Wizards died out much like butterflies or birds: slowly at first, then all at once. Even thousands of years from our collective heyday, a wizard was bad news. A group of us was even worse. As I slammed my car door and walked behind the cheap strip mall into the employee parking lot, I wondered how bad a group of wizards standing over another wizard’s corpse could be. “Who is it?” I asked, taking in the other two’s faces. Alexander looked at me with his usual wide-eyed terror, clutching a glass jar with a hand mirror acting as its lid. “It’s Tristan.”
“Thank you, neophyte.” I turned to the other man, giving him first acknowledgement and a deep bow as befitting his position. “Nikolas.” “Elijah,” Nikolas bowed back. Alexander I didn’t even have to acknowledge, his rank was so low. I would rather have bowed to the corpse first, and considering how fast I fell to my knees, perhaps I did.
“Damnit, Tristen...” I knelt beside the corpse, deja vu rising over me. I’d knelt beside a corpse like this before; I’d pulled out my tools and seen their final moments before they became meat on asphalt. It felt strange to do this again when this death wasn’t my fault. Tristan Hale, gaunt, troubled, and riddled with cuts and pockmarks from both his craft and his addictions, stared at the stars with thickly glazed eyes, his mouth slack in an expression of sated pleasure. A cursory glance at his bare arms and neck showed no fresh wounds, self-inflicted or otherwise, but there were dark splotches on his shirt.
“Who found him first?” I twisted to look at the others, my knees grinding into dry asphalt and undisturbed dust. “The neophyte.” Nikolas looked like the lovechild of Mt. Elbrus and a grizzly bear, making the boy’s already diminutive height look downright miniscule. He jerked his head towards the air over Alexander’s own.
“Uh, Tristan texted me a few hours ago saying he wanted to show me something…” Alexander stepped forward, holding up a brightly lit screen covered in Tristan’s characteristic terrible spelling and grammar. I noticed he’d shown me a screenshot of their conversation with the top suddenly cut off — then I recalled that the two had been making eyes at each other for a few months now. The final message was barely an hour old. “What’d you see when you got here?” As I leaned over Tristan’s body, I realized he still smelled like the breeze in New York where skyscrapers bumped up against fields of golden weeds. She’d still smelled like Morocco, when I’d knelt over her back then. Why do we all smell like home when we die?
“There was no other car but his back here,” Alexander jabbed his thumb toward the steel carcass that Tristan kept sacrificing gasoline to. “He still works at the smoke shop out front, so I thought he wanted to meet up after he got off.”
“How long did you wait before coming back here?” I pulled my scrying tools from my satchel, carefully laying them out at my side. Alexander took a moment to think, eyes flying up to stare at the stars, “The next bus was driving away just as I started walking, so about fifteen minutes.”
I paused, trying to draw the timeline in my head, only to be distracted as Alexander knelt beside me. “What are you doing?” “Can I help?” Alexander looked at me with wide, pleading eyes, his hand rushing out to squeeze
Tristan’s before he'd even thought about it. “He, uh… we, uh… Can I help? We’re both seers, so —” “No, you can’t,” I snapped, “It’s a complex rite and you’ve been studying for barely a year. At best you’d be dead weight, at worst you’d kill us both.” He looked wounded for a moment, then huffed and rose to his feet. For a few seconds, he looked around helplessly, the lull in the air charged with some emotion I couldn’t detect, then he suddenly spat all his anger at Nikolas.
“Well, I have to do something! Your fatass wouldn’t even let me call an ambulance! Or the cops!” “The ungifted have no need to step into our affairs,” Nikolas said sharply. “Every time they do, they slit another one of our throats so they can rest assured that they’re the most powerful in the world.” “But an ambulance could’ve —!” “Calling an ambulance is the worst thing you could have done, you child,” Nikolas snapped, “We are no mere humdrum mortals, and Tristan even less so, after all his time fiddling with necromancy.” “But they could have done —”
“Nothing! They could have nothing, do you understand?! When we kill one another, there is nothing that can bring us back!” Nikolas shouted, his words striking the air like gunfire.
I focused on lifting Tristan’s shirt and jabbing a syringe through his sternum, praying I could pump out a few precious drops of heartblood. “You’ve said so yourself, he’s the last necromancer! You’re not even going to try to save him when he’s the one that drags your asses out of the sea of slate when someone —”
Nikolas growled at the offense of defending the ungifted, and Alexander quickly changed his tune. “— When a mortal tries to kill you?!” he screamed, no doubt his face bright red, spittle flying out of his
mouth in fury.
“Do you even use your ears, you brat, or are they there as decorations?! He’s not the last one, and one has already been born to replace him! We’ve been waiting for them to mature! That’s the only reason we put up with you! That’s why we searched so desperately for another woman like her — but instead we got your freak ass!” Nikolas slipped into furious Ukrainian, the syllables and consonants crashing into each other impossibly quickly.
Alexander desperately tried to keep up with his own shrill snaps and crackle of foreign words. I never bothered to learn Ukrainian, and I was quietly grateful as I tuned out their bickering with ease, focusing on drawing the complicated patterns that stilled time around Tristan’s body, anchoring it in place. I dragged my bloody fingers over the ground around us, his time and my time mingling as our
blood did, fresh from his heart and my fingers. Slowly, painfully slowly, the crimson lines began to rise in pillars and columns, lines ready to be twisted and warped by my hand. I breathed in deeply, reaching for the knuckle bones in my pack (pig — human bones were best, but hard to obtain) and crushed them,
strengthening my grip over this time until it was iron-clad. Without the bone dust I could have lost the scry at any time, been yanked out by the smallest distraction.
