Or, the costs and benefits of coming back from the dead.
Marn watched the necromancer at the altar, expressionless under his dark hood, spreading oil on the body laid there. On Eserra.
Stripped of clothing and ornaments, Eserra looked so helpless. He had always been a slight man, especially compared to Marn, with that tiny tuft of hair on his skinny chest and his slender arms covered with bizarre wizard tattoos. In death, he looked even more vulnerable, softer, his cinnamon skin pallid and dull.
Peaceful, though. Eserra hadn’t seen a lot of peace.
Maybe this was better. Maybe Taemin wouldn’t be able to get—
Taemin barged in, a swirl of satiny robes. She thrust a huge green gem at the necromancer. “This had better be pure enough.”
The necromancer examined it, nodded. “He might still refuse the summons. Some do. And returning changes people.”
Taemin’s nose flared. “He’d better come back. If he doesn’t, I swear to Dyphental, I’ll go to the Wailing Winds myself and drag him back.”
Marn made the circle-and-toss sign to avert the evil. He noticed the necromancer do the same. Marn shuddered. Even a Brazachian sees her god as evil.
“He owes me.”
Oh yes, she never missed an opportunity to say she’d raised her abandoned baby brother. Paid for his wizard training too. Fit him into her plan—divine sister and arcane brother, an unstoppable team. She rarely acknowledged Marn as part of that team, unless she needed someone pummeled.
The ritual dragged on. Marn didn’t understand any of it, not even what language the necromancer chanted. He stayed absolutely quiet, though. He understood doing what he was told.
The emerald on Eserra’s chest rose, hovering. It glowed increasingly brighter, until everything else blurred.
The green orb hummed, throbbed, expanded. Then exploded. Quietly, softly. Green mist floated down, infusing Eserra’s body.
They stared at the still form, expectantly. The necromancer nudged Eserra‘s shoulder. No response. He pounded Eserra’s chest. Suddenly, Eserra inhaled deeply, coughing up bloody phlegm.
Marn started breathing again. Half breathing, at least. Half sobbing.
Taemin wore her confident, satisfied victor’s smirk. “Good.” She asked the necromancer, “How is he? Is he changed?”
Marn’s mouth gaped open. Changed? Eserra’s long hair had fallen out. He was almost skeletal, the skin clinging to his bones hatched with ugly white scars. He looked more dead now than before.
The necromancer leaned in closer. “Eserra, can you speak?”
Eserra mumbled incoherently, tried again. “Where am I?”
Taemin pushed her face into his line of sight. “You’re back. Thanks to me.” She tapped his forehead. “So, everything’s still working in there?”
Eserra waved her away weakly, tried to raise up on his elbows. The necromancer grabbed him before he fell, helped push him to a sitting position.
Eserra looked around, found Marn, smiled. Glancing at his sister, his face dropped. His eyes darted around the room, wide with confusion. “I can’t see it! It’s gone!”
Taemin waved at Eserra. “You’re blind?”
“No, the sight. I can’t see the najha plane!” Eserra buried his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking.
“You can’t… You can’t do magic anymore?” Taemin spun toward the necromancer. “I knew this would happen. You broke him!”
The necromancer shrugged. “The return changes everyone. Costs everyone.”
Taemin grabbed the sacred symbol hanging from her belt and stepped closer.
The necromancer curved his hands, but kept them low, near his waist. “I wouldn’t try anything. You’re in my House now, Dyphentali.”
Taemin redirected her wrath at her brother. “I could have sold that emerald for seventeen thousand Ezzi crowns, easily. You owe me. Sell, steal, whatever it takes. Pay me back within the week, or I promise, you will wish you had stayed dead.” She spat on the floor between them. “Then disappear. I’m sick of taking care of your sorry stone-sucking ass. You hear me? I am done with you!”
As soon as she stomped out, Marn rushed to the altar. He held Eserra gently, terrified by his fragility. The necromancer nodded to them, and left the room.
Eserra’s return embrace was weak. His laugh quickly turned into a cough. “You can let go now. I’m not going anywhere.”
Marn straightened, wiping his cheeks with thick fingers. “I thought we’d lost you.”
“We? I didn’t come back for her, and you know it.” Eserra raised a bony hand to feel his bald head. “I look a wreck, don’t I?”
“You look wonderful.” Marn took Eserra’s hand. It seemed even smaller than usual in his bruiser’s mitt. “But losing your sight, oh by all the gods, I’m so sorry. I know what that means to you. You’ll do fine though, I know you will. We’ll convince Taemin somehow. We’ll…” Marn had no idea what they would do. Taemin was impossible even when she wasn’t mad. This was hopeless.
Eserra shook his head. “No, I’m useless to her now. She doesn’t want me.”
Marn tilted his head, confused by Eserra’s happy tone of voice.
“Don’t you see? I’m free.” Eserra squeezed Marn’s hand. “We’re free.”
Marn’s eyes misted up again. Just the two of them. Finally.
“As soon as I pay her, we’ll leave. Anywhere we want. As far away as possible. ”
Marn’s giddiness was tempered by grief over Eserra’s loss. “But being burnt out, how… Are you healthy enough to travel? Do you need treatment?”
Eserra grinned sheepishly. “Well… Taemin is usually the devious one, but it turns out I’ve been paying attention all these years.” He lifted a finger. A blue sparkle sputtered from its tip. Weak, but definitely magic. He put the finger to his lips. “Don’t tell.”
Leaving the nondescript building that secretly housed the Brazachan temple, Eserra leaned heavily on Marn’s arm. He refused to let Marn carry him, not for these first steps of their new life. The gray sky spit drizzling rain, the road was more mud than dirt, and the smell of rotten fish permeated the air. Marn beamed from ear to ear. He had never witnessed a more gorgeous, glorious day.
Confession: The Sunday Photo Fiction writing challenge is supposed to be limited to “around 200 words.” Up until now, I have kept super strict limits on every writing challenge flash fiction piece. I have never exceeded the limit. But I just couldn’t do it this time. This photo inspired such an involved story from me that it was all I could do to keep it this short. Please forgive me, oh mighty gods of the flash fiction heavens! I promise to reform my evil ways and return to a state of grace in future challenges!
Go here to see the original prompt and rules. Click on the blue frog to see the other stories written for this prompt — always worth reading, and probably they all managed to get in at or close to the 200 word limit.
To learn more about Brazachians and what it’s like for wizards who really do get “burnt out” and lose their magic sight, check out Burning Questions.
Also, for anybody who read the title and thought of Cyndi Lauper’s song “Money Changes Everything,” you get a big gold star from me today.