In a subterranean cavern, unfathomable depths beneath the ground, sits a man.
If you can call this pile of bones a man.
If you can call this undead contrivance, that has walked the Earth for thousands of years, a man.
If you can call this bloodthirsty, magic wielding horror he used to be, that he was, a man.
He couldn't, not any more.
He stared at a flickering candle flame that sat on the large stone table before him. That would be quite unnerving to an observer for he had no eyes. Not conventional ones at least.
He had traded his eyes of jelly and water for ones of blue fire. Traded the ability to look upon the sun and the sky and the faces of pretty people for the ability to see through the barriers that hold the universe together, to see the links of power, to see the passage of time, to stand outside of it.
Every so often the motes of cobalt incandescence would twitch and dart about, flicker and pulse but always come back to rest staring into the candle flame. Like inside that little pyre he could see his answers, could see his future, could see his past even.
Apart from what he thought of as his eyes he hadn't moved a muscle in close to three hundred years (not that he had muscles). He didn't feel the passage of time any more, as far buried as he was, things like day and night were more of a theoretical thing, something truly in his mind.
He had broken free of that foolishness aeons ago. He had once been a mortal man born in a small poor area of the world, born with the spark of magic shining strong within him though.
Wasn't long until he had been noticed by a travelling Wizard and taken for his apprentice. Wasn't long until he had surpassed that man he had called master. Wasn't long until he cast him down to possess his power for his own.
That had started it all off really.
His hunger for more, his life's work to gain more. More secrets. More magic. More power.
At the back of his mind though he was very aware that time wouldn't wait for him, time would kill him just as it could kill any other. Would kill any other. That had become his new obsession, figuring a way to avoid death.
To hold onto his power forever.
The day he discovered the secrets to eternal life had been a day he used to consider a victory for him. Now he only saw it as his blackest act. His darkest hour. He had found the secrets to a make himself into what people called a Lich. One of the most reviled of the unliving monsters the world had within it. Evil magic users, scared of death, fighting to live forever as shambling mockeries of life. Far from the unthinking, unaware shambling of a zombie or the jerking automation of a base skeleton. He would retain his mind and his will, his memories and his tenacity. His agency. Most importantly he retained his magical prowess. His power would be supreme, unshackled from the fear of time and age.
Or so he had thought at the time.
He hadn't rushed headlong into the process. A ritual that would leave him vulnerable for a short time, during the transition from innocent flesh to the monster he was now. He couldn't trust any of his closest to the task. Power never came with trust in his experience. The more of one you had, the less you could have of the other.
Turns out when you move a mind from a flesh and blood brain to whatever was inside his fell skull now, maybe some kind of magical construct, you lost something. He sometimes thought of it as his humanity, other times his soul.
When he had re-emerged he had been a terrible force. He had lost many emotions that had held him back from true blackness before. Trifling things like conscience and morality seemed to be distant memories. He hadn't been expecting how cold he always felt after the change. Within him was a deep block of ice, he could feel nothing else.
Nothing except his power. Which he hungered to make grow.
Nothing had ever alluded to how utterly boring eternity would be. Turns out when you make yourself into a virtually unkillable undead monster that throws the powers of creation and entropy around like toys, everything becomes trivial. Trivial and dull.
Even things like crushing one's enemies or seeing them age and become irrelevant couldn't amuse him. Turns out enjoyment at the little things was one of those things he had traded for eternal power.
Grown weary with how pointless it all was, he retired below to his secret cavern to work on his magics and his research. To work on that little niggle of an idea that had been growing in the back of his arcane mind.
What if he, in all his power, could create life for himself to inhabit. What if he could give himself true eternal life? It was a question worth thinking over, a problem worth considering. A goal worth pursuing.
It had taken a very long time. This being an understatement for the ages. One might even say it had taken ages. Even though time hadn't affected him while on the surface at least he had kept track of it, but down here, without sleep?
It had become one very long, very boring day.
An eternal day and him with a memory so sharp he could remember all his failures.
He had managed it though.
He stared at the soft pink skin, the perfect hair. Looked longingly at the hard muscles, at the soft flesh between it's legs. He couldn't quite believe he had done it. It appeared to be perfect.
It certainly held its shape for significantly longer than any of the rest had, that was for sure. They had turned into some sort of protoplasmic goo within moments of the spell finishing. Sometimes with explosive effect. This one however, seemed perfect. Every test he had tried came back right, all the different spells he knew. All showed him this was, finally, his goal. This was finally his new body. His new flesh.
