“Forward, to the table.”
I ordered my golem-turned-steed to approach the table where the remains of young Etheel were ignominiously set, leaving Radd to retch in the doorway. I let my eyes roam about the room as my golem moved, absorbing the many flayed skins draped over racks and the multitude of mounted heads adorning the walls. None were from mortal men, from what I could tell- Many of the heads were monstrous and mutated, most of the skins were scaled, extraordinarily thick, or abnormally dark, and those that weren’t were far too fair to be from human kin. I suppose normal humans would have been boring sport to Micheal and his predecessors.
“What in the hells is this?”
I glanced back towards where Radd stood, still framed by the broken doorway.
“The result of decades of madness and illness. Micheal was never a kind child, but he was further warped by his father’s tastes, which were in turn inherited from Micheal’s grandfather, the original Duke of Vord. This is the resulting collection of three mortal lifetimes of sadism, greed, and a manic desire to collect the strange and unfamiliar.”
Radd glared at me as he picked his way across the room to follow my golem, trying his hardest to keep his eyes from focusing on any of the grisly trophies surrounding him as he did so.
“And ‘ow exactly do ya know all this? I wouldn’t think you’d be so chummy with a bunch of bastards that had you chained up in their basement for who knows how long!”
I sighed slightly as my golem came to a halt before the table, then looked down at the grim reminder of what had once been a young child’s life. How regrettable, that it had ended as it did, but such ends were inherently part of the risk of being alive in the first place. So long as one exists, in any sense, one is at risk of suffering and of becoming undone. Or rather, that is how it is meant to be.
“I just warned you about making assumptions, did I not? As a matter of fact, I was one of the driving forces behind the original Duke of Vord’s rise to power back… whenever that was. I used my power to shatter his enemies and to make his own armies more successful in the field, as my part of a contract we had entered into.”
The short man snorted behind me.
“And he betrayed ya, did he? Broke the contract, threw ya in his dungeon, chained ya to his wall? So much for all that wisdom a long life is meant to bring…”
It was my turn to snort, and I ordered the golem to turn and face Radd as he finally reached the table.
“Actually, I was secreted away by the Vords by my own request. That was the contract I had with the original Duke- I would help him become powerful, and in exchange he and his descendants would provide me with a quiet place to while away the years, with minimal interruptions. I had long ago given up hope for release by that point, and so I sought to merely lose myself in the passage of time. As you can see however, even that was denied to me eventually.”
Radd looked at me askance for a moment.
“…You really are an insane bastard, aren’t ya?”
I blinked, then looked away, back to the table.
“Perhaps. But enough- It seems we have found young Eve’s brother. What shall we do with the remains?”
Radd looked down as well, though his head scarcely cleared the edge of the table, darkening his brow as he did so.
“I wish I could bring the fucker back from the dead, jus’ so I could kill ‘im again. Etheel was so young, so kind… To end up like this? It’s too bloody cruel.”
I admit, I did pity the boy’s fate, though it was an impersonal pity- An acknowledgment that his end was harsh, painful, and likely undeserved, but was also ultimately unrelated to myself. To that end, I did not spend long ruminating on the sorry state of his remains, but instead quickly scanned the rest of the table in search of a possible catalyst I could use to restore my withered husk to some semblance of functionality. I didn’t require much, just something that could provide the spark for a restoration casting. If it came to it, I could use the book to transmute a number of the corpses around me into reagents, but I was loathe to use the damn thing unless I absolutely had to. Using it to create my golem and to open the door had been matters of necessary convenience, and that alone had been enough to churn my gut.
Against my chest, I felt the book shudder again, and I grimaced.
“Be still, you useless thing.”
Radd turned his head slightly to glance up at me.
“You say somethin?”
I continued to sweep my gaze across the table, searching for anything of use. My eyes paused on the jar within which rested the blankly-staring violet eyes of Etheel.
“No. You did not say what we should do with the remains- I assumed that, as one who had traveled with Etheel, you would want to reclaim them?”
