IV. The Monster

Daylight flooded Baron Rovenmare's white pool chamber.

His bleached robe hung, neatly folded, over a bone chair.

Underwater, he stroked and kicked his bone-white arms and legs. The skeletons along the sides filled the pool with visions. He swam through a rippling phantasmagoria of images and sounds, faces, voices, scenes.

All night, from the moment Volfric left him, he'd pored over folios, books, and manuscripts, trying to discern the Rider's identity. He traced the specter back through Volfric family records, diaries, letters, and cryptic accounts left by previous magicians of the court. At daybreak, he felt ready to draw up a list of suspects--noblemen and knights from one likely generation, who expressed great hatred for the family, who were rumored to practice occult arts, or who died without peace or proper burial.

Now, in the water, he carried his research beyond the realm of documents. He consulted the spirits of the dead, and tried to fathom out secrets never recorded by mortal pen. But there were secrets, and there were secrets. The dead would tell all about the living, or share information that simply wasn't known, but they kept each other's secrets with a jealous, iron fury. He knew better than to ask the Rider's identity outright. They'd never reveal it, and would take solemn affront at his impertinence. But they didn't seem to mind if he sought it indirectly, so long as he honored their unstated code of propriety--a code he'd learned through trial and grievous error.

He'd only succeeded so far in crossing names off his list. He hoped that meant he was narrowing it down, and that soon he'd confirm one of those remaining. Failing that, he'd just have to go back further in the documents and draw up another list. But he had to learn that name. He had to exorcise the Rider, once and for all. Volfric's humiliating reprimand made it a point of honor. His own smarting sense of having shirked his duty made it a point of basic self-respect.

He noticed a servant waiting at the pool's edge. He swam up and popped his head above the surface.

The servant flinched, but remembered himself and bowed. "I-I beg your pardon, sir."

"What is it?"

"Sir . . ." He bowed again. "Count Volfric requests you in the laboratory." Again, he bowed. "Immediately, sir."

"In the laboratory?" Rovenmare said.

"Yes sir."

"The laboratory?" Rovenmare repeated.

"Yes sir. The laboratory. Count Volfric wants you there. At once. He seemed most impatient. Sir."

Rovenmare waved him away.

The servant bowed and hurried out.

Rovenmare despised the laboratory. He couldn't imagine why he was being summoned to it. He never went there unless absolutely necessary, and left it in the care of his apprentice, Fronius, whom he also despised.

Fronius--ugh! That hunch. That limp. Those queer metal prosthetics, grotesquely fastened to his twisted flesh. But what Rovenmare found most repulsive about Fronius was his willingness to muck around in meat and blood. He always had some decaying body part close at hand. He was always cutting into some cadaver. He seemed to love flesh as much as Rovenmare loved bone. As distasteful as that was to Rovenmare, it made Fronius the perfect apprentice for him. Everything in necromancy that Rovenmare regarded as unclean and beneath him, he simply assigned to Fronius.

He climbed, dripping, from the pool. He dried himself with a white cloth. He wiped it over the place where his genitals used to be. Fronius had removed them for him. Not a seam or bump or indentation flawed the surface. Rovenmare had to admit, Fronius's talents sometimes could prove useful, even impressive. More often than not, however, they were just disgusting.

Rovenmare put on a dingy, threadbare robe. He normally burned them when they showed the least sign of dirt or wear, but he always kept at least one that could be soiled, if necessary.

On his brilliant white tower's lowest level, where it joined the castle wall, he rolled back a spotless carpet. Thus he laid bare a wooden trap door. It looked like a filthy thing in the midst of so much white. He considered it a filthy thing. It led to the laboratory, and to Fronius's humid, dark abode below.

Rovenmare had made it explicitly clear in no uncertain terms that Fronius was never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever--and yes, again--ever to come up through this door, or in any other way to besmirch the tower with his filthy presence. It was only with the greatest reluctance and revulsion that Rovenmare gripped the iron handle and pulled the nasty trap door open.

He wound down into the gloom on a rusty spiral stair. As he descended, the stench of every stage of putrefaction oozed into his nostrils, down his throat. At the bottom, he stooped under a low timber ceiling.

