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Spellcaster Start-up

BY THOMAS MOOLENAAR


The knight approached.

 

The image was clear: he flew across the barren fields, his steed carrying him through scorched villages, across pillaged farmland and over charred bridges.

 

Merelyth soaked up the eldritch green glow of her seeing orb, its light dancing across her porcelain skin. Her black-nailed fingers drummed an eager beat on her spruce wood desk.

 

“Oh my,” she cackled softly. “Poor unwitting fool.”

 

She reached into her desk drawer and her hand returned with a small glass box. She lay it on the table, handling it as if it were a new-born baby. A scroll lay within:

 

South Bogland Magic College

Merelyth Blacknail

Has been awarded the degree of

Bachelorette of Arcanum: Necromancy and Undead Management

With Second Class Honours (Upper Division)

 

“Only one degree?” said her skeleton Captain. “Are you sure you belong in this business?”

 

The undead creature dwelled at the corner of her desk, sewing away at a large black banner. His entire body was wreathed in an emerald mist. Necromantic energy slithered up his legs, wove through his ribs and glowed in his eye sockets. His voice was hushed, yet powerful, like a whisper in an echoey cave.

 

“The goblins say there’s a warlock up north who got a first.”

 

A tremor of scorn disrupted the witch’s smooth facial features. She placed her degree back into the drawer and slammed it shut before deploying her excuse: “That warlock rules a horde of brainless bone puppets. I, on the other hand, have resurrected a dynamic workforce who retain their mortal memories and skills.”

 

Bones didn’t look up from his embroidery. “At least he’s got a furnished castle…”

 

“We have all the basics required for a start-up.” The young woman gestured at the room: piles of spell books as tall as a man cluttered its floorspace along with a dry cauldron and boxes of paper-wrapped potion bottles.  

 

“And do not forget that I could turn you back into a pile of bones and sweep you up with a broom…”

 

“Good luck designing your banner then. And I don’t know why being invaded by an armoured ponce is such a good thing.”

 

“Without knights attacking us, we have nobody to capture and ransom. The more we capture and ransom, the more knights attack us. It is an economy of scale.”

 

“Right…” The skeleton continued to stitch, but his needle got caught in the fabric. “So, it’s all for nothing if you fail to best your first knight.”

 

Merelyth waved him off. “We shan’t; we have an army, a banner to rally behind, a functioning seeing orb…”

 

Bones looked up. “Oh, did nobody tell you?”

 

The icy dagger of dread pierced her heart. “Tell me what?”

 

“It’s six hours slow; you need to give it a smack when it boots up.”

 

The witch plunged her face into the orb’s light and rechecked its image. A high afternoon sun gleamed against the knight’s armour.

 

She gazed out of her tower’s window. A rich orange sunset shone over her picturesque courtyard. The castle’s walls embraced the square like sturdy stone arms while its towers stood tall and vigilant over the wasteland outside. Banks of red roses blushed in the gardens, nourished by spring water streams and cradled by quaint cobblestones.

 

All off-brand- the fact that the knight had even considered this place as a target was a miracle – one she couldn’t waste.

 

A lock of brown hair flopped out from beneath the rim of her witch hat. She tangled it around her fingers as she counted the remaining hours. Subtractions burned through her brain like the fuse to a gunpowder keg.

 

The knight couldn’t find her castle in such a state – if word spread, the authorities might mistakenly label it as a tourist attraction. Her hand twitched, tearing the hair from her scalp.

 

“Problem?” said Bones.

 

Merelyth spun around and slipped the hair into her sleeve. Her lips forced themselves into a smile.

 

“Keep stitching, Bones. I shall be in the courtyard if you need me.”

 

The witch grabbed the hem of her black skirt and descended her tower’s staircase. The smell of pollen grew stronger with each step, and by the time she reached the door on the ground floor, the stench was enough to make her eyes water and nose hairs tremble.

 

She wiped her nose on the black fabric of her sleeve, unlatched the bolt and stepped outside to address her minions: a horde of shambling skeletons and slimy goblins. Hardly any of them had their nametags on.

 

“Okay team, it’s going to be a bit hectic this evening given the short notice,” She wiped her watering eyes and sniffed. “But if we pull together, I know we can get it done.”

 

She split her minions off into several teams and sowed them across the castle like an evil seed. In the meantime, she had more literal gardening to do.

 

 

Merelyth wiped her brow. The sweat gnawed the cuts on her hands. A bouquet of uprooted roses lay at her boots, their thorns dripping with her blood and sweat.

