Dace & Ermane – IV: Dawn

Dace and Ermane are hiding on the roof, awaiting sunrise and playing the word association game Father taught them. Somewhere below, Mother is scolding the hens lackadaisically as she collects the morning eggs.

Dace flips onto her stomach. “Ermie? I wish Father was still here.”

“Me too, Dacey.”

“I could, you know,” Dace says. “Bring him back, I mean.”

There is a pause; it fills up as tangibly as a spoken word and Ermane shivers from it. Ermane believes Dace, she just doesn’t want to know.

“Grass,” she cries abruptly.

Dace is startled at first, then she grins and continues with their game. “Cow.”

“Turd.”

“Ermane.”

“Dace.”

Dace regards her sister, shading her eyes from the burning sliver of sun over the horizon. A tendril of hair has slipped from Ermane’s braid and there is still a smear of jam on her chin. Dace starts to say something but, of course, Ermane beats her to it.

“Yeah, I love you too, Dacey,” she says.

They snort at the absurdity of it and sneak pinches at each other. Mother is calling them in for breakfast now, but you can only hear their laughter.

– END –

Dace & Ermane – III: The Alnight (pt 3)

“And here I am, returned,” Dace said, dispassionate at the end of Ermane’s story. “So you volunteered yourself to the execution in my stead. To absolve yourself.”

The Ermane-doll moved its head back and forth, strings creaking. “No. To sacrifice myself.”

“And how did you know of my return?”

It lifted a flaccid arm and swung a finger towards its own temple. “Mindspeak.”

Dace laughed. Her voicebox thrummed and reeled mirthlessly. It was so absurd and ironic it could only be true. She took out the graphite stick and began to etch additional symbols around the containment circle.

“I could’ve endured anything, Ermane. Exile, prison, the abuse and the anathema. You can even lie to the world. But not to me. Never to me.” She spoke placidly but the graphite moved fiercely. “It was not your right to redeem yourself. Only those you have wronged can forgive you.”

The Ermane-doll watched her, head toppling from side to side, hair draping the floorboards as it followed her movements around the circle.

“You were always cleverer than me, Dacey,” it said, “even though I was the elder. I’m sorry I was afraid. I’m sorry I was weak.”

“It’s too late.”

“I know, dearest. So I can only give you my life as I have been living it, though Danar knows you deserve much more.”

Dace ignored the Ermane-doll and moved back around to the front. “Father always believed a soul didn’t need an Attending to move on, that they do well enough on their own without a goodhand’s help. We only pray and ceremonise as a balm for grief. So this is my ceremony to you, Ermane.” She closed her eyes and inhaled, graphite poised to complete the last mark, the eternity glyph. “The Alnight is coming to an end; can you feel its pull? I could keep you tethered like this, you could live forever as a necromancer’s puppet.”

The Ermane-doll propped itself up as best it could, its wooden face strangely pensive and familiar. “Do you know what it’s like where I’ve been, Dacey?” it said. “It’s a void, an abyss, and in it I’m always waiting, though I know not for what. I don’t know what Eltavari is, but it’s not that. Ermane is dead. So is Dace. Let me lie, sister, and move on. Start anew and live.”

Dace could not see the sun, but she could feel its heat prickling her skin like fingertips thawing before a fire. Now was the crossroad, before the lines descended once more: cut the red ropes and let go, or bind her forever like this.

“It’s what you deserve,” Dace said to Ermane, though it was herself she was telling. Her sister waited patiently.

Then they heard the song, not by a human throat or any recognisable instrument. It pitched high and low, shattering glass and graphite. The Ermane-doll shuddered, in reverence or fear it was hard to tell. The darkness amassed, filling the room and the air they breathed, and shortened into the shape of a man. Dace knew, though she was an Unbeliever, that she was looking upon the visage of Vironas the demon-god.

He came at her and she cowered, but instead of delivering smite, he patted her. On the head, just once. In those few seconds, she felt his benevolence and admonition. Oddly, it reminded her of Father. You’ve been mischievous, his touch said, time to stop now. Time to rest. He floated backwards, carrying with him Ermane’s soul and all the Vagabond spirits of the Alnight, back to where they belonged beyond the line.

“Ermie!”

Vironas continued to walk but Ermane looked back over his shoulder at Dace.

“Ermie, I never told you…” The words stuck, funnelling into that useless voicebox.

“I know,” Ermane said. “Me too.”

And she was gone, Vironas with her. Dace collapsed to the ground, exhausted, and waited for the light to return.

***

That was how Oromon found her when he arrived. Her cheeks were wet but her eyes were dry. She did not even stir when he came to examine to doll thing lying before her.

“Brilliant,” he said in wonderment. “You gave yourself away, you know.” He held up a hand and wriggled his pinkie, the one she was missing. “The tea you didn’t pour.”

Dace staggered to her feet, weary and resigned. “I’m ready. Take me away.”

“Do you not remember me, Dace?” Oromon said softly.

When she looked up, it was no longer with the face of a condemned girl from all those years ago. Of course there was none of that girl left, that little child who had seemed to blaze even as she cowered and bleated for mercy.

“Should I?” she said.

“Never mind. Let’s clear this clutter before those terraforce dogs come baying.”

Now he had her attention. “You’re not arresting me?”