He slowly reached out with one skeletal hand, bones held together by a faint blue light. One finger pointed, ever so hesitantly, ever so gently poked the body in the chest. The soft skin yielding to his touch.
"SO LONG HAVE I STRIVED FOR THIS, LONGED FOR THIS."
The voice came without his jaw moving. An empty voice, sounding more like an echo of a voice.
"I WILL ENCASE MYSELF IN FLESH ONCE MORE
AGE AS FLESH AGES.
FEEL AS FLESH FEELS".
Who he was saying this to he didn’t know. He was as alone as he had been forever. He should feel quite foolish, talking to himself alone in the dark. If he could still feel foolish that was.
His preparations had been exceptional, he had the time after all. Any mistake could be disastrous. This was seemingly uncharted magical territory. He had made a few more bodies, as extras for as and when he would need them. They seemed to hold well enough in magical stasis.
He would move his life force from this unfeeling, shell into the new body soon. His new body he reminded himself. To think of it as anything but himself would be foolish. Soon he would remember what foolish felt like.
Soon he would remember what it all felt like.
He checked the circles of power he had carved over careful centuries. He checked the symbols of binding he had traced over deliberate decades. He went over the words of control he had written over meticulous millennial. Everything seemed in order. Everything seemed right. The night held the thrum of energy to it. At least it might be night. It would have been fitting. Or maybe dawn.
Who really cared. He certainly didn't.
He felt it was time. He was ready. Ready to become a man again. Ready to reclaim his destiny.
Ready to ascend to power eternal.
The first thing he can remember afterwards, ironically enough, was how cold he was. Lying there on the hard, stone floor. While dead he obviously hadn't considered the warmth of the cavern.
He felt so groggy, he couldn't focus. His senses were all in chaos.
He crawled towards where he had been standing when he had..done...it.
All that was left of Him From Before was this tattered, moth eaten, rotting robe. It would have to do.
He pulled it over himself, now burdened with a keen sense of smell he noticed how foul it really was. Not as bad as the cold though. He could feel shivers wracking his body. Muscles contracting, fighting against him: Almost like a full body cramp.
When he had said he wanted to feel like flesh again this wasn't exactly what he had meant. He realised now that maybe, while he was dead, he hadn't really remembered what cold felt like. Not true cold.
He finally felt his muscles relaxing, conceding control back to him.
He relaxed, breathing out in a gasp and a cloud of condensation. Now that he had missed, seeing his breath fog on a cold morning. Seeing if he could breathe and look like a dragon.
Funny they should come back to him now, while he was feeling somewhat like a child himself.
Fire he thought. He needed something to burn and keep him warm. The place was really dark he realised looking around. He had taken for granted that gift of night seeing. He didn't worry though, give him time and he would be back in his rightful place. Once he had gathered his wits, gathered his power.
His power! Of course. Why didn’t he think of that? Stupid meat brain, getting emotional and not thinking clearly.
He waved out his hand, almost dismissively, at the wall in a gesture he knew would create a fire in an empty hearth.
Not quite unexpected. He hadn’t quite attuned to the body, he would have to spend some more time before he could access his magics with ease. He tried something more simple and used the words he had learned when he was a younger wizard.
The barest spark, the smallest flicker of fire appeared in the grate and then went back out.
He stared, aghast. He knew his powers would return in time, they would, but this was a bit much. They would right?
He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this weak. It was certainly sometime during his last life. His last alive life he meant. Oh dear, this might start getting confusing.
While he was staring at the empty fire he felt the next of his forgotten and unwanted feelings. A sharp spike in his gut.
Another thing the dead need not think on. Something he really should have. Well he certainly thought on it now.
He would have to leave here now, there was no food to be found down here. No animals, no plants of note. Just death, soon his death he realised. He had made a couple of vast miscalculations and they might just be the true death of him. Entirely unexpected.
He tried using his magic again, still just a fizzle. It started to cross his treacherous mind that maybe, just maybe, magical power was an innate thing. Something he should have taken into account during creation. Maybe he had just locked himself in the magical equivalent of a stone.
He felt cold again as the implications of that small error really hit him. By the dead he hated feeling cold.
He needed food and water. He needed to leave. His magical problem he could deal with later. Probably find himself going to whatever powerful wizard was alive in these times and have him do something about it. Probably have to serve him for a time but it would be worth it he supposed.
