In this story, the body of Sosophra Ikananyar is resurrected, though with a different spirit within.
He held the jar close to his dusky robe. Two aged hands grasped the plain bronze vessel, carefully keeping it level as he descended the long steps to The Last Door. Two silent companions followed in his wake, their eyes downcast, hands hidden in the folds of their robes. Chaulsad’s old and rheumy eyes were accustomed to the tenebrous stairs, and he knew each step intimately. In truth, neither he nor any of his acolytes needed any light in this place, such was their dark familiarity.
Someone else was with them today. She came behind the acolytes, descending the stairs regally, her cold face still, the silk of her long dress brushing noiselessly against the ancient stone of the stairs. Her slippered feet likewise made no sound. The sole sign that she was present was the burning red lights in her eyes; two lambent and dire points that held a myriad of threats.
The cortège reached the foot of the stairs. Before them was a massive door of majestic appearance, deeply polished wood, exquisitely carved and adorned with symbols and glyphs from a time unrecorded. To the initiated, it radiated a tangible aura of fell magic, and if the layman was ever cursed to find himself in this unhallowed realm, they too would shiver in the presence of The Last Door, even if the meaning of such shivers was unknown to them.
The three men stood quietly, while the woman pushed past them. With a peremptory gesture, she caused a flame to appear in one gloved hand. With the other, she brought forth an elaborately wrought medallion and placed it into a matching slot in the door. The Last Door shuddered momentarily and a cold grey light limned its periphery. With a squeal of long ungreased hinges, the huge door swung inward. Chaulsad, in spite of his years and power, recoiled slightly at the dank air that wafted from the void beyond the door.
There was a strained silence as the four stood still, each thinking their own thoughts at what lie beyond The Last Door. For none of them knew. Some legends stated it was a portal to the realm of death, a darkling land where the unquiet spirits of the departed were fated to crawl for eternity. Other tales bespoke a nameless void inhabited by beings unknown to any learned sage; a frozen reality of unceasing hunger that slavered for the blood and essence of the living. Chaulsad thought himself beyond fear, but a thin sliver of unease formed in a recess of his mind as they stood there pondering the blackness before them. The magical light the woman had created cast no glow beyond the threshold of The Last Door.
The woman’s voice was harsh in that profane place. ‘You have the cruet,’ she said to Chaulsad. ‘The instructions Ydrys gave stated to take it within.’
Chaulsad deigned no answer. Signalling to his acolytes, he took a bold step forward, uncertainty striving to overcome decades of discipline. As his feet went across the threshold, he expected death, and he almost welcomed it.
Instead of his demise, he found himself in a large square stone chamber, four fluted pillars at each corner, reaching to a peaked and vaulted ceiling dozens of yards high. Two round bronze braziers burned dully in the centre of the room, casting a spectral shadow behind Chaulsad. Niches were incised into the stone walls on each side, and in each of these lay recumbent shrouded forms. In between the braziers was the unmistakable shape of a sarcophagus, plain and rectangular.
‘By Ydrys, it’s a tomb,’ muttered one of the acolytes.
Chaulsad glanced behind him. Only one of his disciples was present. Where the other one was, he did not know. ‘Disappointed?’ he asked.
Chaulsad grunted and walked to the sarcophagus. With one hand, he reached out and felt the cold stone. His fingertips tingled as his magical senses felt a resonance. Frowning, he pulled his hand away. ‘There is power here,’ he whispered. Standing up straighter, he handed the cruet to the acolyte. ‘We will need to open this.’
The acolyte had pushed the cowl of his robe back, exposing his pale sweating face. He turned and stared uneasily at the glimmering doorway they had entered through. ‘Where is…?’ he asked, naming the other acolyte.
‘Gone,’ said Chaulsad simply.
‘But where, Magister?’
‘Best you not ask. Put the cruet down and assist me with this lid. No doubt the reason for our presence here lies inside.’
The acolyte lightly placed the bronze vessel on the dusty floor and hastened to obey his master. A perfume of roses and jasmine scented the air as the woman stepped through the doorway. Her fiery eyes took in everything in a heartbeat, and she nodded. ‘It was as Ydrys said. It is a crypt. Behold! These are the remains of those who sought to disorder the universe. Each of these dead contended with transcendent powers and were found wanting. Now they moulder in this ageless place beyond the ken of any save the gods, their souls playthings in the walled gardens of stone. Damned beyond all redemption! Heed this as a warning lest you find yourselves immured here.’
‘Cataphract, do you know this place?’ the acolyte asked.
‘It is the Tomb of the Timeless,’ the Cataphract said, walking along the walls, bending to examine the shrouded corpses. ‘Ydrys himself blessed me with this knowledge. Now hearken! The one we seek rests within that casket. Unseal the tomb.’
