Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chapter Six: Meet the Villain

Watching the Kindle Direct Publishing page tick down until the book is finally, FINALLY online and ready for purchase is maddening.

In the meantime, how about another chapter?!

This one is a biggie.  This is the heavy.  The Dragon.  The Villain.  The Hard Cheese.  (I have no idea what that means but it sounded good, please credit - Jonah Hewitt - for all further usages of "The Hard Cheese.")

Writing villains is hard.  You just can't have them twirl their mustaches and sneer.  The key to a good villain is to make them sympathetic.  But, you have to do more than make the reader believe that the villain truly believes they have been wronged.  You can't just kill off their mothers and dust your hands of them, and use that to explain their desire for world domination.  Lots of people lose mothers, or suffer great disappointments.  Most of them do not become psychos.   No, you have to make the reader see himself in the villain.  The reader has to be able to imagine doing the same thing as the heavy if the conditions were just right.

The character must be evil, no doubt, but the reader must concede that beneath all their psychotic machinations, they do have a point.

And our villain has a point - boy does she ever! - and the point is this: Death stinks, and the afterlife is even worse.  Who wouldn't want to put an end to that?

So prepare to meet Amarantha/Amanda.  She's a mortal possessed by the evil spirit of an ancient necromancer, mostly recently from a tiny suburb of Hell: population: pissed. Yes, she's two people in one body!  Double the villainy!  She's evil and ruthless and looks great in heels.  Hope you like her.

As always, previous chapters are available, here, here, here, here, here & here.

Chapter Six
Lazlo Moríro was roaming the halls of the hospital in a moment of rare indecision. He knew that Hokharty and Graber would serve him well at their appointed errands, but there were places they could not go. To accomplish this next task, he needed a servant who could travel amongst the living and the dead. But there were grave dangers, and this servant could not be summoned to just any corpse. In fact, this one would not be summoned to a corpse at all. He needed a vessel who was not dead, or at least, not dead yet, which is why he had found his way to the oncology center.
Moríro walked down the hall casually brushing his fingers across the doorframes of the patients’ rooms. He had covered his olive-green overcoat with a lab coat he had lifted from a closet. He had been rash and emotional earlier, and he wanted to avoid the scene he had inadvertently caused in the morgue. He had no difficulty in aping the officious demeanor of a physician since he had played that role successfully for the last three centuries. As a young man, he had attended the finest universities of Europe: Bologna, Salamanca, Oxford. His godmother had insisted. Being a doctor was an excellent cover for a necromancer. Any unusual death would be credited to the disease and any remarkable recovery would be credited to the skill of the physician. But Moríro had aspired for more than just a cover and had studied hard and learned to rely not just on his innate power, but on his medical knowledge as well – much to his godmother’s chagrin. In this way, he had plied his skills as a physician and only used his powers as Necromancer when he absolutely had to. Because of this, he had remained alive longer than any previous necromancer, but this too had caused its own problems, which he now had to address.
With the lab coat, Moríro’s assumed mantle of authority and grey hair was all he needed to pass unnoticed. As he walked past the rooms, he averted his dark eyes, partly out of respect for the occupants’ privacy, but mostly because his fingertips could tell him all he needed to know. Male, age 79, esophageal cancer, lifetime user of chewing tobacco. Wrong gender, and the subject needed to be able to talk anyway. A woman, mid-60s, brain tumor, inoperable, not ideal, but workable, very near death. However, she was surrounded by loved ones who wouldn’t take kindly to strangers intruding on their last moments.
This was going to be difficult. He needed more time to find a suitable vessel, but he had little left. It wouldn’t be long before the three bodies missing from the morgue would be detected. Even if no one suspected that they had gotten up and walked away, their absence would be noticed and quickly attached to the stranger who had come looking for a dead relation. He had to act quickly and find a vessel soon.
He wasn’t entirely certain it was the right thing to do, to summon up her, but there was no one else to turn to now. There would be consequences of course, there always were, but he needed to talk to Margarita and Margarita was now beyond his reach. He had hoped that Margarita would replace him, but she had followed another reckless path. She was never a true necromancer and could not be summoned, but he had someone in mind who might be able to find her. His fingers trailed along the walls of the hallway: leukemia, carcinoma, lymphoma, there were certainly a lot of dying people here, but none of them were quite right. Some were months away, others only days, but all that were even remotely close to passing were annoyingly attended by loved ones. It was long past visiting hours, but not even in this wretched, mediocre age were people heartless enough to deny a person their last moment. Some of those attending were holding the hands of the unconscious who were no longer aware that anyone was there. They held on tightly in hope that there would be one wakeful moment of recognition before the end.           
Other sentinels were in chairs, half-sleeping, awaiting the moment of passing, or the changing of the guard, as other relations took watch. Elsewhere, there were those who were dying but still conscious, using their last moments of strength not to fulfill their own desires, but to comfort those who had come to comfort them. Everywhere there were spoken promises and whispered hopes; circuitous, casual conversations that avoided the topic of death like the plague, yet somehow still acknowledged its omnipresent hand. There were confessions and prayers and tears and honored silence that screamed louder than the sharpest retort. It was cruel and noble and pitiful all at once.
