Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 23
The Hanged Poet
by Jeffrey Lyman
Into the West
by Eric James Stone
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Four Wizards and a Funeral
    by Mike Rimar

Four Wizards and a Funeral
Artwork by Anna Repp

I. The Starling

True to her reputation, Simone the Starling was positively ravishing for a wizard. With her black satin robe accentuating her long, free-flowing hair, she moved like wavelets across a pond at midnight.

In contrast, her face was paler than the dead man lying between us, a slash of crimson across her full lips the only suggestion she retained any membership to the living.

Remembering my station, I folded my hands in a functionary manner and half-smiled, half-frowned my condolence. "Did you know him well, madame?" A standard if officious question. A blind man would recognize the only female member of the Cabal, or that Carmichael the Ferret, the leader of that notorious quintet of mages, lay prone upon my preparation table.

"Know him?" Her gravelly voice betrayed life experience well beyond her visible years. At once I realized her beauty was but a glamor cast upon herself. "Yes," she said. "He was my -- grandfather." Her upper lip twitched into a smile. "Great grandfather. Tell me, Undertaker, he is dead, yes?"

Looking at the corpse, I almost smiled thinking she had made a joke. Thankfully, I remembered the Starling wasn't one to appreciate flippancy. Of any kind.

Especially not from a lowly mortician.

"Yes, madame," I answered. "Quite dead."

Simone reached to a side table, retrieved the oil lamp I had placed there, and held the flame over Carmichael's face. In the flicker of shadow and light, I glimpsed a woman who might have once been filled with love, compassion, and humanity as she reached out with trembling hand to brush the dead man's cheek. As if sensing my observation, she glared at me with such vehemence that I stepped back. Whether from fear or respect mattered little; when dealing with the Cabal they were one and the same.

Many years of servicing the dead and their bereaved had taught me how to become innocuous; achieve an aura of invisibility so that anyone may grieve without embarrassment. Under her penetrating glare I retreated to those skills, fastidiously tending to the implements of my trade.

"You are alone?" she asked.

I nodded, unwilling to refute the obvious.

She continued to stare until I acquiesced to her silent demand for a more detailed explanation.

"Wielding magic is a dangerous occupation, what with magical duels and experiments gone awry. To have a wizard come to me in one piece, let alone die of old age, is practically a treat. Well, treat is too strong a word, but you know what I mean." I flashed a nervous glance at my unwanted guest, praying I hadn't offended. But she had transferred her attention to Carmichael and didn't appear to notice.

"However, when it does happen," I continued, "precautions are taken. You might have noticed the crackling of static when you first entered the preparation room. No need to be alarmed, the static serves only as a warning. Consider the various spells used in duels -- wards of protection absorbing malicious energy and such. Much of that magic is residual and needs diffusing. Some of these spells are ingenious in their casting and difficult to detect. Just ask my predecessor." Smiling, I pointed at the darkened silhouette imprinted on the ceiling above the table. This usually guaranteed a gasp, or at the least some nervous chuckling.

Simone the Starling merely tapped the cleft in her porcelain chin with a long finger. "Do not mock me, Undertaker."

"Of course not, madame. My intention was to --"

"I don't give a rat's ass of your intentions, you tedious little worm. Just finish your work. You say he is dead. Keep him that way, and when his funeral is finished, I want him burned."

"Cremated, madame? That contradicts the wishes of --"

"Burned," she repeated in a tone that brooked no further argument. "And give the ashes to me. Fail me, and I'll have your ashes instead. Understood?"

"Of course, madam, but --" The door slammed shut, followed by a crackle of static, reminding me to beware the living as much as the dead.

II. The Squirrel

A full minute passed before I allowed myself a deep, cleansing breath and returned to work, only to be interrupted again by the flap of wings at my window.

"Ah, Gunther." I smiled at the copper-feathered falcon that was both pet and familiar. "Now you show up? Coward. What have you there?" Grasped within Gunther's talons was a bloody clump of fur. "What did I tell you about bringing your food here."

