Here’s the second half of the selection from my novel-in-progress. I picked these selections because I enjoyed them. As I said before, I’ve had people asking me what I’ve been working on for the past two-and-a-half years, and so I’m trying to share a little (I’ve already shared somewhat from my other novel-in-progress). This is really rough, and already the shape it’s taking in the rewrite has a faint resemble to what you’ve read–and will read–here. Much like a tadpole to a frog, or cake batter to a baked and frosted cake, so to my novel-in-progress to the completed manuscript.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy!
They entered the tomb and found it meticulously kept: unlike the others they had been in, this tomb had been freshly dusted, and only one spider’s web—a tangled net draped across a crack in a corner of the ceiling—could be seen. The fresh smell of thyme and pine resin, tansy and other wildflowers perfumed the air. Greg flashed Alec a grin—there in front of them were two rows of stone coffins, all undisturbed.
“Lucky for us someone forgot to lock the door.” Greg said. He tugged a couple of torches from his satchel and tossed one to Alec. “Here, get this lit, if you can remember the spell.”
Alec grumbled to himself, and cast a Minor Flame onto the torch. It flared up as if he had doused the torch in charcoal lighter fluid. He yelled, nearly dropping the torch. The flame subsided, and glowed softly in the settling dark.
“Good one,” Greg said. He lit his torch without all of the fanfare and they set the torches in the brackets on the wall. They walked over to the nearest coffin. “We’ve got to begin somewhere.” Alec felt uneasy, for someone kept the tomb as clean as his mom kept their home in case visitors dropped by. It felt sacrilegious and wrong, an invasion of someone’s private space.
“They may be coming back soon,” he suggested, leaving the so maybe we should go, dangling unsaid in the hopes that Greg would reach that conclusion and they could try another, less well-kept, tomb.
“Dude, it’s nightfall, who’s going to come to the visit their dead family now. Now, wedge your fingers under the slab and lift.”
Alec hesitated, but did indeed slide his fingers and, with palms wet with sweat and arms shaking—not from the heaviness of the marble slab but from nervousness—he helped Greg reveal the contents of the coffin. There, lying with arms at his sides and his hair shorn short, was a man. A dead man and, from his condition, was probably laid to rest a day or two ago. His eyes were closed, and his mouth hung slightly open, as if he died while taking a breath which he would never exhale. He was not much older than them, and from what they could tell of his short-cropped coal-colored head of hair he had a long way to go before he went grey. His skin was soft and unwrinkled, and his hands thin and willowy.
With his jewelry and clothing, they guessed him to be a man of importance, a merchant nobleman. He had a ring on each hand, both set with lime-green gems that captured and spun the firelight into a dazzling display. The green complemented the violet velvet of his tunic. The craftsmanship of his boots made theirs look like beggar’s rags.
This is how I will be buried, Greg thought. Fine clothes and rings, smelling fresh, preserved in pine resin to slow the decaying process. In death, this man had more than Greg’s family had in life. Jealously, he wanted to steal the man’s rings and burn his clothes, but respect made him straighten out the hem of the dead man’s tunic where it had pulled up. I will have this. . . No, I will exceed this—like the Egyptians and their monuments, I will be remembered after my death.
Alec stumbled back in shock at seeing the body, and bumped into the coffin directly behind him, startling a squeak out of him. Greg stood over the body, wearing a solemn and pensive look, as if he was about to eulogize the man, or give a sermon about the transience of life. He watched Greg reach down and stroke out his tunic and tug down the bottom, like a lover straightening her beloved’s collar.
Greg took the book and placed it on the cover of a nearby coffin. He pulled things out of his satchel for the spell: a small bloodstone, a sprig of hemlock, a small vial of yellow, viscous liquid. He glanced up as he pulled stuff out. “Go out and gather some Corpse Fingers for additional lighting, while I prepare the spell. Hurry, it’s getting dark, Septimus will be expecting us soon.”
