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Please note that these sample chapters are for the unpublished novel and have not been proofread yet.Content warnings
Deep beneath the Dead Mountains in a secret and sprawling necropolis that smelled of dust and carried the chill of death, a woman with colourless eyes and a long trailing gown of black lace snorted and jerked upright, knocking over the complicated array of bobbins and partially-knit lace on the table in front of her.
‘Shit,’ she said with quiet fervour, scooping up the now tangled mess.
An undead creature swayed in the doorway, breath rattling in and out in long, rasping gasps. Dark purple flesh peeked from the rag strips that encased it, obscuring all but the dark hole of its mouth and a trailing plait of dark hair. It raised its hand again, preparing to scratch at the open door.
‘Yes, yes, I’m awake, Misery darling,’ said the woman. Her name was Usther of the Ashes. She was in her mid-twenties, tall and with slate-coloured skin that was once a warm brown-black and was now tinged grey-black by necromancy. Her hair was pulled into neat box-braids, their smooth shape making the sharpness of her cheekbones all the more dramatic. Around her waist was a ropey belt of treated intestine. But most shocking were her colourless eyes, with only the faintest line ringing her irises.
She set about trying to untangle her lace bobbins and set them back the way they’d been before but after a moment she sighed and shunted them across the table. ‘Morrin’s teeth.’ She rubbed her eyes. ‘Ugh. It’ll take me an age to fix that.’
She stood up, wincing at the soreness in her back and legs. She stretched, shoulders cracking. ‘I suppose she snuck in like a little cockroach?’ she said to Misery. The minion sighed, which could mean anything. She went to her housemate’s door and rapped on it irritably. ‘Get up! The sun’s been up for hours and —’ The door swung open at her touch. Stale air greeted her. She gazed at that empty, book-strewn room solemnly, then closed the door without another word.
She washed in icy mountain water stored in a cistern above her tub and emerged shivering in robes of dark purple fabric with lace cuffs. She pulled her box-braids into a long tail and turned to a shard of mirror in one of the sconces of the main room. There her own tired, un-made up face stared back at her.
She bared her teeth at herself before she ran kohl carefully around her eyes and painted her lips black. She bared her teeth again. ‘Good. Less like a wounded animal, more like the animal that did the wounding,’ she said.
There was a small chirp and bump at her legs. She looked down and her expression softened. A stocky short-haired cat with black patches gazed up at her, kneading on the stone floor with stumbling paws. The cat’s scarred little face was split half-and-half between white and black. She had a collar around her neck so saturated with runes and wards that it glowed.
Usther knelt and scooped up the cat. The warmth of a living cat had once been startling to Usther, but now it was as reassuring as the cat’s gravelly rumble. ‘That’s right, Dichotomy. We ought to leave or we’ll be on time for the town meeting — or, gods forbid, late.’ As she squished her cat’s ear, the cat purred and dribbled happily, then bit her hand, drawing blood.
Usther didn’t flinch. ‘Well, that’s enough petting then, if you’re going to be rotten about it.’ She put Dichotomy down and swept toward the door. The cat followed, still purring and dashing around her legs.
‘Misery, darling! It’s time to go.’ She put her hand on the door, then stopped when there was no response. She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Misery?’
Misery sighed. She stood in the corner of the kitchen, staring at the wall with her back to the world.
‘Come on, darling. You know I can’t leave you here.’
Misery shifted, leaning her head against the wall.
As she did every day, Usther considered leaving her minion home. After all, Misery was a house-minion; she had no liking for the outside world. But even as she thought it, she remembered flames and a drenched blanket and the horrible, choking taste of smoke and ash.
‘Come on,’ she clapped her hands. She didn’t put any necromancy into it; it was rare that she used magic to command this particular minion.
Reluctantly, Misery shuffled away from the wall and followed Usther out the door, her head hung low and her arms hanging limp. ‘Good,’ said Usther. ‘And I see you’ve been listening to me about your posture as well. Much better!’
She locked up her home, waiting for the comforting feel of her wards locking into place, and set off for the Town Hall. Dichotomy wove about her legs and darted ahead only to come trotting back again. She seemed as reluctant to let Usther out of her sight as Usther was to leave her behind: and no wonder. When Usther had found her, she’d been a stray cat lost in the crypt, dodging undead and giant spiders and subsisting on tomb rats.