The falcon squawked indifference before tearing into the small mouse with its hooked beak.

I shook my head. So deep is the wizard's connection to his familiar that some, like the Cabal, have taken their names as titles. Some even take the bond to the celestial plane, intertwining the human soul with the creature's spirit.

In my case, falcons are bred in an ancestral rookery. Once a line of wealthy and powerful mages dating back to the First Age, the last few centuries had eroded my family's fortunes and reputation. I managed to liberate Gunther shortly before shady usurers claimed the rookery, along with my father's head, for their own.

All I had was my falcon familiar and the meager earnings of my chosen profession to sustain me. Carmichael's service would pay my debts and still put food on the table for a year.

However, Simone's perfume mingling with the incense and embalming fluid left me nauseous, and my future uncertain.

Making matters worse, my client was far from cooperative. Carmichael's body appeared unaffected by the ravages of even the most subtle decomposition. None too surprising. Most wizards cast numerous spells to prolong their lives well past mortal time lines. Usually death is the ultimate expiration date for such spells, leaving it to fall upon the undertaker to combat the rapid deterioration with reagents, magic, or both. Otherwise, the viewing would be of nothing but a pile of dust and bone.

Carmichael, however, had not aged a second past his dying; a testament to his immense power. Spells of such strength usually used some talisman to assist the magic. If I was to continue, I needed to find this linchpin.

Equally infamous for his vanity as for his magical prowess, Carmichael had maintained a robust physique. Adding to his handsome features was a trimmed beard and a mane of long golden hair. The sweet scent of lemon pomade added to the already heady concoction of incense and perfume filling the air, and I felt the steady throb of a growing headache.

Moving the head left to right -- sometimes talismans are as simple as earrings -- the tresses parted, revealing a noticeable indent where a thick lock had been shorn away. But before I could give the matter further consideration the door to my mortuary burst open accompanied by another electric crackle.

I would have thought my visitor some mad seer from the eastern continent, with his frail build, dark skin, and scraggly hair, but his attire betrayed wealth, and his command of the room belied his power.

As the Cabal's second most powerful mage, Durst the Squirrel was nothing like the timid creature he'd chosen as his familiar. "Brother!" He shuffled on slippered feet to Carmichael's side. "Oh, my brother, how can you leave me thus?"

Thus? No one spoke like that, even in grief and I pressed my lips tight. Smiling would have been impolite. Gaunt face wet with tears, pallor that of chalk, green eyes red rimmed, Durst was the epitome of mourning.

He was also considered the most devious of the Cabal, and only too happy to kill a man for the sheer pleasure of watching a painful death.

Gathering my thoughts, I asked, "How may I serve you, sir?"

The Squirrel's expression was pure anguish. "Serve me?" He sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve, leaving a thin silvery trail along deep blue velvet. "Not I, but him. Serve my brother, for he is dead and in need of your talents. Make him what he once was. Bring him back to the living if you can. But should that prove too grand a task, then I beg of you, please, grant me the illusion of life. Show me what he once was, so that I may remember him properly. Can you do that, Undertaker? Is that skill within your purview?"

Despite his posturing, I felt insulted and would have replied in kind if not for whom I was addressing. Though nearly prostrate with grief, he was still Durst, and most dangerous.

"Of course," I said. "I will do my utmost."

"You had better." Something flashed in his green eyes that was far from mourning. Then, as if to balance malevolence with the ludicrous, he swooned, draping himself over Carmichael, resting his head upon the dead wizard's chest.

I waited patiently, finding the scene morbidly discomfiting until Durst regained some composure and, standing to his full height, reached out to me.

My terrified mind was undecided whether to fight or flee.

Mercifully, his thin arm dropped to his side and he lurched toward the doorway as though the entire experience had exhausted him. He stopped, and, addressing the door, said, "I have but one request of you, Undertaker. I wish to have his body preserved for the ages. Fill him with every preservative you have at hand. Cast every spell at your disposal. Do whatever it takes." He turned, not a trace of grief visible on that ghostly countenance. "I want him well-pickled."

