Innu held the tree trunk for dear life. The world swam below him as essence like molten gold flowed lazily from his eyes and mouth. He knew he would need to breathe soon, but he couldn’t quite get his lungs to expand. Every muscle was clenched, every joint was locked. It was like the electric shock that came from rubbing fabric together except sustained and heightened to a frightening degree.
It was painful, but Innu’s heart bubbled with joy. Nateoma, his oldest and best friend—the one who knew him better than he knew himself, the one who had braved with him the darkest times of his life and her afterlife—was finally ascending.
She had endured so much torture. For years, Garnet had kept her as her favorite test subject for minor spells, wards, and debilitating commands. Innu had seen Nateoma’s essence tear and dwindle until she had lost her shape completely, reverting to the sparsest of mist, losing her ability to think.
Innu had taken her in, shocking his body into a function it hadn’t been created for, the first of many ghosts he would take in. He didn’t know at the time that she would recover or that they would grow so close. At the time, he had known that ghosts were the same as living humans, but he hadn’t truly understood it in his heart until he had bonded with Nateoma. He hadn’t known she was such a good person. He hadn’t known she would become the person he loved most in the world.
Innu would miss her more than he had ever missed anyone and more than he would ever miss anyone again.
The molten gold stopped flowing from Innu’s eyes and mouth as Nateoma exited his soul. The pressure in Innu’s chest lessened but the emptiness wasn’t welcome.
Innu made sure he wasn’t going to faint before he climbed his hands up the tree trunk and stood up. He checked the corners of his mouth for blood but found none.
Cyril hadn’t seen the ascension. He was too busy rebuilding the Montomogen Moors with Claudia and Phren. Oh well. There would be plenty of other ascensions and Innu would make Cyril sit through all of them. Cyril might be the co-ruler but Innu was his necromancer and Cyril was still his apprentice.
A shimmer caught Innu’s eye.
He looked to his left and floating a few feet away was a beautiful woman with hair long and dark over one eye; the other side of her head was shaved. She had ancient runes tattooed across her forehead. Her long, loose dress billowed around her feet, catching where one foot had been cut off at the ankle.
Innu had never seen the woman before but he knew exactly who she was.
Nateoma smiled and nodded. “Innu,” she said in the ringing voice Innu knew like his own humming.
Innu’s joy faded into concern. “Why are you still here?” he asked. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to see you, but you should have ascended.”
“I turned them down,” she said simply.
Innu was dumbfounded. “How—“
“I was a priestess in life. The goddess of death isn’t as unyielding as she would have people think. All I did was ask to stay in the world for a while longer.”
Innu walked the distance between them and grabbed her hands. “But why?” he almost demanded. “Why, Natty? You’ve already spent so much time on earth.”
Natty smiled and lifted her translucent hands through Innu’s and motioned to wipe Innu’s tears away with her thumb. Innu hadn’t realized he had been crying.
“Innu, you have suffered so much,” she said almost to herself. “You helped me when I had no one. You showed me the goodness still left in the world.”
“And you, me, only a thousand times more,” Innu said, voice wavering as more tears fell. “You were good to me even when I was unkind. Even through my violent beginning as a ghoul. You kept me calm. You told me I could overcome my cravings even when I didn’t believe you. I never deserved your kindness and yet you gave it to me. …I’ll miss you but you deserve every happiness. Please, please go into the afterlife.”
“I love you.” Nateoma said it before she had meant to, but she didn’t take it back. Instead, she said it again. “I love you and I never want to be parted from you. I want to stay with you while you are on earth and when you die, we will pass over together.”
That put Innu over the edge. He broke down and wept tears of relief. All the strength he had put into being happy for Natty’s ascension crumbled as his more selfish thoughts no longer had to be hidden. He didn’t want her to leave. He had never wanted her to leave.
“I love you, too,” Innu managed to breathe out. “I love you so much it aches.”
Natty bowed her head and closed her eyes. Tears would have been falling if she had been alive.
“I love you but I don’t deserve you,” Innu continued.
Natty smiled and took Innu’s hand. She wasn’t solid, but seeing her hand and feeling the coldness in his palm, Innu could imagine it just fine.
“That makes two of us,” Natty said.
In all of Innu’s life, his heart had never felt so full. He was still weak from the remaining nineteen ghosts he was sheltering and his head buzzed with the unnatural flesh-devouring drive of the hungry spirit, but none of that mattered.
Natty loved him and that was enough.
A/N: Innu may be the official necromancer of the New Montomogen Moors, but he isn’t usually home. More often than not, there’s a sign on his door saying that he’ll be back sometime the following week. That’s okay. Spirits are welcome to come and go through the kingdom so long as they’re peaceful and when complications arise, Cyril, Claudia, or Phren have been able to settle them without violence or coercion.
Also, yes, Innu is a ghoul. A ghoul is a kind of parasitic non-human spirit that uses a human host to feed off other humans’ life force by consuming their living flesh until it has gained enough strength to split in half, one half staying with the host and the other going out to find a new one. The resultant parasite-host combination is also called a ghoul. The moral here is be careful about what spirits you bring home.