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The cold of death touched Isabel first. Icy tendrils that crept along her alabaster skin, raising goose bumps despite the cool humidity of the tomb. She suppressed a shudder and continued the incantation without distraction.
The body on the stone slab before her twitched a fraction. A finger, then a leg, then the entire muscular torso of the newly deceased guardsman’s body. The sight sent a thrill coursing through Isabel’s mind. Again, she suppressed her emotions, her physiological responses. The ritual was too important. The slightest distraction could be disastrous.
The guards naked body writhed on the cold stone until Isabel thought he might fall from the slab completely. As the incantation came to an end however, he stilled. The body remained motionless for a long time, limbs twisted at odd angles. Isabel held back, her breath still. For a long time the young guards body was frozen. Then she felt it.
A familiar connection blossomed within Isabel’s mind. She sensed the dead man’s thoughts, still fresh from living. A hint of who he had been, his desires, his ambitions. And then there was the hunger. It came in a rush. A desire for living flesh, for warm flowing blood. Perhaps born of a memory of what it was to be truly alive, twisted into a keen hunger for these things he no longer possessed.
“Can you hear me?” Isabel whispered into the darkness of the mausoleum. The eyes of the corpse flickered open. Pale blue
witch-light glimmered faintly in the half light. He turned to her, watching from under long strands of mouse brown hair. Waiting.
“Get up,” Isabel commanded.
The corpse sat up, like a puppet on a string, he simply folded at the waist, spine as straight as a rod. He moved mechanically, not with the fluid motions of the living, his limbs stiff as he swung his legs over the end of the slab and rose to stand still and silent before Isabel. Strangely his eyes fixed on her own. It was difficult for Isabel to return that cold unblinking stare. When she did, the ravenous hunger she saw there terrified her.
“Why do you watch me like that?” She asked, cursing the quiver she failed to keep from her voice.
The thing did not answer. It just stared.
“Look away,” she hissed, her nerve giving way beneath those cold eyes. The dead man obeyed, looking beyond her at the darkness.
“Deadwood, about a mile to the west of here. Do you remember it?” If the undead thing recognised the name, it did not show it. “You used to live there.”
An agonising drone filled the chamber. It was like the grinding of old bones, whispering together in the darkness. Dread filled Isabel as she realised what it was. “Not I.” It spoke with the lips of the dead man, but the voice was otherworldly. It carried the promise of the grave.
The voice unnerved her, but Isabel refused to allow it to show in front of this new aberration.
“But you know of where I speak.”
A nod. The eyes returned to watch her.
“I want you to go there. Avoid being seen. If you are discovered, make sure they don’t live to tell about it.” No answer. Isabel continued. “Go to the tower on the hill. Von Dinkler’s lair.”
Mention of the name drew a response. The guards eyes flickered, the pale blue light growing bright for a moment, the hunger replaced momentarily by rage, then it was gone. “You know of where I speak?” A slight nod. “Good. Go there, don’t get caught, bring me the stone there.
A large green rock, the size of a fist.” She held her hand up for emphasis. “It will be guarded.
Do you understand?” Another nod. “Then go. Be back tonight. If you are not, I will terminate our connection, and you will return to wherever it was you came from.”
The undead guard moved at her command. The piercing cold stabbed at her arm as it brushed past her toward the crumbling arch that led from the mausoleum. Isabel clenched her teeth against the terrible presence she felt from the brief contact. She ignored the sensation and turned to watch the creature go.
She allowed herself a grim smile of satisfaction when the thing disappeared into the shadowed halls, then began preparation for her servant’s victorious return.
Several hours passed. Isabel remained in the dark, a scattering of candles holding the shadows back. She kept to the edges of the candlelight, eyes on the black archway, waiting.
The shuffling steps of the undead thing preceded it’s return to the mausoleum. It emerged into the
half-light more broken than it had left. Its right arm was missing, the stump a torn and bloodied mess, congealed blood oozing down the remains of a guard’s shirt. Interesting that it had thought to cover its nakedness. Shame was not a concern for the unliving. But Isabel supposed enough of the guardsmen’s own mind remained to know a naked man is more conspicuous than a clothed one.