‘Misery, keep up!’ Usther called over her shoulder. She looked back at her minion lagging behind with tiny, shuffling steps and held in a growl of frustration. ‘Misery darling, we’ll be late at that rate.’ She walked back and tucked her minion’s rag-wrapped arm firmly around her own. It was icy cold and might have burned an upworlder, but Usther was deep enough into the Craft that the chill barely registered.
‘They have to declare a new council member now, surely!’ she said. Her voice quavered and then held; she banished the image of Ree’s empty room from her mind. ‘I know those pompous bastards love to hang on to their power but with only three of them, how are they supposed to make any decisions?’
Misery sighed in what Usther thought was a supportive way.
‘I’m going to call for the empty council seats to be filled,’ said Usther. ‘There were seven once and there should be seven again. Morrin herself blessed the council of seven. We can’t continue letting everything decay — no offence, darling.’ She glanced at Misery, who rolled her eyes. She couldn’t tell whether that was out of sarcasm or whether she’d just lost control of her eyes.
Usther inclined her head to other denizens as she passed. Some were outside their tombhomes enjoying the morning must and mist. A few others seemed to be making their way to the Town Hall early, as she was. She kept her back straight and her expression imperious, as if it was perfectly normal to take one’s house-minion for a stroll to the town meeting. She repressed the twingeing thought that she wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable if Ree had been here, as they’d planned. Ree never seemed to be around anymore.
As they hit the end of the street, Usther enjoyed the familiar sight of the central mausoleum, or Tombtown proper. Though she often resented that her tombhome was so far from the centre where the council members and other important denizens resided, she secretly loved the view from this high-up street before she descended the stairs, with all of the town laid out in stone, shadow, and fractured sunlight.
Once an enormous collection of individual tombs beneath a great domed ceiling, now those tombs had been converted into grim stone houses and businesses still engraved with the names of the dead once interred there.
Usther glanced up at the domed ceiling. Cracks in it let through trickles of water or glimmers of distant light that flashed in her darksight. A comforting reminder that this place was home and hidden from those upworlders that would destroy her kind, but not without an ache at the memory of warm sunlight on her face, the scent of fresh air, the feel of grass beneath her feet. Even as distant and faded as those memories were, they could still bite.
They passed down spidery stairs and into the square, taking them slowly so that Misery wouldn’t trip. The market was as bustling as ever, perhaps less a few stalls today. It was always busy at the market on town meeting days, as much for gossip as for shopping.
‘Bone flutes for sale! Bone flutes!’ Mazerin the Bold shouted raspily from his usual bone stall. He was a weedy necromancer with a slight hunch, wispy hair, and visible fangs, and he’d been a fixture of the market for as long as Usther had lived here.. ‘Good for occupying kids and banishing ghouls! Or the other way around!’
Usther would have glided past, but Dichotomy trotted over to Mazerin and started twining about his legs.
‘Oh! There’s a good cat. No, I won’t pet you — I know you’ll only savage me. Here, I’ve got some nice smoked cavefish just for you …’ Dichotomy continued to twine about his legs until the fish was dropped, at which point she growled and sprinted away with fish in mouth to hide behind some crates.
Mazerin watched her go with a bemused expression, then caught Usther’s stare. ‘Oh. Uh. It’s all perfectly safe, I swear. Deboned and all. She always comes a-begging for my lunch and cats are good luck.’
Usther was torn a moment between her desire to be first to the town meeting and this nagging sense of debt. She stopped at Mazerin’s stall. ‘Do you have a zyk scry knuckle?’ she asked, as casually as she could. ‘Mine is getting worn out and won’t roll properly.’
‘Ahh … that’s the danger bone. Must have a lot of excitement in your future, eh?’
Usther didn’t deign to answer. Mazerin handed her the knucklebone and she dropped three large gold coins onto the stall top. Mazerin raised his eyebrows — though gold was plentiful among the denizens, three coins was still a vast overpayment for a replacement knucklebone.
She avoided his questioning gaze and went to wait until her cat emerged from behind the crate, licking her chops with a much-satisfied expression. ‘All done?’
Dichotomy flicked her tail, staring at Usther.
‘Well, come on then.’
As they walked, she considered her cat. A cat minion would be much prized in Tombtown, particularly as cats were so hard to come by in a crypt. She’d spelled all kinds of wards and curses into Dichotomy’s collar to protect her from other practitioners who might prefer her undead to alive and she rarely let the cat out unsupervised. It had never occurred to her that any of her neighbours might be kind to her. And indeed, Mazerin had seemed quite familiar with her …
‘I suppose I know where you disappear to when you run out of the house,’ Usther said. ‘All those times I was imagining you caught in a giant spider’s web.’
