The Necromancer's Hamper
Ozwald grated dirty fingernails through ragged facial hair, a twisted beard that tended to accumulate bits of food and debris from his sloppy eating habits. He had pale skin, wrinkles tweaked at the eyes and mouth with the first telltale signs of old age. He was not particularly old, having lived through perhaps fifty winters now, but his lifestyle had never been a particularly healthy one. The impression left upon his physique was outwardly noticeable.
He had an ample belly, evidence of his love for fine food and wine, particularly duck pie and cream ale, but he would drink anything he could get his lips on so long as it contained alcohol. He even held a flask in his hand at this moment and tilted his head back for a snap draught of spiced rum that burned his throat and made his eyes water. He wiped his mouth and slid the metallic vial back into its belt container, then resumed digging.
The ground was dry this evening, and he was glad he waited several days after rainfall to even attempt this. To unearth wet soil would have been a back breaking and futile task, and he was much too weak and lazy to try anything like that. As it was, he had just enough motivation to drag himself out of bed in the wee hours of the night several hours before dawn, wrap a thin cloak around his body and shift into the blackness, angling through town toward the spiked gates of the local cemetery.
There were no guards stationed in the vicinity. The dismal settlement was not even privy to an adequate brothel, which had been his chief concern upon first arriving, but he had other things to worry about now that preceded even that.
The cemetery was set back from the main part of the village, west of the one and only tavern (The Ogre's Den, or some silly name like that, as if anyone would ever really want to eat in an ogre's home) and ringed by an orchard of scraggly limbed black elms whose branches scratched the night sky like skeletal fingers.
From his vantage point, Ozwald remained hidden. He was toward the back, hunkered down between the eroded tombstone of Elias Axehand (Who Died With Courage, but Not Much Wisdom) and the greenish mausoleum of someone named Phineus Brokaw, who by the size and stature of his final resting place, Ozwald assumed he must have been someone important (to himself, at least).
Ozwald had no such preconceptions of allowing himself to be buried under the ground for others to idle by and smirk at his rotten and forgotten remains, worm food for all eternity and then some. By Bornard’s Black Beard, he wouldn't haven't it! No ridiculous epitaph for this necromancer; no whiny, over-inflated last will and testament to denote the successor of his inheritance. When he died, he was taking it with him, and if someone wanted a piece of his belongings, they would have to pry it from his cold dead hands!
The mage grunted when his shovel struck crunching wood and, thoughts interrupted, he stopped digging and peered closer in the dim light of the flood lantern. He stood in the middle of hole about four feet deep, slathered with grayish dirt and the stink of the grave. A woven hamper was at his side. The splintered top of a coffin rested beneath him, eroded from months of quiet decay. He looked around to see if anyone noticed, but he was alone, accompanied only by the dead, and the dark, which is how he usually liked it.
Ozwald flung several more clumps of mud from the hole and dropped to his knees, spooning away dirt with precise motions. He wiped the top of the coffin and rubbed his hands together, grit falling in a dusty film. He hoped this was the right one, otherwise, he would find that lying halfling and string him up by his half-sized scrotum and leave him for the rats. He had paid good gold for this tip, and having to burrow into the home of a dead man didn't bother him in the least; in fact, he had to do it all the time.
Ozwald wedged his fingers under the dilapidated wood and heaved. Something broke, and he heard the crunch of wood as it detached and fell apart. A noxious odor came from the coffin and Ozwald waved a hand in front of his face.
"Ugh! Wretched dead bastards! It's no wonder they sink you so low!"
Ignoring the stench, the mage opened the coffin further, then reached for the lantern and pulled it close, narrowing the shade so that the beam of light concentrated in one place. There was a skeleton inside, sure enough, the flesh eaten away, the eyeballs sunken, wearing the tattered vestiges of clothing that at one time may have been quality, maybe even...regal? It was not the kind of clothing one would expect to find in a common tomb with a pine box coffin, with not even the safety of the mausoleum beside him to protect the deceased.
