Every summoning is a deal with the bone baron.
I see him dance toward us across the floes of ice. No one else on the ship can see him; I’m the only necromancer. His features are hazy. Across his gray skin, shadows dance independent of any light source. Not that there is not much light here, in the eternal night on the sea of shards.
The baron’s bowler hat is too small, and his mouth stretches into a rictus grin. It’s the only sharp thing about him, the smile seared into reality.
As always, he is bare-footed. The ice cannot touch him; he is colder. His well-fitting tailcoat is the black of a moonless night, as is his cane topped by an obsidian skull. Most people wouldn’t notice the slight deviations, but I can tell the skull is not modeled after a human one. Wrong proportions, teeth too pointy.
He edges next to the bone ship I have to keep fracture-free and tips his hat to me. The rest of the crew has no idea. They are too busy navigating through the dark, ice-infested waters. Not that they would be able to see him on a clear, sunny day.
“Nice night for a walk,” he says. His voice is a discordant warm note in a world that has become a symphony of frost.
I merely nod. There’s already enough prejudice on the ship without me muttering to a mirage.
The baron’s glinting eyes wander over the ship, over the giant ribcage that forms its protective shell, over the femur spire that is the mast. “Not bad, Blite. You always had a knack for the big ones.”
The key is cartilage. Aspiring necromancers focus on the bones; on building large, complicated constructs. Most of them fail. Articulating the bones is crucial, and since we can’t animate normal tendons, we have to fashion alternatives from cartilage. I’m good at it. I didn’t fail. I started small so that now I can go big. It landed me this gig.
The baron spreads his long, thin arms and bows. His grin emphasizes the gesture. “What brings you to these pleasant climes?”
Leviathan, I think at him. There’s no need for words. I know that the baron—patron saint of the necromancers, even though the term would make him shudder—is much less human than he pretends to be. The form he takes when meeting one of his acolytes is nothing but a front. He is the personification of the power that resides in bones. He is not a he, but I can’t help thinking of him that way. The sailors have a patron saint too, but the mermaid cannot follow us here. Only the bone baron is impervious to the life-sucking cold that rules the sea of shards.
His mouth stretches wider, almost curling up to his ears. “Leviathan? Does that story still live? Nice try, Blite. I know you’re sharper than that. Whatever you are here to find, good hunting.” He taps his cane, and the sleet-filled gale reduces him to dust. His smile is the last feature to go.
He’s partially correct. The crew are here to find and capture Leviathan, the largest construct ever, made by my mad tutor. A rumor, nothing more. Unknown to them, I am here to build a Leviathan. Of sorts. There has to be an ice whale cemetery beneath the sharp sea somewhere.
The shards of ice scratch the ship’s bony skeleton as if it were my own ribcage. The ship’s ribs don’t break, though. The cartilage joints binding them to the keel’s vertebrae give them enough flexibility.
I’ve had enough of the frozen rain pelting me. I don’t mind cold stinging my flesh, but when it starts to seep into my bones, I’m out. I retreat to the surface cabin reserved for me. The others huddle together in their hammocks belowdecks. No one wants to share a room with a necromancer. Good. The feeling is mutual.
It’s funny, though. In my face, they cower and—grudgingly—respect my wishes, but behind my back I can hear them call me “Skellie,” the pejorative for necromancer. Whatever. All they have to do is get me to where I need to be.
A shadow shifts in the corner of the cabin. My fingertips tingle, looking for bones to animate. They travel to the pouch of my necklace, filled with bone flakes. Piss me off, and I can turn them into bullets that rival those of the best pistols. I feel the mouse skeletons stuffed in unexplored corners of the hold. There’s even a dead seagull down there.
“Wait, it’s me.”
There’s only one thing more annoying than the people who hate us, and that’s the people who think they admire us.
Karla, young and wide-eyed, lights the oil lamp with deft fingers. The mapmaker, barely graduated and wanting to make a name for herself. Stupid girl. Embarking on a ship full of rough sailors. Mermaid cultists. The whispers that thread through the harbors say they aren’t strangers to human sacrifice for their patron saint. They haven’t tried anything yet, but I can feel the hunger in their eyes. Hunger for flesh. Fools. The bones are what matter. Karla won’t last. Not my problem.
She has a great bone structure, though—sharp jawbones, accentuated by the sparse food stores on the ship. Strong cheekbones. Broad nose and shoulders, the former red with cold.
Her flesh repulses me. I ignore her and stare at my bony hands and swollen knuckles. My own flesh sickens me. That’s why I don’t eat. I can animate my bones and will my heart to beat. I draw nourishment from the bones and the cold that surround me. The baron feeds his acolytes.
“I, uh.” She looks at me bashfully from behind long lashes, “Would you mind if I slept here? I don’t like the way they look at me.”
So she’s not that stupid after all. Unless she’s lying. I know her kind, the hopefuls, convinced that there is some secret I can share to turn them into necromancers, convinced that they can become one. They can’t, you are one or you’re not.
“I won’t protect you,” I say.
