Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands

Issue #149

He often tortured the girls, throwing their severed hands into the tar pit. The girls screamed until they bled out, and then he disposed of their corpses in the blackness. The boys he worked to death, having them carry water or gut animals or do other tasks he considered beneath me. Some boys collapsed, but others hatched escape plans. These he liked best, for he sent ghostly alligators through the swamp after the fleeing children; the reptiles shredded all who did not die of fright. Their bodies returned to the tar pit, the fierce source of his power; and this was the work of Ghraik, king of Surthenon, my hated lord and master.

The gators were why I never conspired with these boys, the brave few who found means to approach me. They would scuttle from corners, in the kitchen or hallways or even my room, pleading wild-eyed for help. I could do nothing; I waved them off hurriedly, lest the necromancer think I aided them. I considered them the walking dead—not from callousness, mind you, for I too longed to escape this repulsive fortress atop the blighted swamp. No one hated Ghraik more than I. But these boys were dead to the world, like their sisters, all purchased from the necromancer’s terrified subjects. I steeled myself against them to protect my mother, whom Ghraik would torture if I betrayed him—my beloved mother, from whom he had torn me as a boy.

Thus it was not escape but vengeance in my thoughts, night and day. Rage strengthened my hands as I scrubbed his sandstone throne at the tar’s center. Determination preserved my mind as I washed the pedestal beneath the chair-shaped boulder. The necromancer would never let a slave boy near the great rock formation, which stood in the vast courtyard surrounded by his obsidian fortress. Such tasks were mine and mine alone, as his unwilling apprentice.

At his behest, I sharpened cursed knives and mixed toxic salves; I dissected human hearts and boiled unlucky salamanders in preparation for his spells. I locked screaming children in cages, and threw the keys in the mire as he ordered. All of this I did because he trusted me, and I dared not cause him to question that. For I was the only soul that could free the island of Surthenon from his brutal grip, suffered these two hundred years. Only I, so close to his blackened heart, could find and exploit his weakness. I committed every dark sin he commanded, for the kingdom’s sake, and purged my soul with fervent nightly prayers to gods I was unsure existed. I constantly sought my opportunity to obliterate him.

The day that changed my fortune started as any other. I woke Ghraik from slumber by rubbing his shriveled feet with warmed lamb’s fat. He stretched his bony arms across his red velvet bed and yawned, showing teeth jagged as his stronghold walls. He gazed at me sleepily, through cat-yellow eyes, and I pressed my lips to his greasy toes.

“Good morning, my lord,” I murmured, fantasizing as ever about slashing his throat as he woke. But no blade touched him; no toxin poisoned him. He controlled his breathing and pulse at will. This he had demonstrated the night he brought me here, by stabbing himself with ten different knives and breathing a purple cloud of gas; no damage marred his body. Then he sliced my cheeks and immersed me in the cloud until I passed out. I woke to him scalding my arms with acid, which he then drank while mocking my shrieks.

“Good morning, boy,” he said, sitting up in his luxurious pillows. He waved a clawed hand towards the bedside. I had brought his tea as always, and I poured the foul green liquid into his bone teacup. I offered this cup with both hands outstretched.

He took the cup, his skin brushing against mine—ah, even in fifteen years, I had not grown accustomed to his flesh’s numbing touch! He said, “I believe today I shall linger abed. Tomorrow I must journey to the capital and purchase more children.”

“Does master desire his orb?”

“Yes, bring it.”

At his request, I fetched the infernal globe from its tripod. The ice-cold orb was larger than my head; it glowed red when idle. It weighed far more than an earthly object should, and I struggled beneath its weight. I set it on his bedcovers, between his bent legs. He clutched it with his knees and ankles. Slowly he wove his hands, and curved apparitions showed the actions of Surthenon’s people. By this sorcery he discovered and foiled plots against him. I knew any attempt I made must succeed on the first try. I would only get one chance to destroy him.

But how?

