Nine year old Ian Cale was about to die. The monster that had just butchered his sister turned its wild gaze on him and growled threateningly, displaying row after row of yellowish fangs stained red with blood. Its gore-spattered fur gleamed in the light of the campfire as it took a menacing step towards him, then another.
Yes, Ian was about to die. The monster knew it. He knew it. It was a sure thing… until his sibling’s body moved. It wasn’t a natural movement; it jerked upright like some demented puppet master grabbed hold of her limbs and brought her back to life. That wasn’t the worst of it, though.
The worst was that Ian could feel her spirit deep inside himself. It was a chilling, bone-deep presence that called to him. He recognized the energy that remained of her, but the thing rising behind the blood-spattered beast ‘wasn’t’ his sister. He shuddered and saw the reanimated corpse spasm in response, seeming to feed off his emotions.
The huge, grotesque monster paused, appearing to sense her. Suddenly, it wheeled around, a massive, deadly claw streaking out to rend her midsection, shredding her lifeless skin apart and opening up large furrows. The cadaver’s lips curled into an unnerving smile, seemingly unaffected by the damage wrought. A low, mocking laugh flowed out of her dead parted lips, the unsettling sound causing a shiver to run down his spine.
Ian watched with wide eyes as the pintsized corpse backhanded the beast across the clearing, breaking bark from the tree it smashed into. The furred creature gave a startled yelp of pain and surprise that was abruptly cut off when the corpse, which Ian had expected to move sluggishly –like a zombie-, sprinted towards the fallen monster and wrapped her tiny hands around its neck.
It seemed ridiculous that a savage beast that outweighed its opponent by hundreds of pounds could be losing in a battle of strength, but it was. The monster struggled under the corpse, arms flailing, trying to get leverage or cause enough damage to kill what was already dead. Ian saw the monster that’d killed his sister dying and felt satisfaction.
The body that had replaced his sister cooed in pleasure at this emotion and her fingers ripped through the neck of the monster, cleaving through bone and tissue until she’d finally beheaded it. As if a switch had been flipped, the creature stopped its convulsions, resting still. Then its furred body began to mutate and shift.
All those present heard the crackling of bones breaking. Where a few moments earlier there had been a massive, terrifying beast, now lay the naked, beheaded body of a man, still stained with blood. The corpse turned to face Ian and he could have sworn, for an instant, he recognized his sister in those dull eyes.
She smiled sadly, somehow showing a spark of life in her grim visage. Her fingers seemed to reach for him in a final farewell, and then the corpse dropped to the ground, its strings cut. Ian felt the energy that represented her… what? Spirit? Soul? Whatever it was, it left her body and seemed to fade from his awareness the further away it traveled until it became indistinct, like a ship that had just sailed past the horizon.
Ian dropped to his knees, knowing with a certainty more concrete than any he’d felt before that his big sister was gone. He vaguely became aware of an agonizing wail that had started up to the right of him and reality began to set in again.
His parents, who’d been frozen in indecision and horror when the monster had first struck from the shadows to take his sister from him, now began to react. His mother seemed to want to reach out to caress the remains of Alice, but the memories of what she’d just seen had scarred her and she recoiled in revulsion.
Ian was curious to note that he wasn’t repulsed by her corpse. In fact, when it had been defending him, he’d felt oddly comforted. He hated to see his best friend and closest family go, but that last act… at least it felt like he’d gotten to say goodbye.
His father was staring at him in equal parts disbelief and disgust. He knew that whatever it was that had happened with his daughter, his son had been the cause. Ian couldn’t tell if he was disappointed that he’d lived and his sister had died, or because he was a freak. Frankly, he didn’t care. He just stared at his sister’s lifeless body until the fire had died down and the rescue team that had been flown in took her away.
* * * * *
The aftermath of the attack that took place while the family had gone camping in the Northern Cascades was depressingly predictable. The authorities couldn’t make heads or tails of what had happened given the evidence. Ian and his parents made it seem like they had been traumatized, all of them stating they’d seen some kind of wild animal, but not really remembering much else.
