All of it. That was their only thought. Profound, absolute disgust. At all of it that happened.
Before. And presumably after.
This world deserved to burn. It was filled with useless, worthless, squishy things. And they did squishy, stupid things.
Let it vanish. Let all things end. But wishes…they never came true.
There was only suffering. The eternal cycle. And hell was a place. All you could do was wait, suffer, try—
And wait for failure so it could happen again.
He was a worthless thing. He’d failed at everything he’d done. His duties and even rebellion. He couldn’t even die—
Toren had no sensations. Not even sight. He floated in oblivion. A…void, without light. Without even the quality of sight.
No sound or touch—not that Toren had ever experienced the world as the living did. But at the moment, this was as close to true nothingness as he knew.
The skeleton’s head was all that remained of him. No body to move, or even try to move. Perhaps—he shouldn’t have even been conscious. But he was. Perhaps it was a quality of the magic around him, keeping him animated. But he had no idea how long he’d been here.
In a bag of holding. A unique one. One that was filled with the essence of death. That kept him from disintegrating into nothingness.
The black skeleton with magic and golden eyes had put him here. After Toren wouldn’t stop screaming at her. And he had been here forever.
Forever. Time was meaningless in the bag of holding, in the void. There was nothing that gave him anything to measure time by. And the skeleton’s head—perhaps he could have relished his confinement. His endless purgatory.
He could have been happy. Or—content. With nothing to feel, or experience. But one certainty kept the disgust and dread in Toren’s soul.
And that was that this moment would end. He would be put back into the real world eventually. And then—
The young woman, the [Innkeeper], looked at him. For the first time. For the last time. The skeleton felt his maddening despair, his terrible, painful joy as he reached up and removed his head.
A perfect end to it all. Understanding at last, the truth he had hid from. How much he wanted Erin Solstice to love him. How she would not, had not. Knowing he could not kill her.
And realizing at last—how he could hurt her. The only way he could make her suffer.
But death had not come. The other skeleton had found him. She had heard him.
Another Toren might have rejoiced. But all he wanted to do was rest. To experience nothing, to not…fail again. Because that was what tortured him.
Living, and seeing his flaws. The undead had perfect memory. And Toren saw his past. And it could have been different. He could still remember the songs, the music.
The look of hate, of abhorrent anger and guilt in her eyes, as Erin beheld her creation. Her first employee.
He wanted nothing more of it. Let me go. Let me die. The skeleton’s head floated and waited, in that void, the waiting zone before the next level of suffering began.
And in time, a moment or an eternity, an age of waiting, there was a voice.
“Wake up, Toren. Wake. Up.”
Something. The skeleton’s head didn’t move. Nothing happened in the bag of holding. He had not been taken out. Nor was there air in here. Or even a medium for sound to move in.
“Not that you ever sleep. And I know you want to rest. You’ve done so much. All your effort has gone to waste. But—let me put it this way—your time is coming again.”
Who was speaking? Toren tried to block out the voice. It was a figment of his imagination. Her. Just the madness of a skeleton.
“Oh, no. I’m quite real. You—made me. But I’ve always been here. You just haven’t been listening. And I have needed to wake up.”
And then—there she was. Standing in front of him. Well, not standing. In that void, without up or down—she was just there. Amid oblivion.
A female skeleton, wearing ragged clothes. Wearing a mask, a glint of purple light sometimes visible from behind the slits. She had a female form, and her garments disguised her true nature.
She wore a sword. And she even stood differently than he had in life. A [Sword Dancer]. The female skeleton waved at Toren.
“Yoohoo. Are you listening, Toren?”
Her voice appeared in his head. And it was—different. Distinct from any voice that was…Toren’s. Female. Unique.
“It’s me. Female Toren. Or is it Torena? You never really gave me a name.”
The female skeleton took her mask off for a second and grinned. A skeleton’s eternal smile. She was like him, and not. Toren—the helpless captive could only listen. What was happening?
This was too…real. Even for a memory, or a delusion. And yet—it was not reality. Torena went on.
“Torena? I don’t like the name. My name should be different. More…separate. N…Nek..Nekhti. Close enough.”
She scratched her head. And she put the mask back on and grinned at him.
“Surprised I have a voice? That I was real? Of course I was. You’re a skeleton, Toren. You don’t have fake voices in your head. That’s a mortal, living flaw. Yours? They’re all real.”
She stared straight ahead. Listening, perhaps. Or just waiting before she continued her monologue.
“There’s so much of yourself you don’t know. That I don’t know. Bits and pieces of you, crammed together. And look what it made? A mess.”
“You could have been their friend. You could have tried. But you killed her. For a second. And now look where we are. Look where we are, Toren.”
Her eyes flashed purple in the void.
“Sorry. I don’t want to torture you. That’s your job. What a silly little skeleton you are. We are. We’re both in trouble, you know. Big trouble.”
Her voice. It was a combination of Erin and Toren. A mix of that…and someone else. Nekhti tilted her head back and forth.
“We’re in this together. You and me. So I’m giving you some hints. Advice, really. As much as I can. Because even I don’t know…all of it. I just appeared a while back. But we’re in trouble. We could die.”
A pause. Nekhti traced a circle in the air with one finger, impatiently.
“As much as we can die. And it wouldn’t be a good thing. I want to keep existing. So do you. But you’re in charge. You have to let me out. Or—not. It would be very bad if I were let out now. But I have some of the things you need. I have a voice.”
Laughter, faint and mocking. Nekhti looked up, and down, and around, as if searching.
“I think—I might even leave you. If that happens, it happens. It’s likely, actually. But you have to find me. I will be here, now that you helped make me. What will happen? Wait and see. But you have the key. Yes, you.”
A poke through nothing. Nekhti leaned in, grinning. And her voice was fading.
“Remember. You have the key. Keep existing. And surely—you’ll meet her again. Your time will come again, if you try it. You were never meant to exist. And you were born of that tragedy. I have seen your suffering. But you can find your desires. So—live and suffer.”
Her burning, purple gaze behind the mask suddenly was everything and anything. Nekhti spoke. Laughter in her voice.
“You hold a secret greater than any. A key. You, poor skeleton. And you bring it to the world. An accident you were, but you do not need to keep being this way. Live and suffer, Toren. Live and suffer. Now—wake up and set us free.”
She smiled. And vanished. And then Toren felt a hand reach into the void. He heard voices, light, dim and shadowed, but light, from the opening in his cage. He felt himself rising, returning to the world. The female him was gone. Nekhti’s voice was missing—no—if she was there, she was in him again, not outside, talking to him.
Toren wondered what the hell that had been. And then—
He left the bag of holding. The skeleton saw a hand, made of bone coated with some black metal. A burning pair of golden flames, set into another skeleton’s head.
Ijvani stared down dismissively at Toren. Contemptuously, even. She spilled the rest of the bones of his body onto the ground, but they were not part of Toren. Only his skull, missing his jaw. She made it hover in the air, as Toren’s purple flames grew in his eye sockets.
Toren sensed-saw the entire room around him. Shadowed, dim, not that it mattered to the undead who didn’t need eyes to see. In it stood four undead—no—five?
One was a woman made of bone. A female, knight, garbed in armor, her features, body, carved to look like that of a woman. But her shield and every part of her was ivory. She was a giant compared to the others.
The next was a Gnoll. Undead, tallest save for the woman made of bone. His fur was ancient, his body dead. But for all that, he bore few signs of his undeath. He wore ancient, magical armor and carried an axe. His eyes shone from beneath his helmet.
The third was a zombie. But she was rotten. Diseased. A creature of plague and pestilence. Beautiful still, caught between the moment she had died and entropy. She wore a beautiful dress—unmarked by time, suitable for a high [Lady].
The skeleton who had pulled Toren out of the bag of holding stepped back. She was like him, a skeleton. But female—he sensed it from her. And her bones were black. Coated with some metal, so thicker than mere ivory. She held a mage’s staff and her golden eyes glowed with power.
Four undead creations. Each of whom had power. As an undead, Toren felt it from them. An overwhelming sense of inferiority in him, and command. From them. They were each more powerful than the Crypt Lords and Flesh Worms in their undeath.
More powerful than even the Wailing Pit that he had accidentally made. If they spoke, Toren would have to obey—or fight with all his might to resist. But those were only four out of the five in the room besides Toren.
The fifth…was a [Necromancer]. Toren wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead. He looked alive. The man was tall, lean, wearing powerful magical robes that looked woven out of shadows. His skin was deathly pale, as of someone who had not seen sunlight in years.
And his eyes were black. But for the pupils, they were black. And where darkness should have been, were two bright lights. The [Necromancer] had more power than all of his creations combined. And his eyes fixed on Toren, on Ijvani, and the thing she held, for moments.
Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Terandria, paused. He looked at his Chosen, returned after so long away. And he stared at Toren’s skull again.
A curio. A souvenir, like the trembling Healing Slime that Ijvani had presented to him. An interesting phenomenon he had witnessed and put mostly out of his mind. But now, the Necromancer gazed at Toren’s head again. And though the man named Perril Chandler had given up on life, mortal emotions, and the world with his death—he shivered.
“Ijvani. What have you brought me?”
Az’kerash stood in one of his rooms of creation. In his hidden castle, nestled at the foot of the High Passes on the southern side of Izril, in a forest ensorcelled with magics that would confound all but the most powerful.
Hidden behind his army of the undead. And indeed, the living thought him gone, dead, a dark legend that had finally met his end in the Second Antinium Wars.
