A Necromancer Need Not Be Evil
By Nick Petrou
To the dread ruler of the Charnel Vale and unrivalled animator of flesh, Queen Luciana Tenebris, her third and most disobedient of sons, Gregori Tenebris I, sends his regards.
Mother, I wish you good health and an abundance of corpses upon which you might smear the simmered blood and thus remain in excellent standing with our patron. Of your notoriety throughout the kingdoms, I can assure you that even in the far-flung port city of Abyssia, where I presently reside, your name strikes terror in the hearts of men. Know that the names of your wicked daughter and first and second sons evoke equally an aura of dread. With my siblings’ conquests in mind, what I herein divulge to you will doubtless come as a far more crushing blow. I can only hope that somewhere in your black heart there survives a capacity for forgiveness and understanding, however deeply buried. If this is not so, and your answer is wrath, then so be it. You know where to find me.
Allow me in a few words to encapsulate the discovery which has changed my heart:
A necromancer need not be evil.
Indeed, I am convinced our calling lies not in the resurrection of dead flesh but in the invigoration of the living, a caste to which even you, O dreadful one, belong. There is immeasurable glory in this and, it will gladden you to know, the wealth of generations—contrary to the modest prizes of a single sacked city, ruined and thus unable ever again to bear fruit. But I am getting away from myself.
Abyssia was—and yes, I write in the past tense, for a sailor returning to port after several months at sea would hardly recognise the city now—a stifling place, made even more insufferable by the deluge which blanketed it during the first few weeks of my arrival. Though determined, the rain failed to wash the reek of fish and cheap rum from the port timbers, which bulged against their iron straps. My greatcoat clung to me. Greasy rats swarmed the waterfront, where I had secured lodgings in a house of sailors and whores. If with but one word I had to describe these inhabitants it would be crooked. My work, of course, I undertook elsewhere. Indeed, my operation would have become the envy of our family, had I not failed to detect the sallow, hunch-backed inquisitor on my heel, and had I not, via an unintended interaction with this same man, seen a better way forward.
The denizens of Abyssia maintained a number of strange yet pragmatic practices. Among such, they employed what they simply referred to as “rowers” to row their dead beyond the still waters of the bay and, with a sack of stones fixed to the corpses’ ankles, dispose of them in the sea. This was a precaution born of Abyssia’s fear of necromancers—a detail in which I saw no small amount of irony, believe me. To state the obvious, I secured employment as one of such rowers. Through the cobblestone alleys on rain-dark days I pushed my cart, collecting as many as four corpses and then bringing them to the waterfront, where I loaded them onto the rowboat my employer—a blind inebriate who used to fish for crab—had supplied. By means of one of the sailors with whom I shared lodgings, I procured an old whaling ship with a displacement of some three-hundred tonnes, as well as a private offshore mooring near an uninhabited limestone island on the periphery of the bay.
My corpses never reached the sea. I hoisted them, with no small effort, onto my vessel and stored them on the lower deck. I took tremendous care, of course, not to bring over the rats—for what use to a necromancer are mere bones? After amassing three dozen corpses, I made preparations to collect the virgin blood. I intended to reanimate them in batches, so as to maintain their freshness while I gathered more of them for my eventual sacking of the city’s keep, as well as to prevent my killing from attracting too much attention.
And now, O merciless one, you are caught up to the day of my enlightenment, in whose dark morning hours the moon was a green smear behind the rainclouds.
I crossed, under sagging shopfronts and bilgy gutterfalls, from my lodgings to the west end of the waterfront. Candles and oil lamps flickered in the windows, and the inebriates were still at large, stumbling to the next taphouse and pestered by waterlogged destitutes all the way. I wager my pursuer, the inquisitor, was not on my heel that morning, for if he were, then surely he would have discerned a cloaked figure with a great leather knapsack upon his shoulders pick the lock of a below-ground apartment and squeeze in through the doorframe. Either the inquisitor was not around, or he had deemed the life of the apartment’s sole occupant, my virgin, inconsequential. While, at the time, I thought of the young woman as I might a pig for the slaughter, her death lies heavy on me now—heavier even than my betrayal of our family’s ancient ways.
I had come to learn of this woman, one Secilia Lynette, via the sailors at my lodgings. The wretch had lived with her father, a shipwright, until the flu sunk him some months before I arrived. He had left her with the apartment and some coin, but young Secilia had failed to learn a trade, and thus it would be only a matter of time before she accepted one of her many suitors, who were all but butchering each other for the claim of her virginity. I strung Secilia upside down from a crossbeam, spoke the incantus of collection, and bled her, still living, from the neck into the dozen waterskins I had carried to her apartment in my knapsack. Perhaps I would have been the rower to claim her husk later that week, had not chance or providence—who can rightly say which?—intervened.
With Secilia’s blood and the chalice of our ever-thirsty patron, I rowed through the mist-sheeted bay to my whaling ship. Had the sun managed to break through the clouds and burn away the mist, perhaps I would have spotted the inquisitor’s boat in my wake. As I would come to learn in future—and most genial—conversations with the man, I had aroused his suspicion through the procurement of my ship, namely for the vast sum it cost me relative to my earnings as a rower. Do cackle, O draconian one, for throughout my youth in your castle I never once had to pay tax and thus forgot all about it, and it was in the inquisitor’s pursuit of my copper that he happened upon our morbid craft.
