A Zombie, a Banshee, and a Spriggan Go to a Business Meeting…

“So, do draugr smell as bad as everyone says?” Norene asked, skipping alongside the spriggan like a child who’d just been granted permission to get whatever she wanted from a sweetshop.

I trailed behind them, not feeling nearly as cheerful. “Don’t comment on the smell.”

Norene turned to look back at me. “Why not? I’ve heard all kinds of things about how draugr smell.”

I shrugged. Norene might be better company than Sarai (or, at least, friendlier), but Sarai had seemed to actually know what she was doing. Norene…well. She may know a thing or two about banshee politics, but I was fairly certain street smarts were not something she used much.

“I think you’ll find that Mistress Lucas speaks with surprising insight for someone so new to the area.” The spriggan half-turned to give a little bow in my direction. “Body odour is not something Master Stenberg takes kindly to discussing.”

“Wait, how do you know that?” Norene fell back to walk beside me, her skipping mellowing into a more sedate walk. “Does that mean you’ve met the draugar? Already? Why didn’t you tell me? What was he like? How did you meet him? Was it—”

“Norene…”

She ducked her head. “Sorry, I got carried away again.”

“Which question did you want to ask me first?”

The bounce returned to the banshee’s step. “How did you get to meet him? They say he only meets with influential people, and zombies, well…”

“Nobody likes zombies,” I finished for her. “Yeah, I’ve gotten that impression. An estrie called Sarai took me to meet him. She helped me make a deal with him to get something across to the living side.”

“Why would you need to get something over there? They have everything we have, plus a lot we don’t.” Norene tilted her head to the side. “Well, except for dead things. But that’s the whole point of the living side/dead side divide, so…”

“I sent over a research proposal that would allow me to get some of those things they don’t have here.”

“O-oh, that makes sense. Did it work?”

“I don’t know yet.” I directed my next comment at the spriggan. “Perhaps I’m about to find out?”

“Patience, Mistress Lucas,” the spriggan replied. “My master prefers to conduct his business personally, not through intermediaries.”

“Which is why he sent you to get me, I suppose,” I retorted. After the encounter with the lich and spending so much time waiting in line only to leave empty-handed, I was feeling a bit waspish.

“Mister Stenberg conducts his business how he chooses, regardless of what you think of him,” the spriggan replied, his serenity entirely uncompromised by my attitude.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.

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Don’t Dare Defy the Draugr

“Margot Lucas!”

I didn’t recognise the voice, and a quick glance around the courtyard of the Distribution Office didn’t reveal anyone who looked to be trying to get my attention. I turned to Norene. “Did you hear someone call my name? I didn’t just imagine that, did I?”

Norene was looking about, a curious expression on her face. “Oh, I heard it, but that doesn’t rule out us both having imagined it.”

I groaned. “I miss the living side. We had actual rules about using magic there.”

“Really?” Norene turned back to face me. “Like what?”

“I’ll tell you about it later.” I rubbed at my forehead. I was beginning to develop a headache. That wasn’t surprising in and of itself; what was surprising was that I hadn’t had one until now. Maybe it was a zombie thing. Or maybe it was just a being-dead-thing.

“Boo!”

“Aah!” I jumped, then whirled around to find myself face to face with a very large head. “Aah!”

“Oh, hey,” Norene greeted the creature, turning around to face him far more calmly than I had. “You’re a spriggan, aren’t you? I’ve never met a spriggan before.”

The large-headed man bowed, making several flourishing gestures with his hands. “And a pleasure to make your acquaintance as well, Mistress Rafferty.”

I leaned over to whisper in Norene’s ear. “What’s a spriggan?”

“Among other things, we have perfectly good hearing,” the spriggan replied.

I turned to face him hastily, half expecting to feel my face heat from embarrassment. But flushing would have required blood actually moving through my veins. So there were some benefits to being a zombie after all.

“But to answer your question, we are a sort of fae. Much like the banshees, our kind was exiled here because the other fae don’t like us much. I am called Jowan.” He bowed again, with just as many flourishes, this time in my direction.

“Nice to meet you,” I murmured. A type of fae that other fae didn’t like? That couldn’t mean anything good. The fae on the living side were well known for being tricksters with little regard for the cares and interests of others, including their own kind. How much worse would spriggans have to be to be rejected by the other fae creatures?

“Now, down to business.” The spriggan rubbed his small hands together. It really was disconcerting to look at a creature with a head so much larger than the rest of his body. “My employer has requested a meeting with you, Mistress Lucas, and you, Mistress Rafferty.”

“Does your employer have a name?” I figured the only sensible approach was one with plenty of caution.

At this, the spriggan looked mildly annoyed. “The draugr, Vidar Stenberg, of course. And your presence is requested immediately.”

My eyebrows went up at that. “And if we’d prefer to be somewhere else?”

A smile I could only describe as sinister crossed the spriggan’s face, but Norene interrupted before he could say anything. “Why would we want to be somewhere else? I’ve heard of Vidar, but he doesn’t just meet with anyone. Should be exciting!”

“Right…” I could feel my headache getting worse.