Dichotomy sniffed a door rather than respond.
They came at last to the towering black iron doors that gated the Old King’s Tomb, now used as the town hall. They’d been opened enough to let through a few denizens at a time, but nobody was walking in currently.
‘Look at that,’ Usther said. ‘We’re still early, in spite of our little detour.’
She laid a hand on the cold metal surface of the door, thinking of Ree. Ree had seen this place not as an ancient ruin but an active throne room. Had knelt before the now nameless king and learnt him to be a cruel tyrant. It was still wild to Usther that it could be true: that her friend had been cast into the past by an ancient lich, and been brought back only by Usther’s magic.
Did Ree still think about that when she passed through these doors, or did her experience of the present outweigh the heft of memories past? If she was here, Usther might ask.
But she was never here.
Usther took her hands from the door, drew a long breath, and straightened. ‘Misery, darling, keep an eye on Dichotomy for me. And don’t leave the town hall. I’m going to sit up front so the council can see me glaring.’
She took one last look around, thinking perhaps her friend might come running up, looking tired and travel-worn, then squared her shoulders and went inside.
The town hall was empty. The dais holding the Old King’s sarcophagus was devoid of council members, as were the marble stairs leading up to it. The rows of rickety chairs, some of which were now well on their way to being firewood, were largely uninhabited as well — except for old Uzma Plaguebringer, who dozed in the back with her rat minions curled up on her shoulders and lap, and who had likely arrived hours ago to light the torch sconces that lined the walls.
The once-grand hall was now worn and dilapidated, though with patches of shiny new-ness that was a constant reminder of the terrible ritual that had almost been completed here, exchanging the modern town and denizens for the necromantic kingdom of old. The torchlight cast long and angry shadows across the hall, and glinted off the neatly organised treasure at the back — treasure which belonged to the town, and could be claimed by any denizen with the council’s blessing.
Usther took a seat at the front, carefully sweeping her skirts so that they’d fan out as she sat. She crossed her arms and frowned up at the dais.
A swirling storm of screaming spirits and icy winds. The eerie glow of a growing portal. It had been eight years since Chandrian Smythe had been exiled from Tombtown, and she still couldn’t look at those stairs without seeing it, without remembering the feeling of air being sucked from her lungs, remembering dragging herself up those steps to stop the man she’d come to think of as a friend from killing her.
She hadn’t made it, of course. Nobody had made it. Not the council. Not the high priestess of Morrin. Not even the Lich, the most powerful necromancer of the crypt and several centuries old. Their only saving grace had been that Smythe had excluded Ree from his spell, and thus she had been able to climb the steps and stop him — along with Wandering Larry, the crypt’s oldest and most gormless minion.
She rubbed her chest and looked away, letting her pulse settle back down. Smythe was gone, and good riddance to him. Just another in a long line of people who had betrayed her.
The town hall filled in trickles and spurts, necromancers filing in in small groups or edging for lonely seats at the back. She kept an ear out for rumours and subtly took a pinch of gravemould from a pouch at her hip, summoning an invisible spectre to be her eyes and ears at the back. It had taken her years to get her spectres to be fully invisible — for a long time, she’d been able to hide everything but the glow of their ghostly eyes — but now it was so complete that it was rare that she got caught spying.
She listened, with her own ears first, to the rows nearest her.
‘Have you seen old Ursula?’ asked Etherea Eversworn. ‘She swore bloody vengeance on me when I bumped into her the other week but my mushroom garden is completely untouched. It’s not like her.’
‘Heard she’d gone fishin’,’ replied another denizen — she wasn’t sure who. A man, most likely. Fishing referred to searching the crypt for corpses to raise as minions or feral undead to master.
‘Well … I’ll keep an eye out. She’s a hateful old ghoul but I worry about her.’
Usther shifted her senses to her spectre, now hovering far enough above the back rows that the practitioners wouldn’t sense its cold and know themselves to be watched. She rubbed her eyes at the cold itch as her vision transferred to her spectre, hoping that, as far forward as she was, nobody would notice a ghostly glow in her own colourless eyes.
‘… didn’t see them when I scried …’ said a teen practitioner with their hair shaved on the sides and plaited on top.
