Thursday, October 27, 2011

Original Fiction for Halloween

Kelly O'Donnell, my college DM, wrote a short piece on one of the recurring villains of our campaign for his creative writing class.  I loved the piece then, and I still do.  After being lost for many years, he happily uncovered the only known surviving copy recently.  With some minor revisions, he has agreed to allow it to appear here as one of the blog's special Halloween treats.  Thanks, Kelly!

The Craftsman
By Kelly O’Donnell

Zoranden the Bald descended the cold rock steps winding deep into his subterranean laboratory complex. The fat man took one step at a time in a slow, controlled stride, holding his long red robes above his feet to avoid stumbling. The back hem dragged and flopped down the risers behind him, trailing a string of dusty cobwebs and spider eggs. The effort of traveling the steps caused beads of sweat to appear on his forehead, and since he had no eyebrows to wall off the salt water, the sweaty runnels would drain into his eyes so that he constantly had to wipe them with his sleeve. Yet Zoranden the Bald endured all these discomforts and would have willingly traversed these steps a hundred times a day, for those cold stone flags were the pathway to his underworld of witchery” his sorcerous laboratory where he practiced all powers dark, evil, and blasphemous.
                At the bottom of the stairs patiently waited Siiva, a white haired youth with brutal features, ruddy skin, and pale blue eyes. He watched as his mentor descended the steps towards him and regarded his master with a piercing stare. The thought occurred to him that Zoranden looked babyish in the face, or would look that way were it not for the Bald One’s grim serious expression. The impression of Zoranden’s youthfulness came from the fact that he had absolutely no body hair whatsoever. It had quit growing many years ago. Eyebrows and lashes, beard, underarms and all other body hair had been lost when in his early practice he had mispronounced a difficult spell. Also Zoranden’s skin was extremely pale from long days underground. This with the lack of body hair gave the bald, fat man a youthful aspect. This aspect was, of course, deceiving for Zoranden had long since lost count of his years of existence.
                Siiva, the student, greeted his master formerly when the fat man reached the last step.
                “The glory of Hell be on you master and, I hope, no set-backs tonight.”
                “I assume you have already made all the preparations for the necromagics?” said the fat man in a deep rumbling voice. One eye was held narrow; the other was open wide and the skin above it drawn upward; an expression that would have been cocking an eyebrow had Zoranden possessed any.
                “Yes, lord, all is set and I look forward most eagerly to seeing your works with the dead, a talent I truly wish to master some day.” Siiva’s brutal lips parted in a smile that revealed crooked teeth. He held his mentor in high esteem and would have feared Zoranden were it not for his ignorant loyalty.
                Zoranden walked past his pupil and into the Chamber of Summons.
                “Good,” he said rather abruptly, “then let’s see the corpse.”
                In the center of the room was suspended a body of athletic appearances. It hung upside down, arms outstretched, from a long thick cord that ascended into dark heights of the summons chamber. The dead man was naked so that his firm muscular physique could be noted and judged. The veins of the corpse were swollen and black, almost pushing out of the skin. Zoranden’s eye, encircled by bulges of pink sweaty flesh, scanned up and down the figure and came to rest on the swollen arteries of the neck. He stepped forward for a closer look, then reached for a wrist and ran his thumb down the taught, blackened veins.
                “You killed him with poison,” said Zoranden. It was more of a statement than a question.
                “Yes, master.”
“Juice from the boiled petals of the black lotuses of the Karude.” Another statement. Zoranden was fully familiar with most of the world’s poisons and was especially experienced with the killing juices of those black flowers that grew in the Karude, a particularly nasty jungle that stretched across the northern regions of Ardren.
                “Very well,” said the obese wizard as he stepped back from the corpse. Zoranden’s tone was flat. Even though he was very pleased with Siiva’s ability to get hold of such a deadly poison, he also saw Siiva’s weakness of pride. He didn’t want him to become too overly confident; a mistake Zoranden himself had made many years before when he lost his hair.
                “Now bring a table Siiva, the one with the blood trough down the middle for operating. This golem is going to be special!”
                They followed through with the process of bringing over the table and lowering the corpse onto it. Trays with tools were set about and also a brazier with burning coals and a smoldering torch sticking out over the rim. Incense sticks were cast on the coals and an oily red cloud mushroomed out and rolled against gravity up into the darkness. Metal tools gleamed red in the light of the coals reflected off the incense smoke. The tools were laid out in an organized manner and consisted of a variety of implements. There were different types of knives, curved and straight, broad and narrow. There were steel claws, spoons of different sizes, pincers and tongs, probes, chisels, scrapers, drills, and horsehair for stitching. A bucket was set at the end of the table where fluids would drain down the trough. Another bucket was set at the table’s head for scraps. Once everything was ready, Zoranden stood at the table with Siiva beside him studying the body like any surgeon about to begin a major life saving operation. He stooped and lifted the table at its head while Siiva slid a thick board under the legs. The tilt of the table would allow the blood to flow.
