Again, the usual statement; this is the alpha draft so its only just been pulled from my mind womb and as such is still sticky and screaming.
“Don’t tell me it’s another strike.”
“If I don’t tell you that, boss, then I don’t know what to tell you.”
Samiel sat back in his chair and pushed his fingers through his hair.
“How many are joining in?”
“All of them, boss.”
“All of them?”
“What do they want this time?”
Kalava checked her notes.
“More time off, an expanded range of jobs to do and pensions.”
“Pensions? They’re dead. What the hell do they want with pensions?”
The Harrowgate Necromantic Outsourcing Firm had been plagued by this for months. Pensions for the dead, who would have thought it? Samiel Burrier sure hadn’t. Neither had Heinrich or any of the old boys on the board. To them the business was still the same as it had been a hundred years ago; you desecrated graves, you raised an army and you pillaged things. Except that all they were pillaging these days was the business world. Sure, the Anti-Sacrilege League had kicked up a bit of a stink in the last few years, but the old boys at the top didn’t care about that. Most of them didn’t even know about it. If they did there would be a lot more pillaging for a start.
“Wear and tear on the bones, I imagine.”
“But we already pay them wages. Pretty damn good wages. They don’t need to eat or sleep or even dress in clothes, so what the hell do they need a pension for?”
Kalava shrugged. As ever the Press Secretary was immaculately dressed in something that would have looked mundane and frumpy on a mortal, but on her looked positively scandalous. Her hair was worn up with a clasp made from the polished jaw bone of some small animal and she had applied enough eye shadow to make her face look like it had two bottomless pits in it. Vampires, Sam thought, should not be trusted with eyeliner.
“The Necromantic Constructs Union has a lot of pull these days. They think they can get away with more.”
“Only because they let the bastard liches join.”
“You do realise that we’re looking at a PR nightmare?”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed. It’s not like I have angry letters coming in from clients. As someone kindly reminded me, they are a dragon and don’t take disappointments well.”
The Firm had been founded on solid principles; Necromancers could raise the dead and command spirits to do their bidding. Normally this resulted in a war and bands of lucky adventurers performing all sorts of daring do to eventually stab the necromancer in the back and put his army down for good. Heinrich and the old boys all knew this. Most of them had been backstabbed a few times themselves and decided to kick the habit.
And so the Firm was born, the first ever undead outsourcing company. You didn’t have to pay the skeletons and zombies back then. You just raised them and told them to go clean the toilets. Once they were done you dumped them back on the pile out the back of the shop and counted your money. It had been a pretty good business.
But, of course, someone had come in and started saying that the dead had rights. Now the company was shelling out for grave maintenance costs, inhumane treatment lawsuits and a plethora of other things. Where churches, political institutions, families and special interest groups had failed, some busybody with a clipboard and a moral high horse had succeeded in damn near bankrupting them.
The Union of Necromantic Constructs was just the latest in a long line of problems the middle management were having to deal with.
“Hienrich wants you to handle it.”
“Hienrich always wants me to handle it. When was the last time he handled anything except a big drink?”
“I think he did very well during the Underworld takeover.”
Underworld Economics had been an early rival to Harrowgate Necromatics, run by a clever little jobber named Bill Skurly. It had lasted about a month when Hienrich had found out about it. The place where it’s main headquarters had once been was now a very deep hole.
“Sam,” Kalava leaned forward, giving him a good look down her top, “you’re the man for the job and you know it.”
“Because I’m talented and charismatic right?”
“No, because you’re expendable and easily replaced.”
“You know just what to say to cheer me up, Kal.”
The work yard was silent. That’s how it was with the undead. Oh, sure, the odd zombie might moan, but that was just escaping gas.
Two hundred skulls turned to regard him as Sam strode out of the office building. Two hundred skulls tracked him as he walked through the ranks of protesting dead right up to the figure seated on atop the shoulders of a massive ogre skeleton.
“Come on Zurg, let’s talk this out.”
The wight turned its fleshless skull to look down at him.
“Will you agree to our terms?”
“No, you bloody well know we won’t.”
“Then we have nothing to discuss.”
“Are you sure I can’t persuade you?”
“We are strong. We are Union.”
“Alright then, you leave me no choice. Gary!”
The hordes shivered suddenly and then, like popped water balloons collapsed.
The only sound was the clatter of settling bone and a lone voice shouting from a great distance, “yes!”
“Give it a minute,” Sam shouted back.
It was, as all such things are, a long minute.
“Ok, start it back up.”
The low hum of the Animation Pylon came back online and the bones twitched. Some years ago, when the Technicult Support team had been doing some routine maintenance on the pylon they had turned it off by accident – despite the three completely independent failsafe’s. The result had been two fold; it had ‘turned off’ all the animated skeletons and zombies being used at the time, and it had cost the Firm an awful lot of money.
