“Grynly Grynmynly, Service Mage,” bellowed the announcer. His voice echoed across the Great Hall of Galdorthrymm.
“Tough break, mate,” said Marthur. Service Mage was one of the worst assignments a necromancer could get, right up there with Conjugal Spirit Liaison. Basically, Grynly would be a servant to dead people.
He tried hard not to look upset. But it was obvious he was devastated.
Marthur gave him a pat on the back in consolation as he went up to receive his diploma and official assignment. On the bright side, that was the last Service Mage opening available. So Marthur could rest easy knowing he’d be assigned something else. The Überintendent reached into the Trousers of Fortune, pulled out another scroll, and handed it to the announcer.
“Garleston Knuput IV, Corporate Necrolaw.”
Bog! Marthur would have loved to get Corporate Necrolaw. Lots of money to be made there. But Garleston Knuput IV’s father, Garleston Knuput III, was one of the wealthiest Corporate Necrolawyers in all the Realm, and he obviously put in a good word with the Überintendent.
The Trousers of Fortune were cast in perfect magick. They were above human error. All possible data on each student was put into them: class grades, hobbies, favorite spells, leadership potential, extrasensory activities, how much one’s father donated to the university.
The Trousers’ purpose was to assign the optimal job category to each and every graduate of the Royal Academie of Magick and Other Dark Arts. Their success rate was perfect in that they always assigned exactly what the Academie’s biggest donors told them to.
“Fliza Partridgeneck, Afterlife Financial Advisor.”
Afterlife Financial Advisor. Not a bad gig. Steady income, good job security, if a little boring. Fliza would be good for it. Dead nobles tended to blow all their money on big, dark castles they could haunt people in, and most of them needed a sound financial advisor to keep their spending in check. Money didn’t go as far as it used to — and the market for big, evil castles to haunt people in was hotter than ever — but with a solid Afterlife Financial Advisor and the willingness to bend a few regulations, a ghost could haunt for centuries.
Marthur used to play cards at the pub with a ghost named Sir Phillipo. Sir Phillipo was a famous dragonslayer in his day, but he’d been dead over 400 years. Dragons were rare now, and the ones you saw were mostly tame and used for war or festivals. The few wild dragons that were still around kept to the mountains and the caves, out of sight of humans, lest a young knight decided to try and prove how brave he was. But back in Phillipo’s time they were everywhere. They ravaged herds of sheep and burned entire villages to ash.
“We were sort of like what you now call ‘pest control,’” Sir Phillipo said, as they sat in the pub.
“Except the pests were seventy feet tall and breathed fire,” said Marthur.
“Indeed. It was a dangerous business. Most of us died young,” Sir Phillipo said. “Not that it matters. I died at age 46 but I’m still goin’ strong.” He downed the ghost equivalent of a pint of ale.
“How’d you manage to stay dead so long, anyway?” Marthur asked. “Even the richest ghosts I’ve heard of last three hundred years, at most.”
Technically there was no limit to how long a ghost, or undead corpse-being, or otherwise reanimated soul could last in the afterlife. But for the most part, once they ran out of money people forgot about them, and they just sort of disappeared. No money and you can’t afford a necromancer to serve as your medium or keep you undead. And necromancers don’t work for free. You would think the families would pay to keep their ancestors undead, but there’s nothing noble heirs hate more than their dead ancestors spending their inheritance.
“First, you gotta know the rules. Always learn the rules first. Then you can bend and break them as you please,” Sir Phillipo’s ghost said. “And I know the rules like the back of my hand. Or like the back of what used to be my hand.” He looked at his ghost hand, shrugged, and downed another pint.
But there were rules that were unknowable, even by the dead. And some time later, while he was engaged in a particularly heated game of darts with the ghost of the great-great-great-great-grandson of a dragon he once slayed, Sir Phillipo would vanish. Suddenly and forever. No one would know where he went, and no one will ever know. That’s just how it is with ghosts.
“Boarko Rozark, Customer Service.”
Tough break, Boarko. Customer Service was just as bad as Service Mage as far as necromancing jobs went. Whenever a ghost had an issue with a necromancer, it needed somewhere to go to complain about it. But Customer Service necs weren’t given the authority to make any decisions. If a decision had to be made, they had to escalate it to a Necromanager, and that required loads of red tape. They were pretty much just there to get yelled at by ghosts and smile. Marthur wondered why they even bothered having Customer Service necs. There wasn’t much you could do to improve a ghost’s situation, seeing as they were already dead and all.
Boarko must have pissed off somebody high up.
The Überintendent pulled another scroll from the Trousers of Fortune and passed it to the announcer with a smile.
“Moosjemima Sanders, Ghost Nanny.”
Back to the story of Sir Phillipo.
Actually, there are a few Mysterious Beings in the universe that do know where he went. But these Beings themselves are Unknowable. No one knows they exist, for the rules they exist by are knowable only by them. So as far as explaining his situation they’re not much help.
There are some people that have their suspicions about the Unknowable Beings. Some of these people even say that above these Unknowable Beings are other Unknowable Beings that are even more Mysterious and Unknowable. And above those Beings are Even More Mysterious and Unknowable Beings, and so on up the line.
In the Elden Days, many wars had been fought over exactly how many layers of Unknowable Beings there were. For a long time, it was generally agreed that there were eighty-three layers of Unknowable Beings, because this is what was believed by the group that had won the most wars. They were called “Eighty-Three-ers.” Eventually, they were all killed by a group that believed there were forty-nine layers of Unknowable Beings. So people believed that for a while. These people called themselves “Forty-Niners.” These Forty-Niners bore no relation to a sporting organization which existed simultaneously in a different Universe, although their crest and military uniforms were curiously similar.
