California Bones

Greg Van Eekhout

Tor Books

ONE

 

Daniel Blackland’s clearest memory of his father was from the day before his sixth birthday, when they walked hand in hand down Santa Monica Beach. That was the day Daniel found the kraken spine in the sand.

It was a slate-gray morning, and Daniel shivered without a jacket, but he wouldn’t complain. The soggy air carried roller-coaster screams from the pier, and Daniel hoped for a ride. Maybe he and his father would even drive the bumper cars, teaming up to bash other kids and their parents. But then he spotted the bone splinter in the foam of the receding surf, a silvery fragment the length of a knitting needle, rising from the sand like an antenna. Years later, he would wonder if his father had planted it there for him to find, but on this day, he hadn’t yet learned that level of suspicion.

The sliver drew him like a magnet. Breaking contact with his father’s grip, he ran across the wet-packed sand to claim his prize. When he brought it back, his father held the spine to his long, bent nose, and his dark eyes focused like a microscope over a glass slide. He took an aggressive sniff, as though he were trying to suck the soul out of it. In his white dress shirt and gray slacks, he resembled one of the seagulls wheeling overhead, and Daniel imagined him spreading his long arms to catch the wind and take flight.

Daniel’s mom once said his father was made of air. “Sebastian Blackland’s not down here with us. That’s why he’s hard to understand. Spend too much time searching the sky for your father and you’ll just crimp your neck.”

Sebastian held the sliver up to the weak sun. “Kraken. We hardly ever find these anymore. Not outside of the Ossuary, anyway. But something must have dredged it up from the sea floor, and then the currents carried it here, right in your path, just for you. It’s not surprising. I’ve used a lot of kraken in my work, so it’s in my bones, and I’ve passed some of that affinity to you.” He handed the spine back to Daniel. “The kraken used to live in the great deeps. They were creatures of storms and wind and rain and lightning. Not much in the way of solid skeletons, so their remains are rare.”

He paused and looked at Daniel, and Daniel felt as though he were being measured. He held his father’s gaze, struggling to triumph over squirms and fidgets.

“This is a good find, Daniel. Better than most of the La Brea fossils. The kraken is even older, with deeper osteomancy.”

Daniel glowed. His father didn’t lavish idle praise.

“Find me a seashell,” he instructed Daniel. “Abalone would be perfect, but I’ll take anything from the ocean I can use as a crucible.”

Daniel raced off. He found no abalone, but from a tangle of seaweed swarming with sand fleas, he excavated half a large mussel shell. He rinsed it in the surf, dug out some stubborn sand grains with his fingernails, and rinsed it again before bringing it over for Sebastian’s inspection.

“Good,” Sebastian muttered. “This will be good.”

They sat cross-legged on the sand together.

“Do you trust me?”

This was a serious question. An important one. Usually his father’s eyes roamed when he spoke, looking at things Daniel couldn’t see. Now, they saw only Daniel.

Daniel loved him with the uncomplicated desperation with which small boys love their fathers. But trust? It had never occurred to Daniel not to trust him. It was like earth. Daniel never wondered if it’d be there when he took a step. Now, the smallest of fissures opened in his unquestioning certainty.

“I trust you,” Daniel said, because he knew it was what his father wanted to hear.

His father took the mussel and kraken spine and set them both on the sand. From a leather zipper case, he produced his scalpel. The handle was polished bone, coffee-stained from millennia in tar and so well used that there were indentations where his fingers gripped it. The blade was fashioned from the tooth of a Vipera americanus.

“I’m a powerful man,” he said. It didn’t sound boastful. It was a simple fact. “Some people want what I have. They’re not dangerous to me, because I’m stronger than they are. But there are other people who are more powerful than me, and they’re afraid I’ll want what they have. Those people are very dangerous to me. And because you’re my son, they’re dangerous to you. So, I have two choices. I can keep you ignorant and weak. Or I can try to make you strong. Do you understand?”

“Not really,” Daniel said.

His father’s smile formed a pale seam in his face. “No, of course not. I’m not sure I do either. But you said you trust me. And there will be times when I ask you to do hard things. Things that hurt. Things that make you cry. But I’m doing them for your own good, so that when you grow up, you’ll be strong. Stronger than me. Stronger than the people who are stronger than me. Can you understand that, at least?”

Daniel nodded.

“Good,” said his father.

