Chapter 1: Homecoming
Lukenaria Carpenter hurried through the dark, suburban streets of the Thunderhead Ward toward her father’s house, working out what to say to him after being dead for twenty years:
Hey Dad! I’m back! I’m a walking corpse, but it’s okay. We’ll work something out.
No. Too sudden.
Hey, Dad! It’s me! You know how everyone says the Age of Magic ended, or never existed? Well, bits of it are still around, and if you make a pact with a powerful entity, you can get their vestige and—
No. Keep it simple.
Dad, I missed you! I have so much to tell you—
That was it!
We’ll spend all night talking and it will be amazing.
Both sides of the street were lined with red brick houses, immaculate driveways, and neatly clipped lawns. With her undead vision, Lukie easily discerned the digits on the nearest letter box. Number 7. Getting close. She had to hurry. Tamlyn Tanner might wake any second, realize that she’d flipped through his notebook when he hadn’t been looking, and cut short her reunion with Dad. Once he’d been her friend in high school and they’d been the same age. Now he was nearly forty, and a police inspector, while she still looked seventeen.
“Stay away from your father,” Tamlyn had told Lukie. “Give him space and—”
“No!” Lukie had shouted. “That’s not how we do things! We trust each other like that!” and she’d crooked her fingers together.
She missed her father terribly. For most of Lukie’s existence, he had been her sole parent: always there for her, grounding her flights of fancy with rock-solid certainty, fielding all her questions about life, school, and relationships.
Twenty years ago, she’d gone to a party and been murdered. It had taken her that long to escape the Underworld, making a pact with her ghost lord patron to become a revenant and return to the world in her physical form. While her memories were fragmented, she remembered saying goodbye to Dad before she died. Getting her new car from him as a gift, kissing him farewell, and promising to be home before midnight. And she’d never returned.
Now she was back, and once she explained everything, she and her father would resume their relationship as though she’d never been gone. Soon, she would be there, and he’d give her a warm hug, and—
Bestial howls echoed. She stopped and whirled around, trying to determine where the sound of wolves was coming from.
The empty streets mocked her.
A piece of paper skittered along the street on the night wind. Parked cars sat in their carports and driveways, their sleek, modern 2003 shapes more evidence that Lukie was no longer in 1983. She remembered to breathe, and the smell of the area flooded her nostrils: pollen from flowering bushes, fresh-turned dirt, and the reek of chlorine from nearby pools.
And yet no sign of any dogs, apart from a faint yip-yip-yip sound from a distant terrier.
Perhaps she’d overheard a movie. No, then the noise would have come from a direction she could have pinpointed.
She paused and studied the empty streets, and then the howls echoed again, within the space of her own mind.
Something supernatural had to be going on. She thrust her senses outward, reaching for Tenebra and the realm of the dead. The Veil, a metaphysical barrier, separated from the living lands from Tenebra. Most times when Lukie perceived it, it had the solidity of a psychic cinderblock wall. Right now, it felt as flimsy as a shower curtain. The sense of the Underworld pushed against Lukie like a dark, lapping tide, and beyond that, a presence loomed.
Someone was watching her from the other side.
“Hello?” Lukie tried. The observer pulled back, distant. Without rending through the Veil into Tenebra itself, Lukie did not know who or what it was.
She decided against crossing over. Tenebra was no place for a casual visit. Rather than the nice, gray purgatorial land of the dead that popped up in folklore and religious stories, Tenebra was horrible. It was a void, a tar pit full of trapped souls that consumed each other to survive. Some ran, some hunted, while others learned to build pocket dimensions in the darkness from their memories and obsessions, the most powerful becoming the ghost lord sovereigns of the Underworld. Lukie reached for her vestige—her patron’s soul fragment within her—but her own ghost lord’s presence was distant. No straightforward answers there.
She bit her lip. She didn’t have time for distractions, she needed to see Dad before she exploded within, before Tamlyn came.
Weird stuff from Tenebra could wait.
Dismissing the howls and looming watcher from her mind, Lukie checked a nearby castle-shaped letterbox: 23. Nearly there. She made sure that the sunglasses were still on—concealing her undead eyes—and sprinted until she arrived at her father’s home: 47 Barbican Street. The two-story, red brick house, with its manicured hedges, rose gardens, and the wide-spreading oak tree in the front yard was straight from a television show.
Why did Dad move here? It’s nowhere near the beach.
The Thunderhead Ward was ten hours’ drive from Breakwater Bay, up the coast and inland. Tamlyn had contacted her father in person to tell him the official story about how she’d been killed and why. Giving some resolution. And yet, when Tamlyn returned to their motel, he’d refused to disclose any juicy details, apart from that her father was fine. As usual, Tamlyn had said they’d ‘talk later’ and they never did. No, that was not—
What is going on? She hesitated. Was she putting Dad in danger? Cage had warned her that the mortal world of sunlight, pizza, and school was no longer her province. Barriers sealed it away from the hidden shores of the supernatural realm, and those should not be breached.
No. Lukie curled her hands into fists. She had to speak to her father.
Did she knock and announce herself? Whisper to him through a wall?
She approached the front door, listening to the night breeze.
A faint, familiar snore rattled the air.
She knew that noise! Right in the downstairs living room! She squinted through a gap in the curtains.
A figure sprawled on a brown couch; a rough blanket pulled over him. Who was that elderly man? Why did he sound like Dad? He turned in his sleep, revealing his profile.
Her father, but different. Bald, with a lined face, and a visible paunch. No longer the muscular person from her memory.
Maybe this isn’t such a good idea, Lukie considered. Perhaps I should wait for Tam—
Dad snored, grunted, and woke. He sat bolt upright, rubbing his head as though emerging from a terrible dream.
And he stared straight at her through the window.
