The restraints tightened as the man on the bed stretched forward. “Let me tell you a story.”
There sat in a far off place a lamp post, the only one of its kind. Underneath it gathered three characters. They hailed from different worlds. A scholar, of proud bearing and rich dress, came from the highlands to the north. A farrier travelled up from the south, he reeked of iron and dung. Last, to round out the cast, was a bonepicker. Where she came from nobody knew. They gathered beneath a burning gaslight on a warm summer night. They gathered to tell each other stories, of truth, of fiction and between. For just as one was honest so was the next a liar. The farrier always went first. He told his tale thusly.
Though it makes no difference I would begin by declaring my character. I am not an evil man. I have lived the law as my life. I have respected the Order and the Church's teachings. I believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity of God and ask for her protection and forgiveness for this venture.
This venture, these notes and my experiment concern Necromancy. If you are not of the Order I would urge you to read no further and, since I have entrusted these notes to the Order’s keeping, pray that you will return them without incident. To do otherwise is to invite, as I have, inquisition, damnation and death.
But to Necromancy. The word itself is foreign and has no discernable history. Folklore says it came to our shores from the fabled western continent, from the land beyond the southern range, from spirit tongues spoken by the fae. Such unsubstantiated claims are to be treated with the respect their peddlers deserve.
Necromancy is wholly considered a foul art. Its practitioners are ghoulish, depraved and a complete travesty of God’s law. However in our revilement of its proponents I have often wondered if we have made a mistake. Is fire evil because it can burn a man’s flesh? The Order values knowledge above all things, yet discussion on this topic is shunned. Is a blind eye healthy?
So, I have taken it upon myself to study Necromancy. I admit now that I have learned far more than is considered healthy for a man to know. If knowledge is truly a crime then I am guilty. However knowledge is not enough to condemn a man and it has, I am certain, not corrupted my being. So I have devised one last experiment to see, once and for all, if evil lies in the heart or in the art.
I will compile what notes I take and though I will obscure some things, to prevent misuse in the event these papers fall to the wrong hands, I will attempt to be clear and contrite in all my recordings. I do all of this of my own free will and hope only for the even judgement of my peers and ultimately, of God.
She fell. Hel couldn’t reach her in time. She was gone. He leapt but the buzzing drove into his skull. The sky wheeled. The veil was torn away and everything went dark.
Hel jerked upright. On the table beside him a metal box buzzed at him. It read 7:45. He slapped it. The beast silenced he sank back into warmth. Strange. He didn’t remember having a magic box that printed numbers. Turning over, the box’s red eyes spelt 9:13. He hit the floor cursing. He tore his combat gear from the wardrobe.
The door slid open with a hiss. He stepped into an airy kitchen lit by morning sun. A man sat on rays of light, munching cornflakes.
“Morning sleepy head,” He wore a dressing gown and slippers.
“Uh,” said Hel.
“You were out late last night."
An awkward silence pervaded, the kind where you realised you couldn’t remember your friend’s name. Hel’s eyes wandered as he wracked his brain. A bowl of fruit gleamed on the table, beside them a blank, grey box.
The man sighed “And yet you came home alone."
Roommate, right, and they’d gone to college together. What was the nickname he’d had?
“You sure you’re not wanting for company?” He gave Hel a sly look, patting his gown.
“Th-” Hel began. He frowned. Words fled his brain. The clock on the wall read 8:26.
Frantically he charged the door. “I’m late!”
Rock became dirt. Dirt became sand. Small shrubs sprouted here and there. They fought the desert sun to a standstill. Tatula was wary now. Tel had carved the great beasts that roamed here. He had boasted of killing them, only for their carcasses to have mysteriously disappeared on the way home. The horizon shimmered madly, showing deceptions and lies. Her headache from last night did not help. A great column of fire roared before her, only to become the buzzing of insects on a corpse. She inspected it briefly, harried by the stench of rotting flesh and the merciless sun. Her lips cracked as she whispered “Water.”
Her hand strayed to her flask and as if committing some great sin she took a sip. Something hissed at her feet. A snake slithered away across the sands. She let it go. On the horizon her vision swam into focus. She saw trees.
It lay between her and sweet shelter. The furry body was near Tatula’s size. Not a whisker moved. She thought about going around. While she did her hand tore a strip of weed. Its bitterness stung her tongue and body to action. It was time to put one over the hunters. She approached.
The leopard lay in the sun its ragged coat flecked with sand. Its mouth moved as if whispering something. A single lidded eye looked up. The other socket was just a scar. It growled feebly. She knelt before it.
“Bite and I will spill your belly.”
“Water,” it begged.
Tatula sunned herself. “You must promise not to eat me.”
The leopard croaked assent.
“Swear on the bones of your Grandmother.”
“I swear,” managed the leopard.
A hunter keeps his word until his stomach growls, warned her grandmother. Tatula waited a moment more. Then she put down the knife. A little water dribbled between the leopard's lips, the last of her flask. It lapped at it greedily. Then she grabbed the leopard by the scruff.
“You must be out of the light.”
The leopard's legs wobbled. It could barely move. She heaved mightily. He was damned heavy.
They sat in shade. Tatula's eyes were divided, one on the leopard, the other on the setting sun. Inwardly she seethed. The scraggly trees hung over them but there was no sign of water.
The leopard lifted its head, its first movement in hours. “You must dig.”
“And what shall I dig with?” asked Tatula.
“Paws,” it said.
Tatula looked at her hands “Perhaps I can find a rock.”
She remained there, clasping the knife
“Afraid I will eat you?”
She turned her full attention on him “They say Grandmother Cat forged the first lie.”
“You are someone else's prey.”
The hairs on the back of Tatula's neck rose. “Whose?”
The leopard curled its lip. “First, I will teach you how to dig.”
She dug. The leopard taught herhow to tear a strip of bark and lash the stone to wood. Secrets, she thought wryly, she had never thought worth knowing. Down into the earth she dug. Scarcely had she gone a foot when the dirt was damp. Another foot and the hole was a pond. They filled their bellies that night with oasis nut and sandy water. The leopard took only what she gave, as if a guest in her house. Her sleep was uneasy. In some dreams the leopard chased her, in others burning eyes. The cold awoke her eventually. She glanced about frantic and spotted a single gleaming oval. It was the eye of the leopard, creeping closer. Her fingers closed about her obsidian fang. He snuggled her weakly. The warm fur soothed and the dreams receded for a while.
In the dawn the separated. The leopard refused her invitation.
“Someone else has marked you.”
“Who?” she asked again.
“He runs in front and chases behind. Beware him, the desert fox.”
They parted ways. The east called her on.