This story is by Hollis Thundercroft and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Malcolm Fox would have done anything to have Cassius Quail back, but he would have settled for seeing the man who had killed his mentor dead in the street.
But Cyrus DeMurr was still very much alive, and now he was standing in the doorway of Malcolm’s bar, his boots heavy on the dusty floor. Malcolm’s breath caught and his hand curled around his dagger, rage pulsing through his veins.
“Don’t bother, necro,” Cyrus said, stepping into the long, low room, his voice slick and dark with laughter. “I brought friends— you’d be dead before you threw the knife.”
Malcolm could make out black-cloaked figures lingering in the shadows of his bar, and clenched his teeth but let go of the dagger. “What the hell do you want?”
“An army,” said Cyrus, his black eyes shining. “I want an army of the reanimated dead.”
“No,” said Malcolm, disgusted. “Not in a thousand years.” He stood up and reached across the desk for his glasses, but Cyrus got there first, snatching them away.
Malcolm’s fingers curled into fists, and Cyrus laughed again, leaning closer to him. “You have until dawn to meet me with an army, or, well…” He smiled, dark and sticky, like oil. “It’s been a long time since I’ve killed a necromancer, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun than killing a normal person.”
“Give me the glasses back,” Malcolm snarled, desperation leaking into his voice.
Cyrus grinned again. “Or you’ll do what, necro? You can’t even use your powers without the permission of someone powerful.” He laughed, and slammed the glasses back to the desk, shattering one of the lenses. “See you at dawn, Fox.” He turned on his heel and walked out, his men following in his footsteps.
Malcolm picked up the shattered glasses with trembling fingers, shaking with anger and desperation.
Malcolm picked his way across the hills of the graveyard. The moon was high and the stars seemed to mock him and when he wore the glasses that Cassius had given him, he could see the ghosts.
When he reached the center of the graveyard, he slid to the ground with his back against an ancient oak tree and held the glasses up to the moonlight, the shattered edges glinting.
Cassius had given him the glasses when they had stopped being master and apprentice and become partners. “You’re a necromancer now,” Cassius had said, his heavy hand on Malcolm’s shoulder.
The only thing he had left of Cassius, broken beyond repair.
Cyrus DeMurr wanted an army, and if Malcolm gave it to him, he’d be going against everything Cassius had ever taught him. But if he didn’t come up with an army, Cyrus would kill him. He looked down at the black stains on his hands, from all the times he’d resurrected things. The only thing Cyrus deserved was hell, and Malcolm wasn’t powerful enough to put him there, wasn’t powerful enough to avenge his mentor.
It wasn’t the thought of death that bothered him. It was the fact that if he died, there would be no one left to make it right.
“What am I supposed to do?” he whispered into the night. Cassius had only had enough time to teach him how to summon the dead with the permission of someone, for their service.
But there were other methods that didn’t require permission. Cassius had just—
Malcolm tried to push the memories away, but they bubbled up anyway— the disfigured body, the blackened fingers, the blood— oh God, there’d been so much blood—
The glasses slipped from his fingers and fell to the grass; Malcolm leaned back against the tree and looked up at the tangle of branches above him.
There was nothing he could do. Nothing at all.
He clenched his fists and picked up the glasses from the ground and perched them on his nose. Maybe they still worked, and he could talk to the ghosts—
Nothing. The graveyard looked exactly the same through the lenses, grey and desolate. He tore them off and looked at them for a moment, then flung them away. They might have been Cassius’s, but Cassius was dead and beyond reach— necromancers didn’t even come back as ghosts—
A soft wind swept the graveyard, making him shiver.
“Malcolm Fox, back to see us again?”
All over the rolling hills, the faint silver forms of ghosts blossomed. Malcolm looked over them, confused, awed. “How the hell am I doing this without the glasses?” he whispered.
A ghost Malcolm knew only as the Lady— the name on her tombstone had worn off long ago— drifted up to him. “You have a hurricane of emotions inside you, so you don’t need those glasses anymore— or permission of someone powerful.”
“Wait— wait— you’re saying that all I ever needed to do the higher forms of necromancy was emotion?”
She smiled. “It’s more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
Malcolm looked down at his hands, at the smudges left behind from all the times he’d summoned the dead. His eyes flicked up to the Lady. “Why haven’t you told me this before?”
“You weren’t ready,” she whispered. “But you are now.”
His breath caught. “You think I can— you think I can defeat him? Make it right?”
“You can make it right,” she said. “You’ll have to find out exactly what that entails for you.”
“Cyrus DeMurr, dead,” he whispered, standing up. “That will make all this pain go away.”
“Well,” she said, sweeping her arm over the graveyard. “Then raise yourself an army, Malcolm Fox.”
He balked. “I can’t resurrect you— you’re my friends—”
She laughed again. “The dead are all just phoenixes, waiting for a flame.”
Cassius’s favorite saying. Malcolm’s hands curled into fists, his heart pounding with anger and pain. The Lady leaned closer to him.“You be that flame, Malcolm Fox. You make Cassius proud.”
For the first time in a long time, Malcolm felt powerful. His hands were cold with darkness, begging to be used.
