay down some basic plans to hunt The Emissary need to think about throwing the switch on the second site. Have to start setting up and building toward the ultimate showdown.
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