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Updated: Feb 28, 2022

Chapter Forty-Four

The Very Evil Boo Crew

“I’m supposed to be sleeping, Mika,” Tomorrow snaps as she stumbles into the Comet, glowering.

We all stand in pajamas, only half-presentable and half-awake. “Lock the door,” I command. “And trust me, you’re going to want to hear this.”

She eyes Soren, deciding it must be important if I’ve also bothered to wake up my murderer in the dead of night.

“You see him?” I ask Soren.

Soren shoots an ornery glance my way, warning in his eyes and voice husky with sleep. “I told you not to listen to them, Mika.”

I’ll take this as a yes.

“Zach’s back,” I announce to everyone, “and he has some pretty big, fairly disastrous news for us.”

“Hold on,” Tomorrow throws her hands up, blinking drowsily, “Zach’s a ghost who my sister, despite years of trying, can barely contact, and you two see him?”

Tuesday Jones’ dead ex-boyfriend is not a ghost. Instead (and somewhat inexplicably), he’s a shadow walker. I give the growing epiphany on Tomorrow’s face a "not now” look. If there’s any credibility to the panicked intel Zach sprang on me fifteen minutes ago, we have much bigger problems than which genus of wayward haunter Zach falls into.

Moonlight sinks in dusky rays through the Comet’s window onto Tuesday's face, which shudders with emotion as her eyes trace the shadows. “Zach?” she whimpers.

“Tell her I’m here,” Zach waves to me, moving to stand next to his girlfriend in a plume of black smoke. My heart trembles with a strange desperation, seeing Tu so oblivious to his presence. They’re just a breath away... and yet entire worlds apart.

“He’s right next to you,” I say softly, and Tu frees a sob, scanning the empty air beside her as though she’s already imagining him.

“Shadow walkers will have no problem getting through to spy on us, Soren,” I swallow, feeling especially on edge after my physical encounter with Zach. I cast an uncertain look toward the locked door. I hate what I’m about to suggest. “I think we should use the portal, if we can conjure it.”

The only two times the portal has worked, it's been fueled by elevated emotions. The first time... well. I shake the thought of more emotionally confounding days with Soren Cain from my mind. The second time, the botched soul transfer triggered it out of fear and pure desperation. We've never actually tried to make it appear... like, on purpose.

Dragging a hand through his disheveled hair, Soren finally nods. “Fine.”

As much as I’m loath to join my powers with his, I’m grateful Soren doesn’t have it in him to argue with me tonight. Reaching out, I set my hand against his, the warmth of his palm more intimate than I’d prefer. Focusing my attention on the whispers of cerulean that start to swirl around our hands, I will them to expand. The magic refuses.

My face heats, expression hardening in determination. I focus in on all things Soren: the feeling of his murderous magic pressing into my pulse points, his traitorous magic stewing against mine. His piercing blue eyes fierce with equal focus.

A dash of scorned woman seems to do the trick. The limb of magic that reaches out in desperation whenever he’s too close—too infuriating—claws at him hungrily. I feel my magic offered up, seeping all too easily into his. Moments later, the fabric of blue arcs gracefully overhead and the portal stands between us once more.

Tuesday gasps.

Tomorrow balks.

Nik looks like he’s going to have an identity crisis about magic for the eighty-fourth time this year.

I inhale sharply with both relief and surprise. It’s too easy to feel something—anything—about Soren Cain. We ignite so easily.

“The last time we disappeared in a blast of your magical light, the two of you transported us to a dystopian parallel dimension,” Tomorrow growls. She sets her hands on her hips defiantly, eyes somnolent but shrewd. “Why in the mother of unholy cauldrons do you think we—”

Urgency gets the best of me, and I snap. “Would you just trust me, Tomorrow?”

Sabbath’s concerned gaze finds mine. “This won’t take us to Andromeda?”

“No," I answer overconfidently. "At least, I don’t think so.” I hurriedly nod everyone through the swarm of blue, not wanting Soren’s fingerprints all up on my magic a second longer than necessary. One by one, our comrades duck between us and are consumed by the rollicking inferno, my abdomen tight and fingers sizzling with the effort of holding the portal open.

I heave out a relieved breath when Nik vanishes between us, leaving only me and Soren.

Now I’m left doing this magic trick with my killer. So much for relief.

Staring me down through the blue sheen of the gateway, Soren steps closer and my breath hitches. The portal stretches over my head in a great scintillating blaze, and Soren offers a small, sharp nod before he disappears into the light with me.

When the portal pales, I find myself with the others in the sitting area of my mother’s study, flames glinting behind the grate and Soren by my side.

I take a small step away from him as five pairs of wide eyes look at us questioningly. “We can make portals,” I explain, “which is what happened the night we tried the spell. Guess it comes built in with our soul-tie. That’s all I can tell you, because that’s all I know.”