She shuffles closer to me and pulls her black fur coat tighter around herself. Her skeleton speaks to me, the old fracture in her left forearm, running across both radius and ulna. The tendon attachments on both her hips are thick and robust. Hiker or runner. “You don’t have to. I can take care of myself. I just don’t want them to try anything while I’m sleeping. I’ll stay out of your way.”
I wonder what she sees when she looks at me. A young woman with raven hair and sunken cheeks? A witch that can grant her immortality? How little she knows. I shrug an admission and realize I’ve made a mistake. Don’t get attached; stick to the bones.
Her hand finds mine, its skin red and rough. But warm. Alive. It seeps into my aching ribs and soothes them. I pull my hand away. “Good night.” I turn my back to her and curl up on the narrow cot. She can sleep here if she wants to, but her bed will have to be the floor. She does not complain.
A shove and a scream wake me. Almost like I’m back at the academy.
The shove is the ship hitting something; the scream is the wind coming through the slits in the cabin’s wooden walls.
I rush outside, my clothes still damp and clingy. Even before I reach the railings, I feel them. There are many dead things here, calling. I’ve never felt so alive. The power of oblivion runs through me and dispels the dust in my veins.
The hushed whispers, a mix of fear and superstition, lose their meaning in the gale—another good sign. Then, I see it, bright white in the dark sea. A rib as long as our entire ship. This is it.
The baron blinks into existence and tap-dances on the magnificent bone. He ends with his heels together and knees apart, half-bowing with his tiny top hat in one hand and his cane raised in the other. “Let the show begin.” He winks and blinks away.
There is a lull in the storm. Even the wind respects the graveyard I can sense beneath the icy sea surface.
As the wind dies, the whispers come alive. I don’t register it at first because I’m too invested in the things below, but the murmuring has turned angry. Leviathan is dead, I hear. A pointless journey, others grumble. Turn back, all agree. Fools. They can’t see beyond death, can’t see the life that hides in bones.
“No.” My voice echoes through the eye in the storm. “We stay.” So much power here. Waiting. My fingers twitch, and the ship’s ribs groan. Being a necromancer is not what most people think. No sixth sense, no incantations; it’s more like straddling two realms that have the baron as gatekeeper, like having extensions of yourself that grow and shrink depending on the amount of death around you.
The ship breathes alongside me, and I watch dread and anger collide in the sailors.
Another mistake. I’m getting careless this close to the goal. Doesn’t matter, they can’t—
I crack my eyes open, and my skull tries to split in half. Hairline fractures. Someone must have hit me on the head.
“Take it slow.” Karla is here.
Here. Where is here? The cabin. The ship. The rib. I can still feel it, but we’re moving away. “We have to…” A sharp arrow bounces around inside my head. I push my hands against my temples to prevent my skull from shattering into pieces. At least they didn’t tie me up. Nowhere to run. Or so they think.
I reach out and tell—command—the rib to follow us and bring some of its friends. I barely manage because of the distance, but rage can make bones burn with purpose. Sweat beads my brow, even though it’s cold in the cabin. Of course, it’s cold. It’s always cold. I can’t remember “not cold.” Except for the heat coming from Karla’s hand as she places it on my forehead. “You’re burning up,” she says. She has no idea.
Ignoring the protestations of every bone in my body, I sit up.
“Take it slow. He hit you hard. I was afraid you’d never wake up.”
“How long?” I manage.
Karla shrugs. My eyes are used to the feeble light, so I see her clearly. She seems genuinely worried. For me or herself? “Hours, maybe.”
Good. I can work with that. Too bad necromancers can only control the bones of the dead. Otherwise, I’d have these fuckers walk into the sea and freeze to death, after which I’d summon their skeletons and mangle them into a giant landmark. Here lie the corpses of those who tried to mess with Blite.
I knew I should have built my own ship with a literal skeleton crew. It would have drained me too quickly, though. I’m not good enough. Yet. Leviathan is something else. It’s still one construct. It’s what I came here for. And now they leave me no choice. There’s not a lot of time left before we’re too far from the whale cemetery.
My skull refuses to stop whining as I crawl to the door.
“Wait,” Karla says with a voice like a muffled gong. “They said… They said they would hurt me if you tried anything. Hurt me badly.”
I hesitate. Why do I hesitate? What is wrong with me?
The bone slivers in my pouch call my name. They’re special. Ounce for ounce, bone is stronger than steel, but it’s a lot less dense, so we don’t notice this. The flakes I carry with me are compressed. Very dense.
“Don’t worry,” I say between gritted teeth. “They won’t touch you.”
I won’t protect you. The words I spoke hours earlier trudge through my veering thoughts, arrogant with the speed of their dismissal.
The shards I shake from the pouch are small, flat coins with razor edges. I reach out to them, and they slice through the lock as if it was butter.
I snub the ache that travels through my skeleton and stand upright before I kick open the door. The hail-studded wind slams into me. As does the bullet that lodges itself in my shoulder blade. I’m flung against Karla behind me. She does not stumble; her strong legs keep her rooted in place.