‘They prob’ly don’t want you spying on them,’ said another teen. ‘You know how El is about scrying. Emergency only …’
‘… saw a strange little shroom while out with Dead Percy,’ said an older practitioner, fondly patting his undead dog. The dog panted silently, its fleshless skull devoid of tongue. ‘I wanted to pick it and bring it home for my son’s collection, but something spooked Perce and he went haring off.’
‘Yeah, I heard there might be ghouls in those parts …’
Nothing particularly interesting. A feud between two practitioners had led to the first bannings at The Bone & Brew in a long time. Someone had stolen some treated organs from one of their neighbours … nothing big enough to sink her teeth into. She sifted through the conversations, bored and a little irritated by the wind-like whooshing that accompanied sitting inside her spectre’s head.
Something groaned piteously. A familiar groan, followed by the faintest yowl. Usther sighed and massaged her temples, ejecting from her spectre’s senses. ‘Go help Misery with the cat, would you?’ she murmured, and sensed her spectre go to do her bidding.
She looked around, blinking a few times to refocus her eyes and clear any residual glow. The town hall was nearly full now, and the council had begun their procession up the aisle to the dais. Kylath Bane at the front, her robes dusty and dreary but a cut of vibrant red paint across her lips. Igneus the Undying behind her, looking like someone had drained all the colour from his skin and dipped his long hair in ink. Tarantur behind him, naked and hairless from the waist up but for the tattoos crowding his skin.
All of them moved with a kind of ritual pace that made Usther roll her eyes. She supposed they thought it gave them gravitas, but honestly it just made her feel impatient. Nobody was really paying them attention, anyway.
When they got to the dais, they all stood behind the sarcophagus as if it were a particularly long lectern, and Igneus stomped his staff with a boom, amplifying the council’s voices across the hall.
‘Under Morrin’s blessing, we survive another week in this bounteous crypt,’ he said. He launched into his usual self-important blather, which Usther listened to with narrowed eyes.
‘Front row again, Usther? Ever the dutiful denizen.’
Usther startled at the familiar voice and eerie tone. She hadn’t noticed the High Priestess of Morrin slip into the seat beside her. Apparently she’d once been a huntress — perhaps that was where Ree had inherited her creepy stillness and silent movement.
Arthura raised her eyebrows while she watched her husband address the town hall. ‘Wait for me after the meeting,’ she said quietly. ‘We have much to discuss.’
Usther inclined her head, trying to hold in her nervous apprehension. Something about Arthura’s manner made her feel that it was more than an invitation to dinner with the family.
The meeting went on. Kylath took over from Igneus, taking complaints and solving disputes between denizens — practitioners fighting over fishing rights in certain tombs, neighbourly disputes about minions tearing up each other’s mushroom gardens, that sort of thing. Once, Usther would have been hanging on every word, scheming for the day when she would be the one the denizens came to for advice. Those dreams had crumbled with maturity; the council was nepotistic and near-immortal, and she no longer desired power over others. She wanted purpose. And that was something altogether different and entirely more difficult to find.
So when Tarantur interrupted proceedings to call for volunteers to be part of some ‘Grand Expedition’, Usther only raised her eyebrows.
Tarantur sidled to the front of the dais, steepling his bony fingers. ‘Prestige awaits,’ he said. ‘As well as necromantic discoveries such as we have never seen before. I vow that all who accompany me will receive my special thanks.’ He nearly hissed the last word, a sound that tickled Usther’s ear unpleasantly.
People started shouting back their questions and responses, some complaining about the vagueness of the offer, others asking when it would start and what form the thanks might take. Usther tuned out of it, focusing instead on the other council members’ reactions. Igneus looked disapproving, Kylath harried. Interesting.
When the meeting ended, the town hall gradually emptied except for a few denizens here and there and a clump of eager practitioners around Tarantur, who basked in the attention.
‘Not drawn by the prestige?’ Arthura murmured beside her.
Usther glanced at the priestess. As ever, she wore a cassock of plain brown sack-cloth but wore it so regally it might have been silk. Her bare feet poked from the bottom, pale and neat. Her mane of ash-coloured hair and been wrestled into a loose tail that even now it fought to free itself from.
‘Not particularly,’ Usther said. ‘It takes more than vague promises of a pat on the head to pique my interest.’
She didn’t say that sometimes it felt like nothing piqued her interest, these days. That she clung to her house-minion and her cat because it seemed like there was nothing else for her. That some days she looked forward to visiting the Altar of Many Gods to make an offering to Morrin simply because it was nice to think that anyone was listening.
