The night was dark, the moon a sliver in the western sky. It hid behind a cloud, from time to time peeking out to cast its faint light down upon the world.
In the cemetery, there was activity.
Johnson put his spade down and set his hands on his hips, with a sharp exhale through his moustache. There was a long night of work ahead of him. Smith was in prison, nicked for stealing some coins, which left Johnson to do all the work himself. He might have given it a miss, waited until he could find a new business partner, but he had made promises, and he needed the money, so he’d have to do it himself. The blisters had better be worth it.
He had picked up his shovel, all ready to set to work, when he heard the crunch of a foot turning on gravel.
He spun, eyes searching the darkness. It would not do to be found at his task, and fear sliced through him – but there was no one on the gravel path. He stepped forward, curious, searching the night. It must be a man, for who else – what else – could it be? And a man who saw him was a man who could not leave.
There, behind a leaning stone, skulking in the deeper shadow cast by the meagre light of the crescent moon: a man, hooded, clutching a sack.
“Come on out of there, let’s see you,” said Johnson, the muscles tensing in his jaw.
The man straightened, and Johnson saw he was wearing a robe, dark, its colour lost in the night. He was scowling, dark eyes beneath bushy brows.
“All right,” the man snapped. “You caught me.”
He cut a comical figure, and Johnson found his mouth splitting into a grin. “I thought you’d caught me,” he said, hefting his shovel. “Why, what are you doing in the graveyard in the middle of the night?”
The man dusted off his robe with a sour expression. “If you must know, I was looking for a body.” He sniffed, and pulled himself up to his full height, one hand thrown out before him for dramatic effect. “I am Noxtorious, dread necromancer of the seventh moon!”
“Yeah? Seventh moon, eh? I thought we only had one.” Johnson leaned forward on the handle of his shovel, and jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. “Well, you can’t raise this one from the dead. He’s spoken for.”
He who called himself Noxtorious squeezed his hands into fists. “The arcane arts will not be denied!”
“I’m not denying ’em, I’m telling ’em they’ll have to wait for the next one.” Johnson picked up his shovel and made to return to his plot. “How were you going to get him out of the ground, anyway? This your first time or something?”
Noxtorious trotted after him, his sack over one shoulder. “As it happens, yes.” He sniffed. “The book said they’re supposed to climb out of the graves themselves, although they neglected to mention whether you have to remove all the dirt first.”
Johnson planted his shovel in the earth beside the grave. Despite himself, he was intrigued. “Go on then,” he said, gesturing towards the mound. “Give it a try.”
Noxtorious’s brow furrowed in concentration. He threw out his hands, fingers bent into claws, and lifted his chin. The words he intoned, thick with gravitas, sounded to Johnson’s ear like Latin, though he was not a learned man and could not understand it. As he recited his spell, Noxtorious stepped forward, taking a piece of chalk from his sack. Chalk, or something like it; it glowed red as he inscribed it upon the raised heap of earth. With a flourish, he pulled forth a phial, and poured its liquid contents on the ground with a final roar of command.
There was a peculiar flash; though Johnson knew he had seen a flare of red light, it had not reflected onto the ground outside the circle Noxtorious had drawn, nor the cemetery wall. He was impressed.
Noxtorious was looking at the grave with an expression of tired satisfaction.
“Is it done, then?” Johnson prodded.
He nodded, and lifted a hand to rub the side of his face. “It might take a little time – ”
There was a strange sound from the grave, muffled by the ton of earth.
“Ooh.” Johnson bent forward eagerly, watching for any movement of the dirt.
There was another sound, which might have been a cracking, and another. The mound of dirt fell, as the earth collapsed into the broken coffin.
Johnson looked over at Noxtorious, and had to smile. The man was all but glowing with pride and excitement, jumping from one slippered foot to the other, the mystic symbols about his neck jingling.
After some groaning, and the quiet rustles of damp soil, a face appeared from the grave. It was, of course, smudged with dirt, but rather than the bewildered expression Johnson had expected, it had a strange sort of focus to it.
The reanimated corpse took some time to pull itself from its prison of sod, but at last it stood, swaying gently, looking at Noxtorious with what might be called expectation.
The necromancer was beaming. He stepped forward and reached out to touch his ghoul, running his fingers faintly along the surface of its dead skin with something like horror, something like reverence.