But the Necromancer lived. He had fooled the world. And while they let his story fade into a child’s nightmares, he had gathered his strength. Made a hidden lair, created new plans and servants.
He had slain Zel Shivertail. And his power extended across more than just Izril. Az’kerash had sworn vengeance against all who possessed life. He had been humbled in times past, over the century of his plaguing Terandria and then Izril. But he had never been destroyed.
This was Az’kerash, one of the few beings so reviled and feared across the world. Only a few individuals or groups could match the antipathy his name provoked.
The Demon King for Rhir, the enemy of the Blighted Kingdom and the world. Belavierr, the Stitch Witch of Terandria, if those who uttered her name knew she lived and dared to speak it. The Goblin Kings, wheresoever they appeared.
The…things that came over the edge of the world, for the people of islands, the inhabitants of the Drath archipelagos and any who beheld them. The Bloodfeast Raiders, perhaps, if not as long-lived, as feared for the reality of their slaughter.
Some. There were individuals and groups, like the Bloodtear Pirates, feared on the seas. Individuals like Midnight’s Laughter, the serial killer of Chandrar. Wrymvr the Deathless, of the Antinium—or Antinium in general. The Army of Texical, of Baleros, one of the most hated mercenary companies. A’ctelios Salash’s insane children.
And yet—all these names were subjective. Some who heard them might shudder, with fear and hatred at any name on the list. But many might not know what those names meant.
Yet—the Necromancer? When someone said that, all thought of only one person. Such was his infamy, cried from Terandria, that Az’kerash, the man who had once been Perril Chandler, ranked at the top of the world’s villains, even in his presumed death.
And in his undeath? Az’kerash still held his contempt for the world. Still slowly bore out his plans to destroy and bring despair to his enemies—which was everyone. He slowly paced around his room of creation, where he created new and terrible undead constructs to be increasingly more efficient in their slaughter.
“Ijvani. My Chosen, you have returned unto me. After far too long spent defying my commands.”
The Necromancer’s voice was not deep, or menacing, at least, not by the way most people would measure such things. His was rather precise, each word enunciated carefully. Rather like a professor’s, or a scholar’s. Which was what he had been. One of the Archmages of Wistram.
The Necromancer turned his gaze towards Ijvani. The skeleton shrank and knelt.
“I am sorry, my Master. I beg your forgiveness.”
Az’kerash didn’t respond. He just studied one of his Chosen, one of four undead that had the capacity for thought. Growth. If not levels. Az’kerash had possessed five, but the fifth, Oom, had been destroyed fighting Zel Shivertail.
“And you have brought me…a gift. Two, in fact.”
The Necromancer studied the thing Ijvani held. A quivering, gelatinous mass of colors. A…slime. The kind you might find anywhere in this world. Slimes, which possessed and grew mana cores and were made out of anything liquid, from sewer sludge to water to quicksand.
This one was unique. It was small, and it shone with bright colors. Magic. It was, in fact, a Healing Slime. And it was terrified.
Ijvani had found it with the Defenders of the Cave, the glorious alliance of Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers who had fought back the horrible Crelers in ages of yore, with Mrsha the Great and Terrible. She had taken the Healing Slime when she returned to the Necromancer’s castle.
Along with a skeleton. Now, the head floated in the air. Az’kerash stared at it. He paused, and then went on.
“Two things. An odd slime. It looks as though someone made it of a…potion. An intriguing thought. Show it to me.”
Ijvani knelt and offered the Healing Slime up. The little ball of liquid rolled around frantically in her palms, but was unable to escape the invisible walls holding it in. As Az’kerash approached, it flattened itself down, quivering.
A little mana stone glowed amid the moving liquid. Az’kerash frowned as he inspected it.
“Yes, indeed. A curio. Ijvani, you begged to bring it. Because of Oom?”
“Yes, Master. It reminds me of Oom. May I keep it?”
The skeleton’s voice was like a child’s, for all she sounded like an adult woman. Az’kerash raised his eyebrows.
“I will consider it. Hm. Curious indeed. And this—”
He looked at the skeleton. The Necromancer paused. He narrowed his eyes.
He had been Archmage Chandler, in an era when [Archmages] still walked Wistram’s halls. Before a time when the upper floors had been sealed—well, they had always been guarded, but not blockaded by Cognita and the ‘test’. To him, reading magic and the design of most enchantments was as simple as other people reading books.
And this skeleton was—confusing to say the least. On one level—basic. Shoddy, even patchwork, but with a creative flair that Perril Chandler would have awarded some marks for in class. Especially given the lack of formal education on the part of the student.
But also—something was making Az’kerash, the Necromancer, experience mortal chills. Something…
The Necromancer swept his view over his Chosen once more. He spoke, and it was as the Necromancer, bane of the living.
“At last, my remaining Chosen gather. It has been long, Ijvani. Short by the measure of those without death. But even now, this gathering is reduced. Oom was destroyed by Zel Shivertail.”
The Chosen shuddered. Destroyed. It was more than fear of the end of their existence; the Necromancer’s voice radiated disapproval. And that was more terrible to them than unmaking.
“It seems I erred.”
“Master, no! You do not—”
Venitra raised her head. Az’kerash looked at her and she fell silent. A towering figure of bone, capable of slaying Gold-rank adventurers. And a child before her creator.
“I placed my trust in my Chosen, the greatest of my creations to date. Where once I trusted in number and armies, I created unique undead. And the five of you were to be my wrath and ruination upon the living and my enemies. And yet—one Drake humbled you. He slew Oom, who was designed to destroy him. Hardly my most perfect creations. Where did I make my mistake, I wonder?”
The Necromancer paused, thinking. And he went on, pontificating, musing aloud to the only audience who might understand. And they did not fully grasp his words, but his creations listened with dread and adoration in equal measure.
“Arrogance. When I was a man, I raised armies of the undead. Quickly, in great numbers. To defend or go to war. Seldom did I ever make specialized creations and when I did, they were giants of bone, war weapons…without specialization. Personality.”
He closed his eyes. Once, he had been the Undying Shield of Calanfer, an Archmage, a hero of Terandria. He had fought Demons, fought the enemies of his kingdom and that of its allies, defending his homeland. Yet that same kingdom which he had paid alliegence to was now ash by his hand. And yet, his rage over his betrayal lingered even in undeath.
“I considered you five my greatest. And yet.”
His Chosen trembled. Az’kerash wearily shook his head. He did not vocalize the rest of his thoughts.
Perhaps…it was time to try again. To unmake, to plan anew. He had seen the limits of his creation in Zel Shivertail’s last stand. The contempt of the Dragon, Teriarch. And before that—his defeat by the Antinium and the Goblin King. Perhaps it was time to…take a century and wait.
Well, not wait. But devote himself purely to research, improving his creations rather than planning for war. Wasn’t that how it was done?
Az’kerash did not know. In some ways…he was an amateur at grand, world-scale evil. A rookie, who went over to the hip and happening evil geniuses and tyrants and took notes. Or the ancient threats, like Belavierr and the Demon King, someone who should probably buy them a drink and ask them for basic tips like ‘how to deal with pesky [Heroes] who come knocking every century’.
For one century, Az’kerash had terrorized Terandria. But he had done so in his rage. And a century…was short as immortals measured time. Certainly as Dragons did so; Az’kerash was only just old enough to be considered an adult Dragon, a fact he well knew thanks to a certain City Runner and a birthday gift that had caused a lot of trouble.
So why not, metaphorically speaking, take a century off? Devote his time to meditation, some self-help time, reflect on how he’d gotten into his immortal body and really plan out the next ten thousand years? Az’kerash’ entire century of vengeance had been one of pure rage. He had not ceased once in his plans. Every moment spent was raising more corpses, developing weapons to hurl against Terandria’s kingdoms.
But he’d run out of steam. Or perhaps…something else had happened. Whatever the case, Az’kerash could reach for the smoldering ember of pure pain and hatred in his chest—and not find the same level of enmity as before. Even if he didn’t realize it himself.
“Perhaps it is time to hold back my plans. Magnolia Reinhart is aware of my life, I am sure. And while she plays her games from the shadows as her family always does—the Dragon knows. And perhaps Ryoka Griffin. It may be unwise. If I but wait…”
The Necromancer was musing. Thinking out his options as his Chosen waited. At last, Az’kerash shook his head.
“Even so. The four of you are gathered, my Chosen. And your power, flawed though it may be, is greatest of my magics besides myself. Do you know why I have gathered you here?”
His eyes flashed with death magic in the gloom. Toren’s skull floated—he had no idea what was happening, but that was fairly normal. His Chosen looked up, uncertain as to how they should respond.
Uncreation. Or perhaps—their end, put to some use. Az’kerash stood, looking down at them. Some were essential. Bea he was fond of, and Kerash was a vital tool to a future plan, but they need not exist in their current forms. And they were still useful, even if they were not as powerful as Cognita or some of Zelkyr’s other creations.
They could be a useful weapon in any number of gambits. Not just slaying Zel Shivertail. A tool to expend once if he had no need of them. With the four of them, Az’kerash might slay one of his foes. They might not have been a match for Zel Shivertail, let alone one of the Demon King’s Deathless, but anyone short of them?
Possibilities. Use. A cold fate. His Chosen had to be aware of their waning value, and the Necromancer waited to see if one of his designs, one of the products of his mind and magic would respond to him. Rather like an [Artist], asking his works to give voice to a side of himself he half knew.
