Vanalath stood to the side, watching as the resurrected boy conversed with his mistress. He didn’t understand the language they spoke, with its clipped and fast-paced babbling, but he could tell that Kaipo was scared. Vanalath was somewhat amused. He’d never seen a ghoul that could talk, never mind a scared one.
The boy’s raising was a peculiar event, even by his standards. While the ritual had been going on, he remembered sheltering something: a tiny light that gave him images of a life he hadn’t lived. He sheltered this light while he struggled against the pull of the void, but he was beginning to realize that it had been the soul of this boy. Vanalath, in climbing out of the abyss, brought this boy back with him. Did this have something to do with why he retained some human characteristics? None of the other undead had done that.
As the necromancer conversed with the confused boy, she kept taking sideways glances at Vanalath. Evidently, she was wary of him. Wise, as he no longer remained under her command. Perhaps she had some method of reasserting control, but he didn’t intend to allow that to happen. He’d decided to follow her of his own free will, but only so long as she proved worthy. For the moment, he was content to simply observe and learn.
After a while, she seemed to reach some sort of agreement with the boy, and the conversation petered out. She approached Vanalath.
“Ghoul. Do you understand me?”
“As expected. And can you understand this boy here?”
He shook his head.
“Indeed. Well, this complicates matters. You see, I am not in control of him, just as I am not in control of you. The Deathstone ritual has thrown many things into disarray, leaving two free-willed undead under my roof.”
She spoke of many things in short order. The Deathstone? Was that the gem that had shattered? And Kaipo was free, the same as him?
He eyed the boy, who was sitting on the floor with his arms wrapped around his knees. Vanalath snorted. Being free didn’t make one able. The sudden noise made the necromancer’s eyes flicker.
“I am afraid,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “that I will have to divine your intentions for remaining here. I’m thankful you didn’t immediately tear me apart limb from limb, you must understand, but I’m hoping for more than a gesture of good faith.”
At this point, Vanalath noted that she kept a hand hidden in the folds of her dress. Likely a concealed weapon. Interesting.
“You are clearly somewhat intelligent for a ghoul. Answer my questions with a nod for yes, a shake of the head for no, or nothing if neither are suitable answers. Is that clear?”
The woman spoke with authority. Vanalath sensed that she was someone who was used to having her decisions respected. He nodded.
“Good. First: do you intend me harm?”
He shook his head.
“Do you intend to continue obeying me?
At this, the woman frowned.
“Do you not wish to kill humans?”
No. He anticipated it.
“Then do you wish to obey me only because that is what you are accustomed to doing?”
“You mean that you have thought it through and decided that obeying me is better than the alternatives?”
She seemed slightly taken aback. Her next question came after she studied him for a while.
“Is it possible that you will betray me in the future?”
He thought for a second, before nodding.
“Indeed!” she laughed. “Truly, you are a fine specimen of undead. I hadn’t though it possible for a mere Tier 2 to exhibit such logic. Though I suppose my interactions with Kaipo has already turned that sort of thinking on its head.”
She seemed strangely satisfied. Rather than disturbing her, Vanalath’s admission that he may betray her appeared to have set the woman’s thoughts at ease. How peculiar.
Then, she took a deep breath and moved her arms behind her back, abandoning her hidden weapon. Her elbows moved, and Vanalath realized that she was wringing her hands, but trying to hide it. Her face revealed no hint of emotion, but it was clear that the next thing she was going to ask either interested or worried her greatly.
“Do you possess a… mark anywhere on your body? It would appear as a glowing rune on your skin, either red or blue in color. If you had one, you would see glowing characters appear before your eyes occasionally, usually after you killed an enemy.”
The woman stilled completely. For several moments, she looked like a statue carved of ice. Then, turning around, she located the nearest thing to sit on. She practically collapsed, holding her head in her hands.
“How much did I do after last night?” she whispered to herself, though his sharp hearing still picked it up. “How far did my madness reach? I broke my vow, raised the body of—of Vanalath, and now it tells me it possesses a Brand. A Branded undead. Of his corpse.”
