WELCOME TO MY WORLD
I tasted blood as I went down. I lay there for a moment, crumpled at the base of an old pine tree, and relearned how to breathe. I wondered when I had gotten used to falling on my ass. Or more specifically, being thrown on it. A squirrel flitted onto a tree branch, stopping to throw me a look that said, “Oh, it’s just you again.”
“Everyone’s a critic,” I mumbled.
Sean’s head bobbed into my vision, blocking my view of the squirrel. “You’re talking to yourself,” he said. “Did you hit your head too hard? I’m trying to be gentle, but you humans are so damn fragile.” He scratched his nose. “Amazing that any of you survive, actually.”
“I was talking to a squirrel,” I said.
“Oh, well, that’s okay then.”
Not much fazed Sean. He offered me a hand and pulled me slowly to my feet. His brother Bran came up from behind him and grabbed my chin, checking my pupils, then my ribs, and any other spot he thought I might have injured. I was getting used to this, too.
I’d had to adjust to a lot recently. About a month and a half ago, a man named Douglas Montgomery had walked into Plumpy’s—where I used to be a much-esteemed ninja fry cook—and informed me that I was a necromancer like him. This didn’t mean much at the time, because I didn’t know what a necromancer was. I’d had to look it up in a dictionary.
It had been a strange six weeks since then. Douglas had murdered my friend Brooke and delivered her severed head to me as a warning. Apparently he missed the memo that you can send a message pretty easily with a piece of paper and a pen. He’d also threatened, beaten, and kidnapped me. My best friend, Ramon, had come to my rescue, only to get infected in the process by a rare strain of were blood, this particular sample in the flavor of the Ursidae family. He was currently recuperating, and if he was ever released from the private hospital facility he was in, he’d have to adjust to the fact that he could now turn into a damn bear. It had been a pretty hectic time, but hey, you know, it’s good to keep busy.
There were upsides to the whole mess. While Douglas was holding me hostage, I’d met a girl—I mean, screw dating websites and house parties; apparently all the really eligible ladies are being held in cages these days. I would have liked to see Brid fill out a dating questionnaire, though. What would she put? “Hi, my name is Bridin Blackthorn. I’m next in line to rule the local werewolf pack. I like long walks on the beach and destroying my enemies. I have four older brothers, so watch your step. We’ll be forming a queue to the left for potential suitors.”
And, trust me, there would be a queue.
Anyway, while hanging out in the aforementioned cage, we’d hit it off, and we’d been dating ever since we escaped with the help of Bridin’s family.
In the struggle surrounding our jailbreak, I’d killed Douglas. Not really sure if that’s a win. I mean, I’m not dead, so yay, but in general I’m not too hip on the whole killing-people-to-survive thing, either. Even if Douglas was trying to sacrifice me and harvest my creepy powers at the time, I feel like killing people for doing awful things is probably setting a bad precedent for dealing with negative behavior. But I wasn’t really thinking of moral implications at the time. When I stabbed Douglas in the throat, I was only thinking that I didn’t want to die. On top of that, it never occurred to me that the spell Douglas had been conducting would backfire and I would steal all his creepy powers instead. Like I said, I’d been busy.
Since then, I’d entered into an odd sort of status with the Blackthorn pack. Because of my services (a fancy way of saying “saving a pack member’s life and ridding Seattle of a supernatural menace”), I was under their protection. Sort of. Brannoc, their leader and Brid’s dad, could have left me for dead if he’d felt like it. I’d asked him why he hadn’t. His response had been that I seemed okay, and if they let someone waltz in and kill me, there was no telling who would take my place on the Council, which governed the local supernatural set—another thing I was trying to adjust to. Lots of dominos had toppled after Douglas’s death. One of them was his seat on the Council, since dead men can’t govern. They’d needed a live body to take his place. Guess who’d been nominated? Personally, I thought I was a terrible choice, but no one really asked me. Politics had never been my forte. As a kid, even class clown seemed like too much responsibility.
The funny part was, most of the Council seemed scared of me. Necromancers tended to make people twitchy. I was certainly better than Douglas, though. I’d been on the Council for a few weeks, and I hadn’t killed anyone or masterminded any maniacal plots yet. So they were pretty sure I wasn’t in the same weight class of evil as Douglas. Compared to him, I wouldn’t even register as a featherweight. I’d never been considered evil before I found out I was a necromancer. The reputation would be kind of cool, if it weren’t such a pain in my ass.
