“Listen! Just listen! I swear I’m not a ghost! Really-!”
Hawkins barely contained a sigh as he took after the spirit, quick on his feet through the woods. The wispy form ahead of him didn’t bother to dodge the trees, not that they needed to, but it was clear this spirit wanted to talk to him in spite of running away. He had felt the apparition before seeing them earlier; it was a cold rush pushed right through his sternum that Hawkins hadn’t quite registered the sensation until he saw them dash away. That was when he gave chase, following them into the wooded area.
Old incantations were murmured under his breath as threads of transparent tendrils, glittering like gold, began to form along his fingertips and the iron nails wedged between his knuckles retracted and fanned out around him.
“Then stop running and I’ll listen.” It wasn’t a convincing statement, but the spirit did slow down. The crown of nails remained suspended around him, foreboding with their points aimed at his target, although that was nothing in comparison to the golden rivulets cascading off his form like long stretches of fingers. He felt a sense of satisfaction when the ghost seemed to take this in and stopped altogether, unsure of where to look first. "Well?"
With the opportunity to take in the phantom's form, Hawkins could see now that they used to be a young female. He wondered briefly if she had been rich when she was living, judging by the bright attire and colorful hair.
“Well first off, if you can stop pointing those at me, it’s rude and making me nervous.” The comment was surprisingly snappy and petulant like a child, Hawkins had complied without argument. Young specters were typically more rebellious, prone to strike and taunt, but the acceded gesture seemed to put the ghost at ease.
“Second, I’m not dead even if I look like... this.” Her voice was distorted like hazy sound waves, but in a calm tone it was now easier to decipher. Hawkins felt his own guard drop, but just barely. “I still have a body. I’m just not… in my body right now.”
“... You’re saying you're not dead. And you look like that.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. I told you I'm just out of my body right now. Like I jumped out of it and here I am.”
Realization slowly lit up his gaze. It wasn’t unheard of, but the phenomenon was still a rare one. Few possessed the gift of astral projection, travelling on another plane like that of the undead without being dead themselves. It was powerful and dangerous, a double edged blade. This was something he had only read in tomes and cyphers until now.
“You’re projecting.” There was no hiding the slight awe in his voice then, laced with genuine surprise. It was, without a doubt, a rarity. "Really now?"
Static entered his ears like a frustrated laugh. “Whatever you want to call it. Sure. That. If you know that much, then you should definitely not kill me.”
Hawkins considered the form before him and one by one, the nails returned to the lining of his coat and knuckles as golden threads disappeared back under his skin.
“What’s your name?” He watched the projection glitch, as though she was deliberating on telling him but something in his expression must have appeared genuine enough for an answer.
“Perona. Well, I apologize for chasing you before. It’s something of my job to take care of these things.”
“Killing ghosts?” Perona sounded amused. The reverberation might have been another laugh.
“To a degree, yes.” He did more than just that, but that wasn't something he needed to share during first impressions with a projection. “My name is Basil Hawkins.”
“Right. Nice to meet you, Basil, but if you’re really sorry, you can help me get back to my body.” The offer sounded like a half threat, half challenge. Hawkins had to admit it was tempting if only to satiate his own curiosity about her gift. Who was he to pass up this looming opportunity?
“You can’t return to your body in this form?” Projection had its own stories of origin, varying on region, but he knew better than to presume any certain one on Perona.
This time a hissing sound answered him, clearly unamused.
“No, otherwise I would already. I... kind of got lost. I don't really know where the place is anymore. It’s too far for me to project back.”
Hawkins couldn't blame her for not having a strong grasp of this power she possessed. It wasn’t as though there was an explicit manual explaining the steps of projection. Hawkins considered his position and the pros and cons of helping her. The advantages appeared to outweigh the inkling of doubt in his mind; it would do him better to take on this journey. He couldn't let this opportunity go, no matter how much his private nature argued otherwise. His features softened a bit with a half smile.
