Welp, here is the conclusion to the first story! Thank you all to everyone who has been reading and enjoying it! I am editing the next full story, so part one of that will be up in about two weeks. Would be sooner, but I’m heading to Texas this Friday and have a long weekend there, and then go right back into traveling for work, so I’m not anticipating much downtime. Stay tuned, though!
The ghost, to no one’s surprise, is Deathwatch Owens.
“Silly name, I know. I collected deathwatch beetles as a child and one thing led to another and the name stuck. Would have grown out of it, but my mother, rest her soul, wanted the family name to be cemented in history forever. She wasn’t very specific when she was casting that particular spell, though, so here we are.”
Deathwatch Owens smiles and twiddles his thumbs while Rafe and I sit around the kitchen table. He is – was?- a portly short man with round everything, like a scholarly Santa Claus. And now, as a ghost, he is a portly short man with round everything dressed in a fluffy bath robe.
“Do you know who killed you?” Rafe asks.
“Yes. He was a werewolf, as you already surmised. Surprised me on my way out of the bath. I suppose I should be glad I wasn’t naked at the time, but I still feel fairly undignified, being a ghost in nothing but a robe.”
“It’s a very nice robe,” I offer.
“Thank you, dear. I got it on sale before I turned hermit. It’s very soft.”
“Do you know why the werewolf killed you? Usually we don’t do something like that,” Rafe points his thumb over his shoulder to Deathwatch’s still cooling corpse. “Unless we’re highly pissed off about territory or a blood feud.”
“Honestly, I’ve never met the wolf in my life. I don’t really get out much and I’ve been living here for almost nine years now. Bought the land from a lovely woman who calls herself Big Mum. Are you two looking for the wolf? Because if you are, he left about an hour ago with my legs after he got a phone call.”
“Why would he take your legs?” I ask, still nauseated at the thought.
“No clue, I found it a bit odd myself once I crossed over and could think clearly again. He was an edgy fellow, very angry throughout the entire ordeal. He bagged them up, rifled through my research papers, and then he left.”
Rafe says nothing more, but he’s got a constipated look, so he must be thinking through something.
“You don’t seem too broken up about dying, if you don’t mind me saying so,” I say.
“Ah, well, life is impermanent, dear. Besides, I started researching life after death when I was about your age. Conducted all sorts of experiments before I found my true passion, so while it was fairly traumatic, I am learning so much by being dead. It’s a real eye opener.”
I stifle a laugh.
Rafe blinks and his expression shifts into something I dub Confused Puppy Face.
“We’ll take your word on that.”
“Anyway, that’s everything I can tell you about my death. Why did you come to see me, anyway? I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“Well, Big Ma gave us your name and said you might be able to help with a problem we have.”
So I launch into the explanation of the last day. It feels like two years. Deathwatch Owens is attentive and curious, nodding his incorporeal head along with the story.
“Well, I completely understand how that was traumatic for the both of you. My own familiar binding was less than normal, if I say so.”
“Where is your familiar?” I ask.
“Oh, Miranda. She was a water nymph, beautiful creature. It wasn’t a bad relationship while we were in England, but moving around was hard on her, especially when my research brought us here. I tried to make it work, even imported a large tank and made an artificial river, but, well. Nothing can compare to the real thing. The werewolf killed her as well. He took her body as well as my legs.”
Deathwatch’s face dims with sadness at this point.
Rafe goes tense next to me and I sense dangerous territory, so I lean forward.
“Well, Big Ma seemed to think you might be able to help us sever this bond we have. Neither of us wants it to each other and it’s pretty unfair.”
The smile on Deathwatch’s face fades to a frown.
“Oh dear. Well, while I can help you shape the bond so it’s more convenient, severing it is, unfortunately, out of the question, unless the familiar dies, like my Miranda.”
Rafe growls a warning.
Deathwatch, being dead, is unaffected.
“You see, every witch needs a familiar with a matching level of power and drive. The universe chooses your opposite and equal, much like the yin and yang, if you’re familiar with that. The universe does not make mistakes, and trying to alter one of its decisions, well. You’ll have better luck trying to unravel time.”
Rafe snarls and gets to his feet. He paces around the kitchen.
“There has to be a way, or someone out there who has at least experimented with the idea. I have no intention of being saddled with some hair brained witch who tries to multiply pizza because she’s too damned lazy to go to the store-“
“Hey, I am not lazy, asshat,” I say, stung. “You try living on minimum wage from two bottom feeder jobs to make ends meet when your car only works every blue moon.”
“I have a life, okay? An actual, fulfilling life, and I have plans that do not involve newbie witches in any form.”
Something ugly and sharp twists up in my gut and floods my head. How dare he. This asshole keeps blaming me for everything, when I have no control over any of it, and despite my complete willingness to help his ungrateful furry ass.
I stand up. The chair topples over behind me.
“This is not my fault. I didn’t want you, I did not ask for you, and by the time we get any of this figured out I’m going to have to go job hunting again because I’m missing my shift at the Boot Barn, so I’m probably fired.”
Somehow we end up in each other’s faces. I poke him, Rafe pokes me, and there’s a weird whining noise in the back of my head like a kettle on the stove. Rafe snarls and I snarl back, then there is a weird pop and the sensation of pressure release.
“Then just go, get out of here. Go as far away from me as you can and leave me the hell alone!” I end up shouting.
To my surprise, he does. Rafe turns on heel, stalks out of the house, and a moment later the truck engine revs up.
