Welcome back to . Our program continues today with an extended excerpt from , a dark comedy about a family whose business isn’t exactly usual. The next book in this series, , will become available March 7th.
Finn Gramaraye was framed for the crime of dark necromancy at the age of 15, and exiled to the Other Realm for twenty five years. But now that he’s free, someone—probably the same someone—is trying to get him sent back. Finn has only a few days to discover who is so desperate to keep him out of the mortal world, and find evidence to prove it to the Arcane Enforcers. They are going to be very hard to convince, since he’s already been convicted of trying to kill someone with dark magic.
But Finn has his family: His brother Mort who is running the family necrotorium business now, his brother Pete who believes he’s a werewolf, though he is not, and his sister Samantha who is, unfortunately, allergic to magic. And he’s got Zeke, a fellow exile and former enforcer, who doesn’t really believe in Finn’s innocence but is willing to follow along in hopes of getting his old job back.
I’m Not the Man I Used to Be
It took all my self-control not to push my Fey warden to move faster along the glowing path toward freedom. We were like a couple of floating melted gummy bears made of unicorn snot and dreams, gliding lazily through the fractal rainbow landscape of the Other Realm. Twenty-five years, that’s how long the Arcana Ruling Council had exiled my spirit to the Other Realm without true physical sensation, without access to other people, to real music or any of the things that make our world so awesome. Exiled from my body and my life since 1986 for a crime I didn’t commit. But my sentence was over at last.
When I get back, I projected at the warden, I’m never touching magic again, even if my family begs. Just going to find my girlfriend and live like a mundane.
The warden didn’t respond. I was really just talking to myself anyway, nervous that the Fey would somehow yank away my freedom at the last minute.
We reached a raised platform of violet light where a second blobby warden and exile floated nearby, faced away from us. Though we were all in the bodies of unshaped Fey, I could sense the spiritual resonance of the other exile as being human, and male.
My warden raised a hand-like glob, and the air in front of me rippled.
A portal opened up, an oval window to my world, good ole Earth version mine. Beyond shimmered a beach, the Washington State variety with the freezing gray Pacific Ocean lapping a shoreline of pebbles and driftwood, all kissed orange by the setting sun. Just seeing those shapes and colors without having to manifest them from my own memory was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Actually, it caused butterflies to leak from the jewel-like lights that floated in the blob that served as my head, but point is, it was damn good to see Earth again.
I can’t say, however, it was so good to see myself standing there on the beach.
I was fifteen years old when they exiled me from my body. And most of my time in the Other Realm had been spent reliving memories of my youth for the entertainment and nourishment of the Fey.
So despite all the mental growth I achieved by reliving and reflecting on my past and all, my physical self-image was pretty well stuck at fifteen. But the dude who stood waiting on the other side of the portal was old. Not Emperor Palpatine old, I mean, I still had all my hair. Too much hair in fact: the wind blew it around my head in a ridiculous black mane. And the changeling who’d been granted use of my body kept me in good enough shape that he probably wasn’t even embarrassed to wear those tight jeans and even tighter black T-shirt, though I would not be continuing the David Hasselhoff look once I retook possession. But I looked, like, forty years old. I looked nearly my father’s age, or at least his age at the time I was exiled. I’d sort of known that would happen: the changeling might be immortal, but that didn’t stop my body from aging normally while he possessed it.
Still, it was a total mind blower.
A man in a black suit strolled into sight of the portal. His braided mustache identified him as an enforcer, a representative of the Arcana Ruling Council and police of all things magical in our world, come to monitor the transfer. He probably had a “we’ll be watching you, punk” speech ready for me as well.
The changeling flipped back his Joey Ramone hairdo, and raised his hand—my hand—to signal readiness for the transfer.
And as a bonus for ordering a body transfer today, I’d receive one memory transfer absolutely free. Twenty-five years of selected life history and real-world memories from the changeling—where “I” lived, where I worked, who I’d talked to, what had happened on TV the last twenty-five years—all part of the arrangement so that I wasn’t clueless, jobless, homeless, and presumed dead by the mundane authorities when I returned home.
I hoped he hadn’t watched Star Trek IV. It was just coming out when I got exiled, and I really wanted to experience it myself (yes, despite Star Trek III).
And music! Oh dear gods, I hoped this guy had listened to decent music.
Wait. Did I cancel my Columbia record and tape club membership before exile, or did I owe them like ten thousand dollars for a whole stack of unwanted tapes at this point?
Well, I’d know soon enough. The sun melted beneath the horizon and twilight began, a time for transitions. I felt the transfer begin.
On the beach, the enforcer kicked the changeling in the gut and flung something glittering at the portal. The transfer cut off.
The flung object disintegrated against the barrier between worlds, and a screech cut through my mind like a rabid cat being scratched across a chalkboard. Roiling clouds of gibbering ink gathered above our heads.
My warden grabbed me in a gummy bear hug. Betrayers! The word echoed through my mind. He dragged me back from the portal, but I struggled against him, willed myself forward.
No! I projected back. I didn’t do this! Damn it, let me go you slimy—!
Beyond the portal, the enforcer pulled out a wand and pointed it at the changeling—at my body! Purple lightning danced from the end of the twisted black stick like a neon snake having seizures, and my feybody heart lurched as I watched the arc strike my real body. Except that, somehow, the changeling deflected the lighting back at the enforcer, flinging the man back.