Anyway, it was all very pragmatic of Brannoc to let me live, though his reasons weren’t terribly reassuring.
Because Brannoc wanted to keep me alive, I was getting self-defense lessons from Brid’s siblings. She has four brothers, though I didn’t meet Sayer and Roarke until a few weeks after my abduction and escape. They were currently off running errands, so Sean and Bran were picking on me today—under the watchful eye of Brannoc, of course. Usually the whole clan of brothers joined in the fun. I believe this was to remind me what would happen if I wasn’t nice to their baby sister. If I ever displeased her, these boys would be the ones shredding my remains.
Because after Brid got done with me, remains were all I would be.
* * *
My self-defense lessons wouldn’t actually help me if I came up against anyone in the pack. Brid and her brothers are hybrids—part werewolf (on their mother’s side) and part fey hound (on their father’s). The rest of the pack was either straight werewolf or fey hound, either of which was enough to take one scrawny necromancer. I glanced over at Brannoc, who was sitting under a tree, keeping an eye on things. Even though he was relaxed, his back against the bark, a piece of grass between his teeth, I knew if I snuck up and jumped him, I wouldn’t land punch number one. I’m only human, and I can’t compete with someone who could easily arm wrestle a bear. Or is a bear. But not every creature I might come up against would have super strength, and I was tired of getting wiped with the floor. I was still getting wiped with the floor now, but at least I was learning. Not fast enough, though. Brannoc had assigned Sean as my bodyguard until further notice. Good to know everyone had faith in my ninja skills.
After a thorough examination of my injuries, Bran declared me alive and told me to get back into the clearing. Sean was doing the sort of warm-up jog I’d seen boxers do before a match. I didn’t think he needed the warm-up. I considered mimicking him, but figured I’d just look stupid. He rolled his neck quickly to each side, a small crack coming from his adjusted vertebrae. I got into position across from him.
He pulled at a chunk of his auburn hair, which made me think of his sister. Of the siblings, Sean resembled Brid the most. He shook his head as if he’d followed my train of thought.
“You got a twig in your hair there, lover boy.”
I shrugged, settling into a crouch. “Just going to get more, I’m sure.”
Sean grinned. “That’s the spirit.” He stopped his warm-ups and mirrored me.
Bran stood in the center, a somber referee. “Sam, this time I’d like you to concentrate on how you fall.”
“I’ve had plenty of practice on that.”
“Apparently not,” Bran said. “You’re still not rolling into it. Learning to fall is every bit as important as learning to fight. A seasoned fighter knows how to take a tumble, lessen the possibility of injury, and turn it to his or her advantage. The way you’re doing it, you’re going to get hurt.”
I was already hurting, so I didn’t feel I could argue with him. Instead I listened as he glossed over the technique again, telling me how to go with the impact.
Good thing, too, since twenty seconds later, I was tumbling back toward the base of that same tree. This time I tried to roll with it. I was so shocked when I rolled back up on my feet that I almost lost any advantage I’d gained. Sean came barreling toward me. I twisted to the side and sprinted along the tree line. Brannoc’s whooping laughter followed me as I ran, but it didn’t sound mocking. Not that I cared if it was. There’s a time for pride and then there’s a time for self-preservation.
The evening sun was slicing through the trees, leaving patches of shadow on the ground. I knew the only reason I’d managed to dodge Sean was because he was moving slowly for me. At his normal speed, I didn’t stand a chance. Running wouldn’t solve anything, but I kept doing it anyway. I was tired of ending up on the ground.
I ran until I got a stitch in my side. It took longer than you might think. I may not be able to fight, but I’ve been skateboarding for a long time, and it’s very aerobic. The first thing you learn is how to run. Cops and security guards don’t appreciate skaters.
Brannoc’s voice filtered through the trees. “Stay along the tree line. You’ll get lost if you cut into the woods.”
“Or eaten by something,” Sean shouted helpfully.
Holding my side, I cut back toward the clearing. I walked slowly and tried to even out my breath. Sean and Bran were waiting patiently for me when I arrived. When I got close, I stopped and sat down, waving my hand in a circular motion to let Brannoc know I was ready for my lecture. Instead, his mouth twitched in what was almost a smile.
