Chapter Five: Breakdowns and Madness
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
Hemlock Bleedingheart had grown quite adept at avoiding her. Given that about once a day she pulled a bell on him, and once or twice drawn her sword on him, Shoel couldn't say she really blamed him. However, as the sole foul creature living in the Ring of Fire that she actually had permission to do something about, she couldn't help but try every chance she had. It was at least something to do to keep her mind off the constant twitch of her Death sense.
Because, as she'd feared at Firelancer Jasien's first warning, it really did feel as if she had walked into a nest of the Dead. There were so many Dead creatures, and so many different kinds of Dead creatures, that what she really wanted to do was run away from the whole complex and hide in some perfectly ordinary, mundane little village in the hinterlands somewhere. Even the dragons, as she'd discovered when she first met up with the Firelancer to leave for his world, could be Dead: not only was the necromancer's dragon Dead, but so was Jasien's, himself! She'd been too stunned and uncomfortable that she'd completely forgotten to try and do the necromancer in. A proper Abhorsen would have wanted to banish them all, but Shoel didn't have permission, and with each new experience she was starting to wonder if the path of a proper Abhorsen was even the right path. Her encounter with a perfectly sweet, innocent spirit named Mary, just the day before, had been the hardest yet, because there was nothing at all evil-- or even aggressive!-- about the ghost. Banishing the Dead was supposed to be for the protection of the Life, but what if the Dead posed no threat to the living?
Unable to resolve her heritage with her experience, she focused with mindless devotion to her task of ridding the collective worlds of a dangerous necromancer. And, yet again, he had slipped her grasp, but she thought she knew where he'd gone. He hadn't been with his bond, not that he had visited the Dead dragon-- another gentle Dead, another paradox-- in days, and he hadn't been in his rooms, or really anywhere within the volcanic complex of the Ring of Fire. No, he'd decided to hide in the open, on the lakeshore, and she was approaching, warring between stealth and honorable confrontation. Not that either had worked so far, anyway. She had Saraneth, still in its wrappings, by the handle, her other hand on her sword hilt, and she could see the necromancer sprawled out under a tree, staring up at the sky, or the tree branches over his head, or nothing at all.
Just within hearing distance, Shoel paused, because Hemlock had just given a tremendous sigh. Had he heard-- yes, he had. "Going to try to kill me again?" he called, amused and mocking, yet at the same time... oddly wistful. "Should've known, you try at least once a day. I'm getting too old anyway, I suppose."
For a moment she just stood there, eying him warily, but he didn't move. Then, for no reason at all, or maybe every reason, Shoel simply sighed and took her hand off her bell. "Maybe not today. Not right now, anyway. Don't think I might not find you later and try again, though," she warned sternly. She felt very childish. But then, how else was she supposed to feel, when everything she'd ever known seemed turned on its ear?
"Not right now?" the necromancer asked cruelly. "What, going to go do something like poke one of the poor, gentle undeads again? I think Yureith was a little hurt by you wanting to banish her, you know."
"She knew about that?" Shoel blurted, horrified, and quickly put a hand over her mouth. Yureith was the one of the Watchdragons, a perfectly friendly, gentle, honorable dragon-- but she, too, was Dead. A wraith dragon. The urge had been there, but of course she'd not have gone through with it.
"Yureith knows everything," Hemlock said casually, "she can walk through walls you know. In addition, it's her duty to watch all that goes on. She's been here since the first clutch hatched, holding position as Watchdragon." He was watching her, from under that tree, and obviously taking great satisfaction in her distress. She tried to harden herself, get angry again, but she didn't have the energy. In fact, she felt perilously close to just breaking down and crying, and she'd be damned before she did it in front of a necromancer she had vowed to kill.
Steeling her voice, at least, she said coldly, "I wasn't aware how much she could sense. I will offer her an apology, of course."
"If you can find her," Hemlock snickered. "She's good at avoiding people, especially those she thinks want to, um, kill her."
"If she can sense as much as you say," Shoel snapped, "then she would have sense that I would not have banished her. The Firelancer forbade me binding anything in this cursed place except you." If only she could just yank out Saraneth and ring it, right now, right here-- but as unsteady as she felt, it could well be suicide.
"Cursed place?" the necromancer growled, sitting up now and looking at her squarely, even across such a distance. "Girl, you have no idea what you're talking about. If you hadn't come here during the Undead Clutch, or knew history, you might have a very different outlook!"
"You-- you-- if you had any idea what it felt like!" she spat back at him, trembling, "Feeling all this Death, everywhere, feeling everything Dead, just begging to be set right-- and being forbidden! I feel-- I feel like I'm going mad in this place!" Her voice cracked and, to her horror, she quite suddenly burst into tears. She whirled instantly, holding a hand firmly to her mouth to keep in furious sobs, and started to stalk away.
