Los Angeles is burning.
During one of the hottest summers the city has ever seen, someone is murdering mages with fires that burn when they shouldn't, that don't stop when they should. Necromancer Eric Carter is being framed for the killings and hunted by his own people.
To Carter, everything points to the god Quetzalcoatl coming after him, after he defied the mad wind god in the Aztec land of the dead. But too many things aren't adding up, and Carter knows there's more going on.
If he doesn't figure out what it is and put a stop to it fast, Quetzalcoatl won't just kill him, he'll burn the whole damn city down with him.
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Necromancy 101: You're too late.
Whether it's watching empty Echoes playing their last moments over and over again, or talking to Haunts and Wanderers with their fading memories and draining personalities, they have one glaring thing in common; they're all dead.
See, necromancers are like really bad ambulance drivers. We don't get there until way after the body's cooling in the middle of the road.
Ghosts aren't really people. They're tattered bits of soul left over from the dying. Shreds of memory, personality, will. Whether it was yesterday, last month, twenty minutes, two hundred years ago. Doesn't matter.
You're. Too. Late.
Because ghosts? They don't just happen. You're not getting a ghost if Grandma strokes out taking a shit on the toilet. No, it takes trauma. Mental, physical, spiritual. It can be sudden, or take a lifetime to build.
Suicides, homicides, accidents, gunshot wounds, stabbings, beatings, poisonings, car crashes, hangings, Colombian neckties, hacked to pieces by crazed cannibal killers. You get the idea.
We necromancers get to experience it all in nightmare color and THX sound whether we want to or not. Sure, any schmuck with some talent can talk to the dead, but we're born to it.
There is no such thing as a pretty death. It doesn't exactly paint a rosy picture of the human experience.
Some of us don't care. They're the scary ones. You get some serious Patrick Bateman shit with them.
Some of us care way too much. They're the tragic ones. By thirty they've dug themselves into a hole, too afraid to keep living and terrified of dying because they know that's not the end of things. There aren't many necromancer suicides, is what I'm saying.
Like doctors or morticians, most of us land somewhere in the middle. Dying's tragic, but shit happens. Death is something that needs to be accepted. It's not good, it's not bad. It just is.
But some deaths are a little harder to take than others.
Burn victims, for example. The ones who go from smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide don't usually leave a ghost behind, but if they burn to death? Jesus fuck, it's rough. It's not just agonizing, messy, and loud, it can last anywhere from five minutes to an hour or more.
First time I saw the Echo of a burn victim was a car accident on a back road that had happened three or four years before. Middle of nowhere. Guy inside slow roasted for almost an hour before he finally died. He was conscious for way too much of it.
That's what makes this particular Echo I've been watching for the past couple hours, a woman set on fire in a burned-out shell of a three-bedroom bungalow in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, so unusual.
She starts at the door to the kitchen, becoming visible as she enters the living room. There's panic on her face. Someone I can't see shoots her in the back. Her legs go out from under her. She hits the ground screaming, but keeps dragging herself away.
Then the flames kick in. I see flickers of their light shining across her skin, though I can't see them, yet. They won't be a part of this scene until they're eating her alive.
Doesn't take long. They erupt around her in seconds, crawl up her legs as though she's been dipped in liquid oxygen, bright blue flames dancing up her body, relentless, unforgiving.
She catches fast when the flames touch her. Her skin already blackening and cracking. The fire sweeps over her like piranha devouring a cow. Bits and pieces shred away as ash and char. Conscious and screaming until there's nothing left but a blackened corpse that's more skeleton than person lying among the ruins. Ash drops in clumps from her body as pieces of her disintegrate.
The scene disappears like a soap bubble, there one second, gone the next. I can still smell the stink of charred pork, hear the screams and the crackle of searing skin.
Then it starts all over again. It's the fourth time I've watched it. I crouch down to look at it from another angle, time it with my pocket watch. The moment the flames hit her she goes up like flash paper. From ignition to ash can be measured in seconds.
Nobody burns that fast. Even knowing it's obviously magic, it's surprising how fast she goes from burning to ash.
At least, it would be if I hadn't seen it before.
I take my phone out, dial a number. Hear a sleepy grunt when it picks up. "Hey," I say, "it's Eric. It's happening."
