The recovered writings of Kull the Necromancer, written approx. 4876 during the fateful reign of Thar Baeranor, first of his name, Lord of the Northern Lands.
They come for me now. I can hear the drums of their fury, marching in torch-lit lines through the dark evergreens, their faces blurring to one hate stricken visage. I can hear them marching to our doom.
I have a few remaining hours, a tiny sand speck of what was to be an immense expanse of time. And for the sake of posterity, and perhaps to rekindle the remaining shards of happy memory – I will recollect.
I wasn’t always this way. I wasn’t always dry bone under crackling skin, hazed with a perpetual shroud of decaying dust. I wasn’t animated by tendrils of black magics, energies coursing through gemstones, echoes of epic conjurations and vile incantations
I was the court magician of King Thar Baeranor.
Those days are fading now – the colorful feast halls, fireworks on warm summer nights, demonstrations for the royal children. Philip and Rachel, the young prince and little princess, clapping their hands to timed dazzles and pretty fizzles. I had smiled back then, perhaps feeble and shy, but feigning warmth. It was their mother my gaze was upon.
The lovely Queen Adrenna Baeranor – I can picture her now. The reanimated bar wenches never did justice, even cloaked in the finest silks and illusionary masks. Their skin never matched her texture, her warmth.
Perhaps Thar Baeranor had noticed my lustful glances after a particularly vivid spectacle of dragons and charging knights.
“Kull,” he had forcibly whispered, pulling me into an anteroom following the performance.
“Yes, M’Lord,” I had replied, noticing the venom underlying his tone.
But he abandoned the iciness and proceeded to pull a hefty sack of jangling coins from his belt.
“We’ve all been impressed by your performances this year, Philip especially.” He bounced the sack on his beefy palm “You have an eye for color and light.”
“Why, thank you M’Lord. I live to serve you and your family.”
Thar frowned, his wine-soaked lips carving an ugly red canyon across his thick beard.
“A family…” he muttered. “Kull, you live alone. That cottage of yours is big enough, and could use a woman’s touch.”
“Your concern is admirable and wise, M’Lord,” I had replied diplomatically. “I have not had luck in the game of courting.”
“Dazzle them with your tricks!” Thar bellowed, proceeding to slam his meaty fist into my spine, a farce of any warm greeting if I had my say. A thousand curses on that man.
“I prefer to reserve my talents for royalty.”
“Treat them to this,” Thar said, placing the sack of gold in my hand.
I licked my lips.
He pulled my own hand towards him, forcing my gaze to his own fierce eyes.
“But remember your place.” The coldness had returned. His words were encrusted in ice.
I attempted a small bow, my hand still trapped in his fist. He closed my fingers with the grip of a bear, squeezing till the joints popped against the hard corners of the metal.
Then he strode out of the room without acknowledgement, his back turned to me.
Perhaps that sole event instigated the quest that would consume me for the rest of my life. But I tend to think holistically. The same seeds that flowered into my current power had been planted long before – by the Tomes of Aman-Kalath.
The images of those days are even foggier, residing as mere shreds and slices of time. I remember hefting the books down a long stairwell, endless circular steps in the low torch light. I remember the dust that had lined the engravings on the leather, dulling the etched gold and silver to a lusterless gray, the color of bone and dust.
I remember opening the first page, reading that horrific introduction by Kalath himself, in flowing obsidian script the tale of the cannibal sultans, flesh gorging monstrosities, pain harems and so on. It was a shock for my young mind. I had felt as though a piece of myself had been shattered forever, never to be recovered. It was the illusion of innocence and purity.
But what were these things that we should romanticize and hold them so dear? For it is in the transition – that losing of innocence – that we gain knowledge, and in turn power. For that, I may as well celebrate the tomes.
An apprentice of mine once found the books hidden away in some dusty cellar chest. They seared his mind. He was unable to speak for days, lethargic for months, and never regained the promising talent he had demonstrated. A pity. But for me a catharsis.
