Obituary

Lydon, a necromancer of the Scourge, seeks second life amongst his victims: the free undead. Bleak and gory, examining the Forsaken prior to the fall of the Lich King.

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2. The Scholomance

Three weeks ago, I concluded my work in Arathi, suturing the holes in Hammerfall’s staff with suitable members of the Forsaken. A doctor. A handful of deathstalkers, for the more subtle breed of excursions against Stromguard. An apothecary. The Defilers were far more grateful than the orcs, as was to be expected.

 

I left on horseback, and I stopped at Tarren Mill in Hillsbrad and the Sepulcher in Silverpine. I gathered reports from the executors and the deathstalkers and the apothecaries, and I bore their words back to Tirisfal and the Undercity. I gave an overview of the situation in all these Forsaken provinces to Shadowpriest Hargrave just this morning, and was to return to my efforts at bolstering Forsaken numbers through necromancy alongside the considerably more powerful Gunthar Arcanus.

 

These are the facts I remember clearly, but as I note even these events are beginning to fray, I fear for the rest. My memory is going. No, not even that. My body is near-paralysed; whole sections of my mind seem to be lifting away; and my magic has been reduced to near nothing. I think I am dying. I think I may be about to lose everything, and leave nothing at all behind. So I must write. For the people who survive me, I must record all I can. Even the things I have pushed to the back of my mind. The thought of passing on into nothingness has finally become abhorrent, here at the end.

 

We jostle over loose stones and unearthed roots. The axles creak and shift with every jolt. This is a meat wagon, meant for the dead, and it cedes to me no comfort. The sparse trees of Tirisfal are drawing closer together. From the ground, from the hidden second entrance into the bastion of the Forsaken, bats soar, the huge ones with their saddles and their riders accompanied by their smaller, squealing brethren. It is not late, but the low cloud cover over the glades seems to be enough to convince even the most stalwartly nocturnal that now is the time for flight. This is some forced form of twilight.

 

Krastinov did not wait until the night, as we are led to expect from the depraved. He dressed in rich red velvet and stood with a bloody purpose in his stance: an ape’s strength in the solid arch of his neck into his shoulders; his weight ever braced on the balls of his feet; his head pushed forward; lips never quite meeting, so you could always see his teeth.

 

As Caer Darrow wailed and Krastinov chose first my father, then my mother, as his marks, I sat on the floor where a necromancer had thrown me, my left knee raw and bleeding, my body limp in the grasp of some black magic, and stared at the bright buckles on his boots, in awe of the craftsmanship, transfixed by the dark mist that splattered over them.

 

He liked to cut his subjects, and sew them back up. I know because he preferred to work with an audience, and I was both silent and attentive. He preferred the cleaver, I believe for the sound it made, the chok of the strike, the slap of parted meat, but he had also a serrated knife, a delicate scalpel and a saw.

 

The scalpel he used only to neaten the edges of things. If the cleaver did not cut as far as he had hoped, the scalpel parted the resisting flesh, and he would look up at me from time to time when he did this in particular, as though demanding that I revere his painstaking attention to detail. My father would roar with every strike. Mother’s shouts had collapsed into the slightest whimpers, though every muscle in her body would shake and spasm as Krastinov washed the wound with his newest strain of ill-considered plague.

 

The man had no talent. I knew that even then, as a boy barely into his twelfth year. Not because I recognised the endless flaws in his methods, not because I understood that a great number of his compositions were illogical from theory through to practice, but because of the way he grinned when his blades cut into my parents. Krastinov lived for the infliction of pain, not for the advancement of science or the joy of academic rigour and success. Even the most downtrodden, mediocre Forsaken apothecary could have created his piteous attempts at poisons in a quarter of the time. Days instead of months. Krastinov would have looked at that apothecary’s success, and in his eyes it would have been a failure. He was not striving for answers. He wanted only to extend his time to cut.

 

I survived primarily because of the spell one of the junior necromancers in the Scholomance forgot to free me from. It stole all the strength from me. My body lay in a state of prolonged exhaustion, and when my parents finally died in agony and Krastinov chose not to bring them back, when he turned to me, propped as I was against the bare stone wall, with his cleaver in hand, and when he brought it arching down, I did not shout, whimper, shiver or beg. I stared at my own wounds as I had stared at my father’s, at my mother’s, and I believe he finally recognised I had not been fixated on his work, a new monster to initiate into the fold, but gazing out because my mind had collapsed in on itself already, when they had first gathered the household together and dispatched us to our stations, not as human but as test subject.