Something about the spell made Alec uneasy, and the corpse really unsettled him, so when Greg directed him to go out and gather Corpse Fingers he went gladly. He walked down the rows of gravestones, plucking the biggest of the mushrooms. They felt eerily warm in his hands, radiating heat like a rat or hamster. He wanted to end this now and leave, but he knew he was in too deep at this point, just like when they went to steal the street sign, and he had misgivings as they climbed onto the hood of his car to better reach the bolts. He glanced back at the tomb—under the grey clouds, with the wind wet and the night blotting out the light, and the Corpse Fingers stretching and waving out of the ground like real fingers, the tomb with its soft torchlight looked positively inviting. He heard something scrape against stone on the far side of the graveyard, and saw something scurry on all fours by the wall there. A hysterical chuffing sound akin to laughter accompanied the scurrying. His blood ran cold at the sound, and all of the hair on his body puffed out. He straightened up and hurried back to the tomb, one arm wrapped tightly around the mushrooms, his free hand gripping the hilt of his sword.
Greg stood over the dead man, his back to the door. A small globe of light hovered over the man’s face. When he heard Alec come in he called over his shoulder, “Great, arrange those around the coffin so we have sufficient light.”
“Greg,” Alec began, but Greg cut him off.
“We’re going through with this—we’ve gone too far to go back now.” He turned to face Alec, a dagger in his hand. Alec backed away, his hand loosening his sword from its scabbard.
Greg laughed at the sight. “I just need a little blood, that’s all.”
‘Fuck that. You want blood, you’d better be ready to shed it if you think you’re getting it from me.”
“Chill, dude.” Greg took the tip of the dagger, and made a small cut on the inside of his forearm. “I’m not gonna ask anything of you that I can’t do myself.” Alec sighed, relieved. Greg sheathed the dagger in his belt and then smeared the bloodstone with his blood. He took the vial, and poured it over the stone and smeared it, so blood and liquid coated the stone.
“Alright, here we go.” Alec crept close to stand on the other side of the coffin. The pine resin coating the dead man’s skin made him look encased in amber, his features so peaceful it seemed a shame to disturb him. They looked at each other, and Greg knew how the Wright Brothers must have felt with their first flight, or Nikola Tesla and Kolman Czito felt working on experiments together, here they were about to have a breakthrough that would change their lives and Taleth henceforth.
“Hold open his mouth.” Greg said.
“What?” Alec balked at touching the dead man—who knew what diseases crawled his festering skin.
“Unless you want to stuff the hemlock and the stone down his throat.” Alec shook his head and placed his fingers on the dead man’s jaw and gingerly pushed. He did it as if afraid to wake the man, but when it wouldn’t move he pushed hard until they heard a crack it hinged open like a jammed door. Resin flaked from his skin.
Greg took the sprig of hemlock and placed it in the dead man’s mouth, and then with the greased and bloody bloodstone shoved it down his throat. He reached as far into the man’s mouth as he could, pushing the stone down until he couldn’t reach it anymore. Alec watched, horrified.
“You’re stuffing hemlock down his throat and chasing it with a bloody rock? We’re going to bring him back to life only to poison and suffocate him?”
“That’s what the spell says to do. Maybe it absorbs his death and then he coughs it back up, or it shrinks down and he pisses it out like a kidney stone.”
“So what now?” Alec felt a little disappointed. He half-expected the man to jump out of the coffin, but he lay there the same, except his mouth hung open like he was waiting for someone to throw popcorn or candy into it.
“I finish the spell. These were the material components. Damn, dude, really, how much magic have you studied?” Alec’s face reddened. Greg picked up the book and leaned over the corpse. He recited the spell, whispering into its ear. Alec noticed the torchlight flicker, and then the Corpse Fingers extinguish, their soft blue light evacuated the room, fleeing as if they knew what was to come. The air filled with electricity and grew cold. Suddenly, what seemed like an electric burst emanated from the dead man that sent chills through them and shoved them back—Greg flew back into the tomb wall, knocking a torch loose from its wall sconce so that it clattered to the floor, sparks scuttling like insects over the stone; Alec fell back against the coffin behind him, the wind knocked out of him as he slid to the floor. They both laid where they had been thrown staring at the open coffin. The tomb was still and silent.