I had survived the scathing fire of the words within. I had glimpsed at the terror trapped in those words, and in doing so, been forged anew. The power was mine to grasp.
The tricks and illusions that had become staple of my court performances were swept aside for deeper studies of magics and incantations. No longer was I content with twists of light and smoke. I wanted to reach out and touch the strings that bound reality. Lesser mages would have sought audience with gods and deities, but as Aman-Kalath had demonstrated, those were vestiges of weakness. I had come to realize the pious sanctification of metaphysical entities was no more powerful than the parlor tricks and sleights-of-hand I had mastered years ago. Something more was required. Something deafening and undeniable.
The first girl was a simple wench, content to provide steins and ample glances of her bosom to lusty drunks. I approached her as the night was waning. The moon finally dipped low in the trees, a breath of autumn wind breaking the dead quiet. Her shift over, she was shuffling home. It had rained earlier, sullen puddles bleeding ochre under low torchlight, and I watched as she picked her way through the mud, skirts hefted about her homely knees.
“Dark night, miss,” I whispered as she passed. My reflection was faint in the puddles, a strange wispy-haired man in heavy black robes, and I could only imagine her confusion. Perhaps it turned to fear when I tossed the powder in her eyes, but I would never know. She stumbled over sodden skirts, blinded, lacking air. The dust expanded in moisture, filling her throat and mouth with a sticky sand, sealing her screams away.
But I did not want a corpse. The graveyards would do for simple bones and sinew, and the gravediggers were always willing to part honor for gold. I needed a living body, sealed between life and death, a hibernation of sorts. The dust in her mouth was deadly alone, employed by the eastern assassin guilds. But I had mixed with it a heavy sleeping poison, potent enough to cease breathing, even slow the beating of her heart.
Unfortunately, her lack of conscious did not ease my burden. The next dreadful hour was spent pushing a creaking cart over the muddy cobblestones, ever wary of a passing guardsmen and rowdy drunken knights. When I finally reached my cottage, I was entirely too exhausted to continue, so I locked the wench in my cellar and fell into slumber.
It was not until the next evening, after a mundane day of flower blooms and flame cascades, that I was able to resume work. The wench was stripped and strapped to my examination table. Her skin had taken on a bluish pallor, intensified under the moonlight I beamed into the room via a series of mirrors. Using a fine dagger, I made my first cut.
The tomes of Aman-Kalath were very specific about the procedure. The heart must be severed, but not cease. The blood must be stilled, but not cooled. The brain must be frozen, but not destroyed. I had to work fast, mixing and heating multiple concoctions of rare and expensive materials, draining fluids from vesicles and organs. Slowly the wench was transformed, first with a sheen of bloody gashes and cuts, then the glow of purple and orange powders. As the night faded, and the silver moon gave way to the brilliance of crimson sunrise, my first thrall was born.
She was a mess at first, shivering in violent fits, vomiting from her guts the food of the living. But then she caught something, a taste of her new existence, the reality of her undeath. Her eyes were opened, a fearsome black, ever open and searching.
“Mas….ster…” she moaned, teeth gnashing. I nodded. Aman-Kalath had been correct. Servants of the flesh were not only possible, but practical. I still utilize the wench to this day for various experiment and tests.
But more so than an extra set of hands and feet, I had gained confidence. My skills were unmatched amongst my peers that hid in the shadows of blackest rumor. And yet I could go further. I wanted Adrenna.
It was difficult to procure times we could spend together, the Queen and I. She was often occupied with the royal brood. And while the children were playful and energetic, I lusted for a single second of peace, alone with their exquisite mother. To make matters worse, Thar was continually possessive and paranoid. Often, he would place servants on the outskirts of the performance halls, even armored knights if we wandered into the gardens and parks.
Still, there were those few moments we shared. Adrenna was an interesting creature, brilliant in her own way. She kept silent under her overbearing husband, but her mind was quick, and her tongue witty. She could complete quips I began, and laughed at dry humor. It was quite refreshing in contrast to the slavering peons that composed my daily audience.