Don’t Ask a Vampire for Seeds

Though Norene continued to chatter as the line inched forward, I found myself completely unable to pay attention to anything she said. I kept staring at the cloaked figure in front of us. A lich. I’d never heard of such a creature. That in and of itself wasn’t particularly surprising, but I couldn’t help thinking that the caste mark had looked familiar, and not just because it looked like the ones of the living side witches. Then I had it. It had been the witch caste mark. It just hadn’t only been the witch caste mark. It was as if the witch mark had been embellished upon.

Norene would probably know the reason for that. But there wasn’t any way I was asking her about it while the lich still stood in front of us. Once was one time too many to have the ability to speak taken from me.

It seemed to take hours, if not days, to reach the front of the line. I tried to concentrate on Norene, I really did, but I could only manage to process a couple words at a time, before the lich’s cloaked form captured my attention again. Maybe she was doing that to me, using some sort of hypnosis, preventing me from focusing on anything else.

Finally, only the lich stood between Norene and I and the window of the Distribution Office. At the counter, the lich didn’t say anything. A moment later, she walked away with a small box. I watched the lich walk away, unable to look at anything else until the figure disappeared.

“You know what I don’t understand?” Norene was asking. “Why zombies and vampires and others always stare at Aldith and ignore everything else. I get that she has the whole ‘control the dead’ thing, but does she actually want everyone staring at her all the time, or is it just a side effect?”

“Don’t know, don’t care,” the vampire on the other side of the counter grumbled. “What do you want?”

“Seeds!” Norene countered the vampire’s scowl with a smile. “And a breakfast box.”

“Seeds,” the vampire repeated, making no motion to get anything.

“For a garden!”

“Right. Well, garden materials aren’t exactly part of the standard menu. So unless the seeds you’re after are part of the usual staples, I can’t help you.” The vampire turned and grabbed a box—one not unlike the one the lich had walked away with—from the shelf behind her. “Breakfast box.”

“You don’t have any seeds at all?” Norene pressed.

“I find that unlikely,” I muttered.

“Well, my job here is to give people their rations, not seeds. So why don’t you come back later, when there’s not a whole line of people waiting. Preferably after my shift’s over.”

She thought for a moment. “That makes sense, I guess. See you later!”

I trailed Norene as she walked away. “Is it a requirement or something that everyone in a position of authority on the dead side be entirely unhelpful?”

Norene frowned. “That seems like a strange sort of requirement.”

“Joke,” I murmured under my breath. “That was a joke.”

Happy Holidays from Beyond the Grave

Happy holidays to those of you who celebrate during this season. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of communications between authors here and characters going about their business in the world of fiction (as well as viral interference causing…uncomfortable…symptoms), Margot’s story will not be continued until next week. So far as Kiley knows, Margot is still stuck in line at the Distribution Office.

Obey the Lich

When Norene and I arrived at the Distribution Office, I was surprised to see a line of people extending all the way out past the gates. Well, people was perhaps a generous word, but I had enough sense to keep that particular thought to myself.

“So…is it usually like this?” We stopped at the end of the line, behind someone wearing a large, loose cloak that concealed and discerning features. “Because when I was here the other day, there were only a couple people.”

Norene thought for a moment. “Sometimes it’s busy, sometimes it’s not. I think it’s probably somewhere in between most of the time. The line doesn’t usually go out past the gate.”

“So I guess we’ll be waiting a while, then? That’s—”

“Shh!” the figure in front of us hissed.

I tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t make any sound at all. I grabbed Norene’s arm and gestured frantically at my mouth.

“What?” She tilted her head to the side. “Are you thirsty?”

I shook my head violently. Then, pointing at my lips, I mouthed ‘I can’t speak’ as clearly as I could.

“Are we playing a game? Because I don’t understand how it works.”

I shook my head again, pointed to myself, and put a finger to my lips in a shushing gesture. I raised my eyebrows at Norene hopefully.

Norene frowned. Then her eyes narrowed, and she turned toward the figure in front of us. “Aldith, is that you?”

The figure turned around. “Norene. The renegade banshee.” She said something else, but I was too busy staring to process the words. The cloak hid most of the figure’s body, giving me no hint as to whether they were male or female, but it was the face that really stunned me. If I had thought vampires or the draugr were painful to look at, this…creature was worse. The skin was stretched so thin and taught across the face that I could see all the bones underneath. The eyes seemed to glow with some unnatural light. And the caste mark…was strangely familiar. It looked almost like the ones the living side witches bore.

“…Margot’s voice back?” Norene was asking.

The creature sniffed. “I suppose listening to you two chatter is better than having to talk to you myself.”

“—not very nice!” I exclaimed, then covered my mouth. “I can talk again!”

“Zombies.” The creature turned away again, seeming determined to ignore us.

I turned to Norene. “What just happened?”

“That’s Aldith. She’s a lich. And she’s always that grumpy, so don’t take it personally.”

“But…I couldn’t speak! I couldn’t make any noise! And you’re saying…she…did that?”

“Uh-huh. But don’t worry about it. She’s the only one, and she tends to keep to herself.” Norene brightened. “Look, the line’s moving!”