Behind him in the foliage of the trees, bright green eyes watched the pair. Dimitri was never more than a shadow away, waiting on his word for assistance or otherwise. Today, it wasn’t necessary and he could sense the uneasiness from the feline as a result.
“Very well. I suppose it’s only fair since I tried to kill you when you’re not really dead or undead, as it were.”
Dimitri didn’t take well to Perona’s appearance at all. After being told she was going to be travelling with them for a while, he was adamantly against it. It didn’t matter that Perona initially found him to be ‘too cute for words’.
“I wanna hug him and pet him, he's so fluffy looking!”
“For the record, Basil, I disagree with this wholeheartedly.” The black cat’s hackles remained raised at Perona, who appeared all too pleased hovering beside the two while they ventured back towards town.
“Relax, she can’t actually hug you in that form.”
“That doesn’t relax me!”
Drifter. Reaper. Psychopomp. Magician.
There were various terms on how to describe Basil Hawkins, but above all else he was a man of fortunes. That wasn’t to say he came from high standing, but the knowledge bestowed upon him at a young age practically paved the way for his future occupation.
News of the occult and weird always drew Hawkins’ attention that it seemed inevitable for him to delve deeper into those studies. The older he got, the more he learned of the supernatural and how little people knew save for rumors and old wives’ tales. His sense of purpose solidified after an unfortunate encounter with an aggressive entity which awakened his dormant spiritual powers. What followed was a slow, painful process of coming to terms with his new form and acquired abilities. Years later, Hawkins had traveled through various ports and towns, providing services and all the while continuing to perfect his craft. He was often met with skepticism and, on some occasion, disdain.
It was true for the latest port town they happened upon. Some merchants shot suspicious looks at the tall blond, equally cautious of the black cat following him. Lodgings were luckily acquired without too much of a fuss, although the innkeeper who provided the key to their room didn’t bother to hide his scrutinizing gaze. It was just as well the inn they were staying at sat on the edge of town where folks were less likely to talk.
“So you just keep wandering town to town like this? Do people even want your help?” Perona asked after they were settled into their third room for the month. It had only been a few months since Hawkins agreed to assist Perona, but finding an island that supposedly didn’t exist (and if it did, the rumor was that it moved around) was easier said than done. He had more luck with small cases thus far. She experienced firsthand just how lucky that had been, but it still baffled her why Hawkins even bothered. People didn’t seem grateful until long after their lives were saved.
“Work is erratic, but it’s satisfying just the same.” He carefully undid the cross shaped bone pin that held together his cloak before shrugging that off. Dimitri claimed the piece of clothing not a moment sooner with a dramatic leap, eagerly rolling into the warm wool while Hawkins took a seat in the armchair. “On most days, it’s the little things.”
“But why do you bother with all of that?” It wasn’t like that was the first time she asked, yet Hawkins’ answer remained the same.
“It’s my purpose.” In another moment, those familiar golden tendrils began to emerge from the tips of Hawkins’ fingers. Perona noted with some dread that they seemed to be coming out of every pore from Hawkins’ body. Even though she had seen it in action before, she never could fully get used to them. “Why would I be able to do this if not for some better purpose? To assist people?”
She watched as one of them lashed out towards Dimitri, but at the last second the tendril rolled up like a vine and gently caressed over the cat’s back. It retracted just as he began to shiver. Perona got a chill just from watching. She remembered her first encounter with Hawkins and how those translucent ropes reminded her of a prison.
“Well, what if you’re using it for the wrong purpose?” She pushed for more answers. If there was one thing she learned about Hawkins through their travels, it was that he was a man of few words and fewer expressions. It was frustrating, but at least Dimitri made up for the silence some of the time.
Hawkins’ demeanor was now one of muted amusement. She had seen that one enough to know that look without thinking too much.
“Then, until a more convincing purpose comes along, this one will have to do.”
Hawkins received the letter when the sun was setting. It was now cold enough that their breaths laced with clouds before the sky darkened, so they sought for shelter early in the day. This particular town was far more friendly than a few others had been, which was a reprieve for the lodgings they chose. It was well within the radius of the town center, but remained distant enough that they wouldn’t be bothered too much by noise at night.
