“Well, I’m off! I’ll be back tonight or tomorrow! Send help if you hear explosions or something.”
Erin waved as she left her inn with Teliv. Lyonette let Mrsha wave her off, and then the door closed. The [Princess] looked around.
Suddenly, the inn was quiet. Almost deserted. Some Gnolls and Drakes were having breakfast, quietly, but the population of the inn was now less than two dozen, counting the staff. The [Princess] sighed; Erin was the heart and excitement of the inn. But sometimes her absence could be a good thing.
Ishkr and the two Gnolls on staff looked up as Lyonette clapped her hands. The other guests glanced up, expecting something interesting. But all Lyonette did was point towards a broom.
“Alright, everyone! Erin’s gone! You know what that means! We can finally get some cleaning and other work done. Let’s sweep and polish the floors. Everyone having breakfast—you have thirty minutes to finish!”
There were a few good natured groans, but no one bemoaned the time limit. Ishkr began moving unused chairs to one side of the very big, moderately dirty room. Well, it wasn’t filthy, but there were specks. Scuffs. The kind of thing a proper inn didn’t need. Lyonette was counting brooms.
“Sweep first. Then we’ll do a wash and scrubbing. I have a soap-mix that Octavia made up for me. It’s apparently pretty strong! Mrsha, don’t bother Ishkr. He’s working!”
Mrsha looked up, betrayed, as she tried to push a table that Ishkr was dragging towards the wall. She was helping! But Lyonette put her hands on her hips.
“I’m sure Ishkr appreciates the help, but you’ll get your paw run over. Why don’t you get your ball? We can play with it when the second shift comes in. Or, I can see if Selys has time…”
Mrsha shook her head. Sulkily, she crept off. Lyonette sighed, but she started moving furniture too. The little Gnoll needed a proper diversion each day, she reflected. Work, or a tutor. She had had a [Tutor]. Could she arrange one for Mrsha?
“If Erin doesn’t get taxed again, maybe. Or maybe Selys will sponsor Mrsha. Does Liscor have tutors?”
Ishkr shrugged as Lyonette looked at him. The [Princess] pursed her lips. She kept thinking as she rounded tables, filling last breakfast orders and collecting money. Numbtongue had vanished, maybe into the mountains to do some mining.
And in the inn, Mrsha crept around, looking for something interesting. She’d found rats, once. And usually there were fun people to play with. Like Moore. Or Ceria. Or Yvlon, or Bevussa, or…but they were all gone. Liscor’s new Council had made everyone happily busy—elsewhere. And as a result Mrsha was bored.
But there was one person who remained. And while he wasn’t Mrsha’s first target, he and she had an enduring relationship of sorts. Now, Mrsha slunk along, using her [Natural Concealment] Skill. She could see his white robes as he sat at the table, reading. And she could smell his plate. There were some eggs left. So Mrsha waited, biding her time, and then, with a herculean leap, jumped on the table, swiped—
And missed. Pisces flicked his finger at the plate and it soared over Mrsha’s head. The [Necromancer] glanced up and smirked. Mrsha narrowed her eyes and leapt again. The plate soared slowly over her head. She missed the table and went splat on the floor.
“Mrsha, stop bothering Pisces!”
Lyonette had seen it all. The Gnoll cub ran over to her, holding one of her wrists and making a faint whining sound. The [Princess] stroked her head mostly unsympathetically.
“You know better than to try that. And look what it got you! No, you don’t need a healing potion. You didn’t land hard. Don’t be dramatic, young miss. If you want to help, you can help me move chairs.”
Mrsha tearfully looked up at Lyonette. She signed with her paws, overplaying her injury in the right one. Mean! Mean and hard work! Lyonette frowned.
The little squabble was ignored by the [Necromancer] as his plate slowly levitated downwards. Pisces lifted a hand and a fork flew into it. He chewed the mostly cold eggs as his eyes flicked across the pages. He was engrossed in his task, so much so that he only looked up when he heard a cough.
“Pisces. We’re cleaning the inn.”
Pisces glanced up. At some point, the inn had emptied. All the tables and chairs were moved against the wall. Mrsha was playing with her ball as Ishkr and the Gnolls swept the inn. Pisces’ table and chair were the last to be moved. He looked down at his empty plate and rose with a sigh.
“I see. I do apologize, Miss Lyonette. I will remove myself to my room, then.”
Lyonette watched him step up the stairs, still absent-mindedly reading. She looked down at his plate and sighed. He wasn’t really annoying. Or rather, she’d heard how much worse he could be from Erin. In fact, there were a lot harder people to manage. Erin included. She took the plate, bussed it to the kitchen, and got to work.
The inn’s remaining occupants kept cleaning. Pisces went upstairs. And no one, not Lyonette, or Mrsha, thought to ask what he did as he entered his room and shut the door. Because they understood Pisces, or at least, they thought they did. But what they understood was the exterior. And the [Necromancer], for all his foibles, made a fairly easy picture to grasp at a distance.
But perhaps if someone were to ask Ceria, or Ksmvr, or Yvlon, they might stop. And upon reflection, they would realize a truth. They didn’t know Pisces as completely as they thought. He had secrets. No one even knew his last name. No one knew which nation he had hailed from, or his past before Wistram. How many people could truly say they knew Pisces (Lastname)?
Perhaps no one. So, as Pisces closed the door to his room he murmured a spell.
“[Muffle]. [Sealed Space].”
On the walls, six ash-drawn runes started glowing. The spell made Pisces’ ears feel full for a moment as silence enveloped the room. It was now safe, at least, in a crude way, from magical spying. The [Necromancer] looked around. Erin would probably have been unhappy to see the magical sigils he’d drawn on the walls, but she’d probably be more aghast at the room itself.
It was actually clean. Disconcertingly organized, compared to how unkempt Pisces himself usually was. Pisces’ belongings were lined up on the dresser, the floor swept so neatly that even Lyonette wouldn’t have found flaw with it; only the bed was a mess of tangled sheets. But that was to a reason.
An undead rat’s skeleton lay unmoving on Pisces’ dresser, the only thing anyone would have found untoward. Pieces stared at it for a moment as he came in, but he ignored it after another moment. The [Necromancer] regarded his room, and then sighed. He put his spellbook down on a table, a bit annoyed, and massaged his forehead.
“Magical theory. Why are necromantic texts so, so…childish? Each one is written as if it is the cardinal basis of all magic. Yes, by all means, pontificate on why your knit-bone structure is superior to all other designs over the last ten thousand years, sir. Would it be so difficult to include a diagram?”
Grumpily, he waved a hand. A second spellbook rose up from the table. It looked identical to the first; a ragged blue cover worn by age and dirt. And that was an effect that Pisces had had to work on for two days straight. Otherwise it would be very difficult to explain why he now had a new spellbook in addition to his personal one and the basic spellbook Ryoka had brought back.
Even if it wasn’t immediately obvious, Ceria and Yvlon could count. And Ksmvr would knowing the Antinium.
Pisces studied the two spellbooks in front of him with identical covers. One was personal, his collection of spells and notes that dated back from his residency at Wistram. Pisces caressed this one, the one he was holding, lovingly. He sighed as he looked into it.
“I must acquire a new book as soon as that door reaches Invrisil. Pallass’ markets are not catered to spellcraft. On the other hand, if Erin were to somehow forge a route to Fissival—how likely is it?”
He paused, and stared up at the ceiling.
“A thirty percent chance she somehow engineers her door to tap into Fissival’s network. Either way, generalist spells would be appropriate. As for this…”
He flicked his gaze back to the book he’d been reading. Pisces sat down at his desk and began to scribble in his personal spellbook, translating his lesson from the previous book. Normally he’d annotate in the other book, but it was on loan, and Pisces didn’t want to make a poor impression.
“Then again, it is an astounding obstinate text. I would rather take lessons from Rievan again than decipher the actual important information from this one.”
Pisces grumbled. He began to sketch a new design into his spellbook, frowning as he glanced at the necromancy tome. If he was reading this right…
“A Bone Behemoth.”
He frowned, and scribbled, working on the basic image. It would be twice, no, three times as large as his Warbear Bone Horror. And imposing, to say the least! A true monster that would render any group of low-level opponents meaningless. The kind of creation that could slaughter even Raskghar without fear of being brought down easily.
The young [Necromancer] frowned as he eyed his new design. It still looked like his old one, just scaled up. Unoriginal, and frankly, less than imposing, at least to his eyes. Oh, he admitted that if you were face to face with the gaping maw and the crushing limbs, it would pose a physical threat, but good design should convey aesthetic horror. Almost artistically so.
“Well, construction is first.”
The [Necromancer] sighed. He flicked his hand. And from his belt, the bag of holding, bones began to fly out, assembling behind him in neat rows.
Femur, humerus, tibia—metatarsals and teeth, bone powder and tiny fragments. Yellowed bone, and white ivory, bleached from time or Pisces’ own efforts. It was like a set of children’s building blocks, only made of death and horror. But the piles were neat and tidy, and when Pisces turned, it only took a wave of his hand to begin moving them on the clean floor into place.
“According to this, the ah, foundation is…to form the spell lattice capable of that much weight and animation, I need to shape the spell like so…? No.”
Pisces frowned. The bones were soaring into place, slowly moving, rotating, forming longer segments, creating the very image he’d drawn in his sketchbook.
But slowly. Not only did Pisces have to stop and make sure a tooth fit with another tooth here, or grind down a section of bone to create a perfect fit here, he was working on another level. For the physical form was only half of the creation he was trying to make. The Bone Behemoth wouldn’t even fit in his room when completed, obviously, but even if Pisces assembled the shell, animating it was…
The [Necromancer] had to admit that after a few minutes. He stared at a huge foot he’d assembled, akin to a dinosaur’s bones, if he had known what a dinosaur was. He thought of it as a Dragon’s leg, or perhaps a Cyclops’ sturdy bones, only crouched, angled for something that would walk on all fours. Bipeds were trickier than quadrupeds. Forget tripeds.
It was already done; assembling was easy. But making it move? Pisces frowned, and tried to form a lattice of magic. In concept it was simple. The leg moved so. Necromancy could give bone a range of movement, like sinew. In fact, Pisces’ magic would replace muscle, tendon, and ligament, giving skeletons the invisible framework by which to move. But giving the spell the strength to move the massive leg was—
Tricky. Pisces frowned as the leg moved a bit, haltingly. The bone wasn’t even that heavy! Not compared to a full flesh-and-blood body. But—it wasn’t easy. Pisces was used to animating regular skeletons with smaller bones. The largest bone in the Human body, the femur, was, what, sixteen times smaller than the bone of this behemoth? At least!
If Pisces compared it to sewing, it was like trying to weave with anchor chains when you were used to thread and needle.
It was difficult. Aggravating. Pisces began to sweat, and then to curse. He tried reconfiguring the bone leg, assembling more parts of the Behemoth in his room. He went back to the necromancy tome and read for a bit, massaging his temples.
“Anchor the lattice…well, obviously around the center of gravity! How do you provide enough power to move bone that heavy? No, not another lesson mixed in with anecdotes of your ‘accomplishments’ every five sentences!”
He hurled the spellbook across the room and dragged his fingers through his hair. Pisces stared at the spellbook, and then flicked a hand. It flew back towards him and he settled back on the desk, reading vexed. He wasn’t like Ceria, who had only recently begun her training again. But sometimes, Pisces envied her.
Ceria was talented. She was a half-Elf, naturally attuned to magic. She had a spellbook with a number of spells he would have loved to study if he could have spared the time from his necromancy studies. And she had learned from a master.
Pisces said the word bitterly. And he remembered. A broken body rising, lifeless eyes burning with undead light. Of his regrets, and he had many, that one still stung. He wondered sometimes if Ceria had forgiven him for that. Better still though. She had seen her master’s corpse in undeath.
