[Previously: in a world of elemental magic, Alys duMar is a necromancer. When her coven’s house is attacked in the middle of the night, she uncovers a disturbing fact about the terrorists … one she is reluctant to share ….]
Cooling tea at my elbow, I set to work. Book after book, looking for anything that might explain how bodies could have been stripped of their animating elements and higher souls.
Not a hint, a whisper, a footnote. There were plenty of discussions about how the four elements came together to create a cohesive animating spirit, how the higher soul was formed over a lifetime, how an imbalance of the elements caused disease, how the gradual breakdown of the elements led to old age and eventually death, and how the higher soul separated from the physical body.
But that was all natural. This was all information well-known to necromancers, zoemancers, and elemental priests.
I started in surprise when I felt the wards snap back into place.
Looking up, I realized that the harsh illumination spells had gone out. I pried myself out of my chair, back stiff, and peered out the window.
The melted rods of ironwood had been replaced. Sedgewick, still in his pajama pants, sword still strapped to his back, stood in a circle with three other ‘mancers next to the fence. Their hands were clasped in the center, Sedgewick’s right hand on the ironwood. A sphere of fire, wind, water, and earth bobbed and dipped in the air between them, slowly streaming down to flow through their joined hands, through Sedgewick, and into the ironwood.
The ward shimmered faintly, threads of fire glowing as they rippled around strings of earth. Wind and water eddied back and forth. All held in place by the ironwood.
The proportions had to be just right, so much earth tied to so much fire and wind and water. That was a skill I would never master. Kanady could pull up enough fire to light the hearth, and Taz wove earth and water into her hair dyes, but necromancy was my only magic.
Sedgewick and his fellow Vigilants moved away from the fence and disappeared from my view around the back of the house. Shaking my head, I carefully lowered myself into the chair once more and flipped open another book.
When I looked up again, my eyes raw and my brain staticky with frustration and fear and exhaustion, the sky was golden-grey with the dawn. There was nothing here. I would have to look elsewhere; ask elsewhere. Shoving the books into a wobbly stack, I abandoned my half-cup of tea and staggered into the living room.
There was no sign of Kanady or Taz, or Operr and Dalis.
The fireplace was cold. An empty mug sat on an end table, and Kanady had left their book of puzzles lying open on the couch.
The house was very quiet.
No sounds from outside, either. The Vigilants must have all returned to their observation points or to the Commandery.
I hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, pushing my hair out of my eyes. I took a step to the side, trying to see around the furniture and the corner of the living room to the door of Sedgewick’s bedroom. I couldn’t tell if it was open or closed.
Biting my lip, exhaustion making me loopy, I took another step into the living room. A few more steps, almost into the dining area, and I could finally see his door.
But it usually was closed.
I turned away, back towards the stairs.
Sedgewick stood silent in the doorway to the kitchen.
I jumped and squawked in alarm. My back protested, painfully. Grimacing, I bit back a moan and grabbed the back of a chair. “Don’t do that!”
At some point in the last five-ish hours, he had changed into real clothes: jeans, a t-shirt, boots. The sword was gone, but he still wore one pistol in a shoulder holster. He had apparently run a comb over his head, but his hair was feeling disobedient; it was still a pokey mess of short spikes and half-curls.
He looked me up and down, lips twisting into a frown. “I’ll call Ehna to come by today.”
I shook my head and waved my hand dismissively. “No. I can wait until my regular therapy appointment. Today I am going to speak with the Hag. How’s noon sound? Great. See you then.”
I took two steps before he stopped me.
I slowly turned back around and tried not to flinch when I found him standing immediately behind me. I shoved my hair out of my eyes, but it flopped back down over my forehead again.
He lifted his hand, wrapped the strand of hair around one finger, and tucked it behind my ear. His hand brushed my cheek as he moved away half a step.
“Alys, talk to me.”
I backed closer to the stairs, shaking my head.
He caught my wrist, just firmly enough to stop my progress across the room.
