Grave Dance – Kalayna Price

When I first straddled the chasm between the land of the dead and the world of the living, I accidentally raised the shade of our recently deceased Pekinese. The former champion dog floating around our backyard resulted in my father shipping me off to a wyrd boarding school. Seventeen years later, I still reached across that chasm, but now I got paid to do it. “That isn’t a body, John,” I said, staring at the open black bag. “It’s a foot.” A pale, bloated, waterlogged foot. John Matthews, personal friend and one of the best homicide detectives in Nekros City, nodded. “It’s a left foot, to be precise, and I have two more back at the morgue. What can you tell me?” I frowned and nudged the toe of my boot at a clump of grass sprouting between chunks of loose gravel. My business cards read: ALEX CRAFT, LEAD PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR AND GRAVE WITCH FOR TONGUES FOR THE DEAD. I was actually the owner and only employee of the firm, but that was beside the point. I raised shades and gave the living a chance to question the dead—for a fee. My work tended to take me to a lot of graveyards, the occasional funeral home, and to the Nekros City morgue. The parking pit for the Sionan Floodplain Nature Preserve was most definitely not my typical working environment. Nor was a single severed appendage my typical job.

“Sorry, John, but I need more than a foot to raise a shade.” “And I need some better news.” His shoulders slumped as if he’d deflated. “We’ve been scouring this swamp for two days and we’re turning up more questions than answers. We’ve got no IDs for the vics, no obvious causes of death, and no primary crime scenes. You sure you can’t give me anything?” As he spoke, he shoved the flap on the body bag farther open with the butt of his pen. The foot lay in a sea of black plastic. The sickly scent of rot filled the humid afternoon air, coating the inside of my nose, my throat. The bloodless skin had sloughed off the exposed ankle, the strips of yellowish flesh shriveling. My stomach twisted and I looked away.

I’d leave the physical inspection to the medical examiner—my affinity for the dead was less for the tangible and more for the spectral. Memories hid in every cell of the body. Memories that my grave magic could unlock and give shape as a shade. Of course, that depended on having enough of the body—and thus cells—at my disposal for my magic to fill in the gaps. I didn’t need to cast a magic circle and begin a ritual to know I couldn’t pull a shade from the foot. I could sense that fact, the same way I could sense that the foot had belonged to a male, probably in his late sixties. I could also sense the nasty tangle of spells all but dripping from the decaying appendage. “The foot is saturated with magic. Some pretty dark stuff from the feel of it,” I said, taking a step back from the gurney and the sticky residual magic emanating from the foot. “I’m guessing you already have a team deciphering the spells?” “Yeah, but so far the anti–black magic unit hasn’t reached any conclusions.

It would really help if we could question the victim.” But that wasn’t going to happen with such a small percentage of the body. “You said you had a matching foot back at the morgue? Maybe if we assemble all the parts, there will be enough to—” John shook his head. “Dancing jokes aside, unless this guy had two left feet—literally—neither of the other feet belong to him.” Three left feet? That meant at least three victims. “You’re thinking serial?” “Don’t say that too loud,” John said, his gaze flashing to a passing pair of crime scene technicians headed toward the dense old-growth forest. “No official determination yet, but, yeah, I’m thinking serial.” His grizzly bear–sized form sagged further and his mustache twitched as he frowned. The mustache had been a thick red accent to his expressions as long as I’d known him, but in the weeks since he’d woken from a spell-induced coma, slivers of gray had joined the red. He pushed the flap of the body bag closed.

“Park rangers found the first foot yesterday morning when they were checking the paths after the recent flooding. We got wardens and cadaver dogs out here, and the second foot turned up. When we found the third, I pulled some strings to hire you as a consultant.” “Do you want me to stick around? Wait and see if your guys find more of the body?” “Actually”—John rubbed a hand over his head, wiping away the sweat glistening on his spreading bald spot—“I was hoping you’d join the search.” I hesitated. I probably even blanched. Wandering around with my shields down sensing every dead creature most definitely was not my idea of a good—or safe—time. John didn’t miss my pause. “You’ve located DBs before,” he said. DBs as in dead bodies.