But she had not seen how Illphres had died. Her or the other [Mages] who had gone to challenge Zelkyr’s last test. Pisces was still haunted by that memory, too. He paused and shook his head.
But she had had a master, however briefly. Someone who could perfect her fundamentals, show her a path. A path to true magic, even if it was only as far as Illphres had gotten. She had probably been on par with a Named Adventurer. The highest of Gold-ranks at least!
By contrast, Pisces was alone. All of his accomplishments were from feeling his way blindly forwards, extrapolation using spellbooks. But theory was far from experience. And not just that; [Necromancers] were reviled almost the world over. Pisces couldn’t even find good examples of living practitioners, hear legends of what had been done, except as tales of woe. He envied Ceria her certainty.
The [Necromancer] paused. He looked up, his hair disheveled, at the Bone Behemoth. With one hand, he collapsed the beginnings of the skull, reassembled the bones. He studied a skeleton.
Just…a skeleton, built in the Human frame. But modified. There was something wrong with its chest. A spiral-like design leading to a black opening. Over-long arms and legs. It made the creation uneasy to look at, but Pisces smiled. He began animating it, watching the arms and legs flex, perfecting another design he was working on.
He enjoyed this. This was elegant. Sophisticated! Not like the brute power of the Bone Behemoth. But—he sighed—that was the point. Sometimes one needed a hammer, and his team was fundamentally weak in that area. Grimalkin had pointed it out and in lieu of better spells—Pisces glanced around.
“Where are those scrolls he gave me? I should commit to learning [Acid Orb] tonight. Fourteen more hours of study should do it. Memorizing the formulation of acid is…”
He shook his head. Magic was not for people who couldn’t handle memorization or slow progress. Then again. He snorted.
“The [Sorcerer] can cast any spell he or she wishes. All they must do is design it—inefficiently. One envies the simplicity of their existence. Whereas I on the other hand have limited time to study! Especially if I must work around the Bloodfields. Well, perhaps six hours of study today. Around lunch. Ceria and the others may be back by dinner. Hm. Lyonette mentioned Erin had come up with a new food.”
He smacked his lips absently. Life wasn’t so bad now, was it? No, it was not. Hot, good food, a comfortable bed, and all the privacy he could wish for, if not always the respect. Erin Solstice had given him that. And he felt…well, indebted.
“A fascinating young woman. Truly fascinating. I only wish…”
But then Pisces paused. Carefully. And he looked around his room. It was a reflex now. And ordinarily, it only reassured him, reminded him what not to say.
Except for this time. Pisces’ gaze wandered the room. His messy bed, the unfinished Behemoth parts, bone fragments, ready to be assembled, his dresser, the undead rat sitting atop it with glowing green eyes, his money pouch, the very mild scent potion Octavia had sold him, three cookies he’d smuggled from the kitchen—
Pisces jerked and stared at the rat. It regarded him, the sunken sockets of its skeletal corpse glowing a lurid green. It was standing on its haunches, an unnatural posture. And it was looking right at Pisces.
He stared at it. The rat stared back. And something lurked behind the green glow. Another intelligence, flickering past the oblivion in the magical light in those undead eyes. Pisces’ pulse sped up. He wavered, waited. And then he swept into a courtly bow. There was no mockery in it.
Because the undead rat was not his creation. And as Pisces’ head rose, the tiny mouth opened. And a deeper voice, a…Human voice, echoed from it.
“Young Necromancer. It has been some time since we have last spoken.”
Pisces looked up. He smiled, or tried to. But he stared at the rat, with awe, trepidation—and a hint of incongruity. It was still a rat. But the presence that lay beyond it?
He had no master. No one who had shaped his beginnings. And he still had not. Not in truth. But this was as close as he could get. Perhaps closer than he wanted. Pisces lowered his head and adopted a respectful tone that Erin, Ceria—few people in this world knew he was even capable of.
“I am overjoyed to speak with you, Archmage. And I humbly thank you for the tome. It has been most instructive.”
The rat’s head turned, moving independently of the rest of the body to look around the room.
“So it would seem. Let us converse a moment, young Necromancer. Have you mastered the designs I have taught you…two months prior?”
Pisces bowed his head again.
“I have, Archmage. And I respectfully wish to speak with you about what I have learned. Ah—Archmage…”
He searched for another title. One of the speaker’s many appellations of the past, perhaps. But they escaped Pisces’ nimble mind, for once. There was no help for it. He looked at the rat. At the speaker beyond.
It was the wrong thing to say. The rat’s eyes flashed. Pisces felt the ire and his skin crawled. The voice spoke slowly.
“That name is old. Archmage Chandler was a man from a different era. Over a century dead. Address me as you will. But do so by the name they have given me.”
Pisces licked his lips.
“As you wish. Archmage Az’kerash.”
It would be an understatement to say that he had a few secrets no one knew about.
They called him Az’kerash. It was a Gnoll name, a title given out of hatred. Az’kerash. Slayer of Kerash. So that they might never forget what he had done. But most people in the world who knew the name lost the context. Az’kerash was just…Az’kerash. A monster needed a name as grand as it was. So the name stuck.
Once, he had been called Perril Chandler. And that fact was important too, even if few remembered it. Do not forget that he was once Human. Once a man. Even if he sometimes forgot.
He had other names, too. Titles. Archmage Chandler. Lord Chandler, Duke Chandler, Sir Chandler—all born out of estates awarded to him. And he had kept the name, Chandler, that marked him as common-born, despite the attempts to change it, to guard his own reputation, perhaps. That was a fact of a different time, completely at odds with the image of Az’kerash the world held now.
Who still remembered the Gravewarden of Therras? The Undying Shield of Calanfer? Those titles were ash, and the current rulers—if those kingdoms yet existed—would deny any recollection of such names. But they had existed. Once, a lifetime ago and a flicker of time in the scheme of the world, he had been known as an honorary Knight of the Autumn. A friend of the Order of Seasons, a paragon of the now-defunct Order of Felgeist.
No, too few. Perhaps a Dragon, a few [Historians]. Some of the nobility or monarchs well-versed in Terandrian history, or just his. An Archmage. Little more. Even a lot of the [Necromancers] who styled themselves as his second coming, a successor to his name didn’t recall who he had been.
And some days he forgot. He was only known by one name, now. A name cried for over a century in hatred. Az’kerash. The Necromancer. His legacy was most strongly felt in Terandria and Izril, where he had brought death and horror.
Terandria most of all; Az’kerash was still a household name. Not to terrify children to sleep; few slept with the thought of him stalking their dreams. Or if they did, bedwetting inevitably followed. No, he was just a legend. A tale of why necromancy was evil. Of a monster that forgot how generations earlier had loved the man.
But enough. Say enough of the past. He spoke of it not at all these days. Az’kerash was thought dead to the world. That he lived was a matter that concerned so precious few. And it wasn’t even…life. Not in the way most understood it.
He did not sleep anymore. He had no need of it. And he sometimes did not move. He stood in his workroom, in a castle built of black stone where light was unwelcome, to the west of the Bloodfields, hidden in a deep forest nestled against the High Passes.
There was no map of this place in detail. It was an uncolonized area. The one Gnoll tribe that had lived here had been slain a year ago. Few would wish to anyways, so close to the perilous mountains. It had only been a place of note for a few days that same last year, when two Drake armies had clashed after a long retreat by one. And then a Goblin Lord had sprung from this area, leading an army north. But after that, the forest had lain silent.
If you wished to find him, the journey was long. Difficult. The nearest village was nearly a hundred miles distant. The wilderness bleak, monsters sometimes roaming. And the forest enchanted. It was a maze of illusions, that you might cross through, or never know you had been walking by the castle as you passed through it.
If, somehow, you were to navigate it, you would emerge in a cleared space. In a bubble of silence, a place where even on the brightest spring day, the sky seemed greyer. The soil depleted. And the expanse in front of the castle was hardly empty.
There they slept. An army of the undead. Giants made of bone, undead, fresh and fallow with age. Waiting. Inside, they stood in silent rows against the walls, hung from the ceilings, crowded the dungeons. Skeletons, wearing armor. Decaying bodies.
Inwards and inwards. Towards the study. Past old libraries filled with books preserved by magic. Unused areas for dining or leisure, now dusty and empty. Into the few rooms that shone.
But the light was black. It ate at sunlight, provided an uneasy luminescence. There were three rooms that Az’kerash occupied.
The first was his work room. A vast space, given over to a few bookshelves of powerful tomes. An elaborate magical circle in the center. Preserved designs, flasks of liquid or potions stored in glass cabinets. A vast ceiling, to hold whatever might be created in the air.
The second were his personal chambers. No bed was present, but more tools. Books, of the nonmagical kind. Art, hung with a connoisseur’s eye against the walls. A few mementos. And more than a few trophies.
The last room was simplest. A war room. Complete with maps, a circle meant for teleportation. Scrying devices, orbs, mirrors, and a collection of the most immediate magical items the Necromancer might use. Those were the three places he frequented. He might never leave any of the three rooms in a year. He could spend months in any one room.
Working. Az’kerash did not sleep, as mentioned. Nor did he take breaks. Here he stood, manipulating flesh and bone above him. A whale’s form slowly expanded, the gargantuan creature slowly disassembling into its parts above his head.
It was what Pisces had done—on a far grander scale. Fat separated from tissue, tendon moved, wriggling. And then it came together, reforming into a different shape. Organs shifting from their intended function. Magic moving biology. A hundred, a thousand different aspects were changing at once, too many for a normal mind to keep track of.
It taxed even Az’kerash at times. But he could and did work like this for uninterrupted stretches. Sometimes, he would talk, giving orders to the undead, or speaking into a scrying orb, or controlling something from afar. He would be working on a new creation, experimenting with a spell, while at the same time holding a conversation and moving his undead all at the same time.
It was a state that made the Necromancer absent, his attention sometimes distracted from reality. When he stretched himself, he sometimes forgot the basics, like the oddity of a young woman bursting into his chambers out of nowhere. He would be fully able to deal with her as a threat, and even be able to hold a conversation, but basic ideas like ‘how had she gotten here?’ or ‘maybe it was a bad idea to let her run off’ or even ‘perhaps a tip was in order’ escaped him.
That was, until he refocused. Sometimes, Az’kerash stopped. He would cease working on a dozen projects at once and concentrate on one issue, like, say, City Runners who had somehow infiltrated his sanctum. And then he was suddenly, intensely focused. For a while. But Az’kerash could be absentminded. Neglectful, even, of things that didn’t interest him in the moment.
If his many former apprentices had lived, they could have attested to that fact. As it was, a few could still remember who Az’kerash had been in life. Some had known him. Some had learned. All were old.
Archmage Feor could have told many stories. Az’kerash, or Peril Chandler, or Archmage Chandler could have told even more about an uppity half-Elf student. But neither were inclined to reminisce about that particular time.
So here he was. Az’kerash stared up at the whale’s form as it reformed. He ignored the fatty tissue, focused only on bone and sinew. He had more bones he was wedging into the new creation, reinforcing the structure. Sinew moved around it, simplifying the process of animating the creature; all-bone creations required more magic than flesh undead. And Az’kerash was a master. He frowned.
This new monstrosity would have sunk in the water. It would also have died; it lacked necessary organs like, oh, lungs, and a heart. After a moment, Az’kerash gave it both. Sometimes those organs helped. Even so, this whale-monstrosity would have encountered problems in life. It would have been an unparalleled killer; the teeth certainly helped with that. But digestion? Excretion? Basic mating? Problematic.
And it still didn’t satisfy him. Az’kerash paused. He moved his leg for the first time in two months. Shifted his weight. He didn’t pace around the creation; he just rotated it in the air. Frowned at its undercarriage.
