Empty stone eye sockets stare down at us in haughty disdain. Horns, folded wings tipped with talons, and ugly countenances seem the norm for the gargoyles and demons that haunt the top of the wall. We’ve walked for nearly a half hour with no sign of an entrance into the Necropolis.
“You said necromancers come here?” Dace clarifies. I nod. “They must get in somehow.”
“A sigil of some sort,” Zakk whispers, staring up at the gargoyles. He seems to find a miniature dragon that is to his liking. He stands beneath it and begins a spell:
“Awaken minion of mine,
By rite of blood I bind your life to mine.
By rite of blood, through your eyes
Shall I see.
By rite of blood, power and strength
Shall you draw from me,
Awaken minion at my sign!”
The heady scent of fresh blood taints the air and then Zakk’s crimson stained fingertips trace the air, drawing something in the gargoyle’s direction. A tattoo along his lower back glows baby blue. The dragon gargoyle moves, unfurling its wings. I expect there to be the sound of stone grinding against itself, the harsh caw of the creature’s cry. The jerky movements of animated limbs and the gargoyle adjusts to life.
There is none of that. Instead the gargoyle’s movements are nimble, fluid and eerily silent as it corkscrews down to Zakk’s outstretched forearm. Alighting on it, the dragon gargoyle attacks. Its reptilian mouth clamps on Zakk’s forearm in a vicious and deep bite. I scream. Zakk shudders and falls to his knees. Dace charges, his chakram glowing white hot but Zakk rolls out of the way and uses his body to shield the gargoyle.
“No!” he chokes out, tone strained. He’s as white as notebook paper and deep purple bruises clot the skin beneath his eyes.
“That thing’s killing you!” Dace bellows.
“He’s right,” Kam interjects. “We have to get it--”
Zakk shakes his head and folds around the gargoyle like a cocoon. The effort makes his eyes roll. Blood from his forearm crystalizes when it dribbles onto the sand. “Necessary,” he wheezes, “Seals . . . bargain.”
Dace shakes his head in disgust but backs away. The gargoyle feeds for a moment more before it lifts away. It stares at us and its eyes are no longer empty stone sockets. Two orbs both feral and intelligent gaze at us with pupils the color of Zakk’s blood. The creature’s granite skin gleams with the sheen of vitality and it looks . . . real. Like a baby dragon.
Dragons usually walk on four legs. This is more a wyvern, Vayu corrects.
He hesitates for a split moment as if debating how much to share. They have long passed from your world.
Something about the way he phrases the answer gives me pause. Are there other Earths?
You are not the only sentient beings in the universe, though in your arrogance I suppose you’d think that.
I bristle at his haughty tone. Arrogance--you’d know all about that, huh?
He snorts and I get the impression that he’s pleased at my attitude.
“It’s called laying a weird,” Zakk clarifies to some question Kamiron has asked. “I animated our friend here.” He allows Kamiron to use a ripped strip of his undershirt to bandage the gargoyle’s bite.
“So what’s it supposed to do?” Dace eyes the gargoyle warily. “And will it attack us?”
“No, the gargoyle is entirely under my control and bound to me as my familiar. This guarantees loyalty.” As if to demonstrate, Zakk reaches out and pets the wyvern’s serpentine neck. It nearly purrs and its spiked tail lashes back and forth. “She’s our guide.”
“She? That thing is a she?” Kam looks as horrified as Dace.
“It’s the impression I get from her. She speaks directly to my mind.” Zakk rises and grabs his naginata. “She knows a way in.”
The gargoyle takes to the air, oddly gleeful and at home amongst our somber surroundings. Unlike Kam and Dace, I’m not distrustful of the creature. She’s kinda . . . cute.
“We should name her,” I announce. Zakk stops and raises his eyebrows. “I mean--you know. Something to call her. She’s one of us now.”
Kam looks skeptical but Dace just shrugs. “What about Spikey--for her tail?”
She turns and the look she shoots Dace can be nothing other than a glare of disapproval.
