“So you were a normal human and that… witch, or whatever she was, turned you into… uhh, this?” I asked a minute later (after I’d given the head back) as my new necromancy teacher led me to a secluded part of the woods adjacent to the lake, opposite the camp itself. There was a narrow little trail that wound its way in about fifty yards or so deep, and we moved along that together. I was holding Herbie up in one hand, having enchanted him to give off light (clearly turning his inner heroic glow into something literal) so that we could both see properly as we moved away from the camp lights.
The Headless–err, Abraha–wait, he said he preferred Brom. Brom Bones held his head up with both hands, tilting it up and down a few times. Belatedly, I realized that was his version of a nod. “Ayup,” he confirmed, tucking his head under one arm while using the other to point at me. “So do me a favor, you ever find a witch calling herself Katrina, run the other way. She’s scary as hell, and I don’t want you to have to deal with her. Those blood rituals of hers…” He shuddered and grimaced, which was an odd thing to see given how far his face was from his shoulders.
“Sure,” I easily replied, “I don’t really see the need to run out and find another enemy. I’ve got plenty as it is. But um, didn’t you say that Katrina wasn’t her real name? So… unless she’s using the same pseudonym again…” Giving a helpless shrug, I added, “Any description?”
Brom’s head shook, and he sighed. “That’s the thing. It’s been a long time, but she did turn me into this, and that’s not really the kind of person you forget. But you know, for some reason every time I try to remember what she looked like or any kind of specifics, it’s just… blank. I think about her face and there’s nothing. I think about what color her hair was and nothing.”
“Well, that definitely sounds like some kind of powerful memory spell,” I mused thoughtfully. “Can’t Enguerrand help with that? Or, if he can’t, I bet Sariel could if you asked her to.”
A rueful smile crossed the man’s face then, illuminated by the glowing Herbie. “It’d be nice, yeah. Unfortunately, whatever the witch did to turn me into this dashing figure that you see before you also made me immune to any kind of possession, including the Seosten variety.”
Okay, that made me do a double-take, openly staring at the man briefly as I came to a stop on that narrow trail. “Okay, so this witch did a ritual that made you, among other things, immune to Seosten possession? Even though you were just a normal human before? She just made you immune, just like that. What the hell kind of witch is this and why isn’t she on our side, exactly?”
“Pretty sure she’s only on her own side,” the headless (or head relocated) man replied simply. “If she’s even still alive. I’d bet on it, given what I saw, but… who knows.” He shrugged before letting out another sigh. “And before you ask, I don’t know what she did to me exactly or how it worked. All I know is it made me immune to a lot of things, including the Seosten possession.”
By that point, we had reached the end of the short trail. It had brought us to a small clearing, about fifteen feet or so across. There was a cement bird bath in the center of the clearing, and I could see a couple paper grocery bags sitting next to it, along with a couple bottles of water and a six pack of beer. A shovel had been left at the opposite end of the clearing from the entrance.
“So how did you go from magic-altered servant for a dark witch to teaching a high schooler how to use necromancy?” I asked, giving the clearing a curious once-over. “And that sounds a lot darker when I say it out loud. I mean, how’d you get free of her control? And learn the necromancy thing. Was that the kind of stuff she had you do for her or something?”
He gave a light chuckle at that. “Yeah, I uhh, the learning bit was accidental at first. My assigned duty, my… reason for existing was just to protect my mistress or do odd jobs here or there. Scare townspeople, pick up supplies, guard prisoners or test subjects, that kind of thing.” Turning his head toward me, he winked. “Of course, the picking up supplies bit was easier once Katrina made my first special suit that let me keep my head where it belongs. Like a leather turtleneck with this wood and metal contraption that held it in place. Uncomfortable, let me tell you. But a good bit less uncomfortable than being chased around by people with torches.”
“You mean the Bystander Effect didn’t make them immediately forget there was anything different about you?” I asked while walking over to look at the birdbath. It was empty, save for a fair bit of red stain all around the inside that I was pretty sure had to be the remnants of blood.
He moved to stand next to the thing as well, bending to pull off one of the beers. “BS Effect used to be a lot weaker than it is now. Even just a couple hundred years ago. Sure, they’d forget what they saw was ‘real’ fairly soon, but right at the time, they could react pretty badly. Especially depending on the specific person. Plus, there were Heretics to worry about, both of the Natural and Bosch variety.” He popped the can open. “You might’ve noticed that I don’t set off your special sense. Mostly because I’m not actually an Alter, just a… uhh, altered human. Anyway, point is, I don’t set off the sense for Bosch Heretics, but it’s not hard to look at a man carrying around his head and think something’s a bit dodgy about the whole situation, you see?”
I started to say something else to that, but then the man held his head up with one hand while using the other to bring the can to his lips, and I was suddenly incredibly distracted. Staring as he took a big gulp from the beer, my eyes reflexively looked toward the opening at the bottom of his neck. I waited… and nothing came out. “Errr, how do you–wait, why doesn’t it–wait. Huh?”