Something caught in her throat, and she started coughing, but the cough turned into a strange laugh after a moment. Vanalath found his suspicion turning into certainty. This woman had a connection with his past life, and that bond drove her to commit these actions around him. She didn’t appear to accept him as the same person as from her memories because he was an undead. Yet he was certain that he remained Vanalath. He had to correct her, but how? He lacked any memories that might confirm it. He didn’t even know the woman’s name.
Suddenly, she turned to face him, eyes flashing.
“Which Brand is it?”
He shook his head, not knowing what she meant by the question.
“Where? Where is it on your body?”
Her words flowed quickly, one after the other, and she seemed to have forgotten the rules she set, no longer asking for a simple yes or no.
Though he’d never seen his own reflection, Vanalath had a feeling he knew where his Brand was located. He’d always been vaguely aware of a presence on his forehead. The instant he began to remove his mask, however, the necromancer recoiled, turning away.
“No! Don’t take off the mask!”
He paused in the middle of the process. Slowly, he lowered his arm. His mistress was biting her lip such that a trickle of blood ran down her chin. With eyes still turned away, she quietly asked him one last question.
“It’s… on your forehead, isn’t it?”
He nodded, but she didn’t even seem to see it.
Her next line was spoken to herself more than to Vanalath.
“Such are the whims of fate, that we may never escape the chains wrought by gods.”
“I don’t wish to know which Brand it is any longer,” she continued. “Keep it a secret from now on, just as you hide your face in my presence.”
It was a simple enough condition to agree to.
She was quiet for another minute, gathering her thoughts. Vanalath, now that he was no longer compelled to hunt, found himself equipped with a great deal of patience, such that he didn’t mind the long period of silence. Kaipo, huddled in the corner, seemed afraid to even make his presence known. At last, the necromancer spoke.
“Enough of this. Now, we must think to the future.”
Her eyes flashed, and she climbed to her feet, standing a little straighter and regaining some of her earlier fire.
“Ghoul, you must have questions about the events from earlier. Am I right?”
“Good. That ritual we performed earlier was a process by which the Deathstone, which I spoke of before, merged with you. This was the only way to end the Rite of Doom, which I had begun the day before. The rite raised any corpse within its area of influence—this entire valley—as a ghoul. I hadn’t bargained on the fact that the Deathstone would prove too effective a nexus, however, and the souls of the deceased were not allowed to escape the mortal plane. Instead, they aggregated around the center of the ritual. Fortunately, you came at just the right time, or I might have been devoured by the ghosts of all those who once lived in this valley.”
Vanalath took all her words in.
“Once I completed melding the Deathstone with you, the rite finally ended, but rather than leaving this plane for the next, the trapped souls didn’t disperse. Rather, they seemed to have spent so much time within the realm of influence of the Deathstone that they could no longer leave it. They merged with you as well.”
Merged with him? Souls? He remembered the ritual, where he was forced to fight to keep a hold on his soul, or his essence, to stop it from being dissolved, but the only presence other than his was that of Kaipo’s. Were there any others? He didn’t recall any. So these souls she was talking about… his eyes widened as he came to a realization. Striding to the door, he looked outside to see—
A clear afternoon, the familiar mountains dominating the surroundings. There wasn’t a sign of the dark mist, and not a single ghostly wail reached his ears.
The sound of approaching footsteps pulled Vanalath from his deliberations.
“Yes. The vortex of souls is gone. At the culmination of the ritual, the miasmic cloud condensed and, piercing the repelling wards I erected, streamed into the cottage and entered your body.”
Vanalath slowly turned, examining the ritual circle. In the center, he found the shattered glass fragments that had composed the orb. She’d called it a gem, but it rather seemed to him now to be something else entirely.
