“I mean seriously, dude, this thing was freaking huge! It was the Godzilla of Gajasimhas!”
The girl currently excitedly babbling on across from me as I sat at a table in the library back at Crossroads was Harper Hayes. It was April 30th, Monday. The weekend had passed since Rudolph’s funeral, and I was back at school once more. Harper and I had been assigned a project to work on together by Professor Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. We were supposed to pick one of the lost cities, places that had supposedly once been real and full of humans before they were overrun and destroyed by those evil Strangers. There were quite a lot of them, according to our books, places where thousands of humans were wiped out back when Heretics had been much fewer and further between, before they could be manufactured by Crossroads.
Somehow, I had stopped myself from asking how society had continued to exist and develop for thousands of years before Bosch had come along if their Heretics were so limited and every single non-human out there was a genocidal lunatic. But it was a close thing, and I deserved a medal for my restraint. I’d settled for a piece of pie.
Now the two of us were in the library after classes were over, and Harper was telling me all about the creature that she and her team had killed for their last hunt. Apparently a Gajasimhas was a huge monster, fifteen feet tall at the shoulders on average, with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant, complete with tusks. It sounded pretty nasty, even before listening to Harper’s rendition of the story as she excitedly babbled on. She tended to repeat details, embellishing them further every time, and sometimes got so excited about what she was saying that she tripped over the words and got tongue-tied. It was kind of cute and endearing, almost making me want to protect the girl or something.
“You know, you’re really lucky,” Harper abruptly informed me. “I mean, in some ways. Not in every way, obviously. Lots of bad stuff happens around you, but still… lucky.”
“Lucky in that I’ve never fought a Gajasimhas?” I asked, confused by the shift in subject.
Her head shook quickly at that. “What? No, that’s totally unlucky. Those things are awesome. You’re lucky because you don’t just have a girlfriend, you have two. I mean, you’re dating super-hot warrior princess and super-cute Asian gamer babe. Seriously?” She held a hand up to me, gesturing to it. “Seriously, dude. Dude. Say what you want about all the trouble you get into, but as far as that goes, you pretty much hit triple sevens twice in a row.”
Well, when she put it like that, I couldn’t help but give the girl the high five she was looking for. But we also really needed to work. So right after that, I put a hand on one of the books we had found. “This one’s about places in Africa. You wanna look in that one and I’ll look at… what’s this one?” My other hand tilted up another book to read the spine. “Camelot: Facts In The Fiction?”
“Meh.” Harper shrugged at me. “The King Arthur stuff is a little overdone. Eiji says everyone wants to do a project on that. We should do something new. Besides,” she added sagely, leaning closer across the table, “I’m pretty sure most of these stuffy old professors wouldn’t know what Camelot was really like if it fell on top of them.”
Raising an eyebrow at that, I teased, “Maybe they should consult you on the subject. Or me. I’m sure a couple of Bystander-kin know more about Camelot than people who might’ve been alive back then. Or at least had a father or grandfather who was. Actually…” Pausing, I pursed my lips thoughtfully. “That Percival guy on the Committee was part of the whole Camelot thing. I wonder if they consulted him for this book. It might be more accurate than you think.”
The other girl met my gaze for a moment before abruptly laughing. “Okay, maybe you have a point. I mean, if you want to do it on that…” Trailing off, she looked to me expectantly.
I thought about it for a few seconds then, letting my head tilt from one side to the other indecisively. “Hmmm…” In the end, however, I shook my head. “Nah, you’re right. Lots of people are gonna do Camelot. And they’ll definitely expect it from a couple Bystander-Kin. Probably lots of Camelot and Atlantis projects. Let’s look at one of the lesser used ones. Like in that Africa book.” I gestured to the one I had indicated earlier. “Gotta be something interesting there.”
She agreed, and we started poring through it together to find something we could both agree on. The hard part was actually settling on one. There was, utterly unsurprisingly, a lot of magical history in Africa. Lots of human settlements that, according to Crossroads history, had been wiped out in one way or another. A lot of that was probably pretty accurate as far as being attacked by evil Strangers went, though I had a few questions (that would probably go unanswered) about how much of the population in those ancient cities had been fully human.