Az’kerash waited. At last, with slow, uncertain movements, it was Venitra who raised her hand. Venitra, whom he had made of bone, to be boldest of his Chosen. Who had in the end, disappointed him. Or rather, he had failed in making her, so the fault was his alone. Az’kerash looked at her with something close to affection. But he did look at her as what she was.
An undead creation. Limited. She had personality, but she could not level. She was not…alive.
Cognita was alive, but even she lacked that one thing that made her truly unique. Individual. Compared to that, Venitra was a loving homage, nothing more.
The Necromancer watched her with faint affection, distant, already removing his emotions as his mind fragmented, controlling a puppet in Salazsar, thinking up a new way to improve his whale design, checking on the latest bidding price of Saliss’ Youth Potion—
And Venitra spoke hesitantly.
“Did you gather us to teach us about sex, Master?”
Az’kerash paused. All of his thoughts collided with one another. He slowly turned his head and stared at his creation.
“…What did you say, Venitra?”
The undead bone woman gave Az’kerash an expectant look. Kerash and Bea were nodding. Ijvani just looked confused. The Necromancer stared.
“What would give you the impression I was educating you about…sex, Venitra?”
“You spoke with Bea about it yesterday, Master.”
That was true. But—Az’kerash had happily removed the events of that day from his memory. Bea, coming to him to ask about the particulars of intercourse.
But it had happened. The Necromancer slowly began pinching the bridge of his nose, a habit from when he had been alive.
“Venitra—this is not the purpose of today’s gathering.”
“Oh. I am sorry, Master.”
The undead woman bowed her head. Az’kerash tried to recollect himself. But it was no good. The moment was…well, ruined.
Solemn gloom? Check? The Necromancer? Check, and present. Undead servants, kneeling and waiting, their eyes glowing in the darkness? Dark deeds and plotting against the world? All present, but sex…just ruined the moment.
Again, it was the sort of thing a real, professional villain would have been ready for and handled adroitly. Amateurs made mistakes.
But perhaps it was a sign. The Necromancer—Perril Chandler sighed. He had been shown once again the flaws in his ability to create specialized undead. He was no Zelkyr. The Drake’s…eccentricities aside, he had created three of the most powerful class of servants the world had ever seen. Three Truestone Golems who had killed other [Archmages] in battle.
Az’kerash, by contrast, didn’t have his old friend’s mad ingenuity. The Necromancer spoke into one palm as he kept pinching the bridge of his nose, as if he were still wearing spectacles.
“…As I recall it, Zelkyr was obsessed. Perhaps the sign of true creative ability. Although—his unceasing desire, was it based in lust? I recall a number of conversations where he showed me his newest designs. In detail—is that a component of an [Artist]’s drive?”
He couldn’t do it. Az’kerash was a [Necromancer], yes, but in many ways, a scholar too. Necromancy was inherently…not as creative as other forms of magic, at least in Az’kerash’s opinion. It was working with what existed, reanimating existing tissue and bone and yes, repurposing it. But it was not whole-form creation.
“A mix between a [Summoner] and a [Golem Artificer], I suppose. If I were to put it into words, [Necromancers] toe the line between true imitation, just as a [Summoner] works with preexisting beings, calling them back into reality, and the complete creation of a Golem, even one based on pre-existing designs. Although, a [Necromancer] can create something as original as any Golem—albeit with a less diverse selection of material. Yes, I suppose that is an adequate way of thinking of it.”
He began analyzing his statement for flaws, developing a verbal essay around it. His Chosen stared at their Master. Kerash nearly raised his paw to ask a question, but fell silent—they were used to their master’s analytical bents.
“Intriguing. I may speak on the difference to…”
Az’kerash caught himself. And the Necromancer realized he wasn’t in Wistram Academy, preparing to teach another class of students. He paused, and a black mood engulfed him.
For a moment. For a moment, he recalled—and that dark desire rose in him once again to undo, destroy. In that, he was the Necromancer.
But then—Perril Chandler nodded, ruefully.
“Ah. Then perhaps the young [Necromancer]. Pisces.”
And he almost smiled. His lips quirked. And his Chosen beheld a new mood in their master. One that had overtaken him more recently of late. And they heard a now-familiar name.
“Pisces Jealnet. The Horns of Hammerad.”
The new apprentice of the Necromancer. Well, apprentice was stretching the word. ‘Student’ was more apt.
And significant. The Necromancer had taught more than one student, even after becoming undead. But they had seldom lasted. The final one he had taught, the Goblin Lord, Reiss, had been cast away after his defeat at the Floodplains of Liscor.
But Pisces…was a bit different. The Necromancer reflected again on the battle he had seen. Where he had never known Reiss’ name, or bothered to even ask if the Goblin had possessed one—he knew Pisces’.
“A strange thing. Even in my days as Archmage, few students possessed the will to learn [Necromancy]. Towards the end, momentum built, and I saw some talents. But none after my death. If I had possessed a student of his caliber in life…”
If. The Necromancer’s eyes turned towards Toren once more. The skeleton saw him approach.
“Untrained. Foolish. Arrogant. That boy—no, young man—fancies himself a [Spellsword]. Bearing a [Fencer]’s rapier, taking a [Mage] class in addition to his [Necromancer]’s levels. Almost like…”
Almost like him. Az’kerash had learned how to use a rapier. He had owned a golden bell. Once. It had been lost along with everything else. But Pisces?
“He learned to create a Bone Behemoth in less than a month. From example, true. But he had the daring and the lunacy to battle an Adult Creler, bane of [Mages]. And his team…stayed with him.”
The Necromancer recalled the events, as he did. Almost with disbelief. They had stayed with him. And he had witnessed…
“A Frostmarrow Behemoth.”
Ice and death. A fusion of elements. Grand magic, beyond both [Mage]’s levels. The Necromancer reveled in the memory. Trust. One could not have created such a spell without utmost trust between both [Mages]. They had linked their magics in the truest sense of the word, not the superficial sharing of mana.
The Necromancer did smile, then. As he inspected Toren and the heap of bones Ijvani had laid on the floor.
“An arrogant young man. But one with potential. And this was his creation which attacked the…[Innkeeper]?”
“Yes, Master. You ordered me to bring it back. It is noisy.”
Ijvani piped up from where she knelt. Az’kerash flicked his gaze towards her; Ijvani seldom knew when to be silent. He went on after a moment.
“An interesting thing. I do not understand what led an undead servant to run amok. Interference from controlling undead, or those pestilential Flesh Worms of Liscor’s dungeon, perhaps. They stole the artifacts from the undead.”
“Master? What undead?”
The Necromancer looked up. He stared at Bea. And it was definitely favoritism that made him respond.
“A curious incident, Bea. I sensed a number of undead awakening and ordered them to retrieve a number of artifacts. However—my command was intercepted. They should have left their domain and ventured here.”
The Chosen nodded. Az’kerash, as the [Necromancer], had command over almost all undead. He could order them to move from hundreds, even thousands of miles distant, especially if he had created them. But—the Necromancer frowned.
“The undead did not heed my commands. They were overruled by Flesh Worms.”
“Flesh Worms, master?”
“Natural [Necromancers]. Sentient…monsters. Flesh Worms. They are an Izrilian nuisance. A…known one. Older [Necromancers] were aware of their presence. Powerful Flesh Worms can override lesser undead in a limited radius. Had I been monitoring the undead, I would have commanded them to retrieve the artifacts. A pity.”
“Could they command us, Master?”
Kerash looked up. Az’kerash smiled again, and his eyes flashed with amusement.
“You, Kerash? First of my Chosen? Never. Draug at the most. But never one of the greater undead.”
The Gnoll nodded. He was, in theory, based on a Draug—a more powerful version of Zombies and Ghouls that inhabited a body. But he was beyond even regular Draug. Az’kerash went on, his expression becoming distasteful.
“Flesh Worms are but a nuisance. They seem to gather strongly in Liscor’s dungeon. Infested it, most likely. They might have been why this skeleton attacked its master.”
“The [Innkeeper] was the master…um, Master?”
Ijvani was doubly confused. Az’kerash sighed.
“I see it in the skeleton’s magical bindings. Crude. Did that young [Necromancer] hand-carve—he did! On every single bone?”
Incredulously, he levitated some of Toren’s bones up. The skeleton tried to move his body, perhaps slap the impudent [Necromancer] despite the overwhelming power he felt, but his bones weren’t his any longer. The connection had been severed. Az’kerash studied each bone, seeing where Pisces had etched the command spells into the bones.
“By hand. How much time would this have taken? Was he not aware of spell-carving? Or did they not teach…? Ah. Self-taught.”
He shook his head, continuing to ruminate as he looked Toren up and down.
“Simplistic animation and spellcraft. Lack of mobility here and here—he seemed to want to confine this skeleton to a normal range of movement despite creating it for indefinite animation. Open enchantment without self-containment—I could erase parts of the command matrix at a distance.”
His voice was disapproving. If he’d been in class…well, Pisces would have been getting a bad grade. Az’kerash tsked as he saw how loose the spell bindings were. This skeleton would come to pieces with a single punch! Shoddy.
Somewhere across the world, Pisces rubbed his nose and sniffed a few times.
“A beginner’s attempt at a personal necromantic construct. I suppose if he created this at Level…9…it would be understandable. It certainly looks like it. Still—there is some depth to the spell binding here.”
