Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
 
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The Reviled

by David Starobin




            One moonless midnight the Reviled woke from its bed in the crypt of its lord and realized it was missing its soul pendant. Formerly dead; it had returned Undead from its sleep of ages to complete this final task.

            In life the Reviled had been a great warrior, anointed to knighthood under the banners of Chaos, its oath of fealty sworn to the Black Prince Abaddon, Defiler of Kingdoms. Together they had crushed the Old Imperium under the iron-shod hooves of their hellish destriers, riding forth from the mythic east beyond the Spine that marked the fringes of the Known World and across the plains of Tyrantium to the place where the sun sank into Oceanus.

When all of the old and good was laid waste before his armies, Abaddon took the mantle of Emperor and made his chief lieutenant Prince of the Western Marches. There the Reviled held gloomy court until it and its foul benefactor both met ignominious earthly ends on the edge of the blade called White Flame.

            Sealed away for one thousand years now. Bones grinding powder in its struggles to harness muscle and sinew that were no longer there to hurl aside the remnants of its sarcophagal prison and finally stand on the bony arches of once fleshy feet, the Reviled understood. It understood, in the vaulted recesses of its skull where its living brain once lurked, that something had kindled the Undead awareness that now also fed its dry bones with an uncanny might surpassing even that of the mighty Defiler in life. It was the frigid strength of the grave, colder than the black rifts lurking in the deepest corners of cosmic space.

            The rotting skull rictus of the Reviled would have grinned had it still possessed the fleshly accoutrements to do so. Its eye sockets, glimmering now with a furtive flickering flame that bespoke infernal depths, shone with the promise of the awful revenge it would exact upon the one who had dared abscond with its most prized possession.

#

            The administrator looked up as the water clock plashed the noon hour. He had been busily engaged with his quill for most of the morning, scratching out in thick black squid ink the grand decrees and manifestos that kept the city of Westmark running smoothly. His desk was a great slab of polished mahogany, his pen of office a red hawk feather, gold embossed with a platinum nib. He wore the rich robes of a High City bureaucrat, plum velvet with a snowy white fringe on hem and cuffs. He was highborn, a lesser son of an ancient house. And though he worked for a living, his station alone marked him as a man to be respected even amongst the circles of the younger noble houses whose scions now ruled.

            The administrator’s name was Damon, and his title was Chief Magistrate for Municipal Affairs. He stood from his desk and stretched weary neck muscles. It was time for the midday meal and if the water clock had not been enough to rouse him, golden sunlight was flooding insistently through the apertured windows. It was bright and fresh outside and time for a break. His stomach was rumbling.

The incoming sunlight threw the relic mounted over the hearth into blinding brilliance. It was a sword, some four feet long from pommel to tip, a wide-bladed straight brand of unknown alloy and unknown origin. It somewhat resembled steel, but the legends suggested it was stronger than diamond. Damon had inherited the relic from his father, who had inherited it from his father, and on down the line for a mist-shrouded millennium. He sometimes thought to learn to wield it, but in these civilized days it hardly seemed worth the time commitment and bodily exertions involved.

Sometimes in the hearthlight of evening, when Damon was still scratching away at his mahogany desk, he would glance up to find the blade twinkling with refracted firelight and be positively convinced that the diamond steel was imbued with an inner luminance. Then he would shake his head to clear his addled senses and return to his scratchings.

            Damon crossed the rich carpeting of his office, sparing the sword on the mantle the barest acknowledgement, and locked the door behind him. And the relic sword sat still on its perch. And the day grew warm and bright outside.

#

            He was at the Rook and Elephant, at his usual table outside under the eaves where he could observe the passersby along Imperium Square, when the runner caught up with him.

            “Sorry to disturb whilst you are out of the office, Magister.”

            Damon waved the honorific away. He was just settling into his duck liver dumplings and the proprietor was on hand with his dandelion salad and a second goblet of greenwine.

The runner seemed to have run in earnest, for it took the boy the span of a quaff of wine and a bite of salad before he was ready to deliver his news.

 “The Necropolis was burglarized last night,” the boy said, “Someone smashed open a sarcophagus and stole what was inside.”

Damon put down his wine cup. “This is your news? Go tell the City Watch; they have an entire division devoted to tracking down graverobbers.”

“They didn’t just abscond with the finery, sir. That’s the bit that is so bizarre. They took the bones too! And by the look of it they must have gone in with mauls. The stone face of the coffin was shattered in four pieces!”

“Need I remind you how many would-be necromancers practice their art within the walls of this city? What is your name, boy?”