He had thanked the innkeeper after determining the length of their stay, but before he left the man gave him an envelope. It was sealed without a hint from the sender, simply addressed to ‘The Magician’. It couldn’t have been for anyone else. Along the way, Hawkins received a sort of moniker for his work and most considered it to be a sort of magic. The name could have turned out worse.
He dwelled on this mysterious sender as he returned to the room, whereupon he caught Perona in the middle of teasing Dimitri. Her half transparent figure was protruding through the middle of the bed, grinning while Dimitri looked perplexed by the headboard, back arched and tail curled like he wanted to pounce but knowing it would be a fruitless endeavor. Green eyes immediately flashed towards Hawkins.
“Basil! Tell her to get off the bed!”
“Horohorohoro horohoro, but I’m not on the bed.”
“In the bed, whatever!”
Their relationship had evolved into a lot of these confrontations lately, whether Hawkins was present or not, but it was still interesting to note. Dimitri was slowly warming up to the ghost girl. Perona, in turn, was already comfortable being around the feline and easily resorted to teasing to pass the time.
“Dimitri, you can still sleep where you are on the bed.” The din of Perona's laugh curled a smile on Hawkins’ lips. “Perona, you look like you’re getting better at passing through objects.”
“I am! But I still can’t touch things yet.” Not wanting to miss the opportunity, she quickly passed a hand through Dimitri, to which he shivered and leapt for the dresser. Her giggle was a chime to Dimitri’s unimpressed scowl. Without missing a beat, Hawkins took up the newly freed spot on the bed.
“Then you can practice that while we check out this potential case.” The envelope was a careful ivory while the stationary inside was crisp white, decorated with neat black script. It began, “‘Mr. Magician-’”
“Pfff, how formal,” Dimitri drawled from from he perched on the dresser, looking amused for the first time that night. “I can’t wait to see what this man’s like.”
“Or woman,” he amended with a yawn.
"Oh for the love of-"
Perona ignored the rest of Dimitri's quips to hover over Hawkins' shoulder as he continued reading aloud the letter.
You may not know me but I know of you and your exploits. I require your services.
If you are as notorious as people have claimed, this shouldn’t be an issue for you.
You’ll be handsomely rewarded should I find your work commendable.
I am asking for a simple exorcism of a few lingering, albeit harmless looking spirits.
My location will be difficult to pinpoint but I trust you will have your ways of finding me.
I will be on Gloom Island where I-
“Wait! Did it just say Gloom Island?”
Hawkins understood the moment Perona asked and he reread the last sentence again to make sure he saw right. It was indeed Gloom Island, the place that supposedly didn’t exist and the last place Perona left her body.
“Yes, Gloom Island. Right here, it says:
I will be on Gloom Island where I shall wait for your answer within the week.
Should you take on my offer, I expect your arrival within two weeks of your letter.
Consider your services no longer necessary if you take longer to arrive.
It is of no personal issue I have with you, Basil Hawkins, but I have little time to waste.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Even as Hawkins' gaze lingered on the signature at the bottom of the letter, he felt more determined than ever before. A person of standing like Dracule Mihawk to request for his assistance was enough to stun him into a brief lapse of silence, which was more than long enough for Dimitri to speak up.
“Dracule Mihawk, are you serious? One of the most well-known swordsmen in this lifetime and he has the gall to write ‘you may not know me’? What is this tripe? And Gloom Island, really? If anyone lived there, it would be that guy. Jeez, what a character."
Perona had to giggle at Dimitri’s outburst because he had a point, even though it was a bit brusque. Who in this world didn’t know about Mihawk?
“Well whatever, that means you’re taking the case right? ‘Cause if we’re going to Gloom Island-”
“We’re definitely going," Hawkins finally said with another smile surfacing across his features. He was feeling strangely optimistic, a rare emotion. "I did make a promise after all."
The rise of this new case, laced with subtle challenging words, had put him in a good mood.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do.”