After he had satisfied himself for the time, he smiled at me affectionately, which was worse than his scorn. He said, “You’ve been a good boy. Shall we see how your mother is getting along?”

Wicked fiend, he knew what tore me. I said only, “As you desire, my lord.” He showed me my mother’s face, wretched and worn, where she lay upon yet another man’s bed. I had known for years that my mother, a salt-maker’s widow, had turned to whoredom for her supper. She remained lovely in her suffering, despite her taut yellow face and the cough she suppressed in a sleeve.

“Ah, the poor lady,” he said, tutting the sphere with a finger. “I cannot allow any harm to come to your dear mother. I shall refresh her life tonight.”

By refresh her life, he did not mean heal her; he simply meant to extend her life such that she could not die. Some days I desired her release, and nearly struck the necromancer with fury. But I remained steadfast. I had devoted fifteen years toward exterminating this monster. Calmness was my vanguard; patience my counselor. I would wait a lifetime if needed for the right moment to crush him—forever.

So I merely said, “I am grateful, my lord.”

He gestured. The image changed to a vast sea, wavering beneath a cloudless sky. “Let’s see what’s happening off the island as well. One never knows when those pesky allied kingdoms will try to dethrone me. ‘Tis only a matter of time before I become impervious to their threats!”

“My lord?” I asked politely, hoping he would let slip some useful knowledge. He rarely spoke of such things as battles or magic, but I kept hoping. I had gathered only morsels of information from his words; he had once said that the tar pit’s power lay in the past, present, and future, and no man excepting him understood the potential of its energy. Thus I knew his power source, but not why; no understanding came to me when I observed him sitting upon his throne, gazing into the mire for hours on end.

“My power gathers as we speak. ‘Tis but a few years until—aach!” He cried out hoarsely.

I had never heard such a noise from him. My heart raced. “My lord!” I exclaimed. “Are you unwell?”

“The White Ships!” he cried, and his hands clutched the globe. Through the shapes of his fingers I saw them: brilliant white frigates, outlined against the blue sky, each rigged with seven sails. The ships were white from bow to stern, as if made of light itself. Rainbow luminescence scattered in their wake. No souls manned these vessels; at least none I could see. They looked like white foam cresting the ocean waves. My heart leaped with ineffable hope.

I offered him more tea, but he dashed the cup against the wall. He leapt from his bed and paced the room stark naked. “They did it,” he muttered. “Those bastard knights and their pious king actually summoned the White Ships. Didn’t think they had it in them.”

“What are these ships, my lord?”

“An oppressive force born of meddling sorcery. Those ships will blockade this island and drain my power. Those damned knights want my tar pit, you see.”

I kept my voice neutral. “Do these ships threaten you, my lord?”

“Ha! Of course not. They are merely annoying.” He ceased pacing, and whirled to stare at me. His eyes slitted. “But I shall take precautions nonetheless. I will accelerate my plans.”

By this I knew the ships struck terror into his foul heart, and I rejoiced. I said, “Very wise, O Ruler.”

He pointed a bony finger at me. “The rite takes place tonight. Prepare yourself as I command. This is the day for which you were born, boy.”

I bowed my obedience, but inside my hopes blossomed like a rare evening flower. He had let slip a clue: the day for which I was born. Never had I known why he had chosen me as servant, above other boys. And so I spent the day as instructed, bathing in scalding water and fasting on bitter tea. What could it mean that I was born for this?

Often I pondered the mysteries of the day he abducted me. On the hottest summer day, near the wetlands where my poor village stood, no ocean breezes moved our air. I was a small boy, clinging to my mother’s skirts while she boiled brine for salt-making. My older sister swept the floor. The necromancer appeared soundlessly at the threshold; only a cold wind marked his presence. My mother turned and dropped her spoon.

He said, “I’ve come for the other,” and looked at me.