It was a dissatisfied sound. Az’kerash stared at the undead creation and wove a quick spell of animation. It sunk into the tendons, the entire body, custom-made, instantly replicable. That wasn’t hard for him. In the air, the whale-horror came to life. It snapped its mouth, lunged, moving the sinew and muscle in one arc. Az’kerash stared at it, doing a simulation of the creature fighting, perhaps in sea or on land. Then he shook his head.
He waved his hand and the whale fell to pieces. The pieces of its body flew apart, landing in circles inscribed with [Preservation] spells. Az’kerash sighed slowly.
Two months. Two months of reconfiguring his latest design. It wasn’t easy. Recreating an entire muscular system could be taxing. And he still wasn’t happy with his new design. So Az’kerash, the Necromancer, stopped his work on the whale project. He raised one hand, flicked a finger.
[Lesser Teleport]. One moment he was standing in the work room, the next, in his study. An undead woman jumped and looked around before trying to shuffle towards the door. Az’kerash paid no attention. The Necromancer walked over to a chair, his muscles moving stiffly in his body. He tapped his chest absently; the flesh revitalized, his gait quickened.
Sitting, then. Not because he needed to, but because he wasn’t a savage. Az’kerash leaned back and his mind, spread, running in parallel, refocused. [Parallel Thoughts] deactivated. He looked straight ahead, focused on the world. And like that, realized he’d overlooked something.
“Bea. What are you doing?”
He turned his head. Bea, one of Az’kerash’s Chosen, an undead made uniquely to serve his will, froze, and guiltily tried to hide what she was holding behind her back. As he turned his head, she guiltily gave up. Her putrefied lips moved. She was a creature of rot and plague. A female corpse, her features not decomposing, but terribly, terribly…ill. To touch her was poison. She spoke in a beautiful voice, a woman’s haunting tones. And like a child.
“Why are you in my study?”
Az’kerash looked at her. He wasn’t angry. Just patient. His fingers moved, and a scrying mirror floated over towards him. Bea hesitated.
“Because I had nothing to do? And Oom is gone. I am sorry, master.”
Az’kerash paused. He looked at Bea. It was the first time he had thought of Oom, one of his creations, an Acid Slime that had perished in battle with Zel Shivertail. He looked at Bea. The Necromancer read her body posture, the tone of her voice. But it wasn’t the right moment. Part of him was still focused on work. So his voice was flat. Without emotion.
“I see. Read, then. Until I have instructions for you. Replace the books later.”
“Yes, master. Thank you.”
Bea smiled, relieved. Az’kerash’ expression never changed, but Bea was used to his ways. She retreated. The Necromancer was still processing. His mind was playing catch-up to all the events that had occurred, all the things he might need to focus on now.
The plague zombie halted.
“Where are the others? Reading?”
“No, master. Venitra is…training. Smashing undead. Kerash was reading, but I think he went to sleep. In the ground. I haven’t seen Ijvani for…a while?”
“Hm. And Oom?”
Az’kerash’s thoughts made his eyes flicker. Bea’s face twisted.
“Ah. Of course. That is all.”
She hesitated, and then left. The Necromancer turned his head back ahead of him. He frowned, and his mind began reorganizing. Remember that Oom was dead. It wasn’t a priority fact for him. Now…
“Mister Veldamnt! Dead gods, we haven’t seen you in months, sir! Come in, step forwards—please allow us a small check of your items. [Detect Magic], as usual. ”
“Sir Salin. Always a pleasure. Please step this way. Would you care for refreshments?”
“Hexilt? Allow me to check my list of names, sir. One moment…aha. Will you be wishing to visit the slave auctions today or view our latest line of artifacts?”
A scrying mirror hovered in front of Az’kerash along with another mirror and an orb. He’d selected them at whim; he could have done three orbs, or three mirrors, or any number of the artifacts he needed.
In each, the figures, a Human man, overweight, wearing a smile as he clapped hands with a fellow [Merchant], a Drake dressed in the latest fashion, and a Naga slithering down a white marble floor, trailing a bit of sand from outside were all moving. Conversing. Az’kerash watched the Human drinking an offered shot of liquid, choose a proper response based on the feedback the man’s taste buds gave him.
“Blight me, but what a taste! Plum and alcohol—not my style!”
He began coughing, and the other [Merchant] swatted him on the back. Sir Salin, the Drake, stepped into a booth and rattled off a list of drinks and appetizers as he put a monocle on one eye. The Naga—
And here Az’kerash stopped. He focused on the Naga’s perspective via the orb, saw through the Naga’s eyes as he passed by a row of people on auction. The route he was being taken through the auction house—no, wait, she—the Naga was female—had passed by the auctions, despite her declining the offer to see the auctions.
In that moment, Az’kerash processed on a few levels. He was moving the other two, the Human and Drake he was possessing, keeping them breathing, affecting normal mannerisms and holding a conversation, as well as moving the Naga. He was noting the way the [Auctioneer] had taken him by the display to tempt him—the Naga—on purpose. And the final thought he had was—
The Naga said nothing, merely slithered by the slaves with such blatant disinterest that the [Auctioneer] kept moving straight to the artifacts and producing a small catalogue for the Naga to browse. In his chambers, however, Az’kerash spared an emotion and an expression for what he saw.
Perhaps it seemed hypocritical, or it would have if anyone was in a position to judge the Necromancer. But Az’kerash himself only lingered on the thought for a moment. But he was sinking back into the world, and his posture was changing. He ceased to become a statue of a man. He leaned forwards, his posture still straight.
He wore robes blacker than midnight, and his skin was paler than the whitest of paper, bare of color for lack of sunlight. His hair was white, his features precise. But his eyes were black. And white pupils stared out at the world of the living. For all that, he was now flicking his eyes to each orb while ‘seeing’ on multiple levels.
“Artifacts. Three months. What have I missed?”
The Necromancer put the inquiry through in three different voices. He listened.
“…oh, the finest of vintages, snapped up I’m afraid. I think it was someone from Kaliv. Had that accent—a gift for their [Queen]. A damn shame—”
“Of note, Sir Salin? I can only think of a fine set of gemstones, all perfectly cut, palm-sized. As well, perhaps, a very contested Potion of Youthfulness. We were unable to test the full nature of the enchantment, but it was certified by none other than Xif of Pallass as being authentic, and it sold for about eighteen point four—”
Thousand, obviously. Az’kerash made the Naga sit up. She leaned forwards, and the Human [Auctioneer] shivered as he tried not to regard her serpentine beauty.
“Naq-Alrama steel, yes, Honored Hexilt. An entire ingot of it, sold at fierce bidding. But, I think, the cost was lowered due to the fact that it was unshaped.”
The Necromancer stared as the Naga inquired as to its whereabouts. The [Auctioneer] was hesitant, but this was a Chandrarian Bazaar, and she was wealthy. And beautiful. And it was only a name.
“Roshal, Honored Hexilt. I cannot say who, but the buyer was represented by one of theirs.”
Az’kerash sighed. The Naga kept speaking, and he piloted her onwards, devoting some thoughts to her ongoing gossip, but he sat back.
“Roshal. Too difficult.”
Anyone but them, and he would have…the Necromancer frowned, and he had another emotion: regret. Bitterness.
“Naq-Alrama steel. How useful. Unforged? It must mean the smith of the Tannousin tribe is dead. If the art passes from this world, only the Dwarves…no. Perhaps they’ve forgotten too. Fascinating.”
His eyes flicked to the left. Now he was investigating the artifacts on sale with all three puppets. Weapons flashed before his eyes, potions, fine wines, artwork—from three perspectives at once, all accompanied by the blather of each seller. It would have overwhelmed, but Az’kerash was used to it. He filtered out what was unimportant, began casting spells.
“[Detect Magic]. [Eagle Eyes]. [Detect Magic]. Hm—forgery. Weaker enchantment. Poor wine? [Detect Lies]. No? [Beguiling Aroma]. [Mindhaze].”
The [Merchant] reached out and clasped another [Trader]’s hand. The female [Trader], who had been sharp as she’d presented her wares, suddenly relaxed, smiling. Then caught herself, suspected a Skill. Az’kerash smiled.
“I couldn’t spare, oh, eight hundred gold pieces for it. But seven-twenty?”
“Sir—under nine hundred gold pieces, for a vintage this fine? I remind you, this comes from Chandrarian vineyards, a perfect blend from—”
Haggling took a bit more attention, so Az’kerash lingered on that deal while the Drake took a refreshing drink of wine, much to the delight of those who expected him to become intoxicated, and the Naga ate a rodent. Alive. He settled the deal for the vintage, made a mental note to turn it around for about double the profits.
This was what the Necromancer did for fun, more or less. After all, it was hard to beat a palate that had sampled some of the world’s finest wines and beverages, even if he, Az’kerash, seldom drank. Which reminded him. Az’kerash raised his voice in his quarters.
“Bea. Do you wish anything?”
He heard a sound like a squeak. A shuffle, guilty—Az’kerash sighed.
“Venitra. Kerash. All three of you may observe. Quietly. Stop moving.”
The three Chosen did. They stood as silently as, well, the undead. Venitra, a woman carved of bone, an imposing figure that would have daunted even a Minotaur. Her body was ivory, her features sublime. Her eyes green and glowing.
Kerash stood behind her, an undead Gnoll. Closer to a Draug, but perfectly preserved, statuesque as Gnolls went, wearing ancient armor. He who might have been king. Bea next to him. The Chosen watched, and Az’kerash spared another thought, this time tinged with amusement. Bea must have ran to find them to announce he had left his work room. They were forbidden from interfering with him except in times of emergency when he was laboring over a new creation, but his private study? He had allowed them to watch. It amused him.
Where was Ij—
And then Az’kerash saw a magnificent scroll. Unopened, the latest bit of treasure from…he sighed, spoke aloud for the benefit of his audience.
“Tyfilt Dungeon. Hardly worth the effort. That era of spellcasters were largely inferior. However—”
The Drake began auctioning for the scroll, snatched from a Lizardfolk dungeon in Baleros that had made its way to Zeres’ markets by chance. Az’kerash watched as other Drakes began raising their claws, or bits of wood in the auction house.
“Tiresome. Kerash, take note.”
The voice was eager, a growl that mimicked that of Kerash the Gnoll Chieftain in life. But it was a different personality who wore his body. Az’kerash waved a hand to the mirror reflecting the Drake auction.
“Note the way the auction house is run compared to the individual goods on display in Terandria’s gathering, or the bazaar in Chandrar. Terandrian [Merchants] conduct their trading and exchange of goods in private; they prefer to sell to their clients on their own terms, establishing relationships. On the other hand, Chandrar does allow for auctions, but employs a more private relationship, where an item has a set amount of time to be outbid without knowing who you may be bidding against, if any. And a client may discreetly buy the item outright if they so desire. Privacy is emphasized in Chandrar, relationships in Terandria. But Izril?”
He shook his head.
“Spectacle. Drakes wish to be seen to outbid their competition. The display of wealth is as valuable as the acquisition, and the auction house will reap the largest monetary gain through the public bidding system. Spectacle and greed.”
Az’kerash’s tone was crisp, informative. Lecturing, even, with a dry, somewhat cynical tone. But mostly, sharply academic. And he paused, waiting for a response. Kerash was the center of jealousy from Venitra and Bea, as he solemnly delivered his reply.
“It is so, master.”
The Necromancer paused. Kerash smiled superiorly at Bea and Venitra and settled back. He was oblivious to Az’kerash’ true emotions. And indeed, Az’kerash himself didn’t linger on them much, except for a…almost subconscious desire for the reply to have been something other than blind obsequious. Perhaps, a challenge to that statement, or an in-depth reply that hinted at the listener’s own understanding of the cultural-economic realities that shaped commerce among different species.
But he didn’t expect it from his Chosen. They were his children. And like children…Az’kerash sighed. He’d won the bidding, and his Drake was smiling smugly as he accepted the scroll. His Chosen were smiling as well, luxuriating in the victory. Az’kerash’s face didn’t move. He was rich enough to win almost any auction he’d cared to, and no one had decided to outbid what he had judged the scroll to be worth.
