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The Beginner’s Guide to Necromancy, Book 1
The Beginner’s Guide to Necromancy, Book 1
Grier Woolworth spends her nights weaving spooky tales of lost souls and tragedies for tourists on the streets of downtown Savannah. Hoop skirt and parasol aside, it’s not a bad gig. The pay is crap, but the tips keep the lights on in her personal haunted mansion and her pantry stocked with ramen.
Life is about as normal as it gets for an ex-necromancer hiding among humans. Until the society that excommunicated Grier offers her a second chance at being more than ordinary. Too bad no one warned her the trouble with being extraordinary is it can get you killed.
How to Save an Undead Life Excerpt
I jolted awake sitting on the hardwood floor in my bedroom with my back wedged into a corner. Sheets tangled around my hips. Bruises purpled my shins. Blood crusted my fingertips under broken nails. Shallow pants fed my lungs and fueled my racing heart. I tasted copper in the back of my throat, and it hurt when I swallowed.
Starting my nights with a crick in my neck and a numb tailbone was getting old fast. I might live in a haunted house, but the only screams echoing through the halls belonged to me.
The bathroom door swung open under an invisible hand, and the light switched on.
“That bad?” While I plucked at the damp tank top plastered to my chest by fear-sweat, the faucets squeaked in protest. Water thundered into the shower basin, drowning out my grumbles. “Okay, I can take a hint.”
Bracing one hand on the wall for support, I propped my feet under me and staggered to the bathroom, leaning a hip against the pedestal sink while I stripped. The clawfoot tub beckoned, and I climbed under the scalding water, let it pound the kinks from my aching muscles. All too soon the stream turned cold, and I hopped out with a squeak that made the hinges squeal in mocking laughter.
Curls of steam gamboled around my ankles, chasing me back into the bedroom, where I dried off and got dressed in jeans and a faded tee. I stomped on sneakers before combing the damp ropes of dark brown hair slicking my shirt against my spine.
A wobbly question mark cut through the condensation fogging the window above my desk.
“I’m fine,” I assured the old house. “Just a bad dream.”
The same one, night after night after night, since my release from the black stone prison called Atramentous.
Each dusk I expected to wake to iron bars, a grate in the concrete floor, the constant drip-drip-drip of water and other fluids as they fell from the ceiling into the drain. Enough to keep you alive if you worked at catching droplets on your tongue, but never enough to quench your thirst.
The glass turned opaque, as if someone had breathed warmth onto the chill pane, and the next drawing tugged on my heartstrings.
A frowny face.
“You’ve been working on your finger painting while I was away, I see.” And her psychoanalyzing. “Okay, you win. I’m not fine.” I rocked back on my heels. “I know you worry but…” I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted iron. “I can’t talk about it yet.”
I might never be ready to discuss the events leading up to my incarceration.
The window cleared, the slate wiped clean.
A blinking red light caught my eye in the window’s reflection, and I skimmed my cluttered desk. “Woolly.” I pointed at the cheap digital clock with zeroes flashing on its face. “What time is it?” I lunged for the nightstand and woke my phone. “You let me oversleep.”
The house let her unrepentant silence speak for itself.
“I have to work.” I tromped down the stairs. “Otherwise the power goes off, and my belly goes empty. You don’t want us to both starve, do you?”
One step creaked louder than the others in counterargument. She could go on like this for days…
I hit the foyer, slung my purse across my body, and palmed the last Honeycrisp apple from its porcelain cradle. Hand-painted blue roses climbed over the exterior of the elegant fruit bowl, the piece still one of my favorites despite the nocked rim on its everted lip. Or perhaps because of it. Each chip represented a memory, a good one, and I had few enough of those not to care if the reminders carried jagged edges.
The slight pressure of my fingertips against the basin sent the heavy antique console table beneath the bowl seesawing. The old house groaned around me, embarrassed about the uneven floorboards, and the hard point of my anger softened.
“I got this.” I opened the table’s single drawer, plucked the most recent bill off the top of a precarious stack, and wedged it under the short leg before hiding my unmet obligations from sight again with a satisfying bump from my hip. “There.” I winked up at the chandelier that hung central in the foyer. “Good as new.”
A gust of heated air swirled up my leg from a nearby floor register.
Thanks to my late start, my usual bowl of strawberry oatmeal was off the table. That left me with the apple to tide me over until the lunch break I took around midnight. Stomach tight with hunger, I brought the fruit to my lips. That moment when my teeth pierced the thin outer skin, the flesh firm beneath and juices flowing over my tongue, was perfection. Licking the sticky sweetness from my lips, I chased an errant trickle down my wrist with my tongue. I couldn’t afford to waste even one drop. Not at these prices.
