Death's Voice

Awoke to the sweet smell of roasting flesh. The sickening aromatic message was clear, he soon would be needed. Enveloped in long sable robes, the mark of his reviled profession, he strode coolly towards the huddled mass of villagers, clustered around the bright flames of the funeral pyre.

Wasting no time on pleasantries, he immediately got to work. Carefully chanting the arcane, sibilant syllables; rewarded by twitching and jerking limbs within the inferno. Sapphire radiance scintillating from his outstretched arms, the fleshless, still-burning corpses were bathed in cerulean illumination, infusing them with the unnatural mockery of life. Focussing his power, he used his magicks to bind the ethereal threads of domination to the ritually prepared runed wand, marked in his own blood with esoteric sigils; a control rod for these macabre puppets, this crew of bone marionettes.

How much it must terrify them, to see their beloved friends and family twisted into such travesties. Once upon a time, cadavers of loved ones were interred in graveyards with the phrase “Rest in Peace”. Since the plague came, no longer did they have that luxury.

This plague was a scourge, killing hundreds in its fetid passage. More and more menaces, immune to this foul disease, preyed upon border settlements like this one, ever encroaching upon human lands. Trolls, ogres, orcs and goblins – these humanoids sought mayhem and delicious human flesh to feast upon. Monsters such as griffins, chimerae and wyverns mindlessly savaged villages for food, growing more numerous and uncontrolled, now that the Knights of the Realm had weakened, spread too thinly to protect the whole.

With the King’s inability to protect his people individual village leaders had to take their protection into their own hands. Some wealthy villages hired mercenaries; expensive, but definitely effective. Others trained militia and equipped them with home-made or imported arms and armour.

Other less prosperous villages had to make do with means unapproved by the Church. These villages flirted with excommunication for even considering such options. Not that these dubious ventures were without danger. All had heard the story of the village Sweetwater, who had hired a diabolist for protection. Their well-trained (but not trained enough) village sorcerer mispronounced a key word at a critical time, freeing the demonic host to wreak havoc upon the village. By the time their infernal masters had dragged the devils screaming back to Hell, all of the village Sweetwater was in ruins; its inhabitants – human and livestock alike – slaughtered and consumed gruesomely, their souls snatched by the legions of the damned.

The expressionless man in black reflected. Even if he could follow such a path, he would not. One should never have such Evil as a master, ready to claim one’s soul for eternity at the slightest weakness. Death as your master, he rationalized, wasn’t so bad. At the end of the day, Death was everyone’s master.

For the moment, his remaining time in this life, he was Death’s master.

He just considered Death a force like any other. As the river water turned the wheel of the mill, so did the turning of Life to Death power the magicks of Necromancy. The Church made out that Necromancy was “unnatural” and “a perversion of the natural order”, and that may have been all well and true, but he had never seen himself as “evil” as the priests made him out to be. He merely saw himself as a man with a talent, and working in a profession that allowed him to use that talent to full effect. Some did use Necromancy as a road to power, selfishly ruling others through terror and pain, but he saw no reason to abuse his gift in this fashion.

He did not ask to become a necromancer. It was thrust upon him by Destiny, Fate or sheer chance; his life changed forever to the Path of Bones.

As a child he was somewhat unruly and mischievous, always getting underfoot and making a nuisance of himself to others. He was banished from the farmhouse during the day by his older siblings and his parents, such frivolity was anathema to the hard work that is essential to the maintenance of a productive farm.

The wonders of books were introduced to him at an early age by his grandfather, who had wandered the world as a bard in his youth. Listening to tales of brave Knights and fierce dragons, sword and sorcery, had set his dreams afire with hope to be some dashing hero, saving damsels from certain doom and amassing a hoard of treasure taken from defeated foes. His grandfather could see his burning thirst for knowledge and showed him the basics of reading, giving him his old books filled with sagas long since known to the aging bard by heart. For such a young child to have such reverence for books amused and delighted the old man, especially since his children had forsaken such learning for the more practical knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry. He was touched to see such appreciation still remained in his line.

To have such an ability over his other siblings (and even his parents) brought the insidious corruption of pride into his heart. He would spend many hours tormenting his father’s prize bull in the barn, childishly teasing it to boiling rage. He taunted it for its great size and strength, but unable to harm him due to the thick iron chain securing it to its stall. He revelled in having cruel control over the bull, mocking its stupidity that it could not free itself and punish its tormentor. Petty, small-minded and arrogant – as a man he reflected on how different he was now, how his experiences had changed him, improved from the brat that he was!

