The Cycle Comes to Sakroth
Notes: This story takes place in a setting created by Dreamshell and myself. Hope to reveal more about it soon.
Summary: In the aftermath of a tumultuous riot, a desperate necromancer finds his planned escape complicated by someone he thought dead.
The stones of Fair Thom's Keep cracked under the heat from the alchemical fire hurled into its walls. What had been the Royal Guard collapsed into a routed mob indistinguishable from the rabble it once kept out. If Queen Eulalia and her retainers tried to escape, they faced a mob gathering around the outer walls. Loyalist and rebel corpses filled the square and courtyard, and the man responsible for most slipped beneath the streets.
Basil the Burgundy, former royal reeve, descended into the false cellar he prepared for such an eventuality. His corpulent paunch trembled as he descended the creaking stairs, tossed as though balancing on a ship deck. The color of his cloak granted him his nickname, a pragmatic selection he made conceal the bloodstains. He lit a small candle in hand, following the direction of the dancing flame.
Basil slowed his cadence whenever the tunnel groaned, as though the ire of the crowd above would bring the ceiling crashing down. A different sort of weight pressed down on him, tightening his age-worn muscles. His neck ached, his knees creaked like the old stairs, and his fingers cracked like dry branches. Others still remembered his face, and they would eventually see through his disguise. Thus, he moved towards his destination with increased alacrity.
Basil pushed the old shelf aside only after pressing his entire weight into it. He grunted involuntarily, momentarily forgetting his age. His body was a great, complex machine winding down, a besieged castle nearing the final breach. He'd confided his way into the fortress above, and he betrayed it when it no longer suited him. Mortality stalked him long after morality abandoned him.
Basil used his candle to light the brazier in the corner of his concealed laboratory. Flames raced through channels of lantern oil etched into the opposite walls. The smoke was channeled into small fumes drilled into the walls, which connected with a chimney above. The eerie yellow light revealed the contents of the chamber, and the horrors he accumulated there, over the recent years.
Basil beheld a wall of skulls, which his magic compelled to sing sea shanties from the Crossing. He set down his candle beside a stack of grimoires, bound with the flesh of oath-breaking Vancians. A glass jar held the pickled liver of Cyrus II, still blackened from his suicidal leap into a snake pit. A cut-down crossbow, compact enough to be held in a single hand, was propped against a nearby wall. A hand mirror, emblazoned with the seal of Clovis I, sat atop a shelf. A Vald skull was half-embedded into to the wall, with the rusty spear still impaling it into place. He hung his cloak upon it without a thought.
Basil turned his attention towards the table in the center of the room. He pulled the cloth out from beneath it, revealing stacked wooden caskets beneath it. It was only due to the encoded laboratory journal, and the subject numbers chiseled into each casket, that he remembered which was which. Subject 24 was a young woman he'd interred alive, as to preserve her body for his own perverse lusts. Subject 25 was another dead Diopatrist he'd decided against reanimating, as those he'd already unleashed enraged the crowd enough to cover his flight. Subject 8 was the one he had in mind.
Basil opened the casket with a crowbar, pressing his girth against it. Breathing heavily, a smile crossed his face as he saw how well-preserved Subject 8 was. The necromantic wards had worked as he anticipated, even after four decades. He'd last beheld the body when Joanna I sat upon the Sacrutian throne, when he found his way into the court through his glib charm, family ties, and deep pockets. Having survived political machinations for the better part of his life, he prepared himself for such an eventuality.
Basil recalled how he met Subject 8, shortly before his death. It was back when he first ascended to the court, when he was setting up the first of his illicit laboratories. A man, perhaps thirty years in age, followed him into the catacombs beneath the streets. He recalled the man's aquiline nose, strong build, and unshakable grip, as though he were a rustic Veclus. He wore a brown leather duster and held a cut-down crossbow in hand. His pursuer tracked him into the lab, and trained the crossbow at him. It was only due to a hastily thrown vial of poison striking his face that Basil survived, and Subject 8 joined his charnel menagerie. In a touch of irony, Basil's first illicit laboratory was now his last, as the castle burnt above him.
