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Saturday, December 12, 2015

8:36 AM

 

Eric LaCroix probably should have known better than to expect a peaceful day off.

 

It had all started off well enough. He'd woken up, made a cup of coffee at the Parkhurst, and gone on something of a constitutional. The snow had turned from white to gray with time spent in the city, but had melted away to traces, leaving a relatively beautiful and unobstructed - if damp - urban landscape. He'd gone out bundled up in his jacket, intent on catching an exhibition at one of the local galleries.

 

Then the police car had sped by. Followed by two more. 

 

The part of him that wanted him to leave it to someone else was swiftly shouted down. He decided not to go in in costume, though - just yet. Instead, he followed the cars, which eventually came to rest outside a restored brownstone off of Lechmere. They joined an ambulance that had already arrived; in the back bay, a man in a courier's uniform was being tended to by two EMTs. Blood ran down his face from a cut over his eyebrow, and he was desperately trying to get a hold of his words.

 

"Door was open... I heard screaming... went in, and... things just started flying at me..."

 

Eric shook his head. He didn't think this place was haunted - at least, it hadn't been the last time he'd checked on it. Then again, that had been 6 months ago. The place had undergone some renovations. He opened his eyes to the pulse of the grave... and saw the house quivering with necromantic energy, veins of black running through its walls.

 

Great. He reached for his phone, placing a call to his associates. "Hey, yeah. We've got a house in Lantern Hill that wasn't haunted, and now is. And apparently, it doesn't like delivery boys." 

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"We told you it was haunted," said the dog to his left, sounding self-satisfied.

 

"You didn't believe us," said the dog to his right, sounding indignant.

 

"Yeah, well." Matt frowned at the building across the street, watching the medics deal with a man who was having a very bad day. In fairness, he hadn't actually expected the place to be haunted (Lantern Hill, sure, but a brownstone?), but he'd at least believed them enough to be wearing the less obvious bits of what amounted to a costume under his heavy flannel shirt, but he'd thought that at best they'd just detour over to the cemetery and make sure everything was quiet. "Last time, you told me the steaks were haunted."

 

The dog to his right grinned, tail thumping against the ground it was sitting on. "They required inspection."

 

The dog to his left grinned, tail swishing against the edge of the pavement. "They were delicious."

 

"No eating things here, please." Matt shoved his hands in his pockets, fingering the bandana-like mask hidden in one. "If we even get inside. Don't think we're the only ones who noticed something is up."

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"It's awfully tough to miss, eh?" a chipper voice mused from behind Matt just before its translucent blue owner floated into view to his right. Although the teenager didn't need any special senses to know that she wasn't among the living the smiling young woman looked like she might have been in her early twenties, nearly black, midnight blue hair buzzed short on either side of twinkling sea green eyes with a longer, sky blue wave on top. Her ornate hooded long coat was adorned with ice crystal patterns over the shoulders and belted at the waist, flaring out into a tattered bottom edge, the first hint of a more ominous nature. Of course the massive scythe she held behind her back, with the luminous silver wood on its snath, the wicked blade that was simultaneously pitch black and impossibly reflective and the ornamentation that looked suspiciously like carved human bone was probably the more serious warning sign.

 

It was a little difficult to reconcile the deadly power radiating from the weapon with the delighted way the phantom was cooing over his dogs. "Ohmigoodness, look at these precious death puppies! Hello! Hello!" She beamed down at them, rotating a bit in the air, heedless of gravity. The creature padding about below her floating boots seemed much warier, letting out a low brassy sound as his tail swished back and forth. He might have been a large housecat if his face hadn't been more simian than feline or if that tail hadn't been segmented with chitin and tipped with a poisonous barb or if he'd been covered in simple fur rather than quills. "Oh, be nice, Avro!" his mistress chided before she turned her sunny disposition in Matt's direction. "Are you here with Nick? You smell a bit like him!" She tapped a finger knowingly to the side of her nose and winked. "Spent a little time on the other side, eh? Pfft, tourists!" Her bright laughter at her own joke was friendly and unguarded.