“Guess that’s a no,” Dace amends as we follow the wall south. “How about Fluffy?”
The wyvern rolls her eyes and gives Zakk a pointed look. A smile tugs at his lips. “She says there is nothing ‘fluffy’ about her.”
“What would you like to be called?” Kamiron offers.
She seems pleased that he’s asked for her input. She circles first Kamiron’s head and then mine.
“She wants Shari to choose.”
I blink at the gargoyle, startled. “Why?”
“You suggested she was a part of our group. And she likes you.”
I tilt my head back and study her closely. She is a uniform dark gray with veins of white flowing through her scales. Her long neck and angular face are oddly graceful. Her short, stubby forearms and powerful hind legs end in claws reminiscent of a falcon’s hooked talons. Floppy, bat-like ears frame eyes that still have the feral look to them, but now that I’ve bothered to look closer, I detect something deeper. A strange innocence at odds with the brutality of Ater.
“How about Naja?”
She blinks the slow blink of reptiles and cats. I sense she is waiting for more. “It’s African. It means ‘strong’. I think it suits the power you wield.”
If a strange gargoyle wyvern could smile, I think that would be her expression just now. Instead she looks like a leering dragon of old, all sharp dagger-teeth bared in menace.
“She likes this word, Naja,” Zakk relates. “She is proud to wear the name.”
Naja’s gaze lingers on me a second longer and then she’s off.
“Think you made a new BFF,” Kamiron whispers, nudging me with his elbow.
Naja leads us to a bare stretch of wall much like any other. Zakk examines it before motioning to Kamiron. “Naja says these bricks move. The Necromancers use blood sigils but that is too dark a spell for me. I dare not work anymore blood magic unless I want to alert the denizens beyond the wall.”
Naja settles on Zakk’s shoulder like a granite parrot.
“Then what can I do?”
Dawning lights in his eyes and he places his sledgehammer on the ground head first, the pommel propped against the stone. Kamiron stands before the area that Naja’s indicated and flattens his palms against the unyielding wall. The pads of his fingers caress the lumpy stones, tracing the crumbling border of loose mortar. Kam shuts his eyes and his brows bunch in concentration. It seems his breathing stops as he cocks his head to the side as if listening to the stones.
A minute later the wall moves, the stones parting with the soft hiss of velvet curtains to reveal a narrow opening. Naja darts inside first with two powerful flaps of her wings. Once Zakk gives us the all clear, we follow. It’s bright--brighter than the Onyx and Wastes. The walls gleam with a sheen that provides enough light to see. Mausoleums, sarcophagi, and crypts line narrow boulevards, and are stacked like houses complete with tiny yards of cultivated silver-grey ferns and white orchids that look like wax.
“Once, when we were stationed in New Orleans,” Dace begins, “My mom and I visited Saint Louis Cemetery Number One. Above ground vaults all clustered together like houses . . . historical, really. Steeped in folklore and voodoo, slavery and Creole culture--but creepy as hell.” He adjusts his glasses and eyes a bronze statue of an angel with broken wings and a head of a grimacing hyena. “That place has nothin’ on this.”
We grunt in agreement. Naja flaps a few feet in front of us and we follow behind. The Necropolis is just like an ordinary city with paved streets and thick trees. Ornate decorations line each crypt--griffins and owls, vipers and octopi. Everything from the polished stone lining the roads to the marble statues of fearsome magi are done in hues of white and pale gray.
Unlike a real city, however, is the silence--one that only the grave can possess. It lends the miles of cemetery a hauntingly beautiful ambience, one of regal abandonment. Yet the silence of the grave is deceiving. In every crypt, beneath each tombstone rests the undead, hibernating like bears.
“Why all the undead?” Kamiron whispers. “You said that they require power and magic to control. Why bother?”
“It seems a wasted effort, doesn’t it?” Zakk skirts the yard of an ornate two-story crypt with Grecian columns and Greek inscriptions. “It would take an army of necromancers to control all the undead here. It takes several dedicated necromancers to just keep them in stasis. My best guess is--”
“Invading army,” Dace supplies. I gasp as the dark implication finally clicks. I had never questioned why the Necropolis existed, I only knew it was a place even Aterians avoided. I stare at the miles of city with new horror.
