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Inaccurate Necromancy, A Tapestry

By Crystal Lynn Hilbert in Issue Fourteen, March 2024

[Exhibit 1: Scientific betrayal, witnessed in an illegally inhabited shipping container.]

My stolen satellite reception sputters, but not enough to hide the truth. I would know her face behind the fluttering colors of an ineptly stolen signal; I would know it dirt streaked in the dark over any hundred pilfered graves.

Elizabeth Last smiles into the camera. Dentistry or illusion dulls her sharpened teeth. Contacts hide the tattling black of her iris behind falsified blue.

“I started with a firm foundation,” she explains, her voice bright and jarring. Approachable. “It took several years sifting through Oxford Museum’s deep storage, but I was eventually able to rediscover the foot of the last stuffed Dodo.”

The camera, as they say, loves her. But I have made a study of our long acquaintance. A lie brackets her false-friendly mouth. Tension pulls at the corner of her masquerade eyes. The newly resurrected dodo—if one can call a bastardization of proper necromancy such a thing—bobbles around the coastal woodland simulation. It bumps twice into Elizabeth’s pant leg. Her nostrils betray her, flaring with each bumbling brush.

“There wasn’t much left of it, unfortunately. Just some tendon. Now, that doesn’t sound like much—and honestly, it isn’t. Not enough to properly manifest a whole cadaver—but that tendon was the last soft tissue of the Dodo still in existence.”

Leaning down, Elizabeth lifts the bird like an overlarge chicken. The camera focuses on its original foot, plump and new again, if a little smaller than its twin.

She does not recoil, but I would not expect her to. We resurrected worse in our inglorious youth.

“With enough magnification, I found just enough memory left in these tendons and bones to piece together forty-seven of its chromosomes. A clean majority! After that, it just made sense to extrapolate the Dodo’s missing DNA from a mitochondrial sample of its cousin, Caloenas nicobarica.”

Now that—that should make her recoil. That disgusting smear of bureaucratic “science,” the laws of nature inelegantly broken to suit the fiscal year. Disgust colonizes the underhang of my ribcage in bubbling, dark-capped Gymnopilus.

“It’s a Gripsholm’s Lion and you know it,” I hiss at the indifferent screen with enough vitriol that I expect Elizabeth to sense me. She would have, had she been wearing her ward-rings. But she is respectable now and no modern, science-minded necromancer would be seen wearing the heirlooms of her heathen history.

How much easier it is to sanitize the past when we must all agree not to remember it.

She leans down to return the Dodo to the floor. Her bare fingers pass through the camera’s eye, so offensive in their nakedness I almost miss the Dodo briefly lose control of its head. It crumples, toppling over, and buoys up again.

Fixated on her interview, the anchor does not notice. Elizabeth’s smile ratchets slightly wider, sunny-strained but never less than perfect. She accepts the accolades of her success with charming grace.

I cannot bring myself to turn it off. Instead, I turn away.

[Exhibit 2: Two desks, both salvaged, rebuilt with stasis spell drawers and a spiders’ nest of articulating arms. Each arm bears a different tool: wands and forceps in a dozen sizes, magnification spells of varying strength encased in crystal slivers.

The first desk backs the metal wall of the storage unit. Two flat teeth of unascertained provenance—suspected Elasmotheriinae, more likely Rhinocerotidae—sit on the painstakingly sterile worktop. The stasis drawer, cracked open, contains three coprolites and a key lime Greek yogurt, expiration date three days past.

The second desk sits beside the antique wooden filing cabinet holding the TV. Several of its articulated arms hang broken, residue of an old and irrevocable argument. Its two stasis drawers hold only abandoned garbage: the little broken bodies of augmented Lepidoptera, their shapely arms and human hands noticeable only for their stillness, their sharp and gaping mouths lax in (un)death.]

Something hard and defiant sprouts in my garden of disgusted Gymnopilus. I slam open the bottom-most drawer of the filing cabinet and wrench from its depths the dissertation that brought me to this. I need not read it. I remember word for word my childish, cringing trust in academic institutions as I struggled to reconstruct old High Necromancy from the ashes of what they left behind—

The cicada magic of ancient liches; Mesopotamian queens and the sacrifices of their burial chambers, tying souls together to walk the afterlife in tandem; Greeks brewing melikraton as an offering to ancestor ghosts.