“I could,” he agreed, “but you’re more useful to me alive.”

“What the hell do you want with me?”

“I’m from a relatively new branch of the Academy. We investigate activities of,” he paused, “special interest. Perhaps you’d like to put your particular skills to good use…”

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – III: The Alnight (pt 2)

The uniform men are here and they are not very friendly-like. They are conferring with one another, looking at Dace and Ermane with censure and disgust. Behind them, Mother is gone forever, the red line cut.

“Ermie, what’s happening?” Dace’s voice is little and plaintive and painful to hear.

Ermane grips her hand tightly. “Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” Through it, Dace can feel the tremors Ermane’s smile does not show.

They are separated once they reach headquarters. They try to be brave but they cling to each other and have to be pulled apart. By the time Ermane is brought to the cold, empty room, she is trembling so hard she cannot sit properly.

For hours, or perhaps days, they question her: where did they learn such dark arts, who’s idea was it. Ermane does not speak, dares not. She can only think of Dace, what she will or has told them. They tell Ermane what happens to nasty necromancers like her. Vaguely she thinks: what a tactless way to extract a confession.

They leave her with a cup of sandy water. All around her, she smells old sweat and piss. She can taste her own desperation. Please let me out. I’ve done no wrong. And she knows this to be true. Her passion is metal and magic, not bodies and souls.

One day, a man walks in with hot chocolate and a roast beef roll. He wears not a uniform but a kindly smile and, for the first time since arriving, Ermane sees her own sorry state reflected in the pity on his face.

“Your sister is fine, if a bit tired,” he says straight-off, pushing the roll towards her. Ermane devours it in her head, with her eyes, but does not accept.

“Where is Dace?” she asks instead.

“In another room just like this. We’ve done the best we can to mend her finger. A most resilient child is Dace.”

Ermane slumps in relief, though she remains wary of him. “Who are you?”

The man crosses to her side and drapes his large coat over her shoulders. “Don’t be afraid, Ermane,” he says when she shrinks away. “My name is Oromon. I’m not with those oafs outside. I’m here as a friend, possibly your only friend right now. You know, I had a daughter about your age. She died in the war, with her mother. I was very much afraid too when I lost someone I loved.”

“But you’re a grown-up.”

He smiles. “And grown-ups aren’t allowed to be scared? I would’ve done anything to get them back. Insane things. Because do you know who finds death most scary, Ermane?” She shook her head. “It’s us. The ones who get left behind.”

“Are you a friend of Father’s? Are you going to get us out?”

Oromon adjusts himself carefully and Ermane understands this move. It’s what adults do when they’re about to let you down.

“I’m not going to lie to you, Ermane. You’re too clever for that. What you and your sister have done is a very serious offence,” he says. “If you weren’t only children, they would’ve beheaded you already.”

That word, together with his warm eyes, stabs Ermane in the chest. It was so much harder hearing it from a nice person. Suddenly, all that trying to be brave and mature overwhelms her. She wants to go home and build a pixie net with Dace. She wants Mother to make tea and toast and goat stew. She wants to play word association games with Father. Oromon pats her on the back while she bawls and snivels.

“I know you’re afraid, Ermane,” he says, “but it’s very important you tell me exactly what happened.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Ermane says in a small voice.

Oromon leans forward. “Who, then? Did someone help you, tell you what to do?”

“Dace. Dace knows these things. I had no idea.”

And she tells Oromon everything, unleashing all the days she kept silent. Oromon writes it down and says nothing. Afterwards, they finally let her sleep on a proper bed. In between waves of slumber, she can hear Oromon whisper furiously with a uniform.

“Are you mad! Dace is just a child.”

“There can be no leniency. She’s dangerous.”

“But exile, on Ortheus–”

“And there she will remain for the rest of her natural life. But I tell you, Oromon, should she step foot on Arandia again, she will be executed. And neither you or the Academy will have any say.”

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Oromon stands over Ermane as she sleeps and she knows he’s thinking of his daughter.

“Dace…?” she murmurs.

“She’ll be fine, little one.”

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – III: The Alnight (pt 1)

It was almost here, beckoning at the windows, more than a mere eclipse or shadows stealing light. Dace’s cellmate said some folk had a natural affinity for the Alnight. They could know the exact moment the sun was weakest, when the dark was most potent and Vagabond souls were not hampered by ethereal boundaries. Dace liked the dark. All sorts of things grew in the dark — mildew, the cold, loneliness, phantoms. Plans. And hatred too.

She had to move quick. After chasing the bothersome puppetmaster away, she had draped an old tunic over the doorknob and drawn the curtains. A more careful and self-preserving practitioner would not even attempt this in their own abode, but Dace did not expect to get away with this. She only needed to get through the Alnight uninterrupted.

On the north and south walls of the room, she drew enticement glyphs. On the east and west, restraining glyphs. With one hand on the hip, she re-examined her arrangement, which included:

A) Equipment for an Attending, consisting of a large, waist-height candle that would illuminate five times brighter in order to draw a soul this far and this long gone; and several lengths of thick red rope, which were knotted around the limbs of

B) Ermane’s headless corpse, redressed in a linen shift and laid out within a circle of containment.

C) The marionette’s head, strings trailing like detached arteries.