Its left arm was whole, though its shirt here was torn also. In its hand it carried the stone, casting a green and ominous glow across the walls of the crypt.
The broken thing shambled to the centre of the room and stopped. It watched Isabel with that same tormented hunger. She thought it looked different somehow. Something had gone dramatically wrong, that much was obvious from the damage to the corpse, but the eyes were different. They held a cunning beneath the hunger. Something Isabel had not imbued the creature with.
She emerged from the shadows, drawing alongside the broken monster. “What happened to you?” She asked herself more than the creature. The intelligence to form proper sentences another trait she had not imbued it with.
But then it spoke. That same broken voice that came from another place.
“Von Dinkler sends his regards.” The stone fell to the floor as the creatures one good arm shot forward, its hand encircling her throat with a speed and strength Isabel could scarcely believe.
The frozen grasp of the undead stilled the blood in her arteries. Pain shot through her skull, blurring her vision, wiping all thought from her mind. As she slipped into oblivion, sheer instinct drove her hand to draw the
double-barrelled pistol from beneath her inner jacket. Both barrels unleashed a torrent of flame and metal against her traitorous creations sternum, blowing bits of bone and blackened organs across the opposite wall. The force of the blast blew the dead guard backwards across the stone slab of its resurrection. It rolled backwards onto the floor, where it struggled with little success to rise once more.
Isabel gasped for breath, rubbing her aching throat tenderly, attempting to return some blood flow to the ice damaged flesh.
The dead guard gave up trying to rise, and decided to simply crawl using its one remaining arm, toward Isabel.
With a flick of her wrist, Isabel cracked open the pistol. Two expended cartridges ejected automatically, and she slid two more in their place.
Her throat still ached, but she straightened, rounded the stone slab, and unloaded one more round into her servant’s skull. Isabel dropped the pistol, clamping her hands to ringing ears.
“Fuck!” she screamed. Her voice didn’t penetrate the ringing in her ears.
Eyes clamped against blurred vision, ears ringing from gunshot, Isabel felt her way to the stone slab and slumped against it. The cold stone soothed her head, but she knew she needed to keep moving. She didn’t have long before…
clack… Clack… CLACK…
Slowly she registered the strange noise. A cold knot forming in her gut, Isabel’s head snapped up to see two very tall, very skinny figures enter through the decrepit arch. They wore long black robes that reached to their booted calves. Hoods hung low to cover their faces, but their long skeletal hands protruded from the end of loose sleeves, and betrayed the illusion of mortality. Skeletons. Held together by magic and sheer will. They were conspicuous, but more effective, full of dark magic, and wicked intellect.
They were clapping. Their fleshless hands sounding more like two bunches of dried sticks beating against each other. Following the two bone men was another, shorter fellow. This one was alive, and quite covered in flesh. It hung from him in rolls, expensive materials straining across a round stomach, thick thighs, and flabby arms. His bald head balanced precariously upon roll after roll of chin that connected without passing along a neck, directly to his shoulders.
He wasn’t clapping. He saved the ironic gesture for his skeletal goons.
“Well done, I must say.” He looked rather like a toad, Isabel thought. Even his skin held a faint green tinge, perhaps from his years of studying the rotting flesh of his subjects.
Isabel backed further into the dank crypt, until she felt the slick stone wall press into her back.
Though no signal was given, the two robed skeletons moved forward, circling the stone slab in the centre of the room, cutting off Isabel’s movement. Von Dinkler stood between Isabel and the entrance, placing his fat arse on the stone slab with considerable effort.
“It took me forty years to raise my first subject,” he spoke dispassionately, as if recalling what he had for breakfast. “I had to put that one down, too. Though through my own inability rather than any loss of control to another summoner.”
“Are you trying to console me, Von Dinkler?” The pistol was heavy in Isabel’s hand, but not heavy enough. She was painfully aware of the single remaining shot in the twin barrels. Von Dinkler’s gaze twitched to her left hand uncomfortably.
“I am impressed. Though I am also rather disappointed a newcomer to our profession decided to try out their formidable skills to burgle me. But you knew I would come, didn’t you? You are aware of who I am, after all.” It wasn’t a question.
