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Drawn by rumours of bounteous dead and macabre knowledge, seven necromancers from all across Ard came to the lost crypt of many kings. At the heart of the crypt, they prepared to battle, each intending to claim it for themself. But a priestess, Arthura, walked among them. As they gathered their power, a pillar of red spirits screamed down to consume her, and when it cleared, there was a hole straight through her head, as if the goddess of undeath herself stood before them. ‘Don’t be idiots,’ she said in the yawning voice of Morrin the Undying. ‘This is my city, and I won’t have you ruining it. Play nice.’

The necromancers were awed, so when the goddess left her human vessel whole and unharmed, they only battled a little. Thus was Tombtown first settled.

~from A History of Tombtown by Emberlon the Disloyal

 

Chapter One: The Boy in the Crypt

 

There was a boy in the crypt, and he wasn’t dead. Ree gripped the doorframe, transfixed by the sight of him as he crouched and muttered to himself. Not an adventurer, come to plunder, or an acolyte seeking to disturb the dead, but a boy — curly haired, sepia-skinned, and shockingly, hypnotically alive.

‘Rats and rotten luck!’ The boy touched the shards of the ceramic jar at his feet. The sound of it shattering had drawn Ree here. He tsked and tutted, sifting through the remnants. ‘Oh it’s all broken — and over there, look. Drat! It’ll take an age to reassemble this.’

Ree had never heard someone with such scattered speech. It made her want to smile — or grimace.

He was in one of the old embalming rooms. Narrow and cold, with rusted tools and dusty jars scattered among the many shelves. A gnarl-legged table stood in the centre, and beneath the grime and moss, Ree could still make out the dark stains of the grisly work it had once seen.

The boy was lit by a flickering torch he’d propped into one of the sconces. Orange light, shifting and angry, made a monster of his shadow. Nobody Ree knew had need of torchlight. Like Ree, they could see in even pitch black — a ritual her father had done for her when she was first born. One of many small magicks required to live among the dusty dead, far away from sun and sky.

He shouldn’t be here. The thought was intrusive, pushing to the fore of her mind again and again. He shouldn’t be here. Upworlders only came in two kinds: those that would kill her people, and those that would be killed by them. She had no idea which kind he was.

She ought to run. Let the crypt kill him, before he had a chance to kill her. But though her pulse ran fast, her legs wouldn’t move. He looked so different to anyone she’d ever known, so bright and vibrant. Utterly misplaced among the crumbling stone and heavy dust.

Someone leaned over Ree’s shoulder, drooling and moaning. ‘Not now, Larry!’ Ree swatted at the undead man trying to gnaw at her shoulder. Some of his flesh flaked off as he backed up, his yellowed eyes rolling in his head. He didn’t groan, which was a mercy, but she couldn’t completely repress the spike of guilt as he shook his head in confusion, slack jaw lolling.

Inside the room, the boy was still thinking aloud. ‘Come now,’ he said. ‘You’re the foremost burial scholar in the Grand University — surely you can identify a few gooey remains without the accompanying script.’ His accent was strong and strange to Ree — full of the nasal twang of the upworlder upper class, much like old Emberlon’s, the town archivist and her teacher.

He shouldn’t be here; she shouldn’t be here. But Ree’s curiosity had always been terrible. She eased into the room on soft-soled boots, her dusty robes swishing around her legs. She had a better look at him now — bespectacled, in a plain, fine-clothed shirt and trousers, a much-mauled leather satchel hanging from his shoulder. He might be eighteen or nineteen, only a few years older than her.

He didn’t look dangerous. Odd, maybe — but then, what was odd to a necromancer’s daughter?

He poked gingerly at the jellified organ mulch at his feet. ‘Brain!’ he said confidently. He drew a journal and pen from his pack and began to scribble.

Ree wrinkled her nose and made a decision. ‘That’s clearly liver,’ she said. The boy yelped and scrambled back along the floor, knocking into the embalming table. A rusty hook fell from the surface and bounced from his shoulder to ping across the stone bricks. The torchlight glittered against his glasses.

