Lords of the Dead: A Short Story

Happy Halloween! Here’s a special treat for Final Formula fans. Whether you’re new to the series, or you’ve read every book, this short story is accessible to all. There’s nothing to spoil later books for new readers, and established fans will gain added insight into a couple of familiar characters. Hope you like it!

Update – If you would like a copy of this story, I’ve included it in Blood Gifts, a novella featuring the Nelson brothers as young men.  Read an excerpt here: Blood Gifts

Pick up a copy of Blood Gifts at: Amazon | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Smashwords | Apple

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Lords of the Dead

Chapter 1

Halloween, 1803

Lory knelt behind the tombstone, the weathered granite cold beneath his palm. Moonlight sparkled off the dew-laden grass, dew that would most likely be frost come morning. No surprise, considering that this was the last day of October.

He wiggled his toes in an attempt to warm them and wished he had worn heavier socks. But his brother had sprung this idea on him without warning, so he hadn’t had a lot of time to prepare.

He glanced over at where his brother knelt behind the tombstone to his right. Lex had closed his eyes, but he was grinning. Lory could feel him using his magic to animate the dead a few yards ahead of them, and marveled anew at his brother’s skill. It made no sense that Lex was so much better than he was. Lex was only ten minutes older.

A low chant began, and Lory leaned around his tombstone to see what the dozen men and women in dark cloaks were doing now. He couldn’t make out their identities beneath the hoods each wore, and there was little more than size to distinguish one from another. Their only item of ornamentation was a belt holding a small ceremonial dagger.

A lit candelabra and an open book lay atop the stone sarcophagus they were gathered around. He didn’t know if the grave held significance for them or if it just served as a table. Not that it mattered. Things were about to get interesting. It was the body inside the stone box that Lex had animated.

“Now?” Lory whispered. His soft question was lost in the growing volume of the group’s chant.

Lex held up a finger, telling him to wait.

Lory sighed, trying to puzzle out what the group was chanting. It sounded like a foreign language, but he suspected it was gibberish. It appeared that Lex was right. The village’s secret coven of witches were fakes. But they were about to find out what real magic could do.

The chant grew louder and faster, crescendoing toward something. Lex didn’t wait for whatever that something might be. He freed more of his soul, feeding it into the corpse within the sarcophagus. With a scrape of stone on stone, the lid began to rise. The book and candelabra tumbled onto the dewy grass, and one of the coven cried out.

Lory pressed his hand to his mouth to quiet the fit of giggles. They would be in so much trouble if they were caught doing this. Father would double their chores for the next month, maybe longer. They would have to polish his new funeral coach until it shone.

Skeletal fingers appeared along the sliver of an opening created by the lid’s movement. The stone slab slid aside and the corpse sat up.

One of the cloaked women screamed. To Lory’s surprise, the larger figure to her left cuffed her with the back of his hand.

“Silence,” he commanded.

No one else commented on the horrific sight before them. They backed away as one, the shadowed faces beneath their hoods turned toward the corpse as it rose from its grave.

Lory stared at the dead man his brother had animated. Beneath its tattered clothes, most of the flesh was gone, the bone held in place by shriveled muscle and dried tendons. A grown necromancer would have a difficult time raising a corpse that had been dead that long.

“Find them,” the man who had cuffed the woman commanded.

Lory glanced over at Lex in alarm. Was the man talking about them? Did he know the corpse was being controlled?

Lex’s brow wrinkled, his eyes still closed. Had he heard the guy or was he working that hard to animate the corpse? He was pushing it to its feet, though it hadn’t climbed out of the sarcophagus.

“Lex,” Lory whispered. A two-foot gap separated their respective tombstones. Lory couldn’t reach over and nudge him without being seen. They were in the row closest to the trees, having chosen this place so they could make a quick escape. Lory wanted to enact that plan now—if he could get Lex to look at him.

“Lex!” he whispered a little louder. Had Lex managed to enthrall himself? Sometimes young, inexperienced necromancers became so wrapped up in the animation that the corpse had to be taken from them by a more experienced necromancer. No such luck in this situation.

Lory crept to the edge of his hiding place. If he tackled Lex and broke his concentration, could he get him on his feet and into the trees quickly enough to avoid capture?

“I found them!” a voice behind Lory shouted at the same moment a hand seized the back of his collar and hauled him to his feet.

The corpse turned toward them with a moan. Lory released a breath. Lex had been aware of what was happening. If he could just—

A large cloaked figure stepped up behind Lex, and seizing him by the collar, jerked him to his feet.

Lex gasped and his eyes opened, revealing his white irises before they instantly reverted to blue. The corpse collapsed. Maybe Lex hadn’t been that aware of his surroundings.

“It’s this one,” the large man holding Lex said. Lory was fairly certain it was the same man who had cuffed the woman. “You say only one of them possesses the dark one’s blessing?”

“Yes.” A portly figure came forward. “I overheard their parents discussing it.”

Lory frowned. He recognized that voice. It was Mrs. Haskins, their housekeeper. There was something familiar about the man’s voice as well, but he couldn’t yet place it.

Lex glared at her, clearly recognizing her voice. It had been Mrs. Haskins who had given Lex the idea for this prank. She had been talking with another woman about the coven and how they met at the village cemetery every full moon. Lex couldn’t resist a good prank and Mrs. Haskins knew it. She had set them up nicely.

“So what do we do with this one?” the man holding Lory asked.

“He’s going to help us,” the big man said. It sounded like he was smiling. He began to drag Lex toward the sarcophagus. “Bring him here.”

The man holding Lory gripped his arm tighter and pulled him after Lex. They walked back to the half open sarcophagus.

“Put him inside,” the man holding Lex said.

“No,” Lex spoke for the first time. “I won’t let you.”

The man grabbed Lex by the throat. “You will cooperate, or I will leave him in there.”

Lex’s eyes narrowed, then the corner of his mouth kicked up. “Yes, Mr. Sullivan.”

Lory blinked. That’s why his voice was familiar. The man leading this coven was Herman Sullivan, the village blacksmith. He had been at their home not two days ago to repair something for Father. Lory hadn’t paid much attention to what he was doing. He had been too busy hiding from the blacksmith’s bully of a son, Jeremiah. Now Lory wondered if Herman had been at the house for another reason. Had he suspected that the residents were necromancers?

