“And stay out!”
The glistening golden-white doors slammed shut with a melodic choir of singing angels. A soft puff of holy energy tickled Detholian under the nose and made him sneeze.
Then, the door suddenly opened again, and out came flying a bound stack of parchment.
“And keep your foul bundle of horror!”
The parchment landed in the dirt and the door slammed shut again. Detholian sneezed once more.
“Yeah, yeah,” the necromancer sniffed. “I don’t like the smell of you either!”
He picked up his manuscript and dusted it off. “Don’t listen to those winged incarnations of beauty,” he said. “They’ve no idea what true beauty is. Blinded by their own glitter, ptui!” He spat a blob of thick green goo on the white marble stairs of the Angellenium and it sizzled, as the holy stone tried burning it away.
This was the tenth publisher that refused to work with Detholian Massaquertis, the undead necromancer. Arguments could be made that he was barking under the wrong tree, or raising the wrong limbs of a corpse, going to angelic publishing houses and all, but all the others refused him! The angels were one of the last publishing houses he hadn’t tried yet, but their no was a clear one.
Do I smell bad? Is it not a good time to publish, with the tree-ent civil rights movement and the lack of paper? But no, Rufthus managed to get a book published last week. Why couldn’t Detholian do it too?
He sighed. He was going to call it a day. One can only stand through so many rejections before it gets to him. But then he looked down on his manuscript, parchment tied with the black hair of a beheaded witch - with the head still attached to the hair, tiny and shriveled, a perfect bookmark - and all the emotion swirled in him.
“Corpsology,” he read the title. “A Necromancer’s Guide to Animation.” He spent seven years working on it. Seven years of skull-bashing and mind-grinding work to put his ideas on that damned parchment. He had to use parchment because of the War on Paper and the tree-ent rebellion, but he preferred it that way. Dead skin was easy to come by if one was a necromancer.
Could I try the troll mansions in the hills? Perhaps the barbarian elves in the wilderness? No, they wouldn’t be interested in a manuscript such as his. They'd cut his head and then they’d cut the parchment, probably burn everything. Or worse, eat it.
No, with the humans, dwarves, elves, orcs, vampires and now angels rejecting him, he had only two options. Well, two that held even the slightest chance of success. Either take his manuscript to the Undead Realm and hope his book is found in the flood of a million other books published by his fellow necro-writers or - and this one was perhaps even a longer shot - take it to the gnomes. Those tiny bastards were so curious they’d probably be willing to at least take a look.
And if not, well, he could always use more servants to maintain his massive obsidian cathedral. Gnomes did make for fine undead servants, very practical and obedient, once you’ve beaten out the life from them with a cudgel.
“So be it!” Detholian exclaimed. “We will try our luck with the gnomes, my dear!”
The manuscript pulsed in a sickening green light which warmed his rotten old heart in his empty ribcage. Yes, she is as eager as I am!
Detholian walked a safe distance away from the Angellenium, allergic to the presence of the angel temple before he decided to summon his stallion. The spell was so etched into his mind that he needed but to snap with his boney fingers and the soil began to vibrate. A patch of ground broke open and out came an undead zebra, or zombie zebra as the kids called it. Detholian liked that so he named her Zeezee.
When Zeezee fully climbed out of her deathly grave in the ground, which was really a gateway to the Undead Realm, Detholian mounted her. He patted the side of her neck which was mostly just bone and dry skin.
“Ride for Gnomehill, Ziz! Ride like your death was not a problem!”
The zebra reared, but no voice came from her mouth since her vocal cords have long decayed and they rode.
It wasn’t that far to Gnomehill from Angellenium, both races liked to live in the mountains, away from the nosy lowlanders. And Detholian completely understood. He too liked mountains. The high air was so thin it could suffocate, the weather so cold it could freeze and the food so scarce it could starve you out. A perfect place to get away from the stress of the Undead Realm for a while, and still enjoy all the comforts of a deadly environment.
Gnomes though, they preferred living. So they placed their homes in the breathable zones and built them on mountain slopes that did not crumble all too often. It was a waste of the mountain’s potential, in Detholian’s opinion.
Just as the sun began to set behind snowy peaks and evergreen forests - the ones now protected against woodcutters by section 24-E, apex 12a under Tree-Ent law - Zeezee brought Detholian over the final ridge.
Up ahead, the mountains broke away and a highland valley opened up. There was a serene lake with milky blue water that came from melting glaciers up higher. In the middle of the lake, Detholian saw a natural island rising from the waters and on that, Gnomehill was built.
And it was quite something. A mechanical fortress, made of metal and steam that hissed like a dragon.
The gnomes were a very peculiar race, he had to give them that. Small and frustrated for not being able to use magic, they focused all their endeavors on technology instead. Yeah, like that's ever gonna work… Silly. Why bother with mechanisms and steam, when you could simply hire a wizard to build you a city?
“Whoa, Ziz, ho there!”
