Abernathy strode down the street, trying to identify the people tailing him. The girl in jeans and leather jacket, with feathers and purple dye in her hair, he was almost sure. The man with the buzz cut and denim jacket. Abernathy worried that both might carry guns. Any more? Would they use guns in a crowd?
Should he just stop and look around? No, don't stop. The museum was close, and he'd be safe there. Safer. But he glanced around as he walked. The black businessman with suit and briefcase? Surely he'd followed Abernathy around at least two corners. He scanned the tops of the buildings.
"Ms. Penelope Shaw? ‘Cambrian.’"
"Right. ‘Ceramic.’ Thank you for not making either password ‘Swordfish.’"
"Never mind. Your name? At least, one I can use for now."
"Sam Faber." They shook hands. "So you're from the Dare Lodge? A, uh, Mason?"
"Yes. 'The Liberty Belles' is the women's auxilliary. But we're thinking of just having female Masons."
"A superheroine. Yes. What does the Department of the Ulterior already know?"
"You've encountered Taylor Abernathy, new necromancer in town. Thinks he's the hot new talent. And he's willing to work up raw material, to wit at least two homicides and a probable coerced suicide."
"Right. And there he is." She offered Faber a set of binoculars, but he shook his head and took out his own.
"Looks edgy," Faber remarked. "He's spotted your people?"
"I assume so. They're herding him toward us."
Yes, the businessman was definitely trailing him. That made at least three. He only had five ghosts ready. And the bones, but the bones were for later. He didn't dare stop to cough up more ghosts, nor risk the lower power level that would give him. But if he could get to the museum, he'd have all the power he wanted. Did they know he was headed to the museum? How could they? It could be worth some ghosts to distract them, and if he was lucky, some of those ghosts would come back.
He stopped abruptly, turned, and picked out his three pursuers. The man with the buzz cut stared back. The other two carefully did not.
Abernathy pointed with his left hand at the pavement before him. He wore a silver ring with a black stone on his index finger. He spoke the names of three dead people.
[ These are Tim Powers ghosts, which are the standard for the Inkliverse. Abernathy has "drunk" a great many, which boosts his prana production, and can cough them up at will, which lowers prana production, so he does it judiciously. These three were from a set of five he had already coughed up and had ready. ]
"Right out in the open!" exclaimed Faber.
"They're not publicly visible," Shaw replied. "But, yeah, small town boy. Largely self-taught. I don't think he understands much about the Sundering."
[ Abernathy did criminal things in a low-population-density area, so he stayed out of the public eye anyway, and so had little opportunity to learn about the Sundering from experience. Apparently no one ever told him, or no one he believed. But it doesn't matter here because most people don't see ghosts, though a few do, Sundered or not. ]
An old man, a young girl, and a middle-aged woman crouched before Abernathy, all three glaring at him with a blank rage. "Linda," he said to the girl, "attack him." He pointed to Buzz-cut. She flitted off.
"Maureen," he said to the woman, "atta–"
"You bastard!" she yelled, lunging at him. She was palpable, able to grab his coat lapels and shake him. He squirmed away, fended off a scratching hand with his forearm. People around him slowed, glanced anxiously at the man having DTs or a bad trip, edged away. The girl and the businessman, however, began running toward him.
"Should we assist?" asked Faber.
"This will resolve before we could get downstairs."
"All your people are ghost-sensitive?"
"Of course. So's he." Shaw pointed to a teenage boy a few feet from Abernathy, staring open-mouthed. "Maybe he's noticed she has no weight. Or maybe she looks transparent to him. Or is changing appearance."
"She looks about twenty, to me."
"Twice that, to me. Whoops! No, now she's young. The better to fight, I suppose."
"Our guy's pulled out a lighter."
Shaw snorted. "Good luck with that, in front of so many witnesses."