Moríro withdrew his trembling fingers from the walls and squeezed his eyes shut. It was nothing he hadn’t heard before, but it weighed on him more deeply than it had in a long time. As he opened his eyes, he saw something quick and fleeting and almost transparent dart down the corridor into a room at the end of the hall. It was small, like a child, but not really present, as if it were between this world and the next. As it passed, the linens of the gurneys and clothes of people walking in the hall flitted briefly as if moved by a faint wind. Moríro blinked his eyes several times. No one else in the hall reacted. It was not unusual for a necromancer to see things that mere mortals could not. He had seen the souls of the dead passing into the next world, if only faintly, but this seemed different. If this was a spirit or a vision he couldn’t tell, but he had learned long ago not to ignore even the most simple of signs.
He walked to the end of the hall and turned and looked into the room. A pervasive silence hung there, broken only by the horrid clicks and beeps of this age’s wretched machines. Beyond a thin curtain, he could see the end of a bed, the covered feet of the person dying here, and the shadow of a body breathing very shallowly. There was something profoundly different from this room than all the others however; the patient was alone.
Moríro walked around the curtain and regarded the unconscious person. She was pale and ancient looking, but not yet forty. Her face was bloated and puffy but hid fine features. Her hair and eyebrows were gone, her skin paper thin and sallow. He had seen this many times. The medicine of this age was often effective, but it just as often ravaged the body and left it an empty shell. This woman was at the end of a very long intervention, but it had ultimately failed, and the results were far from pretty.
He reached for the chart that hung from the end of the bed, but as he touched it his senses told him far more than the chart and diagrams could ever tell him. Amanda Tipping, only thirty-seven, dying of advanced breast cancer. It had spread throughout her body, and the strongest of this age’s poisons could not kill her cancer before it killed her. Yet, for some reason, she had not given up; she had chosen every available option, clinging desperately to life. Even now the only thing that prevented her from demanding one more round of possible treatments was her near unconsciousness.
And suddenly Moríro understood. She was alone. There was no one to hold her hand, no family, no loved ones, no one for her to tell to be courageous and strong for her sake. There was no one for her, and she only had herself, so she had fought to the bitter end, for there was nothing else left for her. Once she had fallen into silence, the doctors and nurses had gone and left the watching to the machines. Seeing her now, Moríro knew that he could count each remaining, labored breath and that there would not be more than a few hundred at most. She was very near the end. Moríro had found his vessel, if she were willing.
All the colors of the room were beige or pale green, and all the angles were sharp or mechanical. There was nothing warm or comforting. A dying person deserved a comfortable bed and a thick blanket, but here the sheets and blankets were thin and the bed had railings more appropriate to a pig’s pen. The warm and dim candles of past ages could imbue even a room like this with some quiet dignity at the last moments of life, but the glaring, horrid lights of this age threw everything into pallid clarity. Looking at her nearly dead body, Moríro felt something he had not felt in a very long time. He felt pity.
Motivated by a rare native upswelling of compassion, Moríro’s indecisiveness fled, and he decided to not merely act the part of a doctor, but to be a doctor truly, something he had not done in decades. He shut the door and shoved back the thin curtain. He took off the ridiculous white lab coat and laid it on an errant chair. Doctors used to have a sense of propriety and wear the customary black afforded their station. They had surrendered the authority of black for the sterility of white and he did not like it at all. If he was going to doctor now, he was going to do it properly.
He rummaged around inside his olive army coat. The coat was warm and heavy, but mostly he favored it because it had many interior pockets. From one of these, he took out a worn leather satchel. He took off the overcoat and laid it on top of the lab coat. He opened the leather case gingerly and began placing the items inside carefully at the foot of the woman’s bed. A set of small, slender, silver spatulas, a miniature apothecary’s mortar and pestle, folded papers of dried herbs and powders, tiny vials of lead, glass and silver. From one, he used a spatula to remove a dark purple dust that was all that was left from a potent, dried flower, the Amaranth, the undying flower, used by both Greeks and Aztecs.
He carefully measured it out and placed it in the mortar with a drop of a milky essential oil, silphion, taken from a plant only found in the Atlas Mountains and thought extinct since the days of Nero. While the mixture settled, he pulled a small silver case from his overcoat. Inside was a tiny, thimble-sized cup and a stand that held it over a candle. He lit the candle with a match and set it on the side table near the woman’s bed. He mixed the flower and oil in the mortar and then tipped the mixture into the tiny, silver cup to be warmed. While that was heating, he set about reviving the patient so she could take the medicine when it was ready. He rolled back the thin, useless blanket and examined her feet. They were freezing and nearly blue-white. Worthless doctors. They knew nothing of the humors of the body.
            He pressed the feet and rubbed them to revive the woman’s circulation. After several minutes, the color had returned to them. Then, slowly, a slight blush began to grace the poor woman’s cheek. He covered the feet, gently wrapping them to keep them as warm as he could. He went to her head and examined her. He carefully lifted her head and raised her body to relieve the burden of breathing.
He felt her hands and her pulse, and the coolness of her forehead, cheek and neck. She was stirring, but still deeply asleep. The doctors had obviously drugged her heavily. No one pursued the apothecary arts with any subtlety anymore. They had so many more wondrous drugs these days than in ancient times, but they used them poorly. Poison was found not in the drug, but in the dose. In his time, a skilled physician could administer nightshade in perfectly calibrated amounts so as to dull the patient’s pain and allow sleep without risking them slipping into stupor or death. But now? Now, they had drugs safe enough to use excessively, so they poured them on like a barkeep serving cheap spirits, trading abundance of effect for an abundance of skill.