Suddenly, he threw his head back and wailed to the stone ceiling. "Forgive my callousness, my brother!" Facing me again, all tears and pulling at his hair, he said, "Bear witness to my grief, Undertaker. I am beside myself. Should you not grant this simple request, I cannot be held responsible for my actions. Of that I promise you."

Static followed the man through the doorway.

III. The Owl

Heart pounding, I reached for a flask of wine hidden among the jars of cosmetic tinctures, drinking until there was no more. "Ah, Gunther," I moaned. "What a mess. How can I possibly fulfill these mad wizard's wishes, not to mention the service and burial requested by Carmichael's estate? The only party, I might add, willing to pay for my services."

In response, the falcon screeched and glided the short distance to his perch, a pedestal I'd set up beside an enormous hourglass.

I frowned at the time of day, or night judging by the grains of sand, and rolled back my sleeves for the task at hand. As the only dead wizard in my care, Carmichael required my immediate attention. The rest I left to providence.

However, the incantation maintaining the condition of Carmichael's corpse was still in effect. At first disconcerting, I recognized a serendipitous opportunity. Should the spell hold, I might regain some precious lost time, requiring nothing more from me than increased diligence during the service and a ready preservation spell should the need arise.

Buoyed by this plan, I began dressing down the body, readying Carmichael for washing and the more mundane art of cosmetics when the now irksome crackle of static heralded yet another visitor. "Yes," I said with barely checked irritation. "How may I help you?"

"You may begin by telling me what you're doing," replied a sonorous voice.

My shoulders dipped in frustration. The Cabal was responsible for the untimely demise of countless wizards and common folk alike, yet not one seemed to understand the basics of undertaking. Of course, I kept this observation to myself. Although Morrow the Owl had a reputation for being even-tempered, he was still a member of this powerful group.

I answered in a measure tone. "It is customary to wash the body before preparing it for viewing. Every artist needs a clean canvas."

"So, you consider him a work of art?" Morrow tapped his lips with a delicate finger. "Yes. I think he would like that, although, you must admit he is already perfect. Any one of us can only hope to look half as good when our time comes."

"Should that most unfortunate time occur, come to my humble mortuary and I guarantee that much and more." I smiled. Business is, after all, business.

Silence passed between us. The Owl held my gaze, his expression pensive as though considering the meaning of my unabashed invitation.

A bead of sweat trickled along my back. Who, I wondered, would guarantee the same for me if I couldn't control my tongue around these Cabalists? "I wouldn't worry," I added, praying his levelheadedness was not just rumor. "As I've told the others --"

"There have been others?"

"Oh, yes. This has been a most busy night, though I shouldn't be too surprised considering the notoriety of my client. And there is no one more --" My eyes bugged as I choked backed my words.

"Notorious?" Morrow finished, eyebrows raised. "Perhaps, but brilliant, absolutely. The most brilliant of us all. I've even heard tales he might return from the dead. What do you think of that, Undertaker?"

My cheeks puffed out and I shrugged. "In all my professional years I've yet to see that happen. Unless you mean necromancy." I stole an apprehensive glance toward Gunther.

Morrow chuckled at my reaction. "That is exactly what I mean. I'd never dabble in such things, I simply don't have the talent or the courage, but Carmichael was a man of unique intelligence. Only his mind would have been strong enough to tame those dark forces."

I looked at the dead man and shivered. "Well, sir, I can assure you this body is bereft of life and has not moved under its own power since arriving." Despite my bold statement, I placed a hand on the dead man's very cold, very still chest.

The Owl's benevolent smile suggested I was too obtuse to see the obvious. "Time will tell," he said. "Until then I'm here to ensure his last wishes are followed."

"Absolutely," I said too forcefully. "He'll have the finest funeral my establishment can provide, and a grand burial."