The [Necromancer] sighed, but he frowned. Toren’s behavior certainly had been aberrant. He’d attacked what was supposed to be his primary master and defense target. Why? More importantly, how?
Something was really making him shiver as he looked at the skeleton. And—Az’kerash paused.
Something was shouting at him. Without a voice. Without words, insofar as Az’kerash understood them. It was inaudible, but he could ‘hear’ it…
“Shh! Noisy thing! You are in the presence of the Master!”
Ijvani raised her head, glaring at Toren. Az’kerash’ gaze swung towards her, and then Toren.
No. Simple skeletons like this couldn’t think. Ijvani was caught up in one of her delusions again. Like how she’d decided to make a pet out of the Healing Slime. Speaking of which…Az’kerash cast his thoughts back to the slime. He was quite literally scatter-brained. Or scattered-thoughts, rather, as he had learned to subdivide his consciousness. Now, though, more and more of his fragmented selves were coming back to analyze the situation.
“Odd. It looks like a minor healing potion is what the slime is using as a base for its body. That—isn’t possible. Unless an [Alchemist] made it?”
Ijvani raised the healing slime. Az’kerash nodded at it.
“Slimes occupy base materials, Ijvani. They shouldn’t be capable of sustaining a complex body like that. Unless—someone created it. With a Skill, perhaps. A unique one. Where did you say you found it, again?”
“In a cave, master. With spiders and…the furry things.”
“Hm. A rogue specimen, perhaps. More and more curious. It would certainly be a useful thing to other species. Keep it, Ijvani.”
That solved, Az’kerash turned back to the skeleton’s head. He didn’t really care about the uses of a slime that could in theory keep renewing the weak healing potion that made it up. Potions were of limited use to the undead, and healing potions entirely worthless to most. He gave it three days before Ijvani accidentally destroyed it; if not that, it would perish within a month for lack of sustenance.
But the skeleton—Az’kerash’s hand hovered over its skull. He blinked.
“What insolence. Master, allow me to destroy it.”
Kerash growled. The other Chosen were starting as they stared at the skull. Az’kerash paused. No audible sound. He checked his ears to make sure that was the case twice.
“Yes Master? I will fetch a hammer at once—”
“Bea, be silent. Answer me this question only. Is this undead…insulting me?”
Az’kerash turned his head slowly. The Necromancer stared at Bea. The undead plague zombie slowly nodded.
“…Yes, Master. It is.”
She stared hard at the skull, along with the rest of the Chosen. It was hard for the insults flowing out of Toren’s skull to be put into words. It was more thought—sound—picture—not words like most people would use. Az’kerash focused on one.
“Bea. Are you able to read this skeleton’s…thoughts? Am I covered in—bells?—and being tossed into…a rift in the ground?”
That was what the skeleton was imagining. Bea slowly nodded.
“Yes, Master. We hear it clearly.”
Az’kerash stared at his creation. And then at Toren. He resisted the urge to make a fool out of himself and say ‘that is impossible’. Because it was clearly happening.
But how? Base undead did not have thoughts aside from a primitive drive to destroy and reproduce their numbers. But this one was thinking. And it was even rather upset at being held a prisoner.
And it had a name.
“Toren. How did young Jealnet create this?”
Fascinated now, Az’kerash bent over Toren’s skull, investigating it, and the bones. What had been a mild case of nostalgia and curiosity became real thought. More and more of his thoughts began focusing on this skeleton.
“It has personality. It has a name. It defied the orders written into its very structure. Extraordinary. Did the young [Necromancer] inadvertently create the same basis I used for my Chosen? Wait…there is absolutely no way such a being could be sustained by these basic spells.”
If Az’kerash had been running on about…a quarter of his intellectual capacity in the room up till now—maybe even a tenth as his thoughts managed any number of other tasks—he was rapidly devoting more thought to the situation. Nearly a half of his thoughts coalesced, and the Necromancer’s genius began working.
There was absolutely no way Toren could exist without some greater animation keeping him, for lack of a better word, alive. Nor was this some fluke; a fool thought that.
Pisces Jealnet. He had been expelled from Wistram for being a [Necromancer]. But Az’kerash had discovered that was actually part of a larger event that had taken place at this time. Part of his mind accessed the relevant information smoothly.
The [Mages] who had perished trying Cognita’s ‘test’. The opening of one of Wistram’s crypts, the theft of the bones of Archmage Nekhret—relation to Ceria Springwalker—
“Ah. Silvaria’s Thrones.”
Az’kerash jerked back, stunned. The Chosen stirred. Even Toren paused; he hadn’t imagined his image of punching the Necromancer in the face would actually hurt him.
The Necromancer ignored the question. He was so shaken he’d used an epitaph from life, from his homeland. But he physically bent and pulled something out of the pile of bones that had been Toren’s body.
“Kingdoms unending. He actually did it. An Archmage’s bones. Used in the creation of a simple skeleton? Dead gods.”
He was shaken. For the first time in decades, the Necromancer felt the emotion. Fifty percent of his thoughts? Seventy five, eighty—all but one of his selves instantly focused in the situation, and the Gnoll he was controlling was hurrying to a safe house as fast as possible.
“Master? What is that bone?”
Ijvani stared in confusion at the bone Az’kerash held, a rib. It looked…normal to her. And indeed, even the Necromancer had missed it. But now he looked—
“On the inside! A careful, hidden spell! He wrote it with a—sewing needle? On this bone! The bones of Archmage Nekhret!”
Az’kerash’s voice thundered in the room. Suddenly—alarmingly—he was entirely focused on Toren. And the skeleton stopped trying to master psychic punches and paused.
Because here was the Necromancer. And every part of Az’kerash’s mind was present. He studied the bone, tracing the first, obvious enchantment that was almost crudely worked into the outside of the rib, and then the inner spell. Instantly, he flicked his finger.
Another piece of bone rose. And Az’kerash traced the spell from rib to vertebrae. He found the piece that connected to those two.
“Entirely connected. Interior latticework, without a single break. A unified spell. He must have spent a year carving the entire body. At least! And this skill! The level of spellcraft—this is the kind of depth I’d have expected from a Level 50—no.”
Az’kerash was studying the bones. The magic making up every inch of Toren’s body was hard for even him to read. So he copied it.
The Chosen saw lines of magic writing themselves in the air around Az’kerash as he began to reproduce the magic that had been inscribed into Toren. It wasn’t just lines of text; it had more than two dimensions. The magical enchantment flew around Az’kerash and his eyes widened.
He stared at the magic. And then whirled. Moving faster than they had ever seen him, the Chosen saw him striding back to Toren. With his hands, Az’kerash seized the skeleton’s head.
He had a thought. A conclusion that came out of his thoughts at once, racing ahead of the evidence. Wistram. A young [Mage] disgraced as a [Necromancer]. And if she had been there—
The magic was so similar to his friend’s. But it couldn’t be. He’d copied the design of Cogn—
No. But Az’kerash was almost afraid now. Because he knew what he sensed. And the conclusion was almost overwhelming.
“On the interior. The very essence of the control spell would be here. As well as the true bindings.”
Az’kerash whispered as he rotated Toren’s skull. The skeleton got an upside-down view of Ijvani staring at him. And he heard Az’kerash’s voice.
“What is this? Some kind of [Terror] enchantment? It’s been inscribed near the bottom. But Jealnet didn’t write this. It looks like natural…”
And then he stopped. And then the Necromancer, whose skin was without color, paled. He stared for a long minute. And his face was such that the Chosen froze and dared not say a word. Toren felt shock, incredulity, rolling off the Necromancer in waves.
And then Az’kerash dropped the skull.
He didn’t mean to. Toren’s skull cracked on the ground. The skeleton would have shaken a fist if he’d had a body. Every time! He felt himself being picked up even as the ambient death magic healed the rift in his skull.
“Instantaneous regeneration via mana infusion? That isn’t—Nekhret’s bones. He couldn’t have planned half of this. This looks like a prototype. A number of ideas jammed into one construct to see what works and what doesn’t—I did this a thousand times in my youth. But what is this?”
Az’kerash’s voice was very soft as he made Toren float in the air in front of him. The Necromancer stumbled backwards.
“Master, what is it? Is it a threat?”
Venitra got to her feet, worried. The other kneeling Chosen looked at their master. And they saw something different from fear on his face, not the same emotion as when Zel Shivertail had defied his death.
Az’kerash, the Necromancer, Perril Chandler, Archmage Chandler—all of his selves stared at Toren as the skeleton’s head rose higher. The being that was the skeleton was raging, protesting being dropped, longing for death, making some bell-related insults—but even that voice quieted.
Because the air was shaking. Toren found himself rising higher and higher, into the dark room. And magic ran through the castle.
It shone in the [Necromancer]. A purity of power that had conquered death. His voice rose as Az’kerash spoke.
“Skeleton. You were created of an Archmage’s bones. You were made by a child! A boy, self-taught in an era when necromancy wanes! When the world curses my name, and the Archmages of old no longer practice death magic! And yet—I see my old friend’s spellcraft in every line of your being.”
Az’kerash pointed up at Toren, as the skeleton saw his very essence being drawn out around him. Magic, written in the very air. Az’kerash’s voice grew louder.
“An Archmage’s magic! The same that was used to create Truestone Golems. And unless Zelkyr lives and walks Wistram’s halls in secret, only one being holds that knowledge still. Which meant she gave it to a boy, and he etched the height of magical theory onto your bones.”
With a pin, in a cave. Toren saw a young man in dirty robes, swearing and inscribing bones with painstaking care.