“This had better have worked.” Alec grumbled. He and Greg both rose. Their eyes met when they stood, and they held their gaze before both looking down into the coffin. There was the dead man, his mouth still slack, his eyes still closed. Only his tunic ruffled. They stepped to the coffin.
Well?” Alec asked.
“Hold on.” He clutched the side of the coffin and leaned in to put his ear near the dead man’s mouth. “I don’t hear anything.”
Was it his imagination, or did the dead man’s fingers twitch? “Ummm . . . Greg?”
Before he could respond, before he could stand full upright, the dead man’s hands shot up and seized Greg’s forearm. Greg screamed and tried to pull away, but the dead man hung on with the grip of rigor mortis and brought his forearm up to its mouth. With its eyes closed, it lapped at the cut Greg had made to draw blood, licking it like a half-dozing baby licked at its mother’s nipple after eating.
Alec screamed, and backed away, banging into the coffin behind him again. Greg twisted and yanked to free his arm, but the reanimated corpse hung on and began sucking on it.
“Fuck fuck fuck” Alec chanted as he watched.
“Help me. Do something,” Greg barked. He drew the dagger from his belt, and as he lifted it to stab the revenant, it bit down into the flesh of his arm. It wrenched its head to and fro, tearing a chunk from his arm. He drove the dagger into the revenant’s forehead with enough force to knock it back and make it release his arm. He drew his wounded arm to chest and recoiled from the coffin to lean against the wall.
The moment it bit down on Greg’s arm, Alec unsheathed his sword and stood waiting for a chance to attack—he daren’t swing while it clung to Greg, for fear of slashing and killing him. Now, he thought, I might have to. Don’t people bit by zombies become zombies?
The revenant popped up from the coffin, gore running down its face from the wound in its forehead. Its eyes open now, it peered around the room. The eyes were glassy and cold—all warmth of life had left them. It glanced from Greg to Alec and back to Greg as if making a decision on whom to attack. Rising up on one arm, it catapulted from the coffin to land on its feet in front of Greg. Greg stood against the wall, hunch over his wounded arm, the gory dagger in his hand. It leapt at him. Greg slashed out, but the revenant seized his hand and cracked it against the wall, forcing him to drop the dagger. Holding his good hand, it grabbed his face with its free hand. He felt the cool gold of the ring against his cheek, the fingers tightening, digging into his eyesockets, pushing in his eyes as it pressed his head against the wall. He hit its stomach and tried to push it away with his free hand, but it hurt too much for him to put much strength in it. Suddenly, a huffing sound, air being forced out of a bellows, came from it. It pulled him back from the wall and cast him to the back of the tomb, where he hit the wall and fell to the stone floor.
Alec saw the revenant spring from the coffin and pounce upon Greg the way his cocker spaniel Pinochle pounced on a doggie treat. We created a fucking Juju zombie, Alec thought. He raced around the coffin, watching Greg attempt to fight it. The revenant toyed with him as if he was a toddler. Please don’t kill him, please let me make it in time, God. Please. He’s my best friend, Alec prayed. He grew up Catholic, but never bothered with the Bible or Church, now he would do anything if God granted this prayer. The revenant held Greg up by the face, squeezing his head, its thumb and middle finger digging into Greg’s eyes. Afraid if he stabbed him he would stab Greg, he swung up, slashing the revenant’s back. He cut the velvet tunic and shaved the back of its scalp off. It jostled forward from the blow, threw Greg to the back of the room, and turned to face him.
He expected his battles to be full of witty one-liners as he cut through enemy after enemy, but the only thing he could think of, now that the glassy-eyed creature faced him, the gore glistening on its face and clotting on its tunic, was survival. He wanted to live, and he wanted Greg to live.
