Writings: The Necromancer's Solution

[This post was previously posted on my Patreon blog.]

April! This month's post isn't especially social justicey, I must confess. I was instead taken with a very fluffy story idea which would attempt to justify the Sorting Algorithm of Evil--you know, that thing where the Big Bad only sends his weakest and most ineffective minions to start out against the Hero, letting him level up against the weak baddies and utterly failing to stomp out the threat while the Hero is still a Level 1 farmboy. I have a soft spot in my heart for genre-savvy villains and wanted to try a hand at writing one.


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"Rise, my undead minion. Awake from your eternal slumber and rise to walk amongst the living once more."

I wait, but nothing happens. The fresh corpse on my work table--which is really more a slab of blood-stained stone than a table per se--does not stir at my command. This is now no longer unexpected, yet still highly unwelcome. I put a noticeable touch of extra bass in my voice and try again, my words booming off the walls.

"Arise, my undead minion and walk!" Nothing. "Sit up. Open your eyes. Move your hand. Goddamn it."

"Sir!" A heavy iron door set in the upper ledge extending above the curving staircase ringing the dungeon walls bangs open and slams into the nearby stone masonry. "Sir, your highness, I'm sorry to barge in--"

I'm just angry enough to fry someone with lightning and Barker has never been on my list of favorite minions, but I do try not to demoralize the troops by killing them without a decent reason. Of course, 'interrupting my rituals' is normally a very good reason indeed, but even I can't pretend this one was going anywhere productive. The corpse lies unmoving on the slab, its stab wounds seeping resentfully at me.

So I settle for a hard snap in my voice and an irate look that would make the more timid--and still living--members of my horde void their bowels in terror. "Yes, what is it?"

Barker skids to a halt at the bottom stair, frozen and trembling under my glare. "Sir. I'm so sorry, sir, but--"

"Spit it out."

"A hero," he stammers. His arm shaking violently, he offers the report scroll to me. "Another one. Sir."

I snatch the scroll from his hand before he can drop it, unfurling the damn thing with a sigh. The contents are brief, having been sent by carrier bird from one of the spies in the borderlands abutting my domain, then translated from coded tiny print to the large florid cursive that unfolds under my hands.

"Barker, this is the third hero this year and it's still early autumn. He's not even claiming royal blood like the last two upstarts. He's got no magical training whatsoever, he's a farmboy turned mercenary--"

"Sir, did you see the part about his magic sword?"

I really can't recollect why I haven't killed Barker yet and raised him as an unthinking shambling ghoul; he certainly wouldn't be any less intelligent in an undead capacity and my corpses at least manage not to interrupt me. "The sword mentioned here in the second sentence of the report? I did see that, thank you."

Barker stares blankly at me, my sarcasm lost on him. I sigh, feeling like I'm explaining myself to the nearest stone wall. "Barker, we have over two dozen magic swords in the royal treasury courtesy of a whole chorus line of heroes, so I'm not particularly worried about this one. I'll deal with him the same way I dealt with his predecessors: send my elite guard to wipe him out, while I mop up the remains with magic as needed."

Lightning crackles at my fingertips in practical demonstration and I'm sorely tempted, but I'm annoyed knowing it would be a waste to kill Barker now. I should have done it long ago, but how could I have known I'd mysteriously lose my power without warning? If my agents and I can't come up with a solution soon--

"Sir!"

The door above us bangs open a second time and I feel a headache begin to form behind my temples. My fingers prickle with fresh magical energies, but I know the owner of this urgent voice and he would not disturb me without reason; I rein in my temper. "What is it, Mulgrave?"

The spymaster takes the stairs at a run, pushing his way around Barker and dropping to one knee in the genuflection his colleague forgot in his haste to perform. I'd be annoyed with both of them--Barker, for forgetting what his lord is due, and Mulgrave for not getting to the point--except he wisely spits out his news. "We've determined the source of your problem, sir. A coven of wizards on the eastern borders."

"What?" I have to force myself not to incinerate the entire room; Mulgrave, at the very least, needs to be kept alive long enough to explain. "How?"

"A curse, my lord," he reports, never one to dither when my ire is up. "We have their notes and a captive member who wasn't willing or able to kill himself when we tracked them down. Unfortunately, several of the wizards were and the rest escaped. We're not yet certain how to lift the curse without the cooperation of the full coven. Sir. But I have the best warlocks in the horde working on the problem, sir."

My breath is in my throat and I realize I'm pacing. "Those putrescent pustules of rotten effluvium!" Credit due for daring, because heaven knew I would make them pay dearly for their impertinence; pain would fall on both the living and the dead alike, such were the dangers of meddling in the affairs of those pacted with the grave and what lay beyond. Those fools, to lay a curse on me! Stopping me, the dread necromancer-king, from raising undead minions for the orderly administration of my realm as I saw fit.

Give them credit, too, for creativity: no-one in one hundred years of my reign had managed something like this.