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Matt was caught completely flat-footed, snapping his head around to look at Kimber like...well, like a startled teenager. No less startled when he spotted the scythe, and less still when his brain got caught trying to reconcile it with its apparent owner's cheer.

 

The dogs had no such problems, acting for all the world like they'd known perfectly well she was coming, getting to their feet and circling the spectre with great curiosity. "Hello!" "Hello," they replied, grinning great canine smiles as they inspected her and her pet. The latter, at least, they gave a little more room - though one did carefully get Avro's attention long enough for the other to jump up and playfully paw at the edge of Kimber's coat, its immaterial nature doing absolutely nothing to keep the hound from gently pulling on it.

 

"We like this one, Howl," it said, landing back on its feet as its partner backed away from Avro's quills and echoed the sentiment. "We do; she can stay. Does she give scratches?"

 

"I, uh." Matt's brain had mostly caught up - at least, enough to absently snap, prompting his dogs to wander closer, still grinning. "...sure, if she likes, and isn't gonna...reap someone. If Nick's that guy," he added, thrusting a thumb that way, "then, uh, no. Dogs'n'I are here on our own."

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Eric scanned the horizon, looking to see who else had shown up. He caught Kimber out of the corner of his eye, her particular ectoplasmic signature registering to his death sight. And when it did, it trailed off of her... and on to the black dogs she was playing with. There were only two he could see, gamboling about with the usual midnight-shaded fur he associated with the psychopomps. But he followed their trail off to a boy standing near them - and he got the sudden flash of several dozen leashes, held by a firm hand. The lashes tugged and twisted, like the stereotypical herd of dogs leading their walker, but the fist held. 

 

That. Is a lot of dogs. And a lot of power. And here they all were, at the site of a haunt. That was certainly something to look into. 

 

There was just a quick slip into the depths of Duat, and then he emerged back onto the street as Nick Cimitiere, itinerant necromancer and a man horribly out of place on a bright Saturday morning. He walked over to Kimber. "Hey, Ghost Girl," he said, trying to be absolutely casual about the man who held the leashes of the Wild Hunt. "Looks like we're dealing with one hell of a haunting."

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"In fact she does!" the poltergeist laughed delightedly, providing the requested scratches with her free hand while the other rested her intimidating weapon on her shoulder. "You're much more articulate than my girlfriend's babies. Although, to be fair, they're more semi-sapient shadow constructs who don't realize they're much to big to be lapdogs, so!" She righted herself as Matt regrouped the cheerful canines, floating low enough to allow her manticore to jump up onto her pant leg and climb his way up to the shoulder opposite the scythe, from where he could glare at the dogs warily. "Hi, Nick! I'm actually thinking about changing up the codename, what do you think? 'Wraith' is already taken and I haven't hit on anything I really like yet, y'know? Oh!" Snapping her fingers in realization she turned back to the teenager. "I never said, you can call me Kimber. This is Avro. Did the dogs call you Howl? Always nice to meet new people!"

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"Uh," Matt articulated, with all the charisma and social experience of someone who had only really been in this position with ghosts and such that he was working to send to the other side, where his secrets didn't matter. That, in turn, earned him a sour grimace as he realized he'd completely failed at the whole 'heroic secrets' thing, again, and didn't really have a graceful way to recover, again.

 

Still, nothing to do but bite that bullet. And of course, even as he pulled his mask out and wrapped it around his head, the dogs were helpful as ever. "We did," one supplied, with certainty. "It's his name," said the other, as if Matt needed the reminder.

 

"It's...not," Matt countered, tying the knot behind his head. "....sorta. 'Grim' will do, though - like the dogs," he added, pointing a thumb their way (which earned him a pair of grins and a couple thumps of tails against pavement), "not the reaper. Though, whatever works, I guess."