D) One large jar of formaldehyde, like the ones used to hold her rat-doll soul transplantation experiments, but containing a tongue hacked off its anatomical moorings and threaded with a fishing hook and line.

All was good. Dace tackled the tongue first, working it into the marionette’s mouth, pulling the line down through the throat. A puppet could not Speak without a tongue, and Dace had traded her own for a mechanised voicebox fashioned out of oratowood. Something precious, blood of your own blood.

Next she used a wide-eyed whalebone needle to sew the strings of the head onto the corpse’s neck, making it somewhat whole once more. A soul could not be Tethered to an Incomplete vessel. She shook the Ermane-doll a few times to ensure the head would not come off. It was unsteady but secure.

Dace stared at the thing she had put together; it was a wonder she could still feel something, anything. That long-ago Alnight seemed a hallucination, dulled and stolen by years of imprisonment. Sometimes though, in that vague drift through the dreamworld, Dace recalled the distinct reek of the interrogation room and Ermane’s last countenance before they were separated. Sometimes Dace would remember how she’d walk into a room craving oatmeal cookies and Ermane would just say: ‘None left, ate’em all this afternoon.

Dace slapped herself — stop it, weakling — and kept moving. She took up the lengths of rope that were tied around the corpse’s limbs and lashed each end to a permanent fixture in the room, save the left ankle. That rope she strapped around the lighted candle.

She yanked Ferlis’s gold amulet off the chain around her neck, holding it gingerly as if the faith could drip from it. Words no longer worked for her, she had discovered. It was not enough to say them; one had to believe in them to Speak, and she had relinquished the luxury of belief somewhere between exile and Ermane’s betrayal. But she had discovered too that the Danar’s Heart of a goodhand more than sufficed. Ferlis, ever observant, had not even noticed his amulet was missing or, when it returned, that it was a perfect replica.

So now Dace waited, not knowing if she would succeed. She had not practiced for a decade, yet as soon as she set hand to red string, she knew which natural laws she could bend. She had put the question to Ferlis once: where does the soul of an Incomplete go? And her next private question: how do I bring her back?

And so she waited, feeling the temperature plummet and the hum of invisible borders as the darkness burgeoned. She sensed the Alnight’s approach the way animals sensed rain and fear, and at the zenith of its power, she pressed Danar’s Heart against the marionette’s forehead.

The red ropes roused sluggishly (come to me, sister), the Ermane-doll jolted once in a silent hiccup (get up now), and again, more convincingly.

“Breathe,” Dace commanded aloud.

Its chest and limbs began to vibrate, gaining momentum and ferocity until Dace was forced to release Danar’s Heart. The doll’s torso arched high and balanced precariously, the loose head dangling back over its neck.

“Come on, damn you, breathe!”

Its voice came upon a rising croak, low and agonised, ending on a keening sigh. “D-d-daaayyy…seeeee.”

The Ermane-doll raised its head in palsied jerks, Danar’s Heart still fixed to its forehead. One of its black eyes shifted sideways, searching for Dace. It tried to sit up, heaving against its bondages.

“Dacey?” it whispered through a slack jaw.

“Over here,” Dace said. Both eyes swivelled towards her, spirit eyes that needed no physical connection. “Hello Ermie. Yes. Focus. Well, how do I look, dearest?”

“L-l-like ssshit,” replied the doll that was her sister. The preserved tongue flapped about in its mouth, tasting and testing the words.

“So do you,” said Dace.

The wooden mouth clacked up and down in soundless laughter. Dace smiled too and, for a moment, one cannot tell which sister is the corpse.

“I knew,” the Ermane-doll rasped, “if anyone could do it, you would.”

“I promised you I’d always be there. I told you I’d come for you.”

“I have missed you,” it said almost wistfully.

“How dare you,” Dace hissed, “how dare you when I’m the one who’s been rotting in prison for ten years. Exiled to a foreign realm, flogged and starved and ridiculed. Oh but I thought about you all the time. You were the only thing that kept me going.

“So you can imagine my disgruntlement when I came back and discovered you’d been living in comfort and freedom all this time, trading your old identity for new.  What’s more, you denied any involvement with me. You denied my very existence. You sold me out.

The Ermane-doll cocked its head and studied her with its flat quartz eyes. “Oh, Dacey. I’m so sorry.”

Dace quashed the rage and despair, the way she had taught herself. “Start talking,” she said.

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – II: The Gloaming (pt 3)

When Ermane barges into the kitchen, Dace is crouched over Mother with her ear pressed to the chest, listening intently. At first, it’s that look on Dace’s face that steadies her nerves, so placid but focused, and Ermane thinks: oh, Mother’s just sleeping.

Except Mother would never sleep in the kitchen, or on the floor. There is an abandoned knife too, thankfully clean, and Ermane can almost imagine the sound of its clatter as Mother collapsed and relinquished her hold, from whatever mishap befell her.

“I found her like this,” Dace replies before Ermane asks.

“Is she…?” Ermane’s voice trembles and she clears it to hide the panic.

Dace nods solemnly, calmly. Always she can walk through a crisis like Death through a battlefield. Ermane dares not step closer; she does not wish to see truth for herself. Instead she asks, “How?”

“I don’t know, but she’s still warm.”

Ermane stares at her sister. She knows enough about Father’s deeds to realise the significance of a warm body, to understand Dace’s meaningful look.