Detholian pulled on the reins in the last moment, before Zeezee would plunge straight into the water. She couldn’t swim and neither could he - their bones weren’t that floaty - but that usually wasn’t a problem. Since neither of them needed to breathe, they could just march straight into the water and walk on the bottom. Only this time, Detholian had a delicate cargo with him. His manuscript.
“Time for a miracle,” he smiled and performed a waving motion with his hands. A few bubbles broke the mirror-clear surface of the lake and caused ripples. Then, Zeezee began walking over the surface and towards the island.
“Pst,” Detholian whispered to her non-existent ear. “Just don’t tell anyone about the stones I raised from the bottom. Let them think you’re actually walking on water.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle like a little kid when they came to the gnome island. There were already bystanders gathered outside, observing this strange phenomenon.
“Geez-Sus?” one of them asked. “Is… is that him?”
Detholian had no idea what the gnome meant. Their culture and pantheon were unfamiliar with him. He paraded on Zeezee’s back, her hooves kissed the land gracefully, and they strolled through the crowd of gnomes. He had to steer her mindfully, not to accidentally squish any of the gnomes. His hands twitch more than once, though.
Gnomehill was all steel, copper, and steam. It was built like a metal pyramid over the island, using the lake’s water to power its steam & steel dwelling. Boilers, cranes, pipes, and gauges decorated the sun-worn rusted metal plates of the buildings. Detholian rode to the town square where he waited for a substantial group to gather in curiosity. Then he cleared his corporeal throat.
“Greetings, tiny people. I am Detholian Massaquertis, master necromancer, and an artist of death! I am looking for someone bold enough to dare publish my book!” He raised his manuscript above his head. The parchment pulsed with energy, sending a single wave of sickening green color over the crowd.
The gnomes gasped. They awed. Some spooked. But a good three-quarters of them began jumping and raising their hands.
Detholian smiled. This is too easy, he thought. Why did I even waste my time with the friggin angels?
The gnomes began pushing all around him, reaching at Zeezee with their small chubby fingers. One of them even started climbing on her rear leg. He was flying in the air the next second, as Zeezee did not like it when things touched her rear legs.
“Calm down, now,” Detholian said and spread his arms. “I appreciate your enthusiasm but you haven’t even read my manuscript yet! Hey, no climbing!”
Two more gnomes flew through the air. Zeezee was growing restless as the little fellows started swarming around them.
Bloody hell, Detholian thought. They don’t care what it is as long as it’s something they don’t yet have!
It quickly became obvious to him that this was a mistake. The gnomes seemed more interested in simply owning the manuscript, rather than actually reading it, or caring for its artistic and educational value.
“What did I say about climbing my mount?” More gnomes flew, catapulted by Zeezee’s powerful legs. “Hey, stop pulling on my robe!”
So many gnomes have gathered around Detholian that they began climbing on each other’s shoulders, hoping to reach the manuscript. They babbled over each other, going completely feral at the sight of the yet unpublished book.
“Dear Death, what have you done to them?” Detholian asked his manuscript. It must have made them go berserk with that pulse it sent. There was powerful magic contained in the pages.
“Alright,” Detholian finally said, as a stack of five gnomes reached and touched his face. “That’s enough.”
He raised his hands high above his head and uttered a command in the Black Tongue. The fiery glow of the clouds darkened and the setting sun plunged behind the horizon faster than it should. The gnomes stopped walking over one another and became still.
Then, Detholian brought his arms close to his body, like pulling on invisible strings. And with that motion, all the gnomes in the square fell to the ground, dropping like dominoes.
Within seconds, all grew quiet and still. Night fell.
“Ah, much better,” Detholian said and smiled. He waited a few more moments for all drops of life to leave the bodies of gnomes and then stood up in his saddle.
“Rise, my minions,” he shouted. “Rise, and serve your new master, Detholian Massaquertis!”
The gnomes’ eyes flickered open, a flash of that sickening green glowing from within. They moved their limbs, awkwardly standing up. Their jaws were slank and shoulders slouched. It made them look even smaller than they were before.
“Yes,” Detholian chuckled. “Not a literary bunch, but they will do just fine cleaning my home.” The gnomes began groaning and they all looked up to him with their deathly eyes, awaiting orders. There were just a tad too many of them, but that didn't matter. Detholian knew he would lose quite a few of them on the way home. Raised undead weren’t quite the brightest bunch, especially ones so fresh.
He sighed. Yeah, he got servants now, but who would publish his book?
It seems I’ll have to try the Undead Realm anyway.
He hoped he would publish in a new market, one not yet saturated, but it didn’t work out. With a heavy sigh and a few hundred zombie gnomes trailing behind, Detholian rode out of Gnomehill and into the night.
The journey home was a long and grueling one. He couldn't rush since the zombie gnomes would never be able to catch up with him and would wander in the woods. Tree-ents would not be pleased if they found tiny zombies gnawing at their roots in the middle of the night.
As he predicted, he lost about a third of them on the way. Some got lost, some got stuck, some fell in a hole and couldn’t get up. Those were the sorriest, for they would now spend an eternity - or at least until Detholian’s power runs out, which was close enough - lying flat on their faces at the bottom of some gorge, bodies broken, unable to move. What a fine way to spend your eons.
