Chapter One: Hatching Bay Five
Written in collaboration with Phoenix and Silver Midnight
It had to have been morbid curiosity that drew Shoel to attend that gruesome xenodragon hatching on the space station, or even the sense of the strange, nebulous pair of creatures who had sired two of the clutches there; True Chaotics, they were called, and they were close enough to Free Magic in the way she sensed them to both draw and repel her. At home, Free Magic was to be avoided, deadly and frightening-- but a necromancer used it, she had to, even one who was also a loyal servant of the crown. It might have been that, that drew her to investigate the offspring. Or perhaps it was the sense of approaching death, for some of the hatchlings-- the "bursters"-- were born by killing. Or just plain, simple, morbid curiosity.
Whatever the reason, it was fortuitous that she'd attended, so much so that, if she had been at home, on her own planet, she would have thought it the promptings of the Charter to attend. The omnipresent sense of Charter magic, in a realm and reality apart from the physical and the Dead, was absent in Shoel's place of exile, except in the items specifically spelled with the Charter, like her bells and her sword. In the Old Kingdom, even in Ancelstierre to the south of the magical country, the Charter had been known to draw one to places of need. If she had felt the Charter, here, she would think it was its doing to bring her to the bloody hatching and force her to sit through the sensations of so many deaths-- even animal deaths, as small as they were, could be disheartening, and the single human death had been far more so. As it was, she could only guess.
But it had prompted her to return to the station a couple days later, wearing her bells on their bandolier across her chest, and her sword strapped to her hip. Normally, she tried not to bring them aboard, because prolonged contact with the alien magic seemed to cause machine-made items to deteriorate, and she didn't want to be the cause of destruction. She only brought them today because she had felt the presence of the Dead in that hatching bay. Not just death, because that was everywhere on the station-- everywhere in the Nexus there was simply no escaping it-- but something that should have been dead but was still clinging to life. Even exiled, even denied standing with the current King in the Old Kingdom against the Dead, it was still her duty as a Charter necromancer to set things right between the living and the dead.
So here she was, standing in front of the closed doors to the fifth hatching bay on Star City station, wearing the tools of her art, gathering her breath before entering. One of the Ministers had given her permission-- and, more helpfully, the password-- to enter the sealed-off bay. She sighed out once more, then tapped in the code on the miniature computer on the wall, and the doors slid open to reveal the black bay within-- and the ghost bound to remain there.
The bay had been transformed by the xenodragons in preparation for the hatching: the metal, the plastic, anything at all within had been coated with black resin in swells and loops, and caches that had at one point held bodies. Those, at least, had been taken away, though whoever cleaned such things as hatching bays hadn't tried to tackle the resin yet.
Shoel looked around as she entered, her boots clicking soundly on the thick material, taking in the echoingly empty room, before her eyes lit on the patch of air that housed a Dead spirit. A very bored Dead spirit, at that. In Life, she couldn't see it as anything more than a patch of wrong, but she could sense it, and knew that if she entered the realm of Death here, she would see it. The Minister told her about the only creature who had died here, at the first xenodragon hatching, so she knew what to expect: an alien in every sense of the word, and a felon, at that. As far as she knew, it wasn't hanging onto Life as a spirit because of any other necromancer's work, or even out of a desire for revenge, for the spirit-form it took wasn't able to do much of anything, not even to someone in Death. It could only be accident that kept it away from Death's currents and the Gates. She wasn't expecting much difficulty.
The doors didn't slide shut behind her, like she'd expected them to. Perhaps something to do with the locking mechanism-- Shoel avoided thinking about technology, when she could, as anyone brought up in the Old Kingdom would. Since they didn't close, however, she sighed and prepared in her mind to set up a diamond of protection, a shield of Charter magic that would protect the room from intruders and her body if she had to go into Death to banish the spirit. Charter magic was much harder here, so far from home, but it still worked, for the most part, because she'd been raised with it. It might not be necessary, if she could capture and send the spirit on without actually entering Death, but one should always be prepared, so she drew her sword, and touched the handles of her bells, fingertips moving from ebony to ebony, choosing which bell she wished to use, first.
As if it was completely unaware of what she was and what she was here for-- which, after all, it might not, given that necromancers seemed rare and even the ones she'd heard of here didn't use bells-- the creature radiated more boredom, and drifted closer. It houghed, something like a laugh, and said to itself, "And what does it think it's going to do with that?"
"Send you on to where you belong, beyond the Ninth Gate," Shoel answered, her hand falling on Saraneth, the binder, one of the larger, deeper bells. "But not with the sword," she added, slipping it from its wrappings, careful not to ring it before she was ready.