[ Ghosts in aeriel form can be laid by fire. But that causes the brief appearance of a fiery form, which the Sundering works against. So his lighter doesn't work. ]
The ghost woman knocked Abernathy against the side of a bus stop. She couldn't get solid enough to make her nails bite, but she kept trying. For his part, Abernathy kept clicking the lighter he'd fished from his pocket. Three or four times, he touched it to her arms or neck, but there was no flame.
"Think that was the Sundering working in our favor?"
Shaw shook her head. "There's nothing supernatural about talking and gesturing to empty air. It's just that he had to charge up the ghosts before they were any good to him. That made the woman—ex-woman—lucid enough to remember Abernathy and why she hates him."
[ Nothing overtly miraculous has happened in public yet. ]
"Sweet Jesus, stop it!" called a voice. It was the teenage boy, though Abernathy could not see him through Maureen, whoever else she was invisible to. Maureen hesitated, microscopically distracted. Perhaps that was a particularly distracting name, if you're a dead woman from a Bible Belt town. It gave Abernathy the chance to slip around the wall of the bus stop, into it, still flicking the lighter.
[ Abernathy is just trying to get away from the ghost, but this happens to give him a bit of privacy. ]
Maureen followed him and ran straight into the lighter. She vanished in a silhouette of flame, revealing the boy entering after her, now astonished.
"That's a brave kid," said Shaw.
"Good-hearted, too," said Faber. "He must've thought he saw someone being attacked by a supernatural horror."
"Not knowing who the real horror was. I wondered if he was Sundered."
"Probably not," opined Faber. "With luck, one incident like this won't do it."
"A dilly of an incident..."
[ The boy is probably not Sundered, but could become so if he insists on investigating this incident and runs into more and more strange stuff. ]
The girl with the purple hair, a.k.a. Margie Shannon, ran up to Buzz-cut, a.k.a. Oliver Gabreski, who was flopping and kicking on the sidewalk, attracting concerned on-lookers. "I got this!" she yelled, and brandished an inhaler such as asthmatics use. She dropped to her knees next to Gabreski, appeared to flinch or duck from something a few times, and made to apply the inhaler to his face. But whatever she was ducking seemed to foil this. After a couple of seconds, the Liberty Belle gave up, muttered an imprecation, and squirted the inhaler two feet away from Gabreski's mouth. It released a powerful smell of peppermint.
Gabreski waved his arms frantically for a moment more, paused, glanced around, caught Shannon's eye, and grabbed the inhaler. He applied it to his mouth, but a careful observer would notice he did not squirt from it. Shannon helped him to his feet. He nodded to her and waved her on. She nodded back and trotted after the businessman, who had dropped his briefcase and was running after Abernathy.
[ Shannon and Gabreski are faking an acute asthma attack, but the inhaler contains peppermint oil. Powers-style ghosts are easily distracted by, and attracted to, pleasant, pungent odors, especially if not fully lucid. The Dare agents know better than to try the lighter trick in public. ]
Gabreski stood gasping. He touched scratch marks on his cheek. Onlookers asked variations on "Are you okay?" except for one old woman, who asked, "Where's the child?" Still puffing, Gabreski met her eye, then nodded silently in a direction roughly behind her. She turned and saw, where no other did, a girl around ten, looking dazed, inhaling the last of the peppermint smell.
"'M'okay," he gasped to the onlookers and resolutely started trotting after Shannon.
"We'd better get moving," said Faber. "I think Abernathy is headed for the museum."
"What do you think the old woman will do about the kid?" Faber asked as they clattered down the stairs.
"Hard to say. Out of our jurisdiction, anyway. She's a ghost, too. Didn't you notice?"
Abernathy dashed through the museum doors, panting. People stared. Let them. He pulled a burlap package out of his coat, tossed it gently on the floor, and said, "Roll dem bones."
Nothing happened. People continued to stare and he thought he heard someone say "bomb." A nightmare feeling licked him. What was wrong?