 

The Butcher discarded me. I did not amuse him, and he had no time for experiments on uninteresting subjects. My wounds were left to bleed, and I was thrown into the corner with the dead. They took me, still breathing, down into the crypt, and left me there.

 

I would not die. My wounds clotted. I watched three initiates haul family friends from amongst the dead, carve away the flesh on their arms and sharpen their bones into points. They grafted limbs onto limbs and wrought bone scythes for their creations, and finally they struck the mangled bodies with dark magic that lifted the creatures up like puppets and gave them some twisted form of life.

 

The necromancers wanted more. They rifled through the mounds of bodies, seeking specimens with particular characteristics. Their next creature would be four times the size of its predecessors, and to achieve this they sought out the bodies with the longest limbs. They hauled people from the piles, inspected them, threw some aside and gathered the rest.

 

It was in this way that I came to realise my mother’s corpse had been discarded to the crypt with me. It took two of the initiates to pull her out from beneath the colossal weight of my father, and they still had to push him aside to locate the leg the Butcher had hewn clear from her hip. In life, she had carried the crippling of her husband, the slow starvation of her children and a slew of miscarriages with her back iron-rod straight. Now, she sagged in the arms of the initiates, bloodied by the endless wounds Krastinov had inflicted and resealed.

 

They took their knives, and they carved my mother’s flesh from her bones. They cut away the calluses on her palms and the tiny scabs on her fingertips from each weary slip of the needle, the stretch marks across her belly we children had left; they cut into the wrists she had preserved through willpower alone; and they cut away all evidence of every emotion that had crossed over her face, in her mouth and her wrinkles.

 

They slewed my mother’s face from her skull, and delighted in the result. Her bones they bound with the bones of others. Scythes replaced her fingers. Black magic made her rise up and stand there, the great bone golem of the Scholomance, and her creators were oh so proud. They had the smaller prototypes gather around, and compared them all in size and strength, ever analytical.

 

They left them there with me, and took away the torches from the walls. In the darkness I lay immobilised, dribbling blood down my flanks and my arms, and listened to the sharp voices of the instructors in the room overhead, and the grating, shuffling noises of the creature they called Rattlegore and her smaller, hungrier brethren.

 

I survived not because of the spell that held me still and silent, numb, but because of the caster. He was someone I recognised. The innkeeper. Thin and listless, hair always in his eyes. He did not look out of place in the Scholomance, in the dark grey robe of a Scourge necromancer. He came down the stairs not long after the others had left, a lantern in hand, and he neglected to hold it high as he clambered over the corpses, oblivious to the new cuts and bite marks on the flesh of the dead. He hadn’t my eyes. Likely he couldn’t differentiate between the work of Krastinov and the mindless chewing of Rattlegore’s undead.

 

My face, he recognised. The lantern swung above me, caught my bleeding, weakling body in a ring of light, and his drawn features lifted into a triumphant sneer. His eyes were sunken and in shadow; the veins and tendons in his face and neck, where I stared in frozen apathy, stood out beneath his white skin. Bloodless cleaver cuts marked his arms. His spell had asked too much of him, and taken its dues in flesh.

 

He did not get to remove it. Rattlegore’s scythe burst through his chest before he had even recognised the creature was present. Blood struck me in sheets, bright, warm, wet: it woke me, as his life faded and with it all trace of his magic, and as the pain came back so did my strength, and the need to survive.

 

I waited until Rattlegore had eaten her fill. I took the man’s robe, bloodied and torn as it was, and I pulled it down over my head. The sight of a familiar face, of someone like myself, dressed in the garb of the enemy fixed in my mind. I crept to the door, my whole body shaking, and I saw so clearly the path I had to take. You could say I was already well on my way to becoming an exemplary member of Sylvanas’ Forsaken. I was only a little boy with his arm opened up and his ribs laid bare, hiding in robes too big for him, but revenge spread quickly through my blood.