They were all dead now, too.
Most people didn’t really care about the Unknowable Beings anymore. They had more practical things to go to war over. And this was fine, because the Unknowable Beings didn’t really care about them, either.
The Universe was very big. And people were so, so small.
Necromancy wasn’t the flashiest job in the world — not like sorcery or dragon training or the other fields of study taught at the Academie — but it’s not like you had much choice in the matter.
You could either talk to dead people or you couldn’t. And once they found out you could, you were mandated by law to volunteer to attend the Royal Academie of Magick and Other Dark Arts to hone your craft.
It was only in recent years that necromancy became accepted as a legitimate field of wizardry. Many people still considered those who talked to the dead to be evil. Or, at best, very, very strange. They were usually correct in this, but that’s beside the point.
For Marthur, being able to talk to the dead was a particularly troublesome skill growing up. He struggled to explain to people that his “imaginary friends” were just as real as the rest of us.
He was shunned by the other children, and even by his own family. Why couldn’t he get into jousting or going to war like a normal child? they would ask. He should apprentice as a fendersmith or a cooper or an alchemist. At least those jobs had a future.
And he tried, too. For years, he tried to block out the voices of the dozens of ghosts he passed on the street each day. But the more he tried to block them out, the louder they got. Dead people were once alive people. Even without all the hormones and brain chemicals that made alive people feel things, they still wanted someone to talk to.
One dead person finally convinced Marthur that what he had was a gift, rather than a curse. She convinced him, in fact, that most of the things people generally considered to be curses were actually gifts, so long as you believed they were. She came from a sect that believed there was only One Unknowable Being, and that this Unknowable Being showed how much he cared about people by making them unique. It was uniqueness, and not sameness, that made someone important. Every trait of every person was a gift from the Unknowable One that was given to them so they could serve their unique purpose in this world.
She was wrong about the Unknowable Being, of course. As you know, there were multiple Unknowable Beings, none of whom particularly cared about people. In fact, they were only remotely aware that the people in this particular universe existed at all. They spent most of their time worrying about Unknowable Being things, like which galaxy would crash into which galaxy this eon, or which solar system would be sucked into a black hole.
They placed bets on these sorts of things.
But she was right about the uniqueness-is-a-gift part. Even though this had nothing to do with Unknowable Beings.
Over time, Marthur grew much more comfortable talking to the dead than to the living. Most of his friends were ghosts or other necromancers. There was something more genuine about dead people. It was like you didn’t really learn how to appreciate life until you’d been dead for a while.
Marthur learned a lot about life from dead people. He was hoping the Trousers of Fortune would select him to be an Autobiographer or Ghostwriter. This would allow him to spend the rest of his days talking to the most interesting dead people in the realm and recording their stories for the histories.
But Fate had other, more mundane, plans for Marthur Skullberry.
In the short term, at least, it appeared Fate had no plans for him at all. Because when the ceremony ended and the Trousers of Fortune were stowed away in the Great Closet of Wysdom, the Überintendant had never called his name.
“Umm, excuse me, Mr. Überintendant.” Marthur approached the Überintendant after the ceremony had concluded and the crowd was shuffling out. “I believe there may have been an oversight. You never called my name.”
“Really? Well, the Trousers of Fortune are never wrong, son,” said the Überintendant. “What’s your name?”
“Hmm, Skullberry. Skullberry. Doesn’t ring a bell.”
Marthur stood in stunned silence. He had been at the Academie for five years and it appeared they had somehow forgotten about him. He didn’t know what to do.
“Don’t look so glum, kid. I’m sure you’ll land on your feet.” And that was that. The Überintendant quickly departed to take up conversation with other, less pathetic, graduates.
“Probably just an admin oversight,” Sir Phillipo said. Marthur sat with him and Grynly at the pub afterwards. He hadn’t disappeared for eternity yet at this point. “I wouldn’t get too bent up over it. Just go down to the administrative office in the morning and sort it out.”
Most of the bar was alive with the laughter and merriment of newly graduated Necrolawyers and Concoction Sauciers and Potionologists and Beast-talkers. Marthur and Grynly did not share in their joviality. As they sat sullenly, deep into their eighth or ninth round of ale, an inebriated Dragon Ryder stumbled past and bumped their table, spilling his turnipwine all over them.
“It’s all right! I’m a Dragon Ryder!” he said, pointing a wobbly finger in their direction as he staggered on. “Ryders away!”
From around the room the other Ryders echoed their signature call of “Ryders away!” just in case anyone was unsure who the coolest guys in the bar were.
“Worst comes to worst, you can always get a freelance gig resurrecting bodies or doing séances until they figure it out,” said Grynly, wiping away the spilled turnipwine with a rag. “It could be worse. At least you didn’t get Customer Service.”
Marthur pondered this while he sipped his ale. Fate was Marthur’s favorite field of study, and nobody knew more about Fate than the dead. Sir Phillipo talked with him about it all the time. The thing about Fate was that things never could have turned out better or worse. Things just were what they were, and whether that was better or worse was up to you.
Maybe Grynly was right. Maybe Marthur’s future wasn’t all that grim. It was probably just an oversight, like Sir Phillipo said. He’d go down to the administrative office in the morning and sort things out. And even if he couldn’t sort things out with the bureaucrats, there were plenty of successful necs who made it on their own. There was a huge black market for summoning the dead. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea of becoming a necrocriminal, but work was work.
Anyway, he’d figure it out tomorrow. Right now he was going to get drunk with a ghost.
The big secret: There’s four. Four layers of Unknowable Beings. Five if you count the ones that take all the bets on galaxy-colliding stuff and run the books.
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