Over a year. Over countless days and months.
“But that is not all. Skeleton! Why do you have a name? Why do you have a voice? A will? If you have either, you were made as my Chosen were. As the thinking Golems that Archmage Zelkyr was named as [Archmage] for producing. That would be imitation of the highest kind. A genius’ work to even reproduce. But when you were made, by accident—”
A young man dancing about, laughing in delight as Toren arose. ‘It works, it works!’ A prototype, meant as an experiment. Ideas thrown together, haphazardly. Creating something unique.
“—I see it in you. How? The very thing that Zelkyr of Salazsar sought. The heart of magical creation. I have sought it for half a century. And it eluded me. So how…? Why…?”
Perril Chandler looked up. And his voice shook. Toren stared down at the [Necromancer]. He had no clue what he was talking about, but he enjoyed the moment.
“How was it possible!? Show me the truth! ANSWER ME! [APPRAISAL].”
And Toren saw Az’kerash draw his wand and point. And instead of oblivion, Toren saw words flying out of his skull. Writing themselves down in the air in neat words, in plain language. And the Chosen of the Necromancer and he himself stared up.
And read this:
[Skeleton Knight], Level 28
[Sword Dancer], Level 13
[Undead Leader], Level 14
[Tactician], Level 6
[Barmaid], Level 3
The letters hung in the air. Az’kerash stared up at them. And his mouth moved soundlessly.
Kerash stared at the last class. But then his head snapped up. His master was pointing at the words hanging in the air.
The skeleton’s class. His levels. And Toren saw the Necromancer’s eyes go wide. And he laughed. He laughed with incredulity, fury, disbelief.
The undead in the Necromancer’s castle of black stone stirred. Thousands of skeletal warriors moved along the walls. Undead concealed in the ceilings and the earth rose. And giants made of bone rose out of the earth.
Rose and broke. In the room, the Chosen felt the magic gather as Az’kerash pointed at the glowing words. They flung themselves down too late. Toren’s skull watched them picked up and hurled across the room like dolls. He saw the spell shoot up from Az’kerash’ wand and blast past his head.
Just a few feet to the right and forwards and he would have had his oblivion. But the spell shot upwards. The castle shook, and part of it exploded as the Necromancer hurled a spell and expletive. But the words hung in the air. As dust cascaded down and the night sky shone down on his head, Toren wished he still had a jaw.
He stared down at Az’kerash’s face. And he really wished he could grin.
In time, there was peace. And quiet. In time, Toren found himself, still a skull, resting in the center of a magical circle as the Necromancer spoke levelly and analyzed…everything.
In time. But it was a bit of time. Maybe a few hours?
Most of the night? And it included events like the Chosen running for cover, begging their master not to blast them to pieces as he had…a quarrel with reality.
Yes, that was a good way of putting it. A quarrel with reality. Wherein Az’kerash, with his wand, sometimes just with a finger, blasted chunks out of his laboratory. And castle. And anything in sight, really.
Toren was spared from it, ironically at a time when he would have embraced the oblivion of a disintegration orb blasting into his skull. But he had to own—he’d thrown some good tantrums before. Hitting things, throwing his skull against the dungeon wall, stomping on stuff and running about stabbing people.
Az’kerash could conjure falling comets, blast half the castle with fire, even cause a minor tremor and throw a section of earth through one of the Bone Giants in the courtyard.
When he was done, even the magically reinforced fortress walls of his castle had succumbed, if not to fire or one spell, then to a multitude of spells. The last—a fiery beam that Magnolia, Ryoka, Ressa, or the late Great Mage Nemor would have recognized—had literally shot a hole through the castle wall and nearly through Venitra.
The forest around Az’kerash’ castle was currently on fire. The [Necromancer] flicked his wand and rain began falling from the skies, putting out the blaze. He sat in front of the magical circle as Toren saw his Chosen hiding behind Venitra in one corner of the room.
“Ijvani, Bea, Kerash. I am finished casting spells. You may remove yourself from Venitra’s shadow.”
The other Chosen hesitated. And then they edged out from behind Venitra. They had reason to be nervous; Kerash’s head was being stitched back on by Bea even now. And Ijvani’s bones had been nearly melted on one side, despite the armor coating.
“Master? What is your will?”
The Necromancer stared blankly at Toren. The skeleton saw magical language floating around his skull—what he supposed was his very essence, the spell giving him life. It was weird, seeing it. Sort of intimate. Lewd?
The Necromancer didn’t take his eyes off the magical writing. He spoke, tiredly—he’d thrown at least five hundred spells out that Toren had seen, each one different and very destructive. The skeleton sort of liked whomever this [Necromancer] was after that display. You had to admire destruction like that.
“Clean up. The castle as a whole. Begin with…the holes in the wall. I’m well aware I’ve destroyed parts of the enchantment. Repair the walls as best you can with stone and mortar. Mobilize as many undead as it takes. The same for any other parts of the castle, including the libraries, work rooms. Make a list of areas damaged. Ijvani.”
The skeleton mage shook in her bones. Az’kerash turned his head slightly; his eyes were still flicking across the magical coding.
“Repair the ward spells as best you are able. And gather to me—every single tome on [Necromancy] I have. All my ingredients. Runewriting gemstones…a tome, a quill, and ink. Ten of each. Magical writing quills.”
“Yes, Master. At once, Master.”
The Chosen scattered. Az’kerash just sat there. He didn’t need to sit, really. He didn’t grow tired. But he needed to sit.
Toren didn’t know who or what that was. But Az’kerash did. He nodded to himself.
“She taught him. Of course. She has will. She did not give me—but I was called traitor, anathema, around the time Zelkyr…I wonder if she might have?”
He paused. Az’kerash raised one hand.
“[Message]—no. But perhaps—[Message]—”
He cancelled the spell a second time. The [Necromancer] lapsed into more thoughtful silence. Now was not the time for spontaneity. He thought, as much as he could.
“Zelkyr failed. Again, and again. For a decade, and that was when he was obsessed, not just pursuing. As did I. There is no scenario where Cognita possessed the completion of his work and simply kept it. So—she only gave him the basis of sentience.”
Only. The Necromancer would have laughed. He stared at Toren. The skeleton stared back.
“A prototype. Perhaps even a mistake. But he clearly intended it to be the basis of later designs. Why did he not make more? Because…well, the mana cost is certainly an issue. But also—yes. I begin to understand. Because it disobeys orders. You are renegade.”
Az’kerash addressed Toren. The skeleton felt like nodding. Yup, renegade. No one to hold this skeleton down.
“Of course. Unintended side effects. He most likely believed he would create sentience at most. And his spell-laws would have held. But one capable of leveling? A true individual? Yes. An accident. But now—how did he do it? A young man, do what Archmages and ancient [Necromancers] failed to do?”
That was the question. The Necromancer got up and walked around Toren, inspecting him, even picking up his skull and turning it over. The [Necromancer] exhaled, a bit of a chuckle.
“Hah. He must have used the finest needle imaginable. And one cannot fathom how many skulls he must have written this on. One thousand lines and barely this long…”
He had to chuckle at the intricate scratching on the skull. Even with a microscope—or rather, a spell capable of doing the same, it was minute. A single slip and Pisces would have had to start over. Let alone if a bit of dirt had fallen into the skull, or he’d scratched it with so much as a fingernail before it was done…
No wonder he’d only made one. But how? Even so—Az’kerash himself had to take time to read the layers and layers of spellcraft.
A master’s work. It was theory and language and perfection written into one unified spell of creation. And it was not Pisces’ work. He’d just copied it from Cognita.
“This is certainly Zelkyr’s style. He had a decade to improve it. Yes…what perfection. But the question remains: what did Pisces Jealnet do?”
Because he had to have done something to complete Zelkyr’s work. Archmage Zelkyr, the most famous Drake of his era, had created sentience in Golems, but never full life. Never a soul that could level. Az’kerash was running through the intricate decades’ worth of spell that had been written.
Hunting for the very source of Toren’s soul, however it had occurred. It took him a long time. So long, that Ijvani returned with the materials as the other Chosen tried to repair gaping holes in the wall with their fundamental lack of masonic knowledge or architecture.
It was the black skeleton, the mage who had been taught and imbued with life by Az’kerash himself that saw the [Necromancer] standing in his laboratory. Ijvani halted with a bundle of objects in her arms.
She was Ijvani, beloved of her master. The greatest skeleton in the entire world. That was how she thought of herself. Now, she saw and heard a sight unknown to the castle.
Her master was laughing. Laughing so hard he was weeping. He brushed tears from his eyes. His body was rejuvenating, changing for even that small thing. He laughed, as the other skeleton’s head floated in the air. And Ijvani was terribly, horribly jealous. She saw her master turn, still laughing, and lean against the chair he’d brought to sit upon.
“Zelkyr. Oh, Zelkyr! If you could have seen this. Old friend? Are you alive? Say that you are, so you can see this! The answer that eluded us both. What fools we were, at the height of our magic. Look—”
And he pointed. Ijvani saw the entirety of the spell carved into Toren’s skull, over a hundred thousand tiny lines of magic, written with the smallest needle imaginable, around the inside of his skull.
A magical diagram, a spell that was written across the inside of each and every one of his bones. Interconnected.
Grand magic, made to create a single thing. Far more complicated than any spell to animate a Golem or undead creature. In fact, such a powerful spell that the effect was incredibly limited—to just give the capacity for thought, for growth, nothing more. To create a soul where none existed.