 

My disguise, of course, fooled no-one. The tenacity that kept me on my feet with such injuries, instead, won their amusement, just long enough for my magical capacity to garner interest. I became an acolyte of the Scholomance. Without the numbing aid of the innkeeper’s spell, I watched them torture people I knew from all over Caer Darrow, and later graduated to carrying the experiments out. And reader, hope that you will never feel the desperate last grasp of another human being, their fingers locked around your forearm, their eyes wide and pleading, as you stand on the verge of inflicting such suffering as will kill them from the shock alone. If it seems the act of hoping is not enough, get down on your knees before fate and beg.

 

Because I remember in particular the last moments of a woman whom I had never met before, some three years into my apprenticeship, when I was becoming both proficient at the creation of plague and darkly, sickly proud of this proficiency. She must have been middle-aged. Brown hair with the lightest streaks of grey at the roots, tinted now with blood from numerous strikes to the head, tied back at the nape of her neck; her face round and faintly lined, still dusty from the road, the outside world.

 

As I was working alone, my fellow initiates long since bedded down for the night, I did not hesitate before wiping away some of that dust on the pad of my thumb, holding it up and inspecting it, reflecting that the last time I had seen the open air, never mind the land itself, had been on a trip with my mother to the wooden dock that jutted out into the lake from Caer Darrow, armed with twine and her bottomless tenacity, with the water stretching out ahead of us as unmoving and reflective as glass, our bobbers floating in the sky.

 

‘You can’t be more than fourteen,’ said the woman.

 

I turned my gaze from the past to her face, and to the imminent threat of the future sketched there in every line of desperation.

 

‘Aye,’ I said.

 

My voice had recently gained a tendency to break at intervals when I spoke. Unlike the other initiates, some of whom were experiencing similar rebellions in their vocal cords, I derived no particular embarrassment from the experience. Instead I was sure it only added to the desperation in my test subjects - not because it afforded me any particular presence, but because they would no doubt come to recognise the ridiculous nature of death, the lack of any grand meaning behind it. My victims would not die in the hands of a famed monster like Krastinov. Instead they would be killed senselessly by a boy with more control over their lives than his own voice.

 

‘The same age as my son,’ said the woman, and her voice too broke into an awkward rasp on the last word. She smiled at me. A pitying but not patronising smile. ‘What’s your name?’

 

‘Alexander Lydon.’ I saw no reason not to give it. The information was worthless. Everyone who knew Alexander Lydon was locked away in the Scholomance, and none of us would be of any help to her.

 

‘Sand,’ she said, and my mind deviated fleetingly back to the dock and the water beyond.

 

My mother struggled under the weight of abject poverty. Seven children and the income to feed one. She was a tall woman, any of the roundness that might have filled out the exhausted concaves of her cheeks stolen away by endless, thankless work; any of the energy that might have filled out the bitter concave of her heart stolen the night my father ruptured his knee and injured his back, and retired to permanent bed rest.

 

She fished for food when the weather was bitter and no-one else would be there as unwitting competition; she braved the hacking coughs to stitch clothes for copper coins; she spent hours preserving every uneaten scrap of food and scavenging to feed us. Dignity, she told me once, after she and I, as the eldest, were caught rifling through a neighbour’s compost heap for the newest discarded shreds of peeled carrot and potato, was a privilege worth nothing in its own right. It was the food that fuelled the dignified people we should hope for, and if discarding dignity was the only way to have food, then dignity be damned.

 

Sometimes she had that particular fire to her, that determined grit. Other times, she stared at myself and my siblings as though we were a blight, struck my father in fits of desperation, and once sat in front of the window with a knife against her wrist, staring out for hours and ignoring every word I said.

 

In the end, it was my mother who took us to Caer Darrow, seeking employment for herself as a wet nurse and for her children as anything we were fit to do. On the day she took me down to the dock to fish, we had just earned the money for a full meal, and she didn’t mind the other fishermen scattered along the pier for the first time in my recollection. She still gripped me by the ear when I, lulled by the gentle lap of the water and the distant song of birds in the trees, commented blithely that I could do stable work with half my brain pulled out and still get us a fancy chicken dinner with the proceeds. She crouched and pressed her face close to mine, and twisted my ear until I yelped.