My mother protected me with her body, but the necromancer stepped forward and, with a gesture, snapped my sister’s neck. My mother shrieked, and the sound pierced my heart. The necromancer pushed her aside like a discarded rag, then touched my chin with a finger and examined me. I trembled, transfixed by his gaze, sick with fear. He nodded as if pleased, and said, “Come, boy. Keep your mother safe by obeying me.”

These memories stirred while I sheared my body hair, as commanded. The other what? For years I thought he meant my sister; then I realized women were so subhuman in his eyes that he would never associate me with such creatures. He meant something else, which my mother had understood.

But I could not solve this riddle before tonight’s ritual. I contemplated schemes for killing him first, for who knew what damnation this sorcery might bring upon me, but I concluded the same as ever: no means at my disposal would ensure his death. I needed more knowledge of his rites. Thus I must undergo this ceremony, or waste my invested efforts. I took scant comfort from knowing his magic controlled life and death, not the human mind; if he knew my thoughts, he would eviscerate me.

That night, naked before the tar pit, I renewed my vow to discern the truth. I stood on a half-sunken marble platform at the throne’s base. The stone chilled my feet despite the humid weather; warm tar oozed onto my toes. Only his sorcerous swamp-lamps lit the courtyard, hazy with miasmal mist. The gnats and mosquitoes that normally swarmed the pit were curiously absent. Stars speckled the sky. The necromancer wore a heavy velvet robe, blacker than surrounding night, his wicked pendant glittering over his heart like a dagger.

“Master,” I said, for it suited me to appear weak, “what shall I do? Please tell me. I am afraid.”

“‘Tis nothing, boy,” he soothed me. “No harm will come to you.”

I continued my half-charade, for indeed I feared what came next. “Master, please! I tremble, not knowing what I face. Will it hurt?”

He scoffed. “Not a whit. In fact, you might enjoy it. You will see and hear things you never could before. I will open your soul to the earth magic of eons past. You shall become a conduit for unimaginable power. Consider it a reward for your loyalty.”

Now I truly did tremble, for I had underestimated his madness. But I could not stop him. He waved a hand, and so the ritual began. My platform rose through fog and hovered over the tar. Hot wind whipped against my hairless skin, and I shook as if convulsing. Red bars encircled me and caged me like a sacrifice. Black shackles manifested about my limbs.

Ghraik chanted mystical words in a hollow baritone. Though I understood nothing, I sensed the urgency in his recital. I knew his dark rites the way a maiden knew her ravisher, and thus I saw his fear. I memorized his actions as best I could. Through such observation, I had learned what little I knew of magic. Magic sought blood relationships; thus he frequently purchased siblings, as their connection provided great power. These and other facts I knew only because I had fought to learn them, and resisted despairing over my plight.

The platform spun so that I faced the tar, pinned like a butterfly. The necromancer chanted louder, a human heart clutched in each hand. Sulfuric smoke swelled about his feet. His chanting peaked, and Ghraik crushed both hearts in his clawed hands. Unearthly howling rattled my bones. Black clouds consumed me. The platform dove, and I screamed as the tar swallowed me.

I lay immersed in the inky depths, holding my breath, not knowing my fate. Hot tar oozed up my nose, into my ears, up my anus. It squeezed me like a relentless python. I could neither kick nor scream. Time stopped. Here it held no meaning. Nothing breathed, nothing moved, nothing thought. The endless tar stretched as far as the soul could feel. Since I could last only minutes without air, I thought the necromancer had finally killed me.

When I could wait no longer, I succumbed to breath. I thought my death upon me—yet the tar seeped through my lungs and did not burn. It flowed deep into every sac of my organs, filling my useless body with arcane ichor. I inhaled the tar, I was the tar, and the weight of uncounted years became my entirety. A voice spoke—an ageless, sexless voice that thrust words along my every nerve. You are mine, the tar told me.