I remember her smiling when I attempted a new trick, pulling a sprouting seedling from the moist earth, forcing it to flower as it hovered for her.
“Be wary, Kull, or you’ll soon be named head gardener in addition to magician.”
“It is nothing, my lady,” I rotated the white tulip in the air, letting misty tendrils hold it aloft for affect. Adrenna reached out to touch it. With effort, I gracefully guided the bloom to her delicate nose, peeling open the petals to coax out the scent.
She breathed deep and looked away, her lips still faintly tracing the smile.
“I often wished I could perform tricks as you. I think it was my dream as a little girl – to be a performer, not a princess. I once saw a street child juggling balls of light. Of course nothing approaching your lofty skills, but it was enough to stoke my young imagination.”
“The gift is difficult,” I whispered, drawing closer to her. “But anyone can be taught. Even you could learn.”
She laughed; a giddy rolling sound that matched her wide joyous mouth and gleaming teeth. “Thar would be furious! I can see him now, crashing about the bedroom, thrashing the furniture. Oh, but Kull, it would not be wise.”
“Nonsense,” I said, reaching out my hand. “Wisdom is never slave to fear. Pursue your dreams with foresight and planning, but never fear. Come, perhaps there is something I can show you.”
We walked together along the tree-lined path, bathed in shade from the gentle autumn sun. The leaves were beginning to turn, their shades heightened by halos of light along the edges. We stopped at a small pond, filled with large exotic fish, scaled in yellow and bronze to complement the seasonal aesthetic.
“Hold out your hand,” I commanded.
She obeyed quickly, a small thing that brought me excitement. I watched her delicate fingers, perfectly formed, small boned, smooth and ever feminine.
“Now you must remember, all magic is merely the manipulation of what already is. You are not creating anything from scratch, nor are you destroying. You are grasping the pieces of the world that others cannot see, and moving it with your will.”
“Easy for you to say,” she giggled.
“Watch,” I said, pointing at a crimson maple leaf above my head. Touching it, I pulled the red into my fingertips, letting it coalesce like a liquid. I showed it to her, a ball of blood rolling in my hand. She raised an eyebrow, impressed.
“That’s creative,” she said.
“Anything you can imagine,” I said. “It’s yours to grasp.”
Adrenna touched a leaf, pulling at the husk with her fingertips, her brow furrowed in concentration. No magics flowed. Years of study were required to perform the trick I had shown her.
“Here,” I said, holding out my palm.
She cocked her head, frowning, her raven locks flowing straight and long behind her.
Her palm was soon cupped below mine, and I let the ball of concentrated autumn drop to hers. It rolled about, seeping into the fine lines of her skin, and I focused my mind to maintain its integrity. She knew nothing of these small deviations, for to her magic was spectacle.
“Focus on the ball,” I said. “Watch the color, the red, see how it looks alive. Seek out that essence, learn it, know it, possess it, control it. Command it.”
With imperceptible slowness, the ball began to rise. I had not initiated that – it had been her doing. I could not fool her in this; she had to take the reigns. I could only provide the power.
Up it went, a teardrop of blood, above her palm to float halfway between our eyes. We did not move, dared not breath as it spun, caught by some unknown mystical spiderweb. It caught a sliver of sunlight, and for a moment I could see the cells within, spinning and breathing and dying, evanescent as the very leaf from which it was culled.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. We held the moment as long as we could, intensely close and intimate, sharing the tendrils of magics that bound the world. Then I let go, and watched as the ball faded to dust.
She was frozen for a minute, reflecting, gleaming with a sort of afterglow. Then she took my hands, and kissed my cheek, whispering in my ear. “Thank you.”
That moment precipitated three realizations. One, that my power was unmatched – I had gained the ability to manipulate matter. Two, that my obsession with Adrenna was not merely physical lust, but something more. Forbidden love.