“See you later.” I reached for the doorknob and found it locked. I jiggled it once more then sighed. “Woolly.” The chandelier dimmed at the reprimand. “I promise I’ll be home in a few hours.”
A petulant snick announced I was free to go, not that the old house expected me to ever return.
What can I say? Woolworth House, Woolly to her friends, was a tad bit clingy. Though, if you asked me, she was entitled to her near-obsessive fear of abandonment after witnessing the brutal murder of her previous owner and the subsequent arrest of the Woolworth heir.
That would be me.
The door clicked shut on my heels as I stepped out onto the wraparound porch, and the locks engaged.
Click. Click. Click.
Can a haunted house pitch a hissy fit? Yes. Yes, it can. And, in my limited experience, the scope and duration of the tantrum was directly proportional to its square footage. Each time I left, no matter how valid my reason, she acted like I’d driven a rusty nail into her wooden heart. Or hearth. Whichever.
Woolly was all the family I had left. I wouldn’t abandon her. Unless they dragged me away like last time.
Checking the wards protecting Woolworth House came second nature to me, and I spared half a thought for activating the complex spells. Or I did until the magic rebounded, delivering a slap to my skull that left my ears ringing and startled me into shifting a mental eye toward checking the perimeter. But whatever had left the wards singing near the garden hadn’t breached them.
I was savoring my second bite of apple, pondering what the disturbance meant and why Woolly hadn’t given me a heads up, when the hand cradling the half-eaten fruit ignited, and a whiff of charred skin stung my nostrils.
Swearing a blue streak, I flung my hand to soothe the burn and sent my snack rolling down the steps.
Uncurling my fingers, I spotted the blackened sigil I dreaded branding my palm.
Double dang it.
Bad enough I had wonky wards to contend with, but this? Keet really ought to stop dying on me. His timing couldn’t be worse.
I was scheduled to lead a Boos and Brews tour through historic downtown Savannah, Georgia in two hours. I hadn’t had my hair or makeup done yet, and Cricket Meacham, the owner of Haint Misbehavin’ Ghost Tours—that’s haint as in ghost and not hain’t as in ain’t—expected her crew in full Southern belle regalia prior to clock-in.
“Call Amelie,” I ordered my phone in a loud, clear tone.
Hands-free voice commands were as close to practicing craft in public as it got.
“Why, I do declare,” Amelie drawled in her thickest Southern accent, “if it’s not my Grierest friend.”
A snort escaped me at the play on words. “Your dearest friend Grier needs a favor.”
“What? I can’t hear you.” A sigh blasted over the line. “Tell me I’m not in your back pocket.”
“You’re not in my back pocket.” My phone was, though. “Hold on.” I pinched it between my thumb and finger, tugging until my skinny jeans cried uncle, then pinned the cell between my cheek and shoulder like they did in ancient times. “There. Happy?”
“Yes, actually. You don’t sound like you’re talking through cotton gauze left over from a dental procedure.”
Some people just don’t appreciate the hands-free experience. “Can you cover my first tour?”
“Woof. Woof.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Hear that? That’s the sound of my dogs barking.”
Walking an average of ten miles on a good night was enough to make anyone’s feet howl.
“How about this? Swing the tour by the house.” I studied the sigil burnt into my skin, twitchy to get moving. “Do that, and I’ll guarantee you get tipped like a cow tonight.”
“Not sure what that means, but okay.” Glee rang through the line. “I’m in.”
Woolworth House wasn’t part of any regular tour by design. Exclusivity increased the old house’s cachet. Once or twice, when money got tighter than my loaner corset, I allowed the supernaturally devout to pay me obscene amounts of cash to sleep in one of my spare bedrooms. I did nothing to enhance the experience, but a lucky few had encountered Woolly’s sense of humor, and that was enough to ignite fervor among the masses.
And more than enough to label me as a pariah among my own kind. Not that I hadn’t already been branded.
Liar. Thief. Murderer.
Closing my eyes, I sucked in a long breath that whistled past my front teeth, then I let it out slowly.
“Still here.” I padded across the front yard barefoot, the plush lawn tickling the soles of my feet. The low wrought iron gate leading into the backyard opened under my hand, and I followed the flagstone path under four connected archways dripping with fragrant jasmine blossoms and lush purple wisteria clusters. On the other end sat the carriage house, a scaled-down replica of the main house. “Buy me three hours, and I’ll take your last tour.”
