Mraxinar did not sleep. For the comfort of the people of Port O’James, he confined himself, along with the surviving members of his entourage, to a hotel room. He knew that mortals had a deep and instinctive aversion to skeletal forms, not to mention a rather practical (from an evolutionary perspective) tendency to experience fear at a greater intensity at night. Death was something to be kept warded away, secluded in cemeteries, where bodies were buried or burned to hide them from the living. There was, of course, the terror at seeing loved ones reduced from animate, living beings to shriveled ruins or unrecognizable ash – an emotional threat. But there was, of course, also the practical threat – a dead body could no longer defend itself as microorganisms consumed it, bacteria multiplying and producing not only unpleasant olfactory phenomena but also genuine danger in the form of infection.
The sun would not rise for several hours, but this far north, the glow of the pre-dawn twilight was already beginning to illuminate the streets, dimming the stars by comparison. Mraxinar noted that even this early there were people moving about – there was a man on the street below walking briskly in a jacket that seemed too thin for what was sure to be below-freezing temperatures outside. The man was holding his arms around his chest. Mraxinar pitied him, theorizing that the man was a vagrant – not something he believed common in the North East Colony, but he had heard of such people in some human countries.
Magic required imagination to take form. Undeath, the state of once-living material brought back to an animate state, was presumably born from nightmare – that these things that were dead could become an active and deliberate threat rather than simply an object that needed to be dealt with.
And now he followed, with fascination, the story of Ana Sweeney, a woman who had only recently discovered herself to be undead, as she navigated the delicate challenges of reintegrating herself into the society to which she had previously belonged. Yet Ana was far from the kind of rotting corpse the humans feared. Her body was mostly still functional, still capable of fighting off disease and infection. Hers was not a shambling gait, and her odors were rather ordinary for a living human woman of roughly a quarter century in age. Her brain was the only thing one could call lifeless, but the magic that had reanimated her body had allowed her spirit – the ethereal and fundamentally mysterious mechanism of experience – to assume direct control over her functions. That mind, Mraxinar speculated, might one day grow beyond the limits that had been imposed on it by the physical structure of her brain, but such a development, if it ever happened, was likely not to occur for a great long time, and for now, the mind that had taken the form of a human brain would continue to function very much like one, even in its maturation past the death of the physical brain, calling into question the very abnormality of this woman’s nature. She certainly looked and acted normal.
Mraxinar had never looked like an ordinary human being. Presumably the previous owner of his skull had, at one time. A thousand years earlier, there was, evidently, a man roughly in his forties who died and left bones behind. And later, the Bone King, in his vast and broad power, would make use of these remains and others to construct a being called Mraxinar. This individual, this bone construct, felt only a distant connection to that man. In truth, the way he saw it was that he and that long-dead man shared as much as a human who ate a piece of beef shared with the cow, or even the other humans whose bodies had fed the grass that had fed the cow that had, in turn, fed the beef-eating human. It was the same physical matter, but not the individuality. Having no illusions of being some human soul placed in a different body, Mraxinar saw himself as kin to the golems of the Redlands – beings of stone and metal and glass who had, long ago, been imbued with minds and animation and set about on their journeys.
The man who had been walking down the street stopped not far from the hotel. Mraxinar gazed down, vaguely concerned that he might give the poor fellow a fright if the vagrant were to look up at the window and see a skull with deep blue flames for eyes staring back at him from above. Mraxinar decided it would be best to step away from the window just in case.
In his idle times, such as these window-gazing times, he contemplated the crimes his creator had committed in order to build the nation called the Wastes. In a thousand years the Bone King had not extended that destruction elsewhere, and as an envoy of his sovereign creator, Mraxinar was convinced of the Bone King’s earnest good intention. But he also knew that the mortals had every reason to distrust. A nation had died to create the material for Mraxinar and his kin to exist. Mraxinar had not taken part in that monstrous deed, but he owed to it his existence. It was a question of philosophy to what degree that made him complicit, though Mraxinar had long ago concluded that whatever guilt he might share, there was no action he could take to make up for it, except to do what he could to assist humanity in whatever capacity he possessed.
Now he found himself here in northern Elderland, the very place that the Bone King, when he was a mortal man known initially as Natano Gordenni, the respected doctor, and later as Mogra Thesh, the reviled necromancer, had gone to learn his arts. Gordenni had, of course, learned of this land by studying the autobiography of Paul Airbright, who had briefly been allowed to publish from prison only for his books to be seized in an extremely rare case of Narcian censorship. Gordenni had been forced to twist some arms and bribe some law enforcement officers in order to secure a copy, succeeding presumably only because Narcia was in the midst of its tragic Brothers’ War at the time the “good doctor” had decided to pursue this line of research.