The dark hair and black suit of the enforcer rippled for a second as he flew into the surf, and I caught a glimpse of blond hair, beard, and black robes beneath. A glamour! Someone had disguised themselves as an enforcer.
The portal began to shrink.
The screeching clouds above me fell silent.
Then a house-sized blob of deep black nothingness plummeted down like a screaming meteor of oh-crap-this-can’t-be-good.
There was no point in arguing with my wardens now. I reached out to my body, not with my will but through the natural resonance between body and spirit, using skills learned during years of necromancy training with Grandfather. The connection was immediate. I travelled free of the Fey body and through the shrinking portal. As I hit the barrier I felt a cold behind me, the kind of cold that freezes lungs and makes Yeti shiver. And then I fell to my hands and knees on the pebble beach.
Sharp points bit into my palms and shins, chilly water splashed over my hands and wrists. The smell of salt air and rotting sea plants blasted into my awareness. I looked up to see the portal flickering. Beyond, the plummeting blackness shredded the warden, like a statue of multi-colored sand blasted by high wind. The portal winked out.
“That can’t be good,” I muttered. A bit of drool fell into the frothy brine between my hands.
Oh wow. I was back in my body. A real body. I was alive! And I was home! Wherever home was. The body transfer worked, but I hadn’t received the changeling’s memories. I had no clue where I was, other than a beach.
Had the other exile made it out? I looked in the direction he’d stood in the Other Realm, but rocky bluffs rose from the spot. If he had escaped, he was probably miles from here given the funky way distance worked between our world and the Other Realm. And I couldn’t sense the changeling. He’d most likely returned through the portal only to be destroyed, which just left me and—
I rose, and wavered a bit as I readjusted to having a physical body. I looked around, but I stood alone on the beach. The attacker must have fled.
Crap. It was nice to not have a foot flying at my face and all, but somewhere out there I had an enemy with the juice to launch an attack into the Other Realm. That was most definitely not awesome.
Why would anyone that powerful want to attack me at all? Then again, who had cared enough to frame me for dark necromancy in the first place, twenty-five years ago? Safest not to stick around enjoying the biting cold sensation of wind and water on my skin, just in case.
Skin. I had skin! And it ached in the cold! How awesome was that?
I took a few tentative steps, finding my balance and control as I pushed the floating mane of black hair out of my face. A clear path cut up between two driftwood stumps and through a bank of beach grass to my right, still visible in the surreal glow of twilight. I willed myself to be at the top of the hill. When nothing happened, I remembered that the stuff of reality no longer responded to (just) my will. So I stumbled up the path the old-fashioned human way, one step at a time.
I was grateful in that moment for the restrictions that had been placed upon the changeling by the Pax Arcana. Not so much the ones against using Fey magic, or interacting with my real life friends and family, or even the one against sex, although by the gods if anyone was going to have sex for the first time in my body it was going to be me! No, in that moment I was grateful for the magical boundaries protecting my mind and memories from the changeling’s, and the rules requiring that the changeling keep my body in excellent physical health. From the ache that spread through my head and muscles, I doubted I would be walking and thinking at all otherwise, not after that botched transfer. I might not even be alive.
Too bad that hadn’t protected the changeling.
I crested the hills, and ahead a mobile home squatted in a wide gravel lot surrounded by evergreen trees. I both hoped and dreaded that this was my home—hoped, because if not then I had no clue where to go next; and dreaded because, well, it looked like a pretty crappy place to live, oceanfront or not. As I moved closer I spotted a two-seater sports car parked behind it.
I knocked on the trailer and tried the door. It opened, and warm air washed over me, smelling of cotton candy and the faint vanilla tang of magic. No glamoured assassins or teenage mutant fairy attack squad burst out of the trailer and jumped me, so that was good at least.
“Hello?” I called, and entered.
The dead woman lying facedown on the floor really clashed with the Liberace decorating aesthetic.
Perhaps I should have been more shocked by the body, but I wasn’t. Maybe because I still felt numb from the events of the transfer. Maybe because I’d been raised around death, helping prepare and destroy the bodies of the dead in my family’s necrotorium.
Or maybe I really was just stunned by the gaudy awfulness of the changeling’s tastes. It was like Rainbow Brite had been given a BeDazzler, a flock of shedding peacocks, and a credit card and told to go crazy.
“Well, this sucks,” I said to the dead woman, meaning her death, not the decor.
The body didn’t respond, which was a relief actually. Talking to the dead was one of my arcane gifts, but something I hoped never to do again, not least because it drained my own life away to do so.
I rolled the body over and felt the unpleasant tingle of residual dark magic, like spiders made of ice crawling across my hand. Her head flopped over, and she stared with an expression of frozen horror at the ceiling. A blood-soaked strip of linen covered in silver runes spilled from her mouth, revealing the space where her tongue should have been. Necromancy. Dark necromancy.
“No. Damn it, no!”
Felicity. Our family’s au pair before my exile. She might appear human, but she was a feyblood creature, a witch to be exact, though Mother had insisted she was a good witch. She looked older than I remembered, wrinkled as though she’d spent too much time in the sun, but it was her.
What the hell was she doing here?
The last time I’d seen Felicity, she pointed at me from an ARC witness stand and declared that I’d attacked her with dark necromancy. The day before that, I had found her unconscious and bloodied body on my bedroom floor. And the night before that, we were laughing over a game of Trivial Pursuit with my sister and brothers, making up ridiculous answers to the questions.
