I actually like being a necromancer. My stupid cousin Marcilia (pyromancer, useless ability except for lighting campfires) will loudly joke at every family reunion about the army of undead that I have hiding in the basement. The only person who ever laughs is her equally stupid husband, Phil (hydromancer, and don’t ask me to explain how that works).
For the record, there is no army of the undead. There has never been an army of the undead, and there never will be. Necromancy doesn’t work like that. We talk to ghosts. Help souls move on to the next plane of existence (yes, I know what’s waiting for you on the other side; no I’m not going to tell you). Sometimes we’re called to help ease the passage of those at the end of a long illness or a long life. Usually, we work with the police at murder scenes. People who die suddenly and violently are often confused and angry, and their spirits will linger, causing all kinds of problems. The presence of a necromancer is calming, and we can get information out of souls and spirit elements that the police won’t learn through mundane investigative techniques.
So, yes, I know how to get the smell of decomp out of my clothes, how to constructively talk through trauma with my fellow necromancers over a big bowl of ice cream, and how to calmly and concisely answer every question repeatedly thrown at me by the defense while the judge and jury look on.
Not so much that last one anymore. Not for eight months and sixteen days.
Not since fanatics murdered Mykal and Grieta, and I crawled away with shrapnel in my back and permanent nerve damage — not to mention a serious aversion to sudden loud noises.
A fact the new head of our security team has chosen to ignore, because the ward alarm that goes off in my ear at 2:37 in the freaking morning is loud.
I had been having such a nice dream. A good dream. Mykal and Kanady and Taz and I were in the backyard. I was curled up on the tree swing, reading to the family of ravens that had taken up residence in the sprawling oak. Taz was experimenting with new dyes, trying out different recipes; her long hair was a rainbow of clashing colors. Kanady was at the grill, muttering about the impracticality of vegan patties and yet trying anyway, because that’s what Mykal wanted. And Mykal was pretending to sleep in his deck chair, a quiet smile on his face.
And there was Grieta, stepping out of the house, her expression warping from affection to horror and she was shouting something, but I couldn’t hear —
I felt the wards snap. East side of the house.
The alarm screamed.
I fell out of bed, almost banging my head on the night stand. My back spasmed and I suppressed a hiss of pain.
Howling in time with the alarm, Cha-Cha landed on my butt, her claws digging into my skin, before she leapt off and disappeared under the bed.
The alarm was so loud.
I was having trouble breathing. My heart was going too fast. Cold sweat dribbled down my neck and between my breasts. For a moment, for a very long moment, I was back in front of the courthouse again, deaf and nearly blind and choking on smoke and covered in blood and pieces of bodies.
My friends. Pieces of my friends.
I blinked and shoved the memory away, far away, far back and down, down, down.
The alarm was still blaring. It was all around me, wailing out of the darkness.
Scrabbling around, I peered under the bed. I could just make out a quivering ball of outraged feline backed against the wall beneath the headboard.
I reached out, patting my hand and making kissy-kissy sounds that I doubted even Cha-Cha could hear. She hissed, showing her impressive fangs, and backed up even further, squishing her hindquarters against the wall.
I reached further and she squished further, the back half of her body actually vertical to the floor and going up the wall. She would probably climb all the way to the ceiling if I gave her the chance.
Huffing in frustration, I stretched out my arm and caught her around the scruff of the neck. My back protested. Cha-Cha protested. I ignored them both, dragged the howling feline from safety, and half-crawled, half-stumbled to my panic room.
It didn’t really qualify as a room. It was smaller than my closet, but it was graded seven in the event of earthquake (unlikely), fire (more likely), bomb (even more likely), or magical attack (a definite possibility). It was coded to open for only two people, and it was stocked with enough water, nutrient bars, and air purifying stones to keep me alive for a week.
Less, if I insisted on taking Cha-Cha inside with me, as the new head of our Vigilant team had informed me on multiple occasions.
Sedgewick could be really annoying.
