Bobby sucked down a cigarette and stared across a sea of phantoms, rubbing tired eyes and wondering just how he’d ended up here.
It was half past three in the morning, in the middle of a crowded cemetery. Aimlessly wandering between the rows of tombstones and huddled under mausoleums were the dead, who took on a semblance of corporeality- just for tonight. Their moonlit bodies creaked, and the dead did murmur and whisper, in tongues foreign and domestic. Most had little to say, merely echoing fragments of the lives they once had. They weren’t twisted, nor a mockery of things, they merely were. A few seemed more cognizant, but only just, and Bobby caught their eyes wandering over him.
A transgressor, a living man in the land of the dead. The chill ice creeping through him met the burning nicotine, and he let out a puff of smoke. Best not linger, he was once told, or you’ll soon become one.
“Witching hour, why’s it always got to be the witching hour?” Bobby snorted, and threw the cigarette butt into a patch of dirt. He snuffed it out with a boot, and before the cold could settle back in, he took another stick out and lit it up too. Under the stifling blanket of the deads’ presence, even a small source of warmth helped clear one’s mind.
Keep your focus on the embers, that was what he was taught, and remember living. The smoke scratched his lungs, and he took stock of all the things that gave him life. The heavy weight of a gun in his belt, the rod opposing it, they weighed him down despite- despite it all. He took a step, his heart fluttered, the thronging mass of ghosts- some young, most old- parted around him. The spirit inside of him wanted to escape the fleshly prison
Every step took him deeper into the crowd, where he met a growing intangible resistance. There was no way for them to touch him, not in any corporeal way.
They didn’t need to get physical, he blew a cloud at one that edged too close. Under the clear moonlit night, the smoke showed its nature. He found himself eye-to-eye with the apparition of a beautiful young lady. Her blonde tresses framing a modest dress, a flower clutched in her hand, she made his heart ache. It almost made him pause, but he pushed through, watching her fall away.
The ring of bruises she wore like a necklace- it spoiled her. Bobby spoke a mantra- “Let the dead rest, let the dead rest-” and carried forth, past the tombstones.
His boots kicked up gravel, as he trudged up the cemetery path. It was a large place, and he had his eyes on the largest stonework. Atop the highest hill, past the pulsing mass of spirits, whose forms broke apart, distorted as they grew closer to the tomb, there it was. Like vapor drawn into a breeze, the ghosts broke apart as they fell into the vortex at the center of it all.
It was almost beautiful, if it didn’t both sicken him to his core and force elation into the back of his mind. Watching the slow feeding of the thing in the center of it.
And finally, he crested the top of the hill, brushing past an old colonial couple, and pushing away an unfortunate, haggard man. And there he was alone, the breath and tobacco mixing with the miasma. Just a few more paces, he pulled the cigarette from his mouth- and threw it under his foot, grinding it down, before he paused just outside the mausoleum.
“Good- evening!” He belted out his greeting. On second thought, in the whipping cold air, he should’ve brought a thicker jacket. Either way he put his hands on his hips and straightened his back out. “Do y’all mind if we talk for a little bit?”
There wasn’t any response.
Bobby shivered, and shook his head, and kicked a bit of gravel ahead of him. “I said, y’all mind, if we talk, for a little bit?”
The whole atmosphere shifted, Bobby’s ear popped, and a strong wind made him take a step back. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw a wave pass through the spirits, their numbers growing around the monument.
“Ah.” He nodded, and reached for his bag of reagents. He had an inkling of what he’d stumbled upon. “Not the talkative type, are ya? That’s fine, that’s fine. But ya sure are making a lot of noise. It’s, uh, well, it’s causing a little bit of a disturbance, y’all.”
Again, not much of a response. One of the ghosts let out a wail, agitated by something.
The sorcerer furrowed his brow, but he kept his gaze steely and his gut tight. “Look, pal, you’re not being very neighborly. Yer wakin’ the dead, putting on a light show, and it’s a quarter to four.”
“Mortal.” A woman’s voice, chill as the grave, seeped out from the stones, less echoing, more blanketing the area. “You do not belong here.”
“Yer damn right I don’t.” Bobby lit up his third cigarette. “I should belong in bed, y’know. Yer keepin’ me up. I got work tomorrow, buddy. So you mind, doin’- what are you doing out here?”
There was a pregnant pause. The vortex of souls whirled idly. Bobby shivered.
The cigarette in his mouth blew out, and he relit it, watching embers flake away from it. “Look, what exactly is going on here, are you- look, is this some kind of ritual? Are you, y'know, is this your feeding, or is this got to do with like, what’s it all about. Cause you’re kind of making a ruckus.”
“It is none of your concern, mort-”
“Bobby. My name is Bobby.”