“Well, that’s one way to solve part of the problem,” Deathwatch Owens observes as I catch my breath.
“What just happened?”
“You gave him a direct order. Usually, after you acquire a familiar, you also draw up a contract of conduct, especially if the familiar is a creature such as Rafe, or my Miranda. Standard procedure so there’s no untoward funny business. Familiars are meant to partner with a witch, so if you haven’t established any ground rules then he is bound to follow any direct command you give him.”
“Great, now you tell me.”
I right the chair and sink into it, putting my head in my hands.
“Don’t worry, dear, he’ll come around.” Deathwatch floats over to my side and puts a hand on my shoulder. It goes through, and it’s cold as ice, but it’s a nice gesture.
“Yeah, I don’t think so. You haven’t been stuck with him and his sunny disposition.”
“The universe chose to pair you two up for a reason, Magatha. You both have something valuable to bring to this joining. You’ll work your differences out, just you see.”
Deathwatch smiles and nods and just radiates sunshiny hope.
“How can you be so optimistic? Especially when, you know.”
I don’t look at the body, but I make a vague, spastic gesture and hope it conveys what I mean to say.
“The universe doesn’t make mistakes,” he says. “Everything happens for a reason, even if it’s not clear just yet. I see every encounter and event as a learning experience. Even being horrifically murdered.”
“That attitude is way too healthy, even for me.”
“And the universe brought us together as well,” he says. “I have the inkling I’m still here to help you develop your craft. After all, any witch who attracts a familiar such as a werewolf needs good training to keep up with them and whatever the universe has in store.”
I see zero chance that Rafe will ever come near me again, no matter what the universe thinks it had up its sleeve. But a little company and a teacher, even from a recently dead guy, that doesn’t sound so bad.
“I guess I should probably call the cops so they can find your killer,” I say.
“I wouldn’t bother,” Deathwatch says. “That werewolf will get what is coming to him, the universe-“
“Doesn’t make mistakes?”
“I was going to say, it has a way of distributing karma. Besides, I’m not one to hold grudges. Being dead is utterly fascinating. Do you know I can walk through walls now? I’m not going to waste the opportunity I have.” Deathwatch winks.
“I’m torn between feeling nicely reassured and very disturbed.”
“Life is wonderful and full of contradictions.”
I bury Deathwatch Owens in his backyard beneath a weeping willow and the entire ordeal is too surreal to dwell on very hard. Burying half a corpse while said corpse’s ghost follows you around chatting your ear off about cosmic theory and how it relates to the migration and evolution patterns of beetles is so far off the charts of explainability that it might as well be in a separate dimension.
I carve a marker for Deathwatch in the trunk of the tree when I’m done. It takes almost an hour and riddles my palm with blisters.
“Should I, I dunno, say something?”
“Oh, don’t feel you have to on my account,” Deathwatch waves a hand. “I do appreciate the thought, though.”
“Should I call anyone? Any family or friends?”
“By now I’m sure they’ve heard,” he says with a vague wave. “We should get back to your place, though. You should take some of my research, and feel free to help yourself to my pantry. Wouldn’t do for all that to go to waste.”
I feel bad for asking, but Deathwatch is so blasé about the entire situation that I go ahead anyway.
“You don’t happen to have a car, do you?”
“I do, I do.”
Deathwatch owns a nice and new Mustang with only a thousand miles on it and dust an inch thick on the exposed hood. He disappears while I’m loading the car down with boxes of food. He has enough for at least six months, but I can’t fit all of it in the car. I take the best bits- all the canned food, the frozen meat (Steak! Actual steak!), and a bag of rice that stands as tall as my knees. It’s enough to last me a six months.
I pack the frozen goods in an old ice chest and go back in for a last look around.
“You’ll need this.”
Deathwatch pops out of a wall. Nearly gives me a heart attack. I should probably get used to this, I think. Deathwatch points to a piece of the wall.
“Tap twice and spin around counter clockwise,” he instructs.
I frown, but follow his instruction. The wall wavers like a mirage and then opens up to reveal a hidden safe.
“My grimoire collection,” Deathwatch says. “My death deactivated the security spells on the grounds and house, but I put some extra doohickeys on this part. It’s never a bad idea to plan ahead.”
The safe is only big enough to house maybe one dictionary, but when I pull one book out there’s another in its place. And another and another, until I have six thick and heavy books in a box.
“You wrote all of these?”
The books are all fancy leather bound ones with his initials carved on the front.
“Yes, I was a prolific writer. Sometimes I spent days with pen in hand after an experiment. My passion was dissecting magic, trying to figure out all of its secrets like where it comes from and how it’s all put together. There’s quite a bit of interesting information in there.”
I look down at the books with a mixture of excitement and growing pressure.
“I’m going to be reading these, aren’t I?”
“Of course,” he says.
I get the books loaded up and lock up the house, although Deathwatch doesn’t seem to care one way or another.
“Onward ho!” Deathwatch settles into the passenger seat with a pleased grin.
“My life is so strange,” I murmur and start the car. It comes to life with a rumbling purr. The sun is just cresting the horizon now.
The overgrown road circles around the property and then joins with the road Rafe and I came in on. In the mirror, Deathwatch’s house and property shimmer like fish scales and then collapses on itself, green melting into golden grass, trees reversing into saplings and then seeds, until all that’s left is a dead willow tree and a dilapidated building that implodes in a puff of dust.
Deathwatch hums to himself and is generally unconcerned that his home is now entirely gone along with his body.
I gun the engine and shake it off. Weird is apparently normal now.