“So where are we?” Tomorrow’s voice has decreased to an irritable simmer as she takes in the room suspiciously, rattling the door handles and sliding open drawers. Discovering the sketches of runes sitting on the desk, she holds them up, eyes glittering.

I motion at her to set them back down carefully as Soren answers. “This is a safe house. We should be good here.”

So cool,” Nik murmurs, running a hand along the back of an armchair. The others look around, expressions caught between uncertainty and amazement.

“Convenient,” Tomorrow admits with a grunt.

Zach clears his throat. “We should get to it. Which one of you wants to translate from ‘ghost’?”

“I will,” Soren answers gruffly, his words to an unheard question drawing everyone’s eyes.

Tuesday seems preoccupied with searching the room, hopeful for Zach’s presence. “Did he figure out a way to come back? Is that what this is about?”

My eyes lock with hers as I explain. “No. I think it’s best if Zach tells us everything himself. Well—technically, Soren will do it. But I’ll make sure he leaves nothing out.” After a brief glare in Soren's direction, I turn to Zach. He stands expectantly by the window, invisible to most. He looks especially haunting to me, bathed by the glow of a hundred candles.

“Go ahead,” I nod.

“It all started on All Hallows’ Eve,” he begins, voice growing dramatic for an audience of two. “For years, no one has seen me, heard me—not the living nor the dead...”

“That’s not true, Zach!” Tomorrow balks, interrupting Soren’s retelling. “Tuesday worked really hard on her spell!”

Zach rolls his eyes with a huff. “I was setting the stage, Morrow. I’m telling a story. Tell her that,” he beckons Soren with a loose hand. “Tell her she understands nothing about dramatization.”

Soren’s eyes could slice a rune into someone. “Can we move on?” he growls.

“Yes, fine, alright,” Zach agrees. “I can technically talk to Tuesday, but only for a minute a day. Never the same minute either. Even then, I’m never truly there. I can’t touch her, feel her.” He casts a longing glance in his girlfriend’s direction before returning his eyes to Soren with a new enthusiasm in his voice. “So the point was, when a whole group of ghosts showed up at the All Hallows’ Eve feast and they could both talk to me and manhandle me, I was delighted!

“This boo crew—that's what I call them, but in my head, not to their faces—they were very intrigued by my existence. You can't imagine what a relief it was to talk to someone, like really talk. I must've entertained them for hours with my lovelorn epic of loss and betrayal—”

Subjected to Soren’s withering glare, Zach clears his throat. “Long story shorter: they told me that if I kept an eye on Michlynn Carrow and reported back to them, they’d help me finally return to the land of the living. To you, my Tulip.”

My eyes trail Zach’s gaze to Tuesday as Soren relays a slightly abridged, emotionally castrated version. Understanding hangs in Tu's eyes as she wrings her hands together. “Oh Zach,” she murmurs. “What did you do?”

He turns to her, pleas silent to her ears. “Maybe I’ve gone crazy in my little half of non-existence, but I thought the boo crew and I had an understanding! I believed they'd help me, if not because we were fated to the same miserable doom of being eternally bodiless, then because I'd agreed to spy on Mika for them. Imagine my surprise when Mika could also see me—but then promptly ignored me.”

“Hey!” I interrupt. “Scaring innocent witchlings is like the job description of being a stalker ghost boy. Our choices have consequences, Zach."

Eyes slide to me curiously, seeing as how it looks like I’ve just had an outburst at a wall. I fold my arms defensively, dragging my eyes from them and back to Zach. “Carry on,” I mutter.

Zach doesn't miss a beat. “Since you clearly weren’t interested in befriending me, I spied from afar. All was fine and unexceptional until a month or so later, when I realized I couldn’t find you anywhere. I looked all over the academy for weeks, but it was as if Michlynn Carrow had vanished into thin air.”

Well, it wasn’t the air that was thin. More like me. Zach's timeline makes sense, though; I must have disappeared when I’d begun taking soulstabilis, right after I'd patched up Soren post-savage unicorn attack. Omens, the escapades of our shady soul magic days feel like ages ago.

“Why did they want you to spy on me?” I frown at Zach.

“I figured it had something to do with your mom. I mean, everyone knows who she is, even ghosts.” Zach pauses, then adds, "Maybe especially ghosts." I try to hide my wince as he continues. “Figured no harm done keeping an eye on Pandora Carrow's spawn. But my Tulip is a much better judge of character than me... and when we were finally able to sync up for our minute together, I realized that you were her friend. Not only that, but you were even part of a plan to help bring me back to life! It was the first time I'd felt hope in a really long time.”