He sighed. That was enjoyable again at least. He'd really missed a good sigh.
He gathered himself up in the robes. Little more than rags, let's be honest. There was a portal he had made, in case of emergencies he told himself, it went up to the surface. From there he could just go to the nearest town. Next to the portal was a small pouch of gold coins also for emergencies. Emergencies often cost in his experience.
Best be prepared.
To think he once thought he always prepared for everything. Didn't prepare for this mess though. That’s for sure.
He passed through the portal thinking about all the things he would have to prepare for next time.
If there was a next time.
Once again he awoke and found himself in the dark and the cold not knowing quite what was going on.
It was getting a bit tiresome.
He knew the cave he exited into, had made it himself, but feeling around he found that a cave in had happened sometime during the ages and broken the portal on this side.
That was something he hadn't expected. Maybe he wasn't as good at preparation as he had thought. He certainly didn't feel like congratulating himself on a job well done.
The journey out of the cave was easy, it opened out onto the surface. He saw the sky for the first time in longer than he could imagine. The stars looked dimmer than he remembered. He walked until he came across what he imagined was a road. It certainly looked like one, just much nicer than he had ever seen. All smooth and black with paint on it. People had certainly been busy in his absence.
Well where there were roads, there were destinations at the end of them. Surely he would just follow this and he would come across somewhere.
He certainly did find himself somewhere. That's for sure. Somewhere he couldn't believe. Buildings like he had never seen, towering towards the sky. Lights everywhere, lurid colours flashing a rainbow into the night. He just stood staring. Unable to comprehend what he was seeing.
How long had he been away? The question burned inside. He knew time had lost a little meaning for him, that was true, but this much? Its meaning was certainly catching up to him now.
The closer he got the more intimidated he felt. He knew he had to approach, he was hungrier than ever and thirsty as hell. He had forgotten how bad it could feel. All those good feelings he missed, the rosy memories he longed for. They were all dust in the face of the hell he had found himself in.
The buildings got bigger and bigger until they towered over him, silently judging him. He cowered at the sheer scale of it all.
There just were so many people. People that were giving him a wide berth. Probably due to the smell he reckoned. One or two dropped paper at his feet.
He stooped to get it, desperate for something to explain things, help him understand. It just had faces on it and symbols he didn't recognise. He held on to them all the same. No wizard got to where he was underestimating things on paper he didn't understand.
Where had he gotten himself to, he wondered?
Surely nowhere good?
Time has passed. It’s strange to him to feel the passage of time again. It scares him.
Everything scares him now.
Enough time has passed that he knows now he won't get his magic back.
He asked around, looking for anyone who knew the old ways. He learnt that there isn’t much magic left in this world. People seem to have forgotten it. They assumed he was some sort of entertaining charlatan. A fake wizard for the entertainment of others. He hadn't understood that at the time. Couldn’t understand it.
He had the barest flicker of magic and found he could do some simple tricks, spells to understand, to light, to move small things. Insults to the man he used to be. The monster he used to be.
No one remembers him now though. None remember his reign of terror. No one remembers his era even, he can't begin to comprehend how long he must have stayed underground.
If he was honest the memories of the far back stuff were really faded. He can barely remember any of his life before undeath. If he was to be truly honest he doesn't remember any of his life before waking up in this body. His simple meat brain just had a limit on how long it can think about time it would seem. A limit on how much it could hold without breaking under the strain.
He works as a stage magician now. Had to do something, had no other choice in the end. Calls himself "The Dread Lord", dressed up like some Halloween horror for the amusement of the crowd.
Not his amusement though.
Doing simple tricks for simple people. Just wanting to make enough to eat. Desperate for enough to afford his tiny apartment above untold other tiny apartments. Desperate to pay for the power to keep the heating on for it got very cold at nights.
In a poorly lit apartment, uncounted amongst other identical apartments, he sits.
Wondering was he really ever the wizard of untold power that gained immortality?
Wondered if it was all a dream and this man was all he was.
If you can call this pile of skin a man.
If you can call this waste of flesh a man.
If you can call the useless, alone and cold thing that he was a man.
He wasn't sure, not any more.
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I really liked the build up and the ending is truly a fate worse than death. Excellently done.
This is a chilling story with good humour interspersed, I like his know it all syndrome and then he finds he has omitted to think of a number of things. A good atmospheric development throughout - you end up feeling a little sorry for him even though he probably doesn't deserve our sympathy.