The city street was covered in filthy, black snow. In normal times they would have been shovelled clean. Now, no one had the energy for it. Narrow paths of packed snow led from doorways to a main path. A painfully thin body lay barely visible under the snow. The person was face down, an arm stretched out, like they were crawling for safety.
From the palace that held the city government it was possible to see blue sky near the horizon. But overhead was a haze of black, sooty smoke that burned the throat and made eyes water. Brown coal kept the citizens warm, barely. The cheap fuel burned poorly, and polluted the air, still it was better than nothing.
Buildings loomed over the streets. They were dark, the windows covered with rags trying to keep the heat in. Any colour the walls might have had was covered by the same soot that filled the air. There was no visible metal on them, even the door knockers had vanished. Undoubtedly they had been taken and turned into weapons or bullets. In several places there were holes, where wood had been ripped away. Mud and snow filled in the holes.
There was almost no sound. The factories and mine that kept the city alive were far from this forsaken neighbourhood. The cries of starving children and grieving parents could be heard from some of the houses. But most were silent, conserving their strength, huddled around coal fires with a few mouthfuls of food, trying to survive one more day.
A few pale and thin faces peered out onto the street. Either out of boredom or in hopes of seeing something they could eat or use. The exhausted, starving eyes widened at the sight they saw, as prayers and gestures to the Father and the Mother were made.
Mage Keira sat in a pitch black sled, pulled by two skeletal horses. She was barely visible under several blankets and a fur hat. Dead cavalry rode ahead of her, their empty eyes scanning the streets and buildings for threats, while skeletal hands gripped their rifles. Overhead flew black birds and banshees, ignoring the bitter winds and filthy smog.
Behind her came more sleds, with mages and city officials. While their sleds were old converted carriages, they to were pulled by dead horses. The few surviving horses were jealously guarded by the military, being used as messengers and crowd control. The rest had died of starvation or been slaughtered for food a year before. More dead cavalry took up the rear.
The sleds came to an old cemetery, it was one of the smaller resting places in the city and a poor one. Tombstones, worn from time and the elements peeked forlornly out of the snow. Keira's sled stopped at the entrance, with the others further back. At one time there had been an iron gate, it had been recycled early in the siege. Now only a low stone wall protected the dead.
The other mages got out of the sleds and awkwardly made their way to the Necromancer, stumbling and sinking in the knee high snow. The people in the surrounding buildings watched with interest from the safety of their homes. They'd been told earlier that week that the dead were going to be raised, most hadn't believed it. They'd been told many things in the past, only to have their hopes dashed.
Looking down at the young woman, who barely stirred from her nest, they scoffed at the thought that she could help them. She seemed to be asleep, and the mages just stood in the snow, doing nothing.
And then the snow covering the cemetery melted away.
It happened so quickly, it didn't seem real. The muddy ground quickly frosted over, but there were puddles on the bare ground.
And then the ground shifted. Gravestones tilted and fell over, as bodies climbed out of their graves. Two, three, sometimes as many as six undead came from each spot. The people in the neighbourhood had packed as many as they could into the ground, so they'd be close to home.
Men, women, children, even babies, formed up in rows, covering the graveyard. They ranged from mouldering skeletons to barely rotten corpses, some of whom showed signs of butchering.
Keira looked over the undead, studying the magic that gave them life. Despite the freezing cold her face was damp with sweat, reminding her how poorly she was still doing. Before getting shot, this would have been child's play.
A figure bundled up in old furs came to her side.
“Where do these ones go, Durand?” Keira asked the government aide, who'd been given the job of keeping track of things.
Pointedly ignoring the silent corpses waiting for instructions, Hugo Durand said, “The, uh, smaller ones are needed in the mines. The larger ones are to go to the 3rd pump factory.”
Silently issuing commands, the undead broke up into two groups. Among the group heading for the mines, small undead babies and toddlers were picked up by their larger peers. Sleds went to the head of each group, waved a black flag to get their attention and led them away.
Keira motioned for the aide to get onto the small sled. The man had insisted on riding in one of the larger sleds on the way to the cemetery. But now the mages had other tasks to perform, and Keira didn't need an entourage. “Now that that job is done, where to next?”
Frowning the aide climbed aboard and sat as far from Keira as possible. “The smelters are having a problem with the undead workers. They keep catching fire.”
“Very well, that should be easy to fix.” More commands were given without saying a word. The dead guards and the sled headed towards the mine, while the rest of the living mages and their escorts headed back to their regular positions.
Seeing the empty streets, she wished her bodyguard was with her. Unfortunately Floria had come down with a bad cold, so Keira had ordered her to bed. The city offered their own guards, but she preferred to trust her dead.
Wanting to fill in the silence, she asked, “Durand, how are people taking the undead?”
“I can't really say, Mage Keira.”
“The cold snap has most people staying inside, except to get food and coal. They're too cold and hungry to say much, if it doesn't fill their bellies.”
“What about your fellow workers? What do they think?”
“They're more concerned with their work. Keeping the city alive in these dire times takes most of their energy and time.”
Sighing, Keira wished she had been assigned someone else. The non-answers were far too common from the official. Requests for someone else to assist her, had fallen on deaf ears. Hugo Durand was considered a highly efficient administrator and aide, and he was, up to a point. But getting him to talk about anything that wasn't related to his assigned job was almost impossible.
Riding in silence along the deserted streets, Keira was not surprised to see a man lying on his back by the entrance of a building. Such sights were all too common in the city. The person was moving his hand slightly, so she knew he was alive. Ordering the horses to stop, she had one of her undead guards go help the man to his feet.
“Leave me alone,” he said, feebly waving away the guard. His voice was hoarse and weak. “Just let me die.”
“Mage Keira, we need to get to the smelters soon,” Durand said.
“They can wait a few minutes longer,” she replied.
Slowly and painfully, Keira pushed the blankets off. Two of her undead, helped lift her out of the sled, while Durand protested about the waste of time. Leaning heavily on the pair of undead, she shuffled along the slippery trail to the man.
“What happened?” she asked.
He turned his head slightly, milky white eyes squinted at her. His hollow cheeks and sickly pale skin made it hard to tell how old he was. Starvation had wasted him away to almost nothing. “You a spirit sent by the Mother?” he asked, his voice faint.
“No. I'm Mage Keira.”
The man sighed, not unhappily, just resigned. Closing his eyes, he settled back into the snow. “Wait a little. I'll be dead for you soon enough.”
“You want to die?” she asked.
“Not much choice. Can't even stand up.”
“I need volunteers for a special project. You'll die, but you will keep your mind. You'll be strong, heal from almost any wound, and you'll have one job, to kill as many demons as you can. Are you interested?”
“Not asking for much, are ya.”
“You're going to die anyways. You can die here in a snowdrift and I'll use your body as mindless labour. Or I can prepare you to become a thing of nightmares. Killing demons and enjoying it, while remembering who and what you are. Your choice.”
The man laid in the snow eyes closed, breathing so shallowly that for a moment Keira was almost certain he had fallen unconscious.
“I don't care anymore,” he finally wheezed. “Do what you want with me.”
Calling over two more undead, Keira had them take the man to the sled. The warm blankets would help keep him alive until she could get him to a healer. He'd just need to survive a few days, that would be enough time to turn him into a vampire.
As the sled moved along the city street once more, she kept an eye out for other dying and hopeless people. The city was full of them, she just needed to find them before they were too far gone.
Necromancer Unmanned will be updated every Tuesday. My other story Doom Valley Prep School will be updated every Monday.
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