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"Nick, why do we have a menagerie?" came a wry voice from behind the group. Equinox strode up towards them, coat trailing behind her, a raccoon perched on one shoulder. "I mean, when you said infestation, I thought you meant ectoplasm, not fur." Her raccoon chittered angrily, and slapped her on the ear. 

 

She closed the distance between her and the group, boots stomping on the ground. She inclined her head to Ghost Girl. "Ghost Girl, good to see you. And... I don't believe we're been acquainted." She held her hand out to the nervous looking young man. "I'm Equinox. Siobhan if you prefer and can pronounce it. This is Hayley. Don't get her wet or feed her after midnight."

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"Hey, Equinox," Nick said. "I feel like I need to get a cat or a dog or a rooster or something. Feeling left out. Anyway, the young man here is attuned, just like us, and he and his dogs have likewise picked up on the weirdness." Nick didn't feel like saying the kid's name; he seemed to find it a little embarrassing, and besides, it might be better if the kid introduced himself in his own words. "So, we've got a what, but we don't have a why, how, or - kinda important in this case - who." 

 

Nick walked over towards the crowd. One of the things he loved about life in Freedom was that people would see the man in skull makeup approaching an active crime scene and instinctively know to part. The cops who were taking the courier's statement and also noticed, with one of them stepping forward to meet him. "So this is officially hoodoo, then?" she asked.

 

"Not sure about hoodoo. Likely something weird. Whose place is this?"

 

"Courier said the package was for a Franklin Ames. Says here he's some of magnate. Has to be, if he can afford a place like this all to himself."

 

"How long has he been to himself?"

 

"We're drawing up the property records as we speak. May take some time, though. City Hall's not exactly quick to answer calls on a weekend."

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Kimber seemed much more interested in discussing possible pets for Nick than interacting with the police officers but she followed through the opening in the crowd to get a better look at the house anyway, riding her scythe sidesaddle through the air with Avro perched on her shoulder. She kept herself just high enough off of the ground so that even the tallest onlookers would have had to look up to meet her eyes, though most of their attention was focused on the wicked looking blade trailing behind her. "Probably much faster to just go in and ask him!" she suggested cheerfully, turning to look over her shoulder and wave Grim and his dogs over to join her and Nick. "You know, I'd heard some big shot was looking to dark magic up their decor but I pretty much figured it was just more get-rich-quick talk. Vampires all think they're going to make a killing on stocks or antiques or something and be set for eternity, haha!"

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Grim jogging a bit to catch up, dogs right on his heels. With their master finally in his 'hero' getup, the creatures had taken the distraction to change themselves: no longer flesh and blood, they looked like they were made of smoke and darkness with eyes like round, burning coals. Their teeth seemed real enough, though, as they grinned at the onlookers to make sure the path through didn't close up before they could rejoin the ghost and her necromancer friend.

 

"So, uh, stupid question," he proffered, glancing between the house and the courier. "What was getting delivered? 'cos if this guy knew something was up with this place and ordered anyway, it's either really stupid or no good."

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Equinox looked pensive. "It's a good question. Could be a number of reasons. Common one is, well..." She shrugged, dislodging the raccoon, which chittered and clawed at her coat to hold on. "Sorry. Well, it could be he didn't quite know what he was dealing with. I mean, we're professionals." She gestured at Nick and Kimber. "And we still spend half our time now knowing what's going on. Alternately, he could have just not known something spooky was up with the house, or the package. Or it's not actually him, it's someone masquerading as him, or enthralling him so they don't need to make themselves traceable."

 

Siobhan grinned at the younger man. "Man, we need less terrifying jobs."

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"Well," said Nick, "if we had less terrifying jobs, someone else would still need to do ours. We should probably view this as a valuable service to the community. A scary, screwed-up community." Nick moved in to the courier, trying to be as comforting as a man with a skull face could be. "Hey," he said, "I know you probably saw some spooky, messed-up stuff in there. Not trying to ask you to recall that. I'm just curious what brought you to the house today."