“Mogra Thesh” had come to these lands before there was a Northeast Colony. The colony was founded by Sardok exiles during the fascist period, which came hundreds of years later. So when he landed on the shores, most likely in the Northwest, across the continent from the future site of the Colony, there were only abandoned villages from some long-since vanished civilization. The mountains formed a barrier that protected the nation of Fealdoraga to the south, and so the man who would eventually come to be known as the Bone King must have seen no one but perhaps the occasional Redlander or Feal fisherman before pressing into a forest populated solely by the undead.
There was a power in the forest. They called it the Dusk Forest because the light never seemed to shine bright there. After weeks of travel through dense foliage, one came to the Thanatos Trees. Hard as rock and seemingly lifeless, the Thanatos Trees were grey and menacing. And mortals who strayed beyond them were almost never heard from again.
But Mogra Thesh was heard from. And that was because he had done his research. He knew of the one who held sway over those forests. A being called Hazhed-Funir. The Ice Lord.
The Castle of Dusk:
Mogra Thesh was forced to walk into the Dusk Forest – the horses refused to enter the woods, and he could see why. The trees grew extremely close to each other, sometimes forcing him to step up and squeeze between them. Even though it was noon, the sky was dark, almost as night, and a low, painful, howling wind blew. The trees were either dead, or they had learned to feign death lest someone notice them.
There seemed to be no color in the forest except for the patterns in his thick traveling robe or the horse blood on his hands. He had slit the horses’ throats when they refused to enter, and smeared the blood in sweeping glyphs on the Thanatos Trees – those eerie sentinels that marked the beginning of the Dusk Forest.
An offering was required to enter the forest, but it was only the first toll of many. As soon as he had passed into the forest, he felt the eyes around him. He feared a torch would give the lord of the castle offense, and so he walked in the dark. Yet he was a learned man of Spire, and darkness was easily remedied. He cast a spell on his own eyes, and now they glowed green. The world around him had been monochrome before, and that it remained, but everything seemed illuminated once again. The dark figures that he had thought were only barely near enough to see now appeared immediately on his left and right, mere feet away.
Thesh kept his pace, terrified but also excited. He gripped his staff, using it to steady himself as he climbed over another enormous root - or perhaps it was a rock. His hand began to ache, and he realized he had been gripping the staff so tightly that he had cut off much of the circulation.
The dead eyes surveyed him, the bones now audibly clicking with each step. How quiet they had been! Yet now, knowing they were there, he felt as if there was a cacophony of bending sinew and grinding bone as the dead walked around him. He could not deny his fear now, but still he pressed on.
It may have been night when he arrived at the castle, but it had been so dark during the day that he hardly noticed a difference. The castle seemed more like a ruin than a stronghold, half-buried, with a deep slope leading down toward the small iron gate that led within. He had studied every reference to it he could find in Spire’s libraries. Much of the castle was beneath the rocky hill that rose beside it. A nearly frozen stream flowed by the castle, hardly two feet across. The trees seemed to fall away, averting their gazes.
Thesh might have felt disappointed had he not done his research. This was no dark tower, rising into the heavens, projecting terror across the land. Yet altogether it was more sinister than that. Truly, the castle was dead, as was the forest, and the very earth itself.
As he approached, the gates creaked open, the dark and cavernous pit allowing him entry. He walked down into the castle, taking care not to allow his thoughts to linger on the bones that crunched under foot. He allowed the spell to fade from his eyes, for there was not a speck of light to amplify. He was blind.
And yet, ahead, after several minutes walking very slowly through the tunnel, he finally spotted an orange flame. A torch – the Ice Lord had allowed him a torch! This boded well, but still, Thesh would not allow himself to feel relieved. The Ice Lord had him in his grasp, and this gift of light was no guarantee of safety.
He climbed a spiral staircase. He was inside the hill now, of that he was sure. When he emerged in the castle court, what would have been an open yard in an ordinary castle but here had a ceiling of stone, he saw a hundred sets of glowing blue eyes staring back at him. As he approached, the dead receded from the light of the torch. In front of him, the double-door into the Great Hall opened. Here, he saw that two torches burned, and at the end of the table the Ice Lord sat.
