“It seems your friend is rather stuck here,” said Inu, pursing his lips as he studied the ghost. The flowing image of the boy copied his motion and then rocked backwards, laughing silently at his own joke. Inu chuckled too and pointed at him, turning to smile at Cyril.
Cyril wasn’t smiling. He looked worse than ever. Maybe it was the dim light inside the castle, the dull morning light that did nothing but cast a gloomy purple hue through the window, a hue with no shadows and no depth, cold and stagnant, as still as dust hanging in the air. The prince looked worse than before. His eyes were large and bulgy with wide shadows under them. He had deep creases in his cheeks and forehead and neck.
“Don’t worry,” said Inu, assuming Cyril’s tormented look was because Inu had just said Phren was stuck. “Your friend is strong, certainly strong enough to pass into the next life. There’s a corner of him that is still attached to this castle, a corner that is too big for him to just tear away. Think of it like getting your cloak caught in a bramble bush. Only, the cloak is Phren’s essence and the bramble is something in this castle.”
Even though Inu thought that he had put plenty of help and reassurance in that delivery, it hadn’t taken the worry out of Cyril’s eyes.
“So as soon as you find whatever it is that is keeping Phren here, he will leave?” asked Cyril quietly.
“If he likes,” replied Inu. “He doesn’t have to leave, but I find that ghosts usually do, as they have been separated from much of what made up their person. Some ghosts even have only half or less of themselves still tethered to earth while the rest of their essence has already ascended. Spirits that were never physical are different, however. They do not ascend, as they have always been bodiless and they do not die as you and I know of dying—“
“Do—do you think Phren will leave?” asked Cyril.
Inu stopped his happy rambling and gazed at Cyril. It was all so clear now: Cyril’s haunted eyes, the deep creases, his shaking voice… Cyril had grown close to this ghost. Inu should have realized it earlier: for earth’s sake, Cyril had given him a name! Of course he was fond of him. And it wasn’t just about the ghost, either. This was deeper. Cyril was literally on his way out the door to a future he didn’t want: a future apart from his family and land and everything he cared about. So much—too much—was changing and Cyril couldn’t handle a shift in anything else. He needed something to stay constant. He was losing his family; he couldn’t lose his friend, too.
Poor lad, Inu thought, swallowing back emotion. Slowly, Inu approached Cyril, the ratty tips of his robe sweeping the dust on the stone floor, and he put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“I think I understand what’s going on here,” said Inu softly. Cyril’s eyes snapped to Inu and Inu could see them moistening.
Whether from training or by nature, Inu felt other people’s emotions almost as acutely as his own. Maybe it was because he had been sharing his body with other souls for so long, or maybe it was because he saw so little of physical people these days that he wasn’t used to dealing with other people’s emotions. Whatever the case, it meant that Inu not only understood why Cyril was in so much anguish, but Inu felt as though Phren leaving would break his own heart. Fortunately, Inu had learned enough about this kind of thing that he wasn’t thrown entirely off track.
“I know it’s hard, but Phren is a person, not a belonging,” said Inu, secretly sniffing.
“I know that!” snapped Cyril, angry at the insinuation that he was treating Phren poorly.
“And since Phren is a person, it is not right to keep him here if he wants to leave,” continued Inu.
“I know, it’s just…” Cyril’s voice cracked and Inu was reminded that prince and proto-necromancer though he was, Cyril was still a child. Cyril pulled the stool out from under his writing desk and sat on it, hooking his feet on the highest rung. “It’s just…what if he does leave?”
Inu traced spirals in the dust on the floor with his worn, doeskin boot. “Then he leaves and you must find it in your heart to be happy that he is happy.”
Cyril hugged himself as if against the wind and scowled at the floor. Inu exhaled quietly.
“I know it’s hard to lose friends—“
Cyril scoffed, still looking at the floor. “What do you know about friends,” he said bitterly.
Cyril’s response took Inu by surprise. He was hurt, defensive and a little angry, but he kept his mouth shut. He inhaled deliberately, held the air in his lungs as it absorbed his ill emotions, and then exhaled his resentment. Cyril was right, even though he had been speaking out of anger: Inu didn’t have a lot of friends these days unless you counted the ghosts with him. His childhood friends had grown up, started families, and forgotten about him, and the necromancers of Inu’s student days likely thought sourly of him now. But then, it didn’t seem as though Cyril had that many friends, either. He was royal, for one thing, which meant he was sectioned off from non-royal children.
In addition, necromantic talent usually alienated the child who possessed it, even in kingdoms where it was praised. When the supernatural is so real for so much of a person’s life, they grow up believing different things, valuing different things, focusing on different things. It separated them and more often than not, a necromantic child only found close kinship with other necromantic children—and it was rare that more than one child would have that talent in the same town at the same time—or they formed friendships with the spirits they encountered on a daily basis: ergo, Cyril’s predicament.
Inu cleared his throat and clapped his hands together.
