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The Deathbroker

(Prologue)

To reap any quintessence of value, it does not serve to rob the tombs of kings or martyrs. If not guarded, they are warded, and more often than not the men beneath the monuments had paltry little to their spirits in the first place, anointing oil smeared upon them like lipstick on a pig.

Battlefields are poor choices, too, for it is the weak who perish. Besides, humans and other beasts of the earth tend to scavenge such places for petty worldly things, upsetting the balance of risk and reward. Famine saps the spirit such that it is of no use, almost by definition. He would need to be desperate indeed to scrape the barrel so.

But plague...

Plague is perfect. It is as predictable as it is inevitable. By the end of it, the dead are oft left in a pit outside their hamlet, stripped of all possessions.

Rather convenient.

Like a plentiful harvest's inverse, it floods the market with unbound souls. They trade cheaply in these days and so it is time to accumulate. Once the inevitable plays out — once the soul supplants the coin as the medium of exchange — these scraps that everyone leaves here and there will be worth quite a lot.

Or so thinks the Deathbroker with the secret knowledge. He wears no plague mask, for flesh does not concern him. His own death is not worth even the most remote consideration except perhaps the cost of such disregard. The overlapping and interlocking insurance policies which he has taken with this daemon and that are underwritten at such exorbitant expense that he must scrounge for capital just to keep his profit afloat.

He eyes a quaint medieval town in passing. There are people there still, but only a few torches burn. Indeed the place is like the last ember of a fire which the Creator will not rekindle. It burns now only because it used to, and it exists only in a intermediary state of extinguishment. He knows not the town's name, for its sign is long since laid to waste, yet ember is still ember, and he decides to venture in. Sometimes probability surprises him and provides enough to make such indulgences worth the time and more. Opportunity cost is of little concern with longevity such as his.

The Deathbroker steps over the circles of flowers laid upon the ground — it would be unkind to disturb them — and he tries to remember a short story that he read once. It was written by some fellow in an old cycle, and it sums it all up quite well, but it has been many, many years and he struggles to remember it.

His musing is interrupted by a scavenger bird. It is black like the night and many of the corpses within the plague pit that he nears.

The Deathbroker speaks in the world of flesh for the first time in years uncounted.

His voice is soft and calm and maybe even kind and its sanguine tone does not befit his grim and shadowy appearance, with his flowing black robes and his shroud opaque as peat. "Hello, friend. How fare your travels?"

The bird squawks its answer.

"Oh, I get by. Thank you for asking. It seems everyone around here has forgotten their manners."

The Deathbroker laughs quietly at this.

"I was never much for company, but this does make for a lonely conspiracy indeed."

The bird makes another sound which the villagers have come to associate with Death.

"Oh, I have tried, little bird. But the kind of companions who would accompany me without the secret knowledge are not the sort I would have as company, and those who read the tomes tend to go quite mad. But I suspect that you are different, little black bird."

A squawk.

"I cannot bare it to just anyone. Besides, it will sound ridiculous. I'd be more worried if you did believe me. Now, come. Let us see what awaits us, hm?"

Little more than a silhouette, he approaches the pit, but the bird moves to block his path and cocks its head in defiance.

"Alright, I'll give you some morsel if you really want it that badly. The Creator's name is Ialdabaoth. How's that for a start?"

Another squawk.

"You already knew that?" He is incredulous. "Well, if His name was already known to you, then you must already be acquainted with some of the secret knowledge. Maybe something more arcane will suffice. How about this — the original sin was truth-seeking."

The bird acquiesces and the Deathbroker steps forward and the bird hobbles behind and at once the necromancer remembers the words that were once written, which so well describe his feelings on the matter.

And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

He had rather liked that story.

The Deathbroker climbs into the plague pit where the dead are buried with their things. Inconvenient as it is, the totality of it signifies a greater likelihood of a soul worth stealing somewhere in the pile. A diamond in the rough, or perhaps it is more akin to a bit of precious oil left in a discarded jar.

As he reaches for the corpses, the bird squawks, alarmed and indignant.

"You needn't worry, my feathered friend. I don't care for flesh or any of its things. You can even have these trinkets, if you want them," he says, holding some gilded and clanging things up toward the bird, which does again acquiesce.

"I hope that you do not judge me too harshly for this," adds the Deathbroker as he kneels among and atop the dead. "You are a scavenger, too, and besides, it is not as if their Creator has treated them kindly. Regardless of what I do, this will all fade like Eden by the time a few centuries are up. I imagine there are only a few hundred alive who could really persist on a dying earth, who could fathom watching the sun fade to black."

The black bird squawks.

The Deathbroker laughs. "That is possible, my new friend. You have an interesting way of seeing things."

In silence, the necromancer runs his hand along the skin of bodies whose deathlocked and blank faces still bear the things that make them human — the eyes and the ears and the noses which the Archons once forged at the Creator's command. Angels, as thralls would call them.