So, this is what the future looks like: the exact shade of pale of your sister’s face, the fear shifting in the set of her chin, belying the composure, while her eyes seeks approval, and that easy, precious wavelength flexing between them. Ermane answers; she kneels opposite Dace.

Dace immediately rushes off to fetch the things they will need, leaving Ermane alone with Mother. Gaping at her reposed face and the mouth that is for once immobile, Ermane feels a split creep inside her chest. One part realises the horror they are about the attempt; the other part acknowledges how young and very alone they are now.

Dace returns with Father’s satchel but none of his books. She means to do this without guidance? Before Ermane can question it, Dace upends the entire contents of the satchel between them. All the simple paraphernalia of a goodhand, and the essence of their father trapped within them.

“Light the candle,” Dace tells Ermane while she draws a wobbly chalk circle around Mother. She unwinds a coil of thin red rope, then paces the kitchen in search of something and finds it in a vat of oil.

“An impedimenta,” she said to Ermane, prising the lid open and plunging the length of rope inside. She pulls the rope back out, now slick and coated.

Ermane is completely befuddled, so Dace explains, “When the new dead is still warm, the soul sleeps inside until the vessel grows cold and gives up the ghost. The light from the candle guides them out, but the impedimenta prevents them from moving too soon. This is the window we need.”

“Window for what?”

“For a Speaking.”

Dace secures the oiled line from the candle to Mother’s big toe, moving nimbly and competently. The sisters have seen Father tie many life lines in his work, but the rest of the procedures are foreign to Ermane and, evidently, disturbingly, familiar to Dace. Around the chalk circle Dace writes in an alien language, a mixture of cursive and cuneiform shapes. She draws them with careful contemplation, as if for the first time, though the strokes are unerring.

“Dacey, how do you know this?” Ermane asks slowly. “Did Father teach you?”

“No!” Dace says. “You know he would never. He wouldn’t even let us assist in an Attending. But I’ve read his books, his notes…”

Ermane recognises her sudden hesitation. Because those notes, and the next steps beyond here, will lead them over their father’s same cliff.

Dace shakes her head and finishes off a queue of that strange script. She caresses Mother’s face, the hand of a child upon the cheek, but it is the voice a woman that says, “Let this cord be your path, this light your guide.”

The red line instantly comes to life, strumming like a song. They gaze at it, awed by the simplicity of it and their Mother’s presence.

“She’s still here,” Ermane breathes.

“Not yet,” Dace says. She picks up the knife.

“What are you doing!”

“We need to induce her to Speak. We need something that will wake her. Father had it wrong in his writings. It’s not as simple as a random blood sacrifice.” Dace might as well be talking to herself for all the sense she makes. “It has to be something familiar to the deceased, something precious. It’s perfectly logical.” Dace looks down at Mother, her knuckles white around the knife. “Like a finger’s touch to the tongue. Like blood of your own blood.”

And before Ermane can stop her, Dace raises the blade and brings it down decisively, callously, upon her own hand. Ermane screams. There is blood everywhere. Dace has her hand wrapped tight in the folds of her skirt, which has rapidly become soaked and dripping. A pinkie finger lies by her knee.

“You fool!”

Dace simply picks up the finger with her good hand and uses the bloodied tip to complete the final glyph: a circle on the forehead. How composed she looks, even with the alabaster complexion and the coursing sweat. How heartlessly she lopped off a piece of herself. Ermane becomes aware of the enormity of it all: that Dace will always be incomplete here on this earth. There is no turning back.

Dace opens Mother’s mouth and places the severed finger inside. She leans over her, grasping her collar. “Wake,” she whispers fervently. Tears drip along her jaw. “Come back to us, Mama.”

Don’t leave us alone. Don’t let this be for nothing. And Ermane finds herself wishing too, praying hard.

The line that holds their mother snaps straight; the candle gutters, shaking shadows out from hiding. Her chest lifts and hovers, as if strung up. Lashes flutter uncertainly, eyelids creak open, and the revulsion in them is a sight Ermane will never forget. From their mother’s eyes, they know that no life, or death, is ever meant to be like this.

The girls are riveted and appalled by Mother’s strangled features, those lolling eyes and the flashing whites, desperately seeking a way out. She moans, her throat choking around the blood and the finger.

“What have you done,” she is saying. “What have you done!”

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – II: The Gloaming (pt 2)

As a general rule, Mariole himself did not deliver in person, and especially not to dank basement hovels like these. It took time away from his beloved children, and who knew which of his apprentices would purloin his designs. Alas, one can only trust himself with his best works of art, and this creation here was surely the acme of his career.

Mariole knocked again, his other arm hugging the coffin-shaped box propped up beside him. While he waited, he polished the signage nailed on the side — Mariole, Marionette Extraordinaire — and blew off invisible sawdust. When his third knock went unanswered, he tapped the rusted knob, just innocently-like, a little slip of the hand that’s all, and was surprised to find it give way. Well, he couldn’t just abandon his darling here.

The hovel was even sadder inside, the size of an animal enclosure, really, and smelling worse than one. Books and papers festered in one corner, a grimy pallet in another. A window there yonder looked out to a most inspiring view of feet and ankles shuffling on street level.