"How many of them?" I whirl on Mulgrave, burning eyes boring into him. The power of any curse, the ability to bind the powers and will of another mage, depends heavily on the power put into the spell by its casters. "Is the wording of the curse in their notes?" That would matter, too; the wording always matters.

"The coven appears to have had twelve members, sir." Head bowed, he hands another scroll up to me and I snatch it from him and unfurl the parchment as quickly as it will roll.

"'By the seven stars in Heaven's Crown', of course a bunch of upstart druids with pretensions of grandeur-- aha, here!" I stab at the scroll with my finger. "'Shall raise none who were by his hand slain'?" I frown at the translation Mulgrave's agents have provided from whatever borderland excuse for a language the coven spoke. "Oookay, that's an annoyance, admittedly. Except one problem: I didn't slay that one." I make a sweeping gesture at the body on my slab. "Or the three before him. They were brought in already dead."

Fear flashes in Mulgrave's eyes and with good reason; this is not a safe moment for failure. Reaching up in offer to take the scroll back, he peers at the chicken-scratch source material copied out below the curling translation. "Sir, I... believe the original phrasing implies anyone you kill and anyone killed by your direct order," he offers, clearing his throat very slightly in betrayal of his intense nervousness. "In the parent dialect, your 'hand' includes your troops, agents, undead minions, and other persons under your control."

I'm tempted to burn the castle to the ground, that's how furious I feel. And, hey, bonus, I'll get to find out whether or not deaths related to an inferno I started count as "by my hand" in this thrice-cursed borderland dialect, depending on if I'm able to raise the victims. Surely I can scavenge a useful corpse or three out of the ruins that I can work with, just as long as their deaths contain the proper degree of distance from my own actions. Maybe a heart attack at seeing the castle aflame wouldn't trace to my hand.

Mulgrave sees the fire in my eyes and scrambles to reassure me, his voice breaking. "Sir, we will find the counterspell. You know every curse can be broken, it just takes time! Sir."

"And what am I supposed to do until then?" My roar echoes around the dungeon, bouncing off the stone walls hard enough to make Mulgrave flinch. Behind him, Barker--not as stupid as I'd have thought--backs into the shadow of the curving stairway to hide. "What are my other options, hmm? Waiting for people to die of old age? I can't exactly sit around twiddling my thumbs until a natural disaster hits!"

"We could..." My spymaster falters, his creative mind spinning helplessly in place. "We could... facilitate another border war, sir? A skirmish between the northern kingdoms might--"

I cut him off with a gesture. "The borders haven't had a good war for a solid decade, they're not likely to start now! They've gotten fat and complacent hiring their warriors out as mercenaries."

I stop, blinking as a new thought occurs. Mercenaries. They'll work for anyone who has gold, but since I refuse to pay them--preferring the free labor of my undead horde--that usually means guarding merchants and various ne'er-do-wells determined to thwart the laws of my lands or commit forest-based tax avoidance.

"Sir?" Mulgrave watches my face, trying to guess at my thoughts. "I don't think you can pay them to kill each other, sir. I mean, you could, but deaths on both sides would be 'by your hand', as the employer who instigated the conflict on either side. You wouldn't be able to raise their corpses."

I ignore him, my eyes picking out Barker in the shadows. "Barker. This hero you mentioned?"

Barker swallows. "Sir?"

"Let's deal with him first. Start hiring up bands of mercenaries near his home village."

My minion frowns in confusion. "Mercenaries, sir? Not the elite guard?"

Miraculously, I manage not to grind my teeth; good replacement molars are hard to find. "No, Barker, not the elite guard. I have to be more careful with them now that I can't raise new ones. But mercenaries are cheap and plentiful. Emphasis on 'cheap', though; don't hire too many, and only the inexpensive ones. I don't want to spend more than I have to. Tell the mercenaries to capture the hero and bring him in alive. At all cost, you hear me? I want to, um, interrogate him."

He nods, taking all this down in his head but still looking confused. "Yes, sir. Um. And his magic sword?"

I offer him the most reassuring smile I can muster, though I'm out of practice on the non-sarcastic kind. "I'm sure they'll do fine. They're mercenaries, after all; they must have experience with magic swords and things of that nature. Just have them hurry. I'm very impatient to interrogate this one. You're dismissed."

Barker gives Mulgrave a helpless look before sprinting up the stairs, relieved to be out of my sight and the range of my nastiest spells. My spymaster maintains a perfect poker face until the door slams shut, at which point he stands and executes a crisp bow. "I'll have my men standing by to bring in the bodies, sir."

"Good man," I tell him, turning back to the corpse on my slab and considering storage options. I hate to waste a good corpse and if we put him somewhere cool and drafty maybe he'll keep until I can work out the counterspell and unweave this ridiculous curse.

"I figure we can get five, maybe six bands of mercenaries from this hero before someone accidentally stabs him in a vital organ. Let's make them count, Mulgrave."

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