Lachdanan's boots echoed only slightly as they trod the stonework floor three levels below the the great cathedral's ground floor. There were a few torches and lanterns, but most of the illumination came from the centuries-old Horadrim enchantment on the stones themselves. They shed a soft gray light that made the vast underground chambers look as they might under a heavily clouded sky.
Tomas shivered. He did not like Veeble nor his profession, and said so.
Lachdanan nodded. With the possible exceptions of Sage Cain, Conjurer Ichabod, and Alchemist Zhar, most of the townsfolk shunned Necromancer Veeble as a matter of course. Naturally, the Archbishop Lazarus had a working relationship with him. Lazarus saw to the souls of the deceased while Veeble cared for that which was left over.
For his own part, Lachdanan did not care for the man either. Nonetheless, he told his aide, "Necromancer Veeble is an honorable man. He cares for and protects the dead of Tristram until their bodies can safely be returned to the earth. It is not, I'll wager, a pleasant job, but it is one that needs to be done. Thanks to Veeble, Tristram's dead rest easy, so that Tristram's living may do the same."
Tomas was still less than reassured, but kept it to himself. They had arrived at the great square chamber that stood at the center of the level. The heavy wooden door was slightly ajar and allowed a greenish light and foul smell to escape.
Necromancer Veeble answered before Lachdanan could rap on the door. "Come in, Captain. Come in," he croaked.
Veeble was attending three clients this evening: A little old farmer who had been sick for months, an obese man in his late thirties, and Glorianna Lester. All three had been stripped naked and lay on their backs on stone slabs in the middle of the chamber. Their clothes and other belongings were neatly folded in baskets near their feet, as if waiting to be reclaimed.
"Good evening, Captain Lachdanan," beamed the Necromancer. "Greetings, Junior Scribe Tomas. Come in and be comfortable."
As far as Tomas was concerned, being comfortable was not an option. He cast his eyes about, frantically looking for some place to rest them that wasn't profoundly disturbing. He didn't want to look at the nude dead bodies, but looking at Veeble was hardly any better. Veeble's skin was the color and texture of leather that had been left hanging on a fence post for the summer. Draped as it was over his bony frame, Veeble looked more corpse-like than his clients. The wispy white hair, missing teeth and empty left eye socket did nothing to improve the old man's appearance. All around the chamber were the tools of the Necromancer's trade. Tomas didn't care to dwell on their possible functions either. In the end, he settled for staring at his shoes and trying not to think too much about the odd-colored stains on the stone floor.
"Let me introduce my other guests," offered Veeble, limping over to the far right slab. He used a gnarled black staff to help him walk.
"This is Dakkan Waran," he said, indicating the old man's corpse. "He lived a lonely, long, quiet life on his little farm in the woods. Nonetheless, he squeezed everything he could out of this old body." He paused and caressed the the old man's cheek in a way that was at once tender and disturbing.
"Glorianna Lester, you already know, and is the reason for your visit," said Veeble pausing at the middle slab where she lay. Her lips were still slightly parted and Veeble touched them gently with his finger, as if shushing her.
"And this is Olaf van DeGroot, for fifteen years, Tristram's finest butcher. A man who loved his work a bit too well." Veeble cast his eye at the dead man's enormous gut. "Died with a cleaver in his hand this morning." He patted van DeGroot's head affectionately. "You just rest there, lad. Old Veeble will take care of everything for you."
He paused, noting the expressions of discomfort on the faces of his living guests, particularly Tomas. "Well then," continued Veeble. "Let us see what we can learn from Mrs. Lester before the unseen beasts of the air and earth continue their feast on her."
Tomas looked around nervously.
Veeble cracked his bony knuckles. "Let us begin with the obvious: The terminal injury was, of course, the puncture wound to the heart. It occurred at the same time as this non-lethal wound to her shoulder. The other insults to her flesh occurred after death." He caressed her discolored cheek. "This bruise occurred when the blood was still warm, when she fell to the ground. All the others happened in the river."
"The cause of the puncture wounds," asked Lachdanan. "A weapon?"
"Absolutely. No wood splinters, so I'd say a sword or a knife or some such. The flesh was penetrated with great force, suggesting her attacker had some strength."
Lachdanan nodded. So far he had not heard anything he had not already guessed himself.
"Let's see what this tragic young lady can tell us for herself."
Tomas was meant to be a silent observer, there to record Veeble's findings. But the question slipped out of his mouth before he could stop it: "How?"
Veeble smiled a gap-toothed smile. "They say that dead men tell no tales. The truth is, you need only know how to ask them."
The young scribe's uncomprehending look was not lost on the Necromancer. "Here," he said. "Do you see that flask of glowing green liquid on my workbench?"
It was hard not to see it, so Tomas nodded.
"Stare at it for a minute and then look out into the darkness of the hall," said Veeble. "You see a ghostly red image of the flask?"
"The dead retain images and energy, much as your eye does."