This, in and of itself might not have been enough, but the medical examiners found something fascinating in the beheaded man’s DNA and soon the government was involved and everything was hushed up. At home, Ian’s parents became distant with him.
He never did find out if it was because they blamed him, they were suffering from the loss of Alice, or they were afraid of him. Needless to say, being around them tended to get uncomfortable. It was for this reason that Ian had started going to the public library after school and staying their until dinner time, where he’d then suffer through a tense hour with his parents before disappearing into his room.
One late afternoon, while he was perusing through the deserted stacks, he saw a book cover that stood out to him. It looked like an ancient tome made of handbound leather that appeared more than a little out of place in the modern paperbacks of the Scifi/Fantasy section.
Taking hold of the cover, it slid out easily and he felt a sense of rightness and belonging about it. Looking down at it in his hand, he knew he’d check the book out without even knowing what it was. However, as he approached the front desk, something made him tuck it under his arm and keep walking.
When he approached the front door of his house, he heard his parents shouting again. By the way they immediately stopped when he entered, he knew the argument had been about him. Sighing, he turned and walked up the stairs and into his room. Shutting the door, he set the book on his desk and turned on the desk lamp.
As he reached for the book, he was startled when it flipped open on its own accord and an impatient, masculine voice barked, “Fucking finally!”
Ian was surprised, but he didn’t feel fear. He supposed seeing his sister get torn to bits, then watching those bits reanimate and kick the crap out of a monster straight out of Lovecraft’s nightmares helped him look at talking books with some perspective.
He began to see a glowing presence surround the tome and could tell when it turned its attention on him. “So, you’re the new meat,” it said, sounding unimpressed. “You don’t look like much of a teenager, have you even hit puberty yet? Some master of the dead you are…”
The spirit paused, looking him over then admitting, “At least you aren’t some dark prince wannabe like my last client. I swear, if I ever find out who started the goth trend I’ll shove my ethereal boot so far up their ass their future descendents will shit leather. Can you believe that prick actually asked me if drinking blood would make him stronger?”
Ian stared at the open book, taking in the outburst and the ensuing rant. Finally, not really knowing what to make of this situation, he said simply, “I’m nine –not really a teenager.” Ian thought he sensed surprise and… curiosity?
“No kidding?” the spirit asked, sounding like the boy had just done a neat trick that deserved further investigation. “Well, they say the younger you are when your powers awaken, the more potential juice you have to throw around. I’ve never actually heard of anyone performing magic before they were eleven. So, what’d you do?”
Ian understood the question. His reality had been severely jarred when that beast had jumped out of the shadows, but when he’d felt his sister… seen her react to his emotions, it had been like someone turning on a light in a dark room you were trying to navigate and realizing you weren’t anywhere near where you had thought.”
“I brought my sister back-” he cut himself off before he could say ‘to life.’ His sister had never really been alive as that thing.
The spirit whistled. “Heavy stuff. Most noobs just end up moving an object without really meaning to,” he explained. “Well, let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Congratu-fucking-lations your necromancer. I know… what the hell does that mean? There are lots of different kinds of magicians out there. Sorcerers that are good at mind magic, wizards that can control the elements, druids that heal and do shit with their tree hugger friends -all kinds of folks, you get my drift…”
The spirit sighed, as if going over something he’d had to explain a hundred times before and went on, “Your realm of power is that of the dead. While you can power Spirit Magic with the limited energy that resides inside your body like most other mages do, your main resource is channeling the energy found in spirits, souls that haven’t crossed over yet, and ghosts, spirits that have used their energy to manifest themselves.
Pausing, as if preparing himself, the spirit gave him the bad news, “Since you have an almost limitless resource to expend, and since necromancy doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, what with everyone thinking you’re a bunch of corpse diggers…”
“You mean I don’t have to dig up corpses?” Ian interrupted, more than a little hopeful.
“Certainly not,” the spirit exclaimed, sounding offended. “They almost always dig themselves up.” Ian paled a little. “Now,” the learned ghostly presence continued, “necromancers tend to be… destructive. Because of their constant contact with the dead -which aren’t all that coherent themselves-, they tend to go insane more often than not.” Ian’s eyes widened.