Damon was desperate to get into his dumplings and he spoke this last around a heaping mouthful. These savory treats, soaked in the rich brown tamarind sauce the Rook was famous for, had made their influence manifest over the years in the administrator’s rotund frame.

“It’s Crispin, sir.”

“And how long have you worked for me, Crispy?” said Damon.

“It’s three summers this August, sir.”

“When have you ever known me to leave my lunch unfinished to address such an absurd happening?”

“I don’t recall something like this ever happening before, sir.”

“Just so.” Damon let his fork slide back into the crock of saucy delights. “Are we given to know whose tomb it was that got desecrated?”

“It was Abaddon’s Crypt, sir.”

With remarkable dispatch, Damon emptied his wine glass, shoveled a trio of dumplings into his mouth, and lurched from his chair to follow Crispin back up the Hill toward the Citadel and his office. A moment later Rook himself was rushing from the cafe and after them up the street, shouting over the unpaid tab.

#

            Damon was staring at the sword on his mantelpiece when Captain Bobert was shown into the office. The administrator shook the soldier’s hand and motioned him to a chair.

            Bobert was a stolid man, gray with a fortitude wrought of many years in service to his city. He was third in line for High Commander of the City Watch and was possessed of a level of honesty now thought fabulous among the younger generation of public servants in Westmark. A middle-aged statesman in his own right, Damon was confident the captain would provide a relatively unvarnished version of the events that had transpired at Abaddon’s Crypt.

            He offered Bobert plum brandy, but the captain declined with a polite wave of his hand.

“I never imbibe on duty. No offense, Magister.”

            “None taken.” Damon filled a thimble of the purple liquid for himself. “Between us, it makes the doldrums of the afternoon a bit easier to navigate. We can’t all have the daily excitement promised by life in the City Watch.”

            “It’s really quite boring most of the time,” said Bobert, “I am not often down in the mud and shit with the boys, but rather locked in my office in the Citadel poring over papers.”

            “But you did find yourself at the Necropolis this morning, did you not? At Abaddon’s Crypt?”

            “I did, sir.” said Bobert, his unassailable reputation for honesty only superseded by his politeness, was very patiently waiting for Damon to come to his point in summoning the other  down the Hill. Only now Damon was having trouble finding the words. He took a gulp of brandy and petitioned the Goddess of the Vine for assistance.

“There is a legend,” the magister began. He faltered as his gaze was momentarily arrested by the sword on the mantle, now scintillating in the arcing sunbeams of afternoon. “You know the tale of Abaddon’s Crypt? Consecrated to house the bones of the Black Emperor, but later repurposed?”

“Of course,” said the captain, “Every son of Westmark learns that tale on his mother’s knee. The angry populace waylaid the funerary procession and absconded with Abaddon’s body, which they then tore to pieces and burned in a bonfire, so there was nothing to inter but a few handfuls of ash. Which they then scattered to the winds.”

“Exactly,” said Damon, “And the crypt was provided new occupants: the nameless lieutenant who commanded Abaddon’s armies, and his aides de camp.” Again the magister’s eyes were drawn to the sword over his hearth.

“I’m sorry, Magister. Are you suggesting...?”

“I am loath to admit it, Bobert, but I might be. Find the intrepid burglar who committed this dastardly feat. Before we hang him, we must impress upon him the dire danger he has placed all of Westmark in.”

#

            The Reviled had nearly forgotten about the sun. In its life as a free soul, before it had taken its vows in the dark undercroft of Necromantaeon, it had dearly loved the warmth of the yellow orb on its flesh whilst fishing the ice floes of the Cold Waste for silverheads and purple marlin. But now the golden rays hurt the clefts where its eyes had been, and seemed to drain from its skeletal limbs their nether strength. Its crackling bones felt on the verge of collapse with every faltering step.

            So during daylight hours it was forced to halt its quest and go to ground in the darkest places it could find beyond the Necropolis, in the shells of burnt out warehouses and abandoned shanty huts. Another problem: While the Reviled could verily still smell with the veracity of a bloodhound the wretched bouquet of the thief, now the scent had grown diffuse among the warren of beating hearts that called the city home. There were too many of them walking the cobbled streets and the suffusion of varying tangs of coppery scarlet were confounding its senses. It would have to wait until the night wind cleared the air before resuming its search. And so it hunkered still in the shadows, a heap of dried bones lent unholy life, an ignominious reawakening by any true warrior’s ken. The Reviled waited for nightfall.