But it was the doll display, the only spot of life and colour in the room, that Mariole naturally gravitated towards. Two dozen or so dolls, as tall as the hand, nothing at all like his own life-sized collection, but all in exquisite detail nonetheless. They were kept in large apothecary jars, the kind a goodhand kept his biological specimens in. That wasn’t so strange, Mariole supposed. He used birdcages himself. Who would’ve guessed he’d find a kindred spirit in so vapid a girl?

One of the dolls was particularly lovely, a splendid little thing with real blonde hair and red stained-glass eyes. Mariole lifted her out gently, marvelling at the sweet tunic made of plaited silk and her tiny leather shoes.

“Hello, my pretty,” he cooed. “Aren’t you cleverly made? A collector’s prize, for sure. Why, you must be hideously expensive; a goodhand’s assistant could never afford you — any of you! — on her piddling salary. From where and whom did she steal you, I wonder.”

A rattling at the windowpane interrupted his inspection, whereupon a giant white cocoon-thing slithered through the window and sagged to the floorboards. A wrapped corpse, it seemed. Mariole dropped the doll on a yelp and backed away; something screeched in protest beneath his shoe. When he looked down, the little red-eyed doll hissed up at him and scuttled away on all fours, pausing midway to clean dimpled cheeks before disappearing into a hole in the wall.

Mariole decided to withdraw posthaste — the girl was too strange even for his liking — but the dolls…they were waking. In their glass prisons they chattered incoherently, scratching to escape. One of them, dressed as a shepherdess, crawled up to the mouth of its jar and dislodged the lid as it scrambled gleefully up the wall, black curls bouncing. It made for a gap in the open door but a hand shot through and flattened it against the frame with a resounding smack.

The hand, slim and veined and missing one finger, retracted with the squirming doll. Next came the familiar face of Mariole’s client. Impassively, the goodhand’s assistant retrieved an empty jar and shook the shepherdess doll back inside.

“What did you do to them? Reanimation spells?” Mariole said disdainfully. Dolls were not people; they were meant to be inert, helpless.

“Get out,” the girl said. Her throat whirred mechanically.

Mariole gestured towards the box. “Do you not want to check her before I go? The jointed mandibles, the strings that move the limbs, all the beautiful details! You should want to see the results of the hours you put in yourself, sitting for it.”

She shoved him out and slammed the door after him. But Mariole had to know, he had to see her expression when she gazed upon his creation, as one collector to another, even if she was peculiar. He knelt down and peered through the keyhole.

The girl was lifting his doll out from the tissue wrap and setting it carefully on a chair. They faced each other, the girl and the doll, and such was Mariole’s genius it was as if they looked into a mirror.

In a kind of wonder, she sifted her four fingers through the strand of the doll’s hair, so straight and lustrous. Marvel at that perfect porcelain face, the charming nose, the prettily-lashed blue quartz eyes. The girl took a stick of graphite from her pocket and leaned over the doll’s face. When she moved away, Mariole saw she had drawn a mole on the left cheek. Blasphemy! He had to bite his knuckles to keep from gasping. Then, before a looking-glass, the girl began to brush the hair, five strokes to each side.

Mariole saw only the doll’s face reflection, staring back at him through the keyhole, her head twitching with each pull of the brush. He wondered if she would remember the way he had brushed her hair.

Finally the girl stopped and set the brush aside, arranging the doll’s hair behind the shoulders with the familiarity of repetition and ritual. From above, she lovingly cupped the sides of those rosy cheeks.

“Hello Ermane,” she said and wrenched the doll’s head off.

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – II: The Gloaming (pt 1)

People trusted Enid for two very important reasons: she didn’t ask and she didn’t care. The money was too good and, Hell’s bells, she had mouths and habits to feed like everybody else.

This girl too, the goodhand’s assistant, she needed feeding. The wimple and the voluminous shift did nothing to hide that gauntness, that hopelessness. Even her cheeks seemed to be taking a bite out of her face.

“The body,” the girl said. Her voice was oddly flat and muffled, as if she was speaking from inside a tin box.

Enid reached back for a set of keys and also–when the girl wasn’t looking–a sharp dagger and bottle of vivificus aqua, just in case she had to deal with walking dead. Not to offend the customer, but it was hard to tell. The aqua, thankfully, remained clear in the girl’s presence.

Enid lead the way through the fetid corridor, swinging the keys around a finger. “Don’t mind the stench coming up, twiddle cakes,” she advised. “You’ll get used to it. Here we are.”

‘Here’ was an unmarked room that housed defunct hibernariums, their freeze mechanisms long since expired. Enid stopped at one and threw open its heavy lid, unleashing a fresh fug of decay that burned the eyes and throat. While the girl fought back her gag, Enid hauled out the linen-wrapped corpse with the arm of a pugilist.

“Been out there a good month or so, roasting nicely in the sun,” Enid said as the assistant bent down to inspect it. “The poor lass took everything they gave her. Fed her head to the pack dogs after she got snuffed. Due for incineration in two days but figured she’d fetch a good price, what being a skullsapper and all.”

The assistant tossed over two fat rolls of surrey weed and a small but weighty coin sack. She did not wait for Enid to count the coins, only picked the body up by the feet and proceeded to drag it back the way they came. Enid pitied her; those meatless, spindly arms wrangling with all that dead weight. Then what about the stairs? She’d only rip the linen going up and there’d be bits of skin and entrails all over the concrete.

