It’s in the nature of the Past to be hidden and murky. The Present too can easily be lost to daydreams or the rush of time of events pile up and slip by. Losing the Future however was a special kind of problem.
“Are we sure that a Ghost of Christmas Future was even supposed to visit you tonight?” Val asked. “Maybe they went to haunt someone else?”
“Technically it would have been a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” Tam said. “From what Karen and Lilly, the Past and Present ghosts, said though, Anna definitely should have been visited by one of the Christmas Yet to Come ghosts.”
“Was the problem that I wasn’t alone?” Anna asked. “I know in the Dickens story, Scrooge had no one else to witness the ghosts, and in both of your cases no one else was aware of the ghosts being there.”
They’d gathered in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning once Anna was convinced that her visitor wasn’t going to arrive before the sunrise.
The Second Chance Club’s latest headquarters was dark and foreboding under the cloud choked sky, but it held Tam’s sanctum as well as their armory if a need should arise for it. The street lights along the block were all in working order, but for a long stretch the apartment buildings had windows that were either dark or so heavily curtained that no light escaped from them. With razor sharp winds biting its frosty fangs into anyone who dared roam the streets, there wasn’t even the occasionally glow from a pair of passing headlights. It was like the world had frozen without a hint of ice to show for it.
Inside the club’s headquarters, Tam guided her two friends to her sanctum with only the light of a single candle.
“Karen and Lilly both knew you and Zoe would be there, so I think being alone wasn’t a problem for the Future ghost,” Tam said.
“That leaves us with some obvious questions then,” Val said. She was walking behind Tam, but staying close enough that she could leap into the front spot if something unexpected was waiting for them. They were in their stronghold, but something about the night felt off to all three of them.
“Yes,” Anna said, keeping an eye out behind them. “First who would have the capacity to interfere with a Seasonal Spirit and second who would have a reason to do so.”
“Especially one that targeted to you,” Val said.
“That may have been the result of an opportunistic action,” Anna said. “Perhaps my ghost was the easiest to waylay.”
“Let’s hope so,” Tam said. “If not it could say something pretty bad that the one ghost that got taken out was the future.”
“Yeah, that kind of sends an uncomfortable message doesn’t it?” Val said.
They began to descend the stairs to Tam’s sanctum as the candle’s flame sputtered and flickered.
“That’s my concern,” Anna said. “It doesn’t feel like this is a moment in our history when simple misadventures or routine accidents are the most likely explanation for things, but they can still happen.”
“I get that we can’t afford to jump at every problem like it was an omen of doom, but this one feels different somehow,” Tam said as she keyed an unlock code into her sanctum’s security system.
Inside, the room was a mess. If a hurricane had been concentrated in the small space, the results would likely have been the same as what they found waiting for them. It was disturbing since that was the usual state of Tam’s sanctum. The green wisps of balefire though were new and more than a little concerning.
“You weren’t redecorating in here for the holidays, were you?” Val asked.
“Not with death magic, no,” Tam said, as she began to weave a series of detection spells.
“Is it safe to be here?” Anna asked after Tam had completed a series of intricate gestures.
“Not particularly,” Tam said. “The wisps are the most obvious of three deadly traps that someone setup. I’m going to assume there are more than that until I can get my scanner online again and get a better look at how they got in here.”
“So where should we go next then?” Val asked.
“Right into the room I’m afraid,” Tam said. “The second trap is set to trigger if anyone opens the door and then tries to leave. I can disarm it but it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
“Oh you needn’t worry about that,” a solidly built, older man in a white business suit said from the center of the room. “Come in. We have much to talk about.”
He hadn’t been sitting at the center of the room’s casting circle a moment earlier, but there was no trace of a teleportation spell, or flicker of an invisibility cloak when he appeared.
“We do?” Tam asked, not hiding the hint of irritation in her voice.
“Yes. You’ve been getting out of line. It’s time you were reminded of your place before we have to do something drastic.” The man’s smile held the satisfaction of a someone who was planning to enjoy any drastic actions he could even begin to justify.
Tam nodded to her friends and stepped into the room, her fingers continuing to twist and flicker as she held them low behind her back.
“And you would be?” Tam asked, circling to the left and being careful to stay outside the radius of the casting circle.
“One’s such as I collect many names. You are allowed to address me Majesty Grey,” Grey said.
“And what reminder do you bring to us, Mr. Grey?” Anna asked, circling around the circle to the right.
“Majesty,” Grey said. “You stand in the presence of the divine. You will acknowledge it or suffer the consequences.”
“About that…” Val said and mashed his face in with a punch that drove his head backward to the point that she knocked him out of the casting circle and into one of the shelves.
She then grabbed the self proclaimed deity by the throat and squeezed as a storm of bright red light surged from Grey’s wounds and poured into the tips of Val’s fingers.
“How!?” he managed to croak out a moment before Val picked him up and slammed him onto the floor, shattering one of the metal stools Tam had balanced a box of tools on.