As Mogra Thesh walked in, he glanced behind him. He could see two enormous dead servants closing the door through which he had passed. They did not like the light, it seemed.
The Ice Lord sat at his table. A dish of rare, delicious looking venison and a golden goblet full of wine sat at the place next to him. A chair had been placed there as well.
“Sit, Bone King,” said the Ice Lord. Thesh did not think the Ice Lord could be referring to anyone else, so he sat. “Eat. Know that this meat is the flesh of the dead. So do you eat it and so you are dead as well. Drink. Know that alcohol is poison. So do you drink it and so your blood runs with poison.”
The Ice Lord was ancient, a pale human-like form, gaunt and severe. Yet he sat upright, clad in ceremonial armor, all patterned to appear as if it were bone. Ice coated the armor. Before him, on the table, sat his helmet – a great steel skull, also covered in rime. To his side was an enormous executioner’s axe.
“What is it you called me?” asked Mogra Thesh.
“I called you by your true name. For when time has washed away all memory of Mogra Thesh, only bones will remain.” Thesh clung to each word like scripture. He looked into the Ice Lord’s eyes. They were grey and clouded, yet he was sure the being before him could see.
“I have commanded you to eat, Bone King. This is my lesson.” Thesh did. As he bit into the meat, its juices running down his throat, it dawned on him that he had not eaten since before he had crossed the Thanatos Trees. He tore at it with his teeth, ripping it from the bone. When the meat was gone, he lapped at his plate like a dog, and he drained the goblet in one go.
“You gave me blood to enter my house, Bone King, for blood is what you had. Look now, do you see blood?” Thesh looked down. No, he had licked all the blood clean.
“Blood is fickle, and blood magic is fleeting. The rains wash the blood away, and the blood dries and flakes and scatters like so much dust. Blood will desert you when the fire comes.”
These last words sent a jolt to Thesh’s heart. He shuddered and coughed slightly. The Ice Lord pointed to Thesh’s plate. “See what is left, what your hunger has left to time.”
All that remained on the plate was a flat piece of bone.
“Bone,” said Mogra Thesh.
“Bone,” said the Ice Lord.
Thus began the education of Mogra Thesh, Bone King of the Wastes.
The memory of his first meeting with Hazhed-Funir was one that the Bone King had shared with Mraxinar before the envoy was sent to this town. There were other envoys, one sent to Port Sang and others sent to each of the major cities of the N.E.C.
The Bone King had always been honest with them about what he had done in life. Even after living far longer than a human would, Mraxinar had never been able to determine if the Bone King’s honesty was his way of expressing regret. The Bone King had, of course, once been a human being, unlike Mraxinar or his kin. Mraxinar wondered if death and the expansion of his mind to encompass an entire nation had given the Bone King the perspective to see how heinous his actions had been.
But as he contemplated his current position, Mraxinar now wondered if perhaps the Bone King had given them only what information would be needed to deal with the threat.
He had not been authorized to tell the humans the nature of the god that inhabited the central forests of the continent, or that he knew the way in. Yet as Mraxinar played the memories over in his head – not mere information, but a perceived experience that Mraxinar could recall as if it were his own memory – he began to wonder if perhaps the story given to him by the Bone King was itself a call to action.
He had been sent with the explicit directive to help the humans of Port O’James defend themselves against the undead menace, and that seemed straightforward enough at the time. But as Mraxinar had discovered the truth about Ana Sweeney, shocked just as much as any of the living to find out (well, except perhaps he was not as shocked as Ana herself,) it sparked a new concern – that perhaps everyone had had it wrong. Perhaps he had been given that memory merely to show how far things had changed from their natural state.
Xirrik, one of his entourage, was pieced together to look more like a conventional human skeleton, though the bones had been warped and stretched to be larger than they had been in life, reinforced with metal, and placed within a suit of armor. He stood motionless, as did Gersic, the one built from primarily bovine bones. They did not breath, nor did they have blood to pulse through them, and so involuntary movement was far subtler amongst their kind.
“What are you thinking about, Mraxinar?” asked Gersic.
“The Ice Lord.”
Gersic’s two bull skulls nodded. “He occupies a unique position in the humans’ culture. They barely remember him, but the shadow over the forests to the west looms large in the collective unconscious of their society.” Mraxinar wondered if Gersic’s lack of human bones made him a less threatening presence for the humans. He had spoken with many within the community during their time there.
“He presses them with these incursions. They are worried about a sudden invasion,” said Xirrik, who, being a guard, always seemed to think in terms of combat.