I’d been made to relive those memories a thousand times in the Other Realm, all the confusion and hurt, the sense of betrayal and anger. But I’d had little choice except to deal with those feelings or go mad. So I turned my anger instead to the Fey who fed off of me, and convinced myself that Felicity had actually done me a favor, granted me a reprieve from the life of sacrifice and necromancy mapped out for me since the day my Talker gift manifested.
I might not have forgiven Felicity, but I wasn’t obsessively plotting revenge schemes either. And even if I had, she was supposed to be hidden away somewhere in the ARC equivalent of witness protection. At most, I’d hoped she would confess the truth someday, and clear my name.
Instead, someone had now killed her, in “my” home, with dark necromancy. Most likely the same someone who attacked my transfer. Had he brought her here by force, or drawn her here with some promise of revenge or reconciliation with me? Either way, she was the perfect choice for a frame job given our history. But why? Why try to kill me and frame me? It made no sense.
The bloody rune cloth meant her spirit was warded, so a Talker like me couldn’t get Felicity to speak again. And real enforcers might arrive at any minute, tipped off by my attacker or the release of magic. I didn’t have time to hang around playing Inspector Gadget.
I considered hiding the body, but there was nothing I could think to do that would keep the enforcers from finding Felicity with magic. And with my luck I’d be caught carrying her into the woods.
I looked from Felicity to the stove. Just one option I could think of; but first things first.
I rifled through the place and found “my” wallet and keys. Nothing in the trailer was really my stuff, not the stuff I left at my family home when I went into exile, and I didn’t find anything that seemed like a Scooby clue to explain who was really behind Felicity’s death. I went outside and made sure the car started, and was an automatic. I’d never learned stick.
Then I returned inside and grabbed a frying pan, lighter, paper towels, and cooking oil, and moved back to Felicity’s body.
Don’t worry. Despite what you may have heard, real necromancers don’t consume the flesh of the dead. In fact, most of us are vegetarians. That just sort of happens when you can sense life energy lingering in the flesh of anything that once had an active nervous system.
I hesitated, looking down at Felicity. I’d helped to destroy bodies before, but always with respect, following the proper rituals.
“Sorry, Felicity,” I whispered. “May your spirit find peace, may your energy bring light to the darkness.” The words were rote, but I felt a flurry of emotions as I said them: regret, sadness, and yeah, maybe a bit of satisfaction that this feyblood witch had paid in the end for what she did to me. That last bit made me uncomfortable, kind of like bad gas. But the self-examination could come later. Now was time for the running.
I dropped the frying pan on the floor, dumped cooking oil over Felicity and the paper towels, and lit the roll on fire after several fumbling attempts. Then I turned on the gas stove without igniting it, and ran outside.
A sorry excuse for a cremation, and cooking oil wouldn’t burn up a body, but when the propane blew it would be good-bye crime scene, hello unfortunate cooking accident. With luck, the body would take time to put back together and identify, and with the mundy fire department and police involved it would complicate the enforcers’ own investigation.
I dropped myself into the car, a Miata so the label read, and sped off along the gravel road.
Time to get someplace safe, and figure out who the hell still had it in for me. And that meant my family—possibly in both cases.
I have to say, I was a bit disappointed the car didn’t fly like in Back to the Future. It didn’t even run on fusion or anything cool as far as I could tell. After twenty-five years, you’d think there’d be more changes than making the cars really small.
At least I found driving easy. My body still felt a bit awkward to control and balance, but for some reason controlling the car, something external to me, came more naturally.
I was three minutes down the winding wooded road when a flash and boom caused me to look in the rearview. An orange glow lined the treetops. At least the treeline stood a ways back from the trailer and everything looked well rained upon, so Smokey the Bear would have no reason to chastise me I hoped.
I soon found my way to Highway 101 North around the Olympic National Rainforest, and finally to Port Townsend, my hometown. The clock in the car said 9:27 P.M. as I passed the first outlying houses and shops.
Unfamiliar streetlights and strip malls had replaced what once was a wooded approach to the small seaside town. But I had no fear that I would find my family home replaced by a record store or 7-Eleven. Port Townsend protected its funky old houses, and our family would never sell that house anyway. Beneath it lay our necrotorium. The work my family performed there—properly disposing of dead arcana and feyblood creatures saturated with magic—had resulted in the land being contaminated with whatever magic managed to escape our capture.
I heard that someone once built a Dunkin’ Donuts down near New Orleans, and the round donuts became mini portals to a shadowy corner of the Other Realm. The only way to close the portals and stop the invasion of gremlins had been for a group of enforcers to eat all of the donuts, followed by a pot of mushy lentils. Lentils, by the way, are a quick and dirty cure for ingested magics should you ever need one. In fact, there are few foods less magical than lentils.
Anyway, it turned out the land under the Dunkin’ Donuts had been a necrotorium in the long ago, and the records were lost during one of the Fey-Arcana wars. Point being, graveyards and old Indian burial grounds have nothing on necrotorium sites for lingering mojo.
So it was with relief but little surprise that I found my family home standing much as I remembered it, its peaked towers and gabled roof visible over the madrona trees that screened the property from the road.
I spotted movement in a car parked across the street and a little ways past our house. A pale face framed by an equally pale bowl cut leaned forward, watching. No beard. So not the guy who attacked me at the transfer. But there was something familiar about him—
I turned off our street before passing him, and hoped he took no special notice of me.