“I am First Vigilant of your coven. I can’t protect you if you don’t talk to me.”
My eyes closed. I didn’t even realize they had until I felt my forehead resting against his chest and it was dark and I was warm and I was so tired and scared and I had no idea what to say ….
“They were dead,” I whispered.
His chest rose and fell in a long sigh, and he gently wrapped both of his arms around my waist. “Yes. I’m sorry you had to see that.”
I shook my head, nose buried in his shirt. “No. You don’t understand. They were dead before you killed them.”
I glanced up at the stairs. No sign of Taz or Kanady. Biting my lip, I turned back to Sedgewick, my voice so low that he had to lean closer to catch my words. His arms were still around my waist, a protective barrier. “When a person dies, there are remnants of the elements that went into their creation. Sometimes the higher soul remains behind, as well. Hours, days, sometimes even weeks after death, there are still traces of the life that once animated the body.”
He nodded. “You help cycle the elements back into the universe, and assist the higher soul in moving on to the next realm.”
“Exactly. But there was nothing. Those bodies in the backyard? They were perfect. Well, you know, except for the … injuries ….” I made a slicing, stabbing motion with my hand. “They looked like they were asleep, like they could get right back up again. But there were no traces of elements or soul. None. For that to be the case, they would have to have been dead for … decades. Longer. Decayed to the point that they weren’t even bones anymore.”
Sedgewick tilted his head back, frowning down at me. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I, and that terrifies me. It was like the elements and soul had been ripped out of them, leaving the bodies intact. But, if that was the case ….”
“If they were dead, they shouldn’t have been able to attack the house. If they were alive, and I killed them, there should have been some elemental remnants. That doesn’t make any sense.”
I shrugged, mute. Fear and exhaustion shoved aside the momentary feeling of safety, making my heart thud and my stomach tight.
“All right,” Sedgewick finally said. “You go sleep. We’ll see the Hag this afternoon. I’ll make the arrangements.”
“Okay. Good. Thank you.”
I needed to go upstairs, but my feet didn’t move. Neither did Sedgewick. For a very long minute, I stood there in the circle of his arms. His face was very close. Then his hands fell away and he stepped back, and suddenly I wasn’t warm anymore.
Rubbing my arms, I turned towards the stairs and slowly climbed up to my bedroom. I didn’t look back.
I found Taz curled up in my bed, her hair a rainbow of blues and purples across the pillow. Cha-Cha lay cuddled against her stomach, one leg dangling towards the floor; every now and then her whiskers twitched. I hoped she was having good cat dreams.
Double checking that my phone was charged and within easy reach on the night stand, I slipped around to the far side of the bed and crawled in beside Taz. She was warm and I cuddled up against her. She mumbled something in her sleep and pulled Cha-Cha tighter into the curve of her body.
My last thought as I drifted off to sleep was that, as comforting as it was to sleep beside Taz, I would rather have curled up with Sedgewick.
I was awakened by the low trill of my phone.
Cha-Cha snorted, shook her head, and leapt off the bed; presumably to go in search of food or quieter sleeping quarters.
Taz mumbled and shoved her head under the pillow.
As I reached for the phone, the time flashed across the screen (11:47 am) followed by the identity of the caller (Meritha Javes). The photo that accompanied her name was ridiculous: she had dressed up as an ironwood sprite for last year’s Vernal Equinox rite, her hair slathered by gel so that it stood out in every direction, fake mustache and beard clinging to her face, random leaves painted various shades of green and stuck to a body suit. Her eyes were crossed and she was blowing a slightly drunken kiss at the camera.
A week later she was picking bits of Mykal and Grieta out of my hair.
The phone rang again and I shoved it against my ear. “Yeah. What. H’lo?”
“Sorry. I heard you had a rough night. I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.”
“No. Yeah. That’s okay.” I rolled over and shoved the blankets aside so that I could sit up. I squinted against the light pouring in through the window. Natural sunlight, this time. I leaned into it, hoping that it would clear the fuzz from my head.