“Aaand,” the spirit drew out, coming full circle, “since everyone thinks you’re all loose cannons with a freaken ton of power… They see nothing wrong with removing your kind as a potential threat. It’s actually one of the only things all of the different communities agree on.”
At Ian’s confused look, the spirit sighed heavily and told him, “Let me spell it out for you. ‘Hate’ might not be the most appropriate word for what every other magician, and most supernatural creatures, out there feel towards you –it doesn’t seem strong enough… EVERYONE wants to kill you. Even other necromancers –those that have managed to survive this long- will feel threatened by anyone who might be able to take control of their minions. You, my young friend, are fucked.”
Just then, he heard his mom shout that dinner was ready. Shakily getting to his feet, Ian went downstairs and collected his thoughts. What he’d been told seemed outrageous, but he was passed disbelief. The curtains were already pulled back and it was only a matter of understanding the details.
In a way, not having any conversation at the dinner table helped him order his thoughts and come up with a list of priorities. His parents kept glancing at each other and his dad looked angry. Ian knew there would probably be a change happening in his future. He didn’t know what it was, but he’d stopped worrying about the little things since Alice had died. They just didn’t seem to matter anymore.
Back in his room, Ian opened with, “who are you exactly?”
The spirit looked surprised. “I guess we did skip that step. Usually it’s covered at the beginning when the client is freaking out about the talking book…” Answering Ian’s question he said, “I’m an Archive. Every magician gets a sort of training manual in the hopes that they don’t accidentally blow up the planet or something. This comes in different forms, but they’re all essentially spirits that have been bound to the task of providing information to their clients. You manifest a power, you get one of me. Don’t you feel lucky?”
A thought occurred to Ian and he swallowed nervously and asked. “So, you told me everyone wants me dead and now you’re telling me there are people that know about me. Can others sense me?”
“Well yeah, but-” the spirit was cut off as Ian held up his hand.
“How do I hide myself?” Ian questioned, desperate to keep his family out of any further harm. He knew he couldn’t take on another magician, or anything else for that matter. That time in the forest had been a fluke, and though he didn’t know how, he felt that his sister had used his magic rather than anything he did. She was gone now and there would be no one to save him next time.
The Archive, apparently grasping the gravity of the situation, flipped the book open to the right page and said, “Place both hands on either side of the guide and look at the words.” Ian glanced down at the pages and saw weird symbols that seemed to meld together.
“Don’t try to read it,” the Archive demanded. “Just picture what you’re seeing in your mind.” Ian felt his vision spin as he tried to do what he was told. He didn’t feel any different.
The Archive said, “Now, think about hiding yourself.” Ian’s eyes widened as he suddenly felt like he was experiencing someone else’s memories. “Do the exercises you learned. Try the one about blending into the background.”
It took almost fifteen minutes, most of it used to calm his mind. He visualized himself standing in front of a white wall. Slowly he concentrated on blending his image into the background until he couldn’t make out the slightest difference in the canvas. Finally, the Archive sounded his approval. “You’ve just about got it,” he said, sounding astonished. “Another mage would have to be in the same room as you to notice your presence.”
“These mental exercises seem to only work so long as I’m concentrating. I don’t have the discipline to maintain this all the time… What about when I’m sleeping?” Ian complained, sounding frustrated.
The Archive agreed, and there was a newfound respect in its tone when it said, “You’re right. Though, just the fact that you thought to hide yourself is impressive.”
Ian made a cutting motion and said, “Let’s skip the part where I think I’m invincible and then get wasted. I know I’m on the bottom of the food chain. Now, how do I create a more permanent fix?”
The Archive said, “I don’t know if you’ll be able to pull it off at this stage in your development. It requires learning a bit about wards, some enchanting, and knowing how to infuse runes with your power.”
Ian knew he didn’t have time. He might have been young, but he wasn’t so naïve to think he wasn’t in danger. It was like one of the video games he’d played. Just starting out, everyone could kill you. The trick was to train until you were strong enough to venture out. Only here, he only had one life, so he better make damn sure he was prepared before he revealed himself to anyone.
Turning back to the book on his desk, he said, “Just walk me through the steps and we’ll worry about the ‘why’ later.”
