Undead chaos, p.3

Undead Chaos, page 3


Undead Chaos

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  As I removed the wooden cover, the scent of honey wafted up and I let the feeling of peace wash over me. For a moment, my world was nothing but soft hums and the gentle flutter of tiny wings. Then one of the girls bounced off my veil with a whisper of “Keeper?” which pulled me back to reality.

  “Hello, girls.” I set the top cover on the ground and got to work.

  As much fun as beekeeping can be, I somehow had the added bonus of a special connection with the bees. I assumed it was because of my Skill, but I hadn’t heard of anyone else with a similar experience. Ironically, during the years when I allowed my powers to atrophy from neglect, the connection between my girls and me intensified. I’d never told the folks about it, but somewhere along the line I’d realized that I could understand the bees. But instead of a direct spoken link, our bond was something ethereal. Like with the bee that had bounced off my veil, I could “speak” with them only if contacted directly. For the most part, however, their dialogues were too fast and overlapping to understand. It was like eavesdropping on a party through a thick wall, but every now and then a word or two came through.

  Thankfully the bees were also aware of the bond and recognized that I was not a threat. Still, I was mindful to be gentle. Even the best of friends can anger one another if treated poorly, and honeybees have basic instincts, like to protect their honey, that cannot always be reasoned with. Since getting stung was not my idea of a good time, I took great pains to alarm as few of them as possible.

  It took almost an hour to inspect all three hives, but by the end, I was happy. The bees seemed healthy, there were few mites, and they were storing a lot of honey for the winter. Their conversations revolved around foraging, cleaning and an occasional mention of the “keeper” outside their hives. None of them felt threatened by my presence, and I smiled with triumph. Another inspection without a sting.

  On my way back to the Honey House, one of the girls landed on my veil with a soft thud.

  “Food?” she whispered, her body wiggling with excitement.

  Occasionally I provided the hives a sugar-syrup to help supplement the nectar flow, especially during a dry season. I hadn’t thought to make any that morning.

  “Sorry. Maybe next time.”

  “Next, Keeper,” she repeated. Her wiggle was less enthusiastic and changed directions. The bees didn’t have a sense of time like people did, but she understood that I’d bring them something on my next visit. She performed the “waggle dance” over and over, practicing it so that when she returned to her hive, she could communicate the information to her sisters. After two more renditions, she headed back toward the apiary. I smiled, watching as she arced toward the hives and disappeared into the buzzing mass of her sisters.

  * * *

  I’d always considered myself pretty lucky.

  The Skilled were few in numbers—whatever mojo made our powers tick was recessive. Put a Skilled and a Normal together and their kid would turn out Normal at a ratio of ten thousand to one. But put a pair of Skilled together, especially two extremely powerful Skilled, and their kid stood a good chance of inheriting the capabilities of both parents.

  But being granted above-average powers wasn’t the reason I was lucky. I’d betrayed an unwritten rule when I turned my back on the training and traditions that were inherent to the Skilled way of life in order to become a “mundane” Normal, yet my folks never abandoned me. They were always there with a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen. They’d allowed me to attend Normal schools, bought me Normal clothes, and even helped train me with Normal weapons when I asked.

  When I finally decided to come back into the fold nearly eight years later, they welcomed me with open arms and worked overtime to help get me back up to speed with my powers. And unlike the majority of my community, they never held a grudge for my abandoning the sanctity of the upper-crust of the Skilled community. Nor did they whisper, like so many of my peers did, that I was forever tainted by my overexposure to a lesser echelon of humanity. It was something I could never repay, but would never forget. So if they wanted to spend a morning chatting about my misadventures from the night before, I sure as heck would carve out the time.

  I found my parents several minutes later relaxing in their usual location. Like the rest of the South Wing, the side-kitchen felt loved and lived in. The sink was stacked with pots for the scullery maid to clean while a cook checked on something sweet baking in the oven. Other attendants executed their daily tasks with animated conversation and laughter.

  In the middle of it all were my folks. Christopher Shifter, my father, studied a crossword puzzle, cursing occasionally as he erased another wrong answer. His dark brown hair was streaked with silver and his thin reading glasses sat perched on a Romanesque nose. A trim, jovial man, he was quick to laugh and open with friends and family alike.

  Despite his easy nature, there was an aura of power that surrounded him. He knew the strength of his Skill but never a bragged about it. Nor did he flaunt the fact that he was a senior member of the Delwinn Council. It made me, and most of the Skilled community, respect him that much more.

  Next to him sat my mother, Angela. A short, pretty blonde, Mom was everything you’d expect from the partner of a powerful Warlock. Boisterous and outgoing, she also had a protective streak that only a mother bear could understand. It was rare that her anger was stirred, but when it happened, smart people got out of the way.

  Mom was quite the Hunter in her younger days, tracking down some of the worst creatures on our world and others. I had a hard time believing those stories as she’d retired long before I was born. I’d only ever known her as a warm, loving person who kissed my skinned knees and held me tightly when I cried. According to my father, however, she had a cunning, ferocious side that only her enemies ever saw. As most of them were dead, I was more than happy to take his word for it.