There is no moral quandry in scavenging, in his mind. What harm is there in taking what will otherwise go to waste? The tired old demiurge can't take back all their quintessence, all their Light, not when He mandates that so many of His faithful die. But He has given these folk so little to begin with that the Deathbroker can find nothing more than husks, the scraps of steel which remain when ploughshares are made into swords and back again.

"You can help yourself to whatever I don't need, though I imagine you've already had your fill by the look of these lands. I told you, I have no interest in things of the flesh."

The bird squawks and begins to make a meal of a corpse, proving the Deathbroker wrong on one count, at least. He shrugs and continues his morbid work for a while.

At last his pale hand grazes a body which had held a soul befitting of a king, and with a slave's brand, no less! How remarkable that human society makes mistakes like this with such alarming regularity. Indeed, the Deathbroker relies on it even as he decries it, going about the unpleasant yet intoxicating task of binding to himself what remains of that person's spirit. He harvests a little shard of an entire life's experience — every song, every dance, all the sex and all the pain... humanity turned commodity.

Improbable as it may seem, it is not a path of greed that he walks, but of godhead.

The Deathbroker like his avian friend has had his fill, and so he emerges from the pit with a new layer of gravedust upon the relics he wears for clothes. The detour has been worth the time, both for the capital and the companionship. It is amazing what treasures go unnoticed by those without the secret knowledge.

He stands at the edge of the corpse pit and sees a townsman approaching with a torch held behind and aloft. It is unethical to kill for quintessence, and there is not yet any need for such transgressions. He turns to the bird and speaks quietly.

"Let us go, my friend. Those without the secret knowledge consider this a sin, and there has been enough death in this place for now. Let us allow these embers to live out their lives without confrontation."

The bird follows but moments later the man-thing makes a sound.

"In the Prophet's name, halt!"

The Deathbroker freezes and lets out a breath. "I would stop in profit's name, but not your Prophet's. On what authority durst you accost me?"

The bird squawks louder than ever.

"Easy, my feathered friend. There is no need for threats just yet."

The man steps closer. He wears no uniform, only a scarf wrapped about his mouth and stuffed with herbs and a guard's belt and a farmer's tatters with holy symbols embroidered in vain by a moth worshiping the flame of its demise. It is clear from his musculature that he has hauled much weight of late, doing the work of an ox-beast. There are holy symbols cut and branded in his flesh, marks of prayers unanswered, his flagellation forsaken and scorned . Making trades with the Creator is a usually vain and doomed task and so the Deathbroker deigns it not.

"Name yourself. How did you get here? The roads are closed three provinces across by order of the Priests-Regent themselves." The man's hand rests on the thing of steel hanging at his waist and he stands with the brutish and savage poise like the Neanderthals that preceded him, at least this time around.

"I did not take your roads. I stepped through shadow, and already I depart. You have done your task admirably. You may go back to what you have left to savor it while it is there." The Deathbroker's black shroud billows as he speaks. The bird takes brief flight and lands on his shoulder, and accepts it when the necromancer strokes his feathers with a pale hand.

"I'm taking you before the alderman. He'll decide."

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust, little human. Let it go," threatens the Deathbroker, quoting from a poet whose name is lost. "Walk away. This needn't be your day to dance the danse macabre."

The man-thing steps closer, emanations of fear souring the deathsweet air. "You'd better listen to me, stranger."

"Are you truly ready to die today? Were your heart weighed now against a feather, would it be found wanting?"

For his answer, the man-thing only draws his crude weapon and flashes a snarl that is undermined by his terrified eyes and he bring his crude steel toward the necromancer.

"Is your spirit white as snow, as your hymns say?"

The bird takes flight and in a sanguine flash the steel is dropped and the necromancer simply watches as the bird rips and tears all that makes the man-thing human.

The eyes.

The ears.

The nose.

And more.

The man-thing claws at his face, screaming curses and prayers in vain and when it is over the Deathbroker drains his spirit, too, wondering what stories his brethren will tell of what they hear this night, what their imaginations might make of his nightshrouded silhouette. He throws the body into the pit where it belongs and drifts into the night.

The bird returns to his shoulder carrying in its mouth an eyestalk, both trophy and treat.

"There," says the Deathbroker once clear of the hamlet's sight. "That wasn't so bad, was it? I've found a good bit of quintessence, and even made a friend."

The bird squawks.

"Yes, you have earned it indeed. Here is some more, then. As strange as it sounds, He has the head of a lion and the body of a serpent. At least, that's how He appears to them in the times when His earthly reign is strong."

The bird says something.

Seemingly faceless beneath his shroud, the Deathbroker smiles. "Nevermore, indeed."

The Carcosan necromancer travels west, seeking the abundance plague brings.

NEXT: THE DEATHBROKER II [CLICK/TAP TO READ]

IN THE LANDS AHEAD WAR IS GOD. THE TYRANT IALDABAOTH WILLS OTHERWISE AND THE NECROMANCER DARES OPPOSE HIM.