The body had once been a young woman, very thin, with her hair cropped short. There was a mark about her neck, distant like an echo. An execution: a favourite of grave robbers.
Johnson watched her with his mouth agape. It was strange, to see one ambulatory. He found he felt less sad for her, seeing her upright, than he did for the many he pulled prone from their graves. The poor buggers, as he thought of them. But she, or it, was another thing entirely.
He chuckled to himself, then, and Noxtorious looked up at him with a raised eyebrow.
He waved a hand. “It’s nothing,” he said. “I was just thinking how much quicker it would make a night’s work if all of them dug themselves up for me.”
“I suppose you’re still claiming this one as yours,” the necromancer said, eyeing his creature.
Johnson thought about it. It seemed a little cruel, now; the man looked quite taken with his experiment. But a deal was a deal, and he had someone waiting on that corpse.
“Sorry,” he said. “Man’s gotta make a living, and all that.”
“What do you do with them?” Noxtorious asked him, stepping away from the ghoul with an expression of genuine curiosity. “I’d heard you sell them to doctors.”
Johnson gave him a curt nod. “They cut ’em up, learn how bodies work. It’s important.”
Noxtorious raised his hands. “You’ll get no argument from me,” he said. “The more informed doctors are, the better, in my book.” He turned to stand beside Johnson, and folded his arms as he returned to examining his work. The shambling thing had turned to face him as he’d moved, eyes watching, sunken already in their sockets. “It’s strange, isn’t it?” he said, his voice low. “It’s alive, but not alive.”
“There’s nothing in there, is there?” Johnson asked him, gesturing towards the creature. “It’s not the same person that it used to be?”
Noxtorious shook his head. “It’s energy that animates it. It’s – look, have you ever heard of an egregore? No? It’s a thoughtform, a construct – energy fills the space, and once it has a form, separate and distinct, it has a, a being, a self. You give it a name, and you give it a purpose.” He nodded towards the ghoul. “Its name is servant. That is all it is.”
“So,” Johnson’s forehead furrowed, “you’re making a new person?”
“Something like that. But, of course, not nearly so complex as a real, living human. Well,” he hesitated, correcting himself, “not most humans.”
The thing was still swaying slightly from side to side, attentive but otherwise blank-faced. Johnson felt as if he ought to be sorry for the thing, but he wasn’t. It didn’t look sad. It looked… focused.
“Say, I was wondering…”
“Why don’t you and I go into business together?” Johnson grinned at the confused expression on the man’s face. “Look, it takes hours to dig ’em up, even if there’s two of you. That’s hours you might get caught. But if you can magic ’em up in five minutes, that’s a lot of work I’m saving.”
“Oh?” Noxtorious wrinkled his long nose. “What’s in it for me, exactly?”
“Connections,” Johnson said, splaying his palms out in front of him. “You need to know who to approach in this city. Talk to the wrong doctor and you’ll be for the chop.” He jabbed a thumb towards his chest. “I’m your man for that. Got connections all over the city, and elsewhere besides.”
Noxtorious rubbed his chin. “Well, that’s true,” he said, “and tomes of occult lore don’t come cheap. Not to mention Mrs Persimmon charges a heap for rent.” He eyed Johnson thoughtfully. “All right,” he said. “How about a trial period?”
“Fantastic, lad,” Johnson said, and clapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll split it 50-50. You bring the magical potions and whatnot, I’ll bring the shovel, just in case they need a little help.” He looked over at the swaying figure, and his grin faded a little. “How do you make ’em dead again, anyway?”
Noxtorious frowned, and tilted his head to one side. “You know… I don’t know,” he said. “There was nothing about that in the books. I don’t expect they anticipated anyone wanting to undo the process.” He gestured vaguely. “You’re meant to build an army, servants, that sort of thing. They’re only expected to die – again – if some misguided hero comes and kills them all.” He pursed his lips in thought. “And even then, it takes a bit of doing.”
Johnson stared at the shambling thing. It was beginning to leak some sort of goo from its mouth that he hoped was saliva.
“That could be a problem,” he said, rubbing his chin. “See, if I were to crack it over the skull with my shovel, the doc might think I’d murdered her. That’d make trouble for me.”
“I could look through my books again. There might be something I’ve missed… but I don’t think so. I’m sure I would have remembered.”