“And the paperwork you signed covered the possibility of searching the swamp, so you’ll be paid for your time.” I opened my mouth to respond—while I might have qualms about opening my psyche to whatever might be in the floodplain, we both knew I’d risk it—but I was interrupted before I could answer. “What’s wrong, Craft?” Detective Jenson, John’s partner, asked as he stepped around the side of a black SUV. “Don’t want to get those tight pants dirty tramping through the swamp? Got another TV appearance to run off to? Or maybe your magic eye license doesn’t allow you to do any good oldfashioned legwork.” I glared at him, and I had to unclench my gritted teeth to answer. “Way to be hypocritical, Jenson, insulting me and in the same breath asking me to use magic to help.” The term “magic eye” was derogatory slang for a witch PI. “I’m not asking you for anything.” He leaned back on his heels and crossed his arms over his chest. “And I think this city has seen enough of your magic lately, what with the way they keep rebroadcasting that interview with you getting all touchy-feely with a ghost.

” “What’s wrong? Jealous?” I asked, cocking a hip and tossing curls out of my face. Okay, so I was goading him, but he was being an ass. A few days ago I’d participated in the first studio interview of a ghost, and to keep said ghost visible I’d had to remain in contact with him, but I’d most certainly not gotten “touchy-feely” or any such crap. John cleared his throat. “That’s enough.” He glanced between us, then turned to his partner. “Get Alex some hip waders and let the wardens know we’ll be joining them.” Jenson sneered at me—an expression I returned—and said, “Sure. Boots for the two-legged corpse hound. I’ll get right on that.

” He disappeared around the side of the SUV. I stared at the spot where he’d been standing. “What a jerk.” Things hadn’t always been so antagonistic between us. In fact, we’d almost been friends. Then a month ago his attitude had gone to shit. The change coincided perfectly with John’s taking a spelled bullet aimed at me. Coincidence? Doubtful. “I don’t know what’s going on between you two,” John said, turning back toward me, “but let’s not forget we’ve got three severed feet and no leads. Now, before we go in there, I suggest turning your shirt inside out.

” “You what?” John waved a tech over to take custody of the bagged foot; then he scooped my purse off the ground, where I’d set it earlier. He handed the red bag to me and nodded toward his car. “The park rangers warned us when we started searching that the local fae delight in leading hikers astray. The unwary can end up wandering through the same patch of land for days. Pixie-led, they call it. Turning your shirt inside out is supposed to confuse their magic.” I glanced down at my tank top, the shirt clinging to me in the afternoon heat. “Are you thinking fae are involved in the murders?” John’s mustache twitched. “That’s another thing you shouldn’t say too loud.” “Right.

” I ducked inside John’s car to shimmy out of the top. Not that I thought reversing it would really protect me against fae magic. The fae relied mostly on glamour—a belief magic so strong, it could reshape reality, at least temporarily. By the time I’d re-dressed, Jenson had dropped off a pair of hip waders for me. They were a thick, waterproof one-piece with suspenders and attached boots. I stepped into them, pulling the brown material up over my clothes. They nearly reached my collarbone. “We aren’t seriously planning to wade chest-deep, are we?” I asked as I adjusted the suspender straps. John, who’d also suited up in a pair of waders, handed me a plastic bottle of water. “Nah.

With the speed the water is retreating, we’d be in danger of getting swept away. If you sense the bodies in the deep water, we’ll have to send a team out. Ready?” I nodded and followed him toward the closest path into the floodplain. John collected a couple of officers as we trekked into the forest, and I wasn’t the least bit disappointed when Jenson didn’t join us. The forest canopy filtered the sun, but the humidity under the trees hung heavy, making the air thick. Sweat coated my skin, and my blond curls clung to my cheeks and neck. I cracked the seal of my water bottle, but took only one long swig—no telling how long we’d be hiking. “That is where the first foot was found,” John said after we’d been walking for half an hour. He nodded ahead of him to where yellow crime tape ringed the path. “The second was found about a quarter mile farther up the path; the third a mile or more to the south.

