It was a young shepherd who first told us, before we heard a thing.
He came running flat out into town, “the, the nec-” he gasped for breath as he stood doubled over in front of the town elder. He put his hand on the boy’s hot shoulder, told him to take a moment. Standing up straighter, he tried again, “The necromancers,” he wheezed, “they- they’re coming and…” he sucked in another breath, “Well. you have to see it.”
We heard it first. The sound of wind whistling through bones clattering slightly, a slow march step and the creak of wheels. A large white banner rose over the hill, poles clutched in shining white hands of skeletons marching before wagon with white pennants streaming from short poles on it’s corners. A group dressed in blacks and reds sat in the driving seat of the wagon, and on the walls of it’s bed, but no one held the reigns. A skeletal horse team drew it, and seemed to need no direction. It slowed of it’s own accord as it approached town, but stopped just outside the gates.
One of the spellcasters hopped down from the wagon, and straightened his robe.
All of them wore fine plush robes, so clean they shined, without wrinkle or blemish. They seemed to want to make an impression on us.
“Hail,” the necromancer said, “may we speak with the elder? We have an offer to make.”
There were murmurs through the crowd that had gathered, and a wave of fearful anger swept through it, until it dissipated as the elder stood from his seat on the wall of the town well and held a hand up to calm his people.
“I am the elder,” he said, “you may call me Jerrick.”
“Hail, Jerrick, I am Vesner. May my companions- sorry, living companions, come into your town? The skeletons will stay out here.”
“Who will control them if you come in?” Elder Jerrick asked, more inquisitive than accusatory or fearful.
“They have orders to remain here and do nothing. Doing nothing is their default state, it takes a command for them to act.”
Elder Jerrick nodded, and motioned for the watch to let them in. “Do you take tea?” he asked the necromancer who’d identified himself as Vesner.
“Yes, please,” the necromancer said with unexpected graciousness.
Elder Jerrick whispered a request for tea to his daughter who disappeared into the Elder’s house at the center of the market. “Well, it’s quite a lovely day, shall we speak out here?” Elder Jerrick asked Vesner, motioning to a shaded clearing surrounded by fruit trees.
Vesner and his companions looked around, “so long as your people don’t mind, with pleasure.”
The group sat and talked over tea as Elder Jerrick’s daughter emerged with a tray and kettle. The spellcasters explained their plan, including the provenance of the skeletons they’d brought–some were prisoners who’d been executed, others who’d had no family at death and accepted a lavish religious funeral in exchange for donation of their body, but, surprisingly, many of them were apparently entirely magically created.
We didn’t know magic could do that.
At the end of hours of talk, Elder Jerrick, who’d listened politely and quietly, only asking for clarification when it was needed nodded. “I cannot speak for my people on this. I understand that you are making this offer in good faith, and that your methods are quite apart from what we would assume. But at the end of the day, it is for them to decide whether they will accept.”
“Will you accept a skeleton, or small group of them, as town property?” Vesner asked. “They can be of great value.”
Elder Jerrick considered, and finally spoke, “let me think on that. Let us see what the people say. You have my permission to present your offer to them, though…” Elder Jerrick looked to the amassed horde outside the gate, “perhaps for space reasons, staying outside the town for that would be best.”
Vesner laughed. “Certainly, certainly. Thank you, Elder Jerrick.”
The older man nodded and shook their hands–he would later tell me those hands were quite cold–as they stood.
Vesner and his companions returned to their wagon and took a chest from beside the staves. As they opened it and pulled a table from it’s depths–far too large to have fit the chest’s apparent size–an attractive female necromancer started gathering the townspeople.
She was slight of form, but with a healthy softness. Her robes clung delicately to her body, and her hair was a bright red–in another context, it would be the colour of blood, but here, with such a cheerful smile, it called more to mind roses.
Maybe it was the rose that adorned it.
“Alright, we’re all friends here, gather around,” she said, motioning people to draw closer. “Does anyone have any particular magical training or talent?” she asked before beginning.
“I’m an adept,” Elder Jerrick offered, “I can manage a few blessings and tricks, but nothing on the order of a wizard. I’ve explained a few magical phenomena to my people now and again, though.”