“Here now, girl, wait.” Enid pushed the assistant aside and hoisted the body up onto her own shoulder. “Champion wrestler back in my day. Where to?”

“I have a float, by the back door,” the girl replied.

They walked on wordlessly, and occasionally the girl hummed a low and monotonous tune in her throat. It was a song unfamiliar to Enid. They reached the back door, which opened to the clamour of the Festival and an alley where a small parade float waited. The girl lifted a flap of cloth covering the platform and helped Enid shove the corpse into the space beneath.

“Hey,” Enid held the girl’s shoulder back, “if your master needs more, maybe we can work something out.”

The girl only turned away with the grace of someone weighed down, rolling the float and hidden corpse with her, melding in with the babble of paraders.

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – I: Half Light (pt 3)

Dace swings her leg impatiently, its shadow like a pendulum going back and forth across the wall. Across from her, Ermane has her eyes closed, the crudely assembled circlet all but falling off her big head. Dace’s own circlet is no more sophisticated.

The girls are, as usual, up to No Good and Mother is not likely to look for them in Father’s library, not since he was arrested and executed. They have brightened the corners with some candles but, in all honesty, they like the dark. All sorts of things can grow in darkness–a seed, a thought, two foetuses.

“Are you thinking anything now?” Ermane asks. Her face is thrown up to the dusty ceiling, to better intercept those wavelengths.

“Mm hm,” Dace says. She’s thinking she’d like to draw a flower around that annoying mole on Ermane’s cheek.

“One word?” says Ermane, squeezing her eyes tighter, and Dace thinks: wind. Ermane won’t find that funny though, not when they’ve been at this for hours.

It was fun at first, collecting scraps of sentenium metal from the local magesmith, learning the transmitting spells and singing them into the metal as they plaited the strips together to fashion the circlets. Several modifications and ten thousand experiments later, they are no closer to accurate mental telepathy than ten thousand experiments ago.

“I’ve got something!” Ermane gropes for chalk and slate and scribbles. They both look down. Gooseberry.

“Not even close,” Dace says, “unless you count the time I ate too many.”

Ermane scrubs the slate clean with a fist. “Your turn,” she says.

Dace obliges by closing her eyes, but only because she needs help building a pixie net later. She opens her mind and focuses; she has no idea how but it’s what Ermane says she should do. She can hear her sister’s wet, wheezy breathing. She smells saffron and honey; they must be having goat stew again. Ah-ha! She seizes the slate and writes.

“Goat stew? No, that’s not it.” Ermane removes the circlet with a huge sigh. “Something’s wrong. What if we use something purer, like yellow nillium?”

“It’d break as soon as we put it on,” Dace says glumly. “Maybe the metal blocks our thoughts. I mean, we mindspeak well enough without it, don’t we?”

Actually, it’s only Ermane who believes in mindspeak. Dace knows they can predict each other’s words and movements so well because they’ve been together since they were born. She can’t tell Ermane this, of course, or Ermane might start crying like a baby.

“But don’t you see?” says Ermane. “If we can hone our wavelengths, make it more specific, we could sell this contraption! And the Alnight only serves to sharpen the connection.”

Again, not true. The Alnight blurs everything and turns lines into watercolours. But too late, Ermane is deep in thought, flicking her lower lip and trying to frown life into her circlet.

“What about copper lamnia? It’s not as malleable but it has more phantasmagorical properties.”

“Or maybe our wavelengths are so advanced they can’t be caught,” Dace reasons. “Maybe no one but the two us can understand them.”

Ermane jumps up with that look of vicious determination that Dace hates so well. “Come on, Dacey, let’s go back to Una’s workshop, see if he has some alloys or something.”

“But the roads are blocked and Mother told us not to go near the Festival.”

“We’ll be in and out before she even knows we’re missing.”

“But you promised to help me with my pixie net.”

“Forget about your stupid net. This is much better. Just think, we’ll be famous!”

Dace flings off the circlet. “You’re a liar! I’m not playing with you anymore.”

“Fine, be a sour baby!”

“Fine!” Dace says and stomps out of the library. It isn’t fair; they always do what Ermane wants. Plus they’ve been cooped up there for so long Dace is past hungry.

The kitchen is empty when she marches in, so she steals two sweet dumplings from the table, one for now and the other for Ermane later. She stirs the goat stew with a wrinkled nose, then, looking around, quickly throws a spoonful of salt inside the pot.

Mother must have left the back door open because there is a little zephyr making itself at home in the middle of the kitchen. As Dace walks into the scullery, the zephyr becomes cold and stinging. It raises a million spicules along her spine and a roar of blood to her ears.

This is what the future looks like: the trembling lid on top a boiling pot, the unswept sand cracking beneath her feet, the wind whistling through the house, breathing life in as one is whisked out, and Mother sprawled on the floor, her hair a question mark trail in the rushes.

***

to be continued…

Dace & Ermane – I: Half Light (pt 2)

Ferlis surveyed the dismay that was his workroom with a few murderous thoughts. Oromon, indeed. He’d not soon forget that name, see if he didn’t.

“Unsalvageable! The lot of it,” he declared to this assistant.

