“Rediscovering the Lich: A Study on the Lost Art of Self-Reanimation” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert

The following comprises a record of materials submitted by Hanarai Arvel to the College of Applied Magicks on 31st of First Month, 3E 45. An attached letter indicated Arvel’s intent that said materials should be considered her publication credit for the previous year (3E 44) as well as her resignation.

Itemization below.

* * *

[Item 1: a small, leather-bound book. Object appears to have sustained repeated water damage. Many pages are damaged/incomplete. An unidentified opalescent substance obscures portions of the remaining text. Transcription ongoing.]

11th of First Month, 3E 45

As I consider drowning a preferable alternative to most College lectures—let alone the one I’d been obliged to provide this morning—falling through the Wellspring ice on my way to the hall proved a happy surprise and a fascinating experience. Unfortunately, my unexpected mid-winter exploration of a magical monument quite panicked certain members of the administration, and I was forced to waste the better part of my day to College-sanctioned warming spells and their pitiful attempt at “measuring observable aftereffects.” I am only now able to write. Ancestors willing, I haven’t misplaced any memories of significance.

First, despite the season, I perceived no discernable temperature beneath the ice. In fact, I hesitate to use the word perceived at all. The “water”—bearing little more than a passing resemblance to the substance—parted around me without weight or form, leaving only the impression of static on my skin.

Secondly, in swallowing some, I found the taste an ungainly cacophony of sensation neither sweet nor foul, but altogether strange. It struck me as crystalline, somehow—reminded me of Grandmother Arvel’s quartz garden, fresh-summoned stones channeling ground magic into her spellwork.

Furthermore, it tasted of a heartbeat. I felt the pulse of it on my tongue, the suggestion of some dark thing, ancient and perfumed. Whatever substance comprises this “lake,” one can hardly call it water.

Already an incongruous report, to be sure. I smile to think someday soon I will place this description within a proper dissertation. Here, the keen intellects of the College hierarchy will flutter and froth, wracking themselves over implications and “impossibilities.” And yet, kind as I am, I will do our exceedingly competent administration one better—

Beneath, I saw a figure.

Despite the perfect clarity of the Wellspring water, sunlight pierces the icy surface in laced and fractal patterns, making precision difficult. I am certain only that the creature possessed a human shape and moved with purposeful intent. This was no floating corpse; it held itself in the water as swimmers do.

It watched me.

Unfortunately, someone fetched a groundskeeper to haul me up before I could examine it closer, and an eternity of forced infirmary followed. I am afraid I may have forgotten important details in the long interim between experience and record. I hesitate to write more in case the finer points of my recollection may be incorrect.

I will only say that I am reminded of a local story, a drowned woman living within the Wellspring. If such a story is true—if a woman fell into the water and survived her death—then she is the first successful lich to my (extensive) knowledge in several hundred years.

With so many necromantic records and rituals destroyed in the Ancestor War, I can hardly pass up such an opportunity.

* * *

[Item 2: a page torn from Local Legends of Elverum, later determined to belong to the copy held at the College of Applied Magicks’ library. Water damage and unidentified substance render the text glowing and illegible. Minimally damaged portion depicts a woodcut illustration of the Elverum Wellspring, a woman beneath the surface, her form framed with wild hair. Paper carries lingering scent of perfume and damp.]

* * *

[Item 1-2, ongoing transcription.]

19th of First Month, 3E 45

The lich attempted to curse me today. The silly beast floated up and took a fingernail to the underside of the ice, sketching out a nasty hex I haven’t seen since my brother and I were young, chasing about with pockets of little torments and perpetually curse-bloody mouths.

An old spell, I grant you, but one any reasonably intelligent child could deflect—at least, any reasonably intelligent child from home. Certainly I had worse in my repertoire as a girl. Political practice is best begun young, after all.

Considering the strength and heft of my personal wards, I wouldn’t have noticed her making trouble at all had I not heard the scratching. A rather disappointing showing, all things told. If I’m to be cursed by a lich, I would have it done properly or not at all.

