Death Weavers CHAPTER 1 SHRINE
Are there really ghosts here?” Cole asked.
“They’re called echoes,” Hunter replied. “But, yeah. Pretty much.”
Cole, Hunter, Dalton, and Jace strolled along a flat, stone-lined path in the garden surrounding the Seven-Cornered Shrine. The bright afternoon sun, the sculpted hedges, the diverse flowers, the trellised vines, the shade trees, the trickling streams, the splashing fountains—nothing in view suggested the presence of restless spirits.
They had arrived in Necronum from Zeropolis by monorail a little before midday. The station straddled the border between the kingdoms, with the track ending scant feet from Necronum. It had felt strange to transfer from the comforts of a sleek monorail to the clattering confines of a horse-drawn coach, and served as a strong reminder how different the kingdoms could be from one another. The coach had brought them directly to the shrine, along with Mira and Joe, who had gone their own way just after the group reached the sprawling grounds.
Watching Hunter, Cole could still hardly believe he had joined forces with his lost brother. Cole lacked memories of living with Hunter as his sibling back home in Arizona, but that made sense because Hunter had been taken to the Outskirts before him. When people went to the Outskirts, those left behind forgot them, just as Cole’s parents and sister could no longer remember him. Hunter had shown Cole lots of photographic evidence that they had grown up together and had offered even more proof with the risks he took back in Zeropolis.
Cole sometimes wondered how many people had been brought to the Outskirts over the years. If all who came here were forgotten, how could anyone ever make an accurate count? Dozens of kids were simultaneously abducted by slave traders when Cole came to the Outskirts. And Hunter had been captured on a separate occasion. How many other times had it happened? How many total people had been taken? Hundreds? Thousands? More?
“You’ve actually seen a ghost?” Dalton asked.
“I’ve seen plenty,” Hunter said. “The shaping in Necronum is built around interacting with the dead.”
“Think we’ll see some today?” Jace asked, not quite keeping the uneasiness out of his voice.
Hunter clapped his hands and rubbed his palms. “Not if we stay together. Echoes don’t usually like groups. At least not at a shrine.”
“Then let’s split up,” Jace said. “I want to hear Dalton scream.”
“How will you hear me if you’re running all the way back to Sambria?” Dalton scoffed.
Jace huffed. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” He glanced at Hunter. “Is there?”
Hunter shrugged. “Not if you don’t mind being haunted.”
“Haunted?” Jace asked, looking a shade or two paler.
“Sometimes an echo will take an interest in you,” Hunter said. “Follow you around. Work mischief. Watch you sleep.”
Jace was trying to nod, as if the information were expected, but he didn’t look very comfortable. Cole didn’t feel at ease either, but he still managed to enjoy the sight of Jace getting rattled.
“They can’t touch us or anything,” Jace said, as if confirming common knowledge.
“It depends,” Hunter said. “Not usually. There are plenty of exceptions.”
“Now you’re just messing with us,” Dalton said hopefully.
Pausing on the path, Hunter closed his eyes, stretched out his arms, and took a deep breath. “I smell dead people.”
“Whatever,” Cole said, glancing around just in case. On one side of the path, a row of fruit trees rustled in the soft breeze. Were they moving a little too much? In the other direction, a couple sat on a stone bench staring at a pond. “You don’t mean those two?”
Hunter opened his eyes and regarded the pair on the bench. “Normal people. But you’re smart not to make assumptions here. At a shrine, the differences between a living person and an echo can be subtle.”
“They look like normal people?” Dalton asked.
“Most of the time we can’t see echoes,” Hunter clarified. “Sometimes you might feel them. Not so much with your fingers. Your spine might tingle, or you might have the suspicion you’re being watched. Pay attention to those feelings in Necronum.”
“Are you good at the shaping here, Aaron?” Jace asked, using the alias they had agreed to adopt for Hunter. They had decided Mira needed a codename as well. Today she was Sally.
“They call it weaving,” Hunter said. “Short for death weaving, or echo weaving. I’m not bad at it. The really talented weavers can summon echoes. They can see and talk to them when others can’t. Some weavers can even travel to the realm of the dead. They call it the echolands.”
“How good of a death weaver are you?” Dalton asked.
Hunter shrugged. “I’m no expert, but I know some decent tricks.”
“Call an echo,” Jace challenged.
“No need here,” Hunter explained. “In fact, it would bother them. At a shrine, echoes can appear to anyone. They might be a little transparent. Or they might look as solid as we do.” He started walking again.
“What exactly should we do if we find an echo?” Cole asked. “We never really covered that.”
“Get info,” Hunter said. “We need to find Honor and Destiny.”
“We have the stars,” Jace reminded him. Mira’s mother, Queen Harmony, could place stars in the sky to mark the location of her five daughters. She only did so in emergencies. Currently, Destiny and Honor both had stars in the sky, practically on top of each other.