Those kind of thoughts were unworthy of a practitioner of her stature. Nonetheless, when she met Arthura’s ice-chip eyes, she could not help but feel pierced by them. Like she was made of glass and her thoughts floated around inside her for Arthura to examine as she pleased.
‘… Of course,’ said Arthura, her tone entirely too mild. She stood and smoothed her cassock. ‘Come join me at the Altar,’ she said. ‘Though of course Morrin sees all, some things are best discussed right in front of her.’
‘Sorry, what is this about?’
Arthura’s expression was very grave. ‘It is about you, Usther of the Ashes. It is about your fate.’
Usther made excuses to stop at home first; Dichotomy needed feeding, Misery needed a few moments to stare at the wall. Arthura took this all with the serene calm Usther both admired and hated.
Now, Usther sat down in her armchair, fussing at the lace that was still too tangled to tat. She tried not to look at the door.
Arthura walked along the walls, gently touching the various bones, candles, books, and other knick-knacks they’d accumulated there. Whether she was performing some silent benediction or it was merely for the tactile pleasure of it, Usther couldn’t say. Usther couldn’t remember the last time she’d been here — though she was Ree’s mother, most of their visits had taken place outside the house.
Like everything Ree did.
Time passed. Dichotomy attacked Arthura’s skirts as she walked, pouncing with claws extended and then rolling around on the floor, getting tangled in them. When she got properly stuck, Arthura knelt and picked up the squirming cat, heedless of the deep scratches the cat left in her hands.
‘You are more fearsome a warrior than you look,’ she said. ‘You’d do better to seek smaller prey, however.’ She gave the tiniest smile, shocking in its sincerity, and placed Dichotomy back on the ground.
Arthura turned and caught Usther’s eyes, her gaze sharp and clear as shattered glass. ‘She’s not coming.’
Usther stiffened. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Arthura said nothing, only holding Usther’s gaze.
At length, they left again, Dichotomy leading the way with tail raised, Misery shuffling behind. Usther watched the priestess surreptitiously as they walked, trying to make sense of how she moved so swiftly but with such a sedate, unhurried air. There was something otherworldly about Arthura that Usther had hoped she might have discovered for herself by now, but somehow she still felt like an awkward teenager in her presence — just a lot older, and a lot more tired.
It didn’t seem fair. She had been in this town for more than ten years now, gathering secrets and training her power. She’d clawed her way out of being known as an acolyte, only to receive a title from her greatest hurt. ‘Usther of the Ashes’ sounded like an insult, not an honour.
What ‘fate’ could there be for someone like her? Her dreams of power and influence were ashes, just like her title. Truthfully, it was a relief to lay them to rest.
Perhaps Arthura needed someone to take over sweeping the Altar of Many Gods.
A bump against her leg. ‘Prrt?’ Dichotomy chirped questioningly. Usther realised she’d fallen out of step with the priestess.
She picked up her cat and cuddled her against her chest. ‘Thank you,’ she said. She squished Dichotomy’s ears and strode to catch up with Arthura, who acknowledged her with the faintest nod.
There were worse fates than a quiet life at home caring for her cat and minion. And if Arthura needed someone to labour at the Altar, well, she’d happily accept. Time spent in service to Morrin was purpose enough for anyone.
Arthura didn’t speak as they made their way to the Altar of Many Gods. Usther’s feet knew the way, but she felt like she was seeing the town with new eyes in the priestess’ company.
Even as quiet as the town was today, the mood was different with Arthura. Passing denizens inclined their heads respectfully, or even sketched slight bows. Arthura met each of them with a steady gaze and the barest nod of acknowledgement, which somehow angered nobody even though necromancers hated it when someone acted superior to them.
The thing was, Arthura existed outside of necromancer power struggles. As the avatar of Morrin, she naturally garnered respect, but that respect didn’t threaten anyone else’s power. Indeed, Usther wondered whether the denizens were really bowing to Arthura, or whether they were bowing instead to the goddess she represented.
She felt … strange … about it. A kind of longing that wasn’t based in jealousy. What must it be like for Arthura to give and gain respect without it being part of a complicated web of anger and hurt? What was it like to surrender all of that to Morrin?