He was trying to rationalize what he was about to do. Strictly speaking, it was forbidden to summon someone from anywhere else than the Halls of the Death. And she had been exiled from the Great Master’s service long ago to far darker places. It was not without risks to him or her, but perhaps, he thought, he could give this dying woman a few days rest and peace, at least, before she passed over. As he stroked her temple and held her hand, he said her name once, and only now, did he call on his powers as a necromancer.
            The sound of the name reverberated throughout the room. The echo was more than just the effect of Moríro’s lilting accent. Names were powerful, and when spoken by someone as skilled as the Necromancer, they could make all the difference. The second he said her name, she breathed easily for the first time since he had come into the room. She opened her eyes. They were clouded, but he could tell that they were once warm and golden brown.
            “Wh-what?” she spoke very weakly.
Moríro tutted, “Please do not worry yourself, Amanda. I am only here to help.”
“Are…are you a doctor? Are you with oncology? Where is Dr. Harris?” Even in her weakened state he could tell her voice was by nature meek and mild.
“Si…ah… yes, I am a visiting physician,” Moríro glossed over the other questions; it would be too difficult to explain. He thought hard about what to say next. “Amanda, I need your help.”
            “Y-you need my help?” The woman looked weakly at Moríro. She was obviously confused.
            “Yes, with something very important. Something that only you can give me. I need to…” Moríro thought very quickly, it would be impossible to explain exactly what he needed from her in her condition, “I need to test something…and only you can help me.”
“A…a new procedure?” Yes, she did understand, in her limited way.
“Actually,” Moríro began, “It is a very old procedure. It will tell me many things that I need to know, and when it is done, I believe it may help you too, but you must understand.”
“Yes.” Moríro did want to give her comfort, but he did not want to give her false hope. “You must know, Amanda, that you are very near the end, no? That you are very near death.”
Amanda gulped. Her eyes were wet.
            Moríro went on. “If you agree, I can at most offer you a few days rest, a few days of peace and clarity of mind before the end, but that is all. But it must be your choice. Do you understand?”
            Amanda stared at the ceiling and swallowed with difficulty. She seemed tired and frustrated, but eager for any relief.
“But it will make me feel better?”
            Moríro smiled just a little. “Yes, Amanda, I hope that it will.”
She looked utterly resigned but remained silent. After a long while, she said simply, “O.K.,” and then after a short pause, shifted slightly in her bed as if trying to sit up, “Do-do you need me to sign something?”
            “No, no. That won’t be necessary.” Moríro put his hand to her shoulder to let her know she didn’t have to waste energy getting up. She relaxed, grateful. This vile age, thought Moríro. They couldn’t even let a woman die in peace without paperwork.
            Moríro reached for the small, silver vial warming over the candle. The tiny amount of dark-purple elixir gave off a heavy, overpowering floral scent. He drew it near Amanda’s lips, and ever so gently placed his other hand behind her head to help her drink.
            “First, you must drink this; it will help you rest for the…procedure…as you called it.”
            Amanda looked perplexed. All other trial medicines got injected into her IV, but she liked this strange doctor; he seemed kind and honest. The other doctors talked to her like she was a child. They couldn’t even bring themselves to say the word “death!” So, she decided to trust him.
It was a great struggle, even with him helping her, but she managed to take the medicine. She could taste the tang of the tiny, metal cup on her tongue and instantly recognized it was silver. “Why silver?” she thought. The purple liquid was warm and aromatic, heavily floral, sickly sweet, but also very bitter. It was extremely painful to sip, but when it finally slid down her throat in a single lump, she instantly felt weightless. All the sore, aching spots where the exposed ribs and joints from her thinning body contacted the hard mattress disappeared as if she was floating in a large, warm bath. She felt strangely calm and drifted off silently and quickly into a restful sleep.
Moríro let her head down slowly and looked at Amanda Tipping. She was breathing peacefully. Her eyelids gently closed over her flitting eyes. She was dreaming and at rest. The drunken stupor of the drugs she had been under was gone and replaced with a light, floating, restful sleep. It was time to get to work.
Moríro needed to hurry. He quickly, but gently, pulled her bed away from the wall and into the middle of the room. The equipment that was attached to her he wheeled over next to her. It was crowded in the middle of the room, but he had to make sure everything would fit safely inside the protection circle. From one pocket in the overcoat, he took a piece of red chalk broken off from a Nabataean baetyl. From another, he took a cylinder of natrun salt taken from an oasis in Fayum. With the chalk, he quickly drew a large, circular figure around the entire bed and her equipment. Then he drew another circle around it again. He drew the seal of Pythagoras and several ring signs between the two circles with Solomon’s knots along the edge. This wasn’t strictly required, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Inside each of the knots, he placed a small pile of the natrun salt. He worked furiously, but carefully – he didn’t want to inadvertently leave any escape routes.
Then he pulled a brass compass from one pocket and tried to determine the four cardinal directions. The compass was exquisitely crafted and beautiful, but it was ancient and did not respond well to all the other metal equipment in the room, and the needle danced around infuriatingly. Moríro fought with it for a moment, then grumbled and gave up and reached into one of the long outside cargo pockets on his army pants and pulled out a garish piece of black and yellow plastic. He hated the new devices, but when they worked, they worked well he had to admit. It had taken the sales clerk at the store in the mall nearly three exasperating hours to explain to Moríro how to make the GPS work, but he had finally managed it. In a short time and a few clicks, he had accurately plotted the four directions. With the chalk and Natrun salts, he drew even more protection figures around the cardinal points: an eye of Horus here and a winged tetramorph there. Last of all, as one further gesture of overkill, he drew an ouroboros, a figure of a cockatrice eating its own tail in an endless circle, around the whole endeavor.
