Shoel's Story

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Willowwhisps

Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight


Though Shoel had not imagined the dismal swamp could get any worse, it had. The trees were much taller as the two continued further in, sloshing through mud, muck, and grimy water. There were signs now and then that others had passed the same way, but not that they had returned. The entire area was cast in shadows from trees and, above them, heavy clouds, dimming the light considerably and making visibility poor. Though she heartily wished for a little cheering light, Shoel didn't feel safe conjuring up any, both because she felt horribly exposed, as her sense of the Dead was intensifying with each step, and because she wanted to save her power.

Things seemed to move among the shadows, swinging from the branches of the trees, though there was nothing living and nothing Dead quite so close. It was Hemlock that decided to get a closer look, because Shoel had a sinking suspicion already as to what they were. She didn't protest, however, when he took a side trip to investigate, but followed and watched as he hacked the headless corpse of a feline-like man from the tree. "Pleasant."

"If you like that sort of thing," Shoel answered. She, of course, didn't. Without their heads, she could do nothing for the spirits of the deceased, even if she'd had the time to spare. "Come on... we're close."

Hemlock eyed the corpse with distaste, returning his sword to its sheath for the moment. "Are you absolutely certain you want to continue on with this? Who knows how many have walked into this marsh and not come out."

"A lot, unless the Dead actively go hunting. Which they might; they certainly do on my world." She looked around just as he did, and sighed. "And yes, I'm afraid I am. I can't come this far and not even try. Not even after seeing this-- maybe especially not after seeing this."

The necromancer's eyes were back on the headless corpse and he gave a sudden, haunting laugh announcing that he had noticed something. "Makes me wonder what Izrask was doing so close to here, these undead are no friends of his," he mused, smirking. "One of Hieyiakana's soldiers, probably a member of a reconnaissance garrison."

Shoel looked quickly at him, stomach sinking just a little more. "Are you serious? I just made an enemy out of one of them?"

"One of what?" Hemlock responded blankly, still focused on the corpse and rather obviously not paying attention. Unceremoniously he knelt down and began to dig around at the bloody collar of the corpse's clothing.

"Never mind, it's not important... what are you doing?"

He'd moved on to checking the rest of the corpse, searching pockets and pouches while she watched bemusedly. "Was checking to see if there was any amulet or anything they left. Seems they took pretty much everything. Smart devils."

"Mmm. Not too surprising, I suppose... though what the Dead would want with such things, I don't know."

Hemlock blinked and straightened up, wiping his hands to a semblance of clean on his cloak. "Nothing says all of the members of this army are dead."

"Well, I'm sensing a whole lot of them that are, anyway," she shrugged. She gave the corpse one last reluctant look, wishing there were something she could do for him, or for any of the others, but there wasn't. "Let's go...."

"Don't be so regretful about not giving him last rites or anything," Hemlock said harshly, clicking his tongue. "Just one of Hieyiakana's soldiers; that bitch has been fighting with this faction over the underworld for years upon years."

Not wanting to argue, and knowing his reasons for hating that particular group, she simply nodded and turned away, back towards the invisible path leading straight to the living Dead. Hemlock followed, trudging through the swamp that didn't seem to want to stay put beneath his feet. "I just hope we don't fall into any sinkholes or quicksand or something...."

"Just be careful where you put your feet. I know I am. There's a marsh where I'm from, and we had to go into it once after a necromancer. My brother almost went under twice."

" ... and he was this... Abhorsen-in-waiting?" Hemlock asked, snickering to himself. He did take her at her word, though, slowing down some; a glance over her shoulder proved that he was, indeed, testing his footing before he put his weight down. He looked a bit ungainly doing it, a far cry from the way he usually moved, but she was hardly any better. Probably worse, in fact, for she was never quite as graceful as he was.

"No one ever said an Abhorsen had to be graceful," she answered with a smile.

"Not graceful, just clever enough not to drown in quicksand."

Well, that she had to give him.

As they moved and the light began to decrease further, small whisps of light spiraled from the ground as though curious. They spun around the travelers' heads, occasionally making sounds like the whispering in the trees, but they did no harm. Shoel glanced around at them briefly. "Pretty... they don't happen to be dangerous, do they?" she asked, glancing at Hemlock. She was going to be careful now, Charter-take-it, after the Kelpie.

"Willowwhisps," Hemlock said in quiet appreciation, he held out one hand and a single light lit on it like an ethereal butterfly. "Or the spirits named after the natural phenomena. Undead in their own right, some can be deceitful and lead you into dangerous areas, or they could spy." He frowned, pausing for a moment to think. "Seeing as these are still here, though, and just hovering around us I'd say they're harmless. Probably the spirits of all these hanging corpses."

"By the Charter...." Shoel held out a hand for one, as well. "At least now they get to be something beautiful, even after such an ugly end. I suppose I should send them on, but I don't want to alert anything else that might be out there."

"Maybe after we're done with the commander," Hemlock said, a little reluctantly.

"Not everything that leaves life wishes to return to it," Shoel answered in reply to his tone, smiling as a single whisp lit upon her hand at the inviting gesture-- but the response she got from the others was not quite as expected. As though they were moths drawn to a flame, the whisps descended on her, lighting upon her shoulders, the white trails of embellishment on her armor, and in a wreath around her head; she thought she must look like a ghost, herself, or an angel. A muddy, armored, dark-haired angel. Apparently Hemlock thought it amusing, for when he saw it he burst into a little fit of good-natured chuckling. Shoel could't help but giggle a little, too, feeling oddly content with the attention of living and Dead. "Friendly, aren't they?"