“What about the corpse?” one of the other men asked, gesturing at the body draped across the lid of the sarcophagus.

“Shove it back inside,” Herman said. “We can’t leave it lying here.”

“With the boy?” one of the women asked.

The man holding Lory snorted. “It doesn’t bother you that we’re going to close the boy up in a sarcophagus, but it bothers you if we stick a corpse inside with him?”

She sniffed. “It’s hardly sanitary.”

“Do it,” Herman said.

“What do you want?” Lex demanded.

“There’s a spirit who wants to touch the mortal world. You’re going to make that possible.”

Lex’s eyes narrowed. “I do not touch the spirit world.”

“But you can. You will, and I will guide you.”

Crap. Lory made the connection. “He’s a medium.”

Lex’s eyes shifted to him, his frown darkening.

Herman chuckled. “Your impotent brother understands.”

“He wants to use you as bait for his séance,” Lory continued. He scowled. Wait. Wouldn’t he be the better choice for that? All necromancers were attractive to ghosts, but Herman would find a necromancer who was unskilled with his magic much more malleable than one as talented as Lex.

Then Lory saw the whole picture. “Hell’s blood. He wants to let it possess you.”

Lex’s eyes widened as the full horror of what the coven wanted sank in.

“Don’t do it, Lex!”

A nod from Herman, and the man holding Lory’s arm pulled him toward the sarcophagus.

Lory felt Lex’s magic an instant before the corpse sat up again. A loud crack of flesh on flesh, and the corpse fell against the lid once more. Lory glanced back. Lex was on the ground at the blacksmith’s feet, blood running freely from his nose and lips.

The man holding Lory jerked him forward, his hand crushing Lory’s slender upper arm. Just a bit shy of their thirteenth birthday, Lory and Lex had been doing a lot of growing lately. Unfortunately, it had all been in height. They would be able to look Father in the eye soon, but they were a long way from matching a grown man in muscle. The man holding him made that clear. And when a second man joined them, the pair had no trouble lifting Lory and shoving him into the open sarcophagus.

“Let him go!” Lex shouted, his words a little muffled by the damage to his face.

“We will,” Herman said. “After you help us.”

Lory tried to climb out, but one of the men punched him. Stars exploded across his vision, and the next thing he knew, the corpse dropped into the stone box beside him. It didn’t bother Lory. A dead body was nothing to fear—unless a rival necromancer was present. But being buried alive was another matter.

“No!” Lory screamed as the lid began to slide over the opening, blocking the night sky and its bright moon from view. “Don’t do this!”

“Lory!” Lex shouted. He sounded closer. Had he given up trying necromancy and made an effort to physically reach him? Lory never knew. The lid dropped in place with a low thump. He reached up and pressed his hands to the underside of the cool granite slab and pushed. It didn’t even budge. Oh God.

“Lory!” Lex’s all-but muted voice sounded so far away.

The corpse slumped against him, giving Lory another avenue of escape—if he could take it.

He sent his soul into the decayed body beside him, searching for what once held life. His soul sprang back and he grunted. How had Lex done it?

“Don’t give up, Lory,” Lex called again. “Remember, we are lords of the dead!” Lex’s voice was faint, but Lory still heard it, as he heard Lex’s grunt of pain when Herman hit him again.

Lords of the dead. That was Father’s nickname for his sons. Or it had been until recently, when he had begun to only use it in the singular.

“Lex!” Lory shouted, then held his breath as he listened.

No one answered him.

 

Chapter 2

Lory dropped his hands from the lid of the sarcophagus. Panting, he slumped against the cool granite beneath him. It was hopeless. There was no way he could move the lid.

The darkness was total, but Lory could just imagine the corpse beside him grinning at the irony. Of course, the dead man had no lips, so perhaps the grin was a given. Still, it was almost funny. He had the potential to be this powerful necromancer, and here he was, trapped in a stone box with a corpse. Hell’s blood. It was embarrassing. If he weren’t in trouble himself, Lex would laugh his ass off.

Lory’s humor—or perhaps borderline hysteria—evaporated at the thought of what might be happening to his brother. What was the blacksmith doing to him? And what would happen when Mother and Father noticed their absence? Or had their traitorous housekeeper, Mrs. Haskins, done something to prevent that? Lory’s heart surged at the possibilities. What if she had poisoned them?

He pressed his hands to the underside of the lid again, then made himself stop. The only way out of this was necromancy. He reached out beyond his stone prison, trying to find a better vessel for his soul, but the corpses in the ground nearest the sarcophagus were even older than the body beside him. He could sense the dead beyond them, but they were too far away for him to distinguish the individuals.

“Curses,” Lory whispered. “Looks like it’s you,” he told the dead man beside him.

He closed his eyes and reached up, finding the dead man’s forehead without any fumbling.

“If you can do that, you can find where life was once held,” he told himself. The advice sounded good, but when Lory tried, his soul snapped back without finding purchase.

“It’s there. You know it’s there. Lex animated him.” And he and Lex were identical in every way. People that didn’t know them well couldn’t even tell them apart, but it wasn’t just in appearance that their similarities lay.

Their father had taken them to Baltimore to be presented to the head necromancer in the region when they were just eight years old—far younger than most fledgling necromancers whose talent usually didn’t manifest until their early teens.

Old Lady Dunstan had been terrifying—at least to eight-year-old Lory. The woman had reeked of power. And then she had tested their blood, smacking her wrinkled lips around the offered droplet. When she declared that they each possessed the potential to develop a blood gift, their father had been elated. Ultimately, that was how he had landed this very lucrative position here in the Dunstan-controlled village of Westbrook, a town only a day’s ride from Baltimore.

The Community had been impressed with Lory and his brother and expected great things from them. Lady Dunstan had told them they were equal in power, though they may prove to possess different blood gifts. Only time would—

“Blood,” Lory said aloud. There was a solution, but did he dare? A corpse animated by a necromancer’s blood was supposed to be much easier for that necromancer to control. All he had to do was follow the necromancy in his own blood. But Lory had never tried it. What if he animated this dead man and then couldn’t control him? The corpse would kill him and feed on his flesh. Once animated with necromancer blood, the dead always wanted more.