The laboratory conveyed a sense of vastness and claustrophobic confinement, all at once. The only light blazed from fatty candles on a heavy iron chandelier, dark from rust and soot and spattered blood. Greasy smoke hung in the air. Axes, saws, and other instruments glinted from the shadows.

On one table lay the half-dissected carcass of a bull. Its dead eyes stared vacantly. On other tables lay less identifiable hunks of sticky, rotting flesh. Blood drizzled to the floor and streamed to a central drain. An enormous tub was filled to overflowing with chopped-up human corpses and their blood. Flies, of course, buzzed everywhere. Rovenmare shuddered to imagine maggots squirming all around. Rats scritched and tittered in the shadows.

The most sickening sight to him was not quite yet a skeleton. The bones stood mostly bare, but great gobs of decaying meat still clung to them.

At this, he staggered to the drain. He retched, but his long abstention from food left him nothing to bring up. Each dry heave convulsed him more violently. He desperately wished he could vomit and be done with it, but he couldn't even drool spittle into the drain.

When he looked up, he saw Volfric and Fronius shaking their heads at him. Fronius immediately lowered his goggle-eyes, rather than meet the master's gaze. Volfric sneered.

Rovenmare dabbed his sleeve at the corners of his lips. He pulled himself together, finally, and joined Volfric next to the large central table beneath the chandelier. "My lord." He bowed stiffly. A bloodstained sheet covered something enormous on the table. "What have we here?" he muttered, knowing he wouldn't like the answer.

Fronius swept the sheet off to reveal a gargantuan, headless human form. It must have measured eight feet tall. A bloody towel modestly draped the genitals, for which Rovenmare was thankful. From what he could see, the body had been cobbled from parts of separate corpses, like those which filled the tub. Crude sutures and bolts held it together. There was no proportion in it. The arms didn't match in length or any other way, except that each was grotesquely large in its own right. The mismatched hands were huge, with mammoth, thick, square fingers. It would seem that greater care had been taken in matching the legs, but even so, they clearly came from different bodies.

Looking at the abomination, Rovenmare couldn't help imagining what putting it together would involve. He placed one hand on his stomach and the other over his mouth, and fought another wave of nausea.

"Impressive, no?" Volfric said.

"It is something," Rovenmare managed to say.

"Imagine facing this colossus in battle."

"No pleasant prospect, that," Rovenmare agreed.

"Imagine the awe it would strike in a foe's heart."

"It would probably kill the man of fright."

"Imagine if this giant were your lord."

Rovenmare looked suddenly at Volfric. "My lord!"

"Yes." Volfric grinned. "I called you here to assist Fronius in making this my body."

Rovenmare recoiled. His jaw hung open. The thought of assisting--assisting!--Fronius in anything galled him beyond words. The madness of Volfric's proposal struck him dumb. For long moments, he could only blink.

When he recovered, he said, "My lord, what you contemplate . . . I counsel you against it. I'm at a loss to understand why you desire it. And how could it be done?"

"Fronius knows," Volfric said. "That's why you're assisting."

Fronius held up a triumphant finger. "The Count's blood must be transfused into the body's veins. His heart must be placed into its chest. His head must be transferred. And with his head, his soul."

"Let's not forget one thing," Volfric told Fronius. "One hugely important thing. My manhood! That, too, you must transfer to the body. I must be able to pass on my seed."

"My lord, I did not forget. See what I've provided for you." Fronius pulled away the towel to reveal the creature's penis.

Volfric's eyes widened in awe. Then doubt and consternation flashed across his face. "But my seed! My seed! Could this organ from another man emit my seed?"

"It will, I assure you," Fronius said. "This body will be yours in every sense."

Volfric stared at the enormous penis as though hypnotized. "My seed . . ."

Rovenmare felt soiled by the discussion, by the entire situation. The sight of the gigantic male member, so fleshy and flaccid, made him gag again. He covered his eyes. "Why, Volfric? Why?"

"Ah, my dear Baron," Volfric said. "You underrate your poor apprentice. I've taken great interest in his studies and experiments. He's been most patient in explaining them to me."

Rovenmare scowled at Fronius, the simpering little toady.

