Summary: A necromancer binds the spirits of a siege engineer and traitorous general for revenge against a corrupt empire.
Aquella stood around the onyx-trimmed ritual circle, chanting obscenities in half-forgotten tongues. Her hands and lips moved in well-practiced uniformity as blue flame bowed to each gesture. The rift between the realms ripped like torn cloth, and a horde of shrieking spirits erupted forth. She plucked one with the deftness of a mantis grasping a fly. She shoved it into the body of a recently slain brigand, which laid at the center of the ritual circle.
"Arise, Artificer Eroni," she commanded. "Bow and acknowledge me!"
The body stirred slowly, like rising from a deep sleep. The reanimated corpse momentarily paused, examining her new body like ill-fitted clothes. Eroni bowed before Aquella, the hirsute man's body jerking like a broken marionette. "Oh, Aquella, you are my lord and mistress."
"I apologize for the male body," Aquella said in an apologetic voice. "I could not find an intact female one worthy of you."
"Then why bind me to this mortal realm once more?" Eroni asked, her voice an eerie fusion of masculine and feminine tones.
"For a higher purpose," Aquella said, grinning. "Why else would I desire the greatest engineer in history?"
Eroni did not reply, as Aquella left the circle. She turned back to the bound siege engineer, and gestured to the cemetery beyond her. The exhumation of remains begun, and she prepared other ritual circles. She still required her facilities for the following reanimation rites, but not the specific care for Eroni's ritual.
Chants to eldritch blasphemies left her lips as Aquella remembered her first time. The awkward, half-fumbled casting almost backfired, but succeeded by sheer luck on her part. She recalled her first patron, the insatiable Magistrate Solos, who'd poisoned a woman who declined his marriage proposal. With her chilling body lain on a stone altar, Aquella moved with reckless alacrity to reanimate the young woman's body as a docile slave for Solos.
Aquella recalled the assassin's dagger that flashed the following night. She remembered the spells that wretched the would-be murderer's spirit from his body, and turned him into a plaything for her. Realizing Magistrate Solos would not permit her to live, she planned a grand revenge for Solos and the Empire that empowered him. Merely killing Solos was insufficient, owing to his tremendous political influence. Such a plan required nothing less than the annihilation of the Empire behind him, as he'd been promoted to the Emperor's inner circle. The recent plague swelled Imperial cemeteries with fresh cadavers, giving her ample material.
Aquella reanimated skeletons and rotting corpses, using them to exhume more of their kin. Eroni's bound spirit commanded the work crews with the grim efficiency of her feared siege engines. As they dug up the last of the abandoned cemetery's inhabitants, the next phase of her project began. She consulted the spirit of the infamous traitor, General Belisario, and whom she had bound to the falcata by her side. The dead fell in behind them, moving as a well-drilled army.
The first village to fall offered only piecemeal resistance, owing to the celerity with which the attack came. Aquella's bound spirits reported the location of sentries, defenses, and militia stores, allowing her to purge them like an insect infestation. Ever cowering child, ever wayward hunter, and the others she'd overwise overlook were easily revealed before her army. While capable of beholding the action of every underling, vestigial sympathy and disgust prevented her from interfering in the ensuing cull.
In following months, the fortified village became Aquella's based of operation. Eroni's suggestions resulted in rapid improvements to Belisario's methods. Infernal forges worked endlessly, churning out weapons for her coming campaign. The exhumation of cemeteries continued, with her ritual now performed by undead acolytes in her stead. Production was greatly improved by assembly lines of near-mindless undead. Those still living were now possessed by bound spirits, to act as her infiltrators among the Empire.
It was inevitable that her efforts would be noticed. Two more villages fell before the Imperial legions marched to war. As the plague started within the legions, Aquella bound their souls to the bodies that formed her own vanguard. She let her bound general command them, and used magic to convey the orders without delay. As well prepared as her army was, she trusted in other methods than a battlefield victory to secure her ultimate victory.