He stepped back, looked down and examined his work thoroughly. Though quickly drawn, he had never made such an elaborate and perfect circle of protection before. Finally, satisfied nothing more could be done, he looked up. Being careful not to undo his work by scuffing his heavy combat boots across the drawing, he took a breath, stepped carefully inside, bit into his knuckle and held it over the patient. A single large drop of blood fell onto the white sheet over her heart.
            Moríro drew a long, careful breath, closed his eyes, cleared his mind and spoke. It was not a long iteration in a dead language like he had used before. It was just two words uttered quietly but clearly.
            “Amarantha, come.”
            There was no snake of red smoke, no creeping amoeba of tar this time. The drop of blood simply disappeared, and the body became perfectly still. Then, at once, the eyes snapped open, but they were no longer clouded and brown. Instead, they were cold, grey and sparkling clear. The eyes shot instantly towards Moríro, who had steeled himself in advance so that he would not flinch at their sharp gaze. They stared at him wide open and wild for a moment then they narrowed to a critical gaze as a sly smile slowly crept across Amanda’s face transforming it subtly as it did so. After a while, it was no longer Amanda’s face. It had the same form and features, but they had become sharper and more refined, more beautiful perhaps, but also more terrifying. It was an enhancement of the beauty Amanda must have possessed before her treatment, but colder and with less human empathy. Amanda had become Amarantha. She didn’t hesitate, but spoke directly to Moríro.
“Good evening, Moríro. It has been a long time, hasn’t it?” the voice cut the air with perfect clarity and had none of the trembling, halting, timidity it had had earlier.
Moríro bowed slightly, but sincerely, from the neck and lowered his eyes as he spoke, “Godmother.”
“Hmmph,” the woman replied dismissively, “Now you engage in formal pieties because you need something. Where was your respect before? Where was your loyalty when I needed it? I should have left you a foundling and sent your unbaptized soul to Limbo with your mother.”
“Godmother, please…”
            “Keep my title off your vile tongue!” Amarantha shot back, “Betrayer! Judas! You are no godson of mine! Lickspittle! Save your loathsome, obsequious manner for your slave-master.”
            Moríro nearly did flinch at the word “slave-master”. He had always been taught to show respect for women, elders and your masters. Amarantha had been all three, but it was galling to hear her refer to the Great Master in such a derogatory fashion. He nearly began to reprimand her, to remind her that it was not he who had been punished for disobeying the Great Master, but he stopped. That was what she wanted. She was baiting him. He needed to remember his purpose. He needed to remain calm. Much had passed between the two since she had saved his life as an infant, but that was all past now.
“Godmother…I need to ask you…a favor…”
“A favor?!! As if I could refuse!! Send your lackeys instead!!” she spat back, interrupting him, “Surely, they don’t mind being errand boys to an inferior Necromancer.”
            Moríro ignored the insult and pressed on.
            “I command the dead only in this life, but I need a spirit-shifter, someone who can see the cross over and speak with the dead in the next world.”
“AND WHAT DO YOU KNOW OF THE DEAD?!!” She suddenly sat up and lunged at him. “You who have all the power and no will to use it? You who have sent hundreds to the other side on the whims of an ancient, desiccated monster with no mercy?!! What do you know of the dead?!!”
Her sudden movement alarmed him and he nearly stepped back out of the protection circle. That was what she wanted of course, some small avenue of escape, but he wasn’t going give her an excuse. He stood firm and silent. There was no point going over the old arguments anymore. She had made her choice. She had been the Necromancer, his godmother, and his master, but she had made her choice. The sudden anger left her and she chuckled.
“You’ve finally learned to make a credible protection circle, I see?” She eyed him furiously, but only smiled and settled back on the bed. “Although, the ouroboros is a bit much.” She laughed. “No one can say that I did not teach you well.” She smoothed the thin sheets of the hospital bed in a strange air of smug satisfaction.
Moríro watched her silently for a while then she spoke.
“Oh, what is it Moríro?” She placed the back of her right hand against her forehead in the manner of an exasperated parent. “You always were the worst ditherer. Get on with it. What do you want? What menial task has the old monster sent you on this time that you have to torture the soul of your godmother?”
Moríro swallowed. “I need to speak with someone in Limbo.”
“Flirting with the sin of Endor, I see, Moríro.” She smiled. “Getting desperate aren’t we, Godson?” The contempt in the word ‘godson’ was palpable. “What is it? Someone owe you some money? Someone welch on a bet and then died without paying?” She laughed some more and leaned forward to hug her knees, languidly stretching her back, enjoying the body she was in for a moment. Moríro bristled a little. He hadn’t gambled in more than a century, but then they hadn’t spoken for longer than that either. She smiled in satisfaction. And he suddenly felt embarrassed that she was still very good at needling him.
“I need to speak to Margarita.”
            Amarantha dropped her knees. “Margarita’s dead?”
            “Si. She passed away…early this morning.”
“An accident, I believe.”
            “You believe? Necromancers don’t die by accident, not unless the ol’ monster has gotten even more senile than usual.” She laughed again. Moríro did not like her calling the Great Master an old monster. Then she chuckled again and said, “But she wasn’t ever a proper necromancer, was she?” She smiled and laid her head on her knees. “Poor, poor Moríro. You know what awaits – the long emptiness, the endless decay into nothingness. You know better than any the long, dreary existence that awaits each of us, and yet you long for death. Why? Why do you fear your own power? Why do you wish to go into the long night when all else in your position would relish immortality?”
