Gilbert felt suddenly compelled to wake up. At the same time, he felt that waking up would be wrong, perhaps even rude and offensive. He didn't particularly want to wake up. Quite aside from the proddings of his conscience, he just wanted to keep doing what was already working for him, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to resist. In the military he'd learned that when you're called, you're expected to get out of bed first and then wake up. This habit was deeply ingrained.
The room faded into view around him. Overhead were solemn stone walls, illuminated by a flickering light somewhere off to one side. The walls had alcoves with coffins in them. He was in a crypt, like the kind used by the wealthy to bury their beloved, deceased, and exceedingly well-off relations. It was clean and well-kept, and the only thing remarkable about the crypt was that he was in it.
Gilbert sat up, and he heard someone gasp. His limbs felt numb and heavy. His mind was in much the same condition.
“M-master! Welcome back. Everything has been done according to your wishes,” the voice said nervously.
Gilbert turned and saw a young man kneeling on the cold marble floor. His spectacles glinted in the darkness, reflecting the light of the lantern held in his trembling hand. There was a thin mist on the floor around him.
Gilbert waited for things to settle down inside his head. When he was younger, he'd had a few episodes where he had gone drinking with his fellows and awoken later to find he'd misplaced himself. He found that sitting for a few minutes would do wonders in these cases, and eventually the details would come to him. Usually he just needed one memory to get the process started. Maybe he'd recall what he'd had to drink, or the girls he'd met and what he'd said to them. Or perhaps memories of a fight would surface and explain fresh bruises. Once a piece of the previous evening was in hand, the rest would fall into place and he would be able to remember where he was and how he'd gotten there.
Except, this wasn't happening. His memory was obstinately blank.
The kneeling fellow rose slightly and stopped, seeming to test to see if it was acceptable to stand up all the way. When all seemed well, he stood and relaxed slightly. He looked at Gilbert expectantly.
“Where am I?” Gilbert asked at last. The echo of the stone chamber made his own voice sound odd and unfamiliar to him.
“Your Lordship,” the young man said with a bow, “You are in the family mausoleum.” He consulted a pocketwatch. “It's midnight, or rather recently passed. October first. As I said, everything according to your instructions.”
Gilbert looked down to see that he'd been sleeping on a stone slab, although he felt no worse for it. He suspected the pain would set in once the drink had left his system. “What in the name of the Queen's dainties am I doing in a tomb?”
“Ah yes. You did mention that your memories might be a bit… reluctant. That should pass in a few minutes.”
Gilbert looked down. He was wearing a white robe. A long staff had been laid on his chest, and was now sitting in his lap. He grasped this curious object and caught sight of his hands. They were yellow, dry and somewhat withered. There were cracks in the surface, like parched earth. “My hands!” he cried, letting the staff clatter to the floor.
“I think you were preserved very well in here. I imagine your remaining flesh should last you quite a while.”
“Preserved?” Gilbert asked, suddenly suspecting he'd gotten himself into more trouble than usual this time.
“Your Lordship, do you not remember your plan?” The young man spoke with his head lowered slightly, and with an obsequious attitude, as if he expected Gilbert was going to beat him at any moment. Gilbert could think of no reason to beat the man, other than the fact that he kept talking to him in this infuriating way.
“No. And stop calling me â€˜Lordship'.”
“We managed to obtain the… items required for your revivification, and the spells you devised have worked as planned.” The young man held up an unremarkable crystal necklace as evidence.
“Magic? Now you're campaigning for a punch in the nose. I might have done a few things that I'm ashamed of, and a whole lot more that I should be ashamed of, but I've never gone in for the dark arts. The last fellow who accused me of witchcraft got himself dragged out of the pub and kissed the cobblestones until he begged my pardon.”
The young man bowed, “Master, this is most unexpected. Is this some sort of test? I don't know what I should do.”
“You could stop calling me â€˜master'. That would be a good start.”
“But… you are my master,” he protested. At this he pointed to the wall, where the following words had been engraved:
Barrington Oswald Mordaunt
Viscount of Ravenstead
Gilbert looked at the stone. “That name is familiar,” he said slowly.
“Yes!” the young man said eagerly. That's your name. And I'm Simon, one of your inner circle servants. We help you in your studies. Perhaps you remember me? I've been in your service for years.”
