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[Old Kingdom] Compound Ghosts

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May. 20th, 2007 | 03:45 pm
posted by: terra in seldom_end

Title: Compound Ghosts
Series: The Abhorsen Trilogy (+1!)
Character(s)/Pairing: Nick, Lirael, Sameth, some implied Nick/Lirael
Rating: PG
Notes (if any): This story takes place a few months after Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case. Also, I'm not Garth Nix.

In Ancelstierre, they tell a story of a young maiden imprisoned in a tower by the sea. She had no company except a magic mirror, enchanted to show her anything she might desire. For many days and many nights the maiden would sit alone and unheard amongst the steady whip-cracks of the nearby waves. Though the minstrels sang of her, no knight came riding through the darkness to climb her spiraling tower. She never knew the taste of another’s breath upon her lips, nor the warmth of another’s hand in hers. In their stead shone the mirror’s many-shaded echoes, the slow movements of unlife shining darkly through the glass.

Nicholas Sayre is lost. Standing in the cloistered air of a hundred strange and spidering tunnels, he thinks of how, yet again, this is no one’s fault but his own. Perhaps if the bird that flew down low in the palace gardens had not so resembled the Blue-capped Waxbill that had been extinct in Ancelstierre for centuries, he would not have followed it deep underneath the castle. He lost sight of the bird half an hour ago, and now he is so far in the labyrinth that he can barely make out his fingers if he holds them in front of his face.

Instinctively, Nick runs a hand through his hair, finding in the process the still-unfamiliar sting of the Charter. When he holds his palm against his forehead like that, skin touching skin, he can see that the walls that surround him are made of more than just stones. Unfortunately for Nick, they are only simple wards, and do not give off enough light for him to see where he is going. He thinks briefly of the wall, wreathed in its steady flame, and has an idea.

Magic is like mathematics. This is what Nicholas thinks Sam has taught him. The Charter fits together like an equation, and magic is made from the same swirling boundaries he thought he had left behind in Ancelstierre. Sam gave Nick a book, an index of simple marks, and he devoured it before their next lesson. Memorization, facts, theory-- in the pages he could be the same Nicholas Sayre who left every Somersby science fair with first prize. But Nick still has an awful time fitting theory into practice, and even the simplest of spells go wrong when he is the one who speaks them.

So though he longs to weave the marks for path finding and guidance into a long and complicated sentence, Nick reaches instead for the mark of light. He forms it in his throat and pushes it up against his teeth, before throwing it jerkily into his outstretched hand. The name burns as he speaks it. Sam says that will happen less as he practices, but Nicholas is not sure.

He flings the mark with tongue and wrist into an unsuspecting atmosphere. The light it gives off reaches beyond the ends of the tunnels into the gardens and towards the far-off sea. It comes brightly and unbound, and Nick cannot hold on to it for very long. When the light fades, he is almost grateful for the dark.

Lirael has been given a room in one of Belisaere’s many-spired towers, looking out on the white caps of the ocean. The room is large but plain, and she does not have anything to fill it with to keep it from seeming empty. Her small collection of books lies on the nightstand, and her bells are tucked away in the monotonous shadows of the wardrobe. But the Dark Mirror shines conspicuously from its resting place at the top of her desk, next to neatly stacked rolls of parchment. Most of the time, the breeze from the window is bright enough that the room does not seem over large. But there are days when she finds the space that surrounds the soapstone dog on her dresser unbearable.

She knows they are good people. She knows that she belongs here, in her tower at Belisaere and not in her room at the glacier, but memories have a mind of their own. And so sometimes, and only sometimes, in the spaces between moments, she clutches the Mirror to her chest and stumbles headfirst into Death. There she watches with one eye as the suns run backwards and bleed into each other, bridging the gap between the dresser and the desk with movement reflected on water.

Prince Sameth is eager to finish his latest project. Pieces of cork and leather are strewn across the workbench, along with the long white thread he is struggling to fit a large, vicious needle. Normally Sam’s projects draw equally from the schools of the grand and exasperating, but this one is different.

“Won’t it be great, though, to be able to play again? With you here, we’d have two good players, and the castle guard is always looking for something to do.” He glances at his friend. “Nick? Are you listening?”