I told her as much, through a hole I cut in the ice. Used mages’ sign, given the difficulty in hearing anything underwater. Watching me, she became quite excited, though her own communication is poor. The lich makes her point in hammer strikes, having lost much of the dexterity in her fingers to either reanimation or disuse.

Still, with the particular blue-black tint of her skin and some of her flourishes, I suspect she must hail from the North as well. Certainly few enough spellworkers here know a proper sign, and even butchered, I recognized several of hers as an old dialect from the mountains.

From what I can gather, she wants to beg a favor. She signed, “Kin?” indicating a few shared knots in our familial braids, and then went on to sign, “Help,” pressing her hand flat against the surface of the water. Though I’d cut away the ice, she could not reach through. Some barrier exists around the Wellspring, preventing her leaving.

I admit, I am exceedingly intrigued.

I have many questions, none of which she could answer in her limited fashion, but she indicated I should look beneath the College proper. Judging by the little maps she sketched on the under-surface of the ice, it would seem the current College was built above the wreckage of another. The lich drew several diagrams for me (copied quickly to the next page) where she believed I might find access to the tunnels below. She is confident that such tunnels exist, says she can “hear the hollow” and that “wellspring roots run deep.”

At least, I presume she said wellspring. The sign she used reads closer to the vague, encompassing gesture of “this mess.” Regardless, I expect to find some sort of access within the cellars or storerooms. If not, I’m certain it will not pose much trouble to fashion my own. A few mountain spells and this human stonework crumbles into sand at a breath. If I cannot work quietly, I shall settle for quickly. Regardless, I will see what lies beneath.

[The following page contains three rough sketches—one a recognizable depiction of the College undercroft—and a note scrawled in the upper right margin.]

I left my watery friend a page of local folklore on the “Woman in the Wellspring.” Just a bit of tourist rubbish from the College library’s vast selection of trash, but were I in her position, I’d be interested in knowing how my legend had faired. Perhaps she will enjoy it.

* * *

[Item 3: Letter from the Dean of Mages, dated 20th of First Month, 3E 45]

Dear Hanarai Arvel,

According to our records, we have yet to receive your proof of publication for the recently ended year, 3E 44. I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that funding and College resources (including library and grounds access, experimental grants, and room and board) are provided based on contribution to the magical community.

Given the nature of your research, I understand the difficulties in maintaining a tenable publication schedule. However, as we have discussed many times, all inquiries must eventually bear flowers or fruit.

Understand that while I consider your intellect an asset to the College, your continual disregard of regulation cannot be tolerated. Please submit your most current findings to the board by month’s end or I shall have to issue a discontinuation of residence and service.

Your cooperation is appreciated,

Ethelinde Tallow

Dean of Mages

* * *

[Item 4: a small packet of water-stained pages. Much of the document is badly damaged, but restoration has so far proved a moderate success. Recovered portions suggest the text comprises the main body of Arvel’s research paper. Transcription ongoing.]

. . . research conducted beneath the Elverum Wellspring, located within the grounds of the College of Applied Magicks.

Despite apparent efforts, accurate maps detailing the wellspring’s boundaries (even the above-ground portion) have yet to exist. Fluctuations in the fabric of measurable perception increase exponentially in direct proportion to viewer proximity, thereby rendering existent methods of mathematical fixation inaccurate (Luana 35). Given the impossibility of pinning any event here to a singular “truth,” all research within the confines of the Wellspring is by necessity unconventional and potentially irreproducible. Ashmoore confronts this difficulty in her recent paper, “On the Liminality of Natural Spellwork,” writing:

Perhaps best known for its opalescent glow, the Elverum Wellspring’s water has been winter harvested and used in lieu of oil lamps throughout the College as far back as the Second Era. Though technically frozen, this substance cannot be called ‘ice’ except in the loosest of terms, existing simultaneously as solid, liquid, and gaseous matter. As the ‘ice’ burns/melts, it fluctuates rapidly within the confines of measurable perception, emitting a steady light of indeterminate color; the scent of lilac and black mold; and, in several reports, “an indistinct female voice shaping ancient spells.” It is therefore difficult to classify anything related to the wellspring in such limited terms as “factual” and “fantastical,” when even the water itself exists simultaneously in several incongruous states. (203)

Consequently, while studying any events related to the Wellspring, researchers must suspend disbelief in order to allow for the most complete (and therefore accurate) perception of events. As with any complex working, the particular undefined quality of a magical occurrence relays crucial information about its source of energy—and, subsequently, a mage’s ability to tap said source in augmentation of their own power.