"But it's fading," said Tomas, blinking.
"Which is why we must act quickly," interrupted Lachdanan. He appreciated his young scribe's inquisitiveness, but this was not the time for a meta-science lesson.
Veeble nodded and turned his attention to Glorianna's body. He sprayed a musty-smelling crimson liquid over her and muttered some arcane words. The fine red mist began to to swirl and trace spidery lines across her pale skin.
Veeble fingered his empty eye socket. "Hmm. That's not right," he commented.
Before the Necromancer could clarify himself, a nest of oily black vipers sprang to life from the very pores of Glorianna's skin. Tomas and Veeble leaped back. Lachdanan's bastard sword slid from its scabbard and into his hand, glowing with a soft blue light.
The black serpents coiled around each other into a gigantic humanoid form. Pig-like red eyes glowed from the shadowy oil-slick of its face. A voice, or something like a voice, came from within it: "Ffffrrrrssssshhhh mmmmmmmmmmmmtt....."
It lashed out at the captain of Tristram's guard with a tarry black fist the size of a melon.
Nimbly, Lachdanan dodged the blow and drove his sword into the shadow demon where its massive arm joined its torso. The entity swatted the Paladin away with the back of its free hand. Then it pulled the sword out of itself and tossed it away.
"Zakarum, grant me Might," breathed Lachdanan, as Tomas retrieved his weapon for him. The Forces of Order granted their servant's request and Lachdanan felt his Holy Might sizzling through his veins. Furthermore, Veeble and Tomas felt it as well.
Lachdanan charged forward, and his blade bit into the intruder's shadowy substance. The creature turned toward him, enraged.
"I apologize for disturbing you, but I need your assistance, my gentle friends," said Veeble. He gestured at the two bodies flanking Glorianna Lester and the being she seemed to have spawned. At once, van DeGroot and Waran opened up and their skeletons stood on the slabs.
Waran's skeleton picked a scalpel as a weapon and van DeGroot's skeleton armed itself with the meat cleaver that had been the tool of van DeGroot's trade. Together, the two skeletons attacked the shadowy demon's flanks, aided, incongruously, by Lachdanan's Aura of Holy Might.
A blow from the demon's huge fist sent van DeGroot's cleaver, and most of van DeGroot's arm, flying into the corner. The cleaver dropped behind a cabinet and would lay there, unclaimed, for several more months.
Waran's skeleton took advantage of the momentary opening and began stabbing at the demon's face with its scalpel. Lachdanan leaped into the fray again, slashing with his sword, instead of stabbing, and cut through to the shadow creature's core. It made a noise like distant thunder and began to break apart into thousands of shadow vipers.
With his free hand, Lachdanan picked up a large metal tray of Veeble's instruments, scattering them everywhere. "Zakarum, grant me the power to Smite this unholy thing!" he cried. He slammed his make-shift shield into his foe. With one last cry, the creature shattered into a thousand slithering bands of shadow that evaporated as soon as they touched something solid.
Glorianna's body burst into cold, gray flames. With what Tomas considered impressive speed for a man of Veeble's age and apparent frailty, the Necromancer plunged his hands into the unnatural, dying flames. "The soul is long gone, but the flesh holds the key," he intoned. "Bring forth the shades, that we all might see!"
The strange flames flared and went out, but in the fading after-image, the three men could make out the hazy outlines of five faces.
As Lachdanan and Tomas were adjusting to the sudden darkness, Veeble addressed the two skeletons: "Thank you for your kind assistance, my sweet gentle ones," he said. "Please, return to the rest that you have done so much to earn." The two skeletons lay down on their respective slabs and crumbled into bone fragments.
Winded, Veeble leaned on the slab that held the smoldering ash that was all that remained of Glorianna Lester. "It looks as though we'll be having closed-casket ceremonies this week," he breathed.
He felt the expectant eyes of his living guests on him. "Mrs. Lester has told us all she can," he said. "She has shown us the faces of those foremost in her mind at the time of her death. One of them was the Archbishop Lazarus."
"The other two men were Sir Gorash and Farmer Lester," said Lachdanan. "I did not recognize the two women."
Tomas hesitated. "They were the two dancers who came through town with Caravan," he volunteered. "They called themselves Scarlett and Jade."
Lachdanan shot his young assistant a glance and then nodded. "Yes, I should have remembered. Mrs. Lester was in their company during the battle with the spiders. Thank you, Tomas."
"What of the demon?" asked Tomas, hoping to change the subject before being made to admit that he and several friends had sneaked out of the dorms to go see Jade and Scarlett's erotic performance.
Veeble shook his head. "Souls are not my business, but Glorianna Lester's is in dire peril. Someone or something left that entity there in place of the memory remnants I sought to conjure. It was Chaos-spawned; a creature of Fear and Hatred and Destruction. I cannot tell you more than that, other than that I fear it bodes ill for the days and weeks to come."
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