It was the wrong invocation. He had considered that one, during the casting, but rejected it as too flip. The real one was–
[ One way the Sundering can block you is to trip up your memory. It doesn't have to be much. ]
He looked back through the glass door and saw the girl coming through, as breathless as he but still coming, and still faster than he. He grabbed the package and ran.
Shaw pressed the earbud tighter to her head. "Shannon says he threw something on the floor, then picked it up when he saw her, and ran off."
"He really can't understand the Sundering, if he was trying to cast something. All those people. Security cameras. Almost as public as the street."
"Yeah, but now he's hiding from Shannon. So he'll probably be out of the public gaze, too."
Abernathy strode through an exhibit hall full of stuffed animals in glass cases. He had turned several corners, controlling his breathing and not running. No one was staring now. He stepped into a quiet alcove between a lynx and a leopard, placed the bundle on the floor, and now remembered the invocation without difficulty: "Rise," he said, and lifted the hand that wore the ring.
With a scrape and a rattle, the bundle opened as the skeleton of a dog assembled itself and stood. It cocked its skull at Abernathy and presumably gazed at him out of the eye sockets.
[ By hiding from his pursuers, Abernathy is also hiding from the public, so the Sundering leaves him alone. ]
Abernathy fished in his shirt pocket and produced the scarab. It was chipped and worn, almost a pebble, and had come from an unrelated tomb, but it ought to bear a trace of "Egyptian-ness," and that ought to let the bone-hound home in on the most powerful, most Egyptian thing in the museum.
He presented the scarab to the bone-hound's snout. No air moved through the nasal opening, but he didn't expect it. Smell was really not involved, except in the ... memory? imagination? of the bone-hound. The jaw dropped open slightly. Was that a truck going by outside or a growl? He remembered being attacked by Maureen. "Track," he said sternly, then pulled away his hand.
The bone-hound swung its skull back and forth, then stalked off toward the lobby. One might expect clicking as it paced, but the forces that moved the bones also kept them fractionally apart from each other and fractionally away from the floor. Ghostly pads made no noise.
But the bone-hound would become a lot more noticeable in the lobby. Abernathy smirked, anticipating astonished murmurs, maybe screams. The bone-hound passed the last glass case and a pair of pillars, then stood at the edge of the lobby.
Silence. A tour group was gazing up at a much bigger skeleton, a tyrannosaur, while the guide or teacher lectured. Just at that moment, everyone else was buying planetarium tickets or looking over the goods in the gift shop. Everyone but the girl with purple hair and the businessman, who immediately focused on the bone-hound, then on Abernathy in the shadow behind it.
[ The Sundering also discourages supernatural creatures from looking supernatural in public. In this case, it was easy to get the timing so everyone was looking away. Otherwise, the bone-hound might have followed a false trail and not headed for the lobby. Of course, it doesn't count if Sundered people are looking. ]
They ran. A guard looked up and yelled "Hey!" Abernathy fled back into the gloom and taxidermy. The two followed, the businessman taking a path through the bone-hound, kicking it into the dim-lit Hall of Mammals.
Shaw, Faber, and now Gabreski piled through the museum doors. They saw nothing except some staring faces and a guard running out of the lobby. They followed the guard.
Shaw pressed her earbud as she ran. "Shannon, Mackenzie, where–"
Ghosts," came the voice of Mackenzie, the businessman. "T wo boys with kn ives. They c ut." The sound broke and crackled.
"Two ghosts. Knives. Electrical," Shaw repeated to Faber.
Abernathy burst out of the Hall of Birds and into the food court. Shannon and Mackenzie were seconds behind him. There were probably ways out, but he had collided with a table and tripped; he had no time to look for them. Here came the Dare agents.
He pointed again with his left index finger. "Bobby. Willie." Two teenage boys sprang up, death-white, in ragged jeans and T-shirts, knives ready. They looked at him eagerly; they liked their work. "Get 'em," Abernathy said, pointing at the closing Son and Belle.