“Hey Dad,” Lukie rasped. “I’m back.”
“Lukie?” Dad’s face paled with shock. His hands shook and fumbled by his side. He walked slowly to the glass pane between them. “No. It can’t be. You’re dead.”
She swallowed. Dad wasn’t supposed to be like this: old, trembling, and worst of all, doubting her existence. She forced her husky, undead voice into its former register. “I… returned from the Underworld. To see you.” Not the greatest of introductions, but once they talked, everything would be fine. When she’d crashed her bike or faked an assignment or lost track of time and broken curfew, all she needed to do was to speak to him. “I’m real, Dad!”
He retreated a step. “I saw your body on the slab. And what he did to you…”
“I got the Baron, Dad,” Lukie explained. “The guy who killed me and Karra. Sucked his soul dry.”
Rather than being reassured, Dad’s eyes widened in shock.
Crap. Now was not the best time to explain to her father she was a horrible, undead monster. She raised her hands in the air. “Look, I’m doing this all wrong. Can we start again? Please. I’ve come back from the dead. I’m a revenant. Like a zombie, but more awesome. I’m still me, and—”
“You can’t be her. Lukie was cremated. We sprinkled her ashes on the beach—”
“You don’t need your body to be a revenant.” Lukie’s frustration mounted. Why didn’t he believe her? She was right in front of him. Her head throbbed and spectral energy bloomed around her. The weird presence from earlier was closer. No, this was more important. “I was trapped in the Underworld for twenty years, but then I got out and—”
“My daughter is safe in the afterlife with her mother. I don’t know what you are—demon, hallucination—leave me alone!” He slid the blinds shut. Muffled sobs echoed.
“Dad, please no. Don’t cry, it’s really me!” She thumped on the door, intending to knock, but the wood splintered off its hinges at her undead might. “Sorry!”
She peered into the gap. Inside was a modern living room: couch, bookshelves, a carpeted floor, and a large television. Impossibly neat and lacking the familiar clutter of guitars, surfboards, and car magazines that resembled the old house she’d shared with Dad twenty years ago. Her father huddled on the carpet, frozen.
Lukie gritted her teeth. One more try. “Sorry about the door. I’ll fix it. Please, give me a chance to explain.”
The sense of the presence from earlier rose again, like a mantle. Piss off, Lukie thought. I don’t have time for you.
She turned her attention to her father, trying to figure out the best way to get him to see her and not some undead horror when a girl in blue pajamas rushed in front of her. Perhaps thirteen, with long dark hair and the tan coloring of the Varuvals, the Stormfield’s traditional peasantry. Also: completely human and not half-elven like Lukie.
The girl brandished a piece of antler. “You don’t belong here. Begone!”
“Who are you?” Lukie stopped in her tracks.
“His real daughter,” the girl challenged. “A wizard of great power!” She stabbed the horn wand directly in the air.
“What are you talking about?” Lukie growled. A wizard? Really? Normal mortals weren’t supposed to know about the supernatural realm. Cage had said that ancient rituals protected the ordinary world from what remained of the magical. Yet that paled against the fact that she’d been replaced. Dad had remarried and gotten a proper human daughter. In Lukie’s fragmented memories, she’d only kissed her father goodbye a few weeks ago; and now she’d been forgotten; substituted with a newer, better model.
She grated, “Go. Away,” and stretched a hand to shove the girl aside.
The ‘wizard’ struck Lukie’s arm with the antler, which shattered into a dozen horn shards. A sharp pain stabbed through Lukie’s entire undead form and her limbs became molasses. She staggered, arms flailing, and her sunglasses slipped off, revealing her blank, red glowing eyes. She grunted, stunned. What was going on?
The mounting layers of spectral energy erupted.
A howl echoed and a hunched, canine-like humanoid figure bounded through the broken door and lunged at the girl.
Lukie struggled to her feet. Damn it; she’d heard those howls earlier and dismissed them. She’d led the creature here, where it could prey on her father. Her impatience had put everyone in danger. And now she couldn’t fix her mess and save the New Girl, as annoying as she was.
Sluggishness gripped her limbs—that antler, whatever it was—prevented her from dealing with the monster immediately.
“Sienna!” Dad shouted and charged at the creature, distracting it from clawing the girl.
The dog thing stood on its hind legs and knocked Lukie’s father to the carpet with a single swipe of its clawed fingers.
The hiss of spectral energy rippled in Lukie’s ears. Undead fed off souls. And this thing was draining Dad, just as she’d drained the Baron’s existence.
No, no! She’d only wanted to talk! To catch-up! She tried to shout, but no sound escaped her lips. Instead, she screamed inside, wishing for a chance to do this again, correctly from the beginning.
Sienna fumbled on the floor for her broken antler.
Finally, the lassitude left Lukie’s limbs. She rushed at the creature, tackling it. She sensed souls as aural phenomena, and the monster seethed with chaotic music: chiming gongs and wailing screams. And overriding that was a simple, acoustic guitar melody, like the ones her father had played to her on Bellsday evening after they came home from the Surf Club.
Lukie staggered with horror. That was Dad’s soul. Not drained but collected.
The creature had stolen her father.
And it was all her fault.
“Give him back!” she yelled as she attempted to strangle the creature.
The dog-thing reared and threw her against a nearby bookcase, which cracked and broke.
Dad slumped on the floor, not moving while the girl screamed and clung to him.
The dog-thing lunged away through the front garden, reaching the dark street and sprinting into the night.
“I’m sorry!” Lukie cried. “I’ll fix everything! I’ll get him back, I promise!”
A light clicked on upstairs. Footsteps echoed.
This new family could deal with Dad’s fallen form; she would track that monster and save his soul.
She turned and gave chase, stifling a scream, her hands curling into fists.
She’d ruined the lives of the people she cared about.