While the Cataphract watched, Chaulsad and the acolyte went about the rim of the sarcophagus and cut at the sealing wax holding the lid in place. With that done, they pushed, and the lid inched noisily across the mouth of the sarcophagus. A final effort, and it fell from the casket, It landed on the floor and cracked with a thundering boom. The acolyte curiously peered into the sarcophagus, whereupon his breath caught in his throat, and his mouth opened in an astonished gape.
‘Well,’ the Cataphract said, a crooked smile on her lips. ‘What do you see?’
‘Cataphract!’ His voice was hoarse with excitement and passion. ‘What a marvel. She’s…she’s beautiful!’
‘Yes, she was,’ the Cataphract said quietly. Her eyes narrowed dangerously, and something flashed in their luminous depths. ‘And still is. The pallor of death has not touched her overmuch?’
‘No,’ was the breathless answer. ‘She seems…alive.’ The acolyte was spellbound, his hooded eyes wide with an unsanctified desire.
‘Retrieve her and fear not for her body, as it is mostly preserved with minimal corruption. Place her upon the floor yonder, and gently.’
The two men reached in at opposite ends and lifted the occupant of the sarcophagus out. It was the body of a woman, perhaps in her twentieth winter at the time of death. Apart from a modest wrapping of cerements about her waist, she was nude, and as they brought her from the casket, her long raven hair fell loose and free. Her full lips were frosted in black, and a line of kohl shadowed her closed eyes. Her small hands were bound at the wrists, and a certain patchiness on her arms was the sole indicator that the advances of death had touched her. The remainder of her skin was alabaster white and flawless. With reverence, they placed her on the floor of the tomb.
There was a sheathed sword of ornate make resting in the sarcophagus. The acolyte was about to retrieve it, only to be held up by a sharp cry from the Cataphract.
‘Do not touch that! It is an instrument of death, and here it must stay.’
The acolyte dutifully backed away, clasping his shaking hands on his waist. The Cataphract knelt and sliced the bonds from the body’s wrists with a poniard. The arms fell away limply. With a gloved hand, the Cataphract pried back one dead eyelid, exposing a glazed-over blue orb. ‘In life, she possessed eyes which were the bluest of the blue. Yet, when rage was upon her, they’d flare with the purest of ruby red.’ The Cataphract gazed up at the two attentive men. ‘She could stop armies with her smile, ensnare the callow and virginal with her eyes, and her voice froze water. Half the world she held in her thrall, and it took the other half to bring her to heel. Even then, they had to beseech the gods for aid, as she cut swaths through all who opposed her, soldier, peasant and wizard alike. She darkened the sun and turned the green field into a desert, and the palaces of the mighty into charnel houses. Blood filled the rivers, and entrails hung like festoons from the palace walls as she unleashed her wrath on those who opposed her.
‘Things were black, and an execrable reckoning was nigh until the fateful moment the gods heard the prayers of the desperate and desolate. The whole pantheon and panoply of gods fought with her on the plains, in the valleys and on the mountains of the world, their battle causing devastation and ruin wherever it went. But they prevailed. In her vast mansion of steel they surrounded her and forced her surrender. To their celestial court they brought her, fettered in chains and manacles of cold iron and platinum. Sentence was passed down and she was made to drink a poison of secret herbs, the one thing that could slay her. Her spirit was condemned, and her body placed here in this Tomb.’
‘And that sword?’ the acolyte asked.
‘It was given to her by she who was her mistress. It is forged of no metal known to living men, nor was it crafted under our skies. It is a thing of Hjoll, of death, and here it must stay’
Both men regarded the slight corpse before them, each thinking doubtful thoughts of varying quality. Chaulsad spoke first. ‘Who was she, Cataphract?’
‘I won’t give her name, lest it curse us, but the tales that survive say little of her nature apart from the puissant power she wielded. What she was is a matter of debate. Goddess, demiurge, mortal, mere child? Who’s to say? But today we wake her and set her upon the path Ydrys has ordained.’
The acolyte froze in alarm. ‘But Cataphract! Won’t she seek vengeance and kill us all?’
‘No, for it is not her animus I will imbue the corpse with.’ The Cataphract stooped and picked up the cruet. ‘This vessel contains the animus of a woman from ancient Girsadea, and I know not how long she has been within, nor who she was, but Ydrys has bid me to make a bargain. Watch and hearken!’
