Chapter I - Summer Solstice
A warm breeze blew several strands of black hair into Toth’s face. As he peered out from behind a thick bush, he gripped his spade tighter, briefly noting the permanent display of caked dirt beneath his cracked nails.
Ten mourners were just completing their ceremony. They laid a single coin—most likely tin, from the ragged state of their clothing—on each of the corpse’s eyes, sang a few somber melodies, and tossed the last few shovels of dirt into the grave. It wouldn’t be long before they were on their way home.
Toth crouched lower. He was lucky to have arrived at the graveyard during a burial. His audience with the Wizard Council was only a day away, and with so much to prepare, he had little time to make any extra stops. Finding a set of bones this fresh, however, was worth the minor delay.
When he looked up again, the mourners had each placed a small stone on the mound of dirt marking the grave and had disappeared silently into the night. Toth waited an extra few minutes before emerging from his hiding spot and shuffling over to the grave.
He plunged his spade into the earth, the recently loosened soil making his job much easier than usual. Within seconds, he’d uncovered the body. In life, it had been an old man, a father, a husband, a grandfather, but in death, it had the potential to be much more. These bones might be the first ones to offer full communication with the dead or provide a new method for keeping loved ones alive longer than nature would otherwise allow. Toth dragged the corpse out of the shallow grave and dug through his backpack for a knife.
“What are you doing?” a soft voice said from the darkness, followed by a shrill squeal and sobbing.
A firmer voice followed. “How dare you violate that grave? The dirt hasn’t even settled.”
Toth fell away from the body onto his pack, rolled to his knees, and wiped his hands on his black robe. Two of the mourners had returned, probably the old man’s daughter and granddaughter. Tears streamed down the little girl’s face as she buried her head in her mother’s patchwork dress. A white lily fell from her hand.
“Go on,” shouted the mother, backing away from Toth with her arms around the little girl. “We’re poor folk. There’s nothing of value buried with my father. Those coins on his eyes aren’t even real.”
“I’m not a grave robber,” said Toth.
The two took measured steps backward, clearly trying not to provoke a sudden attack from the stranger. Brown splotches dotted the fronts of their dresses, which were frayed at the hems.
“And I’m not here to hurt anyone,” said Toth. “I promise.”
The young girl pulled away from her mother.
“Then why won’t you let my papa rest?”
“Because…” said Toth. “I—”
The mother snatched the girl into her arms and darted away.
Toth fingered the old man’s shirt. Although it had several holes stitched closed near the bottom and was missing two buttons, it was without a single stain. His family had expended much effort making the old man presentable, even though his body would never be seen again.
How had he become so insensitive? The little girl’s mother saw him as a monster. When he’d begun his research into the dead, he’d found working with bones disgusting and had considered returning to traditional sorcery more than once. Now, he felt no connection to the recently departed old man. The body was just another source of material for his research.
Perhaps there was such a thing as bones that were “too fresh.” In any case, the rest of the mourners would bring the town guard within minutes, not nearly enough time to clean the bones properly. He shoved the corpse back into the grave, covered it with the loose dirt, and placed the discarded lily atop the mound.
The Wizard Council chamber could have swallowed a small village. Its walls, as cold as stone yet patterned like wood, rose ten times the height of a man to an ornate dome, where six ridges separated intricate carvings of men, beasts, books, and nature. Ages ago, it had taken the first council a decade to complete the construction.
Toth leaned against a smooth marble table and stared at the group of wizards seated in front of him, each one dressed in a robe of his school’s unique color. Red stood for elemental magic, blue for alchemy, purple for conjuration, yellow for illusion, green for sorcery, white for thaumaturgy, and orange for transmutation. Such a distinction had existed for centuries, but Toth, in his long black robe, was convinced he’d discovered an eighth school of magic.
The dull flame from a dozen lamps lit the windowless chamber in a pale light as three young acolytes quietly replenished the diminishing oil. They kept their heads down until their work was done, ignoring a single flickering lantern on the far side of the room.
Below the depleted lantern, a pair of animated skeletons marched from one wall to the other, their bony feet clicking against the marble floor like the first few pebbles rolling down a mountain in advance of a landslide. A few of the bones still had sinew attached and let off a distinctly rotten odor in the summer heat.
After many years of research, Toth was finally presenting his new school of necromancy to the council, but as the acolytes had proven once again, most people were repulsed by his discovery.
“I share their feelings,” said Mathon in a flowing red robe.
Although he was the youngest of the seven council members by far, Mathon was nearly double Toth’s age.
“That’s because you refuse to keep an open mind,” said Toth. “Take a closer look at my skeletons. Someone as wise as you can surely see the truth.”
“I already know the truth,” said Mathon. “As do my peers on the council.”
He received nods from half of the wizards, but the others motioned for him to get up from the table. Hisvii, the master transmuter, focused intently on the walking bones. His orange robe was splotched with dark stains. Toth shifted sideways until he was across from him.
“You seem curious about my skeletons. Go ahead and touch them.”
Hisvii stood but Mathon pushed him back into his seat.
“I wasn’t planning to get any closer to those hideous creatures,” he said, “but it’s my obligation as mediator of this discussion.”
His red robe swept the floor as he strolled across the room. After running his hand across his thinning hair, Mathon covered his nose with a silk rag and moved into the skeletons’ path, forcing them to halt. He brushed one of the smooth skulls with his fingertips and pulled back with a shudder.
“These bones deserve an eternity of rest beneath the soil,” he said, “not forced servitude to an overambitious young wizard.”