Time passed by. It wasn’t a simple process, extricating the puppets he was controlling. They had to socialize, make goodbyes, even make mistakes, like his Human [Merchant] ogling another woman, or the Drake getting into a minor tiff over the carriages that would speed him back to his estate.
The Naga had no trouble, but it just took a while. They all had to go to their estates, homes carefully guarded by people who seemed fairly real. Bowing servants—some of them who were actually employed and actually alive—and maneuver his puppets into a place where they could safely put their acquisitions in a bag of holding. Then they would need transport, sometimes by Courier, other times by covert action. An undead skeleton could run forever, even if they were slower than a Courier, but they needed to take the right path…
“The mental upkeep on Hexilt is tiresome. She may need to incur an accident in the near future. Or find a pressing reason to voyage to Izril or Terandria. Chandrar is simply too far to maintain the spell and her mannerisms constantly. Baleros and Rhir likewise.”
Az’kerash sighed as he put the three puppets on mental autopilot. It was a testament to his abilities that he could actually keep his undead puppets behaving like, well, people while he did everything else. But it did occupy a portion of his thoughts and he had limits.
Still…Az’kerash now had more mental faculties available and he spared a thought for the Hexilt issue. He tapped his fingers together, came to a decision in a split second.
“No, an accident, I think. A…jealous lover. Who will ruin her face. Seclusion—noticeable deterioration over time. Suicide in six years.”
Done! Another little annoyance crossed off the list. Az’kerash made a mental note in his head to see it done next time he actively dealt with Hexilt.
“The sooner the better. Replicating all of her biology is difficult. As is beauty. Especially when she is naturally propositioned often. I do not care for the complexities of the task.”
He heard a shift from behind him. Az’kerash turned his head and saw Bea making a disgusted face along with Kerash. Venitra just looked confused and was bending her head to whisper. Az’kerash stared at Bea and Kerash. How had they learned what sex was? Books, perhaps. Or when he sent them out. It would be Bea who had learned of it; she had been designed for curiosity.
“Where did you learn of intercourse?”
The plague zombie hesitated. She shuffled her feet.
“Um…I saw some Drakes doing it. When I was in a village.”
“I see. It is a natural behavior. You do not need to emulate it of course, but it does not disgust the living. In fact, it is a natural reaction to beauty. If you are propositioned for it while undercover, do not immediately refuse.”
“Yes, master. But it looks pointless.”
It probably would, to the undead. They were consummate actors, able to play their role among the living when he sent them out. But they were children. Az’kerash only sighed.
Puppets. He had a number of them. Not, as one might suspect, legions. Because each one had to be managed. And Az’kerash was one person. The Necromancer, yes. But controlling hundreds, or even a hundred was far beyond him. It would be simpler if the puppets were themselves thinking beings with limited will. But that either meant creating a Revenant, not an ideal solution, or doing the impossible.
Still. Az’kerash eyed his Chosen.
“Perhaps it is time to send one of you out to fulfill a role in a society once more.”
The Chosen straightened. This was a familiar assignment. Each one of them waited. The Necromancer stood. Now more memories flickered through his mind. He frowned.
“Venitra. You will not be sent. Your ability to deceive and control yourself is lacking. You are still in disgrace.”
The bone woman shrank, the glow in her eyes dimming. Bea and Kerash smiled. Az’kerash looked at them.
“Kerash, perhaps. I may send you out to play the part of a Gnoll wanderer. The Meeting of Tribes will occur this year; I may have to sway their conclusion. Bea…”
He paused. She looked up hopefully.
“…No. You kill too easily at a touch.”
She looked visibly upset.
“I am sorry, master!”
This time her reaction provoked a response. Az’kerash looked at her. And he smiled. The smile wiped away Bea’s grief in a moment.
“You were made to do so, Bea. Your flaw is an asset.”
“Yes, master! I will remember it!”
Joy from her, envy from the other two. They were so simple. Az’kerash was fond for a moment, and then the emotion flickered away. His children. He looked around. Oom was dead, he knew that now. A pity. Bitterly, Az’kerash reflected on Zel Shivertail’s demise. It had exposed errors in his Chosen. But he had not had the…inclination to replace their numbers. And Ijvani?”
A memory surfaced. Ah, yes. Not enough Scrolls of Great Teleport. Az’kerash sighed. He had bought all of his scrolls at great cost, even given his wealth. And Ijvani was now heading back on foot. That was what his memory told him and the preoccupied Necromancer didn’t see fit to question it.
He glanced back into the scrying orb. His Drake puppet was opening the scroll. Az’kerash idly watched it open. He read the magical runes as the Drake looked at them. The Necromancer frowned.
“Hm. This scroll is one of [Searing Light]? No, perhaps—ah—”
The Chosen watched him turn. The Drake puppet dropped the scroll, dove. Too late. The scroll exploded. And the scrying orb went dark. Breathless, Kerash, Bea, and Venitra stared at Az’kerash. The Necromancer sighed.
“A trap scroll.”
Venitra dared to call out, afraid, perhaps of Az’kerash’s wrath, or his failure. The Necromancer paused.
“A minor setback. The Drake assured me the scroll had been tested. Well, it will require work to set up another [Merchant], but the prices of unknown scrolls will plummet in the interim. A simple error to correct. And perhaps the spell eradicated Salin’s neighbors. That would be quite acceptable.”
He waved the scrying mirrors away. The Chosen relaxed, seeing the amusement that flickered across Az’kerash’s face. But like the other emotions, he didn’t linger on them. They watched as their master dismissed the issue. Their world stabilized, and they smiled, gleeful in the accident that still worked to their master’s benefit.
Az’kerash settled back down in his chair. What else? Well, besides sending another puppet to replace Salin and arranging the scandalous and disastrous affair with Hexilt, he had a few other events to take care of. He consulted another puppet.
Information this time.
Fierre the Vampire looked up at the code-knock on her door. She paused, and then got up warily to answer it. The door took twice as long to open; she wasn’t used to the new locks or the new office she was in, for that matter. Her old workplace was gone; being attacked by a hail of enchanted needles tended to put people off working with you.
But her new place was pretty good. Pretty good. The door was twice as thick, and it was enchanted. Not only that; Fierre was fairly rich, and she owned this room now. All thanks to her payout from the Order of Seasons. All Fierre needed now was for Ryoka to finally return and she’d be golden. Literally.
But work was work. When the door slid open, the nondescript man walked in and nodded to her. She recognized him and relaxed.
“Latest updates. World events. Three months. Give me what you have. Oh, also—best Runners in the region?”
Fierre hurried over to the desk. The man had a no-nonsense tone and he was straight to the point. She liked that. He paid for information every few months; she suspected he worked for one of the local nobility or a [Merchant] or someone with similar amounts of wealth. He probably rotated [Brokers], but it was free money for information she kept to date on.
“Let me get my files in order. All major events, right?”
“Need a copy?”
“No. Just give me a list. Oh—and tell me about any changes with the Runners.”
Fierre bit one lip, then quickly hid her sharp tooth. She began shuffling information, organizing her report. The man paid well, after all, and she was delivering a quality service. More information than the other [Brokers] or [Informants] in Reizmelt, that was what Fierre wanted people to say! And as for Runners—she coughed.
“Well, I’ll get to world news. But in terms of Runners, there was a new Courier last month, and Rieve the Brisk suffered an injury while running. Leg wound; bad fracture. He may be out commission for three weeks still. However, in Reizmelt, the, ah, Wind Runner is doing quite well. Are you aware of…?”
The man nodded impatiently. Fierre hurried on.
“Well, she achieved a Courier-speed run to Walta at the behest of Lady Bethel Walchaís, and just recently was hired by the alleged [Emperor]…”
The man’s eyebrows rose as Fierre recounted Ryoka’s exploits from greatest to least, embellishing her a bit. It was the least she could do to repay Ryoka, and talking up her reputation to everyone she met could only help her friend.
“Alright, enough about this Wind Runner. Who else?”
The man’s voice was impatient as Az’kerash listened to the female Vampire. The Necromancer listened with one ear, doing the same with four other [Informants]. This was easier; once this puppet was done, he’d find a secluded spot, dig into the ground, and wait until Az’kerash needed him again. Part of Az’kerash was satisfied to know Ryoka Griffin was alive.
But mildly. The Necromancer didn’t do anything as…mortal…as tapping his finger against the table, but the information dump of voices and his mental processing of it was tedious. War in Rhir. Scandal in this kingdom. The Titan’s game in Daquin gave him pause, but the Necromancer dwelled on nothing. It was all information and he processed it.
And then he was done. Az’kerash let his puppets excuse themselves. And but for a mugging of one of them, they were all heading back to their hiding places and he could relinquish control of them. He spoke out loud as his thoughts migrated back together.
“Few new artifacts in the world worthy of consideration.”
He meant to him, of course. The market was full of items any Gold-rank adventurer might want, let alone Silver, but Az’kerash had a limited list of things he needed. He mused as his thoughts went to his armory.
“The Heartflame Breastplate is tempting. Bea, you will monitor the [Messages] relating to the Thieves’ Guild. If it appears on auction, alert me at once. It is not worth straying near Liscor with…the Dragon. However, if it is stolen, I will retrieve the item from the [Thief].Yes. Rather than risk a bidding war with a Walled City or one of the Five Families.”
Bea nodded eagerly. Az’kerash frowned, thinking of Teriarch. But again, only for a moment. He spared a thought for Magnolia Reinhart. Now there was a trove of treasures he would pay any sum for access to. A shame about the Reinhart’s ancestral vault, which he was naturally aware of.
If Magnolia Reinhart had been foolish enough to take anything worth stealing from her vaults, he would have expended every effort to take it from her. As would any [Thief], really. But the difference was that Az’kerash might consider starting a war with Izril once more to take the Crown of Flowers from her.
Ah, well. So much for that notion. The Necromancer ran down his shrinking list of concerns. Ijvani’s location was at the bottom of that list. After that, he would probably begin work on his undead creation again. But before that—
“The young [Necromancer].”
Az’kerash paused. And that was significant. In his unchanging castle, his routine, here was something unique. Something unpredictable. Az’kerash turned his head. And he whispered a word.
Hundreds of miles away, a skeleton of a rat flickered to life. Green flames burned in the sockets and they beheld a room filled with bones. Az’kerash saw a young man, frustrated, stalking around a crude bone leg. The Necromancer paused. The scene surprised him. Perhaps it was seeing someone else perform necromancy, or the casual way Pisces was doing it.
He hadn’t even barred or locked the door. Someone could walk in and see him. And the window was unshuttered. Az’kerash focused on the vision through the rat’s eyes. His Chosen watched. Bea was speaking.
“Master, there is a contract for the Heartflame Armor if you are interested. An offer has already been put up by…”
She paused as Az’kerash held up one hand. Slowly, the Necromancer’s thoughts focused more heavily, abandoning other pursuits. And something like personality reemerged.
“Is he a fool? Or—no. This inn? [Absorb Recollections].”
He cast the spell on the undead rat. Instantly, Az’kerash’s mind was assailed by sights, sound. No smell, but everything the undead rat had seen or heard in the last three months. It would have overwhelmed Az’kerash if he hadn’t taken steps to enhance his mind. But his mind was already capable of filtering it, experiencing memories and processing them in a heartbeat.
And what he saw was—
“Pisces! Are you playing with your bone again?”
The door slammed open and Pisces nearly leapt out of his robes. He whirled as Erin laughed at him.
“Erin! Please refrain from your humorless jokes!”
The [Innkeeper] laughed. Az’kerash recognized her. And he felt—ire? She’d defeated him at chess. Curiosity—vanishing. Focus on the scene.
“Sorry, sorry! Your bones. And I just wanted to tell you that there’s food below! Hot dogs! Okay, sausage. Say, what’re you making?”