                “Tonight,” said Zoranden, “we begin the crafting of a form of golem I call my ‘necroman.’ Now, there are golems and there are golems. All golems are greatly feared, especially by the superstitious populace. All golems will kill as an automaton for its creator. But…” he let the word hang while staring intently at his pupil to signify the importance of the upcoming statement, “not all golems are as frightening as others and yet…” again the pause and stare, “fear…is…their…greatest…power! That is the power we shall invest in our necroman.
                Siiva, if you were to see an unarmed man striding toward you, half naked, you would hardly be frightened, especially since you have had some military training and are usually armed. Of course when you realize that the man is dead, then you will grow frightened, possibly panic and run away. The point of what I am saying is that the appearance matters to a golem. To have the power of delivering that special gripping fear is to have the proper appearance. That is why a corpse that has undergone much decay can make a most powerfully frightening golem, but the decayed corpse is much weaker than a full, well-knit golem that hasn’t yet turned to jelly consistency. Any decayed zombie is already falling apart and is only as strong as an animated skeleton, which as any experienced warlock knows, can easily be hacked to pieces by a skilled fighter. Yet, a fresh corpse when animated with unlife can have the strength to lift twice its weight and the full-bodied limbs allow the creature to do much more damage when beating its victim. Also the solid musculature and the stronger knitting in the joints make it much more difficult for the creature to be hacked apart or broken. This is the reason why most golems look quite whole, their creators relying on the fact that they are dead to be the source of terror. At most, the golem bears the wound of its death. A slit throat, gaping heart wound, cracked skull, or simply bruises or nothing if the corpse died from strangulation or poisoning or even drowning. These being the only marks on the corpse, the golems fright effect is greatly reduced. I have always been disappointed in my peers for being blind to this.”
                “Now,” said Zoranden as he placed his hands on the dead man’s torso and gently patted the area over the heart as if the body had been that of a beloved pet lying ill before him, “I intend to show you how to make a golem that will be wholly terrifying and retain its full-bodied strength at the same time.”
                “First of all,” rumbled the fat man, “we will begin by shaving the head. Also I have prepared an oil of softening that will release the corpse from its rigor mortis.”
                While Siiva shaved off the dead man’s beard and hair, Zoranden went across the room and through a thick black door. He entered a small antechamber where there were shelves and tables covered with equipment of alchemy. Standing on a latter against a tall dusty shelf, Zoranden moved aside clay jars and iron flasks scanning the labels as he went. Finally he pulled out a copper decanter that was stoppered at the top with a wood pin and then sealed with twisted leather. The decanter looked old. The copper was nearly brown and moisture had caused a green crust to form in spots all over the surface. Zoranden cradled the container to his body as he climbed down the ladder and then strode into the room of summons. Siiva had finished the beard and was beginning on the scalp. Zoranden unwrapped the seal from the copper decanter and began to pour the oil onto the corpse, holding the decanter with one hand and massaging the oil into the body with the other. Slowly the stiffness left the body and it began to settle. Muscles sagged, the eyelids relaxed and closed, and the lower jaw drooped so that the dead man appeared to be yawning. When Siiva finished shaving the scalp Zoranden continued his lesson.
                “We will next deal with the skin. Skin is a barrier to disease, but golems need not worry about disease. So for the first horror effect we will strip away the skin from areas that I believe will produce the best image.”
                Small incisions were made on the face and larger ones on the torso and limbs. Then using pincers and tongs the sorcerer and his apprentice went about stripping skin from the body. Dark muscle showed beneath with pockets of yellow blubbery fat. The skin did not tear easily. It clung to the body and stretched as it was pulled and ripped till finally it would snap loose as if it were made of rubber. Some of the strips of skin were left clinging to the limbs to dangle looking like torn bloody sleeves.
                “Ghast!” said Siiva as Zoranden pulled skin from the cadaver’s face. The left eye was now exposed and bulging from its socket. It was still encircled by muscle tissue so that it wouldn’t pop out. The whole left cheek was delicately removed by the Bald One’s skillful hands; careful not to damage muscles that he wanted to remain on the corpse. As the lips were removed with the cheek, the yellow teeth seemed to form an evil grimace set in the exposed gums and the muscles at the back of the jaw. Taking a pair of spiked pincers, Zoranden clamped and re-clamped the left nostril, pulling at it until it was frayed and mangled. He followed with the same procedure on an ear until it too lay mangled and hanging loose; a flap of cartilage against the exposed jaw bone.
                They had now been working for over an hour. With a heavy sigh Zoranden stepped back to rest and study his work from a distance. Siiva took the opportunity to lean over and peer at the cadaver up close. He reached out and touched the sticky face, his hands trembling with excitement. He felt a joy in his master’s work. He could barely contain it and his voice was shaky as he spoke.
                “But it does have a frightening effect!”
                “And I have not as yet finished,” Zoranden’s voice rolled out, “When I am, it will be totally and absolutely horrifying. Now Siiva, get a torch and bring it here, and also beer. I’m rather thirsty. Bring some for yourself as well.”