* * *

[Item 1-3, ongoing transcription.]

23rd of First Month, 3E 45

Finally beneath. Between fielding the dean’s fanatical publication crusade and locating an entrance, what an utterly irritating labyrinth I navigated to reach here.

For all the passages my watery friend scratched into the ice, I found every one sealed over in spells and stone but the last: a minimally barricaded corridor off the lowest store cellar. Typical human oversight, to expend such effort hiding halls as though they’d never been, only to bar this one behind little more than potato crates.

As tempting as it would have been to spell myself a path, as ever, subtlety makes the better servant. Many so-called mages here run “experiments” tracking fluctuations within ground magic currents. As I’d prefer a herd of idiots not come thundering through with homemade barometers ablaze, I forwent levitation for an hour’s worth of physical labor. One never knows who might be listening.

So far, my pains have proved promising. I expected to find nothing—or else, to find a few hollow ruins, an interesting foundation upon which to build a school of study, but one ultimately empty save for a few odd bones and the detritus of passing years.

Instead, every room remains full with furniture. Tapestries hang on the walls, singed and fragile with dry-rot but otherwise intact. Fallen chairs wait at well-carved tables. Open books strew most available surfaces, scattered notes littering the floor. In fact, I write this now at a proper desk, atop some stranger’s panicked research, the lamp at my side easily relit, dry and clean, if obsolete.

Throwing up desperate walls to seal this place, trapping a fortune’s worth of library behind them—whatever happened here terrified these mages. They’d not have abandoned such books and treasures otherwise.

And the walls! Everywhere I walk, I find heavy rune-work gashed into the stone, a hasty ward system built into the wreckage itself. A quick perusal of the corridors suggests a massive compound, once occupying the entire breadth of the wellspring. Only the outermost wheel still stands today. Given that every inward-facing hall has since been barricaded with broken stone and sloppy spells, I would wager this wheel runs around the wellspring.

The apparently sudden onset of the wellspring makes an exciting enough prospect on its own, but walking the halls, these runes—they’re not right. Studying the sketches I made traveling the circumference, I found mistakes in the runic lines. These long-dead mages unknowingly altered their intended spell. Given its language, I believe they intended to imprison the lich, and in that they succeeded. But the way they wove their runes—the way my watery friend must have battered her prison—all that spell runoff had nowhere to dissipate. It collected, the trap’s raw power caught within itself, within two hundred years of simple rainwater, exponentially perpetuating.

A misplacement of source-runes and somehow, they created a self-fueling spell. It explains everything: the simultaneous and conflicting states of the water; its lack of perceptible temperature; its taste of garden quartz. The wellspring isn’t a spring at all—it’s a curse.

I’ve diagrammed the area once already, marking each rune and its relative location. I intend to make several more such maps for surety’s sake. When I destroy the spell, I wish to be certain I can replicate it.

Until then, I’m headed off to raid every desk and dresser here. I would dearly love to know exactly which ward these mages intended, how much they understood of the thing they created.

Surely someone must have kept a proper journal.

* * *

[Item 5: a page torn from an unidentified tome, undated, watermarked with the Mages’ Guild First Era insignia. Singed fingerprints stain the outside edge.]

We’ve overtaken their disgusting ruin, but still the outcasts persist. They know their warren of tunnels better than we can hope to learn, creeping in from gods know where to hide within the walls, dogging our steps until we dare not travel outside a heavy group. We are all of us trained battle mages, and yet we cannot sleep for worry.