#

            Captain Bobert’s list of suspects had been surprisingly short. The Necropolis, the ridge of mausoleums, and burial plots consecrated to those citizens of Westmark wealthy enough to afford pleasant accommodations for their immortal souls, had been savagely plundered in the thousand years since the city’s founding upon the bones of the Black Empire. But still, there were some crypts that had never been breached, and the most titillatingly fearsome of them bore the emperor’s name. Few amongst the sullied ranks of robbers and raiders had the stones, so to speak.

Magister Damon had his farthings on a repeat offender, someone not easily cowed by fear of things that haunt the dark. Captain Bobert had banked his wager on Gabriela, the so-called Spider Queen. But to the administrator’s thinking, the infamous cat burglar played a far second to Demetrio the Body Thief, a fearless crypt breaker and a confirmed necrophiliac to boot. Rumors surrounding the wretch suggested his proceeds from the former activity financed his adventures in the latter, since most of the corpses, by the time he’d gotten around to robbing them, were bereft of flesh to violate.

One of Bobert’s stoolies had tracked the Body Thief easily enough through one of his regular fences, whom the spy had observed trafficking a desiccated burial shroud studded with bloodstones and obsidian, jewels of the Old Imperium, similar to those that had adorned Abaddon’s iron crown. After judicious application of needle pliers and branding hooks, the fence revealed that Demetrio had brought another item in for appraisal, but in the end had declined to part with it.

The City Watch had then located the Body Thief at one the Gray District’s infamous flesh emporiums along the southern ridge of the Necropolis. Dragging Demetrio from his ghoulish repast, they then promptly deposited him in a cell beneath the Citadel.

#

Magister Damon held open his fleshy palm and watched with delight the tinkling silver cascade. Bobert gave the administrator a rueful grin as he sealed the wager by placing a single platinum lozenge atop the small pile of coins in Damon’s hand.

“A pleasure doing business with you, honorable captain,” Damon purred as he pocketed the money.

“Just let me take the lead in there,” said Bobert. They were standing outside the suspect’s cell, in a dank dungeon passage deep beneath the Citadel’s firmament.

They stepped inside to find two mail-clad Officers of the Watch waiting with truncheons bared in the shadows behind the prisoner. From the Body Thief’s black-bruised jawline and the purple impact welts crisscrossing his scrawny frame, the guards had already made substantial use of these implements.

Demetrio was curled into a mangy quivering heap, perched on a stool in the very center of the cell and looking perpetually on the verge of falling off. He was black-haired and the sodden locks hung limp about his eyes, which were a peculiarly arresting amber color. His form was small and lean. His appearance brought to Damon’s mind a drowned rat.

Bobert immediately rounded on the guards. “Which of you shitheads broke his jaw? You trying to make our job more difficult?”

“It ain’t broke, cap’n sir, just bent,” ventured one of the brutes.

“It was worth it,” said the other, “He volunteered this out his nethers after we gave him the show.” The guard withdrew from his pocket a ragged bundle. He unwrapped the swathing, and there in the midst of the vestiges of Demetrio’s self-soiling, was the very object Damon sought.

Magister and captain both could not conceal their disgust at the means of the item’s procurement. Nor could they look away upon glimpsing the stink-filmed bauble.

“Is that...?” Bobert trailed off in wonder.

“It is that,” said Damon, “A heart pendant. Some call it a soul gem.”

Finally, Damon turned to the prisoner. “Do you know what you’ve done? How did you breach Abaddon’s Crypt?”

Demetrio looked on the verge of fading away. He veered precariously on his perch.

“Speak!” roared Bobert.

The Body Thief’s jaws were still hinged as the guard had claimed. “The locks on the tombs are centuries old, fashioned by far simpler minds than mine...” Demetrio reached into the crow’s nest of his crown and produced from the greasy tangle what looked to be an ebony hairpin. He presented it to the magister.

“It looks like a simple lockpick,” Damon said.

“A simple lock pick was all it took,” the Body Thief said.

“The sarcophagus was shattered in four chunks, each weighing at least nine stone. How are we to believe you managed that?” Bobert was eyeing the scrawny man from trunk to tip as though evidence of superhuman strength might be secreted somewhere on his person.

“I don’t care what you believe,” Demetrio replied shortly.

That earned him a crackling blow across the midriff by both truncheons, knocking the Body Thief fully from his stool onto the filthy cell floor.

“Stop!” said Damon. The guards retreated to stand at ease. And the magister knelt down, so as to hear clearly Demetrio’s next utterances.

“The granite... was already cracked. Broken and crumbling away in many places... The shroud hung loose on the bones and the gem lay in plain sight, clutched at the skeleton’s throat. I just reached inside. And took them!” Demetrio breathed heavily with his revelations. It was a watery hollow sound, suggesting broken ribs. Perhaps a punctured lung.

