Chapter 1
Into the Ether


     No matter which way I turn the photograph, there isn’t any ghosts that I can see. There are no orbs of light, no strange shadows, not even a trace of ectoplasm is visible.
     In the center of the snapshot is a hospital gurney. The only thing out of place in the photo are the restraints dangling from the bed rails. Something ugly curls inside me when I look at those twisted leather straps. I can’t tear my eyes away from them.
     How long has it been since mother was shackled to a bed? My mind turns to mush when I try to remember the exact date. The only thing that I can remember is her screaming when they wheeled her away. Had I known it would be our last moments together I would’ve done more.
     I could have cursed the authorities that forced her into that straitjacket. I should have lit the asylum collector’s long gray robes on fire. Maybe if I’d choked the last breath of air from their lungs with a necromantic curse she would still be here. It’s too late for these ideas because I did none of those things. Instead, I stood there like a dumb ass clinging to my sister Geraldine’s skirt.
    My fingers crush around my chopsticks, and I over dress the dim sum on my plate with soy sauce. More useless memories cloud my mind. I shake my head to free myself of them. The only thing I accomplish is popping my hair out of its rubber band. A thousand tiny mini-braids fly loose and fall over my shoulders.  I’m forced to re-bind them into a ponytail without using a mirror to regain some semblance of a well-kept appearance. I wish I could slump around in jeans and a t-shirt like a normal guy, but my old man has never allowed that. We’re Thaeds after all. We’re aristocracy and we have an image to maintain. 
     Appearing ‘well-groomed’ is important to someone like my father. So every morning, I’m forced to put on a dark colored suit and tie. I trim my nails to the quick and press all my clothes so the seams are tight enough to bounce a coin off them. God forbid if my socks don’t match, or my oxfords aren’t polished. By the time I leave the house I look like a fifteen-year-old banker. A tall, skinny, Asian one who still reads comic books for fun.
My magic rumbles through my veins in contempt as I think of my old man. Subconsciously I begin rolling the snapshot in-between my fingers, glancing at the image as it flicks past in quick succession.
     Ghosts! Getting ghosts down to the netherworld is the only thing I should be thinking about. I need to clear my head of all the stupid stuff that’s rattling through it.
This photo is not of my mom’s gurney. It’s not the rubber room mom was hauled off to. It’s only a hospital room constructed of welded metal and rivets. Something you’d see in an old folk’s home. A room that’s going to be haunted if I don’t get my butt over there. But there’s one major problem…
I don’t feel like hunting down ghosts. I don’t feel like doing much of anything, except cramming pork bun after pork bun into my mouth.
     The memories of my mother have turned into a restless phantom clawing at the back of my brain. Over the noise of the crowded tea house, I hear the whisper of my mother’s voice. Mom’s smell seems to swirl in the air every time someone moves past me. I wonder if this is what she felt like when she started going crazy.
Shades and spirits of all ages gather in the dining chairs sipping jasmine tea, many laughing like they don’t have a care in the world. I hide my face in a nearby menu, so I don’t appear too envious of them. My life would be so much easier if mom would have transformed into a ghost. I need to quit thinking about that. Mom’s not a ghost. Charon like us can’t become ghosts. Were all forever cursed to be the ferrymen of the dead.
     Ghosts have every right to be happy; their lives are over. In the netherworld, spirits can live as leisurely as they choose. Tomorrow or the next day every spook in this tea room can move on. Meanwhile, I’ll still be here gathering more necromancy for my old man.
     I try again to suppress the boiling magic in my arms. My dark mood is fueling my necromancy into a frenzy; it doesn’t want to settle down in my veins. Spellfire licks under my skin, begging for me to use it.
     I gulp down my jasmine tea and send my cup clattering back onto the saucer. Personally, I hate jasmine tea. The shit tastes way too floral, and it has that heavy perfume that wafts up your nose right before you swallow it. I tolerate drinking the crap because Wang’s Dim Sum has some of the best grub in the netherworld. Usually, I can sit here for hours observing the ghosts unbothered. Coming to this diner reminds me why I‘m a necromancer.