“Alright now,” he announced cheerfully, “enough of this sulking. Prince Cyril, you understand this needs to be done, don’t you?”
“Yeah…” Cyril replied reluctantly.
“Good. I thought as much, as you seem like a sensible, good-hearted boy—“
“I’m sixteen,” protested Cyril grumpily. “Practically ruling age.”
“My mistake, my mistake,” Inu said, rolling his eyes. “But you know why you must let him go.”
“Because he isn’t my prisoner…and I don’t want him to be,” Cyril added quietly.
Inu nodded approvingly. “Good lad—er, man. Sixteen-year-old man. Practically-ruling-age man.”
Cyril flashed a sarcastic smile that was gone as quickly as it had come. I’ll take it, thought Inu.
We don’t know what this “Phren” is still attached to.
Phren is able-bodied and sentient; why doesn’t he just leave on his own? It’s laziness, if you ask me.
Now, now, chided Inu. The ghosts had a point, though: the castle was huge, with endless objects Phren might have caught himself on. And since it was such a small corner of himself, how were they supposed to figure out what it was?
“Where do you usually see Phren?” asked Inu.
“All over the place,” replied Cyril.
“You’re not very helpful,” said Inu with an exasperated frown. “Didn’t we agree that freeing Phren was the right thing to do?”
“I know, I know,” growled Cyril. “I guess we talk most when we are in my room.”
“No, but he understands me and he makes, you know, hand motions and things.”
“Ah.” Inu paced the room, listening for the pull in his stomach that indicated essence residue that wasn’t visible even to necromancers.
The residue was like microscopic metal shavings in the air, completely imperceptible, until they were attracted to an object of spiritual importance. Then they could be sensed. Until they had built up a certain amount of mass around an object, they were undetectable. Not even the most skilled of necromancers could sense these particles in the air. The only record of this type of talent and skill was in tales older than anyone could remember, tales about Scrill, the famous hero of old that no one of any sense believed actually existed.
“Is there anything in your room that makes you feel uncomfortable?” asked Inu.
As reluctant Cyril was to help, Inu could tell that the answer to his question was “yes.” Cyril’s eyes drifted to the tall, decorative candle stand by the far window. He glanced back at Inu, worried that he had given something away. Inu walked over to the candle stand and as he did, the pull in his stomach strengthened. Cyril was right; there was something significant about this candle stand. It was caked with residue particles. Inu studied it. He waved his hand from the candle stand up towards his face, to brush some of the outer residue close enough for him to inhale.
Pictures flashed in Inu’s mind. This room, but different. The room changed before his eyes. Instead of that stool, there was a high-backed, sewn chair. The bed was on the opposite wall. There were thick, cowhide curtains instead of these linen ones. The bookcase, instead of being sparse, was overflowing. The candlestick was by the bed, illuminating the sleeping form of an old man with sores on his face and bald head. A woman with dark flowing hair, wearing a velvet cloak knelt at his side, holding his hand and weeping. Suddenly, the vision was gone. No one was in the room but Cyril, Phren, and himself.
A death in the room would certainly make it a magnet for spirits. Death was the only gateway between the physical world and the spiritual world. It trespassed the boundary that every other creature, action, and natural law obeyed, and wherever it happened, the boundary got a little weaker. Like erasing and re-drawing a line. Death was that erasure and the redrawn line was always weaker than the original.
There were places in the world where that line had been erased and redrawn so many times that the paper underneath had torn: battlefields, temples, plague towns. The places where that happened were called holy by some and cursed by others; it had nothing to do with the place and everything to do with the kinds of spirits came through and the way the natural laws broke in that area. While plenty of necromancers had studied these areas—called “world tears” in academic circles—there had been no conclusive evidence on what made an affected area holy or cursed. Some postulated that it depended on the energy given off by the surrounding people, while others said it had to do with the kind of death that had torn the boundary; both logical theories had been disproved by anomalies.
One theory had never been disproven, however: wherever the line had been erased and redrawn—whether the paper underneath had been broken or just weakened—those spots not only drew things from the spirit world, but also drew spirits that were already wandering the physical world. They were, quite literally, death traps.
No wonder Phren couldn’t ascend. Luckily, freeing a ghost’s essence from an object was easily done.
Inu put his hand into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a cloth bag the size of his fist. He pulled at the tiny braided cord.
“What’s in the bag?” asked Cyril, standing a fair distance away from Inu, with Phren hovering next to him.
“Powdered monkshood,” replied Inu. “Come closer, this will be a good first lesson.”
Cyril crept closer, much slower than Inu thought possible, but finally he was standing next to him.
“Cup your hands,” said Inu. Cyril obeyed, thoroughly confused.
Inu spread open the cinched top of the bag and poured a few ounces of the pale gray dust into Cyril’s hands.
Cyril didn’t like it. “What will this do?” he asked in a panicked voice. “is it going to hurt Phren?”
Inu smiled to himself; Cyril was concerned for the ghost. That was a good sign that he might be able to become the first uncorrupted necromancer.