Upon arriving at his home, the Cathedral of Mourning, Detholian banished Zeezee and gave orders to the remaining zombie gnomes to clean his home and keep unwanted visitors off his lawn. Detholian hated it when forest pixies would come and plant colorful flowers in his dead barren soil in the front yard. Some folks had no respect for boundaries.
“Yes, I know,” he said to his manuscript. “It’s probably that stupid paper law! They’re trying to plant trees everywhere, but not my front yard!”
The parchment quivered.
“Exactly! That’s why I wrote you on unicorn skins! Not a single sheet of paper used, ha! And they say I don’t care for the environment.”
The hour was getting late, which meant prime time to visit the Undead Realm. Besides, Detholian knew he couldn’t go to rest until he got his book published.
He walked into the back study in his cathedral, where a permanent pentagram was carved into the obsidian floor. Detholian sprinkled some pig’s blood and rosemary on the pentagram grooves and stood in the middle. He spoke the incantation in the Black Tongue and dark shrouds embraced him, carrying him to the land beyond death.
The foul smell of decay and rot caressed his nostrils like a lover kissing her beloved upon returning home. Ah, it’s good to be back.
Some priests said that the Undead Realm was nothing but an endless plane of graveyards, tombs and mausoleums and they were completely right. The only thing that they often forgot to mention was that these graveyards and tombs were bustling with undead life. There were food stands, souvenir shops, a rich marketplace and schools for dead children. There were stage plays, musical performances, a post office, a couple thousand mortician’s services, elegant coffin designers, and on and on… Detholian often thought there was more stuff here than in the Realm of the Living, simply because nothing ever went to waste here. It was reused, repurposed, and reanimated.
Detholian passed a pair of lumbering liches and pushed through a group of foreign exchange students - some mummies from the desert. With the manuscript tucked firmly under his arm, he walked straight to the first publishing company he knew. He kicked the door open and expressed his burning desire.
“Hey Mortis, I’d like to publish my book!”
Mortis, an ancient-looking bag of weathered bones and dried skin, head of the Everything Goes publishing company, was in the middle of sipping his black tar tea when Detholian came barging in.
“Ah, scrapadoodles!” The old man cursed. “Can’t you knock?”
“I’ve been knocking on every door I could think of, even knockin’ on heaven’s door and I’ve had it!” He walked straight to the desk and slammed his manuscript on top of the other ones. He tapped the cover with his boney finger. “This right here, Mort, is a masterpiece! You’d be stupid not to publish me!”
Mortis sighed and put away his unfinished cup of tar. “You’ve no idea how many times I’ve heard that, Detholian. Blast it, I hear it every time someone runs in here with a manuscript! And how many of them turn out to be any good?” He leaned closer in his chair, leather popping. “Nada! Zinch!”
Detholian rolled his green glowing eyes. “Yeah, but Zinch and Nada were bestsellers from the previous century. They’re outdated classical uptights! What I’ve got here is fresh stuff!”
Mortis raised an eyebrow, which was only a single hair that didn’t yet fall off.
“Come on,” Detholian encouraged. “Open it. See for yourself.”
The old man sighed again. “Fine. Just so I can be rid of you quicker.”
Detholian crossed his arms and leaned on a support pillar. He watched the ancient man struggle to even turn open the heavy leather cover of the manuscript. Dear Death, he is old!
“Corpsology,” Mortis muttered. “Good title, at least. But I fear I’ve published thousands of necromancy guides, textbooks, and academic anthologies of articles before.”
Detholian waited as the man began reading. Pretty soon, his brow reflected confusion.
“I don’t understand… There’s no description of the process of animating the dead here. Just… drawings.”
Detholian rolled his eyes. “Yeah, duh. It’s a guide to animation, Mortis.”
“But,” the man flipped through the pages. “It’s full of drawings. Some text here and there… No explanation on how to use the Black Tongue, how to connect with the dark power, no warnings of danger, and no guidelines on how to acquire bodies. Detholian, I always held you in high regard as a necromancer, but this…” He seemed lost for words.
“It’s not a guide on how to raise corpses,” said Detholian. “Why would you assume that’s what it was?”
Mortis raised his one good eyebrow lash. “Because of the title? Because you’re a necromancer? Because what else could it possibly be about?”
Detholian shook his head in disappointment. “It’s a guide towards animation, Mortis.”
“What? You’re not making any sense!” The ancient man seemed more confused than ever.
“Animation,” Detholian articulated clearly. Then, seeing Mortis still not getting it, he took the manuscript from his hands. “Here, look at this.” He flipped through the pages very fast. “Animation, see?”
Mortis’s ghastly eyes opened wide as he observed the drawings coming to life on the parchment pages. A zombie appeared to dance on the parchment.
“If you flip the pages fast enough, it seems like the drawings are moving, doesn’t it? I call it animation. You know, just like bringing corpses to life, except here you bring drawings to life. No magic involved. I think it has potential.”
Mortis facepalmed. “You’re an idiot.”