Lory took a breath. “Well, as long as you go after the blacksmith when you finish with me,” he muttered. He squirmed around until he could get his hand in the pocket of his trousers and pulled out his penknife.

“I am lord of the dead,” he whispered. “I am lord of the dead.” He laid the blade against the middle finger of his left hand. “I am”—he sucked in a breath as he drew the knife across his finger—“lord of the dead!”

Setting down the knife, he pried open the corpse’s mouth and forced his bleeding finger inside. It didn’t matter that the body had no lips or tongue, or that the dead man could no longer swallow. The blood would be absorbed and—

The corpse moaned, and its teeth tightened around Lory’s finger. If it bit down, it would sever his finger.

“No!” Lory threw his soul, his will into the mindless vessel. Instinctively, he followed his own blood, the source of the animation into the corpse. And then he felt it: the faint echo of life. He sent his soul through that shriveled doorway and suddenly the corpse was his.

Yes! His elation was short-lived as the corpse began to close its jaws around his finger.

“Release me!”

The corpse opened its mouth, and Lory jerked his finger away. His heart hammered in an odd mix of terror and excitement. He had done it. Hell’s blood, he didn’t even think his father could command a zombie this old.

“Open the lid.”

He felt movement beside him and shifted to the side to give the corpse room to maneuver. Stone grated against stone, and a moment later, a sliver of moonlight crept into his dark box.

Lory bit his lower lip and forced himself not to reach up and attempt to help. The crack increased, letting in more moonlight and night sky. The moment the gap was wide enough, he wiggled through it, falling out onto the dew-coated grass in his uncoordinated lunge to escape the box.

He rolled onto his back and gazed up at the night sky, pulling deep breaths of fresh air into his lungs.

The lid thumped against the ground on the far side of the sarcophagus.

Lory sat up with a gasp. The dead man!

Fleshless feet landed beside him.

Lory shoved himself off the ground and stumbled back several paces.

The dead man moaned and shuffled toward him.

“Stop!”

The corpse hesitated.

Lory took a hasty step back and his butt bumped against a tombstone. He watched the dead man, expecting him to run at him at any moment, but he simply stood there.

“You’re still mine,” Lory breathed and realized it was true. He hadn’t lost control. “I can do this.” A grin creased his cheeks. “Ha! I am lord of the dead.”

The dead man moaned.

“Yes, I agree,” Lory said, still grinning. “I think it’s time we went after Lex.” He turned toward the opening in the cemetery fence and the road beyond. But where should he look? He didn’t know where the coven had taken him.

Lory absently rubbed his arm as he considered the problem and flinched when his fingers encountered the tender flesh of his upper arm. He was used to bruises. Jeremiah Sullivan loved to punch him in the arm when the headmaster wasn’t looking.

“Jeremiah,” Lory said. Did he know about his father’s hobby?

Lory glanced over at the corpse that stood silently awaiting his next command and smiled.

 

Lory crept around the side of the smithy and leaned against the rough planks, listening to the rhythmic beats of a hammer on steel emanating from within. He had been brimming with confidence on the walk over, but now that he was here, that confidence faded.

“Lex needs you,” Lory whispered to himself. He couldn’t think of any other way to learn where Lex had been taken. He had to confront the blacksmith’s son.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped around the side of the building. Jeremiah was bent over his father’s anvil, hammering out a red-hot horseshoe. He wore the sleeveless shirt and leather apron of his father’s trade. Lory’s resolve crumbled a little at the sight of the older boy’s bare arms. Hell’s blood, one of his biceps was nearly the same diameter as Lory’s waist. This better work, or Lory was going to end up as dead as that corpse he had animated.

He leaned against the doorframe, attempting to adopt an appearance of ease and confidence. But the need to keep rubbing the sweat from his palms probably belied that.

Jeremiah finally stopped pounding the horseshoe and dunked the glowing metal into a trough of water. Steam rose with a violent hiss. Once it stopped, Jeremiah pulled out the dark gray horseshoe and examined it.

Lory cleared his throat and couldn’t resist the smile when Jeremiah turned with a gasp.

Jeremiah’s close-set eyes narrowed. “You.”

“Me,” Lory agreed, glad his voice hadn’t squeaked like it normally did around the brute.

Jeremiah dropped the horseshoe into a barrel where it clanked against others. Setting aside his tongs, he retrieved the hammer and started toward him.

Lory snorted. “A hammer?”

Jeremiah eyed the tool he held. “Yeah. It’ll bust open your skull nicely.”

“And you feel you need a weapon to face me?”

Jeremiah hesitated. “You’re right. That would be too easy.” He tossed the hammer onto the workbench, and it landed with a heavy thump that rattled the tools hanging on the wall above the bench. Lory suspected he would have trouble lifting the hammer, let alone swinging it with one hand. This was insane.

“I’m gonna pound you with my bare fists, pretty boy.”

Lory smiled, hoping none of his fear showed through his bravado. “You’ll have to catch me first.” He turned and darted around the side of the building, heading toward the forest that lined the back of the blacksmith’s property.

Heavy footfalls pounded behind him. Jeremiah might be heavier, but he was taller and stronger. He closed the gap far more quickly than Lory expected.

Lory was only two steps ahead of him when he gained the trees. Weaving through a group of close-spaced saplings, he pulled farther ahead of Jeremiah and reached the small moonlit meadow well before him.

Branches snapped and Lory turned to watch Jeremiah rip his way through the last of the undergrowth and step into the clearing.

Lory stood his ground, nervously tugging at his waistcoat to straighten it—though it was hopelessly stained.

Jeremiah stopped a few feet away. “You have a death wish, pretty boy?” He smacked his fist against his open palm, the sound loud in the quiet. “So which one are you? Lex? Lory would have pissed himself by now. Did you draw me out here to threaten me not to pick on your brother?”

Lory frowned. He didn’t think Jeremiah even knew their names, let alone which of them he usually picked on.

“Your threats didn’t work before,” Jeremiah continued. “What makes you think they’ll work here?”

“Threats?” Lory asked. Had Lex really threatened him?

“That you’ll raise the dead to torment me.” Jeremiah laughed, a surprisingly high-pitched sound. “How could I forget a threat like that? Father laughed for half an hour.”