"Good. Very good," said Morrow, his attention drawn to the dim sounds echoing from a small ventilation duct near the ceiling.

"Oh, don't mind that, sir," I said, dismissing the iron grate with a wave. "Just an old air shaft from before the addition of the viewing room. It, ah, helps me keep on top of my staff, if you catch my meaning." I winked knowingly. "The walls have ears, that sort of thing."

Morrow shrugged indifference. "I just use magic. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, family wishes. Service and burial, and most importantly, the body is to remain untouched."

"Untouched? I don't under--"

"I mean untouched," said Morrow. "As is. Look at him. He is perfection, not some animal to be subjected to your brand of taxidermy."

Such slander! I would have defended my profession but for this potentially dangerous turn of events.

"Should any harm come to him," Morrow continued, "I promise a most painful death for you and that crow you keep as a pet." He nodded toward Gunther. "Do we have an understanding?"

I blinked. "Yes, sir."

"I don't think we do." He motioned to the sounds made by my industrious staff. "I'll kill them, too, their families and everything they hold dear. All in your name. You will become a curse used to frighten children into behaving and an insult to start tavern brawls. Now, tell me again that you understand, this time louder, so your peons can hear you through your spy hole."

"Yes, sir," I nearly shouted.

"Good. And good evening."

I barely registered the static created by The Owl's departure.

"So much for being even-tempered," I said to Gunther. Each contradictory demand left me drowning in a deep well with no hope of rescue. I squared my shoulders. "By damn," I said. "If this is to be my final service, let it be my best work."

IV. The Badger

As if to mock my bravado, the door crashed aside, rattling jars in their racks and nearly drowning out the static of my cautionary ward. A massive bulk lumbered into my preparation room.

Why I felt surprise at the sight of Igor the Badger was a mystery. Having been visited by the other members of the Cabal, I should have had some tea brewed for the quintet's final and most ruthless member.

Spotting Carmichael, the big man stomped unerringly to the body, reached into the folds of his robe, and produced a dagger with a most wickedly curved blade. I had barely enough time to raise a hand in self-defense before, with a bestial grunt, Igor drove the tip deep into Carmichael's chest.

I stared, dumbfounded.

"Do what you will, Undertaker," Igor rasped. "Bury him, preserve him, burn him, drive a stick up his ass and put him on display, I don't really care, but you take that knife from his chest and it'll be sticking out of yours."

He left, taking with him my last hope of survival.

I stared at the man laying on my table. Carmichael the Ferret: loved, missed, adored, and reviled. Overcome with exhaustion, I slumped upon a work stool and leaned my elbows next to the corpse. "What do you have against me?" I asked.

More to the question, what did the Cabal have against their erstwhile leader? My gaze lingered on the dagger that poked from Carmichael like a dorsal fin, slowly registering the blood-red ruby pommel, then focusing on the runes etched into the handle.

Runes bordering on dark magic, or rather, runes used to combat dark magic.

My scrutiny continued to the missing lock of hair, and like a door opening, my mind made the connection. Terror rippled along my spine and spread throughout every nerve. The world spun in horrified revelation, and I steadied myself before toppling from my stool.

Necromancy. The darkest of magics.

True immortality required a vessel to keep the soul from the Abyss. A wizard of any substance would only entrust his familiar with something so important. Using a lock of his own hair, the perfect conduit from the corporeal world to the spiritual world, Carmichael intended to return to his body. For that, he needed to have his corpse kept in as natural a state as possible. But his fellow Cabalists strove to undo him.

All but one.

Desperate, I sought other possibilities, but the puzzle pieces fit together in the same twisted mosaic leading to one conclusion.

Carmichael the Ferret lived within Morrow the Owl.

My first reaction was to run, head for the hills, change my name and live like a hermit in total isolation. Following that seemingly wise inclination, I began packing and found myself falling into old habits, stuffing jars of embalming reagents into my satchel.