“Done deal.” A rowdy cheer rose in the background. “Oh. Gotta run. My victims have arrived.”
Unlike the personable main house, the carriage house was simply an outbuilding that had once been responsible for storing horse-drawn carriages and tack. Maud had converted the wide-open space into a two-bedroom, two-bath guesthouse, but that had been a lifetime ago.
Not once during the three weeks since my return had I stepped foot out there. Truth be told, I didn’t want to be standing here right now. But I didn’t have a choice. Not while my palm throbbed with the reminder of an old promise.
All the what-might-have-beens gathered on the fringes of my memory, tightening my throat until a ragged cough sounding too close to a sob broke free. I blamed the dust and choked down the burning ache before it consumed me, fisted my hand and let the burnt flesh sharpen my focus.
The overstuffed couches and reclaimed wood tables had been pushed against the walls to make room for thirteen oak and iron steamer trunks teeming with necromantic paraphernalia. Stacked in rows three high and four wide, they dominated the hand-braided rag rug in the center of the room. Each must have weighed a hundred pounds or more. Only lucky thirteen, the runt of the litter, sat all alone.
Boaz had done this for me, packed up all Maud’s things and stashed them out here after…
After it all went so very wrong.
Once I could breathe again, I extended my burnt palm toward the stacks, and, like a dowser in search of precious water, followed the persistent tug of magic to its source, tensing when the faint energy ebbing above that final trunk nipped at my fingertips.
“Here goes nothing.”
After crossing to the nearest window, I rose on my tiptoes and smoothed my fingers along the top of the frame until they brushed against lukewarm metal. I palmed the magicked skeleton key, right where Amelie had promised it would be, fit its teeth into the mouth of the lock, and twisted until the latch sprang free. I had to throw my shoulder into forcing up the cumbersome lid, and it yawned open on a breath perfumed with rosewater and thyme. Scents that still haunted Woolworth House.
The trunk held one item that could be seen with the naked eye, an old-fashioned doctor’s bag the color of midnight and filled with things even darker. Vials clinked within when I hauled it out onto the rug. That was the easy part. The trunk’s lid refused to shut until I sat on it, and the lock fought me for possession of the key until I pricked my fingertip and let it taste me. Satisfied with a few drops, it twisted itself then fell out onto my palm. The bloodthirsty scrap of brass had been forged to obey Maud, but it tolerated me, so there was no point in hiding what no one else could use. But I did anyway. This time in a better place than above the window.
I doubted anyone could breach the wards surrounding Woolworth House, but the carriage house and the garage weren’t as well fortified. Since I lacked the power for composing new sigils, the best I could do was direct the existing ones into a quicker tempo, more allegro than adagio.
The leather bag creaked when I gripped its carved-bone handle with bloodless fingers, its weight both a comfort and a painful reminder that Maud would never restock the depleted supplies within again. I exited the carriage house and gardens before the tears blurring my vision spilled over my cheeks. I hadn’t cried since the night the door clanged shut on my cell, and I wasn’t going to start now.
Retracing my steps up the stone path, I cut across the wide lawn in the opposite direction, powering down my phone so Amelie couldn’t have second thoughts. I also didn’t want the neighbors, her parents, to hear my ringtone and come investigate. The last thing I needed was to add more charges to an already robust arrest record.
Palm extended like a compass needle pointing true north, a pulse of magic guided me across the property line I shared with the Pritchard family. Elaborate flowerbeds created a maze behind their modest house, and I lost myself in its twists until my feet planted themselves at the edge of a bed teeming with drowsy-headed begonias. I knelt on the soft mulch, and dewdrops burst under my weight, soaking my jeans.
Spring had arrived a week ago, tossing clouds of yellow pollen like confetti at its own welcome back party, but the night air still held a bite even if the daytime temps caused me to break a sweat.
“I can do this,” I murmured, placing the bag next to me. “Just like riding a bike.”
Chunks of white gravel borrowed from the driveway formed a rectangular border the size of a shoebox on the mulch. I gathered each one and mounded them near my ankle. A fist-sized, black river rock crowned the design. Written in blue sidewalk chalk on the makeshift tombstone was the word Twitter. Cute name for a parakeet. Not terribly original, but not bad for the social-media-aware seven-year-old who had adopted Keet after my incarceration.
Back when the deceased had been mine, Maud had named him Keet Richards. I was five when she became my legal guardian, and I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to unravel the pun. I might still be clueless about Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones fame had I not stumbled across her vinyl collection while searching for monkey bones in the attic one summer.