I take a few deep breaths and turn my attention to watching all the happy little ghosts in their happy little world all roaming about like normal people. On a good day watching the spirits  gives me a sense of purpose. I’d start to feel better, but today it’s not working, watching the spooks brings me no comfort.
     Even among a diner full of ghost, I’m still an outsider.
     I snap the necromancy photo down, wondering what I should do next.
    Why can’t I get my head together today? I need to think about how I’m going to teleport to my next soul harvest, and not worry about what happened to my mom. I guess that’s what’s bothering me the most.
My necromancy allows me to use etheric transfer to move from one location to the next, riding the coat tails of death. I can go anywhere in the world as long as I have a good idea of what the place looks like. 
     Where I want to be right now is with mom. 
      I have no clue where she is.
     Daydreaming and magic spells don’t mix well.  You can lose a hand or some other vital body part. My necromancy spells can easily kill me if I don’t cast them properly.
      I guess that’s why the high counsel of necromancers feel the need to provide all charon necromancers like myself photographs with their soul harvests. The photo is only included in my dossier to help me find a way to safely anchor my magic to my destination. 
     In my current frame of mind; I’d probably teleport myself inside the wall of an abandoned nut house. It’s easy to imagine myself trapped in a wall with only my upper torso sticking out as I materialize into reality. I’d be severed in two in an instant. Not one person would come looking for me if that happened.
Considering I haven’t even kissed a girl or groped my first boob, I’m not ready to join the ranks of the dead and useless.
     Annoyed, I peel away the film on the corner of the photo.
     It’s not like I’m an overly cautious person. Part of me wants to use the etheric transfer spell without the anchoring object so I can experiment with what will happen.
     But I don’t, because all my life, I’ve heard stories of charon necromancers losing a hand or being buried forty miles underground. All because they didn’t anchor their soul before heading into the human world.
     Frustrated I flick the photo away. I ruffle through my magic supplies sprawled about the table wishing I could skip this assignment and go home. There’s no such luck. The spirit I want to drain of necromancy has probably transformed into a hideous freak of nature by now. At least, my time here in the diner hasn’t been a complete waste. Half a dozen different spell inscribed shide papers lay scattered around my lunch baskets. Even more of them are sitting in my backpack under the table. By now I can probably fold the long pieces of lightning shaped origami with my eyes closed. Later on, I’ll be able to use the stored spells to send lightning, fire and death rippling through my skin.
     Having piles of pre-drawn magic spells can’t help me right now, but still there’s a satisfying feeling that comes with having a pocket full of spells. I’m almost hoping that the stupid ghost has transformed. That way I can lay her out with a few well-placed curses before I suck her dry.
     Sensing my ill intentions, the owner of the tea room, Mrs. Wang, makes a clicking noise in her throat before materializing in front of me. Her tea cart is laden down with steamer baskets and pots of tea.
    “Faust, you need more pork buns, or do you want other Dim Sum?”
The portly ghost looks me over with large empty eye sockets and a smile full of pointy fangs. Wang’s been running this tea house ever since I can remember. Her chubby digits all  have bones poking out of them. The skin on her hands has worn away from making dumplings. This does not stop her from fussing over my tea and replacing it with a pot that still has steam pouring from the spout.
     “You’re not answering me. What’s wrong? You plan on doing a coup d’etat to take over the Nether After?”
Mrs. Wang gives me a toothy grin.
     “I’ve just got a lot of stuff on my mind. Mrs. Wang, would it be possible to send a delivery boy to take the rest of these pork buns to my little sister? I worry about her being alone all day.”
    “I’ll check in on your baby sister personally. I’ll make her fresh, delicious dim sum. Not these day old buns I serve you and the rest of you ugly soul suckers.”