It took nearly an hour to prepare his mind and draw the symbols just right. He had no idea how to call on his power, let alone infuse the markings with it. Eventually, he managed to envision what he wanted done and when he found the right state of mind, it just happened. No hocus pocus, no long chants of gibberish. At least, not with necromancers.
The first time he felt the energy gathering in his core, he almost threw up. He could tell it wasn’t the same, but it still reminded him of when he’d felt his sister. It was like tasting curdled milk and then every time you smelled it for the rest of your life you got sick to your stomach.
“Watch it!” the Archive shouted. “No, don’t let it go!” Just then, Ian was thrown backwards by an explosion of green fire that seemed to eat sound itself. Ian slammed into the wall next to his window and his vision blurred. He felt numb all over… and then everything went dark.
* * * * *
The two malevolent magic users that had been approaching the city, eager at the chance to drain a newly awakened mage dry and steal their powers, glanced out the window of their car in confusion. The taller one turned to the shorter and muttered, “I can’t sense the presence anymore.”
The shorter one grunted. “It was cut off abruptly. Looks like someone else took them out before we could,” he said disgustedly. He leaned forward and slammed his fist down on the dash.
The taller man nodded. “It’s a shame. That was quite a kick we felt. They would have made a nice meal.”
“Speak for yourself,” the shorter grumbled. “The power felt dark, most likely a warlock. I hate having anything to do with those devil worshipers. Always makes me want to take a shower afterwards…”
The tall one laughed. “You’re getting soft. So, do you want to try to find the one who killed the mage?”
The shorter man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I can’t sense anyone at all. We could search the city for days only to-” he paused. Turning quickly to the other, he demanded “Did you feel it?”
The taller nodded, his features twisting into a menacing grin. “Another one –to the north.” He swerved, catching the exit they were about to pass and gunned it. The hunt was on.
* * * * *
Hours later, Ian’s eyes unglued and he blinked the fuzziness away. “Oi, you okay down there?” a voice filled with worry and something akin to awe asked. Grumbling to himself about asinine questions, Ian checked himself. He felt incredibly sore, but he didn’t think he was seriously hurt.
“Why aren’t I burned? I’m sure I remember fire…” Ian asked himself aloud.
The Archive gave a snort. “That’s Spiritfire, kid. It doesn’t mix well with the living. If you had shot that at an unshielded mage it would have probably killed them. I’m still trying to figure out how you’re still alive. Necromancers can channel the stuff, but you were wide open.”
“Why did it happen?” Ian asked picking himself up and righting his chair.
“Because you lost concentration,” the Archive groused, sounding annoyed. “I told you to direct the energy into the symbol. You can’t just gather it and then let it go. It has to go somewhere…”
Ian nodded and then groaned as he felt a massive headache coming on. Sitting back at the desk, he began going through the exercises again, working to hide himself before he started collecting energy for a second time. “Hey, hold on a sec,” the spirit told him in a panic. “You’re not going to try it again are you?”
Ian answered by continuing. The Archive huffed, “Well, you’re determined, I’ll give you that. You might actually survive long enough to become something worthwhile.” After awhile the Archive wondered, “You know, I’m surprised as hell your parents didn’t check up on you. You hit that wall pretty hard… I’m sure it shook the house.”
Ian gave a distracted grunt. He could probably have been playing Russian roulette up here and they wouldn’t have cared but for the possibility that he might make a hole in the wall. After a much smoother effort, he was able to infuse a glowing symbol onto a sheared off piece of his binder -apparently the energy burned through paper too fast… Once he’d repeated this process two more times he went about placing the wards around the house before returning to his room to cast the last part of the spell.
Even then, the barrier that would keep him hidden wouldn’t be as strong or last as long as if he’d used more permanent wards. In the end though, it should be good enough until he could work a better solution. Still, Ian knew he probably wouldn’t sleep soundly anytime soon.
The next day, Ian had just returned home from school and was utterly exhausted. Not only had he gotten hardly any sleep the night before, but he’d had to concentrate on keeping himself hidden all day as the wards he’d constructed only covered his home.