The boy rummaged in his pack. ‘Stay back, undead creature!’ He drew a solid iron sarakat from his pack and held it out as if to ward her off. It was the twisting, tree-shaped religious symbol of some upworlder life god or other. Hard to imagine what protection he hoped to gain from it.

Probably not dangerous. The boy, nor the sarakat.

Ree raised her eyebrows.

The boy lowered the sarakat slightly. ‘Pardon me, but … you are an undead creature, aren’t you?’

‘I’m Ree,’ said Ree, because she didn’t know how to respond to ‘you’re an undead creature’.

It was also completely unfair. In a town full of necromancers, she looked the least undead. Long exposure to death from life in the crypts had made her skin a bit ashen, and maybe there were dark smudges around her eyes, but as she wasn’t a practitioner, the changes were minor. She noted again his flushed cheeks and bright eyes. Maybe not minor compared to him.

Larry stumbled through the doorway.

‘Ah!’ The boy raised his sarakat again. Larry shuffled toward him, arms outstretched. ‘Ah! Get back, you fiend!’

That’s an undead creature.’ Ree straightened as the boy cowered away. She gave Larry a shove; he toppled, gargling as he went.

The boy scrambled to his feet and sidled to the opposite side of the room, keeping the wall at his back. As if Larry was a ghoul or a sentinel, or any kind of greater undead, instead of a moronic, masterless minion.

The boy’s eyes flicked to Ree. ‘You pushed him.’ Larry groaned and flailed, drawing the boy’s gaze once more. ‘Is he alright, do you think?’

Ree’s eyebrows twitched. ‘Barely a breath ago, you called him a fiend.’

‘Yes. Well.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Will he get up again?’

Ree watched Larry kicking his legs like a turtle flipped on its back. ‘Eventually.’ She glanced at the boy; his wide-eyed terror was softening into confusion.

‘Aren’t undead creatures meant to be dangerous?’

Ree shrugged. ‘Most are. Larry isn’t.’

‘Larry?’

Ree crossed her arms, beginning to regret her curiosity. She wasn’t used to this much conversation. And certainly not with a stranger. She darkened her expression, hoping to make her discomfort look like power, as her father would. ‘Do you have a name?’ She asked it as imperiously as she could.

‘Uh … yes, of course. Terribly rude of me — I’m Chandrian Smythe, Third Rank Historian at the Grand University and the foremost burial scholar in the southern reaches.’ This formality seemed to have brought him back to himself; he puffed up his chest.

Ree wasn’t certain he ought to be proud. She’d not met many scholars before — certainly not those who didn’t practice the Craft — but it was hard to be impressed by someone who couldn’t tell a jellified brain from a jellified liver. After all, this was a third era embalming room — third era culture ate the brains of their dead to preserve their souls, and embalmed the bodies to preserve the spirit. She’d played with enough embalming jars in her childhood to know there wouldn’t be any brains in this sector of crypts.

Ree smoothed her robes and sat down on a heavy urn in the corner. ‘What are you doing here?’

The boy, Smythe, blustered a moment. ‘I — well, I’m a historian! I’m doing some very important excavation work. I have plenty of reason to be here. The real question is what are you doing here?’

He asked it as if he were speaking to another upworlder. Ree’s cheeks heated. ‘I live here.’ She nearly mumbled the words, relieved that her grey-tinged skin wouldn’t show her blush.

Larry managed to roll onto his side. He started to gnaw the table leg.

‘You shouldn’t do that, Larry, you’ll ruin what’s left of your teeth.’

‘Live here,’ said Smythe.

‘Or hereabouts.’

Smythe took out his journal again. ‘How did you end up here? You must be terribly lonely.’

Ree frowned. ‘Not especially.’ She didn’t completely understand the concept. There had always been plenty of people around, even if they tended to ignore each other. And there were always the dead. Honestly, she spent a large portion of her time travelling so she could get away from all of them.

‘Did you run away from home? Or get lost from a — a merchant caravan, perhaps. Festering rats –’ he looked like something awful had just occurred to him. ‘You weren’t abandoned here, were you?’