Holding my breath, I plunged my hands into the rich soil. The soggy edges of a buried shoebox stood up to my fondling despite the dampness from this evening’s thunderstorms. It helped that the deceased hadn’t been buried long. A half hour at most. Longer than that and Mrs. Pritchard would have had a coronary by now considering how her youngest son had rezoned her bed full of prize-winning perennials as a pet cemetery.
I dug my toes into the lush grass and shivered as a garden spider bustled across my heel. I gave three good tugs, and the cardboard coffin pulled free. After dusting off the top, I traced the decorations scribbled in crayon down the sides then lifted the lid. Paper towels folded to resemble sheets on a bed rested high on the dead bird’s chest where he had been tucked between them for one final snooze.
Keet’s silver-white cheeks looked as plump and adorable as I remembered. His feathers as bright yellow as a fresh banana peel. His bill and legs held a reddish tint, and his eyes, when they opened again, would be deep crimson.
That was thanks to his Lutino coloring, not magic, but the effect was eerie all the same.
“Hey, little guy.” I lifted him with care and set about tidying the area so no one would suspect precocious little Macon of playing mortician. “Long time, no see, huh?”
Having been dead for some time, the parakeet didn’t answer.
That would have been creepy.
Fisting the bone handle on Maud’s bag, I hauled it closer. The latches flipped with ease, and I cracked the top halves open, rooting around in the bag’s cavernous belly until my fingers located my favorite round paintbrush in its case. I removed the brush and a jar of crimson ink that smelled of spiced pennies then set them at my knee.
Other necromancers-in-training in my age group had been raised with their familiars, but I had never stayed in one place long enough for a pet until I went to live with Maud. Things might have gone differently had she not sent a softhearted kid to pick up her order of feeder mice. After learning the writhing pinkies were snake chow, I bawled until the store owner, terrified of losing a lucrative contract, shoved a parakeet into my hands to shut me up as he nudged me out the door.
Keet was not the familiar Maud had in mind for her pupil, but she allowed the match to placate me. Sadly, the store owner had a reason for selecting that particular bird, and Keet kicked the bucket two days later. Cheered by the opportunity to use him as a teaching exercise, Maud coached me through inking my first sigils. But I must have smudged one, because bada-bing, bada-boom, I found myself the proud owner of a psychopomp.
I’ll never forget how the blood drained from her face as his wisp of a soul reentered his rigid body, or how she made the goddess sign across her heart thrice with trembling fingers when his tiny lungs caught a second wind.
She enrolled me in public school the next day, where my peers consisted of plain-vanilla humans and the children of Low Society members. She claimed that in order to survive in our world, one had to understand theirs. But how I was meant to grasp the workings of the High Society while masquerading as a mortal, I had no idea. And after I met Amelie and her older brother, Boaz, I stopped caring how I was ever meant to fit into that world of castes, rules and blood magic.
Maud continued teaching me rudimentary herblore and basic warding magic on the weekends, always behind locked doors, and I excelled at both. But that one failure with Keet, who she refused to share air with, had cemented my fate.
The designation still smarted.
A quick dip of my brush, and I painted a modified sigil on my forehead that gave me the ability to perceive souls. Yep. Just as expected, the shimmery whorl of Keet’s spirit drifted in a glittery cloud around him, bound to his corpse and the sigil burnt into my skin by a fine thread so that each of his deaths, and there had been many, summoned me. Using the end of my brush, I disturbed the halo of motes, scattering them into the night. Slowly, oh so slowly, they gravitated back to Keet and reformed as if I had never agitated them.
Here was proof positive that my magic had been wonky from the get-go.
Sitting back on my heels, I rotated his small body in my palm until his belly faced the stars. I dipped my brush and swiped a few symbols on the smooth feathers covering his abdomen. The effect left him slashed with red, as gruesome as a disemboweled murder victim, but the sigils would wash off with soap and water later.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Boaz.” The brush rolled from my fingers, and my heart clanged against my ribs. The urge to glance back at him twitched in my neck, but fear he might vanish like mist if I looked at him head-on kept me staring straight ahead. “Amelie said you got deployed.”
“Yeah, well, I got undeployed.” He nudged the tips of my toes with the blunt edge of his massive boot. “You’d know that if you hadn’t been hiding from me.”
“I haven’t been hiding,” I lied on reflex, shielding my own wounded pride.
“You don’t call. You don’t email. You don’t snail mail.” A growl laced his voice. “Sounds like hiding to me.”
