A Woman of the Swamp – WIP

I’ve had this story on the back-burner for a while and it’s felt great to get back to it. I can’t promise to post chapters with any regularity, but here’s the opening. This will take place immediately after Nick Ventner’s second adventure, Downpour, due to release this year.

The Trials of Amateur Necromancy

“Repeat it back to me so I know you understand.” Marie tried her best to hold a patient note in her voice, while remaining stern. The only way to get through to the reanimated was repetition. She had told Frank the plan twenty times in plain, simple words, hoping that the parsimony would make it stick.

“I-I go inside,” Frank moaned through a mouthful of teeth attached by nothing more than decaying sinews. “Annnd, eat your brains?” His grin of pride was a horrifying sight that might have almost been endearing had he not lost the plan again.

Marie sighed. Four hours earlier, she broke into a crypt in one of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries, risking everything to bring Frank back. The key to reanimation was speed, and now she suspected that she still hadn’t been fast enough. Heat and humidity made quick work, especially when the tomb masons were phoning it in. She could have broken the seal with a plastic spoon.

The real trouble was grieving families. Funerals were a big deal in the city and mourners hung around for hours. To get Frank’s corpse, Marie spent half a day cooped up in a nearby mausoleum with nothing but the long-decayed dead for company, waiting for the last of the mourning party to leave. Stealing from the morgue was briefly on the table, but Marie soon realized she would likely end up in jail, or worse, an asylum. Staying focused was hard enough without being pumped full of drugs to keep her placid. Too many great necromancers had been taken for fools and rotted in the arms of state mental health officials.

Focus, Marie. Raising the dead was nothing like the countless books she read on the subject. There were supposed to be great legions of shambling servants at her command, and yet Marie struggled with a single attention deficit zombie that could barely keep his mind off eating his master. Why is it so hard to find good help?

  Frank interrupted her thoughts to take a lurching shuffle toward her, arms outstretched.

“Hey!” She snapped her fingers in front of his face, waving a bejeweled hand through the air. “Focus, what are you going to do once you’re inside?” Marie looked around nervously. The street corner they were on was dark, but if anyone walked close enough, they’d be hard pressed not to notice Frank’s smell. Most of the drunks off Bourbon Street were a particular brand of ignorant, but god forbid any of the locals showed up, they’d be on to her in a second.

      “I,” Frank paused, pushing a finger deep into the gunshot wound in his upper cheek. As far as thinking postures went, it was one of the worst. “I take the things.”

      Marie said a silent thank you to whatever god was on her side in that single moment. “Yes, Frank, very good.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small plastic bag filled with hunks of rotting meat.

Frank salivated at the crinkling and held out his palm.

Marie wondered at first if Frank would notice the missing pieces of his own calf, but to a zombie – well, a dumb zombie – meat was meat. She carefully took out a piece and plopped it into his outstretched hand, careful to pull back quickly. She might have been the one to raise him, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t susceptible to his bite. Zombies were fantastic for hard labor, but came with several risks that were not to be taken lightly. If he bit her, the entire city could be a burning wreckage in a few days’ time.

Frank chomped happily on the piece of his own flesh, never the wiser.

Marie waited for him to finish, the disgusting process taking longer than she had anticipated, and continued. “What things are you going to steal when you get inside?”

“I steal brains!”

A couple rounded the corner from Bourbon Street, heading toward her. The woman was yelling curses and slurs over her shoulder and the man was trying desperately to keep pace and make amends.  

“They do say kill your darlings,” Marie muttered.

“Darling,” repeated Frank.

“Yes, dear. Get away from me, pervert!” she shouted, pulling out a long knife and plunging it between Frank’s eyes. The zombie fell with a wet slop into the gutter.

The couple stopped their argument to stare drunkenly into the gloom. Marie gave them a halfhearted wave, hoping that she hadn’t found the one good Samaritan traveler that would try to help a woman at night. Luckily, she was a decent judge of character. The couple turned away slowly, walking back to Bourbon Street, likely pretending that what they had seen was a trick of the light. Explaining away horrible things made it so much easier to sleep off the implications.

Marie let out her breath and looked down at Frank lying motionless in the gutter. That ought to confuse the coroner. She had been scared to leave any trace of her work at first, but the fact was, the police were better at covering her tracks than she was. If they couldn’t explain it, they wanted to keep it a secret. So, come the morning, Frank would be yet another John Doe lying in the gutter, headed back to the mausoleum.

Marie looked down at the corpse. “This would have been so much easier if you had just remembered the damned plan.” She opened her purse and pulled out a small jar filled with scuttling black monstrosities. “Hello, Plan B.”She kept a firm hand on the lid as she unscrewed it a crack. Letting corpse spiders get close was a mistake a practitioner made only once. “Creep under the door, find me some items of power.” Looking up at the rickety sign for the New Orleans Museum of Voodoo, she hoped they had something worthwhile.  

The largest of the spiders looked up at her and brushed its legs together in what she hoped was assent.

“I’ll take it.” Marie threw the jar on the sidewalk, sending motes of glass skittering across the pavement. No one would pay any attention to the noise; open containers and rowdy tourists made it a common occurrence.

The corpse spiders crawled out from beneath the shards of glass, looking miffed.

“I wouldn’t have to throw the jar if you didn’t try to bite me every time I open the lid.”

The spiders scrambled around on the pavement, stretching their legs for the first time since Marie had summoned them into the jar. The lead spider, or at least what Marie assumed was the lead, looked at the door to the Voodoo Museum, back to Marie and then toward Bourbon Street.

“No, you don’t. Don’t you dare.”

The spider kicked its front legs up, baring its fangs and hissing what vaguely sounded like a curse.

“What, you want me to give you health benefits or something?”

The spider took a threatening step forward.

“Last time I go digging through graves for help.” She knew it wouldn’t be. Marie pulled aside a fold of her robe, revealing a practitioner’s staff. Finding the right length of wood in a swamp teeming with alligators, snakes, and plenty of other horrors, had been a crucible, but worth it. Looking down on the black runes carved in smooth wood, she could feel the power emanating from her creation. Marie turned the staff so that the skull adorning its tip faced her foes and struck an aggressive posture.

The corpse spiders didn’t flinch.

“What? Not afraid of a little dark magic. Being creatures of dark magic makes you immune, eh?” In the years since she had carved the staff, Marie had cast approximately no spells, but it was an intimidating tool. As it turned out, staffs required sacrifices for power, and the price wasn’t cheap. Marie couldn’t bring herself to perform any of the rituals listed for imbuing the length of wood. Maybe someday. Nowadays, the staff was nothing more than a useful tool to part tourists from their money, and to dispose of the occasional creepy crawly. The spiders, still posturing, didn’t move.

Marie grinned and slammed the butt of the staff down three times in quick succession. With each successful strike, a puff of black, ethereal energy shot up from the ground and dissipated into the night air. She scuffed the base of the staff on the pavement, wiping what remained of the spiders there and put it back in her robe. The best help comes from within. Marie pulled a thin red mask over her nose on the off chance there were security cameras and stepped up to the museum’s door. “In for a penny,” she started, and finished by shattering the door’s glass window with her elbow.

Want to read more of my work? All of my books and published short stories are available on Amazon, or if you want to support your local bookstores (dooo it), they’re on Bookshop in e-reader and physical formats.

From Nick Dorsey, Author of Jupiter Man: “Ashton has crafted a funny, inventive, and often booze-soaked tale chock full of magic and monsters. Nick Ventner is what you get if you take Indiana Jones and strip away his morals, skills, and accountability. Rarely has traveling to hell and back been this much fun.”

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