She looked at the undead Bone Horror that the young man was working on, and Az’kerash saw the uneasy expression. But nothing more. Pisces sniffed.
“If you must know, I am redefining the whip-variant of my Bone Horror, improving its capabilities and the length of the arms—”
“Gotcha! Bone stuff! Come down for sausages soon!”
Erin shook her head. Pisces stared as she walked off. He stalked over and slammed the door.
“That vacuous, inconsiderate—”
Memory. This time of a half-Elf, wandering in while munching on a bit of cheese.
“Pisces. Yvlon wants to know if you’ve got her handkerchief.”
Pisces glanced up as he scribbled on a bit of parchment.
“Why would I have her handkerchief?”
“She says you borrowed it. Remember, the nosebleed?”
“I washed it and gave it back.”
“Huh. Hey, Yvlon, Pisces says he gave it back!”
“Then where is it?”
An irate woman wearing armor walked into the room. Az’kerash saw her scowl at Pisces as he sighed and pushed his chair back.
“Perhaps Ksmvr has it?”
“Why would he—”
“Wait, didn’t you lend it to him at breakfast.”
“Oh. Sorry, Pisces.”
The young man rolled his eyes. He pushed himself back from the desk.
“Gratifying as it is to be the first suspect—”
“Oh shut up. You stole my quill for three weeks!”
“—would you tell me how this looks? Aesthetically?”
Yvlon and Ceria stared at the parchment. Az’kerash pieced together another bit of memory from the future. Saw a face-mask made of bone. Both half-Elf and Human recoiled.
“Dead gods, Pisces, that’s horrifying!”
He looked quite pleased.
“It’s intended to be. A psychological effect. I intend to mount it on the Bone Horrors when we use them in combat. If I can adjust their faces—”
“Oh no you don’t. I’m not partying with one of those.”
“But the effect—”
“It’s bad enough we have undead attached to our team! Pisces! Can you imagine if someone sees us with that? Besides, who are you scaring? Mossbears?”
“I should imagine [Bandits]—”
The [Necromancer] argued. Ceria kept shaking her head.
“No, and no.”
“I worked for hours on this!”
He snapped at her. Yvlon sighed.
“I’m going to find Ksmvr. Ceria, I leave this to you.”
She wandered out. Az’kerash let the memory flick by. The half-Elf argued with Pisces, he tore up the parchment and she stomped out and then came back with some soft cheese and bread as an apology.
Flicker. Memory. The rat watched as Pisces worked, slept, occasionally as an Antinium entered the inn. But what drew the Necromancer’s attention was the little Gnoll who crept inside to scare Pisces from under the bed, his teammates who opened the door. The [Innkeeper]. None of them were [Necromancers]. But they saw the undead and accepted them.
That was all Az’kerash said. The sight triggered a memory in him. An old recollection of another time. His past. But—he would have thought necromancy was regarded as abhorrent, at least in Izril and Terandria. Most of the world, now. He had caused that. But this—
Reality came back in a moment. Az’kerash’s thoughts sped back up, alerting him to the present. He saw the young man bowing in front of him. A courtly bow, an imitation of one he might see in a Terandrian court. Az’kerash blinked.
Without subtlety or nuance. A straight courtier’s bow, fluent, but not practiced. Different nations had a more elegant take, but that was perfectly functional. Pisces had seen the undead rat. The Necromancer paused, regarded him. And he spoke.
“Young Necromancer. It has been some time since we have last spoken.”
He saw Pisces raise his head. Az’kerash saw Pisces hesitate, and then reply carefully. Formally.
“I am overjoyed to speak with you, Archmage. And I humbly thank you for the tome. It has been most instructive.”
Az’kerash instructed the rat to swivel its head, taking in the room. He replied softly, absently noting the construction of bones. Piecemeal. The boy was using a piecemeal construction, rather than whole bones. He must lack for a supply, certainly of larger bones. And—he was working on a behemoth-type undead?
Ah, the book Az’kerash had given him. Perfecting Facets of Undeath, by the [Necromancer] Credeth. Pompous, certainly, but excellent in describing fundamental construction techniques. By the looks of it, the young [Necromancer] had failed to grasp the theory so far.
That was disappointing. But mildly so. The boy wasn’t Az’kerash’s apprentice. He was most definitely not in fact. They had an arrangement.
Pisces had encountered Venitra under the guise of Regrika Blackpaw during her disastrous pursuit of Ryoka Griffin. Unhappily, he had known Venitra for what she was and Az’kerash had been forced to intervene. He’d offered Pisces a simple deal: instruction for silence. The alternative would have been death.
This was simpler, for all it carried an inherent risk. But Az’kerash had exacted promises, bound by magic that Pisces could not break. And he had attracted the Necromancer’s attention. After all, Reiss was dead. A failure at the end. But Pisces might be a good replacement. An experiment at the very least.
Az’kerash frowned. But not one he intended to spend too much time on. He had already assisted the young mage with making Bone Horrors, and provided him with a book on necromancy. Indeed, Az’kerash had been quite generous, giving Pisces examples of his own creations. The [Necromancer] was specialized in bone-type undead, which was more difficult than simply reanimating bodies. However…
“What is that design, young Necromancer?”
The rat turned to the skeleton standing in the center of the room. It was similar to a basic skeleton soldier, but horribly, terribly flawed. The ribcage had been redesigned, creating some kind of…Az’kerash peered at it, but the mouse didn’t have a good view.
“I gave you the designs of a more functional skeletal soldier. That is an alteration of my work.”
His voice was ominous. Pisces hesitated and licked his lips, but he did reply.
“Yes, Archmage. However—I was experimenting with the structure of your skeletal soldier. Of course, I mastered the basic form at once! However, in your absence, I considered modifying the central structure to create a projectile weapon of sorts…”
He was referring to the elongated limbs, and the reinforced structure of the spell bindings. It made basic skeletons that bit more deadly at little cost. Az’kerash stared at the ribcage.
“You spent three weeks attempting to redefine a bone structure I personally designed? One without flaw?”
Ridiculous. It was a foolish design as well, weakening the existing integrity of the ribs, which were in themselves a fairly effective design! And a projectile weapon? Pisces defended himself, and a bit of haughtiness leaked into his tone.
“Archmage, I believed it was worth the effort. You see, I had the thought that a skeleton might well surprise an enemy with a crossbow-like weapon, only built into the creature—”
He was interrupted by a sound from the rat. Az’kerash waved a hand in irritation, much to the surprise of his Chosen, who were only watching his side of the conversation. He spoke out loud, the rat copying his words.
“Ridiculous. There is no elasticity without sinew of some kind. I might applaud your ingenuity—I myself have considered such designs, albeit with spell and sinew—but with bone? You fail to understand what any novice [Engineer] would. The standards of [Necromancers] have fallen if you do not understand the basic principle of how crossbows work.”
Pisces flushed beet red at the criticism, and he hunched his shoulders. But he still talked back.
“Archmage Az’kerash, I believe I have completed such a mechanism.”
The Necromancer’s voice was dismissive. He watched as Pisces hurried over to his skeleton. The young man angled the skeleton’s chest cavity just to the left of the undead rat controlled by Az’kerash.
“You see, there is a small bolt inside.”
But it wasn’t going to fire. There was no tension. No string that could hold the force. Az’kerash sighed—
And he heard a snap, a crack, and a shard of bone blew past the undead rat’s head and shattered on the far wall.
From below, Lyonette looked upstairs and shook her head as Mrsha and her Gnoll staff looked at her.
“Just Pisces. If he breaks a window or damages a wall, the Horns will pay for it. Keep going.”
Inside the room, the Necromancer stared at the bits of bone on the floor. Then he looked up. Pisces was desperately trying to suppress a smirk. Az’kerash paused. More of his thoughts focused in.
“Remove the skeleton’s protective armor on one side of the body and turn it to face me.”
Pisces did, bones floating away and Az’kerash saw. Pisces pointed it out excitedly.
“You see, Archmage, my design is essentially an inner crossbow built into the torso of the skeleton. Obviously there is space if I miniaturize some elements. The entire bone structure shifts so, and thus creates a hammer effect here…”
“…launching your crude projectile out of the ribcage. That is not a crossbow. But similar in structure. Your terminology is off. But the design…”
Pisces flushed a bit as Az’kerash considered the effect.
“A single shot is all each skeleton would provide. And the design is quite complex. Pointless in an army given the cost to create such a skeleton.”
“Yes, Archmage. However, I have a limited supply of creations I can animate. And I do not create permanent undead.”
That was true. Az’kerash considered the skeleton. It looked ridiculous, frankly. He imagined them trying to aim. They would have to bend backwards to aim upwards, let alone swivel to target something.
“You would sacrifice the integrity of your skeletons for a limited advantage. And this chest-mounted firing mechanism would handicap the skeleton.”
Pisces nodded rapidly. He walked around the skeleton and lifted an arm.
“I am aware of the issues, Archmage. This is my proposed fix for the problem when I understood it. One arm. I am attempting to configure the bones in such a way that it can fire a single bolt of bone while keeping the rest of the corpse more or less natural to the body. If I can mass-animate skeleton warriors for instance, they would be quickly deployed with a significant hidden advantage…”
And fire one shot per battle. One sliver of bone, thrown from a miniature crossbow. Az’kerash considered that. Complex, perhaps needlessly so if you could give a skeleton an actual bow or crossbow. But it could go through an eye, take an enemy off-guard.
“It is still needlessly complex. But continue.”
Pisces relaxed. He sped around the skeleton, reconfiguring it.
“I also had plans to trap the body itself, Archmage, so that the entire body explodes outwards in battle. I had perceived, an, ah, weakness in my team of adventurers. I had encountered the [Sinew Magus], a rather powerful [Mage] by the name of Grimalkin in the last week—”
Az’kerash paused. His eyes flickered, recalling.
“Ah. Of Pallass. That buffoon. He thrashed your team quite effectively, I take it?”
In physical combat, he was certainly capable of that. Pisces nodded carefully, repeating Grimalkin’s assessment. Az’kerash agreed, at least in part.
“Bone Horrors are not designed for power. Bones are, by nature, lighter than flesh. Had you specialized in Draugr, you would have the crushing force you seek. Assuming you armed your creations with appropriate equipment, such as warhammers. However, your weakness is not a lack of spell power in other fields, young Necromancer. You simply lack for two aspects: [Deathbolt] and your own force of undead.”
“You believe so, Archmage?”
Az’kerash felt another twinge of ire. Pisces was exceedingly humble in attitude, but his questions betrayed his skepticism. He spoke flatly.
“I am certain. As I have informed you, [Necromancers] build armies. They do not spontaneously conjure creations; that area lies too far into a [Summoner]’s field. Necromancy’s strength lies in preparation and planning, not spontaneity.”
“I do understand that, Archmage. But my circumstances do not allow me to have, ah, standing undead. And is there not an elegance in having pre-prepared designs one can call forth at need? A focus on quality over quantity?”
Az’kerash was almost disbelieving. That young upstart thought—he looked at Pisces’ designs. No, he did assume he could improve on his work! And quality over quantity? Was he implying…
Pisces realized he’d gone too far. He paled, and hastened back to his skeleton, knocking it to pieces and summoning the variety that Az’kerash had shown him.
“Of course, I am a strict student of your wisdom, Archmage! I wouldn’t dream of countermanding your instruction; I only seek to learn as a humble student of your—”
Pisces paused. Az’kerash looked at him. He was…the Necromancer’s fingers tapped slowly against the armrest of his chair.
“If you believe your designs to be an example of quality over quantity, by all means, continue your efforts to improve them. They have little potential for warfare in my armies. Now, I have insufficient time for instruction this day. I will aide you in your understanding of the fundamental principles of creating undead giants and behemoths. Assuming you are able to understand the concept by the time we next meet.”