The revenant stood before him. It didn’t move; it just stood there, glistening in the light of the torches, silent. Alec bounced on his knees, waiting. It glanced towards Greg, then to the door, and then back to Alec. It isn’t very smart, is it—it plans on running. He waited for it to run, but instead it lunged at him, just as it had at Greg.
Alec screamed, and slashed wildly at the revenant—his first swing slashing up the front of its body, slicing open its tunic and stomach, so that its entrails spilled over his pants and boots. His second swing saved him, for the revenant grabbed his throat just as Alec’s sword went through its neck and its head tumbled backwards to the floor. The hand squeezed, choking him, and he realized that, though he cut off its head, it still wasn’t dead.
“Fuck,” he cried and, out of desperation. The revenant grabbed him with its other hand and squeezed tighter. As the world spun and his vision grew fuzzy, he cast his Minor flame spell upon the revenant’s body. In an instant, the hands grew slack as the flames engulfed the body. The air filled with stench of burning flesh and resin. Alec stumbled away from it, sucking in deep breaths, and bumped into the same stone coffin. He hollered and kicked at it until it felt like he broke his toe, and then he turned and sat down on the floor. Leaning against it, through tears, he watched the fire consume the body.
Alec and Greg sat on the beach next to a driftwood fire. They left the tomb in silence, letting the corpse burn. Untethering their horses, they rode back to the keep, veering off the trail and through the woods to the beach to clean up before they went all the way back. The sea welcomed them with rolling, clapping waves, and they returned the greeting by stripping down—though Alec only to his underwear, he refused to be naked in front of anyone if he could help it—and throwing themselves into its embrace. The saltwater stung his wounds, but Greg welcomed the pain, for it cleansed and healed him. They delighted in the roiling and turbulent water, rolling around in it like otters. Swimming against the waves, fighting the ebb and flow of the currents, gave them a catharsis—the sea took all of their fear and anger and pain, allowed them to kick and slash and punch it until they had enough, and it set them ashore wet and shivering but joyful to be alive.
Alec soaked his pants in a tidepool, hoping to get most of the gore off of them, and then—after wiping his boots off with a handful of seaweed—he sat by the fire and scrubbed of the bits that clung to them with a shell.
Greg cut strips from the end of his cloak and wrapped them around the bite wound. It stung, but felt much better after being washed out in the sea. He gazed blankly out at the ocean and rolled the ring around on his finger. He fished it out of the fire as they left, knocking it loose of the corpse’s charred fingers and wrapping it up in a corner of his cloak. He saved it as a reminder of this evening. I was careless, he thought. I should’ve been more careful and precise. I thought I knew what the spell said, but I didn’t read it carefully enough, and that nearly cost us our lives. Too, too fragile things, they are, and too easily extinguished in this world. I’ve gotta study harder and practice more, we weren’t brought up with this, as the generations before us had been, and so we’ve got a lot of catching up and learning to do. Maybe Septimus has taken us as far as he can, maybe it’s time for us to start teaching ourselves. This wouldn’t have happened if he taught us everything there was to know about magic, instead of what he thinks we should know. His limitations are dangerous, and set us back.
“Are you hungry at all? Any sudden cravings come over you?” Alec asked. Greg snapped out of his thoughts and laughed.
“Is there a time when you aren’t hungry? Nah, but I’ll sure eat somethin’ when we get back. Scrounge up some black bread and finish off whatever’s left of Gareth’s stew.”
Alec raised his eyebrows. “What about . . . meat. Do you have a craving for meat? Any meat in particular?”
“What are you hinting at? Wait, are you worried that I’m a zombie, because I was bitten? Dude, that only happens in movies. And that wasn’t a zombie—”
“It acted like a zombie—it bit your arm. It fought like a juju zombie. That thing had a ‘Bad Motherfucker’ wallet in its back pocket.”