One day, he took it far too far. There is always a limit to such hubris.

As the bull neared frenzy from his constant provocation, the thick iron chain tore free from its moorings, releasing the bellowing beast from bondage. Having such an enraged animal hurtling towards him brought the sharp icy sensation of true fear permeating through his soul. With dread-born reflex he threw himself out of the way of the bull’s deadly onslaught, no longer enjoying the tyrannical power he posed at. Just reduced to a small boy despairing at his predicament and frightened for his very life. Unable to stop its maddened charge the bull slammed bodily into the support post for the barn, smashing it aside and bringing the whole roof tumbling down. Both of them, scared little boy and raging bull were caught in the centre of the collapse.

He remembered a feeling of cool, comforting darkness; like being immersed in a pool of shadows. He felt at peace. Someone was speaking to him soothingly, a woman’s dulcet tones. He could almost make out what she spoke of; a hunger seized him to find out what she said, ears straining to make out the whispered words.

Suddenly, an invasion of light of these tenebrous demesnes. With light came pain – and the mysterious soft-voiced woman’s secrets faded to oblivion.

Dragged reluctantly back to this world of torment, his first action was to scream for what he had lost.

The village witch, responsible for his recovery, was the first sight he saw upon returning to this life. Patting him tenderly, she carefully showed his face in a mirror. Harrowed, black eyes stared out of parchment pale skin with a shock of white hair. He put an ivory hand to this alien visage, wondering if it was real.

Mistress Morgana, the witch in question, told him and his family that he had passed beyond into the realm of death and been yanked back into the land of the living. Such a journey had left a mark upon him, plain to be seen by all. Later in private, Morgana told him of the greatest change of his experience. The seeds of power were planted within him. She could see them growing, slowly but surely. Whether he used his power for Good or Evil was up to him.

The impish, impulsive child had died, left in the underworld. A brooding, quiet young man stood in his place, at far too early an age. His interests changed from childish pursuits to more disturbing practices; spending much time in the village graveyard, contemplative and sober.

Strangely, he made peace with the bull. After their shared trauma they held a kinship. Again, he would spend time in the barn, poring over his books, but now the bull was unchained, staying ever-close and protective of his new friend. The fey-looking youth now understood the importance of all attributes. He had his intelligence, the bull had his strength. Both were important, both relying upon the other.

In time he learnt the necessity of all things, contrary elements intrinsically dependent upon each other, intertwined inseparably. His fascination with the transition of Life to Death became overwhelming; he marvelled how the demise of one creature brought survival to others, that dying enabled living.

His true awakening to the Path came with the death of his mother. After the accident and his altered, ghoulish appearance, most of his family shied away from him, unnerved by such a drastic change from the boy they had known. However, such suffering bestowed upon her son brought out his mother’s sympathy. Never terribly close before, she now doted on her outcast child. His cool acceptance of her boundless love did not dissuade her from continuing her efforts.

She succumbed to what most farmers die from: sheer exhaustion from a lifetime of back-breaking labour. She returned to him, even from beyond the grave, her love reached out through the shroud betwixt life and death. Her shade spoke sweet words of comfort to him, and at last he felt his love for her well out of his guarded heart, bursting free, enveloping the diaphanous ghost with a haze of hues, embracing the bodiless spirit with open arms.

At the funeral, he stroked his mother’s dead face tenderly, waking her from the sleep of Death. Her animated corpse rose from the bier, shambling around mindlessly among the panicked mourners. Amidst the chaos, the awakened necromancer sat back, amazed at what he had wrought. Gleaming green nimbus enwrapping his slight form he commanded the cadaver to remain still upon its plinth, ordered it to rest forever.

For all the village to see this nascent lord of Death in their immediate vicinity caused a furore never seen in their small rural community. The witch Morgana merely nodded silently, she knew that something like this would happen.

The village priest did not take his transformation as calmly as Mistress Morgana. Following the doctrine of the Church, such practices of animating the dead was an abomination. Soon the friendless youngster was officially outcast from the place where he had spent his entire life.