“Wouldn’t you say the same for any spirit summoned by sorcery?” asked Toth.
“I would,” said Mathon. “There’s no difference between these unfortunate creatures and a pair of forest spirits. A bunch of dry bones or a pile of dead leaves and twigs—they’re all the same when brought to life by a sorcerer. Congratulations on discovering these bone spirits. I’ll note your contribution to the school of sorcery in our journal. You may leave now. I’ve had enough of your filthy abominations.”
“My skeletons are no common spirits.”
Toth slammed his hands on the table, drawing grumbles from a few of the old wizards.
“Necromancy is like no other school of magic. I’ve granted temporary life to those bones. Besides, many other beings may be called upon from the netherworld. I only need the time and resources to continue my research.”
“Then prove it to me. This was your chance to convince us of your claims, but you’ve shown nothing that I haven’t seen a hundred times already. If I gathered a few dry branches from the forest, Lassinar could easily duplicate your magic—any sorcerer could.”
“Perhaps not any sorcerer,” said Lassinar, pushing up the sleeves of his green robe.
His skin, wrinkled with age, sagged below his arms and swung back and forth as he moved.
“Some spirits might be too difficult for an inexperienced wizard to summon. If these actually came from the netherworld, young Toth here—”
“Just because these spirits inhabit bones doesn’t mean they came from the netherworld.” Mathon shoved the nearest skeleton, which recovered swiftly and continued its rhythmic pacing. “We’ve seen no proof of anything he’s told us.”
“Watch how they understand my commands.”
Toth gave the skeletons a few hand signals. One of them slowed its pace and spun on its heels every five steps, while the other stopped beside Mathon and swung its arms in circles without touching him.
“Can your forest spirits do that?” he asked.
“They can follow simple commands,” said Lassinar.
“And all of them can be dispelled with a cleansing fire,” said Mathon. “Tell me why I shouldn’t put these poor spirits to rest immediately.”
“Because we’re not here to match our schools against one another,” said Hisvii. “Please continue, young man.”
Toth signaled the skeletons to halt.
“In addition to summoning creatures from the netherworld,” he said, “my magic can prolong one’s life past the moment of physical death. One day, I might even be able to bring loved ones back from the dead. Is there nobody you’d like to see again?”
“Just because you have the ability to do something,” said Mathon, “doesn’t mean you should.”
“Are you planning to enact a rule that prohibits me from following my dreams?”
“If we must.” Mathon backed away from the skeletons. “The rules we create are to keep order and protect innocent people from magic that would otherwise be dangerous. Not every wizard is as disciplined as we are.”
“You mean inflexible.”
“If our ancestors didn’t allow new research,” said Hisvii, “none of us would be here. You’ve certainly shown enough to warrant further research.”
“I agree,” said the thaumaturgist Byeliar, oldest of the council members. “We’ll grant you an apprentice to assist in your studies.”
“So you admit that I’ve discovered a new school of magic?”
“We’ve admitted nothing,” said Mathon, glaring at Byeliar and Hisvii. “We merely offered some help in your pursuit of sorcery.”
“It’s not sorcery!” Toth slammed his fists on the table again, knocking over a small vial filled with a viscous black liquid.
The alchemist uncorked the vial, sniffed the contents, and resealed the bottle.
“Perhaps these beings should be classified as bone golems,” he said. “Not all creatures that move have spirits within. This ‘Dark Whey’ is remarkably similar to a gel I use when animating stone. We should find him an apprentice alchemist.”
“I look forward to summoning your bone spirits,” said Lassinar. “It’s been many years since a sorcerer has discovered a new type of spirit, and I know the perfect candidate to assist you.”
“Don’t be so quick to categorize his work,” said the alchemist. “Golems are adept at following instructions.”
“You’re both wrong. Golems are soulless beings of wood or stone…little more than animated sculptures. They’re brutes of pure strength and no mind, blindly obeying the simplest of orders from their master. These skeletons are different. I returned life to a body that had none and gave the resulting creature a semblance of conscious thought. You can squabble about alchemy and sorcery until next summer, but I assure you my magic is neither.”
“Take care how you speak to us,” said Mathon.
“Or I’ll be banished like Ogma. I know too well how you treat anyone who doesn’t conform to your arbitrary laws. My master was a better wizard than all of you combined, and you pushed him away instead of seeking his wisdom.”
With another wave of his hand, he summoned the skeletons to his side, one of them grabbing the glass vial from the alchemist along the way.
Mathon hopped out of the skeletons’ path.
“Magic without rules is dangerous. The Wizard Council has kept the world safe for many ages. Do not question our judgment.”
“Whether you want to admit it or not,” said Toth, “change will come. I’ll prove to you that necromancy is the eighth school of magic.”
He stormed out of the room with his two minions close behind. An acolyte closed the heavy door behind him and retreated down the hallway. Toth felt like sending one of the skeletons after the young man just to show him there was nothing to fear, but they were moving slower than before.
“Keep going,” he said. “I’m not done with you yet.”
One at a time, the skeletons collapsed onto the floor, their bones disintegrating as they hit the marble. Toth kicked the two piles of powder, sending up a cloud of dust. By the time the air had cleared, he was alone in the entryway. There had to be a reason why the skeletons returned to the netherworld so soon after their summoning, and he wouldn’t rest until he uncovered the truth. He brushed the gray dust off his boot, gathered all the remains into a small sack, and left the ancient building, promising himself to return next year with irrefutable proof of his discoveries.