Despite the thin air and the cold, Pleven and Emma spent nearly the entire eight-hour flight across the Cauldron on the observation deck, talking together and looking eagerly at the roiling clouds below them, lit intermittently by flashes of red lightning. In eight hundred years only two parties previously had crossed that tormented expanse of magmatic sea; they would be the third.
“Are you not worried they’ll kill us all?”
“Still better than being stuck on the farm back home,” she laughed. “Look, look!”
Through the clouds towers were rising, thousands of feet tall and white as bone. They had reached Organth, the city of the dead; but Pleven had eyes only for Emma, her hair whipping in the wind, her cheeks bright with the cold.
The Eternal Emperor, Ral Goden, suffered from an affliction: he dreamed, and since the dead do not truly sleep, he dreamed while waking, screaming and thrashing in his bed. His own counselors were terrified — terrified enough that they roused the visiting human alchemist-doctor and brought him hooded and stumbling to the royal chambers, medical bag clutched to his chest.
The Emperor reclined like an enormous maggot upon sheets of the finest red silk, his huge, round, hairless body riddled and crawling with actual maggots. His eyes were clouded, yellow and suppurating; his mouth dripped black fluid. The stench was sickening. He looked at Pleven with perfect madness and gurgled alien words in a voice like gas escaping a sewer pipe. Pleven trembled, terrified. “What did he say?” he whispered to the counselor who had brought him here, a hunched and eyeless crone named Gemmes.
“He says he is not hungry right now,” she murmured. “He thinks you must be dinner. I will try to explain.”
As Gemmes implored her emperor to allow an examination, Goden reached into a box by his bedside. With blackened fingers he drew forth a scarab beetle, legs wriggling, and stuffed it into his mouth. Orange light bloomed there.
The dead imagine nothing new; but their hunger drove them to copy any innovation they saw. Those authorities who had organized the airship expeditions had been confident that so long as the ships themselves were kept safely out of reach — easy enough to do via rope lines — then their mechanisms would remain perpetually a mystery to the undead.
They were mistaken. Thirty-three years after Pleven and Emma had visited the necropolis, an airship crossed the Cauldron to the port town of Nezen. It might have carried twenty undead in total. One year later, the Vulture Army threatened the entire continent.
“We should head further inland,” Pleven argued.
“Absolutely not,” Emma said, tending her garden. “This is our home. We have work here to do.”
“What work?” he groused. “Looking at Gordon’s plantar’s warts? Helping him birth his calves?”
“Healing the sick,” she answered. “Tending one’s flock. Seeing what’s needed.”
“In six months they could kill us all.”
She laughed. “Worth it to be at home on the farm. Besides, I can’t leave my research.”
On the night he finally managed to meet with General Mather, not far from the front, Mather came to his tent. “I have to tell you something, and it’s not good news. One of our clerks tonight, Tom Calluser, is missing. We’ve been looking into it, and it seemed he passed through the pickets to the enemy encampment.”
Pleven tried to clear his head of sleep. He was sixty-eight years old and exhausted. “I don’t understand.”
“We believe now he was a spy. We need to assume that the enemy knows everything we discussed.”
“But what … what can they even do with that?”
Something terrible occurred to him. “I told you all about us. About Emma and her garden.” He sat up. “I need to go home. Now.”
As he approached the plaza gate, Pleven thanked the full moon for her silver light, without which he would have been unable to travel so long or far: two days and nights now without cease, sleeping fitfully in a host of jouncing carts and coaches. He walked on, passing through the arched portal, looking with anticipation toward home — and froze, seeing the light from the second-floor workshop window.
For some long moments he stood, stomach sinking. Finally he knelt and opened his medical bag. Withdrawing a vial, he unstoppered it and shook its contents into his hand.
The expensive lock on the door was shattered, confirming his suspicions. Inside, the cold rolled down the stairs in waves. He took the steps as quietly as he could, but there was no hiding here, and no attempt to hide. These invaders knew he was compelled to see the truth for himself.
Emma was laid upon his work table in her nightgown near the center of the room. He saw no wounds upon her, but her mouth was slack, her eyes unblinking. Tears blurred his vision. Emma! I’m sorry!
The creature that had murdered her rose from its seat behind the table. The lich was white as parchment, its bones thin as reeds. It wore the scarlet coat of the Vulture Army with the hook insignia of a captain upon the high collar. “Doctor Pleven, I assume. My name is Drost. Sit. We have much to discuss.”
Pleven made no reply. He heard a noise behind him and saw two others come up the stairs behind him, their shapes distorted in the candlelight, hunched and clawed.
The undead captain waited, then slowly spoke. “Your wife is dead, but this need not be the end. You can live forever in the paradise of the Eternal Empire. We can offer you wealth and position, servants, wine. Or you can have unending pain. It makes no real difference to me, but it would be easier for us both if you cooperate.”
Before this moment, Pleven would have said he would have rejected such an offer out of hand. But now that he was here, he felt its temptation pulling him down like a sinkhole engulfing a house.
“Good,” rumbled Drost, correctly interpreting his silence as reflection. “Your wife can rise again, more beautiful than before, stronger than before. She will never again be sick, never in pain. You will have all the time in the world. Think of the work you can do! In exchange … the weapon.”
In all the necropolis, he had never seen a garden.
“I can show you,” he said. Slowly he drew his clenched fist from his pocket. Drost waited, cautious but not alarmed. He opened his hand and revealed the scarab beetle there, an orange sunburst pattern on its back. Then he clapped his hand to his mouth and swallowed forcefully.
There followed a truly distressing wriggling sensation, as the preserved beetle seemed to wake up, but he was distracted by the noises behind him, and the captain suddenly standing. “Stop,” he said, and his tongue was orange flame, its light flickering.
The undead stopped. They froze entirely, unmoving and unblinking, bidden by the power of the scarab. It was the same power their very emperor used to command them; the same power used to raise them from the dead in the first place. He was not sure if he had condemned himself to their fate, if he did nothing, but he didn’t plan to wait to find out.
“Stay here,” he commanded. “Do absolutely nothing until I return.”
He descended to the kitchen and heated some water in a kettle. To it he added a generous half cup of a particular silver leaf from a jar on the shelf: a humble herb, rare but amenable to cultivation, that Emma had discovered and grown in her garden. He placed four cups on a platter and carried it back upstairs.
“Sit around the table.” The other guardians joined their captain. He placed the platter on the table next to Emma’s body, poured from the kettle, and distributed the cups. “You asked to see the weapon. Well, here it is. Drink your tea.”
By the time they finished drinking, all three had fallen to the ground, no longer undead but merely dead. He stood, not yet having drunk from his own cup. He was uncertain how it would interact with the scarab, whose power was the source of unlife. He stroked Emma’s hair. He kissed her forehead. He said goodbye. He drank his tea.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer, artist and longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword. His debut novel, INFERENCE, was released July 2017.