And three – all this was fleeting. It had been the fading leaf that had done it, the color sucked out to flare with intensity, only to fade into nothingness. Even in the power I had obtained, the awesome journeys of the mind, the secrets of Aman-Kalath, I too was doomed to die. It was a sickening realization for me. Mortality was my obsession for weeks, months even. I pictured myriad scenarios, many horrific. What if the King died, or the Kingdom overrun with heathens, intent on cleansing the court? What if my practices were found out? Then it was to the fire, and the very blaze I used as a living metaphor would become my doom. The extent of my imagination knew no bounds, and I fashioned contraptions of pain and suffering in my cellar, only to test them on my thralls.
As I watched their flesh give way and bones melt in silence, I knew that my own end would be filled with screams and pleadings for mercy. I would be weak, as pitiful as the very thralls that littered my basement floor.
There had to be something more. Aman-Kalath did not hold the secrets, but he alluded to those that did. It was the first I had heard of lichdom, the exalted state of undeath that elevated a mage beyond the grave. The Tomes were vague – perhaps even this was a taboo subject for the writer. There is something to be said of a sadist who revels in pain but accepts mortality. There is a balance, symmetry behind that. But a wizard seeking lichdom – that was something more, something beyond. To trade all hopes of afterlife for an extension of will, that was lichdom. To hurtle towards immorality, riddled with power, that was what it meant to be lich.
My nights were spent on research, poring over odd notes and margin scribbles and coded passages. There was a key, a formula hidden somewhere, and I was going to find it. Thus far, all else had been mine. Life eternal would not evade me.
In those days Thar was oppressive. He taxed the populace for wine and ale, plunging the alleys into a black market of thieves and bootleggers. There was much grumbling among the people, but it provided me with a fresh supply of thralls of ghouls. I had mastered animation of suspended bodies and no longer required ritual to give undeath to the flesh. With a flick of the wrist I could sever the heart, and with single command word, the mind was mine. They would bleed out, only to rise again, minion to Kull the Necromancer.
I required more land to continue my experiments, and to house my growing brood.
I secured a large estate and keep from a landowner unable to pay his debts to Thar. As a precaution, I incinerated the cottage and most of the thralls within, though a few were useful for transporting my cache of raw materials. Dressed in fashionable garments and cloaked in illusion enchantments, their appearance was undistinguishable from the royal servants. Though upon closer inspection, conversational skills were lacking, and the odor of death rode hard beneath the facade of perfume.
The keep was ideally situated, built into the very heartrock of the northern mountains, filled with hidden passages and secret rooms. The labor of a dozen undead hands carved out an even deeper dungeon, lined with spike traps and open shafts to deter intrepid “adventures” or the landowner’s foolish heirs.
I grew bold in my sanctuary. I remember throwing a feast in honor of the King’s family, inviting the nobles and courtiers and even the well-known merchants to dine in my great hall. It required all of my skills and utmost concentration, an orchestra of ventriloquism and illusion. The servant thralls brought forth roast pheasant garnished with plums, wild boar ribs, even rare venison. A handful of skeletal musicians played from the balcony – the lute, the harp, the flute. All a ruse.
Their bony hands – covered in a radiant flesh of light – projected sweet melody into the hall, a long thread I maintained even while engaging in numerous banal conversations. And the feast itself was fodder for carrion, encrusted with illusion. The wine on their lips was the blood of cadavers.
And yet, I could not bring myself trick Adrenna. I fed her the food of my own table. There was guilt there, a twinge of weakness. If it had been another, I would have snuffed the speck immediately, adding another ghoul to my collection. But it was a bittersweet love, something that could never be. I felt boyish about her, childlike in rapt wonder. Not only in awe of her beauty, but also an appreciation of the metaphor of our relationship – a reality I could not bring about through will alone. There were forces at work beyond my control, the will of another that I could not simply bend. It was then I knew I would give her the phylactery.