“We’ve got a find north of the city, right along the Skiya River. Definitely multiple bodies, but we’re having trouble figuring out how many. Might be foul play, but it might be natural, too.”
I forced my brain into motion. “Natural? Didn’t … didn’t someone — several someones — sorry, a group disappear out that way?”
“Yes, this past summer, sometime before the Solstice.” Her voice dropped to a growl. “Ironwood poachers. We don’t have an exact date, as it took their families a while to report them missing. And we’re having some trouble dating this one, so we’re not sure if it’s old enough to be them.”
There were voices in the background. I heard Meritha cover her phone, muffling her voice. When she spoke again, there was an edge of worry to her tone. “I really am sorry to call you. But this is just weird and you’re the on-call coven right now.” There was a brief hesitation. “I can reach out to the Necropolis and have a different coven sent out.”
Behind me, I felt Taz sit up. She touched my shoulder and leaned forward so that I could see her face. She nodded her head, expression firm.
“No,” I said into the phone. “We’ll be there.”
By the time I was showered and dressed and headed down the stairs, Sedgewick was waiting by the front door. He was in tactical armor: a heavy, tightly woven black body suit; dull red plates of strong, light-weight metal covering his chest, arms, and legs; and thick-soled boots. A hooded face mask hung down from his back collar. He wore his pistols, again, and the sword I had never seen before last night.
I got a better look at it this time while I pulled on my own jacket and hat. Some kind of red leather grip around a black hilt. The blade was completely hidden by a red scabbard. When he turned to peer out the window next to the door, I saw that it was covered in scrollwork: stylized symbols of the Order of Necromantic Vigilants, swirling together in a long line that ran the length of the scabbard.
Taz trotted down after me, dragging Kanady by the hand. She looked determined and adorable in her fuzzy pink boots and jacket. They looked … resigned.
“Do you want to stay here?” I asked them. “Javes didn’t say that she needed all of us.”
Kanady shook their head and yanked an ugly orange knit hat into place. I was pretty sure that had been an Autumn Equinox gift from Grieta a few years ago. “Eight months is too long. Mykal would be disappointed. I need to do my duty. Besides,” their mouth tipped up in a half-smile, “Meritha said it was weird. And weird is interesting.”
“Okay.” I nodded and turned to Sedgewick. “Ready.”
He didn’t respond. He just opened the door with a touch and a single word (“Achiya”) and waved Taz through. She scampered across the front porch, down the steps, and to the waiting vehicle. Operr, also in tactical armor, held the door open for her. She climbed into the back seat, the darkened glass hiding her from view. Operr slid into the front passenger seat and the car rolled away.
A second vehicle pulled up as soon as the first was gone, and Kanady slipped out the door. Then a third, and it was my turn, Dalis holding the car door open for me, her short hair pulled back in a small knot. Sedgewick followed immediately, his steps quiet, the front door popping back into place behind him. He climbed in after me, Dalis jumped into the front seat, and we were away.
We used to ride together, all four of us. Mykal, Kanady, Taz, and me, with Grieta sitting protectively in the front.
I stared out the window, watching my neighbors’ houses slip past. They were all three- and four-story mansions, with massive old trees and wide lawns, home to Egleia’s wealthy poets, dancers, singers, and artists. Living alongside a necromancer was still something of a status symbol, but not as enviable a position as it had been even a century ago. These days, people preferred zoemancers as neighbors, or geomancers or hydromancers; someone who could aid in conception and predict and guide a child’s fate, or make a garden grow, or ensure the proper amount of rain. The only people who wanted to live near necromancers either remembered the older ways, or liked the thrill of living near a potential terrorist target.
