CHRONICLES OF ESTRIA:  The Wraith King

By Stuart Thaman

           A long time ago, he had been a respectable man. Liked, even. Never loved, he didn’t think, not by anyone other than his parents, but that simple fact hadn’t bothered him much. When he considered his past, he knew he had never truly loved anyone else in the first place. His exile and… what he’d become… were all the more fitting considering his somewhat aloof upbringing.

           What he missed most from his previous life was the town where he’d been born, not the people in it. The village beneath the tower didn’t exist any longer—a result of his own hand some hundred years ago—but the memory of it still occupied a cherished space in the recesses of his consciousness. He could easily imagine the gabled houses, the quaint farmsteads with their half-timbered architecture, and all the joyful townsfolk meandering through their lives from one harvest to the next.

           He had been born in one of the only stone structures of the village, near the singular water well that served as the small population’s lifeline, and constantly in the shadow of the tower that had stood since before anyone could remember.

           As a boy, he and the other merchants’ sons had often dared each other, prodding egos to see who they could convince to approach the stone monolith, though no one had ever been so bold as to lay a finger against its iron-banded door. A century later, he still hadn’t been inside, though he had finally learned what had been kept locked away in such a mysterious, conspicuous vault.

           With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the memories from his mind as easily as if they had been delicate strands of lazy fog clinging about his face. Pleasant as they were, the memories were not his. Not anymore. They had once been his property, of that he was more than certain, but he treated them as property to be held and secured, not as emotional trimmings to be loved or shared.

           He smiled, and the crown on his head shifted ever so slightly. The memories had been of a simple tailor’s son from a forgotten village beneath an unknown tower. For the last hundred or so years, no one had called him by the name his mother had bestowed upon him at his birth. If they had, he would have killed them as surely as he had eradicated the village.

           Secreted away in a rundown estate that formerly belonged to a lord and lady whose names he didn’t bother to recall, he had become something altogether unhuman—better than human. If he had to have a name, he preferred to refer to himself by his chosen name: Xaroc.

           On the increasingly rare occasions when he had found need of others to interact with him, everyone had simply referred to him as King. More specifically, though never in his direct presence, the men, women, and other intelligent humanoids who had found cause to know him had used his full title: Wraith King.

 

*****

 

            One of his Xaroc’s few servants approached from the eastern wing of the palatial estate he called home. The man, an apprentice wizard, had been living in the ruins for some time, doing Xaroc’s bidding while trying to learn as much as he could from the wraith, knowledge his only compensation. The Wraith King knew by the sound of the man’s hurried footsteps that something was not right. The sounds echoed off the old walls and curled wallpaper.

            The servant found Xaroc in his personal chamber, a room that had once been a parlor complete with musical instruments lining the walls and beautiful tapestries framing the windows. He stopped for a moment before entering.

            “Come in,” Xaroc bade. He was lounging on a dusty, mold-ridden couch large enough to seat a party of six. Unlike the times when the estate would have been used for the entertainment of nobles, no drink sat at the Wraith King’s elbow, and no butler hurried through the room with a tray of pre-dinner pastries. Instead, the Wraith King sat in darkness, and the glassless windows allowed a stiff, humid breeze to enter and tousle his cloak.

            Unable to see in the darkness, the servant carried with him a torch. He approached, placed the torch in one of the many sconces along the walls, and offered a deep bow that Xaroc decidedly ignored. “My lord, we were unable to locate the salve you requested. Please accept my apologies.”

            Xaroc turned to regard the bearer of bad news. In the grand scheme of things, the salve was largely unimportant. It would have, however, made things easier. The Wraith King watched with subtle amusement as the man in the entryway shook with fear. Others had been met with swift deaths for delivering such messages, and he knew it well. Fortunately for the fledgling wizard, Xaroc was in a different mood.

            “No matter,” the wraith said, moving his head to peer back out the warped and empty window frame to his right.

            “Shall… shall we make another attempt? A second inquiry?” the servant requested, his voice trembling as badly as his boots.

            Xaroc paused a moment before answering. “No. Come with me to the stones, and we’ll be done with it.”