                Siiva hurried off to his duties as Zoranden went to the tool tray and chose some particulars from the array of implements. Among what he chose were files, pliers, a bone needle with the horse hair thread, and lastly a dried, three-toed skeletal paw with long, polished black claws. Turning to the body he took the pliers and ripped the fingernails from a hand. Then he once again made small incisions and removed the skin from the final segment of each finger. Siiva returned with the torch and beer and Zoranden stopped to drink the brew, his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down and looking like a wave in the sea of fat that swelled around his neck. He finished, licked his lips with a great deal of smacking, set down the horn mug with a spatter of froth and then lowered his gaze on his apprentice.
                “Siiva, you will notice the alterations I have made to his left hand. Take the round file and sharpen the bone tips to points.”
                The youth gently took the hand and with careful precision began to file the fingertips. Zoranden turned to the corpse and, taking a scalpel, made a long incision down the stomach. He made the incision deep and exposed the intestines. A clear liquid oozed from the wound, having just a trace of blood. Then with a grim look the bald man rolled up his sleeves and plunged his hands into the mouth-shaped, gaping hole. The rubbery tubes made a sucking sound as they were pulled forth. Juices ran out and the intestines bulged up and then slid off of the stomach to slop down on the table. Zoranden’s fat body began to shake as a low, growling laughter escaped the sorcerer’s throat.
                “Siiva,” he said, “there’s something about guts that appeal to a man’s deepest feelings of revulsion.”
                Taking the bone needle Zoranden threaded it with the horsehair and began to stitch the intestines to the legs of the dead man. After many strategic sutured spots, the guts clung to the corpse’s leg and therefore would not entangle or drag when the body was up and walking about. Most of the intestine Zoranden left inside the stomach. He finished by stitching up the wound so that no more insides could slither out. The work took hours. Siiva had long since finished the hand and was sitting nearby struggling to stay awake. He jumped up smartly when Zoranden suddenly yelled at him to come over.
                “Siiva, light the torch. We’re going to apply the finishing touches.”
                “Yes, master,” Siiva replied humbly.
                The apprentice grabbed the torch and thrust it into the brazier of coals. After smoldering a bit the torch burst into flame and Siiva took it to Zoranden who had meanwhile taken the animal claw and was holding it ready while studying the body.
                “The claw wounds will give an unusual effect to the overall appearance of our corpses,” spoke Zoranden, “people will wonder at exactly what this man walked through.”
                Using the claw the Bald One then raked parallel incisions over the dead man’s chest and neck. Rolling the corpse over he raked parallel gouges on the corpse’s backside as well. Then taking the torch he burned large sections of the body’s surface; front and back. Dark smoke twisted into the air. The burning human flesh produced an unpleasant stench. Skin charred, cracked, and peeled away exposing white bone beneath. Ribs showed beneath, so that numerous ribs and the entire back of the skull showed. Siiva kept a wet towel on hand to snuff out flames. When done, Zoranden set the torch in the brazier and backed away to study his work. He walked around from one side of the table to the next, stood, and squinted his eyes. Clearing his throat, he spoke.
                “Siiva, go into the alchemy chamber and bring me the jars of red and brown pigments.”
                When Siiva returned he handed the jars to his master who set them down on the table beside the body. The jars were of clay, sealed with leather covering so that they looked like drums. Zoranden opened both jars. Taking a wooden stick from the tray of tools, he mixed in the brown pigment with the red until he had a paint, which resembled the color of blood. Then using his hands, he splattered the paint onto the corpse around the wounds. At times he had Siiva lift the body up and support it so that he might pour the paint on and let run down the face, chest, and arms. When the jar was empty he once again backed away from the table, wiping his hands on his red robes and studying the corpse. Siiva walked over and stood beside him.
                “Gruesome,” said Zoranden rather in a matter of fact-like tone.
                “Most horrifying” spoke Siiva, his voice a whisper.
                “Grotesque, grisly, revolting.”
                “Frightening in the extreme, master. A hideous creation.”
                “Yes. And when invested with unlife it shall be able to wreak much physical harm. A normal man will be paralyzed at the sight of it. Frozen with fear. Or at least run screaming from the thing. Few would dare to contest it. They will believe that it is not possible to harm it.”
                “Can it be hacked apart like a zombie?”
                “When we have finished our necroman, the unlife state will persist in every member of the body until it is completely annihilated. Turning it to ashes would do the trick. Otherwise – and this is the beauty of the thing – it will continue to seek its victim until it succeeds in killing him. Then it will return to where I have instructed it.”
                “How does it know where its victim is? How does it sense these things?”
                “It sees. Or rather, the darkness we bind to it sees. It will find its victim.”
                “And it will not stop…” said Siiva, his voice trailing off.

©1988, 2011 by Kelly O’Donnell.  Appearing here by permission of the author, who reserves all rights.

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