Unfortunately, before we could finally pick one in particular and run with it, I felt someone approach our table from the back of the library even as a new (and unwelcome) voice spoke up.
“Careful Harper,” Zeke warned with a smirk that he had to have practiced in the mirror to look that annoying, “you don’t want to end up like other people that Chambers here works with. You know what happens to them.” As he spoke, the boy stopped to fold his arms loosely.
“No, Zeke.” The response didn’t come from Harper or myself. It came from the nearby bookshelf, where Doug was standing with his finger on one of the volumes there. His attention, however, was focused solely on the boy by our table, voice soft. “Why don’t you tell us what happens to people who work with Flick? I’m sure your perspective on it will be very illuminating.”
“Wh–” Zeke glanced that way, and for just a second I thought he would completely back off. He actually held a hand up in surrender, head shaking. “Look, I didn’t even–I shouldn’t have…” But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just completely let it go, no matter how much he obviously knew that he should have. “I just think it’s a little… you know, surprising that you’re okay with this.”
Slowly lowering his hand from the book, Doug turned to face him fully. His voice had gone even softer. “Surprising that I’m okay with what, Zeke?”
“This, her.” Zeke was gesturing to me, of course. “She brought Rudolph back and puppeted him through the halls of the hospital in front of everyone there, man! And you’re just completely cool with still being on a team with her? You don’t have a problem with that? Seriously?”
Right, the story of what had happened to reveal my newly inherited necromancer abilities had made the rounds well before Gaia or anyone else could do anything to stop it. Rudolph’s moving body had been seen by too many people, and the rumors had spread out quickly from there. So now the people around school had even more reasons to stare at me. Especially since the fact that Rudolph’s body had done the impossible thing of actually using his powers post-death.
For a moment after Zeke said those words, Doug was quiet. He just stood there, silently watching the other boy before looking to me with eyes that very briefly revealed just how lost the boy actually felt right then. Then he looked back to Zeke. “Yeah, I have a problem with it. I have a pretty god damn big problem with Flick bringing Rudolph’s dead body back and making it walk around. Specifically the part where my friend is dead. That’s the part I have issues with. Or did you just sort of skip past that in your rush to grab onto something else you could blame her for? Tell me something, Zeke, did you get necromancer powers too? Because I’m pretty sure you’re using Rudolph as even more of a prop than she did.”
Before Zeke could actually say anything to that, Harper was on her feet. “Okay!” she chirped, clearly uncomfortable with things getting serious at all. “I think that’s enough drama for one day. You wanna look through the book tonight and lemme know what you think we should focus on at breakfast?” she asked me then, smiling brightly. “I still think Amina of Zaria would be a great subject! But, you know, if you find a better one…”
“She sounds pretty cool,” I agreed. “And the ahhh… real story of Zaria could be a good project. Definitely lesser known than Camelot. But I’ll… uhh, I’ll take a look and let you know.” Even as I spoke, from the corner of my eye I could see Zeke. The boy clearly wasn’t accustomed to being ignored like this, particularly right after being put down the way Doug had. He looked like he kept wanting to either say something or walk away. But he couldn’t work out what to say, and walking away probably felt like he was retreating. So he stood there awkwardly.
Giving me a bright smile and nod that made her bright-pink pigtails bounce, Harper looked to Zeke. “C’mon! I made some raspberry chocolate chip cookies, you’ve gotta try one! Or two.”
With that, the girl basically dragged him away, while he made token noises of protest. Which… yeah, Harper clearly did all that specifically to avoid any more conflict, defusing the situation through offering baked goods. As far as that kind of thing went, it was nicely done. Except for the part where Zeke got cookies.
That left me standing there with Doug. Glancing to the boy, I hesitated. Boy, he looked different without his hat. Which he would hopefully be getting back soon, since his Grandpa Sulan had been working with Sariel, Theia, and the others at the Atherby camp for the past couple of days, ever since Larees had met with him at the funeral. Apparently not only had it not taken much to get him on-side, he actually was already pretty much read in on most things by Percival. Ever since he’d been banished from the old colony world, Sulan had been working as a sort of ‘fixer’ or assistant for Percival, doing things that the Committee member couldn’t focus on doing himself.
