A half dozen students at the University of Constantinople, dressed all in black, stood in a sub-basement of the Tobias Bosefelt Library.
"You said that Slippery Cellar Stairs was playing here," said Cindy, a girl who looked like a blanched potato that had been dipped into a vat of hot mascara.
"They must be late," Dan said, unwrapping a set of knives on top of a Formica table.
Ravilious was slumped against one of the concrete pillars that ran deep into the ground and supported the building above. Sweat soaked the black robe that he'd worn for the occasion of raising Arkephalous from the dead. It had been his nicest robe. He'd only worn it a handful of times before and had it dry-cleaned, never machine washed, to prevent it from fading to grey.
Now his robe was torn and grey with dust. He and Dan had come down to the basement of the library hours earlier and, after Dan caused the lock on the door to age and rust until he could pull it out of its fittings, they discovered that this level of basement was a secret cache of used, broken and outdated furniture.
Dan sent Ravilious to work. While the former carefully laid out scrolls and cleaned a table on which to set the Codex Nekromantia, the latter pushed aside rolling carts stacked with moldering, tarnished chairs. They toppled off of the stacks and onto his feet, shoulders and skull.
"How late can they be? It's past eleven-thirty," Cindy said.
"Not quite the witching hour," Dan mumbled while he dumped out a bag full of raccoon skulls onto the table top. A raccoon, trapped in a cage nearby, rattled against the wires as it saw its future. Dan set the skulls out in the
"Does Slippery Cellar Stairs know that they're supposed to play here?" Cindy asked. "It's a library. That's not a place to have a show. We're not even supposed to be down in the library this far. There's no ticket taker. In fact, I didn't buy any tickets. I don't see any security. The lights are all wrong. There's no stage."
While Dan attempted to calm Cindy, Ravilious went over to the raccoon. He unwrapped the barbecue sandwich that he'd used to bait the cage and fed it through the bars, chunk by chunk.
The smell of tangy barbecue sauce temporarily erased its fear. It chowed down on the offered food as fast as Ravilious could stick it between the wires.
"I'm sorry," Ravilious said. He fought to keep his tears behind his eyes. The thought of Thantos kept floating through his head. When the raccoon had finished its last meal, Ravilious turned away and found a stack of chairs to move. Hot tears made mud from the dust that had accumulated on his robe.
"...and that's the story of how one of you will be a corpse before the stroke of midnight," Dan finished saying to the would-be concertgoers.
Ravilious heard the cage door open, scuffling, and then a horrible silence, punctuated by the wet thwack of warm raccoon entrails being dropped into a skull. He found a shadow and sank to his knees with his head in his hands.
"Why don't we just beat his ass?" asked one of the students who had come for a show.
Ravilious pulled his head out of his hands and peeked between the legs of a chair.
A very large young man in a flowing black cape and flowing black mascara stepped away from the group and towards Dan.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, or you just volunteered to be the corpse that I mentioned," Dan said.
The young man grabbed Dan around the collar with one huge hand and wound up to punch him with the other. Before the blow could land, however, Gorgel's Ulna appeared in Dan's hand, and he swept the blade up and around in a quick arc.
"Gurgle," said the boy, attempting to speak with his own blood instead of air, and out of a new hole in his neck as well. He let go of Dan, wobbled, then fell to the ground. The other students sobbed. Except for Cindy.
"You're not allowed to have weapons on school property. The library is school property. You need a license for that. I'll bet that you don't have a license for that," Cindy said.
"I'm glad that we didn't have to draw straws for that! Ravilious! Where'd you get to? Come here!" Dan called, snapping his fingers. "Chop chop, we've only a few minutes and we have to drag this ox into place so that he can read our Ghoulish."
Ravilious considered hiding in the shadows, but he didn't want to suffer the same fate as the corpse. He walked towards Dan, pretending like he hadn't been hiding or crying.
"Why were you down in the shadows, hiding and crying? You're a pussy. You're lucky that you've got me here or else you'd never be able to summon a terrifically dangerous necromancer overlord. Give me a hand," Dan said.
Ravilious knew that he must have helped drag the corpse towards the table, but he felt like he was in a nightmare. Events jumped and jumbled together in his head. Cause and effect melted away. Next thing he knew, he held the Codex Nekromantia in front of the corpse's unfocused eyes while Dan had his hands wrist-deep in its chest cavity and was squeezing the lungs like they were stressballs.
The corpse wheezed an incantation. Dan repeated it.
"Did that sound right?"
"I don't know," Ravilious replied.
"Useless," Dan said. "We've gotta get it right. It's only three minutes to the stroke of midnight."
Dan made the corpse wheeze a few more times until he'd memorized the spell, and then hefted the Necrotic Chalice in his hand. He carried it reverentially into the circle of animal skulls and set it in the very center. He held up his hands. They were covered in raccoon blood, human blood, poison ivy, bits of rotten human flesh that had clung to both the rusty nail used to stir the ingredients of the Necrotic Chalice, as well as the skull of a hanged man that formed the vessel.
"Don't be squeamish," Dan said, grabbing Ravilious' fingers. Ravilious attempted not to add a half-digested tuna fish sandwich to the Necrotic Chalice.
"Now is the stroke of midnight!" Dan said, his face as bright as a sunny summer's day as he sat in a dank basement with the stench of death clinging to him.
Ravilious was barely able to hear Dan's incantation over the sound of his dry heaves.
Nothing happened for a moment.
Ravilious and Dan and the assembled students stared at one another. Cindy broke the silence.
"You said it wrong. You said 'ah' when you should've said 'eh.' I bet that you messed it up. You need to clean your ears. Sam's corpse said it right. You didn't say it right," she said.
The world went sideways for a moment, then it turned upside down while time accelerated for a moment, then rewound faster, then settled back to the stroke of midnight. It spun for a bit and then went right-side up.
A hole appeared between Ravilious and Dan. The edges were jagged and glowed a sickly green, like somebody torching a piece of paper coated in very toxic ink. From out of the splotchy hole came a series of spaghetti-thin tentacles. The waved in the air and began to grab the pillars around the room. As soon as they touched a solid surface, they became engorged and grew as thick around as household waterpipes. Purple pus began to ooze from cracks along their surface, and their force produced cracks on the enormous pillars that supported the library.
Dan screamed and screamed and screamed. A tentacle picked him up like he was made of feathers. It bounced him up and down once, a pitcher estimating the weight of the ball, and flung him towards a stack of chairs. He screamed like an airborne firework until he crashed into them.
The tentacles pulled the hole open further. An eye emerged. Smaller eyes on stalks popped out of tumors along the surface and began to wave around and blink.
"Arkephalous! Where are you?!" Ravilious yelled.
The eyes focused on Ravilious. Tentacles whipped towards him, but before they could reach another hole appeared above one that the eyeballs had emerged from. It vomited out a massive sarcophagus. It hovered in air for a moment before falling and squishing the eyeballs and most of the tentacles and then sending out an earthquake as it slammed into the ground. The tentacles went limp and vanished into purple smoke.
The lid of the sarcophagus blew open.
"I have returned," said a scratchy, dusty voice from within.