"Can we all die in a horrible rain of fire after I've had coffee?" Gabriela says. Most people know her as the Bruja, and she's at least as powerful a mage as I am. Maybe more so. We fought once. Called it a draw. To say we're friends would be stretching things. A lot.
"I think you got time for a cup."
"Oh, good. I'd hate to meet the apocalypse uncaffeinated."
"We should all be so lucky."
"All right. Spill. What's going on?"
"Xiuhtecuhtli's fire." I describe the scene to her. The man, the gunshot, the flames-particularly the flames.
"Fuck me. You're sure about the fire?" she says.
"Well, I am standing in the burned-out shell of a house, so . . ."
"I meant about what kind of fire. Are you sure it's Xiuhtecuhtli's fire? You're the only one who's seen it in action."
"Yeah," I say, watching the flames consume the Echo in front of me one more time. The preternaturally blue flames turn it to char and ash in moments. "I'm sure. And I'm sure it's Quetzalcoatl doing it."
"You can't know that for sure," she says.
"He pretty much told me that this is exactly what he was going to do. Anyway, it gets better."
"Last I saw him Q was a fifteen-foot-tall trash fire in the shape of a winged serpent. Not exactly in a position to hold a gun."
"He's got a friend," she says. "You see the shooter?"
"No. Too far away. Didn't get captured in the Echo." Not that it probably would have, anyway. The shooter isn't the one who died.
"You piss off the best people," she says.
"What can I say? I'm a high achiever."
About five hundred years ago, give or take, a Spanish dickhead by the name of Hern‡n Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca (a title he gets a little later), shows up on the Aztecs' doorstep and proceeds to kick seven shades of shit out of them. It's touch and go for a while. His attention's split. He's not the most popular guy with the Spanish government at the time. When they send troops after him he pretty much turns them into reinforcements.
That out of the way, he turns his attention to not only conquering the Aztecs, but their gods, too. Cortés puts a lieutenant, guy named Juan Rodr’guez Cabrillo, in charge of the invasion of the Aztecs' thirteen heavens. The ace up Cabrillo's sleeve is an eight-thousand-year-old Djinn named Darius that Cortés loans him, and an alliance with the Aztecs' own wind god, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, who's turned traitor for fuck knows what reason. Gods fall like dominos; Tlaloc, Ixcuina, Citlalicue, Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, Xiuhtecuhtli, Ometeotl, and on and on.
Then they reach Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead, where its two rulers, Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, Mictecacihuatl, set a trap. Cue Epic God Battle. Doesn't end well for anybody. The Conquistadores die, Quetzalcoatl is seriously wounded, Darius is trapped in his bottle, Mictlantecuhtli is turned to jade and trapped in a hole deep below Mictlan.
The only survivor is Cabrillo, who limps back to the mortal world with Darius in his backpack. Quetzalcoatl does a runner to licks his wounds, and Mictecacihuatl tries to hold what's left of Mictlan together. The thing with Mictecacihuatl is that she's a survivor. Flexible, changes with the times. By the time I ran into her she'd restyled herself as a folk saint in Mexico by the name of Santa Muerte.
She's got other names. La Flaca. La Se–ora de Las Sombras. Saint Death. She's a saint for the outsiders, the narcos, the disconnected. She's not evil. She's not good. She is death and blood, lust and love, vengeance and redemption and all the visceral things that make us human. She's messy as life, inevitable as death. She is the Saint of Last Resort.
And I had to go and marry her. I didn't know that's what was happening at the time. I pledged myself to her for help in finding my sister's murderer. Should have read the fine print. That bond turned me into her husband.
But as it turns out, the cosmos doesn't like paradoxes. Mictlantecuhtli is the King of Mictlan. The King of Mictlan is married to Mictecacihuatl. I'm married to Mictecacihuatl. So, I'm the King of Mictlan. Except Mictlantecuhtli is the King of Mictlan . . .
The universe's solution is to swap Mictlantecuhtli and me. That little detail about Mictlantecuhtli being turned to jade is kind of important, because I find out real fast that green is so not my color. I'm turning to stone. Mictlantecuhtli is turning to flesh.
Enter the wind. The spirit of the Santa Ana winds, actually. While I'm trying to figure out how to get a speedy divorce before I turn into a lawn ornament, I find myself needing some help, and they're the best shot I have. They help me find a guy I'm looking for, and I give them . . . something weird. They want me to burn my home down. I was squatting in a rancid, little rat trap at the time, so what do I care? Sure. No problem.