At that I swooned so deep that I recalled nothing. I woke to the necromancer’s abhorrent face looming over mine as he held me in his arms. Vile fiend! His touch repulsed me. Had I possessed any senses, I would have reviled him at once. Only my stupor spared me this catastrophe, which would have ruined all towards which I worked.

“Ah, my son!” exclaimed the necromancer. “Finally I understand a father’s pride! I always hoped you would please me thus.” He kissed my forehead, burning my skin with an icy lip-print.

My father! Bile rose within me, and I shook like a consumptive. I could not respond, could not rebel. Against my will, Ghraik carried me to a silken chaise. I could not abide this tenderness from him, even less now that I knew our blood connection. What atrocities had he forced upon my poor mother? I writhed in pyretic spasms, knowing neither place nor time. I recall Ghraik spoon-feeding me broth, which I lacked the strength to spit back. Throughout this torment, the tar whispered to me: I own you.

At first, I wished nothing less than death, for I had foolishly granted my body as a reservoir for his evil sorcery; I sensed his power had grown a hundredfold. I knew that a father and son’s powerful bond fueled extraordinary magic. But soon I recognized that what seemed a foolish error might offer my redemption. For the tar pit whispered incessantly, with such low words that I might mistake them for my own rumination. And with myself now bound to the tar, I might yet turn this power against the monster.

Before dawn, Ghraik pulled me from the chaise despite my weakness, and brought me to his throne. “I fear the White Ships approach, my son,” he said, “and thus we can dawdle no longer. You shall be my focus. Through you I can summon more power than ever before. Let us raise a hurricane and shatter the ships into kindling.”

He arranged my limp body on the stepping-path, and ran the muck over me like black gold. Warm and viscous, it dripped down my flesh and reunited with its source. I spoke to the tar within my mind, and told it of my mother’s suffering under Ghraik’s cruelty. I told it of the children whose bones rested deep now, who screamed as their bodies were sundered. I described the agony of my island kingdom, as if pleading with a foreign diplomat: Surthenon bleeds like a sacrifice. Will you not aid us?

What is your infinitesimal suffering to I who control behemoths? You could not tap the smallest fragment of my power.

Are we not bonded now?

You are mine, it told me. Your worthless bones lie within me as we speak.

I did not understand its riddle. Perhaps with an altered sense of time, it believed me still immersed. As I wondered, Ghraik drew sigils upon the mire with powdered bone and dried blood. I had little hope of survival; when Ghraik used animals in his rites, the magic usually mangled them. My awoken mind recognized my last chance to thwart him with my newfound power.

The necromancer drank a black liquid and forced the remainder down my throat. It tasted of mold and diseased organs. As I lay there sputtering, I realized I had never seen him use a human focus; why had he not killed a child in this fashion? He derived maximal power from the young. I was still young, and our blood bond intensified this charge.

The wind intensified, and I shivered. I asked myself—if blood bonds were so valuable, why had the fiend not defiled hundreds of women, and used their progeny for his black magic? I weighed the possibility that he had secretly done so—but no rivals had come to the fortress, and the children he purchased bore no resemblance to him. No, ’twas I alone through whom he channeled power. Something about my birth marked me as special.

The necromancer summoned shadowy clouds on the storm winds. The stars overhead blackened to nothingness. My mind reached a frantic state. I recalled his words to my mother: I’ve come for the other. I wracked my brain for an answer. My poor sister’s face flashed into mind. In my near-manic thoughts, a divination came to me: perhaps I once had an elder brother? I would not realize if there been an apprentice before me; a brother, son to Ghraik, whom the necromancer had drained like an inkpot.

Ghraik suspended me once more over the tar pit and flipped my platform. The necromancer cried his determination like a hundred hellbound trumpets. A foul smell rose from the land itself. Weeds uprooted and shriveled at his words. Lizards fell from trees. I stared into the inky blackness, desperately trying to solve this riddle.

