As much as he hates to admit it, it’s easy.
The dead do not remain tethered to their bones, bleached and buried underground. They do not crawl about their previous haunts with the desperation they once had. They do not stay dead. So it’s easy to flex his hands again after months of disuse, and easier still to drag them down his face. The earth seems to part for him as he makes his way up. The wretched howling of souls with less luck falls away from his ears in a rush as he emerges. Easy as waking up, or crying out, or being born.
Gerard Keay digs his nails into the dirt and climbs out of his grave.
“So, that was completely worthless.” Georgie groans, bordering on melodramatic as she collapses against Jon’s side, “Third time was supposed to be the charm! What the fuck!”
“You don’t know that,” he offers, “Maybe she’s… slow?”
“Slow at what , Jon? It’s my revival spell, I’m the one doing all the damn work.”
With that, Georgie hops off the old couch altogether, stretching like a cat as she begins pacing about the room. Jon privately mourns the loss of contact. He doesn’t reach out to her, though, instead choosing to watch her rake her hands through her messy hair and shriek into her palms as she circles the living room of their shared flat almost on instinct.
It’s cold tonight. The sun had set hours ago, and the lurking presence of late-autumn air had seeped into the flat and curled about both their limbs the way the Admiral often did. Dead leaves skitter wildly across the muddy pavement below them, and every radio station plays the same mess of ominous static and distorted screeches from last year’s top hits. C-list horror sound effects had really dominated the charts back then, filling every practitioner’s flat with the buzzing sounds of fake wailing. The flat is lit by a collection of lanterns, torches, and candles, each flickering wildly as Georgie passes them over and over and over.
Basically, all the conditions were perfect for a bout of casual necromancy.
Curiously, Georgie’s spell had failed again.
Jon lets his eyes flutter closed. He knows the drill by now. When Georgie messes up a spell, she’s wracked with nervous energy for about an hour afterward. Then, disappointment sinks in, and she gravitates towards her familiar for some cuddles that only the Admiral can provide her with (Jon, apparently, is too tall). At the end of it, she’ll yawn, sigh, and go to bed early. Jon doesn’t have to do much.
It’s not that he doesn’t care, of course. He does! Necromancy just tends to take so long, ridiculously so. They’d been working at it since noon, the two of them. One of Georgie’s research friends had stopped by at one point to check in. Some other familiar from down the hall had managed to sneak in through the window, and a great deal of effort had been spent chasing her out before she taught the Admiral how to speak English. Some practitioners had no manners when it came to raising a familiar, honestly. But for most of the day, it was just Georgie and Jon. Georgie, endlessly poring over her massive spellbook and mixing powders and muttering under her breath. Jon, drifting in and out of sleep and considering doing his schoolwork and beating the Elite 4 in Pokemon White for the fifth (or maybe sixth) time. They’d both been very busy.
So Jon doesn’t immediately catch what Georgie says to him as she abruptly stops pacing and claps her hands together.
“Hm?” Jon mumbles at her, extracting his face from the depths of a pillow he’d been clutching.
“ Scrying, Jon! You’re good at that!”
“I’m good at a lot of things,” Jon says, “Scrying, falling asleep, shoplifting, petting the Admiral.”
Georgie is unfazed. She barrels on with her idea, “Seriously, though! We saw the spell work as I was doing it, so it couldn’t have been something that went wrong during the process. And I had all the correct materials, and I did the procedure perfectly! So I’m thinking that I must have misdirected it somehow.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to misdirect a revival spell. Like, didn’t you burn a picture of her at the beginning?”
“Got any other ideas?”
Jon is silent.
“Right then,” Georgie grins, “I’ll get a bowl of water.”
Jon glares at her as he peels himself off the couch, but there’s no real malice behind it. As soon as he gets up, the Admiral materializes at his feet and proceeds to nip at his ankles.
“Hello, pest,” Jon scoops him up, “Your witch has got another terrible idea, did you hear?”
The Admiral yawns and nestles into his arms. Jon is not above admitting that it melts his heart.
“I know, I know.” he coos.