She stewed on that as they walked, but Arthura didn’t remark on her uncharacteristic silence. She was probably used to it, given her daughter’s taciturn demeanour. Gradually, tombhomes gave way to bare stone as the domed ceiling of the central mausoleum sloped down to meet the floor. Here, on the outskirts of town, was the Altar of Many Gods.
Unlike the rest of the town, it wasn’t a repurposed tomb. Instead, it had been constructed from salvaged stonework from all around the crypt — pieces that had survived collapse and been recovered from rubble. Some of it was large hunks and bricks of simple stone. Other parts were formed of stone carvings or even statues. The result was a mosaic structure formed of all different stone from across the crypt. Beautiful and strange, a series of makeshift columns holding up a decorative roof.
And at the base of most of the columns were small shrines of lit candles and offerings — purple flowers brought in from the frosty mountaintop, herbs filched from Andomerys’ garden, and little paper prayers sealed with wax or twine or, in some instances, gut. Some carved bones and trinkets here and there, depending on the god.
Arthura swept past all these, sometimes pausing to straighten a stray offering or relight a candle that had gone out. None of these shrines were to Morrin, though Arthura had built this altar herself — with the aid of local minions.
They came at last to Morrin’s shrine. No larger or grander than any of the other gods’, though more offerings had been left at it. It was a simple framed painting of a woman with all-white eyes and a hole through her head, nestled on a recess in a column of carved stone. On the shelf beside it was a small sack pouch with teeth spilling out of it, and a small bone knife.
On approach, Usther immediately ducked her head and bowed to the portrait. Then she let her fingers hover just above the pouch of teeth; maybe she imagined it, but it always felt like a tiny spark of static leapt between the pouch and her fingertips. It was comforting nonetheless.
Arthura watched, saying nothing. Though the tight-lipped nature of their family sometimes irked her, Usther was glad of the chance to greet the goddess unhurried. She closed her eyes a moment, took a deep breath, and turned away. Dichotomy twined around her legs, a mouse wriggling in her mouth.
‘That’s not kind,’ Usther said, and with a brush of her will against the mouse’s, sent the mouse into a peaceful, painless death.
Dichotomy meeped around the mouse and slitted her eyes in a smile.
Arthura smiled at the cat, an expression so human and unguarded that Usther had no idea what to make of it.
Usther cleared her throat. ‘So why did you want me here? I’m assuming it’s not for the pleasure of my company.’ She sniffed.
Arthura’s head canted slightly to one side. ‘I don’t know why you would assume that,’ she said, proving once again how easily she could slit Usther open.
Usther wondered if there would ever come a time she didn’t crave the approval of a mother figure. If so, she hoped it would come soon.
‘I wanted to see what you would do,’ she said. ‘And see how Morrin responds.’ She caught Usther’s gaze and held it, ice-chip eyes locked with colourless ones. ‘I think there may be a connection between you.’
The words hit Usther like a punch to the stomach. One hand went to her chest as she considered the words. ‘Between the goddess … and me?’ She wanted to laugh it off, but she couldn’t seem to draw the air, her lungs suddenly thin.
‘You sound surprised,’ said Arthura.
Surprised wasn’t quite the right word. Usther cleared her throat, which suddenly felt full and tight. ‘Not at all,’ she said, as smoothly as she could, wildly hoping Arthura didn’t notice how affected she was.
Arthura still hadn’t looked away. ‘I need your help.’
Usther blinked, struck unawares yet again. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she spluttered, before she could think better of it.
Arthura at last looked away, her expression becoming once again the distant priestess. ‘There is something the goddess needs dealing with, and I cannot do it alone. When I cast the teeth, I could make little sense of it … only that it is a danger of three parts. The empty tomb, the monster at the door, the sun and moon in love and at war …’
Usther bit her lip, holding back a scathing remark. She had little patience for riddles, but this was the High Priestess. She deserved Usther’s respect. ‘Sorry … what?’ she asked, her voice only half as cutting as she felt.
Dichotomy scampered off, chasing something Usther couldn’t see through the candlelit columns of the altar.
Arthura focused back on her again. ‘I believe there is something wrong with the crypt,’ she said. ‘A danger that cannot be defeated by force. I am called elsewhere, but the danger must still be dealt with. I believe you are the one who should deal with it.’
Usther digested this. ‘Why me?’
Arthura’s mouth firmed, and she said, ‘I believe Morrin has chosen you. I believe the danger is coming from the Lich’s Wing,’ she said. ‘And I think we both know it would be a mistake to send my daughter there.’
Usther frowned, then inhaled sharply. ‘Oh. Oh.’