  The great Huntress was the first to notice my arrival.

  “Marcus!” she said brightly, launching from her seat. She was around the table and enveloping me in a hug before I could react. For a moment, all the pain, fear and uncertainty of life simply vanished. I hugged back, wishing that I could bottle the feeling.

  “How are the girls?” she asked, releasing me from her grasp.

  “Fine,” I smirked. “Busy little bees.”

  Mom rolled her eyes. “Har har.”

  “Morning, Dad.”

  My father put his pencil down and looked up from his paper with a grin. It was the same one I’d known as a kid, but the edges were strained.

  “Your mother tells me you were on a job last night, but wouldn’t give me the details,” he said with a twinkle of curiosity in his eye. “I’d like a full debrief, if you don’t mind.”

  So much for small talk.

  “Christopher,” my mother chided, “allow the boy to get some food before you grill him for details.”

  She shoved me rather forcefully toward the meat-and-cheese platter the cook had left out. I filled my plate, then joined them at the table. Both parents kept quiet while I related the events of the previous night. Mom stifled a laugh when I mentioned the zombie’s nakedness, but Dad frowned.

  “Was yesterday Mrs. Banks’s first encounter with her husband?” he asked in a serious voice.

  “Third, actually. The first time she brushed it off as a hallucination since he was gone the following morning. Then two nights ago Tony chased her boyfriend off the property. Last night he showed up armed. That’s when she finally decided to do something about it.”

  “She didn’t contact the police or the Council?”

  I shook my head. “Called me directly. She said a mutual friend referred me to her because I was cheaper than the Council for ‘the crazy paranormal crap.’ Her words, not mine.”

  Dad chuckled. He always got a kick out of my freelancing tales. “What was the response from th
e authorities to all this paranormal crap?”

  “The cops interviewed me for a while, but were pretty understanding about the gunshots. Didn’t even give me a warning this time.”

  Mom nodded in satisfaction. “Just goes to show you how far both Skilled and Normal communities have come in recent years.”

  My cheeks flushed. “I suppose, but in hindsight it was stupid to use the pistol. Between his weight and the muscle decay, Banks was pretty easy to take down.”

  “You were wise not to drain yourself too much before banishing the creature,” my father said. “Crippling it allowed you to concentrate on your Skill. Better to save your strength for when you needed it. I take it you have a headache today.”

  I nodded. The headache was a typical leftover from using my Skill. I didn’t like to admit my weakness in front of them. It was a reminder of the idiotic hubris of my youth.

  Magic, like all forms of energy, is subject to certain physical laws. The Skilled could manipulate elements like I had with the earth, but we couldn’t create a stone statue out of thin air. Instead, we either had to be in contact with, or near to those molecules in order to access them for our needs.

  Emotions also played a major role with the Skilled. Things like anger and hate added an exponential amount of power to a spell, but it also decreased the stability. There were plenty of tales of practitioners who wiped themselves out along with their intended target because they lost their temper. That’s not to say everyone needed to be a serene old monk or anything, but keeping a cool head in the heat of the moment was always preferable to nuking everything in your path and possibly killing yourself in the process.

  Our powers were also limited by things like mass and distance, which prevented us from moving a mountain or killing someone on the other side of the planet. The farther away you got from your intended target, the less effective the spell. Most Skilled battles wound up being fought at close range—hence my family’s penchant for swords, and my personal preference for handguns.

  Not that everyone used his or her powers as a weapon, of course. Outside of the basics that all Skilled children learned in school, like how to “feel” movement with our senses, the types of spells and the ways we manipulated them depended entirely on our chosen specialty. A Combat Warlock—like me—might use an air spell to knock down a ghoul, but a Healer might use it to help cure a cold. Sure, a handful of us switched disciplines from time to time, but training was exhausting and time-consuming. The majority of the Skilled focused on mastering one specialty, adding a smattering of spells from other branches for good measure. The most powerful of my kind were competent in two, maybe three areas at best.

  But as formidable as the Skilled seemed when compared to Normals, we were also bound by the reality of physics and thermodynamics. Whether small or large, every spell, talent and trick we performed required exertion. There was always a side effect if a person used too much. Only through practice and exercise were we able to increase our endurance.

  Since my return to the Skilled community six years earlier, I’d spent countless hours trying to get back in shape. Sadly, my stamina was still crap. Simple spells drained me, and the varsity-level stuff—like the banishing—was the equivalent of running a marathon. Yes, I was capable of it, but I would pay for it over the next few days.

  “It’s not as bad as last time,” I lied.

  “I want you to see Healer Jenkins before you leave,” my mother said without missing a beat. “And stop picking at your scar.”

  I reddened and removed my hand from the long white line that started at my right cheek and disappeared into my collar.

  My father leaned back and tapped his chin. “What I don’t like about the situation is the weapon. Normally, the undead are nothing more than automatons for a master, lacking both forethought and planning. From the sounds of it, this Anthony Banks character not only planned each visit, but adapted.”