The chit was completely unsympathetic. She only held up his leather case and an oil lamp and said, “Your kit, sir.” At Ferlis’s blank look, she added, “An Attending, at the Tomlinsons’.”

“Right. Virgil,” Ferlis said, smacking his forehead. “See how this Oromon has befuddled me. Come come, give me the blasted bag then. And clean this mess up before you leave. I want a detailed inventory of the damage. I’ll send the bloody bill to the Academy, see if I don’t.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dead fish had more life, honestly. Still, beggars and choosers and all that, and trained assistants were hard come by these days.

Ferlis remembered to put his coat on before stepping out. The Alnight had a way of making the weather fickle, even in the middle of summer. Not a hansom cab to be had either, seeing as the Zangara had declared it a public holiday, which meant he’d have to go on foot. How he wished Virgil hadn’t up and died on today of all days, or that the boy’s father wasn’t an influential member of the Zangara’s council.

Ferlis hated Alnights, rare though they were. This was not the kind of darkness that eventide brought, where the moon softened and lightened. This was the kind of darkness found in nightmares or the naughty cupboard. He gripped the gold amulet around his neck, spouting off a round of mental litanies.

The streets were already thronging with parade floats and revellers. Ferlis intended to cross the city square, but they had cordoned off the entrance and were dismantling the criminal display case. This month’s exhibit had been a young woman suspected of necromantic activities. She’d undergone the usual way of torture–hooks, hydrochloric acid, confessions–and because she had been convicted of negative conjury, she had been beheaded, preserved and hung out in the square to be made an example of. The Zangara was most just, and bloodthirsty it seemed.

Why do it? Why risk your life with this necromancy business, or any form of negative conjury for that matter? One must be whole of body to reach Eltavari after death. But a beheading: it was the easiest way to incomplete a person. To keep their body on this earth was to consign them to limbo and deny them redemption and freedom. It was the ultimate betrayal of Danar’s teachings, the ultimate imprisonment. The poor soul would never find peace, and Ferlis could think of no greater punishment. He shuddered and touched his amulet again. The Zangara was most just, and unforgiving indeed.

The Tomlinsons were ostensibly sombre when Ferlis arrived. He gave them a perfunctory round of condolences and immediately asked to see the boy. No time to waste with the new dead; they had to be Attended to immediately, or they might start getting ideas about staying.

Virgil was laid out on the floor of his room, washed with saline and dressed in a plain linen shift as requested. His face was pale and reposed, his palms placed neatly atop his rotund belly. Someone had rubbed rouge on his cheeks but it only made him look garish and girly.

Ferlis sighed. Death by chicken bone, such a waste. At least the boy would not go to Eltavari hungry. He thought about the headless girl up in the square and prayed for her too.

Ferlis lit a large tallow candle and secured a long red jute string to its base, tying the other end around Virgil’s big toe. He gathered the family close, opened his arms and spoke solemnly: “Let this cord be your path, this light your guide. Let Danar take your soul, Vironas your flesh.”

The red string snapped straight and quivered gently, Virgils’ soul having been called and sufficiently attached. Ferlis relaxed. Nothing worse than trying to explain an absent soul during an Attending. The mother choked on a sob, and Ferlis encouraged her to touch him, to coax him along.

“Go peacefully, child,” she said, smoothing hair back from the boy’s forehead.

The candle’s flame fluttered violently then. The light tautened, almost to breaking point, and tugged insistently on Virgil’s big toe. One of his arms slipped down and flapped listlessly at his side like a broken wing.

“Oh dear,” said Ferlis, “he’s a little stubborn today.”

“It’s the chicken, you know,” the mother explained, dabbing an eye and placing Virgil’s errant arm back where it belonged. “He was loathed to let it go.”

Ferlis nodded sagely. “Of course, some of us just need a bit of help letting go, that’s all.” He patted her shoulder. “Let Danar’s Heart convince him there’s a better life on Eltavari.”

From beneath his collar, Ferlis drew out the chains of his amulet. Danar’s Heart, imbued with the faith of the Danar devout, so easy to forge yet so arduous to empower. He could feel all the hours of prayer notched into its flat edges. It seemed to flare triumphantly in the candlelight. Take that, Alnight!

With utmost care and mounting emotion, Ferlis held Danar’s Heart high up in the air…whereupon it promptly snapped in two.

Someone gasped, another made an ‘oh’ of disappointment. Ferlis stared at the jagged pieces of Danar’s Heart in his hand, wondering (not yet with anger) how and when pure gold had become plated lead.

He looked down at stubborn Virgil, whose head still rocked side to side as if caught in a wave, his soul resisting the call, then back at the fake amulet, now impotent against any sort of convincing, and he said, “Fuck.”

***

to be continued…

Next I: Half Light (pt 3)

Dace & Ermane – I: Half Light (pt 1)

Oromon wiped a circle out of the begrimed windows and peered across the street. “Of course I’m not implying you’re a corpse-lover, Ferlis,” he said over his shoulder, “or that you’re harbouring one. I’m simply making enquiries.”

Ferlis carried on about insulting respectable goodhands and how it wasn’t to be borne, all of which Oromon duly ignored. Outside, in the odd greyscale gloom, the nightwatch boys were lighting the lane sconces. It was only mid-morning but the Alnight would be here soon. Four hours, give or take. Soon the entire realm would be plunged into darkness for one day and one night.