He took a sharp breath of night air and raised his hands.
The ground of the grave yard erupted, tombstones shattering, bones rising into the sky, the wind gusting. Power surged through his fingers— he felt connected to every skeleton, felt himself breathing life back into them—
The wind died as suddenly as it had started and the graveyard was still, littered with ruins. Malcolm’s breaths were light and desperate— he couldn’t see any bodies— had it really worked?
A few feet away from him, a blackened hand, bone fragments sticking through the knuckles, struck the dirt. As the figure pushed itself to its feet, two eyes, glowing like embers, flicked open in the darkness.
More and more eyes appeared, until there was an army, an army big enough to defeat Cyrus, big enough to avenge Cassius, big enough to quell all the darkness that had swirled inside Malcolm since the night he’d found Cassius’s body.
Malcolm smiled. “Rise and follow me!” His yell echoed in the night, and then he set off for the city, the ghosts applauding and the dead following.
“Cyrus!” he yelled as the first rays of dawn spilled down the streets. His voice was the color of dried blood; all he could think about was how empty Cassius’s eyes had been when he’d found him.
Cyrus turned, his black eyes cold. “Have you brought me my army, Fox?”
“No,” said Malcolm. “You killed Cassius Quail and I’m here to make things right.”
Cyrus laughed, drawing his long, black knife and spinning it in his fingers. “Well, if you want it like that, making things right is going to involve a hell of a lot of pain.” He came up to Malcolm, his coat flapping in the cool dawn wind. “Cassius said you were smart, but I guess he was wrong.”
He raised the knife, but Malcolm snapped his fingers, just like he’d seen Cassius do a thousand times, and the knife disintegrated into powder. “He wasn’t wrong, DeMurr,” snarled Malcolm. Behind him, the dead filled the streets, and Cyrus’s eyes went wide.
Men in dark coats emerged from the shadows of the street, guns and knives in their hands, attempting to converge on Malcolm, but the dead came after them. The men fled, powerless against the hate Malcolm had poured into the dead.
“You can’t— you can’t do this— I didn’t— I didn’t give you permission—” stuttered Cyrus, backing up, terror in his eyes as the dead swept around them, pursuing his men.
“No,” whispered Malcolm, dark and cold. “But I don’t need you, and it’s high time Cassius Quail was avenged.”
“You can’t just—”
“Enjoy hell,” whispered Malcolm, reaching over and touching one of the dead he’d summoned, sapping the darkness from it. He looked at Cyrus one more time, his pulse pounding and emotion sizzling through his veins, and he snapped his fingers again.
All around him, the dead burst into dust, taking Cyrus’s men with them. Cyrus crumbled too, and the street was quiet, filled with only a layer of power.
“That’s for you, Cassius,” he whispered. “That’s for you.”
He stood for a moment, looking out over the vacant street, expecting to feel peace. But there was only emptiness inside him— a cold white, like a shroud.
He kicked at the powder that layered the street, and then turned away, his head down and his heart empty.
The cop who had brought him the girl was telling him something about her— about how she didn’t have any parents, about how she seemed to be a necromancer, but Malcolm couldn’t listen.
It had been two months since he’d killed Cyrus and everything was still cold and empty. He hadn’t been back to the graveyard since the night he’d learned how to summon the dead without permission; he’d left the glasses there but didn’t want to get them.
He didn’t feel worthy anymore.
All he could remember of Cassius was the way he’d looked after Cyrus had killed him.
“Sir?” Malcolm jerked his eyes back up to the cop, who was standing in the doorway.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You’ll take her, then?”
Malcolm glanced down at the girl— she was maybe ten and kept on playing with rat bones, resurrecting the rodent only to fell it again. He couldn’t help but remember all the times he’d done that, when he was younger, with Cassius watching him.
It hurt to look at her, but he nodded. “Sure.”
“Well then, good day,” said the cop. “And thank you, for what you did.”
“You’re welcome,” said Malcolm yet again; every time seemed make the white inside him worse. He hadn’t done it for the city, he’d done it for Cassius, for himself, but that didn’t seem to matter.
As the cop left, the girl stood up. “You’re Malcolm Fox, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Who are you?”
“Miranda. But everyone calls me Mir.” She snapped her fingers and the rat clattered into bones again, then looked up at him with brown eyes. “If you’re Malcolm Fox, does that mean you can teach me necromancy?”
His breath caught in his throat. He couldn’t— there was no way— she reminded him so much of his days with Cassius—
But he looked into her eyes and suddenly he could remember that Cassius had had brown eyes too— he could remember the way Cassius had put his heavy hand on his shoulder and told him he believed in him.
And suddenly, he didn’t feel so empty inside— the white had faded.
“Yeah, Mir,” he whispered, kneeling down and taking her hand. “I’ll teach you necromancy. There’s just something I have to do first.”
“What?” she asked as he stood up and put on his coat.
“I have to go to the graveyard,” he said, opening the door. “I left something there. Something I need.”
They walked out into the city together, and for the first time since Cassius had died, Malcolm Fox felt at peace.