In which Tybalt's freshly imported necromancy, traveling, rabbit-gods and extortion are discussed, weighed and measured against a trio of demi-gods who run the city of Wolfward during an ugly civil war.
A Necromancer in Four Seasons
Tybalt had stopped counting the amount of Morti he’d acquired on his Grand Tour of Tempestia, fresh out of Seven Sister University. The first person he reconstituted during his years abroad in Tempestia was a farmer with a pitchfork through his rib-cage, pinned against a barn wall like a bug in a collection while his crops went fallow in the fields.
It’d been a strain to weave life back into his body, to make him forget he was not only dead, but that oxygen wasn’t reaching his lungs, that blood wasn’t pumping from his heart—all those functions replicated by Tybalt’s will and the exported power focused through the runes on his arms.
He raised his hands, adjusting the glyphs on his arms, twisting them into the right combination of symbols: centipede, moon, broken sickle, cat’s eye. The sigils swirled around his arms, connecting, combining, breaking apart, re-assembling in a bevy of ink and arcane bindings. It was harder than Tybalt remembered, and it burned his forearms something fierce as the power stored in his glyphs flowed into the corpse.
In many respects, Tybalt thought, necromancy was a con—you had to convince, using magic and willpower, the laws of nature that the body that not only able to move, but it wanted to do so. Furthermore, the corpse had no need to sleep, rest or repair itself. Morti existed only by the virtue of the habits of every day life being amplified and guided by magical means—should those means vanish, the Morti would collapse like marionettes with their strings cuts.
The symbols stopped their rapid whirring, settled back into normal positions on his arms.
And because anyone who has ever re-invigorated the dead cannot resist doing this at least once, Tybalt twisted his hands in a rising motion and let out a diabolic cackle. It was cut short by a coughing fit. “Damn,” he spat, “How the hell do you keep enough air in your lungs to do that?” Maybe Huehuetochtli had covered that in one of her lectures and he’d simply missed it? He slapped himself in the face, bringing himself to the present. Absent-minded re-animators tended to have lifespans measured in seconds, rather than years.
The corpse Tybalt had mentally dubbed Pitchfork coughed back to life. Pitchfork’s eyes sparked with green light. His fingers twitched, twisted, strangling nothing. Tybalt smiled. Once Pitchfork had pulled himself loose from the barn and swept his unblinking eyes across the wreck that had been, presumably, his farm, a half-groan escaped his windburned lips. Or it was just gas escaping his chest cavity, Tybalt guessed. It was unwise to indulge in the pathetic fallacy with Morti. They looked human, and their drives were mammalian, but ultimately they were about as sapient as a thundercloud. “I find myself in need of a guide and trap-checker,” Tybalt monologued for form’s sake, adjusting the freed pitchfork in the Morti’s hand. “I’m new here, you see. I don’t imagine Tempestia has ever seen a necromancer. The Ban and all that.” Tybalt paused to wrinkle his nose and coughed.
“You’ll do for the latter, I think,” Tybalt continued. “Since I have an excellent map and sense of direction.” This last was a lie, but there was no need to confess weakness to a dead man, either.
There was a squishing sound as Tybalt’s boot came down in a cow pat. He was thankful Pitchfork was not alive—a living person might be tempted to giggle at such a mistake.
Pitchfork said nothing, but another groan burbled its way up from his throat.
“Well,” Tybalt said, wiping off his boot on a patch of grass unstained by blood or viscera. Most people called him mad for electing to spend his post-education-life on a continent embroiled in a civil war between demiurges, but to Tybalt that sounded more fun than threatening. Morti-material, for one thing, were much easier to come by on battlefields and raided farmsteads like this. In peace-time he could reasonably expect to have been chased by a rabid mob wielding torches and pitchforks.
“I have the feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Tybalt said, stepping back onto the main road, Pitchfork leading the way—shambling towards the nearest battlefield.