‘No, of course not.’ Ree glared. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her — like she was equal parts pitiable and fascinating — not unlike the reaction children had to Wandering Larry. Her parents had been among the first settlers of the crypt, and she was proud of her heritage. ‘I was born here.’

There was a moment of silence and indrawn breath broken only by the sound of Larry howling as he chipped a tooth.

Ree sighed and stood up. ’Look, you really shouldn’t be here. Even if the undead don’t kill you, an adventurer won’t think twice before running you through, and we do seem to get a lot of them. That’s what I came to tell you — that you should leave, and that you won’t find any brains in a third era embalming room. That’s just common sense.’

That, and she’d so badly wanted to see the boy — a living, upworlder boy who wouldn’t stab her as soon as look at her. Her cheeks heated again, and before Smythe could ask any more questions, she fled into the musty corridor.

‘Wait! Where are you going?’

Ree skipped up onto a crate and hauled herself onto a thick wooden crossbeam just as Smythe skidded into the corridor, torch in hand. She crouched above, holding her breath as he looked each way and scratched his head. He picked a direction and started to jog, running beneath her crossbeam and down the corridor, torchlight surrounding him in a flickering orange globe.

Ree put her back to cold stone, breathing deeply. She’d done more than anyone would ask of her. She’d given him a solid warning, and once he realised she was gone, he would surely pack up his things and head back upworld. Given his reaction to Larry, she didn’t think he’d have a taste for the night horrors and guardians that wandered the crypts, so it shouldn’t take him long to come to his senses.

She swung herself down from the crossbeam and landed lightly on the stone floor. She cringed as she landed, imagining how much better it would be if she were as light as a cat or as graceful as a cave spider. She tracked back down the other side of the corridor and squeezed through a damaged bit of wall that let her into one of the resting rooms, stacked with corpses on stone shelves like children in bunk beds. As she passed, a pale hand reached for her. ‘None of that,’ she said absently.

She took a pinch of herbs from the pouch at her belt and threw it in the creature’s face. The corpse withdrew its hand and stilled. Though she had never desired to learn the Craft and had no power over the dead, she’d learned some priestess tricks from her mother — such as using the herbs, fluids, and sometimes incense used to prepare corpses to calm lesser undead.

If she had the Craft, like her father, she could turn them with an exertion of will. If she’d been a healer, like her mother, she could destroy them in a pulse of warm light. But she’d not chosen either of her parents’ fields, and without magic, the best she could do was trick them into sleep with prayers and plants — and when that failed, flee.

Her thoughts turned again to the upworlder. Smythe had been a bit rude, calling her an undead creature. Not that she didn’t get mistaken for one from time to time, but she’d never been called one by someone her own age. By someone who wasn’t trying to kill her. She flushed at the thought — that he’d looked at her and mistaken her for a corpse. It was true that denizens tended to look a little greyer and more hollow-eyed than upworlders, but she’d always thought she looked very normal, for a denizen. She was stockier and stronger than anyone she knew — physical fitness being a necessity for life in the crypts without magic. That was a healthy look, surely.

‘I’m seventeen,’ she said to one of the corpses. ‘Do I look old and rotten to you?’

It gazed lifelessly at the stone above it. Ree sighed and rubbed her eyes.

It didn’t matter what some random boy thought she looked like. Certainly not one so stupid as Smythe. ‘Right.’ She shook herself and drew a long breath. Smythe was almost certainly gone by now. It was time to collect Larry and head back into the eastern archives, where she’d been sorting books before Smythe had drawn her out. ‘Rest well,’ she advised the room of corpses. Her father would point out that her words meant nothing to the dead; her mother would remind her that she owed the dead her respect.

Her eyes lingered on those faces, slack with death, wrapped lovingly centuries before in treated bandages to preserve their physical forms. For those above, the sight of them would elicit fear or disgust, but for Ree there was only a sense of warm familiarity edged with caution. She was not a necromancer like her father and nearly everyone she had ever known. But there was no-one who loved the crypt as she did. None who had explored it as deeply, nor plumbed as many of its secrets. There was no-one who had a stronger claim on it.