    I snort in amusement, but I can’t make myself smile. Mrs. Wang is always calling me an evil necromancer or heartless charon boy. She claims she doesn’t care for my kind, but that doesn’t stop her from fussing over me and taking my money.
    “Your eyes aren’t glowing like jack-o-lanterns. You sick?”
    Wang’s taloned hand grazes across my forehead. A wet squirming sensation crosses my flesh where she touches me. This would’ve scared the crap out of me when I was little, but now I can resist the urge to flick her skeletal hand away.
     “Would you stop that? I’m not sick.” I reply a little too curtly.
     I mentally chastise myself. I don’t care if I’m rude to most people, but being impolite to Mrs. Wang is inexcusable.
    “My dossier is missing some valuable information.” I explain contritely,”I can’t figure out how to etheric transfer to the human world. I don’t mean to take my frustrations out on you.”
    “Such a liar! You’re sick all the time‘ cause you feel guilty about stealing necromancy from the spooklings. If you didn’t go hunting ghosts so much, you wouldn’t be so irritable all the time.”
     I nearly choke on that cup of wretched jasmine tea.
    ‘Spookling,’ is ghost slang for an un-harvested soul. The word always makes me picture some chubby ghost toddler waddling about with a pacifier in its mouth.
     Spooklings are not gentle little ghost babies, they’re crazed spirits that terrorize the living, and it’s my job as a necromancer to stop them. The longer the spooks spend up topside among the humans, the more vicious they become. Despite what the old woman thinks, I don’t feel sorry for stealing a little necromancy from ghosts who are trying to kill me.
     Spirits trapped down here in the netherworld don’t grasp that side of reality.
     Mrs. Wang’s thin lips pucker, and she drops another basket of dim sum in front of me.
     “Eat up bean pole or I won’t deliver you and your baby sister dinner tonight.”
       I shove another pork bun in my mouth to appease her and hand Mrs. Wang the photograph. It occurs to me maybe a ghost perspective is what I need.
      “Is there anything in this photo that stands out to you?”
The ghost cranes the image toward her hollow sockets. It is an empty gesture considering she has no eyeballs. Mrs. Wang wads up her long pointy nose.
      “How are you supposed to find the spooklings with this? It’s a photo of an old bed. Why’d they give you this piece of garbage?”
       I can’t stop a smirk from crossing my face. I give her the official answer, that’s been drilled into me from my school books.
      “A photo with a set of coordinates, time, and a place is all the Eternal Court ever gives necromancers. We’re on our own after that. Supposedly the big wigs don’t want to bind us down with rules so we can’t do our jobs properly.”
      “That’s stupid.” Mrs. Wang snaps, and she shakes the photo in front of my face with one of her skeletal hands.
      “This is the one place your stupid charon bureaucrats should be making rules. What if you necromancers get too rough with the spooklings? What if you accidently destroy one and they can’t be reborn in the netherworld?”
I wince at her loud outburst. I don’t have an answer for her, I can’t tell her that the government doesn’t care if we hurt the ghost or not. I don’t want her to lump me in with those type of necromancers.
      Evidently I don’t have to say anything.
Mrs. Wang can sense my reluctance to speak and gives a loud huff. The aura of contempt encircling her is unmistakable. Even without my necrotic empathy, I’d be able to feel her emotions leaching into my thoughts. She’s more than just a little teed off; she is flat-out rabid. Her tirade continues.
     “Stupid Eternal Court, stupid charon government, they think we ghosts have no feelings. That we’re not even human anymore.”
      She slaps the photograph down next to my dim sum baskets. 
     “What’s that word you charon use? The term for the amount of spooklings you have to catch?”
      “The spirit quota?”
      “Quota. Aiya we’re nothing more than numbers to the lot of you. It’s not right. You wonder why I hate charon? That’s why.”
      Abruptly Mrs. Wang and her cart disappear. Even though she has vanished, I still hear her voice in my mind. Now her words sound like fingernails raking down a chalkboard.

 

[continue chapter one on page 11]