Memory clicked, and I knew who he reminded me of. Felicity. Which made him one of the Króls, the Germanic clan of feyblood witches that Felicity came from—or escaped from, by her account—when she moved to America. I’d feared they might seek revenge on me for my supposed past crimes against their kin, but I’d expected to have enforcer protection from them when I returned. Unfortunately, until I figured out who’d just killed Felicity, enforcers were the last people I wanted to see. Going to the arcana authorities last time about Felicity’s assault had resulted in my exile. I didn’t trust her death would lead to better results.
Were the Króls behind the attack on my transfer? Possibly. And equally possible they’d killed Felicity for leaving their clan at the same time they sought revenge against me for hurting her. Witch clans had their own twisted sense of justice that more resembled something from a bad mafia movie than anything sane or logical.
I took the back streets through town and drove around for several minutes to make certain I wasn’t followed. The residential streets were imaginatively named. There was “A” street, followed by “B” street, followed by “C” street. You’d think Big Bird had been the founding mayor.
The town had changed quite a bit since I’d left. Before my exile, a clash had begun between wealthy retirees versus the resident hippies, laborers, and artists, a clash that ran like an undercurrent through everything in the town. Clearly, that clash had continued during my absence, evident in the large golf course, cookie cutter mansions, and a lot of new franchise stores and restaurants versus the funky old homes and artsy Ma and Pop storefronts. I wondered how the culture clash had affected the more one-sided tensions of the arcana community living hidden among the mundies.
I glanced in the rearview. Nobody followed me, and I hadn’t begun to burst into boils or flames or any other subtle symptoms of a deadly curse. I circled back and parked a couple blocks from our house in the lot of a local hardware store, then snuck through backyards, empty lots and grassy alleyways to the garden gate behind our home.
I paused, one hand on the cold black iron. I’d hoped to deal with my family—their expectations, and my feelings of being abandoned in exile—on my own terms and on my own time. I looked in the direction of the street where the Król witch waited. For all that I was free from exile, I still didn’t have much freedom of choice it seemed. I needed help.
I sighed, and passed through the gate.
Mother’s garden filled most of the back yard. After her death, it took on a mind of its own—or rather, its mind was a bit more vocal than other gardens due to the high concentration of magic on the property. Now, its once carefully tended beds had become a mysterious jungle surrounded by a tangled and thorny wall. If I didn’t know better, I’d think a Cthulhu cult had moved in and were trying to breed tomatoes and roses together to create a plant of ultimate chaos, destruction, and evil red yumminess.
I skirted the edge of the garden, and approached the back door. As I neared the house, a red glow lit up the darkness to my left and caused me to jump. Then I registered the sickly sweet scent of a clove cigarette, and my eyes caught up with my nose. A woman stood in the shadows, smoking.
“Hello?” I said, prepared to run for my life at the first itch of a curse.
The woman stepped forward into the light from a nearby window, and smiled. She had short-cut black hair, thick black glasses, and a nose ring. She looked familiar, and yet not. There was something of Mother in her face, and something of—
“Sammy?” I asked, surprised.
“Hello, brother. Sneaking in the back way? You do realize Father can’t ground you anymore, right?”
“Sammy!” I threw my arms around her. She stiffened for a second, then hugged me back. We stepped apart, and I said, “You still live here?”
“Hell no! I’m here for your welcome home party.”
“Party?” I glanced up at the house. “So the whole family’s here?”
“Well, not the uncles and all, but our happy little nuclear disaster family, yeah. The enforcers were supposed to tell you, but I guess they forgot after giving you their lecture, huh?” She dropped her clove and ground it out.
“Anyone else here?” I glanced toward the street, where the pale man watched the house. “Anyone from the local council, maybe?”
Sammy snorted. “As if our family weren’t bad enough.”
That might be truer than she knew. One of the many things I realized during my long exile was that someone in my family likely helped in framing me. Our home is pretty well warded against outside magical influence or unwanted guests, yet Felicity had been attacked all those years ago in our home, in my bedroom, and with necromancy. But now that I stood here, about to face my family, I found the idea hard to accept. We were hardly the Brady Bunch, but dark necromancers? Murderers?
“All right, let’s get this over with,” Sammy said and turned toward the house. She paused, and turned back. “Look, a lot has changed since you … left, Finn.”
“No doy,” I replied.
“No doy? Oh man, I haven’t heard that in years. Glad to see you’re still a dork.” She looked away. “I actually missed you.” She sounded surprised.
“I missed you too, Sis.”
“Yeah, well, you got to enjoy exile from this stupid world. Me, I had to deal with our family.”
“I see you’re still a people person.”
“And you’re still a smart ass.”
“Hey now,” I said. “My humor is a legitimate coping mechanism. My therapist said so.”
“Uh-huh. Worst money Father ever spent, sending you to an empath.”
“Worse than sending you?”
“Touché. Come on, dear brother, the sooner we get this reunion over with, the sooner I can leave.”
We climbed the creaky steps to the back porch, and Sammy led the way inside to the mud room. The tingle of the house’s wards buzzed over me like a waterfall of love bees as we crossed the threshold. I glanced back out into the night before closing the door. Whoever or whatever was after me, I felt a little safer now.
I turned to find my mother’s ghost smiling at me and Sammy. The cascade of straight black hair that had been her pride in life shifted behind her like a cape in a non-existent breeze, and the glowing tan skin inherited from her Mexican mother shone now like brown garnet in a jeweler’s case.
“How was school, kids?” Mother asked. Her voice had a distant quality, as though channeled via drive-thru speaker.