All of it illegal, my research unsavory. The Venn diagram of my interests makes a full circle with what the university called grossly problematic when they expelled me.

I do not know why I bothered to save it. Do not know why I continue to labor away at this farce that I may one day be acceptable if only I use the right words, the right processes for my work. Hissing a spell through my teeth, I immolate this residue of my inept past into nothing. Crisp lamination bubbles, boiling, until all that remains is the thin layer of ash on my floor and desks, my bare mattress and its tattered bedspread.

My chest aches, struggling with the fury trapped and hissing through my teeth. I turn to Elizabeth’s abandoned desk and select from her leavings the most intact expression of her love.

Here is the life’s work—death’s work—of two once-chosen sisters. Here is our passion squatting (illegally, on several counts) away from the ever-watching eye of legality and acceptability. But I have never been acceptable. I am a railroad spike in the round hole of a child’s puzzle. I am the granddaughter of the Necromancers they lobotomized in the 60s for advocating their historical trade. I am the carefully curated museum of their knowledge. I am all of them that remains.

And perhaps I am too literal, as I have been so often accused. I can create nuclei from almost nothing, I can spool DNA backwards through time, but I do not—I will not—understand this performance.

Had she built that Dodo in our storage unit, they would classify it High Necromancy, illegal witchcraft, heresy. Yet with museum funding, it is simply poorly orchestrated science, the monstrosity’s inevitable death by DNA degradation not a crime against god—as they would accuse me—but an unforeseen variable in an otherwise viable experiment.

From where I sit, only funding makes the difference. The respectability of the person who signs one’s paychecks. But I have no paycheck—I am not civilized enough, I cannot smile for the cameras, I cannot break a thing and pretend it is not broken—and I am tired of playing this game that I will never win.

Settling the tiny Lepidoptera in the center of Elizabeth’s workbench, heedless of the way its wings blacken in the soot of my history, I select from her tray a whip-thin hawthorn wand.

It is long since time I choose the game.

[Exhibit 3: A plain woman, hair braided, clothes baggy enough to hide her form and three augmented Lepidoptera, unnoticed by security’s metal and sorcery detectors. She begins her perusal on the rightmost corridor of the museum—the gemstone display—its overhead lights dimmed in difference to the individual illumination of the stones.

She pauses in front of the tenebrescent scapolite, watching its color change beneath the black lights. Between her shadow and the thick soot on their wings, the augmented Lepidoptera creeping from her sleeves do not fluoresce. They circle the nearby security guard, undetected even as their tiny fingers dip inside his pockets, invisible to both him and the red-eyed cameras blinking in the ceiling.]

It takes Elizabeth exactly two minutes to feel the signature of my magic within the museum, another three to reach my location, her socially appropriate heels loud on the tile floor. Three plain clothes security filter in with her, dispersing about the displays with orchestrated nonchalance, stationing themselves in positions where they can watch us without appearing to.

My heart hiccups, sour and fond.

“You still respect me enough to distrust me,” I offer by way of greeting.

Elizabeth stops two gem cases short of arm’s reach. She examines a display of topaz rather than meet my gaze. “What are you doing here?”

I hold out my wrist, the day pass dangling by its little string. “Visiting.”

“We both know you don’t have the money to waste.”

Is it a waste?” I needle, too sharp, the spore-shadow of our argument.

“You made it very clear you think so.” Her head snaps to face me, jaw hard enough to disrupt her glamour. When her lip curls, I catch a brief glimpse of the daggers that crueler spells ground her teeth into. “Did you come here to ruin this for me, Jolene? Because I refused to rot with you, you come out of your mire to drag me down?”

The scalpel edge of her voice scores my spine, old anger blooming in spikes, in Atropa belladonna, velvet bells hung weeping.

“Down?” I murmur, through my own sharp teeth. “Where, down? You’ve not climbed as high as you think with your fat, dying pigeon.”

Her head dips, a fighter before the bell. “My method was sound.”