Lory wanted to groan. He suspected he had just figured out where the blacksmith got the idea that he and Lex might be necromancers.

“Father said undertakers have twisted fetishes. Why else would they choose such a disgusting profession? I bet you like to play with the dead, too. Corpse kisser.” He flashed him a grin of thick teeth.

Lory forced the anger down and made himself smile. He reached out into the forest behind Jeremiah. “Come to me,” he whispered under his breath. A moment later, the corpse he had animated stepped into the clearing. He poured more of himself into the vessel to keep it quiet.

Jeremiah’s brows rose. “What the hell?” He was staring at Lory’s eyes, no doubt shocked that they had faded from blue to white.

“Kisser is a bit much,” Lory said, “but you are right. I do play with the dead.” He shifted his gaze beyond Jeremiah’s shoulder and nodded.

Jeremiah spun away from him and came face to face with the corpse standing only two feet behind him. He screamed, the sound so shrill that Lory considered pressing his hands to his ears.

“Grab him,” Lory said.

The corpse caught Jeremiah by the throat and he wailed.

“Squeeze, a little.”

Jeremiah’s scream cut off in mid-crescendo.

“Are you about done?” Lory asked. Hopefully, they were far enough away from the village that no one had heard that.

Jeremiah stared at him with wide eyes, making some kind of gurgling noise.

“I’ll make it stop strangling you if you quit screaming like a little girl.”

Jeremiah tried to speak.

“Was that a yes?”

He tried to bob his head.

“Relax your grip,” Lory told the corpse.

It did, though it didn’t release Jeremiah.

The blacksmith’s son drew a wheezing breath. “It’s still touching me,” he whimpered.

Lory grinned. This was just too perfect. It seemed the bully was one of those people who had a phobia about the dead—crazy as that was.

“Here’s how this is going to work,” Lory began. “I want—”

Jeremiah whimpered.

“Focus, Jeremiah.”

This time, he made a mewing sound. Very undignified, in Lory’s opinion.

“I can see we will not be able to carry on a conversation unless I release you.” Lory sighed. “Very well. But if you run, I will send the corpse after you, and it will catch you. And if you’re out of my range by the time it catches you, it will feed on you. You might say I’m the only thing controlling it.”

“Please,” Jeremiah whispered.

A wave of guilt washed over Lory, and he immediately chided himself for it. Lex was right. He was soft.

“Release him,” Lory muttered.

The corpse complied and Jeremiah sprang away from it. For a moment, Lory feared he’d run off, but he stopped after he put several feet between himself and the corpse. He stood staring at it, his chest heaving.

“Now, the reason you’re here,” Lory said. “You’re going to show me where your father and his robe-wearing friends took Lex.”

Jeremiah’s brows rose as his gaze shifted from the corpse to him. “You’re Lory.”

“Yes.” Lory lifted his chin.

“Lory.” Jeremiah snorted. “That’s a girl’s name.”

“It’s just a nickname my mother gave me.”

“And does she make you wear dresses, too?”

“Take me to Lex.” Lory withdrew a little of his soul from the corpse, and it moaned and shifted closer.

Jeremiah’s eyes widened. “They’ll be at the grove. The grove of the dead. You don’t want to go there.”

“In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a necromancer. Dead things are an attractant not a repellent, remember?”

“The grove is haunted. By a demon.”

“It’s difficult to possess a necromancer.”

“I can be possessed,” Jeremiah whispered, eyeing the corpse.

“Then you’ll be my bait.” Just as Lex was Jeremiah’s father’s bait. “Walk.” He released his hold and the corpse moaned again.

Jeremiah spun on his heel and hurried into the trees.

Lory sighed and followed. This was wrong, but he would do whatever it took to find Lex.

 

Chapter 3

“This is as far as I go,” Jeremiah said. He had been leading them through swampy lowlands and abruptly stopped.

“I don’t see my brother.”

Jeremiah glanced behind him, and Lory allowed the corpse to move out of the trees. Lory had amused himself by keeping the corpse just out of sight, but allowing Jeremiah to catch a glimpse of it from time to time. It kept him on edge, but also made him more surly.

“Trust me,” Lory said. “What’s in that grove isn’t as bad as what’s out here.”

Jeremiah frowned, but turned without comment and continued forward. In the moonlight, Lory could see that the trees were looking less and less healthy. Perhaps a blight had killed the foliage in this area. That would account for the quaint name. Then too, the rotten smell of the bog was growing stronger. Maybe the mud itself was septic.

They rounded the base of a long-dead tree, and Jeremiah stopped again.

“I haven’t been here but a few times. One wrong step, and you’ll get sucked into the bog.”

In the moonless shadow of the dead tree, Lory couldn’t read him well enough to determine if he exaggerated. Before he could decide, another sensation drew his attention. The call of death.

“You might not be lying.” Lory sent his senses outward. “I feel death. A lot of death.”

“What?” Jeremiah whispered.

“In the bog. Animals mostly, though a few might be human.” Lory took a step forward, and Jeremiah’s big hand clamped down on his shoulder.

“Don’t you dare raise anything else, you sick little bastard.” His strong fingers dug into Lory’s shoulder.

“Release me, or I’ll raise them all.” That was a complete lie. Most were so badly decayed they couldn’t be raised, and the rest…well, he still wasn’t that good.

Jeremiah removed his hand from Lory’s shoulder.

“I’ll lead.” Lory faced the moonlit bog.

“But you’ve never been here. If you take a wrong step—”

“Your concern for my welfare touches me, but I can avoid the bog if I walk where there is no death.”

“What if there’s a mud pit where nothing has died?”

“Then we’ll make it no longer true.”

“You would risk your life for your brother?”

“I would give my life for my brother’s.” Lory started forward. “But I imagine the concept of self-sacrifice is a bit alien to a brute like you.”

Jeremiah didn’t answer, and Lory left it at that.

 

The sound of chanting alerted Lory to the coven’s presence long before he saw them. They were gathered in a relatively clear area among the dead trees.

“I brought you here,” Jeremiah whispered. He crouched beside Lory, his bulk barely hidden by the decaying log they used for cover. “Now I’ll be going home.”

