The inception of a necromancer
|A small boy trudged through the leaves fallen from the spindly branches above. His unruly hair was a golden blond and contrasted with the heavy green tunic he wore. He carried in his arms a heavy burden wrapped in a stained linen sheet. Such a load would have seemed too much for a boy that was, to most people, too thin and sickly to carry, but the boy set his expression and carried it onward. A chill breeze blew free some of the few dried leaves remaining on the branches into a red and gold flurry that reminded the boy of the bonfire two nights ago. It was the night of the accident that killed his faithful dog.
Tobi, that was his dog's name, had been in the barn barking at the cows. The boy had left the celebration to quiet him and see if he wanted something to eat from the feast when a deep rumbling had shaken the entire village. It had only been for a few moments. Quakes happened often enough where they lived that tools and breakable items were kept secure, but his father's spare pitch fork had come loose and impaled poor Tobi through the neck when the boy found him. He had instinctively run for help, but there was nothing his father or Doctor Ivans could do.
The old doctor, with his deeply wrinkled and bushy white eyebrows, didn't even have to tell him Tobi was dead, it was in the way his eyes looked at the boy.
His father had gone out to the woods, the place the boy had picked to bury his friend, with his shovel and dug a grave for poor Tobi and returned in the late afternoon, as was tradition when a faithful hound died. And now the boy had arrived finally had the tiny hole in the ground meant for Tobi.
The boy lowered the bundle into the earth, the linen speckled with dried blood that had still soaked through so many layers. He took up the shovel that stood half in the ground nearby and began moving the dirt his father had disturbed over Tobi's still form.
The boy whispered prayers to Adar and Ariel to look after Tobi in whatever place dogs went when they died. Looking up to see the sun set through the trees, remembering the good times, the boy noticed that the air had turned hazy and the sun filled the forest with fiery shafts of orange light. The boy was amazed for a moment at the sight before he smelled the smoke. He knew right away that this was not normal, as the festival was long over and a campfire would not make so much smoke or smell so acrid.
The boy apologized to his friend, half buried, had vowed to return soon to finish his duty. The boy ran to the edge of the trees, which were on top of a small rise and the sight stopped him in his tracks.
The village was burning! Every house was being consumed by whirling flames. The setting sun caught the billowing smoke as if the sun itself loomed over his home, igniting it. The sound of screaming reached his ears and the boy glimpsed his friend's families being perused by thin white and red figures holding knives and farming implements.
The boy heard a horrible shriek and saw Missus Fairchild running down the street, her simple white dress burning in a bright trail behind her. A naked man ran behind her on all fours, his body bare and his face a bright red. He leapt on Missus Fairchild's back, despite the flames, and the boy saw the thing, for it could not have been a man, the boy realized, but an animal, bite into her skull and claw viciously as her back, spraying blood in all directions.
The boy looked away in horror, but instead saw Mister Polnell trying desperately to fend off another of the creatures with a lit torch. This one held a cleaver that it swung haphazardly at Mister Polnell. A wide swing finally connected with Mister Polnell's side and he cried out in pain and fell to his knees. The monster was on him in a moment and used its already bloody hands to widen the gap in his side. Mister Polnell still had enough wits to hit the creature with his torch, but burning its back did not stop it from pulling organs from his body and stuffing them greedily into its mouth. A gurgling gasp was the last sound the boy heard from him before he had to look away, further down the street.
Behind those gaunt horrors, black robed men followed in their wake, waving their arms in strange patterns. One would stop beside a body and kneel over it. The figure would touch it as if checking to see if it yet lived and the body would suddenly twitch, lie still, and then stand on its own. Had the black figure healed them? The boy wasn't so sure. On the occasion that they came across a house that wasn't burning, the robed person would throw a handful of what looked like grass into the air towards the building, wave his arms and speak strange words. The cloud of grass ignited into a dark red fireball that set the structure burning.
The boy looked frantically about for safety. He found the familiar direction of his home and saw that flames already overwhelmed it. "Momma!" he cried and sprinted towards his home, the shovel still clutched tightly in his hand.