“That’s actually the smartest fighting you’ve done so far.”
“I ran,” I said, panting.
He shook his head. “You were facing an opponent who outclassed you. You were thrown and got back up. Instead of being proud and stupid, you were smart. In a real fight, you only win if you live. Running was your best option.”
“Sean would have caught me if he’d tried.”
It was Bran who answered me this time. “Yes, he would have. But you won’t always be up against Sean.”
I picked a blade of grass and twisted it between my finger and thumb. “Running isn’t going to work forever.”
Bran sighed, rubbing a hand through his brutally cropped hair. Bran’s looks were as somber as the rest of him, but I think most girls would still refer to him as “dreamy.”
“No, it isn’t. I know you’re frustrated, Sam, but the reality is you’re in a world now where the majority of the people you run into will be able to snap you like a twig.”
“My world was like that before.”
Sean coughed, but it sounded suspiciously like a laugh. I threw a pinecone at him. He caught it without looking and stuck it down his pants. Why? Because it would make me laugh, and while Bran was great at teaching, Sean was the master at keeping morale up.
Bran crossed his arms. “Bottom line? You’ve got to play to your strengths, and right now your strength is running like hell.” He motioned for me to get up. “You don’t have to like it. Just do it.”
Brannoc stayed close to watch this time, his arms crossed and an amused look on his face. Bran stood to his left, a solemn reflection of his father.
Sean pointed to his head again.
“What,” I said, “another twig?”
“You’re bleeding a little.”
I swiped at my forehead; my hand came back with a slight smear of red. Bleeding seemed to be my biggest strength. I certainly did a lot of it. I wiped my blood on the grass—and felt them as soon as my hand met the tickle of the grass blades.
When people think about necromancy, if they ever think about it at all, they envision dark rites, dead goats, guys in robes making spirits do their bidding. And this very well might be true. I was still pretty new to this sort of thing. The only other necromancer I’d ever met, Douglas, was one robe short of that stereotype. But I knew that wasn’t the way it had to be. I couldn’t even kill a goat to eat it (I’m vegetarian), and I absolutely never made ghosts do my bidding. The spirit I saw the most, Brooke, tended to order me around, if anything. And I didn’t even own a bathrobe, let alone a cloak or whatever. I generally spent my time in jeans and T-shirts, today’s example sporting a very excited-looking Yoshi dinosaur. A far cry from the dark and brooding image of the typical necromancer.
My point being, there are a lot of stereotypes floating about when it comes to my kind. There are even more when it comes to what we do. As far as the undead go, people tend to visualize Hollywood-style zombies running amok and gnawing on brains. Or crawling out of graves and eating brains. Or, I don’t know, dehydrating brains so they can snack on them during their next camping trip. Either way, brains are involved. But most of those movies feature the biological undead, where some sort of virus or toxic waste takes perfectly normal people and turns them into unstoppable killing machines. I’ve never actually seen that. The few times I’ve raised the dead, I don’t remember anyone asking for brains at all. Like I said, I’m still new, but a zombie under control isn’t going to bite anyone, and even if it did, the only infection you’d probably get is from the normal freakish bacteria found in the human mouth.
I guess I’m getting a little sensitive about the whole thing.
They always show zombies rising from a grave, too. I mean, that kind of makes sense, but what people don’t seem to understand is that death is around us all the time. When you drive down to the market, you pass squashed animals. In the store, you roll your cart by aisles and aisles of flesh. In fact, you’re probably wearing bits of creatures right now. People are, and have always been, surrounded by death. We’ve learned, as a species, over the years, to ignore it.
The problem with me is that the part that sees death, the part that’s supposed to be ignored and dormant, is—if you’ll excuse the terminology—alive and thriving. And since I’d just spread my blood thinly on the grass, it was whispering to me exactly where each little piece of death was. I stared at the thin crimson smear and remembered that getting injured, while it seemed to be a hobby of mine, really wasn’t my skill set.
Maybe I couldn’t toss Sean around, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t one-up him. Brannoc was right—I had to start fighting smart. I concentrated on each of those little islands of death, the tiny daily tragedies of smaller creatures that the human race was blind to. I gently woke them, pulled them aboveground. And it felt natural, good, like taking a deep breath of fresh air after hiding from monsters under your covers for an hour. By the time I got up, I was smiling. Relaxed. And surrounded by death.
