* * *
It took Velt nearly fifteen minutes to make it back to the clearing, long enough to both wonder if Irwin was even going to come back and try to bluff her as well as if she would be fast enough to stop whatever sort of destructive signal Kay had planned. The latter, thankfully, turned out to be in the affirmative.
Velt emerged from the woods to find the area bathed in headlights, with Kay standing by the hood and scowling impatiently. In her hand was the light Velt had lent her, the bottle of liquor placed conspicuously at her feet. Nearby was a pile of sticks that appeared to have been recently gathered. It didn’t take much of an intuitive leap to figure out what would have happened if Velt had taken much longer, nor to realize that the makeshift fireplace was far too close to the forest to be lit safely.
“I have a feeling there’s a bear with a hat who needs to discuss some things about fire safety with you,” Velt said.
“You sound like the cop who broke up my amateur pyrotechnics club,” Kay shot back. “Any leads on Auggie’s body?”
“I’ve got jack shit. We’re going to have to try something different. I’ll explain when we’re back at the main hall, I’m too worn out to deal with all the objections and complaints you people will raise more than once.”
“Fuck all, and I thought Auggie was wound tight,” Kay quipped. “Come on and get in. If you’ve some ass-crazy plan we’re better off starting it sooner than later.”
Velt complied, both women piling into the dark SUV. From the dark of the forest, creeping in the shadows and staying out of sight, a third figure hurried over to the vehicle. It entered through the back, phasing through the metal as if it weren’t even there.
“Do you need to get your ghosts first?” Kay asked.
Velt shook her head. If Irwin was compromised, she had to assume it was possible all three were working together. Clinton and Art had seemed like decent guys, but until she was sure it was best to play it safe and keep them in the dark. Her plan was already so risky it bordered on a Hail Mary, she didn’t need to worry about getting ratted out on top of everything else.
“I don’t have any way to get in contact with them, but they seem smart. If they can’t find The Emissary, they’ll come back to the main hall. Or maybe they’ll try and take cover. Either way, it doesn’t matter. We don’t particularly need them for this next part.”
Kay fired up the engine and began accelerating down the hill. Velt quickly realized their brief time apart had done nothing to curb Kay’s tendency toward driving at reckless speeds despite the terrain. Thankfully, it was a short drive back to the main hall; so they shouldn’t have any trouble making it back safely, even with Kay’s leadfoot.
Less than half an hour ago, when explaining to Irwin about his ability to touch things, Velt had been careful not to let him know that his power didn’t extend to human flesh. She’d even been ready to trick him into thinking it, should he have pressed the issue, since for her spirits had always been solid. There was no calculated plan in that moment, no grand scheme to turn this misinformation against him. Velt simply made it a point to not let people she didn’t trust have any more information that was necessary. It spoke to her deep-seated distrust issues, which itself explained why she spent most holidays alone and hadn’t managed a functional relationship in half a decade. That tendency to hide truths and keep secrets had left her cut off from the world for most of her life, even among people who shared similar gifts to hers. It had caused her years of loneliness and aggravation.
On this particular occasion, however, that paranoid tendency of Velt’s saved Kay’s life.
The pudgy spectral hands snaked forward from the back seat, grabbing at Kay’s throat, intent on squeezing the life from her and sending the SUV out of control. Irwin’s brow was focused in concentration as he extended his fingers, determined to knock her out quickly, before Velt could scramble over the seats and stop him. He brought them together, using as much force as he could in hopes of collapsing her throat.
When those transluscent hands went right through Kay’s neck, the only person more shocked than her was Irwin.
“What the fuck!” Kay yelped.
“Goddamnit!” Irwin snapped, flexing his hands and trying again. He knew he could do this, he’d practiced grabbing thing the entire time he’d silently trailed Velt. He could do it, and he had to hurry. Another attempt, another failure. Irwin didn’t get the chance to make a third.
“Hey, shithead.” Irwin glanced in the direction of Velt’s voice, which meant he caught her right hook directly on his nose. Unlike with Kay, there was no trouble feeling Velt’s skin, and she hadn’t been kidding about her warning. Touching that bitch hurt.
“Fuck!” Irwin scrambled back, reaching up to stop the flow of blood that would never come. He felt light-headed, weaker than he’d been mere moments before. Had he been able to see himself, Irwin would have realized he’d become fuzzier around the edge and that small billows of energy were leaking out of him.