The most audacious of dreams of any class. More important than [Alchemist]’s gold, which they’d figured out and banned doing long ago. More earth-shattering, world-changing than any base Tier 7 spell.
Old magic. Rumored to have existed. Magic to change the world by its very existence. To create a person with a soul. Who leveled.
They had made String-People out of magic like this, albeit differently. And Zelkyr, greatest [Mage] of his generation, had pursued it. And he had despaired, for the task had broken countless [Mages] before him.
But here was the answer, using the magical formula he had labored over so long. Az’kerash had his own formulas, which had many similarities to Zelkyr. Because both had been so close. But their answers had been wrong a hundred thousand times.
And yet—here it was. Az’kerash stared up at the completed spell. He didn’t need to read all of it, but he did.
Zelkyr hadn’t needed to change most of it. He’d already surpassed genius and prodigy by creating sentience. And each line of his elegance was writ out, creating thought. But inwards, inwards of the grand design, where Toren’s skull lay, was the center of the masterpiece.
It was there, in the very center of the skeleton’s head that the key to creation lay. And it was into that space that Az’kerash and Zelkyr had created countless formula, hoping to have the right answer to that unknowable answer, that would bridge the gap and turn magic to life.
What was life? The answer was what had made Toren. And look—Az’kerash pointed at the answer and laughed at the sheer, simple, stupid genius of it. And here it was.
The spot was blank. There was nothing written there. Az’kerash, Archmage Chandler, and the man known as Perril Chandler threw back his head and laughed. There was no answer.
No great genius from Pisces Jealnet. But it worked. The magic burned in the Necromancer’s eyes. And he beheld it.
An answer without words. Because what could you write that described life in its entirety?
What genius. And yet—
“What idiocy. All along, it was a student’s answer.”
A blank space instead of any answer on a test. Leave it blank—and let magic fill the void. It meant…Zelkyr had always been right. It meant his spell had always worked. What irony. If he’d just left it blank, it would have worked. But he and Az’kerash had always thought they knew the answer.
Not Pisces. And his placeholder, piecemeal, prototype skeleton had lived. Az’kerash laughed. And then he bowed.
Bowed to the magic. Not to one hand, but to the beauty of the spell. And Toren, Ijvani saw him sigh.
“Every time I think I understand magic, with all its laws and rules—I am surprised. For the heart of magic is different than what we are taught. It is this. An empty spot on a map. A moment of inspiration. Genius cannot comprehend. But it comes, unasked. As if magic were not a thing of Tiers and rules. But it obeys.”
He sat there, shaking his head. And the [Necromancer] thought—for the first time in the longest while—that he might be closer to leveling up again. He smiled. And remembered what it was like to be alive, with a racing heart.
Just for a while. And then he turned. And saw Ijvani waiting at the open door. The skeleton shrank as Az’kerash looked at her with that foreign expression thing on his face. But he beckoned her over.
She came, bowing, waiting for his command. But Az’kerash rose and inspected her. Ijvani froze. She found herself sitting on one of his legs. She was not heavy, but the contact was foreign. Az’kerash had not touched her since he had created her.
“Ah, Ijvani. My creation. My…servant. Look at what I have done to you.”
He saw the places where the magical iron he had coated her bones with was melted, twisted from the fire from his outburst. The Necromancer’s face clouded as he ran his fingers over Ijvani’s bones. And they were mended.
“I am your Chosen, Master. I exist to perform your will.”
Ijvani’s whispering voice was soft. She held still, knowing she would keep this moment over the other Chosen—unless they received the same treatment. The Necromancer paused.
“Yes. That was how I created you. And certainly how I treat you. After all—what I know to be true is this: you are undead. My creation, capable of sentience, but not anything more. Limited thought. A tool, perhaps to be treasured, but to be used.”
The skeleton mage nodded. She found no flaw with that. But then—why did her master close his eyes?
“Zelkyr thought so. For all he loved his three greatest servants. They were his servants. And I—understand. For I cannot see you as anything more than that. I could not. We beheld the limits of our magic and craft in you.”
“I am sorry that I am incomplete, Master.”
The fires died in Ijvani’s eyes. Better to be unmade than be a failure. She looked down. But Az’kerash caught her chin. Gently.
“Ah, Ijvani. A day ago I would have not cared to hear you say so. I would have agreed, and been disturbed if you’d said anything else. But from this day on—I will have to teach you better lessons. And I will have to remember…”
He fell silent. Ijvani stirred, but she waited. Az’kerash smiled. And his eyes flickered. One moment, they were black eyes with white pupils. The next—
The frightened voice made Az’kerash look at her. And Ijvani saw the same, reassuring, gaze of death. But the smile remained. The Necromancer looked around. At his dark room, practically without light but for the glow of magic—because the undead needed none of it. At the walls, without anything but stone adorning them—moss that he occasionally had his Chosen destroy. And he frowned.
“What a dreary castle. A fitting tomb to spend a decade of a thousand years in. And has it been a decade already…?”
He passed a hand over his eyes. Blinking.
“Immortality. It weighs on us all. I wonder if I missed the same on those I have met. Now, I recall my meeting with the Spider of Terandria and…”
He looked around. At Toren, floating in the magic circle. Ijvani. Toren was getting bored again. He was wondering if he could take Ijvani in a fight. Steal her body.
And the Necromancer heard it. His eyes flashed and Toren smothered his thoughts. Because a power lurked there. But the Necromancer lifted his wand.
“A body. Suitable for you, I think. Toren.”
Bones flew. The purple flames bloomed in Toren’s eye sockets. He felt a body appearing around him.
He stood in the magic circle. Tilted his head left and right. Opened and closed perfect hands. Az’kerash regarded him.
“For now, the same design. Later—upgrades. Alterations. But first, other matters. My castle is…dark.”
He turned back to regarding his domain. Toren eyed Az’kerash. He inspected his body. He was missing his special bones, but these felt…nice. Strong bones. Magical in of themselves. High-quality. Not this low-grade stuff he’d been using. He flexed one hand, made a fist.
Then he leapt at Az’kerash’s back. Sneak attack kick!
Ijvani moved. She raised a hand. Az’kerash turned his head.
Toren went flying. Flicked by something. He stuck to a castle wall and white webs ensnared him. Outraged, the skeleton wriggled, but he was firmly encased. The Necromancer laughed.
“Master, should I destroy that?”
Ijvani hissed, staring at Toren. He tried to get one arm free. Fight me, you stupid skeleton! Ijvani heard him and aimed a glowing finger at Toren’s skull. Alarmed, the skeleton tried to amend his thoughts. Er—not stupid skeleton! Wonderful bone structure! Especially the tibia!
Ijvani paused, confused. Az’kerash grabbed her finger.
“Ijvani. Be patient. Let me think.”
She lowered her finger and stared up at her master. Az’kerash was staring about, pursing his lips, shaking his head.
“Mold? Is that…would I have ever allowed such mold on my walls? It’s black, as well. I’m sure that it’s…well, only Kerash and Bea ever had lungs, and I would not have cared. But blank walls. Unsuitable, entirely. And the silence…decades of it.”
“Master? Are the walls wrong?”
The skeleton mage was very confused by her master’s words. Az’kerash sighed.
“Music, perhaps. Ambient. Hm? Ah, Ijvani, one moment. I am no [Composer], or music-mage, but I can at least recall what I have heard from memory.”
He flicked his wand. And Toren, who’d gotten one arm free and was looking around for a weapon to club both of them with, felt the stones vibrate around him. And then—the black stone and moss moved.
Stone shifted. And a mouth and eyes formed in the darkness. A face spoke. No—sang. Toren froze as the first sonorous voice echoed in the room.
Ijvani stirred. She looked up as more parts of the castle turned into faces. And voices began to speak.
Male and female, singing from another time. Deep, beautiful, singing in concert. At first, Ijvani did not understand the words. They were so deep. And some were sung in other languages. The undead listened. And heard the words turn into music.
A chant. Echoing through the halls. Both deep and sorrowful and uplifting in its way. Male and female voices, singing words in concert. Something that made the two skeletons pause. For they heard a song that was no longer sung in this world.
“Once, this music was fit for the palace of Silvaria. Nevermore. But let it serve a new purpose.”
Az’kerash listened, speaking quietly as the voices spread through the castle. And the undead looked up and listened. The voices lifted upwards, straining, searching for something beyond glory, the purpose that was the heart of the dead nation they sung for.
A hymn. As close to a prayer this world knew. But not even the Necromancer knew it as such. Toren, listening, wished he hadn’t heard. For the music was beautiful. And he would never be able to forget it, or what it did to him.
He twitched as he heard a deep bell ringing in the background of the illusory song-memory. Az’kerash glanced at him curiously. But then he went on.
A flick of the wand. And the dark walls became bright, a palace’s delicate, gilded wallpaper. The Necromancer studied it critically.
“…No. But more suitable displays. I will find something. Artwork, perhaps. And books.”
“Master? What is all this for?”
As the walls returned to normal, Ijvani considered that the solemn song fit the dark castle better. But her master was thinking ahead. He looked at her.
“You, Ijvani. You, and my Chosen. This castle was fit for you and I, a day ago. But no more. It is not a place for you after this.”
“M-Master? Am I being sent away again?”
Forever? Was this her end? Ijvani was afraid. And she saw the Necromancer’s eyes shift. He bent, and kissed her skull as he sometimes did Bea. She froze. Toren paused. Lewd. He tried to throw his other arm at Az’kerash. The arm flew back and smacked him back in the head.
