Interlude: Darkness Under the Sun (part ii)

by Mallard

Most people would have called someone, he knew. The police, perhaps, or a good friend; someone who would know where to find him should he not return. But the police would just get in the way, and there were not many anymore that he considered good friends. Those who did hold that distinction, he didn’t want anywhere near this side of his life.

Jedediah lit a second cigar on the long walk down the exterior steps, spiraling around and around the outside of the academy. He preferred this staircase to the noisy and oft-crowded one inside. It let him look out over the city, sweeping foggy vistas slowly being lost to sight as he circled the girth of the building.

At last, he reached the ground floor, the cigar long out, his coat damp from fog and perspiration. He dropped the stub of the cigar and ground it beneath his boot before unlocking the green-tarnished door that prohibited access to the lower floors. The stairs continued on the other side, a set of switchbacks now. His tread on the steel steps echoed off the pale stone walls, accompanied only by the faint hiss of the gas lamps that lit his way into the depths. This was a service stairway, not meant for widespread use. It lacked the elegant ironwork on the handrails of the interior stairs, and the sweeping views and low stone walls of the outer. It was purely functional, utilitarian.

Few people knew how deep beneath the surface the academy’s basements went. The elevators went only as low as the sewers. Further down, the subbasements sunk deep beneath the city, spreading out as well as down. Unbeknownst to the residents near the school, a network of storage rooms spread deep beneath many of their homes, well below the sewers.

As he descended, the air grew cold and stale, and Jedediah’s breaths game out in rasping clouds of white. Ancient circulation pumps kept the air breathable, but hardly fresh this far down, laboring to pump clean air from the surface. Moisture beaded on the iron handrail, flaking it in rust and running down the stone walls in thin rivulets.

“Winter-blasted stairs,” Jedediah muttered, feeling a twinge in his knee that he knew would make the return climb unbearable.

He came to a stop with a grunt at the bottom of the twentieth flight and fumbled for the key in his coat pocket, fingers numb from the chill, wondering what he would do if he had left it in his desk. His fingers closed on jagged metal, and he sighed in relief. The space beyond the door was pitch black, but a dial on the wall caused gas to flow and a spark to ignite, bringing light to a short hallway.

The hall was bare, tunneling through the earth to one of the lesser-known storage chambers beneath the academy. At the end of the hall was a second door, larger and more intimidating than the first. Constructed of solid steel, inlaid with elegant runes (which did nothing, but would ward against the ignorant), with no visible handle or window. Bolts the thickness of a man’s leg drove into the surrounding stone, rendering the door an immovable obstacle, nearly one with the tons of earth weighing down above him.

The security of the door did not indicate anything especially dangerous beyond it; all the entrances to the academy’s underground rooms were similarly sealed. Too many dangerous creatures and unsavory individuals could be found in the underground, though he was currently well below the sewers and the old subway lines. In fact, he was deep beneath the city, far below the lowest basements, on a level with the sunken steel-and-concrete foundations that kept the airship spires standing against earthquakes and coastal storms.

Jedediah withdrew a second key from his pocket and held it up to examine in the gaslight. The key was old and tarnished, wrought steel in a delicate filigree, none of which was decorative. The lock he inserted the key into was like no other in the city, and read not the teeth of a key, but the entire intricate shape. A jeweler would have more luck accurately duplicating the key than a locksmith.

He turned the key several times, and with each twist, something within the door click and spun, the steel shuddering as the bolts withdrew from the stone walls. Leaving the key in the lock, the dean pushed hard, and the door slowly swung inward, well-balanced despite its weight. The chamber beyond flickered into light once the door hung fully open, illuminating rows of long and narrow clay boxes, laid on stone shelving that sloped slightly downward. It was a small room, but a door in the rear led to other chambers further in. He looked around the room and once again was overcome with the feeling that maybe this was the province of a younger man.

The room smelled of death. To him, only; no one else would notice anything amiss. He wanted to hold his breath, but fought the impulse. It was a novice’s mistake to hide from the unpleasantness; to demonize the perfectly normal traits that those in his field endured. To demonize the entire field. Plenty of others had done that already. It was one reason these rooms were hidden away so deep beneath the academy, and why only one key existed.

Jedediah walked along one of the walls, his eyes examining the careful labels, handwritten in indelible paint on aluminum slabs and affixed to each stone box. He had started the collection as a lark when he was young, and had only later realized its true worth.

“#22: Bloodhound,” read one of the placards. “Age: Approx. twelve years. Cause of death: Advanced age. Sex: Male, neutered. Description: Approx. 25″ height at shoulder, reddish brown with black saddle, approx. 90 lbs.” Some of the placards had more detailed descriptions, for animals he had known personally or spent significant time in autopsy. Other dogs filled the shelves, next to cats, birds, snakes. Everything one might keep as a pet that he had managed to get ahold of. He patted the box labeled “Ambrose” with a fond smile, a box he never opened, then continued into the next room.

Further in, the boxes grew larger, made of stone and reinforced with steel bands. Deep in the rear was one labeled “#104: Bush Elephant,” though there was no practical way of extricating it by himself. Jedediah had no reason to go that far, however. In the second room, he took quick stock and chose a pair of boxes. They slid out easily onto a low wheeled cart, and with a grunt and a burst of enhanced strength, he lifted the heavy lids and set them against the wall. His breathing quickened, as it always did at this point, and he felt the creeping charcoal at the edge of his vision. The first signs. He fought it, instinctively, as always, a visceral reaction to the unnatural magics. He clenched his fists, then forced them open. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and let the darkness in.

The lights in the chamber, faint orange through his eyelids, lost their hue and turned white. Power coursed through his veins. The cold, the pain in his knees, vanished, and he felt suddenly younger, more powerful. Strong. Invincible.