The meandering roads of the countryside were no place for a defenceless boy-man. He was in constant danger of being murdered by monsters lurking within the darkness, either the bestial humanoids of the Dark races seeking their next meal or bandits of his own kind, searching for coin on his penniless corpse. Something was looking out for him (more close-minded individuals might say the Devil). He found the remains of a battle between brigands and a caravan’s guards, the thugs’ corpses left to rot. Applying his supposedly dark arts upon their fly-ridden bodies, he now had protectors against possible predators.

Word spread of this porcelain child with his ghastly guardians. His expanding fame provided him lodging and regular meals at inns along the road. He told his story in his grandfather’s footsteps, enchanting his listeners with embellished tales of his experiences. The old man would have been so proud!

He attracted more attention than he bargained for. The dark majesty of the approaching lady drew him in and swallowed him in the velvety folds of her presence. She took him into her shadowy embrace, teaching him more of the dark Paths of their Art, instructing him carefully and intensely.

She did not go unrewarded for her tuition: she sought companionship amongst her own kind. Her teachings were not solely in the ways of Necromancy.

After many years, learning everything he could, he left her tutelage to strike out on his own. He searched for other mentors, no longer was he a wayward child without purpose, but a man who had found his true vocation. He took to slaying creatures threatening the lands, more of a challenge for himself than the bounties he received. He even had word of his former mistress, corrupted by Evil, terrorizing villages and transforming their folk into her undead slaves.

Confronting her in her citadel, he subverted the eldritch ties to her army, turning her rotting minions against her. Her turncoat zombies dragged her bruised and battered form to him, slowly strangling her at his feet while he watched dispassionately. As a final indignity he raised her still warm body as his servitor, her beauty in Death still alluring.

The student had surpassed the master.

He did what needed to be done, a little viciously, perhaps, but what was needed to be done. He was just a man doing a job, a noble profession, and such raving, power-hungry practitioners of the Path only created more animosity towards the others.

At this dark hour, they would be the saviours of humanity. From Death comes Life.

“Master Aven?”

The village headman’s plaintive voice jolted him awake from his nostalgic reverie.

“Master Aven, is the wand enchanted? Do we have control over our … servants?”

Still unable to clearly state the nature of his bargain, he’d learn soon enough to speak plainly of the pact he’d entered into.

Aven, esteemed and respected Master necromancer, proffered the wand to the headman, opening the hand, splayed pale fingers stretched out like the bone digits of the underworld ferryman, requesting payment for services rendered.

The headman smiled obsequiously, and then turned to his colleagues, gesturing for Aven to wait. Sitting cross-legged he quested out mentally, channelling the ambient mana into his body, mind floating in meditation.

How smug were the village elders, watching two of their new undead servants choking the life from their creator. The fool had assured them that their reanimation magicks would outlive the caster, and killing him would remove all the evidence of their heresy to the Church. It was far cheaper, too.

Enjoying the sight so much, so gleeful they were outwitting this mighty necromancer so easily that they were totally unaware of the still-warm, skeletal hands clutching around their fragile throats. Eyes bulging as their fingers scrabbled to loose themselves from these ever-tightening bone nooses that slowly and painfully choked the life out of them.

Dusting himself off, Aven arose from his meditative pose. Such fools, attempting to turn his own creations against him. He noticed that one of the young men had attempted to pry the quiescent skeleton’s hands from Aven’s throat, although Aven had negated the skeletons’ attack almost instantly through his magic. He had just been playing along with the charade to distract the traitorous elders.

This one showed intelligence and honour, risking himself to save someone from the betrayal of his lords. One of the undead brought Aven the rowan wand and the headman’s medallion of office. He gave the young man both of these items, silently indicating his ascension to rulership of this tiny community.

Esoteric whispered words and crackling emerald energy and the village elders’ corpses trembled and rose up at his irresistible call. He now had new sentinels; his would-be murderers would now defend his life beyond Death. He could see their tortured souls hanging over the shambling zombies – they would be shackled, in agony, to these rotting bodies until Hell claimed them for greater torment.

That night, resting comfortably in a small forest copse, he reflected on his new sentinels. He preferred their company now, much quieter, ultimately more loyal. He would help the other peoples of the lands, but by all the gods, he couldn’t live with them! What they had no longer attracted him; he was no longer part of them.

Life was for the living.

Death's Voice

Cailean

Adelaide, Australia

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