He didn’t wait for the flushed Pisces to reply. The Necromancer gestured, and the rat bones collapsed. But he didn’t break the connection. It only seemed to the novice standing in the room that the magic had left the rat. Az’kerash watched Pisces, staring red-faced at the rat and then kick over the skeleton.
“Little potential for warfare? I am not aiming towards war or—or some endless soldiery of mass-produced troops! It’s perfectly viable! And this idiotic book—written by hidebound fossils incapable of new ideas—”
He hurled the tome Az’kerash gave him against the wall. The Necromancer watched, tapping his finger on the armrest. Childish tantrums. Not one shred of dignity about him. And that irksome manner of his, questioning Az’kerash’s designs. You could make an army of undead skeletons with an attachment that fired a single arrow from their arms—you could even make undead who had a small catapult built into one arm like a primitive sling. But what was the point? It was a waste of time.
About to cut the connection, Az’kerash spared a moment to regret his tutelage of Pisces. Part of him wondered if he should simply kill him. The young man was so—so—
And then Az’kerash, the Necromancer, heard the faint tapping sound. He felt it in one finger and stared down. The tapping finger on the armrest stopped. And the Necromancer realized he was…annoyed. It was so surprising he just stared at his finger for a minute.
Annoyed? Him? At being questioned by a single young [Necromancer] less than half his level? Az’kerash blinked. He’d been affronted by the designs, the implication that his undead had, in any way, less elegance or refinement than Pisces was capable of. But that was such an odd statement.
Not to Az’kerash, the Necromancer. He was a master of undeath, and the greatest [Necromancer] living in this world. Even if you put him against the ancient [Necromancers] of old, Az’kerash would have been confident his Skills outclassed those old masters in some areas. But his touchy pride bothered another part of him.
“I would have never taken a student in Wistram to task so. I only took issue with poor students, lazy ones that failed to innovate. Like that upstart Feor.”
Az’kerash stared ahead. Then he looked back through the rat’s eyes. Pisces had stopped throwing things around. Now he was squatting, slapping his forehead and calling himself names for insulting Az’kerash. Every so often he’d glance up at the rat, to make sure it was still inanimate. Az’kerash hesitated. Perhaps…
Both the [Necromancer] and the Necromancer jumped. In Az’kerash’s gaze, it was just a movement of the hand. The voice was loud, and it was accompanied by a sharp rap on the door. Lyonette called from outside the hallway.
“We have lunch!”
“…It’s been four hours! We’re still not done, but you are a guest. I have some of Erin’s newest pizza if you’d like to have a quick meal? I think it’s a pizza, anyways.”
Az’kerash saw Pisces hesitate, and then collect himself, he called out as he rushed the bones into his bag of holding.
“I should be delighted to, Miss Lyonette!”
“Good! I’ll set a plate. Come down, but watch your step! It’s, er, a bit slick. The soap Octavia gave me is rather strong.”
The [Necromancer] paused as Lyonette headed downstairs. He looked back at the dead rat and Az’kerash saw him bite his tongue, and then shake his head. He hurried for the door. And Az’kerash, after a moment, followed him.
It was just a whim. But the young man’s odd—relationship with the inn still intrigued Az’kerash. And he felt annoyed at himself for snapping at the boy. When he had studied at Wistram, he had criticized that same inflexibility in his teachers. What on earth had possessed him to copy them? Those flawed, ancient fools? It was a flaw in his thinking and should be corrected. Not that Az’kerash interacted with the living, but arrogance was a weakness.
As for Pisces—Az’kerash had also heard an unfamiliar word. And the scholar in him had to hesitate.
Some new dish, of course. But it did intrigue, so the Necromancer found a new set of eyes to follow Pisces. Obviously, the undead rat the [Necromancer] thought was Az’kerash’s only eyes on him wouldn’t do. So Az’kerash cast his senses around the inn and surrounding area. It was simple. There was death everywhere.
And in this case, Az’kerash’s new minion came exactly in the same place he had found the old. The People of the Grain Sack, the rats of Erin’s basement, had been slaughtered mercilessly by the horrible ‘pets’ of Elirr. But not all their bones had been disposed of. A few corpses remained, hidden in a grain sack, suffocated by the grain.
It was really going to make Erin call into question the health codes of her inn when she thought of them, but to be fair, her grain was preserved, and so were the corpses since they technically counted as food. Just potentially filled with rat germs. Now, one of these corpses moved. The rat’s body twitched, began to dig upwards, out of the sack. It emerged, scampered towards the basement stairs. And turned invisible, soundless.
“[Greater Invisibility]. [Muffle]. Hm. [Concealed Presence]. [Sticky Feet].”
Az’kerash cast a few spells, turning the rat invisible from detection both mundane and magical. Of course, if a Named Adventurer or someone with high detections Skills was present, he would have to improvise. But the rat, climbing out of the trap door with [Enhanced Strength], encountered no such formidable adversaries. It raced up the wall and saw Pisces as he slowly descended the steps.
The inn was clear, both of people and debris on the floor. In fact, the floors were so polished, it was almost a sin to walk on them. And it was certainly precarious. Octavia’s soap formula had worked—too well. The floors were polished, smooth, and slippery, as if they had had a wax coating. Pisces overbalanced, caught himself with trained grace, and watched Drassi flip and fall on her back.
The Drake was on duty, and she’d been carrying a platter of food to the table of the inn’s staff. Mrsha, bouncing at the table, looked up in dismay. But Pisces raised a finger and the strange pile of food stopped in midair.
“Drassi, are you alright? Good catch, Pisces!”
Lyonette got up and slipped towards Drassi with Ishkr and a Gnoll. They all nearly fell over as Drassi tried to get up.
“It’s the floor, Lyonette! It’s too slippery!”
“I know, I know. Octavia warned me, but I must have not added enough water! We’ll fix it.”
“We’ve washed it with water and it won’t stop slipping.”
Ishkr pointed out as Pisces made his way over to the table. Az’kerash scurried the rat closer. What was this? The aforementioned pizza?
It did not look like any dish he recognized. Nor, as Pisces pointed out, did it look like a pizza. Mrsha sniffed it suspiciously. It was much too tall, more like a pie than a pizza! And it had…sauce on top? Mrsha stared at Lyonette as she returned to the table. What was this trickery, she signed indignantly? She had been promised pizza!
“It is pizza, Mrsha dear. According to Erin. It’s…deep dish pizza. And I’m told it’s quite fattening, so you’ll eat greens tonight. Don’t give me that look! Drassi, pass me the knife.”
Lyonette scolded Mrsha gently as she served a slice. Pisces, Mrsha, the staff, and Az’kerash all saw the knife bite into the crust and thick pizza and reveal a cheesy filling and a thick base. Mrsha’s eyes lit up. Pisces just sighed.
“Some days it feels like Miss Solstice is unable to make a dish that contains healthy food.”
“If you don’t want it—”
Lyonette looked up. Pisces waved a hand.
“I’m merely remarking on her general culinary focus. By all means, serve me a…slice.”
He took a plate and fork. Mrsha was already gobbling hers and burning her tongue. Pisces began savoring his meal as Drassi rubbed her back.
“Hey, can I get some to share when I leave, Lyonette?”
“Mm. Sure. Erin can always make more. Let’s eat!”
All of them began to tuck into the meal. Az’kerash, possessing a rat…watched. And he frowned. A bit of curiosity rose in him. That had to taste…taste?
The Chosen were watching him. Az’kerash rose, absently, as he watched Pisces making small talk with Lyonette, explaining away the sounds from earlier. And he began to walk, past his undead creations who shuffled out of his way.
It was just a whim. But Az’kerash was concentrated, his thoughts all revolving around this moment. He was in the moment, recalling his past as an Archmage. And he had never seen a food like that before.
The [Necromancer] walked through the halls of his castle, passing by motionless skeletal knights, followed by his Chosen. He paused as he walked through the halls, turned left, then came back the way he’d come. He was looking for a room he hadn’t used since he bought this castle from a certain [Witch]. She’d thrown it in with a deal on the robes he wore. And he had never thought he’d need this room.
But the kitchen did exist. And it was full of dust. Not spiders or any animals; they stayed away. Az’kerash blinked at it. And then he raised his hand.
“[Gust of Wind].”
His Chosen, following him, found themselves encased in a miniature tornado of dust and debris. They walked through it, and peeked around the corner to see Az’kerash standing in the center of the kitchen. They looked at each other. But now was the time.
Bea was the one to speak. Even if she wasn’t first of Az’kerash’s chosen, like Kerash, she often got away with infractions Venitra, Kerash, Ijvani, and Oom did not.
“…Master? What are you doing?”
The Necromancer turned. He looked at Bea, and then paused.
Bea was confused. Az’kerash had never eaten. Not since her creation. But the Necromancer was raising a hand. Absently running his hand through the air. Where would he find…?
“Ingredients. My Chosen.”
They chorused as one. Az’kerash turned his head.
“There is a storeroom filled with foods somewhere in this castle. Preserved. Find it. Bring it to me. Bea, wear gloves.”
“Yes, Master. What do you wish? How many bags of holding?”
The Chosen surged with energy. Az’kerash frowned. He stared through the undead rat’s eyes as Lyonette went for another pizza and slipped.
“One, should do. I will not need much of each…flour. Cheese. Hm. That red sauce. Tomatoes? And some…basil. Eggs. Water. Clean water. Salt? And oil, yes.”
“At once, Master!”
The Chosen raced off, vying to be the first one to return. They ran through the halls, searching room after room. Venitra was the first to find the storehouse. Or so she assumed. She stared at the neat rows of produce, bought by her master for some reason that eluded her. Food. It was so…
“Flour first. Perhaps a bag.”
She eyed the huge bags that would require two grown men to carry. Then she bent and inspected the tubular, round things inside.
She prodded them. They were soft and had some kind of skin. Was this…Venitra stared at the bag. She circled around it. Then she realized they weren’t labeled.
“Venitra? Is this the room?”
Bea and Kerash skidded into the room. They stared at Venitra. She looked up at them, her competitive spirit fading slightly.
“Bea. Kerash. What does flour look like?”
The two Chosen paused. And then looked at each other. And they realized, among their vast knowledge of the world, cooking had never really been an issue for the undead. They turned into an anxious huddle.
“Flour. That was what master said. I know tomatoes. Red things.”
“No, the white stuff. Like…bone meal?”
“That’s right! What’s salt?”
“Um…the same stuff.”
“Half the things in here are round!”
“Oh, I know! They turn into chickens!”
Kerash and Venitra stared at Bea. She hesitated.
Az’kerash was still silently watching the meal when his Chosen raced back into the room. He turned his head as they timidly offered him a bag of holding.
“Master, we have brought it. Um…”
The Necromancer reached into the bag and produced the ingredients, one by one. All except for…he stared at a potato.
“This is not an egg, Venitra.”
The bone woman hesitated. Az’kerash inspected the ingredients. He slowly reached for a handful of powder.
“And this is sugar. Not salt. Go back and find the correct ingredients.”
The undead hurried off. Az’kerash ignored them. He was fascinated by his own thoughts. How did it go? How did it…flour. And water and eggs. And he needed a bowl—
He looked about for his Chosen and realized they were gone. Absently, Az’kerash clicked his fingers. The stone of the kitchen counter moved, and a perfect, smooth bowl formed out of the stone. The Necromancer stared at it.
He tossed it in. Egg? He stared at the filthy water that Venitra had brought from somewhere. The undead had a very loose understanding of hygiene too.
There. Water, clean and sparkling. Az’kerash looked up as his servants raced back in.
“Is this salt?”
“Yes. That’s still not an egg. Venitra. Find me an egg. It looks like—”
Az’kerash clicked his fingers. A floating image of an egg appeared. Venitra gasped.
“That’s an egg? Yes, Master!”
Az’kerash absently cracked an egg when it reappeared. He stared into the bowel, as the water sat on top of flour and the egg’s yolk mixed with all of it. Bea made a face.