“Holy crap,” I whispered. Mother’s ghost? How
“Mira, interesting fact,” Mother said, a phrase that I’d heard constantly growing up. “The Catholics have an entire vault full of petrified poopies they think might have belonged to Jesus, and they don’t know what to do with it all. There’s been a fierce war going on for centuries as to whether the holy crap is actually holy, or entirely unholy. On the one hand, it came from the body of their messiah. On the other hand, it is the waste rejected by his body. You would be surprised how many major conflicts in history were really the result of those two factions secretly fighting for power and—”
Sammy sneezed, the kind of sneeze that registers on weather maps, knocking me back a step with her elbow.
“Are you feeling well, Sweetie?” Mother asked.
“I’m fine, Mom,” Sammy said. “We have homework to do.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course, sorry dear. Go get yourself a snack, and then right to your homework.”
“Yes, Mother.” Sammy waited until Mother’s ghost drifted off, then looked at me. “You okay?”
“Yeah. No. I don’t know. How can Mother be here? We diffused her energy properly.”
“Apparently it has something to do with the garden,” Sammy said. “She put a lot of her energy into it. And she’s just a ghost, obviously.”
Ghosts were not spirits, or “souls,” but just copies usually impressed on the world by a traumatic death.
“Hey, you’re asking the absolute wrong person, remember?”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” Sammy could channel magical energy, but she was highly allergic to it. That had made her a bit of an outsider growing up, and grumpy whenever the topic of magic came up. More grumpy, that is. “I didn’t realize how much I missed Mom’s crazy stories.”
“Yeah. It was nice, at first. But, you know, she’s pretty much stuck where she was when this echo was created. I’ve heard the same stories repeated my entire life.”
Stuck where she was at, no memories of the decades since. I was little better off than a ghost.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can imagine it’s been hard for you especially, seeing Mom all the time, but it not really being Mom?”
“Sometimes. But not as hard as when Father forgets who I am.”
“Father? What’s wrong with—”
A young teen girl burst through the swinging door from the hallway into the mud room, and stopped short when she saw us. She looked amazingly like a fifteen-year-old Sammy. “Auntie Sam!”
“Hi, Mattie,” Sammy said.
“I’m so glad you came!” Mattie said. “Oh my gods, Uncle Finn? It’s so cool to finally meet you!”
Mattie threw her arms around me and gave me a hug that would have put a pro wrestler to shame, then bounced back and said, “Dad’s really excited to see you. He’s in the dining room. I have to run, I’m helping downstairs. Love you!” Mattie ran through a door on the left that led down to the basement.
I blinked, then said, “Is she hopped up on pixie sticks or something?”
“No. That’s just Mattie.”
“Wait. Uncle Finn?”
“Oh, yeah, Mort spawned offspring. You’re an uncle. Congrats!”
For some reason, this hit me harder than seeing myself and Sammy aged, or even finding a dead body on my return. All of that had felt a bit surreal yet almost normal after what I’d been through before. But seeing Mattie, a girl barely younger than Mort or I had been when I was exiled, and discovering she was Mort’s daughter? My brain started to feel like, well, any one of the computers Captain Kirk caused to self-destruct by arguing with it—reality did not compute. I really wasn’t the age my brain kept insisting I was. I couldn’t just pick up my life where I’d left off, with everyone a little older. I’d missed a lot, lost a lot, in being gone for twenty-five years, things more important than movies and music. Adult things.
I might have been a parent by now.
I might have had a wife by now.
Or at least had sex.
I thought of Heather, the girl I fell in love with the year before exile, the kind of deep, true, certain love that made me feel like I could do anything. Anything except, of course, tell her how I felt.
“Hey,” I said. “You know whatever happened to Heather?”
“Ask Mattie,” Sammy said. “Miss Brown’s her teacher.”
“Who’s Miss Brown?”
“Wait. What? I—Oh! Oh.” Heather had married. Of course.
“Yeah.” Sammy shrugged. “She’s divorced now though.”
“And she had a kid when she was, like, nineteen. And stop saying ‘oh’.”
“O … kay” I said.
“You can always stalk her online, see what’s what.”
“On what line? You mean call her?”
Sammy stared at me as though I’d just asked what music was. “Oh my motherboard,” she said. “You really don’t know, do you? And you didn’t even know about Mattie. Weren’t you supposed to get a bunch of memories from that Fey jerkling?”
I realized my mistake too late. As much as I wanted to trust Sammy, I couldn’t know for sure who to trust, not yet. The last thing I wanted my enemies to know was how much I didn’t know.
“Yeah, of course! I was totally kidding.”
Sammy shook her head, her eyes narrowed. “Nice try, but I can tell something’s up. Come on, out with it.”
“It’s nothing. I just—something didn’t go right in the transfer is all. I didn’t get all the changeling’s memories.”
“Shit. That sucks.” Sammy said. “Or maybe not. At least you get to experience stuff yourself, rather than second hand. Hell, I envy you. To hear Nirvana for the first time? Or Sleater Kinney? But look.” She glanced up the hall, toward the dining room entrance, and stepped closer to me. “Don’t let on to Mort or the others that anything went wrong with the transfer.”
“Mort’s been running things here, but you know everyone kind of expected that you’d take control, being the Talker and all. And Grandfather definitely wanted you in charge. Or at least, he put all that stuff in his will about wanting a Talker to take over. Mort definitely hasn’t forgotten that.”
I shrugged. “Grandfather also wanted someone with children to take over, to continue the line. He didn’t know I’d be exiled for twenty-five years.”
