Story by Travis Mason
It was impossible to tell if the insufferable shaking was the result of fatigue, the frigid air, or excitement. He gritted his teeth and used some of the last dregs of willpower within him to still his quivering hand, and complete the last few runes of the seventeenth and final circle. The fine brush traced a dancing curve atop the smoothed stone, a trail of slick crimson left in its wake. Then, with a punctual strike, it was finished at last. The brush was returned to the bowl which still held a small pool of the thick sanguine mixture that the runes were drawn in. Its contents shone ever so slightly, reflecting the light of the full moon above.
He shambled about the circles slowly, methodically checking each and every sigil and glyph which now adorned the floor.The inscription alone had taken a full month, and he would sooner dive headfirst off the tower’s edge than allow hubris to interfere. Not when it was so close at hand. While surveying, he stuck closely to the altar in the center. The runes there had dried a week ago, and he would run no risk of disturbing the fresh writings. Rheumy eyes then flicked upwards, inspecting the twelve braziers and the piles of glittering gray powder sitting in each. The candles were in their positions as well. Thirty and nine within the circles, and another thirty and nine on the outside, one for each bound captive. It was all ready.
With a gnarled hand he brushed aside his robes and removed the golden locket around his neck. The other hand drew two sigils in the air, and a wispy mote of flame appeared just over the index finger. With lazy motions, he directed the fire about the circles, lighting each of the candles. Some of the captives stirred when the candle beneath them flickered to life. He placed the locket alongside the other items on the altar; a dagger inscribed with all manner of necromantic signs, a stoppered bottle, and a squirming bundle of cloth.
The braziers were lit next. They did not want for spectacle, as each burst into scarlet flame and began spewing heavy, oily smoke. A silence charm, though unnecessary to the ritual, ensured that he would not be distracted while invoking the proper chant. With hands on the altar, he whispered the words. As all arcana, they sounded and felt similar to the magic they represented. Some dripped poisonously to the ground, others hissed and writhed as they were freed. Others still joined the smoke rolling across the floor. The energy within the circle began to swell, a crackling tension which charged the air and pressed upon the soul. Still it grew, until all seventeen circles glowed with ethereal radiance and the braziers burned with unnatural fervor.
The full moon peaked in the sky as the intonation changed from a whisper to a shout. The knife upon the altar was taken into hand, raised high, and brought down upon the bundle of cloth. If the infant had screamed, it was lost to the magical silence. The light of the circles doubled as they were touched by the blood running from the altar. The flames of the candles and braziers left their positions and danced maddeningly amongst the runes. The candles outside, previously smokeless, now produced a sickly green vapor which entered the bodies of the captives above.
The chanting ceased, even as the arcane storm around the altar raged on. He left the bloody knife where it was, and picked up the bottle. Ensuring to keep it at arm’s length, he removed the stopper. As it came off, a powerful smell pushed its way past the other sulphurous and metallic scents which filled the space. It was the unmistakable aroma of death itself, refined from the most virulent of toxins and the most fetid of magics. The smoke and energies of the ritual had coalesced into a strange smog about his feet, and tendrils of this reached upwards and into the bottle. The scent then changed, sweetening considerably though becoming no less overpowering. He brought it then to his lips, and drank the contents in a single gulp. It tasted of overripe fruit and ash, and was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted.
…It was not so much awakening as it was a sudden return to consciousness. He did not open his eyes, they simply began working again. There was no beat in his chest, no feeling of blood rushing through his body. There was no warmth to be felt, and no cold to replace it. The braziers had burnt out, the candles were naught but stumps of wax. The bodies were desiccated and the blood was dry. Much of the skin had sloughed off his limbs and body. A mirror revealed that the same had happened to his face. He could feel the golden locket still resting upon the altar. It sat there, and also in his mind. From within it he could feel his soul, ensconced in the pulsating energy of thirty and nine others. As he picked it up, he realized that he could not remember his name. All the same he tossed his head back and let out a rasping, wheezing noise that was intended as a laugh.
He had never felt so free.