Chuckling, Brom took another long gulp of his drink. Now it looked like he was showing off, teasing me when the liquid still didn’t appear. “You like that little magic trick? Yeah, my throat’s uhh, let’s just say it’s basically magically connected somehow. What I eat or drink ends up in my stomach regardless. It goes from here to here.” As he spoke, the man first lifted his head, then gestured to the rest of his body. “I’m not exactly sure on the particulars in between.”
“That’s, umm… wow.” Watching the man put the can to his lips to drink while literally holding his head in the other hand was simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. I couldn’t look away. “Yeah, quite some magic trick. I guess it makes sense, your body needs fuel. Plus, if you’re talking, the air would have to… unless it’s just sort of… I just wasn’t… yeah.” Shrugging helplessly, I forced myself to focus on something else. “You said learning necromancy for you started as an accident because you were just an errand boy and guard?”
Using one hand to move his head up and down in his approximation of a nod, Brom replied, “Yup. When I wasn’t given a task to do, I was just supposed to stand or sit in the corner and wait. I ended up watching a lot of the rituals she did around that time. I think she figured I was a lot dumber than I was. Not that I’m exactly a genius or anything, but you let me watch enough of your magic and I’ll pick some of it up. It was interesting, and… well, part of me wanted to understand what she did to me. So I paid attention. I stayed quiet and watched. And whenever she left me alone wherever we were at the time without specific instructions, I read. I’m not sure she knew that I could read. But I could, and I did. I picked up books from the shelf and read everything I could get my hands on. Turned out the necromancy stuff really appealed to me. And not just because it was evil or whatever. It was just… you know, fascinating. I uhh, I suppose part of it was that with everything she did to me, I’m basically immortal. Haven’t met anything yet that can put me down and make me stay down. Hell, my body parts were scattered across the country once. Took me forever to find them and pull myself together. But I managed it. Another time I was basically reduced to just one of my hands. Everything grew back. Even my head.”
“Holy shit,” I managed then, eyes wide as I stared at him. “I say again, what the hell kind of ritual did she do to turn you into this?”
“I know, right?” The man gestured vaguely. “So yeah, pretty much impossible for me to die. Which made me interested in death and the magic surrounding it. I read all the books I could, practiced the symbols they showed whenever she sent me on missions. I’d draw them in the dirt, or on my hand or wherever. Always rubbed them out, of course. Didn’t want her knowing how much I was picking up because I figured she’d put a real quick stop to it.”
As he spoke, Brom reached into that long coat with his free hand. It must have been magic, because he pulled out one of those black stand things that people put sheet music or books on, with the long pole attached to the flat surface with the lip. In this case, however, the lip part was larger, and curved. It was just the right size and shape for…
Yup. He put his head down on the stand, balancing it carefully before giving me a thumbs up. “Perfect. Anyway, she found out, of course. But she wasn’t angry about it. Actually, she was intrigued. Said she wanted to know if I could actually do it. So, she uhh, taught me some. Yeah, I was surprised too. She made me practice it, said she wanted me to be able to do more than run simple errands and that if I could pull off actual magic, she’d have better ways of using me.”
“Well, she’s practical, at least,” I muttered. “And she must’ve been a pretty good teacher, if you learned enough to impress Gabriel.”
Pausing for a moment as though thinking back to those times, the man finally grimaced and replied, “Let’s just say she was effective if not exactly nice about it. Very tough to impress, but I did learn a lot. And necromancy-practice was better than squishing people’s heads until they popped, or whatever other ways she’d have me terrorize and destroy her enemies.”
“Uhhh…” I coughed. “Yeah, I guess I can see why you’d like the learning part more. But um… what about how you escaped? I mean, you’re all intact and everything, so why aren’t you still working for her? You said you weren’t even sure if she’s still alive. What happened?” Yeah, he was supposed to be teaching me about this new power, but I couldn’t contain my curiosity.
Patting his own head, Brom replied, “It was actually that thing I mentioned before, the bit about being almost completely disintegrated and coming back from just my hand? Yeah, let’s just say we had a confrontation with one of her mortal enemies and it didn’t go so well for me. But when I grew back, something was different. Before that, I could always feel where she was and when she wanted me, I’d be sort of… pulled to her, drawn that way. But once I regenerated from all that, I couldn’t feel her anymore. I kind of heard more about her later, so I know she survived at least past that, but other than that… it was like her pull over me was gone after my body rebuilt itself almost from scratch.”
“That must’ve been some enemy,” I observed, “if they were a threat to her and managed to do that to you.”
Brom coughed, his body extending hand out and down to cover his mouth. “Err, yeah. About that. Her enemy is kind of why she was good with me learning necromancy. And why Gabriel thought I’d be a good teacher for you.”
For just a second, I blinked at him. Then I got it. “What? Why wo–oh my God, it was Fossor. Katrina’s enemy that almost completely destroyed you, it was Fossor, wasn’t it?”
“That would be the one,” he confirmed. “So you see, I kind of have a little history with that piece of shit.” As his head spoke, Brom’s body moved over to pick up that shovel from the other side of the clearing. He came back, carefully starting to dig a hole.