  “And he seemed emotional,” I added. “There was a moment before his wife got him fired up when I’d swear he was crying. Maybe it was remorse for cheating on her. Or maybe it was just gas.”

  “Tears?” my father asked, ignoring my quip. “Are you sure?”

  I shrugged. “The situation collapsed pretty quickly, so I’m not completely positive. It sure seemed like it, though. Odd, huh?”

  “Very.” Dad bit his lip and scribbled some notes down. “I’ll need to put this before a few colleagues of mine. Between the gun and tears, something’s definitely wrong.”

  Crap. I hated when he went into Business Mode. It usually meant he was right.

  Unfortunately, the lull in the conversation opened a window for Mom and her regular agenda item. “So, Marcus,” she raised an eyebrow. “Have you met anyone recently?”

  “I meet people all the time.” I kept hoping Dad would come to my rescue. Instead, he was lost in his notes.

  “You know what I mean. Have you met any girls lately? Anyone interesting?”

  I clenched my jaw. “No.”

  “Well, why not?” Mom asked. “Plenty of ladies would love to chat with a brown-haired, brown-eyed young man.”

  “Carrie was the last one that I can remember.”

  Mom sighed. “I liked her.”

  “Funny, I did too. Problem was she liked someone else. Someone with real Skill.”

  She didn’t just like him. She’d married the jerk.

  “Don’t you say that. You are just as capable as anyone out there. You just need time to recuperate. And quit pouting,” she said, fixing me with a reproaching gaze. “You and Jethrow were friends for years, and holding onto a grudge like that is childish. It’s been long enough and you should be happy for them.”

  I snorted. Carrie wasn’t the only reason I resented Jethrow

  “Besides,” she said. “I have someone I want you to meet.”

  “No.” I crossed my arms.

  “Why not?”

  “I thought I made it clear the last few times that I don’t like blind dates.”

  “She’s not blind,” my mother smiled, feigning innocence. “She has perfect vision.”

  “You know what I mean.”

  “Well, from your track record recently, you don’t like any dates, blind or not.”

  Ouch. She had me there.

  “She’s pretty,” Mom added encouragingly.

  The woman was like a wolf on an injured fawn. She’d set her teeth and wouldn’t let go.

  “Alright, but I won’t promise anything. No bellyaching if we don’t get married.”

  Mom beamed. “She’s a sweet girl. Her mother and I are in the same book club.”

  “Since when are you in a book club?”

  “Since I decided to join one,” she said indignantly. “Anyway, I’ll get you her number. You handle the rest.”

  “Can we put Marcus’s love life on hold for a moment?” my father asked.

  “A little late to my rescue,” I grumbled under my breath.

  “Fine.” She waved a dismissive hand. “I have errands to run anyway.” She stood, muttered something about Dad not having a single romantic bone in his body, and exited the kitchen.

  “Marcus,” he said once she was gone. “I want to dig a little deeper into the business of your undead friend, but I have Council work that requires a lot of attention. I need you to do the legwork for me.”

  “I’d rather pass.”

  Freelancer jobs might have been few and far between, but I wasn’t ready to do the Council any favors just yet. With the exception of Dad and a handful of others, the members were a bunch of bureaucratic stooges worried about getting reelected every eleven years. Let them bother the countless Warlocks eager to put up with all the red tape.

  For me, I enjoyed my freedom.

  Dad’s expression softened. “I understand your
hesitation, son. But consider it a favor for your old man.”

  The lines on his forehead were deeper than normal and his eyes tired. Some of those lines belonged to me because even without saying it, I knew how many sleepless nights he suffered worrying about me.

  I also knew I might never fully forgive myself for causing those lines.

  “Okay,” I said, resigning myself to my fate. “What do you want me to do?”

  He tore a sheet from his notepad and wrote an address on it. “There is a Necromancy expert that you should meet. Fill him in on last night’s events and see what he thinks.”

  I took the scrap. There was no name, just a street number. Before I could ask him about it, Cornelius appeared in the doorway.

  “Elder Harper is here,” he said. “He’s waiting for you in the anteroom.”

  “Thank you,” my father replied. “Please tell him I’m on my way.”

  “Yes, sir.” Cornelius gave a slight bow. He was gone a second later.

  “What’s Harper doing here?” I asked.

  Elders were the senior echelon of our governing body—elected to the position by the hundred-some-odd members of the Council—and served for life. They had final veto and voting authority, but rarely used that power. Most day-to-day decisions were left to the Council members, leaving the Elders to handle major items like wars and treaties.

  At least, that’s what I’d heard. The Elders were a secretive bunch—what they did behind closed doors was anyone’s guess.

  Harper’s presence wasn’t uncommon, per se. As the head of the Mystical Idols division, he came to the Homestead a couple times a year to inspect crap like Mayan sacrificial knives and magic-infused shampoo that we kept locked in our vault. But I’d seen him at least three times in the past month. Activity like that was hard to ignore.

  Dad gave me a bulletproof poker face. “He’s part of the Council business I need to attend to.”

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