We’re not sure yet if the recent flooding unearthed shallow graves or if the bodies were dumped farther upstream and floated into the floodplain, but with the speed the water is retreating, every passing minute increases the chance of our evidence washing away. We need to find those bodies.” And that was my cue. I unclasped my silver charm bracelet. Among other charms, the bracelet carried the extra shields that helped buffer the excess of grave essence always trying to drag my psyche across the chasm to the land of the dead. Of course, that was the very chasm I now needed to traverse. As soon as the silver charms lost contact with my skin, a frigid wind lifted around me—the chill of the grave clawing at my remaining mental shields. I cracked those shields, imagining the living vines I visualized as my personal mental wall slithering apart, opening small gaps to my psyche. The world around me lost the rich hues of life as a gray patina covered everything. My vision doubled as I saw both the land of the dead and the land of the living.

In my grave-sight, the trees darkened, withering, their thick green leaves turning brown, and the officers’ clothing decayed, the cloth becoming threadbare and moth-eaten. Under those mottled rags, their souls shimmered bright yellow. I looked away. Unfortunately, opening my shields exposed me to more than just the land of the dead. The Aetheric —the plane in which raw magic existed—snapped into focus around me in swirls of brilliant red, vivid blues, and every other color imaginable. The magic twisted, tauntingly close, but I ignored the raw energy. It wasn’t supposed to be visible, even with my shields open. Witches didn’t physically interact with the Aetheric plane. It wasn’t possible. Or at least it shouldn’t have been.

But I’d been able to see the Aetheric, to reach it, ever since the Blood Moon a month ago. Being able to do something didn’t mean I should. Or that it was safe. I ignored the colors, forcing my eyes to focus on the decaying forest as I reached out with my senses, feeling for the grave essence leaking from the dead. And there was no shortage of dead in the floodplain. The grave essence from a dead doe reached for me like cold wind trying to cut into my skin. And to think I was hot a minute ago. Her remains were no more than fifty yards from where I stood, but I pushed my senses farther, skimming over the traces of small animal bodies and not letting the grave essence sink into my being. I trekked deeper into the floodplain, my magic flowing around me. The path washed out not far from where the first foot had been found, and the mud made squishing, sucking sounds under my boots until even that gave way to dark water.

Foliage, simultaneously healthy and decaying, withered as my gaze moved over it, and I hoped my attention didn’t damage the plants. I’d once crumbled a set of stairs when my powers pushed the land of the dead into reality. “Anything?” John asked, trudging behind me. Yeah, lots of things. Small animals mostly. Not exactly what we were looking for. I waved him off and kept walking. The water splashed up to the knees of my waterproof suit as I waded through it, my steps slow, both from the water rushing around me and because I was concentrating on feeling the grave essence while holding it at bay so I didn’t accidentally raise any shades. Something . I turned in a small circle, reaching with my mind, my power.

Yes, there was something. My power told me it was touching a body, a human body. Male. And I felt a female too. And . two more males? “This isn’t good.” John stopped beside me. “You found something?” “Bodies. And I hope I’m wrong, but I’m sensing four different essence signatures.” “A fourth victim?” I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t answer.

I wished I could close my eyes and concentrate just on the feel of the bodies, to get a better sense of where they were located, but it was hard enough to navigate the flooded forest with my eyes open. I waded farther in, the water lapping up to my midthighs. I slipped once, and only John’s quick reflexes kept me from landing on my ass in the murky water. “We might be getting too deep,” John said as one of the officers, the shortest in our group, lost his footing and slipped forward in the current. He dug in his toes and righted himself a moment later. I shook my head at John. “We’re almost there.” I could feel the bodies just ahead. The rushing water broke around a fallen tree a couple of yards in front of us. The ancient hardwood’s giant roots stretched out in every direction, dirt still covering them, so the root-ball formed a massive mound.

The tree hadn’t fallen in this particular flood—moss covered the mound and saplings clung to the root-packed earth. The grave essence emanated from somewhere around that tree, and not only grave essence but a dark knot of magic. I stepped closer, searching with both my power and my eyes. Then I saw them. “Feet.” “Where?” John asked, looking around

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