He smiles over at Tu. Unhearing, she waits expectantly for Soren, worry knitting her brows.

“So then, I couldn’t very well spy on a friend of Tu, could I?" Zach continues. "I mean, I literally couldn’t. So I went rogue and decided to be a double agent for the boo crew and myself. I followed my former homeghosties back to their headquarters in Stillwood and that, my friends... that is when I found the essence portal. To another world.

There’s something coming, Zach had said back in my room after he'd scared me back half to death, his voice poised on the edge of sanity. Something from elsewhere that wants you.

His deep blue eyes are wide now, evocative of that horrific epiphany. It's true that Zach has acquired a certain flavor of crazy in his eyes, but as I watch him tell his story, I wonder how I ever felt threatened by him. He’s emphatic and theatrical. Lonely. Looking back at all the desperation that drove my own choices this year, I can’t blame Zach for anything.

“It was our world on the other side of the portal," he explains, "but it belonged to the dead. My boo crew are not your average vengeful spirits, turns out. Nope, they are sci-not-so-fi ghosts training up an army.” He casts a glance out at our shifting postures, furrowed brows, and heavy lids, waiting for Soren to drop the information bomb.

Soren blinks slowly, trying to process this information as he shares it. “Zach found a portal in Stillwood. The shadow walkers are building an army in Andromeda."

"An army of shadow walkers?" Nik repeats slowly, a million thoughts scattered across his face.

"Oh yeah," Zach nods enthusiastically. "Wait til you hear about their ugly ass wargs that I accidentally released into Stillwood!"

Soren clears his throat again, and Zach snaps back to attention. “Anyway, I ran for my afterlife, blah blah blah,” Zach rolls his eyes. “Boring story. I tried to tell Tu, but I could never get near enough to her when I needed to. She was spending more time with you”—he gestures to me—“and your mysteriously disappearing presence.”

"Disappearing presence. You have no idea,” I grumble.

“Alas,” Zach laments with a sigh, “around Christmas, my ghostly frenemies realized Tu was my connection to the land of the living. They weren't so thrilled about the missing wargs, you see. So they watched her, found me watching her, and I got dragged away through the portal, where they dumped me at the feet of their leader.”

The air seems to drain from the room with this revelation.

“That explains why he was in Stillwood so long,” Sabbath turns to Tuesday. "When you did the location spell for him."

“Oh Zach.” Tuesday's eyes fixate on the curtains, which is at least in the general vicinity of Zach. “I was looking for you, too! I’m so glad you got away safely!”

“Did this commander have a name?” Soren asks, his voice deathly calm, anticipatory.

Zach nods, eyes wide. “Most people called it the Shadowmancer, though it liked to go by something else. Shadowmancer is a pretty good name for what I saw, though... which was not much of anything, actually. Just a big swarm of shadows. Dark, menacing. It made me wonder if you can re-kill a ghost, because I definitely thought this thing would kill me for the final time. Instead, it demanded to know everything I'd learned about Mika... and Soren.”

The fire crackles behind the hearth as I absorb this information. “Soren? Why?” I ask quietly.

“I think they wanted me to watch Mika to keep me busy. They definitely wanted to know about her, but their priority was you.” Zach’s anxious eyes turn to Soren.

Bring me the Skin Carver!

The words settle on me like a cloud of black shadow walker smoke. “They’ve been looking for you for a long time, Soren,” I realize. “Since All Hallows’ Eve.” My eyes lift to him, expression tightening into a frown. “I saw them. They called you the ‘Skin Carver.’”

“Oh, so the villains have a nickname for Soren Cain, do they? Interesting.”

Ignoring Tomorow's jibe, Soren’s gaze sharpens on Zach. “What did they say?"

“Something about deranged magic and preventative measures and a soul-something. They definitely want you dead. You, specifically. Mika, I don't know about.”

My breath catches and Tu’s eyes grow big and fearful. “What’d Zach say?” she demands, eyes volleying between my reaction and the empty space where she knows her dead, invisible boyfriend is standing.

Swallowing, my gaze dances between Soren and Zach. “The Shadowmancer is looking for Soren,” I finally answer, leaving room for Soren to jump in with the specifics of being wanted dead, which he chooses not to do.

“That’s because he’s probably working with it,” Tomorrow grunts. “Probably, Soren Cain is behind all of this.”

“Oh, Morrow,” Tu swats at her sister. “Leave him be.”

My eyes lock on Soren, and I wait until he senses their weight. “Do you know?” I demand quietly. “Why?”

Why does the Shadowmancer want you dead, Soren? I think as his eyes search mine.

“I don’t know,” Soren shakes his head. I don’t think he’s lying, but I’ve been wrong before.

Oh, have I been mortally wrong.