            “I learned from personal experience, Godmother, what happens to a necromancer when she clings to power too long and lives past her appointed time.”
            Amarantha grimaced and narrowed her eyes. Her hands clenched the thin blankets so hard he thought she would tear them. That had cut her, but she quickly recovered her composure and relinquished her grip on the sheets. “And now you are trapped, aren’t you?” She was most comfortable with him when she could twist the knife. She had always been that way, even when he was a child. She had found a stern set of Castilian nobles to be his foster parents, but they were tolerable compared to her cruelty. She had made frequent visits and he had dreaded every one of them. Every moment was another instance of disapproving judgment and disappointment. Even now, more than three hundred years dead, she was no different. She went on, “The only heir is dead, the line of necromancers broken and you will be forced to toil for the old monster forever. The one necromancer that never relished the power of the office is now condemned to watch the farce of life to the bitter end. How perfectly poetic.”
“Perhaps not.” Moríro hoped this news would wipe the smug expression off her face, but strangely, it didn’t.
Amarantha’s eyes only narrowed quizzically. Then, after a long pause, they widened. “A child?” the barely whispered question betrayed not shock, but realization, “Where?” she suddenly said forcefully.
Moríro stood silent, impassive. He said nothing.
She rolled her eyes at him, “Of course, you’ll have set your hounds on her by now.”
            “Her?” thought Moríro anxiously, he hadn’t mentioned the child was a girl. She sat up on the edge of the bed and stretched her legs, first one and then the other. She was working out the tiredness and soreness of the body she was sharing with Amanda Tipping, examining it absentmindedly like a new set of clothes while she continued talking in an offhand manner as if bored by the topic.
            “Hokharty and Graber, those are your usual favorites, aren’t they? I bet in your anxiety, you released them to do whatever was necessary. And, of course, you will have set them to rounding up the hunters, zombies, and dead things to do your bidding at all costs, with no thought to the rules, or what they might do in your precious master’s name. You will have been so distraught at the death of Margarita and so upset at the news, you wouldn’t have thought to play by the Master’s rules at all.” She was examining the room distractedly, as if bored, but Moríro could tell that she was looking for flaws in the room and the protection circle. She was planning escape.
“And, of course, you so desperately needed to talk to Margarita. To ask her about her daughter, ask her if she’s ever shown any precocious capacity for necromancy, if she ever brought dead beetles or songbirds back to life, or even a precious pet, a cat or a goldfish perhaps?”
            This was not idle chatter. Did she know something that Moríro did not?
            “You were so desperate to know if the child could be the new heir that you were willing to call on someone you would only call on in your most extreme need.” The mocking tone of her voice let Moríro know that he had been a fool. “And that brought you here, to this broken body in this dreary room. To this near-dead shell of a human being to call on me, in the hopes that I could give you some small measure of comfort by providing the answers you seek, because only I, of all necromancers, could inhabit the body of the living and travel like a ghost to the realm of the dead and ask those questions of Margarita in person.”
She hugged her new knees and smiled at Moríro as he stood fuming silently.
“How did you know?” Moríro spoke plainly, trying to conceal his rage.
“I didn’t know, not really, not until just now, when you confirmed it, but I had heard rumors.”
            “Rumors? From whom?” Moríro pressed.
            “Oh, Godson, please, there’s nothing to do in Hell but gossip.” She stroked her shins like a little girl and smiled at him in faux innocence and continued, “And besides, the girl has more than one dead parent in Hell already.”
Moríro blanched.
            Amarantha just laughed, “And she may not be the only heir after all.” She smiled a cold smile as Moríro just gaped. “You tried so hard. All of you, to keep the birth lines inside the order, but all those ages, I knew it must have been impossible for the order to prevent all the young ones from straying. People will find a way after all, and the gift has been spread to other bloodlines – less noble perhaps, but no less powerful.”
Moríro froze. Could it be true? Had the gifts of the necromancers been passed on to others? “What do you want with them?”
She laughed, “You really have no grasp of the obvious, Moríro. With a boy and a girl, the possibilities, Moríro! An entire new house of necromancers could be founded!! Necromancers who knew what to do with the gift.” She shot him a contemptuous glance. “But on a more personal note, I do have other reasons.” The faux innocence was replaced by pure, cold fire. “Everyone wants a second chance, Godson. I chose poorly the first time, but now I get to start over, with a new protégé, one who has no knowledge of her power, or the rules, or the Great Master, or you.” With each statement her contempt and fire rose, ‘til it crashed like a crescendo of bile on the word ‘you’.
            Moríro’s eyes widened. Somehow, she had known all along that he would call her forth. She had been laying in wait for centuries, like a spider, for this moment. She may have even figured out how to trick Moríro into calling her. How exactly, he couldn’t fathom yet, but he could see the confirmation in her eyes. He had been a fool. She must be sent back at once.
As soon as this thought crossed his mind, however, she saw it his eyes. Instantly, she dove forward and crashed against him, nearly toppling him over the monitors and other electrical equipment. He struggled to hold onto the cart, to keep it from falling outside of the circle, and lost sight of her, but the flying tackle was just a distraction. Instead of pushing forward, she dived headlong over the opposite edge of the bed to her real objective. Moríro recovered and dove on top of her. She was flailing wildly, desperately trying to reach something on the floor beneath the bed. Moríro struggled to restrain her as he saw her intended target: a tiny, dead moth on the floor. He grabbed her arm just inches before her fingers touched the deceased insect. A dead moth was utterly harmless in a normal context, but to a master necromancer it could be a deadly weapon. She might animate it into some demonic, undead, pestilential moth that would gouge his eyes out, or worse yet, she might pour her own soul inside it and fly off and escape.