“At least I didn’t run.” I balled my empty fist in my lap. “How is what you did any better?”
“Maud was barely in the ground when you shipped out.”
“You were already gone,” he seethed. “What did you expect me to do? Stay in Savannah? Wake up every morning and see your house sitting empty? Torment myself with the knowledge you weren’t there? That I would never see you again?”
“Stop,” I whispered.
“They sentenced you to Atramentous without a fucking trial—”
Boaz was past listening. How his parents didn’t hear us shouting, I had no idea. Then again, they ought to be used to yelling where he and I were concerned. After all, he was a firm believer that volume increased understanding.
“You kept in touch with Amelie.” His hurt pulsed like a sore tooth he couldn’t stop poking with his tongue. “Why not me?”
Telling him that facing his sister was easier wouldn’t make the truth hurt any less.
“I’m standing right here, and you can’t even look at me.” He made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, the kind the sentinels used to make before hocking a loogie in my face. “I might have lost a leg, but I can still kick your ass.”
The world ground to a halt on its axis as his threat permeated my skull.
I whipped my head toward him, and my vision ran crimson with fury. “You what?”
“Landmine in Afghanistan.” He bent over and knocked where his left femur should have been. It made a hollow sound that echoed in my chest. “Turns out they explode if you step on them. Who knew?”
One minute I was kneeling in the grass, the next I was climbing him like a tree.
Turned out I made for one pissed-off monkey.
Impact knocked him to the grass, and I ended up straddling his hips with my right foot hooked over his shin, metallic and cold where he should be muscle and heat.
“When?” I fisted the front of his olive drab tee and thumped his head on the ground. “When did this happen? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Amelie—”
“I told her to keep her yap shut.” He glared up at me. “I told her if you wanted news about me, then you damn well came to the source or you’d go thirsty.” He fit his hand around the base of my throat, stroking over my carotid with a calloused thumb. “You want to get a drink with me?”
“What? You’re asking me out? Now?” I wriggled lower on his hips, trying to get off this crazy ride. His lips twisted in a grimace of pain. I scrambled off him so fast I fell on my butt in the cold grass. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“Naw, Grier. It feels good having my head bashed into the dirt. I worried I didn’t have enough rocks rattling around in there already.” He lifted his head and rubbed the base of his skull. “It happened two years ago. You’re not going to hurt me. The new leg is titanium. It’s tough, but don’t tear it off and start whacking me with it, okay? TRICARE only covers so much.”
Ducking my head, shame burning my cheeks, I murmured, “Can we start over?”
“Sure. Give me a second.” Linking his hands behind his head, he crossed his legs at the ankles and wiggled his hips. “All right. You can straddle me again. I’m ready this time. I’ll even keep my hands to myself.” His mischievous wink made heat gather low in my stomach. “I like giving orders better anyway. I’ve learned I’m good at it.”
He rolled a shoulder, not disagreeing with me. “The offer stands.”
I bet it did. “Nice try. I’m not checking out your crotch.”
His husky chuckle was pure sin. “You never did say why you were skulking around in Mom’s garden.”
Glad for the safer conversational ground, I extended my hand so he could see. “I came to retrieve Keet.”
His lip curled as he processed what I was holding. “Your zombie parakeet?”
A bird pecks at one brain and people start throwing around derogatory terms.
“He’s not a zombie.” Sure, his flight patterns were off, but he didn’t shamble through the air or anything.
He nodded his chin to indicate the corpse. “Is resuscitating him kosher?”
“It’s not a resuscitation. He was already dead, or undead. Whatever. All I did was bring him back from limbo and anchor him in his body.” I showed him the blackened symbol charring my palm. “I was on my way to work when the locator sigil activated. I found him out here. Guess your little brother buried him rather than face the music with your parents.”
“He was on restriction for not cleaning the water bowl before refilling it last time we talked.” Boaz scratched his side, a grin tugging on his lips. “He must have figured hiding the body was better than another week of laundry detail.”
“Poor kid.” I combed through the blades of grass with my fingers until I found the discarded brush, its ends clotted with ink. “I’m guessing no one told him Keet can’t starve to death?”
No doubt that was all his idea.
“Come on, Squirt.” He leveraged into a seated position, his abs flexing beneath the thin fabric of his shirt—not that I noticed—then rolled to his feet in a motion so smooth he must have practiced it. “I’ll walk you home so you don’t get into more trouble.”
At barely eight o’clock on a Friday night, with a full moon to boot, Boaz seriously underestimated my skills.
Copyright © 2017 Hailey Edwards
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