Gilbert rose and pointed the staff at the engraving. “That's not my name,” he said firmly. “I'm Gilbert Hiltman.”
Simon had already seemed nervous and anxious, but now he had the appearance of a man caught in the throes of primal terror. “No!” He squeaked as he placed his hand on his heart. His face had gone white and he seemed to be breathing quickly. “But… how did you come to rest in the Master's chamber?”
Gilbert stared at him. After a few moments Simon blushed. “I guess you wouldn't know that yourself.” Simon looked around the chamber, as if he expected to see another body at hand. “I don't know what I did wrong. I really don't. Where is the Master?”
Gilbert guessed that Simon was not yet twenty. It was hard to judge. He seemed thin and malnourished, and might look older if he was properly fed. He was dressed in a rumpled shirt which might only be called white by the most generous observers. It was marked with fingerprints of black grime. Over that he wore a brown waistcoat. There was a bowler hat atop his head, under which his hair had been allowed to grow wild. His trousers looked as though they were expertly tailored ten years ago, and thoroughly mistreated since then. The knees were torn and threadbare. He was standing at the center of an elaborate circle of symbols that had been drawn onto the stone floor in charcoal. Along the edge of this was a ring of dwindling candles. Nearby was a large, ragged book, hanging open and revealing unwholesome truths.
“I'd apologize for all the time and effort you wasted in bringing back the wrong fellow,” Gilbert said. “It's a shame to see young people dabble in evil business. But I'm rather more upset at the prospect of being dead myself.”
“You don't understand!” Simon cried. “We are in a great deal of danger. The others are waiting outside. This is… our group has worked for years to achieve this. When they discover I've brought back the wrong man…” His voice trailed off as he stared out into the darkness beyond the chamber.
“Yes?” Gilbert said impatiently. “What will they do? Notify the police and complain that their illegal magics have been misappropriated? Write a scathing editorial? Sue me? Kill me?”
“Well, yes. Or rather, they will undo the magic binding you to this world, returning you to death. After which they will torture me to death for my failure.”
Gilbert sighed, which made a deep, hollow hiss that seemed to echo all around him. “Maybe this is why people don't join cults and practice necromancy. I suppose we must both blame your mother, for raising an imbecile.”
A voice called from outside, “Simon! What news?”
Simon put his hand over his mouth. He looked very close to tears.
Gilbert did not particularly like Simon. Quite aside from his necromancy, he seemed to be a coward, and Gilbert could not abide cowards. But he didn't like the idea of the lad being tortured to death, either.
The voice continued to call Simon. It was demanding, and grew steadily more impatient.
Simon paced furiously, casting his eyes around as if he expected to find a means of escape in the dusty corners of the room. At once he stopped pacing and turned to Gilbert. He spoke with a trembling voice, “Perhaps we can pass you off as the Viscount. We could return to the estate, and then I could look in his Lordship's library to see if I can find a way to sort this out.”
“We'll see,” Gilbert said. He slid himself off the stone slab and stood up. His body still felt a bit numb but his legs were able to hold his weight and he seemed to be as strong as ever.
Simon blinked in surprise as he looked up at Gilbert. “You are very tall!”
Gilbert sighed again, “You know, people have been telling me so since I was fourteen. Constantly. Yes. I am tall. Thank you. I had noticed before, actually.”
“Sorry,” Simon stammered. “But this might impede our deception. His Lordship is of normal stature, at best. Or was, before his death.”
“You think they'll notice? You didn't.”
“You were lying down!” Simon said defensively. “And these men have known the Viscount since before I was born. You have to understand, these men are deadly serious. We call them the â€˜Four Horsemen'. Not to their face, mind you, but the name suits them. They are the elders of the Order of the Eternal King.”
Gilbert laughed. “Was that name not already taken by some other cult?”
“You jest, but these men have done horrible things to attain the power they have. They're all Dukes or Barons or that sort of thing. Some of the other acolytes told me that one of them is even a Member of Parliament.”
“If this lot is so bad, why don't you just leave? It's not right getting mixed up in business like this.”
Simon shook his head. “I can't. I just… you can't get away from the Lord Mordaunt, even in death.”
“Fine,” Gilbert said, “Lead on.”