Before the snows fell, on the winter’s first full moon, I would begin the transformation. In the interim, there were herbs and roots to gather, lichen to pick from the tombs of long dead kings, rune-covered crucibles to forge. Aman-Kalath mentioned a sole archmage who had attempted lichdom, a wrinkled hermit named Zrestine. He was a loner, forsaking the diversions of lesser mortals, instead intent on journeys of the mind, transcribing his mad ramblings to text. I had secured a handful of his decaying scrolls, but his final works had eluded me. In them – the supposed account of his own failed transformation. Legend had it Zrestine was consumed in a vortex of pain and suffering, never to find the release of death or the triumph of lichdom, only to scream in madness for eternity.
My own skills surpassed the mad hermit a hundredfold. Still, I yearned for the detailed knowledge of what had occurred, where he had gone wrong. A faulty mixture of the components? A miscalculation of the seasonal timing? Or was it that his mind could not make the leap, his will unable to bridge that horrible gap to immortality?
Some form of fate or chance blessed me, and I obtained a copy of Zrestine’s Last Testament, a tiny folded scroll of black text and fiery words. He relayed his own misgivings, the only pieces that would seal his doom – the tears of the innocent and the blood of a lover. He lacked both in the final concoction he drank under the cold full moon. Adrenna came immediately to mind, and I was filled with painful longing.
Our next meeting was the banquet of the harvest festival, in the King’s great hall. Thar was suited in his finest armor, shimmering silver with golden leaf-work. Horned helm under the crook of his arm, greatsword strapped across his mammoth red silk cloak, he was dressed for war, not feasting. But the courtiers and attending knights took his lead, arming themselves in gleaming armor and weapons. The hall was bathed in the nervous tittering of gossip and small talk, and the atmosphere was one of apprehension, not thanks. The year had been hard for the Kingdom, and the bounty had not been as plentiful as hoped. It appeared Thar would rectify the situation via bloodshed.
Adrenna was melancholy. Delicately, I ran a finger across her silken sleeve, drawing her gaze to mine. Her eyes glimmered with hints of tears.
“My Lady, ’tis a day of feasting, not mourning,” I said.
She sighed, returning a slow, forlorn nod. “Indeed, Kull, a day for gluttons to eat their fill, while the peasants beyond these walls starve.”
“Your gift of mercy is admirable, My Lady. We could all learn from your gracious example.”
“And yet,” she said, gesturing towards her King, “we will march off on another war. Have not the women of our land already lost many sons and husbands?”
“It is the duty of the people to serve their King. Perhaps the sleep of death will bring them rest,” I lied.
She twisted away from me. “You are a strange man, Kull. You are brilliant and skilled, but there is something about you…”
I blinked. “I will accept the words of My Lady with thankful humility.”
She licked her lips, glancing to the distracted patrons before continuing. “I see you as two halves of an acorn. One shell is infested with worms and will rot in the dirt. The other shell still contains the seed of a grand oak. Which will it be?”
“I am not an acorn, My Lady, my roots are firmly set in the ground. Yet your metaphor intrigues me. How do you see me? What does your heart tell you?”
She turned away, blinking her eyes. A solitary drop coalesced on her cheek, slowly sliding away. Quickly I reached out and caught it, feigning a preservation of her dignity. Instead, I deposited the liquid into a small metal compartment inside my sleeve.
“Thank you,” she whispered, regaining composure. She began to nod, drawn by whatever hint of hope had allowed her to construct the foolish acorn abstract. “You have power, Kull, that much is true. You have left me feeling exhilarated, rapt in wonder. But what will you leave behind? What will be left when you too enter the restful sleep of death?”
“Ah, but what if I never leave?” I thought, finishing the meal in silence. Her innocence was solidified in the false hope she held for my future. There were no grand oak trees of benevolent stature, or charitable donations to a people pillaged by taxation, famine, and war. There was for me but one thing – the night of the full moon.
I remember the night now, the cold of the wind through my robes, the pitiable shivering. The moon was the white of a dried skull, and the deep lucid shadows and crevices became hateful eyes peering knowingly from heaven. I was empty handed save a dagger, the potion I would consume, and the written incantations of Zrestine.