As he approached, the kitchen window broke and a bleeding, blackened figure climbed through it and fell on the ground. The boy knew it had to be his father. "Poppa!" he yelled, running to help him. The man looked up at the boy with relief plain on his face and picked himself up. He shed his useless burnt shirt, picked the boy up and began running back to the forest.
"They are close behind. We must hide," his father said.
The boy clung to his father's neck and tears ran down his face and mixed with the dark soot on his father's shoulder. "Where's Momma?" he asked, searching his father's face. He got no reply. "Poppa? Where's Momma?" he asked again. No reply. Did he not know or was she still in the house? Their house that burned and fell inward on itself.
His father darted through the trees, though the boy sensed he was getting tired already. Suddenly, a whistling sound cut through the relative silence of the forest and the boy felt a jolt as something struck his father's back. The shaft of what he would later recognize as a crossbow bolt jutted out and blood gushed from the ragged wound. His father pitched forward, his strength gone from his legs, but managed to throw the boy clear and into a pile of fallen leaves.
The boy crawled out of the debris to see a strange thin man in black ride up on horseback. The black horse seemed ragged and old, yet powerful. It was harnessed with black leather and jagged-seeming silver metal. Did it seem injured? The boy wasn't sure if he saw blood on the horse's teeth and sides. The man wore the strange black cloak he'd seen the others wear and a silver circlet on his head. He regarded the terrified boy with interest, but his deeply wrinkled white face did not move. He held an unloaded crossbow in his hand, towards the canopy. The man looked back and said, "Turn him; capture the whelp."
The boy did not know what the mounted man intended, but he'd killed his father and likely intended the boy harm too. The boy mustered his courage and threw his shovel, suddenly remembered, at the mounted man and ran between two trees deeper into the forest without looking to see if he'd struck him.
The boy heard that strange man urge his horse in pursuit and so he ran as fast as he could. Up ahead, the boy saw Tobi's grave come into view. Gods, how he wished his old friend were here to defend him. All in the village had feared the dog or all the cats at least. Tobi would never let this murderer catch them.
It was then that his lungs burned for lack of air and his legs drained of energy. The boy could run no further. He stopped by the unfinished grave and was forced to catch his breath. He glanced around feverishly. Was he still being followed? Yes, there was that black steed, an evil presence in the forest. It and its black rider would be upon him in moments. The boy wanted to run, but his leaden legs would hardly move. Where had his strength gone? He never remembered being exhausted so quickly before. Well, if he was going to be killed by this ghostly killer, then he would face him head on and fight for his life and that of his father who was not given the chance.
If only Tobi were here to help him...
The boy raised his fists at the dark rider as he rode up to tower over him. Hot tears flowed down his face and cooled in his gritted teeth. "You will not take me," the boy said simply.
The man's expression did not change. He only said, "I already have you."
Before the boy could say anything or even charge headlong into the hooves of the dark horse, he heard the sound of earth shifting behind him. A four-legged beast abruptly stood beside the boy. Its brown fur was matted and soaked with blood. Dirt fell off it in clumps and wrapped linen clung to its legs. Wide gashes in its neck bubbled with thick liquid as it snarled, head low, at the black-robed man. It smelled vaguely sweet. The boy recognized him, of course, as his faithful Tobi. He did not question how he had come back to him; he was only grimly pleased that Tobi was there to help him.
Tobi leaned back, moments away from leaping on the emotionless rider who raised his hand and, with a finger, quickly traced something that glowed silver in the air for a moment. Tobi's snarl cut off abruptly and he stood stone-still. "Did you create this?" the rider asked.
"I... I don't know," the boy stammered. How could he stand against this man, this murderer, with so much power that the boy could not even die a clean death? He would be a victim of dark magic.
"You did animate this dog. By hating me, I'd think. You are the one we've been looking for."
The white-faced rider's face seemed to crack as a cruel parody of a smile formed on his lips. That face took up the boy's entire vision until that was all he could see.