“And then?” the magister pursued.

“And then what?” echoed the thief.

“What about the other coffins there? Why did you not plunder those as well?”

“Because,” Demetrio whispered, “right then the sarcophagus exploded in stone fragments! I took my plunder and ran! Ran for my life...!”

“You have that... for the moment,” said Bobert, “But naught else to show for your travails.”

“Not so,” the Body Thief regarded Bobert with a weak shake of his head. “I saw... Death!” And with that final utterance he fainted dead away.

#

            Eventide was gaining now and with it the Reviled’s strength was returning to its desiccated limbs. It was the twilight hour’s descent into deep of night, the spheres of power from which the Dark Gods lent their potency to the Reviled’s conquering sword arm in life and in Undeath.

It crept, the clittery clatter of its bony heels across the defiled floor of the hovel in which it had sequestered, to the ruined aperture beyond which the red sun was declining beyond the black sawtooth peaks in the west. The Reviled peered out into the streets beyond and the inklings of unholy fires were once again beckoning, pinpoints of lurid light in the vault of its skull.

            The narrow cobblestone paths were thinning of traffic with the arrival of dusk. The Reviled could sense the fear radiating from the living marrow of the pedestrians. Not for itself, but for the mundane terrors that lurked in hiding in every city, waiting for cover of night to emerge from the shadows.

            Now, the city streets deserted of all but a few hapless stragglers, the Reviled could once again parse the overwhelming clusters of lifebeats that had so confounded it during daylight. From its vantage point, it slowly rotated where it stood, like a compass needle seeking due north.

And when the Reviled finally emerged from its hovel and stole down the empty streets along shadows cast by oil cresset lamps hung over doorways to ward away the dark, its clattering footsteps were firmly directed away from the gutters and up the Hill. Toward the Citadel.

#

            “You were wise to come to me with such dispatch,” said the necromancer.

            “Believe you me,” said Damon, “I fervently hoped never to cross your threshold again.”

            “Not in this life, or the other,” cackled the necromancer.

            Thrax was a spellbinder with a penchant for the dead. Not a carnal despoiler of recently entombed flesh in the manner of his perverse patrons, but certainly a fetishist of the first order. It was a prerequisite of his profession, as Damon understood it. The threshold the magister had hoped never to cross again belonged to the necromancer’s emporium, which was known by the oblique appellation of ARTIST’S RENDERING. Its chief client and occasional benefactor in the form of freshly acquired samples, Demetrio the Body Thief.

            “A truly perverted soul, even by the standards of necromancers,” the death merchant was saying between cackles. His crown was a sheer pallid dome that had never been kissed by sunlight. He did maintain a trim yellow moustache, which was daring in the profession; foul smells, and the fouler things than emitted those odious odors, were prone to cling to those follicles. And so, most of the black-robed folk went all the way, down to the eyebrows.

“It’s not Demetrio I’m interested in,” said Damon, “But this.” He had cleansed the pendant of the Body Thief’s nethers before wrapping it in clean swathing. And now, as he unraveled the linen before Thrax, the necromancer bit back a yelp.

“Is that...?” the black wizard trailed off. The wondrous jeweled facets of the gem had utterly possessed him.

“It is that,” said the magister.

“If it is, you have a problem. And you need to remove yourself and that bauble from my sight at once!” The necromancer made to take hold of Damon and bodily escort him out the door. But the magister hurled the slender hands aside and favored Thrax with a glower that held all the power of his imperious station behind it.

“Please go. I beg you, leave me out of this. It is already on its way!”

“Who? What is on its way?”

“The true owner of that pendant!”

Damon sat the necromancer down and bid him explain.

“The inner workings of the soul pendants are beyond my ken,” said Thrax, “I only know what I’ve read in the lore. When Abaddon the Defiler went to the Dark and harnessed the powers that would allow him to forge an unbeatable army, he commissioned a cadre of the Lords of Chaos, warlocks and black sorceresses of awesome potency, to forge a device that would funnel his living soul out of his body to safe harbor, as it were, in the event that he was slain in battle. Such a contingency would allow the cadre to later transfer his soul into a fresh body, enabling Abaddon to live again and resume his fight.

“The cadre’s efforts succeeded, so profoundly that Abaddon commissioned soul pendants for his most devout adherents as well. The chiefest among them was the commander of his armies in the west, the one you know as the Reviled. Until recently it slept the eternal sleep in its master’s crypt. Then putrid Demetrio stole its soul pendant, causing a trickle of Undead life to seep into the Reviled’s bones, a sort of geas wrought into the device allowing the reanimated corpse the mobility and means to recover it and return forthwith to its tomb. But not before extracting a horrible toll from the thief who stole it. And from anyone else who might come between it and its property.”

