The governor’s castle rose into the dark at the top of Northface Harbor. All the streets in the city converged there, at the base of the imposing mansion.
The road was empty. Except for me and my dead.
My revenants walked beside me, an army of corpses. They bore wounds that I would have to heal with alchemy. Dead flesh could not knit back together on its own. Blood splattered their faces—the black blood was theirs, the red blood was from those who opposed us.
None of it was Governor Adelaide’s. Her blood was on my hands alone.
I bowed my head, my teeth clenched as I strode down the cobblestone road. Grey was somewhere behind me, still at the castle. He had thought—I flinched, even though he wasn’t there to see—he had thought that killing Adelaide would be the end. That stopping the plague would be enough.
I reached blindly to my right, feeling for my sister, gripping her left wrist to make sure that she was still by my side. Her skin was cold and clammy, no life pulsing in her veins.
None of this could end until she was whole and alive again.
The road evened out, and I almost stumbled on the curb. I looked up—and there, past my sister, were the iron gates of the Yūgen Alchemical Academy. I could see through the moonless night the dark outlines of the buildings I had lived among for a year—the library where I had researched, the dormitory where I had slept. The administration building. I had danced along the rooftop beneath the clock tower with Grey, before everything had changed. I had worked in the basement with Master Ostrum. I had gone deep into the earth at the very foundation of that building, and pulled from the shadows the severed, bony hand that formed the foundation of my iron crucible.
I turned sharply toward the gates that protected the school. My revenants sensed my intentions, following me without needing any directions.
The heavy gates were locked, just as they had been the first time I’d arrived at the academy. I want in, I thought, and every single one of my revenants heard my desire.
My army of the undead had fought tirelessly for me tonight, helping me invade the governor’s castle and destroy the necromancer who’d caused the plague that had killed my family and thousands more. But the dead cannot tire. They worked as one, swarming and pushing against the iron bars. The gates were old, and the hinges rusted. With a groan and a clatter, the iron gates gave way, clattering to the brick walkway beneath them.
I knew there were students at the academy, guards, teachers, and staff, but none dared approach as I and my undead army strode down the gravel pathway that cut right through the center of the school grounds. I wondered, though, if they watched from the darkened windows.
I forced my shoulders down, my spine straight, my chin forward.
Let them watch me. Let them fear me, if they must. I did not need their thanks for all I had done for them tonight.
I had never had it before.
The administration building wasn’t locked; everyone on campus felt safe behind the iron gates that kept the city out. I pushed open the door, my revenants streaming behind me as I made my way downstairs to Master Ostrum’s office.
The last time I’d been here, Master Ostrum had just been arrested. As a descendant of the most infamous necromancer in history, Bennum Wellebourne, Master Ostrum was plagued by suspicion. He was never a necromancer, even though he’d secretly kept books on the fourth alchemy and a crucible cage made from Wellebourne’s own mummified hand. After he was taken, I’d snuck into Master Ostrum’s office, stolen the crucible cage, and left, expecting never to return.
His office was boarded up now, two wooden planks forming an X over the door, nailed into the frame. The broken glass window in the door had not been repaired; jagged edges poked up like teeth in a gaping maw all around the frame.
Let me in, I thought, and my revenants surged forward, using their primal strength to rip the boards down and then step back, allowing me entry.
The room was dark. In the basement of the administration building, there were no windows to the outside. But even with the dim light from the hallway, I could tell that there was nothing left for me here.
I tried to swallow down my bitter disappointment. A part of me had hoped that there would be something else here in this room. I was so used to Master Ostrum providing me with the answers I needed. But the books on the shelves were all gone. The desk and chair were empty. There was ash and broken glass and splinters on the floor, debris from Master Ostrum’s arrest.
My sister’s empty body moved closer to me, hearing my unspoken call for her comfort. Of all my revenants, she was the one most covered in gore. She had fought the hardest. I rested my forehead against hers and wondered if some of the blood that flaked onto me was Master Ostrum’s.
Governor Adelaide had had him arrested under suspicion of necromancy, but she had known he was innocent. His execution was a way to get to me. His dead body had been raised and forced to fight me in an attempt by Adelaide to take my crucible. I touched the iron bead at my neck again. While most other crucibles were large, souls did not take up much space. My necromancy crucible was a hollow sphere I could barely squeeze a fingertip into. Size had nothing to do with power, though. I had defeated Adelaide. But doing so meant that Master Ostrum had returned to death fully.
He was gone.
I looked around the empty room.
And so was my last hope of finding something here that could restore my sister’s soul.
The events of the night were catching up with me, a tide rolling in, drowning the false hope I’d fabricated.
I started to leave, my feet crunching the broken glass. But a piece of cloth, dark blue and almost invisible in the shadows, caught my eye. I bent down to examine it.
Master Ostrum’s coat.
I held the cloth close to me. I could almost still smell his cologne, bergamot oil musty against the wool. My hand gripped the material, my knuckles shaking. It wasn’t fair. He had been a hard man, but a good one. He had wanted to help others. He had wanted to help me.
And he’d been killed for it.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Master Ostrum had been nothing like my father, but the place that ached inside me was close to the same hollow spot where Papa’s love had been. The injustice of his senseless murder reminded me too much of the injustice of the plague itself. Governor Adelaide had been so eager and willing to slaughter anyone, seeing them only as potential puppets in an undead army she could use to overthrow the Emperor.
I looked down at my hand, clenching the blue cloth. Earlier tonight, that hand had been wrapped around a sword. It had pushed the blade through the governor’s heart.
No. I had done that.
I had watched her die.
I had wanted her to die.
My chin tilted up. Should I feel regret? I thought dully.
Cursing, I tossed Master Ostrum’s coat to the ground.
I crouched to the floor, rifling through the pockets. There was some spare change, a handkerchief, and inside the front inner pocket was a small book. My heart thudded—I recognized the slender volume.
On my very first day at Northface Harbor, I had shown this little book to Master Ostrum. I snorted bitterly at my memory of the day. I’d been so proud of the journal, the handwritten text by my great-grandmother that listed the herbs and common treatments for illnesses in the north. Master Ostrum had graciously considered it “homeopathic,” but I knew now that most of the things my great-grandmother had listed had been weak compared to modern medicinal alchemy. I flipped through the pages.
This journal had first sparked my love and interest in medicinal alchemy, and that spark turned into a flame as the Wasting Death spread throughout the north. It had led me here, to Yūgen, to Master Ostrum, to Grey. And then it had led me back home. I’d returned to my village as a medical student with a golden crucible used to help heal the sick, but I left it a necromancer with an iron bead around my neck.
A flash of deep black caught my eye. I flipped back to the page—fresh ink stained the margin. Master Ostrum’s handwriting.
I sucked in a breath.
I held the book up to the open doorway, using the dim light from the hall to read. Passages were underlined; notes littered the margins, especially near the end, where my great-grandmother had interviewed people who had lived through Bennum Wellebourne’s revolt.
Master Ostrum’s single-minded focus had been to find a cure for the Wasting Death, and he had known early on that it was necromantic in origin. I had to assume he saw something in this journal that hinted about the cause or the solution to the plague, or other signs of necromancy at work.
I gripped the book and stood up. Maybe I would still be able to find the answers I needed.
“Let’s go home,” I said aloud to my revenants. They followed me as I left the office behind, as I strode past the iron lump of Wellebourne’s statue, through the gates, and back into the city.
This was not home.
It would never be home again.