If I’d had an elder brother, why would the necromancer have caressed me like the first creature he’d ever cherished? Surely he would work alone if he could; he owed me no role in his thaumaturgy. No, my body must grant him some power that he could not otherwise achieve. He needed me. But what magic was more powerful than the bond of father and son?

Blue lightning crackled the air. The first storm winds battered my face, heralding the hurricane. I pleaded with the tar. Help me. What connection do we share?

Your truth is inked inside your bones, murmured the tar pit. Your heritage is written in every morsel of your flesh, passed through your father and your father’s father. I am your past, your present, your future.

What could it mean? I strove to understand. What was inscribed deep within my body? In that moment the answer came to me, as if the tar reflected the truth in a looking-glass. The tar knew my bones because I did indeed have a brother, deep within the tar. We shared a bond written in every sinew of our muscles, each section of skin, and the hollows of each bone.

My twin.

Winds lashed across my face. Rain sheeted down like floodwaters. Distant cypresses bowed to the ground. My twin! The poor boy was likely stolen at birth and sacrificed in the tar pit. The necromancer needed no other sons; he held the one living, and one buried, which together could plumb the depths of the tar’s power.

Armed with this knowledge, perhaps I could defeat him.

Thus the necromancer used my life-force, linked inextricably to my twin’s tar-bound bones, to raise the greatest hurricane ever known on the isle of Surthenon. The storm’s malevolent eye swept over the coast and assaulted the wetlands. Water poured from the sky, thick as plated armor. Wind struck the startled birds, throwing them against trees, where they died like mice. The storm blasted everything flat, like an alligator slithering over reeds. My strength did not deplete; rather, I invigorated with each moment. But I lacked control. I was not the assassin, but the poisoned knife. Through me Ghraik would destroy my world.

I begged of the tar pit, Help me, for you need not this man who commands you.

I have no need of any man.

He does not understand you the way I do, I told it. Read the message inked inside my bones. You and I understand each other.

You understand nothing. I do as I please, and none will stop me.

Helpless, my soul distorted under the unyielding pressure. A million red-hot nails drove through my extremities. A thousand arms sprouted from my soul as if a monster birthed its young. My awareness spanned the island, and my grotesque magical hands trawled the ocean seeking the White Ships.

I discovered the fleet racing towards the northern shores. Against my will, I lifted the ships like so many flower petals and scattered them into the hurricane. Their sacred planks splintered like matchsticks. I screamed inside—but my actions were not my own. Through me Ghraik banished the wrecked White Ships to the ends of the seventeen seas; only the choppy ocean remained, noxious beneath my tainted hands.

My hopes disintegrated with the White Ships. My efforts to destroy the fiend had ruined me. My kingdom, my family—all lay waste under his rule. My desolation swallowed me, consumed me like endless tar, until nothing remained but my white-hot rage. Through despair, the blade of my wrath transformed to a searing needle. I possessed the will of the gods, for I had nothing left to lose.

Thus I wrestled Ghraik for my soul. We grappled, our spirits locked in opposition, linked by a thousand contacts each more intimate than the last. I knew Ghraik and every foul deed he’d committed—and he knew my conviction of the last fifteen years. We battled each other, and our magical exertions ignited our world. Fire swept the open courtyard. Cypresses blazed, and swampwater burned. The tar’s surface burst into blue flames—its power incensed, like a sleeping bobcat pestered by flies.

I begged of the tar: Stop this. Please. I will give you all you desire.

I do not know what moved the tar to respond. Perhaps I held more sway than I thought; perhaps it had merely grown weary with me. A swell came over us, deeper than the ocean floor, of magic stronger than time itself. Roaring deafened my ears, and the mire shuddered. My innards twisted like wrung-out clothing.

Slowly the tar’s surface broke. One by one appeared skeletal creatures, dripping tar from their pitch-black bones. All manner of dead deformities gathered on the sticky surface, as if it were solid. Dogs and snakes, alligators and birds—the dark skeletons shook themselves, and howled a cacophony of unearthly sounds.

