Glass shattered against the cavern wall, painting the dark stone beneath with an unwholesome slime. The gelatinous substance oozed over the ancient, unhewn angles — which jutted into the cavern with a kind of perverted geometry and lured the eye to plumb unwholesome crevices for knowledge which man should not own — to spatter against the floor in pools of congealed darkness, soon forgotten and ignored. Shadows danced in lurid relief where thrown by the hissing flames arrayed around the arcane lab as he paced its cluttered confines.
“Vyssith!” The haggard sorcerer’s face contorted in a mask of disgust as he swore in the black language of the Forgotten. “Ek reth! E’l vrei k’tholin VAGH!” The hearth flames behind him howled beyond the confines of their stony prison, black and malevolent with the echoes of his fury before returning to their former size with a sinister crackle and pop from tortured wood.
All around lay scattered the evidence of his labors; the hand-scrawled essays and meandering notes, whose logic teetered somewhere between cosmic insight and furious incoherence, stood piled upon each other in great heaps and stacks with the haphazard organization of a mind that sees order only within chaos. They crawled over tables and benches, congregated in alcoves, and shuffled incessantly beneath his restless hands around the glowing beakers, tubes, and alchemical objet d’arcanum that occupied the sorcerer’s cramped work space.
Hand-crafted vellum whispered beneath the wizened hand now groping so unceremoniously through their number for a sheet he knew must be among them.
Hidden beneath the dark leather of a blasphemous tome, the unutterable name of which was synonymous with the dead, peeked the note which he so desperately sought.
“Theass’yf vrei ath,” he cheered, reverently withdrawing the pale sheet from its kin.
Watery, sleep-starved eyes perused a bizarre mix of jagged black scratches and elegant red swirls (born of no earthly language) with the cool familiarity of a scholar. He nodded occasionally, mouthing remembered insight to himself before he found the passage he sought. In a manic haze, he drifted to the withered table which served as his desk, and removed the antiquated quill pen from its inkwell, habit alone driving his hand to tap the tip against the well’s stained rim.
The old ivory nib scraped against the pale vellum, whispering along as he scribbled in the weird language of his masters to amend the instructions outlined above. Straightening from the desk, he listened as unheard voices slithered through his thoughts, licking at what remained of his sanity with a wanton hunger. Nodding to their unspoken commands, he bent to the table again, and, wetting the quill, added to the note in his own tongue.
“The formula is incomplete. Without the essence intact, the skin cannot be used to bind the Word. I must attempt again when the village is quiet and has had time to forget its loss. It will not be quality enough for The Book, but the vellum from his hide will be exceedingly fine; I will harvest it for myself.”
Setting aside the quill and amended note, the old man took up the crescent-shaped lunarium and began to sharpen it against a smooth strip of stained leather. The light shied away from the blade’s cruel grin as he inspected it, and the satisfaction that split his face was just as keen and wickedly curved as the tarnished silver in his hand.
As he approached the herse — a somewhat larger and more sturdy frame than those used by traditional membrane makers — he began to hum an odd lullaby he remembered being sung to him in his youth. Fitting, he thought, tightening the stays at each corner to secure the body. I was about his age when my work began.
It was a pity the child’s hide had proven unsuitable for his Masters and their Word — his complexion was so fair and unblemished! — but that didn’t make his efforts wasteful. The next child would have to be purified while yet living to bind the Word to the vellum he would become, but before then the old sorcerer would not waste the gift he had been given. Perhaps he would make his own Book with his own Words — lesser to that of his Masters, but beautiful in its own right.
He beamed to himself, uneven rows of rotting teeth sneering into the slithering dark, and groaned out the half-remembered lyrics of an old lullaby.
He was always happiest when at his work.