“Ew. Is that cooking?”
“Maybe it turns into something. Like Oom and mana cores.”
The Necromancer ignored them. He absently reached out, plucked a wand out of his bag of holding. Stared at it. He cast the wand aside and created a whisk made out of air. Better. He began stirring it.
The flour congealed with the water as it mixed. Bea, who was a zombie engineered from plague, stared at the mixing substances with undisguised horror. Venitra stared at the bowl, appalled. Kerash just blinked.
“Ew, ew, ew…”
Az’kerash stared at the dough. It had to rise. No—you could bake it as it was, he recalled. He raised one hand. The dough rose upwards. The pizza looked like—
The dough moved. It shaped itself, into an approximation of the bowl. Az’kerash paused. Cheese? He stared at a wheel.
“Kerash, slice it. Into small pieces.”
The Gnoll drew his sword, one of the six Baneblades made to slay the living. He chopped up the cheese. Az’kerash poured it into the bowl. Next came the tomatoes. Venitra raised one fist. He eyed her, pointed. The tomato pulped in midair, poured on top of the cheese. Venitra lowered her fist, dejected.
“Is that it?”
Az’kerash mused. He couldn’t help but feel that it had been different. Ah, the [Chefs] of Terandria courts didn’t work so. But he was out of touch. Out of his field. Absently, the [Necromancer] clicked his fingers.
“Let’s see. [Flame Jet]?”
A blast of fire shot from his hands, struck the ceiling, and turned the room to fire. Bea and Kerash fled. Az’kerash narrowed his eyes, adjusted the heat. He turned to Venitra and gestured absently.
“Venitra, close the door.”
Joyfully, the bone woman did. The kitchen, now an oven, smoldered, and Az’kerash, still holding the pie in his free hand, watched it bake.
“Clearly a flawed attempt.”
That was his remark afterwards. The crust, in the searing heat, had browned. It was too thin, and lacked yeast. The tomato sauce wasn’t actually a sauce with the nuance Erin had made, but just…pulpy tomatoes. The cheese was okay, but the deep dish pizza was too hot. The Necromancer pointed.
It turned to ice. He tapped it again.
There. The pizza was steaming. Az’kerash placed it on the counter as Bea and Kerash peeked back in. Venitra stared at her master. He regarded it. Inspected it. Sliced a piece away. Raised it to his lips. And took a bite.
His Chosen gaped at him. Az’kerash frowned, chewed, swallowed. He considered the food for a moment.
“Crude. Even were it made correctly. The nobility of Terandria would not stand for it if they knew how simple it was. But if I were…”
He lapsed into thought. And Perril Chandler remembered a boy who might have loved the taste of this dish. He stared at the pizza, and then at the image of Pisces eating, stealing the last bit of pizza from Mrsha. He looked at the burnt, ill-made version in front of him. And he turned away.
His Chosen watched the Necromancer leave the kitchen. They stared at each other, full of wild surmise. They could guess their master’s will most times, at least in part, but this? They stared at the pizza, and the single bite taken out of the slice. After a moment, Kerash reached for a piece.
Venitra beat him to it. She snatched up the pizza, took a huge bite. She chewed, and Bea and Kerash all took a bite of the rest of the pizza. After a moment, they swallowed. All of them stared at the deep dish pizza. Then at each other. Venitra tossed her pizza down. The undead woman scowled and spat the pizza out; she didn’t have a throat. She was solid bone. Kerash poked at his stomach experimentally. Bea shook her head.
“I don’t see the point. It’s pretty, though. Like the inside of a fresh body.”
The Necromancer didn’t know why he was still watching. Only that the young Pisces called to him. In a way. It had taken Az’kerash some time to make the pizza. And then, the Necromancer returned to his work room and absently continued working on his whale design. But the feed into the inn continued in his mind. And as time passed—so quickly for the [Necromancer], but so full of relevance for the living, he saw Pisces returning upstairs. The inn filling with guests, half of whom fell over. His team returning.
He had a team. People who trusted him. Az’kerash saw the half-Elf, the female [Warrior], and the Antinium joining Pisces. Lyonette had a sign warning everyone of the slippage. She could only wait for the floor to redirty itself; she wasn’t about to spread sawdust, which would defeat all the work they’d done. There were some benefits to the slippery floors.
“Whee! Go Mrsha!”
Drassi skidded across the floor, using some towels like skates. Mrsha slid past her on her stomach. The staff had cleared a path for her down the center of the inn when they’d moved the chairs back and the Gnoll was happily sliding across the floor. Some of the guests were trying it too, but they didn’t have the childish ability to surf on their stomachs like Mrsha.
Pisces was there too. Az’kerash had seen him return to his studies, trying to memorize an [Acid Orb] spell. And then return below as his team came back. Ceria was telling him about some scenario involving their team.
“Stan’s on board, and so is Alais’ team and a few others. I think they’re still sort of, you know, about us, but they want the pay. We’re going to go out on a preliminary expedition soon with them, so be polite, Pisces.”
“I shall be exceedingly polite to their fragile egos.”
The [Necromancer] sneered. He was having a dish of greens with a side of salmon. He paused as Mrsha slid by him on her back, giggling silently and waving her paws. Ceria laughed with delight and Yvlon smiled. Pisces just sniffed.
The Gnoll cub looked up, slightly hurt, and Yvlon punched Pisces on the shoulder.
“Don’t spoil her fun. Is Erin back yet?”
“Not yet. Although I am amused to see her inn is the locus of her breed of chaos, even when she herself is not here.”
They all laughed at that. Az’kerash watched the inn fill, empty. The rat followed Pisces upstairs as night fell. Watching. Just watching. His friends bade him good night. The Antinium even stood in Pisces’ room, watching him demonstrate the new skeleton and dutifully applauded. The [Necromancer] smiled.
“Why am I continuing to observe?”
Az’kerash didn’t know. Guilt over his remarks to Pisces? Fascination? No—there wasn’t anything new here. Pisces’ designs were moderately innovative. The [Necromancer] wasn’t particularly high-level. Az’kerash could have attempted to spy on the King of Destruction.
So why…? Az’kerash kept watching as Pisces studied in his room, as the night deepened. He couldn’t place it. But there was something familiar in him. Something about the way Pisces stomped around the room insulting the author of the book for their convoluted explanations. Az’kerash almost caught himself nodding as he experimented with a sinew crossbow. Obviously, it worked. But who needed to build it into a body when you could buy…?
It was late into the night when Pisces closed his book. Az’kerash expected him to sleep, but the [Necromancer] tiptoed to the door and cautiously peeked outside. Az’kerash stopped his work, intrigued. Pisces had a furtive air about him as he checked the rat skeleton, the hallway, and then tiptoed downstairs. He nearly slipped on the stairs, but made it down into the common room. There he paused.
Az’kerash waited. He waited for Pisces to use the magic door, or perhaps steal from the kitchen. He might be a thief, or conducting some petty betrayal. It was a fact of this era. [Necromancers] were liminal people, outcasts, thieves, petty murderers—that was their role in society. And that was who they were, by and large. It was a stigma, an identity formed by his role. What they had painted him as, and who he had become. The Necromancer stifled the emotions. Waited.
Pisces pointed at himself with a whisper. His feet were soundless as he padded across the floor, in his socks. Az’kerash nodded to himself, coldly unsurprised. Not disappointed; there was nothing to hope for. Subterfuge, perhaps. Meeting with a criminal of some kind? Or simply some perverse voyeurism, petty spying or—
Pisces stopped by the door. He paused, taking a few breaths. Az’kerash, turning back to his work, watched the [Necromancer] look around, inhale deeply one more time–
And then run across the floor. The Necromancer looked up. The undead rat he was controlling saw Pisces slide past him, arms outstretched for balance. The young man caught himself, and then turned. He kicked off the stage at the far end, slid back on one foot.
Az’kerash blinked. Pisces was grinning wildly, windmilling his arms for balance. He kicked off a table and slid! He spun as he went, laughing silently. And then as he reached a far wall, he went for it.
Pisces did a penguin-dive across the floor on his belly, arms outstretched, laughing. He spun as he went, ending up in a casual lounging posture as he bumped against the stage at the far wall. He was grinning, embarrassed, looking around, but no one was watching. He climbed on the stage, did a running jump and cannonballed onto floor, spinning across it. He was laughing, as a white Gnoll sped past him on her side, staring at him—
The [Necromancer] twisted. He turned to stare at Mrsha and ran knee-first into a chair. Az’kerash couldn’t hear Pisces, [Muffled] as he was, but he heard the impact, and saw the young man curl up and silently shout in pain. Then Pisces was on his feet. He stared around and a little, furry head popped up across the room. Mrsha stared at Pisces. He stared back. Slowly, he raised one finger to his lips. Mrsha blinked at him.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
The faint sound made Pisces whirl. His face went dead white as he saw, on the staircase, a huddle of shapes. Ceria clapped her hands, grinning ear-to-ear. Yvlon was leaning against Ksmvr, laughing so hard she couldn’t stand upright. Only the [Muffle] spell on her kept her from making any sounds. Ksmvr was staring at Pisces, head cocked to one side.
Lyonette was giggling. Even Numbtongue looked amused. Mrsha slid past Pisces. An incredibly smug look was plastered upon her face.
“Looks like fun.”
That was all Ceria said. She took one look at Pisces’ face, and then burst into laughter. He turned bright red and vanished, literally. The [Invisibility] spell didn’t help, though; his audience had burst into guffaws.
“Come on, Pisces, it’s too late now!”
Yvlon howled with laughter when the [Muffle] spell was taken off her. She walked down the stairs, her face nearly purple from laughter. She looked around, and then snagged a bit of air trying to move past her. Pisces reappeared, too red-faced for words. But Ceria just laughed. She leapt down and did a slide across the floor.
“This is fun! I can see why you wanted to do it in private.”
She laughed. Ksmvr came down the stairs. He looked at Pisces and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I am very impressed at your mobility, Comrade Pisces. I shall do my best to emulate you.”
Then he got down and slid on his back across the floor, waving his arms in the air. Pisces tried to get away, but Yvlon, laughing, wouldn’t let him go. He was trying to justify himself, until Yvlon took a running start, tried to slide, and wiped out. She slid past Mrsha, and the Gnoll leapt on her back and surfed her across the room.
Lyonette was beside herself. But she and Numbtongue were coming down, and then Seborn and Moore, who’d been roused by the ruckus. Soon, everyone was sliding back and forth. Pisces’ face never quite turned back to normal, but he was able to laugh, drink three mugs from behind the bar, and then join the others in races to see who could slide across the floor fastest.
The Necromancer saw it all. Az’kerash realized he was standing. Standing and staring at the image playing through the undead rat. He wasn’t working on the whale, or holding another conversation. Every thought, every fiber of his being, was fixed on the scene. He watched Pisces sliding back and forth, and then Moore tossing people across the now-cleared floor. And Az’kerash—
Laughed. It burst out of him. Laughter. Genuine, unprecedented. The Necromancer laughed, caught himself, stared at the image of a half-Giant trying to slide across the floor as half a dozen people pushed him.
And he laughed. The sound echoed through his castle. It was so foreign it made Kerash grab his sword. Venitra strode the hallways, searching for the intruder. She saw her master laughing in his quarters and froze. She had heard him chuckle, seen him smile wryly, or with cynical detachment.
But this? Az’kerash kept laughing. And then, after a minute, he stopped. But he was still feeling levity, even after the minute had passed. And he walked past Venitra, who had frozen.
Down into a wide ballroom. Long deserted, the tapestries faded away to dust. The [Necromancer] stopped there. And he hesitated, much as Pisces had done. But it called to him, that empty space. So he pointed.
It spread across the cold stone in a moment, a thin sheet of water, frozen. The Necromancer put one foot on the ice. And he paused. But then he kicked off. And he slid across the ground that looked like glass.