“Your method was bureaucratic. You followed standard replication procedure.” Atropine sour, I whisper my worst insult, my gentlest plea. “They won’t remember you for artistry.”

Elizabeth hisses, struck. She forces a smile, steel-sharp. I am sure it looks pretty for the two nearest security cameras. For me, it’s rictus.

“Let me guess, you have some rant prepared about genetic degradation and illegal Necromancy? An old notebook in my handwriting?” she demands, low and cold. “Your word against mine and you think they’ll listen to you?”

Her accusation catches me wrong footed. Improficient at social expectations, my mind slips backwards, seeking explanation in the patterns of our shared history. I have never been a traitor. I have never been stirred enough by another to bother. I have but one passion, so vast and verdant it consumes the entirety of my attention.

I would have expected her to know that. To know me.

But then, I suppose I do not know her either. I do not understand why she would defend so vigorously a thing not worth the time it took to resurrect, the place that distorted what should have been beautiful—what could have been beautiful had she unleashed herself from their science and their expectations, stared down the corridors of time and commanded that creature to remake itself. If she had thrust two hands in the ley lines of the world and pulled

She could have made a masterpiece. Once, she would have wanted to.

Today, she curls her manicured fingers into a fist—unblackened by the residue of proper craft—and glowers at me, demanding explanation for my presence when it should be obvious.

I try to understand her, to map the break between us. I whisper, “Are you frightened?”

A clumsy question—honest, not a threat. But Elizabeth balls a curse between cheek and gum where only I, in this unsteady dark, will recognize its shape.

“Frightened?” She tips her head and smiles a fresh lie. “I suppose I was frightened. Frightened of squatting like a bum on someone else’s property without a dollar to my name. Frightened of losing everything I worked for because I couldn’t get my head out of the past. Frightened of dying in obscurity.”

She leans forward, risking a little. If I cared to cast, I could reach her with animosity and errant spittle. The cameras would see a sudden seizure, unexpected but not improbable, a spell so old it wouldn’t even taste like magic to the sensors.

Lead sweet, she says, “You should be frightened, too, Jolene. You should be terrified. If anyone were to ever find you out there…” Her voice lowers, conspiratorial. “To see your little projects?”

Ah, now that is a threat. I take more umbrage at the insult, that any part of my project could be little when Elasmotherium stood over seven feet at the withers and a reproduction tapestry of The Lady and the Unicorn hangs in the adjacent art museum—admission already included in the price of my visitor’s pass. At a brisk clip, I could see it within five minutes.

I intend to see it on every news station before tomorrow noon.

“I’m not interested in your pigeon,” I tell her, more honesty she won’t recognize. “Your previous projects were far more interesting.”

One of her previous projects perches atop the security camera, a rectangle of white plastic clutched in one back talon. It watches us with head tipped, obsidian eyes liquid in the shadows. I feel every heartbeat of the three, their little lives a flame fluttering against my ribcage, my magic animating what Elizabeth built with hers. I am a wildfire waiting to burn.

Elizabeth used to be so canny, so clever. I am surprised she does not notice. Perhaps between the air conditioning and the glamours she uses to mask what she is, Elizabeth cannot feel it. I thought for sure she would. Childishly, I hoped…

“Those days are over,” she snaps. “You’ve seen enough. It’s time to leave.”

I don’t say: “I miss you.”

I don’t say: “I miss what you could have been.”

Instead, quietly, I agree.

She isn’t wrong. Just disappointing.

[Exhibit 4: The wires of a side-facing security door frayed by tiny, sharpened teeth.]

I know two spells for invisibility. One is blood magic, illegal, and detectable by museum wards within three seconds of application.

The second involves a clipboard, a steady pace, and the assurance one belongs.

[Exhibit 5: A woman wearing flats and a white coat, paperwork held precariously under one elbow, enters the building through a door labeled EMPLOYEES ONLY. She walks directly to the nearest stairwell.

Unremarked by the several dead cameras along her path, three shadows slither into her coat sleeve. A tiny hand emerges between two buttons and pins a badge to her breast pocket.

Camera 4A notes only a woman in professional dress scanning her badge at an entrance door marked STORAGE.]