The alarm still blaring, frenzied cat twisting and spitting in my arms, I pressed a hand to the ironwood door and whispered “Achiya.” Open.
The door vanished. I had five seconds to get inside.
Cha-Cha did not make it easy.
Maybe I would have to reconsider the option of leaving the ungrateful feline behind to die at the hands of whatever magical horror had crashed through the wards.
I pushed inside, turning around just in time to see the door whoosh back into existence.
And then it was very dark and very, very quiet.
I cast the embedded, pre-set illumination spell, generalized so that light filled the entire panic room. (Marcilia would have called fire and eaten up all of the oxygen, because, yes, that’s how stupid she is. And then her stupid husband would have called water to put out the fire and they would have drowned, because that’s just how stupid he is.)
That thought made me thirsty, so I drank some water. My stomach was tight and churning, so I cracked open one of the nutrient bars. It tasted like week-old figs. I broke off a piece and offered it to Cha-Cha. She cocked an eyebrow at me, sniffed, and turned around to face the wall. I wasn’t sure if she was still mad at me or if she just found the smell of the nutrient bar that distasteful. Or both.
She was a cat, so probably both.
Someone had neglected to install a clock, and my phone was somewhere in my bedroom, so I had no idea how much time passed; nothing to read, no games to play. I sat on the floor, back to the wall, surrounded by crates of supplies, and stared at the door. And stared some more.
I really wanted some ice cream.
After a while, my heart slowed down and my stomach stopped churning. My back stiffened, so I stretched. Boredom set in. I decided to re-earn Cha-Cha’s love by telling her the story of the Nine-Tailed Cat of Suxia. By the time I got to the part in which the Nine-Tailed Cat had tricked, captured, and beheaded the King of the Plague Rats, she was purring again and had even turned around to face me.
Then the door vanished.
Sedgewick glared down at me.
I gaped up at him.
Dark grey pajama pants. Barefoot. No shirt. Pistols holstered at each shoulder and a sword strapped across his back. Shallow cuts up and down his arms, more on his chest, and what was turning into a nasty bruise on his left side. His short hair was spiked with sweat and melted snow, and the bottom hems of his pants were soaked almost black.
Cha-Cha shot between his legs, practically airborne, and disappeared back under my bed.
“Since when do you have a sword?” I blurted.
He glared harder. “Since always. I told you to leave the cat. And you haven’t cleared me with the verification chant yet.”
My lips moved, but nothing came out. My brain was stuck, fixated on the thin dribbles of blood, the evidence of violence and death.
I jumped. “Yeah. Okay. Fine. Please recite the Oath of the Pure and Righteous Heart from the Southern Temple of Isiya.”
“My heart is my own, and it shall forever be so. No malice towards you shall poison my blood, nor shall evil thoughts darken my mind, nor harm come to you at my hand. I swear this by Isiya of the South.”
“Pretty sure you tripped over the evil thoughts part. Might want to say it again.”
I didn’t think it was possible for someone to glare so hard without snapping their jaw or popping an eyeball, but Sedgewick succeeded.
“Yes, okay. Congratulations. You’re still you. You haven’t been hexed, cursed, possessed, or otherwise compromised.” I swallowed, my gaze skimming across the bloody cuts again. Maybe they weren’t quite as bad as I had initially assumed. They didn’t look deep.
I swallowed again. “Are you okay? Are Kanady and Taz okay?”
“They’re fine.” He seemed to relax fractionally. “They’re downstairs with Operr and Dalis.”
“What hit us?”
He tipped his head back towards my bedroom, indicating the window on the far wall.
I pressed a hand to the floor and tried to stand. My back seized. I held very still for a moment, breathing carefully, then slowly bent one leg, trying to finagle it under me so that I could push up.
Sedgewick’s hand appeared in my peripheral vision.
He didn’t ask. He just bent down and silently offered his help.
Grimacing, I reached up and wrapped my hand around his arm; or, as much of it as I could; his arm was bigger than it needed to be.
He gently pulled me upright, holding onto me until I was steady.
