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a burden borne of all in one

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“This is bollocks!” John yelled in frustration as he threw the book he’d spent the last hour thumbing through, increasingly angrily, until he was nearly tearing the pages as he flipped them. The flying book slammed into the neat stack of research Chas has arranged on the coffee table, scattering books, folders, notes, and a bronze thirteenth century Florentine figurine that was rumored to have necromantic powers onto the floor. The figurine luckily didn’t break as it rolled up against the chair Zed was curled up in, but Chas could swear its stupid face looked at them mockingly.

“Goddammit, John! I had all of that organized to help us break down the ritual! Remember the entire point of why we’re doing this?!”

John stood up and walked toward the kitchen, mumbling a defeated response to Chas as he did so. “It’s not like any of it’ll actually bloody well help us anyway. I need a drink.”

Zed sighed and set down the book she’d been looking at more gently than John had, but just as finally. “He’s right, Chas. We’ve been working through this for hours and haven’t gotten any closer to an answer.”

Chas shook his head, trying not to feel defeated. “We can’t just quit. If we don’t figure this out, who will?”

It had been two days, since the remains of the ritual were discovered by a couple hiking through the woods in western Georgia with their dog, Max. Max had been the one to find the bits left behind, drawn by the scent of dead and rotting things: bones, bowls caked with old blood, various flowers and herbs combined in deliberate bundles, symbols carved onto the trees, feathers, claws, teeth. A chaotic mess of every possible ingredient someone would use to do… something. Something probably not good, at any rate. And that was the whole problem. The damn scene looked like a cheap horror film, filled with a bunch of scary shit that looked cool but didn’t actual form a cohesive whole.

The site had been written off as a joke. Bored teenagers farting around in the woods, pretending at being sorcerers.

Then, yesterday morning, the first deaths started. A car accident killed a gas station attendant who was driving to work. A few hours later a barista choked to death on her lunch break. Then a county clerk tripped and fell into an open trench while walking by a construction site, neatly breaking her neck. A gas leak killed a father and his two kids in the afternoon. They had all been napping together. At the same time across town, a truck caught on fire, the flames spreading too quickly for the driver to escape.

Steadily, throughout the day, one or a few at a time, people died. In increasingly gruesome ways, that otherwise looked like bad luck. Until there were too many for it to actually be random.

John suspected the deaths were for some larger purpose, the power of them being collected for some greater evil.

Which led them all to the current situation. Too many details, too much evidence, and no pattern behind any of it. Chas, John, and Zed had spent the previous night in town, investigating the bodies and places where the deaths occurred. There was nothing suspicious about them other than the sheer number and proximity to each other. Thirty-three people dead within eleven miles of each other. Then the deaths had just stopped around midnight, nothing out of the ordinary since then. Which could mean very bad news in terms of preventing whatever was coming. It had been almost twenty-four hours since the last death. If whoever was behind this had gathered enough of whatever it was they were getting out of these deaths, then they were ready for their next step—and it would have to come soon, before the power dissipated. After seeing all those bodies, Chas shuddered to think what might be coming next.

Yet their research was going nowhere. They’d broken down every element left behind from the ritual, cross-referenced them to every known spell having anything to do with death or accidents. Tried to find anything tying all this together. But they’d had no results so far.

Zed stared in the direction John had gone, asking Chas, “Do you think we should go after him?”

Chas rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Nah, leave him be. Maybe we all need a break.”

Chas continued to absently thumb through the volume he’d been reading, still without finding anything promising, until he noticed that Zed was quietly watching him. He looked at her and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

After a few moments thought she finally asked him, “Why do you keep doing this? Fighting alongside him, I mean?”

Zed paused and frowned, clearly searching for what she was getting at and finding words that obviously had been pent up for a while. “I… have this gift. It’s a part of me I can’t give up, even if it kills me. I can’t just let this power go to waste. I’ll fight as long as I can. And John. The magic and death and rising darkness and everything is a part of him too. It might even be everything to him. But you? You could live a normal life with your daughter. I don’t mean ignoring your curse or whatever you want to call it. I know you couldn’t do that. Just use it in smaller, everyday ways. Save people from burning buildings or something. Like all those pointless, random deaths we’re trying to solve right now. So why follow John if it takes you away from your family?”

That was really the heart of it, wasn’t it? Chas could see it in her face. Zed had never known the kind of family that everyone was supposed to have. One based on love and trust and protection. Neither had John really. But Chas had that. Once upon a time with his ex-wife and always, he hoped, with his daughter. Yet he regularly walked away from them to give himself instead to helping total strangers.

Chas set his book down, giving himself time to figure out what he wanted to say. It was hard, even to justify to himself sometimes. He spent most of his time with John, fighting what had been just a vague enemy for so long but now had a name: the Brujeria. In the end, he spent much more time devoted to John than to Geraldine. So much so, that his marriage to Renee hadn’t been able to compete. It was a fact he didn’t like to think about. No matter how much he believed in what they were doing, he still felt immense guilt. Yet that wasn’t enough to make him stop. Even picturing his daughter’s face wasn’t enough.

