The dead were hungry. Weren’t they always?
Milra’s shoulders burned. Twin pails of ungodly slop hung from her aching fingers, already beginning to reek. Her feet made great echoing clacks upon the filthy marble floor of the quad, too loud in leaden air.
The spires of Aurapol’s Necropolytechnic towered over her, their shadows a twisted web in the light of dim twin suns. Their aspect was more gothic than it was organic, bone mixed with mortar and great bricks of crematorium ash combined to make a campus of stately, authoritarian buildings that dwarfed its students and scholars.
It was dinner time now, for living and dead alike. The faculty would take meals in their towers and caves and drafty, freezing classrooms. The students would crowd into the halls of their colleges to eat, or go into the city to buy street sauce and watch the iron minstrels, or sneak into the crypts to plot, liaise and seduce each other. But not Milra. Damn the chancellor, and damn his holistic pickling! Any practitioner worth their bone meal should’ve recoiled at the idea of maintaining the soul in a corpse built for manual labour. What use would that torment be, other than a downtick in efficiency?
But the chancellor did not listen as Milra’s mother would have. Instead, she’d been thrown into scullion duties under pain of expulsion. Some small, bitter part of her wanted nothing more than to spit in the eye of authority and strike out on her own, to buy a petty license and raise a few dead to assist her in her duties. There was a life to be made, down in the city. Folks would pay dearly for dead labourers that never tired, or dead watchmen who never slept. Those few petty necromancers Milra knew were content, for the most part.
And yet here she was, pouring slop into the feeding-holes around the pit and cursing her ambition. The holes themselves were cast in ancient bronze, sloughed over with verdigris and pockmarked with symbols only half-remembered. They gaped ominously, producing a faint sucking sound as the nutrient slurry was poured into them, one by one, until all six had been filled. Then, hands shaking with exertion, Milra pulled the lever by the side of the great pit itself. With a gurgling roar the pipes opened and the huge basalt trough was filled. The builders had taken great pains to avoid the trough looking like a coffin, a decision Milra found grimly amusing.
The dead had already begun to creep from their cradles in the pit walls, limbs shaking as they adjusted to their new state. Some of them were withered where old age had claimed them, others bore great knotted scars where accident or violence had taken their souls. All were united in appearance by their grey, unfeeling skin and clouded white eyes. This batch of the newly risen would gorge themselves upon the slurry, growing strong and inhumanly muscled. Then they would sleep one final time and awaken as proper labourers.
A scuttling movement caught Milra’s eye. On the edge of the trough, two figures were snarling and pushing one another, lips drawn back over chipped teeth.
Of course, there were always cases like this. The Fleshtakers asked few questions of their clients, and upon occasion brought bodies slain by rogue sorcery or badland weapons that curdled their very souls. Raising these bodies was wasteful at best, downright dangerous at worst.
And two in a single crop… Milra hurried back to the edge of the quad and rang the watch bell. A tense minute later, two prefects came trotting down the corridor. The taller one, Smior, looked down his nose at her as soon as their eyes met. His green eyes were like emeralds; shining, beautiful and soulless.
“Yes, Milra? Ringing the bell won’t get you out of–”
“The dead are fighting. Two of them in one crop.”
Smior’s mouth twisted at the interruption, but he was cut off again as Ptolema laid a slender hand on his arm. She was everything Milra liked in a prefect; quiet, flexible, always willing to listen. Perhaps too willing.
“We’ll get the billhooks Milra, not to worry. Have they fed yet?”
Milra explained that the trough had just been filled, ignoring Smior’s impatient foot-tapping. Ptolema waved him off and muttered something vile in Lazaraki as he stalked away to get the billhooks. Ptolema’s definition of “we” was refreshingly versatile. Milra tried to stifle a laugh as they walked back to the edge of the pit, but what she saw there put paid to her effort.
The dead were not feeding.
Instead, every one of them had halted and turned, crouched, to watch with unblinking eyes the fight between the flawed ones.
They raked at each other with broken fingernails, scoring great bloodless lines in each others’ skin, until they were as ragged as two warring songbirds wreathed in grey. The one with dark hair was winning, barely, against its hairless opponent.
“Strange, isn’t it? You’d think people would calm down once they’ve been shorn of soul.” Ptolema’s cadence was an alien one; her plane had been found by the clavigators a mere thirty years previously, and assimilation was not yet complete. Sometimes Milra wanted to ask her what life was like before first contact. Before the clavigator diplomats, the floods of gold and spices, the crushing heel of the argent legions.
Before vassaldom, and homage to Aurapol. The city which, like the dark-haired dead below, thought nothing of ripping lesser planes to shreds and absorbing them wholesale into its black streets and staggering populous.
“I don’t think people ever want to stop hurting each other,” Milra whispered. Ptolema laid a hand on her shoulder, and with a flush Milra found herself far too focused on the warmth of it. As Smior trudged over with a couple of billhooks and some warding scrolls, Ptolema leaned in so that her breath, warm and smelling of jasmine tea, flew across Milra’s ear and cheek distractingly.
“Some of us are going into the caves tonight to unwind. All this drudge work is making you gloomy. Meet me by the east gate, then come down and have a drink with us?”
Milra nodded and flicked a glance at Smior, who was angrily shuffling down the rope he’d laid, juggling his billhook and trying to avoid falling in. Ptolema winked at her, and quickly went to help Smior before he could fall.
The cave was warm with the throng of bodies, but Milra had never felt so alone. The great vaulted ceiling rose high above, into the dark. Electric lamps and arcane batteries served to provide a dim orange light that lent the scene a surreal aspect. One enterprising senior had stolen an arcanograph from a common room, and rewoven the bindings so that now it echoed and thrummed with music, a raw drum track underscoring unearthly tones that hissed and roared the melody like a living thing. She danced mechanically, weaving between amorous clumps of students and the occasional solitary dancer towards Ptolema, who lounged against a stalagmite with enviable calm. She’d put something iridescent under her eyes, and Milra found her dancing slow even more as they drew close.
Under the din, Ptolema managed to mouth follow me. Milra took the offered hand without thinking, gripping with an eagerness that made Ptolema shoot her a sly, knowing glance.
They walked through the height of the music, so thunderous that their ears crackled and rang. The dancers around them seemed to flicker in and out of clouds of bakh smoke and the din until at last they slipped down a side tunnel and found themselves divorced abruptly from the noise. The fury of the celebration above faded steadily even as the cold increased; they were moving deeper into the veins of the earth now, each step removing them further from heat and light and humanity.
Ptolema led Milra down through lightless halls and great soaring clefts never touched by human tools, until at last they came into a great round chamber mined by dead labourers. A score of them stood here now, stock still and ready for command. But Milra quickly realised that they were not labourers at all, but something stranger still. All were armed with swords, spears and bucklers covered in the most potent magical wards she’d ever seen. Three of them were even rigged up with great lightning-generators that would blast stone and flesh apart with equal measure. She turned on Ptolema, who regarded her with a level smile.
“What the hell is this? Do you know what would happen if–”
“Blood will be shed Milra, one way or another.” Ptolema’s eyes were luminous in the dim light, soaking up Milra’s scorn with scant regard. “We deserve our time at the top. No more drudge work, no more rules. Tonight we can overturn it all and make something new for ourselves!”
Ptolema’s hands were firm on her shoulders as Milra thought. She remembered the snide mockery of the chancellor. The constant scrabble with other students for funding. The neverending grind to make more labourers, get more funding, find a good share of bodies before the prefects claimed them. She remembered the warmth of Ptolema’s breath in her ear. She took a deep breath of cold, stale air.
“What are we going to do?”