Grey tried to fight back but the relentless fury of Val’s attack had taken him wholly by surprise. No one laid hands upon the divine, and so he had never experienced the all too mortal pain of someone shattering the avatar he commonly wore.
In a panic, he tried to escape. He called to his divine power but he found his reserves dwindling away faster than he could marshal them. The more power he called for, the brighter the light at his throat grew and the weaker he felt.
Finally, after it felt like Val had destroyed most of Tam’s sanctum with Grey’s avatar body, including running it through every one of the lethal traps he’d set to secure the room, she tightened her grip further and he felt the sweet release of mortal death step close to sever his connection from the Earthly realm and allow his to return proper home.
Except Val stopped.
“You have a binding on him yet?” she asked.
Somewhere behind her, Tam finished speaking a spell in a language so old even Grey didn’t recognize it.
“Yeah, he’s not going anywhere,” she said. “Nice work keeping him distracted.”
Grey called for his divine power again, reached out across the worlds to feel the hearts of the billion followers who mindlessly sung his praises. He would still a million of those beating hearts for the power to smite the women before him. Even a single life would empower him enough to end them, but he would spend a river of blood making sure their suffering was legendary.
His anger flared at the thought. He’d come like a benevolent master, ready to accept their complete and utter subservience as was right, as was the natural order of how things had been and how they must always be.
If they’d resisted, he was prepared to give them clean deaths. Their world didn’t need to burn for the foolish actions of a misguided few who couldn’t be happy with what they’d already been given. Better to break the recalcitrant to a new, heavier yoke than to destroy the whole herd.
That had been his mistake. Thinking that he was dealing with reasonable beings. As he called for the death of ten million worshippers, set to die with his name on their tongues and in their hearts, the resistance he felt to burning away the whole world crumbled. All would know his pain. All except for the three who’d wronged him. They would know an eternity of suffering like no others could imagine.
All he needed was lives freely given.
Which wasn’t coming.
Val slapped him again.
“Focus,” she said. “Anna asked you a question.”
“Did you do anything to one of our Seasonal Spirits?” Anna asked again, her words slow and weighted with soft spoken menace.
“Bound her to lure you here!” Grey didn’t answer anymore than that. He couldn’t. He was too confused by the silence he felt in answer to his call. He was his power. He was supreme. The greatest of the great. His will couldn’t be denied.
“That connection you’re not feeling anymore is because we severed you from your heavenly mandate,” Tam said. “It was clever using the weak spot between our realms that was created by all the travel we’ve done through my casting circle. You either burned a lot of power or you’re damn good with spellcraft to flip the wards meant to keep you out into summoning glyphs to pull you in with. There’s just one problem with that though, see if the person who made the wards knows there are more powerful spellcasters out there gunning for them, then they can put in all sorts of other traps that you can’t see until you extend yourself into this world.”
“I am supreme,” Grey gurgled, fighting to make what was left of his avatar’s body function.
“Right. Supreme. All Powerful. In your own realm,” Tam said. “And if we’re being honest, not even there right? You’re not the only god in your realm, just the one with the biggest chip on his shoulder. This whole project was probably suggested to you by someone else? A smaller, smarter god I would guess?”
“How?” Grey managed to croak out. On the other side of the sanctum, he saw Anna find the black star ornament that the Ghost of the Future had been trapped in.
She broke the rapidly withering divine seal he’d placed on it and in a shower of silver and gold sparks, a young woman in green and red garb emerged. The ghost he’d trapped was free and she didn’t look any happier with him than any of the other women in the room did.
“How could I know there’s a smarter god than you behind this?” Tam asked. “Because if you were smart enough to come up with this plan, you would have been smart enough to know what a bad idea it was to expose yourself all alone like that. But that was the draw wasn’t it? That’s how they lured you into the idea in the first place. Come in alone, whip us into line and you get eight billion or so new followers that you don’t have to share with the rest of your godly siblings? It’s a terrible plan from your point of view but an excellent one if we assume they hate you and were looking for a convenient method of taking out of the picture.”
“Speaking of exposure, how exposed are we to the rest of this guy’s buddies?” Val asked, her hand continuing to drain the red light that flowed from the wounds on Grey’s throat.
“Not very,” Tam said. “Thanks to that Vampire Dust nail polish you’ve got, it was pretty easy to transfer Grey’s divine mandate to you. There’s smarter gods in his realm, but now that you’re the big fish in that pond, we can make sure someone more reasonable is put in charge. We just need to do it before the nail polish starts to chip.”
“What happens if we take too long?” Val asked, her hold on Grey’s neck briefly loosening.
“You start leaking divine energy,” Tam said. “Which would be bad if there was nowhere for it to go, but, oh, that’s right, we happen to know a goddess don’t we?”
“That we do. So, on a scale of one to ‘oh my god they’re everywhere’, how much would your realm like to be ruled by spiders?” she asked the now mortal and depowered god at her feet.