 

But the result was worthy of the effort; her herb garden flourished in the poisoned soil. It resembled a patch of mould: mottled greens, blues and greys crept from the earth in all directions – everything she needed to grow her own potion ingredients.

 

And best of all, it was tax deductible.

 

She tugged the strings shut on her leather seed pouch. The embroidered letters scooted together like penguins in a blizzard.

 

Let your brilliant glow help these seeds grow – a little something to help you sprout – Prof. Skullhaunt

 

The farewell gift from her professor sent a warm ember fluttering onto Merelyth’s heart. She promised to spend more time down in the garden it somehow felt less lonely. She set down the pouch and scraped the oily-black earth from her robes.

 

At least the castle was starting to gain its witchy charm. Goblins poured cauldrons of tar from atop the ramparts, dirtying the white stone with a terrible black crust while skeleton archers fitted newly embroidered banners to the towers and walls. Green flames danced from cursed torches on the battlements like fiery demons mocking its would-be attackers.

 

A greenish-yellow lump crawled into the witch’s periphery and cleared its mucus-coated throat. “Um, excuse me, mistress,” said the goblin, “there’s a bit of a scuffle going on at the gate and I thought—”

 

Merelyth’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets and plopped onto the Goblin’s slimy skin. “The knight is here?!” She nearly tripped on her long skirt as she bolted toward the gatehouse, ignoring her aide’s jabbering as he scampered after her.

 

Sure enough, the castle’s gatehouse swarmed with battle. Bony fists and slick goblin claws churned like a living pulveriser. Merelyth’s gaze clamoured over the carnage but found no shining armour to settle on.

 

“They’re fighting one another?” She shook the goblin by his narrow shoulders. “What about my diversity policies? What about the teambuilding exercises?!”

 

“Uhm…”

 

“Well, whatever.” She sighed.

 

The witch forced her way into the crowd, cursing and casting hexes on anyone who so much as brushed her robes. She left a trail of terror as she cut her way to the heart of the riot, finding Commander Bones and Goblin Chief Morgob locked in a vicious brawl.

 

She stepped in and tore them off one another. “What in the Realm is the matter with you two?! I thought we had a sensitivity meeting on this!”

 

Commander Bones rattled with rage. “Sensitive?! Him?!”

 

“Ignorant skeleton. This is traditional goblin battle-wear!” Morgob warbled indignantly.

 

Merelyth started to assure both parties that a revision of the uniform policy could be decided on if they both calmed down and recognized each other’s culture. After all, Goblins had a tradition of adorning themselves in the bones of their respected enemies, which if anything, showed deep respect toward the skeletons.

 

Then she noticed Morgob’s loincloth. She stared at it for a good ten seconds.

 

It stared back.

 

“It’s slimy down here.” Said the skull.

 

An arrow flew and lodged itself in her pointed hat just a few centimetres above her scalp. The crowd began to churn with hatred and violence once again as the two forces began to draw their weapons.

 

A loud clang of metal split the mob in two. Startled goblins and skeletons were united in fright at the sight of the castle’s first invader.

 

The Knight stood in the gatehouse, undaunted by the wicked mob surrounding him. His voice was like a war horn.

 

“I seek the ruler of this castle!”

 

Merelyth strode forth and summoned her most terrible smile. “Welcome, foolish knight, to—”

 

He lifted his visor and squinted at her. “Is he out, then?”

 

Her lips went as rigid as ice and her voice fought to escape her gritted teeth. “Pardon?”

 

“The Warlock. Are you his assistant or something?” He scanned the courtyard, his piercing blue gaze picking its way over unopened crates and barrels. “Not many skeletons... are you having problems with your rota?”

 

Before she could answer, a bowstring twanged, sending a shaft of green fire tearing through the night. The arrow struck the knight’s breastplate with a lame clang, before pinwheeling off in the opposite direction.

 

Merelyth’s embarrassment ignited into outright horror when the flaming projectile landed square in her herb garden, turning hours of hard work into a five-minute bonfire.

 

The knight simply dusted off the scorch mark. “Damn shame.”

 

His squire scampered over to him with a map stretched between his hands. The diminutive mole of a man whispered something into his master’s ear.

 

“Ah.” The knight smiled and nodded in a way that made Merelyth’s stomach flip. He half turned toward the gate, then smiled back at her. “Now this is awkward, but I actually ought to be elsewhere…”

 

His horse whined and turned to leave the castle.

 

“Wait!” Merelyth trotted after the departing knight. “You could at least try to smite us! You would be doing your kingdom a great service! Come on, just a little smite!”

 

“Forgive me young lady, but my policy is to only do battle against candidates with a minimum five years’ evildoing experience.”