The road looped around, circling through more residential neighborhoods. Over the tops of the houses, I could see the tall towers of Egleia’s central district: businesses and vertical farms and government buildings. Round and round until we reached the North Road, then straight towards the Northern Gate. The houses fell away, the view changing to beautifully landscaped parkland. A low stone wall, barely the height of a grown man, marked the edge of the parkland and the city as a whole. The Northern Gate loomed, two gigantic ironwood trees planted on either side of the road, their branches tangled overhead.
Warding a city was impossible. The space was too large, and there were too many comings and goings: people, birds, insects, water, wind, mist, roots. The most any city could do was plant a couple of ironwood trees at the four cardinal points, thereby announcing the population’s proficiency in magic and their determination to protect their sovereignty. You won’t get us without a fight, and it will cost you.
That hadn’t been a problem for Egleia recently. We had good relations with Charith to the north, in the Karinch Mountains; and passable relations with Taranz and Theleia to the east and west.
There were nothing but ruins to the south, the towers and homes of Petral reduced to rubble, the parklands overgrown and rewilded by sprites, unitaurs, and elementals.
After the attack that killed Mykal and Grieta, suspicion had fallen hard on refugees from Petral. Never mind that the war had been two generations ago. I had lain in my hospital bed, horrified and appalled as stories rolled across my phone: assaults, protests, calls for exile, arson. Taz had finally taken away my phone and refused to give it back until I was released from the hospital.
Traffic slowed as we neared the Gate. Guardhouses had been built in the shadows of the trees, armed officers and their canines inspecting vehicles on their way out of the city, or into the city from Charith and further afield.
Our driver followed the cars carrying Taz and Kanady, pulling into the side emergency lane. Red, black, green, and blue lights flashed along the outer trim of the car. The officer at the guard house lifted a hand in acknowledgment and waved us through. I felt the warm tingle of the ironwood trees, the pulse of primal, perfectly balanced elements, and then we were speeding up the road again.
The wilds crowded close to either side. Firs and pines still green, oaks and maples starkly bare. I caught brief glimpses of movement; maybe branches, maybe sprites; maybe something else. The wilderness stretched for hundreds of miles in every direction until it reached the outer walls of Charith, Taranz, and Theleia. A common wildwood, shared by the cities and nonaligned humans and nonhuman beings alike. Now and then, the car rumbled over or under a bridge, the green-space maintained so that wild creatures could migrate safely. Other vehicles whipped past along the road, headed south, carrying trade goods and people.
Arm braced against the windowsill, I half-slept, lulled into a light trance by the view and the warmth inside the car. My thoughts wandered, floating among the books I had read the previous night. Or tried to read.
Something tickled, slipping away when I tried to focus.
The thought slipped forward again, away again, forward.
Something about the order of the elements.
The car turned, pulling off the paved North Road onto a gravel track. We bounced along for another hour, the gravel turning to dirt. Pathways, some barely wide enough for a person, some able to accommodate a large truck, sprouted off to the sides. Smoke rose from chimneys, marking the dwellings of nonaligned humans; single buildings and small clusters, many with orchards and gardens. A sheep trotting along ahead of us startled at the approach of the vehicles and bolted, disappearing into the trees.
The bouncing finally stopped when we pulled onto a wide patch of frozen dirt beside half a dozen other vehicles. Meritha waited next to one car, fat purple muffs askew as she pressed her phone to one ear, scarf hitched up so high that it covered the lower part of her face.
She waved as we slid to a stop and walked over, talking rapidly into her phone. She stuffed it into her front pocket as Sedgewick climbed out. He blocked the open door with his body, looking around, then moved to the side. I climbed out behind him and was promptly swallowed by a hug. Meritha squeezed me tight, then stepped away to hug Taz and Kanady. She oohed at Taz’ fluffy pink coat and poked Kanady’s nose until they smiled and blushed.
With another wave, she motioned us towards the trees. There was no path here, only broken and flattened grasses and snapped twigs. The wind carried the sound of the nearby Skiya River. We wove among the trunks, leaves and frost crunching beneath our feet. Sedgewick remained close to my side; so close that the heat he was putting off kept my shivers at bay. Operr and Dalis brought up the rear, constantly surveying the forest around us.