Moríro wasn’t certain he had made the circle secure enough to contain a possessed, demonic moth. It was small enough it might exploit a tiny flaw. Her hand grasped in frustration just a fraction of an inch away, but he pulled it back. She attempted a scream, but he forced his other hand over her mouth to prevent her from drawing the attention of the nurses and orderlies who were certainly not far. Amarantha had granted the frail body of Amanda Tipping unnatural strength, but the ravages of cancer were hard to overcome, and despite his age, he was strong enough to restrain her. Moríro dragged her back to the bed and forced her down on it, his hand on her throat.
“DEPART, AMARANTHA!!” he bellowed. Shuddering waves of convulsions rippled Amanda’s body. Amarantha’s hold was weakening, but she was not ready to give up the body of Amanda Tipping just yet.
            “I WILL HAVE HER, MORÍRO!!”
“Depart, Amarantha!!” he commanded again. Amarantha was going, Amanda’s frail voice was returning. The features softened, but not before one last utterance.
“I will break the bounds, Moríro. I will free the prisoners…You will see. Death himself will die and be no more…you will see…you will see.”
“Depart,” he said it calmly this time, summoning all his powers. Amanda Tipping’s eyes rolled back into her head for a moment, her whole body shook briefly, and then lay calm. The grey eyes and sharp features were gone, and the puffy, cancer-ravaged face of Amanda Tipping, age thirty-seven, returned.
            Lost in thought, Moríro didn’t realize his hand was still on the throat of Amanda Tipping. He released his grip instantly and awkwardly stepped away. She was breathing easier now. There were no bruises from the struggle. Despite the ordeal, she seemed the better for it. The amaranth elixir was a powerful restorative.
            He straightened her body and the covers and tried to make her comfortable, nervously glancing at the door, afraid someone might have heard. He took out a ragged, lace handkerchief and wiped up the salt and chalk and pushed the bed and equipment back into place. It took some time and gave him space to think. He had hoped to talk to Margarita, but he had learned much besides anyway. Margarita’s daughter almost certainly had the gift, or why would Amarantha know about her? But the situation was worse than he had feared. There were others who had the gift as well, and they were being hunted, and somehow, Amarantha had known. But how? Had she been summoned by someone else recently? Or worse, had she found a new ally in hell? His first obligation was to the girl, but Hokharty and Graber would do the job. He would go to Ephrata and see what he could find.
            He thought as he cleaned up, and with the last pile of natrun salt swept into the trash and the remaining chalk drawings now gone, he paused and picked up his overcoat, the leather satchel, his tools and the white lab coat. The room was much as he had first seen it, except it felt colder somehow. He paused to look once more at Amanda. There was a look of peace on her face. He tried to convince himself that if all this futile gesture had accomplished was to give this poor woman a few days of peace, perhaps it had been worth it. In a way, he envied her, but then death might come soon enough for them all. He swung the coat over his shoulders and was gone.

Amanda Tipping blinked once or twice and stared at the flickering fluorescent lights on the ceiling. A fly was buzzing somewhere near her ear. She had had the most bizarre dream. There had been a strange doctor with a Spanish accent standing next to her, and there was a woman, but she couldn’t tell where she was standing. It was very odd, but it was also somewhat pleasant. It had been a long time since she had dreamed anything. Usually the drugs Dr. Harris gave her just plunged her into darkness. Dreamless sleep was never as restful. As she lay there, she noticed that many things were different now. She was breathing easier now, and the foggy-headed feeling of the sedatives was gone. She was tired, but not utterly exhausted, which had been normal for the last eighteen months.
            “Poor thing,” she thought to herself. “You’ve hardly moved in all this time. Haven’t you?” Amanda stiffened a little. That thought was odd. “You?” she thought again. She didn’t often think to herself in the second person. It was like another person’s voice in her head, but she decided to forget it and shrug it off. Then she actually shrugged!! She was instantly shocked that she could move her shoulders at all. She hadn’t had the strength to move so much as a finger in weeks.
Her shoulders ached too, but not in the restless, burning way they had for so long. Instead, it was a dull ache, almost a good ache, like after a good workout, the kind she used to enjoy. She rolled her shoulders and gave them a good stretch and was surprised how much movement she had.
“You can do more than that, I bet.” There was that odd thought again, followed by more buzzing. The fly was somewhere near her ear, bothering her with its incessant buzzing.
Suddenly, her hand popped up. For weeks her arms had felt like they were pinned to the mattress, like they were made of lead. It took all her willpower to lift them just a few days ago, but now it seemed as natural as before, if a bit tired and sore. She stared at her hand and moved the fingers back and forth just to make sure she wasn’t still dreaming. She gazed first at the palm and then the back of her hand and then let it drop slowly back to the mattress.
            “You can get up if you like,” she thought to herself in that odd way, as if speaking to another person. The fly kept buzzing in her ear.
            She wasn’t certain if she could, but then she sat up suddenly; it hurt, but she could do it. She pulled the covers up and looked at her toes and wiggled them and laughed a little. She slapped her hands over her mouth and then slowly lowered them. She hadn’t laughed in ages. When the shock of that wore off a little, she grabbed her shoulders with both hands and massaged some of the soreness out of them. She paused and looked around the room. It was the same as always, but something was different.