“It won’t hurt him at all,” Inu assured the prince. “It shouldn’t really affect him at all, really. What it affects is the candle stand. It makes it less of a hot spot. It does not affect Phren’s actual essence in any way.”
Cyril nodded swiftly. “Okay.”
Inu stared at him. “Breathe,” he said gently. Cyril obeyed, albeit quickly and haltingly. “Again.” The second time Cyril was calmer. “Good. Now, I want you to sprinkle the monkshood in a circle around the candle stand. It doesn’t have to be thick, but it does have to be unbroken.”
Cyril crouched closer to the candle stand and started to work: sprinkling in some places and dropping huge clumps in others. Inu crouched next to him and gripped Cyril’s hand from the top.
“More like this,” said Inu, moving Cyril’s hand in a slow, steady motion. “Spread the monkshood as though that is what you are intending to do. Don’t hesitate. Breathe in, and then breathe out your uncertainty. But don’t breathe in the monkshood. It’s poisonous.”
Cyril obeyed and his hand steadied. Inu let go of his hand and let Cyril make his circle. It still clumped in areas, but it wasn’t half bad for a first time, and it would work just fine.
“Good, very good!” said Inu, smiling at Cyril. “Now the next part is more complicated, so I’ll do it this time, and you watch.”
Inu rolled his right sleeve up to the elbow so that he wouldn’t disturb Cyril’s circle. He then put his finger in the powdered circle and smeared it towards the candle stand; half-way through, he curved to the left in an arc, so that his line looked like a sickle, and finally connected the line to the base of the candle stand, a quarter-turn from where he had started. He put his finger in the monkshood circle three inches to the left of his first line, and did the same thing. He repeated the pattern until he had made it all the way around the circle.
Once that was complete, he put his hand in his pocket again and pulled out a half stick of yellow apple leaf incense.
“Do you have a fire or some flint I could use?” asked Inu.
Cyril got up from his seat on the floor and went to his bedside table. “Can’t you create your own?” he asked, bringing over a one-handed contraption made of two black stones held next to each other with a stick of coiled metal. He put the tool to the end of the incense and squeezed the metal, earning a bright and concentrated spark that caught the incense right away.
Inu laughed. “I’m a necromancer, not a warlock. Thank you.”
He took a piece of string from his pocket and fastened one end to the wood of the incense stick and the other end to the ornate top of the candle stand so that the incense hung and swung freely.
They stared at the incense in silence.
“Have you ever met a warlock?” Cyril asked, readjusting his crown of branches.
“Not personally, no,” replied Inu. “I’ve only read about them.”
“Can they see puffs?”
“Sorry, something my sister calls them,” said Cyril quickly, blushing. “Ghosts. Spirits.”
“Some of them can, but not all of them,” replied Inu with a smile. Heh. Puffs. Wait, what? His smile disappeared. “Does your sister share your gift?”
Cyril was horrified. “No! I mean, no, not at all. She’s completely normal. She’s going to be the queen when she comes of age. She isn’t into this sort of thing.”
“Being ‘into this sort of thing’ isn’t what I asked. Many necromancers aren’t ‘into this sort of thing.’”
“She isn’t,” Cyril insisted. “But even people who don’t see them have heard of them. That’s just what she called them before she was old enough to learn what they are really called.”
Inu wasn’t convinced but he decided to let it go. He got slowly to his feet and put his hands on his hips to stretch his back.
“That should be enough incense to do the job,” he said, licking two clean fingers and pinching the smoldering end between them. He untied the incense and held it in his hand; it would be too hot to put into his pocket for a few minutes, still.
Phren was nowhere to be seen. Cyril noticed his absence as well.
“Phren?” Cyril called, quietly enough that no one outside this room would hear him. “Phren, are you still here?” An empty room was all the reply he got.
He stopped calling and looked at the floor. His red face scrunched up and tears shone in the morning light.
Inu’s heart broke. “Dear prince,” he began as he put his arm around Cyril’s shoulders and hugged him. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”
Cyril slapped his hand away and backed towards the door. “Don’t you dare touch me. This is all your fault.” With that, he ran out, leaving Inu standing alone in a room smelling strongly of smoke and apple leaves.
A/N: It’s much more difficult to demagnetize objects outside, since you have to draw the lines by sprinkling the dust instead of smearing it. Plus, grass gets in the way, the ground isn’t even, bugs break the circle… it just turns into one big mess.
Because of this, some necromancers have gotten into the habit of bringing a foldable hard surface with them whenever they are on a demagnetization job so they can pick up the object in question, put it on the hard surface and voila! Let the smearing begin.
I like this a lot! It’s fun to see you incorporating all the fascinating world-building you’ve been up to, and the way you’ve interspersed it through this scene along with character information keeps the narrative informative, but not cluttered. I’m excited to see this story play out. :]
Oh my gosh, thank you so much! I’m glad you’re enjoying it! Yeah, it’s nice that the world is starting to come together. Slowly but surely.