"In the course of our conversations," Volfric went on, "I myself conceived this operation. Fronius assured me it could easily be done. I've hesitated to go through with it, as any man would." His expression hardened. "Last night convinced me of the wisdom of proceeding."

Rovenmare got the point. He'd failed in his duties by not banishing the Rider. Volfric had lost confidence in his protection. He recalled how the vision of the Rider in the pool affected Volfric. Yes, he'd seen real terror in the Count's eyes. Now Volfric made ready to protect himself, if necessary, in the only way he could imagine--by making himself bigger, stronger, tougher. It was the same way of thinking, no doubt, that led his ancestors to erect the ridiculously daunting castle. But just as the castle didn't keep the ghosts out, so this gigantic new body would serve no purpose against a specter. Nevertheless, it would make Volfric feel safer, and in any case, he seemed determined to go through with it.

Chagrined, Rovenmare nodded. "As you wish, my lord. Before we begin, though, one thing worries me, that you should consider. Trapping the soul in a severed head is an ancient form of torment, one of the most horrible, by all accounts. The spell has never been employed as Fronius proposes for this operation."

"That's the genius of it," Volfric said.

"It could damage you, my lord--break your spirit or unhinge your mind."

"In such a short time?" Fronius scoffed. "Only several hours, at most, while we prepare the body. I see no way around it, but I see no danger in it, either. You're strong of will, my lord. You surely can endure it."

"Yes," Volfric said. "Yes, surely I can."

#

What followed was a living Hell for Rovenmare. The entire day was occupied with siphoning the blood from one body through wheezing pumps into the other, with digging the heart out of one thickly-muscled chest and transplanting it in the other, and with chopping off the head and reattaching it to the other stump of a neck.

As blood filled the giant body, it seeped from the crude seams that joined the different parts.

"Eeugh!" Rovenmare said. "You couldn't have done a better job here, Fronius? This sloppiness is most unlike you."

"The Count came to me last night," Fronius said, "and told me he expected to proceed this morning. Time permitting, you know how much better I could do. No matter. The spells will fix it all just as it should be."

Rovenmare realized what kind of night Fronius must have had--far busier even than his own. That excused nothing. This operation had no precedent. They had no business attempting it until they made everything as perfect as could be. "Spells, eh? Are you sure you're still within your competence?"

Fronius continued working. If he reacted, if his expression changed, the mask and goggles hid it.

Eventually, they finished. They tossed Volfric's bloodless, heartless, headless corpse on top of all the others in the tub. His new body, the completed monstrosity, lay on the table, awaiting life.

Rovenmare leaned against a wall. He didn't count the tolls when the castle clock sounded, but he could tell there were a lot. Outside, it would be dark.

Fronius stood before the table. He began to read an incantation from a massive tome bound in heavy maroon leather.

Rovenmare was in no mood to pay very close attention. He felt exhausted. He felt queasy. He'd tried to warn Fronius and Volfric of the dangers, but they scorned and flouted everything he said. He couldn't help noticing, though, that Fronius was attempting an extraordinarily complex sequence of spells. He himself would not have found them easy to perform. He couldn't imagine that Fronius would be equal to the task. He sighed, and decided he'd probably better pull rank and take over, before something disastrous happened.

Prickles all over his skin startled Rovenmare from the daze he hadn't yet shaken off. They told him necromantic power was about to be unleashed.

Fronius slammed the book shut, raised it high above his head, and uttered the last syllable.

Through the ceiling and thick walls, Rovenmare heard the wind suddenly howl. Thunder crashed as lightning arced between the snow-filled clouds that always wreathed the mountain.

A blasphemous breath of life sighed through the laboratory. Glass instruments vibrated and tinkled. The candles flickered in the iron chandelier.

On the table, a finger twitched. One thigh flexed. Volfric's eyes rolled up, showing only whites.

Fronius and Rovenmare leaned forward.

All at once, spasms exploded through every muscle of the body. It flopped and writhed like a pile of fish dumped from a net. The heels, elbows, shoulder blades, and head thumped a horrible staccato on the table.

Fronius's mask remained as blank as ever, but he shrank into a posture of confusion and alarm.

"Fool!" Rovenmare shouted. "You haven't revived the body as a whole! You've given life to all the parts--separately!"