The Warrens—the colloquialism for the many storerooms built around and through every nook and cranny beneath the museum—were not planned but grown, creeping mycelium-like into existence as needs required. Over time, the magical run-off from the stored artifacts and resurrections bulged the seams of expected reality, forming an unmappable maze navigable only by long practice or illegal divination.

Or so it is rumored. I find Theseus’s yarn trick works just as well.

Far down the twisting corridors, I drop my professional props on a shelf just inside a deep doorway and remove the little ball of red yarn from my pocket. Acrylic, nothing fancy. Spun plastic carries spellwork as well as wool and ties as soundly around the door handle. I whisper a single word, bent around the inescapable gravity well of my wanting, and let it drop.

The ball unspools, weaving through bulging corridors of shelves and curving out of sight. It picks a careful path for me between the warp and weft of wards—shiny new maximum-security spells trailing down from the floors above and the doddering, distractible workings creeping in from the outer hall. Here and there, remnants of the wards once placed within this room sigh alarm at my passing in crumbling breaths, disconnected from the larger, long defunct spell-system that would once have heard them.

No one cares about the contents of this room. Scores of uncatalogued items wait under decaying protections and a thick layer of dust, unmarred by any ambitious feet or mops. I wager no one remembers this deep corridor exists.

I’m wagering my life on it.

[Exhibit 6: a woman crouched in an imperfectly cleaned section of floor. Her white coat lays abandoned and filthy inside the perfect chalk circle around her. Three augmented Lepidoptera wait on low shelves near at hand, watching as she inscribes symbols onto the thick-grained wooden floor.

She completes the circle, wets a finger to edit the precision of her markings. This finished, arms outstretched, she turns three spirals widdershins and sits.]

Science demands precision, repeatable results, unambiguous facts. In comparison, necromancy asks so little. It wants only a body and bodies are easily made—memory bound to magic, magic to flesh, flesh to flesh until a new thing grows from the remnant of the old, a living creature breathing in your hands, your life flooding its veins until its own candle sparks and burns.

At its heart, all necromancy is communication; you need only know the language.

The ancient Greeks used melikraton for a summoning, but I doubt sweet wine and barley means much to an ancient grazer. Instead, I pull a small bottle of water from the pocket of my coat, advertising Spring Fresh in a childish font. I glance at an augmented Lepidoptera and it disappears on the current of my will, reappearing moments later with a silver bowl gone black with age. I fill it, and cradling it in the well of my folded legs, I empty my pockets of all my worldly treasure.

[Exhibit 7: Two Elasmotherium premolars, one molar and four coprolites rattle in a borrowed bowl.]

The room breathes the in-drawn breath of a sleeper awakening. Hairs rise on the backs of my arms, my neck, called by the same electric awareness catching artifact by artifact, magic creeping towards me like water seeking itself.

My heartbeat flails the hollow of my throat, pounding at its prison, a famished wildfire straining to consume. I clamp it between my spell-sharpened teeth, bearing down until it flutters still. Until my eyes blur and my body slumps, arms dangling limp in the joint. I breathe in stilted gasps, lengthening pauses—

Until I stop.

[Exhibit 8: A secret, passed from grandmother to child in a rare moment of lucidity. A wink, a warning: only bodies can be caught.

But bodies can be built.]

Set adrift, I sink down into dark, cold water, the bright spark of my mind a lighthouse in a vast, unending sea. I wait. Time stretches out in lazy, dissonant spirals. Red Asphodelus blooms beneath my crossed knees. Golden stalks of Cyperus papyrus prick the lax crook of my arm. Unending darkness envelopes me, soft as my oldest quilt—this darkness is my oldest quilt, as familiar as the womb. And somewhere in that deep silence, something stirs. Awareness faces me over the distance, a leviathan blinking awake.

It shifts, hesitant. Wordless. Curious.

The cool water licking my fingertips becomes the breath of high grass, sweet-scented and tickling my shoulders. Gritty earth nips at my bare ankles. The ancient mind moves closer, aware of me yet soothed by my stillness. I let it draw near, let it press the memory of its velvet mouth into my cupped and waiting hands.

