The onyx skull glowed, and grey silhouettes played across the ebony shadows within the eye sockets. The necromancer watched the start of an old and lurid play. Smooth skinned, the arrogant knight dared the guardian of the gate like the thousand before him, who had mustered the resolve to cross the wasted lands of the necromancer’s realm. Tarkel lifted the skull from its brass cradle to get a closer look, but, instead, he peered at his hands that clutched the skull.
Blackened by some interior corruption, they had become the color of mottled ashes. Wrinkled fingers projected from the knuckles. The nails were long and sharpened with tinges of green and yellow where they bit into the black-grey skin. They trembled a bit, but not from any weakness. There was a hunger in Tarkel that he barely managed to restrain. It was a hunger for life–not the wanderlust of the adventurous. To possess, to devour vitality, these were the trembling hungers his hands ached to grasp. Such vitality had been denied him for so long.
Magic exacted its toll. Power was naught without the forge to contain the burning fires: Tarkel’s body, wracked by the dark power he wielded and struggled to contain within his breast.
The hero’s hands did not tremble. They were smooth and firm. Perhaps they had a blemish from some old wound, valiantly gained.
Such a scar lined those withered talons, but Tarkel could no longer remember so far into the past, so deep into his old life, a life where power had been within his sinews.
He wanted to laugh at the fear he perceived in the hero’s eyes, but his fetid breath caught in his throat. His guardian was terrible to behold. The jaundiced beast was tethered to the gate with links of cold iron, for its tusked visage and animal mania disturbed him, too. It walked on two feet, though none could mistake it for a human. Tarkel’s laughter failed him, but his eyes soaked in the coming confrontation. This barren land gave him few distractions.
The behemoth lifted his axe and struck the hero. Tarkel winced at the sight. His servant was instinctively puissant in matters of death. The hero’s right arm was gashed. Blood flowed to cover the hilt of his polished longsword. The hero raised an iron edged shield, emblazoned with some mythical beast, a lion perhaps.
It would soon be over. Tarkel set the onyx skull back into its cradle to watch from a more comfortable distance. A lion? He had a banner once, a banner with a painted lion. Perhaps this hero was a cousin, some diluted great-grandchild from that ancient noble house. He rested his hand on the arm of his iron throne. Dust stained his finger and a smile creased his lips. It didn’t matter. Tarkel had no such house. No cooking fires burned within this castle. Only the liquid warmth of ebony necromancy occasionally burned his chest.
The hero was lucky. Most are, who come to the gate, or they would have already been killed by the zombies of the wasted lands. The hero had lunged with his sword and skewered his guardian through the stomach.
"Good." thought Tarkel. He was sick of the guardian. It drained too much of his strength to keep the thing filled with dark magic. This time, Tarkel decided to let the blasted wight suffer and die.
Now that he thought about it, he regretted making the zombies, too. His servants were all so damn ugly. The villagers had screamed that truth when he had completed the ritual in the cemetery. His power had been fresh upon him, and the onyx skull had burned brilliantly. Soon enough, his lands had become a realm of shadows, boring shadows, and shambling corpses, corpses who did no work well, who tilled no fields. But they did know how to frighten people from his lands or simply murder them. "A pox on them." Tarkel mumbled and then laughed bitterly at the absurdity of his curse.
Soon, the heroes had started to arrive: a blessed relief. Sometimes, stealing their vitality was all that kept him going. This hero was quick to deliver a merciful death stroke.
That was also good to see. The necromancer foresaw a feast of vitality. This one hadn’t become jaded during his heroic quests. But the young man had far to go. The onyx skull knew it all too well. They had planned this castle’s defenses together. It had been a tedious business. Tarkel knew that he was hidden within the granite walls like a pauper on a winter’s day: layer upon layer upon layer of warm, old clothes to keep out the chill. And, finally, there was a firesnorter, an old one.
The oak gate was giving his victim some trouble. Tarkel regretted using the trees at the grove of the unicorn to make that door. It was ill luck for a necromancer to have anything to do with a unicorn, but that wood was more like steel. The hero was starting to bleed heavily from that gash. He had the intelligence to cleanse his wound with the water in the animal bladder he carried; then, he ripped a strip of cloth from his yellow tunic and bound his wound.
Tarkel gently brushed his finger across the grinning teeth of the onyx skull.
The gates opened. Tarkel chuckled. The hero immediately looked for a door ward and reverently made symbols over himself upon discovering that the doors had moved of their own accord.