The boy woke to find himself in darkness... And no longer a boy. He was a young man and the dream (or was it a vision?) that always left him sweating and with the smell of smoke at the back of his throat was over. He was lying on his back inside a coffin, its holy black wood inscribed with shifting silver runes that glowed with a cold light. They formed the prayers and meditations to the Great Nagash. The youth forced his breathing to slow. The coffin was sealed from the outside and if he did not conserve his air and slow his life functions, he would suffocate. It was a test and a tool, to focus the mind on death and survival. He was isolated from the land of the living to better commune with the greater world of the dead.
It was the only world, the world of necromancy, which he knew since as far back as he could remember. As for the dream he always had during his trances here in the Tomb of Restful Spirits, he was no longer sure if they were the future or his past, but he knew that the face of his mentor, Master Lucifront, did not provoke such fear in him when he was awake. Quite the opposite, his stern face inspired respect and reverence in his followers.
The young man, his hair white in the ghostly light, resumed his meditations on the text that crawled slowly along the wooden lid above him. Yet his mind wandered in an attempt to resolve the two different visions of Master Lucifront and how each made him feel. The youth knew that now was certainly not the time for fear. Today was the culmination of his training and any moment now he would be summoned.
As if realizing his preparedness, the outside latches snapped and the lid of the coffin slid off to the side. Above him the nearly insubstantial shade of a formerly living female servant floated, its outline blurry, but her face mouthed silently and her eyes seemed to roll aimlessly in their sockets. Sounding like an echo with no origin, a voice came, "It is time, apostle. Follow me."
The shade slid along the smooth marble floor to the exit. Its legs, if it had any, were invisible and its mouth still mumbled silent lamentations to itself. The pale and gaunt youth climbed out of the Tomb, wearing only a clean linen loincloth, and followed without fear to claim his new life.
Beneath a beam of searing ruby light a gaunt and pale young man was on his hands and knees, his torso bare and rags around his waist. His arms shook as if about to give out but do not. His head hung limp from exhaustion. He has reason to be fatigued; his previous test had been to read the lengthy Pledge from the massive Tome of Dead. It was an hour until he could put the book to rest. It was thankful that he had not dropped it; the Order need not want weaklings.
A voice from the deep shadows intoned in a strange tongue, "Let the Deepest Unclean One come forward to bear this child into growth." Black smoke curled into the light and a black hoof stepped forward, then another. All in attendance had seen the devil before and it stood as huge and imposing and wise as any other time it was invited. Huge jutting horns crowned the goat-like head and forced one to focus on the blazing red pinpoints it had for eyes. The hints of black fur on equally dark flesh were further hidden by the wreath of noxious smoke that no doubt choked the air of the kneeling initiate.
A huge claw was raised over the man's chest. Power thrummed from his cruel digits. In an impossibly deep voice that resonated in the guts of all who heard it the devil spoke, "This new clay has been molded to suit our goals..." it was not a question, "... The Flameless Miasma creeps around us. There is merely his binding left to be etched."
Pain shot through the boy and his screams were heard without sympathy. The Unclean one splayed his fingers and the boy's limbs, which had fought so hard to hold him up so far, betrayed him and forced him flat on his face. Unseen force dragged on them. His joints and spine popped loudly under the strain before he is mercifully released. The devil kneeled down and grasped the young man's entire head. With its thumb it gouged a symbol into his forehead. Satisfied, the Unclean one dropped the limp boy's head and heard his nose break with a wet crunch. Abruptly, the boy's limbs spasmed chaotically and his renewed screams echoed in the vast chamber. All saw the boy's muscles fill in, vigor return to the youth's body, and the sigil on his head burn hotly as he picked himself up to bow at the devil's feet. He bent down and kissed an infernal hoof. He whispered, but all could hear, "Your blessing is upon me, oh Flameless One, the One who keeps my soul with Him in the Void and grants me strength. He does not need my gratitude, but I give it. He does not need my servitude, but I offer it knowingly so you know that I am prepared and Unclean."