Simon stepped out of the circle of writing, being careful not to smudge his work. He snuffed out the candles, leaving them with just the meager light of his lantern. He retrieved a dark robe from the corner of the room.
“You wear black robes in your cult,” Gilbert observed. “Why don't cults ever wear yellow robes? It would catch people off guard.”
Simon unfolded the robe. “I took it off because I didn't want it dragging all over my writing while I worked, and I was worried that I'd set myself on fire with all these candles about.”
“Let me wear it,” Gilbert said. “I don't like parading around dressed like this. How short was your master? His burial gown looks like a tunic.”
They left the chamber and Simon led them up a long set of narrow stone steps. He walked holding his lantern out in front of him, while Gilbert trudged behind in his new black cloak. He'd pulled the hood up, and his face was in deep shadow. He walked with the ornamental staff, using it like a walking stick.
At last they came out into the brisk night air. The stars were out and the moon was nearly full. They were in a small graveyard. In front of them was a low hill, leading up to a darkened manor. To the left the land sloped away down to the road. To the right were open fields, hedged in by dense trees. The place struck Gilbert as familiar, but his memories were slippery.
Four men awaited them, dressed in similar black cloaks. As they exited, the Four Horsemen drew back their hoods and knelt down. All of them were gray-haired men with grim faces.
“Welcome back, your Lordship,” the oldest said. He had a gravelly voice with an aristocratic accent. “All is in readiness. What is your command?”
Simon had walked around behind the men and was now grinning nervously and motioning silent applause. It's working!
“Stand up!” Gilbert commanded.
Simon grew wide-eyed and glared at Gilbert. He held out his hands in dismay. What are you doing?
The Horsemen also seemed curious at this. Perhaps it was his voice. Or his accent. Or his height. They rose, but they did so looking at one another in confusion.
“Gentlemen!” Gilbert boomed, “You stand before the mighty Viscount of Pugilism!” He grabbed the heads of two of the men in front of him and cracked them together. The men went limp and collapsed into a heap of wrinkles and black wool.
“That's not the Viscount!” cried one of them. “What have you done, foolish boy?”
Gilbert socked the man in the bridge of the nose before anyone could fashion an answer for him.
“Treason!” screamed the last horseman, and he reached beneath his robes to draw a sword. Gilbert caught his hand and pushed the sword down before it left the scabbard. The man put his other hand on the hilt, and the two strove like this.
“Gilbert!” Simon cried.
The horseman found he could not overpower Gilbert's grasp, but he continued to try and free his sword. Since he couldn't bring the sword up, he tried holding it in place and pulling the scabbard away by moving and twisting his hips.
“Gilbert, look!” Simon said, his voice rising in escalating panic.
Gilbert allowed the horseman to twist around, struggling comically against his iron grip. Once the man had bent himself into a truly absurd and untenable position, Gilbert yanked sideways and sent him to the ground. A firm kick to the head quieted the old man. “There,” he said to Simon, “Now you're free to leave these nasty fellows.”
“Gilbert!” Simon shrieked, “The road!”
A party of some half-dozen men had arrived, riding on carts. Some bore lanterns and swords. Others bore rifles.
“I thought you said there were only four!” Gilbert snapped.
“These fellows are not from our order,” Simon hissed in a stage whisper.
“Halt!” One of the newcomers shouted, “In the name of the Ministry of Ethereal Affairs and Her Majesty the Queen, you are ordered to stand and declare yourselves!” They hurried up the hill, their gear clanking as they moved.
“Bloody hell. It's the Witch Watch! We'll hang for sure,” Simon said with despair.
“Don't worry. We're not with this lot,” Gilbert said as he prodded one of the horsemen with his foot, “Just be polite and explain that you were only working with them out of fear.” Gilbert threw back his hood and walked down to meet the Witch Watch.
“No, don't!” Simon shouted.
Several things came to Gilbert's mind in this moment. One was noting that his strange echoing voice – which he had attributed to being inside the tomb – was still strange and echoing, even outside. The second was remembering what his hands looked like, and how the rest of him was likely in similar condition. The third was that he was currently dressed in the black robes of this cult and carrying some sort of ornamental scepter, which would not only make him look like a member but might go so far as to suggest that he was the ringleader. The Witch Watch had found them in the countryside at night, and likely had news of what was supposed to be happening here. They would be expecting trouble, and everything about this scene would tell them that they had found it.