Meritha called back over her shoulder, “Rangers found it early this morning. They were tracking a wolf pack which had been raiding some of the settlements’ herds. Called us, since we’re closer than Charith, so it’s ours unless we find a connection to another city.” She tugged her scarf back into place. “I’ve never seen a dump sight like this before. Not your typical crime scene. But I’ll leave it to the three of you. I don’t want to give you any preconceived ideas. Is that a sword, Willow?”
Sedgewick mock grimaced. “Very observant of you, Javes.”
“Wanna spar sometime?”
“Ooohh.” Taz hopped over a dead branch. “Can I watch?”
“Yes,” he answered Meritha. “And yes, you can watch, but only if you cheer for me.”
Meritha snorted and Taz laughed.
Her laughter cut off as the trees opened onto a small meadow. It stretched for about twenty feet ahead of us, then abruptly dropped away. I could hear the Skiya tumbling over rocks not far below. The meadow was packed with Meritha’s fellow officers, jackets buttoned up tight against the cold. Five red flags marked where bodies had been found.
She shooed her team away. “Okay, people, you know the drill. Give the necromancers some room.”
I looked over at Sedgewick. He stopped at the edge of the meadow, Operr and Dalis beside him, some of Meritha’s team moving to hover nearby. Sedgewick nodded to me, tipping his head in a show of support.
“Did you get all the pictures and samples you needed?” I asked.
Meritha nodded. “Yep. Scene’s all yours.”
Drawing a deep breath, I turned to Kanady and Taz. She had stopped smiling, and now looked uncertainly across the little meadow, her eyes wide. Kanady’s expression was grim, with a flush of barely contained excitement; there was a puzzle to be solved. They squared their shoulders, took Taz by the hand, and stepped into the meadow.
With one more subtle nod of support from Sedgewick, I followed.
The three of us spread out, slowly pacing around the five little flags. It quickly became apparent that four of the bodies were arranged in a circle, each at a cardinal point; the grasses there were flat and I caught a faint whiff of urine. The fifth flag marked a depression in the center, the soil slightly darker, the grasses blackened.
A shiver ran up my spine.
It was a perverse mimicry of an altar wheel: a spoke for each element and a central point for offerings and prayers. And the closer I got to it, the more disturbing it became.
I could feel the bodies beneath the soil … but, not. There was death here. Traumatic, violent, unnatural. But ….
“Were the bodies dug up?” I crouched beside the closest flag and ran my gloved hands over the cold soil and flattened grass. The scent of urine was stronger. The ground was hard, undisturbed.
Meritha shook her head, scarf drooping. “Nope. There are definite chemical indicators that there were bodies, but they were apparently left on top of the ground. Not long enough for animals to get to them, either. The one in the center is another story.”
I exchanged a quick glance with Taz and Kanady, and the three of us moved towards the central red flag. We knelt together in our own circle, my hands flat against the ground, Taz and Kanady clasping each other’s hands and my shoulders. Ash coated my gloves. I felt down, down, down through the soil, my soul reaching, stretching through the dirt and the microbes and the sleeping worms and bugs.
Human bones. Broken and blackened, cracked with age.
And further down. Another set of bones.
And a third, and a fourth.
I drew a deep breath, pulled back up, up, up, into the cold day. I shuddered, pushing myself to my feet, and wrapped my arms over my stomach.
“How many?” Meritha asked. The purple fuzz of her ear muffs fluttered in the wind.
“Four,” Taz answered, standing as well.
“And they’re old.” Kanady spun around on their toes so that they could see Meritha. “At least ten years, maybe fifteen.”
“Old,” Meritha repeated.
I caught the twist to Sedgewick’s eyebrows as he picked up on the strange note in her voice, but he remained silent.
Now Kanady stood. “Why is old a problem?”