A drop of spittle landed on the boy's face and the Unclean one spoke again, "You are anointed. Present your limb to me." The youth raised his hand. Without hesitation, his ring finger disappeared behind the snap of the devil's sharp jaws. The youth merely gasped and lowered his arm He made no move to cover the neatly cut wound, but let his blood flow from it onto the stone floor. Under the ruby light it seemed nearly black.
The devil spat again and a fleshless finger bone clattered in reach of the youth. As he picked it up, he saw the devil fade back into the shadows.
The strange voice spoke again, "Stand, apostle, for the Blessed Succubus." Blood continued to flow from his hand but all could see that he smiled and felt no pain.
A smell familiar to those gathered presently wafted through the room. It reminded some of the smell of a charnel-house. Others were reminded of a moldy tomb and others of a mass grave. Into the blood-tinted light a lithe figure stepped. At first glance she resembled a beautiful nude woman with pale skin but the smell reminded one of her true nature. Her thin black hair, though mostly fallen out, was brushed and clung to her grey skull in clumps. Her empty eye sockets were instead occupied by luminous blue orbs that seemed to suck the heat from your heart if she caught one's gaze. Tight, dry lips smiled seductively over decayed teeth as she stepped closer to the youth.
Another step closer and those behind her saw the neat mark the dagger had made during her creation and the ritual scars along her arms and thighs that she had inflicted on herself in life. They spiraled around her limbs like a shroud of suffering. Placing a cold hand on the back of the apostle's head, she opened her jaws and sound issued from it.
Like snatches of words from a girl's sobbing confession, it sounded like this: "I didn't... think you'd... live so long. Pity. You would... have been... a good slave. In time... you... will be... worthy of... command. First... we must... Improve your... Little stick."
A small, nearly skeletal, hand extended and took the finger bone from his bloody hand. She seemed to gaze at it intently as her desiccated hands manipulated the bone. The apostle saw his blood flow into the digit and a dark aura begins to emanate.
The dead woman spoke again: "This is... to be your... Wand. It is bound... to your soul... For... it is... your flesh... and blood. With it... you... will command... those things. Scratch... your hidden... name... into the... stick... and the words... of binding... as you were taught."
The ivory-white bone was handed back to the apostle and, sitting in that pool of blood, he retrieved a small, sharp tool from his loin-cloth. With meticulous precision and surprising speed he etched arcane loops and whorls into his own finger-bone. From where his finger used to be blood still flowed lazily over the tool and his work. Despite this, he finished as quickly as the fastest student those in attendance could recall.
When he finished, he handed the completed bone up to the female zombie and unconsciously held his breath, awaiting her judgment on his efforts. At her unwholesome touch, again his spilled blood flowed into the runed bone. The arcane etchings glowed with the same piercing blue as the undead's eyes. "Acceptable," she intoned emotionlessly as her eyes flared brighter and still yet colder. The bone-wand in her hands seemed to flow and it lengthened and smoothed out. Thick black streams flowed from the female undead's eyes - if he didn't know better, the apostle would have thought she was weeping - as a similar substance poured from the quickly disappearing runes and joints. It was not long before the finger bone no longer resembled that which had been removed from his hand and the writing he had placed was no longer visible, though they yet glowed in that cold blue light. It was now a smooth rod of bone a little longer than his hand that was thicker at one end and came to a sharp point on the other. His secret name and runes of binding spiraled around it just as he had carved. However, they soon faded until only the unnaturally formed wand remained. Gasping in awe - and to catch the breath he realized he'd been holding - he accepted the completed wand she presented him with.
With a gentle motion the corpse bade him to rise. Standing before her again he could smell that wonderful scent of decay from her and he felt grateful to be in her presence. Once again her rotten mouth opened and she spoke: "You stand here... soaked with... the blood... and sweat... of your labor. You are willingly... corrupted by a demon... and you have proven... your worth. You are repulsive... to me. Will you accept... my kiss?"
The boy, enraptured by her beauty and his love for her, could only sigh, "Yes!"
