Lanterns in the Mist
Accidental Necromancer, The
His full name was Alexei Andropov, but “Fingers” was what everybody had called him since childhood. The name stuck due to his speed in robbing the dead, particularly corpses found in the early dawn hours on battlefields. He would take the rings from the fingers of soldiers clutching bloody weapons, grabbing festering wounds or clawing at the sky in death. The rings were mostly copper and silver, but he had been known to cut off fingers that wore gold. He always carried a bag of the fingers he cut.
Once he’d found a magical ring carved with two crossed feathers. For years he had used its powers to aid in his heists. He’d leap from the highest window, loot tucked in his burlap sack, and float down like the softest pigeon feather. Alas, someone had stolen the ring five years ago, and he had yet to find another like it.
His days of cutting the fingers from corpses as he and other orphans wandered the mist-covered battlefields were behind him. He had retired from the work of children and had graduated to more impressive assignments, such as home invasions and heists. Fingers’ favorite work was grave robbing. His palms would sweat in anticipation and his breath would catch in his throat as he cracked open tombs and pulled back coffin lids. There was nothing better. And what treasures he had found in three years of such sweaty endeavors! If his luck held out, he estimated he could retire from the life in five years. There would be no more thieving. He would find new sources of excitement. But his plan was a toss of the dice.
Fingers heard a sudden noise and crouched down. An owl called from the darkness. Another creature cried far off in the hills. It sounded like a mix of some barking beast and a laughing child. He shivered. What kind of animal made a sound like that? The graveyard was a wide expanse of crooked tombstones and black, reaching trees devoid of foliage and twisted like tortured, frozen forms in the murk. It was mid-autumn, and already cold air ruled the night in Ustalav. The graveyard was named the Black Willows, although he saw no willow trees. The tomb he faced was the resting place of one Vasily Ivazov. Ivazov had been a merchant of some renown in life as well as an accomplished wizard. It was said that he had specialized in arcane antiquities. Fingers’ was always searching for arcane antiquities. He hoped he would find another ring of feather falling, but any magic object would do.
Fingers squished down in soft soil, and his boots made a sucking sound with each step. He approached the black door of the squat tomb and got to work. He found a pair of traps within seconds: some sort of magical, sound-based trap and another, more mundane mechanism that sprayed a burst of acid from overhead. He worked quietly and, with two satisfying clicks, he disabled them both. Traps out of the way, he took crowbar and hammer to the seam around the door. After half an hour, he managed to get his fingertips in enough to pull. Before he did so, he tied a handkerchief over his face. There was no telling what might emanate from the tomb’s opening. Fingers swore, muttering something about Nethys’ anatomy, as he pulled open the heavy tomb door.
Dust motes floated like startled spirits in the light of his torch. Luckily, no poison gas was inside. The wall to his left had a small alcove with a brass bowl and a pair of unlit red candles. To his right was a tapestry with the black-and-white face of the god of magic glaring down from above. Though he had already blasphemed against the deity once, Fingers mocked the icon. He greeted each half of the bisected face, “Hello, sir, and hello to you as well. Watch this.”
Stepping deeper into the room, he spied the treasure chest resting at the head of the stone coffin and let out a brief whistle. The coffin itself was placed on a raised pedestal four feet high, its polished lid almost at chest level. What to do? Open the chest, or crack the coffin lid? Open the chest first, he decided.
Fingers stooped to examine the chest. There were no traps, but the lock was difficult. Just as Fingers’ bent knees were starting to complain, the lock gave in to his pokes and prods. The chest’s lid creaked loudly as he opened it.
“Hush,” he chided the box. He looked around as if he was committing a robbery in plain sight, not alone in a dusty tomb. Within the chest were more gold coins than he could carry. On top of the coins was a key.
He stood. The closed sarcophagus beckoned. Examining it, Fingers noticed a small keyhole high on one side. He laughed. “I am so good, and lucky too! Thank you, Mister Ivazov! Thank you very much!” He unlocked the coffin with the key he had found. Fingers was surprised at how light the sarcophagus lid was as he easily pushed it off. Before him lay the corpse of Vasily Ivazov, hands crossed on his chest, dead eyes closed.
The rings went first (it was tradition). Both of them looked magical. Next was an amulet with a sinister, staring eye, bloodshot and lifelike. He shuddered, but took it as well. The robe the dead wizard wore looked valuable, but it was the glass vial clutched in the corpse’s withered hands that caught Fingers’ eye.
It was full of fluid that shone with an unnerving violet light. The vial was icy cold to the touch. When he pulled on the vial, the skeletal hands held it tight. Its leathery arms lifted as Fingers tugged. Frustrated, he tried to free the vial several more times, but the corpse would not give up its treasure.
“Come now, Vasily, let’s have it.”
With a harsh final jerk, the vial and Vasily Ivazov’s left arm tore free. Fingers lurched back and stumbled, and the corpse arm and vial sailed over his head. He reached out for them in vain. Time slowed to a crawl as the severed arm bounced and the vial struck the stones. The vial shattered, and purple liquid spilled out on the mossy ground outside. It dripped off the threshold of the tomb.
“Gods!” He slapped the stone floor in anger.
He stood and looked down at the arm that still clutched the shattered vial. “We’ll never know now, Vasily.” It was too bad. Potions were valuable.
Fingers heard a sound and looked up. It originated from off to his right, deep in the graveyard. He ducked down and squinted into the darkness. He saw no one. A bump from the other direction made him jerk in place. It sounded like knocking on a heavy door, muffled by distance and the heavy mist. Then a wall of sound rose from the ground all around him, a crescendo of increasing noise.
thump thump thump thump thump thump THUMP THUMP THUMP
It was all around him, and the ground shook beneath his feet. The vibration rattled Fingers to his bones and fear twisted his innards. Things were breaking free from their graves. He looked out from the tomb’s entrance. The graveyard went on and on and on. How far had he walked? Reaching arms ripped free of black soil ten feet away. Two more sets of arms poked up toward the night sky a short distance behind. He counted nine to his right as the dead dragged themselves free of cracked graves. Moans filled the night in every direction. Left and right, shambling bodies neared. Fingers backed away from the unbelievable sight. So many! He counted five, then twelve and then thirty. More and more rose and headed in his direction.
The moans of the dead were deafening. Fingers giggled. The liquid on the mossy ground glowed a necrotic violet in the gloom He stepped away from it, as if to deny his blunder. Vasily Ivazov’s one remaining skeletal hand dug deep into Finger’s throat as the rogue stumbled backwards into him. Fingers turned and faced glowing violet eyes. He felt his own blood rushing warm down his neck and chest, soaking his shirt. They were all around him, a circular wall of slavering undead. He shrieked helplessly as they bore him down, and the wet sound of tearing flesh echoed among the tombstones.