Kamiron looks as troubled as I feel. “Disposable heroes,” he says with a dark look to Dace. “The perfect foot soldiers to carve a path of destruction for a larger invasion.”
“In terms of military strategy, it’s ingenious,” Dace agrees. “Their casualties would be negligible. Who cares about something that’s already dead? Just a mindless zombie, maybe a necromancer or two. As for us . . .”
I wish the both of them would stop talking. I don’t want to think about Andhakar using an army of wights and revenants to slaughter everything in their path. There’s no way ordinary humans--people who don’t believe in the paranormal much less have psychic abilities--would stand a chance.
“We can’t let it get that far,” Dace states, his voice flat and determined. “We can’t let Andy reach Earth.”
“We won’t.” Kamiron and Zakk promise.
I don’t feel nearly as certain of our chances.
Naja guides us down a wide lane that angles north. In the distance the impossibly tall ziggurat with its chunky, steep sides and hundreds of steps glowers down at us. Runes glow in muted white across its surface. Again my stomach lurches as if I’ve eaten bad tuna but it doesn’t hide the tingle that runs up my arm and pulsates just beneath my heart.
“The tether is ahead, in there . . . somewhere.”
We creep forward. Our shoes sound impossibly loud on the cement. Naja wings out of sight, up and over a triangular roof with a stylized silver cross. She’s gone for no more than a second before she returns. Her tail lashes in quick circles. Her stone wings beat triple time in clear agitation.
“Naja says the road turns into a large courtyard--one that is incredibly exposed.” Zakk winces when Naja lands on his shoulder, her talons digging into flesh. She immediately loosens her grip. “There is a group there.”
“Great. What are they doing?”
“Having a séance.”
I stare at Zakk, sure he’s joking but his grim expression says otherwise.
“So we go around,” Dace shrugs. Zakk shakes his head.
“There is only one way to the ziggurat--one road, and it starts at that courtyard.”
“In that case,” Kam muses, “we should to get closer. See what’s going on. Maybe we’ll come up with a solution.”
I know he’s right, but I don’t want to go anywhere near the group. No doubt they’re necromancers. More than ever I just want to go home--at this point I’d even settle for Camp Genki. I never thought I’d miss the riot of greens that make up Starjungle.
Heart beating staccato in my throat, I follow behind Kamiron and Zakk. Sure enough there are a half-dozen necromancers spread out in a kind of pentagram.
Unfortunately Naja failed to mention the giant chained monster hunched in the middle of the circle of mages.
“What the hell is that thing?”
“A lich,” Zakk whispers, awed.
It’s hideous. A giant creature that is a hodgepodge of other creatures. Scowling lipless face. Eyes without lids, but with features sewn together from other undead. Tufts of brown hair dangle from a warty scalp that bristles with age spots and sores. Skin like leather stretches tight over bulging muscles. A pair of pants made from rotted burlap cover its long legs. A barbed whip, twenty-feet long and thicker than my waist curls near one of its gargantuan hands.
The necromancers have formed some sort of caster circle. I expected them to don dark robes, the heavy cowls hiding the twisted features of their faces but they are surprisingly . . . beautiful. Males and females with radiant skin and enchanting eyes sport Victorian style clothes. The females wear intricate petticoats and full skirts in hues of burgundy, obsidian, and the off-white of a bloodless corpse. Their male counterparts, luxurious hair falling to their waists, stand tall in fitted vests the purple of a ripening evening. Elaborate top hats and fur-lined capes compliment stylish wooden canes.
But while they may dress in the regalia from a bygone human era, they are not human and never were. Their cheekbones are too sharp, their bodies--thin and lean and long--are too perfect, too enthralling. Their eyes, ranging in color from cobalt to fuchsia are a bit too large, too old.