Was she still dreaming? She was suddenly gripped by a terrible urgency to get up. Aside from the times the nurses and orderlies rolled her over like a side of beef to change the sheets, she hadn’t moved from this bed in months, and dream or not, she wasn’t going to let a chance to get out of it pass her by. She carefully pulled the sheets back to look at her thin legs. Her feet looked white and dead, but the color was slowly coming back. She moved them over slowly until they hung limply from edge of the bed. She looked at the small nightstand next to her bed.            
“With a good push you could make it,” came a thought. Yes, she agreed, she could. She pushed off and grabbed the edge of the small table. Her legs nearly collapsed under her, but they held, and then slowly, slowly, she raised herself up. She was standing! She laughed out loud. She put her hand to her mouth and nearly cried. She found her balance and leaned on the equipment by her bedside. There was the IV stand and a rolling cart of monitors hooked up to her by a number of wires. On the IV stand was the fly, buzzing weakly, barely alive. She shooed it away with the back of her hand. The second she touched it, she felt a small static spark and it fell dead onto the cart. She wondered at it for a moment then tried to take a step, but the monitors dragged her back.
            “Vicious machines. You will soon be free of them,” the voice inside her head was stronger now, and it sounded more like her own thoughts. She hated the machines and dreaded being hooked up to them. She pulled herself up and took a step forward and didn’t fall. She was nearly in a state of shock and didn’t know what to do.
“What would you like to do?” came the voice inside her head again. She had had this thought many times before. What would she do if she could stand on her own? The mirror. She wanted to see herself, to look into her own eyes. And then maybe after that, perhaps she could manage the small dignity of even going to the bathroom by herself. A few months back she never would have imagined how much she would miss that.
            “Go,” came the thought into her head, “Go to the mirror.”
            Amanda gathered up her nerve. She leaned on the IV stand and dragged the cart of equipment behind her. It would have been so much easier if she could just tear them off, but she knew that would just call the nurses, who would almost certainly just put her back in bed and sedate her again, but she was not going to have any of that. She was going to the bathroom, darn it, and no one was going to stop her.
            “Excellent. Go!” came a thought out of nowhere. It wasn’t exactly excellent though. She struggled the whole way. And although it was just a few feet, it was agonizing. Her feet were still numb like they were asleep. She couldn’t get them to lay flat, properly on their soles, but she carried on, walking on the sides of her feet instead. It was painful and awkward, and she nearly fell down a dozen times, but she made it. The roughest part was when she had to negotiate the cart and IV stand through the doorframe of the bathroom, but soon she was leaning on the sink gripping it tightly with both hands and gazing into the mirror. It hurt a lot, but it felt like a real accomplishment. How was this possible? Had she really seen a strange doctor after all? He had promised that she would feel better and she did. Had it all been real? And what about the strange woman?
“Look at yourself, Amanda. What do you see?” came the voice again. She hardly recognized herself. Her hair had never been special, mousy brown, but it was hers; now it was all gone, her eyebrows too. She was completely bald. Her eyes were puffy and swollen, and her face too. It wasn’t as bad as she had thought, but it was still bad enough to make her start to cry.
            “I see nothing,” she said out loud.
            “No,” the voice said reassuringly. “Not nothing. Far from it. Foolish men,” the voice continued, “The physicians can see the flesh, see the disease, but they have never learned to read the heart have they?”
            Amanda didn’t normally speak to herself like this at all, but it somehow felt comforting, so she rubbed her nose and stopped crying. “No, they can’t,” she said aloud, her voice firmer than it had been in years.
            “They act as if they know everything, but they don’t, do they? They don’t know about your father.”
            “Her father?” Amanda had not thought of her father in a long time. Her father and mother had divorced when she was very young. She had loved her father and her father had loved her. He was kind and loving and caring, but the court had awarded custody to her mother instead. She had taken her away from him just out of spite, to deny her father any joy. Her mother moved often, and went through a string of worthless boyfriends always trying to keep her from her father. She used to dream of the day when she would be eighteen and she could get away and live with her dad. He had died of cancer just six months shy of her eighteenth birthday.
            “But it didn’t end there, did it Amanda?” No, it certainly had not. She had left anyway, and never saw her mother again. There were odd jobs and delayed dreams, some community college. Then there was him.
“Tell me about him, Amanda,” said the voice. She was getting more comfortable with this strange, new personality trait she had developed. He wasn’t all that charming. She had always wondered if her mother’s string of loser boyfriends had impacted her judgment; but he had seemed nice enough and appeared to like her and that was the first thing that had made her feel special since she was a little girl.            
“But you are special, Amanda.” This talking to herself wasn’t helping. “Special” was a word grandmothers used when they couldn’t say you were pretty. Not that she had ever had a grandmother.
            “Tell me more. Go on.”
            They had gotten married. She had put off her own schooling, got two jobs, put him through law school. Then there were the two miscarriages and the diagnosis. Somewhere between the first and second remissions he had run off with her physical therapist. It had never been a great marriage, but the betrayal stung worse than anything.
“How long?”
            ‘Hmmph. Eleven years. Eleven years wasted with that loser.”
            “And how long since you were diagnosed?”
            “Six.” She said aloud to herself. Six years of chemo, and surgery, and physical therapy. Six years, the last three, alone. Utterly alone, waiting to die. No one wanted her to live anymore, not her doctors, not her ex-husband, not anyone. She craved death herself and yet somehow it never came. She doggedly clung to life, disappointing her doctors, and she was certain, her insurance agent as well.
            “But you’re not dead, are you?”