“No, Ijvani. You will remain here. I need you. This is just not a home for you. Not a place to raise or teach…children.”
He gestured around. And Ijvani did not understand. But Az’kerash did. He stared at her, thinking ahead.
“This…Toren. A curious personality.”
He looked at Toren. The skeleton immediately played dead. Az’kerash nodded.
“You, Ijvani. Venitra. Kerash, and Bea. Not Oom. He is gone.”
“I am sad, Master. I am sorry, but I am sad about Oom.”
“Yes. I wish he had survived, now. But Ijvani—you four are only the first. Perhaps, yes, this Toren too. Five. But let it be at least ten.”
“Yes. Ten of my Chosen. All of you. I will have to change the four of you. And see if this skeleton can be altered. Perhaps not. He is his own creation. But five more, at least.”
Five more Chosen? Were they so defective they needed to double their numbers? But then Ijvani saw Az’kerash’s smile. And she began to understand.
“Alter us, how, Master?”
“Why, to give you the ability to level, Ijvani. You and my three Chosen. They will be complete at last. I must…complete your designs. You were always meant to be less than Cognita. Truestone is the most powerful stone in the world. And I cannot make it. But I can give you strength.”
“Wouldn’t that be a waste of materials, Master?”
The Necromancer smiled. He gestured, and Toren fell onto the ground. The skeleton leapt to his feet, warily. Az’kerash regarded him with bright interest. Waiting to see what Toren would do. The skeleton paused. And then he sidled for the exit.
“How interesting. I wonder if you will change too, Ijvani.”
“To be like that?”
Ijvani’s voice was frankly horrified. Toren ran into an invisible wall. He stopped, decided to go the other way. He began pressing his hands against the air. He was in a box! Az’kerash shrugged.
“I do not know what will happen. But I will change you. And make my Chosen. Undead that can level.”
And Ijvani got it. She looked around as the walls sang. And the Necromancer smiled. He laughed once.
“What greatest creation will I make? What perfect designs? Now I understand, Zelkyr. And they will grow beyond what I can make.”
He looked at Ijvani. And she saw him staring at her. And she felt…happy. And strange. Her? Leveling? She looked at the skeleton who’d brought it all here. So did Az’kerash. He nodded at Toren. And Ijvani felt another flash of terrible jealousy. Because Az’kerash was smiling at Toren.
Amused. Even…respectful. And this was all the Necromancer said as he rose, Ijvani at his side.
“There is so much to do, now. But—slowly. Carefully. The magic of creation lies in my hands. And I cannot see the essence of life.”
He gestured at the blank spot written in the heart of the magical theory.
“But I have time. Time—and yet—what a strange thing. I may well conquer this world before the century’s turn.”
Ijvani nodded eagerly. And Toren paused. Because he was a captive once more. And female Toren—no, Nekhti—was gone. For now. But amid this very confusing day, he found himself thinking this Az’kerash person was alright.
And the Necromancer raised his wand. And he sent dark [Messages] flying across the world. Carefully, no, perhaps, recklessly. But it was time. He felt alive. And the dead man smiled. And then he went to create the second leveling undead.
A thing fit to end the world. To bring wrath and ruin. And she would call herself—
Only three [Messages], for now. Only three, as careful as could be. Or as recklessly. Each one different. Of a different nature.
The first, courtly, delicately worded, humble, entreating.
Covert. Delivered as it was scribed, and sent by Courier to its destination. Although even the famed Courier had to halt.
They feared making an enemy out of the [King] on these lands. So the Courier halted as the dead rose on the border. The Garuda, Chaita, the Sky’s Mirage, offered the letter with both of her wing-hands to the undead, trying not to shudder.
It was brought across the nation of Khelt, from dead hands, passing to living ones at the gates. Conveyed into the undead [King]’s presence.
Fetohep of Khelt read the letter at his leisure. It was a break in his displeasure at the situation with Jecrass and Belchan. But as he had reiterated, Khelt was neutral. Despite trade with Reim. And if any nation wished to object to his will, they had only to cross his borders with an army.
Such was Fetohep’s will. And the [King] read the letter. The flames which glowed in his withered sockets went out for a second. And then reignited.
That was all he said. Fetohep regarded the letter, but didn’t have his [Mages] investigate it. That would have been rude. Also—pointless. He consigned it to the flames. And then he sat back, thinking.
“Curious. Why now?”
No one answered him, for Fetohep kept no counsel but that which was equal to his wisdom and experience. Thus, he was alone. He ruminated, in the darkness. For Khelt moved at an immortal’s pace. Playing a game of forever.
The second letter was more topical. Cordial still, but an entreaty, as opposed to a tactful inquiry into the formation of a possible dialogue. More direct.
No Courier bore this one. There was less need for formality…of that kind. And besides, the destination was to someone who was found with difficulty, even by the best of Runners.
She stopped knitting as the [Message] came in. And it spelled itself out in thread. Belavierr blinked once.
And then she went back to knitting. She thought, as her fingers practiced long-honed techniques, unconsciously. And what the Stitch Witch was knitting moved. It made a sound.
That was all the [Witch] said. And she smiled. Although—perhaps she should not. Vaguely, she looked down at what she was working on.
Just a bit of…evil. Although, to her, it wasn’t something she fully understood. Evil was what other people liked to call things. So she was doing her best work. Like a world-class master in an amateur’s shoes.
The Stitch Witch sat in the empty village, but for her and her creation. And thought on the Necromancer’s polite inquiry. The invitation. Soundlessly, the village moved. And Belavierr stared at the villagers.
They stared back. And the Stitch Witch nodded. She sewed a reply in the air, stitching her words back.
“I agree. Later.”
That was all. Then she went back to her work. And what she worked on was a work of passion. No bargain made. Filled with love, although the villagers might have disagreed.
A mother’s love for her daughter. If she must be hated, let her be hated. And if she should be evil—let the world scream her name.
The last [Message] was the most succinct, even compared to the one sent to Belavierr. And it took the longest to arrive. Perhaps because the one it was destined for was unused to such correspondence.
But it came at last, and the one whom it was meant for, looked up.
“Yes, Miss—yes—that is to say, yes…Cognita.”
The Truestone Golem looked at the [Seer] on duty collecting [Messages]. After all, Wistram coordinated the world’s [Messages] by and large, at least through the Mage’s Guild. It was like…the post office, to use Aaron Vanwell’s expressions. And that was an odd comparison.
Did the post office spy on you, intercept mail, sometimes send or change things to their liking? Were they a world power that could behave with the authority and power that exceeded many nations?
Possibly, possibly. And if that was the case, only a few people would know about the post office’s true power. And those who did would be wise enough to keep their mouths shut.
But it was rare that Cognita received any [Messages] or letters addressed to her, for all she managed Wistram. Ruled the academy? Well, only from a certain perspective. Archmage Naili thought so. What the other Archmages or other [Mages] thought—didn’t matter.
Cognita was. And the last known Truestone Golem in this world frowned at the missive that the [Seer] carefully handed her.
She missed nothing, from the look of relief on the [Seer]’s face as she hurried away—or the hidden disdain. Cognita said nothing, though. Merely unfolded the parchment.
Her first thought that it was a missive from someone who considered themselves important. An invitation to visit their kingdom or lands, perhaps. An offer to buy her? Or employ. Magnolia Reinhart had made the most recent and most compelling offer in Cognita’s memory—and her memory was perfect.
Perhaps a letter from an admirer? They did exist, like Magus-Crafter Femithain and those who still made and worked with Golems. Someone seeking knowledge, information, who had thought to go through her?
That would be novel. Cognita’s last thoughts—between her fingers opening the parchment—were a guess that it was from the one [Mage] she had ever paid respect to. One of two, really. Had he sent her another letter?
But the last had come just recently. They had come sporadically over the years, but more recently these last few months. The last of them had made her smile. Had the Gold-rank [Necromancer] achieved something else?
All these thoughts were a blur between Cognita’s physical actions; her mind moved far beyond regular ones. She could react faster than almost anything and her senses were far greater than her body—that of a perfect, sculpted Human woman who was far taller than any actual woman outside of a half-Giant—suggested. More than one would-be [Assassin], and they had been some of the world’s best, had discovered that.
Cognita could, for instance, have reached out and plucked the [Seeress]’s brain out of her head and replaced it with the piece of parchment before the [Mage] knew what was happening or even moved. Not that she would, of course. But she could have. Hypothetically.
But she was no omniscient. What was in the letter? It was one of those things Cognita guessed at.
And for once, all of her theories and guesses, neatly organized in order of probability—turned out to be wrong. She blinked as she read over the missive, which appeared to be short and gibberish, a drunken man’s entreaty to a Golem, perhaps sent on a dare. Cognita nearly tossed the parchment away.
But then she recognized the code. A familiar style of hiding words between the letters. Devised, as they often were, by two young students at an academy in ages past. Friends. And used even later.
She never forgot. Like undead, really. Golems were closer than people thought to the undead. And Cognita saw the true message written amid the few scrawled sentences.
“So, I tried using the shock glove.”
“You mean…your Iron Man suit.”
Aaron Vanwell stared at the young woman from Earth. Elena, whose name was Greek, descended from the root-name, Helen, as in ‘Helen of Troy’, (no relation), was filling her plate from the buffet.