Daniel watched his father’s hands work the kraken with the scalpel, curling away shavings and letting them drop into the shell. Sometimes Sebastian spoke as he worked, instructing Daniel in the way his teachers must have instructed him. He spoke of Elysia chlorotica, a sea slug he’d been studying that stole genes from the algae it ate and gained the ability to convert sunlight to energy. A natural osteomancer, he called it. But sometimes his words couldn’t express what he was doing. Sometimes Daniel could only watch and smell. Some of what he smelled now was earthly—the salt and mud and sour rot of things from the bottom of the sea. And some of it was osteomantic, impressions of ancient things, lurking deep, of old power, of electric anger, waiting to discharge.

Next from the zipper case, Sebastian produced his torch. In outward appearance it looked very much like a cigarette lighter of burnished copper, but it was an intricate instrument with inner workings as complex as a fine watch. Sebastian thumbed it open and dialed the flame to a precise temperature. He applied it to the bottom of the shell, and the flame changed color, fading from intense red to pale peach, and then to an invisible heat. The flame wasn’t just coming from the torch. Daniel’s father was fueling it, too, and his heat baked Daniel’s face.

For a stretch of time, nothing happened. Sebastian remained perfectly still, holding the torch steady. Daniel’s foot began to fall asleep, so he counted ocean waves to take his mind off the tingling. By the time he got to seventy-five, the kraken shavings had melted to a tiny pool of molten silver. Sebastian spit into the shell. He wasn’t a tobacco user, but his saliva was the same rich brown as the tar-infused bone handle of his scalpel. The kraken shavings burst into flame, with tall flickerings of gas-jet blue.

“Our bodies are cauldrons,” he said, “and we become the magic we consume.”

He often said things like that, things that circled around the perimeter of Daniel’s understanding, sometimes veering just within reach before darting away into ever-widening orbits. Daniel could remember the names of osteomantic creatures and their properties—mastodon for strength, griffin for speed and flight, basilisk for venom—but he grew lost when Sebastian spoke of the root concepts of magic.

The blue flame deepened to a dark royal color, like the flags that snapped above the Ministry of Osteomancy building where Sebastian worked. When the flames shrank and died, he capped the torch and held the mussel-shell crucible out to Daniel.

“Drink,” his father said, not in the firm tone he used when Daniel didn’t want to eat his brussels sprouts, but softer, more encouraging, almost a whisper of anticipation. “Drink.”

Daniel obeyed. He lifted the shell to his mouth, took a breath for courage, and touched his tongue to the fluid. His tongue blistered in an instant, and his taste buds charred and fell away. His hand jerked in pain, but his father’s strong fingers steadied his wrist, and Daniel spilled no kraken.

“Drink,” he said again, and maybe it was the pain, or maybe the magic, but it sounded as though his father’s voice had come from the crucible.

Daniel tipped the shell back and let the scalding silver slide down his throat. At first there was only fire and searing pain. He tried to scream but all that came out was a strangled croak, and in that croak was stored not only physical agony, but deeper injuries of betrayal. His father had done this to him. He was in pain because of his father.

And then Sebastian’s cool hand cupped the back of Daniel’s head, as if he were an infant and his father were cradling him, and the pain went away, replaced by flavors and aromas of secret places in deep, sunless waters, and great black pressures from the miles of vertical ocean. Daniel was a skeleton swimming in the sea-water cage of his own body, and the pressure suddenly gave way and Daniel shot to the surface.

“Quick, now, Daniel. Hold my hand.”

Light-headed, Daniel gripped his father’s hand as tight as he could. A prickling sensation raised goose bumps on Daniel’s skin. The tiny hairs on his arms stood at attention, and his blood popped like cola.

Gulls cried overhead and waves hammered the shore. Daniel looked up at Sebastian. His face was a blur, and Daniel realized his father was vibrating, and Daniel was vibrating with him.

“Don’t be afraid,” his father said, voice shuddering. “I’m strong.”

Lightning struck. Silver-white cracking bursts. Threads of blinding light coursed over Daniel’s arms and legs, snaking around his chest and rib cage and mingling with the lightning coming off his father. Pain gouged his flesh. He screamed, desperate to let the pain fly from his body, but there was only more pain. His body was a sponge for it, with limitless capacity. Pain replaced everything.

After a time, Daniel’s world settled and he could once again see. Fused sand, pools of black, gooey glass, thick as La Brea tar, smoked and bubbled around them.

“The kraken was a creature of storms,” Sebastian said. “It’s been a part of me for a long time, ever since I consumed my first one, when I wasn’t much older than you. And now it’s yours. That’s the osteomancer’s craft, to draw magic from bones. To capture it and store it, to use the creatures’ power, guided by human intelligence. One day you’ll be able to use the kraken’s power as you will. Understand?”