Over in their little kitchenette, Georgie is clattering about as she searches for a proper-sized bowl. On the radio sat at the counter, a love song (of all things) plays sweetly. The lights stay on. The wind remains calm. Yet somehow, as Jon prepares to Look for Georgie’s spell, he cannot help but shudder at the unexpected chill that darts through him.
Apprentice work, Martin decides as he struggles to scrape the gunk off his hands, is the fucking worst.
From beside him, Tim hums sympathetically.
“Cheer up, mate!” he claps Martin on the back, which would have been more comforting if his hand wasn’t just as filthy with slime, mold, and dirt as Martin’s. But Martin will take what he can get, “At least you didn’t get the worst of it.”
From behind them, Martin hears the telltale sound of heavy working boots squelching through the soggy grass, parting the muddy water about them in rivulets. Sasha doesn’t say anything as she catches up with them. From the tips of her wavy black hair down to the toes of her shoes, she is swimming in the remains of their last target. Her face is calm, but her hands twitch slightly at her sides as if they’re desperate to ball themselves into fists. This, for Sasha, is a look of unbridled fury.
“I hope Annabelle Cane dies of natural causes. Like a well-timed avalanche,” she says. Tim nods sagely, giving her a wide berth.
When Martin had accepted this job offer, signing his name on a refreshingly short contract and handing it to the woman herself, Martin had thought a paid apprenticeship with the Annabelle Cane had been a dream come true. Honestly! It was a job that paid well enough to support both himself and his mother, kept him out of the house and away from said mother, and didn’t require any educational history or coven affiliations. To be fair, it had also been sketchy as all hell, but Martin had figured that if one of the most well-known magical practitioners in London had decided to seek him out for any position, he’d be in worse shape refusing than blindly accepting whatever his new fate would be.
Apparently, the new fate was cleaning up after Annabelle’s contract kills. They also do paperwork occasionally.
Still beside him, Tim sighs loudly, “What time did she say we had to be back, again?”
“Before dark,” Martin says. That’s one positive of the job; vague orders and hours give them time to work at whatever pace they like.
Martin glances up at the sky, obscured as it is by the overgrown trees crowding the swamp they’re wading through. The sun shines brightly back at him.
“Well! We’ll be out of here in two hours max, and I desperately need a shower. I say we head out to eat after that?” Sasha says. Some of the muck on her hands has begun to dry, and she scrubs it off in flakes. Martin shifts his focus to his own hands as Tim readily agrees with her.
The mass of mold and decay from the body of some elderly witch with the wrong enemies rests under his fingernails. Apparently, she’d been eating people’s familiars. Ever the modern boss, Annabelle had texted them about it and heavily implied that the woman was trying to gorge herself to death. Indulgence of such a sort, apparently, warranted a hired hit. He hadn’t seen Annabelle do it this time. She had strode into the dilapidated cottage in the middle of a swamp that couldn’t be found on a map, torn the old woman to shreds, and promptly teleported herself back to the office in central London the second her apprentices had arrived. In some places, the dirt acquiesces to Martin’s persistent scraping. In others, it stubbornly clings to him as if afraid to let go.
Distantly, Martin wonders if the old woman’s spirit is following them, watching him carry the last bits of her body away from the place she always thought she would die.
Jon stares at the water in front of him, encased in a stainless steel mixing bowl Georgie had dug up from the furthest reaches of their drawers and cabinets.
The water stares back.
“I’m looking for the energy from the spells, right? Not-”
Georgie, standing a few steps behind him, cuts him off, “Yeah, the spells. You never met her, so I don’t know how you’d Look for her.”
“Right,” says Jon.
He shifts about on the floor so that he is sitting cross-legged and straightens his posture as best as he can. They had moved to his room for the scrying, where his connection to his magic tended to be the strongest. In the cleared space in the middle of the floor, the bowl sits silently. Jon brings his hands up. He reaches forward, hovering them just above the surface of the clear water. Not touching, not quite. The water responds swiftly, evaporating into a thick steam molecule-by-molecule and swirling in front of him in an endlessly shifting display. The steam is denser than what normal boiling would make. Almost like a fog. About half the water remains in the bowl.