The remaining whisps descended upon Hemlock, lighting just beneath his helmet, in his dark hair, and on the black fabric that was his cloak. In the light of the friendly Dead, he looked somehow younger and softer. Not even his comment of, "Hmph, silly things," had its usual acidity.

"You look like you have stars in your hair," Shoel smiled.

"Well I certainly don't have them in my eyes," Hemlock huffed, but still he smiled. "Willowwhisps have always been my favorite spirits," he began as they continued trudging through the mud, taking their weightless, starry burdens with them. "When I was very young my mother used to tell me stories of the different creatures on the planet, what you could trust or even hear tales from."

"And Willowwhisps were one of them?" She could see why he might like them, bitter or not; these, as least, seemed quite sweet, and she wasn't about to turn away a source of comfort.

"Well, sometimes they lead strangers astray in places like this," Hemlock said again, holding up one hand to look at the one still clinging to his gauntlet. "Usually they just look pretty, if a little eerie." Shoel didn't find them eerie at all, but then, she always knew she was a bit morbid; usually those of the Abhorsen's family were. "Back home," Hemlock continued, "I used to show off for one of my friends with teaching them to do tricks, sort of." There was a chuckle at that.

"Tricks?" She could hardly imagine Hemlock teaching anything to do tricks, but then, she didn't know what he was like before he'd changed his name. Maybe he was more light-hearted, then. "What kinds of tricks?"

"Just showing off with lights, dramatic sorts of things," the necromancer answered, shrugging off-handedly. "Things like children would do, I suppose." She nodded, smiling at the mental image of a younger Hemlock-- Myokan, then-- with a Willowwhisp dancing around his head.

Curious, she slipped off her gauntlet on her free hand, careful not to disturb the whisp of light and spirit on her own wrist, and tucked it partly into her vambrace. She put a finger to the single spirit clinging to her other gauntlet, as if to stroke it, wondering if she could sense it if she were touching it, and if it felt like anything. The whisp seemed unconcerned, or at least not afraid, though it did twinkle a little brighter. At the touch, she could feel it, faintly, with her Death sense, though it didn't really feel like anything particular. To the physical sense, it reminded her faintly of a purring cat, soft and warm, but still without actual substance. Smiling, she stroked it gently. "I wonder what my people would think of you," she murmured.

"Depends on how jumpy they are about the spirits of the Dead," Hemlock spoke up, answering for the whisp. He smirked at the little things, who were now whispering again. "They like you."

"Can you understand them?" she asked curiously, glancing over at him. "Or is it just wordless whispering to you, too?"

Hemlock flushed a little at her words, actually looking rather embarrassed. "All of my race has some ability to speak to spirits. I've always been better at it, though, able to understand the ones that most people couldn't even hear. Juinyiir could do it, too, as well as speak to animals. A rare gift."

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about," she chided him, smiling. "What are they saying?" She supposed she could pull out Dyrim to find out, herself, but that would probably be silly, since Hemlock heard them just fine, and a waste of power, besides.

"Mostly warnings, a few compliments, and that we're getting close," Hemlock said, frowning slightly. He motioned a hand towards a little off to the left of the path. "Over there, not too much further."

The momentary calm the whisps had caused frayed a bit as she followed his gaze. Their close contact had muted her sense of the Dead a little, and though she hadn't quite forgotten why they were splashing through a swamp, she'd managed to ignore it for a moment or two. "And are you lovelies coming with us, or shall we leave you out where it's safe?" she asked the Willowwhisps, hoping Hemlock would translate her answer, if she got any.

"It's fairly safe for them, unless an overlord necromancer is around," Hemlock said after a moment's hesitation, mumbling to himself. "Otherwise they could be turned into something nasty. Yeesh, with these things around us we're going to stand out something horrible." He smiled just a little, though, looking like he enjoyed the company of the whisps.

"We're going to stand out enough, as it is," Shoel admitted. "Even with all the mud, I'd think it's rather obvious that we're not part of their group. They might already know we're coming, for all we know. Besides, I wouldn't mind the company," she added, stroking the one on her wrist again. "Or the light. If there looks like there is anyone who could command them, I'll just send them on, if that's all right with them."

"They don't mind," Hemlock reassured her, giving his head a slight shake; she smiled faint thanks at him. "Better than haunting this swamp until the end of time."


She gave the spirit a final finger-pet before she took up her gauntlet again and pulled it on, ready now, with the added courage of her small, glowing entourage, to get down to business. She had a tentative plan; she just hoped it would be enough, and there wouldn't be too many problems to make it worthwhile. That Hemlock had a few magical weapons in addition to sword and armor made her feel better, as did the whisps, though for less tangible reasons. "I expect I'll be using my bells more than my sword, in there, so you'll have to be ready with your weapons."

"I figured as much," Hemlock drawled, not really sounding at all thrilled about the whole thing. She wasn't, either, but she couldn't give up now. "I just hope it does actual good."

"I hope so, too," she sighed.


Chapter Thirty-Eight



Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.

Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.