“Sure, but we want details,” Hunter said. “We know which direction to go, but we don’t know how far. And it would help if we could learn exactly what happened.”
“The echoes will just tell us?” Cole asked. “Isn’t it risky if we let the wrong echo know who we’re after?”
Hunter rolled his eyes. “Be smart about it. Don’t start by asking exactly what you want to know. Haven’t you been to confidence lounges? Feel it out. The echoes who come here do it voluntarily. They want to interact with the living. They may want you to do favors for them. See if you can make a deal.” His voice became hard. “But no binding oaths.”
“What does that mean?” Dalton asked.
“It’s like making a formal contract,” Hunter said. “Echoes only have real influence over the living if you give them power. The easiest way to get yourself in trouble is by breaking a promise you made to them. Especially a formal one. They call it a bound oath.”
“But we can bargain?” Cole checked.
“If you keep it casual,” Hunter said. “Don’t make any official vows. And take care how much you say. Echoes use information as currency. Most would happily trade what they learn from you with others.”
Hunter stopped walking as they reached the intersection of two paths. “Four directions,” he said.
“One of us will have to backtrack,” Cole observed.
“Not it,” Dalton said.
“Not it,” Cole added reflexively.
Hunter stared at Jace. “I don’t care either way. Do you want to go back?”
“I’ll go forward,” Jace said.
“We have a few hours,” Hunter said. “They’ll make us clear out after sundown. My understanding is that most of the action at this shrine happens out here on the grounds, so just roam and see what you find. Try to relax, and use good judgment.”
“Try not to cry,” Jace told Dalton.
“Have fun,” Dalton replied with a smile. “I bet this will be your lucky day.”
Cole winced. As a Sky Raider, Jace had adopted negative superstitions about any wishes involving good luck. “He means die bravely,” Cole interjected.
“I know what he means,” Jace said coldly. “I make a joke and he tries to jinx me.”
Hunter rubbed his forehead, as if he had a headache coming on. “Jinxes? That’s a crime now? Come on, guys, get it together.” He turned and started back the way they had come.
After a final glare at Dalton, Jace proceeded along the path.
Folding his arms, Cole watched Jace walk away. Dalton lingered. “Why do you always bug him?” Cole murmured.
“Jace started it,” Dalton said. “Go ask him why he bugs me.”
Cole sighed. “He’s had a hard life. He grew up here as a slave.”
“And my life has been so easy,” Dalton replied, some heat in his tone. “I got taken here as a slave. Ripped from my home. Just like you. Every second we stay with Sally, we risk our lives just like Jace does.”
Cole thought about that. After venturing into a stranger’s basement on Halloween, Dalton, Jenna, and a bunch of his friends had been taken here against their will. Cole had followed, trying to help, but got captured as well. He had met Jace and Mira after he was sold as a slave to the Sky Raiders. When the three of them escaped with Twitch, he found out that Mira was a princess and got involved helping her find her four exiled sisters.
Nothing since coming to the Outskirts had made Cole happier than finding Dalton. It had been such a relief to reunite not just with a face from home, but with his best friend. In a strange, dangerous world, Cole now had somebody he could talk to and really trust. But ever since finding Dalton, Cole had felt torn about whether his top priority should be helping Mira or finding the other kids who were taken. So far he had compromised by trying to accomplish both goals at the same time.
“I don’t mean our lives are easier,” Cole said.
“That’s what it sounded like,” Dalton said.
“Jace is kind of a jerk,” Cole said. “I don’t see that changing in the near future. He was always a slave. He never learned how to be normal. I know you’re better than that.”
“So we should let him walk all over us?” Dalton challenged. “How many times do I have to say this? If you let somebody take advantage of you, it gets worse, not better.”
Cole shrugged. “Maybe you’re right.”
Dalton glanced down the path to the left. “I guess I’ll go this way.”
“Take care,” Cole said.
Dalton hesitated. “You haven’t forgotten about Jenna?”
Cole froze, trying not to let his irritation show. How could he forget Jenna, his secret crush since second grade who had finally started to become his friend before they were parted by slavers?
“We know she’s here in Necronum at the Temple of the Still Water,” Cole said. “It’s not nearby. But we’ll get there.”
Dalton looked around to make sure they were alone. “Right. We know where she is. We don’t have to wander. We could go straight there. We’re in Necronum. If we find Jenna, we could search for the Grand Shaper of Creon and maybe figure out a way to get home and stay there.”
Cole put his hands on his hips. By all reports, even if they managed to get home, nobody would remember them, and they would get drawn back into the Outskirts within hours. But Trillian the torivor had suggested it might be possible to change how that worked, and Cole refused to give up hope he might be right. After all, isn’t that what shapers did? Mess with reality? And shapecrafters could tinker with the shaping power itself. Somebody had to know a way they could get home to stay. “Are you saying we should ditch Sally?”