"Hey-- wait!" she heard, but she kept walking. She couldn't break down, not here, not now, not in front of an enemy. So intent was she on getting away that she didn't even notice the hurried footsteps behind her until it was too late, and he was grabbing her arm, trying to stop her.
"Get away from me!" she cried, fiercely jerking herself away from him, unsuccessfully. He grabbed her other wrist, holding faster than she'd expected such a slender man could.
"Calm down," he grumbled at her, but she tried tried to tug free again.
"Why? So you can yell at me some more? Because of who I am and what I do? Let me go! I should-- I should have--" Whatever she should have done wouldn't come out, and she sank to the ground, letting the necromancer keep her hands, biting her lip to try and keep from sobbing, hating all this weakness. No wonder she was exiled; she was no proper Abhorsen.
Hemlock freed her, and she rubbed angrily at her eyes, crouched in front of him on the grass, humiliated and miserable, waiting for him to do something. Hopefully go away, or maybe produce another bone spear and aim it a little higher this time. At least then it would be over and she could go past the Ninth Gate, herself. No Abhorsen ever wished for that, no true one, no matter how much stress she was under.
When all he did was sigh and put a hand gingerly on her shoulder, she twitched back from the touch. "If you're going to cry," he said, sounding resigned, "go ahead and do it. Gods forbid I should be a hypocrite and criticize someone for being emotional."
She wasn't sure whether the look she gave him was sad, angry, or just sullen, but she was not going to cry. She certainly wasn't going to cry just because she had his permission. A few rebellious tears leaked down, and she angrily wiped them away, looking away from him, but they were replaced by a few more. "I never should have come here," she muttered, then hiccoughed and went even redder with embarrassment.
"Child," the necromancer snorted, "you came here to stand for a dragon, not to make every damned thing in the continuum right."
"I know that!" Shoel snapped. "But-- but-- I feel it. Every Dead thing. It's like-- it's like an itch, but I can't scratch it. I can't ignore it, I can't do anything about it-- I--" She took a shuddering breath, pressing the palms of her hands into her eyes. "It's just so d-different," she moaned.
There was a long minute where the only sound between them was Shoel trying to control her breathing again. "You've refined your spectral senses too much," Hemlock finally grunted. "Or maybe not enough. All you see is their state of being, rather than what they are."
"That's not true," she protested weakly, looking up at him. "I can tell the difference between them all, I know what they-- what they are. I just-- all my life, ever since before I was-- before I left my home. The Dead there are so different... they hate Life, they want to take it, they're-- they're dangerous. I'd never met anything Dead that wasn't dangerous before."
"I didn't mean the mental image of whatever they were in life," Hemlock mumbled thoughtfully, fingertips tapping against his arms, which were crossed again. "Generally it's the person's traits that make them who or what they are. It's more than to do with just past life."
"The Dead in the Old Kingdom don't usually have much of a personality," she said dully, "not if a necromancer is controlling them. Sometimes the Greater Dead do, I suppose, but I didn't see very many of those, and they were still all evil...."
"Well of course, if a necromancer is controlling them they're nothing more than a thrall," the necromancer replied darkly, oddly so for someone who bound spirits, himself. "And generally, it depends upon the events surrounding one's departure from the physical plane. It is those who are called 'evil' that most likely seek revenge, it usually takes strong emotions to keep the spirit of a person from passing on. Though at times, it can purely be by accident or just the feeling that a person has not fulfilled their duty, even guilt."
Shoel felt almost dizzy, and she pressed her hands to her eyes again. It was just so different, how was she supposed to understand it at all? How could she do her duty-- how could she have a duty-- if the Dead were not supposed to be banished? How could she live with her sense of Death, that constant "itch", and not want to right the obvious wrong, balance the imbalance and send the Dead where they belonged? "I can't handle this," she told herself shakily. "Maybe the Firelancer will just send me home, if I ask him...." She could even live without killing the necromancer, if it just meant she could go somewhere where there was no Death.
There was a pause, then Hemlock said, quite suddenly, "Look, if you're that uncomfortable, you don't have to stay here." She looked up quickly to find him jabbing a finger at her for emphasis. "If you don't mind having me for company, I could find someplace much more alive for you."
"Well, you're not Dead," she managed with a shaky chuckle. "I think I could hold off on trying to kill you for a while." Ha ha.
"You're not afraid of horses, are you?" he asked, eying her carefully. "Because there's no other way to travel that far except on dragon-back, and Aldyss is pissed off at me."
Shoel rose slowly, dusting grass from her leggings. "No, I'm a competent rider. It has been a while, but I think I can remember how. --Why is he angry with you?" Not that she minded; Aldyss was gentle, but he was still Dead.
"For being an idiot, though I'm usually of the same mind about him," Hemlock replied dryly. "I'll be back."
And, without waiting for a response, the necromancer set off across the length of the crater, leaving Shoel standing there in her surcoat, bells, and sword, watching him go and wondering just what she'd gotten herself into.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.