The willow in the courtyard was still alive, though the necromancer had no servant who would be suitable to tend the living. A tear came to Tarkel’s eye. The hero looked at the sad tree as if the leaves were haunted with sidhe. It was such a thing of beauty: deep roots that sunk to the bowels of the earth, long branches, and leaves that wept at the grief in life. Young heroes were so foolish. It took the age of a man to appreciate that hidden vitality; Tarkel was proud that he had outgrown such simplistic fears.
He looked at the skull and wiped the tear from his withered cheek. Tarkel had outgrown much: the need for a sword, the need for the bright day, the companionship. The onyx skull had replaced such needs. Sometimes, he thought that the black grin mocked him. And, sometimes, he believed that the skull was his own, a cold counterpart of his age and his necromancy.
The silhouettes in the ghost eyes drew his attention.
Cautiously, the hero opened the inner door and left the courtyard. Tarkel grunted, disgusted as he watched the hero wade into his pathetic honor guard. These were the first five zombies that he had ever brought to bloodless life. Their swords were rusted and their eyes, cold. They were slow, too. The hero was reckless, smashing the skull of the lead zombie to dust with the flat of his blade as the four others ponderously advanced.
Tarkel picked up the onyx skull from the cradle again. A fascination at that youthful daring came over him. Was he ever so fearless? This hero had the fires of his youth. Tarkel could not remember any such time that he would so callously gamble with his life.
But there had been such a time, a time with Evelyn. Suddenly, her long, sandy hair fluttered over the nape of his wrinkled neck. The crystal skull faded from his eyes. Yes, there had been a time, a dragon, albeit a young firesnorter. And Tarkel remembered talking to the fell beast and drawing a sword, a polished longsword. But the words were more sensible with the worm, who understood Tarkel well. Still, the necromancer remembered the heft of a blade in his hands and watched the hero strike at his servants just as he would have, if he had retained the strength of his arm.
Already, the hero had made quick work of Tarkel’s honor guard. The last zombie tried to run away, but the hero’s legs were firm, not riddled with dry rot. The hero swung that shield. The decayed waist and chest exploded into a great grey cloud.
Tarkel leaned forward on his iron throne. His back ached. He grumbled at the skull, "Why did I choose iron? It’s not comfortable at all." He remembered, then. The onyx skull had begun to whisper to him: hardship brings strength, shows your enemies, who are legion, that you are strong. The necromancer couldn’t remember enemies; he could feel the dull throb in his back, though. He began to wonder at it all, all the dust, all the magic.
Straining to see the hero more clearly, Tarkel stared into the sockets. He saw the youth leaping over the pit, the pit with the agonizing poisons on barbed and wooden shafts. It had been so cunning, so original–the gold cup with the diamond studded base on the trap floor. Tarkel remembered that he had loved gold as a youth. He and the skull had been sure that it would tempt the boy to his doom. But as Tarkel gazed at the burning eyes of the hero, he remembered purity of purpose. When he had been young, his mind had fixated on goals: Greed was not considered polite–or was it proper?–in the young.
Suddenly, the necromancer cried out, "Of course, Rumpelstiltskin! No, no, no, Midas! Yes, yes, those tales must have warned the youth, who probably believes in them with his open heart." Tarkel laughed quietly on his iron throne as he recalled images from such appealing stories, spoken among friends when the night’s wood had burned low. Tarkel muttered at the crystal skull, "This hero is obviously literate, just as I was schooled. You should have thought of that. But you didn’t, did you. No, no, don’t cry. There’s still the ‘snorter, and I always have my necromancy. We’re safe. We’re safe. I still need you." Tarkel chuckled and a droplet of phlegm flew from his mouth. "Ah, he-he-he, Rumpelstiltskin! What a clever story that was."
The black skull whispered a reply. The hero was close. Tarkel grabbed the skull and cupped his hands over the sides of the skull to mimic ears. He wanted to hear the youth’s braggadocio. Few had come so far to become a cold zombie.
The skull showed him the room, the special room with the moving glass on the ceiling to let the light in for his foremost servant, the only one who needed such warmth, needed such a large room. His name was Torada, a dragon who served more for his curiosity than any compulsion Tarkel could have laid upon him. Tarkel had met this firesnorter when he had been a hero, when the skull was still new to his touch. Torada had been impressed with Tarkel’s good sense, agreeing to a safe home in the castle. The onyx skull had approved of this new guardian, urged Tarkel to heed the worm, to take sanctuary inside granite walls.
The ‘snorter was asleep. The hero was about to open the door. Tarkel tapped on the top of the onyx skull.
The dragon moved in his sleep.