He knew how he had to explain it to Zed, and to himself. “I owe them. Forty-seven lives. Forty-seven. It’s just so many. And I watched most of them die, even as I was dying too. All the fire and smoke and pain. I...” Chas stuttered to a stop. There were good reasons he didn’t like to think about this. He might return to life every time, but he remembered every death. All that pain back to the first one in the fire. Every one of his own matching up with one in the bar that night.

“I keep a list, you know. A book, really. Of the forty-seven whose lives got transferred to me. I’ve looked up every one of them, all their stories. Who knows what they would’ve done with their lives if a stupid, random accident hadn’t cut theirs short. Any one of them might’ve saved people, maybe even have saved the whole world. I have to make every one of them count for as much as I can. I owe them.” Chas ran out of words, hoping that Zed understood how he could feel so much responsibility for deaths that weren’t even his fault.

She smiled softly at him in return. They were alike: both with horrifying gifts they couldn’t not use, no matter the cost. Because it was the right thing to do.

Chas continued, “I love my daughter more than anything in the world. But what kind of dad would I be if I let all those lives go to waste? And I know that I’m fucking things up with Geraldine. That I’m not there for her in the way I should be. This choice I’m making hurts every day. I guess I’m willing to be a not-so-great dad if that means I’m being a good person, fighting the good fight and all that.” Chas sighed unhappily, filled with guilt.

Zed continued to smile, now a little sadly, and grabbed Chas’s arm. “Trust me, I know what a bad father looks like. You’re one of the good ones.”

Chas patted her hand, a little awkwardly.

Ever with an inappropriate sense of timing, John picked that moment to run back into the room, shouting, “Is potestas in chaos et mors!”

Chas blinked, thrown by the sudden shift in mood and back to the problem at hand. Then he tried to translate what John had just said. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

Zed shared his puzzled look. “I caught ‘chaos.’ But we looked at chaos magic. We looked at every kind of chaos magic that anyone’s ever written about.”

John smiled his one of his smuggest grins. “Except for the kind that doesn’t exist. It’s shite Latin because it’s a shite spell.”

Chas was lacking the patience for a dramatic reveal. “C’mon, just explain it.”

John was practically giddy. “Chas, mate, you said when we first started that this ritual looked like what someone would create if they searched dark magic spells on the internet and threw together everything they found.”

Chas nodded. “Well, yeah, but doing that wouldn’t actually work. There’s nothing holding it all together. Magic has rules.”

John looked at him like he was a bit slow. “Normally, yes, but we’ve seen what the rising darkness can do. The Brujeria are all about making the strictest rules no longer work right, throwing everything out the window that we thought we knew. What if it allowed a bunch of tossers to just make up their own ritual, based on nothing but them wanting it to work. Evil has more power than we’ve ever seen before, enough to cause a few dozen random deaths. Then channel that many deaths and you’ve got real power just waiting on someone to tap into it. Now we just gotta work out where and when they’ll do their grand finale.”

Zed looked dubious. “But what if you’re wrong? Is there any evidence that any of this is true?”

John shrugged. “Does it matter? We’ve nothing to go on. Unless you lot have a better idea, I say we play this theory out.” Zed and Chas both shook their heads, frustrated but out of alternatives. “Right, so now we figure out where these buggers would want to stage their final act. Someplace stereotypical and obvious. Like a cemetery at midnight, or some rot.”

Chas thought about the places they’d driven through while investigating the deaths. “I remember the local cemeteries. They were both simple, pleasant places. Clean and well-maintained. Neither seems like a good fit for dark magic.”

Suddenly Zed’s eyes opened wide. “Wait, no! I know just the place. I read something about it in the info from the visitor’s center.” She surged toward the mess of papers and books still scattered on the floor, frantically combing through them until she sat back with a tourist pamphlet in her hand. It was about local Halloween attractions. “There’s supposedly a haunted Indian burial ground within a mile from where the first deaths occurred.”

She opened the pamphlet and laid it on the coffee table in front of John and Chas, pointing to a small, cheap-looking ad proclaiming that the angry natives guarded their ancient land with terrifying vengeance. There were a lot of exclamation points. In small print it said Scary Ghost Sites, LLC.

Chas frowned at it. “This says the land belonged to the Ojibwe. Except they spelled ‘Ojibwe’ wrong.”

Zed nodded. “Yeah, that’s the one. It’s the only place near the deaths that claims to be haunted. It’s about a forty-five minute drive from here. Assuming they’re shooting for midnight, that gives us fifty minutes to get there.”

Chas held up his hands in protest. “But the Ojibwe never lived anywhere near here. They’re from up north. This whole thing is a cheesy offensive marketing gimmick.” Even as he said it, Chas realized it was perfect.

Zed’s smile widened. John snorted. Chas finally nodded his head.

A made-up bullshit evil spell to conclude at a made-up bullshit haunted burial ground.

Chas still didn’t want to get his hopes up. They only had time for one shot. The ritual had to conclude soon, with or without them there to stop it. If they guessed wrong… “This still feels like a long-shot.”

John pulled his trench coat on. “That’s the kind that we do best, yeah?” He ran toward the door as Zed hurried after him.

It was a chance. To win this small battle in the greater war. To show the rising darkness that someone was willing to stand against it. Chas felt a glimmer of hope as he ran out after them, heading for his taxi. This was not the night for defeat. Together, they would do this.