Sean had started walking toward me but slowed when he saw what I’d done. He came to a stop and stared. I followed his eyes as he looked. Raccoons, squirrels, blue jays, and owls, all part of the normal collection of Pacific Northwest wildlife. But all very, very dead. I counted them in my head. About twenty all together. I think there was even a mole in there somewhere.
“You, uh.” Sean paused and scratched his cheek. “You know I’m top of the food chain, right?”
I shrugged. Sean laughed, but I could see Bran staring at the creatures like I’d finally done something interesting.
Sean returned my shrug and came at me.
I didn’t move—I didn’t need to. Sean may be strong and fast, but the thing about the undead is that they can just keep coming. An owl swooped down at his eyes, making him swerve away from me. The raccoon jumped onto his back while the smaller birds began to dive-bomb. Sean stopped his forward assault, attempting to swat while he turned around and tried to get the raccoon. But for every bird or mole he swatted, another took its place. Pretty soon he was just spinning, a ball of flailing arms and feet.
And the squirrel? I watched as it slid up Sean’s pant leg. Sean didn’t seem to notice until the furry little guy hit about mid-thigh. Then he stopped flailing and screeched, directing all his attention to swatting at his leg. I watched as the squirrel popped out of the hole in the knee of Sean’s jeans. Sean swatted it off, and then, apparently having had enough, he ran off toward the house with tiny scratches dripping blood, the owl still dive-bombing his head and a constant torrent of curses flowing behind him. I think I heard him yell that he’d see us at dinner, but I’m not sure—Bran was laughing too hard for me to make it out. Most of us wouldn’t laugh at seeing our sibling assaulted, but I’d learned that weres, and Bran especially, had very different senses of humor.
“I suppose you can call them off now,” Brannoc said with a smirk.
I summoned them back, the squirrel getting to me first. It ran up my leg and sat on my shoulder. I reached over and scratched its head in thanks. “You think he learned his lesson?” I asked.
Brannoc came up and reached toward the squirrel, looking at me for permission before he gently patted its head.
“That depends,” he said, his lip twitching in amusement. “What lesson were you trying to teach him?”
“Top of the food chain is nice, but there are a lot more things on the bottom.”
Bran had regained control of himself and was nodding solemnly. “If he didn’t, then it might be something we’ll have to go over. There are others besides Sean who could use that lesson desperately.”
I didn’t say anything, but I agreed. I’d only known the pack a short time, but I’d started to notice that some of them acted like they were invincible. Powerful, yes. Strong? Most certainly. But invincible? That was a dangerous notion to cling to.
I gave the squirrel one last scratch on the head and then returned all the animals to the ground, my heartfelt thanks sending them into the abyss. Though I knew it was right, it always made me a little sad to send things back. I’d never been great with good-byes.
Brannoc slung his arms around Bran and me, pulling us into a loose hug. “You staying for dinner?”
He phrased it like a question, even though we both knew it was more of a statement. Even if I didn’t want to, I’d be talked into staying. The pack seemed to take my scrawniness personally, taking any chance to fatten—or toughen—me up. I didn’t mind. The pack had a damn good cook.
Although technically owned and maintained by the taoiseach, or clan chief, the Den is a large open-beamed lodge enjoyed by all of the Blackthorn pack. And when I say large, I mean it—I’ve seen smaller apartment buildings. The list of permanent residents is fairly small, namely Brannoc, his family, and a handful of staff. There are always extra people there, though. Families that need a place to stay, weres visiting from neighboring packs, people petitioning to get into this pack, or the random people like myself. Pack members, if they can afford it, tithe a certain percentage of their income to the Den. That money makes sure everyone is taken care of. It’s homey and loud and would probably remind me of summer camp, had I ever gone to summer camp.
It took a few minutes to clean the dirt, blood, and grass off me before dinner. Not surprisingly, the downstairs bathroom in the Den was well equipped with first-aid supplies for those of us who couldn’t speed-heal.
Once I was presentable, or as close as I was going to get without a full shower and a wardrobe change, I went off looking for Brid.
Text copyright © 2012 by Lish McBride