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Once Bitten Twice Shy
Imagine the sweetest-smelling perfume, something candy-like, perhaps worn by tweenaged girls. Now, pour a bottle of that into your eyes. Welcome to the joys of fairy embalming.
I stood beside a stainless-steel worktable on which a fairy’s parakeet-sized body rested, in the familiar chill and antiseptic smell of our family’s basement necrotorium—a mortuary for the magical.
And by fairy, I don’t mean a true Fey. Actually, I’m not even sure what a Fey smell might be. During the twenty-five years I spent exiled in the Fey Other Realm, I don’t think I smelled anything that didn’t come from my own imagination. No, by fairy I mean the little flitting Tinkerbells you see in gardens, especially in a charming little waterfront town like our own Port Townsend. Well, that you’d be able to see if you were a human arcana gifted with magic, or a feyblood creature like the fairies themselves.
The fun part of this job, or at least the creative part that I actually enjoyed sometimes, was hours away. I would reconstruct the fairy’s features using putty and cosmetics so that you’d never know she’d enjoyed a brief and shocking birdbrained attraction to the brightly colored insulators on an electric fence—and then been hit by a weed whacker before waking. I had, however, carefully glued the plastic wings on after the Department of Alchemical Administration came and collected the real ones, a donation for which the fairy’s family would receive generous payment.
My younger brother Pete stood opposite me, his huge body hunched over the table as he monitored the embalming tubes that ran into the fairy’s body. Petey had always been a big guy—not fat, or all muscle, just big like a grizzly. His round baby face scrunched up in a frown of concentration that better belonged on a child trying to eat Cream of Wheat with chopsticks, and fit his nature much more than his considerable size did.
My girlfriend, Dawn, sat on a stool in the corner strumming her guitar, the incandescent lighting glinting off the silver rings that covered her every finger. Her hair, a springy cloud of fading turquoise with black roots, masked her eyes as she leaned over her guitar, but she occasionally paused to lift up the decapitated head of my old Six Million Dollar Man doll that hung from a cord around her neck and look through his bionic eye at the fairy. The toy head had a crystal jutting out of the neck and a crown of rune-covered metal, an artifact my father created in one of his (more) lucid moments, that enabled mundanes to see the normally hidden world of magical energies and creatures. But Dawn’s mundy senses still made her impervious to the fairy odor.
For me, even the smells of embalming fluids and bleach couldn’t mask the cloying smell.
Pete removed the customized embalming tubes with the kind of delicateness one might expect from a Jedi manscaping his nethers with a lightsaber. Despite his size, Pete was one of the gentlest people I knew. Or at least, he used to be. Since being bitten by waerwolves three months ago, he’d cycled between reclusive and rabid as he struggled to control the Fey wolf spirit that now shared his body.
*I envy your brother,* a voice sounded in my head. *If a body must needs be shared, then a wolf seems a most desirable companion. At least a wolf spirit knows how to have fun.*
Alynon Infedriel, Fey knight of the Silver Court, former changeling for yours truly, and pain in my spiritual buttocks, gave a martyred sigh only I could hear, and fell silent. I wasn’t sure how a Fey spirit trapped inside my brain could sigh when he didn’t have actual lungs or breath of his own, but he did. A lot.
When I’d returned from exile in the Other Realm, I was supposed to inherit twenty-five years of catch-up memories from Alynon as he departed back to his own Fey body. Instead, an accident had caused me to be stuck with him in my head.
That had been a real lose-lose kind of day.
“Shut it,” I muttered at Alynon.
“I’m getting to it!” Pete said, the hint of a growl creeping into his voice.
“What? Oh, no, I didn’t mean shut the incisions,” I said. “I was talking to the royal Feyn in my Butt.”
“Oh.” Pete hunched in on himself a bit more and began stapling the incisions closed. Now it was my turn to sigh.
*Sincerely,* Alynon continued, *your nature could benefit from a touch of bestiality. I am certain Dawn would enjoy it.*
Dawn stopped her strumming. “What’d Aly say?”
“Nothing worth repeating,” I replied.