And she knew that there was no place here for someone like Chandrian Smythe.

She eased back through the crack in the wall into the previous corridor, smoothed the creases from her robes, and followed the slow, shuffling sound of dragged feet. It wasn’t long before she caught sight of the shambling creature, with his cobweb hair and green-tinged skin. ‘Larry,’ she called. She snapped her fingers.

Larry turned ponderously, arms swinging like pendulums, and shuffled toward Ree, drool pooling at the corners of his lolling mouth.

They called him Wandering Larry, though who had first named him, Ree didn’t know. He was an anomaly, a minion without a master, but he was a harmless one. He’d been here before the town was founded, bumbling after this person or that, pathetically failing in his attempts to eat people. As the first child born in the crypt, Ree had grown up with him. She was equal parts fond of him and frustrated by him, like an old, smelly, family dog.

Now that he’d caught her scent again, he would reliably follow her back to town. She set off down the corridor, up a spindly staircase and up a crumbling stone wall, trailed by the putrescent Larry. It felt good to be moving again; it loosened something in her brain, as if her thoughts had been lodged by a hard rock and could now flow freely.

At times like this, she usually thought about her personal research. This place in her mind — and in her journal, tucked safely in her pack — was solely for her. It was as much a promise as a comfort. One day, when her research was complete, everyone would be forced to acknowledge her power. They would be more polite when they asked her to fetch books then.

And yet the river of her thoughts kept winding back over and over to the moment she revealed herself. ‘Pardon me, but … you are an undead creature, aren’t you?’

Ree gritted her teeth. She dropped from a ledge into a shallow pit, old bones crunching under her feet. She stepped aside just as Larry landed on his face, flailing among the bones. Ree sighed and flicked a knucklebone from her collar. ‘It’s more than a little insulting,’ she murmured. While Larry struggled, she pulled herself up on the other side.

She tried to think of herself as other people saw her. Stocky build, sickly skin, shadowed brown eyes, and with dark hair pinned and trapped beneath her hood. Unremarkable among the denizens. Maybe unremarkable anywhere.

She’d never put much thought into her appearance. It wasn’t like people spent a lot of time looking at her. And on the rare occasion she attracted a snide comment, it had slipped from her mind without care. But it was different this time. She would grit her teeth and force her mind to other things, and yet it still kept circling back. The look of horror on his face …

They carried on their journey upwards, across a rattling bridge and along the side of a steep black ravine. ‘Think about it, Larry. It’s not like I march into people’s homes and compare them to apes or goblins. I bet when you were alive, you wouldn’t have put up with that.’

Larry gargled at her and tried to bite her arm. She shook him off with an admonishing tap on his forehead. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Ree turned the corner. ‘I don’t care –’

Ree froze midstep, panic seizing her muscles as surely as a healer’s spell. Cold pierced her like an arctic wind. Her gaze locked with white marble eyes in a translucent-skinned face, mere feet from her own. Horror clung to Ree like sweat.

She reached for her father’s training, for the mental wards that would protect her, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from its pale gaze and already she could feel herself disappearing into it as if caught in a blizzard.

The Lich leaned closer. It was a pale, man-like thing that hovered an inch above the ground, robes swirling like tentacles. Its breath rattled through peeled-back lips and its long-nailed fingers reached for her, slowly.

There was only one being in the crypt with such tangible, arresting power. It had been a necromancer, once. So old and so far-gone into the Craft that it had forgotten how to be human. It was the biggest monster of the crypts, but also its most powerful protector — so long as nobody crossed its path.

Ree’s chest squeezed. She leaned away from the Lich, torn between the danger of getting caught and the danger of running. A lifetime of her parents’ warnings drummed in her mind, a constant litany of ‘Don’t get caught. Don’t let it see. Do not disturb the dead.’

And now, just as they’d always warned, she could feel the air grow heavy with tiredness as its magic pooled around her. Her eyelids drooped, her body sagged.

