Previous: Return to the Shrine
“The moon is a week in its waxing cycle,” Hazel said. “How can you summon Mother without a new moon?” She found herself clinging to a desperate hope her father wouldn’t be able to summon Willow. The idea of it filled her with a peculiar dread she couldn’t explain.
Ash smiled a patient, tolerant smile that grated against Hazel’s nerves. “It’s true that the cycle of the moon and the positioning of the sun and stars affects the magic we cast in different ways. But we are not beholden to these cycles. To have a command over Necromancy is to have a command over Ether—the very substance of creation. You will find that the moon holds very little power over you when you can master the substance that holds it in the sky.”
He moved the candle further down the table, away from the mirror, then refreshed the basin with more water from the ewer. The surface of the mirror flickered with what looked to be passing shadows. Ash stood before it, but it did not give him his reflection. Instead the mirror stood dark, occasionally lightening beyond the glass as if clouds had departed from an unseen sun, to only become shadowed again the next moment.
Ash peered into the mirror and said, “Willow.”
The hair on Hazel’s neck prickled and she suppressed a shiver. The room darkened, matching the shifting shadows of the mirror so that Hazel was no longer certain she wasn’t in the mirror. Was she being watched? She felt like she was, but she resisted the urge to turn around. She didn’t want to acknowledge her father’s magic—let it have any power of her.
The air in the room chilled—an unnatural kind of cold that Hazel knew all too well. Her body turned rigid and she turned her attention to keeping her breathing steady and calm.
Ash turned from the mirror, and once again, said, “Willow”
A rustling sound came from behind Hazel, like a long skirt brushing over dried leaves. The shadows over the mirror faded, and in its reflection she saw the back of her father as he faced a luminous form.
Surprised, Hazel turned around. Willow stood there, looking just as Hazel remembered her from when she saw her last–right before Hazel and Holly left the Grove. Her skin was pale, tinged slightly blue. But she also looked bright, like she stood in sunlight even though there were no windows in the room.
Willow had fixed her gaze on Ash. She hadn’t seemed to notice that Hazel was there.
Ash extended a hand, and, to Hazel’s surprise, Willow took it. Her mother smiled at him as if they were enjoying an afternoon stroll.
“Mother,” Hazel said.
Willow’s gaze drifted over to Hazel. Her smiled wavered and her brow furrowed as if a distant, unpleasant thought momentarily surfaced. But then it faded and she returned her attention to Ash.
“You see?” Ash said to Hazel as he kept his gaze on Willow. “She is perfectly well. She is perfectly happy.”
“No,” Hazel said, “she is perfectly out of her mind.”
Ash pulled his gaze from Willow to frown at Hazel. “What do you mean?”
Hazel scoffed and thrust a hand towards her mother. “Look at her! She is not herself. She doesn’t even recognize me. You’ve done something to her.”
Ash drew himself up. “I’ve given her a second chance. I’ve given her an existence she otherwise wouldn’t have had. An existence that is arguably better than the one you and I continue to endure. Never again will she have to worry about growing old and feeble, of worrying about sickness and disease siphoning her strength. Now she is free to be whatever she wants.”
“You mean she’s free to be whatever you want. This is not who she is. This is not my mother!”
“You’ve never truly known who she is. Not like I have. It does not surprise me that you do not recognize her as I have known her.”
“You are deluding yourself. This is how you want her to be. It proves how wrong you were to bring her back. She can never truly be herself, not when a necromancer has full control over her like this. You need to undo it. Now.”
Ash scowled and shook his head and returned his gaze to Willow. “No. You do not yet understand. You always were a smart and clever girl, Hazel, but in this you are quite ignorant.”
Hazel clenched her hands. She spoke a spell of Dispelling to release her mother’s apparition, but nothing happened. She wasn’t surprised. She hadn’t really thought it would work, but she needed to try something.
“Honestly Hazel,” Ash said. “Desperation does not suit you.”
Willow remained silent through the entire exchange, gazing upon Ash like a starving man might look upon a loaf of bread. It infuriated Hazel, as well as her father’s insistence that this was who Willow really was. But most infuriating of all was that Hazel could do nothing to stop it.