The Cataphract knelt again, and taking up the poniard, cut a thin line downward upon the body, from the point of her left clavicle down past her small breast. The skin was peeled back, and the Cataphract spread two dead ribs with a small metal device. ‘You!’ she said to the acolyte. ‘Hold out the cruet and unseal it on my command. Do not fail at this lest you become possessed yourself.’ She cut a slit between the ribs, and the dark grey of the dead heart was exposed. The Cataphract began a low, sonorous incantation, and the Tomb throbbed with arcane energies. Sinister forces swirled through the air, and there came a distant keening, like the shrieks of the damned. Affairs reached a terrifying peak, and the acolyte fought his horror as to not drop the cruet.
‘Now!’ the Cataphract shrieked, her eyes aflame. ‘Unseal it!’
The acolyte removed the lid of the vessel with trembling hands. There was a deep sighing wind and the Tomb shook slightly, sending up motes of dust. A thin red mist flowed from the cruet down into the open wound on the body’s chest. The ghastly cry of thousands echoed in the close chamber, and the acolyte swiftly regretted the day he was born. There was more shaking, and the body juddered and arched its back, its dead mouth opening wide in a silent shriek. The stench of decay and urine tainted the air. There came a great gurgling roar, like a surge from an infernal ocean, reverberating and howling. The acolyte screamed and fell to his knees. Even Chaulsad put his back to one of the pillars, his austere face creased with fear.
Then things became still, and the acolyte dared to look outward between his fingers. The girl was sitting upright, coughing up sputum and blood, while the Cataphract watched on carefully. The cerements fell away from the girl’s waist, and the acolyte swallowed down on an unbidden erotic thrill.
Animation coursed through the girl, the deathly pallor of her skin transforming before them into hale hues of life. A small hand rose and pushed flowing hair from her face. Her other hand clawed the ground, breaking once manicured fingernails, and drawing blood from her palms. She let out a glass-shattering scream and stumbled to her feet, flaying the air like a mad thing. The Cataphract restrained her with a firm hand, and the girl stood bent over, drooling and whimpering.
‘I am Cataphract Ela Barbri, High Priestess of Ydrys and the ruler of the sacred city of Quscec. Welcome again to life. What is your name, lass?’
The girl’s head moved slowly to face her questioner, and the acolyte’s heart skipped a beat when he saw her eyes were pure white, as if bereft of irises. The vaunted bluest of the blue was gone. A line of spittle ran from a corner of her mouth, and her entire face quivered.
The acolyte noted drily that the wound the Cataphract had made was no more. There was not even a scar.
It took many tries for the girl to speak. When she did, it was low and sibilant. ‘I am Honvesa.’
‘What did you do in life, Honvesa?’
The white eyes flickered, and the black-frosted lips compressed in a smirk. ‘I was an assassin.’
The Cataphract’s thin eyebrows knitted together and she glanced at Chaulsad, who stood attentively nearby. ‘An assassin. Indeed? Ydrys’ ways are inscrutable. Honvesa, you will follow me. You are now my pupil and you will heed me in all things.’
Honvesa shook violently, then stood up straight, as if she had shrugged off some great debility. She took a number of deep breaths and gazed numbly at the cold floor, flexing her fingers slowly. Another frisson of arousal came unbidden to the acolyte, and he wrestled inwardly to keep his eyes off the naked girl.
Either through intuition or some other preternatural gift, the girl sensed his scrutiny. Honvesa paused, and her head pivoted around, and those ghastly white eyes fixed upon the now quaking acolyte. She bared her teeth. ‘Who is this?’
‘He is one of my disciples,’ Chaulsad said.
‘He is now mine.’ With blinding speed, Honvesa launched herself at the acolyte, leaping on him, her hands about the hapless man’s throat. They fell to the floor in a jumble, and the Cataphract could only watch on amazed as the resurrected girl tore out the acolyte’s throat with her fingers and smeared the blood on her face.
The acolyte moaned once and sank back on the floor lifelessly. Honvesa covered her hands in his blood, then wiped them across the length of her slender body, chortling to herself. She tilted her head back and crowed jubilantly, balling her hands into fists. ‘I am reborn!’
The Cataphract and Chaulsad exchanged glances. ‘Honvesa, we must be gone from here. This is no place for the living.’ Ela Barbri said.
Honvesa sniffed the air and confidently strolled through the shimmering doorway.
Ela Barbri shook her head slowly. ‘Hjoll below, but what does the lord Ydrys have in mind with her? An assassin, by the gods!’
‘One who drinks blood, Cataphract,’ Chaulsad darkly remarked.
The Cataphract shrugged, toeing the acolyte’s corpse with a foot. ‘A revived body requires the fresh blood of the living for the first three days. It is one of the basic tenets of necromancy. Her thirst for it will pass.’
‘Unless Ydrys wills otherwise.’
‘Yes,’ Ela Barbri conceded. ‘Unless that. Bring the corpse of your acolyte with us, Chaulsad, I could always use it.’