Tybalt was nodding off by his campfire in the cliffs north of Wolfward when Huehuetochtli appeared before him on a stolen beam of moonlight. Snow flurries passed through her coiled white braids, and settled on the surface of Huehuetochtli’s clay cup, filled with a foaming liquid.
Tybalt started awake with a snort. An ocean of fireflies popped into existence behind the small man. Thousands of little green lights hovering in the air. There was the sound of many somethings cracking: trees in the winter winds, ice repositioning itself on brittle branches. Snapping bones. The wind shrieked through Tempestian crags and trees, a mad ululation setting Tybalt’s teeth on edge.
“Is that my favorite student?” she asked, thin arms encompassing the high valley where Tybalt made his camp. Her face was unlined and bone-bright as the full moon above.
Tybalt stifled a shriek, disguised as a yawn. He’d been caught literally napping. The fireflies blinked as Tybalt cleared his own eyes, re-positioned his hands in his bear-fur-mittens. Fingers and wits tried to twitch to life. “I’d offer you a drink,” explained Tybalt, adjusting his flapped fur cap, “but you seem to have brought your own.”
Huehuetochtli smiled: an exercise in enamel and lunar amusement. Tybalt quashed a rising shiver. The woman seemed unaffected by cold or wind—a trick Tybalt had never mastered under her tutelage.
“Doing your best to make a name for yourself, are you?” Huehuetochtli purred, taking Tybalt's hand in one of her strange, three fingered ones and shaking gently. Tybalt could feel her bones through the fur—colder than wind.
“I saw Pembroke Ridge. Interesting work. You left no bodies,” she said. “Good start, but maybe you should think bigger?”
The fireflies blinked again, clashing against the snowfall. Tybalt leaned over to kick new life into the fire without much success. The ashes sat sullenly in the rock-pit before the yak-and-manticore-skin tent, immune to prodding. He didn’t mention the strange red headed man who accosted him amid the ashes of Pembroke Bridge a month ago—and he certainly didn’t counter that the town had been ashes and screams when he and the Morti got there.
He shivered, glad to have the excuse of the cold. The red-headed man had the affect of a man who enjoyed chaos in the same way another might enjoy a brandy after dinner. “Bit out of your way,” Tybalt noted, trying to pull his hand free from his old teacher’s with no success.
She smiled wider.
“Not at all,” Huehuetochtli replied. “I’m impressed you had the stomach to do that on your own. With your hands.” I didn’t, Tybalt nearly said, then bit down on his lip to stop the words escaping anyway. This is what I get for staying in moonlight. There was another groan of trees, un-protected bones creaking in the growing storm.
“You really should be more discreet,” Huehuetochtli continued, playing with one of her snow-white braids. “I’m tempted to take you back to the Seven Sisters with me, actually. Save you from the inevitable lynch mob or army—not to mention yourself.”
Tybalt ground his teeth. Tried to click his fingers. The sound was swallowed up by the wind and the fur of his gloves. “Really? I thought you’d know better than to try that.” Huehuetochtli tutted. “I think you’ve had a long enough vacation—I could use you back home. Not to mention, some people are quite cross with your, shall we say, parting gift.” Tybalt’s eyes watered, and that water was becoming ice in the pale woman’s presence. Huehuetochtli took a sip from her cup. Tybalt clicked a command, tongue against teeth. It echoed strangely, reflecting off the ever-shifting angles of the incoming storm.
The fireflies stepped forward from their sleeping places on the ground, in the crags, behind trees.The white of bone and the grey of old flesh blended with the snowflakes. Tybalt’s four hundred Morti relinquished the cover of darkness and formed a creaking circle around Huehuetochtli. “You’ve come a long way—never a dull moment. I do so enjoy our little chats,” Huehuetochtli remarked, taking another swig from her cup. She clapped her three-fingered hands together.
“I’m not going back, with you or anyone else.” said Tybalt to the lonely shaft of moonlight, which then vanished with a pop.
Using the dead as a windbreak, he pushed his way through the snow, into the tent and slept. He did not dream as the fire-fly-eyed dead drifted back into torpor.
