Stirling staggered through the door of the gas station with Magnon perched on his shoulder, arms wrapped around himself, and colder than he’d ever been in his life. He stumbled to the coffee bar and chose their largest cup. He did his best to pour with cold-numbed hands and managed to get a little over half of it in his cup on the first try.
The attendant behind the counter fixed a hard look at him, the crow on his shoulder, and the mess he’d made of the coffee bar. Stirling dug into his pocket and with unfeeling fingers, pulled out a ten.
“K-keep t-the ch-change, just let me w-warm up inside f-for a few m-minutes.”
The attendant slid the ten back over the glass counter of scratch lottery tickets. “Fine, just clean up after yourself, and if the bird makes a mess, you’re out. Alright, buddy?”
Stirling nodded his agreement and the attendant went back to reading a novel he had stashed behind the counter. Stirling wrapped his hands around the cup and sipped hot coffee. It burned deliciously as it filled his mouth and trickled down his throat.
By the time he poured his second cup, the shivering was slowly subsiding and is hands and feet were beginning to tingle uncomfortably with returning blood.
“S-so, how do I put the hurt on this cockbag of an alchemist?” Stirling finally asked when he felt he was no longer in danger of succumbing to hypothermic shock.
“Huh?” the attendant asked, looking up from his novel.
Stirling looked at him over the racks of chocolate bars, pulled his cell phone from his pants pocket, and put it to his ear upside down.
“I’m on the phone,” he said to the man.
The attendant looked confused.
“Smooth,” said Magnon’s voice in his head.
“I know, right?” he said, turning to look at Magnon, and not caring that the words were more than loud enough to reach the ears of the gas jockey. “He’ll never suspect I’m actually talking to a bird.”
“So, how about it? How do I get some payback on this eldritch ass monkey? This guy needs to learn that stealing my magic isn’t cool, mine most of all.”
“You don’t,” said Magnon.
“Oh, come on. He’s a guy with a chemistry set who happened to learn magic. How tough can he be? You saw how useful those zombie things were against me.”
Stirling took a deep pull off of his coffee and nodded happily at the attendant who was still staring over at him.
“If it is Knox of the White, he’s a vicious bigot with a persecution complex over two centuries old. He’s got more money than God, but those aren’t the reasons you shouldn’t mess with him.”
“No. He’s also a member of the Alchemist Guild, and that’s a group that one does not, under any circumstances, fuck with. Any attack on one of their own, they see as an attack on the whole guild.”
“What? Are they powerful or something?”
“They control all access to Panacea. Beyond the riches and influence, that monopoly has brought them, cross them just once and they won’t just cut you off, they cut off your friends, your family, anyone you have had the briefest of relationships with.”
“That’s no problem, I hardly know anyone who even knows what Panacea is.”
“Do you remember Sue, that char witch who works at Strangefellows? She has two kids at home. Say she gets in a car accident or gets a really aggressive cancer. What then?”
“Why would the Guild go after her? She doesn’t even like me.”
“So what? Anyone on the Guild’s shit list becomes the equivalent of a plague ship. Anyone you come into contact with is screwed.”
“Maybe, but nobody, and I mean nobody, goes up against an alchemist.”
“Here’s another fact. A hundred years ago there were thousands of necromancers across the Aether,” Magnon continued. “Now there aren’t any, and the Alchemist Guild is the reason why. They hunt down and kill anyone suspected of being a necromancer.”
“Except me,” Stirling said.
“Trust me, if you decide to go after Dr. Robert Knox, you won’t be here long either.”
“So this Guild must not be very popular, then.”
“You don’t understand, the Alchemist Guild can literally grant life and death. It doesn’t matter if they’re popular, they’re the only game in town.”
“Sure, but you said it yourself, what he’s doing is illegal. Necroalchemical magic is off limits, right? Illegal and unethical, that’s what you said.”
“It’s illegal only if he gets caught, and lucky for him, with a brand new necromancer in town, he’s got a lot of reasonable doubt in his corner. You, on the other hand, are just one of the usual suspects. The only thing we’ve got going for us is that he won’t want his own people digging too deeply. He probably won’t call in Guild assassins.”
“Back up a sec. If these Alchemists are so good at hunting Necromancers, how come I’m still around? I’ve been making decoys for years, not to mention using my power to exterminate pests. I’m literally advertising online.”
“They weren’t looking for magic ducks or dead rats, they were looking for people who talk to ghosts.”
That took Stirling aback. “Why would anyone want to talk to ghosts? Ghosts are assholes.”
“Because,” said Magnon, with the slow patience of someone explaining the obvious, “Every deadhead in the last eighty years has begun their career in one of two ways. Either they try to make a buck by speaking with the dead and passing on messages to the living, or they end up in the nuthouse because they hear voices. The alchemists have learned to monitor mental patients and the talk show circuit. Now, this might come as a surprise, but not one necromancer has ever come out to the world by carving enchanted ducks. I mean seriously. Ducks? How did that even come up as an option?”
“Easy. People don’t like being around me, so starting a business where I need to actually deal with people face to face isn’t an option, and even when I thought I might be crazy, I kept keep a lid on it. From there, ducks were the logical choice.”
“No, they weren’t,” Magnon objected. “The only time carved ducks is the right answer is when the question is, ‘what’s wood but also looks like a duck?’”
“Says you.” Stirling took another long drink and refilled his cup a third time. “So if you don’t want me going after him, what am I supposed to do?”
“We find a place to lay low until ten.”
“Because there’s only one place in two hundred miles you’ll be safe, and on the weekends they don’t begin serving brunch until ten.”
Though it was dark, Katherine’s eyes easily picked out the man loping awkwardly down the darkened street away from Strangefellows. The partially torn charcoal bag he’d discarded was now clutched in her damp hands. Ever since she’d felt that cold magic in Strangefellows, her mind had been in a haze of numb detachment.
She recognized the feel of his power. It had animated those bodies in Strangefellows, it had filled the black whips he’d used to kill them, and it had been in the knife that burned away the Panacea from Elanor’s blood.
In Elanor’s memories, she’d met any number of gods and goddesses, but she’d never felt that her fate was controlled by any one of them. Now though… What were the chances that she’d run into this necromancer tonight when she hadn’t even heard of any active since Nineteen thirty-eight?
Thoughts whirled in her mind like leaves caught in a strong wind. She gripped the hem of her jacket and squeezed. Her fingertips broke through the thick nylon. Whatever she’d decide, she couldn’t let him out of her sight. She padded silently behind him into the wet darkness.