“Great, just needed to know what the knowledge level was, wanted to make sure we didn’t accidentally talk down to you guys.” She flashed a brilliant, perfect smile. Those teeth were more otherworldly than any skeletal horde, just for their whiteness and evenness. A few in the crowd were audibly jealous.
“So, as you probably gathered,” Vesner said, taking the center, “we’re from the college which opened up a few days travel back–though with our horses, it’s one day’s travel. Horses that don’t need sleep are handy like that,” he stage muttered, to the appreciative murmurs of the farmers and couriers in the crowd. “We know that a tower full of necromancers is viewed slightly less favourably than an devastation beetle infestation popping up in most places, so we thought about what we could do to build some bridges with our neighbours.”
“What we came up with is offering some of the benefits of necromancy to folks, free of charge, just to take some of the mystery out of it,” the female necromancer said, “Hi, I’m Aleys.”
Another necromancer, a man of obvious ork lineage, with shoulders the size of Vesner’s twice over, and standing easily two feet taller, with a cloth over one eye, came up holding a staff and a torch-sized rod in one hand. His voice was a deep whisper, like far off rockfalls in caves. “You may call me Graf. What we decided to do was offer each household here a skeleton. We sent a runner up for some basic supplies who also did a quick count and a bit of reconnaissance,” tilted his head in theatric contrition, “Sorry about that.”
At Graf’s beckon, a skeleton emerged from the horde and walked over, clattering slightly as it walked. “One of the common misconceptions about undead,” he began, “is that the soul of the person is trapped inside. While it is true about some undead, usually sapient undead such as vampires, mindless undead, such as these skeletons, are magically animate automatons. Necromancers have used magic to converse with the dead in the afterlife, who had no knowledge of the use of their corpses in necromancy, so we can say with quite a bit of confidence that this skeleton is the shell that was used by a person in life, and nothing more.”
“Another misconception is that the undead hunger for the flesh of the living,” Aleys said. “Again, this is true for some, vampires and ghouls notably, but this skeleton hungers for nothing.” She crouched down and produced a rabbit from the chest and dramatically held it in front of the skeleton, which made no move.
“Much like an axe can be used to commit murder, a mindless skeleton can be used to destroy life.” Vesner said. “Kill the rabbit.” he commanded the skeleton passively and without interest. As the skeleton reached for the animal in Aleys’ arms, Vesner suddenly said “Stop!” causing it to halt in mid grab. “And just like an axe, it only carries the intent of the person who uses it. Hold the rabbit.” Vesner commanded, and Aleys placed the rabbit in the skeleton’s cradling arms.
The crowd’s breath held as the rabbit shifted in the arms of the skeleton, and it did nothing to the animal, even as the rabbit began to brux on the skeleton’s rib.
Vesner held the staff in his hand up, “This staff allows anyone holding it to use the spell Command Undead at will, as well as Inflict Light Wounds to repair the skeleton of any damage which it might suffer. Undead are fueled by antilife– the energy which heals a mortal harms an undead, and the energy which harms a mortal heals the undead. Would anyone like to try controlling the skeleton?”
The crowd muttered among themselves before the blacksmith, Richt, stepped forward. Vesner handed him the staff, “Remember, the skeleton will follow your command verbatim, exactly as you say.”
“How do I use the staff?” Richt asked.
“Just give a command to the skeleton with the intent to command it, the staff does the rest.”
Richt looked at the skeleton and pointed the staff at it, “Dr-put the rabbit down,” he said, with a steadiness that belied the anxiety inside him.
The skeleton bent at the pelvis, and gently placed the rabbit on the grass, and stood up as Aleys moved to pick the rabbit up and place it back into the chest.
Richt considered, and looked to Vesner, “May I?” The necromancer nodded. “Follow,” the muscle-bound man in a leather apron said, as he walked to his forge. “Can I demonstrate an action for it to perform later?” he asked.
“Certainly. We’ve ‘taught’ them to harvest pumpkins. Tell it to watch your actions, and then say ‘that is making a sword,’ or whatever you want to show them.”