Basil ran his fingers along the young man's face, feeling the cold skin yield beneath him. He'd prepared himself mental, but the ritual seemed as frightening as it did when he'd first recorded it. He was temporarily reminded of the man's facial likeness to a bust of old Veclus, the Exarch of Old Palladium and famous Songha convert. The young man looked as though he was in a catatonic stupor or deep slumber, rather than the agonizing death from respiratory failure. In his last moments, the man who'd become the naked corpse held him at crossbow-point, making hollow threats until his last moments. Fortunately for Basil, his poisons were as effective as they were excruciating.
Basil drew arcane sigils on the stone floor with chalk made of ground infants' bones. He completed a circuit of Subject 8's casket, inscribing the names of arch-demons at regular intervals. With some hesitation, he cut himself with his ritual dagger, and he placed his blood at regular intervals around the ritual circle. He set a gem of black onyx into the corpse's mouth, and he inserted a sliver chiseled from it into the laceration he'd made early into his own skin. He winced in pain, but he pressed on.
Basil pulled himself up to a wooden podium where he placed the grimoire, open to the page for the ritual. If he completed the incantations correctly, he'd transfer his soul into Subject 8's body. He'd maintained the body specifically for such a purpose. Such was his perfect escape, from both the city and mortality. So long as the man's soul had departed, the ritual should work. As far as Basil knew, Subject 8 had been dead for four decades.
Basil leaned against the podium, using it to prop himself up. He forced himself to ignore the echoes from above. He strained to look at the cuneiformic characters that marched across the page like an ever-victorious army. Each word, each syllable, was as a profane and blasphemous utterance, even to a mind as jaded as his. His voice croaked words never intended for human lips, and he spoke with the care of a burglar infiltrating a guarded keep. He closed his eyes, and prepared to awaken in a younger body.
Basil opened his eyes, feeling a slight chill. He felt the cracking of his knuckles. Pain rose from his worn knees. His back creaked in an alarming familiar way. His sight was blurry and unfocused. He stood erect, instead of lying in the open casket. He paused, wondering what part of the ritual failed. He wondered if perhaps his old age and diminished faculties rendered him unable to successfully complete the ritual. He turned towards the casket, and he saw the onyx stone glowing. A dim white light, like wisps of pale fire, rose from around the corpse's mouth. The soul, he realized, was still present.
Basil saw he was not alone. He recalled the chill from earlier, realizing that the secret door was wide opened. A figure entered the room, his face obscured by the shadows cast around the room. It was a familiar figure, although not identical to how he remembered it. The leather duster was thicker, with the metallic jingle of chainmail underneath. A bandoleer of crossbow bolts crossed his chest. The wide-brimmed cap seemed taller, or perhaps the man's looming stature made it so. He picked up the hand crossbow propped in the corner of the room, and he aimed it with an instinctive familiarity. In his other hand was one just like it.
Basil felt a jolt of pain rise through his stomach, as he saw a crossbow bolt impaled in his torso. Instead of collapsing, he desperately clutched the podium, thinking of some spell to hurl at his enemy. He leaned forwards, and the podium toppled over, sending him crashing to the ground. The intruder stepped forwards, and he saw the man's face, now fully illuminated. To his terror, it was identical to that corpse laid out before them. The second crossbow moved towards his face.
"Dharma's a bitch," the intruder said, squeezing the weapon's trigger. "You don't think I won't remember, Basil?"
The second crossbow bolt entered Basil's eye. For a moment, the world went black. To his surprise, he found himself staring at the ceiling. To his left and right were the walls of the casket. Beneath him was the athletic chest of Subject 8. He began to wonder, if perhaps his apparent death had caused the ritual to complete itself. The intruder's hand reached into the casket and revealed otherwise.
The intruder lifted the onyx stone out of the corpse's mouth, and he held it before the hand mirror. It took Basil a second to realize his soul had been trapped there. The ritual had indeed freed his soul from his body, but trapped him in a prison of polished black stone. The intruder smiled to himself, as he pried a cobblestone loose from the floor. The necromancer realized what his would-be murderer had in store.
Basil would have screamed, but he possessed neither lungs nor a mouth. The intruder placed the stone into the hole, and he began covering it with dirt. Clods of soil blocked what little vision he had from the rock. His fears of premature entombment came rushing back, amplified by the realization of what his enemy intended. The last thing that Basil saw was the man grinning like the bust of Veclus. To complete the burial, the intruder pressed the cobblestone back into position.
The last thing Basil heard were the intruder's words. "See ya 'round, partner."