Coming here, we believed it would be easier to purge this sickness. And true, the waking revenants they raised, those desecrations of their ancestors, fell to fire easily enough. But the horror of their corpse-woke masters—

I find words limited and too fleeting. I have never encountered such as this.

We destroyed those we could, but though they numbered few, their sheer power was unimaginable. Only through great sacrifice were we able to manage what little we achieved. And though we drove their acolytes from their den, though we ruined every record we could find, just this evening we received grievous news.

Another managed the ritual. Our scouts report sighting a woman outside the walls, her form uneasy in a way they’ve come to recognize. She toyed with the pyre-stacked corpses of her brethren, but whatever she searched for, she did not find. We were thorough in our purification. No foul fruit of a broken grave will rise from that stinking mire.

And yet, one lich remains, nearly made, caught between life and otherwise.

The others look to me, but I do not know what order to give them. This beast cannot be allowed to live—given half a chance they always take apprentices—but to kill her will complete the ritual. In that instant of sword strike or spell-fire, she will wake un-living, a monstrous abomination greater than our ability to destroy.

We do not have the resources left to face another. Already our numbers fall scant and sore wrought. We cannot spare the hands to bury our dead—have not the ability remaining even to sanctify their empty forms—and yet we do not dare leave them within such a creature’s influence.

Gods guide us—I do not know what to do.

* * *

[Item 4-2: damage to document more extensive than originally estimated. Several pages irreparable. Many portions of surviving text obscured by unidentified opalescence. Transcription ongoing; however, further results unlikely.]

. . . not unlike the quartz gardens of the Vartari Mountains, each crystal channeling and amplifying ground magic through a predetermined pattern in order to assist in the creation of a particular spell, while also allaying the draining effect such an effort would otherwise have on the caster (Arvel 18). Achieving this result depends on a precise placement of source-runes in a nontraditional pattern. Relocation of a single rune—even the typically innocuous odal—warps the magical resonance of the ward system, diverting the intent of the spell inward, thus destroying its protective capacity from outward forces.

However, such inversion of the Pertho-Dagaz Dichotomy creates a sealed environment in which magical dispersal proves impossible. When combined with rainwater, the spell runoff changes quality, binding with the newly introduced material and thereby creating the fluctuations in the fabric of measureable perception that make any method of fixed interpretation concerning the Wellspring impossible.

It is of interest to note that such a system renders itself essentially self-fueling. Given enough time, the quantity of raw energy loose within the ward line would allow a caster truly massive potential, displacing the stress of major spells from the body and onto the absorptive capacity of the inverted ward itself. Channeled appropriately, one could theoretically rewrite even the magical system of one’s own body.

Such an action would, of course, cause widespread tissue damage resulting in “death” of the physical form. Yet, with a little preparation and the sheer quantity of power available, a skilled mage could place her failing body within the confines of a resurrection spell, self-reanimating upon her “death.” Taking advantage of the duality of perception within the Wellspring, such a mage would become both “alive” and “dead,” essentially re-creating the lost process of lichification.

* * *

[Item 5-2: a page torn from an unidentified tome, undated. Watermark, paper quality, singe, and handwriting consistent with that of Item 5-1. Both reasonably assumed to originate from the same text.]

We have trapped her. Yet more lives lost, but we have trapped her, and in the attempt, destroyed much of their disgusting den. I do not celebrate, however. Even now the ward we built struggles to contain her. Spell-mangled and mad, she rattles within the charred and empty crater of her capture, striking at the walls and spitting ceaseless curses.

Gods, but her mouth bleeds so.

The remaining others sing their praises and move on to needful tasks, patching wounds and honoring our dead. I cannot join them, neither to heal nor to mourn. I do not—

I do not trust this thing we made. These ward lines seem to hold, but they do not act as I expect, and I cannot risk an alteration lest the beast escape. I can only hope that the spell does not somehow preserve her further—that trapped within, a natural death might end even her magically augmented existence.

I do not know how long such a thing would take. Does a lich eat? Does it drink or sleep? Are we depriving her of little else but freedom?

I cannot cease my vigil. I do not dare.