“Maybe. But you’re still the only Talker left in the family, and that trumps kids according to Grandfather’s whacked out logic.”
“Yeah, well, I loved Grandfather but I never asked to be a Talker, or to run things.” I flinched a bit as I said so, half expecting Grandfather’s spirit to appear, slap his thigh, and give me an angry lecture about duty and responsibility. I loved Grandfather and owed him a lot, not just because the knowledge he’d given me saved my sanity in the Other Realm and my life during the attack, but also because I’d felt his spirit watching over me during my exile. I hated the thought of disappointing him. But I also hoped he would understand why.
“Besides,” I added, “most of the biz is just spirit dissipation and collecting the magic anyway. Mort and Pete can do that just fine, especially with Father’s help. And Mort’s the oldest. That’s good enough far as I’m concerned.”
“Maybe,” Sammy said. “But Mort treats—gods, this is why I avoid these gatherings. I’ve been here ten minutes and I’m already talking shit behind Mort’s back.”
“Look, Sammy, I know you’re just trying to help. But to be honest, I have zero desire to pay the price of Talking, or to spend my life around the dead. I’m taking this chance to officially leave the family biz, make a fresh start.” Hopefully with Heather.
“Seriously? Doing what? Your necromancy gifts’ll give you about as many career options as a degree in Women’s History. Believe me, I know.”
“I was thinking maybe I’d make video games, like the Commodore ones we used to play together. I wouldn’t be around grief and death all the time, or people bickering over magic. Nobody would have reason to try and kill or exile me. And best of all, making games won’t suck the life out of me. I could kick even your butt at writing BASIC before I left, and I had some cool ideas—”
“BASIC?” Sammy shook her head. “Oh, man. You— Wow. You’ve got a lot to catch up on. Just, please, be careful while you do. Mort’ll be looking for any excuse to stay in control, and you shouldn’t decide to let him until you get to know him again is all.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Shall we go see him, then?”
We walked down the hall, and through the kitchen. The lingering smells of garlic, vinegar, and baked cheesy goodness made my mouth water, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten in, oh, about twenty-five years. An arched doorway led to the dining room. A table long enough for eight seats to a side filled the center of the room, covered in a red cloth and a row of mismatched dishes containing veggies, breads and cheeses, and various bumpy brown entrées, all lit by two electric chandeliers.
I noted with some disappointment a complete lack of pizza.
Two men stood beside the table, talking with their backs to us. I easily recognized my younger brother Peter even from behind. Petey had always been a big guy—not fat, or all muscles, just big, like Bigfoot is big, and when he turned in profile I saw that he still had a round baby face. That face fit him more than the size did, since he’d always had a kind of childlike simplicity to him.
I didn’t recognize the second dude until he turned to the side. Mort had grown to look a lot like Father, who looked a lot like Leonard Nimoy. And he appeared to have changed in more ways than just growing older. When I left, he’d been into Michael Jackson and breakdancing, calling himself Turbo Morto. Now, he dressed like Dracula’s attorney in a black suit with red shirt. And the Vandyke beard made him look like evil Spock, but with a receding hairline and a diamond in his left (non-pointy) ear.
Mort took a big bite of a brownie, then offered it to Petey. “Man, that’s damn good. Sure you don’t want some?”
“I can’t eat chocolate,” Pete said, and pushed it away with a leather-gloved hand. “You know that. I put the list of stuff I can’t eat on the fridge. Again.”
“Ooooh, right. Sorry.” Mort grinned, and took another bite, then spotted Sammy and me. “Hey! If it ain’t Finn Fancy Necromancy Pants, in the flesh.”
“Finn?” Pete said, and turned. “Finn!” He rushed at me and grabbed me in a bear hug.
“Hey, brother!” I gasped. He released me. Everyone adjusted to form a small circle, and I struggled not to sneeze from Mort’s cloud of musky aftershave.
“Wait,” Pete said, a very earnest expression settling across his face. “I have to say something quick. I took your Pac-Man watch.”
“I took your Pac-Man watch. I wanted to tell you before, and then you got sent away, and I felt real bad, and I told myself I would tell you as soon as I saw you so that I wouldn’t not tell you before you go away again.”
I laughed, and slapped him on the shoulder. “I sure missed you, dude. It’s totally okay.”
If any other family member had said “before you go away again” after the evening I’d had, my spidey senses might have tingled. But Pete wasn’t the type to be plotting against me. That would require him to say one thing and mean another, and Pete could barely manage a single train of thought chugging along in his one-track mind. Add another train to that track, and it would be a disaster.
“Wait right here, I’ll get it so I don’t forget,” Pete said.
“No, wait, that’s—”
Pete rushed off without hearing my words. I sighed, and looked at Mort as he stuffed the last of the brownie in his mouth.
“No chocolate, the gloves—” I frowned. “Petey doesn’t still think he’s a waerwolf, does he?”
Mort gave the “whatcha gonna do” shrug, and grinned.
Pete got bit by a dog shortly after Mother’s death, and insisted it was a waerwolf. He took Mother’s death pretty hard, and seemed excited at the thought of being a waerwolf. We just didn’t have the heart to tell him he wasn’t, not right away. On the next full moon, he went out to our tree fort and tied his ankle to the trunk with rope so he wouldn’t hurt anybody. Mort used a garden claw to scrape fake claw marks in the trunk as Pete slept, and cut up Petey’s pajamas. Pete woke convinced he’d transformed during the night.