As the hour approached, I reflected on my life, a final dark epithet for the world of the flesh. Like all men, I had been consumed by lusts, fallen to incompetence, stumbled with loves and friendships. But I had yearned for something more, something unearthly. And now my search was done.
Numbed from the winter wind, I began the words.
alu emenu ka recken alu em
dornu ra shekray ema alu emenu
pa rogish ema lich alu emenu
With each verse, I sipped the bottled liquid, a fizzing concoction that bubbled violently and shifted from bitter bile to sweet nectar in my mouth. The root of the mandrake. The finger bone of a murderer. The eye of hawk and the tongue of toad. The tears of an innocent – Adrenna’s. And the blood of a lover – my own.
I could feel the magic working in my very veins, pulling apart the flesh.
The incantations grew difficult as my jaw was wracked with electrical shocks, and the very words were swallowed up into the night air.
When it was done, I plunged the silver dagger into my heart, the razors edge gnawing through frail ribs. As I felt myself dying, I began to cut, driven on my by the black magics within. The pain was ever sweet. My mind was shaken by the intensity of the horror; my own flesh giving away, the throes of the body driving me to my knees, to sprawl on the mountain top, prostate to the all-seeing moon.
And still the dagger cut, fingers driven by some otherworldly copy of myself. It was the spirit from beyond taking hold, even as my own flesh failed. I rent my ribcage as a carcass for the carrion eaters, tearing away bones and blackened organs with the silver blade.
I stepped outside of myself, looking down at the ruin I had wrought. A frail old man had been sacrificed on the mountaintop, victim to the blackest of rituals. I cloaked myself in illusion, becoming Kull the Court Magician once again. Then I reached down, pulling forth a fist-sized gem, smooth and pulsating. It was the phylactery, the container of my immortal soul, and the stone that anchored me to the world. It would be wise keep it in a safe place.
But wisdom was never my gift. Power was, and behind it passion. Thus, I gifted the immortal stone to Adrenna. She never knew its true power, but to her it was a symbol of my soul. In giving her the stone, I had held nothing back, put everything on line for the chance of her reciprocal affection.
The first snows had fallen and Thar Baeranorn had begun his war. It had not been wise to drive an army through the hellish weather, but Thar shared my curse – passion before wisdom. News of his first victory followed shortly, sacking of the rich townships to the south, flush with livestock and grain. The winter solstice feast was even grander than the harvest, and the atmosphere visibly joyous. To Adrenna, I brought something special.
I secured a quiet room away from the feast hall for privacy and ensured we would not be bothered by the guard detachment. Through a series of ventriloquist calls to match the voice of her handmaidens, the Queen came quickly. She was exquisite, a shapely gown the color of the night sky, embroidered with silver flares and glistening sapphires. Her satin skin, pale from the winter days, only emphasized the black of her hair and the blue of her eyes. She was surprised to see me.
“Kull, I had no idea you were here. I thought…”
“Sit down, My Lady, I would greatly enjoy a word with you.”
She hesitated, still looking for her anxious handmaiden.
“Please,” I gestured at a velvet stool. She lowered herself slowly, eyes on me.
I warmed my appearance, bringing a red blush to my cheeks, a smile to my lips.
“Now. Do you remember the little chat we had earlier, dearest Adrenna?”
She looked amused at my tone, and recalled our conversation from the harvest feast. “I do.”
“The rotten acorn, correct?” She nodded. “That was a wonderful word picture you spun, My Lady, for you gave me the courage to become something more. I had wanted to change, but it wasn’t until that night I was able. You gave me what I required.”
She was interested now, and leaned closer.
“Now if you’ll recall, you expressed discontent with your husband’s war. There was a melancholy about your manner, and you could feel the suffering of the people. For too long the honest men and women of our land have been subject to taxation, brutality, sacrifice, and we have given them little. I have decided to sell my estate and establish a charity for the poor and downtrodden.”
She smiled faintly. “That’s wonderful Krull, we shall tell Thar right away. He will be pleased you’ve rid him of this burden.”
