by David Starobin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
to disturb whilst you are out of the office, Magister.”
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
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?”
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.
“And how long have
you worked for me, Crispy?” said Damon.
summers this August, sir.”
“When have you
ever known me to leave my lunch unfinished to address such an absurd
“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
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.
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
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.
offered Bobert plum brandy, but the captain declined with a polite wave of his
“I never imbibe on
duty. No offense, Magister.”
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.”
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.”
you did find yourself at the Necropolis this morning, did you not? At Abaddon’s
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bobert trailed off in wonder.
“It is that,” said
Damon, “A heart pendant. Some call it a soul gem.”
turned to the prisoner. “Do you know what you’ve done? How did you breach
Demetrio looked on
the verge of fading away. He veered precariously on his perch.
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.
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
“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.
Damon. The guards retreated to stand at ease. And the magister knelt down, so
as to hear clearly Demetrio’s next utterances.
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
“And then what?”
echoed the thief.
“What about the
other coffins there? Why did you not plunder those as well?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
were wise to come to me with such dispatch,” said the necromancer.
you me,” said Damon, “I fervently hoped never to cross your threshold again.”
in this life, or the other,” cackled the necromancer.
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.
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
“It is that,” said
“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
“The true owner of
Damon sat the
necromancer down and bid him explain.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
“Well done,” Damon
said, “Now we know what we must do to end this nightmare.”
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
“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
“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.
“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 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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
bastards have soiled themselves and run!” the captain swore.
“This cannot go
on,” Damon said, “We must stop it!”
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
But before Bobert
could stop him, Damon was bounding away down the gatehouse stairs that opened
onto the courtyard far below.
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
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
of it, Scion of Abaddon? You wish revenge? Take it!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
goddamned hells, Damon!” Bobert ejaculated, “What’s happened here?”
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.
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
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
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.
© 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
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