*Liar,* Alynon said. *You know I am right. Bright, but that I still had control of your body. Pax laws or no, I’d tear me off a piece of that.*
Really? I thought, focusing the thought on him so that he could hear it. “Tear me off a piece of that”? What does that even mean? I think you wasted your time in our world if that’s the kind of thing you filled your head with.
Dawn’s eyes narrowed slightly as she leaned toward me, exposing her cleavage.
*Mayhap,* Alynon said. *But speaking of my head, I know where I’d like to—*
Dawn leaned back. “I can tell you’re still arguing with him about something.”
*Indeed, seriously!* Alynon responded. *I spent twenty-five years in this hormone factory you call a body, being bombarded with sexual images left and right, and I was forbidden by Pax Law to act on any—*
Wow, I really feel for you. That sounds so much worse than being without a real body and having your memories fed on by Fey.
*That’s not my point. I am merely saying, it may have made me a little sex-obsessed.*
Gee, you think?
*What I think is you’re crazy for not ripping her clothes off and—*
“There,” Dawn said. “Only Aly can make your eye twitch like that.”
I replied in a level tone, “We were just arguing about how the Fey keep pushing into areas where they don’t belong.”
“Uh huh.” Dawn resumed strumming. “You’ll tell me what he said when you’re ready.” She stated it as a matter of fact.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “Declare what I will or won’t do.”
Dawn arched an eyebrow. “You can pretend you don’t like how I’m always right, but I know it just makes you like me more.”
“No. Mostly, I like you for your modesty.”
“Yeah, I am pretty perfect.” Dawn winked.
But she was right about always being right, damn it. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she had a touch of clairvoyance. But really, she just knew me.
Or at least, she knew who I’d been before being exiled at age fifteen. I didn’t even know who I was now. Not in the sense that I had amnesia or anything—well, I had lost my previous memories of Dawn in exchange for knowledge from beyond the grave, but my memories were otherwise intact. It was more that I didn’t know who I was in the same sense that made people seek direction and identity through religion, or pyramid schemes, or by taking a passionate side in the cola wars. It was dangerous. It was the kind of path that led to Tammy Faye Bakker, secret societies, and New Coke.
*You’re not moping again, are you?* Alynon asked. *I can practically taste the ennui in your brain chemistry.*
I’m not moping! I’m trying to figure things out. I don’t want to just fall into—
*Bright, save me. If you’re going to play the sad philosopher again, can you at least pretend to be Kant? Heknew how to party. I remember once—*
Remind me later to double my efforts on figuring out how to exorcise you.
*You already worked out how to exorcise me.*
You know what I mean. Without it lobotomizing me.
*Ah, fine.* Alynon was quiet a second. *Say, don’t forget to double your efforts—*
Hilarious, I replied.
I really did need to focus more on getting him out of my head. Not just for my own sake, but his. It was not his fault that my grandfather’s minions had attacked and disrupted the process that would have returned Alynon to the Other Realm. And it wasn’t until I’d died briefly, drowned while escaping my grandfather’s underwater lair, that I’d even been able to hear Alynon. But now that I knew he was in my head, able to experience everything I did but unable to exert any physical control, I could only imagine how difficult and frustrating that must be.
Well, I didn’t have to only imagine. He reminded me of it pretty regularly.
Someone knocked on the glass door behind me.
Our necrotorium filled the basement of my family’s old Victorian house. A wall with frosted glass windows divided it in half, with the traditional mundane mortuary equipment on this side, and the altars, protective circles, and other accoutrements of our family’s necromancy trade on the other. Through the frosted glass of the door, I could make out the blurry shape of a waifish sixteen-year-old girl a second before the door swung open and Mattie said, “Uncle Finn?”
“Yeah?” I replied, and coughed when I sucked in fairy stench.
“There’s a, uh, client here.”
“Where’s Mort?” I asked around my coughs. My older brother seemed to be easing up a bit on his paranoia that I was plotting against him to take charge of the family business. I wasn’t going to ruin that progress by greeting new clients without his permission.
“No, not for us. A client for you, for your dating service.”
Dawn stopped strumming and sat up straight, an excited smile on her face. I blinked.