By the fifth jar, labeled hexa water, another plan began taking shape, far riskier than a life of paranoid hiding, but promising greater returns. A key ingredient to embalming, water from Hexa swamps is quite putrid and, unrefined, dangerously volatile, needing but the slightest spark to ignite it. Another lesson learned too late by the smudge on the ceiling that had been my predecessor.

With some luck, and no small amount of courage, I might just do to the Cabal what they intended for me.

V. A Funeral

The viewing room had been added during my apprenticeship. Constructed of wood and stone with vaulted ceilings and a dais near the front, it was the size of a small banquet hall. At the time there had been good reason. The mortuary once tended to the great and powerful, magical and non-magical, and such celebrity required adequate and elaborate accommodation.

The Great Plague had changed all that. Cremation on the pyre became common practice, and my once noble profession, evermore considered obsolete, became the subject of ridicule.

Still, some clung to the old ways, enough for me to eke out a meager existence. When Carmichael's agent knocked on my door -- the only member of the Cabal who has given me that courtesy -- and requested my services, I thought my fortunes had finally changed.

If I could travel back in time, I'd slam the door shut on Carmichael's fop and, if pressed, resign from undertaking then and there.

Sadly, that option was no longer open to me. During Carmichael's funeral, I stood alone in a room filled nearly to capacity yet eerily quiet except for the occasional cough and a whistling nostril or two. No uncontrolled weeping, or hushed whispers of how Carmichael was a great man and will be missed; only a sense of impending catastrophe.

Incense filled the room, ostensibly to block out the stench of decomposition, but mostly because it was expected. On the dais, Carmichael, dressed in luxurious robes of royal blue satin, lay on a pallet surrounded by white lilies.

And still poking from his chest like the arm of a sundial was Igor's dagger.

Simone's dark eyes seethed with malevolence for me. Durst radiated promises of painful torture. Morrow merely grinned as though counting the seconds to my death. Even Igor scowled at me, for the dagger had shifted while I hurriedly dressed my client, suggesting I had the audacity to ignore his threat and remove the blade.

I strove to ignore the foursome, but fear and paranoia refused me peace of mind. If their anger provoked them to act before my plan took shape then all was lost. Until then, I still had a business to run, and displaying a client barely presentable was bad advertising. To combat this I whispered into the ears of those I knew unable to keep confidences that this seeming sacrilege was, in fact, Carmichael's last wish. Everything was as it should be.

Small rumors tend to be the most fertile.

Morrow shuffled to the lectern next to the dais. He glanced at me, his half-smile filling my bladder with ice. His eulogy, fit for a king, praised Carmichael, practically attributing him the creation of the sun and the moon. When he finished, his slightly raised eyebrows told me he had found the note I'd addressed to him and then left on the lectern.

After the service I found Durst standing alone. Not a tear moistened his green eyes. "Destroying you will be a great pleasure," he said.

Hand trembling uncontrollably, I held out another note. "Read this first," I replied, then added a pathetic, "Please."

Igor's industrious devouring of all the pastries from the small buffet table made it impossible for him to utter any coherent threats. Unwilling to give him the opportunity to swallow, I handed him his note and hurried away.

Simone, constantly surrounded by young suitors who openly adored her every movement, was the most difficult to approach. With time at a premium, I chanced an impolite interruption and soon discovered her sad secret. She had placed a charm upon her herd of young bucks. When her eyes met mine, she knew I knew, and for a fleeting moment I saw shame cross her lovely artificial features. Capitalizing on her emotional disadvantage, I all but shoved my final missive into her pale hands, then pushed back through the ring of doe-eyed admirers before she could recover her hate and make good her fatal promise.

With this task done, I did my best to make myself scarce, spending the rest of the day playing cat and mouse with my fear. Mercifully, the day waned and the mourners departed until the room was empty.

"Rufus, Ogden," I called to my two assistants, innocent and completely oblivious to the danger that stalked them. "Go home. Be with your families. Better yet, take them somewhere . . . somewhere far away. Relatives or some such. Don't worry, your jobs will be here when you return."

