Three

There was only death in the blue light.

The ghastly glow was a byproduct of the necromancer Aeterneau’s massive army of thralls. Not the zombies that sloughed about the moors like the skin from their rotting corpses, nor the skeletons that splintered and creaked as they scraped about. No–the light emanated from the thousands of wraiths and specters that swirled through the atmosphere like currents of snaking wind, their hushed edges feathering into the very aether, waiting to be breathed into the lungs of the living.

The amber glimmer of a settlement was usually a beacon to travellers, promise of a hearth, ale, and some stew to coat their stomachs. But the light of Aeterneau’s kingdom was hollow and icy; it spiked through one’s core like a lance, shivering through the nerves until it evaporated out of the skin as pure dread. It was a portent, and it repelled all who saw it.

It was grisly–profane–to watch a soul twist about the air. Souls were perfect, pure things; they weren’t meant to be exposed to the sludge and sin of the mortal plane. The body was a soul’s armor, and it absorbed the grit of evil as a breastplate weathers a blow. But here the souls wreathed themselves about Aeterneau’s decrepit fortress, like a voluminous bouquet left upon a ruined gravestone. Ripped from the Hereafter and free from their binding husks, the souls howled across the sky, the naked, feral, filthy things.

Seen from a distance, the light seemed to oscillate, and every time it quivered, a chill was sent coursing down the spine of those who beheld it as they realized that they watched a damned soul etch itself into the night, its pure essence poisoning the tainted air.

Now, the swarm of souls beheld a different light. This one dim and feeble–a lone campfire miles in the distance. It appeared on the horizon like the flickering of a dying wick, sending one thin thread of smoke curling up and about. A soul broke free from the mass and moved like a fog through the air, across the parapet of the outerwall, and into a window of the main fortress. It crept along the moss-eaten stones and slunk over the uneven stairs until it hovered before the throne of Aeterneau.

It must be said the necromancer was as much a phantom as his thralls. He slouched in his throne, a gargoyle in repose, his form obscured by a thick, black cowl and cloak. He barely moved when the ghost presented itself before him and spoke. A cursed whisper filled the chamber.

The sound of spirits was an uncanny tongue to those who weren’t fluent. It was impossible to tell whether it was a real sound, vibrating through the air like any other, or whether it originated in the brain, a terrible hissing conjured by the spirits that buzzed back and forth, scratching against the inside of the skull. But Aeterneau understood the language well–obscenity was melody to his ears.

“A fire but miles out?” He sneered. “Go see what our intrepid campers are up to. But don’t engage.”

Satisfied with its assignment, the ghost slipped back out and began gliding across the moors. Apart from the collective, its light became nearly imperceptible. Instead, all that gave it away were slight distortions in the air from its ethereal form. This made spirits wonderful spies, and Aeterneau frequently employed them to watch the travellers that skirted his fortress.

The spirit streamed across the sky and plummeted down as it approached the fire. It camouflaged itself in the churning smoke, making sure its own shifting form was hidden in the wind-sculpted veil.

It was a small party–just two organ sacs huddled in the glow. The larger and greener sac was finishing a bit of roasted meat and tossed the bone into the fire.

“We’ve been heading north,” it said, looking up and gauging the delicate sweep of stars above.

The smaller sac nodded, picking at his teeth. “Fair-sized settlement not too far north–Fort Blakely. Where I’m headed. Lots of trading caravans pass through. You should be able to join one heading east.”

The lumpier flesh mound studied its companion. “What’s in Fort Blakely for you?”

The other’s response was immediate, reflexive, like a shield lifted to meet a swinging sword–“What’s out east for you?”

“Not what’s there. What’s here.”

“Running, then?”

The thicker clump of matter nodded at the light from Aeterneau’s in the distance. “You say death is there. I’ve seen death. Too much…too much.” It pointed its sturdy slab of arm meat at the other. “Your turn.”

The smaller smirked. “You barely told me anything. But I’ll play. There’s a royal caravan soon to pass through Blakely.”

“This interests you?”

“Guess you could say I’m a fan of highborns.”

The heavier meatbag snorted, sensing bullshit.

“Wouldn’t think a little death would scare an orc off. Your kind pride themselves on that, don’t they? Honor, bravery…all that nonsense.”

Little death?”

“Seen plenty in my time.”

“Perhaps you should be running, too.”

The small one nodded and they fell silent. They just sat there, their squishy hearts beating, their spongy lungs inflating, their flabby stomachs squelching. All the heinous fluids and bits and glops of them just slouching and oozing as the sacs aspirated–it was too much for the spirit to take.

It peeled itself out of the tumbling plume of smoke and bolted back to Aeterneau’s throne. It dutifully reported every mundane detail of the conversation, but Aeterneau’s interest was piqued. At the end of the soul’s infernal hissing, he leaned anxiously forward. “A royal caravan?” Aeterneau had seen it before–when sovereigns were on the move, often their borders were, too. A demonic  smile possessed the necromancer’s lips. “A cold draft is stirring, and war nips at its heels.”

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