I comfort myself in assurances we have sealed access to the ward as best we can. It lays inaccessible from beneath, where she could breach the crater and disappear into the warrens of the wreckage they called a “College.” I watch her now from level ground, peering down.

With all our storms, I expect the crater will fill with water soon.

Surely, she is trapped. One day she will burn herself out. She will drown. With only rainwater and the fumes of her foul spellwork, she will have to cease this madness. A flame cannot burn in a vacuum.

And yet.

She walks. She watches me. Her mouth continues to bleed.

I do not know what we have done.

* * *

[Item 1-5, ongoing transcription.]

30th of First Month, 3E 45

Cast a water-ward of my own and blasted a hole in the Wellspring-facing wall today. (With my research as complete as it can be at this juncture, I have little enough to fear from rampaging idiots swarming these halls.) My watery friend met me at the breach, drawn by the end of her imprisonment and the noise of my approach. Pathetic, really, how little true work it took to break her binding. Typical human construction.

Not to say I am not pleased—gods, but I have missed intelligent company.

Melissea speaks mostly with sign, given how she mangled her mouth casting curses, but she’s improved her gestures much since our last exchange. We spoke for some length over wine and an array of treats I brought from above, a delightful conversation on our respective research. I have not enjoyed such a parlay of advanced spellwork in—oh, however long I’ve been studying here.

Apparently her own lichification ritual is only at last completed by a final violence, full and powerful undeath triggered the moment the opponent’s weapon reemerges from the wound (a logical conclusion that seems to have escaped the crusading Mages’ Guild, unsurprisingly enough).

I’ve built a theoretical ritual of my own that renders the aid/attack of an outside party unnecessary. I dislike relying on others, especially considering the odds of the act falling to someone less competent than myself are so extremely high. Melissea offered her assistance and seemed eager to provide it, but I trust very few people. Certainly I don’t intend to begin cherry-picking my closest confidants from the bellies of misapplied First Era curses.

However, I will say that I don’t reject the prospect. Perhaps eventually we might come to know each other so well. We’ll have years in shared company, after all. I covet a great deal of her since-lost spells, and clearly she must learn a plethora of new curses if ever she wishes to return to the cunning North. We have agreed to a certain quantity of future reciprocity.

In any case, Melissea cannot alter the terms of her undeath at this late stage of the game, and so I have done her the favor of her resurrection. While normally I would never leave a future rival in a position of such unmitigated power, this one will owe me a rather enormous favor when her ritual completes.

It is a knife’s-edge gambit—as dangerous as it is valuable—but I believe I’ve chosen well, if largely because I expect to finish my own ritual by the time she wakes. As we say, potential enemies make the finest friends.

I asked a small favor of her in the meanwhile, a tiny advance against the massive debt of her shiny new undeath. It’s a petty little thing, really—a brief hesitation between act and action. . . .

And, of course, a visit to the dean.

* * *

[Item 6: female corpse of excellent preservation and indeterminate age. Individual descended from stone-elves judging by her features and intricately knotted hair. Clothing suggests a familiarity with the northern Vartari region, First Era in construction and design. Despite clothing’s apparent age, bloodwork spells suggest death as recent as forty-two hours. Results inconclusive.]

* * *

[Item 7: a note on College stationary, pinned to corpse by dagger through left breast.]

Dear Ethelinde,

Flowers or fruit?

With love,

Hanarai Arvel

* * *

[Item 8: quartz knife, modern-make. Hilt inscribed with the Arvel house crest and their motto, “befriend; befall.” Conservationists working to remove dagger without causing further damage. Results to fol—

Crystal Lynn Hilbert lives in the forgotten backwaters of Western Pennsylvania and subsists mostly on old trade paperbacks and tea. A fan of things magical and mythical, her stories tend towards a peculiar blend of high magic and Eddic poetry. You can read her latest works “Little and Red” at Apex (http://www.apex-magazine.com/little-and-red/) and “Glittering; Guttering” at Capricious (http://www.capricioussf.org/current-issue/). A monster masquerading as her sleeps at http://cl-hilbert.tumblr.com.

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