Whether I would be alive to greet them remained a separate question. They eyed me curiously, but I shooed them from the room. If nothing else, I assured them some time with their loved ones.

Alone, I allowed myself a nervous chuckle that sounded mirthless and entirely insane in the empty viewing room.

A levitation spell helped me move Carmichael back to the preparation room where I -- well, I prepared. A few words of instruction preceded Gunther's release into the late afternoon sky, after which I bolted the window shut. Next, content no incense burned anywhere, I used Igor's dagger to enlarge the gash in the wizard's chest, surprised at the steadiness of my hands. Pulling the gap further open, I inserted a sponge soaked with Hexa water into the cavity, along with an ample supply of freshly ground ginger to help mask the smell.

The dead man's regal attire helped conceal my grisly handiwork.

Finally, after a quick conjuring upon the air vent, I left one last note on the workbench, a final enticing drop of honey.

Satisfied, I returned to the viewing room where I opened a window before tending to the duties of cleaning, possibly for the last time. Beginning with winsome reminiscences of funerals come and gone, my mood gave way to irritation, then concern as time passed. After an hour, I finally heard the crackle of static from the air vent heralding the first of my guests. I moved slowly to the grated vent, bent, and listened for the crackle to repeat again, and again, leaving only one more . . .

"You're a foolish man, Undertaker." Morrow's footsteps echoed in the empty viewing room.

I tried to work up enough saliva to swallow. Up until that moment, my plan had worked perfectly, and I thought myself very clever. The sound of Morrow's voice proved otherwise. His countenance spoke of my doom, his very aura a death sentence, and I had invited him to kill me. I stood on the edge of the abyss and found myself losing balance.

The Owl slowly lifted his arm. "Don't struggle and I'll make this painless."

"Wait!" I quickly raised a defensive charm. "I know who you are."

Morrow stayed his attack and looked to the dais where Carmichael had lain a few hours earlier. Slowly, he nodded. "Figured it out, did you?"

"Yes." I coughed fear from my throat. "And what a wonderful ruse." Over the years I learned that playing to vanity was always best.

Morrow inclined his head. "Had I more time, my subterfuge would have been foolproof."

"You deceived almost everyone," I said. "Your mistake was not accounting for grief."

"Grief?" Morrow frowned as if I'd spoken a foreign language.

On familiar ground, I found my confidence building. "The heart-wrenching torment from the loss of a child. The paralyzing shock of realizing you will never again see your spouse, or parent, or sibling. The complete emptiness of the soul only the death of a loved one can bring.

"No one grieved for Carmichael, though many pretended." I clasped my hands to hide their quaking. "Simone was the first to awaken my suspicions. The entrance to my preparation room is really a huge talisman. A gentle burst of static warns me of any magics entering my workplace. It was meant for the dead, but works equally well on the living.

"Her magic was purely cosmetic in nature, but her actions -- she brushed Carmichael's cheek although the act obviously repulsed her. Curious, her revulsion of the dead, considering her preferred fashion."

"Simone always proved false in all she did," said Morrow. "She enjoyed listening to dirges but never truly understood their meaning."

"Durst was another matter," I pressed on, casually moving toward the small metal grate in the floor. "He must have cast a bereavement spell upon himself, an act he couldn't pretend, even for his professed brother. Practically catatonic withweeping, he splayed himself across the dead body, yet had the presence of mind to demand I fill every cavity with embalming fluids. More than enough to destroy tissue instead of preserving it."

"Most interesting." Morrow rubbed his chin. "I will have words with him on this matter."

"Let us not forget Igor," I continued, emboldened but the very fact that I still lived. "At first I thought he charmed himself with enough rage to embed a dagger deep in a dead man's chest. Later, when I saw the runes on the handle, I realized he'd protected himself against the weapon's dark magic.