“I know.” Isabel fingered the dual triggers, deciding which of the targets before her she could bring down before they were on top of her.
“And yet, here we are.” Silence stretched between them for an uncomfortably long time. Von Dinkler watched her with an unreadable expression. The two bodyguards remained motionless, depthless sockets staring into oblivion.
“You may live.” Isabel jerked at the sudden statement, surprised. “I have been searching for an apprentice, and I think you will serve me well.” Isabel quirked a single brow. “Your powers may prove useful. There are many tasks which have become tedious to one such as I. But it would be good practice for the likes of you. If you can behave yourself.” Von Dinkler hopped off the stone slab, and motioned for Isabel to follow. He moved passed his guards, who remained as still as stone, waiting.
“Crendal.” Isabel whispered. The word dropped to the chamber floor like a stone in the dark.
Von Dinkler stopped. He breathed a great sigh, and he seemed to deflate as the air left him. He grabbed the arch of the mausoleum, leaning heavily against crumbling old stone. “So you’re not here looking for a master?” He sounded disappointed. “No matter how fast I run, my past always seems to catch up with me.” When he turned, he seemed to have aged a dozen years in an instant. “How do you know about Crendal?”
Isabel started shaking. Not fear. It was something else. Memories of her home, her family, came pouring back after more than a decade of pushing them away. “It was my home.”
“Impossible!” Von Dinkler snapped. “Everybody was killed…” He seemed to realise what he was admitting to, and stopped himself. He paced back passed the stone slab, coming to stand a few feet from Isabel. “You were not there,” he hissed.
Isabel held Von Dinkler’s gaze. A torrent of rage, and sorrow, and fear washed over her. A flood of old memories. Of her mother, her sisters, her baby brother. Memories that had lived in a corner of her mind, buried behind a mound of grief and denial for over a decade.
She lifted the pistol.
Faster than she thought possible, Von Dinklers two bodyguards rushed forward. The one on the left grabbed the Necromancer, and thrust him sideways. The one on the right reached for
Isabel’s hand, so she fired.
The imperfect shot tore into Von Dinklers body. It shredded his jacket, and exposed the flesh beneath his fat belly. In the instant before the second guard bore her to the ground, Isabel thought she saw bone.
The skeleton wrestled the gun out of her hand. Every touch from the evil thing stabbed her with
grave-cold, leaving her limbs numb, sluggish. Fortunately, the skeleton was literally a bag of bones. Beneath the heavy robe were bones, and nothing more. Isabel placed her boot against the skeletons hips, and thrust the thing over her head. It landed on its crooked, between wall and floor, and collapsed into an odd shaped pile.
With a grunt, Isabel pulled herself onto her backside. Von Dinkler’s remaining bodyguard was rising from the crumpled form of its master. She cracked the pistol, reloaded two shells, and flicked it closed.
As skeletal hands reached for her throat, Isabel unleashed a torrent of flame and lead that tore the monstrous collection of bones apart before her eyes.
Isabel reloaded her twin barrels and advanced on the prone Von Dinkler.
“Please! I’m not that man anymore. That wasn’t me!” His flabby arms beat the cold stone ineffectually as he tried to crawl away from her. A trail of blood followed him across the floor.
Isabel knelt down, putting her knee into the old Necromancers lower back. He stopped crawling. “You killed my family. My baby brother.”
Von Dinkler whimpered. The rolls of fat that spilled above his collar quivered with terror.
“This is the great Necromancer?” Isabel couldn’t believe this wobbly mass of flesh was the same man who brought the Empire to its knees a decade ago. “What happened to you?”
Von Dinkler snivelled into the dirt. Isabel dug her weight further into his back, waiting for an answer.
“Please!” He groaned. “I’ll tell you. Just let me up, please.” He was crying now. Isabel rolled her eyes, and lifted her weight off him. Von Dinkler grunted as her knee lifted from his back. He rolled over, and for the first time Isabel noticed he was holding a smooth wooden rod, about a foot long, topped with a green metal cylinder. He unscrewed the bottom, and grabbed the ceramic bauble that emerged, attached to a cord that disappeared into the rod.
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