Jon can’t help but smile, just a bit, as he closes his eyes.
Immediately, there is an incessant tug on the back of his mind, and a constant flow of images and feelings and sounds and tastes almost overwhelms him. Shifting only slightly, Jon leans into the sensation. It’s stronger than what he’s used to, and he fights to keep his eyes closed. His hands splay, almost of their own accord. The steam moves rapidly in a circle before him and Jon feels a familiar twinge of pain against every inch of his skin as all his other eyes begin to open. With this, Jon exhales in relief. The remaining water in the bowl splashes and splits as if it had been disturbed, now ripe with the glossy sheen of a mirror. Jon picks it up gently.
He pauses, blinks, and begins to See.
All at once, it is this:
The grinding of teeth. The movement of hair, long and untidy. A needle to the skin and the faint buzzing of machinery. Eyes that are dark. Eyes that are closed. Eyes that open suddenly, to see nothing but pitch black. Skin against skin, but pleasant. Skin against skin, but painful. A body detaching from the confinement of solid bones. The flexing of fingers. Other souls, jealous, making themselves heard as a distant, itching shriek. It’s easy. It really is. Reaching upwards, hitting no resistance. A horrible mix of hope and confusion and excitement and terror. What will I do now? Where will I go? The stench of blood. Hair that is bright red.
And the climbing, torturously slow, pulling the souls out of their graves.
Jon sneezes. The visions end.
“What did you see?” Georgie asks fervently. She walks over to kneel beside him, lightly touching her hand to his shoulder.
“I… Someone, I think. At least one person.” Jon says, all echoed and slow.
“My spell went to them?”
“Yeah, evidently. Might’ve gone to them the last two times as well.”
“ Shit, Jon! Who was it?”
That’s certainly a question.
The thing is, Jon isn’t good at scrying because he’s talented or anything ridiculous like that. Jon can do what he does solely because he remembers everything he’s ever seen or heard. There is no need for technical skills when one can think really hard about a stray cat and locate which tree it’s stuck in just by knowing the location of every tree. There is no need for “hard work” or “practice” when one can just evaporate a dish of water to figure out which thing they’ve seen before it is that they are meant to see again.
Jon’s good at scrying because he recognizes what he Sees, and his magic points him to it as if he’s tied to it with a string. But Jon hadn’t recognized the people Georgie’s spell hit.
He tells her as much, and her face contorts as she groans.
“Do you at least know where they are?” she asks.
“I think so, but it’s faint. We could track them down, maybe, if I really tried.” Jon sighs.
Trying this hard always gives him a headache.
It wasn’t any of their faults, honestly.
Tim had wanted to go to a breakfast cafe, because breakfast at 4 PM is the sort of thing that he considers “fun” and “spontaneous”. Sasha hadn’t protested, feverishly checking her face in her phone camera to ensure that no flecks of dirt and grime remained in her eyebrows. So what was Martin supposed to do? Say no?
Or maybe it could have been Martin’s fault, for shrugging and nodding and not saying something smart like “I don’t want to be seen in public right now, let’s hunker down in our spider-proof flats so that nothing else happens today except maybe a nap.”
But Tim had offered to pay.
So Martin had sat himself down at one of the outdoor tables in front of the cafe that Sasha had immediately rushed over to when she finally looked up from her phone. She had rambled out something about it being cute, which Martin couldn’t disagree with. It was cute, all dainty and circular with four cushioned chairs surrounding it. Sitting there with three plates of egregiously sugary waffles in front of them, their hair being ruffled by the autumn breeze. The sky was its usual cloudy grey, but the sun seemed to peek through gaps in the overcast clouds every now and then. Sweet instrumental music wafted down the wind from inside the cafe. Down the street, two werewolves tried to rip each other’s throats out as they held up traffic, and the apprentice’s little breakfast table gave them a perfect view of the carnage. It was nice.
They’d let their guard down. Even worse, they’d picked a table with four seats.