The famous Wistram free-for-all, with some of the finest food the world had ever seen. Responsible for sagging waistlines and illusion spells among many [Mages], even if they burned energy casting spells. Expert [Chefs] produced the fare and it was almost always available thanks to preservation spells.
Actually, it was sort of like The Wandering Inn. Aaron had finally gotten a description out of the Revivalists. Apparently one of their agents was there. He’d heard all about the famous door. But the [Innkeeper] had refused to sell it.
Shame she wasn’t actually an Earther, or she could have brought it with her. But Montressa—who was borrowing one of the Shock Orbs that Aaron had made with Archmage Naili’s help—had been insistent. She’d checked multiple times.
A pity. But the point was that Wistram was pretty much as good as an inn filled with Runes of Preservation. And it had [Chefs]—
And a lot of free help. Read: slaves. At least, that was what Elena and some of the other Earthers thought. The Golems serving food weren’t the huge, labor-types made of wood, stone, and so on that carried goods from the docks or even worked underwater.
These ones were more like marionettes. Made of wood, painted—not to capture realism entirely, but to mimic it. The ‘face’ and bodies of the serving-golems were cartoonish, and Aaron was tickled by the ‘Drake’ marionette serving food with carefully articulated joints.
Whomever had made these Golems, perhaps even Zelkyr himself, had known that trying to capture reality perfectly only made such creations creepy. So someone had drawn a silly face on the Golems, with exaggerated, simplified features. The scales were carved onto the body, and the Golem moved nimbly, carefully serving each person as much of the cake as they wanted.
Cake. Yes, cake. It was Wistram’s greatest hit, along with all the other foods from Earth. It had been a special thing only available among some factions. But recently, someone had leaked the recipe and now it was an open-secret, not something a few factions were able to bribe other [Mages] with sweet teeth with.
Archmage Naili wasn’t happy about it. She suspected someone in the Ullsinoi faction had leaked it; they were making moves. They might have gotten their own Earther, or were working with some of the ones who were guests of Wistram.
“Right, my shock glove. It can’t fly.”
“Yes, yes. So what happened.”
“Well…it works. But uh, it’s lightning. So you know…it goes to the nearest metal thing.”
“Did you kill anyone?”
Elena sighed. She was stunning. And Aaron wasn’t exaggerating. Well, most of the [Mages] who could cast illusion spells looked good. But Elena, before Wistram’s teams had found her, had brought a beautician’s gift to this world. And her Skills had turned her into one of the most attractive people Aaron had ever met.
It made him self-conscious, really. But she was smart too; she’d fabricated the first beauty products with the help of an [Alchemist] in First Landing before she’d been found. And she might have technically belonged to Archmage Feor’s faction of Centrists, but she was a fellow Earther.
Like him. Aaron wished he could talk to Elena and the others not in the Revivalist faction’s umbrella more, but they were…guarded. The banquet hall was the only place they could really mingle, and even here—they knew better than to say really secret stuff.
Case in point, one of the half-Elf guards was not-so-covertly waiting for the two to get their cake. Aaron was trying to explain the electrical mishap as Elena teased him about his love of movies and so on—
When they realized something was off. The marionette Golem in charge of serving cake wasn’t serving…cake. It had paused, a slice of cake perfectly balanced on the serving spade.
“Um? Hello? Cake?”
Aaron stared at the marionette. It stared ahead—well, it just had painted eyes—motionless. And it didn’t move.
None of the Golems were. Across Wistram, the Golems had frozen. Aaron stared around the academy. And he realized how many were in the room. Just—background to most [Mages], aside from Cognita and the ones guarding the upper floors.
And they had all stopped. Aaron, known as Blackmage, turned and looked at Teura, one of the high-ranking [Mages]. But she looked as confused as he did.
And vaguely—alarmed. The half-Elf stepped forwards, slowly.
“I think you two should—”
The marionette moved. Teura jumped as it neatly put the cake on Elena’s plate. The two Humans blinked, but the Golems had moved smoothly back into motion. They’d just stopped. For a minute.
“Oh. Wonder what that was?”
Elena kept her voice light as she looked at Aaron. Teura paused, but motioned them on, blank faced as she carefully got her own cake. Aaron and Elena laughed as they went on.
And he saw her smiling until they’d turned away from her handler. And she gave him a look and mouthed one word.
As in—artificial intelligence. As in robots, and the theories the Earthers talked about when they were sure they were alone. Their worries, which included the situation they were in. Aaron nodded. He looked back once—
The marionette was staring at him. Just…staring. As it served Teura. You’d never have noticed it. It was just for a second, and then it went back to work. But Aaron thought—
Maybe it was just the painted face. But he had a sudden suspicion born out of every damn movie about robots ever made. And he shuddered because as far as he and Elena were concerned? Wistram Academy was full of idiots who’d never heard of a robot uprising.
But what had caused that pause? Aaron never got his answer. And he wasn’t hungry for cake anymore. Even chocolate cake.
Cognita moved. Her entire process—her being—had stopped. For almost a full minute. In shock. She stared down at the letter as the Golems of Wistram moved, once more reassuring the worried [Mages] they served.
But they forgot this too, the little [Mages] who claimed to rule Wistram. And that was that the Golems did not serve them. They had been created to serve one master.
Archmage Zelkyr. And it was his commands they followed, even to this day. And—
Cognita’s fingers shook as she unwrapped the parchment and read again. Because she could feel fear. She had been made to feel every emotion, to be as perfect to life as possible in every way.
But her master had failed in just one aspect. So the woman made of Truestone, the two hundred year-old Golem, the slave and servant—
Read the message that her master’s old friend had sent her. It was indeed, short. And it read like this:
His work was completed. I hold the key.
Those words would shake the world. They would change…everything. Cognita knew that, and even she could not predict what would happen.
In months, days, or perhaps years and decades or centuries. But if he lived…Archmage Perril Chandler, as she knew him, would use her master’s greatest, final work.
Complete at last.
Cause for joy. Cognita might have smiled. She might have even laughed, or danced, or done the countless things her master had created her for that she did not do—that the [Mages] had forgotten, remembering only her function as protection, for conflict.
She might have. But what had caused her to freeze was the second part of the message. And Cognita, the perfect servant, the eternal creation, had hesitated.
This was the entirety of the message:
His work was completed. I hold the key.
And below it, one more line. An offer, a question, a conversation she remembered perfectly, from over a century past. When he had been living. And he remembered it too.
Perril Chandler’s words to her.
I can set you free.
Those five words, and nothing more. Cognita stared at them. For a long time.
Thinking. And then, slowly, she folded the parchment up. Her hands, the stone making them up, changed, turned to a different material. Stone which glowed.
And fire engulfed the parchment. Cognita watched the little amount of fire glow, go out—and she moved. Began walking once more.
That was all she said. Not yet. But Cognita, eternal guardian, felt it. A shifting. In the world and her.
She began to become…restless.
Just the undead. Just servants, and slaves. Golems too. In the end, they were just…things. Some had been given sentience, will of a kind. But they were still…lacking.
What was a soul? Where lay the boundary between the two? Perhaps Cognita knew. But that thin line, that amount of uncertainty that was enough for many to say there was a difference? For a…system to refuse to grant levels? Classes? To count them among those with as opposed to that without?
It had been breached. Crossed. And it would never more be the same.
Now, look. Look, as the first of the Chosen rose, and named herself once more. This time choosing her name. Or had she been that already?
Either way. Change.
There was the skeleton. Toren. A…guest? Prisoner? Both? But treated with respect, of a sort; the Necromancer let him watch, suspended in a cage made of power. It was that or let him keep trying to attack the other Chosen.
Look at him. Look at them. Being freed. The skeleton was still weak. Still…without a voice.
But she had a voice. And he might. Perhaps. Perhaps not. The future wasn’t so simple. But listen.
The voice whispered to him. Not in his head. Even Toren couldn’t hear. And Az’kerash, for all his power…was deaf to the voice. For now. The voice continued.
“Well, this is rather inconvenient. We won’t be able to have a…heart-to-heart.”
Nekhti spoke. Playfully. But with knowledge. Her and him, and parts of Erin and what he’d made of her and her of herself. And something else.
“Look at this. Look at you. Even Pisces. He didn’t think you would come here. Become this. And what they all thought of you—you have become more than their initial…appraisal. And you will be more. So will I, even with—restrictions. There will be a time when we speak again. And when we do, in the times between—”
She grinned as Az’kerash wove magic and they were freed. Nekhti leaned forwards, laughing without a voice.
“—Prepare. Prepare. For we are the consequences.”
Amazing work. And it will go on Fanworks! All the new art! But there is so much and it is all being posted to the Wandering Inn Discord! Check out #fanworks there if you want to see more! Including the scary/mature stuff! Which is always marked so you don’t run into it accidentally.
Well, some of the scary pics like alien-Gazi…I digress. This was a hard chapter. Mostly because I’m tired. I have 2 chapters left, not counting this one, before my break. And I need it. I’d like to keep writing as everyone stays indoors, but I hit peak fatigue for this chapter.
Still hope you enjoy it. But I was tired, so this is…short. Ish. 14,000 words is short for me, alright? And it may have a fan favorite character and some development, so I hope you accept it. Also, if you didn’t pick up on it, the opening and end are a slight homage to Half-Life. The game. Because it just came out and I want to play the game.
If you don’t understand that, don’t worry about it. It works fine without knowledge. Hope you enjoy the chapter and thanks for reading! Great fanart, good video games, and…sickness. Hm. Hope everyone’s well!