My hand shaking, I pushed the hair out of my eyes. “Thank you.”
Sedgewick dipped his head and sort of bowed towards me.
In the old days, it would have been a full-on prostration, knees on the ground, eyes downcast. I was very glad these weren’t the old days. I could not have handled people standing and bowing and kneeling every time I walked into a room.
Moving carefully, I crossed the floor, edged around the bed, and leaned over my desk to peer out the window.
Harsh, focused illumination spells lit up the entire yard — including the east side of the house, where the wards had been broken.
Not just broken. Completely shredded. Two of the tall ironwood poles that anchored the wards had melted, actually melted. Two more were bent nearly in half. The frozen ground was torn up, winter-brown grass and Taz’ beautiful camellia shrubs strewn across the lawn. Branches on that side of the oak tree had broken away, exposing the pale wood beneath the bark; the swing was twisted ‘round and ‘round on its chains.
A pair of dark-winged shapes darted past my window, then another, and another. I kept counting. Four, five, six, seven, eight.
The ravens circled around and settled on top of the gazebo near the western corner of the backyard.
I exhaled in relief, not realizing that I had been holding my breath.
“Your birds are fine, too. Just a few feathers knocked loose. And they scratched up one of the infiltrators pretty well.”
I pressed a hand to the glass, watching as Sedgewick’s Vigilant team moved around the yard. Some were in tactical armor, others in suits. Most of them carried pistols and rifles, while others walked around with focusing or tracking spells in their hands. A small knot of agents were collected around the melted and broken ironwood. Beyond the fence and the illumination spells, I could just make out the shape of the closest house to the east. The windows were lit up. I’m sure the same was true for the house to the west, and those across the street.
Would we get anonymous angry notes in the mail, or would the neighbors actually come in person to complain?
I turned away. “I need to see the bodies.”
Sedgewick hesitated, then dipped his head in agreement.
I found Taz and Kanady in the living room, Operr and Dalis standing guard at the door and window. Taz was curled up on the over-stuffed couch, a blanket over her shoulders and a mug of tea in her hands. Her long hair was blue and purple, the tips snow white. Kanady crouched by the fireplace, carefully placing the kindling before they cast a low-grade spark spell. The fire rippled to life and Kanady moved to sit in the rocking chair, scrubbing a hand over their face.
When Taz saw me, she smiled, the expression tired, and lifted her tea.
“In a few minutes,” I said, waving a hand towards the back door. “I want to see the damage.”
Kanady shuddered, hunkering down in the rocking chair.
I stopped, hesitating when I saw the numb shock and fear on their face. I walked over to Kanady and squeezed their shoulder. They lifted a shaking hand, squeezing my fingers in turn.
“I’ll be right back,” I promised. “No one’s going to hurt me with Sedgewick and his big sword and everyone else out there to protect me.”
Kanady huffed a humorless laugh and nodded.
Giving their shoulder one last squeeze, I turned, passing through the dining area and into the kitchen. Sedgewick followed, his bare feet silent on the wooden floors.
“Don’t you need to put on some real clothes?”
Shooting him an exasperated look, I shoved my feet into my boots and yanked my coat and fluffy hat off the hooks on the wall.
Sedgewick pressed his palm to the doorframe — “Achiya” — and the ironwood disappeared. Harsh light flooded the kitchen, and the voices which had been only murmurs before were suddenly louder. The ravens cawed in annoyance. Sedgewick stepped out onto the porch, looked around, and then moved to the side. Once I was through the door and standing next to him, he reached over my shoulder to touch the frame again — “Chiya” — and the door whoomped back into place.
I could feel the heat of his body through my coat. The bruise on his side was still an ugly purple, but the cuts on his arms and chest had stopped bleeding. All except one along his right collarbone.
I lifted a hand, almost touching it, then realized that he was standing very still. I hastily dropped my hand again and shoved it into my coat pocket, flushing. “You’ve got …. Are you sure you’re not badly hurt?”