The pine box did little to shelter the shining rings that adorned the finger bones either, rings that Ozwald deftly removed and slipped into a pocket. There was a fine necklace of polished electrum around the thing's neck, encrusted with three red topazes. He removed this as well, but his fumbling attempt to slip it over the skeleton's neck only caused the vertebrae to snap, so he just shrugged and slipped it through the broken spine. The skull lolled to the side, one eye glaring up at the mage with a hollow socket, as if begging the question, what are you doing?
“Don't take it personally, friend," muttered Ozwald, admiring the artisanship of the necklace and making a dozen calculations at once. The jewelry was a perk, but not the main reason he took the time to unearth the corpse. No, that cause went to the wonderful body parts decaying beneath him. Moldering bones and worm-ridden flesh, these were the fundamentals for his magic, the myriad pieces and parts with which he experimented daily. A desiccated liver here, a flaccid heart there - dried eyeballs and still squishy lungs, they were all useable…and all free.
Graveyards were the best possible source for these ingredients, and this particular deceased gentleman, if his information was correct, was a particularly nasty character, a man who did rather unpleasant things to his servitors and even family. He was a bad apple, as Ozwald would say, and if he wasn’t very useful in life, he might as well make himself useful in death.
The necromancer reached under the ribcage with skilled fingers and jiggled the organs. He found what he needed at once, a firm kidney, and he carefully placed it into the shopping basket at his side. Kidneys were wonderful aphrodisiacs if blended with the proper ingredients. His next pick was several finger bones that he snapped off at the knuckle, just perfect for casting curses of arthritis. The necromancer could think of three people off the top of his head he would to see doubled over with gnawing pain, wondering why in all Creation their once limber hands pained them so.
He smiled, humming quietly to himself, and put the bones in the hamper. If this man was as bad as they said, the concoctions generated from his remains should be especially potent, perhaps even -
Ozwald flinched, a silent whine going off in his head. He looked down at the dead man, the one ebony socket staring up at him like a coal. The whine continued, and Ozwald closed his eyes, concentrating. Thirty yards away, sitting atop a granite pole where he placed it was the skull of a giant bat. It wasn't that large, about six inches from the bony brow to the fanged maw, but as Ozwald always liked to tell himself, it wasn't the size that mattered. He had previously enchanted the skull to alert him to anyone or anything approaching and the skull had done just that.
He focused more, determining what sort of danger loomed near. He could not see anyone through the eyes of the sightless bat, but it would not have gone off had it not...wait. Ozwald took a moment to remember what sort of a place he rooted in, and accordingly, urged himself to look deeper, past the obvious, past the apparent, and into places where common men could not see. The bat-skull had seen it, and now Ozwald did too.
Something approached from the southeast, a figure that slid between the borders of life and un-life, reality and dream. It could not be seen with the naked eye, not unless it wished to be seen, and if was that close one was as good as dead already. The apparition must have caught the wizard’s glimmer of warmth, attracted to it like a moth to a candle, except this thing wanted to squash the mage's light, he was sure of it. He pulled himself out of the hole, abandoned the shovel, picked up the lantern, grabbed the basket, and hunched to knees that popped with alarming clarity.
"Oh, damn, that hurts!" The mage peered through the darkness, knowing that something invisible approached, something with a darker and more insidious soul than even his own. The being would have caught him unaware if not for the warning, but he now had a few scant seconds to escape.
Ozwald turned and gathered the hem of his robes above his feet so he wouldn't trip. He did not look back again and took off quickly, padding northwest through the cemetery and toward the front gate. Behind, he heard the wind whisper, but felt no such breath upon his face, and the trees did not sway. Something moved behind him all right, a shadow among the shadows, a slight disturbance in the night. He felt a chill, and the sweat rolling down his neck and back in greasy cold beads. His feet scurried faster, carried him past numerous tombstones, finally dumping him on the main pebbled path that encircled the graveyard.
He didn't stop. He ran on, legs pumping, a hiccup of fear caught in his throat that couldn't quite manage to squeeze out. He felt something rushing behind him, moving faster than he could, with cold, infernal eyes focused with hate, targeted upon his quickening heart.
"Damned spirits..." he growled.