He became aware of voices. He glanced around and saw the food court had over a dozen people in it, staring at him and the approaching agents. But no one seemed about to join in. Where was an exit?
[ Again, he's done public magic, but the effects are invisible to normals, so it can come off. ]
The dead boys knew what they were and how to use it. Their knives could cut, yet they kept themselves impalpable. But they didn't flit like the little girl ghost, Linda, so the agents were able to dodge. Abernathy wondered what the audience made of that. The black man had time to talk into some earphone he was wearing. Where was an exit?
The buzz-cut man burst into the food court, flanked by a man and a woman. Hell, they had guns! Wait–
"I wish these lighters didn't look so much like guns," muttered Faber.
"Sorry," said Shaw. "We use them because the long nozzles are good for getting into tight places."
"Shoulda brought my own. Damn, it's the cafeteria! How'll we torch those ghosts in public?"
"Harder, but not impossible."
Shaw trotted in, her lighter held upright and lit. She looked more like she was carrying a candle than a gun. And she was staring at something in mid-air. Everyone stared at her, even Abernathy, even the ghosts. She pointed and cried "Look!" in tones of amazement.
Everyone looked. Shaw touched her lighter to Bobby. None of the lunchers saw him vanish in a flaming silhouette.
[ Her lighter would not have worked if too many normals were looking. ]
Within a second or two, though, the onlookers had turned back to the ... fight or whatever it was, with a punk-looking girl and a black man in a business suit trying to close in on the guy in the overcoat, but hanging back and dodging for no clear reason.
"Hey!" Again, everyone turned to look. The guard was striding in, carrying the bone-hound in two sections. "Who's responsible for this?" He brandished the upper half of the skeleton, held firmly behind the skull. It struggled, but onlookers probably took it for flapping.
[ Some people may notice the skeleton is moving but suppose it's mechanical. They will be disappointed not to find a kit for sale in the gift shop. ]
Faber pulled out his badge and held it high. "Department of the (Um)terior," he announced, somehow barking and mumbling at the same time. He pointed at Abernathy. "This man is a fossil thief. Please, everyone look on the floor for more bones." Everyone stared at Abernathy, but then at each other and the floor.
Willie, meanwhile, had too many targets for his knife, and all of them held fire. Gabreski lunged at him. He backed away and did not see Mackenzie.
[ Again, you can do flashy stuff if no one sees the flash. ]
The two Liberty Belles were on Abernathy immediately. Shannon pulled his left arm behind his back and started working off the ring. Shaw brandished a hypodermic "I'm not very good at this," she told Abernathy as she drove it into the forearm Gabreski pulled out, "but I can't say I care. Dream. We're waiting there."
[ Not Sundering-related, but how do you subdue a magician? Counter-charms, of course, but I didn't feel that was in the style of either the Dare Lodge or the Department of the Ulterior. So they sedate him, with dreamer-agents waiting for him in the Dreaming, just in case. The Grandmother Spider Society, on the other hand, would have no qualms about counter-charms. ]
She turned from the cursing necromancer to follow Faber. He had led the guard with the bone-hound back into the Hall of Birds. She found the two men crouched behind a Bird of Paradise display. The guard was putting the bone-hound together. It stood quietly, with the skull laid on his sleeve. "Poor guy," he murmured to it. Faber handed him the lighter. "Go free." The guard brought the fire to bear. For an instant, there was a dog of flame, complete, leaping up. Ribs and vertebrae showered.
[ All dogs go to Heaven. ]
"'Look on the floor for more bones'?" Shaw asked as she helped gather non-fictitious bones.
"It worked. So did yours. It's easy, going with the Sundering."
[ If you make even feeble efforts to hide your weirdness, the Sundering will help. Yes, that means it "knows" you're about to try something. Your intentions are facts, too. ]
"Oh, I admired it." She turned to the guard. "You seem very well-informed."
The guard shrugged. "I ought to be. That's the fourth necromancer we've had since the archeologists came back from Egypt. Could you send us an exorcist?"
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