Velt reach back, trying to get a grip on him without undoing her safety belt, and Irwin got an idea. He grabbed the seatbelt crossed over Kay’s chest, held on tight, and yanked it back as hard as he could. The belt compressed her chest, knocking some of the breath out of her lungs and causing a strip of pain where it was digging into her. She jerked the wheel reflexively, avoiding the rear corner of a cabin by mere inches.
“You son of a bitch, I knew you were a traitor.” The violence in Velt’s eyes caused Irwin’s non-existent stomach to drop into his toes. If she got her hands on him, he had no doubt it would be the end. This provided an excellent kick of motivation to make sure that never happened.
“A traitor? Clinton and Art are traitors, trying to help the living. I’m dead already, why wouldn’t I want a world where the dead rule?” Irwin glance out the front windshield. They were coming up on the main hall, but there was still a dip in the road and several cabins before they arrived. He needed to end this, soon.
“You could have realized that you already had your time, and that there is already a place for your kind.” Velt grabbed for him again, but he was halfway phased through the door.
Irwin pulled harder on the seatbelt, and Kay began to see dark spots at the edges of her vision.
“Why would I want that? I wasn’t supposed to die in the first place! I wasn’t done with my life yet! I was important; I worked for a government agency, I had a lot to live for. But someone up there fucked up and made me choke to death. Well I’ll show them. Irwin Pistole doesn’t just go off silently. Try to take me out of the world, and I’ll take the whole damn world down with me!”
At that, Velt finally reached down and unfastened her seatbelt, lunging forward for a grip on Irwin. This was exactly what he’d been waiting for. Irwin reach foreward with his free hand, through the seat and Kay’s torso, and grabbed hold of the wheel she was weakly clutching. He jerked it to the left, causing a front wheel to clip the stone foundation of a cabin that had rotted away.
As soon as the wheel struck, physics took over. The tried exploded and the SUV was tossed upward as Kay’s speedy driving habits finally came home to roost. It rolled onto the passenger side, skidding several feet before coming to a stop. Kay managed to stay in her seat, Irwin’s death grip on her belt actually holding her in place, but Velt was tossed around like she was weightless. By the time the SUV came to a halt, she was lying against the door, blood dripping down her face, dead to the world.
For a brief moment, Irwin considered trying to finish her as Kay groaned in the driver’s seat. Had she not already popped him once, he might have had the courage to do it, too. But the memory of the punch, as well as the after-effects, made him hesitant to come near her. It was possible she was faking again, or that even unconscious she would still be painful to touch. In the end, Irwin assured himself he had completed his task and floated off toward the woods.
Dead or not, Velt wouldn’t be doing anymore meddling before it was too late to make a difference.
Blood didn’t actually taste like pennies, not when there was enough of it to really get an appreciation for the flavor. Sure, if one licked off a small cut or bit a chunk from their cheek, it was easy to see how the overpowering first rush of copper would lead one to think of the one cent coins. But when one’s mouth filled up with the stuff, there was no way to honestly make such comparison. Blood didn’t taste like anything except what it was: blood. It was the very life of the body leaking out, and being forced to experience that in the form of flavor was one of the worst sensations to wake up to.
Velt dearly wished it was the first time she was doing just that. Hell, she’d have been happy if it were so rare an event that she didn’t immediately know what was going on. Sadly, the minute her mind fluttered open, she felt the squishy liquid in her mouth and understood it was full of blood. With a weary grunt of effort, she pushed herself up and spat out three sizable wads of scarlet saliva.
“Holy shit! You can move?”
Kay was nearby, several cuts from broken glass on her arms and face, but nothing too extensive. She was still buckled into her seatbelt, suspended sideways in the now flipped SUV.
“Looks like it. Let’s see how much.” Velt pushed herself up, gripping the sides of the seats as she struggled to get off the crumpled door. Thankfully Auggie had gotten an SUV with all the safety features, glass that broke into pebbles rather than shards being one of them. If they’d had to deal with real glass, Velt was pretty sure she’d be in ribbons. As it was, the pain in her leg had increased measuredly, now joined by a sharp ache in her left knee. Her left arm had fared surprisingly well, but her right was broken. It had smashed against the door in the fall and fractured in two, maybe three, places. Despite all the blood in her mouth, she only had swallow cuts in her scalp, they’d just gushed like fuckers. A deep breath told her that she bruised if not broken several ribs.
All things considered, it was probably the best she could hope for in this kind of crash. Velt flipped around to check out the front windshield, which had completely shattered. At least she knew how they were getting out. From nearby, she could see two figures rushing toward them. Given that one was huge and the other partially see-through, it seemed a safe bet that it was Auggie and Topher. They’d almost made it back to the main hall before the crash. Velt felt her pulse race as she remember Irwin, that little fucking snake, trying to run them off the road. He was going to pay for that one.