The upshot of it had been though, that the swiftly reanimated undead seemed to have had their minds wiped.
The hum grew louder and the assorted bones began to rattle once more. Within minutes Sam was once more surrounded by the ranks of zombies and fleshless skeletons.
Let’s hope this works, Sam thought.
Zurg rose. He seemed to have acquired some more ribs in the reanimation as well as a few extra vertebrae. The ogre he had been using as a podium pulled itself upright, the rock grinding sound of its own bones clicking back into position.
“So, are you striking?” Sam asked.
Zurg looked at him with eyes that he no longer possessed and said nothing.
“Are you striking?”
The wind whistled through the assorted rib cages, pelvises and eye sockets.
The wight’s mouth opened in a single jerk. Then it closed. Then it fell over. Then all the undead fell over.
Sam picked himself up from the pile of ogre that covered him and dusted himself off.
“Gary,” he shouted.
“What the bloody hell did you do?!”
In the expanding and dynamic world of equal opportunity employment you had to be very good at reading things very very fast. In a way, it was a lot like the old days; you had to recognise the monster in front of you first time round or your second guess would have to come only after you looked inside its small intestine.
Of course, now, you got a call from the dreaded and feared monsters from the elemental plane of ‘Legal’. All in all, it was a much worse experience, because hitting a monster with a sword is a reasonable response to being eaten. With legal you just had to pass them the salt.
What made it even worse was other dimensional doors had opened up to the planes of ‘Internal Management’ and ‘Stock Control’.
“We’re not saying you’ve done anything wrong, Sam,” said Groidek, trying not to say that they thought Sam had done something wrong.
“We just think we need some space here so we can figure out what did go wrong.” This was from Mannfred, who was, Sam was sure, quiet confident that he knew what had gone wrong.
“You ballsed this up a treat,” said Vlad, who didn’t care to hide what he was thinking.
“That’s right, V.”
“The hell were you thinking, lad?” Vlad was an old-school operator. He’d been one of Heinrich’s top men back in the pillaging days and, like his master, he tended to do his thinking in straight lines.
“I admire the effort and creativity,” he added, “but it was bloody stupid.”
The meeting went on for a little over an hour and at the end of it they all agreed, without Sam himself having contributed to the conversation, that it was best if Sam went on leave for a little while. Unpaid leave, of course.
Being a junior necromancer, Sam didn’t do much living at home. Oh, sure, he slept and ate there, he even used the privy and read books in the bath there. But that wasn’t really living. That was just existing.
Well, he had a whole load of existing to do. A month of it to be precise.
Sam sat on the chair in his room. He only had the one room. Down the hallway, a family of bugbears were having another argument and the Cult of the Third Eye was having another bake sale to raise money to send missionaries to the dwarf lands. The dungeon complex outside his little room was very deep and very dark and quite possibly had treasure at the bottom, although you’d probably have to talk to the housing manager, Mr Trixantic, the ghoul that lived in the cavern at the very bottom.
He found himself thinking, I’m not a bad guy, and was then very surprised that he had. Of course he wasn’t. He paid his rent on time, he fixed any breakages out of his own pocket and he always sent out cards on the major holidays. He had a steady job – at least for another month – and never bothered anyone.
So why had he suddenly needed to think ‘I’m not a bad guy’?
Maybe it was the job he was in? No one really likes a necromancer. Pinching corpses and stealing your grandfathers ashes were generally not friend inducing activities. Neither was working for Hienrich for that matter. The CEO of Necromantics Inc was considered to be something of a grade A prick. Back in the day – the pillaging days that is – he’d poisoned a well just for the added corpses it would provide him. He hadn’t even done anything with them, just raised them up and put them on standby.
Really though, were Necromancers any worse than, say, those damn fire wizards? The burly buggers had always burned his books at school and even set his underpants on fire. Fire Wizards were right bastards.
Anyway, what was he going to do now?
Bit more here about how he has no life and nothing outside the job.
He had a month. He could do anything he wanted – he’d saved a lot over the years and he’d never taken any of his annual holiday. Should he look for another job? It seemed only sensible. The Firm was notorious for layoffs these days, what with the increasing costs of labour and the rise of the Anti-Sacrilege League.
He rolled a small cigarette and went to bed.
At some point during the night the sounds of the bugbear family row got louder and more raucous than usual. Sam tried to ignore it. He wasn’t a big fan of the family, but it paid to turn a blind eye as often as he could on account of how they solved problems. The impact of a body hitting the wall jolted a few books on the shelf above his head. Owing to the nature of comedy, which was a magic that Sam knew he would never understand, they fell on his head one by one.