            The man gulped and fetched his torch, obviously eager to get moving, and obviously dreading the intended destination.

            Beneath the ruined estate sat a collection of rune-covered and enchanted stones that Xaroc had spent the last forty years procuring. The room that housed them, a former wine cellar in a different age, was musty and dismal, much like the rest of the estate. Xaroc welcomed the familiar vileness with a deep breath.

            “Once I’m through, it will be up to you to maintain the portal. You know the procedures?” the wraith asked.

            Swallowing hard again, the man replied in the affirmative. Until the spell was complete, there wouldn’t be much for him to do, so he stood awkwardly to the side with his smoky torch in hand.

            “Good,” Xaroc said. “Maintain the portal. Protect the house in my absence. I’ll call for you and the others when the time is proper.”

            “Understood, my king,” the servant answered.

            Xaroc let his dark cape fall from his shoulders. In order to utilize the arcane portal he had trapped beneath the house, he would need to take on a visage more appropriate to his title. With the cape removed, he wouldn’t have to worry about any non-magical items complicating the journey. His other accouterments, a crown, golden ring, and the wrappings that contained his incorporeal essence within the husk of a long-dead human body, would all survive the transfer without issue. They were magical, each item powerful enough to be considered a relic.

            Turning toward his servant for what would likely be the last time for some weeks, Xaroc let his mental hold over his physical form slip from his mind to join the repressed memories of his former life. As the hold waned and eventually snapped, so too did his body, revealing the ghostly, amorphous form beneath. As a true wraith, he was nearly immortal—and felt every ounce of his power crackling at his fingertips.

            The servant shivered. The wine cellar, particularly on a hot summer night, wasn’t cold.

            “Once I find the lich, I’ll come back for everyone. Protect the portal until my return.” Xaroc’s voice was as heavy and unwavering as the huge stones standing watch in a circle around him. On the ground, a shimmering blue swirl of ancient arcane magic began to become visible.

            “As you command,” the servant dutifully replied.

            Xaroc took a step forward, and his foot sank through the wine cellar’s hard floor as though it had never even been there. He thought of is parents, of how they had been so proud of him starting his first day of an apprenticeship, and of how they had stood at the threshold of their house and held hands. In that moment, half of his body consumed by the portal, he felt no pride or joy swelling in his ghostly breast. Instead, without the benefit of the salve he had sent his men out in search of, he felt only pain.

            There was nothing to lubricate the transition between worlds. In the space that existed in the gap from one plane to the next, here was only pain. It covered both his mind and body—affecting his physical form even as the corporeal flesh and bones were not present—with an inexorable blanket of lacerating barbs. Then, as the pain was reaching its crescendo, Xaroc felt his right foot connect with something solid. It was slick, whatever it was, but it was real.

            His left foot found the same slippery ground, and then a blast of cold air played at the edges of his wrappings. Had he been able to transmit his cape through the portal, it would have billowed out behind him in grand fashion. Finally, after an interminable amount of excruciating time, Xaroc full appeared on the plane that had been his target. Without a map, he wasn’t sure exactly where he was. He had spent weeks scrying the plane in preparation, of course, but teleportation was an inexact study.

            Luckily, the field of ice stretching out beneath his wrapped feet told him he had at least made it close to his mark. “Raas,” he whispered to the frigid air.

            So exquisitely attuned to even the slightest hint of magic while in his wraith form, Xaroc could feel the response. The lich silently called to him, drawn by the wraith’s undead nature like a wake of vultures descending on a fresh kill.

            Xaroc turned toward the east. On the horizon, obscured by the brilliant light reflecting from the endless ice, he could just barely discern the outline of a frozen citadel, a brilliant fortress of solid magic. A smile tugged at the undersides of the wrappings covering the area where Xaroc’s face should have been. The fortress would do nicely. He would have preferred something a little darker, but he knew he would get used to the light. If it was a good enough fortress for the vampire who had built it, it would be adequate for him.

            As silently as a cloud, Xaroc set his feet in motion. He felt Raas’ call tugging at his very essence and, for the first time in longer than he dared to remember, the wraith didn’t mind obedience.