Tarkel tapped harder.
The dragon yawned. Tarkel cursed. No smoke came from the dragon’s mouth. The old snorter’s stomach must be cold from the sleep. It was a lazy beast, ate more necromantic vitality than his guardian. But it was sure death to young heroes, who disturbed the complacency of a necromancer. That neck curved upward some five feet, popping stiff joints. Torada gazed, knowing how Tarkel used the black skull to spy on him. The dragon opened its long muzzle and said, "Why did you wake me, necromancer?"
Tarkel placed his hand over the mouth of the skull and said, "Torada, a youth comes, who fancies himself a hero. He wants to slay you. Make preparations."
The dragon wound his coils about himself, becoming smaller and smaller, shedding his glistening scales. Soon, there was a beautiful young woman with sandy hair standing in the room.
Tarkel shouted through the skull, "You’re mocking me!"
The dragon replied, "I thought you had forgotten Evelyn. Don’t worry. I’ll—-"
The door opened.
"Save me from the terrible necromancer." the Evelyn doppelganger cried, but had some difficulty concealing a smirk.
The hero entered the lair of the dragon. He blushed and averted his eyes. The dragon had not had the time to outfit his disguise.
"Come over here and rescue me." Torada was still sleepy. Tarkel watched, knowing the dragon would quickly kill the hero to return to his lazy sleep.
The hero replied, "Did the foul wizard take your fineries, milady? Here, I have a cape." It was a bright red, sown with a golden thread.
"Good, good. Hurry up and bring it here. I’m–uh–hot." That was what humans complained of, wasn’t it? The dragon looked toward the necromancer’s door and shrugged.
Tarkel thumped the top of the onyx skull soundly.
"Oww." the Evelyn doppelganger cried.
The hero handed the naked doppelganger his cape and asked, "Milady, what ails you? Is it the wizard who tortures you with his black magics?" Now that she was covered, he gazed freely at her.
The Evelyn doppelganger said, "Grrrr. Uhm, yes. That’s it. He’s torturing me." The doppelganger looked to the necromancer’s door. "And I’m gonna burn him and rend his flesh into tiny, black, shredded strips if he strikes me on the head again."
The hero withdrew his sword from his polished scabbard and cried, "This is some foul wizardry."
Tarkel groaned. The dragon had failed. He had wanted the hero unharmed. But the dragon was not motivated, and so had been sloppy. Dragons had such trouble restraining their base impulses. Torada had used an old trick, that Evelyn shape. When Tarkel had first met the disguised dragon, he had recognized such duplicity immediately, for Evelyn had already left him when he had first shown her the grinning skull. It served Torada well if the hero pricked him with the polished sword. Tarkel mumbled, "Alas, this vestige of my youth shall not be so lucky–a naked sword against old Torada. It had been refreshing to see, though." He almost wanted the hero to win, but that was absurd. The onyx skull told him so. Dragons were too fearsome for heroes.
The necromancer shook the onyx skull violently and shouted at the cold stone, "You don’t like the hero, do you? No. You seek his death, to be sure. Ah, stop grinning so. You’re mocking me, too, aren’t you? But I forgive you. We are, after all, such old friends. Look! The hero. And you thought he would have no chance."
The hero swung his sword in a frenzy as Torada retreated, trying to melt off the soft flesh and assume his true, scaled form. The hero skewered the doppelganger in the gut and withdrew his blade. "Do you yield?"
The sword was stained a shining black.
The Evelyn doppelganger grinned. She coughed, and dark blood trickled from the corner of her mouth as the doppelganger said, "Odd. I was going to ask you that."
The hero was pushed back by a monstrous explosion of flesh as the doppelganger’s form shifted to its true shape. The stomach wound was now little more than a scratch across the scaled belly of the dragon. The beast was fully twenty feet long from its head to the tip of its barbed tail. A double row of jagged teeth smiled at the hero, who stepped backward with eyes wide. Torada inhaled vast amounts of air as he prepared to expel the flaming vapours against this youth.
Tarkel banged the top of the onyx skull with his fist. It would do him no good if there was naught but ashes left of the hero. The necromancer shouted into the skull and his words reverberated in the outer chamber, "Torada, you fool, don’t burn him! I need the boy alive. Ashes have no vitality. My realm has enough corpses!"
Torada’s head bobbed in the air, as if it were struck by an invisible hammer. The dragon turned his neck toward the necromancer’s door and spoke with his forked tongue, slipping past the rows of his teeth, "I’ll do as I please. And after him, I shall take you in my fires, necromancer. There are safer places to sleep, where I do not have my head beat upon by your impatient wizardry, you doddering—-"
Putting both hands on the hilt of his sword and swinging it in a wide arc, the hero hewed at the dragon’s neck. The blade cut through the scales and sank into the flesh.