“Yes,” the necromancer said, as if reading his thoughts. “That glass was a special gem that had been altered magically, turning it into a prison. It wasn’t the Deadstone itself. In truth, Deadstone is a poor name for what was once held within the orb, as even the Institute wasn’t sure of the object’s properties. It varied, transitioning between solid, fluid, and vaporous states at seemingly random. You are its new prison, however, and whatever its true properties, we must discover for ourselves.”
Vanalath put a hand to his chest. If it was truly inside him, where was this Deadstone? He couldn’t sense anything different about himself.
At this juncture, she frowned.
“You will need to evolve, of course. I can’t be expected to communicate new magical discoveries with a mute. Though undead aren’t well-studied yet, certain types are known to evolve to the point that they can speak. By ‘certain types,’ I am excluding this boy,” she gestured at Kaipo, “who is an aberration not belonging to any of the traditional races. You must accumulate experience to evolve, and only then will you have a chance at speech.”
That much he understood. He had to kill.
“There is little room for growth left here for us in this valley. I’ve spoken with Kaipo to divine the state of the surrounding settlements. He seems to believe that everyone living here has been transformed, which is truthfully a larger success than I expected.”
That meant there was no prey to be found other than ghouls.
“In addition, the remaining undead will no longer fight one-another. It isn’t originally in ghouls’ natures to prey on each other. The rite I performed altered that temporarily, allowing you to fight amongst one-another so the weak would be weeded out. From now on I will have need of all the forces I can bring to bear, at least in the short term. The hunters shall be returning shortly.”
Vanalath lifted his head. Hunters, she said. An approaching conflict?
His mistress fell silent as she strode around the small cottage, rubbing her chin. Her dark eyes glittered as she thought. She stopped pacing and sharply looked up at Vanalath.
“My power has been almost entirely drained by the ritual earlier. I will require time to recuperate. Ghoul, you must gather my forces. Go around to the settlements and bring the other ghouls here. I don’t care how you achieve this. If you are truly intent on serving me, consider this as your first test.”
There it was, Vanalath thought. Whether it was the gleam of nobility in her eyes, the force of authority in her voice, or even the way she held herself, it all came together to give his mistress a frighteningly commanding presence. That dark ambition captivated him. He could believe in that alone, even if he trusted nothing else. He turned, not forgetting to pick up his faithful skewer as he left.
He paused, one foot out the door.
“You intend to use that… stick, as a weapon?”
He gave a single nod. Her tone rubbed him the wrong way. It sounded as if she were disparaging his companion.
She sighed, and then he heard rummaging. Turning, he found the necromancer holding a slender case made of polished wood. Unlatching it, she lifted from within a long bundle of cloth. She unwrapped the fabric, revealing a sword.
Vanalath approached the sword as if in a daze, dropping his skewer to the floor with a clatter. The necromancer winced at the noise, but offered the hilt to him. He drew it from its sheath in one sure motion.
As he held the sword in his hands, he inspected it both by sight and through some simple exercises, swinging it to feel its weight and balance. It was a hand-and-a-half affair, giving it an agreeable versatility. It was made of polished steel with high-quality leather wrapped around the grip. The blade was three inches wide at the guard and significantly thicker than average. It was straight-bladed until a few inches from the point, where it tapered off to form a razor-sharp tip, and in all it was over three feet in length, weighing in at seven or eight pounds, making it twice as heavy as a sword this size normally was. Despite this, it felt right in his hands, and though it was a bit heavy for complete ease of movement, it was still a far sight more responsive than his skewer had been. The only attacks he could perform before were stabs, but he felt a realm of possibilities opening up before him now.
The only ornamentation it had was on the hilt. The pommel itself was a triangle lined with dozens of small grooves so it could be gripped easily when he used the sword with both hands. On the two opposite sides of the pommel, an insignia of an owl with its wings outstretched had been engraved. The sight of the insignia sparked in him a mysterious sense of pride, but no memories followed the emotion. As always.
“Don’t you dare lose that sword,” the woman said.
After he was supplied with a belt, he proceeded to fasten the sword around his waist. Then, he set off to gather their forces.