Inclining my head, I give him one last chance. “You can’t think of any reason? You swear you haven’t been working for them, gotten yourself mixed up in something?”

He throws his hands in the air, eyes whipping to me. “I swear, Mika. Why would I try so hard to do the soul transfer if I had a secret allegiance in Andromeda?”

Chewing the inside of my cheek, I examine Soren’s face carefully: his tired, imploring eyes, the ever-present crease between his brows.

“Okay,” I reluctantly accept. “Is there anything else we should know, Zach?”

“I managed to escape, but they're still watching Tuesday. I couldn't risk our daily minute. I've been trying to get you alone for a week, Mika. They’re planning something. Something big. Most have returned to Stillwood.”

Soren's eyes narrow. “When you were on Andromeda, what did you see? Hear? Don’t leave anything out.”

While Soren relays Zach's jumbled observations in soundbites for us, I feel revelation weigh down his words. Lathan Cain's hushed words in the Catacombs and Pippa's admissions on Andromeda click into the place. The plot comes together in a mostly coherent way: the thing from Andromeda that the High Council has struck a deal with is the Shadowmancer, and somehow it will involve—

“This year's Claiming,” Sabbath breathes. Her hushed realization slips seamlessly into our collective shock. The silence that follows is perforated only by the sound of crackling flames.

Tearing my eyes from Soren, I find Sabbath by the fire. Concern crumples her gentle features as her mouth falls open in question. “But why? Why would our High Chancellor work with the Shadowmancer?”

“We’re missing something,” Soren agrees.

“You’re a Cain,” I remind him bitterly. “Think like one.”

“We all heard him in the Catacombs. The rule of the Council is failing without the election, and he clearly knows what the Shadowmancer is capable of. My uncle's afraid,” Soren answers knowingly.

“So he teamed up with it? To what end?” Nik protests.

Tomorrow paces haughtily, scrunching up her nose in distaste. “Cain could have access to an army from Andromeda. I'm appalled by the sound of it, but what's the point of an immaterial army?”

Soulstabilis?” I suggest to Soren quietly.

Soren’s brow dips into a wary frown. “Soulstabilis isn't sustainable en masse. Especially for the longterm.”

“Longterm?” Sabbath wheels her head between us, seeking the theory in our eyes. "You think they plan to stay?"

Zach raises his eyebrows. “I mean, if you’d seen their world...”

“We don't know what they're planning. We don't know what the Shadowmancer wants,” Soren concedes.

“Aside from you, you mean?” Tomorrow’s eyes simmer with anger as she juts her chin out in Soren’s direction.

If the Shadowmancer is in cahoots with Lathan Cain, I’m not sure killing his nephew is the best show of allegiance, but I can’t think of any other reason why the Shadowmancer’s minions would want Soren dead. I mean, other than the reasons that I want him dead. Somehow, I don’t think an inter-dimensional villain is pissed off that I was murdered.

“Does your uncle know about the soul-tie?” Nik muses, eyes moving warily away from Tomorrow’s wrath. “Would he wield that knowledge somehow?”

Soren shakes a frustrated thought from his mind. “He doesn’t know, not—not certainly. Besides, if I were the only thing the shadow walkers wanted, there were far more discreet ways they could have gotten to me than an army. Far sooner than the Claiming, too. Whatever role I have to play, I’m only a piece of this.”

Soren moves to the fire, his sweater stretched across his broad shoulders, arms folded as his eyes search the flames for answers that don’t come.

“Hello, you there,” Tomorrow snaps her fingers.

Soren’s back expands with a deep breath, but he doesn’t turn. “You’re right though, Tomorrow,” he finally admits, glancing at her. “Shadow walkers would be useless as an army... unless—”

My skin crawls as the spine-chilling memory hits me between the eyes: that first shadow walker, leaning down over me in Magical Mixology with his frigid breath and pale blue eyes, a promise on his lips...

I need a skin, and it won’t be long now before I'll have yours.

Epiphany sieves into Soren’s eyes as they lock urgently with mine. “They won’t use soulstabilis—”

“—The shadow walkers need bodies," I nod, inhaling sharply as all eyes snap to me. "The Council needs magic. They have the transference spell they tore from the Grimoire du Mage."

Tomorrow’s gaze maneuvers between us. “You can’t seriously mean—”

All eyes fall hesitantly on Soren, who looks dangerous in the firelight with waves of brood rolling off him, eyes adamant. “Ours,” Soren says quietly. “The High Council takes our bodies for the Shadowmancer at the Claiming.”

I'M SO GLAD TO BE BACK, but Mika and gang were probably happy to put off this revelation a few months! Are you happy to resume? Let's goooooo!

xx Jessa


Copyright © 2019 Jessa Lucas

All rights reserved. This work or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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