"Ahrooo!" The dragon cried, "Enough." His left foreclaw swung out and slapped the hero, tossing the hero’s body against the far wall. "I leave you pests to each other. You are too much trouble to keep apart. It is too fitting. Face each other and be done with it. What care I for the squabbling of tiny thinkers? You all look alike, think alike to me."
Torada reared on his hind legs. The dragon’s massive haunches bunched; then, Torada sprang into the air, flexing monstrous wings of leathery flesh. He crashed through the glass ceiling and flew into the night sky.
Shards of glass plummeted to the stone floor. The hero covered his face with his hands ’till the shattering and clashing stopped. His breath was labored, but he stood and ran to the far door. He tugged at the brass ring on the door. But it was locked.
Tarkel watched through the onyx skull. He was safe from the sword. The wood of that door had come from the same grove as his outer door and was also like steel. He was safe, safe from all intruders, particularly that bothersome hero. He could hear the pound, pound, pound of the hero’s fists against the solid door. Then, the creaking of the brass ring as the hero pulled at it. The skull whispered, telling Tarkel that he was safe. He didn’t have to face the hero. The hero’s struggling became feeble.
Before the onyx skull could whisper to him again, Tarkel quickly brushed his fingers across the grinning teeth. The last door opened. Tarkel trembled all over, not knowing why he had done that. The skull whispered curses in his ears, calling him a rattlepate.
Tarkel said, "Enough. I’ll not suffer you. I don’t have to. I hate you now." Tarkel convulsed; a groan escaped his throat as the fires of necromancy raged against his breast. "No. I will reject you. I remember now." He leaned forward and dropped the skull onto the brass cradle. He exhaled and coughed. "Back, back to your home. I will see him myself. I will see myself. It has been too long."
The hero entered the throne room of the necromancer Tarkel. It was a long hall with a long table, surrounded by lonely, empty chairs. There were only two torches hung on each side of the wall, casting dual flickering images about the room. Dust covered the wood, the stones, the throne. At the far end of the hall on a raised dias of grey marble rested the necromancer on the dull throne. A small round table was in front of the throne. On top of the brass cradle, the onyx skull faced the hero.
Tarkel had his back against the throne, as if trying to distance himself from the hero. But he said, "Come forward, youth. Come forward."
The hero approached. His hot, quick breaths echoed against the stone and clashed with the snapping fires from the torches. Tarkel suppressed a shiver upon looking at this hero in the flesh. He was young. The pains and wounds of his quest to reach this room had only made his physique more noble, more poignant. It was all so ancient in the necromancer’s mind, yet he was here, now, in front of him. He stood proudly with his blood stained blade, only inches from the onyx skull. Tarkel breathed, "Yes. Yes. You shall have me and I shall have you." But his words were whispers. The hero could not hear the necromancer, for his heart was pounding in his ears.
The hero declared, "These lands have come to ruin because of your foul wizardry. I have come as usurper with the blessing of my liege, the Duke of Lancaster, whose lands surround this blasted castle and your desolate lands. He declares that you give up you rights and title to these lands in favor of me; thereupon, these lands shall be cleared of wights and fell spirits to grow green again. If you do not acquiesce, then your neck shall be put to my blade. What say you, wizard?"
Their shadows greeted each other from a safe distance: four silhouettes preparing to begin a morris dance. Tarkel leaned forward and watched his shadows bow to the straight shadows of the hero. He spoke softly, but the decades spent in this dank room had coarsened his voice, "You are bold. I admire that; I admire it greatly. But how, my strong lord, how do you propose to divest these lands of their fell shades and zombies, eh?"
The hero’s voice rang clearly throughout the empty long hall, "Your demise shall be a good beginning."
"You misunderstand me, youth. I have no desire to contest myself against you."
The hero lowered his sword. "You don’t?"
"No, no. You have pierced these gaol walls most admirably. I cannot stand against your ambitions, hero. I know them too well, your Duke’s father knew them as well. You are not the first to gain entrance to this room. Enough of that. It is ancient and does not concern you. On my word, I surrender. But I merely and humbly enquire as to how you will rid these lands of the corruption. It has deep roots in the soil, ancient roots. Deposing me will not clear these lands of sorcery."
The hero sheathed his sword and said, "I-I do not know."