Tybalt was watching the remainders of both armies limp off the battlefield in bad order, leaving their dead and fatally wounded in the valley below for him. Like dogs shedding fur in the summer heat.
He’d watched the sorry conflict from the ruins of a temple on the eastern side—in the center of a ring formed by his most durable Morti, just in case someone got cute and hurled a javelin, artillery shell or hex at him. It wouldn’t be the first time, either. While he had never engaged Triumvirate or Koschei’s forces in any meaningful battles during his time in Tempestia, they seemed to find his heavily guarded sightseeing somehow offensive.
The cliffside temple had been sacked years ago, if he was any judge: the precious metals peeled off the statues of the gods with pry-bars, the holy books rifled through and stripped of paper—whether people were scavenging spells or accelerants for campfires Tybalt couldn’t say. Perhaps both—as a rule, he’d found that Tempestians, north or south, were not a scrupulous people.
In the beginning of the Tempestian Civil War armies from both sides had rushed to sack undeclared cities between Wolfward in the south and Lyke-Wake Bay in the north. Tybalt had heard reports of the fighting while still in University, even as far aways as the lacunas and bays of Seven Sisters. Grand armies with Cantorial engines, bolstered by time-loops, imported magics—waves of men and beasts crashing against each other—all the enthusiasm of New War. There were tales of continent shattering magics and technologies that even the Triumvirs were half-afraid to use, if gossip could be believed.
By the time Tybalt set foot on Tempestian soil, that enthusiasm for bloodshed was entering its twilight. All the major armies, wards and think-tanks were recalled to protect the capitals of north and south Tempestia against all-or-nothing-attacks that could come from a clear blue sky. The Tempestian civil war had been outsourced to the lower orders, since neither side could bear to concede. Bands of bandits and local militias had taken over the role of looters and mercenaries-de-jour, nominally employed by one side or another. Sometimes they stumbled across each other and awkward, exhausting battles ensued. Like this one.
Tybalt kicked a stone over the cliff, watched the armies, barely over two thousand on each side. The sun glinted off of the overlapping 3-eyed insignia of the Triumvir’s Legionnaires, while Koschei’s troops carried a simple grey flag. Both were predominantly infantry—with a few beasts of battle serving as landmarks and pack animals bringing up the rear: elephants, siege rhinoceros and drafted lamassu.
Neither Koschei’s expeditionary force or the Triumvir’s hastily conscripted Legionnaires could claim victory over the other in this narrow valley today, even if both sides had an exceedingly broad definition for “victory.”
It had been a battle without tactics, sorcery or intrigue—armored men rushing down two steep slopes to clash on the only piece of flat ground for miles around. No scouts, no reconnaissance, no deliberation that Tybalt could see—it appeared that the clash today was nothing but a pure, ugly accident. From up here, Tybalt could hear the screams or the sound of iron on iron, the occasional hum of someone trying to rev an eldritch transponder. Clumsy butchery—but still useful to his eventual march on Wolfward.
Even though Tybalt’s Morti outnumbered both armies combined by an order of magnitude, he kept them in close order around him and commanded them to take no part.
They could not refuse, in any case.
Tybalt rubbed his eyes. Dust and grime caked his fingers as he pushed off from the pillar, gestured to his Morti to form their usual descending-once-human-chain down to the battlefield as both sides retired to their respective tops of the valley, weaving through pine-trees and abandoned logging roads. By the time the Morti reached the battlefield, it would be full dark. Tybalt felt a headache peep up from below the waves of thoughts, otterlike.
While he had not received another moonlight visit from Huehuetochtli, he suspected it was from his former professors murderous sense of whimsy and curiosity rather than the efficacy of Tybalt’s precautions against another visit. Even a small haul like this, maybe a thousand bodies at most, was worth the risk of professorial interference. Tybalt clicked his tongue, gestured to Pitchfork and the Morti currently on the cliff to stay in position, passing their comrades down hand over rotting hand to the valley floor. The chain of Morti had to remain unbroken for this to work.