“Unseelie.” The wind goes out of me and I scoot back in a tactical retreat. At least, that’s what I’m calling my terrified scuttle back to the safety of our cluster of tombstones and sarcophagi. Grim faces crowd around mine.
“So those are Unseelie,” Dace exhales. The heel of his sneaker taps a nervous rhythm against the corner of a sarcophagus.
“Not just Unseelie, but Sidhe. Nobles of the Winter Court. I could feel their power and there is no way we can compete. Right now they’re distracted, but they’ll sense us immediately after the ritual.” Zakk stares down at his bandaged forearm. The green fabric is black with his blood.
“So what do we do to get past them?” Kamiron, the bravest of us all, looks solemn but no less determined. I wish I had his unshakeable resolve.
“We’ll need a diversion,” Zakk answers simply. “We should split up.”
“Have you lost your mind?” I sputter.
“Sounds like a great idea,” Dace says and for once he isn’t being sarcastic. “Do we rock-paper-scissors?”
I round on him, glowering. “And clearly you’ve lost your mind, too!”
Naja hisses and glares at me. I wince as my voice travels through the empty streets. Naja takes to the nearest roof and stills, becoming just like the other gargoyles and statues that litter the Necropolis.
When a magical bolt of lightning or a flaming ball of dark energy fails to flay the skin from my bones, I continue in a much more subdued voice. “This isn’t some bad horror movie. Look, we don’t split up. Ever. Right, Kam?”
His gray eyes are dark and he seems to be lost in thought--or listening to something else.
Vayu, are you talking to him?
No, he cannot hear me.
The emphasis he places on the word “me” confirms my suspicion that there is someone else speaking to Kamiron. Finally he gives his head a shallow nod and meets my gaze.
“They’re right, we need a distraction.” His attention turns to his friends. “I volunteer.”
Dace rolls his eyes. “Relax, District Twelve, you’re not gonna be a Tribute. That honor belongs to me and Gandalf here.”
Zakk looks bemused. Dace taps the side of his wire-framed glasses. “Powers of perception, Gandalf. You’ve been staring at your forearm and my new tattoo for the past five minutes.” He absently rubs the black handprint marring his wrist. “I’m guessing our LARPing friends can sense these.”
Zakk’s lips quirk. “Astute. And correct.” To me he explains, “My blood, the magic in it, calls to them now that it’s been spilled. Dace’s mark is like a beacon--a sign advertising a buffet. The lich will go for it once it’s free. We’ll buy you time and meet up at the ziggurat.”
Fear seizes me, but for the first time it’s a fear for my friends. For Zakk’s gentle reassurance. For Dace’s razor sharp wit. I have an unshaking foreboding that we won’t all make it to the other side.
Kamiron’s fingers curl around mine, careful of my tender nails. “What do you need us to do, Z?”
Zakk outlines a plan--simple enough. We wait for his signal. While they draw the attention of the necromancers away, we swing to the west for a couple blocks and then double back to the courtyard. We’ll approach the ziggurat and wait for Naja. If we see her, follow her to where Zakk and Dace wait.
If we don’t see her, we continue for the tether.
Dace and Zakk confer in heated whispers before Zakk motions for us to get into position. Kam starts to tug me away but I force him to wait. I launch myself at Zakk, temporarily forgetting his injured forearm. He grunts but envelops me in a hug.
“You promise you’ll come back.”
“I can’t make that promise, Shari,” he admits and a whisper of sensation, like taking a hot shower after an intense workout, washes over me. It steals away some of my wild panic.
“Then take this.”
I slip one of my arrows in his palm. He gives me a surprised glance. I shrug. “Might come in handy.”
I hand Dace another arrow, pulling it from thin air as easily as breathing. “‘May the odds be ever in your favor,’” I quote and plant a kiss on his cheek.
He blushes but quickly covers it with a scowl. “Alright get goin’, Golden Compass.”
“Hurry,” Zakk urges. “Naja says the lich is waking.”Kamiron salutes his friends and takes my hand. We run.