So when Sasha had noticed tiny black spiders crawling up the leg of her chair, she barely had enough time to yelp in surprise before Annabelle Cane was delicately slipping into the chair beside her with a smile. The spiders had skittered up her legs and over to her arms, nestling between the beaded bracelets adorning her wrists. All eight of her wrists.
“ Hello, you three,” Annabelle says, “Glad to see you’re all in one piece.”
It takes nearly all of Martin’s mental strength to refrain from slamming his head down on the table, directly into his food.
“Annabelle,” says Tim, voice dripping with annoyance, “We did everything already.”
Annabelle nods knowingly, “Don’t worry, I know. I expect nothing less from you. How did it go?”
“You weren’t watching?” Martin asks, at the same time that Sasha says, “Bad.”
Annabelle laughs into her hand, peering up at them from the beneath her spiderweb-ridden lashes. She’s not much older than them, really. Not university age, but not yet in her thirties. Martin supposes it’s a part of what gets Tim and Sasha so infuriated by her. To an unsuspecting outsider, the four of them would appear to be a group of four friends catching up. Perhaps only the way Sasha and Martin have begun simultaneously shoveling breakfast food down their gullets in a valiant attempt to avoid eye contact would tip them off to the truth.
“Now, as much as I appreciate the warm welcome,” Annabelle continues, “There is something we ought to discuss.”
Tim’s glare could freeze lava. Martin idly wonders if he’s got the arm strength to hold Tim back when he inevitably leaps across the table to grab their boss by the throat.
“I’ve been working with you for about a year now-” Annabelle says.
“Two years,” Sasha cuts her off.
“Really? No, I wouldn’t have kept you around so long,” The look in Annabelle’s eyes betrays the fact that she would, and did, “But whatever. A client has contacted me, and I believe the job would be a wonderful opportunity for you three to learn first-hand. You’ll be stepping out of the nest, so to speak. Carrying out a hit on your own.”
That, at least, gets Tim and Sasha’s attention.
“I want a pay raise, then!” Tim tells her immediately.
“Money means nothing to me. Sure.”
“And more time than we usually get for each job! Like, at least a week more!” Sasha adds.
“Okay. I don’t care.”
Martin’s throat has gone dry. Annabelle’s eyes flick lazily over to him. All eight of her eyes. Absently, he begins to pick at the already chipping nail polish on his fingers as his horrible, horrible spiderboss basks in his discomfort.
“What’s the job like?” he finally manages.
“It’s ideal, really.” Annabelle tells them, “Three targets, all somewhere in central London. We haven’t got descriptions, but we do have names, ages, and death dates.”
“Sorry, what dates?” Sasha asks. Annabelle ignores this.
“There are no time limits restraining you on this one, few familial connections if any, and one target for each of you should you three choose to evenly split the work. Though, I am told that some of the targets may be trickier to hunt down than others. I don’t care when you start, but let me know as you do.”
Martin’s eyes dart about wildly. To Tim, to Sasha, to Annabelle, to his plate, to the one remaining werewolf standing triumphantly over a mess of fur and flesh beneath it, and back to Annabelle, who is resting her face delicately on her folded hands. All eight of her hands. Distantly, he curses himself for his whole entire everything.
Annabelle swipes Martin’s half-eaten waffle from his plate. Dripping in syrup and whipped cream as it is, she still manages to toss it cleanly to the ground where dozens of spiders scramble out from the folds of her skirt and cover it like writhing, living mold.
With that, Annabelle Cane gets up from their table and adjusts her round spectacles.
“That’s all I’ve got,” she says plainly, “If you want my advice, though, I would look into the mechanisms of spaces between the living and the dead.”
“So they’re ghosts, then? How do you kill something that’s already dead?” Sasha wonders aloud, shifting in her seat to face Annabelle as she walks away.
Annabelle just laughs. Her spiders trail behind her like ducklings in a row, dragging the last bits of Martin’s food with them. Pests.
The three apprentices exchange glances. Sasha has a familiar gleam in her eyes, and Tim drums his fingers on the table in anticipation. This is what they had been waiting for, isn’t it? A real job.
Martin feels nauseous.