Which was all super useful for us, since it meant he was already onboard with what needed to happen. So he’d been at the camp teaching them how to use the anti-Whisper spell.
There had also apparently been a bit of a… conversation between Doug and Sulan over just how much Sulan had known about and not talked over with him. From what little I’d heard about it, Sulan had said that he wanted to wait until Doug was older instead of forcing him into making a choice while he was still a first-year student.
I obviously had questions about how much they knew about the Whisper spells if Percival had been so close to Sulan. But it was going to have to wait, since Sulan had been busy and Percival wasn’t exactly someone I had ready access to.
For the moment, however, Doug was still without his hat. Which looked weird, but I shook myself and focused. “Anyway, uh, I’m sorry he brought up–I mean…”
“It’s not your fault when someone else brings up painful subjects, Flick,” the boy tiredly reminded me. “And another thing.” Looking straight to me, he narrowed his eyes. “Weren’t you going to start learning about that necromancy thing from Gabriel Prosser’s friend?”
“Right, yeah…” Flushing a little guiltily, I nodded. “He said it’d take a bit to get his friend around, whoever they are. So I sort of told him to take his time. I’m not exactly in a rush to use it.”
Doug shook his head at that, sighing. “Look, don’t avoid using that new power of his just because it creeps you out, or because of what idiot jackasses like that think. It’s a useful power. If you handicap yourself by avoiding it, you’ll just be making things harder for everyone. Maybe it’s creepy and lots of bad guys use it. But so what? Bad guys use lots of things. It’s a tool. And you’re a tool if you don’t use everything you’ve got. You’re dealing with a fucking necromancer as like… an archenemy, Flick. Why would you avoid practicing with the same power he’s got? There is no scenario in which that’s not at least slightly useful.”
Once he finished, I opened and shut my mouth a couple of times before hesitantly nodding. “Yeah, I um… yeah, point. I’ll tell Gabriel I’m ready to practice with it, whenever his friend is available.
“I just hope practicing necromancy doesn’t require a wardrobe change, because I do not have enough black clothes and eyeliner.”
So, to that end (the learning necromancy part, not the needing more eyeliner part), I told Gabriel that night as I was visiting the camp to see Avalon, my father, and Tabbris that I was ready to meet the person he had in mind to teach me. He’d smiled faintly and said that they had just been waiting for me say the word because they didn’t want to rush me. My new teacher would be ready to meet me down by the lake after I took some time with the others.
So, I sat with Avalon for awhile (she was practically bouncing off the walls waiting to get out of bed), and had a snack with Tabbris and my dad. We also played a game of Clue at the table in Dad’s cabin. Tabs told me all about learning more of the anti-Whisper spell from ‘Mr. Sulan’ earlier. Apparently they were pretty sure they’d be able to cast the spell themselves within the next day or so. Which was fast for such powerful and unique magic, but then again, Seosten tended to have a leg-up on the whole magic thing with their perfect memories.
When I was done there, I gradually made my way through the camp, greeting people who greeted me in turn until I reached the edge of the lake and looked around. “Okay,” I murmured, “how am I supposed to know when my necromancy teacher is coming? And why do I feel like asking that out loud is the cue for them to be right behind me?” Turning with those words, I looked expectantly… only to find no one there. “Huh. Guess I was–”
“Wrong?” A voice spoke up from what had been in front of me a moment earlier before I turned. “Nope, I’m just one step ahead.”
Turning back, I found myself staring at a man in a dark blue coat that reached all the way to his ankles. It was open, revealing white pants, a thick brown belt with a golden buckle, button-up white shirt with frills, and a bolo tie. His body was big and burly, like one of those stereotypical rugby players or British football fans. I wasn’t exactly sure why that was the comparison that immediately leapt to mind, but it was.
Oh, and he didn’t have a head. Or rather, the head he had was held under one arm rather than being attached to his neck where it should have been.