It spread its arms wide. ‘Imaz kwizzat?’ it whispered, with magic as dry as parchment. ‘Kwizzat erd vizzin?’

Its power pressed on her, leeching energy from body and mind. She felt exhausted by it all; by her life in the catacombs, by her fear of the Lich, the constant twitchy thoughts of whether to run or hide. It would be so much easier to give in …

‘Don’t close your eyes. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t forget you’re alive.’

Its arms started to close around her, a cold embrace with the overpowering smell of dust. She heard it chanting the words of binding even as its magic drained the life from her and let it bleed into the stone. It was just so very hard to care …

‘I say, Ree, is that a friend of yours?’

Smythe’s cultured, upworlder accent shocked Ree out of her stupor. She reeled back, even as the Lich whirled and glided toward this new intruder, death magic trailing it like red mist.

‘Run!’ Ree shouted, but her tongue was thick and sluggish.

‘Wha –?’ Smythe froze as the Lich rose up in front of him, the tatters of its robes swirling about it in slow motion as if underwater.

Adrenaline surged; Ree leapt for Smythe, but the Lich was already sliding one withered hand under his chin.

Smythe stared into its marble eyes. ‘I — I beg your –’

‘Erd.’ The word curled in the air. Smythe’s eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed to the floor.

The Lich started chanting; Ree snatched at Smythe’s hands, steeling her mind to the Lich’s cloying necromancy. The Lich reached for her and its magic pressed down on her, a suffocating force. As lethargy set in, she savagely bit her lip; pain seared as hot blood poured down her chin, reminding her she was alive.

She tried to drag Smythe away but he was heavy, made all the more so with the Lich’s eyes on them. She just needed a moment, just to get Smythe out of its sight …

Larry shambled in, groaning forlornly. The Lich’s back straightened; its nostrils flared. It turned slowly on the spot to face Larry.

Its magic faded along with its attention. Ree seized her moment. She grabbed Smythe, cursing him for his considerable weight even as she fought the tail of the Lich’s lethargy. She dragged him behind a stack of crates, her pulse pounding her throat. Escape routes flashed through her mind: the drainage tunnel at the back, the trap door beneath the southern wall, but she could take advantage of none of these without abandoning Smythe, who was even now rapidly paling, his skin growing as clammy as a corpse.

She ought to leave him. What was he to her, really, this boy from the world above?

This boy who had saved her life.

When the Lich turned back from Larry to find his quarries missing, Ree held her breath. His white marble eyes swept the room, and Ree pressed further back behind the crate. Then, the energy in the room eased; the Lich folded its magic back into itself. It hunched in, and the light in its eyes died. It crooked a finger at Larry, almost an invitation, but the minion only gawped at it. Its arm dropped; it glided from the room as if nothing had ever happened.

Ree peered out from behind the box, her entire body tensed to flee. Larry spotted her, gargled what might have been delight, and tottered toward her. Ree slumped in relief.

Larry bumped into her shoulder and she patted his leg fondly. ‘You did well, Larry.’

He tried to nibble her hair, and she swatted him away.

Though the immediate danger had passed, it was hard to let the tension from her body. They had come so close to a fate worse than death; to be a minion of an immortal Lich, forever enslaved.

She had lived under the threat of the Lich for as long as she could remember. How many times had she watched it from afar as it searched through the archives or chanted its rituals? It had always seemed to her some kind of sinister automaton, but its danger had felt contained, its threat unreal. It lived its life on rails, unaware of anything that didn’t directly interrupt it. She’d been taught its schedule, where to avoid and when. It had become familiar. She had almost felt fond of it.

Now, she trembled from the memory of its magic. Larry touched her head with his clammy hands, groaning piteously. Bizarre to think that if he’d been following anyone else today, Ree would now be dead — or undead.

Her gaze fell on Smythe. His chest barely rose and all colour had drained from his face. ‘And what am I supposed to do with you?’ Ree murmured. Larry leaned around her, drool dangling from his open mouth. ‘Okay, Larry, I need you to — no, don’t chew on him! Just hold still …’