"You hear me?" the spirit exclaimed, sounding even more starved for conversation than she would have been after several months alone at home. Shoel guessed that it hadn't had much to do since it died well over a year ago. A pity she had to sent it on; at least, after the Ninth Gate, it would have no need for conversation. "Ninth what? Who are you? What's that?"
What kind of Dead is this, to not know about the Gates? Shoel thought, puzzled, and was tempted to ask it a few questions before she bound it.
Hurriedly putting a silencing hand around Saraneth's clapper and clutching it to her chest with a startled yip, it took Shoel a moment to realize that, though metallic, that sound had not been the compelling ring of Saraneth, but rather the sound of something hard hitting the metal doors behind her. Her sword automatically lifting into a guard position between herself and the spirit-- not that it could hurt her, as it was, but the bespelled blade would keep it back, anyway-- she half-turned to take in the intruder, a man at least in his forties in cloak, armor of bone, and black, braided hair beneath the skeletal helmet. No wonder the doors hadn't closed: she'd been followed.
"What do you plan to do with that?" the man grunted, his voice deep and harsh. His voice was amused, and certainly arrogant. "I don't think I've ever heard of fighting ghosts with bells before."
Ghosts. Whoever he was, this bone-armored man was a necromancer. As if she couldn't guess, from the armor itself, and a necromancer with armor and bearing like that couldn't be a Charter mage, like herself-- which meant Free Magic, and corruption. Both her heart and her mind were racing, the former with anxiety and the latter trying to think herself out of this mess. First a ghost who doesn't know anything about being Dead, and now a Free Magic necromancer who doesn't use bells... why did I have to run into both on the same day? she moaned to herself, trying to decide if she had the strength to bind the necromancer, even outside of Death: the bells didn't sound as loudly or powerfully in the physical realm, and Shoel was never as good at using them as the true Abhorsen. The ghost was no danger, weakly ringing bells or not, but the necromancer... now he was probably dangerous.
Of course, this newcomer could always bind the spirit and make it powerful... best get rid of that, first. "Then I assume we are of a different breed, you and I," Shoel said, decision made and voice icy, and freed Saraneth to ring it, swinging the bell in a long, downward arc, focusing the sound on the spirit.
Though the bell did as expected, binding the spirit-- Skelemis, she perceived his name now-- binding Skelemis to her, the necromancer did not do as expected, and leapt forward, grabbing the wrist that bore Saraneth in one bone-covered hand, and muffling the bell's fading sound with the other. Bone scraped against bespelled metal with a jarring sound, not enough to break the binding, but close. "None of that, now," the necromancer growled, "I've still got plans."
They must not be very clever ones, was the first thought on Shoel's mind as, though he tried to wrench Saraneth from her hand, she swung her blade around, throwing herself back and away as she did so. As magical as the bells in its own right, it was the sword of a Charter mage who expected battle against necromancers; she just hoped it would be strong enough to pierce the bone covering her attacker. "Skelemis, a little help here, please," she suggested tensely, directing the spirit to at least distract the necromancer. The binding would hold-- for now-- she hoped-- but without bells, she had no idea what kind of magic this new breed of necromancer could wield to steal bound spirits. Obediently, the spirit lumbered around her, charging the necromancer from the side with a spectral roar-- ineffectually, for he couldn't actually touch him, but enough to distract.
The armor must have been spelled, itself, or at least made of stronger stuff than most bone she'd ever come across, for all it did was screech in protest against the unidentified creature's ribs, protecting the necromancer's stomach. The warding on it, however, was enough to force him to release her; the sword bore Charter marks of protection against Free Magic and the Dead, particularly Free Mages who used necromancy. Its power sent the necromancer sliding back, shoes skidding against the resined floor, and the claws on the bone gauntlets ripping free of her sleeves, leaving Saraneth intact in her hand. She leapt back as he braced himself against the sword's power, rasping the blade back along the rib-armor, and landing crouched well out of his immediate grasp.
Thankfully, the necromancer didn't attack again. He focused instead on the shade of Skelemis, spoke words that rang like Free Magic and grated on the nerves. Shoel had no idea what they did, but she didn't like them. "Nice little pet," the man said almost cordially, "you know, if you weren't so stuck on those stupid bells perhaps you would be able to do something with it." As if I've had the chance, Shoel thought darkly, dropping her sword just long enough to snatch out Mosrael the Waker, ready to cause some real damage.
Which gave the other necromancer enough time to draw out a small marble, toss it into the air, and-- somehow, via this alien magic, summon a monster of a beast, all metal and magic and no thought at all, that unfolded into mid-air and peered dimly around the hatching bay. For a moment, Shoel stared, appalled, while her opponent drawled, "I have some, too, you know. Only mine do a lot more. Take care of her," he told the thing, pointing towards her dramatically. The creature certainly looked as if it would do as instructed, for it rushed her, metallic hands outstretched.