Arrangements made, all Tybalt had to do was wait until he saw, with eyes blessed with night-vision, that his Morti were in position.
When the moon peaked over the pines, and the campfires of the two armies created scores of miniature suns, Tybalt saw it was indeed time.
He stood, walked over to Pitchfork, careful of his footing on the temple steps. Necromancy was an extreme art—it brought the dead back to life, not reset broken legs.
Every bit matters, he told himself. There is a certain number that can only be bargained with, not obliterated. Even for people like the Triumvirs who could localize earthquakes, temporal displacements or rain comets down on their foes would have to see the cost-benefit analysis to bargaining and conciliation. Coins and comfort were easier to part with than blood and reputation. He hoped, not for the first time, that he was making the right play. The wind blew him sideways, making Tybalt hop and skip to one side to avoid being swept over the side like a feather. Pitchfork opened one hand, the one not anchoring the thousands-strong chain of Morti, and clacked his teeth. One upside to the Morti was that they were light—stripped of vital and heavy organs and encumbrances to allow something like this to work. Tybalt placed an ungloved hand in Pitchfork’s free one.
Pitchfork hadn’t decayed too much since being risen. His cheeks still held flesh, his phalanges had traces of black skin clinging to them, wrapped around his namesake tool. Tybalt wondered why he kept Pitchfork as the locus for this exercise—then dismissed the question as irrelevant. There were men, good and bad, in his army of Morti. Women and children too. Anyone who’s only grave had been the open sky could be part of his company—but for some reason, the former farmer held an almost sentimental place in the necromancer’s heart.
He took a deep breath. The glyphs on his arms spun, glowed, began shifting into a rapid wheel of shapes: hummingbird, rabbit, broken wheel, knife. Black and green light perched on Tybalt’s fingertips as he forced one thought into his head and held it: “Rise.” Tybalt whispered, as the glyph-light, a fraction of it, left his fingers like a dropped coin and passed to Pitchfork. The eerie glow matched the Morti’s eyes, and traced across his fingers, elbow and clavicle down into his other hand—and onto the next Morti in line. The green relay of arcane energy slid down the cliff, phylanges-to-phylanges, through the valley floor and onto the battlefield. A green serpent coiled around the battlefield, as the recently deceased pulled themselves from the earth and worldly cares like vegetables. The glyph’s relay was slow, but steady, so Tybalt bit his lip, feeling each new unlife pop into existence in his head, another investment of his talents that could walk and bite and fight.
The soldiers in the camps were doubtless terrified—Tempestia had no necromancy, by all accounts, and thusly no frame of reference for this land-borne foxfire that consumed the darkness. Through the growing headache, and the feeling of needles through his palms, Tybalt smiled. It must be a terrifyingly lovely sight to see for the first time, this chain of green light squiggling through the valley. Tybalt sat as his head began to spin, still clutching Pitchfork’s unmoving hand, forcing himself not to use all his power at once, to pace himself and make sure he got every corpse free from the earth, strengthening the chain.
Hasty necromancers had an even worse life expectancy than inattentive ones.
Tybalt kept his focus as he worked—but was aware enough to notice that the rabbit in the full moon spared him a conspicuous wink. When he was done with this crop of Morti, Tybalt decided he would march on Wolfward, the capital of southern Tempestia, home of the Triumvirs.
Wolfward was a strange city to Tybalt’s eyes. It was flanked on the south by a desert the color of a scab, with attendant trash-yards and slums unconfined by Wolfward’s vast, heavily warded walls. The ocean came up against it on the east, along with a few fishing and trading vessels. To the north was a sprawling steppe of waist-high grass, some cut short by prosperous-looking glass and steel suburbs. The center of the city was dazzling, even from miles away—build vertically of thousands feet in the air. From childhood post-cards and furtive study at the university library, Tybalt recognized the Triumvir’s palace, flanked by Alexandrine libraries and other marvelous and multicolored edifices. There were a thousand colors of smoke rising from the city—sacraments, barbecues, rubbish being disposed of. The smoke passed through the intricately laced, gossamer thin latticework around the city’s center—Tybalt doubted anyone without years mortgaged in magical academia could spot it. A shell, translucent—at once a statement to those of sufficient magical caliber, a barrier against large scale attacks and an unbreakable gate against aerial escape. Even from miles away, Tybalt’s Huehuetochtli-trained eyes saw tell tale arcane sigils for flexibility, strength, adaptive tactics and dispersion wiggling in the eldritch barrier, not to mention the typical ice/fire/lightning motif so favored by the Triumvirate on their banners.