Meanwhile, I was busy staring at his head (and trying not to be too distracted by the fact that his head and body were in two entirely separate locations). “If the witch who changed you hates Fossor so much, I kind of really want to meet her.”
“You really don’t,” Brom firmly corrected, his body pausing its digging to point at me. “Trust me. This is not a case of ‘the enemy of my enemy.’ In this case, the enemy of your enemy is still a psycho hellbitch who will only ever work with you if it benefits her in some way.”
“Getting rid of Fossor seems like it would benefit her,” I pointed out mildly.
“And then you’d owe her something.” Brom gave me a hard look, all amusement vanishing from his eyes. “Trust me, Flick, you don’t want to owe her anything. Because she will collect. I’ve been the one who does the collecting for her, remember?”
“Fair enough,” I relented, shrugging. “But I’d still like to at least see some of her books, even if she wouldn’t be directly helpful. If she’s as powerful as you say, she probably knows a lot about Fossor, about everything he uses. Especially now. If, you know, she’s still alive.”
“I would imagine she is, and that she does have plenty of information,” Brom agreed. “An entire library full, most likely. Though where it is, or what the cost of seeing any of it would be… I couldn’t say the former, and my only guess as to the latter is ‘too much.’”
Remaining silent for a moment, I finally sighed. “Yeah, I know what you mean. And hey, it sounds like I got the better teacher out of the deal anyway.”
“You’re damn right you did,” the head-relocated man shot right back, his body pausing its digging once more to give me a thumbs up. “But that only matters if I actually teach you something before the sun goes cold. So let’s actually get started, huh?”
Nodding, I gestured, “What’re you digging?”
“The grave for the mouse after we finish with it,” came the response.
“Grave for what m–other of God!” I started while facing his head, turning in mid-sentence to find his body, sure enough, holding a dead mouse by the tail. Recoiling reflexively, I blurted, “Don’t do that!”
“Sorry.” I could tell he didn’t mean it. He was grinning too much. “Told you, I like pranks. And the classics are still great. Making girls squeal with mice.” Clearing his throat, the man’s body set the dead mouse in the middle of the bird bath. “We’re going to focus on just getting the mouse to get up and walk around a little bit, okay? Usually you have to do that with a bunch of rituals and blood sacrifice, but uhh, I’m told you can skip all that. Which sounds pretty damn useful, let me tell you.”
“I…” Swallowing, I stopped to look at the dead mouse. Part of me really wanted to just go back to talking about the witch Katrina, or even about Fossor. Or about anything else. This… scared me, and creeped me out.
But I needed to learn it. I needed to practice it. So I straightened up, giving a little nod.
“Okay, let’s see what I can do.”
What I could do, as it turned out, was make the mouse get up and move… barely. It took almost an hour for me just to get that poor little dead guy to twitch enough that it definitely wasn’t the wind. After that, it was another half an hour before I got him to turn over and take a little walk around the empty bird bath. And I felt exhausted. Apparently doing this on purpose was a lot harder and more tiring than doing it by accident when I’d summoned Rudolph. Though the emotions and urgency involved there probably explained it. Or maybe I was just resisting the idea of this subconsciously. I wasn’t sure. But I managed to make the mouse walk in a circle a few times, and Brom said that was enough.
I was on my way back after helping him bury the little guy, and found my father waiting for me right by the lake as I approached the cabins.
“So how’s my little budding necromancer?” Dad asked with a raised eyebrow. “Did you make a skeleton army? Ooh, do you need a castle with a moat? Because I don’t think that’s in the budget. I can maybe swing an apartment with a really strongly worded no solicitors sign.”
Snickering despite myself, I stopped to stare at him for a moment. My mouth opened and shut, before I just walked up to wrap my arms tightly around my father. “I love you, Dad.”
I felt his brief surprise at that before the man returned my embrace. “I love you too, Flicker. But what’s this for? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Let’s have more of this.”
Obligingly, I hugged even tighter for a few seconds before leaning back to look up at him. “I’m just amazed at how well you’re rolling with… well, all of this. Every bit of it. You’re amazing.”
“Just remember that come Christmas time,” he teased me lightly, using one hand to stroke my hair back while smiling at me fondly. “And I’ve had some good people around here to help me sort stuff out. Honestly, I’m just glad I know what’s going on now.”
Feeling a slight pang at the fact that I couldn’t tell him everything that was going on, as far as Jophiel and Elisabet went, I swallowed before nodding. “Me too. Lying to you sucked.”
“Tell me about it,” the man muttered before nodding past me with a smile. “You should probably go see Avalon though. Pretty sure she’s been waiting for you all night. If you don’t go in there pretty soon, she might do something crazy like drag herself out here.”
Unable (and unwilling) to stop the immediate smile that came at the thought of seeing Avalon, I nodded, giving Dad one more brief hug before turning to start that way.
As I was heading off, he spoke up again. “I take it you like your necromancy teacher then?”
Pausing, I looked back while sagely replying, “Let’s just say he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
It took me a solid minute to stop snickering at that, while Dad continued to stare at me, utterly bewildered.