“Get it?” the head asked with a wide grin. “One step ahead?”
Okay, even given everything I’d experienced that year, this one still threw me. I stumbled back with a surprised yelp, eyes widening. “Oh shi–” Catching myself at the last second, I stared wide-eyed. “You–what–what?”
Aside from the obvious fact that it wasn’t connected to his body, the head that I was staring at looked fairly normal. Actually, in some ways it reminded me of Ruthers. He had the same sort of bulldog appearance with the heavyset, stubborn face and a nose that had clearly been broken more than once. He looked, as Ruthers did, like a heavyweight boxer or, as my first impression had said, like a rowdy soccer hooligan who got drunk in the pub a lot. His dark blond hair was a bit long, and fashioned into a ponytail that I immediately pictured as a handle.
“Sorry.” The head had the sense to look admonished. “That’s my fault. Part of the deal with ol’ Gabe. I made him promise to let me meet you on my terms. I like to see people’s reactions. Always did like pranks… often a little too much, some might say…” His voice trailed off then, eyes looking out toward some distant memory before he focused.
“Ahem, sorry about that. Err, pleasure to meet you, Miss Felicity Chamber–Flick, they said you like Flick. Flick Chambers, was it?” The hand that wasn’t busy holding onto his head extended toward me. “It’s alright,” he assured me, “it won’t bite. It’s this end you’ve gotta watch.” His other hand waved his head demonstrably.
Right. Yeah, I guess I’d seen weirder. This had surprised me, but… well, he seemed friendly enough. And Gabriel had vouched for him. So I shook his hand briefly, “Yup, I’m Flick. And you’re… you’re…” I hesitated before wincing. “Um. I’m trying not to stare, but you’re supposed to look at people’s eyes when you’re talking to them. So I’m not sure what the etiquette is.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. If I was self-conscious, I’d find a better way than lugging this thing around in a hand,” the man informed me. “I do, sometimes. Got myself suits that can hold my head right in place where it’s supposed to be. But I wanted to meet you as ahhh… naturally as possible, you might say.”
His shoulders rose in a shrug before he offered, “Anyway, name’s Abraham Van Brunt, but I’ve always been partial to Brom Bones. Though these days, most people just know me as–”
“The Headless Horseman?!” I blurted out loud, eyes widening even more than before. “Like, the whole Ichabod Crane Headless Horseman?”
“You know,” the man pointed out, “that was intentionally left vague in the story. Me being the Horseman, I mean.”
“But you are headless,” I reminded him, feeling a bit silly. “I mean, not headless because it’s right there. But…” Trailing off, I hesitated before raising a hand. “You know, I’m getting a little dizzy trying to talk to you when you’re… umm…”
“What? Oh.” The man, who had been juggling his head, tossing it back and forth and in circles between his hands, finally stopped. “Sorry, habit. You’re right though, I’m the Headless Horseman. One and the same. Only the story wasn’t quite accurate. Let’s see… the short version is that Katrina was a witch, and ol’ Ichabod was a Heretic there to find her. Err, not that he knew she was the one he was looking for, specifically. Katrina wasn’t even her real name, just some pseudonym she used.”
“And the whole Headless Horseman story?” I prompted, fascinated by this.
He winced. “Yeah, that was me. I made it up. I was an even bigger idiot back then, you see. I was smitten by Katrina, and when Ichabod started investigating her, I thought he was courting her. So I made up the story to chase him out of town.”
A brief look of shame crossed his eyes then as the man muttered, “Ended up playing right into Katrina’s hands. Distracted Ichabod at the worst time, and she… well… she took him. I saw it from my disguise and tried to get away, but she took me too. Said she liked my ideas, so she used an old dark ritual and… well, here I am.” He gestured to himself.
“Wait, wait, you were born human and changed into this by magic?” I blurted, staring at him. “That’s–I didn’t know that was… I mean…”
“Yeah,” the man confirmed easily. “Trust me, kid, you’ve still got a lot left to learn. And speaking of which, we should get started on those lessons. It’s gonna be a long night. So uhh.” He then proceeded to literally toss his head to me.
“Let’s get a head start.”