 

“But how am I meant to get experience if I don’t have enough experience to gain more experience?!”

 

The knight galloped out of the gatehouse and back into the wasteland. He shrunk into a small silver pearl, then sunk beneath a hill.

 

A vortex opened in the witch’s chest. It devoured the warmth and ripped out her lungs and heart. The flame inside her snuffed out, leaving her smouldering like a burnt-out match.

 

Something landed on the witch’s hat. She peeled the scorched scrap of leather off of it and inspected its charred embroidery:

 

help

 

A chill wind snatched the pouch from her hand, crumbling it to ashes.

 

The scrape of dry bone against stone grated against the witch’s ears. Commander Bones shuffled to her side, twanging idly at his bow string. “I bet that warlock got a first in his degree.”

 

Something slipped in the witch’s brain, like the first rock in an avalanche.

 

A cold rage descended on the witch. Merelyth snapped her finger, and the green mist ensnaring her skeleton horde slithered back into her palm and her minions collapsed into piles of femurs and ribs. The entire courtyard rang with the sound of clattering bones as the undead army was undone.

 

The witch turned and ghosted toward the tower as if she were under a reanimation spell. She passed her jittering goblin mob, crunching scorched plants beneath her boot.

 

“Damn allergies…” She murmured, wiping her eyes.

 

The tower door slammed shut before the spectacled goblin could finish adjusting the timetable.


 

The rising sun cut her eyelids apart. Merelyth’s pointed hat slid off her head as she sat up and rubbed throbbing temples. Her tower’s carpet reeked of sleeping potions its odd stench of burnt liquorice conspired with the stuffy odour of unfiled tax forms in an effort to overthrow her stomach. A chill morning wind crept through the open window and bit into her skin. She felt brittle, like an old garden pot with one too many cracks in it. Her fists unclenched and torn-out hairs wafted from her palms.

 

The witch caught her reflection in a nearby mirror. Her scalp looked like a half-harvested wheat field, her eye sockets like coal-pits. How fitting for a necromancer to look like death.

 

And her reflection wasn’t alone.

 

Merelyth threw herself to one side and the squire’s blade sliced through a stack of adoption forms from Dragon Protection. Survival instincts fizzed through her blood, and she grabbed his wrist. Her voice cracked as she uttered the spell and a tide of eldritch energy washed over the young man, pouring through the gaps in his leather armour to erode his flesh. The man’s tongue disintegrated mid-scream.

 

The squire dropped his sword and felt his skull. Green pupils darted around inside his hollow eye sockets, gaging the horror of his transformation.

 

It was half an hour before he engaged his jawbone and gave undead speech a whirl.

 

“Damn.” his hollow voice echoed “Really thought I would get you.”

 

The new skeleton dropped himself onto the floor with a noisy clatter. “Your army of sentient undead sounded like a really terrible innovation.”

 

Innovation. The word fluttered like an ember onto Merelyth’s cold heart.

 

“Really?”

 

He shrugged. “Studied undead extermination in my placement year. I came back here after my master fell to the Warlock’s power I wanted to stop second great power from rising in these lands.”

 

His skull lolled miserably. “I shall never be a knight now.”

 

A fire kindled inside the witch. Her heart took flame like a lump of coal and her clay-like skin warmed, smoothing over the cracks. Her knees clicked as she rose off the floor. The sun poked over her shoulder and a warm glow spread across the skeleton’s face.

 

“You may yet be.” she promised, donning her witch hat once again. “If you don’t mind working alongside goblins…for minimum wage.”

 

He didn’t lift his head. “I have a career path laid out. I do not belong here.”

 

She shrugged and offered him a hand. “Nor do I. Perhaps that is why we can belong in this stupid industry together, you and I.”

 

“We are total failures all the same.” The skull bobbed five times, like a buoy lost in the ocean. “But I suppose I have little other prospects…”

 

His fingerbones crept into the witch’s palm and she pulled him up.

 

A green mist simmered beneath the windowsill, and the courtyard rattled with the din of bones rolling across its cobblestones. The resurrection had begun.

 

Merelyth plopped herself into her desk chair and took her degree out of its hiding place. She placed it square in the middle of the table where it deserved to be, even amidst stacks of paperwork. A smile eased across her face as she addressed her new servant.

 

“Are you any good at filing invoices?”

 

 

Thomas Moolenaar likes to write books very slowly while doing five other things at the same time. Even when writing this simple short bio, he managed to get lost in his Whatsapp messages.


He hopes you enjoy his story.


© Spellcaster Startup | Thomas Moolenaar

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