The wizard slumped in his chair then, exhausted from fright. “Now please, take this thing away from me and begone!”

“But what am I to do? I’ve not defiled the thing’s rest! A mangy thief has!”

“Does he still live?” said the wizard.

Damon nodded. “If you could call it life.”

“Exactly. Under the Old Imperium, the penalty for thievery of this magnitude was execution at the hands of the aggrieved or his blood. And now you know the manner by which Demetrio should depart this world. Poetic, is it not?” Thrax managed a wan smile.

#

            They stood once again in the dim dungeon corridor beneath the Citadel. Damon was considering taking it to the Oligarchs, but had dreadful visions of how they might respond. Captain Bobert, on the other hand, remained clear-sighted and dependable, even upon learning of the supernatural stakes involved.

            “My men have seen this ambulating skeletal horror. I initially thought them mad out of their gourds. On last report, the thing was making its way down Harbor Row and then up along the Processional, cutting down anything in its path. So far it has disemboweled a pair of drunks outside the Sign of the Green Gryphon and a hapless haberdasher wandering late behind the Grand Bazaar near Trull Court. I’ve instructed them to clear the streets and fall back toward the Citadel, as that seems now to be its destination. It makes sense, given the Body Thief’s present whereabouts.” Bobert nodded toward the cell where Demetrio still languished.

“Well done,” Damon said, “Now we know what we must do to end this nightmare.”

#

The courtyard fronting the great iron tower of the Citadel, the chief fortification of Westmark, was empty. The portcullis was raised in mute invitation. Torches burned in cressets atop the surrounding battlements, lending to the illumination bestowed by a gibbous silver moon.

At the center of the green, trussed like a hog for the spit, was Demetrio. Around the Body Thief’s neck hung the soul pendant, the Reviled’s unclaimed property. A gag covered the little man’s mouth so that nary a hint of his wet muffled cries reached the gatehouse parapets where Bobert and Damon stood observing the courtyard.

“Best for you, Magister, to retire for the evening. My men and I have the situation in hand.” Bobert had half a battalion of City Watch hiding in the shadows of the courtyard, ready to spring into action at his signal should anything go awry. Nonetheless he had donned battle accoutrements fit for a siege: hauberk of lobstered steel scales, greaves, vambraces, sollerets, and a gleaming half-helm bearing the crest of the Marshals of Westmark. His brawny hands, encased in mail gauntlets, gripped the hilt of his longsword tightly.

Damon by contrast had not had a change of clothes since the morning. He still wore his frilly robes of office and made a ludicrous sight juxtaposed with the fighting man at his side.

“I wish I could, Bobert. Someone in civilian authority must bear witness to any execution. And besides, I could not sleep tonight with clear conscience, knowing I have consigned anyone, even the Body Thief, to such a fate as this.” Damon was clenching and unclenching his hands nervously; they had offered him a sword but, knowing himself, he’d told Bobert he’d as likely stab himself as he would their supernatural foe.

They abated their talk and watched the courtyard and the surrounding Hill in silence. The entire city seemed to have gone deathly quiet with them. As a lone form, the clitter-clatter of dry bones echoing with each step, navigated the final cobbles of the winding Processional toward the top of the Hill where the Cathedral waited with open maw.

From a place of deep shadow, Thrax emerged to huddle behind the magister and the captain as they observed the Reviled’s approach. The other soldiers manning the parapets shied away from the necromancer as they would a pit viper. Thrax favored them with a scowl befitting his contempt for their station in life.

“I’ll say this for the last time,” the wizard hissed, “Abandon any attempt at trifling further in the business of the Reviled and its quarry. Leave the monster to exact its revenge on the transgressor and reclaim its property. I trust you’ve laid for it a clean bed?”

“Consider us so advised, wizard!” said Damon, “But the question remains: How are we to know that, once it kills Demetrio and takes back the pendant, it won’t continue its rampage until the Citadel is wrested from its roots?”

“We don’t! But should my incantation fail, the beast might only be further antagonized into doing just that!”

Then Bobert turned to Thrax, saying in even tones, “Then see that you do not fail, else I’ll hurl you over yon parapet myself and you can serve as dessert.”

“I’ll remind you both that I reanimate the dead; it doesn’t work backwards. And a sword through the eye is as likely to work as any spell I can muster against it.” The necromancer was sweating beneath his black robes and both men could smell the noisome bouquet of vinegar, garlic, and nightshade.