It was well-known that a certain practitioner had taken up residence in the Lich’s Wing.
Usther had taught him everything he knew about necromancy.
And he had tried to kill her with it.
A crow soared through the central mausoleum, beady eyes sweeping the town below with a singular purpose. Birds were unheard of this deep into the crypt, but the denizens below didn’t so much as glance up as the winged shadow flitted over them, rasping a loud, hearty caw as it went.
The crow rolled on the wing, dodging a translucent spectre as it glided off on its master’s orders, then circled twice around the spire of The Bone & Brew, wings fluttering as it perched on a narrow lip of stone. Then the bird … unravelled, like rags dragged from mummified flesh, blue light edged in shadow unspooling from inside. When the light cleared, the crow was gone and only a woman remained, black haired, silver-skinned, and with a tiredness about her eyes and mouth that even the immortality of magic could not erase. Her name was Ree, and she perched just as easily as the crow had, one arm wrapped around the spire, her soft-soled boots flat against the incline. Her eyes searched the town below just as intently as had the crow’s — dark eyes beneath a stripe of dark blue face paint. She hummed under her breath and then her eyes glowed strangely, briefly taking on the beady yellow appearance of a hawk.
After a moment, she sighed and swung herself down from the roof — a little clumsier than she had in her youth, and landing a lot heavier, the years having given her a plump padding. She dusted off her robes, tucked the wispy strands of her neck-length hair behind her ears, and headed for the market square.
There was a small bustle in the square today, with minions stumbling in all directions carrying bags and boxes for their masters and denizens at stalls haggling imperiously over bones, organs, and basic goods like food and herbs.
Ree made for the single blaze of colour in the shifting sea of black and grey. It was a woman in orange robes picked with red and blue flowers, her brown skin warm with health, her curly black hair pulled into a loose topknot. She had one full arm; the other ended cleanly at the elbow. The woman glared at a handful of garlic she grasped by the stem, then awkwardly thrust it into the basket hooked onto her belt and picked out some more produce from the sparse market stall. The denizen running the stall — Terra Blackthumb, necromantic farmer — kept offering the woman things which she rejected with a wave of her hand.
‘These’ll do,’ she said, taking a handful of purple carrots that had disturbingly face-like profiles. ‘Will three be enough?’ She withdrew three vials of glowing blue liquid, which Blackthumb accepted eagerly.
‘Andomerys,’ Ree greeted her as she turned away from the stall. The woman stiffened then turned to her, her expression tight with emotion. Suddenly, it was hard to face what she must say, so Ree asked, ‘What were those potions?’
‘Moisturiser,’ said Andomerys. She was a great healer, and an excellent potion-crafter besides. ‘I do good trade with them. Most folk suffer from dry skin down here.’ She gave Ree a considering look. ‘You could probably do with some. I’ll get you a batch.’
Ree made a face. ‘I’ll manage,’ she said.
Andomerys turned them away, striding further into the market. ‘Have you seen him?’ she asked in a low voice.
Worry kicked Ree in the guts. No avoiding it now. ‘No. I take it he’s not back yet.’
A family of denizens crossed their path, two men with a small girl toddling between them, hugging a little rat minion with an exposed skull and glowing eye sockets. It nuzzled her chin and she shrieked with laughter.
Andomerys shook her head. ‘It’s … it’s worse than that.’
Worse. The word coiled in Ree’s chest sickeningly.
She had known. When Andomerys had asked her to keep an eye out for Emberlon on her outing, she had known that it was more than an idle request.
‘Come to mine,’ Ree said. ‘We can talk while I pack.’
Usther would be furious that she’d not even taken the day at home, but some things were more important than that. If she was lucky, she’d catch Usther at home and explain.
The wards on her tombhome deactivated easily at her touch in a burst of familiar necromantic energy, a chill breeze with the feel of Usther. She ushered Andomerys inside and closed the door behind her, the wards thrumming back into place as the door sealed.
Andomerys took a seat in one of the threadbare armchairs, resting her chin on her hand. She looked tired, Ree realised; bags under her eyes, a heaviness to her mouth. She wasn’t used to seeing that from her old friend; Andomerys was ageless, and the only bright and lively appearance in the town.
Ree hesitated a moment, half-hoping that Usther was home, half-dreading it, but she didn’t hear a sigh from the kitchen and a black-and-white blur didn’t attack her boots, so Usther must be out. Ree settled into her friend’s usual seat at the small table, noting the mess of lace and bobbins in a tangled heap there. She looked to Andomerys, waiting.
