“But the end-game is freeing your mother. If this isn’t directly related…”
Kieran shook his head. “She’s got a big heart. The end-game was freeing my mother, but she can’t stand to see all of these trapped souls. I can hear it in her voice when she talks about it. In an effort to make the situation morally correct, she’ll release them all, if she can. She won’t be able to help it. And in the process, she’ll help my end-game.”
“Whatever’s going on in this warehouse is far from morally correct,” Thane murmured. “Valens has something wicked up his sleeve.”
“Yes, he does.” Kieran glanced at the door leading out into the larger portion of the warehouse. “Magically wicked. He’s prepared for war. Has been prepared for a good while, I’d guess. He’s ready to defend his territory against a hostile takeover.”
“You and your derelicts aren’t supposed to be in here,” the man with the fierce gaze said, staring me down. “This is a government facility. Authorized personnel only.”
“Dude. You’re dead. You’re not supposed to be in here.” I pointed at the color-shifting wall blocking off the Line. “But they locked you in. Doesn’t that piss you off?”
The man puffed out his muscular chest. “I’m here because I want to be. I’m here for the greater good.”
“Were you this stupid in life?” I held up my hand. “I already know the answer. Clearly you didn’t grow out of the habit of blindly following authority. You’re the worst sort of soldier.”
“I’m the best soldier,” the man said, and his bushy mustache wiggled as if he were swishing his lips under it. The other hard-bodied, grim-faced men around us nodded in agreement. “Decorated on three different continents. Active duty for ten years. Retired to special forces.” He pointedly looked around.
“Retirement…as in death?” I asked incredulously. “You were so good they killed you when you hit middle age instead of letting you live out the rest of your life in peace, which you’d clearly earned?”
“We were retired to glory,” the mustachioed man said. The rest nodded.
“You gotta stop believing what people tell you.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “I mean, it’s probably too late now, but I bet someone told you that mustaches looked good, right?” I put up a finger. “And maybe they do on some people. You, sir, are not one of those people.”
“How many are there?” Bria asked, still crouched by the graves masquerading as flower beds.
I counted them up really quickly, easy to do with such a small number. “Eight. All hard soldier types.”
“Magical?” she asked.
I lifted my eyebrows at Mustache. He stared back at me.
“Are you magical?” I relayed. “Honestly, I know you can hear her. Let’s move this along.”
“I don’t have to answer your questions,” Mustache said. His groupies shifted, advertising their confidence in him.
“Bria, can you make spirits answer questions?” I asked, not looking away from his defiant, annoyingly arrogant stare.
“We both can,” she answered. “You just don’t know how yet.”
I gestured at her, lifting my eyebrows at Mustache again. “So?”
Mustache’s jaw tightened and uncertainty crossed his expression for the first time. It disappeared so fast I wondered if I’d imagined it. “We are all magical.”
I relayed the info.
“And they’re all getting stuffed into fresh bodies.” Bria rose, leaving the exposed torso of a dead man in the raised grave as she crossed to Kieran and Thane. She looked over the items strewn across the surface of the tables. “How long have they been here?”
“They won’t be able to tell time like that,” I said.
“Right, right. I always forget that.” Bria shook her head. “How many times have they inhabited different bodies?”
I repeated the question.
Mustache’s brow furrowed, and uncertainty crossed his features again. He didn’t answer. A quick look around revealed he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t sure. I let Bria know.
“Huh,” she said. “Their brains must’ve been scrambled before they were killed. It’s a way to keep someone’s skill set but erase their short-term memory, including some of the memories that drift with them into the spirit world. I’ve seen the practice used in the field. It makes dangerous, powerful spirits easy to control, but it dumbs them down. They go from extremely skilled and great in the field to nothing more than blunt instruments who need simplistic instructions.”
“But if those instructions are to simply kill…” I said.
She shrugged, turning around. “You said they were soldiers, right?”
I nodded. “Highly decorated, apparently.”
She crossed to a chair tucked in the corner of the room and sat down with a sigh. “There are a million spirits you can call back to use as killing devices. Dumb, easy-to-manage spirits. So many. They practically wait by the gate for a chance to do what they love. But soldiers have a higher-level skill set. They have an increased functionality due to their adaptability, their ease in problem solving. You’d want them for more advanced tasks. You wouldn’t want to waste their potential by scrambling their brains.”
“Then why did they do it to these spirits?” Kieran asked.
“My guess?” Bria waited for his nod. She gestured at the table. “Because our Necromancer is old. He’s tired. He doesn’t have it in him to wrangle pushy spirits. That’s a young man’s game. I’m not even thirty and it exhausts me. I charge an awful lot to do it.”
“Why wouldn’t someone replace him?” Kieran asked, giving her a sharp look.
She spread her hands. “Did you know the information I just told you? Would you know what this guy was doing if I hadn’t told you?” She didn’t get an answer, and smiled. “No. You wouldn’t. He’d say the brain scramble is a necessary step for transferring a spirit to a new body, and his bosses would believe him. He’s the expert, after all. Then he’d give the bosses the parameters the scrambled spirits could work within, and the bosses would adjust their expectations accordingly.”
“With work this touchy, why not bring in a second opinion? Someone to monitor your staff?” Kieran said.
“That happens, but Necromancers don’t directly rat on each other. It’s a community, and if I get old and need to hedge, I don’t want some young asshole ratting me out. In turn, I’ll use my established position to help the young people get placement. Give and take. You do get jerks who try to steal jobs, but they die early. Usually by a newly filled cadaver murdering them.”
“But you’re ratting this guy out,” I said, fixing my hand to my hip. I wasn’t in the habit of lying, and would be damned if I join a dishonest community.
Kieran smiled, as though he’d read my thoughts.
“I’m a black sheep, number one,” Bria said, clasping her hands in her lap.
“Snitch,” Mustache spat.
“I’m saving up super hard to retire early, number two,” Bria went on. “And three, I don’t know who this guy is. I’m just telling my employer hypothetical information. I have a hunch that I’m right, but I could be wrong. Look, I schmooze just enough in the Necromancy community to keep from getting killed. It’s a tight rope, but I walk it with aplomb.”
“You’re saying it’s likely that the employer of this establishment—”
“Valens,” Bria said.
“—doesn’t know that his staff of spirits is operating at a reduced capacity?”
“Correct,” Bria said, nodding.
“Is the guy who puts the spirits into the bodies the same guy who’s been trapping the ghosts?” I asked.
Bria stared at me for a moment, her eyes slightly narrowed. “The short answer: I don’t know.”
“Long answer,” Kieran said.
“Until recently, I’d never heard of trapping spirits,” she said, looking at the graves at the back of the room. “I didn’t know it was possible, but it is a fiercely handy tool. If you try to call someone from beyond the Line, you’re not guaranteed to find them. Many spirits are downright difficult to bring back. Some are impossible. If a spirit doesn’t want to make the trek, they can burrow deep into the beyond, and you’ll never reach them. I wouldn’t mind having a setup where…” Her words drifted away when she caught sight of my angry expression. “I…wouldn’t mind…finding out more about it, but never using it for my own benefit, because that would be wrong…” She paused before muttering, “for some reason.”
“They are still people, and they shouldn’t be trapped in the world of the living,” I said, lifting my other hand to my hip. “They died. That’s the end of it. Keeping them in the world of the living is either bullshit for them, or if they are really bad people, their presence and negative energy is bullshit for the living. The dead are supposed to exit stage left. That’s the design. I didn’t make the rules, I just… Well, I don’t really enforce them, but maybe I should start, know what I mean?”
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