Here goes nothing! she thought desperately, focusing on Saraneth and Mosrael, swinging them in tandem, in opposite directions. The combination of compelling toll with jarring alarm bell was both a binding and a waking, to draw the monster's attention and awareness out of the necromancer's control and bind it to herself. The sound couldn't help but reach Skelemis, as well, but that could only be to her advantage, drawing the spirit into the physical plane, giving it the substance of rain and the form of a shadow-- albeit a shadow with six limbs-- and reinforcing the binding.
Well, at least one of her intents worked. Woken from the necromancer's control, the iron beast simply fell apart, clattering to the floor into a pile of useless metal. At least it was better than it still attacking her! Skelemis, thoughts oddly fogged, surged into tangibility and, with a somewhat bewildered-seeming scream of challenge, launched himself at the necromancer, tearing his helmet free to reveal a stubbly, rugged-looking face, narrowed golden eyes, and a scowl that only briefly turned to surprise when Shadow claws dug into his face with the efficacy of a cat-scratch. Shoel, panting, slipped her bells swiftly into her bandolier, yanking free the bell a not even a Free Magic necromancer often chose to use: Belgaer, the Thinking bell. The clear, ringing chime as she turned the whip from its casing into a rapid turn at the wrist would restore Skelemis' thoughts to him-- and, if she was very, very lucky, might muddle the necromancer's, just as his Free Magic had undoubtedly caused her own Shadow Hand's confusion.
Only-- he was no longer there, a puff of smoke marking the space where he had been but no longer occupied. Tense, breathing hard, Shoel dove for her sword just as pain erupted from her thigh, sending her sprawling-- though at least coherent enough to snatch up the blade and swing it in a protective arc; wherever the necromancer was, she already knew he couldn't get too close to the Charter-spelled blade, and it might offer enough of a shield for her to get her bearings-- but pain made that nearly impossible. "Skelemis!" she screamed, hoping the Shadow could see the necromancer and could do something about him.
Obedient and protective to the last, the Shadow Hand again leapt at the necromancer, who, Shoel saw through a haze of pain, was standing right behind her. Unaffected by Belgaer, the man was waving his arms and weaving his fingers, chanting with Free Magic, the sensation of it tasting like hot metal in her mouth and making her gag, as the Shadow was charging. He rocked slightly when Skelemis hit, but did not go down; his voice rose in pitch but did not falter, despite deeper rends on his face and neck as the Shadow Hand fought to cause at least some damage. Shoel thought she could recognize the power of loosing and binding in the Free Magic, and, panicked and disoriented, fumbled for a bell, any bell--
A shout came from the still-open doorway, echoed by another voice, and another, and the sound of pounding feet as a much-belated police contingent charged into the room, straight for the necromancer. He couldn't possibly complete his spell before they tackled him, shot him, or otherwise incapacitated him; Skelemis was safely hers-- for now. And for now, there were more important things to worry about, such as the police. "Help me!" she screamed at the group, just in case if the fact that she lay on the ground with a massive shard of bone embedded in her thigh, with the bone-shrouded necromancer standing over her, wasn't enough to prove that she was the one who needed aid here.
Her cry was not ignored. As she struggled to stay conscious, the smallest of the security officers bolted forwards from her squadron: a tiny, bright red creature that could only be a sotiel, and was in fact Captain Satena-mekoze, one of the officers who'd accidentally bonded at the hatching of days before-- the hatching that had started it all. A fleeting wonder what had happened to the pair of xenodragons she'd bonded passed through Shoel's mind, but was gone as, with a grasshopper-like leap, the red creature pounced at the necromancer and lashed out at him with the full force of her powerful mind. Shoel herself thought she could almost feel it; as it was, the necromancer's expression suddenly went curiously blank and he was knocked to the ground in a boneless heap as the Security Captain landed on his chest, kicking him over with pure momentum.
The Shadow Hand Skelemis immediately backed off, sensing the man was no longer a threat and retreated to Shoel’s side, slowly shaking his head and making warning growls as some of the officers gathered around the Shoel. "Skelemis," Shoel said weakly, trying to be heard through the queries if she was all right-- which she obviously wasn't-- worried questions about Skelemis-- which she couldn't answer-- demands to know what happened-- which she knew would take more time to explain than she had before she lost consciousness. At least she could do this one thing: "It's all right. They're here to help me. Please don't hurt any of them-- ah!" One of the officers touched her leg, shouting at someone across the room. A doctor, hurrying in. Good. She could pass out now.
Which she promptly did.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyright to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.