Damned indeed, and angry on top of that. Something did not appreciate his presence in the graveyard.
The lantern light swung in wide arcs, alternatively lighting patches of green mumpweed and ghostly witchgrass, two forms of ugly vegetation that seemed to love graveyards. Ozwald could almost see the exit and the corroded iron gate and village beyond. So close, but whatever pursued was on his heels, its stale breath nearer, but with not a footfall nor sound to alert its presence.
Ozwald ran faster, leaping over dips in the path where water ate holes that could snap an ankle like a twig. The wheezing sigh came again, closer, like a dying man's last gasp, or the sound of lungs as they expelled their last wind through a punctured knife wound.
His heart drummed, thumping in his chest like a frightened mouse and forcing his body to move more than it ever normally did. Fear encroached him now from all sides, almost tangible fear as if he could reach out and touch it, caress it. The fear told him to stop, told him to give in, told him to not run, all is lost, no escape, no hope...no hope...
The wind sighed through his clothing, frigid fingers tiptoeing up his spine and clutching his mind. He felt compelled to halt, to throw himself to the ground and quiver like an infant, but then he thought of the consequences of that, and how he would probably join the ranks of the undead, just another homeless soul, destined for an eternity of torment. That might be his fate anyway, but not tonight, not if he could help it.
Ozwald staggered to the iron shod gate, rusted brown and ochre, and threw himself against it. He had not closed the entrance all the way when first entered, and it creaked open from his weight, leaving a severe bruise on his shoulder and forearm.
The necromancer fell through to the other side and sprawled in the dirt. The lantern flew away and extinguished, but he managed to keep hold of his precious basket. He pulled himself up, heard the gate creaking behind him as something moved against it, heard a sigh ooze through the bars like a beckoning friend, urging him to look, asking him to turn, just look and see...just once...
Ozwald, whether through common good sense or blind luck or infallible cowardice, did not look, not other than a furtive glance to make sure nothing could pull him back, then he chugged off again, lungs heaving and boots slapping wide footprints in the wet soil. The sighing whispers resided, and retreated, the gate creaked again and went still, and whatever lay within the cemetery sank back into the darkness, waiting with endless hunger for someone else to approach.
The black robed man didn't stop until he fell gasping against the horse tethering of the Ogre's Den. The tavern was closed this early in the morning, but Ozwald wasn't against breaking in and pouring himself a double shot of gold whiskey, maybe even two or three shots. He spun the lid of his flask and dribbled the last remnants of liquor into his throat, but it wasn't enough to quell the fear that coursed through his veins. No, it would require a LOT more alcohol to quench that.
He took a moment to collect himself, straightened his robe, and tried to brush some of the grave dirt from his clothing. Ozwald rubbed his hair back and patted it down, scratched his belly, then remembered his prizes. He peered into the hamper, taking note of the liver and finger bones he had appropriated. Not a shabby venture, but he could have done much better. Plus, it took him several days and twenty crowns just for the hint! No, that just wouldn't do at all. There still plenty of useful corpses in that cemetery but he didn't want to challenge whatever it was that guarded them.
No, for this necromancer, he would have to find a safer place. A graveyard without such a vehenment spirit roaming its walkways and gardens in the dead of night.
Ozwald turned to the Ogre's Den, determining the easiest way inside. He would get drunk as a barbarian first, and then worry about funds and plans on the morrow. For now, he was alive, well, three rings and a necklace richer than yesterday, and had enough human materials to keep him busy until the next full moon. Grave robbing certainly had its benefits, he just hoped one day to find a quiet, safe place, where he could come by with a rickety old wagon, and harvest his wares with leisure.
Call it a dream, but it was one the old necromancer looked forward to living.
Jason Hauser is twenty-eight years old and lives in Chapel Hill, NC where he is Division Manager for the Women's Primary Healthcare Center. He is currently working on his fourth book, and has a young adult fantasy novel, A Faery's Tale, listed with Authorlink.com, the start of an open ended series. He has had one novella published serially online and has another story forthcoming in The Edge, Tales of Suspense.
Published by permission of the author.