Finally, I reached for the tiny hand mirror, holding it over his mouth with one hand and twisting strands of time with another, demanding it drag
itself back and show me when he would have smoked the glass with his own breath…
I saw nothing but the ghostly outline of his body curl back onto its side, reversing the moment when I’d rolled him over. Slowly, the scene expanded, showing me the ghosts of leaves and plastic bags dancing in the alley breeze — And Alexander, worriedly standing over Tristan, holding the glass jar and mirror. I gasped, still frozen in place by my own spell, and hastily twisted the strands, trying to play the scene properly, to see how Alexander did it.
“It’ll be fine, babe,” Tristan said, splayed out on the ground, a lazy smile on his lips, a chicken’s heart in one hand, lungs in the other. “I’ve done this a thousand times, just be sure to get the shit back on me before shattering the jar. While I’m conked, these things are doing the breathing and beating for me.”
I heard glass shattering, and I tried to jerk my head, fighting against the bonds of my own spell. Nikolas and Alexander had stopped arguing.
In the scene, Alexander’s ghost asked, “What if I don’t get it in time? Will you... you know?”
I felt my spell’s boundaries shatter seconds before I felt Nikolas’s fat fingers clamp over my mouth and his blade stab into my back. I tried to scream with every muscle frozen in place, despite the pain my control over the spell did not waiver, the scene still playing out before me.
“Naw, babe. The only real problem is the lack o’ oxygen gives me a little brain damage until my good and proper systems are back in order. Now gimme a kiss before I corpse it.”
I let out a muffled cry of agony, the note low and deep until he wretched his knife out again, stabbing through my ribs and piercing deeper into my lungs. I almost managed a proper scream with that strike. Alexander’s ghost knelt down, pecking Tristan’s on the lips before he began a ritual I’d rarely seen him do. He placed the chicken organs under his shirt, then breathed heavily onto the mirror, waiting until it was fully smoked with his own breath to slap it over the jar as a lid. He crumpled onto the dirt, the heart and lungs under his shirt idly beating.
“Thought you could get away with it, huh?” Nikolas whispered in my ear, punctuating his sentence with another stab.
Alexander stared at his lover in horror for a moment, clearly torn between doing what he had been told and what he must do. He steeled himself and took the organs, slipping them into his slacks pocket, then set the jar aside before pulling out his phone.
“Twenty fucking years we’ve waited for someone to replace you.” Past the ghostly scene, I watched Alexander walk closer to witness my murder, tears welling up in my eyes — at the betrayal, the pain, at knowing I’d been found out and wondering how long they had known.
“Ready?” the ghostly Alexander asked, head tilting this way and that as he listened to Nikolas’s rumble. He then rolled Tristan over onto his side, into the same pose I found him.
“Nikolas!” The spell crumbled around me, time marching forward without my command as my grip faltered. I felt control of my body slowly return to me, agony lancing through me as I dropped my arms. “Nikolas! Nikolas, stop! Kulya! K-Kulya, please!”
That earned me a few hasty stabs in the back. By then I could scream freely as the blade tore through my ribs and lungs, bloody froth roiling in the back of my throat.
“Don’t you dare use that nickname, you bastard.”
“T-Tristan.... Nikolas… Why? Wh-why?!” My head lolled, my knees turning to water, and I could tell that the only thing holding me up was Nikolas's iron grip.
“When you killed her, did she ask that, too?”
She had. She’d begged me for answers, screaming ‘why’ for minutes that felt like centuries.
“What’d you tell her? Or did you…” he grunted as he wretched his blade out again and sank it in deep.
“…Or did you just stand over her and watch?” He pried his hand off my mouth, frothy blood bubbling out of my lips and over his fat fingers. He'd stabbed me low in the lungs, and I knew for a fact he could draw this out for hours if he wanted.
“Without her, th-there’d only be one seer…” I needed them to need me. But everyone had always wanted her.
Nikolas paused, looking down at me with disgust. “You rotten bastard.” He wretched the blade out again, giving Alexander an unseen signal.
Alexander rushed forward, pulling the miniature heart and lung out of his pockets, and Tristan gasped back to life the moment they touched his skin, rolling away from me and onto his feet. Nikolas released his grip on me and I crumbled to the ground, barely breathing, lanced with agonizing pain as Tristan muttered something and the darkness ringing my vision held steady, no longer threatening to envelope me.
“How? Fuck — why? Why?! Why would you take her from us?! She was the best of us, you bastard!”
Nikolas glared down at me, a white-knuckled grip on his knife.
“I c-caught her in a scry… she was… sh-she was powerless. Th-then it’d just be me....” It was the only way I could have taken her out. She’d always been stronger than me in every way, and everyone knew I couldn’t catch up with a dozen centuries of study.
Nikolas shook his head in disgust, and I caught a glimpse of Alex doing the same. He looked over to Tristan and said, “Take it down.”
“You got it.” Tristan said, and Nikolas lunged at me, blade catching in the moonlight as it swung down.
Photo by Thiago Matos
Deckard Lee Schaefer is a ghost that votes solely by possessing bus drivers and forcing them to read the election packets before choosing candidates.