I’d started a dating service for magicals three months ago, inspired by how good it felt to help Pete and his girlfriend, Vee, find happiness together. It certainly felt better than the thought of spending my life around death, trading bits of my own life energy to Talk with spirits. But not a single arcana or feyblood had come seeking my help in those three months. My sister Sammy had even made me a website, and still not a bite.
I’d pretty much given up on the idea, which really depressed me since I had few other immediate career options besides necromancy. My skills coding video games in BASIC were, I’d learned, a bit outdated.
“I’ll be right up!” I said. “Show … him? Her?”
“Show him to the parlor. Please.”
“I did. But your client? He’s … a sasquatch.”
Pete growled softly.
A sasquatch. Oh, shazbot.
Sweat sprung up along my arms. I didn’t have a great history with sasquatches. In fact, my only real history was with a sibling pair of sasquatch mercenaries who’d been hired by my grandfather in his bid to be voted Arch-Villain of the Year. They’d attacked pretty much everyone around me, and the female sasquatch had died at the hands of blood witches while defending my grandfather—blood witches I’d sent against him.
If my grandfather’s extremist Arcanite buddies ever hired that sasquatch for another job, it would probably be to kill me for upsetting their plans to start a race war. Either way, I hoped never to see that sasquatch, or any of his relatives, again.
“And Uncle Finn?” Mattie said.
“This sasquatch? He says he knows you.”
“You said you showed him to the parlor?”
Which meant she’d already let him inside the house’s protective wards. An understandable mistake, given the types of customers we’d had lately.
Dawn slid off her stool. “Awesome! I’ve always wanted to see Bigfoot.”
I shook my head. “Not awesome. Dangerous. I think he’s here to hurt me.”
Pete pulled off his apron and gloves, and strode toward the door. “Nobody hurts my brother.”
I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to a stop—or more accurately, he stopped, preventing me from being dragged along behind him. “Hang on. Let’s play this smart and safe. We can’t afford to have the parlor rebuilt again after that troll incident.” And Pete couldn’t afford to give the Arcana Ruling Council any excuse to lock him up as a rogue waer. “Let’s gear up first, and then I’ll try to lure him outside.”
I turned to Dawn. “It might be best—”
“If I go home?” she said. “Let’s see, who has saved the lives of every man in this room, raise your hand.” Dawn raised her hand. She had helped to save Pete after both a witch curse and a waerwolf attack. And she’d given me CPR after I drowned while escaping Grandfather’s lair.
Dawn lowered her hand. “So, you can give me a weapon, or a healing potion, or both, but I’m sticking around.”
“Okay. Fine. You keep Mattie safe down here,” I suggested. Dawn might do something crazy on her own, but she wouldn’t do anything too risky with Mattie’s safety on the line.
“I don’t—” Mattie began, but Dawn put a hand on her shoulder.
“Really?” Dawn said to me. “And what if Bigfoot comes down those stairs? We’d be trapped down here. Shouldn’t we at least come upstairs where there’s all kinds of ways to escape?”
*No one puts Baby in a corner!*
Stick it. “Fine. Come on, let’s not keep our guest waiting.”
I threw a cover over the fairy, and we all crossed to the small basement area set aside for Father’s thaumaturgy experiments. Most of the stuff in his lab was harmless—being possessed by Mother’s ghost had left Father mentally unstable, so it was best not to give him objects that might cut, burn, explode, or, as we had learned too late to prevent a reverse mohawk, could be used to animate an electric razor—but I grabbed a can of spray adhesive, which could be used like pepper spray in a pinch, and handed it to Mattie.
Then I opened the small safe, pulled out an extendible steel baton, and handed it to Dawn. A wizard’s weapon, the baton had once belonged to Zeke, an arcana enforcer, and would inflict at least some pain even to a sasquatch.
“And a healing potion?” she asked.
“Still out,” I replied. Unfortunately they were crazy expensive, and nobody in my family had an alchemist’s ability to activate the magical properties of potion ingredients. In fact, of the five human branches of magic—alchemy, wizardry, thaumaturgy, sorcery, and necromancy—alchemy was the only one that hadn’t manifested somewhere in our family bloodlines.