Tarkel rose from his throne. The hero put his hand quickly to the hilt of his sword. Tarkel spoke, "Ah, please do not trouble yourself with me. I merely offer you the throne. I have, after all, acceded to your usurpation. It is now yours. Take it. It is a strong throne. It will impress your future petitioners."
Suspicious, the hero watched the necromancer carefully. But there were no powders or mumbling coming from him, and his trembling hands did not stray from plain sight. As the necromancer left the stone dais, his form seemed to shrink before the hero’s eyes. Tarkel seemed more like a withered grandfather now and not so terrific to behold.
The hero took his seat on the iron throne. Tarkel made as if to leave. The hero said, "Wait, wizard. I have not spared your life, yet. If you would walk free from here with no onus against you, you must tell me how to rid these lands of their evil."
Tarkel stood before the throne, and now the shadows had done a round in their dance. The torch fires burned brighter, darkening the shadows. Tarkel looked up into the hero’s eyes and said, "My liege, before you on the table is the onyx skull; timeless unto the forgotten days it is. Yet always has it belonged to the ruler of these lands. It is mickle powerful, indeed. It shall whisper to you during fearsome nights. And you shall have power over all fell spirits that come to this castle. Ah, but I forget myself. Here, I still wear the ruling robe of this ancient and noble house when I have been deposed. It is properly yours, now."
The necromancer took off his black robe and handed it to the hero. The hero hesitated and said, "If this is some trickery—"
"No, lord. It is merely yours, to be worn by the proper ruler. There is no magic in it. It is merely of an exceptionally fine weave."
The hero took the robe, turning it around in his hands and patting it. "Yes, it is merely cloth. Very soft." The hero donned the robe and resumed his seat. Tarkel watched, as the shadows did another round in their dance against the floor. The robed silhouette was now back upon the throne shadow.
Tarkel said, "Now, you have all that was mine. I have done as you have bid me and must now leave to make my way. I am bereft of the onyx skull. It is yours. Puissant lord, will you send me out into the wasted lands to be devoured by the fell beasts?"
In the fire lights the young hero’s face took on a stern demeanor. And the lines of care and effort he had taken in reaching this throne drew themselves over his visage. The hero said, "It would be proper. You have caused much misery."
Tarkel cried and wrung his hands together. "Mercy, stern lord. Have mercy. You have taken all that I am. Do not be cruel."
"Silence, wretch." His voice was strong, but he coughed, for the grey dust on the throne bothered him. "You have let this castle fall to disrepair. I shall restore its glory. Yet I would not have my first day as lord be stained by your blood."
Tarkel quickly said, "A sword, my liege. A sword so that I may at least defend myself. There is an old one under the throne. I have kept it oiled. Please, milord. It is but a common sword."
The hero calmly reached under his throne and withdrew the naked sword. It clattered against the stone dais with a slow groan. The hero eyed it closely. "Yes. It is common and befits you now. Take it." He tossed the sword at Tarkel’s feet.
Tarkel bent down smoothly. He picked up the sword by its hilt, gripped it firmly. He stood before the iron throne.
The hero held the onyx skull in trembling hands while he gazed into the dark sockets. Now, the shadows were as they had first appeared, save that the silhouette of the onyx skull was now allied with the robed shadow.
Without shifting his gaze, the hero barked offhandedly at Tarkel, "Well, do not delay. Leave before my mercy departs me. I have much to do and learn."
Tarkel slowly frowned. He clenched his teeth as if he might cry, but he breathed deeply and spoke slowly, "Rulership does not agree with you, my lord. I am sympathetic to your plight."
Oblivious to Tarkel, The hero turned the skull gently in his hands.
Tarkel looked at the rigid, proud figure on the iron throne. Almost, he whispered a warning, but at the last moment he veiled it, saying only, "I did but pause to gaze at myself. Farewell, my lord. I speak that truly."
The night winds were fierce and biting. Tarkel crouched under a slender oak tree. He had already reached the edge of his former realm. The cold air tingled sweetly in his lungs, and the walk had firmed his legs, though they were somewhat sore. The moon silvered the shadows; it was full tonight. Tarkel looked at his clean sword and the hand that gripped it. The fingers were firm; he had trimmed the long nails with the edge of his sword, practicing ancient skills that now came readily to his mind. He had avoided the haunts of the zombies; Tarkel no longer craved violence. There were a few white ancient scars on the hand that gripped the sword, but no other blemish to disturb Tarkel’s thoughts. Tarkel smiled; so few had ever received a second chance, a chance to look backward and inward with such a piercing clarity, with such a perfect mirror.