He smiled. “Always the same,” he murmured, and let the power flow out and into the bones that lay carefully piled in the boxes before him.

Necromancy is a complex and dangerous magic, involving as it does the manipulation of the deceased. It was considered by many to be a dark magic, and who could blame them? To what gentile purpose could this be turned to, a power that manipulated the bodies of those laid to peaceful rest?

Most of necromancy came down to the manipulation of dead muscles, in mimic of life. A novice would require a recent corpse, with all its parts in working order, needing only to add impetus to the existing components. It was like driving a fully-automated vehicle, requiring only minor direction from the driver in terms of speed and direction.

But a true master could cause the bones themselves to remember what it was like to be alive. To recall the long-dissolved attachments of muscles and ligaments, skin and sinew. A pile of bones could be made to remember their proper shape, how they had once moved, and it was these phantom memory muscles that the necromancer manipulated. It was more akin to driving an old and finicky jalopy, requiring detailed knowledge of its quirks, a firm hand on the gearshift, and constant concentration to keep the machine functioning smoothly.

There were, of course, many misconceptions about the field; so little known, so poorly studied. It took a highly focused concentration to control a reanimate. The most skillful necromancers could control only a handful at a time, and those that fell outside his control would merely collapse back into lifelessness. The legends of an evil necromancer raising vast armies of the slain, or losing control of a monster, were likely no more than just that: legends, fiction. It was, in fact, exceedingly rare for a necromancer to raise a human body at all; the corpses of animals were both easier and more legal to come by.

Jedediah watched through colorless eyes as the bones in the boxes before him shifted and began to piece themselves together, the power he poured into them causing them to recall old configurations, long-disused connections. First one, then the other crawled out of its box, still only half assembled, the containers too small to hold the full size of the beasts. In only seconds, the reanimates were complete, the wolf standing at just shy of three feet; the top of the sabre-tooth’s skull on a level with Jedediah’s chin. The dean was somewhat proud of that skeleton, having had to ship it from the far southeast. It turned to him and snarled at this tiny creature that dared raise it, but it knew its master and would not attack.

The easy part done, Jedediah bade the creatures escort him from the storage rooms, stopping only to resecure the door to the chambers of the dead. There was power in bones, as the Patchwork Folk had proven to terrible effect. And though only another necromancer could raise the bodies he had locked away, any practitioner of life magic could use the inherent power in the bones to devastating effect.

Jedediah barely noticed the long trek back to the level of the sewers, the power in his veins washing away pain and discomfort. At its heart, the primary act of necromancy was to cause muscles–either real or phantasmal–to move in an unnatural manner. The same principles could be applied to living muscles, and for nearly any necromantic use, some little bit of the power bled into the user, rendering him stronger, less susceptible to pain. It was not unlike a continuous adrenaline rush, and could be just as addicting, and just as damaging if overused.

A second key opened the steel doors into the chamber where the automat had been set against the academy. Immediately upon entering, the skeletal wolf bounded into the room, phantom muscles bunching and stretching in Jedediah’s charcoal vision. The wolf’s bony snout sniffed at the gouges in the stone floor near the storeroom, at the locked door to the sewers. Though in life, it had been little more than a dumb animal, it was now an extension of Jedediah’s mind. Through their connection, he could smell the faded scents of oil and smoke, of hot metal and gunpowder, of sweat and musk. Mage the wolf focused on the latter smells, cataloging the differences, unraveling the tale of eight separate bodies in the chamber, and a dozen more inside the storeroom. Victor had described six terrorists, and he and the boy made up the eight. The others were no doubt the students Jedediah had led to clean up the mess, and he ignored them.

The freshest of the six scents led to the sewers, and sensing they had a trail, the great cat yowled, an unearthly sound emanating from a throat that no longer existed, echoing off the stone walls. Had Jedediah been anyone else, he would have shivered. But he was connected to the beast; he was the beast, and its cry merely excited him. The gray fog across his vision thickened, rendering the world in starker contrast, turning the chamber black and white. Jedediah took several deep breaths–through his own nose, not the wolf’s–and the grays returned. It was the danger of performing necromancy while angry. The most volatile of the magics, it could spiral out of control on a stray thought, an errant whim, and the first thing any student of the necromantic arts learned was to control his emotions, lest they kill him.

His key opened the chamber’s other door, and he followed the wolf as it padded along the sewers, feeling no fear. He had spent much time in the underground, and was intimately familiar with its inhabitants. And active necromancy had the same effect on beasts as it did humans; mortal beings would keep well away in instinctual fear at the unnatural.

The trail was mixed, old scents crossing under new, but it was not difficult to pull out the most recent odors and follow them through the tunnels and along the river of filth and strange magics. Though the tunnel was only dimly lit by the faintly glowing fungus on the walls, Jedediah saw through the skeletal cat’s eyes, smelled through the dead wolf’s nose, and his steps never faltered.

The new trail followed the old, passing through a damp and rotting tunnel to an old subway station, and there the trails separated. Though the subways were never completed, long stretches of tunnel remained at various points underneath the city. The men and woman of the terrorist group had followed the tracks of this one in their retreat, past an opening into a sunken storefront where the old trail peeled off.

Jedediah tracked his quarry along the tunnel, reflecting on the times past when he had done the same, though rarely with such large companions. When he had first been chosen as dean–among some scandal, due to his field of study–there had been occasional trouble with black market trades of rare chemicals. Sold to criminals as ingredients for drugs and potions. He had done his best to stamp out the trade, and in doing so, had tracked down and summarily expelled professors and students, and sent more than a handful of black market fences to the police. Cases like that, he could leave to them, to those who made it their job to enforce justice.

This case, however, he could not.

This was personal.

* * * * * * * *

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