Sebastian studied him a long time. The pain was over, but the memory of it roiled inside Daniel, like smoke from a fire.

He felt strong.

“I understand.”

*   *   *

Not all Sunday visitations were like this. There were also days at the movies, and miniature golf in Van Nuys, or at the water park in San Dimas. But by the time Daniel was twelve, the outings tapered off and weekends were spent at Sebastian’s house, a warren of tilting walls jammed into the earthen gouge of Topanga Canyon. The area was popular with artists and musicians and chefs and osteomancers. Daniel didn’t like their children. They had names like Aquarius or Oat and a lot of them didn’t wear shoes. Daniel was jealous of them. They had time to screw around with skateboards and bikes. They had time to shoplift CDs from Rhino Records. Not that normalcy was an entirely foreign country to Daniel. Monday through Friday, at home with his mom, things were kept as normal as possible. But the weekends were marathon lessons with his dad, and that world was full of bones and oils and feathers and powders. He learned about Colombian dragon and smilodon and eocorn, the primitive New World unicorn. He learned about osteomancy imported from other lands, like abath from Malaysia and criosphinx from North Africa. And he learned to use the osteomancy already in him. He could generate sparks from his fingertips without having to consume more kraken. His father fed him a lot of magic.

On the last day he saw his father alive, Daniel watched a little nugget of bone bob in a kettle of boiling oil. Sebastian lifted it with a copper spoon and sniffed it. “Tell me what this will do,” he instructed.

“I have no idea,” Daniel said, giving the bone a cursory sniff. Outside was a blue sky and a warm sun and a short gondola-bus ride to the beach, where Daniel fancied he could rent a surfboard and maybe figure out a way to impress a girl. He didn’t want to be here with the curtains drawn, breathing air full of dead things that stank.

Sebastian dipped the bone back into the oil. “Try, Daniel. Let it in. Let it talk to you.”

His father wouldn’t give up, and there was still a part of Daniel that wanted nothing more than to please him. Resigned, he lowered his face to the kettle. At first all he detected were his father’s tells: There was clean sweat. Shaving soap. And tar, deeply embedded, from the marrow of his father’s bones. And there was also something of Daniel. The ghosts were all mixed up, and Daniel couldn’t tell where his father’s smell ended and his own began.

“What is our essence?” Sebastian asked.

Daniel had answered this question a thousand times. He answered it again. “Cells.”

“And what is the essence of the cell?”

“The molecule.”

“Was that your mind answering, Daniel, or just your mouth?”

“Molecules,” Daniel repeated, adding a touch of drone in order to make himself sound as brainless as possible. But taking the time to answer, even in his smart-assed way, forced him to concentrate on the word just enough that he involuntarily began to envision molecules, like knotted beads twisted into esoteric chains.

Sebastian smiled, enjoying his small victory. “And what is the essence of the molecule?”

“The atom.”

“And the essence of the atom?”

“Electrons, protons, neutrons. And quarks.”

This was where Sebastian Blackland had made his innovations in magic. He’d followed the research in nuclear and particle physics, reading papers smuggled into California from the United States, seeking to understand the fundamental nature of matter on a finer-grain level than his colleagues at the Ministry of Osteomancy. Ultimately, he felt that magic came from understanding matter, so he sought to understand matter as deeply as he could.

“What is at the heart of the subatomic particle?”

“Energy,” Daniel said, his answers more than recitation now. Sometimes he felt he was coming close to understanding his father’s model of magic, and that’s when he felt nearest to those beach-walk afternoons of long ago. But his understanding was like a whiff of vapor that stole away on the breeze.

“What bridges energy and matter?” Sebastian continued.

“Magic,” said Daniel.

“Trick question,” Sebastian said, a little mischievous now. “Magic transcends energy and matter. Magic transcends the laws of thermodynamics. An osteomancer consumes a creature, and not only does he use its power, but he increases it.” He stirred the pot again. “If he’s any good, that is. Now. Smell the preparation again.”

Daniel moved his face over the bubbling kettle. He shut his eyes and thought of chains and links and impossibly small bits of matter and impossibly huge parcels of energy.

“Well?” Sebastian whispered, close to Daniel’s ear.

“It’s sint holo?” The sint holo was an extinct horned serpent from the American southeast.

“Yes,” Sebastian said. “And what does it do?”

“I don’t know,” Daniel said. “It’s like something I can’t hold on to. It’s like confusion.”

Sebastian straightened, smiling, and Daniel felt his head swim. Maybe from the fumes. Maybe from pride.

“That’s right. Sint holo remains transfer properties of invisibility. It’s for a weapon I’m making. Part of a sword blade. Want to see?”

