Returning to Ismene’s apartment, the weary investigators were eager to put the events of their zoo expedition behind them. Espying an ebony feather on the doormat, Tommy frowned. “Harry’s bird. We still have to deal with that.”
None of the house lights were on as they entered, and an eerie silence filled the air. “Xavier?” Ismene called, flicking the hallway switch without effect. Her production assistant didn’t answer. His car was parked outside, but aside from additional raven feathers on the floor of her house, there was no sign of the youth. “I don’t like this,” Seth whispered, almost hiding behind Ismene.
“Hello Harry,” came a strange voice from the dark living room. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”
“Xavier?” Harry asked, his eyes adjusting enough to see the still outline of someone seated.
“Once, perhaps. But not right now.”
Having had his evening fill of games in the dark, Tommy switched on his powerful flashlight, casting a harsh white beam across the room and onto the figure. Xavier sat stiffly on a low bench, the mangled remains of the overgrown raven he had brought home laying next to him. Something terrible had happened it, though whether it had burst inward or outward was hard to tell for certain. Feathers covered the floor.
“They’re here,” Seth intoned, reminded of a scary movie he had seen weeks earlier, his head peaking up from behind Ismene.
“Xavier?” Ismene asked plaintively, fearing the worst.
“Harry, we should speak,” the thing inside Xavier spoke coolly, flatly. “I think you have some questions for me.” It seemed to ignore the rest of the group, its eyes focused on the aging conspiracy theorist in their midst.
With a primal scream from her core, Ismene’s normally upbeat, collected demeanor shattered. “NOT MY FRIENDS!” After weeks of misadventures, kidnappings, arsons, and mystical creatures, she had well and truly reached her breaking point, the apparent possession of her teen-aged editor one large step too far.
“I want to go back into the computer,” Xavier said calmly to Harry, ignoring Ismene’s growing crescendo.
Harry held out a hand, trying to delay her. “If we get you back into the computer, will you leave Xavier unharmed?”
The thing inside Xavier nodded. “Happily.”
“Let me do this,” Harry asked, pleading, “let me make this right.”
Letting loose a frustrated keening, Ismene stormed to the kitchen, directly to her alcohol cabinet. “I’ve never stress-baked before but there’s always a first time!” The sound of drawers opening in haste and the rattling of cookware echoed angrily from around the corner.
Harry plugged in his laptop and began typing furiously, brow furrowed with effort.
“You can call me ‘Mike,'” Xavier offered, regarding the frantic scene before him with a calm detachment.
Harry began cursing with a breadth and depth that would have made a longshoreman blush. “I’m not calling you anything.”
“I’m here to answer your questions,” it said, shrugging with borrowed shoulders.
Suddenly brightening with an idea, Seth gleefully announced that he could “solve everything,” grabbed Xavier’s keys, and departed. A car peeled out of the small parking lot. Tommy couldn’t remember Seth ever learning how to drive, but let the thought pass, too focused on the scenario unfolding in Ismene’s living room, eyes flicking between the focused Harry and the attentive ‘Mike,’ whose eyes never seemed to leave the programmer.
Returning shortly, Seth’s mouth was twisted into a half-smile. “A little setback, but this might be enough,” he said hopefully. “First, for Ismene,” as he set down a grocery store bag, withdrawing a handle of Tequila. “Second, also for Ismene,” he said, proudly displaying a container of store-brought brownies to the living room.
“And third?” Tommy asked, hardly impressed.
“So Mike needs a host that’s smart, right? Smarter than the bird was?” Nobody responded. “So, what’s the smartest animal in the world?” His eager smile did not impress anyone. “An octopus!” Moving past the resounding silence, he continued with his excited plan. “But Lucky’s didn’t have an octopus, so I got the next best thing. We can put Mike … in a lobster!” He triumphantly withdrew a bagged and rubber-banded crustacean from the grocery bag.
Tommy, Tammy, and Mike’s frowns deepened.
“Ismene – brownies!” Seth called out with fake enthusiasm, mollified by the lackluster response to what he thought was a sure-fire plan. He took the alcohol, dessert, and lobster to the kitchen.
Entering the final keystrokes of his program with grim determination, Harry hadn’t once looked up at the possessed assistant. Gesturing for Tommy to look over his magical code, the two had a hushed conversation.
“If we use this, it’ll irrevocably injure Xavier on the way out,” the stoic, sharp-dressed Tommy warned.
“I want that thing gone.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you – just making sure you’re aware of the possibilities. Though,” he paused, a new thought crossing his mind. “This code-spell could transfer Mike into the lobster instead of banishing it straight away. That would be much easier on Xavier, if you were so inclined.”
“First my computer, then a bird, then my friend – this thing has possessed too many things already,” Harry crossed his arms resolutely.
“There are always options.”
Tommy returned to the living room proper, mildly interested in what decisions Harry would ultimately make.
Quietly gathering everyone in the living room to witness the ritual take effect, Tammy tried her best to keep Mike occupied and ignorant of the proceedings by getting it to talk about the abyss from whence it came. With the group assembled, Tommy gave Harry the nod and a dirty finger angrily jabbed the Enter key.
Bright lights and arcane sigils erupted from the couch around Mike/Xavier, as the whole of the apartment began to shake. Bowled backward, Tammy clutched her head in agony as an unearthly wail issued from the creature, to a lesser amount making Tommy, Ismene, and Harry cringe. A diaphanous red mist began to swirl around Xavier, congealing into a net-like structure.
“I’ll tell you anything you want!” it yelled between gasping screams. “Anything you want about Elijah! About existence! About the world! Don’t send me back to that place!”
“Begone!” yelled Harry, not interested in any demon lies.
Moments later the ordeal was over, the red cords seeming to have tightened around Xavier, then around the thing inside Xavier, before finally crushing it into non-existence. Xavier collapsed heavily, panting. “Did it work?” asked Ismene, worried voice filled with cautious hope. Harry nodded solemnly. “It is over.”
As the ritual came to a close, Ismene, Tommy, and Seth helped carry the unconscious Xavier to Ismene’s bedroom. Harry wordlessly packed up his equipment in the living room. “This isn’t what I wanted, and I’m so sorry,” he said to Tammy, who watched his movements with cold detachment. “I’m leaving now.”
She didn’t respond.
Harry departed, regretfully.
The mood in Ismene’s apartment was quiet and uncomfortable the next morning. Ismene hated the fact that Xavier had been involved, particularly on the front lines of her paranormal investigations. She idly spun her spoon in her cereal, heavily weighing her options. Where once she thought her purpose was to encourage people to ask questions, to explore the unknown, she then felt that unprepared individuals would get nothing but hurt or killed if they tried to examine the real world. Unprepared people like Xavier, who was just trying to help.
Tommy noted several stories in the local paper that morning, one addressing the return of most of the zoo’s missing animals and another proposing that eerie sounds recently heard in Ancil Hoffman Park was either from a roaming pack of powerful wolves or the fabled Valley Panther. “Wolves haven’t lived in California for a century,” he murmured to himself. “And took care of the panther business, didn’t we?”
Ismene shrugged noncommittally, lost in her own thoughts.
“We should investigate the park,” Tammy offered, trying to help.
Finally looking to the newspaper, Ismene considered the threat. “Let’s make sure nobody else gets hurt.” Gone was her usual demeanor. Seth hoped her down phase would pass, and quickly.
The group, without Harry, got ready to set out on their next adventure.