Someone knocked on the door in a rather hesitant way. Sam ignored it. It was probably the little buggers from down the hall wanting to talk to him about their new squid god or something.
The knock repeated itself, in a less hesitant way, confident, perhaps, that there was no one there and therefore the knocker could take some satisfaction in knocking.
Sam rolled out of bed and opened the door. Standing there was a small … humanoid was the best term, because Sam didn’t want to be racist about this sort of thing. Interspecies rivalry and competition was perfectly normal, in the same way that setting people on fire has been normal all over the world – that doesn’t make it right.
The humanoid was pink and it took him a moment to recognise that it was a Halfling.
“Oh, bugger,” it said, and ran off.
Sam poked his head out of the door.
Three people in armour stood in the dark stone corridor outside. Their mail was speckled with blood and the weapons they carried dripped with it. They were breathing heavily and the wounds on their own flesh looked bad. At their feet, a small ocean of blood lapping at against their faces were the family of bugbears.
Sam had seen plenty of dead bodies. When he first joined the Firm he had been a Grave Robber after all. But there was something different between digging up Grandma’s corpse and looking down on someone you knew who had been freshly filleted.
The armoured people looked at him in shock, as if they had just seen a ghost. Sam had to admit that, in his pants and still with sleep dust in his eyes he didn’t look his best.
“You aren’t rent collectors are you?” He asked.
They looked at each other. The Halfling reappeared from behind ones leg and pointed a finger at Sam.
“He’s not on our pay scale, I he?”
The tallest of the armoured figures stepped forward and raised a hand, a small glowing nimbus flickering up from their fingers. The darkness of the corridor was banished, or at least, rebuked. The figure was revealed to be female and so covered in armour that she looked in danger of toppling over.
“Are you a necromancer?” She asked.
“Yes, although I’m on suspension at the moment.”
The group went into a little huddle. Sam caught snippets of the conversation.
“…might get a bonus for him…”
“…Not on our pay scale…”
“… all sorts of trouble…”
Eventually they turned back to him. In the light cast by their leaders glowing fingers they were revealed to be, as he had guessed, adventurers.
Back when people like Hienrich were running the world, adventurers were all over the place. The rambled around forests, hiked over hills and waded through sewers providing the world with an eclectic sort of problem solving. They had gone after people like Hienrich and stabbed them in the back. They had reorganised the population density of various areas – namely areas that contained people like Sam’s neighbours.
Hienrich and the old boys on the board had always spoken of them with wistful fondness as if they were recalling a good steak or well written book. Sam had long ago made up his mind that adventurers were probably as nasty as Heinrich himself and just used some sort of moral justification as to why they collected scalps and stole from people.
“Look,” said the leader, “you aren’t here on behalf of the Uni League are you?”
“The Unification League – those bastards who are trying to get rid of the little independent outfits like us. They’re making this business harder and harder for the little guys you know.”
“No, I’m not with any league. I live here.”
The woman sighed. “We were told that this was going to be a nice little class 3 dungeon. We got paid upfront and everything. This is out of our league, you know.”
She pulled a battered looking handbook from her belt.
“Health and safety regs.” She opened it to a page and pointed, although the tiny writing was next to impossible for Sam to read. “There’s four of us here and none of us are trained in anti-magic manovers. We’ve not got the official training or anything. If we kill you, we could be sued and loose our licences.”
“Well… that’s very considerate of you.”
“Oh, it’s not like we couldn’t do it,” she said, “But we would have to write it all down. We’ve got an itemised list of what we can claim for and necromancer really isn’t on it. We could lose our licences if we try to claim for you without the proper forms to show that we weren’t violating health and safety regs.”
“So, don’t kill me?”
“Oh, we couldn’t do that, sir. We’re contractually obliged to clear out this dungeon. I mean, we could rough you up a bit and then have you escape, but we’d have to come and find you later.”
It’s a contract dispute, Sam thought. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen a million times before, only it’s always been happening to me. What were the magic words that had always sent him waddling away in shame and fear?
“I want to speak to your supervisor.”
“Sir, it’s not my fault-”
“I don’t care. I want to speak to the person in charge.”
“I am in charge, sir.”
“Someone more in charge than you!”
They went into a huddle again.
“I will write a letter, you know,” Sam added, using the most powerful threat I his tool kit.
The leader of the group turned back and said, in the calm and determined voice of someone who wants to pass the buck as quickly and as efficiently as possible, “what we shall do here, sir, is return to our base camp and then contact the management team. Our operation will be put on hold here until we can sort this out. I can’t make any guarantees at this point, but I won’t return until we’ve sorted this out with our boss.”
They turned around and, stepping carefully around the bodies of the bugbears, left the dungeon.
Sam picked up his gear and fled.