“No, you won’t.”

Jeremiah curled his large hands into fists. “Why not?”

“I may have need of you.” Lory watched the robed figures. They were just silhouettes, backlit by a small fire on the opposite side of the clearing.

“I won’t help you. If I’m caught—”

Lory glanced over at him. He was watching the group in the firelight, his lower lip clamped between his teeth. Was he that scared of whatever haunted this grove? Lory noted the way his eyes followed the robed figures, one large figure in particular. Perhaps it wasn’t a demon that had Jeremiah so worried, but a far more familiar threat. Lory had noted the young blacksmith sporting the occasional black eye. He usually blamed it on an accident in the forge, but now Lory wondered.

“Stay here and keep quiet. No one will know you’re here.” Lory rose to his feet before Jeremiah could speak and stepped over the log.

The corpse waited in the trees just beyond Jeremiah’s hiding spot where Lory had commanded it to wait, but Lory didn’t call it forward, yet. Instead, he sent his senses into the immediate area, seeking out the freshly dead. He found what might be a wolf and maybe a deer. Animals were easier to animate than humans, but it would be tough to do more than one at a time. However, this wouldn’t be a prolonged animation. He only needed a distraction to get Lex free.

Lory moved closer and stopped behind the last tree bordering the clearing. He watched the group sway and chant for a moment. Where was Lex? Had they left him somewhere? It would be foolish to reveal himself if Lex wasn’t here.

A large form stepped into the rough circle the coven had made. Jeremiah’s father. “Master,” the man’s deep voice carried over the chanting. “We offer you this body. It has the power you seek.”

What? Lory stepped out from behind the tree, moving closer until he could see what was going on. The coven had gathered around a depression in the ground, another mud pit. And just above the surface of the mud was Lex’s pale face and golden hair. What the hell?

“It’s the other boy!” a female voice shouted. One of the smaller robed figures pointed right at him.

“Arthur, Bernard, take care of him,” Herman commanded. “The rest of you, continue.”

The chanting resumed, and two of the men broke away from the others.

“Throw him in the bog,” Herman said.

“No!” Lex’s voice rang out and everyone fell silent. Even the two men walking toward Lory stopped and stared.

Lory thought he heard Lex mutter something else, but didn’t catch the words. Suddenly, necromancy tingled across his senses, and he recognized Lex’s gift. He had animated the dead animals in the bog beneath him. Lory watched in wonder as the long-dead bodies gathered beneath his brother, and Lex began to slowly rise from the mud.

The coven gasped, and one by one, they dropped to their knees. Perhaps this was the sign they had been waiting for. The sign that their deity was back in the world.

The animals moved slowly toward the bank where Lex was able to hop off onto solid ground. He released them, and they sunk back into the depths, never having broken the surface. To the coven, he had just walked on water—or mud. But Lory knew how he had done it. He bit his lip to keep from grinning. Lex was playing with them.

Lex looked up from the kneeling coven, his eyes meeting Lory’s. But where Lory expected mirth, he found an intense curiosity instead. A chill ran down his spine, though he had no reason for it.

Lex studied him a moment, then walked to where Herman knelt with the others. What was he doing?

Lex bent and pulled the blacksmith’s dagger from his belt. Without comment, he drew the knife across the tip of his own finger. He didn’t flinch or seem to care that his hand was covered in filthy bog mug.

He held out his bleeding finger to Herman.

“My lord?” Herman’s brow wrinkled.

Lex seized Herman by the chin and shoved his bleeding finger into his mouth.

Lory frowned. What was Lex up to? Necromancy didn’t work on the living.

Herman didn’t protest. Instead, he stared up at Lex with wide, awestruck eyes.

Lex withdrew his finger.

“Master,” Herman whispered.

Lex didn’t address him. He moved on to the next member of the coven and again offered his blood.

“Drink it,” Herman commanded when the woman hesitated. “He offers us the covenant of his blood.”

“What if it’s just the boy, playing a prank?”

“It’s not.” Herman snapped the words and she flinched. “I can see him.”

Lory pulled in a breath. Herman was a medium. Oh God. Had he been successful? Was Lex possessed?

Lex continued around the group, offering his blood.

“What are you doing?” Lory asked.

Lex, or whatever was controlling him, continued his task before he stopped and looked up. His blue eyes met Lory’s, then abruptly faded to white.

Lory sent his senses a little further afield, waiting for Lex to animate something. He didn’t—which made no sense. A necromancer’s eyes only turned white when he used his magic, and that magic only worked on the dead.

An odd gurgling noise drew Lory’s attention. The woman beside Herman had drawn her knife and was running it across her own throat. Red coated the bright blade before it fell from her hand. She followed it to the ground.

The man on her right gasped.

Lory glanced at him, expecting him to be shocked by her actions; instead he was shoving his own knife between his ribs. What the hell?

“Herman, what’s happening?” one of the women cried.

“The cleansing,” Herman said, staring at Lex in awe.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen!” A portly woman struggled to her feet. It was their housekeeper, Mrs. Haskins.

Herman didn’t acknowledge her.

One of the men turned and ran for the trees. He made it about three steps before he stumbled to a stop. He turned to face the others, horror on his face as he drew his own dagger. Mrs. Haskins screamed when he plunged it into his eye.

Lory didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew who was behind it. He sprang forward and grabbed Lex by the front of his muddy coat. “Stop this!”

Lex smiled, though it was no expression of mirth Lory had ever seen on his brother’s face. If a reptile smiled, that’s what it would look like.

Mrs. Haskins screamed again, a new note in her cry. She was on her knees once more, her intestines spilling free as she eviscerated herself. An impressive feat for such a small knife.

Lex chuckled.

“How are you doing this?” Lory demanded, giving him a shake.

Lex reached up, and before Lory knew what he intended, he shoved his bloodied finger into Lory’s mouth. Necromancy exploded across his senses. But more than just the necromancy, Lory sensed Lex’s rage, frustration, and despair that this thing had taken control of him. His brother was still in there, but how could Lory help him?

Lex’s white eyes met his and he grinned.

“Get out of my brother,” Lory said.

The grin gradually faded and was replaced by a frown. Lex lifted his hand and eyed his still bleeding finger.