The man stood silently for a long moment, restlessly shifting his warhammer from one shoulder to another, before finally shaking his head in a slow, deliberate motion.
“Nah, its best that the little lass doesn’t see this sight. Better that Etheel stays whole in her memories, happy and hale until his final moments, instead of some misshapen lump of flesh. We’ll give him a proper send-off, though, when we torch this fuckin’ heap to the ground. Pfeh!”
Spitting through his teeth, Radd turned away from the table and began to survey the rest of the room.
“It’s a bloody mortuary though, isn’t it? Do ya see anything you can use for… whatever you’re gonna do?”
I did, but he didn’t need to know that.
“No, not yet. Would you mind checking the other rooms on the hall? I’m going to see if there are any possible reagents in this… charnel house.”
Radd nodded once, spat again, then made his way back to the door, carefully avoiding the trophies strewn about him. I waited until I was well and sure that he had safely departed, then issued new orders to my golem.
“The jar- bring it up to me, gently.”
As I waited for my gingerly-moving golem to secure its grisly package, I wondered absentmindedly at the curious reverence mortals had for the flesh of the departed. While obviously not all beings treated their dead the same, I had long ago come to realize that, in general, the mortal races preferred to treat their dead as though they were something more than the discarded flesh left behind by the departure of one’s soul. It confused me to no end, that peculiar reverence- the dead certainly had no use for it, and those still living gained nothing from expending their wealth and energy on such practices, save perhaps a sense of reassurance in assuming that the same will be done for them upon their passing.
“Cold comfort that, wouldn’t you say, young Etheel?”
The lifeless eyes staring back at me from the jar sitting on the golem’s palm said nothing in response. Not that I’d expected them to, I suppose.
“Ah well. Perhaps you might take some solace from the fact that I’ll be using your remains to help protect your dear sister.”
He wouldn’t, I knew. Or rather, he couldn’t- Young Etheel would never know the fate of his body, his soul having long ago departed for wherever a soul heads after death. I, obviously and regrettably, had no knowledge of what comes after death, save that the soul does truly depart the body forevermore. And I only knew that because I knew the book worked on the bodies of the dead.
“Ah well, it doesn’t truly matter. Set me down.”
I waited for the golem to follow my orders, then ordered it to back up and obstruct the view from the doorway. There was no point in worsening my relations with the people who seemed likely to be my traveling companions for the foreseeable future- I absolutely disdained extended periods of noise and disorder, such as squabbling, which was one of the many reasons for my extended stay in Micheal’s dungeon. Say what you will about the boy, but he gave me plenty of quiet time within which to rest, even with the intermittent periods of torture.
I gently set the jar of Etheel’s eyes, which I had been cradling against my bony chest, on the ground between my crossed legs, then set one of my hands against the lid and pressed the other to my chest beneath my shirt. It had been… centuries, I believe, since I had last used my own meager abilities as a caster instead of the book’s reality-altering powers, and the actual words of the castings I knew, all of them based on hymns to some long-dead god of health and prosperity, had long since faded from the fog of my memory. But even then, I still retained the spark of intuition that allowed me to work my castings- Assuming, of course, that I had something to supplement my own lamentably small well of power.
In this case, that something was the eyes of Etheel, still steeped in the innate power that would have allowed him to be a host to a spirit’s fragment, like Eve. I imagine that it was this power that had caused the twins’ hair to be so pale, and their eyes so striking. And it was this power that I was now going to draw upon.
Closing my eyes, I reached deep into the core of my being, slowly immersing myself into what felt like lukewarm water, letting my sense of touch dull and allowing the noises in my ears to become muted and distant. Soon, the only things that were clear were the sensation of my heart beating slowly and steadily, without rest now for time immemorial, and the tingling sensation I had long ago come to associate with unbound power, ready to be collected and molded into a casting. There wasn’t much power available in the eyes, though I was unsurprised considering the boy had died over a day ago. Rather, the very fact that so much power remained spoke volumes about the boy when he was alive.