“I’ll put a sword through your eye first,” said Bobert.

Damon interceded, “Forgive the captain, Thrax. Just do what you do; if it works, the City of Westmark will owe you a great debt. More importantly, I’ll owe you. Understand?” The magister patted the necromancer on the shoulder. “Silence now; it comes!” And all three men ducked in unison behind the crenellations forming the parapet.

The Reviled was stepping into the courtyard now, the familiar clickety-clacking of its skeletal hooves upon the cobbles. It stared up and about, as if it could somehow perceive each and every beating human heart awaiting its arrival through the glimmering pinpoints that shone from the recesses of its skull. But if it were truly aware of the forces secretly arrayed against it, the monster gave no hint of perturbation. Its attention was plainly focused on the prime target of its wrath: the little thief bound cruelly to the chair on the courtyard green, whose muffled screams of terror were even now fainting dead away as full revelation of the beast shook him.

In life, the Reviled had been amongst the mightiest warriors in the Known World, second only to Abaddon himself. Its risen remains suggested this; the heaving tower of putrid bone and sinew stood nearly seven feet in height. The faintest scraps of rawhide sinew still clung to its frame, but they did nothing to aid its ambulation. That was a matter for the black priests and sorceresses of the Cult of Chaos; the geas that fueled the Reviled’s desire to destroy was the same force that had animated its bones and forged the uncanny link with its soul pendant.

The Undead monstrosity closed slowly on faint Demetrio who was now slumped over in his prisoner chair. The soul pendant, the object of the Reviled’s unholy desire, hung loose about the Body Thief’s neck. The culprit in its theft had soiled himself both ways.

Atop the high battlements of the gatehouse, Thrax had risen from hiding and now began muttering the words of an incantation whose cryptic syllables, whispered into the midnight wind, were as thousands of tiny spiders scuttling over raw flesh.

The Reviled heard those runic words, as if the wind had whispered them directly into the bone hollows where its ears had once been. It turned from the hapless thief, swiveling its skull fully about and skyward so that its empty eye sockets affixed themselves upon the necromancer atop the gatehouse.

Thrax faltered a long moment as those infernal pinpoints set into him, but then managed to recover his composure and shift into the final movement of the spell. The last runic intonation was a shout that broke like a thunderbolt from his gangly form as the necromancer produced from his robes a handful of pulverized bone. He let the petrified dust sift through his fingers to the flagstones where it was consumed in black fire. The admixture of brimstone and cloves hung long in the air.

The Reviled stared up at the black wizard with renewed ire and its glowering gaze pierced Thrax’s heart then. The necromancer fell back, clutching at his chest and wheezing, as though stricken by a spear through his breastbone. Damon rushed to his side. But Thrax as quickly pushed him away.

“I am all right, just stunned. The creature threw off my dweomer like I would cast aside a damp blanket. It is too strong for my spells, just as I feared. And now it knows us.”

But the monster was not easily swayed from its chief objective. Turning back to the bound Body Thief, the Reviled drew close and laid a single bone claw on his cheek. At the frostbitten chill of its touch, Demetrio awakened from his swoon. And began to scream once more into his gag. For it were not enough that the Reviled merely reclaim its most cherished property; the one who had stolen it must be made to suffer as were thieves under the laws of the Black Emperor of old. The beast was now deliberately slicing into the little thief’s jawline with its talon, and the skin was loosening gradually where it worked. The monster was flaying the face from the Body Thief at its leisure.

            “This has gone far enough!” said Bobert. And he called for those stalwart sons of the City Watch who waited in the shadows of the courtyard for his command.

            But there were no answering calls. Not a clink of chainmail or a rasping of steel drawn against leather. The courtyard was silent save for Demetrio’s muffled agonies.

            “What the bloody bloodstained hell?” Bobert cursed. He turned to where his stalwart officers waited along the battlements behind. They were gone. One of them had dropped his crossbow and quiver at the top of the stairs, in such haste had he fled the scene.

“The bloody bastards have soiled themselves and run!” the captain swore.

“This cannot go on,” Damon said, “We must stop it!”

“Speak for yourself,” said Thrax, “Let the little pervert be carved for a feast for all I care. You’ve gotten my best. I’m staying right here!”

But Damon was on his feet, a raging sense of injustice fueling his limbs.

“Don’t go down there, Magister,” said Bobert, “It’ll carve into you next if you get in its way.”

But before Bobert could stop him, Damon was bounding away down the gatehouse stairs that opened onto the courtyard far below.