“Mortal. It is not your concern.” The voice let out a tone of annoyance. “Leave.”
Bobby threw his hands up in the air. Joy, a stubborn interloper. “Look, I ain’t leaving until you quit making all this racket, seriously, ya see them dead people there, yer disturbing the peace. I get it, I get it, you’re a- what exactly are you, exactly? You some kind of spirit, a demon, hell, are you a fairy, even, I just know yer hungry, but ya can’t just feed willy-nilly on them souls, alright?”
A whip of wind knocked the cigarette out of his mouth. The sorcerer let out a long groan, before reaching for the rod of iron on his belt, and palming out a few containers for reagents. A clay modeling compound, salt, and a vial of colloidal silver. Not a single word in response, and with his arms shivering and his head aching, Bobby knelt down and set out a small circle of the material, with the rod placed at one end.
“What are you doing?” The wind died down. The ghosts seemed to flicker and fade. Bobby thought
He ran a finger down the iron rod, squatting down on the gravel, and looked up at the invisible entity in the midst of the monuments. “You’re being mighty uncooperative. And I, personally, am losing a lot of my patience.”
“And? What are you to do? You’re just a man.” The ghosts then spoke, in discordant unison, their mouths flapping like puppets. “We are numerous, and you are lonesome.”
Bobby whistled, and took out another cigarette. At this rate, he’d be out by the time he got back to his house. He lit it up with a snap of his fingers and kept it shielded in his palms. He drew a cross with the clay, pouring salt into a divot in each line of it, making sure the tip was oriented towards the mausoleum and in line with the iron rod. With the pattern drawn, he set the silver down inside the circle, opposing the rod, and pointed ahead. “I asked you politely.”
“Manners, do, not, matter. We shall feed. Do you-” the voice laughed raucously. “-so sincerely believe you may banish me with such a small circle? Really, now?”
He nodded, still squatting down. “Ya still haven’t even told me yer name, y’know.”
“My name?” That drew a laugh out of the entity, as the spirits drew closer around Bobby. Their wounds grew more apparent, their clothes showing the cause of their death: victims of violence, disaster, and misfortune, the lot of them. He swallowed his breath and focused on his work. “It would be the last thing you ever speak to us, but we shall not tell you, mage. A name is its power, and we shan’t give you an inch. You’ll be consumed, as the others are.”
“Oh, lord, you should just quit while yer ahead.” Bobby laughed. “Really, it will be easier for you, I'm telling you! I've given you as much slack as I can, you can still stop. All I want is you to quit making such a racket. I need some shuteye."
"Or what?" Snide, so snide. The sorcerer watched as a young child flew into the maw, vaporizing against an invisible barrier. It was just an apparition, he reminded himself, even as his own heart threatened to burst from his chest. Let the dead rest, and don't stay long, lest you become one, he remembered the mantras.
Bobby sighed. "That was your last chance, buster. Sunfire!"
The words left his lips heavy, weighed down with magic. Cigarette smoke poured from his nostrils, caught by a force stronger than the wind kicking up around him, stronger- than the arrogance ahead of him. As it coalesced above the magic circle, it pulled the salt into it, flecks of white showing through the noxious fumes. He quickly snatched the silver, already a glow and resonating with the magic around him: it was a catalyst, and with just his thoughts, as natural and second to him like breathing, he forced the smoke forward across his outstretched palm.
As it spilled off his fingers, the smoke transformed. He gave life to a geyser of flame, burning a supernatural white and casting the whole cemetery daylight bright. The ghosts closer to him couldn't stand it- of the crowd that remained, most dispersed at the show. Those further away began vaporizing, crumbling into ectoplasmic dust. The tombstones cast long shadows as he cast a purifying flame through the channeled ring and the silver catalyst.
The white fire was magical, yes. It burned hot, wild and hungry, the air boiling around him and banishing the cold. Bobby thought he heard an inhuman wail, the chorus of voices letting loose a scream, but he kept himself steady. The fire licked his fingers, it flew forth and poured out from the sides of the mausoleum, overflowing.
Yet this flame could do no harm. To leave no ash, take no oxygen, yet still voraciously consume unwelcome things, it nearly took his mind off the pain. The pain, the blistering fingertips, sweat beading off his brow, the spearing pain of watching the power of the sun demonstrated.
It felt like minutes passed. But only a few seconds really did. His body flinched, his focus splintered as an overwhelming spike of agony went through his arm.
But when the light died down, he didn't return to the chill, windy night. He didn't find ephemeral eyes gazing on him. He didn't find himself halfway between life and death.