 

‘You listen to me,’ she said. ‘I don’t care if you’re twice as good at something than your neighbour, it don’t mean shit to me unless you’re as good as you can be. It’s what you are compared to you that matters, nothing else. Reckon you’re the best you can be, Sand? Reckon you’re already what you want to be?’

 

The woman I was about to kill looked nothing like my mother, from the roundness of face to the wistful look in her eyes at the thought of her son, the one she said was my age. But perhaps she, too, would die under the weight of the fact that she had brought them both to this place.

 

‘Let me go, Sand,’ she said, reaching for my arm. ‘Let me save him. Let me go.’

 

Had my mother begged for her life and mine? I recalled only the muted grunts she let out with each strike of Krastinov’s cleaver, and the distant look in her eyes as she stared straight through me with poison in her veins. That was all end stage. Perhaps she had hoped for my preservation, before her flesh was cleaved open. I would spare this woman from that moment. The moment when her son faded from her mind, and all she came to care for was death.

 

‘No,’ I said. ‘I will not.’

 

A page has been torn out of the book, leaving a few ragged scraps of paper along the binding, all dark with ink from particularly heavy deletion.

 

Undeath took me because, in my quest to destroy the Barovs, Kirtonos and their pit bull the Butcher, I added necromancy to my repertoire. I reasoned that if my own heart was so long-gone that I could stab a woman through hers without flinching, I had no reason to maintain the illusion of life.

 

I trained at twice the speed of my fellow initiates and that was roughly the best learning curve my potential would allow. It still took years before I moved from necromantic theory to practice, by which time my voice had ceased to break and settled instead at the lower end of tenor, my bones had grown at a rate my muscles could not match, so I stood at six foot three, skeletal thin, and my facial features had lengthened into the long, narrow configuration that I retain to this day.

 

No, I take the time to record these things simply because I retain them all to this day, so they will be continually relevant. Necromancy channels an unholy energy right through you, and that energy slowly drives out the ability to grow, to change, until your blood takes that as a cue to cease to flow, and coagulates in your heart.

 

I remember that moment simply as my first encounter with utter silence. Not once in my existence had I ever been without that rhythmic background pulsing. And then, in that instant, with the arcane, twisted almost past recognition, raging through me, it gave in. I watched my newest ghoul stagger to his ruined feet in front of me, and heard his snuffling, groaning, pain-stricken utterances with bright, intense clarity without something so simple as my pulse to distract me.

 

I lost my nerve in that moment. You recall I mentioned the lifting of an enchantment that had drugged me through my parents’ deaths; in truth, its effects were chiefly physical. It was only when my heart gave out that I felt at last like the child I had been in the moments leading up to my family’s entry to our gravesite. The terror, the twisting in my abdomen, the tightening in my throat: it rushed me all at once. I turned away from my creation; I strode from the room; I shook; in one last haphazard grasp at life my body began to sweat from every pore.

 

I recognised, in that instant, that I had given myself wholly to the destruction of another human being, however vicious, however monstrous he might be. And while that knowledge had been somehow bolstering in the seconds leading up to the very moment of my turning, while I had thrived on the thought that I would perform my duty to the very best of my capabilities, now that vengeance had sunk into my very flesh and starved it of all else, there was only panic. Years without fully engaging with my surroundings, with my actions, had left my mind blank of all coping tactics in this new state of awareness; the truth of it all struck me full-force, and I strode through the Scholomance without paying my fellow murderers any heed. And, by chance alone, I walked in on a disciplinary demonstration.

 

Twelve necromancers, all of whom I recognised as those peers whose power yet outstripped mine by a wide margin, stood before the new headmaster, Gandling, and Lady Barov, down in the enclosed courtyard between the main practice rooms. I stopped simply because I heard Barov’s voice, and some foolishly preserved survival instinct told me to freeze, standing on the balcony above them.

 

I no-longer recall the details of their dispute, only that Barov and Gandling both wore expressions of mocking disgust, and that, when Gandling raised his hand, arcane power roared like lightning from his fingertips and cut through his apprentices before they could so much as cower back. It sliced into the stone behind them, splattered the wall with blood and blew whole chunks of masonry into dust. The room shook with the deafening retort, and the twelve necromancers crumbled into black grit on the flagstones.