“Ah? Hmm?” Nicholas Sayre is sitting on top of Sam’s bed, fiddling with the clasps on his heavy wool tunic. “I’m sorry. It’s just these funny clothes of yours—I feel as though I’ve volunteered for a leading role in one of cousin Marjorie’s horrible midsummer festivals.”

Sam laughs. “When I first came to Somersby, I couldn’t stand the clothes. Or anything about it, really, until cricket.” Sam turns around on his stool and scratches his nose. He doesn’t say that he felt more at home on the cricket pitch than he ever did as the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. “You know, it still gives me a bit of a shock to see you dressed like that.”

“I don’t know why I bother,” Nick says, “Except for the fact that I’ve no other clothes. They do nothing to help me blend in. You know, I tried to introduce myself the other day. ‘Hullo,’ I said, ‘my name’s Nicholas Sayre.’ I thought I was being polite, but they looked at me so strangely. It was my name.” Nick pronounces, as if it were the punch line to a joke. “People don’t have last names here.” Sam nods, remembering how lonely Sameth had looked at the top of every history test.

“Back with that whole Hedge business,” continues Nick, speaking the words quickly, trying to sound debonair. “When Lirael—when she came to rescue me, what saved me from that was my name. I would just repeat it over and over. It was like a— like a spell of remembrance.” He laughs, realizing his mistake. “But I guess that’s not how spells work at all.”

Nick watches as his friend turns back to his work. After a few stitches the ball is finished, and Sam holds it up for Nick to inspect. He can see the clean white needle-line even from the bed, and he makes appropriate gestures of admiration.

“I thought about trying to fix it up with a few choice marks,” Sam admits. “But that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?”

The past is vast and unblinking. Everything colors differently: the reds are harsher, the blues are deeper, and the blacks hold onto corners with fierce tenacity. Outlines and contours blend themselves and shine with a vibrancy unique to Death. It is not a cheerful place, but there is light enough to see by. Sometimes, Lirael watches her mother hard at work in the glacier, watches the lines on her face rearrange as she smiles. Sometimes she watches the dog gnawing happily on stolen scraps of food.

An Abhorsen has two kingdoms, and Lirael has built herself a second castle from the strange necromancy that has long been her own. Supper will be served soon, but she thinks she will stay just a little longer, here in this second tower, liberated from the oppressive thick of the sky.

It is summer in the Old Kingdom, and Sam and Nick are scouring the fields outside the city walls, searching for a perfect stretch of grass. For once it is Sam who looks too closely at the dirt; Nick is just trying to get his bearings. Among other things, he seems to have left his sense of direction across the Wall.

After half an hour of walking through the even green of the countryside, Sameth stops and drops his leather shoulder bag to the ground. “This is it, I think,” he says. “We’re not likely to find a flatter stretch of land.” Bending, Sam draws three wooden stakes from his satchel and hammers them upright into the ground. Nick’s measured paces mark out sixty-six feet from end to end, and Sam forces the other three more stakes into the soil. He carved the stumps and the bails himself, as near to league regulation as his memories allow.

Seeing the wickets in place, Nick calls out to his friend. “I’ll bowl, then?” He rummages through Sam’s bag, which always seems to contain more than necessary, and picks the ball from amongst his things. The weight of it feels familiar, and he runs his fingers along the raised stitching. Nick has not played since their last game at Somersby, though he had plans to go out for Sunbere. In the moment between running up to the pitch and letting the ball go, Nick has time to contemplate the absurdity of his playing cricket in these Old Kingdom clothes and just how many of his plans have died or found themselves otherwise indisposed. The ball flies fast from his hands, but Sam hits it far outside the edge of the field, beyond the boundary they have not cared to mark.

“Lirael!” Ellimere, the Princess Regent, is banging on the door of Lirael’s room with the flat of her palms. “I’ve something to discuss! You were supposed to meet me for tennis half an hour ago!” Her hands sting, humming with the repeated impact even as she brings them away from the door and into fists at her sides. “You know Mother and Father aren’t here,” Ellimere says, her syllables sharp and strident. “What if something were to happen! You couldn’t just sleep it all away, that’s for sure.”