Keeping my breathing steady, I let out a breath, then drew one in. As I drew in, I simultaneously pulled at the power floating before me, drawing it into me just as I drew air into my lungs. At first I felt nothing beyond the passage of air between my lips, and I almost began to worry that my many decades of inactivity had finally stripped me of my own, innate abilities. Then I felt my chest constrict, as though bands of iron were trying to crush my ribs, and I allowed myself a small grin as I realized I still had it after all.
That grin soon vanished however as the crushing sensation spread to encompass my arms and legs, and then my neck, and eventually even my head. I bit back a groan as the pressure worsened, causing me to have flash-backs to when Jessa’s casting had quite literally crushed me into paste. I knew of course that this was nowhere near the same, either in power or intent, but nonetheless such an experience tends to stick around in the mind, at least for a while.
I remained like that for quite a while, though I couldn’t accurately say for how long, teeth bared in pain and my body hunched protectively around the jar that was powering my rejuvenation. I can say what eventually snapped me out of my stupor, however.
“Evren! I can feel a casting! What’s going on in there!?”
A woman’s voice broke into my thoughts, shaking me from my trance-like focus and driving me to action. I quickly rose to my feet and and placed the jar, along with its now-powerless contents, back where it had been sitting when I entered the room.
Quickly glancing down at myself, I shook off the lingering memory of the pain and smirked slightly at the results of my casting. I certainly didn’t look healthy- My skin was as pale as ever, my figure still strikingly slim, but there were enough muscles in my arms and legs now that I could move unimpeded, and my neck could once more support my head without needing a break every few moments. All in all, a pretty successful attempt considering I had never been that good of a caster even before I gave up the craft. There was only one last thing I needed to change, though it would require me to use the damn book again.
With a single loud pop, the room around me changed. The numerous, bestial hides that had been hanging on racks around me folded in on themselves, melting into new, more conventional shapes. Of course, because I didn’t, and indeed couldn’t, direct the book perfectly, it had ended up creating an entire outfit of dark leather from the materials around me, down to a pair of undergarments, but I ignored most of it in favor of removing my jacket and replacing it with a leather vest, accompanied by a pair of leather greaves and vambraces. As I knelt to scoop up the finishing touches, a pair of gloves, I heard somebody push their way past my golem, and I glanced up to watch Jessa and Radd stumble into the room. I rose to face them, pulling my new gloves on as I did so.
“Impeccable timing- I’ve just finished up.”
Jessa didn’t respond for a moment, instead looking around the room with much the same disgust Radd had shown. As for the man himself, Radd was seemingly more interested in the numerous leather garments strewn about.
“What the ‘ell? You look different. And is that a leather helm? Where did that come from? Matter o’ fact, where did any of this come from!?”
I shrugged, then reached up and began to run my gloved fingers through my hair, which was still matted and stained from years of mistreatment. I would need to take some shears to it at some point as well, considering it was falling past my waist in some places.
“Just leftovers from some useless piece of junk.”
The book shuddered against me, once, and then again. I slammed my hand into it from over my vest in response.
Radd blinked at me suspiciously, but before he could speak Jessa interjected.
“While that’s all well and good, I have more than a few questions for you. But before that, we need to get out of here. I have no desire to stain my hands with more blood, and we’ve already been waylaid and… hurt, plenty by this detour of ours. Are you good to ride?”
I rolled my neck as I considered the question.
“I can stay on a horse, but I’m not confident in my ability to truly ride, especially at the speeds you all are no doubt used to.”
Jessa nodded once, then turned back towards the door.
“Good enough- You’ll ride double with someone for a while, until you get more comfortable. Let’s go- I want to be gone by the time the moon is fully in the sky, and I want this place to be ash not long after that.”
Radd shot me one more quizzically suspicious look, then followed Jessa out of the room. I waited a beat, then moved to follow. This was sure to be an interesting journey, no matter how it ended, and I absentmindedly wondered if I might see something new for the first time in a long while. One could always hope.
“Fall to pieces.”
I left the golem in my wake as I passed, and the echoing sound of its collapse followed my steps down the hall.