He found it humid, the clothes he thought too thin now trapping his sweaty. He found the air still and unmoving as the grave. The deathly silence broke with the chirping of crickets and startled nightlife. No ghosts stood, no phantoms lingered, and after a pause to take in the muggy air he reached down to collect his belongings and push forward into the source of the restless dead.
"Ya could've had it any other way, y'know." He spoke to nothing, gingerly replacing the silver catalyst. "I don't even mind necromancy, you know."
At the center of it all, he uttered a few words then left, finding himself cloaked in the stifling summer night all on the way back. "For God's sake, I just want some peace and quiet."
When he next woke, he found himself with a sense of ennui.
Every heartbeat drove nails into the skin of his hand, underneath the gauze and antibiotics. Even the errant twitching of his fingers sent twinges through his body.
"Ah, oh. Oh." Bobby creaked coming up from the couch, using his good hand to rub the sleep out of his eyes. There wasn't an alarm going off, but he did curse the light streaming through his windows, and the hammering pain behind his eyes. "Damn it."
What time was it anyway? The sun high up and his sleeping gone so poorly made a mess of his sense of time. Morning or afternoon, he rolled to his feet and hissed all manner of obscenities to nobody in particular. He dragged his sorry ass to the kitchen and began feeling for the light, washing the whole place in a warm glow. There he found himself throwing open the fridge and, then, regrettably, pulling out his phone.
Five missed calls from three different numbers. All of his comrades. One from his boss.
Bobby coughed, and set his phone down, finally recognizing the time. And recognizing that they'd all left voicemails. He listened to them in order, watching the kettle boil up. He fished some leftovers out, threw it in the microwave and heated it all up into a spiced up mess of salt and pepper and oil. There may have been some food in there, but the steaming mush coming out tasted just as
"Ah hell." He cussed and set a pot of coffee to boil as the last message finished. "Ah hell, ah hell, I'm gonna catch a lot of shit for this one, ain't I?"
He sighed and leaned on the counter, rubbing his forehead, and trying to find the words he'd give his boss. He didn't have any, and it left him silent in the kitchen, staring a hole in a cabinet door just across from him. The necrotic presence in the cemetery had kept him up. And then, Bobby pondered, how would his boss respond? He perished the thought and stretched his back out, choosing instead to focus on how he'd... enjoy his coffee.
His hand still hurt. It hurt bad. He pondered digging into his stash, but if he had to come into work, he didn't want to be doped up. It put a scowl on his face, but- still, best to deal with one problem at a time. He turned the stove off before the kettle boiled away, and poured the hot liquid in his French press, letting it steep for a minute.
"Coffee, at three?" He heard a voice from across the room.
Bobby groaned. "Oh goddammit, who let you in?" He leaned over and coughed. "Didn't I tell you to knock first?"
That was when Alys materialized out of thin air, the elven lass leaning on the threshold of his door. It made his neck stand up all surprised-like, the man tensing, giving her a nasty look.
Practical clothes of a button-up and tight, tight jeans couldn't hide her slender, willowy form. Her long hair hung in a ponytail, falling down to her breast. Normally, Bobby didn't have a problem looking at her. In fact, he found the elf quite pretty, even if she wasn't giving the most welcoming of looks to him.
"I've still got the key you gave me, and you weren't exactly responding when I knocked." She held up a tarnished key. From an earlier time. Bobby's heart skipped. "The boss was concerned about you."
"Really, now, really? He's concerned?" Bobby rolled his eyes, before raising up his bandaged arm for Alys to see. "Course he is. Look, I'm really sorry, but I had a rough night. See-"
Alys took pause before rushing over and tenderly inspecting his bandaged hand. He didn't have the heart to push her away. "Wait, what? Let me see that- what were you doing, why didn't you tell anybody, Bobby-"
"Lys, Lys, hey, be careful now-" He hissed. "-It still kind of stings."
The elf shot a glare at him. "What did you do?"
"It's nothing, I just had a little goof, is all, it's a burn. Don't worry about it. " He brushed it off. "It will heal well enough. Really, you've seen me worse. "
Alys pursed her lips, dainty fingers running down the bandages. Her face darkened with every inch she traveled, till she brushed off his fingers and shot him a dirty look. "That doesn't mean it's okay! You smell like death, you weren't performing necromancy last ni-"
" -No! No! Nothing of the sort!" He reached over and pressed the top of his coffee pot, watching the black stuff swirl in the French press. He started preparing a cup of coffee for the both of them. "Dealing with it, mostly."
"Ah- that is right, you do live next to a boneyard." Alys coughed politely. "Are we going to have to file a report...?"