Bea was watching. The plague zombie alone was there. Kerash was still searching the perimeter, convinced it was anyone but his master. Venitra was still standing where she was, trying to memorize, analyze the laughter, the look on her master’s face. But Bea peeked around a door and saw him.
Az’kerash slid across the floor, slowly turning, spinning, halting. It wasn’t an uncontrolled slide, like Pisces’ first attempt. He slid across the ice, pausing, adjusting his trajectory with careful movements. He had done this before. And as memory returned, he kicked off. He slid, no, he skated across the floor on one foot, turning, jumping, spinning. He didn’t have skates but it wasn’t elegance he strove for.
He had done this before. Bea saw it. The smooth glide, the way he caught himself from falling. The Necromancer slid across the floor a few times, but lacking skates, and unwilling to do the belly slide, there wasn’t much you could do. But he wasn’t going to stop with that.
The ice melted with a wave of one hand. And the water evaporated. Bea saw Az’kerash turn. And he waved a hand.
The dead rose. Skeletons, at first. Bone pouring fourth, shaking into Human figures, slowly gathering. And then—an illusion. Bone took on the seeming of cloth. Flesh.
Humans stood in the ballroom. And they wore the dresses of old. Elegant clothing, the kind Bea had seen in images of Terandrian nobles. A woman she had killed with a single touch. Beautiful clothing. And the people were beautiful. Smoothed by memory. They stood for a moment.
And then there was light. Bea flinched, but it was another illusion. Az’kerash turned. The ballroom changed. Worn stone turned into smooth, colored tiles. Rags into smooth curtains. Sitting chairs, servants circulating with trays.
And the people began to move. Men and women walked towards each other. He with a bow, she a proffered hand. They paired off, moved in slow steps.
Now music. Bea heard a haunting strain, some string instrument playing slowly. A quiet brass. Picking up in speed. The song filled the hall. And Az’kerash walked among the dancers. They moved in perfect synchronization; that was the only unreal aspect of the illusion. But each of them knew him. A man with a crown and a full beard nodded to Az’kerash, gesturing, scarred cheek twisted, but by a smile. A woman with a circlet approached shyly, hand proffered. A [Knight] bowed, all dignity and straight back.
More. [Mages], in their robes. A haughty Drake accompanied by a trio of giant women—no, statues, each perfectly sculpted. A pair of Garuda holding staves. They stood to the side as the dancers moved to the rhythm of the song.
Az’kerash stood among them. Looking from face to face. And then, at the woman with the circlet. She was most realized of the others. Her face alive with beauty, a hint of laughter, some nerves. Bea touched her face. And she looked at the woman and realized they were the same.
The dancers swirled in front of Az’kerash for a moment. And then they parted. The music picked up. It wasn’t quiet now, but moving. A call to the dance. Not fast, but with deliberate tempo. And he walked from among them.
The Necromancer walked forwards. And Bea saw his face was colorful. Pale in skin, but alive. And his eyes—she felt a surge of apprehension. They were a pale green, alive, not the dark pits she knew. Peril Chandler, Archmage Chandler, turned his head. And he held out a hand, accepting the woman, the other Bea’s hand.
They stepped into the center of the room. And the dancers slowly began to revolve around them. Az’kerash moved slowly at first, his legs and body moving to a tempo he had all but forgotten. But one he had known. And he turned, staring at the woman. Bea had seen the look on his face a thousand times. She knew it as fondness, amusement, affection. But this was deeper. A thousand times.
It broke her heart. And Bea hadn’t known she had a heart that could break. She whispered one word.
He never heard her. On Az’kerash danced, and the faces turned to him. Each one different. [Kings], nobility, [Mages]. [Knights] and men and women dressed with less elegance than their counterparts. All smiling. Laughing.
Until the song began to fade. Until, Perril Chandler, turning, saw a flash of contempt across one face. It stood out. A frown, across the crowned [King]’s face. A flash of fear across the women he held.
A discordant note pieced through the music. It halted abruptly. Perril Chandler’s smooth steps faltered. He stopped. The woman he held stared up at him. And her eyes were suddenly distant.
He looked around. The other dancers had stopped. And now, some wore masks. They hid, whispering behind them to each other. Others pointed. Some turned away. One by one, their faces turned accusatory.
Archmage Chandler looked around. He wavered, halted, turning. But the two Garuda had lowered their staffs, bowed their heads. Others he looked for were gone. The Drake and the three carved women were gone. Only one of them remained, and her carved face watched with bitter anguish.
The [Knight] approached Az’kerash. Spat on the floor, drew his sword and pointed it at Az’kerash. A man shouted something. But it was a silent scene.
Alone, the [Necromancer] stood. Amid a sea of faces. Lost figures. They turned on him, then. Full of wrath. Leapt, drawing blades, attacking from behind. He stood there. And as they moved towards him, they turned to dust.
The [King] was first. A look of mortal terror flashed across his face and he raised his hands. He turned to dust, the illusion vanishing, the skeleton disintegrating. The [Knight] was next, swinging his sword. One by one, the people closest to the [Necromancer] turned to dust. Then the others began to flee. They tried to run, not attack. But it was too late. They slowly fell to pieces, turning to pale powder on the floor.
The woman was one of the last. The man knelt over her, holding her for a long time. She looked up at him. And he reached for her. But she closed her eyes and vanished. He straightened, then. And his robes were black. His skin deathly pale. His black eyes searched the room. Bea saw Az’kerash look around.
He was no longer smiling. No longer laughing. The Necromancer stood amid the dust, his head bowed. He did not weep. His shoulders did not shake. He just looked around. And time came back like the crashing waves.
Az’kerash’s face was pained as Bea hesitantly approached. Pained, and then it smoothed as he turned to her. The emotion in his eyes pierced her, holding her tongue, keeping her speechless. But for a second. It faded. Disappearing into the void, the white void of his eyes.
A lone voice. The thing that had once been a man turned. And memory turned into reality. Bea stood in front of him, her face decayed. Her hair not flowing and full, but gone in parts. He smiled at her, appreciating the beauty he saw.
But Bea remembered the woman. And she was afraid. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t have words to describe what she had felt. She only knew what—Bea knew. And Bea was young. So she approached her master, timidly. She looked up at him.
“Master. I am sorry I failed you. I am sorry. But I miss Oom.”
It was a child’s statement. Self-absorbed. Guiltily, without knowing why. Az’kerash looked at her. And he held her, embraced her.
“Bea. My lovely child. You have not failed me.”
“No. It is I who fail you. My craft is not yet enough. The strength I gave you was not sufficient to best Zel Shivertail. My Chosen, my children, are still children.”
The words filled Bea with despair. She clung to her master, and she could not cry.
“I wish to serve you forever, Master. What am I doing wrong? How can I fix myself?”
The Necromancer looked down at her. And he touched her face.
“Forever is a long time, my dear. Even the undead fade. I would that you could stay with me. But…”
Bea looked at him. And Az’kerash paused.
“You lack only for one thing, Bea. You, Venitra, Kerash, Oom, and Ijvani. One thing that would elevate my Chosen, allow you to correct your flaws. Without it, you are unchanging. With it, you might deliver me that forever.”
“What? Master—if it is anything, we will find it for you. Salt, or flour. Or…”
Az’kerash laughed softly. Bea held still, hopeful. But he shook his head.
“It is nothing you can make. Or if it is, every hint of it was scoured from the earth. It is something I failed at a hundred thousand times. But still, I persist.”
“Life. Someday, I will complete the secret to creating life. And someday, perhaps, you will level, Bea. If I could only understand what I lack. But neither Zelkyr nor I ever finished the secret. And I fear my friend died, leaving Cognita shackled. And you—you are forever my child. You will not grow. But I love you for that.”
Bea closed her eyes. It hurt. Even when he told her he loved her. Because she knew she was incomplete. And she would know it forever. But maybe—she looked up. And he nodded.
“Someday, master? You promise?”
“Yes. I will keep trying. I promise you. Forever.”
He held her. And she took all the comfort from his promise.
After a while, Az’kerash rose. He brushed Bea’s cheek, and then left her standing in the dust. He walked through his castle, past an army of undead led by Kerash. A silent Venitra watched him walk into his work room. The Necromancer stared up at his creation hanging in the air. And then he waved a hand.
The thing he worked on next was simple. It was so simple, it was beyond his grasp. The Necromancer raised his hands. And all of his craft, all of his being went into it. A twisting word, a magical script compressed a million times. A library’s worth of words, drawn in magic. All the power he could command, shimmering into a point. It was a word, but incomplete.
Power scorched through the air. Az’kerash pointed and the charged air turned the sky dark. The objects in the room, the other magical wards, began to fail as the magical script condensed further, into a shining point. He raised both hands, and his eyes opened wide.
Flesh moved among bone. Organs moved, forming together. A heart rose, beating, imitating life. Lungs heaved, a body filled with blood and every component floated in front of him. He pointed, and the mote of light struck its chest. For a second, the heart beat. And the eyes opened. Az’kerash pointed.
The eyes opened—and the magic blasted outwards. The Necromancer raised one hand. The shockwave sent every object in the room flying. He stood as it blasted outwards, and the undead in his castle looked up, their eyes flickering for a moment.
And then it was done. The Necromancer stood amid failure. And he exhaled. He turned away. He walked towards his quarters.
Things to do. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t rest. But some things were beyond him. Perhaps even immortals needed to stop. There, Az’kerash sat. He thought of this day. An aberration among countless others. And at last, he waved a hand.
In a dark room an undead rat sat up. It regarded a sleeping young man, sprawled out in his bed, snoring after a late night of…fun. Childish though it may be. Az’kerash regarded him. And he thought of the man he was. He turned his head, staring at the incomplete foot, the attempt at a behemoth.
So young. So inexperienced. But—so familiar. The Necromancer paused, looking down at Pisces. Then he raised a finger.
In the room, the bones stirred. They floated out of Pisces’ bag of holding. They reshaped themselves. And a creature of bone rose. A monster far larger than a Bone Horror. Smaller than a giant. The Necromancer paused as it began to touch the ceiling. Then—he was struck by a thought.
He smiled, and twisted his fingers. The bone bent, reshaping itself. The form kept building, but compressing itself, doubling over, moving sideways, to fit in the enclosed space. The Necromancer kept working, assembling the final product.
He finished it at last. The twisting structure of bone filled the room. A behemoth, compressed through contortions of bone, but complete. And animated. The spell matrices twisted in Az’kerash’s sight, a complex knot due to how the creature was aligned. But it was whole. And its eyes flickered to life. The head rested just above Pisces as the [Necromancer] tossed in his bed, oblivious of the change.
The Necromancer paused, looking at the behemoth. It pleased him, in a slightly perverse way. The young man would have to decipher it to understand how it worked. It was a riddle made of magic only a [Necromancer] could solve, and even then—tricky. He had to admit. But it was familiar.
Homework. The kind he’d used to give to students, a lifetime ago. For a moment, the Necromancer smiled. And then the little rat floated forwards. It scribbled on the skull of the undead creature facing Pisces. A spell. The little paw engraved the magical words deep in the skull, a black spell, a death magic.
Call it a whim. Call it a chance. Az’kerash turned away. He had work to do, and Pisces was only one of his concerns. But—he spared one last look as the rat collapsed onto the table. He would not watch the boy today. Perhaps tomorrow. To see how he had done. Perhaps, to see him and his team. The strange inn.
But the Necromancer’s amusement faded. His eyes darkened. And he looked at the slumbering form one last time. He whispered.
“Someday, you will see the depths of their hatred for you, boy. Rejoice in your today, for that tomorrow lies ahead. Inevitably.”
He turned away. And the Necromancer thought of the future. The past was dead. He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes for nine seconds. And he thought of nothing at all. Then he opened his eyes.
“…Where did Ijvani go?”