“Great…”

Dead Politics

Norene was uncharacteristically quiet as she led the way to the Distribution Office. The sun had gone down, and now that I knew what to look for, I could see that it was the moon in the sky, not the sun. The sun didn’t usually have a crescent shape. The light was different, too—more cool tones, more blue-ish. Strangest of all, though, was that I could see just fine. Now that I knew it was nighttime, it was bizarre to be able to see perfectly well.

I shot a look over at Norene. She didn’t look angry or grumpy or anything, but I could almost feel the tension in the air. After listening to her talk almost constantly since we’d met, her silence was making me nervous. It just…didn’t seem right.

“So…” I began, not sure whether to ask the question burning in my mind or talk about something else.

“Maeve’s my sister. She wants to be on the banshee council, and will do almost anything to get there. So she does everything she’s told and plays their little games. When I stopped playing by their rules, she went out of her way to make my life miserable. Does that answer your question?” Norene stopped walking to look at me, her expression unreadable.

“Uh…yes, actually.” I grimaced. “If it makes any difference to you at all, my sister only came to visit me after…you know…to ask if I had a will.” I paused. “And implied that she might have been the reason it happened.”

A grin flashed across Norene’s face in a shift of mood rapid enough to give me whiplash. “It’s perfect that we’re living together, then!” She started walking again, the spring back in her step.

“How do you figure that?”

“Because we both have awful sisters, we’ve both abandoned the lives we were supposed to live, and we don’t have anyone but ourselves, of course!”

“Of course…except that I didn’t choose to abandon my old life. I was forcibly removed from it. By dying.”

Norene just laughed. “You’re dead, I have visions of death, close enough!”

“So…if you don’t mind me asking, what did you mean when you said ‘their little games’?”

“The banshee council…” Norene shook her head. “It’s hard to explain if you haven’t lived it. I mean…I don’t know. I never understood the whole politics thing.”

“So the banshee council is the local government?” My eyebrows drew together. “That doesn’t seem like the sort of thing vampires—and estries—would put up with.”

“Oh, the council only has influence among banshees. None of the other castes pay them any attention except to get scream reports and drivers for daytime trips to the living side.”

“Which is why they’re so interested in controlling the scream reports,” I concluded.

Norene shrugged. “I guess.”

“So, is there a vampire council and a zombie council and a ghost council and stuff?”

“I think most of the other castes just follow the general rules of the Immortals. I don’t really know.”

“Hmm.” It looked like the power structures on the dead side were more complicated than they seemed.

Scream Demands of a Banshee

“So people just don’t go out in the daytime? I mean, I can see why vampires and zombies wouldn’t want to, but banshees are alive. So if you don’t go out when the sun’s up, aren’t you horribly vitamin D deficient?” I examined Norene. She was quite pale. Like, lives underground pale. Even Sarai had darker skin than Norene, and she was a vampire. But that probably had more to do with natural skin tone than sunlight.

Norene just shrugged. “I dunno. Is that a thing? I thought vitamins were something you ate. My mom made me take vitamins when I was little.”

“Well, yeah, you can take vitamin supplements, but they’re also naturally occurring in different kinds of food. And you can also get vitamin D from sunlight.”

“Huh. Weird. But what about places where it’s cloudy all the time? It’s not like people just don’t live there.”

“That’s why people have different skin tones. Do you really not know this? Over time, the people who lived in places with less sunlight evolved to have lighter skin so they can absorb vitamin D better. At least, that’s a simplified explanation.”

“I guess that makes sense. What if—” Norene jumped at the sound of someone knocking on the door.

“Expecting someone?”

Norene frowned. “No. People never come to visit me.” She brightened. “It’s exciting!” She spun about and trotted down the stairs.

Baffled by her sudden shifts in mood, I followed at a more sedate pace.

“Hello! …oh. What are you doing here?”

I was frowning as I walked over to the door to see who the visitor was. I hadn’t known Norene long, but I didn’t really see her as the type who disliked people. It seemed more likely that she simply wouldn’t notice when people disliked her. But the expression on Norene’s face as she looked at the woman on the doorstep was somewhere in the realm of sullen. The woman had the same pale skin and dark hair as Norene, and the banshee caste mark around her mouth was the final clue that suggested to me that she was a relative.

I held out my hand. “Hello. I’m Margot. Are you a relative of Norene’s?”

The woman ignored my hand. “You’re inviting zombies into your house now?”

“She’s my new housemate.”

The woman curled her lip. “And I thought you couldn’t sink any lower.”

Norene sighed. “What do you want, Maeve?”

“I was sent to remind you to that scream reports are expected to be delivered to the collection point.”

“I filled it out at the Office. With Liesel.” She scowled. “How did you even know I had one today?”

“Banshee screams are loud. And your reports will reach the Office just fine if you deliver them to the collection point. Understand?” Maeve tapped her foot as if she couldn’t wait to leave. Well, given her attitude, she probably couldn’t.

“I understand.”

“Fine.” Maeve turned on her heel and walked off, giving the house a partin look of disgust.

“That was…interesting?” I waited, hoping for an explanation.

She just sighed. “Yeah.”