This was spell craft raised to a the levels of artistry, woven by three Archetypes—and he was going to enter into a battle of wits with them.
For the first time since setting foot in Tempestia, Tybalt experienced fear. He was playing a high-stakes game of brinksmanship, and coming very close to extorting the most powerful beings within a hundred leagues. He knew that his hundred-thousand-plus army, enhanced or not, couldn’t breach Wolfward—even if he commanded a rush before the chrono-cannons, blazing elemental traps or localized lightning storms could be armed, his army would not survive and the city walls would be unbreached. But it would take the Triumvirs significant allocation of resources to deal with Tybalt and the Morti—resources Tybalt was gambling they could not easily or swiftly replace in a cold war. Plus the possibility of illegally imported magic would tempt them, Tybalt was sure of that—sure enough to risk his life on it.
He was gambling, Tybalt knew, but he’d hedged his bets as best he could. The only thing left to do was to roll the die.
As Huehuetochtli would say, “There is no point in playing for peanuts. A big bluff is better than a small threat.”
As Tybalt approached from the city from the west, observing Wolfward from a hillock, he realized that anyone looking from one of the other three directions would only see the western section of Wolfward as black with sparrow-like swarms of Tybalt’s Morti.
He instructed the Morti, the shambling mass easily a hundred thousand strong, to move around any fellow travelers and leave them untouched with a click of his fingers and tongue, glyph-boosted the several miles needed to reach the stragglers. Pitchfork, leading the new bodies from Big Valley, gurgled assent, and leaned harder on his name sake, an impromptu crutch as he shambled forward. Unusual, Tybalt thought. That’s almost learned behavior. No time to worry about it now though—there were bigger fish to spear.
The roads to Wolfward weren’t too crowded, not in midsummer, but all the travelers looked up and gasped at the sight of the shambling mob behind Tybalt. Some covered their eyes, others fainted, some drew swords, pulled lightning down from the clouds or took to their heels. Children pointed, shrieked, others called out names, recognizing acquaintances and family members in the undead organism. Tybalt ignored them—in death, their friends would help secure Tybalt’s future and peace—more, probably, than they had ever done in life. He still felt a twinge of conscience, niggling around his ribs, then quashed it.
Tybalt, and therefor the Morti, ignored the gawkers, walking at a brisk pace directly to the western gate of Wolfward. Tybalt put himself in the front ranks, unarmored—although he had considered disguising himself as one of the Morti it was more important to appear confident and unafraid than clever in this upcoming interview.
When they were a mile away, Tybalt heard bells sounding—alarums, the sound of silver-mesh grates snapping into place, portcullises and draw bridges being prepped. At a half mile to the ivory gate, dozens of winged creatures launched from a building deep in the center. They passed through the arcane filigree without hesitation or adverse effect. Tybalt could easily make out vision serpents, smoke and feathers ribboning through the sky, lamassu with grim faces, cloven hooves and the wings of rocs, and long-suffering war-mantas. None went up unmounted or unarmed, that he could see.
At a quarter mile, the flock descended. Or half of them did, interposing themselves between the ivory gates and Tybalt. The rest circled above, readying weapons, communications, doubtless worrying and chattering up a storm. Scouting, seeing how far this horde of locusts stretched back. They’d be flying for miles of course, before they reached the end of Tybalt’s assembly. Tybalt coughed, as the dust cloud from the fifty or so fliers flew in his face. He forced himself to smile. All that did was get grit in his teeth.