Another man broke for the trees and Lex looked up. Once again, the man died by his own hand. His fellows quickly followed suit, and in a matter of seconds, the only one left alive was Herman.

“Yes, Master,” Herman muttered. He rose to his feet and walked over to the dead woman beside him, retrieving her dagger from the spreading pool of blood.

Herman looked up, but instead of gazing at Lex, he was staring straight at Lory, his dark brown eyes several shades lighter. A grin split his face and he sprang forward, charging straight at him.

 

Chapter 4

Lory gasped and somehow managed to dive out of Herman’s path. He rolled to his feet and jumped back as Herman took a swipe at him with the bloody knife.

“Lex!” Lory backed away, sparing a quick glance at his brother. He knew Lex was still in there. If he could regain control—

Lory’s heels caught on something and he fell back, landing on his backside in a tacky patch of barren soil. He had tripped over Mrs. Haskins. That gave him an idea. He reached out to the woman’s corpse. It was so easy to animate the freshly dead, he barely had to think about it.

She surged to her feet, her movements easier than they had been in life. Though more of her stomach’s contents fell to the ground as she stood. Unfortunately, Herman wasn’t the squeamish type and did little more than frown.

“Grab him,” Lory commanded her.

She reached for Herman and he stopped, his attention finally leaving Lory for the dead woman.

Suddenly, Lory’s soul snapped back and he lost his grip on her. But she didn’t sink back to the ground. Instead, she turned and faced him as well. Then he felt Lex. Or rather, Lex’s gift. Had the spirit possessing him been a necromancer? He certainly knew what to do.

But Lory wasn’t done. He silently called the blood-animated corpse he had left in the trees and felt it start toward him. If he could just stay alive until it got here.

He shoved himself off the ground, then felt Lex reach out again. A second corpse rose from the bloody soil.

“Come on, Lex,” Lory muttered. “Help me.”

Your blood, a voice whispered in his mind.

Lory stopped. What the hell? That had been Lex’s voice.

Your blood, Lex spoke again, his voice distant, will free me.

Lory glanced at his brother. He had closed his eyes and was shaking his head. Lex must be fighting back.

Abruptly, Lex lifted his head and gave him that reptilian grin.

Herman and the two corpses moved toward Lory once more.

A scream carried out of the woods, and Jeremiah burst from the trees.

His sudden appearance startled Lory. He had forgotten all about the blacksmith’s son. Had he just been sitting out there watching?

“Father!” Jeremiah cried, running straight for Herman. He stopped beside him, his wide eyes taking in the horror around them, then he pointed back the way he had come.

The blood-animated corpse emerged from the trees, the firelight casting shadows across its shriveled face and the black sockets where its eyes had been.

Lory felt Lex’s power rise again, but this time, it slid away without taking the corpse from him.

Your blood, Lex said again. Lich king.

Lory watched the corpse he had animated continue toward him. Lex couldn’t take it because it was blood animated. Animated by a lich king? Lory? Was that his blood gift?

Lory blinked, and suddenly he understood. Whatever power this spirit had, it wouldn’t work on him. A lich king was one of the most stable of blood gifts, mainly because they couldn’t be possessed by the ghosts that were drawn to a powerful necromancer’s soul. The spirit that had taken Lex and the coven couldn’t take him.

“He’s a necromancer, Father.” Jeremiah jabbed a finger toward Lory. “He told me himself.”

Herman didn’t even glance at Lory, his attention firmly on his son. “Why are you here?”

“He captured me and forced me—”

You brought him here.”

“Yes, but—”

Herman lifted his knife in the air, then slammed it into his son’s chest.

Lory gasped at the suddenness of the attack.

“Father?” Jeremiah wheezed, then dropped to the ground at Herman’s feet.

Lory stared at Jeremiah’s prone form, his mind refusing to believe what had just happened. Were Herman’s actions his own or was the spirit controlling him?

“Jeremiah?” Lory took a step toward him. If he died, it would be his fault. He had brought him here, then made him stay.

Herman turned to face Lory, a grin spreading across his face.

“Get him,” Lory whispered, commanding the corpse he had brought. The thing charged across the clearing. Herman tried to sidestep him, but he wasn’t quick enough. The corpse caught him by the throat.

Lory didn’t get to give any other commands before the other animated corpses joined the fray.

“Fight them off,” Lory said. “Remove their heads.” His corpse was older and stronger. It should prevail.

Another of the dead coven rose from the ground.

“Damnation,” Lory muttered. His corpse couldn’t win against greater numbers, superior strength or not. But it wasn’t the corpses he actually had to stop.

Lex was watching the fight, an odd smile on his face. He must have been enjoying the fray because he didn’t see Lory coming until he was only a few feet away, then it was too late. Lory tackled him and took him to the ground.

Lory once again had Lex by the lapels and held him against the ground, but he was at a loss as to what to do next. He would punch him if he had some hope of knocking him out, but he couldn’t risk hurting Lex.

The thing riding his brother must have realized that and gave him a wide smile.

Lory tightened his grip. Now what? How do I help you, Lex? he thought at his brother.

Lex squeezed his eyes shut and slung his head from side to side. Your blood. Lex’s voice whispered in his mind again. Had he heard Lory’s question?

“But I don’t see how—”

Lex grunted, and a string of words came from his lips that made no sense. It sounded like a completely different language. Maybe the same language the coven had been chanting.

“Lex?”

He came off the ground without warning, catching Lory squarely in the mouth with his fist.

The impact knocked Lory onto his backside. He lifted a hand and touched his lips. His fingers came away smeared with his own blood, the blood of a lich king. It protected him from possession, could he use it to save Lex? Hadn’t Lex suggestion that his blood would free—

A hand caught Lory by the back of his coat, and he was hauled to his feet. Herman pulled him closer, the grip on Lory’s collar feeling like a noose around his neck.

“Master,” Herman said, his voice reverent. Surely, the spirit wasn’t making him say that. He had to be doing most of this on his own. Did that include stabbing his own son?

Lory glanced over at the boy’s still form. His necromantic senses told him what he already suspected. Jeremiah was dead.

The corpses of the coven lay not far from the blacksmith’s son. It appeared that Lex had animated most of them, and Lory’s dead man had been torn apart. He had nothing—unless he could use his blood.