The Empire defeated prior necromantic armies, and Aquella studied their flaws to avoid joining their ranks. Even with the spirits of dead legionnaires and brilliant generals bound by her magic, she understood the legions had bested undead before. Thus, she had to defeat them with weapons and methods different than those she encountered before.
Aquella did not commit to a pitched battle, owing to Belisario's advice. Instead, she retreated deep towards her heartland as the winter months approached. Her infiltrators worked to infect the Imperial granaries with a plague of her own creation, and destroy what could not be infected. She retreated to her fortress foundries, hoping the Imperial legions would be recalled to keep order. Every soldier that fell was one more ally on her own side.
When that did not happen, Aquella deployed her own army. The Imperial General, Julian, was deadest on stopping her before his retiring from campaign. When she deployed an undead vanguard in a field, surrounding an armored palanquin, she obliged him. While she'd reanimated countless dead, only a few stood in the field with her. The rest were camp followers and filled her strongholds, instrumental to her campaign. As the legionnaires marched forwards, she did not fear. She'd carefully neutralized the Imperial scouts by means of capture and possession.
Out of the woods rattled armored carriages, each propelled by skeletons marching on internal mechanisms. At the top of each was a skeleton-crewed repeating ballista, each tip filled with flash-powder warheads, plague excretions, and metal fragments. The legion's own artillery came down on the undead host, but her army formed into a tortoise formation of raised shields to absorb their fire. Her own artillery blasted the Imperial cavalry to bits before heading directly towards the General's unit.
The Imperial lines buckled like a burdened bridge, but did not break. Aquella watched with shock, reflecting on the discipline of her adversary. The legionnaires lived in the horrors of war, as Belisario quickly reminded her. The soldiers instead moved to envelop her carriages, but she instead fell back towards the woods. The Imperials, now sensing the tides turning in their favor, cautiously advanced. Deliberate movement gave way to an excited charge as the carriages broke formation and scattered into the woods. The legion closed behind, like a blood-drunk beast.
Now within range of their repeating crossbows, the undead vanguard unleashed a salvo. Bolts filled with plague and poison came down on the legionnaires, who pulled the weak projectiles from their shields and armor. As they crashed into the undead host, a lucky legionnaire cut away the skeletons holding the palanquin. An empty skeleton toppled out, as the legionnaire toppled backwards.
With their flanks exposed and discipline shattered, Aquella unleashed the last of her surprises. Armored carriages with steel plows and mechanized scythes emerged from the woods, heading directly for the legion. The ballista-armed carriages returned, raining down bolts on the remaining legionnaires. General Julian took a bolt to the torso, and what that remained of their famous discipline collapsed.
Aquella thought the battles that followed were pedestrian, compared to the massacre at the end of the first one. She sacrificed a few units that could be reanimated easily, in favor of slaying a whole legion of professional warriors. With such fighters bound to her whim and will, the remnants of the Empire were trivial. Already weakened by famine, plague, and unrest, slaying the remainder of the Empire was almost a merciful euthanasia.
When the Imperial City fell, Aquella was curious enough to venture towards the frontlines. Having embarked on a campaign of bloody revenge, she was curious to see it end. Within the Imperial Palace, the Emperor and his inner circle committed suicide in a vain attempt to escape her. While Solos was dead, she bound his spirit in a realm of eternal torment. As hollow as it felt, she realized she was now the de facto ruler of the broken Empire.
From the palace, Aquella issued her demands to Imperial remnants. Now reigning as their eternal empress, they would bow to her or be annihilated. She made grisly examples of corrupt officials, only to bind their souls to serve honestly. Eroni suggested the practice, as it allowed her to utilize their expertise as it should have been.
In the years that followed, Aquella's Eternal Empire drew living settlers and foreign traders. It was a land where magistrates had no choice but to govern fairly, and where eternal existence was possible. With undead industry behind them, their commerce and industry blossomed. On occasional reflection, she thought it was the best revenge, for she ensured none like Solos would plague the living again.