I find her in the cemetery crying beside her gravestone: there are few things that can complicate a life more than resurrection does. She looks normal enough, even to a magician if they look too closely. Perhaps a little pale, but it’s not as if she’s going to be eating the living. Few things work like they do in stories: I sometimes think it would be kinder if it did.
She spins. Not a ghost, but dead enough to see deeper than humans do. “Are you an angel?”
But perhaps not as deep as she should. “I am the wandering magician of this era. Someone brought you back?”
Nora nods. She is young, perhaps fifteen all told, and I feel no hunger inside her.
That is bad, though I try to hide it. “Do you know who would want to bring you back?”
“No. No, it’s not – it’s not possible,” she says.
“I imagine you can see ghosts now: they tend to be imprints left behind, like your shadow taking on a life all its own. Someone like you is like a wrecking ball, imprinted so hard into the world that your body is restored. There is nothing in that grave anymore.”
“I’m haunting myself?”
“No. You were recalled to life. It is not a thing magicians do, for many reasons. The cost is far higher than even love is willing to pay, but madness is something else entirely. It is the main reason few magicians dare fall in love, for fear of the madness that might follow. Or at least will not give themselves up wholly to love even when they do,” I say, threading power into my voice, letting the words wash over her in a soothing. “You must know who cared for you enough to do this?”
“No. My parents love me, but this transgresses – they would not do this, not sell their souls for me.”
“Someone did, and I doubt it was you. May I?”
She nods, not sure what she is agreeing to, but I reach out with the magic and feel the edges of her, touching what lies within. A face appears. A boy her own age. Not warded, because he doesn’t know enough to do that. I pull light and air together until an image form the light of the moon and stars. The boy is taller than Nora, with long hair trying to cover up an acne-scarred face, shoulders hunched against the world. The image fades, as if his desire to not be seen even extends to this moment.
“That – that’s ac- Tony tee – Tony Brown,” Nora says, looking shocked. “I don’t think he’s ever talked to me once.”
“But you know him?”
She hesitates, then nods. “This is magic, making him appear?”
“An image only, but it will help to find him. I imagine you desire answers?”
“But you know what he did?” she says, and it is only just a question.
“I have suspicions. I imagine you wish to know the truth, and that he should as well.”
“I couldn’t go home. I wanted to, but everyone knows I died. The had the funeral three days ago, and this town is not that large in ways that matter. I have spent the last six hours hiding, wandering, not understanding. I can enter churches, I don’t have demonic urges. I haven’t eaten a single brain.”
“I know. The conversation would be far different if you had.”
Nora pulls back at something in my voice. “I should be?”
“Not brains, no, but there are many reasons the dead aren’t brought back. Tell me about you and Tony.”
“There’s nothing to tell. I knew him, everyone knows of him, but that’s not like being his friend. I wasn’t a cheerleader, nothing like that. I don’t even get good grades, I haven’t even had a proper boyfriend yet!”
I decline to point out that she’s only fifteen, if only because such things probably don’t apply to the undead.
“Tell me about Tony himself, then?” I ask when Nora adds nothing else about her. Almost no one sees themselves properly from the outside, even after they’d died.
“I don’t think I’ve ever talked to him. He’s Acne Anthony, Tony Teeth: those are what everyone calls him. You saw the acne. He has the kind of buck teeth everyone makes jokes about, that he’ll never see a beaver because he is one. People said things like that,” Nora says.
“Did you?” I ask; I don’t need to thread power into it. Lying comes less easily to the dead than it does to the living, at least for a time.
“I – no. I have an uncle who was a volunteer firefighter until he was badly burned. People made so many jokes, so I guess I learned not to say such things about people?”
“You were never mean to him.”
“But that – that’s not reason enough to bring me back from the dead!”
“How does your uncle react when people do him the kindness of treating him like he’s everyone else?”
Nora is silent at that. “I didn’t even think,” she says finally. “I didn’t even think that all. I was texting on my phone, crossing a road, not thinking then either. And now I am – what I am, magician?”
“Only Tony can answer that,” I say and she just nods and walks. Starting to see her life from the outside, learning that she is probably not the monster she always thought she was. I almost envy her that luxury, since it is one magicians almost never have.