“Is there a problem?” he asked, as a duo separated from the mass and approached. A human woman and a lamassu.
“I was just on a bit of a walk about.” Pitchfork groaned assent, and the lamassu snarled as it galumphed into audio range. When something with a bull’s body, eagle's wings and human face, Tybalt noted, snarls at you, one should take note.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the woman, in a uniform and armor Tybalt was used to seeing only on corpses, asked. To her credit, her voice didn’t waver, and her eyes remained on Tybalt’s own. “I told you,” Tybalt rejoined. “I’m taking a walk to Wolfward.”
“Who,” the lamassu thundered, pushing it’s heavily muscled chest up against Tybalt’s own and jabbing a meaty finger back at the now-still undead horde, “Are they?”
“These are the faces of Tempestia,” Tybalt informed the creature, tweaking one of his glyphs to have his voice resonate, echo off the walls. Despite himself, he heard Huehuetochtli’s voice echoing in his head: “People love a show, and every show needs someone to play to the crowd’s lowest common denominator. A little pandering goes a long way. Play the crowd.”
Tybalt continued, and felt a faint chill as the words left his mouth. “The faces of war, gone on for too long. Those who were cast down and broken now come to ask for justice and peace. Your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and enemies, have asked me to speak for them and I have obeyed.” Tybalt said, savoring that last sentence, crafted to create doubt in the minds of messengers and observers alike. He himself was mildly shocked to find himself believing half of what he said—populism was clearly a heady tonic.
By now the audience must be wondering the same questions: How sapient were Morti? Could they feel? Think? Cast? An army of a hundred thousand casters was unheard of, and sufficient reason alone to declare a state of emergency.
“Tell the Triumvirs that I, Tybalt, am here to bring peace and prosperity to them if they meet my very reasonable terms, here, in person.”
The lamassu chuffed, beads in his beard clacking together. Clearly he didn’t think much of Tybalt’s opening sally. His partner was more circumspect. A flick of one eye betrayed doubt, and the way she shifted her hip that she thought he was mad as a wounded hare. But too mad to ignore. And, probably, too lucid to placate with empty promises.
“I see,” she said, pushing her braided hair away from her dark skin. She climbed aboard the lamassu, who sneered at Tybalt through his beard. “We’ll bring your message to the Triumvirs directly.”
Tybalt smiled, tipped his hat. The lamassu and passenger snorted and took flight, vanishing into Wolfward in a matter of minutes. Amazing how an army could guarantee good service.
Tybalt took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Got more dust in his gums.
He clicked a command to his Morti—the clacking of a hundred-thousand hands clasping together was like a thunderclap. Tybalt settled into wait. Stripped off his boots and the truly vile socks he’d worn for nearly a year now.
None of the fliers or the anxious looking young men and women manning the walls and gate stopped him, although a few checked the priming on their weapons or triple-checked the trajectory on siege-weapons. Tybalt stretched, placed his bare feet down on the golden grass. He reached for the sky and found it. Tybalt’s pinky toe touched Pitchfork’s own. Just in case the Triumvir’s panicked and tried to suck him into a pocket dimension, impale him on icy thorns or barbecue him where he stood.
An hour later, a billowing pillar of fire, a tornado of crackling lightning and a creaking maelstrom of ice swirled from the Triumvir’s tower and touched down before Tybalt—spooking all the fliers and guards something fierce. Tybalt smiled. “I appreciate you coming here,” Tybalt told the Triumvirs, wrapped in their respective elemental charms.
“I believe that we can work out something to the betterment of all involved. I can end this war for you.” He hid he shaking knees and watering eyes behind a placid mask, just as Huehuetochtli had taught him—never mind that he was being simultaneously shocked, scorched and frozen just from being within yards of the eminences.
There was a long pause. “Speak,” the lightning storm commanded with a young woman’s voice.
“Be accurate,” rumbled the windy glacier with a grammarian’s inflection.
“Do not waste our time,” snarled the firestorm, a young man’s voice amidst the smoke.
Tybalt smiled, and began to bargain.