Fronius shrank further. He looked up to Rovenmare, and squeaked, "Can you fix it?"

Rovenmare reached into his robe and drew his wand. At his command, it turned into a flute of polished bone. He stepped before the table. The tune he played was haunting and funereal, a tune only fit to sound within the grave. The necromantic power it invoked would have chilled anyone who heard it.

At first nothing happened.

Volfric's body continued to thrash.

Faintly, the tramp of feet clattered above.

Fronius cringed and looked up.

The footsteps descended through the tower, drew nearer, grew more distinct. And then they clanged on the iron spiral stair.

Water dripped down the stairs into the cellar. Droplets splished on the floor. The drip became a drizzle, then trickles, forming puddles.

Rovenmare played faster, wilder.

The body struggled to tear itself apart.

Skeletons, wet from the pool, filed down into the cellar. They circled the table to Rovenmare's tune. Their feet clicked a snappy tattoo on the floor-stones. When the circle was complete, they began their dance--spinning, hopping, bowing, leaping.

Now the music became pandemonic.

The skeletons stomped. They whirled in crazy loops, swinging their arms, not caring what they hit. They jumped on tables. They pulled things off walls. They danced through the tub, treading corpse pieces like grapes in a winepress.

Fronius whimpered. He covered his ears.

The skeletons became absolutely frenzied. Some danced madly in faster and faster circles. Some smashed chairs. Cabinets crashed. Tables overturned. Glass shattered. The tub broke. Limbs, torsos, heads, and all manner of blood and offal spilled across the floor.

The skeletons chittered with glee. By now, they'd taken up the tune, themselves. They moaned and keened it with a frightful abandon no living voice ever could express. They gyred around the table, trampling remains, kicking them, jumping up and down on them, squashing them to gruesome, fleshy pulp.

Fronius screamed. He bowed his masked face to the ground.

Rovenmare stood, a grim figure, his flute a wand again, ready to draw on the necromantic energies generated by the Dance of Death, which turned like a wheel all around him.

At last, when the seams of Volfric's body strained to their utmost, Rovenmare lashed out with his wand.

Power discharged like lightning from the tip, surging through Volfric. He arched spectacularly, all but snapping the spine. He dropped back to the table.

Again, Rovenmare slashed, blasting more energy through Volfric.

His convulsions grew more violent, but also more coordinated. He thrashed and cried at the heart of the swirling maelstrom of power.

Rovenmare shouted. He leveled the wand and channeled every last bit of remaining energy through it.

One last tremendous heave shook Volfric, and he was whole. He leaped off the table. From the depths of his massive chest, he bellowed, "I'M ALIVE!"

Rovenmare lowered the wand. He bowed. "My lord."

Volfric didn't seem to notice. He turned away. With a mighty sweep of his arm, he cleared a swath of skeletons out of his way. They sailed through the air, crunched against a wall, and clattered to the floor as a random pile of bones.

He charged the door. He yelled, and battered it to splinters with one smash of both humongous fists. He roared, naked, out into the snowy, moonlit courtyard.

The skeletons had truly wrecked the laboratory. They'd ripped or smashed everything to bits. Many still danced, though some began to settle down.

Fronius wept on his knees. The floor around him was a mess, slick with blood and liquified flesh, littered with broken glass, metal, and wood.

Rovenmare couldn't worry about any of that yet, nor even the exhausting purification of the skeletons that would be necessary before they could re-enter the pool. First he had to see to Volfric.

He followed his raving lord into the night.

6 comments:

jaakko said...

Holy shit, your bad guys are so awesome that I actually find myself rooting for them :-)

Curt said...

Heh--I'll just have to punch up the good guys a bit more, I guess! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I stumbled onto this blog not planning to make much of it, But damn you if it hasen't kept me up till the wee hours of the night tring to finish the story. Great job!

Curt Purcell said...

Thanks anonymous--glad you're enjoying it!! I'm still working hard to get some more chapters up soon!

Anonymous said...

These last two chapters rocked. Necromancer is the most interesting and sad two say im glad the good characters are all dead.

Curt Purcell said...

Thanks! Not everyone who's dead is gone, though.