But more skeletons came—all of them black as sin, black as nightfall. Here were the children. Ah, the condemned boys, many still broken in pieces! And their handless sisters, clutching their wrist-bones to their empty eye sockets. They wailed in unison; their battlecry could empty a man’s bowels. I could not scream as the army amassed, for the necromancer and I wrestled for control of my soul. I could not seek my brother among them, for I fought for my salvation; he had to be among them, but I did not know.

With a wild shout, the undead battalion burst forth upon the necromancer. He could not ward so many. Ensnared by my efforts, he collapsed under the bony swarm, which crushed him underfoot like an afterthought.

This onslaught spread through the courtyard and into the fortress, but others still came: now behemoths, twice the size of a house, with four enormous legs and sword-like tusks. These beasts rampaged outwards, stomping the flaming swamp under their cadaverous feet. They trampled Ghraik into a watery pudding, then bellowed and stampeded to the wetlands beyond.

But the tar was not finished. The greatest of beasts were yet to come. Like titanic alligators they were, these skeletal juggernauts—eight times a house’s size, erupting from the depths. Rain tore through their open bodies like a storm through unfinished shelters. The juggernauts lumbered through the ruined fortress into the flaming swamp, destroying all in their wake. With them I knew the tar had divulged its last secrets. I struggled against my magical bonds, longing to reach Ghraik’s mangled flesh and seal my promise. Without a final blow, I feared he might survive his grievous injuries.

But before I could free myself, an army of severed hands scuttled forth from the tar, like giant skeletal ants. They stripped his flesh like ravenous carrion-eaters, heedless of his screams. They pulverized his organs, then crushed his bones into dust. This they scattered to the wind, removing every last trace of Ghraik from the island’s soil. Then the hands shattered, piling their broken joints beneath the damaged throne.

I know not how I came back to earth, though later I guessed the necromancer’s magic died with him. I know not how long I lay there, senseless, while the skeletons ravaged the island. In time they must have collapsed, for I found them everywhere, heaped atop the island’s ashes, where they had annihilated all they encountered.

Nothing remained. I wandered the island naked, needing no sleep, no food, no warmth. All villages were razed, and I could not locate my mother. Nothing lived on this island; no fauna, no flora, nor even the tiniest insect remained in the wasteland once called Surthenon.

Thus I returned to the tar pit for solace, and ascended the sandstone throne of this ruined kingdom. And here I have remained to this day, alone with my tortured thoughts and the tattered remnants of my soul. I cannot leave the tar pit. Nothing else sates my hollowness.

I abide on my ashen island and await the resurrection of the White Ships, which I think shall never happen. I pray for my salvation, which I never expect to find. Time passes, or it does not; I can scarcely tell. Truly, as I feared, the necromancer could not die. He needs no body to haunt me. He attends every day of my ceaseless existence; he cradles me in his loathsome arms, the heir to his legacy.


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Vylar Kaftan writes speculative fiction of all genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream. She’s published stories in places such as Clarkesworld Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and Lightspeed. She founded a new SF/F convention in San Francisco called FOGcon (fogcon.org). Recently, she won the 2013 Nebula for her novella "The Weight of the Sunrise." She lives with her husband Shannon in northern California and blogs at www.vylarkaftan.net.

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5 Comments on “Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands”

5 Responses to “Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands”

  1. […] Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands is published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Woot! […]

  2. yab yum says:

    A bit derivative.

  3. […] Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands is revealed at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Woot! […]

  4. […] #149 opens with a fairly standard story of evil necromancy and portents of doom. In “Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands” by Vylar Kaftan, a boy has been given into servitude to Ghraik, king of Surthenon and […]

  5. […] Tor “We, As One, Trailing Embers”, – E. Catherine Tobler, Beneath Ceaseless Skies “Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands,” Vylar Kaftan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies “The Panda Coin” (reprint), Jo Walton, Lightspeed “Allosaurus Burgers,” Sam […]

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