Did Daniel want to see? Was he kidding? What kind of wizard’s son would he be if he didn’t want to see his father’s sword? He’d read a book about the swords the Hierarch had used in the Battle of Santa Barbara, and he knew if he ever became a true osteomancer, he’d specialize in making magic swords.

“Okay,” Daniel said.

He imagined Sebastian would take him through some secret doorway, down a passage to an underground vault, and that the sword would be displayed in a magnificent case, or embedded in a stone. Whenever Daniel heard mention of the Ossuary catacombs, where his father worked, that was how he envisioned it. Instead, Sebastian took him to a bureau in a spare bedroom stuffed with books and file cabinets. He slid open a long, flat drawer, from which he took out a towel-wrapped bundle. He set it carefully on the bureau and peeled back the terry cloth.

It looked … okay. The pommel was a round metal disc welded onto a bare tang, and the guard was an unadorned crossbar. The leaf-shaped blade was kind of short, a little over two feet long and in need of a polish. Running down the blade, almost from guard to point, was a sort of channel inlaid with bone chips. Many were the rich brown of La Brea fossils. Others were tan or gray or white. A few were iridescent pearl, or the rich jewel tones of a church window. Some of the chips appeared to be assembled from smaller pieces, little nuggets of bone, or teeth.

The inlay only ran halfway up the blade, indicating many more hours of toil left to be done.

“Does it have a name?” Daniel asked. All great swords had names. The Hierarch’s was called El Serpiente.

“Not yet. I’ve been calling it the Vorpal Sword for now, just for convenience. It’s kind of a joke from Lewis—”

“‘Jabberwocky,’ I know. Mom read it to me.”

“Ah. Good,” said Sebastian. “Well, whoever finishes the sword gets to name it, because it’ll have that person’s essence.”

Daniel pointed out the bone chips. “What do they do?”

His father’s eyes shone. He somehow managed to betray giddy excitement and remain grave at the same time. “Right now, the sword does everything I do. It has kraken properties, and firedrake. Thunder and flame. Sint holo will make it hard to defend against. But we won’t know all its properties until you’re finished.”

“I’m finishing the sword?”

“Yes, that. But I also meant we won’t know what it’s capable of until you’re finished. Here, look at this.” His father ran his finger along some of the inlaid chips. “These are your baby teeth. And these threads between them are made from your hair clippings. And these lacquered bits here? I made those from your tonsils.”

Daniel’s tonsils came out when he was five. He didn’t remember why. He didn’t remember being sick. He just knew his father had taken him to a doctor and then his throat hurt and there was ice cream.

“Your magic is in this,” said his father. “And you’ll keep growing your magic, and you’ll keep investing in this weapon, and in others. Using the magic brewing inside you … that’s deep magic. That’s osteomancy.” He gestured at his work counter, littered with jars and vials and little envelopes. “Everything else is just recipe. It’s so important you learn that, Daniel. It’s important you make powerful weapons. That you be a powerful weapon.”

“Why?”

“Because the Hierarch is making very good weapons.”

He rewrapped the sword in its towel and returned it to its drawer. Back in the kitchen, he dialed down the heat on the boiling sint holo bone and fitted a heavy copper lid over the kettle. “It still needs to simmer awhile. So, let’s use our time to—”

“Can we go somewhere?” Daniel interrupted.

“Go somewhere?”

“Yes. Somewhere outside? Or at least somewhere with natural lighting?”

Sebastian’s gaze skated worriedly over his work counter.

“It doesn’t have to be Disneyland or anything like that,” Daniel pressed on. “We can even just stand out on the curb. We can gaze into the mysterious shadows of the canal and you can tell me all about the osteomantic properties of carp or canal scum or anything you want—”

“Okay,” Sebastian laughed. “Okay. What do you really want to do?”

“Mini-golf and go-carts.”

Sebastian’s eyes warmed. “Aren’t you getting a little old for that?”

“Also, I want to destroy you at skee ball.”

“It’s good to have ambition. I’ll get my keys.”

They left the workroom together and entered the living room, little more than a narrow pathway between teetering boxes that went almost to the ceiling. The boxes contained the books and papers Sebastian had hauled over from his Ministry office.

From outside, the sound of a helicopter rotor chopped the air. Sebastian went to the window, but came away when the phone rang. He lifted the receiver.

“This isn’t a good time, Otis,” he said. And then for a while he didn’t speak, but only listened.

“Who else did they get?” Whatever the answer, it made him shut his eyes. When he opened them, he looked over to Daniel, and for the first time in his life, Daniel saw his father’s fear.