Bobby turned, stepping away from the elf and grabbing the creamer from the fridge. He poured some in his, and a lot in hers, setting out the sugar for Alys. It took a little finessing, owing to his stiff fingers, but he single-handedly got his food out and set down at the table. "No, no, we won't. Just happened to be a rogue spirit, is all. It wasn't uh, being cooperative."
Alys breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh thank the Divines, really. You banished it?"
He sighed, holding the steaming cup up and glaring down at it. " Well, it was three in the morning and it's not like I was going to just, open up a report. It was eating up those poor ghosts and disturbing their rest, you know." Bobby sat down. "Ah, dammit, can you pass me a fork?"
"Sure-" Alys deftly reached into a drawer, before handing him some silverware and tearing off a napkin. "-So was it a demon, or a fairy, or another ghost?"
He answered with a shrug. "I couldn't tell. So I blew it up."
"With light magic!?" Alys balked. " Is that why you've got the stench of necrosis on you, you destroyed that spirit? Couldn't even take the time to get some support or call one of us in- just how big was this thing, you- do you need to go go the hospital?"
He took a few bites of his meal, washing it down with the coffee, watching Alys frazzle herself. The elf had a certain tendency to get emotional. For elves, that manifested... Differently. Her hair whipped as if an invisible force threw it back, and her eyes visibly tightened, the pupil-less pools of color boring holes in his skull. It would perturb him if not for the fact he knew Alys well, and that she wasn't holding a pink coffee cup she left over one late, late evening.
It took a minute to form his response. And he found his eyes on the crumpled carton of cigarettes on the counter across from him- and Alys soon found herself looking at them too. "No. It had a good grip over the whole yard." He swallowed the mush. Was it even a potato at that point? It went down about as poorly as it could, making his stomach turn. "And it was three in the morning, I didn't want to wake you up."
Alys stamped her foot. "You should have at least told somebody! And-" she picked up the cigarettes and looked inside of them. "-really?"
"Look, it was a dead thing, it was going to be a problem for us anyways, and to be fair, it was pretty big." Bobby swallowed a big chunk of something meat-adjacent, before cocking an eyebrow at his elven companion. "I know I'm not supposed to use light magic that often, but- I couldn't tell what it was and it was making a real big ruckus. Somebody would've found out about it. Now, it's not a problem."
"Oh for-" Alys groaned and tossed the cigarettes away, rubbing her temples. "-You know what, just- I'm glad you're safe."
The sorcerer hummed. "And I'm glad, real glad, y'all came by. Just, y'know- I'm sorry for not calling."
The elf took a seat and sipped her coffee across from him. She didn't have any words, but her hair finally calmed down, and the color seemed to return to her face.
Bobby kept on eating his... lunch, early dinner, taking sips of coffee and choosing not to say too much more. He'd enjoyed Alys' company quite a lot back in the day, when he'd given her that key. And maybe now he was regretting letting her have such easy access into his home- but he just couldn't bring himself to take the key back from her. Some invisible force in the back of his mind, a completely self-conjured thing, just prevented him.
He put that thought away and pulled his phone out, leaning it up, and finding a list of headlines to skim over. None of them really interested him. Maybe Alys would care about conservation efforts in forests. Or his boss would like the stock market stuff, the market was going up recently. Bobby had a pretty good understanding of magic, how to summon demons, fairies and the dead, all sorts of things. But the stock market? He'd rather hang under a black dog of ill-fortune, hunt skinwalkers and wendigos, or tussle with a troll. He just sat on his money, he made enough of it- it wasn’t an object for him to worry about.
"I'm taking you to Doc, as soon as you're done with that." Alys chimed in, making Bobby glance up from his phone. "You should know the consequences of using light magic like you do, really."
Bobby sighed. "I'll be fine."
"You're lucky the boss has Doc on the payroll, you know." Alys crossed her legs and gave Bobby a self-righteous look. "You get yourself into so much trouble, Doc's more than worth his pay."
"Yeeeeep." Bobby drew out his syllables, feeling the pain settle into a dull throb all over his body. They fell into another long pause as the man finished eating his meal, kicking back in his chair and stretching all of his joints with a cacophony of cracks. "What's so important you've decided to invite yourself in my house?"
"Well, the boss needs you in the office." Alys spoke matter of factly: now she was all business. Professional even. She could pass for a good businesswoman, Bobby reckoned, with how properly she sat and conducted herself. "Well, he did need you in the office."
The man nodded in understanding, finally getting up and sticking his plates in an overstuffed dishwasher. He dug a detergent pod out and threw it in the appropriate compartment, turning the dishwasher to the highest, hottest setting. That got it all good and clean for his uses. "He did, did he?"
- Of the South
Hi! I'm Southdog. I write urban fantasy and comedic fiction starring rednecks, sassy blondes and satirical elements. You can find me on other sites here.
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