The Blessed Succubus embraced the boy like a starved lover and pulled his head closer to kiss her. A few moments later the palms on his back were streaming black smoke and a dark light. Sweat on the apostle's head froze as the air turned to frost He did not struggle, though his body became stiff. His eyes rolled back as her bony fingers sunk into his spine and broke off a piece of her index finger. Frost formed around the wound as the kiss ended. The boy regained his senses and looked at her lovingly as he stood tall.
Again the corpse spoke: "He is now... connected to... me always. He has my... blessing. He only... needs a name now."
"What would the apostle call himself?" a voice intoned.
The Succubus was seen to whisper in his ear before silently retreating into the darkness. "Grendel," was all he said.
"Very well. Necromancer Grendel, you have taken the final step onto the longer path of enlightenment in your extended life and divinity in your eternal unlife, should you earn it. You are free to go."
Bowing formally, Grendel walked from the ruby light.
Two robed figures walked briskly down a long corridor set with bright white lights at regular intervals in the ceiling. They passed through pools of light and darkness and, in the darkness, the hint of a door could be seen in the curved walls on either side. Polished metal brackets set into the curved stone gave the sense that the two figures walked down the throat or ribcage of some huge skeleton. Indeed, if one looked closer, one could see that these brackets were fashioned to resemble rib-bones, but the two robed men - for the sound of their hurried speech gave their gender away - were beyond noticing such a detail in their haste, even if they hadn't been used to the fact by now.
"A wonderful Binding and graduation that was, don't you think, Mercadius?"
"Beautiful. I'd almost given up hope that I'd see another one. It's been more than five years since the last one. Our Divine Succubus had grown a bit too old though"
They were both wearing the blackest of robes, their hoods up, and the silver-threaded lining on the hoods and cuffs glittered as they moved. Their robes, too, seemed to reflect some light at their edges, giving them an unearthly aura and betraying the quality of their make. The figure on the left wore a pendant around his neck on a silver chain. The blood-red ruby set into it seemed to drip when they passed under another white lamp. Their soft leather shoes made no sound on the smooth stone floor. All that could be heard was the sound of their slightly muffled voices, for they wore masks.
"Nonsense. I can't remember the last time I'd seen such a beautiful specimen. Certainly none of the ones I raise are left to intact afterward. Would you have preferred if she were a child?"
"So you raise a lot of women, do you, Arcada? It matters not. I just remember my own Binding. She had not been more than seventeen. I had heard she had been the daughter of one of the faithful and sacrificed as way of punishment. I suppose I have developed certain tastes after that."
The one wearing the pendant had the face of a baleful bronze god, his expression that of one giving a killing-order and the mouth in the middle of uttering such. The man on the right wore an elongated mask that resembled a crow, its beak slightly open as if to speak and piercing red eyes that were far too low to be its wearer's. No other detail could be seen, save the hint of black feathers at the edge of the mask that absorbed the reflected light on the hood.
The crow's head bobbed as the figure laughed, once, "Fair enough. Just don't give your identity away with that little vice..." there was a small, awkward pause, "They also say something about this one too."
"Oh? Was she also illegitimate?"
"No, no. She was some trash harem girl. Hardly deserved to be the vessel for Mother."
"Mother you say? What makes you say that it was Mother? It's always been one of Her servants in every Binding I've attended."
"Did you see the way she whispered in his ear? She suggested a name for him, I'm certain. I think I may be older than you, young Mercadius. I've seen the Succubus whisper in only one other's ear at his binding and he is now the very man we hurry to meet with now. It had to be Mother."
"It's possible. For one who completed his wand so quickly and skillfully, he deserves the name of a hero. I only wish she had announced Her presence so that we could pay her the proper respects."
"Mother would hardly allow us such trivial matters. We're living after all. She comes and goes as She pleases and calls us together when it is required. She deserves no more than our promptness and that in itself is proper respect, even if She only communicates with Lucifront."
"And now with this new Necromancer Grendel."
"Possibly. As I said, it was hearsay, merely."
The bronze-faced man gasped as if about to speak again, but was interrupted when they finally arrived at the end of the corridor and the crow opened the silent door to their master's chamber.
Continued in "Grendel Rising Part 2"