Except they don't mean my home. They mean the King of the Dead's home. They mean Mictlan. Whole goddamn place. And why is that? Because all the wind spirits are connected. The spirit of the Santa Anas connects to the Chinook in Alaska to the Abrolhos in Brazil to the Zonda in Argentina and on and on, and eventually to a half-dead Aztec wind god, named-surprise!-Quetzalcoatl.
He gives me this spiffy Zippo that holds the fire of the god Xiuhtecuhtli. It could burn anything in the mortal world in no time flat and all of Mictlan with one flick of the wheel. I tried it out on a creepy little island outside Mexico City filled with the trapped ghosts of murdered children.
Since I'm heading down to Mictlan to divorce my death goddess wife and take out her jade statue ex-husband with extreme prejudice, it sounds like a win-win to me. Only it isn't. Because burning Mictlan, I find out, means destroying the thousands of souls calling it their afterlife. I'm a bastard, but I'm not that big a bastard. Mictlan stays unburned. In the kerfuffle between me, Santa Muerte and her husband, I lose the lighter.
After seeing what happened to the house in West Adams I know for sure the lighter is back in play, and I can only think of one guy who'd try using it.
I've been waiting for Quetzalcoatl to show his face and burn shit down ever since I got back from Mictlan. He couldn't have come at a better time for it. Triple digit temps, high winds, everything dry as kindling.
As the man says, the hills of Los Angeles are burning. The palm trees haven't turned into candles in the murder wind, yet, but it's just a matter of time. Brushfires spread through the green spaces like syphilis through a Victorian dockside. Laurel Canyon, Calabasas, Verdugo Mountains, La Crescenta, Griffith Park. No matter how many firefighters and tanker planes they throw at them, they can barely contain the fires.
Outside it's well on its way to a hundred. I've rolled up my shirtsleeves, left my suit coat in the car. Some places it would feel weird with so many of my tats showing, but in L.A. they just figure I'm some white hipster from Silver Lake with too much money. All I need now is a fancy mustache and artisanal toast.
I stop on the sidewalk to look back at the house, streaks of soot radiating out onto the cement from the house's blackened lawn, crawling up the trunk of a palm tree. There isn't much left of the house to tear down. Exposed framing, disintegrated drywall.
Xiuhtecuhtli's fire really did a number on it. Surprisingly, it didn't catch the houses on either side. Was that on purpose? And if it was, why this house in particular? Why this woman? It can't be random. Q's batshit crazy, even by god standards, but I don't think he's stupid. He's got a reason even if I don't know what it is.
I'm so preoccupied trying to puzzle out what's going on that I almost don't feel the flare of magic on my skin from the protection spells in my tattoos. Less than a second later I hear the gunshot behind me. The magic pushes the bullet away, but not enough. It rips my sleeve and runs a gouge across my left bicep.
I wonder who I've pissed off this time.
I bolt for cover, the closest being my Cadillac Eldorado parked next to me. I get it between me and the shooter as three more rounds go off.
They're too high and punch into the side of a scorched palm tree in front of the house. The last time somebody shot me I was partly jade and I couldn't feel it. Bullets just ricocheted off me. But now, Jesus. I'd forgotten how much this shit hurts.
I pull my own gun, a Browning Hi-Power covered in Nazi Waffen marks. It's an ugly piece of hardware and I always feel like I'm shoving my hand into a barrel of cockroaches when I pick it up. It's filled with all the hatred and nastiness from the war and I can tap into that with my own magic, making a .357 look like a popgun.
I look under the car and see the shooter's feet as he starts running toward me. More gunshots, more misses. One of them punches through the driver's side door of the Caddy and dents the steel on the passenger side.
Sonofabitch. Shoot at me all you like. I'm used to it. Shoot my car? Fuck you.
The Browning likes to shoot people, and I can feel it pulling at me to pop this guy in the head. Somebody else might listen to it, but I've had years of practice at telling it to fuck off. I decide to do something a little less final.
Magic's like improvisational cooking. But instead of spices, you're using bits and pieces of negotiated reality. Mages don't throw fireballs. They collect oxygen into a sphere, give it some spin, heat it up until it burns, tell gravity to fuck itself, and then shoot that bastard across the room.