The lamp light fell on Gilbert and the captain of the group went wide-eyed. “ABOMINATION!” he screamed.
Gilbert wasn't sure if he should hold onto the staff to defend himself, or surrender. In a panic, he tried to do both and raised the staff over his head.
“Spellcraft!” screamed the captain.
The men fell to the ground. At first Gilbert thought they were all cowering, but then the rifle shots came and he realized there would be no sorting this out tonight. He spun around and fled.
As he turned, he caught sight of the person at the rear of the Witch Watch. It was a woman. She looked thin, almost waif-like. She had stood at the back with a pistol in her hand, and now that the men had taken cover she was walking up the hill, heedless of the shooting and supposed danger of spellcraft. Shockingly, she seemed to be wearing trousers.
Gilbert saw no more of her. As curious as it was, he was more concerned with not being shot or (worse) captured. Great Britain prided herself on even justice and humane executions, but the Witch Watch was one of the last institutions that – if popular gossip was to be trusted – still wielded the older, harsher style of law enforcement.
Gilbert sprinted away from the watchmen, casting aside his staff as he did so. Simon had wisely begun running several seconds sooner, and thus had a good head start. Nevertheless, Gilbert's great strides allowed him to catch up quickly. He was glad to discover that whatever strange things had befallen him, he was still as able-bodied as ever. He wanted to look back and see what his pursuers were doing. Gilbert wondered if the riflemen were giving chase or sharpshooting. He was also anxious to get another look at the woman, just because. But he didn't dare take his eyes off the ground in front of him. They were running through a graveyard at night while being shot at. Tripping could be fatal.
The gunshots rang out surprisingly quickly, and at an even rate.
“They have very good rifles,” Gilbert commented as they ran.
“What?” Simon gasped. His steps were already faltering.
Gilbert grabbed him by the shoulder and hauled him sideways, “This way. Into the trees.”
The shots fell silent as Gilbert and Simon dove into the shroud of the forest. The men shouted to each other, but Gilbert could not catch the words.
“We'll never escape them all,” Simon gasped. He stopped and conscripted a tree to keep him from falling over.
“We don't need to escape them all,” Gilbert pointed out. “They won't all follow and leave the Four Horsemen unattended. I suspect no more than half of them will give chase. Come on. Walk if you can. The woods are big and lanterns can't see far. We should be fine as long as we can get some distance before daybreak.”
It was dark here under the trees, and Gilbert could only barely make out Simon's outline as he pulled himself upright. The bright moon was fortunate. There was just enough light for them to move without running face-first into a tree. Simon stumbled now and again on tree roots, but the shouts of their pursuers became increasingly distant.
“How many are there, do you think?” Simon asked as he struggled for breath. “I didn't think to count them.” They had been fleeing for perhaps a quarter hour and had now stopped for another rest.
“There were six men,” Gilbert replied, “Four rifles. Two swords with lanterns, one of which was their captain. Plus the woman. They won't send both lanterns away, which means we only have one lantern chasing us. Most likely not the leader. He'll want to investigate the goings-on at the tomb, and leave the chase to his men.”
“You know a great deal about the Witch Watchers,” Simon marveled.
“No. I know a great deal about being a soldier. And the task of running around in the woods looking for a deadly wizard, at night, with one lantern, is exactly the sort of job that an officer would delegate.”
Simon slumped down against an old tree-trunk and hung his head between his knees. “I see. You're right. They must be assuming you're a wizard. Who ever heard of performing a revivification on a common soldier?”
“Who ever heard of reviving the wrong person?” Gilbert shot back.
Simon was quiet for some time. Gilbert waited patiently as the boy recovered his breath with much coughing and sighing. For his own part, Gilbert didn't feel short of breath or even tired.
When Simon's breathing had settled, he pushed himself upright. “You said there was a woman there. I hadn't noticed her. I do wonder what that was all about. They're wizard hunters. Well, wizard killers, really. I wonder why they would bring along a woman for grim work like that.”
“Let us make every effort to not find out,” Gilbert suggested.
You can get the book in print, or for your Kindle, or Nook, or even as a PDF if that’s what you’re into. Just look here.
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