I wrap wards about us to make us unseen as we walk. Nora moves quickly after some gasps as staring into people’s homes. Starting to see more about people she knew than the living ever wish to, and remains human enough to both want to know more and to fear what might come of that.
The home of Tony Brown is dark. No lights on, no TV, no cars in the driveway. No wards, no ghosts, no power. I walk up to the front door, which opens without my touching it. Nora makes a startled sound at that small magic, and I close my eyes a moment. It would be funny if the sadness underneath wasn’t rising up. There is no power here, the house almost devoid of furniture, and we find Tony Brown upstairs in a largely empty bedroom. There are tacks on the walls where posters used to be, a power bar where a computer once was and shelves empty of books.
“Nora?” he whispers, sensing her without knowing how.
“What have you done to me?” she asks, the words coming out close to a scream.
I step in beside after her as the boy’s face crumples, wrapping bindings about her so we won’t attack him. “Tony Brown. Tell her,” I say, and there is nothing in him to stand against the command of a magician.
He jerks his head up. For a moment, he tries to resist as if he can hide from the truth even now. “I love you,” he says to Nora. “I kept wanting to ask, but I knew you’d say no. That kindness only went so far, and then you died and I couldn’t help – I couldn’t help but wonder what if, what if, and what if? It burned in me like an obsession, like how much I wanted to see the new Star Wars movies, only bigger even than that.
“I looked online. In places where I shouldn’t, and I did what I had to,” he says, his voice raw.
Nora steps forward, gently pushing long hair out of Tony’s face. His acne is bad, even worse than the imagie suggested, bucktoothed yellowed teeth trying to hide behind thin lips. He gulps loudly, his face naked terror and yearning both.
“She needs to know what you did to bring her back,” I say, cutting through the moment before it can be more.
Emotions spasm across the boy’s face, but he does speak: “Sacrifice. Everything I owned, my friends – online only, but without a computer they are lost,” he says.
“You didn’t use magic on yourself?” she asks.
“I know that doesn’t end well in any story,” he says simply.
“Tell her the rest of the sacrifice,” I say softly.
“I had to sacrifice everything that meant anything, for it to work.”
Nora goes still, drawing back from him. “Where are your parents and sister, Tony?”
“They – they were – it costs, to bring the dead back,” he says. “I love you. Love is worth … isn’t it?”
She says nothing at all, then turns to me. Her anger is cold and ugly. “You knew? You brought me here and you knew!”
“To bring the dead back has a cost; I didn’t know what it was in his case, Nora. Nor what you would consider acceptable.”
“You thought –.”
“The dead are not the living,” I say flatly.
“What do you know,” she demands, and power begins to rise as a coldness from places the living aren’t meant to tread. Light burns about her in an unnatural calling.
Tony whimpers; I’m not sure Nora notices.
“I am a magician.” I smile, and her power shatters against me. No power, just the force of memory in the smile. “And I know more of death than you, and more of the sleep that does not end than you can grasp.”
“I –.” She draws back. “I don’t want that. Not this, and not that. Please?”
“I don’t know how to undo it,” Tony whispers.
“We do terrible things for love that we would do for no other cause,” I offer quietly. “And there is more that you can do.”
Tony closes his eyes, then straightens and looks at Nora. “I release you from love, from the bonds I made and the crime I did. My life holds you, my – my life releases you.”
And he closes his eyes again, and falls back onto his bed in silence.
Nora doesn’t move, even as power shimmers about her. He murdered his family for her, and that’s shaken her deeper than she can easily understand. The body dissolves, the spell unmade by Tony’s death and two ghosts face each other in what comes afterward.
“You may meet in the Grey Lands,” I say, “But not until after prices are paid.”
Tony nods to that, and vanishes as hands and fingers swirl around him.
“His family,” I say to Nora, who hovers in the air.
“What happens now?” she whispers.
“That is up to you,” and I turn and walk away.
“Magician? Why did you do this?” she demands, meaning so many things.
“Because sometimes the only way forward is through the fire and out the other side,” I say, and I’m not talking to the ghost at all as I leave the home. It begins to burn behind me, and I am almost certain that’s not my doing.
But I don’t think almost is enough.