Richt nodded, “Watch me,” he said to the skeleton before leaning the staff against the counter of his open air shop and picked up a bellows. He carefully stoked the fire inside, blowing air in, and telling it conditions under which to give it air or turn coals over, with Vesner’s aid. “That is stoking the forge.” Richt said. “Stoke the forge.”
The skeleton took up the bellows, peered into the forge, and gave it two short bursts of air, set the bellows down, and picked up an iron to turn the embers over. Richt stood back in awe.
“In your line of work you will need to exercise care if you take a skeleton. They could reach into a baker’s oven and be little the worse for wear, and in general, they will have no problem with radiant heat, but your forge is hot enough to cremate bone, so they will need safety equipment much like your own.”
“Can they make weapons?” Richt asked.
“Skilled labour is best left to sapient creatures, but with a detailed enough process of conditional orders, it is possible for them to produce basic weapons. Artisanry will still be the purview of yourself and other sapient smiths.”
“And they can work all day?”
“No rest needed. This skeleton can stoke a fire or make basic metal ware all through the night and into the day. The only limit will be how well you can sleep through the pounding.”
Richt considered. “What if I wanted two skeletons?”
Vesner’s smile spread across his face, a look of genuine satisfaction, “Well, the typical human requires five silvers worth of obsidian to animate. There is also the cost of the, er, material, which is dependent upon a number of things. But a simple skeleton such as this one we could create for a cost of 10 silvers, and would sell for 20.”
The boom of an explosion thundered across the town. Everyone spun in the direction of the mill and ran flat out to it.
“ALEYS, GRAF! BRING TEN!” Vesner shouted as he followed the crowd.
No one in town will forget the sound of eleven skeletons in an all out run. The clatter was deafening, and the scrape of bone on stone as they neared was like nails on a chalkboard.
“SKELETONS! ENTER THE MILL, PICK UP A WORKER, AND BRING THEM OUT, KEEP THEM SAFE FROM THE FLAMES.” Vesner commanded as Aleys chanted a short invocation and touched his shoulder with a hand that shimmered red, blue and green, a radiant cascade slowly enveloping him as he strode into the flames with the skeletons. Flames licked at his robe and feet, but were rebuffed by a thin force.
The remaining horde of skeletons were brought up to aid the bucket chain, forming two pairs of rows of their own, handing up an endless stream of buckets along two rows then down the other.
“HOLD THAT FRAME!” Vesner shouted inside as timbers cracked.
Eventually, nine skeletons carried out nine men, burned, coughing, but alive. Vesner and the tenth did not emerge until the flames had been doused, the last skeleton carrying a prone form in it’s arms.
“He was at the center of the fire,” Vesner said as the skeleton laid him on the ground between us. In the moment, with it’s blackened bones, I hated the thing, blaming it for his death, as if it were an avatar of the grave that killed with a touch, rather than the unwavering tool that tried to save him. Vesner indicated the burns over his body, “he likely died instantly, probably painlessly. I’m sorry.”
I looked at the necromancer. Then from him, to my father, to the skeleton.
“Yes.” Vesner said reading my open mind, “I could raise him. I have no skill with the gods, but his body can be animated. If you wished, if he wished, I could animate him as a skeleton, then use another spell to return his mind to him. Speech with the dead is a simple matter, we can speak to him privately, later.”
The town was still hesitant about using the skeletons. In the end, the necromancers let every household take a staff as they’d be useful in defending the town from rogue undead, bandits and monsters, and as a sort of receipt to claim an undead at a latter point if the household changed its mind. About a third of my neighbours took skeletons, and the town was gifted ten in trust. Richt commissioned several skeletons with more trainable minds.
My father wasn’t sure how he felt about becoming an undead. He wanted to think about it. But he also didn’t want to leave us without his income and protection. I still don’t fully understand, but Vesner created some psuedo-duplicate of my father’s spirit to place in the skeleton, and a small pebble that could speak to him in the afterlife. Vesner cautioned that though my father was a good man, he only had so long to make his decision, before his spirit was subsumed into the divine.