“What about you?” Dawn asked, eyeing the revolver that still sat in the open safe.
“Bullets tend to bounce off sasquatch fur,” I replied, and closed the safe. “Worst case, I’ll threaten to rip out his spirit.” And hope he wouldn’t call my bluff.
Soul destruction was the ultimate necromancer threat, but I felt neither powerful nor skilled enough to actually do it—one of the drawbacks of having missed twenty-five years of necromancy training and practice. But I could at least give him one hell of a headache by trying.
Dawn tapped the small silver artifact hanging by a chain around my neck. A spirit trap. It looked like one of those metal puzzles where you have to figure out how to twist the pieces apart, except these were forged together. From its center peeked a tiny mouse skull covered in runes. “What about this thing,” she asked. “You’ve been ‘charging it up’ for weeks. Isn’t it supposed to trap souls?”
“Disembodied spirits,” I said. “I can’t use it as a weapon against someone living.”
*Not true,* Alynon said.
True enough, I replied.
Actually, it could be used to tear the soul out of a living being, but to do so would require the destruction of a spirit already trapped inside it, creating a kind of spiritual vacuum, and that would be one of the darkest forms of dark necromancy—the destruction of another being’s spirit to fuel my magic.
I led the group up the stairs: myself, Pete, and Dawn, with Mattie trailing last. We emerged into the mud room without incident. Gray Washington daylight glowed through the back-door window. On cloudy Pacific Northwest mornings like today’s, the sun was more a pale fluorescent apology than a glowing engine of warmth and life. Never mind that it was June.
“Okay,” I whispered to Dawn and Mattie. “You stay here, please.”
Dawn crossed her arms, the baton dangling at her side, but didn’t argue.
Pete and I tiptoed our way to the library, where I grabbed the silver-coated sword from the wall above the fireplace. At least the sword made for good show without the danger of accidentally hitting my brother with a ricochet; and better the sasquatch grabbed for the sword than my throat.
We continued to the front entryway, and the closed double doors for the viewing parlor. The sasquatch would most likely be just inside, near the ring of folding chairs where Mort liked to sit and do his business with prospective customers. Those chairs would make handy projectiles for the sasquatch.
I opened our home’s front entry door quietly, the better to flee through, and took a deep calming breath of the chill morning air before returning to the parlor doors.
“Ready?” I whispered to Pete, worried at the look on his face. Pete began to pant, and held his hands to his chest in shaking fists. His eyes went from dark brown to pale blue.
“Don’t wolf out on me, Brother,” I whispered. “Let’s deal with one problem at a time, okay?”
“I—I’m trying,” Pete whispered back, his voice harsh. “But I can smell the sasquatch, and—” His nails began to elongate. “No no no!” He shook his head. Tears sprang to his eyes. “I don’t want to change. I don’t want to go wolf, I don’t want to hurt people.”
Crap. “Breathe, Petey, just breathe,” I said.
He closed his eyes, causing twin tears of frustration to run down his cheeks, and he took several deep breaths through his mouth. The nails receded.
“Maybe you should sit this one out,” I whispered.
*You really are no fun,* Alynon said.
I ignored him as Pete replied, “No. I’m not going to let that sasquatch hurt you.”
“I’m just going to lure him outside, and I’ll run around to the side door and come back in before he can lay a finger on me. The house wards will keep him out until enforcers arrive.”
Pete looked dubious.
“Look,” I said. “You go back down the hallway a bit, keep him from heading toward the girls, okay? Keep themsafe.”
My heart broke at the puppy dog look of hurt and frustration on Petey’s face as he nodded and shuffled off down the hallway.
I really would have felt better with Pete watching my back. I eyed the front door. I could do this.
I counted to three, then threw open the parlor doors and gave a challenging shout, sword raised.
The sasquatch leaped up from a folding chair—nine feet of red-brown hairy muscle wearing combat boots and wielding what looked like bodkins or some other thin blades carved from wood. He let out a horrible … yelp?
“Is youself crazy?” the sasquatch shouted.
Copyright © 2016 by Randy Henderson