Dalton raised both hands innocently. “Two of her sisters are already in trouble here. This is where Nazeem lives, the freaky guy who invented shapecrafting and who almost caught you in Junction. Things could get really ugly. I’m sure Joe can help Sally meet up with lots of allies here. They’ll be all right. Queen Harmony already told you where to find Jenna. I don’t get the holdup. Why make Jenna wait? And after we find her, do we keep her in danger, or do we go look for a way home?”
“The Grand Shapers are in hiding,” Cole said. “How would we find the Grand Shaper of Creon without Sally? Staying with her gives us access to all the members of the resistance.”
“It also leads us into danger and turns us into targets,” Dalton said. “It’s complicated. I don’t have all the answers. But sometimes I wonder if getting home still matters to you.”
Cole frowned. Since embarking for Necronum, he had been especially focused on trying to find Mira’s sisters Honor and Destiny. Mira’s mother had warned him they were in serious danger. And then last night in Zeropolis, Mira reported that Honor’s and Destiny’s stars had appeared in the sky.
“Of course getting home matters,” Cole said. “But finding Honor and Destiny is really urgent right now. We know they’re in trouble.”
“I get helping at this shrine,” Dalton said. “We just made it to Necronum. But what if Destiny and Honor turn out to be far from the Temple of the Still Water?”
Cole paused before answering. He felt torn. Would he walk away from Mira if she still needed him? It would be so good to finally see Jenna again. But if Jenna was relatively safe, and Mira was in big trouble, shouldn’t he help Mira first? Dalton was waiting for a reply.
“With Nazeem around, and the High King still after us, this might not be the safest time to get Jenna. If we can help Sally defeat Nazeem and Stafford, everyone will be safer, including us. Plus, we’ll have major resources to help find the other kids from our neighborhood who got taken, and extra help figuring out a way home. Do you think Jenna will want to go home without Sarah and Lacie? How many of the kids who were brought here can we leave behind? It would take years to find them all on our own.”
Dalton nodded pensively. “Maybe we can’t take on the job of finding everybody. Maybe that’s too much. Maybe me, you, and Aaron find Jenna and try to get home. We’d be lucky to pull off that much. Do we really have to fight a revolution and find all those other kids too?”
“I don’t know,” Cole said. “Leaving the others feels wrong to me. So does abandoning Sally. But I hear you. If we figure out a way home, I guess we could leave behind info on how to follow us. We could hope the other kids find their own way back.”
No longer looking him in the eye, Dalton stared over Cole’s shoulder. “We have company,” he said.
Cole turned to find a teenage girl standing behind him, not much taller than him and rather thin. Her long brown hair hung mostly straight and was parted in the middle. She wore a lacy white top, a gray skirt, and sandals with wooden soles. Cole thought she looked about fifteen.
“There are no private conversations here, you know,” the teen said.
“Apparently not,” Cole replied.
“She just appeared,” Dalton muttered.
The girl giggled.
“Appeared?” Cole asked, suddenly unsettled. “You’re dead?” She looked perfectly tangible.
“I’m not dead,” she said. “I still have my lifespark. But, yeah, my physical body died. I live on as an echo.”
Mustering his courage, Cole tried his best to act casual. “You look normal. How can we tell you’re really an echo?”
“She appeared,” Dalton reminded him.
“I didn’t see it,” Cole said.
The teen reached out a hand. “Touch my fingers,” she offered.
Cole extended his hand, hesitated, then passed his fingers through hers. The contact created only the faintest whisper of sensation.
The girl’s eyes widened, and she giggled. “Did you feel that?”
“A little,” Cole said.
“That’s unusual,” she said. “By the way, it’s poor manners to touch an echo unless we offer, so don’t make it a habit. The others will be mad at me for warning you that you were being overheard, but I started to feel bad for you.”
Cole glanced at Dalton. He couldn’t believe they were talking to an actual ghost!
“How many echoes were listening to us?” Dalton asked.
“About ten,” the girl said. “There were more when the four of you were together. Some of the others followed your friends.”
“Echoes have listened to everything we said?” Cole verified.
“What do you expect?” the teen asked. “You’re at a shrine. There are lots of us here today.”
“Are they still listening to us?” Cole asked.
“Two of them,” the teen said.
“Can we get some privacy?” Cole asked.
“Shoo,” the girl said, waving a hand at unseen people. “Unless you want to materialize and join in, this is my conversation now. Leave us be.”
“Are they going?” Dalton asked.
“Yes, though one of them is being grumpy about it.” She looked away from Dalton at empty space. “Go on! You can have a turn later if you want.” Her gaze returned to Cole. “There. We’re alone. How can I help you?”