“I lost my knife,” Herman said.

Lex wordlessly crossed to the bodies. He jerked the knife from Jeremiah’s chest and brought it back to Herman.

“Thank you, Master,” Herman whispered as Lex approached him.

Lex turned the blade and offered it to Herman hilt first, taking a step closer so the man didn’t need to reach for it.

Lory held his breath as Lex leaned forward. A little closer…

Herman’s large hand reached past Lory and wrapped around the knife handle. Time seemed to slow as Lex released the blade and began to move back.

Lory lunged forward, the move taking Herman by surprise. Before the big man could stop him, Lory wiped his blood-smeared fingers against Lex’s lips, shoving hard to push his fingers into his mouth.

Lex jerked away from him, sputtering and spitting.

Herman pulled Lory away before he could try again, and Lory’s back collided with his wide chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Herman’s arm come up, the knife gripped in his beefy fist. Jeremiah’s blood obscured the blade, the fresh wetness glistening in the light of the dying fire.

Lory sucked in a breath. This was it. He had failed. He would die, and Lex would be forever possessed. He closed his eyes, reaching out to the corpses around them, though he knew it was too late.

Warm wetness exploded across the side of his face, and Lory smelled the iron tang of fresh blood. Oddly, he felt no pain.

Herman’s hand released his collar, and an instant later, a thump sounded behind him.

Lory turned and stared at Herman’s sprawled form. His mind refused to make sense of what he was seeing, even as he watched the blood spurting from the blacksmith’s slit throat, his hand still holding the bloody knife.

“Damn medium,” Lex said.

Lory spun to face him.

“We should execute any we see henceforth.” Lex glared at Herman’s body.

“Lex?” Lory whispered.

Lex looked up, his blue eyes meeting Lory’s. He smacked his lips. “Bleh. I’ve got Lory all over my tongue.”

“Oh God. Lex!” Lory wrapped him in a hug. “You’re back.”

“Yes.” Lex’s hug was just as fierce, and for one long moment, they stood like that. “You figured it out,” Lex said.

“That my blood could free you?” Lory released him. “How did you know?”

“The corpse you blood animated. I couldn’t take it, so I figured you had to be a lich king.” Lex grinned. “Your blood gift finally manifested.”

Finally? Lory frowned. He knew Lex had been doing far more with necromancy than he had, but was Lex saying that his own gift had already manifested? Lory felt a bit betrayed that Lex had never said anything. Had he not wanted to hurt his feelings because Lory had been so slow to develop?

“Are you upset with me?” Lex asked.

“Upset? That your power manifested first?”

“That I killed Herman.”

“What?”

“He was going to kill you, Lory. Another second, and that knife would have been in your throat. It was all I could think to do.”

Lory stared at Herman’s prone form. “You killed him. I thought the—” Lory stopped. Why would the spirit kill Herman? The blacksmith was its loyal servant. He would have killed Lory without hesitation.

“Lory?” Lex drew his attention.

He looked up and found Lex watching him, his brow wrinkled in concern.

“I don’t understand,” Lory admitted. “I figured the spirit possessing you killed him, but that makes no sense.”

“You’re forgetting something: a possessing spirit brings no power of its own, only knowledge.” Lex’s brow wrinkled more as he watched him.

So, the necromantic power the spirit had used had belonged to Lex. Lory had known that. He had felt Lex’s familiar gift every time he animated something. But what about the blood…

Lory swallowed. The spirit had made Lex give each coven member his blood, then the spirit had taken control of them. Lex had taken control of the living.

“Hell’s blood,” Lory whispered. “You’re a ghoul master.” One of the rarest and most feared of the necromantic blood gifts. Through his blood, Lex could possess the living.

“I am.”

Lory stared at him. “How long have you known?”

“A couple of months.”

“Lex. This is…” Lory didn’t know how to finish that. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Lex shrugged. “I knew you’d worry.”

“What are we going to do?”

“See?” Lex laughed. “You’re worked up already.”

“No, really. What are we going to do?”

“Take over the world?” Lex grinned.

“I’m serious, Lex.” Lory gripped his arm. “Oh God, Lady Dunstan. What if—”

“She knows nothing. We were eight. Our gifts hadn’t even begun to manifest.”

“Manifest. That’s it.” Lory snapped his fingers. “We’ll tell people your gift never manifested.”

Lex frowned. “So we tell people I’m impotent.”

“Do you prefer the alternative? You know what the Community does with ghoul masters.”

Lex continued to frown, but didn’t argue. With the ability to possess the living, the ghoul master talent was the most reviled of blood gifts. If the other necromancers found out, Lex would be caged—or worse.

“But I won’t let them take you,” Lory laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

The corner of Lex’s mouth kicked up. “Listen to you. What happened to my timid little brother?”

“I discovered Father was right. We are lords of the dead.”

Lex grinned. “I knew you could get out of that sarcophagus.”

“I cheated. I had to blood animate the corpse to control it.”

“So?” Lex held his gaze. “Good thinking. If you hadn’t used your blood, that thing controlling me would have taken him from you.”

He had a point.

“How did you find me?” Lex asked.

“Jeremiah. I figured he knew what his father was doing, so I used the corpse to force him to show me where he took you.” Lory glanced over at the boy’s still form. “But he wasn’t supposed to die.”

“I say good riddance. He bullied you almost daily.”

“As his father beat on him. It was all he knew.”

Lex shook his head. “You’re too soft, Lory.”

“I’m not soft. I’m observant and pragmatic, but I will do what needs to be done. I would have killed him if it would have saved you, but the fact remains that he didn’t need to die. None of them did.”

“I say they got what they deserved.”

“Herman included? You said the only way you could stop him was to make him kill himself, but you controlled him. You could have commanded him to release me.”

“He was the one behind all this. More than that, he closed you up in that sarcophagus with no intention of freeing you. He got exactly what he deserved.”

Lory frowned, not sure which bothered him more: the needless deaths or Lex’s indifference. But Lex had been through a lot. Maybe he just needed time to process everything.

“How do we explain this?” Lory lifted his arms, gesturing at the bodies surrounding them.

Lex shrugged. “What do we need to explain? No one knows we were here.”