Soon though, he began threatening to bite or scratch us at every turn. I tried at that point to tell him he wasn’t a waerwolf. He told me not to be jealous. I told him not to be an idiot. He waited until I left, then peed on my new Kangaroos gym shoes.
That’s when Mort told me his idea of offering Pete a potion to stop the transformation—not a cure, of course, but something that must be drunk every full moon. I admit, I joined in on the prank. It took quite a bit of experimentation to come up with the perfect mixture. I won’t reveal the full contents, but will say that the tangy creaminess of the mayonnaise and sharp bite of the orange juice was nicely contrasted by the pyrotechnic sweetness of the coke and pop rocks.
“Nobody’s told him the truth, still?” I asked.
Sammy shrugged. “I tried to tell him once, but he kind of freaked out on me.” She glared at Mort. “I think Mort still gets some thrill out of toying with him. But Pete seems happy, living here close to Mother and Father, so I just let it be.”
“Still,” I said.
I could believe that Pete wouldn’t want to leave home, but there was no reason for Mort to still be tricking him. It was just cruel at this point.
That, and Sammy’s warnings, only made it easier for me to believe what I’d struggled to accept: Mort was surely the one who’d helped framed me twenty-five years ago. Who else could it have been? Mother and Grandfather were dead, Sammy wanted nothing to do with magic or the family business, Petey was incapable of such plotting, and Father, well, he had nothing to gain from it. That left Mort.
Yet I didn’t want to believe it still. Mort and I were brothers, we’d had some good times together growing up. He’d pulled quite a few pranks on me out of jealousy or sheer mischief, and the joke on Pete was beyond excessive at this point, but attacking Felicity and framing me for dark necromancy was a whole other level. It wasn’t like I’d ever caught him torturing the neighbor’s dog. Spray painting, yes. Torturing, no.
Maybe some feyblood had mind-tricked him into it, or some trickster god or other Fey Elder Spirit. Maybe even Felicity?
But even if that were true, why then had he not told the ARC and gotten me released from exile?
“Earth to Finn,” Mort said. “You look like your brain’s still in the Other Realm.”
I shook my head. “Sorry. Still adjusting.”
Pete arrived, breathing heavy, and held out my old Pac-Man watch. I laughed, and strapped it on. “Thanks, Bro.”
“I’m really glad you’re home, Finn,” he said.
“Yeah,” Mort said. “Welcome back to the world. If there’s anything you need, you just let me know. I imagine you’ll probably want to live at your place, but anytime you want to crash here you’re welcome. We kept your old room just like you left it.”
“Because Father threw a fit when you tried to pack it up,” Sammy muttered.
“Point is, mi casa es su casa, brother,” Mort continued.
Sammy arched one eyebrow. “Don’t you mean su casa es mi casa, now that he’s back?”
Mort shot Sammy an annoyed look. “I’m just trying to make my brother feel welcome.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sammy said. “You’re drowning him in unconditional love right here. I’m surprised he can even breathe.”
Petey looked between Sammy and Mort, shrinking in on himself a bit.
“It’s okay, guys,” I said. “Really, I’m just glad to be back.”
“That’s all I’m trying to say,” Mort said. “It’s nice to have the whole family back together.”
“Yeah,” I said. Nice, in much the same way the first American Thanksgiving was nice. “Hey, speaking of family, congrats on being a father. That totally surprised me. I mean, no offense, but, dude, who would marry you? And when do I meet her?”
Mort crossed his arms. “I didn’t marry Mattie’s mother. And she left shortly after Mattie was born. I’d rather not discuss it.”
“Left? Her own child? Why?”
“Reasons. Good ones. And I said I’d rather not discuss it.”
“Oh. I, uh, sorry.” Something told me Mort didn’t want to discuss it further. “So … where is Father?” It wasn’t an easy question for me to ask. The last time I’d asked it was the day of my trial by the local Arcana Ruling Council, and Mort told me that Father was so heartbroken at the thought of losing me that he couldn’t be there.
“Father?” Pete asked. Mort and Sammy exchanged quick glances, but Petey just grinned. “Father’s downstairs,” he said.
Sammy sneezed an explosive sneeze.
And then a real explosion shook the house.
The explosion rattled the dishes and caused a bit of plaster dust to fall from the ceiling. Another attack? I grabbed Sammy and shoved her under the nearby arched doorway for protection, then pressed my back against the door frame.
Mort brushed a bit of plaster dust off of his suit jacket and scowled as he replaced the covers on some of the dishes on the table. Petey stared up at the ceiling and grinned with his tongue stuck out as though the falling plaster were snow.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Father,” Sammy replied, and wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Come on,” Mort said, and waved for me to follow him. “Let’s go see how bad it is this time.”
I followed Mort back down the hallway and through the basement door. The stairs creaked, and a cloud of dust swirled beneath the yellow bulb at the bottom of the stairwell. I heard coughing as we descended.
“Father? Mattie? You all right?” Mort called out.
“Okeemonkey,” Father’s deep voice came from below, more tremulous than I remembered.
“We’re fine,” Mattie added. “The doves exploded is all.”
I glanced at Mort, but he didn’t appear to find the statement at all odd. I took a deep breath and continued to follow him down into the basement.
Thick wooden beams were spaced out to support the ceiling, and a wall with frosted glass windows separated the basement into two halves. Through the frosted windows, light shimmered off the stainless steel tables used for preparing bodies, and the equipment used to drain and pump fluids, the same as might be found in any mortuary. But the area we now entered held our necrotorium: ritual tables surrounded by protective circles embedded in the floor, the collection altars to gather and store magic from the dead, and cabinets and shelves lining the walls. Beneath the concrete floor, warded and insulated, sat hidden our personal store of mana—magic in its captured and stored form.