She leaves behind her echoes of angry footsteps, but Lirael cannot hear them from where she sits.

“No, wait—” Sam catches his friend mid-motion as Nick starts after the wayward ball. “There’s something there.” His eyebrows are dark with centuries of legacy, and the line they write is grave upon his face.

“What sort of something?” Nick asks slowly. He didn’t think the monsters that were so characteristic of his adventures in the Old Kingdom would come this close to the capital.

“Something dead. A few somethings, actually. A couple hundred yards away—I can barely feel them.” But they both feel the world begin to sharpen, the clarity of danger wrought vibrant upon their senses. Sam grips the bat, and his knuckles go a tighter white.

“I’m not going to be very helpful, am I?” Nick realizes. “I can’t speak a single spell without it going horribly out of control.” Looking at the determined cast of his friend’s expression, Sam does not know what to say.

“I’ll get Lirael.” And with those simple, final words, Nick is off, running blindly towards the white towers of Belisaere. If he can make it past the moat, Sam tells himself, Nick will be fine. He walks a few feet forward and kneels, fumbling for the cricket ball he knows is somewhere in the grass. As his fingers close upon the self-stitched leather, Sam considers that perhaps he should have spelled it after all.

Nick is flying up the stairs two by two, tunic be damned. He generally refuses to run in that thing, it pulls in awkward directions and restricts the movement of his legs. But running up the narrow, curving stairwell, he does not even notice. He reaches Lirael’s oaken tower door and pushes it open without knocking, without realizing that it was locked; he doesn’t turn back to see the doorknob twist itself into tendrils as the iron stench of Free Magic fills the room.

In a way, Lirael is here, sitting with her back stick-straight against the unforgiving latticework of her neatly carved chair. She is cold and still, her golden hand folded on top of the other and the long of her hair framing her face. He knows from the ice on her brow that she has gone into Death, but he does not know how to bring her back. The day is clear around him and the sky has never been so blue, but Nicholas Sayre has forgotten all his lessons. “Lirael, Lirael, Lirael,” he repeats, the only spell he really knows. His speech is tongued fire but the frost is thick on her face, obscuring the clarity of her features like mottled glass.

When she returns to Life, Lirael is greeted with the acid threat of Free Magic hanging still upon the air. Then she sees Nick, knee white with chalk and body halfway inside the diamond of protection, muttering her name like a madman. She speaks the first words that come to mind.

“Nick? What are you doing here?”

He explains the situation as quickly as he can, tracing a rough map in the palm of his hand. She gabs the bells from their peg inside the closet, and starts to leave. As she reaches for the place her doorknob used to be, he stops her with the question she knew someone would ask her eventually.

“Why do you do it? Go into Death like that? If you didn’t know about whatever lies beyond the cricket pitch, I mean.”

“It’s difficult to explain. Sometimes, I suppose, the dead are more welcome companions than the living.” Her tone is grim as her title, and so she is surprised when he breaks in to grin. “Why are you smiling?”

“Because,” he replies, all bravado and daylight, “I died once.”

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Comments {4}


(no subject)

from: such_heights
date: May. 29th, 2007 08:01 am (UTC)

Oh! This is fabulous! The tone, the characters, everything. Here via wanderlight and I'm so very glad I clicked!

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(no subject)

from: terra
date: May. 29th, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC)

:D I'm glad to hear it. This is my first time writing fic for this series, but I hope to do more in the future.

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(no subject)

from: parisiannymph
date: Jun. 22nd, 2008 08:33 pm (UTC)

I really enjoyed this!

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farewell to the days of having it both ways

(no subject)

from: dayofjudah
date: Dec. 20th, 2008 12:15 am (UTC)

I enjoyed your voice for Nick, which I think must be really difficult to get. It fits with the (initially) disconnected snapshots of their lives that resolves into more structured narration, how both Nick and Lirael are disconnected from life in Belisaere, and how that's reflected in their magic, too. The ending was unexpected and charming, though it seems a little abrupt. I want to ask if there's a sequel or something.

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