“You’ll take care of them?” Sebastian said into the phone. “Promise me, Otis. Promise me.”

There was a short pause, and then he returned the receiver to its cradle.

Out on the canal, boat doors slammed. Sebastian pushed Daniel back into the kitchen.

“The sint holo isn’t ready yet,” he said, lifting the lid of the simmering pot. “But it will help you, at least for a little while.”

“What’s going on, Dad?”

“Wait as long as you can before swallowing it, and when you walk, make no noise. Take the sword, and go to 646 Palms Boulevard. Your mother will meet you there. Wait for Otis, and he’ll help you and your mom get out of Los Angeles.”

“Dad…”

He ruffled Daniel’s hair and placed a priestly kiss on his forehead, just like he used to do when putting Daniel to bed. Then he went into the living room and shut the door, leaving Daniel alone.

Here, Daniel’s memory of what happened became less clear. Mostly, he remembered noise and light. Splintering wood and boots pounding the hardwood floor. Shouts. Then, cracks of thunder, so close, like bombs detonating between his ears, the loudest thing he’d ever heard.

After that, a brief silence, followed by soft footsteps outside the kitchen.

Daniel ran to the stove, where the kettle rested over the flame of the burner. The bone still tumbled in the low boiling oil. With a pair of tongs he lifted the bone and braced himself for pain. He opened his mouth and dropped the bone in, forcing it down, tears streaking his face as the jagged nugget burned and tore its way down his throat.

The kitchen door flew open and a half-dozen cops rushed in. The gray-haired man in the lead wore the Hierarch’s wings-and-tusks emblem on his windbreaker. Daniel backed up against the stove as the man came closer, his hand extended.

The man’s eyes lost focus. He blinked.

Daniel stepped around his outreached hand, avoiding contact. When he moved past the cops, they flinched as though brushed by cobwebs. He went into the front room.

Four charred bodies lay amid an avalanche of overturned boxes, yellow-edged papers and books spilling across the floor. The men’s faces bubbled, black with char and red with blood. The room stank of ozone and cooked meat and kraken.

His father hadn’t managed to get them all. He was on his back. Three cops were cutting the flesh off him with long knives. They’d already flayed one arm, exposing the deep, rich brown of his radius and ulna. They peeled back his face to expose his coffee-brown skull.

The man on the carpet being dissected before Daniel’s eyes was no longer his father. Daniel understood that his father was gone. In the space of an instant, eternal moment, these men had taken his father away from him. They had reduced his father to a sack of magic, and now they were plundering him.

Daniel reached back to that day on the beach, six years before, when he’d found the kraken. He remembered its smell, and he searched for it in his own body, and when his fingers began to tingle, he knew he’d found it. His father had made him strong, and now Daniel would use his strength to make these men with the long knives shriek like slaughtered animals.

In the doorway stood a man. Whether it was a trick of memory or a trick of magic, Daniel couldn’t quite focus on him, as if light slid off his flesh and dripped away. But Daniel caught an impression of him. A smell of deep things underground. The smell of earthquakes.

The Hierarch entered the house. The earth shuddered with each step. The pictures on the walls rattled in their frames, and glasses in the cabinets and the silverware in the kitchen drawers jingled. The Hierarch loomed over the body of Daniel’s father. In his hand, something of polished metal glinted. It was a fork.

“Excuse me,” the Hierarch said in a sandpaper voice. “I’ll have him fresh.”

Daniel did not want to see this. He wanted to run. That’s what his father had told him to do, and he did not want to see this, because he knew that, once seen, he would never be able to close his eyes without seeing it.

But the sword. He couldn’t leave without getting the sword. The sword was his father’s magic. It was Daniel’s own magic. So he forced himself to turn back to the spare bedroom, where two of the men with the long knives stood before the door. There was just enough space between them that Daniel should be able to slip past. He took a step. And then he heard something, over from the floor where his father lay, and where the Hierarch crouched. He didn’t look, would not look, but the sound was obvious. The Hierarch was chewing.

That night, Daniel left the sword behind and ran. Away from the house. Away from the rotor blades and searchlights. He ran until he could only walk, walked until he could only stumble, stumbled until he could only crawl. When morning broke, he awoke in wet sand and bathed himself in the cold waves rolling in on the edge of a winter storm. He would live here, he thought. He would live here on the beach as a ghost.

He was already dead, Daniel told himself.

When the Hierarch began eating his father, he was already dead.

Ten years later, he would still hear the sound of the Hierarch’s teeth grinding his father’s cartilage.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Greg van Eekhout