Our heads bend together, a tableau, a tapestry. In our shared silence, the careful secret of its body curved over mine, I ask a question. Not a word, but a wanting—imprecise, unscientific, unrepeatable.

The beast lowers its head, regarding me with a single fathomless eye.

In its gaze, I understand an answer.

[Exhibit 9: A threadbare woman slumps over her folded knees in a chalk-marked circle. Her body jerks once, twice. Life floods back into her gray skin in a choking gasp. Coughing, spitting black spell-residue into her sleeve, she staggers to her feet. Three corridors down, she stops. Smells the air. Crouches.

From beneath a bottom shelf, she drags a battered cardboard box longer than her arm, bending under the weight of its contents.

An acid-yellowed label on the front reads: Tragelaphus strepsiceros (unfinished scrimshaw?)]

Cool and glassy against my fingers, the horn almost glows in the thin overhead lights, the sly black of petrified bog wood. I had not expected the gentle corkscrew of the horn—I had no scientific reason to—but all the same, I recognize it. In my gut, in the unsteady flame of a fourth life thrumming against my collarbone, I know it.

With shaking hands, I clean as much spell residue from my person as I can, slick my frizzy hair into place with the last of the water. I shake out the worst of the dust from my thrifted lab coat, slip it on again. With no chance of hiding the horn in my clothing, however baggy, I return it to its cardboard box.

It takes some juggling—box propped on my shoulder, a new knot behind me, a new positioning of my fingers on the thread. A Nymphaeaceae buoyed by the tide of spellwork and life’s work and wanting, I cross through the Warrens of History. Theseus in his Labyrinth, I pass into the undercroft of Art. Augmented Lepidoptera clinging crown-like to my brow, I ascend.

With four sets of eyes at my disposal, I avoid detection, depositing my burden at the feet of The Lady and the Unicorn.

But four sets of eyes cannot save me from Elizabeth.

[Exhibit 10: Scientific betrayal, deliberate, enacted before a reproduction tapestry.]

Magic swells, thick as humidity, a Titan arum in death-fleshy bloom. The sweet acid of it eats away the glamour Elizabeth wears—and there are the eyes I know, pitch black from curse exposure. There is the smile I recognize, sharpened to vicious precision by years of unkinder spells.

“This is crazy,” she says from her own corpse-kissed lips at last. “This will get you killed.”

She does not say: “I will kill you for this.”

She does not say: “Security is on their way.”

Crouched on the floor, I pause in the arrangement of my few Elasmotherium bones into anatomical order to smile up at her. She breathes unsteadily, the sweet siren call of death so near at hand urging her to stop, stop, slip into the cool dark water and join us—

“You think I’ll risk my job for you? I won’t,” she insists but must catch her breath between the words, her curse-loved eyes now black from rim to rim, hungry silver twinkling in their depths. “If I report you, they’ll mark another accolade on my personnel file. I’ll be untouchable. I will never have to worry about—” she falters, her gaze seizing at last on the vicious shadows clinging to my hair, my stolen badge, the nearest (now broken) security camera.

She breathes, “Those are mine,” her entire body bending, battered by the tide.

I arch an eyebrow. “Are they?”

A challenge. A dare.

“I won’t help you,” slips from barely parted lips, each a wasp-riddled persica, sweet and overripe.

It tastes like a lie.

[Exhibit 11: An Elasmotherium horn in two sections, two premolars, one molar. Two necromancers: one crouched, one standing. Shaking fingers on a silver necklace clasp, on a last, inherited shard of sharpened obsidian, on an open palm and willing flesh.]

My skin screams in starbursts, in Symphyotrichum fireworks, in rune marks scrawling ancient language whispered through the dark. Obsidian shatters, slivers sliding into sentences—at its heart, all necromancy is communication—and a sacrifice of time and love and life-death-flesh-blood spirals out of me.

I call. In the searching darkness beyond my mind, in the hollow of my breastbone, I call and feel the sweet-grass answer. Not waking now—already woken, wanting

I match it, longing for longing. I reach out a hand, close my fist around the ley lines of the world, and I pool my blood and magic into a shape the Elasmotherium will recognize. Cells spiral up and reassemble at my demand, flesh spiderwebbing between fresh baked bones. I condense ether into blood cells, weave blood cells into veins, crochet those veins to muscle, building a massive child from my determination, my love, my want-need-will

And I could wake it now. I could flick on the power in this empty body with a simple spark, set the flesh of a newly created brain in motion. I could make an unliving thing and they would call it High Necromancy, but they would be wrong.