With tears stinging her eyes, Hazel turned and hurried from the room.
“It’s quite a funny story, really,” Holly said to the three necromancers that stood scowling in the doorway. Any minute now they were going to throw Holly, Hemlock and Hawthorn out of the Shrine. And who knew where Tum was. But Holly’s mind went blank. How was she supposed to fix this?
She turned to Hawthorn. “Isn’t it funny?”
Hawthorn stared blankly at her for one terrifying moment. Then he turned to the necromancers. “Oh, it’s hilarious. It all started with an orange tree…”
“And a cellar gnome,” Holly added.
“Disgusting creatures,” Hawthorn said. “But the oranges are lovely.”
Holly nodded. “Oh yes, very delicious. Anyway, this cellar gnome… um…”
“Came here,” Hemlock said, casting a sideways glance at Holly. “We think you might have a infestation.”
“If you have an infestation,” Hawthorn said, “the entire place will need to be emptied. Once they get in your walls…” he made a dismissive wave of his hand, “it’s all over.”
One of the necromancers, the younger looking of the three, said, “What does this have to do with an orange tree?” The big, muscular necromancer standing next to him jabbed him with an elbow.
“I was getting to that,” Holly said. She glanced at Hemlock and Hawthorn. “Right?”
Hawthorn drew himself up to his full height. “Of course everyone knows that orange trees are needed to get rid of cellar gnomes once they get dug in. They don’t like the fruity aroma.”
“Or the tartness,” Hemlock said.
“Yes,” said Hawthorn, “the tartness is most vile to those of a subterranean disposition. If you’re going to rid yourself of this infestation, I dare say you’ll have need of an entire orchard of orange trees.”
“Oh my,” the young necromancer breathed. The muscular one shoved him.
“Enough of this,” said the necromancer that had been in the room when Holly and the others had walked in. He seemed to be in charge. “How stupid do you think we are to believe such nonsense?”
“He believes it,” Holly said, pointing at the younger necromancer. His cheeks flared bright red, and he was unable to meet the other necromancers’ gazes.
“You’d better believe it, too” Hawthorn said. “We’re not lying about the cellar gnome.”
“I said enough!” the lead necromancer said. “You will explain yourselves. Immediately.”
“But we are explaining ourselves,” Holly said.
“You should really strive to listen when others speak,” Hawthorn said.
The necromancer’s face reddened almost as much as his younger companion. Holly tried to think of something to get them out of trouble. It was three against three. Maybe she and Hemlock and Hawthorn could club them over the head and steal their robes. Then maybe they could move around the Shrine without any problems. It was the sort of plan that would more likely fail spectacularly than not, but at the moment, the dismal odds seemed more promising than their current situation.
As Holly tried to figure out how to convey to Hemlock and Hawthorn that they should all be clubbing the necromancers over the head, Tum came strolling by in the hallway.
He stopped behind the necromancers’ legs. “What’s all this then?” He had a portion of a great tapestry wound around him like a blanket, leaving the bulk of the fabric to drag along the floor behind him.
The necromancers turned. The younger one cried out in surprise.
“Great severed stars!” the lead necromancer said. “Is that our heraldry you’re wearing?”
Tum glanced at the tapestry he had swaddled himself in. “Heraldry? Wouldn’t know anything about that. But it is some nice and snug fabric, let me tell you. Thick and sturdy.”
“You will unwind it from your person at once!”
Tum screwed up his face. “Unwind it from my what?”
“Give it to me,” the necromancer said as he reached down towards Tum.
“Gotta go!” Tum said and ran down the hallway. The muscular necromancer grabbed hold of the tapestry as it swished along the stone floor behind Tum and stopped him short. Tum gave the fabric a quick tug back, realized it was a battle he was about to lose, then relinquished his prize and disappeared from sight.
The necromancer-in-charge took the tapestry from his colleague and pet it lovingly as he frowned at Holly and the others as if they had just inflicted the most grievous injury upon a loved one.
“In case you didn’t realize,” Hawthorn said, “that was a cellar gnome.”
Holly couldn’t help but grin. “And he’s just getting started.”
Next: The Edge of Winter