Meritha waved a hand at the outer four flags. “These are newer than that; way newer. Field tests indicate that the most recent deaths were within the last forty-eight to seventy-two hours. There are older chemical traces, but nothing dating back ten to fifteen years.”
Taz, Kanady, and I exchanged another look. The grim expression was gone from Kanady’s face. Their eyes practically sparkled. They loved puzzles, and weird puzzles even more so.
… weird puzzles like bodies stripped of their elements and soul, yet still mobile ….
“I’ll do it,” they said.
Taz sighed. “Kanady ….” Her voice held an exasperated warning.
“No, I’ll do it,” I said, uncrossing my arms. I shoved aside the anxious thought that I should have told Taz and especially Kanady about the people (bodies?) who had attacked the house last night. “I can stay under longer, and you’re both stronger anchors than me. You’ve got fire and earth and water to hold you. You can pull me back.”
Kanady opened their mouth, seeming on the verge of protest. Then they huffed. “Fine.”
I tugged off my gloves and shoved them into my pockets. I sat down in the center of the blackened grass, legs crossed, and rolled my head, stretching the muscles of my neck and back. I inhaled and exhaled, letting my gaze unfocus.
Sedgewick crouched in front of me, heat rolling off his body. “Alys, you’re exhausted. You’ve hardly slept.”
I inhaled and exhaled again. “You have your duty. I have mine. Someone murdered these people — and, right now, I’m the best chance they have of finding justice and some measure of peace.”
His jaw tightened. Then he nodded and stood, backing up a few steps. His gaze never left me.
I shivered as I pressed my hands flat to the ground, missing his warmth. I rolled my neck again, slowing my inhalations and exhalations, and closed my eyes.
Taz and Kanady gently laid a hand on each of my shoulders, and I felt their entwined hands settle on top of my head; my hat slid across my hair and they had to reposition their hands.
Another inhalation, this time for four long counts. Hold for four. Exhale for four. Then again, and again.
Sounds dulled around me. The cold faded, the wind faded, the sunlight against my eyelids faded.
Down and down I sank, my soul diving into the soil, into the sleeping darkness. Down and down, stretching away from my body, until I touched that first set of bones.
Complete. A whole skeleton, but cracked and jumbled, blackened and shattered. Like a puppet that had fallen when its strings had been cut.
Who were you? What soul enlivened you? Were you more earth than water, more fire than wind? More wind than water? All fire?
A painful death. The bitter, neon reek of trauma lingered. A scent, but also a color and a taste and a heaviness that weighed down my own soul.
The bones tugged at me. They were … furious. Raw, starved, carved out —
The bones were hollow.
A spike of primal fear twisted through my soul, and I felt my body shudder.
Sounds. I ignored them.
My soul reached out, touching the bones, searching. Grief mixed with the fear. Was I crying?
Not like the bodies that had attacked last night. Those had been almost perfect physical specimens. Bodies with no animating elements or souls. These bones were ….
Hollow. They were hollow because the fire had been burned away. The wind had been blown away, the water swept away, the earth —
Not returned to creation, not restored to the universe to eventually be formed into a new life, new beings —
Gone. All gone.
And the higher soul, the spirit which should have gone on to the next realm —
Destroyed. Utterly and completely.
It would have been torture. He, she, they … would have felt everything. Felt the elements that made them being destroyed, their body failing, collapsing. Then their soul, left alone, vulnerable, traumatized, yearning for the next realm, for peace, only ….
Only ripped apart, shattered.
Only cracked and hollow bones left.
Someone was screaming and crying.
My body. I was standing. Hands were holding me. Light speared my eyes.
Cold. Sweat soaked my hair, my clothes. Violent shivers twisted my back and legs. So cold.
Warm. Heat wrapped around me, held me close, whispered my name.
I threw up, and everything went black.
[Part Three of The Necromancer’s Guide appears in the December 2020 issue of ev0ke.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works (fairy tales, fantasy, horror, mystery, poetry, romance, and science fiction) can be found there.]