#

            The Reviled was just completing work on Demetrio’s jawline and preparing to start in on his chin when something stirred it to the porous cylinders of its bones where the marrow used to flow. The necromancer’s feeble attempt at a banishment spell had been just that. But this was of an entirely different order. The hot scent of heartsblood assailed its cloven nostrils. The ripe coppery stench bespoke a foe familiar, albeit from an aeon past. The great domed skull swiveled about.

A rotund man now stood in the courtyard, not ten feet behind it in a shard of silver moonlight. He wore the rich soft garb of a civilian. The square lines of his jaw were submerged beneath many layers of accumulated fat. But the emerald eyes were unyielding.

            “What of it, Scion of Abaddon? You wish revenge? Take it!”

            The Reviled turned fully from the mutilated thief and took a clicking step toward this new adversary. The human was a bug; he did not even bear a weapon. The Reviled would crush this boisterous beggar’s skull to pulp, then resume administering the little thief’s punishment.

#

Now that Damon had thrust himself into the midst of this unholy vendetta, he found his bowels had turned to water. The shambling skeletal horror advanced upon him. It moved with as much surety as unclothed bones could, a certain ungainliness in its gait. It was unerring, yes. But slow. After all, why hurry? It was closing the distance now, the bare talons of its bone fingers outstretched to rend and kill. And the magister found himself frozen in place, the panic of combat paralysis sweeping over him like an arctic wave.

Then something, a barely perceptible twang of catgut bowstring, from high and behind. And a crossbow bolt had blossomed in the Reviled’s pallid cranium just above its left eye socket. Damon spared a lightning glance toward the gatehouse. Captain Bobert was bracing against the parapet, crossbow perched on his shoulder.

The quarrel in its skull served only to annoy the monster, however. The Reviled glared up at the sniper, ruined teeth fixed in a silent rictus. And Damon saw his chance. He made an end run around the creature’s flank, his bulk moving with a facility surprising even him, and began frantically wrenching at the rawhide cords that fastened Demetrio to his prisoner chair. But as though sniffing the ruse, the Reviled was already turning about even as the bonds began to give under Damon’s efforts. The magister could dimly sense Bobert through the panic haze, furiously rigging the crossbow for another shot. But not in time.

A huge taloned palm swiped out like a scythe blade, cleaving a broad swathe before it. Damon ducked, just in time. The Body Thief was less fortunate. The arcing skeletal hand collided with Demetrio’s head and knocked it from his trunk like a ripe melon from a pedestal, taking a length of sundered spine with it, so preternaturally brutal was the force behind the strike. Scarlet spattered the magister. The Reviled roared soundlessly in some mimicry of bloodlust. And reared back for another blow.

A second leathery twang sounded from high and afore, and another crossbow bolt had embedded itself in the recesses of the Reviled’s clavicle. Damon could hear dimly Bobert’s plaintive cry from the battlements: “Run! Run, damnit, run!”

In the moment of distraction Bobert’s second quarrel had afforded him, Damon snatched the coveted soul pendant from the headless trunk of the Body Thief. And ran. He was surprisingly agile for a man of his girth, and after so many sedentary years. But he made too little allowance for the prodigious length of the creature’s bony arms. It pivoted on its arches and struck out with another scythe-like swipe. It was only a glancing blow, but there was force enough behind it to excise a jagged strip of meat from the magister’s hamstring. Damon howled. He could feel the fissure where the back of his thigh had been and the blood welling over the exposed bone there. He rolled and stumbled ponderously across the moonlit courtyard, the coveted pendant clutched in his hand, and finally managed to regain his feet. The blood was running down his leg, soaking into the rich hem of his robe of office, staining the purple silk scarlet. But he gradually forced his hobbling steps into a lumbering jog.

He passed beneath the gatehouse through the raised portcullis, the Reviled stalking unerringly at his heels. He had what the monster wanted. And he would see no more of his beloved city’s citizenry murdered for the sake of this bauble. He would be the final sacrifice. If it came to that.

#

The magister’s office was on the second ridge of the Hill, not a stone’s throw from the Citadel gatehouse. Damon was thankful for that; he had always dreamt of dying behind his great mahogany desk, laboring stalwartly to his end in the service of the people of Westmark. But by the trail of blood accumulating in dense splotches on the cobbles behind him, he wondered if he’d reach even his doorstep before expiring. He could feel his life force ebbing with each agonized step, as surely as he could scent the Reviled’s grave-stench on the night wind at his back and hear the clickety clack of its bony heels. His pursuer was close behind now, but unhurried, unerring.