It was a big event, this Alnight, a once-in-a-decade sort of thing. On his way over, Oromon passed homes decorated with demon masks and dancing charms in preparation for the Festival. He wondered why people bothered with such superstitions; it was only the simple geophysics of one realm eclipsing another.

He turned back to the sitting room when Ferlis’s gormless assistant set down the tea service.

“Take that back,” Ferlis ordered his assistant. “Academy dogs don’t deserve the civility of tea!”

“Come now, Ferlis,” said Oromon, “we’ve been nothing but civilised.”

Something crashed ominously upstairs where Vasan and Padbury were searching. The expensive kind of ominous. Oromon winced. Civilised, yes, but he wished his crew were less noisy about it. He gazed forlornly after the disappearing tea tray…and he had so been looking forward to that slice of poppyseed cake.

“Check the permit again, my good man. Signed by the Zangara herself,” Oromon said soothingly.

“I don’t care if it’s signed by Danar the Divine,” the goodhand cried. “You cannot waltz in here with your thugs and accuse me of-of-of…skullsapping!”

Oromon made a face. “I do hate that term. It’s so crass. Anyhoo, have you noticed anything missing from your workroom in the last few months? Reagents, preservatives? Necrobiological texts, cadavers, phylacteries, amulets, so on and so forth? Anything a necromancer might find handy?”

“I am a servant of the Zangara, you rot!” Ferlis paced indignantly, looking like a frowsy-haired worm. “A Danar devout! A disciple of medicine and learning! We abhor tampering with the unnatural; the Academy has no cause to suspect me or any other goodhand.”

“Ah but you are mistaken, Ferlis my dear. Goodhands are perfect candidates for necromancy.” Oromon paused to cast over Ferlis what he liked to call The Appraising Eye. “I like you, Ferlis. I like you because, despite the pea up your backside and all your hullabaloo, you are telling the truth–and I can always tell the truth–thus I will reveal to you my rationale.”

Oromon sat down with a sudden zeal that stopped even Ferlis in his tracks. “As both healer and priest, goodhands are almost always first to attend the sick and the dead, you agree? You are also required to update and practice your knowledge frequently, are you not? And, especially as you’re under the employ of the Zangara, you receive more than adequate funding for said practices. What necromancer’s guild wouldn’t want to recruit a goodhand? It’s unsurprising the number we’ve ferreted out from the underground, and among them how many are government-appointed. Goodhands are only human after all, even those belonging to the Zangara, bless the good queen.”

Far from looking convinced by this theory, however, Ferlis narrowed his eyes. “I wasn’t aware the Academy was involved in surveillance of negative conjury,” he said.

“My dear Ferlis, the Academy created the laws forbidding negative conjury.”

“Yes, and left it to the local terraforces to uphold those laws. A bit out of jurisdiction for you men of books and thaumaturgy, isn’t it?”

“We are a new branch, I will allow.”

“And what branch would that be, pray tell? Voodoo Patrol? Order of the Occultist Exterminators?” Ferlis smirked at the breadth of his own wit. “You dabble with necrophiles and the curious perverse; who’s to say this branch of yours is incorruptible?”

Now Oromon remembered why he found goodhands so irritating, but he smiled his best condescending Academy smile and rested his chin atop steepled fingers.

“Have you seen necromantic arts at its most depraved, goodhand?” Here, Ferlis scoffed derisively. “Oh, I imagine you think you have. You only know about the average gravediggers and body-takers, and the poor man looking to earn quick blunt by selling their body parts for a Speaking. Or those demon-worshippers of Vironas who think the only path to their god is to become a necromancer’s minion.

“Have you ever witnessed a Rending and, in turn, the ways to Tether that poor soul to a corpse? Did you know the dead can not only walk but spout philosophy as cleverly as they can eat your flesh? Would you even know one if it approached you on the street? Have you seen a newborn possessed and dance to beat of the dread-drum? Do you know how many necromancers a man will visit, the price he offers his soul, just to see his deceased wife and daughter? Do you know there are child prodigies who, before their thirteenth birthday can raise their own mothers–from the dead, that is?”

Oromon had drifted back to the window. He saw Ferlis’s scepticism reflected there.

“The best and most terrible works of necromancy come from the unexpected, the ordinary,” Oromon continued. “That’s why my goodhand theory is so delicious, because it is perfectly boring, perfect unexpected and perfectly logical. People think necromancy is like vampires or good politics–they hear of it but they never see it–but I tell you it exists. We must all of us be vigilant leading up to the Alnight, when the link between the living and the dead is most obscured, and thus, most tempting to whole conclaves of necromancers preparing to harness its might.”

“Ah, Vasan, Padbury,” he said as his two agents came in fighting cobwebs and sneezes. “What have we?” They shook their heads and filed out at the flick of his finger.

“Congratulations, Ferlis. You come out clean,” he said. “But if there are activities of special interest going on here, or anywhere else, you can be sure we’ll find it.”

“I’m filing a complaint,” said Ferlis.

“Your prerogative, of course. Here is the forwarding address. The name’s Oromon.”

***

to be continued…

Next I: Half Light (pt 2)