My screaming shoulder silences my pounding head. Silver fucking lining. The bullet is stuck in the inside of my scapula. The fuckers couldn’t even shoot me right.
My shoulder is bandaged expertly. Karla shuffles in a corner. Fieldwork comes with valuable lessons, I suppose. Cold sweat and warm blood impregnate my shirt and coat. I wince when I sit up.
Karla is by my side immediately. “Careful. I couldn’t get the bullet out.” A shrug. “Don’t have the material here.” She tries to keep one side of her face away from me, but I can see the bruises. I look into her and notice a few cracked ribs. Not fully separated. Painful nonetheless.
Another shrug. “They thought I was helping you.”
“Why aren’t we drowning in ice-cold water?”
“Their compass isn’t working, and they’ve got neither sun nor stars to work with.” Shrug the third. “They need a mapmaker to get home.”
And their patron saint is too far away to be swayed with a sacrifice. “Then why am I not drowning in ice-cold water?”
“I told them I needed you. The ice shifts, so I need landmarks beneath the surface. Dead things buried in the seabed.”
Her heat comes at me, throbbing with life. I know her smell, too, and every bone in her body, and every story engraved in those bones. She might have saved me. The wound and the cold water would have knocked me out before I could have called the trailing bones to my rescue.
The bones! The rib is still there, at the edges of my reach. A few others, too. They’re slipping, though. Leviathan crumbles.
I do have a very big ace up my proverbial sleeve, though. They probably think I wouldn’t jeopardize myself. They have no idea who they’re dealing with.
“It’s going to get very cold,” I tell Karla. “Try to stay in the middle of the room.” It’s unlikely she’ll survive. Part of me feels guilty. My searing rage burns that part down.
The ship’s skeleton is bone. I am a necromancer. A good one. Even the baron said I always had a knack for the big ones.
I let my self sink into the ship’s bones. Its ribs become my ribs. The ribcage opens when I command it to. Wood splinters, men scream, I gloat. Hammocks rip and crates float from the hold as the water inundates every part of the ship. My feet are wet, freezing. I don’t care. The rush keeps me warm. I push the ribs farther out. The final few holding on plunge into the numbing sea. Paralyzed by cold and then ripped to shreds by ice.
Nothing of the cabin remains, but I have guided the vertebrae to the surface and sit down on a giant one. Karla’s teeth are chattering behind me. I force the ribs down, and they form a mirror ribcage. I am sitting atop the reversed ship. The key, as I taught myself, is cartilage. The ribs didn’t break from the spin because of the cartilage. I gloat again, this time at memories of fellow students who mocked my suggestions.
I slow the ship down and let the other bones catch up. It’s a joyful reunion. Bone hugs bone. Cartilage welcomes them all.
Karla is fading. “Help,” she whimpers.
Revenge always comes with a cost. There is nothing I can do. Warmth is not my power. I have mastered death, not life or love. Before guilt and shame trap me, my eyes fall on the baron, who sits cross-legged on a nearby ice floe, cane in his lap, chin in his hands. Stripped of his usual vibrance and smile, he is watching me intently.
When our eyes meet—his a mere glint in darkness—he stands up and bows deeply. Not to mock me, but with respect and—perhaps—awe.
I understand now. I understand why my tutor came here to build Leviathan. An artist lives on in their work, a necromancer in their construct.
I am standing on the back of eternity. My eternity. I am Leviathan.
I glance back at Karla one last time. She is still. Beautiful in death. A shame. I could reanimate her skeleton, but that would make her a puppet to do my bidding. I will not do that. I respect her too much. There is only one thing I can get her. More than love, bone lasts forever if you know how to use it.
I throw a handful of my flakes in the water and steer them toward the giant rib. They carve away. I pull other bones from the open wounds of dead sailors and link them into a long chain. Then, I attach the chain to the rib.
A buoy, a landmark, a monument. It will withstand ice and cold and wind and hail. It will withstand time and etch the memory of a could-have-been into the story of the world.
Here lies the corpse of Karla, the one who saved Blite.
I shrug off the final dregs of sadness and embrace the new me. All the bones I didn’t use for Karla’s monument hurtle at me. The pain and exhaustion fall away like the dried remnants of a chrysalis. This is more than mere control; this is symbiosis. I am the bone and the bone is me.
Without shivering, I lower myself into the water and swim to the heart of the ribcage. There, I encapsulate myself into an ossified sarcophagus. Air, blood, skin, it all becomes insignificant. I build cartilage tendons and intricate joint articulations. I flatten some bones and thicken others. I turn the ship, the construct, the body into a giant rendition of a prehistoric armored placoderm.
The universe hiccups. Perception twists, shifts, changes. All my senses implode, only to expand beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
Someone walks on my large bone-plated back, accompanied by the tapping of a cane. Every summoning is a deal with the bone baron.
Gunnar De Winter is a biologist/philosopher hybrid whose stories have found their way to Future SF Digest, Daily Science Fiction, and Abyss & Apex. He wanders the Twitterverse as @evolveon. Come say hi, he rarely bites.