The healer sighed and rubbed her face. ‘Emberlon is missing. He should have returned from his last trip a week ago. I hoped he was just delayed, which was why I asked you to keep an eye out for him.’
Ree frowned, anxiety kicking her again. It was never good when denizens went missing. Adventurers were an infrequent but deadly threat. And Emberlon was not a particularly powerful necromancer.
‘I’ll find him,’ she said. She’d thought to spend the next week at home — catch up with her parents, help out Usther and Misery around the house. Rest. It had been weeks since she’d taken more than a day at home and it was beginning to wear on her.
She could rest when Emberlon was home safe. She pressed her lips into a thin line, considering the logistics. ‘What does it look like when you scry him? Is it brick or rough stone? Are there columns? Wooden beams?’
Andomerys went very still.
‘You can scry him now if you can’t remember,’ said Ree.
Andomerys licked her lips. ‘I can’t scry him.’
Ree waited uncertainly for her to explain. She’d known for years that Emberlon and Andomerys were exclusions to each other’s anti-scry charms specifically for situations like this.
‘I’ve tried. Many times. But each time I do, all I see is … white.’
That couldn’t be right. When scrying worked, you saw the subject and their surroundings. With the right spell, you could even communicate. When it didn’t work, your scrying surface — usually a bowl with water — was inert. Just water.
Ree went into the kitchen at the back of the tombhome. She pulled a wide, deep bowl from the shelf and filled it with cold mountain water from the cistern.
‘Show me?’ she asked. When Andomerys nodded, Ree took a small, curved knife from her belt and pricked her finger with it, letting the blood fall into the water. Though it was only a single drop, it swirled and spread like a red cloud.
Andomerys gripped the sides of the bowl tightly. A golden glow suffused her, seeming to seep from her skin. A warmth like sunlight emanated from her. ‘Illathitar serath,’ the healer intoned, the silken language of iyad-anar a startling contrast to the guttural necromantic language, Old Antherian.
The blood in the water flashed gold, becoming a shining thread. Then the surface of the water did the same. The surface became disturbed, began to shift. Ree waited for it to reform and still into the image of her friend and former mentor, but instead it became a blank, brilliant white so stark she had to shade her eyes.
Andomerys let the spell fade and the water again became still, the blood only blood.
She didn’t know what this meant. If a scry subject was protected or dead, the spell would simply fail. This obfuscation was something new entirely.
She knew, however, that it couldn’t mean anything good.
‘I’ll track him, then,’ she said. ‘There’ll be records of where he went and why. That’s as good a place as any to start.’
Maybe he was somewhere full of white light? Maybe the scry hadn’t failed but simply been impossible to see?
Where could he even be where that would be the case?
She put those thoughts aside. ‘I just need a few hours to get ready,’ she said, standing up. She hadn’t even unpacked from her last trip. She needed to wash all the grave dust from her skin and hair, needed to replace all her clothes with fresh ones, and needed to collect new rations. It was a market day, so the last part shouldn’t be awkward, at least. She rubbed her eyes tiredly. So much for sleeping on her nice comfy stone shelf …
Andomerys rose as well. ‘I’ll need the same. I’ll meet you here.’
Before Ree could even express her surprise, Andomerys pressed on, ‘I can’t stay home knowing he’s lost, and I’ll never have a better guide than you.’
Ree thought about all the reasons that Andomerys shouldn’t come. Ree could cover more ground in her crowskin than she could on foot. She could focus better alone than she ever could in company.
But Andomerys and Emerblon were friends. Would Ree be content to stay home, knowing Usther was in danger?
She nodded. ‘The crypt’s been unsettled recently. I’d be glad of your magic.’
Andomerys’ expression softened. She nodded and left the tombhome, the wards sealing behind her.
It didn’t take Ree long to get ready; a few hours had been a much-inflated estimate. She rushed through her wash in icy mountain water, picked up her supplies, and re-packed her bag with frantic speed. It was only her note she hesitated over. What did you say to your friend who’d been waiting for you for weeks? She wanted to apologise; she wanted to say that even though being at home was hard for her, she still loved Usther and had been planning to see her. That this wasn’t her idea.
But putting that into words seemed like it would only make things worse. In the end, she kept it brief.
Travelling with Andomerys. Scry if I’m not back in a week.
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