You see, the inquisitor had put it into his own head that I had hidden a small fortune on my ship, and if he were to collect my taxes as a simple rower, the matter would resolve without a proper evaluation of my finances. In turn, his master, Reginald Artarus, Lord of Abyssia, would miss out on a substantial prize from which the inquisitor would take his due portion. What inspired the inquisitor to confront me after he had discovered my true occupation was logic in keeping with the above. If he were to capture a necromancer—let alone the third son of the dreaded Luciana Tenebris, as would doubtless come to light—how his favour with Lord Reginald would soar.
Our encounter transpired as follows.
I had arranged my corpses in a row across the lower deck. They were in various states of decay, one corpse bloated almost beyond use. I will never understand the pleasure you find in the perfumes of rot, Mother, nor how you can have them stand as sloughing sentinels in the very chamber in which you sleep. Positioned by the first corpse on the left, I squeezed Secilia’s blood from a waterskin into the chalice and, with black candles burning all around the deck, spoke the incantus of resurrection. The blood simmered, and I dipped my naked hand into the chalice, preparing to paint the flesh of my nearest corpse—a maggoty middle-aged woman—and return her without a soul into the mortal world. In my concentration, and with the incantation echoing as a choir through the hull, I failed once again to detect the inquisitor behind me.
It was only in the reflection of the simmering blood that, with not a second to spare, I saw his cudgel flash at my head. I spun, and instead of splintering the back of my skull all throughout my brain, the cudgel connected with my brow, where the bone is thickest. Somewhere in that melee, before I fell upon the deck, my painted hand made its mark across the inquisitor’s face, while the chalice spewed its contents over the deck and then settled against a coil of ship rope. My own blood pooled in my one open eye, and in my stupor I watched as the inquisitor underwent a puzzling transformation.
Colour returned to his formerly sallow face, and he stretched up and back upon his toes—in the throes of pleasure, I am sure—as the power of the simmered blood coursed through him and straightened the hunch from his spine. Where hair had refused to grow it now sprouted. In his eyes there burned new light, as one might expect to find in a youth yet to bend under the weight of this world. When the blood had faded entirely into him he stood appraising his hands, a man renewed, and he implored, not unkindly, that I explain what I had done to him. Still upon my back, I watched, and I pondered.
And when I comprehended the truth of it, there pulsed out from my heart a peculiar warmth, the likes of which I had not felt before.
Mother, how else might I say this? It felt… good
And while the inquisitor did, as a precaution, bind me with rope, he tended to my head wound with care and conversed with me on my ship for all of that day and much of the next. What this man—who introduced himself as Walfred Tristain—proposed to me sounded more appealing with every passing hour. Either I would go to Lord Reginald as a necromancer and face imprisonment and, ultimately, the sword, or I would go to him as some virtuous new breed of thaumaturge and revivify him as I had revivified Walfred, who was concerned not at all about wringing me of my coin at this point.
I returned to Abyssia as Walfred’s captive in the afternoon of the second day, after he had disposed of my corpses out at sea.
I cannot lie. My transition into the man I am as of writing this letter did not come as easily as my friend Walfred had said it would. I had to earn the trust of the lord and his house, working, for a time, through the bars of a dungeon upon my fellow prisoners, with the blood of my fellow prisoners. This is where the foundations of your teachings erode, O calamitous one, for these men were far from virgins, and still I brought their blood to a simmer.
Could it be that our patron is no horror, but a being of light not so dissimilar to its exalted counterpart? Could these gods be one and the same?
You should have seen how the sun lanced through the clouds and the high stained windows of the Abyssian keep on the morning I infused Lord Reginald with new life. It had not shone upon the city in some time, and in this light, and with the renewed vigour of its lord and his advisors, Abyssia prospers. I prosper—and to an even greater degree since I performed the ritual upon myself. With joyous, healthy fellows in charge, a weight rises from the backs of the common folk. The drunks and destitutes emerge from the crevices to mend the gutters and scrub the reek from the port timbers. The rats flee the boot sooner than bite it, clearing from the city in the thousands. In this week alone I have discovered that pig’s blood—could it be all blood, then?—might also be brought to the simmer, thus sparing Abyssia from cannibalising itself in its pursuit of revivification. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that all the city’s denizens, even the sailors and whores, might benefit from what Lord Reginald refers to as my miracles.
In my tower of the great keep I am a demigod, and among my ribs there beats a heart of living flesh. Could our ancestors have believed that our craft would one day serve not only to heal but to bring to the surface the very best in all men?
In writing you, my intention is by no means to provoke, for truly your name is synonymous with fear. Simply put, word of my miracles would eventually reach you on their own, so is it not better that they are my words? I know what to expect in your response, should you choose to respond in writing at all, but my new heart hopes, with all sincerity, that there survives at least the capacity for tolerance in yours. Here is our chance to lead the enlightened world as one, Mother. If not, then as I have said, you know where I am.
I have sent similar letters to my siblings, and I hope that you will write me soon. Written in the Abyssian keep on the second day of the Wolfmonth in the year 1603 AW.
Gregori Tenebris I
About the Author:
Nick Petrou works as a freelance writer out of Perth, Western Australia, where he likes to read unsettling fiction and complain about the sun. His short fiction has been (or will soon be) published by PseudoPod, The Arcanist, Ghost Orchid Press, and others. You can find out lots more about him at nspetrou.com and reach out to him on Twitter @nspetrou.