“If they take the bodies to Father for burial, he’ll sense the necromancy.”

Lex frowned. “You’re right.” He eyed their surroundings, then shrugged. “So, we bury them, in the bog.”

Lory crossed his arms. “That feels…deceitful.”

“Do you have a better solution?”

He didn’t. In truth, it was a good solution. No outsiders would know of their involvement or suspect necromancy. And he could keep the truth of Lex’s blood gift just between them.

“All right,” he whispered.

Lex’s expression turned serious and he gave him a nod.

For the next quarter hour, they animated the intact corpses and made them drag their less intact fellows into the mud pits that surrounded the so-called grove of the dead. They worked in silence until the clearing was as it had been—aside from a few bloody patches of earth that would wash away with the next rain.

“It is done,” Lory said. “Now it is truly the grove of the dead.”

“Indeed,” Lex answered. They stood beside the remains of the coven’s fire. It had burned down to coals, and soon, it would be ashes.

“You must never use your blood gift, Lex.”

“You think I’ll use it for personal gain?”

“No, I fear you’ll be discovered.” Lory laid a hand on his shoulder. “Promise me?”

“You’ll never tell?”

“I swear.” Lory gripped the back of his brother’s neck and pulled him closer. “Promise me you’ll never use it.”

“Fine. I shall be your impotent brother.” He gripped the back of Lory’s neck and pulled him forward until their foreheads touched. It was a pact, a promise between them, and Lory didn’t doubt that Lex felt it, too. A pause, and they drew apart.

“But that’s all I’ll hide,” Lex said. “Father gave me an old journal of great-grandfather’s. I’ve almost figured out how to travel through the land of the dead.”

Lory stared at him. “Are you serious?” Now there was a talent that would make up for the loss of Lex’s blood gift. “We will be lords of the dead.”

Lex gave him a big cheek-dimpling smile. “We will, indeed, little Lory.”

Lory wrinkled his nose. “You know, that’s something else Father was right about. That nickname isn’t exactly suitable for the man I’m becoming.”

“What do you propose?”

“I want to be called by my given name.”

Lex grinned. “You’ll always be Lory to me.”

22 comments

  1. Fantastic! Sorry to say it did take me a few paragraphs to figure out who was who, but bravo!

    • Thanks! Yeah, I used their childhood nicknames for this one–which was really weird for me. Well, weird to use Lory anyway. 😉

  2. Ooh! A Happy Halloween, indeed! Thank you very much!
    Very interesting to see them in life as brothers, friends and allies. Such a tragedy that it all went wrong, but here we can already see the roots of the rift. Well done!

  3. Jennifer

    LOVE your books. Can’t wait for 4 to come out. My son is called Lex and I was excited to see the name. I knew right away your short story was about Ian. I’m interested to see how Alexander’s character develops to present

    • I’m glad you approve of the name considering how my Lex turned out. 😉 I’m afraid he’s the same guy we met in The Heir of Death.

  4. Brilliant story as was all the other final fantasy stories I’ve been really hooked on them and recommended to friends to read them. Yes like the rehash into the past of the lads v good idea. Thank you for the addictive reads.

    • Thanks, April! So glad to hear that you’re enjoying the series, and this story. I had a lot of fun writing this one. It was interesting to take two established characters and see what they were like back when. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  5. I absoulutly love your “Final Formula” series. I was having withdrawls when I finished book 3 until I got to read this short story about Ian and Lex. Thank you now I am holding my breath until book 4. This series would make a great movie that I would see over and over again. Thank you again for your wonderful stories.

    • Thanks for the kind words! Good to hear that this story helped ease the wait between books. I so wish I could write faster, but that hasn’t happened. Yet.

  6. I just found your books. I have gone through all of them in two days. Best series i’ve read in a while. Keep them coming! thanks

    • Hey, Linda. I wish I could write them as fast as you read them. 😉 Thanks for giving my books a try!

  7. Hi Becca, your stories are awesome..i love the characters and admire the way you create such interesting stories around them. I have come to know them as friends and i find myself utterly engaged by every book. You are an awesome writer and i hope you get your books turned into a film or tv series…you deserve to have your stories immortalised on screen as well as in written form. You are one of my favourite authors and i will be watching for your books with baited breath..i am so looking forward to the 4th Final Formula! All the best to you and yours in in this new year.

    • Thanks, Rita! Good to hear that you’ve enjoyed the series so far. If all goes well, FF4 should be out in February. 😀

  8. This is a very enjoyable series. Characters to care about; strong, sassy women; men of honor; villains most horrific. Witty dialogue raises the quality of pleasure. I am, however, ready for Addie to face her past. Good job Ms Andre. Keep ’em coming!

  9. I loved this! I like getting a little insight into their past and I’m looking forward to the novella your mentioned about Ian. I recently got into your series and must say I’m a bit obsessed! I’m planning on reading through them all again while I wait for the next release!

    Thanks for writing! 🙂

    • Thanks for reading! You don’t have too long to wait for something new. The Ian novella should be out in early April. 🙂

  10. The Final Formula is a page turner, I can’t put it down. I do have a question or maybe I am confused by something in this short story. When Lex puts his bloody finger in Ian’s mouth, Lex does not control Ian. But when Ian wipes his bloody finger on Lex’s mouth, the spirit that is controlling Lex looses his control over Lex. My confusion is; if Lex is a Ghoul master why didn’t it work and why did Ian’s blood work on Lex if he is a Lich King? Lex can control the living, Ian can control the dead. Is Ian’s blood controlling Lex or the spirit, which isn’t a physical body. Can you explain this please? Thanks

    • Hi, Sylvia. Glad to hear you enjoyed The Final Formula. The gist here is that the lich king blood gift has the added perk of making the recipient resistant to possession–whether it’s the possession of a ghoul master or something else. Lex can’t possess Ian. But Ian is able to use the anti-possession properties of his blood to drive the thing out of Lex. Perhaps I should have elaborated a bit more here. Thanks for reading!

  11. Nione Boydstun

    I just finished all the Final Formula books. They were so good I found myself losing several hours of sleep each night until I was done. I can’t wait for the next one.

    • Sorry about the lost sleep, but I’m glad you’re enjoying the story. 🙂

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