I turned away, feigning hurt. “Thar will not understand. He has not been one to appreciate charity. And he would be jealous if he knew I was speaking with you.”
Adrenna slumped. “It is unfortunate. He has been cold lately, filled with a hatred, a lust for bloodshed.” She looked away, muttering, “He has not touched me in months.”
“Adrenna,” I said, reaching out my palms, “You must realize I care for you. I want you to be happy, to be filled with wonder and joy. I’ve always wanted this.”
“I know,” she said, taking my hands. “I know,” she whispered, with a touch of sadness.
“Come,” I said, pulling her up. “Why must we be captive to the rules of the world? Why can’t we live our dreams? Remember the autumn, the light of the leaf you held in your hand? Have you been practicing your magic?”
“Oh, it’s so very difficult, I can never accomplish anything.”
“Ah, but together, we can do much, My Lady.” I pulled her close, filling the air with sweet smells and warmth. I gave my eyes a twinkle, and filled her ears with the most subtle of music, the whispering of faeries and sprites. I put air under her toes, so her steps were light and easy, and billowed the flairs of her dress in elegant ripples of silk. “Would you like to dance?”
She was quiet for a moment, reflecting on the tiny wonders pampering her senses, perhaps knowing they were tricks. Then her eyes met mine, the twinkle in hers real. “I would.”
“I have something I’d like you to wear.” I pulled forth the phylactery from my inner robes, strung onto a necklace of finest platinum chain. It sparkled even here in the low lamplight, and the stone itself pulsed with a slow beating life. Her eyes went wide when she saw it.
“Breathtaking,” she said, bending her head. I fastened the cord behind her neck, letting the heavy gem nestle between her breasts like a second heart.
And we danced, my immortality between us, swaying to the slow waltz wafting through the room. She pressed against my body, her fingers running through the fine silk of my robes, then along the warm curve of my spine. Her touch was as soft and warm as anything I had ever known, and it required my utmost concentration to match her living heat with illusion. I lifted us off the floor, and we rotated slowly, dancing in air.
She leaned in, and I could feel her breath on my lips. We kissed, locking mouths, finding the one thing in undeath I never could in life. She was mine, finally, and it was all I ever wanted. If that kiss could have simply lasted for eternity.
But alas, it was not to be. Curse the fates. The doors erupted from the outside, kicked to splinters by steel greaves. Cries went up and Adrenna broke away. “Wait!” she gasped.
King Thar Baeranor was in the doorway, roaring. I shuffled through a side exit, quickly trotting to an outdoor courtyard. I could hear her calling to me. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” A hard slap snuffed out her sweet voice.
Cold statues stood bowed under hoods of snow. Fountains caked in ice, the scene transformed to monotones of white and gray. The sky itself was a haze of undecipherable clouds, the sun but a blur behind.
I could vanish now, slip away to my keep, dig deep into the dungeons and never be found. But I would lose her forever. Now was the time to make my stand, to demand an answer to my passion from Thar. And from Adrenna.
They found me in moments, both red-faced, Thar in rage, Adrenna from his backhanded slap. I seethed with fury at that pig of a man. I wanted to punish him for his mistreatment of her. But I wanted her to chose with her own will who she would stand behind.
The King stepped into the snow, pulling Adrenna behind him. She resisted weakly, her head bowed in tears.
“What have you done?” Thar said, slowly letting the icy words escape between his clenched teeth.
I stood solemn, the cold unfazing me, barely caring to maintain my illusions of humanity. It was for her sake only.
“I love her,” I whispered.
“What did you say?” the King responded coldly, his gauntleted fist falling to his sword belt.
“I love her,” I said.
“Then you must perish, sorcerer,” he said. His sword rang out as he unsheathed it, the metal glinting in the dull winter light. He brought his arm up for the kill.
“No!” Adrenna shrieked, darting before him, in front of me. Snow sprayed about at her feet, flakes coated her silken shoulders, melting to tears from the sky.