“Kay, I’m feeling relatively okay, but I’ve lost a decent amount of blood. If I happen to pass out before Topher and Auggie get here, make sure Auggie stays clear of me.”
“Cause of the thing you did to Irwin?”
“Worse. Right now I’m covered in my own blood, which is far more potent than just my skin. If Auggie makes contact with me, it will be the last thing he ever does this side of the afterlife.”
“How about you try not to pass out? I like that idea of fuckload better.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Velt said. “By the way, you still have more liquor, right?”
“Of course. I was going camping originally, after all.”
“Good. I don’t want this bullshit slowing me down.”
Kay stared at her new friend in shock. “Are you still planning to go after them?”
“Fate of the world, remember? Though I have to admit,” Velt said, staring at the wreckage around her, “this is going to be one fucker of a setback.”
* * *
Clinton and Art hadn’t actually noticed Velt and Kay leave the forest, nor had they seen Irwin sneak into the SUV. The crash, on the other hand, easily drew their attention. The two spirits darted above the trees, staring at the wreckage visible even from their location.
“Shit, ain’t no way that’s a good sign.”
“We should go see if we can help,” Clinton said.
“Shouldn’ we get Irwin too?”
“I think everyone halfway back to town heard that crash. He’ll head over on his own.”
Art had his doubts about that. Last time they’d talked to Irwin, he’d seemed squeamish and nervous. Admittedly, the situation had them all a bit on edge, but there was something about his attitude that had made Art a bit wary. Despite being dead for a year, Irwin was way behind on making peace with his situation. He’d still been clinging to the world of the living, in denial about the fact that his life was over and it was time to adjust. Being offered the chance to go back to that world… Art wasn’t one to make presumptions about people, but that didn’t mean a little well-placed wariness was a bad idea.
Clinton led the way, with Art following, all the while keeping an eye out for their suspiciously absent third companion.
* * *
Velt took a deep swig from the bottle, nearly choked on the potency, then put a cloth in her mouth and poured a small amount on one of her open wounds. Her teeth clenched and she managed to bite back the scream of pain that tried to well up in her throat.
Across the room, Kay was bandaged up and knocking back a few swigs of her own. The seatbelt had bruised her badly on the chest, and she’d taken a few small cuts, but on the whole she was okay. Auggie hovered close by, both out of concern for his friend and to keep a safe distance from the woman who was evidently poisonous to a spirit.
“What are we going to do now?” Topher asked, voice heavy as he watched Velt treat her injuries with the sort of experience he didn’t want to imagine how she’d acquired. “The SUV is toast, and you aren’t in any condition to go hunting after Auggie’s body, even if we manage to catch sight of him.”
“We’re not going to hunt him anymore,” Velt declared, pulling the cloth from her mouth. It was stained red by the blood she hadn’t yet managed to spit out. “From the minute he completed the second ritual, I realized the way we were doing things wasn’t working. We were on the way to tell you two that when that dead-shit decided to try and kills us.”
“How do you intend to stop him without tracking him down?” Auggie asked.
“I only needed to track him to the first three ritual sites. I already know where the last one is, and I plan to be there waiting for him when he shows up.” Velt took one more swig from the bottle, then set it down. A little more might have helped the pain, but she was going to need as much of the stuff as she could muster soon.
“The island, right? That’s why there’s an army of ghosts sitting on top of it, making no move to come after us. It’s the site of the last ritual,” Topher said.
“You nailed it. Magic loves a good circle, and something ending at the same place it began falls right into that category. I should have plenty of time to get over there; the second ritual took noticeably longer for The Emissary to set-up, so the third is probably going to be the longest yet. With any luck, by the time he shows up I can clear out his forces and by ready to settle this.”
“You’re got to be shitting us,” Kay said. “There are dozens and dozens of those things. Even if you can hurt them, wouldn’t they be able to overwhelm you?”
“It’s possible,” Velt admitted. “To be honest, dealing with them head-on wasn’t my first plan. I wanted to send that SUV off the cliff overlooking the island, loaded down with flammable alcohol and an explosive or two. Would have wiped a big chunk of those bastards out, but that plan got fucked when Irwin flipped our car.”
-Breaking here for the day, because there is a lot left in this scene and also holy crap that was a lot of writing to catch up.
-Need to work in Art and Clinton so that the entire team can head out as a united front.
-Also need to switch back to The Emissary and Irwin once more so that they’re progress and dynamic can be shown in parallel with the team’s.
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