This is High Necromancy: I reach out and beckon a massive, ancient soul.

It thunders to me across the plains of its memory, the mist-washed death lands of mine, and I seize it by its tawny mane. I pull—

And buckle, crushed beneath its weight. Pain and panic seize me, Asphodelus cloying, souring my empty nostrils. I wrench at it, dragging a creature massive beyond description through the mire-mud of death, but I am sinking, too.

From far away, electricity screams. Lights flare and shatter. Glass peppers my arms. Wards snap, a domino cascade of artwork protections toppling into the museum’s carefully castrated curses. In the stasis-trapped exhibits, each micro-environment blares awake, howling, bellowing, braying.

I am similarly stricken, screaming between grinding teeth. I clench four hands around the head of my beast—soul and flesh splitting down the seams. I will carry it from the gray fields of its afterlife or I will shatter under the onslaught of my attempt. Bodies can be broken, but bodies can be remade. I refuse failure. I refuse death—

And two cold, black-marked hands descend on my shoulders, returning my soul to its socket. Bright consciousness floods against my own, bracing it, commanding with me—

Come here, come home.

The border between here and dead creaks open. The ancient soul lifts its massive feet from the sucking mire, one after the other, stepping from afterlife—beforelife. It lodges beneath my collarbone, crowding out the shrieking augmented Lepidoptera and burning through my veins, pressed tight against my own soul. My body is too small. Every cell screams, barely room enough in me for my own too-ambitious soul let alone another. I cannot see past my suffering and the blinding light of failing synapses.

But Elizabeth drags me down. My fingers, my soul tangled in her clawed fist, she shoves our bloodied hands into the fur of the quiet body before us and in the language of our grandmothers, she incants, “Live.”

The ancient soul floods from my body like Toxicodendron radicans peeling off my bones.

Weak and watery, I slump boneless into the ground. Beside me, somewhat better for her late arrival in the ritual, Elizabeth manages to sit. She drags me with her, bullying me upright until we sit together, half against the tapestry behind us, half against each other.

Fighting unconsciousness, I stare with wide and watering eyes as the unicorn—and it is a unicorn; it cannot be called otherwise—unfolds to its feet. Ungainly at first, it soon remembers how to walk.

And it walks to me.

[Exhibit 12: A reproduction tapestry of The Lady and the Unicorn, in duplicate. One hangs on the wall, woven in wool and silk. One kneels, an ancient thing in a new body, draping a massive head across its Lady’s lap.]

“You should run,” Elizabeth says, her voice spell-sore, gritty. “The wards have broken. They’ll have to run damage control for the open environments first, but this will be their second stop.”

I don’t ask: “What about you?”

I don’t ask: “Why did you bother?”

Even now, we sit with curse-dark fingers tangled together.

Throat closing, Carduus raw, I whisper, “Can I borrow your phone?”

[Exhibit 13: A twenty-seven-second video posted to YouTube by a day-old account, its IP address made indecipherable by a curse-laced VPN.

Though shaky, the footage unmistakably shows a gray-faced woman with fairies in her hair, stroking the neck of a massive unicorn. She stares at the camera unblinking, eyes black to the sclera.

She does not speak. She does not need to.

Her smile—teeth ground sharp, stained with illegal spellwork—is message enough.]

© 2024 Crystal Lynn Hilbert

Crystal Lynn Hilbert

I live in the backwoods of western PA with my partner and a small pack of (in their opinion) wild animals. I accidentally collect a very specific model of vintage blender and make a hobby of finding new hobbies. One day my slowly amassed hoard of crochet blankets may consume my home. My short stories have appeared in Apex Magazine, Cossmass Infinities and in the Women in Practical Armor Anthology. You can find the rest of my writing credits at https://clhilbert.wordpress.com/publications/.

Fiction by Crystal Lynn Hilbert
  • Inaccurate Necromancy, A Tapestry