"All curious acts with a single theme. Fear that Carmichael still lived. You, however, did not share that fear. You, who had nothing but praise for Carmichael and wanted the body kept in a perfect, natural state.

"Only fitting," I finished with undisguised triumph, "considering you are Carmichael reborn."

Gasps came from the grate.

Morrow smiled a most dangerous smile. "They are listening in your preparation room, aren't they?"

"I'd given them written invitations. To barter for my life I promised to reveal their utmost fears. Individually, they had failed to kill you, but together, combining their forces, they could finally accomplish the deed."

"An undertaker discovering what their supposed brilliant minds couldn't?" Morrow issued a single hawk of laughter then raised his voice. "Tell me, brothers and sister, will you not kill him out of spite?"

"I know," I said. "I just needed them all together." Using the toe of my shoe, I slid the vent panel shut.

The spark caused by the spell I had cast on the vent door ignited the Hexa swamp gas, filling the preparation room with fire. The explosion's strength was completely unexpected -- one usually experiences it once, and only briefly -- and I found myself on my back, ears ringing and my vision blurred. All I could think of were the three extra sooty outlines on the preparation room ceiling.

"Nicely done," Morrow said. He stood over me, brushing dust from his robes. "What next? A deal? Reward for robbing me of the pleasure of killing my enemies for myself?"

I scrambled along the floor in a vain attempt to put distance between us, hiding behind the meager protection of the lectern. "Just an explanation," I said, panting, fighting for every beat of my heart. A light wind blew in from the open window and cool night air kissed my brow. I needed to stall for time and played the only card I had left in my repertoire, Carmichael's vanity. "If I'm to die, at least tell me why? What did you do to make them hate you so? How did you outsmart them all?"

Morrow paused as if considering my request. "You say I didn't account for grief, and you may be right. Love, however, is another matter. Simone had been my lover, but she'd gotten too old. You need but see her in the morning before she applied her facial spells." Morrow shivered theatrically. "Ultimately, she didn't take to my nullifying our relationship.

"Durst's ambitions were always transparent. He loved power and coveted my position."

"Igor learned I kept his wife, daughter, and mistress as mistresses of my own.

"As for Morrow --" The mage sighed. "Having been poisoned and magicked left me in desperate need of a body. Thankfully, I learned enough from my necromantic studies to do corporeal exchanges. Morrow had simply been unfortunate enough to come to my aid. You could say his love of fellowship blinded him to our true natures."

The wizard appeared beside me, hovering above the floor so I couldn't hear his approach. "Now, it's your turn." He smiled at my surprise, showing straight white teeth. "What is your role? Why so much trouble to prolong a life you know is forfeit?"

"Competition." I swallowed and tasted blood.

"You can't be serious?" Morrow chuckled as he landed softly on the floor. "You killed three of the most powerful wizards in the world over some misguided rivalry?"

"Not rivalry," I spat blood at his feet and nodded toward the open window. "Business. I've got enough problems without you fools coming back to life."

Carmichael followed my gaze and tensed at the sight of Gunther perched on the window sill, a long stretch of fur clamped within bloodied talons, a thick lock of golden hair braided around its neck.

Possession is merely puppetry. To pull the strings, to cast spells and maintain spells, Carmichael's true essence, his soul and the vessel harboring it, needed to be close by.

With that in mind I'd given Gunther a simple command: kill every blond-haired ferret in the area. Gunther sank its beak into the creature's neck.

"An undertaker." Haughty superiority faded from Morrow's stolen eyes along with his life. "Imagine that." He collapsed to the floor.

I watched familiar devour familiar and, overcome by my unlikely survival, hung my head low, unsure whether to laugh or cry. I'd just killed four people. They were evil, but then who is without fault? Certainly not I.

Weary beyond comprehension, I pushed myself to my feet. The Cabal had a strong following of like-minded mages. Unless I desired retribution from the wizarding community, I had much work to do.

One good thing about being an undertaker, you knew where to bury the bodies.

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