“And what are we supposed to do about this one?” Johnson gestured towards the ghoul. “I have someone waiting for it and all.”
“Well, we could just… uh…” Noxtorious frowned. “I suppose I could just tell it to lie very still.”
Johnson stared at him.
“I mean,” the necromancer explained, “it doesn’t need to breathe or anything. If it just lies down and doesn’t move, what difference does it make?”
“What difference – ” Johnson pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh, god in heaven,” he moaned. “And what if the damn thing stands up in the middle of being dissected?”
“It won’t. I mean, it shouldn’t.”
“They’re meant to do what you tell them.” Noxtorious looked over at the ghoul. “Servant,” he commanded, “dance!”
The creature began to hop from one foot to the other, its stiff hands held above its head.
“See?” said Noxtorious, smirking. “Stop,” he commanded the thing, and it stopped, one foot in the air, hands still hovering above. “Right. You can put your foot down now. And your hands. Go on. Stand as you had been.”
The ghoul dropped its appendages, awaiting further instruction.
Johnson scratched at his jaw. “I still don’t know about this,” he said.
“If you’re that worried about it, we can wait and see whether this one does anything,” Noxtorious said dryly. “I’m certain we’d hear about it.”
“The whole bloody country would hear about it.” Johnson sniffed. “Well. Fine,” he said, tucking his thumbs into his trouser pockets and giving the ghoul a good looking-over. “But if this thing wakes up and makes a scene, I’ve never met you and I don’t know anything about it.”
He stood back as Noxtorious gave the creature its instructions, and it laid down obediently in the stretch of canvas he’d brought. He approached to tie the parcel up with stretches of twine, as he had done many times before, and felt a chill, because it seemed no different. There was something in this body, some kind of mind, but now, with it lying so still, he could not tell.
When he had finished, and the body was trussed up in its canvas shroud, he planted his hands on his hips and blew air up through his moustache.
“It won’t feel anything, will it?”
Noxtorious was silent for too long, and Johnson looked at him. The man was chewing on a fingernail, his dark brows furrowed.
“It’s hard to say,” he said at last.
“God in heaven. You might’ve said something before I tied the damn thing in there!”
Noxtorious shook his head. “No, no, they don’t feel pain like we do, or fear, nothing like that. But that’s not to say it won’t be aware of what’s going on.” He paused. “I don’t think they feel pain, anyway.”
“Well that’s bloody fine and dandy, isn’t it?” Johnson shook his head, and sighed. “Well, so long as it doesn’t start screaming its head off, we should be fine.” He bent down to shoulder the corpse. It seemed to him it felt a little lighter than it should. “Come on,” he said to Noxtorious. “You can come with me, and we’ll split the money.”
“Just so long as I do get to keep some of them,” said Noxtorious, trotting after him. “The corpses, I mean.”
“You can have the manky ones.”
“You know. When they start oozing and the doc won’t take ’em, and you have to throw ’em in the river instead.”
“I don’t want ones that are manky! I’m going to have them in my house.”
Bickering quietly as they went, the men slipped through the midnight city. On a quiet street, no different than any other, Johnson waited until the coast was clear before slipping down to a basement door and knocking. The door opened a crack, and he saw a sliver of someone peering through until he was recognised, and ushered inside. There, amongst instruments he did not like to look at, and men whose faces seemed far too young, he laid the body on a table.
The ties were untied, the canvas pulled aside. Johnson winced.
The doctor nodded. “Good,” he said. “Execution, I take it?” He nodded to the boys, who started to pull the canvas out from under the body and position it on the slab.
“Good kids,” the doctor said, counting out some money. “They’ll make fine doctors one day.”
“They seem… young.”
The doctor shrugged. “Nineteen or twenty, most of them. My students. This is,” he tapped the side of his nose, “extra credit.”
Johnson left as soon as the doctor let go of the money, his canvas folded up under his arm. Damned leech always seemed creepier than the corpse he was digging into.
Noxtorious was waiting, eyes wide and bright as Johnson counted his half out into his palm. He promised to call by when he knew of another burial that wouldn’t be watched, and Noxtorious gave him his address, and told him to call him Basil when they weren’t working.
They parted ways, and faded into the city.
Within the basement surgery, the creature did her duty well. She moved just once, twitching her fingers, long after the arm had been removed from the body.