“Fool of a woman,” Thar spat, switching sword hands, backhanding her again. She moaned in pain and anguish. Then his beady eyes caught the crimson phylactery, buried in her bosom. “What’s this?” he said, pulling it out by the chain with thick fingers. “A gift from the mage? You love him too?”
I could see the fury in his eyes then, bloodshot and nearly mindless, intent only on destruction. He spoke with his wife as he would a child. “I told you to stay away from that man, didn’t I?” His free hand clutched about her throat, and he hovered over her, roaring like a giant. “Didn’t I! Answer me, woman!”
I reached forward to lay a hand on her shoulder for comfort, to pull her to me. Thar swung immediately in a wide horizontal arc, a blow that would have taken my head had I not been lich. I maintained the illusion of a proper duck.
“And you, mage! I know I told you, and I was not going to repeat myself. I should have you taken apart, piece by tiny piece.” The venom in his voice was deafening, and it was interesting to see the living exude such fearsome sentiments.
For a moment, he let go of Adrenna, stroking his monstrous brown beard, breathing hard in the cold. The mist from his breath began to collect on his lips, glazing them with ice. Then in a burst of heated fury, he planted his boot on Adrenna and yanked the chain from her neck. She wailed, pressed into the cold snow.
The King held the phylactery before his face by its platinum strings, watching the swirling red. “What is this foul magic, mage?” He flung it against the granite wall of the keep. I felt something inside myself break, as though my very being was seeping out into the winter atmosphere. And Thar charged, a battle cry of billowing water vapor and hate.
I revealed myself in my full glory, discarding all illusions for the horror of my rotten flesh. I drew the frozen power of the ice into myself, like the blue of alchemist flame, radiating a fearsome gale. The King was blown back, his fine steel armor ripped from his chest, his fingertips and nose blackened with frostbite. Still he pressed on, hacking and slashing wildly, the silver gleam of the blade passing harmlessly through my wispy form.
He began to scream, a roar of frustration and pain. I turned his veins to ice, his very movements cracking the frozen vessels and filling his limbs with heavy purple blood. He fell to his knees.
“Fool,” I rasped, and breathed upon him. His flesh sloughed away, leaving behind the skeleton and skull, still frozen in a scream. The host of guards rushed in, blades drawn.
In an instant I became warm, and robed, a living human. I kneeled to my love, even as the battle horns sounded and arrows began to sing. I brushed the snow from her face, the few fluffy flakes still balanced in her lashes. Her sapphire eyes reflected the sky and the moving clouds, but no breath stirred her lips. I felt for her heart, but there was only stillness and cold. She was dead. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
I slaughtered the men with furious glee at first, turning the courtyard to pink slush. But I grew bored and distant. I felt myself slipping away, the phylactery destroyed. With a final bellowing cry that ripped into the foundation of the keep, I disappeared, a spirit fleeing to the depths of my own dungeons.
There were but a few things remaining before my doom, memories to recall, words to write.
And so they come.
They will come with swords and axes. They will come with spears and lesser magics and priestly blessings. And they will come with fire.
Many will fall, slaughtered by the extensions of my will and the foul traps that line my halls. Many will rise, bones stripped of flesh and armed with single-minded necessity to do my bidding. It will be a glorious battle, sung about for ages to come, and it will be my doom.
The phylactery is destroyed, and with it my link to the land of the living. When alas my tenuous form is vanquished, I will vanish into a realm of nether energy and mindless torment, never to rest. But the tale of the lich who loved will live on, and thus I seal these words with a final warning:
One cannot both yearn for love and lust for power. For power is the love of oneself, and love is the essence of selflessness. This was my undoing, as it was Thar’s. We were one in the same, and though I curse the man, I also feel pity for him.
My truest sorrow lies with Adrenna, for even as she saw the power of magic, it filled her with life and joy, not lust and greed. The things she touched turned to life, and the things I touched turned to death. May her spirit rest in peace. Perhaps in another time and place, our story will be written anew, and written true. But for here and now, this was my tale.
I hear them coming…and dying. The end is near.