“An observation,” offered Mraxinar. “We all hear the voice of the Bone King – the rhythm that binds us to him.”
Indeed, they all paused for a moment, and the soothing voice throbbed through their thoughts:
I am with you. I am with you.
The thought had been a constant for each of them since they were first created, the Bone King’s silent voice chanting this mantra of stability.
“The Ice Lord was the one who taught our sovereign the great secrets of necromancy. The Rhythm of Will is one of those secrets. We know that the Ice Lord had his own.”
“’To him,’ as I recall,” said Gersic. “Simple and effective, but one could hardly expect less from a god.”
“Listen for it – the Ice Lord’s,” said Mraxinar. And once again they all grew quiet. If any had had eyelids, they surely would have closed them.
“Nothing,” said Gersic, his voice betraying his astonishment. “Perhaps it does not reach this far?”
Mraxinar shook his head. “Our own sovereign reaches us here. I would be shocked if Hazhed-Funir’s Rhythm does not reach every point on this planet.”
“Then we are not attuned to it. We already have our sovereign’s Rhythm. Perhaps that is why we are unable to hear…”
“What was that?” asked Xirrik. “I think I heard it. Or… no…”
“You hear the Ice Lord?” asked Mraxinar.
“No. It’s the wrong Rhythm,” he replied.
“What do you hear?”
“’We are one…’ but it’s strange. I think there’s more to it, but it doesn’t sound like words. It is hard to explain.”
Mraxinar listened. He could not pick up anything. He glanced out the window. The vagrant he had seen down below was no longer there. It was a detail that in retrospect, he would regret having ignored.
“’We are one’ is a perfectly decent phrase for a Rhythm. A bit hive-mindish if you ask me,” said Gersic. “But I suspect the Ice Lord has never quite shared our sovereign’s respect for individuality.”
“It’s not just ‘We are one,’ though,” said Xirrik. “And it’s… it’s very odd.”
“Odd?” said Gersic.
“Disturbing, actually, like the words don’t even form properly. It is like the idea of an idea, without any word or voice to communicate it.”
Gersic gave a gesture, rocking his heads back and forth, which Mraxinar had long ago come to associate with a kind of frustrated dismissal. Indeed, Gersic had always dismissed what he deemed Xirrik’s paranoia. What had been a fun intellectual exercise had now been dragged into dour threat analysis.
Xirrik held up a hand. “Wait, I… I think I can hear more of it. Like it’s getting louder.”
“Why would it be getting louder?” asked Gersic, though Mraxinar could tell from his tone of voice that Gersic was now interested in moving onto a different subject.
Mraxinar took a step toward Xirrik. It was highly unlikely that hearing some other necromancer’s Rhythm could override their sovereign’s, but the Ice Lord was not your typical necromancer. Mraxinar began to wonder if it would be best if they stopped all this experimentation.
“It is getting louder. ‘We are one… in…’ Ok, let me see if I’ve got it. ‘We are one in the… machine?’ ‘We are one in the machine,’ isn’t that what those odd mortals from that Machinist sect are always chanting?”
There was a knock at the door. Mraxinar surprised himself with how relieved he was to see Xirrik distracted from this subject. Xirrik looked up. “Yes, who is it?”
There was no answer, except that there was soon another knock. Xirrik looked up to Mraxinar, questioningly.
“How can I help you?” asked Xirrik, not yet moving to open the door. The entourage had not experienced any direct violence after the bombing of their ship shortly after they had arrived. But that event had encouraged caution.
“Mayor’s office. You’ll want to come with me,” said the voice on the other side of the door. It was an odd voice, low and… Mraxinar detected something that almost sounded like gurgling.
“Bit early for that,” said Gersic. “But I suppose duty calls. Very well, Xirrik, if you’d get the door?”
Mraxinar listened again. He heard the Rhythm. It was coming loudly from just behind the door.
(We are one in the machine.)
Mraxinar put up a hand. “Wait, Xirrik, don’t-“ but Xirrik had already opened the door.
Mraxinar immediately recognized the man standing there. It had been the one in the thin jacket down on the street. Now he looked at him – the man’s skin had grown a sickly grey, and dark fluid dripped from his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The fluid looked something like petroleum oil, a substance the Bone King had produced to fuel the industries of the Waste.
And the man had a vest rigged with explosives.
There was no time to react. Xirrik stared at the man in confusion, and Gersic was still cheerfully trotting toward the door when the man detonated his vest.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2018)