 

It was power past anything I had imagined existing, and suddenly I realised the eight or nine years I had already thrown into my training in the Scholomance had not set me close to victory, but had provided me with only the starting point for decades of further study amongst these people. With that future blazing in my mind, I looked up, and there was Krastinov, standing on the opposite side of the balcony, looking down at the dead in the room below with sheer animal glee in his eyes, his white teeth bared. I stepped back and stumbled; he looked up, caught my gaze, and no recognition flashed across his face. The man whom I had hurt myself endlessly to kill did not even know I existed.

 

I left. I went up the stairs, I teleported past sentries and through closed gates, I broke the lock on the external door, and I left. The Scholomance was so indifferent to my existence that it put less effort into keeping me than it did into keeping its most useless human test subjects. After years encased in stone and in bitterness, I strode out of the keep, and into open air.

 

Caer Darrow lay before me in ruins. Roofs sported gaping holes, windows were broken, rust and damp and cobweb permeated every home. I advanced down the slope into the centre of the town. I passed the shattered spars of an old wagon left to rot and the cracked, dry remains of a marble fountain. Dead weeds protruded from gaps in bricks. The blacksmith had burned to the ground. A skeleton lay sprawled out on a doorstep. And above it all, far above my head, the sky was a low, sickly orange. I could not feel a breeze. I could not hear birds. I had spent all of my adolescent years preparing to defeat a man so far ahead of me that natural causes would take him before I ever could, and in that time all I had managed was to miss the passing of everything I knew into utter ruin. My family, I realised at last, were dead. In every way that mattered, so was I.

 

I gathered the broken pieces of roof slates and the rusted metal remains of horse’s tack. I had no rope, but I had my belt and pockets full of Scourge apparatus: vials of contagion, chalk for runes, narrow-bladed knives in wooden sheathes; I threw them all aside, and replaced them with metal and stone until my robes strained under the weight. The slates I secured under my belt.

 

I walked to the pier, a wooden jetty extending out over the lake. The water was just as still as I recalled, though the planks beneath my feet were rotten almost through, and each step sent splinters rippling across its surface. I looked out across the orange sky, reflected there beneath me; I thought of all the fishermen thronged along the docks, my mother amongst them, before the Barovs betrayed them all; and, so disconsolate as to feel almost severed from my body, I took that last step. Out over the edge.

 

I twisted in the air as I fell; my hand shot out unbidden and grabbed at the end of the jetty. Splintered wood dug into my palm and the pads of my fingers; my shoulder jolted impossibly hard; and before I could stop it my right hand joined the left, scrabbling for purchase. My feet struck the water and my body recoiled, folding upward. A mindless kick caught the supporting wooden pillar to the right, and I pulled myself up higher, my muscles straining, a pathetic, hunkered creature hanging but a foot over the water, shaking.

 

Teleport, I thought. Do nothing by halves. I could easily have left my end, or my evasion of it, to apathy, by waiting for my limbs to find the strength to lift me, or to give way and let me drop, but somehow the notion of my one last action being so unbearably passive made me think only of my mother, the woman I had wanted so much to avenge, who had always fought, one way or another.

 

I gathered up my strength, let the arcane run through me, and blinked.

 

The water at the very middle of the lake struck me solidly. I had not anticipated it to have such a presence or consistency. I thought of water as light and crystal clear, but in seconds it had closed above me, the stones and the slates dragging me down, and the very weight of the water pressed in on all sides, crushing the air from my lungs and pushing my eyeballs back in their sockets. Darkness surrounded me, bright orange rippling far, far overhead, and black silt rose from the lake bottom as my heels struck the sand. My breath streamed away in a departing silver tide.

 

The water gushed in. It cornered and compressed pockets of air in my chest until they grew sharp as knives; stretched and distended my lungs and my stomach until they were fit to burst. And still more forced its way through my nose and my mouth. My body became leaden, weighted by an alien cold no living creature will ever feel. It spread out through my organs, through my blood, through the very marrow of my bones.

 

And yet, as that chill united every aspect of my being with a steady, grinding iciness, no dark patches flickered across my vision, only the flashing blue shapes as the lake pressed hard against my eyes. I felt no light-headedness, no burning need for oxygen. And I realised, as the currents of the lake gripped me, that my heart had stopped beating, and I had lost the good grace to drown.

 

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