Under the fading smoke, the basement smelled of earth mixed with bleach.
Everything stood much as I remembered it, though I noticed that many of the older and more valuable family artifacts were missing, including several of the protection amulets from the open cabinet to my left. I snagged the family’s hex protection amulet as we passed, and slipped it on. If the Króls managed to throw a curse at me outside the house’s wards, I’d have some protection at least.
Mort led me to the right, to the recessed space where Father practiced his thaumaturgy—creating objects that used or worked by magic. Except it no longer held the ordered workshop I remembered. It held Frankenstein’s lab.
Gizmos flickered with lightning, gadgets buzzed with plasma, doohickeys covered with dials and levers and meters hummed and pinged. There was no bolt-necked monster, thankfully, but a table held several probes pointing down at two scorch marks that I assumed were all that remained of the exploded doves.
On the far side of the table stood Mattie and my father, both wearing wide grins beneath goggles and hair that danced in static haloes.
I felt a sharp pang in my chest at the sight of my father. Every one of the past twenty-five years showed in his wrinkled face, his shrunken and slimmed frame. But his smile and twinkling eyes still looked young.
“Ah Finn, good, there you are. I have something for you. It’s just over there in the platypus.”
I looked to where he pointed. An easy-bake oven covered in painted runes emitted a blacklight glow. “Platypus?” I asked, feeling a growing chill, like a winter shadow made of dread.
“What?” Father said, and jumped as though he’d forgotten I was there.
“You said platypus. I don’t see a platypus.”
“Of course not. The platypuses were all made into pudding years ago. Who let you into my lab?” He turned to Mattie. “Who let the monkey into my lab?”
The dread exploded into full realization: my father was mad.
“He’s not a monkey,” Mort said in an impatient tone. “He’s your son Finn. What’s going on here? Mattie, I told you no more explosions.”
Mattie lifted the goggles to the top of her head. “Papa G made Finn a welcome home gift. He said it’s really important.”
Mort rolled his eyes. “You should know better. He always says it’s important.”
“Important,” Father agreed, nodding sagely. “From the Latin importantus, to import ants.” He looked down at Mattie. “Why do you suppose the Romans imported ants? I’m sure your grandmother would know. Where is she?”
“Enough,” Mort said. “Father, clean this mess up before morning. We don’t want to scare off any customers.”
“Our customers are dead,” Father said. “They’re past being scared.”
“I meant the— Oh, never mind. Mattie, make sure he cleans this up.” Mort turned to me. “Do you see what I’ve had to deal with since you left?”
“I didn’t leave, damn it, I was exiled.”
But I did see. And I felt the bottom drop out of the cereal box of my heart. Despite all my worries that he’d abandoned me, I realized how much I’d counted on my father being there now to help me figure out what was going on, to help me stop it. To help me make sense of everything, including my exile, and my feelings about it. Instead, I found myself wishing I could help him.
I moved closer to Mort and whispered, “How long has he been like this?”
“Crazy?” He didn’t bother to whisper. “Since you left. Sorry, since you were exiled. Actually, it started a little before, when you were arrested. That’s really why he didn’t come to your trial.”
The accusation was clear. It was my fault Father was crazy. Except, if Mort was the one who got me sent into exile, then this too was really Mort’s fault. And convenient, too, if all of this was about Mort running the family business.
“Where’s my tree?” Father said, and his voice sounded close to tears.
“In your room, Papa G,” Mattie said. “We’ll go there soon.”
“Tree?” I asked her.
“A bonsai. He’s been trying to find the right shape for years.”
“The right shape for what?”
Mattie shrugged. “He won’t say. I think he just enjoys working on it.”
“You still need to clean up this mess,” Mort said.
“We will,” Mattie replied without any of the sullenness or rebellion I would have expected in her voice. “Uncle Finn, don’t forget your gift.” She nodded to the easy-bake oven.
I opened the plastic oven, and on a mini cake pan inside I found a silver ring. The ring was too small to fit over my fingers, and didn’t appear to have any gaps to resize it.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Not for the blood, but for the heart,” Father said.
“Scribble scroble, nib to noble.”
“Ignore him,” Mort said. “He rambles like this all the time, and it never makes any sense far as I can tell. Come on. Let’s get some food before it goes bad.”
I grabbed Mort’s arm. “Hey. Have you taken him to a mind healer? Have you tried to find out what’s wrong with him?”
Mort shook me off. “I know what’s wrong with him. You know the signs as well as I do. Something bad got into his head.”
Mort was right, that would explain Father’s behavior. Being possessed against your will could scramble the brains a bit, especially if the spirit was of something that had never been human. But I shook my head. “Father’s not a necromancer. He wouldn’t have been summoning anything. And we have all kinds of protections against possession or attack from the outside.”
“Yeah, well, maybe he was distracted by his son being arrested, and did something dangerous to prove your innocence. Doesn’t matter now, does it? I took him to a healer, and they couldn’t help him.”
Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Sammy appeared. “Enforcers are here.”
Mort went pale. “What?” He looked around as though afraid he’d left a pile of drugs or guns lying about.
Sammy arched an eyebrow, and said without taking her eyes off of him, “They asked for Finn.”
Copyright © 2015 by Randy Henderson
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