He reached the portal and trembled to fit the little brass key into the ancient lock. The door of the townhouse was sturdy oak, steel-riveted and strong. But Damon guessed it could only serve as a minor deterrent before those swiping claws that had so casually decapitated Demetrio. The bolt finally slid back and he shambled inside, slamming the portal shut behind him. He secured the deadbolt before dropping the heavy iron bar into place. Together they might yield him a few extra moments. If he could but reach his office, there might be a shred of hope for survival. Albeit a slim one.

#

            The Reviled could smell the fat man’s blood in the bony recesses of its nostrils. The scent stirred in the dim vaults of its memory the fateful clamor of battle. What passed for bloodlust washed over it. But in its purpose, the beast remained as detached as its withered spinal cord: Reclaim the soul pendant, extract revenge on its defilers, and return to rest in its tomb.

            The Reviled’s quarry had fled behind the oaken door that now blocked its path. It knew this as surely as the moonlit trail of the fat man’s spilt blood glimmered before its infernal eyes. The creature swiped at the portal with all its Undead strength and the oak shattered like glass. It stepped over the threshold, through the richly carpeted foyer, and then started up the stairs. Its clawed bone toes took the steps gingerly. The beast found it difficult to maintain its balance with the soft wood slats groaning under its weight. There was another door at the top of the stairs. But the fat man had not bothered to secure it.

The Reviled ducked beneath the lintel and entered the chamber where the fat purple-robed man stood waiting. He wore its property around his neck, the soul pendant given it by Abaddon the Defiler long ago. More disconcerting was the weapon it now bore in its hands. It was a sword, a blade the Reviled had known all too well in life. Somehow, this putrid relic had survived the centuries, and with each halting step the Reviled took toward its bearer the blade’s inner light was renewed, until it glowed brightly enough to make the monster shield its infernal eyes from the glare.

            It was then, finally, that the creature’s Undead brain made the logical leap that enabled it to realize the ruse. This paunchy human that stood before it brandishing the Sword of White was no fool; he had lured it for this very purpose. The strong lines of his jaw, revealed in the harsh glare of the blade’s platinum glow beneath the decadent jowls, belonged to the bloodline of the monster’s sworn enemies. He was descended, however precariously, from the Sons of Westmarch who had ended both Abaddon the Defiler’s reign and the Reviled’s earthly existence. And now the foul scion was stalking forth with sacred brand bared to do again what his ancestor had done a thousand years ago.

#

            Damon memorized the sundered place in the breastbone where the Undead monster’s black heart had resided in life, squeezed his eyes shut against the beaming brightness of the blade, and thrust the brand home. The relic sword pierced the rotted ribcage and emerged from the creature’s back. The Reviled howled its silent scream, impaled on a skewer of white flame from which it could not extricate itself. Then it crumbled to powdery bone dust where it stood. The blinding white radiance issuing from the heart of the holy sword began to ebb, and Damon dared open his eyes to see the mound of pallid silt defacing his rich plum carpeting. He stared in glazed wonder at the relic, unmolested on his mantelpiece for so long, that had accomplished such a mighty feat.

            At that moment Captain Bobert burst into the office with a dozen men at his heels. Heartier souls than the yellow tailed Officers of the Watch who had abandoned their posts at the Citadel, these were militiamen roused from the taverns. By the look on Bobert’s face upon seeing the glassy-eyed magister, platinum sword clutched in his fist and staring down at the ruin of his carpet, the captain might have downed a pint or two himself on the way to securing his posse.

            “Great goddamned hells, Damon!” Bobert ejaculated, “What’s happened here?”

            Damon took the hand proffered by the captain and allowed Bobert to escort him to the divan by the hearth, where he collapsed in a near swoon.

            “All in good time, dear captain,” said the magister, “Fetch me yon decanter of brandy and two glasses. Then have one of your worthies rouse the Citadel surgeon. We’ll toast to our continued earthly lives, and before I faint dead away, I’ll tell you the tale of my great grand uncle, whose blade this once was.”

And Damon laid the Sword of White across his ponderous thighs and waited for Bobert to bring the brandy. The soul pendant, still fastened at his throat, glittered in the hearthlight.

Barely perceptible in the depths of its faceted brilliance was the tiny glimmer of arcane light that slowly flickered and died. And as it was extinguished, the soul of the Reviled fled the confines of the gem for the Dark Realms beneath the Abyss, where it remained banished for all time.


THE END


2022 David Starobin

Bio: David Starobin published his first short story, “Goddess Deva,” in the Halloween 2021 issue of Black Petals. He is honored and delighted to be able to share more of his nightmares with the readership of Aphelion. David spends much of his time abroad in the search for new and varied inspiration for his fiction. He is currently haunting London.

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