“No,” she thought. She was most definitely not dead. Not yet.
            “And you will not die, not for a very long time.” She had had that thought before too, but that was just wishful thinking, that’s all.
            “No, listen to me!!”
            Amanda went rigid. That was so sudden and so sharp it didn’t feel like it came from her at all. She turned slowly and looked around the tiny bathroom. There was no one there. She turned and looked back in the mirror. She was different. She had regained some color and she wasn’t yet sure how, but something had changed. She thought about the strange doctor in her dream.
“Perhaps it wasn’t a dream,” came the thought into her head from nowhere.
Perhaps it wasn’t. What was going on?!
            “Do you remember what the strange doctor said?”
“Yes, hadn’t the foreign doctor said something about her regaining clarity?” she thought. She certainly was less foggy-headed now.
“There was something else too, wasn’t there?”
“Yes,” she thought to herself, “He had said something about helping others, and about it needing to be my choice.”
“It is your choice, Amanda.”
“My choice?” she said aloud, “My choice to do what?”
            “To live.”
Those words made her shudder – with fear or hope she couldn’t quite tell.
            She looked deep into the mirror. Was it true? Did she really have a choice to live? Was it as simple as that? But how?
            “He spoke two words, do you remember them?”
            “I…I don’t remember.”
Amanda closed her eyes. Nothing was coming to her. Then she remembered drinking something, and falling back against the bed. Everything was dark and peaceful for a long while, and then, she remembered, he did speak. Two words. Two words only. She thought of the doctors and the years of treatment and how desperately she wanted it to end, and as she did, she could almost hear the words again.
“Amarantha, come?” she spoke them uncertainly, but as she did, her whole body felt warm like she was being immersed in hot bath water. She opened her eyes. Her face was there just as before, but it was different. It was her face, but less puffy and pallid. Had the words done that?
“Yes! Again! Say the words again!” came the voice.
            She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, more deeply than she had done in six years. She thought of her worthless, betraying husband and the therapist he ran off with, of the disappointment and hurt of the miscarriages.
“Amarantha, come,” she said it more forcefully this time and when she opened her eyes she gasped in shock. All over her head was black stubble. Her eyebrows were back too. She nearly fell backwards, but caught herself before she stumbled. Then she stood and didn’t waver. She lifted her arms, the soreness was gone, their strength returning. She ran her hands over the miraculous new hair. It wasn’t mousy brown and thin like her hair, it was nearly black and lustrous and thick. She laughed a little. What was happening?! Was she still dreaming? She was suddenly very afraid. She felt like she should go back to bed and lie down.
            “No!! Don’t stop!! Say the words again, one more time!!”
            That definitely didn’t come from her. There was someone else here, but where?
            “Who are you?” she said aloud. She looked around nervously, but no one was there.
            “I am your one, true friend, Amanda. I will never abandon you. I am your savior. You will live, Amanda, and through you, all others will live and no one will fear death again.”            “How?” Amanda gasped.
            “A drop of blood is all it takes. But it is your choice, Amanda, I will never force you to do anything you do not want to do, but it must be your choice. A drop of blood and then say the words again.”
            Amanda stared at the face in the mirror; it was her face, but different. It was pretty, but sharper somehow. She didn’t know what to think. She was very scared and afraid she was losing her mind, but she knew she didn’t want to stay here and wait to die. Amanda made her choice.
            Amanda Tipping ripped the monitors from her body. They made a high-pitched tone in protest. She kicked the cart forcefully away from her. It crashed against the wall so hard its bleating instantly stopped. She yanked the IV from her arm. A single drop of blood emerged from where the needle had come out. She caught the crimson drop on the tip of her finger and held it up to her face to examine it. All the while the voice was uttering encouragement.            “Yes!! Say the words!! Say the words again!! I will never leave you. We will be together forever.”
            She stood up straight and felt the warmth pouring through her. She looked into the mirror; the hair had grown at least half an inch in the last few minutes. Gone were the dark circles and lines. Gone was any trace of the ravages of the cancer. She felt the disease ebbing, no, fleeing from her body. The drop of blood hung pendulously from the tip of her finger, full of promise.
“Together, we will right the wrongs. We will make the crooked pathways straight. We will restore all that was lost to us and everyone.”
She looked regal and beautiful. She closed her eyes and shook her head. She thought of her worthless mother and her unfaithful husband her wasted youth and her dead father. All the while the voice continued.
            “We will drag the old monster from his citadel and break his many limbs to splinters!! We will live forever. We will conquer DEATH, Amanda!! Together! You and I!! And we will give life to every deserving soul and none shall fear Death again!!” The drop of blood shook and then fell from her fingertip. Amanda took a sharp inhale of breath and watched it fall, fearful it would be lost.
            “SAY THE WORDS!!”
            Amanda closed her eyes and screamed, “AMARANTHA, COME!!”
The drop never reached the sink but disappeared in the air mid-fall.
The room shook with Amanda’s voice. Amanda slowly opened her eyes. They were no longer warm, brown or clouded. Now they were cold, grey and crystal clear and Amanda knew she would never be alone, or pushed around by anyone else ever again, even as the strangest words came out of her mouth.
“I just knew Lazlo wouldn’t notice a lazy fly on the IV cart. He always missed the small things. Like I would enter any dead thing, especially a dead moth.”
She spun away from the mirror and folded her arms elegantly across her chest. As the room filled with stunned nurses and orderlies, Amanda spoke softly. “Now, where has that senile old necromancer gone off to?”

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