Greg laughed. “Dude, you fought like a juju zombie. I’m glad you cast your Minor Flame spell, or we’d both be zombie chow right now. I’d hate to see your Dragon’s Breath—you’d’ve probably burned up the whole graveyard.”
Alec guffawed. He didn’t mention that he still struggled with Dragon’s Breath, his spell creating nothing more than a flash of blue and green embers.
“Hey, I’m sorry about tonight,” Greg fumbled with the apology, half-shouting the first half and then half-muttering the latter. “I should’ve been more careful. I thought I knew the dialect well enough to read and understand the spell.”
Alec smiled and held back a snarky retort—it was hard for him to not attack Greg at such a vulnerable moment. “Well, we got some great combat practice in. . . and I see that when you don’t cheat, you don’t fight so well.” He punctuated his jab with a burst of maniacal laughter. “Next time you want to try something like that. . . Do it without me.” He got up and picked his way across the sand to the tidepool where he left his pants.
Damnit. Fucking nature. Fucking animals,” he cried. Greg hurried over and found Alec batting at his pants with a stick. The gore that clung to them drew a horde of crabs. They wriggled over his pants, little Rorschach inkblots in the moonlight. He had put the cuffs and lower legs into the pool, but the crabs, in their greedy orgy, had pulled most of his pants in, soaking them all the way to the upper thighs. “What are you doing just standing there, help me.”
Greg laughed, reached down, grabbed his pants by the waist and gave it a few vigorous shakes. Crabs flew into the tidepool and across the sand like bits of shrapnel. A few clung desperately, hoping to get the last bits. Greg pinched these ones and pitched them across the sand. Greg handed Alec the pants free of crabs and gore, but soaked. “They might be a little damp.”
They waited another hour before heading back, to give Alec’s pants a chance to dry out by the fire. They joked more about the revenant, finding ways to talk around their fear, rather than to expose it and expose themselves as cowards. Greg brought the conversation around to Septimus, and he outlined his main concern about studying under Septimus: his hesitation at teaching them forbidden magic.
“After tonight’s demonstration, I can see why he doesn’t teach us. It’s dangerous, that’s why it’s forbidden.”
“That’s exactly why he should be teaching us—so that we can learn it in a safe environment. We need to know this magic if we plan on ruling Taleth.”
“What do you suggest then, that we go off and find another wizard to study under? Or head off ourselves and have more shenanigans like tonight that will eventually lead to one or both of us being killed.”
Greg swatted the flames of the fire with a stick he used to poke the coals. “No, I don’t think we’re going to find another wizard like Septimus. I don’t think it’d be that easy to find another wizard. What I think we need to do is learn what we can from Septimus, and teach ourselves, but—”Alec began to speak, but Greg squinted at Alec and held up his hand, “let me finish. We need to teach ourselves, but on a smaller scale than tonight, and in a controlled environment. I was thinking that we need to look at setting up our own magical study. I mean, face it, Septimus’s mind isn’t all there. He’s got one foot in the grave and when he croaks, who’s taking over the keep? Umbriel. And is she gonna let us stick around? Hell, no. So we need to be prepared. There will come a point when we’re kicked out and have nothing to show for it because we’ve been relying on Septimus this whole time. If we plan on taking back our kingdom, we need to start preparing now.”
Alec began listening with skepticism, but as Greg continued, he got more and more excited, until he was pacing back and forth next to the fire. In the firelight, with his ear-to-ear grin and the flames reflecting in his eyes, Alec resembled a devil, he completed the image by wringing his hands, one of his hyperactive tics.
“I like it. I like it. That’s brilliant.” He laughed, assaulting the silence of the beach with a staccato burst.
Greg nodded in agreement. Yes, he could see a plan coming together now. He could see . . . the cuffs of Alec’s pants singed by the fire. “Hey, grab your pants, they’re starting to burn.”
“Ah, jeez,” Alec tossed his pants out of the fire and batted the cuffs with a rock.