 

"I... I don't know," he said. "They really don't let me peek in the packages, and I kinda dropped it over the threshold. But... judging by the weight and the packaging, I guess it was contracts. I picked them up from Nevran Defense in Hanover; I think this guy may be a controlling interest in the firm. I dunno."

 

Nick sighed. "I take it he'd need to sign for this, huh?" 

 

"Yeah. I tried ringing him down, but he wasn't answering the door. I noticed it was open, so I poked my head in and... next thing I know, goddamn Beetlejuice is trying to take my head off."

 

"Wait, like an actual pale corpse, or...?"

 

"It's a figure of speech, all right? Look, I'm sorry, I just... this isn't my thing."

 

"It's not a lot of people's things. You got out. Take pride in that." Nick headed back to the others. "So, it looks like we're going in. Any thoughts?" 

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"Just wondering why we're just waiting around!" Kimber exclaimed with a bright smile as if the courier had just enthusiastically recommended a new amusement park he'd recently visited. The poltergeist hopped off of her levitating scythe, looking a little odd as she continued to hover in the air and simply brought the weapon up into a more ready position before turning to her manticore. "Avro, stay with Nick for a minute, okay? I'm sure the puppies will behave themselves." She gave Grim a thousand watt grin while Avro huffed quietly, padding around the grass to put the rockabilly necromancer's legs between himself and the hounds.

 

Without further discussion the translucent woman sped through the air diving through the front wall of the house as easily as a swimmer leaping into still water. Inside, however, the house was anything but tranquil. She felt a metaphysical tug immediately as she crossed the threshold, trying to yank her deeper inside. A more mundane ghost would have swept up in the current, she expected, but mundane was not a word one typically associated with Ghost Girl... or whatever she was going to start calling herself. Musing on the matter she planted her etherial feet in the empty air and began to look around for clues.

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"....yeah, okay," Grim conceded. "Front door for me, though. I'd rather see where I'm going if I'm pulling that stuff. You guys, though," he added, glancing down at his dogs. "One of you go follow the ghost in case she's in some other room?"

 

He figured there was supposed to be some kind of grand entrance to this kind of thing - some heroic quip or formal greeting or warning to the denizens of the afterlife - but if there was, he'd never learned it. With as little preamble as possible, the teenage psychopomp walked up to the front door, pushed it open, and stepped inside. "....yo?"

 

One of the dogs, meanwhile, had trotted toward the building's wall at its master's orders, and proceeded to push its way through. It was a less graceful maneuver than the ghost's - the physical world seemed to fight it, shadowy body roiling as it was forced into solid matter - but none the less a smiling dog's head poked through after Kimber only shortly after she'd disappeared. "Hello!"

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Equinox strolled into the house after the others at a more languid pace. She didn't move much further than slightly beyond the threshold. If they had to do a more in-depth search, that'd be fine, but it'd be a lot easier if she could sense anything amiss. Besides, if something was lurking inside, she'd much rather know about it in advance.

 

Closing her eyes, the action dimming the glow coming from them, she spread her left hand out in front of her, fingers spread out, trying to feel the very air for anything particularly... amiss.

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Attuning her senses to the house, Equinox felt as if a current was running through the room. She felt something whisk at her soul, like a stranger passing by her in a crowded subway car. It was similar to the flow associated with feng shui or ley lines, except somewhat more... directed. It was a mere sensation for her, but for something with less rooting in the corporeal, it might be more troublesome.

 

Nick entered the house soon after, and let loose a shiver as he crossed the threshold. "Can you feel that?" he said. "That 'someone's doing the jig on my grave' sensation. There's some potent necromancy at work in here. The kind I only really thought was the stuff of urban legend." He looked at the townhouse - four floors, as far as he could see, and some nice drawing rooms and dining rooms off to the side. "All right, stay alert. If this is what I think it is, we're going to find some very confused and very angry ghosts. And if it's not... well, hey, at least it's not that awful thing." 

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