“My injuries are superficial. I’m sorry to say that you’re stuck with me for a while.”
I sniffed. “Assuming you don’t die of hypothermia.”
“Pyromancer, remember? I can keep myself warm, and I’m not stepping away to clean up and change until I’m sure that the grounds are secure again.” He moved back a step, waving a hand towards the stairs. “We terminated the four intruders. Think you can learn anything useful from them?”
I looked out across the devastated lawn, at the torn ground and tumbled shrubs that Taz had cared for so lovingly; at the swarm of agents, tense, on alert; at the huddle of ravens atop the gazebo, twitching their tails.
I shoved down the memory of Mykal and Grieta and the bomb, the stink and the smoke and the screams. Far down, down, down.
Tugging my jacket tight across my chest, I nodded. “Absolutely.”
One foot in front of the other, a step at a time, I moved down the stairs and across the lawn. Vigilants moved out of my way, some dipping their heads in greeting, others remaining focused on their work. Sedgewick paced along beside me, close enough that his arm occasionally brushed my sleeve.
The wind picked up, spitting snow in my face. I blinked rapidly, drawing closer to the oak tree and the sheet-draped form that sprawled across the ground. When I reached it, Sedgewick paused, then knelt and lifted the cloth out of the way.
I swallowed hard.
Dead bodies didn’t bother me. They never had. It wasn’t corpses that I had a problem with; it was the damage done to the body that had caused death. It was … grotesque. Blasphemous. Isiya formed our hearts from fire with Her own hands, Osira spun our minds from wind, Thueta carved our bodies from earth, and the water that Khura poured into our veins became our blood.
We were divinely crafted, lovingly designed by the Greater Powers.
That we could damage … mangle … maim one another’s bodies so badly as to cause death was a crime against the Creators.
My back twitched.
Fanatics who claimed loyalty to the teachings of the Greater Powers readily committed murder to rid the world of those they considered a perversion; people like me and Mykal and Kanady and Taz.
And Sedgewick, as devout a Vigilant as any I had ever met, had killed to protect us, and would again. He had sliced the right arm off another human being, stabbed him through the heart, and then sliced his throat clean —-
That didn’t … look right.
I took a step back, away from Sedgewick. I felt him watching me. Circling the body, I whispered the Five Souls Revelation Chant of the Northern Temple of Osira.
And … nothing. No remnant swirls of wind, no faint flickers of fire, no fading echo of the thrum of earth, no ebbing of the flow of water. No hint that a full soul had evolved over his life, growing from his memories and emotions and experiences into a spirit worthy of eternity.
It was gone. All of it. Every hint, every trace that the body in front of me had ever been anything other than an inanimate lump of meat, fat, and bones.
I spun in a circle, looking for one of the other infiltrators. There, under a sheet closer to the broken fence line. I stumbled over and yanked the cloth away. Bullets in the middle of her chest, a stab wound in her throat, deep gashes from raven claws all over her face. Inert, no trace of the primal elements or a full soul.
I ignored Sedgewick, jumping around a couple of protective agents to find the third body. People were staring at me. I heard whispers. The third body was the same, and the fourth.
No, not possible.
I licked my lips. “Were there any survivors?”
Sedgewick looked at me for a long moment. He rolled his shoulders and moved towards me, coming up so close that I had to tip my head back to look up at him.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
His mouth thinned. “No. We’re assuming they had a support team and we have Vigilants out looking for them. Now, what’s wrong?”
I opened my mouth, closed it. Shaking my head, I stepped back. Sedgewick wasn’t a necromancer. He had no frame of reference, no way to really understand what I was trying to say; no more than I would really understand if he tried to explain something about pyromancy to me.
I was a necromancer and I had no idea what was going on, how this was even possible. It was baffling and completely terrifying.
Shaking my head again, I hugged my jacket tight and turned back to the house. “I need to go back inside. I’m tired.”
I felt him watching me the whole way.
[End Part One. Continue to Part Two in the November 2020 issue of ev0ke!]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]